Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Boy Next Door

by Annabelle

I wasn’t too happy when my parents told me that I had to try to make friends with the crippled kid who just moved in next door.

I was eight years old. For my entire life thus far, our next door neighbor in a suburb of Pittsburgh, was an ornery old woman named Agnes. Why are all old people named Agnes, for some reason? Not that I’m prejudiced against old people or anything. My grandmother, Nana, lived with us and was never an ornery bitch, and probably still the best cook I’ve ever known. Anyway, Agnes failed to wake up one morning, and the house got sold off to a young family with two kids.

I was initially really psyched to find out that the family had two kids, one of whom was allegedly my age. I pictured a girl with blond pigtails who would be my best friend and we’d make each other friendship bracelets, have sleepovers, and all that fun stuff. But then my fantasy was crushed when I found out that my new eight year old neighbor was a boy. And not just a boy. A boy in a wheelchair.

His name was Jason and I saw him a few times from afar. He went to a different school than I did, and there was a special school bus that picked him up. I saw him waiting with his parents at the curb for the special bus, which was about half the length of the bus that picked me up. My parents told me it was a bus for disabled kids. When it arrived, a ramp would be lowered mechanically and Jason would wheel into it, and the driver would help him get arranged in the bus. My mother yelled at me not to stare, but how could I not stare?

When the Foxes had been living next door for a few weeks, we came over for a visit and to bring them a welcome basket. My little sister Lydia and I were dressed up in uncomfortable pink clothes, and I was firmly instructed to play with Jason. Lydia, who was only four, was totally off the hook since the older Fox child was a 13 year old boy.

“I don’t want to play with Jason,” I whined, as my mother did up the buttons on my dress. “He’s weird.”

“Oh, stop it,” my mother said. “He’s not weird.”

“He’s in a wheelchair,” I pointed out.

“Don’t you dare mention that,” my mother snapped.

“Why not?” spoke up my Nana, who was listening in. “I’m sure the boy knows he’s in a wheelchair. It’s not a secret, is it?”

Despite everything, I giggled. I wished my mother would let Nana come along, but they were too worried about her making a comment like that. Apparently, she lost her self-censor somewhat as she got older, although Daddy said she’d always kind of been like that.

Fifteen minutes later, my mother was shoving Lydia and me in the direction of the house next door. We rang the bell and Mrs. Fox answered, greeting us warmly. “Jill!” she cried. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

“This is for you,” my mother said, handing over the basket of fruit and muffins. “You met my husband, Gerald. And these are my daughters, Lydia and Tasha.”

“Nice to meet you, girls,” Mrs. Fox said. “My older son Randy isn’t here now, but Jason is very excited to meet you.”

My eyes met those of the boy sitting in a small, simple wheelchair several yards behind his mother. I could tell by his khaki slacks and lame sweater-vest that he too had been forced to dress up for the occasion. He looked just as miserable as I did.

“He’s eight, isn’t he?” Mom asked. “Tasha is eight as well.”

“Yes, that’s wonderful,” Mrs. Fox said. “They could play together.” She lowered her voice to a stage whisper that people a mile away could hear loud and clear: “Jason hasn’t been having an easy time making new friends.”

Yeah. What a shock.

With that sentiment, Jason and I were herded off in the direction of his bedroom, presumably for me to be his new best friend. We both went, sort of like lambs being led to the slaughter. Once we were alone in Jason’s room, we both just sat there awkwardly, not saying anything to each other. We were too young to even know how to make polite conversation.

I tried not to stare at Jason, but it was hard not to. I mean, really hard. Why did he need a wheelchair anyway? Maybe he had some awful disease where he was dying. Maybe it was contagious! Maybe he had some contagious fatal disease and my mother had locked me alone in a room with him. She’d be so sorry when I died.

Although to be honest, Jason didn’t really look like he was dying. He looked pretty much like a normal kid, but he was sitting in a wheelchair. He had short brown hair that it looked like his mother had attempted to comb yet he’d managed to get it messy again before our arrival. He had green eyes that were bright, even in spite of how clearly miserable he was at the moment. And then there were the freckles that were sprinkled down either side of his nose, although those disappeared years later.

I was perched gingerly on Jason’s bed. He had Star Wars blankets. Actually, I had to admit, he had some pretty cool toys. My mother always bought me dolls, but the thing is, dolls didn’t do much. Maybe these days, dolls cry and piss their diapers or whatever, but back then, in the eighties, dolls were much less interesting. But Jason had toys that did cool stuff. He had toys cars and trucks, he had a rocket, and a huge box of legos. But what really piqued my interest was that he had what looked like a huge box of TRANSFORMERS.

Confession time: I loved Transformers. I watched the TV show religiously every Saturday, rooting for the Autobots to defeat the evil Decepticons. But nobody would buy me any Transformers because I was a girl and obviously it’s not an appropriate toy for girls. So I had about half a dozen My Little Ponies and at least a dozen Barbie dolls, but no cars that turned into robots. It was a source of frustration for me. Every time I asked my mother, she’d say, “What do you want one of those awful toys for? You’re a girl!”

But Jason, he owned the motherload.

“Um,” I said, working up my nerve. “Are those, um, Transformers?”

Jason brightened. “Yeah. You like Transformers?”

I nodded shyly.

To my delight, Jason grabbed the whole big box and dumped them out on his bed. He seriously had every Transformer in existence. He had Optimus Prime, of course, most of the Autobots, Megatron, the Decepticons including the cassette spies, plus a bunch of the newer ones like the Dinobots, the Insecticons, and even Devastator. I was majorly impressed. If I were a little older, I would have creamed myself or something.

“Oh my god,” I breathed. “You’re the luckiest person alive.”

Jason grinned. “Wanna play with them?”

I nodded eagerly.

I would say that Jason’s knowledge of the Transformers was possibly better than mine, and he even clued me in to the exciting news that this summer Transformers: The Movie would be coming out, and would take place in the year 2005, which seemed almost ridiculously futuristic back then. Two hours later, when my parents were ready to go home, they had to literally drag me out of Jason’s room, only quieting my whining when they promised to let me come back the next day.

Strangely enough, I got my wish: I became best friends with my next door neighbor. A boy, of all things. I played at Jason’s house practically every day after school that year and when the summer came, we went to see the Transformers movie together and were collectively blown away. (I saw it again years later and thought it was the most god awful stupid thing I’d ever seen in my life.) Jason, whose father was a surgeon and spoiled him a little because of his disability, always had the newest and best toys. He even got a small television for his room with a VCR! Jason and I would beg his mom to take us to the video store and rent movies to watch in his room.

We even had sleepovers. I know what you’re thinking: a little boy and a girl having a sleepover is weird. But actually, nobody seemed that concerned. After all, we were only eight years and even though we had the anatomy, we had no idea what to do with it. Plus I get the feeling that the fact that Jason was in wheelchair kind of desexualized him in the minds of our parents. A crippled boy couldn’t possibly be lusting after any little girls. The only person who ever questioned it was Nana.

“You’re really going to let Tasha spend a night alone with a boy?” Nana asked my mother in amazement.

“It’s okay,” Mom said. “It’s just Jason. The boy in the wheelchair.”

“You know, his wiener might not work, but I bet his tongue still does.”

“Nana!” Mom cried, glancing at me nervously. “Will you stop it? They’re only nine years old!”

Fortunately, I was allowed to go, despite Nana’s warnings. Jason’s mother helped him change into pajamas in the bathroom, which is how I figured out that he couldn’t dress himself, at least back then. He was able to transfer himself into bed, but his mother looked on nervously. It was pretty clear we weren’t going to be sneaking to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator at any point that night.

I watched as Jason arranged his legs on the bed as I snuggled into my sleeping bag. I lay staring at the ceiling for a few minutes before I decided I couldn’t take it another minute. “Why can’t you walk?” I asked, finally verbalizing the question that was in my head for months.

“I was in a car accident when I was five,” he told me. “I can’t move or feel my legs.”

“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed. “You can’t feel them at all?”

Jason shook his head. “It’s not a big deal. I’m used to it.”

I looked at Jason’s feet, knocking together slightly from their position at the end of the bed. On a whim, I reached out and grabbed his ankle. “So you can’t feel me touching you?”

“No,” he said.

My hand traveled up his leg to his knee. “How about here?”

“No,” he said again. He held his hand up to his mid-chest. “Nothing below here.”

My eyes widened and I said the first thing that popped into my nine year old head: “So how do you know when you need to go to the bathroom?”

Jason’s face turned bright red. “I…” he stammered. “I just…” His voice trailed off, never answering my question. Actually, I think I really didn’t want to know the answer to my own question. And I was kind of relieved when he covered his legs back up with his Star Wars blanket.

Jason managed to make some friends of his own over the next several years, more gender-appropriate ones, but we remained best friends. After all, he still had the best toys. And he was located very conveniently across the street.

When I was eleven and in middle school, I grew breasts. It happened pretty quickly, practically overnight it felt like. One day I had these tiny little mosquito bites on my chest and the next, bam: breasts. I’m not going to lie: I was attractive to guys. I had blond hair and a cute face and now breasts, all of which contributed to a significant popularity with boys. “This one’s going to be trouble,” Nana used to say practically every day. On my second week of middle school, I was asked out by an older boy at school, a really cute guy named Steve who was universally thought of as being “cool.” I accepted, of course.

I told Jason about my impending date with Steve. My relationship with Jason was 100% nonsexual. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if he could have sex, what with being paralyzed and all, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask him. I had at least a little bit of tact by now. In any case, he had never shown the slightest bit of interest in me in that way. I hadn’t entirely eliminated the possibility that he was gay, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t, because any time I brought up how sexy Tom Cruise was, he made a face and barfing noises.

Jason was the only person in whom I felt comfortable confiding how nervous I was about the date. “He’s so mature,” I said, while we were talking within the confines of his bedroom. “What if we go out and he thinks I’m just a baby?”

“I’m sure that won’t happen, Tasha,” Jason assured me.

“I’ve never even kissed a boy,” I confessed, even though Jason undoubtedly knew it must be true. “What if I suck at it?”

He laughed. “You won’t suck at it.”

“How do you know?”

“Why would you?”

I wiped my palms on my jeans. They were perpetually sweaty lately. I had never been so nervous about anything in my life. Math tests suddenly seemed entirely insignificant.

“Maybe I should practice?” I suggested.

Jason frowned. “Like on your pillow?”

“No, like, for real,” I said. “We could practice together.”

Jason’s eyes widened and I wondered again if maybe he was gay. “I don’t think…”

“Come on, it would really help me,” I begged him.

I hadn’t really thought this out, but Jason and I were best friends, so it seemed like an obvious thing for best friends to help each other out with. Way better experience than kissing a pillow or my hand. Anyway, it wouldn’t be that bad having to kiss Jason. He wasn’t gross or anything, like some guys. Not as cute as Steve, obviously, but not bad looking.

“Well, um…” Jason scratched his head, making his hair stand up a bit. “I guess if it would really help you…”

“Awesome!” I clasped my hands together excitedly.

I couldn’t help notice that Jason’s cheeks were a little pink. “So, um, what do you want me to do?”

“Well…” I thought about it a minute. “I guess just you sit there and I’ll sit on your bed and we’ll just… do it.”

I put my hands on Jason’s shoulders. His green eyes were still wide and I was pretty sure you were supposed to close your eyes to kiss, but then again, I was the one with the date coming up and needed to practice, not him. I leaned in toward him and pressed my lips against his. He barely moved, so I had to do most of the work. His lips were soft and I slipped my tongue inside his mouth. We kissed for, I don’t know, thirty seconds or so.

“How was that?” I asked him when I pulled away.

“Um,” he said. “That was… fine.”

“Just fine?” I asked, disappointed.

Jason shrugged, but when he pulled at his collar, I noticed his hands were shaking.

“Can we try again?”

Jason and I spent the better part of thirty minutes kissing. I think I got better at it, and moreover, it seemed like he got better at it too. He didn’t just sit there motionless, he actually moved his tongue in my mouth and put his hands on my shoulders and back. I actually think he was doing a pretty good job towards the end.

Unfortunately, when we were mid lip lock, his mother did her usual knock-and-immediately-enter routine. I could see her mouth fall open when she saw us and Jason’s face turned red like a beet. “Mom,” he gasped. “Tasha has a date coming up and we were just practicing so…”

Even though it was entirely innocent, needless to say, we weren’t allowed to have any more sleepovers after that.

In high school, Jason and my paths diverged even further, even though we were finally at the same school. I really embraced the whole grunge look, dating guys with long messy hair and ripped jeans. I actually cried when Kurt Cobain died and I tried my damnedest to look as much like Courtney Love as I could manage. I wore ripped fishnet stockings and way, way too much eye make-up. I mean, at the time, it seemed like the right amount of eye make-up, but in retrospect I’m majorly embarrassed.

Jason, on the other hand, descended into geekdom. He had a computer before anyone else I knew and he spent an unhealthy amount of time on that thing. His friends were the biggest pimple-faced losers in the school. He committed further social suicide by joining math team and then even something called the Computer Club. If he was anyone else, I wouldn’t have been caught dead with him. As it was, we barely talked while we were at school.

When we were about fifteen years old, I came by Jason’s room to hang out and he was wearing glasses. I gasped in horror. “Take those off!” I cried. “Come on, you look like a total nerd! You don’t really need those, do you?”

Jason raised his eyebrows at me. “Um, yeah, I do.”

“That’s because you spend too much time on the computer,” I said.

“You’re probably right,” he said, and pulled off the lenses. He didn’t look that bad with them, I guess, but it was really hard to keep Jason from turning into a complete nerd. He just didn’t seem to get it. Or care. But that didn’t stop me from making an effort.

“That’s better,” I said. “After all, how are you going to get a girlfriend wearing those?”

Jason just laughed. As far as I knew, he’d never had a date. I was pretty sure he was straight because I once found some issues of Playboy stuffed into his pillowcase, but he seemed totally unconcerned with his dateless status. I guess he figured that being a geek in a wheelchair wasn’t likely to land him a date.

I sat cross-legged on Jason’s bed and rolled a joint. He went through his drawer and pulled out a lighter and tossed it to me. I took a deep drag and handed the joint to Jason, who took an impressive drag of his own. He blinked and I could almost see his eyes turning bloodshot. “Ah, Tasha,” he muttered. “You get the best weed.”

“As if any of your loser friends could score you weed,” I retorted, slugging him gently in the shoulder.

“You’re right, Tash,” he said. “What would I do without you?”

I have to admit, there were few people I had as much fun getting high with as Jason. He was one of the few people I felt I could really be myself around, maybe the only person. Plus his parents didn’t get home from work till totally late and gave us more than enough time to clear out the smell of the pot.

Despite being a picture of teen angst, I still wanted to go to our senior prom. The hottest guy in our class asked me to be his date (under the assumption that he’d get a little post-prom action… I was not exactly chaste). I even picked out a black dress at the local department store that flattered my figure and made my (now quite large) breasts look amazing.

I didn’t even have to ask Jason if he intended to go to prom. I was 99.9% sure he hadn’t asked a girl out during all of high school, so I doubted he had managed to get himself a prom date. I guessed he was going to spend prom night on the computer, chatting online with his other nerdy buddies. It bothered me to think about that. Jason was cute and he was a great guy—he deserved to get a date. So what if he was a bit of a geek and he was disabled? Those were qualities that could be overlooked, at least for one night.

“Forget it, Tasha,” Jason said to me when I brought it up to him. “The only way I’m going to have a date for prom is if I go with my mom.”

“Oh, stop it,” I said. “There are tons of girls who would go out with you.”

Jason snorted. “No,” he said, “there aren’t.”

“You’re selling yourself short.”

“I’m realistic. I mean, look at me.”

I gave Jason a quick once over, trying to see him from the eyes of a girl who hadn’t been best friends with him for the past ten years. He had good qualities, speaking objectively. His short hair was always adorably mussed and he had really vivid green eyes, even though he unfortunately hid them behind glasses all the time these days. From the neck up, he was cute, even very cute. He had this sort of half-smile he gave that was very endearing. And from the times I’d seen him in a T-shirt, I could testify that he had some impressive muscles in his arms. Unfortunately, if the T-shirt didn’t fit quite right, I could also see the paunch in his abdomen from muscles that obviously didn’t exist anymore.

And when he shifted in his chair, which he did a lot, it was kind of weird the way his legs didn’t really move on their own. It was kind of weird, if you’re not used to it. I was used to it. But other girls weren’t. And it was probably true that the presence of the chair itself made people uncomfortable.

“What about that girl Sofia?” I suggested. “From the math team?”

“You mean the one who speaks like five words of English?”

“Um, I guess…”

“She’s got a date.”

“Oh.” I bit my lip, thinking through the less desirable members of our class. “What about that girl Chelsea?”

“The one who’s autistic?”

“She’s not autistic,” I protested. “Just… keeps to herself.”

“Please, Tasha,” he said. “This is getting insulting.” He looked at my face and flashed me that half-smile. “It’s okay, really. Prom’s not a big deal to me. I don’t even want to go, to be honest.”

“Well, is there any girl that you like?” I asked him. “I mean, you’re not gay, right?”

“Christ, Tasha,” Jason said, shaking his head.

“Are you?”

“No!”

“Then there must be someone you like,” I deduced. I caught Jason’s hesitation. “There is! I knew it!”

He bit his lip. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t really matter.”

“Come on,” I said. “You really think a girl would turn you down just because you’re in a wheelchair?”

“It doesn’t matter why,” he said. “I just know for a fact that she would.”

He seemed so sure of himself that I didn’t even argue with him. “Well, if that’s the case,” I said, “she’s not worth it.”

“That,” he said, “is definitely debatable.”

Prom was basically my life for the next couple of months. I always thought I was the kind of girl who was too cool to be excited about the prom, but there it was. On night of dance, Nana volunteered to help me get into my dress. She had gotten older, but still had as much energy as ever. “I’d tell you not to have sex tonight,” she said, “but I know it’s a lost cause.”

I didn’t say anything, just smiled at my reflection in the full length mirror. I looked hot.

“So who’s the lucky guy?” Nana asked me. “You going with that Fox boy from next door? The crippled one? You certainly spend enough time with him.”

“Jason?” I turned to look at Nana in surprise. Usually she was pretty perceptive about stuff. “You know he and I are just friends.”

“Sure,” Nana said.

“We are!” I insisted.

“Uh huh,” Nana said. “And I’d bet your inheritance that the boy thinks about you and only you when he pleasures himself.”

“Nana!” I blushed under my make-up. “He does not! We don’t feel that way about each other. We’ve known each other too long.”

Nana shrugged. “Believe what you want, Natasha.”

I felt a moment of hesitation. But really, I was pretty sure Jason wasn’t in love with me. I would have known if he felt that way about me. I’d have sensed it. Anyway, even if he did, there was nothing I could do about it now.

I had a great time at prom. My date made me the envy of pretty much every girl in the room, then afterwards I gave him what I promised in the men’s room. He even drove me home, and told me he’d call me, even though I wasn’t dumb enough to think he would.

I didn’t go straight home though. I had an hour left on my prom night curfew so instead I went down the block and knocked on Jason’s first floor window. I peered inside and saw he was in bed. With the lights out. He sat up in bed as I shimmied the window open. “Are you burglarizing me?” he asked.

“Why?” I retorted. “You got anything worth stealing?”

“Well, you’ve had your eye on my Nintendo for years…”

I laughed. Jason rubbed his eyes and smiled at me. He looked adorably sleepy. I remembered what Nana said about him earlier in the night and decided she had to be mistaken. “I take it you had a good time?”

I nodded eagerly. “I wish you had been there.”

“Isn’t it better this way?” he asks, smiling. “This way you get to tell me about it.”

I laughed again because he was absolutely right. I wanted nothing more than to recount every minute of my fantastic evening to my best friend. He listened dutifully as I sat perched at the edge of his bed, giving him an animated account of the night until the time was up on my curfew and I snuck back out the window and went home.

Jason, the smart bastard, got into Yale for college, while I ended up at the city college, living at home. The first two years of college, we emailed each other nearly constantly. Although Jason wasn’t introverted or anything, he had a lot of trouble making friends due to his disability. He did make friends, but they were the same type of loser guy computer geeks he hung out with in high school. But the difference was that while in high school, he had accepted his status as perpetually dateless, now that he was in college, he was talking about girls more and more. I could hear him getting more and more frustrated. My heart went out to him.

Then one day during our junior year, he emailed me that a girl named Sally in his computation theory class had accepted a dinner invitation. I imagined that Sally, a computer science major, was hideously ugly and probably had a moustache or something, yet I found myself feeling… well, I’m not sure if jealous was the right word, but… I don’t know. Every time Jason mentioned Sally in an email, I’d feel myself cringe. Even though he continued to respond quickly to all my emails, I felt like I had lost my desire to keep in touch with him. Eventually, it just seemed like so much effort to keep writing to my (former) best friend. So I stopped. No explanation, no apology… I just stopped writing to him.

After college, I got the hell out of Pittsburgh and moved to New York City. I had taught myself to play the electric guitar in college and I agreed to front a band called (much to my current embarrassment) Cynthia’s Armpit. I’m mortified by the band name now, but at the time it seemed impossibly cool, as did the guys in the band, which is why I had fucked pretty much all of them within a month’s time.

I used to describe Cynthia’s Armpit as an edgier version of the band Garbage. I thought of myself as a young Shirley Manson (who was probably actually not that much older than me) and even dyed my hair red to emulate her. You can imagine that Cynthia’s Armpit was not a raging success. We got a few gigs playing bars and coffee shops, usually for no payment except free drinks, and sometimes not even that. I supported myself by waitressing.

When I think of how I used to get up there in front of huge crowds dressed in slutty, skintight outfits, my eyes caked in black make-up, shouting out lyrics because I couldn’t really sing… well, it’s not something I like to go around telling people. But at the time, I totally thought I was The Shit.

One night, a couple of years into the band’s trajectory toward failure, Cynthia’s Armpit was playing at some seedy bar in the village. It was the kind of bar where I had to take a trenchcoat with me to immediately drape around myself so I didn’t get raped the second I got off the stage. But within the crowd of would-be rapists watching me sing, I saw one guy who seemed incredibly out of place.

The guy was wearing a suit and tie, for one thing, rather than a wife-beater T-shirt. The suit looked expensive too. It was hard to see him due to the lighting in the bar, but he seemed really cute too, if a bit too clean cut. I could see him bobbing his head to our cacophonous music and I was pleased that a cute, well dressed guy was digging us. Or maybe just digging me. I hadn’t dated a cute, successful guy in… well, ever.

As soon as our set was over, I put away my guitar in its case and went over to say hello the mysterious stranger. But before his face became clear from within the shadows of the bar, I saw the wheels on the ground below him and my heart leapt. As I got closer and saw those bright green eyes behind the rimless frames, I realized I wasn’t looking a stranger. “Jason?” I said in amazement. “What are you doing here?”

He flashed that endearing half-grin. “Well, I came to listen to the great Tasha Moran sing, of course.”

I couldn’t help myself—I threw my arms around him in a great big bear hug, which he returned with equal eagerness. The hug lasted like five minutes, I was so happy to see him. When it was finally over, I dropped into the chair next to him. “It’s so good to see you!” I sighed. “How did you find me?”

He shrugged. “Our mothers live next door to each other. It wasn’t hard. Cynthia’s Armpit is the kind of name that bears repeating.”

I blushed. “I know. It seemed so cool at first, but now…”

“I like it,” Jason said. “You just need to make sure to copyright it before someone steals it.”

I slugged him in the arm. “Oh my god, shut up!”

Jason grinned at me. “It’s good to see you too, Tash. Love the red hair.”

“It’s not too red?” I asked self-consciously. Yesterday I’d been at Macy’s and someone old woman was shaking her head at me disapprovingly. A few years ago, I would have thrived on a look like that, but now it was beginning to bother me.

“Hair can never be too red, can it?” Jason asked, smiling. “Anyway, you can pull it off.”

I looked him up and down, confirming that his suit was as expensive as it appeared from afar. “You look like you’re doing well.”

He pulled at his tie. “Investment banking. I know, don’t say it.”

“Say what?”

“That I’ve sold out to corporate America to make money.”

“I wasn’t going to say that.”

“Well, you’d be the first,” Jason said. “But this is all part of my plan to retire at forty and then do something really worthwhile.”

“Like what?”

“Christ, I don’t know,” he said. “Open an orphanage? Rescue lost puppies? I’m only 25, I’ve got some time to think about it.”

As Jason loosened his tie again with his left hand, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of a ring on his fourth finger. He wasn’t married. Actually, I was surprised. Despite his failure with girls in high school, I had always thought he’d meet some girl in college, fall head over heels for her, and they’d get hitched after graduation. Part of the reason I stopped writing to him was that I didn’t know if I wanted to hear about it when it happened. Not that I didn’t want Jason to be happy, because I did. But I felt like losing my best friend to another woman would be more than I could handle. It was easier to give him up voluntarily first.

“So,” Jason said, “are you done for the night? Can I buy you a drink?”

Our eyes met and for a moment, it was very clear that he hadn’t come here for the sake of friendship. My heart leaped in my chest as I contemplated my answer, but before I could say anything, our drummer Sonny plopped down next to me and threw a hand around my shoulder. Then, to make matters worse, he planted a big sloppy kiss on the corner of my mouth.

“Hey, Tasha,” Sonny said. “This guy bothering you?”

“No,” I said quickly, as Sonny started flexing his tattooed biceps. “This is my, um, old friend Jason.”

“Cool,” Sonny said. He held out his hand and Jason shook it. “I’m Sonny, Tasha’s boyfriend.”

Sonny’s statement wasn’t entirely false. We were sleeping together (and he gave me Chlamydia, thank you very much) and occasionally we had dinner or hit a party or club together. So I couldn’t really deny it. Especially since Cynthia’s Armpit was going through some inner turmoil recently and I didn’t want to do anything to upset the balance further.

“Oh,” Jason said. He seemed slightly taken aback, but recovered quickly. “Well, it’s nice to meet you.”

“We’ve got to go back on in five,” Sonny said, running a hand over his shaved head. He wanted people to think he was Michael Stipe, but really, he was just hiding his thinning hair.

“Don’t let me keep you, Tasha,” Jason said quickly. He glanced down at his watch. “I’ve got an early meeting tomorrow and I actually kind of need to head out soon.”

As I looked at Jason’s familiar face, I knew I couldn’t let him out of my life again. “Let me give you my cell number,” I said. “We could, um, have lunch sometime.”

Jason smiled. “That would be great. I’ll call you this weekend.” And he programmed my number into his phone.

Jason backed away from his table and wheeled toward the door as we were setting up our instruments again. Sonny’s eyes widened when he saw Jason’s exit. “Holy shit,” he said. “I didn’t realize that guy was crippled. I thought he was hitting on you or something.”

“No,” I said quietly, feeling a twinge of regret. “We’re just old friends.”

As promised, Jason called me that weekend and we had lunch on Sunday. We caught up on old times, but nothing more. Somehow if there had been a chance for Jason and I to be more than friends, the opportunity had passed us by. But that lunch succeeded in rekindling our lost friendship, and within a few months, Jason had been promoted back to Best Friend, a status he has retained to this day.

Which made it only fitting that he should be the one throwing my 32nd birthday party.

To be continued....

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