by Laura Winnick
Phoebe and I meet up at a bar that’s too crowded for us to go fully inside, let alone talk to one another. We lock eyes and exit. It keeps happening that I don’t want to be where most people want to be.
We idle outside, November’s temperature dropping, Phoebe propping her compact dancer’s body on the frame of her bike, and me, stamping around, trying to feel something.
I don’t like nightlife, I yell, throwing my arms up, using two fingers to make air quotations around night and life.
Yeah, Phoebe responds slowly, her ginger hair piled high, scraping her eyebrows. Her skepticism is one that separates her from everyone, even me. She’s not too bothered by it all, the way I am. Her brown eyes are looking over and through me, as she scans the people frolicking to the bar. It’s Saturday night and I could care less.
I could care less, I shout.
This time, some people adjacent turn, as if they’ve been prompted to respond. I walk in small, tight circles, stomping around Phoebe, her statuesque bike.
I know, replies Phoebe. She’s a little distant. So do you want to go to a different bar or…
I had recently been learning to accept that people make choices, that ultimately these choices shape our entire lives.
The choices of the people around me seemed, at best, arbitrary, and, at worst, completely undoable actions that led to their personal destruction and demise.
This realization, in some ways, eased the pain of choice-making; it flattened the stakes. A choice was a move – not necessarily ahead or behind or even to the left or right. It was just a move, and the people I knew were making them all around me, all the time, every day. It wasn’t that they weren’t considering the impact of their choices; it was just that they seemed to concede all other options, committing to their decisions, despite the way they could derail or impact the perpetuity of one’s life. And then, once made, everyone was trapped, anchored to their selections.
This is how I saw my community dissolving: friends picked off by partnership, moving away from our nucleus, tethered to big jobs in big business or big banks, transferring cities, swapping ideologies.
Phoebe is dressed for Vermont, as she always is, her outfit made up of name-brands that are compound, masculine words: Carhart, Blundstone, Dickies. Farm-ready, no makeup.
We trudge to another, less obvious bar. We like their red-speckled booths and 50s music. I order a Dark and Stormy and Phoebe, true to outfit, gets a kale salad.
What do people even do on the weekends? I ask.
Laundry? Phoebe offers, considering. Sleep in?
I tick off a list, slurping the ginger beer and rum, I don’t like brunch and I don’t like loud places and I don’t like DJs and I don’t like drinking.
I was rounding the corner on two years in New York; one of those moves that I called inevitable, but really was, when whittled down, a matter of choice. Despite my mistrust for the city and its mythology, I had located myself here, next to the other eight million humans, soldiering forward. Phoebe’d come first, moving immediately after graduation; in a rare moment of succession, I scurried after.
You don’t like much, Phoebe expresses, mouth full of green leaves, grinning at me.
Phoebe tried drugs in high school only after I prompted; my curiosity and abandon leading us first to weed, then gradually into more alien combinations. We first got high from an eighth we copped from the boy around the corner and melted into a stick of butter, swirling the spatula round and round the frying pan, the crushed leaves like oregano. Because the neighbor told us to, we blended it into milkshakes, drinking the chocolate liquid until our mouths frothed. When my mom came home, she found us strapped out, unable to move, our bodies trapped to the carpet, our eyes zooming around the living room to the trappings of my white suburban life: Buddhist tapestries on the walls, bejeweled lamps, stringed instruments piled in the corner.
Now we were 27, disappointed but still somehow cooperating. The chapters between high school and adulthood were more like brief segues, not quite formative in the way we’d both hoped they’d be, and we were back on the East Coast, hours south of the suburbs where we first used drugs to detach. Somehow, even in adulthood, we remained in that moment of ambivalent precipice: on the verge of compromising it all or compromising nothing.
I just think, she begins, her face soft and open, I’ve developed a cynicism that…prevents me from actually having any type of real connection with anyone.
I start to respond, stop, then continue, Last week I went on a date with a stranger and the only things I could think to talk about were my hatred of New York and my hatred of cis men.
We both pause and look at each other.
…and the stranger was a cis man living in New York, I say, clarifying.
Well, how’d it go? Phoebe asks.
It went…weird, I respond, thinking back. He had feminine cheekbones and didn’t understand my jokes and lacked depth and I got too intense and asked invasive questions and lied at the end about wanting to see him again. I didn’t finish my beer and didn’t give him the chance to apologize or kiss me, not that he had the wherewithal to do either.
I repeat, It got real weird.
Then, quietly, almost to myself, I think no more dates with cis-male strangers.
The waiter bumps into our table and we both look up, startled. She has wide, green eyes behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. I find myself wanting to make more contact.
I’m so sorry, she says, doubling back. It seems like she doesn’t know how to be a server or how to have a body. She puts her hand up, palm forward, as if stopping us from proceeding, warning us not to get closer. So sorry.
Phoebe, I nudge her, as she backs up clumsily, Is she famous?
We make a plan to go back next week.
I wake up early and drag my laundry three blocks. I share the space with the people who work there or the people who are friends with the people who work there or the other loners who have no reason to stay out late on a Friday night, all people who aren’t white like me.
Someone has brought Dunkin Donuts, passes out coffee to everyone working. Three women fold clothing that doesn’t belong to them, nodding their heads in gratitude, accepting the drinks; two others drape winter decorations on the walls, motion for their coffee to be placed elsewhere.
Bennie, the person distributing the drinks says, grinning, I got you. And then again, with emphasis, I got you.
Bennie is the only one seated, inactive, behind the cash register.
Bennie asks, You got it how I like?
Cream and sugar, the person says, hips shimmying. That’s how you like it, baby.
I bend, silently loading my dirty underwear and shirts into the washer, plucking them from my basket, for everyone to see. I go slow, wanting to witness this small pocket of community, their jokes, constellation of care.
Toward the front windows, a woman, without coffee, is half-chanting, half-singing, in a soft Caribbean accent, I don’t matta, I don’t matta.
Four round syllables, released on beat, repeated. I don’t matter, I don’t matter.
No one says anything. Bennie and the others quietly slurp the distributed coffees, letting the steam rise up through the Styrofoam slits. The radio swerves from soft jazz to commercial.
My mom texts, Are you coming home for Thanksgiving?
My mom texts, Is Phoebe joining us this year?
My mom texts, Great wool socks at Costco. $12 a pack, for 4. Do you/Phoebe want some?
My therapist’s blonde hair is cut into a bob, with sharply scissored bangs. I always wonder if I’d look at her twice if she passed me by on the street. I’m not attracted to her personality, but she only charges me $70 a session, and what I do like is some conflict and consistency in my week. Plus, her office is on my way home from work.
I know how we ended last week, I say, before I even sit down.
Oh? she asks, How?
I got really emotional and kind of disassociated and you asked me if I was disassociating and I said I wasn’t even though I was.
She nods, confirms, Yes. We did end there.
I’d rather not go back there again, I say, defiance rising.
The corners of her mouth pulse, as if the folds of her lips are being pulled by invisible strings.
Oh, she wonders. Why not?
I trail off, pause, collect myself, look at the carpet, defiance rising, falling, fading.
I continue, I left and I was totally drained, like kind of devastated. I just had nothing left. I don’t want to leave therapy like that every single week…it’s too intense.
We discuss intensity.
We discuss disassociating.
We discuss childhood.
I resist using air quotes.
Her lips are tweaking the entire time. She eventually stops speaking, moves into silent twitching. It’s almost like she’s preparing for a trombone concert.
It’s kind of like you’re preparing for a trombone concert, I tell her.
Come again? she asks.
The way your lips move, I say. Like, the corners of your mouth? They kind of…pulse?
Actually, that’s time for today, she replies. We don’t have the time to discuss it now, but I do wonder why you’re so interested in my facial features? Does my reaction distract you?
I leave, checking my watch: 5:48. Two minutes too early.
At work I make a playlist called moody bitch with one song on it. I text Phoebe the following Tuesday, I’m not having a good time. Meet me later at Golden Years?
She responds, Stop being such a Daria about it all.
Wire-Rimmed is there, bumping around like she’s in a Tetris game. Her limbs don’t seem to hinge the way that others’ do. She’s wearing the exact same outfit as last time.
She smiles at us, her teeth too big for her mouth; Phoebe, unconcerned, scans the menu.
Do you have, maybe, soup? Vegetable soup? she asks, not lifting her head.
I am shaking out my hair, tousling tendrils between fingers. I have lipstick on.
Slow tonight, huh? I ask.
Oh yeah, she says, nodding enthusiastically. Well, she pauses. Actually? It’s never really busy here.
I laugh, even though I don’t know if she’s telling the truth or trying to make a joke.
Phoebe looks up then, first at me, then at her.
How long have you worked here? she asks, as if she has just realized a living person is standing before us. She scans Wire-Rimmed, assessing: her white tee and jeans. Freckles cover the fair skin on her muscular forearms.
I try to catch Phoebe’s brown eyes, motion to her that I want to do this on my terms.
Oh, I just, I actually just started last week.
Serving in this city can be really difficult, Phoebe replies, putting down her menu, ready to interrogate. I reflexively stretch my leg out under the table to meet hers, brush up against, tame.
Yeah, seems like that? She pauses, grins, those wide teeth. I don’t know. I think I’ll eventually just…learn to do what I need to do, she shrugs, not seeming too concerned about her inadequacies.
Phoebe returns to the drink menu, cross-examination short-lived.
She continues, not picking up the cue, I just…my other gig usually pays me late, so I decided to find some work where I can make money consistently.
What’s your other gig? I ask.
Kale salad, Phoebe interrupts.
Oh, right, yeah, I’ll put that order in for you. And uh, did you want anything?
Got it, she says, lumbering away.
Phoebe, I hiss, I’m attracted to her.
I know, she replies, rolling her eyes. Her sunset hair is piled into a clumsy structure on the top of her head, and I realize I never see it down anymore, draping her waist.
You’re not acting like you know.
I can name every single person Phoebe’s ever had sex with, what was exchanged, the details of their intimacy; recalling her list is easier than remembering my own.
Do I need to? she asks, pointedly, And besides, is it because you think she’s famous or because you’re actually attracted to her?
Why would a famous person be working at an empty bar? I ask, ducking her question.
I google, red haired wire rimmed glasses Brooklyn famous Golden Years.
I google, what do I want to do right now.
I google, is conflict with your therapist healthy.
At therapy I get myself tea and walk in. Landscape photographs framed and hung in horizontal precision: three in a row. Vacuumed floor. The neat blue couch, its companions a precise side table, tissues, digital clock, a lifeless room.
I settle, position the mug in my lap, spin the tag around. It reads Namaste Tea on one side; on the other, Try practice listening. Something my mom would say. Practice. With your full self. Namaste.
Kind of an ironic intention for therapy, I comment.
What’s that? my therapist asks, twitching.
This tea bag is telling me to try practice listening.
She makes nasal, neutral hmm’s. I zone off into her carpet, seeing only its’ repeating patterns.
I’m not…I start to say.
Not what? she prompts.
I’m not…I try again.
I want to name something specific and claustrophobic, explain the tired feeling that rises in me each morning, even after sleeping twelve hours, how difficult it is for me to leave my apartment, to reunion with the outside world.
I’m not…I venture again, then settle for, On track. I’m not on track.
She breaks eye contact, diverting her gaze elsewhere, while the corners of her mouth make those quick, rabbit-like movements.
You mean with your cycle? She poses.
No, I snap at her. Not with my cycle. With my entire life.
Hmmmm, she elongates, corners of her lips veering, side to side, You feel you’re behind.
I didn’t say I was behind.
You feel adrift?
I didn’t say adrift.
You feel your peers are reaching important life markers that you are no closer to meeting then when you were a child, and you are feeling increasing anxiety that you will never, ever meet those important milestones?
Um…no, I say coldly, No. I just said, I was…Off. Track.
We glare at each other; I refuse to be the one who breaks eye contact.
I sigh. It feels like I’m doing most of the heavy lifting here.
I continue, I’m just…offering something, and you don’t really understand, or you kind of, jump to these conclusions, and then I need to do all this work to explain to you, what I meant…
She interrupts, What would you rather?
What would I rather, I repeat.
What would you rather I do? she asks, again.
I’d rather you…give me some time, I think. Space. No diagnosis.
Fervid lips, twitching, twitching.
Yeah, I say, coming around to my own demands, And also, ideas, of course. You should give me ideas. Support. I should leave here feeling…helped.
I think suddenly of Phoebe, the way amusement sits on her face, in her rounded, pale, pink cheeks. How patient she is, how she knows all my cues. That girl is built for tragedy, my mom once said, in one of her more lucid moments, That girl can withstand anything.
So you want space without diagnosis, but you want to leave feeling helped? My therapist interjects.
She continues, I’m not sure I can do both.
Well, I can want both, I claim.
You can. But wanting both makes you, well, a bit of a Goldilocks.
A Goldilocks, I repeat.
For you, nothing is ever quite right.
The last time I kissed a woman I didn’t like it; she kept her mouth closed, fixed her lips.
Open, I kept whispering, Open.
I was surprised because her hands weren’t soft. She was a painter, and her skin was coarse, so rough, as if she spent all day using her fingers, forgoing the brushes.
My mom texts, so great to see you!!
My mom texts, come back whenever you want, it can just be for an afternoon!!
My mom texts, your light seemed dimmer.
Phoebe’s outside Golden Years, locking up her bike, removing the heavy chain from across her body, her flip phone jammed into a pocket. She’s wearing the same farm look; I’m in hunter green monotone: crop top, trousers, a button down.
You look hot, Phoebe comments.
Wire-Rimmed is there. Her shoulders expand, as she bumbles, marooned behind the bar. I stare directly at her as we walk inside. Phoebe moves toward our usual table, but I tilt my head, point to the bar.
We slide into stools and Wire-Rimmed smiles: that wide, crowded grin. Almost like she has too much saliva in his mouth? I don’t know; I want to know.
Ladies, she says, awkwardly.
Sir Bartender, Phoebe says, mocking her.
She bows her head and comments, sheepishly, Um, I actually can’t get you a drink, I don’t know how to bartend.
Of course, Phoebe mutters.
We lock eyes as she walks away. I feel the attraction rise.
Phoebe and I talk about our breaks, how cramped it felt to return to our childhood homes and beds. The furniture our parents keep, the meals they serve, the ways my mother attempts to relate: horoscopes, CBD oil, semi-hysterical statements supposing what I’ll do when she dies. How Phoebe’s many siblings are proxies for her parents’ discord and recent divorce, how being with my mom makes me feel overlapping loneliness and fulfillment.
Well, she gave me a book about auras, I conclude.
I’d read it, Phoebe replies, smiling, I could really go for some of her woo-woo right now.
I laugh. It’s easier, always, with Phoebe. She has a way of making it lighter, of divvying up the seemingly separate hands we’ve been dealt, sharing the cards.
I pause, turn to Phoebe, and ask it, outright, Is my light dimmer?
Your light? Phoebe raises her eyebrows.
My mom texted that to me today, I say, slowly, continuing, After she said come back soon, after she said how grateful she was to see me, after all that, she said: your light is dimmer.
Phoebe stares, considering.
I think you’ve been muted, Phoebe concludes.
Yeah, I say, dejectedly.
Did you text her back, ask what she meant?
I shake my head.
Kinda funny, though, that your mom noticed. She’s not usually…perceptive like that.
We are silent.
How do I get it back? I ask, raw.
Your light? Phoebe asks.
I have the sudden impulse to rub my life down to its textures, take these years and place them under a child’s crayon, see if they can be shaped into some sort of pattern.
It’s there, Phoebe assures, you just need, um, desire.
We don’t make eye contact.
Do you remember, our West Coast Road Trip? Phoebe asks.
Of course, I say quietly.
We had it then, she claims.
We had it then. We had just started sleeping together; we were five years younger, and it was a definitive, irreversible choice, one that we’ve been hedging against ever since. We both had no sense of what the sex would be, but we greeted each other: naked, protective, moving through its borders.
My emotions rise in a panicky, uneven tide.
Did we? I ask, trying to regulate.
I, um, Phoebe begins, That’s, that’s how it comes back to me.
I look away.
How it comes back to her. I had assumed the fucking would bring us to a place even more shared and intimate, but I remember feeling oddly separate from Phoebe most of that summer. That was why I eventually stopped, although I never named that to her.
My breathing slows.
Our intimacy shifted in small, nuanced ways, depending on how we treated each other; we had a recurring pattern where I opened up and Phoebe shut down and then Phoebe opened up and I shut down. We spent the majority of the 5,000 mile-long drive weighing our differences, how much wetness and softness there was between us, telling each other honestly what we wanted and then giving it, freely, in our tent, between two fully unzipped sleeping bags placed one on top of the other.
I could never fully tell if this erotic tilt was what Phoebe had always wanted, or if she was just sliding along, following my lead.
Is this okay, I remember asking often, Are you okay with this.
When we finally got to Oregon, the only clean clothes Phoebe had were a gray pencil skirt and tank top. We were both underfed and sunburnt; her hair was long and she had lost all of her bras. We didn’t know what we were doing or where we were going next.
I wonder if now is the time to ask Phoebe about her desire, about how much she wanted our incline.
Instead, I joke, Do you think…our auras were lighter then? Freer?
Yes, Phoebe says, delighted, her cheeks rosy, Didn’t you read the chapter on finding your sexual aura?
We laugh, exhaling.
Phoebe has a far-away look in her eye, a lilt in her breath.
Phoebe continues, I think I’m just waiting for? An opportunity?
I think about our intimacy, teetering, teetering. I look at her, wondering what, exactly, she’d like me to offer, if I could give it.
Once, right before an appointment, I looked up and saw my therapist moving through her office. I was waiting at the crosswalk directly below, and I watched as she walked around, stretched, drank her tea, gazed out the window. I could see her shaking off the session, releasing her shoulders. It was nearing 5 pm, darkening, people emptying out onto the streets, in their rush to achieve destination. The window shades weren’t closed, and her transitional motions were so obvious that they somehow freed therapy from all of its privacies. I remember thinking, oh, this is how it’s done, how public, how visible, this room of release, exposed and fluorescent, on the second floor, a beacon, for all of us to see.
A few hours later, Wire Rimmed and I are outside smoking, and I’m drunk so it all feels good, winter, New York, her slouching stance.
She grins. I twist.
What’s up with your friend? she asks.
Phoebe? I ask, She’s like an extension of myself.
What’s her deal then?
You know, she’s just kind of bored with everything: life, people, the city. She doesn’t belong here. She should probably live in Vermont.
Well, why doesn’t she? Move?
It’s just…do you ever feel like it’s hard to go after what you want?
She looks at me, considering.
No, she says. I feel her eyes.
I mean, like to even know – to even name what you want. Is that easy for you?
Always, she replies. She smirks: tough, firm assurance. I always know what I want.
Later we realize she’s not famous, not famous at all. It’s somehow hysterical to us, cause for celebration. We drink round after round, applauding ourselves, applauding our lives.
When we leave, it’s dawn and we’re relieved. We walk, arm in arm, turning toward the sun’s slow rise.
I want to take Phoebe home, wake up with her next to me, walk back to that laundromat, and listen to that truth-teller, admit finally: I don’t matter, I don’t matter.
Laura Winnick is a middle grades librarian attempting to get tweens excited about critical media literacy, zines, and reading. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction, book reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming from Literary Hub, VICE’s Broadly, i-D Magazine, and Women’s Review of Books.
Photo source: Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash