Ding-ding-ding-ding! The bell by the register rang frantically. I assumed a toddler had gotten ahold of it, until a familiar voice yelled out, “Yooohoooo. Mizz Barista? I’d like to make an order?”
I couldn’t help it– I smiled. Kristy. I know some people (Jessi, Stacey, etc.) would have found it obnoxious, but working the closing shift at Brew Ha Ha tended to be pretty lonely-slash-soul-crushing… Yes, there was the occasional group of tweens (Troop of tweens? Tribe? Train?) demanding their entirely coffee-free frappes, harried mothers trying to buy their children off with hot cocoa or a cookie, or the awkward first eHarmony date. But frequently at 7pm on a Thursday night, like tonight, it was a coffee wasteland. There’s only so much wiping of counters and sweeping of floors a gal can do, but the bill man, he’s gotta get paid. So there I was, four nights a week and the occasional weekend.
I ducked out of my hiding spot in the back room, where I was catching up on my daily New York Times crossword, to find Kristy leaning on the counter by the register. “Heyyy. How’s your back doing?”
She nodded. “Better. You know who fixed it? Dawn. Who fucking knew?”
“Yeah, Jessi sees her twice a month.”
Kristy’s mouth stretched into a wide, forced grin. She spoke through her teeth. “So, uh. Have you talked to her at all?”
“I mean, a few times.”
“Did she tell you what happened during my move?”
“That she got pissed and left? Yeah. I was there, remember?”
Kristy blinked with confusion. “No you weren’t.”
“Yeah, I was. How do you think I knew about your back?” I replied, and proceeded to list the events of the day: how we all got there, waited for Claudia to show up 20 minutes late, as usual (and that was after Kristy told her a meeting time a half hour earlier than she told the rest of us), then within the first 20 minutes Kristy three out her back try to wrestle her absurdly large sectional down the stairs.
“Oh. Wow. I really don’t remember you. Weird.” There was a beat of awkward silence before she added, “Probably the back pain.”
“Yeah…” Story of my life: I was pretty much just a non-speaking extra in everyone else’s. Of course, it didn’t help that 90% of the time, I was working. But it would be nice if folks noticed me on the rare occasion I did show up to things. I used to feel pangs of hurt when folks forgot about me, but now… I don’t know. I’d grown numb to it or something. Probably not the way it should be? Seems like something a therapist would frown upon.
“Oh!” She smacked a hand on the counter. “That reminds me. We’re thinking of doing a game night at Mary Anne’s on Saturday. You want to come?” She gave another toothy grin. “Maybe see if you can convince Jess to come to? She won’t talk to me.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Bummmmerrrrrrr…” Then, after a moment, “How late? Maybe you can come after? I feel like I never see you anymore.”
Probably because you’re not paying attention when I am there, I thought. But, I won’t lie, it did feel nice to have her say she missed me. As much of a bro as she was, as cluelessly self absorbed as she could be, some part of me always wanted approval from her. “9? I’ll text to see what you guys are up to at that point.”
“Sweet!” She slapped her hands on the counter a couple more times and grinned: a real one, with the corners of her eyes crinkling and the tips of her incisors showing. She always looked like a mischievous little kid when she smiled. I couldn’t help but smile back, even though I wanted nothing more after a closing shift than to go home and crawl into bed with my cats.
“Sounds like fun,” I said. “So did you want to get something?”
“Yeah. Two small cocoas. One regular, one mint. No whip.”
Something inside my chest flinched at the second drink. Still, I said, hopefully, “Mary Anne?” even though I knew Kristy could never go home with cocoa for the two of them and nothing for the kids.
“Monica…” She looked at her feet.
“Didn’t she, like, go crazy because Dawn gave you that massage?”
“Yeah, she apologized and bought Dawn new oil. And the stains came out of the carpet with OxiClean, so.”
I must have still looked skeptical, because she weakly added, “I like that she’s so feisty.”
“That’s a word for it.” Kristy gave a tight-lipped smile.
I made the cocoas and handed them to her. As she left, she shouted, “Saturday!” and I nodded, already exhausted for my future self.
I don’t know what I was feeling, exactly. It wasn’t just that I thought, like all of our friends, that Kristy was making a ludicrously bad decision by continuing to date Monica, whatever the employment situation. I knew there was something else driving her compulsion to keep dating this woman when all signs read “Bad News. Very Bad News,” but I wasn’t sure what. So I suppose part of the reason I decided to go to the game night was I wanted to figure out why. At least, that’s what I told myself.
The night of the game night was bizarrely busy for Brew Ha Ha, with no less than four dates, a couple old men nursing small decafs while they peered at newspapers, and a parent group with a bunch of toddler hooligans running in and out of the tables like they were on American Ninja Warrior.
I actually had to tell this one couple, two girls in their early twenties, that they needed to wrap up their three-hour conversation when we were closing, which left me feeling a pang of sadness deep in the pit of my stomach. I told myself it was because of how long it had been since I’d been on a date, let alone a date with someone I wanted to talk to for longer than, I don’t know, twelve minutes. These girls had been touching each others’ arms and hands, giggling effusively. One looked like a younger version of Kristy, with her brown ponytail and Red Sox shirt.
That realization sent another pang through my stomach.
I locked the door behind them as they left (holding hands. Of course.) and quickly finished my closing process: counting out the drawer, making sure the counters were spotless and cold brew brewing. I texted Kristy, Finishing up now. You guys still hanging out?
I stared at my phone for a few moments– but of course she didn’t respond immediately. I shoved it in my pocket and got in my car, deciding to head over to Mary Anne’s anyway. It would be easy to tell if folks were still over once I got there. And if they weren’t… I guess I’d see them again in six weeks, when my schedule and the stars aligned.
I hated the predicament I’d gotten myself into: I went to a fancy art school for college, taking out far too many private loans for “living expenses” since my job at the school’s writing center didn’t pay enough for groceries, let alone, I dunno, a beer or an ice cream sundae or what-have-you. Logically, I should have gotten a second job, but I didn’t want it to negatively impact my time for writing my, humblebrag, very popular Harry Potter fanfiction, which I was sure was going to get me a publishing deal. (Haha, past self. The joke’s on you! Now you never have time to write!)
Then I got it into my head that to be a really GREAT writer, I needed to get my MFA. And that may have been true, but when I went to grad school, folks didn’t look kindly upon YA authors. My first workshop in, everybody was all, Why are you making characters emotions so obvious? and Magic is such a crutch. Just tell a good story and people will read it. I lasted a year, then high-tailed it out of there with another $30,000 of debt and no degree to show for it.
Fast forward to now: I worked full time as an editorial assistant at a small publisher that produced cookbooks and craft guides, which, as expected, pays slightly more than poverty level– hence the part-time job at the coffee shop. I took the occasional writing workshop at the local library, but those had the opposite problem of my MFA program– Wow, you write so well! I can’t find anything wrong with this story at all. It’s so inventive!– so I spent a lot of time in a writing rut.
Meanwhile, my friends had all managed to move forward with their adult lives, leaving me in their dust. Not intentionally, of course– see: Kristy inviting me to game night– but just intrinsically, since they could afford tickets to see Pod Save America when it toured in Boston or even eating out at restaurants with entrees over $20, and here I was, still praying for the luxury of a few extra couple crumpled dollar bills in the tip jar at the end of the evening. Even Claudia, who used to commiserate with me, had a steady, art-forward job with a reasonable salary AND a boyfriend.
So here I was: lonely, and also not writing. Praying for the crumbs of friendship that I could still grab at.
I arrived at Mary Anne’s place to find the house glowing with life. Claudia and Stacey’s cars were parked out front. I looked at my phone again. Still not response from Kristy. A small voice in my head wondered if she’d only invited me out of habit or pity, had not really cared if I came.
My throat tightened.
I shook my head. Don’t be crazy, Mal. I got out of my car and went to hang out with my friends.
Mary Anne gave me a quick hug when she answered the door, and the rest of the group– Kristy, Stacey, Claudia, and Monica– waved when I entered.
“You want anything to drink?” Mary Anne asked.
“Just water is fine,” I said. “I can get it. Cups still in the same place?”
Mary Anne nodded, and I went to the kitchen by myself, very aware of the conversation continuing behind me, wondering what everybody had done that evening before I arrived.
Kristy scuttled in behind me. “Hey, buddy! Glad you could come.” She squeezed my shoulder, and I was suddenly very aware of the warmth of her hand. She smelled a bit like Old Spice. “Just drinking water?”
“Yeah,” I said as I grabbed a glass. For a moment, I thought she might urge me to choose something harder, indicate in some way that she cared what I did that evening. But, of course, she didn’t. She grabbed herself a Sam Adams and gave me one more quick pat on the arm before heading back into the living room.
I followed her in, and realized at the same time as Mary Anne that there wasn’t actually a seat for me. She jumped back up off her place on the couch and said, “Here, have my spot. I can get a chair from the kitchen.”
I shook my head. “The floor’s fine!” I plopped down and looked at my friends: Kristy leaning back with her arm draped around Monica’s shoulder, Claudia’s cheeks flushed from the pink cocktail she held in her hand, Mary Anne seated primly on the edge of her chair. Something glinted on the back of Stacey’s hand. An engagement ring?
“Do we want to keep playing Jenga, or do something else?” she asked, utterly oblivious to what appeared to be a giant diamond surrounded by many more tiny diamonds. Everybody hemmed and hawed, sifting through the stack of games: Scattegories, a version of Trivial Pursuit circa 2003, Skip Bo, Uno.
Since nobody was mentioning the ring, I finally asked, “Stacey, what’s that on your hand?”
She blinked and looked down at it. Then she smiled and held it up for me to see in all its sparkly glory. “Oh, Keith and I got engaged. Didn’t I tell you?”
Of course not, Stace. When would you have told me? Half of my brain snapped, but then the other half soothed myself: She probably had told so many people she couldn’t remember who she’d told and who she hadn’t.
“Holy crap,” I said, trying to feign enthusiasm. Well, not feign. I was happy for her. Sort of. I wondered how long everybody had known before me. “Congratulations!”
“Thanks.” She raised her eyebrows and clapped her hands, offering no other information. “Okay, so, games. What do we want to play, guys?”
“CELEBRITY!” Claudia howled. Claudia always wanted to play Celebrity, even though it never went well: She and Stacey had a solid understanding of celebrities, although Stacey would occasionally throw in an esoteric scientist like von Bekesy or Lord Rayleigh. (No, not Lord Raleigh, the poet. Lord Rayleigh, the theoretical physicist.) Kristy generally included names of athletes and maybe Justin Bieber or some other person who was famous like ten years ago, and I… knew YA authors. And David Tennant, and Joss Whedon, and Warren Ellis, which I could only get away with if Jessi and Ben were playing. So, basically, Celebrity was generally a failure among our group of friends, except for Claudia and Stacey, who had a bizarre psychic link when it came to the Kardashians.
“Can we do, like, a theme?” I asked. “Like, books? Or Marvel Comic Universe? Or Disney?”
Claudia bounced in her seat. “DISNEY!”
Monica, who until that moment had remained remarkably docile, said, “What’s Celebrity?”
“Uh. So.” Kristy shifted her weight and looked at Monica with a bit of surprise, like she hadn’t expected her to talk or something. “Everybody gets three strips of paper, and you get to write any celebrity you want onto the paper. So, like, uh, Angela Lansbury–”
“Angela Lansbury?” Monica’s forehead crumpled in confusion.
“Yeah, she played Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast?”
“That seems really… Like. How many people know that? Do you guys know that?”
Stacey muttered to her lap, “Everybody…”
Monica’s head jerked in Stacey’s direction, and for a moment I felt bad for her. Had she even been alive for Murder, She Wrote?
I spoke up. “She was pretty famous in the 80s and 90s. But, like, we can also do things, like…” I scanned my brain for more recent Disney movies, “Uh. Olaf? Or Kristen Bell.”
Monica’s face relaxed and she nodded. “Oh, okay. Got it.”
I continued. “So we’ll put the strips in a bowl, and we’ll split up into two teams. Then one person will get a minute to try to get people to guess as many of the celebrities as they can, just by explaining the celebrity or acting it out or whatever, but without actually saying the name on the paper. And you do as many as possible during that minute, and your team gets a point for every one they guess right. Then a person from the other team goes, and so on. And if you don’t know something, you’re allowed to put one slip back into the bowl per round. Make sense?”
She nodded again. “Yup.”
I wondered who this person sitting in front of us was. She certainly wasn’t acting like the girl who screamed at Jessi on the moving day or semi-destroyed Mary Anne’s living room. She was pretty: long, glossy black hair that fell in waves, skin unmarred by blemishes or fine lines, perfectly defined muscles in her arms. But, like, Kristy had to be interested in her for a reason, right? Besides her being hot?
Why weren’t any of our friends giving Kristy the benefit of the doubt that there was something more to this? What was I missing here?
“Okay, so,” I said. “How about Kristy, Monica, and I make a team, and then Stacey, Claudia, and Mary Anne are a team.”
Everybody agreed and we got to writing our choices down. (I went with Gaston, Mulan, and Idina Menzel.) Slips went into a bowl, etc, etc.
Stacey went first, which, of course, went smashingly for the other team. “He eats six dozen eggs to get large.” (Claudia and Mary Anne screamed “Gaston!” in unison.) “He’s an alien that passes as a dog and lives in Hawaii.” (Claudia got Stitch.) And so on. Their team got five points altogether: Gaston and Stitch, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Jemaine Clement.
“Who’s the last guy?” Monica whispered.
“He did the voice of the big, evil crab in Moana.”
“Oh, I didn’t see that.”
“It’s really cute,” I said. “The music’s awesome.”
She nodded but had started picking at her cuticles, eyes blank. Help me like you, girl, I thought.
I went up for our team. So, the funny thing about playing Celebrity with this particular group of friends is we always knew who chose what– not because of personality (although partly because of that), but because of handwriting. Way back in the day, when we had our babysitting club, Kristy had us write journal entries about all our babysitting jobs, so we got really good at recognizing everybody’s handwriting. Some things had changed– Stacey no longer dotted her i’s with little hearts– but others had not– Claudia could not spell to save her life (in fact, I think the advent of autocorrect made her spelling even worse, if that’s possible). So I knew that Stacey had written the first I picked up, Roquefort (no fucking clue what that was– I also put it right back in the bowl), and Claudia had written, “Maleffesent,” (good try there, Claud). “Angelina Jolie played her. She’s an evil witch.”
“Oh! Oh!” Monica brightened and exclaimed, “Maleficent!”
I picked up the next one, from Kristy: Wreck It Ralph. “He’s the bad guy in a video game and wants to be the good guy!” (Needless to say, she got that one.)
Another Stacey: Tod. Tod? Who the fuck was Tod?
I stared at it for longer than I should have, then said, “It’s a guy’s name?”
Kristy and Monica stared blankly.
“Short. One syllable.”
“Gary?” Monica said.
Stacey, who had been watching us with a mean little grin that I chalked up her general competitive nature, did a spit take with her drink and snorted back a laugh.
“One syllable,” I repeated as gently as I could.
“Oh. Duh,” Monica said. She pressed her lips together in thought.
“It’s okay, babe,” Kristy said, rubbing her back. (Which, I thought, said something about how Kristy felt about her– normally, her competitiveness dwarfed anybody else’s, and she didn’t take kindly to teammates making dumb mistakes.)
“TIME’S UP!” Claudia crowed.
“How many points?” Mary Anne asked. “Two?”
Kristy clapped her hands and leaned forward. “It’s okay, team. We got this. We’ll make it up next round.”
Mary Anne went up for them, and did fine, grabbing four more points for the team, including Idina Mendzel. “She’s a famous Broadway actress, and she sang ‘Let It Go,’” she’d told the group. Stacey guessed it (Is there such thing as a Celebrity shark? I feel like Stacey could hustle people for a lot of money if she gambled.), but after, Monica leaned over and said excitedly, “I knew that one!”
Thankfully, she didn’t notice Stacey roll her eyes. Christ. What was this? Mean Girls?
Our turn came back around, and Kristy went up, picked out a slip, and said, “He was a brontosaurus and he was looking for his mom?”
“Oh!” Monica exclaimed. “That was mine! Little Foot!”
“NOT Disney,” Claudia grumbled, but because she was drunk, it came out pretty much at normal volume. Mary Anne kicked her foot, and Claudia added, “What? It’s not! It’s Don Bluth!”
“He’s the king of the ocean!” Kristy shouted, causing everybody to turn to her.
“Triton,” I replied.
“TIME!” Claudia shouted.
“We need a do-over. You guys were talking during my turn and distracting my team members.” Kristy folded her arms across her chest.
“No fucking way,” Stacey said.
“Are you serious?” Kristy shot back.
“Guys, it’s not a big deal,” Mary Anne said. “Let them have another turn. We were loud.”
I watched Monica out of the corner of my eye, wondering if she’d blow up like she did the moving day. But she remained utterly docile, the only sign of her discomfort with the whole situation that she had started cracking her knuckles.
Were my friends trying to provoke her? What the fuck was going on?
Monica turned to Kristy and said under her breath, “I’m getting kind of tired.”
Kristy’s face fell, and she replied, “Yeah, me too.” Louder, to the rest of us, she added, “We’re going to get to bed. Night, guys. Sorry to bail on you, Mal.”
Nobody objected to their leaving, so I said, “Night.”
Mary Anne was the only other person who said anything: “See you in the morning.”
As they had disappeared upstairs, Stacy muttered, “Thank. God.” Then she shook her head. “Sorry, guys. I don’t deal with crazy well.”
Claudia gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “I know, right?”
Maybe I was missing something from not being around my friends as much as they saw one another. I didn’t get why they were being so outrageously rude to this girl. I mean, yes, what I’d seen on the moving day, and the Dawn thing, did indicate she needed intense therapy ASAP, but… That didn’t mean we should be catty. Particularly when Monica wasn’t actually doing anything wrong.
“She didn’t seem too bad tonight,” I offered.
“Probably because she won’t let Kristy out of her sight long enough to get jealous,” Stacey replied.
Mary Anne pursed her lips in a small frown. “Yeah. She’s been spending most nights here. And I’ve told Kristy I’d prefer they don’t do that, with the kids here and all, but…” She sighed. “She just comes over after the kids are in bed and leaves before they get up. Most of the time.”
Okay, yeah. I could see the problem with that.
Stacey poured wine into her glass from a bottle that she’d apparently had tucked beside the couch. She took a long drink. “Guys. This shit is getting bananas. We really need to do something about it.”
Mary Anne bit her lower lip. “I know. I mean, she’s a nice girl one-on-one. She really is. She helped me find this protein powder that doesn’t bother Ollie’s tum, and it is a GODSEND.”
Stacey and Claudia gave Mary Anne pointed stares. She sighed and flopped back in her chair, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. She remained silent a moment, then straightened back up and nodded. “I know. I know. I just– with her moved in. You know?”
“You don’t want drama,” I said.
“Right. She still lives here. And I need her, guys. It’s just so much easier having her around.”
I knew what she was talking about. I saw how my sister Vanessa struggled single-parenting her twins (who, granted, I thought were sociopaths. Yes, I knew aunts shouldn’t say that about their siblings’ offspring, but, well. That’s how it was).
“I’m just saying, I think we need to do an intervention.” Stacey held up both her hands in defense. “It’s at that point.”
My stomach sank. I got it. Sort of? I wasn’t sure I fully agreed. But I also didn’t want more to drive me apart from my friends than what was already there, particularly with the whole Jessi fiasco. So I said nothing and just watched them discuss.
Mary Anne had gone quiet. Her feet bounced on the ground, her brow furrowed. “Depending on how we handle it,” she finally replied.
“Of course!” Stacey said. “Clearly.” She glanced at all of us. “So how do we want to do this?”
The four of us looked at one another. Claudia said, “I guess maybe we get her to go out with us for dinner? Someplace with alcohol?”
“How do we make sure she doesn’t bring–” Stacey tipped her head towards the stairs, “her?”
Claudia gasped. She slapped her thigh, and her eyes widened with excitement. “Guys. I have an idea.”
As she told us, I got queasy. It was a terrible idea. But could I really tell them not to do it?
©2019 Kat Setzer. This page has no affiliation with Ann M. Martin, Scholastic, or any other entity involved with the Baby-Sitters Club Series. Original stock photos ©2019 Denis Nata, Ljupco Smokovski, anon, and luismolinero from Adobe Stock Images. Background: ©2019 IKEA.