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  • Joanna

"Well Played"


Riley cock-blocked his best friend, Colin, two years before they made their way to college together. It wasn’t intentional. It was one of those gaffes that inadvertently happened during those precious teenage years. But, Colin had a memory like an elephant and reminded his best friend regularly that he was waiting for the perfect time to get him back. Colin was a planner. And he was very, very patient. 

Now, if you asked Riley what happened in June of their Junior year, the whole episode equates to nothing more than an accident. Riley was a fastidious person, carrying around the kind of brain that lets no detail go unnoticed. They were both sixteen-year-old nerds, waiting impatiently for their individual growth spurts. The boys had so much in common. The first being, how hard they tried - at everything.

Colin had a crush - an all-encompassing, can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t function like a normal person type of crush on Crystal, the new girl in school. With her melodic Southern drawl and what was considered genius journalism skills, anyone could see Colin melt in his seat as Crystal’s freckled face was broadcast across all the classroom flat screens as she read the day’s morning announcements. Crystal only attended Springfield High for her final two years but was credited with breaking every big news story the school had ever seen.

She was the one who went undercover in the lunch room, revealing that the cafeteria’s ‘vegan option’ was the furthest thing from such. She was the one who questioned whether the soccer referees from the next town over were really neutral parties in the big game, and it was Crystal who answered the door in a cropped tie-dye shirt and cutoffs when Riley and Colin popped by for a party when her parents were out of town. And that’s when it happened.

“Oh hey you guys, come in.”

Colin, in his coolest Hawaiian shirt and recently grown, somewhat decent goatee handed her a six-pack. He brushed his wavy hair out of his eyes, cleared his throat because nerves were literally choking him, and tried his best to sound as cool and nonchalant as humanly possible as he looked up at Crystal. She hovered a solid six inches above his small frame and he was so, so, unfortunately, eye-level with her boobs.

“Oh, I just grabbed you this. Not sure what you drank.” 

Now, Riley didn’t mean to pick Colin up and throw him directly under the bus into oncoming traffic. It just sort of slipped out. He was honestly making an observation and just happened to say the words out loud. And, because of the depth of Colin’s love for this Southern Belle, those words did more than sting, they cut him to his teenage core and left him metaphorically bleeding out on the covered front porch without hope of revival.

“That’s O’Douls,” Riley pointed out with a laugh,

“So?” Colin didn’t get it, which wouldn’t have been the biggest deal. Except, well, Crystal did. At first, she covered her delicate mouth with a small chuckle. But, of course, this specific laugh on this specific day was nothing short of contagious. Riley’s smirk turned into a full-on guffaw and soon he and his best friend’s crush were laughing so hard, tears streamed down their teenage cheeks and he could barely get the words out to explain to Colin what was going on.

“It’s, its,” now three of Crystal’s friends had joined her at the doorstep, curious about the commotion. Crystal, flustered, trying not to crack up but totally unable to help herself, just pointed to the six-pack of brown bottles in her right hand.

The gaggle of girls took one look at the hostess gift and the snorts escaping their faces sounded like a sounder of pigs running to dinner. Now Riley felt bad. Really bad. Not so bad that he could force himself to stop laughing, but bad enough that he took some control over his vocal cords to do his best to explain the situation.

“It’s, its-” and through the gasps and the tears and the now uninvited sweating, Riley managed to turn to Colin, with the most apologetic look that he could muster, and force out the word, “... nonalcoholic.” Colin, frozen in teenage social paralysis, stared at his friend. Awesome. He just brought nonalcoholic beer to a party at the girl’s house who he kept a picture of under his pillow. There was no coming back from this. Colin might not have had a great amount of experience with women, but because he was a short boy who was always trying just a little bit harder than everybody else,  he did know how to read a social situation. So, he forced a too-big smile on his freckled face and said,

“Right,” louder than maybe a normal person having a normal conversation would, and simply took the O’Douls back from his hostess while trying his best not to cry and/or die. With the bottles in hand, he turned around, walked down the steps, and went home to drink the beers alone in his bedroom, ignoring the calls from his best friend until Riley showed up at his window with a bottle of real tequila and a bag of Doritos. Colin let him in. The beers hadn’t done anything but make him have to pee. 

And this is why Colin has been plotting his revenge against Riley since 2016. 

Getting into the University Of Vermont was a score for the best friends. Riley was on a full-blown mission to become a scientist and one day open his own lab. He knew about O’Douls those years prior, not because he inherently possessed some type of cool that Colin didn’t, he just had a very nerdy obsession with reading nutrition facts. And Colin had not only managed to get on the swim team, but he’d also managed to pull off a growth spurt that came with a free side of confidence as a result.

The two friends were roommates in Burlington, hiking rad trails on the weekends, skipping class to kayak down the river, and testing their fake IDs at one of the seemingly endless number of college bars in town. They did well academically, bought bikes, and explored the mountainous state with the fervor of healthy humans in their absolute prime. The only place where Colin and Riley weren’t having a ton of luck was in the dating department.

Maybe it was because there were so many group activities offered at UVM that they found themselves drinking craft beer after a raucous game of frisbee golf with girls with Chaco sandal tans on their feet instead of formally dating anyone.

This didn’t mean that there wasn’t a crush. There was one. And that was the problem - only one.  Her name was Jacki, she was a Junior, on the water polo team, and wouldn’t be seen on campus without her three-legged mutt, Mabel. Mabel was such a good that Jackie got away with bringing her to class and to areas of the University that generally advertised themselves as dog-free zones. It wasn’t just Mabel, Jackie had this way of making everyone around her behave their best. Maybe it was her easy laugh or sparkling eyes or the way she just really seemed to care about the words you were saying- who knew why- but being young, old, canine, or human, everyone just seemed to gravitate towards the Colorado native in a way that neither Colin nor Riley could articulate. But, they were both in love. In some ways, this was a great situation.

By having two detectives on the case, they had a better chance of finding out which party or softball game she’d be attending. And the two best friends always shared the information. They’d show up at the gorge when they heard she’d be out there bouldering with some girls from the water polo team. They’d pull out their ancient snowboards and probably ineffective helmets to spend winter weekends on the slopes. They even signed up for a pottery class which was hilarious because Jackie didn't even show up and it turned out that Colin was really good at throwing clay. While his mother appreciated all the bowls, his father thought it was a giant waste of a good elective. Riley dropped the class. He preferred to spend his time in the lab with the mice anyway. 

Both Riley and Colin spent an entire year doing their best to cross paths with Jackie, no matter what the situation. And, as luck would have it, a week before the last day of class at the end of May, Jackie, yes, Jackie herself, let it be known that she was throwing a party. 

“You should bring O’Douls,” Riley told Colin as they browsed the liquor store for something cool to bring.

Colin threw Riley a look.

“Oh, sorry, too soon?” Riley cracked himself up as he focused on the endless selection of colorfully labeled microbrews in the refrigerated case. 

The boys showed up at Jackie’s house as a much different version of themselves than they’d been at Crystal’s only a couple of years before. As cliched as it sounds, they were boys at the first party and men at this one. They had muscles and stubble and laughed easily. They had plans and futures and, because this is Vermont, bikes. But, as newly christened adults, they were becoming aware of a downside of this whole adulthood thing - and that was real feelings. They both liked Jackie. A lot. And avoided the discussion where they either agreed to drop the idea altogether or where one said to the other, “You go for it, man.” This didn’t even take into account how Jackie might feel about one or both of them.

This was on their minds as they parked their road bikes in the already crowded driveway and took their beer and booze out of their backpacks. It wasn’t tense, it wasn’t awkward, but it was an issue that they were going to have to address that very evening, most likely in the next few minutes.

It was a perfect early-summer New England night. The old Maple trees exploded with green leaves and the air smelled sweet and warm, a happy contrast to the long and icy winter. Jack Johnson’s melodic voice escaped through the open windows and partygoers lounged on the hodge-podge of rescued furniture that littered the wraparound porch. The house had clearly been home to UVM students for decades. Tattered Tibetan peace prayer flags were strung from one corner of the roof to the other. Laughter and smoke emanated from the crowded hallway.

Through the old screen windows, you could see concert posters tacked up on the living room walls and someone played a guitar alongside the stereo while sitting on a futon covered in wool yoga blankets.  Bottles upon bottles of liquor crowded the kitchen table and a guy with a beard the size of a small pine tree pumped beer out of a keg next to the fridge. A blunt was passed from one kid wearing a Nirvana T-shirt to another kid in a Nirvana T-shirt. The sun splattered through the ancient blanches and made everyone look a lot more interesting. It was that kind of a night. 

As Riley and Colin walked up the stairs to the house, they shared not just a crush, but that end of school, end of winter, butterfly feeling in their stomachs where anything feels possible. They were going to stay in Burlington for the summer, having found an apartment off-campus and bartending gigs at the local Brew Pub only a few blocks away. Riley had secured an internship at one of the more prestigious labs in the Northeast and Colin was very happy to just rest his brain for the next three months. 

On Riley’s end, the internship was a big deal. The lab was well respected across the country and had approved countless new medications for the FDA. Riley had spent the entire semester shadowing one of the older interns sometimes three days a week. He loved walking through the pristine hallways, the smell of antiseptic, the scientists in their lab coats, and the future of medicine under their microscopes. He would check into the office in the mornings, pass the dozens of mice in their cages, walk through the rooms filled with the latest and most impressive technology, and then be assigned actual work to help further the process of whatever the lab had been assigned. He was going to help people and that felt cool.

Riley’s nose caught a whiff of smoke and he immediately wondered if the senior scientists would look down on him for being at this type of party. It had never occurred to him that maybe his laid-back, party-boy lifestyle would be incompatible with his new career. And that’s what Riley was thinking about as he and Colin walked up the rotting stairs to the crowded porch and opened the screen door that was doing absolutely nothing to keep the bugs out. And there she was. Jackie. Riley’s mind immediately left the microscopes and lab coats and the mice. Because Jackie was stunning.

Her blue eyes reflected the Christmas lights strung all over the living room and her dark hair knotted into long dreads with small shells along the crown seemed to be swinging in perfect rhythmic harmony with her admittedly awesome hips. The tiny blue stud on her left nostril gave her the air of a girl who would ride a motorcycle without a helmet but also have the kindness to adopt a three-legged dog. And this was not Riley’s imagination, both of these things were true. She opened the door for the guys, a bottle of beer in hand, a perfectly faded Grateful Dead T-shirt barely covering her midriff, and ripped jeans revealing toned legs that had somehow managed to stay tan, despite the insufferable Vermont winter. Riley’s entire, yes entire, body reacted to the sight of her.

She opened the rickety screen door, plastered with both old and new bumper stickers with sayings like, Meat is Murder, End Specie-ism, and a large cow poster reading, Not Your Mother, Not Your Milk. 

And just like they did at Crystal Harbinger’s two years earlier, the boys stood at the doorway of a party while the girl they both adored welcomed them in. But now Colin held a twelve-pack of fully alcoholic beer and Riley was not the first one to speak.

“Hey guys, so glad you could make it,” Jackie had this ease in her voice that very few college students will ever know. But before Riley could say something snarky or cool or understated to tell her that he was very, very interested in all things Jackie, Colin had the perfect opportunity to avenge his high school self. He flashed a smile at Jackie, raised an eyebrow as he handed her the beer, gestured to his best friend, and said, ever so casually, in a newly mastered, deep baritone of a voice,

“He tests on animals.”

Riley’s jaw dropped down to the rotting grey porch. Jackie took a step back as one does when they are 21 and their entire worldview has just been utterly assaulted twelve inches from their face.

She exhaled, took the box from Colin, and shot Riley a look that could have killed one of his experimental mice.

“You, come on in.”

Colin’s whole aura shone with how pleased he was with himself. He glanced over his right shoulder at his buddy, his ride-or-die, who he’d just completely and utterly cock-blocked, much swifter than the episode two years earlier. It was such a good line, so easy, so cool, and so –

Riley couldn’t help but smile at his buddy. He reached out his hand for their usual fist bump.

“Well played, man. Well played.” 

Riley had grown up a lot in college. He loved his buddy, he knew a fair fight when he saw it and could appreciate the moment for what it was. He turned back down the driveway, hopped on his bike, and hit up the brewery across the street from the lab. That’s where the scientists were drinking. And he knew that that was where he belonged. 

Colin had a great time at the party. But, he didn’t end up with Jackie. Jackie had both no interest in Colin and a very, very serious girlfriend. If these guys had any knowledge about women, that would have been blatantly obvious. But, growing up is about learning. 

It took some time, but both Riley and Colin eventually began to find dates. They had an agreement about entering parties and fair revenge. To this day, they’re still best friends. And they love this story.

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