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.