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(CNF, Written by Jessica Weyrauch)

(***names have been changed outside of my own)

It was the night of my friend Chris’s 21st birthday. It was unfortunately also Halloween, my least favorite holiday besides St. Patrick’s. I was a big fan of organized drinking, don’t get me wrong, but as a general rule, I try to avoid anything that is supposed to be fun. I had low expectations for the evening because earlier that night at dinner with the birthday boy, I learned that my ex-boyfriend would be attending our night of drunken debauchery. I pinky-promised not to have any of the dramatic conversations that almost always accompany being around an ex while drunk. I promised to be calm, cool, and collected, for what would be the first time in my otherwise crazed life. Surely I could manage one night with the guy. We used to get along, right?

            I mean, it had been two years since we last spoke. Despite Chris being a mutual close friend of ours, we knew very little about each other’s lives. I knew he lived in Indianapolis, had a girlfriend named Emily, and that once upon a time he thought I was women he’d marry.

            In the hours leading up to our meeting time, I imagined all the things he could say or do. I prepared for The Cold Shoulder, the I Never Should’ve Dated You, and the I’m Getting Married in June.

            I wondered how I found myself in situations of such emotional horror. Like the time at Monica’s when I didn’t know he’d be there and then we spent the whole night talking. Like the time downtown when we kissed on the circle after we swore to just be friends. Like every other time when I thought that for once things were going to calm down. My mind raced with questions that I had already convinced myself had no answers.

            Seeing him was something I felt like I had to do. Closure, and all that bullshit. The last time we saw each other I had just returned from a wild week of spring break, drinking away my thoughts of him. We stood in a hallway and he told me he thought Emily was The One. I always wished I hadn’t cried in front of him that day, but I was determined to do better this time.

            I looked at myself in the mirror, braiding my hair tighter and tighter with every knot. I dressed up as Katniss Everdeen, everyone’s favorite female badass from the Hunger Games franchise. I was thankful that I chose a costume that essentially required me to wear leggings, a black T-shirt, and a raincoat. I took a final look in the mirror to survey my imperfections and remind myself that they don’t matter.

            With beers carefully placed in my oversized jacket pockets, I clinged and clanged my way to Chris’s house two blocks away. Arriving at the door, I breathed in my life at that moment, the smell of wet cement intertwined into an intoxicating sense of bravery, or stupidity. I wasn’t sure which yet.

            The door creaked as I entered, more clings and clangs from the beer, and it was more than obvious I had arrived. My eyes darted for a friendly face and within minutes of hello’s and howhaveyoubeen’s and what’reyouupto’s with Chris’s older sister, Miriah, I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I was careful not to look too long, fearing it would be an invitation to talk.

            I agreed to come tonight, but no one said anything about talking, I thought.

            I watched him move towards me over Miriah’s shoulder.

            “Hey Katniss.”

            Shit, he’s talking to me.

            I don’t recall what I said back to him. I think I blacked out from complete shock that Nick was talking to me, in the same room with me, or even in the same universe.

            He moved passed me to make himself a drink. Nick never did “do beer,” so he made himself a girly cocktail with orange juice, vodka, and apricot schnapps. I leaned into him to reach the bottle opener for Beer #1. Our forearms brushed and it was pure adrenaline. His skin, his smell, his lips—I felt sick. My senses were overwhelmed from the memories rushing back all at once. I felt my face flush. I needed to say something to break up the awkwardness of the moment.

            “Tonight can’t be worse than the last Halloween we spent together, right?” I blurted, clearly still feeling the effects of him. I remembered the pinky-promise I made to Chris and that Nick and I’s past was a slippery slope.

            Please just ignore what I said.

            “That’s for sure,” he teased.

            He smiled that damn smile I used to love.

            “Let’s GO! We have a party on Jackson and then the BARS. AT. MIDNIGHT!”

            I’m usually not one for unnecessary yelling, but in that moment it saved me from whatever Nick was going to say next.

            It wasn’t until we were in the dark of Muncie streets that I noticed Nick had a cast on his leg. Not once, but twice in our history Nick had a leg injury. It was all too familiar and I was all too sober.

            “And you’re injured. Because of course you are.”

            “I actually haven’t been injured in about two years,” he replied.

            “Well then, it must be because I’m here.”

            The night was barely starting and I was already making an ass out of myself. After arriving at the party location, it was time for Beer #2. I needed to numb my mind if I had any hopes of making it through the night.

            The party was pretty typical for Muncie. It was a group of Chris’s younger friends drinking whatever their 21-year-old friends bought for them on sale at Friendly Package. I didn’t know anyone except Chris’s sister and well, Nick I guess. We huddled in the kitchen and talked. I mean, truly talked. I decided that I had nothing to lose by engaging because he was already a ghost to me. I’d spent the last two years dreaming of what I’d say when I saw him next, but in the moments I caught his gaze, I couldn’t remember any of it. The connection was exactly like it used to be between us. Electric. Honest. Addicting.

            He asked me what my plans were after graduation, and I told him every detail, silently hoping that he would fit into it.

            “You’re trying to go to Butler for grad school?” he asked.

            I smiled proudly and nodded.

            “That would be fall of ’17, right?”

            My smile faded and I nodded.

            He laughed, “I’m actually planning on going to Butler then too. To finish up my PA program. Maybe I’ll see you there.”

            We shared a look that we’d shared many times before. The look two people share when they are reminded of their enduring affinity for trouble.

            Back in high school Nick and I made a pact. We were lying on the couch, wrapped in each other’s arms, madly in love at eighteen. We swore that when adulthood came and we had inevitably drifted apart that we’d move to different cities, put an ocean between us if we had to. Even then we knew that our connection was infallible.

            I went outside to get some air. It was the safest place to hide since I was the only person whose outfit was equipped to handle the rain. I took a breath and looked out at the broken-fenced backyard of this random house in my college town that I was leaving in 7 months. I could hear music pouring into the air from parties in every direction. The sound of the bass and the pounding of the rain grounded me.

            Live in the moment. Worry about the rest tomorrow, I told myself.

            I took a final swig and headed inside. I was ready for Beer #3.

            I stole a Budwiser from the fridge in the kitchen, passing by Nick. I could feel his eyes on me as I headed towards the living room. Starting to feel the effects of the alcohol, I snagged myself a spot on the stained floral couch.

            “Scoot, scoot,” I head Nick say from above me as he turned the corner and sat beside me, close enough that our thighs were touching.

            I felt the heat from his body stabilize my heartbeat from how comforting it was. The calm was washing over me when—

            “Jess, there’s something I’ve got to tell you. Because I don’t know if you know this,” Nick started. “Not having you in my life that past two years has been—”

            The best thing that ever happened to you.

            “Awful.”

            My heart fell.

            “I went into such a deep depression after we broke up. I can’t even explain it to Emily. She doesn’t understand what we are—were, ” he corrected himself.

            “Well we’ve always been pretty indefinable.”

            He smiled and I smiled and I could almost ignore the fact that he used her name to me so casually.Even an hour away from where we grew up, at my school, on this couch, she was still coming in between us.

            Chris came busting into the room proclaiming it was time to go. We walked in the rain for two blocks before we reached the bar or rather the line for the bar. It was 11:55 and Chris was remaining cheery despite the delay. We celebrated his crossover into true adulthood while standing in line with a hundred strangers all waiting to get into the worst bar in town. The rain was illuminated by the bright yellow neon light that spelled out BROTHERS. Hoards of drunken college students filled the streets providing a soundtrack of profanity to backdrop our hour-long wait in line.

            It should be mentioned that Nick was not at all dressed for the weather. He was wearing a USA-themed morph suit, one those terrifying, face masking, nylon suits. Really, he was naked with only a minimal layer of fabric covering his thin, athletic body. He complained about being cold and then I felt his cast make contact with my boot.

            “Sorry, I’m just freezing,” he said to me.

            His warmth pressed into my skin. His scent unlocked memories from years worth of ups and downs. I gave into my past. Hell—I took shots of it.

            “How’s your family been?” Drink.

            “My Mom asks about you all the time.” Drink.

            “I still wear that shirt you bought me.” Drink.

            This went on until we finally made it to the entrance.I’ve never been so thankful to see the inside of Brothers, which was filled to the brim with slutty cat costumes and frat guys dressed as Marty McFly. Despite having finished Beer #3 and Beer #4 before we left the party, I was too sober to be surrounded by the Halloween crowd.

            The first round of drinks was on Chris’s sister: horrid, green shots that had Godknowswhat in them. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough. Beer #5 was in my hand shortly after.

            We made our way to the crowded dance floor pumping Drake and reeking of hormones. It truly felt like high school all over again. As we danced and swayed, I tried to let loose. My tightly wound demeanor wasn’t something new to Nick and I wanted to show him that I was fun. I shouldn’t have cared at all, but I couldn’t help it. The universe had a way of pushing us together and I didn’t want to fight it anymore. If this was one of those nights of that was going to change everything, I was going to ride it out.

            Fuck consequences, I thought. I’m going to have fun.

            I caught his eyes on me as we danced. I used to love the way they lit up every time they matched with mine. I was surprised to see that the feeling hadn’t faded. I forgot how it made me feel, how he made me feel.

            His eyes locked on me. He pointed to his drink and raised his eyebrows, slightly tilting his head: the universal signal for “Need another drink?”

            We dipped out of the crowd like children sneaking away from their parents. It was about me and him and no one else, snickering and whispering as we made our way to the bar.

            “This round’s on me,” he offered. “Bud Light, okay?”

            “Well it’s the cheapest, so sure.”

            The lines that frame his smile made my knees weak and I couldn’t go back on the dance floor and risk one more minute of our limbs touching. I was starting to get overwhelmed, anxious, terrified. My fight or flight response was about to kick in and I had no more fight left in me. I excused myself and raced to the bathroom.

            I was intercepted by Chris.

            “Jess!” he screamed, wrapping his arms around me. “I’m so glad you and Nick are getting along.”

            He slurred his words, practically dripping them out of his mouth. I felt guilty that I was so occupied by Nick’s company when I came out for Chris. I decided to stay a little longer.

            With Chris’s arm wrapped around my shoulder, he led me back to the bar with Nick and Miriah.

            Before I could even finish the beer Nick had bought me, he ordered three monstrous plastic cups filled with I imagined was fruit punch and vodka. He was grinning as he handed me the drink. I considered passing it off to Chris but what the hell?

            I never was one to turn down free drinks.

            We sat together, laughing and talking like the last two years didn’t happen. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it was possible to be around him without copious tears. I definitely didn’t think it would feel that good. I prepared for every scenario, every scenario but the one I was living. The one where his freckled, calloused hand rested on my knee.

            And I let it rest there.

            He’s just drunk. He’s just falling into old habits.

            As usual, I had excuse after excuse for him.  

            It was well after 2 a.m. when we headed to our resident dive bar to close out the night with cheap beer and good music.

            Nick and I entered the bar arm and arm because he needed help walking down the rain-washed stairs. I made a straight shot to the bar and demanded alcohol. I couldn’t make it through another minute without more liquid courage. Nick joined me at the bar and I felt his hand rest on my lower back. He leaned in that scent, those butterflies in my stomach. What is he thinking? He has a girlfriend— I felt his lips close to my ear.

            “This is fun, right?” he whispered.

            “I have to say it’s not how I imagined my night going, or any night going for that matter,” I joked. “But yeah—it’s fun.”

            “What’s going on here?” he grinned. “I mean, we’ve always had chemistry, but wow.”

            I shook my head. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble, Nick.”

            The idea of trouble just seemed to excite him.

            Typical, I thought.

            The bartender placed Beer #7 in front of me and I vowed it would be my last of the night. Shit was getting too real and I needed to be awake for it.

            The music was hard to hear over the sound of conversations in the bar. Faint as it was, I recognized the melody of the song. It was a rather obscure song by my favorite artist, Ben Folds. I lightly sang the hook aloud and I heard another voice pick up where I stopped. It was Nick. I shot him a look and he knew exactly why.

            “I kinda started listening to Ben Folds after we broke up,” he admitted to me.

            Of course.

            He smiled, basking in the victory of winning that round of Who Knows Who Better.

            Chris broke up the moment exclaiming, “Jacob is coming! Jacob is coming! Jacob is coming!”

            Oh great, let’s add another of my ex-boyfriends to the mix.

            Yes, I dated not one, but two of Chris’s best friends. Jacob and I became friends only recently after a silent period that lasted about three years, but when Jacob came through those doors, it only felt familiar. Nick, Jess, and Jacob. The whole torturous love triangle, reunited for the first time since our senior year of high school.

            As Jacob made his way toward our group at the bar, Nick grabbed my elbow and whispered to me again, “Just like ol’ times, huh?”

            When I looked up to Jacob’s face, it was clear he’d just seen our exchange. We were all arranged in a circle of conversation. Juggling both Nick and Jacob’s gazes wasn’t new, but I was a little rusty after four years. Jacob squinted at me knowingly so I grabbed him by the hand pulling him behind me, practically shoving him into a corner in the back room.

            “What?” I demanded.

            “What the hell was that? He has a girlfriend, Jess.”

            “Yeah I know. Trust me, I’m dealing with it.”

            “You better be careful. You two can really fuck up each other’s lives.”

            “I know, okay?” I shot back.

            When we returned to the group, I leaned on the bar top as I ordered another drink. Nick’s eyes were following the lines of my hand, tracing it with his gaze. Something I used to love watching him do.

            “Oh. I never showed you my tattoo,” I told him as I pulled up the sleeve of my jacket.

            “I’ve seen it.”

            “How?”

            “Your Instagram isn’t private,” he joked.

            Oh so he’s been stalking me too.

            “Well, yours is,” I joked back. We both smiled at each other, content and happy with the moment, ignoring all the consequences we’d face tomorrow.

            “Want to put a song on?” he asked me and no one else in the circle.

            I nodded and we made our way to the jukebox in the back of the room. We stood over the screen, the colored lights glowed in my haze.

            Nick leaned in— hold your breath, don’t inhale him—but this time he placed his forehead on my shoulder. He propped himself up on his chin and whispered exactly what I didn’t need to hear. Didn’t want to hear. Didn’t know I’d ever hear.

            “I really do miss you.”

            I paused, unsure of how to respond.

            “I miss you too,” I whispered back.

            He sighed and I could see the anxiety settle in eyes.

             “Like, all the time,” I added.

            I shouldn’t have said that.

            I shouldn’t have said that.

            I could feel Jacob’s disapproving eyes on me and I didn’t care. I wanted to live in that moment forever. I wanted to make a home with him in the space between our words. Neither of us had anything to say to each other after that. We basked in the contentment of our confessions for a moment before a fellow bar-goer alerted me to Chris vomiting in the bathroom.

            “Guess it’s time to go home,” I said to Nick. His eyes seemed to dim at the realization that home didn’t mean to same thing to us anymore.

            “I don’t know where you live, but I’m sobered up and I could give you a ride home from Chris’s,” Nick said. I knew he meant well and I knew that he just wanted to talk, but I knew it wasn’t a good idea. I was having a hard time coming up with any fiber of me that had the strength to say no to him. Luckily I didn’t have to.

            “Well we can all go back to Chris’s if you want. I’ll buy pizza,” Miriah offered.

            Nick and I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to spend more time together so we accepted. We were addicts who wouldn’t put the glass down. We craved that last sip before closing time.

            Miriah drove us back to where we began the night and I could feel the finality setting in. Nick and Jacob shuffled an incredibly drunk Chris upstairs while I took a spot on the worn, blue couch in the front room. It was about 4 a.m. and I was exhausted. My muscles were getting heavy and I was getting a wicked headache from the mixture of booze in my system.

            When Nick returned downstairs he had changed into blue, straight-legged jeans and a T-shirt from one of the hundreds of races he’s won. This was Nick’s uniform in my mind. I wouldn’t know how to remember him any other way. He took a seat close to me on the couch. Close enough for him to rest his hand along the cuff of my jacket, just grazing the back of my hand.

            After all these years, I knew his tricks. I knew his signals, his moves, his games. He couldn’t fool me.

            The first time he placed his hand near mine was in a movie theater sophomore year of high school, the night we had our first kiss. I used to think that night of my life was going to have ballads written about it. I thought statues would be build to capture the epic love I had for that skinny boy wearing a gray T-shirt. And here he was next to me, trying to resurrect what I buried for a reason.

            I pulled out my phone to check the time. Nick mimicked me and began searching through his photos. He showed me pictures of his niece, pictures of him and Chris drinking over the summer. We laughed and I reciprocated with pictures of my cat, my new guitar, the photos I took of downtown this summer. There was something soothing about talking to him knowing that none of it would matter tomorrow. We talked and laughed while Jacob and Miriah ordered pizza.

            I knew the night had to end and that it meant I would go back to my life without Nick, so we held on as long as we could.

            “It’s getting late.”

            “You still want that ride home?” Nick asked.

            “I’ll just drop Jess off on my way home,” Jacob chimed in.

            I could see Nick’s face come to the understanding I already had: Nothing was going to change. We were going to part ways right there in the living room where we began 8 hours ago. After a few hours apart, Nick and I would sober up from seeing each other and our lives will move forward. We will cleanse ourselves of this attraction and make amends with our past.

            I left Chris’s house without letting Nick say goodbye. I knew that we’d give into each other because that’s what we did. We go back for more every time, never satisfied. The love pulls us, controls us, and won’t let go of us.

            It took me two years to get him out of my system and I wasn’t going back to the bottom of that bottle. Not for that damn smile, those butterflies, or his green eyes. The demons I had overcome were staring me in the face and I knew it was best to just walk away.

            I heard the screen door slam into place behind me as I left and walked soberly towards reality. I wondered if this is what getting clean felt like. Pouring the drink, smelling its temptation. Ready to relapse, but instead, you walk away.

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