by Halle J. Carter
Now that most everyone has gone, Lexa can hear what’s going on in the tiny kitchen off of the living room. The TV is up loud enough that she has to strain to hear them, but she’d rather listen to SJ stroke her own ego than watch yet another episode of House Hunters International. She risks sliding her gaze down to Shay, who sits slumped beside her. Her shoulders are tense and her eyes are narrowed, focusing on the TV alone. She’s been there all night, not even looking up when Morgan and the others showed up with liquor and gossip. Four days, maybe five, have passed since her breakup. She’s done little more than sink lower into the cracked leather of the couch as the week crawled by.
SJ’s voice rises over the drone of the HGTV host, sounding velvety and smooth after her overindulgence on their “special occasion” bottle of wine. She has a way of making everything a “special occasion”, even if it’s another slow Thursday night and they all have class in the morning. Morgan stands over there with her, swirling the tip of her brand-new acrylic nail in her gin and tonic and smiling at SJ the way she’d smile at someone young, someone who needs it. Lexa doesn’t think SJ needs it, but maybe she’s wrong. SJ laps it up, after all, basking in the attention and letting Morgan trace her fingers over the lines on her palm.
Shay keeps throwing a clouded glare their way and cranking the volume on the TV up. Each time she does it, her grip on the remote grows tighter, her knuckles blanching to the bone. Lexa is concerned for her, and rightfully so. She looks ready to snap in half. But SJ, as usual, is only concerned about SJ. She’s discussing The Importance of Being Earnest, using phrases no one can understand and stringing long, complex thoughts into hurried, enthusiastic sentences. Her chin is high in the air, her eyes are hooded slightly. She’s pleased with herself. She always is.
Lexa opts for the lesser of two evils and diverts her attention onto the TV again, trying to tune SJ out. SJ’s not even a Lit major; she’s English with a concentration in Film Studies as she’s so fond of announcing whenever she gets the chance. That’s almost worse, since she tries to analyze every movie they watch. Even Gran Torino, which is Shay’s breakup film for whatever reason. They’ve watched it at least five times over the course of the week, neither of them having the heart to tell Shay no when she suggests they watch it again. Lexa can probably recite the entire film by heart, and SJ can pinpoint where the score swells to show the change in the protagonist’s motive. Or something like that. Lexa has grown used to letting SJ talk until she feels she’s said her piece.
They aren’t what they used to be. Something had changed when the three of them had moved in together last year. SJ drinks more, Shay glares and fumes over every slight disagreement, and Lexa tries to figure out where it all went wrong. But none of them change. None of them threaten to move out. They just exist and try to ignore the fact that they haven’t laughed together in weeks, let alone eaten dinner around the communal table they once valued so highly.
Lexa rises to her feet, every muscle in her body aching to move, to get out of the dark haze that surrounds what she once would have called home. Three pairs of eyes turn to look at her, one cut into mean slits, one drunken and wide, and one glazed with self-important indifference.
“I’m…” Lexa fumbles for an excuse. “I’m going to walk down to the strip.”
Shay turns back to the TV the moment the words leave her mouth. Morgan laughs a little bit, as if she can’t believe Lexa is wasting her time. SJ is the only one who acknowledges that she had spoken at all.
“Knock yourself out, Lex.” Her shoulders roll in one of her signature, slow shrugs.
She tugs on her jacket and sets off, the rickety metal stairs clanging with each step as she charges down to the street below. Their apartment is above a convenience store that considers SJ a valued customer for the amount of cheap wine and margarita mixers that she buys in a week. During the day, they can often hear the country music from the store’s speakers drifting up to their living room. But now the store is closed and locked, the signs dim and the aisles illuminated only by the whitewashed glow of the streetlamp in front of it.
Lexa turns away and heads down the road to the corner where their street intersects with Beacon Street. The chain of bars that everyone calls “the strip” is located there, sandwiched between restaurants no one can afford and memorabilia shops no one goes in. Behind the tall, colonial buildings, the spire of the library bell tower scrapes against the void of the night sky. Lexa often catches herself looking at it when the group goes out to the strip together, a painful reminder that she has an essay due next week or an exam coming up. It’s not all drinks and gossip and taking to the streets at 1 AM for no reason at all, no matter how much she wants it to be.
Beacon Street is unusually quiet for a Thursday night which, normally, would form a hot pool of unease in the pit of her stomach. But tonight she’s glad for the quiet, glad to be listening to cars rumbling past and old rock music wafting out from dive bars, mixing with the scent of beer and cigarettes. Anything’s better than HGTV and SJ’s voice. She flashes her ID at the bouncer, though she’s not entirely sure which bar she’s decided to go in. It ends up being the sports bar that’s only popular during football season. The walls are wood-paneled and are shrouded in faded pennants and jerseys from players no one can remember. Black and white photos of the football team crowd the wall behind the bar. The bartender is one of the players, the linebacker from the 1968 championship team. It was an interesting story the first time Lexa heard it, but it lost its luster, like almost everything in the bar, the third time he’d tried to tell it over a commercial break.
He isn’t the bartender tonight. Instead it’s a dark-haired, broad-shouldered guy whose baby face doesn’t meet the rest of his strong build. Lexa slides into one of the barstools and waits for him to speak first.
“Can I get you anything?” His voice is small and self-conscious, but strained with professionality.
“Just a Pacifico, if you have it,” she says, not bothering to let her eyes wander to the case of cold beer bottles behind the bartender’s spread legs.
“Is Corona okay?” He gestures down to the case, the glass silver with condensation and filled only with the cheap, tasteless beer for those already drunk, on their way to football games or house shows, not women drinking alone on a Thursday.
The feeling of his eyes on her, icy though his face is kind, and the thought of how she must look, alone in a bar only good for one season that has long past them by, casts a cold shadow over her chest, solidifying the growing irritation which had been waiting to overtake her all night.
“Yes, fine, whatever,” she snaps, waving a hand dismissively at him.
He snaps open the bottle, the cap clattering on the counter separating them, and slides the beer over to her without looking up.
With his eyes still trained on the bartop, he says, “Just so you know, we were set to close in fifteen minutes before you waltzed in.”
Lexa snaps her gaze up from fiddling with her wallet and tries to recreate his frigid stare from earlier. He still doesn’t look up and that alone sets a cold, cruel fire ablaze in her chest. “Who cares?”
At that, he does look up and despite his huge build and somewhat rude demeanor, it’s all too clear in his smooth features and young eyes that she had pushed too hard.
“It’s four twenty-five for your Corona,” he says finally in a polished, controlled voice. When they lock eyes on accident again, he dips his gaze first.
She hands him her debit card and mulls over the beer for a moment. When the iron taste of guilt creeps up the back of her throat, she swallows it with the foam of her beer. The bottle cap sits in the middle ground between her and the bartender, bent at the middle so the red print of the card is stretched thin. She pushes it around with one finger, her other hand smearing the condensation that’s formed on the brown glass of the bottle. She replays the sound of her voice in her head, who cares who cares who cares. It doesn’t sound like her, not the Lexa from last year that she had loved the best.
“Hey.” She tries to channel the old sound of her voice. “How long have you worked here?”
He doesn’t look up from wiping down an already clean glass. “Why?”
“I used to come here all the time with my friends,” Lexa takes a swig of her beer and looks over the rim at him, trying to soften her eyes. “I feel like I would’ve remembered you.”
“I doubt it.” Despite his watery eyes and soft features, his voice takes on the same clinical coldness that’s always at the surface of SJ’s.
She narrows her eyes at him, sensing the same sharp, accusatory burn in his own eyes when he finally looks up from the glass.
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because I would’ve remembered you.” The grim line of his mouth quirks a bit at the edges, threatening to spread all the way into a smile if he would allow it. “I started two months ago.”
“You wanted to know,” he says. He studies her for a moment, but Lexa can’t ascertain his intentions. “Not a regular anymore?”
The beer doesn’t taste as good when she brings it to her lips again. After a long, bland swig, she says, “Not with my friends.”
“Oh. That’s too bad, I guess.” He stands in front of her now, leaning forward on the bar top. His smile is polite and doesn’t show his teeth.
When she speaks again, it doesn’t sound like her. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
His face grows unreadable again, the youth of his features shrouded by mistrust and offense, so much that she can’t take it. She pushes back from the countertop, the feet of the bar stool screeching in protest, and doesn’t look him in the eye. Striding off toward the door, she feels his eyes burning on her back.
“Have a nice night,” he calls. The worst part is that he sounds like he truly means it.
Beacon Street is just as dismal when she pushes past the bouncer and stands on the edge of the sidewalk, the toes of her Converse dangling over the drain. There’s nowhere left for her to go but home, so she turns her back on the sports bar and sets off down the road. If she’s lucky, they’ll all already be in bed by the time she returns.
When Lexa emerges from her room the next morning, SJ is up and sitting at the kitchen table nursing a cup of coffee and squinting at the fine print on the side of an Advil bottle. She’s never up this early, not if she doesn’t have to be. Lexa skirts around the table on nimble, quiet feet, but SJ doesn’t look up at her. When she finishes reading the label, she pops two of the pills and downs them with a swig of coffee. Her eyes are squinty and unfocused, but they hone in on Lexa as she moves around the small kitchen.
“Where’d you run off to last night?” The question isn’t coming from a place of genuine interest. It sounds like she’s circling her prey, trying to catch Lexa in an iron trap.
“I told you.” She doesn’t look up from slicing her apple. “I went to the strip.”
“Must’ve been fun.” SJ snorts into her coffee mug and offers Lexa a knowing smile.
“Mhm,” Lexa moves to settle onto the couch with her back to SJ.
“Wait hold on,” SJ’s voice stops her as she moves out of the kitchen. “Sit down. I think we need to talk.”
They haven’t had a real conversation in a while now. Their words are all double-edged swords, each one delivering a decisive blow and serving as judge, jury, and executioner. What used to flow so easily comes in stuttering gasps, tinted with the desire to undermine each other, to force secrets to come into the light. Lexa can’t remember the last time SJ was frank with her, or the last time that she wasn’t spitting venom right back at her. But now she’s extending an olive branch, her eyes soft and her voice lacking its usual fanfare.
Lexa accepts the peace offering and sits down across from her. “What’s up?”
SJ leans forward, coffee forgotten, and steeples her fingers. “Obviously things have been a little…weird around here recently. There’s a lot that we need to talk about, but right now I think we need to focus on Shay. The breakup really hit her hard.”
“I’m surprised you noticed.” She’d tried to bite it back, but the remark had slipped out all the same, borne of instinct. It cuts like glass against her tongue and she flushes as soon as it leaves her mouth.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.” SJ points one long finger at her. “Look, you’re probably not my biggest fan right now. And honestly, I’m not yours either. But this is Shay we’re talking about.”
Lexa glances at the door to Shay’s room, covered in pictures of the group altogether and birthday notes from a few weeks ago. There are gaps in the collage from where she took down pictures of her and Justin. She insisted a few times that their breakup wasn’t permanent, but the pictures came down all the same. There’s one of the three of them the day they moved into the apartment, arms tangled around each other and eyes eager and bright. Shay hardly ever looks like that anymore. None of them do.
“What happened to us, Sarah Jane?” Lexa presses on, despite SJ’s strangled noise of protest over the use of her full name. “Remember how excited we were to move in together?”
“Nothing’s ever as good as you think it’s going to be.” SJ takes on her most impressive voice, the one that she uses during debates in class. Then she stops, schools herself. “Maybe we’re all better friends than roommates.”
“Who says we can’t be both, though? You were my first friend here.”
SJ cocks an eyebrow at that, but it doesn’t seem as challenging as it would have if she’d done it last night, or even five minutes ago. Right now she looks like Sarah Jane, not good enough and trying too hard, the girl Lexa met freshmen year. But it’s gone the moment she shifts her features again, back to SJ and all her cool indifference.
“Yeah? You were mine too.” SJ sighs. “Let’s start with Shay. Then we’ll figure everything else out.”
Lexa looks down at the tabletop, tracing a finger over the cracks and stains from when they all used to sit around and talk for hours. “The lease for next year is coming out soon.”
SJ tenses up, the muscles in her jaw hardening and her shoulders rising from their usual slouch. She reaches up under the curtain of her hair and twirls the cartilage piercing in her right ear, a nervous habit that Lexa hasn’t seen her do since freshmen year.
“Well…” SJ drops her hand back down to the table and looks up from under her lashes at Lexa. “We’d better figure everything out before then.”
She gets up from the table before Lexa can say another word and dumps the remnants of her lukewarm cup of coffee down the drain. Lexa hurries to her room while her back is turned and takes her time getting ready for class, brushing her hair even when it’s smooth and soft and changing her shirt three or four times. She can feel SJ’s presence in the living room even from here. Her stomach churns with the impossibility of it all, all the things left unsaid between them.
When she returns from her room, Shay is sitting out there as well. She’s on the couch, her knees pulled up to her chest, and is altogether ignoring SJ at the table. SJ isn’t sitting, instead standing with both hands on the back of her chair and staring at the back of Shay’s head like she’s trying to decode it. Lexa kicks the door of her room closed with her foot. It echoes through their tiny living room like a gunshot and SJ slides her eyes to meet Lexa’s for guidance.
Clearing her throat, Lexa takes a seat on the couch beside Shay, the dried out leather feeling like snakeskin against her bare legs. Shay turns bored, burnt-out eyes on her and tilts her head to the side as if Lexa has offended her just by sitting down so close to her.
“So we were talking,” Lexa begins, ignoring the way Shay’s eyebrows shoot to her hairline when Lexa gestures between herself and SJ. “And we think we should all do something tonight. Just the three of us.”
“Uh, yeah,” SJ settles on the armrest on Shay’s other side, effectively boxing her in. “Just like we used to.”
Shay sighs and chews on her bottom lip. Finally she shrugs, “I guess we could watch…”
“No, we’re not watching Gran Torino,” SJ holds up one hand to silence her. She pinches the bridge of her nose and straightens her shoulders. When she speaks, her voice is steely and waspish. “Look, sitting around watching TV isn’t going to help. You need to get out there and take your mind off of everything. You can trust us, you know? We’re your friends and we want to help.”
The claim sounds brittle, made false by the irritation that laces through her words. Shay picks up on this as easily as Lexa does and turns her lifeless gaze onto SJ.
“You’re my roommates.” That word has never sounded worse. “If you want to help, fine. You can start by not telling me what’s best for me.”
“We just thought…” SJ’s almost begging.
“I don’t care,” Shay cuts her off. Lexa hears herself in those razor-sharp words. Then Shay pushes off the couch and retreats to her room in three quick strides.
Lexa sinks low into the couch, the leather still warm from where Shay was sitting. The implications of her words sit heavy in the air, straining the small space between Lexa and SJ. SJ throws herself onto the couch next to Lexa in what Lexa assumes is supposed to be companionable defeat. Shoving herself away, Lexa pushes her hands through her hair, the sting of Shay’s words throbbing even at the roots of her hair.
“Way to go, Jay.” The old nickname burns on her tongue.
“Oh, please,” SJ sits up a little straighter. “She’s just being dramatic. She’ll come around.”
“You didn’t have to talk to her like that.” Lexa’s voice rises and she almost hopes Shay can hear her. “You always go in guns blazing and you never think about how what you say could affect someone else.”
SJ shoots her a reprimanding look. “You’re being awfully self-righteous for someone who dips out of here any chance she gets.”
Lexa doesn’t have to look over at her to know that her nose is jutted into the air. Cold, dry anger pulses through her, so poignant it makes her head pound. “Yeah, because we’re just one big happy family here, right?”
“That’s not even what you want,” SJ counters. Lexa skitters her eyes over to her but doesn’t look at her directly. “You couldn’t care less if we all moved out tomorrow.”
“Maybe we should. Maybe you’re right about us. Better friends than roommates, or whatever,” Lexa waves her hand to dismiss this whole conversation and brings it up to rub the corners of her eyes. Her head still pounds and she vaguely registers she needs to be on campus for class soon.
When she braves another look at SJ, she expects her to glow, basking in Lexa’s admission that she was right. But she looks drowned and washed out. SJ fixes a narrow, icy stare onto her and takes in a deep breath.
“I guess so.” She rises from the couch and circles around to her room, not sparing Lexa another glance. “We only have to make it until the end of the month, right?”
“Right.” The word sounds hollow and tastes sour. SJ disappears into her room without another word and Lexa wonders if the sting in her eyes will still be there when she returns from campus.
Her class isn’t for another hour, but she sets off towards campus all the same, wandering aimlessly before ending up in the campus coffee shop. She spreads her Accounting notes on the table in front of her to give the pretense of productivity, but none of it remains in her mind long enough to matter.
Her phone buzzes against the table, sending little ripples through her untouched mug of tea. It’s SJ’s name that illuminates the screen. The message is on their roommate group chat. They usually only use it for notices now, but Lexa has never deleted it so their old inside jokes and ugly pictures still appear when she opens the message.
Going to the Red Hat tonight. You guys are welcome to join.
Lexa has to read it a few times to make sure she’s processing it correctly. It isn’t an apology, but it’s the closest she’ll ever get out of SJ. It’s another olive branch, all she and Shay have to do is reach out and take it. For a moment, it feels like three months ago and Lexa turns back to her notes with a clearer mind.
SJ is alone at a table in the corner when Lexa steps into the bar, her eyes refocusing to adjust to the dim lighting and sharp smell of liquor. SJ’s shoulders are hunched, as if she’s trying to protect herself from the laughter and music that surrounds her. One hand clutches her screwdriver so tightly that Lexa can see the blanch in her knuckles from here. Her eyes are wide and her features are loose and open. With her free hand, she twists her cartilage piercing with two, red-nailed fingers. SJ doesn’t worry, but Sarah Jane did.
Lexa moves toward the bar and orders a PBR, deciding to make her sweat a little bit longer and hoping that Shay will arrive before then. She still doesn’t know what she wants to say to SJ. Last year they never ran out of things to say, jokes to make and gossip to swap, old stories from the days before they’d met, days that seemed far-off and unreal now that they had met. Lexa still feels that connection, that dull, persistent burn of fondness for her, buried underneath the unfamiliarity that now reigned in their apartment. She doesn’t remember when they grew apart, just that one morning she had woken up and sat at the breakfast table and realized that there was nothing left for them to say. They had run in separate directions, Shay to Justin, SJ to bars and parties and Morgan, and Lexa to anywhere else. And somewhere along the line, when they all turned back to look at home and each other, they found that there was nothing left.
She casts another glance back at SJ. The soft, humming burn grows stronger in her chest, always there and waiting to return if only she had seen that they had wanted it to return, too. Just as she’s about to turn back to the bar and order, SJ snaps her gaze to her and meets her eye. The hard worry in SJ’s eyes melts away and she stands, her stride slow and relieved.
“Hey,” SJ says. She tests out a full smile, flashing the pure white of her teeth, not the slow tugging of her closed lips that she usually wears around the house. “I wasn’t sure if you would come.”
The smile slips low and SJ doesn’t recover it. Her eyes glaze over again, dark and hard, as if she’s shut the steel door of a safe and locked it tight. But when Lexa looks her right in the eye, there’s no anger there, only resignation and a tint of defeat that Lexa didn’t know SJ could feel.
They both glance over at the door, as if the sheer force of their combined hope will materialize Shay at the door, walking towards them with open arms and the beautiful, sly smile that had once intimidated Lexa. The door remains closed. SJ slides onto the barstool next to Lexa and runs the tip of her finger around her glass, smudging the faint red line of her lipstick with each loop.
“Well,” she sighs after a beat. “There’s no reason why you and I can’t have a drink together.”
Something instinctual makes Lexa’s heart close up with the same hardness that shielded SJ’s eyes, the same feeling that had kept her eating breakfast in her room and at the library late at night just to avoid being home. But SJ’s eyes have already started to warm again, so Lexa tries to dig deep for that same warmth, that old fondness that has always been waiting for her, until she can’t go any further into herself.
Lexa raises her beer, her fingers forging paths through the silver condensation, “To you and I, then.”
They clink glasses and over all the rambunctious laughter and choppy guitar music and loud, slurred voices, Lexa can only hear that soft, light ping. They drink in tandem, watching each other over the rims of their drinks. In the same moment, their eyes snap away again, toward the door. Each time it opens, Lexa’s chest flares with the hope of salvation, the naive thought that it could all be how it was, that they can turn back time and forget what they’ve done to each other, what secret, cruel thoughts they’ve hoarded close to guarded hearts.
Lexa tries to hold onto the sound of her glass clinking with SJ’s, the bright smile SJ had unfurled for her when they’d locked eyes across the bar. She tries to merge it with her old favorite memories, but it’s all tainted with the same notion that they can’t go back, can’t erase the long stretches of silence, the nasty text messages and handwritten notes taped to the fridge or the dishwasher.
It’s SJ who finishes her drink first, pushing the empty glass away from her with practiced flourish. Lexa feels SJ’s eyes on her and against the initial reaction to snap her gaze in the other direction, Lexa turns and looks back at her. For a long, exhausting moment, they search each other’s faces, desperately trying to find anything to latch onto, an olive branch, a light to guide them home.
Lexa breaks first, returning her gaze to her half-finished beer. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches SJ deflating, proud shoulders slumping, bright eyes turned down to the grimy bar floor.
“Have a good night,” she says in a small voice that couldn’t possibly be the SJ from Thursday, grand and blustering and honey-tongued.
Lexa does not watch her walk away, does not look up from the scuffed bartop, does her best not to think about herself in relation to SJ or Morgan or the bartender or Shay sitting alone and miserable in her room, about the closed doors that will await her when she finally finishes her drink and walks away.
About the Author:
Halle Carter is a recent graduate of the Creative Writing Program at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. She currently teaches high school English in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her passions outside of writing are politics, food and wine, and film.