19 March 2010
Eric had spent the past year planning for this moment, and now, at long last, it had arrived. He smiled gently as he gazed at Stacey, the girl sleeping peacefully beside him. She seemed so small and vulnerable there, and yet so perfect, her head nestled in the soft, golden brown locks of her hair, and Eric reflected on how lucky he was to be there with her. Of course, “there” was the middle of a crowded movie theater, and even though Eric was an avid movie buff, the romantic comedy playing on the silver screen was just awful. And despite the fact that Stacey’s presence made the terrible film somewhat more bearable, she had fallen asleep within the first hour, leaving Eric to suffer alone. It would have been so easy to lay an arm across her shoulders, to subtly lean closer, to kiss her . . . but he didn’t. He wasn’t that kind of guy, and besides, he didn’t want to startle her. That would most certainly not be a good way to make an impression on the girl of his dreams.
Finally the movie ended, and the audience slowly rose to leave. Eric softly prodded Stacey’s shoulder, and she awoke with a sleepy smile.
“I think I dozed off,” she yawned. “What happened?”
“He got the girl,” Eric said playfully. “Then they died. Painfully.”
“Shut up, Eric!” Stacey laughed, punching him in the arm as they moved toward the exit.
The air outside the theater seemed to have grown much colder since the movie began. As they walked across the crowded parking lot, Eric suddenly realized that Stacey was most likely freezing in her light jacket. Propelled into a state of frantic anxiety by the frigid air and the prospect of Stacey’s discomfort, Eric quickly weaved through the parked cars and set to work trying to unlock the passenger side door to his Taurus, dropping his keys twice in the process. Stacey would have giggled at his predicament but for the chattering of her teeth, which rendered speech—even laughter—virtually impossible.
With a triumphant “I got it!”, Eric flung the dented, salt-coated door open, bowing slightly as Stacey got in. After some crafty maneuvering on the other side, Eric was finally able to get his door open and they were soon underway to Stacey’s apartment building.
“So,” Eric said softly, his voice trembling a little, “what did you think of the movie? What little you saw of it, that is.”
“Good,” Stacey choked out, shivering. “Please—turn the heater up!”
“Huh?” Eric had forgotten to turn the heater on altogether, and he immediately cranked the knobs as hard as he could. “Oh, shoot, I’m sorry!”
“It’s fine,” Stacey assured him, wringing her hands.
“Well, I’m glad you liked the movie!” Eric declared, stealing a glance at the attractive girl sitting next to him and nearly regretting it as he narrowly avoided sideswiping a mailbox. “Yep, that was a good time. Good times, noodle salad, as Jack Nicholson might say.”
Stacey just nodded, a small smile on her full, pink lips.
“So, I guess I won’t be seeing you for a while,” Eric said casually, although his voice cracked a little. “Winter break in New York—gotta be exciting.”
“I know, right?” Stacey agreed, eyes lighting up. “I’ve got to finish packing tonight, but it’s going to be amazing! Christmas Eve in Central Park—New Year’s in Times Square—oh my gosh, this is going to be the only good thing to happen to me all year!”
A bit crestfallen, Eric stared straight ahead, and there were no more furtive glances in Stacey’s direction.
The drive was short, but in the dark, icy night it seemed to take much longer to reach the apartments. Eric eased the car to a stop in front of the double doors and Stacey rummaged around in the backseat to get her things. Eric sat quietly, fingers wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, staring anxiously ahead. But her perfect body was so close to him now, and the luscious, exotic scent of her perfume was almost intoxicating. She drew closer, and soon she was practically leaning against him.
“Stacey,” he croaked nervously, his palms sweating and his pulse rising.
“Yeah?” she replied, feeling around for her textbooks.
“You know, I only say this because it’s the truth,” Eric mumbled, “not to start anything or make things awkward or anything. You know what I mean?”
Stacey turned around, raised an eyebrow slightly, and nodded expectantly.
“That girl at the restaurant was right, you know. You look . . .” How Eric wanted to say it! Beautiful. Amazing. Radiant. Stunning. Perfect. “ . . . awesome tonight.”
“Thanks, Eric,” she replied, biting her lip slightly as she briefly, uncertainly eyed Eric’s Star Trek shirt and thick, unruly hair. “You look good, too.”
“Stacey,” Eric said slowly, choosing his words more carefully this time. “I really, really like you.”
Then, before she could potentially shoot him down, he added, “But if you only want to be friends, that’s fine. I mean, I know I’m never going to be, you know, that guy.”
His voice trailed off, and he finally made eye contact, awaiting judgement. Stacey looked back at him with a knowing, almost saccharine smile.
“Eric, you know I’m not looking for a relationship right now,” she said slowly, as if explaining to a small child why the stovetop burnt his little pink hand. “I value you as a friend, but friendship is all I can give you, do you understand?”
“Yes, of course,” Eric replied quickly, flustered. “I mean, yeah. I didn’t expect—I, uh, yeah. Friendship. Can’t have too many friends, right?”
“Oh my gosh, I am so glad we understand each other!” Stacey chirped, beaming at Eric. “Aren’t you?”
“Yeah, definitely,” agreed Eric. He tilted his head slowly toward her with a wry smile. “Y’know, I think I’m going to call it a night.”
“Ohhh, don’t go yet,” pouted Stacey. “I need somebody to talk to while I pack—for New York! Oh my gosh!”
“Nahh, you’ll be fine. Really.” Eric insisted. “It’s late. I need some sleep.”
“Oh, okay.” Stacey frowned, but her chipper smile quickly returned. “Well, don’t be a stranger! Keep in touch while I’m gone, okay? Call me!”
“Yeah, sure thing.”
As Stacey collected her things and walked away, Eric pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers and sighed. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Then, taking a deep, cleansing breath, he cranked up his Frank Zappa CD and roared off into the night, leaving a spray of muddy slush in his wake.
December soon gave way to January, and before long school was back in session. Eric returned every bit the unrepentant nerd he always was, but there was something different about him now. He no longer cared how others saw him, and for the first time in his life, he wasn’t afraid anymore. In many ways, getting shot down by Stacey had been just the motivator he needed to actually move forward and live his life. But even though he knew it was over between Stacey and him, her presence made him feel more insecure than ever, and as much as he loathed himself for it, his heart still jumped whenever he heard her say his name.
Stacey had returned as well, and if there was any awkwardness on her end about being friends with Eric, she didn’t show it. Indeed, for some reason Eric couldn’t quite put his finger on, she seemed to have made him her personal confidant. She still gushed about New York at every possible opportunity, but now she had a different reason. Now the subject of all her conversations, text messages, and Facebook statuses was Brent, the “amazing” guy she met at Central Park, and how she couldn’t live without him. Soon she was telling everyone about their plans for spring break, and how they would be spending their summer touring the east coast. Eric didn’t understand why he was the one she was constantly trying to share this information with. Indeed, being her “friend” was the most excruciating pain he had ever known, and heartache grew inside him like a tumor. He tried to avoid her as best he could, regarding her with a nod or a simple “hi” whenever they met in the hall or in class and quickly retreating, putting forth every possible erg of willpower to act disinterested in her social life. But even though he always could walk faster than her, Stacey’s presence was ultimately impossible to escape—and it was slowly driving him mad.
One afternoon Eric decided to go to the library to study his notes from Political Science. As he walked into the large, mostly empty room, he nearly jumped when he saw Stacey sitting in a corner, also studying. Already committed to studying in the library, Eric swallowed his insecurity, nodded cordially in Stacey’s direction and sat down at a nearby table, dropping his heavy backpack with a resounding thud. He smiled to himself as he pulled out a few textbooks and turned on his MP3 player, keeping his eyes trained away from Stacey.
Eric tried his best to concentrate on the homework at hand, but the words on the page quickly started to blur into nothingness. How could he possibly concentrate with her so close? More importantly, could he bring himself to leave, knowing she was there?
Nearly jumping out of his skin, Eric looked up to see Stacey sitting on the edge of his table, smiling down at him. She looked at him expectantly for a moment before asking, “So, how was the break? Did you have a good time?”
Eric pulled the headphones away from his ears and made eye contact, mouth hanging slightly ajar. What the heck? Does she really want a straight answer here?
“I’m doing okay, actually,” Eric said quietly, “I mean, the break really kinda sucked, because I was bored out of my skull . . . but I’m better now.”
“Good, good,” replied Stacey, swinging her crossed legs off the edge of the table in a rocking motion. “So, what have you been doing lately? Talked to any girls?”
Eric’s eyebrows shot up. He paused, trying to think of a flippant line from some old movie, then shook his head “no” with a sheepish smile.
“Hmmm,” murmured Stacey, staring off into space before looking back at him knowingly. “So, I hear there’s this great new club opening up next week, and I was thinking maybe you and I ought to go. Who knows, maybe I can talk somebody into buying us some drinks?”
Eric’s mouth hung open slightly, and he wasn’t sure whether to be angry or burst out laughing. Nevertheless, he managed to contain himself and spoke slowly.
“Stacey . . . why are you even talking to me right now?” he asked, his smile now a bit quizzical in nature. “What is it you really want from me? I mean, seriously . . . what?”
“You’re my friend,” Stacey answered quickly. “I just want to know if you’re okay . . . and how you’ve been doing. I mean, we never talk anymore. It’s like you’re avoiding me.”
“Stacey,” Eric said carefully, picking his words as though they were his last, “I’ve been giving you exactly what you seemed to want—space. You don’t owe me anything. You don’t have to check up on me to make sure I’m not on suicide watch. I’m a big boy; I’ll live.”
“Why are you being such a jerk?” Stacey demanded, wiping a moist eye with her fingertip. “I thought you cared about me.”
Eric allowed himself to chuckle slightly.
“I will always care about you, but seriously, if you really cared about my feelings, you wouldn’t constantly be going on about this Brent guy,” Eric said as gently as he could. Okay, so maybe there isn’t a gentle way to say this, he thought glumly. “Just tell me: Are you happy with him?”
“Yes! I love him, okay?” Stacey blurted. “He’s so funny—and strong—and alive! I feel like I can be free when I’m with him—like I can cut loose and have fun.”
“Ahhh, yeah, I see. As opposed to me,” Eric muttered, his smile taking on a cruel twist. “The straight-laced good guy.”
“It’s not that,” Stacey protested, crossing her arms.
“Then what is it? You know, I believed you when you said you weren’t looking for a relationship right now. I guess what you really meant was that you just weren’t interested in a relationship with me.”
“Hold on, that’s not fair,” Stacey said softly, running a hand across her face. She slid off the table and sat down across from Eric, setting her elbows on the tabletop.
“No,” Eric replied, suddenly scowling. “I’ll tell you what isn’t fair. What isn’t fair is having to spend what seems like an eternity trying to figure out why I’m not good enough, only to realize that even though I am exactly the kind of guy you need, I’ll never be the kind of guy you want. And you know what? That hurts! That’s why I have trouble just looking at you, and why I smile from ear to ear just to keep from screaming. And after all this time, I thought I just wasn’t good enough, but that’s not quite true, is it?”
“Stop,” Stacey pleaded, a few mascara-tinted tears rolling down her face.
“The truth is, I am the good guy,” Eric spat out, a bit more harshly than he had intended. But now the words flowed unbidden and unbridled; he could not stop if he wanted to. “I am good enough. I’m the smartest guy you know. I will always be able to make you laugh. I would always be in your corner, no matter what. I’m stable, I’m honest . . . and I would never hurt you. But that’s not good enough for you, so here we are. And I could obsess over why you don’t want me till the day I die, but that won’t do anybody a darned bit of good. So yeah, little by little I’m trying to move on. And you should, too.”
Stacey stared at him blankly, as though she were assessing a child’s tantrum before meting out proper punishment. Then her veneer cracked, and anger bubbled forth.
“I thought you were my friend, Eric,” Stacey snapped, crying freely now; they were well past the point of pretending. “I thought you said you would never hurt me—what do you think you’re doing to me now? Eric, what is wrong with you? You—you’re mean!”
Eric started to speak, but Stacey raised a hand to stop him.
“You’re being all self-righteous and acting like I wronged you somehow, as though that entitles you to be cruel and hurt me, but you have no right,” Stacey hissed through tears and clenched teeth. “I love you as a friend, but I am not, never was, and never will be attracted to you. I want you in my life, but not the way you want to be—and I’m sorry for that. But you were right about one thing: we do need to move on.”
Eric stared at Stacey, unable to find the right words. They sat there for a moment, staring at each other in silence, waiting for the other to make the first move. Finally, Stacey scooped up her things and walked away without a word. Eric remained seated until she was gone, then stood up. Part of him wanted to follow her, to apologize and beg her not to walk out of his life again, but another, deeper part knew she was gone for good this time. He stared at the floor, then closed his eyes and sighed, standing alone in the middle of the library like a prize fighter in an empty ring. The torment, along with the confusion, was gone, replaced by the bitter emptiness of heartache he knew would haunt him far more viciously than anything she could possibly have done to him. Now he was alone, and all he wanted to do was drown in the cold, bitter ocean his life had become.
Forcing his smile to return, Eric sniffed back a sob and looked to the ceiling, hoping to discern some divine message from the drab tiles. The only thing that sprang to mind, however, was just another meaningless movie quote, and he smirked glumly as he recited it to no one in particular.
“Hail to the king, baby.”