My phone buzzed at five in the morning.
“Get up, get up, get up!” Iris’ voice sang, first in her natural soprano, then in a lower alto, and lastly in her impersonation of a baritone.
I smiled into my pillow.
“Get up, get up, get up!”
Reaching toward my bedside table, I swiped a finger across the phone’s screen and silenced the alarm.
“Hey!” she chirped five minutes later. “I’m going out to run. Are you coming or not?”
“Not,” I mumbled, shutting off this second alarm.
I sighed and pried my eyes open, upsetting flecks of sleep that had glued them closed. Three years together and she could still get me just by saying my name.
“Come on, lazy bones,” she said. “This is the third alarm. You know I’m already out the door.”
I sat up and threw my legs over the side of the bed.
“You slept in,” Iris accused.
I jogged down the porch steps, adjusting the Bluetooth earpiece in my ear. “My class on modern architecture let out late last night so I got home later than usual, I finished my homework later than usual, and I fell asleep later than usual.”
She chuckled. “And now you know what it’s like to be me.”
I crinkled my nose at nobody in particular. “I just love that new personalized alarm app you got me for my birthday, by the way.”
“What? You don’t like waking up to my voice every morning?” Iris asked with mocked indignation.
I didn’t have to answer because we both knew what I was going to say. I loved hearing her voice in the morning, no matter how obnoxious she tried to be. “Bring me up to speed on your yesterday,” I said instead.
She did so while I stretched on the sidewalk. “Amy brought an injured bird home. Again. I swear she has radar for creatures in distress. I’ve never heard of another kid bringing home as many critters as she does.”
I grinned. Her annoyance was fake; I knew how proud she was of her little sister. “She’s going to make a great veterinarian someday, what with all the practical experience she’s getting.”
The elderly neighbor who walked his dog every morning waved as he strolled by on the other side of the street. I returned the greeting.
“Yeah, well, she keeps using empty food boxes as beds for her patients.” I could hear the crashing of waves on her end and her running shoes beating against the sand. She barely gasped as she spoke. “Sophie reached into the Ritz box on the coffee table, thinking she was getting a cracker. She screamed so loud when she realized there was a recovering swallow sleeping in there.”
Snickering, I started to jog. “That’s awesome. I’ll have to try that on Leah next time I’m in West Palm Beach.”
“Aren’t you coming the day after tomorrow?” Iris asked with a note of panic.
“I thought it was your turn to come to Miami this weekend.”
There was a pause on the other end. The wind whistled in my ear, competing with the sounds of the ocean. Man, I missed living on the beach! I looked around at the neighborhood of small, older houses with washed out fences, green peach fuzz for grass, and stooped palm trees, and the too narrow street cutting through it all. But I couldn’t be too depressed about my living situation. This was a heaven compared to living on campus.
After two years of being stuck in a dormitory the size of my closet with three other guys, I’d been ready to quit school. Thankfully, Gabriel finished his art program a year ago and got a job at the Museum of Contemporary Art (otherwise known as the MOCA) here in Miami. He moved into a small, three bedroom house with a friend from high school and looked me up to see if I wanted to fill that third room. So now I was living in Hialeah, thirty minutes from the University of Miami and thirty five minutes from Nelson Kolby Architecture Inc where I was interning. I had it pretty good now. Even if I was nowhere near the beach.
“I already promised Rachel she could use my MASA Mustang on Friday. Apparently, she’s got another date with the guy who doesn’t have a car,” Iris grumbled.
“She’s still seeing that guy and she hasn’t introduced him to the family yet?”
“She claims she doesn’t want to scare him away, but I think she’s just not sure about him yet. I could take off early Friday morning and wait around your house until you’re done with class, but I have to be back in West Palm Beach by Saturday afternoon. Tristan’s got a baseball game and he’s pretty sure his coach is going to let him play this time.”
“I can’t miss that,” I said, jogging in place at a stoplight. “Maybe I can come over this weekend…”
“Check your day planner and get back to me,” she said with an audible smirk.
The crosswalk light blinked at me and I proceeded to jog across the street. “Hey, don’t knock the planner. I wouldn’t remember anything without that thing.”
“So you were telling me about your yesterday.”
“Right.” Iris took a moment to regulate her breathing; in through the nose, out through the mouth, in through the nose, out through the mouth.
I mimicked her while she collected her thoughts.
“The new bass guitarist showed up to practice without his guitar again. I’m going to kick him out of the band tomorrow.”
Two female cyclists were coming at me so I moved over to give them plenty of room. “What? No! I like Kenny.”
“He doesn’t take band practice seriously,” Iris said, and I could almost hear her scowling. “I’ve talked to him about it but he’s still not making much of an effort to learn the songs. He messes up when we’re on stage and then acts like it’s no big deal. People are going to start thinking we’re amateurs, and amateurs don’t get record deals.”
I shook my head hard, my hair already soaked in sweat. “Wait a second, I thought Eric was going to try and pull some strings at that new recording studio he was working at.”
“He just started working there. He can’t ask for favors yet. Besides, even if we did get the studio on board, we’d need a label behind us to pay for the recording and help with marketing. We can only get a label to notice us by building our rep. And we can only build our rep if we play better than all the other garage bands in town. We need a bass guitarist who’s dedicated, borderline obsessed with music to get us there.” Iris lowered her voice to a grumble. “I hate to say this but we need someone like Will.” She cursed.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I just tweaked my knee,” she huffed. “I think I’m going to walk back home.”
“All right. Be careful.” I rounded the corner, hoping over the pothole in the cement. “You must be really desperate if you’re considering calling Will.”
“I’m not considering anything,” Iris snapped. “I said we needed someone like him.”
I bristled. “You’re in serious pain, aren’t you? Hang up and call Eric to come get you.”
“I’m fine! I’m almost home.” The soft crunch of sand under her feet and the calling of seagulls told me otherwise.
I waited for the sigh, the grudging release of breath that indicated she was preparing herself to apologize. My annoyance withered away when I finally heard it.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last.
“No, it’s not. You didn’t deserve that,” she said with a hint of frustration. This time I knew it wasn’t directed at me.
I smiled. “True, but I’ve already forgiven you so let’s move on.”
“Don’t mention it.”
She hesitated for a moment before she said, “I miss you.”
It was as if I’d been successfully ignoring my hunger until she said those words. Suddenly, I was starving. I wanted to feel her body against mine, breathe in the familiar scent of lilac shampoo, look into those green eyes, taste those lips. I wanted it so badly my stomach hurt.
Swallowing past the patch of sandpaper at the back of my throat and said, “I miss you too, babe. We’ll be seeing each other this weekend…Whether I go over there or you come over here, it’s happening. I promise.”
“Good.” She cleared her throat, as if her mouth had gone dry too. “So, um, what else happened yesterday that I didn’t tell you about? Oh, yeah. Rachel took Damon to the doctor to have some tests done. Apparently, they think he has some form of autism. We won’t know which specific type until after the test results come in.”
Talk about emotional whiplash.
“Wow. Um, don’t you think you should’ve…started with that one?”
“Why? It doesn’t change anything,” she said. “We’ll still love him. We just have to learn different ways to communicate with him and help him learn.”
“You’re pretty amazing, you know that? Anybody else…” I struggled to breathe as I jogged up an incline. “Would be stressing out or freaking out after hearing news…like that.”
“Well, my mom is stressing out and Rachel is freaking out so I have to be the calm one.”
I slowed down to a walk once I crested the hill and then bent over to catch my breath with my hands on my knees.
“How’re you doing there, stud?” she teased.
“I think I forgot to eat dinner again last night,” I said, straightening up. “I have no energy this morning.”
“Don’t push yourself too hard. You don’t have to impress me.”
I chuckled. “I have to keep you somehow.”
“Keep calling me amazing and you will,” she said.
We made loud, obnoxious kissing noises at each other and shared a laugh.
“We’re adorable,” she said. I was sure her nose was wrinkling in that cute way it did whenever she laughed.
“Sickeningly sweet,” I agreed. “I love you.”
“Love you too. Now walk me through your yesterday.”
Forcing my legs to move, I limped down the sidewalk. “Classes were long but good. Had a pop quiz I’m pretty sure I aced. Mr. Kolby has a new project he’s working on with his team. I got to listen to a snippet of the meeting while I was distributing coffee for everyone. Sounds like they’re building a new hipster strip mall.”
“Any chance he’ll look at those drawings you made for your structural design class?” Iris asked.
I swiveled around at a stop sign and began the trek back to my house, hands on my hips to fully expand my chest cavity. Taking deep breaths, I could steadily feel my heart beat slow. “They’re called technical illustrations, Iris. And no, I don’t think he’d be interested in those. I had houses in mind when I drew them. They’re all wrong for this project.”
“Still, keep your eyes open for an opportunity to share your work. You didn’t apply for this internship so that you could master the art of making coffee.”
I smirked. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Still alive. Still working on that new oil painting series for the museum. I hardly see him.” I punched the button for the crosswalk and leaned against the beam.
“He doesn’t answer my texts,” Iris muttered.
“He doesn’t answer anyone’s texts. I’ll have him call you later when he has time.”
I saw a woman pushing a stroller toward me out of the corner of my eye. She paused, adopting a funny look. I smiled and turned my head, pointing at the Bluetooth in my other ear. Relaxing considerably, she closed the gap between us.
“Bring him with you if you end up coming to West Palm Beach this weekend,” Iris said. “The whole reason he took this job was so that he could be closer to his family and we still only see him once in a blue moon.”
“I only go to make out with you. It’ll be a total mood killer if I bring your brother along!”
“You come to see Meghan and Leah too,” Iris said, although, it sounded like she was biting back a smile.
“Well, it’s mostly to make out with you.”
“Can’t wait,” she purred.
I knew she was just teasing me but it still made my insides tighten. I hurried along the crosswalk when the light changed, as if getting home would make the day go by faster or make the end of the week come sooner. The young mother with the stroller and I parted ways once we reached the other side of the street; then I was jogging again, hoping to get rid of this restless anxiety, this sudden need to see my girlfriend.
“Have you made it home yet?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. I heard the front door close behind her. “Just now. Don’t worry. I’m going to ice my knee in a second.”
A scream on her end made me wince. “What was that?”
“It’s Damon,” Iris said, no doubt hobbling through the house as fast as she could. “I have to deal with this. Sorry, babe. Talk to you tomorrow.”
“All right. Love you.”
I pressed the button that would power down the Bluetooth earpiece and continued the journey home.
This house was approximately twelve hundred square feet; three bedrooms, a bathroom, and the closet with the washer and dryer units were squeezed together on one side of the house while the kitchen, small dining space, and living room were arrayed on the other. The hallway separating Bree’s room and mine was so narrow that we had to press our backs against the wall and skirt past each other every time we stepped out of our rooms. The kitchen cabinets had a sad, washed out quality to them, the bathroom door didn’t hang properly, and the windows had been glued shut by rust, dirt, and the constant humidity. But it was clean. The assorted pieces of furniture were well taken care of. Gabriel’s paintings were proudly displayed on the walls.
It was homey, comfortable, inviting.
I took off my shoes on the porch and padded inside. The bathroom door swung open to reveal Crissy Reynolds, Gabriel’s friend from high school.
She had yet to come right out and say that she had a crush on me, but I was ninety-nine point nine percent sure that she did. She always seemed to be in the middle of doing yoga when I came home from school. Three nights a week, she “accidentally” made a little extra of whatever divine dish she cooked herself for dinner; she put it in a Tupperware in the fridge with a stickie note that had my name on it. Always my name, not Gabriel’s. I couldn’t remember a single conversation we’d had that didn’t include her touching my arm. It seemed too coincidental that she always walked out of the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel just as I was coming back from my morning run.
Me being three years younger than her and having a girlfriend didn’t seem to matter to Crissy. Her special treatment had started on the day I moved in and had yet to change. It bugged me but it wasn’t as if I could ask her to stop. Best case scenario: things became really awkward between us. Worst case scenario: I’d have to find another place to live. So I pretended like it didn’t bother me as much as it did and tried to be cordial when our paths crossed.
“Hey, Brian,” Crissy said, jutting a hip out to the side. The overlapping ends of the towel parted to expose her upper thigh. She had the longest legs and the smoothest espresso skin I’d ever seen. Those full lips curved into an innocent smile as she pat her curly hair dry with a smaller hand towel. She was beautiful, practically a Barbie doll, and we both knew it.
Road kill. Sewage. Old men with beer bellies.
“Morning,” I said with a forced smile. “All done in there?”
She tossed the hand towel into the dirty linens hamper inside the bathroom and stepped away from the door. “It’s all yours.”
“Thanks.” I ducked around her and shut the door between us. A shiver ran down the length of my body, starting at the crown of my head and ending in the soles of my feet. Digging a hand through the pocket of my running shorts, I produced my phone where I had a picture of Iris as my lock screen.
She lay on her stomach over a beach towel in the sand, black curly hair pulled into a messy bun at the top of her head, light brown sunglasses perched on the bridge of her nose, a paperback clutched between both hands. There was the tiniest of frowns on her face but her brows were relaxed, giving her a look of peaceful concentration. Her feet were in the air, crossed at the ankles. I could barely make out the silver chinks and the little key of her ever-present anklet against her tan skin. She wore a black bikini that included a halter top, my favorite.
This was the girl I had been dared to take to the prom my senior year of high school, the girl who had changed my life, the girl who knew exactly who I was. This was the girl who had been faithful to me for three years while I’d been working and going to school seventy-five miles away. This was the girl I wanted, not the one currently slinking down the hall, wearing nothing but a towel.
I stood there for a while, leaning against the door, staring down at my girlfriend, trying to get the last hair on my body to relax.
Friday can’t come soon enough.