He pulled me toward him and kissed the top of my head. A kiss I knew to him was meant to comfort a good friend, but once his lips touched my hair, I felt a jolt of electricity run through my body until my heart fluttered. He squeezed my shoulder and let go. Just like that, the warmth of his touch was gone and I felt nothing but cold.
“So how about I drive you home now and then pick you up at like…seven?” His persistence was both admirable and infuriating. And like always, I caved. There wasn’t much I could refuse him. Luca almost always got his way.
“Fine,” I said finally.
On the way to Luca’s car, a perky blonde sorority girl, Madeline Michaels, sauntered over. Whenever she got close, the girl was all over him. She pushed her chest out and tossed her long blonde hair. My ordinariness was exaggerated just by standing beside her. Her knee-high boots, her short skirts, and her ridiculously tight body. Next to her, I looked like I’d just crawled out of a dumpster. I was dirty-blonde hair tied up in a messy bun secured with a pencil, ripped jeans, and a faded Ramones T-shirt that had seen a few summers. Truth be told, I didn’t have the genes. Even if I were wearing Madeline’s clothing, I would still look like me.
Madeline inserted herself into our personal space, shoving me out with her curvaceous hip that was barely covered by a tiny skirt stretched to capacity. She was so close she might as well have been an esthetician examining his pores—an esthetician who did her job with her breasts rubbing up against him.
“Luca, are you going to the party? I was hoping we could talk,” she all but whispered as she ran her index finger up and down his arm.
I guessed I should have already gotten over the attention from other girls, but it still hurt, because deep down, I’d spent my whole life secretly in love with this boy.
I climbed into the car and looked the other way out the window, trying to pretend they were invisible and that my heart wasn’t breaking.
“Madeline, you know Steph, right?”
I turned at his voice, and my heart leapt in my chest when he looked at me. Luca was sidelining Maddy Michaels with an unnecessary introduction.
“Madeline, this is my girl Steph,” he said while keeping his eyes on me. “She’s been my plus one my whole damn life.”
I didn’t want to read into his words. He always called me his girl. His whole damn life sounded more like an obligation than something he was down with. But he held eye contact as he announced it, and he’d said it with pride. Maybe I was reading into things, but it was enough to make me feel like Luca genuinely appreciated having me around.
“Oh, I had no idea,” Madeline stammered. She glared at me through the windshield, her disgust palpable.
Good, ’cause I don’t like you either.
She plastered on a fake smile that was more forced than oil mixing with water. Her eyes narrowed, but the fake smile didn’t go anywhere. I smiled back, hoping that my eyes didn’t give away my satisfaction. I really didn’t want her to take notice of me and make my life miserable. I was sure she had a million and one ways to ruin me, but I pretended not to care. The semester was almost over, and I never had to see her again if that’s what suited me.
Without another word to Madeline, Luca got in the car and smiled at me.
“Should we hit the road?”
I couldn’t help but turn and stare at Madeline as we pulled out of the parking lot, how she stood in the same spot getting smaller and smaller as we made our getaway.
Maybe Madeline couldn’t steal Luca away from me, but he was a rising star, and it was just a matter of time before he’d inevitably drift away.
The party was completely overrun by the time we arrived. Crowded by teenage bodies and reeking of sweat and stale beer. The crowd was so out of control that the rush of people made me nervous. I felt like I could easily get lost in the swarm and not find my way out again. It definitely wasn’t my scene. I was a perpetual wallflower. Libraries, arthouse movie theaters, gardens, and museums were my jam. The more bodies that crushed against me, the more I started to hyperventilate. Finally, Luca noticed, grabbed my hand, and navigated us away from the crowd and into the kitchen.
“Stay here. I’ll get us something to drink.”
Valium would work for me.
Luca left me standing by the large kitchen island and disappeared toward the keg. He might as well have abandoned me on a real island for how tiny, inconsequential, and completely out of my element I felt. Luka was greeted by almost everyone he passed. I could see him smile or nod before he excused himself and toiled on toward the keg. It was as if everyone wanted to talk to him, to be near him in any way they could. I knew that feeling too because I’d had it for most of my life. It was like watching The Breakfast Club when Judd Nelson or Emilio Estevez arrived at a party, and I was Ally Sheedy with the dandruff and eyeliner. Our friendship looked bleak as I thought about how different we’d become from the children we once were.