Chapter 15: The End of the World
Dom removes the joint from between his lips, letting out a cloud of smoke to diffuse into the mediocrely warm night air. His eyes are bloodshot from the amount of weed he’s smoked tonight. I’m only out here with him because he hauled me into one of his scoldings. Not keeping the first years in check and this and that and Tommy.
“I’m going,” he puts out the joint and grips my shoulder. “Just remember, you and I have a deal.” Then he drags me into a bro-ish hug without my consent, speaking into my ear, “and I have a temper.” I can feel his impatience. Looking at the moon, I try to make sense of how I let myself get here, how I could let myself stoop so low just to protect someone I didn’t know.
He puts one foot through the front door and looks over his shoulder back at me where I lean on a pillar of the frat house. Then he looks over at someone standing not too far in the distance. Both of us are able to make out who it is. Dom gives me a wink before he disappears, leaving my gut sinking low with guilt that froths over when the voice in my head tells me to approach Tommy just to get him off my back.
Tommy notices me see him and he turns, ready to disappear. I wonder what he’s doing back on the night of New Year’s Eve? I don’t understand what’s brought him back here when he has a family to go home to. Most of all, I don’t know why he’s here. I catch up to him, grabbing his arm. He immediately knocks my grip off.
“Hey,” I put my hands up, showing him I didn’t mean to invade his personal space like that.
He stops, pulling his hood over his head like he doesn’t want to be seen, with me or here - both are insulting but understandable. I can’t tell if he’s in one of his anxious phases or if he’s just tired, but there’s a good chance it’s both with how he’s got his backpack on and it looks like he hasn’t stopped going, physically or mentally.
“Hey,” he says back. I wait for him to give me a smile, even just a lopsided one, but he stares at me blankly, or so he thinks he is. I can read it in his eyes that he’s out of his comfort zone. Expecting a smile from him is like expecting summer in a place with no sun.
“Hey,” I repeat, lowering my hands slowly and tucking them into my pockets. A solid few seconds pass where we’re just staring into each other’s eyes unknowing of what to say.
Then we both admit it, “I thought you’d given up on me.”
He hums, looking around the area, eyes now anywhere but mine. I can see he’s being cautious because he saw me with Dom. I forget how rotten inside I felt getting ditched by him. Forcing down my need to figure out why at some point, I smile.
“I’m sorry,” we both say, and I try to ignore how natural our unison is. It’s like all corners of the universe are controlling us in this very moment.
I scratch the back of my neck. “What are you doing here?” I ask.
He takes a deep breath in his anxious, fidgety state, and that makes me question if he ever truly knows what it’s like to actually breathe. Not just take air into his lungs and thank oxygen for existing, but take air into his lungs and thank life for existing. Air that doesn’t just clear out his chest but also his mind. The meditational kind of air. The type of air that he actually needs, because it looks like he’s losing his mind somewhere up there with the anxiety. I swear he feels Dom’s presence lingering behind the front door as much as I do.
“To be honest, I...” he begins, glancing at the entrance to the frat house intensely, confirming my suspicion. “I didn’t want to ditch you. My anxiety did.”
“No problem,” I tell him, “but you could have texted me that.”
“You just said no problem.”
I press my lips together and check the entrance myself. Dom watching is the last thing I want, albeit the first thing I need so he can stop hounding me about our deal. Unlike him, though, I have a decent bone in my body. Him watching is a giant red trigger for Tommy’s anxiety, and I couldn’t let it pass me if Tommy caught him spying. Personally, I’d have to level up to Dom - you just don’t mess with someone’s mental health like that.
Pulling back from the train track of thoughts in my head, I answer Tommy and hope he can’t see through my lies, “I wanted that date,” although saying it doesn’t feel much like one.
He pulls back his hood slightly, the wind sweeping his hair out of his face. The street lights illuminate his skin, and the natural highlight on his cheekbones plus the freckles on his nose multiplied by his vivid blue eyes equals a feeling in my chest I haven’t felt so saturated before.
I can’t tell what it means, that’s the only thing keeping the set up of this deal safe.
Tommy blinks, looking at me in a way that explains he doesn’t believe me. I’m out of options here - can’t get close to let him know I’m not lying (an established lie) because his personal bubble is barbed; can’t say too many words to prove that either because his anxiety-fuelled mind will begin a spiral of all the reasons why I am lying.
It’s exhausting. He looks exhausted too.
I’m convinced he’s going to bail out of this moment in life we’re sharing together with how long he’s been looking at me like that. With another glance at the frat house, he clears his throat, but then fireworks go off in the sky before he can say anything. Midnight. New year. Same old shit.
We watch the colors burst in the darkness for a minute, neon reds and fiery oranges and striking blues. I look at Tommy as he looks at the sky. There’s that feeling in my chest again.
“Okay,” he finally speaks, only for the faintest of smiles to etch into his face, “walk with me, then.”
It feels like I’ve hit the jackpot, but I don’t feel too good thinking that. I kind of want him to go back to his not-so-blank blank face, the one telling me he’s skeptical of me, and for every reason I won’t audibly admit, he should be.
I don’t want him to, but he should be.
“You coming?” he asks quietly in the wind.
Lost in the colors in the sky, I didn’t realize how many steps he’d gotten away from me. I cover the distance up to him, and in a silence that’s as peaceful as it is harmful to his anxiety and the anxiety I’m starting to develop, we walk to an empty park where a night light flickers and the wind is more gustier. We find a bench partially hidden by foliage and sit. The grass at our feet is covered in daisy flowers, and in contrast, cigarette butts and empty beer cans.
From here we have a great view of the stars and the moon that rest at heights I could never imagine being at, because people like me who do bad for good don’t ever live that large. The thought leaves me gutted.
I’ve got to stop letting my decision pick away at my insides. I have to go through with this.
I ransack my brain trying to find any topics to discuss, any sentence starters. Talking with Tommy has been so easy standing on the foundation built by the deal between Dom and me, so why it’s hard to speak to him all of a sudden is baffling. The quiet is comforting, though, that’s for sure. Something in the air is making me want the quiet to last, I figure. The quiet is far better than any conversation we’ve shared before.
I like it like this.
Soon into our time sitting here, Tommy brings up a leg onto the bench and starts to do his scratch-pick-pinch combo. I hadn’t watched him do it in enough time to make me think he stopped.
“Hey,” I grab his hand softly. There are so many reasons why I shouldn’t have done that, like how he yanks his hand away which leaves me with increasing guilt, and like the feeling in my chest that I can’t afford to be experiencing.
For a second, I think he’s going to leave. Then the unexpected happens, and he grabs my hand, his eyes raking the park. I then understand that he’s starting to get paranoid, thinking perhaps Dom followed us, or that anyone from campus and the frat house are nearby. I want to tell him this park is as empty as a packet of nothing, but I know in a world of anxiety reassurance is of nothing to a sufferer.
The most I can do is let him try what he wants to try within his limits at his own speed, and I would never pace this up just for Dom’s pleasure. It’s bad enough being here on false terms.
But you did want that date...right?
His hand is clammy, which tells me his head is spinning, which tells me he’s not really himself anymore, but at least I have him with me under the moonlight right now. That’s enough to undo how bothered I felt over getting ditched and to forget trying to fathom why I cared so much.
I hold his hand back. Words finally come to me.
“What is the biggest philosophical question you have?” I ask, intrigued, although most of my attention is on our hands together.
“How do our brains function to keep us alive, only for its thinking to kill us?”
He answers so effortlessly, so perfectly, like he’s asked himself that same question before. I try to think of a point to begin breaking that down, but if we were in our philosophy class and I had to try and initiate a section of discussion about that, I would fail.
“Wow...” I say dumbly, and almost bite myself for my lack of a better answer.
“Sometimes I think we thought up anxiety as a reason not to live because the actual reality of living is too unpredictable to risk not being able to function. Joke’s on us; we’ve only ended up unable to function anyway.”
I take note of how as he talks, he gets more comfortable with his hand in mine. Only for a brief moment before he’s looking around the place again.
“But I don’t want my anxiety to be the topic of our conversation,” he says. I watch him intently, waiting for him to say he minds me staring, but he doesn’t.
“What do you want to talk about?” I question.
“I guess the actual reason why I’m here...” he trails off, picking his words carefully. “Well, you ignored my text for starters.”
“Shh,” I say, squeezing his hand softly. In the corner of my left eye, I see a faint shadow and hear a ruffle that he doesn’t. I grow cautious - I’m glad Tommy was too wrapped up in his head to hear it or he would have scurried off already. I continue, “I said sorry,” I meant it too. “And what else?”
He breathes in, still in need of the meditational kind of air, but I’m glad he’s breathing enough to be present with me and not stuck upstairs in his continuously nonfunctioning mind.
“I wanted to know if you...you know? Like, actually like...”
“Yeah,” he avoids my eyes.
I laugh lightly. “Why else would I ask you on a date?”
“There are many reasons why one would ask another on a date that doesn’t have to do with liking them.”
“Are you saying I’m faking this?” I joke with him. He takes the banter, despite his anxiety, but only if he knew the truth. “I like you,” I finally say, and I never knew I could lie so well. So well I start to think it’s because a part of me believes what I’m saying.
He lets go of my hand then. It’s clear he doesn’t trust me, but how can he? One, I’m no good for him. Two, he doesn’t really know me. Three, I’m no good for him, and four, I’m no good for him. I want him to know that as much as I don’t want him to.
Slowly, I reach my hands up to his hair and he hesitantly lets me brush it back, his face moving into my touch and his ruffled hair adding to the sight that’s planted that feeling in my chest. I guess him letting anyone touch him like this is a first. In the process, I move his hood fully off.
“You can trust me,” I tell him gently. “You know that, right?”
He sighs, “I want to, but my anxiety won’t let me.”
“You can’t use your anxiety as an excuse for everything.”
He grabs my stare, partially offended, partially agreeing. Then he looks away. These short glances are driving me to the grave. I just want him to look at me, genuinely look at me, but I realize that’s too much to want so soon.
“Can we go?” he asks so indistinctly I fear it’s because he thinks he’s going to break.
“Okay,” I say.
It’s only when we leave the park does it cross my mind he probably saw the same shadow I did, just a little bit later than me. We make it not too far from the frat house when Tommy stops.
“I can walk back on my own,” he mutters.
“Mm, because you’ve had more of me than you’ve had of Gemma and she’s meant to be the one after you,” I smirk. Bringing up past conversations as a conversation comes close to topping our conversations of quiet. “I kind of miss you saying ‘no’.”
“How about this? I like you too, but no, we can’t date because my anxiety says so.”
“No?” I can’t tell if he’s joking with me now, but I hope not. Something feels good in knowing he could like me. “You’re using your anxiety as an excuse again.”
He adjusts his backpack so it’s slightly more comfortable, and then he leaves without a goodbye. If I know any better, it’s because he wants to see me again, but that could also mean in a parallel universe, or when it rains enough to end global dehydration, or when it’s the end of the world.
Either way, it’s not a goodbye, and the way we met was never really a hello. In other words, there’s nothing normal about all of this - he’s a mess, I’m a lie, and that’s the perfect recipe for the end of our world.
I feel a presence come close to me.
“Following me is a new low,” I spit, feeling a high-rise level of disgust towards Dom. His laugh is cold as he lets out a ring of white smoke.
“Yeah, so,” drag, “taking a video of you two to make sure you keep your end of the deal must be a stripper’s ass at the end of her pole...in Hell.”
He makes it halfway to the front entrance of the frat house when I drag him back and punch him across the face with powder-white knuckles. Blood trickles down from his nose, gushing at a rate I didn’t think I could inflict. I lower my bloody fist. I know that I’m dead meat. Yet when he pulls himself together, he does nothing.
“I deserved that,” he laughs soullessly, “but you almost punched the high out of me, shit bro.”
He stumbles on through the front door with those last words, leaving me a seething mess where I stand.
All I can think about is the end of his world.