Lexi thinks, people only do that in movies.
Because she’s never seen someone blow smoke rings. Or at least not like that. Not with that much gusto. There’s something so precise, yet effortless about the shapes coming out of his mouth. Like he’s not really trying.
Lexi stares at him surreptitiously, pretending that she’s sweeping the room for her sister. That’s her usual strategy at parties when she ends up alone; pretend like she’s not alone, but simply in search of someone.
She leans against the wall, arms folded, red cup raised close to her face, almost hiding behind it. There’s only soda in it, but she pretends it’s something stronger.
Her eyes find the soft-eyed smoker once again. As a rule, Lexi thinks smoking is pretty stupid and reckless. But she can’t help but admit he makes it look…different, almost tasteful. No, he doesn’t strike her as one of those hipstery tobacco snobs. He’s a plain smoker, almost old-fashioned, holding the cigarette between thumb and forefinger, but making it look graceful, unassuming. It helps that he’s not trying to impress anyone. She likes his bright patchwork sweater. He’s not aggressively male, and yet he oozes this sort of sleepy confidence. Like he’s older. Like he’s seen some shit, but he’s not bragging.
Lexi realizes she’s been staring at him for too long, and he’s looking in her direction now, which means he might’ve noticed, so she turns her head away quickly and pretends to study the carpeting.
When a more upbeat song brings a few people on the improvised dance floor, she slides forward with a sigh of relief.
For someone as shy as her, dancing is actually less stressful than standing still. She feels less watched and judged while dancing. Maybe because few people around these parts know how to dance. All of these kids look ridiculous. The exception is Maddy, of course, but she’s not here to school them.
So Lexi jumps around happily to an UPSAHL song, mouthing off the lyrics as if she knew what she was talking about. I just came here to the party for the drugs! Drugs! Drugs! Drugs!
She giggles when she thinks that she’s never even tried weed. She’s even more relieved when she sees Kat shimmy towards her with a tipsy grin. She and Kat have never been very close, but Kat understands what party-anxiety feels like. Yeah, Lexi would rather be dancing with Rue, but Rue is off in her remote bubble with Jules. So she bops her head and sings with Kat, I just came here to the party for the drugs! I’m not trying to make a friend or fall in love!
And it’s funny, but in this moment, she does feel a little high. Not because she’s taken anything, but because she feels someone’s eyes on her. Normally, this would make her cringe and panic, thinking she’d put a foot wrong. But this time - this time she only feels this exciting buzz in her belly. She feels seen through a haze of smoke. She’s afraid to turn her head and look. It’s silly. Obviously, the smoker isn’t staring at her. Why would he? She’s nothing special, and she doesn’t say that because she wants someone to prove her wrong. She’s content with being ordinary.
And yet, she can’t stop thinking and feeling that he’s looking at her. That he’s following her every clumsy move on the dance floor.
When she finally brings herself to glance over her shoulder, her stomach drops in disappointment. His spot on the couch is empty.
The second time she sees him at a party, she almost trips; Cassie has to grab her shoulder to steady her. She wonders, does he go to our school?
But she’s pretty sure she would have noticed him. He kind of stands out in his mellow way. He’s quiet, but weirdly focused for someone so ‘chill’. People ignore him yet gravitate towards him every now and then, though the interactions never last very long.
She’s too embarrassed to ask Cassie about it. Cassie, who dragged her to this because she thinks she needs to get out more. Who mostly did it because their mom wanted the house to herself for the night. Lexi doesn’t care to think why, though she can guess.
She spots Rue across the room, walking over to the mysterious smoker, sitting down next to him. Chatting in a familiar way.
Lexi’s heart beats faster. Rue knows him? So they’re friends. That’s good, isn’t it?
“Hey, isn’t that the kid you went to prom with in ninth grade?” Cassie asks.
Lexi whirls around. Sure enough, Tucker Blake is standing a few feet away, blowing smoke out of his Juul and winking at her in a way that makes her nose wrinkle.
“Go talk to him,” Cassie nudges.
Lexi appreciates the sisterly concern, she does. She’s even touched Cassie remembered her going out with Tucker that one time, but that had been one of the worst, most tedious experiences of her life. So no, she won’t go talk to him. She’ll pretend to walk in his direction. She’s good at pretending.
An hour later, she has found the perfect hide-out in the laundry room. She’s perched on top of the washing machine with her copy of Heart of Darkness. The choice of book feels quite appropriate for someone who is both precocious and out of step. The earbuds blasting Mother Mother prevent her from paying attention to her surroundings, so when the door parts she doesn’t stir.
The figure stands in the doorway for a few seconds, watching her.
When Lexi finally glances up, she drops the book in her lap and it slides to the floor with a soft thud.
She can only gape at the guy she’d been ogling at every party.
“Sorry,” he says, blinking slowly. “Never seen someone read at these things.”
His voice is like thick molasses, articulating each syllable. His freckles have turned bronze in the harsh neon light. A remix of Nirvana’s Come As You Are is ebbing from beyond the laundry room.
“Um,” she says with a swallow, “yeah, I just got bored.”
“I feel you,” he drawls. “Not much goin’ on out there. Sorry,” he repeats, “was just lookin’ for my brother.”
And he starts to turn, as if to leave, but Lexi desperately wants him to stay a bit longer.
“What does your brother look like?”
And to her surprise, the stranger smiles. It lights up his blue eyes. “Tiny guy, can’t miss’em.”
“Oh. How tiny exactly? Should he even be at this party?”
His smile turns into a chuckle. “Don’t worry about it. Have a good night…” and his eyes trail down to the book on the floor. He picks it up. Hands it to her. “…heart of darkness.”
She almost opens her mouth to say, that’s not my name.
No, duh. He’s just teasing, obviously.
Wait, why is he teasing?
But the stranger has already shut the door after him. Lexi feels like a fool.
The feeling doesn’t go away.
For someone so supposedly smart, she sure is fucking dumb.
Unable to help herself, she texts Rue the next day. She tries to be subtle about it. After a barrage of pointless questions, she goes for it.
Who was that guy you were chatting with at the party? The one in that Hawaiian shirt.
Uhhh why u wanna know? Rue fires back.
Never seen him around.
Yeah, u wouldn’t. He’s my dealer.
For someone who got an A+ on her last civics paper for her extensive research on the opioid crisis, Lexi sure feels fucking dumb.
How did she not figure it out sooner? How did she not put two and two together? That’s why he looked like an outsider. That’s why he was not in anyone’s circle, yet everyone passed by his spot at least once every couple of hours.
Lexi falls back on her pillow with a thump. She grabs one of the few stuffed toys she hasn’t hidden away – a rather mangy-looking lion - and squeezes the poor thing more out of anger than sadness. She should know fucking better than to develop a stupid crush on the town drug dealer.
The third time she sees him at the carnival, it’s pretty obvious the booth he manages with his younger brother is just a front for his other, more illicit activities. Once she becomes aware of it, she can’t unsee it, the way Maddy asks him so gauchely about “molly”, the way little bags slip so easily into popcorn tubs.
So Lexi avoids that booth. She tries to focus on Rue and Gia and finally spending some quality time with her friends, but it doesn’t last long. Jules comes in like the proverbial wrecking ball and tips the scales in her favor. Lexi can’t compete. Jules is a sharp breath of fresh air. Lexi feels like room mist, at best.
Even Gia decides to hang out with friends her own age, after a while.
Lexi wanders the carnival alone, looking down at her feet, counting each second she has left until she can go to college and reinvent herself. The problem is, you have to have invented yourself first before you re-invent anything.
“I’m not even a person,” she mutters to herself and walks straight into a solid body.
Hands stop her, gripping her upper arms.
She inhales the scent of cologne and cigarettes and cotton candy. And stares up into a kindly, freckled face.
“Yo, watch where you’re…” he begins to say, then takes in her flustered face. “Hey, heart of darkness.”
Lexi knows she’s blushing to her roots. “Um, hi. Sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“’s cool,” he says softly, carnival lights dancing across his face. “Come get a pretzel when you got time.”
Lexi nods awkwardly. “Sure, sounds good.”
The dealer’s smile is fleeting, just like him. He’s gone before she can say anything else, ambling through the crowds, probably making sure he’s got everybody’s order.
She stands there for a few moments, debating with herself.
No, she won’t go to his booth. She’ll just walk around. See where it takes her.
“What’ll it be, princess?” his bad-mouthed kid brother asks, staring her down. “We ain’t got all night.”
Lexi is already regretting this, looking over the unappetizing row of greasy carnival food and feeling her stomach clench in protest when a friendly voice cuts through her nausea.
“Yo, lay off, Ash. Let the lady have a minute.”
The soft-eyed dealer leans forward across the booth.
“Hey, heart of darkness.”
“It’s Lexi,” she says with a small smile.
“Fezco,” he offers evenly. “I like your name.”
“Um, thanks. I like yours too.”
“Jesus, are you gonna buy something or not?” Ash grumbles behind Fezco.
“I – I’m not very hungry. I just wanted to drop by and say that…”
Okay, now what? What will she say? All the possible topics of discussion that she had planned on the way here vanish in a puff of smoke.
Fezco is paying close attention to her. Fuck.
“I just wanted to say that…um, Apocalypse Now is based off Heart of Darkness, so it’s a pretty cool book. That book I was reading. In case you were wondering.”
Jesus, no one was wondering, you idiot, the voice in her head chimes.
“Apocalypse what?” Ash demands impatiently. “Man, whatchu talkin’ bout?”
“Ain’t that one of those Vietnam movies?” Fezco asks, keeping his eyes on her. He doesn’t look impatient.
“Yeah, it is,” she continues, because she’s got this far, hasn’t she? “But Francis Ford Coppola drew inspiration from Joseph Conrad. He turned a nineteenth-century novella about colonial rule and exploitation in Africa into a 70s war film about colonial rule and exploitation in Vietnam. It was pretty ballsy of him.”
“I remember my grandma liked that movie,” Fezco says slowly, still eyeing her in a completely disarming way. As if he cared about the stuff she was saying.
“Your grandma has good taste,” she mumbles, staring down at her laced fingers.
“Had,” Fezco corrects mildly.
Lexi’s forehead creases in sympathy. “Oh… I’m sorry.”
“Nah, don’t be.”
“Yo, Fez, are we working, or what?” Ash calls out, exasperated.
“We can work and talk,” Fezco tells him, voice tight. He turns back to Lexi. “So, come on, tell us more about the movie.”
Lexi pulls at a lock of hair self-consciously. “Well, a movie like that is best experienced by watching it. I don’t want to spoil it for you.”
“Tell me about the book then,” Fezco coaxes patiently. “You said it’s a novella. What’s that?”
Lexi blinks. “Oh, um, it’s basically a novel, but shorter. Heart of Darkness works really well as a novella actually. You don’t want the story to go on for too long. You want to make it intense, but also leave it open and ambiguous. Not all threads have to be resolved, like in a traditional novel.”
Once she keeps going, she can’t seem to stop barfing up all her reading notes on Conrad. Like she’s interviewing for Princeton or something. But it’s the fact that Fezco is not pretending to listen. He’s not humoring her out of politeness. He’s got little to gain. He looks genuinely interested. More than that, he looks rapt. As if he were drinking her words in.
She thinks that maybe this is the drug he provides for her. Attention.
It’s only when she hears Cassie’s voice behind her that she stops abruptly.
“Lex? What are you doing?”
“Oh, nothing. Just um, getting some food,” she mumbles, bowing her head.
Fezco quickly slides away from her, moving towards the back of the booth.
“Well, hurry up. I need a partner for the Ferris wheel.”
There’s no one else? she wants to ask, because Cassie usually never lacks for partners. But she bites her tongue when she notices the tear tracks on her sister's cheeks. Something must've happened with McKay.
“Coming,” she says, and mumbles a weak goodbye to Fezco before darting after her sister, like always.
If TV has taught her anything, it’s that your quirkiness will be appreciated when you least expect it.
She’s not too bummed out that not many people seem to be appreciating her Bob Ross costume. She’s enjoying herself. Halloween is about indulging in fantasy, becoming invisible for a better reason than just the fact that you blend really well with the wall. Her mother makes short work of her get-up. But her friends give her a big thumbs-up for effort. Hell, they barely even recognized her. And she’s proud of that.
Halfway through the night, though, she has to run interference for her sister and stop McKay from finding Cassie locked up in a room with another guy. The fact that McKay figures out her costume is a small silver lining, but she feels pretty fucking terrible about the rest.
So she’s extra grumpy when she runs into Tucker Blake again and he waves his Juul in her face, making fun of her old man costume.
“Damn, Howard, trying to scare away the entire male population?”
“Doesn’t seem to be working on you, since you’re still here,” she mumbles, trying to push past him.
Tucker probably still has a bone to pick with her, since she’s the one who unceremoniously left his company halfway through their prom date. He steps in front of her with an ugly leer.
“Still the same frigid bitch you were in ninth grade, huh? Guess some things never change.”
Lexi reels. “Are you fucking serious?”
And it’s true the question comes off softer than she meant to, but she’s not doing herself favors by wearing a mustache.
Tucker just laughs and breezes past her like she means nothing. Like he won that conversation.
Lexi clenches her jaw, fighting the urge to scream. Sometimes, it’s really hard not to say, fuck it, and smash the nearest glass over someone’s head.
But she doesn’t do that.
Instead, she goes outside and sits by the pool and scrolls through her feed, focusing on cute dog videos to get rid of the tension between her shoulders, which is why it takes her a few seconds to realize Tucker Blake is screaming.
She looks up. Tucker is in the pool, flailing. He’s also sporting a shiner.
“Told you pretty boy to cool off,” a lazy voice drawls in her vicinity. “But you wouldn’t listen.”
Lexi’s breath stutters for a moment.
Fezco is standing there, unbothered, looking for all intents and purposes like Tucker just happened to run into his fists by accident. But there’s something about the click of his jaw that means business.
A second later, his eye catches hers and he smiles a boyish smile, revealing slightly crooked teeth.
“Hey, Lexi. You having a good time?”
She thinks, I am now.
“For sure. That’s a really cool costume.”
“Thanks. How did you know it was me?”
“I figured you’d do somethin’ real different. It’s that painter guy, isn’t it?”
Lexi is flustered by the compliment. She nods. “Do you like Bob Ross?”
“Hell yeah. That dude put me to sleep every night. But in a good way, you feel.”
Lexi laughs. “No yeah. Totally. His voice is so soothing. The best kind of soporific.”
Fezco cocks his head. “How do you spell that?”
And she spells it for him, because she’s really grateful that he beat up Tucker Blake for her.
Scratch that, she’s pretty fucking pleased.
I mean, she thinks, maybe he had his own beef with the guy, separate from me.
Or maybe Fezco had beaten up an asshole for her. She prefers this version, because in this version it means he overheard the exchange. In this version, it means he was watching her too.
“Yo, you made me curious about that Apocalypse Now movie,” he says, interrupting her thoughts. “You wanna watch it sometime?”
Her heart beats inordinately fast. “Oh. Yeah. I – I’d like that.”
“Cool. Wanna do it over at my place?”
He’s asking her to his place. Oh my God. She probably looks bug-eyed, because he falters, lowering his head apologetically. “Or like, at my store, if you’re more comfortable. Or any place you want.”
“Your place sounds good,” she says, before she loses all courage.
Fezco’s eyes light up. Or maybe it’s the shimmering pool water making them bright.
“Dope. I’ll text you the details if you give me your number.”
Lexi chuckles, trying to cover her nerves. A boy is asking for her number. And she’s wearing a mustache. “Sure, should I bring any snacks?”
Fezco saves her name in his phone. “Nah, I got it covered. Just bring yourself. That’s all we need.”
"Wait, you own a store?" she asks, now truly bug-eyed.
Afterwards, what he'd said earlier comes back to her in a sweet rush.
Just bring yourself. That’s all we need.
She tries to act like that particular line doesn’t fuck her up. She knows Fezco didn’t mean anything by it, but she spends all night obsessing over it.
She almost falls off her bike twice trying to pedal to his place.
God, Lexi thinks, how will I manage over two hours of screen time with him in the same room?
Another part of her mind is asking herself why she’s dropping by a drug dealer’s home. But that’s the judgmental part that Lexi decided needs reinventing.
He’s completely enthralled by the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now. The palms thrashing in the wind, the bombs going off in slow motion, the explosion, the fire, The Doors playing their dirge in the background, it’s all wonderfully arresting for a boy who loves it when things slowly unwind, when time stops briefly, and he can breathe, can take it all in.
And then the face superimposed on the screen. The ceiling fan fading in. The upside down images, slowly righting themselves, the man lying in bed, spinning, surrounded by his vices, cigarette and drink, and a gun on the pillow, and the whir of the ceiling fan which reminds him of the helicopters flying over Nam. Fez understands it all, understands it deeply, because sometimes, at night, a certain sound will melt into another sound and the side of his temples where his grandmother had accidentally hit him will pulse like a still open wound.
He watches as the man on screen goes to pieces in a way he’s never seen a man do or been allowed to do before, and the music reaches a crescendo, and it’s all going faster now, making his heart pump faster too. Lexi is telling him about this sequence, the history behind it, something about the actor improvising a couple of scenes.
But she stops when he sees how affected he is by the chaos on screen and the man’s total breakdown. The actor is crying, bleeding, dancing, naked and alone. Fez is looking in a mirror that he never dared look into before. It’s disturbing and cathartic. It's like letting go of something heavy that leaves scars as it falls from you.
Lexi hits pause, looking at him with concern.
“Hey, are you okay?”
“Yeah no, I’m good.”
“That sequence can be a lot when you watch it for the first time. But I think it’s meant to shake us up a little,” she says softly, and she places her hand tentatively over his.
Fezco is grateful for that touch. He takes her hand in his and squeezes, oblivious of the way Lexi’s pulse spikes.
“It’s really cool. I, uh, got lost in it for a while.”
“I’m glad. But I'm here if you need anything. Sorry if I talk too much over the movie, I promise I’ll shut up –”
He shakes his head, still holding her hand. The distance between them on the couch is negligible, but Lexi can feel every inch.
“I like hearing you talk,” he says, looking at her. “You say crazy smart shit, and…it makes me feel good. Like I’m learnin’ something about myself…and about you.”
Lexi’s smile burns her whole face. “Thank you, but you don’t have to say that.”
“I’m not. I mean that shit.”
“Oh. It’s just, no one’s ever…”
She looks back at the screen, shaking her head. “I’ll tell you later. Let’s just keep watching.”
“Imma hold you to that, Lexi,” he says, and he does, in a way, because he holds her hand throughout the rest of the movie.
When she was younger, Lexi always used to carry dog and cat food on her, in case she found any strays on the street. She was dreaming of becoming a vet one day and her ten-year old brain thought that this meant taking care of every single animal she met. Her heart broke knowing some of them went hungry.
One afternoon, she stopped by the store on the edge of town to feed a small stray, and a boy with sandy-red hair came out of the shop. He saw her sitting down with the mutt on the kerb, lavishing him with affection, feeding him morsels of wet food. He frowned in confusion.
He came nearer.
“What are you doing?” he articulated sharply.
Lexi looked up at the strange boy. He seemed only a little older than her.
“Giving him his dinner,” she said naturally.
The boy’s frowned deepened. “He already had his dinner. We feed him sometimes.”
“A little extra won’t hurt,” Lexi said with a slight chin raise. “Plus, you should feed him all the time.”
“If I do that, he’ll get fat and won’t be useful no more.”
“Dogs are people too. They don’t have to be useful,” Lexi argued, aggravated.
“Everyone’s gotta be useful,” he said in that stuffy, bored tone adults used often.
Lexi squinted at him. “No. No one has to be useful or anything. We just are. Like this dog just is.”
It was probably the smartest thing she had ever said and would ever say in her entire life. Little Fez hadn’t appreciated it at the time, though he’d sat down with her, and watched her feed the dog, and he’d felt confused about it, because he kind of liked this strange girl.
Years later, it all came back to him when he saw her at a random party.
He recognized her, he didn’t know how, but he did. Once he figured out it was her, he couldn’t stop staring at her, though he tried not to give it away. It was something in the way she held her shoulders, stiff and proud, but also burdened with the responsibility of being her, of being good and careful, always keeping food in her purse for strays, that took him back to those days when they were kids.
He watched her through the haze of smoke and marveled at the fact that she was, to his mind at least, the prettiest girl there.
He drives her home in his car, because he won’t have her bike at night on his account, not in this neighborhood. And frankly, it’s hard to let her go just yet. He wants to keep spending time with her, even after sitting through Apocalypse Now.
“So,” he says after a pause, waiting for her to get comfortable in the front seat, “You said you’d tell me somethin’ later.”
“Oh. I…I forgot.”
“Nah, don’t think you did.”
It shouldn’t surprise her how perceptive he is, but still. She doesn’t know how to be that vulnerable in front of him.
Fezco seems to intuit what she needs. So he goes first.
“Never had someone to watch movies with. Ash doesn’t have the patience. Wouldn’t mind doing it again, if you’re good.”
“Oh, I’m – yes, I’d love that. I’m glad my commentary didn’t put you off.”
“Stop trippin’. Your talking keeps me focus. 's hard for me to focus sometimes.”
“Really? You seem pretty focused to me.”
“Yeah, but it’s all for show. Half the time I don't know where my head's at...You know what I mean?”
Lexi swallows. “I think so. But I’d like you to tell me more about it…in your own time.”
Fez looks at the passing cars. He already feels like he will tell this girl everything, but he has to pace himself. “You got it.”
She smiles. “Thanks for listening to me, by the way. I’ve never had someone pay attention to me so much. Usually people kind of zone out when I speak.”
Fezco glances at her. “Then those people are fuckin’ morons.”
He drops each syllable like a hammer, making sure she knows what he thinks of those people.
“And you should tell them that,” he adds, coming to a stop across the road from her house.
Lexi issues a small chuckle. “Yeah no. I’m the goody-two-shoes who doesn’t fight back. I keep it bottled up inside and only scream it into my pillow at night.”
Fezco shakes his head. “That’s no way to live.”
She heaves a wistful sigh. “It’s how we all live, kind of. We all have to be a certain way, play a certain part.”
“No one has to be anything, Lexi. We just are,” he rasps, and she doesn’t realize he’s reciting her childhood words back at her.
Or maybe she does. Maybe a part of her subconscious responds in some mysterious way, because she turns to him and squeezes his arm, and leans forward to kiss his cheek.
The problem with that is that Fez moves his head too quick.
And in the moment, she’s caught on a collision course. She could pull away to avoid it, but she doesn’t want to. Fez meets her halfway, sealing his mouth over hers, and the ring of smoke melts between their lips.
Their second kiss, a less clumsy, more drawn out affair - his hands in her hair, his tongue in her mouth, her body pressed against his - happens during Rosemary’s Baby, and they only get interrupted by Ash, coming out of his hiding place to complain. “Man, I’d been watchin’ that!”
Fezco’s laughter is like butter on toast. Lexi giggles, leaning into him just to feel the reverberations of his chest, those tiny spasms of happiness.
Movie nights become hazy with smoke and the blurry meeting of hands and lips and hips, slow and leisurely, taking their time, ignoring the screen. Coming back to it when they can’t breathe any longer.
Lexi doesn’t know if she regrets or appreciates the fact that they’re watching Carrie the first time Fez kisses the inside of her thigh. The feel and scratch of his beard against her sensitive skin sends her down a dangerous spiral, and she can't get enough of that rough and tender sensation on her cunt. His fingers leave marks as they grip her thighs and hold her fast around his head, keeping her from sliding away. It’s close to poetic cinema - the fact that she comes on his mouth with a small scream as Carrie, drenched in blood, walks through the school she set on fire.
At the New Year’s party, Lexi pretends. She’s good at pretending. This time, though, she’s got his words ringing in her head. We just are.
And it makes her giddy to know they are something they can’t define or tell anyone.
She sees him sitting across the room, smoking and watching her, only her, like she’s the only movie playing on the screen. It makes her toes curl in her shoes.
If any other guy tries to approach her tonight, he will click his jaw again, like he means business. He will get up and make sure that kid ends in a pool. And the mere possibility, even if not very likely, is intoxicating.
He will sneak a kiss at midnight, when no one’s looking.
But for now, he only stares. He drinks his fill.
She sits against the wall, feeling each heart beat like a tiny earthquake, and she stares back at him, knowing that this terrible ache, this wonderful pressure of being so close and yet so far, is like being in a movie, like doing things people in movies do.
Only it’s better, because she’s coming to realize, actually, that some things don’t just happen in movies. People do them in real life too.