As Aaron stood in the corner talking to Michael, a long-term friend of his parent’s, his eyes shot a glance across the crowded kitchen. The party was already in full swing, people pouring out shots of expensive vodka and chasing them with generous glasses of wine filtered through the aerated decanter, the centerpiece of every party thrown at his Parent’s house. Buried in the beat of the music, Aaron could hear Michael railing off the pros and cons of Steven King. Aaron nodded and smiled, putting enough attention into listening that he could recognize the social queues in which he was required to respond, but secretly his attention was in watching the room full of people. As surprising as it may be to everyone he met, when he told them he was a writer, it didn’t mean he had read every forgotten work of every author in existence.
Michael started laughing, reaching out and putting his hand on Aaron’s shoulder, jolting him back into the conversation. Aaron laughed as well, nodding in agreement without any understanding of what Michael found so wildly amusing.
“I’m glad you agree!” said Michael, “But I’m telling you, read the Tower series and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.”
“I will, that sounds really interesting,” said Aaron, smiling and whipping out his phone, “Let me quickly write it down and I’ll order it when I get a chance.”
Michael nodded as Aaron entered “The Tower” into his device, then slid down the screen without hitting save, deleting the memo as though it had never even happened.
“So are you ready for work to begin?” asked Michael, reverting back to the default conversation between two people that really had nothing to discuss.
“I am,” replied Aaron, “but I think I’ll be more excited once I actually get started. If I’m honest, I’m more excited about the move. Getting to start again, a new city, a new state, a new life. I can’t wait for that. It has been too long.”
“Nine years if you don’t include the move to San Antonio. I don’t. It was too close to my parents. This is the new start.”
“Excellent,” said Michael enthusiastically, “I remember when I moved to Hong Kong, there were…”
Aaron’s attention drifted off once again, his eyes flirting around the room. Everyone appeared to be in that happy state of buzzed, having had just enough to drink that they were unconcerned with all the troubles that had been laid upon them. Now was a time for fun, and there was no stopping anyone from achieving it.
An eruption of excitement across the kitchen caught Aaron’s attention. People were turning around and hugging the next group of arrivals as they entered the party and made their way to the kitchen island to stock-up on alcohol. Aaron smiled as he silently admired the closeness shared between all his parent’s friends. It didn’t matter where they were or what they were doing, they always seemed to have a fantastic time just spending time with each other. It was impressive, given how long they had been traveling outside of the country, so far away from all these people and relationships.
Then his eyes caught sight of a familiar face, his smile vanishing as a lump jumped into his throat as though he’d swallowed a rock. Clearing his throat, his eyes locked onto Jessica as she cut across the room, mingling with all the friends of her parents. He couldn’t hear a word, but as she moved from person to person, he found himself grinning as her face would light up in a kind and polite smile. Turning to Michael, Aaron excused himself and stepped outside, igniting a cigarette.
He stood outside the back door alone, looking back into the room through the large panel of glass. The night sky made him invisible to those inside, and so like a ghost floating through a room, he watched the silent image of Jessica cutting across the chasm of people before pouring herself a drink. A memory stirred inside of him, one he tried to suppress as he did with all memories of a past he always tried to forget. But as always, it clawed inside of him until it reached the surface of his mind.
As she stood alone, he remembered her as a child, the beautiful little girl that had been the first serious crush of his life. He remembered how, every day after school, he would love that brief moment when he would walk onto the bus and take his seat that he would get to see her face sitting three rows back from his seat, smiling as she talked with her friends and laughing at whatever it was that a fifth grader laughed about. And he remembered how as he stood up to get off the bus, he would pick up his bag facing the back, catching one final glimpse before walking down the isle and back to his home, suppressing the feeling and knowing that being the unpopular and downtrodden child he was, his crush would always exist as just that.
It had been years since he had been that boy, but the introvert inside of him began feeling anxious at the memory. Years of travel had taught him how to engage, how to fit in in almost any situation, how to talk to a stranger or how to become rapid friends with someone that years ago wouldn’t have given him a second look except to punch him in the arm or push him down the stairs. But despite the years of global conditioning, that little child now stood shaking in his mind.
He wanted to go and talk to her, but the fear had already taken its hold. He saw her standing alone, glancing around the room and talking to no one, but his body simply could not force the feelings of his youth back in into the recesses of his mind. So, instead, he lit another cigarette, thinking silently that he would go and talk to her if she stood alone when he was done.
As the cigarette burned lower and lower, panic began to grow as Jessica still stood alone. He was sure that if he waited, someone else would see her there talking to no one, and he’d be given an excuse that he could use to justify allowing his fear to win. But no one came. Aaron took another drag, tasting the burning fibers of his filter as he sucked deeply on the timer that had completely burned to nothing. Dropping the dog-end in the ashtray, he smiled nervously at the fact that Jessica still stood alone, simply watching the conversations that took place around her.
Aaron looked down into his glass, knocking back the few drops that sat hopelessly at the bottom. Opening the door, he stepped inside. As he walked towards her, the panic poured over him like a wave of icy water. With every step, his memory flashed with the steps down to the back of the bus that would put him closer and closer to a conversation he would never have. He was within feet now, his legs moving onwards ignoring the screams. He looked around him, hunting for an excuse, for a conversation that would pull him aside, but there was no one there to help him. The child in his mind screamed as he took the final step, extending his arm and placing it lightly on Jessica’s shoulder. And in his mind, the tiny little Aaron of his youth begged him to stop, to turn around and run away, to look a fool now before she knew just how scared he really was.
Jessica turned in response to his touch, smiling when she realized it was him, and as her face lit up with the glow of her truly spectacular smile, the little boy in Aaron’s mind sighed and fell silent.
“You look a little bored over here alone,” said Aaron.
Jessica laughed. “Yea, it’s a good thing you’re here, I don’t know most of these people but they seem to know me.”
And in that moment, the little boy in Aaron’s mind fell peacefully back into memory.