Hannah had read bits and pieces of Bryan’s book when he’d been writing it, but it wasn’t until the book had been revised, agented, revised again, and published that she’d been able to sit down and read it cover to cover. The story was good, competent but not too impressive. Not to diminish what he’d done. He’d sold work. But still, it was only good. Not great, not amazing. Decent.
What stuck with Hannah, aside from her best friend having written it, was the woman in it, Leila. The love interest to the protagonist, who Bryan admitted in his first outlines was essentially him. In the novel, Nick, the hero, is in love with Leila. The romance is played up in the typical fashion for popular fiction. They once dated. It didn’t work out. They both developed feelings later, deep into their friendship. Both waited for the other to say or do something. Neither was willing to make that first trespass. Then the plot occurs, and lessons are learned, and held hands indicate a consummation will occur after the book is closed.
The romance wasn’t particularly moving. It was sweet, cutesy, but mainstream and generic. But it hit Hannah like a gust of wind. She got goosebumps that stayed even after she was done. Because Leila was clearly her.
“You wanna meet up at Wendy’s?” Bryan asked her on the phone. He worked half days at the bank on Saturday, and the Wendy’s was right next door. Tellers had to stand through their shifts. He needed to sit and eat before they did anything else that afternoon.
“Yeah man. I may be a little late. Dr. Tanner had an emergency this morning he needed help on.” Hannah was Tanner’s most reliable assistant. He chalked it up to work ethic, but Hannah simply couldn’t stand the idea of letting the animals down. A crying teenage girl had brought her screaming dog in after calling Tanner’s emergency line. The dog had swallowed a jagged piece of bark, and by the time the vet had gotten it out, it had nearly worked its way into the hound’s lungs. Hannah wouldn’t tell Bryan this, but after the girl and her dog had left, and Dr. Tanner and locked the office, Hannah had chain smoked in her car and cried for half an hour.
She fixed her eyeliner and said: “Say…half an hour?”
Her eyes wouldn’t be so puffy and red then.
“Sure. See ya see ya.”
By the time she got there, fresh faced and feeling both relieved and silly, and annoyed at feeling silly, Bryan had already eaten. He was on his laptop, exploiting the franchise’s wifi. He looked studious and he was typing quickly. Too anyone other than Hannah he looked like a dedicated young professional. To her, he looked like a man busily organizing his iTunes playlist.
“Mr.Bestseller,” she lied as she dropped in beside him, cramming chicken nuggets whole into her mouth. His book had sold but it was of the kind that seemed to be mostly background decoration for the bookshelves.
“She teases me,” he said, looking up to God. “Her best friend accomplishes his dream, and here she is to cut it down.”
“Someone’s gotta keep ya grounded,” she shrugged. She stretched her legs out and draped them across his lap. She’d tossed her scrubs into her back seat, and without her professional attire she seemed ten years younger, all skinny jeans and facial piercings. Studs in her nose and lip and ears, glinting in the fluorescent light and noonday sun. Hair so short and so dark and so smooth it almost seemed painted on. She still scribbled the names of bands she liked on the toes of her Converses when she got bored. They were both twenty-five.
He’d loosened his tie and ruffed his hair, so he looked a little like his usual, non-bank self. “The insane amount of money Nicolas Sparks makes does that effectively enough. Still,” he rapped her shins with his fingers, “that advance was pretty sweet.”
“I liked it.”
“Well of course you did. You’re obligated to.”
“Noooo, you asshole! I mean I actually liked it. It was sweet.” Through the last of her chicken nuggets she mumbled: “You know, despite it being indulgent wish-fulfillment.”
“Oh, please. If it’d been that I would’ve had the guy fistfight terrorists on a roof somewhere.”
“Funny you had the girl like the same bands I like.”
“All of which I exposed you to.”
“Fair point. Hey!” She drew a leg back and shoved his knees with her shoe. “What are we doing tonight?”
Bryan closed his computer, leaned back, and rubbed his eyes. “Well I’m gonna crash for a couple hours. Then…I dunno. You wanna get drunk and listen to music?”
“We do that almost every night.”
“You wanna do something else?”
“No. It just occurred to me that that’s our ritual.”
“Well, rituals are important.” He stood up and slung his bag over his shoulder. He used to be so much slimmer. Used to be he’d waver from the weight of the bag. Now he was so…solid. Or was she just imagining that?
He shoved her feet with his knee. “See ya…six-ish?”
“Okey dokey, artichokey.”
When she swung by his place he answered the door with puffy eyes and the pout of someone who slept too long. He told her to grab a beer while he showered, then shuffled back down the hall. He was barefoot and tie-less but otherwise still in his work clothes.
While the shower ran Hannah plopped down at his desk and opened his laptop. She did that all the time. Bryan knew about it. He didn’t care if she found his porn and he didn’t keep any personal info on his machine. She opened the folder he kept his writing in and scrolled through thumbnails until she found a title that interested her.
The file was a series of single sentences, followed by small paragraphs of transliterate rephrasing.
If I’m asleep just come on in. I trust you not to murder me.
Then the following: She could come and go without him knowing, and despite his ignorance he’d be in bliss. Because around her there was comfort, and in that comfort he found also safety. Her friendship and his trust were fair substitutes for arms locked around one another.
The next line: If you think you can stand my company. It’s PMS ahoy time.
Followed with: There came between them moments when warning was needed. Don’t do this; keep away when I need you to. The ignorant say that love is in knowing everything about the other, but the truly in love know better. You don’t need to know everything. You just need to accept it. There are moments when love means putting up a fence, or at the very least, caution tape.
She recognized the line that had come before. She’d texted it to Bryan once.
Sister’s wedding wasn’t too bad. Only the super fucking old relatives asked me when I was growing my hair out again.
Her hair had spilled to the middle of her back, and once he’d put his hand on the oaken curls and the glossy smoothness had caught his breath. And he winced inside when she’d cut it off, but it was not for him to mourn or complain. She attended to her temple, as he attended to his. She was not here for his acceptance. That was his to choose to give. The attraction was to her being, all of it, and after a moment he found his breath catching again, because the new hair was still, of course, her.
“You feel like Chinese?” Bryan asked from behind her, and she screamed and spun in his chair.
“Jesus fucking Christ! How do you fucking move so fucking quietly?”
His wet blond hair ringed his forehead in little curling spikes. Small wet drops sprinkled the shoulders of his blue tee shirt. He’d pulled on a pair of jeans that weren’t so much slashed as they were worn. He shrugged. “My house, woman.” He grinned and tapped his fingertips together. “Your life is in my hands!”
She leaned back and swigged her beer. “Where ya thinking of ordering from?”
“I dunno. I like Stir King but they take forever to get here.” He looked up from his handful of takeout menus and noticed the screen. A small but clear look of alarm crossed his face, but to his credit it passed like a flash of heat lightning. “If I put in a carryout order would you be down to ride with?”
“Sure, so long as you’re cool with me smoking in your car.”
“I’m not, but you’re gonna do it anyway, so it’s moot.” He stepped into a pair of loafers, grabbed his keys and wallet, and pocketed his phone. Before they left he closed the word file and shut the laptop’s lid.
They gorged on sweet and sour pork and cinder block sized boxes of fried rice, then passed a bottle of Canadian Club between them and listened to scratchy GG Allin tracks.
It was winter but it was a muggy southern winter, and when the music ended they just migrated to the back deck to polish off the bottle. They collapsed into a cushioned swing and dragged an afghan across themselves.
“Man, fuck,” Bryan yawned. “Fuckin’ late twenties gotta remind me I can’t stay up this late when I hit thirty.”
“Gotta wake up, old man,” Hannah told him, swigging the whiskey. “I ain’t dragging your ass into bed.”
“Oh, but for the grace of God,” he said, taking the bottle back.
“You keep all our texts?”
He seemed confused at first, then his eyes widened and he bobbed his head as he remembered. “Yeah, yeah I do. I keep a lot of stuff people tell me. Use it in a lot of stuff I write. Old fuckin’ habit.” He took another drink.
“Gotcha.” She grinned, obnoxious and twisted drunk. “You fuckin’ creeper.”
“Well, stop textin’ and I’ll stop creepin’.” He was slurring, and blinking a lot to keep awake.
“So how much of me did you use, then?”
“In…in your book.” And now she was slurring too. “You said you use people’s texts in your stuff. How much of me is in there?”
“Uh…” He tilted his head back and thought about. “Well, book’s about 240 pages long. Leila’s in about 120 of those pages. So…yeah, 120 pages.”
It was quiet for a beat, and then Hannah slurred. “Wait, did you just say I’m Leila?”
“Huh?” He squinted as he thought, then it dawned on him what he’d said. “Oh, well, you know what I mean. Maybe, like, 80 pages of her is you. Different…you know, different hair.”
“And how much of you is in it?”
“Oh, well…all of it.” He grinned, then stretched. “Heart and soul. I gotta crash.”
He leaned forward, hanging his head in drunken exhaustion, then looked over at her. They held eye contact until she smiled, and then until he also smiled.
It’d be a trespass to cross that line. Regardless of how it’d be done, it’d always be a trespass. The trick would be in figuring out when that boundary could be broken. And neither could figure out that puzzle, even when they were sober.
So he stood up, wavering but remaining upright, and squeezed her shoulder. “Lock the doors when ya come in,” he told her, and shuffled inside.
Hannah capped the bottle and leaned back in the swing. Where Bryan had sat, the polyester cushion was warm. Tree frogs, emboldened by the mild winter, croaked all around her. After an hour, she made her way in, latching the deck doors behind herself. While they slept, beneath the same ceiling, inside different rooms, the whiskey bottle sat on its side in the swing. It stretched across the cool gap between where they’d sat.