In Too Deep
I pull a cigarette from a newly purchased pack of Marlboro Reds and light it up. I close my eyes on an inhale, letting the smoke singe my lungs, and then open them on the exhale. It’s been over a year since I’ve smoked anything, let alone had a drink. The sensation of having the filter between my lips is unnerving and claiming at the same time.
It’s a distraction, which is what I need.
There’s music playing on the hotel’s pool deck. Tiny hidden speakers sing loud enough that each song can be heard at every beach chair, but not so loud people can’t talk. From where I sit at the bar, the guests in the reserved party area are doing just that.
Having the time of their lives.
I should be over there, relishing in the pre-wedding festivities, but I can’t bring myself to leave my stool. For thirty minutes I’ve sat here, watching the people I used to call friends mingle. Each face is the same, with minor differences.
Laugh lines around the lips. Tired eyes. A few new tattoos. All in all, they haven’t changed.
“Fancy seeing you here.”
Noah Ruckers. Best friend, but not. A man I gave all my firsts to, and thoroughly let down over the years. For a moment, everything inside me tenses. Eighteen months have passed since I last saw his face. Five hundred and forty-eight days where I almost caved when things got hard. Seven hundred and seventy-nine thousand minutes (give or take).
I’ve lost count of how many times I almost asked him if I could come home. Or thought about begging him to come visit me.
I didn’t do either.
Not for my sake, but his.
Noah takes a seat at the open barstool beside me. He reaches for my hair, a deep shade of brown with royal blue ends, and his finger brushes across my bare shoulder.
“Your hair is different.” He smiles and something warm pools in my stomach when he adds, “It looks nice.”
I mumble, “Thanks,” and reach for my water. It’s cold but does nothing to ease the ache in my chest. I itch to hug him, but keep my distance. For one, I’m not one hundred percent sure where we stand. I’ve been a shit friend since I left, avoiding all meaningful communication and resorting to bi-weekly you doing good texts.
Mainly, though, my not-so-best-friend looks fucking fine and it’s tripping me out.
Noah has always been attractive, but there’s something different today. I can’t put my finger on it, but I can’t stop looking. Maybe it’s the fact that most days his wardrobe consists of a T-shirt and jeans unless we were going to the beach, then it is board shorts and bare skin, and today he’s dressed to the nines. The pressed button-down with the sleeves rolled up and dark blue slacks that hug his ass look good.
So good that my cigarette misses my mouth when I bring it to my lips. Noah chuckles at my clumsiness and I laugh too, embarrassed. I set the cig in the ashtray, temporarily giving up on using smoking to calm my nerves. My hair slips from between his fingers.
I chew on my bottom lip, unsure of what to do now. The divide between us is thick. It hangs in the air, draped in unspoken truths.
We stare at each other, with nothing to say because at this point, where do we even start?
Last Noah knew, I was living outside of Savannah and working at a dentist office. He has no idea I work at two all night diners and barely scrape by. Or that I used last month's rent to pay for this weekend’s hotel and have been living out of my car ever since. So much about our lives has been left out of our texts, I’m not sure it can be said we even know each other any more.
I look down to the ashtray and frown. My cigarette has turned into a stick of ash. A metaphor for my life. One minute everything is fine, I’m cruising along, and the next my plans are derailed and I’ve been discarded.
I pull two new cigs from my pack and offer Noah one. I think he still smokes. I can’t remember him saying anything about quitting. Then again, that could have been one of those not so little details left out of our conversations on his end.
He shakes his head. “I thought you quit?”
I light mine and take a deep inhale. The way his gaze skirts over my body makes me nervous. Not in a bad way, just… I don’t know. I’m overthinking things today.
“I did, right after I left.” I hold my breath until I can’t take the burn in my chest anymore, then release the smoke. “But being back has got me more stressed out than a mother with newborn twins screaming their lungs out at Wal-Mart.”
“Nice comparison.” He chuckles, the sound deep in his throat, and I find myself looking down at the bar top to fight a smile.
I like the way it sounds.
It reminds me of the old days when Noah and I were still in high school, and shit was easy. When life consisted of late nights at the local diner, riding our bikes down the boardwalk, and stopping at a hotel bar to drink Shirley Temples and share a basket of fries.
Dark memories I’ve worked hard to lock away creep up on me. I can’t help but wonder, What would have happened if we didn’t break up? Or what if we had gotten back together in college, like we'd planned, and I never dated Rob… where would my life be?
I force the corners of my lips to stay upturned and bat my lashes. Flirting with Noah is an easy distraction. I don’t think I could forget how to if I tried. It’s harmless, shameless flirting, but it used to piss my ex-boyfriend off. Not that that matters anymore.
“What can I say?” I shrug and lean closer until our shoulders touch. “I’m a master of words.”
“Hi, there. I’m Misha. Can I get you anything?” the bartender interrupts. Misha leans one arm on the counter, giving Noah a perfect view of her tits. I roll my eyes as his gaze settles on her rack for the briefest of moments, then finds her face. He lifts his lips into a lazy smile, one that used to make my heart race.
Still makes my heart race, even if I wish it wouldn’t.
“I’ll have a glass of Jameson,” Noah says, his country-boy accent thicker than molasses. I don't know where his twang comes from. He’s a beach bum with salt water in his veins and his family is Florida bred, but there are times he sounds more southern than a cowboy in the thick of Alabama.
An unfamiliar squeezing sensation catches me off guard. It swells in my chest until each breath is a struggle. I let out the air in my lungs, counting to five before trying to inhale. After two cycles, I realize this feeling doesn’t stem from my anxiety.
It’s something else.
Something I vaguely recognize and almost laugh once I pinpoint what it is. I take another drag off my cig and try to ignore it. I like to flirt with Noah, I like to see his cheeks flush red. He, in return, pushes my buttons in the best of ways. It’s who we are—well, were before I left. We both know our banter means nothing. It’s harmless.
And yet, I’m jealous.
This is going to be a long ass weekend.
“Mmm,” Misha hums, practically salivating. “Honey, with that accent you can have anything you want.” She writes her number on a napkin square then slides it and the drink Noah ordered across the bar. The woman winks and then, thankfully, goes to throw herself, I mean wait, on her other guests.
Noah looks at the napkin square. He chuckles as he picks it up and then crumbles it into a ball. He spins on his stool and leans against the bar top. For a minute, he stares out at the crowd of people I’m avoiding.
My heart beats in anticipation. I can feel unspoken questions lingering between us. Am I okay? What’s it going to be like to see Rob, my ex, again? There are a million variations of those two questions that have been asked to avoid saying the words everyone wants to ask.
Am I going to relapse by being here?
Noah downs his drink in two big swallows, then sets the glass on the counter behind him. “Are you ready to face the wolves?”
I turn in my seat and catch sight of our bartender again. Even across the bar, she’s still watching Noah, shooting me the stink eye whenever our gazes meet. I laugh a little and choose to focus on that sensation, the pride of her not knowing what’s going on between Noah and I—which is nothing—instead of worrying about what hasn’t been said yet.
I glance across the pool deck again, my gaze searching and finding a set of tattoos before seeing the owner’s face. His back is to me, but I’d know the enormous shamrock tattoo on the back of his arm anywhere, even with a sleeve of artwork surrounding it.
The man who made me and broke me all at once.
It’s been almost two years since we broke up. I spent five months in rehab and moved away to start over and rebuild myself so that if this day ever came I would be ready. I should be okay… and yet, my stomach cramps at the sight of my ex-boyfriend’s tattoos.
Not even his face.
I close my eyes with my next inhale of my cigarette, unwanted memories slipping through the cracks of my tough-girl-facade. They say that time heals all wounds, but those people—whoever they are—have never had a cut run deep into their soul. They’ve never felt their heart bleed and bleed until there is nothing left. They don’t understand what it’s like to fall in love with the wrong man and completely lose yourself.
They have never been broken beyond repair.
I fight a wave of unexpected tears and choke on the smoke in my lungs like a kid puffing on my first cig. My hand goes to my chest to beat clean air into my body. Noah grabs my water and pats my back. He’s ready, as always, to take care of me and the guilt is more than I can bear.
“We don’t have to—”
“I’m fine.” I cut him off and snatch my water from his hand. I finish it and set the cup behind me. “I’ve got this.”
Noah looks skeptical but he stretches his arms and leans his elbows on the bar. The last few times I saw him, his dark hair was short and gelled up in the front, but it’s different now, a little longer, curling around his freckled ears. “Whatever you say, princess.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Whatever you say, Harper.” Noah takes my hand in his. Green eyes suck me in with a look of interest I never thought I’d see again. I don’t like it…but I also don’t hate it either.
Fuck. This is confusing.
I roll my eyes and tug free of his grasp. I grab the hair tie from my wrist and twist my locks into a messy bun because my fingers were semi-accidentally close to his nether regions and it’s making me feel weird. Tingly. “Princesses need saving, and I’m not that girl anymore.”
Noah’s jaw drops. He gasps dramatically and covers his heart with his hand, like a lovesick cartoon character. “Damn. You mean I won’t get to be your knight in shining armor during this shitshow of a wedding?”
“Shut up, you idiot.”I bite back a grin and punch Noah in the shoulder, not expecting my fist to collide with solid muscle. I wince and shake my hand, which earns me yet another chuckle from him.
Noah looks me dead in the eye, demanding my attention. “For reals, though, Harper. You look amazing. Whatever you’ve done since you’ve been gone has worked. I wish you’d call more, but I’m proud of you. ”
My cheeks flush. It’s been a long time since anyone said they were proud of me, well anyone that counts. My therapist told me she was proud on discharge day, but she was paid to say that. So, I took her compliment with a grain of salt and I cut everyone else out of my life who’s opinion might have mattered.
“Wow. Way to make things weird and sappy,” I tease, failing at ignoring the tornados in my stomach. Noah cracks another smile, his eyes lighting up. Fuck, he’s beautiful.
I can’t hear the clank of a spoon against a glass, but I can see Ethan Johnson—the man of the night—gathering everyone at the party area in a circle.
I snuff out what’s left of my current cigarette and reach for another. Tiny tremors take control of my body and the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on edge. I thought I was prepared to see everyone again, but now that it’s time… I'm not ready. I don’t think I can stand beside the people I called friends and smile and act like nothing happened.
God. I’m so stupid. I shouldn’t have come here tonight.
I should go back to Georgia before anyone else realizes I’ve made the trip.
“Hey.” Noah sets his hand on top of mine and squeezes to catch my attention.
I look up at him, a heartbeat away from a full-blown panic attack. I open my mouth to tell him I’m fine, but the words catch in my throat. I think about the pills in my hotel room, and how I haven’t needed them for months; but I want one. I want to chase away the anxiety of what this trip will do to me and drown it all with a martini. My therapist's words echo in my head, take them with you. Just in case.
“Deep breath, Harper. Like this.” Noah sucks in a gulp of air, holds it, then releases slowly.
I know the technique but my thoughts are jumping from one thing to the next. Gemma will hate me if I leave. I told her I’d come. I promised.
I can’t see Rob again.
“Harper!” Noah snaps. I find his gaze again and he says. “Breathe, woman. Just breathe.”
I copy his motions, forcing my body to cooperate. After six cycles of slow, exaggerated breaths, my heart slows to a semi-normal pace and the paralyzing grip around my senses dissipates. I look down at my hands, embarrassed at my inability to control my emotions and that I can’t make them stop shaking.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
I can’t lie to Noah. He’ll see right through me if I try. That man could always read my tells like I was a book. Knowing my luck, he still can. Honestly, after everything I’ve put him through, I’m surprised he’s by my side acting as if the last few years never happened. I owe him the truth simply out of respect for how he’s treating me now.
So I don’t say anything.
Noah takes my silence for what it is and slides off the barstool. He holds his elbow out to me. I smile, grateful he isn’t pushing for an answer I don’t have as I tuck what’s left of my pack of cigarettes into my boot.
“I’m not ready,” I tell him honestly, linking my arm through his.
Noah squeezes my hand and meets my gaze. His eyes are tired, sad, and lacking the vibrancy I remember. I feel bad, wondering if I’m part of the cause. I can’t begin to imagine what Noah’s life is like these days, but for a while I know I was the cause of more than a few sleepless nights.
“You already did the hard part, Harper. You showed up. Everything else will be cake in comparison.” Noah’s lip lifts in the corner. It’s not the same lazy smile that made my pulse race, but this one does something to me too.
My heart beats faster with each step. I can’t tell if I’m going to pass out or throw up, but I don’t feel good. I focus my gaze on the concrete, a few feet ahead of us, and count the cracks. It helps with the anticipation, like when you close your eyes as the roller coaster cart tick tick ticks its way to the top of the first drop.
Less than ten feet from the designated party area, Noah stops. He turns, putting himself between everyone and me, and blocks my view. His hands slide up my arms to cup my face, long fingers tangling into my roots.
Shock pushes its way through all the other emotions. I can’t breathe, and not because I’m freaking out. Noah’s touch literally sucks the air from my lungs while sending a jolt of electricity through my veins. He tilts my head and looks me in the eye. The crazy thought that he might kiss me crosses my mind and I realize, I want him to.
I stare at his lips and try to remember what they felt like all those years ago. I don’t find the memories I’m looking for. Instead, I’m hit with a horde of emotions I never expected to feel.
And the weirdest of all… desire.
The deep rumble of Noah’s voice breaks through the fog that smothers my sanity. This is crazy. I shouldn’t be tempted to lean into him. I shouldn’t want to skip today’s meet and greet lunch and take him up to my room.
I should have hooked up with the guy from that bar in Atlanta last weekend. Apparently my three-week dry spell is messing with my head.
“Whatever you need, Harper, I’m here for you.” Noah pointedly looks me in the eyes. He’s so close. His breath smells of whiskey and mint. God, I want to taste him.“I mean it. Anything.”
I feel like there’s a message between the lines I’m missing, or maybe I just want there to be. I stare at him a second longer, then decide I’m looking too deep into nothing. Noah is just being, well, Noah, while I’m over here losing my mind.
I smile, not wanting to seem ungrateful for the offer even though I don’t fully understand it. “Thank you.”
Noah drops his arms and re-tangles his fingers with mine. I look down at our hands, remembering how we used to walk the halls like this. What I don’t remember is a buzz of electricity flowing from my palm to my chest.
That buzz is here, stronger than anything I ever felt with Rob, and I loved that man with all my heart.
I let him guide us across the threshold of the pre-wedding weekend gathering. Everyone in the ceremony is supposed to meet this afternoon. Gemma’s logic is that it would make the evening events less awkward. Not sure if I agree with her, but it’s not my big weekend.
In fact, if this were my wedding, I would have done a lot of things differently, starting with the rehearsal. She’s not having one, which to me is crazy. I need to know where she wants me to stand, who I’m walking with and what the plan is if it rains. This is Florida! Assuming it’s not going to rain is as stupid as walking outside and not expecting to get a sun burn.
What boggles my mind even more is that Gemma has been dreaming about her wedding since before we met. I'm talking vision books, fabric swatches, the works. I was given no guidance on a bridesmaid dress; color, style, length, nada. No direction for how she wants my hair and makeup. As for shoes… we’re going barefoot!
Who is this woman? And what happened to the girl I used to call my bestie while I was gone?
The Gemma I knew was a thinker. A planner. The kind of girl who couldn’t stand a spec of dirt in her house and had everything in her pantry labeled. Her hair and makeup was always runway ready. Even after pushing out an eight-pound baby, she looked ready to take on the world, glistening with joy.
She is the Nailed It kind of woman, whereas I’m the failed attempt to recreate. The picture that turns into a meme because everything went horribly wrong.
But Gemma was also the type of person who put everyone before herself, almost to a fault. She wore her heart on her sleeve, never having an ill word to say about someone unless they deserved it and it was to their face. Most importantly, she never gave up on me.
That Gemma is why I’ve shoved my ghosts into a closet to brave this weekend.
Speaking of those ghosts, the horniest one of them all is headed my way, beer in hand. The nervous butterflies fluttering about my stomach mutate into angry cats—clawing at my insides. I knew Rob and I would have to interact this weekend, but I was hoping his conscience would keep him far away.
I should have known better.
“Damn, Harper. You look good.” Rob’s brown eyes trail over my body, down to my toes. His gaze stills on the v-neck plunge of my shirt, and then finds my face again. I hate the way he’s looking at me. I’ve known him so long, I can practically hear what he’s thinking and I want no part of it. “I hardly recognized you.”
“Hey, man,” Noah says, putting himself in our conversation. “Long time.”
“Yeah,” Rob replies, but he has no interest in Noah. His gaze hasn’t left my face. He’s waiting for me to ask him a question, probably how he’s doing. Or maybe ask what’s new in his life. Something to break the ice, but the last thing I want is to make small talk.
I reach into my boot, simply to have something to do, besides awkwardly stare at my ex, and grab my pack of smokes before my ghosts can get the best of me. I stick a cigarette in my mouth and search for the matchbook that seems to have fallen under my foot.
Noah pulls out a lighter, probably from his own pack of smokes, and flicks his thumb against the wheel.
And then there’s fire. I lean forward, the end of my cigarette finding a dancing flame, and inhale. My throat tickles, burning with the need to expel the toxins from my body with a cough, but I relish the feeling. When the ember burns red, Noah’s hand retracts. His lighter returns to wherever it came from and I stand up straight.
I blow out a cloud of smoke and flick my ash in the direction of Rob’s pudgy hobbit feet.
I hate his feet.
He has fat dirt stained toes and calloused skin from walking around the house barefoot. What I hated most though was that at some point throughout the night they’d end up in my lap, and that man would whine like a two year old until I touched them.
Looking at Rob’s yellow-tinged nail beds, I’d say they’re just as gross as they used to be.
At least he’s wearing shoes today.
I realize these are old feelings clawing their way out of the basement. I need to find some new ones if we’re to make it through this weekend… like impassiveness. Rob and I should be able to be in the same room together because I don’t care about him. I’ve moved on with my life. I don’t need to worry about him or his toes or anything else I used to stress over.
“Can we talk?” Rob sticks his hand in his pockets and makes his best attempt to look innocent, like the boy I met right out of college. Not that he was innocent back then. That man had more life experience than most adults twice his age, but in comparison he was. “Alone.”
“No.” Noah answers for me. It’s the kind of no a dad says to a kid at Walmart throwing a fit over a toy. Strong, with no room for argument.
I love him for jumping in and trying to be my rock, but Rob and I probably should talk. We have two miserable days together and we need to be civil, for Ethan and Gemma’s sake. If I put our conversation off, Rob will corner me every chance he gets. I might as well get this over with now.
“Five minute is all you get,” I say to Rob then nudge Noah’s arm and smile up at him. “I’ll be okay.”
I’m not sure I believe what I’m saying, but to my credit I sound half convincing. At least I think I do.
“I’m watching you,” Noah warns Rob. Thankfully after that weird show of… whatever that was… Noah gives me a soft smile and leaves.
“I’m just over there,” I say to Noah when Rob begins to walk away. “I’ve got this.”
My stomach twists the further Noah gets. He sits on the edge of an empty lounge chair, elbows resting on his knees and tilts his chin up at me. I nod slightly, reading into the unspoken encouragement. I’ve been doing that a lot today. Finding words that don’t exist. This time I find You can do this in Noah’s gaze. It’s what I needed to hear—or not hear, I guess—to muster the courage to turn around and meet my ex at the diving board.
“You look good, Harper. I like what you’ve done with yourself.” Rob pauses, eyes trailing over my body again.
“What do you want, Rob?” My instincts are at war with each other. Half of me wants to see what he has to say while the other half wants to run. I’m not worried about falling into his bed again. The ship where I found him attractive has long sailed.
It’s the thoughts that will creep up tonight. Memories I think I’ve moved past. There’s a chance it’ll be too much to bear and that fear is what has one foot of mine out the door and back into my rental car. But running gives Rob power, and I refuse to be seen as weak again.
“Baby girl.” Rob reaches for my elbow. His touch catches me off guard. He pulls me into his chest and wraps his arms around my waist. I’m hit with the familiar scent of cherry Black and Mild cigars and weed. “I don’t like the way we left things. What do you say we try again and end things right?”
“Excuse me?” I arch back and shake my head.
“Come on, baby.” Rob tries to close the space between us. He puckers his lips and leans in.
I don’t move. I can’t, I’m in shock. I don’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted. Rob didn’t ask how I’ve been. He didn’t want to know if I’m single, with a boyfriend, or married. He just assumed that whatever my relationship status was I’d cheat for him. I’d throw everything I’ve worked for away…for him!
Something hooks the belt loops on each side of my hips and pulls me backward, out of Rob's hold. My back presses against a firm chest as an arm protectively wraps around my belly. I tense not sure as to what’s happening, then relax when I smell the caramel scent of Noah’s cologne. I guess my five minutes are up.
“You good, babe?” Noah asks, cheerfully, his lips close to my ear.
“Babe?” Rob arches one bushy eyebrow. He laughs until Noah wraps his other arm around me. His face falls as the little gears in his head start turning. “Is there something going on I should know about?”
This is the moment I fuck up. I realize it the second my words are out of my mouth. Before thinking about the consequences, or even what the answer to that question should be, I say, “Not that it’s any of your business, but yes. Noah and I are dating.”
“Bullshit,” Rob bites out. He grits his teeth together, flexing the muscles over his cheeks.
Sweet satisfaction has me fighting a smile. I hope Rob is thinking about all the times I said there was no reason to worry about Noah. I defended our friendship daily because Rob hated how much time we spent together. Back then Noah and I were just friends. Now, we’re somewhere between strangers with history and acquaintances.
But no one needs to know how far I pushed Noah away this year.
A blanket of red coats Rob’s cheeks down to his thick neck. Noah holds me tighter against him, probably worried that Rob will make a scene. “Noah’s been friend-zoned. There’s no coming back from that.”
Noah was friend-zoned my freshman year of college… sort of… and things between us only became even more platonic as time went on. Rob knows this, just like I know he doubted Noah and I were just friends.
I don’t give Noah a warning as to what I’m going to do, and in thinking about it, this could have gone horribly wrong. If it had I probably would have tucked my tail and disappeared, but I don’t give myself time to second guess my decision.
I turn and loop my arms around Noah’s neck. My fingers brush against his nape, finally touching those curls I’ve been itching to play with since I set eyes on them. Noah liked to keep his hair short. I haven’t seen it this long since we were in middle school.
I send a silent plea into the universe and hope Noah is still able to read me. I hesitate for half of a heart beat, just long enough for him to pull away. That moment passes, so I grab Noah by the shirt collar and press his lips to mine. His mouth is soft and hard at the same time. Welcoming, yet standoffish. A low growl, deep in his throat, escapes as I swipe my tongue across the seam of his lips.
He lets me in and every thought, every fear I’ve had about this weekend vanishes. I step forward and Noah takes a step back. He lets me take the lead, gauging what I’m comfortable with while his hands roam my body. I laugh against his lips as we bump into one of the outstretched lounge chairs. Noah falls onto it, bringing me down with him. I spread my legs over his lap and close my eyes, enjoying the rollercoaster of emotions running through me.
This is surreal.
A squeal from somewhere around us jerks me out of the moment. I pull back, exhaling a heavy breath and lean my forehead against Noah’s. I don’t know what this is, or what these feelings mean, but I don’t have the time to figure it out because Gemma has found us.
I wince at the high pitched shrill she emits, but smile. Gemma stares at us, bouncing on her toes, then squeals again. “No. Freaking. Way!”
I slide off of Noah’s lap and squint in the direction of the female battle cry. I’ve never been a screamer—unless it was in bed—but this sound is second to breathing in Gemma’s world.
She lunges the moment my ass hits the plastic bands of the beach chair. Her arms wrap around my shoulders and she shoves us both against Noah. He takes us in stride, used to our shenanigans.
Or what used to be our shenanigans.
“You’re here! And this…” Gemma finally lets me go and hops over to the beach chair beside us. “When did you two become an item?”
Rob clears his throat. I had forgotten he was standing beside us, and kind of hoped that our little PDA show had chased him away. No such luck. “That’s exactly what I want to know.”