“Wait.” My eyes snap open: I’m draped over the arm of Robin’s family’s couch, staring at the wall. “Really?” I sit up with considerable effort and stare at Robin, panting just a little.
He snorts. “That made you out of breath? God, you need to get in shape, Sylvia; your face is flushed.”
“I was hanging upside-down!” I protest. “Asleep!”
“All that rest and still: dark circles like you gave an aggressive preschooler a purple crayon and free range of your undereyes.” Robin shakes his head in mock disappointment. “Anyways, one more minute.”
I slide off the couch to where Robin is slumped against the coffee table and kick him in the thigh with my neon blue carrot-patterned socks. He responds by pulling one off; I grab it before he can do anything else and tie the sock like a corsage around his wrist.
Robin blows a raspberry at the ceiling, then lolls his head over to look at me. “So, what’s the plan, birthday girl?”
“Ew.” I stare at one of the carrots on his wrist. “I don’t know. Do you have your keys?”
Robin does the double clicking thing with his tongue, and tries to suavely pull them out of his pocket and do a little flip; but he doesn’t catch them and the keys land in between his plaid pajama pants on the carpet. He stares at them for several seconds, then shoves them back in his pocket and looks over at me. “Where are we going?”
“What time is it?”
Robin checks his phone. “Exactly twelve a.m., actually. Happy eighteenth birthday,” he remarks mildly. He cuts his light brown eyes at me, expectant.
“Thanks, idiot,” I mutter. I nudge the leg of his pajama pants with my remaining socked foot. In response, he pulls that sock off and ties it around my wrist. “See, now we’re even.” I stare at my hand until Robin snaps his fingers, quietly, once.
“Hey. Where do you want to go?”
I groan and let my head fall back against a couch cushion to stare at the dusty ceiling. “Won’t we wake up your parents? Your car starting sounds like the world’s biggest cheese graters 'doing it' into a megaphone.”
“Nah, they won’t care. Come on.” Robin stands up and offers his hand to me. With a sigh, I take it, and he hoists me onto my feet.
Robin and I shove on our smudged pairs of blue raspberry and cherry-red Converse, and he drags me down the front walkway. It’s raining; not pouring, and not really a gray drizzle, either: more like the type of rain that feels like fairy tears.
I don’t know anything about cars, so I don’t know what kind Robin has; I just know it’s old and rusty red and one of the taillights is burnt out and there’s yellowed stuffing coming out of the leather seats. I also don’t have a car, or a license, so whether I want to or not, it’s his car we take everywhere.
Robin starts the car–it sounds exactly like two cheese graters (it’s a miracle that thing is still alive, honestly), and we take off.
“I’m gonna ask you one more time,” he says quietly. “Where do you want to go?”
I sigh and slump down into my seat. It must be terrible for my spinal cord.
“All right, then,” Robin says. “I’ll pick.”
I must’ve fallen asleep, I guess, or else I would’ve stopped this monstrosity of a car ride before it reached the absolute depth of human experience. “It’s my eighteenth birthday, and you take me to Walmart?”
We’re standing side by side in the rain outside the entrance; Robin’s car is parked a few yards away. There’s almost no one here.
“Hey, it’s only 12:30; don’t get ahead of yourself, kiddo.” Robin tries to punch my shoulder.
I swat his hand away. “You’re three months older than me, idiot. I wanted—” My voice breaks. Stop it. “I wanted to do something fun, for once.”
A decrepit old white woman gives us the side eye as she creaks past us into the store. I want to clock her in the jaw.
I study Robin’s expression, trying not to turn my head too much. He’s staring straight ahead at the automatic Enter doors, but I can tell something in his brain is moving. Finally, he says something: and his voice breaks too. “Syl, can I give you a hug?”
“No.” I don’t know why I say that.
He nods, as if he knew how I was going to respond.
Why did he ask, then?
Robin chews on the bottom of his lip. “Will you get in a cart, then? Can I push you around?” His hands are now firmly shoved into his pockets, a piece of blue and orange and green fabric sticking out from between his pajama pants and the cuff of his army jacket.
I swallow. “Okay.” A nod. “Okay, sure.”
We walk inside, and Robin lets me pick out which cart, as if they’re not all the exact same. Well, I guess they’re not. Some of them have a squeaky wheel. I climb inside, and we take off. I picked a non-squeaky-wheel cart. I wonder if Robin would have.
“Do you want to close your eyes? I know you’re pretty tired these days, so it’s okay if you fall asleep. Or you can keep them open. Whatever’s most comfortable.”
“You sound like a gynecologist,” I whisper dryly. I don’t know if he heard me, but he laughs anyway. I close my eyes, and keep them firmly shut as we wheel around the store. Robin gently sets something in the cart. I don’t care enough to open my eyes and find out what it is.
At the self-checkout, there’s the clipped beep of two items scanned, Robin pays, the machine says to take his receipt. The rustling of a plastic bag; the air getting faintly cooler as he wheels us back to the cart return. He pokes my shoulder. “Wake up, Sylvia,” he whispers. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
I open my eyes and hoist myself out of the cart; I can feel the imprinted lines on my ankles where the cart’s metal pressed into my skin, and I was too lazy to move. Robin hooks his elbow around mine; plastic bag handles stick out of one of his jacket pockets. He leads us to the restroom and pushes the door open.
The crusty old lady is the only person inside, taking a millennia to wash her hands. She gives an incredibly sour glare to the both of us, then hobbles away.
Robin leads me over to a sink. I try to avoid it, but I don’t really have a choice: I get a harsh view of my face in the mirror.
Matted and greasy dark brown hair that looks purple in the right light hangs around my face–although the Walmart women’s bathroom isn’t exactly what I’d call “right”. Dark circles seep under both my eyes, although no puffy bags, which I guess is one thing to be grateful for. My eyes are brown, just a shade darker than Robin’s, although he has pale skin and freckles and I have bronze skin and acne, so that’s about where our physical similarities end.
Robin dumps his purchases into the sink next to mine and stuffs the plastic bag back in his pocket.
“What is that?” I mumble.
“Hair dye.” Robin flashes a smile. “Well, it’s a box of bleach for you, and then I got this roseish color for me since that’ll stick without lightening, but if we do yours first and you want to dye it afterwards, then you can use the rose or we can get a different one.”
“But–but I have virgin hair. It’s so healthy.”
Robin shrugs. “We should at least un-virgin one thing about you, right?” He grins. “Come on, you’re eighteen; you’ve gotta do something.”
“Jerk.” I sigh and stare at the faucet. Then, before I have time to think, I flip it on and stick my head under the running water. “Quick, before I regret this.”
“I regret this.”
I’m staring at myself in the mirror: Same sleepless eyes, same ratty T-shirt from a summer camp I attended when I was fifteen, except now there’s specks of bleach both on my face and my shirt, and Robin has tied the Walmart bag around my head to keep all my hair contained while everything sets in.
“Well, too late.” Robin’s gathering up the box and empty tube and all the bits of trash (except the instruction sheet; we threw that away before even beginning) from his sink. Ever since the shriveled old woman left, we haven’t seen a soul. He dumps everything in the garbage, walks back to the sink, and washes his hands with just water, then turns off the faucet and flicks the excess drops into the basin. “My turn,” he says cheerily, and flashes me a smile.
I roll my eyes. “I hope yours ends up looking a million times worse than mine.”
“I hope so too.” He reaches to turn the faucet on again, then straightens up. “Shoot, I actually care about these clothes.” He glances over at my camp T-shirt with holes and bleach stains, then down at his green army jacket and white NASA shirt. “Can I–”
I laugh dryly. “Don’t make this weird; go ahead.”
Robin nods and takes off his jacket, setting it under the sink, then pulls off his shirt and does the same. “God, it’s cold in here.” He sticks his head into the sink and in several seconds, every single loose curl of his light blonde hair is wet. Male privilege, I guess.
I open the box of rose dye and set the bottle on the edge of the sink, ensuring that I throw away the instructions before anything else. As Robin leans over the sink, I work the dye into his hair, coating every strand, but since he has so much less than me it’s done in just a few minutes. Robin straightens up and looks at himself in the mirror, immediately breaking into an annoyingly infectious grin. “God, I can’t wait. It’s gonna look fantastic.” He wrinkles his nose at me and chuckles. “Thanks, Syl.”
I shrug and try to hide my smile. “Thanks for buying, I guess.” I wash my hands, watching the dye run down the drain, coloring the water dusty pink. “Now what?”
Robin walks over to the accessible stall and pushes the door open, motioning me inside. He shuts the door and pulls his phone out of his back pocket. “What do you wanna watch?”
I think for a couple seconds. “Friends?”
“Classic.” We sit cross-legged against the stall door, balancing Robin’s phone on our adjacent knees. He faintly shivers now and then. The few inches between us, bridged only by his phone, is astronomical.
The episode ends; Robin stands up and pockets his phone, then looks down at me and laughs a little. “That plastic bag looks so silly,” he says. I open my mouth in protest, but he waves his hand, carrot sock still tied in a bow on his wrist, and motions for me to stand up. “Come on, we’re almost done. Let’s take it off.”
I flip down the sun visor and study my wet hair in the mirror, its faint yellow bulb offering little help; thankfully, Robin parked close by a streetlamp. We examined our hair in the bathroom mirrors after washing everything out; but maybe in the 30-second trip from the exit to the car our hair had dried a little more. It’s raining, though, so I don’t know how that would have happened.
Robin is looking at his strange new appearance, too; he’s put his shirt and jacket back on, and is fussing with his rose-colored curls in the rearview. “I really like it, actually,” he says cheerily. He leans back in his seat and looks over at me. He hasn’t started the car yet; we’re both shivering slightly, the slow rain making everything sound even colder and wetter than it already feels.
“Yeah.” I push my hair behind my ears and take another look. It turned out pretty awful–some spots Robin missed entirely, so my hair ranges in shades from completely bleached to near-black in comparison–but I don’t know, I think it looks kinda cool. Maybe.
“Yeah?” I close the visor and slump down in my seat.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Yeah?” I don’t know why I feel I’m about to cry.
“Why–” Robin swallows, and blinks. “Why do you seem so down lately? If it’s anything I did–if it’s anything I can fix–you know I’ll do it in an instant, Syl. You matter to me so much, and I don’t want to ever see you hurt.”
We’re both silent for several seconds, and then I start crying. And I don’t stop.
“Hey,” Robin says softly, although, thank god, he doesn’t sound annoyed. He sticks the keys in the ignition and starts the car, turning the heater on, and reaches over and grabs my hand. “Hey, come here.” I slide from my seat to his; knees pressed to my chest, I rest my damp head against his shoulder and sob. Robin holds me and lets me cry. He doesn’t say anything–doesn’t do anything–just lets me wet his chest with my tears and hair, his arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders.
After some amount of time, I stop. I probably would have gone on longer had he told me to “shh” or that “it’s okay.” That’s why I like Robin, because I know that he wouldn’t. He doesn’t give stupid advice to crying people; he just lets them cry. I don’t know why, but that’s rare to find in someone nowadays.
“Are you done?” he whispers, after maybe a minute has passed with no new tears shed. He holds up the bottom of his shirt for me to blow my nose on, and even though I feel terrible about it, I don’t really have a choice but to accept.
We’re silent for several moments, until I can steady my breathing. Finally he asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” I sniffle. “I don’t know. You can probably guess.”
Robin laughs dryly. “Yeah, probably. Gross college and capitalism and all of that, right?”
I shake my head; I get the feeling Robin’s staring straight ahead, out the windshield, but I know he can feel my movements against his chest.
“Ah,” he says quietly, and we sit for quite a while. “That.”
“Yeah,” I say. Pause. “That.”
“Sylvia, I’m so sorry–”
“No,” I interrupt him. “This is all my fault. If I weren’t so goddamn ugly and lonely and desperate–”
“Hey. No. Shut up, you’re beautiful.”
“That’s a lie and we both know it.” Pause. “Why are you even friends with me in the first place?”
“I don’t know.” Robin sighs. “You’re different. I like you. Just–” Pause. Sigh. “You know. Not like that.”
“Yeah.” I sniffle. “No one does.”
Robin sighs again. “Unfortunately, I can’t refute that. But you’ll find someone, Syl. I know you will. Someday, I promise.”
“You have no way of guaranteeing that,” I say bitterly. “And that’s easy for you to say. Everyone likes you. You’re funny and personable and pretty and—” I stop myself. “You get the point. You’re literally Prince Charming, and everyone likes you, and it makes me sick that I do, too. I wish I could help it, but everyone likes you. Of course they do.”
“Unfortunately, I do believe that you are mostly right. Although most people don’t know hardly anything about me; and if they did, I’d like to think that many of them wouldn’t see me as they do now. Not everyone likes me, but most people do, and it’s dreadfully boring.”
Pause. We listen to the rain.
“Syl, I wish other people would see you the way I do. I do, really, find you wonderful and witty and you’re one of my favorite people to be around.” Robin sighs. “I’m sorry you can’t be the only.”
“It’s okay. You can’t help it.” Sniffle. “You have a million pretty girls to choose from. You’d never pick me.”
“I’m sorry, Syl,” Robin whispers. “I love you, I really do; and you’ll find someone, I promise. I’m sorry he can’t be me.”
“Yeah,” I whisper back. “Me too.”
Robin gives me a quick squeeze and kisses the crown of my head. There’s the sound of the car rumbling, the heat running through the vents, the rain like fairy tears on the windshield, both of us taking shaky breaths in and out and listening to all the night sounds.
I slide back into the passenger seat. We buckle our seatbelts, and Robin starts driving home; to his home, that is, for I never want to be at my own. Least of all on my birthday; God, I’d almost forgotten it’s my birthday. The car clock says it’s nearly two a.m. Two whole hours of being eighteen, and this is life so far. I wonder if I want the rest of my adult life to mirror this night, or to look like anything but it.
I rest my head against the window and look out at the sky; I can see the stars. I study the constellations and pray–I’m not religious, but I pray–that somehow, someway, to some degree or some end, that everything is going to turn out okay. That’s all anyone can ever do, isn’t it? Cry, and hope, and dream, and pray.
I fall asleep to the sound of the blinker as Robin pulls into the driveway. I don’t know where my mind goes after that.
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absolutely lovely. the whole thing is so alive and real i love it
thank you i love you