image via Pexels

Under the Penthouse

David stepped out onto the patio and lit a cigarette.

Sleep wouldn’t be easy that night. Not with the noises coming from the penthouse. Twice he picked up his phone to call Phelan and ask him to take it down a notch, and twice he chucked the phone onto the bed. Why bother? It was Phelan’s night, anyway — he deserved to be happy with Vanessa. And David did not want to come off as cold and bitter, even though he was. Vanessa deserved the happiness she wanted and couldn’t find when they were together, too. So they could enjoy the booze, the music, and the festivities. The party would go on a lot longer than their marriage, anyway.

He shook his head. There was that bitterness again.

Thinking he had flicked his cigarette too close to the sliding door, David glanced up toward the beach. “Goddamn it,” he muttered, realizing the campfire was not only still lit but now at a generous height. That was the last time he would trust Rob to do anything. He did not need another reason for the hotel to be mad at them, so, stubbing out his cigarette, he jumped over the metal banister and went after it.

Halfway down to the beach, he saw a shadow moving on the other side of the fire. As he got closer, he recognized the shadow as belonging to one of Vanessa’s friends from the party. The girl, whose name he couldn’t remember, raised her head and frowned at him.

“Can I help you?” she asked, the politeness only a courtesy in her voice.

“Sorry,” he told her, his own voice raised over the sound of the waves crashing just yards away. “I thought my friend left the campfire going.”

“Oh — you’re one of Phelan’s friends from the party.” She relaxed a bit. “Yeah, I started it up again.”

Her name crept into mind. “It’s Holly, right?” He recognized her purple, off-the-shoulder sweater and the cascade of curly hair. “I’m David.”

She nodded. “I remember.” She paused to look him over, as if to guess his next move. “Did you just come from upstairs?”

“No, I went to my own room about an hour ago.” He shrugged. “Too much happiness, I guess.”

He didn’t know why he said that, but it made her chuckle. With a smirk, Holly replied, “You and me, both.” She patted the red cooler next to her. “Wanna join me for a few minutes? All the alcohol is at that party, but I can offer conversation.”

David smiled. “Only if that conversation is full of mutual loathing.”

“That’s the only kind.”

He approached the campfire and took a seat on the cooler.

With a shake of her hair, Holly twisted in her chair to look at him. “So how do you know Phelan?” she asked. “Wait, let me guess. In college, you both pledged Pi Sigma, and you shared a dorm.”

“High school. Pre-algebra. I asked to borrow a pencil.”

“Damn. So close.”

“And how do you know Vanessa?”

“College. We both pledged Gamma Psi. We were both on the Panhellenic Committee.”

He raised an eyebrow. “That would be interesting except that Vanessa did not belong to any sororities in college.”

Realization flooded to Holly’s face with a deep blush. “So you know Vanessa, too?”

“Met our sophomore years. Dated for five years. Lived together for two.” He grinned. “Try again.”

“You’re that David?”

“What do you mean?”

Holly hesitated for a moment. “We started dating about six months after you broke up.”

David stopped grinning. “Oh.”

“Oh.”

Both let the moment pass. When it did they both spoke at the same time:

“So how long did you — ”

“When did Phelan — ”

David shook his head. “You first.”

Holly tucked a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear. “When did Vanessa and Phelan start dating?”

“About a year ago. I introduced them, actually.”

“Yeah? How did that happen?”

“We accidentally bumped into each other at a coffee shop, of all places.” He rolled his eyes. “I invited her to sit with us and catch up. They exchanged phone numbers afterward.”

“Ouch. Did he know?”

“Yeah. But we broke up three years ago. It was ancient history.”

She nodded and thoughtfully carved a ridge into the sand with her big toe. “You were going to ask me something?”

“Eh. It was nothing.”

“How long we dated?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure.”

“Three years.”

“Ah.” He thought for a moment then sat back. “Wait, that means that — ”

“Yeah.” Holly did not look up from her feet.

“Oh, shit.” David tried not to gape, but the feeling of guilt only intensified. “That’s…that really…sucks.”

She didn’t say anything and David realized it was a shitty reaction to a shitty situation. He wished he had said something else to comfort her. But the longer he took to react, the more awkward the situation. Eventually, he gave up and looked at his own feet and wished a tide would crash in and snatch him out to sea.

“Well, it’s getting late,” he said after a moment. “I should probably head back.”

She glanced up. “Were you going to go back to the party?”

“Me? God no. I’m going to bed. I hope to be out of here before anyone wakes up.”

Holly thought for a moment. “I’m going to head to my room and pack a bowl,” she offered. “If you’d like to join me, you can.”

David looked toward the penthouse. Though the sound of the ocean smothered it, he could hear the sounds of the party from the ground and on the beach. People were still laughing, drinking, dancing, and jumping into the pool. He pictured Phelan with his arm around Vanessa, both grinning maniacally as their friends celebrated their upcoming nuptials. Pot would certainly take the edge of the rising feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Yeah, sure.” he said.

Holly rose and began kicking sand on the fire.

She led him up to the second floor, where she had a queen-bed room on the parking lot side of the building. “Beach access is free,” she explained. “Why pay an extra $50 to hear the sound of the ocean each night?”

“Some people like that,” he replied, noting the smoking sign on the door. “I know I do.”

“Really? It’s deafening to me.” She grunted as she swiped her key for a third time through the lock. “Goddamn this fucking thing…”

“Here.” He took the card from her hand and ran it through, slowly, until the LED light turned green and the lock clicked. “Works better when you don’t force it.”

She made a face and took the card back.

Compared to his, Holly’s room was immaculate. Her red suitcase sat open on the luggage stool by the window, with her clothes still tightly packed inside. A makeup bag and a curling iron sat on the desk and a single lipstick lay on its side between them. The bed was still made, though the comforter had been turned down. Holly tossed her key on the bed and sat down on the desk chair. “Have a seat,” she instructed, hands on the makeup bag. “This’ll just take a minute.”

David looked around the room. Holly had no shoes or dirty clothes lying around or if she did, she had them well hidden. The television remote sat atop the television. “How long are you staying in Pensacola?”

“Only the night,” Holly murmured, the contents of her makeup back — a glass spoon pipe, a lighter, and a baggie of weed — spilled out with a thunk. “Like you, I wanna be out of here before Vanessa knows I’m gone. I rode with some friends so I’ll have to catch a bus to the airport.”

“You can ride with me,” he offered. “I’m heading in that direction.”

She looked over her shoulder as she worked. “You live around here?”

“Destin. You?”

“Boston. By way of Jacksonville.” She raised the pipe to her lips. “I could use the ride, I suppose.”

“Of course.” He watched her cover the carb hole and light the pipe. “Are we doing this to forget, or ease the pain?”

With her breath held, Holly passed him the pipe. “It helps me sleep,” she replied, then exhaled.

David took the lighter from her. “I see.”

She watched him stumble his way through the first hit, smiling as he struggled to keep the carb hole covered and not burn his thumb. “I got another question for you,” she posed, her legs languidly stretching over the arm of her chair. “It’s ok if you don’t want to answer it.”

He coughed from more than just the burning in his lungs. “Alright. What is it?”

“Why did you and Vanessa break up?”

“It’s not a good story.”

“Give me the gist of it.”

David stretched his arm over the gap between the bed and the chair to hand her the pipe. “She wanted to get married. I didn’t it. We fought about it a lot and I told her she was asking too much from me. She said I was a coward. It was true.” Holly took the pipe from him. “I moved in with Phelan after that. She stayed in the apartment.” He leaned back on his hands. “Not as bad as discovering she has been cheating, I’d imagine.”

“Nah, it was me, too. I didn’t want to get married either. She told me she did from the beginning. I just ignored her for as long as I could.” She took another hit. “Until she found someone who didn’t. Next thing you know, I’m moving out of your old apartment and back in with my parents.”

“How did you find out about them?”

“She told me. Not in words, but it was clear. Going out without me, staying late after work. Pulling away.” She cracked her toes. “We both went through the motions when it ended. Crying, begging, screaming, but we both knew it was over. I said a lot of things I shouldn’t have said, and she left. But it’s all moot now. She’s with someone who wanted to get married and didn’t ignore her. I’m happy she’s happy.”

He stopped. “Do you mean that?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you really happy for them?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I’m happy she’s happy.” Holly raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know. I debated not coming to this stupid party. I left early and now I’m thinking about ghosting. So, probably not.” He jiggled the pipe. “This is out.”

“Would you have changed anything?” Holly asked. “Married Vanessa? Not introduced her to Phelan?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged. His eyes were starting to burn. “I used to think about it all the time after they got together. I thought, ‘If I had only married her, they wouldn’t be together. We’d be in our cute little three-bedroom-two-bath house with a picket fence and a dog and a kid on the way.’ I think I would have learned to be happy being married.” He looked up, head swimming. “What about you? Would you have married her?”

“No.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Well, then we would both be unhappy. At least this way, one of us is.”

“I thought you said you were happy if she was happy.”

She chuckled. “Who said she was the happy one?”

David rubbed his eye with his knuckle. Aside from his head, his stomach was starting to ache a bit. “I feel like shit,” he grumbled. “I think I need to go now. This is too heavy for me.”

“If you’re sure.” She picked up the pipe again. “I’m good for another few hits.”

“I’m sure.” He rose, his head light and his feet like lead. “I’ll see you in the morning, if you’re still up for that ride.”

Holly pulled her knees up to her chest and squinted at him. “Just come knocking,” she advised. “You know where to find me.”

In the morning, he woke up alone in his trashed hotel room and rain pouring in from his open patio doors. When he remembered Holly, he grudgingly got out of bed and trudged to find her room hidden among the similar-shaped and painted doors with smoking signs on the second floor. He knocked on the right one several times, calling her name to let her know he was now ready.

But she was gone.