One of my favorite elements of The Windshield Incident has been Grant's everyman-ness. He doesn't automatically get jokes, or pick up on body language, or figure out the motivations of others. He's not terribly introspective or intelligent, as opposed to characters like Tucker Jones (who spends most of his day inside his own head) or even Aaron of Watching Him Back. My challenge for this latest installment was to let Grant grow up a little without losing the basic elements of who he is: friendly yet socially awkward, a long-term planner, easily caught off guard, and the type of guy to blend into the background.
Sarah and I were at a coffee shop in Springfield when I saw him. “Oh my god,” I said before I could stop myself.
Sarah turned to follow my line of sight. “What? What?”
Clearing my head with a shake, I tried to shrug it off. “No, I’m just surprised. The junkyard dog of my high school is in line.”
She laughed, showing off her pretty white teeth. “Which one is he?”
His hair was shorter now, more clean cut, but he had the kind of scruff that was either a bitch to maintain or he literally hadn’t shaved in two days. A pair of aviator sunglasses hung from the neck of his shirt, pulling it down just enough to show a smattering of fur on his chest. The leather jacket wasn’t the exact one he had worn in high school, but it probably smelled the same.
“The big guy with the Tigers shirt,” Sarah suggested. I glanced at the linebacker-gone-to-seed type she indicated.
“Nope. Don’t think bully, think anathema.”
She nodded her head at the front of the line. “Ordering now, neck tattoos, looks like he'd surprise you with a golden shower.”
That earned a chuckle. “Okay, the kind of anathema who still gets laid a whole, whole lot. Like an unreal amount. Boatloads.”
“Oh! Then him.” Sarah subtly pointed to Ryder Vance.
I nodded. “Got it in three.”
She stared at him for a moment. “He’s very dark James Dean. Or taller early Tom Cruise. Scruffy Tom Hardy.”
“None of those people look alike.”
“Should we invite him to sit with us?”
“Aw, come on, Grant,” she said, brown eyes sparkling. “All the seats will be taken by the time he gets his coffee.”
I shook my head. “He doesn’t sit in coffee shops or wait in line. He’ll walk out in about thirty seconds.”
Sarah cocked a suspicious brow. “How would you know?”
“I worked for his dad for a few months in high school. He was a junior mechanic.”
“Aw, besties with testes!”
“Shut up, Sarah,” I commanded, but I couldn’t help laughing at her. Just then the barista called our drinks. I made puppy eyes at Sarah and she rose with a beleaguered sigh. “Thanks.”
“I don’t get why you would actively avoid him, but I’ll run your interference. Pussy.” Sarah sauntered to the bar, earning appreciative looks from the café patrons on her way. Her chocolatey curves just barely fit inside a tight pink tank top today, but the bright green jean jacket she wore over it kept the rest of her cutoffs-and-heels ensemble on the modest side of sexy. I liked to greet her with the Commodores’ “Brick House,” because Sarah was the only woman I knew who actually actually fit the measurements they sang about. Bonus, she was fun to be around and great in bed.
Today, however, I was watching Sarah less than Ryder Vance’s profile. I could tell when she caught his eye—he gave her the look that used to drop panties when we were in school. Sarah had to step in front of him to reach her coffee. Ryder’s dark head bent as he said something to her, and she flashed a playful grin at him over her shoulder. I couldn’t make out her response, but she pointed to the menu and held up our drinks. Shit. Our names were written on them. But surely Ryder wouldn’t be able to see mine, and if he could he wouldn’t imagine old freckle-faced Grant McNobody being attached to this hot black chick. There were enough Grants in the world for him to have forgotten about me by now, just like I kept trying to forget he existed.
Sarah pointed towards me, the jerk, and Ryder raised his eyes to glance in my direction. Whipping out my phone, I placed it on the table and bent over it to poke at the screen in what I hoped was a convincingly occupied fashion. Hum dee hum dee hum, just working away, blending into the background. It was a lifetime until Sarah slid back into her seat.
"You're an asshole," I told her through my teeth.
Sarah laughed. "You didn't tell me how sexy he is," she teased. "That raspy deep voice, penetrating gaze, muscular build, all the right lines…" She shivered dramatically.
"Eight kinds of herpes and as many baby mamas," I retorted. "And like anyone who stayed in that dumbass town, a killer crank habit."
Sarah raised a mocking brow.
Reaching across the small table, she patted my arm condescendingly. “Don’t worry, I have a thing for baby-faced boys next door.”
I slouched so that she was hiding me from view. I almost said, He used to, too, but stopped it with a sip of coffee. Thankfully Sarah let the subject change after that. I didn't see Ryder exit the café—he was just suddenly gone—and so I was able to relax and behave like a normal human being. Once we had finished our coffees Sarah and I walked outside.
“I’m heading to this new fifties-themed boutique Michelle’s opening," she informed me. "Want to come?”
I just screwed up my nose. I liked Sarah's friends—they made up for not having any of my own—but they were very much into what they called "pinup culture." I barely knew what that meant, except that I was the only one who looked like an idiot in group pictures.
She laughed and gave me a quick peck. “Okay, then. Call me tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Such a pleasure to watch that bouncy ass walk away. Then I turned around and saw Ryder Vance leaning against a shiny black bike, which to my barely trained eye appeared to be a 1960s Suzuki. Hoo, boy. So he had seen me, and he knew that I had seen him. I crossed the street to greet him.
The expression around his aviators didn't change. “Hey.”
That's it? Did he even remember my name, or just that I sucked him off a few dozen times? I had to remind myself that it had been six years since we last laid eyes on each other. That was plenty of time to forget somebody who wasn't all that important in the first place. “What are you doing in Springfield?”
He folded his arms. “I live here.”
He’s stalking me. I told my imagination to shut up. Ryder couldn’t have known where I was because nobody did. Once I went off to real college, when everyone figured I had grown too big for my britches, we all kind of stopped talking. My Facebook account was under a fake name. I didn't tweet.
I realized that I was just standing there with my hands in my pockets. “How long have you been in town?”
“A few months. I opened up a Vance Autobody on East McDaniel, mostly doing bike restores.”
So he still works for his dad. “That’s right by Patton Alley.”
It felt rude not to add, “Want to grab a beer or something there, sometime?”
“Will your hot girlfriend be joining?”
“Back off,” I replied immediately. “I found her first.” It was a joke, but I didn’t doubt for a second that he could and would lure Sarah away from me. Also I was lying: Sarah claimed me.
Ryder gave me that classic half smile with a head nod, like, Right, right, sure. "I'm free tonight. Meet me at eight." With that he put his helmet on—he really should have looked like a complete douche in that vintage thing, like get a modern fucking helmet—and turned to mount his bike.
Ten minutes after eight o'clock I rushed into Patton Alley Pub. Ryder was easy to spot; he both absorbed and reflected light; a black hole made of mirrors. He acknowledged me with his customary fleeting half-smile. My palms started sweating.
“Sorry,” I began to apologize, but Ryder cut me off.
“You never could get anywhere on time. I’ve only been sitting here long enough to order this.” He held up his beer.
Well, then. I swung my leg over the barstool next to him. "I ate at six-thirty and now I'm starving. You hungry?" This little twitch at the corner of Ryder's mouth indicated that something about me tickled his funny bone. "What?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe I expected you to be someone else by now."
I held both of my middle fingers up at him. That would be new since high school. "I expected you to be less of a dick."
Ryder had a comeback, and a good one, to follow. His lips twitched and he opened his mouth a little, but he chose to swig his beer again. I ordered nachos and a craft brew. A quick glance around confirmed what I'd felt when I walked in: people were staring at him. I shouldn't have come.
"What do you do now?" Ryder asked.
I made typing motions. "Three guesses."
My fault for putting him to the test. "You win. With a firm that deals with startups and small NPOs in the area."
He made a noise like, Yep, that's what I thought, and then thankfully changed the subject from how well he could read me. “You know, I almost didn’t recognize you without a black eye.”
That made me laugh. “And you gained an actual forehead.”
Ryder pointed to his hair. “There is real product in there.”
“You’re kidding me.”
I feigned shock. “Does street cred count as legal tender in your salon?”
He raised his beer to me. “Good one.”
“To adulthood,” I replied, clinking my bottle against his.
He chuckled. "To getting out of that shitty hoosier town."
To hear someone who could have run that shitty hoosier town acknowledge its terribleness was kind of comforting. I didn't feel like such a coward for never going back. "You know," I said around a mouthful of nachos, "I would have thought you'd be married by now, or have a couple of kids or something."
Ryder let out a derisive snort. "I haven't been without a condom since I was fourteen."
"Smart man," I replied, but wait a second…Was Ryder Vance indirectly telling me that I was the only person he'd ever had unprotected sex with? I mean, me too, but I hadn't thought about it before now.
"You know, sophomore year there was a teen mom in every single one of my fucking classes," Ryder continued. "Two in U.S. history. That is some kind of wrong. For some girls that seemed like their life plan: Get knocked up, marry the baby daddy for child support, stay unhappy for the rest of their lives."
Recover, recover. "Right? Even for guys, like, it should not be a rite of passage to get someone pregnant. Like, until I left I didn't realize that no kids by age twenty was not a sign of impotence."
"Just fucking sad, man," he agreed, and thankfully that line of conversation was broken by the sound of his phone.
I laughed when I heard the tone. "Who earned 'War' for a ringtone?"
Ryder hit the silent button. "One of my mechanics."
"Does everyone get Edwin Starr hits?"
He chuckled. "Nah. But it is all Motown and soul."
Well, wasn't he just a box of surprises. "Ooh, make mine something Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Nacho?" I pushed the plate toward him.