The night was quiet and almost every house that she drove by had its lights off. She took a deep breath and glimpsed at herself in the rearview mirror. She looked so different. She almost didn’t recognize the person who was staring back at her.
She reached the town center and decided to take some break from driving all night long. She parked her car in front of a liquor store that was usually open 24 hours a day. She wasn’t really fond of drinking and getting tipsy, but that night, she thought liquor would help her calm down.
She pushed the glass doors and she was greeted with a smile by a guy, in his early twenties, who was standing behind the counter. She tried to be polite and smiled back.
She found herself studying different wines and checking their prices. Of course she was clueless about which ones were better, but she still picked up the bottles with catchy packaging and read the contents on their labels. She wondered if she could finish a bottle in one night. She shook her head last minute and returned the wine back to its shelf.
She decided she would just get one beer. She headed to the back part of the store and opened one fridge to examine which alcoholic drink looked familiar to her. She was overwhelmed by so many options that she begun to get dizzy.
“Can I help you?” She was startled by the voice that came behind her.
She turned to face the guy and immediately she recognized him: Johny McClaren, the boy who broke too many hearts in high school.
“Do you work here?” she asked, hiding the nervousness that was starting to build inside of her.
“Not really.” He casually put both his hands on his pockets. “I just happened to drop by and buy some drinks. You kind of look like you’re at crossroads here.”
“Yeah.” She nodded slightly. “Never thought buying one drink could be a million dollar decision.”
He raised both of his eyebrows. “I bet you still don’t drink much.”
She was surprised that he could still remember some facts about her, even after all these years. “What can I say?” She shrugged. “Guess some things never change.”
He picked up a green bottle, St. Pauli Girl. “Try this,” he recommended, “It tastes like Heineken…but a lot better.”
“Oh cool. Thanks.” She took the beer from his hands and flipped it over in her hands. “I think it’s worth the shot.” She closed the fridge in front of them. “Uhm. It’s getting late. I should probably head home.”
She turned around and walked to the counter to pay for the beer. She could hear him following her.
“Hey,” He caught up with her. “I was wondering if you wanted to hang out.”
She stopped. “Johny, I hate to say this but I’ve heard so many stories about you. And trust me they’re not the good ones.”
“Yeah.” She gave him a tight smile. “It was nice seeing you again though.”
She gave the cashier her payment and was about to call it a day.
“Whatever you heard about me, I wasn’t that person anymore. Just so you know.” He opened the door for her.
“Thanks.” She replied.
“Do you want to sit on the hood of my car?” He asked.
She frowned at him.
“What I mean is, do you want to, like, catch up or whatever? I haven’t heard from anyone since graduation.” He said a bit awkwardly.
She fought the urge to say, “It’s probably because you’re an asshole.” But instead, she contemplated for a moment.
“Unless you’re tired and have something to do tomorrow, then I guess I should let you go.” He told her.
“Uhm…” She stared off the distance. “Sure.”
They sit side by side on the hood of his car. The lights of the liquor store were illuminating in front of them.
“How bad was I in high school?” He asked while he looked at the empty road ahead.
“On scale of 1 to 10. I would say 11.”
“Wow. Then that made me a horrible person.” He smiled at her.
The only thing that they could hear was the sound of the crickets. She dangled her feet while she waited for him to say something.
“Nobody knew this but when my father died,” he explained. “I was in total loss.”
She froze. Was he opening up to her? She never knew that McClaren had a soft spot.
“I was friends with the jocks but I felt like they never really understood me or what I was going through on that part of my life. I had to act tough when I was with them because, you know, that’s how guys are.” He paused, trying to gather his thoughts.
“I jumped from one relationship to another because I thought I would get even with the world if I hurt other people. And you don’t have to tell me that it was wrong because I knew that it was an unacceptable and ignorant thing to do. I knew how disgusting of a human being I was at that time. I was young and dumb and confused and…”
She cut him off, “You don’t owe me an explanation, you know.”
“Yeah. I know. I don’t.”
She searched her mind frantically for the right thing to say. She debated whether she should try to understand him or be upset at him or just excuse herself and go home. In the end, she chose to say kind words.
“Everyone has moved on, McClaren.”
“Maybe I haven’t.” He looked at her with sad eyes. “Maybe all my wrongdoings still haunt me everywhere I go. And maybe I feel like everyone will always remember me as that person they knew from high school.”
“If I tell you I look at you differently now, will that make you feel better?” She asked.
A tear fell from his eye. Then another. And then he began to sob.
She panicked and didn’t know what to do. “Aww. McClaren. It’s fine. You will get over it.”
He couldn’t bring himself to say another word.
She watched him in his most vulnerable state and suddenly she felt like all her worries and problems were tiny compared to him. She could tell how much guilt he was carrying in his life for so long. She could hear in his voice how much he was hurting.
She wanted to hug him and caress him until his pain went away. She wanted to be there for him to remind him that he wasn’t alone. She wanted to heal him with her care and affection.
McClaren used to be the guy she dreamed of dating in high school. But looking back, she was glad their romantic paths didn’t intersect. She looked at the sky above them and wondered whether there was a purpose, a reason why the universe brought them together in that moment. She shifted her attention in his direction and wondered if she could be the hero for him.
She let his head rest on her shoulder, inhaled the cold midnight air, and promised to herself that she would do everything to help him begin again.