I'm home from college for winter break, and Jake and I go to the movies. In high school I only knew him in a vague way — he interned afternoons at my mom's office — but then last summer we ended up at the same party and got to talking. We've been e-mailing back and forth all semester long. He's a grad student in Florida studying engineering. I'm a sophomore English major at Oregon State. But here we are, side by side in a mostly empty movie theater on a Wednesday afternoon a week before Christmas, because my small California hometown is his hometown, too.
I don't have my own car, so my older sister dropped me off at the theater. Jake drives me home. He has a sea-foam green Saturn from the early '90s, with worn upholstery and broken air vents. Tufts of hair flop over his eyes and he pushes them to the side, swiping them across his forehead absentmindedly as he talks. I like him. He's the kind of person who sings along to the radio and quotes obscure movie lines and covers his mouth when he yawns.
"Turn left here," I say. "My house is that big brown one. With the Charlie Brown Christmas lights." My dad hangs the multicolored bulbs in awkward looping strands across the front of our house. I think it looks homey and charming, like a child's crayon drawing on the back of a Kid's Menu. My mom thinks it looks ridiculous. She wants the straight, even rows of white icicle lights that adorn all the other houses in our neighborhood —which is ironic, in my opinion. Icicles are most ridiculous of all when you live in California.
Jake turns into my cul-de-sac and stops in front of my house, grinning at the lights. He puts the car into park but doesn't cut the engine.
"Hey, so my friend's having a party tonight," he says. "Wanna come?"
"Yeah, sure. That'll be fun."
"I'll pick you up at nine."
I have a slight head-ache and I'm over-dressed. Jake is half an hour later than he said he would be, wearing shorts and a hooded sweatshirt. I'm wearing pointy-toed flats that feel ridiculous next to his tennis shoes. My jeans are okay, though. I pull on a sweater over my black lacy top and follow him to his car.
We pull up to a small apartment complex fronted by flimsy palm trees. They bend and sway in the breeze as we climb the outdoor stairway to 3B. Jake's friend is Eric, a short guy with greasy hair but a nice smile that extends to his eyes. "Jake-Man!" he says, clapping Jake on the back while I stand clumsily behind in the shadows. Jake follows Eric through the doorway, pulling me gently along, his fingers warm on my wrist. "Hey everyone, this is Stacey," he says once we're inside. I was expecting a dark, crowded room, thumping bass music, dancing, cheap beer sloshing in red plastic cups, but it seems "everyone" is just Eric and Eric's girlfriend, whose name I promptly forget. I'm already mentally analyzing Jake's introduction of me, searching for clues. This is Stacey,
he said. Not, This is my
It must mean something. If he only thinks of me as a friend, he would make it clear. To everyone. Right?
Eric shakes my hand; his girlfriend nods and smiles without showing her teeth. The walls are a freshly painted taupe and the windows are curtainless. Half-a-dozen cardboard boxes congregate in the far corner. "Sorry about the mess," Eric says. "We just moved in." His girlfriend gives me the tour: the queen-size bed filling nearly all of the bedroom, the cramped bathroom with combination shower/tub, the kitchen/dining room opening up into a narrow living room with blue carpet and a faded fold-out couch. Wine glasses sit on coasters on the floor because, Eric's girlfriend explains, "We can't splurge on a coffee table yet." The coasters make me smile.
"This is great," I say.
"Yeah, it's small, but it's ours." Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes shine. I imagine her vacuuming the carpet, hanging flowered curtains in the windows, baking casseroles in the oven. Playing house. It reminds me of the photographs I found tucked away in our garage beside boxes of vinyl albums and old basketball trophies — snapshots of my parents, newlyweds right out of college, filling a tiny apartment with used furniture and unabashed love. In the pictures, they look young and tanned and happy.
I feel like a child, suddenly; overwhelmed, out of place in my trying-too-hard pointy shoes and awkward innocence. Eric offers us wine and I gladly take a glass, clutching its stem, swirling the deep red liquid and yearning for sophistication. Four years older. Jake is four years older than I am, and while back in high school it seemed like a wide chasm yawned between us, as we've grown older the distance has gradually shrank and shrank, until I returned home for winter break and found it was merely a thin trace of a crack that I stepped across, unblinking.
Now, however, I can feel the earth beneath us shifting, splitting open, the crack expanding. Four years older. I'm still eating dorm food and spending Saturday nights at keg parties, trying to figure out what to do with my life. Jake's moved across the country and on to graduate school, responsibilities, The Real World. Blue carpet and casseroles and wine glasses on coasters. Is this what he wants? Because we both know it's not something I can give, not yet.
"So, Eric, where's the party?" Jake says, nudging his friend in the ribs. Eric holds his hands up in surrender. "Danny and Jody said they'd show up, and Rach told me she'd be here an hour ago, but you know her. Phil's on his way, too."
"Phil Eckerman! Man, I haven't seen that guy in years. Is he really coming?"
"Supposedly. He said he'd call if he got lost."
Jake laughs and plops down on the couch. I'm still standing by the window with Eric's girlfriend. Our attempt at small talk has faded away completely. She addresses the guys: "Remember when Phil was, like, half an hour late to your place before Prom — "
"Because they painted the house on Foothill where he was supposed to turn!" Eric laughs. "He knew to turn left at a yellow house, but the new owners painted the house brown, so he drove right on past. Oh man! That was classic."
Jake meets my eyes, rests his arm on the back of the couch. He smiles. I don't know if that's an invitation but I take it as one, leaving the curtainless window to sit beside him, our thighs gently touching. Jake leans in towards me. "Phil has a terrible sense of direction," he says. I'm grateful he's attempting to make me feel included.
The doorbell rings. Danny and Jody. "This is Stacey," Jake introduces. We smile, nod, shake hands. Later, Rachel arrives; last of all, Phil. "Jeez, this place is hard to find!" he says. Everyone laughs. Jake winks at me.
Rachel is built like Tinkerbell, small and sprightly, and she's wearing pink tights and leg warmers and an oversize cable-knit sweater. "I'm playing at winter," she explains. I like her immediately. She gives me a hug instead of a handshake and, after grabbing a Diet Coke from the fridge, sits down beside me on the couch. "You should have seen this guy in high school," she tells me, gesturing at Jake. "Braces, cowlick, scrawny and gangly as a baby giraffe."
I laugh. Jake shakes his head. "God, Rach, why are you spreading lies?" He puts his hand on my knee. "Don't listen to her," he says. "She's still mad I got a better grade in Mr. Russell's bio class."
"Shut it, Jake! I knew you'd bring that up." She takes out her cell phone, flips it open. "He always brings that up," she says to me. "Probably because it's the only
class he got a better grade in."
"Touché," Jake laughs.
"You know it's true," Rachel says. She closes her phone. "Damn! I was hoping I'd have an old picture of you in my phone, Jake, but I don't."
"Phew!" Jake wipes mock sweat off his brow and grins at me. "Stacey won't see what a nerd I used to be and run for the hills."
"You're still a nerd!" Rachel says.
"Well, I'm not running anywhere," I put in. The room is warm and I can feel the wine, settling under my ribs, relaxing my smile. My headache is nearly gone.
The conversation turns back to old high school memories and stays there. I feel like an outsider, but I don't really mind. The stories, most of them, are amusing. I settle back into the couch and listen and laugh along with the others. I like them; even Eric's girlfriend is smiling fully now, showing her teeth. They talk loudly and interrupt each other and slap their thighs with their palms when they laugh. They remind me of my friends, except instead of talking about their majors they talk about their jobs. God, jobs. Actual nine-to-five jobs.
The chasm threatens to buckle and widen, but Jake's hand is on my knee. There are icicles in California. I can feel my toes, perched on the brink of the cliff, but I don't look down.