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This morning, ten years and three hundred miles stood between me and my home town. It might as well have been a century, a continent. In ten years, I had never returned, never even considered it. Yet somehow, the barrier of time and space that kept Hapville and its many unpleasant memories safely out of reach for so long had proven insufficient. I was going back.
The first thing I noticed was the sign. A twenty mile stretch of county road through overgrown pastures and kudzu-covered ditches once flowed seamlessly from Briar Cove to Hapville and straight on through to Morris with nothing but weathered barns and unmarked intersections as landmarks. At some point in the past ten years, the city council had erected a quaint burgundy sign along the way that read, “Welcome to Hapville!” then in slightly smaller letters below, “Antique capitol of North Alabama!” Two snaking tendrils of kudzu had already found their way up one side of the 5′ sign. Without someone to come out and trim it, the whole sign would be covered in less than two weeks. I found myself wondering what portion of the city’s budget was allocated to keeping the damn Welcome sign clear of kudzu as I made the unmarked turn onto the two-lane street that lead to the center of town.
My grip on the steering wheel tightened. The kudzu and open fields gave way to houses and gravel driveways. The dwellings on the outskirts of town were largely of the single- and double-wide variety. A brick ranch house every once in a while. Then a cinder-block shanty with two faded Fisher Price push cars parked on the front lawn in a tangle of weeds and empty coffee canisters. As I neared town square, the houses grew larger, more solid, and generally more well-kept. Mid-century Victorians with wrap-around porches, white trim, and gnarled rose bushes in the flower beds. I didn’t spot one house that couldn’t do with a good pressure-washing, but even the dinginess of these grander homes only seemed to add to their charm, as though they wore their years with pride and were more distinguished for them.
I crossed the tracks and took the first left at the Jayco gas station. I was thinking about my next turn when suddenly, I found myself face-to-face with a ghost. The gazebo at the center of town. My foot pulsed on the brakes as the blood rushed from my face and a wave of memory crashed over me. Prom night, two a.m. Stars, lamplight, empty streets. A chaste, tearful kiss as Rascal Flatts softly flowed through the open windows of his parked Chrysler Lebaron.
My ears were ringing. I realized I had come to a dead stop in the middle of the road, but thankfully there were no cars behind me. With a small shake of my head, I dispelled the intrusive memory back to the quiet space where I had kept it locked for over a decade. I tried desperately to avoid looking at the gazebo as I made a right turn onto Main Street and through a stretch of twenty-or-so run-down store fronts peddling everything from second-hand furniture to handmade lawn ornaments. These were the antique stores of Hapville fame, really nothing more than brick-and-mortar garage sales, and every other front was vacant.
As I made the short drive through town, I found myself swatting away old memories, things I hadn’t thought of in years. That store sold ice cream from a deep freezer, but only Meyers pints in two flavors: butter pecan and French vanilla. I worked a summer at that McDonald’s. My first car hit a nail in the parking lot behind this grocery store. I lost my virginity in that park.
Oh god. The fucking park. It had completely eluded me that Kelly’s new address was adjacent to Bunny Hill Park. She used to live beside the school, but she texted me her new address when I told her I’d be coming into town for the reunion. I hadn’t even bothered to map it, remembering that the street intersected Main.
Kelly and I had been best friends since sixth grade, and ironically, she had been the first person I’d told about the park. Fuck. Fifteen years old, I thought with a groan of regret. Fifteen, horny, and stupid. My boyfriend at the time, Cody Rogers, was also fifteen. Sweet then, but the relationship soured in the dramatic, painful way that heated teenage romances often did. I could barely remember what he was like when we first started dating, only how pissy and cruel we were both were to each other when we broke up six weeks later, and then the icy, stabbing indifference that followed every day for the next four years.
I found Kelly’s house number, and noted with disgust that the exact spot where I’d had my first fumbling fuck was plainly visible from her driveway. Holy shit. Who had lived here back then? Weren’t there trees blocking these houses from view at the time? Oh god, please let there have been trees.
The screen door slammed. I looked up and there was Kelly, only it wasn’t her. We hadn’t seen each other in nearly three years, when she’d spent a weekend with me in Atlanta. In those three years, she had taken off about twenty pounds, chopped off most of her hair and dyed it brown, and bahis firmaları if my eyes didn’t deceive me, she’d had some work done to her breasts. Her low-cut top clearly revealed two perfect C’s where there had once been modest B’s. For all of that, she hadn’t aged a day. In fact, she looked amazing.
She waved a greeting with one hand. The other gripped the neck of a bottle of red. “Thought you might be ready for a glass,” she shouted as I opened the car door and climbed out, leaving my bags in the back seat. Her smile was the only thing about this town that felt at all like home, and I noticed some of my tension lift as she pulled me into a long hug.
She lead me inside, gave me a quick tour. Two bedrooms, wall-to-wall carpet with soft green paint on bare living room walls. The house had the distinct feel of being freshly moved-into, void of all the mess and clutter and subtle signs of human presence that came once a home had been lived in for a while. The furniture seemed a little too new, the stove a smidge too clean, and the pantry far too bare. In fact, the only things Kelly kept in her pantry were a half-empty container of Oreo cookies, a box of sandwich bags, and 5 more bottles of red. “One of those ‘wine-crate’ mail subscriptions,” Kelly explained. “Deb had one and gave us the kinds she didn’t care for.”
Deb was Kelly’s mother-in-law. Ex-mother-in-law, I had to remind myself. “Do you still talk?”
Kelly shook her head. She plucked an unopened bottle from the shelf, handed it to me before closing the pantry door. “Nope,” she said. “Things are still a little raw.”
Seeing that she was not going to offer anything else unprompted, I asked, “So it’s all final, then?”
“Almost. Waiting on one last thing to sign, I think.”
Not knowing what else to say, I offered, “At least there aren’t any kids, right?”
Kelly shrugged, “Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps saying. But I don’t know.” She pulled a couple glasses from a cabinet. There was already a corkscrew out on the counter. I picked it up and began busying myself with the bottle. “I mean, I can’t help but wonder sometimes. Maybe if we had a kid, things would be different. Like, maybe we both would have tried a little bit harder to make things work.”
I shimmied the cork free with a satisfying pop. “Bullshit,” I said. I began pouring. “Then there would be three miserable people instead of two. And then you’d have to see him every goddam weekend to swap the kid around. At least this way, if you want, you can cut him out of your life for good. Start completely over.”
Kelly took the glass I offered her as I poured a generous portion for myself. “Christ, you make it all sound so sterile,” she mumbled, taking a sip. “You know it’s never really that cut and dry, not when feelings are involved.”
“No reason why it can’t be,” I shrugged. “Believe me,” I continued. “You’re better off that it’s ending now, while you’re still young and hot and have nothing else tying you down.”
“Mmmm, you think I’m hot?” she teased, playfully licking the rim of her wine glass and leaning over the counter so her breasts peaked over the top of her tank top.
“You’re such a slut,” I teased, tossing the wine cork at her exposed cleavage. “And hey, did you get a boob job?”
She beamed. “Needed a little confidence boost when things went tits-up, so I upgraded my tits.” She did a little shimmy so her enhanced bosom jiggled. “Like?”
I took a gulp of wine. “I’m jealous.” My breasts had appeared early, but then never grew larger than a B.
“Don’t be,” she said. “You’ve always had great tits.”
Later that night, we sat on her bed with the last bottle of wine, taking swigs and passing it back and forth.
“So what the fuck are we going to do about tomorrow night?” she groaned for what must have been the sixth or seventh time.
I shook my head, held up a finger. “We’re not going to talk to him. Just leave him alone.”
She started to protest, “But I can’t-“
“No,” I said forcefully, taking hold of her shoulders. She grinned. “No, Kelly. We’re going to leave him alone, and if he tries to start shit, we’re going to tell him to go fuck himself.”
Kelly burst into giggles. “Fuck himself,” she snorted. “If he – If he didn’t fuck himself, he’d never get any!”
We both rolled with laughter. I took the half-empty bottle by the neck and upended it. “Seriously, though,” she said, suppressing giggles. “We haven’t fucked in like, months. Or, you know, before-” she flung her arm about to indicate all of the drama and shit surrounding the divorce- “before it went bad, like really bad, we went like six months without sex. Is that normal?”
“Fuck no!” I blurted, almost spitting wine onto her blue duvet.
“Right,” she said, but her smile faltered.
“Fucking idiot,” I said. “You were always way hotter than him. I don’t get how anyone could be married to you and, like, not want to be all over you every goddam night. Idiot.”
“I mean, it wasn’t all his fault,” she muttered. “That part at least…”
She kaçak iddaa took the bottle from my hand, downed the last of it. “Okay, so it’s like this,” she said, rubbing the back of her hand across her mouth. “And this is going to sound stupid, but I think my body may have been telling me something was wrong with our relationship long before things went sour. I mean, I used to find him really attractive. We’d fuck like every day, whenever we could. That’s one of the main reasons we got married so young, so we could move in and fuck whenever the hell we wanted. But the past couple years, I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I just haven’t wanted it as much. Not with him.”
“With someone else?” I prompted.
Her eyes met mine. I noticed they were glazed over and slightly unfocused. She was either already trashed, or well on her way, and I wasn’t far behind. Then she shrugged. “Yes and no. Not like, one specific person. I wasn’t cheating or anything. But I started noticing that different things turned me on, and the things that used to just didn’t do it for me anymore.”
“Like what? Did you get into some like Fifty-Shades-of-Grey type shit?”
She whacked me with a throw pillow she had been holding against her stomach. “Shut up,” she scoffed, laughing. “Not like that. Just, different people. Different types of people.”
“Like black guys?”
Kelly shook her head.
She blinked. She lifted the empty bottle to her lips, then remembered that the last of it was gone and set the bottle down in her lap. “We need more wine,” she finally said.
* * * * *
“Cody.” His name hadn’t passed my lips in years. Just saying it brought back a dozen memories, mostly angry, some sad, and even a couple distinctly erotic flashes of recollection, his name ragged on my breath, his hair between my fingers and his whole body heavy between my legs.
He turned, and for a moment I was terrified that he did not recognize me. His eyes searched me, and then at last, a flash of recognition. “Becca?” he said, looking me over again more carefully. I had a panicked thought that the old grudge might still linger in his memory, that the same chilly silence that tainted our last four years of school would also haunt the evening. But then he flung out an arm and said, “Oh my god. You look… wow. You look incredible.” His arm enveloped me and his scent filled my nostrils. Soap and pine needles. I noticed that he seemed at least six inches taller than he was when we had dated, and I felt small in his arms.
The hug lasted just a second longer than it should have. “Thanks,” I said. “You look great, too.” It was true. The years had not been unkind to him. He kept his hair shorter, face slightly stubbled. His cheeks had thinned out and there were faint traces of muscle beneath his shirt.
He was smiling. Oh god. When was the last time he smiled at me? Me at him? “Let me get you a drink,” he said. “I want to hear what you’ve been up to.”
I waved away the suggestion. “I’ve already had enough,” I laughed. “It took me three glasses of wine just to get up the nerve to come over here.”
Mercifully, he chuckled. “Wow, you really have changed, huh? I remember you never would have had so much as a sniff of booze when we were in high school.”
I scoffed, embarrassed. “Oh, I’ve changed alright.”
“Oh, yeah?” he said. “How’s that?” Was he flirting?
I flushed. Cleared my throat. “Well,” I said. “I got a tattoo.”
“You. A tattoo. I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true,” I said. Then, realizing I was intentionally making myself sound trashy, I added, “but it’s small. Easy to cover up.”
“Where?” he asked.
I pointed to the small hollow of my pelvis where my clover tattoo lived. Then, without thinking, I winked. Now I was flirting. Fuck, I was drunker than I thought.
His eyebrows flew up. “I’d like to see it sometime,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
An awkward silence followed. After a moment, I said, “Well, it’s great to see you again.”
“Yeah, you too,” he said.
My head felt weightless as I moved away from him, made my way back to the bar for a fresh drink. There were only 96 people in my graduating class, and only about 70 who showed for the reunion. It was hard to lose yourself in a crowd of so few, and I kept making awkward eye contact with Cody without meaning to.
I endured a few uncomfortable conversations with former classmates, the typical run-down. “What have you been up to?” “It’s been forever!” “We should catch up sometime!” “You look great!” A lot of words, nothing much said. They weren’t the reason I was here.
About an hour into the evening, the class president took the stage. “Good evening, Hapville High class of 2007!” Applause. Someone yelled, “Go Panthers!” She thanked the student council and assorted members of the faculty who had helped put the evening together, a general thanks to all who had donated to the alumni scholarship fund. Then, “As is tradition, we’ve invited our own Class of ’07 Hapville Scholarship recipient kaçak bahis to say a few words about how this opportunity has impacted her life. I’m excited to welcome one of our most distinguished alumni back to her alma mater to share her experience, and encourage all of you to invest in the future of our local children and our community by donating to this worthy cause. Without further ado, Becca Simmers!”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the mic. There was no podium, just a mic stand. I looked out on the half-interested faces of my former peers and began the speech I had prepared on the drive from Atlanta. First the formalities, “I want to thank the alumni that came before me as well as the selection committee…” Then the same setup I heard at a seminar two weeks earlier, “Success is 10% opportunity and 90% what we make of it. When you grow up in a situation where opportunities are scarce, you have to make the most of the ones you do get, because there is no guarantee when or if another will come along. This scholarship was my opportunity, and I like to think that I made the most of it. I went to Auburn and got a great education, something that would not have been possible without this scholarship. With my education, I began a career, saw the world, and through much blind luck, but even more hard work, I was able to launch my own business.”
I spoke for a few more minutes about my startup company, admittedly a very small fish in the very big pond of third party logistics companies, and my gratitude for the town where I grew up blah blah blah. It was bullshit. Not my success, but my feelings toward Hapville. It was like talking about your ex to a shared child. There was no love and even a great deal of animosity in that relationship, but you had to put on a face and pretend like you didn’t hate them. If I had been able to say no to the speaking commitment -and I had tried; I was actually already scheduled to table at a conference in Fresno- I would have, but they had me by the balls, so to speak. How did you say no to the people who you owed your first break to? So I had agreed to return to the shithole where I grew up, say a few words for the benefit of the donors, and then put the town back in my rearview for another decade or two.
I exited the stage to applause and made a straight line to the bar. Several more people came up to me, offered their cards, invitations to catch up over drinks, to which I gave polite, intentionally misleading replies. “I’ll make sure to reach out the next time I’m in town.”
I felt a hand squeeze my arm. Kelly. She ordered herself a gin and tonic and then said, “Nice speech.” Then in a low voice, she added, “Just so you know, I noticed Cody eye-fucking you the whole time you were up there.”
“Oh really,” I said, feigning disinterest. “What about Mark? Any run-ins with him yet?”
Kelly scoffed. She hastily snatched up the glass the bartender set in front of her and took a long swig. “Oh, he’s here all right. What a fucking piece of work. Hasn’t said two words to me, but he’s apparently been making a real ass of himself striking out with half the cheerleading squad. About ten minutes ago, I saw him disappear to the locker room with- get this – Jessica Carter. Fucking Jessica Carter! Remember what a slut she was?”
“No.” I remembered who the sluts were – I was probably considered one of them. Jessica Carter, by all accounts, was definitely in the goody-goody phylum. I couldn’t even remember her ever having a boyfriend.
“Yeah, well, you’ve got to be a pretty big slut to hook up with a married man at a goddam reunion.”
“Divorced,” I corrected. “Remember? He’s your ex.”
“Whatever,” she said, downing the rest of her drink. “Anyway, here comes yours now.”
“What?” I said, but I turned and there was Cody. He was smiling.
“I had no idea you were such a distinguished alumni,” he teased. He motioned to the bartender for a couple beers.
“You’re mocking me,” I said.
“No, I’m taunting you.”
Just then, the band, returning from a break, struck up a tune and the gym filled with music. “Wanna go talk somewhere a little quieter?” he shouted over the music.
“Okay,” I said. Leaving our untouched beers on the bar, I let him take me by the hand and lead me through the crowd and out a back door.
* * * * * * * *
The hallway was dark. His hand was warm in mine, pulling me further into blackness and away from the party. There was an exciting sense of urgency, of secrecy and danger as he led me down a pitch black corridor, then a sharp turn down another that was even darker.
I could still hear the music pumping from the gym when he stopped. Suddenly, his hand was no longer in mine. Both hands were rough and warm against my torso, forcefully pulling me into him. I felt his hard body press against mine as our lips found each other in the darkness. The first kiss was electric, a searing rush of nostalgia and fire. Then his mouth was on my neck, his hands frantically tugging up my dress. I raised my arms as he lifted the dress over my head, tossed it into some dark corner. My hands found his belt buckle and deftly worked to undo the clasp and unbutton his pants. They dropped to the ground with a satisfying clink as he tore away his own shirt.
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