He sat her down and said he wanted to do this in, [sic], the “least asshole way possible.” She sat at attention, stopped fidgeting with her “K” necklace, and didn’t say anything. He spoke and her stomach didn’t drop very much. She hugged him on the way out and she could feel an odd sort of fear, manifested in stiffness, in his hug.
“Aw, Kendra, I’m really sorry,” her roommate’s muffled voice came through the wall.
“Eh, it’s fine. Thanks, Mel,” she yelled back, pulling her running clothes out of the bottom drawer. “I just don’t know why they always feel the need to do that.”
“What, break it off with you when they’re not that interested in you?”
“Break it off like they’re breaking up with you. Like, this dude who always talks about himself and never texts me back assumes he means so much to me. I’m trying to remember a time when he even complimented me. Come on. It pisses me off most that he thinks that I didn’t get it that he didn’t quite care, and that I thought that any time I was doing something nice for him it was because I thought I was building something for the long-term or—“ Her shirt got stuck as she tried to pull it on over her head.
“Why didn’t you say something when he sort of broke up with you?” Mel came through the door into Kendra’s room, sitting down on the edge of her bed.
“I didn’t want to seem like I’m arguing to defend my right to be with him, or make it look like I’m clingy and care a lot or anything,” Kendra sighed, wiggling her way into her running tights.
Mel watched Kendra’s stubborn struggle with her tights and knew it was best to let the conversation go. “So, what are you thinking for the run, like an hour and a half?” Mel asked, looking down at her plastic watch.
“Yeah, sounds great,” said Kendra. “I just need to move.”
It was winter, and the frozen roads felt harder and denser than they did in the summer, even in parts where they weren’t glazed in ice. The two girls ran together so often that they rarely bumped into each other on corners, assuming that the other wanted to cross a street a different way and take a different route. Mel always jogged in place at stoplights, and Kendra just stood there with a mildly aggressive mid-workout frown.
“So, I was thinking we should make something special for dinner,” said Mel, the cat litter between the ice and her shoe treads making a satisfying, gravelly crunch.
“NACHOOOS,” sang Kendra.
“NO. You are not allowed to get fat because of a breakup.”
“Dude, it was not a breakup! Don’t call it a breakup!”
“Fine, whatever, you’re not allowed to get fat because you’re a fierce Amazon woman who doesn’t need a man.”
“I’ve never met an Amazon, but I’m sure somebody out there would find that racist. Just saying.”
“Fuck. Kendra. Please be more of a pain.” Mel groaned, and paused. “Also, I think we should have have stir-fry.”
“Alright, I can do that. Want me to pick up some veggies?” Kendra asked.
“Sounds great,” Mel said as they rounded the next corner.
Kendra thought about him while she showered and while she toweled off and while she put on a big warm sweater and pants and shoes. She thought about him while she took the stairwell to the parking garage, and she thought of him three of the five times she tried to start the crusty old Civic she shared with Mel. None of the songs on the radio as she drove to the supermarket made her think of him. When she realized this, she was proud of herself, but realized that this counted as thinking of him and virtually kicked herself in the face.
With the fingers of her right hand wrapped around the germ minefield of the cart handle and her left hand raising up a bell pepper for inspection, she saw him out of the corner of her eye. “The hell,” she breathed softly. He was getting a bag of apples. She put the pepper in a plastic bag and sealed it with a snug knot. With the stiffest straight posture and nose up, she moved on to select an onion.
Thinking ahead to the week’s grocery needs, Kendra ducked into the aisles for another tub of oats and some dish soap. As she selected generic oats and brand-name soap, hesitating in the aisle with the coffee and wondering if she needed a new bag of grounds, she wondered if it would be more nonchalant to stop and talk to him (“Hi, I am entirely unaffected by the whims of your feelings and can talk to you in the supermarket like a coworker”) or if she left him alone (“Hi, I feel no need to pay any attention to you at all”).
Her question went null when she moved towards the checkout lanes to discover each one overflowing, except the Express lane, where he stood in the back. She meandered awkwardly into line, pausing to examine to the tower of discounted flavored water at the end of the nearest aisle.
He was facing away from Kendra, looking at the packs of gum. Toes tapping in her shoes, she wondered if it would be better or worse to pretend that she couldn’t recognize him by the back of his head.
He saw her and spoke first. “Oh, hey Kendra, what’s up.”
“Not much, gonna cook with Mel later,” she replied, always unclear about whether to give a real answer to ‘what’s up’ or not. “You?”
“Getting ready for a wild night,” he said, revealing a basket with a frozen pizza and donut flavored ice cream. Donut, yuck, Kendra thought, giving a polite laugh.
“Do you want to go ahead of me?” he asked.
“Ah, I shouldn’t, I’m an extreme coupon-er,” she said, mouth dry and regretting her feeble joke. “Just kidding.”
Both parties shifted their weight uncomfortably. Kendra cursed the fact that the express lane was not fast enough to alleviate awkward conversations.
“Okay, well, see you later,” he said. Kendra replied bye, wondering when she would see him later. She still collected her groceries in her backpack like she did before she co-owned a car. The steering wheel and seatbelt buckle were cold and hard.
“So he was just right there? At the grocery store? The universe hates you, Kennie,” Mel commiserated while slicing peppers.
“Ah, yeah, I mean, it could have been a lot worse, it’s just whenever we see each other in public or anything it’s gonna be awkward for awhile, I think,” Kendra mused, spraying the frying pan with nonstick while holding it over the sink.
“Hey, my office is having a party this weekend, wanna be my plus one?” Mel asked.
“Yeah, can I wear my Tigger costume?” Kendra asked, not looking up.
“No orange fleece bags,” Mel whacked the onion in half with a large knife. “It’s not a costume party. I’m gonna make you wear something nice that covers up your bad attitude.”
From Mel’s perspective, and with Kendra’s best-friend acquiescence, it took only a sleeveless black dress to cover a bad attitude. “You look great,” Mel said warmly, standing in front of the mirror as Kendra sat on her bed. “Wait, why are you putting on socks?”
“I’m gonna wear comfortable shoes.”
“No, no, no, you’re on such a good roll,” groaned Mel.
“Nope. Dude. It is my human right to have comfortable feet while standing and walking,” Kendra said. Her socks were covered in pictures of small goldfish.
Mel faced her with a hand on her hip and scowled. “You’re gonna wear those gross, nasty slip-ons that you always wear. The ones that let everyone see that you’re an emo twelve-year-old.”
“Ahem,” Kendra corrected, “those are the shoes of legends. Do I have to remind you of the concerts I’ve been to in those shoes? The number of buses and planes I’ve caught just in time because I was wearing those shoes instead of bad flats? Excuse me, ma’am, do you have a moment to talk about arch support? Also, I’m not the one who keeps buying Motion City albums even now that they’ve peaked, emo babe.”
Twenty minutes later, the pointed toe of Mel’s heel was pressing the gas pedal of the Civic while the rubber of Kendra’s slip-on was tapping along to the radio in the passenger seat. Mel had grown up in the city, but Kendra’s parents had been middle-school teachers in a mining town up North, and Kendra still got awestruck when she stared up at the tall buildings at night. To Kendra, the reverb of the yellowing streetlights off the glass-plated sides of the buildings looked like a weird, smudged version of the stars that she could almost touch.
They parked in an industrial-looking cul-de-sac instead of in a metered spot and walked two blocks to get to the office party.
Taking the elevator to accommodate for Mel’s heels, the two girls checked their phones. Both needed to be sure they had enough battery life to contact the other and get rescued in the event of an awkward, overly long conversation or an unwanted, (uhh), admirer.
“You can’t hear the music yet. This is a bad sign,” Kendra said as the elevator door opened and the pair stepped out.
“Kendra, seriously, we’re adults now. Please don’t hold the stem of your wineglass in your fist or anything,” Mel sighed.
When they arrived in the coworker’s apartment, Kendra gave a subtle point to the pile of red plastic cups on the coffee table as she took off her jacket, raising her eyebrows and grinning. Mel scowled.
Kendra wandered towards the kitchen, letting Mel immediately drift into a laughing group of her coworkers. In the social world, Kendra was a kitchen-talker, though people often stereotyped her otherwise. She liked sitting on a counter with her cup in both hands, listening to irreverent jokes and avoiding the whispers skirting the main floor.
I’m bound to know a few people besides Mel, she thought, entering the kitchen. Unfortunately, at the time being, it held only two couples. One kissing. Adults these days, she thought, taking a cup from the counter and filling it at the sink.
“Hey, nice shoes,” she heard from over her shoulder. It was his voice.
Startled, she set down the cup, turning around with a hand resting on the counter. “Thanks. How’s it going?” She looked at him. Not cute not cute not cute
“It’s good,” he said, a hand in his pocket and the other wrapped around a beer. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and texted BATHROOM to Mel.
“Hey, um, Mel just texted me, but I’ll catch you later?” She said, trying to act especially uninterested in his reply as she bustled out.
Mel was already waiting in the apartment bathroom. “Hey, thanks, I really hate doing this to you, your friends looked fun,” said Kendra.
“Eh, it’s fine,” Mel said, sipping from her cup. “Are you alright?”
Kendra shed her sense of decorum like whipping off a bathrobe. “HE’S HERE,” she said, grabbing Mel by the shoulders. She let go with one arm, swiped Mel’s drink, and took a chug.
“Okay, whoa, whoa, whoa, first of all, you’re unzipping,” Mel said, backing Kendra away and tugging up the zipper on the front of her dress. “Secondly, you’re DDing. But, for real, you said you don’t care, so prove it. Talk to him, don’t talk to him, but show him you’re not gonna cling. Show you that you’re not gonna cling.”
“Wow, harsh,” said Kendra, believing Mel to be completely correct and not harsh at all. After a pause, she conceded and added, “Sounds good.”
“Alright, so, planning to leave at one, but let me know if things go down in flames?” asked Mel.
“Sounds perfect,” said Kendra, wrapping her roommate in a hug. “I’m gonna squish you. Sober squish alert, it’s ya numba one DD.”
“Ugh, Kennie, get off,” Mel said, “I gotta go be a popular kid.” She gently separated herself from Kendra and left with a last warm smile.
Kendra fidgeted with some of the wisps of hair that curled around her ears before leaving the bathroom. She returned to the kitchen and decided not to pick up her old cup. Helping herself to a new one, she filled it, and made her way to the edge of the living room.
“Nice shoes,” she heard from behind again, but this time the voice was deeper. She turned around to find the voice’s owner to be squat and fair-haired. “What’s your name?” the voice’s owner asked.
“I’m Kendra,” said Kendra, mashing her toe into carpet nervously. She looked out to the rest of the living room. She saw him. He was slipping his hand around the waist of a girl with thick, black hair and leading her towards the window.
“So, do you work for Geotag?” the squat man asked.
“No, um, I’m Melanie’s roommate.”
“Are you, uh,” the man began uncomfortably.
“We’re friends, and kind of cheap, saving on rent,” Kendra said, laughing awkwardly, and wondering why she was clarifying her sexuality to this stranger. She felt rude for not having asked the man’s name. “Uh, what’s your name?”
The man’s name led into an avalanche of talking, one that Kendra could easily pretend to be engaged in without actually having to listen. Kendra looked back out over the room. He was still with the black-haired girl. The girl was laughing. He pulled the girl back into the room, and they started to sway in circles to the droopy background music that few other people were dancing to.
“Hey, listen, I gotta go, but it was nice to meet you,” said Kendra. Aiming for the bathroom, she found herself instead grabbing her jacket, ducking out of the apartment, and careening down the stairwell. Once she reached the sidewalk, she wandered slowly, staring at the coils of her breath and trying to feel somehow artistic or heroic or a solitary kind of romantic, out in the night alone, until she stumbled upon a commercial coffee shop. Inside, she ordered a hot chocolate, running her fingers over the plasticky, overly-finished fake wood of the counter.
She sat down at the counter facing the street with her drink, pulled a pen from her jacket pocket, and started doodling tiny circles and triangles on a brown napkin that was partially stuck to the counter. When she looked up, she saw him and the black-haired girl walking towards the car parked in front of the coffee shop. It was his car. I didn’t even think, she thought, as if she should have known to be on constant lookout for new blue Corollas. To her horror, he looked up at the shop window as he fished for his keys in his pocket, looked down at the key, and looked back up, at her. He then faced the girl, obviously saying something to her, and then paced to the coffee shop door and opened it briskly, ringing the bell.
“Kendra, you alright?” He said loudly as he made his way over, taking the seat next to her.
“Yeah,” she said. Pausing, she figured she should probably have a rationale for having left. “As much as I love DDing, and having random weird guys make a move, I needed a break.” This wasn’t entirely true. He had made a pre-move move. Not desired, but still not a negative affront.
“Whoa, do I need to go back up there and talk to someone?” he said.
Kendra was surprised by his reaction, and tried to cover it up. “No, it’s fine, I had it under control, I just needed some air.” He nodded, still not quite seeming to agree.
“Do you need a ride home?” he asked.
“Can’t, I’m driving Mel,” she answered, picturing few things she had less desire to do than be driven home, sitting in the backseat, with him and the black-haired girl.
“Okay,” he said, standing up and leaving without another word. She couldn’t muster a feeble goodbye, and didn’t know if she should. Instead, she picked apart the napkin at the tender seams created by her pen lines. Once she’d swept the bits into a neat pile, she stared moodily out the window. Snow sparkled on the sidewalk under the streetlights. She wanted to run.
Kendra swept the napkin bits into her cup and disposed of both as she exited. She wiggled her feet in her slip-ons and checked her watch. 12:15. I can run it off for a couple blocks. She spaced out her feet in a mock track start and took off. Her dress fluttered as she ran, and her hair blew over her face and stuck to her lip balm. She could feel sweat start to bud in her armpits beneath her down coat. Her throat felt tight and itchy from the cold air, and she loved it. She had run out of the kitschy new apartment area and into the kind of neighborhood with old, big houses with iron fences. The hard sidewalk was starting to hurt her feet, and she loved that too.
12:50. Text from Mel. Where are you?
I’m on the corner of 15th and 1st. I’m coming back. And I’m free