Wednesday, September 30, 2009

seventeen: a little overlap

"So, you must have had a fun night," Gina says as I walk back into the living room. "You brought him back here, so that seems like a good sign."

"I had a lot of fun tonight, thank you very much," I tell her. I hadn't thought she'd be back so soon, or else I would have kicked Max out so I could avoid this very conversation.

"So, did you sleep with him yet?"

"Gina! You are incorrigible! I'm not answering that question!"

"That's a big fat no," she giggles. "Because otherwise you wouldn't be so uptight."

I don't understand her sometimes. She can be so therapeutic, so understanding; but right now she's kind of infuriating and frustrating. "Just because you have sex on the brain doesn't mean everyone else does. Speaking of which, I figured you'd be over at Kevin's?"

"I decided to give the boy a break tonight."

"How considerate of you," I say, rolling my eyes.

"But why are you in your sweats? Please tell me that you at least wore something halfway decent when you went out into public with the poor boy."

"Yes I did. I even wore a skirt. When we got back here, I just wanted to be comfortable."

"You're not supposed to be comfortable! It's the plight of women everywhere to have to dress in uncomfortable clothes and shoes to attract the male sex."

"I don't care about attracting Max," I say, but my voice wobbles. That may be a lie; I'm not quite sure. "Besides, in the animal world, it's the male sex of the species that have to attract the female if they wanna get laid. Why do humans have to be any different? Why can't the guys for once be the ones that have to impress us instead of the other way around?"

"Who cares? What does it matter who does the impressing as long as you're getting pressed against the bedsheets?" Gina smiles as she says that, pleased with her wordplay.

I shake my head. "Honestly, it's all about sex with you. I'm going to bed."

"Well, aren't you going to tell me the details of the night?"

"No," I tell her. "It's not like there's a lot to tell you. We went to a tapas bar downtown, and we talked for a while, and then we came back here for a little while and were playing video games and had some wine. And then you showed up. Not a big deal. Not a lot to tell."

"Then why are you smiling like that?" she asks, narrowing her eyes as if looking into my brain with x-ray vision.

"Because I had fun! Is that a crime?"

"No," she sighs. "It's just been so long since I've seen you smile like that. You haven't smiled like that since last summer when you visited. Because you've been miserable since you moved here."

"Thanks for the bitter reminder and the buzz kill," I mumble, turning off the television and padding into my bedroom. I sink into bed, set my alarm, remove my glasses, and slip under the covers.

Gina knocks and opens my door. "Listen, I don't mean to bring up the past and ruin your good mood. I'm just saying that Max makes you happy. And if he makes you happy, then you need to keep him around."

"He'll be around. We're friends," I say into my pillow. My words are muffled, but I'm sure she hears them. She closes my door and leaves me alone in the dark, nothing but my thoughts and memories to keep me company. And a very strange tingling sensation in my stomach.

"Talbo, please, I'm begging you. Okay, not begging. Just asking very politely. You gotta help me out here," Sid asks, pleading with his eyes.

"Kid, you are pussy-whipped. Are you even getting any?" I ask back.

"Does it matter?"

"That's a 'no,'" Gronk interjects and laughs as he pulls his shoulder pads on.

"It doesn't matter," Sid continues, looking at me and ignoring Staalsy. "Either you help me or you don't."

"I don't even know what you want me to do," I tell him. I don't know how I got wrangled into this, watching the game with Noelle when I could be hiding up in the box with Mario. And now he wants me to act like a double agent and report back everything I learn about her.

"Just talk to her. Turn on that Talbot charm. And then just... tell me about it."

"If you like her so much, just tell her," I advise. Fuck. Sounds like I should be taking my own advice. "I told you to do that back on your birthday. Girls don't like guys who are chickenshit."

"I'm not chickenshit," he says loudly. He quiets his voice before continuing, "I just... don't know what to do."

"Listen, Kid, she probably already likes you. Although, who knows why, because you're chickenshit," I tease him just to watch him squirm. "Just take it easy."

"Are you going to help or not?" he asks one more time, and I still don't answer him. Instead, I walk about to the lounge to see Noelle and Véro talking in high-pitched squeals. I pull her into a hug; she is, after all, my number one fan.

"Hey, Noelle. Number twenty-five looks good on you," I tell her. She'll be the rare girl out in the stands not decked out in either 87 or 71.

"Hi, Max. How are you doing? How's your shoulder?" she asks.

I do my best to hide the grimace that wants to break out across my face. I know that people ask either to be polite or because they're curious, but I'm sick of the question. "Good, I should be able to play in a month, as long as rehab keeps progressing as well as it is."

"That's great! You know, tonight's game won't be quite as exciting without you," she says with a smile.

"Is that so?" Sid asks shyly.

"Hi Sidney," she greets him with a blush, embracing him, too. It's disgusting, the way they act together. I mean, it's nice for them, I guess, but it's hard to watch. I feel like I'm in the Kid's shoes, so clueless, but it's obvious to the rest of us that those two are meant to be together and it's only a matter of time before it happens. Charlotte, on the other hand.... Like I said, I'm clueless.

I check my watch. The guys need to go out on the ice soon for warm-ups, and Noelle and I need to get to our seats. I pull on my hat and hope that's enough to get people to overlook me. I mean, I'm not one of the big-name guys, but after last season's finals, more and more people recognize me. And under normal circumstances, I'd love the attention, but if one more person asks me about my fucking shoulder, I'll lose it for sure. I pop my head into the dressing room and call out, "Come on, Noelle, we'd better get out there." She hugs Sid again and then makes her way over to me. I turn on the charm, as per the Kid's request, and offer my arm.

"So, let's go find our seats," she says, looking at her ticket. "Do you know where section A21 is?"

"Yes. Just follow me."

"Why are you hiding under that hat?" she asks.

Because I don't want people to see me. "Usually, the players don't sit with the fans. I don't know how they'll react."

"I'm sure everyone will be watching the game. No one will even notice." I want to tell her that I hope she's right, but I don't say a word as I lead her down to our seats on the glass. "Holy shit," she comments, looking out at the nice.

"It's nice, eh?" Of course the Kid got her the great seats. He wants to impress her. I would've done the same thing, if I'd have known Charlotte would like it.

"Nice, this is absolutely incredible!"

"The guys are going to shoot twice on this side, so hopefully you'll get to see The Kid score a goal up close." I point across the ice. "We also get to see the bench from this side, too."

"I can't believe this. Sidney said he was going to get me good seats, but this is incredible."

"Well, you said you've never seen a game before. And nothing compares to being on the glass. Guys will be checked into the boards right in front of us, and you'll think the puck is going to fly up and hit you. It's like you're right in the game."

"Oh man, I owe Sid big time for this," she says, staring dreamily at the guys on the ice.

"I think Sid's betting on that," I chuckle.

During the second intermission, I jog up the stairs and leave Noelle in her seat. First, I head to Pen Station, to buy Noelle a hat. The Kid's determined to score a hat trick. But it also gives me a chance to make a phone call. I haven't heard from Charlotte yet about tomorrow. She picks up on the second ring. "Superstar? You programmed yourself into my phone as Superstar?"

I chuckle to myself. I forgot I did that. "It's a joke," I tell her.

"You're the joke," she laughs. "No wonder I couldn't find you under my contacts. You're ridiculous."

"Oh, it's one of the things you love about me," I say, still my charming self, forgetting to turn it off. I hope she doesn't read too much into that and worries about finding meaning that isn't there. "So, listen, I just wanted to check in and see if tomorrow was still happening." That sounds noncommittal enough, doesn't it?

"If you're asking if it's still happening, yes; I will still be there. You can show up or not," she says, sounding very dismissive. Since we're not talking in person, it's hard to tell if she's saying it because she truly doesn't want me there or if she's just feeling vulnerable. It's weird how she can seem to switch between funny and confident to shy and timid in seconds flat.

"Well, why don't you tell me when, and maybe I'll see you there?" I say back, trying to sound as casual as Charlotte did. As much as I knew I should let it go, it kind of pissed me off that she didn't care if I came or not. I know I said we'd be friends. That was my own stupid fault for agreeing to that. But I thought we had fun together... why wouldn't she want me there?

"We're on from eight to eleven," she sighs into the phone. "I guess I'll see ya if I see ya," she sighs again, hanging up without a goodbye.

"What is the deal with this girl?" I say out loud, not meaning to give a voice to my frustration.

After the guys won their game, we all venture over to the Kid's new place for the after party. I really don't feel like going, because it's not like I played or have something to celebrate, but the guys persuade me to show up. They wouldn't know what to think if I didn't show my face and look like I'm having a good time. I'm a party animal, I'm happy-go-lucky. I certainly don't... mope.

The Kid practically attacks me and presses for any information I found out about Noelle. Suddenly, I don't really feel like being helpful, but I tell him she's a Steelers fan and that he just needs to kiss her already and tell her how he feels.

"But we already kissed," he says.

"She says it doesn't count, man. Do it again," I tell him, wanting to roll my eyes so desperately. He just doesn't get it. The only thing he has on his mind is hockey. He certainly doesn't understand girls.

Neither do I, apparently.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

sixteen: the friend zone

"No, she's out practicing with her band," she says.

I smile. It's the answer I wanted to hear. Gina, well, she seems nice and all, but things were just too weird the last time I was over. She's the type of girl that oozes sexuality, whether she means to or not, and even though I'm not interested in her, she commands the room she occupies. Tonight will go a lot... easier if she's not around.

I'm not stupid. I know that this wasn't that kind of invitation up to her apartment. I'm fine with that. I mean, not really, but as fine as I can be. I just want to be around her. She wants to spend more time with me, and that's what I want to hear. It's a step in the right direction, albeit a microscopically tiny baby step. I'll win her over eventually. No one is immune to the Talbot charm; she just has a high resistance to it. I've had to work hard for everything I have. Why should this be any different?

And as I smile at Charlotte, her face loses that spark. If she's having second thoughts, I'm not going to give her the time she needs to change her mind. I'm out of the car and opening her door, helping her out and walking with her to her apartment. Number 31; I haven't forgotten.

She trudges up the stairs slowly, and I still think that she might be reconsidering the invitation she extended to me. It's not too late for her to say "no," but will she?

She doesn't. She unlocks her door and ushers me inside, flicking on the lights with a quick motion of her wrist. "Um, go ahead and take a seat. I'm just going to change real quick," she mumbles, leaving me in the living room slash dining room slash kitchen as she steps into another room.

"Okay," I reply, taking a better look at the place now that I'm alone and can do so without being seen. The place doesn't have a lot of personal touches, like they know it's a temporary home for them both. No pictures. Just a few issues of Cosmo on the coffee table, sheet music, and a few DVDs. There are a couple of liquor bottles on the counter next to the sink.

I hear a couple of noises in the other room. That's when I start to wonder about what she's changing into. Something a little more comfortable? Just out of the skirt? This could be a big deal. A really big deal. If she emerges wearing something nice, then she still wants to look good in front of me. And if she wants to look good in front of me, well, let's just say that's a very good sign in my favor.

Charlotte enters the living room wearing... baggy sweats sagging low on her hips, woolen socks, and her Blackhawks tee. Merde. This does not look good for me. She doesn't care about looking good for me, even though I don't mind it so much. I mean, I couldn't care about what she was wearing. She could be in a clown costume. Right now, there are no buttons, no zippers, no hard fabric, so she's very soft and touchable. If I pulled her against me, I would be able to feel each and every one of her curves through that material.

But I know that it doesn't matter what I think about what she's wearing. It doesn't matter that I think she's hot in anything or nothing. Er, I think she would be hot in nothing. Because I don't know that. I mean, I haven't seen her naked, so I wouldn't know, but.... Damn it. She's got me stumbling over my own thoughts.

The point is: she's not dressed to impress. And if she's not looking to impress me, then I am officially in the friend zone. Once you're in the friend zone, you're screwed. I mean you're not screwed, and that's the problem. When a girl sees you as a friend, it's practically impossible to get her to see you as anything else.

And here I was, trying to impress her at dinner. But she doesn't care at all about impressing me. This is definitely a turning point in our relationship, in that this relationship isn't going to turn out to be anything more than a friendship. I try not to let my disappointment show on my face.

"So, um, what would you like to drink?" Charlotte asks, cinching the waistband of her pants and pulling the hem of her shirt as low as it would go. Then she pulls back her hair into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, but her bangs flop in her face. She softly grunts as she tries to tuck them behind her ear. "There's water, iced tea. Liquor-wise, I have some vodka, and tequila. But I also have wine," she says, fumbling through the bottles on her counter.

"What kind of wine?" I ask, leaning against the arm of the couch and watching her.

"Um, I have a Shiraz and a white zin," she says, turning to me with a bottle in each hand. "They're not anything too special, just whatever I picked up at the state store. I'm really bad at picking up something good, because I usually just get whatever's suggested in the restaurants."

I snicker at her honesty. "You can never go wrong with the zinfandel," I tell her.

Charlotte nods and turns back to the counter, removing the foil around the mouth of the bottle. And then I watch as she pauses and stares at the cork. "Huh." She pulls open a couple drawers and searches for something. "Well, doesn't this just beat all."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't have a corkscrew. Usually, the bottles I buy are twist-offs. Um. I don't know what to do now," she laughs nervously, running her hand through her pulled-back hair and twirling her bangs with her fingers.

"Well, I guess we can run out and get a corkscrew," I say hesitantly.

"Maybe we can push the cork through the bottle?" she says with a high pitch in her voice as she tries to reason a solution. Apparently she doesn't like my easy solution of buying one. Looks like we're going to do this the hard way.

"Um, that could make the bottle explode. Not a good idea."

"Oh. Hmm. There has to be something we can do...." She drums her fingers against the counter for a few moments. I reach into my pocket for my keys, thinking that I should just go buy one and spare the disaster that's bound to happen if we try some other scheme to open the bottle, until she perks up again. "I got it!"

Charlotte rushes out of the room and comes back with a tool kit. Now I'm worried. "What are you doing?"

"You'll see," she taunts, laughing and showing me a devilish smile. I smile back at her and the way she's so proud of herself. She proceeds to pull out a screwdriver and a screw.

"No, seriously, what are you doing?" I'm dumbfounded as she begins to screw the screw into the cork.

"Just watch and see. This is really one of my better ideas, I promise." Charlotte stops once the screw is deeply embedded into the cork, and then puts the screwdriver back in the box only to grab a hammer. I want to say something now, because I have a feeling this is going to get ugly. She uses the claw of the hammer to leverage the screw, just like you would to remove a nail.

I hear the successful pop as the cork leaves the mouth of the wine bottle, and she laughs as she holds the cork in her hand. "I actually had no idea if that would really work. Imagine that!"

All I can do is laugh at her, laugh with her. She's so proud of herself and so pleased that she solved the problem at hand. She grabs some hard plastic cups out of the cupboard and pours some for the two of us. "Real classy. Plastic, I know," she continues, handing me one of the cups. "We are very sophisticated here."

"Yeah, I can see that." I sip from my cup, and the wine is bitter-tasting.

"Sorry. I told you, it was just something cheap I picked up."

"No, it's fine," I tell her.

We move from the kitchen area to the sofa. "Would you like to watch a movie? Or play a game?"

"What do you have? I mean, as far as games go? Do you have PlayStation or Xbox, or what?"

"Um, actually, I have a Wii. Mario Kart?" she asks.


She sets up the game and sits beside me, and we choose our characters and start the race. Usually, I don't play games like this. I play SoCom or Halo, but not Mario Kart. Half a bottle of wine later and I'm winning. Until Charlotte starts throwing elbows and tries to run me off the virtual road and into a fence.

"Hey, you're cheating," I laugh, nudging her back.

"I'm not cheating. You're cheating. That's the only way I can explain that you're in first place. I rule at this game."

"Apparently not, because I'm totally kicking your ass."

"You wish, Talbot. We still have one more lap to go, and I bet you'll drive right into one of those damn cows."

"I'll have you know that I'm an excellent driver."

"Um, I was in the car with you tonight, buddy, and you were okay but definitely not excellent."

"First cowboy, now buddy? And you must have been in the car with another Maxime Talbot, because I'm not just okay at anything."

"Oh, really?" she laughs, never taking her eyes off the screen. I do look away, however, and see her tongue between her teeth in concentration, trying ferociously to cut the corners as close as possible to catch up with me. "Don't you dare let me win," she adds, noticing that I'm no longer paying attention to the game.

I hear keys outside the door, the tumble of the lock opening, and likewise the door. "Hey, Char, I'm back," I hear Gina call from the hallway. "What's all the racket? I could hear laughter from the stairwell," she continues, stopping as she walks into the living room. "Oh, Max. I didn't think you'd be here."

"I'm kicking Charlotte's ass in Mario Kart," I tell her, focusing again on the game.

"He's cheating," Charlotte mumbles. Even though I had quit playing for a moment, I still manage to cross the finish line mere seconds before she does. She drops the controller on the coffee table. I guess she's done playing. "How was practice?" she asks her roommate.

"The usual. Bitching about the set list for tomorrow's gig. By the way, did you give any more consideration to Saturday?"

"Yeah. Um, I'll do it."

"Great!" Gina squeals, clapping her hands.

"What's going on on Saturday?" I ask, feeling out of the loop.

The two girls start speaking at the same time. Charlotte of course blows me off and says, "Nothing," but Gina really explains. "Charlotte's coming with me on one of my jobs. I'm playing at the Sheraton. You should come, Max. And bring some of your teammates," she giggles, her eyes wide. Oh man. The guys would just love Gina.

Charlotte, on the other hand, looks slightly mortified. "I can tell when I'm not wanted," I laugh.

"No, pleeeeease," Gina pouts. Acting like that would usually get her anything she wanted. But I wasn't going to agree if Charlotte didn't want me there. "Charlotte, please, tell Max you want him there, as well as some of his cute, muscly, single teammates!"

Charlotte shakes her head and laughs at her roommate's antics. "I guess it's okay. If you really wanted to, I mean," she says, suddenly embarrassed and shy. So unlike the girl I had been playing video games with just a minute ago.

I lower my voice so only she can hear me. "Only if you want me to," I tell her. She blushes, and I have my answer. "Okay, well, it's getting kind of late. I should get going," I announce, moving off the couch and heading for the door.

"Are you okay to drive?" she asks.

"Yeah, definitely. I think you had way more to drink than I did."

"Oh," she replies, looking embarrassed. Where did this shy version of Charlotte come from all of a sudden? "So, I don't know the details about Saturday. Um, maybe I should get your number, so I can call you and let you know?" Charlotte asks, walking with me.

"Sure." I gladly agree, taking her phone and programming my number into it. Then I call myself and hear my pocket ring. She smiles and shakes her head, knowing that she doesn't have the upper hand anymore. When I hand it back to her, our fingers brush. I try not to let it affect me. "So, I guess I'll hear from you soon."

She nods and says goodnight. I kiss her cheeks again and step into the hallway, hearing the door click behind me and then the deadbolt slide home.

Monday, September 28, 2009

fifteen: hands up

Soundtrack Song - Miley Cyrus, Party in the U.S.A. (A/N: don't judge me. You'll see.)

I polish off my drink as our server emerges from the recesses of the kitchen, and I quickly order another round. Dinner's going to turn out to be a little more painful than I had originally planned.

It wasn't supposed to start off this way. We were supposed to get to know each other. She was supposed to start trusting me and start seeing me as the good guy that I am, even if other chicks can't, because she's supposed to be different. Finally, I get the answer that I had so desperately hoped to hear: she's single.

But if she's single, then why isn't she biting at my line? I've set out the bait, I'm using a lure.... What is it about me that turns her off? I can't get her out of my head; I've been trying to do that since our run on Sunday. Apparently, I'm the only one that feels it. She said before that she didn't need me to complicate things. But what the hell was I complicating if she's single?

Our conversation, which had flowed so easily before, comes to a complete, halting stop. Our plates are brought to our table, but my appetite has ebbed. Charlotte feels the change in the atmosphere around us, too, and she begins to fidget in her chair.

"Your hair looks really nice down," I tell her. She does look good. I noticed as soon as she opened her door, but I didn't want to say anything to her then. It would have seemed to date-like. And the last thing I wanna do is freak her out. This is the first time I've seen her with make-up, hair not pulled severely away from her face, and in something other than oversize, baggy clothes. I mean, she was beautiful then, too; she was always beautiful. This is just a new look, and I like it, too.

She blushes and runs a hand through her hair. "I just got it cut."

I begin to pick at the food that's been brought to us, and she's looking at the fare hesitantly. "I know it seems weird. But it is good," I tell her. "Especially the octopus salad. I hope you'll at least try it."

"Oh, I've had octopus before," she informs me, wrinkling up her nose. I guess I look surprised because she giggles a little and continues, "When I was in college, a couple of us did this trip to Europe over spring break. We went to Spain, France, and England. So I tried a bunch of the local delicacies, including pulpo." She shakes her head and smiles, and I watch her face light back up as she relives the memory in her head. "You know how people say it tastes like chicken? It really does. But the texture's different... kinda rubbery. Like chewing chicken-flavored bubble gum."

"So, that's a no," I laugh. "Do you like seafood? If you do, these are good." I push the lobster and crab cakes across the table at her. She rubs her hands together and stabs one with her fork, taking a bite. Instantly, her face sours and she grabs her napkin out of her lap, spitting the contents of her mouth into the napkin. She wipes her mouth and tries to hide the disgusted look on her face. "Now these are good," I say, taking a bite of one, making sure that there's not something wrong with it. And there isn't—they're as good as they always are.

"No, I mean, I guess it's okay. I just don't like coconut," she mumbles, very embarrassed.

"What? Now you're just being difficult. You can barely taste it."

She shakes her head and laughs at me. "I can taste it. Blech. You're oh-for-two," she taunts me. "And here you were, so confident that I would love everything." She takes a large drink of her vodka tonic, and I can see she's rolling the liquid over her tongue, trying to get the flavor out of her mouth. Watching her do that makes me have to look away.

"You are just very picky. I was sure you'd like it." I feel kind of sheepish. Not just that she doesn't care for what I ordered and that makes me kind of look like a fool, but also because the night is not progressing at all like I had planned. Charlotte was supposed to be impressed.

"Well, I guess I'm not as predictable as you thought I was?" she teases with a sly smile.

"I guess not."

This night is definitely not what I expected, but I'm not complaining. It's still fun; still a break from the norm and a better distraction than a movie on television or whatever else I would watch tonight, because I'm not an observer. I'm a participant.

I'm mortified that I spit out my food in front of him. Real attractive. Not that I'm worried about appearing attractive... it's just that, spitting into your napkin is disgusting, and there was no discrete way around doing that. I abhor coconut.

Usually, Max and I get along great, but now he's acting kind of funny. It bugs me. What did I do? Was it something that I did? I'm desperate for a way to get the conversation going again. "So, how long have you been playing in Pittsburgh?" I shake my head. Not a good direction to nudge the discussion, because talking about hockey is only going to make him feel bad again about his shoulder. "I mean, it must hard playing here, so far away from your family in Quebec."

That gets him going, and he begins talking a mile a minute. I'm surprised to find out that he's such a family-oriented guy. He's telling me about his parents and his brothers, and especially his gaggle of cousins. "There's nine of us. Seven boys, two girls. And we all have the same tattoo, a 'T' for Talbot, just in different places."

"Where's yours?" I ask, honestly interested.

"Maybe I'll show you sometime," he teases, waggling his eyebrows suggestively, which makes me burst out into loud laughter, gathering the attention of the patrons around us. "What, wouldn't you like to see it?"

Part of me, the old me, wants to say the crude remarks that are floating around in my head about the suggestive nature of his comment. It depends, Stud. Only if it's somewhere worth looking. But there's the other part of me, the part that's still shy and timid and doesn't want to say anything he can misconstrue to mean something else, that is desperate to avoid anything even remotely bawdy or provocative. So I compromise. "Maybe. I guess we'll see how the rest of the night goes," I say, smiling as I take another sip of my drink.

As we continue to eat, Max goes back to talking about his family. "The hardest part about playing here is being away from my family. Sometimes, they come to visit and see me play, but it's not that often and I miss them."

I want to smile when he says that. Not because I'm happy that he misses them, because that's sad; but I like the way he can so freely talk about the way he feels. I guess I'm just used to John and the way I had to drag all those emotions out of him to know what was on his mind. This is... surprisingly refreshing to me. "At least they get to see you on T.V."

"I guess," he laughs. "But what about you? Do you miss Chicago and your friends and family?"

How do I explain this without having to clue him into the whole story? "Yes and no. I miss the big city. Pittsburgh's nice and all, but I like the big city. And I miss my friends. We talk every once in a while, but not as often as I would like to. But I like being out on my own, doing things my way and making it on my own. I like knowing I can do it."

"Well, you're not alone." When he says that, I look at him curiously, wondering what exactly he means. "I mean, you have Gina." Of course he would bring her up. Damn her for the towel incident. "And I guess you have me now, too."

I smile at him but don't respond. Not only do I not know what to say, but I also don't want to ruin the moment, either. I like having him around. I like who I am when I'm around him. He brings out the old me, the good in me, the self that I thought John had squished. So I'm not going to say anything that might spoil the good feeling in the air.

We finish off the tapas and a few more drinks before we decide to leave. Max vanishes a few moments before we leave, to say thanks and goodbye to the owner. When he returns, we get back in his car and head back to the South Side. At the first red light we stop at, he turns on the radio and scans through the stations. He starts with B94, which is playing commercials, before checking Kiss, just in time to hear the new Miley Cyrus song begin. I scrunch up my face. How many times have I heard this song at work, the kids playing it or singing it in the hallways? I know all the words just from those damn kids singing it. I expect him to change the station and try something else, but he places his hand back on the stick shift.

"You're joking, right?" I ask.

"What? I'm secure enough in my manhood to say I like this song." I shake my head and reach over to change the station myself, but he bats my hand away. "Uh uh. My car, my choice. Deal with it."

I pout, but he just chuckles. "Really? You're going to make me listen to this?"

"You know you like it. It's catchy." He starts to snap his fingers and bob his head, getting into the song. Suddenly, I know why he must like it so much. She says cardigan.

"Chlamydia's catchy, too, but you don't see me rushing out to get that," I reply. Max gives me a funny look and then lets out a deep laugh. "Well, if you're going to do this to me, do it right," I tell him, rolling my window down and letting the cool September air rush in, and then turn the music up higher.

"Isn't it kinda cool for that?" he asks.

"If you're going to jam out, you have to do it with the windows down." There are a few people littering the streets of the Cultural District at the tables of some of the outdoor restaurants and cafés, and they look at us as we drive by. I throw my arms in the air and sway back and forth, belting out the lyrics as loudly as I can.

Max howls with laughter, joining in when he knows the words. I up the ante and pull out my best "car dances," motioning with my hands and nodding my head when prompted by the lyrics. We're just being a bunch of dorks, trying to upscale the other. I ignore the part about the Britney song, because it only makes me think of "Womanizer" and that YouTube video and all that it implies. Implies? Hell, he basically verified his status of manwhore to me tonight.

By the time the song is finished, we're over the bridge and his car is pointed in the direction of my apartment. I had a great time: my stomach's full of food which I will have to work out like crazy to burn off, my lungs burn from laughing so hard and singing so loud on the way here, and I feel... comfortable in my own skin again.

He pulls up in front of my apartment building, and I realize that I don't want this night to end just yet. This time, however, I don't have any qualms about asking. "Would you like to come up?"

Max takes a deep breath. "It is only quarter to eight. Sure, why not?"

"Well, not if the only reason you can think of is 'why not,'" I tease him. "I can think of more reasons you should than reasons why you shouldn't."

"Is, um," he hesitates before spitting it out. "Is Gina home?"

Way to kill the mood, I think to myself. I don't want him to come up if she's the reason he wants to. "No, she's out practicing with her band."

He smiles at my answer. Now I feel incredibly foolish. I thought he was hoping she would be there, but he looks happier now that he knows she isn't. I wonder about his motives and why he's so keen on coming up now that he knows she's not there. Maybe having him up isn't such a good idea anymore.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

fourteen: ask me anything

Ahh, 'twas the sentence heard 'round the world! I'm glad you're all enjoying the story so far and loving Maxime as much as I do. Thanks for your kind words and support. And lastly—Let's Go Pens!!

The rest of my week doesn't progress any better than my Sunday did. I wake up in the mornings and dread getting out of bed, knowing that the routine of my days will bore me into a stupor by noon.

On Monday, I call and make an appointment at a local optometrist's office, and they have an opening on Wednesday afternoon due to a last-minute cancellation. When I show up to the office for my examination, the doctor tells me that my prescription has worsened, and I need both new glasses and contacts. I sigh, wondering how much this is going to cost me. They ask that I give a down payment of a hundred bucks; I do and wonder if I can pay the balance and my share of the rent with my next paycheck. But that type of security was something I had sacrificed when I left Chicago and moved out on my own.

I'm giving serious consideration to Gina's offer of coming with her on a gig. She charges a couple hundred bucks to play the piano as background music for parties and social gatherings. On top of that, she gets tips. I could go just for one night and have enough to cover the balance for my contacts.

Since my Wednesday is already wasted with my appointment and I don't have time to work out, I also head to the local cosmetology school for a free haircut. I figure, why not? I'm willing to risk a bad haircut as long as I don't have to pay for it. Which turns out to be a decision I immediately regret, since the student thought she was a fucking arteest and butchered my hair. I tuck my new bangs behind my ear, but they're too short and fly into my face again. Ugh.

At least on Thursday, I have something to look forward to when I wake up. Sure, I have to get through a long day of work with spoiled brats, but at least I have plans for once. A reason to get out of my apartment, break routine, and enjoy myself. Max and I are going out to dinner. In fact, I'm practically bouncing out of my skin, I'm that excited. I'm a little worried that I'm looking forward to this as much as I am, but I push that through from my head so I can enjoy it for what it's worth. It's merely dinner with a friend.

After work, I quickly head home, change, and head over to the physio center, speeding through my workout. Hank hands me a bottle of water as I'm heading toward the door. "You seemed kinda quiet today, Charlie."

"Oh, I'm just in a hurry is all. I have plans tonight," I tell him, glancing at my phone for the time, "and I have an hour to run home and get ready."

"Big date?" he chuckles.

"No," I sigh with a smile. "Just dinner with a friend."

He nods and smiles. "Well, have fun."

"See you tomorrow, Hank!" I call over my shoulder, cracking open the cold bottle of water and taking a swig as I head out the door. The endorphins and my heart are pumping, and I'm feeling pretty good. I make it home in record time and jump—almost literally—into the shower, singing and humming as I scrub up and then towel off.

It hits me as I stand in front of my closet that I'm not sure what to wear. I don't know where we're going and if there's a dress code. I figure that I could slip into something that I would wear to work, but then if we go somewhere casual, I'll probably look overdressed and like I'm trying too hard. But I'd rather be overdressed than underdressed. Besides, Max can be a pretty snazzy dresser when he's not in a cardigan.

I pull out my "hippie" skirt. It's probably the most comfortable thing I own, and it's long and flowy and not at all form-fitting, which I think is the reason I like it so much. To dress it up, I pair it with a black button-down blouse and black ballet flats, hoping it will be appropriate regardless of where we go. I dry my hair and then try to straighten my bangs and sweep them off my face. This hairstyle is going to take a lot of getting used to.

At 5:31, there's a knock on my door. Max, I think, smiling to myself. I grab my things and meet him outside my apartment. Thank God, he left the cardigans at home. "Hey, cowboy."

"Cowboy?" he questions and laughs, kissing me on both cheeks.

I shrug. "It sounded good at the time."

"Okay, little missy," he says to tease me back. Max offers me his arm with a big, cheesy grin on his face. Such a goofball. "Shall we?"

"We shall," I return with a smile, weaving my arm through his. We walk down the stairs and to his car, and he holds the passenger door of his BMW open for me. He closes it behind me, after making sure my skirt was tucked up under me and wouldn't get caught in the door. Quickly, he trots around to the driver's side, and then we're off.

"So, where are we going?" I ask.

"This place called Bossa Nova?" he tells me, making it sound like a question as if asking me if I've ever heard of it. I shake my head and he continues, "It's my friend's place, down in the Cultural District. It's a tapas bar."

I nod, and we continue to make small talk as we cross the bridge and drive into the heart of downtown. Immediately, I fall in love with the restaurant. It's not too over the top, but it's not your average, everyday place, either. I feel a little overwhelmed as we walk through the main door, trying to take in everything. Max places his hand between my shoulder blades and guides me toward a table. There's a card on the table, letting us know it's reserved; he must have called ahead.

A server comes over, poised to hand us menus, but Max holds up his hands and places an order—both of our orders, drinks and several items off the menu, including stuffed eggs, roasted asparagus, octopus salad, and lobster and crab cakes.

He smiles at me as the server walks away, and I raise an eyebrow at him. "Wow, look at you. Ordering without even asking me if I have any food allergies or dislikes. That is incredibly cocky of you," I tell him, trying to hide the snicker that wants to erupt.

"Not cocky," he counters. "Just confident. And I am fully confident that you are going to absolutely love everything I've ordered us. Trust me."

"Trust you? I hardly know you," I say. I didn't mean it the way it came out, but Max doesn't care.

Instead, he takes it as a challenge. "Well, I'm an open book. Ask me anything you want to know, and I'll tell you." Max places an arm on the table and leans across it a little as our server brings our vodka tonics from the bar. It's an invitation to ask him anything, and I have no idea where to start.

"Why are you so interested in gaining my trust?"

"Isn't that what friends do? Trust each other?"

I bite my lip, hearing my next question in my head: And why are you so interested in being my friend? But I manage to keep it in my head and not ask it. "I suppose so." I'm back at square one. He's looking at me expectantly, waiting for more questions so I can learn more about him and consequently learn to trust him. "When you put me on the spot like this, I can't think of anything to ask," I laugh while shaking my head.

"Then why don't I ask you some questions, and when you answer me, I'll answer them, too?"

I bite my lip. This game could either end very well or very poorly. "Okay."

"So, do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"One sister, Caroline. She's five years older than I am. You?"

"Two brothers. Francis and William. Frank is five years older than me. Will is two years older. What is your favorite color?"


"Blue. When is your birthday?"

"May fourth."

"February eleventh. How old are you?"

I laugh. This felt like a police interrogation. "Twenty-three."

"Twenty-five. What is your middle name?"


"What's your last name?"

"Wait, you didn't tell me your middle name."

"Don't have one. I'm still waiting for your answer," he counters back with a smile, which I mirror.

I take a sip of my drink. "That doesn't seem fair that you're asking me questions that you can't answer or that I already know the answer to."

"How about you get two free questions then? Questions you can ask me that you don't have to answer back?"

"Okay. My last name's Bickley. So, for my first free question," I start, tapping my fingers on the table as I think. "Why did you pick today for dinner?"

"What do you mean?"

"Thursday just feels like a random day. I mean, four days after the last time we hung out, but it's not the weekend yet. It's just... random."

"Oh, well," he mumbles, looking away for the first time since he ordered. "I, uh, well, the team's at the Wachovia Arena on the other side of Pennsylvania. So, I figured today would be a good day."

I bite my lip again. Regardless of his excuse, I know his reason stems from his injured shoulder. He can't play; he can't be there with his teammates. I feel silly for asking him, now. "Okay, second free question." I continue to drum my fingers on the smooth, cool surface of the table. I shouldn't ask it, but I can't stop myself. "What does your girlfriend think about you having dinner with another girl?"

He cocks an eyebrow, and I wish I could rewind the past few moments and take that back. I knew I shouldn't have asked it. "Well, she doesn't care." My heart sinks. "Because she doesn't exist."

I bite my lip to keep from smiling. Honestly, how is a guy this good looking single? There's only one reason why. "No? Because I get the impression that you're quite the ladies' man."

Max swings his arms out at his sides. "Well, you can't be a ladies' man if you're tied down, now can you?" he chuckles.

"Point taken."

"So, how does your boyfriend feel about you being here with me?"

"Nope," I tell him, wagging a finger in his direction. "That was my free question. I don't have to answer it."

"Oh, come on."

"Nope. Your rules. Next question, please."

"Okay..." he pauses. "What's your boyfriend's name?" he asks, trying to find a way around the agreement we came to, so he can learn about my relationship status.

I shake my head. I'm not doing this. "Remember when I said that you don't have to talk about your shoulder if you don't want to?" He nods in response. "Well, this is my taboo subject. I don't wanna talk about my love life."

Max rubs his fingers around the rim of his glass. "I think it's at least fair that I know if you're single or if I have to worry about a jealous boyfriend hunting me down in a dark alleyway."

"Why in the world would you be in a dark alley in the first place?" I ask, laughing and trying to steer the conversation away from the current topic.

"I'm just saying. I mean, I think I should be aware if I have to watch my back." His eyes latch onto mine, and I can't look away.

I have to answer. I know that he won't drop it until I do. I sigh loudly, more loudly than I should or than I mean to. "You have nothing to worry about," I tell him. It's the simplest way to explain my current situation without getting into the gory details.

He pulls the corner of his mouth up into a smile that almost resembles a grimace as he raises his glass, quickly downing half of it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

thirteen: so i tell her in french

Charlotte and I sit on a patch of grass, even though I know it's bad news for her. She's going to cramp, but she's too stubborn to listen to me. But if she's not going to heed my advice, let her cramp, and she'll learn her lesson.

Instead, I try to relax and breathe in the crisp air and her company. We talk a little bit about what she's doing in Pittsburgh. Something seems amiss with her and I feel like she's being purposely evasive, but I can't seem to get a solid answer from her.

As I predicted, her leg starts to cramp, and I do my best not laugh at her misfortune. I know how bad cramps can hurt. If only she'd have listened. "Didn't you stretch before you started running?"

"No!" she hollers at me.

"Well, why not?"

She gives me some lame answer, so I try to help her out. Massage works best, but when I try to reach for her leg, she pulls away from me. I know we said we were just friends, but surely she can't think I'm trying to put a move on her now? I mean, she does look kinda cute the way she was lying on the grass, but not now, when she's writhing in pain. I know everyone thinks I'm a perv, but I wouldn't do that.

Instead, she tells me unconvincingly that she's fine, pushing herself up on her wobbly legs. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah. Maybe we should head back? It's going to take me forever to get back at this rate," she chuckles at me. She's trying to look strong, I can tell that much, so I let her keep up the charade and hobble around.

"This is pretty fun, though, watching you limp around. The best way to get rid of the pain is to stretch it out, so let's set a good pace." I get her to start walking again before I begin to push her. "You wanna try running again?"

"No. I don't think I can do anymore of that," she whimpers.

"Come on. The only way to build up your endurance is to push yourself." I start running. If I know her as well as I think I do, she'll hate being left behind. She breaks into a trot to catch up to me, and I run a little faster so she won't see my grin. As much as she tries to be evasive, there are just some things I automatically know about her from the glimpses I've seen of her personality. Every time I pick up the pace, she pushes herself to stay with me.

Until suddenly she's not at my side, and I can hear her making noises behind me. "What is it now?" I ask, feeling a little frustrated.

"My eye! It's in my eye. Oh my God. Get it out. Get it out!"

I figure some dirt or something got kicked up, but she's really rubbing her eye. That's only going to make it worse; that makes me laugh. Rubbing only will irritate it more instead of helping get whatever it is out. I walk over to her and tilt her face up toward the sun so I can see what's bothering her.

It would be so easy to kiss her again. Her lips are pursed as she worries about the... gnat that's in her eye. I think about leaning down to meet those bubblegum lips. Taste her Chapstick. Pull her against me. But I told her that we could be friends. I made that promise to her. And I'd rather keep that promise and remain her friend than take the liberty to taste her mouth now and regret it later. Damn, since when did I grow a conscience?

So instead of doing what I really wanted, I carefully wipe my hand against the fabric of my pants and try to gently wipe away the insect that flew into her eye. Honestly, it was such a little bug—what was the big deal?

I can't help but laugh at her as she limps and keeps her left eye closed. Yes, she looks ridiculous, but it's adorable also. This definitely wasn't how I expected today to go. "You look like a pirate! Argh, matey! Have ye misplaced yer booty?" I laugh, my lungs working harder now than they have during the run this morning.

"Oh, very funny," she mocks. "This is all your fault. If I hadn't have shown up, none of this would be happening. I knew I should have stayed at home in bed. I could have been sleeping."

"Oh, come on. This is a blast!" I tell her. I haven't had this much fun in a long time, probably since my day with the Cup.

"Oh yeah, a blast," she mumbles, the laughter in her voice, too.

We continue down the path, just walking this time, since she can't really see. As we get off the South Side Trail and head back toward East Carson Street, I even place my hand on the small of her back a few times so she'll avoid the cracks in the sidewalk. Fuck, there I go, breaking rule number one again. We turn down a side street, and I guess that we've made it to our building. It seems to me like we've only met up a few minutes ago, and now our run is over. I kind of don't want it to end yet.

"Thanks for, um, making sure I got back okay," she says, jiggling her keys in her hand. I take that as a sign that she's as reluctant to leave as I am.

I wonder which apartment she's in, and how she's going to get to it. She needs a seeing-eye-dog or something. "Are you on the ground floor, or do you have an elevator?"

"Um, just stairs...."

"Are you in need of my assistance?" I ask with a smile, trying to ingratiate myself into her building. I'm not sure why.

She returns my grin. "If you're offering, I would love to have your assistance."

There are probably a billion ways to help her up the steps to her apartment, but I take this opportunity for what it is—an opportunity—and I wrap my arm around her waist and pull her against me. I'd be a fool if I passed this up, wouldn't I?

Charlotte laughs, seemingly out of nowhere. "What's so funny?" I ask.

"Nothing. It's just been a crazy morning."

That it has been. But she seems to take it all in stride. "Why do I get the feeling that stuff like this happens to you a lot?"

"Because it does? I'm not a magnet for bad luck, by any means, but when it rains, it pours," she explains, giggling a little.

I shake my head, wondering what the hell I'm getting myself into. Eventually, she leads me to a door, which I'm guessing is hers. 31. I make a mental note of the number on her door. And then I hesitate. Is she going to invite me in? Or is this the end of our day together?

I get my answer as the door flies open and I hear a voice beyond the threshold. "Char, it's about time you got back I was starting to.... Oh, hello. It's nice to meet you, I'm Gina. Why don't you come in so I don't have to stand here naked all day?" Gina, who I know is Charlotte's roommate, is inviting me in. She's soaking wet, just a towel draped over her front. Holy shithow have I not met these girls sooner?

"Does your roommate always greet your guests in just a towel?" I whisper, as Gina runs back into the apartment, I hope to cover up. I try to get that image out of my head, the way those legs extended, her dark hair sticking to her shoulders. Then I look at Charlotte, and I forget what Gina looked like, period.

"Oh no, you must be special," she says, winking. Wait—did she just wink at me? "I'm glad she at least had that covering her. Usually she walks around the place naked."

Now I remember exactly what Gina looked like, and even worse I'm trying to picture her without that towel. Merde. "I don't want to impose." Even though I have the feeling that I should leave before I get myself into trouble, I'm curious to see Charlotte's apartment, where she spends her time, and what that reveals about her.

Gina calls to us from the other room, "You're not imposing at all. Charlotte just promised to help me with my piano piece and I have to work in an hour, so you can just chill out here while we practice."

Charlotte looks a little red-faced. "Gina, I really don't want to do this with an audience. I know I said I'd help, but maybe after you are done with work tonight? Or tomorrow?"

I'm very confused about what's going on. It's like when you walk into a room mid-conversation, and you try to figure out what they're talking about before you jump in. Otherwise, you'll misspeak and they'll just think you're retarded or something. Her roommate speaks up again. "I told Kevin I'd stop over after work, and Susan wants to practice tomorrow, so I need to know my part. And I'm sure Max doesn't mind, do you, Max?"

"Um, no?" I say. "But I don't know exactly what's going on, either."

"Don't worry about it," Charlotte yells from the other room. I sit on the couch, relaxing. "You don't have to stay for this." Does she want me to go?

Gina joins me in the living, thankfully now dressed. "Char's gonna sing for you," she tells me as Charlotte walks into the room, too. She changed her shirt, her face is pink from scrubbing, and she's wearing glasses. I like her in her glasses. I listen for a little while as they bicker back and forth, each trying to get the upper hand. "She's good," Gina confides in me.

"Don't get me wrong," Charlotte sighs, "I'm not bad. I'm not tone deaf or anything. But I'm just saying, I'm not great."

"Well, I guess Max will just have to be the judge of that now, huh?" I look from Gina to Charlotte and back again. I have a feeling this might not end well. But before I can excuse and extricate myself from the situation, Charlotte mumbles one last comment that I don't catch before Gina begins to play and makes Charlotte begin to sing.

I'm kind of entranced by her voice. The way the words flow from her mouth, I can just tell she's had her heart broken. You can't sing that way and not identify with the lyrics. It makes sense; no wonder she's so guarded and timid. Suddenly, a lot of things fall into place, and I try to imagine her life before I met her and what happened to her. I don't mean to, but I zone out and don't even realize she's finished until she's handing me a bottle of water.

"I told you she was good," Gina comments, cracking her fingers.

"I'm never up this early on Sundays. Is there anything good on television?" Charlotte dismisses.

I can tell she's still feeling self-conscious. I wish I could find the words to tell her how much I loved to listen her, but I know she won't believe me no matter how I tell her. So I tell her in French, "C'est magnifique. Tu as la voix d'un ange."

She tells me she doesn't understand, so instead of telling her how angelic she sounded, I merely tell her that Gina was right. Her roommate then leaves, and I'm grateful to have Charlotte to myself again, until she makes it very clear that I should go. Normally, I'd get offended, but I know it's just because she's embarrassed, so I let her words roll off my back like water off a duck.

Even after our disastrous day, I want to see her again. It's been an interesting day, no doubt. But she starts to blow me off. At least, I think so until she says, "Um, what about something in the evenings? I mean, I don't know how busy you'll be, but I'm pretty open after five."

I'm ecstatic, but I try not to let it show. We agree to dinner, and I tell her that I'll pick her up on Thursday. The boys will be playing the Black-and-Gold game in Scranton, and I don't want to mope around since I won't be joining them. Dinner will be a good distraction. Charlotte walks me to the door, and I want to tell her how much I'm looking forward to Thursday when I'll see her again. I don't know how to tell her without freaking her out, so I tell her in French, "Jusqu'à jeudi. Les jours vont passer lentement, comme des mois, jusqu'à ce que je revois ton sourire à nouveau."

"Max, you know I don't understand French."

"I know," I chuckle, making my way down the stairs. I want to look back and see if she's still there, but I make myself look forward at all times. Even though I just spent all morning with her, I'm already looking forward to dinner in a few days. I hope I'm not disappointed.

Friday, September 25, 2009

twelve: admit it

As soon as Max is down the stairs, I close the door to my apartment and sic myself on Gina. "What the fuck were you thinking?!"

"Whoa, calm yourself. You're overreacting."

"Just, stop interfering, okay? I know you want to fix me, but that was downright embarrassing. You're certainly not helping me out any."

"I wasn't interfering. I asked you yesterday if you would help me, and you agreed. How was I to know that you were going to bring Max back here? Which, by the way, could you do that when I'm not around? The walls are thin in this place."

"Gina! Jesus Christ, we're just friends. You turn everything into sex. And I wasn't going to invite him in. I was going to tell him goodbye when you answered the door in just a towel. Thanks for that, by the way. Max loved the show."

"Like I said—I didn't know you were bringing him up here! I have a little more decency than that. But what's the big deal anyway? If you say that you and Max are just friends, then why do you care if he liked me or not?"

"Well," I start, but I don't know how to finish my thought. The feeling in my head isn't quite coherent, so I don't know how to go about putting it into words. "It's not that I.... I mean, can just one time a guy not like you over me? I'm sick of being the ugly friend."

"But you don't like him, remember?"

"Of course I remember! I'm a red-blooded female, though. I know he's gorgeous. And I like his subtle accent. But that doesn't mean anything."

"It means you like him," she says slyly.

"No, I don't. I mean, so what if I do? I have a lot to juggle right now, a lot on my mind. I'm not over—"

"Don't say his name!"

"—The Jerk. And I've been friends with a lot of guys that I've been attracted to." Shit, did I just admit that I was attracted to him out loud? Gina's never going to let me live this down now. "It's not a big deal. Max is just fun to be around, and that's what I like about him. That's all. But thanks to you, he's probably going to want to be over here all the time so he can see you naked. Why did you have to answer the door in a towel?"

"I didn't have time to get dressed. I was waiting for you to come back so you could spill about what happened on your run. Looks like you had fun, though. Limping and squinting. What the hell went down?"

"Ugh. I cramped up and then I ripped a contact. Which was my last left contact, by the way. I have half a box of right ones left. And I don't know what I'm going to do, because I can't get them shipped from Chicago, but I don't think I can just order them in Pittsburgh. I'd have to schedule an eye appointment and have them examined before I can get a new prescription."

"So? That's not a big deal. I'm sure you can get in somewhere soon."

"I don't have the cash to just up and make an appointment. And I need a haircut, too. I hate living paycheck-to-paycheck. And now I have to save money for dinner on Thursday. I won't be able to afford groceries this week. I think maybe I should get a second job."

"Wait a minute. What's this about Thursday?"

Shit. "I'm having dinner with Max."

"Dinner? As in, he's taking you out on a date?"

"No, as in we both have to eat dinner that night, so we might as well do it together. Stop turning everything into something it's not. We're friends. You're the one who encouraged me to go on the run and be friends with him. Can you not do this?"

"First off, I'm not doing anything. And even if I was doing something, which I'm not, I'd stop if you could just admit to yourself that you like him. I hope you have fun. And if you're serious about a second job, I have a proposition for you. Some of the private gigs I do could maybe use a singer. I'd be willing to split the profits with you, if you're interested. Plus tips."

"Gina, you know I don't sing anymore."

"Well, you should. Max seemed impressed," she teases.

"Whatever. I helped you because you asked."

"So you won't do it for money?"

"If I tell you I'll think about it, will you get off my back?"

"Only if you honestly think about it."

"Okay, I will," I tell her, pushing all those thoughts out of my head and heading into my room to gather up all my dirty laundry. I hate that I do this: I wait until I have nothing left before I do the wash. I wait because I hate doing it, but it wouldn't be such a chore to do it if I did it more often instead of doing it all at once. The laundry room in my apartment building is on the ground floor, which means I have to lug everything up and down two flights. I knew I should have done this yesterday.

I run into Ted down in the laundry room. I say hello as I discretely try to toss my underwear into the washing machine. He's either gay or extremely metrosexual; I haven't been able to decide yet.

"It's Charlotte, right?" he asks, moving his load from a washer to a dryer.

"Yeah. Having a good weekend?" I'm trying to be polite to my neighbor and make conversation. He lives on the floor below me, and we run into each other often on our ways to work in the morning.

"No," he laughs. "If I have nothing better to do on the weekend than laundry, then it's a sad indicator of my social life." I grimace in response. "Sorry, I didn't mean to imply..." he says, feeling bad.

"It's okay," I say, shrugging. "You're right. My social life is severely lacking." I think about what else I could be doing right now. I could be getting my hair cut, going grocery shopping, or even still be visiting with Max in my apartment. Instead, I elected to spend the day by myself, doing the one chore I hated most of all. When did I get so pathetic? I sigh and continue to throw my clothes into the agitator.

I spend the rest of the day doing other chores around the apartment, wiping down the kitchen counter, dusting the television stand, and mopping the floor. So pathetic.

I don't think I've ever laughed so hard in my entire life. To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect on our run. I was too worried if she was going to show to wonder how it would go.

And I wasn't surprised when she started lagging behind, but I was surprised at how quickly she was giving up. One mile in, and she wanted to quit? "Come on! You made it through the first mile without a problem! We're coming up on the best view of the city. You at least have to make it that far," I tell her, trying to be encouraging.

"I can't! Remind me again why I agreed to this?" she asks, breathing heavily and stopping completely.

"Don't stop moving," I begin to warn her.

"I can't go any farther. I need a break."

"If you stop, your muscles are going to seize up on you. At least keep walking. Work it out." I know she's tired and worn out; I've been there.

"Go on... without me.... Save yourself!" she laughs.

"No! I never leave a man behind! Or a woman. Keep going. You'll be glad once we get down closer to see the Point," I prod. I run this path so often when the weather's nice. It's a perfect day, and I just know she'll appreciate the view once we get down to my spot. I reach and grab her hand, pulling her toward me.

Cardinal Rule #1 of no-mess relationships: never hold hands. Never hold a girl's hand, and don't place your hand on the small of her back, either. Those are intimate touches reserved for romantic relationships. Do that, and the girl will think your intentions are more than trying to get an invite back to her place and into her pants. But with Charlotte, it's too easy to take a hold of her hand and make her follow behind me.

"Just leave me here. Maybe by the time you make your way back around, I'll be able to breathe again," she huffs, still breathless. I like the way her voice sounds like this.

"You kicked ass on the bike in the gym. I didn't think you were this out of shape." I realize as soon as the words leave my mouth the way it's going to come across. I watch as she grabs the bottom of her shirt and raises it to her face to wipe away the sweat. She proves my point as I catch a glimpse of her body under her baggy tee. I see the curve of her hips and some of the skin across her stomach. I lick my lips and hope she didn't see me do that.

"I never planned on running a fucking marathon. I just wanted to lose weight."

"Really? Because you don't look like you need to lose weight." I continue to eye her body.

I know she's not the kind of girl to take a compliment easily. Just like I assumed, she rolls her eyes and brushes me off. "I wasn't asking you to flatter me, dude. I'm just saying that I'm not into this whole... physical activity thing like you. I mean, I can't believe you do shit like this for a living. What's wrong with you?"

The only thing I can think to do is laugh. "What can I say? I'm a glutton for punishment." And it's true. This is pure punishment, agreeing to be friends with this girl I'm kind of crazy about, knowing full well that I can't make move unless I want to scare her off permanently. Talk about being stuck between a rock and hard place.

"I buy that," she counters, a sparkle in her eye. Then she pulls her hand out of mine. Have I really been holding it that long? "Okay, I'm all right," she says, continuing to walk beside me, until we finally reach my spot. We see the beautiful skyline of Pittsburgh where the Monongahela and Allegheny converge into the Ohio. "Wow," she says, looking in awe at the view in front of us.

"Yeah, pretty amazing, huh?" I whisper to her. Because everything at this moment feels pretty amazing to me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

eleven: song

Glad you all laughed at and enjoyed #10. I don't think I'll ever be able to top that. This one's a change of pace, hope you like it, too.

Soundtrack song - Butch Walker, The Best Thing You Never Had
(apologies for the video; it's the best version of the song I could find)
and lyrics

Max helps me maneuver my limping, aching body off the trail and back toward civilization. I'm half-blind and half-immobile from our run, and although I wish I could leave him on the street corner and get to my apartment alone, I'm worried that I either wouldn't make on my own or I wouldn't make it in one piece. First of all, the long distance I had to walk has only made my cramp worse, not to mention the rest of my muscles are beginning to scream, too. Second, I can only see out of one eye, so I have no depth perception.

I turn onto South Sixteenth Avenue and think about all those stairs and how I'm going to drag myself up the two flights to my apartment. Damn. I hesitate outside the main door, fumbling and fiddling with my keys. How do I ask him to help me up the steps to safety without creating an even more awkward situation?

"Thanks for, um, making sure I got back okay," I tell him, now fumbling with my words. How do I ask him without giving him the wrong impression? Not that I look remotely kissable like this. I feel like a circus freak.

"Are you on the ground floor, or do you have an elevator?"

"Um, just stairs...." Ask him. It's no big deal; he'll help! You just have to ask.

"Are you in need of my assistance?" he asks, a playful smile on his lips.

I feel a huge weight lifted off my chest. I don't know if he can read my mind or not, but that he asked instead of me makes me feel a lot better about it. "If you're offering, I would love to have your assistance." Max stands on my left side and grabs my waist as I wrap my arm around his shoulders and lean on him like a crutch. It's at a time like this that I wish I were skinnier, so he could just pick me up fireman-style and carry me up the stairs. I'm so tired that I'd even let him throw me over his good shoulder and haul me up that way. I laugh at the thought.

"What's so funny?" he questions as we reach the first landing and turn to continue our awkward journey.

"Nothing. It's just been a crazy morning," I half-admit.

"Why do I get the feeling that stuff like this happens to you a lot?"

"Because it does?" I giggle back. "I'm not a magnet for bad luck, by any means, but when it rains, it pours," I explain.

After another flight of steps, we make it to my door. Before I could thank him or even get out a word, my door flies open to reveal Gina, clad in only a towel. "Char, it's about time you got back I was starting to.... Oh, hello," she says, talking speedily to me until she sees that Max is with me. She wraps her arms around herself to cover more of her body. "It's nice to meet you, I'm Gina. Why don't you come in so I don't have to stand here naked all day?"

She leaves the door open as she runs deeper into the apartment to get dressed. "Does your roommate always greet your guests in just a towel?" he asks me.

"Oh no, you must be special," I say with a wink. I purposely leave out that I've never had a guest over to my apartment since I moved in. Wait—since when do I wink? "I'm glad she at least had that covering her. Usually she walks around the place naked."

Max's face seems to glaze over, and I force myself to laugh and not get offended or jealous. Gina's hot; I'm used to her getting that kind of reaction when we go out together. She always gets the attention.

"I don't want to impose," Max announces. I don't know if he's trying to be polite or if he only wants to look like he's being polite. Either way, he's stepping into my apartment and looking around.

"You're not imposing at all," Gina hollers from the other room. "Charlotte just promised to help me with my piano piece and I have to work in an hour, so you can just chill out here while we practice."

"Gina, I really don't want to do this with an audience. I know I said I'd help, but maybe after you are done with work tonight? Or tomorrow?" I'm not trying to weasel out of helping her, but I just don't want to do it in front of Max. It's embarrassing enough as it is.

"I told Kevin I'd stop over after work, and Susan wants to practice tomorrow, so I need to know my part," she pouts. "And I'm sure Max doesn't mind, do you, Max?"

"Um, no?" he replies. "But I don't know exactly what's going on, either."

I walk into the bathroom to take out my contact, wash my face, and change my shirt. "Don't worry about it," I yell to him as I change. "You don't have to stay for this."

Gina smiles and emerges from her bedroom in a pair of leggings and a baggy black shirt, her long hair still sopping wet. "Char's gonna sing for you." I walk back into the room, and then she hands me the music. I'm still not happy that I have to do this, but as my eyes scan the lyrics, I can't believe she's doing this to me.

I push my glasses up further on the bridge of my nose. As if I didn't feel embarrassed enough as it is, she's making me sing this? "Gina, no. You've got to be kidding me. I'm not doing this. I thought you were going to give me Evanescence or Alicia Keys or something. The vocalist for this is male."

"You told me you'd help! I didn't pick it. It's Susan's, like, all-time favorite song and she's been complaining that we haven't let her sing enough and all she does is back up."

"You picked this," I hiss through my teeth, low enough so Max can't hear. "You do shit like this all the time. 'Accidentally' leaving certain songs on repeat, so I hear them when I come home. Like these words are automatically going to make me wake up and smell the roses. Fuck, Gina. It's not that easy."

She shrugs and takes her position next to her keyboard, completely ignoring me and talking to Max. "You know, Char's really good. She's classically trained."

"I wouldn't say that," I mumble. Gina lightly fingers the keyboard and warms up, as Max raises an eyebrow at me, waiting for an explanation. "I took lessons for a while. It was my mom's idea. But I wasn't that good."

"She's good," Gina says.

I roll my eyes. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not bad. I'm not tone deaf or anything. But I'm just saying, I'm not great." I'm not lying or trying to be modest. I can hit the notes, but I never had the heart for it. The best way to explain it is I would be a really good karaoke singer, but I'd never make it past the first round of American Idol. But with this song, I don't know if I can get through it without tearing up.

"Well, I guess Max will just have to be the judge of that now, huh?" Gina's eyes are sparkling with mischief.

"I can't believe you're doing this to me. You so owe me," I mumble in her direction. I haven't sung in front of people in years. I gave this up a long time ago because I didn't have the passion for it even though I had the technique. That's not enough to make you any good. But she begins to play the melody, and I'm forced to focus on the lyrics and read the music. "Hello, how you doing? What's it like to ruin all my self-esteem? Let me blow off some steam...."

As I go through the song, I keep my eyes trained on the notes and the corresponding words. I don't want to look up at either of them: Gina, because she knows exactly how well these words apply to me, or Max, because he doesn't know that they apply and I don't want him to know. Instead, I let the sounds of the piano fill my ears and sing loudly enough for Gina to hear where I'm breathing. After all, I know from years of recitals that accompanists play better when they know when the singer is breathing and on what notes the singer lingers.

My mother had signed me up for voice lessons once I turned eight. She herself took voice and dance, and she was on her way to becoming a Broadway performer. Until she got knocked up with my sister and had to marry my father. My sister was rhythmically challenged, so I got all of my mother's focus.

My father, on the other hand, loved hockey. He was a high school math teacher and also doubled as the hockey coach, so I took skating lessons instead of dance. It was the best of both worlds, as far as my parents were concerned. Except I didn't have the soul for music, at least, I didn't until now. The words cut into me, and I finally have the emotions to inject into the lyrics.

"'Cause you broke this down. You broke this down. The best thing, the best thing, the best thing that you never had." I finish the song while Gina keeps playing, gliding her long, slender fingers over the keyboard. As she finishes the melody, I walk to the fridge and pull out two bottles of water, doing my best to pretend that the past five minutes never happened. At least I had kept my composure. I hand one to Max and sit next to him on the couch, immediately grabbing for the remote.

"I told you she was good," Gina comments, cracking her fingers.

I don't look at Max. I just flip through the channels. "I'm never up this early on Sundays. Is there anything good on television?"

"C'est magnifique. Tu as la voix d'un ange."

"Excuse me?" I ask, looking at him for the first time since he walked into my apartment.

"I think that's a compliment," Gina giggles, leaving the room to get dressed for work.

"What did you say?" I ask him again.

"Gina was right. You're good," he replies.

"Whatever. So, I don't want to be rude," I tell him, "but I have major chores to do today. And I need to shower." I didn't want to kick him out yet. I had a lot of fun with him in the morning, but now I feel embarrassed and self-conscious. I'd prefer to hide under a rock and lock myself into solitude right now.

"I can take a hint," he laughs, the chuckle deep in his throat. "So, despite all your insane injuries and mishaps, I had fun today. Do you want to do it again? Go running with me tomorrow morning?"

I sigh. "Well, I have work, so I usually exercise after. And I'm not a morning person, so I don't think I could handle that on a weekday."

"Oh," he quietly whispers.

Immediately, I feel bad. He's the one putting all the effort into our newly-found friendship. "Um, what about something in the evenings? I mean, I don't know how busy you'll be, but I'm pretty open after five."

"Do you wanna grab dinner sometime then?"

I reach behind my head and scratch my neck before grabbing a lock of hair and twirling it between my fingers. Stupid nervous habit, but he's got me feeling nervous. To me, dinner sounded kind of formal. But we all need to eat. I mean, I eat with Gina all the time. Friends eat together. "We could do that. Do you have anything in mind?"

"Not particularly. Do you get into the city much? I know a lot of good places."

"No, I don't go out that much." Crap, that makes me sound like a friendless hermit. "I mean, I don't go out to eat that much. So anything you choose is fine."

"Okay, so, how about... Thursday?" I look at him as he says that, and he looks like he's mentally scanning his calendar for an open day.

"Sounds fine," I tell him.

"I'll pick you up around five thirty. Is that okay?"

"Sounds fine," I repeat. I push off from the couch and walk him to the door, still limping. How am I supposed to do my laundry if I can't make it up and down the stairs? "I had a good time. I'll see you Thursday," I say, opening the door for him.

Max leans in and kisses both of my cheeks. I remind myself that it's probably a French-Canadian thing, and I'm really glad that I washed my face. "Jusqu'à jeudi. Les jours vont passer lentement, comme des mois, jusqu'à ce que je revois ton sourire à nouveau."

"Max, you know I don't understand French."

"I know," he says and smiles, turning and heading out the door, trotting down the stairs and never looking back up as I hesitate in the doorway, staring after him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

ten: beginning

Soundtrack Song - Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Running sucks ass.

I've never done it before; not on purpose, not like this. And now I know exactly why.

"Max!" I huff, yelling after him. He's ahead of me, and I can tell that my pace is glacial compared to what he can do. The way his clothes fit, I can see the latent energy of his muscles and his body. He's not a big hockey player, but he's got the strength and endurance of a professional athlete, and I know it's killing him to stay with me instead of break into a faster gait.

"Come on! You made it through the first mile without a problem! We're coming up on the best view of the city. You at least have to make it that far."

"I can't," I say, slowing my pace from a trot to a walk, my inertia fading away as I stop all forward movement. I lean over and place my hands on my knees, desperate for oxygen. "Remind me again why I agreed to this?"

"Don't stop moving," he instructs, coming back to my spot on the trail. Bikers are speeding past us and giving me dirty looks for being an obstacle in their way. I stick my tongue out at them even though I really want to give the middle finger. Can't they see I'm dying?

"I can't go any farther. I need a break," I breathe.

"If you stop, your muscles are going to seize up on you. At least keep walking. Work it out."

I can feel the lactic acid in my muscles, thick as mud, hindering my movement. It's like the air is pudding, and I'm trying to walk through it unsuccessfully. There's so much resistance. I feel a stitch in my side. "Go on... without me..." I laugh. "Save yourself!"

"No! I never leave a man behind!" he banters back, grabbing my hand and pulling me forward. "Or a woman. Keep going. You'll be glad once we get down closer to see the Point."

Max is dragging me along behind him. "Just leave me here. Maybe by the time you make your way back around, I'll be able to breathe again."

He laughs. "You kicked ass on the bike in the gym. I didn't think you were this out of shape."

I pout my lips. Sure, some people work out to be healthy and fit. Not me. This was for purely aesthetic reasons. And right now, this isn't pretty. The day has really warmed up, which wasn't expected on a mid-September day, and I can feel the sweat bead on my forehead. I gather the hem of my shirt and dab my face. "I never planned on running a fucking marathon. I just wanted to lose weight."

"Really?" He gives me the "elevator look"—you know, starting south, looking upward, and then back down again. "Because you don't look like you need to lose weight."

My automatic response is to roll my eyes. Guys always do that, but I know better. They'll compliment anything in a skirt if means they'll see some action. Besides, let's be serious: a guy like Max would never have given me a second look when I was heavier. "I wasn't asking you to flatter me, dude. I'm just saying that I'm not into this whole... physical activity thing like you. I mean, I can't believe you do shit like this for a living. What's wrong with you?"

Max laughs, and he turns around so I can see the way the humor makes his eyes glisten. If it's possible, it makes his eyes even bluer. "What can I say? I'm a glutton for punishment."

"I buy that," I laugh, still a little out of breath. He smiles and continues to pull me down the trail. I think it's weird that he still has a grip on my hand, but I tell myself that he's doing it to keep me moving. He's not holding my hand, so forget about it. Except now that I told myself to forget about it, I keep thinking about it. Damn. Now I'm thinking about it again. "Okay, I'm all right," I say, wringing my hand out of his. Even with the pain in my side, I'm continuing my trek onwards.

We walk together, side-by-side, until we reach the section of the trail with a great scenic view of the skyline and the confluence of the three rivers. "Wow," I say, breathless again, but this time it's from the beautiful juxtaposition of the blue, cloudless sky with the hard steel outline of the city instead of the physical exertion of running.

"Yeah, it's pretty amazing, huh?"

"Yeah. You know, I've been to Pittsburgh every year since I can remember. And this is a view I've never seen before. Thanks for showing me this place," I tell him earnestly.

"You're welcome. So, you say you've visited here before?"

"Yeah. I have family here," I explain, opening up a little to him but also not revealing too much. I still don't know if I can trust him, but I'm trying to lighten up. "I used to come here every summer. So after I graduated, I was looking to move and... here I am."

"So, you're not just staying for the summer this time?"

I smiled at his silly attempt to get the information out of me. "I'm here until at least December. I mean, that's when Gina graduates, so things are up in the air about whether I'll stay or not after that."

"Gina?" he asks.

"My roommate. Once she graduates and has to look for a job, she'll know if she has to move out of the area or not. And if she has to leave Pittsburgh, I'll probably have to go back to Chicago." There's a small patch of grass off the side of the trail, and I point to it. "Do you mind if we sit for a moment?"

"You know, we should keep going, keep moving."

"A second, I promise?" I ask again, trying to bat my eyelashes and convince him to let me rest.

"Okay," he caves, and I stretch my already-aching and tired body along the grass, turning my face toward the warmth of the sun. Max sits beside me. "So, you're here for a few months? No big plans to stay in the city long-term?"

"Nah, not really. My position is state-funded, and with the economy the way it is, my job could get cut at any point so the government can save money. So I'm just kind of passing time and figuring out what I'm doing with my life."

He doesn't know what to say to that, so he doesn't say anything at all. And I'm fine with that because I'm really enjoying the quiet simplicity the crisp air, the scenic view, and Max's company. Until I feel a twitch in my left calf. Charley horse. "Aah...."

"What is it?" Max asks, looking over at me as I frantically grab onto the grass around me and pull it out from the ground as I contort from the horrible sensation.

"Cramp!" I gasp, extending my leg out and trying to ease the pain.



"Didn't you stretch before you started running?"

"No!" I squeal, reaching down and trying to knead the site of the spasm. Shit, this hurts!

"Well, why not?"

"Because I didn't think about it. I don't usually do this strenuous of a work out."

"Here, let me help. Tell me where it hurts," he says, reaching for my leg. At first, I don't mind, until I see that he's about to roll up my pant leg. Skin on skin contact. And I haven't shaved my legs in... in so long, I can't even remember how long it's been.

"No!" I cry out, pulling away from him. Max looks shocked, and I feel bad. Now he probably thinks I'm some kind of freak that steers clear of physical contact with people. "Sorry, it's just that.... I mean.... Oh, never mind," I moan. "Thanks, though."

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah. Maybe we should head back?" I ask, trying to change the subject. Like I need anything to make things more awkward between us. "It's going to take me forever to get back at this rate," I laugh, hobbling back onto my legs. The pain has started to ease, but it'll take some time before I can walk normally again.

"This is pretty fun, though, watching you limp around. The best way to get rid of the pain is to stretch it out, so let's set a good pace," he tells me. He's the athlete, so I think he knows what he's talking about. I start out walking beside him, feeling a little refreshed from having relaxed a little. "You wanna try running again?"

"No. I don't think I can do anymore of that."

"Come on. The only way to build up your endurance is to push yourself," he calls over his shoulder, starting to jog. Fuck him and that delicious accent. I believe everything he says. I start to trot after him, and as soon as I reach his side, he picks up the pace to tease me, doing that every time until we're sprinting down the stretch of concrete that runs parallel to the Monongahela River.

Until, that is, I run straight into a cloud of gnats. I think I swallow one, and another lands in my eye. In. My. Eye. Of course, I start yelling. I'm not too creeped out by bugs, unless they're spiders, but it's in my eye. Blinking, I rub my left eye with the back of my hand.

Max notices I'm no longer beside him, and he turns and sees me freaking out. "What is it now?"

"My eye!" I scream. "It's in my eye. Oh my God. Get it out. Get it out!"

He laughs. In my time of dire distress, he laughs. He strides over and bats my hand away from my eye. I've all ready ripped my contact by rubbing too hard. "Stop it. Let me see." He grabs my chin and lifts my head so he can see. "Okay, look up and don't blink," he instructs me. I realize at this point that I'm in a compromising and vulnerable position, completely at his mercy. If he makes one wrong move, if his hand slips, my eye will be gouged out of its socket. Don't slip. Be careful!

I feel as his finger brushes the white of my eye and think that this isn't the most sterile of circumstances. "Did you get it?"

"I think so," he says, moving back and giving me room to breathe.

I blink and feel relieved. "Thank you so much. You have no idea," I giggle, trying to brush off my crazy fit like it was completely normal and not at all crazy. I keep walking, pretending none of that just happened, favoring my right leg and squinting with my left eye closed, since my contact is ripped and discarded somewhere along the trail.

Max watches my progress along the trail and begins to chuckle. "You look like a pirate," he full-on laughs, grabbing his sides. "Argh, matey! Have ye misplaced yer booty?"

"Oh, very funny," I say, feigning anger. But soon, I'm laughing right along side him, figuring of course something like this would happen to me. "This is all your fault. If I hadn't have shown up, none of this would be happening. I knew I should have stayed at home in bed. I could have been sleeping," I mumble, passing the blame onto him.

"Oh, come on. This is a blast!"

"Oh yeah, a blast," I chuckle. "My idea of a perfect Sunday morning." Although, as I think about it, this certainly beats my usual weekend routine of sleeping til noon and then scrounging for lunch. Who knew that getting leg cramps and ripping contacts would be just the beginning?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

nine: one shot

I think about it, going back and forth all day, about whether or not I want to show up for that run in the morning. Bouncing between yes and no, I pick my brain and even ask Gina for advice.

She pours herself a cup of green tea and joins me on the couch, folding her long legs beneath her. I close my laptop, not even telling John goodbye, and twirl a lock my hair around my fingers. Nervous habit.

"Did you like it?" she asks, blowing into her beverage to cool it down. She's not looking at me, knowing that eye contact will just freak me out. I'm telling you, she should be a therapist. She is my therapist.

"Like what?"

"The kiss," she prods, rolling her eyes like I'm dense.

"I... I don't know. It kind of happened really fast, and it was very unexpected. But it wasn't bad," I admit, feeling embarrassed to be talking about something like this. I never talk about stuff like this. "I mean, at least he had the decency to not slip me any tongue. I would have bitch-slapped him if that were the case." I bit the inside of my cheek as I thought about our conversation. Between talking about French toast and French fries, I wouldn't have been surprised if he had tried to French kiss me.

"So it wasn't bad. That means it was good, right?" She's smiling.

"It's not that simple," I groan. "I wish it were. But all I could think about was—"

"Don't say his name," she bites out at me, shaking her head. "From now on, his name is banned from being spoken in this room. Only you. Only you would have 'Maxime, the French-Canadian Dream' dangling in front of your face, and you still pick The Jerk over him," she says, quoting Yinz Luv Da Guins.

"I'm not picking anyone over anyone else. I'm just saying that good or bad, it wasn't about Max. It was about the way Max made me feel, and that way made me miss John. Because that's the way I thought John was always going to make me feel. He was my one shot. My one shot at happiness, at everlasting love."

"You act like things were picture perfect with John. And maybe they were at first, but he made you miserable. You wouldn't have had to run away to Pittsburgh if things weren't that bad."

"Things weren't picture perfect," I explained. "They were paper perfect." Gina raises her right eyebrow at me. "You know, when things look so good on paper? If you wrote down everything about him, he'd be perfect. Smart, handsome, funny, successful, heading places."

"He's not a résumé. You can't treat it that way. Even when someone applies for a job, you have to interview them. That's what dating is; it's the interview process. He didn't pass. So you throw away the damn résumé and pick up the next one and hope that the next candidate is more qualified!"

"Maybe it's that I wasn't the one who was qualified. Maybe I'm the one who wasn't good enough for him...."

"No. Don't do that. That is quite possibly the most profound thing I've ever said, so don't twist it around and make it into something about you." I look at her and try to find the words that will magically make her understand. But there aren't any words, because even I don't understand the way I feel. "Listen, maybe six months ago, you thought he was it, the one, your one shot, whatever. But things change and evolve, and so you do. This train of thought was okay six months ago, but not anymore. John wasn't your one shot. He isn't. Well, not anymore. Move forward."

"And how do you move forward after you think someone was the one? When you think you've had perfection, how do go back to mediocrity?"

Gina shakes her head. "Don't you get it? He wasn't perfect. He's not perfect. Only in your messed-up little head was John ever perfect. If he were perfect, he never would have let you out of his sight, let alone leave Chicago. You need to just forget about him." She pauses. That line of rationalization isn't working anymore. Hell, it never did. So she tries another method. "So, when are you seeing Max again?"

"What makes you think I'm seeing him again?"

"Why wouldn't you? You say you met him yesterday, you saw him again today. So, what about tomorrow?"

I groan and envelope my face in my hands. "Well, he did invite me to go running with him in the morning. But I don't think I'm going."

"Why not?" Gina asks, getting excited and bouncing next to me on the couch.

"Because he kissed me," I say, thinking we're back at square one and glaring at her through my fingers.

"And I don't see anything wrong with that. So what if he did? What did you do about it?"

"I pushed him away. Told him it was a mistake."

"And what did he do?"

"Um, gave me some lame-ass half-apology and said we could be friends."

"Problem solved," she says, moving from her spot on the couch. "You told him 'no,' and he listened. That's what friends do. And speaking of what friends do, I was wondering..."

"No," I tell her, not waiting to hear what she has to say.

"I could really use your help. I've got to learn a new piano part, and I need a singer. Susan's working tomorrow, so I was thinking...."

"Fine, whatever," I tell her. She leaves the room before I can change my mind. As the rest of the day progresses, I keep changing my mind, flip-flopping back and forth between seeing him and not seeing him, running with him or not. Part of me wants to confront him about being a liar and see if I really am able to make friends and move on. And the other part of me wants to avoid him completely, even if that means shutting down again and not being nice to anyone, because trying means putting myself out there to get hurt again.

Because he probably doesn't know that this is a big step for me. Max is the type of guy who just flits through life, giving the base minimum. He doesn't know what it's like to be hurt and to have to cope with that pain, day-in and day-out, and feel like you just aren't enough. Like you're not good enough. But, if I let him, maybe that aspect of his personality will rub off on me. I could use a little of that in my life.

Even as morning progresses to afternoon and then to night, even as the night wanes and progresses back into morning, I haven't made up my mind. No, even as the clock ticks down the seconds to nine o'clock on Sunday morning, I haven't decided.

Then an idea strikes me: if he waited for me, if he put forth the effort to wait around and see if I would show, then maybe he meant what he said about being friends. It's worth a shot, right? I toss my room upside-down, searching for my workout clothes. I still haven't done laundry, so I'm forced to throw on Gina's tight, too-small yoga pants again and an over-sized Chicago Bears shirt. Throwing my hair into a ponytail, I grab my keys and skip down the stairs. If he's waiting, if he's putting himself out on a limb, then maybe I can, too.

And sure enough, he's there, scanning the crowd and looking for a face. My face. I see that he has two bottles of water. That cocky son of a bitch. I think about turning around and leaving, standing him up, just to knock him down a peg. He spots me before I can.

"You're here," he says.

"Lord knows why," I reply, sighing. The way he's smiling at me makes my heart skip a beat. Max is gorgeous, and he's downright irresistible when he smiles. He's in blue track pants and a white tee shirt that stretches across his chest. I maintain my distance.

"I don't care what your reasons are for showing up, just as long as you did."

"You said you were cool with being friends." I toe the ground, feeling uncomfortable about confronting him. "Did you mean that?"

"Yes. Of course. I wouldn't have said it if I didn't."

"Well, I wasn't sure. Because you said you were hurt in a car accident. I did my research, Maxime Talbot, Pittsburgh Penguin," I tell him, watching him grimace at the accusation. I hate being lied to. I know I'm not exactly honest all the time, but I never outright lie.

"I said it was something like that. But talking about it isn't exactly my favorite thing to do."

I know how that feels. Just like it feels good to be around Max, who doesn't know a thing about me. I can be selective about what I tell him, so he never needs to know about John and I'll never have to explain myself or justify my actions or emotions around him. "I can understand if there are things you don't want to talk about with me. That's fine. If that's the case, just tell me you don't want to talk about it instead of lying. I hate liars."

He nods at me and apologizes again. "I'm sorry. Won't happen again. Does this mean we're friends again?"

Friends again? This guy is really a piece of work. I try to keep my emotions under control. "No lying and no... funny business, either. And we're cool."

He continues to smile as he hands me a bottle of water. "So, you're up for this?"

"No. But, I'm willing to give this a shot." I can't believe I'm about to do this. I can't believe I'm about to run through Pittsburgh and probably humiliate myself. I shake my head and then try to crack my neck. "So, how does this work?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, running. Do we go down the street, or what?"

"There's the South Side Trail, it runs under the bridges along the Mon. Are you up for a twelve-minute mile?"

In my head, I quickly do the math. That's five miles an hour. I do four miles an hour or lower on the treadmill. I keep the pace low so I can keep it up for longer. It's about endurance, not speed. I snort, thinking about the dirty joke I can make about that, but I figure if I'm trying to be friends with him, I should stray from perverted jokes. "If it's one mile, maybe."

"I guess we'll found out," Max laughs, starting around the block and heading toward what I guess is the trail. I'm starting to think this may be a bad idea, but it's too late to back out now. I follow him and hope I can keep up.