The ball bounced off the table and hit the side of the red cup, deflecting to the right and off the wall and eventually landing on the beige, slightly-stained and highly-worn carpet.
“Next time, next time,” his teammate said.
“Ya’ll got nothing on the bounce,” Charlie said from the other side of the table, “I’m watching that shit all day,” and then he shot the ball into the front cup, and John drank the beer it held and the scoring had begun.
A handful of other people sat around the coffee table. There was Mike and Marc – two of my fraternity brothers – as well as a few friends by association, and one other girl I didn’t know. They spread a deck of cards into a circle and took turns flipping them over, doing things that corresponded with the numbers.
I stood on the balcony, my back to the railing, and peered through the screen doors and listened to the banter that came from inside. It was an early-August summer day in Blacksburg – the kind that sort of just rolled on forever. The evening was upon us, but I judged it would take another hour before the light was completely gone, so I sipped my beer and turned and put my elbows up on the banister.
The grass below was three stories down and clean, aside from the two beer cans that someone had let fall. Out to the left was the parking lot, where I could see my car, and to the right was a small wooded area. I peered around the wall that separated Charlie’s balcony from my own, and I thought about climbing over and going in and locking myself in my room, but then I remembered I had locked the sliding door before I left.
I had always been one to have a good time and not think past the moment but I hadn’t felt that way in some time. Earlier that day, I put in ten hours of community service at the local Goodwill, sorting items in the back and placing them into the appropriate shopping cart, which I would then take into the front to place on the shelves. There were people who came into the store that clearly needed these low-cost items, and then there were those who were in the store every day as if they were satisfying an addiction, purchasing a random assortment of unrelated items.
Most shoppers were aware of Goodwill’s policy: An item in an employee shopping cart could not be touched until it was physically placed on the shelf. If a customer coveted an item in my cart, they would follow me around, sometimes for ten, even twenty minutes, until I reached in and made whatever it was officially up for grabs.
“Sweetie,” older women would say, “Can I see those candleholders you have in the cart there?”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but you’ll have to wait until they are set out.”
Sometimes, when I was feeling good – and the supervisors were distracted – I would honor these requests, placing a silverware set in the game aisle or a soft, fluffy Beanie Baby where electronics should go, so that a shopper could take it from my hand as soon as the bottom of the item made contact with the thin, aluminum shelf.
“Oh, thank you dear, you’re very nice,” one woman said, “How long have you worked here?”
“I don’t,” I said, “I’m filling my service hours.”
“How sweet of you! Does Virginia Tech sponsor this program?”
“No Ma’am, they don’t,” I said, “I was arrested and sentenced to seventy-five hours of community service.”
“Oh…well…thank you,” and then they would take off and skid their cart’s wheels as they turned the corner into the next aisle.
It was the booze that got me into trouble, although I could have been anyone on any given night when it happened. I was paying the bill, though, both for myself and for those who had done the same but were more fortunate. I stared down at my beer and felt a breeze hit my face for a brief moment. The woman who ran Virginia Tech’s alcohol program told us to put the tabs from our cans into our pockets to keep track of how much we’ve had to drink. Both of mine were empty – I still hadn’t removed the tab.
Then John came up to the screen and said, “What are you doing, man?”
“Hanging dude, enjoying the weather.”
“Nice,” he said, “We need another for beer pong, you down?”
I lied and told him, “I’m about to make a phone call.”
“Come on and play,” he insisted, “I need a partner.”
“I’ll get in on it later,” I said, “Let one of the girls play. I heard them talking about it.”
I pulled out my phone and flipped it open to give the illusion that I was contemplating that phone call. That morning, it had produced the alarm that woke me up at six, and I rolled over on the air mattress that lay in the empty room, in the spot I envisioned my bed would rest for the coming year. Through the early morning haze, my eyes immediately went to the date: August 9th.
Then, later, when I sat on a folding chair, eating breakfast off a tray and adjusting the cable on a twelve-inch television, it rang.
“Happy Birthday Will.”
“How’s it feel to be nineteen?”
“Just fine. Only two more years until I can relax.”
“Are you headed out soon?”
“Yeah,” I said, “In ten minutes.”
“How many hours do you have left?”
“Twenty. Ten today, and ten tomorrow.”
“Okay, that’s good news,” she said. “Have a good day.”
On my lunch break I heard from my father, my sister, my grandparents and my cousins, although my father and sister were the only additional people aware of the true reason I was not in New Jersey. The rest of my family thought I had moved back early for volleyball.
When I left Goodwill at five, I had a voicemail. It was Lauren. I had spoken with her earlier in the week, and she was looking to make good on her promise to not let me spend my birthday alone. “We’ll do whatever,” she had said, “Maybe go to dinner or something.”
She had been dating one of my friends for some time – not my best friend, but a guy I enjoyed – and we had become friends in this way. We had met because of him the previous year and had since built a nice friendship on our own.
She was a stunning girl, and the closer we got, the more it hurt to know I couldn’t have her. The notion of sitting in a barren apartment on my birthday was tempting to my then young, writer-at-heart self. How fitting, I thought. But, like most men, I would choose time with a beautiful woman over most things, even if it was like visiting a no-touch museum.
I had come home expecting to sit on my balcony and wait for her in the quiet that defines a Blacksburg summer, but immediately John came out on the balcony and saw me and insisted I come hang out.
“I’m all right,” I said, “I’m waiting for someone.”
“Well, wait here, have a beer,” he said, and he reached over and placed a can on my railing. So I switched balconies and continued to wait, and after I lied to John I checked my knowingly empty voicemail, just so I could stand out there by myself a little longer. Before the game could end and John could come back, I got the real call.
“I’m here!” she said in her cheery way, “Where are you? I knocked a bunch!”
“One second, be right there.”
When I walked out the door and looked left, I saw her standing there in a thin skirt and a conservative yet tempting summer shirt – comfortable and loose and soft-looking – and her dark hair danced just above her shoulders. She held a large, round plastic container.
“Thank you,” I said, “Thanks for coming. What’s that?”
“You didn’t have to do that,” I told her, “Let’s go inside.”
I turned the knob and pushed open the door, and I let her pass through and shut it behind us. I wanted to lock the door, but I did not.
“Ready for your present?”
She removed the top to the container. Cupcakes. At least fifteen of them, maybe more.
But that wasn’t all – each was personalized. In red frosting on top of the white icing, she had written and drawn things that symbolized my life at the time: volleyballs, my fraternity letters, my favorite sports teams, Virginia Tech logos, as well as other designs that only a girl could come up with, all revolving around a birthday theme.
There are only so many things you can say in those situations and they are all expected. There were other things I wanted to say but didn’t. From the first moment I saw those damn cupcakes, I pictured all the creative things we could do with the icing.
“This is unbelievable. I don’t even know what to say.”
“You’re welcome, I’m glad you like!”
“Can I give you the grand tour?”
I walked her through my empty apartment, showing the rooms where my three roommates would live a few weeks later, and the television tray I had eaten breakfast on, and finally my bedroom that contained only the air mattress.
“How long have you been here by yourself?”
“About two weeks or so now,” I said.
“How’s sleeping on that thing?”
She poked fun at the things that had depressed me for the last few weeks, but she was lighthearted and energetic and I knew she was trying to cheer me up and that’s what mattered to me. We laughed together. Her phone rang.
Lauren had one of the most distinct laughs I’ve ever heard. She laughed loudly but not obnoxiously, and her chuckle made you smile even if you didn’t know what was funny. I would find out that the person on the other end of the phone was Charlie, but I could only hear what she was saying at the time.
“Yeah, I’m visiting Will. How did you know? Where are you?”
“Yeah, we’ll be right over.”
Apparently other people noticed her laugh, too. Charlie and she were friends as well, and he heard her laughing through the wall. Note taken, I thought, the walls are thin. I had met Charlie a few weeks before that incident through John – his roommate and my fraternity brother. As initially creepy as the whole laugh recognition did-he-have-his-ear-on-the-wall situation seemed, Charlie and I became better friends as that year moved along and he was a good person.
“They’re having some people over,” she said.
“I know,” I said, “That’s where I came out of, remember?”
“I didn’t know he lived there. That’s too funny.”
“I will go if you want but I must admit I’m not much fun these days.”
“Sure you are,” she said. “Let’s go for a bit, and if you don’t have fun we’ll go do something else.”
“Let’s bring your cupcakes. You won’t eat all of these, will you?”
“There’s fifteen of them,” I noted, “I hope not.”
After we had gone over and settled in, John asked the question and Lauren showed them the cupcakes.
He asked me, “It’s your birthday?”
“Oh, well happy birthday man!”
Lauren said, “Let’s sing.”
I was not one for all that attention but again I knew she had my best interests at heart. I thanked everyone for the song, and then the music was turned up and a mini party broke out. I bounced quarters into shot glasses and played a round or two of cards. I had drunk two or three beers and I was a bit nervous – if I got caught for anything over the next two years I would be expelled from school, no questions asked. I stepped out on the balcony to clear my head, and, honestly, to see how loud it sounded from the outside and if I should be concerned about the cops showing up. Charlie stepped out after me.
“Happy birthday man, I wish I had known sooner.”
“No worries, man, no worries.”
“How do you know Lauren?”
“I met her through one of my pledge brothers in the fraternity.”
“Oh okay,” he said, “We have a mutual friend as well. Are ya’ll here together?”
“Nah,” I said, “She dates the guy I know her through.”
“I thought I had heard that,” he said, “But with the cupcakes and all, I wasn’t sure. They were pretty awesome.”
“I don’t know how to thank her.”
“You better,” he said.
I was not sure what he meant, so I said, “I told you, she dates my friend.”
“Dude, look at those fucking cupcakes,” he said.
Dusk had set in and we could easily see into the apartment and everything that was happening. Lauren was bouncing quarters and repeatedly missing, but didn’t appear frustrated. She finally made it in and passed the shot glass to the left, and sipped her drink. I took a sip of my beer and noticed the booze was already beginning to toy with my emotions and I found myself looking at her for a little too long.
“I dunno man,” I said, “I’m pretty sure she’s got a boyfriend,” and I knew this to be true and then we both sipped our drinks and left it at that. I wondered if he thought I was lying. Perhaps he thought, who is this guy, coming over here and lying so blatantly.
I could see how he would think that. He went inside and I stood in the darkness and watched the wind push through the green leaves of the trees. I looked at my watch and it was ten thirty. A few months ago, I was just getting ready to go out at this point. Now, I was thinking I should turn in – I had to be up at six, and more drinks were the last thing I needed. After a few moments the game inside ended and Lauren came out.
“I am,” I said, “Thanks for everything,” and she smiled.
“I gotta head back soon, though,” I continued, “Gotta pay the dues again early tomorrow.”
She looked composed but had drunk enough that I knew she would not be driving home. I wondered when she decided she would not drive home and where she thought she would stay.
“Looks like they’ll be hanging out for a while though if you’re trying to drink,” I said.
“I’ll go with you,” she said, “I’ve got to work tomorrow, too. Can I stay at your place?”
When I told her she could, I immediately wondered where she thought she would sleep. She saw the place – no couch, no furniture – just the air mattress on the floor in the empty room. We walked back in and I announced my departure and thanked them. Lauren said goodbye, too, and I saw a look in Charlie’s eye. This made me look like a liar, I knew, but I was leaving and Lauren was coming with me and he could go to hell along with everyone else.
I had no idea what to say as I opened the door and let her pass through. My mind was pleasantly racing – unless she planned to sleep on the floor with no blankets and no pillow, she would be next to me on the air mattress. I said what needed to be said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any sleeping bags or anything, but you’re welcome to share the bed if you’d like. I won’t bite.”
I waited for her to make a joke about me referring to it as a bed, but instead she said without hesitation, “That’s fine.”
If it’s true that Jesus was tempted for forty days in the desert, I think it’s safe to say that the devil no doubt had placed him in this situation – in an air mattress next to a girl he pined for, who dated a guy he respected and would have to interact with for the next three years. I brushed my teeth and looked at myself in the mirror and called myself a dipshit. Only me. Only I could be this far down and then find myself in an even worse lose-lose situation. I had no idea if I would allow my hands to wander. The naive boy in me said she just trusted me as a friend, but the elephant in the room had other ideas.
She was in bed when I came out. She had borrowed one of my T-shirts and a pair of pajama pants and her hair fell all around her head as she laid back. I moved the small television into the bedroom. She channel surfed as I got into bed, and our shoulders pressed together but our feet did not touch. She stopped on MTV.
“Do you like Avril Lavigne?”
“Her music or her?”
“I think she’s good looking and thus some of her songs appeal to me,” I said truthfully.
The video zoomed in on her face. “See, she’s pretty,” I said, “I like her teeth.”
“I was just going to say,” she said, “That’s the part that turns me off about her.”
I thought about how wrong she was but soon she changed the channel and I set the alarm.
“You all right?” I asked. “Warm enough?”
“Perfect,” she said.
“I have plenty of room,” she said, “I like to snuggle, anyway.”
Our shoulders were no longer touching at that moment and I was very unsure of myself – not sure what to do – and I did not respond. Girls had a way of saying things that made them unclear, and I had a knack (at the time) for not saying what was on my mind.
In this case, I was frustrated. You’re the one who is taken, I thought, stop putting the ball in my court. Don’t leave me to be the one who breaks the rules.
The problem was that, if I made the move, I was assuming the risk, I thought. She could accept or decline and either way I was showing what I cared about and what I respected. I cared about many things and tried to uphold them. Then I thought, if she were to roll over and show me her teeth I would not care about any consequence that could come my way. All she would have to do is show me her teeth. I was having all these thoughts in my head and I was focusing on them more than I was on the body next to me. I was, officially, a deer in headlights, and I rolled over on my back and looked at the ceiling. I closed my eyes as I slowed down my breathing.
And then I woke up.
She faced the wall with her back towards me, and my phone was sounding off. She awoke when I stirred. If you jumped on this air mattress, the glass of wine would hit the ceiling. We smiled weakly at one another.
I went into the bathroom and when I came out she went in. We didn’t say anything in passing. I got dressed and went out and put the coffee on and a few minutes later she came out. I poured us both a cup.
“Thanks for yesterday,” I said, “It meant a lot.”
“No problem,” she said, “It was fun! I’m excited school is starting soon. Summer is sad I don’t get to see anyone.”
“Well I’ll be here the rest of it so feel free to come back,” I said, “Maybe I’ll bake you a batch,” and the conversation once again drifted away as we drank the coffee. Our goodbye was not awkward, but it was obvious there were things unsaid.
I never made good on my baking promise. I saw Lauren at a party a few months later but we barely said hello. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort, or I should have just kissed her that night at my place. Maybe there was nothing I could have done – it’s possible we just met each other at the wrong time.
Later that day, after my service hours were done, I stopped next door and picked up the cupcakes I had left there the night before. No one was home but the door was unlocked, as was often the case in this apartment complex. There was one left with red icing that read “Happy Birthday Will.”
As I walked out into the hallway and towards my apartment I peeled off the paper. I shoved the entire thing into my mouth and closed my door and ate dinner on the television tray and went to sleep.
The bill was far from settled, but I had made my first payment.