For a moment, Max Aleshire didn’t know what he was doing at the reunion party. It wasn’t as if he was friends with the guests. He knew a handful of them, the ones who were classmates, but he wasn’t friends with them, either. In school, he’d been the odd one out; the one that everyone knew, but no one liked. It wasn’t because he’d antagonized anyone. No, he’d been the quiet student who sat in the back and only spoke when spoken to.
He’d often thought he wanted to get to know his peers. After all, he’d had plenty of friends back in Brisbane. Boston, though, not so much. At first he’d wondered why. Was it his Australian accent? The way he dressed? His surname, which no one could quite figure out how to pronounce? For some reason, everybody avoided him. He’d known they weren’t doing it to upset him, though. When forced to talk, everyone was rather nice to him. So why did they ignore him, even now?
There was one person who, after two years of pretending he didn’t exist, finally had to talk to him for a group assignment. Her name was Stacey Eichel; she was the most popular girl in his grade. He didn’t care much for things like that, though. When he did speak to her, he spoke to her the same way he spoke to anyone else. She must’ve appreciated that, as, to everyone’s surprise, she started sitting by him. Max had both liked and hated this. As much as he wanted to make friends, he liked his solidarity. But who was he to push away the prettiest girl in Boston? Whenever she brushed her black hair behind her ear or her hazel eyes met his, he felt something stir in his chest.
One day, Stacey gave him the answer to his long-lurking question of why he was so avoided. “You know, I thought you’d be an asshole. No offense. You always look so serious, so I was afraid to approach you.”
Well, he’d thought, that explains it.
By then, though, it’d been too long for him to change. Too awkward. He was a serious guy. Why should he hide it?
Stacey didn’t mind. In fact, she told him, “I think you’re cute when you’re serious.”
They’d started dating on Valentine’s Day of 2014. He was 16, and Stacey was 17. Now it was New Year’s Eve, 2016, about five minutes from 2017. They’d been together for almost three years and were now both 19 years old . . . yet they’d never even kissed.
In the time that’d passed, they both moved into their own places; Stacey to a small house and Max to an apartment. Stacey, because her parents were over-protective. She wanted to prove she could thrive on her own. Max, because his father was an alcoholic gambler who stole the money he’d earned making digital art. They’d both graduated from high school the previous June. Stacey had started looking for a job. Max, on the other hand, grew more reclusive, preferring to work on commissions rather than go outside. They still went on the occasional date, though.
All this and Max still hadn’t had his first kiss yet. He supposed that was why Stacey invited him to the New Year’s party. She knew the presence of their former classmates meant nothing to him. He’d much rather have stayed at home and worked. Yet, she’d invited him regardless, so he figured it was to hold him down and kiss him when the ball dropped.
The thought alone made him nervous. It wasn’t that he didn’t like her. She was his girlfriend. It was his own damned fault for not working up the nerve to kiss her on his own. Would she make him be the one to lean in? She did have a tendency to be controlling. The argument they’d had back in July, after he’d refused to take out a loan to go to college with her, flashed into his mind. Was it because of that that she’d never gone? Was it to guilt him? Most likely. If being controlling didn’t get Stacey what she wanted, then passive-aggression was her backup plan.
Despite these small character flaws, Max still loved her. He couldn’t explain why he’d never felt any sexual or romantic urges for her. His only thought was that he was asexual. But that couldn’t be right. When he imagined making love to Stacey, it was beautiful and easy. But then they were alone in a room together and she was cracking onto him, and . . . nothing. At least her controlling nature had never carried over into her desires for him. She’d never pressured him for sex; rather, she made subtle suggestions and sighed when he dismissed them.
That has to change, he thought to himself as he stared down into the red solo cup in his hand. I have to show Stacey that I care, because I do! Else she’ll leave me, I know she will. She’ll think I don’t love her. I never show her that I do. That has to change!
He hadn’t seen much of her since they got to the party. There were a lot more people than he’d expected. He stood on his own, tucked away in the corner. As a wallflower he watched his peers like a soap opera. At some point he’d wound up with a drink in his hand, but he’d hardly touched it. Now that he was adamant about pleasing Stacey, however, he brought the cup to his lips and forced himself to drink. As he did, he wondered who’d smuggled the alcohol in, anyway. Legal drinking age was 21; no one at the party was, to his knowledge, over 20.
Oh, well. It’s none of my concern, much as I’d like to thank them. He tilted his head back and gulped. Tastes horrible, though. The buzz had better be worth it.
“Three minutes!” someone shouted. No one else paid any attention, but Max grew tense. As if on a cue, he saw Stacey’s head through the crowd as she approached. Her high ponytail swayed as she walked. Her eyes scanned the crowd as she held her arms close to herself.
She looks as nervous as I am . . .
When she reached him, she looked at him for a beat, but then turned her eyes to the floor without a word.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she replied through an exhale.
“Where’ve you been?” He chuckled and gave her a gentle nudge. “Shame on you, leaving me all alone.”
She made an amused grunt, but her smile didn’t last long.
“Um . . . Nothing. Never mind it.”
Thirty seconds of silence. Two minutes remaining. Max fidgeted in place. Stacey’s sour mood wasn’t helping him get over his nerves.
Does she want me to kiss her? Should I ask? He gave himself a mental kick. ‘Course not, ya drongo! Don’t kill the romance!
“What do you think of the party?” he asked.
“It’s all right, I guess. How about you?”
“Well, I can’t complain. Seems to be goin’ off.”
Stacey shook her head a bit. “Hmm?”
“Goin’ off,” he repeated. “As in, it seems fun? Do you not say that here?”
That got a bit more of a laugh from her, but still she couldn’t hold his gaze for long. “Still having trouble with Australian slang, I see.”
“Ah, I’m an Aussie at heart no matter how long I stay here. Better to teach Strine than drop it, right?”
“I suppose. I do find it cute.”
I’ll give her a kiss at midnight. Give her a real pash. He hesitated. Okay, well, maybe not a pash. I’ll kiss her, though. Might as well. What do I have to lose?
“You aren’t uncomfortable, are you?”
Max gave her his attention. “Pardon?”
“You aren’t uncomfortable? I know you don’t like people that much.”
He scoffed and shrugged, playing it cool. “Me? Nah. I’m a bit of a piker, sure, but I’ve been fine so far.”
“Ah.” If she didn’t understand ‘piker’, she did a good job hiding it. Though, hiding the discomfort in her voice didn’t come so easy. “You haven’t even taken off your coat, though.”
“It’s chilly in here.” A lie; Max was sweltering, but he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his coat unattended.
“One minute left, guys!” shouted someone in the mob.
Oh, boy. Almost time. Am I even ready for this?
The music kept playing, but everyone quieted somewhat, anticipating 2017’s rapid approach. As they did, Max stared at Stacey as she continued gazing at the floor.
All right. Get over yourself, mate. It’s only a kiss. She’s your girlfriend. Don’t be daft about it.
“30!” The mob started to count down, all in unison, but for him and Stacey. “29! 28! 27!”
“Look, babe . . . We need to talk,” mumbled Stacey as she crossed her arms.
“What about?” Max took a sip of his drink.
“I want to break up.”
It took a few seconds for the gravity of those words to weigh on Max. He looked at her in surprise once they did, his gray eyes wide. “What?”
“Look, I’m sorry, I am, but . . . I can’t keep doing this anymore, Max. I want things that you can’t give me, and I just . . . can’t anymore.”
“Stace, what . . . What are you saying?”
“I love you, Max, but let’s face it: we weren’t meant to be together. We should go back to being friends.” In defeat, she waved her hands in front of herself. Her eyes were watering. “I’m sorry.” Then, she hurried away, disappearing into the crowd.
“Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!” The party exploded into cheer, oblivious to Max’s shock.
Did that happen? He wondered, dismayed. Did she break up with me?
He was slow in scanning his eyes over the mob, or was it the world around him that’d slowed? People were holding each other, kissing, cheering . . . and here he was, on his own. Dumped.
Who breaks up with someone during the countdown? She didn’t even let me prove myself!
There was a pain in his chest that he hadn’t expected. He’d always felt that if she broke up with him, he wouldn’t react too much. But it hurt heaps. He wanted to get angry. What would that prove, though? He deserved this. It was his own fault for not showing her the love she wanted sooner.
Whatever. It’s fine. I’m better off alone, anyway. This whole “love” thing wasn’t my bowl of rice.
A bitter stake burrowed its way into his heart. His apartment was a far way away; Stacey had driven him here. She’d disappeared, though, somewhere in the crowd. Was it to hide away from him in shame, or to slink to someone else? The latter seemed more like his luck. Glad that he’d kept his coat on, he set his cup down on a table and headed out.
Man, I really am a piker, leaving the party early. Guess I have a reason to, though. I don’t belong there.
It was colder outside now than it’d been when they got there. All he could hope was that he wouldn’t get mugged or something on the long walk home.
He tried to convince himself that he wasn’t angry. After all, he didn’t feel like he had a reason to be. She’d given him his just deserts. He’d made his bed, now he had to lay in it. Would he ever find love; someone he could reciprocate feelings for?
Nah, I doubt it. I have trouble loving my own parents. How could I love someone else? I’m too anti-social for love. Didn’t even believe Stacey whenever she showed affection toward me. Guess I was right to doubt her, though, huh?
What was it that made her dump me now? Was it because I never kissed her? Because we never had sex? She’s with someone else who pressured her into dropping me? I’d be willing to bet on the last one. She has been more absorbed in her phone than normal as of late . . .
He pulled up the fur-lined hood of his black parka once he was halfway home. As much as he wanted to check the time on his phone, he was coming up to a bad area now and didn’t want to flaunt any of his possessions. However long it’d been, it felt like it’d been an hour since he left the party. It’d take at least another half hour for him to reach his apartment.
In the meantime, it was difficult for him to describe what he felt. Betrayal? Anger? Sadness? He wasn’t sure. When he stopped on the middle of the street, it was because he realized he was walking past a cemetery. Somehow, it seemed fitting, though he didn’t recognize it. One of the pillars for the main gate had a plaque on it. Cᴇᴅᴀʀ Gʀᴏᴠᴇ Cᴇᴍᴇᴛᴇʀʏ, it read in gold. As he took in the name, a sudden sensation of wanderlust came over him. The urge to wander through the cemetery was unbearable. Alas, the gate had a padlock and chain holding it shut.
When Stacey dies, will they bury her here? The obtrusive thought forced its way into his mind. They’ll bury me back in Straya, I reckon. But she’d be here. Or in a different cemetery? Hold on a tick. Why on earth am I thinking about this? She’s not dead, won’t be for a long time.
But she may as well be dead to me.
He shook his head, disturbed by himself. No! No, that’s fucked up! Christ . . . Never mind. I’m going home.
The cold winter air blew hard against his face as he trudged down the street. It’d never been this cold back in Brisbane. Suddenly, he felt homesick for the great Down Under. As much as snow had amazed him since he was ten, the cold wasn’t worth it. Too bitter. In Australia, December and January had been warm months. Hell, most months were warm when compared to this. Forget about the party; he didn’t belong in Boston.
It’s too late to go back now. There’s nothing there for me anymore . . .
Forty minutes later and he was at last entering his apartment building. In the stairwell, he felt his phone rumble in his back pocket and wondered if it was Stacey. He didn’t check, though. Instead, he took his time clomping up the stairs. Up he went, all the way to the fourth floor. Stopping in front of the door to apartment 409, he pulled out his keys from the front left pocket of his gray jeans.
His apartment was dark, all the lights off and curtains over the windows in the living room. Not even a sliver of moonlight could find its way in, so when Max opened the door, it was like looking into an abyss. As his phone rumbled a few more times, he stepped in and closed the door behind himself. He’d only lived here for a year, but had no difficulty finding the light switch on the wall blind.
With a sigh he dropped his keys down onto the kitchen island. Then he headed further into the apartment, to the living room. He unzipped his coat and slipped it off, dropping it down onto the couch. His head hung as he slunk into his bedroom. From his back right pocket he pulled his phone out before sitting on his bed. He turned it on.
Of course, all the notifications that made it rumble were texts from Stacey. Rather than look at the latest on his wall, he opened one and read them all in order.
1:06 AM: “Did you get home safe?”
1:08 AM: “I’m so sorry, Max. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
1:09 AM: “I hope you can understand. I only broke up with you because I felt like we were awkward as lovers. You never seemed comfortable when I changed our status quo.”
1:10 AM: “I thought we’d be better as friends. Can we still be that?”
Max stared at the message and thought: Friends? With you? You must be off your face! “No”, he typed, but hesitated before pressing send.
Now, hold on a minute. Let’s not be so rash. I mean, she does have a point. I never was comfortable with romance. Should I accept this? Oh, reckon I’ll be bitter about this for a long time, but . . .
He deleted the two letters he’d tapped in. Stacey started to type another text. “Please?” it read when she sent it.
Max sighed. She said she was sorry, mate. Count your blessings. She’s your only friend, and she’s giving you a chance not to lose her for good. Take it!
I’m gonna regret this, he thought, but responded anyway. “Yeah.”
There was a beat before Stacey replied, “Really?”
“Yeah, let’s stay friends.”
“You always were considerate. Thanks.” She ended this text with a smiling emoji.
Chewing his lower lip in a mix of uncertainty and anxiety, Max simply responded, “No worries.”