“Did you kiss him?” I demanded.
She was sheepish on purpose. She definitely had kissed him, and she wanted me to ask about it. I don’t even care, I said to myself, but I did.
“It’s exciting, isn’t it, Rosie?” She gripped the top of the chair that she was sitting on backwards, a bland and basic dorm room desk chair. “Boys! I never cared about them before. Now I do! We both have such a pathetic boy history, you know.”
I wanted to use the classic line, “speak for yourself,” but I knew it wouldn’t work on Christina. She knew me as well as anyone could know me, and because no one knew about the girls, no one thought that I had much of a romantic history at all.
“Yep,” I sighed melodramatically, “pathetic.”
She didn’t feel bad about it anymore because she wasn’t pathetic anymore. I was, and she pitied me for it.
“Stop looking at me like that. It’s not like I haven’t been kissed before. I’ve dated two guys, and you’re only kind of dating people.”
She eyed me. I was defensive. I’d only ever held hands with my boyfriends, but no one knew that. I’d only kissed one person in the twenty years I’d been on this earth.
“Yeah, I know, I know.” Christina gave up on trying to decipher my indignance.
“First Jeremiah, now Ethan? You’re throwing kisses around like confetti,” I said. I’d never done that. I had always been careful and deliberate, especially with the boys.
“Yes,” she said. “Beautiful, beautiful confetti.” She didn’t notice the accusation in my voice, or maybe disregarded it anyway. She left her backwards-facing chair and spun around the room, her arms wide and away from her like wings.
“You’re being ridiculous. What even happened while you were gone? I thought Jeremiah was it for you.”
Christina had been studying abroad for the past four months, and I had been languishing in my hometown. She had no end of new people to date, a veritable buffet of boys. I, on the other hand, had no end of church boys from my childhood, boys from group therapy, and mysterious Tinder strangers.
“I thought he was! I like Jeremiah, I really do, and I wanted to date him as soon as I got back until Ethan happened these last couple of weeks. It’s just…” She trailed off like she sometimes did. Strangers to her would interject, thinking that her thoughts were empty or scattered, but I knew better. She paused for emphasis, for drama.
“What happens in Rome happens in Rome, you know? Plans change.” There it was. The emphasis. I planned and she planned because of me. The difference between us was the sticking to the plan, the spontaneity left out by me and embraced in her.
“I get it,” I said. “The allure of someone who’s nice to you, someone who’s nice to everyone. The acorn cap boy strikes again, this time in your heart.” I used my best movie-trailer-news-announcer voice.
“You’re being so corny!” Christina threw a pillow at me after having to retrieve said pillow from her bed, which I was sitting on. She was standing too close to me when she threw it, so it bounces and fell to the ground in silence. “Jeremiah was nice, anyway. And Ethan’s hat doesn’t look like an acorn.”
“Wrong on both counts. Definitely wrong.”
Jeremiah was an overbearing, hard-core Republican, gross-joke Freshman who happened to be good with babies. The instant Christina saw him with his nephew, she was gone. I’m sure that she was thinking of their future children and their future marriage, of how good a father and husband he could become. I was over him and his stupid charm four to six hours into the first day that we spent together. This is not the guy who could end up with my best friend.
There was nothing wrong with Ethan that I could see, but he wore a hat almost every day that definitely looked like the top of an acorn. No discussion needed with that one.
“I’m on board with the whole Ethan thing, though. I like him. You have my blessing,” I said. I wanted to say something else quickly before Christina could deny needing my approval. “Let’s go to the caf now. I’m hungry.” I wasn’t.
The Bismarck air was brisk on the walk from the dorm to the cafeteria, even though it was mid-May. I missed the walks from building to building, and the views that accompanied the walks. The college was on top of a hill, with expanses of rolling fields in every direction, and the Missouri River to the west. The sunsets here kicked ass. That was probably what I missed most, besides Christina.
After my breakdown during spring semester of our first year, I had decided not to come back in the fall. It had been more than a year since the Bad Things happened, I realized then. Since Christina was taking summer classes, she was starting her next semester only a week after her return from Europe. I had decided to visit her in May, instead of in the fall; since most of my acquaintances from the previous year were taking the summers off, the coast was clear. I probably wouldn’t have to explain myself to anyone.
The caf was nearly empty. The food stations had been rearranged since I left the school, which disoriented me. I got a bowl of dry Lucky Charms, my favorite meal, and claimed a booth. Christina joined me a few minutes later. As soon as she arrived, we had visitors. Cole, Danny, and Scotty emerged from who-knows-where, descending on the table and greeting both of us.
“Rose! How’d your finals go?” Cole asked.
“I don’t go to school here anymore,” I said, “but they went fine.”
“Really. I haven’t been here for a whole year, besides a visit.”
“I swear that I’ve seen you around, though, like, all the time. What are you doing now, anyway?”
“Went back to Duluth,” I said, tersely. This was exactly what I was trying to avoid. “I’m a barista now, going to class at UMD.”
“Cool, cool.” Cole gave me a once-over, then moved on to Christina. “How was Rome?”
This must’ve been the first time that they saw each other since she came back. I felt honored that Cole spoke to me first, since I’d always been the best friend/sidekick, not the main attraction. I quickly folded into myself, though, examining and re-examining what I had said. Was I too awkward? Should I have said more? Why couldn’t I be not like I was?
My stomach churned like it usually does, and my chewing slowed to a stop. I pushed my Lucky Charms slightly away from me, a mental barrier to myself, a reminder to stop eating. It was too late.
“I need some water,” I announced, then walked quickly towards the fountain drinks. I walked past the drinks station, though, right toward the disability-accessible single-stall bathroom. I locked the door, unlocked it to double-check, and locked it again, making sure that the lock button was halfway in, like it’s supposed to be. As soon as I approached the toilet, I doubled over, my gut clenching. My regulated breath turned to gasps, and I began to vomit. I had only eaten a few spoonfuls of Lucky Charms and half of a latte, so my vomit quickly turned to bile. The worst kind of puking, I thought. My stomach’s empty, but my brain doesn’t care. The stomach-wrenching subsided, and I was able to stand back up.
A knock came at the door. “Occupied!” I rasped, trying to be audible, my throat still coated with something I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about.
I wiped my glasses on my shirt, blew my nose with toilet paper, and walked over to the mirror above the sink. My eyes were wet, but that could be changed. I blinked hard several times, then dabbed my closed eyes with toilet paper. I was practiced at this. This, I could fix.
I peered at myself again. ****. Recently, I’d been getting little red dots on my face after a puking spell. They looked like freckles from afar, but people who’d seen me before, even a few times, knew better. The top two-thirds of my face were covered in them, and I knew that they wouldn’t disappear for a few days.
I shook my hair out. I had thick, curly, unmanageable hair, and maybe its sheer presence and volume would distract from my newly spotted face. I looked into the mirror one last time. “This is as good as it’s going to get,” I said aloud.
I started walking back to the table, but doubled back after a few yards. I had said I was going to get water, so I was definitely going to come back with some. I slid back into the booth, nudging Scotty to move down and surprised at myself for having the courage to nudge anyone to do anything.
Christina sat across from me, and asked, “You good?” She knew my sighs and my sudden exits.
“Great,” I said. “Never better.” It was a line that my dad used on me every night that I could remember when he came home from work. It could be said with sincerity or with bitter sarcasm, its versatility making it appropriate for almost any occasion.
“Good!” She was cheerful and her voice was light, but she was aware of the truth of my absence. “Ready to go, everyone?”
The three boys murmured assent, and we all dropped off our plates on the dishwashing conveyor belt. It was right near the accessible bathroom, and I hoped that there wouldn’t be any acidic aromas to give me away. I thought I caught a nose-glimpse of the scent, but it was very possible that some vomit was still in my nostrils, so I hoped for the best. No one said anything, and I let out the breath that I had been holding, relieved.
When we walked through the caf doors, Christina fished around in her purse. “Anyone want gum?”
“Yes, please,” I said gratefully. I saw two of the boys’ outstretched hands as well, which made me feel a little more normal. Christina really takes care of me, I thought. She knows what I need.
We made our way back to Christina’s room, and the boys peeled off from our group one by one to get to their separate dorms. We reached the door of the hall, and my stomach growled audibly. “I’m either puking or hungry,” I groaned. Christina laughed and scanned her ID to get inside.
Out of the brisk air, I suddenly felt an absence of sound. It was too quiet inside, without the wind screaming and banging the outermost doors. My brain felt hollow, so I started humming. The song was Mumford & Sons, or something similar. I didn’t remember the words or the title, but the melody was stored somewhere in my head, and I could continue if I didn’t think about it too much. Christina harmonized, and softly started singing the words. As soon as I heard them, they clicked into place in my mind, and I knew them too. No, not the sunsets, I missed this the most: our voices intertwining, mine husky and hers full of air. In song and in life, we balanced each other out. She kept me steady in both my mania and my despair. I was an amphibian, diving to the depths of the sea and climbing to the heights of the mountains, and she was at sea level, snapping a bungee cord to pull me back to the ground.
I need her, I thought. I still do. Who’s holding me down at home? Who’s going to be the one to keep me alive, as soon as I leave on that bus at 4:45 tomorrow morning?
“No one,” I whispered aloud without meaning to.
“Huh?” Christina lifted her head as she climbed the stairs ahead of me. “Did you say something?”
“Nope,” I said. “Just singing still.”
We planned on staying up that night as long as possible, hoping to still be awake when I needed to get ready for the bus. We watched some random show for hours after Christina’s new friends left the room. Christina fell asleep around 1:50, so I kept watch. I was bitter about feeling replaced, and I longed for both my real home and the home that I used to have in Bismarck, with my best friend. I was tense and touchy with nervous energy. I was starting to feel weak, exhausted from being constantly on alert, so I finished off Christina’s chips and sipped at a diet Dr. Pepper. She didn’t like sour cream and onion, anyway, so I was basically doing her a favor. I didn’t like pop, though, so my slow consumption of the Dr. Pepper was helping no one. My jitters returned when the caffeine kicked in but were slightly balanced out by the calories in my stomach for once.
Christina’s alarm went off at 3:10, and again at 3:25. She didn’t hear it or even move in her sleep, which didn’t surprise me. I jumped every six minutes as the alarm snoozed, and finally nudged Christina awake when the clock read 3:27. She was groggy and disoriented, but even in that state I guessed she would be a better driver than I ever could be, so she drove her tiny white car, Wilma, away from campus.
We had a little bit of time left and I had no food for my journey, so we took a detour to Walmart, which we believed to be open 24-7. The first doors were locked, but I remembered that at the Walmart in Duluth, they only kept the grocery doors open all night. We trekked across the parking lot to the grocery doors, shivering and crossing our arms on the way. Even in May, the nights were bitterly cold in Bismarck. Those doors were locked as well, and a night-shift janitor waved her hand, shooing us away and bellow-murmuring to herself about crazy college kids, probably drunk on a Tuesday. We retreated to Wilma, and Christina searched in the depths of the backseat for anything edible.
“I have…” she trailed off as she looked. “I can give you a half-empty bag of Cheetos, a slightly smashed pear, and a mostly full bottle of water.”
“That’s perfect.” I smiled and nodded at her, my eyes crinkling and my heart content. “Thank you.” This is what it felt like to be Christina’s friend: warm, full, and in on some secret joke, all of the time.
We giggled then quieted as she drove to the bus station on the outskirts of Bismarck. We pulled up at 4:23, but the bus was already loading passengers. I burdened myself with my backpack, duffle, and a plastic bag that held my makeshift, last-minute groceries.
“Promise me you’ll keep me updates on everything. On the boys, especially,” I demanded, smirking.
Christina nodded and hugged me tight, her arms squeezing harder than the backpack straps on my shoulders. When I finally pulled away, I saw tears shining around her eyes, and one halfway down her ruddy cheek.
Yes, I thought, half-triumphantly and half-lovingly. I’m not the only one who’s missing. I’m not the only one who cares.
As I walked backwards away from her, I yelled, “I love you!” in a goofy, strangled voice.
“I love you!” She yelled back to me, grinning and grinding the heel of one hand into the left side of her face, where the tear had fallen.
I boarded the bus, my mind heavy in my skull and my pulse lowering to my stomach. The symptoms of missing her, setting in even as I rested my weighted head on the dark bus window.