It was like clockwork; the second I remembered how much Adam and Bobby’s mom hated me, I would be roped into a block party, family party, or some other occasion that would remind me I was right. Their mom did despise my existence.
Even if the boys hadn’t begged me to go, I’d still have to; after all, our families were practically one. We’d grown up almost every second of our lives with each other—our moms were best friends, and we even spent holidays at one another’s houses. Getting out of a party like this was damned near impossible when my parents would want me to be at it, too. I could say no to them about as much as I could say no to the Beckerson boys.
The forty-five-minute drive had droned on in silence as I pouted over the idea in the backseat of Adam’s VW.
Finally, I spoke up, “How did I get roped into this again?”
Adam looked over his shoulder at me and winked, sending a tingle up my spine. “I need your support. You know how it is.”
“What does that mean?” Bobby asked, and I pushed my knee a little further into his back.
He knew what it meant.
“You’re the favorite. River makes it easier to take their bullshit digs at me. I can’t wait to hear what they say about my new job,” Adam replied, and his voice showed the venom he rarely demonstrated towards Bobby.
“There’s no favorite, man, that’s all in your head,” Bobby answered.
Adam looked over at me again, and I shrugged. The acknowledgment passed between us that there certainly was a favorite.
Adam’s family held Bobby on a pedestal for his sports achievements, which eventually led to an injury that made it so he could never play hockey again. Still, as the hockey coach at the local high school he was a legend in everyone’s eyes. From the backseat, the comparison between the two of them was almost laughable.
Bobby was in the seat in front of me, leaving me no room for my legs because he had to push the seat almost all the way back. His head was also only inches away from the ceiling of the small GLI.
Adam had a smaller frame; he looked like an average human in the car. Adam was nothing to laugh at, though; he still had muscles that would, and did, make any girl drool. It was just a difference in taste.
“At least your mom doesn’t hate you,” I said as I grimaced at the thought, sinking deeper into my seat.
“Mom doesn’t hate you!” both Adam and Bobby said in unison.
“Sure,” I said to myself. “That’s not what you said the other day Bobby—something about having a best friend as a chick messes up everything.”
“Well, she doesn’t. I was just teasing,” Bobby said, glancing over and locking his blue eyes on mine.
“Yeah, she’s just afraid you’re going to lure Bobby into your sex trap,” Adam teased.
“Shut up, man!” Bobby went to punch Adam, but I gripped his shoulder.
“I think if I wanted to lure him, I would’ve by now,” I said.
If only I knew how. I shook the thought from my head as I felt Bobby’s muscles relax underneath my touch. I patted his shoulder before I sat back in my seat.
“Here we are,” Adam said as he parked the car on the curb behind the others.
It was the block-party for the neighborhood, and I knew despite my parents move outside of the area that they would be here, too. I really had no excuse to not come—besides I really didn’t want to. I never enjoyed the anxiety of worrying about what would happen next, or what would be said next about Adam or me. We seemed to be easy targets.
Bobby jumped out of the car and headed up the road as soon as the car stopped while Adam and I lagged behind.
“I hate these things,” Adam said, his hands still white on the steering wheel as he looked straight ahead.
I leaned over and put my chin on his shoulder.
“It won’t be that bad. I’ll be here with you,” I reminded him.
Adam turned his head and kissed my cheek. “You always save the day, Riv.” His voice was soft, and it caught me off guard. I could feel the heat rushing up my neck to my face.
“I try to be superwoman,” I replied, flustered, as I leaned back and struggled to open the door.
Adam chuckled, and I heard a click as he hit a button. “Superwoman can handle my crazy family but not a child safety lock.”
I stuck my tongue out at him as he got out and then came around to help me with my door.
“It’s not my fault your doors hate me,” I said as he opened the door, and the summer air hit me full in the face.
Adam clicked the button on the remote locking the doors and slung his arm around my waist. I was suddenly glad for the warmth of the sun; it was an excuse for the flush that came over my face at his touch.
“My mom is going to have a heart attack when she sees you cut off all your hair,” he said.
“She’s going to say I look like a boy,” I answered, hanging my head, so my asymmetrical bob titled, pushing my bangs into my face.
He dropped his arm, shaking his head as he stopped in front of me and tilted my chin back up, so my hair was no longer covering my face. “You don’t look like a boy,” he said as his eyes danced over my face.
“Thanks?” I said as I told myself to keep breathing.
I am still breathing, right?
I steadied my heartbeat with a smile before adding, “We can take whatever she has to say together. She’s going to hate my hair and hate your job.”
Adam’s eyes drifted from my eyes to my lips and then to my hair before he replied, “I love your hair and my job.”
“Then there’s nothing she can say to us, is there?” I replied.
He didn’t mean anything by the comment. He was my best friend. He just was being a supportive best friend—he wasn’t flirting with me, was he?
He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “Nothing.”
God damn it! He was good at making me feel like I was the only woman in the world. This was the reason I was trapped in a never ending cycle of meaningless relationships. I didn’t really want a relationship if it wasn’t with Adam; in fact, having one had just become a defense mechanism for when Adam and I fought. Then again, basically the only time we fought was about each other’s relationships.
“Ready?” I asked Adam, and he slipped his hand into mine in response, squeezing it before he dropped it to open the gate.
“What took you so long?” Bobby yelled, coming from across the yard with two beers and a wine cooler.
“For you,” he said as he handed me the wine cooler.
Bobby scowled at Adam before giving him the other beer. “The parents are over yonder.”
“Might as well get it over with,” I muttered to Adam.
He winked at me, his hand suddenly soft on the small of my back.
“Together,” he whispered, and his breath sent my heart racing.
“There’s my girl!” Dad greeted, sweeping me into his arms as if I weighed nothing.
He planted a kiss on my forehead as he set me back on the ground. “It’s been too long!”
“Dad, it’s been three weeks,” I replied, scuffing my foot against the ground with averted eyes.
“Three weeks too long!” Mom said as she pulled me into her arms. My body tensed beneath her; no matter how hard I tried I was never truly comfortable with her. She may have been my mom, but it was hard for me to be myself around her—or any of the people here except for Adam and Bobby. I pulled away and tucked my hair behind my ears, watching as Adam’s dad greeted him with a nod.
“Son,” his dad, Alec, said.
“Dad.” Adam returned the coldness.
“Adam!” his mom squealed, yanking him into her arms.
I stifled my laugh as he crossed his eyes as if she were squeezing him to death.
“Hi Mom,” he wheezed as he pulled away and tapped his chest.
I shook my head at him, and his smile dimpled his cheeks. His mom looked between the two of us, stopping at me with a glare. When her gaze returned to Adam, I mouthed, hates me.
Adam put one hand over his mouth and cupped his elbow with his hand to hide his amusement. He shook his head, no.
I nodded, and his raised eyebrows told me to stop.
“How’s the marketing firm, River?” Adam’s dad now addressed me.
I always felt awkward calling him by his name, but he would remind me he wasn’t old enough to be a Mr. if I used the proper formality.
“It’s great, Alec. I just pulled a few more Fortune 500 companies in with my branding plan,” I explained.
“You’re too smart,” Alec said.
“For her own good,” Adam’s mom, Vickie, added under her breath.
Bobby had joined the group and shot her a look of displeasure.
She shrugged as if innocent.
“Lorie tells me you have a new job, Adam, is that right?” Dad jumped in to change the subject away from me, but only targeted the next weakest link instead.
“You got a job?” Alec’s surprise showed not only in his tone but in his sudden movement towards Adam.
“Yeah,” Adam replied, eyes averted as he rolled his sleeves up further.
“And?” Vickie pushed.
“I’m using my degree,” he answered, and he looked up at me, his eyes darkening.
“Ha!” Alec said, head jerking back. “Doing what? Teaching fairies how to sing?”
I felt my fists clench at my side as I watched Adam’s eyes moved from mine to glare at his dad. His voice was flat as he replied, “I’m teaching little kids how to play music at a private school. It pays well.”
“It better for how shameful it is,” Alec said.
This wasn’t going to end well. Adam’s face was red, and his jaw worked as he tried to come up with a response. Instead his hand went to the back of his neck and he swallowed, hurt flitting through his eyes as they met mine. My chest tightened as the pain built in the silence. I couldn’t hold my tongue.
“How is it shameful?” I asked, turning to Alec with my sweaty palms pressed against my legs. My parent’s eyes landed on me, protruding as they begged me silently to shut up. I stepped forward and looked up at Alec. “How?”
It was Alec’s turn to fidget in his discomfort. “River, now you know I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just not—”
“As manly as Bobby’s job teaching kids to do a sport that will eventually disable them, just like it did him?”
Adam was staring at me in shock, just like everyone else. I’d hit more than just Alec below the belt; I insulted Bobby too.
“What I mean is there is nothing wrong with Adam’s choice of career. He changes kid’s lives just like Bobby does.”
Bobby’s arms were crossed over his chest as he looked at me with a frown. He was thinking about what I’d said. He knew I was right.
“All I’m saying is I didn’t expect my kid to become a teacher, especially not a music teacher,” Alec said.
“What’s wrong with him being a music teacher?” Vickie finally spoke up.
“Come on darling, did you really think Adam was going to waste our money on a degree to be a teacher? He could’ve done a girly sport like, you know, soccer or something, but instead he plays the guitar,” Alec replied.
Vickie frowned but didn’t say anything more to defend Adam.
“I’m still here,” he said through clenched teeth before turning away.
“Have you ever watched him play?” I asked.
Alec’s brows pulled together as Vickie looked down at her dress and smoothed an imaginary wrinkle.
“How many hockey games have you gone to?” I pushed, my nails biting into my palms as my body tensed.
“Every single one,” Alec replied as he tilted his chin up.
I looked up at the sky, loosening my hands, so my palms faced up as I shook my head. “Think about that.”
I stormed off after Adam. It only took me a matter of minutes to find him leaning against the hood of his white car, hands on his knees.
“Hey,” I said, sitting down beside him as my pulse quieted.
“You know how often I wonder if I was born to the wrong family?” Adam asked, looking up at me.
I put my head on his shoulder. “I think you’re perfect the way you are.”
“I’ll never really be a part of my family,” he said as he hung his head.
I turned to face him, and he looked up, lips curved in a sad smile.
“Are you happy with who you are?”
Adam shrugged. “Yeah, but it doesn’t change how they view me…I’m a failure because of my career choice, and I’m a failure because of what I look like. I’ll always be in Bobby’s shadow—” he let out a painful chuckle; “literally.”
I shook my head, taking a step forward and wishing I could say something that would change the way he felt. “Stop—you’re fine the way you are.”
He raised an eyebrow as he twisted his watch around his wrist. “Who are you kidding? I have muscles because I’m not a big dude…Bobby’s freaking Chippendales, and I’m Abercrombie and Fitch!”
“If that’s what you’re into.”
Adam’s eyebrow went up again. “Really, when was the last time you dated someone like me?”
I’d drop every single one of them for a chance to date Adam. I broke up with every single one of them because of Adam.
“Come on! As if you have any trouble getting girls! I’ve seen you with a different girl every week since you were sixteen.”
His eyes went to his hands, and he picked at his cuticles. “Yeah, but not girls like—” he looked up at me and swallowed. “I don’t know.”
I couldn’t seem to breathe as his eyes locked on mine. A part of me wanted to tell him how much I loved him, and how much seeing him like this, doubting himself, hurt—but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. “Don’t let them make you feel less worthy of their family—you’re going to change kid’s lives every day.”
“With musical instruments?”
“I remember the first time I saw you teach a kid something on guitar…it was after one of your concerts at school. One of your friend’s brothers was in awe of you. You taught him how to play a few chords…It was incredible. That’s why when you told me about this job I thought it was perfect for you.”
Adam leaned back with a smile—the one that always swept me off my feet.
“It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it?”
I nodded, and he wrapped his arms around me in a tight embrace. My senses filled with his cologne—still the one from when we were kids— before he pulled away, hands slipping down to the small of my back. “You’re such an amazing girl…you know that? What would I do without you?”
I felt lightheaded as his head tilted down, forehead pressed against mine, and his warm breath washed over me.
The closeness was driving me insane, and my fingertips ached to brush across his jaw line. I clenched my fists to prevent the action before whispering back, “I’m sure you’d survive.”
“I doubt that,” he said, his voice deepening.
“Adam!” a girl called from across the street.
Adam pulled away from me, and his hand found the back of his neck.
“Oh, hi Amber,” he said.
She jumped into his arms and kissed him while I stood back in shock, my body trembling with sudden jealousy.
Who the hell was this chick?
Adam managed to peel the well-endowed blonde off of him.
“Um…River this is my friend Amber.”
Friend? I saw stars. Friend?
He coughed, his hand stuck in an awkward position in his hair.
“Right, friend. Amber. Nice,” I said as I tried to control my temper. “Great choice.”
I turned away and headed back to the party as the happiness disappeared as quickly as it had come. It was always like this; I felt something was changing, and then some bimbo would come into the picture, messing everything up—or just bringing me back to reality.
“Riv! River!” Adam called to my back.
“What’s her problem?” Amber’s high-pitched voice cut into me.
She was my problem and every other skank he dragged in at the wrong time. I was reading too much into it anyway, but this time, it did feel different—like whatever wall we’d built up around our relationship was coming down.
“Hey,” Bobby called, his body slung over the white picket fence. “Why do you look so sullen?”
I shook my head. “Look, Bobby…”
“I’ll be mad at you in the morning; right now you look like a Mack truck hit you.” Bobby’s eyes wandered to behind me, where I could hear Blondie’s laughter mixing with Adam’s deep voice—the one he used for everyone else. “Oh, right.”
Bobby’s face reddened as his nostrils flared. “On second thought—I’ll stay pissed at you right now.”
I was trapped as the tears began running down my face. Adam didn’t love me, and Bobby did. Adam hurt me, I hurt Bobby. It was a vicious cycle I couldn’t break. I didn’t want to face the party with my mascara stained across my cheeks, and I couldn’t move backwards with Adam and the giggle bitch behind me. Their voices were coming closer. I was screwed, either everyone saw my tears or Adam did.
“River, going in?” Adam asked as he and Amber came up beside me, and he opened the gate.
When he turned, his smile froze on his face.
“What did Bobby do?” he growled, his neck reddening.
“Nothing, he’s mad for what I said to him. He has a right to be. Can you find my Dad and ask him if he can take me home?” I asked.
My hands formed fists at my side as more tears slipped freely from my eyes. I couldn’t stop them now as the shock and irritation from the blowout with their parents, then Bobby and the high from Adam’s attention mixed.
“How about I just bring you home? Bobby can find a ride,” he said, and Amber huffed beside him.
“What about your date?” I asked, avoiding eye contact with her.
“Yeah, what about me?” Amber chimed in, hands on hips.
“You invited yourself, have fun.” Adam ushered her away with his hand; his eyes still locked on my now hiccupping figure.
“What the fuck Adam? Is that any way to treat me?” Amber batted away his hand.
“My best friend is upset. You want me to have a party?” Adam asked as he turned to face her. I grit my teeth—another scene because of me. I didn’t know why I came to these things when this was always what happened.
“For Heaven’s sake,” I said, pushing past him towards my parents.
“River, I can take you home!” he shouted at my back.
“Dad, drive me home?” I interrupted the conversation he and Alec were having.
Mom and Vickie glanced over at me. Vickie’s smile widened at my face.
“Yeah,” Dad answered looking down at me; “of course, dear.”
“I’ll be back in a little bit,” he told Alec before wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
It was funny how he said a little bit when I lived an hour away without traffic.
“Are you okay?” Dad whispered in my ear as I wiped my face.
“You know how these things always get,” I explained.
I saw Adam watching me out of the corner of my eye. Amber was hanging on him and kissing his neck as if nothing happened. He shrugged her away, and she pouted at him, but he ignored her, starting towards me. I shook my head stopping him, and his brows furrowed, wrinkling his forehead in a pained expression.
He knew better than to press the limits, though I doubted he understood why I was so upset.