Behind a stand, by the physics hall, he spotted Jay frenching a random girl. At least the distraction made him titter until Meryl jumped on his back. He jolted and pushed her knees toward the floor.
"Are you still mad?" she asked.
"Can we talk later? I have calculus at one o’clock and I can't miss it. Final's on Friday and I'm fried," he said.
"It's not one o’clock and we need to have this conversation. I want to apologize for the way I acted. It was childish of me."
"Meryl, every time you say that, I think you're growing up, but then you pull one on me and my hopes get thrown out the window."
"I'm so sorry, babe." She sobbed without tears. "I've been thinking this might just be an unconscious call for attention. Our relationship hasn't grown in three years of dating and I want more from you, Dean. Do you even love me anymore?"
Meryl’s tone increased. Bystanders stared at the scene, making her boyfriend dwarf. It took an interminable pause to answer her question.
"Meryl, I care for you, but I've never said those words. I want to fix this; fix us. Let's talk after school. Come over and spend the night." He pulled her closer to the wall.
"Okay.” Meryl’s semblance turned cheerful.
Spending time with his girlfriend was a way for Dean to forget about the heated night as his whim was getting out of control.
Once again, Dean’s living room was a forest, but on this occasion, there was a hose connected to the kitchen faucet. He stomped into the balcony where Allie attempted to cut a thinner hose with a knife. She was so focused, she only acknowledged his presence when he started talking.
"Why is New Zealand back?"
"Oh, hi Dean." She snapped back into America. "It's okay. I'll clean everything. Drunk Allie had the best garden idea ever. It’ll look nice. You'll see."
She declared that in one breath.
He raised one eyebrow, inspecting the setting.
“Cool,” he said. “No offense, your plan is everywhere but I can’t have this place looking like a jungle.”
She sliced another tube.
"Allie," he continued, "this can't be here. The living room is a mess."
"I almost got it." She bent the hose, holding it with one hand, and slipping the knife under the fold.
“Seriously, can you—?”
Allie jerked the sharp weapon and lacerated her wrist. She dropped the tool and applied pressure on the wound with her palm. A mute scream left her mouth. Dean threw his backpack on the floor. He took off his shirt and wrapped it tightly around her blood-gushing arm.
“Let’s go to the emergency room," he said.
"Can’t I just stick one of those giant band-aids on it?" Bright red fluids soaked the shirt.
"What? No!" He hauled her toward the front door, but she ran into the hallway.
"I don't want to go. I'm scared." Her blood spilled on the hardwood tiles.
He rushed to her and carried her out of the house.
"Dean, let me down," she demanded as he jogged into the parking lot.
"Hey!" He placed her feet on the floor and held her cheeks between his hands. "I will be there with you, okay? The entire time."
She stared into his brown eyes for a second, which became a pleasant eternity for both of them. Two mirrors, reflecting each other's souls, sharing an intimate connection. His pupils assured her security. He reached his hand behind her to open his car door. His eyes still fixated on her.
Dean waited in the hospital lobby as he spotted Allie exiting an elevator. The specialist had wrapped her right wrist in gauze. Her bloody jeans stained with evidence of the wound’s gravity.
"How did it go?" he asked.
"The doctor says I will have a neat scar," she answered.
"I have to go pay."
She walked toward the reception. “How much is the damage?”
“That'll be six-hundred-and-fifty dollars,“ said the nurse.
"Six-hundred-and-fifty dollars. For ten stitches?"
She retrieved a blue credit card from her wallet in a hesitating manner. The nurse inserted the card in a machine, but it declined the amount. Low balance. Allie sighed, then showed her an orange card and asked her to try that one. The nurse accepted the payment.
As they drove home, Allie and Dean thought of the way their gaze had locked earlier. Neither had ever experienced such intensity. They craved that drug—whatever it was.
Dean had been yearning for it since the first day he met Allie, but he couldn't cave into his desires. He couldn't cheat on Meryl, and Allie had a fiancé, for God’s sake. The thought upset him. Maybe Meryl was right to demand he got a different roommate; someone who did not awake his natural instincts.
"I'm sorry I dragged you to the hospital against your will," he said.
"I'm glad you did. Thank you," she smiled.
"When I was a kid, I was playing tug-of-war with my buddies, and the rope ripped apart, making everyone crash into a pile—"
“You've never played tug-of-war?”
“Raised by nuns and had no friends,” she snickered.
"Ah, it’s fun. You should try it someday," he said.
“Anyway, sorry. Continue.”
"Right, my thigh collapsed between my friend's butt and shattered glass, cutting a deep trench into my leg. A pool of blood formed around me. The worst thing is I didn't want to tell my parents because I thought they'd be angry. I had told them I’d be studying with my cousin instead of playing at the park."
"Did your parents find out?"
"Yes. A neighbor was walking by and called them before I fainted. I almost bled out in the ambulance."
“My wound resurfaced that terrible memory, huh,” she said, tilting her head.
“I guess it did,” he nodded.
"But you know what? That's a positive thing."
"How so?" Dean pushed his neck back.
“Had you not gone through that, you wouldn't have been so quick to help me.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t letting you bleed on my watch. To be honest, I didn’t picture you as having a fear of needles.”
“It’s not needles or blood. It’s the bill.” Allie looked out the window.
He had just seen her struggle with her cards at the hospital. He could not believe she was letting herself bleed to death because of money, but he had never experienced that problem.
“About that, you can skip the rent next month,” he said.
“No.” Her butt hopped on her seat.
“It’s fine, Allie.”
“No, I never skip payments.”
“You seem set on your ways, so I won’t insist. My offer stands.” He realized she might have disregarded his suggestion as pitiful.
Silence. Butterflies filled Allie’s stomach, making her worry. That wasn't the reaction she should have had, but she could not contain herself.
Dean continued. "So what were you doing with the hose?"
“I was trying to make a small irrigation system,” said Allie.
"It's a device that waters the plants for you."
"I know what that is. I just thought you'd go for the old school method."
"Work smarter. Not harder." She pointed at her temples.
"That's what I always say. Interesting," he smiled.
Her worries solidified. They had things in common and she was too comfortable around him. Meaning a friendship was developing, and nothing beyond that. But men and women could not be friends. Grayson would surely be jealous and Meryl hated her.
An angry Meryl waited by forty-one B, tapping her foot on the welcome mat. She had a copy of the entrance key, but she thought if Dean saw her outside, in the dark, he'd have no other choice but to feel bad for ditching her.
Out of all the times Dean thought of Meryl that day, he did not remember their scheduled meeting once. His brain was more focused on reminding himself that he shouldn't cheat on his girlfriend, than on her existence.
He was on relationship autopilot: when a person knows how to work a standard relationship without actual feelings involved.
"Is your phone broken?" Meryl touched her lips to her nose. Her eyes squinted in defiance at the girl beside him.
Dean’s screen lit up with twenty-five missed calls from his girlfriend.
Allie rolled her eyes and walked into the apartment, leaving the danger zone.
“Shit,” said Dean. “My phone was on silent. I had to drive Allie to the hospital. She cut herself—”
“Of course,” said Meryl, tapping her heel faster. “Your roommate's problems are a priority, but for your girlfriend’s, you don't even bother communicating.”
"It's not like that. She was bleeding out. I had to take her,” he sighed at her sarcasm.
"Do I look like I care, Dean? We were supposed to see each other tonight, and you didn't show. Be grateful. Anyone else would have dumped you by now."
Every word punched Dean's head like multiple levels in a high striker game.
"Answer this," he said. "Why haven't you dumped me?"
"Because, obviously," she replied, "even though you are high maintenance, you're my little work-in-progress."
"High maintenance." Dean’s chin met his neck in disbelief. "You know what? For three years, we've been trying to change each other, and that ends today. I'm breaking up with you."
Meryl's eyes turned to glass.
"After three years?" her voice trembled.
Dean realized the weight of his words and became calm. Despite her comportment, their history deserved respect.
"You might not see it that way but trust me, our problems dragged on for too long."
"We can fix that, De. I know we can. It used to be so exciting, but now, you study so much and—" she cupped his jaw.
"Meryl, those are just excuses we put in our heads." He moved her wrists away. "I'm sorry, but I've been thinking about this for a while. I let it drag on and it's my fault. Please, believe me when I tell you, I struggled to stay together, but I can't work on something that's been over for a long time."
She spent the next fifteen minutes crying. The more Dean consoled his ex-girlfriend, the more her tears burned. Every pat on her shoulder was an open wound.
"I should go," Meryl said after an interminable sobbing pause.
Her black sedan was nearby, but he still needed to make sure she was okay driving home. She dried her own tears and drove away without words.
Dean was lighter as if someone else had offered to carry his cross. Guilt consumed him for kicking Meryl out of his life; the woman he had been attached to for three years. Mr. Pops trotted in circles, happily greeting his best friend. Dean embraced him.
Allie walked into the living room from the veranda. Autopilot off!
"Sorry, I didn't want to be nosy, but it was loud," she said.
"It's all right," he sighed. "Do you need help with this stuff? You shouldn't strain your wrist."
"No, I'll just kick everything away. It won't be a mess by tomorrow, I promise,” she made a half-smile.
"I should move the heavier stuff,” he said.
Dean had lots of time to think. Break-up, school finals, and now, an intrusive but welcomed thought, Allie. He was beginning to obsess over her. She would have slapped him if she knew how much he pleasured himself thinking about her. He was like a hungry teenager.
The girl squatted, picking up scraps of hoses and duct tape. He stood still, realizing he was single. His blood rushed to make the room hotter. His hands wanted to reach for her peach rear and press himself against her. But he shook his head and rubbed his eyes.
She was getting married to another man.