“. . .so what it is is this reporter recognizes him from his death where he saves the lady from the subway, because she was actually there on the platform. And then she sees him again and is all like, ‘Noooo,’ right? So then she starts investigating him, and she finds out who he really is and everything. So Mrs. Di Scala, at first, thought we should just bookend her, but Andrew kept finding more and more ways to weave her into D-Man’s story. So now instead of just these little episodes, we have this overall story arc.”
“Cool. How’s it end?”
“You’ll have to see.”
I opened the door and let Lizzie in then handed her the bag of bagels and the coffees. I went around to my side, started the car, and headed for the onramp. We were going to spend the day in Northampton, Massachusetts. Lizzie heard there were a couple of great consignment shops with really nice vintage clothing, so maybe we’d find something unique for my prom next month.
This was the first time we’d gone on a big trip by ourselves since we started dating. It was a little cold, so she was wearing a cute knit hat and a fleece vest. It felt peaceful driving along the highway, almost no cars around, just sipping coffee and spending time together.
“What did Jenny think of the new Death Man stuff?”
This was the second time Lizzie had brought up Jenny in the last couple of weeks. The other time was just a more general question about how Jenny was doing, and I was able to honestly answer, “Not sure, haven’t talked to her since Christmas break.” But this time, Jenny happened to have called, and we had a nice long chat about her school and her plans for the summer, and I filled her in on happenings with Literary Society and Death Man. So it was difficult for me to sidestep the question this time.
“Actually, she called me maybe a week ago. I told her a couple of the ideas we had, and she really liked them. Steve and Chris seem to think it’s cool, too.”
I thought it best to not say anything else, didn’t want to dig a hole. Plus that mention of Steve and Chris right alongside Jenny should have been a good indicator that I thought of her on a friend level, like one of my buds.
We drove on in silence for a while, and the knot in my stomach started to relax. We were almost in Massachusetts now. The morning clouds were starting to burn off, and it looked like we were going to get some sunshine. I cracked my window a bit and got some cool spring air running through the car.
“Why didn’t you and Jenny ever date?”
I tried to remain outwardly calm, but I tightened my grip a bit on the steering wheel. Lizzie was my first girlfriend, but I knew enough to know these types of questions rarely led anywhere good.
“I dunno. We just never did.”
There was a pause, and I thought that maybe that would be enough for her. I couldn’t even tell myself why Jenny and I never dated; I wasn’t sure how I could articulate it for Lizzie.
“But you wanted to date her. It’s almost all you guys ever talked about.”
Things had gone really well with Lizzie over the last few months. Any fear I ever had about it being awkward because of Todd and Cheryl or because we had been such good friends was completely unfounded. We slipped into this relationship like it was who we were always supposed to be. We never had even the littlest hiccup, until now.
“Chris said you were in love with her, like way in love.” She reached over and brushed an eyelash or something off my cheek.
“Stupid Chris,” I said under my breath, “Okay, yeah, she was like. . .I just had this huge crush on her. From like freshman year even. And she was just like, wow, ya know? But I could never get over that ‘wow’, I could never. . .I just never felt like I was on her level.”
“You?” Lizzie opened her window a crack and leaned her seat back a smidge. She stretched her arms up and wrapped them around the headrest. “I can’t see Jenny intimidating you. I mean, remember the first time we met? You just hopped in the truck and you’re all like, ‘Hey. Casey.’ Do not make fun of me, but I thought I was going to die of lameness right there.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“You, just you. Like you just walk in a room and you’re like, ‘Here I am, cool guy.'” She sat up in her chair and did a little disco dance thing with her hands.
“That’s what cool guys do?”
She pointed her finger at me like a gun and shot. “Cool guy.”
My grip tightened back up on the steering wheel. Lizzie just laughed and leaned back in her chair again. The clouds in the sky were lightening up, but I was feeling dark as hell.
“Why does everyone think I’m like that? Like I’m just. . .”
“No, like I’m confident or something. I’m not. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what to say or think or anything, ever.”
I gave a succession of smaller and smaller shrugs and headshakes, waiting for Lizzie to say something. She closed her eyes and rolled her head around slowly, then sat up in her seat and turned her body toward me.
“You never know what to say?”
“Almost completely never.”
She turned and leaned back again. “You do alright.”
I shook my head. Lizzie opened the glove box and pulled out my dub of Portishead’s Dummy. Not a bad soundtrack for anxious talks with your girlfriend.
When we got to Northampton, it was just about lunchtime. We walked around for a while then ate at this restaurant that makes their pasta fresh every day.
I twirled some fettuccini up with my spoon. “I made fresh pasta once.”
“Of course you did.”
“No, I’m serious; I was like three. My dad got this pasta maker and one day, my mom was out, so we made pasta. And he had it like hanging everywhere, even like across on this broomstick. And my mom comes home, and there’s flour everywhere, and I’m covered in flour. It was great.”
Lizzie had to stop herself from laughing. “But you were three. How can you remember that?”
“I dunno; I just do. Or like, maybe I’ve heard the story so many times, like I’m just remembering the imaging of the story, ya know?”
Lizzie just nodded and looked down at her food. It looked like she wanted to say something, but then she just kept eating.
After lunch, we walked around looking for the clothes shops.
“Hey, how come you’re friends with Andrew?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, how come you’re friends with him? He’s just not like your other friends.”
I wanted to say he was like Jenny, but I didn’t want to bring her up again seeing as things had started going well again.
“Well, there was this kid from middle school, and. . .he was friends with me, but he was also friends with Andrew. And he, um, he died. And so, I like started hanging out with Andrew after that.”
“You’re friends with him because his friend died?”
“No, not because he died. Just. . .after he died, we became friends.”
We found the clothing store and went in to try some stuff on. It felt like we were in a movie montage. There were regular clothes, but there were also costumes, and then there were regular clothes that might as well have been costumes. Lizzie found a military dress jacket and tried it on.
“Very Sgt. Pepper. If we can find a blue one, I can go as Paul.”
“No, you’re cooler than Paul. Here, put this on.”
She handed me a red jacket.
“Nah, red’s not my color.”
“Put it on, stupid. And this too.”
She handed me a broken, old cowboy hat. I hated cowboy hats, the big ones. But this one was different; it had more of a curve to it. I put it on.
“Nah, this feels stupid.”
“Just hold it, cool guy. We’ll call you ‘Jett Stark.'”
“I can’t take you seriously when you look like a reject from the Rhythm Nation.”
Lizzie did her best hip-hop dance, which wasn’t too good, but it made me laugh. She grabbed a big-brimmed women’s hat off a mannequin and threw it on.
“Does this hat make my butt look big?”
“No, it’s a combination of your musculature and cellulose tissue that makes your butt look big.”
“Oh, Casey, and just when you say you never know what to say, you go and say the sweetest things!”
She hit me with the hat.
We didn’t end up buying anything for the prom. I’d probably just end up renting a tux. I was thinking about that red jacket as we drove home, and Lizzie fell asleep. She woke up suddenly when we were about an hour from home.
“Case. . .Case, who was that. . .person?”
She put her arms up on the headrest again and fell back to sleep. She looked like that pose that ballerinas do when they finish their dance.
Rounding the turn that brought my town into view, I looked up at the dark patch of hill where my house would be. I couldn’t see it from here, but I knew about where it was. I watched it best I could as we passed the exit for my place and kept going to Uncle Todd’s exit to drop Lizzie off. I kept imagining what my car might look like from my bedroom window, and who might be watching me and wondering where I was going.
Dan Pullen lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children. He writes stories about simple people and their complex lives.