Your car is sporty. Red. A Solara, I think, but you never put the hood down. It’s the sort of car I can imagine you driving in high school. Your long, dark hair is ruffled by the crisp wind. Maybe your polished nails tap against the acrylic paint of the door. Beside you, an equally beautiful friend. In the back seat, crammed illegally without seatbelts, four friends piled on top of each other. Your same caliber of beauty, because that’s what all your friends look like. Stereotypical in the freshest way.
I can’t figure out why you want to associate with me. I don’t carry the same modelesque appearance that you and your friends do. My hair is light to your dark, my makeup is never applied evenly (though not for lack of trying), and the frizz of my hair is unmanageable. I can never match your flawless perfection—I don’t come close.
What we share in common is more dangerous than that, though. Maybe it is our volatile personalities, finding solace in one another. We are fire and gasoline to society, but possibly not to ourselves. We can fool our minds.
(In my head, I ignore the warning signs. Red like your car. Red like the color of your lipstick that you sometimes press against my cheek in the form of a kiss. The color of fresh blood and stock photo images of fire.)
You park in front of the off-campus university bookstore. We’ve waited until the end of drop-add to get our books, and in another life, cutting it this close might have worried me. In this life, I don’t care. There are a few things I care about nowadays.
Strange to think that before I met you, I had so many emotions. So many thoughts about so many things. Lady Gaga’s new album, Demi Lovato’s New Year’s Eve performance, whether I’d pass my classes or have to retake trig.
Now there is just you. You, you, you. Your eyes, bordered with thick liner. Expressive eyebrows, carefully penciled in to give a fuller impression. How you tuck your hair behind your ear whenever you are thinking about the next thing to write.
The story you wrote about the girl running. How she stared at the ground, wondering what it would be like to fall. How the asphalt would feel on her skin. The girl had everything in the world—a loving family, money, career success—and yet she was unhappy.
It’s what you shared in our writing workshop. The story made me realize that there was someone else who felt the way I do. That no one else in this world could have imagined the feelings you gave your protagonist. They had to live them.
And you have lived them. And now, you live in my mind. Always.
But these things are weird to think about, and I do my best to squash them. I’m not obsessed with you. I just want you to save me. Save me from me.
On your pedestal, you are bright with your dark hair. You got it cut last weekend. Angled bangs again, and they look wonderful. I didn’t save the pictures you sent me.
“Is it just me,” you say, “or did it feel like winter break was nonexistent?”
I nod and stare at your coffee cup. You don’t like coffee, not unless I make it for you. It’s not coffee, and I tease you about this. It’s creamer, sugar, and a splash of coffee. Your nose always crinkles if I have added too much coffee, and I always remedy that by adding more creamer when you aren’t looking.
When you sip today’s coffee, your nose doesn’t crinkle. Your red lipstick lingers on the rim.
You note my silence. “How are you feeling?” Your voice is soft. It’s what a kiss would feel like. Not a desperate, drunken mistake, but a gentle, passionate moment.
I don’t like worrying you, and your chin trembles as if you are distraught.
“I’m great,” I say. Which is relative. I’m great in this moment. It is not now that I am worried about unless I say something stupid that I need to dissect later.
I’m worried about the moments I’m alone. When imagining your laugh and impersonations isn’t enough to draw me from the darkness of my mind. When you aren’t enough.
Earlier, I said that we were fire and gasoline to society. But alone, I am both to myself. Alone, I don’t need your help.
(Alone, I need you more than ever.)
“You’d tell me if there was something wrong, right?” you ask. The touch of your palm on my wrist keeps me from withdrawing too far. Keeps me from thinking about why my winter break felt so short.
Early morning weigh-ins. Nurse inspections to ensure I don’t have any new lacerations. A round table with other people, listening to them gossip, fearing it to be about me. Group therapy and dreaming of escape.
Sometimes escape comes too early.
“Yeah, of course,” I say, and it’s a lie that draws a line in the sand. You know not to push me. That I’ll come to you, groveling, when I need you.
That you will not answer the phone. You won’t be able to hear it over the sound of your future boyfriend’s music.
But I don’t want to think about that, so I focus on the Taylor Swift song. Her album has just come out, and you play it every time in the car. Sometimes Rihanna, but mostly Red. Which feels entirely applicable.
You and I are red. We see the world through a filter, but it’s not just a color. It’s an emotion. Everything is explosive, and we are no exception. We feel more than others, is what you’ve told me.
I don’t think that’s true. I think we feel the emotions others repel. The ones they don’t want to feel. We are vampires. We inhale those discarded emotions, and we thrive on them.
We are anger. We are displacement. We are loathing.
We are us.
The song is interrupted by an incoming call. Your dad.
“Fuck,” you mutter, removing your hand from my arm. I am cold, now, and I adjust the heat to make it warmer.
When you answer, your voice is different. Higher pitched. Innocent. “Hey, Daddy,” you say, and I look at my reflection in your side mirror so I can see myself smirk.
How truly devious we are.
You’ve answered on your cell, not through the car, so I can only hear how gruff his voice is, and not what he says. He sounds younger than my dad.
“Not yet,” you say to him. “We’re at the bookstore now. Yeah. No, I’ll send you my final schedule later. Well, no, I can’t now. I’m at the bookstore. Not at home. With my computer.” You stare straight ahead, but your glare is ominous. The corner of your eye twitches, and your hand clenches around the steering wheel. Paled knuckles, rimmed with red.
I touch your hand. It loosens. You flip it over, and I lace our fingers. A lifeline amidst a stormy sea. Chained together to weather the tumultuous water.
Never break the chain.
“I didn’t—no, I haven’t,” you say. “Yes, I’m with Katharine. She wanted to get our books. Which is why—Daddy, oh my God, let me talk.”
Your hand squeezes mine. A pulse strong enough to crack my finger joint.
“I was with her last night,” you say. It’s your line in the sand. We weren’t together last night. “Yeah, well, we were busy. I couldn’t answer.”
The line thickens, and I wonder how long until it cracks. How long until the ground beneath the line gives out, and you and I remain on opposite sides of a canyon.
Will our lifeline stretch the span of the distance?
(I imagine one of us pouring gasoline on it. The strike of a match from something external, someone, and then we are engulfed.
You are not engulfed. If we were set on fire, you would dance in it, your lithe body remembering the way it danced as a child. And then you would emerge, unscathed. You would toss my ashes into the tumultuous sea.
You would leave.)
Your nails are sharp. They pinch my skin, and I revel in the sharp sting. I like when they break the skin.
It is blood, but not much of it.
Your dad continues to talk to you. His voice doesn’t sound any different, so I imagine he isn’t yelling. But you’ve often told me he doesn’t yell. You’ve told me he doesn’t need to. Some people can get their points across without raising their voices.
We are not those people, though we get our points across in other ways.
Outbursts. Sharp and quick, like your nails biting the back of my hand. Explosions of emotion that are so potent we black out. Bloody wrists, rationed food. Risky drugs and riskier sex.
“I get it,” you say loudly. “That’s why I’m—God, you don’t trust me at all, do you? I’m fine. And I’m making Katharine wait, so I’ll talk to you later. No, I’ll call you.”
You hang up on him before his gruff voice can respond. My fingers are losing color, but I don’t dare let go.
There are tears shimmering in your eyes when you throw your phone onto the floor by your feet. It’s a messy throw, and the phone ricochets off and bounds back into your lap.
The moment is so ridiculous that we both take a second to laugh.
“Are you okay?” It’s my turn to ask.
“Fine,” you say, though your puncturing nails say otherwise. All at once, you seem to notice the grip you have on me, and you slowly release it. “Sorry you had to hear that.”
“I didn’t listen,” I say. “Not really, anyway.”
With your sweatshirt’s sleeve, you rub the tears from your eyes. The movement is rough, and when you lower your arm, your makeup has smudged along your cheeks.
“Here,” I say, shifting in my seat to fully face you. I reach across the car, waiting for you to smack my hand away, though deep down I know you won’t.
I drag the pad of my thumb beneath your eye once. Twice. More times than I need to. It looks like I’m making the smear worse, but your skin is soft and I’m so weak.
“Wow,” I say. “I’m—I’m making this much worse than it started.”
It makes you laugh. Hard. A watery laugh that rumbles in your chest. It’s contagious, and I allow myself to smile because I made you smile.
“Is it that bad?” you ask, even though you can look in the rear-view mirror yourself to see.
Instead, you say, “Try again.”
I scoot closer to you. Square my shoulders like this is the biggest fucking deal. In a way, it is. I get to help you. I love helping you.
The makeup is still smeared. Black streaks beneath your eyes. It doesn’t get better, no matter how often I wipe. I’m afraid of rubbing too much skin off. Making it red.
Upsetting you further.
“My dad is the worst,” you say.
“No,” I say. “My makeup recovery skills are the worst.”
Another laugh. Your cheeks bunch when you smile, and the skin presses against my fingers.
You’re too close to me, and I swallow. The car is too hot, and I regret turning the heat on more. The windows have fogged, keeping us safe from the light, humid cold of Florida.
We sit here, in a different sort of entwinement, for several moments. I wait for you to pull back. To get out of the car so we can get our books. Maybe you wait for me to do the same.
Here, now, I think we might be more than destruction. We could be restoration.
Finally, you move away, out of my reach. Dreams of being something other than devastation flitter away.
“We fogged it up in here,” you say with a wink. It’s a defense mechanism. One I see through only because I do it so much myself.
You exhale, your head thumping against the headrest. Like this, with smudged makeup, you seem more human than usual.
I hate seeing you like this. Like me. I am selfish. “How can I help?” I say, holding my breath for fear that it might be something I cannot offer.
“Just keep being you,” you say. Easy enough, though I still don’t understand why you want this.
It’s enough for me, and I feel the conversation slipping into an awkward stagnation. I ask, “Do you want to get our books?”
Several cars have arrived since we’ve been sitting here, and even though I care about little more than you, I still feel the seed of unease sprouting in my stomach. We should have our books.
(I should care more about what I’m doing. I should be better than what I am.)
You flip your visor down so you can appraise yourself in the mirror. Your shoulders tremble in a forced shudder, and you grin at me as you re-buckle your seatbelt.
“I don’t look presentable enough to be seen in public,” you say with a mock British accent. “We should go to Target instead.”
“Still public,” I say, though I buckle my seatbelt, as well.
“But it’s better in public,” you say. “We can get our books another time. There’s still…” You trail off, as if in thought. “Two days of the drop-add week. We’re fine.”
“Whatever you want,” I say. It’s the truth. Our partnership is you and your wants. They are not as destructive as mine.
You turn Taylor Swift back on, to the slow song you like. Beneath your breath, you hum. It’s melodic. Entrancing.
I stare at my hands, memorizing the crescent marks your nails have tattooed into the skin. Red blood rusted dry from oxygen, beads two of the marks. It is an oath I accept, and I smile at the promise.
I smile at us, and whatever we will bring upon the world.