Mason’s exit left me feeling slightly disjointed. My brain couldn’t even assemble an entire sentence of apology to call after him. It was barely managing to keep me upright and staring as he disappeared through the doorway that would lead to the stairwell and beyond.
A strange and unfamiliar feeling squirmed in my gut. Regret.
For the majority of my life, I’d been comfortable with keeping people at arm’s length, where they couldn’t hurt me by dying, or leaving, or becoming emotionally unavailable. It was simply easier being cold and friendless. So why now was I suddenly compelled to make amends? And basically against my will…
Because Mason had gained the upper hand.
That simple realization re-kindled the hurricane of anger within. It washed out regret, the shame I’d felt at being so honest and rude. It propelled my feet forward, toward home. As I entered the apartment, Sarah and Cat were waiting with identical expectant expressions.
Cat spoke first. “That was fast. What happened?”
“Nothing.” I tossed my coat to the side, very aware that the diamonds occupying its inner pocket had likely appreciated to a million dollars by now. A fortune by most standards – pocket change according to my father. “Absolutely nothing. It was a wasted trip.”
“A wasted trip?” she echoed. “You didn’t get the money?”
“So what now?”
“What happened? Did Mason stand you up?” Cat continued her interrogation all the way to the bathroom where I shut her out. Even through the door I could hear her dismay on my behalf. “I thought he was a nice guy – I can’t believe he didn’t show up! How long did you wait for him? Are you sure you got the right place?”
After washing and drying my hands and face, I opened the door to Cat’s irate expression. Sarah was pacing in the distant living room. “Yes, I got the right place. And no, he did not stand me up,” I replied, scrubbing lotion into my cheeks and forehead. “It was worse than that.”
“Worse?” Sarah whispered. I could see her imagination on full alert as I strode to the kitchen.
Cat followed without hesitance, a new question on her tongue. “So he lied about having a buyer?”
“Oh, he had a buyer alright,” I chuckled darkly, opening the refrigerator by way of habit then slamming it shut and turning to face my bewildered roommates. “He offered to pay for the necklace himself.”
“And?” Cat inquired slowly.
I figured they would understand the horror, but they only stared, waiting for me to continue. Waiting for the punch line. “And I told him, no way!”
“Laura…” Cat was shaking her head, eyes closed, black hair swishing from side to side.
“Hello!” I answered. “He tried to pay me himself. It was insulting!”
“Right,” Cat began in a patronizing tone. “I see now. The awfulness. A kind and generous and handsome guy, who you’ve only known for like, a day, offers you his life savings to keep you alive… I mean, how could it get any worse? Unless he was riding a white horse-”
“I can’t take charity!” I yelled, cutting off her last sarcastic words. “I won’t. “We can do this ourselves.”
“How?” Catrina, incredulous, jumped from her stool. “It’s six o’clock! Everything’s closed! And we only have tomorrow to make almost a hundred grand materialize!”
By this point Sarah appeared utterly defeated, slumped against the wall. She only pulled her hands away from her face long enough to mutter that I shouldn’t be parting with such a valuable item.
“Really?” I asked her. “You haven’t given me a lot of choice here!”
“It’s your mother…” Sarah whispered pathetically through her fingers, her voice wavering with shame. “If it was only me on the line, and not you and Cat, then I would never let you sell her jewels.”
That same unfamiliar feeling rose up from earlier, giving me pause. Twice in the same day I’d felt compelled to apologize for rash words. Thankfully, I was too stunned by my own reaction and could only stand and stare at poor, teary-eyed Sarah - the girl who was pathetic in my eyes, but also generous, and vulnerable, and ultimately very sweet. Whose sweetness propelled others to manipulate and take advantage of her.
Suddenly, I felt ashamed that all this time, as the stronger person, I should have been protecting her, helping her. And instead, I’d only pushed her farther into the grave of her life.
“No.” I finally found my voice. “I’ve held onto that necklace all these years, diluted that they were a part of my mother – a part of her life. But all they are is clutter to remind me of her death which I’m tired of thinking about. And they can save us, right? Finally have a purpose beyond gathering dust in my closet and depressing me? Besides,” I added with as much an encouraging smile as I could muster, “we’re in this together now, right?”
They nodded, Sarah confused, Cat wary of my sanity.
“Okay,” Cat responded after a heavy pause. “So, tomorrow we’ll head south to my old stomping grounds and see if anyone wants to make a killing. I know one place we could try.”
Cat opened a bottle of wine in early celebration as we discussed, for over an hour, the different places we would go and the precautions we would have to take in traversing that particular part of the city. Not just anyone tours the south of Bronx without being noticed. And the natives can sense if you belong. Body language, eye contact, speech, how quickly you walk are all symptoms of where you were brought up. And crossing the lines is done with caution.
Before breaking for the night, we decided early morning would be the safest time, when the majority of people would still be sleeping. And I headed to my room, on edge that I’d done something nice, and needing to balance out the scales with some gaming.
Still irritated with Mason for being irritated with me – I mean, being called tough would be considered complimentary in some circles, yeah? – I signed into my main character without a thought to who else would be on. I was too grumpy to play nice with other characters. So, I promptly switched my spec back to tanking, equipped Heals with all her appropriate gear, and headed into an outdated dungeon, my intent to go solo. All I wanted was to sit, completely dazed, and let my mind wander as my character blasted through as many bad guys as possible – hopefully not a forewarning of what tomorrow would bring…
At one point, during the game’s vanilla years, this particular raid was intended for forty people. Pathetic that now, at level 85, I needed no help. But when Sword sent my first in-game encounter of the evening, asking to join my lonely party, I invited him to come along. It turned out that his teachers had nothing good to say of his efforts in school, resulting in a family vacation minus one specific family member. With the house to himself, which was more gift than punishment, he was surprisingly decent company. And I decided to grant him a pardon for once thinking I was a guy.
[Sword Death] It’s pretty cool being in here all alone, huh?
[Healslater] I guess.
[Sword Death] You ever run this as a forty?
[Healslater] Nope. You?
[Sword Death] I tried. Got kicked from group a lot – so I never actually finished it.
With Sword as a DPS Death Knight and me in my tanking mode, we blazed through mobs like they were made of paper. It turned out, that at this speed, Sword was actually peaceful. As long as we didn’t pause for longer than it took to loot, he never spouted angry encouragements to move forward. It was a nice improvement.
There wasn’t any fighting, or whining, and at the bosses we split the gear equally. None of it was worth much, anyhow.
[Sword Death] So what happened with that Smith dude? He file a restraining order yet?
[Sword Death] Seriously – what’s the deal there?
As annoying as Sword was in the past, he was equally insistent now. After he relayed several lewd assumptions of the truth, I found myself on the defensive.
[Healslater] Cut it out, Sword. I only stalked him for a couple of days. It wasn’t that big a deal.
[Sword Death] I’m not judging! I think it’s awesome. I wish some chick would stalk me.
[Healslater] Way to dream big.
[Sword Death] Now that you’re over Smith, you wanna be my stalker?
[Healslater] I’m forty five.
[Sword Death] Liar.
Silence was demanded by the beauty of a new corridor where molten lava enemies stood as high as the cave ceiling. Sword took right, I took left. Our system had become unspoken. As captivated as I was with the intimate red glow, the toppling rock bodies as they died one by one, I almost didn’t notice that someone had whispered me.
[Smithlol2] Hey, I know you wanted me to leave you alone, but I had to make sure you were okay.
Fortunately, my adversaries were a fraction of my level, because I stopped fighting entirely to read through his sentence a second and third time. Sword was left to pick up where I’d left off – but that was fine. He loved beating my DPS.
[Healslater] Why wouldn’t I be okay?
[Smithlol2] I don’t know. Maybe because you’re wandering through a dungeon from the cave-man days.
[Healslater] Who’s the stalker now?
[Smithlol2] I prefer guardian. As in guardian angel.
[Healslater] I’ll bet you do.
[Smithlol2] Actually, I was just thinking about that break-in. Did you get your locks fixed?
[Healslater] Yep. Good as new.
Not that they were effective in their previous ‘new’ condition.
[Smithlol2] You still mad at me?
[Healslater] I was never mad at you. Why would you think that?
Nothing. No response. Crickets could have been heard chirping clear on the west coast. I was glad to be talking with Smith again. Further, I was grateful he’d started the conversation that kept me from having to beg the return of his friendship.
It was stupid to assume Mason would be the jealous type, or that I couldn’t continue a very blasé interlude online – even though part of me knew it was more than that. More than blasé. Maybe even the opposite.
[Smithlol2] Well, not mad at me. Indifferent. Which I think might be worse.
I had to agree with that. It would be worse, if it were true.
[Healslater] You mean because I tried to blow you off?
[Smithlol2] And I didn’t listen.
[Healslater] No, I’m glad you didn’t listen. I missed talking to you.
[Healslater] Yep. And I’m not mad. Not indifferent. Intrigued, maybe…
[Smithlol2] Really? Wow. Though I can’t say I’m surprised. *flexes*
[Healslater] Vaguely intrigued.
[Smithlol2] Lol – fine.
Sword had been talking non-stop about the irritation of high-school cliques. I wondered if was due to my lack of response that he suddenly logged – mid fight. I killed off everything in the vicinity then waited. Around me flowed a lake of lava. The red-orange glow reflected off my face and armor as I waded into the thick liquid to see if it would take down my life. It didn’t. Sword got back on momentarily to report his hatred for wireless internet and latency. He even apologized for having to ditch me, asked if I was sure I didn’t want to be his stalker, then bid me good night.
[Smithlol2] So, what about your boyfriend?
[Healslater] Not my boyfriend.
[Smithlol2] Just friend?
[Healslater] I don’t know... We got into a kind of fight...
[Smithlol2] Oh yeah? What’d he do?
What had he done? From my perspective, a well-to-do egotist had tried feeding scraps to an abandoned mutt on the sidewalk. I realized that wasn’t the reality, but it might as well have been for the way I was feeling.
[Healslater] Well, he beat me at pool, for one.
[Smithlol2] How dare he.
[Healslater] I sense your condensation.
[Smithlol2] lmao – my condensation, hu?
[Smithlol2] I thought you were a literary major.
[Healslater] CONDESCENSION. Patronization, you know what I meant. You’re laughing at me?
[Smithlol2] No, no, you’re right. Absolutely. He should have tried harder to let you win.
Now that I thought about it, Mason had been trying to let me win, and I’d sabotaged myself. Shit – now I had nothing I could hold against him…
[Healslater] *Sigh* Fine. The truth is, I pissed him off with my overbearing pride. He’ll probably never talk to me again.
[Smithlol2] I doubt that.
[Healslater] You don’t know how I behaved.
[Smithlol2] Wanna talk about it?
[Healslater] It’s a long story.
[Smithlol2] I have time…
Not in a million years would I admit to the new found ecstasy of having a friend. Someone I could talk with openly, minus the hazard of showing them my eyes - the windows to my soul, per say. Even with Cat and Sarah, whom I’d known for years, I was guarded. Afraid that showing my colors could arm them beyond my defenses. Before Smith, nobody had been privy to the real Laura. For all my barbed edges, a delicate flower was there in the center. Slowly, by not giving up, Smith peeled away the brambles that protected me.
With the sort of urgent relief that must accompany a first breathe after minutes under water, I dove into my story about meeting Mason. At length, I described my feelings and expectations – along with the disappointments. It was the first time I’d opened up about anything truly personal since the death of my mother, even speaking about the break-in, adding all the details I’d so far neglected to mention. Like owing either a bundle of cash or a pound of flesh by tomorrow, and how a string of diamonds was my only saving grace.
[Healslater] So, he basically offered to buy the necklace himself. I guess it was his way of giving me the money without making it look like a handout, which was actually really nice of him. But it made me feel so weak and small. So – as usual – I managed to pound his generosity into the ground.
Along with whatever friendship we’d managed to devise.
[Smithlol2] He’s probably not even upset about the whole thing. You should call him.
[Healslater] Naw. He was too good for me anyway.
[Smithlol2] I’m sure he thinks the same thing about you.
I paused, typed something sarcastic, hit the backspace repeatedly, and typed something honest.
[Healslater] This is weird. Is this a weird conversation? Me talking about some other guy?
[Smithlol2] Weirder than you know.
[Healslater] What do you mean by that?
[Smithlol2] Well, put yourself in my shoes. Be the girl who likes the guy who talks about another girl...
I paused, my fingers poised over the keyboard. Had he just admitted to liking me? What did I do with that? Laugh it off? Offer a whimsical reply? Try and divert the conversation to something more benign?
[Smithlol2] Are you alright?
[Healslater] I don’t know.
[Smithlol2] What are you thinking?
[Healslater] I’m thinking... you like me?
He answered quickly.
[Smithlol2] I do.
[Healslater] How do you know?
There was a long pause.
[Smithlol2] I know because... I was at the store this morning, walking through isles of produce, and the apricots were on sale. I don’t even like apricots. I can’t stand the fuzz, and they drip everywhere. They’re the peach’s annoying little sister. But I stood there for a long time. I even picked one up, and I wondered - if Heals liked apricots.
A moment passed as I read his words again and again. I didn’t know what to say, the sentiment caused an ache in my chest that only deepened when I read what he wrote next.
[Smithlol2] Because, if she did like apricots, and if I was shopping for us instead of just me... I would have bought you some.
I swallowed the knot of emotion in my throat and tried to type, but I couldn’t make my fingers work.
[Smithlol2] It’s okay if you don’t know what to say. I just wanted you to know that I think about you. I have so many questions...
[Healslater] Well, I can answer one of them.
[Smithlol2] Which one?
[Healslater] I love apricots.
[Smithlol2] That actually made me laugh out loud.
[Healslater] I grew up in California, and apricots are a big thing there. My mother canned about a million jars of apricot jam one year - Dad still has a few.
[Smithlol2] Does that mean...
[Healslater] My mom died when I was young.
[Smithlol2] I’m so sorry.
[Healslater] It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay. I was twelve that year, so I remember a lot about her. But the pictures in my head are fading a little. It scares me.
[Smithlol2] I wish I knew what to say to make things better.
[Healslater] Don’t worry - I’ve decided that pain isn’t always a bad thing.
[Healslater] It’s the greatest teacher. When you fall off a bike and scrape your knee, when you fail a test, when you decide to stay in New York instead of moving back home and working for your dad...
[Smithlol2] Is New York a mistake?
[Healslater] Do you mean right now? Talking to you? That’s not a mistake. But choosing a roommate who gets into trouble with a drug-dealer? That was a mistake.
[Smithlol2] Do you have a plan for tomorrow?
[Healslater] So far, just to stay alive.
[Smithlol2] That’s a good start.
[Healslater] And finding someplace to sell my necklace.
[Smithlol2] Just don’t go to The Underground.
[Healslater] What’s that?
[Smithlol2] Where you shouldn’t be going. I’m not stupid. I’m not gonna tell you where it is.
[Healslater] But if it’s the best place to go, why wouldn’t you tell me?
[Smithlol2] I don’t want you getting hurt.
[Healslater] If you didn’t want me getting hurt – you would tell me the best place to sell this necklace. Because come tomorrow night, without the money, I’ll definitely be getting hurt.
[Smithlol2] Well, I’m not telling. And I’m serious. Promise you’ll stay away.
[Healslater] How can I not stay away? I don’t even know where it is.
[Smithlol2] That wasn’t an answer, and you know it.
[Healslater] I have no idea what you’re talking about.
[Healslater] I should probably get some sleep. I wanna be rested for when I absolutely don’t go to The Underground tomorrow.
[Smithlol2] You’re signing off?
[Healslater] I really should go...
[Smithlol2] Alright, just abandon me.
[Healslater] I’d like to say I’ll be on again tomorrow - but we don’t actually know if I’ll survive.
[Smithlol2] Don’t say that.
[Healslater] I’m kidding.
For a moment, I wasn’t sure if he was still there. Or if he’d stepped away from his computer without letting me know. But then another line of text blinked onto the screen, intriguing me.
[Smithlol2] Can I ask you another question?
[Smithlol2] What if things were different?
[Healslater] What do you mean?
There was a slight delay before Smith replied.
[Smithlol2] I mean... what if things were different? What if I wasn’t the jerk you met online? What if I was the guy you met in a coffee shop, and I bought you a drink, and we talked forever about life and books, and why we would ever...
I waited for him to finish his sentence, but the seconds ticked passed.
[Smithlol2] Spend another minute apart.
The following pause was raw, like an open wound. Tender, painful, fragile. I wanted to ignore the feelings Smith evoked, wanted to act like this was nothing - just another conversation - but it wasn’t. And I wanted to lie and say I didn’t feel the same, but I couldn’t.
[Healslater] That would make things a lot less complicated.
Was all I could say.
[Smithlol2] Would it?
[Healslater] Because then I wouldn’t have to worry about you and worry about Mason and wonder why I was such a horrible person for even talking about all this.
[Smithlol2] You are not a horrible person.
[Healslater] Actually, I am.
[Healslater] Can I just be perfectly honest here?
[Smithlol2] That depends...
[Healslater] It’s just that Mason is such an amazing and generous person. And he was willing to make this huge sacrifice for me. Besides that, he’s also smart and witty.
[Smithlol2] Is he?
[Healslater] And adorable, not that that matters.
[Healslater] Is this making you uncomfortable?
[Smithlol2] No, I love listening to you talk about this other guy that you’re obviously infatuated with.
[Healslater] With whom I’m obviously infatuated.
Shit. Had I just corrected Smith’s grammar?
[Smithlol2] So... you are infatuated?
What was that saying about words being like toothpaste? You couldn’t just put them back once they were out. But did I want that? Didn’t I predicate my entire life on honesty?
[Healslater] Let’s just say he has my attention. But then there’s you...
[Healslater] And I don’t know what it is, but I’ve never been able to have a conversation like this with anyone else. Maybe it’s the whole online thing, but I would tell you anything. I’m not afraid.
[Smithlol2] I’m glad.
[Healslater] And here’s the thing - when I’m not online, when I’m off playing real life, and something happens, all I can think is... I can’t wait to tell Smith about that.
He didn’t respond. Maybe he was waiting for more, but a minute passed, and then another.
[Healslater] Are you okay?
[Smithlol2] I think I’m the horrible person.
[Healslater] What? Why?
[Smithlol2] I have to go.
And without explanation, he was gone.