“You’re going to be late,” Wynn says. She is sprawled over the threadbare sofa balancing a thick paperback over her head; I’m guessing classic lit. She hardly spares me a glance as I dash past her to my bedroom.
“Really? Guess I better hurry then,” I snap. If our apartment had its own miniature sovereignty, its official language would probably be sarcasm.
I flip through my barren closet for an outfit before resigning myself to digging through the laundry hamper.
“You forgot to do laundry again, didn’t you? How long have you known about this party?”
“A month or two, but I had a shift at the bookstore this morning and then Ryan called and asked me to bartend. He’s done so much for me, it’s not like I could say no.”
I spare a self-conscious glance through the doorway before taking off my jeans and “MacNall’s Pub” t-shirt, swapping them for a scavenged outfit; Wynn is still engrossed in her book. While I wrestle my hair into submission, I notice the grease stain on the shirt and toss it back into the hamper.
“You’re supposed to be there already you know.”
“Fashionably late, Wynn. Ever heard of it?” I open a dresser drawer and opt for a plain burgundy tank top, sacrificing fashion in the interest of time. I face the tall mirror in the corner, wipe away any smudged makeup and tighten the elastic around my mess of wavy black hair. Done. Finally. I grab a light jacket before heading to the door.
“You look good,” Wynn now sits cross legged in the middle of the sofa, the book open in her lap. She gives me two thumbs up, “Try to enjoy yourself.”
“Come with me?” I hate large social events. At least having Wynn there would guarantee me someone to talk to. Better yet, someone I want to talk to. I know the answer is no even before her apologetic smile.
“Not my scene. Have a drink, meet some people and have fun. If it sucks then text me and I’ll fabricate some outrageous emergency for you.”
“Alright, well… better start fabricating now.”
She places an old receipt between the pages of the book and sets it on the worn leather chest we use as a table. She grabs my keys from a shelf by the door (where I was about to forget them) and drops them into my hand before kissing me on the forehead. She is a full foot taller than me.
“You’ll be fine.”
I take a deep breath and nod.
I stand on Brie’s doorstep, winded after sprinting from the bus stop. My phone tells me it is 7:28 pm. I’m only two hours late. Brie answers the door on the first knock with a hand on her hip and a raised eyebrow.
“You were supposed to help me set up.”
“I am so sorry. I did text you, but…” I manage before she interrupts.
“Yeah well I’ve been too busy managing things on my own to pay attention to my phone.” I wince. Finally she rolls her eyes and sighs before letting me in, “You owe me one.”
“Actually it’s probably somewhere around a dozen now. But lucky for me you’re moving far, far away and I’ll probably never see you again. So lucky for me, right?” I offer her an exaggerated grin and she smiles back.
“Didn’t you know? I charge interest,” her voice and expression soften as she continues, “And it’s not that far. I mean, it’s still in the country… and my family’s here. I’ll see you again soon.”
She leans forward to hug me and I notice the red rimming her eyes. I see where she’s tried to conceal the puffiness and blotches on her brown cheeks with foundation and powder.
“Hey, Brie… I’ll miss you too. And it’s going to be great. You’ve got an amazing job waiting for you. Not to mention you’re pretty much the most personable person I know,” I tighten my embrace a little, “And anyone who doesn’t support you isn’t worth your time.”
She steps back and carefully rubs a finger under each eye, “You can always tell, can’t you?”
I shrug – she’s been arguing with Grant for weeks now, it isn’t hard to put together. “Fuck him. This is your night, let’s go enjoy it.”
Inside there are slew of faces I’m unfamiliar with and a couple I wish I didn’t know. Though we’ve kept in touch, Brie and I haven’t run in the same circles since high school. I don’t have much in common with her new group of friends, but I’m reluctant to duck out early when I know she might need me. Luckily, Brie puts me and my bartending skills to work, so the first couple of hours go by quickly.
I take advantage of the eventual lull in drink orders to grab a Guinness from the fridge and wander around, awkwardly seeking out a conversation to slip into. I stumble upon a few vaguely familiar people sitting around a table on the second floor. A girl whose name I’m pretty sure is Ananda waves me over to sit beside her. “Hey Selene, you took first year biology. The exams were a joke, right?”
I smile and share a few anecdotes from my brief time at university, the one thing that I seem to have in common with anyone. Mostly I just listen to them talk and laugh at the appropriate times. I’ve got enough of a buzz to encourage me to join the conversation, but not enough to talk much about myself.
A quarter of an hour passes and a man I don’t recognize sits beside me, fist bumping the broad-shouldered blonde guy sitting across the way. Like me, he prefers to skirt the edges of the conversation. He nurses his rum and coke and only throws in the odd comment or chuckle. I distractedly note his long red hair, and the thick jagged scar running over his lower lip and disappearing under his jaw. A rogue part of my brain notes that he is at least mildly attractive.
“They’re closing down the Fat Fiddler next month,” one of the guys says. This one is as dark as his friend is fair and has stunning green eyes.
“That’s too bad,” I remember the bar fondly: an overcrowded little place with live music and the best nachos in the city. I take a drink, a private toast to times long past.
“Did you ever sing there?” Ananda asks, and I nearly choke on my beer, “Brie said your band used to play a lot of the bars.”
Everyone is staring at me now, like I’m about to perform some cheap parlour trick. Brie… I’m going to kill you. “We played there once or twice. Small stage,” I take another drink, hoping they’ll change the subject.
“Do you guys still play?” it’s the green-eyed man this time, “I have a buddy who works with a recording studio. They’re always looking to connect with local talent.”
“No. We broke up.”
“You should go solo. Brie says your voice is amazing. And you play guitar too?” Ananda presses me. Goddamn you and your big mouth Brie. My inner panic is disrupted by a gentle sensation just above my knee. My eyes flicker to the red head next to me. He’s looking at me, but so is everyone else. I turn back to Ananda and give her the only excuse I have to give.
“I don’t sing anymore,” when she opens her mouth to protest I interrupt, “It isn’t something I like to talk about.”
She shrugs pointedly and directs the conversation elsewhere. I remind myself that I don’t owe her an explanation. What else am I supposed to say anyway? I can’t sing? When I open my mouth to try nothing comes out? They would only ask more questions that I don’t have answers to.
I stare at my beer and I let their comfortably slurring voices and exaggerated laughs wash over me. I feel skin brush against my thigh. I tense and cross my right leg over my left, leaving more room for the man next to me. His fingers graze my arm when he reaches for his drink and goosebumps travel down my skin. When I feel his warm hand rest against the bare skin of my leg once more, lingering this time, I am forced to dismiss any possibility that it is an accident.
“Do you mind?” I snap my head in his direction and his eyes immediately drop. I refuse to give him the opening for an excuse, turning to Ananda, “I have to run to the washroom, do you mind if I sneak past?”
She lets me out, not bothering to hide her curiosity, and I slip away to find Brie. To tell her that one of her guests is a creep. There are three crowded floors to search and I can’t see her anywhere. After about half an hour of searching and occasional snippets of conversation with acquaintances, I retreat to the kitchen. It’s miraculously empty so I pour myself a drink of water and glance at the clock: almost eleven.
I begin texting Wynn, telling her about the unwanted advances, when I notice someone standing in front of me. Of course, it’s my unwanted friend.
He’s about as tall as Wynn. His hair is dark orange-red and falls messily around his shoulders. He’s wearing a white v-neck tee with snug jeans which serve only to accentuate his thin, lanky frame. He has a black canvas jacket slung over his shoulder, like he’s about to leave. I look around, taking comfort in the busy rooms surrounding the kitchen.
“Hey, listen…”his voice is deeper than I expected. He speaks so quietly I strain to hear him over the din. He pauses, in thought.
“Look, I’m actually just leaving to go look for Brie,” I interrupt. To tell her what a creep you are, I don’t say.
“Wait!” he’s louder this time, “I’m really sorry. I wouldn’t normally do this. I mean… it’s not fair… I’m sorry.”
Before I can say anything, he reaches out a hand to my arm then leans down and kisses me.
I’m not the make-out-with-a-stranger type. Not even a spur-of-the-moment type, really. Especially when said stranger has no sense of decorum or consent. But I can’t pull away. My veins feel like ice and I’m frozen in place. His words and his demeanour are incongruent with his brashness. His lips press firmly, yet gently against mine. He places his hand behind my head and leans me towards him.
I begin to panic. Why can’t I move? What’s happening to me? Leave me alone!
I feel the tough skin of the scar on his lower lip.
And then it’s over.
He looks at me regretfully for a second and then walks away. And me? I stand there, still frozen, tears forming in the corners of my eyes as I wait for the paralysis to pass.
“What the hell was that?” I ask aloud.
“Huh?” someone says and I jump. People must have milled back into the kitchen while I was… what? Frozen in shock? There are three or four people rifling through the fridge. I take a breath.
“Selene! I’ve been looking for you. I thought you left.” It’s Brie. Her phone is in her hand and I notice her makeup is slightly smudged. Her hazel eyes are glassy.
“Hey,” I say weakly. I sift through all of my thoughts, trying to prioritize. I want to ask if Brie is okay. Instead I ask, “Who is the red-head? Thin guy. Scar on his lip.” My fingers absently brush my own lips.
She looks pensive for a moment before opening her mouth to answer. Before she can, a panicked scream pierces the air, leaving a stunned silence in its wake.