“This tastes like kool aid,” I say, taking a quick sip of the drink before passing it along to Maya.
“It’s vodka,” noted Zac, his arms around the edges of the hot tub. “It’s not kool aid.”
“Wow, what a genius,” I retorted, crossing my arms self-consciously, still trying to hide behind passive comments as the shy but know-it-all tenth-grader I was.
“Have you ever even had kool aid?” taunted Tony, his voice cracking obviously in the middle of his sentence.
“Heh. You’re still a wittle boy, too,” teased Maya as she tipped her head back and finished off the drink. I looked at her, shocked, as she wiped her mouth calmly and gestured for a refill of the shot glass that we had been passing around.
“What the hell? Are you an alcoholic?” accused Sara, as she shivered in her bathing suit, her glasses fogging up from the steam.
“Guess I’m just tough.” Maya flexed an arm muscle and cracked her neck with an audible snap.
With a ginger tap, I poked at her bicep. “Jeez, it’s like frozen earth.”
Maya winked. “That’s what happens when you work out.”
“Work out?” echoed Sara, her nose wrinkling as her eyes twinkled. “What’s that?” She glanced at me, and I laughed, silently knowing that Maya would not be able to resist talking about her workouts.
Sure enough, she took the bait, listing out her workout schedule as we all grinned at each other and made sly comments. After a minute, she groaned and dropped her head into her hands. “UGH! It’s my stepdad, you know him! He just—calls me fat and makes me work out. Today, he looked at me and said, ‘you sure you want pancakes?’ Ugh! I already have social anxiety. Can he not make everything worse?”
“You’re not fat. He’s a jackass,” muttered Sara immediately, and I echoed the sentiment.
Maya sighed, before gathering me and Sara into her arms. “I know, right? But at least I’m good at doing this!” She squeezed us tightly, and we squealed before hugging her back.
“Gross, gross, gross. Classic girls,” called Tony, high-fiving Zac from across the tub.
“Classic Tony,” we chorused back.
“But is he wrong, though?” noted Zac, earning him a fist bump.
We all laughed. “Go on, then, hug it out, boys! You might even like it,” I offered.
“Then we’ll hug like men!” shouted Zac, before shoving Tony’s head into the water as we laughed again.
My sides ached as I giggled. Nothing like the taste of vodka evaporating on your tongue, laughter fizzing like soda bubbles, and jokes that never got old to really feel free.
The next year, we had a few more in the tub, namely, a couple of dates. Sara’s girlfriend, Zac’s girlfriend, and Maya’s boyfriend.
Tony and I high-fived multiple times as the singletons of the group. Sara and I high-fived as the alcohol chumps of the group. Maya and I high-fived as the giggly emotional ones of the group. We played chess, and I did my best not to lose as Tony grew increasingly frustrated at my success. Zac talked about his new car, and we all watched Megamind and screamed “Presentation!” at each other the rest of the night. The new additions found it difficult to mesh with our rapid-fire dialogue, but we’d known each other too long and knew exactly what buttons to push in order to have fun. We were each other’s soulmates, and our only true friends on campus.
The year after that was the year we peaked. We sat in the tub and rated rom-coms. We talked about how hard classes were, played arcade games, and even kicked around a soccer ball. Tony played piano, Zac taught us how to change a tire, and Maya, Sara, and I sang Disney songs in every silent moment. We played ERS, War, and even a little poker, losing popcorn bits instead of fivers. They teased me for my naivete and inability to lie properly, and I teased them for knowing how to gamble. I was happy in the arms of my silly friends, and they were safe in mine.
The year after that one was the one when we were back from college, a semester out of high school, and the usual hang-out was a bit quieter at first than past years.
Sara could hold her beer and was on a Discord server with new college friends. Maya was still frustrated by her weight but had a new giggly best friend. Tony got ripped and drank like a fish but with an “Asian glow”, and Zac still fixed cars but had started a radio refurbishing business with a college friend; they both had found other nerds to rant to about circuit boards. We asked him about his girlfriend – the only one of us whose relationship remained from that long-ago prom. He evaded questions and emphasized that everything was fine.
But as we talked and looked at old pictures, we found that not much had changed. The recliner in the living room was still broken. Gap-toothed Zac still held up a fish in a photo in the front room. Tony still made snarky comments, Zac still didn’t know his strength and could make the ground shake if he jumped right, and my hugs with the girls still warmed me to the core.
But I felt unmoored. Restless. Unlike the others, I had walked onto my college campus and felt…nothing. When I entered Zac’s house, I found that I hadn’t laughed on campus like I did now, as we sat around the table and looked at old photos of us in the hot tub. We didn’t sit in it now, but the dining room table with its worn leather chairs still held us the same.
Sara drove me home the next morning, her hands steady on the wheel as she peered over the top of her steering wheel and merged onto I-64.
After smiling a bit at one of her stories from college, I reached up and flicked on the radio. Charlie Puth began to sing, and I felt myself relax into the headrest in her car, her old one she had used when we used to drive together to Starbucks and get hot chocolates for the road.
“Will we fall apart?” I murmured.
Sara squinted at the road, only half-listening. “What? What did you say?”
I stared down at my hands, clasped perfectly in my lap. “I asked if we’d fall apart.”
At that, her eyebrows rose up to her hairline. “Where’s this coming from?” she asked, as she shifted her gaze to me quickly before returning her eyes to the road.
“No, we won’t. We’re way too easily entertained.”
I bit my lip. “I’m being serious.”
“So am I. We won’t.”
“I don’t have any new friends!” I wailed, suddenly dropping my face into my hands. “I won’t make any more friends. I’ve peaked! I thought that college would have more weird people than high school. Turns out I’m a special brand of awkward, oh, Sara! What am I going to do?”
With a jerk of the wheel, Sara pulled over and cut out the engine. The music stopped, and we sat in silence, my sobs the only sounds in our car. After a moment, Sara’s hands wrapped around my body, and she held me as I cried.
“That’s not true, you know. You’re so funny, and kind, and smart, you sassy smartass. You drive Tony crazy because of it, it’s really great.”
I laughed through my tears. “Everyone’s smart.”
“I’m stupid, what are you talking about?” she joked, her tone more familiar than ever, and I could picture her in the hot tub making us all laugh with her well-timed one-liners.
I shook my head. “I’m just living in memories, Sara. I can’t keep living in memories.”
She squeezed me more tightly. “You won’t. You’ll make friends, and you’ll turn around and realize that you made a new friend group. When did you realize that we were a strong friend group?”
“Not till junior year, I don’t think.”
“There you go. This takes time, and you’re wonderful, and it’ll all be okay. I promise.”
I nodded, and she smiled before starting the car again. Her hands gripped the sides of the wheel carefully as she merged back onto the road.
“Besides,” she said after a long pause, “our old friend group is good. You don’t need to worry about us. We all matter to each other.” She cursed as she braked, the car in front of her slowing suddenly before speeding up again. “We’re invited to the wedding, you know?”
I lifted my head from my hands. “Wedding? What wedding?”
“Well, you know, when we all grow up,” Sara began, gesturing vaguely at the air around her, her brown eyes framed by her glasses, “and get married, we’ll all be going to each other’s weddings. We’ll be giving toasts, and getting wasted together at the parties, and taking a million photos. We’ll all be there, the full gang. So don’t worry, okay?”
A smile began to bloom across my face. “We’re going to the weddings?”
“We’re going to the weddings.”
“That makes me feel better.”
Sara reached up to adjust her glasses. “And when we take shots at the parties, you’ll probably still be calling them Kool Aid.”