Photo by Christopher J. Cart
"The New Me"
by Jennifer Patino
The taste of this morning's coffee mingles with the last drag off this cigarette.
Hell, it was more mingling than I did at the party last night. It was after noon on a Saturday. I didn't wake up with anyone, nor did I even wake up with a hangover. The old me would call myself pathetic. The old me would wonder what was wrong.
This new me knew better though. This new me knew exactly what was wrong. The new me would never have even gone to that party if it weren't for Miles' incessant nagging.
"You need to do something, man. Rotting alone in this apartment is not going to do anything for you."
"Fuck off." He wasn't really buying that excuse anymore. It had been five months since Alyssa walked out. Five months since I barely left the bedroom we used to share. And it had been a little over two years since I showed up at a party alone.
With what little willpower to live I had, I went to that party and honestly it was good to catch up with the few people there that I actually gave a damn about in this town. There were the occasional looks of pity from the girlfriends of a lot of my old high school chums to deal with at times. They would smile and ask how I was doing but their eyes seemed to scream out at me.
"I know what you're going through...I know you're miserable...I know these guys will never understand..." All of their voices started blending together.
Kerry's eyes freaked me out the most. I grew up with her, basically. We even went to some eighth grade dance together, I think. We were always nothing more than really close friends and when Miles moved to town at the beginning of sophomore year, the three of us were like the Three Musketeers or something. They had been dating ever since.
The difference between Alyssa and a lot of the other girls I had dated in the past was that Kerry actually liked Alyssa. One thing about Kerry that you could always count on was her brutal honesty and she never hesitated to give anyone her opinion on anything or anyone, including me and who I chose to hang out with.
Kerry's eyes were almost teary when she looked at me. She had tried calling a few times but I never answered. The only reason why Miles was able to break my barrier was because he literally busted the door to my apartment down one night. I was so drunk I could barely even care about it and I spent the next three hours crying into my best friend's tee shirt.
The old me would call that being a sissy. The new me knew that I was at my wit's end.
Kerry hugged me and said she missed me. Something seemed off though. I couldn't pinpoint it but a huge part of me didn't even want to care. I didn't particularly feel like having a heart to heart with anyone after a five month seclusion, especially not with Kerry.
The next thing I knew, a drink was in my hand and I was catching up with the guys. I was introduced to a handful of girls I had never met before and a couple of them flashed their pearlies and their mascara-laced lashes at me but I had no interest in them or what they had to say. I honestly can't even remember a single one of their names.
I ended the night early. I blamed it on work but I had stopped working Saturdays months ago. Miles didn't need to know that. As far as I was concerned, no one needed to know that.
I figured it was probably a bad idea, but I decided to take a trip downtown. It was mine and Alyssa's favorite place to hang out and hey, just because she wasn't around anymore didn't mean that I couldn't enjoy it. I could get another cup of coffee. Walk around, sit by the water, maybe get a book at that little local bookshop and read for a bit. It had been too long since I did that and I felt I deserved it. It was a nice Saturday. I had been cooped up in this apartment long enough. I silently thanked Miles for dragging me out last night as I got in my Volvo and took off.
* * *
The cup of coffee I got downtown was way better than any cup I could ever have brewed at home. I ordered another one to go and browsed some of the shops and just pretty much enjoyed the scenery. I had this intense electric buzz running through me and I knew it was more than just too much caffeine. Everything looked the same as it always did, but I was seeing it with new eyes.
Some guy was playing a guitar in the square and he wasn't half bad so I threw him a buck. It made me realize how much I missed hanging out down here and how I could see myself making a habit out of it again.
I found myself in front of the book shop so I went in, the little jingling bell signaling my arrival above me.
"Hello. How are you?" A voice not-too-enthused called out.
I looked over to see the girl standing behind the counter. She was the most beautiful girl I had seen in a long time and her half smile was going to haunt me in my dreams, I could tell already.
"Uhh....fine," I choked out.
"If you need any help, just let me know." Friendly, but still not-too-enthused. I liked that.
I browsed around a bit and finally decided on a classic Hemingway novel. I hadn't read Hemingway since high school but I remember liking his writing a lot. I cautiously made my way to the counter. For some reason, making an ass out of myself seemed to be in my near future and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible.
"Is that all?" she asked. Her name tag read "Jessica".
"Yeah, I think that'll do me," I smiled at her and she just kind of nodded. She seemed completely uninterested.
"Hemingway, eh?" she stopped and looked at the cover. "You didn't seem the type."
"What's that mean?" I asked without trying to sound too offended.
She shrugged. "He's my favorite. The only people you see buying Hemingway in here are the high schoolers who have to read it or the old guys who really know how to appreciate real literature." She paused. "You're not in high school, are you?"
I laughed. "No. Actually, I was one of those people once. But I actually enjoyed 'The Old Man and the Sea' so I'm giving him another read."
"I didn't think you were in high school. I saw you at that party last night. You left pretty early." Jessica stared at me.
Then it hit me. Out of that handful of girls I had never met before last night, there was one who was particularly quiet that I may have been attracted to had I been in the right mindset to notice her and here she stood before me ringing up a book I was purchasing by her favorite author. I didn't really believe in things like fate, but I couldn't deny how fantastical this all was.
The old me told me to turn around and run out the door. The new me wanted to put the past behind me.
"Yeah, I wasn't really feeling it, ya know?" It sounded dumb but it was all my mouth would allow me.
"I hear ya. I'm not the party type. I only went because I was dragged there." She glanced at the ground nervously.
"Me too. It's been a long time since I've been out. I actually used to come here a lot. I've never seen you before." I was rambling. Maybe I was prying too, but maybe I didn't care.
"I just started a month ago," Jessica said. "I really like it. The pay's not great, but the owners are awesome. They're this really old couple, but they love books. I can talk with them for hours about all the great writers. It really helps inspire me...with my own stuff..." her voice trailed off into a whisper.
"You write?" I asked her.
"Well, only your readers can be the judge of that." Who was this person who was using my voice to talk?
She smiled completely then and I knew that talking with her would be the highlight of my day. "Thanks."
I heard the bell jingle and turned to see an old man carrying a box walk through the door. "Whew! We got a new shipment in, Jess!"
"Hey, Mr. Samson!" Jessica came around the corner. "Let me take that box for you."
"Oh, thank you, dear. Thank you. There's a few more out in the car. You don't have to get them now. You can help your customer first." He smiled at me then nearly collapsed into the wooden chair that sat by the door.
"Oh, no, I was just leaving. It's fine. Actually," I looked at Jessica. "Would you like some help?"
"Oh, no, it's fine-" she started to say but Mr. Samson cut her off.
"Well, what a fine young gentleman! Of course he can help you, dear!" The only word I could use to describe this man would have to be jolly.
"Come on, I'm glad to help you out." I smiled at her and she just rolled her eyes and led me to the back door.
It only took us a few trips to bring them in from Mr. Samson's car. "Thank you, young man. You can pick a book from the discount shelf for helping out. It's on the house and no arguing, I insist."
"Thank you, sir," I said.
"I'll be back up to help you in a minute, Jessica. I just have to take care of the paperwork for these shipments." He shook my hand. "It was nice meeting you, son. Come back and see us, now!" Then he was off to the backroom.
"Well, you got a free book out of the deal," Jessica laughed.
"And I got to help you," I said.
"Well, thanks. I really appreciate it. Now, pick your book. I don't know if there's anything worth it over there but maybe." She went back to her post behind the counter.
It didn't take me long to pick one out. Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye' which I had also read back in high school caught my eye almost instantly. It was an old copy but I remember really enjoying that one too.
"What'd you pick?" Jessica asked curiously.
"'Catcher in the Rye'," I said.
She nodded approvingly. "Revisiting the old high school reading list, huh?" She laughed that infectious laugh.
"Hey, if it gets me back into reading, I'm up for it." I felt daring. "That way I can come down here and see you more often."
She rolled her eyes but continued to smile. "So, what's your name? I'm sorry. I can't remember it from the party."
"It's Stephen." I extended my hand and she shook it.
"Jessica...obviously..." she motioned to her nametag and laughed again. (I hoped it was out of nervousness of being in my charming presence. The new me was rather confident.) "It was really nice meeting you, Stephen."
"Yes, likewise," I said. "I'll see you again, I'm sure. Maybe next time I can read some of your stuff."
"Maybe," she drew it out like it was a pretty improbable scenario. "Enjoy the rest of your day."
"You too," I said and the bell jingled again as I left, waving goodbye.
I gave myself a mental high five and glanced in the shop window as I walked past. Yes, she was indeed watching after me. The old me told me not to take that too seriously. The new me told him to shut up.
After a quick smoke break, I decided to visit a spot that I never thought I'd ever want to visit again. There was an old bench in the park near the square that was in the middle of a clearing. Before Alyssa, it had been a spot to clear my head. With her, it was a place that we shared. Again, I could enjoy downtown with or without her and I should no matter what memories it stirred up.
I dropped Salinger off into the car and took Hemingway with me. I wanted to have some conversation material to share with Jessica the next time I saw her. I kept my head down most of the way just kind of losing myself in my thoughts and the breeze.
It wasn't until I heard the soft giggle that I looked up and realized I was close to my spot. As a matter of fact, I was only a few feet from the bench that I had shared so much of my memory with.
I realized it was obviously inhabited by a couple who were in their mid-twenties, like me. They were so wrapped up in each other that they didn't even see me. It reminded me so much of Alyssa and I that I stopped and stared. The girl's hair was golden red, just like Alyssa's. She had the same small frame and the jacket she was wearing was exactly Alyssa's taste. Even the giggle that came from her lips as the guy rubbed her hair was Alyssa's.
Suddenly, I realized that it indeed, was Alyssa and all time stood still. I wanted to kill that guy. I wanted to beat the crap out of him and tell him to stay away from my girl. Then I realized that she was no longer my girl and there was nothing I could do about it. I found myself saddened at how happy she seemed. I wondered why it couldn't be me with her. Then anger took over and I wondered why would she bring him here to our spot?
The old me was insane with jealousy. The new me felt his heart rip in two.
Countless emotions fluttered through my head but I soon found myself heading back to the main strip of downtown. I wanted to cry. Then I remembered all of the tears I had wasted on her behalf. There was no use. She wasn't going to get back with me and a trip downtown obviously was needed to show me that.
I found myself near the beach and took a seat on a bench that faced the water. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. For the first time in my life I felt like I truly knew what letting go of something felt like. Jessica's half smile popped into my head and I started to feel that no matter what life was going to go on. My apartment was absolutely disgusting and pretty soon I would have become the dirt and grime that coated it's walls and floor. It was time to clean up. Not just where I lived, but who I was. It was time to enter the land of the living again. Maybe I'd call Miles tonight.
As if on cue, my cell phone started to vibrate. It was a text message from Kerry. "Call me. I need to tell you something. It's about Alyssa...and I'm so sorry I didn't tell you sooner" it read.
I laughed to myself. I knew what the news was. I just saw it in front of me and I didn't care. The initial shock had wore off and I truly didn't care who Alyssa was dating anymore.
I dialed Kerry's cell and she picked up sounding scared. "Stephen. Ok, sorry. Please...don't be mad at me."
"Kerry," I interrupted her. "It's ok. I know."
"You know?!" she exclaimed. "But...how..."
I laughed again. We were such good friends we never answered anything directly and we were used to finishing each others' sentences. I missed that.
"It doesn't matter," I said. "I'm fine. Really."
"Are you sure...I mean-" she started.
"Yes. Trust me. The old me got really messed up by a girl who stole his heart. The old me tried to hide from the world by keeping doors up to lock everyone out. The old me just saw my ex girlfriend making out in our old make-out spot with some other dude."
"What!?" I thought Kerry was going to have a heart attack. "Are you kidding me? Oh my god!"
"No, it's all good though," I smiled the first smile I had in a long time besides the one I had smiled at Jessica earlier. "Because the new me went through all of that too. And the difference is, the new me doesn't really care."
We chatted for a bit. I can honestly say it was great talking with her and she invited me over that night to hang out with her and Miles. She had rented a new indie flick and she knew how much I loved movies. I hadn't seen anything in ages. I tossed stones into the water as we talked. One for each of my sad memories of Alyssa. One was especially big and made a louder splash than the rest. It was for the old me that I was shedding.
As I walked back to the Volvo, ready for a night of fun with my friends and a lifetime of new memories to make, I thought about the old me that I threw into the water.
The new me didn't even know him anymore.
And that was ok with me.