Or maybe I hadn’t changed all that much at all. As I stared at my phone, at Nikki’s message, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of my own inability to even admit I was gay to any other person besides myself. Staring at her words, I really wished I was braver.
So I’ll come get you at around noon, okay? If you’re okay with spending a few hours helping us cook and generally playing games in the living room. I promise we’ll have lots of fun! And I’ll stop those idiots from bothering you if you want.
My heart was beating quickly as I gulped in nervousness. I knew this wasn’t a date, but apparently my heart wasn’t getting the memo. It felt strangely intimate to be invited to Nikki’s home, to spend time with her, to talk to her in person.
I thought about backing out. Nikki would understand if I said I had an essay to work on, which I did, or if I made up some other excuse. It certainly would have made me less anxious.
But I also would have regretted it, so before I could change my mind, I said back, Noon is good. Is it okay if I bring my laptop? I might have to do a few things. I can bake something for desert too. Chocolate chip cookie cheesecake happens to be a specialty of mine.
Sure! Bring your computer- trust me, I get anxious when I don’t have mine too. Oh, if you need to work at all, you can use my office. But if you can bake something that sounds as delicious as chocolate chip cookie cheesecake, I don’t think these guys will ever want you to go home.
I smiled at her almost immediate response as I sat in my apartment, listening to the low hum of music from my roommates’ rooms. It was Monday night, so with any luck, those two would be gone by Wednesday and I could have a night free of Shawna’s nagging. She was already threatening to throw out my dishes if I didn’t start putting them away faster.
I sighed. I usually put them away the next day when they were actually dry. In contrast to Shawna who kept her crap on the counter until she felt like it. I rolled my eyes, shaking my head to clear my thoughts. Thinking too much about Shawna and Jordan would only make me angry. It was best not to let them invade my thoughts too; they already got my living space.
Haha, and what about you? Would you want me to stay? I sent it without thinking, immediately worrying over how flirty that sounded. Right away, I added, Thanks for the offer to use your office by the way.
My heart sunk when Nikki didn’t answer me right away, so I hid my phone in a drawer. There was no way I could start working on my part of the group project if I was distracted. I ended up getting lost in my research within a few minutes, typing up a few pages before I remembered my phone sitting in my drawer.
It had been about half an hour since Nikki texted me back. I checked it with my heart beating nervously in my chest. Sorry, I think my brain short-circuited. I’d want you to stay too, if you felt up to it. If you want to ever get away from those roommates or hang out here, you’re always welcome.
Her message was so sincere that I felt my heart skip for a second. I swallowed nervously, knowing that my face was red. If this was how I felt when she was texting me, how was I supposed to get through a whole day spent with her in her house?
All I could say in reply was, Thank you, Nikki, hoping it came across as sincere over text. I added, Good luck on your channel tonight. Sleep well after that.
I closed my phone, leaning back in my chair and sighing. I had one more day to get through before Nikki would pick me up. It was even better that I didn’t have class with Jason on Tuesdays, meaning that I shouldn’t have had to deal with his nonsense.
I should have known that my life wasn’t that easy, and Jason really was that creepy. He found me when I was walking out of class, feeling lighter now that the Thanksgiving break was finally upon me. I sighed happily, allowing myself to smile cheerfully as I took out my phone, looking for the message Nikki had sent me.
Then I felt someone’s arm around my shoulder and I jumped in fear, dropping my phone and my bag. My stuff spilt out all over the sidewalk, and there went my good mood.
“Oh, sorry about that, Corey.”
I felt a shiver go up my spine at Jason’s voice. He didn’t sound sorry at all as I leaned down to pick up my stuff, trying to organize my folders again before the masses of other students could step all over them. It didn’t make me feel better when I saw Jason pick up my phone before I could get to it. All he had to do was hold it up for my most recent notifications to show up. “Who’s Nikki?” he asked invasively.
I flushed and reached forward to grab my phone, but he held it out of my reach with a smile. The action might have been a joke if we were close enough for something like this. Jason reached down to grab the rest of my stuff that I hadn’t put away yet, placing my phone on top. He was smiling, but it felt creepy rather than sincere.
“Let’s celebrate the last day of classes. Come on, I’ll take you to lunch.”
I stood up, my heart falling. My eyes flicked to my stuff in his hands, wondering if I could snatch it back without making a scene. With my luck, I’d trip and fall into Jason, which would probably be around ten times worse.
“No thank you,” I said in a hard-edged tone, trying to sound polite at the same time.
Jason waved me off like my words meant nothing. He was still smiling casually, like we went to lunch all the time. “Nonsense. You always say you’re so busy, but now classes are over, so you’re not busy now, right?”
I gave him an unimpressed look. My chest felt like it was constricting, with every word out of Jason’s mouth meant to snare me. “I was going home. Give that back to me.”
I reached for it again, but he held away my folders and books. I might have considered making a run for it if that phone didn’t cost way too much for me to leave it behind. Besides, I didn’t want someone like Jason scrolling through it. Moments like these made me wish I’d used a passcode.
“I’ll give it back after lunch. Here, we can even eat on campus at the UC.” He began to walk away without waiting for me to say anything, leaving me no choice but to follow nervously.
I couldn’t help but to feel violated somehow at the thought of someone else having my phone. That little device had so much of my life on it, and yes, I knew I was too dependent on it, but it was important to me. That phone was my only point of contact with my family… and with Nikki too.
I twisted the strap of my backpack in my hands nervously, stepping behind Jason as he entered the University Cafeteria, or UC for short. My eyes watched my items like a hawk, to make sure that my stuff didn’t go anywhere, to be sure Jason didn’t read my phone, and to check for any possible chances to grab it from him and run. He was careful though, even going so far as to take my stuff with him when he picked up his order. He placed my stuff on the seat beside him and put his hand on top, forcing me to sit.
I complied, hating every second of this. My anxiety was going through the roof but there was nothing I could do. There was no opportunity for me to grab it from him, not without making a scene. I felt my chest clench as I struggled to breathe through my panic, trying not to let it show on my face.
Jason inched a basket of fries toward me, but I didn’t eat. I didn’t know if he could have done anything to my food, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat something he was offering to me. I just wanted my stuff back.
“You can eat that, you know,” he said in a joking tone.
I gave him a hard look. “Not hungry. Give me my stuff back. I need to call my mom.” It was a lie. The worst part was that he knew it was a lie.
“What about this Nikki?” Jason asked again, picking up my phone and dangling it. The message must have appeared on my lock screen again.
“Coworker,” I lied again more confidently.
Jason looked at me with a deep gaze that made me extremely uncomfortable. The only thing keeping me from passing out or breaking down in a panic was knowing that there were many witnesses in case something happened. That didn’t help me though when Jason reached forward to read the message on my phone. I really should have put a passcode on it.
The one person who I didn’t ever expect to rescue me stepped in before he could, grabbing my phone with her manicured fingernails and a bored expression. Ashley Kierra. She was looking around, her eyes narrowing, her fingers holding my phone tightly. I blinked up at her in surprise, my breath caught in my chest.
She didn’t say anything to Jason, but did say to me, “I’m putting my contact in your phone.” She held the phone down so I could see what she was doing as she navigated to my contacts. She was letting me know that she wasn’t reading my messages.
When Ashley was finished, she handed the phone back to me. “I might consider helping on some easy stuff for the project, like pictures. Text me the details.”
I didn’t move. I could barely understand what was going on as Ashley reached over the side of the booth and grabbed my papers, slapping them on the table in front of me. Jason didn’t move to stop her. Perhaps he was just as paralyzed by her sudden interference as I was. “Well?” she said snippily. “Get your papers and get moving. If you want me to get anything done, I need the details like now.”
“U-uh, right,” I said, quickly grabbing my things and making to leave. I crunched my folders to my chest, desperately trying to inhale without panicking.
Jason grabbed my arm, almost ripping the papers out of my hand again. I kept a tight grip on them and my phone as I looked back at him in fear. “But we didn’t get to finish lunch. I’m sure it can wait until after that.” He was looking at me with a look that was probably supposed to be sexy, but that sent a wave of desperation and disgust through my system. His grip on my arm actually hurt enough that I wondered if it would bruise.
To my infinite surprise, Ashley quickly stepped between us, wrenching his hand off of me without breaking one of her perfect nails. I saw Jason’s eyes flash dangerously, but Ashley didn’t back down. She crossed her arms and looked down at him like he was the dirt beneath her feet. “No, it can’t. I’m busy the rest of the week, so if you want me to do anything, I need it now.” She turned back to me. “Go then. Chop, chop.”
I might have been insulted if I didn’t realize that Ashley gave me an opportunity to get away. She protected me. I couldn’t figure out why, although I wasn’t in any state to be thinking about that as I tore out of the UC and ran out the back, trotting all the way across the walking bridge to my apartment.
I still couldn’t breathe right, but I wouldn’t break down in public. I wouldn’t cry in front of everyone. I dropped my papers all over the floor of my room when I entered, shutting the door behind me. My breath was too loud in my ears, my blood was pounding. I inhaled and exhaled, but my torso hurt like I was being stabbed. I was feeling lightheaded as I picked up my phone, clicking on the message Nikki send me. I didn’t even know what it said as my vision blurred dangerously and the text danced before my eyes.
I’d thought about texting Nikki, asking her to just talk to me until I could calm down, but even in my panicked state, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t burden her with my problems. I couldn’t let her see how weak I was.
My hands were shaking as I held onto my phone tightly, so tightly the rational part of my mind was worried it might break. I thought I might pass out before I heard a familiar voice say, “Hello? Corey?”
With wide eyes, I looked at my phone. I’d called to Nikki by accident. My hand must have hit the call button when I was holding onto it.
“Corey? Are you okay?”
I swallowed heavily, too out of my mind to care about being embarrassed. “I… can’t breathe… please talk to me…”
“Do you need me to come over there? Or call an ambulance?” Nikki’s voice was strong and sure, but full of panic.
“No… no just… just talk… it’ll stop…” I was having trouble getting my words out, but Nikki quickly responded, “Um, okay, talk… er, so I went to the store today. You know I don’t usually wake up until late since I work at night, but I went out for a few things. Ray came with me and made friends with a five-year-old who kept making faces at him. I pulled out an orange from the display and almost knocked the whole thing over, but okay, there are a lot of people in the store the days before Thanksgiving. This is why I stay at home so much more than I probably should…”
She kept talking about her day so far, speaking a little more quickly than normal. That was the only indication that she was feeling unnerved as she kept chattering. I listened to her voice go on and on about normal, everyday occurrences, letting myself get lost in her consistent tone.
The pain in my torso didn’t go away, but I was able to take deep breaths after a few minutes listening to her talk. Something about her voice brought me back to reality. I suddenly felt very tired as she asked more calmly, “Corey? Are you okay?”
“I’m okay now…” I said quietly. Mortification crept over me as I realized what I had done. I didn’t like people to see me break down like that. I didn’t like people to see me being weak over something stupid Jason or anyone else did. I was stronger than that… wasn’t I?
“I’m so sorry for calling you,” I choked out on the verge of tears. I knew she would be able to hear it in my voice as I swallowed with difficulty.
She didn’t comment on that though. “You don’t need to be sorry for that,” she said softly. “Corey, that sounded like a panic attack. What happened?”
“It wasn’t anything… I probably misread the situation,” I mumbled in embarrassment. I was overreacting. That was it.
“Don’t belittle what you’re feeling, Corey,” Nikki admonished gently. “I won’t either, if you tell me about it.”
I paused, unsure of what I should do. It was a big step to tell someone about what happened. It could ruin our friendship if Nikki knew how anxious and neurotic I really was. No one in their right mind would want to deal with my nonsense.
But my desire to say something, anything, won out over my stubbornness. “I… I got scared. This guy in my class makes me feel uncomfortable every time he’s around, and today he… he picked up my books and my phone and made me sit at lunch with him.” I winced. It sounded even dumber when I said it out loud. “I know… that’s dumb. But I felt really scared.”
My voice faded out. There was a pause on the other line before Nikki said, “Corey, that’s not nothing. If you don’t feel comfortable, it doesn’t matter what another person’s intentions are.” I let out a breath, somehow feeling relieved that another person didn’t think I was nuts. “It’s okay to be scared too, and to cry. But are you safe now, Corey? Do you want me to come stay with you?”
“Don’t you have a video or something to do?” I asked with furrowed eyebrows.
“Sure, but I can do that from my laptop.”
I shook my head, not realizing that she couldn’t see the gesture. “You should get your work done, Nikki, and I’ll see you tomorrow. I promise that I’m safe here. I’m back in my room. I’m actually… really tired. I might go to sleep for a little while. Can you text me a few times in an hour to make sure I’m awake?”
I could hear her breathe out a sigh on the other line. I didn’t know whether it was in relief or exasperation, but it sounded somewhat fond. “I can do that. If I don’t get a response, I’m coming over there. I’m serious.”
I chuckled at her genuine tone, pushing my bangs behind my ears. “Don’t worry. I’m okay now. Um, thanks to you.”
There was a pause where I could practically hear Nikki smile. “Glad I can help. Panic attacks aren’t easy; let me know if you ever want to talk. But good God you really scared me,” she breathed out, also sounding tired. “And don’t apologize,” she said before I could.
I must have been predictable. Still, her words made me smile. “Then… thanks, Nikki. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“See you then, Corey. By the way, if you ever need anyone to intimidate this guy who’s bothering you, Ray, Mikey, and Dom can look pretty scary if they try. They’re tall anyway.”
“I think I’m okay for now,” I said softly. It would have been the perfect chance to tell her that I was gay, that part of the reason Jason didn’t appeal to me was because I liked girls instead. That she made me feel safe. It was the perfect time to say any of that.
But I was too emotionally drained to put my thoughts into words. All I could do was tell her goodbye and hang up. I felt numb, but a sort of pleasant numb where my anxiety wasn’t so prominent and I didn’t feel the need to clean up my papers right away.
I didn’t know if I could really fall asleep, although when my eyes closed, my mind drifted in that place between wakefulness and sleep. When I heard Nikki texting me an hour later, I felt better. I felt ready to start my little vacation at Nikki’s place the next day, for a short escape from my tiny room, my terrible roommates, and from this horrible day.
I thought I would be anxious, but I smiled. I was looking forward to it.