We walked through the doors of Stella’s Bar and Grille and I was hit in the face with the smell of cigarettes. It was so loud, my ears rang.
Nash leaned in, his nose brushed my lobe. He put his hand on the small of my back and said, “Billy texted me, they are in the back.” Goose bumps sprouted on my skin, even though the air was stale and stuffy. It made me want to walk back to California right then and there.
Nash led me through the sea of bodies. Most everyone said hi to Nash some former classmates shrieked and threw their arms around my neck. I plastered the fakest smile. Nash looked at me and laughed. He looked at my face and just knew.
Nash’s hand was glued on my back as we entered the hall in the rear. The hallway was lit by a few orangish lamps with green shades on the wall. Half of them needed a new bulb. Even though I needed to squint to see, I was thankful the darkness. It was an unspoken agreement that no townie wanted to know just how dusty, crusty, and cob webbed the dive really was in day light hours. I felt bad for the unknowing out of towners. Stella’s was our night spot in the winter when bonfires and camping trips were out of the question. Stella’s didn’t bother to look at IDs. I wished that they had a place like that in Coralvalley. I was told, bouncers could spot a fake with their eyes closed. I just stuck with frat parties.
Nash opened the door and there were several pool tables, low hanging lights, and gray clouds of cigarette smoke wafting through the air. I scanned the room, my mind focused on finding the infamous Jessica Fabian.
Billy almost knocked me over in the doorway. He threw his long, lanky arms around me and lifted me from the ground. His sand paper stubble scratched my cheek. I flicked off his backwards hat and he picked it up and whapped me with it.
“Hey Merritt. You look like the California is rubbing off on you.”
“And you look like your hair line is receding.”
“Oh you sassy little sally. How I miss your verbal abuse!”
“Where’s the new girl I’ve hear so much about?”
“Who Trina Lubble?”
Nash and Billy had a good laugh at that jab.
“You are such an ass,” I said kicking Billy’s shin. I shot Nash a look. “Thomas has always been Trina on the inside. Some people are born like that… and some are born ugly, like you, Billy.”
Billy laughed so loud that Rex came over and patted his back. “Are you okay, buddy?”
“Hi Reximus,” I said. I missed my little Rex.
“Hey there. How was your flight?”Rex asked, giving me a gentle embrace.
“Long. Flying sucks. It’s boring and expensive.” I crinkled my nose.
“Damn. How do you pay for it?” Rex smoothed down his shaggy red waves.
“BU gave me a stipend for travel expenses as a bonus to my full ride. I also get student housing and a meal plan.”
“I’m going to visit you, Brie. This Spring, I think,” Bill said, wiggling his brows. “Got any single friends?”
“Billy, are you serious? No way, you aren’t visiting. If you show up, I’ll pretend like I don’t know you.”
“Hey,” Nash added, “take me with you, Billy, I want to check out BU. If I ever get a high enough SAT score, I might apply. That’s where my dad went for undergrad.”
I felt my stomach swish at the thought of Nash on BU’s campus. Those two worlds just couldn’t collide. “Guys, hell no! This is a not a plan. You are not coming to visit me!”
“What the fuck, Merritt?” Billy said taking a step back. “Too good for us now?”
Wow, it really did sound like that. I thought as my eyes darted from Nash to Billy to Rex and back again. There is no way that they would understand.
“No,” I held up the palms of my hands, “that came out the wrong way. I think that, as a freshman who is trying to adjust and going greek, you should come next year. Maybe. This spring would be a bad time.”
“How did you even afford to go to some fancy school close to L.A., anyway,” Billy said, his eyes shooting daggers.
“I wrote an essay about my life.” You rude ass, I added in my head.
“That must have been one hell of an essay.”
I smirked. “I had one hell of a life.”
Nash cleared his throat and threw his arm around my shoulder. “We’re all proud of you.”
“Seriously, Brie,” Rex said, beaming.
“Aw, shucks,” I said sarcastically bashful.
“What are you even majoring in, Merritt?” Billy asked, eyes locked on mine.
“What do you think?” I said throwing up my arms. “Theatre!”
“Oh,” Billy said with a smug smile, “you mean waitressing.”
I shrugged. “Touché.” I’d rather be a starving artist than a balding twenty year old. I thought to myself. Clearly you’ve had one two many and it’s only 9pm. Classy.
“Shut up, ass wipe,” Nash said shoving Billy’s shoulder.
I saw a vein pop out in Billy’s forehead. My heart raced, anticipating a scuffle. This wasn’t the first time joking around escalated to an argument between Billy and me. He was just like a brother. Nash and Billy have actually thrown punches about it.
“Come on, Merritt. I want to introduce you to Jess. She said she’s excited to meet you.”
“I’m sure she is,” I huffed.
“Be nice,” Nash said with a sideways smile.
Nash drug me to the pool table in the back corner and I noticed a slender girl sitting in the shadows.
“Hey, Jess. This is Brie Merritt.”
The girl jumped up and scampered to Nash’s side. Then, they were both staring at me with toothy white smiles. Like, I was some sweet little girl selling Girl Scout cookies.
“Oh, nice to finally meet you, Brie! I’ve heard so many things about you.” Jessica said, in her smart, sexy sounding English accent. She reached for a handshake, and her arm flowed down like a swan’s neck.
What kinds of things does this graceful bitch know about me? I wondered, fuming through my smile. I gave Jessica a stiff, eye contact hand shake. I had to gaze up, she was so tall. Her eyes were two perfectly symmetrical almonds.
“Are you asian?” I blurted. Shit. Was that rude?
Jessica covered her pink glossed lips as she giggled. “That’s awesome! Most people assume I’m latina. I’ve even gotten Italian. In fact, my one friend thought I was Italian her whole life, so I gave up and said that she could believe it. I’m half Swedish half Vietnamese. ”
Nash gave me a wink. “Do you ladies want a drink?”
“Oh sure. Can you see if they have wine? If so, I’ll have something a little dry and red. Not too dry.”
What a pretentious little twat, I thought. I rolled my eyes when she was looking at Nash. “A beer. Just a beer. Whatever is on special.”
Jessica snickered and grabbed my upper arm. “I really need to develop a taste for beer. My immaturity is showing…beer is so College. Come sit! It’s not too smoky over here.”
I sat down on the red plush chair that had stuffing peeking out of a rip. My muscles were all tense. Maybe if I clicked my cowgirl boots together three times and said ‘there is no place like home’ I’d wake up in my dorm watching MTV with Leah.
I unlocked my phone. I knew Jessica was going to grill me about Nash like dozens of girls have done in the past. Now I was without a handy ‘Tabitha card’. How was I going to avoid gushing over my best friend with his new, exotic, extremely hot girlfriend?
Me: I’m by the pool tables in Stella’s. R U here?
I saw Trina typing and stopping. Typing and stopping. Finally.
Trina: I actually am here, but you can stay and play pool. You haven’t called or texted once since you’ve been back. I guess you had better things to do.
Me: What? No. I’ve been in my room…. the anniversary of my mom’s death is soon. Snow always reminds me. Does Christmas have to come every year? L
Trina: I know that and I’m sorry. But just text me and I would understand!
Me: Sorry. I’ve been a shit friend lately.
Trina: At least you know that you are a shit J Just come over by the jukebox, the Thespian Society is here. They will flip out to see the legendary Brie. Did you come here with Nashy-poo?
Me: Dad’s at Louie’s with the car. So yes.
Trina: 😉 😉 😉
Me: Shutup!!! Lol He’s such a dork. I think I lost half of my brain cells inhaling all that cologne he put on. All to see his little twit who I’m sitting next to and ignoring as I type.
Trina: Maybe he put it on b-c he knew he was going to see YOU!
Me: I’ll be over in a bit.
I felt guilt snap my chest like a rubber band. In truth, I might not have texted Trina if I didn’t need an escape plan. I meant it when I said I was a shit. I was using her.
I went back and forth on whether or not I wanted to break free from everything Kansas. My dad. Dr. Jones. Even Nash. Probably not Trina. She saved my life once. I kind of owe her the say on when the friendship dissolves.
I just wanted to avoid Rivertown until I decided if I had the courage to change my phone number and find somewhere else to stay on breaks.
Avoiding Rivertown was impossible sitting in Stella’s. Next to Jessica. In a living nightmare.
“I like your phone case,” Jessica commented, crossing her legs. It was a little cold to be wearing a black skirt, but evidentially, not cold enough to bother Miss Fabian.
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
“Are you going to get one with your sorority letters?” Jessica leaned in with shining eyes. “Nash told me how you were rushing.”
I felt my muscles relax a little. “Perhaps. Or just throw a sticker on the case I have.”
Jessica’s eyes widened. “I would have never thought of that.”
“Things you learn growing up poor.”
Jessica nodded her head. No looks of pity. “I admire that.”
I shifted in my seat and wondered where Nash was with the drinks. He probably got caught in a conversation.
“Can you tell me about rush?”
“Um, okay.” I couldn’t hide my surprise that she wanted to talk about something other than Nash. Maybe she was warming me up. “It’s differs a lot from school to school.”
“Oh really?” Jessica looked up with a thoughtful expression.
“Ya. I think one of the universal things is that you pick your favorite sororities and they bid on the pledges.”
“That sound nerve wracking.”
“Going Greek?” My heart fluttered. Going Greek meant Jessica was going away for College. Away from my Nash.
“I will if I get a bid. Who knows if I’ll fit in? This foreign girl with a confusing racial background.”
I giggled. “Everyone fits somewhere. Well, except for this girl on my floor…”
“See? There is a chance I won’t get in. But I can see why they picked you. Everyone still talks about how you were the best actress to ever step on Rivertown’s stage. So cool. I actually just joined the Thespian Society here. I was too nervous when I first arrived, but I just sucked it and went for it.”
I felt a flood of warmth and fuzzies. What is happening to me? I asked myself. I’m not supposed to like her. Stop liking her!
“I think they are all inside. You should hang out with them and screw these hillbillies and their pool tables.”
“Oh, the theatre gang invited me out, actually. They probably just want to observe my accent for their own theatrical development.” Jessica snickered and flipped her thick ebony hair over her shoulder. “Honestly, I only came tonight because I wanted to meet you. Oh man. I just sounded like a weirdo.”
I wondered how someone like her could be so humble. Was this an act? Was I being fooled?
“Thanks, Jess.” I grinned. “So were you in a Thespian Society in your old school?”
“Was it different? Or kind of the same thing?” Why do I care? I wondered.
“Well, the same in some ways. For instance, kind of cliquish. And rightfully so…I just hope they can make an exception for me.”
“It’s hard to be the new girl. I still can’t believe my parents did this to me during my senior year. That should be punishable by law.”
“I’m sure they all like you. You seem so nice. Down to earth.” What is happening…
“Well, Trina Lubble doesn’t care for me, and she is top dog,” Jess said looking at her knees.
I waved my hand. “Don’t pay her any mind. I can tell her I met you and thought that you were nice.” I would?! My internal thoughts questioned.
Jessica stared deeply into my eyes. “Oh my gosh, thank you.”
I hardly noticed that Nash was back with our drinks. He set them down on the circular table that was up against the wall, in between Jessica and me. I took a little sip. Warm and flat.
The rest of the night was like dumping a bunch of paints in a bucket and swirling them around with a stick. Then, opening a silvered scar and pouring fresh blood in the bucket colors.
It becomes the shade of shit brown.