Blog Fiction: Twenty One

I got the idea for this short story from Shaelin Bishop (aka Shaelin Writes on YouTube) as part of a writing exercise for character development. In one of her writing exercises (downloadable here), she suggested developing characters by putting them through certain situations--say, a breakup--to see how they would fare in the midst of conflict. The character that I chose for this exercise is the main character for the novel that I'm planning to write later in the year, so I thought it would be a good way to get into her head while I'm preparing myself to write the rest of the story.

I plan on posting fiction on this blog from time to time, so let me know if you would like to read more from me! Until then, I hope you enjoy Vanessa's story.  

---

Vanessa should’ve been dancing all night on her 21st birthday, but she’d spent half the time at the club staring at her phone.

She knew that Steven would be busy at the station, but she’d been hoping he’d at least shoot her a text to greet her. There was no way he could’ve missed this day, especially considering what a milestone it was to be finally able to sit at the bar and order a drink. He knew this, and he’d promised her that they were going to split a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Preferably under the moonlight at the beach in Diamond Head, where he’d promised that he’d take her when his schedule wasn’t too busy.

So why wasn’t he texting her?

Her thoughts were interrupted by a hard yank on her arm.

“Come on, Nessa.” Amanda pulled hard, and her nails dug into the flesh of her bicep. “You can’t keep on staring at that phone forever.”

Vanessa almost shot back with a curt not interested, but she bit her tongue as soon as Amanda lured her in the direction of the table of off-duty military men. Poor Amanda, always trying to play matchmaker for her when her heart belonged only to one man.

“Guys.” Amanda presented her roommate to the table. “This is Vanessa. Why don’t you say hi?”

Vanessa waved at the table. She had to keep a straight face, even as her round legs trembled from the cold air in the club. 

“It’s her birthday today. She just turned twenty-one.”

One of the guys gave her a blinding smile, with perfect white teeth that shone in the dim light. “Happy birthday, Vanessa. We should get you a drink.”

“No, no.” She pressed her lips together, massaged her neck under her pin-straight ponytail. “I’m good, thanks.”

Amanda laughed, throwing her head back so her butterscotch locks danced over her bare shoulders. “She’s just shy, you guys. Isn’t that right?”

Why did Amanda have to do this? Vanessa missed the days when her “no” meant no—as in not interested, no thank you, not for me. Ever since she started living with Amanda, however, she felt bad about turning down a drink or an invitation to a party. There was always a party somewhere, which explained how she ended up in a leg-baring, cleavage-enhancing bandage dress on a weekday night at a club in Waikiki.

Steven wouldn’t do that to her. He would've respected her two-drink minimum. He would’ve fought for her right to celebrate her birthday however she wanted to, without having to flirt with guys she didn’t like.

Except Steven wasn’t here, and Vanessa was a lot more hollow for that.

She could wait for him, but it would’ve been a waste of a nice dress—not to mention two hours’ worth of hair and makeup—to spend the rest of the night staring at her phone. So Vanessa pulled herself together, pasted on a smile, and proceeded to engage herself in conversation with the men who toasted her with bottles of beer.

----

Vanessa met Steven last semester at the TV station, where she was hired as a producer and he worked as a weekend sports anchor. He had the looks down—tall, broad-shouldered, with wavy hair and sculpted muscles that filled in his on-camera suits like they were custom-made for him—but he also had a bit of the Aloha Spirit in him, a laid-back charm that transported to smiles as sweet as the Hawaiian music he loved to play in his car whenever he brought her home. The more she got to know him, the more he put her at ease in his presence, and it wasn’t too long until she fell for him.

Of course she knew that his smiles weren’t for her alone. His fiancée was a former Miss Chinatown, and there wasn’t a public appearance where they weren’t holding hands. But in the in the cramped space of his car, and the hidden nooks and crannies of the newsroom, Steven possessed Vanessa with an intensity that burned into her heart. In his eyes and under his hands, she was beautiful.

She hadn't felt that way with another man, not when she lost her virginity as a college freshman, not when she started dating and hooking up with guys in earnest. Before him, intimacy was a wily bird that eluded her grasp--but he'd touched her heart just as he'd touched her body, and she wanted more of that closeness whenever they were together.

He’d told her that he loved her, that she understood him like no one had understood him before. But he never mentioned anything about leaving Leilani, not with their wedding coming up and their images at stake. So Vanessa merely contented herself with whatever Steven could give to her, even as she longed for him to claim her as his once and for all.

----

She woke up with a throbbing headache the next morning, but that didn’t stop her from checking her phone. Sure enough, there was a message from Steven, and it had been a short one: Happy birthday Vanessa. Sorry I can’t be there with you. Hope to see you later at work.

The time stamp on the message was around 6:30 in the morning. She and Amanda didn’t get back from the club until three.

Vanessa marched out to the kitchen, where Amanda had left her with the “hangover special”: orange juice, scrambled eggs, and toast burned black at the edges. Protein for fortification, and burnt carbs to absorb the leftover booze.

 Her phone rang in the middle of breakfast. It was her mother.

 “Anak, did you get my text?”

Of course she did. Her mother had left a series of long ones, not just to greet her, but to remind her to come home to Pearl City for a barbecue that they’d put together for her over the weekend. Vanessa wasn’t even sure if she wanted to come home to Pearl City, not while she was working on Steven’s shift.

“Vanessa?”

“I got them, thanks.” She took a drink of orange juice. “Sorry, Ma. Was at school all day yesterday.”

“You’ve been kind of distant lately. Is there anything wrong?”

Everything was wrong. Her hours were taken over by school and Steven, and she wasn’t ready to tell her family about the latter. They’d probably ask her to stop working at the station, which she wasn’t ready to do.

“Anyway. Your Tito Boy has arranged for us to have lechon for the party. And Anton told me that he was going to buy beer, but I’m worried that he'll just get you drunk.”

Vanessa laughed. Typical Anton, trying to get his sister into trouble. “Don’t worry, Ma. I’ll be good. Besides, I probably won’t stay out too long.”

Hay naku, anak. You have to stop being too busy for your own family. That TV station of yours will keep on running without you.”

“I know, but—"

“Besides, I’m afraid that it’s taking you away from your studies, and you barely have time to go to church anymore. Why can’t they put you on a regular schedule?”

“It doesn’t work that way, Ma. I have to be prepared for everything.” That was partly true. The station bled producers every year because of the irregular hours. But that wasn’t why Vanessa didn’t want to let go of her job.

Her mother clucked her tongue on the other line. “I’m just a little worried for you. I know that journalism means a whole lot to you, but I wish you’d think of yourself and your family once in a while.”

But she was thinking of herself. She did consider her own happiness, and the joy she found in Steven’s arms. Which made her sad, because she would've given anything to open up to her mother about him. In another time and place, she would've taken him back to Pearl City and introduced him to her family. They would’ve loved him, and maybe her mother will finally get to plan that en grande church wedding for them.

Steven would’ve been a perfect husband. If only he’d wake up and see it her way…

Wait a minute. Why was she sad about this? Her mother was right. Her happiness was important.

“Anyway. Are you going to visit us this weekend, or not?”

Vanessa sighed. She couldn't escape the scrutiny. "I will, Mama. Don't worry about it."

---

By the time the afternoon rolled around, Vanessa had already missed class for the day, which meant that she didn’t have to be in school. That made her even more giddy to come to work.

Didn’t Steven say that he was going to be at the station? That meant Vanessa could put on her best lingerie under the blouse and skirt that she’d planned to wear to the newsroom. She wanted to surprise him, for a change. Maybe she could make him regret forgetting her birthday.

Besides, it was bright and sunny outside, and she could take the bus without having to worry about the Honolulu weather.

When she was done with her makeup, she put up her hair in a bun and sprayed Light Blue on her wrists. She breathed out affirmations to herself in front of the mirror. I, Vanessa Chanco, will take charge of my life from now on. I will no longer wait for love to happen to me. I deserve all the happiness in the world, and I will never settle for anything less than the best.

She didn’t care about the raging headache or the grumbling in her stomach from skipping lunch. She was done with not having control over her future.

Even on the bus ride to the station, Vanessa kept repeating the affirmations in her head. She deserved happiness. She deserved love. She deserved commitment, and stability, and a willingness to live out loud instead of lurking in the shadows of shame.

I deserve this.

And when she got off the bus stop and strode her way toward the doors of the station, she was confident that she was going to get what she deserved once and for all.

----

She’d only made a few feet from the station when she finally caught sight of Steven.

Leilani was with him, and they held hands in front of the general manager. She was stunning as always--long black hair, glossy lips, a slender build--and her knifepoint heels brought her up to Steven's shoulders. And he turned to his future wife with the most beautiful smile on his face before sliding his hand to the small of her back.

Vanessa froze. That public show of affection was so intimate that it left no doubt in people’s eyes that they were still together, that he possessed his fiancée in a way that no one else could. As he leaned into her—as he laughed and put on his best face in front of the boss—Vanessa lost all of the composure that she’d built up on the way.

And it all played out under the light of day. So much for sunshine and blue skies.

At one point he turned around, and their eyes met across the parking lot. For a moment she thought that he’d lose his cool, that he’d let go of Leilani’s hand and come running after her. Then he rubbed his hand on his fiancee's back, and went back to the conversation like Vanessa never existed.

----

Vanessa took the bus back to Ala Moana Center, where she spent the rest of the day browsing books at Barnes and Noble. She avoided the romance and self-help sections, choosing instead to check out the most dramatic covers from the most overwrought young-adult fantasy sagas on the shelves. When that got old, she went to the store’s coffee shop and ordered a venti caramel macchiato with a sandwich.

When the sandwich didn’t satisfy her, she went to the Jollibee at the food court and ordered a two-piece Chickenjoy meal with a large drink. There was nothing that warmed her heart quite like Filipino fried chicken, especially when it came with the crispy skin that she loved. With the fizz of the soda and the leftover buzz from the coffee, her soul was close to satisfied.

Not once did she look at her phone. She’d turned it off anyway.

She wandered through the mall for another hour, checking out the high-end boutiques as she strolled through the open-air corridors. She stayed there until the sunlight faded into a muted gold, which she took as a sign to take the bus home.

And as soon as she got home, she sat down at her desk, opened up her laptop, and began to type her resignation letter from the station.

----

At around half past eleven, Vanessa emerged from her room for a drink of water. She’d spent hours writing that letter, phrasing it carefully so that her reasons for leaving had nothing to do with an affair that she’d had with an anchorman. She thought about emailing it to the general manager, but in the end decided to print it out and hand it in person first thing in the morning.

Amanda was marathoning old episodes of Pretty Little Liars from the couch. “You’re home.”

“I quit my job.” Those words came out of her mouth without hesitation. Her voice was low, her tone clipped.

“Shit." Amanda's blue eyes went wide. "Wanna talk about it?”

“No.”

“I have some wine in the fridge.”

Vanessa held up her hand. She’d had enough alcohol to kill a bear on her birthday. “No thanks.”

“Suit yourself.”

She poured out a glass of water and downed it in one gulp.

----

At around midnight, Vanessa got a call from her brother.

“You called?” Anton sounded gruff on the other line.

“I texted you, Kuya.” Vanessa rubbed her eyes. “Wanted to see how you were doing.”

He snorted. “Bullshit. You rarely text me.”

“I don’t want to fight, okay? It’s been a long day.” There was a tightness in her throat and chest, as if to stifle a sob. “I wanted to tell you that I’m coming home on Friday.”

“About time. Are you in trouble?”

“I quit my job.”

 Anton sighed, and Vanessa could hear his disappointment from the other end of the line. “Do I want to know why?”

“Just don’t tell Mama, okay? I’ll call her after I settle the terms of my resignation.”

“You only worked part-time. You don't even have a salary.”

She rubbed her temples. Maybe she should’ve had that glass of wine. “Basta. I quit. I’ll spend the rest of the sem catching up on schoolwork.”

“That’ll make Mama happy. She’s worried about that.”

“I know, Kuya.” Vanessa ran the scenarios in her head. Her family would be happy that she got her Sundays back. Maybe she’ll get her grades back up again. Maybe she’ll graduate on time. So many things to ponder. “Anyway. I’m coming home on Friday.”

“Do you want me to pick you up?”

“Meet me at Pearlridge. I’m taking the bus.” She swallowed. “And I’m staying the whole weekend.”

There was silence on the end of the line, and for a moment Vanessa could imagine her brother’s disbelief: the shaking of his head, the pursing of his lips. Then he sighed again. “Okay. Is there anything else that you want to tell me?”

“You told Mom you were buying beer.”

“Fuck, sis. You need an open bar. I’ll have Kalani make you your favorite drink. You know he’s a bartender, right?”

Vanessa laughed. She loved it when her brother got excited for her. "I love you, Kuya."

"Love you too, brat."

The shittiness of the last twenty-four hours had faded away. She’d probably cry later, after she got off the phone with Anton and had some time to process what Steven had done to her. But for now, Vanessa's confidence was back, and her future was within her grasp once again.

----

Copyright 2017 by Stella Marie Torres.

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