My car stalled the first few times he started it up. Underneath the sound of the revving engine, he muttered, “Fucking shit thing”. I tried not to take it personally.
He agreed to come to the party because he was a genuinely nice guy, though I assumed he also felt sorry for me because he was my only friend at work. I’d had an accident a few days earlier, so I asked if he could drive us in my car – not having one himself, he was eager to do this.
“Turn left here?” he asked.
“No.” He began to turn anyway. “Nonono.” He swerved back onto the main road. “Two more streets.”
“You said they have fireworks?”
“Hyde said that the neighbours do. Down here.”
Cars lined the street. I pointed out Hyde’s unit, and he drove past and parked on a nature strip near the end of the road. As we walked back to the house I twisted my hands together, glancing at the people huddled on Hyde’s lawn, none of whom I recognised.
“You’ll be all right,” I said. “You’re good at making friends.”
He smirked and glanced down at me. “Are you going to introduce me to everyone as ‘Fitz’?”
“I mean, if you want.” His name was Adam, but ‘Fitz’ had become a constant nickname since the night I drove him home from a party in Geelong. For most of the drive he insisted that he’d be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, and demanded that I only call him that from then on. I never stopped.
We slipped past a group of smokers and walked through the open door. I caught sight of Claudia, Hyde’s roommate, who gasped and rushed over to throw her arms around me.
“Oh my God, you came! Everyone said you wouldn’t come, that you hated parties and didn’t understand the tradition of New Year’s Eve, but I thought that even someone as bitter as you wouldn’t want to be alone.”
I untangled myself from her arms. “Is Hyde around?”
Her smile faltered. “Oh, somewhere.” She waved a hand and gestured behind her. At the arrival of new guests her attention was distracted, and we were forgotten.
“Lovely girl,” Adam said. He looked down at our hands, and for a moment I thought he was going to reach over and grab mine. He must have thought better of it, and instead looked up again to meet my eyes. “Don’t leave me alone with these strangers, Sylvia.”
“Of course not, Fitz.”
I had lost Adam, somewhere between the makeshift bar in the kitchen and the crowd of people gathered in the lounge room. I looked upstairs for him, where I passed Hyde’s locked bedroom. I stood outside the door and knocked, pressing my ear against the wood, but could not hear anything over the music playing downstairs.
I was sure Adam would be fine, so I decided to continue my search for Hyde after I changed my tampon.
Lining up at the toilet was a guy I recognised, but couldn’t recall from where. He reintroduced himself and I nodded and smiled, pretending that I’d heard his name. He – was it Drew? – asked me what I had been up to, and I told him about the accident.
I dug into the detail, explaining the jolt of the collision and grinding my teeth to imitate the sound of the metal, scratching against the car beside me. The wisp of smoke was the first thing I saw from the driver’s side, as a woman swung open the door and strode towards me with a cigarette in her mouth. You fucking dickhead. I was trembling, gripping the steering wheel with sweaty palms.
“Are you all right? You look sick.” Drew took a step forward to peer at my face.
I leaned back and tentatively touched my cheek.
“You might be dehydrated.”
“I’m not dehydrated,” I said, still touching my face, pressing my fingers into my skin.
Someone left the toilet and I waited for him to turn around and walk inside, but he continued to look at me and pressed a hand to my forehead. I frowned and watched as someone cut the line and closed the bathroom door.
“You’re shaking. Here, I’ll get you some water.” He turned around and walked towards the kitchen. My eyes followed him until he was hidden behind a corner, and then I peered down at my wavering hand.
I emptied the glass he brought, dipping my finger into the last drops to wet my lips. He coaxed me to sit on the ground, have a rest, and I leaned my head against the wall. He must have been training to be a paramedic or something, this Drew.
“Thanks,” I said and passed the glass back. He smiled and went back to the kitchen. He did not return.
Adam found me still sitting on the floor on his way to the bathroom. He paused, then glanced back and met my eye. “Sylvia?” He crouched in front of me, holding my leg to steady himself. I tried not to make a big deal about his fingers around my kneecap.
“What are you doing on the ground?”
“Tired. Made any friends?”
“With the cat, yeah.” He offered me his beer.
“Nah, I think I’m dehydrated.”
He raised his eyebrows. “What makes you think that?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, some guy thought I was.”
“Drew – I think.”
“Did he give you something? Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay. What makes you think I’m not?”
He didn’t answer, but peered closely at my face. I shifted uncomfortably as he leaned forward, the smell of beer strong and warm as his breath hit my lips. I pushed his head away.
“Enough of that,” I murmured.
“Did he give you anything to drink?”
I nodded. “Some water. Because I’m dehydrated. Maybe.” I stretched out my arms and yawned.
Adam sucked in a breath.
“We should go.” He passed over my bag and grabbed my hand, pulling me up.
“What? Why? I’m too tired to even move.”
“Exactly.” He stepped closer, bowing his head so that it was closer to my ear. “I think you’ve been drugged.”
I leant back and narrowed my gaze. He stared at me and nodded slowly, as if I were too dumb or naive to understand.
“Fitz, that’s stupid.”
“I think we should leave.”
“But the fireworks, and Hyde –”
“Can we just leave this house?”
The tone of his voice startled me. I nodded and followed him outside, not bothering to say goodbye to Claudia.
Adam had let go of my hand and strode ahead of me down the street. I watched as he clenched and unclenched his fists, over and over again, the muscles in his arms pulsing, and passed my car. I stopped for a moment by the passenger door.
Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed me waiting and scowled. “Come on.”
I ran up to him and grabbed his arm, forcing him to stop. “Are you upset?”
Instead of replying he reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. I stepped back and watched him light one, ignoring me as he exhaled smoke around us. The haze circled and clouded my vision of him.
After a few minutes he finally said, “I should go back. Go back and fuck that guy up.”
I scoffed. “Yeah, right.” I walked through the haze and raised my hand. “Give me my keys. I’m going to the car; you can stay here and settle your testosterone, or something.”
He raised his eyebrows but passed me the keys. I waited in the passenger seat with the doors locked and feet on the dashboard, staring at his back as he finished smoking the cigarette. My eyelids drooped and he became a blur – a grand figure in his own personal fog.
I unlocked the doors when Adam came back, sliding into the driver’s seat without a word. We sat like that for a while, waiting for the fireworks. The smell of smoke lingered on Adam; I closed my eyes and inhaled it deeply, allowing it to be as much a part of me as it was of him.
I heard him brush against the car seat as he turned towards me. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Of course I am.” I opened one of my eyes. “You’re staring at me.”
“Just making sure you’re not going to pass out.”
I nodded and glanced at my watch. It was only five or so minutes to midnight.
His presence was all that I felt, and it filled the car, shadowing the streets from view like the haze of his cigarette smoke. I reached over and grabbed his hand.
He leaned over and kissed me, mouth suffocating lungs with ash. I wondered if this was what death tasted like and began to kiss him back, hoping that the smell wouldn’t get into my hair. The haze stung my eyes and I thought of the woman whose car I hit, cigarette dangling between her lips, and I thought of the accident, and I thought of Hyde, and the smoke engulfing us as Adam pressed into me for the only time.
The sound startled us. I sprang back to gaze up at it all, hoping he didn’t notice me crying. The light poured from the stars and fell to earth, the sound of the explosions fusing with Adam’s heavy breath.
“You wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been drugged,” I said.
He was silent. The stars were falling and the earth drank the fireworks and Adam’s smoke dug into my ribs.
“Can you drive me to the hospital?”
He nodded and turned the key. The engine stalled.