By Andy Tu
The first time I met Elana, during freshmen orientation at college, I thought she was a loser. There wasn’t much to warrant this judgement, just a feeling of aversion when she asked to walk back to the dorms together from campus. I agreed, of course. After all, this was the precursor to the next four years of my life. I didn’t want to get into a habit of being anti-social, even if it was with someone I never thought I’d see again.
“It was Pamela, right?”
“Yup,” I said.
“So where you from?” she asked.
“You know it?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m from Livonia.”
“Wow, we’re actually not that far from each other.”
“Cool,” I offered.
We walked side by side in silence. I felt the typical awkward aura of strangers being in each other’s presence to avoid being alone. It was bright out, and humid. My tank-top stuck to my back like tape. In the distance to our left, crowds of freshmen roamed past the bookstore, cafes, and movie theater.
“You wanna check out Main Street?” she asked.
I knew it was an effort to socialize, to possibly even form a bond, however unlikely to last. I was going to be social, active, and popular in college, unlike my nerdy self in high school. But still, I said, “No, I’m okay. I just want to get back and out of the heat.” Which was true, anyways.
She shrugged. “I’ll see you later then.”
She headed toward the activity, waving goodbye. I really didn’t think she would end up becoming my best friend.
I didn’t realize that I’d subconsciously rejected until years later. Getting home from orientation, like every other incoming freshmen in the world, I went on Facebook and friended those I’d met. No one in our group had particularly interested me. In fact, I’d found them to be kind of strange. A guy and a girl, even though they hadn’t known each other before, ended up spending every moment together like they’d been best friends their entire lives. One girl wore all purple and pink and spoke too cheerfully during our scavenger hunt and “bonding activities”, a few internationals spoke only Korean to each other, and my temporary roommate had brought her laptop, headgear, gaming mouse, and customized keyboard to play World of Warcraft. I didn’t even know girls did that.
It turned out that Elana had been assigned to the same dorm and floor as mine. She messaged me, saying, “hey, guess I’ll be seeing you soon.”
I didn’t think anything of it.
That first year, though, I ended up eating most of my meals with her in the dining hall. We were in the same introductory math class first semester, an 8am that was too early for our tendencies to stay up late into the night screwing around in random chatrooms. It was a hobby I was both ashamed of and addicted to during high school, and the reason why I’d spent so many Saturday nights alone as my friends tried to make a social life for themselves by hanging out at late-night diners sipping on sodas and munching fries, a social life that I didn’t really believe was real. I’d been determined to transform into a new person; misleading strangers in chatrooms was not going to help. Yet I spent most of my nights with Elana catfishing both girls and guys, cackling each time a guy tried to sell us a line about his dark and mysterious self or a girl we’d hooked messaged us asking why we’d suddenly stopped talking to her. We had such guilty fun. We created our own world and laughingly outcasted ourselves from our floor mates, who we’d mock in private. One time we even mixed our urine into Elana’s roommate’s mouthwash. We were terrible, and we enjoyed every moment of it. But times like those aren’t meant to last.
After college, I taught English in Japan for a year. Elana, prone to slack off in her studies, extended a fifth year.
“Wait, I thought you were done,” I said a few days after I’d come back and we met up.
“Yeah,” she said. “There was an incident…”
“What do you mean?”
It was Saturday and we were in the kitchen at my home in South Haven, my parents out.
Elana sat down onto a stool along the counter. “I mean… well, there was this girl in one of my classes, and I got into a dispute with her… and so… yeah…”
“What? What do you mean?”
She laughed, sighing. “It was stupid, really. She said something during discussion against me, and we got into an argument. And then…” She laughed again. “I made a fake account on Facebook, and I started messing with her.”
I smiled. “Oh man…”
By then it’d been years since we’d engaged in that nonsense together, since our second year when we’d shared a room. Our third and fourth years, I’d lived in an apartment with a friend from my hometown, and Elana had commuted. I’d gradually stopped screwing around in those chatrooms, realizing it was for cheap laughs and unfulfilling. And after my trip to Japan, I felt wholly different. Transformed and becoming someone I was, for the first time in my life, proud of. But it seemed Elana was still living in the past.
“Yeah,” she said. “Anyways, long story short, she somehow found out it was me. It was stupid, because I accidentally used an old email account that was linked to me. But yeah, she reported me to the Dean’s office, and they suspended me.”
“Shit…” I said.
“Yeah, whatever though.” She shrugged. “So what’s the plan for the evening? You still drink?”
She was looking out the window into the hill of grass that climbed toward the sunset, light sliding through the shutters in stripes across her face.
“Only on special occasions, though,” I said.
The special occasion rule I’d self-imposed was a result of my inability to control my worsening drinking habit. Sometime during our second year, Elana and I, despite neither of us having ever tasted a sip of alcohol our entire lives, decided to steal a bottle of Tequila from a fraternity party, one of the few we ever attended.
In our dorm room we took swig after swig, wincing as that noxious liquid staggered down our throats.
“You feel anything?” I asked her.
I took out a couple of cups and filled them up like I was pouring coffee. We tapped them and said cheers, then gulped down as much as we could before nearly choking and spitting some out in laughter.
“Oh… fuck,” I said.
“Oh my God,” she said. “I’m… I’m like… about to hit the wall.”
She tried to stand from her bed but immediately fell to the floor, knocking over the lamp on her desk. We cracked up so hard I thought I was going to die from lack of breathing.
I don’t remember a single thing that actually happened that night, just our laughter.
I started drinking alone in secret during my third and fourth years of college. It’d started with a single cup at night when I was bored, to getting wasted alone when my roommates went home for the weekend. I felt more connected to my real self when intoxicated. I’d giggle hysterically, shouting at the television and cussing people out in chatrooms, the joy of mischief rushing back along with the spin of the walls and ceiling. It was on a night alone when I couldn’t stop myself from walking to the supermarket to select a bottle that I realized I had a problem.
Just a week before my reunion with Elana, though, when I was still in Japan, getting drunk by myself at a sushi bar, I formed that ‘special occasion’ rule, and told myself that I’d wait at least two months before taking another sip.
Which is why I was already beginning to feel regret as Elana and I clinked our shot glasses together at the bar.
“Bottom’s up,” she said cheerfully.
We tossed them down.
Once I got started, I was in for it. A drink led to another, then another, and another. I was an all-or-nothing kind of girl, and by the time evening settled in, people chatting it up and an upbeat song jazzing around, I was drunk. And loving it.
“You’re fucking crazy,” I said, giggling. “That’s not going to work.”
“Just watch—just watch,” Elana said, raising her arms into the air. “Hey, Bartender!”
The guy, who was filling a mug on the other end, glanced over.
“Get your sexy ass over here!” Elana yelled.
“Oh God…” I ducked my head and covered my face with my hands.
The bartender smiled, but looked away quickly.
“Hey! I’m fucking talking to you! Don’t make a girl wait!”
He kept his focus on the other customers.
“He doesn’t look interested,” I said, slumping forward into my stool. As usual, I’d drank too much in too little time. My stomach felt like it was trying to shimmy its way out of my body.
“Oh, trust me,” she said. “When a guy’s into me, I know.”
I laughed. “This isn’t Random Chat. Guys can see straight through you here.”
“Just watch,” she said.
She continued shouting and waving her arms. The music volume seemed to have increased, my eardrums rattling with the heavy bass of a now hip-hop music. A guy tapped my shoulder and asked if I was okay. I nodded.
The bartender didn’t come until he had to cross where we were sitting, right in the center.
“Hey!” Elana said, splashing some of her pink Margarita Sunrise onto the counter. The guy looked down at the mess she was making. “Girls like me don’t come around all the time, you know.”
The guy took a deep breath. “I’m sure they don’t,” he said. He let out a near-silent, pitiful laugh. I smiled apologetically at him. He smiled back.
“You’re really cute,” he said to me. “Maybe I can call you sometime.”
This shook me out of my haze. “Uh…” I couldn’t bear to look at Elana. I didn’t know if this guy was messing around, or what, but…
“People are waiting for you,” I said, flicking my head toward the other end of the bar.
He shrugged, and left.
“What a douche,” said Elana, looking down at the pink liquid in her glass. She took a long sip.
Elana and I were alike in so many deranged ways, from the way we’d dance stupidly when walking behind an unaware floormate in the hallway, legs wobbling and arms clucking like a chicken, to the moments we couldn’t stop cracking up in class because a girl in our discussion group looked like she’d just applied a fresh layer of lipstick, which we assumed was because she had ‘the hots’ for our TA. Yet I did feel distinctly different than her in one way—I felt more attractive.
Of course, I never thought this consciously; it was similar to the unspoken feeling I had when I’d met her during orientation: a type of superiority, creeping silently along the back of our friendship as we stuffed our sweater pockets with muffins from the dining halls and snuck under the tarp of a fundraising tent in the middle of the night to scavenge through their goodies. Guys would sometimes show interest in me, striking up conversations while waiting in line at the dorm’s cafe. Elana had been there sometimes to see it happen, and I always felt somewhat guilty that she seemed to receive less attention. In fact, not once did I see a guy approach her during those four years.
“That guy was a total asshole,” she said in the car. We’d just left the diner we’d walked to after the bar, where we’d gotten coffee and scrambled eggs to sober up. I felt okay. Still a little buzzed, but I’d driven in worse conditions. During those couple of hours as we’d lounged in the booth, we’d stayed mostly silent. I’d been too focused on getting myself back together to even think about that bartender.
“Yeah,” I said, making a careful left turn.
“I mean, he even asked you out just to like, be a dick to me. I can’t believe I thought he was cute.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I don’t know… maybe he just wasn’t into you, you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. Never mind. That guy was a douche.”
We were about twenty minutes from her place. I was taking all local streets, and starting to feel like maybe I should just pull over to sober up a while longer. But I kept going.
“Yeah, it’s just me and you, you know?” She put her hand on mine, which was resting on the center console. I pulled it away.
I laughed awkwardly, but she didn’t respond. As the silence in the car stretched, I began to feel, pressing between us, something unspoken.
Elana and I always had an on-going lesbian joke between us. We’d check each other out when one of us came in from the shower wrapped in towels and say something crude like, “Mmmm” or “Yeah, baby”. Sometimes we’d blow kisses from across the classroom when other students were discussing topics with the TA. It was all just playful fun, much like the way we’d mimic the friendly girls on our floor who’d knock on our door and come in, saying an enthusiastic, ‘heeeeyyy’.
Except that at one point when I’d been in Japan, Elana had told me, offhandedly through Facebook chat, that she thought one of her classmates was bi-sexual, and that Elana was ‘curious’.
Curious, about what?
I don’t know, just curious. Be yourself, right?
Nothing else had been said on this, but since then, I’d wondered if perhaps she’d been opening up to me. And I wondered this again as I drove us toward her house, the car quiet, the faint light of lampposts blinking slowly in and out through our windows along the dashboard. I’d turned on the radio after her strange gesture. Even though we’d joked about lesbianism in the past, neither of us had ever touched the other with any sort of affection. And I could feel it between us—something was off.
“Do you think you’re like, better than me or something?” she said after some time.
We were stopped at a red light.
“What? What are you talking about?” Despite having sobered up to a large degree, I could feel the onset of a hangover already, rocking somewhere in my skull. A film of unbalance lingered before me.
“You always act like you’re better than me,” she said.
The light turned green.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” I said, driving through the intersection. “Or where this is coming from.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.” Her voice was bitter.
The conversation didn’t feel real. We’d always gotten along. I couldn’t remember the last time—or if we’d ever—fought. She sounded serious, though. More serious than she’d ever spoken to me. I kept wondering—did she really have feelings for me? Or was this about something else… about that bartender, about all those guys over the years that passed their glance over her to look at me?
“You need to relax,” I said.
She scoffed. “I’m not an idiot.”
I shook my head again, wincing. “These are your words, not mine.”
“Whatever,” she said.
We drove for a short while. Then, glancing in the rearview mirror, I noticed that a police car had turned onto our street, following behind. I stiffened in my seat and gripped my fingers hard on the wheel, wondering if my breath still wreaked of alcohol.
“I know a shortcut,” Elana said. “Turn left at this light.”
The map on the navigation was telling me to continue straight, but I figured it’d be better to get away from this cop.
“Okay…” My hands were trembling, but just barely, a shiver running through my wrists. I’d just gotten hired as a school counselor; the last thing I needed was a DUI.
I was about to turn left but the light turned red, so I stopped. The police car crept up behind me. And then I saw the sign on the corner: One Way Street.
“What the hell?” I said. “This is a—”
“Oh sorry,” she said. “I got it mixed up with another street.”
“Right…” I said.
I followed the navigation the rest of the way home. We didn’t say another word to each other. When we got to her place, I pulled up along her curb, and she got out and went into her house without a goodbye. And that was the last time I ever saw her.
A month later, she texted me, asking if I wanted to go to a bar. There was no mention of that night, as if nothing had even happened. I didn’t know if I could trust her anymore. Was her telling me to turn into that one-way street an attempt to sabotage me? Or an honest mistake? Either way, it seemed that she’d always been hiding something from me—whether it was genuine feelings or resentment. Maybe, like all those profiles we’d created in the past, she, too, had been hiding behind a screen all these years, presenting to me who she thought I wanted her to be and never revealing her true self.
I replied saying that I was trying to quit drinking, which I was anyways. Thinking about our friendship then, I realized that all our bonding was based on guilty pleasures and self-destructive habits. We’d needed each other in college because we’d had no one else, because we’d had no responsibilities and no concern of the future. But I’d changed so much. Had she?
Four years have passed, but not a single word has exchanged between us since. Every once in a while I think about her, about all those times, those hours in our dorm room cracking up as we mercilessly sweet-talked strangers, raking them in like house money. I think about all the inside jokes, the shots we banged down, just the two of us. And remembering all the good times makes me wish there could be a future just like it, even though I know it’s impossible. Best friends, gone in a whisper. Sometimes, though, I’ll visit her social media pages and see what she’s up to. There’s hardly ever anything up, just a profile picture change every half year or so, her standing below a tree in a park or lying across the sand. And there, even though years have passed and I still haven’t gotten myself to reach out again, to put some trust back into our old friendship, I send my best wishes to her in the silence.
About the Author:
Andy Tu is pursuing his first novel. (not about his cat)