Just Like That (Short Fiction)

All his life, Russell had feigned disinterest in being “one of the guys”. A small thing, a tiny phrase, it was the highest praise a man could get, the shiniest badge, the label of labels. To be “one of the guys” meant your peers respected you; it meant they looked at you and saw themselves – and it was good. Russell wanted to know how it felt to be one of the guys.

His moment finally came, graduation morning after the ceremony. the parents, friends, and most of the graduates, were drifting towards the reception in the park, and Russell was outside the auditorium with the remaining graduates, still in their caps and gowns, relieved, emotional, and…

Just like that, so casually, Brady, football all-conference, smiled at him; he smiled so rarely, it was a thing of beauty, practically for the ages. “First party of the summer at my house.”

Just like that. “Okay,” he said, just as casually. It was more than an invitation. He loved Brady, in that moment. He wanted to hug him and kiss him. It took all of his self respect not to follow him around the park afterwards like a puppy begging or a new master.

     The party swung into life by itself. It had started before people began arriving, and they just joined in, adding their happiness, passion, bratwurst, beer, gummies, and love to it, until it was happening. Russell just watched them, transfixed by how happy they were. This is a party.

He went into the living room, with bratwurst and a Fanta, looking for an open space to sit or stand, to watch, and oh….

It was casual. So casual.

Brady, on the couch, looked up, moved over, and beckoned Russell with his head. People parted for him, he was sure of it. When he sat, Brady threw his arm over his shoulder, and pulled him in. And, just like that, he was one of the guys.

     It was so casual.

     For the rest of the night, he stayed right by Brady, except when Brady took a spin down, around, and up the hill with his best friend, John. Russell had a drink with his brother Greg while he waited, and it didn’t feel unnatural. They stood in the kitchen door and had a beer.

When Brady came back, he jumped out of the car, and grabbed Russell. “You gotta try it.” He didn’t want to say “no”, but…

     “You ever driven a car before?” He hadn’t.

     “Okay,” Brady pushed him into the driver’s seat. “Just turn the wheel in the direction you want to go – gently – and apply the brake – easy – to slow down.” Brady reached across Russell’s lap and fastened his seat belt. He smelled like aftershave and beer and leather. He handed him a beer. “It’s easy.”

     Russell looked at them, in the rear view mirror, as he pulled away. Brady, John, Christopher, Greg, Tony, Tommy, Breck; Amy, Rose, and Leslie were crowded in the kitchen door, waving goodbye, or something. Then he focused on not breaking Brady’s car.

     He let me drive his car. The two-lane road wound around the hill from its base to the top, where Brady lived. How did that happen? He stayed between the yellow lines, and tried to relax. He couldn’t do it. One of the guys. That’s how it felt, driving Brady’s car, like he was finally who he wanted to be.

     He was coming to the bottom of the hill, and they were suddenly there  – Brady, Greg, all of them – they had raced him down the hill, to laugh at – to cheer – no, they were celebrating,  waving bottles and sloshing beer, illuminated in the headlights, and triumphant, but…

     They had come out too far into the street. The car was moving too fast. He froze. They froze. And his mind didn’t tell him to brake or turn the steering wheel. It recorded their faces as they looked, from the bumper to his eyes – and their bodies, as they flew, leaped, scattered, fell, dented the bumper, slammed into the street under the car, slid or flew over the hood, smashed the windshield, and bounced off, spinning – and the way he kept driving, casually, until he reached the bottom of the hill and the road leveled and he stopped.

And, just like that, it was over.

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