Authors: Opal Mellon
“Aw, Susan.” Justin stretched and yawned. “I’m not the one sulking because I don’t get to ask more awkward questions.”
Her eyes narrowed, and a little line appeared on her forehead. “I don’t like this,” she said, standing.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Justin said, quickly moving to extinguish the fire. He put an arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry Susan. That was out of line. If you promise not to rat me out to Hope, I’ll let you choose the game.”
Sean looked over at Nicole and shrugged. She smiled back at him and shook her head. Moments like this were worth everything with her. He sighed and chewed his juice box straw and wondered if just being her friend could really be enough for him.
he doorbell rang, and Nicole looked out the window to see Sean’s Jeep outside. She grabbed her earrings from her dresser. She put them in and rushed to the mirror for a final look at the finished product. It was interesting how going out with an escort still felt like a date, still led to a lot of excitement and anticipation, still made her feel giddy and nervous to impress.
She was pushing down the back of her underwear on the way down the stairs when her aunt coughed. Nicole realized Sean had been let in while she’d been making him wait, and was now looking at her agape.
“What are you looking at?” she asked, straightening her shirt. “Can’t a girl get some privacy?”
“Maybe you should have looked around you before you started something that needed it,” Mary said.
Sean averted his eyes. She couldn’t tell if he was blushing.
“I’m sorry Nicole, but it’s hot out there. I didn’t think you’d want your guest left on the porch.” Mary came around and sat by Sean on the couch. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
Nicole put a hand on his shoulder. “This is Sean.”
Mary’s eyes popped wide open, her whites stark against her dark eyelids. “Are you serious? The Sean?”
“Yes,” Nicole said. “We met up again.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“Well we haven’t been crossing each other’s paths much lately.”
“True, I’ve been busy, but … ” Mary looked Sean up and down, circling him. “Seriously?”
Nicole stifled a chuckle at how confused Sean looked. He was doing a good job of hiding it, but she’d seen it enough times at the club that she couldn’t be fooled.
“This is the kid who was sitting on the curb when you left? Girl you better get on that!” Mary gave Sean a quick hug. “Thank you for always being such a good friend to my niece. I’m sorry she can’t see what a dish you are.”
Sean didn’t know what to say to that. He gave her an awkward pat on the back, opened his mouth a few times hoping the right thing to say would come if he did, but nothing did.
“Do you like older women?”
“Sean, she’s just messing with you.”
“Am not. I know a dish when I see one.” Mary headed into the kitchen. “What would you like to drink?”
“We should probably head out,” Sean whispered. “This is awkward.”
“I know,” Nicole said. “Just give her another few minutes. She’ll calm down.”
They sat and Nicole took the moment to look Sean over. He wore a polo shirt, white with light blue stripes that matched his eyes. His tan looked incredible in it. They’d probably have beautiful babies together if it ever went that way.
He looked good in jeans, muscular, wearing a baggier style. Not the woman-jeans she saw so many men squeezing themselves into. He had casual shoes on, something to walk in that didn’t look nerdy like a running shoe. She laughed remembering his fashion as a kid. Then again, who was fashionable as a kid? Probably only people even more messed up than they were.
Sean snuck a glance at the kitchen. “She’s acting crazy. You’d think you’d never brought a guy home.”
“Well I always kept the guys I dated away from my aunt. Went to their place, had our own place, etc. I just didn’t want her to meet them.”
“I didn’t want her to look at me differently. Not that she didn’t see the fallout and support me when things went wrong with the guys, but I didn’t want her to see for herself how plain it was that they were bad and think I was stupid for not seeing it.”
“That makes sense … in a weird way,” Sean said. “Then again, that’s how you always made sense.”
She gave his arm a little punch, and he laughed and rubbed it.
Mary came in with a tray and a pitcher and several glasses.
Sean took it from her. “Allow me.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Mary said, handing it over and checking Sean out again. “I like this one, let’s keep him around.”
Nicole put her hand over her face for a moment, but removed it when Sean set her drink in front of her. He put another next to her where he’d sit, and another on the table by the sofa. Mary sat.
“Am I missing something here?”
“He’s just a friend,” Nicole said.
“I’m sorry for springing my visit on you like this,” Sean said. “Nicole and I are just going on a double date with her friends.”
Nicole narrowed her eyes at him. How dare he contradict her? But she couldn’t really tell her aunt she was paying him to go out with her.
Mary glanced at Nicole. “No problem. Friends of Nicole are always welcome here. Plus it’s about time I met one of her men.”
Sean checked his watch. “Time to head out, if we don’t want to miss them.” He stood and held out a hand. She didn’t take it and stood on her own. He opened the front door, and then gave her aunt one last smile and wave. Nicole walked under his arm out the front door.
“You two take care. Be safe,” Mary said, finishing her lemonade and cleaning up the tray.
“I’ll take good care of her,” Sean said, pulling Nicole, who was bristling at his comment, along with him to the Jeep. He heard Mary laugh as he shut the door. When they were close to the Jeep Nicole snorted and pushed away from him.
“Stop it,” she said. “What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
“You had to correct me in front of Aunt Mary,” she said. “I don’t know that I’m very happy with your services today.”
“I hate to break it to you, but we really are on a date.” He opened his door, got in, and unlocked hers so she could do the same.
“You know what I mean,” she said, opening the door and measuring the space between her feet and the step up to the Jeep, wishing she wasn’t wearing a pencil skirt. “You know I’m an independent person.”
“I take care of myself.” She tried to hop in, but her foot wouldn’t hit the step without feeling like her skirt was about to rip. She hoped he hadn’t seen her just then, and readied for another attempt.
“I know,” he said. “But it’s the normal thing for a guy to say to a family member when taking a woman out. And I think it got us out of there before it could get more awkward.” He sighed. “Will you just let me help you with that?”
“I can manage.” She put her hands on either side of the doorway and lifted till both knees touched, but then realized there was no way to bring her feet around after.
Sean had had enough. He opened his door and got out and came around to her side. She made a strong last attempt to get up, but was stuck on her knees when she felt him set an arm around her knees and her back and lift her up.
“What are you doing?” She struggled for a moment before he plopped her in her seat.
Sean laughed. “Come on Nicole. If you’d fallen you’d have ruined your outfit for your date.” He got back in. “Besides, you rescued me before. Aren’t you going to let me return the favor at all? Turnabout is fair play you know.”
“Well, you needed it.” She snapped the seat belt into place and stared out the window away from him. “And I don’t. I would have gotten in on my own.”
“Well my bad,” Sean said, putting the Jeep into gear. “But I couldn’t wait for your antics to make us late. Plus your aunt was watching.”
“Oh no, then she saw you, she saw, dang it.” Nicole pounded the window.
“Just don’t think about it,” he said. “Let’s just go have a good time.”
“If that’s possible when you are being so pigheaded,” she said. But maybe it was just that he wasn’t staying in the box she’d built for him, and she didn’t know what she could do about it.
“Hey, you hired me,” he said, turning the wheel to pull away from the curb. “I didn’t promise to act like a baby. I promised to be your date. Maybe next time you should specify in the contract that you want me to not be a gentleman.”
“Fine. I will.”
“Or, you know.” He palmed the wheel. “You could just ask me to hang out with you as a friend, rather than scheduling a date with the club.”
The ride was silent for a few minutes while Nicole processed this. Could she really just hang out with him outside of Club Blue entirely? No, that was dangerous. If she wasn’t controlling the situation, couldn’t the friendship end up ruined? At the same time, if he was going to insist on acting like this on their dates, maybe it was the better option.
“Maybe I will sometime,” she said. “If you behave.”
“I always behave,” Sean said, giving her knee a pat and one handing the wheel to turn. “I just don’t always behave the way you want me to.” He put his other hand back on the wheel and relaxed on it. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
Nicole scratched her head and wondered if it really was.
everal weeks later, Sean left his house aware of the smell of rain. It smelled of wet dirt and leaves, like the earth was sweating after a shower, the earthy smell was clean and inviting. Distant thunder added to his pleasure as he drove to the dojang. The rhythm of the wipers lulled him. He didn’t want the drive to end, and took an extra loop around the block, humming along to the radio because he could never remember lyrics.
Inside, the sound of the rain against the glass door and windows was a good consolation prize for the loss of the rain smell, the trade for the dirty, hardworking martial arts student smell.
He moved to his desk, dropped his bag to the ground, and started sorting through the mail and fliers piled there. Bills, invoices, one letter of resignation from an instructor who’d become too busy with college and left months ago. Some of the instructors weren’t much younger than him. It was weird to think of the different position he was in, one he’d been neglecting by going to the club. He dropped his face into his hands and kneaded his forehead. Being here, where he was expected to have so much authority, so much responsibility, made him feel ashamed of his activities at Blue. Made him feel like an irresponsible, selfish child. What had he been thinking?
He sat up and turned his chair to the window, listening to the drone of the rain. A few months ago people had liked him. Even without the host club, he was an interesting person. He was driven. He wasn’t constantly focusing on someone other than himself.
He stood and walked to the glass door to look at a flier one of his teachers must have put up. It announced the Cal State open. Before the club, he’d lived for competition. Though he was old by some people’s standards for competing, he knew he was still quick enough to try for it, if he started practicing now. And it could take his mind off Nicole while she sorted things out.
Dang, two months. This is going to take more time at the dojang. He thought of the club. He studied the flier again, thought of the club again, and made a decision. He pulled out his cell phone.
“Hi, Hope?” he pulled out his date book with the other hand to mark the day of the competition while holding the phone with his shoulder to his ear. “I’m going to need some time off.”
Across town, Nicole considered calling Sean over. Rain splashed against the living room window and she wanted to go out and walk in it. She decided to go out alone, and slipped into a swimsuit and T-shirt. The water would be frigid, but she was used to it and knew how long she could stay in. A raincoat or anything that kept her from getting wet was out of the question. Getting wet, feeling the tiny pinpricks of the rain like little kisses from falling stars, was the whole point. Occasionally, she’d wear a hat if it was hard to see in front of her, but not today. Just a swimsuit to solve the see-through issue of wet T-shirts and shorts so that she could swim if she liked. Swimming in the ocean was divine. Rising with the waves while watching the tiny pinprick ripples creating polka dot rings around you, with the little plop-plop rhythm that accompanied them, was the closest Nicole could get to heaven. If you included a beautiful, grayscale horizon with moody clouds to watch as well … well … that was cosmic.
Looking out on the ocean was a lot like looking at the stars, except that the ocean with its turmoil and rolling beauty was more frightening and real.
She walked out with bare feet, skirting lightly across the road, happy for such close beach access, and hopped the small barrier that separated the road from the beach. Her feet sunk into moist sand, cool and soft like cookie dough from the fridge, and she sighed and wiggled her toes for a moment. She sat on the barrier and put her face into the rain, opened her mouth to catch a few drops on her tongue. It wasn’t very clean, but germs built up antibodies right? She laughed thinking of Sean’s disgusted face if he saw her.
He also wouldn’t approve of her going out on the beach alone, probably. If she’d called him, he would have come. But would he have come because he wanted to, or just for her safety? She could only remember the last night they’d had here, where he’d squeezed her hand and looked into her eyes to say he wanted more but could go without. She popped off the barrier into the sand again and walked on the beach. She stopped twenty feet from the edge of where the waves stopped dampening the sand with long, flat, deformed hands and she sat down.
A good distance away, a man in jogging clothing walked a dog. She wanted an excuse not to talk to him and wished she’d brought a book.
She planted her hands deep in the sand and closed her eyes for a while, enjoying the rain and her own thoughts, which tended in a disturbing way to Sean and wishing he were here with her, where they could make out in the—no, that wasn’t right.