Short Story Girls in Love
Rosie is being followed. Her ex-boyfriend is having a hard time accepting the prefix.
Across the table from me, Rosie looks a little drunk. She’s wearing an Adidas sweatshirt and a headband made out of Swarovski crystals. It cost $95—an impulse purchase from thirty minutes prior, made on the walk from her house to the restaurant. All three of us, for some reason, are eating clam chowder for breakfast. The weather on the patio is San Franciscan, gray, and vaguely wet.
Rosie blinks at me. “Eat, Margot. You don’t look good.” It’s unclear whether she means specifically in that moment or just in general.
“I’m having a hard time with this bowl of warm dairy. Not great hangover food.”
Lo rolls her eyes. “Margot doesn’t eat food like this anymore, Rosie. She’s a gluten-free, sugar-free, fun-free vegan now.”
I’m not, but this needling is irresistible to her—this poking at what she refers to as “my lifestyle-influencer lifestyle.” She hasn’t yet forgiven me for moving inland, to a Los Angeles enclave where one is strongly encouraged to eat plants constantly and in copious amounts. At restaurants, the waiters automatically ask you what you’re allergic to, and gluten is a pleasure indulged in under feigned ignorance, like eating a tuna sandwich that is actually a dolphin sandwich.
Rosie laughs. “I do wish I could do the no-bra thing,” she says, considering my chest. This is some bullshit, because from eighth grade on, Rosie has had the most perfect tits on the planet. At twenty-eight, I joke that I’m still waiting to hit puberty.
“Can you just shut up?” I prod her calf with my toe under the table.
“Yeah, Rosie,” Lo says, “don’t encourage her.”
The weekend is a last-minute reunion. Rosie had called a few days before and asked, with a sort of chipper desperation, that we come and stay with her. She insisted it wasn’t anything serious, but if we could please just try and get there that weekend, please, she would love it.
It had been a year and a half since we’d all been together last, and six months since I’d seen Lo. Though we technically lived in the same city, my move eastward put eighteen miles of Los Angeles freeway between us that might as well have been three hundred. At the airport, she looked past me, biting the inside of her cheek. “I wonder what’s wrong with her.”
Lo was staring intensely at a boy, sixteen or seventeen, sitting across from us in the boarding area. He had his head bowed and enormous headphones covered his ears. Every now and then, he peeked from under the flat bill of his Dodgers cap to see if this woman was still staring at him, and yes, she was.
“She’s sick,” I said, suddenly sure that this was true. Lo had this effect on people, of getting latent pessimism to suddenly bear fruit. To say something hopeful around her always felt pathetic.
“Or pregnant.” She turned to me, an eyebrow raised.
Lo had gotten pregnant during our second year of college, and the day she called to tell me, we spent ten minutes talking about how I’d had a chorizo burrito every day for a week straight, about how I was worried it had become some sort of compulsion, before she mentioned it in a no-big-deal voice. As if she were deciding whether to order the veggie burger or, fuck it, just go for the regular cheeseburger. That night I drove the six hours from Berkeley to LA and in the morning, I took her to a clinic in the valley. In the waiting room, I asked if the guy was paying for half.
“You mean Flex?”
“His name is Flex?”
“It’s short for his last name. Fleichsmann.”
“Did you tell him?”
“Don’t you think you should?”
“But he should help pay.”
“He sells pot.”
“So he can afford it, then.” (Later, when we were drunk, she would tell me that Flex sold pills.)
Lo chewed on her bottom lip. “He’s Catholic.”
“You just made that up.”
She turned and squared herself to me. “Are you going to ask me next if I’m sure I want to do this?”
“Is that what you want me to ask?”
The look on her face made me regret my question. She turned back to the pamphlet on HPV vaccinations in her lap.
“Everyone has HPV. Literally, almost everyone,” she announced to the waiting room.
Later, at the outpatient desk, she signed the papers and I put my credit card next to hers. “All set,” she said, smiling at the nurse like we were all old friends.
It was understood between us that Lo had called me because Rosie was out of the question. Rosie would have shown up with several bottles of champagne and a list of pros and cons written out on an airplane napkin. Lo had called me because, like her, I could be cold. In seventh-grade history class, we worked on a project about the battlefield nurses of the Civil War together and developed a macabre obsession with how they must have come to see the world. Ruthless servants to the art of amputation. “Cut the whole thing off” became shorthand for anything that displeased us over the years—a bad sandwich, a bar playing techno, men who openly admitted to liking Entourage, her estranged father who would send her money at random intervals.
Lo had called me because thirty-six hours after she took the pill, I would be there while she bled, without looking sad or sympathetic or admiring or whatever it was she didn’t want to see reflected back at her.
“What does it feel like?” I asked later, as we tried to go to sleep. She was facing the window and I was behind her on the bed, working my fingertips over the roots of her hair.
“Like you’re bleeding a fucking fetus to death.”
I stopped scratching her head and she turned to face me. “Jesus, Lo,” I said. “Don’t be such a baby.” Her puckered face broke into a small smile.
Rosie, it turns out, is not pregnant or sick. She is being followed. Her ex-boyfriend Ben is having a hard time accepting the prefix and is refusing to quit in the way that men sometimes refuse to quit. Ben is a Green Beret in the United States Army.
That night, the three of us lay in Rosie’s bed, each cradling a bottle of sparkling wine. Old, expensive scotch, left at Rosie’s apartment by the Green Beret, was passed back and forth. When I began to Google the options one has when one is being stalked, Rosie looked at me, a little hurt. “Well, I don’t know if it’s stalking. ”
Three times that week he had shown up outside of her house in his salt-worn Volvo. The first time, he had seen her peeking down at him from behind her curtains, and she felt so embarrassed at being caught that she let him in.
“Nothing is sadder than a man who thinks he’s having sex with you for the last time,” she said.
“Ah, yes,” Lo said. “The ol’ ‘let me shove my half-hard dick in you while I cry into your hair’ bit. Classic.”
I didn’t feel bad for the Green Beret, but his sorrow was a familiar old song. Rosie was a person with whom you had to make a concerted effort not to fall in love; in the senior edition of our high school newspaper, she was voted “Best Person to Walk Behind” as well as “Most Likely to Cure the Common Cold.” She was prodigious in her use of eye contact, and over the years, she had packed away a calculating intelligence (she had graduated second in our class and made considerable money playing online poker during college). She presented to the world preternaturally alert breasts, violet-rimmed green eyes, and an almost manic sweetness. Excluding the years around her father’s swift and consuming battle with brain cancer when she was twenty, she had always been and would always be the best at seeming happy. Nearly every man she’d ever dated had tried to propose to her. For Rosie, the end goal was to procure a wealthy husband (not that difficult) who was not a full-blown asshole (more difficult), and she wasn’t embarrassed to say so.
Later that night Rosie led us downstairs. A picture frame that still held its flimsy placeholder photo of a couple in Santorini hung on the wall. She stood on the couch and took it down. Behind it was a fist-sized hole.
“It was actually kind of funny,” she said, smiling, her pupils enormous. “I mean, who does that?”
Lo chews on a spear of pickled asparagus from her bloody mary and looks at Rosie for a long moment before asking what she’s going to do about this boy. This man.
Rosie shrugs. “You tell me. I’m not buying you guys brunch for nothing.”
Lo looks away, making a show of her world-weariness. People who don’t know her well find her to be rude, or, as it’s often put to me, with a question mark at the end to soften it: kind of a bitch? My brother, who slept with Lo once (she never told me about it, and I never told her I knew), described her as having the personality of a stripper who won’t even pretend to like you. But her aloofness demanded a certain measure of respect. It was something she’d acquired through a childhood spent moving up and down the coast with her mother, who was not a bad mother so much as a bad older sister, refusing to acknowledge the impossible weight of her role; both enamored with and threatened by Lo’s rapid prettiness; mostly attending her AA meetings, but sometimes not.
Rosie and I had grown up side by side in Folsom, a wealthy suburb in the foothills of the Sierras coveted by upper-middle-class white people for its whiteness. To outsiders, it was known for its prison, made famous by Johnny Cash and some of the country’s most prestigious criminals—the Menendez brothers, Charles Manson, Suge Knight. We spent our girlhoods belly down on each others’ lawns, catching frogs and rescuing earthworms from certain death on the sidewalk; leaving bags of dog shit on the porch of the senile woman whose house stood between ours; pilfering, at age nine, Rosie’s dad’s copy of The Joy of Sex; touching tongues to see what it felt like, per Rosie’s suggestion; discussing and examining the various residues that materialized in our underwear through the years, per my suggestion; bringing a bottle of Scope filled with vodka and green food coloring to the first day of high school. When Lo landed in Folsom our sophomore year, it was clear that she did not care whether she made friends or not, which of course made us want to be her friend.
Over time, the three of us developed a rivalry over who could get our AP history teacher, Mr. Werth, to cross some line of decorum. He wasn’t what you would call handsome, but he was funny and only fourteen years older than us. After class, standing our sixteen-year-old bodies too close to him, we would put a hand lightly on his elbow as we asked questions about the judicial branch, and he was too nervous, or more likely too excited, to tell us to stop. One day toward the end of the year, Lo sat on her desk for twenty minutes after the bell rang, listening to him explain the weaknesses of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. When she got up, he had walked her toward the door with his hand on the small of her back, a half-hearted pressure exerted by both the need to get her to leave and to touch her. She turned around just before they reached the hallway and looked up at him. She said it was the smell of him that pulled her back—that he had coffee breath and was wearing some aggressive, boyish deodorant, a brand he must’ve worn for the last two decades and had never thought to change. She winked at him, allegedly, and stepped out into the hallway.
Now she’s pushing the remnants of her clam chowder around in her bowl, one leg crossed over the other, her foot bobbing like an anchored boat. She says nothing; she seems bored.
“You need to report him,” I begin, though already the suggestion feels stupid. On the night Rosie let him into the house, Ben told her that he was being sent back to Afghanistan in a month.
“Yeah. The cops are going to be all over this one,” Lo says. “A war hero who sits in a parked car every night jerking off to his ex-girlfriend’s silhouette.”
“That’s not illegal?” Rosie smiles. When we’d arrived the night before, she’d answered the door wrapped in a silk robe, her face pale, like some diminutive heroine out of an old-timey novel, as if a cold gust of city air might bring her tuberculosis and it’d all be over after that.
“He’s leaving in a month,” Lo says.
“I think that’s bullshit,” I say. “I think he just said that so she’d have sex with him again.”
Lo acts like I didn’t say anything and continues to bite at the cuticle of her thumb; responsibility exhausts her. Two summers before, she and Rosie had gone to a music festival (I had been too broke), and around three in the morning one night, she called me in a state of low-grade panic, having lost Rosie some hours before. Eventually, she found her playing chess with the guys they’d bought coke from earlier, wearing someone’s basketball shorts and a bikini top. Rosie had somehow lost the veneer cap on one of her front teeth, and out of politeness or cruelty or apathy, none of the men had pointed this out to her. Later, Lo sent me a picture of Rosie sleeping, lips parted, the tooth calling for attention like some garrulous drunk in a family of teetotalers. It was the most unappealing Rosie had ever been; Lo’s accompanying commentary was a lone smiley face.
Now Lo looks at me, brushing her lips with the ends of her hair, which, since the last time I’d seen her, had been transformed from white-blonde to the color of red clay.
“Well,” she says after a while, “I guess we have to take this guy out.” She runs her finger across her neck, discreet.
Rosie laughs, but I want to shake her, to grab her arms and squeeze her until she is serious.
“Or maybe he’ll step on a—what are those things called? Not an IUD, but an IED?” Lo says.
Rosie frowns. “He’s not a bad person.” She slowly leans forward until her cheek is pressed to the dirty table.
Lo touches her glass to mine and Rosie’s. “Cheers,” she says.
If someone were to ask why Lo and I hadn’t seen each other for six months, I could cite any number of reasons: The traffic that now existed between us was overwhelming. Lo was busy with a man who owned a condo by the airport. I was busy eating plants. But really it was because the last time we saw each other, Lo had ruined it.
The night of my twenty-eighth birthday, my boyfriend had set up a little tiki bar in our backyard. I’d recently become obsessed with the idea of leaving LA for Hawaii, so that I could blame my struggling career as a writer on distractions everyone could agree were legitimate: That much beauty is impossible to ignore, and who could blame anyone for spending all their time staring? The tiki bar was Braden’s polite refusal, his way of saying I love you, but you’re ridiculous.
It was three in the morning by the time everyone had gone home. In my periphery, as I pretended to be sober enough to do the dishes in the kitchen, I could see Lo and Braden sitting at the table in the yard, her small foot resting in his lap.
“Drunk?” she asked him.
“Drunk is relative.”
“Relative to what?”
The clink of glasses.
“You look a little drunk,” she said.
“That would make sense.”
“Do you know what?”
“You’re an anachrism.”
“An an ach ronism.”
“Blonde hair, blue eyes. This is the twenty-first century, this is the U-S-A. This is the melting pot.” Lo was half Mexican, half WASP. “A hundred years from now, blonde people are going to be extinct.”
Braden laughed. “This is a weird conversation.”
“And you’re going to have little mixed Asian babies with Margot. And your Aryan people are going to be extinct. ”
“Alright, Lo. That’s enough.”
“It’s not fair,” she said.
“What’s not fair? This conversation is insane.”
“I’m not talking about that.”
“Come on. Let’s go in.”
“Can I have a cigarette?” The flick of a lighter. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair that Margot has you.”
“You’re fucked up.”
“Not as fucked up as Margot. You think you know her.” Lo’s laugh.
I could have walked out and put an end to it. But I wanted, with an almost insane longing, to see what she would do next. To see what she would reveal, of herself or of me.
To Lo I was an emotional idiot, suffused all my life with an excess of love. From my doting Korean mother and my gentle, pot-loving father. From Rosie. From Braden, who was twenty-five when he met eighteen-year-old me, whose perhaps suspicious initial interest had stemmed into a stalwart faithfulness, despite my various misbehaviors. She saw my life as one undisturbed stroke of luck, only slightly less fortuitous than the lot reserved for thirty-year-old white men with full heads of hair and individuals born into the Coppola family.
Lo placed her other foot in Braden’s lap, resting her head on the back of the chair.
“You’ll never have what we have,” she said.
The moon comes up overweight and orange. After brunch we’d gone to play pool at a bar in the Haight and then remembered that Rosie was the only one that really knew how, so instead we drank greyhounds and ate basketful after basketful of bar popcorn. The bloating is worth the bonding, the bloating is worth the bonding, I kept thinking to my drunk self.
When our cab pulls up to the house, Ben’s Volvo is parked in front.
“Shit,” Rosie says.
The cab driver says, “Okey dokey,” and then “okey dokey,” again after no one responds.
I ask Rosie if she wants me to call the cops.
“No.” She sounds calm, but her calmness is a cage built out of vodka. She rests her forehead on the back of the cabbie’s seat.
“I’m calling the cops.” I look at the back of Lo’s head in the front seat, and then at the cabbie in the rearview mirror, like maybe he is going to back me up.
Ben emerges from his car. He is dressed in a peacoat, a red beanie, running shoes. He’s handsome in a hulking, Viking sort of way, the kind of man you see on the street and think, I could climb that. But he looks tired, his hands heavy in his pockets.
In the backseat, Rosie puts her hand on mine and squeezes. “It’s okay. Don’t.” She gets out of the cab and Lo and I follow.
“Ben,” she says, kissing him on the side of his sad face. “This is Lo and this is Margot.”
Lo shakes his hand first, her mouth strangling a smile. “Handsome,” she says to Rosie, like she’s her drunk aunt.
“What are you doing here?” I say. I mean for it to sound non-threatening, like hey, fancy meeting you here, but I can feel my eyes go owlish.
Ben blinks at me. He coughs, and in the cold air it materializes like flickers of weak fog. He turns to Rosie. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of you. I wanted to talk. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had company.”
“We’re not company,” Lo says brightly.
“Come in for a drink,” Rosie says, brighter.
I mix vodka with unsweetened cranberry juice; it is undrinkably tart, but it is all Rosie has, the juice left over from her last bladder infection. I add some sugar substitute that is lying around in packets, but it just settles at the bottom. From the kitchen, I can see Ben and Rosie on the couch. Lo sits perpendicular on the loveseat and takes the three rolls of toilet paper she stole from the bar out of her purse, talking about her boyfriend and his condo by the airport.
“Westchester is a shithole,” she says. “But where else can you get that much space, you know?”
I carry the drinks out and sit down next to her.
Ben takes his drink and leans forward, his elbows on his knees, hands clasped around the glass. He smiles down at it, a flush creeping up his neck. Rosie’s laugh bubbles up from the quiet. She rubs his wide back.
I nudge Lo, though I’m not sure what for. She stacks and then restacks the toilet paper in a little pyramid on the coffee table. “So,” she says. She isn’t a nervous person, but when it overcomes her, she becomes jaunty—cheerier than she ever gets when something actually pleases. “Are you excited? Are you excited to go back to Afghanistan? Or Iraq, or whatever?”
Ben looks at her. His sadness strikes me as just a touch too dramatic. “Sure.”
“Well. Good luck out there.” She says this into her drink, and I feel her elbow me.
What I had imagined doing—what I wish, in hindsight, I’d done—was gesture to the picture of Santorini covering the hole, tell Ben I like what he’s done with the place. But Rosie is giving me this look.
“Last night,” I say, “I had this dream where I had a baby. It took about ten minutes to push it out, and when it came out, it was baby-sized, but it looked exactly like my little sister. Black mermaid hair and everything. It even knew some dirty words in Korean. Then I remember checking my vagina, which was back to normal, so I went to the bar. My mother tried to stop me, but I just went.”
Rosie laughs her flooded-car-engine laugh and puts her hand on Ben’s knee. Ben seems unmoved. Lo’s face is splotched with red. She keeps brushing something invisible from her cheek. She presses the outside of her leg against mine.
“One time,” she says, “I dreamt I had a baby, and when I woke up in the morning—” she pauses here, pointing her glass at Ben, though he has said nothing. “Turns out I’d shit myself.”
This is our shtick, automatic and practiced. Years ago, we had discovered that the swiftest way to get a man to leave you alone is to turn any feelings of interest or want or authority into disgust. Just saying the word “vagina” in the context of it being diseased or stretched out generally does the trick, but for the particularly bullish, you might have to resort to explosive diarrhea.
Ben seems to understand what we’re up to. He looks at me and then at Lo, but instead of anger he keeps going with the sadness, and it embarrasses us all. He stands; he is tired enough to give up, to yield, in the end, to Rosie’s friends, who outnumber him and are becoming increasingly animated by some sort of psychotic determination. He is putting his coat and his beanie back on when Rosie stands up, too. She puts her hand on his forearm and says, “You’re going home?”
In the morning, the room is cold. I get out of Rosie’s bed and stand in the bay window, the pupil of the gray Victorian. At the bus stop across the street, a woman around our age listens to music on her headphones, stifling an urge to dance. There is an old man pushing a broom over the sidewalk in front of his store, smoking. There is someone sleeping in someone else’s doorway.
Behind me I can hear Lo waking up, shifting in the bed. I turn around and she is watching me, the side of her face pressed against the pillow.
“Hi,” I say.
“Morning,” she says.
Downstairs, we wash the cocktails out of their glasses and tidy up the living room. I want to ask Lo if she thinks we should call Rosie to check in, to let her know that we’re leaving, but I don’t. On the pad of empty shopping lists stuck to the fridge I write a note:
Love you so much. We had a blast. See you soon.
-M & L
“Should we get something to eat?” I say. It’s unthinking and automatic, a fear of silence, and the hopefulness I hear in my voice disappoints me. Lo gives me a sad smile.
In the months that follow, we talk here and there: Lo sends me an article on the dangers of drinking too much kale juice; on Rosie’s twenty-ninth birthday, I email her a picture of us topless in our underwear at age five, me wearing the red lips and earrings from her Mrs. Potato Head doll, Rosie with Mr. Potato Head’s moustache clamped to her septum and his tiny bowler hat balanced on her head; two weeks pass before she responds with “HAHAHA! Classic. I miss you!!! Can we get together soon?”
The next time we see each other it is in LA, more than a year later. This time, on Lo’s summons: a small reception to celebrate her marriage to Patrick, who recently sold his condo by the airport for a one-bedroom in Manhattan Beach. They’d married at Town Hall the month before, with her stepsister and his brother as witnesses. She was someone’s wife for two weeks before I knew. She called to tell Rosie and me at the same time. At first, I thought she was joking. I didn’t say enough on the phone; Rosie’s enthusiasm padded my silence.
I tried to let the weirdness of not being invited to the wedding, of not knowing what Lo was doing until it was done, disappear. I was stunned. It was my job to say more. She knew that I knew she wasn’t in love. At the very least, I was supposed to show up and demand explanations she could then refuse to give.
Braden and I are among the last to arrive at the restaurant in Manhattan Beach. We stand in the parking lot, breathing in the rotten ocean air. We share a cigarette and I look through the window to the back of the restaurant, at ruddy Patrick sitting at the head of the table, Lo to his right. She looks bright and healthy, her dress a simple shift the color of butter. Patrick talks to the couple next to him, looking occasionally at his wife like a happy, worried man.
Rosie and her boyfriend, a lawyer for whom she had recently moved to Boston, sit a few seats down. He listens, rapt, as she tells what appears to be a story about peeling bananas.
“We should head in,” I say.
“Should we, though?” Braden says, smiling. I picture leaving with him and wonder if it would feel good.
When we enter the dining room, Patrick is standing, making a quiet speech, his hand on the back of Lo’s chair. Rosie is crying, tastefully. She looks over at me and waves her fingers, beaming.
As her husband speaks, Lo sees me. Her mouth curls into a smile. We watch each other. We wait for him to finish, for the moment when she will stand and pull her chair back and make her way over to me, the both of us ready to say what we will; to cut through the language of lovers and interpret the tenseness of our embracing bodies like a forgotten mother tongue.