Camille and Nihar got divorced yesterday. It wasn’t Vivian’s marriage, but it made her feel terribly alone. The thought kept resurfacing that she was right, but that’s not what this was about. Two of her friends had renounced each other with a vicious stamp on a piece of paper, and now Vivian had to bite her tongue in order to keep her friendship with Camille and with Nihar. And with Avani, and with Luke. With all of them, even though sticking to Camille called to her the most. Hanging onto this friend group has been exhausting for her, but somehow, she’d managed to stick with them from high school into their late twenties. She was surprised, every day.
Despite herself, Avani’s first thought was of Nihar. Sure, she’d had a crush on him in high school, back when pleasing her extended family’s idea of a good match was, deliriously, a priority for her. But ten years out of high school, she was mostly clear of that delusion, and her worry really was about Nihar himself.
She couldn’t imagine his own family was taking this well, or rather, being supportive rather than smug. They hadn’t wanted him to marry Camille—a Southern belle—in the first place, so this divorce only proved them right, even if it was a stain on their reputation. Nihar was in the odd position of still trying to be in cahoots with his close family, something Avani had given up years ago, along with the desire to get married at all. That added another complication to her reaction to this divorce. If she were being honest…good riddance. She was glad they’d divorced so young. Now they could spend the rest of their lives focusing on themselves, individually. Nihar probably didn’t share the sentiment, but she wasn’t sure about Camille.
Cammie wasn’t calling Luke back. She hadn’t divorced him. Maybe she needed space, but she wasn’t really the space type. She was the ice cream in PJ’s, crying on your shoulder, angry tweeting kind of person. Aside from retweeting an irrelevant yet incredibly mouthwatering picture of Jordan Fisher, her twitter feed was silent. As were her Instagram and Snapchat. Her Facebook still read, “Married”, and her voicemail still said, “You’ve reached Camille Acharya…”. You’d think she’d have changed those right away. Cammie wasn’t being Cammie.
She should be picking up her phone. If not for him, then for Luke, right? Maybe not for Avani, because the two of them had been a little standoffish lately, but Camille and Luke had a constant-texting, constant-calling relationship. They even had exclusive nicknames for each other—”Cammie” and “Lu”. She’d answer his phone call in the middle of a date, and hang up with a Luke update, like how he wants to try a new makeup routine on her. Luke was tight with Nihar, too, but minus the cutesy names. They were avid Hawks fans, and that meant they were hopelessly optimistic together, which was kind of beautiful, as Camille put it. The point was, no one ignored Luke, and Camille was ignoring Luke, which made Nihar very worried, but of course, Camille would not answer the phone for her recently di-…for him. Nihar was near-ready to cry in frustration, but he had one more call to make. Vivian.
He and Vivian were friends because of Camille. In fact, all of them were friends with Vivian because of Camille. There was nothing inherently wrong with her, but…she just always seemed like she didn’t want to be there. Anywhere. With them. At a concert. At the library. On earth (but not in a dark way). And yet she had always been there. If Vivian had called Camille, surely she would have answered?
Well, Vivian did answer for Nihar. At least she wasn’t an accomplice to Camille’s vanishing act.
“Have you talked to Camille?” he asked immediately.
There was a long beat of silence on Vivian’s end, before she said, “No.”
“What? You mean you didn’t try to comfort my—” Nihar couldn’t say the words. Calmer, he amended, “So, she didn’t call you?”
“No, but I tried to call her,” said Vivian.
“Oh.” Now he felt foolish. Vivian hadn’t talked to Camille because she hadn’t picked up for her, either. Just like with Nihar. Just like with Luke.
“Yeah,” Vivian added in her barely-there Vivian way.
“She didn’t answer for Luke, either.”
“Wild,” came Vivian’s one-word usual.
“What do you think that means?”
“She’s not at Luke’s?” That meant, “She’s not falling apart in front of the TV with her head on Luke’s shoulder and a tub of ice cream on her lap?”
“She’s not.” And Nihar knew he sounded desperate.
“Wild,” Vivian repeated. Nihar was about done with her useless responses.
“So you have no idea where she might be? Why she’s not answering?”
“No idea,” Vivian confirmed. Nihar closed his eyes, willing patience and serenity with this b—… “I’ll call her,” Vivian promised. “Like, a thousand times, okay? I’ll keep you updated.” And now she sounded like a real human being, for once. Thank the gods.
“Thank you,” Nihar breathed. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m worried, Vivian.”
“I know,” she said, and he could tell that she meant it. It made him feel better, and less alone. He didn’t have the right to expect anything from Vivian. Historically, she would silently side with Camille during any battle, as if she didn’t have her own opinion. She wouldn’t dish anything back at Nihar, but she would be noticeably absent from his corner of the ring. With Camille gone, it was good to have anybody in his corner. Even barely-there Vivian.
Vivian was used to being ignored by people, even by her long-time friends. Even by Camille. On the other hand, Camille responded to attention. If they were all calling her, a normal Camille would pick up. Vivian tried for the eighth time to contact her best friend. If she had to, she would try a thousand more times, like she’d promised Nihar.
A rare sense of urgency had possessed Vivian after talking to him. It wasn’t because of anything he’d said, but rather because of what she already knew. This was her time to be a friend, not just a…ghost. All these years, she’d used her relative neutrality and her mere presence to maintain her place in this group, this family. Nihar, Camille, Luke, and Avani would do anything for her, because she was at least the fourth most important friend in any of their lives.
“Come on, Camille, pick up,” Vivian grumbled as the fifth unanswered ring sounded. Nothing. Was Vivian that unimportant to Camille? Her mind reeled, stomach churned at the thought, but she hung up, waited, and dialed again.
Luke raced—at a safe speed—toward Mindy’s Wax. It was the one thing he couldn’t connect with her on, but Cammie’s heaven-away-from-home was this dusty little indie candle shop tucked behind Main Street. Before they first started dating, Nihar bought her a candle from there, and she somehow fell in love with both him and the shop himself at the same time. Tacky, but Luke supposed he didn’t have to forgive her for everything. He wouldn’t lower himself to step foot in that candle shop by himself if he didn’t have a hunch that it was somehow linked to Camille’s future. She’d started making candles, lately. They smelled horrible, but it definitely wasn’t the reason Nihar divorced her. Babies probably don’t smell as good as candles, Luke reasoned. It blew, but some people felt differently about the things they wanted to nurture. As of late, Nihar had wanted a kid, and Camille had just wanted more candles.
Mindy’s Wax had a bell that dinged when you walked in, which always made Luke cringe. The bell caused people to look at you, and once they looked at him, at his impeccable outfit and immaculately shaped eyebrows…well, they tended to look pointedly away. It was totally the opposite of the intended effect of his fashion choices, but he couldn’t help it if people lacked taste. At times like that, he related to Vivian. At times like that, he did want invisibility.
The second thing that hit him—after the stupid bell—were, of course, the warring smells of thousands of candles packed into a showroom the size of a half-basketball court. This place needed ventilation. He wondered if Mindy and her staff could get high from these fumes.
Straightening himself, he walked purposefully toward the counter, where a hippie-type woman stood, looking pointedly away from him until he was right in front of her.
“Hey,” he said, the way he did when he wanted people to like him. If they liked him, they wouldn’t write him off as not worth their time.
The woman looked up and put on a customer service smile. She blinked a little more than natural, the way people do when their eyes would really rather be staring. He wouldn’t mind a compliment, but some people thought it was rude to compliment him. Backwards. Whatever.
“Hello, how can I help you?” Her voice matched the shop. Over-the-top zen.
“Thanks,” Luke said brightly. “I’m wondering if you saw my friend today? Her name’s Camille. She comes here a lot. Yay high,” he gestured to about five foot five with his hand, “Straight blonde hair. Bold black glasses. Obsessed with oversized cardigans…”
“Camille, yes!” the woman’s face brightened. She was obviously relieved to find some common ground with Luke. “She was here a few hours ago. Did you know she’s making her own candles? Might put me out of business one day!” The woman gave an over-the-top laugh, and Luke tried very hard not to glare at her.
“Did she say where she was going?” Luke reigned the woman back in, and thankfully, she stopped laughing. That was painful.
“Oh!” the woman put on a near-theatrical thinking face. “Hm, let me think.” Yes, you do that. “You know, I think she mentioned a road trip. Yes. She wasn’t making a whole lot of sense, to be honest. Is she doing alright? I might have been a bit distracted with inventory, at the time, and there was a group of ladies browsing and chatting nearby, so I might have missed…”
“A road trip?” Luke cut her off pleasantly. “She didn’t mention where? For how long?”
“I don’t know, honey, maybe you should call her.”
Alright, honey, no need to be so condescending. You think I didn’t... Luke took a deep breath. “She won’t answer. I’m sorry to ask again, but you really don’t remember if she said where she was going? My friends and I are worried about her. She just got divorced yesterday…”
“Oh, the poor thing!” the woman exclaimed. “Hm, let me think.” Please. “You know, I recall a few weeks ago she was talking about a town in North Carolina. Somewhere near a lake. Davidson, I think! Does that ring a bell?”
Davidson. The five of them had spent a weekend on Lake Norman last summer, and they’d hit up the quaint college strip in the evenings. Cammie had fallen in love with the place—she did that so easily. And when she talked with them about it later…
“She wants to open a shop,” Luke said, not necessarily to the candle-shop woman, but to himself.
“A shop, in Davidson?” the woman’s eyes grew wide, but she was obviously relieved that Davidson was hundreds of miles from her own shop. “That’s wonderful.”
“Yeah,” Luke was no longer interested in this woman’s time. “Thanks for your help!”
“Of course, dear. Come back soon!”
Luke drove. Vivian was in the front seat, because he’d picked her up first, so Nihar and Avani were in the backseat. This was good, Avani supposed, because she’d wanted to comfort Nihar in person, and here he was. But also, his ex-wife was M.I.A., and didn’t seem to want contact with the four of them. Nihar hadn’t been that unreasonable to divorce her, honestly. It’s not as if there’d been a nasty fight, and Avani, Luke, and Vivian and had certainly not been involved. It wasn’t fair of Camille to run away from her friends, if that’s what she was doing. It was, in Avani’s opinion, totally fair that she’d decided against having kids with Nihar. It just sucked that Nihar couldn’t picture a future with Camille if there weren’t annoying little devils running around in it.
Avani kept glancing over at Nihar, but she hadn’t yet said what was really on her mind. His family. The kind of family she’d purposely distanced herself from, but loved nonetheless.
“So,” she ventured, keeping her tone low. This wasn’t a Luke or Vivian kind of conversation. “How did the parents take it?”
Nihar looked out the window, away from her. “Not…terribly,” he answered. When he looked back at her, she could tell that it was more terrible than not. “I’m not disowned,” he added, as if that solved any tension.
“You really want kids that badly?”
“I…yes,” he was holding back, but she knew he’d always been in a tough position. He’d made a sacrifice in choosing Camille over whatever Indian girl he was supposed to end up with, but he wasn’t willing to make the sacrifice of being childless with her. Avani kind of hated him for that, but she still always found herself ending up in his corner. She didn’t like to think about why.
“Well, I’m sorry it ended up this way,” she told him, then tried to lighten the mood, “but you could always try running away from them.” She’d meant to parallel it to her own family situation, but realized too late that she’d used a poor choice of words.
A shadow fell over Nihar’s face.
“Sorry!” Avani said quickly, very aware that Luke and Vivian had probably heard the tail end of that conversation. “Ugh, sorry!” she repeated.
“It’s okay,” Nihar said, always the forgiving type. To Luke, he asked, “You really think she’s opening a candle shop, dude?” He’d already asked that a few times. Maybe he was hoping for reassurance that it was something that trivial.
“Look, I told you it’s just a hunch, okay?” said Luke. “But my hunches have always been pretty spot-on. We’ll find our girl, okay?”
“She’s fine,” Vivian added.
“What are you, a psychic?” Avani always came off a little harsh toward Vivian, but how was she expected to improve during a crisis?
“I just think she’s fine,” Vivian shrugged. “She’s Camille.”
“She’s Camille,” Nihar repeated. He sounded a little wistful, but it also settled a calming blanket over the four of them, and they drove on in silence for a while longer.
Camille might have temporarily abandoned the people she loved, but she was now surrounded by so many new loves. Sights, tastes, weather, ambiance, smells…it all felt so promising. It felt like her future. More than anything, she craved control. She needed something that was hers, that she could design, grow, and change.
Two months ago, she had a panic attack. It wasn’t in front of Nihar. He was running an errand, and she was on their apartment balcony, making her third candle. It looked perfect. Sure, the scent needed work, but it was so close. She felt whole, having created this beautiful thing with her two hands. And then too many thoughts came to her at once. How she and Nihar were four years into their marriage, and his parents kept talking to her about kids. How Nihar had kept saying he’d “give her time”. How Avani kept dissing their marriage. How Vivian seemed to see Camille as a totally independent person from Nihar, as if he didn’t even exist. How Luke was always telling her to “do you”, as if she wasn’t already. Was she? What was “her”? Was it having a kid with Nihar? Multiple kids? Getting a house and staying in the same town for years? The same town they’d all been in for most of their lives? The panic attack was born out of these questions, all slamming into her like a broad hammer to the chest.
She felt similarly, now, as she glimpsed four people on the opposite side of the street. It was impossible that they were here, but she wasn’t hallucinating. Those were her friends. Here. In Davidson. She didn’t know whether to weep in happiness or frustration, but she sure was feeling a lot.
Yes, they’d been calling her endlessly for the entire morning, after which she’d turned her phone off. But couldn’t they take a hint?
She supposed not. They all loved each other too much. She did. She loved them all, even Nihar, despite their divorce. Even Avani, despite her lack of filter. They were family. But it was the very idea of family that had started to scare her.
They might not forgive her today, but she knew, as surely as she was anchored to this earth, that they would welcome her back like a lost sister, no matter the years that would pass.
Camille would never be proud of it, now or in the future, but her friends had not spotted her yet, and so she turned, and she ran.