I hated him. Unequivocally, absolutely, and in every way possible. He was responsible for making my teen years a living hell—if not single-handedly, then at the very least, he held the starring role. Or, in terms he would have understood, he was the quarterback, the pitcher, the forward, the…fuck it, he led the “hey, faggot, nice hair” brigade. Not that it was always about my hair. Sometimes it was my clothes. Other times it was the way I walked or the way I talked. I lived in anticipation of the day he’d come up with some way to taunt me for breathing. Ass. Hole.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when he walked in the door of my favorite restaurant, two thousand miles away from where we grew up, and had the nerve not only to recognize me, but to not pretend like he didn’t. I mean, who does that? You see some guy you grew up with who you didn’t like at the time and who you haven’t tried to keep in touch with for the dozen years since and you actually walk up and say hello? No. Absolutely not. The laws of social interaction and common decency give you a big ol’ fail for that one. Like I said: Ass. Hole.
“Rafi? Rafael Steiner, is that you?” a dick-hardeningly deep voice said from behind me.
I didn’t recognize the voice, but I put on my best smile as I turned around, hoping for a body to match the husky rasp.
“It is you! Rafi Steiner all grown up!”
I won the world record for turning a smile upside down the moment I saw him.
“Isaac Jones,” I said drolly, and then I turned back around. That was it. No “how great to see you” or “how have you been” or any other bullshit we’d both know I didn’t mean, because, honestly? Fuck him. I would have pretended I didn’t recognize him at all, but nobody would buy that.
At six feet seven inches tall, with two hundred and twenty-five pounds of pure muscle rippling under mocha-colored skin, closely shorn black hair, and a winning smile, there was no way to miss Isaac Jones. He’d been an intimidating presence as a teenager in our high school and that hadn’t changed as an adult. Plus, when a guy from your school ends up being the NBA MVP, you tend to know about it. Even if you’re not a basketball fan. Or someone who enjoyed high school.
But I was no longer a pale, scrawny, freckle-faced kid stuck in a contained space for eight hours a day with a muscle-bound jock prone to cruelty. I was a slender (which sounds better than skinny), up-and-coming (no pun intended) real estate attorney with a nice circle of friends and hard-earned self-esteem. No way was I letting Isaac (“Are you sure you’re a boy? Because you sure don’t look it.”) Jones chip away at any of that. Not again.
“That’s Isaac Jones,” my friend Gage pointed out unnecessarily. I mean, I’d just said that very thing; no need to drive the point home.
“Can you please pass the salt?” I asked, trying to change the topic. Because everybody puts salt in their coffee.
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Gage said, presumably getting a clue.
“So how’ve you been?” Isaac asked from behind me.
I ground my back teeth together and tried to determine whether ignoring the question would result in a dramatic scene that would ultimately force me to spend more time with my childhood bully.
“Good,” I answered, deciding it was easier to be polite and get through the social niceties so he would leave and then I’d never have to see him again. Not that I was actually going through all the social niceties, mind you. I mean, I said one word. I didn’t ask how he was doing. Hell, I didn’t so much as turn around to look at his face as I answered his question.
Whatever. He asked, I answered. We were done.
A chair scraped across the colored concrete floor. “Is it okay if I scootch in here? Thanks.”
Okay, not so much with the done. More with the pushing his way between me and my friends so he could sit down. Figured. There had been no avoiding him in school either. No matter how many times I changed my route or tried to find a different lunch table or skipped going to my locker, somehow I’d always end up running into Isaac Jones. The guy had thought he owned the world in high school. Apparently that quality hadn’t been tamed by his appearances on ESPN and…yeah, that’s the only sports network I can think of, but you get the idea—Isaac had always been, and clearly still was, arrogant and cocky.
And, you know what? I was done being nice. Okay, polite. Fine, I was done being semi-polite-bordering-on-rude and moving into flat-out honest in a way some might interpret as snarky.
I sighed deeply and then turned to my left to look at him. I tilted my head up because his freakish height wasn’t limited to his legs. So then, I was literally looking up to him. Fucker. Hey, at least I was looking at his face, something he never bothered doing when he was pulling my underwear up my ass in painful wedgies.
“What do you want, Isaac?” I asked through gritted teeth.
He got a strange expression on his face. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he was sad or hurt, but Isaac Jones didn’t do sad, and even when he had dislocated his shoulder on the court, he hadn’t done hurt. People had whispered for days later about how he’d just sat down on the bench while the coach popped his arm back into place and then gotten back onto the court and sunk another dozen baskets.
“Oh, uh, I just wanted to talk to you,” he almost stuttered, which was another mark in the out-of-character category. “You know. Catch up.”
“Catch up?” I asked disbelievingly. What exactly were we supposed to catch up on? All the good times we never had? All the life dreams we never shared? All the memories that paid for my therapist’s kid’s braces?
“Yeah, you know.” He swallowed hard and looked directly at me. I realized in that moment that never once in all our painful, horrible interactions had Isaac Jones looked into my eyes. Because if he had, I surely would have looked into his, and then I would have known that the chocolate was streaked with a mesmerizing gold. If I hadn’t already known he was the devil incarnate, I would have thought his eyes were beautiful and, God help me, warm. “Um, you’re a lawyer now, right? That’s really great. You were always really smart.”
With my peripheral vision, I could see my friends whispering to each other. Wonderful. So now I was stuck with the dramatic scene and the conversation. I’d say that was a lose-lose.
“You want to talk to me?” I asked incredulously. “Now?”
“Sure.” He beamed at me, a broad smile taking over his rugged face. “I’d love that.”
Was he high? I wouldn’t have thought so given his career, but there seemed to be no other explanation for this out-of-character behavior.
“It wasn’t an offer, Isaac,” I said.
“Oh.” He paused and blinked rapidly. Then he looked away from me and over to my friends, all four of whom were gaping at us. “You’re busy now. Yeah, I get that. No problem. We’ll just catch up another time.”
Excellent. One of the most awkward moments of my adult life was about to come to an end. Relief washed over me.
“How about tomorrow night?” he asked as he got up. “I can pick you up at seven.”
To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. My brain was still processing what he’d said and trying to categorize it so it made sense when he squeezed my shoulder and walked away. It wasn’t until after he was gone, his head almost hitting the top of the doorframe as he stepped outside the restaurant, that I realized I hadn’t responded to his question.
“You know Isaac Jones?” Gage said, sounding ten different kinds of excited.
“No,” I answered, which was true. I didn’t know the man, hadn’t even known the boy, not really. “We just went to school together as kids.”
“I can’t believe you never told us you were friends with a famous person!” Gage’s sometimes boyfriend shrieked.
“I am not friends with a famous person,” I insisted, realizing the past few minutes belied my assertion.
“Well, it sure seemed like you were friends. You’re having dinner with him tomorrow night,” Gage said.
“Nope.” I shook my head, finally feeling like the room had stopped spinning and I could think. “We’re not having dinner tomorrow night or any other night. We’re not friends. He was just being, uh, polite or something. He doesn’t even know where I live. Can we move on now?”
Nobody seemed particularly keen to leave the topic of Isaac Jones behind, but there wasn’t anything left to say and I had a great “are you fucking kidding me” expression, so soon enough, the odd interlude with a blast from the past was over and we moved on to discussing all the ways in which we’d do a better job living the lives of every friend who wasn’t currently at the table.
I’d moved on so well from my impromptu meeting with Isaac Jones that by the next night, I’d pretty much stopped thinking about him. It had been a weird experience, so it wasn’t completely gone from my mind. But I’d been slammed at work, which pretty much took up all my attention. Plus, the only mental space Isaac had ever occupied was no longer available because I didn’t need to worry about how he’d embarrass me in front of all the other kids. So when I ran up the stairs to my apartment after my workout, I was completely surprised to see guess who leaning against my door.
He straightened up as soon as he saw me.
“Hi!” he said.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as I bent over and propped my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. From the running, not from him. Come on, now.
“Waiting for you,” he said with a huge smile. “Don’t worry about being late. I didn’t mind waiting.”
My jaw dropped.
“Were you at the gym?” he asked. “Where do you work out? I’m thinking of moving here and I haven’t heard of a good place yet. Usually I use the gym at the arena, but it’s always nice to have someplace really close to home, so if you have a good gym, I—”
“I run,” I said, wanting to stop him from continuing the painful ramble. “I don’t know anything about gyms.”
He dragged his gaze from my face to my feet and back again. “Yeah, I can see that,” he said. “You have the right build for a runner.”
What the fuck was he talking about? I managed to gather enough brainpower and oxygen to remember that I didn’t actually care about the answer to that question. Then I put one foot in front of the other and shoved my way past his much bigger frame to get to my door. I typed my code into the lock and turned the bolt.
“What are you doing here?” I asked again, because it bore repeating.
I let the heavy door go as soon as I stepped through it. He could’ve caught it or let it slam in his face. The choice was his, though I was leaning toward the latter.
Once I was inside, I bent down to get a good stretch in my hamstrings as I untied my shoes. Isaac made a whimper-groan noise behind me, and I thought maybe the door had actually hit his face. I looked back over my shoulder, thinking the satisfaction of a bloody nose on that smug face would be worth the requisite floor mopping later, but though he looked pained and seemed to be breathing at an unusually rapid clip, there weren’t any visible injuries. Too bad. I went back to my shoes.
“Seriously, Isaac, why are you in my apartment?”
“We’re having dinner together, remember?” he asked, his deep voice sounding huskier than I recalled.
I had no idea what he was up to, but I had no interest in finding out. I stood, planted my hands on my hips, and looked him up and down. “Here’s the deal. It’s seven thirty on a Thursday. I have work tomorrow and I haven’t showered yet, so I don’t think going out to dinner is in the cards.” I walked over to the door, opened it, and then stood back, leaving room for him to pass. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“Oh.” He stayed in his spot and did that looks-like-he’s-sad expression, rapid blinking thing again, plus this time he added gnawing on his bottom lip to it. “Right. Yeah.”
My hand was still on the door. Both of his feet were still on the floor. I looked at him expectantly and sort of nudged my chin toward the door in the universal sign for “get the fuck out.” He looked at me beseechingly in the universal sign for “what the fuck is going on?”
I raised him one cocked eyebrow and fingers tapping on my thigh.
He raised me a furrowed brow and hands wiping on his crisp dark-wash jeans.
“Oh! I have a great idea,” he said as he finally started walking toward the door. It was the last part that made me sigh in relief. “I’ll just—”
The man’s legs were longer than most human bodies, so it hadn’t taken him more than three steps to cross my threshold. It took me even less time to slam my door and turn the lock. Aaaaand that was the end of that night’s episode of Postcards from the Psycho Past.
I shook my head in disbelief as I walked to my bedroom. Had Isaac Jones always been off-the-charts weird? I didn’t think so. He had been Mr. Popular in high school. Some of that was probably because he was the star forward on our varsity basketball team, starting his freshman year, and had led the school to four consecutive state championships. But sports aside, I distinctly remembered guys chatting and laughing with him and girls swooning and hanging all over him. That was when he wasn’t ridiculing me or stuffing me in my locker or seemingly following me around for the sole purpose of making my life miserable.
I peeled off my clothes and tossed them into my laundry basket. Then I remembered I’d forgotten to stretch after my run. Five minutes of naked wall push-ups and heel-to-ass stretches later, I dragged my tired body into the bathroom, turned the water on boiling-lobster hot, and then sighed happily as I stepped into the shower, let the steam surround me, and finally relaxed after a long day.