Nick

Pre-ignition

Nick
Photo by Ivan Lenin on Unsplash

The women’s soccer team threw an end-of-semester bash in December of 1990, and someone invited those of us in the Scholars Program. When my roommate, Hannah, and I stepped into the party with our Scholars friends Rowan and Josh, I immediately spotted Robby across the crowded common area. Our eyes met, and I observed a familiar, petite soccer chick on his arm. He had been dating her when I met him back in late August. Clearly, he had chosen to spend his last night in town with her instead of me. I had wondered why I hadn’t heard from him yet that day. Crushed, I turned to leave the party when Nick touched my shoulder.

Nick and I had met at the pool in warmer days. He lived on the second floor of the building straight across the parking lot from Hannah and me. When we first met, I had asked what his mother thought of his tattoo of a cherub holding a banner that read, “Eat Shit.”

He had responded, "My mom dropped me off at kindergarten one day when I was five years old, and I didn't see her again until I was twelve. She was what you might call an absentee mother, and, when I got this tattoo, I didn't give a rat's ass what she thought about anything." I apologized for bringing up his mother, and he smiled at me, chuckled, and said, "That's okay. No one's ever asked me that before." I was eighteen, and he in his late twenties.

“I got this tattoo when I was stationed in Germany in the Army back when you were still watching Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo,” he said.

"Do you talk to your mother now?" I asked.

"Yes. She picked me up when I got out of rehab for cocaine last year and brought me here to start a new life. We thought it would be good for me to make a clean break from known associates." He had a thick Baltimore accent.

After nudging me at the soccer party, Nick asked, "What are you doing here? I've never seen you at one of these campus happenings." Inebriated, he was all smiles.

"Aren't you a little old for college parties?" I asked. It didn't occur to me that he might be the party drug supplier. I was nineteen by that December evening but still very naïve. I didn't know how high the relapse rate was for people who had been to cocaine rehab.

Nick spun me around the party introducing me to people he knew, which included just about everyone. I recognized most of the faces as more of my neighbors or students I'd seen around campus. I told him I had walked to the party with friends that evening but wasn't up to staying. He asked why, and I insisted it was due to a sore throat. “And the cigarette smoke is bothering me,” I added. He led me outside and pulled out a bottle of Peach Schnapps from an inside jacket pocket.

“Try it. Your sore throat will thank me,” he said. It was tasty, and it did help. He lit up to smoke.

"Thanks, Nick, but I still want to go home. I'm not in a partying mood."

"Let me say goodbye to my friends, and I'll walk you home. How's that?" I was cold, and he put his leather jacket on me. From the front door of the soccer house, Robby watched us leave together.

I invited Nick inside to warm up, and we sat down on the loveseat. He was far from sober but hilarious. He said I had pretty green eyes, and I laughed and assured him I did not have green eyes.

My friend, Rowan, slammed into the apartment and ran to the bathroom, calling me to speak with her. "I'm sorry I have to pee and talk, but I really, really have to pee. Get him out of here. Robby is on his way," she said.

I shoved Nick out the door and, again, sat on the loveseat. A couple of minutes later, I heard a thud at the door and opened it expecting to find Robby. Instead, Nick fell into the room.

"Nick, you absolutely must go. You know where you live, right?"

"I'll leave if you'll give me a goodbye kiss.”

I gave him one and pushed him out into the breezeway. He clicked his heels in the air and began walking backwards across the parking lot so he could see me as he went home. I was standing in the breezeway, laughing at Nick, when Robby pulled into a parking space in front of me.

But when Robby put his hands on me, I instinctively snapped, "Why don’t you go back to your little soccer friend?" I didn’t even know where it came from. I was just hurt. Robby held his hands up, returned to his Jeep, and started the ignition but just sat.

Returning to my living room, I found Rowan on the loveseat and Lola from next door in the recliner Hannah had brought from Crossett. Rowan said, "Harper, I honestly think you’ll regret leaving things this way.”

“Yeah. Don’t let these last moments be angry," Lola added, slurring her words. "After you left the party, Robby told us he was avoiding you because he didn't know how to say goodbye."

After the drunk counseling of my buddies, I mustered up the courage to step outside. Robby was still sitting, waiting. Contrite, I strolled over to his Jeep. He opened the passenger side door from the inside and asked, "Going my way?" I smiled and climbed in. And we went back to his apartment, where we could be alone. His roommate, Georgio, was away.

"You'll be seeing that Nick guy next," he said. “We call him the General.” Nick’s last name was Lee.

"I think Nick is a little old for me, Robby; go to sleep."

"But you won't ever forget me?"

“Of course not.”

The next morning, we promised we’d write, and I watched him drive away into the gray December.

*

On my first weekend back at school after Christmas vacation, Josh and Harry threw a 29th birthday party for Nick up at their apartment on the third floor. I went as the date of a guy named Kelly Marlar from Pine Bluff. Kelly was a nice guy, and I liked him. But I didn’t want to be in a serious relationship at the time.

Cutting the evening short, I informed Kelly I felt like turning in early and went home, downstairs. Kelly hung around without me for a time, and then, from my window, I saw him leave. He worked for a large construction company based out of downtown and seemed like a mature, responsible kind of guy. With him out of the way for the rest of the night, I took some laundry over to the clubhouse. Nick, smoking, looked down at me from the third-floor balcony and chuckled. I started my laundry and left it to wash. And Nick yelled down at me to come back upstairs. "Since you seem to be feeling better,” he said.

I went up for a few minutes while my laundry finished washing and then darted back down around midnight. Tired, I hopped on a washer and sat, lost in my thoughts, watching my tumbling clothes dry. I had started a new job that day, a Saturday, as a hostess in a saloon-style restaurant in west Little Rock and had spent the day in training. Reviewing in my head the people I had met and things I had learned, I barely noticed when Nick quietly opened the door and hopped onto the washing machine next to me. Neither of us had bothered to turn on the lights, but an outside light shone in through a glass door.

"Why'd you do Kelly that way?"

"I don't know, Nick. He wants a wife. I'm nineteen years old. I can't even fold clothes right." To me, Nick was Mel Gibson with a Baltimore accent instead of an Australian one.

"I work with Kelly sometimes. Did you know that?"

"No. How is that?"

"I'm a jobsite superintendent, and Kelly is a surveyor. Sometimes, our companies work on the same contracts and projects. We had lunch together on Wednesday, and he told me how much he was looking forward to bringing you to my birthday party."

"Thanks, Mom. I needed that guilt."

"He's a good guy. You seem like the kind of girl who would want to date a nice guy like Kelly. Where's your tennis player, anyway?"

"He moved back home to Ohio as soon as we finished classes in December. What about you, Nick? Are you seeing anyone?"

He laughed and thought for a moment before he answered. "I would love to go out with you, Harper, but I'm scared of you."

"That is absurd."

"Well, let's see. I remember something about a crowd outside your door the night that tall black security guard got fired. There's that story about the guy from your hometown trying to beat your door down. And I heard you broke Josh's heart early last semester after making out with him. And now Kelly. From where I sit, you are pretty hard on men."

"Josh made a move when we were working on Spanish together. That is all. I cannot believe he tells people about that. And, now Hannah is rude to me most of the time because I missed the supposedly obvious signs that Josh is somehow off limits for me because she has a crush on him."

Nick laughed at my version of the Josh story, and I further elucidated, "A guy assaulted me the night the security guard got fired. I am sure you've heard the story. And the old boyfriend thing was…a story for another time."

Betty, a woman in her sixties, managed the property where we lived. She helped us all get to know each other better and tried her best to be a grandmother to her tenants.

Early in our first semester, Hannah and I attended a mingle for new tenants, where we met Joel Milton, who told us he had toured Europe in a Christian rock band and had just been admitted into the police academy in Little Rock. Joel asked me out, but I suggested we get to know each other better first because he was quite a bit older. He said, "That is not a 'no,' so I'll take it." Over the next week or two, he began appearing out of nowhere to help me get groceries or take out the trash.

One evening, Joel invited me to walk with him on a trail around the complex. At the point of the trail nearest his building, he asked me to listen to him play a new song on his keyboard. He performed a couple of tunes in his living room and then encouraged me to join him in his bedroom, where he had a more superior keyboard. All the while we walked and between his songs, Joel had been drinking. Sitting on the edge of his bed, I listened, becoming more anxious as he grew less sober. After the third song, I got up to take off, but he pounced and pinned me on his bed. Frightened, I tried to get away, but he was much bigger and stronger.

"Relax. If you'll relax, everything will be okay," he demanded.

Not knowing what else to do, I focused on releasing all tension in my body and did so. And then I assured him, "Okay. Fine. I'm relaxed. I am. See, I'm good."

"You are?" He stunk of stale beer.

I shook my head, “Yes.” When he attempted to kiss me, I bit the holy hell out of his bottom lip. Swearing, he released me to grab his mouth. When he did, I wriggled out from under him and ran home. Slamming the door behind me, I locked it and slid down to the floor, out of breath and quivering. Shortly thereafter, Joel banged on the door.

Hannah, not knowing what was going on, asked, "Is that Joel? Can't you just open the door and tell him you aren't interested?" I was too scared and out of breath to explain at first, so I shook my head and sat on the floor trying to calm down so I could speak.

The security guard on duty that night came over to see what all the commotion was, and Joel became even more belligerent. The two argued, loudly, and someone told Betty there was a disturbance in our breezeway. While this was going on, Robby arrived from his evening run, and Hannah let him slip inside. I told him what happened and then had to calm him down, too.

"Please don't go out there." I said. "I'm fine. He is just drunk and stupid."

White-haired Betty came out in her floor-length, pink, terry cloth robe and took control of the situation. She confiscated the guard’s flashlight and baton. And then she fired him and knocked on my door. Allowing her entry, I explained what happened. She asked if I wanted to press charges, but I declined. "I just want him to go away," I said. By this time, a crowd had gathered due to all the noise. Betty asked Joel to leave, but he begged her to see if I would hear his apology. Reluctantly, I stood behind Betty and listened to Joel beg forgiveness.

"I accept your apology. Now, please go home,” I said. He did, and Betty dispersed the crowd.

For the remains of that night, Betty stomped around shining the flashlight while patrolling in her pink bathrobe. Because I couldn’t stop trembling, Robby stayed over and held me all night. For a time, I became known around the complex as "that girl who got attacked.”

"You should have pressed charges against that asshole who assaulted you," Nick said from the washer next to me.

"He is in the police academy," I said. "I didn’t want to ruin his life. He was drunk, and he apologized profusely. As a matter of fact, he is still apologizing...whenever I see him at the mailbox or paying rent or at the pool. I see him everywhere."

Nick carried my laundry into my bedroom, dark except for a parking lot light coming in through the blinds. Hannah and Rowan were upstairs at Josh's, as were our neighbors, Mona and Lola.

Tired at that late hour, Nick slipped his shoes off and leaned back on my pillow, still wearing his trench coat, which might have been appropriate for a Baltimore winter but looked melodramatic for January in Little Rock.

I lay my head on his shoulder, and he kissed me, tenderly. But then, immediately, he took a deep breath and sat up facing away from me on the edge of the bed.

"You're leaving?"

"I shouldn't be here." He turned to look at me, grabbed my hand, and placed it over his racing heart.

"It's been years since a kiss made me feel like this, Harper. But I am bad news. You should stay as far away from me as possible. Do you understand? You came here for school, and you don't need to get mixed up with someone like me. Date Kelly. He's a good guy. Or Josh. You two crack me up. But we both know you are not taking me home to Sunday dinner down in, what little town did you crawl out of, again?"

As he put on his shoes, Hannah, Rowan, and the neighbor girls burst in laughing and acting like nineteen-year-olds surprised to catch fellow nineteen-year-olds making out. Nick shook his head and said, playfully, "And I'm too old for this shit." After he left, I went to bed wondering whatever happened to the last person who made his heart race.

literature
Meadow Leight-Bell
Meadow Leight-Bell
Read next: 'Chocolate Kisses'
Meadow Leight-Bell

Meadow Leight-Bell has a BA in English from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She lost her real job April 2 due to COVID-19 and is trying to be creative while on lockdown.

Cover Photo by Free Steph on Unsplash

Twitter: @twitz_end

See all posts by Meadow Leight-Bell