A story about going after something magical
| The trip started when I flipped open my phone and dialed Sylvan’s number. When he picked up, I told him that we were going unicorn hunting, and that he should bring a toothbrush. He told me to give him ten minutes.
Unicorn hunting had been a thing for Syl and me since we were kids. I barely even remember when we coined the phrase, but it was probably just sometime after we both read the first Harry Potter, some weekend of hanging out in Sylvan’s basement watching cartoons and eating junk food. Whenever one of us had something we needed to talk about or needed help to get done that nobody else could know about, we said those magic words and the other guy was always there- no questions asked. Unicorn hunting meant a different adventure each time, and we kept hunting until we were done, no matter what sort of trouble we got into or where the journey took us. Once, when my older sister came home from work crying because some asshole she knew from school threatened to complain to her manager and get her fired when she rejected his advances, Syl and I turned the trunk of his car into an aquarium; the night Sylvan caught his dad cheating on his mom with our school’s guidance counselor, we wound up in Mexico.
Eleven minutes later, Sylvan climbed into my station wagon and shut the door. He waited until we’d turned the corner from his house and started heading down the next block before asking, “So, where are we going?”
Without looking at him, I told him. “San Diego.”
Syl cringed. “Goddammit, Matt,” he said, “I like Michelle.”
I sighed. “Yeah, I like her too.”
I saw a sign for the 405 up ahead and changed lanes. As we sat waiting for our turn, the counterpoint of the right blinker against my silence compelled Sylvan to ask, “So why am I here, then?”
I cracked a smile. “Because Zoe has a fat, ugly roommate and I thought this would be a good chance for you to get laid.”
Syl called me an asshole and punched me in the arm. I ignored him and spun the wheel slowly clockwise, accelerating through the onramp then merging into the right lane of the freeway. We drove a mile in silence until he said, “Seriously, man...”
“Because the drive from LA to San Diego takes three hours and my radio is broken- if I made this trip solo, I’d probably think myself out of my mind in all this quiet.”
Syl paused for a moment in mock contemplation. “All right,” he smirked, letting the feeling of being needed wash over him like he was hearing his favorite song, “But I reserve the right to spend the whole trip reciting dirty limericks and trying to convince you not to do this incredibly stupid thing you plan on doing.”
I grinned, then replied, “Honestly, I was kinda hoping you would.” I glanced up at my rearview, saw no immediate threat to our persons, then went back to scanning the road ahead, wondering what the hell I was going to do about Zoe.
Sylvan Connolly was my best friend, but Zoe Keasbey was a closer second than Gore in 2000 (and no way would she ever have ceded Florida). They’d never met, but each had shared a few of my Skype sessions with the other. Besides, they had both heard enough stories about their rival to be almost sick of them. Anyway, back in seventh grade, Zoe and I met in our English class and bonded by laughing at how hard everyone else tried to avoid sounding stupid, how long it took a kid to utter even a single thought, each word so meticulously chosen to best show off the astute literary analysis skills of a tween. Then, halfway through spring semester, her dad- a radiologist- moved their family up to Portland when a hospital there made the right offer. I didn’t have a cell phone back then, and she didn’t use her e-mail address or know her home address, so we hugged and said goodbye and thought that was just how life worked. Sometime during sophomore year, we found each other on Facebook and went from there- yeah, turns out I owe one of the most important things in my life to Mark Zuckerburg.
To his credit, Sylvan managed to distract us both by launching an argument as to why “Rocko’s Modern Life” was clearly superior to “Hey Arnold” in a comparison of our favorite classic Nicktoons. When that got boring, we debated the merits of various Pokémon (original 151 only, of course) as survival companions during the zombie apocalypse. Still, nostalgia could only captivate us for so long, and Sylvan was slumped over in his seat as we drove through Irvine. As much as I wanted to wake him, when Syl crashed, he crashed hard- and, well, I was slightly busy piloting a two-ton vehicle at seventy-five miles an hour. Cursing the fortitude of my best friend’s slumber, I tried to concentrate on the road and the chill of December wind, though I knew such efforts were futile.
Zoe heard back from UCSD around the same time Duke let me in, but the difference in our start dates would’ve meant that I’d be long gone from the better coast before she got anywhere near Southern California. Wanting to make sure that didn’t happen, I convinced her to apply for a counselor job at the YMCA camp where I’d worked the last few summers. We set our cabins upon each other in an epic battle of pranks, ending the whole thing with an ice cream party for all our kids. In those lovely times when neither of us was directly responsible for supervising children, we lost ourselves in the woods to see what we could find or just hung around with the other free counselors, talking and listening to music or playing games. I remember thinking how remarkable it was that two people could change so much and yet their relationship could feel like nothing had. On the last night of the session, the camp threw a dance for the kids down by the lake, and when they played “Iris”, I walked over to where Zoe was sitting by the water and, on a lark, asked her to dance. On a lark of her own, she threw me in the lake.
I drove essentially on autopilot until Sylvan was roused from his stupor by the combination of my car’s poor suspension and a stretch of the I-5 around San Clemente that was in desperate need of repair. Still groggy, he extended his arms to the roof, cracking his knuckles over his head. “Fuck,” he yawned, “How long was I out?”
I shrugged and told him that it had been about an hour. “Fuck,” he said again. He paused, then added, “Well, have you been using those sixty minutes to rationalize what you’re about to do to Michelle? Go on, Matt, let’s hear you bullshit to your best…” I couldn’t, so I just kept driving instead.
I met Michelle at a friend’s party back in October. A quiet, wholesome girl from a quiet, wholesome town in Virginia, she had seemed out of place, but she held her own (even though she was awful at beer pong). A little drunk and riding the natural high of the shiny, new feeling of being at a college party, we struck up a conversation about how shitty our friends were getting and how much the next morning would suck for them. After a while, she said she needed a walk to clear her head and invited me along. I followed her to Trinity Circle and we sat on a wall talking, mostly just introducing ourselves and comparing our versions of freshman year. When the conversation hit a lull, she leaned in, and, having had some unfortunate experiences with drunken hookups in the past, I pulled back. We were both pretty embarrassed after that, and Michelle got up, said it was nice to meet me, then walked away toward Epworth Hall. I thought about going after her, but decided that the night was lost, telling myself that if I ever ran into her at another party or something, I’d try to explain why I hadn’t kissed her- if she even remembered me.
As fate would have it, I saw her sitting across the dining hall when I went to grab lunch the next day. Gathering my courage, I carried my tray over and took the seat opposite her. Skipping any attempt at polite small talk that would inevitably fail to dispel the awkwardness (polite small talk always does), I went straight to the part where I apologized for the previous night, told her that drunken hookups weren’t my thing, and apologized again. She just laughed and, noting that neither of us was drunk now, said that I could make up for it by buying her dinner. Then she got up to bus her tray and walked off, stopping before the exit to call “Epworth Hall, 7:00!” over her shoulder.
We’d been together ever since, and it was nice, if not blissful. Michelle was pretty in a designer-brand way, and we got on reasonably well even when our lips weren’t attached. Still, I had started to get the sense that she liked having a boyfriend more than having me as a boyfriend. She’d been getting a tad possessive as well, always seeming incredibly hurt when I couldn’t spend time with her because I was busy with work or plans with other friends. If I ever happened to mention that I’d been hanging out alone with a female friend or told her some old story about Zoe and me, she’d look at me like I had just slapped her.
Then again, she may’ve had a point. A month earlier, after Syl and I flew home for Thanksgiving, I drove down to hang with Zoe in San Diego on Friday- she hadn’t gone back to Portland for her family’s celebration of the Native Americans’ good intentions and naïveté. Though fall was turning to winter, it was still California, so Zoe and I kicked back at the beach and grabbed food at some Mexican place downtown before heading back to campus for a party some girls on her hall were throwing. Her roommate was gone for the weekend, so after I let Zoe lean on me and helped her walk straight on the way back to their room, she let me steal the empty bed. We said goodbye the next morning after celebrating our lack of hangovers with an incredibly satisfying, incredibly greasy, dining hall breakfast- which, in all honesty, was how we would’ve treated our hangovers if we’d had them. Standing beside my faithful Subaru, I pulled Zoe in for a hug and placed a completely platonic kiss on her forehead. At the same time, she tilted her head up and kissed my neck, a gesture not in the least platonic that sent a surge of excitement through my body that was both uncomfortable and intoxicating.
I got into my car and started home, proceeding to freak out about what had just happened for the next three hours, somehow managing to reach Sylvan’s house without causing an accident of cataclysmic proportions. When he opened the door, I told him that we were going unicorn hunting, immediately, and let out all the thoughts about Zoe that had filled my head during the drive. Syl was sympathetic and straightforward, talking evenly, rationally, calming me down. Like me, he decided that her kiss was most likely an equally friendly one aimed at the cheek that missed; like me, though, he knew that the aftermath wouldn’t be as simple as divining her intent, whatever it was. It helped that Syl had confirmed what I was already thinking (or at least hoping), but regardless of what I knew, didn’t know or wanted to know, the past had passed and the damage was done: Zoe had kissed my neck, I had liked it, I had a girlfriend, and I was going to have to resolve the three. When Zoe called me last week and asked if I wanted to come down to San Diego, that hadn’t happened yet.
Instead, I spent the last month of Fall semester turning it all in my head and getting nowhere. For the first time in my life, I actually loved having finals, if only because there were Spanish vocabulary words to memorize and essays on colonialism to write, and my mind wasn’t capable of worrying about my situation and about failing my classes at the same time. Still, when I wasn’t busy panicking about my exams, I was panicking over what had happened with Zoe. Syl did what he could to help out, but with a double major in Music and Biomedical Engineering, the poor masochist had his own problems. Still, that didn’t stop us from smuggling a Christmas tree into our room the night after our last finals (we’re both big believers in tradition). It also didn’t stop us from starting the biggest snowball war Durham had ever seen the next morning.
At the same time, Michelle was getting somewhat distant. I wasn’t sure why, but I couldn’t really blame her- maybe it was just guilt of conscience, but I was pretty sure that whatever was bothering her was my fault. We started spending a lot less time together, so much that it would’ve been hard to just blame the stress of finals. And yet, even as our relationship seemed to be dying, little things, like watching Michelle fall asleep on top of me mid-cram session or the way she still made snow angels, made me wonder if I was crazy for thinking about being with any other girl. When she saw Syl and me off at the airport for our flight home, she told me to be careful, something in her voice indicating that she was concerned about more than my getting back to LA safely.
Despite my incredibly distracted driving and typical California traffic, we had at least made it to Carlsbad around six, when Sylvan remarked that he was starving. We both watched out his window as we drove past an In-N-Out on the side of the highway, and my friend cast me a pleading look. Feigning a terrible inconvenience, I acquiesced, moving into the rightmost lane. As we drove down the next exit, my stomach growled audibly, shattering the illusion. Syl laughed and I told him to shut it, but I was laughing myself as I said it.
Sitting opposite me, Sylvan stared across the table into space, contemplating his mouthful of Animal fries. Swallowing, he blinked and refocused on me, asking, “So, what’s the plan, then?”
I shrugged. Over the past month, my mind had long since lost the energy it took to sustain its frantic pace, now only continuing out of sheer necessity.
Syl glared at me, disappointed. “Not good enough, dude- you have to make a call on this one. You need to do this the right way; you know that as well as I do.”
I wanted to be mad at him, but I couldn’t. “It’s not that easy, Syl,” I muttered, pathetic words that I watched trail off into oblivion.
“It’s not supposed to be, Matt. Look, from what little I know about Zoe, she sounds like a wonderful person- I’d even say that there’s a good chance that she’s the perfect girl for you and that you two will fall in love and get married and have perfectly wonderful kids together someday.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad, actually.”
“Oh, yeah, it’ll be brilliant, your firstborn son will be named after me and everything. But if that’s what you want, then you need to break things off with Michelle first. And not with a text message, not on Facebook, at least give her a proper phone call- in person would be best, but if you really can’t wait that long, then you have to call her.”
He paused to sip his drink, and I knew he was right. After another swallow and a deep breath, my friend kept talking- his voice was shaking, but his eyes weren’t. “Matt, you’re a good guy,” he said. “You may act like an asshole at times, but you’re my best friend, and I know you’re a good guy. So you have to do this right, man. I don’t want to see you- you can’t be like…” Sylvan couldn’t finish what he was saying, but he didn’t need to; I knew what he was afraid of.
In the most reassuring tone I could, I made a promise that I knew I would keep. “No worries, Syl. I know you’re right, and I probably should’ve gotten everything in my head sorted out ages ago. But I’m going to do this right, I swear.”
Sylvan smiled, just saying, “Good.” He stood, and I walked around the table to hug him.
“Thanks, Syl,” I said.
“Sure,” he laughed, “Now let go of me before I hurt you.”
We dumped our trash and were walking outside when I felt my phone buzz. As I inspected it, Sylvan warned me, “If that’s Michelle, don’t do something you’ll regret.”
“All clear, Syl,” I assured him, “That’s just Zoe, wondering where we are.”
My friend rolled his eyes and punched me in the shoulder. “C’mon then…”
We parked outside of Zoe’s dorm around 7:30. Locking the doors of the station wagon, I scanned the scene until I saw her standing at the front entrance. She met my gaze and waved before heading towards the car with her roommate- who, for the record, was neither fat nor ugly. Sylvan gave me a skeptical glance.
“No worries,” I assured him, “We’re just gonna crash on their floor.”
He laughed, then replied, “Maybe you will.”
I shoved him to the grass and sped up, laughing as he cursed my name and picked himself up. Stopping in front of Zoe, I took a moment to appreciate where I was, and said, “Hey.”
Zoe smiled and wrapped her arms around me, murmuring “Hey,” over my shoulder. I returned the hug, leaning forward slightly to kiss her forehead.