Alexander (short story)

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A semi-autobiographical short story about freedom, choices, and caution (or a lack thereof).

Left, right, left, left, left, right, right, left, wait!—that last one was supposed to be a right, wasn’t it? Shit! Now she’d never see that particular guy’s face again, unless she is so inclined to go to the Giant Eagle 51 miles away where he works as a cashier. Or was it a Kroger? Her index finger was moving so fast that she wasn’t reading any of the little captions below the names very closely, which resulted in the mishap that caused his picture to be wrongly sent to the virtual discard pile. One thing is for certain—his sculpted face will never show up on her cell phone screen again.

But he was so cute! Ugh. Oh well. He wasn’t unique—in fact, he was just the kind of cookie-cutter attractive that she always “likes” whenever the opportunity presents itself. That amateurish mirror selfie (bonus points for any visual of a urinal in the background!), those pale, daintily defined abs, the obligatory “me and my bros” picture; if she were to compare herself to a cat, that kind of superficially pleasing male has an effect on her senses equivalent to that of the purest catnip. She can’t help herself—contained within her biology, there must be a marker that indicates a genetic predisposition for simple men with easily digestible personalities, basically the human equivalent of white rice. She craves them and their vapid, easily obtainable affection more than double chocolate cookies made in her best friend’s kitchen or a new dress from the outlet mall.

With her mind stuck on cookies, she abandons her phone on the armrest of the couch and gravitates to the kitchen, which she declares essentially void of food. Her phone emits a familiar tone in the other room and her hunger is swiftly replaced by excitement.

Congratulations! You have one new match. She’s accustomed to this notification—if you cast a wide enough net, some fish are bound to get tangled up in it. A 100-mile discovery radius and a good bit of searching and swiping per day should damn well constitute a wide enough net, in her opinion.

But even considering her preferences, her newest suitor (according to the app) still surprises her—even with the starburst of camera flash erupted next to his face, he is stunning. She doesn’t remember choosing his face specifically from her revolving door of virtual prospects, but she figuratively pats her past self on the back for exhibiting such good taste and courage. She reviews his biography, thinking it might cue her recall: Alexander, 17. 4 miles away. Hey, I drive and have my own place so I could pick you up. I’m always down for dinner and a movie. 17 (Why did he feel the need to include his age? Despite his godly looks, she feels a flicker of motivation to remind him that it’s already right up there next to his name, but that would not be a good first message to send). I buy and sell cars, if you’re cute you can def get a good deal. Smiley face.

She rapid-fires a message to a group of her friends: I just matched with this fucking HOT guy, and hes only 4 miles away. This might be a joke. What do I do?

The replies are unanimously divided between: “Send him a message—send ‘heyy’ with two ys cuz it’s flirtatious and inviting” and “Fuck him. Immediately. Before he has the chance to change his mind.” She errs on the shy side of bravery, executing the first option exactly as advised.

“Mina, you here?” Her father’s heavy footsteps crowd the hallway above her head. “Hey kid, is your homework done?” He’s always yelling, mostly through the house but sometimes in public; it’s obnoxious and tactless and it grates on her nerves.

Yes, Dad.” She’s a senior in high school—she hasn’t done more than ten minutes of classwork outside of school in months. No use explaining that to Dad, though; he’s constantly pestering her about upcoming tests and quizzes and joking about retaining her study habits. At seventeen, she’s still his “kid.” Her mother’s petty needling isn’t much better, but at least Mom’s less loud.

She checks Facebook out of habit. Her feed is brimming with activity: videos of rainbow bagels, posts about white feminism, posts about ISIS, about unemployment, about Sanders vs. Clinton vs. Trump vs. America. Body-positive encouragement and celebrities-without-makeup fails. Celebrate one, laugh at the other. Which one is which? Kardashians. Abused pets, starving children (and the reverse). Quizzes that anyone can take and, in a matter of two minutes, diagnose themselves with depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, no doctor necessary.

A banner appears on the edge of her screen, a beacon of potential for interaction in a world that somehow feels more isolated than those tin-can-with-string days. Her memory is clogged with hours’ worth of messages exchanged on Twitter and Instagram, but God forbid anyone tries to call her or go someplace without Wi-Fi or anywhere that isn’t Snapchat-worthy. She can get a hold of her friends at any moment—why should she waste time seeing their faces in person without the warming glow of technology to hold them together?

Alexander sent you a new message

She knows she made a smart choice—the good ones don’t keep her waiting for hours. She’s met all types via this app, a vibrant microcosm of humanity contained within a selection of males ages 15 to 17, and that’s what it’s for, isn’t it, bringing people together?: there are the power-trippers, the ones who obviously get off on knowing that every swipe represents an exercise of the right to choose, to decide what their league is and who belongs in it. There are the country boys—truck, buzz cut, rifle, dead animal, cheap beer in brown bottles. Then there are the nervous ones, whose biographies manage to fit at least three self-deprecating quips into two hundred characters, whose fragile bodies shake with surprise whenever they match with anyone, and then suffer through the agony of debating whether to initiate conversation. The fact that Alexander swiped right on her declares them equals in a practically ironclad fashion.

“Hi(:”

The lack of proper spacing makes her twitch, but then she remembers his face and his body and the fact that those two things excuse his lack of regard for the right way to use the English language. She sends him a compliment as a reward for his accomplished physique (and because he bothered to reply to someone as average as her): “Just so you know, I think anyone would be crazy not to want to have dinner and a movie with you”

The message is oddly structured and clunky, and she purposefully omits the period to show him that she’s not some stuck-up superior bitch who gets bent out of shape over commas and colons and spaces. She’s a normal girl who goes with the flow, and right now the flow is “I don’t give a fuck about how dumb this might look, we’re just talking, and who cares? Not me. Lol.”

It takes him nine minutes to reply, which feels exactly like nine minutes because she counts every second and the accompanying staccato heartbeat, all five hundred and forty of them.

“Awh thank you. Same to you your beautiful(:… So I’m guessing that means that your free to hang out tonight?”

Maybe she had been perspiring before, but she doesn’t notice the sweat until the moment after she opens that message. The heartbeats accelerate their tempo. In previous instances, all of the flirting was understood to be theoretical—what would you be doing if I was there, knowing that would never actually happen—that they would only ever share typed phrases and strategically angled photographs, not bodily fluids. In the midst of thinking of possible appropriate responses, she forgot what makes Alexander different than those boys: he has his own place, his own car, and he’s only four miles away, conveying the impression that he’s available if she is. The logistics of a spur-of-the-moment visit are more difficult for her; maybe they wouldn’t be if she had a habit of leaving the house at night with no explanation, or if her parents were having a night on the town and she could just invite him over to spend a few hours and no one would be the wiser. But it’s a Thursday night, quarter after nine o’clock, and she’s already changed into lounge pants and a sweater, the perfect attire for watching white-trash television on the couch with Mom, but not so much for meeting a stranger for… what, exactly? Does he expect a hookup? Something stifled and dangerous within her reacts viscerally at the thought. She’s never thought of herself as an “easy lay,” and her profile is constructed so that nothing contained within it would reveal her inner turmoil: desire intertwined within the tough fabric of a minor inferiority complex, an impression of bravery self-sabotaged by doubt and fear. She thinks that she hides her contradictions quite well, but even through the camera flash he could see the truth only partially concealed by her posturing. He’s calling her bluff.

The phone buzzes in her palm, startling her. She hears fragments of the monologue being delivered by the person featured on the television screen: “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve battled with my weight… I’ve also loved food. In my house, food was love, and my mama wanted to make sure that we knew just how much she loved us… It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that not every family ate like ours, and by that time I already weighed three hundred and fifty pounds…”

“Minaaaaaaaa” He wanted to remind her that she has yet to respond, he’s waiting, and why should he have to wait in a context which exists for the purpose of “instant connections”?

“Do you live around here?” That seemed to her like a fairly innocuous way thing to say while she figures out how to confront his original assumption about her plans for the night.

“No I’m just here tonight, I go back to Pittsburgh in the morning”

Good. She has another thing to ask about. “Where are you from?”

“Pittsburgh, silly.” Damn, he did say that already. Fuck. Now, in addition to seeming like a tease, he must think that she’s stupid, too. At least she learned to differentiate between homophones in the fourth grade with the rest of the population. Jesus, Mina, control your attitude. This is why nobody likes you, remember?

“You did say that. Guess I was distracted, lol.” Mina’s mother chortles at a series of moving pictures cataloguing a morbidly humorous display of poverty. The five people in view must weigh a combined total of no less than two thousand pounds.

“I guess haha. Soo can I pick you up yet? You’re only four miles awayyyy” She almost allows herself to believe that his persistence is due to a genuine interest in her personality, in the body which she doesn’t reveal to anyone, but to do so would disrespect the influence of lust and pre-confirmed attraction. How many times has she thought that it’s the lack of opportunity that keeps her alone, the inability to be sure of how the other person’s feelings align with hers? How much more certain can she expect to be? Four miles, two hours, seventeen: a listing of the numerical facts detaches her from the human elements of the situation, from the fact that there is a warm body on the other side of this conversation waiting for her reply. If she only considers the numbers and the letters and the swiping motions, it all seems like just a game.

“Yeah. There’s an elementary school on the west side called Harding, on eighth street? Do you know where that is? I can be there in a few minutes.”

“I’ll find it. See you then(:”

Mina leaps from the couch and uses the handrail to get her up the stairs in record time. Her family’s dogs—two of them, both small yet loud and unruly creatures in the wake of surprises—erupt in a cacophony of noise, but that doesn’t slow her down. She takes a sharp right through the door that empties into her room and opens every drawer in her dresser, searching for a better outfit. Nothing too sexy, nothing too wrinkled—a happy medium between “slut” and “sleepwear.” Should she change out of her sports bra? That’s fairly presumptuous, but she pulls the skin-colored seamless band of fabric over her head and clasps a purple, faux-lace bra behind her back; the final layer is a brand-name jacket with the zipper that runs to her chest undone, and the necklines coordinate perfectly to create the illusion of impressive cleavage. She trades the lounge pants for a staple pair of black leggings, because boys love leggings, or so all her friends say.

“Mina? Are you alright? What’s going on?” Half of her mother’s concerned face is visible from her vantage point. Downstairs, the dogs are still barking.

“I’m fine, but… I’ve been talking to Cecelia, and her mom and dad are fighting. She says that she needs to get out of her house. She really needs me. I won’t be too late.” They’ve been best friends for more than a decade; Cecelia won’t mind if she fabricates family drama for her own benefit this once, especially if there’s a “fucking hot guy” involved. Mina can’t wait to text her when it’s all over, already imagining the chemical-like high she’ll feel as she relives every moment through chains of messages.

“Where are you going?”

“Honestly, we’ll probably just find a parking lot and sit there and talk for a while. She’s picking me up any minute.”

“Is she okay to drive?”

“Yeah, Mom. Don’t worry. I’m gonna go wait outside.”

“Okay, honey. If anything changes just come back in. Be safe. Love you.” Her mother doesn’t mention anything about the change of clothes, doesn’t wonder aloud why her daughter would waste the time dressing herself up like a casual fantasy, and why she would need to show so much of her tits, if she were only going to comfort her closest friend.

“Bye, Mom.” The words are shortened by the rush of wind sieved through a slamming door. She jogs the three blocks up to the intersection across from the elementary school, breasts bouncing, pausing at the stoplight to check for speeding traffic; she doesn’t stop again until her feet touch on the gravel of the parking lot she walked over every morning before school, every afternoon following recess. The swings are vacant, friendly bystanders. Before she can remove the phone from her waistband to check for notifications, she is greeted and nearly blinded by the headlights of a gray sedan, driven by a teenage boy. The car slows into a stationary position, though she can hear that the engine is still running, and the barrage of light becomes flashbulbs in her vision indistinguishable from the streetlamps.

She walks over in what she hopes is a confident stride and opens the passenger door, which was ajar. Once it bangs shut, almost catching her shoelace, she looks with excited suspense at the driver, who she assumes is none other than Alexander, in the flesh. He looks enough like the picture she swiped on to support this, though two-dimensional Alexander looked more clean-cut, neater, less… menacing; her brain cautiously settles on that adjective. She is disheartened by the realization that, though she takes note of these discrepancies, they don’t make him appear any less attractive; whether the goosebumps on the back of her neck are due to fear or anticipation, she can’t determine, and she thought she was better than that. Three-dimensional Alexander could benefit from a haircut and a shave and smells unmistakably, even to her, of booze. Where was he that they were serving seventeen-year-olds? Her friends might have an idea; she does not. But he is likely registering differences about her too: that her makeup is day-old rather than fresh for an occasion, that she has fat in places on her body that a camera can be placed to obscure but reality cannot. His sideways glance becomes focused and his lips form a villain’s grin—unless that’s just what boys look like when they smile. It occurs to her that she wouldn’t really know.

“Hey,” Mina says coolly, except she momentarily forgets herself and almost presents the opportunity for a handshake. Stupid, inexperienced, wildly nervous—and it shows.

“Hey, you,” he says, his bleary gaze crawling all over her sweater and leggings. “This is a nice neighborhood. It’s nice out here tonight.”

“Sure is. I like it here.” She has yet to make eye contact with the boy sitting beside her, the one whom she so enjoyed looking at, and enjoyed the thought of him looking at her with approval.

“Where do you wanna go?” he asks her, hands drumming the steering wheel. There’s a class ring on his right pointer finger, a blood-colored stone in a silver setting framed by initials of a school she wouldn’t recognize, whose hallways she’ll never see. Somewhere in Pittsburgh.

“Wherever you want to. There’s another park a few blocks from here that closed at dusk.” She feels her lips purse pitifully and hears a voice like her own, but raspier, say, “I guess you started the party without me,” before she realizes that’s the exact opposite of something she would say, or anything that she should. Christ, fuck, Mina, stop flirting because you’re nervous! Get out of the car, you don’t want him driving you anywhere—you don’t want to go anywhere with him. Get out and go, but don’t go home, at least not straight home, because he might follow you. Don’t let him touch you.

She hears a laugh from somewhere in the narrow car, but Alexander’s mouth doesn’t move.

“Man, she really thinks we’re looking to go to a fuckin’ park?”

According to the expressions of the two people in the front seats, the car should be silent.

“You should’ve brought a friend, too,” Alexander says. “All we want is to have a good time before we leave tomorrow. That’s all. You look like you could use a good time.”

Her visor is down, the dirty rectangle of a mirror exposed. All she can see is a second set of teeth.

“And we intend to enjoy ourselves,” the teeth add. “You should, too.”

For a second she thinks the lights shining down over the cement lot have turned off, but what she is seeing are the backs of her eyelids. The lashes push together like shields and swords against rising moats of saltwater from within.

“She will. Mina? Come on, let’s go have a good time.” His sharp fingertips probe the flesh of her collarbone. She winces slightly, he doesn’t mind. Don’t let him touch you.

She wants to ask him to stop, to get away from her, but why would he listen? She sent that first message, she made her call. It’s not his fault she can’t get her money and her mouth to be in the same place. Isn’t she so tired of being lonely?

As Alexander’s hand lurks underneath her bra strap, moving it aside, Mina sits rigidly in the fabric-covered seat, diverting her energy from thoughts of protest to preventing herself from thinking about how his touch feels like poison.

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