Thursday, July 12, 2018

Juniper's (Part 1)

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a drop of water? Wondered what it’s like to be a group of molecules cycling through the universe? The water cycle is never ending, yet each stop on a raindrop’s journey will be vastly different. In the next cycle it might not even be a raindrop at all. It could be a drop of water flowing in the River Thames; it could be a life-sustaining drop of water for a cactus in the desert. 

That sounds nice, I think. So unlike the human lifecycle. One and done. That’s us. No chance to start over. 

I wouldn’t hate to be a raindrop, I think as the wipers on the car swipe furiously back and forth. 


Of course, that drop of water could just as easily end up as a droplet in a toilet bowl in its next cycle. But at least the water cycle is short. Again, unlike human life. 


Well, some human lives. My heart pangs at the thought.

“Don’t give him the wrong idea if he comes tonight.” 


Amy’s words pull me out of my reverie. I turn in my seat and fix her with an exasperated gaze that belies my inner melancholy. “When have I ever given him the wrong idea?” 


“Oh, certainly never throughout college.”


“We were --,” 


“I know, I know. You were just friends. Something everyone knew except him,” she interrupts me and makes a poor impression of my voice. If I weren’t already so on edge, I might laugh. Instead, I stay silent. 


Amy’s one of my oldest friends. She’s also bullheaded, overly protective of the people she loves, and not one to mince words. And here we were: stuck in the pouring rain in traffic and almost bickering at one another. I hadn’t even been back in the country for a full twenty-four hours yet, but this was the best homecoming present ever. The reassurance that, despite the uncertainty of our larger situation, some things never changed. 


Sometimes that raindrop stays a raindrop every single time. 


“I’m just saying --  you asshole!” Amy honks as a minivan cuts her off. 


She turns towards me. “Road, Amy!” I grab the edges of the seat as a car swerves into the small space between us and the minivan, narrowly missing our front bumper. “Please pay attention to the road.” 


“I’m just saying that sometimes you flirt without realizing it.” She turns her gaze back to the traffic that stretches endlessly in front of us. “And that right now he’s kind of fragile. 


***



Thirty minutes later we’re huddled under one umbrella as we make a dash from the car to the doors of the grungy Midtown bar. The door is propped slightly open, and Amy catches it with her foot to open it completely while also keeping the umbrella over us. As the door opens, illuminating the inside of the bar, resplendent with its dark paneled walls, neon signs, and rainbow banners streaming from the ceilings, a deluge of memories hit me. I feel a sense of trepidation -- something I’ve never felt when entering Juniper’s -- settle over me. 


What are you thinking? I ask myself. Coming here like nothing’s changed? 


Amy must sense my dread, because she quickly tosses the umbrella into the corner with several others, and then throws her arm around my shoulder. “I was harsh in the car. I’m sorry,” She squeezes me gently; I stiffen. “It’s just trivia, Lucy. Don’t wig out.” 


I spot everyone as soon as we take another step into the bar. They’re still sitting at that huge corner booth. The L-shaped one with the ratty seats and the table that rocks. John’s sitting in the very middle -- pouring over the menu like it’s his first time here, even though I know he’s been coming every Thursday night for the last ten years with few exceptions. His girlfriend, Kristen, sits to his left. Beside her are two guys I don’t recognize. They’re holding hands and engaged in an animated conversation with Roger, who sits at one end of the L-shape. 


When Roger spies us, his eyes light up and he jumps to his feet. He opens his arms wide and traps Amy in a giant bear hug, then kisses her firmly on the lips. He’s been this way for as long as I’ve known him, and frankly, it’s a bit much. He’s the antithesis of Amy in almost every way, but somehow they make it work. 


Then he turns to me and, with an almost equal amount of enthusiasm, envelops me in a tight hug as well. “We’ve missed you, Lucy.” 


“Me too,” I reply simply, returning the hug. 


As we pull away from one another and settle in the booth, I feel a confusing mixture of relief and disappointment. He isn’t here yet. Maybe he won’t come at all, and I’ll be spared from what should be a joyful reunion with my best friend, but is more likely to just be an awkward encounter of epic proportions. 


I look at Amy questioningly.


“I thought he was coming, but maybe not?” She shrugs, tries to mask the worry on her face. “He has good days and bad days. Doesn’t always let us know what’s up, though.”


I nod as if I have a great understanding of this. But I’ve been conspicuously absent and mum for the last three years, so I definitely don’t. 


Amy and I barely made it through the city in time, so there isn’t time for more than a quick reunion with my friends and a hurried introduction between me and the guys I don’t know before trivia starts. Then it’s time for the first round. The topic is sports, and the question is about the national sport of Bangladesh. Everyone immediately starts arguing over the answer. Ben claims it's table tennis; Roger and Kristen say that’s China’s. Meanwhile, Amy writes down “hadudu” and goes to turn it in before anyone can stop her. When that happens, everyone yells angrily, but good-naturedly at her. She smiles smugly when the gamemaster announces that “hadudu” is indeed the correct answer. 


It is so good and comforting to be back among my friends, that for a little while, I forget about the one missing from our ranks. Forget, that is, until I’m at the bar a little later, getting the next round of drinks, and I hear a voice from behind me. 


“There’s our India Jones back from all of her great adventures.”


His voice is just as I remembered. Almost. Soft and low, husky. It’s like a smooth Kentucky bourbon. The mere sound of it, coupled with his nickname for me, causes a wave of emotions and memories to wash over me. 


The sound is the same. But the cadence is different. Even the short sentence is punctuated by pauses and a mechanical puffing noise. 


I turn around immediately, the round of drinks momentarily forgotten. 


Sam. 


He’s smiling. It’s that signature ironic half-smile of his. The one that makes him look like he knows something no one else does, and he’s not sharing what it is. Truthfully, the sight of that smile after so long an absence almost brings one to my own face. But then I take in the bigger picture, all of Sam, and the urge to smile -- which I honestly rarely feel anymore anyway -- is gone in an instant. 


As I assess the man that sits in the wheelchair before me, my gaze leaves his face and goes first to the wheelchair itself. It’s black and bulky and it dwarfs Sam, who has a shrunken appearance and sits slightly reclined in it. There’s a small machine attached to the back of the wheelchair and a stiff plastic hose leading from it to right in front of Sam’s mouth. That sip ventilator is the source of the puffing noise I heard earlier.  


He’s let his hair grow out. It almost touches his shoulders now. So much longer than I can ever remember seeing it in the last ten years. He used to keep it trimmed with an almost military precision. It was a two on the sides and a three on the top every six weeks. 


Why do I know that? I definitely shouldn’t know that. 


There’s stubble on his cheeks, the beginnings of a beard now, too. It’s actually quite becoming on him. When paired with the longish hair, it gives him a sort of a roguish appearance. His arms lay motionless on the armrests, except for his right wrist, which lays in the bend of a U-shaped joystick. All things considered, he looks healthy...ish. A little pale, maybe. But that could be attributed to the poor lighting in the bar. Or even to the rainy November skies. 


Despite everything -- or maybe in spite, I don’t know anymore -- my first instinct is to hug him. 


So, I do. Or, I try at least. I’m halfway down, leaning towards him with my arms outstretched when I pause, very unsure of the mechanics of hugging someone sitting in a massive wheelchair. 


“Are you having some sort of attack?” Sam asks, arching an eyebrow at me. His expression says that he knows perfectly well what’s going on. 


I’m still crouched halfway down. Every second of hesitation on my part is making the situation even more uncomfortable than it was already bound to be. I swallow hard and go in for it, sort of grabbing his shoulders with my hands. The subtle but rich scent of musk hits me as I lean in close. The smell is so familiar and comforting it almost hurts. I breathe in deeply. 


He grunts a bit in my ear. “And now you’re huffing me?” 


I try to sear the memory of the smell into my nostrils before I let go and stand up. It’s mauldin, but I can’t help it. I know that eventually I’ll never smell that smell again. 


“Just trying to get something other than Amy’s Bath & Body Works stuck in my sinuses,” I tell him. “You know how she practically bathes in it.” 


From the way that he laughs, he almost has me convinced that he buys my answer. 


I laugh, too, and for a moment it’s just like old times. But eventually the laughter ends and then we lapse into an uncomfortable silence. There is so much to say...and yet nothing to say. With a sigh, I turn around to get the tray of drinks. I nod towards our booth, indicating for Sam to lead. He engages that little joystick and we’re off -- very slowly. 


When we get to our booth there’s another new face. He leans down and whispers something to Sam, who nods, and then he goes to sit at the bar. No one bothers to make introductions between us. 


The third round of trivia is about to begin. As the gamemaster asks the question, I slide onto the edge of the booth and Sam lines his wheelchair up next to me. Somehow, our friends manage to alienate us and involve themselves in a deep debate over the medicinal use of tetrodotoxin. 


I look over at Sam and smile tightly. No doubt they all think they’re being slick and considerate by leaving us out of that conversation so that we can have our own. After all, we -- Sam and I -- had always been the ones at the center of this thing. We were the reason every single one of us was sitting in Juniper’s tonight and the reason most of us had for the last ten years. We should have been able to pick up right where we left off. 


Yet here we were. The years aren’t falling away, as people always say they do between old friends; but, instead slowly forming like bricks and building an impenetrable wall. 


“Sam,” I start.


He shakes his head. “Lucy, please don't.” 


I look down at my lap. 


“We are going to have that conversation,” he assures me. “But tonight let’s just let it be okay.” 


I smile, less awkwardly this time, at the olive branch he’s extending. 


“The answer is relief from hero--,” he stops suddenly and leans forward, lips closing around the ventilator straw. He takes a sip from the ventilator hose and then continues. “Heroin withdrawal. Tell them.” 


For the first time, I notice his voice is softer. I lean towards the group and inform them of Sam’s answer. Amy scribbles it down and delivers it with two seconds to spare. I don’t even know what tetrodotoxin is, much less a medicinal use for it. But Sam is correct.


Sam is always correct.


***


Trivia lasts two hours. Just like it always does. Our team, The Purple People Eaters, comes in second with almost no help from me and Sam. Other than that one question, we hardly pay attention to the game at all. 


I grab onto his olive branch and the years finally give way. As we catch up on everything -- everything except The One Thing -- we pretty much ignore everyone else completely.


Sam wants to know everything and he wants to hear about it in excruciating detail. “I’ve been living vicariously through you,” he tells me. It’s the only acknowledgment of the elephant in the room. 


Although he’s called me India Jones since college -- I don’t know why he didn’t just stick with Indiana -- my professional career is far from that of an archaeologist turned adventurer. In fact, I’m not an archaeologist at all. I’m a paleontologist. A currently unemployed paleontologist at that. 


When I remind him of that fact, I see a flicker of mischief behind his smile. “I know that, Lucy,” he says patiently. “But you’re not getting rid of my pet name as easily as that.” 


Then he winks. 


And which one of us does Amy accuse of being a shameless flirt? 


A moment later Sam makes eye contact with the man sitting at the bar who starts walking towards us.


“PCA,” he explains. As if I know what that acronym stands for. “Just going to go take care of some things,” he adds, looking a bit pained. He slowly backs his wheelchair away from the booth. I watch as he and the PCA head towards the bathrooms. 


I frown and watch them go. 


As soon as they are out of earshot, Amy leans across Roger. “How’s it going?” 


The way she phrases the question makes it seem like Sam and I are on a first date or something. It’s almost silly enough to make me laugh.

How the fuck to answer that question? “We’ve called a truce for tonight.” 


Amy doesn’t say anything for a long moment. “Well, it’s coming,” she says finally. “You know him and you know it is.” 


I sigh heavily and roll my eyes. “You aren’t helping.”


She shrugs and tips her glass to me in a cheers motion before turning back to the rest of our friends, effectively leaving me to sort this mess out on my own. Typical. Some things really do never change. 


I think back to the raindrops from earlier. How each iteration of that single raindrop is different.


Then I look at the condensation forming on my own pint glass, wishing that I was a water droplet anywhere else right now. 

14 comments:

  1. Oh wow, I'm already sad this is only three parts long, but I'll take what I can get, haha Your writing style feels so mature and different from what you've written before. I absolutely love it. This introspective style is amazing and I can connect sooo much to your characters even though it's only the first chapter. Thank you for sharing it with us!

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! Wow, what a compliment.

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  2. definitely, EJ's writing is more mature and fuller. I was super happy to have something from EJ to read Waiting for more!

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  3. Wonderful start - can't wait to see where this goes.

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  4. Fantastic!! I've missed your stories sooo much. I'm already in love with your characters. This style very much suits you. Looking forward to see what's coming next.

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    1. Thank you for that! This style comes very naturally to me. Maybe I'll dabble in it more going forward.

      I'm just never sure if people want to read things that aren't necessarily "happy go lucky" -- fiction is an escape!

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  5. Thank you, your writing is great as always!

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  6. I'm absolutely in love!!! Omg. Seriously amazing!

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  7. Dark and moody. Just like I like. Also the high level always intriguing. Can’t wait for the unraveling of the mystery?

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    1. "Dark and moody." JUST LIKE ME. ;) Thanks for reading and for your comment, blueskye! :)

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