Authors: Opal Mellon
“Well you chose each other,” she said. When Nicole looked like she was about to correct her, she cut her off with, “At least as friends. Like attracts like, and you’re a special girl.”
“Thanks,” Nicole said, leaning forward and giving her aunt a hug of her own will. She always felt like she was giving an extra special gift when she hugged someone on her own. She didn’t initiate often. She’d seen physicality hurt too badly to want to hurt anyone with it.
Her aunt held her with hands that were feeling more delicate now than thirteen years ago. She pulled back to look at her in the face, a face so like hers that she hoped she could see her mom in it.
“Are you eating well? You’re always at meetings,” Nicole asked.
Her aunt laughed but touched her cheek lightly, which did seem to look a bit more gaunt than usual. “I suppose so. I guess I wasn’t paying much attention.”
“You work too hard.”
“I don’t. That’s the problem. I feel like I have to go to every community improvement meeting possible, because your darn uncle left me too much money to have any ambition to hold a real job. I don’t know what to do with myself otherwise.”
Nicole laughed and squeezed her hand, pushed a lock of Mary’s hair back behind her ear. “Take care of yourself. I need you around.”
Mary laughed and stood. “And I need you, rascal.”
“I’m twenty-six,” Nicole said.
“You’ll always be that rascally thirteen-year-old to me. Goodness you were tiny when I brought you here.” Mary went to the door and leaned against the jamb. “Would you like some breakfast?”
“No. But I guess I need it,” Nicole said, standing and stretching.
“What you need is to get that man of yours out of the car and bring him in for breakfast. I’d say he’s earned it.” Mary left before Nicole could retort that he wasn’t her man. Nicole went over for one last look at him, asleep in the Jeep. Maybe someday.
~ ~ ~
Sean ate his eggs between suspicious looks at Nicole and her aunt. He didn’t know if he should defend himself for being parked outside like a stalker.
He hoped that Mary’s kindness was a reflection of knowledge or approval of the last night’s events, but he didn’t even know how long Nicole had been awake before she’d come to thump on his window, startling him. He hadn’t known what to say to Nicole, so he’d just followed her inside and accepted breakfast, as if the whole scene were completely normal, and he’d been planning to join the two lovely ladies for brunch all along.
“So, Sean, tell me more about you. What do you do?” Mary poked at her eggs and smiled at him, waiting.
He had already picked up his orange juice, so he brought it to his mouth and took a long drink while deciding how to answer.
“I run a dojang,” he said, setting the glass down, avoiding Nicole’s eyes.
“Oh really?” Mary said, her eyes lighting up. “Nicole never mentioned that.” She gave Nicole a gentle push, and Nicole sent him an embarrassed apology with her eyes.
“It’s not like I know much about it either,” she said. “He never brings it up.”
“I didn’t know you wanted to hear about it,” Sean said, finishing his eggs and pushing his plate aside. Mary got up as if to serve more and he waved her away, patting his stomach. “No thanks ma’am, all finished.”
Mary laughed. “You just get better and better.”
And this just gets worse and worse, he thought, wishing he could vaporize and disappear before things got more awkward between him and Nicole. She hadn’t acted like anything was different, and he didn’t see how that could be. She’d confided in him, she’d touched him. He knew they were only friends, but he had expected the past night to change the nature of their friendship somewhat. He wanted to be trusted. Would she be so embarrassed by the whole thing that she wouldn’t want to see him because it would remind her?
“When are you at the dojang, anyway?” she asked. “I’d like to see it sometime.
Sean flushed with pride. A part of him couldn’t believe this was happening, that she wanted to come see it, after so many letters, after being on the sidelines so much. Even if it had all started because of her.
“I’m going in today. We could go over now if you want.” He got up to take his plate to the sink but was intercepted by Mary, who took it from him and rinsed it.
“I’ll take care of clean up,” she said, putting down the plate and moving to shoo Nicole out of her chair. “You kids go have fun.”
“I don’t know how much fun I can promise it’ll be.” Sean shrugged.
“It’s a new place,” she said. “I’ll drive myself, so that if I get bored, I can leave.”
Sean frowned and crossed his arms. “How about I drive, and just promise not to bore you,” he said, not liking the idea of her coming in, deciding it was lame before he could prove otherwise, and crushing his ego by leaving.
“Neanderthal,” she said, grabbing her purse and heading for the front door. Right before she grabbed the handle, she went back to hug her aunt and give her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for everything,” she said.
Mary hugged her back, and Sean looked over his shoulder just before following Nicole out the front door to see her touch her cheek and smile softly.
Nicole could feel Sean watching her each time they stopped at a red light or stop sigh.
“For goodness sake stop staring at me like I might spontaneously combust.”
“Sorry,” he said. “We’re here.”
They’d pulled in front of the dojang. A large sign in front read “Tae Kwon Do.”
“Do you have to do a lot of marketing?” she asked, walking under his arm as he held the large glass door to the dojang open for her.
“Not really,” he said. “The owner does most of it the way he always has, ads in the Yellow Pages or other small venues, offering free lessons or a free uniform. Then again, people also just tend to see the sign, and if they are looking for martial arts, it’ll catch their eye.”
She stared, mesmerized at the multiple floors and foreign equipment, while he continued.
“I guess you could say we only want people here who want to do what we do.” He walked over to a desk that was surrounded by counters, under which equipment that looked like weapons and protective gear was stored, sat down, and started rooting through papers.
“Wow, organized,” she said, looking at the pile and leaning against the counter.
“Thanks.” He looked up, realized she wasn’t serious, and frowned. “Oh. Rude.”
She laughed. “You should have taken my suggestions to go more electronic.”
He set the papers down. “Come on, I’ll show you around.”
“Great,” she followed him to the first mat, which felt soft and foamy. There was no one else in the dojang. “Is it usually this empty?”
“We don’t open for classes for a few hours,” he said. “Most of our clients are kids, and the ones who are adults work during the day. The teachers will be in a bit before them, to clean up and get things ready for their classes.”
“Cool,” Nicole said, walking on to the mat to go look at something that looked like a punching bag mounted on a thick black plastic base. “What’s this?”
Sean cleared his throat, and when she turned around, he was folding his arms and glaring. He pointed beside him, signaling her to come back. “You have to bow in.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I mean it,” he said. “And you have to take off your shoes. You’ll damage the padding.”
She slumped over and took off her shoes. She’d be darned if she’d bow to him.
“The Korean and American flags,” he said, pointing up to the wall across from them, on which was hung a row of different colored belts, with black at the end. “We bow to them as a sign of respect, each time we go onto the mat.”
She could respect a country or two, she guessed, making a slight bow as he did the same.
“What are these?” she said, lightly punching a large padded object with her hand to see what it did. It rocked slightly away and then back towards her, and she jumped.
“They’re called Wavemasters,” he said. “Basically a punching bag, but for kicking.”
She looked confused. “Can’t you just kick a punching bag?” she asked. “Why does it have to be mounted from the bottom?”
He waved her to move a bit away from the bag and readied himself, facing it, arms loose at his side, and feet shoulder width apart. He grinned at her, then focused again, and lightning fast, spun towards it with a kick that resounded across the room with a loud bang.
She wouldn’t have believed it if she’d seen it anywhere but right here beside him. He’d hit so hard that the bag swung back almost till it touched the floor, then slowly righted itself, ready for another strike.
“That’s why,” he said.
“I still don’t get it.”
“Come here,” he said, and she came over to stand by him. “Maybe if you try, you’ll see it better.”
He stood the same as he had before, and looked at her as if expecting her to do the same. She did.
“Good,” he said. “Now spread your legs a little,” he motioned to his own. “Like this. Good.”
He raised his front leg. “Now bring your front leg up, like this.”
She did, wobbling, and held it.
“Now just extend it, slowly at first.” He straightened his leg until the front of his shin made contact with the bag. “And that’s a round house kick.”
She tried to do the same and toppled forward.
“No, no, no,” he said. “Can I touch you?”
She nodded. He picked up her front leg, and held it in the position it had been before. If she had thought letting him hold her leg would be strictly platonic, she was wrong. She tingled where he was touching.
“Great, now just straighten it,” he said, keeping one hand on her thigh and holding it while using the other to straighten her leg and guide her foot to the side of the bag. His eyes met hers and his face softened. He dropped her foot. She let it fall slowly.
“I’ve got to go,” she said, turning to walk off the mat. Sean didn’t ask her to bow out.
“Wait,” he said. “We need to talk about last night.” He came in front of her and blocked the door.
She loved the way the light played in his dark hair and how bright his blue eyes looked, and she wanted to get away from him so she could forget about it.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” she said. “I blew it last night and it’s no use for us to keep pretending that nothing has changed.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, not budging despite her attempts to push him aside.
“Stop it,” she said. “I know you’re just pitying me. You can’t stand to be around me after last night, now that you know what a nut job I am.”
“I’ve always known what a nut job you are, Nick,” Sean said, smiling a smile that faded when he realized she was even angrier after that comment. “But seriously, I don’t see you any differently.”
“Good. Because I was just a kid, you know? And it’s wrong of you to judge me for it,” she said, keeping tears away by keeping her anger dominant.
“I’m not judging you,” he said. “None of that was your fault.”
“I saw the way you looked last night when I told you,” she said. “I’m not stupid.” She sat on the floor in a ball with her arms on her knees, waiting for him to move.
“I was angry,” he said, sitting as well, with one leg out and the other bent. “But not at you.”
“Who then?” she said. “Who else is there to be angry at? I was the slut.”
“Don’t ever call yourself that.” When she flinched, he softened his voice. “I’m sorry. But I can’t stand for you to call yourself that.” He traced a circle on the ground beside him. “You’re still my best friend. Nothing has changed.”
“You expect me to believe that?” she said, looking away. “You expect me to think that you’d have been my friend then if you’d known?”
“Of course,” he said. “Are you so damaged you really think that would have mattered?”
“Damaged?” She buried her head in her arms.
“Yes. No. That’s not what I mean.” He started forward towards her. “I mean, what you think I mean is not what I mean, but I know how it sounded.”
He stared at her. She sat for a moment, and he didn’t hear anything. Then she surprised him by standing.
“You know what?” she said. “Maybe I am damaged. But you’re the one who’s been stalking a damaged person for thirteen years.” She grabbed her purse and walked to the door. “I’d appreciate it if you drove me home now.” She opened the door. “I have a date.” She let it fall behind her and walked to the Jeep.
“Stalking, huh? So that’s what I’ve done?” He unlocked her door, then went around and got in on his side.
Nicole waited for him to explain himself, to reassure her as they drove back to her aunt’s. He didn’t. She didn’t actually have a date. She’d just said it to toss a barb at him like the one he’d tossed at her. And to give her some distance. She may have cried in his arms, but she wasn’t ready to jump into them yet. Especially if he was just going to give up like he was right now.
When they pulled up in front of her place, he was still staring stoically ahead. “I was just trying to tell you that it didn’t make a difference to me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I say now.” He got out and came around to her door but she jumped out without his help.
She walked up the front steps. “I don’t need to be fixed, Sean,” she said, her hand on the doorknob. “I can take care of myself.”
“Fine,” he said, throwing up his hands and going back to his side of the Jeep. “Cause I’m sick of doing it anyway!”
Her heart felt squeezed in her chest and she slammed the door on him. She heard the Jeep door slam and heard him peel out.
Nicole slumped back against her door, so angry she could barely see, barely stand. And yet, his leaving was what she wanted. It made the voices in her quiet down, made the screaming stop. Don’t fall in love. Don’t love anyone again. They’ll just hurt you. And Sean could hurt her worse than anyone, because she loved him the most. She put a hand up over her mouth and sobbed into it. The only reason she could have reacted so badly to his statements was because his opinion meant more to her than others. Why had it taken her so long to see, and why was it so much less of a joyous occasion than one would think, falling in love with your best friend? Maybe she’d always loved him, but the thought scared her.