DON'T BE A NICE GUY
DON'T BE A NICE GUY
a SHORT STORY by TIM KAIL
- 2016 -
“Be honest...” Brian said, with that dumb, affected grin of his. “You’re a little excited.”
“I guess,” Summer replied, glaring out at the Long Island Expressway, a long stretch of curvy darkness interrupted by flickering red and white lights. Brian turned the speaker volume up and they nodded in time to the heavy beat of generic house music.
Brian was the driver, recently twenty-one and unable to focus on much more than the nameless female bodies that crossed his line of sight. He lacked the knowledge or, more accurately, the courage to speak to any of them. But when it came to noticing them, he was an expert.
Summer was the passenger, twenty-two and new to the notion of “Going out”. For three years Brian had tried to convince her to be his “Wingwoman”. He argued that it would make him appear non-threatening in the eyes of girls at clubs and bars and parties, as if his increased chances of success was adequate incentive for her to stop binge-watching 80s movies and 90s sitcoms for a night.
She didn't have the heart to tell him he wasn't that threatening in the first place.
She found his blend of enthusiasm and incognizance oddly charming. To explain to Brian that clubs and bars were not only not “her thing”, but that going to them inevitably resulted in an assortment of sweaty-faced “bros” hurling undesired witticisms at her may have spurred on an awakening in Brian that would unravel his fragile understanding of the universe. He liked to think of himself as better than the average broheem – he was a self-proclaimed "nice guy". And he enjoyed reminding Summer how that sort always finished last.
But when he did find it in himself to eventually approach a girl to say something, he looked and sounded exactly like the guys who Summer turned away with a polite “no thanks”, only less sure of himself and possessing zero whimsy. Brian’s attempts to score a dance or a drinking partner often came out as confused interrogations, a tinge of anticipatory dejection in every sentiment and gesture.
“What brings you here?”
“What’s your name?”
“Can I buy you a drink?”
He once asked Summer, “Like…what do guys say to you that makes you like them?” He seemed to regard women as highly encrypted locks that would open up only after a retinal scan, a palm read, and a password spoken in a specific way.
“I don’t know,” she answered. And that was the truth. She hadn’t yet experienced that moment she so often witnessed in her movies and her sitcoms – the male locks eyes with the female – the female then offers a slight smile and the male offers a slight smile back – a pop song that’s serendipitously emblematic of the moment plays - the male gently pushes through a crowd of extras, maintaining eye contact with the female upon approach, and then he says, “Hi” thus binding the two in ninety-minutes of inoffensive melodrama. She often wondered how people arrived at a moment of real intimacy. All the movies and television shows she watched rarely offered a worthwhile explanation.
Unlike Brian (and what appeared to be the majority of the world) she was not relentlessly pursuing a mate. Her body lacked whatever urgency her peers possessed in abundance. And her mind was happily buried in the pleasant fictions offered in video games, comic books, pro-wrestling, novels, and her film courses. These passions were fulfilling, and, far too often, she found herself defending these passions – even against people who liked what she liked.
The handful of female friends she had (more like acquaintances who she chatted with before and after classes) asked her “do you have a boyfriend?” and “are you seeing anyone?” with a hint of anger in their voices not unlike Brian’s whenever he spoke to one of his pursuits.
So “going out” with Brian wasn’t just a way of pacifying him and having unexpected fun with an old friend (and they did have fun – especially in the car to and from these noisy establishments), it was another way to investigate.
That’s how she was able to get through it and find worth in the experience. It was against her nature to take a shot, to gyrate aimlessly under neon lights, and to have excited conversations about nothing with easily forgotten strangers – but it was educational. She was the Jane Goodall of Long Island clubbing.
“So I found a new place,” Brian said. “Jim is going to meet us there.”
“What’s wrong with Jim?”
“I’ve never met a more pretentious person in my life. Don’t you remember what he said about Scarface?”
“No…what did he say?”
“It was literally the first day of class, Brian. You were right there next to me. I thought we rolled our eyes together.”
“I think I was talking to Shannon.”
“You mean trying to talk to Shannon.”
Brian wilted a bit, his grip on the wheel loosening. Summer winced – she’d forgotten Brian wasn’t yet quite ready for banter.
“Okay well we were all getting to know one another – everyone is just excited that it’s Freshman year and we’re film majors and we’re talking about movies that we like and somehow Scarface comes up and Jim chimes in and says ‘What did you think of the ending?’ and I told him that I really liked it. And he says, I shit you not, ‘It’s too obvious’. And he didn't just say it like that. He said...it's too oooobviussss...”
Brian looked over at Summer for a moment before refocusing on the expressway, puzzled.
“What did he mean?” he asked.
“What do you mean what did he mean?”
“Like…what’s too obvious?”
“The way Pacino is dead in the fountain and then the camera pans up to the big sign that says The World Is Yours. Jim thinks that irony is too obvious.”
“What do you think?”
“I think it’s a great fucking movie and that Jim is a pretentious dick.”
“Why are you cursing so much?”
Summer went silent. She was, indeed, using a few more expletives than usual. Brian’s question was cause for consideration.
“You know what it is…it’s my Tarentino class. Everyone in that class has probably been cursing a lot more lately.”
“Well it’s not a good look.”
“I dunno. You’re a girl. I don’t really like it when –”
“Just stop. Please just stop, Brian.”
“Why, do you have to pee again?” he looked into the right lane to see if he'd be able to get off at the next exit.
“No, I’m just asking you to not finish that ridiculous sentence. I’m already going to subject myself to sexist bullshit later on tonight for you so I don’t need to hear it from you too.”
“Jesus, you’re in a mood, what did I say? Sexist?”
“Nothing. I just don’t like Jim. I don’t know what you see in him.”
"He's a great actor. He's the only person on campus who knows how to really act without being fake about it."
"Then he should do theater and not be in our film program."
"Well he wants to be an actor-director."
"That's not a thing, Brian!"
"Well he wants to make it a thing."
"And that's why you like him?"
What Brian was failing to explain, or perhaps purposefully omitting from the conversation, was that Jim Cohen had what is best described as "a way with the ladies". Summer suspected this was the real reason Brian wanted to doggy-paddle through Jim's impressive wake, picking up the flotsam and jetsam along the way. But she wanted to hear him admit it.
"I really don't know why you hate him so much. Is it just because he was on that show."
Jim Cohen was something of a minor celebrity. He'd played the bad boy with a heart of gold on a hit tween drama for three seasons before it was unceremoniously cancelled (his character had been killed off to accommodate his desire to go to college and ratings plummeted).
"I don't hate him. I just don't think he's a good person. And I guess the show is a part of it. He could've gone anywhere. If he wants to be a great actor he should just be an actor and go to The New School."
"But he wants to direct too."
"I know, you already said that. New School also has directing."
"Yeah, but our program is good and up and coming. Maybe he wanted to help shape it. Whatever. I don't care. I think he's okay. You just have to get to know him."
"What's the name of the club?"
"It's a lounge. It's new. They've got hookah. It's called Catharsis."
"Now that's too obvious!"
"Have you ever smoked hookah before."
"Will you try it with me?"
Brian turned up the music and the heavy thump of electronic drums and synthetic chants swallowed their voices. Brian pumped his fist and cheered, "Yehaaaaah!"
A small smile broke on Summer's face as she remembered what they were there to do, and she forgot about the inevitability of Jim Cohen.
The music built toward a crescendo - flickering bleeps and bloops and reverberating piano strikes - a smattering of alien sound that seemed to project neon-pink and green lights out of the speakers. Brian had trained her to find the joy inherit in these beats. He enjoyed these sounds in exactly the way they were meant to be enjoyed. His late-night adventures into the Long Island night had no room for Summer's whinny, thoughtful hymns - old songs that accompanied her to sleep inside library study-carols.
This moment of ecstasy was destined to arrive at some point in their journey from campus to club or club back to campus - Brian finding his stride, finally comfortable and confident in his imagined space of phosphorescent, sweat-soaked delirium. These beats would give him the boost he needed, the courage necessary when attempting to grind one's midsection into a stranger's rear or willingly spend fifteen dollars on a single, watered-down drink. Summer's hand curled into a fist. Her rhythmless body instinctively sought the pulse in the air, and her arm rose, and she joined Brian in a wild cry.
They were happy.
Without knowing it, they were happy to be young.
Catharsis possessed the self-conscious air of a teenager who often referred to himself as "mature".
While the "out for drinks" conversation buzz was in the air, it hovered just enough below rowdy for the uneasy twenty-somethings and the desperate forty-somethings to deem themselves dignified.
In the far, dimly lit corner was a collection of hookah aficionados, puffing long streams of flavored gas into a thin fog that loomed overhead. Reclined in plush booths and pillows and beanbags, these aspiring angel-headed-hipsters waxed philosophic on the plight of the millennial generation before slipping into unexplained bouts of laughter.
The floor pulsed with a phantom beat. Summer's feet vibrated as if invisible fists punched her heels.
"What's downstairs," she asked the coat-check girl.
"That's the dancefloor."
"There's a dancefloor?!" Brian asked - a bit too excited.
The coat-check girl nodded, seemingly disappointed that someone so earnest had arrived.
"Fifteen dollars," said the coat-check girl.
"What?" Summer said.
"Fifteen?" Summer said.
Summer looked back over her shoulder at Brian. He shrugged.
"Would you mind spotting me actually?" he whispered.
"Are you serious?"
"Miss, we have to keep things moving."
"Get out if you're a cheap ass!" a surly young gentleman in the back of the line decided to offer his perspective on the matter.
"Jesus," Summer relinquished two twenties.
After pushing through some elbows and shoulders, and squeezing down a tight, dimly lit hallway, Summer and Brian stumbled like disheveled, out of breath cartoon characters into the swanky digs. Although their immediate feeling of otherness was housed entirely in their minds (only one young man actually took notice of their arrival) Summer and Brian saw everyone in the lounge take a beat to glance at the awkward intruders.
The music and the conversation stopped. The air could be measured in notes of silence.
"Well aren't you two a couple'a sore thumbs."
This voice seemed to come from behind (Brian looked over his shoulder, startled) when, in fact, this voice came from a tall young man in front of them; he was barely visible behind a crowd of ladies, dressed in black, leaning on a stool, and carefully sipping a whiskey-sour.
"Pardon me," he whispered to the ladies. He placed his hand on a single hip, but all gave a soft moan and a shiver in response. The sea of colorful, skin-tight dresses parted, and Jim Cohen emerged.
Summer did not roll her eyes; her usual custom when seeing Jim. Instead, she was compelled to observe his stride. He set his whiskey sour down on a stranger's table as he approached - offering a polite smile in the process - and licked the condensation off his fingertips with an audible schlit.
"Hello, Brian," he said, smiling the way an owner does when their pet does something cute.
He did not look at Summer.
"Hey, Jim! How are you? This place is awesome."
"Glad you enjoy it. Stay away from the hookah."
"That's a rabbit hole you don't want to go down. Investigate those instead," Jim tilted his head toward the collection of young women at his back. They continued to eye him, anticipating his every move as if the slightest gesture was an event of great significance. "Go on," he encouraged, giving Brian a tap on the elbow.
"I need to gain my bearings before I get in there."
"And that is why you fail," Jim said this without hesitation, but not necessarily without consideration. In fact, watching this exchange from afar in the way Summer was (despite standing close enough to smell Jim's faint cologne), it seemed as though everything Jim had done since leaving the pack of ladies was an expertly crafted prelude to this single statement.
He always knew his mark.
"Hi, my name is Jim," he turned to Summer, giving Brian no time to respond.
"Are you for real?" Summer said.
"In what way?" Jim replied.
Summer and Jim stared at one another in silence then, she waiting for him to drop the act, he waiting for her to play along.
"Jim, this is Summer. She's in our advanced class with us."
"Maybe you two are in it with me, did you ever think about that, Brian?"
"Summer?" Jim said, the tilt in his head and the crack in his voice convinced Summer he was sincere in either not recognizing her or not knowing who she was despite having had several arguments with her. Just three days ago the subject of Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut came up in class while discussing the concept of "beauty". Summer emphasized that the lighting in the film was transcendent, that the imagery personified the point of the class discussion. Jim took this opportunity to turn around in his seat, snatch the conversation away from her and proclaim, "Kubrick would turnover in his grave if--"
To which Summer, familiar and fed up with Jim's consistent interjections throughout the semester, screamed from her guts, "Kubrick can turnover in his grave all he wants, Jim Cohen, Eyes Wide Shut is a good fucking movie!"
The silence that followed was not unlike the emptiness in the air after a gunshot. No one had stood up to Jim Cohen before. No one had dared to silence him. Students either worshiped him or quietly cursed him behind his back for fear of alienating all his talent. It was not uncommon for some professors to refer to him as "That little shit", an ever-present tinge of jealousy in their voices.
But Summer, typically quiet and regarded as a non-threatening female ornament of the film program (that little girl with the funny hair who made those weird little movies), was the one to finally do it - she happily castrated him before a roomful of twenty students and their acclaimed cinematographer-professor, and then juggled his testes in her palm like dried walnuts and then ate them whole.
Jim's response was to smile quietly. He liked it. It was a new feeling.
Where the rest of the room thought they'd finally won a silent war, Summer saw his smile and thought, "He's unbeatable."
Now, standing in this lounge that he had selected, an entire room at his back awaiting his next breath, he'd discovered yet another way to make himself unbeatable; he wouldn't even remember Summer existed.
"Sorry, I'm forgetful. And I think you look different tonight. You normally wear glasses don't you?" he said as he returned to the table where he'd left his drink. The starstruck onlookers bequeathed him their stools. He thanked them and motioned for Summer and Brian to join him.
"No. I don't wear glasses," Summer lied. This was only her third time wearing contacts. Her eyes were pink and dry.
"Then maybe it's your hair. Did you dye it recently?"
"No. It's always been like this," Summer lied. Her hair was soft-purple, with pastel, electric blue highlights at the ends. She wore flats whose tips curled into the shapes of kitten-heads, and a black, flower skirt.
She reminded Jim of a new-age Alice fresh off the boat from Wonderland. He could not spot the tattoos, but he guessed some ink lingered around her inner thigh or along her rib-cage or down the blade of her shoulder or behind her earlobe.
He wasn't right about the spots, but he was right.
"Must be make-up," he said. "It's amazing what good make-up can do. I say that without judgment."
"I'm not wearing any make-up."
"What are you talking about, you've got all that stuff -" Brian chimed in, but Summer quickly cut him off.
"Well anyway, my name is Summer Winter and it's a pleasure to meet you, Jim Cohen," she lied again (about it being a pleasure, not her name). She extended her hand. She thought this was her most successful counter-attack yet.
Jim grabbed her palm and pulled it into both of his. His touch was softer than expected, but convincing. Summer felt a small jolt in her flesh. She tried to shake it off, to make like it didn't happen. But it had.
"Nice to meet you, Summer. Officially."
The pace of her heart quickened and her lips parted, revealing the tip of her pink tongue. She quickly clenched her jaw, smiled at Jim, and retracted her hand.
"How long have you been here?" Brian asked
"Three drinks," Jim said. "Speaking of which, this is the way."
He turned toward the bar and Brian snapped to attention, following close behind. Summer hovered by the table, watching them disappear in the crowd near the bar. As she moved to join them, a muscly boy cut her off, double-fisting bottles of light beer.
"Would you like one?" the muscly boy presented his offering.
"No, thank you," Summer said, avoiding eye contact, breezing past. She could hear him mutter, "Fine, stuck up bitch," under his breath, but she did not turn to confront him and she did not waste time considering his response.
Jim was against the rail. Flushed women and tensed men pretended not to notice him.
"Jim, everyone is looking at you," Brian chuckled, nervous.
"The bar can be a hostile place."
"What do you mean?"
"At least three boys want to fight me at any given moment in a place like this."
"Why, have you had a run in with any of them?"
"He's making it harder for everyone else to get laid," Summer said.
"Very good, Summer. You should pay attention to her when she speaks, Brian," Jim said, waiting for the bartender.
"I listen," Brian said.
The bartender nodded at Jim.
"What are you having?" Jim asked.
"Bud Light is great," Brian answered.
"No it's not," Jim said, and then turned back to the bartender, "two Guinness please, and..." he raised an interrogative eyebrow at Summer.
"...and a Bicardi and Coke please."
While Jim and Brian awaited their drinks, Summer turned toward the center of the lounge. The lights cast a red glow on the throw pillows and the cushions and the seats and the bodies. Men and women gathered in improvised groups like droplets of blood inside a clogged artery. Walking took effort, and often resulted in brief, unwanted interactions with apologetic strangers. It was rare to elbow someone who actually took offense to it, but when that happened, these places transformed into arenas of subdued violence.
"We're going downstairs," Jim whispered as he passed, his lips brushing her ear. He slipped the Bicardi and Coke into her hand. The glass was short and wet, cooling the sweat on the inside of her fingers.
"After you," he insisted.
"That's okay. I'm not familiar with the place. You should lead."
This was the first time Jim appeared somewhat stumped. His pupils contracted. His jaw tightened. He turned to Brian, considering, just for a moment, if it was a good idea to pass the baton to him. Brian just kept standing and staring and smiling and waiting for someone to do something. He took a sip of his Guiness (the first time he'd ever tasted a stout). He winced, noticeably disturbed.
"Alrighty, follow me everybody," Jim decided, and led them deeper into the dark.
Summer braced her hand on the wall as she navigated a sweat-&-vodka-soaked flight of stairs. The paint on the wall was chipped and scratched to give the illusion of rustic charm. All it gave Summer was a collection of splinters to play with when she got home. The stairs descended at an impossible rate. Her chest and shoulders leaned out ahead of her feet and Brian, so hellbent on making an entrance at Jim's side, shoved at her back with each step.
"C'mon, let's go, let's go," he said.
"Stop it, Brian, I'm going, I'm going!"
They couldn't hear each other. The heavy thunk & thud of drums and the hiss of steam and the electric roar of synthetic strings rose up from the room below, transforming this crevice masquerading as a staircase into a psychedelic wind-tunnel.
Jim Cohen, drink in hand, glided down the steps without dropping a single molecule of Guinness.
"Goddamnit, Brian, you sh-," Summer screamed. The stairs disappeared. All that remained was the terrifying space between the beginning of a fall and a fall's nasty climax. Her drink collapsed into the deep, shattering out of view. When she heard the glass break, she felt like she'd committed a crime - which was strange, because she didn't buy into this world...at least she didn't think she bought into it. But here she was, hovering between Jim Cohen and Brian, arms spread, kitten-shoes screaming, feeling embarrassed and frightened.
Thou shalt not commit the sin of being uncool.
Falling, while very human, was the least cool thing a human (or a woman) could ever do. At least she could take solace knowing that Brian's fussiness was the cause. She extended her arms and closed her eyes and fell. And then, suddenly, it was over.
"Are you alright?" Jim Cohen asked, holding her.
She looked up. Her hands clutched his shoulders. She didn't remember grabbing him.
They were at the bottom of the staircase. Her knees were bent, her ankle twisted at the bottom step.
Brian fumbled to avoid stepped on her calf and tumbled directly into the floor. He quickly stood back up and fixed his shirt and resumed a relaxed, "I'm just here checking things out, everybody" posture.
"Are you alright?" Jim Cohen asked again.
"No. I mean yeah. Fucking Brian. Shit, my ankle is a little messed up I think."
"C'mon let's go outside."
"Need help?" he offered to hold one of her arms.
"No I got it."
They walked along the outskirts of the dance floor, pushing toward the exit guarded by a bouncer.
"Where you guys going?" Brian asked.
"Her ankle is messed up, we're going outside."
"Oh no, Summer, I'm sorry. Are you okay?"
"Get him away from me right now. I'm too pissed to talk to him," Summer cursed under her breath at Jim.
"She's fine. You go mingle, Brian."
"You go mingle, Brian! Mingle!"
Jim nodded at the bouncer. The bouncer looked at Summer, understood what was happening, and kindly held the exit door open. After Jim and Summer staggered out, the door closed on Brian, sealing him inside. Jim heard his cries to be let out, but the bouncer made it clear that it was an emergency exit only.
Jim walked with Summer away from the crowd of smokers and curb-talkers to a bus stop further down the sidewalk.
He stayed close to her, his hands held over her shoulders in the way one accompanies an elderly woman through traffic. He was careful not to touch her, though. He knew she didn't want that. She preferred the limp and the pain for now.
She bent down on the bus stop bench and extended her leg into the sidewalk, sighing as if letting out a hard-day's work in a single breath. Jim took a seat next to her, quiet, trying not to seem too concerned.
He reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a cigarette, "Do you mind?" he asked.
She shook her head. His light-up process wasn't as pretentious or self-conscious as Summer predicted. There was an economic flow of movement to it; the flip of the Zippo, the flick of the flint, the inhalation and the exhale. He leaned back and looked up at the sky as if he'd won something. Suddenly, he was Bogart, minding his own business, patiently awaiting a bus that wasn't coming.
"Can I?" Summer asked. No one had ever made smoking look so good.
"No," he said. "Sorry, I shouldn't have done that," he tossed the cigarette on the ground and stomped the spark out. "Ah, shit," he said, and bent over and picked it up and walked the extinguished butt to the waste-backet. "I don't like it when people just throw their butts around like they aren't trash," he explained, sitting back down, and popping a stick of gum in his mouth.
"I'm so mad at him," Summer winced.
"He is a bit...incessant…isn't he?"
"You have no idea. He could have killed me. Just because he wanted to walk into the clurb with you."
"How innocent of him."
Jim reached down and gently touched her ankle, "Does that hurt?"
"Yes, but it's better."
"Here," he said, slipping his hand along the backside of her calf, and raising her legs up onto his lap, "you should keep it elevated." Her stockings had a pleasant grain to them, like flesh covered in goose-bumps.
There was no time to protest. In fact, there was no need to protest. This version of Jim was surprisingly palatable - borderline comforting. She wanted to ask where he'd come from.
"One time I was doing this gag where I had to jump onto the back of a bus from an overpass. I insisted on doing as much as I could for the job to keep it as real as possible. They got me rigged up with all these wires and a harnesses. As soon as I jumped, I realized that I'd made the wrong choice - that it was someone else's job to do that kind of thing. I felt utterly stupid, and when I hit the mark my leg almost shattered. Put me out for months."
It wasn't clear whether Jim was telling this story because he simply enjoyed telling it, or if this was a genuine attempt to empathize with Summer about the twisted ankle. His hands rested on her knees - the pressure was warm and welcome. The fact that he was gazing off into the distance and not moving his hands up or down her thigh made it a lot easier to accept his touch. A lot of guys, from her experience, had a way of touching her that was as weak and simpering as it was creepy and invasive. Jim did not assume that he was entitled to this moment nor that he had earned the feeling of her legs on his lap as a result of "being nice". He was just being real.
"Are you telling me it's someone else's job to be Brian's wingman?" Summer smiled.
Jim finally looked at her. She had a pretty smile.
"Sounds like a good interpretation to me."
Summer scooted down a bit so that the crook in her legs arched over his lap. Each small adjustment brought their bodies closer together.
"Did you really not remember me from class?"
Jim answered with a grin.
"You bastard," she laughed, giving his thigh a little kick.
"It was fun," he said. "You were so mad at me."
"I wasn't mad."
"You were mad when you basically told me to fuck off the other day."
"Well Eyes Wide Shut is a good movie."
He looked back down at the pavement, his hand sliding down her calf to cradle her leg.
"Is this real?" he asked, pointing at her ankle.
"I think it might have stopped being real a few minutes ago," she took her legs back and sat up next him, close enough that their shoulders were nearly pressed together. "Can I ask you something personal?" she said.
"Why did you come here - to Long Island? You could've gone anywhere."
"I had a good tour guide," even his jokes were convincing.
"Is it really that bad having me around?"
"That's not why I'm asking. I just want to know. If I'd had your success when I was so young, I definitely would have gone anywhere else."
"But then you wouldn't be here."
Looking into Jim's eyes, it became clear that this was the best answer he could give (or wanted to give). There was a peculiar weight to his words, holding down something secret and sad.
"You were born here weren't you?" he asked.
"And you want to get out?"
"Yeah," she looked down at her hands. The paint on her fingernails was chipped. She enjoyed peeling it back a few days after application; it was like shedding.
"You're a good filmmarker, y'know that," Jim said suddenly, nudging her elbow.
"You're good. I really liked your first movie freshman year. It was surprising - and not because you're a girl. I know that's why it surprised a lot of the others. For me, it was just surprising to see something that dark and that believable from a first year."
Summer's mouth hung open a bit. It was impossible to believe that Jim Cohen remembered her from their freshman year. She couldn't remember him ever saying anything about her short films. She couldn't even remember him taking notice of her, especially if they ever crossed paths outside of class. He would often pretend not to see her if they were in the cafeteria or in the Student Center on campus. These moments just threw fuel onto an imagined fire - yet another reason to regard Jim as a self-absorbed prick.
"Definitely better than your second year short. By that point it seemed like you'd become more aware of yourself and like you were working from a really self-conscious place. The early stuff felt honest."
She inhaled a heavy breath and held it. Her hands curled into fists.
"You're awful pretty when you're angry," he chuckled.
"Jesus Christ, you just can't stop yourself can you? What is it with you? I've known you for four years - you were a first year when I was a first year - and this is the first time we're finally starting to get real and then you go and say some shit like that?"
"You liked it when I complimented your first film. You didn't like it when I critiqued your second. The reason you didn't like it is because you know I'm right. That wasn't shit what I just said. I'm trying to help, because I think you're better than everyone else. I wouldn't say any of this to someone I didn't respect."
She leaned away - a small gap appeared between them.
"Okay, so what? It doesn't matter, Jim. You assumed that I was asking for a critique. I wasn't. Of either movie. You assumed your opinion was wanted simply because you thought it was a good opinion. A critique out of nowhere, whether it's positive or negative, especially from a stranger, is completely pointless - you can't take anything away from it. That's why I get so pissed at you in class - you just throw your shit around sometimes to mark your territory. It doesn't matter how right you are. Your delivery sucks. Whatever point you have gets completely lost."
He smiled at her, and Summer felt that sudden pang in her body again - an unwanted shiver that began at the knees and traveled up through the guts.
"But Eyes Wide Shut is a good fucking movie, right?"
He let that sit for a moment. Staring back at her, he knew that this would go one of two ways. Either she would get it and join him in a good laugh, or she'd storm off in a melodramatic huff. Fortunately, for both of them, it was the former.
"Touche," Summer said, shortening the distance between them.
"You can lean back if you want to keep your ankle up, y'know," he rested his arm on the top of the bench, and Summer took him up on the offer. She pressed the back of her head into his shoulder and raised her legs up on the seat.
"What do you think of Brian?" she asked.
"Not much," he didn't skip a beat.
"Then why do you lead him on. It's not nice the way you are with him. He doesn't get it."
"Nice?" the word seemed to disgust him. "Nice. Hrm."
"He looks up to you."
"No he doesn't."
"What do you mean?"
"Brian wants to be cool. He wants to be cool more than anything in the world. He thinks he's owed a feeling of coolness because he's so nice. I hate that. I get that all the time. It's weak. Do you know the only question Brian has ever asked me?"
"Where do you hang out to meet girls? That's all he's ever asked me. Oh and he's also asked me if he wants me to be in his thesis.”
"Do you want to be in his thesis?"
"Fuck no. Have you read it?"
"I did the re-writes."
"Well I could act the hell out of those re-writes, but the rest just isn't worth my time. Nor his. Nor yours."
Summer's silence corroborated Jim's statement. He had articulated something she had feared for six months.
"Now can I ask you a personal question?" he said.
"What do you see in him? Why are you always hanging around with him?"
"Is there a 'just' between those two words?"
"Yeah. We're just friends, I don't know why that's always so hard for people to believe. We have fun hanging out together."
"Do you ever do anything that you want to do?"
"We used to. Now it's mostly just this kind of thing."
"Hrm," Jim grunted, shaking his head.
Somehow, Summer's head now rested on Jim's right thigh. The transition was gradual enough that neither realized how or when it actually happened. But once she was settled, they shared in an unspoken awareness of the shift in contact. They both waited to see what the other would do. The silence was a question; "Is this alright with you?"
When neither protested, a sense of extreme peace and comfort replaced all anxiety. It was a feeling Summer had never experienced with another person before. It was a calm she'd only ever felt at the editing station. There was an inexplicable rightness to being this close to him.
Now she knew, she finally knew how this was possible; you just had to feel right with the person.
He put his hand on her head, and slowly ran his fingers through her hair.
"I love this color," he said.
"Thanks," she took a breath. "It's my favorite."
"What would you like to do?" he asked. Any other boy would have whispered that or said it as though he was speaking to a stupid child. Jim just said it. No affectation. "Whatever it is, we'll do it."
This was the first time Summer had ever really wanted someone. Certainly, there had been flurries of attraction here or there, a twinge of excitement during a first kiss or a first time or the thrill that occasionally comes when someone of interest takes an interest.
But this was a first that outdid all others.
Now she knew what it really meant to want. This was the first time she looked a person in the eye, stared at their mouth, and craved their taste. His fingers were lost in her hair, rotating in and out of the electric strands. It was a pleasant kind of hypnosis. She suddenly wanted to inhale Jim Cohen, to clamp down on him and not let go.
And he felt the same - she could tell.
He pulled her up and she pulled him down and their mouths met in the middle. This was a catastrophic kiss. The aftershock radiated throughout the cosmos. Those clubbers and drinkers and smokers waiting in line or taking a break from the noise inside saw nothing more than two kids going to town on each others' faces; some even groaned in disgust and in jealousy and shouted the always reliable "Get a room!"
But in Jim and Summer's world, something magical was happening. That sense of comfort and freedom and safety intensified as their mouths opened and she climbed onto his lap and settled down on top of his midsection. He clasped her hips and pressed his body into hers, and their lips and their breath melted into a mass of ecstatic flesh and sweat. And then his tooth clipped her bottom lip and she gasped, "Ah!"
They pulled their heads apart, and broke out into laughter. They suddenly realized that she was straddling him and that he was groping her at a bustop at midnight. It's not as though they were going to follow this exchange to its natural conclusion out here for everyone to see. She whipped her hair back and laughed from her stomach, and Jim smiled quietly and stared into her chest. He pressed the side of his face there, settling between her breasts, and she cradled his head in her arms and their laughter settled into a quiet, united sigh.
"That was good," she said.
"Yes it was," he said.
"Jim Cohen," she grabbed his cheeks and lifted his face up so that she could get a good look at him.
"Who knew?" she smiled and gave him another kiss, this one softer.
"I did," he said.
"I've known for a while."
"Well why didn't you say anything?" she gave him a little shove.
"I don't know if you've heard, but you're a pretty intimidating cat, Summer."
"Oh shut up," she moved in to kiss him when a frightened voice interrupted from behind.
"What are you guys doing?"
Summer turned around, still on top of Jim.
Brian stood at the edge of the sidewalk, watching them, his hands at his sides and his chin resting on his chest. There might as well have been a little rain cloud over his head.
"Brian!" Summer quickly fumbled off of Jim's crotch, and jumped to her feet, fixing her skirt and her hair. She was out of breath and flushed. Despite the look on Brian's face, she did not feel embarrassed nor ashamed. The kiss had been too good to regret.
"Good to see you, Bri!" Jim yelled through his teeth. He stood up and adjusted his shirt (now curiously un-tucked) and spit his gum out onto the pavement. He didn't bother to pick it up. He slowly approached Brian, and stopped at Summer's side. He put his hands in his pockets, and waited to see what Brian would do.
"Can we go?" Brian said, ignoring Jim.
"I would obviously love it if you stayed," Jim said, but he didn't make it clear who exactly he was talking to.
"I need to get home."
"How was it in there, champ?" Jim asked. Summer poked him in the ribs.
"Shitty. Let's go!" he turned down the sidewalk, and started toward the parking lot.
"Looks like you're in trouble, Winter," Jim said.
"Seems like it, but I don't know why," Summer replied.
"Are you sure you don't know why?" Jim winked at her. He had settled back into the Jim Cohen she knew from class; a guy with a point to prove and a roundabout, self-congratulatory way of proving it.
Summer studied Brian as he got into the car and slammed the door shut. He stared straight into the dark, hands on the wheel at ten and two, waiting for Summer to come. He even gestured for her to hurry up and get in the car.
She still wasn't quite sure what he was going on about.
"I really don't. I just don't see it."
"Interesting," Jim said, scratching his chin. "Alright, well...I think I should leave you guys to it."
"You need to have a conversation."
"About what?! Him being a dick?"
"In so many words. Just remember...nice guys finish last for a reason."
Jim smiled at her, and then turned back toward the club. He slid into an impression of James Dean, hands tucked deep into his pockets, shoulders up, head hunched low, a stream of smoke in his wake (Summer hadn't even seen him light another cigarette).
"Where are you going?" she half-yelled.
"Back to the hunt," he pointed to the lounge entrance.
"But what about-"
"Call me after you and old Bri have sorted things out." He skipped over a bike-rack, his heels clapping over the pavement, and called out "We should work together!" And then he tossed the cigarette in a wastebasket, shook the hand of the bouncer, breezed past the line, and disappeared.
It felt like the last time she would ever see Jim Cohen.
"Could you get in the car, please?"
She looked into the street and discovered that Brian had pulled up in front of her. She opened the passenger door and got inside. Before she could put her seatbelt on, he peeled out and hurried toward The LIE. Summer did not speak. She just knew that something was very wrong, and that she wanted to get back to her dorm room and away from angry men.
Brian did not speak either. He white-knuckled their way back to campus. No music. No cheers of joy. Nothing but stoplights and streetlights and the sound of his heavy breathing. They pulled into the Brookville parking lot, and sat in silence for a minute after he turned the car off. When she reached up to open the door, Brian finally spoke.
It came out in a tired, beaten tone, "How could you do that?"
"Excuse me?" Summer said.
"Jim Cohen?! Are you serious, Summer?!"
He was shouting now, and the notes of disgust and disappointment were deafening.
"What the fuck are you talking about, Brian?"
"Are you serious? How could you not know?!"
"What?! Just say it!"
His hands returned to the wheel. The faux-leather churned in his palms. It sounded like he was strangling a small animal.
"I thought you hated him," his voice was low now, and his eyes drifted into a frightening, blank space.
"So did I. What business is it of yours?"
"Because I...you...I can't believe you don't know."
"Brian, I swear to Christ if you don't just tell me why you're so mad-"
"I spend so much time with you! I'm the one who listens to you bitch and moan about this and that. I'm the one who drives you anywhere and everywhere you want to go. I'm the one who helps you move your shit into your dorm every single year. I'm the one who grips your fucking movies and lugs your equipment all over The Island. But then Jim Cohen comes along one night with his fancy bullshit and his swagger and it's like, okay, well I might has well fuck him!"
Summer’s head slumped to the side, resting on the passenger window. The glass was cool, but provided little relief. All she wanted was to be with Jim now, to feel his arms and his body wrapped up in hers.
"We're friends, Brian," she said in a defeated voice.
"Oh spare me that bullshit, I've heard it so many times. You knew. You always knew, but you just liked the attention. Just like all the others. I thought you were different. I thought you were better."
Summer closed her eyes and remembered the taste of Jim Cohen's tongue.
"I'm so tired of this. Why would you lead me on like this? If you didn't like me, if you wanted to just "friend-zone-me" after all this time then why bother? And Jim Cohen?! That's what I can't get over. That guy is such an asshole. He's a typical asshole who treats women like shit. And you like him. You like a guy you hated just a few hours ago."
That was enough. Brian had used up his time. His point was made, or so he believed, and, hopefully, he'd feel better in the morning.
Summer opened the door, but she did not get out of the car just yet. She felt the sting of tears, and even though the feeling had more to do with her contacts than anything else, she knew that Brian couldn't tell the difference. She let the tears fall onto her lap, and she turned and looked him in the eyes.
"You know what, there is something you're better at than Jim Cohen."
He turned away. He refused to look at her tears, and asked, "What?"