I wanted to write something fun. Just to clear out the cobwebs of winter, and get in a groove again for tackling some other story ideas that have been rattling around in my brain for far too long. So, I thought, what could be more fun than a friends-to-lovers story? And as often happens, when you think about a trope to write, you search your memory for something similar, trying to access those emotions and use them. Turns out I had some.
One of my greatest loves was a childhood best friend. We grew up together, he and I. Not in the sense of having known each other since we were little kids, but because we’d gone through those important tween-to-teen years together. His name was Nicholas. And from the time I was thirteen until I was eighteen, he was the closest person in the world to me. He was a ‘bad kid’ who skipped school, got hassled by the police and smoked weed with a bunch of other guys who were similarly under-supervised young men. Nicholas and I talked on the phone for hours, morning, noon and night. Sometimes we sat on our respective ends of the line, saying little, just watching television, occasionally exchanging a word here and there. We saw each other whenever my very structured home and school life would permit, and we often orchestrated nights for me to sneak out to see him.
With him, I went places my parents would have screamed bloody murder if they knew about, and I was exposed to people they wouldn’t in a million years think I knew. More than once, I remember Nicholas’ hand on my back, ushering me away from someplace or some situation saying, “you don’t need to be here.”
Nicholas was both protective of me, and the guy my parents would believe I needed to be protected from. He sometimes wore a lot of expensive gold jewelry, which I had him take off whenever my parents were likely to see him. I had an inkling how he was able to afford the jewelry, but we never talked about it. When I turned seventeen, I went to college, and he disappeared from my life for a while. He resurfaced in my junior year when I was in upstate New York, calling me unexpectedly (I still don’t remember how he found me, because this was before cellphones were so ubiquitous), and asking if he could come crash for a while. I couldn’t tell him no. I never could. He was tired, had been slingin’ somewhere he shouldn’t have been, and needed to get out of New York City. It seems he had been in Brooklyn the entire time I was upstate, and I didn’t even know. I was angry he hadn’t reached out sooner.
When I let him into my room, he shed all his clothes, except for his boxers, and slept like the dead. I mean, nothing I did, making noise, talking on the phone … nothing woke him. I went through his stuff while he was sleeping, searching for clues about his life. All he had was one duffel bag. I found tools of the street trade, and some of his powdery, white product.
It was winter, and I remember he finally woke up the next day, late in the day when it was dark, though not nighttime. He told me it had been a long time since he’d been somewhere, and with someone that made him feel safe enough to sleep so deeply. Then he asked me to take him to the Metro North train station in the morning because he was planning to get back to the city, ‘dump some things’ and then fly to Atlanta. We talked about his life and what it had been like. It was what you would expect, of someone who was in that life. We reminisced about old times. He looked older than he was, and a little sad. I remember contrasting the new Nicholas, with the old one, who back then was so handsome, he could be called beautiful. This one was handsome, but much harder. No longer beautiful.
The next morning, when we got ready to go to the train station, he told me he was sorry he hadn’t found me before. But, he said, it probably wouldn’t have been good for me if he did. And then, just before he left he reminded me of when we were younger.
“I always wanted us to be together,” he told me, shaking his head. “But I just couldn’t trust myself to do the right thing if we were. You understand?”
The part I remember most clearly is when he said, “You understand?” Because he was looking right at me, his expression really intense, like he really, really wanted me to understand.
So, I said I did.
I hugged him. He got out of the car, and walked into the train station, and I’ve never seen, or heard from him since. I ran into his brother once, I asked how Nicholas was. He said something like, ‘he’s in Atlanta. He has a family. He’s happy.’
Okay, so see, my friends-to-almost-lovers story was less than “fun”. My memory took me to other places than I intended for my fun spring novel. It took me a place where I realized that sometimes there are reasons a friend remains so, and reasons that you don’t cross that line. But what if you did, even when maybe you shouldn’t?
That’s what ‘The Makeover’ is about. When a beautiful friendship undergoes a makeover, and turns into a sometimes messy relationship, can there be, at the end of the day, anything worth salvaging?
From ‘The Makeover’:
The restaurant, was old-school Chinese, decorated in red and gold, complete with dragon tapestries and long draping tablecloths. It was crowded and noisy, but they were seated right away, near the window, looking out onto K Street and its busy pedestrian traffic. At the table for two, Colt wiped his clammy hands on his thighs, and just after they were handed their menus, excused himself to go to the men’s room.
Once there, he washed his hands, stared at himself in the mirror, took a deep breath and went back out.
“I ordered for you,” Sam said as he sat down.
“What’d you get?”
She was looking down as she said it, digging for something inside her large pocketbook that Colt was always teasing her about. She fished out her wallet, a notebook, her phone and finally a glasses case. She opened it and took out a pair of reading glasses, perching it on her face, and then continuing to look through the pocketbook.
Then she pulled out a makeup case, and a novel. And kept digging.
“What in the … what you lookin’ for in there?” Colt asked, laughing.
“Lip balm. My lips are always dry. I don’t think I’m drinking enough water. Either that, or this fancy lipstick is drying them out.”
Colt reached across the table and tipped her chin up. Then, with his napkin, he gently wiped her lips clean of lipstick. Sam looked at him, frozen in place, one hand still in her bag.
“There,” he said quietly. “And here …” He reached into the pocket of his sweatpants and handed her his lip balm, the simple yellow tube of the cocoa butter kind he got from CVS.
Sam took the tube and opened it, applying some to her lips and then handing it back.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice equally quiet.
To break their mutual stare, Colt picked up the novel she had placed on the table. “Still reading this, huh?” He flipped it over to the back cover, checking the name of the heroine. “Has ‘Gabby’ found true happiness yet, or is she still stuck in her rut, caring for her elderly father?”
“She’ll still be stuck in the rut until I get about one-third of the way in. And by halfway, she’ll get to have sex with a super-cute guy who she never imagined in a million years would be interested in her.”
One corner of Colt’s mouth twitched. “Oh, for real? Is that how it works?”
Sam nodded. “But he’ll want Gabby just as much as she wants him, and maybe even more. For reasons that will never become completely clear. And about three-quarters of the way in, they’ll have a misunderstanding, but by the end it’ll be resolved, and they’ll be blissfully in love.”
“So, if you know all this going in, why are you reading it?”
“Because real life is unpredictable enough,” Sam said, her eyes serious. “It’s calming to read something that tells you that even if it’s rough going, you’ll get your happily-ever-after in the end.”
Nodding, Colt handed her the book, and she put it back in her pocketbook. He looked down at the table and traced a circle on it with his forefinger.
“Look, Sam …”
Their waiter reappeared, and placed a dish with spring rolls in front of them, and a bowl of steaming wonton soup in front of Colt.
“Enjoy,” he said, backing away with a little bow.
“Work is killing me,” Sam said. The words came out in a rush.
Colt paused and looked at her with narrowed eyes, momentarily thrown by the abrupt change of subject. Then he saw her hands, nervously replacing all the items she had taken out of her purse. Were they … shaking a little?
“Why?” he asked her.
“Why is work killing you?”
“I’m working on a position paper about juvenile asylees, and …”
“Oh.” He nodded, and reached for a spring roll. “Okay? So why’s that killing you?”
“Well, here’s the thing …”
Colt listened while she talked, her eyes darting around, looking anywhere but at him. He wanted to smile, because she had forgotten how well he knew her, and that this motor-mouth effect was something he was very familiar with. When they were kids and got busted doing something they had no business doing, talking fast was always her tell. If they were up to no good, Sam was never the best advocate for arguing their way out of it.
“You’ll work it out,” he said, when she was done with her soliloquy.
She sighed. “I hope so. But if I’m going to do that, I’d like to do it by this afternoon. Marcus always has tons of revisions and it’s gotta be final by Wednesday, and …”
“Sam.” He silenced her with a hand over hers, to still it. “We should talk about Friday.”
She pulled in her lower lip and chewed on it for a moment. Colt watched her do it, and remembered sucking on that lip, and how it felt soft and plump between his. He looked away.
“Look,” he began. “Here’s the thing …”
“I think I get ‘the thing’,” Sam said, speaking over him. “So we don’t have to …”
“What do you get?”
“That you think it was a mistake, and we started something we shouldn’t finish, and …”
“No,” Colt said.
“No?” She looked up.
Colt swallowed. “I think we should finish it,” he said.
Sam’s eyes widened slightly.
“Look, I just … it wasn’t right, the way it went down. Like you were some chick I met that night, or I was some dude you picked up for some dick …”
“Some dude I picked up?” One of her eyebrows rose. “For some …”
“You know what I mean. If we go there, we gotta do it right.”
“Do it right, like how?” She looked genuinely perplexed.
Colt swallowed hard, again. “You know … hang out for a while, see how it … then maybe … that’s if you want, then maybe …”
What the fuck? Who the hell was he right now? He was talking to Sam. Sam. And he had a case of dry-mouth like nobody’s business and couldn’t even get his sentences out straight.
“You want to date me?” The question came out loud enough that people at other tables looked around. Sam sounded incredulous. A woman nearby tittered.
“If you want to be old-fashioned about it, yeah. I mean. If we …”
Their waiter reappeared, this time with a large tray and a stand for him to set it down while he rearranged plates and set their lunches in front of them. The aroma of kung pao chicken, and Sam’s wor shu duck wafted upward. When they were alone again, and Sam reached for her chopsticks, Colt stopped her.
“You know me, right?” he said.
“So you know that on Friday, when I shut things down, that was the most mature thing I’ve ever done maybe in my entire life.” Sam smothered a smile and Colt grinned back at her, leaning in. “Am I right?”
“Maybe,” she acknowledged.
“I want to do this right,” he said.