Out of Line Online - Jen McLaughlin

OUT OF LINE

I leaned against the wall and surveyed the crowded room. All around me, people were in pursuit of the three majors of college: getting drunk, getting laid, and then getting even drunker. They were shouting in each other’s ears to be heard over the deafening music, sucking on each other’s body parts, or throwing up in a corner. The overachievers would do all three by the time the night ended.

It was freshman year at its finest—and I was the only freshman not fitting in.

But at least no one had been paid to hang out with me at this party. When I was twelve, my father had thrown me a huge birthday party. The turnout had been particularly surprising to me, considering the people who came were the same girls who told me what a loser I was while in school. Of course, as soon as my parents left the room to get cake, the girls had backed me in a corner and pulled at my hair and dress. They had told me that I was such a loser my father had to pay their parents to make them come. Susie had gotten an iPod. Mary received a phone. Chrissie—a pony.

I had gotten a cold, hard dose of reality.

A tall guy bumped into me, hauling me out of memory lane. His beer tipped and spilled all over my open-toed sandals. The cool liquid was almost a welcome change from the stifling hotness.

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.” He dropped to his knees and started patting at my feet with the closest object he could get his hands on. It looked like a shirt. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

I laughed and shook my head, dropping a hand on his shoulder. He felt a tiny bit sweaty, but who could blame him? It was freaking hot. “Don’t worry about it. Seriously.”

“No, it’s not.” He lifted his head and his eyes went wide. “Oh, fuck. Do I know you?”

My smile slipped a little bit, but I forced it back into place. He wouldn’t recognize me. I had been out of the public eye for well over a year, and I’d made sure to change my appearance quite a bit. I also had much longer hair, and my body finally grew into itself. My braces were gone, and I outgrew those god-awful bangs, too. I liked to think I didn’t look anything like the gawky girl I’d once been.

Please, God.

“No, I don’t think so. But don’t worry about my feet. It’s not a big deal. I was just leaving anyway.”

He stood up. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.” I smiled at him, hoping my sincerity showed. “Thank you, though.”

He gave me one more smile and headed back toward the bar. I watched him go before I worked my way across the room. I needed to get out and breathe some fresh air. Somehow I even managed to make it through the crush without spilling my Coke. As I pushed through the door, the ocean breeze washed over me, immediately calming my pounding heart.

One thing I hadn’t managed to change about myself in my big transformation: I still didn’t do well in crowds. I never should have listened to my new roommate, Marie. I had only been at the University of California in San Diego for two days and had already been invited to four parties. I’d turned down all but this one. It wasn’t because I was a prude or anything. I just didn’t like the craziness that parties entailed.

After all, I had ultimately picked this campus because the occupational therapy program was excellent—not because of the parties. It also had the added bonus of being on the beach and as far away from my parents as I could possibly manage without leaving the country. They were great, and I loved them, but man, they liked to smother me. The “hold me down kicking and screaming as I tried to break free” type of smothering.

That was the last thing I needed at this point in my life. I needed to try to be on my own. To try to make my own place in the world. And for once I was really, truly on my own…outside of a raging party that I didn’t belong in, hiding in dark shadows that hid only God knew what.

But still. Awesome.

I kicked off my sandals and trudged down the sandy hill to the dark beach, sinking my toes into the chilly sand. Probably not the best combination with the beer bath