After what was probably the best meal I’ve ever had we returned to Beth’s room. We sat on her bed in silence but my mind was racing.
This was all happening too fast for me to handle. A rest and a full stomach seemed to kick-start my brain into overdrive. I was second guessing everything I did – I became acutely aware of the way I was sitting, the position of my limbs. What should I say? The silence so awkward but I liked it, it was safe.
I worried what Beth thought of me. Did she still like me? I ran though the conversation she had with her mom in my head, analysing it. I felt guilty for overhearing it. About five different things to say to start up a conversation crossed my mind but I discounted all of them.
For some reason my thoughts jumped to one of the math problems we’d been given for homework over the holidays and an idea for a solution popped into my head. I ran through it and found 4 reasons it would never work.
I started noticing that my leg felt uncomfortable, then the rhythm of my breathing. As soon as I noticed myself breathing I broke that natural instinct that keeps it going when you aren’t paying attention.
Now I had to do it myself. It’s harder than you think to get the right frequency when you are actually in control of your breathing, it’s normally just dealt with automatically. I was aware that I was beginning to hyperventilate but I couldn’t really fix it. It was better to over-breath than breathe too little right? I started feeling lightheaded and the panic made my breaths even deeper.
Oh shit, she’s gonna notice. I needed to get out of this situation, so I stood up. Where was the bathroom? I think I saw it in the hall.
“Are you ok?” She said.
I managed to mumble the word “Bathroom” as I left her room.
As the door clicked closed I felt the tension and panic I’d felt earlier lift.
It was replaced by a wave of depression.
I was so broken.
I slid to the floor with my back against the door. I wasn’t very good at dealing with other people. Even when I was a kid I had trouble making friends. I’d spent my life avoiding others, keeping myself to myself, I didn’t need other people. It wasn’t like I was unhappy.
Except I’d spent at least a solid twenty minutes talking to Beth before the film and it had felt like it had gone by in seconds. I remembered the light feeling I’d had. I had liked it.
It had felt normal too, I hadn’t been thinking about what to say or what to do. I hadn’t been looking for indications of what Beth thought of me, or overanalysing what she said. Why couldn’t I do that now?
There was a knock on the door.
“Are you ok? You’ve been in there half an hour.” Had it been that long?
“I’m fine.” I said, what else could I say? I heard a muffled exchange of voices.
“Why don’t you come out? I can drive you home.” It was her Mom.
I stood up and walked to the mirror. I’d been crying. I can’t let them see that. I dried my eyes and blew my nose, maybe they wouldn’t notice how red they were. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
I didn’t look at either of them in the eye, keeping my eyes on my feet. I’d blown the one chance I had to make a friend.
* * *
I looked out of the window and clutched the plastic tub Beth’s Mom had given me with the leftover dinner. I spent the drive feigning interest in the passing scenery. I’d used the same address I used for Mz Gregory.
As soon as the car drifted to a halt I bolted from it. As I was walking up the path I noticed Beth had gotten out too. I nearly panicked. I hoped she wouldn’t try come into the flats with me I didn’t want to explain why I was giving her a fake address. She skipped around the car towards me.
“Uh, I had a nice time at the cinema… I thought you liked it.” She said. “I was just wondering if you wanted to do anything else. The holidays are so boring…”
She still wanted to see me? I felt relief wash over me. So somehow I haven’t messed this up. Yet.
“Yeah.” I had no idea what we could do together though.
“You don’t have to.” Beth looked at her feet.
“No, I want to. I… today it was… nice.” Elegance personified as usual. She looked up and smiled at me anyway.
“We could go for a coffee or something?” She said.
“Ok, that sounds good” I wonder how much coffee cost.
“How about ten, I’ll meet you at the Mall.”
I agreed and she took a hesitant step forwards before saying “Goodnight” and then turning to run back to the car.
I waited for them to go, then another 5 minutes like I had last time before starting my walk home. It wasn’t a walk through the best neighbourhoods so I kept alert. I crossed the road rather than pass people in the street and always had an eye on the shadows and the openings to blind alleys. The few times I was forced to pass someone I watched their hands and their eyes. If they looked at me I was immediately on alert, ready to run if they made a sudden movement or suddenly put a hand in a pocket.
Sure, it came up with a few false positives – I’m sure I’ve bolted from some bemused people who glanced at me by chance and reached for a phone. Still, it was better confuse some innocent members of the public than get a knife in the side. I’d seen muggings go wrong before. Not having anything to steal was both a blessing and a risk, I couldn’t just hand over a mobile phone to a thief to placate them – they might not believe I didn’t have anything for them and get stupid.
It was dark by the time I got home and I was shivering. I couldn’t help compare the run-down block of flats with Beth’s house. The rotting grey concrete and barred windows were a lot less homely than the white painted wood and tidy gardens of her street.
The stairwell always stinks. Why is that? Why do people piss in their own stairwell? I was beginning to really resent this place, it held nothing for me. The flat wasn’t much better than living on the street, at least then I wouldn’t have to deal with my mother.
Following my usual routine I slid the key into the lock as slowly as I could bear and swung the door so I could just squeeze myself through. As I closed the door I slid the deadbolts across. It didn’t make me feel any safer…
I put the kettle on sat on the sofa and flicked the switch on the radio pulling the blankets around my shoulders to try warm up. I sat with my thoughts for a while.
It surprised me but I found I wasn’t actually jealous about her room with a bed and a TV or the clothes she or even the wonderful food she had. I was happy huddled up in a little den of blankets on the sofa, I liked the radio.
I couldn’t help but feel jealous about one thing though. She had a Mum. And a Dad, even if she’d mentioned he worked away most of the year. I wondered what it was like, being normal like that? I felt a surge of anger, why does she get to have so much more than me? What did she do that I didn’t to deserve that kind of life?
I sighed, it wasn’t her fault – I couldn’t let myself think like that or I might ruin the one friendship I’d ever had. Were we friends? Last week at school I’d actually looked up ‘friend’ on Wikipedia…
To be honest, I was kind of worried what it involved. Normal people seemed to have this sixth sense for social conventions I’ve always lacked. A friendship seemed like a minefield to me, I could do something wrong at any time and I wouldn’t even know it.
I suppose if it all went wrong I had nothing to lose.