Nearly making indentions in the floor, Mercedes kicked her chucks back and forth and idled around the lunch room, waiting for the perfect time. She hadn't spoken to Sebastian in a few days; she just hadn't called and neither had he (but he was busy with tennis and the holiday season was quickly approaching). After her conversation with Marley, she had been doing a lot of thinking, and she wanted to spend more time with Sebastian to gauge his feelings. Not that she had plans on doing anything with that gauging or those feelings, but she had to prove Marley wrong to get the thought out of her head… of course. She wanted to catch him before the week-long break for Thanksgiving, as she affirmed herself that he'd probably be hard to get into contact with during those days.
Breaking every unsaid promise to not engage each other at school (which he had broken multiple times anyway), Mercedes let herself rush to be next in line when she finally saw the boy enter the cafeteria and make his way to the lunch line. She grabbed a platter and slid it on the steel bars in front of her, reaching for a carton of chocolate milk and feigning surprise when Sebastian laid eyes on her.
"Small world,' he said in half a voice, not intent on maintaining eye contact. They side-stepped in unison as if they didn't know each other.
"You'd think we would have ran into each other in line before now."
Sebastian shrugged, frowning at the options for the day. If he wasn't suddenly backed into conversation with Mercedes, he would have left his tray where it was and opted to leave school for a quick fast food run. He chose the chicken salad.
"Maybe not… Do you want to call me sometime this weekend?"
Mercedes bit her lip and dumped a serving of mashed potatoes and corn on her tray. "I was thinking,' she trailed.
"We could actually do something, maybe,' Mercedes shrugged. "I don't know how busy you'll be next week because of Thanksgiving, but I don't know,' she shrugged again, trying to ease the suggestion. "Nothing that costs money, maybe we could go to, like, a lake or… I don't know. I didn't think this one through completely."
Sebastian scrunched his nose. "You want to go swimming in this weather?"
"No! No? Do you swim at the lake? I thought you just looked at it."
Sebastian looked back at the girl as they approached the end of the line. He grabbed a small piece of cake in a serving dish. "Have you ever been to a lake, Mercedes?"
She pouted. "I've seen one, like, plenty of times. I thought people just swam in pools and at the beach. Aren't there fish in lakes?"
"There are fish at the beach."
"Not the part you swim in,' she campaigned.
Sebastian scratched his jaw as he finally approached the lunch lady. He recited his lunch number for her to etch onto a paper. He thought for a few seconds before walking away to his self designated spot in the cafeteria. Without looking at the girl again, he finished. "We could probably do that… give me a ring tonight."
The next morning was full of outfit changes, peering out the living room blinds and watching the phone to be quick in case it rang. Eventually, Mercedes heard the low growl of Sebastian's car in her driveway and bolted out of the house, her bag already packed. He'd complained enough about how long he usually had to wait for her to come out, and either way, she'd been ready for over an hour. She was excited, but outside of spending time with Sebastian, she hadn't gotten out of Lima much in her lifetime, and now she was about to see one of those lakes that she had read so much about up close and personal.
"You look like you just woke up,' she panned almost immediately after getting in the car.
Sebastian rubbed his eye. "I did,' he confessed, yawning. "Totally forgot about this."
She frowned, having had the trip on her mind for the past day. Sighing, Mercedes looked out of the window and tried to remind herself that the trip was for her and her own interests. It was the truth, though it purposely isolated what was also the truth— but she didn't want to disappoint herself any.
"So, how far is the drive?"
Sebastian backed out of the driveway and started on the road. "An hour,' he chewed out eventually, having thought.
"Is that too far?"
He shook his head. "To hang out with you? Nothing's too far,' he coaxed, looking over at her and laughing to break the morning's tension. He'd been a bit cold at first, but he was still tired, and it was freezing outside.
Mercedes rolled her eyes and giggled. "Silly."
By the time Sebastian was on the highway, the sun had risen further in the sky, and he was able to turn the heat down in the car. Mercedes got out of her jacket and flung it in the backseat. She caught a glimpse of glass on the floor of the driver's side.
"Did you bring…' she looked harder. "Is this tequila?"
"You never know how the day will go."
"We're going to the lake!" Mercedes shrieked.
Sebastian chuckled. "We'll leave it in the car, buddy,' he shrugged. "That was there from before anyway. There was a party last weekend."
"How'd that go,' she sat back in her seat.
"As good as it usually does. I got a little buzz going, danced with some girls from Westminster… ended up hungover on the Lord's day."
"So,' Mercedes trailed. "Typical Saturday."
Sebastian shrugged. "Typical any day."
She laughed. "Have you ever shown up to school drunk? Be for real."
"Drunk? No. Hungover? More times than I can count… my attendance is pretty spotless. I may not stay at school, but they can never say I didn't attempt to show up."
She laughed. "I'd say the same… about attendance. I do tend to stay at school however."
Sebastian raised his eyebrow, "I'm confident that if I ever asked you to skip school, you would… don't turn your face up like that,' he said, taking his eyes off the road to look at her momentarily. "It's true. You know it's true."
"You may not remember, but I do— you've asked me to skip class before, and I didn't."
"That was then, I'm talking about now. Now, you wouldn't tell me no… you know you wouldn't."
"If you were a good friend,' Mercedes propositioned. "You wouldn't ask me to do something like that anyway."
Sebastian furrowed his eyebrows. "What does our relationship have to do with me getting you to skip class, like, at all?"
She began to answer and then stopped herself. "Whatever,' Mercedes replied through a stifled laugh.
She watched the cars on the highway and didn't offer an argument when Sebastian turned the radio on, filling the car with contemporary hits. They floated past what seemed like a million different Ohioan license plates and Chevy trucks on the way to mow the lawns of someone more established than themselves. It was a hazy, lazy Saturday, the sun was lost somewhere behind the clouds, and Mercedes ears were tucked underneath a beanie. In the distance, large industrial buildings puffed long and hard, sending smoke as dark as the clouds into the atmosphere, and their fears weren't that it would rain but snow.
Winter hadn't yet came to Ohio, but they were fooled by the temperature that promised an even colder December, January and February. Mercedes thought about just how quickly the year was moving all of a sudden, but really, how slowly it was going all the same. She thought about sitting in a car with a boy and then about sitting in the car with her mother, and she wondered if she would have been able to predict where she would end up in three or four months back on the first day of school— or even further back, when she was still the victim of people like Sebastian when she was a freshman and sophomore. She wanted to ask him if he remembered her from those years specifically, if he remembered Tina, or Artie, or Mike, or Kurt and if he had any memories in bleachers pointing down and laughing at the eclectic group. If her freshman self could see her then, in the car with Sebastian, would she be in awe or hurl diatribes about selling out?— and what was she selling out to after all? Being popular, hanging out with popular people— abandoning her original friend group?
It was a part of growing up.
She, frankly, had little to no recollection of Sebastian from the previous few years. She hadn't been focused on him. All that time, she had been thinking about church and singing, and then about making good grades and talking about cute boys with Kurt. By the time everything began to click (or clique), she realized she should have been thinking about fashion or getting a job or who to hang out with to ensure she won a superlative during her senior year. Mercedes hadn't thought about Sebastian as an individual in years, of course, she would see him occasionally in the hallway or the parking lot, but, like most of the students she went to middle school or elementary school with, he had faded into his social group and became a part of an entity rather than a boy she'd had a crush on. On first take, she couldn't even remember that she had liked him so ardently once. She could remember feeling anxious around him and hoping that he, himself, had remembered nothing of her.
So, they'd rekindled their friendship and built it on a continuation of what had transpired when they were just children, as if the interceding decade hadn't happened. And they were friends, Mercedes knew that, and Sebastian had his own friends— she knew that. She had her own. But other than his hand on her thigh in August, and her Valentine's Day letter in his palm in February, she didn't know much about Sebastian or have much from him (other than his time). Of course, Mercedes knew he was popular, and his relationship with his father was strained. He was sarcastic and extremely critical of the people around him, but he was a provider, his father had taught him that. Emmett had taught Sebastian about how to treat a woman, how to treat his friends— Tierney had taught him how to conduct himself, and in the middle, Sebastian had lost most of his identity; he couldn't even answer a simple question, such as: who would you be without your surname? And Mercedes also knew that the loss of self was part of his identity; being one thing and knowing he could have been another was a cloak that he could dawn instead of facing the music: not finding his inner "other" was all his fault. He could be something else, but he didn't really want to do that. He just wanted Mercedes to know that he had at least thought about it (or so she felt). And other than the dualistic nature of his character (that really wasn't so dual at all, when she thought about it), he liked to drink, he played tennis, and he had a sister. Hunter Clarington was his cousin, they liked to throw parties, and he didn't like his friends. Well, he liked them, but not all the time.
She didn't fault him for being shallow, because he wasn't truly shallow after all— he had seen The Wiz, and he'd been to Paris. He noticed when she had different hair styles, and he listened to (most of) what she said. They had arguments, and sometimes they agreed with each other. She'd even seen him cry once, not that he'd admit it, but she knew she had.
But she thought about Marley, and she thought about Marley's mother and Marley's grandmother. She thought about Marley being insecure, and Marley coming to church with her— Sebastian had been upset about things that were never really about him but his perception to others. He hadn't genuinely been upset about his friends at the football game earlier that season. He was upset that he had been with someone that was worthy of ridicule.
So, she didn't know anything about him— other than the fact that he listened to her, and they spent time together and that he valued their friendship, but probably only because she listened to him, spent time with him and valued their friendship. Mercedes thought hard about what she knew of him other than the things he did and his obsession with appearing perfect and before long, she realized that she, like everyone else, was a victim of his mask of perfection.
There was no way in hell, she thought to herself, that his biggest problem was occasional disillusionment with his friend group, a father who wanted him to succeed and a friendship he had to keep secret.
She was in a car, nearly an hour from home with a boy she didn't know at all. And he didn't know her either; after all, had he ever asked questions that she considered critical to her true identity. Her father was a tricky subject that was often best avoided, but Sebastian had never ventured quizzically to learn. When Mercedes thought, other than trivial information, all he knew about her was that she went to church a lot, lived with her mom and wouldn't sleep with him. Of course, those things came with other interesting tidbits: she was an alto, her mom was a nurse, her favorite scent was vanilla, and he found her to be exceedingly judgmental.
She wondered if that conversation at her house when he had shown up unannounced had initiated the unsaid mandate that the two shouldn't talk about real things, because real things involved real emotions— if Mercedes was really judgmental, and Sebastian was really avoidant, then it seemed to reason they weren't each other's best confidants.
She considered their relationship, or whatever word should be used, as paper thin and fragile. It was a farce, really— the same thing they had been doing with everyone else, and he'd told her that she was the opposite of that to him, but perhaps that was his attempt at maintaining the relationship— telling her what he thought she wanted to hear.
So, Mercedes knew one other thing about Sebastian: his initial reasoning for any decision made would always be maintenance. Well, others might call it self-preservation.
She looked over at the boy in order to put a face to all the overthinking she'd been doing. He was stoic, biting the inside of his jaw and cruising the highway, presumably having his own thoughts. Would he even let her really know him?
And her greater fear of the moment: Was there anything more to know?
In little contrast, the differences between the two insisted that Mercedes share very little herself. Not that she thought he'd laugh in her face (if anything, he'd begin to snicker and then stop himself), but she knew that his response to most of her struggles would be comical to him or as foreign as someone staring at a caged animal perform a mating ritual.
I hadn't thought about how that process went, she imagined him thinking in response to her anything.
Of course, he couldn't relate to being so poor that she didn't have electricity for weeks in the third grade or being surprised when she didn't see tiny bugs crawling around her friends' homes. One of the biggest turning points in her life had been when one of her grandparents had passed away, leaving a will that her mother was included in. From there, Nani and Mercedes had moved into their own home for the first time— one with lights, no bugs and their own bedrooms.
It wasn't worth sharing, because she didn't want his pity, but it was something that she had told Marley, Kurt, Artie and Tina. Others. Even if they didn't have the same struggle, they understood what it felt like to not have and they were bonded by what was missing. Telling Sebastian something like that would perpetually victimize her in his book— she wouldn't be able to bear him paying for anything again if he knew that about her. And beyond childhood poverty, a single-parent household and the constant feeling that no one around her cared enough to really stop and get to know her, what was there to say? What else was there to know— whatever problems he really had, if he really had them, were probably the problems of the rich and white.
In response, Mercedes would probably do the same thing she was so afraid Sebastian would do: laugh. If one of his problems, genuinely, was that he thought he would have to go to some super smart college, and he felt he was being pressured to make good grades, she would laugh until her stomach split open.
"What are you thinking so hard about,' Sebastian finally asked, having heard the girl let out a long sigh.
Mercedes bit her lip. She didn't want to ask him any big questions about himself— she had just been thinking about herself after all, so she continued along those lines. "Do you ever think about when you'll stop just being a student or your parents' kid or someone from Lima or someone from church, and you'll finally become who you're meant to be? When the things that happened to you as a child no longer permanently define who you're going to be?"
"What makes you ask?"
"I'm just thinking. You're not talking, so I'm just thinking."
Sebastian etched his hand towards the radio and silenced the music. "Go ahead,' he said graciously. "Think out loud."
"Like, we don't really know each other, do we? I know stuff about you, and I've spent time with you, and maybe we'll get to really know each other, but… I don't know your favorite color, and we don't have inside jokes, and I don't even know if you really like tennis or if you feel like it's something you have to do. I was thinking about how I'm driving an hour away to go to a lake I've never been to before with someone I technically don't know that well, but you don't know me well at all either… Sure, my favorite color is purple, and my mom is a single parent, and I like Destiny's Child, you could have guessed those things, but we haven't talked about our deepest fears or our aspirations… We're supposed to know what we want to be when we grow up and who we want to be, and I don't even know that about you. What's worse is that I don't even know that about myself. I just feel like sometimes I'm waiting for all these revelations to come to me, and I don't spend any time revealing myself to myself… I get afraid sometimes that there's nothing to reveal. Maybe I'm just Mercedes Jones from Lima, Ohio, and I'll stay her forever."
"I get you,' he looked over at her momentarily. "It's hard. Finding yourself is hard, but we're seventeen. Even if I knew what I wanted to do with my life, I'd be liable to change my mind in two weeks— I think we're getting to know each other. I enjoy getting to know you, and I hope you feel the same way. You've done more to help me learn about myself than anyone I've ever met, and we just started talking again in August. If you ever need to have conversations like this, I'm more than happy to be a sounding board…' he thought for a few seconds. "I think I know you."
"I can assure you that you do not."
Sebastian chuckled. "Does being a mystery make you feel better about yourself, Jones? What more do I need to know about you, really?"
She was silent, prompting Sebastian to look again before turning his attention back to the road.
"You're easy— don't beat yourself up about being someone that's easy to read. It makes it easier for people like me who are fucked up and confused and practically emotionally incapable. I know who you are. You don't lie. You don't try to mind-fuck me. You call it how it is, and you wear your heart on your sleeve. Who cares if you don't have thirteen years worth of memorable trauma and some esoteric family bullshit you have to take to the grave. I don't want that in my life; I can sure as hell tell you that you don't want it in your life… just let everything come to you."
Mercedes crossed her arms and sighed. He was giving decent enough advice to the wrong person. She didn't want to be easy— she didn't want to convince him that her life had been more than what it was when he'd found her again in August. It was so calm now because sanctity wasn't something she had been allowed before. She'd spent most of her life bored, focusing on books to distract her from the fact her mother still wasn't home from work— at church to distract herself from the same dinner of rice and canned fish for the fifth time that week. Mercedes deeply valued a clean house and tupperware full of fresh dinner— she enjoyed being center stage on Sundays, singing to the top of her lungs, and she liked helping her classmates with homework. If she was easy, it was because she had spent so much of her life trying not to become jagged from the sharp rocks of neglect, loneliness and insecurity.
She wanted to get out of the car as soon as possible.
"Are we there yet,' she asked.
Sebastian laughed snidely.
They drove for a few more minutes before signs started to direct them towards the lake, Mercedes pointing out each one, and Sebastian pretending as though he hadn't seen them himself, usually seconds before Mercedes had opened her mouth or stuck a finger on the window.
"It's only two miles away… that drive went by really fast."
"It was only an hour."
She sighed. "An hour sounds like a long time."
The park they entered, one of the first ones off of one of the first roads off of the highway, was nearly deserted; sandy banks curved around dry grass hugging the cobblestone parking lot. The lake, much like the sea, crashed violently on the yellow sand in the brisk, autumn air. A few strangers stood around the water, collecting rocks, smoking cigarettes and fighting the cold water brushing their red cheeks. Sebastian pulled into a parking space, and the two sat in silence listening to the engine hum and the rhythmic lull of waves from a few hundred feet ahead. Everything before them was shades of brown melting into shades of beige before marrying the mirage of blue and foam which kissed the pied horizon: the blue of the lake and the gray of the day. Clouds hung heavily, as if the sun had never appeared, and the cold of the day was visible.
They saw, together, something they had never seen before exactly: that precise view, in Sebastian's precise car with Mercedes's precise perfume lofting through the air. It was still warm around them, but once the keys were removed from the ignition, the freezing wind would descend upon them, forcing them to zip their coats and huddle together for warmth.
Mercedes reached for her door handle.
"You're ready,' he asked, and she nodded. "It's cold,' he noted, and she nodded.
They took fresh steps into the air and raised their eyebrows at each other when the vicious winds pushed their way, but they trekked closer to the water still. Within a few yards from the place where the waves met the shore, Mercedes stopped, her hands tucked underneath her arms.
"If you don't have dinner plans, I can make something,' she shrugged, as if to preserve the day before it had begun. He was there with her then, and there was the chance he wouldn't be by the time the sky was dimmer than it was. One might call it a form of self-preservation, as if he were a part of her— he shared propriety of her happiness.
Of course, he had upset her so much over just an hour, but it was only because they knew so little of each other. Not that all of that (or any of it) would be healed in only an hour, but his presence made her calm. After spending so much of her life alone, having someone else in the house at night was comforting. Her mother, as usual, was working late that evening.
"Maybe,' he replied, bringing his collar closer around his neck. Sebastian pulled his hands closer to his mouth, breathing in and out of them. "We can drive around. I don't have to take you right back home."
She shrugged. "We're here, it's fine. We just haven't hung out in a while, I didn't know if you wanted to…' she trailed. "I think this is the first time I've had to initiate anything."
"I'm proud of you for stepping out of your comfort zone,' he replied sarcastically.
"I can't focus on anything you're saying with the wind beating this hard,' Sebastian said, his face ruddy. He turned his back to the lake and sat on the ground, looking up at the girl. "What were you saying?"
"Nothing,' Mercedes replied, braving the cold to prove herself more resilient than the boy. She watched the waves begin and end as if they were a part of the ocean itself, as if the other side of the lake didn't exist, as if this was the only land the waves might ever touch. How brutal it had been all that time with nothing to grab hold of and no faces to greet— they'd learned in school about lake retention time and how long it took for water to leave a lake either through the processes of the water cycle or tributary drainage. She wondered how long those waves had taken to beat along the shore and pitied them for the lack of audience— for the boy facing away from them.
On another day, Mercedes would have apologized to Sebastian for picking a day with such awful weather, and she might have suggested they go ahead and leave, but she felt warm in the freezing gusts, as if it was meant for her to be there on that day and at that time.
She walked closer to the lake.
An older man stood, an unlit cigarette idling between his hands as he gazed at the water plaintively. He caught a glimpse of Mercedes out the corner of his eye and smiled warmly, the melancholy shredding itself from his countenance. He stepped to the side, as if his meager stature was taking away from any of the enormity of the beach. They stood beside each other in quiet loudness, taking in the scene and wondering if the other was wondering about the other.
"You'd believe it never ends,' the man said eventually, a quiet and performing voice. He looked at her as he spoke with bright blue eyes. She would have guessed he was an actor or story-teller.
"I know,' Mercedes replied, afraid that her response would be dwarfed by his poetic minimalism. In all, she was at a loss for words. After all, she had only seen lakes from moving cars, or lakes that were really glorified retention ponds. The place was a beauty, and she'd grown numb to the boisterous winds— she could almost feel the flirtatious waves on her finger tips. "It's something to see."
"That it is, that it is,' he mused before reaching a hand over for the girl to shake. "I'm Chuck."
"Hi, Chuck,' she smiled and shook back. "I'm Mercedes… are you from around here?"
"I'd like to be,' he laughed. "No, Memphis originally. I'm in Cleveland now."
She nodded. "Was moving a big difference?"
Chuck shrugged. "Other than the weather, not very. People are alike all over."
Mercedes nodded in agreement.
"Do you know where that's from?"
She shook her head.
"The Twilight Zone,' he responded, placing the cigarette in his mouth and beginning to light it before a gust of wind reminded him of his standing. He gave a wry laugh, and Mercedes returned a sympathetic smile. "A man gets on a spaceship and flies all the way to another planet in another galaxy, far, far away. When he gets there, he's stunned! There are other people who look just like him, act just like him and think just like him… hold onto that. Everything's the same except these people can read minds, imagine that… Anyway, they take the man from the spaceship and house him in a model home, it's lovely, except once they've gone, and he's inside, he can't get out. Turns out, these aliens, these people, have put him inside a zoo on display as an 'earth creature'. And they're just like him, you know? All over, humans exploit what stands as worthy… ain't that funny? The biggest proof of human excellence is how much money or entertainment stands to be made through you— have you ever thought of that?"
"Are you in school, Mercedes?"
Mercedes crossed her arms again and looked back at Sebastian, who was still sitting on the ground but facing the water again. He gave a shy wave when Mercedes turned to face him, but she turned back to the lake when she was affirmed of his presence. Chuck was beginning to ask a lot of questions.
"What's your favorite subject?"
She thought. "I don't know; I just try to get through the day. I like chorus— I always liked science."
Chuck gave a sincere laugh. "You look like a singer."
"Well, I am,' Mercedes said with a smile. "Even when I was younger, I was always singing."
"You'll find out just how alike people are as a performer."
"I didn't say I wanted to sing professionally or anything,' she argued quickly.
Chuck shrugged, louche. "You want to be a scientist, Mercedes?"
"I want to have a job that I love. I want to wake up and be excited about my day,' she paused. "I want to be happy more than anything, that's more important than the money I make."
He gave a smile and sighed. "Happiness is important— it's something I never considered at your age— that I had to work as hard to find it as I did to find a job or to find an apartment or to find someone who would take a chance on me… you can get everything you've ever wanted, but if your heart hasn't gotten to the finish line with you…' he trailed.
Mercedes nodded as if she was wise— as if she had anything truly important to add to the, obviously, experienced man's rambling. "What do you do?"
"I'm an editor— opinion pieces, largely. Critiques."
"Then I guess you know a performer when you see one,' she flattered herself.
He shrugged. "Anyone can be an actor, you know? — All it takes is a life of humility and a little empathy, and you can convince anyone of anything."
"Talent doesn't find itself in that recipe?"
Chuck laughed heartily but didn't respond immediately. Finally: "Not as often as you'd think."
They talked some more about acting and singing, how singers were scouted and what a lifetime of being critical does to the soul. Eventually they took to squatting and letting the edges of the receding waves touch the tips of their fingers in an embrace that was colder than the wind rushing to meet them but just as worthy. When they stood back up, one ray of sunlight had peaked through the heavy cloud coverage and retreated just as quickly.
"I don't so much mind not living near the ocean, the lakes are so beautiful."
"'You can't speak of its glory enough' — that's what some of the mothers from my church say… of course, they're talking about the Holy Spirit, but,' Mercedes shrugged.
Chuck laughed. "It stands."
After a few minutes, Chuck looked behind him and then at Mercedes. He leaned towards her. "Who's your friend?"
Turning around, Mercedes saw Sebastian, only a few footsteps behind her, his arms crossed over his chest. He raised his eyebrows when she looked at him.
Turning back to Chuck, Mercedes whispered. "A friend from school."
The former smiled and placed a hand on her shoulder. "It was nice to meet you, Mercedes."
The man stalked off, greeting Sebastian before he continued down the coastline as if he had never stopped. Sebastian took his place, the waves treading dangerously close to their toes.
"How long were you there?"
"I came when you looked back. I wasn't sure if you wanted out of the conversation."
She raised her eyebrow. "So, you just listened to everything without saying anything?"
Sebastian shrugged. "I wasn't going to add anything meaningful. I can't talk to you about that stuff, but you seem to enjoy it. And I've told you I don't mind listening to you talk. You always sound wise, even when you're saying the worst Hallmark greeting card musings ever written,' he laughed. "Usually people stare at nature contemplatively and think. I was thinking."
"And what were you thinking about, Sebastian?"
He sighed. "Let's talk about it over dinner,' Sebastian raised his eyebrows and smiled.
Mercedes rolled her eyes, taking some steps along the lake— the opposite direction of Chuck.
"Smooth,' she said, laughing with Sebastian as he followed after.