Benjamin August had three tickets to The Stars.
The band, a Texas country outfit, was a local favorite, “formed and raised” right on 6th Street in downtown Austin. In the past year alone they had three chart-topping hits, and it was rumored their new record label was working overtime to take The Stars mainstream. It had been nearly eighteen months since they last played a gig in Austin, and Ben had been determined to see them when they returned. He and his two closest friends, Dodge Merrick and Ryan Whitaker, had been listening to them since college.
“Dodge won’t be able to go,” Ryan told Ben as soon as he mentioned the tickets. They were having lunch at their favorite burger joint, P. Terry’s.
“What? Why not?”
“He’s filming in Port Aransas. I thought he told you.”
Dodge was a professional sport fisherman and had recently landed his own TV show. He was gone a lot these days, so much that his wife was threatening to leave him. When his friends asked if he had considered leaving his job to save his marriage, he replied, “It’s a raw deal when a man has to choose between his boat and his woman.” He paused to take a swig of beer, then smirked. “I’m sure gonna miss her.”
“Well, damnit,” Ben said. “What about Trish?”
Ryan shook his head.
“My beloved girlfriend hates The Stars. She hates Texas country in general.”
Ben pretended to shiver. “I don’t even know why you’re dating her, man.”
Ryan laughed. “You could invite Molly.”
Ben choked on a French fry.
“Molly?” he repeated.
“Didn’t I tell you she’s back?”
“No. You definitely did not.”
“Ah. Well, she’s back.”
“Like, back back? I thought she and Peter were in Africa for the long haul.”
“Peter…” Ryan paused for effect, “is still in Africa.”
Ben considered the implications of this, but couldn’t quite bring himself to hope.
“So Molly came home alone…” Ben summarized. “Is she sick? Nobody died, right?”
“Dude,” Ryan stopped him, “my sister and Peter are separated.”
“Yeah. They are probably getting a divorce. It’s crazy.”
“Is she okay?”
Ryan shrugged. “I guess so. You know Molly. She’s pretty tough.”
Yes, Ben knew Molly. There was hardly a time in his life when he could remember not knowing Molly. Ryan had been Ben’s best friend since the first grade, and Molly was Ryan’s older sister by two years. They had attended the same school, and Mr. Whitaker used to take Ben and Ryan hunting on their property. Molly refused to hunt, but she would always be at the house reading or watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when the boys returned. The Whitakers also had a pool, so Ben spent most of his summers there. Some of his favorite memories revolved around the three of them- Ryan, Molly, and himself- lounging in the sunlight listening to music and laughing about nothing. The image of Molly Whitaker in a two-piece was Ben’s definition of beauty.
Then came Peter Preston from California.
The Preston’s moved to Austin when Peter and Molly were fourteen, and for whatever reason- Ben could never quite figure out why– Molly adored him. Peter was everything she wasn’t: quiet, serious, shy, reserved. But they had similar interests in everything from books to music, and both were serious students who aspired to have careers in medicine. They had all the same classes, and it wasn’t long before Peter was a permanent fixture in the Whitaker household, just like Ben.
For a few years, however, Peter Preston from California was effectively placed in the “friend zone” along with Ben, though Peter didn’t seem to mind. Ben watched Molly and Peter for signs of affection that ran deeper than friendship, and while he was threatened by the closeness of the two, he began to believe he may still have a chance with Molly after all. For a few years, Peter nursed a crippling crush on Madison Detton, one of the most popular girls in school, while Molly dappled in relationships every once in a while, only to break the poor guy’s heart once she felt he had begun to monopolize her time.
Their senior year, Peter and Molly’s relationship reached a new level of intimacy, and Ben felt certain his heart was engaged in a losing battle. Peter gave up on Madison Detton, and Molly realized that perhaps she was so disinterested in other guys because she was, in fact, in love with her best friend. After graduating high school and completing their prerequisite courses in Austin, they got married and moved to San Antonio to study medicine together.
Ben remained in Austin, got a degree in graphic design and landed a great job with a start-up company downtown. He forced himself to stop thinking about Molly, and eventually found himself falling in love with a coworker named Sasha. After two years of dating he was ready to marry her, but when he proposed she turned him down, admitting that she had been offered a job in Paris and was planning to accept. She left him and, heartbroken, he swore off women for the rest of eternity.
“That’s a little melodramatic, don’t you think?” Ryan had asked him one night over beers. Ryan Whitaker was not the romantic nor committed type, and before Trish, his longest relationship had ended just shy of seventy-two hours. He was a prominent player in Austin’s nightlife, boasting over a hundred one-night stands in the last several years. Trish had taken him by surprise, the one-night stand who became a roommate who became a girlfriend. They had been together for nearly a year now.
After Ben’s breakup, Ryan tried to present his friend with opportunities to start enjoying women again without the unnecessary complications of commitment. Ben, however, had never been interested in flings, and while he indulged Ryan by going out with him, he never brought any of the women they met home. Besides, he was only attracted to the ones who reminded him of Sasha, who had reminded him of Molly, and he knew given the chance he would fall in love with them, which was something he was not ready- or willing- to do.
So the news of Molly Preston returning to Austin- without Peter Preston from California- blindsided Ben. He hadn’t seen Molly in years, yet somehow the thought of her still sent him into a panic. She was the standard by which he judged womankind. He had loved her since he was six. Six. More than twenty years. And now she was here, husbandless, and he had an extra ticket to The Stars.
The situation couldn’t be more perfect. Or more perfectly terrifying.
“You should invite her, man,” Ryan said. “It would be good for her.”
Ben shook his head vehemently, betraying his cowardice.
“It would be weird coming from me,” he argued. “We haven’t seen each other since high school. Just tell her I have an extra ticket and if she wants to come she’s welcome to it.”
Ryan already had his phone out.
“Are you texting her now?” Ben asked.
Ryan raised his eyebrows. “Did you want me to wait for something?”
“Nah, man.” Ben stuffed the last of his burger in his mouth and swallowed. “I gotta get back to the office. Let me know what she says.”
As he stood, Ryan’s phone dinged.
“She’s coming,” he said.
Ben felt a jolt in his chest.
“Oh,” he choked. “Okay. Cool.”
The concert venue opened at eight o’clock, and when Ryan and Ben arrived an hour early, the general admission line was already wrapped around the building. Ben scanned the faces for Molly, wondering how she might have changed since the last time he saw her.
He and Ryan had grabbed a couple of Turkish kabobs on their way over, and once they secured their place in line they started to eat. Ben was feeling edgy, and the food stuck in his throat. Ryan was telling him about a new show he had started watching with Trish, but Ben had trouble listening. He shifted his feet and worried if he was wearing enough deodorant. God, it was hot tonight.
She still had not come by the time the doors opened, and Ben tried desperately not to think the worst.
Ryan, however, didn’t seem to be bothered.
“I can go inside a save us a place by the stage,” he told Ben. “She just texted me to say she’s on her way. Why don’t you wait out here for her?”
“Yeah,” Ben said. “Sure.”
Ryan disappeared while Ben extracted himself from the crowd as it entered the building. He checked his phone, then slowly paced the sidewalk. He thought of Molly, of those summers by the pool, and realized this was the first time she would be hanging out with just him and Ryan since Peter Preston moved to Texas seventeen years ago. He wondered if they would assume their old camaraderie, but he knew that was impossible. Too much time had passed, and he had loved her too long, and just the idea that the long-established distance between them was now coming to a close made him supremely uncomfortable. What the hell was he even supposed to say to her?
Ten long minutes passed before she appeared, rounding the corner of a building with a cup of iced coffee in her hand. He blinked, hardly able to believe just how little she had changed. Her long hair was still the same shade of brown, pulled back into a ponytail that swished back and forth as she walked. Her eyes were shielded by a pair of golden aviators, but the curve of her jaw, the bow of her lips, the signature white tank top she wore, and the swing of her hips in those faded blue jeans all identified her as the first girl he had ever loved.
He took a deep breath, and before he could wonder if she would recognize him she smiled. She walked right up to him and put her arms around his neck.
“Oh my god,” she said.
Oh my god, he thought.
“Ben August! It’s so good to see you!”
Her arms dropped before he could even figure out if he had hugged her back.
“You too, Mol. How’s it going?”
He regretted the question as soon as it left his lips, and she smiled unconvincingly as she nodded and replied, “I’m fine.” Then she brightened. “I’m excited about this show. Thanks for letting me tag along.”
“Let’s get in there, huh?”
He led the way, walking just ahead of her. He handed off the tickets and the two of them meandered through the thick crowd until they found Ryan, who hugged his sister and exclaimed, “You made it!”
Ben offered to grab everyone a beer, and as he walked away Ryan smiled and leaned in close to Molly.
“Ben’s freaking out a little,” he told her.
Molly’s eyes widened. “Why?”
“You know he’s always had a thing for you.”
“Oh god, Ryan. That was a hundred years ago.”
She looked at her brother sideways. “Of course I knew. He wasn’t very good at hiding it. But we were kids. Doesn’t he have a serious girlfriend now?”
Ryan shook his head. “Left him.”
“No! What happened?”
“She moved to Paris. Got some crazy job offer and didn’t want to do the long-distance thing.”
“Yeah. He’s tender, so be nice to him, Mol.”
“When am I ever not nice?”
“That’s what I mean. Be nice by not being too nice. Don’t lead him on.”
“Ryan! I’m still married! And I highly doubt Ben still thinks of me that way.”
Ryan shrugged. “You never really get over the first,” he said, and Molly’s eyes fell.
No you don’t, she thought.
Ben returned with three beers, having already finished his first at the bar while Ryan and Molly talked. He hoped the alcohol would help him relax a little. He had remembered Molly was beautiful, but that memory was of a girl. Now she was a woman, and the memory did her little justice. Everything about her was painfully perfect.
He handed her a bottle of Blue Moon and she thanked him. She reached into her back pocket and produced a koozie, which she slipped around the bottle.
Ben smiled. “You always carry a koozie with you?”
She smirked and tilted her head. “You never know when you might need one.”
“It’s weird,” he said suddenly.
“What?” she asked.
He tilted his bottle towards her. “Drinking with you,” he replied. Then he nodded to Ryan. “All of us drinking together. I don’t think that’s ever happened.”
“Not legally, anyway,” Molly said, “but we went to a few parties in high school, didn’t we?”
“We threw some parties in high school,” Ryan corrected her. “It was our only way of fraternizing with the upperclassmen.”
“I’m just saying I don’t think we’ve ever been out together,” Ben said, then winced, hating the way he sounded. “As adults,” he added.
“No,” Molly agreed, “you’re right.”
“Crazy how things change.”
She nodded but said nothing. He checked the time. The show should start soon, and then talking would be impossible. He seized another opportunity.
“So,” he began. “Africa.”
“Mmm,” she murmured through a sip of beer. She swallowed. “What about it?”
“How was it?”
She avoided his gaze, staring hard at the stage. How to summarize two years in a foreign country? Two years that began as an adventure, morphed into a pattern of disillusionment, and ended with a splintered marriage?
She wondered just how much Ben wanted to know, then decided to spare him the story. Most people didn’t want the story, anyway. They wanted the fun-sized response, a condensed answer that gave them just enough to leave them pleased with themselves for asking.
“It was fine,” she responded. Then added, “But I’m glad to be home.”
“Fine? That’s it?”
But he could see her discomfort, could feel her going cold, and it caught him by surprise.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “If you don’t want to talk about it…”
She didn’t, and the tears in her eyes said as much. She smiled through them and said, “It’s all right. Maybe some other time.”
Some other time. Would there be another time? Could he take her to coffee? To dinner? Could he just sit and listen to her voice, watch her lips as they moved, her hands as they brushed the hair away from her face?
He felt a bolt of courage at the sight of her vulnerability and reached out to touch the small of her back.
“Hey,” he said, “no worries. I’m here.”
She looked at him then, allowing her eyes to be caught and held by his.
He indicated to her beer.
“Can I get you another one before the show starts?” he asked.
“That would be great.”
Soon the opening band began to play, and the music and the beer and the energy of the audience created a surge of happiness and anticipation. By the time The Stars came onstage, everyone was feeling pretty good. Ben had relaxed, and Molly was smiling.
The audience swelled, pushing closer to the stage. Molly, Ryan, and Ben were squished together, with Molly standing just in front of Ben. He could feel the curve of her ass pressing against the top of his thighs, could smell her clean, floral shampoo. She seemed slightly uncomfortable with their proximity at first, but before long she relaxed, surrendering to the music, the alcohol, and the knowledge that she was not alone. These past months without Peter had been the first time in her adult life when she was on her own. She had spent time with her family, had worked doubles at the hospital, but most nights she found herself staring at the plain white walls of her apartment, listening to the muted sounds of the city and wondering what to do with this kind of loneliness. It was so new, so foreign to her; an emptiness too thick to fill.
Even before leaving Peter, it had nearly been a year since her husband had touched her. Now, with the solid warmth of Ben- one of her oldest friends- behind her, she relaxed into him, allowing her head to fall back against his chest. Out of the corner of her eye she could see her brother glance at them before pretending he didn’t notice, but she didn’t care. She had promised she would be nice, but this was nice, wasn’t it? Ryan would not understand, but neither did she. Some things that once made sense had ended in flames, while this made no sense at all, but it didn’t need to, because for this moment alone it felt right.
When she fell into him, Ben closed his eyes. How long had he wondered how it would feel to hold her body against his? Slowly, tentatively, he again moved his hands to the small of her back, then allowed them to slide over her hips, and together they swayed to the music. The next song was his favorite, and he dipped his head low enough to speak into her ear. “You wanna dance?” he asked, and in response she turned and took his hand. There was hardly room, but their feet moved to a stationary two-step, and he gazed at her as he had long desired but she averted her eyes because she was remembering a time that was not now, when she had danced with a man who was not him.
She pulled away before the song was over, and sensing that she was suddenly a thousand miles across the sea, he put his hands in his pockets and did not touch her again.
When the show ended, Molly said she thought she’d had one too many beers to drive and wondered if she could share a cab with Ryan and Ben. They dropped Ryan first, and Molly’s apartment was next. As they drew closer, she couldn’t stop thinking about those barren walls, or the living and dining rooms that had so little furniture they still echoed. She hadn’t lived there long, and since things were still unsettled with Peter and because she worked so often, she hadn’t bothered to turn the apartment into a home. Right now it was just a space; a blank, impersonal space, and right then it was the last place she wanted to be. She could imagine herself being swallowed by it. She could imagine herself disappearing.
Ben noticed her picking at the seat and chewing her lip and asked if she was okay. She looked like a frightened animal backing itself into a corner.
She stared out the window at the city lights.
“I just don’t really want to go home right now,” she told him. She opened her mouth to explain, then changed her mind. She already sounded like a child, she thought. Ben probably couldn’t wait to be rid of her, especially after how she had acted at the concert.
He was silent for a moment, then he spoke quietly. “Ryan told me about you and Peter.”
She looked down at her lap.
“Ah,” was all she said.
“I’m so sorry,” he told her.
She nodded. She was sorry, too.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she murmured. “He was my best friend for over half my life. I’ve never been on my own, you know? Being here without him… it’s just all so new.”
They arrived at Molly’s building, but when she reached for the car door Ben stopped her.
“You could stay with me tonight, Molly,” he told her, the words sounding strange to his own ears. His heart, he noticed, was beating painfully fast. “Just so… you know… you don’t have to be alone.”
For several seconds she just stared at him, and he felt like a fool. He wished he could rewind the moment and let her go.
“Okay,” she said then, and her hand fell from the door handle.
“Okay?” he repeated in disbelief.
They continued on to Ben’s place, a small house he had purchased while dating Sasha. He had always meant to share it with someone. It was one of the few things in his life of which he was proud.
They didn’t speak the rest of the ride, and when they arrived at the house, Ben unlocked the front door and led Molly inside. It was one in the morning and everything was dark, and he expected himself to blink and find it was all a dream.
“Um,” he began, fumbling his way into the living room to switch on a lamp. She was so quiet he was starting to doubt she was even there. “I don’t know where you’ll be most comfortable. You could take my bed, and I can take the couch, or…”
Suddenly he felt her hand on his arm, and he stopped talking and tried to catch his breath.
“Ben,” she said, and said no more.
She stood before him in the darkness, and though he could not see her he reached out and felt her, and she trembled beneath his touch.
“You’re shaking,” he told her.
She moved closer, and he wrapped his arms around her. Her lips hovered near his neck, and he could feel her breathing.
“Yes,” she said.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.
But she did not reply. Instead she lifted her lips to his and kissed him softly.
It was a dream. It had to be a dream. One he had dreamt so many times before.
For the briefest moment he held back, but it was too much. Twenty-three years too much. She was here, and she was real. For now, that was all that mattered.
He pressed her against him and kissed her the way he had wanted to kiss her all his life, unleashing an animalistic hunger, a desperate thirst. He savored her taste, consumed her touch, reveled in the sweet and musky scent of her. He pulled down her hair and it poured like silk through his fingers.
Some small and distant part of him called out, but he did not want to listen. There was no voice that could stop him from taking that which he had so long desired, no matter the senselessness of it. He could feel her holding back but wanted only to pull her closer, could sense the depth of her loneliness but wanted to believe it was love.
Molly suddenly pulled away, and it was as though she took all the air in the room with her. Ben stood breathless, his eyes searching the darkness of her face while his arms remained closed around her. He was dazed, his mind still lost somewhere in that kiss.
“No,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. If he turned on the lights he would see she was crying. “No, I’m not sure,” she said again. “I’m so sorry, Ben.”
He blinked, for it was a dream after all. And just as if he had woken he had no words, only the bereft and hollow feeling born of leaving a place to which one will never return.
Molly Whitaker was still nothing more than a fantasy. Before him was Molly Preston, a broken woman struggling to pick up the pieces of her life. He realized he did not know this woman, and he experienced a stab of sorrow in her presence. But in the turn of a moment that sorrow melted into compassion, and instead of speaking he gently cradled her head into the crook of his neck and there he held her for a long time.
She slept deeply in his arms that night, and he continued to love her the way he had always loved her: apart and in silence, asking for nothing.
He did not see her again. Several months later Ryan told him that Peter Preston had returned from Africa, that he and Molly were giving their marriage another shot. Ben experienced a familiar but brief pang of jealousy before having the most vivid memory of Molly from their childhood. She was thirteen and standing in a patch of sunlight by the pool at her parents’ house, her wet bikini creating a puddle at her feet.
“Benjamin August,” she said, the brightness of her smile competing with the sun, “I just thought you should know that you are one of my very favorite people in the whole wide world.”
Then she ran and leapt, disappearing back into the water with a splash.
He hadn’t thought of that memory for years. It had been a time when, in a way, she’d been his.
She’d belonged to Peter the night he had kissed her, the night she had slept with her head on his shoulder, the night he had almost convinced himself that she could love him back. And she belonged to Peter now, which was as it should be. It was Peter she loved.
But Ben remembered her in sunlight, and he smiled. For once, the memory was enough.