A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #052 back issue.
In high school, Emery Chow and Charlie Kowalski got into a fight over who should take Diya Rampartap to prom.
And it was glorious. Clothes were torn, grunts were grunted. Sweat dripped from their brows. Somebody lost a tooth.
Now, in more enlightened years, Diya knows it’s not entirely healthy to romanticize the prospect of two guys fighting over your affections. They’re not gorillas duking it out for alpha status and the right to boink the best-looking lady gorilla in the band. (Yeah, a group of gorillas is called a band. Like Smashmouth.)
Back then, though?
It felt pretty damn good to be the best-looking lady gorilla in the band.
Especially when her love life’s tanked ever since: she dates badly, and she dates infrequently, parading from one pathetic first date to the next. But once upon a time, she had Emery and Charlie.
Then, on a rainy evening, after a long day at an all-consuming job, Diya checks her mail and finds an invitation. High school reunion. Ten years.
Once upon a time, she had Emery and Charlie—and maybe she can have them again.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Yes, you do.”
“You bought a dress.” Diya’s personal assistant, Mateo, indicates the dress bag on the back of her office door. “I had it dry-cleaned twice. The usual.” He doesn’t sound very happy about it—but Mateo rarely sounds happy about anything, aside from announcing it’s five and he’s going home.
Teeth on her lip, Diya sinks into her desk chair. She has a million emails demanding answers and a million projects on the table, but this reunion is all she can think about. And it’s making her sweaty. “I need,” she breathes, in her best impression of a calm person, “a fresh shirt for my afternoon meeting.”
Mateo taps something into his tablet, which is his way of saying, got it. “Am I un-RSVPing you from this event? We could fit in a client dinner that night, if you’re free now.”
She wallows in pure suffering for a moment, sinking lower and lower in the chair until she slides right off it and onto the floor. Her recovery is equally ungraceful, but at least she snaps out of it. “Okay! I’m going. I’m going to the reunion.”
Mateo taps another thing into his tablet. He turns on his heel. “Let me know what you want for lunch.”
“Mateo—have you ever had men fight over you?”
Mateo pauses with his hand around the doorknob. He gets a far-off look in his eyes. “Once. In a dream.”
“It happened to me in high school.”
Mateo stares at her for a long second before he says, “You?”
“Me,” she says weakly.
“Oh.” He puts two and two together: “The reunion.”
She nods, now gnawing on the inside of her cheek.
“You have lipstick all over your teeth,” Mateo points out. She rubs it off with a finger. “Did you date one of them?”
“Yes, and the other guy… We were friends, and he came out of nowhere. It was dramatic.”
“It’s been ten years, hasn’t it? It doesn’t have to be awkward. Just laugh it off.”
“Oh, sure, of course.” Diya clears her throat and peeks at Mateo from behind her hand. “I wasn’t—I wasn’t worried about it being awkward, so much…”
They make eye contact. Maybe it’s the four years he’s been her assistant, maybe she’s just really obvious, maybe after said four years Mateo knows exactly how obvious that is—but he sees right through her.
And he gags. “You’re trying to hook up with one of them?”
“No! Not hook—I don’t hook—”
“I am not doing the Sassy Gay Shoulder to Cry On thing with you.” He throws open the office door. “Talk to that woman in accounting. The one with the laugh.”
“Shelley? I barely know her…”
“Do you know anyone?”
Well. He has a point. Diya’s social circle is modest. (No, okay—it’s nonexistent.)
At the look on her face, Mateo drags himself back into the office. For all his sulking, he’s been by her side for years, and with how much she works, she talks to him more than her oldest friends. Probably not a good thing, paying your employees to listen to your personal problems. But she bats away that annoying voice of reason.
Mateo sits opposite her desk, dead-eyed. “I want you to know that there are sexual harassment laws to stop us from having this conversation.”
Diya sits up. “So you’ll talk to me about it?”
Mateo shuts his eyes. “I want…three extra vacation days.”
Mateo raises his hand, and she shuts up.
He takes a deep breath. “I’m going to be honest with you.”
“That’s what I wa—”
“It’s not what you want. Don’t play yourself.”
Diya mouths, play myself? Is she not up on millennial lingo? Is Mateo that much younger—
“Okay, now.” Mateo leans back. “Talk about your feelings.”
Oh boy. Here we go. Diya inhales.
“I know it’s not reasonable to expect anything to happen, and I don’t, I really don’t! I just—you know, I work so much—and I don’t get many opportunities to meet men, let alone make a connection, and I just thought that—I’ve gained a few pounds since high school, but also, I got my one weird tooth fixed?—and these two guys, they know me, we grew up together! I know them, too! And it’s silly and romantic, but I don’t care, I want something silly and romantic and—and genuinely special—I want our eyes to meet across a crowded room and for the right song to be playing, and I want someone to freaking make out with me, because it has been too long, Mateo. It’s been way—too—long.”
Mateo seems…unfazed. It is possible that this isn’t the first time she’s gone on a confessional rant in his presence, though she can’t remember.
“Does it really not matter to you which guy it is?”
“No! It doesn’t! I like—liked them both.” She adds, quieter, “It’s nice to have options.”
“Unfortunately,” Mateo sighs, as though he has personal experience with this, “men—people, in fact—are not like steak and fish courses at a wedding. You don’t get options.”
Diya leans forward over her desk, and pleads. “What do I get?”
Mateo rolls his eyes. “God, fine. I’ll tell you what to do if you want this to go well. But you have to do what I say. Please take note of how often you’re instructed to ‘relax.’”
“I’m listening! I’m listening, I promise.”
Mateo nods once. “Good. Number one—”
- When you get there, talk to someone else before you talk to one of them. You don’t want to seem desperate. Even if you are, which, let’s be real, yeah.
“I said, I was in Chess Club.”
“I didn’t know we had one of those,” Diya manages.
Mister Chess Club blinks at her. His name tag says…Garrett. She only vaguely recognizes him from the background of her classes. Step one is proving…harder than expected.
“What do you do?” Garret asks.
“I’m in advertising. I work in art direction, so I design ads, visually.”
Garrett nods sagely. “I remember you were always hanging around the art room.”
He remembers me. God, why. “Yep, I was into it.”
“You were like, that Asian dude’s manic pixie dream girl. But Indian.”
“What?” She forces a smile. “Oh, well, you know—that’s a thing for, um, fictional characters. And I didn’t know they had to be white.” Garrett blinks. She has to half-shout over the music in the gym. “What about you?”
If her tastes were more easily offended, the reunion’s tacky, nineties-prom vibe would have her cringing. There’s a dance floor, a middle-aged DJ, and decor courtesy of Party City’s Cinco de Mayo collection.
Its saving grace is an open bar. Diya tosses back her first drink—of many, she guesses.
“I’m in computer engineering.”
Diya laughs. “Chess Club to computer engineering…”
Garrett doesn’t laugh. “What?”
“Oh, I just…that’s like…movie stereotypes?”
“I don’t get what you’re saying.”
Not too self-aware, this guy. Diya starts backing away. “Excuse me! I need to get another drink.”
She escapes to the bar and orders herself another gin and tonic, heavy on the gin. She’s been here for half an hour and it already feels like the longest night of her life. Neither Emery nor Charlie has appeared yet—she panicked earlier, thinking they wouldn’t show, before spotting their name tags waiting on the check-in table. An RSVP happened. There’s a chance.
The bartender slots a drink into her hand, and she sighs in relief. She doesn’t drink much outside of social functions like this, because social functions like this make it necessary.
Diya turns around and finds herself staring into the grinning, freckled face of Charlie Kowalski.
There’s no mistaking Charlie Kowalski, even after ten years. He has this glow about him, and more freckles per square inch than anyone she’s ever met. His curly, dark auburn hair—which she remembers him always pushing out of his eyes—is shorter now, so she can see his forehead, and (surprise) another smattering of freckles. He grew maybe two inches in college, but so did Diya, so he’s still only two inches taller than her.
There’s also no mistaking Charlie Kowalski because Charlie Kowalski is the only person who yells her name and sweeps her into his arms. Her G&T sloshes when he lifts her up and spins her around, and she’s yelling, too (though more out of surprise and fear that Charlie will drop her).
They spin and yell and everyone looks at them like they’re lunatics, and that might not be too far off for Charlie. When he finally lets her down, she catches her breath—he doesn’t need a second to compose himself.
“Ramps!” Ramps. No one has called her ‘Ramps’ instead of ‘Diya Rampartap’ in years. No one has called her ‘Ramps’ other than Charlie, actually. He beams at her and she feels herself…smile. “You’re here!”
- When you see him, relax. Do you hear that? Calm your shit.
“Charlie, hi. Hello.” Did that sound calm? No—Mateo didn’t say she has to sound calm, he said she has to be calm. And to talk to her therapist, but that’s not helpful right now. “How are you?”
Charlie sets her down, but he keeps his hands on her elbows. He always was a close talker—she forgot about that.
“I’m great! I’m totally great, and wow, you look awesome.” He snaps his fingers. “Ah, I know—the tooth!”
“Yep,” she laughs, a noise reminiscent of a dolphin in distress. Charlie doesn’t seem even a little bit bothered by it, he just barrels on with his friendliness. In high school, he wasn’t in with the popular crowd—too enthusiastic to be cool—but he could make people smile and laugh, so he stayed on everyone’s good side, and even in their big graduating class, people knew him.
Back then, Diya thought being his friend was a big deal, and having him like her? At first, she didn’t believe the rumor. It felt like stardom.
“How are you?” Charlie asks. “Where are you living now? Did you have to come far to get here? Jeez, you know, I’m so happy you came—I was just telling—uh, I was just saying that I really wanted you to be here! It’s been forever.” Even in a normal mood, Charlie talks faster than Diya does when she’s nervous. And shakes her by the elbows.
“I’m glad you’re here, too.” And looking very cute, very put-together. The suit he’s wearing must be tailored; the last time she saw him in formalwear, it was the emerald green tux he rented for junior prom. This navy blue, slim-cut number is…an improvement. “I live in Philly now—so not far! I, um.” She stabs at her drink with the straw, but her stomach keeps flipping so she doesn’t dare drink it.
“Philly!” Charlie’s eyes light up. “Philly is great. I love Philly. We should totally visit.”
Diya’s heart deflates like the pathetic, lonely balloon drooping over the DJ’s stand. “Absolutely… Who’s we?”
Charlie keeps smiling, but his eyes flash with—something weird, and not quite pleasant. “Oh, we…”
A girlfriend. He’s got a girlfriend. He’s dancing around it, but if he’s talking about traveling together they must be pretty serious.
Maybe her disappointment is obvious, because he slips his hand down her arm, where it lingers around her wrist. “Hey—let’s dance! Class of two thousand and six! That was an awesome year for music, right?”
- What you want isn’t going to mean anything if it doesn’t come naturally. Stop trying so hard to get back together.
Mateo’s voice is clear in her head as she lets herself be led to the dance floor.
If Charlie has somebody (and of course Charlie has somebody, look at him! Look at his face), then good for him. Diya isn’t trying that hard to get back together.
And Diya’s also hoping that Emery gets here soon.
Charlie twirls her like a top, to the point of nausea. His dance moves are just as she remembers—completely ridiculous, with wild gestures and big steps and fake limbo. She tries to keep up with moves of her own, including: wobbling her hips from side to side, shaking her fists like she’s holding maracas, and a half-improvised electric slide.
That gets her through about three songs before she grabs his arm and pants, “Can we slow down?”
“Slow dance?” Charlie shouts at her, over the music. He turns to the DJ and shouts it again, but this time as a request. The record scratches, and a new song starts: a slow jam.
Charlie faces Diya again, grinning. He has a nice smile—a bright smile—and a sweet expression. He extends his arms to her. Her chest hurts, but how do you say no to that?
For the first verse of the song, they stay quiet, Diya afraid to look anywhere beyond the top button of his shirt. She wonders if her palm feels sweaty against his, if her face is pink, if he’s noticed the bead of sweat on her temple. If he thinks she’s aged all right. The weight of his hand is solid and warm on her hip. He isn’t wearing a ring.
“I want to say…” Close like this, she can hear his chest vibrate when he speaks. She glances up; his eyes crinkle warmly at the corners. “I meant it when I said I’m glad you’re here.”
“Thank you,” she murmurs, for lack of a more appropriate response.
“When was the last time we talked, do you remember?”
She pulls a face. “The frozen aisle at Shop Rite, like…six years ago? I was visiting my parents.”
Charlie guffaws. He laughs big, and never cares who hears him. “Right. Holy shit. I’m so sorry, I wish…” He shakes his head. “We’ve missed out on a lot in each other’s lives.”
“Don’t worry,” she says, as a reflex. Receiving apologies makes her anxious. “It’s not like I called, either! We both… It happens.”
Charlie’s gaze drops between them. “Yeah. Though, there’s—there are reasons I wanted to see you tonight.” Diya’s throat tightens. “Things I need to say. To you.”
She chokes on nothing. This ramp-up… But he said we? Mateo did not prepare her for this.
Ten years, but she knows that voice. Emery Chow, arms across his chest, stares at them from the middle of the dance floor.
“Can I cut in?”
- In case of emergency, note all the fire exits, and make an escape.
Don’t faint. Don’t faint. “Emery!”
Charlie drops his hand from Diya’s waist. Surprise wipes the smile off his face.
Every inch of Emery—and that’s a lot of inches, he’s nearly six-foot-three—radiates anger. His temper, oh, Diya remembers. That was what got them in trouble last time.
(He’s still cute, though. Like John Cho, but taller and a smidge less charming, and also currently breathing fire.)
Charlie and Emery lock eyes. She remembers, that was how it started, last time—they locked eyes, and Charlie snarled.
This time, Charlie…grins. Good sign? “Hey, Em.”
Emery doesn’t return the gesture. “Are you serious?”
Diya throws herself between them. “Hi! Emery, hey!”
He seems startled by her sudden movement, like he’d forgotten her presence. “How…are you?” He sounds pained. Which is pretty typical for Emery.
“I’m well! And yourself?”
“Can’t complain. Charles,” Emery barks, talking over her head. “We need to talk.”
Charlie throws up his hands. “Come on. We’re dancing—”
But Emery grabs Charlie’s arm. Diya can’t help the terrified squeak that escapes her. What is happening.
Emery growls, “Let’s continue this outside.”
Charlie makes a big show of scoffing, but allows himself to be dragged off the dance floor without much protest. Diya stays frozen to the spot. She can feel a dozen pairs of eyes on her, on them. It’s been a boring night and people sniff out the barest whiff of drama.
Emery keeps dragging Charlie away, and they carry on an argument in hasty whispers as they go. The DJ changes the song again, probably trying to cover up the awkward lull in the gymnasium. Britney Spears. Toxic. Emery slams on the door to open it, and he disappears, Charlie in tow.
Not really. But basically.
The stares start getting to her, and her heart pounds, but it takes an impulse to make her move, finally: she rushes for the bar.
“Two vodka shots, please.”
The bartender gapes at her.
“Please. It’s an emergency. You saw that, right?”
The bartender nods slowly and reaches for the Smirnoff. Thank god.
She hacks up a lung after knocking them back, then collapses into the nearest empty seat. Every part of her is screaming, do something! They might be back in the gym, but this isn’t high school. The only teachers here are in their seventies, not in shape to break up a fight between two men in the prime of their lives. Someone could seriously get hurt—someone could seriously be getting hurt right now, as she sits here, paralyzed by panic. And if someone does get hurt, won’t that be her fault?
Diya bites the inside of her lip hard enough to draw blood. Right, this is why she decided having two guys fight over her wasn’t so fun, after all.
She sucks back the blood, rubs her teeth for lipstick, inhales deeply, and makes a beeline for the door. It’s been ten years—even if she didn’t have the guts to stop it back then, she has the guts to stop it now.
- They’ve changed as much as you have. Don’t live in the past. You’ll only miss out on the present.
Proceed to Chapter 5, page 2–>