I have maybe a dollar in change in my pocket. Steph wants a Slurpee and is irritated that I don’t have enough money. I would’ve stolen my dad’s car for her. I would’ve donated a kidney. Our mothers were in the same birthing class. Steph was my oldest, sometimes only, friend. We had known each other before we were born but she doesn’t like it when I tell people that.
God, it’s so creepy, Cat, is what Steph says. Just don’t. It’s not like that is even possible anyway. Gross. Just don’t, she tells me. So, I don’t tell people that anymore but I still wanted to believe it.
Here. Here is a quarter, Steph says. Get me a Diet Coke. And hurry up. I gotta be in Adams Morgan in like five minutes, she orders me. Steph leans against a postal box and reapplies lip gloss.
I step inside the 7-11. It smells of processed meat, burnt coffee and patchouli. The air conditioning is set so low condensation has formed on the plate glass windows. I am damp with sweat and immediately begin shivering.
Yo, Cat. You riding a bender or something? You’re like totally wet, says Derek at the cash register. He graduated two years ago. We were in Chemistry together. Steph let him feel her up at a party last summer in exchange for some edibles.
Hey, D, I say. There’s just a great disparity in temperature, you know. Derek looks at me blankly. Maybe now is not the best time to practice my SAT vocab.
I try again; It’s hot outside. I need to get Steph a Diet Coke.
Yeah, alright. So, you still hang with her, he asks me.
I’m walking back to the wall of refrigerated beverages and I laugh at this question. What do you mean, D? She’s my best friend. I’ve known- Derek cuts me off.
He says, Yeah, yeah. ‘you’ve known her since you were in the womb’. I know. It’s just that she talks shit.
I feel cold and then a searing blush spreads over my face. I want to be stunned by what Derek is telling me but I have sensed this for a while. I put the cola on the counter. Looking down at my feet, I manage to ask, About me?
Derek rings me up. He’s not hot but he has soulful eyes. He looks at me over the register and I am reminded of Buster, my dog.
Jamming his hands in pockets he says to me, Hey, look Cat. I shouldn’t have said anything, you know. I figured you had heard. Just surprised to see you’re still hanging with her. That’s all.
Angrily, I respond, Yeah, well I’m surprised you’re still working at 7-11, ok? I mean, jeez, aim high, right?
Derek’s Buster eyes open wide with disbelief. The level I aimed for hit the mark.
Ok, Catherine. Diet Coke is on me. I don’t need this high school shit, he retorts.
I immediately regret being rude. I’m embarrassed. I wanted to make Derek feel as small as I do. Instead, I’ve made myself feel worse.
I plead, Listen Derek, I’m really sorry. That was crappy of me to say. I apologize. I- I don’t know why I said that. I think to myself though that I do.
Derek exhales audibly and his curly bangs briefly lift from his forehead.
It’s cool, Catherine, he says. This is kind of what I mean. Like, if Steph had said that I would’ve expected it. She’s only out for herself, you know.
I am about to refute what he has said. I am about to stand up for my best friend, tell Derek that Steph is more than just a set of DDs and a pretty face but the bell jingles and Steph leans in.
She spits out, What the fuck, Cat? You sucking his dick or something? I’m thirsty.
I reach for the cola and Derek looks at me plaintively, as if he’s asking me, See?
Thanks D. I’ll see you around, I manage to squeak out to Derek.
Yeah, ok, Catherine, he replies in a dejected voice.
Steph grunts as she reaches for the cola; You gonna hang out with that loser later, Catherine, she mockingly asks me.
I am about to laugh. I am about to capitulate. I am about to savage Derek and castigate myself and allow Steph to drag me around and keep humiliating me behind my back. I am about to relegate myself to being a backup plan. I let the door close behind Steph and then I turn back to Derek, immediately locking eyes with him. I am struck again with how emotive, how Buster-like his eyes are. The thing about Buster is his eyes tell you everything you need to know. I used to tell my secrets to Steph but when I talk to her now, she only blinks and brings up the boys she’s been hanging with at GW’s summer program. Lately, I’ve only shared my secrets with Buster. I take a deep breath.
I say to Derek, The Uptown is running a Studio Ghibli marathon this week. Do you want to go see Princess Mononoke with me tonight?
Derek smiles broadly. His eyes are only a little less brown than Buster’s.
He replies, Ghibli! Right on. I… I wish I could but I am taking night classes at NoVa. I’m, um, I’m actually enrolled at American this fall. I just needed to make some money first.
I flush hotly. I look quickly toward the door so Derek doesn’t see. Steph is on her phone crossing the street. I am certain she has no idea I am not behind her.
Hey, I am off tomorrow. You think we can catch a matinee?
I turn back to Derek. He is still smiling. Actually, he is kind of hot.
Indubitably, I say.
He says, Right on; It’s a date.
This work was first published by Sledgehammer Lit in June 2021.