I walked back to my place across the parking lot to see if Hannah and Rowan were around even though neither of them had tried to call me at Nick's like I'd asked them to when he and I left the campus party together. It was so late that I was sure they must be back home. When I reached our building, I saw that Matt's door was cracked open. Through it, I heard Hannah, Rowan, Mona, Lola, and a bunch of guys, including Presley, who asked, "Where did you say Bluet was?" Hannah told him, "Oh, she's with her new beau across the parking lot. There's no way she's coming home tonight." I pushed the door open and asked Hannah for her keys. I then asked her and Rowan, "Why didn't y'all call me?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. We assumed you'd change your mind and want to stay with Nick," retorted my roommate.
"Did you see him tonight?" I asked them both.
"No, we just knew you two left right away. We assumed you wanted to be alone," Rowan said. "Why?"
"Nothing." I acknowledged Presley but didn't speak to him, and I was not at all comfortable talking about Nick in front of him. In fact, I was feeling rather weak in the knees and wanted out of his presence as quickly as possible.
Before Hannah could give me her keys, Matt's roommate, Mike, swiped them. He and Matt played keep-away from me for a few minutes by tossing the keys back and forth. At Nick's, I had fallen asleep on the floor in a rayon shirt, and I looked like hell in my wrinkled clothes and wrecked big hair. I didn't want to be the center of attention looking like that, and I just wanted to sleep in my own bed. On the verge of tears, I told the guys, "Look, I had classes all day, a rough night at work, a disillusioning evening, and I just want my bed."
Matt and Mike apologized for being idiots with the keys, and Mike walked me home and opened the door but kept the keys to return them to Hannah. I thanked him, went inside, locked the door behind me, and fell against it. I could feel my heart racing. Moments later, Presley knocked.
"Goodnight, Presley," I said, through the door.
Briefly leaving, he convinced everyone at Mike and Matt's to make a late-night breakfast run to Denny's for Mike's birthday because, at midnight, Mike had turned twenty-one. Suddenly, thanks to Presley, everyone at Matt's felt like celebrating. And I was invited.
I changed clothes and re-styled my hair as best I could. As people were piling into cars in the parking lot, Presley placed a hand in the small of my back. His roommate, Edgar, and my neighbor, Lola, crawled in his backseat. The two of them were giggling while feeding each other Tootsie Rolls. Amused, I assumed alcohol had been involved.
On the way to Denny's, Presley asked, "Did Hannah mention I asked about you when I saw her this morning?"
"No, Hannah failed to mention that."
We all had a blast at Denny's. A group of drag queens made the night a lot more interesting for some of us who were not often out all hours of the night. I certainly had never seen any scenes like that in my hometown. Presley and his friends took bets on which bathroom the men would use. And I learned that people use the restroom for which they dress, which made sense to me. Falstaffian Mike overflowed with infectious laughter and was full of jokes that kept everyone jovial.
Under the table, Presley placed a hand on my knee and slid it up to my thigh. When I didn't remove his hand, he asked for the check and paid for everyone. Back in his car, he whispered, "I was asking about you all night. You have trained your friends well."
I shook my head in disagreement. "No, Presley. They must have wanted you all to themselves."
Driving back to the complex, Presley missed the turn to the apartments. There was an hourly rate hotel up the street on the right, and I inquired whether he planned to take us there, to the Ritz. He said, "Only the best for my friends," as he turned into the Ritz parking lot and pretended to park there before turning around and heading back to our street. We all laughed.
In the breezeway of my building, a drunk Hannah surprised us all by following Matt into his bedroom. Mike went to bed alone. Presley's roommate Eddie fell into Lola's apartment. Mona took off to her fiancé's, and Rowan went back home to her mom's across town. Presley and I remained, standing in the cold breezeway.
"Did you lose your keys again?" he asked.
I pulled them out of my coat pocket.
"Do you plan on spending the night out here?"
"No." I folded my arms, leaned against the brick wall, and looked back toward Nick's apartment.
Presley put his hands on my hips and leaned his forehead against mine.
"Must I sleep by myself on Matt's couch while you have this entire apartment all to yourself? Bluet, I've been hoping, every second of this day, to see you."
"Looks like Hannah's bed is available," I offered.
Presley whispered, "We could make love in her bed. Then, the next time she's a bitch to you, you could think to yourself, if she only knew what Presley and I did in her bed."
I smiled despite my resolve to resist him. He took advantage of the opportunity to be affectionate and rubbed his cold nose against mine.
"I'm seeing someone, and you have a girlfriend." I pushed him away. "You have no idea how stressful my life is. I don't need the guilt, Presley. And I don't want to be your plaything. Please, go sleep on that couch. Think about your girlfriend."
"Can we talk inside? It's cold out here." He was growing impatient.
"I'm afraid to let you in."
He took my keys and opened the door.
Inside, he said, "Tell me about the new boyfriend. Is he in one of your classes?"
"No. Nick is twenty-nine. And he travels a lot for work as a construction site superintendent. We are not in a committed relationship, but we usually see each other when he makes it home for the weekend."
"There's no way someone his age is interested in you for the right reasons."
"And you're here because?"
"You should date someone your own age and not get too serious. Enjoy being young and free."
"Why, so I'm available when you feel like showing up?"
"Or maybe so you can focus on school, smartass. Look, my girlfriend knows I have commitment issues. I don't want her to know I'm here, but what I have with her is bound to come unraveled. I arranged this entire getaway hoping to see you. I should've discussed my plans with you; I assumed you would be around and accessible. But whatever. I'm glad you came home before the night was over. Let's not waste these remaining hours arguing." Hugging me, he asked, "What was so disillusioning about your evening with the new guy, anyway?"
"He was wasted when I got to him tonight and passed out as soon as we got back to his place."
"Let me help you forget all about him for a while," he said, affectionately, with a kiss.
The next morning, Presley once again reminded me that I couldn't call him or expect anything. Rolling my eyes, I wondered how often he gave that speech.
"You're an asshole," I muttered, half to myself and half asleep.
Forcing me to wake and look him in the eye, he said, "That's right, Bluet. I am an asshole. All men are assholes. And the sooner you get that through your pretty skull, the better off you'll be."
I got up to shower. When I turned off the water, Presley, who had let himself into the bathroom, wrapped a towel around me and apologized for being a jerk. As I combed my hair, he watched me in the mirror and explained, "I am a board member of a bank founded by my great-great-grandfather down in Daisy. When I attend bank meetings, my girlfriend expects I will stay the night at my parents' house or with Matt. Instead, if you let me, I'll come to you." Smiling, I approved.
On the last day of finals for freshman year, Lola and I walked home together from the UALR campus. We were moving in together, and she was nervous about going home to New Jersey for the summer.
"Stay here," I told her. "You can work with me at the restaurant."
"No. Part of the agreement for my dad to pay for school is that I spend summers with him and Jaynie and my half-sister, Cassie." Lola had an academic scholarship that covered tuition and waived out-of-state tuition, and her dad mailed her money for rent and groceries every week.
"Do you like your stepmother?"
"I'm not sure if I have to refer to her as my stepmother. They aren't married, but, yeah, I guess so. I think they will get married and stay together."
"Why aren't they married?" I asked.
"Because my parents aren't divorced," she said. "They can't agree on how to split the co-mingled assets."
"How long has your dad lived with Jaynie?"
"Cassie is five, so I think about six years. I'd rather stay with my mom and other siblings, but it gets loud over there. My mom is dating a younger man in a rock band, and they practice in her garage."
"How did your dad and Jaynie meet?"
"Dad is a narcotics officer, and Jaynie works for a judge. I am sure he knew her through work. He also does construction remodeling work on the side, and Jaynie hired him to remodel her kitchen. My parents used to fight all the time, though. I know people sometimes complain about being from a broken home, but my parents splitting up was for the best in our situation."
We passed under a balcony on which our neighbors and fellow students, Conner and Jeff, stood smoking. The two guys had grown up together in Dequeen, but Conner was older by a few years. They invited us to an end-of-finals party that night. "James will be here," Jeff said to Lola. Before I could refuse, Lola said we'd see them later. She had dated James the first semester of the school year, but he transferred to another school over the semester break.
"You have to come with me," she pleaded.
"Fine, but Presley will be here tonight," I said.
Jeff and James came down to gather Lola and me when the party got going. It spanned at least two apartments. Entering Conner and Jeff’s, I happened upon Nick snorting a line of cocaine off a glass coffee table with Lola’s roommate, Mona, and another girl I’d seen working retail at the mall. Nick leaned back on the couch with his arms around both beautiful girls. He planted a kiss on Mona and hopped up for drinks. That’s when he first noticed me with Jeff.
“You go home and do your homework," he ordered, "and leave my fucking friends alone!" He lunged toward me as though he intended harm.
Stepping between us, Jeff said, "It's cool, Nick. I invited her. Chill." Jeff and Nick had become close friends over the previous three months. The younger guys, like Jeff, who was my age, looked up to Nick. He was the community Fonzie.
"Let's get some air," Jeff suggested as he led me out to the balcony with him, where he lit up a joint. I took a seat on the steps and a deep breath.
"What was that all about?" he asked. "I thought you two decided to see other people?"
"We've never been in a committed relationship," I said, "but that was about your roommate.”
Taking another deep breath, I went on, "Remember the other day when we were at the pool, and Conner asked you and me both if we wanted to order pizza? Well, Conner and I did get something to eat, and then we went back to my place. We turned on some low-volume music. And Hannah got all pissy; she was studying for finals. So, she slammed her books around for a few minutes and left in a huff for the library. Right after she left, Conner jumped up and turned out the lights. He then picked me up, kicked the coffee table across the room, put me on the floor, where he whispered, in explicit terms, exactly what he wanted to do. Speechless, I was contemplating whether to laugh or scream when Hannah burst back into the room. She had forgotten something."
I waved down to the parking lot to a friend from my Spanish classes and continued, "Conner hollered out, ‘Busted.’ And I turned several shades of red. Of course, Hannah assumed Conner and I were about to get busy even though I sent him home right after she left the second time. But it was too late. She was already out telling everyone about us being on the frickin’ floor in the dark within seconds of her exit. The story grew and made its way over to Nick. To make matters worse, when Nick asked Conner if we'd slept together, he would neither confirm nor deny. So, Nick mistakenly believes I slept with Conner to piss him off, and pissed he is. Nick is the one who dumped me by the way. I don't know why he's so angry. He said, and I quote, ‘I cannot be the man you need. So, you should move on.’”
"Well, he is livid that you busted him with those coke whores. He'll calm down when he comes down."
"I don't know," I said, my voice shaky. “Someone told me he was getting high with Mona, but I was not prepared to see it with my own eyes. What about Mona's fiancé?"
"I am pretty sure he's gay or bisexual. I'm not sure, but he seems to be exploring some things himself. You know he had a medical discharge from the military, right? I think maybe it was because he's gay. Someone said it was a psych discharge. You will probably figure it out yourself soon. He’s moving in with Josh this weekend. They’re across the hall from you and Lola now, yeah?" Jeff had helped Lola and me move some heavy things upstairs earlier that afternoon.
"Would you like to go home? I’ll walk you."
"No, I believe I would like to stay now, thank you," I said.
"Then let's party!" Jeff offered his arm. He took it upon himself to tend bar for all and gave me a red Dixie cup of punch. He wore a cowboy hat and bright blue denim overalls with no shirt. And he was very tan from the amount of time he’d already spent in the pool. One strap hung off his shoulder. At ninety-proof alcohol, the punch was delicious.
"Mmm. I'll have another," I said.
"Have you ever been drunk before?" he asked.
"Nooo," I said, shaking my head.
Lola overheard us and, joining our conversation, took my cup away. "Can't I leave you alone anymore?" she asked.
"I swear, Lola, I didn't know she didn't drink," Jeff said, uneasy.
Conner, who was over twenty-one, noticed my condition and came over to say, to all of us, "You see cops, you scram. Got it?" Jeff, Lola, James, and I, all nineteen, nodded that we understood. Conner's date lived on the second floor of my building. I knew she’d been crushing on him for months, and, seeing how happy she looked, I hoped she had not heard my coffee table tale.
"Hey, Bluet," Lola got my attention, keeping my drink away from me, "I want to spend some quality time with James, and I can't watch you and be with him. So, how about we take you home?" Lola’s flight to New Jersey would be the next afternoon.
Making sure I was in Nick's line of sight, I took Jeff’s cowboy hat for my own. Running my fingers through his hair, I said, "I'm not going anywhere."
"She can stay with me, Lola. I'll take good care of her."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"No, really. I won't leave her alone. Scout's honor."
"If either of you change your minds, Jeff, please bring her to me. I don't care what time it is." Jeff and I agreed and shooed Lola and James away.
We played thumpers and several other silly drinking games until I could no longer hold my head up, and then I announced that I had to go home. "Hannah worries," I said.
"Hannah is a bitch, and, no, I have to watch you, remember?" Jeff helped me up, and we stumbled to his waterbed.
"Check out my new tattoo," he said as he dropped his overalls revealing boxers and a tattoo of a wizard on his calf. "I'm supposed to put baby oil on it. Will you help me?" He handed me a large bottle of baby oil, and I poured some over his leg. Both drunk, we made a mess, giggling.
"I feel overdressed," the alcohol said for me. Jeff pulled the sheet off his bed. He finished stripping me down to a red bra and black panties, and we rubbed baby oil over each other and then slid around on his bare waterbed, attempting to make out.
"I've wanted you since the first time I saw you," Jeff told me. "Do you remember when we met?"
I didn't and felt sure he said that to all the girls. But he jogged my memory, and I was touched. I met him the very same night Joel had assaulted me, only earlier. Jeff and Conner and a couple of other guys were walking around with a guitar and knocking on doors to greet and meet some of the new tenants, like Hannah and me. Betsy, the complex manager, had encouraged them to do so. And they had covered "Friends in Low Places," for Hannah, Rowan, and me.
"Yeah, I do remember that. You can really sing," I said.
"I'm sorry that happened to you, with Joel," he said.
We lay silent for a while.
"How does a nice girl like you get mixed up with the party drug supplier, anyway?" he asked.
"What are you talking about? It just keeps getting better, doesn't it?" I shivered. The air conditioner was set too cold.
"I can't believe he was able to keep that from you." Jeff climbed out of bed and pulled a Harley Davidson T-shirt out of a drawer and offered it to me. "Josh is involved in it, too, and so is Mona's former fiancée, but he mostly just sells pot. I know you've seen him doing that," he told me. I had.
"Mona's dad paid the fiancé $25,000 to take her off his hands. Her dad is a CPA in Fort Smith, and he is tired of dealing with her DUIs and overdoses." Mona didn’t have a driver's license and had asked me to drive her places in the past. She told me she'd had eleven DUIs, but I thought she was kidding or exaggerating. She was only twenty.
"Nick is officially out of my life. Besides, he won't forgive me for tonight," I said, falling asleep.
The next morning, I awoke not knowing where I was at first, covered in baby oil, and wearing only a Harley Davidson T-shirt and black panties. My clothes were hidden all over Jeff and Conner's apartment. His friends must have raided the room after we crashed. My red fasten-in-the-front bra was in the kitchen; my jeans were behind the couch. I heard a guy named Bobby snicker from the floor in Conner's room as I dug around. Jeff still slept soundly, so, even though we did not make love, I left a note beside him with the words, "Last night was amazing," and my phone number. I was kind of kidding and trying to be nice.
Stepping outside, I nearly ran into Kelly, deeply engaged in conversation with a maintenance man. The sunlight hurt my eyes. Months earlier, I had brushed husband-material Kelly off, and there I was coming out of Jeff's apartment hungover and oily. I wanted to crawl in a hole, so I took a behind-the-buildings route to the apartment Lola would finish moving out of that day. James let me in, laughing at what a mess I was. "What happened to you?"
"Jeff got a new tattoo."
I looked out the window to see if Hannah had left for her chemistry final yet. She would be driving that day, and I didn't want to face her if I could avoid it. "Fuck!" I exclaimed. Presley’s shiny Acura was parked by my bedroom window.
"Good," Lola insisted. "Presley needs to know you don't sit around waiting for him to steal time away from his girlfriend."
I watched from the window as Hannah left for her last final and said, "I'm going home.”
"You might want to try dish soap on your hair first," James called out after me with a laugh.
I showered, and then Lola and I moved the rest of her things into our new place. After dropping her off at the airport, I went to work at my hostessing job. Answering the phone, I said, "We're having a wonderful day here at Shorty Small's. How can I help you?"
"Hey, it's Hannah."
"Hey, what's up?"
"Presley was just here. I told him what time you get off, and I just wanted to let you know. I'm going home to Crossett for a few days. Just leave your key in the kitchen when you're finished moving the rest of your things."
When I arrived home from work that night, Presley was waiting with his back against my new front door two floors above the apartment Hannah and I shared. He'd gleaned from people at the pool where I had spent the previous night.
"It's nice to see you, Presley. It is. It always is. But this isn't a good time. My stuff is between two apartments. My bed is a wreck, and I'm so...tired." I fell beside him against the door.
"You pissed off a coke-dealer who lives not fifty yards away from you. I'm not leaving you alone tonight." He opened his hand for my keys.
"It isn't like that, Presley. You don't know him." I opened the door myself, wondering how he knew so much.
"Neither do you."
He turned on the TV and sat on the love seat. "Do you watch the news? I mean, you do realize it isn't safe to run around with this guy, right? This isn't Wisteria, Bluet. Do you have any idea how much cocaine flows through Little Rock? And what possessed you to get drunk and fuck his best friend last night of all nights? It was the second fucking Wednesday. Have I ever not shown up when I said I'd be here?"
My head really hurt. "Although I do not deny that there were adult situations, there was no sex between Nick's friend and me last night, Presley, not that you have a right to ask. His name is Jeff by the way. How many women have you been with since the last time I saw you? No wait. Don't tell me. For fun, I left a note that said he was amazing, though, with my phone number."
"I know," he said, "I saw it at the pool this afternoon. Nick had it."
I laughed and headed for the shower. "Excuse me, I need to wash off the ode de rib-night."
"Why no sex?" Presley asked through the shower curtain.
"I don't know. He offered to keep an eye on me because I'd had a lot of alcohol and had never been drunk before. He had condoms from the Gulf War; they had flags on them. But he'd had a lot to drink, too, and we just went to sleep. Don't you have a girlfriend waiting on you someplace?” I was not at all comfortable with the conversation.
"We broke up," he said. I dropped my shampoo.
He went on, "I'm spending the summer in west Little Rock. You remember Edgar? He's in med school now and needs a roommate for a couple of months. I planned to tell you last night. Fuck, Bluet. Why couldn't you just come home? I slept in my clothes on Matt's couch with the door cracked so I'd hear you come home, but you never did. I was worried sick."
He handed me a towel over the shower rod. I got out, wrapping the towel around me and my head around the notions that he was single and had worried about me. I combed through the tangles in my hair and removed my smeared eye makeup while he watched from the doorway with his arms folded like an angry mother.
"I'm sorry," I said. "You weren't here when I left for the party, and I just kind of got all caught up in what was happening. I witnessed Nick doing coke when I walked into the room, and he reacted with absolute fury. The friend stepped between us to protect me, and then I decided to stay just because Nick didn't want me there. He told me to go home and do my homework! I know it was immature, but then there was also jungle juice.”
"Do you plan on seeing the friend again?"
"I predict Nick will come back, but your coke-addict boyfriend needs long-term inpatient care. You're young, and you don't know anything about substance abuse." Presley's dad was a doctor. "How is it I didn't know you were this mixed up with someone that messed up?"
"I told you about him in January."
"How'd you meet him?"
"Does it matter?" I didn't want to talk about Nick anymore.
"No more jungle juice for you?"
I shook my head.
"C'mon, you need to sleep." We went downstairs to the apartment I was moving out of and slept in Hannah's bed. And Presley only held me, all night.