After a semester in London, Emily wears her hair short, her clothes black. She’s haloed with a confidence more potent than my freshman students’ Axe and Old Spice. I don’t know how to exist around her anymore, so I’m quiet when she slides into the bar booth where my friends and I sit sardined.
It’s winter again—in this town, it’s always winter—and I’m drinking too fast. Emily’s telling some story of some boy who tried some tired pick-up line on her. Vodka lacquers my tongue, esophagus, stomach. All eyes are on Emily—and why shouldn’t they be? Everyone’s missed her; presumably, I am part of everyone—yet my eyes worship the tray of fries in the center of the table. Masticated potatoes plaster my back molars. Emily says something witty, sparks a smatter of laughter that I pretend I’m too busy fiddling with my phone to hear. Salt stipples my lips.
At the end of the night, gilded with alcohol, I muster the courage to address Emily directly. We haven’t communicated much over the previous months, save several weepy texts. We came to the decision—mutual, mature—that we can’t be around one another without summoning old demons. When we speak, Emily’s façade is pure grace: glowing skin and glossy teeth and needle-thin thighs. I say something about how long it’s been, and we exchange a tipsy hug, and she says something about how we need to hang out, and I smile because I know we won’t.
On the mile-long walk home, the wind flings me back to this sidewalk on a different night, an autumn night, a night when Emily was halfway across the world and I was coming undone to a friend who smelled like home.
I told my friend: I see her everywhere.
The friend had asked, Who?
Renee, I’d wept. Renee, Renee, Renee. Her name was barbed wire, each syllable its own spike.
My friend warned me that sadness—like alcohol or Adderall or adoration for a girl who moved to Alabama without saying goodbye—could be addicting. My friend said not to fall in love with my grief.
I tried to fall in love with that friend, just to see if it would help, but my heart didn’t move that way anymore.
My heart still doesn’t move the way it used to. I trek over a sidewalk graffitied with rusty-gold paint, unlock my apartment door, and wonder if Emily’s still at the bar. Or maybe she’s smoking pot on a couch in someone’s basement. Or maybe she’s whispering to a cute girl under a streetlight somewhere. Or maybe she’s kaleidoscoped in the bright lights of a club, her arms stretched overhead, laughing, happy, dancing.
[* The essay is inspired by Taylor Swift’s “Holy Ground,” from the album RED (2012). ^ ]
A year earlier, Renee officially cuts Emily and me out of her life. Renee takes the modern approach to dumping Emily (a quick text, a cold shoulder) before moving on to a new girlfriend. Before, Renee was always courteous enough to break the news to Emily in person. But at least Renee still feigns civility with Emily; she does not pay me the same courtesy.
Instead, she accuses me of sexual assault.
Emily tells me of Renee’s accusation over a muffin at Starbucks. I stare at my coffee, hearing the words rape and press charges and police without processing them. My mind ponders the slush on the road outside: how gritty it is, like cat litter; how I’d love to caulk my mouth with it. Maybe it would clog my throat and suffocate me and I’d die in a cacophony of guttural, gravel-filled wheezes.
Sugar crystals glisten atop Emily’s untouched blueberry muffin. My parents love blueberry muffins. How will I tell my parents their daughter’s a rapist? Colbie Caillat plinks in the background, unsleeved Styrofoam sears my palm, and my mind forgets I’ve never actually raped anyone. Emily reminds me I’ve only had sex once in my whole life, and it wasn’t with Renee, and Emily insists I would-never-could-never-will-never be a rapist, and I stare at her like she’s something disgusting. She should know better than to befriend a rapist.
“Are you okay?” Emily asks in a voice that tells me I shouldn’t be. “I mean, Renee’s just making a big deal about this because your essay beat hers. Everyone knows you didn’t ‘assault’ her.” Emily’s air quotes are limp. “Your essay says it outright: you gave her a back rub. Which she asked for. That’s not assault.”
I wring my car keys in my palm, hearing their cheery jingle. “Let’s drive,” I say, pushing back my chair. Its feet scream as they rake the tile. “Let’s go somewhere. Anywhere you want.”
Emily looks at the table. “Actually, I have to go back to my apartment.” She picks at a cuticle. “My parents are making me come home for a few days. They’re worried about me.”
Irrationally, I think: Emily’s parents are psychic. Emily’s parents have divined that their daughter is in the company of a rapist.
“But we’ll hang out as soon as I get back,” Emily promises.
A beat of silence smacks the space between us.
“If you could just take me back to my apartment?”
Two weeks before Renee accuses me of sexual assault, Emily and I buy a bottle of gold spray paint from Lowe’s. (Emily also shoplifts a few seed packets: sunflowers, because they’re my favorite, and Brussels sprouts just because. Since Renee has started icing Emily out, Emily’s fingers have grown progressively stickier.)
Emily and I sit on my apartment’s hard carpet and eat gummy worms, chocolate nonpareils, Hostess cakes. We take shots of vodka. We stalk Renee’s social media.
“D’you think Renee’ll ever forgive me?” I ask idly. I’m wearing sunglasses even though it’s midnight, even though my one lamp barely brightens the room. Renee always wears sunglasses when she gets drunk, and I can’t bear to relinquish that affectation.
Emily unwraps another Hostess. “Renee doesn’t like to lose,” she says as gently as possible.
Once again, I wonder why I had to go and win that award, why my essay had to beat Renee’s, why I’d thought first place and $1000 were more important than pleasing my best friend/first love/puppeteer. Renee wanted to be the best writer in our program, and I’d wanted to be her best friend, and all I’d had to do to maintain that equilibrium was nothing. And instead I’d gone and imploded my own joy.
A grimace skirts Emily’s face. “I think—” she faithfully avoids my eyes—“I think what bothers her the most is how much you write about her.” Emily crinkles the chocolate-spotted wrapper. “She feels like she’s the reason you won.”
I can’t argue with this. My philosophy about love—and I love Renee, everyone knows this—is that it’s uncontainable, indelible, irreversible. Of course I write about Renee; I write about her as naturally as I buy her coffee and cigarettes and gum and whatever else she wants, as unquestioningly as I stay up late when she needs a ride somewhere, as gladly as I loan her the textbooks I need to complete my homework. She’s worth endless essays, just as she’s worth my bank account and my Circadian rhythm and my GPA.
“Maybe you should let her read the essay,” Emily continues. “I mean, she thinks it’s, like, entirely about her. Maybe once she reads it, she won’t be as angry.”
There’s this unspeakable song between Emily and me, this melody we can’t ignore: that Renee wouldn’t know anything about my essay—save that it beat hers—if it weren’t for Emily. If Emily hadn’t let Perry, Renee’s best friend, glimpse my pages and tell the world about them. If Emily had protected me better.
But, in all fairness, I hadn’t always protected Emily, either.
“I might send the essay to Renee,” I say, turning the idea over in my mind. It’s not as if it could make things worse.
What gives me pause is remembering the naked ache of the essay, the way I called Renee my miracle, someone who looms larger than life, how I described feeling like an art connoisseur ravishing a master’s sculpture when I gave her a back rub, the way I said I held her scent like incense in my lungs, how I deemed sleeping next to her the truest nighttime prayer I’ve ever prayed.
But that was only one page of the essay—the other pages, about my parents’ fraying marriage, about my strained relationship with my mother, would surely show Renee she wasn’t “the reason I won” first place.
“I think it’ll help,” Emily agrees. As if toasting to the idea, we both consume another shot of vodka.
When we stumble out my apartment door and spill onto the street, everything looks heavenly. Streetlights are windows into the sublime, and the sky is God’s inkwell overturned. My cheeks feel hotter than the stars.
I struggle to wrest the cap off the spray paint, so Emily takes it from me. With one awesome whack against an oak, the cap goes soaring. Emily shakes the bottle and the chatter of rattlesnakes fills the night. The paint hisses as it hits its first target: the tree trunk.
FUCK RENEE glisters into existence, a golden blister on the cold bark.
“Your turn,” Emily hands me the bottle warm from her palm. I skitter over to the sidewalk, stoop down, and in my best cursive swirl: FUCK RENEE.
We brand FUCK RENEE onto the sloped gravel of the parking lot, onto the center of the road, onto the the Ts of several intersections. When we clamber back inside, exhausted and fume-dizzied, neither of us can hide a smile.
The next morning, over coffee, we feel the weight of what we’ve done.
“Listen to this,” I say, my fingers clacking on my computer’s keys. “‘Penn State student accused of spray-painting anti-Semitic messages at fraternity.’” I gape at the article. “This was only a few months ago.”
Emily’s lips clench. “What happened to him?”
I scroll down the page. “He got arrested…he’s facing trial…charged with ‘criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.’”
“Yeah, but we didn’t write anything anti-Semitic.” Emily crosses one skinny-jeaned leg over the other.
“We still wrote ‘fuck’ in a school zone!”
“I thought you said it was near a school zone, not in a school zone.”
I roll my eyes. “Kids are still going to see it!” I press my fingers to my eyebrows, the pinprick points where headaches always brew. “God. Imagine telling our parents we’ve been arrested.”
Emily chews the inside of her cheek. “You think the police’ll be able to see us on traffic cameras?”
The idea has never occurred to me. Sure enough, though, we spray-painted near a major intersection; it isn’t ridiculous to assume there’d be a camera watching. “Shit.”
“Well, you definitely shouldn’t hold onto that paint,” Emily lowers her voice. “We need to get rid of the evidence, like, now.”
A smile untangles on my face. “Like a body dump?”
“Like a body dump.”
It’s as good an excuse as any to miss my Thursday class with Renee. Emily and I beeline away from campus, pile into my Civic, and take the salt-bleached roads too fast. I’m taking us to my safe place—though isn’t that where criminals always flee in times of strife? I’ve watched Law & Order: SVU; I should know better—and Emily’s cradling the bottle like a baby. We’re caught between anticipating police lights in the rearview mirror and eye-rolling our own theatrics. But maybe this is how all lawbreakers feel: a little hunted, a little hysterical.
I pull off the road at the entrance to State Game Lands 176. Pebbles and dead leaves crackle until my tires. I kill the engine.
“Wow,” Emily raises her eyebrows. “So this is your place?”
I nod. I can’t begin to guess how many miles I’ve run, walked, and biked in these woods. I’ve always come needy to this sanctuary; that’s how I know I can trust it with one last request.
Emily follows me over the terrain of the snaking trail. I lead her up a hill, down a scarce and scraggly path, and into a brown pocket of the expansive woods. Emily’s wearing flats, but she doesn’t complain. She’s one of the few girls I’ve let into this world.
Together, we give the paint back to the earth, as if the can truly contained a precious metal and not just aerosols. Leftover gold still speckles my fingertips, dances there prismatic. I’m silent on the walk back to the car, but unburdened somehow; I’m with Emily, we are together. After all that we’ve been through, we are still we.
A handful of weeks before Emily and I desecrate the town with Renee’s name, we spend our Spring Break together, alone, in New York City. Renee’s in the city too, but she’s partying with Perry and a new crush and she’s made me promise not to let Emily intercept them. (Emily, Renee’s ex and current friend with benefits, is not taking kindly to Renee’s flirtation with this new girl; Renee acts flabbergasted by this. As Renee’s best friend, I’m obligated to take her side.)
Several days before I drive Emily to New York City, I drove Renee to her mother’s house on the northeast side of the state. The drive was long, three hours with traffic and turnarounds, but I’d have driven across the country for alone time with Renee. I didn’t mind that she babbled nonstop about her new crush or that she smoked L&Ms in my passenger seat. I scrambled happily after any scrap of her, no matter how jagged or evanescent.
With Emily, on the drive north, I don’t discuss Renee; Emily knows Renee’s about to oust her—permanently this time, not like January. Emily doesn’t ask what I’ll do when Renee exiles her. To tell the truth, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t dare challenge Renee’s authority.
Instead of talking, I play a CD I curated specially for the trip. John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing In a Burning Room” gives Emily pause; she lowers the volume.
“I read this lyric that reminded me of Renee,” she says, eyes steeled on the gray New Jersey trees. “It’s something like, ‘the room’s on fire and she’s fixing her hair.’”
I change the song.
We check into a seedy hotel in Times Square, drop our bags on the scuffed carpet. We don’t have concrete plans for this trip, just three dreamy days of wandering the streets and feigning happiness. Emily makes a game of stealing trinkets—clothes, sunglasses, card games—from stores we visit. Prolific winds push us around. At night, we are relieved to retreat to our hotel room with a stash of candy and the handle of vodka that Perry bought for me.
We drink the liquor recklessly, our stomachs flaming with alcohol and Swedish fish. Sitcoms flicker on the television, but we ignore them. We play one of the card games that Emily swiped from Barnes & Noble. We marinate in our drunkenness.
And then the overhead lights are off and Emily is scuttling over me, all soft hair and glassy eyes. She wrestles my shirt off, nibbles my stomach, kisses me hungrily on the mouth. I know she’s thinking of Renee. She knows I’m thinking of Renee.
Emily’s mouth hovers over my belly button. “Do you want me to fuck you?”
I do and I don’t. I’ve only ever been with a boy, but I don’t want Renee’s girl; I want Renee. I want her to realize she doesn’t need to keep scraping up girls like spare change. I’ve seen her at her worst—I’ve heard her rant and rave about the supposed “loves of her life,” I’ve watched her scald her stomach with cigarettes, I’ve been the target of her drunken harangues—and I’ve stayed. I’m waiting to cash in my loyalty like currency, to trade in these miserable months for a fairytale salvation.
“I have to pee,” I lie, sliding out from underneath Emily. I lock myself in the too-bright bathroom and wish for my shirt. I linger on the toilet and, when I finally wipe, I realize I’m dry as a communion wafer.
Emily has passed out on top of the covers. I nudge her, my voice low. “Hey, let’s get you into bed.”
She blinks. “What time is it?”
Before I can answer, she claps a hand to her mouth and scrabbles upright. She just makes it to the toilet before her stomach ejects its contents. When she finishes, she sits heavily on the tiled floor and rests her head on the edge of the tub.
“I need a shower,” she says, sounding hearteningly sober.
Wordlessly, I start the water, adjusting it to a comfortable temperature. I avert my eyes when Emily tugs off her clothes and hauls herself into the tub. She sits under the spray, head back and eyes closed.
“I’ll check on you in a few minutes,” I mumble, ducking out of the bathroom. From the sound of things, Emily has started to cry.
The bedroom smells faintly of vomit. Sullenly, I text Renee, hoping she’s still awake. She doesn’t reply—she hasn’t replied to me in days. In a few minutes, I help a half-asleep Emily out of the shower. I try to goad her into drying herself off, maybe putting on some pajamas, but she ignores me and crawls into bed. I clean up the bathroom and get ready for bed and lie awake, hanging my last hopes on a late-night missive from Renee or, at the very least, Perry. None arrives.
In the morning, Emily wakes panicked. “Um,” she blinks, peeking under the covers at her body, “how did I get naked?”
“You took a shower.” I pick at the unraveling threads of the comforter. “Well, first you threw up. Then you took a shower.”
“Oh.” Emily bites her lower lip. “So we didn’t—?”
“Oh. Well,” Emily clears her throat, “sorry you had to take care of me.”
“I’m gonna shower,” I say, desperate to extricate myself from the awkwardness. I check my phone, wondering in vain if a message from Renee arrived while I was asleep.
Emily can barely look at the bagel she orders for breakfast. Anxious, I wolf down a whole omelet and a side of toast. My phone sits expectantly on the table.
“I think Renee’s mad at me,” I say. “She won’t text back.” The last time I saw her was at her mother’s house. We’d eaten home-fried chicken wings and talked until midnight. I’d helped her stepsister with her homework. In the morning, I’d driven the three hours home alone.
“Um,” Emily grimaces, “about that. See, I think I might know why she’s mad.”
The white noise of panic whorls in my ears.
“Remember how you gave me a copy of your contest entry? That essay about your parents?”
I nod, too tense to blink.
“Well, I was reading it the other day and Perry came up behind me.”
My lungs puncture and deflate.
“And he, well, took it from me.”
My blood turns to dust in my veins.
“He said he wouldn’t tell Renee anything about it, though. He promised.”
“And he must have kept his promise,” I say numbly, “until four days ago.”
“She’s probably just drunk somewhere and her phone died,” Emily reassures me. “Or…well, it’s not like she’ll be mad forever.”
“And it’s not like I’m definitely going to win the contest,” I add. “She’ll probably win and then everything will be fine.”
“Yeah,” Emily says in a voice genuine as cubic zirconia.
The drive back to campus is muted. I drop Emily off at her apartment, then rush home to change into running tights and a battered pair of sneakers. I crisscross the town, covering eight shaky miles. My vision bobs and blips as if I’m watching myself on a grainy projector.
Tuesday morning, as I walk to the café where Renee holds her office hours, my childhood asthma resurrects itself. My throat constricts painfully when I see Renee’s usual seat empty. I wait, time passing languidly and dreadfully as the moments in the doctor’s office before a shot.
Renee arrives and says nothing, doesn’t even glance at me. She unpacks her things, plugs in her computer, digs a pen out of her backpack.
“You’re mad at me.” I mean to whisper; it comes out as a whimper.
Renee’s mouth crimps. In a smarting, matter-of-fact tone, she proclaims: “You fucked up.”
I bumble through a laundry list of apologies, excuses, appeals. Half of me knows that my talking is only aggravating Renee more, but the other, wiser half knows that I need to face her wrath if I want back in her good graces. Renee resembles the Old Testament God in that way—her forgiveness comes at the heavy cost of sacrifice, penitence, pain.
“You used my name in your story,” Renee spits.* “I literally just had a conversation with the cohort at Alabama about this—you never use someone’s real name when you write about them. Never.”
I open, in vain, a fresh vein of apologies.
“I’m sick of being your muse,” Renee continues, her face aflame with holy fury. “Find something else to write about.”
My muse. I mull the word over in my mind. Muses are supposed to be goddesses, maddeningly ephemeral but paramount to creativity. Is that all Renee is to me? Is that at all what Renee is to me? A muse is kind; a muse is helpful. I adore Renee, but even I can’t keep a straight face while calling her kind or helpful.
Renee keeps me in an excruciating purgatory for the next few days. Her glare is dry ice: when she scrutinizes me, I feel my skin sizzle. I’m cautiously optimistic, though, when she invites me to hang out in her favorite hookah lounge a few days later.
She’s with Perry and the new crush, the girl they took to New York. This girl must have heard my name raked through festering manure, but she’s somehow still gracious to me when I sit down. I can’t say the same about Renee, who’s chain smoking like she wants lung cancer tomorrow.
“So,” Renee finally says, her voice loud and abrasive as when she’s drunk, “how was your little vacation with Emily?”
“It was fun.” My chipper voice belies the nauseating way my intestines braid together.
“Yeah?” Renee smirks. “Did you guys fuck?”
I freeze, thinking of the sloppy kisses Emily doesn’t remember. “Of course not.”
Renee smirks. “I told her to watch out, that you’ll probably get a crush on her.”
I sift through my backpack so I don’t have to look at the flaming coals that have replaced Renee’s pupils. After an hour or so of working, Renee softens toward me a little. Her jokes mellow to the point where they burn, but no longer blister, the skin.
When the new girl gathers her things to go to class, Renee drinks in her every movement. She sighs once the girl’s out of earshot.
“You know what I love about her?” Renee asks, leaning toward me. Her eyes are all combat.
She’s waiting for me to ask, “what?” Ashamed of myself, I obey.
“She never romanticized me,” Renee says slowly. “Never made me out to be something I’m not.”
Something in me—something thin and brittle as a match, but something nonetheless—snaps. I meet Renee’s glare and don an exaggerated, blow-up-doll stare of surprise. “No!” I gasp. “People do that to you?”
Perry lets out a loud guffaw. Renee sneers at me, then slides out of the booth. To punish me, she sits at another table for the next half-hour, flirts with the random girls there. Perry can’t stop grinning. My bravado dimming, I look down at my homework, trying to seem diligent and innocent and like someone Renee shouldn’t decide to crucify.
[* All names in this essay have been changed. ^ ]
In February, against her better judgment and my frantic prayers, Emily entrenches herself in friends-with-benefits territory with Renee. Emily swears she’ll never really trust Renee again, insists she can sleep with her ex without her heart slipping into the mix, and I nod and swallow my worries for her. I know better than anyone how annoying it is when well-meaning people proselytize about “dangerous Renee.” I know a sermon is the last thing Emily needs.
But Emily begins unraveling in obvious and visceral ways. On Friday nights, when Perry and Renee and I get sloshed on malt liquor and dance barefoot to Fleetwood Mac, Emily drinks like it’s the end times. She’s always the one to throw up. Often she slips away in the middle of a song, leaving behind the thrum of “Seven Wonders” to lie on a bedroom floor somewhere and cry. And then she pops back into the party like nothing’s wrong, like salt isn’t dusting her cheeks, like it doesn’t bother her at all to grind against Renee. And Renee holds Emily so close, wraps her olive fingers in Emily’s black hair, goads Emily to sit on her lap. Giddily drags her to the bedroom every morning around 3:00 a.m. Yet somehow, for all that kissing and touching and fucking, doesn’t notice the resolute set of Emily’s lips come breakfast.
One drunken night, Emily locks herself in Perry’s bathroom and takes a lighter to her arm. The scar is oblong and fascinating. When she shows it to me, I stare for a long time.
Renee says she feels bad about this.
Renee says she feels bad about a lot of things.
On another drunken night, Emily dissolves again, this time in Renee’s apartment. Renee is in the kitchen deejaying the EDM the loves so much. Emily and I sneak into the bathroom, speak in hushed tones. I don’t want Renee catching me intruding in her business, and Emily doesn’t want Renee catching her in a moment of weakness. We both know how quickly Renee could foist us from her inner sanctum.
“I was standing on the balcony,” Emily says, her voice husky, “thinking about what it’d be like to jump off.”
I flicker to life with a brilliant idea. “Wait here,” I whisper, extricating myself from the cramped bathroom. I riffle through my backpack, tossed haphazardly by Renee’s front door, and wriggle out a sheath of papers. I slink back into the bathroom, undetected by Renee.
“Here.” I hand Emily the copy of my essay. “Don’t show it to anybody, okay?”
Emily frowns, confused. “Why…?”
“Read it,” I insist, “and you’ll understand.”
I’m thinking of the line on page eight, the line where I mention standing on Renee’s balcony, weeping, contemplating jumping. I’m thinking Emily will read my words and know she’s not alone. I’m thinking I, too, know how it feels to brood on the fifth-floor balcony in winter air and stare at the raucous, tipsy crowd below and feel so far from them, and yourself, and Renee, but then go back inside and dance anyway.
It’s the dregs of January, I’m pleasantly drunk, I’m wearing one of Renee’s cozy old sweaters and sitting crosslegged on the floor of her living room. And I’m impervious to jealousy when Emily flounces through the front door. I keep my eyes steeled on my beer, aware that Renee is gaging my reaction, hoping I’ll have a reaction. I won’t give her the satisfaction; I’ll show her I’m fine, fine, more than fine with her ex trampling all over our Friday night.
See, I’ve beat Renee at her own game. I’ve memorized her schemes: she pines over an ex-girlfriend one night, declares her love for someone new the next morning, fucks someone else by nightfall. And then she waits in the wings of life for chaos to descend. She flames her hazel eyes wide and declare she has no idea why so-and-so has feelings for her, no clue why what’s-her-face claims she’s been led on. Renee believes the world is infinitely unfair to her, and I believe she’ll keep me by her side forever if I just keep agreeing.
So I smile blandly at Emily and turn to Perry and doggedly make conversation to prove just how unbothered I am. Emily’s floating around like a princess, like someone Renee’s really going to get back together with, and my sole consolation is I know Emily’s only here because Renee’s other ex declined the invite.
A few drinks later, when the room starts tilting on its axis and our voices crescendo to high drunkenness, Renee’s other ex—Jess, the gorgeous blonde she dated for, like, ages—stumbles through the door. The atmosphere turns hot and metallic as blood.
Renee extracts herself easily from Emily and hugs Jess, invites her to sit. Renee seems to forget that we were in the middle of playing Bananagrams—but maybe that’s just as well, since after I beat her at it a few times she looked ready to challenge the drywall to a fistfight. Renee hurries to get Jess a drink, and the two of them slip away to the couch. Emily picks at a piece of lint on her sock. Perry seems enthused about the brewing conflict.
“So, Emily,” he says grandly, leaning toward her. Emily manages to tear her eyes from the floor. “Should I call you Emily? Or do you prefer…I don’t know…Miss Saigon? Empress Wu?”
Instinctively, I gasp—then blush. Neither Renee nor Jess seems at all perturbed by Perry’s “jokey” racism. Even Emily takes the offense in stride, countering Perry with a laugh and a sharp retort. I try to contort my expression into something appropriately apathetic, lest Perry and Renee think Emily is better suited to being their third wheel.
The night rambles along evenly until, with harrowing brilliance, it bloats and explodes supernova-style. Disaster ensues when Emily moves Jess’s purse off the couch “in a bitchy way” (or so Renee claims when she retells the story). Emily and Jess exchange words, then barbs, and then Emily is scampering out front door and Jess is turning her wrath upon Renee. I’m hiding in the kitchen when Jess and Renee launch into a deafening shouting match that ends with Jess breaking something valuable of Renee’s while Renee weeps.
But Saturday morning dawns bleary and unremarkable. Perry, Renee and I wake to the chime of Jess’s cell phone: it’s her boss, berating her for being late to work. It’s 9:00 or 10:00 when she hurtles out the door, Renee cackling at her anxiety. The previous night’s fight seems to be forgotten, or at least filed away where no one need ponder it. Perry and Renee instruct me to drive them to Cracker Barrel, where they order big breakfasts of biscuits and gravy and trade jokes about Emily. From the way they deride her, I doubt I’ll lay eyes on the poor girl again.
Impossibly, Emily crash-lands into my life again a week later. Renee invites her to tag along to another Friday-night escapade, and I shrug as if I can’t see any downsides to that plan.
“One thing, though,” Renee adds, lighting a cigarette. “Perry and I are going to the symphony from 7:00 to 9:00, so you and Emily can just hang out in my apartment ’til we get back.”
Dread swells in the back of my throat. “We can’t just meet up after?”
“Nah, we’ll pregame the symphony together,” Renee says decisively. “It’ll be fun.”
I wonder at the wisdom of Renee’s cloistering Emily and me together, but I don’t dare say anything. Renee will chalk up any protestations to jealousy, and as Renee’s best friend I’m supposed to be above jealousy. So I gamely follow Renee to her apartment after our last Friday class, let her hand me a beer, and fake a smile when Emily knocks on the door. I pretend not to notice how Renee has erased the previous weekend and every derisory comment she crafted at Emily’s expense. In a moment that stings like a paper cut, I understand that Renee doesn’t love Emily, but that she’ll still choose her over me.
I pick at the quilted cushion in Renee’s living room and let her steer the conversation. All too soon, she and Perry are zipping winter coats and tugging on shoes, and I’m left looking at Emily, unsure what to do with my hands. Emily suggests we get dinner at the Italian place down the street, and Renee laughs and mockingly wishes us a good time on “our little dinner date.”
But our half-drunkenness tides us through the evening, and by the time we stumble back to Emily’s apartment to wait for Renee, we are giggling at new inside jokes. We’ve learned that our birthdays are exactly a month apart, that we both adore the Jane Austen novel Persuasion, that we’re both English majors, that we’re both obsessed with journaling…and we laugh, without bitterness, about the obviousness of Renee’s “type.” We find it hilarious that we are stock-issued and unremarkable as dolls.
“Let’s do shots,” Emily announces. I’m splayed on her couch, sucking on a cherry lollipop, marveling at how Emily’s apartment feels so much friendlier than Renee’s. “I’ve got this lemon vodka stuff. It tastes like drain cleaner.”
“But…will Renee be mad?” I cast Emily a meaningful look. After all, Renee’s the one who always orchestrates the imbibing.
Emily bites her lip. “Well…we’ll just pretend to be sober when she gets here.” She pulls two glasses out of the cabinet. Vodka glug-glugs and we’re both giggling in anticipation. “Cheers,” she says, clinking her glass against mine.
“Cheers.” And I accept the liquor gladly: the way the fake citrus tangs in my mouth, the way the alcohol paints my throat gold with heat. Emily, my co-conspirator, mirrors my goofy grin.
We swallow shot after shot.
The week after Christmas: I’m squatting on Renee’s bedroom floor, threading bendy black rods through the tubing of a half-erected tent. One of the rods catches on a seam; when I struggle it free, it shoots through the tube with a slick smooching sound.
“You really don’t have to do this,” Renee says, her voice itchy as burlap.
I shrug. “It’s no biggie.”
Renee’s friend Amber, whom I met just hours before, harrumphs. “Seriously,” she calls from behind the tent, “you owe me for this shit.”
But Renee doesn’t glance at Amber; her eyes envelop me, and me alone, and for the skinniest second I think they hold something like mercy. “You really don’t have to,” she repeats.
I crawl back in the lopsided tent without responding. The teal fabric shudders as Amber forces the third corner together. “Okay, Alaina,” Amber announces, “I’m gonna need you to push up from the center.”
Amber, an avid camper, has apparently set up countless tents over the years—though never, she said with a laugh, in someone’s bedroom. But this is Renee’s holiday gift to Emily, a way to woo the new girlfriend with the unrequited love of camping. Renee’s master romantic plan is that tomorrow, when Emily arrives for a mid-winter-break consummation of their new relationship, she’ll find a Christmas-light-festooned tent set up as a surprise for her.
I crouch in the static-charged enclave, my thin wrists branched out above me. In the eerie green light of the vinyl, my hands look more chapped and pallid than usual. A week earlier, over Christmas Eve dinner, my mother chided me for losing so much weight. My dad just looked at his food, mute except for his crow’s feet, which were suddenly etched deeper and screaming louder than ever before.
“How fast should I push?” My voice sounds dense and muffled, as if I’m calling to Amber from somewhere far underwater.
“Go slow. To the halfway point.” Amber sounds out of breath as she wrestles the fourth pole, trying to lodge it in its corner. “Keep going, now. All the way.” Finally, there’s a snap and the tent’s skeleton gives its final shake. “Done!”
I blink at the teal-and-white dome overhead. Just above me is the intersection of the two main poles, the cross forming the four crucial spines of the structure. The stuffiness in here makes me feel somehow more alive.
And then Renee is in the tent with me, gazing up with me. In a strange voice, she says, “Thank you.”
I imagine Emily flat-backed and orgasming and staring at the exact place I’m staring now. “You’re welcome.”
Less than two weeks later, during the frigid first week of the spring semester, Renee texts me and asks for a ride home from the hookah bar. She gives me a time and tells me to come inside to get her. I wonder why she can’t just walk to the parking lot, but I do as she says.
I descend the stairs into the smoky basement, blinking at the darkness. My eyes find Renee and Emily on a pew in the middle of the room. Emily rakes her hand across her cheeks, trying to hide her tears from me. Her head slumps from her neck like a wilted lily. Renee looks relieved when we make eye contact.
“You ready?” she asks, already on her feet.
I furrow my eyebrows. Of course I’m ready—I’m here for her, not the other way around. But I just nod, playing along with whatever scene she’s creating.
Without a goodbye to Emily, Renee leads me up the stairs and out into the cruelly cold night. I look at her sideways as she collapses into my passenger seat and sighs wearily.
Renee raises her eyebrows. “At least that’s over. Break-ups are never fun.”
My jaw nearly unhinges. I gawk at Renee for a few seconds, forgetting to crank the engine. “You guys broke up?” I want to, but don’t, add: and you had me walk in and get you afterward? I wonder how many mental daggers Emily is launching at me in this very moment.
Renee grimaces. “Yeah. Oh, hey, I meant to ask—can we stop by my apartment on the way to Perry’s? I want to grab my laundry.”
I blink. “Sure.”
We are halfway to Perry’s, Renee’s hamper tucked neatly between her legs, when I remember the package in my center console. I wait until a red light to dig out the plastic pouch. “I got you something,” I say shyly, holding out the gift for Renee. “Consider it a late Christmas present.”
I’d ordered the gift weeks ago, but hadn’t had the nerve to give it to Renee. Not when she’d asked Emily to be her girlfriend two days before Christmas.
“What is it?” Renee asks as she pulls the wire sunglasses out of the package. She gasps when she sees the lenses. “Holographic Jesus sunglasses? No way!” She slides the glasses on and yanks her visor down to examine herself in the mirror. “These are the fucking best! Where’d you find them?”
“Just, like, at the Dollar Store,” I lie. I actually special-ordered them online. I Googled “holographic Jesus”—because Renee had a holographic Jesus poster in her apartment that she adored—and searched for a while before I found the glasses. But I’ll die before I let Renee know I care that much.
Renee admires herself in the vanity mirror for a long time. “I remember when I first met you,” she muses. “I thought you were so weird.”
I blush. “Well, I was weird.”
Renee laughs. “And now you’re, like, one of my best friends.”
Those words pummel the gong in my chest, make all my nerves reverberate. “Really?” This is too much; this is grace upon grace upon grace.
“Yeah,” Renee says, nonchalant. “After Perry, you’re my best friend.”
I feel my heartbeat behind my eyes as I knock on Renee’s front door. I glance down at my plain navy sweater, blue jeans, and black loafers. Is this what college students wear to parties? I’ve never been out partying. I’ve never had alcohol, save a few condoned sips of my dad’s red wine last August; it tasted like thick vinegar.
I am walking into Renee’s world blind, but all that matters is that I’ve been invited to walk into it. Renee has invited me to walk into it.
Renee’s door sweeps open and there she is: shorn-short black hair, wide hazel eyes, coral lips. I’m spellbound. “You look beautiful,” Renee says, and I want to believe her. She leads me through the living room and out onto the balcony. Perry sits in an Adirondack chair perched against the wall; five stories below us, the town billows out, a patchwork quilt of college students and dimly lit parties. I realize that this balcony, with its cement walls the texture of cottage cheese, is the place where Renee’s Facebook profile picture was taken. In the picture, Renee and Perry scowl at the camera lens. The oddness of the photograph made me wonder about Renee, about Perry, about what they did and said and thought when they weren’t cooped up in class with me.
And now I get to find out.
Renee pours me my first beer, watches as I take a sip, instructs me to drink it quickly. Perry rotates between shuffling the music on Renee’s laptop and smoking a cigarette. From this balcony, I can see all the landmarks of the town: the library I frequented as a child, the restaurant my family always visited on New Year’s Eve, the stadium where my high school’s football team played on Friday nights. If I look down, I can see everything.
But I don’t look down; I look at Renee. She pours more beer for me and waits for me to finish it.
In a few minutes, she’ll announce that we’ve got a house party to attend and she’ll lead us through the oddly warm October night to a ramshackle yellow house. She’ll skitter to the basement, crank the music so loud I’ll think I’m hallucinating, strip down to her sports bra and cargo shorts. The music will eddy around us, fast and disorienting. Perry will pass me a bottle of whiskey and watch me gulp from its gaping neck. Our shoes will be afterthoughts in the corner. Finally, after two many whiskey-washed songs, Renee will lock eyes with me in the half-darkness, dance her way across the room, grind her hips into mine. We will dance and we will pant and we will sweat and we will strike into a fire descended from heaven—or, maybe, ascended from hell. We will become something bright, savage, holy.