What He Doesn't Know(9)

By: Kandi Steiner

I cracked open one of the beers I’d picked up on my way home, tossing the rest of the six-pack into the fridge. The bitter carbonation comforted me, along with the lo mein, and I finally let myself think about her.

About Charlie.

It’d been impossible not to think about her all day — in the classroom, on my break, in the car on the way home. But I’d tried my best, tried to stay focused on learning about my new students and what they needed from me. Now that I was alone in my new house with nothing but fast food and the daunting task of unpacking to distract me, I couldn’t keep thoughts of her at bay any longer.

She was still Charlie, still the girl I used to know, except she wasn’t the same girl I used to know. Her eyes were darker, more tired, marked at the corners with lines from the years. I knew she hated me for leaving her, I knew she hadn’t tried to reach out over the years, but the way she’d reacted to me was shocking.

It wasn’t like she hated that I was there, or that she was still mad at me, and it definitely wasn’t that she was happy to see me, either.

It was worse — because she didn’t seem to have any reaction at all.

She used to be so full of life, and now she seemed almost hollow, the shell of the young woman I’d known over a decade ago. She couldn’t even answer my question about whether she was happy now, one I’d asked in a moment that belonged to just the two of us. I wanted her honesty. I begged her to let me see, to let me in.

Now that I was alone, I realized how naïve I was to believe I’d earned that privilege after just an hour.

She didn’t owe me anything, least of all trust, and I’d been stupid to ask her for it.

I ate my chicken lo mein in silence, sucking back my first beer too quickly before replacing it with another as I thought through my first day. I’d stayed late after class had ended to finish the tour on my own that Charlie and I had started, spending extra time getting familiar with the fine arts center where I’d teach the youth the magic of music.

Me. Teaching kids.

It was still so impossible to believe.

I’d been reckless as a teenager, wasting my nights away partying when I wasn’t losing myself at the piano. Graham, my best friend and Charlie’s brother, had been my smarter counterpart. Though he tended to stay out longer than I did, he never seemed to find as much trouble as me. He’d end his nights in bed with a new girl, and there were too many nights where I ended mine waking up my parents with police officers in tow.

It was never anything serious — no illegal drugs or stealing or anything like that. Mostly, I was just bored, so I’d prank anyone in my path just because it was something to do. It was the same reason I never did very well in school. It wasn’t that I wasn’t intelligent, but rather that I found the busy work they assigned me a complete waste of time. I never did homework, but I aced every test, which landed me somewhere around a B average, simply floating through school.

Charlie was just the opposite. She always had straight A’s.

I scrubbed a hand over my face as I abandoned my barely touched food in the fridge and opted for a third beer, instead. I pushed one of the kitchen bar stools over by the sliding glass door, pressing it open a crack and propping my feet up on an unpacked box before lighting up a cigarette. I lit it quickly and inhaled, a sigh of relief leaving my lungs in the form of smoke.

Westchester was a strict no-smoking zone, even for teachers, and though I’d lit up as soon as I got in the car, I felt uneasy after being used to smoking nearly every hour on the hour back in New York. I suppose it was probably time I thought about quitting anyway, but I’d never actually tried.

Charlie used to harp on me all the time for smoking when I was a teenager. I’d started at fourteen, and she’d never let me do it around her. Anytime I had lit up in her presence, she’d ripped the cigarette from my mouth and chastised me. Sometimes I’d do it just to get a rise out of her, just to see if she still cared.

I let the cigarette settle between my lips, kicking back on the bar stool once more. The smoke filtered up slowly, the cool Pennsylvania wind sucking it through the small opening of the sliding glass door. I didn’t mind the cold, not here and not in New York City. But Mount Lebanon was night-and-day different from the city. I was back in the suburbs now, in a place where I’d build a future most likely very similar to the one Dad built here with Mom.

I wished they were around to see me now, to see what I’d become.

That same familiar ache penetrated my chest at the thought of them, and I winced against it, finishing my cigarette and taking my beer with me into the dining room. There should have been a table there, one where I could sit and enjoy meals with a family, but instead there was only my baby grand piano. I hadn’t played it in a week, not since the movers showed up at my apartment in New York to load it away.

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