I STEP ONTO THE SMALL stage constructed in the sand and, though I can’t stop grinning, the only thing on my mind is Claire and how I wish she were here to see this. Hank Langley hands me the third place trophy and pulls me into a sloppy one-armed hug. Hank is the promoter for the competition. We’ve stayed in touch since I quit surfing two years ago and he’s the only reason I made it onto the roster for this event.
As soon as we arrive at the hotel, the mini-bar is ransacked and champagne is ordered from room service. I grab my phone out of my backpack and sneak off to the bathroom to call Claire.
I open the bathroom door and Paul Leyva is boning some chick on the bathroom counter. The same Paul Leyva who was ranked fourth in the world on the ASP world rankings last year. The chick makes eye contact with me and I slam the door shut before I make my way into the hotel corridor. The scroll pattern on the carpet makes me think of the curtains in my dad’s study. He doesn’t know where I am this weekend. If he knew I’m competing again he’d tell me to give it up. Twenty-two is too old to start competing again. What he doesn’t know is that I’m doing this as much for Claire as I am for myself.
I sink down onto the carpet next to the ice machine and dial her number. She picks up halfway through the first ring.
Her voice is soft yet eager and fills me with relief.
“Hey, baby. What are you doing?”
I hear a rustling on the other end and I imagine she’s putting down a book or a pile of notes.
“Studying. I have a statistics test on Monday. Where are you?”
“I’m at the hotel. We just got back. I came in third.”
She pauses for a moment. “I’m so proud of you. I knew you’d do well.”
“I’ll be there in six days. You can congratulate me then.”
There are so many things I want to ask her. She told me last night that her ex would be dropping off some more pictures today. I want to know everything, but I don’t want to pry. I don’t want to push her away, but the long pause on the other end concerns me.
“I don’t know if I can wait six days,” she finally says. “I wish I was there with you to rub your sore muscles and fall asleep in your arms.”
“I wish you were here, too. I miss the fuck out of you. Are you lying down?”
She giggles because she thinks I’m trying to initiate phone sex.
“I just want to picture you,” I insist. “I’m in the middle of the hotel corridor. I’m not going to jerk off out here.”
“I’m wearing the Sugar shirt you bought for me.”
“Take them off.” She pauses, but I hear her breathing quicken. “Please.” The movement on the other end gets me excited. “Claire?”
“When was the last time I touched you?”
“When was the last time you touched yourself?”
She giggles again and I wait for her to get over her embarrassment and answer. “When you called me this morning.”
I don’t know why I torture myself this way when there’s a roomful of girls down the hall who’d get on their knees for me in a heartbeat. Maybe I just need to prove to myself that I’ve changed.
“You know I would never hurt you.”
“I know. Are you okay?”
I want to tell her how much it scares me that she’s been seeing Chris while we’re apart. I want to tell her how much it kills me that he can show up at her dorm or outside her classroom anytime he wants. But she doesn’t want to hear that shit.
“Yeah, I’m just tired. I’ll let you go so you can get your homework done, but I want you to think of me tonight… when you touch yourself.”
“I wouldn’t think of anyone else.”
“I can’t hide anything from you, can I?”
“Adam, I love you. I’ll wait six days or six years. Whatever it takes. Nothing and no one else matters.”
This isn’t true. There is one other person who matters as much, or more, to Claire than I do. And I can’t even be upset about it because that’s exactly as it should be. But that doesn’t change the fact that being her number two worries the hell out of me.
I lean forward to slide the phone into the back pocket of my shorts then sit back against the wall and stare at the framed picture of a floral still life on the wall in front of me. If I go back to the room, I’ll probably get so drunk or high I won’t remember what I did in the morning. But I can’t stay out here. Maybe I should just take a taxi to the airport and catch the next flight to Raleigh to surprise Claire.
I trudge back to the room, resigned to lay off the booze and keep my head clear so I don’t fuck up. When I walk through the door, I’m smacked in the face with the aroma of some good smoke. I step inside the hazy hotel room and spot Yuri Takahashi, number twenty-six in the world and one of my best friends, sitting at a table near the window toking it up, smoke curling from the small pipe in his hand.
A hand clasps the back of my neck and I can tell by the size and the way it grips me softly that it’s not one of the guys. I turn around and the girl I just saw getting boned by Paul is giving me a come-fuck-me look. Her dark hair is tousled and her black eye makeup is smeared across her left temple. I’m surprised I notice these details since she’s standing before me topless, wearing only a short skirt.
“Not gonna happen,” I say as I push her hand off my neck.
She curls her lip in disgust. “What? Are you gay?”
I shake my head as I turn my back on her and make my way toward Yuri.
“Hey, it’s the fucking comeback kid,” Yuri says when he sees me.
He grins broadly as he passes me a freshly packed bowl and a lighter. I think of Claire and I almost hand it back to him, but I need to hide inside myself tonight. I bring the pipe to my lips and suck in as I hold the lighter’s flame to the bowl. It’s been more than a week since I’ve toked so the hot smoke burns my throat and stings my lungs. I hold in the smoke as I pass the pipe back to Yuri.
He shakes his head. “That’s your bowl, bro. Finish it.”
I let the smoke out of my lungs and finish off the bowl. I hand the pipe to Yuri and he taps the ash out into an ashtray before he packs it again. The music coming from the iPod clock radio on the nightstand gets inside my head. I lean back in my chair and close my eyes as I lose myself in the music.
The sounds of giggles and whispers can barely be heard over the song. I don’t know what’s going on until I feel someone’s hand in my crotch. I open my eyes and the topless girl is back and she’s trying to undo the button on my shorts.
I push her hands away and she laughs. She’s fucked up. So am I. But I’m not stupid.
I stand up and she reaches for my shorts again. “Fuck off,” I mutter as I step around her and make my way out into the corridor again.
I stand in the corridor for a minute, unsure of what the fuck I’m doing. I’m fucked up and my mind keeps circling back to the same thoughts over and over again. I think of texting Claire, but she needs to study. Then I think of going back inside, but I’m too stoned to deal with the temptation. I need to get out of this hotel. Fuck the backpack. I have my wallet and my phone. That’s all I need.
I make it down to the lobby and jump into the first taxi I find outside the hotel. “Orlando International.”
The cabbie looks at me and I wonder if I look as stoned as I feel. Something about my appearance makes him skeptical and he appears about ready to kick me out of the cab, but he relents and pulls away from the hotel entrance.
I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I’m running; that’s what I’m doing. I don’t trust myself.
The taxi pulls onto the highway and I realize I left my trophy in the hotel room. I can call the front desk and ask them to ship it to me tomorrow, if it’s still there.
When we reach the airport, I’m a bit more sober—at least, I think I am. I hand the driver a wad of cash and make my way to the first airline check-in counter I find. The girl behind the counter looks bored as she chats with a burly guy in a security uniform. I glance at her nametag: Wanda.
I blink a few times thinking this might sober me up a little more. “When’s the next flight to Raleigh?”
I NEVER WANTED TO BE like my mother. And for a brief moment in time I thought I had escaped that fate. But life has a lovely way of reminding you that you are no better than anyone else—even a dead heroin addict.
It wasn’t until three weeks ago I finally understood that being like my mother isn’t such a bad thing. She may have brutally removed herself from my life when I was only seven years old, but she left behind a foundation for me to have a better life than her own. She taught me how to keep myself safe, which really came in handy as I was shuffled from one foster home to the next for eight years after her death. And, of course, there’s the enormous trust fund she left me—though I have no interest in ever claiming a dime of that money.
So I guess things could be worse, but it’s hard to imagine how as I lie here on the twin bed in my dorm doing statistics homework on a Saturday evening while my boyfriend is surfing in Florida. Of course, judging by the tone of the conversation we just had, it doesn’t seem like Adam is really enjoying his trip. Just remembering his words and the sound of his voice makes my stomach stir.
“I’ll be there in six days. You can congratulate me then.”
His voice was husky with exhaustion and it only makes me miss him more. I want to be there with him in Florida. Instead, I’m stuck in my dorm playing catch-up. This is the price I pay for taking my sophomore year off from UNC.
I glance at the alarm clock on the nightstand between my and Senia’s beds. She should be back from hanging out with Eddie in a couple of hours. The sight of the stack of photos on the nightstand makes my chest ache.
Chris came over this morning to drop off some pictures of Abigail on his way to the airport. He could have emailed them to me, but he insisted on bringing the actual photos in case I wanted to put them in a frame or an album. That’s bullshit. He’s trying to get under my skin. He wants me to feel comfortable around him again.
When he left, I laid the photos facedown on the nightstand so I wouldn’t feel that longing every time I glance at my alarm clock and see my daughter’s face. But seeing the pictures turned facedown is just as jarring. It fills me with a stinging guilt that I’m certain has become part of my DNA by now.
Against my better judgment, I lift the stack of photos off the nightstand and lie back on my pillow. The first photo is of Abigail—I don’t even know her last name yet—lying on someone’s bed and smiling at something above her; something out of frame. I can’t help but refer to her as Abigail Knight in my mind. She’s a piece of Chris, and one look at her soft blonde hair and pouty lips and it’s apparent that she’s a piece of me. But neither of those pieces belongs to us.
The process of an open adoption is much less complicated than I thought it would be. The only thing that needs to be hashed out is the actual agreement. Abigail’s adoptive parents have verbally agreed to send us pictures and emails occasionally. We get to know her. They’re just not sure whether they want Abigail to know us.
The second photo is a close-up and she has Chris’s dark eyes. I trace the curve of her eyelid and I can see the way it turns down slightly at the corner, just like Chris's.