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)
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.