Okay, so first, a note: The characters, places, and situations created for the Baby-Sitters Club series are the property of Ann M. Martin and Scholastic. (If they were mine, you know Karen Brewer would be an "actress" waiting tables in New York by now.) Everything that isn't real life and isn't Ann M.'s is mine, and if you violate my copyright, I will cut you. On with the show.
In our last episode, Jessi woke up really... tired.
Every part of my body was sore, starting with a pounding ache at the top of my head. I’d never been much of a partier. Okay, I’d never been a partier at all. Hamilton College wasn’t really known for its ragers, and I’d always ducked out of the writing salons when the absinthe came out. So this feeling of blurriness, bleariness, and all-over crappiness was unfamiliar and unpleasant. I blamed Stacey. At that point, I wasn’t entirely sure why I blamed Stacey, but I was pretty sure she was at fault.
Stretching an entire body full of aching muscles, I rolled over to bury my face in the pillow and block out the sunlight cutting between the curtains. I couldn’t do that. I was stopped by something very large and very warm.
My eyes snapped open, and I barely noticed the pain shooting to the back of my brain because there was a man in my bed. Looking around the room, I was comforted to see that we were in a hotel room and thus it wasn’t actually my bed, but there was still a man in it. He was bare from the waist up—at the very least—revealing a rather nice set of back and shoulder muscles, but I couldn’t muster the courage to peek under the sheets and see if any other muscles were exposed. I peeked at myself, though. I was definitely completely exposed.
The man, this complete stranger with whom I shared some kind of naked time the night before, rolled over onto his back, causing me to jump out of the way for fear of touching him and waking him up. The chest muscles matched the back muscles, and the face wasn’t bad either—high cheekbones and a square jaw under a head of short, dark hair. All in all, an attractive guy. And a complete and utter stranger. I dug through my brain trying to find any clue that I’d encountered this guy before, but I came up empty. I tried to dig through my memories of the night before, but I was shocked to find that there was barely anything there.
Escape. Escape had to happen. I slipped cautiously out of bed, eyes locked on the stranger’s eyelids for signs of movement, and began sneaking hurriedly around the room to collect the detritus of my night out. My skirt was easy, puddled on the floor next to the bed. My bra was on top of the TV. I couldn’t find any sign of my sweater from the night before, although I did find the camisole I’d worn under it. My shoes and purse were on the floor by the door. All that was missing were... ahem. I glanced around frantically, looking in the closet, in the bathroom, under the bed, where I found nothing but two torn square foil packets. I jerked back, landing hard on the floor next to the bed, and immediately decided that I had everything I absolutely needed to make my escape.
On the bed, the man moved, the sheets slipped down a bit, and I bolted out the door.
I walked past three bus stops until I was sure I’d put sufficient distance between me and the hotel and the mystery man inside. It felt like half an hour until the bus arrived, and when I got on, I kept my eyes on the floor, sure that all of my fellow riders knew exactly what I’d been doing the night before. They were one up on me there, I supposed. Easing into a seat in the very back, I tried to dig through booze-fogged memories to identify my new friend. I got more disconnected flashes than anything else.
“Drinks! We need after-dinner drinks!” Stacey announced to the four square blocks surrounding Los Sombreros. Somewhere in the distance, someone cheered.I knew it was her fault.
“I need to write. I promised myself I’d write,” I said.Where did we go?
Stacey threw an arm around my shoulder. “You’re coming out, sister. How about you?” Jessi. Please, Jessi, say no.
“Why not? Where are we going?”
Claudia at the bar. “Shots. Tequila. Four of them.”Screw you, too, Claudia.
“You want more?” I shook my head. “Another round!”Screw you extra, Claudia.
“You have to get a Chi flat iron. It straightens with ionic technology.”Okay.
“Aren’t those expensive?”
“Ionic technology, Mallory!”
“Doesn’t she look nice? Doesn’t she have nice hair? Mark! Mark, isn’t her hair nice?”Which doesn’t actually taste all that much like iced tea.
Mark chuckled. “Yeah, it’s great.”
“Mark, this is Mallory. She has nice hair. You should buy her a drink.”
He chuckled again. “Nice to meet you, Mallory. What are you drinking tonight?”
No idea. I looked to Stacey.
“Long Island iced tea.”
“Dancing!” A bar is like a dance floor, except tall!Nooo.
Jessi was holding me onto my stool. “That’s right. That’s… kind of like dancing.”
“We should go dancing! You’re a dancer. You can teach me to dance.”
“The music is really loud!”Um…
“It makes you dance without thinking about it!” Stacey yelled.
“I don’t know how to dance!”
“You danced at the bar.”
“But that was... Did I dance at the bar?”
“You need a drink,” Stacey yelled. “It’ll make you a better dancer. Hey, look after my friend while I get her a drink, okay?”
“Here you go.”Michael’s hair was blond, not brown.
“Stacey, this is Mark!”
“Stacey, this is Michael!”
“Nice to meet you, Michael. Here’s your drink.”
“What is it?”
“Doesn’t matter. Aren’t you hot in that turtleneck?”
“I’m hot! Whoo!”
“Do you have anything underneath? Let me take that.”
And that was it.
I shoved through the door into my parents’ kitchen, my head nearly exploding in the bright fluorescent light and the twin howls of startled babies. “Mallory! Jesus!” my sister Claire hissed at me, bouncing one of the squalling bundles in her arms, but I ignored her.
Jessi was in my parents’ kitchen. I didn’t know why. “Let’s go upstairs,” she said, and I thought it was a splendid idea. I followed her up to my apartment, not turning on the light as we went inside. I immediately kicked off my shoes, grabbed some kind of clothing from my stack of clean laundry, and headed for the bathroom.
“I like your outfit, by the way,” Jessi called after me.
Her voice echoed in my head. “Your voice is really loud.” And you’re kind of a bitch. I stripped down, flinging the offending camisole across the bathroom and turning the shower on as hot as it would go. My toe made hard contact with the side of the tub. “Ow.” Dammit.
The water felt good. It was too hot, actually, but it soothed my muscles and my pounding head, and my mood lightened marginally. I should be nicer to Jessi. None of this is her fault. She wasn’t the one who drank herself into a walking unconsciousness and then slutted it up in some strange man’s hotel room. A really hot strange man, my subconscious reminded me.
Doesn’t matter, I countered.
I emerged from the shower feeling somewhat better. PJ pants and a t-shirt helped even more, and two Advil held the promise of a brighter future. Back out into the world.
“You look kind of rough,” Jessi said. “Where did you spend the night?”
Good question. “Nowhere,” I said quickly. “So... that was a good time last night, right? Going out to the bar, and then we went...” Come on, Jessi.
Helpful. “Well, yes, dancing. Of course. I was just trying to remember the name of the club.”
“I don’t remember it,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter. I was having a great time. All the things I did at the club,” I fished.
Jessi snorted with laughter. “I’m sure you did. You and Stacey hit the floor as soon as we got there, and I have no idea what you did after that.”
“No idea,” I echoed with a sigh. “Well... we had a lot of fun.”
“Me, too,” she said. “It was the first time I’ve danced in a while that I wasn’t worried about something the entire time. Not that it’s the same kind of dancing, but still.”
I stared at her. This is her gratitude? She was realizing her dream every day, living the fruit of decades of hard work, and instead of reveling in it she was griping about how much better life was on a sweat-stinking dance floor in some small-town club? I threw myself on my back on the bed and shielded my eyes with my arm. “Trouble in paradise?” I snarked.
I grunted. “Is the pressure of fulfilling your lifelong dream getting to you?”
“Okay, Mal, what’s with the attitude?” Jessi’s voice was sharp. “Bad hookup last night? Did he turn out to be ugly?”
My breath caught in my throat. “No!” I snapped, more loudly than I needed to. “I’m just... I...” I didn’t know what I was. I should be nicer to Jessi. None of this is her fault. I rolled over and looked at her. “Talk to me about your life.”
“No, seriously, what’s up?” Her voice was softer this time, and her eyes were, too. “Is everything okay? Do you need to talk?”
“Nah, I’m good,” I said. “Tell me about dancing.”
Jessi lay down next to me on the bed. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep doing it,” she said. “I keep getting hurt. Like, over the past year, I’ve had all these ligament problems, hurting myself and then having to do rehab. Last spring, I actually had to give up a part because I tore two ligaments in my ankle and I couldn’t dance. The girl who took over for me was nineteen.”
I laughed. “Jess, you’re twenty-five. It’s not like you’re over the hill.”
“In dance, I kind of am, just a little. A lot of the girls I’m dancing with in the chorus will be able to make it to their mid-thirties and keep dancing, but a lot of them will break down in the next few years. Next year, I might be onstage, or I might be watching from home with my feet on ice.” She lifted her legs gracefully, straight up in the air. “I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years, Mal. Can you believe it? What person our age can say that? Our bodies really aren’t designed for that, are they.”
Our bodies aren’t designed to leap and twirl and balance on one toe and look like swans, I thought. Doing it at all is a miracle. I sighed. “You’re not going to want to hear this.”
“So, I know this is your dream, and that’s great,” I said, shifting next to her. “But maybe at this point you’ve had your dream. Maybe that’s the deal—you get your twenty years, and then you do something else.”
“I don’t want to do something else.”
I should be nicer to Jessi. None of this is her fault. “You always said you wanted to be a ballerina, and now you’ve done it.” I had to move. I stood abruptly and headed across the room to my small kitchen in pursuit of water. “You’ve had your dream job, the one you wanted when you were a kid. Now it’s just time for you to pursue some other interests.”
“I don’t have any other interests, Mal,” Jessi said. “You remember growing up: I was dancing, I was baby-sitting, or I was hanging out with you. Those were my interests. What am I supposed to do? Say, ‘Yay, I got to dance! Now I’ll spend the rest of my life watching toddlers and reading books about ponies’?”
I grabbed a cup out of the cabinet and closed the door harder than I intended. Yeah, Jessi, sometimes you end up watching goddamned toddlers. “Sometimes things don’t work out, okay?” I spat. I couldn’t keep my voice from rising. “Sometimes you spend years and years trying to follow your dreams and then realize it’s never going to happen, and then you know what? You find new dreams. You accept that you can’t have everything you want, and you move on.” I spun on her, and her eyes widened.
“What is wrong with you?” she asked. My face grew hot. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Talk to me, Mal. Where is this coming from?”
I closed my eyes. Please go away, Jessi. “Nowhere. It’s nothing. I just didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I could use a nap.” Please go away.
“Yeah,” she said. The bed creaked, fabric rustled, and her footsteps moved toward the door. “Give me a call when you wake up, okay?” she said softly. “I want to hang out.”
I slumped onto the couch. What did she possibly have to complain about? How greedy can you get—you’re given a miracle, you’re given your lifelong dream, and then you moan when the miracle doesn’t last forever?
They all had their dreams. Jessi was dancing for a major company in a big city. Kristy was coaching softball, now for money and the glory of back-to-back regional championships. Claudia—who was more or less the club’s designated simpleton (I’m sorry, it’s true)—had managed to get into a top art school, had discovered a love of fashion, and would be going into business for herself any time now.
And Mary Anne. Mary Anne was living in New York City, married to her hot lit professor from Sarah Lawrence, and getting published in the New Yorker. Mary Anne, who’d never shown any interest in writing at all. Mary Anne, whose talent had popped up effortlessly and showed no sign of slacking.
Me? After shopping my first book to agents for a year and a half, I finally spent the balance of my college fund to publish it myself. It sold 136 copies, twelve of them to my mother to send out as Christmas gifts. She slipped Target gift cards inside the front cover before wrapping them up. She doesn’t know I saw.
Now I lived above my parents’ garage and spent my days changing lots of diapers and struggling to finish a book I’d been toiling over for five years. The most exciting things in my life were a fancy new MacBook and a fancier, newer one-night stand with a man who remains a total stranger. I’m living the dream.
I stared at my knees. Next to me sat Misty of Chincoteague, lying right where Jessi had left it. Nice respect for other people’s stuff, I grumbled to myself, even as I realized how ridiculous it was, and flounced over to the bookcase.
Next to the empty spot where Misty should have been was a small, very familiar book. I remembered getting it as a gift to myself when I left for Riverbend—a journal to record my thoughts on this new and exciting adventure—attracted to it by the bookishness of it and the way the burgundy fabric cover resembled some of my favorite hardback books under the dust covers.
I left Misty sideways on the shelf and took my journal instead, lying carefully across the bed with it like it was a fragile and ancient tome that would crumble with rough handling. As I flipped through, skimming pages full of cramped handwriting, it did seem kind of ancient—the Mallory Pike of this historical text had big and very specific plans, and while circumstances at school ranged from awkward to awesome, the future was universally bright. I had no urge to go back and warn 15-year-old me of what she’d be doing in a decade; I thought I’d let her enjoy life for a while.
The journal ended in my junior year, the last entry dated February 9. There was no official ending, just a trickling off—that was the year I started my honors creative writing course at Riverbend, and all the opportunities for self-expression and outside affirmation meant that my deepest thoughts really didn’t need to hide away in my journal anymore.
The next blank page caught my eye, and I stared it down for nearly a minute. Hey, why not? But as I grabbed a pen off my desk, I paused. That book wasn’t the place for the dull ramblings of a disappointed, dispirited woman. It wasn’t my place to kill the buzz.
Instead, I opened up my laptop. There on the screen was my magnum opus, my wrist-cuttingly obnoxious work in progress. I closed it without saving, pulled up a glowingly blank page, and frowned at it.
I’m 25, I live with my parents, I’m a failure as a writer, my teeth hurt, and last night was the first sexual contact I’d had in three years and I don’t even remember it.
A comedy, then.
Coming up: We get to the bottom of whatever happened with Richard and Sharon.