My friend has a list he keeps hidden of stupid things he's said on dates. He's familiar looking, better-looking than average. Three creases form by his eyes when he smiles. He never gets nicked by his razor and can iron pleats into the shoulders of his shirts. About town, he's usually found in smart-looking suits, carrying a black briefcase with black stitching, silver clasps that spring at a touch. My friend, he knows how to match.

He subscribes to magazines offering tips on grooming and the proper way to shake a martini. His soap and shave cream come from a glass case at Macy's. The sheets on his bed have more threads than he knows what to do with. These things help, he tells me, but none of them are helping. Women tell my friend he looks like their older brother's best friend, whose initials they encircled with a heart on notebook covers. When this kid with a crooked grin stayed over night, these girls who still hadn't a found spot of blood in their underwear couldn't sleep all night. This friend goes on a lot of first dates but never seconds.

The list is becoming extensive, inked in lead. It rests in his briefcase like one of his expense reports. Something too horrible to be written off or compounded into a pie chart. His mistakes teach me nothing of my own. Still, I try to help. He asks me if I could meet him downtown, observe his

This other friend of mine, her pregnant belly grows each day, the little boy inside testing the resiliency of her skin. The father left town the first chance he got, left a note with a few lies and a fake address. She gets cravings past midnight. She's eight months. This friend, she's inexplicably calm for a woman in her situation. She calls her ex-boyfriend "the donor." I wake up in the middle of a phone call I don't remember answering. During these phone calls, where I agree with what she says and say everything she can't, she asks me for a favor, to pick her up, to take her shopping. I don't mind; I can always use more cereal.

I push the cart and let her stray beside me gazing at the glistening packages of cookies. She pokes the chocolate chips to hear what sound the plastic makes. She's in sweats and thonged sandals, black hair twisted into a ponytail. The bags under her eyes are no mistake. Her toenails are painted the color of maraschino cherries.

"My mom was afraid to go shopping," she says. "Social anxiety disorder. Even when I was young enough to sit in the cart, I remember thinking she looked nervous, pawing at the bunches of bananas. In her panic, she always bought nearly half the store. The wrong half. Decaf coffee, whole milk, unsalted butter, spinach. Drove my father crazy. A four-hundred dollar grocery bill and he couldn't even have a real cup of coffee before work."

By the time she was fifteen, my friend was pushing the cart by herself, a signed blank check in her pocket, mother waiting in the car. Without her mother's frenzy, she found shopping to be calming. She compared prices and sodium content, avoided saturated fat and cottonseed oil. Frozen vegetables retain more vitamins than canned. Dental floss. Anti-bacterial soap. Two-ply toilet paper. Shampoo and conditioner in one. She preferred generic macaroni-and-cheese over name brand. Satisfaction came at the register and at the dinner table. Her father had no idea she was doing the shopping on her own, instead thinking his wife's behavior had evened itself out.

Friday evening. My friend and I are standing outside the restaurant where he's to meet his date. He sets his briefcase down to smooth his silk tie, check his shirt sleeves. People muscle in and out the front door. Men with biceps and stiff collars. Women who don't cut me half a glance. My friend tells me he met this girl, a firm blonde in a sports bra, shorts, and
running shoes, while eating sushi in the park. She jogged up to him, moving in place and asked the time. She ran off only to return, feeling rude, to introduce herself. Then returned again, as he was standing, to ask him out. All my friend had to do was answer questions. He doesn't tell me anything else: a blonde who jogs on her lunch hour. My friend checks his watch.

"Are you nervous?" I ask.

"No, I'm not nervous. Maybe part of the problem is I'm not nervous," he exhales. "Do you think I should have bought flowers?"

"Nobody wants to date a single mother." she opens a jar of pickles right off the shelf. "There's a negative stigma attached. I'm dented." She plucks out a spear and crunches it. I mess up my face.

"People don't like evidence of sex, even people in their mid-twenties. People like to think that they're dating undiscovered territory, that they've found the one person who hasn't been fucked and left behind."

"You can always say that you adopted."

"That might make me seem needy." She finishes the pickle, licks her fingers and seals the jar.

They sit at a small table across from each other, a platter of fried finger foods between them. My stool at the bar is so close, I could reach over and steal a potato skin. They sip on martinis, her's neon blue. She bites the flesh from an orange slice skewered on a plastic saber. The blonde's mouth doesn't stop moving, chewing, talking. My friend's being a good listener, nodding his head, keeping his eyes on her face only once dropping an eye into her cleavage.

After her second martini she becomes more animated, punctuating with finger pokes or an off-kilter head shake. She talks while raising her empty glass to no waiter in particular. My friend finishes his martini, traces the rim with his finger, opens his mouth. I'm close but, it's Friday night, and I can only make out sounds of what my friends says, follow his lips. A word that sounds like "feet." His lips pucker, then part with a grinning hiss. The girl, sober, sips the top off her fresh martini and looks up at the emergency sprinkler. The quiet hanging over their table is a parasite that invades the surrounding tables until no one in the bar can remember what they were saying. The girl excuses herself without a word, disappears
stiff-armed toward the bathroom. I take her seat, lean across the table.

"What did you say?"

He is already unlocking his briefcase, hanging his head, clicking open his sixty-dollar pen, and writing in precise penmanship his latest mistake.

We are looking at our reflections in the freezer case. My friend strokes her belly like a lap cat then turns profile. She slides her sweatshirt up over her stomach. It's one of the biggest pregnant-woman-bellies I've ever seen.

"My skin's never going to be the same will look the same, but when someone touches me, it will feel like pizza dough."

We are standing in front of the frozen pizzas. Her sides turn gooseflesh. She pulls the sweatshirt back down. I push the cart and she penguins along side of me, eyeing all of the novelties she would never eat.

"I need cereal," I say.

"I wonder where I'll be when my water breaks?"

Last time we went shopping, she pretended that she was having contractions just to scare me.

He buys me a street-cart hot dog and coffee for my troubles. The sun hasn't even gone down. We walk toward the park, letting the people's shoulders brush against us. I don't remind him how boring his date was. I let him eat his hot dog in silence, spilling chopped onion, getting mustard on his black wingtips.

We sit on a bench, he holds up the rest of his hot dog, "You want this?" I shake my head. He tosses it at a spotted pigeon, which shakes its wings, then hobbles toward the food. My friend wipes his hand on a napkin, drops it.

"I lost my virginity sitting down," he says.

I'm his saint of unrealized sins. He confesses to me because I can do him no harm. More pigeons descend on the hot dog; one tries to take off with the bun, but it falls a few feet away. My voice gets lost under their frantic cooing. I leave teeth mark on the rim of my cup.

She handles the condensed soup cans like crystal ornaments, settling each one into the cart. 1/3 less sodium minestrone. The cart is filled. My friend puts both hands on the small of her back and says, "I think that's enough."

I know what she will do next. She slides in close to me as we near the register, hooks my elbow, strokes my arm beneath the sleeve. I start putting the items on the belt while she talks with the checkout girl. I try not to listen, try to focus on the food. Romaine lettuce. Natural peanut butter. Unsalted almonds. Club soda. Seven-grain crackers with flax seed.

Canned tuna packed in water. Twelve-grain bread, dense enough to stop a bullet. The young girl will say, "The two of you must be so excited." And though she isn't directing that remark toward me, I look up with a pint of sorbet in my hand and say, "Yes."

About the author:

Justin D. Brusino is a graduate of Penn State Erie and Fiction Editor of "Lake Effect." He is currently applying to MFA programs and resides in Washington D.C.