All My Girls

Fiction / Emily Yin

 

:: All My Girls ::

Claire tells you not to wor­ry, she’d just been mak­ing tea. Sarah’s hair falls limply, just past her shoul­ders, like a sheet of cloth. Liv recites Mayakovsky in a chapel, scat­ter­ing the night with each unsteady line. Claire sends pic­tures of her burned palms. Liv smirks at your wide-eyed rev­er­ence, says your favorite line com­pares the stars in the sky to flecks of spit. Sarah sits with arms unspooled, gaze pinned firm­ly on some dis­tant place. She doesn’t squirm or look away when the teacher lobs a ques­tion at her, only shrugs, and that’s that. Sarah—oh, Sarah. You’re nobody but she’s untouched, untouch­able. You start to con­struct a mythol­o­gy around her: all the kids falling away from her like the sea at low tide, her eyes flick­er­ing, how the flame nev­er dies.

You weren’t meant to be frail, you and Claire; as high school­ers you’d net­ted one grim vic­to­ry after anoth­er, unstop­pable, an A here and an acco­lade there. Dis­played such promise, had so lit­tle time to feel. Or maybe you’d got­ten it all wrong, reversed the direc­tion of causal­i­ty. Maybe numb­ness came first and ambi­tion sim­ply fol­lowed; ambi­tion, your only ram­part in a shape­less world. The thought plagues you like a phan­tom pain. Claire, guard­ed but not unkind. Liv, brash but aching­ly earnest. Sarah, pli­ant and unafraid. Hadn’t you sensed it all those years ago? It’s always the brit­tle that break.

*

You orbit Sarah war­i­ly at recess, too proud for over­tures. The heat is unremit­ting. A record high, the anchor­men say. All the oth­er kids take turns on the wood­en slide, its rollers clack­ing like your mother’s aba­cus. You kick peb­bles around, wait­ing for the heat to break. But Sarah, she’s some­thing else. Sits cross-legged in the shade, lac­ing and unlac­ing the web of yarn between her hands. Some­times she glances up, quick­ly, and begins anew. She’s per­form­ing for some­one, you real­ize. She’s per­form­ing for you. One day you gath­er your courage and walk up to the ledge on which she’s perched. What is that?

Her gaze flicks to the yarn and then your face. Cat’s cra­dle, she final­ly replies, words clipped and clear. Want to play? And so it goes: pass­ing the loop of string back and forth day after day, your small, bony fin­gers col­lid­ing with hers. At first you bare­ly talk. You’re afraid of say­ing the wrong thing, offend­ing her as yet unknown sen­si­bil­i­ties, and so you smile, shy­ly, when­ev­er your eyes meet. Her first real words to you are an accu­sa­tion. Why are you here?

Why? Dumb­struck, you find your­self echo­ing her words.

I can see you look­ing over at them dur­ing recess. After class, too. Her words are mat­ter-of-fact and devoid of con­tempt. You want to join in when they make their jokes; you open your mouth but nev­er speak.

It’s… You grope for the right words. I don’t know. They go too fast—you cut your­self off, look at her implor­ing­ly. She stares, refus­ing to fill in your blanks. I don’t know, you par­rot, painful­ly aware of the ver­bal tic clut­ter­ing your speech. It’s just that, by the time I think of some­thing clever, they’ve already start­ed on anoth­er top­ic. So I’m always too late.

She shoots you an inde­ci­pher­able look. In that ago­niz­ing moment, it dawns on you that Sarah does not, will not, can­not under­stand, Sarah with her self-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and infi­nite tran­quil­i­ty. How do you do it? You want to ask. How do you stop car­ing so much all the time? But then she’s say­ing it’s okay, it’s okay, and you’re exhal­ing shak­i­ly, feel­ing inex­plic­a­bly lighter.

*

Sarah is not the humor­less girl you thought she was. Your admis­sion strips her of that arti­fi­cial grav­i­ty and you’re girls again, imp­ish and fun. You start tak­ing the bus to her house after school, spend hours in her base­ment play­ing make-believe. Yes­ter­day you were sophis­ti­cat­ed French girls in a Parisian cafe, sip­ping wine and nib­bling mac­arons. Tomor­row you’ll be wealthy heiress­es, the day after pen­sive pau­pers. Some­times, for no rea­son at all, you look at her and feel a strange con­stric­tion in your chest. Years lat­er, when you start to notice boys, you will call this long­ing.

You play duets, too, she on the sax­o­phone and you on the flute, mid­dling at best alone, down­right ter­ri­ble togeth­er. When you tire of the cacoph­o­ny, you clam­ber up the stairs and col­lab­o­rate on a fan­ta­sy nov­el which becomes more elab­o­rate with each pass­ing week. Your par­ents, dis­mis­sive at first, start to peer over your shoul­ders. When they read the first draft, a sheaf of papers one-hun­dred-odd pages long, they exchange glances. Not bad, they say. Not bad at all. Sud­den­ly the par­ents, both yours and hers, are invest­ed in your part­ner­ship. They talk over the pos­si­bil­i­ties at the din­ner table and on the phone. Sarah’s aunt works in the pub­lish­ing busi­ness; her moth­er said it might be worth a shot to send it over, see what they make of it. Or: the girls could be excel­lent bridge partners—I’ve nev­er seen two peo­ple so in sync. Per­haps, per­haps, per­haps. It is the sum­mer of 2009. Every­one speaks in hypo­thet­i­cals, but it all seems so inevitable. And then she’s gone.

*

The tests results have come back nor­mal; the gas­troen­terol­o­gist found no cause for your abdom­i­nal pain. In oth­er words, you have a clean bill of health. Claire lis­tens, impas­sive, as you relay this to her. Are you okay? She asks at last. For a moment you won­der if she heard any­thing you said, but then you under­stand. Yeah, thanks for ask­ing. Your eyes burn a lit­tle. The truth is that you’re still afraid. You’ve amassed so much fear in the past few months—where can you set it down? And how can you be fine if the pain’s still there? But Claire doesn’t ask again.

The two of you sit in the parked car. You’re not quite sure why you’ve con­fid­ed in her. You were part­ners in chem lab, then friends as a mat­ter of course, but con­ver­sa­tions had always revolved around exams and after-school clubs, care­ful­ly skirt­ing the red zone of your inte­ri­or­i­ties. You think back to that thaw­ing between you and Sarah, how it had been pre­cip­i­tat­ed by one dis­clo­sure, and feel a spark of hope. But your pre­mo­ni­tion is wrong. You con­tin­ue to pass each oth­er in the halls, wave, and move onto the next class; con­tin­ue to quiz each oth­er on lim­its and synec­doches; con­tin­ue to labor tire­less­ly over home­work and grades. And so the days pass.

*

Livia calls your name in a girl­ish voice, names her bike for you. You have her in your con­tacts as col­or­blind and con­sci­en­tious, a jab at her rigid black-and-white sense of moral­i­ty. She stoops to pick up lit­ter mid-curse, mocks your ter­ri­ble sense of direc­tion but defends you vicious­ly. Those who’ve han­dled you like shards of bro­ken glass all your life gape in amaze­ment. Some­times she pelts her words with too much force, but you nev­er par­ry. Before, you think, you were untouch­able. It was a lone­ly thing to be. You know Livia’s a real one when you ask her for a pic­ture and she drops to the pave­ment in the flam­ing Bei­jing heat. Won’t let you for­get it either. Remem­ber, I’d burn my knees for you, she says, and you know it’s true.

*

You haven’t talked to Sarah in years. She becomes a sym­bol of your child­hood hap­pi­ness, a stan­dard against which all oth­ers are mea­sured and found want­i­ng. When you’re sad, you trace the long course of your friend­ship to its very end: cat’s cra­dle, the nov­el, fight­ing to the point of laugh­ter, laugh­ing to the point of tears, all those sum­mers play­ing tag, long legs scis­sor­ing in flight and hands out­stretched, shame­less excuse to touch and be touched, that quick­en­ing of pos­si­bil­i­ty, the U‑Haul on her dri­ve­way, the solemn good­bye, first love, the hard­est break.

*

Claire attends col­lege one thou­sand miles away. In spite of the phys­i­cal dis­tance, or per­haps because of it, the dis­tance between you has col­lapsed. You send songs to each oth­er when words fail; over the months, the con­cate­nat­ed lyrics write a kind of shared his­to­ry. You tell her about whit­tling down the hours in a local book­store, slip­ping through unlocked cam­pus build­ings at night, how the burn­ing in your gut had eased and then van­ished alto­geth­er. She talks often about being sad; you make all the right nois­es but sel­dom wor­ry. The girl is inde­struc­tible. Livia, on the oth­er hand, always seems to be on the cusp of splin­ter­ing. She ago­nizes over hypo­thet­i­cals, spams your phone five, ten, twen­ty times at once.

I don’t know” becomes your trade­mark refrain. Of course you have your ideas, but you think of omis­sion as a form of mer­cy. Easy to for­feit your opin­ion instead of sub­ject­ing it to Livia’s anx­ious dis­sec­tion. Hard to stand by mute­ly as she cuts her­self, over and over, on the ser­rat­ed edge of hope. And yet the alter­na­tive is unthink­able. I don’t know, you say when she asks if he’d ever cared. I don’t know. You’ve seen the type, earnest but oh so care­less, the type for whom ten­der­ness does not equate to love. If you were a bet­ter friend you’d warn her, per­haps. But you don’t know for sure. And, more self­ish­ly: you can’t risk her shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger, can’t lose your best and dear­est friend. It scares you how much you need her. Cir­cling each oth­er on the dance floor, how she push­es the hair from her eyes, her face irra­di­at­ed by strobe lights stream­ing down like rain. And then you reach for each other’s hands, two school chil­dren play­ing Ring Around the Rosie, spin­ning, pock­et full of posies, light and sound and time sink­ing into the ecsta­t­ic dark, dis­man­tling you in the best way, ash­es, ash­es, a con­tin­u­ous descent, but you nev­er fall.

*

It’s over. Heart­bro­ken, Livia wants to put her head in your lap. Some­times you recoil vio­lent­ly, won­der what it is you’re so afraid of. Oth­er times you acqui­esce, pull her in almost vio­lent­ly, whis­per the words to a poem you’d once read: I wish I could cut off your pain like hair (but all I real­ly want to do is comb it). You know this is a pro­sa­ic pain, one she will emerge from large­ly unscathed, but you ache with a pecu­liar ten­der­ness. A few days from now, Claire will scald her hands and call it an acci­dent. You’ll phone Livia, try to beat back the shock waves with ques­tions for which she has no answer. Why do I feel so strange­ly detached? Shouldn’t I feel more? Shouldn’t I feel less? How can words be so dev­as­tat­ing­ly impo­tent?

She’ll receive you, stut­ter­ing out your help­less­ness, as a priest at con­fes­sion. In the span between your words, the truth you might nev­er say: I need­ed you, Sarah. Was so, so alone before I met you, Claire. Thought myself unknow­able till you knew me, Liv. How I care for you, and you, and you. You close your eyes, hear Livia’s shal­low breath­ing over the line. You know I’d burn my knees for you, she says. You envy her this cer­tain­ty. Imag­ine a cam­era flash, a white-faced Claire, a tub, the Bei­jing heat. Liv, you say. Liv. The words crack open the sound­less night, more promise than rev­e­la­tion.

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

This piece is a ret­ro­spec­tive on my girl­hood. I’ve been think­ing a lot late­ly about the emo­tion­al toll of intimacy—not just the pet­ty spats and well-worn rit­u­als of ado­les­cence (nav­i­gat­ing first love and rift, envy, aca­d­e­m­ic stress, the social tur­bu­lence of high school, etc.) but also the cost of car­ing, of tak­ing on bur­dens that—once assumed—can nev­er again be put down or for­got­ten; fear of code­pen­den­cy; that pecu­liar blur­ring between love and vio­lence; and how, despite all this, there can be no oth­er way of liv­ing.

 

Emi­ly Yin is a junior study­ing com­put­er sci­ence at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Her writ­ing has been rec­og­nized by the UK Poet­ry Soci­ety and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writ­ers. She cur­rent­ly serves as a poet­ry edi­tor at Nas­sau Lit­er­ary Review. Her work is pub­lished in Indi­ana Review Online, Glass: A Jour­nal of Poet­ry, Pit­head Chapel, decomP mag­a­zinE, and Con­no­ta­tion Press, among oth­ers.