I spent Sunday trying to draw, but I couldn't focus. I kept looking at my phone, wishing Jared would text. Then I'd get down on myself for being so pathetic. I don't understand why things are the way they are. People are capable of a lot of things, but for some reason the male of the species can't have friends and a romantic relationship at the same time. Girls are always hanging out together, even in packs as they drag their hapless boyfriends around like pieces of jewelry on their arm. Guys get so into their romantic entanglements that they are unable to hang out with friends, except when the girlfriend is busy or something.
In a way I wonder if Jared is just hardwired to find a girl and reproduce, everything else falling by the wayside. I've known the guy for years, and I always thought there was way more to him than a simple desire to reproduce. It's almost like it's preordained that I'm going to lose him to some woman, and he just won't be able to have anything except that one relationship. It'll be his life and everything we had as friends - the best of friends - will be as if none of it ever happened.
I hate being tossed aside so easily and I hate that it hurts so much to be dropped for a pretty face. I'm a good friend. I've backed Jared up in countless fights, games, schemes and homework assignments. Once this kid thought he could smack Luke around and I reacted the way Jared would have - I pounded the kid. He got a few licks in, I'm not exactly a pro fighter, but I stepped in for Jared when he wasn't there.
I hate this.
Going back to school didn't help anything. I poked my head in the lunchroom on Monday and saw Jared sitting at Lauren's table. I hadn't really thought I'd sit with him, but I knew there was no way I'd be a third wheel at a lunch table any more than I would anyplace else - like that spring party she invited me to. Probably thought she was being nice, or maybe she was showing me Jared was hers, now. I didn't know. I resented Jared. I wanted him to be better than other people. To balance his life before Lauren with actually dating her.
I don't care if it sounds selfish or even if it actually is. I wanted my friend back.
I sat in the courtyard between wings of the school and doodled on my science notebook while I nibbled my food until the period was over.
Mrs. Wallace's art class is an exercise of free expression. She has us do certain things to learn specific styles of art, but when it came to the creation portion of her class, we could go as far as our imaginations wanted to take us. My imagination usually went toward graphic novels and comic books. I liked the way men in comic books had costumes that hugged their bodies as much as the female characters, if not as immediately revealing. I liked that, despite having some outsized something special about them, they were still fallible and that their abilities only increased the size of their successes and failures.
Lately I'd been obsessed with one of the poses from a Quasar cover. I suppose it's not that special, and you could probably find it in a hundred other comics. He was in a pose of strength, knees bent and leaning toward one side. His hands were balled into fists with golden power glowing around them. His cape swept behind him, billowing open to show the utter black of space complete with stars as its fabric. I liked this version of Quasar best because he looked like he was a kid around my age. I'd like to have a super power of some kind. But then, who wouldn't?
Of course, I'd probably abuse it. If I could turn invisible, I'm sure I'd spy on guys I liked while they changed. I'd probably feel guilty, but I'd still do it. In any case, Mrs. Wallace had assigned a project, one we could decide how we'd execute. The class could use any style we wanted, any medium or concept, and then the art would get displayed in the hallways for the rest of the school to vote on. The winner would get a summer pass to the Museum of Design downtown, which was a favorite place of mine. I know other kids weren't as excited, but I really wanted to win.
The problem was I'd drawn Luke. I mean, not straight out - not like a portrait. I'd done the Quasar - hero pose, but tried to emulate Luke's musculature and facial features. I'd done a pretty good job, but there was no way I could post that in a hallway - especially not now.
I couldn't bring myself to erase it, so I'd started again. I needed some kind of inspiration, though. I guess I'm not very original if I can't imagine features on my own, but Luke was the face that kept coming back to me. I looked around the room in desperation, and realized Derry Keefe was in the class with me. Well, not so much realized as remembered. Derry would never convince anyone he was anything but Irish. Or maybe Scottish. Whatever.
Derry and Luke had been a thing for a few minutes at the beginning of the school year. I'd been pleased with myself when I'd scored a rebound make-out with him, but he looked a little sad afterward. I can't say I blame him. Going from Luke to me can't be good for anyone's ego. I could see what attracted Luke to Derry, physically. He had red hair that I knew was soft to the touch and cut in a medium length, feathered style. His green eyes were pretty sparkly, in my opinion, and he had the palest skin I'd ever seen. It was really something beautiful to see - like a painter's canvas, brimming with all the promise of a thousand paintings yet to be.
Well, screw it. He'd be my muse for this project. I shifted on my seat and began to sketch in the face for my hero pose, getting his slightly pointed chin and the way his nose didn't stick out too far nor appear squashed. He spoke to someone next to him, laughing a bit before speaking again and I noticed that the tip of his nose moved when he spoke. Weird thing to notice, but kind of useless - I wasn't drawing that old TV character that wiggled her nose to cast spells. What a dumb idea anyway - who thought that was a good idea?
Before I realized where the time had gone the bell was ringing. I hurried to put my materials away, but hesitated. I couldn't really finish this in class in the time left, especially since I only had art twice a week. I bundled up the drawing in a large folder - stupid large. Like poster large. I took the big ass thing with me, figuring I'd work on it at home. What else was I going to do?
For the next two weeks I'd see Jared in the halls, sometimes with Lauren, but mostly just on his way to his next class. I didn't try to go back to lunch since I knew where he'd be, or rather who he'd be with. I won't lie, it hurt. I was lonely and spending way too much time at home. My mother was still drinking, but I had no idea if it was better or worse. My dad looked tired and guilty, but I didn't know why. I didn't want to think too hard about that one. I finished my revised hero stance poster and I was pretty happy with it. I thought I got the face just right, but no one would ever guess Derry had been the muse behind it - I'd made the hair black and kind of wild. Mrs. Wallace was happy with it, and it got posted up pretty quickly, along with the others from the class.
My dad sent me to the store on a Tuesday evening. We were out of toilet paper - not really, just two rolls left but my dad panics if the TP gets under a full package in reserve. He said I could grab a snack so I picked up a bag of roasted & salted pistachios. It was sort of fun to eat salted things to the point your tongue felt like it had been dehydrated enough to have ditches on it. I walked to the front of the store to check out, and discovered they only had one register open and the line was backed up.
I glanced at the row of self-checkout machines. I loathe those things. My dad does, too, but for different reasons. He says their only purpose is to cut employees hours and the thing people should fear taking their jobs is automation and computers, not immigrants - illegal or otherwise. I hate the damn things because they never work right. I only use them under two circumstances - the lines are stupid long or there isn't a cute face running a register to check out. The single register didn't have anyone I was interested in, the line was backed up into the aisle while the person who was being checked out was complaining about the principle of something or other. The person going next got frustrated and tossed a few coins at the principled person, and that started an exchange that was very interesting - well, no, it wasn't. It was dull and stupid. I headed for the self-checkout, sure it would start smoking and spitting out error codes and sounding alarms when I got within two feet of it.
I pressed on the screen to start. "Please scan your first item!" it said in a mechanically jovial voice that was actually kind of creepy. I scanned the toilet paper and immediately the thing had a fit.
"Place item in bagging area."
It doesn't really fit that well, but all right.
"Place item in bagging area."
"I did!" I protest, pushing the package around on the platform.
"Unexpected item in bagging area. Please remove item before scanning."
"Oh, come on!" I snarl. "Make up your damn mind!"
"Is that thing screwing up again?" someone says from behind me.
"Put it on the bagging thing, take it off, put it on, no don't do that!" I fumed as I turned. "It's got electro-mechanical schizophrenia!"
Derry smiled at me. "It's a piece of junk. How about I ring you out over at customer service?"
I blinked. Shit. I'd barely spoken to Derry since we kissed last fall. "Um, thanks. I mean, I can probably figure this thing out."
"Yeah, if you're into self-flagellation, go for it," Derry said with a chuckle. "If you just want to get your stuff and go home, come over and see me."
I looked down at the computerized checkout.
"Do you have any coupons? Did you check under your cart?" Seemed to me, the damned thing was getting personal.
"Eat me," I told it, gathering my items and heading over to customer service. I put my items on the counter and then glanced over at the people lingering in line. I looked back at Derry who tapped a few keys on his terminal, maybe to unlock it or something. The screen facing me came to life and announced a 5% senior citizen discount.
"Um," I said, glancing between the line, the display and Derry.
"Technically I'm only supposed to handle returns and disgruntled shoppers here. I'm calling you disgruntled because the machine is junk." He smiled and I nodded, returning his expression.
"Thanks," I said. "I hate those machines."
"Everyone does," he said with a sigh. "Except management." He pulled my items across the counter and scanned them. "You see some odd orders. TP and roasted nuts seem like they should go in separate bags, huh?" He chuckled at his joke and I returned it.
"One bag is cool," I replied and went to fish the money from my wallet.
"Uh oh, boss incoming," Derry said. I glanced over to see a middle-aged man with a comb-over being trailed by the principle-of-the-thing person who'd been holding up the line. He made a quick tap or two to his screen and moved away from the register while waving to me to meet him just as the manager entered through the side door, the complainer moving toward the space I was currently in.
"Der, hit your break. I'll need to take care of this one," the fellow said as he emerged through the side door and into the small office.
"Okay, Mr. Stallings," Derry replied, bobbing his head before squeezing out the side door.
I picked up my items uncertainly and walked to the left where the door to the office let out. Derry met me there and we walked toward the front door.
"Um. Hey, I didn't, you know," I said, shrugging my toilet paper in his general direction.
"I know," he said in a confidential tone. We exited the building and he said, "I put in that discount and he'd have written me up for it. Better to just suspend the sale and delete it later."
I was still a little confused. "Okay, thanks but...I guess I'm wondering why you did that for me?"
"Make you party to shoplifting you mean?" he asked, the corner of his mouth pulling up. "I don't know, really. I just do things sometimes. Don't you?"
I shifted on my feet. "What do you mean? Like what?"
"Hey, have you heard of Quigley's? They just opened up on the boulevard," he said. Hello, non-sequitur. This whole thing with Derry was leaving me feeling unbalanced and wondering which way to jump.
"Uh, no. What is it?"
"Sort of a coffee shop, bakery, art gallery and music hangout. It tried really hard to be Starbucks light and it's so lame it's actually a good time." Derry grinned at his statement and I chuckled.
"No, I haven't heard of it."
"They have art on the walls. They buy from local artists - you should totally make something for them."
I frowned lightly. "I don't think my drawing is that good."
"Art's a personal thing. People like what they like, and if they like your stuff then it doesn't matter if anyone thinks it's good enough for anything. Right?" He looked at me in a direct way, and I have to say I liked what I heard. I mean, I think I actually heard who he was for the first time.
I smiled at him. "Yeah. I like that."
"So you want to go?" he asked.
I shifted on my feet. "Sure. When?"
"Tomorrow after school? I don't get off here until nine tonight, so...." Derry looked at me with an odd expression. I couldn't figure it, so I decided to let it go.
"Okay, sounds like a plan."
Starbucks light was probably a little harsh, but I could see the things that might make a person think that. One of the things I liked about Starbucks was the worn-looking, comfortable chairs - and this place had them in spades. Instead of being one storefront, it was awkwardly designed through three rooms. The floors were rough wood, the lighting was some faux-industrial thing and the walls were covered in art of all kinds.
Derry and I got drinks and then he sort of followed me around as I stared at the drawings, advertisements, paintings and other stuff they had tacked to the walls. I'd always doodled in my spare time, and I like to think I can appreciate drawing and design when I see it - this place was a real treat for my eye.
When we did sit, Derry and I snagged two very worn looking chairs that were exceedingly soft. I sipped my drink and sighed. "Maybe I'll just live here."
The corner of Derry's mouth turned up. I sipped again and contemplated him, much as I'd done the night before. Why? Could he be interested in me? I still felt a little sting from my enormous screw-up with Luke, and I was limping along with Jared ignoring me, doing his own thing. I couldn't help but wonder why Derry was paying attention to me all of a sudden. Why would he like me anyway? We barely knew each other, outside of that one make-out. I mean, he was a good kisser as far as I was concerned, but I doubt he was doing all this because of my lip skills.
"They close at eight. I don't know if they rent rooms or anything," Derry said.
I shook my head slowly, the 'why' bouncing around in my head. I shouldn't. I was pretty sure I shouldn't. My chest felt tighter and my mouth went a little dry as I felt a stupid attack coming on. Maybe it wasn't stupid. Would I know the difference? I don't know if it was stupid or not, but I decided I had to ask it or go mad. "Derry...I really like this place and this is really cool of you to invite me, but I have to ask...why?"
He did this weird thing where he sort of licked his lips, but also sucked the top one into his mouth. It made me wonder what he'd look like if he bit his lower lip.
"I came out last summer," he said in a firm voice, simply stating facts. "I spent a long time going back and forth about doing it, about how I felt, about how unfair it was that I had to make some kind of declaration rather than just, you know, being, like most other kids."
I shifted in my chair and focused my attention on him, assuming my answer was coming at the end of his story.
"Towards the end of the summer, Luke Benson showed up in my life and we dated until the second or third week of school. He was my first boyfriend and I was kind of devastated when he broke up with me." He paused and turned his cup in his hands. Bringing his green eyes back up to look at me, he said, "I was kind of drifting. I'd never dated, never broken up, and I kind of felt like everyone was looking at me - like Luke had come away the winner or something."
I searched his face, wondering how those feelings could twist someone up. "Did it make you wish you hadn't come out?"
He raised an eyebrow and then smiled, just a little. "I had some regrets, yeah. I was feeling pretty low and you kind of stumbled into my life for an afternoon and we did a little kissing, you'll recall."
My face warmed. "I recall."
He sipped from his cup and cleared his throat. "I was pretty screwed up at the time. I felt like crap for being dumped, then kind of weird that a guy I didn't know was out was talking me into a quick make-out. I wondered if that was just how guys were, or if I was a bad person since I was hurting over Luke, or maybe I was falling into something good that I wasn't ready for." He held a hand out, palm up and open. "It was pretty confusing."
I cleared my throat and looked down into my surprisingly empty cup.
"Jack?" he said quietly. I looked up into his eyes. "This is the part where you tell me why you wanted to kiss me."
I sighed and nodded my head, though my chest tightened. How much truth did I need to give? Maybe I could just let him know how incredibly screwed up I was? Wouldn't it feel kind of good to unload that crap I'd been hauling around and hadn't been able to tell anyone about?
"This is going to sound screwed up," I said to him, though I wasn't sure if I was warning him or me. "I think you're legitimately attractive. Luke has good taste," I started, setting my empty cup on the small circular table between us and wiping my hands on my jeans. "But I've had a...thing...for Luke for a long time. In some...messed up way, I felt like it was the closest I'd come to kissing him."
Derry took a breath and looked away from my face, perhaps past me. I wasn't sure. His eyes shimmered wetly. Softly he said, "You're right. That is screwed up."
I felt small, suddenly. It had been stupid to tell him. All I'd done was hurt him while being selfish and unburdening myself.
"I'm sorry," I said lamely. "I was being selfish."
He sniffed and looked up at me. "Yeah. I guess I can understand why, even if I don't like it."
I felt awkward - more than usual - and stood. "I'll go. Thanks for showing me this place."
He tilted his head. "Don't you want to know why?"
Confused, I tilted my head. "Why? Why what?"
"Why I asked you here?"
"Oh," I said, feeling dumber than before. "I forgot, given what I said."
He waved me to my chair and I slowly sat back down, surprised he still wanted to be civil.
"So, we made out a little," he said as if we hadn't had our awkward exchange. "And I was confused. I was wondering if you liked me, if I was allowed to like you back because I'd just broken up - been dumped. Then you kind of ghosted. No trading numbers or follow up talks or anything." He paused. "At first I felt like crap, but then I got kind of angry, then I got over it. Then...I got curious."
He nodded slowly. "I did some searching and came up with your Instagram. I started to check out your artwork. You're talented."
I shifted on my seat. "Um, thanks."
"I kind of figured out you had a thing for Luke. A lot of his features show up in your work. As I was doing that, over time you understand, I heard rumors about you making out with guys, and I realized every one of them came after Luke broke up with them. It made me wonder. Sounds pretty messed up, Jack."
I lowered my head. "Yeah."
"So I brought you here because you're kind of part of the club, now. You know, Luke's exes."
"I never dated him!" I said, my head snapping up so I could look at him. My heart trembled in its cage, the cracks from its recent fall flaring with pain. I'd wanted to date him, but I never did.
He tilted his head. "Heard you guys sort-of kissed at a concert. Josh said it was kind of awkward looking between you guys."
I looked away, heat rushing to my face. "Yeah. It was awkward. Awful, even. Story of my life."
"Oh," he said, starting to chuckle. "I'm sorry, but you won't get a lot of sympathy from me, Jack. A little, because I know it hurts, but you've been playing a weird game." He leaned forward, his forearms on his thighs. "Luke wasn't exactly known for going a long time between boyfriends. Why didn't you just ask him out?"
I leaned back, not wanting to say, but feeling like I sort of had to. "Jared," I said simply. "When Luke came out, Jared was hurt that his little brother hadn't confided in him. I figured it'd be just as bad if Jared found out I was hiding that from him, too, and was into his brother on top of it."
I felt afraid, suddenly, with all my crap out there between us. It felt kind of freeing, too, though, to not be carrying it alone. In a way it was like shedding armor, placing sharp things around me that could hurt.
He nodded slowly and leaned back into his chair. "I guess I can see that, though it hadn't occurred to me. I mean I figured if I heard you'd kissed a few guys, everyone else had, too."
I looked up at him, panic flaring in my chest but dissipating just as quickly. What did it matter if anyone or everyone knew at this point?
"What?" he asked.
I looked at him and then away. "Nothing. I mean, something, but nothing you'd care about."
"How about if I get to decide what I care about?"
"It's just my messed up way of thinking. My neurosis." I glanced up. "I get to decide what I share, if you get to decide what you care about, right?"
Derry tilted his head toward me. "Agreed. So anyway, back to my why." He placed his cup beside my empty one and leaned forward again, elbows on his knees. "I've spent a lot of time on your Instagram. I've gone through every piece of art you've posted. It took me a long time to figure out Luke was a major inspiration, but once I realized it I was kind of excited. It was like solving a puzzle or something like that. You follow me?"
I blinked a few times and bobbed my head. "I'm not that bright," I said quietly. "I can't think of a imaginary features so I borrow ideas from around me. From people."
"From what I hear, faces and hands are the hardest to draw. If you consider if someone was looking for similarities - facial features for instance - like I was, I think you did a pretty damn good job."
Heat rushed to my face, yet again, and I thanked him quietly.
"So Delia and I - do you know Delia Hernandez?"
"Um, yeah. Had a few classes with her. She's nice."
He snorted. "She can be nice, when she chooses. Anyway, Monday we were hanging out after school because she had to walk to work but she hadn't wanted to leave yet, right? So I'm keeping her company and walking through the halls. We started checking out the art for the competition and trying to guess who did what."
I stared at him.
He tilted his head slightly and I could tell he knew. Shit.
"I wish you'd have drawn me with red hair. Given how messed up things have been between us, I think you should redraw me. For me. What do you think?" Derry looked at me patiently, perhaps nervous. It was an odd thing to ask, I guess.
"Um. Yeah. I can do that," I said quietly.
"I'd like to know, though, why you picked me. For your muse, I mean," he said, leaning back and looking at me expectantly.
I shifted in my seat. "I've drawn a lot of Luke. I needed to change, but like I said I'm not good inventing faces. You're in my art class and I...well, I thought you'd make a good subject."
He looked at me consideringly and I wondered what he was thinking. "Well, I'd like you to draw me, something I can keep. I know it sounds weird," he said holding up a hand. "I'm very strange, though. I'm not camera shy, I have no trouble with public speaking and I love to sing. So, kind of a ham, I guess."
I cleared my throat. "Okay."Next Chapter Previous Chapter