Being back at home was the shittiest feeling. On a bad day, it’s like she'd never been gone, even though she knew for a fact that those four years of college had happened, and that they had been pretty great, she had to admit.
Her parents had, over-optimistically it turned out, moved into a place with no spare bedroom, so she had hung an Indian bedspread to curtain off her area of the den downstairs, and hung a string of Christmas lights in the shape of little skulls from that. Definitely not a step up from the dorms, but honestly more spacious than what she'd have had if she'd tried to stay in Manhattan.
She was waiting tables at a local Chili’s wannabe, which didn't help with her rapidly returning hatred of all humankind, also familiar from high school. But it paid enough that she could spend two days a week at an unpaid internship at the local music magazine.
She hadn't stayed in touch with many people from high school, and was almost regretting it, now that she was used to having good friends around.
Preston and Amanda were exceptions—but after four years of making a long-distance relationship work, they were living in Boston together, both in grad school, and getting married. It was sweet that it had worked for them, she thought, even if it was a little nauseating. She was trying not to think about the wedding; she was pretty sure weddings weren't her scene.
The only people who’d stayed in town were the girls who were already pregnant with their second kid; dudes who thought they knew it all even though they were working for their dads. One day she thought she saw Kenny picking up some takeout, but he was gone before she got a good look.
She and Kenny hadn’t been able to make long distance work for them. The first few months of school had been full late-night calls where she tried to talk about her classes and roommates, and he tried to have phone sex—okay, it wasn't like she wasn't into the phone sex, but it was hard to find time without her roommate around, and if Kenny couldn't even have a normal conversation about his day, what was their relationship exactly?
But then winter break had been a different story. Not just the sex—he really was fun in person, and listened to her. It was so comfortable when they could be themselves; there weren't many people who knew her that well.
Then back to school meant back to bickering over the phone, and Denise got less and less interested in trying to talk about her day. And, worse for their relationship than the bickering had been: she was starting to like her life at school, and to flirt with cute guys who said interesting things about film criticism, and to forget her phone dates with Kenny.
At college, she had more than one friend who wasn't a complete idiot and who treated her like an equal and who could have conversations about literature with equal parts of bitterness and sincerity. She talked back to creative writing professors when they were being idiots. She ate Ethiopian food and got rush tickets with her Renthead roommate.
There were things she missed about high school—Preston's goofy earnestness and willingness to call her on her bullshit, the patty melt at the stupid local chain restaurant (although wow, was she over nostalgia for that now that she worked there). And, yes, after they had broken up for good, she had missed Kenny. And so once in a while she would hit him up on IM, and once he gave up on trying to cyber, he turned into someone she could count on a good conversation with. But they'd talked less and less often over the past couple of years.
That night she got an email: hey, saw u this afternoon, looking good. So that had been Kenny. She started to compose a reply, then left the window open, unfinished until she had to sign off.
The next day, she was kicking ass at her internship; she had turned in a project she felt really good about, and her boss had been even more impressed with it. At lunch, she checked her email on the shared intern computer, and was surprised to feel a buzz of happiness when she saw another message from Kenny—this time, just a link.
She clicked without thinking, and jumped a little when kittens in Viking hats started singing Led Zeppelin. Shit, close close close—but her coworker Sarah shouted out, “I love that one!” and ran over to watch.
Denise let it keep playing but turned down the speakers a little; lightning struck behind the kitten and she burst out in giggles. After the song finished, she replied to Kenny. That was RIDICULOUS. How are you doing, Fisher?
Later, when Sarah showed her a Thundercats outtakes reel, she shot that link over to Kenny, too, and he replied with LOL. Nice one. Back in town for a new job, it's lame but it's a gig.
Not part of Diddy’s entourage yet? she replied. Tough break.
On Thursday, he came by the grill towards the beginning of her shift, sauntering past the hostess with a nod.
"Hey," Denise said. "Check in is over there if you want a table.”
“Yo, what makes you think I’m here for dinner?” Kenny asked. “It’s, like, four o’clock, is that breakfast or lunch?”
“We have a early bird special on honey crispers, it’s a big hit with the seniors. I thought you might be interested, you’d blend right in.” She nodded at his trucker hat and the ones on a group of older men sitting by the window.
“Nice,” he said. “I could be down with those dudes, they look like they know their way around a riding lawn mower. Get me, uh, five of those things.”
“They’re 800 calories,” Denise said. “Probably, like, your week’s cholesterol.”
She looked over and saw that her table was trying to catch her eye, and probably had been for a couple minutes. “I have to go,” she said. She started walking away, then turned back around. “See you later?” His face lit up. She spun around and hurried over to see what the customers wanted.
When she got off work, Kenny was sitting on the curb outside.
“It’s like high school again,” he said. “Way too much time chilling in parking lots. God, that sucked.”
“I thought you guys were the cool kids,” she teased. “Weren’t there parties to go to or chicks to annoy with your moves?”
“Oh, yeah, high school had some pretty righteous times. That time that Jenny Atkinson was all over us because Dino scored some sweet—"
It had been so long since she’d heard him boast ridiculously, it was kind of endearing. "You just talked yourself around to the opposite of where you started."
"Hey, I see the upside of a situation," he said. "But at least now I can buy beer without using Josh's brother's id."
"Wasn’t he, like, six foot two?" She laughed. "Pretty sure the clerks were onto you, they just didn't care."
Kenny shrugged. "Maybe the cashier was blinded by my good looks and charm."
"Or your goggles," Denise said.
"Please, please, let me forget some of my personal stylistic choices." He scratched his head. "I can admit, they were not 100% wise back then."
Denise decided not to comment on his studded belt. "Okay, eight mile, speaking of beer." She paused—was this a good idea? It kind of felt like a good idea. "You want to go grab one?"
The beer after work turned into, actually, a really good conversation. Kenny was starting an actual 9 to 5 job; he complained about the 9 a.m. part, but sounded excited about it. Denise howled with envy when he mentioned the benefits that would kick in after three months. Who were they, adults or something? Talking about insurance plans. That was different from the old days.
But then he gave himself a beer foam mustache and started impersonating their elementary school principal, and it didn't feel so different.
In October the amazing happened: her internship turned into a forty hours a week, Monday through Friday job.
"They actually like my work," she told Kenny, half-whispering in case saying it too loud jinxed it. "I mean, it's still technically on a temp contract, but my boss wanted me to apply, and told me how great I would be for it."
"Dude, that's awesome!" he said. "Of course they think you're great; you love that job." It was true, Denise thought, but it felt dangerous to admit that. She shrugged, but she treated him to the next round to celebrate her impending paychecks.
She kept working at the grill until she'd saved enough for deposit and first month's rent for her own apartment. It meant working 50-plus hours a week, but it was easier with a day job where she was producing an actual thing that people cared about.
There were a couple of shitty, shitty nights where she almost walked out, but she stuck it through and gave notice on a quiet day, almost running out the door before she got suckered into staying for even one more shift.
Packing up her belongings didn't take long; she loaded her car up with boxes of clothes and books and it just took a couple of trips to move stuff into the new place. She went to Target and bought every kitchen implement under $12 that she could imagine using. It felt like playing house, like someone might pop up at any moment and tell her to get real, but there were utilities in her name and everything.
After months in the family room, anywhere with a door would have been a step up, but her apartment was great. It was a one-bedroom—no roommates—Sure, there was some light shining up from between the floorboards, and the landlord seemed a little nosy, but it had a little stained glass window and a dishwasher and a bedroom with a door that closed.
Furniture she couldn't quite manage on her own, although she tried. Her dad had driven over the mattress and dresser that she was taking from their house, and she didn't want to ask for more help. She got the boxed desk halfway up the stairs, but it jammed against the wall going around the corner, and she was trapped behind it. She called Kenny; voicemail. She almost hung up, but there was no way she was getting this desk moved on her own. "So, if you're around to help with moving some furniture, I'd buy you some pizza or something. Thanks."
She stared at the box. There had to be a way to unstick it; what if—no, that didn't work. Hey, there was a dent in the wall, right next to the corner of the box. Had she done that, or had generations of tenants moving in had the same problem? A series of scuffs farther up the stairs suggested that it might not just be her. She tried wedging her shoulder under the desk, pushing it up to a sharper angle. That might work, but the center of weight was getting dangerously—fuck, there it went.
Under the noise of the box thumping down the stairs, she thought she heard the sound of the door opening. "Hey!" Kenny's voice shouted. Clattering and cursing continued, until she saw the box inching back up the stairs towards her, and the tips of his hair peeking out behind it.
"Hold on," she said. "That's where it got stuck before, but I think if I—"
"I don't know if I can give up the momentum," he said, but the box stopped moving. "This thing is freaking heavy; how did you carry it this far on your own?"
"You should give yoga a try," she said.
"Maybe I will. And I want to feel those guns later, damn. Damn." The box was slipping back down a little.
"Hold on," she said, trying to get a grip on her end of the box. "I am never buying particleboard again. Except that I can't afford anything except particleboard."
"Can the discussions of furniture quality wait until later?" he said.
She got a better hold. "Okay, I've got it," she said, "swing your end up to your left," and they maneuvered the box the rest of the way to her landing. He wiped his face with his shirt, and maybe he didn't need that yoga, because his abs looked nicer than she remembered.
She grinned at him. "Want to help me figure out the instructions to put it together? The guy at the store said they were a little hard to follow, but I think he meant, translated through at least three different languages before English.”
"I'm pretty sure I would hammer my own hand, or yours," he said. "But I'll stay for that pizza."
After the pizza, he did watch her try to assemble it, and tossed in some moral support.
"Are you sure those are the parts for a desk?" he asked. "It looks more like a, like a dragon or something."
“A dragon?” Denise narrowed her eyes at him, but he wasn't wrong.
"Trogdor the deskinator," she said. He started making a ridiculous noise, and she burst out laughing.
"Is that a dragon noise?" she asked. "You sound like a dying manatee."
"I'm wounded," he said. "Here, try that piece over here." It didn't quite fit, but it was close enough; Denise tightened a couple of screws, and it looked better.
"Also," he said, "your ass looks great from this angle."
She looked at him.
"Not to be objectifying or whatnot," he said. "I'm just saying—"
"Not necessarily objecting," she said. "I just can't believe you can think about sex when I'm this sweaty and gross." But she leaned back from the desk and sat closer to him.
"Trust me," he said. "I can always think about sex with you."
"Is that sweet?" she asked. "I'm not sure if that was sweet or disgusting."
Kenny of 1998 would have said something even sweeter and more disgusting, but Kenny of 2002 had apparently learned that there were times to keep his mouth shut. He just shrugged and looked steadily at her with his stupid sweet eyes. She climbed into his lap and pulled off her shirt. The sex was even better than she remembered, and they had gotten good at it before their last breakup.
The afterglow lasted twenty minutes, and carried them through to start arranging furniture and talk about hanging things on the walls, but it couldn’t last forever.
"I was thinking of getting a futon or something," Denise said. "Cheaper than a couch."
"Offering your guests seating? That's, like, high style right there." Kenny nodded as if duly impressed.
"Like I'm going to be having dinner parties." Denise picked up a wad of newspaper from a half-unpacked box and threw it at him.
He tried to catch it, but it bounced out of his hands and under the dresser. "You could have friends, you know."
"I have friends!" she said. "Just not, you know, in this town."
"Thanks a lot," he said, gesturing at himself. "I'm just saying, if you put yourself out there a little more—"
"Way to be patronizing," she said.
"I'm patronizing?" he said. "Like you aren't always rolling your eyes at my clothing, or acting all sophisticated because you went to school in New York.”
“I wish,” she said.
“Why don’t you just move back there, if it was so much better—”
“If I could afford it, I would get away from you and the rest of this town in a second.” She lashed out without thinking. “I mean—”
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean—that was hurtful, and I'm sorry."
"Thanks," she said. "Me too; I think I owe you more of an apology. God, we have sex and twenty minutes later we're fighting like we're dating again."
“That better not be a reflection on my performance,” he said, but the tension was broken. “We cool?”
“We’re fine,” Denise said. “Let’s just say that that did not happen; we clearly don’t work as a couple.” She paused before admitting, "And you are sort of my closest friend right now."
"You, too," he said. "Man, life's weird."
They did work as friends. They kept hanging out—a drink here, a movie there, and Denise never regretted it. Their friendship hadn’t been so easy since grade school. It was good to be around someone in the same place as her—having ambitions to do things with their lives, and who would have predicted, back in high school, that that would have been her and Kenny Fisher?
But they were also still figuring out what they wanted. Everyone else who was still in town seemed to be either headed nowhere with their life, or moving way too fast into stock options and SUVs and babies. Her life was giving her enough to figure out—utility bills! office politics! where did she want to be living in three years? And she could have those conversations with Kenny, who had a lot of the same questions. But they could also stay up too late eating take-out and arguing about Buffy.
Time was rolling along at a reasonable pace, not dragging like high school or speeding by too fast like the end of college. And then one day she saw that she'd missed a call from Preston, and it smacked her in the face. Shit, she couldn’t avoid thinking about it any longer. The wedding was next week.
"Married at 21!" she had teased. "You guys are going to have, like, four babies by age 30." Preston had protested—grad school came first, Amanda establishing herself at a firm—but she could hear the goofy smile even over the phone.
And the voicemail was to say that she could bring a date if she wanted, even though she'd RSVP'ed for one. But she hadn't mentioned any guys to Preston, or any interest in dating right now. He knew that the only person she was really hanging out with was Kenny, didn't he? Was he matchmaking her with Kenny Fisher?
The thing was, it didn't sound like a bad idea. The reception would be full of Preston and Amanda's families, and friends from college who she didn't know, and a handful of people who hadn't talked to her in high school, let alone since high school. It wouldn't hurt to have a buddy there. She didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, so she called Kenny and chatted for a while until finally working it in. “So, I don’t know if you’re doing anything next weekend, and this is kind of lame—”
“Can’t be any more lame than my plan to sit at home watching Cops and eating Cheetos,” he said. “What do you got for me?”
“Preston and Amanda’s wedding.”
Kenny paused. “No, that’s still less lame than staying home alone. When are you gonna pick me up?”
The ceremony was sweet, and traditional, except for the vows. Preston had taken his long-revised letter, and expanded on it, talking about how there was so much more to get to know about her than he’d ever realized. They had started a relationship basically from scratch, not knowing anything about each other, as much as Preston might have thought otherwise. Then getting to know each other, even as they were growing up and changing—what was that like? It wasn’t like Denise had been a loner in college, but her relationships there had started out as friendships, hanging out, then hooking up, then talking about what it meant—actually, about the same as what she and Kenny had been doing this summer.
She’d been enjoying their friendship—but was that really all it was? She glanced at Kenny, who looked like he was blinking back tears as Preston and Amanda exchanged rings.
Dear self, you brought him as your date, she thought. To a wedding.
The organ music started up—was that Barry Manilow?—and she watched the newlyweds beam at each other as they walked down the aisle.
On the drive to the reception, Denise started to bring up her thoughts twice, stopping herself each time. Was this really a bright idea? This time, it would have to be for real. They had learned to listen to each other, to argue without getting defensive, and the sex—she had missed the sex.
They were seated with some of Preston’s college friends at dinner; she made a mental note to thank him for not sticking her with anyone from high school. Or his family—although his grandmother was pretty rad; Preston had said to keep an eye out for her on the dancefloor.
Kenny was drawing out the girl on the other side of him, asking her about where she grew up, but he kept bringing Denise into the conversation too. Pretty soon their whole side of the table was having a lively discussion about whether pop-punk had been better in the nineties, and she realized that she and Kenny worked pretty well as a unit that way. Thank god for getting less awkward since high school.
Of course, she was congratulating herself on their hard-won maturity while the conversation was turning to fart jokes.
The DJ switched from oldies to Nelly, and people had drunk enough wine that dancing sounded like a good idea. Kenny started to get up, and Denise started to slouch down in her chair. But she must have had enough wine, too, because then she thought, why not? She took Kenny’s hand, smiled at his look of surprise, and they headed to the dance floor with the rest of their new friends.
They danced with the group for a while, but by a couple songs in, they'd slipped into their own space, dancing closer and closer, almost grinding. Denise avoided Preston trying to catch her eye.
Kenny’s hand was warm on her waist—had he gotten smooth somewhere along the way? She really, really wanted to kiss him. But not without knowing if they were on the same page.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” she said. He nodded. The music was too loud; there were too many people around. She pulled him out into a hallway, then looked around to see if there was a space with some privacy.
“Looking for a bathroom where we can recreate a little magic?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” she said. Although she had totally noticed that the bathrooms here were very nice, cloth towels and breath mints and everything. And individually locking. “Look, hooking up without talking about it first didn't work for us. And distance definitely didn’t work for us. But what if—this is, never mind.” She leaned against the wall.
“Maybe being eighteen didn’t work for us,” Kenny said. “Maybe—nah, definitely, I was a dumbass.”
“God, why does anyone let teenagers make major life decisions?” Denise said. “They should never be tossed into the world like that.”
“For real,” he said. He was leaning against the wall next to her, but turned towards her now. “I bet in another five years we’ll be laughing at how much we thought we knew when we were twenty-two,” he said.
“Probably.” She laughed. “But I feel pretty good about my choices right now, even if I don’t have a couch.”
“I think I can trust myself with one or two choices right now,” he said. “What were you going to ask me?”
He knew, but she had to say it anyway, had to actually make this a decision instead of an act of hormones. Part of her wanted to pull away to a safe distance. “Do you think we could make it work now? Us, together?”
“I’d like to try,” he said. “I think we could be pretty great.”
“Me too,” she said, and leaned in and kissed him. “Want to find that bathroom now?”
“I saw a pretty nice coat closet on the way in,” he said.
And so they tried out both.
Preston smirked at Denise when she and Kenny returned to the reception, close to the very end.
She nodded back at him. “How’s married life treating you so far?”
“Pretty sweet,” he said. “I would definitely recommend it, once you’re done enjoying the thrills of being young and single.”
“Maybe not so single,” she said, smiling at Kenny. Preston looked ready to say something else, but Amanda came to grab him for the last dance, and they all headed back out on the floor.