"How could I let you fall by yourself while I'm wasted for someone else?"
Chloe stands in front of the picturesque Drumheller Fountain, a half-spent cigarette hanging from her lips, Ray-Ban Wayfarers shielding her eyes from the early afternoon sun. It's just slightly toasty for this time of year, but having spent the summer down in Arizona, she finds the current weather to be a welcome respite from that kind of oppressive heat. She had always joked the only way she'd ever make it onto the campus of the University of Washington is if she made a wrong turn on the way to Tacoma, but today she's here to visit her best friend who recently started her second year of studies.
Class having just let out, a mass of humanity spills from the front doors of Bagley Hall. Even amidst the throng, Chloe picks out Max immediately. She crushes the cigarette under the heel of her boot, and a wide smile flashes across her face. Some things never change.
Max eventually catches sight of Chloe and bounds down the steps towards her. The two girls wrap each other up in a tight hug. Some things never change.
"How you been, smarty pants?" Chloe asks, playfully tussling Max's hair.
"Getting hella murdered by calculus, but otherwise fine."
"Better you than me."
Max draws a deep breath of the clear late summer air. "How about you? How was Arizona?"
"Aside from the sun cooking me like bacon every afternoon? It actually did me lots of good. Getting away from all the craziness, it just really helped me get focused again, you know?"
"That sounds great. Good for you."
"And you're not gonna believe this, but David has actually chilled way the fuck out."
"I don't know if those hippies have been putting Quaaludes in his Cheerios, but he's not nearly the stick in the mud he used to be."
"There's room for everyone to grow, I guess."
"But enough about me. You know why I'm here."
"Yeah..." Now that the day has actually come, Max is just having the slightest trepidation about having set up this meeting. Chloe, after all, tends to approach all situations with her own brand of playful irreverence.
"Your new boy toy. Let me see if I got all the facts straight. Grad student, teaches classes on the side for his scholarship."
"Only eats orange Starbursts."
"Correct. Big thing with him."
"Loves the music of Journey, but only the Steve Perry stuff."
"Like anybody with a brain does."
"Builds model Gundam figures in his free time."
"And...oh my god."
Walking towards the two girls comes a gangly young man with windswept dirty blonde hair. A stack of papers is tucked under his left arm. He also carries a black briefcase. His outfit seems to be plucked from a 1950's Columbia University faculty photo: beige tweed suit jacket (of course there are elbow patches), brown tie with gray stripes, a finely starched white dress shirt, plaid suspenders holding up his well-creased khakis. Even more striking to Chloe than his choice of attire is his height, standing perhaps a full head length above most of the other people in the crowd. Maybe it wouldn't look quite so unusual if his build were more of the standard musculature, but he's practically the embodiment of the phrase "skin and bones." Still, his gentle, boyish features and the Cheshire Cat smile he wears as he sees Max exudes a warmth in his presence.
"You are dating a human beanpole," remarks Chloe.
"Be nice," insists Max under her breath.
Without hesitation, the young man strides up to Max and scoops her up into his spindly arms. He squeezes her ever so slightly and sighs in gratitude to be reunited with her. When he releases the hug, he looks at her as if he had just gotten his first Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning. "How was class?"
"It was good," Max can't help but grin impishly as well. She turns to Chloe, who, had this been anyone else she were dealing with, probably would've gotten nauseous from wholesomeness overload. "Chloe, I'd like you to meet Zach Ettenberg. My boyfriend."
"It's a pleasure," Chloe says, presenting her hand to Zach, who still wears that ear to ear grin as he sets down his briefcase to shake her hand jubilantly.
"And Zach, this is Chloe Price."
"Of course, it is so amazing to finally to meet you," he says to Chloe with earnest wonder. "I've heard all the stories."
"I hope not all the stories because then you might not like me so much."
Zach breaks out in a hearty laugh. "There's that sense of humor I'm always hearing about!"
Chloe laughs along, while at the same time inwardly acknowledging that there were some things about her that she in fact wouldn't be so proud to share.
"Max has also told me how proud she is of you," Chloe points out. "I hear you're an accomplished zoology researcher?"
"Me? Nah, I'm just a simple guy trying to teach chimps to do sign language with their toes."
Max chimes in, "Zach is the youngest student to earn a grant from the school in the last 20 years."
"Oh stop," responds Zach bashfully. He wraps his free arm around Max, who places both arms around his waist. He plants a kiss on top of Max's head.
Chloe actually feels her heart start to flutter a bit.
"Listen," Zach says as he looks back to Chloe. "I really wanted Max to set this up between us today because there's something I've been wanting to tell you."
"Sure. What is it?"
"I've heard all that you and Max have been through, and I understand how important a part you've played in making her the person she is. And truly, I think she is just the most wonderful and incredible and terrific girl I know."
Max looks up at him, and he returns her look with affection.
"I can't believe I had all this time without her, and I can only wish she had been in my life all along, the way you and she were able to be."
"But since I'm lucky enough for her to be here now, I can promise you I'm going to make all this time with her the best it can be."
"Well..." Chloe takes a breath, still a bit jarred that a practical stranger had offered such a genuine outpouring of emotion. At the same time, she finds solace in the comfort Max has been able to find. "You really wanna repay me?"
"Absolutely. Name it."
"Next time I'm in town, first round's on you, big guy."
"You got it." Zach checks his watch. "Oh, gotta get going. Staff meeting soon."
"OK, good luck," Max says.
"See you at dinner tonight?"
"Great." Zach turns back to Chloe. "Again, so nice to meet you, Chloe."
Zach picks up his briefcase and makes his way into the building.
Chloe catches Max letting her gaze linger on Zach. "He knows he doesn't have to wear that Halloween costume to class, right?"
Max rolls her eyes.
"I mean, he's just teaching intro biology to hungover, half-asleep freshmen."
"It's his style. Who said only you could have a style?"
"I'm just saying, with all the money he could save on dry cleaning, we could feed an African village for a year."
Max playfully slaps Chloe in the arm. "The important thing is he likes you."
"Doesn't that just make my day?"
"Do you want to come for dinner? Every Friday he makes the most amazing stir fry. It's got the mushrooms and little corn and everything. You know what we call it?"
Chloe just says the first thing that comes to mind: "Stir Friday?"
"Oh. It's not as clever as we thought, I guess."
"Sorry, I can't," Chloe responds apologetically. "I have to be in Yakima by tonight."
"What's in Yakima?"
"This friend of mine, Skip, he was working at Blackwell before you were there. Now he does security for some minor league baseball team, and they need concessions workers for the season."
Leave it to Chloe to walk the least-beaten path, thought Max.
"After that," Chloe goes on, "David was telling me about an army friend of his at the VA in Portland. Apparently, their receptionist is about a billion years old and is gonna retire soon, so maybe I step in there."
"So it sounds like both of us are going through our changes."
"True. I mean, things might get even more serious with monkey boy there."
"I'm just going one step at a time."
"Just tell me, how does it work in bed?"
"Aren't you eye level with his bellybutton when he-"
"OK stop!" a giggling Max tries to place her hand over Chloe's guffawing mouth. For this brief moment, they let go of their anxieties about the future, let go of the pain they've caused each other in the past. For this brief moment, they just laugh together, enjoy each other in this brief moment alone.
The crowd around them has thinned, as the next round of classes has begun. This reminds Chloe to check the time on her phone. "I should go."
"Listen," Chloe's tone turns a little more serious. "Like you said, we're both going through some changes."
"So maybe it's gonna be a little harder for us to always be in touch."
"I get it."
"I'll always try my best to be there for you."
"I believe you."
"Even if we don't see each other for a while, is that OK?"
Max didn't have an answer for Chloe back then, but now she feels she can finally say it. "It's enough."
Chloe nods knowingly. "Bye, Long Max Silver."
"Take care," Max reassures Chloe with a smile, "Captain Bluebeard."
At the same time, they each turn from each other, on towards their futures.
"They'll say you could do anything. They'll say that I was clever."