Every two weeks or so, I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, an essay from Rebecca Arrowsmith. Rebecca is a Tampa-based writer, MFA candidate, and writing instructor at the University of South Florida. Her work explores the language of memory and investigates sociopolitical pressures across generational differences. Coming-of-age alongside retired senior citizens made Rebecca into an 80-year-old woman inside of a 29-year-old’s body. It’s a great way to live.
Two girls walk into a bar. A restaurant bar in my hometown called The Kennedy. It’s all If-Jay-Gatsby-had-a-Pinterest. All geometric gold over matte navy wallpaper, no crown molding. All art deco, edible flowers atop thick-cut meat atop a savory breakfast grain. When we arrive, two guys greet my friend, two actors she knows. She introduces me as: “Her? She’s visiting me from Atlanta.”
“I live in Atlanta too,” says one. A tall one, a sexy one with almost pointy ears and a smile that could disarm a terrorist. I sit with him and order a drink, something fizzy with a cucumber coil in it.
Two strangers sit together at a bar. Both drove from the New-York-of-the-South to spend New Year’s Eve in, of all places, Spartanburg, South Carolina. My chair angles toward Atlanta guy, away from my friend.
“I work at Octavia Coffee in Midtown,” he says.
“No way! I lived right down the street until recently,” I tell him. “Now I’m north of the Perimeter.” I imagine our first kiss of the year. A piss off 2018 against his facial hair, little pins, the lip heat of meant-to-be.
He asks when I moved. Eighteen months ago doesn’t seem like a sufficient answer, so I lie.
“Last week,” I say, then I smile, drink, sucking my straw until the ice cubes rumble.
Eighteen months ago, I didn’t want to break up with Paul but felt like I had to. My mom kept saying “it’s a big decision, and you can’t undo it.” She had a tight ten-and-two grip on the wheel. Patsy, a family friend, had died, and the drive to her funeral was a spiral up to the Blue Ridge mountaintop.
“I’m tired of waiting. All the time. For everything.”
“Just don’t rush into it, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Waiting for band practice,” I said. “Waiting for my lunch.”
“Oh, you’ve got to let the lunch thing go.”
“It wasn’t about lunch. It was about leftovers.”
“What difference does that make?” We both gasped on a curve. Then Mom edged the car in, nearly scraping the hillside shrubbery, while my end stayed all sky.
“It’s a thing, like, I’m into leftovers and he isn’t, and we laugh about it.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Remember – I told you how we had such a good time the night before?”
“Right,” she said, “But the next morning you forgot your lunch—”
“—leftovers. And he didn’t bring it to you?”
The car behind honked and sped past us.
“And I asked very sweetly with the heart emoji.”
We must have been going slow because I saw a possum. A possum that could limp into the road at any moment, make us spiral, and watch our car spill down the side of that mountain. I spoke through a sob, a lump behind my tonsils.
“But he had to buy his brother a birthday present at Urban Outfitters…” I tried swallowing the sob. “Which he’d have to pass my job to get to and…”
But I broke into a bawl, a snotty, blubbering mess. The possum would get to live, while my relationship problem would stay forever unsolved, my vagina forever virgin, my chastity crystalized. I cried harder.
“Just take a breath,” my mom said. So I took a breath. The possum would break up with its boyfriend, grow older, make possum love, have baby possums with another better, more attractive possum.
“And like, it’s not even about that. He just never wants to see me anymore.” Then I started to hyperventilate. “I’m waiting all the time!”
The possum would not hyperventilate. The possum would eat up garbage. Carry fallen fruit to her possum family. And you know what the possum would not carry? The weight of those she’s killed on the mountain road.
A boy and a girl are in a bar.
“What brings you from Atlanta to my hometown on New Year’s?” I ask him.
And he says: “My girlfriend.”
So I spin in the barstool for a while, kind of half-listening to Atlanta, half scanning for a girlfriend-looking girl to come out of the bathroom. Someone red-lipped and boutique fitness- bodied. Atlanta is mid-sentence when I notice Becky B and yell, “Look, it’s Becky!” to the girl that brought me here. Becky and I share a hometown and its people, an art college and its people, even a first name, but we’ve never been around one another long enough to become friends.
Before tonight, the closest we got was through my mom’s Lucky Brand ankle boots. Becky designed them. She designs for Anthropologie, Disney, Coach, other brand names too chic for gym card swipers like myself to know or remember. That College of Art and Design we both graduated from is a fickle mother.
“Hey, hey Becky! Wait! Hey!” I weave through waitress trays, stop her at the bathroom door, say pose so I can send a picture to our mutual friend in New York City. Becky’s hand is on the door, waiting for me to turn off the flash, oh wait it’s blurry, one more, oh wait kinda dark maybe flash on, oh wait, waaait. She holds the pose, looking more painting than person.
Then Becky invites my friend and me to her table.
Things are about to get interesting.
Before I say more, you should know that I’m going through a hard time. A slutty, bitchy, crazy, emotional time which started at Patsy’s funeral.
A retired flight attendant friend of Patsy’s said, “oh, we traveled everywhere, we had so many adventures.” Her hairdresser said, “she was my first friend in Blue Ridge.” Her stepdaughter said, “she taught us unruly children how to be gracious.”
And they all said: “I will remember her how she was – before.”
Meanwhile, all I remembered of “before,” of “real Patsy,” were her necklaces. It must have seemed like I’d never weaned off the breast because I’d stare mesmerized at the long-pearl strands, the smooth turquoise stones and glass beads that clicked together when she walked.
I also remembered when her husband died. And I remembered when she started dating Manfred, a man our family didn’t care for – all of his actually-I’m-a-doctor soliloquies, his cliché pretentious attitude, his red bow ties. We’d say his name in italics: “Ugh. It’s Manfred.” But Patsy was having a good old sexy senior time, and I suppose it was good for her, good for a grieving soul.
Then I remembered hearing how Patsy forgot the cat’s name one day. Called her Yoplait and left a bowl of Wheat Thins on the floor instead of cat food. How it didn’t take Dr. Manfred long to disappear.
“I can’t handle it,” he wrote in a letter. “It’s hard on me.”
Then I remembered Paul saying that about me too.
We were in his Subaru facing a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho King. “It’s hard on me,” he said. We sat in the red glow of a stoplight, oblivious to the turn signal ticking.
In our second-floor condo, Paul’s record player may have been playing a sweet surf rhythm even though we weren’t home. Tree branches grew quickly, tapping on the windows and holding our bedroom like a bird nest. The Beach Boys whistled to swaying shadows on the wall, stretching across the floor, the bed. And below, the hood of Paul’s blue Subaru waited to turn onto a busy Peachtree Road.
“I’m sorry but it’s hard,” his voice broke, suddenly fast and guttural. “You told me to be honest. I want to be with you. Really be with you.”
And I wanted to erase the word sex from my language.
Its absence filled every room those days. It consumed all the air.
Ticking surrounded us.
When I got home from the funeral that night, Paul was playing guitar on the couch. He immediately set it down when I walked in and gave me a tight hug.
“Should I just say it?” I asked and he replied: “Please.”
Four years of future-making, over. Just like that.
Five girls are at a table. The waitress brings Becky a birthday dessert on the house. “This is our famous burnt chocolate spoon bread with cookie butter mousse, and bourbon caramel,” she says, and she winks. “Extra forks to share.”
“I know where I’m going after this, y’all.” I flick my fork toward the bar, swoop it across a row of backs. “Wherever that guy’s going.”
“Who?” The girls lean in.
“Oh, he’s over there somewhere.” I smear cookie butter across the crispy top of the chocolate spoon bread. Their eyes say tell us more. I nod and chew, nod and chew.
“Normally I wouldn’t be so into a Spartanburg rando,” they nod like oh yes girl we understand. “But this guy,” nod and chew, nod and swallow. “This guy lives in Atlanta, not Spartanburg. Near me—”
“Oh uh,” my friend stutters.
“—well, near where I used to live but still close.” Nod and chew, nod and swallow.
“He drove here from Atlanta to see his girlfriend, but who makes their partner drive from Atlanta to Spartanburg on New Year’s and then ditches him?”
“That’s his girlfriend,” Becky says.
“What?” I lower to a whisper, scan the room, chew spoon bread. “Where is she?”
They all point to the girl next to me, sharing this booth seat.
“Oh my god,” I continue to whisper. “I am so, so sorry.”
She is mid-eyeroll, and I can’t stop myself from giving her an oration from hell, the whole “I’ve just gone through a really hard break up and I’m not usually this slutty, this bitchy, this loud, this crazy. I am so sorry...so sorry... so, so sorry.”
Then I realize that Booth Girl isn’t rolling her eyes. She’s looking up at the ceiling. The sight of me is just too disgusting. She will return to eye-level conversation and still not look at me. And if she speaks, I have no idea what she says. All I remember is this blurry I-should-just-walk-away feeling in conflict with a post-drop-roller-coaster-euphoria.
Like how a vagina feels after it loses virginity.
I’ve never met a vaginally-penetrative object that didn’t make my body rebound with the automation of a slinky. One time, my aunt crouched down as I sat on a toilet mid-period, looked between my spread-eagle legs, and gave me the blow-by-blow on tampons. The knowledge did not equal power.
“Maybe you have a short cervix or something,” my aunt said. But when the gynecologist went after it with a speculum, my shoulders jumped to my ears and my entire body inch-wormed away each time the speculum advanced inward. Eventually I got nauseous, and my legs detached from my brain, zipping completely shut.
“Any sexual trauma?” Gyno asked.
“Yes,” I said. “And I see a therapist for that.”
Paul and I had done the weird homework. The imitate this sketch of two naked people putting their hands on the other’s hearts to build security and trust, the study your vagina in a handheld mirror for three minutes and record your observations. I’d observed that the left side of my labia was bigger than the right. Which I cross-referenced with Paul, who said he never noticed. I didn’t believe him at first but after considering how observant he usually was… this checked out.
“Well,” said Gyno, “you probably need pelvic floor physical therapy too.”
Here’s the thing. I didn’t actually go to physical therapy until after the breakup. I could speculate as to why, but does it matter? Does it matter that I now own “dilators,” a medical term for a dozen easter-pastel-colored dildos from size pinkie finger to size GMO-zucchini? Does it matter that my vagina eventually carried a very expensive “Kegel system” of heavy silicone pods?
No, it does not matter.
Sex mattered more. I had to have sex to graduate. Maybe then, I’d totally let go of my first relationship. My failed relationship. I’d finally be free of my mind, free of my body, free of these expensive-as-shit appointments. Sex would be a win-win.
And so I gave my virginity to my first dating-app-date, a Tesla car salesman with sepia toned biceps.
The graduating ceremony began in his empty living room. A room eerily reminiscent of my every-other-weekend and dinner-on-Wednesdays home as the daughter of a divorced dad. We progressed to the bedroom. And one may expect a Tesla car salesman to own a box spring, but no. His mattress was on the floor and his television adjacent, on a suitcase.
My post-coital need to watch Saturday Night Live awkwardly bumped against his post-coital need to get me the fuck out of his apartment.
He said, “Aren’t you tired? I’m tired.” He said, “I’d totally want you to stay but uh, gotta work early.” Repeatedly.
I pretended not to hear him, pretended to laugh when the audience laughed because I wasn’t listening to Saturday Night Live, I was listening to everything else: the sink turning on then off again, the stormy air conditioning unit on and off again. The footsteps of people upstairs. I thought about the condom we did not use. I thought about the hours of ABC Family I watched after school as a teenager: Grounded for Life, 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls, The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Or soap operas with my mom. Didn’t the pastor on 7th Heaven turn out to be a pedophile? Didn’t I read that in the news somewhere?
He dressed, picking my clothes off of the floor and draping them across my bare legs. “I’ll walk you to your car,” he said. Once there, his gate closed me out of the complex and I cried. The intensity of my tears increased with my gas pedal all the way to the 24-hour CVS. Crying to sobbing, stoplight cry-swallowing, greenlight sob-hiccups. It was after midnight, and the two girls working stared at me, my eyes low and blurry, my body disheveled and aimless. They knew I’d approach soon. They knew I’d ask for a Plan B please from the CVS Plan B prison – a clear box weirdly similar to NICU incubators I’ve seen on television.
“That’ll be sixty-something plus some cents.”
I handed over the cash I’d made from babysitting the night before.
Back in the car, my thumb hovered over my ex-boyfriend’s name as the phone’s blue light illuminated a mascara caterpillar on my face. What would I even say?
Hey, sorry to call so late but after four years of not fucking you, I just gave it to an Elon-Musk-wanna-be-protege, and he refused to wear a condom so now I need you to buy me Plan B because you always pay for everything. I need a hug, come over?
Yeah, I didn’t call him.
A girl hides in the bathroom at a bar. She ignores angry knocks, texts a few people you won’t believe what I just did, waits for responses. None. Texts another five. Nothing. Leaves the bathroom without washing her hands. Pays the tab. Treats the six stools between her and Atlanta like a restraining order.
When I return to Becky’s table, there is a new small crowd of girls standing around it. Like every 20-something in Spartanburg just arrived to see how much Becky grew this year.
She’s 27, people. She looks the same.
I consider shouldering through the sequined shirt parade, but my nerve cells are burnt to a crisp. A new arrival on the outskirts with me asks if I’m going to the AC rooftop party. “All of us are going, you should come!”
“I’ll probably head out,” I say. “Kind of a rough night.”
“Oh, I have a story that will make you feel so much better,” she says. “There was a chick in here like half an hour ago and she hit on her boyfriend—” She points to Booth Girl.
Oh god, kill me now.
“—then freaking told her all about it. And…”
She points to Becky. “…ate all of her birthday dessert.”
When I was a teenager, I watched daytime soap operas with my mom. And if I turned this story into fiction, my character might groggily wake to the sound of my beeping heart, to a hospital’s brightness. An episode of All My Children or General Hospital might play on a small television in the corner. A nurse would take my hand.
“You were in a terrible accident,” she says.
“Yes. I’ve called for your doctor.” I look around the room and see Paul sleeping in a chair. The nurse smiles. “He hasn’t left your side,” she says. “Probably never will! You gave him quite the scare.”
“What about his tour with the band?”
“Oh…” I look at the wires poking into my arms. “What happened?”
“You and your mother were in a terrible accident on the way to Patsy’s funeral.”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“Where’s my mom?”
“She’s just fine – up and movin’ in a single day. You, on the other hand…”
“So, it was all a dream?”
The doctor walks in.
“Well, there she is!” Takes out his little flashlight. “Alright sleeping beauty, follow this with your eyes for me.” He turns to the nurse. “Wake up the boyfriend, would ya? Reunite the lovebirds.”