Before: The Barbecue (Matt)
Matt’s plan would have worked if he hadn’t thrown up.
Every day, Kate Bennett jogged past his house while he watched from his bedroom window. She kept a fixed routine, and by nine a.m., he’d hear the steady clop-clop-clop of her shoes as she did her rounds up and down the street. Sometimes, Heather from next door would join, and Kate seemed glad for the company. That’s what got him thinking.
Matt liked Kate. A lot. She was smart and pretty and liked math, so they had that in common, but every time he tried to talk to her, something got in the way. Another guy would come over. She’d be late for her part-time job. Dinner. He wasn’t blowing it, but it was close. In two months, they’d all be off to college. He needed to grab a moment alone with her where it didn’t seem forced and creepy, and he was running out of time.
Okay, so inserting himself into her jogging routine was a little creepy, but he was out of ideas, which was why he hatched this plan. In his head, he reviewed the steps.
1. Join Kate in a casual jog.
2. Impress her with jogging knowhow (e.g., did she know Shakespeare mentioned jogging in Taming of the Shrew?).
3. Compliment her running shoes.
4. Add jogging humor, like what do you get if you’re telling puns while jogging? A running joke. Ha.
5. Post jog, suggest casual get together: a movie.
Matt had considered this from every angle. Once he deconstructed a problem, it became a manageable series of steps. He suspected the same comforting logic did not apply to relationships, but he couldn’t stop his brain from doing it.
High school hadn’t provided him with a ton of dating opportunities, and he was glad to see it in his rear-view mirror. Kate was kind of like a final exam. Ask out a human girl. Maybe she’d say yes, maybe no, but at least he would have done something other than watch from the sidelines.
That morning, he ate a big breakfast, assuming he’d need the energy. He’d never jogged before and wasn’t sure how the rules worked. Filled with sausage and burps, he went outside to wait on the front lawn. He considered wearing a headband, but aside from his bangs, he kept his hair short, and anyway, his mom said his brown hair complimented his eyes. Whatever that meant.
Matt hopped up and down in place. The day seemed off, a strange combination of hot and cold that caused him to shiver, even though the breeze coming from over the tops of the trees in the forest that surrounded his house was warm. The sun hid behind a cloud-covered sky, creating slashes of purple and orange that stretched across the horizon. The air had a weight to it, a heaviness he struggled to put a name to, and carried an odor like burning electrical wires. Maybe from the construction up the street? A strange morning, regardless. Probably nerves.
His dad was already outside, screwing around with the lawnmower, poking at the interior with a screwdriver.
“Any luck?” Matt asked
“Nah.” His Dad wiped his hands on his pants. “It might be toast. Krista was right.” Krista was Matt’s mom, and she tolerated his dad’s tinkering with weary patience. There wasn’t a single item in his house that contained a motor that his dad hadn’t tried to ‘improve’ or fix. An engineer by trade, he made it his mission to understand the inner workings of just about everything electronic.
“Those lawnmowers,” Matt said absently, staring down the street to where Kate should appear.
“What’s going on, buddy?” He gestured at Matt’s running outfit, bought new that week. “Never seen you wear that stuff before.”
“Gonna go for a run,” Matt shrugged.
“A run, huh? All by yourself?”
“Sure, or you know. With whatever. Whoever.”
“I got it.” His dad smirked and continued fiddling with the engine.
Matt blushed. His dad always knew what was going through his mind. Before he could retort, he heard a door shut next door. His neighbor, Heather, limbered up on her front porch, also getting ready for a jog. Her blonde hair hung over her shoulder in a ponytail. She noticed Matt and waved before coming over, stopping on the street in front of his lawn.
“Hi, Mr. Cutler. Hey, Matty. Are you going out for a run?”
Shit. Wrong friggin girl.
“Hi.” Matt waved politely. “Yeah, I thought I’d run it up, so I’m stretching. Keeping limber.”
Heather tucked a loose hair behind her ear. “Want to run with me?”
“I don’t want to pull a hamstring.” The answer made no sense, and he knew it. But the plan wasn’t to run with Heather, what would he get out of that? Health benefits?
“If you change your mind, I’m meeting Kate at the top of the street.”
“But my hamstrings feel loose,” he interrupted. “Fluid, you know? I’m ready. We should get going. Oh, Kate is meeting us? Kate who? I love jogging, always have.”
“Easy does it, pal,” his dad muttered, keeping his head low to the lawnmower. “Steady.”
“Ha!” Matt’s nervous laughter came out stilted, and his face warmed with sloppy embarrassment. Heather arched an eyebrow and stood with her arms crossed. He trotted past her before more stupid words came out of his dumb mouth.
“I don’t remember seeing you out before, do you run?”
“Big time,” he said, already struggling for breath. “I’m all over the place with my running.”
“Sure.” She smiled and looked away like she had learned a secret. Could women read minds?
He focused on keeping pace with her, as she was unsurprisingly fast. Matt couldn’t remember how many school teams she’d joined in the short time she’d been in the neighborhood. Three? At least the cross country team.
As they neared the end of the road, Matt saw Kate waiting in front of her house. She wore tight stretch pants that stopped mid-way down her perfect calves. Like Heather, she had tied her hair back into a ponytail, but where Heather’s was the color of light sand, Kate’s was midnight black.
“I picked up a hitchhiker,” Heather said by way of greeting, pointing at him.
“Hi, Matty.” Kate smiled. “It’s nice to see you. I didn’t know you ran.”
“Big time,” he huffed between breaths. “Trying to get the old blood flowing.”
“Where’s your blood flowing to?” Kate asked, laughing.
“Oh, I’m sure I can guess where it’s going.” Heather gave Kate a sly smile and Matt felt his face flush. This conversation was three sentences deep and already Matt was drowning in the subtext. Time to bring out the big guns, point two of his plans. Random jogging facts.
“Hey, did you know jogging dates to early Roman times? The soldiers would use it to warm up for war.”
“Is running with us like being in a war?” Heather blinked at him with wide and innocent eyes.
“You’d think he’d enjoy spending time with two pretty girls,” Kate added.
“Maybe we’re not pretty enough for him. Matt, is Kate pretty, or is Kate like a Roman soldier?” Heather’s mouth twitched while she spoke, and Matt wondered if flames engulfed his head. He gaped at them like a moron. He simply could not talk to girls. He was great at science, terrible at conversation. But Heather had given him an opening for point three on his list. Jogging compliments.
“She looks great. I love her running shoes.”
Heather snorted and shook her head before exchanging another of those loaded glances with Kate.
“Your shoes are nice too, Matt,” Kate said. “They look brand new. Like you’ve never used them?”
“Of course he’s used them, Kate, do you think he’s only jogging as an excuse to talk to us? That would be crazy.”
Crap. They were on to him.
There was no way for him to do this; they were too smart. He needed to abort the mission. His entire focus shifted from casual dating to social survival. If he could escape this with only medium embarrassment, he’d call it a win.
“Don’t worry about me and jogging,” he said. “I’m like a perpetual jogging machine, even though perpetual motion is an epistemic impossibility.” He clamped his mouth shut hard enough that his teeth clacked together. Did he use the phrase ‘epistemic impossibility’ in a sentence? This thing was a train wreck.
Heather raised an eyebrow at him and came to his rescue. “Why don’t we get going? Maybe we’ll keep it slow today.”
“We do a few rounds up and down the street to warm up,” Kate said. “Then it’s down to the school and back. It’s about five miles.”
“No problem,” Matt said, his voice sounding too loud. He needed to regroup and end this horrible nightmare. A date was obviously off the table. Heather had ruined his plan by existing and being polite.
They settled into a light jog, and Matt struggled to keep pace. They lived on a crescent, a street that curved around on itself with a loop at the bottom. The girls chatted breezily, covering topics like school, songs they liked, and people they didn’t. Matt labored to breathe. At the second loop around the street, Kate stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“Do you want to take a break?”
“Why?” he gasped. “I’m getting my wind.”
Heather and Kate exchanged one of those impenetrable looks unique to eighteen-year-old girls. Kate shrugged, and they kept going.
“We’ll make two more loops and then get going on the main street,” she said.
Matt gave a hearty thumbs up and focused on not dying of a heart attack. The sausage he had for breakfast sloshed in his stomach, and he tasted bile. Why had he ever thought this was a good idea?
On the third loop, his best friend Pete was out on his driveway, washing his car with his shirt was off. Pete’s shirt was off a lot. If Matt had that kind of build, he’d skip shirts as well. He doubted one jog would get him abs. Pete did not seem to have the same issues with women that he did.
“Looking good, buddy.” Pete threw him a sarcastic grin as they jogged by, and he heard Kate giggle. That shithead.
As they rounded his house to finish their third lap, he thought he had done enough running to salvage what little remained of his chances with Kate and get out of this thing alive. He opened his mouth, planning to give them some lie about acute runner’s hip, and that’s when he threw up.