Thursday, March 6, 2014

[[Turn To You: A Novella]] -- PART NINE


I was a little wobbly even in my flats and Rhonda had her hand on my elbow to steady me, but she was a little unbalanced herself. Betsy and Todd were ahead of us and we followed them closely and quietly as they followed the waitress to our table. I was praying we didn't draw attention to ourselves as the two drunk, underage chicks. The waitress didn't seem to notice. She was too busy ogling Todd.

"I'm Shelby and I'll be your server this evening," she leaned over where he'd just seated himself, her cleavage spilling out of her bright yellow V-neck like a drink in his lap. Her white-blond hair was teased so big that it seemed to shadow the whole table. She raised an eyebrow and looked directly at Todd. "So what can I get you to drink?"

"Yeah, Shelby," Todd said, giving her his perfect smile. "I'll have a Coke. Asha?"

I blinked - clearly I was not ready to be addressed. I had to focus.

"Um, Coke. I'll have Coke, too."

"Iced tea," Rhonda said.
"I'll just have a water," Betsy said. The waitress nodded as she wrote down our drink orders and then she sashayed away, sure to wink at Todd one time before she left. I looked over at him and he was smiling. I kicked him and he straightened up, then looked at me with narrowed eyes.

We all sat in silence for a few minutes, looking over our menus and avoiding conversation. I was having trouble with reading the menu and doing anything else at the same time. When the waitress came back and started asking what we'd have, I almost forgot to order my salad because I was so engrossed in the menu. Todd stepped in and ordered two large pizzas for everyone, asking what toppings everyone liked first. Then he poked me - hard, too - to order my salad. I always had a salad - I was pretty predictable. Usually. 

"I'll have the cobb salad with ranch dressing," I said and then, when Shelby walked away, I promptly returned to space-out mode.
"What the hell is up with you?" Todd said through his clenched teeth. "Are you drunk?"

Rhonda began cackling at that and Todd got wide-eyed.

"You are!" he said. "You're both drunk. Asha, what the hell? You don't drink!" 

He was sputtering now and I felt slightly defensive. Who was he to get angry that I may or may not be drunk when he and his stupid basketball buddies got high on at least a weekly basis. 

"So," I said, stubbornly crossing my arms over my chest. "What if I am?"

"You ok?" Betsy said softly to me from across the table. It wasn't until she said it that I realized I was getting loud. More importantly, I was turning a pale shade of gray as bile was beginning to rise up in my throat. I managed to swallow it back down with concentration. 

"I think so," I said, a little slower and at a lower decibel.

"Let me know if you feel sick," she said. 

"You'd better not get sick all over my car tonight," Todd said. I grimaced but didn't say anything else for fear of getting us kicked out.

The waitress delivered my salad and I picked at it for a few minutes before I took a bite of a tomato. I could feel the juice in my mouth and almost started to feel sick again, but I gnawed on some lettuce and the feeling went away. 

"Ooh, I love this song," Rhonda said when Duran Duran came up over the speakers. I was feeling a little better and eager for conversation. Rhonda seemed like the safest person to engage with.

"Me, too!" I said, happy to feel a little giddy again. I started to hum a little and Rhonda started to sing. I glanced at Todd but he was having none of it.

"Can you two knock it off?" he said finally. "You're embarrassing me. Probably your friend here, too."  He meant Betsy. That got my attention. I looked over at her. She seemed unpeturbed, though.

"I'm fine," Betsy said, confirming my observation. "No embarrassment here."

"Well you're still making idiots of yourselves," he said. "If you don't start acting sober, they're going to kick us out."

I slumped in my seat and attempted to finish my salad. When the pizza came, I was done and I took a couple of slices. I did pretty well getting through the first but the second was painful. I knew I needed to get to a bathroom soon, so I dropped the rest of my last slice on the plate and whispered to Rhonda that I needed to go. She slid out, letting me by and Betsy went with me, her hand on my back. Once we'd shuffled into the bathroom stall and locked the door, the bile rose in my throat again as if it had been waiting for just that moment. I dropped to my knees and let it come. I didn't know Betsy was still there until I felt her hand on my shoulder. Slowly I figured out that my hair being held back was due to her cool hands, too. I was too busy being sick to speak or show any kind of gratitude. I didn't realize I had started to cry until I'd already thrown up everything I had to. I coughed a little and sat up. Betsy let go of my hair and it tumbled around my face.  We both slumped to opposite sides of the stall and she reached over to flush the toilet. Down went the remains of my salad and pizza. The taste in my mouth was sour with a hint of butterscotch and pizza sauce. It was pretty foul. 

I felt so embarrassed that I buried my face in my hands. 

"I'm so sorry Betsy," I said, only slightly muffled by my drooping shirt sleeves. "I meant for this to turn out better, but I'm such an idiot."

She came over to me on her knees and put her arm around my shoulder.

"Don't worry about it," she said. "I'm not upset. I am...having fun."

I looked at her solemn face and smiled. Then, I couldn't stop smiling. I started to crack up.

"What?" she said, but she was laughing now too. "What are"

"You!" I said. "You are such a liar."

", I'm's...true." 

We were both howling by then and we kept laughing until someone pushed against the door. We both jumped up and then, she looked at me. Some of her uneven hair fell over her eye and the sideways look she gave me made my heart jump a little. I was still pretty embarrassed that she'd had to see me such a wreck - but the effects of the alcohol had mostly worn off, as had the anxiety I'd felt before. In fact, I was dissecting that anxiety for the first time with my blinders off and realizing what it meant. My mind turned over all those glances, accidental grazes that felt like static electricity and the feeling I got all over my body when she smiled at me that way. Like the look she was giving me now, with that sexy, messy piece of hair in her face. We had a moment - standing there like that, I knew it would have sounded cheesy to say it out loud, but it was what it was. 

Whoever wanted in was pushing against the door again and Betsy opened the door, snapping me out of my reverie. A pinched-faced woman in a yellow and black business suit huffed and pushed past us to get in as we came out.

Back at the table, Todd and Rhonda had eaten and gotten carry-out boxes for the rest. They waited for me to eat another slice - now that my stomach was empty, I was shaky and needed nourishment. Todd wasn't so patient about it, checking his watch every few seconds. Rhonda seemed to be fine and nearly sober, though - she'd started chatting with Betsy.

"So where do you want to go to school next year?" she was asking. 

Betsy shrugged and said, "I'm not sure. Somewhere in New York, probably. The New School or Pratt?"

"What kind of art do you want to study? I mean, those are art schools, right?" Rhonda said.

"Um, yeah. Music. Though I paint, too. No double majors, though. I can't afford that. Hell, I don't even know if I can afford a single major - or, like, college at all."

"Well we all know Asha can't," Todd said, reminding us that he was still at the end of the table. His words seared through my head and I felt like I might throw up again.

"What do you mean?" Betsy said.

"Todd, you're an asshole," Rhonda said. "Why Asha is with you, I have no idea. You know as well as I do that Asha can get just about any kind of scholarship she wants with her grades and all the great things she has going for her."

He just shrugged. I could tell Betsy was confused but I knew that Todd, as pissed off as he was, would refrain from any other derogatory statements about me for the night. He knew when he was outnumbered. 

"I have to go to the bathroom," I said, standing up suddenly. I needed to get away from everyone or I might cry. Betsy started to stand up, too, but I was afraid she'd come with me and I needed to get away. So I grabbed Rhonda's arm and she got the message.
"Yeah," she said. "Me, too. I gotta pee like a racehorse." 

We hurried to the washroom, leaving Todd and Betsy at the table alone.
Once in the bathroom, I started to hyperventilate - or what I imagined hyperventilating would be like.
"Rhonda," I gasped. She freaked and started pulling paper towels out of the dispenser and wetting them to dab on my face. I couldn't argue. I just let her do this without an attempt to stop her.

"Betsy seems really funky," she said. I was still gasping for air, or else I might have agreed. "I think there's definitely something there. I'd like to talk to her more. Do you think she'd give me a ride home alone? Or wait, you probably don't want to ride with Todd huh?"

My breathing was returning to normal. If it wasn't so pathetic, it might have been funny what Rhonda was asking me. I'd just grasped my feelings for Betsy and now my cousin wanted her. And why not? Rhonda liked girls. She was totally open about this fact. I, on the other hand, had my boyfriend - one who was being a real jerk. But he wasn't always like that, was he? Maybe he was jealous - maybe he had a vibe. Who knew? What was I thinking? Rhonda and Betsy should be together and I should see if things were meant to be with Todd. Afterall, he was going to be my prom date wasn't he?

"I don't mind," I told Rhonda. "He's being a jerk, but he's not this way all the time. He's really a nice person." 

"If you say so," Rhonda said. "As long as you aren't worried about being alone with him. You know him way better than I do."

"Yes, and you should get to know Betsy," I said, trying to sound natural. I wanted her to believe me so I had to believe myself. "She really is a great person and you'll like her." 

"I do already," she said and winked. It was as if the whole fiasco with her professor never happened and Rhonda was back to her old self. I was glad for that at least.

We headed out of the bathroom and down the corrider to where Todd and Betsy stood, already by the door. Betsy looked like she was forcing her smile and I tried not to worry about what they had talked about in my absence. Todd was grinning, but his didn't look forced at all. I was trying hard to believe that this was a good sign. 

"We already paid," Betsy said.

"I paid," Todd said. "You'll pay me back?"

"Of course," I said and I kissed him, hoping that it didn't seem like it was just for show. Then I looked over at Betsy and Rhonda. They were standing side by side. Betsy wasn't smiling any longer - she just seemed a little sad.  But I had to stick with the plan or Rhonda would kill me. 

"Oh, Todd," I said, leaning on his shoulder. "We should go dancing after this or maybe to the drive-in."

"What? You want to...really?" he said, seeming baffled. But then he smiled. "Yeah, I'd like that a lot." He frowned. "But who will bring your cousin home?"

I looked pensive for a second and then snapped my fingers, hoping that I was convincing enough and everyone believed I'd just thought of it. 

"Hey, Betsy! Would you mind dropping Rhonda back at my house?" I said.

"Um, sure. No problem," she said. Her expression was harder to read this time.
We had reached Todd's car by then and I climbed in. Already inside, Todd was starting the engine. Rhonda was standing next to Betsy and their arms were linked. My, that's cozy, I thought. Betsy was staring down at me from the passenger side, but the headlights had come on and Todd was beginning to pull out of the parking lot. She and I held each other's gaze for a moment.

"Goodnight," I said in a voice so soft that I wasn't sure she could hear me over the sound of the engine. I waved to Rhonda who was smiling with excitement in her eyes. Trying to show that I was happy for her, I waved with as much joy as I could muster.

"Goodnight, Asha," I heard Betsy say, once again stealing my attention from anyone else. Todd rolled my window up before I could say another word to her. He skidded out of the lot and we were on the road to the drive-in.

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