“Don’t look now.”
I turned to the window and saw a Mercedes parked in the lot. My heart sank.
“I told you not to look.” My roommate Romina rolled her eyes—at what, it was always hard to tell. “That thing’s probably worth two years of tuition. So wasteful.”
We were in a café a few blocks from campus. You and this other white kid we also dreaded were the ones who’d gotten mugged somewhere near here. And the guy who’d stuck you up hadn’t been a guy but a woman, according to the safety notification email from reslife. BRIEF DETAILS: An unidentified female approached and displayed a handgun. One of the victims attempted to defend the other, but was struck in the head repeatedly with the suspect’s handgun. I found the idea of non-stereotypical robbers in a college town where the school was worth billions funny in a sad way, because it meant the world really wasn’t getting better as we got older, only more different.
Romina and me were best friends. We turned twenty together at the beginning of the semester, back when we could hang out barefoot on our suite’s fire-escape without freezing. Now we watched you climb into the driver’s seat and fiddle with the ignition. Your car wouldn’t start. It was stuck in the lot. I didn’t know why, but the engine’s muffled groans made my heart race. Romina shook her head.
Romina had doll-like features and nice even skin that was true black. Somali black. Everything about her was playful, pretty, and pragmatic all at once. I wanted to be with her forever. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to diffuse into the pores of her skin until I became her. She was the beautiful conclusion to everything I’d ever worked for: the exotic gorgeous that came after my conventional attractiveness, the genius after my year-old National Merit Scholarship. I didn’t think she was hiding anything broken inside of her like I was, though she had confided in me that her mom’s obesity problem made them both feel like failures. My love for her was like what I felt for you, only without the erotic elements. All that was left was longing, which meant our friendship was technically miserable for me in a thrilling kind of way.
We met during freshman move-in day at the college, a small liberal arts place where word traveled like wildfire. Back then, we shared a tiny room that had only one closet. I drove to Lexington on my own and rolled my suitcase across the campus greens, pretending I was the main character in a movie whose happy end had finally come. I imagined the world dimming around me as I climbed up the dorm’s slate steps; my new home, dreams of psychiatry school propelling me forward. Everything smelled like fresh flowers and sweat. Our first night together, Romina dusted the room’s edges with a white powder that stained everything. She ignored me when I asked what she was doing, or maybe she just didn’t hear. Maybe the scowls she made weren’t meant for me but rather for the white that smeared impressionistic clouds onto her blue socks. Regardless, her silence made me cry in the shower two different times. We didn’t become friends until we both enrolled in Art History I by chance and bonded over just who those ethnic girls tucked in the far corners of The Turkish Bath could be. Only then did she explain the powder to me—non-toxic insecticide, her mom’s idea.
Like us, you were from the college. We could tell it was you just by what you were wearing: acid wash jeans from last night, your creamsicle colored ski coat. You came from money. You’d grown up in a mansion within spitting distance of a cemetery, your politician dad always away on business and your dead mom buried next-door. You’d been that one “local” sophomore between me and Romina, ever since you stopped being “the boy from ‘The Golden Age of Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer’” after you dropped. To you, we were probably just girls.
Almost all the tables were taken. Most people chose to sit away from the door like us, except a man cutting a hunk of carrot cake into polite, tea-party sized slices. A group of women my mom’s age were laugh-squealing in line. One of them kept saying “that’s insane!” over and over, the words exploding from a creaky part of her throat.
“What you have to do,” Romina told me for the millionth time, “is find something good to think about. That way, when you go to bed, you won’t wind up face-to-face with something unpleasant.” Her eyes wandered back to the parking lot where you struggled to start your car.
I put my hands over my eyes to block out the light. I’d been trying to take her advice, reminding myself constantly of her and the women from the Turkish bath even though none of it ever did any good. When I played out the good memories for too long, they inevitably soured. Memories of Romina led to the ones of me crying. Same with the happy parts of my childhood; they all revolved around my being raped as a little girl, a memory so strong and yet so fuzzy that it felt like an emotion. People couldn’t help me, let alone the thought of them.
“I told you Romina,” I said. “I can’t control my mind. It’s not that simple.”
“Did you know that people can control their dreams? I’ve read about it so many times it’s practically cliché.”
She didn’t know about my past, only that I was a vague victim of a ubiquitous system—ableism, racism, etc. She was always trying to get me to come to her womanist club meetings, which had become even more depressing after someone hung a bunch of nooses on the oak tree at Graduation Hill. I let my face sink deeper into my hands. Desperation made my body feel light and heavy at the same time.
“Fine,” I told her. “What should I dream about?”
“Do you have a crush on anyone?”
She pointed out men to me when I didn’t respond. “What about him? Or him? Or him?”
“Okay. Sure, I like someone. Please, just lower your voice.”
“Don’t think about anything but him. Not until your parents fix the insurance thing.”
“Great, lemme just drain my brain of all the pesky, un-cute academic stuff like organic chemistry and all of women’s lib.”
“Seriously. If you try thinking of nothing, you’ll only invite in the bad thoughts. That’s what my mom’s therapist used to tell her during her spiritual phase.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to imagine some faceless, colorless man and me in the rich part of Virginia Beach where tourists went. We were walking and holding hands. Or maybe we were riding horses. But the man kept morphing into you. You kept ruining a fantasy I’d never wanted.
I hadn’t started desiring anyone but myself until freshman year, when I became obsessed with this one singer who looked exactly like you. Before that, I’d floated through my teenage years blankly, unaffected by boy bands and the slightly-above-average-looking guys back home who wouldn’t stop staring holes through me. I turned down a prom-posal from the star linebacker, telling him yes when he gave me a bucket of pink roses at assembly and revealing the truth over text. He was sweet about it—he went as far as apologizing for putting me in such an awkward position—but that was only because he knew what had been done to me. The whole town did. Watching him make out with his ex the next day made me feel vindicated, as if I’d avoided contracting a contagious disease. I preferred fantasizing about having sex with ghosts—not like the one from that movie with Whoopi Goldberg where they all make pottery, but rather an invisible force I could will away each time I finished in the soapstone tub at home with the door barricaded. I blamed people like the pop star and you for infecting me. They’d forced their way into my subconscious and I hated them for it. I didn’t want to cry over you but you made me.
“Who is it?” Romina cocked her head.
I shrugged. She either changed the topic or read my mind. It was always hard to gauge how much she knew about a person. I think what kept me with her was my desire to figure her out.
“Did you know he’s on meds?” Romina said. She meant you. “Depression. Someone told me and I honestly don’t get how he ended up the way he is now.”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing about myself a lot lately.”
“Stop it. We’re stronger.”
Unlike you, I couldn’t afford things like prescription medication anymore. My insurance card hadn’t gone through at Walgreens last month and now my mind wouldn’t stop racing. I concentrated on the barista brewing foam in a stainless-steel pitcher. My heart was beating fast. I felt like I was disappearing, as if my brain was absorbing me. I tried to pretend to be like the jug of milk behind the counter: inanimate, uncomplicated. Cool. Romina started playing with sugar packets again, pouring the sugar onto the table before blowing it all onto the floor through a coffee straw. I wanted to hug her and I wanted to yell at her for making a mess and yank the straw out of her hand.
The reality of having my health insurance lapse was finally starting to set in. My hands kept shivering even in the dank-smelling warmth of the café, as I pressed my fingers up against the teapot. Someone dropped something glass. The shattering sound made everyone go silent until the women in line started laughing again.
A nose-ringed girl I’d seen a million times before at school but didn’t know walked up to our table and started talking to Romina in Spanish. Romina’s face brightened.
They talked fast like voices from a telephone receiver pressed up against someone else’s ear. I couldn’t stop thinking that I was already being left behind, even though my loneliness had existed when I took medication. In her social circle, there were two groups: me and her, and her and all her other friends from the clubs and parties she’d thrived in since forever.
The insurance people still weren’t letting me get my prescription. The customer service lady I’d talked to this morning suggested prayer in lieu of paroxetine. I’d laughed until she hung up, leaving me to deal with the terror of my own mind. I was afraid of it becoming nighttime, because by then I’d be completely alone with the evergreen memory of my rotten childhood pains as soon as I closed my eyes. My life couldn’t go on here. I’d have to drop out of college like my mom did when she had my sister, which meant I’d never see you again, which meant that Romina wouldn’t be my roommate anymore and I’d never see her again either—or at least not for a very long time, and even then she’d drift away as newer, disparate memories took over the ones we’d shared. I would become nothing. I would be left with only the cyclical bitterness my abuser, a boy from my neighborhood, had forced upon me, on top of me, when I was little.
I’d tried to tell Romina about leaving, but her answer had been the café. We were both addicted to quasi-medicinal remedies. We drank detox teas, pomegranate juice, kombucha, matcha, oolong. We did DIY olive oil nail soaks and wore face masks imported from Korea and Japan. We’d called ourselves almost-twins for a while because we seemed so similar. I came from Nevers, just ten-point-two miles away from this town, your home. Romina was from slightly further out in true backwater Virginia where even innocuous places like insurance offices flew confederate flags. My sister once dated a man from the same county as hers, a sculptor-slash-waiter who’d let me trace over his Chinese dragon tattoos with my nails whenever they visited me at Children’s Hospital after my assault.
I was tired of trying to convince Romina that I wasn’t like her at all. I drank half of my cup of tea—jasmine with a hint of mint. I let the rest go cold.
You were all like dolls that came only in a giant, expensive set I could never afford, she and you and my insurance plan and the woman robber and the whole entire school. Another memory: me at eleven screaming in Toys R Us because my mom wouldn’t buy me a Bratz Doll for my birthday, which had long passed. I’d become spoilt by my parents’ pity. “But you have to,” I said. I threatened to say the word aloud, the thing that had been done to me months before. I didn’t understand its significance. Or rather, I hadn’t yet pinned clinical words like molestation to my emotions, which swirled together like unnamed colors.
“See you around then.”
I opened my eyes. I hadn’t realized they’d been closed. The girl was walking towards the cash register. I’d almost forgotten: you, the Mercedes. We couldn’t hear the engine anymore but I could tell it was failing. You got out and pried open the hood only to close it again.
The smell of burnt coffee filled the room. The weather had started getting colder. The cafe’s heat was on full blast. Romina had driven me to Walgreens, and now we were here wasting away our Saturday for this—for wobbly tables and dirty tiled floors etched in blackish grout, chairs made of recycled plastic, and weak tea. Pop songs from ten years ago crackled from speakers in the ceiling.
Romina didn’t like you because she thought you were one of the pretentious kids in class who liked the sound of their own voice, always talking in tedious circles until someone got the courage to cut you off. She’d heard from two different girls that you had the opening line from Slaughterhouse Five tattooed on your inner thigh. She thought your party last Sunday sucked because who threw a party on a Sunday? You’d invited Romina and me over Facebook. We knew through a friend-of-a-friend that you liked us both and that this fact both excited and disturbed you because you’d never tried girls like us before. You probably thought we should’ve taken it as a compliment, you believing we were pretty as if we hadn’t heard that word all our lives even in racist remarks. On the walk over to your sucky party, Romina’s boyfriend, a sloth-faced Puerto Rican from New Jersey, said she looked like this white actress he liked except painted black. I was horrified. Romina giggled.
We stayed packed like sardines in your suite’s common room with a million other kids, Romina because she needed an audience to show off her boyfriend who I couldn’t stand, me because I wanted to know how other students lived outside of the restrictively tight-knit women’s dorm we’d outgrown. Your room was in East Building, a Neo-Romanesque castle that overlooked Main Street. Most everyone who came seemed to stick around for free alcohol or because they were nosy like me.
You yelled for someone to close the door so campus security wouldn’t see the open Smirnoff bottles. Your baby face made you look like you could be someone’s little brother visiting for the weekend, but your voice sounded like it belonged to a forty-year-old man with kids and a mortgage. I didn’t want to tell Romina—she’d definitely make fun of me—but I thought you were cute.
You and me existed in that liminal stage of acquaintanceship where we knew each other’s names despite never having talked. The school was small for sure, but not intimate. Names served as an awkward hindrance that could only be overcome by pretending to be strangers learning of the other’s existence for the very first time. Without introducing yourself, you told me you’d written a short story that a major magazine had picked up. It was about a battered child whose sadness literally becomes infectious, spreading through his small town and then the country and the world. And then—nothing. You ended the story there when you realized you couldn’t find your cell phone and ran off. I felt a nameless terror bubbling inside of me, so I left before you could come back. I’d read somewhere that people were more likely to remember someone if they had to leave them before they were ready.
“I’m withdrawing today,” I said. Tears started stinging my eyes. “It’ll only get worse if I keep just thinking about it.”
Nothing much has happened since I moved home. I like to lie on my bedroom floor and fall asleep at odd hours of the never-ending day that my life has become. I don’t like the way the bed feels—too soft. I think about you often. I tried looking up that story you wrote, but all the search results were random articles about lead poisoning. Maybe that was your inspiration—the long-term neurological damage of lead waterpipes. The conversation we had plays on an infinite loop that feels energizing but also maddening.
Then there’s the memory of you driving off. When I close my eyes, you’re still there. Your car has finally started up and you’re backing out of the lot as I bawl like a little kid. Romina goes to hold my hand. Her grip tightens, then loosens.