The Phantom Lover ch. 4 “Merry-Go-Round”

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4.) Merry-Go-Round

 

One year later.

Sitting on the library floor beside Marilyn, I traced my fingers over the book-spines on the shelf, pretending to organize them. Library Aid: by far my favorite elective, thanks to Mar being the only other aid for the entire two hours—and extended book rentals. Hello Twilight Saga.

Senior year brought a lot of perks. I made it into the Advanced Drama Magnet, getting to skip Intermediate. And this chick in my Honors English class asked me if I’d like to apply for a Musical Theatre teacher opening at the performing arts studio she worked for. And even though I had no musical theatre experience and no formal singing or dance lessons, I miraculously got the job. That girl literally asked me about the position the day after I’d been alone at my house pretending to teach drama to a class. That was bizarre, though really, it was probably just a “God-incidence.”

I glanced at my phone, on the gray carpet between me and Mar. Still no new text messages.

I turned to her, pulling out and pushing back in the same book. “Mar, I think something’s wrong. Juan hasn’t called me in two days and we’re supposed to have dinner tonight. You think my dad scared him off?”

She chuckled. “Though his shirtless, Big Foot belly is a little frightening, I highly doubt it.”

“What about my mom? She freaking interrogates every guy I bring over and you know how judgey she can be. You should’ve seen her staring at his sleeve-tats.”

“Don’t worry, he’ll call. He probably lost his phone or…”

My mind drifted elsewhere as Marilyn came up with a list of other compelling excuses as to why my new fling was missing in action. Why did all of these guys keep trippin’? Juan could now be my third dating-dud in two months. I was sick of this crap. My eighteenth birthday would be here before I knew it and I just wanted something steady, something certain and meaningful. I just wanted to meet the one…

Chris’s gorgeous face taunted my mind. I removed a book called the Fourth Dimension, opened it in my lap, and feigned reading. Chris Weitman. The one who got away. Though my depression had let up a few months after Landon’s birthday party fiasco, the James Franco look-alike still passed through my mind from time to time, a fleeting shadow of the past, of what should have been…

I’d seen him at the mall once afterwards and surprisingly, it didn’t hurt–even though at the time he was still with Christina. Instead, my heart only felt excitement, a rush, like it always did whenever my gaze first settled on him.

I sighed and then closed my eyes. God, am I going to see Chris again soon? Please give me a sign if I’m going to or not.

“Yes,” Marilyn said.

My eyes opened and I whipped my head in her direction. “What did you just say?”

She handed me my cell. “Your sister just texted you saying ‘yes.'”

Thoughts whirled around my anxious mind. Why in the world did my sister randomly text me ‘yes’? Oh, right! Early that morning I asked her if she planned on coming over for dinner. But she just so happened to write back now, at the specific moment I asked God if I would see Chris again soon!

Mar leaned over and scrutinized me. “What’s going on?”

“While you were coming up with excuses for why Juan’s been M.I.A., I prayed and asked God to give me a sign if I would see Chris soon, and you randomly said ‘yes’ right after!”

“Okay…but how would that happen? You haven’t seen Chris for what, six months or something?”

“I don’t know, Mar, but that was too strange of a coincidence. It had to be God. I’m going to see Chris soon, I just don’t know how or where.”

She picked up the Fourth Dimension book from my lap and slid it back onto the shelf. “Okay, Tash. Although honestly, I really think you should just move on. Chris is a loser.”

“Marilyn…” I put my phone in my hoodie pocket. “What if Chris is the one?”

She raised a freshly waxed eyebrow. “Just be careful, please. You know how he is…”

I smiled. “I will be.”

***

The dance studio swelled with the hyper chatter of my six to twelve-year-old Musical Theatre students. I looked inside my open purse at my cell, on the stool beside me. Still nothing from Juan. The jerk bailed on me last night without even calling or texting to cancel! I mean seriously, who does that? If you’re not into me, just tell me. It’s not like I told you I loved you or something. All we’d done was pop-kiss for crying out loud.

I forced my eyes on twelve-year-old Lexi, my leading actress. She stood across from the mirrored wall, a blonde, two-heads taller than her peers. “Lexi, think about what Horton’s saying. ‘There must be someone on top of that small speck of dust.’ Would you say that he was happy because of this amazing discovery?”

She brushed a loose strand behind her ear. “Yes.”

“But then what happens in the next line?”

“There’s a change of thought. Now he’s not excited he’s—”

“You’re.”

I’m worried about their lives because they’re in danger.”

I clapped. “Yes, Lexi! And there’s a build, right? You can hear it in the music.”

“Right.”

“Okay, let’s try it again.”

She repeated her lines with more passion, honing in on my direction and really nailing it.

I beamed. “That’s what I’m talking about! All right guys, it’s lunch time.”

The kids ran to their bags, piled in a heap by the door, and then stampeded out into the hallway with the small private-lesson rooms. I smiled. Ah, sweet elementary school glee, where the majority of your excitement and drama comes from your big dreams and best buds—not cowardly teenage boys. I grabbed my phone out of my purse.

New text message: Matt.

Matt? That creepy film kid who was obsessed with the Joker? Matt, as in, Landon’s friend, Matt?

Hey, Natasha. It’s Landon’s birthday today and we’re all going to South Beach to watch a movie. Wanna come?

I jumped out of my chair. I forgot it was Landon’s birthday—obviously Chris is going to be there! God was right! I dropped back down. Since Landon didn’t make it into the advanced drama magnet like I did, we hadn’t seen each other or spoke as much. But apparently, I wasn’t completely forgotten.

My phone chimed. I quickly opened it: Juan. Nice timing, A-hole.

Hi, Natasha. Listen, my ex moved back from Orlando, and I still really love her. I’m so sorry, but I’d like to stay friends.

I tossed my cell back inside my purse. If I didn’t know I would be seeing Chris tonight, Juan’s abrupt ending of our short-lived romance would’ve hurt. However, now I didn’t give a damn! It had been a while since I’d hung out with Chris, and tonight I would for sure. I didn’t know what his relational status was, but maybe this year things would finally be different with him and I…

***

This is awkward. I sipped on my coke as I sat down at Kay’s girlfriend, Jasmine’s small kitchen table. She and Landon sat across from me, and on my right sat Liliana—one of Chris’s many exes. With pin-straight, dark hair and tan skin, she looked like a short, Peruvian Pocahontas.

Landon sucked his teeth. “Chris is my brother and all, but he’s always late!”

Jasmine pulled out her phone. “I’ll text him.”

“Good luck,” Liliana said with a subtle Hispanic accent. “That boy hardly ever answers texts.”

I glanced at her. I wondered how she’d known that fun fact. Was that past knowledge from their old relationship, or did she still text him now?

A few knocks rattled against the front door. My heart rose as Jasmine stood and walked out of the kitchen. I nonchalantly fixed my hair and checked my breath when Landon and Liliana weren’t looking. At any moment, Chris might walk in and I had to be re—

Jasmine stepped into the kitchen with two boxes of pizza. “Do you guys want cheese or pepperoni?”

My chest deflated. Where was the boy?

Liliana raised her hand. “I’ll take pepperoni please.”

“Ditto,” I said as Jasmine handed Liliana a box. She smiled at me as she opened it and gave me a slice, and I smiled a real one back. On the forty-five minute bus ride over here, she shared her experience with Chris. Like what happened with Nadia, Chris did the dumping. He’d fallen off the map for some time before finally reaching out to let Liliana know he wanted to end things. I felt for her…I’d been heartbroken by the same guy. And even though at one point he clearly liked her, she didn’t seem like a rival. In fact, she was pretty cool and easy to talk to.

Landon dug in his pocket and pulled out his raggedy flip-phone. “Man, where is Chris?”

“Oh, he just texted back!” Jasmine said.

My pulse raced as she revealed the contents of the text.

“He said he’s hanging out with these girls from his school.”

“Where’s his girlfriend?” Liliana asked.

Landon chomped into his pizza, pepperoni oil oozing down the sides of his mouth. “They broke up.”

I dug my fingers more firmly into my pizza, not caring that the sauce totally seeped underneath my nails. Chris was single! Finally the mouse fled–or maybe he left her. Whatever the case, he had become available and the timing was way too coincidental. Perhaps this year really would be different. Deep down, I always felt like he had something for me; the connection I had to him was too strong. When we saw each other over six months back, he had that same amused smile, like he was genuinely pleased to see me…

This time, I wouldn’t use Landon—or anyone else for that matter—as a mediator. If things worked out with Chris, I’d make sure nothing–and no one–got in the way.

After a good ten minutes of pigging out, Jasmine trashed an empty pizza box and then carried the bag outside, leaving me alone with Landon and Liliana.

“I wonder when Chris is coming.” Liliana crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “Actually, I bet he won’t even show up. He’s such a sell-out.”

I crossed my legs, my heart beginning to sink a little. What if she was right? Time kept ticking along and we’d been at Jasmine’s for two hours already. Maybe I would see Chris soon, but just not tonight…

Jasmine screamed from the front yard. We all sprang from our chairs. Landon strode ahead of us to the front door. He flung it open.

Every muscle in my body froze. Chris laughed beside Jasmine. A tight, white tee hugged his upper body, accentuating his toned muscles, and snug, dark denims embraced the rest of him. His gaze met mine and that same amused/pleased smile graced his plump lips.

As his eyes passed between me and Liliana, an almost tangible awkwardness stuffed the air. I glimpsed at her, standing to my left. Yeah…She was sweet and all, but having the guy we both still had feelings for and pasts with, in the same room at the same time, proved to be a bit uncomfortable.

Tearing his gaze from us, Chris hugged Landon and then reached behind his back and revealed a Spiderman comic. “I know he’s your favorite.”

Landon beamed as he snatched it. “Bro, this is awesome!”

I smiled. Guess Landon isn’t mad at him anymore.

“Hey.” Chris greeted the rest of us. His eyes met mine and the end of his luscious lips curled again. God, I could just kiss them…

Jasmine back-handed Chris’s bicep. “Now we can finally watch the movie.” She strode ahead into her dark living room where a long, L-shaped couch and giant flat-screen welcomed.

Chris continued to smirk at me. I willed myself to look away. Was he really happy to see me, or was he just in a good mood? Oh God, what if he smiled because a piece of pepperoni clung to my teeth! I scrubbed my teeth with my tongue as I sat on the couch next to Jasmine. Landon plopped down on her other side. Chris eased into the space beside him, while Liliana sat on his right.

Great. She stole the best seat in the house. I narrowed my eyes at her. What if she was a rival after all? I hadn’t seen him smirking at her like he kept doing to me, but maybe I’d just missed it…

I forced my attention to the 46″ TV screen while Adam Sandler’s Click started. Okay, this isn’t going to work.

I snuck a glance at Chris. Staring ahead, his olive skin looked as soft as cream, and his thick, pink lips appeared even softer. I wondered what it would be like to kiss him…

He looked at me. I cringed. Totally caught staring, how embarrassing. But before I could make myself return to Adam Sandler’s far less attractive face, Chris did his closed-mouth, flirty smile thing at me…again. What the freak was going on? Why did he always do this, and why was he doing it more than he had before…

My cell phone rang. Mamatu.

Dammit. I lifted it to my ear. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hey, Mamashmoo, I’m outside.”

My stomach dropped. She didn’t even give me a heads up and Chris only just arrived and was clearly enjoying my presence. But I definitely couldn’t ask her if I could stay longer right in front of him. And excusing myself would be suspicious. I breathed in. “Okay, I’ll be right out.” I sighed as I shoved my phone in my pocket. “Guys, I have to go, my mom’s outside.”

“All right.” Jasmine paused the movie. “We’ll walk you out.”

Everyone stood and followed her to the door—everyone, but Chris and I.

I turned to him. Gaze still fixed on the screen, he chuckled.

Okay…now what? I laughed with him before shuffling to my feet and heading to the door. What was he doing? What signal was he trying to—a warm hand grasped my waist and gave a playful squeeze. Tingles raced up my spine and a sudden surge of boldness coursed with it.

I peered back at him. “Can I see your phone?”

He reached into his back pocket and then passed it to me. Without thinking twice, I punched in my number. Fear of rejection never stopped me before, why let it now?

My heart hammered as we reached Jasmine’s open door and traversed onto the porch. The others waited by my mom’s Accord, chatting with her as if she were a fellow teenage friend. With her blonde highlights, perfectly blow-dried hair, pretty face, and youthful personality, she often did act like a sixteen-year-old trapped in a forty-eight-year-old body.

I faced Chris. His dark-chocolate eyes seeped into mine as he sat in a rocking chair on the left. I gave his phone back and then paused before leaving. It’s now or never, Natasha. With my own amused smirk I said, “I put my number in there, in case you ever get the balls.” I strutted away, beaming until I got into the car. After saying goodbye to the others I told Mom to gun it.

As she complied, she looked at me. “Why are you cheesing?”

“Mom, eyes on the road please!”

She stared ahead. “Was that Chris?”

I beamed again. “Yes.”

“He’s cute. And he does look like a young James Franco.”

“I know, right?”

“Did something happen with him?”

“I put my number in his phone and when I gave it back I said, ‘In case you ever get the balls.'”

Mom’s eyes widened and she grinned at me. “No you didn’t!”

“Mom, road!”

“Calm down. I’ve been driving for over thirty years.” She chuckled. “You think he’s going to?”

“I don’t know. But even if he doesn’t, at least I’ll know I didn’t play any games, that I stayed true to what I felt, and did exactly what I wanted to do—although it was briefly terrifying.”

My phone beeped as we merged onto the highway. Chris.

My forehead turned cold.

“Oh my God,” Mom said, looking at me again, “that’s him isn’t it?”

“Mamatu!”

“Sorry!” She refocused on her windshield.

I squeezed my cell. Okay, Natasha, this is the moment of truth. I took a breath in and then opened the text.

Wanna go to the movies next weekend?

I re-read the text three times before turning to Mom. “I guess it worked.”

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