After we had passed through the final police checkpoint, Mason and I ran up the stairs to the apartment that I shared with our coworker Rayjeanne. I grabbed two bottles of beer, the cheap-but-decent stuff, and ushered Mason into my bedroom. "Nobody's here yet," I said. "And Rayjeanne wanted me to stay out of the way if it was just her and Trick." Mason shrugged and took the beer I handed him, finding a seat on my neatly made bed. I sat down on the end of the bed and leaned against the wall. I had been looking forward to this for the entire month, this "bonding and brewskis happy hour" party that Rayjeanne had planned as a thinly-veiled attempt to get into Ricky T's pants. I could hear them in the living room. "Tri-ick," Rayjeanne drawled, purposely using the familiar nickname that Ricky had quickly earned around the office. "Can you open this beer for me, darlin'?" I pictured Trick popping the top on his belt buckle, on the heel of his boot, or with his teeth in some wild display of machismo that was certain to make Rayjeanne cream herself. "Much obliiiiged, Trick, darlin'," she crooned, her voice dripping with sex. I tried to smother a smile. If my poor roommate was anything, "subtle" was not it.
"What are you laughing at?" Mason asked me then, his steely eyes grabbing mine and refusing to let go until I answered.
"I'm trying not to laugh," I said, contorting my face into a parody of seriousness.
"You might as well be trying not to breathe," he said, grinning.
"I'm also trying not to breathe," I laughed, taking a deep breath and miserably failing to hold it in my puffed-out cheeks. He laughed too, tilting his head back to take a swig from his longneck. Although this party was ostensibly all about Rayjeanne's desire to make breakfast for Trick, I was secretly ecstatic about it for my own reason: Mason Wayland. Would there ever be a better opportunity to get this incredible specimen of a man into my bedroom, beer in hand? We were just talking, of course, my sense of subtlety being quite overdeveloped in comparison to Rayjeanne's. But there was time enough and beer enough for something else to happen, wasn't there? Sure, we all worked together, but those were the perks of having a dangerous job: everyone who wanted to eventually just fucked each other to relieve the tension, and nobody ever gave it a second thought.
When the waves of laughter were only lapping at our shores, he asked, "What do you think is up with Rayjeanne and Trick?"
"I know what she hopes is up," I smiled at my own double entendre, but my mirth faded when I saw Mason's expression, a bit forlorn with a hint of brow-furrowing that I hadn't anticipated. Someone else came through the front door then, calling out a hearty "hullo!" to Rayjeanne. It was Pete and Mielle.
"Hey kids!" Rayjeanne said, her voice bubbling with excitement. She liked being a gracious hostess almost as much as she liked getting laid.
"Sorry we're late," Mielle said. "But Pete wanted to find the closest approximation to his favorite beer, and we were at that place by the north border, where the guy lets you taste everything?"
"You're not late," Rayjeanne said. "I don't even know if Cat is home yet."
"We're in here," I shouted into the living room, almost reluctantly jumping up and pulling Mason into the fray.
"Jesus, Cat," Rayjeanne said. "How did you get in here without my noticing? Hello, Mason."
"I have a key, don't I?" I said, my voice betraying my annoyance. I realized that this sort of behavior was probably how I had gained my reputation for being the sullen one. That, my wardrobe, and the extensive collection of shoegazing indie rock that I shared on the office's iTunes.
"Hello, Rayjeanne," Mason said.
Sometimes I got the sense that Rayjeanne really only tolerated me, even though we did most of the things that friends were supposed to do. And I was suddenly curious about her relationship with Mason. Why had he had such a visceral reaction to my snarky remark about her and Trick? A timid knock was a welcome interruption to our strained greetings.
"That must be Kristi and her cubemates," Rayjeanne said, opening the door. "Have some beers, everyone! We have enough to last us through a siege!" The ever-effervescent Kristi and her cubemates tumbled through the door the way that cartoon snow falls into a house after a snow-in. The girls were just as glittery as snow, too, and the guys seemed all too happy to be accompanying them to a party. This was really the first time since our start date that our hiring class had gotten together as a group to do anything that wasn't work.
The only one left to show up was Andrew. He was the kind of guy who spiked his hair in the morning and wore a black hoodie everywhere. If it hadn't been against regulations, he probably would have pinned things to it, band logos screen printed on cloth scraps, like the punk kids who hung out near the border, just out of the grasp of the checkpoint police. Andrew and I often wore the same black Converse, which prompted everyone else to think that we should get together. But I didn't want a guy who was just like me. I wanted Mason, a guy who wouldn't have had any trouble fitting in with the popular crowd in my high school: smart, preppy, athletic, blond. Another weak knock interrupted my reverie. But that wasn't like Andrew at all. He had a firm handshake and a percussionist's knock.
"Who is it?" Rayjeanne asked before opening the door. The knock had aroused her suspicions as well. She peered through the eyehole.
"Andrew," came a gruff voice from the other side of the door.
"Oh my God, Andrew," she said, quickly undoing the lock and throwing open the door. "What happened?"
"The cops," he said into the doormat, bent double. "They hassled me at the checkpoint. I forgot my work ID card, and I guess they thought..." Andrew stumbled in, trying to straighten himself out. Rayjeanne closed the door behind him and ran to get some ice from the freezer.
"Are you ok?" I asked.
"I'm fine," he rumbled. "Just need to sit down." Mielle rushed to his side and helped him sit on the couch.
"Andrew, seriously," she said. "You look hurt." His cheek was red and puffy and we could see the dusty brown bootprints at the waist of his black hoodie, with a few on the chest.
"Just a couple of kicks," he said. "I've had worse."
"Maybe you should start combing your hair down," Pete suggested, trying to be helpful. Andrew cut him off with a piercing glare.
"Fuck you too," he snapped. "Isn't this supposed to be a beer party, Rayjeanne?" I had already gotten a beer for him, a twist-off that I opened right before handing over the bottle. "Oh, thanks, Cat." Rayjeanne came back with a plastic baggie full of ice, wrapped in a kitchen towel.
"Take about ten beers, put this ice on your face, and call me in the morning," she said, dabbing at his cheek with the icy kitchen towel. Andrew took the ice from her and held it to the lump on his cheek, which was purpling before our eyes. He thanked her and tried to smile, but the resultant one-sided effect looked more like a sneer. "Drink up, kid," she said, smiling at him. He took a swig. Rayjeanne nodded her approval and I realized that I had been compulsively sucking on my beer since Andrew came in, and it was empty. I went to the kitchen for another, Mason hot on my heels. The party noise was slowly creeping back into the party, now that it seemed that Andrew was not in any immediate danger.