The Hook Up
Page 21

 Kristen Callihan

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I don’t know. And it burns me. I have to know.
At home, I run through my house until I reach my office.
Lies. It could all be lies. Years of it.
Hands shaking, I tear open my filing cabinets, intent on ripping out old tests and essays. Papers flap, slap, and flutter to the floor. I grab an old test, ready to pick it apart, when I stop, my breath coming out in hard pants.
The page wavers before my eyes, the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. And then I crumble the test in my fist. I can’t look.
“Fuck!” I chuck the balled up paper as hard as I can. It hits the wall with an ineffectual tap. “Fuck!”
Sinking to the floor, I grab the ends of my hair and blink hard. I’m shaking, and I can’t stop. I want to vomit. I want to kick my desk apart.
I’m a coward, because I can’t bring myself to know the truth. If they’ve all helped me, I can’t live with the humiliation. But the doubt is already there, and I know it will never go away. I can try to be the best person I can be, but the world only wants to see one side of me. And I feel sick to my bones.
We all cheer, holding our drinks high in honor of our friend. Mooney, whose real name is Joseph Schwartz, beams, his round face and cherubic curls gleaming in the light over the poker table.
“Yeah, yeah.” He turns pink.
The blush grows when his girlfriend, Jin, gives him a smacking kiss on the cheek. “So humble, my man.”
Outside, it has started to rain; inside it’s warm, pizza and beer scenting the air. I’m hanging with my old study group, playing poker and celebrating that Mooney got a 180 on his LSAT. Though the group disbanded last year, and we rarely see each other, we’ve known each other since we were freshmen, and this meeting is bittersweet now that we’re in our last year.
“You still want to go to Tulane, buddy?” Pete asks him before taking a swig of his beer.
Mooney, having spent Mardi Gras in New Orleans two years ago, has it set in his head that he’s going to law school there. Not to Harvard or Princeton or whatever eastern Ivy League college his parents had their hearts set on.
Still a bit pink about the cheeks, Mooney runs his hand through his overlong brown curls. “If they’ll have me, yeah.”
“If?” Pete grins his sexy-Taye Diggs-has-got-nothing-on-me grin and clamps a Twizzler between his even teeth. “I wouldn’t doubt that, my friend. You are sitting pretty.”
Pete is sitting pretty himself, having sat for the MCATs in July and aced them. Not that anyone was surprised. He’s brilliant. And has his own plans. It will be Johns Hopkins all the way for him. The first of his family to go to college, much less med school.
Other than Pete, Mooney, and Jin, also headed for law school, the group includes John, who wants to be a writer, and me. So then, I’m the only one who hasn’t got a clue or a master plan.
“Pete’s right. They’d be crazy to turn you down.” Jin leans against Mooney, giving his arm a squeeze. They’re so cute together. Always touching, always making each other smile.
I glance at the window, where crystalline drops of rain pepper the glass. Conversation hums around me, comforting and familiar. But there’s a push against my skin from the inside, as if I’m trying to break free from my body and travel outside of myself. Mooney’s next words pull me from my fog.
“So I…we,” he glances toward Jin and blushes again, “have more news.” He turns beet red as his hand settles over Jin’s. “We’re getting married.”
Silence falls so swiftly that the sound of someone’s stomach gurgling rings out. If my face looks like everyone else’s, I’m gaping like a fish. Jin and Mooney wince as one, their happy smiles falling, and I force my mouth to move. “You guys! Congratulations.”
The rest snap out their shock.
John clears his throat. “Uh, yeah, congrats.” It’s obvious he thinks they’re insane. And maybe we all do. Married? Now?
Jin narrows her eyes at us. “You all think we’re crazy, don’t you?”
“No,” Pete protests weakly. He sits up higher in his seat. “No, Jin. We all know you two belong together.”
She snorts but looks slightly mollified. “Well, duh. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. Besides, we’ll qualify for married student housing.” But that’s not why. The true reason is written in the way she looks at Mooney. The way he looks back. They just know.
I’m in awe of their faith in each other. Their bravery.
John tosses his cards on the table. We’ve stopped playing anyhow. “Since we’re announcing shit, I’ve met someone.” He glances around, his blue eyes growing tense at the corners. “His name is John.”
Another pained silence falls. I had no idea John was g*y. I’m pretty sure no one here did either.
“John and John? John-John.” I smack his arm, felling the tension. “How cute is that?”
He pretends to glare, but I hear the sudden release of breath, and see the smile creeping over his lips. “Shut up, A.”
Pete tosses his cards too and reaches for more Twizzlers. “I can’t believe you waited until now to tell us you’re g*y.”
“Kind of just accepted it about myself, Petey.”
Pete makes a face. “Frankly I’m a little insulted that you never hit on me. I’m f**king hot.”
Mooney snorts. “You? I’m clearly hotter.”
“Yeah, but you were taken,” John quips, still looking a little pale but grinning now.
“And I hear Petey doesn’t put out,” I add, stealing one of his Twizzlers.
“Why don’t you try me and see,” Pete offers with a stage leer.
I take a hard bite of Twizzler, snapping a chunk off at the tip, and everybody groans in mock horror.
“What about you, Anna,” John offers with a soft smile. “You got any bombs to lay on us?”
Oh, sure. I’m banging the star quarterback. Not even on pain of death would I say the words aloud. It would feel like a betrayal to Drew, and honestly, it might be a bomb, but it isn’t an accomplishment. It isn’t even something I can say with pride. And yet the thought of giving Drew up makes my breath hitch in fear.
“Naw.” I take another bite of Twizzler, hoping it won’t get stuck in my throat. “Same old, same old for me.”
On that lie, the group starts chatting again, talking about their plans. I lose the thread of the conversation, their words tumbling into an indistinct buzz. My friends’ faces become a series of flashing smiles and gleaming eyes. For no real reason at all, I want to cry.
The taste of artificial strawberries fills my mouth, and that strange push within me starts up once more. It feels like dissatisfaction. And need. I rub my lower belly where the ache is centered and count the minutes until I can go home. My friends are happy in a way that I’m not. But I know how I can get there, at least temporarily. My hand creeps toward my phone.
ANOTHER GAME, ANOTHER win. We’re undefeated. The playoffs, a first for college football, are closing in, and the championship is ours to lose. The guys are jubilant as the bus rolls back onto campus.
Rain comes down in thick, hard sheets that pound the top of the bus like gunfire. It doesn’t stop us from running out into it, or laughing as Marshall slips in the mud, falls on his ass, and curses.
I stop to get my bag, waiting my turn as the driver sorts through the luggage. Seems the sensible thing would have been to stay on the bus.
Across the way, Harrison’s girl is waiting under a massive umbrella, her butt leaning against a gleaming black Range Rover.
“Wooo,” Rolondo Johnson our star wideout whistles under his breath as he comes up beside me. “That’s one sweet ride.”
“Whose car is it?” I ask, frowning as Harrison runs over to greet his girl. Because we both know it was either an overly supportive booster or an agent who handed him that car. Agents are particularly aggressive in their pursuit of us. They can’t outright give us things, but they are masters of finding grey areas --lend a luxury car indefinitely, buy a guy’s destitute parents a mansion, buy his childhood friends gifts in exchange for putting in a good word for them, and a dozen other shining carrots dangled in our faces if we just sign with them.
One of the sleazier agents. Oh, there are some who are subtler. They show up at games with company reps, promising massive advertisement deals they can work for you. Or they arrange for girls to take personal care of you. I touched my first pair of fake tits courtesy of an agent’s special room delivery. Lesson learned? Plastic is never as good as real flesh.
Rolondo shakes his head, sending water scattering from the ends of his dreads. “Harrison better not get hurt or he’s gonna miss that ride.”
“He shouldn’t have taken it at all. It’s stupid. Not to mention he’s playing Russian roulette with the Committee on Infractions.” Who have brought down bigger and better players for lesser violations.
Hearing my tone, Rolondo glances at me, and his expression goes tight, rain bouncing on his shoulders. “You think it’s so easy? You already have money.” He frowns. “You didn’t share a shithole room with two siblings or search your sheets for roaches at night.”
His words wrap around my neck, choking me. Should I feel guilty? Maybe I should. Maybe I should nod and shut up. Not like he’d notice; he’s still laying into me.
“You didn’t have to deal with any of that. You had a family who—” Rolondo stops short, his eyes wide with horror, and worse, pity. “Damn, man, I didn’t mean that.”
“No, you’re right, I had it good.” I refuse to be pitied about the loss of it. “And you can call me a patronizing bitch if you want. But Harrison, you, me, we’ve got the talent to do it all on our own. Not suck some agent’s dick cuz he’s got fancy toys.”
Rolondo’s nostrils flare, his mouth hard, but then he breaks out into a wide grin and laughs. “Shit, you don’t need to go all After School Special on me, Battle.”
“Me?” I snort. “You’re the one expounding the disparities of our upbringing.”
His feathery brows lift, and he gives me the amused look he always does when I fall into what he calls “Professor Mode.”
A flush works over my cheeks and grows when Rolondo says, “And here I thought I was pointing out the impact of our divergent socio-economic status when faced with potential agent induced incentives.”
We both look at each other for a second then laugh again.
“Fucking Sociology major,” I mutter.
“Henry-muthafucka-Higgins. You gonna Eliza Doolittle me?”
“There you go again, trying to get me to do you. Let the dream die, man.”
‘Londo puckers up, blowing me the finger, and then he sobers. “Besides, you got it turned around. They’re sucking our dicks.”
“Who’s sucking dick?” Gray comes between us and slaps a hand on both our shoulders.
“Harrison,” we say together.
“Sounds about right.” Gray gives us another pat. “We going? Or are you two going to sit in the rain and wax lyrical about dicks?”
There’s talk of heading out for a pizza. Others are going to watch NFL games at Dino’s Bar.
I don’t want to do either. “I’m going home to get dry and take a nap.”
“One that’s going to get some sleep.” I sling my bag over my shoulder and head for my car. I’m soaked through, and my body aches with a general tiredness that never truly goes. But it’s the emptiness centered just behind my ribs that bothers me the most. It’s getting worse these days. Growing.
I don’t really want to go home. There’s no one waiting for me, no one to talk to. The guys are like brothers to me. I’ll have fun hanging with them. But lately I find myself wanting to just… be. No shit-talking, no expectations, just be me. Which makes dick-all of sense. But the need is there all the same.
Running a cold hand over my wet face, I fish out my keys and flop into my car as soon as the door is open. Inside, the sound of rain is louder, the interior dim and musty. A lump rises in my throat. I hate this feeling of isolation. Rubbing my aching chest, I move to turn the ignition when my phone buzzes.
A smile breaks hard over my face at the sight of the name on the screen. Anna.
It grows when I read the text.
This message is brought to you by the BCBS [Booty Call Broadcasting System]. If you are back in town, get your wet ass over here.
Only Anna can make me laugh and get me hard in one fell swoop. I turn on the car and peel out, my day suddenly brighter than the desert at high noon.
RAIN TAPS WITH hard nails against the window as I hug the bed. Drew has just taken me from behind and, after taking care of the condom, is now a comforting weight against my back, his arms bracketing mine, our fingers linked. We breathe as one, a light pant as we come down from the high sex took us to. My face is smashed in my pillow, but I don’t care. I’m a boneless mass of well-pleasured flesh. And so warm with him on me that I want to beg him not to move. Ever. We could just lie like this and listen to the rain. Never get up.
Only I’m the one who is supposed to be kicking him out. A knot gathers just below my breastbone as I try to gather the will to say the words. And then he does it.
His lips press against my shoulder in a gentle, reverent kiss.
Instantly, I tense. And so does he. I can feel him growing tight along the length of my body. But he doesn’t move off. No, he tenses further and then deliberately kisses me again, as if daring me to protest. Another loving kiss upon my shoulder. Then another one.