The first couple years or so of young adulthood, to put it simply, is a weird time, especially when old classmates and neighbors creep all over the globe like a spilled drink spreading on the surface of a table, and getting them see to each other again willingly is, as the old saying goes, “like herding cats.” These days, the only thing that brought Nairi Ohanian’s small Rhode Island town together was a funeral. Not for the old-timers; most of them were 85 or older thanks to a strict regimen of steamed vegetables and weekly trips to the senior center for aerobics classes. Nope, these funerals were for the “kids,” a term that Nairi hated when it was used to describe twenty-somethings like her. Kids rolled in the mud. They laughed at knock-knock jokes. They cried for two minutes about not getting to play with the blue Hot Wheels car and then got distracted by another toy two minutes later. Nairi’s parents – Mom, a social worker, and Dad, a psychology professor at Brown who served as a camp counselor during many summers as a young adult – had always told her that kids were like fairies, capable of holding only one emotion at a time in their tiny selves. By that logic, to call young adults “kids” implied that people her age were incapable of experiencing anything beyond what one could touch, anything that could make them want to throw themselves away.
Today, they were celebrating the life of Eliza, whose full name was Eliza Mei Chen, but she didn’t really need a middle or last name because as far as this community was concerned, there really was only one Eliza. Before she died, Eliza herself had believed that there were a thousand copies of her out there – nameless young people with “talent” and “potential” struggling to make a dent in humanity – and the world wouldn’t notice that one was gone. But that didn’t mean the town of Barrington wouldn’t feel the loss. Right before the service this morning, a line so long had snaked out the chapel door that a few attendees had been left standing in the street, which almost got them mowed down by a couple of classic Rhode Island drivers (“four-for-one funeral deal; get it while it’s hot,” an old man standing next to Nairi had joked).
The news still hadn’t fully hit Nairi, which might have been because Nairi hadn’t seen or spoken to Eliza for the past year and a half. That was when their friendship, – which had begun almost twenty years ago when the girls had met at Norton Hall, the school they had both attended from pre-K to twelfth grade – had really begun to fizzle out. The last time they had been in the same room together was at a Norton alumni event, which Eliza, then a student at Johns Hopkins, had flown in from Maryland to attend. “Hey, Nairi,” Eliza said dismissively upon seeing her. There was no “Nai-Nai,” the pet name she would call Nairi, because it was not only a cute abbreviation for her name, but also the Mandarin word for “grandmother” – a role which Nairi, the more sensible of the two, often took on when they were together. Then came the missed calls (“I’ve been busy”), the lack of Eliza’s name on her Facebook feed (“I’m just unfriending anyone I don’t see much anymore, that’s all”), and then the eventual nothing that turned out to be a preview of the permanent nothing that would follow.
From upstairs, Nairi could hear the muffled wailing of Mrs. Chen and soft sobs of Mr. Chen, who had held it together during the service and burial. Eliza’s sister, Louisa, too little to understand that her sister wasn’t coming back, was being fretted over by relatives as she sat, seemingly unbothered, on the floor playing with some blocks. The little girl was pretty much a replica of Eliza at four, the age her sister and Nairi had both been when they had met. Eliza had come into Nairi’s life on a brisk November afternoon, way back in 1998, a day she remembered with a surprising level of clarity—leaves crunching beneath little Gymboree shoes on the school playground, air like white wine, squeals of joy reverberating inside the green tunnel slide that seemed to pop out children like a paintball gun. Eliza had transferred from Kids’ Place, a ten-student nursery school located in the basement of a nearby Methodist church. Her parents had gotten into a fight with the administration (a note sent home to the Chens had read, “While Eliza is clearly highly intelligent and creative, her behavior – which includes crawling under the tables pretending to be a cat and deliberately lifting up her skirt to show her ‘big girl unnawears’ – is not acceptable in our program.”). The rest of the children in Nairi’s pre-K class had gone out to recess, but she stayed inside, after getting struck by a migraine that threatened to ruin her day. Eliza’s class had been coming back from gym, and when she had passed by Nairi’s classroom and seen this fellow little girl half-comatose on a nap mat, she bolted into the room.
“Ya cahhn’t go in theyah!” Eliza’s teacher had grown up across a state line and spoke like someone doing an impression of someone doing an impression of a Kennedy. “Someone’s in theyah sleepin’, sweethaht.”
“I’m gonna make her feel better!” Eliza had crowed, too young to know that noise doesn’t exactly assuage a person’s headache. Before Nairi could even open her mouth to ask this intense, unusual kid her name, Eliza did one, then two, then three cartwheels beside her, and then proceeded to sing “Old MacDonald” while shaking her bottom. Her class had looked on, thoroughly entertained. Even though her head was about to explode, Nairi couldn’t help but laugh at this bizarre performance, which was put to an end when the teacher, fuming, marched in and carried Eliza back outside. Nairi had been awestruck; she knew this girl was unlike anyone she’d ever met.
Back to now, where she stood in the Chens’ second living room (their house was one of those that was big enough to get lost in), haunted by pictures the family had put out of their dead daughter at various stages of her short life, which the other guests looked at – some tearfully – and reminisced. One old man was trying to engage Eliza’s grandmother, the original Nai-Nai, by pointing at the pictures and speaking to her in her native language. Nai-Nai had not a hint of moisture in her eyes. Was she holding everything in? Couldn’t be; what was the use of bottling up your feelings when everybody had gathered in this house precisely so they could share them? No, Nairi concluded, the look she wore wasn’t one of stoicism, but of self-righteousness and quiet anger. It was the exact same look she had seen on the faces of the old women at David Najarian’s and Allie Rodriguez’s funerals.
Eliza Mei, when I was your age, if a woman was angry, she didn’t talk about it. Nai-Nai’s dark eyes roared. Your grandfather did a number on my sanity, but I never so much as shed a tear. Back then, girls were women; now, women are girls. We cooked our ancestors’ foods without Betty Crocker. We sewed wayward buttons into eternity. We were married and pregnant before we could vote. Do you know how many puddles of blood your great-grandparents stepped in for me to be here? For you to be here?
Nairi bowed her head slightly at Nai-Nai, who either didn’t see or was pretending not to acknowledge her. About a hundred feet away stood Digin Lora and Digin Rosa (in Armenian tradition, adults are referred to by first names, preceded by the Armenian word for ‘Mrs.’ or ‘Mr.’ as a gesture of respect), sipping drinks and talking. She went over to them, and they greeted her the way they always did, with two kisses and a squeeze on each cheek. Digin Rosa’s husband had done quite well in life – well enough for them to live in Barrington, anyway – and when he passed away some years ago, Digin Lora, also a lonely widow, had moved out of her one-bedroom apartment in Cranston/Armenia-palooza to join her lifelong friend. The neighborhood kids could always count on them for a kiss on the cheek, served up with a pastry of some kind and a cup of coffee (tea, when they were little). Sometimes they were joined by Digin Seda and Digin Anna, friends of theirs who had taught at the ballet school in Providence that Nairi had started attending pretty much as soon as she could walk. It seemed to Nairi that old women were predisposed to love all children, no matter what they were. They had adored Eliza, who would always come to their place chatting animatedly about something, or try to teach them words in Mandarin. Sometimes, she would write elaborate, amazing stories and read them aloud, which would make the ladies turn to each other and remark, “That girl is going to be somebody.” But to “be somebody” meant something different here than it did in most places.
Digin Rosa sighed. “This is what happens when kids are too comfortable.”
Yes, Digin Rosa, Nairi said internally. Kids here are too comfortable. That’s exactly why we’ve been burying so many of them.
Digin Lora shook her head. “Senseless. Girl had everything. Completely senseless.”
No, it wasn’t senseless, Nairi thought to herself. The Chens had money, as did everyone else who lived in this town, which was the American dream on steroids; million-dollar houses, applications for visiting lecturer positions at Johnson and Wales (Nairi’s alma mater), rumors that aspartame caused autism, French immersion playgroups for babies, Sunday brunch by the ocean with a live band playing “Take Five” a little too quietly, Ivy rejection letters treated like HIV diagnoses, high school basketball players getting the cold shoulder after a game gone bad, encouraging remarks punctuated by a screeching “but” (“That was nice, but….”, “Good try, but….”). There was no need to defend what the girl had done, but no one could call it “senseless,” that’s for sure.
Digin Rosa cocked her head toward Eliza’s grandmother. “But those people… you know, they tend to make the kids carry the world on their backs.”
Nairi nodded again, this time half-amused. She had grown up with Digin Rosa’s eldest nephew, Mikael, who was now on “medical leave” from college (translation: no amount of Lexapro could give him the will to show up for class), which his therapist suggested might be due to a lifetime of listening to his parents tell everyone they knew about how he had bungled this assignment, or hadn’t won that award, or had failed to do something or other. Now, she was standing in the home of a couple reeling from the worst kind of loss there is, speaking in a hushed voice about those people. If those people made their children carry the world on their backs, their people made their children balance it on one pinky.
Digin Lora turned to Nairi. “So, what are you up to these days, miss?” In life, there are three certainties; death, taxes and hearing some variation of this question at some point during a gathering of this nature.
Nairi hesitated, and then answered, “I’m a…..teacher.”
A teacher? Nairi immediately flushed with embarrassment. She was in the process of getting her Master’s at Brown (which, she was always quick to remind others, had nothing to do with her father’s working there), and was working as a teacher’s aide in a second-grade classroom in one of the more dismal parts of Providence to gain experience. One doesn’t call themselves a “doctor” when they’re pre-med or a “pilot” before they’ve completed their required number of flying hours. Who was she to call herself a “teacher,” as if she had her own classroom, which she promised herself she’d have by age twenty-four? Well, twenty-four was here – in fact, it would be gone three months from now, in April, when her birthday rolled around – and it was not pleased with Nairi’s lack of progress.
“Bravo, honey.” Digin Lora beamed. “Good for you.”
“I’m sure your kids love you.” Digin Rosa said with a genuine warmth that almost brought Nairi to tears. The ladies really were proud of her. Or maybe they weren’t, and they were just being extra careful with their words because they didn’t want to lose her, too. Either way, she found comfort in both possibilities.
A sprinkling of piano music from the living room hushed everybody. Without even going in to look, Nairi knew immediately that Leslie Hale, who was a year younger than Nairi, was playing the Chens’ piano. A crowd gathered around her, mesmerized. What they didn’t know was that Leslie had been a spaz and a half back at Norton; she had done everything from make fart noises during assembly to pull the fire alarm on a rainy day. Every behavioral health specialist in Rhode Island knew her name, and so did every piano teacher. Nobody knew how these improvised concertos had grown in her soul, or how she poured them out for everyone to hear; all they knew was that whenever her ex-Marine dad or lawyer mom tried to beat the crazy out of her, she was unable to play at all. It wasn’t enough that their sons or daughters be Beethoven; they had to be Beethoven without the deafness, Picasso without the dark days, Cheever without the constant thirst for booze. Nairi felt herself slipping into a feeling she didn’t like and went out to the backyard for some air.
It was in the Chen’s backyard that she had lain down next to Eliza on a blanket several years ago during one particularly sticky Fourth of July night.
“Do you want anything, Nai-Nai?” She had remembered Eliza so clearly asking her, probably because it had come out of nowhere and struck her as an odd question to ask at that moment, when all that one could ever wish for seemed to be right in front of them – old-style mansions spaced just the right distance apart, yachts sleeping in the harbor not too far away, a backyard large enough to have a wedding in.
“In AP English,” – Eliza could never just say “English”; always had to mention the “AP” – “Mr. Reinhardt says that when you’re writing a story, every character should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.”
Is that what I am to you? A character? Nairi thought. Still, she tried to formulate an answer. “Uh…..there was a really pretty pair of shoes I had seen at Macy’s last week. Lime green flats with small white bows on top.”
“Well, what do you want?”
“I want to leave a size thirteen footprint in our lexicon.”
Eliza looked at Nairi for a reaction. Eliza could have said that she wanted to spend a night with her next-door neighbor, Mr. Hoffman, an eighty year-old grump with too many liver spots and a chronically runny nose, and Nairi would have been less disgusted. Real people didn’t talk that way. Real people wanted to feed their families. Real people wanted to snuggle up with their little ones on the couch for a family movie night. Real people wanted to hear good news from their spouses’ oncologists. They didn’t have time for nonsense like this. Nairi would bet half a million dollars that most real people didn’t know what “lexicon” meant. She had no intention or ability to leave even a baby-sized footprint in anything and she wasn’t delusional enough to believe that she could, even if she wanted to. She didn’t have a self-aggrandizing bone in her body; as far as she was concerned, that is.
Eliza had turned her head back to the sky, which was now lit up with fireworks, smiling to herself. She looked radiant; the colors in the sky projected a violet glow on her pin-straight black hair, and suddenly, Nairi had found herself thinking about first grade, when they used to play this game in which Eliza would go down the slide on her stomach, and Nairi would grip her hand to prevent her from slipping away, yelling “Come back, Eliza! Come back!” with the passion of a soap opera actress.
She was pulled out of that memory by the sounds of laughter from inside. The house was now packed wall-to-wall with people. Nairi looked inside through the screen door and wondered if she’d see Jaime here. Hopefully, she wouldn’t. Jaime Ruiz-Cochrane, eighteen months her senior, hailed from Central Falls, where skinny two-family houses stand next to each other like crooked teeth. He had gone to Norton on scholarship and had actually dated Eliza for a little bit before he got overwhelmed by (what he considered) her constant self-indulgence (“He didn’t get me,” Eliza had concluded, when Nairi – and probably Eliza herself – had known deep down that they didn’t “get” each other). So he moved on to Nairi which didn’t bother Eliza, who was always on the hunt for something better, too much. Jaime had to admit that Nairi was not nearly as beautiful or as interesting as her best friend, but no one had anything bad to say about her because she, from what he had observed, got along with everybody. (And if she did harbor any prejudices, both parties were blissfully unaware of them). Type-O girls, as he called them, were hard to come by in this neck of the woods, and he wasn’t about to let this one go. Nairi relished every move he made on her. Whether or not she actually was attracted to him was irrelevant. Just the knowledge that she, in his mind, possessed something that Eliza and many people from their area lacked, and the feeling of being loved, or something close to it, filled her with pride.
They had gotten a little routine going; he’d come back from working in the dining hall of his school (URI), a miasma of hard work and deep fryer oil clinging to his black uniform, and pick her up in his 2001 Camry from wherever she happened to be at the moment, her knight in not-so-shining armor. He was the kind of person one could talk to about anything, but most of the time, he and Nairi just let their bodies do the talking. She was almost ashamed of how much she loved those nights; the scent of his Old Spice, the soft heat radiating off his husky chest when she rested her head against it. All of that was a refreshing respite from the lines that sliced up towns and neighborhoods and backgrounds into neat sections like a painting by Mondrian, those people, these people, my people, and our people and people in general. No people mattered except for the two of them, in the quiet microcosm of his room. There was just one little problem; he wasn’t Warren Christenson.
Nairi had had eyes for Warren ever since junior year, when he had moved to Barrington from Atlanta. He was the kind of person who would rather drink battery acid than initiate a conversation with someone new, but was always friendly when someone new started one with him. He was gorgeous in a nerdy-sweet kind of way—round glasses and thick blond bangs that he was constantly sweeping out of his face. The only class he ever raised his hand in was AP Calc, and even then, he only did so once in a blue moon, usually when everyone else had given up on solving whatever equation Ms. Lehrer had put up on the board that day.
Nairi hadn’t been in AP Calc senior year. She had been in Calc II, Ms. Lehrer’s class for kids who were okay at calculus, but not quite ready for AP, and Nairi wasn’t even ready for that. She had barely managed a B- in Calc I. Several times, the homework had given her panic attacks, during which Mom and Dad would stand beside her, repeatedly saying “You got this” until she was convinced that her parents had stolen all the encouragement in the universe just for her. Nairi had heard through the Norton grapevine about Warren’s gift for math, so she finally had a handy excuse to speak to him.
“This is embarrassing,” she had said sheepishly one day, after having worked up the nerve to ask for his help with a concept everyone else in the class except for her had managed to get the hang of.
“No, it’s not.” He’d reassured her, in an accent the color of cinnamon. “Here, let’s have a look.” She had continued to come to him for help after that. If not for Warren, Nairi would have never passed the course. During the spring of that year, he’d been accepted to Boston University’s College of Engineering and had taken home at least three awards at commencement, by which her parents had been pretty impressed (they talked about him all the way home that afternoon). Unlike Jaime, it was okay to both like Warren and be like him. Nairi could never do the latter in a million years, but damn it, she liked him so much it made her physically ache.
Nairi was brought back to the present by the noise of footsteps behind her. It was Mrs. Chen, with her eyes all red and puffy, who had come out of hiding to bring more refreshments for the guests. Like her eldest child, she, too, pushed herself even when life hurt too much to do so. The Chens were lovely people and lived for their girls, but they, too, suffered from the suburban disease of telling their children, “Good is good, better is better, best is best!”. When Eliza, after about a hundred rejections, had gotten one poem and one story in the Bennington Review and in AGNI, respectively, her mother had printed out copies of the pieces in question, taped them to Eliza’s door, and told her to look at them every now and then to see what she was capable of, and what more she could do. But it was the implication that Eliza needed to do something more that had been killing her from the inside.
“Warren likes my work.” Eliza had told Nairi while French-braiding her hair in Nairi’s bedroom about sixteen months ago when she had come home for the summer. “I showed him.”
Nairi’s breath hitched; just hearing his name filled her simultaneously with dread and glee. She hadn’t spoken to him since graduation – not even on Facebook— for the idea of talking to him for any reason other than needing help with calculus made her sweat with nerves. “Warren…..from Norton?”
“No, Warren Buffet.” Eliza said sarcastically and snort-laughed. “Yes, Warren from Norton. The one you used to salivate over. He’s gonna help me out; his sister works at The New Yorker.” Her face began to glow. The New Yorker!, thought Nairi. A nobody – well, an aspiring “somebody” – like Eliza, no matter how gifted a writer, would be more likely to be hit on the head by a falling coconut than have a story or poem published in the New Yorker, even with a little help from someone who knew someone who knew the editor. Nairi’s heart broke for her friend, who was talented as anything, but whose work would likely end up in the New Yorker editor’s wastebasket.
“Sometimes, I feel lost.” Eliza took her hands out of Nairi’s hair and stared at the wall. “So lost”.
If you just stayed with me, you wouldn’t feel lost! Here Nairi was pulling her dear friend up from the slide again. Adrenaline was taking over, the way it did for a firefighter whose only concern was to rescue someone from a burning building, and she became almost detached from herself. Without thinking, Nairi heard herself telling Eliza, “Oh, Warren’s bad news.”
She saw Eliza become visibly alarmed, but kept talking.
“Well, he’s just not a very…..nice person. I know he seems that way, but he’s actually…..kind of an ass.” Nairi’s mouth was running away from her mind. “I-I-I went out with him once.” What?!
“That’s news to me.” Eliza raised her eyebrows. “Did you guys…..”
“Uh-huh.” Nairi cut in, before Eliza could fully voice her thought. “Well, not really. We tried. I said…..I mean, he said….I mean, I said ‘no’.” Why not? Her brain had suggested. If you’re gonna concoct a whopper this outlandish, why not go all out? Imply that you’re so irresistible that Norton’s resident Southern gentleman wanted you, and not the other way around. Maybe she’ll believe it. Hell, maybe you will yourself. “We got to second base, and he tried to pressure me to go all the way, but I refused. Trust me. No bueno.” Spanish? She didn’t speak Spanish. She really was losing it.
Eliza emitted a small “Hmm…..”, and continued working on Nairi’s hair. Nairi’s heartbeat was on overdrive; why had she said that, and why to Eliza, who was notorious for being a dog in a butcher shop when it came to rumors? Would the falsehood make its way to Warren himself? Probably. Norton Hall’s Class of 2012 consisted of only fifty-six students, almost all of whom still kept in touch via social media, so something like that, true or not, was bound to make its way to everybody. It did. Within days, her DM’s were teeming with questions from people she hadn’t seen in years. It was too late to take the lie back; she felt bilious with regret and wanted to scream loud enough to drive away every single person in this stuffy, poisonous hellscape she called home.
Her nights with Jaime continued. Those began to suffer as well; for weeks prior, her heart hadn’t been into….whatever they called this, and it was beginning to show.
“Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion.” He had mumbled the last time they’d been together, after they’d finished doing what she had come to his place to do.
“The lady who attacked her brother because he ate some of her Bloomin’ Onion.” Jamie giggled. “New Hampshire, as usual.”
Another one of those dumb news stories that he frequently brought up to make her laugh. Usually, it worked, but that day, something inside of her snapped.
“Don’t you have anything better to talk about?” It came out snarkier than she had intended it to.
“No.” He flashed Nairi a goofy grin that he knew would annoy her. “There is nothing better to talk about.”
Nairi sat up in bed, absorbing everything around her; how small and drab-looking Jamie’s bedroom was, two days’ worth of his clothes on the floor, the moonlight hitting his caramel skin, which was just a shade or two darker than hers.
“Everything okay?” He had asked, not nicely.
“Jaime…..” The words were honey in her throat. “I want…..I want…..”
“That’s the problem.” Jaime smirked, and began to put his pants back on. “You want”.
Long story short, Nairi had gone home early that night, and as far as texting and calling went, there had been nothing but radio silence ever since.
Now, with all that still fresh in her mind, she scanned the room with her eyes. No Jaime yet. But she did spot a lanky guy talking to and fist-bumping Kai and Lena, a couple of girls from Norton who had graduated a year before she had. When she got closer, she saw the long, almost feminine blond bob and sweet face that never failed to stir up feelings in her. Warren; just what she needed. She stepped inside as discreetly as she could, trying not to get him to notice her. It was the girls who noticed her first; they tapped Warren on the shoulder and pointed in her direction. She and him locked eyes, and the blood drained from both their faces. He waved goodbye to the girls and made a beeline for the kitchen. Nairi’s subconscious, apparently curious to see how much deeper its owner was willing to dig herself into a hole, led her to follow him.
“Warren! Hi, Warren.” She realized, at that moment, how much she liked his name. It was a real man’s name, unlike the unisex “Jaime.” There was no way to mess it up, unlike “Nairi,” which she often had to remind amerikatsis “rhymes with ‘fiery,’” She worried he might ignore, or even lash out at her, but gentle-as-a-lamb Warren had been raised too well to do that, even to someone who had put his reputation through a meat grinder for no good reason.
“’Hey, Nairi.” His voice was kind, but his eyes begged her to leave him alone. He picked up a small paper plate and started surveying all the options on the table. Nairi pointed at a platter of soujouk, dried Armenian sausage (Turkish, really, but you’d be wise not to point that out) that she knew either Digin Lora or Rosa had brought in.
“That’s yummy.” She said, a little too eagerly. “But it’ll send you to nitrate-land.
Warren shrugged. “I’m a vegetarian.”
“Those are vegetarian!” Nairi blurted out as his hand hovered over a platter of mini mushroom and goat cheese tarts. “But they’re gross. At least to me. I don’t like goat cheese.”
Warren wasn’t exactly partial to goat cheese himself, but he popped one of the tarts into his mouth and chewed slowly, glaring at her all the while.
“How was BU?” Nairi injected her words with way too much alacrity. “Did you like it there?”
“I did, yes.”
“And now you’re working at…..” Nairi knew he was now living in Cambridge, which she had only been to a few times as a child when her dad had given talks at Harvard. She knew that Warren was an engineer, and that that city was techie heaven, but where did he work again? Somewhere that had to do with computers….. IBM, maybe?
“Google.” He turned away from her to pour himself a cup of lemon seltzer.
“Oh, Google!” Nairi turned hot with shame, and tapped her forehead as if to say “silly me”. “I was thinking IBM, for some reason. Wow, Google. Even better than IBM!”
“ ‘Better’ means different things to different people.”
Ain’t that the truth, Nairi said to herself. She tried to smooth over her faux-pas. “Google, I’ll remember that. I’m sorry. It must be annoying when people get stuff wrong about you.”
“You’re telling me.” Warren’s buttery tenor, in which he had patiently explained the quadratic formula and parabolas to her so many times, was now chilly. He sipped his soda, and drilled holes into her with his green eyes. Nairi was then filled with a very sudden urge to see if there was anything going on in one of the living rooms.
She entered the main living room and found a group of about five mourners gathered around a copy of a story Eliza had written during her final months, marveling at her command of language, though a few people couldn’t understand some of the metaphors she had used (“‘Mothers measured out their minutes in meetings?’” one lady had asked aloud, “ ‘Greyhound race of youth?’ People don’t race on greyhound tracks; greyhounds do. Plus, we use clocks to tell time.”) They could ooh and ahh and pretend to understand all they wanted, but nobody knew this story better than Nairi did, because she had been with Eliza when she was writing it.
“It doesn’t sound like the work of anyone I read.” Eliza had pouted in front of her laptop. “Why don’t I sound like anybody I read?” Her tone, Nairi could hear, forecasted a breakdown. By that time, she’d already had a couple that had lasted several days each, during which she’d barely eaten, barely slept, barely showered, but always cried.
“Because you should sound like you.” Nairi had said this many times before, sometimes with a touch of impatience. It had gotten exhausting to listen to her whine, day in and day out. Eliza plunked her head down in her hands, then looked back up at her friend, a wry smile across her lips.
“You know how I feel right now? I feel like one of those musicians you see on infomercials for CD collections of old music.”
Nairi knew exactly what type of infomercials Eliza was referring to. They usually aired on PBS, one of the few channels she had been allowed to watch growing up, and she had never seen one hosted by a musician who was at a good point in their career. They almost always featured some one-hit wonder from over forty-five years ago whose name was in danger of being erased from history, grinning widely and trying to ingratiate himself with any youngsters who might have been watching with their parents or grandparents. “The seventies!”, the I-was-famous-for-one-week singer would growl happily, shaking his hips. “What a time to be alive!”
Eliza got up and began to shimmy, bringing to life exactly what Nairi had been thinking of. “It was amazing! Our boys were dying in hot jungles and the presidency was in the toilet, but the music was groovy! In this collection, you’ll get John Denver, Neil Young, Bill Withers, and a bunch of others who were more successful than I was!”.
Nairi burst out laughing. Yes! Thank you, Lord. At last, the old Eliza had returned. Well, for a minute, anyway. Eliza’s happiness quickly faded, for she realized that the now obscure musician she was making fun of had at least managed to captivate the entire country at one point – when he was probably younger than her – even if it had just been for a bit.
“My mom and dad really loved that story you wrote and posted on your blog last month.” Nairi told her, hoping it would bring back that sunny girl she had just seen. “They’re proud of you.”
Eliza sighed. “But that’s…..normal people proud. I mean, they’re nice and all, and I appreciate them, but….” She searched for a nice way to put it. “…..hearing that from a non-writer just isn’t the same thing, you know?”
What’s the matter with “non-writers”? Or “normal people”? Nairi knew it was no use to keep that conversation going. Instead, she turned her attention to something else she had noticed about her friend. “When did you start wearing blue eyeshadow?”
“A few months ago.”
Eliza, whose mother had always had to plead with her to put Chapstick on during the winter, was now wearing makeup. Nairi took a deep breath in.
“It’s gonna be my trademark. When I’m a real writer, that is.”
Being my best friend used to be your trademark. “But you’re already…..the two magazines –”
“Nai-Nai, no one reads those. My dad said so.”
Good is good, better is better, but best is best! Eliza touched her right eyelid and smeared a bit of the eyeshadow on a spot that hadn’t quite gotten enough love when she had first put it on with her brush. “Tom Wolfe had the white suit, and I have this.”
“If you even mention yourself in the same sentence as Tom Wolfe, I’m gonna punch you in the face.”
This was their normal, good-natured ball-busting; they usually hurled much worse at each other in jest. But Eliza hadn’t laughed or even smiled; she just stared at Nairi, bent her head down and continued to type.
The recollection of that day had formed a lump in Nairi’s throat. Come back, Eliza, come back. I would shove those words back into my mouth, say that you were better than Wolfe, Updike, Baldwin if it would bring you back. Wherever you are, I hope you can see that we’re all here, looking back on everything you did and said and were. You know what they’ll remember me as? A pseudo-teacher with no discernible talent for anything or any real accomplishments, who had hurt two boys who had been nothing but nice to me, just to chase something as fleeting and intangible as light. I’m sure people would get it if I was the one who intentionally shuffled off this mortal coil, but why you, full of promise, with a golden highway ahead of you? Why?
She looked out the window, and gasped. A familiar Camry was parked across the street. Please, God, no…
Nairi felt herself shaking. Still, some sick part of her was tempted to go look for Jaime. She walked closer to the car and found him smoking inside. When he saw her, he rolled his window down. On his face, he wore a look she had recognized from when she was much younger. It was the same one that her mother or father would give her after they had put her in “time-out” for having done something trivial (according to her father, spanking was for lazy parents and bound to scar a child for life). Sad smile, eyebrows gently bent into the shape of you done messed up, little girl, but you mean the world to me, followed by the sweet relief of forgiveness, which Mom and Dad always seemed to have for her no matter what, and what she hoped Jaime could muster up one iota of for her; all that would leave her more of a remorseful, blubbering mess than she had been going into the punishment.
“How long have you been here?” Nairi’s brain was foggy, and right then, she could manage nothing more than that.
“Only, like, twenty minutes.” Jaime took a drag off of his cigarette. “You didn’t see me?”
“No, sorry, I was with –” Nairi figured it was better not to finish that sentence.
“You know me; fashionably late.” He was wearing his work uniform under his unzipped jacket.
“Unfashionably.” Nairi poked his nose, the way she would do when they used to lie together in bed. Nothing.
“I was in there for a little bit. But I had to come out. It was too much.” He put out his cigarette and jerked his thumb towards the backseat. “I’ll drive you home.”
“I can walk.”
“I just …..felt a raindrop.” He muttered, one of a thousand codes for “I need you” that people pull out at times like these.
So she got into his car. The floor underneath the glove compartment was just as much – if not more – of a disaster as it had been the last time they had seen each other; tangled earbuds, loose change, tissues and fast food wrappers. The sun could blow up, mountains could crumble, friends could leave the planet of their own accord, but Jaime would always be a slob. Nairi – a huge neat freak – used to hate this about him, but today she found solace in the chaos beneath her feet.
“You’re supposed to take a left here.” Nairi said when he mistakenly turned right at the end of the road. Not that she could blame him for forgetting; it had, after all, been ages since he had driven her anywhere.
“Oh, my bad.” Jaime was reminded of this fact as well. A pall was cast over the car.
“Let’s take the long way”. He said softly, another code for something he couldn’t bring himself to say out loud.
The “long way” turned out to be the really long way. Nairi had never needed to pass Barrington Beach to go home from Eliza’s, but they did anyway. It was almost time for the sun to set. There was, as her father would say, “not a sky in the cloud,” so the chances of the horizon blushing pink and red over the little seaside town this evening were virtually nil. The ocean was choppy; Nairi couldn’t see a single boat out sailing, for good reason, on that blue thunder blanket.
Blue thunder blanket. Where did that come from? She had never thought of an ocean – or anything – in those terms before. That was an Eliza thing to do, to make words pretty. She felt that Eliza was there, either above or within her, and before she could stop herself, she felt her cheeks getting drenched. Jaime pretended not to notice, but he was itching to pull over and hold her, just hold her…..
“Why do the tides change?” Nairi found herself asking as the view of the beach faded behind them. She didn’t actually care to know, but she was desperate to say something, anything, to melt the frost that had settled on top of whatever it was they had.
“The tides and the moon are connected.” Jaime replied.
“Gravity. You didn’t know that?”
Nairi shook her head no. A native Rhode Islander, she was no stranger to the sea, but not once in twenty-four years of life had she ever actually wondered about something as basic as the science behind the tides.
“Well, that’s why.” Jaime said, if not a little smugly. That was the extent of his knowledge. Didn’t matter if he couldn’t explain how gravity governed the moon and ocean; it was still one step above not knowing at anything about it at all, one step above her.
Nairi looked outside at the ocean and the road and thought of all the universes she belonged to – the first one, which included her parents and the potpourri of Digins that had watched her grow up; the second one, consisting of Norton, Jaime’s place, Johnson and Wales, Brown, Mr. Harper and his twenty-six smiling second-graders at work; the third one, the town of Barrington, the entire state of Rhode Island, the Northeast, the country, the continent, the aimlessly spinning Earth. So many, stuffed into each other like Russian dolls; the small and medium ones that would miss her, and the biggest one that, face it, probably would not.
Like the moon and tides, she, too, felt a gravitational pull on her, one that was trying to lead her head toward Jaime’s shoulder, but fought it with everything in her. Nairi closed her eyes, and found herself thinking of lines on a graph, forever extending but never touching. A wispy curl of slumber, like smoke left behind from a just-blown out candle, unfolded inside her body as a familiar drawl echoed in her head, “Okay, now, let’s take a look at ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’… what happened?”