A Reason for Being: Chapter Two

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Chapter Two

Iris.

I knew who Meredith Schoxaneur was; who in Berninski didn’t? Meredith was one of the first to befriend me in my junior year of high school when I’d moved to Berninski with my sister, our first time away from our parents. Meredith’s big smile and easy friendliness had been a boon to me in those first few months when I’d struggled through the loneliness of getting used to a new town and a new school with new faces, struggling to come to terms with myself and my identity.

In spite of this, we had not been close friends, though we had been in the same year, attended the same parties, and hung out at the same after-school spots. Once or twice, we’d cut school together or shared a cigarette at the back of the gym or in the girls’ restroom. Once, we’d bought alcohol, using the fake ID Meredith had somehow gotten her hands on. But we had not been close. For who could be close friends with Meredith?

Meredith hopped from crowd to crowd like an effervescent, slightly-ADHD butterfly, switching cliques as often as a ballerina switched toe shoes, attracting friends by the dozen, but never keeping them for long. I eventually found my own niche, gathering my assortment of kooky misfits together – Shawna, the quiet, studious girl with a surprisingly dry sense of humour; Nick, the lanky, quiet rebel who skulked at the back of classrooms and was always more interested in cars and engines than sports; Jenna, who was beautiful and rich, but too bossy for the other kids to stomach much of her; and Peter, Jenna’s long-term childhood sweetheart.

I’d lost touch with Meredith after graduation. A year later, I’d heard her uncle, her only family, had died, and I tried calling her, only to find she’d left town for good. The news had sent a pang through me. I remembered all those times I’d thought I should pick up the phone and give Meredith a call, but never had. I wish I could have been there for her, had been able to give her a hug and say, “I’m so sorry this has happened to you. Is there anything I can possibly do for you right now? Just let me know, and I’ll do whatever I can to make you feel better.” I remembered how she had been there for me in the beginning of junior year, introducing me to all her friends, helping me fit into my new school in a way that I never would have been able to if it hadn’t been for her. Me, a complete stranger to her.

I wish I had been able to let her know that she could call on me if she ever needed a friend.

And then I had seen her – had bumped into her one night in a bar in Gasoline Centre. Meredith, the same old Meredith, still partying, still manic, still hopping from crowd to crowd. Meredith, back in town in Berninski.

Sometimes, something in friendships clicked. Something clicked this time around. We got on like a house on fire, were closer than we’d ever been in high school. Soon, I was calling Meredith up more and more, was inviting her to hang out with my group of friends, first on our usual Friday nights, then on weekends and weeknights too. It was still the same crowd as it had been back in high school – Shawna, Jenna, Peter, Nick. And now Meredith, and Nick’s latest buddy, someone he’d met down at the motocross, a tall blonde boy called Jean.

Jean.

I had always been shy around people I don’t know very well. But it was ridiculous to think that after six months, I was still as uncomfortable around Jean as I’d been the first time we’d met. Maybe it was because he seemed so much more mature than the rest of us, despite only being a couple of years older. Perhaps it was the quiet confidence he radiated, that “essence of zen-ness,” as Shawna called it. Shawna had her own “essence of zen-ness” going on, and it used to intimidate the other kids at school, except with people like Meredith. Or maybe I was intimidated by Jean’s tall broad shoulders and blonde good looks. Whatever it was, I’d barely spoken more than a few words at a time to him, and had always made sure we met up in a group. Until tonight, that is.

Our usual Friday night group had been dropping steadily like flies. First, Jenna had called in a rage, something about how she’d like to kill Peter, and how neither of them would be able to come out tonight because they’d be too busy trying to kill each other. Same old, same old, I thought as I listened to Jenna rant over the phone. Peter and Jenna had at least one fight a week where plates were smashed, windows were broken, and cars were set on fire (this really happened once when Jenna torched Peter’s car in a fit of fury after seeing him with another girl. The girl turned out to be his cousin’s fiancé, and the car turned out to be all right except for a scorched bonnet). Then Shawna had arrived for about two seconds before being called away to cover a shift at the hospital (we had hardly seen Shawna since she started pre-med in PMH, Psychical and Magical Healing, and now that her hospital rotations had begun, we saw even less of her). Jean had appeared right after she’d left with the news that Nick was laid low with the stomach flu. Now I was counting on Meredith to show up as she’d promised she would, though it was always a gamble to count on Meredith showing up on time. Or showing up at all.

I glanced surreptitiously at the bar where Jean was waiting to be served and dialled Meredith’s number again. The call went straight to voicemail. “Where the hell are you, Meredith?” I muttered. “Don’t you dare flake out on me this time.”

I shoved my phone back into my bag just as Jean returned, bearing a jug of beer and two glasses. “No luck?” he inquired.

I shook my head. “Nope. But you know Meredith. She’s probably running late again. Or gatecrashing some party.”

“Rappelling down a building, armed with water balloons,” offered Jean, who was well-acquainted with Meredith’s moments of lunacy. “Hanging off the side of a train going full speed down the rails.”

“Bungee jumping drunk off the Mad Falls – again.”

He shook his head. “That girl has so much energy, I swear, if she bottled it up, she could power the entire city. Has she always been like this?”

“Yeah, pretty much since high school. Shawna’s known Meredith for even longer; they were in kindergarten together, and she said it was the same. Everyone used to think she had ADHD, her uncle was even called in once about it, but he created this big fuss and threatened to sue the school and nothing more was said about it.”

Jean slid a glass of beer over to me. “Here. Have a drink. I bet she’ll show by the time we’re halfway through this jug.”

One and a half hours later and it was clear that Meredith was a no-show for tonight. By that time, though, Jean and I had been through the jug and then some, and I wasn’t so worried about making conversation anymore. Jean, as it turned out, was surprisingly easy to talk to. (Or maybe it was the beer. The beer helped a lot). He told me about his work at a garage downtown, how he’d always loved working with cars and bikes. His parents had wanted him to go to college and get a business degree, but that idea was pretty much moot after they were killed in a car accident by a P-plater driving too fast while drinking too much. At the age of eighteen, Jean became sole guardian of himself and his little brother. He dropped out of the business degree, got himself a job working at Greg’s Garage, and started saving to send his brother – “the smart one of the family” – to college.

“Don’t you have any other family who could help out?” I asked.

“There’s my Uncle Henri. But he’s an archaeologist and away most of the time on fieldwork. There was some talk of him moving to Berninski where he could teach and look after us, but I convinced him not to. Henri loves his job, it’d kill me to take that away from him. And besides …” Jean paused, a little frown clouding his forehead. “It’s probably best if we stayed away from each other.”

“You don’t get along?” I asked, curiously but cautiously, sensing a touchy subject here.

“Na, Henri’s a great guy. Luc and I used to visit him loads on whatever site he was working on over the summer, when we were kids. He’s in Iraq right now, trying to salvage what’s left of the Sumerian digs that haven’t been blown up or looted in the war. We talk often. We’re pretty close. It’s just – well, it’s kind of complicated, I guess.”

“I understand complicated,” I said. “That’s the story of my family.”

He looked up and smiled. “Tell me about it.”

So I did. I told him how my sister and I had moved to Berninski some years back to get away from our nagging mother, and how it still rankled every time she called and asked when I was going to get a real job and marry some hotshot lawyer or doctor the way all my cousins have, and when was I ever going to stop dreaming my life away and just settle down like ordinary people. I told Jean about my one rebellious moment at eighteen when I got a tattoo on my wrist and took off my watch to display the tattoo, a red rose encircled with elegant black lettering spelling the Sanskrit word for freedom.

He stared at the tattoo for one long second. Then he said, very apologetically, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but that’s not the Sanskrit word for freedom. It actually means love.

I deflated. My shoulders sank and I swore vengeance (or at least a lawsuit) on that goddamn tattoo artist who had given me the wrong wording for my tattoo. Jean reassured me, pointing out that at least my tattoo said something nice like love, rather than cow or dickhead. He said it was a beautiful tattoo and that I am a beautiful girl, and I found myself ducking my head and feeling all warm inside.

Another two jugs of beer and we realised we were both starving. We stumbled over to the little Indian restaurant a few doors down from the Nutzmeg and ordered butter chicken and Kashmiri naan, saffron rice and rogan josh and black lentils. We ate ravenously when the food arrived, all the while expostulating about how we’re young and free and capable of achieving whatever we set our minds to. Jean confessed to having a tattoo of his own, on his back. He promised to show it to me, but not in the restaurant where he might create a scene if he took off his shirt. I agreed that it wouldn’t do to make a scene. Kumar would not like it – though I bet his daughters would. (And so would I).

Replenished with food and only slightly less drunk, we called for the bill and stumbled out into the night, waving a cheery goodbye to seventeen-year-old Sanjay who was smoking outside with a group of friends while his sisters did all the work inside. He waved back and shouted, “Tell Meredith I said hi!” (Sanjay has a major crush on Meredith). Then we stopped by the side of the road and debated over what we should do next.

We agreed that the night was young and too full of alcohol to go home just yet. It was, after all, a Friday night. It was only ten. Youths were bottling each other just down the road; a girl was vomiting into the gutter outside the club across from us. Two boys were shouting at each other a few yards away while a girl pleaded with them to calm down. A cloud of smoke drifted past our heads from Sanjay’s crew who were heatedly discussing whether the girl across the road was made less attractive by the circumstances of her having just puked her guts out.

We discussed the merits of four or five bars and their price lists. Jean suggested we head to his place where he had a fridge well-stocked with beer. I hesitated at this. An invitation to a guy’s house when you were both drunk, and with more than just a slight frisson of sexual tension alive in the late-summer air, could only lead to one thing. Was this advisable? Cripes, what if everything went pear-shaped, and we went from two words to no words and from frisson to hell awkward tension every time we met up? Would it be worth it? What if this broke up our circle of friends? (Well, they were more my friends than his anyway, so if that happened, he could butt out). Did I want to sleep with him tonight?

All this flashed through my head as I hovered unsteadily at the edge of the curb in my new suede high heels. All this filed through my alcohol-befuddled brain in exactly the one second I took to think about what I should say to Jean.

I looked up and met Jean’s blue eyes looking steadily into mine.

I said, “Yes.”

 

 

***

Go on to: Chapter Three

New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.

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