Need Me by M. Malone

 

1

As I handmy best friend another tissue, it’s a struggle not to cringe. This is a time-honored tradition after all, comforting your best friend during a breakup. Only it’s never the way they portray it in the movies. There’s no uplifting music playing in the background and we never conveniently have vodka and Chunky Monkey on hand.

Instead I’m sitting on the couch, trying to pretend my bestie doesn’t have snot on her face. Meanwhile her tears are soaking through my shirt onto my bare skin.

It’s about as non-cinematic as it gets.

The worst part? I’m still not exactly sure what happened.

“And ohmygodyouwontbelieve,” Mya huffs between shaky breaths, her curly black hair flying around her face where it’s come loose from her braid.

This has been the pattern ever since I got home from work to find her crying in her room. I’ve had this date on my calendar since last year. I left it knowing she might need consolation on what should have been her wedding day. Her ex-boyfriend was a jerk who was terrible in bed. Or at least that was my assumption considering how little noise I heard when he slept over.

After she started seeing her new boyfriend, I’d figured she was over it and wouldn’t care when this day came. But I guess it finally caught up with her.

I nod along absently. “I’m so sorry. He was such a skeeze.”

“No, I said you won’t believe what he did.” Mya pauses to blow her nose, honking loudly.

My dog, Oreo, skitters away at the loud sound. She curls up in the kitchen, looking like a black and white ball of fluff on top of her little dog bed.

Patience is supposed to be a virtue. Unfortunately, it’s not one I’ve ever possessed. But as I hand my sniffling best friend another tissue, I work hard to summon every ounce I can.

“I can’t believe Will would show his face on this day of all days. Wow, what a jerk.”

“Will was here actually but that’s not what happened. It’s Milo. We were getting ready for our big presentation,” she pauses to hiccup, “andthenhiscomputerdied!”

“His … cat died?” I ask tentatively.

“No, his computer. Then I had to go get another one.” At this point she devolves into another round of mumbling and sobbing.

I’m trying to listen. Really, I am. But deciphering cry talk has never been a skill of mine.

“After his computer died, that’s when he stole your crayon?”

Mya lifts her head briefly to glare at me through red, glistening eyes. “The client! He stole the client. I can’t believe I trusted him.”

Well, that was her first mistake. Except I’m not allowed to say that part out loud. People don’t take it well when you tell them the truth. At least not in my experience.

Mya and her boyfriend started out as office frenemies until the day she caught him at the company Happy Hour with his pants down. Literally.

When she came home and told me she’d seen what he was packing, I knew then what was coming. But she couldn’t just have a little fun on the side. Nooooo, she had to go and fall in love with the guy.

Mya grumbles as she gets off the couch and heads for the kitchen. At least she’s not still under her blanket watching Netflix. It’s not easy to know how to comfort someone when you have very little experience with what they’re going through. I don’t do relationships and have long held the belief that men are best seen (naked) and not heard.

Which doesn’t explain the odd twist in the bottom of my gut. It’s not that I’m jealous of Mya. Especially since she’s currently eating cereal straight from the box with feral intensity. But I can’t pretend there isn’t a small part of me that wishes I felt as deeply about anything as she does about Milo.

“I have to run some errands.”

Mya doesn’t respond to my proclamation, which is just as well since it’s complete bullshit. I just need to get out of this apartment. I walk back to my room where I quickly change clothes into a pair of tight black jeans and a black camisole. Just dressy enough for where I’m going but still comfortable.

There’s this fancy hotel bar downtown where I like to hang out when I need to be alone. The bartenders at the Fitz-Harrington all know me and there aren’t as many handsy guys to deter. The rich businessmen who hang out there are usually too worried about making a scene to do much when I shut them down. I should be able to drink alone in peace while I figure out how to purge these unwanted and unexpected longings for … something.

My phone dings with a calendar reminder.

One Week: Doctor’s appointment 10 a.m.

I swipe it away without even looking at it. As if I could forget. Ugh.

Mya barely looks up from her perch on the couch as I leave. The door closes behind me cutting off the sound of the sappy movie she's rewatching for the third time. Luckily I don’t see anyone I know as I skip down the stairs and push open the front door of the building. I don’t feel like talking.

I just want to walk and feel alive.

The night air is humid but it still feels good on my skin. July is not exactly picturesque weather in Washington DC since all the concrete makes the city feel like an oven on broil. But stepping out feels like freedom. People watching is one of my favorite pastimes.

After a short metro ride, I take the escalator up to street level. I can only hope my favorite bartender is working tonight. Frankie is this older, ex-Navy SEAL grump who always acts like his tuxedo is strangling him. I’m not sure how he got the job considering he’s not very friendly and glares at all the customers but having him there quickly elevated the Fitz to one of my favorite places.

The bar is through the lobby and I smile politely at the hostess before pointing at the bar. She moves aside so I can enter. It’s still relatively early so there are only a few people in the restaurant section and just one guy at the bar. He doesn’t look up when I sit down.

“How’s it going, Frankie?”

The bartender lifts his chin in greeting before preparing my usual order of a club soda with lime. I don’t even have to say anything and I know he’ll keep the drinks coming and the conversation to a minimum.

Like I said, one of my favorite places.

Sitting allows me to relax and think about all the changes coming in my life. I’ve been working mainly in the neonatal unit of the hospital for the past year now. Recently, I started thinking about making a change. After a lot of reflection, I decided to switch to working in the emergency room. Nursing is hard work, physically and emotionally. I was foolish to think that seeing so much devastation every day wouldn’t eventually take its toll.

Not that emergency will be any easier but at least I’ll be working with adults. There’s something about watching babies suffer that has torn a chunk out of my spirit. For the first time ever, I thought about taking a break and living off the absolutely ridiculous trust fund my father made available to me when I turned eighteen.

But that felt too much like proving him right. So the money sits unused and I continue to make my own way.

Alone. Just the way I like it.

* * *

Bars get a bad rap. Most people think of dark, smelly, loud places with bad food and watered down liquor. But they’re my favorite places to think. You can walk into a bar and sit alone and no one judges or asks any questions. Until you inevitably get one of those guys who can’t take a hint.

“Hey baby. Is this seat taken?”

A man slides onto the stool next to me without waiting for my answer. He’s got long, floppy brown hair and the glassy eyes of someone who is not quite drunk but getting there. He’s wearing a suit like most of the men who hang out in this hotel but he still looks like he’s only fifteen years old.

“Seriously, Frankie. Don’t you guys card in here?”

He glances over at the guy before rolling his eyes. Which means he’s definitely already checked the guy’s ID. Otherwise, my college-aged neighbor would be outside on the sidewalk.

“Come on, don’t be like that baby. I’m just trying to get to know you.”

“I have a boyfriend.”

“He’s not here. If you were my girl, you’d never have to drink alone.”

“Wow, you are really setting the bar high.”

His brow wrinkles like he’s trying to figure out if what I said is a good thing or a bad thing.

“You come here often?”

Oh geez, this guy isn’t even trying. Usually I’ll let them talk for a while before I send them packing but this guy doesn’t even deserve a chance. I groan a little. Why are the most unimaginative guys always the most persistent?

“Every night. I’ve been waiting for you.” I take the salt shaker and start pouring little lines in the shape of triangles on the bar in front of him.

Mmmm sola shaka ley. Mmmm sila shaka ley.” I start whispering more nonsense words in the most ominous tone I can muster.

“Whoa lady, what the hell are you doing?” His eyes go to the shapes drawn on the bar. “Are you casting a spell?”

If his eyes get any wider they’ll pop out of his head and roll onto the floor. He glances around frantically as if trying to see if anyone else notices what’s happening.

That makes me want to laugh even more than his reaction. There’s no one around to care and even if there was, rich people are great at ignoring anything that makes them uncomfortable. No one makes eye contact.

“Of course I’m casting a spell! How else can I make sure you never leave me?”

The guy immediately gets up and walks away. A snicker from my other side draws my attention. When I first sat down I barely noticed the guy other than his thick, dark hair. His head had been resting in his hand like he’d had a bad day.

Now he’s sitting up straight and staring right at me.

The fact that he’s so handsome shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as it is. His dark hair has the perfect amount of curl and his eyes are a honey brown like good whiskey. It’s the kind of male beauty that belongs on billboards and makes even smart women feel stupid.

“That was effective. I have to give you credit for that. The salt was a nice touch.”

Frankie clearly doesn’t agree as he appears with a wet rag and cleans up the salt. The guy slides a few bills across the bar, which softens Frankie’s annoyance considerably.

“You didn’t have to do that. I should have, since it was my mess. It just seemed easier than waiting for him to figure out it wasn’t going to happen.”

He shrugs. “It was entertaining. Better than the last movie I saw. Although that’s probably not saying much since I get out less than my grandmother.”

“Workaholic?” As soon as I ask, I wish I hadn’t.

Asking a guy personal questions is like putting a green light on your forehead. But luckily the suit doesn’t take it as a sign that I’m hot for him. He just sighs and looks down at his phone.

“Workaholic but I love it. I work for the family business so…” He shrugs again but something about the look in his eyes is familiar. It reminds me of what I’ve been feeling lately. Like I’m trapped and there’s no way out.

“Family can be complicated.” I think of my feuding parents, both too busy to care about me unless of course they think it’ll hurt the other in some way.

“I’m not complaining.” He shakes his head. “At least I get to do something I’m good at every day. It would just be nice… never mind.”

“No, what? You can tell me.” I’m not sure why I care but suddenly all I want is for him to finish that sentence. For someone else to put a name to this restless feeling.

“It would be nice to feel more fulfilled. Like what I’m doing actually matters to someone.” He closes his eyes briefly, like he didn’t mean to reveal so much.

“Yes. I get that.”

He opens his eyes. “This is quite heavy for bar talk.”

I laugh at that. “True. Should I ask if you come here often instead?”

“That was particularly uninspiring, I have to agree. Is that usually how men hit on you?”

“Most of them try a little harder than that. But salt always does the trick.”

He covers his mouth with his hand. “I noticed. You like to cause a bit of trouble, bella? Beautiful little devil.”

“Italian. I wondered where your accent was from.”

He looks alarmed. “Is it noticeable?”

“No. Your English is amazing. I can just hear a little something on certain words.”

He relaxes at that. “I’ve worked hard to lose it. It’s helpful in business to speak English like you’ve been to boarding school.”

“That’s very specific.”

“Tell me about it. The rules never end it seems. I’m Vin.”

“Like Vincent?”

“No.”

His refusal to give me anything else peaks my interest. This guy has game. He knows how to give just enough to gain my attention without making me feel like he’s the type to get overly attached and want me to meet his mother after the first date.

Then again, with a face like his, he’s probably the one running away from stage-five clingers.

“I’m Ariana.”

I brace myself for more questions. Usually I don’t want to encourage that much interest but this time maybe I’ll actually answer them.

He hums. “You like to push people away. Men like that make it easy I imagine.”

Stunned and feeling a little vulnerable at his spot on assessment, I turn the statement back around.

“I’m not pushing people away. I’m simply not going to waste my time on someone I’m not attracted to.”

He looks shocked. “Wow. So if he’d been attractive you wouldn’t have put a spell on his ancestors?”

It’s a struggle not to smile. But I refuse to give him any points when he’s trying to make me feel bad for the same thing men do all the time. People love to make women feel that coddling men’s feelings is their responsibility. But you won’t see men doing the same for us and they’ll never feel guilty about that.

“Men don’t hit on women if they aren’t physically attracted. They go for what they want, when they want. All I’m doing is the exact same thing.”

“This is true. So you like to get straight to it, huh?”

If he’s expecting me to be ashamed, he came to the wrong bar. Owning my sexuality is probably the only positive thing my mother ever taught me. I’ll never allow a man to make me feel ashamed of the same needs they flaunt with no repercussions.

“Men can’t be trusted to stick around so what’s the point? I might as well get the one thing I actually need and then go home.”

There’s something in his eyes I can’t pinpoint. It almost looks like disappointment. Maybe he’s just not used to people telling it like it is.

“Maybe one day a man will surprise you.”

He only reminds me of what I can’t have. Plans. A future. All the things I learned not to hope for.

All at once I am tired. People who have a good support system have no idea how exhausting it is to be on your own. Every decision, every mistake and even every triumph is a weight you carry on your back. Sometimes I wish I could drop everything and run away screaming at the top of my lungs. But since I can’t do that, I settle for living in the moment.

“Do you want to get out of here?”

I’ve surprised him. He stares like he’s trying to see if I’m really on board with going home with a stranger. But this is how I have to live my life. In the moment.

Right now.

So if this is all I can have, then I want it all.