I don’t know how I got here. I mean, I do, physically speaking—I drove two hours in my Toyota, fighting the holiday traffic. But I don’t know how I got here mentally. You know, like when you’re doing something absurdly conflicting to your character, and you don’t remember when you altered your path to get to that point.
I’m sitting in a bar gagging on the cigarette smoke spewing from the mouths of drunkards. The Leaky Barrel, it’s called: A hole-in-the-wall tavern off the touristy route. It’s cozy, I suppose, in a claustrophobic way. Dark stained-wood accentuates counters and booths; heavy red draperies hang on the iron-barred windows. It’s trying to be an Irish pub, but the furnishings lack green shamrocks and gold-toothed leprechauns. The bartender, a scrawny white Irishman, makes up for it, however. With a shamrock pin hanging loosely from his wrinkled, sweaty T-shirt and a gold earring dangling from his left ear, he chugs a bottle of whiskey before pouring a round of shots for a feisty group of college students. I watch him intently as he spits in a bucket under the counter, clears the counter of empty shot glasses and collects soggy tip money. He’s a jittery fellow, slightly schizo. While his body is tense, he’s also so relaxed, and I can’t take my eyes off him as he nonchalantly pours and mixes drinks, a stupid smile on his mug.
A girl sporting a red, white and blue mini-skirt stumbles over and smacks a twenty on the counter. “I wanna strawberry margarita!” she shouts, emphasizing the r’s. She bats her thick eyelashes and her eye make-up glistens.
“Like hell you do,” the bartender exclaims, gesturing with a bottle of Vodka. “Get the hell outta my bar! Does this look like Mexico? Do you see a garden?”
“Pleaseeee,” she begs, leaning forward. Her long black hair slinks over her shoulder and falls into a puddle on the counter.
“Take a hike,” he shouts then belches, pointing toward the door.
I lean away from the counter and fold my arms in my lap as the bartender shuffles to my end. The stool I’m sitting on squeaks and twirls, and I adjust my stature, feet resting at the metal base.
“What’ll it be?” schizo asks, staring me down as if I’ll ask for a fruity drink as well.
“She’ll have a Midori Sour.”
I glance to my left. Ryan Malcolm has his muscular arms draped around his petite girlfriend, Chloe Burke. His bushy eyebrows raise and he nods at me. “That OK, Lucy?”
“Uh, I just want water, I think,” I respond timidly. I clear my throat. “Water will be fine.”
“Nah, c’mon, it’s on me.” Ryan throws a few green bills at the bartender. “Can’t come all the way up here and just sip on water all night.”
“You like fruity drinks, right?” Chloe asks me, swiveling on her stool. She lights a flavored cigar, puffing on the end. “Murph makes a mean Midori Sour, and it’s got this sour apple flavor. I think you’ll like it.” Shaking her curly, red locks from her face and away from her drink, she pats my knee. “C’mon. At least one.”
Before I can further object, Murph—or Murphy O’Connell as I later found out—slides a lime green drink along the counter. My fingers catch it before it slides off.
“Just try it,” Ryan coaxes. “If she likes it—and I know she will—the next round’s on me!”
I’m not opposed to alcohol, so I shrug and drink it. The temptation to spit up the stingy liquid crosses my mind, but I have to admit, it’s not too shabby. I set the glass down and smile, nodding. “It’s good.”
“Victory!” Ryan screams, throwing his fists in the air. His deep voice reverberates in the tiny, crowded space, and dozens of eyes glance our way. Ryan holds up his Corona and guzzles the last of it.
I watch as everyone around me goes from buzzed to drunk to wasted. Chloe soon passes around the flavored cigars, giggling as Ryan chugs his sixth Corona. Apparently, he was just getting warmed up. I pass on the cigar and let Stacy and Chris, the newlyweds and high school sweethearts, experience the vanilla flavoring. Chris' eyes bulge when Stacy boldly snatches the cigar and pops it in her mouth first. His curly brown hair swishes atop his head as he laughs, proud of his woman. Stacy takes a puff, coughs, and then her pink lips part in a smile. She wipes at her moist blue eyes, and her mascara smears.
“You’re not supposed to inhale, silly,” Chris says. Stacy giggles, handing the cigar to him. She pulls her blonde curls back in a ponytail and watches her husband experiment.
I shift uncomfortably on the swivel stool, my fingers caressing the glass. Chloe's freckled arm reaches in front of me and meets Stacy's fair skinned arm. The sweet-smelling cigar passes in front of me.
“You sure you don’t wanna try it?” Chloe asks, wiggling it inches from my face.
I shake my head and bring my drink to my lips. Chloe downs a glass of whiskey while keeping the cigar in her mouth. I’m amazed by her drinking abilities. She hovers over the bar, slinks in her seat and wraps her ankles around the stool like a pro. To my right, Stacy sits stick-straight on the stool, but even she seems relaxed, totally in the zone. While she chats, one hand massages the back of Chris' neck. The rock on her finger sparkles and clangs against the Long Island Iced Tea. The last time I saw her when she was single, she was a disheveled mess. Marriage had cleaned her up and given her a reason to color her hair and get a manicure. A little backwards, I thought. Didn’t girls lose the desire to look good after marriage?
The smoke in the bar becomes so intense, I’m desperate to break for air. Luckily, I’m pulled away into the bathroom by Chloe and Stacy, both on their third pee-break that night.
“Oh my word,” Stacy says, busting into a stall. “Did you see the way that chick was flirting with Chris?”
Chloe claims the stall next to hers. “You should say something to the whore. I know I would.”
“Oh, I plan on doing something, all right,” Stacy replies. Toilet paper rolls and rips. “You having fun, Lucy?”
I glance in the bathroom mirror and run my fingers through my flat, brown hair. Pinch at my colorless cheeks. My finger squeezes a pimple, and I yank my hand away. “Yeah, it’s nice to hang out again.” Now I have lop-sided rosy cheeks. One side’s redder than the other.
“I’m so glad you drove up here,” Chloe shouts from the stall.
“Oh, me too!” Stacy says, flushing the toilet. She reappears, zipping up her skirt. “It’s been way too long.”
“Since your wedding,” I say with a simple smile.
Stacy leans over the sink, analyzing her face as she scrubs her hands. “That seems like an eternity ago.”
“Uh-oh. Trouble in paradise?” Chloe asks, appearing from the stall. She hasn’t buttoned her designer jeans yet, so her green tank top is folded around her waist revealing her belly, and I catch a glimpse of a tattoo below her bellybutton. That’s new, I think. Whatever happened to getting inked together?
“Huh? Trouble? Oh, no, not at all.” Stacy chuckles. “Not at all. Being married is great.”
“Great, huh?” Hope asks as she turns on the faucet and adjusts the temperature. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Still skeptical, eh, Chloe?” Stacy wipes the smeared mascara away.
“Not skeptical, just, cautious, I guess.” Chloe adjusts her strapless bra. “But I’m super-glad it’s working out for you.”
“You don’t think Ryan is the one for you?” Stacy prods.
“I dunno, maybe,” Chloe says, avoiding eye contact. She shrugs it off. “We’ll see. I’m not pushing anything, though.”
Another string of chatty girls enter the bathroom, and our conversation fades with their obnoxious laughter. One skinny white girl nearly runs over Stacy, b-lining for the toilet, mouth ready to burst. I hesitate, wondering if the girl needs help. She explodes before reaching the stall, and every girl in the bathroom shrieks.
“Let’s get outta here,” Chloe says, grabbing my arm. “They’ll be plenty of THAT later.”
Back in the bar, we squeeze past sweaty bodies, men hitting on girls, girls flirting back. Stacy falls into Chris' arms, sending a clear signal to the tipsy bleached-blonde chatting with him: He’s taken, babe. Chloe skips back to her stool and orders another tequila, and Ryan announces to the whole bar how much he loves how his girl can hold her liquor.
Glasses lifted, they all toast that sentiment and knock back their drinks. I smile and lift my glass of greenish-yellow ice cubes to the ceiling.
An hour after some startling and embarrassing storytelling about crazy nights at the tavern involving Murphy and twenty bottles of gin, I follow the pack out the door. The air is cool, despite being the middle of the summer.
I breathe in the fresh air, glad my lungs don’t have to inhale any more smoke. I take about two steps before a hand grabs my shoulder. Chloe's black fingernails dig into my skin. I turn around and hold her steady as she hops on one foot to strap her heels back on. She’s giggling—they’re all giddy as they work to find a stride on the cobblestone path.
“To the beach!” Ryan proclaims. Although he’s had more drinks than any of us, he seems the most functional. Practice, according to Chloe.
We sing, we dance, we skip to the lake. The one drink I’d had makes me feel woozy, but not drunk. If anything, it’s because I never drink, and my body’s rejecting the poison washing through its tubes. Ryan and I are the only ones walking in straight lines, watching out for traffic for the others. Stacy and Chris lean on each other; Chloe wraps her arms around my waist and tells me how she loves the Fourth of July. She tells me that the fireworks over the lake will blow my mind. She tells me that she and Ryan first kissed under the same fireworks two years earlier. Unlike the Chloe I know, she becomes far too gushy. Maybe it’s the alcohol. I want to say something humorous to make her laugh and abandon the gushiness, but she breaks from me first and runs behind Ryan, jumping on his shoulders. I remember when she used to be terrified of being on her own. She used to cling to my arm from insecurity, not drunkenness.
I follow the two couples down a path cutting through a patch of woods to a private stretch of beach, away from the tourists. A small assemblage of people lounge under the starry sky. Ryan and Chloe race over and tackle a few unsuspecting souls.
“Guys, meet Lucy, Stacy and Chris.” Ryan introduces his friends, holding a shabby-looking fellow under his armpit. Then to us: “This is the gang, all a bunch of lovable trouble-makers.”
Stacy and Chris are polite and friendly, and I instantly see how they complete one another. Bubbly Stacy starts the party, and conservative Chris cleans up as she goes. She’s just as goofy as I remember—I blame the blonde chemicals; he’s just as grounded.
“Lucy, come here. I want you to meet somebody.” Chloe tugs on my arm and I swish my feet through the sand toward the water’s edge. A lone figure stands with his bare feet in the gentle surf.
“Hey, Ian!” Chloe kicks off her heel in his direction and barely misses his head. It flies into the water with a splash.
“Watch it, Chloe.” Ian turns around, a small grin visible from light reflected in the water.
“Ian, this is Lucy Hale. Lucy, Ian Parker.” She crosses her legs and twirls in the sand.
I wave; he waves back with a nod.
“She’s the girl I was tellin’ you about,” Chloe says, and I catch a wink from her end.
“Ah, I see,” Ian replies. He squints and looks me over.
I glance at Chloe, feeling my face flush. “What’d you tell him, Chloe?”
Chloe's eyes sparkle and she smiles. “You two should talk.” And with that, she darts to the water, retrieves her heel and scampers back to her friends.
“Chloe, you guys goin’ to Josh’s after this?” Ian shouts, cupping his hands around his mouth.
Chloe whips around and shrugs, removing her other shoe. “We’ll see. Kinda playin’ it by ear.”
Ian shakes his head and turns back toward me. I feel like bidding the gentleman adieu, but he smiles at me and my heart lodges in my throat.
“She’s a little insane,” he says, digging his toes into the sand.
Who? Chloe? “Yeah, she is,” I mumble. The wind tousles my hair, and I fling it out of my eyes. The boy still smiles at me. I feel as if I need to say more, so I just start talking: “You know, she used to be too shy to even speak to a boy, let alone chuck her shoe at one.”
In that moment, Ian made the Jim Halpert face— ‘Hmm, that’s awkward, and my face is showing the awkwardness,’ and I immediately giggle and cover my mouth, turning away.
“What?” he asks, laughing. “I can’t imagine Chloe ever being shy. You two must go way back.”
“We went to high school together.” I stare across the lake to the lights of the southern tip.
“Oh yeah, y’all are Christian school kids.” He pulls a pack of Marlboros from his pants pocket. “Chloe's told me stories.” He lights a cigarette, takes a drag and offers it to me. I decline with a shake of my head. “Y’all are some of the most tightly wound people I know. But, it’s your kind that knows how to let loose and party.” Holding the cigarette in his teeth, he flashes me a brilliant smile. “Something tells me you have yet to find that inner freedom. Maybe that’s why you’re up here tonight?” He brushes a loose strand of hair from my face, and his finger lightly touches my cheek.
I knew then I was in trouble. Not in physical danger—emotional danger. I connected with this boy. He wanted to introduce me to this new, unexplored realm of my life. He wanted to show me how to relax, how to have fun. How to live. He knew the secret to my questions, why I was here.
A crack of light rips across the sky, followed by an ear-popping bang! The first of the Independence Day fireworks. Startled, I jump away from the boy and lose my footing. The sand cushions my bum.
“Whoa, easy there, chica,” he says, kneeling down. “You OK?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I wave him off. “View’s better from down here anyway.” What? I bite the inside of my cheek and close my eyes. What a time for that kind of line. When I reopen my eyes, Ian sits by my side, staring at the sky. Red and blue fireworks crackle above us. Sparklers warp and frizzle. The tranquil lake mirrors each explosion of color.
Ian’s hand brushes mine and, despite the gnawing notion that I should snatch it away, thus preserving my innocence, I remain still. I caress the sand with my fingertips. I’m here. I’m going to soak everything in.
“Chloe told me you were beautiful, and I have to say, I agree.” He whispers those words in my ear, if I hear him correctly. It could have been: “Hope told me you were unusual, and I have to say, I agree.” Regardless of which version he spoke, I jerk my head toward him and my jaw collides with the bridge of his nose.
“Oww, oh, I’m so sorry!” I clench my throbbing jaw. He holds his nose as if he has a nosebleed, but he’s still smiling.
“Well, that was smooth.” He bends his head back.
“I’m so sorry.” Good thing it’s dark—no doubt my cheeks are bright red.
The fireworks explode above us. He says something inaudible, and I just stare at him, lost in his eyes. So mysterious. So enticing. Glancing beyond him to the group, I notice they’ve paired off, each couple admiring the pyrotechnics. I seem to be blending in just fine; but I still have no idea how I got here, and now I don’t know where I’m going.
A half hour later, I follow the boy up the steps to his dormitory. Our footfalls echo in the deserted stairwell. We’d left the gang at the beach after everyone coupled off. It’d been awkward, and Ian sensed it. “Let’s get outta here,” he’d said, flicking the last of his cigarette into the water. I didn’t want to hear the sounds of lips smacking, so I’d agreed.
I’m slightly out of breath as we reach the third floor, but I would rather he not realize how out of shape I am. I want him to like me, even though I don’t know why.
His keys jingle in his pocket when he pulls them out: Two shiny gold keys and a larger silver one which he slides into the lock. Click. The door opens and he steps into the dark. I make it to the doorway and stop. The smell of his cologne filters from his bachelor habitat. He flicks on a light and turns around, tossing his keys on the dresser.
“You comin’ in?” He plops down on his bed and stretches.
I realize I can’t move. My feet are firmly planted to the floorboards. I shift my weight, and the planks squeak. A rush of anxiety travels from my fingers to my toes. My knees tremble and I wrap my arms around myself to keep from trembling all over. Biting my lip, I watch as he smiles at my awkwardness. I want him to like me so badly, and I’m sure he already does. But if I go through that door, everything will change.
“It’s cool,” he says, realizing my conundrum. “The first time’s always weird.”
My voice cracks. “First time?”
“Yeah.” He opens his mini-fridge and pulls out two cans of beer. Corona. Everybody around the lake drinks Corona. “But we can take it slow.”
I burp up remnants of the Midori Sour. My fists clench and I take a deep breath. “Chloe told you—what did she tell you, exactly?”
Ian pries the lid off each bottle and takes a sip. The gold liquid fizzes. “You know, just that you’re kinda stuck in this Christian bubble. She just wants you to loosen up and have some fun. Break outta your shell.”
My mouth is dry, but the words slip out easily. “How? By sleeping with you?”
He’d been focusing on his beer, nonchalantly enjoying the moment, but his eyes lock with mine. For the first time that night, he loses his smile. “Well, what are you up here for?”
Tears sting my eyes. The entire night I’d been a follower, trying to blend with old friends. I’d driven two hours up a windy road by myself, nearly hacked up a lung in a dirty bar, held my nose when some chick vomited in the bathroom, and let myself be swept away by a guy who only wanted one thing: and it wasn’t just to help me find my freedom.
I’d masked who I was all night because I wanted everyone to like me. I wanted to reconnect with old girlfriends, and this deep desire had been so strong that I’d smiled and encouraged every form of behavior. I’d led them on. I’d led Ian on. And I didn’t desire any of it. I didn’t want to have a rotting stomach or a warped sense of being. I didn’t want to rely on someone to make sure I didn’t get hit by a car. I didn’t want to worry about my hair falling into the toilet and mixing with barf. Who was I trying to impress, really? I was dabbling in this game—taking one drink, but not two; blending with the drunkards, but not wobbling down the road like them; coupling off, but not hooking up. I wasn’t all the way in, but I wasn’t all the way out either. And I had to choose. I couldn’t just straddle the line.
I knew that none of it would satisfy what I really needed. Whatever that was.
“Ian, I can’t. It’s not what I want.” A salty tear slips to my lips.
“Oh, c’mon,” Ian says, rolling his eyes. He seems annoyed, but he quickly shakes it off. The dimples in his cheeks pop as he smiles. “Look at you. You don’t know what you want, do you?”
He steps toward me, bottle extended. “Take a swig and just calm down. You’re just nervous.”
“I’m sorry.” I look away and bring my finger to my mouth. I nibble on my plain nail. “I’ve lead you on.”
He cocks his head to the side and stares at me, mouth agape. He’s calculating his next step, judging my body language. I realize he knows what he wants and how to get it. He’s dealt with my kind before.
“Look, Lucy. I like you. And I can only assume because you’re standing in my doorway that you like me too. So, OK. How ‘bout we just talk? Watch a movie?” He runs a hand through sun-bleached hair. “Get to know each other.”
Sounds harmless enough; but still, my feet don’t budge. And he notices.
“Here, I’ll go first: I believe in God.” His eyebrows rise. “Does that surprise you?”
My contact irritates my eye. Because I blink a few times, he probably thinks I’m shocked. So he continues, shoulders back, confidence gleaming.
“Yeah, my stepdad’s a pastor, actually. I’ve read the Bible and know all about the love of God. I came up here to see what else there is, and you know what I found?” His deep brown eyes squint; the dimples returns. “I discovered freedom by accepting others and being open to trying new things.” He wiggles the beer intended for me and turns away, kicking the sandals from his feet. Sand flakes from between his toes and litters the dark green carpeting. “Nobody’s gonna judge you for being a goody-goody conservative, Lucy, because we all were the same way at one point. We get it. I get it.” He flops down on his bed, blue comforter bunching around his body, and clicks on the television. “Hey, look. You like Will Smith?”
I must look like an idiot, wandering around the parking lot, tears streaming down my face, hand extended, frantically clicking the car alarm button to find my Toyota. If a policeman stops to question me, I won’t even know the first letter of the alphabet. Never have I felt so disconnected. My head aches—maybe not from just the drink or the smoke or the fireworks or the mental stress. Maybe from a combination of it all.
I’m lost in a shadowland of immobile machinery.
Flashing lights from the third row over catch my eye. My car blinks for my attention, like a friendly, familiar wave. Hello! I’m here, I’m here! I squeeze between two SUVs and dodge around the dented hood of my car. Fumbling with my keys, I sniffle and look around. The college-town is partying. No one seems to notice or care about my tears.
My fingers touch the jagged edge of a key, and I yank it out, turn the lock, open the door and tumble inside. The hoots from people partying are muffled behind the tinted windows. I’m alone. It’s quiet. Finally, I allow the tears to flow freely.
I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know how I got here. I’ve just spent the better part of the night dissecting my character. I was fine with who I was yesterday. What had changed?
Three totally trashed girls saunter behind my car. Through underwater vision, I watch them in my rearview mirror. If I’m not mistaken, one of them—the one in the middle with her arms draped around the other two—is the same girl who’d tarnished the Leaky Barrel's bathroom floor earlier that evening. Poor thing hangs onto her girlfriends like a limp noodle.
Sniffling, I look around my car for a tissue and snatch a crushed Kleenex box from the floor. I tear a piece out and wipe my nose. Something joggles my car. Movement in the mirror catches my attention again. Two girls bend over behind my car; one has her hand on the bumper. They struggle to maintain steady footing.
“Forget her,” one yells, laughing and wheezing. “She’s too heavy.”
“We can’t just leave her,” her friend says in a high-pitched squeal. “She’ll get runned over.” They both laugh again—I can’t tell whether because of inebriation or the girl’s bad grammar—and their long fingernails scratch the paint on my car as they struggle upright.
“Damnit, we’re gonna be late. Let’s just go. We’ll come back later….”
They frolic away without their friend. I can see a bejeweled hand lying motionless in my side mirror. The memory of the smell of her vomit fills my nostrils.
But my hand clutches the door handle, and I step out. Somewhere, a firecracker is crackling, a couple is kissing on the beach, and Murphy is pouring shots and knocking back a few on the clock.
The girl collapsed behind my car is unconscious, sprawled out on the pavement. Abandoned and vulnerable.
The pavement greets my rump with a hard hello. I scoop up the girl in my arms and wait with her until someone lucid in passing can help.
I still don’t know how I got here, but now, maybe I have a reason why I'm here after all.
Originally written in 2010.