“Guess what, Jimmy?”
“I said guess, silly.”
Wrinkles formed on James’s forehead as he pretended to concentrate. He forgot how girls could be. “You’re drunk,” he said.
“Well, yeah. But that’s not it. Try again.”
“You got me.”
The blonde girl shrugged her shoulders. “Fine, I’ll just tell you. My parents aren’t home.” Her tiny nose wiggled when she spoke and her shoulder length hair bounced, the hairspray preventing it from moving. She wore a black tank top that exposed how well the local tanning booth worked on her cleavage.
“Well Heather, you must be enjoying that tremendously.”
“No, not really. It’s so boring with them gone.”
The girl struggled to get up off the beer stained couch. James watched as he sat across from her on a chair picked up off the side of a street. They sat in the only quiet room of the house, the dining room, while the floor vibrated from the bass down below. There was an unbearable stench of alcohol.
James remembered weekends during the summer when school was out. He’d get some buddies together to throw a party and invite all the girls they knew, always with the hope of getting laid.
“Do you do this every weekend?” he asked.
“Drink? Not so much. I’m a good girl.” Heather giggled. “That’s what everyone thinks at least. I’m so sick of it.”
“I’ll admit I was one of them that thought that.”
Heather said something but he couldn’t hear her because there was a crash of broken glass from the basement followed by laughter. Someone complained about wasted beer.
James couldn’t remember what in the hell had convinced him to go to a high school party, especially since he had a paper due in the morning. When Heather had suggested he go, he thought it was funny to consider, and yet he went anyway. What would Elizabeth think if she knew he was here? He hated lying to her. It was like he was a criminal trying to cover up a crime, trying to create an alibi. But then again, it wasn’t like he had done anything wrong, nothing that would upset her. He had simply gone to a party, nothing more.
He stood up and stretched out his arms. “Heather, I have to get going.”
“No, wait. You can’t go yet. It’s only—” she looked at her cell phone but didn’t say anything.
He looked at his watch. “12:30, its 12:30.”
“You can’t go yet. It’s only 12:30. You haven’t even played a game of beer pong with me.” She folded her arms and stuck her bottom lip out.
“You don’t need me to play.” He grabbed his coat from the back of the torn chair and slipped his right arm through the sleeve.
“Fine, I don’t. But my house is so lonely and quiet. You know Jimmy; my parents have a big bed. Sometimes I lay in it and just roll around. It’s so comfortable.”
“I have my own big bed at home.”
She grabbed his arm. “But I’m not in it.”
“There’s a reason you’re not.”
Heather rolled her eyes and put a tighter grip around his arm. “Fuck that reason. I can give you a gift tonight I’ve never given anyone. Call it a Christmas present.”
“Christmas isn’t for another three weeks.”
“Then call it an early Christmas present.”
“Heather, you’re drunk. You don’t know what you’re saying. You’ll forget this all by the morning.”
She stood straight up as if his words had suddenly sobered her up. “Jimmy, I know what the hell I’m saying.”
“I have to go.” He flung her hand out of his sleeve and turned towards the front door. He pushed through the people in the living room.
As he made the slow journey he heard Heather tell him she wasn’t wearing any underwear. It was hard not to imagine. He grasped the dirty handle of the front door and started to turn the knob when he felt a hand grab his shoulder. He turned to see a pimple faced kid staring at him.
“Dude, we’re out of beer,” the kid said, “and Heather said you’re old enough. Could you make a run down to the carryout?”
James stared at the whitehead on the kid’s face. “No, I can’t. Find someone else.”
He opened the door and put his foot onto the snow covered porch. He began to bring the other foot out but came back into the slanted house.
Heather was sprawled over the couch as the pimple faced kid sat down next to her and put his arm around her. James ventured back across the littered front room and lifted her off the couch. She didn’t open her eyes.
“What the fuck man,” the kid said.
James ignored the kid’s objections as he carried Heather across the front room and outside, into his black Neon. It took a few minutes for the car to warm up, and another to realize he had no idea where she lived.
“Heather, wake up.” He shook her arm and repeated the question.
She leaned her head forward and raised her eyelids.
“Where do you live?”
“618 Oakdale. Jimmy, I don’t know. I’m not so sure you should come over. I think I’m buzzing a little. And I’m a good girl, and I think you’re a nice, good guy.” She slapped her hand against her forehead.
“Heather, shut up.”
“Okay Jimmy, whatever you say.” She closed her eyes and slumped her head against the passenger window.
It felt like carrying a cylinder block as he dragged her into the house and rested her on the couch. He wasn’t going to carry her up a flight of stairs to her bedroom, nor her parent’s room.
James pounded on the keyboard as the sun poked around the window’s closed curtains. His class was at eight and it would take twenty minutes to drive to UT, which left an hour to finish the paper. This gave him six minutes per page, just past the ten page mark, which the syllabus described as the bare minimum due.
He typed a sentence and stared at the monitor while his fingers hovered, patiently waiting to start a race. He felt cold, too cold. He glanced over his shoulder and shuddered. It had never struck him until now that his living room was lonely. The walls were plain white, offset by hand prints and cracks. His whole apartment had been neglected since he had moved in with Elizabeth. They were both so busy, her with the hospital, him with the university. There was just never any time to spice the place up, or even notice that it needed to be.
He’d have to remember to mention it to her. Perhaps it could be a fun project, perhaps not. Perhaps when we’re done with the apartment, we can go shopping for new furniture, he suggested to himself. God, how boring Heather would have thought he was. Leaving the party early, now planning to fix up his place. She would have laughed at him.
His fingers went back to the keyboard and began to find a rhythm. He let go of his thoughts, his concentrations, and let his instincts take over the paper. It was what he did best. Let the paper write itself. Don’t force it, don’t bullshit it. Just let it do its own course.
“You never came to bed last night,” he heard Elizabeth say. He turned to see her standing behind him, covered by a black thong and a blue hoodie. Her brown hair was a mess of curls.
“Sorry, Lizzy. I fell behind on things.”
“I can see.” She wrapped herself around him and gave him a hug. She squinted as she read the words on the screen. “Paradise Lost. Sounds interesting.”
“No, it’s fucking boring.”
“Jim, do you really have to swear?”
“I didn’t swear.”
“You just said fuck.”
“Fucking actually. And so did you.”
“To show you that you said it. You just love to be right,” she replied.
He kissed her cheek. “You know it. If only my professors could understand that.”
“So what’s this Paradise Lost about, that so fucking bores you?”
“It’s a poem. Just one long poem about hell, and the devil, and angels, and God, written by the great John Milton.”
Elizabeth let go of James and walked into the kitchen. She yelled that she never had heard of John Milton.
“No one has, except for English majors and religious hypocrites. You know, I fucking hate John Milton.”
“You’re writing a paper about him, don’t you think you should like him?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. You know, why is it that just because I study literature I have to like him. I don’t plan to write a long poem. I hate poetry. Respect it, yes, but I also respect Citizen Kane, and I think that’s one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen.”
Elizabeth walked back into the living room with a coffee mug in her hand and sat down on the beige sofa to the right of the computer. “Never heard of that movie.”
“Of course not.”
She took a sip from the cup and turned on the television. The screen flooded the room with light.
“But getting back to my point. I hate John Milton. And you know who I else I hate? Shakespeare. William Shakespeare. I fucking hate Shakespeare.”
“I heard he was a good writer. And please, could you tone done the swearing? It offends me.”
“Lizzy, I have the grace of a sailor, stuck with the fondness for literature, but am at a civil war with myself over my hatred for Milton and Shakespeare.”
Elizabeth flipped through channels with the remote and finally gave up the search for anything that could get her mind away from James’s ramblings. She threw the remote to her side and yawned.
“You ever realize that you get too wound up with things?” she asked.
He turned his chair so that he was facing her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. It’s just that sometimes you look too deep into things. It’s just words you know. Shakespeare, this Milton guy, they’re just writers. You don’t have to like them. You act as if you rebelling because you hate them.”
“It seems like the only reason I’m in college is to be told about the greatness of these guys, but they never really explain why they’re great. They just expect you think the same thing.” He stood up from the computer chair and sat down next to Elizabeth. “All my life I just wanted to write, but my way. I thought college was the way to get better at that. But all I’ve learned is that these guys, these old English men, are good writers. I’m not. I’m twenty-two. I’ve never been published. I’m nothing.”
Elizabeth ran her hand through his mangled brown hair. “You need a hair cut.”
James pulled his head from her hand and patted his greasy hair flat. “You don’t care what I have to say.”
“I do. You ever think that you haven’t got published because you haven’t even tried? You’ve sent one short story to one magazine, and gave up.”
“There’s a point when a man realizes he’s no good, and it’s disappointing, and then he gives out hope. Why try?”
“Trying is what motivates to do better.”
“And practice makes perfect, right?”
“I’m being serious. Please don’t mock me.”
“Sorry. It’s early. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to finish this Goddamn paper. I’ll have to make an excuse to the professor. Think you can grab me a doctor’s note from the hospital?”
She sighed. “Goddammit, you’re such a kid at times.”
James laughed. “Lizzy, babe, your swearing, it offends me.”
Retail was the lowest job a man could have, or so James told himself. It meant he had to fight for sales, for the commission that would provide a decent pay check. A man worked a job like that for one of two reasons. Either he was a failure and had no other means for a career, or he was a student who needed a job willing to work around his schedule. He fell into the second category.
James came into work ten minutes late and prepared an excuse as he snuck into the hardware department. He walked softly through the aisles, curving his eyes around the corners, and with much luck, dodged all the managers walking around. It was the first day he hadn’t been caught late in over a month.
He felt good about himself until he saw Heather ringing out a customer who was buying clothes at the cash register. It had been a week since he last saw her at the party, and she had but all completely washed from his mind.
She always managed to stick out among the other cashiers, regardless that they wore the same uniform. Her hair always sparkled, and he couldn’t help but wonder why Elizabeth’s and other girls’ hair didn’t do the same. Lizzy considered a shower the only vital aspect of her hygiene. She didn’t even own a tube of lipstick. There was a time when he enjoyed that aspect of her, but he couldn’t help but fancy Heather’s supreme look; not an inch of her body went by without some kind of care.
A round man wearing a Sears’s shirt and khaki pants crossed the aisle from lawn and garden to hardware and slapped him on the shoulder.
“Such a shame how hot that girl is,” the man said.
James looked around. “Who?”
The man laughed and patted his round stomach. “What do you mean who? The blondie at the cash register. Don’t try to act like you weren’t staring at her.”
“Of course I wasn’t.”
“Look, everyone here gawks at her. Don’t feel bad about it. There’s no law that says you can’t look.”
“If everyone looks, then why should you make it a big deal that I do?” James asked.
“I don’t. I was just complaining about it. You know, the word around the store is that you went to a party with the Lolita.”
James scratched his chin. “Jeff, it was a party. Is there a rule against hanging out after work?”
“Of course not. But stuff like that raises eyebrows, you know. Didn’t your girlfriend object at all?”
“Why would she care? It was a fucking party. And if anyone tells you otherwise, it was boring. For god’s sake, they drink Natty.”
“Get it cold enough, man, and they all taste the same. Bud, Natty, Miller’s, don’t make a damn difference.”
“I guess I’m the only person who cares enough to want a quality beer.” James turned his attention towards Heather, who was walking towards him.
“Well, well, looks like she’s gunning for you. I’ll leave you alone with her.” Jeff backed across the aisle as he gave a final warning. “Don’t think people don’t notice things. These old ladies that stock the clothes, they know all. And security, they love to zoom in on us when we scratch our asses and pick our noses. Gotta be careful”
Before James could object to Jeff’s warning, Heather was standing in front of him. “Hey, Jimmy.”
He couldn’t look at her eyes, so he settled for a crack in the floor. “Been a while since I seen you Heather. What’s been going on?”
“Oh, you know, enjoying Christmas break. My parents are on vacation until Friday, so mostly enjoying the fact that I have the whole house to myself.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that before.”
“I wanted to tell you, I never got the chance to say thanks.”
James lifted his eyes from the floor to her face, speeding over her cleavage.
“For what?” he asked.
“For coming to the party and for giving me a ride home. I hate to resort to sounding defenseless, but I’m glad you looked out for me. It meant a lot.”
“You actually remembered that night. I figured you’d be so hung over you wouldn’t even realize you left your car there.”
“I’ve had my share of drinks, and I can certainly handle a few beers. But yes, I do remember everything.”
“You know what we spoke about that night? That was nothing, right? I need to hear you say that.”
Heather inched closer to James and spoke in quiet tone, looking over her shoulders to make sure no one was listening. “I could you give you some bullshit about being sorry for what I said, and how I was vulnerable and didn’t know what I was saying. But I’m not going to play that card.”
“What?” he asked.
“The things we say when we’re drunk, they’re what we always want to say but are too afraid.”
He took a step back from Heather and found the crack. The rest of the floor was shiny and spotless, and somehow this spot made it look so dirty. Such a small crack that bothered the tiles; it’d be no time until the other tiles felt the pressured and cracked too.
“Heather, I’m with Elizabeth. I’ve told you about her.”
“When’s the last time you had sex?”
“Who else, Jimmy?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“That long, huh?”
He felt a knot tighten in his stomach. When was the last time? He shivered and realized it’d been a month.
“Jimmy, I’m not this dumb blonde that people suspect me to be. I feel your eyes on my back when I’m working. You’re the only guy here who tries to pretend you don’t, and I appreciate it, as well as feel complemented. You’re the only guy I want staring.”
He was shocked by her frankness, and impressed. She was so confident, so steady with her words. She was right, the blonde hair fooled him.
“Heather, it’s not right.”
“Why not? Because of work? Rumors come and go here. I’ve lost my virginity to three guys now according to everyone. You’ll just be the fourth.”
“I’d rather it be a rumor than a reality. This crush you have on me, its nothing. By next month I’ll be a guy whose number you have in your phone, but you can’t remember why the hell you put it in there.”
“You really think so? Fine, stop flirting with me.”
“I don’t flirt with you.”
“And Clinton didn’t have sexual relations with that woman. Look me in the face and tell me that.”
He lifted his gaze from the floor and saw tiny freckles on her face. He had never noticed them before, or was it just that he had never really looked closely at her face?
“Jimmy, its fine. You’re nice to me, you treat me fairly, and you’re intelligent. It’s hard to find a nice looking guy who’s good with words.”
“Guys in high school are never very bright.”
“I’ve been around guys in college. They either talk of getting drunk or they’re Asian, and I never liked Chinese food.”
He chuckled. Heather let one out as well.
“Your humor is so cute,” James said.
“Oh, shut up. I’m not a little girl like a lot other cashiers around here. I can’t help when I was born.”
James sat up in his bed. The clock on the nightstand next to him shined 10:30. Elizabeth rummaged through an oak dresser, looking for her favorite hoodie. He smiled as she bent over wearing a thong. She found the hoodie and slipped it on before she hopped into the bed.
“Lizzy, I ever tell you I went for a bike ride about a month ago?” James asked.
“If you did, I don’t remember. What does it matter?”
“No reason I suppose, just that I wasn’t very good at it.”
“Don’t tell me you forgot how to ride your bike,” Elizabeth replied.
“Well, no. But I couldn’t ride with no hands.”
“So what? I was never able to either.”
“That’s just it. I’ve been able to ride my bike with no hands since I was a little kid riding down the alley behind my house.”
“So you forgot. Who cares?”
“It was upsetting, that’s all.”
Elizabeth snuggled with his arm. “Who’s Heather?”
He looked at the name scrawled with a pen on his arm. “Some girl at work. She never leaves me alone.”
“Must have a crush on you, huh?”
“A high school crush. Nothing you should worry about, babe.” He kissed her forehead.
She let go of his arm. “Why would I be worried?”
“Well, some other girl likes me. I’d be worried if some guy liked you.”
“You don’t trust me?” she asked.
“Of course I do,” he hugged her.
“Then why would you worry?”
“Because I would,” he gripped her tighter.
“I shouldn’t have to worry. Why would I care if some sixteen-year-old girl…”
“Seventeen-year-old,” James interrupted. He let go of her.
Elizabeth continued. “If some seventeen-year-old liked you?”
“I’m just saying there’s no reason to let it bother you.”
“The only thing that would bother me is the fact that you think it would bother me.”
“I didn’t think it would bother you. I was just trying to make you feel better.”
“I feel fine. It offends me that you would try to make me feel better.”
“Everything offends you,” he quickly replied.
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Now you’re being an asshole.”
“How the fuck am I being an asshole? I was trying to be nice.”
“No, you’re trying to assure yourself.”
“Of what?” he asked.
“That’s what worries me. I don’t know.” Elizabeth rolled onto her side, away from him. “I bet she’s pretty, isn’t she?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Because she is. So full of youth, so unworn by life. Right up your alley.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“I know you. Where were you that night I woke up to find you on the computer, typing your paper at the last minute?”
James didn’t say anything. He got up from the bed and walked into the adjoining bathroom.
“Don’t walk away from me,” she said.
He splashed water in his face and looked in the mirror. He plucked a gray strand from his week old beard. He walked back into the bedroom and sat on the floor across from the bed. Elizabeth asked him where he was again. “I was at a party,” he said.
“With this girl, Heather?”
“She was there, yes.”
“I’ve never questioned you on where you go, or who you go out with, but it would be nice if you told me sometimes.”
“I didn’t think it was important enough to tell you.”
“No, you didn’t want me to ask why you were going to a party with high school students. We live together. When are you going to start remembering that you have a home with me?”
James stood up from the floor and grabbed a black tee shirt out of the dresser.
“Why do you look at other girls?” Elizabeth asked.
“Where do you get this from?” he asked, putting socks on.
Elizabeth didn’t move from the bed. “You stare. You try not to make it look obvious, but you do. At the store last week, there was a girl in a white skirt. You could not stop looking at the black thong showing through.”
“I’m sorry; I noticed a girl was hot. I didn’t think it was wrong to enjoy a piece of nature’s beauty.”
“Enjoying art and lusting are two completely different things.”
James felt a pinch in his chest. He walked out into the hall and put on his shoes. Elizabeth was still in bed when he put on his coat and opened the front door. He could hear her yell “You can’t run away from the inevitable!” as he stepped out into the chilly night.
Heather’s house was quiet. There was a fire burning in the fire place. James sat on a leather couch in the living room next to Heather. In front of them on a glass coffee table was an empty bottle of Smirnoff that Heather had chugged moments before. The cream walls of the room were lined with pictures of the girl, some in plaques, others school pictures, and many more were academic awards she had garnered over the years.
“I can’t believe you came here so unannounced and late, you’re lucky I was even home,” she said.
“A good thing then, otherwise I have been a stray dog with no place to go,” James replied.
“Well, you may have found a home, but you still smell like a stray dog,” she nudged him.
“Do I really smell?” He took a sip of his beer, wondering if her parents would notice the missing alcohol.
“Only sometimes, usually when you’re late for work.”
“I usually have no time for a shower.”
“I don’t mind though, you’re still that funny guy at work.”
“So I’m the funny guy. You could have mentioned the university student, working his way out of Hell.”
“Like I said, the funny guy.”
He turned towards Heather’s face and put a hand on her arm. She smiled and remained motionless. She was wearing a blue and red checkered tank top.
“What happens tonight?” he asked. “With you and I, with everything?”
“Who cares? I’ve always chosen the moment over the future.”
“I wish I could be the same way sometimes.”
“You can.” Heather leaned towards him until her nose touched his. “I’ve always liked you since we first met. I could feel something between us. That night at the party, I was so afraid you’d think I was immature.”
“I was afraid you would think I was too mature,” he said.
“But that’s what I liked about you.”
He could feel her warm breath against his lips. She was on his lap, her knees on the couch. Her hair tickled his face.
“I want to feel wanted, not to be a smart girl with a pretty face.”
“I want you,” he whispered.
She unbuttoned her jeans. Pink cloth poked through and he could smell her. He rubbed his fingers against the underwear. It was smooth. He wrapped his arms around her waist and rubbed his lips around her bellybutton. Her hands ran through his hair and he closed his eyes as she kissed his ear.
He pulled her pants further down and saw the word PRINCESS sparkling on the front. How many girls had he know when he was younger that had said they wanted to be princesses? A strand of hair poked out of the side of the underwear. He let go of her jeans.
“It’s alright. I’m ready,” she said.
He didn’t say anything back. She suddenly felt like a weight on his lap, pushing him down into the cushion of the couch. He couldn’t move.
“Heather, enjoy high school. It goes so fast.”
Heather looked confused. “I can only hope it does. There’s so much out there.”
“Yeah, there is.”
She kissed him, her lips quivered at they touched his, and he pushed her off his lap. “I can’t. I’m sorry,” he said.
“Why? Why won’t you take me?” she asked.
“I can, I want to, but I won’t.”
She threw her hands on his shoulders. “I need it.”
“You don’t need it.”
“I fucking want you. Look at me, dammit. I’m fucking hot.”
“Yes you are.”
“Then fucking take me.”
He took a deep breath and looked away from them. “No.”
He didn’t respond. His mind raced with images of the girls he had been with in his life, the first girl he ever kissed when he was in grade school. And then he thought of Elizabeth, and when they first met his first college class. He had never been with anyone so sure of herself. The first date they went on, they had gone to see the play Romeo and Juliet. How damn ignorant they were in the play. He smiled. “Fucking Shakespeare,” he said.
“What?” Heather stared in confusion.
He looked at her eyes. “You’re beautiful, so full of energy. You’re very intelligent, very knowledgeable at your age. I’d be proud to say I had you. But that’s it. You’re young, and I’m taken. One day, you’ll find someone nice, someone who wants you for more than I do. You’re smart enough to understand.”
Heather didn’t move as he stood up from the couch. He put on his coat and took a final look at her before he opened the front door. The snow was lit by the moonlight as he walked into it, playfully stepping in the footprints he had made earlier. He hoped that Elizabeth was still awake when he got home.