The first week of January is miserable nationwide, I noted as I shivered in my suede boots, staring at a set of Greek letters and awaiting movement. I thought maybe winter in New Orleans would be gentler – it’s not. “I think the humidity makes it worse,” I’d say to the girl who brought me into the warm house, although I wasn’t sure if it was true. The houses were over-heated and over-crowded with legs in skinny jeans and high heels. All of us freshmen girls forgot that anything but these hot, scary moments existed, played them in our heads until we fell asleep and again when we woke up. The rest of the campus filled in with all the other students the next week, but some of the girls couldn’t seem to remember anything but themselves and the girls they now looked like too. Everyone in the sorority house was buzzing – not just in the house: around rented-out bars, across sticky fraternity floors, between classes. A month filled quickly with the blaring hum of shallow conversations. I kept trying but couldn’t buzz the same.
With my last trying breath, I spoke to two women with the same shirt as me, the same letters stamped across their chests. All of a sudden, everyone around me wore labels, but I wasn’t sure what they meant, if they meant anything. They stopped to evaluate me and, for a second, the tall dormitory I’d called home for four months felt like a sweltering house during rush week. I was shivering and sweating at the same time.
The two girls called me as their best friend after only a few days, introducing me to others like them. Some wore the same letters and some wore none, but they all wore either black or red nail polish: our own stamp of approval. In a second, we were buzzing too. We buzzed around metal tables outside the campus bar on Wednesday evenings, splitting cigarettes and secrets. We begged for extra toppings in our dirty Shirleys and fed each other the fruit, heads cocked back, jaws wide open. That whole spring tasted like too many maraschino cherries, sweet and easy with no substance.
The static sat in a box all summer and, when it opened in August of our sophomore years, it filled every room we walked in. One of the girls brought Natalie to our metal-grated table on a Wednesday night in September, drenched in thick air and sour mix. I felt the sorority house again, shivering and sweating at the same time. She was mysteriously letter-less – I couldn’t place her. Her petite figure seemed to hold so much, but her contents only spilled out in drops of water like a leaky faucet. I got unsatisfying morsels of her at a time. The adrenaline that sewed my mouth shut let itself unravel after a few more triple-shot drinks, and I asked about the tattoo peeking out of the hem of her mini-skirt. I revealed my fresh ink (the first tattoo I ever got), pulling up the side of my shirt to show the little sun on my rib cage, like a third grader during show-and-tell.
We got closer just like that: an ember of information given by one, a dissection of the coal performed by the other, and our mouths both curving at the edges, sometimes splitting open completely. I picked her apart, made fun of her for listening to hard rap on the way to her early morning classes and for how often I caught her looking at me. She picked softer sound clips to taste from my playlists, moved them to hers, and began to blush whenever we locked eyes. Once, we shared a bathroom stall and I told her I thought her body was beautiful and it felt like throwing up, letting too much out at once, and staring at the puddle of it on the linoleum floor. The next Wednesday she looked at me the same and I forgot all about it. That bathroom stall was the first place we were alone.
The inside of the parlor was dark and empty. It smelled like cleaning products that had been trapped between floor tiles. An artist with nickel-sized holes in his ears and black crows inked up and down his biceps approached us and I recognized him as the same aloof, slightly predatory man who did my first tattoo. For that one, I was all vulnerable, sprawled out across the table so that my ribcage could lay flat. I held my breath in three-minute increments as the needle drew straight lines in a ring, eventually forming a sun. The star was put there to remind me of early mornings and my mother calling me her “sunshine girl,” the first week I moved to New Orleans and the brass band teaching me the words to “You are My Sunshine,” and how it always rises, even if I’m nervous it won’t.
She got a snake and told me her grandmother would call it a nasty, demonic animal. I asked if her family was Christian, and she said, “Catholic.” The snake didn’t mean anything either, but she said she was planning on getting a cherub next and that meant something.
“You don’t need to hold my hand, just talk to me. I’ll keep looking at you and that will distract me.”
“What does the cherub mean? Or what will it mean?”
“In Greek Mythology, a cherub was one of the first beings created. It symbolizes love as the force of the universe. I think that makes sense and so that’s what God is, to me.”
“I really like that idea.” I felt like the stabbing across her bone was making more of her spill out than unusual. I wondered if I was taking advantage of the situation.
“Yeah, I think we’re pretty similar about stuff like that.”
“Like what?” I didn’t know what a soulmate was, but the word crossed my mind because I thought my soulmate would be pretty similar to me too.
As the days got shorter, so did our stamina. We started to leave the bars earlier – not all of us, just Natalie and I. We picked out juicy, acidic, pink apple beers from the freezer case, and she always picked the movie. She wanted to show me everything she’d seen and I thought that would be nice. My apartment didn’t have a TV, so we sat huddled around my laptop, placed on the coffee table but never between us on the couch. Jennifer’s Body was beautiful and stupid. The curve in her calf brushed mine as Megan Fox held a lighter up to her tongue. I thought of what it would be like to kiss Natalie’s full lips: would there be sparks? Fire?
When we walked home that night, we held hands and used the empty ones to push open the gates of my apartment complex. I imagined that we lived in a simulation that was completely coded by the most superlative computer scientist she could imagine. Parts of my complex, I thought, looked copied and pasted: the slightly mismatched walkways, the jagged edges barely fitting into each other like broken puzzle pieces, the unsettlingly mirrored bedroom windows. I imagined the scientist had a wife and kids and had spent too many late nights in the lab. I forgave him. I liked to think that someone was watching an aerial view of us. They could see the outline of my head on her shoulder, her hand on my thigh: an omniscient audience of our own to which I didn’t have to explain anything.
The pink apple beer’s acid lined the inside of my stomach and I thought I hadn’t drunk enough yet to fill the crane in her neck with the top of my head. I drank more than my portion of the pack of glass bottles – four out of six. We watched Jane Doe get peeled open and rummaged through, watched her turn from a body into a character. Natalie filled my fried insides with pink-apple-beer infused stories.
I noted that she also looked beautiful inside out.
They played my favorite song in the fraternity that night and the group buzzed hard. Natalie’s stone face silently screamed, green and gray like she was going to throw up or cry or purge somehow. No one asked why when I grabbed her hand and carried it all the way home. They were used to us leaving early. That night I wanted to show her everything I’d ever seen, so I picked the movie James Franco wrote about my hometown, about a girl, about getting drunk in a parking lot. The boys on-screen split a joint and discussed time travel and feudalism.
“If you were king, I’d fucking kill myself,” one looked out the window.
“Then, you better die, motherfucker,” the other exhaled and ran his tires into the end of his parking space and over the wheel stop; he said that it felt “so fucking good.” She waited until the second scene to start crying.
“Do you ever think about how you’re going to die?” She pressed the space bar to stop their dialogue and start ours. We had spent more hours than I could remember sitting parallel on that couch, but we rarely faced each other for more than a few seconds. I watched her look at me and wished I had picked a different movie and a different color of lipstick.
“It’s just places like that – the frat house… I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even exist.” Her shoulders stuck up above her spine to form a canyon and I started to trace the closest overhang with the back side of my thumb. I searched for something good to say, but my head was empty. Not empty. Full, but of words that I couldn’t draw constellations between in order to produce an actual sentence. I just pushed my knuckle in a little deeper. She continued.
“I don’t talk to anyone about this. I’m surprised I’m telling you.”
Finally, I had something to say. “You can always talk to me…about anything.”
“That’s the other thing,” she said quickly and then waited. Her head fell into her hands, so I could only barely hear her muffled voice explaining, “I haven’t even told my parents I’m gay. I keep thinking I’m going to and then don’t. Wherever I am, I’m ugly stuck.”
I thought about those last few sentences for a while. I’d pick them up like an old crossword I couldn’t solve and put them back down, but I never forgot they were there. Between “You can always talk to me… about anything” and “I haven’t even told my parents I’m gay,” there was something I missed: a transition, a bridge, a constellation or a worm hole. I wished I could climb into her head and pull it out, put it in the puzzle and make it fit just right.
Sometimes looking at her was like gazing into the sun. My eyes couldn’t adjust fast enough or enough at all. They ached with the desire to take her all in and it hurt so badly, it was easier to stay in the dark. I didn’t notice when we passed out in each other’s arms with my bedroom light still warmly glowing. I woke up hazy at three in the morning, shook her arm, said, “You fell asleep,” turned off the lights as she let the front door slam.
I couldn’t hold the humming, the static, in the pit of my stomach all summer. Our playlists had grown into fraternal twins, so I made an excuse out of their similarities to go see the artists in New York. We listened to indie in the morning and rap at night. She held my hand across the bridge and off the island, when the festival was over. We couldn’t find the subway. We took the train away from the city in mini dresses. I was sticky all day and now that coat of moisture was freezing into a casing around my arms. I put them around her waist and my head across her thighs.
“I’m sorry I’m touching you so much.” I had dyed my hair purple for the festival, which made me feel even sillier, like a foreign object in her space.
“You never have to apologize for that.” I felt better.
I missed a call from a boy in another country and felt bad that he had wasted money on the telephone fee. She told me that he was a waste.
In a small town in New Jersey, sprinkled with rainbow flags, we bought mood rings. I spent the rest of the trip with an ache in my neck from trying to see if the colors wrapped around her fingers changed when I touched her shoulder or moved her hair out of her face. I got drunk, after my flight landed in New Orleans, and the whole party called her from my living room couch. I pretended to leave the room while the birthday girl asked how the trip went, if anything happened. Natalie told her we were just friends. When I got back to California, my friends told me that not everything holds meaning.
“We’re supposed to talk on the phone tonight,” I confessed.
“You need to stop speaking to her.”
“I think you should tell her.”
“I wish I did before. We’re best friends now.”
“Why didn’t you do something in New Jersey?”
“I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable.”
“I’m too nervous.”
“One of my co-workers had feelings for her best friend and roommate. She tried to keep it in, but one day it slipped out.”
“What if she doesn’t like me back?”
“That’s it. At first, she said she didn’t like her back. It was really awkward.”
“That would kill me… her, too, I think.”
“But then, after a little while, she changed her mind.”
“And they lived happily ever fucking after, Rachel. I’m telling you… you could have that.”
“She’s texting me more now and saying nice things.”
“Since you got eyelash extensions?”
“Yeah, but maybe it’s just because we’re going back to school soon.”
“That’s what boys do too.”
“I don’t think she sees me like boys do.”
“I think that’s impossible.”
I broke my mood ring that summer I spent at home: got drunk at the restaurant my best friend works at and watched it shatter against patio pavement. When she got off of her shift, she said it was symbolic and I stopped thinking about it until the first night I saw the blue and purple dart across Natalie’s finger: late August.
The buzz was back and we all were too. Back in our position around a grated round table. We all signed leases junior year but called that set of bar stools home. My head was woozy and my legs were wobbly and the only thing stopping me from draping them heavy over hers was the familiar sticky coat of my own heat I didn’t want to layer.
I think I let too much joy drip off of my face when she started making the wrong turns back to her house, which were the right ones to mine. Romeo and Juliet weren’t supposed to be in love, but when I drink, I forget the rules. They kept all the original dialogue in the 1996 version, and we sat on the couch like it was my old apartment, my old couch. It was the same blanket covering our legs, but it felt different when we could control the temperature of my living room: making it colder, creating a reason to lock our knees together. Leonardo DiCaprio cleared Clare Danes’ face of any distractions before leaving his lips on hers. Shivering and sweating at the same time, I kissed her Megan Fox red lips, pulled her Clare Danes smooth hair behind her ear, watched a short color show play across her ring finger.
We started smoking in September and it is a bit harder to keep up the habit now that it’s winter and the cement porch steps are cold against the backs of our thighs. The two-story stucco houses across the street from hers stand still against the sky. Broadway Street is quiet at this late hour, and I silently pray for something to move or talk or breathe, so we can discuss it.
“Look what I did,” I show her an ember wrapped in black tar marks, like a scarf.
“How did you?”
“It was an accident.”
“But how, physically, did you?” She asks me questions like she wishes to replicate the mistake.
“I put the flame too close to the cigarette.”
I smoke ones with white ends, and she smokes ones with orange. I used to call them cancer sticks but now that I’m addicted to them, that seems too morbid. Hers are blended heavier than mine. Sometimes I smoke two, she points out, when she smokes one. She says she doesn’t know what it means.
“It means I’m going to die,” I half-joke.
“Yes. You will live and I will die.” I’m more serious this time. There is a pause and I notice the buildings again: how they just stand and stand and stand.
“I don’t want to be alive for a second on this earth without you,” she says and then takes another drag.
She continues, “I want to die the second I forget your name for the first time.”
She’s always very worried about forgetting things. I’ve told her about every time I wanted to kiss her before I finally did, and she’s told me she doesn’t remember whole nights, so I have to describe them for her sometimes. It doesn’t bother me.
“I’ll remind you of it.”
Published in Edition 3 of The Dilettante.