This is something I’ve been slowly working on since New Years. I’m attempting to write in Updike’s style, drawing inspiration in particular from The Happiest I’ve Been (which is a great short story if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it, the last line is one of my favorites: And there was knowing that twice since midnight a person had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me). I still need to work out some kinks in it, but this is a first draft of sorts:
I came for Ingrid carrying an unopened bottle of champagne, warmed from sitting in the passenger’s seat for a breezy forty-five-minute drive. I parked the car against the curb in front of her house and got out and looked up towards the sky, my hand shading my eyes, and I squinted up at the trees lithe with the wear of the cold that had knocked them sideways in the last storm. With care, I tucked the bottle in the folds of my coat and walked up to her door. When I knocked, Ingrid swung open the door wearing only a t-shirt and underwear and her hair was crowded in a tightened knot on top of her head. Something told me she had been waiting in the front room.
We were driving to Ava’s before the first party, so I had dressed comfortably in a sequined top and jeans that squeezed my thighs and flattened my ass. Ingrid let out a few playful Ooos through parted lips and gushed as I slipped out of my metallic shoes.
“Who are you dressed for?” she asked, her tone biting.
“You,” I said through gritted teeth and tossed a shoe in her direction.
Her mother walked out of the kitchen into the entryway, greeted me, and opened up her arms. I slid into them with ease and rested my head on her shoulder, the smell of paprika and dried paint wafting from her graying hair. Ingrid, halfway up the stairs, beckoned me with a whistle.
Her room had been vacuumed recently, the indentions on the floor still pulling the carpet back in parallel patterns. I dropped my backpack on the rug and dropped onto her desk chair. The back tipped with my weight. Always exuberant with stories, Ingrid droned on about work and her kids, while I pushed the chair in circles against the carpet. I nodded as she hopped from one subject to another, listening with minimal effort and adding the correct hmms when she paused for a breath. As she raced through a story about a poor thin-lipped boy named Jonathan who had gotten his hand stuck in a fence, I pulled at my faded purple hair. It was during this time that I experienced the strangest realization that I was no longer the poster-child of stability in our relationship. Instead, as her reflection glanced over at my huddled body bent over her chair, I could tell she knew that I had become the more tragic of the two of us. My comfort had been torn away from me, like someone had ripped a rug out from under my buckling knees. The thought burned behind my eyes, but I swallowed and broke out a smile to tell her that everything was still very much fine. Fine had become my safety net of vague reassurance and I lived in its hollow amenity. Ingrid understood this more than anyone.
We spent the remaining two hours sitting around and talking. I moved throughout the room, lying wherever was most comfortable, covered in blankets that consisted of more dog-hair than fabric. Ingrid’s room darkened as the sun fell below the horizon behind off-white shades, and with it she began lighting candles and incents. I laid on her bed, wrapped in a wool quilt, and watched her do her makeup, transfixed on how effortlessly she applied it in the midst of our conversation. Ingrid continued to reminisce on our first New Year’s together, back when alcohol had not yet muddled our perception of ourselves and before we began self-medicating and dragging blades more frequently across our skin in hopes of curing our own sadness and discomfort with the world. I had taken her to my cousin’s ranch out in Dripping Springs where you could see more stars than planes and hear your own heartbeat in your ears drumming along with the rhythm of the wind brushing past patches of purple haze. At midnight we shot off fireworks into the sky next to one another, shouting spells in rapid fire until we could no longer breathe. I remembered Ingrid’s face against the night in the horse arena, illuminated by the glow of the blue light she held out in front of her, screaming as it sped out into the air.
“Where do you want to go first?” she asked, pausing to dab liquid on her cheeks.
“Ava’s first, right?” I sat up on the bed and checked my hair in the mirror. “I don’t care after that, you’re the one who knows these people.”
“Just checking,” she said. She leaned forward against the dresser as she applied liner to her eyelids. “You haven’t met Patrick yet, right?”
“I did at ACL, but it was a while ago and I was rude.” I swung my feet around the bed and fell backwards so I could watch her upside down. She stopped and looked down at me, puzzled.
“I don’t know,” I said. I shut my eyes until the world felt like I was behind a thin orange film.
“The heat I guess.”
Ingrid hummed in agreement, not wanting to disagree with me, and bent down to search her drawers for something. My head felt heavy and ached against the bed, pressure building as heat trickled down my spine. I crossed my arms over my stomach and sighed. Ingrid began softly signing a tune, her breath fogging against the mirror as she continued getting ready.
We arrived at Ava’s in the midst of Ingrid’s ongoing rant about one of her coworkers. She flipped her hair and tugged on my arm, the life in her eyes fading with each inhale of the cold air as it nipped at our heels. I tried to tally up her drink count, but was interrupted as Ava, dressed in black tights and a loose gray top synched at the waist, opened the door. She beckoned us inside and poured us drinks with cheap mixers from H-E-B, a bitter reminder of earlier years spent in the confines of our parents’ houses drinking watered down whiskey with Capri Sun. I sat quietly on a sofa in the corner and watched Ingrid and Ava, their eyes lit up with each other’s presence, as they flew through awkward pleasantries and talk of new boys. Ignored and content, I slid my thumb across my phone to an opened conversation between Ana and I. I tapped on the keypad and typed out a desperate quick reply, reiterating a sentiment I only let slide when I was drunk and alone with her. Waiting, I took a sip of wine and turned back to Ava and Ingrid. The alterations between the two were small. Dyed tips blended together greens and blues seamlessly into blonde, while Ingrid’s shortened hair displayed stronger posture. There was a budding familiarity between the two of them that I hadn’t yet witnessed, a comfortable air of understanding channeled through a shared frank tone that flowed evenly through simple words lacking uhs and uhms. I smiled into my cup, relieved that they were getting along so well.
“Wait, which guy is this?” Ava asked, biting back her amusement.
“The boring white guy, I don’t know how to describe him.” Ingrid waved a lethargic hand and continued her story. Ava laughed quietly and bent over to take a sip from her drink. Her hair fell over her ear as she tipped the glass, the smile still there as punch coated her lips. She looked over towards me for a moment and I lifted my drink in a quiet cheers, unsure of what else to do. She ran her fingers through her hair and adjusted her black belt so it hugged her hips more comfortably, all while Ingrid sped through her latest conquest she had met online.
My phone buzzed with a notification from Ana. I clicked it. A video of her showed off her newly cropped hair, frazzled and puffed out against her cheeks, concealing her black lidded eyes and red lipstick. She waved at the camera, then jerked it sideways so a few others could wave behind her. The camera panned back to her and she tapped it to refocus. Leaning forward she blew a kiss and smirked the way she did when she would show up to my room in the middle of the night, tipsy off wine and embarrassment for her attraction to me. I clicked the phone off and slid it back into my pocket. My face heated in a blush that I blamed on my drink.
Patrick walked in the door around 9pm with pizza and promises of staying sober that night. Ava and Ingrid, with pink faces, clapped their hands together, pearls hitting against one another as it slid down their wrists. When Kate arrived, stressed and in desperate need of something strong that tasted of acid, we packed up our bags and filed in a line out the door. We crowded into Patrick’s car, with me seated behind him and Ingrid next to Kate who sat squished against the window. Ava was stretched out in the passenger’s seat with her phone already plugged in, the first few chords of a crowd favorite blaring through the speakers. Kate ranted about Beyoncé’s effortless key change abilities (I mean four in one song!) as Ingrid attempted to sing along. I looked out the window and watched the yellow dividing lines race past us as Patrick turned into a neighborhood.
We arrived early to the house at the end of a cul-de-sac and awkwardly followed Ingrid inside. The house felt warm, with only a number of bodies wandering through the living room and kitchen. The carpet was torn and dirtied with footprints stamped into it, turning its tan hue brown and matted. People were smoking in a circle in the back, a straight shot from the front door, while others crowded around a table covered in green bottles. I kept close to Ingrid and Kate as we shuffled past a group to reach a bowl of queso in the back of the kitchen. I listened to Ingrid and others talk about bitchy teachers from their high school and later college, all while nibbling on a stale chips drenched in lukewarm cheese. I turned towards Patrick after a break in the conversation and asked him about work. He explained his job at a place near him and Ava’s apartment and I nodded, trying my best to not check out of the conversation.
Notoriously horrible at small talk, I had gotten used to my roommate back in college filling in the gaps for me when I inevitably would look past someone and imagine they were saying something completely different. She often yelled at me for my forgetfulness, especially after I had spent hours one-night conversing with a boy in our grade about books and couldn’t remember his name when she asked about him later. However, Patrick, a crippled alcoholic with a tragic backstory that escaped his mundane life in Massachusetts was much more interesting. Like a set of a Lifetime movie he laughed like he was rich and was admirable in his ability to relate to those around him. At least this is what I told myself as I watched his mouth form words that didn’t reach me.
I thought about school while I spoke with Patrick, my mind still crafting his B-movie romance with Ava when he trailed off waiting presumably a reply from me that didn’t come. I blinked my way back to the party, refocusing my attention to his brown striped sweater that reminded me of something a host on a children’s TV show would wear. I excused myself to the bathroom when I realized how dismissive I had been. Even I annoyed myself with how much I couldn’t pay attention.
The bathroom was located in a tiny hallway near the garage, just off the right side of the kitchen. I clicked the door shut behind me and turned to hold onto the porcelain sink. Digging my nails against the bowl, I stared at myself in the mirror. My hair had gone wiry at the ends and the blackened tips of my makeup had begun to rub off just under the crease of my eyes. I pulled my hair back and fixed it into a bun that left pieces falling out to frame my face. My eyes appeared lost as I tried to give a convincing smile to my reflection. Her judgement met my own and I let out a sigh, tipping my head forward to stare down the drain. Anxiety crawled up my throat and scratched at the dryness of my mouth, leaving my stomach achy and empty as I leaned forward to suck down some water from the faucet.
I pulled open the door after a couple of minutes and poked my head into the kitchen to find that my group had left, leaving an array of boys in bad haircuts and tight jeans scattered throughout the tiled floor. Taking a breath, I slithered through the crowd searching for Ingrid, who I found her asleep on a worn leather almond couch in the living room, her head tucked into the collar of her coat with strands of highlighted blonde hair peeking out. I sat down next to her and tapped her on her thigh a few times, then shook her awake when she didn’t respond. I held her face in my hands and waited for her eyes to adjust to meet my own. She grinned, her eyes half lidded and crossed.
“I think we’re going to leave soon.” Ingrid leaned against me on the couch, her breath smelling of vodka and something sweet. I nodded, shifting against the cushions.
“It’s definitely weird here,” I said, pushing her hair out from her face.
“It feels like high school,” she replied. The memory of our late senior parties appeared to warm her, like a candle dripping hot wax on broken skin.
She pulled out a flask from her pocket and took a sip, straightened as the liquid hit the back of her throat, then moved forward to wave to someone in the kitchen. She touched my leg in passing and disappeared through the doorway. Alone, I checked my phone again, feeling the judgmental eye of others as if their company wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t, but nevertheless I felt guilty either way. Ana still hadn’t sent anything. I typed out another message and clicked send, watched the loading bar until it beeped, then slid the phone back into my pocket. I considered calling her, but thought better of it than to do it inside with the others. I pushed myself up off the couch and stretched as I headed over towards the front door.
It had cooled down outside, the winter air sharp as I exhaled and palmed for a pack of cigarettes in my jacket. I pulled the hair out from my face and lit a cigarette, letting the flame dissipate with a gust of wind as I sucked in. Down the street the sizzling of a firework rushed towards the sky and exploded in a dewy yellow light of rain over the houses. Feeling guilty, I took another drag. It reminded me of the nights I spent on the decks of fraternity houses, sucking down cigarettes until midnight when I could properly excuse myself out from someone’s arm. It seemed entirely cliché. I checked my phone again. Nothing. Anxious, I scrolled through my contacts and hovered over Ana’s name, the bolded letters mocking me above Ava’s. I frowned, clicked her name, and held the phone against my ear.
The oddity of my isolation was its intense desperation I placed on others. In moments of loneliness I often found myself reaching to those who normally reciprocated need as a stronger sensation than I did. Ana had become my filler. While at school we spent plenty of time together, I never needed to seek her attention because she gave it to me whether I asked for it or not. Though I was drawn to her I couldn’t help feel that there was something invariably missing between us, yet my selfishness never allowed me to express this to her. While I craved our late night conversations and dreamt of my fingers dancing on the dip of her hips, I felt utterly disconnected with each ring as it neared her voicemail. Now that we were apart, I was wavering. The ringing stopped and slipped into her voice message.
“Hey, it’s me,” I said, dragging out each word. “I know this is totally weird but, if you get this, give me a call before midnight okay?” I looked back towards the door, my palm sweating against my case. “Or right after. I don’t know. Never mind. Bye.” I hung up irritated and embarrassed. I dropped the cigarette and stamped out the embers against the pavement.
I looked down at my phone again and sent a quick message to August, who would inevitably be up still back at home. Replying to a long message concerning an imminent suicide from a self-inflicted aneurysm about a cheesy pun. I’m putting that on your gravestone.
Ingrid peeked her head outside and called my name softly, like a whimper that was swallowed by another round of fireworks. I called back and waited as our group pushed their way out the door and followed one another down the driveway.
“We were wondering where you’d gone,” Ingrid said, rushing up to me. I could see sweat collecting above her lip.
“I gave her some water,” Kate whispered as she passed, her hand gently against Ingrid’s back. I nodded and reached out for Ingrid’s hand, who took my own graciously despite its dampness.
The second house was what Ingrid deemed the party for those who were considered someone at her high school, which made me giggle because of the pretentiousness of it all. The house was lit up by what felt like florescent lights that harshly outlined smearing make-up, sweaty faces and lopsided smiles. I surveyed the people around me in an attempt to find anyone I might have met back when Ingrid threw those parties in her house when her parents were out of town. Rather, I found a collection of people who seemed as if this really was the best night of their lives, people who said and did things for the sake of praise and acceptance. I wondered out loud when I had become so bitter.
“It’s so great being able to see everyone from high school again,” I said, and leaned over towards Patrick.
He laughed and folded his arms. “I pretty much just follow Ava around and let her do the talking at these things.”
“That’s a good strategy.” I took off my coat and set it down on the table in the hall.
“Unfortunately, I think my arm piece has run off with a bit too much to drink.”
Patrick laughed again without feeling and followed Ava into the kitchen, their fingers wound together tightly, leaving me in the hallway with my coat and an apple that someone had forgotten to pick up. I wandered into the living room to find a sleeping Ingrid on the couch and desperately tried to wake her up without anyone noticing.
“Don’t be that girl, okay?” I shook her awake and tried to smile to cover my irritation. “Not here, not in front of these people.” She nodded, appearing quite far away, and took out her phone, mumbling to me about a boy whose name I had never heard. A guy next to me leaned back against my shoulder while snorting and turned around out of surprise to find me beside him. He did a double take of sorts and I shivered in discomfort. I introduced myself and tried my best to sound pleasant as I flew blindly into our conversation, searching for a pause to excuse myself from his stare. Ingrid watched, a sly grin forming across her face as my cheeks darkened after he moved to put his arm behind me.
“So, why’d you move back?” The question felt almost genuine, but lacked real effort behind his widening smile. I could sense a pick-up line beginning to form.
“I had a breakdown,” I said simply, looking upwards towards the boy, whose face was now twisted into a grimace.
“And you’re here now?”
“And I’m here now.”
My phone beeped with a text from August. Nah, Liam already wrote my epitaph: He was a tired man. I laughed at its simplicity, then shifted in between the cushions and stood to excuse myself, unaware where Ingrid had sauntered off to.
As I made my way to the sliding back door, I passed Ava and Patrick in the kitchen, talking to a group of girls with lipstick all over their faces and heavy amounts of eyeshadow smearing off their eyelids. I waved awkwardly and reached for the door handle, which proved more stubborn than I expected and took a few others to help me pull it open. Ingrid stood on the corner of the porch, her legs crossed over one another as she tried to remain still against the wall. Her hair had lost its curls, and they crowded over one another as she swept them out of her face and tucked them gently behind her ear. She smiled at me as I walked up, but I could tell she had left with the last cigarette and was now just a void of someone I barely recognized. My phone beeped again. I looked down at August’s text. I thought of yours. How about, she was desperately apathetic?
“Want to be my New Year’s kiss?” she asked.
“I s’pose.” I surveyed her face, my brow furrowing as she picked at her fingers.
“We don’t need anyone else anyway,” she said, stumbling over her words. She recovered and looked down at me, biting her lip the way she did when she talked to boys. The gesture was lost on me. Someone at the other end of the porch shouted the time.
“I can’t wait for this shitty year to be over.”
Ava and Patrick stepped down from the doorstep and walked over to us. We stood in silence for a moment, the awkwardness of the evening culminating in just those few minutes outside on the porch, our shoes dirtied with cigarette ash and our noses pink from the cold. I stepped away as the countdown started, Ava and Patrick too moved towards their own corner on the porch, and Ingrid watched me carefully through squinted eyes while standing deathly still. As everyone counted down, I looked out towards the edge of the porch, past the backyard and over the fence towards the horizon. The world held its breath for us.
At midnight everyone cheered and raised their cups in unison. Unable to stop myself, I snuck at glance at Ava and Patrick, their kiss hidden by Ava’s hair. I looked away quickly and searched for another distraction as Ingrid stumbled up to me, smelling of vodka and a puff of expensive perfume. She leaned down and smashed her lips against my own. She pulled away for a moment just as I cupped her face in my hands and pressed my lips carefully against hers, unable to stop myself as a flood of old feelings and drunken memories of nights when she came searching for me to practice on sealed themselves against my skin. Ingrid grabbed at my jacket, her hands twisted in balls against the fabric. As an influx of voices erupted around us, I held Ingrid carefully, my anger rising in the pits of stomach like wilted grass set aflame. Feelings that I believed had dissipated years ago slowly started to climb back up my throat and I felt utterly caught in the middle of them, wrestling with perceptions of myself as I let her kiss me and without care kissed her back. I heard Ava laugh and immediately let go of Ingrid, the callous tone of her voice pulling me away. Irritated, I rubbed my swollen lips on my shirt. Ingrid giggled and took a couple of steps back, her balance completely lost on her.
“You two are always so cute,” Ava said with brevity.
“Well, she is my best friend.” I trailed off and looked over towards a group of guys chugging beers and cheering. In my pocket something started buzzing. I opened up my phone to see a call from Ana and slid my finger against the bar, holding the phone against my ear.
Ana’s voice flooded through the phone, a mix of familiarity and desperation playing together in her tone. “Happy New Year, gorgeous!”
I blushed and looked over towards Ava who was too busy talking to Patrick to notice. She pulled her hair back behind her ear as a smile began dancing across her lips. Distracted, I watched her and remembered when we first met at Ingrid’s, she, in a tightened red corset the matched her lipstick and accentuated her hips. She had blushed when I shook her hand, and even more so when I asked if I could kiss her, her eyes dancing across my lips in a need that I couldn’t pin down but felt immediately intimidated by. Ana cleared her throat over the phone and said something, drawing me back to the party and back to her voice.
“You too, babe,” I said after a beat, and wandered back inside, my head pounding as I shut the door. I slipped past a group of people crowded in the hallway and found the open bathroom door. Ana continued rambling on the other line, saying sweet nothings that I couldn’t make out, but made me blush regardless. I shut the door and fell onto the floor, my eyes watering as she continued. Her voice was oddly familiar, interrupting the silence I had built in my head with her velvety tone that threw me back to crowded dorm rooms, cheap vodka and board games with timers that we would yell at whenever they went off. As I stared at the porcelain tub, I could no longer remember the evening, as if the moment I left Ingrid’s house I faded away from my body and spent my time elsewhere until I felt ready to return. My head was light as the broken mirror light beamed down on me, the heat making me sweat inside my faux leather jacket. I let go of the phone and buried my face into my knees, hugging myself and wishing I was anywhere else. My phone beeped again with a message from August. How about, she didn’t love you?
It was past one in the morning when Ingrid and I left Ava’s and drove home. I clutched the wheel anxiously, my palms sweaty as cars sped past us on the back roads towards Ingrid’s old high school. Ingrid was curled up in a ball in the passenger’s seat, hidden by the folded wool of her coat, her breathing fast and shallow as the car rumbled past another light. I turned to look over at her, her sunken face from pale against the neon green light illuminating her sallow cheeks.
“Went a little too hard tonight, huh?” I asked playfully, sneaking a glance at her as she propped herself up in the seat. My phone went off again, the buzz vibrating against the plastic cup holder.
“You like her don’t you?”
I frowned and shook my head in confusion. “I mean sure, we dated for a while,” I said. “But, you know how I’m stupid about this kind of thing.”
Ingrid shook her head. “No, Ava,” she said, her voice sharp against the silence. “You still like her.”
I concentrated on the road, my arms stiff. “Shut-up.”
“Just tell her.”
“She has a boyfriend,” I said. I looked over at Ingrid and tried to flatten my tone so it sounded secure. “I can’t do that to them.”
“When did you start caring so much about that?”
I laughed bitterly. “Do you not?”
Ingrid threw a hand up dismissively and leaned against the window. Blowing past another light, the car rattled against the wind.
“Do you still want to grab something to eat?” I asked, breaking the silence. I looked over towards Ingrid who was slumped against the window. “Ingrid?” She didn’t answer me, but let out a deep sigh, a smile disappearing across her face and her head rolled forward as I turned onto her street. While there were no stars out, and the fog of forgotten fireworks spread across the sky in a haze, the night left me cold in her car with the only comfort coming from Ingrid, curled in a tight ball, her breathing matching my own as we sped down the street pretending we were still in high school and my life was still intact.