Story & Characters © 2018 Lewis Smith. All Rights Reserved.
Andrew Larson was late, and he was going to pay for it. Dr. Garret had told him to pick a partner for one of his assignment months ago and he had, as usual, waited until the last minute to do it. The assignment was simple: choose one of the plays in the text and run through it before the class. It didn't expressly require any real preparation (It wasn’t a term paper), but it just never seemed immediately important.
Now, however, it was top priority. He bounded up the four flights of stairs, taking two and three at a time, knapsack swinging to and fro. His ponytail kept whipping him in the face. When Andrew was out of time, everything was important. He just hoped he would catch her in her office and in a good mood.
Dr. Garret had always given him a fair shake, had always listened to what he had to say, but Andrew could never quite shake the feeling that she had an overly high opinion of him; like all he should be doing is being the Great American Writer and anything else was just a waste of His Great Potential. But she was a good friend, one who Andrew had shared many secrets with.
She was a writer of some note herself, but Andrew had never found the time to read the works she had given him, only skim them and do a passable interpretation of someone who had read it. Like all English majors he knew, he had mastered the art of reading for the gist early in his college career.
"You're gonna kill me," he said, smiling in a way he hoped was ingratiating. Andrew wasn't above a little ingratiating. "I almost totally forgot about that play assignment. Is there any group open?"
Dr. Garret gave him The Look: How can someone so talented be so slack? She had the air of someone who's vertical hold continually needed adjustment--perpetually frazzled around the edges, like a three dimensional grainy image of humanity. Her hair frizzed where it should have hung straight, her eyes darted around like a spastic gerbil, and her whole manner screamed "slightly disheveled Type A." But Andrew actually enjoyed that--unlike most of his other English professors, she was approachable, even calm--if you caught her on her cigarette break.
"The only one open is the last play," Dr. Garret sighed. I need a guy to do the other role. You'll be working with Catherine."
Andrew swallowed hard. Out of all the gin joints in the world, he thought.
"There's no one else?" Andrew asked desperately.
"If you wanted a choice, you should have gotten up with me before."
"I suppose there no chance of me doing one on my own."
"No, Andrew--it wouldn’t be a group project then, would it?"
Andrew sighed. He was caught, and he knew it was his fault. Nothing to do now but get it over with as painlessly as possible. He had always hated the idea of group assignments, because these people were the same people who were competing against him every other time in the class, why would he work with them now? It was a paradox he had wrestled with for ages, but no one else seemed to have a problem with.
"What's the name of the play?" Andrew asked. Seeing as how he rarely cracked the text for the usual assignments, he might as well get an idea of what he was up against.
"It's called Lovesong," Garret said. "It's just as well you get to do it. I think you'll find it hits close to home."
"And I have to do this with Catherine," Andrew said he made a face that looked like he was trying to swallow a lemon. "How utterly . . . swell. Okay, I’ll be ready."
"Okay then," Garrett said, lighting a cigarette and opening a window. "I expect something brilliant."
"Uh," Andrew said, making a face just as bad as the one he had made before.
"I haven’t said more than 13 words to Catherine since we broke up," Andrew said, looking out the window. He recognized some of the students filing out and wished he were among them.
"From what I understand," Garrett began. Puff, exhale. "You were never together."
"Don’t bring reality into my life’s fiction," Andrew said, smirking. He let the comment hang there as he left.
Andrew suddenly regretted all that he had told Dr. Garret anything about his personal life. Just when he thought the past was buried, it tended to boomerang back in his face.Andrew is sitting to her left, idly doodling while he talks to her. She sits at her desk in the computer lab, speaking with a voice like honey over cigarette smoke. He has to strain to hear her over the constant mumbling that fills the room like static over your favorite song on the radio. The more he hears the voice, the more he feels attracted to her. It is the voice, but is also her beauty.
Because he’s shy, he doesn't dare look at her. If he does, he's afraid those brown eyes will steal his heart forever. Or maybe the golden, perfectly round face, that he wants to caress, to touch. The heart-shaped mouth that he longs to kiss. Or maybe it's the way the face is framed by her golden hair. While she isn't centerfold material (Andrew has never met a centerfold, and suspects they are all clones or robots) and is rather full-figured in truth, Andrew feels undeniably attracted to her. But he doesn't dare look at her. Not yet.Andrew thumbed through the campus directory, looking for Catherine's number, cursing his rotten luck. There were, he reckoned, twenty people in his class. Some he knew well, some not at all. Didn't it just have to be Catherine?
Catherine Rosewood had been Andrew's queen of fantasy and the co-conspirator in one of the weirdest human relationships Andrew had ever been party to. He called it a relationship now, and counted Catherine as an ex solely because the term for their relationship hadn’t been invented yet. He had wanted a relationship with her so bad; in fact, he had convinced himself that there was a relationship where none existed.
Not the first dumb move I made, he thought, tracking down the columns with his index finger. Probably not the last either. He felt butterflies take off and ricochet around his stomach. His hands were suddenly sweating too. He knew this feeling well. It was the dear-God-am-I-doing-the-right-thing-because-it-sure-doesn’t-feel-like-it feeling.
He dialed the number, and leaned back on his bed. One of the advantages of a private room: In your own personal space, no one can hear you scream. Not the first time he appreciated that luxury, because he really felt like screaming right now. It rang twice and she answered.
"Hello?" Catherine said. It was perfectly innocent, but her voice was so seductive, at least where Andrew was concerned, that it strummed his nerves like they were guitar strings playing soft blues. Suddenly two years ago, didn’t seem that long ago.
"H-hey Cathy," Andrew stammered, his voice only having the slightest tremor. He hadn’t expected her to answer. Or maybe he had wished she wouldn’t. His free hand shaking, he wondered if she remembered his name.
"Oh, hey 'Drew," she said, her voice lightening with the recognition. She still remembers I hate being called 'Drew, he thought. "What's up?"
"Not much," Andrew said, his feet now beginning to sweat. "Has Garret told you we're working together?"
"Yeah," she said. There was no hint of approval or disapproval in her voice. Maybe she's forgotten, he hoped. Maybe she doesn't remember. I wish I didn’t.
"Well this isn't as spicy as our last conversation on the phone," she said jokingly, trying to break the silence. Andrew's heart sank -- of course she remembered, he thought bitterly. He rolled his eyes like a man who knew he was condemned to death by perfect irony.
"Ah, no," he said. "I don’t think your, uh, your . . . boyfriend would go for that."
"He's not here to say anything about it."
Jesus, Andrew thought. Don't tell me things like that. I'm in enough turmoil.
"I," Andrew began, trying to ignore the nervousness he felt coursing though him. "I, um, wondered if you wanted to, um, you know, run through the play t-t-tonight. If you aren't uhhhhh, doing anything, you know."
"Are you okay?" Catherine asked.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," Andrew said. He tried to relax himself by closing his eyes and thinking of something else. It didn’t work. What is happening here, he thought, as much about himself as about her.
"Tonight's good," she said. I'm going to take a quick shower, and I'll see you in a hour and a half, OK?"
Andrew wondered for the umpteenth time why God seemed to have it in for him, at least where women were concerned. Despite himself, the image of her in the shower flashed through his mind, and he chastised himself silently for it. Then he thought about it again before snapping back to reality. "I'll see you then."
He hung up the phone and grabbed his keys and his jacket. He threw his denim jacket on like it was a concrete shroud. He bent down and opened his small refrigerator.
Damn, and I could really use a drink now, he thought. Of all the times to not be stockpiling liquor.
He looked at himself in the mirror. He picked up his hairbrush and gave his hair a once-over. While he did this, his mind was trying to catch himself.
What are you doing? He asked himself. It's not like you have to get dressed up or anything. You’re not trying to impress her now, right?
He stopped and blinked, staring at his own reflection.
Right?They are lying on her bed, she is smoking a cigarette and talking about how cruel John, her ex-boyfriends had been to her last summer. Andrew can barely fight the urge to look at her. His long hair covers his face, he has it down to blind him. She is still talking, and he is listening, watching the cigarette smoke, but trying not to look at her.
Then he feels her soft hand at his temple, pushing his hair out of his face. He jumps back like a frightened animal.
"What are you doing?" Andrew asks.
"I can't see you," she said, smiling. He looks into her eyes at last, and he is immediately taken by her beauty. As far as his own self, he feels a little less ugly just being in her presence.
Andrew thinks about how lucky he is that women, especially this one, are even interested in him at all, even as friends. He feels so ugly, most times, not at all attractive. In Catherine's presence he feels like Quasimodo in Aphroditie's boudoir. In truth, he is only slightly out of shape, hiding the pockets of pudge under big T-shirts. He has been told he has beautiful eyes, but he doesn't believe it.
She drives him back to his dorm and before he leaves, she sits back in the driver's seat and closes her eyes, almost as if she was waiting for
-a hand to hold-
-"I Love you"-
Andrew instead thanks her for the ride, and went back to his room. He thinks about the look on her face as they sat in the car, and when he sleeps, he dreams of her.Catherine's dorm room was much like Andrew's-a study in measured clutter. Perhaps the only marked difference between hers and his was that Catherine smoked, and the ashtrays and cigarette packs scattered around the room attested to this.
The small of tobacco, surprisingly, was quite lacking. Catherine believed in air freshener, and the smell of Country Fresh hung in the air like a lilac smog cloud.
It hasn’t changed very much, he thought. At least it's nice and fresh. I always imagined the scene of my greatest embarrassment not involving nudity being in a fresh-smelling place.
She sat on her bed. She, like the room, hadn't changed all that much from the days when they had been close--only her haircut was different. The long, golden tresses were mostly gone, now replaced by a conservative bubble cut. Anything else that had changed Andrew figured was none of his business. She was still curvy and shortish. And she still had that piercing stare and that honeyed voice. It was going to be a long night, Andrew thought.
Andrew felt in that instant like an animal who has been trapped and, more than that, knows it's been trapped. He almost wished it was as simple as gnawing off a limb to get out of it. He held his book in his hands, rolling it into a cylinder. If it were possible that anyone could look be more nervous, he knew not how.
Neither talked about the past. Instead they dived into the play, reading with halting pauses. Andrew read his like he was acting, trying to put emphasis on certain points, trying to find the emotional center of the play, trying to bury his emotions in the assignment.
Lovesong is nominally the story of Charlie, a cynical college student, and Mariel, a high school girl who leans toward eccentricity. Charlie is waiting for a prostitute, and she is hiding from the people who pockets she has just picked. As they go back and forth they fall in love.
Andrew found the play to be well-written and surprisingly real. He had found all his relationships to have the kind of halting, stop-and-start progress as the one in the play. To Andrew, love was as much about defusing live emotional tripwires as it was about emotion. "Shy people touching," was how he had described it to his friend.
"’Be careful with the fragilest ambitions of the heart,’" Catherine said, looking at Andrew, expecting something.
"Oh," Andrew said, jolted out of his reverie. "I'm sorry. I was on another planet. What's next?"
"The script says we kiss," Catherine said, again, aggravatingly neutral.
"Do you really want to leave that in?" Andrew asked, trying to weasel out of it. "I really don't want your boyfriend gunning for me. Well, unless he already is."
Catherine laughed. "What is your problem? It's just a kiss.""So, why did you come out here?" Andrew asks. They sit on one of swings on the quad. The night is cool, for springtime. Catherine has the strangest look on her face. It is so far removed from her usual happiness that Andrew is worried.
She seems to have a certainty, a definite reason she was out there at two in the morning. Andrew is much less certain, because his nerves are on edge, because of everything he wants to say and do, coupled with the fact that this seems to be an important moment.
She's either going to tell me to go to hell or--
She pulls him close, and before he can say a word, she is kissing him. He can smell the scent of shampoo and cigarettes in her hair. He touches it, and finds it soft as silk. He touches her, and finds her beautiful.
The nervousness slips away, and he feels the edginess recede. He follows his own instincts and holds her close to him, wanting this moment to never end.
"I-" Andrew began, looking down at the floor. He wanted to say it, but feared the consequences. He hated times like this, where the words welled in his throat. They had to come, he knew, but he might as well forget ever seeing her after tonight. She probably wouldn’t want to.
"Cathy," he said. "There's something I have to say. It's about . . .how we used to be."
Catherine just looked at him, almost expectantly.
"My God," Andrew said, as though unburdening himself. "I haven't let myself think about this for a long time. You know why we haven't been talking like we used to?"
"I want you," she says. Andrew imagines her free hand gripping the sheets. For three weeks it's been like this. Cathy calls him or he calls her and they talk. They talk about school, about their home life, but mostly about what they want to do to each other, given half a chance. They never talk about why neither one will actually take the chance. They have only kissed once. They talk from eleven thirty to seven in the morning most nights and Andrew finds himself never getting really tired despite the loss of sleep.
He feels energized, he feels triumphant, and he feels only a little oversexed. He has that same feeling of power he almost always gets when he's doing something risky and wild.
Andrew uses every ounce of his creativity to come up with something new every night, to keep her interested. It never occurs to him how ultimately false this really is. His sole ambition is to preserve the mirage, even if it meant dying in a desert.
Every now and again, something slips from her, gives him hope. Catherine talks about how every time she talks to him her defenses drop a bit. She tells him he has sexy eyes. She tells him he has a sexy voice. Andrew sees it as progress because he will not let himself see anything else.
"I didn't talk to you because every time I did, it reminded me of what had happened, and how false it really was," Andrew said. He did not stutter or hesitate. "I put all my hopes onto you, and I shouldn't. Putting my need on your shoulders was selfish of me."
Catherine had watched him like a cat watching a mouse. She exhaled some smoke from the cigarette she had lit during the course of Andrew's story. She didn't even change expression once.
Andrew plopped down in a chair. "Well," he said. "I guess I'll just sit here and wait for you to tell me to get the hell out. I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
"Drew . . .uhm . . .Maybe neither of us was thinking straight during that time," Catherine said. "We had both come off of bad relationships, and we were both needy. Maybe we gravitated toward each other out of need."
"I guess," Andrew said, thankful that he wasn’t being screamed at. " I still feel like an ass about it. You know, the tragedy of it is, that if I was at the stage I'm at now, I could fall in love with you."
"I was in love with you," Catherine said neutrally. "At least, I had those kind of feelings for you. I didn't want to give them a name because I know the stupid things people do to satisfy anything with "love" attached to it. I had just done most of those stupid things for somebody who didn’t care."
"John, right, I know," Andrew said. "And I had gone through the same thing. I'm still kind of embarrassed. I always thought you were mad at me."
Catherine laughed. "Give yourself a break, I wasn't."
Andrew smiled despite himself.
"Would you," Andrew began unsteadily. "I mean, would you have done . . .those things . . .that we talked about on the phone . . . you know?"
"No," she said with a smile.
She looked away for a minute, then back at him. "I would have done more.""I've, um, I . . . found someone else," she says. Andrew could tell that it was taking a lot for her to say it. He feels his heart flying apart like glass shot by a gun.
"He's really nice," she says, almost defensively. "We met at a party. Look, I know this is hard, but . . ."
"Cathy," Andrew says, his voice thick with tears he felt in his heart. The tears well in his eyes, stinging like drops of fire. "Don't try to cushion the blow. I love you. I want you to be happy. If this guy makes you happy, then, that's what you should go after. After all, it seems like you've already made the decision anyway. Nothing I could say would stop you."
The conversation ends. Andrew feels like crying and it pours out of him like a waterfall. He buries his face in his pillow and wonders how he will survive this heartbreak. He's ashamed of himself for the lie he's just told. In time he will come to blame her and cut her down at every opportunity, because it's her fault after all, that he didn't get his shot at her. As though he was entitled.
Later on, he begins to wonder if she is truly guilty. He wonders if maybe he is to blame for not taking the initiative, for not bringing the tension to a head. He wonders if he should have backed out of such a delusional relationship before it got so bad.
He never finds a complete answer to the question.The night came, and Catherine distinguished herself by actually dressing up for the play. Andrew just showed up in his usual garb--black T-shirt and jeans. She seemed almost like a hippie Punky Brewster, with glitter around her eyes, huge shoes, and glasses that only seemed to intensify her eyes. She had tried for cute, but Andrew could still she was beautiful.
Andrew read his lines as he practiced, adding emphasis here and there, trying to act. His words were strong and confident. Cathy does hers as well, if not better than he did, trying to be honest. When the time came for the kiss, Andrew did not hesitate. Just as before, he smelled her hair. Cigarettes and shampoo. Memories good and bad flooded back into Andrew’s mind and heart.
This time, however, the bad ones didn’t hang around.
The class talked about the play. They talked about how Andrew and Catherine were so much like the characters they played. Andrew tried hard not to roll his eyes. Everyone, it seemed, had gotten the joke, and Andrew, despite himself, was laughing too now.
Andrew talked about how he liked the honesty of the language, how these people seemed real because they didn't talk in that stilted theater mode of speech. Catherine talks about how she liked the love story itself. She thinks it would make a great movie. No one noticed that Andrew didn't look at Catherine after they had finished reading the play.
"I'm glad that's over," Andrew said after the class. "You know, you did great. You look great too. I feel bad, I should have actually dressed for this. You read so much better than I did. I think you should ditch English and act."
"I’m happy where I am, and you were fine," Catherine said, putting the glasses in their case. She nonchalantly tossed the glasses into the passenger seat of her car. "You're a great kisser."
Andrew opened his mouth to say something, but he caught himself and kept quiet. Catherine got in her car and closed the door. Before she started the car she leaned out, smiling.
"Hey," she said. "That's two times you've kissed me."
"You kissed me that first time," Andrew said. "I remember how aggressive you were. You tigress, you."
"That's not how I remember it."
"You just want to be modest, Catherine," Andrew said.
"We'll never see eye to eye on who did what, will we?"
"Guess not," Andrew said, brushing his hair out of his face. "But I won’t go to war with you or stop talking to you because of it."
"This time," Catherine said, starting the car, and giggling a little. She waved good-bye. Andrew waved halfheartedly and watched her drive away.