A myriad of familiar faces crisscrossed Derek as he tried to cross the party. Everyone had a phone to put in someone’s face. Everyone had something they were looking to hide behind. If you look at this, you won’t have to look at me.
Derek realized he was being judgmental. But there was nothing to be done about that. It was who he was. It encapsulated his gait, his tight clothes, and his closely trimmed hair and beard. He knew he could tell what everyone was thinking. That hadn’t atrophied in the time away. While they had been separated, everyone was an echo across technological chasms. He’d remained in contact with some of them via phones and chats. But he couldn’t get as sharp a bead on them. Not seeing them offset his natural leg-up. Without it, he felt exposed. All interaction was a contest in their group, and with his chief weapon down, Derek had taken too many L’s for his liking.
It twisted his mind, seeing Barry speaking, knowing how Barry spun his words around when they spoke via Skype. Lena had dragged him with a master’s use of logical fallacies. She could turn any yes into a no. Karen only believed things she learned firsthand from primary sources. So she could never be debated on anything but her own terms. None of them could say anything without offending the other, so they drank and sat in front of the TV playing trivia games on it.
Lewis didn’t get drunk, so he was back at the corner of the room, typing his answers without saying much. Lewis’s sobriety was his weapon. If Derek was going to score points against him, it would have to be before he got too drunk. Back when he was in middle school, Lewis sent notes to each class member asking them to go out with him. That brute, cold, capitalist numbers game continued to instruct his social interactions. Not drinking tilted the room in his favor in the contest of discussion.
Natasha was the easiest comedian and dominated any game revolving around cleverness. Even if she often had a shallow point, or no point at all, it was hard to argue while laughing.
Lena and Barry finally entered the ring first. In what began as a statement regarding the free speech of alt-right protesters, Barry found himself with bad allies, and Lena beat him into a pulp, until he had to concede that not only should they not be allowed to speak, but that the mandatory minimum for punishment should be 15 years. Natasha briefly asked if we were verging on fascism, but she said it in a funny anecdote so as not to throw all of them into despair. A true jester. Lewis watched the debate but said nothing. People weren’t drunk enough yet. Derek could tell what he was thinking. He tried to pounce on Lewis early—to score some points before it was too late—but Karen swooped in to save him, bouncing back to a comment Barry had just made without citing a primary source. When Barry couldn’t remember where he’d heard it, he was finished. Technical knockout.
After another round of games, Derek headed outside. The driveway was empty. All of the cars were parked on the street. The wet ground and overcast sky belied a rainstorm that had passed. He lit up a joint and smoked it on the stoop. The highway was near enough for the cars going by the to sound like ocean waves. Halfway down his smoke, Natasha sat down near him. He offered it to her.
“If Lewis sees this, we’re done,” she said while taking a drag.
“He’ll already come at me for earlier,” Derek said.
They smoked in silence for a moment. More waves crested.
“Do you think we should give it another try?” Derek asked.
“You’ve just been lonely.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“We all were. Now we’re here.”
“Is that any better?”
“Does it feel better?”
“Is that one of your jokes?”
“Shouldn’t you already know what I’m thinking?”
“I think my own head is too loud for that right now. I can’t hear anyone else.”
“What’s it saying so loudly?”
“That trip we took to Salem. To see all the witch stuff.”
“Hm. What a hokey place.”
“Yeah. But it was autumn. It was chilly. The drive was long. The mixes were good.”
“The ‘Getting a Little Blue” list especially.”
“Well…what about it?”
“It was, I think, when I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been. That’s what’s been so loud.”
Natasha nodded, and they both stared down the driveway.
“You ever think that?” Derek asked.
Natasha shook her head. “You ask me, none of us like each other. We’re trapped together like a black hole. So much time, so much familiarity, so much resentment. We’ve all become a singularity. It’s all part of the same thing.”
“All of it?”
“All of it. I think I might move to Santa Fe. It sounds like a place with a lot of space.”
“I can’t imagine wanting more space.”
“I didn’t know I wanted it until I got it.”
“Ah.” More waves crashed on the cement just beyond the line of pines. The rain began to drizzle again. “That one of your jokes? Santa Fe?”
“Read my mind and tell me.”