A/N: I feel the need to apologize for this fic's existence. First of all, its length – it's 12 pages long on WordPerfect. Second of all, it's the reason I haven't updated anything in weeks. It was one rabid plot bunny. I actually wanted to wait with this one: "Wait until the next book comes out," "Don't write this pairing to death, we don't even know if it's canon yet," but I started writing it and just couldn't stop. Thirdly, I know it's a tiny bit OOC, but since it takes place eight years after the first book, I thought there would be some room for change. Lastly, it's my first songfic, so I don't know if I did it right.
A note on the song: I doubt any of you listen to showtunes, but they are the only thing I listen to. This particular one is from a show called In the Heights. In this song, "Breathe," a girl named Nina, the star of a poor, overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood in New York City, is confiding to the audience that she dropped out of college and still hasn't told anyone. The only thing I changed in the lyrics were the names: whenever it says "Matilda," the original word is "Nina." I just have to say that In the Heights is an amazing show and if you ever get the chance, SEE IT. I am obsessed with the soundtrack right now.
HUGE DISCLAIMER: I did not write the lyrics to "Breath." That would be musical genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. Oh, and Michael Buckley wrote NERDS.
Please R&R! Enjoy!
Sigue andando el camino por toda su vida, respira.
The mirror in the airport bathroom is cracked and dusty. But even through the muck, the dark circles under my eyes are big, ugly, and obvious in my reflection.
I wonder if I can hide them with makeup. I brought a makeup kit in my carry-on luggage. Not that I ever really use anything in it besides some occasional lipstick. I've never really gotten the point of blush, and whenever I try putting on eyeliner, it makes me look like I've been smoking something.
As if I'd ever be found breathing through something other than an inhaler. What I have been doing isn't much better, but asthma forces you to have some limits.
Just scratch the whole makeup idea. I don't want to look like a druggie. I'll tell everyone that I couldn't sleep on the plane – I did just fly all the way from California.
The best thing I can do is go get a cup of coffee and wait for my ride. Coffee doesn't really help with sobriety – it's a commonly accepted myth – but it will help for me to just sit down for a while and think.
This is my street. I smile at the faces
I've known all my life. They regard me with pride.
And everyone's sweet. They say, "You're going places!"
So how can I say that while I was away,
I've had so much to hide?
Hey guys, it's me!
The biggest disappointment you know.
The kid couldn't hack it. She's back and she's walking real slow.
The barista at the airport's Starbucks is licking her lips incessantly. I'd love to say that's the thing about her that is making me the most uncomfortable right now, but it's not. What's making me uncomfortable is the double-take she did when she first saw me standing in line and how she keeps giving me a not-so-subtle scrutinizing look.
I'm next, so she walks up to the counter and stares for a few more seconds. And suddenly, her eyes grow wide and her chapped lips separate. "Matilda Choi?" she gasps.
Oh, I know who this girl is. She's Lori Baker, high school dropout. Lori was the first of our grade's popular crowd to feel the full effects of not being a nerd. During the senior year of high school, she applied to ten colleges and didn't get into a single one. Upset, she quit high school just two weeks before it ended. I remember that day clearly. Right before she left, her personality did a 180 and she went around congratulating all of us nerds for getting into the best colleges and being "sure successes." Lori actually hugged me and told me that she was "sooo freakin' jealous, because chemistry is, like, my favorite class and it would be sooo fun to major in it." Her exact words.
"Lori, hi!" I respond, not even bothering to hide the slight disdain in my voice. "How are things with you?" I add, though to be honest, I don't care.
She heaves an over-exaggerated sigh. "Tough! You would have no idea how hard it is to make it in fast food. I started out at Wendy's the summer after high school, but that place is really snobby. Not nice to dropouts. So I transferred to KFC. There were some nicer people there, but I guess Wendy's snobbiness rubbed off on me a little, because I just couldn't stand the way that they –"
I cut her off. "That's great, but I'm kind of in a hurry."
"Oh, of course," Lori replies, nodding.
I place my order and walk over to the other side of the counter. My breathing is starting to feel a little heavy. I take out my inhaler to solve the problem. And oh, joy. Lori decides that she should strike up more conversation while I'm doing this – and while she is busy making my coffee.
"We haven't heard much about you here recently, Matilda," she says. "It's weird, really, if you think about how much talk there is about the kids you used to hang out with. Like about how Jones is Duke's star quarterback and has awesome grades there at the same time. And there's all sorts of stuff about that chubby little Ivy League technology kid, Duncan."
She pauses to give me a knowing smile and I know exactly what she's going to say next. "There's another guy you know pretty well who there's plenty of talk about, too. He likes math, goes to school not too far away from here, sleeps with you... What was his name, again?" She taps her finger on her chin, deep in mock thought.
"You mean Flinch?" I say. I would be blushing right now if my body had the energy to send that much blood to my head. People always assume that when two people are in a relationship, it automatically means sex. But it doesn't have to. It's happened for Flinch and I a couple of times, but what we have is based on a lot more than just that..
"That's right! Silly me, how could I forget that?" Lori seems to be very proud of herself, though I don't know why she's taking pride in weaseling something she already knew out of me.
Finally, I get my coffee. It took at least six minutes for Lori to make it. I'm sure being a dropout wasn't the only reason Wendy's didn't like her. I thank her, pick up my luggage, and head for the entrance.
Lori may have prattled on for over six minutes, but there's one thing that she said that's really bugging me. "We haven't heard much about you here recently, Matilda." It's because I haven't been doing anything worth praise or attention. But I was a member of NERDS. In the history of that organization, nearly every member has gone on to do amazing things, be they in medicine, politics, mathematics, or, now that we have Jackson, sports. Nobody expects a NERDS agent to grow up to be a sorority girl spiraling into alcoholism.
A pimply-faced 13-year-old girl waiting in line for a security checkpoint sees me and waves. I recognize her as Janie Sampson, also known as "Pepperoni." She's one of the new generation of NERDS agents. I trained her when she first started, and she has told me that she really looks up to me. But I can't let her know how bad a role model I am right now. I quickly look away.
There's only one person from my past who I can bear seeing right now, and he's standing right outside the airport's entrance, waiting for me. He doesn't even wait to say hello to kiss and embrace me.
"I missed you," Flinch whispers in my ear as I lay my head on his shoulder.
I have buckled my seatbelt as tight as it can go. It's the only thing I can do to make sure I don't die at the mercy of the driver. I love Flinch, but it's a miracle that he's been able to keep his licence for so long. He has just enough regard for safety so that his driving behavior isn't considered reckless.
Right now, he's leaning over the steering wheel and making race car noises every time we make a turn.
My boyfriend is so mature.
But I really have to give Flinch some credit here. Since he's retired from NERDS and stopped needing his hyperactivity for the good of the world, he's been trying to reduce his sugar intake drastically. Before we left the airport this afternoon, he actually showed me all of the candy he's allowing himself today.
"Three plain old chocolate bars," he said. "Maybe I could've gone cold turkey on the candy by now, but unfortunately, they don't have rehab centers for that."
And then he laughed. I had to smile out of respect, but considering my current situation, I didn't find his little joke very funny. Still, how would he know it was such a touchy subject for me? I haven't told him a thing.
The speed is giving me a splitting headache and an asthma attack. "Hon, do you have to drive so fast?" I complain, struggling for breath.
"Relax!" Flinch responds. "This is a 60-mph highway. I'm only doing, like, a 59." He leans back to glance at the speedometer. "And a half."
"But you can't slow down just a little?" I plead.
Flinch must see my hand on my forehead or my pained expression, because he gets out of his race car driver position and lifts his foot off the pedal slightly.
I smile weakly. At least now I can calm my breathing. But the headache is still here. It hasn't completely gone away in weeks.
As the radio plays old forgotten boleros,
I think of the days when this city was mine.
I remember the praise: "Ay, ཱte adoro, te quiero!"
The neighborhood waved and said, "Matilda,
Be brave and you're gonna be fine!"
And maybe it's me,
But it all seems like lifetimes ago.
So what do I say to these faces that I used to know?
Hey, I'm home!
Eventually, we reach a neighborhood. Flinch slows the car down to a reasonable speed, so I seize the opportunity of a calmer environment to look over at him and flash a loving smile. He sees and smiles back. Then, he makes an expression as if he remembers something and turns back to the dashboard.
"Remember this?" he says, turning on the car's CD player and clicking through the tracks. When he stops, a simple melody echos from the speakers
Why is he playing this particular song? I'm confused at first, but as the song is playing, I slowly begin to recognize it. "Oh, yeah! You would play this for the rest of us all the time when we were kids." I laugh a little before I add, "But mostly for me."
"That's right," Flinch replies. Now, a woman's voice is joining the instruments on the CD, harmonizing with them in Spanish. "Do you still know what she's saying?"
It's embarrassing, but I barely know any Spanish. Even having a Hispanic boyfriend who's been trying to teach me for as long as I can remember, the language just doesn't stick with me. And I'm pretty sure I've been taught what the words in this particular song mean several times – maybe that's some of the information I've lost in the various hangovers of the past year.
So I simply answer, "I'm sorry, I think I forgot. What do the words mean, again?"
I can tell that Flinch somehow enjoys this. He smiles and begins to translate for me. "Okay, we can do this line by line. That first line says 'Keep walking the path for all of your life –'"
"'Breathe,'" we say together. I guess I was lying earlier. I do remember a little Spanish, like the word respira. Breathe. Flinch always liked to shout it at me whenever I had an asthma attack.
He seems to remember that also. "Well, that's certainly implanted in your memory," he laughs before moving on with the translation.
It would seem weird to most people to be in Flinch's car and while listening to something slow and pretty like this. Most of the music he listens to is loud, fast, and/or slightly obnoxious – kind of like him. But this is a side of him that he rarely ever lets anyone other than me see. To me, it doesn't seem weird. It's more – oh, what would you call it? – nostalgia-inducing. When he first introduced me to this song, I was in middle school. Before we retired from NERDS, before I went to college, before Bradley Kim and the parties. When Flinch and I were together in Arlington and I had nothing to hide from him.
Oh, god. Why did I have to think about Bradley Kim? Just the name makes me feel the tears welling in the back of my throat. Shrug it off, Matilda, I think. Take out that inhaler of yours, calm yourself, and forget about that creep.
I feel like I have to make it up to my boyfriend just for thinking about Bradley. When he finishes his translation, I reach over and place a hand on his shoulder. "Te quiero," I say to him. That's one of the only other Spanish phrases I remember. It's the only one I've really needed to use in my life – it means "I love you."
Flinch smiles. "Te quiero también," he responds.
Well, that didn't work, no matter how sweet he is. The guilt keeps getting heavier and heavier in my chest.
Hmm... Should I tell him? I'll have to tell someone eventually if I want to fix this thing. Why shouldn't it be the man who will still love me unconditionally?
So I'll tell him. I'll tell him right now. "Flinch?" I say nervously, turning slightly in my chair.
I'm having second thoughts. If I do decide to tell Flinch about my drinking, it's going to put a damper on being reunited after spending months on opposite sides of the country. And of course, he'll eventually find out about Bradley Kim, and I have no idea how I'm going to explain myself for that.
Flinch has pulled into his parents' driveway and is sitting expectantly. "Weren't you about to say something?" he asks.
"Oh, yeah," I say quietly. "I'm just glad to be back."
"No me preocupo por ella."
They're not worried about me.
"Mira, ཱallí esta nuestra estrella!"
They are all counting on me to succeed.
"ཱElla si da la talla!"
I am the one who made it out!
The one who always made the grade,
But maybe I should have just stayed home!
"Come on," Flinch says as he hauls his suitcase out of the trunk. "My parents are just dying to see you."
I take out my suitcase and attempt to carry in under my arm in the least awkward way I can. My parents are in the middle of renovating their house, so the Escalas offered for me to stay in their guest room for the summer. Flinch is staying in his old room, just one room over from mine.
"Can we make this quick?" I ask. I'll have plenty of time to talk to his parents over the summer.
"Yeah, of course. I think they have visitors right now, anyway," Flinch answers, pushing open the house's front door.
Before I even go through the door, I can hear the unmistakable squeals of a middle-aged woman greeting her son. Flinch's mother has him in an awkward hug and is planting a kiss on his cheek.
"It's great to see you, Mom," Flinch says sheepishly.
Mrs. Escala eventually turns Flinch over to his father and walks over to me. "Ay, Matilda! How are you, dear? How are you liking college?" she says, placing a hand under my chin.
I answer, "School's fine." A lie. "And I'm doing great," I add. An even bigger lie.
"Good." She gives me a quick hug before walking back to her dining room, where another woman who must be one of the family's visitors is sitting, watching the reunion. "You're a smart girl," she tells me before she sits at the table, motioning to her brain.
Mr. Escala claps a hand on Flinch's shoulder and turns to face me. "Who's this young lady, Julio?" he says jokingly. "I don't think I've seen her before in my life!"
Flinch's expression looks like mine must have when I was having the similar conversation earlier with Lori. "Dad, you know Matilda. My girlfriend?"
His dad recoils in mock disbelief. "No! A girl this pretty chose to be your girlfriend?" he teases. I have to smile at the compliment, but I know he must be lying. I'm sure as hell not coming across as extremely pretty today.
Mr. Escala turns back to me and smiles."Of course I remember Matilda!" he exclaims. "We're all very proud of you," he says to me. Then he jabs a thumb in Flinch's direction and adds, laughing, "And we're pretty proud of him, too. You know, for dating you."
My stomach churns. Don't be proud of me, I think. I'm a terrible person. But if everyone wants to see who I was a year ago instead of who I am now, so be it.
His dad leaves and Flinch rolls his eyes after him sarcastically. "Sorry about that," he says. "My dad is still amazed that I managed to get a girl despite being absolutely nuts. But I did, and now I have you." He rests his right hand in my left one and kisses me.
"Ooh, Julio's in love!" a young girl's voice says. It's Rosie, Flinch's twelve-year-old sister. She's standing in the door leading from the hall to the kitchen with a friend. They're both holding a plastic cup filled with – beer? Oh no, that's my alcoholic mind playing awful tricks on me. It's soda.
Flinch smirks. "Rosie..." he scolds jokingly.
"Sorry! I know that Matilda is awesome," Rosie says. "She's awesome," she tells her friend. "A toast to Matilda!" The two girls touch their cups together and down the rest of their soda. The sight makes me feel sick.
Flinch opens his mouth wide in mock shock. "You girls are twelve! You shouldn't be drinking. Come here!" He runs towards his sister. Rosie shrieks and runs away, laughing.
With the two siblings busy chasing each other through the house, I have nothing to do but put down my suitcase and walk around the entrance hall aimlessly. I probably look so stupid doing it, but I have nothing else to do. Until I hear my name being whispered in the dining room.
I try to make it look like I'm not eavesdropping on Mrs. Escala and her friend the best I can, but knowing that they're talking about me makes me a little more self-conscious, so I stop walking around and lean against a wall. The conversation skips back and forth between English and Spanish, so I don't catch everything. But the things I do hear Mrs. Escala say are all along the lines of "Julio's girlfriend since middle school... an amazing young woman... confident... she runs her life like clockwork..."
I have to bury my face in my hands to keep from crying. Besides the first part, nothing that she's saying is true anymore. Maybe I was an amazing person back when I was surrounded by honest people and a commitment to society that held me down, but that's passed.
And these people aren't even my family. They're my boyfriend's family. If they are this proud of me, can you even imagine how proud my parents will be?
I can't take it anymore. I can't let myself be idolized like this unjustly. I'm going to have to tell someone everything, and that person might as well be Flinch.
When I was a child, I stayed wide awake,
Climbed to the highest place on every fire escape!
Restless to climb,
I got every scholarship, saved every dollar,
The first to go to college! How to I tell them why
I'm coming back home
With my eyes on the horizon?
Just me and the GWB
Asking "Gee, Matilda, what'll you be?"
When Flinch first fell in love with me, we were in elementary school. It was such a long time ago, and I was a different person back then. I'll admit, I was pretty cool in fifth grade – I mean, in a secret agent kind of way. Not in a nerdy kind of way. Well, you know what I mean. Either way, I had some character that I could understand a guy being attracted to.
That didn't change too much until I started college. And since Flinch is so far oblivious to said changes, who knows how he'll react?
But I have to say something. So I once again turn in my seat to face him. "Listen, there's something I really need to tell you."
"What?" Flinch says, keeping his eyes on the road. He's driving me to my parents' house so I can visit with them before dinner.
"Um, over the past year, I've sort of developed a, uh, – an addiction, I guess you could call it," I begin. No turning back now.
"An addiction?" Flinch's road rage lessens as he slows the out-of-control car and turns to me with a confused expression. "What do you mean? Drugs? Cigarettes?" He pauses as his confusion turns to nervousness."Sex?"
Now that would have been bad. The truth is still pretty terrible, though, so I turn away from him. "It's alcohol," I say.
Flinch also turns away from me. "Alcohol," he repeats stoically. "You're only 19. That's illegal, right?"
"A friend made me a fake ID. A bunch of other freshmen have them, too. And most of the parties are run by the over-21s on campus, anyway, so..." I'm getting ahead of myself. I can see Flinch's expression getter darker and I know I'm going scare him off quickly with this information. "I guess I should explain from the beginning," I say quietly.
"That seems best," Flinch responds. Surprisingly, I don't hear anger in his voice, just a hollow solemnity. He's going to wait to hear my explanation before deciding how much he hates me. How respectable.
"Well, at first, I was doing really well at school," I begin. My nerves are upsetting my asthma. I can feel my breath getting heavier as I speak, but for just this one time, I'm not going to interrupt this tense moment just so I can find my inhaler. "I was getting fantastic grades. I joined that sorority I kept talking about, where I had a few good friends, and I would talk to you on the phone all the time."
Now comes the scary part. I'm starting to cough and wheeze, but I still continue. "My friends kind of turned on me one night and pressured me into going to a party with them. I must have had a lapse of judgement that night. Not only did I go to this party, but I also got a little bit drunk."
"After that, people suddenly kept inviting me to more parties. There was always someone who brought beer. There were times when they brought liquor, too. I guess this is when the addiction started." I pause. "It's around the time when I stopped returning your calls regularly." I'm barely able to squeak out that last sentence. It's just too painful.
Flinch just nods without speaking or even changing his expression.
"At some point, it started taking over my life," I continue. "I would go out and buy the stuff for myself with that fake ID I told you about. By the end of the year, I was barely passing most of my classes. I've been dreading having to say something about it to everyone back home." I exhale and finally decide its time to reach for my inhaler. "You're the first person I've told. Will you be able to forgive me?" I plead.
Flinch frowns and begins to stare intently at his steering wheel. "So I have an alcoholic girlfriend who's been hiding an awful, dangerous habit from me and her family and everyone else. And not only is she putting her health in danger, but she's getting drunk every night at a college that's full of guys." He's tightened his grip around the steering wheel and looks like he wishes it were a human so he could throttle it. "Guys who aren't her boyfriend."
I take too deep a breath from my inhaler and nearly choke. I can't believe he would think something like that! Since when is he the jealous type, anyway? "What? No! I haven't done anything like that!" I insist, coughing.
"That's not true! You're hiding something. I can hear it in your voice," he shouts, revealing the anger I knew he must have been concealing earlier.
Then, there's a moment of silence. That's all it takes for me to realize that he has every right to think I might have cheated on him. And I haven't been completely innocent in that respect. So I do what I promised myself I wouldn't and confess.
"Oh, all right, maybe I am hiding something," I say. "But it's not as bad as you think. There was this guy named Bradley Kim who I kept running into in the beginning of the year. He thought all the chance encounters mixed with the fact that we were both Korean was destiny trying to tell us something. I just thought he was disgusting. But later on, whenever he was at one of the parties I was at, he would take advantage of me being drunk and kiss me. I was never so out of it that I let him do anything else, but I'll admit to letting him kiss me."
Flinch sighs. "So what you're telling me is that you never slept with this Bradley Kim person, but you did let him kiss you on multiple occasions?" He turns to me for an answer and I nod sheepishly. Then he turns back to the road and says, "I hope you see how that's almost worse."
He doesn't say a word to me for the rest of the time that he's driving. At one point, he reaches into the glove compartment to get one of his chocolate bars, which he then proceeds to scarf down. The car suddenly lurches forward way past the speed limit. I can just tell that Flinch is willing himself to lose control, crash the car, and kill us both.
Straighten the spine. Smile for the neighbors.
Everything's fine. Everything's cool.
The standard reply: "Lots of tests, lots of papers!"
Smile, wave goodbye, and pray to the sky:
And what will my parents say?
Can I go in there and say,
"I know that I'm letting you down?"
I would have expected Flinch to have just driven away without a word after he dropped me off at my parents' house. I would have expected him to slam the passenger seat's door behind me and splash mud on my clothes as he drove off. But he doesn't.
As I'm standing on the sidewalk outside the house, trying to come to terms with having to tell the whole story to my parents, Flinch puts the car in park. Then he throws the door open and runs to me. I turn around just in time for him to place his hands on either side of my head and pull my lips up to his.
There's only one word in the English language that comes even close to describing this kiss: intense. It's such a simple action – no tongue, just two pairs of lips touching – but there are so many conflicting emotions within it. This kiss is obviously forgiving, but there's also a fierceness to it, like Flinch is trying to claim me as his own. The fact that his lips taste like chocolate doesn't help the emotions make any more sense.
Eventually, he pulls away from me and moves his hands from my face to my shoulders. Without even noticing it, I instinctively grab hold of his arms at the crooks of his elbows and try to resist the sobs forming in the back of my throat. He takes a deep breath and whispers, "I love you so much. I don't think I could ever really be mad at you. But learning that you had started drinking terrified me. I feel like there are so many ways it could make me somehow lose you."
I can do this. I'm a tough person. I spent twelve years learning how not to fold under interrogation. I can keep myself from crying. No sweat.
Flinch isn't making this any easier when he continues talking, however. "A lot of the things you just told me were really lousy things to do. Just realize that, okay?"
"I do realize," I say shakily, "and I feel awf – " Do you know why I can't finish that sentence? Because those darn tears I was holding back have decided to pour down. I'm sobbing pretty uncontrollably, and it's really upsetting my asthma.
Cough. Hack. And this is the other reason I don't like to cry.
Flinch places a hand under my chin and lifts my head up. "No, Matilda, it's okay! Don't cry," he says. "Respira."
He waits for me to calm my breathing before continuing. "It's good that you told me all this! Now that I know, we can fix this together." He pauses. "Go tell your parents. Know that no matter how they react, you still have someone to help you."
I throw my arms around him and we embrace for what seems like forever. Then he kisses me one last time, gets back into his car, and drives off.
When Flinch vanishes from sight, I turn to face the house. I'm still shaking from the (ahem) intensity of the previous scene and the fear of having to face my family, but I walk up to the door and knock anyway.
My dad appears in the doorway. His face sports smudges of white paint and a wide grin upon seeing me. "Matilda! You're back!" he exclaims, bringing me into a big hug.
"Hi, Dad," I say. "Where's Mom? There's something I kind of need to tell both of you."
A/N: I really hoped you liked this. I worked hard on it. Oh, and I promise that I'll be updating It's a Mad, Mad Middle School a lot more regularly after this.