Bill asked Mel if she had anything to drink around here. Like anything. Mel, from the bathroom, shouted, Yeah, like a a-third-a-bottle-of Smirnoff in the freezer—oh wait that’s what she and Stel used to make Bloodies yesterday. So, no? Bill asked. Mel, striding past him to wash hands in the kitchen sink, slurred, Did she look like she needed any more anything at this point? Bill opened his mouth to ask if the bathroom sink was too mainstream; he closed it when he felt his heart pick up. Bill’s heart suddenly felt like some small, feisty animal trapped inside a bag, trying to get out. Why? He was here, in an apartment he’d been in at least 50 times, engaging in some purely platonic hanging out. Of course there was always that shot of adrenaline that came with entering a female’s space. Her home. Her room. Her world. Bill had spent his childhood observing girls from the outside. They were unexplored territory. Then at some point in his teens the vault door was flung open and Bill got to enter. No matter how many times he did, he felt like Indiana Jones intruding on some ancient, booby-trapped tomb. Full of intrigue. Scared for his life. It was the things. The butthole-tightening expectation that the walls would be made out of tampons, and the subsequent discovery that they actually kind of were. With Mel, it was the neon green fleece blanket—the initials M.A.M. embroidered in white on one corner that made it so obviously a grandma gift—draped over her futon. The Friends Blu-ray box set under the TV. The red KitchenAid on the kitchen counter. The CLEAN/DIRTY dishwasher magnet. The key rack. Yep, Mel was a girl. No doubt about it. And there was something audacious about it being 2013 and her not trying to be anything else. Heart: dunka, dunka, dunka. Bill asked it why. Even if this looked like something, like what movies and TV portrayed as something that might lead somewhere, it was only what it was—so, why? Why the coked-up gerbil impression, heart? Bill tried to say something. He could not. Words were gone. Like all of a sudden English was a foreign language. Classic will they/won’t they, Max had said. But right now Bill felt less Ross Geller, more Neo getting his mouth fused shut. This was more than boyhood butterflies, he admitted. This was full-on ugly-head rearing of the thing. The thing that’d been possessing Bill in recent months. The thing that made sweat ooze out of his face during lectures in even the ACed classrooms. The thing that made him need to find bathrooms on deserted fourth or fifth floors—up where they keep obsolete tech and tenured professors—to do his business. The thing that made him actually walk into Middlestate University Health Services last week and, resisting the urge to make any What About Bob? references, ask the receptionist where one might maybe go if he wasn’t feeling great in like a mental kind of way. The receptionist had smiled and pointed down one corridor to a row of chairs, a miniature waiting room, where sat none other than the illustrious Mel M. Bill said thank you to the receptionist for this information which he would relay to his friend who was having such ailments. He scurried out of the building before Mel could spot him and half-jogged all the way home and put on What About Bob? and laughed at Bill Murray. Mel’s kitchen smelled like fruity scented candles that were previously burning but no longer lit, Bill noticed. He loosened his tie and swallowed a large dose of So What. So what if Mel had that night at dinner with all of Film Club chosen the seat next to him. So what if she went to the museum with him and it was fun. So what if the five mandatory presentations on sexual assault Bill attended as a Middlestate freshman made him unable to be alone with a woman, ever, without thinking she was afraid he was going to rape her. Dunka. This was just what it was. Bill Davis. In her space. His heart doing gymnastics. And her. Looking better than ever. Even if all that, she called him buddy in texts. Once, she wore her retainer in front of him. So. He accidentally said it out loud: Why? (At least it was speech.) She dried her hands with a pink hand towel hanging next to the sink. Because not to name any names, Mel said, but a certain roommate of Mel’s named Jess Marie Schwartz thought it’d be a dandy idea to just up and shave her hairyass legs in the bathroom sink, which was now terminally clogged, which—hence the kitchen sink. Any more questions, detective? Actual health implications of the clunky, now-painful dunka, dunka were (Mel daintily pried off one size-eight yellow flat, then the other, right there in the kitchen) the least of Bill’s worries, he decided.
—Bill is nice.
—Yeah, but like too nice, no?
—Oh, Mel. What even is ‘too nice?’ I don’t think ‘too nice’ is part of my belief system.
—Don’t give me that. So if he asked you to go to, I don’t know, a museum or some freaking thing, you’d be like—
—Museum of natural history. Mannequin cavemen. Cavemannequins. In buttflaps. Staring at you.
—Sounds interesting, actually.
—Whole exhibits about like different kinds of waves, in the ocean, which—did you know there’s different kinds? A room full of rocks.
—Have you been?
—Oh, I’m not buying it. You’d go. Yeah right, you’d go. You’d go and hold his hand through the Ice Age and probably push his freaking fedora up on one side to whisper in his ear, ‘Hey, where’s the dinosaurs?’
—Uh, that’s a pretty vivid picture. Have you been? Because it sounds like—
—For the love of Bechdel, let’s change the subject.
—Fine by me. How would you feel about me borrowing your razor? And before you say no, I wanna remind you how good a roommate I am and how much you love me and all that crap people say when—
—I have extra razors, freak. You really don’t have one?
—Don’t even think about shaving those, those… mammoth trunks in our shower. That would be major cloggage.
—No shaving in the shower. Got it.
—You’d really go? It wouldn’t be, like, weird to do those things?
Mel was not one to initiate a kiss. But standing there in the kitchen, surely looking cute as heck in no shoes and the black dress that according to her dad had the Grand Canyon of necklines (William McCleary, M.D., had his moments)—just standing there, waiting to be kissed, and yet not being kissed despite said cuteness, was whatever’s one step past Excruciating on the awkward scale. Bill was just standing there. He was staring at her feet and—was he clutching his chest? It made her feel like maybe there was something wrong with her feet because he was staring at them instead of the Grand Canyon, which she had specifically decided to wear that night after the convo with Stel about How do you know when you’re ready?—which—You don’t, is pretty much what Stel had said, which—Wow, thanks for the help! And this self-consciousness about feet was opening a floodgate of insecurity that had been dammed up since Mel had had her webbed middle toes fixed, which was like years before periods were even a thing. Which—why had Jess all of a sudden wanted to join the female population and shave her legs? Did she have a date or something? It bothered Mel that she didn’t know. Mel was always up-to-the-minute on what other people in Film Club were doing. It was the why that sometimes tripped her up. Like Bill right now. What the heck? Mel was mostly confused because she thought looking cute was the hard part. She had googled Audrey Hepburn pictures before doing her hair; she knew Bill liked that old crap. She thought Bill, who was notorious for James Deaning the heck out of tipsy, up-past-their-bedtime coeds, would know what to do here. She wanted to be Deaned. Brandoed. Fonda me, Mel thought. But Bill, in his tweed three-piece and matching fedora, just stared at her not-even-webbed-anymore feet and sort of hugged himself and seemed to be shivering. Mel put one foot on top of the other. She felt the wine from dinner slosh around in her belly. She felt the awkwardness grow and expand, like a flame getting closer and closer to skin. She couldn’t take it. So Melissa McCleary—Melissa Ann McCleary, 22 years old, who supersecretly didn’t even trust herself to have opinions on abortion, stamped a big mental SCREW IT on the whole situation and stepped and leaned and pressed her face into Bill’s.
—Say there’s a film you like.
—There’s a film you like.
—OK, smartass. There’s a film that you like.
—At least one.
—But you’re not sure if liking it makes you a good filmophile. Because it has… a lot of commercial appeal.
—Yes. And the you you wanna be might not be the you that likes that film.
—A superhero movie, for instance.
—Sure. Whatever. So what I’m wondering is how do you even know if you actually like the movie or if you’ve just fallen for the same superficial stuff that made it big at the box office?
—CGI explosions. Sexy costumes. Household names.
—All that. This movie has all that. And… I like it. I think. But isn’t that stuff just designed to get me to like it? That’s my question. Is that ‘like’ real? Am I genuinely in like with this film, or am I just another… Just…
—A moth to a flame.
—A plebe to an Iron Man.
—Bill, I’m going to tell you a story I’ve never told anyone.
—When I was 11 the live action movie of Josie and the Pussycats came out. The marketing push was Biblical. There were entire aisles of Josie and the Pussycats school supplies. Naturally, my little sister and all her adorably idiotic friends had to see it. Had to. And when release day for this desecration of all that is holy in entertainment finally came around, guess who got stuck chaperoning five 9-year-olds to the downtown cinema?
—They all wore little headbands with cat ears, Bill. Cat ears. All of them. My parents had to bribe me. Upgrades for my computer.
—I didn’t know…
—But here’s the thing, Bill. As scarring as it was to walk up to the ticket booth and tell the guy in the Pulp Fiction shirt ‘Six for Josie and the Pussycats,’ I’ll never forget the involuntary smile that took over my face about halfway into the first musical number. I liked it, Bill. I fucking. Liked it. There was so much to like. It lampooned itself and had one hell of a soundtrack. Of course, as the credits rolled, I feigned disgust to the jumping-up-and-down, cat-eared posse that had unanimously voted it The Best Movie of All Time. But internally I was a resounding sixth vote: Yes! Yes, it was! A couple months later when it came out on DVD, I rode my bike to Best Buy and bought two copies. I’ve never bought two copies of anything else in my life, Bill. Why would you need two copies of one movie? I set up our family’s old tube TV in my room and watched it once a week for the rest of seventh grade. I still know every word to every song.
—Holy shit, Max.
—Here’s the point. You should kiss her.
—Wha—kiss? Kiss who? Your sister?
—No. Is that hat restricting bloodflow to your brain? You came to me just now with a question about liking a film. The value of commercialized art. An interesting discussion, although not the one you wanna have. You said ‘film,’ I heard ‘Mel.’ Don’t think I don’t appreciate the trope, though.
—Well then. I guess my cards are, as they say, all on the table.
—It doesn’t take a genius to figure you out, Bill Davis, but a genius I am. Have you been at any of the Film Club outings you’ve been at? You two are classic will they/won’t they. It’s not a matter of whether your ‘like’ is ‘real’ or not. If I can like a movie made for preteen girls with half a brain—genuinely like it—then anyone can like anything. Your whole dilemma about being ‘tricked’ into liking her is just a distraction. I watched you bring home a different girl each night of Labor Day weekend, a three-day weekend. None of them actually appealed to you. And not once did you talk to me about being tricked into liking. That’s the difference with Mel. Liking is on the table. You’re just trying to trick yourself out of it. Or out of having to choose. Self-inflicted paralysis.
Bill seemed to be having some sort of allergic reaction to Mel, the way she had had to walk his dazed, shivering body out of the fluorescent-lit kitchen and into her bedroom to sit him down on her bed, all the while rubbing his back and asking, Are you alright? Hey, are you OK? It reminded Mel of the nights when Stel would overdo it with the Cuervo and Mel would have to stay up, comforting Stel and making sure she didn’t choke on her puke. These nights were never fun for Mel, but being the one doing the comforting always felt at least somewhat like winning. But Bill hadn’t touched alcohol that night—Mel had watched. At some point during the awkwardness in the kitchen, he had slipped into, like, caledonia. The first words he managed to get out in her bedroom were: I’m sorry. And then: I’m really, really sorry. Mel showered him with gentle It’s OKs and kept up the backrub. He looked like he might cry. She literally prayed he wouldn’t. Mel felt motherish enough as it was. Oh William, she cooed. It’s Bill, Bill said, and he winced out another I’m sorry. Mel said it was fine. And she meant it. She had given up on tonight being the First Time when, in the kitchen, she had started to kiss him, found his face unresponsive, and, not knowing what to do, kept kissing until of all things the word necrophile slid into her head, which—no. Mel shuddered. It’s not you, Bill said. He was sitting on the bed, staring at the carpet. His hat was off. His vest was unbuttoned. And Mel, who briefly neglected her backrubbing duties to zip a hoodie up over the Grand Canyon, said, No, really, it’s OK. You don’t even know how OK it is. And forming these Os and these Ks with her mouth brought Mel back to last week when she had gone to, well, go see someone about all the things in life she wanted but wasn’t getting. Just wasn’t. And the lady Mel had gone to go see—who Mel thought was incredibly brave for wearing black shoes with that navy skirt but was terribly kind all the same—said through lipsticked teeth that perfect was an obstacle to OK. Which had sounded just utterly backwards to Mel at the time. But. And but maybe… Maybe if Mel couldn’t be Deaned she could still—at the least—be, like, Drapered. Maybe this was being Drapered. So she settled her hand on top of Bill’s hand on the bed. And it was warm and clammy. Like a fish left in the sun.