She kept walking, not bothering to look back. Traffic tended to be heavy this time of day. Cam would idle through more than one red light. His impatience at having to wait tilted her lips up.
No time like the present to work out issues. If her day went on in the same fashion, Cam would be waiting at her dorm. With that in mind, she veered to her right into a strip mall. The clear glass windows of a laundromat served as her closest sanctuary. Inside the humid building, she collapsed into a hard plastic chair before calling Leah. Her friend could give her advice about the situation. The phone had ringed three times before she received a message about the number being out of order. Strange. Her finger had hesitated over the three before she tapped it again. Leah was three on her speed dial. She used to be two, but she moved her down when she typed in Cam’s number. Should have kept her at two.
Same message. Weird, it made no sense. She had the number for three years. Could be there was a phone foul up and would be working in a couple of hours. Mitch would be her next resort. His number was already ringing before she could think of an excuse. She couldn’t just ask him if he ever had a DUI. It would sound like she trusted Cam more than she did him.
“Hello, Stella. Glad you called.”
Relief and enthusiasm colored his voice at the same time, making her feel even more the Judas. “Yeah, um, I was wondering if we could talk.”
His up tone flat-lined. “Oh, never a good sign. Where you at?”
Stella glanced at the window, reading the backward lettering. “Henrietta’s Wash Tub. It’s in the strip mall close to Bacon Street. Do you know where it is?”
“Yeah, I’ve done my laundry there before. I can be there in ten minutes. Ok?”
“No problem. You don’t have to rush.” She had no clue what he might be doing. He could be hanging with friends, but more likely studying. Even still, the man would willingly charge to her side, no questions asked. Guilt settled on her along with the damp, fabric-sheet scented air. A girl wearing a college T-shirt folded her laundry out of the dryer. Two small children raced around the row of washers, shrieking despite their mother’s entreaties to “settle down.” When Mitch came, they’d talk outside without the rumble of dryers or unintended eavesdroppers.
How did one approach this type of thing? Was a DUI considered a criminal record? She didn’t know. Specific language in her scholarship forbade any drug or alcohol abuse along with directives that if she did, her scholarship would be null and void.
Mitch came through the door, windblown and breathless as if he’d ran the entire way. His dark-rimmed glasses were missing, which gave him a more casual, appealing look. The co-ed folding laundry stopped long enough to smile at him. He didn’t even glance at her; headed in Stella’s direction.
“Your glasses?” She gestured to the bridge of her nose.
He pulled them out of his pocket and placed them on. “I didn’t want them to fall off while I ran. “
“Don’t you need them to see where you are going?” She tried to imagine Mitch running blindly down the surrounding streets.
“No, just close-up really. That’s why I wear them when I’m in the computer lab.”
Another thing, she didn’t know about him. Computer lab and class were the only places she saw him. “Let’s walk.” She headed in the direction of the doors, glancing over her shoulder to make sure he followed.
Mitch caught up in two long-legged strides and cupped her elbow. “Sure you want to walk in those shoes?” He angled his head at her feet.
“I’m good. As long as you don’t walk too fast.” The straps are her shoes rubbed against her ankle during her small toe, kept slipping through the toe straps. It stood out like some mutant growth. “I think I’ll take them off. It’s still warm enough.”
Mitch wrapped an arm around her waist as she balanced on one foot and removed her shoes. Once her shoes were off, he dropped his arm, leaving her feeling a bit bereft, but she couldn’t ask him to put his arm back, especially when she had to ask personal questions.
“You look very nice for hanging out in a Laundromat.”
“Yeah, about that. I got all dressed up because I thought Cam was taking me out on an actual date. Turns out, he was just mad because some of the students were teasing him about seeing you and me together. He drove me way out in the country to a nasty diner that should be in a horror movie.”
A low growl came from Mitch, but it didn’t alarm her. She knew how he felt about Cam. She’d never given his opinion the weight it deserved.
“You know why he drove you to the country, don’t you?”
“Because he’s a jerk.” The memory of her momentary panic at possible abandonment returned.
A long satisfied chuckle answered her response. Happiness flashed in his eyes, crinkling them up at the side. “Umm. “ He cleared his throat. “You’re right. He’s a jerk in several ways. He chose the out of way place to minimize anyone thinking you’re dating.”
She suspected as much, especially after Doreen’s comment. There was nothing likable about the place to make someone return. The fact Doreen knew him, meant it was his usual take the naïve chick out on a date place. He probably used the same spiel about getting back to the date’s small town roots. It might have worked a time or two when the girl was from a small town. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Mitch stopped walking. Stella halted too. He held his hands over his heart while his mouth dropped open. His clownish behavior lightened her mood.
“Stop overacting. You were right all along. Are you happy now?”
Mitch smiled, reached for her hand. “I guess it would be wrong of me to admit that I’m very pleased. Rather petty, small-minded, and all that, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to see you unhappy.”
“Yeah.” Her massive sign served as an exclamation point.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I knew you cared about him, but you’re better off without him.”
His fingers still held onto hers, feeling like a lifeline in a way, but he’d distance himself as soon as she dropped the bomb. Might as well do it now and quit prolonging the false intimacy. “Cam had a lot to say about you. “
“The man seems to be obsessed with me. I am no competition for him.” Mitch shook his head looking like he couldn’t comprehend his rival’s actions.
Be brave, spit it out, it will only hurt once, similar to ripping a Band-Aid off. “Cam seems to think you got a DUI in Michigan over the summer.”
He dropped her hand just as she suspected he would. His eyes narrowed the same time his hands balled into fists at his side. “Damn it. I thought I got past that. “