Summer in the City

Submitted into Contest #164 in response to: Write a story about coming of age in a big city.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Sad Friendship

Friday

Joy and relief float through the air this morning, like a gentle breeze winding its way through the crowded city bus. Classes are done for the week, and three glorious days of freedom await us. Already a cool breeze cuts through the air, and by Monday there will be more work to do. But for now, we abandon ourselves to the last days of summer and pretend that they will never come to an end.

One by one we skip down the steps of the bus, jostling for space on the sidewalk, arm in arm or hand in hand as we wander down the street. We paint a pretty picture, white lace and combat boots, smudged makeup and perfect skin, the boys as beautiful as the girls. Feeling vibrant, immortal, divine, we dance along the streets of the city, our laughter ricocheting off the buildings around us. The bracelets jingle on our wrists with every movement. Are we imagining it, or do people’s eyes follow us as we pass them? We revel in their gaze, in the envy and desire that we know they must be feeling.

The picnic was Angel’s idea. He and Jacob showed up at my dorm with a blanket in hand, telling me to get dressed and come with them. We retrieved Alex and Esmé from their room, and a few minutes later we piled into a bus going into the city. Stopping at a grocery store, we buy a carton of strawberries before making our way to the park. They glisten in the stiff plastic of their container, so bright they don’t seem real.

We reach Central Park and roll out the blanket. We sprawl across it, Jacob’s head in Esmé’s lap, Alex bent over Angel’s hand as she paints his nails dark blue. I lean back on my elbows and watch the people passing through the park. A man and woman push a double stroller along the walking path, a toddler strapped into each seat. He wears rubbery slip-on shoes, her leggings have begun to sag in the back. They seem happy, even when one of the toddlers starts to screech and the woman has to pick him up from the stroller and comfort him. I wince when I see that she’s already pregnant again, her stomach ballooning out beneath her t-shirt.

The toddler quiets down as they pass us, and his mother puts him back into the stroller. They’re what people would call a good family, picture-perfect. I can imagine them going home to a house with a big green lawn, a golden retriever wagging its tail at the door. They’ll live a comfortable, predictable life, and their children will do the same, and their children after that. This, apparently, is what I’m supposed to strive for. A life with no greater purpose. Their contentment makes me claustrophobic, and I sit up, pulling my knees to my chest and looking back at my beautiful friends. They’re so lovely, glowing and golden in the afternoon light. Just being around them, I feel the world become brighter, more beautiful.

Esmé is talking about yesterday’s philosophy class. I sigh. She’s relentlessly intelligent, but has a habit of assuming that everyone around her wants to hear what she’s recently learned. Most of the time I don’t mind it. Something about being around someone so smart makes me feel smart, too. But today, sun-drunk and drowsy, I don’t want to think about anything remotely related to school.

“I was in that class too, you know,” Jacob interrupts her in the middle of recounting a lecture on aestheticism.

“You slept through most of it.” Esmé frowns. “I’d be surprised if you even noticed that our professor came in half an hour late because he was mugged.”

“He was?” Jacob’s dark eyes pop open at that. She sighs.

“No. He wasn’t. That’s my point, don’t act like you remember a thing from that lecture.”

I laugh and listen to their bickering for a few more moments, then go back to people-watching. My earlier anxiety has dissipated. I reach toward the carton of strawberries that we bought earlier, five dollars for a taste of summer. Gasping, I snatch my hand back when I see that the once-ripe fruit is now crawling with ants.

Saturday

I lean against the door inside my dorm. Alex sits on the bed, watching me through a curtain of glossy black hair. She came in half an hour ago with a bottle of wine she’d smuggled in last week. Uninvited, as usual, although Alex never seems to need an invitation for anything. In the time I’ve known her I don’t think I’ve ever seen her even slightly uncomfortable anywhere. She has a way of filling a room that makes you wonder how the space could have ever been empty before.

The wine is warm, and we take turns swallowing huge mouthfuls of the stuff until my head starts to spin. Her lips have gone purple at the corners, I can’t tear my eyes away from them. She rises languorously, crossing the small room to stand in front of me. Out of all our friends, she’s the most beautiful, radiating warmth and charisma that draws people in like a moth to a flame. I stay very still as she kisses me, giving no reaction. After a few moments I turn my face away, and she grabs my chin, guiding my gaze back to hers.

“Come on,” she says. “We had so much fun last time.”

We didn’t, actually, at least I didn’t. But I let her kiss me again, because her interest makes me special. I’m irresistible, I tell myself as her mouth moves down to my neck. She’s the weak one. I don’t even have to do anything and she’s all over me. I have power, allure. I’m in control, not her. I close my eyes and repeat this as her mouth travels lower. 

I’m in control. Not her.

I’m in control. Not her.

I’m in control.

When it’s done we go to Angel’s room, where the others are waiting for us. On his desk a collection of classics is meticulously stacked, Austen and Tolstoy next to Orwell and Twain. Girls love the way he can recite Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf from memory, convinced that they’ve finally found a man who gets it. When I first met him I mentioned something about Oscar Wilde, and the next day he lent me his copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The paper crackled beneath my fingers as I flipped to the first page, releasing the schoolroom scent of new books.

Jacob is leaning against the windowsill, his dark brown curls haloes by the late-afternoon light. He grins at us as we walk in.

“Where have you two been?”

“Studying,” Alex replies. 

“Anatomy?” Angel quips, raising an eyebrow. I look down, saying nothing. The back of my neck itches from a sunburn I got yesterday. 

Esmé gets up from the floor where she’s been sitting, a vape pen in her hand. She exhales a sickly-sweet cloud and passes the pen to me. The others have moved on, now talking about our plans for the night. There’s a bar near the university that’s notoriously lazy about carding, Esmé and Angel want to go there. Tall, blonde, and stunning, neither one of them has ever had to buy their own drinks when we go out. Once, Esmé talked a man into buying a round for all five of us. She didn’t touch her drink, and at the end of the night she left the bar without saying a word to him. Later she told me it wasn’t drinking that interested her, that she just liked getting men to do things for her.

We agree to go to the bar and get ready in Angel’s room, swapping jewelry and offering opinions about our outfits. I let Jacob borrow the necklaces I’m wearing, and Alex pushes a pair of Angel’s earrings through her ears. I check my reflection in the small mirror that's propped up precariously on the desk. Angel sits in a chair, face upturned, while Esmé stands between his knees and traces his light brown eyes with black liner. She steps back, examining her work.

“You’re prettier than me,” she pouts. “It’s not fair.”

“Somehow, I think you’ll manage.” Angel laughs. “Everyone ready?” he asks, and we all nod. He stands up from the chair too suddenly and it tips backward, colliding with his desk. The mirror that was placed there earlier wobbles for a moment, then crashes to the floor, exploding in glittering shards across the ground.

Sunday

I wake up with a hangover, the sun shining mercilessly against my closed eyes. It’s cold in my room, and I realized that I left my window open when I came in last night. It takes at least ten minutes to summon up the willpower to get out of bed and close the window. It slams shut and I wince, head pounding. I dress slowly, as if I’m recovering from an injury, then brace myself to make a journey to the outside world.

Walking to a cafe near the university, I bow my head against the sharp wind that’s begun to blow. Leaves swirl around me, mingled with candy wrappers and plastic bags from the sidewalk. I nurse my coffee for a long time, not really thinking about anything. The barista who made my drink walks past me three times, her gaze growing more and more hostile the longer I sit there. By the time I get up from the table, more than an hour has passed.

I leave the cafe and go to a nearby street market, wandering alone among the stalls. Each one is practically indistinguishable from the next, selling mass-produced crystals and lumpy clay dishes, bundles of lavender and rosemary for fifteen dollars each. At one table, a woman is advertising tarot readings with 100% accuracy. The people are like the products, all variations on the same theme. They carry almost-identical tote bags and speak with the same vocal fry, chatting about sage-burning and free-range coffee shops as they saunter through the market.

The more I walk the more restless I become. I feel uneasy, but it takes me a moment to realize why. Nobody is looking at me. I slip unnoticed through the crowd, not drawing the slightest attention. It makes me irrationally angry. Why doesn’t anyone notice me like they did on Friday morning? Aren’t I still beautiful, aren’t I still special? I feel small, meaningless. As though without the others, I’m nothing. I want to scream.

I turn to go, sickened, and an older man bumps into me. 

“I’m so sorry,” he says, smiling gently and resting a hand on my shoulder. “I didn’t see you there.”

September 24, 2022 00:19

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