"Nothing happened, and nothing kept happening."
I was road-kill splayed across Henrietta's bed. She stubbed out a blunt into a red heart-shaped plate. The crumbs from the cookies her mom had baked were mixed in with the ash.
In a few minutes Ethan would be here. Because life was like clockwork. The minute hand was always digging into my shoulder. I was sure I could feel the indentations it left when I tried to sleep at night.
We'd been rehearsing for the show the past couple days, and meeting up at the diner afterwards. And now that everything between us was back to normal, I wondered what normal for Ethan and I really meant. Was our relationship a blimp in the radar of our friendship? Or was it a status quo that had yet to be earned back? And how was I supposed to find out. There didn't seem to be enough time in the day to ask questions like that. We were always busy with jobs or school or eating dinner or doing the laundry or sleeping. Maybe one day I'd wake up and the answer wouldn't matter to me anymore.
"Why are you still living with him?" Henrietta asked, her liquid eyeliner paused in a tip of the edge of her eye as she watched me in the mirror. I looked back at the ceiling where the gaze was less critical. When I glanced back at her, her lips were pursed tightly together as she watched me bring my thumbnail to my teeth and scrape.
"We're friends." There was something familiar and comforting about the chemical taste of nail polish on my tongue. "Friends live together."
"Yeah, ex's don't," her voice was sharp. I couldn't stand her attitude, so full of certainty as to how people should behave. As if she and Damien were some pinnacle of wisdom we should all be modeling our relationships after.
I sighed and rolled towards the window.
It was snowing again and when Ethan finally made came into the room snowflakes clung to his curls. I wished I was one of them.
The next day marched on. And everyone acted like this concert, like playing together was going to mean something, and I tried to imagine what it'd feel like if that were true. "So this going to be weird, huh?" Ethan said, as I adjusted a peg on my guitar.
His legs were stretched in front of him between the sofa and the TV. A commercial for City Wok flashed on the screen. You could barely make out his black suspenders against his collared shirt, but I tried my best to trace the outline.
"You mean because of Georgie's shit haircut?" We'd all looked abruptly at the floor of Henrietta's garage on Monday when Georgie walked in with a crew cut. It was part of a three-pronged effort to make Ike's mom let him in the house. I watched Ethan's lips curl into a half smile at the comment.
A bag of heart-shaped peppermint patties sat half-empty between us, with pink shiny wrappers blocking out the carpet. Henrietta had left it here last night after our final practice and neither of us had any interest in cleaning up after her. It felt festive, though unpleasantly pink, and I wondered if we could work the sentiment into a song or if it was too late.
Ethan was staring at the TV in a way that people did when they wanted to hide the fact that they were staring into space. That's why they've plopped up in doctor's waiting rooms and restaurants. We're not allowed to be lost in thought; we have to be lost in the Big Game.
"Want me to make food?" he said finally.
I shrugged and watched him get up from the couch and pad across the room in his socks. It still felt too intimate, these everyday moments, weighed with the tension of what neither of us would say.
"Yeah, whatever. Whatever you want to make." I pushed back into the couch cushions, my guitar resting flat on my knees. "Do you think Henrietta and Damien will have a great Valentine's Day reconciliation?" I don't know why I even said it. I'd listened to Henrietta go on an hour-long tirade, giving me a play-by-play of their last bitter conversations. I wasn't looking for Ethan's opinion or speculation. We just had nothing else to talk about expect other people.
"It would be a Valentine's Day miracle," he sneered, wrinkling his nose over a dented box of Minute Rice.
It was hard not to wonder what he and I would be doing right now if we were still together. Not that I could imagine it'd be anything like I overheard Craig Tucker talking about in the locker room today at school. Most couples were going to the Olive Garden.
Student Council had sold roses, like they did every year. One year Henrietta had suggested we get to school early and spray paint them all black. We'd spent hours over coffee working out every detail, but it was ultimately something that required all of us waking up before the last possible minute, and it remained a pipe-dream that died when Ethan graduated.
The set passed in a dream of Georgie's sneaker slapping against the drum pedal, Ethan's fingers pushing his curls off his forehead, the red stage lights reflecting off the thick metal rings around his fingers, and the smoke curling in cursive letters from Henrietta's cigarette holder. The crowd hadn't thinned out by eleven as I'd cynically predicted when we'd walked in, and I was glad.
"It's cool you could come," I mumbled to Mike, as he followed me out to Henrietta's car, barely able to lift my amp above the black cement. I hadn't invited him, he'd just been there, creating a five foot section of the crowd that Ethan refused to acknowledge.
The closest the bar had come to decorating for Valentine's Day was the plethora of cherry-flavored drinks the bartender had on tap tonight. I was surprised to see the black cherry vodka being swirled in Mike's hand as he'd waved to me when we finished our set.
"It is nice to get out on Valentine's Day. Even if it is a school night," he said, struggling to push the amp into the trunk.
"Mike," I lit a cigarette in a cuffed hand, "you graduated last year."
He was looking around, not listening to me at all; his hair kept blowing against opposite cheeks with every movement. I slammed the trunk of the car shut.
"Listen, I need to talk to you Dylan," he said.
"We're talking," I started to turn back to the club. Ethan had ordered us a pizza from the bar. It was something the bartender pulled out of the freezer and threw into a microwave oven, but I would eat anything after a show. Mike kept standing on the curb and I considered the idea that he'd had more to drink than I'd realized.
"You know the show my band played two weekends ago?" he said quietly at first, so that I had to walk back two steps to make out his words. My footprints were barely visible in the powdery snow that had fallen earlier.
"I guess?" In the dark the space between the green in his hair and the black was lost, and indistinguishable as his expression.
"A girl in the front row was recording it and uploaded the whole thing to YouTube."
"That's really cool Mike," I said slowly and impatiently.
"It's got so many views that it caught the attention of a record label in New York City called Yellow Light." I watched him look at me, making sure I was catching the significance. "We have a record deal," he finished.
I tried to swallow then, I think, but all of me had dried up. Maybe I was waiting then for him to laugh and acknowledge the sick joke he was playing. But Mike wouldn't make a joke as cruel as that, he never really joked about anything at all.
"Dylan, I'm telling you—"
"A record deal doing what?" I asked. Maybe Mike misunderstood them. Maybe they needed some young trendy looking guys to hand out flyers or go for coffee runs. Mike watched the butt of my cigarette burn out in the snow.
"To record an album, but I'm telling you this—"
"Right, because of the views you had on a video? If I'd known this was all a fucking popularity contest I wouldn't have bothered."
"That's really an oversimplification, per say" Mike snapped.
"Is it though?" I spun my heel. Somewhere in my brain the best of me was urgently warning me about the importance of being happy for this person who had, for all intents and purposes, been my best friend these past few months. But I couldn't muster up the energy required for the kind of performance that would be necessary to convince Mike that I had anything but contempt for him, his success, and the world in general. The best I could do was to walk back into the club and pretend this conversation had only taken place in a very perverse dream.
"Will you just wait," he grabbed my arm. "I want you to be my guitarist for the album, and whatever else comes after." His words were all bleeding together quickly, and he took a long breath after he was done, as if steadying himself for whatever protest I was about to make. I didn't care.
"I think we both know what my answer is. I have too much integrity to ride your coat-tails to a record label that seems fixated on the fact that teenage girls swoon at the flick of your hair. I'm not some pretty boy who can back your vocals about dreams and hot cocoa and puppy love. I'm fucking goth. So no Mike, I don't want to join your boy band."
"What are you talking about? My coat-tails? Dylan, the music we were playing was yours! You wrote every note! The only difference is it'll actually be played the way it's supposed to be, and not by me fumbling my fingers over my strings." Mike took a breath and grabbed his gloves from his pockets. He kept trying to jam his fingers in too quick to get it right and I looked away. "I'm going to try and be patient here and realize you're a little shocked that something good can happen in the world because I realize you've been having a really awful time of things lately. But I'm not going to be talked to this way." He wasn't yelling. He was exasperated but in some level-headed way that most people probably needed years of therapy and books about Buddhism to achieve.
He took a step away from me and sighed. "I want you in the band for this album. There's a lot of money involved. A lot of opportunity. And I think you can help us achieve more. So you think about it. Calm down and really think about it and call me tomorrow."
"My answer is no!" I shouted after him as he started walking towards his car. "For-fucking-get about it!"
But he just waved his hand through the air without looking at me, like he refused to hear me. I wished he would have slammed the door to his car. Something, anything that would have let me know I'd upset him. But he was still calm. It was probably all the tea he drank. I thought about that, and how he would never order coffee at diners, and decided definitively that things could never work out.
"Well that was stupid," Ethan said, his boot propped against the dashboard of Henrietta's car as he sucked at his cigarette. The door was hanging open widely over the curb. I don't know how neither of us hadn't noticed. It wasn't like Ethan was trying to hide. I felt my cheeks heat with the embarrassment of having been scrutinized without knowing I was under the microscope.
"What do you expect, it's Mike Makowski." I muttered, trying not to act caught off-guard by Ethan's presence. I kicked a foot at the curb and tried to keep my hair over my face.
"No, you. Why would you turn down that opportunity?" I stared at him for a minute to make sure I was really seeing him properly, really hearing him. Sometimes Ethan's sarcasm was almost too indiscernible and I had to wait for the edges of his lips to quirk up to understand his true meaning. But he was just frowning at me now.
"Well, you were eavesdropping. So you should have heard my reasons. What more do you want me to say?" I felt my shoulders hunch around my ears. I thought Ethan would have understood why I wouldn't sell out for Mike's band. I wasn't some musical charity case. And besides, I had a band. We had a band. Did it still all count for nothing?
"Your music was given an audience to one of the top record companies on the East Coast and they liked it so much they're signing the band that so sloppily played it. And the frontman of that band wants you to sign the contract and produce the album with them. And you're turning it down why?" I felt the edges of my mouth turn down further into my face, like a marionette doll. I didn't know how I was always so many steps behind Ethan. So out of sync.
"That's not the fucking point Ethan. You're twisting it to make it sound like I'm unreasonable. You know it isn't like that."
"Twisting it how? Because I'm just reviewing the facts. You're the one acting like a child who is just upset that their favorite present was given to them the day after Christmas." It hurt to know how little Ethan thought of me, even now.
"What the fuck is that even supposed to mean? You fucking hate Mike Makowski. So if you don't want to be on my side about this, then you can just fuck off too."
Ethan laughed and stood up, "You can't throw the word "fuck" around enough times to scare me away."
"Whatever," I mumbled, sitting down on the curb. I felt every inch the child Ethan claimed I was acting like. I imagined my bottom lip would stick out if I let it. "First you don't like how dedicated I am; how much I'm willing to work for it. Now you think I should follow any dickhead that promises me a record contract?"
Ethan just shrugged, "It's not like it'd be forever."
We both watched a car go past and tried to think of what to say next.
"Won't you care?" I said, at least having the dignity to leave out the unspoken 'if I go.' When he didn't immediately respond I panicked, and needed to fill up the air with more words. If I couldn't get an answer from Ethan, at least I could make accusations. "If I have to leave. The only difference between now and then is that you want to get rid of me."
Ethan sucked at his cigarette and flicked it into the street. It bounced once and disappeared under the bumper of Henrietta's car.
"The truth is, we're all losers as long as we're trapped in South Park. Someone's left the door the cage open for you, you know?"
"Great, thanks for the talk," I mumbled, my hands pressed flat against the curb to push up. His hand grabbed my wrist and forced me to look at him.
"Hey, don't you think that I wish it was different? Don't you think that I wished it would be us?"
"I don't know Ethan." I really didn't, and nothing about this conversation had convinced me one way or the other how he felt.
"Of course I want it to be us." He drug his fingers through his hair. "Maybe it still can be, I don't know. But I just feel like if you ever wanted that at all, you'd take this chance now."
"What about us?" I said, angry that it was me that had to finally bring it up.
"We're friends." Ethan shook his head. "If we want to be more than that again, I think we both need time."
"Okay," I said, standing up. It was such a cliché, meaningless thing to say that I could have laughed in his face.
"Where are you going?"
"I want to eat something, fuck, is that a crime?" I asked, saying it all under my breath as I headed back to the club.
The closer I got to the club the lighter I felt. From the doorway I could see Henrietta sitting in Damien's lap, smacking his hand traveling up her thigh under the table. The blue light from Georgie's phone illuminated his face. He reached up to swipe the bangs out of his eyes that had been cut away days ago, his hand stopped mid-air and rested back on the table. There was an empty chair between them for me.
I wondered what time could change about all of us and what it had already. Ethan was still outside, still true and right and better than me in everything he said and felt. I was beginning to think that that counted for less than it should.
Mike wasn't even home yet when I called him.
Sometime later sitting in a studio beside him, as we signed our names to contracts we didn't understand, and weren't expected to, I tried to think of what I missed. But it's hard to miss things that your mind knew were over and gone but your body didn't. South Park was a phantom limb, and Georgie, Henrietta, and Ethan were the wrist, palm, and fingers. If somebody asked me, even though no one ever would, if I wanted to go home now—I wouldn't know what to say.
At what point in our lives do we stop blurring? When do we become crisp individuals? What must we do in order to end these fuzzy identities—to clarify just who it is we really are?