Potluck

 

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Crash Test

It’s not until I’m drinking in Vanessa and Alex’s room that I remember what day it is. The alarm clock by Alex’s bed reads 9:49, and the second I glance at it, I know that I fucked up. Eight years ago today, Angie’s brother stole their father’s gun and blew his brains out in their backyard. I was right there when she found out. Eight years ago today, Angie and I walked home from school and found an ambulance pulled up beside her front lawn. We saw the front door hanging open and her brother’s body wrapped neatly in a body bag, a police officer standing over it. We saw blood pooled in the grass, rinsing the lawn in a red that glistened in the afternoon sun. Not that I think about it often. But once I remember, a weight swells in my stomach and my mind goes a thousand different places. 

At the moment of my realization, Vanessa is doing my hair, wrapping long strands of it around her hot pink curling iron. She drinks gin mixed with blue Gatorade. When I realize what today is, a little twitch runs through me and I can feel my scalp tug against the curling iron’s grip.

“You okay?” she goes.

“Fine,” I say back. 

Tonight marks the first full week I’ve spent at college. I’m going out, same as last weekend, with a group of girls from my floor. They’re all from different parts of Massachusetts, but they all dress alike and snap their gum the same exact way. My roommate is like this--a girl named Jessica. She has waist-length blonde hair and a color-coordinated closet. Right now she’s sitting at the other desk in Vanessa and Alex’s room, dusting her eyelids in a shimmery rose-colored powder. Vanessa is shorter than the rest, with a round, generous face and kind eyes. Alex is quiet, like me, and even though she’s wearing a top with criss-crossed fabric across the cleavage and a skintight skirt, I can tell she wishes she were in something else. 

Once Vanessa releases the final strand of my hair from her curler, I step out. In the hallway, I lean against the cinderblock wall and call Angie. Drops of sweat roll down my back, under Jessica’s borrowed top. The carpet feels warm underneath my toes. The phone rings and rings until it finally goes to voicemail. “Serena?” I hear the girls call from behind the door. I hang up without saying anything. 

“Where did you go?” they ask when I come back into the room.

“Oh, nowhere. I was gonna call my mom back, but she didn’t pick up.”

Alex nods, then goes to her dresser drawer and pulls out a bottle of peach Smirnoff.  

“It’s time!” she says, giggling. The other girls cheer in excitement but I only muster a halfhearted smile. My phone burns in my pocket and I can’t unhinge my mind from thoughts of Angie. Angie, weeping at her brother’s funeral. Angie scribbling test answers onto the skin of her thigh in physics class. Angie rolling a joint in the half-dark of her bedroom, our knees touching on the carpet. Angie swearing me to secrecy before showing me all the perfume and underwear she shoplifted from Victoria’s Secret. Angie in church back when our families went every Sunday, knees knocking together in the pews. Angie and I falling asleep on the hill behind my house, watching the stars.

We pass the bottle around until it’s gone. I want my throat to stop burning more than anything, but I take my turn each time and try to mask my wincing. Once the bottle is empty, the room takes on a hazy quality and I start to laugh, for no reason.

 

Once, in middle school, Angie and I memorized all the characters in Greek mythology. We checked out beautifully illustrated books from the library and pretended to be different people. I found cloth-and-wire butterfly wings and we took turns acting out the Flight of Icarus. Tonight, that’s how I feel again, my cheeks shimmering with makeup, my hair perfectly curled: like I’m a character, some sort of god flying far away from everything I’ve known. There have always been girls and drinks and parties but now I’m swallowed in the belly of it all and I don’t know how I got here, I don’t know where I’m going to go. 

We leave Vanessa and Alex’s dorm and head out for the night. I’m wearing a shirt I borrowed from Jessica. It’s cream-colored and made from crushed velvet. When I saw it in a pile of clothes on her bed I picked it up and touched it without thinking. She saw me admiring it and offered to lend it to me. I can’t remember the last time I wore something so beautiful in my life. My hair is curled into soft waves and I’m in wedge heels. When we step outside, I try to hide my shiver.

The party we’re headed to is across campus. We walk there in rows of two. I’m towards the back, following the lead of Jessica. Jessica’s older sister is in a sorority, which officially means she knows more than the rest of us. When we get to the party she leads the way as we wedge through a mass of bodies waiting outside a tall gate. There are frat brothers sitting on top of the fenceposts like watchguards, shouting things out, trying to placate the waiting crowd. Jessica tugs the pant leg of one of the brothers, a pale guy with a squashed-in looking face. “I’m Allison’s sister. Allison Martsen.” He makes a face of deep concentration, then nods slowly. “Okay. Okay. I can let you guys in.”

We duck through the narrow entrance and find ourselves in the backyard of an enormous house. It’s crawling with people, music pouring out from inside. I hold Vanessa’s hand as we snake our way in. Vanessa gave me a water bottle full of vodka and I pull it out from my purse. I take one long sip, and then another. All the other girls surround me on the dance floor. A wave of heat encompasses the whole room. It smells like skin and sweat and beer, the slickness of bodies pressed too close. We dance through countless songs. At the end of each one I go into my purse and take another sip of vodka. After not long, things start seeming softer. I lose Jessica in the crowd. I can only see Alex and Vanessa from the corner of my eye, and then I lose them all. I sway to the music, barely noticing when a guy comes up behind me and wraps his hands around my waist. They’re the hands of a man, not a boy, big-boned and veiny. The person behind me is tall and muscular. I can’t see his face, but we dance with my ass against his crotch and it’s almost like he’s not there. Like I’m just dancing against the collective body heat of the room, and not a real person. But then he slips one of his big man hands under Jessica’s white velvet shirt and gives my boob a squeeze. I cry out instinctively, not that anyone can hear, and I elbow him off of me.

Outside, cool air settles all around me and I breathe, in and out and in again. Beads of sweat run down my forehead. Without looking, I can tell my makeup has started to run. I pull out my phone and try calling Angie again. It’s not quite midnight yet and I know she’s still awake. 

Music still throbs from inside the frat house but I push my phone against my ear until I hear the dialtone start ringing. On the third ring, she picks up.

“Angie?” I go.

“Serena, what’s up?” her voice sounds bubbly, but it’s hard to hear over the background noise on her end. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t text you earlier. Or call.”

“Why are you apologliz--oh. Yeah. Matt.” Her voice goes flat when she says her dead brother’s name. I can feel my stomach filling up with rocks. “It’s okay, Serena. We’re both busy.”

“You’re right. I still feel guilty though. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine Serena. Really. We’re in college now--you don’t have to take care of me.” 

“Sorry,” I go.

“Don’t be sorry. It’s just...I think it’s time we made other friends. There’s more than just each other.”

“You’re right.” I say. “You’re totally right.” Angie is quiet, and I hear laughter leaking into our conversation from her end of the phone. 

“I’ll let you go, Serena--” Angie goes.

“Wait.” I say. “Angie...do you remember the story of the flight of Icarus?”

“The flight of what?” a staticky sound flows out from underneath her voice. The distance between us feels real and tangible, like we’re speaking through tin cans and not cell phones.

“The flight of Icarus. The Greek myth, where he burns off his wings ‘cause he flies too close to the sun.”

“I don’t think I remember.”

“Oh. Well that’s fine. It was like, seventh grade. I didn’t expect you to.”

“Alright. Look--Serena, I have to go. My friends want to leave. We’re going out.”

“Goodbye, Angie. Have fun.”
“Bye Serena. You too.”

I stand with my back to the wall of the frat for I don’t know how long. Tears well in my eyes but don’t fall down my face. I think of Angie; my best friend. I close my eyes and imagine us in seventh grade, trying to tie cherry stems into knots with our tongues. I imagine us fourteen and dressing up in our mothers’ makeup, teaching ourselves how to shave our legs. I imagine Angie the way I always will, the brave one, the leader. Never afraid to take a risk. To test the limit of what she could and couldn’t do.

The back door swings open and a crowd of people rush out. The flow lasts several minutes. People are shouting, frantic to find others in their groups. “Cops!” a guy shouts, over and over. I join the masses, knowing there’s no chance of finding the other girls. I walk across campus, back to my dorm. Once I’m far enough from the frat, the night regains its peacefulness. A full moon glows above me like a lighthouse and guides me the whole way back.

That night, I dream that everybody I love is on an airplane and I’m the pilot. My mom and dad and brother and grandparents are standing in line beside a hole in the side of the plane, where one of the doors has been ripped off. They have parachutes. I know if they jump they will make it back home. Angie stands behind them but with no parachute. Just a black dress and eye makeup, her hair straight and shiny down her back. I’m leaving, I’m leaving she says, her voice teetering on the edge of laughter. Once I get off this plane I’ll be gone.

One by one, my family jumps out of the plane. Five parachutes expand below, stark white against clear blue, and it’s just me and Angie. I don’t want this anymore. I want to see what Matt saw. I want to see what’s on the other side.

I try to speak but my voice doesn’t work. In the dream, my throat swells and my eyes water, but I steer the plane the entire time. I keep my eyes on the sky before me and when Angie jumps, silent as an exit wound, I keep flying. In the dream, it’s all I can do.

When I wake up the next morning, light rushes into my eyes. My head hurts, which is no surprise. In the dorms across the street, someone has strung a clothesline from one window to another. I study how it sways in the wind, white clothing waving like flags against the blue.

 

Greta Wilensky is college freshman at UMass Amherst majoring in English. Greta has been writing for five years and my work has been published in Winter Tangerine Review, Bartleby Snopes, Alexandra Quarterly, Duende, Gone Lawn and a handful of other magazines. Greta was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Dunede Journal.