Excerpt: Iris After the Incident
Here’s an excerpt from Iris After the Incident!
“…and that’s how we ended up with this.”
“Well, it’s very good pizza.”
“I know, right?”
You would think that the nighttime and the darkness that came with it would make those eyes of his less conspicuous, but no, it was like they took the artificial light from the buildings around us and sucked them in, so they’d be bluer, brighter, and I’d have a tougher time trying not to stupidly stare. The hair was away from his face again, and it was insane how I just then realized how hair framed a face. His eyes were the center of everything. It was a clear face too—not the stubbly kind, had never seen him with any phase of beard yet. Maybe he was one of those guys? Bradley had needed to shave every day.
Needs that were neglected for some time stirred up inside.
Seriously. I told my needs. You barely know the guy.
…But he doesn’t know you either, my needs seemed to be saying back. Isn’t it better that way?
“…I wouldn’t have chosen this cheese,” he was saying.
He was referring to the cop-out pizza I’d ordered, from the place across the street that let us choose our own toppings from a selection that included melons, gorgonzola, and pork floss. After assuring Grocery Lady that I was not on the verge of a breakdown, I threw out all attempts at a homemade meal and dropped by the pizza place.
But I chose the toppings, because control. There might be melon, gorgonzola, and pork floss in this pizza. I was on autopilot at that point, with less than an hour to go before I had to pick him up, and I was all out of ideas. I had wanted to show up with my comfort dish, best foot forward, and instead showed up with Frankenpizza.
9J could hate it, whatever. Other people had rejected me for worse.
“…but it works,” he concluded. “Shit, I’m missing out. Did you know this worked?”
“God, I didn’t,” I said. “I had a bad afternoon and kind of just pointed at things at random. You’re sure you’re okay with it?”
“It’s growing on me.”
“Maybe they have a special sauce that makes sure all the toppings come together.”
He was chewing, considering it. “I don’t know. Without the melon it would be different.”
“I never thought I’d say that my pizza needed more melon.”
“No sauce is ever going to fix that.” He reached for the bottle of root beer and refilled his paper cup, then mine.
Obviously this was a classy first-date dinner. The view of the Tower 3 pool at night made up for it. I checked if anyone had reserved the poolside for guests, because other residents did that sometimes, and was assured that it was clear. So that Saturday evening on the seventh floor pool and common area, it was just 9J and me and our strange little pizza on the picnic table. We could see out into the main NV Park residential and business complex, where we were sitting. A cluster of buildings, offices lit up for the night shift, bright signs of open restaurants and shops below. And people, lots of people.
I saw that he was looking down at them as well.
“What do you do, 9J?” I asked.
His eyes shifted to me, his smile a bit sheepish. “I am…unemployed right now. But I have a degree in chemical engineering.”
“You could have started with the engineering.”
“I know, but you should probably know it anyway.”
“Bad job market?”
“Kind of,” he said. “I was expected to go into the formulation side of the family business, but that didn’t pan out.”
His smile turned up, and now it was a little bit naughty boy again. “Because I can’t stand them.”
“Ooh. Interesting. Did you quit with drama?”
“Yes, there was some of that.”
“And you’re a runaway? Are you hiding here in NV Park, trying to figure out what to do next with your life?”
“Something like that.”
No phone, recent runaway, wouldn’t tell me his name. Bad News with a scoop of Watch Out topped with a What Are You Even Thinking. I wondered if he was a criminal, like an actual fugitive, but the building admins would have known who he was somehow, and they wouldn’t have let him lease an apartment.
Unless he forged papers? Bribed authorities? Was on the run from justice? But that was too complicated.
Someone suggested that I legally change my name, by the way. It was advice that was meant to be helpful, and maybe it was reasonable, because I got Google alerts with my name daily and they weren’t good employment references at all. But coming from a relative whose name I shared, it felt like a stab to the heart.
9J’s drama couldn’t have been too different from mine. The way he carried himself, how polished he looked…maybe he really was just avoiding an overbearing family.
Don’t judge, I told myself. “I think it’s a club,” I told him. “Runaways hiding in this apartment complex.”
“Runaways with money.”
I shrugged. “Some of us go to a job every day and that’s how we get new money.”
He grinned at the dig, not that I had any evidence he was filthy rich. He wasn’t exactly denying it either. What did you run away from, 9J? I was curious, but felt like this was a reciprocity kind of thing—if he gave me a detail, I’d have to give him one of mine. I wasn’t sure how much I was ready to share.
“So,” I said, “Do you get asked about your eyes a lot?”
“I don’t get asked about it at all,” he said. “Because people don’t ask. They just—call it out.”
“Blue Eyes. You know what some people from grade school continue to call me, to this day?”
I laughed. “Blue?”
“Kids should be more imaginative than that.”
“They went for the obvious, of course. Blue, Uncle Sam, Contacts.”
“Why would they even make fun of you? You look like you could punch them in the face.” I said that without thinking, and now he knew I’d been checking out his firm forearms way more than I should have.
“Well, I was thinner,” he said. Exactly what did he mean by thin anyway? That chest and shoulders, those arms, they were glorious. “And shorter.”
I shook my head. “Kids don’t know what they’re saying, do they? Most of the time. It’s too easy to point out what’s different. I’m assuming they did that because you were the only blue-eyed boy in class?”
He nodded. “I got used to it. It was safer, actually.”
“I hated it, until I saw how they made fun of people for what they did.”
“I’m sorry—like how?”
“Like when they made fun of the guy who tripped during the track meet. Or the guy who came back from the spelling bee in third place because he missed a word.”
“What did they call them?”
“I’m trying not to remember.”
“People can be…” Cruel? Awful? Yes they could be, even kids. I didn’t want to make this about The Incident, as so many things already were.
“Dumb,” 9J said, shrugging. “But that’s typical stuff kids do, right? Make fun of those who try things. If that had happened to me, I wouldn’t have even gone out there. So it was safer, that they made fun of something I already had. At least I already had a shitty nickname, and they couldn’t keep me from anything worth doing.”
“What did you end up doing?”
“The thing, that they would have made fun of you for. What did you end up doing?”
He paused. “Nothing that those grade school bullies would have known about.”
“‘Blue’ is not such a bad thing to be known for.”
“Oh it isn’t,” he quickly added. “Feel free to call me Blue as much as you want. If that’s what you’re into. What are you into, 9M?”
“The strange but good kind. What else? What do you do?”
Throughout dinner he had been remarkably decent, even based on my new and expanded need for personal space. He stayed a respectable distance from me, didn’t touch me inappropriately, held his head in that way that would have been seen as shy, if he had less of a presence. I may have spent too much time worrying about identifying pervs, forgetting how it was to act around a decent guy.
How did this go again?
“Scholarship services,” I said. “Is the boring way to describe what I do.”
“Is there a sexy way to describe it?”
I stifled a laugh. “I help women get money to study science and math, if they want to.”
“See, that sounds like a real job. A really awesome one.”
“Unemployed Chemical Engineer is not?”
“Unfortunately. Do you like what you do?”
“I like it,” I said. “I mean, I can’t hate it. It’s great what they’re doing.”
“The pay any good?”
“Just enough to let me make the rent and a little extra. But I don’t need a lot of things.”
“I don’t have a lot of things either. Good policy to have.”
“That’s what another runaway would say. Not so easy to quit a family business, I guess?”
There was a flicker of sadness in those eyes, whenever something we said swung a certain way. I knew what it was because it was probably the same thing in mine. Shit, why didn’t we just meet at a bar or something? We could have at least been talking about how stupid it was, meeting at a bar, instead of this. Instead of ourselves.
“Oh for some people it is,” he said, exhaling, the sentence feeling loaded. “But not me. Something else was expected from me. I’m the good one.”
“Good is so overrated,” I teased. “You never know what people are thinking. Or doing. Or doing when they think you’re not looking.”
I meant that to be light and fluffy, but the sadness showed up in his eyes and mine too, and damn it. Talking in riddles on the first date was difficult. But then 9J snapped out of it first.
“You know what I do when I think no one’s looking?” he asked.
“Sit-ups on the roof?”
“No. ” He checked the time on his phone, then tilted his head toward the elevators in the hallway. “Come on.”
Order the Philippine print edition: bit.ly/mvebooks