Day Three Hundred and Thirty-Seven.
I was never a huge fan of Valentine's Day. I suppose that's to be expected from a guy like me. The fifteenth of February was supposed to be a good day. It meant there were 364 full days until I had to survive another Valentine's, with or without a date. But this was the worst day-after-Valentine's I ever had.
It was funny, the way things had worked out in the past year. My birthday was supposed to be awesome, and I had prepared for a sub-par day-after-my-birthday which turned out to be even better than my birthday itself. Valentine's Day was supposed to be romantic and end with Rainie and me committing to our relationship for all time, but instead, I went home alone - and believe it or not, post-Valentine's sucked even more.
It was really terrible.
I invited Pep over when school was out and I was finished filming for the day. I had to tell her what had transpired between Rainie and I the night before, but more importantly, I was lonely. Kevin and Joe were out with friends, Mom and Dad went out for post-Valentine's dinner (they didn't get to go out on actual Valentine's Day because my brothers and I weren't available to baby-sit Frankie), and I was stuck looking after the little chump. Pep's company would have been appreciated on a day like this.
As usual, she entered the house with a spring in her step and a smile on her face. I was in the living room with my head tilted upwards against the back of the couch and an open bag of Doritos perched on my face as I desperately waited for the last few crumbs to fall into my mouth.
"Fatty," Pep laughed, taking a seat on the floor. Elvis rushed up to her in excitement, bombarding her with kisses.
I crumpled up the empty bag and set it on the table. "You're lucky you didn't have to witness me tearing the bag apart and licking the insides."
"Ha!" she giggled, nearly falling over as Elvis clobbered her.
I watched the two of them with a half-smile for a few seconds before I decided to be kind and give her a break. "Elvis. C'mere," I instructed sternly. He did as he was told and jumped onto the sofa beside me. Pep used the sleeve of her shirt to wipe the dog slobber off her cheek.
"What's up, Nick J? You sounded sad on the phone," she remarked with interest.
"Not sad," I said with a frown.
"Angry? Upset. Annoyed. Frustrated. Disgruntled?" Pep suggested innocently, curling her legs up against her chest and resting her head on her knees.
"Hmm. All of the above," I decided. "Valentine's sucked."
I waited for her to ask me why, but she simply stared at me and expected me to continue.
"You know how much I hate that holiday, right? Well, I actually tried this time. I made reservations at this nice restaurant I went to once with Selena and her parents. It was really quiet but really classy. That's Valentine's-ish, right?"
Pep shrugged indifferently.
"Rainie was furious about it the second I told her where we were going. It was too far away, I was trying too hard, it would have been better if we stayed in the city... I don't even know what I did wrong," I grumbled.
"Maybe it wasn't about where you went that mattered to her," Pep suggested naively.
"But it was," I argued, sitting up in my seat and leaning forward. (Better stories are told this way). "Location was everything, for some reason. She was on my case again about not wanting to be seen in public with her. Then she was mad at me because I was apparently supposed to bring Joe along for Lesbian Friend, but I know I told her a week ago that he made other plans."
Pep nodded, failing to make a comment. Instead, she stared at Elvis, who had plopped his head down on my lap.
"Then she said something like ‘you knew what you bargained for, Nick. You said right from the beginning you didn't understand me, and that's how I want it to be. So suck it.'"
I expected Pep to call me out on the ‘suck it' comment because it was clear that I had put words into Rainie's mouth, but she kept quiet. She was less excitable all of a sudden.
Collapsing against the back of the couch, I sighed. "I don't know what to do. It's like we're together, but we're not. I just want confirmation. Everything would be so much easier if I had confirmation."
"Would it?" Pep murmured.
"Yes. That way, I could tell Lesbian Friend to fuck off and find her own female date, and I wouldn't have to ‘try so hard' with Rainie."
Pep's eyes shifted to my face. "Why does everything have to be so hard? Why can't she just like you back?"
"'Cause she's an ice bitch," I replied matter-of-factly. Pep laughed weakly, and I cracked a smile along with her. "What's wrong with you?" I questioned. She wasn't as bubbly as usual.
She shook her head, the smile fading. "Nothing. Sometimes these stories bring me down."
I scoffed. "Tell me about it."
Pep sighed, releasing her legs from her chest. "No, I mean... there's always a problem with you and Rainie. For the past year, all it's been is problems with you and Rainie."
A frown began to form on my face.
"I can't figure out why you even like her. She's not nice to you. All she does is play games, and you're never allowed to win. She hardly ever makes you happy; and then I have to deal with you being sad."
There was a full-fledged frown on my face by the time she'd finished. I sat up so abruptly that Elvis lifted his head from my lap and leapt off the couch. "Sorry you have to deal with me," I replied haughtily. For a second there, she was acting like a protonic bitch.
For once, Pep didn't let it go. She exhaled, glaring at me. "It's just... what makes you think I care so much about every little detail of your life with Rainie? Do I ever make you listen to hours upon hours of my problems? Are you even aware that I have problems?"
I returned her glare for a moment or two before quietly inquiring, "Are you PMS-ing again? Is that what this is about?"
The glare she was giving me morphed into an even dirtier look. She pushed herself to a standing position as she muttered, "Forget it."
When I realized she was about to storm out of the room, I sprang to my feet, grabbed her wrist and announced, "Hold on. Don't leave. You have something to say? Say it."
When we locked eyes again, hers were sparkling. They were sparkling because they were welling up with tears.
Slightly fearful, I breathed, "Holy shit. You really got it bad this month, huh?"
With a groan of disgust, she pushed me away. She may be tiny, but the shove was forceful enough to knock me into the corner of the end table, sending a sharp pain up my side. As one hand moved to put pressure on the wound, my other hand was used to steady the shaking lamp on the table.
"Ow!" I exclaimed. "What was that for? Jesus, that stings!"
Though Pep's eyes were full of impending tears, she stayed strong and kept them all in. In a voice barely above a whisper, she confessed, "I'm so in love with you, Nick, don't you know that? You're supposed to know everything."
Maybe I admitted that stars sometimes made me feel small, and maybe my experience with Rainie was God's way of telling me I wasn't His gift to womankind - but I was still arrogant as fuck, and I was convinced that if time ever came to a standstill and the world stopped spinning around, even if it was just for a second, this was when it happened.
I didn't know how long it was that I stood face-to-face with Pep, my expression blank, clutching my side in pain. Usually revelations cause my mind to whirl - this time, my mind was doing nothing. Telling me nothing. There was nothing at all in there.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, it started to work again. I started to process what had been revealed to me, and my breath caught in my throat as I realized with horror that I should have seen this coming. I definitely, definitely should have seen this coming.
Pep's face never crumbled, but one solitary tear slipped down her cheek.
I had never been so afraid in my life.
I licked my lips and managed to croak out, "Since when?"
She huffed, willing herself not to cry. "Since my birthday. North Carolina."
I nodded slowly, desperately trying to remain calm. It was important to remain calm. This situation had to be handled with care.
"... why?" I asked. I didn't say it to be insensitive. In fact, I was trying my hardest to be very sensitive, which was why I spoke to her in a whisper.
She wiped at her eyes, which appeared to be a futile mission, and answered evenly, "You took me to see the stars, and I thought that... well, you'd never done anything like that before."
I let my hand fall from my wounded side, aware that we were distinctly keeping our distance from one another. I'm not going to lie: I wanted to run away. I wanted to go back in time thirty minutes and not invite Pep to hang out with me. I wanted to laugh this off and tell her it was a good joke.
Then I remembered how Miley told me it was so typical of me to run away from things because it was easier than confrontation. I tried to avoid drama to begin with, but when I was forced to deal with it, my strategy was to get out as quickly as possible.
The problem was that this was Pep. This was Pep.
I frowned, trying to make sense of it all. "But you went out with Lance..."
She sniffled, admitting, "I knew that it was weird, being in love with your best friend. I tried to get over you, but it never worked because you're always there." Pep paused, fiddling with the keychain in her hands. "And every so often, I'd think that maybe... I mean, you hated Lance so much, so I thought... and then you kissed me at the beach that day, and I didn't realize... and then when Shep died, and you..." Unable to finish any of her sentences, Pep took a shaky breath. Oh God. I prayed that she wouldn't break down.
Another tear. Poor little proton. She was trying so hard to keep it together.
I shook my head in disbelief. "I never knew."
I never knew until the moment she told me, and then I felt as if I'd known all along. Shit. How had I not seen the signs?
She couldn't look me in the eyes anymore. Instead, she stared at my chest, her shoulders rising up and down as she struggled to breathe steadily.
What was I supposed to say? It was like if someone told you that you were about to die in a minute. After you'd asked all the necessary questions, what else was there to do? You just had to wait for it to happen. I didn't know exactly what I was waiting for in this situation, but I was waiting nonetheless.
"Joe figured it out," she mumbled. "That's why he was over last week. He told me to tell you."
Joe knew. Joe knew?
I still had no idea how to respond. My mind had stopped working again. I knew that I should be angry with Joe for not giving me a warning, but I couldn't feel anger. I couldn't think about Joe when Pep was right in front of me.
All I could feel was guilt. And I'd never felt it like this before. It made me want to slam my head into a dresser repeatedly if that's what it took to make it go away. I'd do anything to make it go away.
"I'm sorry," I said quietly. Pep's eyes flashed to mine inquisitively, and I forced myself to add, even though it hurt, "I don't feel the same."
I don't know what I expected. Subconsciously, I think I expected her to crumple to a heap on the floor and burst into sobs. I had no after-plan, but that was what I expected.
Instead, she stood her ground. Another tear fell, and my guilt grew exponentially. I had been hurt physically before, and I'd been hurt by words - but it actually hurt to see her cry, even if she was barely crying at all. I had done this to her, even if it wasn't intentional. This was my fault.
Pep bit her bottom lip and nodded, training her eyes again to my chest. "Okay," she whispered.
That was it. She turned around and headed for the door.
I felt like I should call out her name or say something groundbreaking that would make all of her tears vanish. But I had nothing. My mind was failing me. It was feeding me nothing. Nothing. Nothing?! Really, brain? Fuck you. I fucking needed you at a time like this!
I heard the front door close, but I didn't move. I stood where I was, covering my face with my hands and remaining motionless.
It was the worst post-Valentine's ever.
I barely spoke to anyone for the rest of the night, and the only thing I can remember is that before I went to bed, I threw out my copy of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
It was obvious that I had highly overestimated my abilities. When it came to people-reading, Chaucer far surpassed me.