The night before classes started, Amber made good on her offer to invite Merle out with her friends. To him, it was more than a night out; it was a fresh start. The trouble with fresh starts is they can fail just as easily as all the first starts.
He arrived early to meet everyone in the lobby of the residence hall. The group assembled on the side opposite to him, unaware of his existence. They were all dressed to be noticed, talked about, and envied. Merle had dressed for the cold.
Twenty minutes after they had agreed to meet, Amber joined the group. She didn't apologize, and no one seemed to expect one.
"Where's Merle?" she asked her friends.
"Looks like he's a no-show." whined one of the girls.
Amber scanned the room and found Merle pretending that he hadn't been staring at them the entire time.
She crossed the distance and took his hand, holding it while she brought him over to introduce him.
"Ok, so he's real." said the
one that had whined earlier. "Where are we headed?"
Amber scrolled her phone in a pose that belonged in an advertisement, "Eric's at the bar on 55th and Timberline. He's saving us a booth."
Merle checked the watch Amber gave him and wondered if Eric would know it had been intended for him. He was unprepared for the thousands of different ways the evening could go. None of them were pleasant. He tried backing out, voicing an observation that he wasn't twenty-one.
Someone in the group giggled, but what struck him as odd was that nobody seemed concerned. A boy with styled hair handed him a driver's license of someone who was twenty-two.
Amber linked arms with him, and they started their mile-long walk in the cold to reach the bar. He expected to hear the ones with skimpy clothes complain, but they were so obsessed with their gossip they didn't notice it was below freezing.
Merle counted six people in Amber's group of friends. Six names he was repeating over and over to himself in hopes of committing them to memory. In between the repetitions, he asked himself how one goes about gaining six friends. It was an impossible number.
When they arrived, she wasted no time talking to someone new, and then someone after that. Her arm still linked with Merle's every time she joined a conversation. The six went in their own directions, and Merle let their names fade from memory. Everyone here was familiar with everyone else, except for him. But Amber was fixing that. She introduced Merle to more people than he could keep straight.
These were the kind of wild and careless people his grandmother used to ramble on about. He could hear Gran objecting to their flexible moral behavior and complaining about their low self-esteem. But Merle pushed it aside as he admired their self-confidence.
Amber introduced him to her boyfriend Eric, a muscular man with slick hair wearing a Riverfront athletic jacket. She unlinked her arm from his and took off in another direction. It was just Eric and Merle. Eric put his arm over Merle's shoulder and brought him over to a pair of girls who were standing nearby. Eric spoke to them about Merle as if the two of them were old friends. He spun a ridiculous tale no one could believe and put Merle in the center as the hero. A welcome contrast from his experience of being a punchline.
The girls marveled at the story, and at the end of it, Eric asked them if "this guy" patting Merle on the back "deserved a dance?"
Answering with words was too time-consuming for one of them. She grabbed his hand and led him to the dance floor while the other whooped encouragement.
Eric had turned out to be the guy who was everyone's best friend.
On the crowded dance floor, he stood
still while waving his arms while his dance partner bobbed and
smiled. When one song ended, another began, or maybe it was all one
He took his eyes off his partner to search for Amber, and when he looked back, he was dancing with a different woman. This happened a couple of times throughout the night.
At one point, Eric pulled him out of the crowd and put his arm over Merle's shoulder, and said, "Amber was supposed to pay for everyone tonight, but something's wrong with her ATM card. She can't take out any cash from her bank. Is there any way you can cover for her?"
"Banks…" said Merle with a bitter tongue, "Figures. Ya, I'll pick it up." and handed Eric more than enough cash to cover the evening.
For all of Merle's reluctance to keep his money in a bank, he had no hesitation in handing it over to someone he had just met. Maybe it was because a bank is faceless.
Speaking as someone who has seen faceless creatures, I'd rather hand my money over to a bank than to a stranger in a bar. Although, I don't think I'll be faced with that choice any time soon.
But then again, I wouldn't have made
nearly as many friends as Merle did that night.
In return for his generosity, his new friends kept a full glass in his hand. They toasted their new friendship and cheered as he drank himself into a blackout.
He had been initiated into Amber's circle of friends. Night after night, they flattered him and danced with him. Some of the women whispered things in his ear he never imagined.
All he had to do was keep the drinks coming.
His popularity grew outside of Amber's circle. The ordeal of the first semester faded away as the people who laughed at him now tried to rub elbows with him.
It was only a matter of time before Ferris attempted the same thing. The night they crossed paths, Ferris greeted him like a brother returning from deployment. He did everything he could to be seen with Merle, and Merle did everything he could to evade him.
Merle shrugged him off twice. The third time he overheard him bragging to a pair of girls that they had been roommates.
The newfound friendship was suspect. Ferris was trying to use him. For the briefest moment, Merle questioned if Ferris was the only one. He cast the idea aside, preferring to stew over the repeated humiliations Ferris made him suffer. The name-calling. The rumors. The pranks. The abandonment.
He channeled all those memories and lashed out at Ferris. It started the same as any one of Amber's tantrums but shifted from screaming to crying. He was doing it wrong. Why were tears rolling down his cheeks when he wanted to be yelling?
Amber stepped between him and Ferris, picking up the tantrum where he had fumbled it. She made the righteous fury look so easy. Her display was so spectacular. It had thrown cold water on everyone's partying vibe and threatened to ruin the entire evening. No one cared if she was right or wrong. They wanted her to stop, and the only way to do that was to get Ferris to leave.
Eric and a few of his friends wearing
matching athletic jackets tossed Ferris out on his ass.
Merle was still a blubbering mess. He was hoping for a few moments with Amber, but he had lost track of her in the crowd. There were other girls. All dressed for the tropical climate of the dance floor with no thought for the Midwest winter outside.
At bar close, he walked back to his dorm with a girl he didn't know.
Don't worry, she wasn't a vampire either.