Before he walked in the door, Blake already sensed he was going to regret the night. It nagged at him, like a light headache that he couldn’t quite shake, a rain cloud stalking his day, or an annoying chihuahua nipping at his heels.
He branded it as his anxiety—the voice that he’d been trying to escape with small acts of bravery and stepping outside his comfort zone. Like saying “yes” to Phil when he asked Blake to come with him, despite saying “no” every other time. If he was going to be part of the swim team, he actually had to be part of the swim team. At least, that’s what Phil told him.
That and Jade—kind, fierce, funny Jade—was going to be there. Phil mentioned it in passing, but Blake took his note in a bright red pen and decided he needed to ignore the feeling. Breathe in through his nose, out through his mouth, and go.
So, he did. He threw on a clean t-shirt and jeans, drove over with Phil, followed him into the living room swarming with people talking, gyrating, flirting, and drinking, and found a spot on the wall between the bookcase and a window where he could breathe—or jump if he needed to.
Normally, Blake tended to avoid all of Christian’s ideas, which were always more like demands. It wasn’t as if he was the team captain and Blake had to listen to him—although Christian believed that everyone should. Blake would step away, try and pull Irish goodbye, or if that was impossible, feign a “sorry, my mom just texted me and needs me home,” and scurry out of the locker room as fast as possible.
But at times, Blake found himself going along with Christian’s ideas, if only to save himself embarrassment and unneeded drama. It occurred to him that this kind of laziness and complicity probably led to many dictators rising to power, but Christian was a 17 year-old boy, not a grown adult with a military budget or a brainwashed mob, so he couldn’t do too much damage. Right?
Committing to this doomed thinking, Blake left his post as a wallflower and settled onto the carpet beside Phil, as around him half the party searched for a spot on the floor or couch. Each addition felt like another body shoved into a Fisher Price toy house, and Blake’s insides constricted as if he was being pressed into one of plastic walls. To ground himself, he ran his fingers through the slight shag of the grey carpet, focusing only on the sensation of the fabric against his palms.
He had watched her take this stance dozens of times from the neighboring pool as she readied herself on the starting block, waiting for the blare of the horn to dive into the water. One time he caught her making the jump after practice had ended, not to get in the extra laps for practice, but to simply float, her dishwater blonde curls freed from her cap and extending behind her like a cape billowing in the wind.
He didn’t linger. He knew what it was like to need a moment to just be, to unspool the day and let it float out of your reach. It never quite worked for him.
“No, of course not,” Blake said, and scooted as close as he could to Phil without physically getting on his lap to make room.
“Thanks,” she said, crossing one tie dye Ked over the other.
“No problem.” He swallowed, trying not to choke on his tongue. “How—how’s it going?”
“Good,” she said. “Question: am I only the one scared of whatever game this is Christian’s made up?”
“No,” he laughed, and rubbed his hand along the back of his neck. “I’m generally scared of his ideas.”
“Hey, Jade, why don’t you come over here?” This was one of the two things that Blake found he and Christian had in common: swimming, and their crushes on Jade.
“I’m good,” she replied, and relaxed back onto her hands. She smiled over at Blake, before her mouth fell into a flat line. “If you’re afraid, you have more sense than most people then.”
“Thanks,” he said, and wondered what idea she had witnessed to elicit that reaction, and why she joined in, too, if she felt that way.
With a loud clap, Christian brought the group into order. “Okay, okay, let’s get playing,” he said, a tipsy lilt beginning to edge its way into his voice. “The game is No Filter. I’m going to spin this bottle.” Pushing onto his knees, Christian crawled into the middle of the circle and placed an empty beer bottle in the center. “And whoever it lands on has to say something brutally honest about someone in the circle.” His description was met with a mix of laughs and cringes.
Across the circle, their teammate Taylor scooted a foot out of the group, saying “I’m out,” but Christian grabbed onto his leg.
“Nope. You sat. You play. Spin,” he said, hitting Taylor in the shin with his Vans.
Taylor sighed. “Fine.” A flick of his wrist sent the bottle on its circular path, winding round and round until it slowed in front of a boy named Nick, who’s eyes shot between Taylor and the bottle warily.
“Okay, Nick.” Taylor drummed his fingers against the floor, and his gaze stayed there, too. “When you swim, sometimes you look like an elderly goldfish.”
Nick’s response was immediate: a burst of laughter and a tossed pillow in Taylor’s direction. “What the hell does an elderly goldfish even look like?”
“Really white and slow,” Taylor chuckled, and Nick lifted a middle finger in jest.
“You wish you had my winter tan, man.”
“Oh, yeah, right,” Taylor said, rolling his eyes. “You just—”
“Okay, okay, you’re done. This is weak,” Christian interrupted, before reaching for the bottle himself. “Clearly, you need an example of how this is done.”
With each pass, smiles shrank, fearing what would come if the barrel aimed at them. For once, Blake thought he was in a room with people who felt exactly as he did. Except when the bottle stopped, because their uneasiness ended, and his skyrocketed.
Christian’s lips spread into a grin, and Blake’s thoughts unified to scream one phrase: told you so.
“Blakey Blakey, there’s a lot I could say about you, but what to pick?” Christian said.
Beside Blake, he could swear he could hear Jade murmur, “son of a bitch,” but maybe it was another voice adding a new chorus in his mind. Phil pulled his legs in, his knees touching his chest, preparing his own armor in case he was caught in the crossfire.
“I think you’re a weird, fucked up person who thinks he has a chance with Jade, when the biggest chance you have is getting diagnosed with something being wrong with you mentally. Like maybe your mom drank when she was pregnant. I don’t know what it is, but I think you should get it checked,” he says, the words coming out quickly like he’s reading a teleprompter instead of conjuring them on the spot. He had this in the cannon, ready to fire.
It was quiet gasps, and whispers into ears. Jade laid her hand onto his, but Blake couldn’t make eye contact with her. With anyone but Christian for that matter, unable to tear his eyes away from the smirking boy in front of him.
“What the hell, dude?” Phil said.
“That’s the game, Philly,” Christian said nonchalantly, picking up his Solo cup and taking a sip. “I just gave you a teaching moment.”
No, Blake thought. What he gave him was a fire in stomach, a reason to turn in his swim cap and never look back. After all, Blake didn’t join the swim team to be part of the team. He joined because the water was one of the few places the tightness eased, pulled out in butterflies and backstrokes. Not for this bull.
The anxiety clenched every part of him, but rather than locking everything inside, it expelled it out.
“I’m sorry, I’m the one who has mental problems?” Blake started. “I’m not the one who had to start a game to stir up drama and make people feel like shit about themselves like a Real Housewife. That’s you. You can’t use a game for the opportunity to be an asshole, when you’re an asshole all the time. No filter, that’s just you. So maybe, you’re the one who needs to be getting tested to figure out what’s wrong with you. But we all know already: you have no freaking empathy or self-awareness.”
In seconds, Blake had his feet under him and his body off the floor, the energy propelling him up and away from what he deemed as a circle of hell.
“My turn’s over. I’m done.”
Blake rushed out of the room with no plan except to leave the house and never go to a party—or possibly school—again. Good friend that he is, Phil took off after Blake
“Hey, Blake, I’m sorry. That was messed up,” Phil said when he caught up with him on the front stoop.
“You’re telling me.” It was one thing to throw out his feelings for Jade in front of everyone. It was another to tell him his brain, the core of his being, was so aberrant, he needed help. As if he didn’t already think that.
“Yeah, I don’t really have to. But you were awesome back there. Right on all counts,” he said. “Honestly, I probably would’ve chucked the bottle at his balls, but you did well.”
“Thanks,” Blake said.
“You know, this may be the one time I’m glad my mom threatened to ground me for life if I drink. Quick getaway.”
They walked to Phil’s Honda, slid into their seats, and buckled their belts. As Phil played with the radio, looking for, as he called it, “the perfect getaway song,” a knock came at the window.
Embarrassed, Blake hesitated to roll the window down, but knew telling Phil to drive away would just make him look like an ass. And he knew he’d feel guilty about abandoning someone who had done nothing wrong on a curb, just because he was humiliated.
He rolled the window down in notches. Click. Click. Click. “Hey,” he said, looking between her and the dashboard.
“Hey, can I come with you guys?” Jade asked, shaking her arm into the sleeve of her windbreaker. Woah. Not what he thought she was going to say.
The tension in his chest released by fraction, like he had dipped a toe into the water. Pivoting in his seat, he grabbed onto the silver handle of the door and opened it with a shove. “Hop in.”