Biking over the bridge in the evening, I looked up and hoped for mountains. On clear days, when the sun hit just right, in the middle of the pink dusk the white capped peak was visible there in the distance, untouchably far, rising over the city. That day, I searched for it and saw nothing but pale shaded sky, and the memory of where the mountain was when it was there.
I got home sweaty, hair sticking slick to my forehead when I took off my helmet. No one was outside, everyone either watching Netflix separately in their rooms, or already at the cookout down the street.
The house felt larger than it was. Roomy, airy, this craftsman-style place that had been passed down through generations of students. The windows were large, the light slipping and casting golden shapes on every surface. The house was on a corner, and the light came in from every direction. That summer, there were four of us there, after the two people who had been living in the concrete, unfinished basement had moved out.
Upstairs, I fell onto my bed on the floor, the mattress that took up every inch of space in the room. I flipped on the fan that was shoved into the window. The door closed, I peeled off my sweat stained tank-top, waited for my breath to even out. My lips were grainy, the salt sweat thick, heavy on them.
I checked my phone but there was nothing new. Just one small red number in the right corner of the message icon, the message unread, waiting.
The world outside was glowing. Though my body was covered in dried sweat, though my hair stuck to my skin and my legs were aching, I wanted so badly to be out in it.
In the bathroom, I splashed cold water on my face. I took a bright pink razor and shaved the places on my legs I had missed that morning. The hairs fell on the floor and the sink.
Down the street, in the backyard of the lilac colored house, everyone was already drunk. As I opened the gate, the scent of fire, hot dogs, and roasting vegetables came thick to greet me. I wove through people, toward the fire, where Ryan was standing, gesturing wildly with one hand, a can of Rainier in the other. He was talking with Katherine and didn’t look up when I appeared next to him.
“Hey,” I said, tapping on his arm and pointing. “Can I grab one of those?”
“Oh, hey,” he said. Katherine raised her chin. She was wearing a formless black dress that made me feel things I couldn’t name. “There’s a bunch in the house, in the fridge.”
No one said hello to me as I walked to the house. Walt waved from across the yard, where he stood in the middle of a group of boys all dressed alike, in tight black jeans and Hawaiian shirts. I waved back. Walt was the only one of Ryan’s friends who would find me at parties on purpose, would offer me beer and drugs for free, would ask me how I was doing, would tell me about his plans and dreams like I was a co-conspirator, smiling at me like an invitation. It was my favorite, to sit between Ryan and Walt, to stand next to them in circles of their friends, so that even if I didn’t say anything, it felt okay that I was there.
In the kitchen, Noah was crushing avocados into a green paste. “Hey Nicole,” he said. When he was out of it, when no one else was around, Noah talked to me like we had some secret understanding that I wasn’t in on, looked at me in a way that made me uncomfortable and awake. He was blocking the way to the refrigerator, his back almost touching it as he stirred the guacamole at the kitchen island.
“Can I grab a beer?” I said, motioning with my head towards the fridge.
He handed me a not-yet-cold Rainier, and paused, just for a moment, both of us holding the can.
“You doing okay?” I asked, laughing, at the same moment he let go.
“Yeah, try this. I can’t tell if it’s good.” He handed me a chip with a glistening scoop of avocado.
“More salt,” I said, waving to him. I felt his eyes on me as I left. I felt like such a freak when people looked at me. I didn’t want to know what these people thought of my faded, low-rise denim shorts, or my one pair of shoes that I got from Target, worn through at the bottom. The wooden steps that led to the backyard creaked beneath my feet. I opened the can and drank.
Outside, Ryan and Katherine were saying, “Jeff Koons,” back and forth, with varying levels of disdain. I wasn’t sure what it meant, so I stood next to Ryan, and waited for the conversation to move on.
Walt was wandering around the backyard, offering everyone lines of K. I shook my head when it was my turn and watched Ryan and Katherine snort pale lines off the arm of a lawn chair, the dust falling into the cracks where the paint was peeling. They lifted their heads, laughing and looking into each other’s eyes. It was going to be one of those nights. But I was outside and the sun was still draping the world in gold, and Ryan had put a hot dog on the grill for me while I was inside, and it was nice enough to be wearing shorts. I took out a piece of gum, the sharpness of the mint cutting through each sip of beer. I liked always having something to do, some motion to make, even when I wasn’t talking.
It was one of those nights when they all got fucked up, when they talked to each other about things I didn’t know anything about, and I sat next to Ryan and sipped beer and laughed at the jokes I wasn’t in on. I took off my shoes, sat on my feet, and waited. The sweetness of the summer air, the breeze that rustled through the trees, was enough to make it worth it to be there.
“Hey,” Harry said across the fire pit. “I think I saw you today.”
There was a pause as everyone looked towards me, where I sat with my legs tucked beneath me, beer cupped between my palms. “Who, me?” I said and felt my stomach drop. Of course he was talking to me.
“Yeah, you work at that food cart on Washington right?” I nodded. “Yeah, I walked past there today, there was a huge line.”
“Yeah, we were slammed today.”
“What were you doing downtown?” Katherine said to Harry, laughing. Somehow, none of them ever seemed to have jobs, even though they had drugs and cars and big rooms in nice houses.
No one asked about the food cart, about how hot it got, with four people crammed in that metal space, with one small window in the front, one vent on the top, the back door propped open, the large grill on high, four stovetops running, boiling water, steam, heat, sweat mixing all together. No one asked, so I didn’t tell them about the way we could anticipate each other, how I could squeeze behind the person chopping cucumbers, to get to the extra portions in the hopper, how I could see from the back if someone was coming to the window, could weave between people in that small space and get to the customer, smiling, before they even appeared.
“Have you seen Sleepaway Camp?” Katherine was saying. She was sitting on the other side of Ryan as they passed a cigarette back and forth. “We just watched it last night, it’s this extremely campy horror movie from the seventies. Is anyone going to watch it? Can I give away the ending?”
I leaned over to Ryan. “I’m getting another beer, want anything?” He blinked at me for a moment and shook his head.
Barefoot in the kitchen, I leaned against the counter and checked my phone. Nothing new, just the unread text, that number, staring at me. I didn’t want to go home but I didn’t want to listen to them anymore. Sometimes, Walt and I would sneak away from a party for a minute, walk around the block. I had watched him drink enough, do enough lines, that I knew this wouldn’t be happening tonight.
The sound of the beer cracking open in my hands rippled in the dark kitchen. Through the open window, I could hear Ryan talking, telling everyone about how his parents were coming to town over the weekend, how his dad could take them all out to dinner. His parents didn’t know we were dating, and we’d already decided that he’d invite his friends and we’d all go as a group. I would be just another friend, no pressure.
“Oh my god, the last time your mom was in town,” Katherine said. “Remember when she got so drunk at that bar and stopped talking to all of us, and was just going around petting stranger’s dogs?”
I stayed in the kitchen and held on to the beer. I counted how many I had already had. One when I got here, two when I was sitting outside, the fourth open in my hand.
I took a drink and tried to not listen, tried to think about something else, but then there was that number, that text, waiting for me. I took another drink but things wouldn’t steady. There was something in my throat. Things that were not supposed to be coming out were coming out. I went to the bathroom.
No one was inside so I didn’t keep my mouth closed. I faced myself in the mirror and watched ugly noises come out of me. The sink was cold but not cold enough under my fingers. I held the edges. What kind of girl cries at a party. I turned on the water, cupped my hands beneath the stream. I splashed my face, but it was still coming. What kind of a freak. Nothing had happened, and here I was, arms bent like wildfires, sobbing over the running water.
I turned off the faucet, sat and put my back against the tub, knees to my forehead. I was glad the floor was dirty. I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes.
“Fucking idiot,” I didn’t know where it was coming from. “Get a grip. You are fine.”
I don’t know how long I was there, but eventually there were footsteps. Someone knocking.
“One second,” I said. Before I could get up Noah was opening the door, stepping inside. “Oh, sorry.” I started to get up, but he waved his hand at me.
“No worries,” he said. He closed the door and I wasn’t sure what was happening or if I was supposed to leave. He stepped over my legs, turned his back to me and started to pee. I closed my eyes and waited.
He didn’t flush or wash his hands. I heard the flutter of his zipper, and then he sat down next to me, his shoulder touching mine. I looked at him. He flicked away the hair that had gotten in his eyes.
“What’re you doing?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just needed a second, you know?”
“Yeah. You want me to get you anything?”
“No, no, I’m good. Thanks though.” I coughed and kept my head turned away from him. He slid down so that his neck was arched on the rim of the tub and looked at the ceiling. “We should probably go back outside,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah, one second,” he said. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and started to play a song, some electronic music that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place. “In a second.” His head slid onto my shoulder. I knew I should get up, that he was stoned out of his mind, but the tub was cool and solid behind me and he was there, and the music was strange and nice, and it started to come all over again, but sharp this time, and it was better to not be alone. I was quiet, and only shook a little, and he was too out of it to notice anyway.
When the song ended we sat in silence, leaning on each other.
I stood up and offered him a hand and hoped he couldn’t see my face at that angle. I was too far from the mirror to see if my skin was patchwork red. He took my hand and we went out into the hallway. I didn’t think I had been gone that long, but the sun had fallen, the hallway covered in shadow. His hand was soft. I led him to the kitchen, and he held on, his thumb moving across my hand.
Ryan was putting chips in his mouth like he didn’t taste them. “Oh, hey,” he said, watching us let go of each other.
I stopped and looked at him. Noah kept walking towards the fire, like he hadn’t even seen Ryan. “I think I should go home soon, I’ve got work in the morning and am pretty tired,” I said.
I heard him clear his throat. In the dark kitchen his neon blue shirt looked like water. “Did you get my text?”
“No,” I pulled my phone from my pocket and saw the notification. “Sorry, I missed it. What’s up?”
“I just, I was just asking if you wanted to leave.”
We stood there, listening to other people laughing outside, not knowing what to do next.
“Can we go?” he said, like he didn’t know the answer.
We left through the front of the house and didn’t say goodbye to anyone. We walked down the street, not touching or talking. In my room it was hot, even with the fan on high. We lay together, pressed close, sweating. I held his arms around me and tried to breathe. I don’t remember if we kissed.
I woke up early, like always, the sun barely shading the sky yellow, the birds loud outside my window.
I woke up and felt it in my stomach. Ryan was still asleep. I pushed my body into his and hoped it would stop, hoped I could go back to sleep, but I knew better. There was something sharp, something insistent happening. I got up.
The bathroom was bright and dirty. There were short brown hairs sprinkled over the counter. I sat on the toilet lid and looked. The pink shade of the razor, still sitting on the sink, made me want to throw up.
I picked it up and it scared me, how light it was. It had been years since the last time I’d pressed anything against my skin, the small razors slicing three at once, slid sideways so they left marks where I wanted them to. The first time it happened, when I was thirteen in that nowhere Midwestern town, the door was open. He had broken it down, not even to hit me, not to get anything from me, just to yell better, just to make sure I knew there was nowhere I could hide from him. When he was done, he had slammed the door behind him so hard that it bounced back open. I had been crying, and there it was. The plastic in my hands. The short, thin blades. It was embarrassing, the kind of thing that weird kids in school did for attention, so I had made sure to do it on my thighs, where no one would see.
I didn’t like to think about the place I used to live, the house I grew up in, the people I lived with, who I was at thirteen. I had moved to this city to get away from all that, to start a new life. I took a deep breath. I set the razor down and held on to my stomach.
I turned on the shower and got in before the water was warm. I got dressed in my work clothes, though it was still an hour before I had to leave for my shift. Wet hair dripping on my shirt, I went back to my room. The air was thick and stagnant. Ryan was snoring. I lay down next to him and put his arms around me. He pressed his face into the wet hair, and I thought that maybe he had woken up.
I wasn’t sure where I was anymore. I closed my eyes and tried to fall back asleep, but all I could feel was it, in me. It was a pressure in my chest, a moving heat. It was living in my stomach. It was sharp. It was urgent. It wanted to get out.
I pulled out my phone and there was the number, staring at me. It was not going away. My blood went in every direction when I opened it.
Not that you care, but I had to go to the hospital. Something wrong with my liver. It’s serious.
I stared at the words on the screen. I counted my breath. I pressed harder in Ryan, to feel his stomach rising and falling against my back.
“Morning,” he said.
“Sorry if I woke you up.” He grunted. “I got a text from my dad.” I could never remember what I had told Ryan, what he knew from the nights when I drank too much and cried in front of him and said things out loud that I shouldn’t.
He groaned. “What time is it?”
“Seven thirty.” He made a noise and turned on his back, one arm still slung beneath me.
“Hey, what happened last night?”
“What do you mean?” I tried to remember how much I had seen him drink, how quickly he had fallen asleep, what his eyes had looked like in the moment before I had turned off the lights in my room.
“With Noah? You two disappeared.”
“God, he was super fucked up.”
Ryan shifted, pulling his arms away, rubbing his eyes. “You disappear together, don’t see my text, and that’s all you have to say?”
“What? What do you want me to say?” I turned to look at up at him. I tried to press my face against his chest but he shook his head.
“You were holding his hand.”
“Ryan you know how he gets.” All of it was there, in my chest, coming out. “Please don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
“You know how he gets when he’s drunk, I was just trying to be nice to him. Don’t get mad at me for what he did. At least he was talking to me.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You hardly spoke to me all night. You only talked to Katherine.”
He sighed like he always did. “She’s my best friend.”
“And? you could have at least tried to include me in any of your conversations.”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation again.”
His eyes were pinched blades. I didn’t mean to, but it was there, coming out. I rolled away from him and couldn’t stop it. This was all there was, and I was ruining it. This tiny room was all I had, and there was no place for me in it.
“Don’t cry,” he said. He shifted closer and put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, we can talk about this later.” I was somewhere far away. “Hey, come here,” he said. He shifted close to me and pressed my shaking body to his, my wet hair against his skin. “It’s okay.” He held on to me until it passed, until my breath came as even as his own.
When I left for work that day, he had fallen back asleep, snoring gently.
I was late. The neon light of the open sign was flashing on my face as I locked my bike. I kept my head down when I walked inside, hoping that no one would check inside my bag and see the leftovers I had taken home from work.
Inside, it was cool and dim. They already had a table, Ryan sitting next to his dad, Walt across from them, Katherine next to Ryan’s mom, talking like they were old friends. Harry looked at me and shrugged from where he sat next to Ryan, who nodded his head at me. “You know Nicole, yeah?” he asked his parents. “We were in the same dorm freshman year.”
“Sorry I’m late,” I said, trying to judge where I could find a seat. “Just got done at work.”
“Where do you work?” Ryan’s dad asked. Noah shifted closer to Katherine to make room for me at the end of the table.
“Oh, just a food cart downtown,” I said.
“We’re doing family style, help yourself,” Ryan’s mom said, passing a plate to me.
“Thanks,” I said. Ryan had told me that his parents were paying, that they did this whenever they were in town. I stared at the dishes scattered around the table. There was a bowl of hummus at the far end. I ate a few pieces of bread from a plate from close by. Everyone had cocktails and craft beers in front of them, sweating.
“So, Los Angeles.” Ryan’s dad said to Walt.
Walt grinned and said a lot of things about L.A., about cityscapes and deserts and communes, and I stopped listening. I was trying to find the right break in the conversation to ask someone to pass the hummus when Ryan’s mom turned to me.
“What about you Nicole? Are you staying here after graduation, or on to bigger and better things?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I hadn’t thought that far.” It didn’t make sense to me, the way these same people who could do ketamine like nothing, could have these kinds of conversations with near strangers, parents who dressed like they emerged fully formed from a J. Crew catalog, without missing a beat.
“What do your parents do Nicole?” Ryan’s dad asked.
I glanced up; no one else here had ever asked me that. “He, he works in insurance,” I said. “In Wisconsin.”
“Oh, is that where you’re from? I’ve never been but have had my fair share of Wisconsin cheddar.” Ryan’s dad laughed.
I laughed along with them and did not say out loud that we had only ever had bright orange Kraft cheese, did not mention the choruses of you’ve never had that before? that I’d heard when I had moved here, when I had to say over and over that I didn’t know what manchego was, or goat cheese, or gorgonzola, or camembert, that this was a foreign language that I hadn’t known existed. I didn’t mention how many months it had been since I’d spoken to my father, that he was sick and maybe in the hospital, that I couldn’t breathe when he texted me. I held my own hand and kept my head down.
It happened slowly, the eating, the sprinkling conversation. Ryan ordered a beer and passed it to me. I smiled relief to him, quiet under the gazes of everyone else at the table. I tried to sit up straighter, to find a place to contribute to the conversation, but it all passed over me like a wave.
“Can I help with the tip?” I said when we were leaving. It didn’t feel right, to consume so much and contribute so little.
Katherine looked at me and sneered, and I wondered if she thought I was trying to suck up to them. I wondered if she hated me.
“No, no, don’t worry about it,” his parents waved me off, laying a heavy card on the table.
Ryan left in a car with his parents, and I was there on the street with his friends, not sure if I was supposed to leave.
“My house?” Katherine said. I was standing on the edge of the circle of people and didn’t know if that meant me too. I tried to make eye contact with Walt, but he wasn’t looking. People nodded, decided who was going to ride with who. No one mentioned that I had my bike and couldn’t ride with anyone.
“See you,” I waved.
“I’ll walk back with you,” Noah said. I tried to remember if he was drunk.
“Oh, okay,” I said. Everyone else disappeared. I held on to the handlebars as I pushed, glad for something to hold on to.
“Katherine is kind of a bitch to you, huh,” he said.
“Okay?” I said. I was wearing the same old shorts I always wore, the same broken-down shoes, an interchangeable, sweat stained, plain shirt. I thought of how natural, how collected Katherine looked, even when she was sweating in the humidity of a long afternoon, how she laughed like she belonged everywhere.
He bumped his arm into mine. I waited for him to say more. “I didn’t know you were from Wisconsin.”
“Why don’t you ever talk?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re always so quiet. When I see you with Ryan you’re not like that.”
“I don’t know.” There was a moment of silence where I didn’t know what to say. “You going to L.A. too after you graduate?”
“No way,” he said. “I like it here. Would you go back to Wisconsin?” I shrugged and did not want to look at him.
“I don’t ever want to go back there. There’s nothing really to go back to.”
“Why are you always like that?” He said.
“Fucking, weird and cryptic.” He laughed, and I was not sure what he was laughing at.
“Oh,” I said. “I don’t know.”
Something was biting at me. I wanted to go home and close the door and cry without stopping. When we got to his lilac house, it was dark.
“You want to hang out?” he said. He gave me a look like we would both know what would happen if I went inside.
“I should get home, you know, work early.”
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah okay.” He waved and didn’t look back as he walked into the house.
I pushed my bike down the sidewalk, the spokes clicking. The air was heavy with the scent of blooming, roses and lavender, gardens and trees and plants I didn’t know the names of overflowing. In every breath I told myself how good it was to be here, how the Wisconsin summer smelled like nothing but sweat and fear, how walking home was all concrete and oil, and here I was, so far away, living a new and adventurous life.
Can I come over? Ryan texted.
I went in the house and stared at myself in the mirror. The hairs were still on the sink. What would it be, to have a place to go back to, to have people who appeared just like that, to treat everyone to food and drinks like it was nothing, to know that even if something went wrong, if a bill got lost in the mail and there was a late charge, that it would be taken care of, it would be okay, to be able to buy those kinds of clothes they all wore, the kinds of dresses that made Katherine look effortless and elegant, to be able to move through the world with the confidence that each day would be the same, safe and circadian.
I took two beers to the porch, stared up at the sky and waited for Ryan to come. The cicadas were humming. I sat in the blossom heavy summer, beads of sweat running down the side of the beer bottle.
I didn’t want it to be one of those nights when I drank too much, and let something slip, when I would start to cry and Ryan wouldn’t know what to do and neither would I, when he would be kind, and he would hold me, and he wouldn’t tell anyone else the things I told him.
I leaned back in the chair, put my feet on the porch railing, and waited.
My head was pounding as I biked to work. The sun was a knife. The trees were reminders that I wasn’t appreciating them.
I locked my bike behind the truck, unlocked the door, and turned on the grill. It smelled like yeast and cheese.
“Hey Nicole,” Matt said, appearing in the back. I smiled and clocked him in. I wasn’t supposed to know the code to clock him in, but it was okay.
The front window still closed, I started portioning the dough while he chopped cucumbers in thick, uneven chunks.
“They’re not giving me enough hours at Starbucks to get insurance,” he said. “I’m a few hours a week short.”
“That sucks,” I said, slapping dough onto the scale, and moving the portions into the cardboard boats.
“Do you get insurance through your college?”
“No, I’m still on my parents.”
“God, I’m jealous,” he laughed.
When we opened, the day passed bright, quick, and sweaty. There was no time to stop and think, our bodies on autopilot, moving in small, tight bursts. The owners left crates of Gatorade in the truck that we drank like we were dying. We were covered in sweat, wiping our foreheads, sticking our heads out of the window when the lunch rush ended, the breeze licking our cheeks.
That night as I crossed the bridge, I looked up. In the pink blue sky there was nothing, just thin lines of pale clouds. I got off the bike and stood there, over the river, staring at where the mountain was supposed to be, and the promise that it would be there tomorrow.