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“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!”
My coffee dribbles off the edge of the table, pooling in her lap. Her chair topples as she stands, too quickly. As she teeters backward, I thrust out a hand to help her but catch her off guard. My hand closes around her wrist as she collapses, pulling me to the floor with her.
I’m desperately scrambling to get off her, but it’s too late. We’re covered in mocha. Everyone in the café is glancing curiously over their paperbacks and laptop lids.
“Jesus f—” she’s muttering to herself, climbing to her feet, “how did you manage that?”
A veritable fountain of “Oh Gods” and “I’m sorrys” are gushing from my lips as I shower her with every napkin I can reach.
She’s silent, fuming I assume. My gaze crawls slowly upward, taking in her ratty Converse, blown-out jeans, and Angels & Airwaves tee. Her crimson curls, glowing in the late afternoon sunlight coming through the window, are cascading out of a sloppy bun, and when my eyes meet hers, I see her smiling.
“You look like a puppy expecting to be kicked,” she laughs effortlessly. She honestly laughs. I must look confused because she leans in and says, “Honey Boo Boo child, I’m not going to kick you,” as she grabs a handful of napkins and squeezes them against her sopping T-shirt. Everything about me seems to amuse her. A playful smirk constantly tugs at the corners of her mouth, and her shining moss-and-copper eyes seem ready to wink at any moment.
I must say “I’m sorry” again because she brings the back of one hand up under her chin, tilts her head to one side, and says, “Fine, if you’re that sorry you can make it up to me with a coffee date.” She winks and brings her hand down to shake mine.
I shake it as she says, “Charlie.”
“Nat,” I respond awkwardly. My eyes wander, catching the dimple under her right eye and the slight upturn of her nose as my gaze travels from her sculpted eyebrows to the freckles scattered across her cheeks like a splatter of paint.
She turns away and I think she’s leaving, but she just rights her chair and sits, gesturing for me to sit too. I do.
“My name’s Charolette. I have four older brothers. I’m nineteen years old, and I want to be a mom when I grow up.”
I freeze. I don’t know what to do.
“Go on,” Charlie prods, “If we’re gonna do this date, we gotta do it right.”
“My name’s Callie,” I begin, “I’m an only child. I’m also nineteen years old. I want to be a journalist.”
“Well, Callie, what’s the best thing that has happened to you today?”
She isn’t easy to deflect with “I’m fines” and “Okays” I’m noticing. I’m caught off guard again.
“I, uh . . . I got to watch the fog lift this morning; it was… incredible.” The words just pop out, and I’m surprised that I didn’t even try to bite them back and they’re absolutely true.
“And the worst?” she continues.
“Well, you see, I spilled my coffee all over someone and then squashed them.”
“Wow, that poor b—-. Did she survive?”
My eyes narrow a little and my eyebrows scrunch in confusion as I venture, “Yes.”
“Sounds like that wasn’t too bad then.” She shrugs.
“Not really the way I planned to start—”
“C’mon! If you don’t frame it negatively, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You got to watch the fog lift,” she begins ticking the events of my morning off on her fingers, “and meet someone new in the most beautiful city on the planet. Now you get to have an adventure you never would have otherwise.”
“We’re hardly adventuring; we’ve barely left our seats.”
A look of determination ripples across her face. “Did you drive here?”
“Wait, what?” Every time she opens her mouth, it’s like I missed something.
“Did you drive?” she repeats.
“¡Perfecto!” She stands, tugging a wallet out of her battered leather bag, and tosses a few bills onto the table.
“I don’t—” I begin, but she just grabs my wrist and drags me out the door.
“We’re going on an adventure.” She grins.
I stumble after her as she pulls me to her car. Something about the whole situation seems hilarious, and I can’t hold back a laugh. The unguarded giggle surprises me so much that I actually clap my hand to my mouth. Too late; Charlie turns to me.
I nod simply.
I see her personality reflected in each decoration of the car. Deadpool and Spiderman figures pose next to Harley Quinn and Scarlet Witch on the dash. An Imperial crest takes up half of the back window, but I can see Aperture Science and Starfleet Academy logos clustered around it.
She hops up on the hood; I join her.
“Where do you wanna go? Downtown? The beach?”
I mull it over a moment, “¿Por qué no los dos?”
“Alright then, both it is . Downtown beach here we come.” Digging through her bag, she triumphantly emerges, iPhone in hand. She hops off the hood and unlocks her door then reaches across to unlock mine. When she coaxes the engine into starting, the idle is so low it’s like a massage. I’m being tugged along in the wake of her spontaneity, swept up by a current I don’t want to resist.
“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“You know exactly what you’re doing,” Charlie shoots back. I hadn’t even realized I’d spoken aloud. Charlie plows on and tosses her phone into my hands as music issues from its tiny speakers.
I am starting to lose myself in the music when I’m startled back into the moment by Charlie’s hand shooting up into the air and loudly smacking the roof of the car.
Startled, I call out, “What was that?”
Innocently, she gestures out the window where a car passes. “There was a car with only one headlight. I claimed my point for seeing it first.” She points to the roof where her hand had made contact, and I see a slightly discolored patch in the cheap fabric that clings there.
“Oh really?” I smile at her. “Challenge accepted.”
“You’re on, but let’s raise the stakes. Each time someone claims a point, the loser must tell a secret about herself.”
I suddenly discover this competitive streak in me, buried deep somewhere under the blushes and the stutters, the “excuse mes” and the “my bads.” We fly into a fury of back and forth smacks. Every time she scores, I retaliate; secrets spill—me, then her, then me again.
“I’m addicted to Dr Pepper.”
“I put a candy wrapper up my nose and got it stuck one time.”
“I’ve never kissed someone romantically.”
Charlie’s face softens, eyes fixed ahead. Her mind is drifting, but the car stays steady. I think she must be remembering a kiss.
Wherever Charlie’s mind is coming back from, it’s still far away as she shrugs. “My family moved down here from Seattle after my mom f—ed us over; I think I still love her.” Something about the way she throws the words out makes it feel like she’s throwing them to the wolves. Buried in her tone is a swirling mix of flippancy and intention—anger and hurt.
Discomfort drives my hand up into the air, hitting the roof again.
“I panic when I’m not in total control of myself.” Neither of us can stop. We are feeding on each other’s energy, back and forth, turning the secrets dark and the mood tense. Each of us is hoping that if we speak just one more time, the subject will change and the tension will dissipate
Charlie isn’t even waiting for me to hit the roof anymore. “I don’t love myself,” Some things are better left unsaid.
“I hold on tight when others let go . . . But it hurts to never let go.” Stop!
It’s a compulsion; the words won’t be held back. “I always let go first; it’s less painful than being the last one holding on.” No more!
After that, I do stop, silently winding down my window and letting the late afternoon sun dance through my hair with the highway breeze. My vision blurs, but I tell myself it’s just the wind.
It’s ruined. The “adventure” is over.
As we hit the exit ramp, I spot a car with one headlight; even though I know the game ended ten minutes ago, I can’t stop myself from trying to redeem this moment one last time.
Charlie blinks something sparkling and wet out of her eyes, smiling as she recognizes the opportunity but scrambling for a secret. She blurts, “Oh s—. Um, I can blow bubbles out of my eyes when I’m underwater!”
We are so relieved by the shattered tension that we burst out laughing until Charlie nearly crashes the car. As it rumbles slowly through the congested streets, seeking a parking spot, I flip through Charlie’s playlist, selecting “My Best Friend” by Hello Saferide. My head starts to sway back and forth with the tapping of Charlie’s hands on the steering wheel.
“And we talk about friends
Talk about life
And we’ll talk about death
And we dance in the living room
Dance on the sidewalks, dance in the movies
Dance at the festivals, dance, dance
No men ever really dance like this,” Charlie’s mellow, quavering voice fills the car. I listen contentedly as she downshifts, flicks her blinkers, and slips into an empty spot just as someone pulls out.
She parks it and we clamber out, starting down toward the ocean. I grab Charlie’s hand and let a wave of people sweep us toward the waterfront. As the skies dim and the lights of the city blaze above us, I forge ahead. The city is throbbing like a living thing and its life flows into me, propelling me forward. My eyes wander through the stars blinking on in the night sky above us; I feel like a tourist in my own city.
Charlie stops walking and I turn, under the lights of a hundred marquis and restaurant signs, to see her staring at me.
“What now?” I ask.
She stares a little longer before saying, “You’re different when you’re here—more open . . . lighter somehow.”
“The city just caught me off guard,” I say.
“It’s better that way. Off guard—unexpected. It’s harder to take things for granted when you’re not prepared for them.” Her eyes pierce mine, and I’m astounded by her.
Spurred on by that truth and in the spirit of Charlie’s boundless spontaneity, I let every drop of control drain out of my body. It’s terrifying to feel so much freedom, like it could be too much and I might lose everything—might float away into space.
My hands move independently of the rest of me, and I watch as they reach out and brush some hair from Charlie’s face. My eyes don’t leave hers as one of my outstretched hands reaches further, cupping the back of her neck as I lean in. My face is hovering an inch from hers when she eases forward and her lips brush mine. I press forward, kissing harder, almost frantically in fear of the moment ending and Charlie pulling away.
She doesn’t. Not until we both step back, her hand untangling from my hair. My eyes open to see hers again. In that moment she brings her hand up under her chin and winks.
I wink back and kiss her again before breaking free and grabbing her hand in a twist of starlight and swirling hair. Then I pull her toward the sand that waits just shy of the churning ocean waves.
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