Stars, trees, lasers, lights, everything locking into nothing, everything together yet apart.
They float through the night, ribbons on an impossible breeze. Twirling, twisting, tangled up in each other like lovers— family— friends, a line of lion dancers following a syncopated beat, minus the beast. Their cheeks are ruddy, flash-sunburned, flushed from a marathon of grilled meats and fried starch and cloudy, sweet wine whose liberated vessels were lined up like toy soldiers at the edge of the table, until one of their party took too shaky of a step while extracting themselves for a smoke break. A platoon of limpid green bottles tipped into oblivion with enough force to shatter upon impact, all reduced to glittering rubble on worn wood floors. One of the boys, giggling even as he apologized with slippery words, bowed over and over to the waitress while a man who could’ve been their collective father emerged from the back of house, fury in the pull of his eyes but silence clenched into his jaw, and swept the shards away. For the trouble, a 20 percent tip, calculated before tax. The last thing the waitress hears before the door closes behind them is, I don’t know, man, it just wasn’t as good as last time, then the squeak of white sneakers skidding against streets slicked with new rain.
They head for the reservoir. Almost an hour walk but they aren’t fighting time. Soon no more windows scream in neon; no more street corners reek of overflowing garbage and unwashed strangers. A few pairs of hands uncurl from fists. Some of the girls stop once, twice to pull their knee socks up. One of them lingers longer as the rest of the group forges on and, when she finds who she’s looking for at the vanguard, takes their hand and lets her own be held.
Of course the gate is closed, but they’re experts at getting what they want. Two of the boys boost a girl who lingers at the top of the fence, long bare legs straddling the wire, warm silky flesh pressing against the cool metal. She plays her part, letting the leers linger as she catches her breath, eyes tracing the halo of light surrounding the lip of the reservoir, the sliding slope into low darkness, spiderwebs of reflected stars betraying the water at the bottom of the pit. And in the distance: music.
That’s what this is all for. The gate won’t close completely so someone tries to tie it shut with a shoelace pulled from its stays with belligerent force, a harsh zip against panting, expectant breaths. The pure white bow stands out in a mockery of stealth, but it’s a formality more than anything. Historically, the cops don’t come around, except during those few months after the body was found.
The reservoir forest is sparse but not quiet. Temperate wind brushes through the branches, and leaves. A sighing sound constantly surrounds them, if they’d stop to listen, but their mouths won’t stop running and their steps leave craters as the underbrush crackles underfoot; like the pliable snap of a cap twisting free, or, echoes of animal flesh slapped lewdly onto the cooktop.
The girl in the back thinks about the peek she took into the kitchen, the dirty grill tops stacked in a slop bin, the stench of ash and burnt sugar and grease. She pulls her shirt collar up to her nose and sniffs. Smells like meat.
The rave’s well underway. One of the boys walks toward a man standing behind the foldout table that serves as an altar. The DJ pogoes out of sync with the track, pigtails occasionally flying into the man’s face, and as the boy approaches, the man finally grabs one of them and yanks her into the table. The girl winces, and her companion’s hand tightens around hers. The DJ’s laughing as she folds herself back up but, chastened, she only bobs lightly to the beat. She looks like one of those solar-powered widgets, a new age marionette who can’t even dance to her own music.
The party doesn’t stop. The boy shakes with the man. Their palms kiss long enough for the girl to know what comes next. Hey, don’t waste that, this is good shit, Let’s fucking go, Kinda feels like it’s gonna rain again, you can smell it in the air, Maybe we should go home, Don’t be such a bitch, C’mon, this is weak, we can go harder. The music begins to phase out of itself, harmonies separating and stretching out like a sonic slinkie. The girl takes a pill and a bottle, then a sip, then a long tip. The party starts to rise.
Stars, trees, lasers, lights, everything locking into nothing, everything together yet apart. A mosaic that shatters and is instantly repaired, each configuration deemed the original, each variation a figment of imagination. The words on her phone screen are carvings; the words in her head ripple as echoes. It didn’t really happen like that. You don’t know what you saw. But I saw, but I saw, but I saw.
So many beautiful faces. So many beautiful bodies. The bottle in the girl’s hand is taken and another, heavier, returned. Something’s beautiful hands crack it open and something’s beautiful fingers trace the canvas between her sock and the edge of her skirt. Something is pressing against the small of her back and cupping the curve of her ribcage, casing its coastline like a hunter or a thief. Something else reaches behind her neck and fondles the clasp of her necklace, pulling it out of her shirt. Half a heart, the BEST in BEST FRIENDS.
Where’s FRIENDS? Bellowed into her ear, hot, sweet breath meant to stoke another kind of fire. The girl smiles, and shouts back. Right here.
They laugh at first. Girl, you’re tripping. Girl, don’t be weird. Don’t make this weird.
But the girl knows she’s right. Hand in hand, she closes her eyes and prepares for a night of revelation. And when the music stops—
Except it doesn’t. The girl opens her eyes and pulls away from the ones who’d claim her. The party slams back into focus, colors aligning and correcting, blotted boundaries settling into clean brushstrokes. She watches the bodies in motion as they sway between flitting spotlights of fake fire and real moonlight. When did this become the only way to play? Day drinkers and night walkers only meet for one toast but they can cross over any time, living with one tiptoed foot in each world until one gravity floods the other. Is this defeat? Or is this the price of winning?
They don’t care for her, the people here. Or, maybe they care for her in the way they’d cared for the one whose hand she clutches, who should also be here, instead of settled as ashes beneath a meadow of tears. The friends she had dinner with, they don’t remember the way she remembers: a shared glance across the classroom, a pastry bent in half then pulled apart, scattering clouds of cream and flaky snow. Linked pinkies and lips pressed against cheeks and arms pressed around backs and hands in hands, or hands caressing faces, or hands trading glass bottles back and forth like gossip and favors while waiting for eyeliner to set. You have to get so close to another person’s face to do their makeup, and the girl had learned every contour, every dry patch and mole and errant eyelash of her friend’s. It stares into, through her own, now.
How many times can you wake up from a dream aloft on hope, only to crash into the bitter plain of mourning? How much more can a heart take once all the love has rushed from it? She can still hear the sound, a thrashing in the distance, which she’d followed, then saw the mortal portrait as the paint dried. A misplaced step, a mouth full of vomit, a silhouette breaking on surface tension, a rush of water, and then nothing, and then everything. FRIENDS washed ashore and tagged as evidence. At the memorial and after, the girl didn’t eat, didn’t drink, didn’t speak, didn’t cry.
And the party doesn’t stop. The group order drops by one. Stars, trees, lasers, lights, sizzling meat, the crash of bottles, the clink of bottles, perpetual night in a cloud-filled bottle, each of them trapped in their own private karaoke room, singing to be heard. So what if school sucks? Work sucks? Life sucks? Can you feel the beat? Can you ride the drop? Can you crest on the wave and carry that momentum forever? Do you remember who you’re here with? Can you tell me your name? Will you be the one to break the sealing? Is that what they would’ve wanted? Can you feel anything? Can you feel anything? Fingers searching for pulses, hands grasping for faces.
The girl stands in front of the strobe and imagines her outline in the shuttering light. I’m here— I’m not here— they’re here— they’re not here— it’s a dream— it’s my life— it’s your life— it’s all I can remember—
I bring my hand up to my face as the rain returns, and finally feel tears.