Mud sloshed on the ground as I hopped from puddle to puddle, testing out the waterproof capacities of my new shoes. (Livin’ on the edge, I know.) There was an uncomfortable squish as I took my next step, and immediately regretted my daredevilish tendencies — along with the decision to linger a little too long in the small body of water on that last block.
Ryan, on the other hand, was still urging me to hurry the heck up for crying out loud, the phone cracking in my ear. I wondered when it started doing that — probably after I dropped it three times too many.
“I know dude, I’m sorry,” I was already out of breath — they must make these pizzas with denser dough nowadays, I could have sworn the boxes were lighter before, “I know you’re mad hungry, I heard you the last three times. Maybe if you hadn’t ordered all those extra pizza toppings, it wouldn’t have taken so long to — “
Sometimes I think I’m easily distracted. But I’m willing to bet that seeing someone you recognize sitting cross-legged in a park at 1am — in the rain, nowhere near their end of town, crying profusely — would probably distract you too.
“Mark? Are you there?”
Was she crying?
“Oh!” I almost dropped the phone I’d forgotten I was holding, along with the pizzas balancing so precariously in my other hand. “Sorry, man. You won’t believe what I just saw.”
“Honestly, unless it’s our front door because you’ve arrived with the pizzas — “
“It’s Ashley. Sitting in the rain. Sobbing.”
“Dude have a heart, it’s raining pretty hard.”
“And our pizzas are getting wet!” I could almost picture his pout. Despite his redeeming qualities, my roommate did not fare well when hungry — Snickers could hire him for commercials. “And what about the cheesy-bread? It’s gonna be so soggy.”
“Oh my God.” I wondered if he could hear my eyes roll, “Ok, hold on. I’ll be there in a few.”
I soldiered on, through the wind and rain, clutching the pizza boxes like my very own warm, mozzarella-clad baby. Passing by Ashley, I glanced in her direction — she wouldn’t see me anyways with the rain — and wondered if it was even my place to say anything. What would I do, give her a pat on the shoulder and a slice of ham and pineapple? She might be one of those people that thinks pineapple on pizza is the spawn of Satan — I knew a few of those, not pretty.
And yet somehow my feet found their way over to where she was sitting.
“Hey.” Was that me? Did I say that?
She looked up, at first confused, then clearly mortified. She was wiping her eyes furiously, trying in vain to salvage her smudged makeup.
“Mark! I — oh God this is so embarrassing — what are you doing here? Oh, that’s stupid, you live here. You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here.” She was rambling. It would have been cute, if I hadn’t been so stunned.
“Are you ok?” No, stupid. Obviously not.
“Yeah, yeah,” she dismissed the question, literally, waving her hand around. “I was grabbing food nearby… and ended up here.”
“What do you mean?”
- — -
“Now, what’s a pretty girl like you doing eating here alone?”
Her shoulders stiffened. She could feel their presence in the booth ahead of her, looming over her, eyeing her with all-but-good intentions. It was suffocating.
One of them turned to rest his arm on her table. “Would you like some company?”
“No.” She tried to sound forceful, “I’m fine.”
“Aww, c’mon.” He pleaded, mockingly. Insultingly.
His friend chimed in, voice slightly more hoarse and slurred. “Dude, these California girls — they’re not welcoming. I told you.”
She resisted the urge to protest that she wasn’t even from here, knowing that she’d probably only encourage them. All she could do was sit in silence, eating her now cold chicken fingers. They tasted awful, but she wasn’t about to leave.
“It’s so hard to find nice girls nowadays, you know?” Good lord, were they still talking? It sounded so loud. She was positive the entire restaurant must be watching by this point — but she feared that no one was.
“Hey girl, just give us a chance. It’s the least you could do, really.”
Staring intensely at the food on her plate, she tried to will herself into a daydream set anywhere but there.
“Ma’am.” Focus. Focus on the table. “Ma’am.” She looked up, as emotionless an expression as she could muster. It was the waitress — thank God. “Are these men bothering you?”
“Oh, no. It’s fine.”
“I can make them move.”
They were laughing now, still staring.
“No. I was just leaving.”
She threw some money down on the table, and rushed to the door with whatever confidence she could muster. She only flinched slightly when they whistled at her one last time as she passed by, and only stopped for a second when they grabbed her hand.
She didn’t totally remember what happened next — but it involved a rush of adrenaline, her yelling something about keeping their hands to themselves, and then slapping one of them on the face. She did recall that it was a very satisfying thwack.
- — -
I stared at her as she finished her story.
“I was so jacked up on adrenaline and anger that I just started walking as fast as I could and…” she looked around, wiping some of the lingering tears from her cheek “… ended up here I guess. I don’t know when I started crying. I don’t really know why. This whole night has been so bizarre.” She started laughing, weakly. “Wow, you must think I’m crazy. This is embarrassing. And now I can’t even stop rambling on about it.” She rubbed her temples. “Honestly, I don’t even remember if you asked me to explain all this.”
I stood there, stupidly. I found myself at a loss for words — some strange mix of sympathy, anger, and concern I felt on her behalf.
“I should go home, huh?” She was smiling now. The misty night air was dancing around them, glittering when it caught the street lamps just right.
It was almost a shame the night was wasted on such an awkward interaction.
I wanted to say something wise, something funny, something witty. Something, anything, to help cheer her up. In a moment of panicked inspiration, I thought I might offer to brew a pot of tea while they watched Friends episodes and played cards. It was perfect.
Instead, I said, “Ok.” I hesitated before adding, “Get home safe.”
She eyed me curiously, like she couldn’t quite tell what I meant. To be fair, I wasn’t sure either. “Right. Well… I’ll see you soon I hope.”
I smiled. “Yeah. Me too.” The pizzas were cold in my hands. I didn’t really care.