I don't do anything half-assed. That includes cheating. I don't mean cheating on tests; I wouldn't stoop that low. I mean cheating on my boyfriend; I made sure to give it my all on that one.
Go ahead, call me all the names. Slut. Bitch. Whore. You're thinking them anyway. And maybe they're a little true. But before you get carried away, I'm going to let you in on a caveat: the minor little detail where he cheated on me first. With my best girl-friend. Right after my best guy-friend had died in a car crash. A car crash that I had been in with him and spent weeks in the hospital recovering from, and then months outside of it recovering emotionally. And where was he? Screwing around with my supposed best friend.
Someone sympathetic had tipped me off, pitying me for being in the dark after so much had already happened. After I had gotten over my initial rage, which my therapist took for being angry that I survived while Danny didn't, I had plotted to get revenge. It worked perfectly; he found out within two weeks and confronted me about it after dinner one night.
I could tell it was coming. All through dinner, the anger simmered behind his eyes, leaked out through jerky movements and stiff muscles, was poorly disguised through his attempts to keep up normal conversation. Finally, when we had arrived back at my house, he got out to walk me to the door (something he had stopped doing after we had been dating six months), and exploded as whatever wall he had thrown up to corral it came crumbling down.
"I know that you've been cheating on me," he sneered, planting himself in front of me to prevent any more progression towards the house.
"I know," I said simply.
"You're not even going to defend yourself?" he asked, taking a step towards me.
I held my ground, though not particularly defiantly. He didn't deserve any display of what I actually felt toward him at that moment. He deserved exactly what he had given me during my months of recovery. Nothing.
"No," I said evenly, "Because you have no right to accuse me of something you've been doing all summer."
A flicker of unease crossed his face, so confidently powerful before. He hadn't expected me to know about his little escapades.
Without giving him an opportunity to turn it back around on me, I calmly listed every single place and date that he had been with Charlotte. In the dark, secluded backs of movie theaters, at her house when her parents were gone on vacation, in the messy back seat of his car, at a deserted park after dusk, at Jack's end of the year party.
His expression and posture gradually lost fire as I continued. Whatever tirade he had planned against me clearly had no defense against the truth.
After I was done, I gave him no chance to defend or explain himself, no chance to try and make me the bad guy.
"We're done," I said. I sidestepped him, and continued into my house, holding my tongue against the rising tide of obscenities I wanted to hurl at him, at the burning in my hand that wanted to slap him for good measure. Once inside, I turned out the light without bothering to check if he had left and went upstairs to continue packing. I didn't see him for the rest of the summer.
So I was damaged goods, in more ways than one, and people could either take it or leave it. I didn't need anyone to fix me; I could fix myself.
Mom cried herself incoherent on the day they dropped me off at college. In between the hiccups and tears and sudden bursts of laughter, I deciphered that she was proud of me and to call whenever I wanted. I swallowed the urge to remind her that I was three hours away by car, only two by train, as she hugged me tightly.
Dad gave me a brief, one-armed hug, told me to pick on people bigger than me, and added a gruff, "I love you."
What Dad lacked in emotional displays, my mom more than made up for, but Dad was genuine in his affection.
Besides them moving my stuff from the car into my dorm room and hooking up my television, I had refused any more offers of help unpacking. My room would be my own.
It was early morning and my roommate had yet to arrive. We had been randomly assigned before moving in, but we were already Facebook friends so clearly we were destined to be inseparable. I set about putting my clothes away, making my bed, and hanging things up on the wall. There wasn't much wall space to begin with considering the cramped dimensions, but I managed to cover nearly every inch of the ugly gray cinderblock.
I primarily hung pictures of my friends and family, but I also added a Breakfast Club poster and a Keep Calm Carry On frame that my mother had given me as a reminder.
I was just smoothing the last picture into place, my fingers lingering a second on the face of my best friend Danny, when the door to my room suddenly opened and broke my concentration.
A thin, overly-dyed blonde girl walked in dragging a suitcase. Her doe-like eyes swept the room, taking in my decorations, before coming to a rest on me still kneeling on my lofted bed. The slant of her mouth told me she wasn't impressed.
"Hi," I said, trying to play friendly even though that wasn't my forte.
Her eyes flickered to my hair, and I saw another judgment pass across her features.
My hair was black. Not a tarry black from the bottle that you see on some people who "want a change" or misread the labeling (there's a difference between Kissed by Midnight and Shadow of Onyx) but a natural, shiny black. However, I had added a single strip of dark blue and a single strip of deep purple just behind my right ear the week before I left for school. In low lighting the colors were so dark you could barely see them, but when the sunlight caught them, they shimmered like the colors in an oil slick.
"You must be Amber," I said when she said nothing. "I'm Megan, but you can call me Dash."
"Dash?" she asked. Her voice curled around the word like a snake charmer.
"It's a nickname," I said, resisting the urge to throw her attitude back in her face. The only thing that held me back was the fact I had to live with this girl for the rest of the year.
"Oh," she replied indifferently. Man was this girl a gem.
She walked over to the empty bed and, without another word, began unpacking. Her parents came in soon after laden with more suitcases, her mother a carbon-copy of her right down to her shrewd gaze as she took me in.
Not wanting to go through more pleasantries I was sure were going to be wasted anyway, I hopped off the bed and said, "I'm going to leave so I won't be in the way," and quickly exited the room. I set off across campus with the intent of finding my junior friend, Vanessa.
Walking across the grounds, I took a deep breath trying to settle my thoughts as I dodged other students and their parents. I felt the familiar ache pressing down on my organs, the throb in my temples as I shielded the glare of the sun with my hand.
Get ahold of yourself, I thought. My parents had only grudgingly allowed me go to school after the accident, believing that I needed more time to recover. It had taken me the whole summer to convince them, especially after I broke up with Chris, which they had taken as a relapse in my progress. Although to be fair to them, I hadn't explained the whole back story which would have gone over worse than just the break-up. Now that I was here, I wasn't going to jeopardize my freedom.
Vanessa lived across campus in an upper classmen apartment building. It would have been much quicker to drive, but lacking a car (and having no desire to have one), I settled in for the twenty minute walk.
The campus of Central State was beautiful, the kind of pretty grounds they made sure to emphasize on postcards and brochures, with the usual brick buildings, walkways, and immaculate, green grass and gardens. It was beautiful, but it wasn't unique.
People lounged around outside, enjoying the afternoon sunshine, sprawled on towels, hanging in trees, walking towards Main Street where an abundance of shops and restaurants enticed poor college students with their sales and cheap deals. Already familiar with the layout of the campus having visited Vanessa several times, I felt a smidge of confidence that I wasn't walking around dazed and confused like some hopeless freshmen.
"It's about time you got here!" shouted Vanessa, throwing open the door and squeezing the life out of me in a hug.
Vanessa Manning was a big girl. Not fat, just tall and lean cut from her diligent workout regimen. Excluding weekends, she considered it a sin to skip a day at the gym. And so her hug enveloped my smaller frame into the curve of her body as easily as if I was made of cloth, as did her unruly, curly brown hair which smelled of strawberries.
An attention-grabber upon entering a room, Vanessa had no fear, no shame, and an impressive display of confidence and candor. It was a combination that endeared a lot of guys just to see if they could keep up with her, although she had finally weeded out all of the seedy ones to land someone who complimented her variably personality; her boyfriend, Kevin Sterling, who waved to me from the couch. I lifted a hand in greeting.
"How'd move in go? Did you meet your roommate? How are you?" She asked all of these questions in rapid succession without drawing breath. The last one was clearly the most important because she gripped my shoulders and peered into my face like she was trying to look into my soul. I chose to ignore it.
"Mom cried like I was never coming back, and my roommate appears to be the spawn of Barbie and Godzilla. So let's just average the two and say move in went fine," I said nonchalantly.
Vanessa clucked her tongue. "That's too bad. You're always welcome to crash here if you want."
"I know what will cheer you up," she said suddenly. Her face lit up with the prospect of the idea, her eyes and mouth pulling up with mischievous energy.
"What?" I asked suspiciously, wary of past Vanessa ideas.
"Kevin's friends are having a party tonight. You should come. Get fully initiated into the nightlife that is Central State."
"So you mean get shitfaced with a bunch of people I don't know."
"But who, after a few drinks, will be your best friends. Vodka has this great side effect of creating instant bonds with other girls in bathrooms."
"Yeah, why not?" I said shrugging.
"Great," she said. And seizing my hand, she dragged me towards her closet.
Later that night, the three of us had gone to Kevin's friend's apartment, where the party was already in full swing. Music blared at top volume from surround sound speakers and people packed the crowded space, cramming onto couches, dancing atop tables, red solo cups held aloft just in case someone were to bump them and spill their drinks.
Vanessa and Kevin were somewhere among the crowd of dancers while I observed from my post leaning against a wall, my own drink in hand. All around me drunken college kids celebrated the beginning of another year of freedom; it was the only time you saw kids excited to go back to school.
I was trying hard not to think about Danny, and especially Chris who had texted me yet again early that afternoon, but it was hard when my adrenaline from the party was waning and the alcohol had yet to really kick in. Draining the last of my second drink, I was about to go in search for a new one when a guy detached himself from the crowed and stepped up to me. A goofy but self-confident smiled stretched across his face as he handed me another drink.
I took it from him with a smirk and cracked it open. "How did you know?"
"Call it a hunch," he said. He too leaned against the wall, his head bent towards me. A hand reached up to brush his long blonde hair out of his blue eyes, although it wasn't in the way to begin with. "You look kinda bored," he remarked.
I shrugged and took a sip. "Just taking a break," I said.
"Mind if I take a break with you?" he asked, smiling crookedly.
"Seems like you already are," I said, raising my beer can slightly to him.
I spotted Vanessa in a break in the crowd. She waved eagerly at me, her eyes bright and cheeks flushed. Her gaze went to the guy next me and she gave me a poorly disguised wink.
"That your friend?" he asked, following my wave to Vanessa.
"That's her," I said, laughing.
Kevin appeared at the precise moment, looking a little intoxicated himself, and dragged her back into the crowd.
"And she's taken," I giggled. I was reaching the end of my third drink and beginning to feel the effects. I felt light and bubbly, the party taking on a new quality of fun.
"And what about you?" he asked, leaning even closer and smiling. "Are you taken?"
"Nope," I said. "Free as a bird." I wondered if that was still true with all of my memories weighing me down, but what the hell. I deserved to have fun tonight.
"Actually, she is taken," drawled a voice behind me.
Not believing my ears, I whipped around to see Chris standing there like some horrible hallucination. He took a swig of the beer in his hand, crushed the can, and threw it to the floor. He walked closer, staggering slightly.
"Who's he?" asked the guy.
"What are you doing here?" I demanded, outraged.
Chris went to college only half an hour away, and he had friends that went here. But never in my dreams had I thought he would actually show up at the same party.
"What are you doing here?" he slurred. "Wearing that and talking to him," he continued gesturing to my tight black blants and rather low-cut top that Vanessa had coaxed me into wearing.
"That doesn't concern you, Chris," I snapped.
"Hey man, why don't you back off a bit," said the guy by my side.
"You can get the hell away from my girlfriend before I kick your ass," said Chris.
"You said you didn't have a boyfriend," he said.
"I don't!" I yelled furiously. "We broke up!"
"Whatever," said the other. "You guys can figure your shit out." And he walked away.
I rounded on Chris, dropping my empty can. "You have no right to be here!"
"You haven't been answering," he accused.
"Hmm, I wonder why," I said mockingly, tapping my chin.
"Can't you at least let me explain?"
"Explain what, exactly? Let me guess, you tripped and fell on Charlotte and your clothes spontaneously combusted because you're both so full of hot air and bullshit?"
"God, Dash, will you just listen to me?" he yelled. He took my arm and steered me towards a quiet corner in the hallway. I was so blind with rage I didn't try and resist. "Listen, I know I hurt you. God knows I've regretted every single thing I did while you were in the hospital. I know it sounds like bullshit but I didn't want to hurt you. I lost my best friend and I thought I was going to lose you too. Even when they said you were going to make it, I didn't know how to connect with you. You went through something I couldn't hope to understand and with Danny gone, I didn't know how to deal with it—"
"Oh, I see. Fucking Charlotte was the only obvious solution—"
"Dash, I'm so so sorry for what I did to you. I know nothing I could say could ever take back what I did. But I love you, and I just miss you so fucking much. I'm asking for another chance, please," he said. He stepped closer, looking down at me with those eyes that had captured me in the first place.
An image of Danny came unbidden to my mind, throwing me off guard. I felt my breath catch in my throat like those pieces of glass that had flown through the air in the crash. Tears welled in my eyes, stinging like the alcohol in my stomach. I saw a flicker of hope—and victory—flash across Chris's face.
Bile and rage scorched my throat with the words I hurled from the pit of my stomach.
"I'd tell you to go to hell, Chris, but I don't want to see you there. So listen real close when I say, fuck off, and I never want to see you again. Call up Charlotte to get over your broken heart and then find someone else who deserves you and your sympathy even more than she does do."
I shoved him roughly, breaking his grip on my arm, and walked back down the hall towards the rest of the party.
I turned against my will, hoping he could feel the fire in my eyes.
He was smiling that shy-sly smile that I used to love. The sight of it made me sick.
"You're going to miss me eventually, you know. I made a mistake, just like you, and I'm willing to forgive you. I love you, and I know you love me. And I know that losing Danny was hard on you, and that you're still not healed. I'm ready to be there for you like I should have been all along. And when you're ready to talk; I'll be waiting."
I laughed. "Don't hold your breath, Chris."
But even as I walked away, I felt his words latch onto my shadow.