Read Again, but Better Online

Authors: Christine Riccio

Again, but Better (11 page)

BOOK: Again, but Better
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Back on the dance floor, a song I don’t recognize finally blasts though the room. It’s a punk-rock
song I’m not as familiar with, but it demands movement all the same. I sing blindly, making up words. Pilot is still smiling. I’ve never seen him hold a smile for such an extended period of time. He’s standing right next to me now, and we’re bumping into each other as we jump and sway. My skin sings in response:
Houston, we have contact
.

He keeps turning to smile at me. I smile back and follow
up each burst of eye contact with a giant swig of water. It’s a good excuse to break away and center myself. I’m slowly morphing into an anxious ball of nerves.
What’s happening right now? Are we flirting? Like, flirting more intensely than before? What do I do? Nothing, just be cool, keep doing what you’re doing.
I’m hyperaware of my movements as this unknown magical song that made Pilot more
smiley comes to a close.

I think this is flirting. It has to be flirting. The band starts up a new, more mellow song. I know it—I gasp and break into a little happy dance as everyone starts singing along. “Yellow Submarine.” Pilot’s smiling so big at the band. He starts to sing along and I start to sing along, and then his arm comes to sit around my back.

I go full statue. He’s not looking at
me this very second, but his arm is
on me. His arm is wrapped around me like we’re together. My heart is drumming too fast for the music.

Okay, it’s fine. Just keep singing. I can’t remember the words.

I can’t think of anything but his arm. His hand has settled around my waist. I look up at him. He’s still singing. We sway together. He sways normally. I sway like a statue that someone’s knocked
into by accident. At least I’m moving.

He pulls me closer to his side, and my heart kicks up to light speed.
Oh my god.
We’re smooshed together now. Body contact all along my left side. His warmth mingles with all of mine.

Stay cool, Shane, stay cool.
What is staying cool? More swaying. Is the band still playing “Yellow Submarine”?
Concentrate on the song
. Yes, they are. The overhead lights
keep whirling over us, the band keeps playing, and I keep my movements to a minimum in an effort to ensure our skin-to-skin contact stays intact.

I don’t know if he’s looking at me now. I haven’t looked over at him in ages. The idea of looking at him now stresses me out.

You have to look at him, Shane. This is it, this is a moment.

Slowly, I’m talking at molasses speed, I turn my head to the
left. He’s already looking at me. Chills race up my limbs. It feels like when the band stops, this moment is going to stop, and I don’t want this to stop. Anxiety shoots up through me, bouncing off the walls of my insides.

His green eyes study mine. We’re looking at each other, but I don’t even know what I would do to initiate something. I’ve never kissed someone, and I don’t want him to know
that. If we kiss, will he know that?
Oh my god, he’ll know.
How could he not know? I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t even know what I would do with my arms! Where do arms go when you kiss? Do I just, like, grab him? I can’t just grab him! What if I do it wrong? Is grabbing him an invasion of personal space?
Oh my god, I’m going to stand still like I’m doing a pencil dive with my arms flat
against my side, aren’t I?

He leans forward a bit.
His lips are right there.
Panic takes the wheel, and before I even realize what I’m doing, I’ve raised the glass I’m clutching back up to my mouth, and turned forward to face the band.

I chug a cowardly swig of water. Disappoint torrents through my system.
My eyes glaze over as I stare unblinkingly at the guitarist. He wasn’t going to kiss me,
right? That wasn’t a big enough lean, was it? Oh god. I don’t know how to reinitiate whatever almost happened. I have to pee. I have to go. His arm is still there. I don’t know how long we’ve been like this.

Abruptly, I spin toward him. “Hey, Pies, I’m gonna run to the BR. I’ll be right back.”

I’ve startled him with my sudden transformation from unmoving statue back to living, breathing human
being.

“Oh, okay!” he projects over the music. “Do you want me to—” he starts, but I’m already leaving, weaving back through the people to the hall off the end of the room where I saw restroom signs earlier.

I plow into the bathroom. The stalls are painted black, and the lighting is all neon blue. I walk over to the sink area, which is just a big trench across the front of the room, and stare
at myself in the mirror. My hair is wild and extra big from the humidity. Tears burn in the corners of my eyelinered eyes.

What is wrong with me? A choked sound escapes my mouth. I take a few more deep breaths in front of the mirror.
Do not cry.
I curl my hands into fists, a physical threat to the salt water gathered in my eyes.
You’re okay.
I pee, wash my hands, and head back out into the abyss
of the dance floor.

Rather than navigate directly through the sea of humans, I edge my way back along the perimeter of the room.

“Hey, girl!” I hear a familiar voice and stop, spinning around to find Chad walking over with a fresh vodka cranberry.

“Hey!” I say, a little relieved to catch a glimpse of him after losing him and Babe pretty early on in the night. He walks up to me until he’s a
little too close. I find myself up against the wall as I step back, trying to maintain a bubble of personal space. “Where’s Babe?” I ask over the music.

“At the bar, I think,” he says offhandedly. “How are you liking this place? It’s dope, right?” He smiles, eyes drooping drunkenly.

“Yeah, it’s good. I like the music. I was just heading back to find Pilot.” I crane my neck, looking over Chad’s
shoulder.

“You have really pretty hair,” he says, staring at me. I narrow my eyes.

“Okay, thanks.” I turn my head, still searching for Pilot. When I turn back …

“What the—” I’m cut off as Chad’s squishy lips hit my face, landing half on my own lips, half lopsided on my check. I bend my legs, sliding down the wall toward the floor before falling sideways slightly and jumping back up, a foot
to the right of where I had just been. Chad’s gawking at me with his jaw hanging open.

“What are you doing?” I demand.

“It’s my birthday!”

“Babe likes you,” I scold. I bolt away from him, weaving in and out through the crowd now. That didn’t happen. My first kiss isn’t from some drunken doofus who’s supposed to be here with my friend. It isn’t. It doesn’t count. It didn’t happen!

Relief floods
through me when I spot the back of Pilot’s plaid shirt among the damp crowd of dancers. I bump into him lightly as I step up on his right.

“Hey,” I greet him gratefully.

“Hey! Welcome back.” He grins. To my surprise, he pulls me in next to him again. His arm resettles around my waist. And, as expected, I turn back to stone. My whole body hums. He looks so calm and content, but my mind won’t
stop whirring. Maybe I didn’t mess everything up when I turned the other way? Where is Babe? Chad is an asshat. I do not like that guy. I didn’t like him before, but I definitely do not like him now.

The music stops at some point. Pilot leads me toward to back of the room with his hand still at my back. My eyes find Chad and Babe. They’re near the bar, clutching half-empty drinks, and Babe is
yelling. I can tell from here.

“Are they fighting?” I ask Pilot nervously.

“Looks like it.” We power walk over. Before I can make out anything they’re saying, Pilot speaks over them, “Hey, you guys ready to head out? I think the band’s done.”

Babe jerks her attention to us, eyes red and puffy. Oh no.

“Oh yeah, we should get going so we can catch the Metro,” Babe agrees, her voice cracking
on the words
get
and
Metro.
She places her drink on the bar, grabs Chad’s drink out of his hand, and slams it down next to hers. The remnants of his vodka cranberry fly around the clear plastic cup as she pivots and storms past us toward the stairs.

“Happy birthday, man,” Pilot says, giving Chad a manly clap on the back with the hand that’s not on me. I watch Chad’s eyes drift to Pilot’s hand.

“Yeah, happy birthday,” I sputter nervously like nothing happened.

Chad throws a slick grin at me before looking at Pilot. “Thanks, man.”

“Let’s go,” Babe yells up ahead. I should try to talk to Babe.

“Wait, Babe!” I yell, “I think we should pee before we go!”

She turns to glare at me, but after a moment she nods, and we head toward the restroom. There’s a line snaking out the door now. She
adds herself to it, and I step up behind her.

“Babe, are you okay?” My voice comes out small and hesitant.

She turns to face me, glaring again for a good five seconds before exploding, her voice pained and low. “I don’t know, Shane! I finally try to make a move on the guy I like, he jumps away yelling, and I quote ‘Dammit, Babe, I don’t like you like that,’ and then he makes a beeline right
for you.” Her eyes shine.

“Babe, I’m so sorry. He’s an assbucket!”

“What, is Pilot not enough? You need every guy’s attention on you?”

“What?” Tears strangle my voice as I squeeze out the next two sentences. “What are you talking about? He came over to me, and I ran away from him!”

“I don’t want to talk to you right now.” She turns away pointedly as we make it into the actual bathroom. Babe
strides into the next open stall. I turn and leave.

I wait outside next to Pilot, who’s chatting with Chad about bears. When Babe emerges, we follow her to the stairs and join the slow trickle of bodies headed to pick up their jackets. We shuffle along the coat check line. Babe’s a few people ahead of Pilot and me. Chad stands behind us, looking off into space.

Pilot ducks his mouth close to
my ear as we take a step closer to the coat check window. “What do you think their best song was?” His voice tickles my face.

“Um, I think my favorite was that cover from that band I like.” My stomach rotates like a washing machine.

He smiles. “That weird hipster band? Same.” He holds my eyes.

“Next!” the woman behind the counter calls us forward. We break eye contact and step up hastily, handing
over our tickets and paying the Euro for our jackets.

“Come on, Chad,” Babe demands with attitude as we all file back out onto the street. She spins on her foot and heads down the road toward the Metro. Chad starts after her.

Pilot and I hang back, walking slowly. “That looks dramatic,” he starts.

I take a deep breath, trying to quell my anxious stomach. “She went to kiss him, he said some
nasty things, and then he tried to make a move on me in front of her when I was on my way back from the bathroom, and I ran away from him.”

“What?” His eyebrows pinch together.

“Yeah.” I exhale a gust of air. “It was weird. I don’t really want to dwell on it.”

Pilot studies me for a moment, his eyebrows low, before nodding and pressing his lips together. He looks down, watching the ground go
by under our feet. I drop my gaze.

“So where should we go next?” he asks.

My head snaps back up. I stutter, “Um—like tonight or in life?”

He huffs a breathy laugh. “Where should we go for our next epic weekend trip? What else do we need to climb?”

“I’m down to go anywhere really, maybe Scotland?”

“Scotland! Let’s hit that up.
Braveheart
!” he yells enthusiastically.

“Scotland it is, then!
That’s where Hogwarts is.”

“Oh, did you go there?” he asks in a serious voice.

“Class of ’08.” I force down a smile.

“Me too.”

I put on my best Scottish accent, “So, you’re a wizard, Pilot?” It’s terrible. Pilot snorts.

Up ahead, Chad and Babe descend into the Metro station. We start down the steps a moment later and make our way to the platform. The station is packed. Everyone’s trying to
catch the last train. We linger on the grungy platform for twenty minutes before an announcement is made to tell us the last train has already left the station.

Wearily, the four of us join a mass exodus back up to the street. On the left side of the staircase, there’s still a steady flow of people going down into the station despite its lack of trains. On the right side, we’re all packed together
streamlining our way up. The four of us are slightly separated, a human or two between us. I’m in the middle of the pack.

We’re nearing ground level again. I can see the sky up ahead, but as I take my next step, there’s a tug on my cross-body purse and the strap yanks down on my right shoulder. The pull intensifies, and the strap slides up against my neck. I stumble back and turn my head in alarm.
There’s a man, heading down the stairs, his hand is in my now-unzipped bag. My chest seizes.
What do I do?
He’s being pulled away with the downstream current of humans, and I’m being yanked backward.

“Ahhh!” a yell bursts from my lungs as I lunge upward and to my right, hopping over three steps, ripping my bag away from him.

“Shane?” I hear Pilot shout back.

“What’s going on?” Babe asks.

“I think she just tripped,” Chad’s voice hits my ears.

I flail over my feet, fumbling upward, pushing off the ground with my hands to regain my balance like a child running up the stairs. I grasp at my purse, pulling it up to my chest, and run up the remaining steps, pushing my way past everyone, not stopping till I’ve broken away from the mob and I’m back on the sidewalk outside.

I’m shaking
as my hands pry the sides of my purse open, taking stock. I unzip the second pocket where my wallet is and exhale a relieved breath. It’s here.

It’s okay.
A hand falls on my shoulder, and I look up to see Pilot’s olive eyes. I breathe breathe breathe breathe, pumping the fear out of my system.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Babe appears in front of me with Chad next to her.

“What happened?” Babe
cries.

“A guy.”
Breathe.
“Had his hand in my purse.” I look frantically from Pilot to Babe.

“What the fuck?” Pilot’s concern morphs to outrage. He takes a step
back, runs a hand through his hair. Chad looks at me blankly, and Babe’s hand whips up to cover her mouth.

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