by: Chad D. Christy
His stomach trembled slightly as he walked up the staircase. Up above, the light over the landing flickered, its orange-yellow light casting unease with each pulse. The shadows were harsh, and the darkness that descended with each click and crackle seemed to warn of some unseen danger lurking just beyond vision. But Edward knew that he was simply creating the tension himself. At least he hoped he was. After all, it’s not like he was in a rough part of town. The apartment complex was in a nice neighborhood, and the police presence through that part of the city was either comforting or oppressive, depending on which side of the law you were looking at.
It wasn’t at all like where Edward lived, where police meant that someone had been shot, arrested, or both. Sometimes drug busts, sometimes gambling house shakedowns, occasionally gang members being taken in on old warrants; but the police were too busy and too understaffed to waste time on prevention through visibility. They weren’t friendly faces and no one bothered to call unless something truly horrendous went down. The fight on the other side of the wall wasn’t your problem. Maybe not even when the woman’s scream is suddenly choked into silence. Maybe not even when a gunshot ends the argument, unless the bullet punches through your wall. Then you call. Definitely. Well, not definitely. Probably. All right, still maybe.
But that’s not to say that’s how Edward grew up. He’d grown up in a nice affluent suburb, but life had gotten the better of him and it was either live in the hood or live in his car, which he’d also done. Parking in the WalMart parking lot at night, washing in the public restroom before going to class, shivering under a pile of clothes as snow drifted down onto the rear window. He’d tried lighting a candle the first couple nights, but he was too afraid it would tip and catch the car on fire. Then cleaning the soot off the windshield in the morning; it just wasn’t worth the trouble.
He was still comfortable in nice neighborhoods, though, and he certainly looked the part. His clothes were clean, his hair was cut, and his face was shaved. Very often he would let his outer appearance slip a little, trending toward a demeanor of apathy. Edward felt that a rougher exterior would help keep him from being a victim, and he was partly right. But it was his tendency to keep his head down and keep to himself that did the most good. He might make brief eye contact and nod or grunt an acknowledgment when necessary, but he didn’t bother anyone and no one bothered him and that was pretty much how he liked it. At home anyway. School was another matter entirely.
Edward felt safe on the university campus. At least safer. He still kept an eye on blind corners as he passed and watched what people did with their hands as they walked towards him, but he didn’t walk with the same head-down, drawn-in shuffle. No, Edward walked with head held high, with a smile on his face, even on the bad days. Midterms, finals, thunderstorms: these were not problems that worried him. He was confident here in the academic world. This was a place where he excelled, where he found pride in the compliments he eared with his achievements. And he did it all in spite of all the challenges he had to overcome.
It was the head-up, smiling Edward who had made the first impression on Courtney, the young woman who lived with her mom and little brother in the apartments on the good side of town. When he’d walked into his History of American Journalism class on the first day of the semester, he’d greeted the professor like an old friend. It wasn’t the first class he’d had with Dr. Slater. He’d found that he enjoyed her teaching style and commentaries. Their opinions clashed quite a bit, but he felt a mutual professional respect growing between them. She’d helped him identify some leads and introduced him to a few contacts within the city’s field of politics, and even floated a couple of his papers around to some of her more influential colleagues.
After exchanging personal stories of summer vacations and puppies and kids, Edward set his bag next to a desk and walked to the water fountain in the hall. As he walked around a group of students talking by the large windows, he made eye contact with a pretty girl walking toward him. His smile broadened and he nodded a greeting as he made room for her to pass. She smiled back and shifter her path a little for him, both continuing on without a backward glance. Edward got a drink, walked back to the large window and gazed out over the campus grounds. Green trees, vivid blue overhead, and countless people swarming in no discernible patterns. He paused a second longer, then turned to walk back to the classroom.
He scanned the students who had filed into the room and saw the girl from the hallway had chosen the desk in front of his. There were worse things to look at for fifty minutes, Edward thought. He unintentionally left his eyes on her as he walked to his seat, half-hoping she’d look up from her phone. She didn’t and Edward had no emotional reaction. He simply took his seat and waited for class to begin.
There was an element to that first meeting, wordless though it was, that Edward thought was very special. For both of them, there had been no immediate infatuation. It wasn’t that Edward didn’t believe in love at first sight, he was simply pleased that their first date had arisen from something more substantial than physical lust. It had been the next step in a sensible progression. And not that Edward operated on a merely pragmatic level, especially when it came to relationships, but he really didn’t want to screw this up. It felt really important to him.
Standing in front of the dark brown door, the glinting peephole staring at him, he knew—just knew—he was going to do something to screw this up. Edward raised his hand to knock and hesitated, his hand quivering slightly. He straightened his coat, flicked hair out of his eyes and knocked quickly before doubt could assail him again. It took only a couple seconds before he heard a chain lock being released and a deadbolt being drawn back. Then the door opened and he was faced by a sandy-haired boy, about eleven years old. The boy looked him up and down and settled his gaze on Edward’s face. The two stared at each other, each waiting for the other to speak. As Edward’s nerves were about to get the better of him, the boy turned his head and yelled into the apartment.
“Carrie, there’s some dweeb here!”
Carrie? Edward thought. Who’s Carrie? Doubt hammered at him. Had he knocked on the right door? Had he followed her directions correctly? Had he gotten her name wrong? That would be disastrous! But before his moment of panic could completely overwhelm him, a woman stepped into view behind the young boy. She appraised him quickly and put a hand on the little boy’s head.
“Yes?” she asked as though she had been the one to open the door.
“Oh,” Edward said. “Um, I’m here to see Courtney?” He’d asked it as a question.
The woman smiled warmly as she replied, “You must be Eddie.”
“Edward, please,” he said.
“All right. Come in.” The woman moved back from the doorway, pulling the boy with her. “She should be out in a minute.”
Edward smiled tentatively and nodded, stepping into the warm apartment and letting the woman close the door behind him. He stood uncertainly on the tile entrance, examining the fully decorated home. It wasn’t bad, but it was perhaps just a bit overdone. Maybe just a couple pieces of wall art too many. Remove the floofy lamp shades for something a touch more modern. But he didn’t have to live there, so who was he to judge.
“Come on in, have a seat,” the woman said. Then to the boy, “And you go finish your homework.” The boy grumbled and stomped to the dining room table where books were open and waiting. Only once the woman walked toward the seating area in the living room did Edward follow. The woman sat on the corner of a two-seat sofa and Edward chose the center cushion of the matching three-seat couch.
“Nice home,” Edward said.
“I’m Carrie’s mom, Christie,” she told him.
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Reynolds.”
“Oh, all of Carrie’s friends call me Mom. I spend enough time looking after them.”
Edward smiled. “That’s okay,” he said. “That feels a bit presumptuous for me.”
Christie looked confused for a moment, then asked, “So, what are you two doing tonight?”
“I don’t know really. She’d mentioned a movie, and we’ll probably get something to eat. You know, something basic. Entry level.”
“There’s this great little Mexican place right down the road. Do you like Mexican food? If you do, you have to try this place. It’s small and kind of quaint, but the food is just superb.”
“Ah,” Edward replied. He wasn’t really good at small talk.
“So, what movie are you going to see?” Carrie’s mom asked.
“I don’t remember the name, but it’s the one about the guy who—”
“You know what movie you should see? The new Pixar movie. I heard it’s just stupendous. I really think you’d like it.” Edward bit down on his frustration at the interruption. Why would she ask him a question and not let him finish his answer?
“Yeah?” Edward asked. “Have you seen it? That one just came out, didn’t it?”
“Not yet, but Jamie and me will probably go see it tomorrow. You let us know how it is, though. If it’s not very good, I’d rather see something else.” Christie continued without a pause. “Would you like something to drink? We’ve got—” she had continued right over Edward’s declination—“pop, iced tea, milk, water, beer if you want.”
Again Edward shook his head. “No, thank you, though.” He risked a glance at his watch.
“Well,” Christie said as she stood up. “I’m gonna pour myself a tea. Sure you don’t any? Feel free to turn on the TV while you wait. Carrie just got home from work, so she just needs a few more minutes. Maybe I’ll just pour you a small glass.”
Edward smiled politely, but said nothing, not entirely convinced that words would matter. He sat quietly, willing Courtney to hurry through her preparations. Frankly, he didn’t care if she got all dolled up, he was happy simply to have the opportunity to see her outside the classroom. They’d had lunch a couple times, but their discussions had mainly centered on their classes and assignments, professors, and peers. Tonight he was hoping to make some progress away from professional conversations. He really wanted to know who she was. Who she really was, not just who she pretended to be. And even though he hoped to see Courtney for who she was, he was scared at the prospect of revealing his timidity. Strip away the bravado and there would be nothing left to interest her.
Just as he was ready to cascade down into a pit of self-doubt and loathing, he heard a door open and Courtney’s voice say, “Hey, Edward.”
His smile was genuine as he stood and turned to greet her. “Hello,” he grinned. “You look very nice.”
“Thank you,” she said with a dimpled smile. “Let me grab my coat and we can go. Is it really cold?”
“Yeah,” Edward replied. “With the wind, it’s about –”
“It’s supposed to drop below freezing tonight,” Carrie’s mom chimed in, “so you two bundle up out there. Honey, get your ear muffs.”
Courtney was already coming back down the hall, shrugging into her white coat and blue stocking cap. Edward noticed how the hat set off her eyes and blushed a little when she caught him staring.
“Let’s go,” she said, picking up her small purse and walking toward the door.
“It was nice meeting you, Ms. Reynolds,” Edward offered.
“Just call me Mom,” Carrie’s mom reminded him. “All Carrie’s friends do.”
The movie wasn’t bad, Edward had decided as they drove down the highway. It was a little long and a little slow in parts, but that wasn’t what had initially put Edward off. It might have been just slightly inappropriate for a first date—one scene in particular had made him extremely uncomfortable. The sex scene. It had just gone on and on, and it was a little gratuitous and rather unnecessary. Well, perhaps if it hadn’t gone on for so long. And now Edward was thinking about his discomfort instead of talking to Courtney. But she had wanted to see it and she had seemed to enjoy it; the movie as a whole, not the sex scene.
Edward glanced at her and smiled as orange street light passed over her face. She caught him stealing a glance and met his eyes. Not too quickly, he hoped, he set his sight back on the road and the red taillights of the traffic ahead.
“So, what did you think?” Edward asked.
“Of what? The movie?”
“The movie, yeah,” he replied.
“I don’t know. I mean, it was good, but I’m not really sure I got it.”
“Well no, not that. I figured that out, I think. Just the whole, I don’t know, thing. You know? Like, I got the whole tortured soul bit and it being this self-flagellation. Like, self-imposed penance or whatever, but I’m not sure I understand why. It was a good story, but I don’t know what it was trying to say.”
“Yeah,” Edward agreed. “I mean, it was a good story, I guess, and good twists, but it all might have been a bit unnecessary.”
“Why bother making it, you know?” Courtney added.
“It was good.”
“It was good, yeah. But it was just, eh.”
“Yeah,” Edward agreed. After a moment he asked, “So what’s your favorite movie of all time?”
“Hmm,” she said. “I don’t know. Kinda depends on my mood. Do I have to pick just one?”
“Don’t have to.”
“Well, I like ‘The Jerk.’ Steve Martin’s hilarious. ‘Strangers on a Train.’ And I think ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ The Disney one.”
“Pretty wide mix. Good list, though.”
“What about you?”
“I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between ‘Save the Last Dance’ and ‘Gigli,’” he said.
Courtney turned to look at him and laughed. “Are you kidding?”
“No,” Edward said, glancing at her. “Those are great movies.”
“Oh,” she said. She looked back at the road.
Edward’s laugh brought her eyes back to him. “I’m totally joking,” he admitted.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Courtney giggled with relief.
“No, probably ‘Renaissance.’ This monochromatic—well, black and white, really—this animated movie. It’s kinda noir. It’s French, I guess. Really cool flick.”
“Like a film noir cartoon?”
“Not like Mickey Mouse,” Edward smiled, “but, yeah, I guess.”
“That could be cool. I’d like to see that.”
“What are you doing Wednesday?”
“Well, work until eight. Then, nothing, I guess.”
“Wanna get together?”
“I think Mom’s having Chuck over. Her boyfriend,” she explained with a roll of her eyes.
“Don’t like him, I take it?”
“He’s, I don’t know. I don’t really have a reason not to like him. He’s nice enough. I just, like, he gives me the creeps, you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, sometimes when he’s over, like when Mom’s not paying attention or just not looking at him, I’ll catch him staring at me. It’s kinda creepy.”
“Just, ugh,” she explained with a shiver. “Like I need a shower.”
“You say anything to your mom?”
“What would I say?”
“Mom, your boyfriend’s a pervo?”
“I don’t think that would go over real well.”
“That’s what you’re saying, though, right?”
“Like, I make it a point not to be in the same room with him by myself.”
“Yeah, that’s not cool.”
“I know.” As they pulled into the diner’s parking lot, Courtney added, “Why don’t you pick me up from work and we can watch it at your place?”
“I don’t know. It’s not a great neighborhood. I’d be a little embarrassed,” Edward admitted.
“Shut up,” Courtney laughed. “I don’t care where it is.”
Edward hesitantly agreed. “Okay, then. I’ll get the movie, pick you up, we’ll grab some food, then go to my place.”
He turned off the car, pulled up the hand brake, then popped the door open and stepped out into the winter air. He was excited that he already had a second date before the first one had even ended. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? But now he’d have to find time to give his place a thorough scrubbing. The little basement apartment was cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and tended toward a musty smell when the old carpet came in contact with any kind of moisture. It was nice enough for him, but knowing that Courtney would be there made him nervous. Self-conscious. Even a little embarrassed prior to the visit.
And when would he find the time? On top of his class work he had two features to polish and send in, a movie review, a concert to attend, and a photo appointment for the little girl with cancer. Add to all of that—
“What do you do with your free time?” Courtney asked, cutting into his rising panic.
“What? My free time?”
Courtney raised her eyebrows and nodded.
“Well,” Edward said, opening the door and holding it for her. “I don’t really have that much free time. I guess—thanks,” she held the inner door for him, “I read quite a bit. Listen to music.”
“What about friends? You go out on weekends?”
“Sometimes, I guess. Like, this is kind of a rarity for me. Sometimes my buddy Shaun will go with me when I review local bands. For instance, Tuesday we’re going to see Malicious Intent down at The Studio.”
“Let me guess, you’re on the list?”
Edward smiled. “Probably.”
“You are just too cool,” she replied. Edward thought she was being a little snarky, but her laughter disarmed the insult immediately. “I’m gonna find the restroom. Wanna get us a seat?”
Edward watched Courtney walk through the restaurant, then let the hostess lead him to a small booth. He took off his coat, stuffed it into the seat and sat down. Grinning broadly, he ordered two waters, then checked his wallet to make sure he wasn’t going to be humiliated. He was encouraged by how well things seemed to be going, how well they were getting along. He didn’t want to jinx it with optimism, but he really liked this girl. She was driven, she was smart, they shared similar interests. She was pretty. That had been first in his mind, but he didn’t want to be shallow. But she was pretty. And the contrast between her blue eyes and her dark brown hair; well, he worried about the dangers of infatuation.
Courtney slid into the seat across from him and asked, “That’s a nice smile, what are you thinking about?”
“Oh, just tonight. It’s good, you know? I’m having a really nice time.”
“Me too,” she said. “It’s good to get to know you outside school.”
Their waitress returned, took their orders and left them to talk. Conversation was easy for both of them, asking about family and phobias. Dreams and aspirations. Hobbies. They shared stories of neighborhood friends in between bites of hamburger and traded tales of high school larcenies for finger-fulls of french fries. When it came time for dessert, they agreed to share a sundae. Edward’s inclination had been for hot fudge, but Courtney recommended strawberry with chocolate ice cream. So it was strawberry with chocolate, and Edward was sure he’d found a new favorite dessert.
They got the check and each paid separately, but Edward paid for the shared sundae. Courtney held the door on the way out and both hurried through the biting wind to Edward’s car. He opened her door and closed it gently once she’d gotten situated. It was getting late, a little before midnight, so Edward automatically directed his car to her house. The drive was comfortable. Neither one struggled to find things to add to the conversation, and neither had to fake interest.
Finally, Edward slowed his car to turn into the parking lot. The parking area hadn’t been plowed or salted yet, so he was careful not to let the car slide on the snow and ice. As they pulled into a spot, Courtney groaned.
“What?” Edward asked.
“He’s here,” she said. “I didn’t know he was coming over tonight.”
Courtney nodded. She looked up at the balcony of her apartment. Edward studied her carefully.
She sighed. “I don’t feel like going up there yet, do you want to go for a walk?”
Edward shrugged. “Yeah, I can do that.”
Courtney smiled at him as she opened her door. “Thanks.”
Edward offered no response beyond his own smile. He shut off the engine, got out, and made sure the doors were locked. Courtney had already started walking back to the road that encircled the apartment complex. Edward hurried to her side and stuffed his hands in his pockets when he caught up.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked.
“A couple years,” she told him. “We moved in here when my parents got divorced.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Edward said sincerely.
“Dad had on affair with some lady at his office, so Mom kicked him out.” She blew out a stream of cloudy breath. “Never reconciled, not that I blame her.”
“We moved here. Dad moved to Nebraska.”
“Did he take the other woman?”
Courtney shook her head. “No, it was just a thing.”
“Well, it turns out my dad was kind of a scumbag. Mom thinks he’d cheated before, but she couldn’t prove anything.” Courtney looked at Edward. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to bring the evening down.”
“What? Forget it. It’s fine.”
Courtney stopped suddenly and smiled broadly. “Do you wanna see where I went to school?”
“Uh . . .,” Edward replied.
“It’s just through the woods here. There’s a little path. Come on, I’ll show you.” She’d already started walking to the edge of the trees and without hesitation walked deeper into the darkness. Edward followed closely, easily keeping track of her white coat. They only walked for a couple minutes, tramping through show as Edward’s feet got colder. When they emerged, they were on a blacktop playground behind a red brick school building.
“This is it,” Courtney said. “Elementary school.”
“It’s nice?” Edward walked toward the swings. “So you haven’t lived long at the apartment, but you grew up around here?”
“Yup,” Courtney nodded. “I can show you my old house sometime.”
“Yeah, sure.” Edward brushed snow off a swing and offered it to Courtney. As she sat and leaned back to start moving, he cleared the next one and joined her.
They both started swinging harder and faster, holding their legs at odd angles on the descent to keep from scraping their feet on the ground. Clearly the equipment was designed for people three and four feet tall, but the inconvenience didn’t stop them from having fun. Courtney and Edward were smiling like children as they tried to push higher and higher. At the top of her swing, the chain went slack and for a moment, Courtney felt freefall. She gasped, then giggled. Then started laughing hard.
“I almost fell off,” she squealed, then fell back to laughing. She started dragging her feet to bring herself to a stop, holding tightly to the frozen chains.
Edward took his cue, but instead of slowing, he simply let the momentum of his swing fling him into the air. He landed a few yards away, but his feet couldn’t find purchase on the icy blacktop. His legs shot up and he landed roughly on his shoulder. He heard Courtney’s cry of concern and opened his eyes to see her worried face looking down on him. Immediately, he started laughing.
“That was stupid,” he said.
Courtney nodded, trying to suppress a grin. “Are you okay?”
He nodded, still laughing.
He continued to nod.
Courtney reached a hand out to help him up and Edward took it, but didn’t put any weight on it for fear of pulling her down. He got to his feet while she steadied him and they started walking back toward the woods. Suddenly, her foot shot out from under her and she teetered back, but Edward caught her gently and she regained her footing.
“Pretty slick,” she said. “Thanks.”
“You didn’t need me,” Edward observed.
“No,” she admitted, “but thank you anyway.”
When they got back to the parking lot Edward asked, “Do you want me to go up with you?”
“No, that’s all right. Thanks, though.”
Edward realized that this was the moment when he had to decide whether to move in for a kiss. Standing on the sidewalk in front of his car, he realized how tenuous his connection was to Courtney. If he played the scene wrong, he could destroy the entire night—just crumple it up and trample it down. Whether it was his self-doubt climbing up or the desire not to rush things, he decided not to make the advance.
“This was really good,” he told her, staring into her deep blue eyes. “I had a really great time.”
Courtney smiled sweetly. “Me, too. I’ll give you directions to work on Monday.”
“Cool. See you in class.”
Doubt assailed him on the way home. Should he have kissed her? Did she like him? What chance could he have with a girl like her? She could have anyone she wanted, how could he hope to compare? By the time he got home, stripped and dressed in his pajamas, and crawled into bed, he was completely depressed. On the verge of tears from self-pity—what a waste of flesh, he thought of himself—he almost didn’t answer his phone when it rang. But it could be Gerald, his editor. Who else would call him at 1:30?
“Hello?” he asked.
“Hey.” It was Courtney.
“Hey!” His voice was infinitely brighter.
“I wanted to say thanks again for tonight.”
Edward hoped she could hear his smile. “You’re welcome. I had a great time.”
There was something she wanted to say, or maybe something she wanted to hear, Edward was sure, but before he could make up his mind, his moment was gone.
“Good night, Edward. See you Monday.”
“Good night, Courtney.”
He hung up and fell asleep with a smile on his face.
Copyright © 2014 Chad D. Christy
All rights reserved.