A Love Letter to Whiskey(8)

by Kandi Steiner

“Because I asked.”

I sniffed, eying him then. “Doesn’t mean I had to answer.”

Jamie lifted his hand from my thigh, his thumb wiping away a tear I’d missed as it ran along my jawline. I leaned into his touch, closed my eyes, and let out a shaky breath.

“I’m glad you did.”

I chewed my bottom lip, his hand still on my face, and I tried not to feel guilty.

But this time, I did.

“Thanks for the ride, Jamie,” I said quietly, breaking our contact and pulling on the door handle.

“Hey,” he stopped me as I stepped out. I shut the door but leaned in through the window, waiting. “My passenger seat is yours until your car gets fixed. If you want it.”

He was watching me closely — too closely — and I let my eyes fall. “I think we both know that’s a bad idea.”

Jamie started to speak, but it was too soft for me to hear and he trailed off, not finishing his thought. I used my wrist to wipe at my nose and offered him a weak smile.

“See you at school.”

Jenna showed up thirty minutes later, which was just enough time for me to wash my face and change into an oversized t-shirt and spandex shorts. We ate gummy bears and watched MTV while she gushed about how incredible Jamie was. I nodded along, smiling and commenting where appropriate, knowing all too well what she meant.

She’d just fallen asleep when my phone pinged with a text from him.

— I meant what I said earlier. Let me drive you until your car is fixed. We can be friends, B. —

I didn’t answer, but took my phone with me into the kitchen to pour a glass of water. I chugged the entire thing and then my phone screen lit up again.

— Please. Let me be your friend. —

I knew it was a bad idea. There wasn’t just a red flag, there was a warning bell and alarms and whistles and neon lights with DON’T DO IT in all capital letters. But sometimes, even when we know something is bad for us, we do it anyway. Maybe for the thrill, maybe to cure our curiosity, or maybe just to lie to ourselves a little longer.

I’d like to tell you I told him no, that I deleted his number and turned off my phone and crawled into bed with my best friend who was dating him. But instead, I curled up on our old couch, laid there alone for what felt like hours, and finally responded with just one word.

— Okay. —

FALL FADED SLOWLY INTO winter, the weather not really changing much in the process, blurring the seasons together in my mind. Jamie drove me to and from school every day, even when basketball practices picked up, and he never complained when I shared yet another unfavorable update on the status of my car.

It worked out, actually, because he stayed for practice while I volunteered with Interact or stayed after to help the Debate Club. We would meet in the parking lot, him dripping in sweat that somehow made him more attractive rather than less and I dripping in sarcastic remarks geared toward the drama on his team.

Sometimes, when he could, he would drive me to work or pick me up after a late shift at the grocery store. He would drive me to the football games, too, and we’d sit side-by-side, drinking slushies and watching Jenna cheer. We talked more and stared at each other less, which made my conscience feel better. When we both had time, he would even drive us out to the beach to catch the surf, both of our boards fitting easily on top of his Jeep.

So as the seasons changed, we fell into a routine. And he and Jenna fell in love.

I had an up close and personal seat to watch it happen, and I was genuinely happy for them. Jamie was hands down the best guy I knew and Jenna was my best friend. I couldn’t have picked a better match.

At least, that’s what I told myself.

My car was finally fixed on December fourth, a whopping three months after my dad had taken it into the shop. When I’d told Jamie, he seemed happy — not necessarily relieved, but happy — and that upset me. There was a part of me that hoped he might be disappointed, that he might miss our drives spent talking and listening to music, too.

And when I realized that was how I felt, I was even more upset. Because I didn’t have the right to wish those things any more than he had the right to feel them.

When fall semester ended, Jenna left town for her family’s annual ski trip in Colorado. I didn’t expect to hear from Jamie over break, since Jenna was out of town, and I didn’t — until Christmas Eve.

It was after midnight, but I was wide awake, my stomach in knots knowing my father would be sitting at our kitchen table the next day. Our family was always together on Christmas — no matter what — and while it used to be a tradition I loved, it was one I dreaded now. They used to do it to put on a show for me, to make me feel like our family was somewhat still a unit, but now that I knew everything? I just wondered what the point of it was. I didn’t want to play the game, anymore. So I was tossing and turning, not really even trying to sleep when my phone pinged with a text from Jamie.

— Are you awake? —

I squinted through the darkness at the screen, debating whether to answer or not. There was a strange twist in my stomach urging me not to, but another, more powerful part of me somehow knowing he needed to talk to someone that night. In the end, I gave in to curiosity.

— Indeed I am. —

— Take a drive with me? —

There was that little twist again. The warning bells.

— Sure. —

Less than fifteen minutes later, I was buckled into Jamie’s passenger seat as he cruised the ghosted streets on my side of town. Everyone was asleep, waiting on the big man in the red suit to sneak in through the doggy doors since no one had chimneys in South Florida. We had the town to ourselves, and Jamie took his time, driving slow, no destination in mind. His music was louder that night, William Joseph’s “Standing the Storm” spilling from the speakers as he shifted his grip on the steering wheel over and over. His usual carefree expression had been replaced by a more pensive one, his brows pinched together and his eyes hard on the road in front of us. Every now and then he would sigh, but he still didn’t say a single word. I let him drive in our comfortable silence for almost an hour before I reached forward to lower the volume.

“Did I ever tell you about why I hate cats?”

My words seemed to snap Jamie out of his haze, his head jetting back as a grin split his face. “Oh this ought to be good.”

“See, I had a cat once,” I said, sitting up straighter and tucking my feet under my thighs. I’d already kicked my shoes off, finding my comfortable position in my seat next to Jamie. It felt almost like home after that semester. “Her name was Aurora, like the princess, but we called her Rory. Only she wasn’t a princess. Like, at all. She was actually the devil.”