The evening was playing out exactly as Ethan McCollum had hoped it would. He’d began the night with one goal, a mantra of sorts, which he’d repeated to the neatly-groomed image in the cabinet-mirror above his sink:
He had known that tonight, the night before Thanksgiving, would see his entire high school class – now of legal age and with the freshly minted, non-stenciled ID’s to prove it – swarm back to the suburbs and into their finest hometown bar, The Ancient Mariner, whose bounties they couldn’t rightfully enjoy growing up, and which still shined in their collective adolescent memory as a distant, sparkling beacon of the best that young adulthood had waiting for them. The reality, as Ethan and most of Rigdefield’s ‘08 class had already discovered, was something quite different, and far more sobering than expected, though you wouldn’t know it by the drunken commotion in The Ancient Mariner that night, which escaped to the sidewalk of Ridgefield’s main street in abrupt bursts of crowd-roar every time the front door opened.
Ethan stood just a few yards from the door, the back of his dark tweed coat brushing up against the bar’s plexiglass window. He was enjoying a cigarette with a huddle of three former classmates who’d been well out of his social league just a few years prior, but whose affection and approval he’d won, miraculously, during the course of the evening.
Lighting the end of his cigarette with shaking hands – shaking on account of the cool November air, he reasoned – he struggled to prevent his juvenile giddiness from bubbling to the surface of his face, which still gave off an air of stoic indifference to any conversation of which he wasn’t the subject, as the present one was.
“No, the bars don’t get too-too packed at my school,” Lauren Sharkey cut in forcefully. “Not like this,” she said, tilting her head towards the window and letting out a small chuckle.
“Yeah, I know this is crazy,” Sarah Purstein agreed. “Yeah, the bars around Boston, well there’s a lot of them, so it’s spread out, but you can always get around at least.”
“I don’t even see why you go to the bars that much,” Rob Castiglione said, his deep voice carrying the sort of manly authority that inclines the listener to nod along, almost unconsciously. “I mean, most nights, we just kick it in the house with a few kegs. It’s cheaper. Plus, we just get the pledges to clean it up afterwards.”
Rob released a low-rumbling laugh that the girls quickly joined in on, as did Ethan, though a few seconds later.
Ethan ran his hand through his lightly gelled, carefully disheveled hair before diving it down into the side pocket of his jacket. Retrieving his phone, and seeing that the time was 12:48 A.M., he begrudgingly realized he had to go pick up his old friend Pete, to whom he’d promised a ride home. Pete had left the Mariner an hour earlier in a tipsy huff, deeply dissatisfied with the so-called “preppy assholes” populating the bar. He’d migrated to 50 Coins, Ridgefield’s sole remaining bar, where Ethan had pledged to scoop him at 1:00.
Ethan bounced off his window perch, and broke this news to his smoking mates, giving his goodbyes in rapid succession as though he were in a terrific rush – a hug for Lauren, a hug for Sarah, then a fist-bump with Rob. They all made the usual empty promises to meet up and to stay in touch. Then, as Ethan stepped off the curb and headed towards his car, he heard a female voice float over towards him, “Wait, you’re going now?”
He stopped mid-step, and swirled back around to see Lauren, separated from the others, and teetering on the edge of the sidewalk, her straight blond hair streaming down over the front of her red coat.
“Yeah, I promised I’d take my friend Pete home,” he said sympathetically, as though his departure was a tragedy of Shakespearean import. He sauntered towards her, his legs swooping horizontally before finding the ground for another forward step. Lauren continued to rock toe-to-heel on the edge of the curb.
“Do you have a ride?”
“Well, yeah,” she answered, somewhat annoyed. “Sarah said she’d take me home.”
“Well,” Ethan said as he stepped up onto the sidewalk, accentuating the three or so inches he had on her, “why don’t I give you a ride? I’m an excellent driver. Never been in a crash, never even ran over a squirrel.”
Lauren buried her smile in the beige scarf wrapped around her neck. Keeping her head down and her hands burrowed into the side-pockets of her coat, she twisted her body slowly from side to side. “I dunno, I’d feel bad cuz
Sarah didn’t drink tonight so she could drive me home. I mean, how many drinks have you had?
“Just two,” he lied. “I promise I’ll get you home safely, scout’s honor.”
Their eyes met as the spotlight atop the bar’s entrance washed over Lauren’s upturned face. Her mouth was closed but curled up on one side in a half-smirk, and her eyes peered up at Ethan shrewdly, as if reading his face for any sign of insincerity.
Ethan then noticed that the end of her scarf was dangling freely over the front of her coat. Instinctively, his hand rose up into the small crevice between their bodies, pinching the end of the scarf on its ascent before gently tucking it back over Lauren’s left shoulder. To Ethan’s surprise, this simple gesture settled the matter almost immediately, because seconds later Lauren was giving her own goodbyes as Ethan strode briskly towards the car, wearing the goofy, high-cheek smile he’d been suppressing, successfully, the entire night.
Ethan pulled his Honda CRV into Pete’s driveway and shifted the gear into park, his headlights beaming against Pete’s white garage and illuminating the tattered basketball hoop overhead. Pete stepped out of the car and came around to the driver’s window, bowing his head in close enough for Ethan to catch the tequila on his breath.
“Thanks so much,” Pete said as they exchanged a firm handshake. “I really appreciate it.”
“No worries kid, happy to do it.”
“Glad to see you’re doing better man. Hit me up before you leave on Sunday, maybe we could ball up or something.” Pete backed away from the car as Ethan began closing the window. “And it was nice to see you again Lauren.”
“You too!” Lauren cried, her words escaping just as the window shut.
Ethan and Lauren watched in silence as Pete clambered up the two flights of cement steps leading to his front door. Reaching the top, his hands began patting down the various pockets of his jeans, eventually finding, on his second clumsy go-around, a single key which he quickly used to open the door. As he entered the house, he gave a final wave towards the car.
“What did he mean,” Lauren said, “about how he was glad to see you doing better?”
“No idea,” Ethan said quickly, gazing up at the hoop as if in a trance. “Kid’s drunk as a skunk.” Ethan turned his body towards the passenger side. “So,” he said, curling his right arm over the headrest, “you know there’s not a chance I’m taking you home right now, right?”
A knowing grin flashed briefly on Lauren’s face as she swayed in towards him. Their lips met above the center console, and instantly Ethan’s attention, which the entire night had lingered on no single person or conversation longer than a few seconds, became intensely focused on his every movement – the thrust of his tongue in her mouth, strong at first, but quickly harmonizing with her gentle, lapping rhythm as he brought his right hand off the headrest and cupped the side of her face, just below the ear, a move which she then reciprocated, her cold hand sending goosebumps down his neck. Their heads angled sideways before pausing to swap sides, then resuming. After a few of these rotations Ethan, feeling pressured to change things up, sent his lips tailing off the side of her mouth, kissing her lower cheek in a downward sequence that, once he’d pulled back her scarf, led him onto her exposed neck. He felt her throat vibrate as she hummed softly, almost purring as Ethan reached the lapel of her coat, and could go no further.
Leaning back, he let his lips hover over the surface of Lauren’s face, tantalizing her with the warmth of his breath. He arched back into his seat as his fingers slid off the end her chin, tracing their goodbye before grasping the clutch, and shoving it into reverse. He then peered out the back window and began pulling out of the driveway. Once they were back on the street, Ethan said, “So are your parents home or something?”
“Yeah,” she said in the midst of a surprisingly deep sigh, releasing the last of her pent-up tension with a final, almost nostalgic “Hmph,” as though she was rather sad to see it go. “I have this really loud and creaky garage I have to open to get in. Not that it really matters, though, cuz whenever I’m home from school my mom stays up anyways and waits for me to get home, like she used to when I was in high school.” She paused, reflecting. “I dunno I think she likes it. Like it reminds her of when I was younger or something.”
Ethan nodded slowly, his left hand resting comfortably atop the steering wheel.
“What about your place?” she offered.
The crisp severity of his answer caused Lauren to turn and look at him. “I mean, we can’t, unfortunately. We can go somewhere else though.”
“Okaaayyy,” she said, “well now it’s just like high school again.” She laughed, and then started tapping her lower lip with her forefinger. “Where did you used to go?”
Ethan scratched the back of his head. “Umm, a few different places. What about you, though?”
“Well, I’m not proud of it, but Tommy and I – you remember Tommy Agostino, right? – we used to go to the parking lot at school sometimes.”
The image flashed in Ethan’s mind – not the tender, back-seat reflection from Lauren’s past, but something else entirely. A sharp tightness seized at his upper chest as he felt it happening. He felt himself being dragged back into that morning, as all those torturous mornings began coalescing into one vision, sprouting up from the plot of his memory he’d been ignoring all night. He saw the hazy, fog-shrouded plateau of cement, his lifeless Honda parked in the far-corner of the lot, the only car at the pre-dawn hour. He sat there, in the same seat only pushed back, his neck curled over the headrest, and his eyes staring up through the open window-roof, watching the lamppost flicker a weak, orange fluorescence into the drifting grey vapor. His iPod was looping the same hauntingly beautiful tune, bemoaning a hard-lived sorrow he’d never known, and yet craved, yearning for a bruise he could point to, to justify his need to leave home before his parents even woke. Punching the door, moaning, and praying that the day would give him a reason to don the tragic mask, give him something, anything that could make it OK for him to feel the trembling void that hung like a looming storm over the single-spotlight stage in his mind, upon which this day and all future days would see his pathetic performance go on, and on, without end.
“What do you think?”
Ethan heard Lauren’s words as an echo, an off-stage whisper from a concerned director. But he followed the sound, slowly peeling his head to look at her with unsuspecting eyes, desirous of nothing.
“Listen,” he said, coughing his voice back to life, “I’m really tired. I think it’d be best if I just took you home.”
Lauren’s head froze in a forward leaning position as her eyes flitted over in Ethan’s direction. “Are you kidding,” she said blankly. There was a small grin locked on her face, apparently waiting for a punch-line.
“Yeah, I’m really tired, and I gotta get up early tomorrow to help set up for Thanksgiving and all.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Lauren thundered, slumping back into the seat, and lacing her fingers through the crown of her hair.
Ethan knew he should’ve mirrored her embarrassment, in empathy, or at least been ashamed of himself. But he didn’t, he wasn’t – he felt nothing. “What’s your address,” he said as his hands, no longer shaking, reached for his phone in the front cup holder. “I’ll put it in my GPS.”