By S. Alexander
“Hey, Adam. New shoes?”
The sound of Naomi’s voice cutting into the quiet of my back-yard scares the ever-loving shit out of me.
“Jesus.” I startle, grabbing onto the rusty chain of the old swing I’m sitting idle on so I don’t fall. I’ve been poking at a huge-ass blister on my heel and it feels like an intrusion on an oddly private moment between me and my foot.
The unwelcoming glare I give her is obvious. I’ve come outside for a little peace and I really prefer to be left the hell alone, but when I get one glimpse of the long legs, skin tight dress, and my god the cleavage on this girl – my disdain subsides.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt.” She laughs, but it’s obvious she’s not really contrite. “I can grab a Band-Aid from inside if you want?”
“No, I’m all right. Thanks, though. Fucking shoes,” I mumble, kicking the black leather wingtip with my bare foot. It flips over, face down in the dirt where it belongs with my necktie and the rest of this bullshit suit.
The blisters on my feet are my official breaking point. I’ve suffered through two full days of funeral home hell, and then today’s church service. Add to that the eulogy I was guilted in to not only writing, but delivering, despite the fact that I hate public speaking. I’ve consoled everyone I know as they placed flowers on the lid of my mom’s hideous pink coffin and sobbed their goodbyes. Then I got to watch my mother’s body get lowered down into a six foot hole while my father shook with grief bedside me.
I’ve helped put out endless trays of food, showed my great Aunt Mary how to light a Sterno without setting her wig on fire, and made sure boxes of tissues were placed conveniently on every horizontal surface in my house.
To top it all off, I’ve suffered in this stupid suit I’ll never wear again, the tie that’s been choking me for eight hours, and these goddamn shoes that have made me bleed. I’m just… done.
I have nothing left to give of myself today. Nothing.
“When did you get home?” I ask with a sigh, more to make conversation than out of really wanting to know. Naomi slides her ass onto the yellow plastic swing next to mine. She’s wearing spike heels and a skimpy black dress, more appropriate for a street corner than funeral, but it’s so Naomi. She’s the kind of girl who does whatever the hell she wants without feeling remorse for upsetting anyone. She gets away with it because, well, she’s hot.
I force my gaze down to my shoes and socks lying abandoned in the dirt beneath the swing so that I’m not blatantly staring at her. I find it almost comical that my bare feet are making me feel completely exposed and vulnerable, even though she’s the one half naked.
“This morning,” Naomi says, popping a cigarette between her lips unapologetically. My mother’s just died of cancer and she’s lighting up like there’s just a frigging Twizzler in her mouth. “I had an exam yesterday; otherwise I would have been here sooner.” Naomi never comes home now that’s she’s away at college. If I have to take a guess, I’d say her mom forced her to be here today, and the trashy get-up is Naomi’s way of dissenting.
“I didn’t see you at the cemetery.” I would have noticed her, right? I mean, everyone would have noticed her in this dress. Clearly, my mind has been occupied by other shit.
“I was there, Adam,” she says softly, blowing out a ring of smoke through pouting red lips. Both of our chins tilt to the bright blue sky, watching the smoke form a thick circle and then disintegrate into pale gray haze. The breeze takes it, and suddenly it’s gone.
“Thanks for coming,” I say, with a cringe. It’s an automatic response at this point. I neglect to tack on, “My mom would be so glad you came.” Naomi doesn’t need my recycled bullshit words, even if she is one of the few people my mother would have truly been happy to have had at her funeral. She’d always liked Naomi, in spite of her rebellious side. Mom thought Naomi’s independence and individuality was something to be envied and celebrated. What she failed to realize was that “independence” was synonymous with her being a very bad influence on me. Naomi had given me my first cigarette, first (and last) drink of tequila, taught me how to shoplift, and showed me how to roll a joint. I probably would’ve never been exposed to any of that stuff without her guidance, because my friends are good kids who fear their parents’ wrath enough to stay out of trouble. I’ve never done any of those things again, except for maybe drinking some beer at parties, but the part of me that wasn’t ashamed of doing it, was proud that I could say I did. It’s our little secret.
It’s also why I’ve always liked her. That and her amazing legs.
We sit side by side on the swings like when we were kids, rocking back and forth. Except now we’re both silent and neither of us get off the ground. Naomi twists her body so that the chains cross and whip her around, and rust chips from the old chains fall around her like snowflakes. I close my eyes and pretend for just a minute that I’m nine and girls are still unappealing, and school is still fun, and my mom is healthy and beautiful and at home making dinner, or cookies, or anything, and all is right in the world.
I can feel her staring at me for a long time. From the corner of my eye, I watch her lit cigarette hover in the space between our swings. I can’t stand the idea of her pitying me so I don’t look at her.
“Your house is so depressing,” Naomi groans. Her shoulders slouch forward to emphasize what a total downer it is inside. “All those sad people. Ugh.”
Naomi is the only person I know balls big enough to say something like that. When I finally look up at her, caught between feeling horrified and amused, I notice her. Like, really see her. Nay’s irises are pale violet, her lips blood red, and her long, jet black hair is pulled off her face with a red bow. The idea that she looks like a slutty Goth anime character makes me smile.
“Wanna get out of here?” She perks up; taking away the perfect view of her cleavage she’s been unknowingly giving me. My smile fades.
I definitely don’t want to go back inside to face a houseful of people with their pity and whispers they think I can’t hear. I can’t deal with my friends right now, either. I know they mean well, but they’re all gathered in my room wearing suits and playing Mario Kart, as opposed to our usual Call of Duty, out of respect. All that killing and stuff, I guess. Not that my mom had been savagely gunned down by mercenaries or anything, but still. Either way, it’s just too much to handle right now.
Since I’ve got nowhere else to go, and my ass really hurts from sitting on this little kid sized swing, I nod exhaustedly. Naomi’s red lips spread into a satisfied smile. She stands, grabbing my torturous dress shoes in one hand and my fingers in the other. I trail behind her, unconcerned with deserting my friends inside, or that my family might eventually be worried, or that I’m leaving my dad to deal with his grief all alone.
Because I just don’t care.
Despite all the homemade dishes and fancy catered food back at my house, Naomi and I end up at Wendy’s, because according to her, their fries have the skin on them so that makes them healthy. I completely disagree. We get into a friendly argument over it which takes my mind off my shitty situation for like, three seconds. It’s the best three seconds I’ve had in days. I’m mid-laugh when I realize that my mother is dead, and then the overwhelming guilt for feeling some small aspect of joy on a day like this is crushing.
Naomi turns to me, her lavender eyes shining. I didn’t even know they made purple contacts. “You’re allowed to laugh, you know.”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
She nods like she understands this. I guess she does. After all, she lost her dad five years ago in a car accident. It had been so quick and unexpected; leaving no time to prepare for his death, whereas my father and I had known for a while this day would come.
I let my head fall to the side, resting my cheek against the cool leather seat. “Tell me it gets better. Tell me I’ll be able to laugh again and not feel guilty for it.”
She smiles warmly. “It definitely gets better. But it’s going to take a while to adjust to her being gone. There’s gonna be a hole in your heart…a hole in your whole life that nothing can ever really fill. But somehow it gets smaller, you know? It really sucks right now, but it won’t as much after a while. I promise. Give it time.”
“Okay,” I say, because it’s what I’ve needed to hear, and maybe because Naomi has been through it, I can trust her words. It’s the most honest thing spoken to me in days; a nice break from the various versions of I’m sorry and at least she’s not suffering anymore and she’s in a better place. Because really? Can I really trust that my mom is in a “better place” now, when the best place for her is here with her family?
Needless to say, over the last few months, I’ve lost a lot of faith in what I’ve been raised to believe in. Turns out no matter how much praying, begging, or bargaining you do, sometimes God ends up failing you.
We drive aimlessly around town until the clouds turn mean and dark and it starts to rain. Naomi veers onto the highway, taking an exit that heads toward the ocean. I ignore texts and calls from my friends, wondering where the hell I’ve disappeared to. I’m not in the mood for explanations. And to be honest, it’s kind of depressing to think it took three hours for someone to notice I’ve been gone.
Because I don’t want him to worry, I call to let my father know that I’m with Naomi and I have no clue when I’ll be home. I can hear the low murmur of company in the background. Knowing he’s not alone is comforting, if not a relief to allow myself a break from worrying about anyone else right now. He’s so consumed with his own grief that he doesn’t bother to get any specific details regarding my whereabouts.
“Okay, be safe,” he says distractedly, and then adds a quiet, “I love you, Adam,” which makes us both choke up. Quietly, I return the sentiment, unashamed for Naomi to hear it, and then turn my ringer off. Resting my head back on the seat, I listen to Naomi’s pretty girl voice sing the lyrics to her folksy-punk music.
Eventually, the rain turns from downpour to torrential. Naomi needs to pull onto the side of the deserted tree lined road because the wipers can’t clean the windshield faster than the rain drenches it. Zero visibility. A metaphor for the coming days.
There are books and movies and all sorts of shit that cover death and what the people left behind are supposed to do with their lives once they’ve realized that they have no choice but to move on. But I don’t think you can ever really know how profound losing someone can be, and how it will affect you in the long run. I wonder how it will change me; who I’ll be two years from now. Or ten. Will I be so different from the person I would have been if she’d lived? Will I remember her like she was just here, or will I need a picture to recall the way her face lit up a room when she smiled? How am I supposed to get through this? How is my dad? I’m willing to bet there isn’t a stupid pamphlet stuffed in a grief counselor’s display case that is able to predict that.
Naomi cuts the engine and I warily eye the dark wooded area beside us. “You know that this is the part in the horror movie where the killer just happens to be hiding out in the trees waiting for two unsuspecting teenagers to slice open and make skin coats out of, right?”
“That’s okay,” she chuckles. “I have weapons.” She reaches down to pull off her shoe, showing me the thin, spiked heel. Admittedly, I do feel safer. Until she says jokingly, “Though a skin coat sounds incredibly fashion forward.”
I give her the side eye, trying to suppress a smile. “I forgot how abnormal you are,” I say, checking to see that the doors on her little VW Bug are locked, despite having her “weapons” within reach.
“You know you’ve missed me.”
As I consider Naomi’s words, I realize how much I actually have missed her. Growing up next door to one another, we were always really close, but then she’d gone off to college while I remained in high school and we drifted. Neither of us bothered to stay in touch, and I’m pretty sure I know why.
There was this one night last summer at our neighborhood block party where we’d almost kissed. The whole night the sexual tension between us had been tangible; I’d never wanted anyone so badly. I thought she’d felt the same, but it didn’t happen. Something about how it was too “weird” for her. I never found out what that specifically meant, because she’d left for school the next day, and I haven’t seen or heard from her until today. Needless to say, I took the rejection hard that night, berating myself for misreading the situation, and her words have reminded me that I’m still harboring some animosity over it.
“Maybe,” I reply, purposely indifferent.
Unknowingly taunting me, Naomi tries to stretch her legs. She’s unsatisfied with the results, so she suggests that we hang out in the backseat where’s there’s more room until the rain calms down. Had it been any other night, with any other girl, I’d be making dirty jokes; thrilled at the implication of getting into the back seat.
Naomi twists her body over the center console, leaning into the back seat to clear out text books and laundry. Her skirt rides up, because it’s that tight, stretchy fabric, and all I can think is that she has an incredible ass to go with these ridiculous legs. I have the urge to tell her, but I wouldn’t want to make things “weird” between us again.
Instead, I watch her climb over into the back seat with my mouth hanging open, because clearly, she’s wearing a thong and, oh my god. Inappropriate sexual thoughts are a welcome change from the miserable constant replay of my mom’s burial in my head, so my guilt doesn’t last for very long. Any good psychologist would agree that my lack of remorse for unabashedly ogling a hot girl is a completely healthy and appropriate distraction under the circumstances. Maybe a picture of Naomi’s ass should be on the cover of one of their stupid grief pamphlets.
It kind of feels like she’s doing it on purpose, but I can’t trust my gut because I’ve been known to misread innuendo.
As Naomi continues to hand me all her crap, I dump it all haphazardly on the front seat along with her shoes and my suit jacket and finally climb in back with her.
For a while we just make small talk, our voices competing with the rain pounding on the vinyl convertible top. Eventually, when I’m just too emotionally and physically drained to keep a decent conversation going, we sit in amiable silence. She stays on her side, and I stay on mine while I silently scold myself. I just buried my mother and I’m an asshole for even entertaining the idea of something happening with Naomi.
At some point, amidst the quiet rhythm of pouring rain, the overwhelming day finally takes its toll. I shut my eyes to make the chaos in my mind stop. The funeral, thoughts of the future, how hot Naomi is, how my father will cope, how empty my house will be now. In the dark, Naomi’s hand stretches across the seat to find mine.
Every so often, lightning strikes illuminate the interior of her car followed by a startling clap of thunder. Naomi’s fingers thread through mine, squeezing every time the thunder startles her. It’s comforting and I’m appreciative of her presence, even if at some point the hand holding becomes more for her benefit than my own. I squeeze her hand in return, leaning my head back to watch long blue cracks split the sky out of the rear window.
“Adam?” I turn my face and she’s right there, whispering so close. “We’re safe in here, right?”
My heart hammers against my chest as I stare at her lips.
“Yeah. Rubber tires,” I say hoarsely, though I’m not a hundred percent certain that the rubber tires thing isn’t a myth. “Just to be on the safe side, don’t touch anything metal.”
“Do you want to head back home?” Slowly, she slides across the back seat a safe distance away from me.
“No. Do you?”
I’m relieved, because I don’t want to move. She hands me an unopened bottle of water, hot and stale from sitting in the car. I take a huge swig, passing it to back to her.
“Naomi?” I say, watching her carefully as she absently peels the label from the plastic. “Thanks for getting me out of there.”
“Of course,” she says. “What are friends for?”
I scoff; my tone is nastier than I mean it to be. Between the mixed signals and her disappearing after we almost made out last summer, I’m a little bitter. “Are we really friends?”
She’s so taken back by this that she looks genuinely offended. “Yeah, of course.”
I just shake my head.
Her chin jutsout defiantly. “Then what are we?” I get the feeling that Naomi doesn’t get argued with much by the opposite sex. And if she does, it’s not often she loses.
“Neighbors. Acquaintances. We haven’t really been friends in a while.” I’m hoping she picks up on the insinuation, because I feel like I deserve some clarification of what the word “friend” means to her. And maybe I’m just being a pussy, feeling sorry for myself and using it as an excuse to lash out.
Naomi goes to speak but then stops herself as the truth of my words seemingly sober her. She gnaws on the inside of her cheek in thought. “I’m sorry. I’m a shitty friend. I should have kept in touch while I’ve been gone. Especially after your mom got sick. I just …” She hesitates, looking down at her lap. “I’ve been really self-absorbed, I guess.”
I shrug my shoulders. To be honest, whether or not Naomi is a shitty friend has been inconsequential in my life up until this very moment. She’s here with me now; the only person insightful enough to get me the hell away from my house exactly when I needed to be. I tell her this, ultimately forgiving whatever didn’t happen between us, finally letting it rest.
And then suddenly, inevitable and overdue, hot tears slide down my temples into my hairline, but I’m too spent to wipe them away. I haven’t shed a tear once through this whole ordeal and it’s all built up and waiting to explode out of me. For whatever reason, Naomi happens to be the catalyst allowing me to let go.
“Adam,” she whispers, sliding across the seat to be close to me again. “It’s okay.”
I shake my head. It’s not okay. Nothing is okay.
Then Naomi is on her knees beside me, wiping my face with her hands and I’m not expecting it when she’s kissing my forehead and my eyelids and my wet cheeks.
I’m stunned when she sits on my lap, straddling my legs. I have to wrap my fingers around her waist, solely for something to grip on to, because I’m falling deep down this black, spiraling hole into somewhere I could not have imagined I’d ever be today. When her lips move to my mouth, a strangled and pleading sob gets caught in a whisper.
It’s not the right time or place or the right person, but I need it – all of it – like I need air. More than I need air. I need to feel something; anything other than grief and sorrow and this barren wasteland of detachment I’ve been sucked into. And Naomi has given me the gift of momentarily forgetting that life swallowed me whole today. I’m being spit back out in pieces, one at a time, and I don’t even care if they get put back in the right order.
I take it, greedily. A vague thought regarding the consequences of this sparks in my mind. If the slightest bit of doubt is there, it’s gone the second she pulls her dress over her head.
Because, holy mother of god.
My hands slide around her hips, over twisting vines connecting to a huge purple inked flower on her ribcage, settling tentatively on her breasts.
“You’re really beautiful.”
Her response is a hard, deep kiss.
I swallow, panic rising in my throat when it dawns on me how far this has the potential to go. I don’t want to presume but …
“I don’t have anything…” I say sheepishly, hoping like hell she doesn’t slap me across the face for the assumption.
She twists her torso, reaching into the front for her purse, tossing it beside us. The contents spill out onto the seat. Naomi fishes around for what she’s looking for, ignoring the mess and she smiles almost wickedly when she finds it. I tug my undershirt over my head because I’m guessing that’s what I’m supposed to do next.
I breathe out, simultaneously relieved and terrified. This is actually happening.
“Naomi . . . wait . . .”
My inability to articulate the problem causes Naomi to pull back. Her hand caresses the side of my face with much more affection than our “friendship” should warrant.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you want to?”
I’m distracted momentarily by her breasts, and then I remember precisely what my problem is.
“Yeah, of course, I’ve just … never done this before.” The admission makes me feel small and inadequate, and a little ashamed. Not because I’m pathetically inexperienced with girls and sex, but because back when she’d found porn on my laptop and I got “the talk,” I’d promised my mom I would wait until I was in love. I’m not in anything right now but misery. And lust. Maybe I can get a mulligan on this one, due to extreme grief.
“Sorry, I had no idea . . .” Her embarrassment is glaringly evident as she quickly moves to slide off of me. I stop her.
I take a deep breath and curl my fingers around her hip again, anchoring her to me. “This has been the shittiest day of my life, and the only thing that could make it worse is if we stop.”
“Are you sure? You can’t get it back.”
“I don’t want it back. I just need…” I take a few seconds to find the right words. “I just need one thing about this day to be something I can smile about when I look back on it. Just one memory that isn’t sad or fucked up or—”
She kisses me hard again. When she pulls back, she’s grinning like her whole world has just been illuminated by my request. Maybe it is. Maybe this is what she wanted to give me today; an escape from the shit life has slung at me.
Suddenly, we’re skin to skin and it’s incredible. All the negative thoughts in my head purge with the realization that there is nothing, nothing left for me to hold onto.
So I let go, giving her the very last thing I have left to give today.
Stephanie Alexander has a few degrees in education, but she spends most of her time nowadays working on her YA novels. Her hobbies include masterfully hiding dust bunnies under the bed, hoarding books, and buying cell phone cases to match her mood. She is addicted to glitter, Pinterest, and everything chocolate. Stephanie lives on Long Island with her husband and two rambunctious boys.