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I Was Here, Page 3

Gayle Forman

  I am tempted to inhale those sheets. If I do, maybe it will be enough to erase everything. But you can only hold your breath for so long. Eventually, I’ll have to exhale her, and then it’ll be like those mornings, when I wake up, forgetting before remembering.

  x x x

  The UPS place is downtown and I’ll have to get a taxi, cart the stuff over, ship it, come back for the duffels, and be ready to catch the last bus at seven. Downstairs, Alice and Stoner Richard are where I left them. It’s unclear to me if these students at this supposedly well-regarded college ever actually study.

  “I’m pretty much done,” I tell them. “Just have to close the boxes and I’ll be out of here.”

  “We’ll get the cats for you before you go,” Stoner Richard offers.

  “The cats?”

  “Meg’s two kittens,” Alice says. She looks at me and cocks her head to the side. “She didn’t tell you about them?”

  I refuse to show any surprise. Or hurt. “I don’t know anything about any cats,” I say.

  “She found these two stray kittens a couple months ago. They were totally emaciated and sick.”

  “Nasty shit coming out of their eyes,” Stoner Richard adds.

  “Yes, they had some kind of eye infection. Among other maladies. Meg took them in. She spent a ton of money at the animal hospital on treatments, and then she nursed them back to health. She loved those kittens.” She shakes her head. “That’s what was the biggest surprise to me. That she’d go through all that trouble for the kittens and then, you know. . . .”

  “Yeah, well, Meg worked in mysterious ways,” I say. The bitterness is so strong, I swear they must be able to smell it on my breath. “And the cats are of no concern to me.”

  “But someone has to take them,” Alice says. “The house has been looking out for them, but we’re not supposed to have pets and we’re all leaving for the summer and none of us can take them.”

  I shrug. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

  “Have you seen these kittens?” Alice goes to the side of the house and starts making kissing sounds, and soon enough two tiny fur balls bound into the living room. “This one’s Pete,” she says, pointing to the mostly gray one with a black splodge on its nose. “And the other one’s Repeat.”

  Pete and Repeat went out in a boat. Pete fell out. Who was saved? Meg’s uncle Xavier told us this joke, and we used to torment each other with it. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

  Alice puts a kitten in my arms, where it immediately starts doing that pawing thing that cats do when they’re trying to find milk. But then it gives up and falls asleep, a little ball against my chest. Something tickles inside, an echo from another time when it wasn’t all frozen in there.

  The cat starts to purr, and I’m screwed. “Is there, like, an animal shelter here?”

  “There is, but there are dozens of cats there, and they only keep them for three days before, you know.” Alice mimes a knife to the throat.

  Pete, or maybe it’s Repeat, is still purring in my arms. I can’t bring them home. Tricia would have a shitfit. She’d refuse to let them come inside, and then they’d get eaten by coyotes or killed by the cold in no time. I could ask if Sue and Joe wanted them, but I’ve seen the way Samson goes after cats.

  “Seattle has a few no-kill shelters,” Stoner Richard says. “I saw an Animal Liberation Front thing about it.”

  I sigh. “Fine. I’ll swing up to Seattle on my way out of town and drop the cats off.”

  Stoner Richard laughs. “It’s not like dry cleaning. You can’t just drop them off. You have to make an appointment for, like, an intake or something.”

  “When have you ever had anything dry-cleaned?” Alice asks him.

  Pete/Repeat mewls in my arms. Alice looks at me. “How long is your drive back?”

  “Seven hours, plus I have to ship the boxes.”

  She looks at me and then at Stoner Richard. “It’s three now. Maybe you should go up to Seattle and bring the cats to a shelter, and you can leave first thing tomorrow.”

  “Can’t you bring the cats to a shelter?” I ask her. “You seem to have it all worked out.”

  “I have a Women’s Studies paper I need to work on.”

  “What about after you finish?”

  She falters for a second. “No. Those cats were Meg’s thing. I don’t feel right sending them to a shelter.”

  “Oh, so you’ll leave the dirty work to me?” I hear the anger in my voice, and I know that it’s not Alice who’s left me the dirty work, but when she cringes, I get a grim twist of satisfaction.

  “Dude. I’ll drive you to Seattle,” Stoner Richard says. “We’ll get the felines settled, and you can come here and get out of town first thing in the morning.” He seems like he wants to be rid of me as much as I want to be rid of him. At least it’s mutual.


  Seattle pet shelters, it turns out, are harder to get into than the hippest velvet-rope night clubs. The first two are full, and no amount of begging works. The third one has space, but it requires an application and a copy of the cats’ vet records. I tell the pierced girl with her hipster no-leather shoes that I’m leaving town, that I have the cats in the car, and she gives me the most snide look in the world and tells me that I should’ve thought of this before I went and adopted a pet. I almost smack her.

  “Wanna smoke that bowl now?” Stoner Richard asks after strike three. It’s eight o’clock and the shelters are all closed for the night.


  “You wanna go to a club or something? Blow off steam? Since we’re in Seattle?”

  I’m exhausted from the night before and I don’t want to be here with Stoner Richard and I’m trying to figure out how I’ll get vet records when tomorrow is Sunday. I start to beg off but then Richard says: “We can go to one of those hole-in-the-walls that Meg liked to go to. Once in a while she’d deign to let us tag along.” He pauses. “She had a whole klatch of friends up here.”

  I’m momentarily stunned by Richard’s use of both deign and klatch. But the truth is, I do actually want to see these places. I think of the club we were meant to have gone to the weekend I came to visit. All the clubs we were meant to have gone to all the weekends I didn’t come to visit. I know how excited Meg was to be amid the music scene, though after the time I visited her, the breathless emails about it all started to taper off and then stopped.

  “What about the kittens?” I ask Richard.

  “They’ll be fine in the car,” Richard says. “It’s, like, fifty-five degrees tonight. They have food and water.” He points to Pete and Repeat, who, having squealed and yowled the entire drive up, are now quietly nestled together in their carrier.

  We drive to a club in Fremont by the canal. Before we go in, Richard lights up a small pipe and smokes out the window. “Don’t want to give the kitties a contact high,” he jokes.

  As we pay our covers, he tells me that Meg went here a lot. I nod as if I know this. The place is empty. It smells of stale beer, bleach, and desperation. I leave Richard at the bar and go play pinball by myself. By ten o’clock the room starts filling up, and by eleven the first of the night’s bands comes on, a very feedback-heavy outfit whose lead singer growls more than he sings.

  After a few okay songs, Stoner Richard finds me. “That’s Ben McCallister,” he says, pointing to the guitar player/growler.

  “Uh-huh,” I say. I’ve never heard of him. It takes a while for the Seattle scene to filter all the way down to Shitburg.

  “Did Meg mention him to you?”

  “No” is all I say. Though I want to scream at people to stop asking me that. Because I don’t know what Meg told me and I ignored, and what Meg didn’t tell me. Although one thing I know for damn certain is that she didn’t tell me that she was in such intense pain that the onl
y way to take it away was to order a batch of industrial poison and drink it down.

  Stoner Richard is going on about Meg being obsessed with the guy, and it’s all sort of white noise, because Meg was obsessed with a lot of guitar players in her day and in her way. But then this particular guitar player, this Ben McCallister, he stops to take a pull from his beer, holding the long neck of the bottle between two fingers, his guitar hanging off his lanky hip like it’s a limb. And then he turns out toward the crowd and the lights are on him, bright, and I see that his eyes are impossibly blue and he does this thing, like he’s shielding his eyes from the sun and looking out into the crowd for someone, but the way he does it, it makes something click.

  “Oh, that must be Tragic Guitar Hero,” I say.

  “Nothing heroic about that guy,” Stoner Richard says.

  Tragic Guitar Hero. I do remember her writing about him once or twice, which was notable because she hadn’t written about any guys. At first it seemed she was into his band and she crushed on him the way that she always crushed on the guys—and the girls—she met in bands.

  Tragic Guitar Hero. She’d told me about his band, retro Sonic Youth–Velvet Underground sound, infused with some modern sensibilities. Typical Meg stuff. But she’d also written about his eyes, so blue, she’d thought he wore contacts. I look at them now. They are weirdly blue.

  And then I remember a line from one of her emails. Meg had asked, “Do you remember the advice that Tricia gave us back when she started working at the bar?”

  Tricia loved to dispense advice, especially when she had an audience as attentive as Meg. But somehow I’d known right away which pointer Meg was talking about. Never sleep with the bartender, girls, Tricia had warned us.

  “Why? Because everyone does?” Meg had asked. She loved the way Tricia talked to us, as if we were her friends from the bar, as if either of us was sleeping with anyone.

  “There’s that,” Tricia had replied. “But mostly because you stop getting free drinks.”

  Meg had written that it held true for Tragic Guitar Heroes, too. And I’d been confused because Meg hadn’t mentioned being into this guy or going out with him, let alone sleeping with him, something she had never done, except for that one time that we had both decided didn’t really count. And surely if Meg had done something as momentous as sleeping with a guy, she’d have told me. I was going to ask her about it when she came home. And then she didn’t.

  So that’s him. That’s Tragic Guitar Hero. He seemed so mythic, and usually attaching a name to a mythical creature tames it. But knowing his name, Ben McCallister, doesn’t do that.

  I watch the band intently now. He does that thing that rockers do, swiping away at his guitar, leaning into it and into the mic and then stopping playing, grasping the mic like he would a lover’s neck. It’s all an act. But it’s a good one. I can imagine his line of groupies. I just can’t believe Meg would be one of them.

  “We’re the Scarps. Silverfish is up next,” Ben McCallister says at the end of their short set.

  “You about ready to go?” Stoner Richard asks me.

  But I’m not ready. I’m wide-awake and furious at Ben McCallister, who, I now understand, screwed my friend, in more ways than one. Did he treat her like some throwaway groupie? Didn’t he realize that this was Meg Garcia he was dealing with? You don’t throw Meg away.

  “Not yet,” I tell Richard, and then I’m up out of my seat and over at the bar where Ben McCallister is standing, drinking another beer and talking to a group of people who are telling him what a great set it was. I march up to him, but once I’m standing right behind him, so close I can see the vertebrae in his neck and the tattoo atop his shoulder blade, I have no idea what to say.

  But Ben McCallister seems to know what to say to me. Because after a few seconds’ chitchat with the other girls, he turns around and looks at me: “I saw you out there.”

  Up close, Ben McCallister is much prettier than any boy has a right to be. He has what I can only assume are Irish good looks: black hair, skin that on a girl would be called alabaster but on a rocker is just perfectly pasty. Full, red lips. And the eyes. Meg was right. They look like contacts.

  “You saw me out where?” I ask.

  “Out there.” He points to the tables in the club. “I was looking for a friend of mine; he said he’d come, but it’s impossible to see anything with the lights.” He mimics shielding his eyes against the glare, just as I’d seen him do from the stage. “But then I saw you”—he pauses for a beat—“like maybe you were who I was looking for.”

  Is this what he does? Use this line? Is it so rehearsed that he even plants the little eye shield squint-into-the-crowd thing during the show? I mean, it’s a great line. Because if I was in the crowd, then it’s like, Wow, you were looking for me. And if I wasn’t, well, then you said that nice thing and what a sensitive rocker you must be to believe in something like fate.

  Is this the line he used on Meg? Did this work on Meg? I shudder to think of my friend falling for this crap, but then with Meg far away from home, with glitter dust in her eyes and guitar fumes up her nose, who knows?

  He takes my silence for coyness. “What’s your name?”

  Will my name ring a bell? Did she mention me to him? “Cody,” I say.

  “Cody, Cody, Cody.” He gives my name a test drive. “It’s a cowgirl name,” he drawls on. “Where you from, Cowgirl Cody?”

  “Cowgirl country.”

  His smile is slow, like he’s intentionally rationing it. “I’d like to visit Cowgirl country. Maybe I can come and you can take me for a ride.” He gives me a meaningful look, in case I haven’t caught the double entendre.

  “You’d probably get bucked right off.”

  Oh, he likes that. He thinks we’re flirting, the dickwad. “Would I, now?”

  “Yeah. Horses can smell fear.”

  Something on his face falters for a second. Then: “What makes you think I’m scared?”

  “City dicks always are.”

  “How do you know I’m a city dick?”

  “Well, we’re in a city. And you’re a dick, aren’t you?”

  A flurry of confusion passes over his face. I can see he’s not sure if I’m just a violent flirter, the kind of girl who’d be hot, if a little angry, in bed, or if this has actually passed over into something else. But he arranges his face into the lazy wannabe rock-star slackery smile. “Who exactly have you been talking to, Cowgirl Cody?” His tone is light, but underneath it’s laced with something less pleasant.

  I make my voice go all breathy, the way Tricia does so well. “Who have I been talking to, Ben McCallister?” I lean in close.

  He leans in close too. Like he thinks we might kiss. Like most of the time, it really is this easy for him. “You know who I haven’t been talking to much?” My voice is pure breath.

  “Who?” he says. He’s close enough that I can smell the beer.

  “Meg Garcia. I haven’t talked to Meg Garcia in more than a month. How about you?”

  I’ve heard the term recoiling before, but when I see Ben McCallister snap away from me, I understand what it means. Because he jumps back like a snake—recoiling—before it strikes.

  “What the fuck?” he asks. The flirting portion of our evening has ended, and Ben’s voice is now truly a growl, a wholly different sound from the bullshit thing he sang with.

  “Meg Garcia,” I repeat. It’s hard to look into his eyes now, but in the last month, I’ve become an expert at hard things. “Know her?”

  “Who are you?” His eyes are burning with something, a kind of fury, and they make the irises icy. They don’t seem like contacts anymore.

  “Or did you just screw her, and screw her over?”

  There’s a tap on my shoulder. Stoner Richard is behind me. “I’ve got to be up in the morni
ng,” he tells me.

  “I’m done here.”

  It’s getting on for midnight and I’ve had three hours’ sleep and have forgotten to eat another meal, and I’m shaky. I manage to walk to the front of the club before I stumble. Richard grabs my arm, and it’s then that I make the mistake of turning around to throw one last death-ray at the cocksure, shallow, pretty-boy poser, Ben McCallister.

  I wish I hadn’t. Because when I look at Ben McCallister one last time, he has this expression on his face—it’s the particular contortion when fury meets guilt. And I know that look. I see it every day in the mirror.


  That night, I crash on the velour couch in my clothes. I wake up Sunday morning with Pete and Repeat sleeping on my chest and face. Either I’ve claimed their couch, or they’ve claimed me. I sit up in time to see the last roommate, who’s been invisible all weekend, drop a cereal bowl in the sink and disappear out the back door.

  “Bye, Harry,” Alice calls after him.

  So that’s Harry. According to Meg, he mostly stayed in his room with his many computers and his jars of fermented kimchi.

  Alice goes into the kitchen and returns with a cup of coffee for me, which she announces is free-range and fair-trade and shade-farmed in Malawi, and I nod along as if my coffee needs go beyond hot and caffeinated.

  I sit on the couch, watching the cats take playful swipes at each other’s faces. One of Repeat’s ears gets stuck inside out. I flick it straight for him and he mewls. It’s the most helpless sound, and like it or not, there’s no way I can take these guys to a shelter, no-kill or otherwise.

  After I drink my coffee, I take my phone out onto the porch, where someone has set up a bunch of empty beer bottles in bowling-pin formation. I call Tricia. It’s only ten thirty, but miraculously, she answers.