Chapter 16 - I Like Me Better
“I like me better when I’m with you / I knew from the first time, I’d stay for a long time ’cause / I like me better when / I like me better when I’m with you” – I Like Me Better, Lauv
“They’re coming!” Samson shouts to everyone as he reads the text from James, hoisting his can of beer in the air at the news. Richard, Samson, and Samson’s girlfriend, Bobbi, are standing near the deck of the house while Malcolm is at the shore with two girls, one of which is Lisa, and the other, her friend Paulina.
“Wait, James is actually coming out here?” Richard asks, not believing that James would make an appearance tonight at all.
“Says so right here!” Samson says, holding up his phone to Richard to confirm.
Richard reads the text. “And he’s bringing that West Side girl with him.”
“I don’t think you should call her that when she gets here,” Samson says.
“Who’s he bringing with him?” Bobbi asks.
“She’s a girl from our school that transferred from West Side this year.” Samson says, “Her name is Arya.”
“So, he’s finally taken a girl out on a date,” Bobbi says, happy that James finally found someone that could make him happy.
Lisa can’t hear the conversation by the deck, so she turns to Malcolm. “Who did they say was coming?” Lisa asks, hoping to hear the James will be coming out.
“It’ll be James and that West Side girl,” Malcolm says while he takes a sip of his drink.
“What West Side girl?” Lisa asks immediately. Since when is James interested in anyone? Especially someone from West Side.
“The girl that switched here from West Side, like, what, two months ago,” Malcolm says.
“Since when is he hanging out with her?!” Lisa demands. Lisa always thought that when James was finally ready to date that he would go for her. She’s pretty, popular, blonde and on the volleyball team. Why wouldn’t he want her? She’s liked him since the first day of Grade 9 when they were in the same science class. James dated a bunch of girls at the beginning of Grade 9, but none of them made it past two dates. She didn’t want to be one of those girls, used and forgotten so easily, so she was willing to wait for James. She would wait until he tired of all the other girls and then she would come in and they could be together. But life never goes according to plan, and that Grade 9 winter, everything changed. James lost his father over Christmas break and everything about him changed. She tried to be there for him, to comfort him, but he didn’t want anything from her. The more she pushed, the more he pulled away, but she just couldn’t let him go. She told herself it was because of his dad, that he would one day snap out of it and realize she was the girl for him. But now? He’s with some new girl? And not just any girl, a girl from West Side.
“I honestly don’t know when they started hanging out. We just found out he was taking her on a date yesterday. Anyways, I need a refill.” Malcolm turns to go back up to the deck where all the drinks are, leaving Paulina and Lisa alone.
Lisa turns to her friend. “Can you believe this?” Lisa says to her. “He’s shacking up with that new girl! He’s doesn’t date anyone for two years and now he’s dating her!”
“Chill out, Lisa,” Paulina says, “Don’t flip out until you know everything.”
“I swear to God if that girl comes out here holding his hand and acting like he’s hers, it’s game over,” Lisa says, downing the rest of her drink in one gulp. “I need another.” And then she starts walking up to the deck and Paulina follows, rolling her eyes at her friend, knowing that everyone should prepare themselves for drama tonight.
James parks the car in the driveway of his friend Samson’s house, next to two other cars. James gets out of the car, but I don’t move. I didn’t listen to my gut earlier and now it’s angry, ‘I told you not to come here,’ it says to me, ‘You know this isn’t going to end well’.
“Arya?” James says. He has opened the passenger door and is concerned about why I haven’t moved. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I say, taking my seat belt off and climbing out of the car.
“We don’t have to do this.” He says, leaning on the car door. We are just inches away from each other and it causes my heart to beat faster.
‘He’s giving you a way out!’ my gut tells me, and I consider it. But then my brain overrides it, as it always tries to do, shouting at me, ‘What will his friends think of you then? They’ll think that you are too scared to hang out with them! And how will you and James be together then?’
“No, James.” I say, shaking my head to rid it of the negative thoughts, “I want to do this.” Unfortunately, when you really like someone, you are willing to do things that you wouldn’t normally do to impress them. And that night, I ignored my gut twice, letting my brain win both arguments. Why? Because I trusted that with James, it would be okay.
“Okay,” James says and shuts the car door and takes my hand in his. His touch is everything to me, and this contact is enough to silence my gut as we walk around the house to the backyard.
“You made it!” I hear called out towards us and James waves his hand to all of them.
I look to the group of people, recognizing about half of them. There’s of course Malcolm, and two of James’ friends that I only know by their faces. There is a girl I don’t know that is standing close to one of James’ friends like a couple and then my eyes land on Lisa and her friend next to her. James whispers in my ear, “Don’t worry, I’ll introduce you to all of them.” And at that moment, I see Lisa whisper something in her friend’s ear and I know that it’s about me. And like always, my gut was right.
When we approach the group, James lets go of my hand to greet his friends with the classic guy handshake that turns into patting each other on the back. I immediately miss the skin to skin connection with James, which is crazy, how can I already be feeling this way about him? “Now most of you already know her but let me formally introduce Arya,” James says as he walks back over to stand next to me. He puts a hand around my waist like he’s been doing it his entire life. Like it’s comfortable for him. And then he starts pointing out and introducing each person, “These are my best friends Richard, Malcolm, and Samson,” he starts, “This is Samson’s girlfriend, Bobbi. Bobbi goes to Greenwood Academy. And then last but certainly not least, Paulina and Lisa.” Everyone seems nice now in front of James, even Malcolm, but I don’t even have to look to feel Lisa’s eyes burning through me.
“So what were you guys up to this evening?” Bobbi asks kindly.
“Well I forced Arya to help cook and serve a bunch of people their dinner and just when she was ready to run out on the date, I fed her the most beautiful dinner that Costco and my mom could provide,” James says, totally underselling himself and the evening we had. He could boast about himself, but he chooses not to. He chooses to be humble, which only makes me more attracted to him and I just smile at him.
“He’s underselling himself.” I say, looking at Bobbi before turning back to James and placing a hand on his shoulder, “It was a great evening.”
“Well, James,” Samson says, “Do you mind unlatching yourself from Arya long enough to help me get some more wood for the fire?”
“Ha-ha.” James says sarcastically and then he releases his grip from my waist, placing his hand on the small of my back, whispering in my ear, “I won’t be long.” And then he leaves me to help Samson with the fire pit. I’m about to walk over to Bobbi because I think that she could be someone I could get along with, but Malcolm comes up to me before I have a chance.
“Can we talk?” he says to me. Bobbi and Richard are talking with each other and so are Lisa and her friend Paulina. “I know we got off on the wrong foot and I want to apologize for it.”
“Did James tell you to do this?” I ask, skeptical of this newfound apology from a guy who once called me a psycho bitch and batshit crazy.
“No,” Malcolm says, “But when I found out how much he liked you, I knew that there was something special about you and if you are important to him then you are important to me. I don’t want our relationship to continue like this. I am sorry for what I did to you, but you have to admit, going crazy on me in the hallway that day with your sister was a bit much.”
“Thank you for the lovely apology,” I say sarcastically.
“Arya, I’m trying here,” Malcolm says sincerely. I want to forgive Malcolm, not because he’s James’ friend but because I think he is apologetic. But I can’t just forgive him because I don’t believe that he realizes what he did wrong, but I’m willing to meet him halfway.
“I know,” I say, “I’m sorry. I may have gone a little crazy on you that day, but I am protective of my sister. You were trying to force yourself on me at the party, you called me a tease because I didn’t want to make out with you.” I take a breath. “So forgive me for not wanting that type of guy around my sister. And don’t think I’ve forgotten what you said to me that day about jumping in bed with a guy and regretting it. That’s not something you joke about; you have no idea about anyone’s past.”
“I didn’t mean to force myself on you, I guess I’m not used to someone saying no to me,” Malcolm says honestly.
“Poor you,” I say back. “It doesn’t make it okay.”
“I know,” Malcolm says, “and I know the comment about jumping in bed with a guy and regretting it was bad. I guess I wanted to hurt you and that’s how I knew how to do it. I wanted to push you to the edge. It was wrong and I am sincerely sorry, Arya. I won’t do that to you or anyone else again. I was self-centered and thought only about how you were in the wrong and didn’t take a moment to look in the mirror and see what I had done. I regret what I did and now that you are with my best friend, I know I have to make this right with you.”
“James must mean a lot to you then,” I say.
“He’s like my brother,” Malcolm says, “The four of us are like brothers. James, Richard, Samson, and I. We’ve been best friends since we were in kindergarten. I can’t imagine life without any of them. James changed when his father died, he grew up too fast, trying to fit into a role that he wasn’t ready for. Tonight, with you, it’s the first time I’ve seen a genuine smile on his face since his father died.”
“I forgive you, Malcolm,” I say, knowing that Malcolm will not do what he did to me again, which proves the sincerity of the apology. “Just stay away from my sister.”
Malcolm puts up both his hands, “Yes, ma’am.” And I slap him on the shoulder. “You’re not so bad when I don’t aggravate you.” Malcolm comments.
“Thanks,” I say, “You’re not so bad when you aren’t trying to get with me or my sister.”
“Don’t worry,” Malcolm says, “Once people find out about you and James, no guy will try anything with you. Well, no one in Grade 11 at least. I can’t say much about the Grade 12s that act like they own the school.”
“Out of fear?” I ask.
“Out of respect.” Malcolm says, “Everyone loves James, I mean how can you not? Look at that sweet little face!” Malcolm says pointing out James as he adds wood to the fire, his face in deep concentration. Lisa is standing next to James, talking to him as he just focuses on the fire, but it doesn’t seem to faze her or stop her from talking to him.
“What about the girls?” I ask Malcolm, and he looks over at Lisa who is trying to get the attention of James.
“There will be a lot of disappointed girls when they find out you guys are together, but James can handle that himself,” Malcolm says. I’m not worried about James. I know he can handle himself. Selfishly, I’m worried about myself. What will the jealous girls think of me? What will they do to me?
“What do you think she’s saying to him?” Malcolm says, snapping me back to reality.
“What?” I say.
“I think she’s telling him how when she went to the nail salon this morning, they didn’t have her regular colour, sparkly unicorn turquoise, so she had to settle for sparkly ocean blue instead,” Malcolm says and I just laugh at him.
“Sparkly unicorn turquoise?” I say back to him.
“Hey, I have no idea the ridiculous names you guys give to your nail polish colours.” Malcolm says, “What do you think she’s saying?”
I put on my best imitation voice of Lisa, “So, James, I hear you’re a shoo-in for the captain of the soccer team, I can’t wait to watch your first game, you’ll be so great out there!” and Malcolm just bursts out laughing.
“Scary accurate,” Malcolm says when he recovers from laughing.
“I aim to please,” I say back. “Now what do you think James is thinking now?”
“Oh, please,” Malcolm says, “Look at the concentration on his face,” Malcolm points out to me, “His eyebrows are all furrowed, so he’s thinking hard. He’s thinking how he can make throwing one of the burning logs off the fire towards Lisa look like an accident.”
And Malcolm and I both start laughing at the mental image, but James must hear us because he looks right at us laughing.
“What are you two laughing at?” James yells at us.
“Nothing!” I call back to him.
“Oh yeah?” James says, placing one more log on the fire before running up to me and Malcolm, leaving Lisa on her own, which I can immediately tell she doesn’t like. James comes up to me and lifts me, easily throwing me over his shoulder.
“Hey!” I yell at him.
“Ready for a dip?” James says as he starts carrying me down to the dock on the lake.
“Don’t you dare,” I say seriously to him, a little nervous because I am at his mercy right now. He carries me so easily as if I weigh nothing at all.
“Want to tell me what you were laughing at now?” James says, as we stand and the edge of the dock.
“I swear we were just laughing at your concentration face,” I say and then James pulls me back towards him, holding me in his arms now, with one arm under my knees and the other under my shoulders.
“Promise?” he says to me.
“Your pink apron outfit is safe with me, Bartholomew,” I whisper to him.
“I thought I told you that name was restricted to inside my car,” James whispers back and then he starts to throw me in the lake.
“No, James, no!” I shriek so loud that everyone can hear and then I feel myself leave James’ arms as he tosses me in the air. But within a split second, he catches me again. I put my hand to my beating heart, trying to get it to calm down.
“You didn’t think I’d actually throw you in, did you?” James says with a big smile on his face.
“No, I just like screaming at the top of my lungs for fun,” I say, breathing deeply, still trying to get my heart to slow down and then slap him on the chest.
“Hey!” James says, “What was that for?”
“For almost giving me a heart attack,” I say.
“You sure you don’t need to cool off?” James says, dipping me again as if he’s going to throw me in the water.
“No, please don’t!” I say quickly and grab onto his arms and bury my face into his chest. James just laughs and I can feel his chest move against my face. Despite the near heart attack James gave me, I feel safe with him.
“Okay, I’ll stop,” James says, and just holds me normally and starts to turn away from the lake and walk back up to the deck. I loosen my grip on his arms and take my face away from his chest. “You can continue to hold onto me like that, I don’t mind.”
“Hilarious, James,” I say sarcastically.
“You can always trust me, Arya.” James says to me seriously, “You will always be safe with me.”
I look up at James, into his eyes that are looking down on me, and see the sincerity behind his words. “I know,” is all I say back, and that’s enough for him.
As we approach the fire where everyone else but Richard is gathered around, James sets me back down on the ground.
“I thought I was going to have to force James to jump in and fish you out,” Samson says, with an arm around Bobbi’s waist.
“You wouldn’t have done it yourself?” Bobbi asks.
“I’m not jumping in that water, it’s way too cold this time of year,” Samson says.
“Arya’s athletic,” James says, “she would have been able to swim out.”
“As long as she didn’t die from the cold first,” Samson says.
“Okay, enough,” Richard says, walking out the back door holding two giant bags of marshmallows. He tosses a bag James who quickly catches it. “Time to roast some marshmallows!”
“I brought graham crackers and chocolate!” Lisa says and rushes back to the house to go grab it. Anyone who brings chocolate and graham crackers for a bonfire can’t be that bad, right?
There are four giant tree logs around the fire pit for sitting. Samson and Bobbi sit on one together.
“Where are the sticks?” Richard asks Samson.
“On the deck, by the barbeque,” Samson says.
“I’ll get them,” James says, tossing the marshmallow bag to Malcolm, and jogging up to the deck to grab the sticks. Richard stays standing, struggling to open up the marshmallow bag, and trying to avoid ripping open the bag and having all the contents spill out. I sit on an empty log, across from Samson and Bobbi, while Malcolm and Paulina sit on the log to my right, facing the lake. Lisa comes out with the graham crackers and chocolate, opening both boxes and placing them by the fire. She looks around at the seating and takes the last empty log, facing the house. “There are only seven sticks,” James says on his return.
“Samson and I will share,” Bobbi says, taking the stick offered to her by James.
He continues to pass a stick to everyone, saving two for him and myself in his hand, and finally passes the last one to Lisa. “You can sit next to me if you want, James.” She says in a kind voice, grabbing the stick as close to his hand as possible.