The man stared at me from across the street. He wore a top hat and a black suit, but the white skull painted on his dark face made him stand out. Despite his strange look, the man didn’t appear too threatening. And while he stared, he never moved from where he stood.
I sighed. The hallucinations must be back. Again. I’d purposely not taken the antipsychotic pill the last two days. Not as rebellion or anything, but to see if the hallucinations were still there. I looked back to the man. I guess they were.
The hallucinations were the only symptom of schizophrenia I possessed. I had always been seeing things no one else could. Totally normal, right? But that always led me to believe it might be something more than a simple diagnosis. I always wondered when exactly I had gone from an imaginative child to a mentally ill teen.
“Jake,” one of my friends called, forcing me back to reality.
“Keep up. You’re not getting out of it this time.”
The entire group was already halfway down the street. I jogged to catch up with them. The nit-picking began as soon as I joined them again.
“You’re seventeen. It’s about time you went to a party. It’s sad that we have to drag you.”
I shrugged and shoved back my brown hair. They were forcing me to a party, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know how to have a good time. I preferred to have fun in ways that didn’t involve late-night parties and drinking.
“I’m warning you now, Jake. Hangovers suck.”
I shook my head. “I’m not drinking.”
“It’s summer. Have some fun.”
I forced a smile. “I’ll have fun watching ya’ll make fools of yourselves.”
My friends collectively laughed and talked amongst themselves while I trailed behind. I groaned. This was going to be a long night. I glanced back to the street corner where I’d glimpsed the strange-looking man. He was still there but wasn’t looking my way any longer.
I perked up as the music playing in the distance grew louder. The neighbors wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight. We were still a half a block away from the party and the blaring music was easy to hear.
The group split apart when we reached the house. A few of my friends whooped and screamed out a few choice words before running inside. I rolled my eyes. They weren’t even drunk yet.
I made my way into the house and forced a smile. I could try to look like I was having a good time. The night might pass quickly. Maybe I could leave early. I folded my arms and leaned back against a wall while I waited for the hours to tick by.
Mom was excited I was actually going out for once. I laughed to myself. How sad was that? But I would force myself to go out if it would help her worry less. I tried to make it easy for her. The last six months since Dad died had been hard for everyone, but her especially.
As the night went on, I moved to the corner of the room to get out of the way. This was quite the party my friends dragged me too. The music blared loudly and a few people sang along. I cringed. They were loud and off-key.
I glanced around the room. From the couple making out on the couch to the drinking game being played on the pool table, nearly everyone appeared to be drunk. Or at least having a good time. I was the only person standing in the corner with their shoulders hunched.
My gaze came to rest on a girl I hadn’t noticed before. She must have just wandered in. She looked as bored as I felt. I watched her for a moment.
The girl seemed intent on not standing out. She hid behind her long curly hair and her dark skin helped her blend into the shadows at the edge of the dim room. But there was something about her that held my attention. She stood away from the crowd yet she commanded attention. The girl looked like she was surveying a battlefield or something.
When she glanced over and saw me watching her, the girl raised an eyebrow. I blushed and ducked my head. Great. Now I seemed like a creep. But if she were truly bored, maybe she would want to talk. I took a deep breath. I would walk up to her. I would say hi. We would talk. Probably. Hopefully. What did I have to lose? Anything was better than standing in this corner for the rest of the night.
I forced my nerves down and sidled up to the girl. She jumped when she turned and saw me standing next to her. I gave her a small smile. I hadn’t meant to startle her.
I waved. “Hello.”
I could have kicked myself. Why did I wave?
A strange look crossed the girl’s face. She almost seemed confused.
“Is everything okay?” I said.
The girl nodded before turning her attention away from me again. This could be going better. Was I doing something wrong? I decided to press on.
“You seem bored. But that’s not bad. Unless you don’t want to be bored. It’s bad then, right? Anyway, I’m bored too.” Wait. My eyes widened. What if she was hosting the party? I told her I was bored. “The party is fun. Not for me, I guess. Same way for you? Parties not to your liking?”
The girl finally looked at me and laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about nothing for so long.”
I gave her a pained smile. My shoulders hunched again. I was a nervous rambler. Why did that have to be the first thing the girl noticed?
I shrugged. “It’s a talent of sorts. Anyway, I’m Jake.”
“I’m Irene.” She stared at my outstretched hand. “You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
My smile disappeared. I wasn’t sure what she meant. I was new at a lot. Trying to talk to girls. Going to parties. Normal teenage things. For what felt like the hundredth time that night, I wished I didn’t have to be such an awkward person.
“So are you new to town?” I said.
My school was small so I knew most of the other people at the party. There were few people I didn’t at least recognize, especially since I was going to be a senior this fall. If Irene went to my school, I certainly would have noticed her. She was pretty. Probably the main reason my brain didn’t appear to be fully functioning tonight.
“I’ve lived here on and off,” Irene said.
I nodded and tried to keep eye contact with her. But not in a creepy way. An interested in what she was saying sort of way. I groaned inwardly. I was no good at this.
“I’ve lived in New Orleans my entire life,” I said.
Irene didn’t respond. Maybe she did want to be left alone. I’d give myself one more try. Maybe the direct approach would work the best.
I took a deep breath and muttered, “can I have your phone number?”
Irene looked at me. “What? I didn’t hear you.”
“Um, your phone number. Do you mind? Can I have it?”
“Sorry, I don’t have a phone.”
Ooh. She pulled the classic rejection line on me. I almost wished for a simple ‘no’ or ‘not today.’ That one was a blow.
“Okay. Sorry.” I started to walk away.
Irene smiled and tapped my arm. “Come back. I didn’t mean it like that, Jake. You’re nice. I actually don’t have a phone.”
I shot her a confused look. Who didn’t have a phone nowadays? I grinned. Irene thought I was nice. She didn’t want me to leave. This was going well after all. Maybe this party wasn’t so bad.
“I’m seventeen,” I said. “You?”
Irene nodded. “Same here. So why are you standing in the corner? Are you shy or do you not know anyone here?”
I almost smiled. Straight and to the point. Irene certainly didn’t have any qualms about speaking her mind.
I shrugged. “I’m not shy. Just kind of awkward. Sort of like a potato. I’m here and awkward and it’s fine. No one seems to pay attention to it.”
Irene laughed so hard she had to lean against the wall for support. I grinned. I wasn’t trying to make her laugh, but I would take it.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone compare themselves to a potato before,” Irene said once she stopped laughing.
“Happy to oblige. So what about you? Why are you hanging away from the crowd?”
“Because I like to watch people. “
I snorted. “You didn’t seem creepy until now.”
Irene playfully swatted at me but pulled her hand back before she touched me. “I didn’t mean it like that. Of course, I like people but from a distance. I’m not one for crowds either.”
“That makes us two of a kind.”
“Yeah. It’s sort of nice to sit back too. That way you don’t feel obligated to pretend to have a good time. And you would be surprised how much you can learn by shutting up. You know, the world would be a better place if people liked listening to others as much as they liked hearing themselves talk.”
“That’s deep. I’m impressed,” I said.
“Do I still seem creepy?”
“I’m not sure. Anyway, if you live nearby would you want to hang out sometime?”
Irene regarded me with a curious look on her face. “Sure. How about tomorrow night? Would you like to meet in the city?”
An unusual place to meet up again, but the strangeness of her request didn’t faze me. I tried to keep from cheering or even grinning too broadly. Now my luck had changed.
“That sounds great. And at a perfect time. I always love seeing the city lights,” I said.
Irene thought for a moment. “They are pretty, but I’ve always preferred the stars.”
“Two different worlds.”
“But equally incredible.”
I smiled and nodded.
We chatted for the rest of the night and finalized plans for meeting downtown tomorrow night. Irene was the first one who needed to leave. I wish she could have stayed at the party longer. There was something about her. She was interesting to talk to and, best of all, she appeared to enjoy talking to me. I didn’t stay much longer at the party after Irene left. And it hadn’t been awful after all.
I walked home alone in the dark, smiling the entire way.