“She knew what she had done, and that she was okay. Really, she was just fine. She had always been one to easily persuade herself of opinions she wished to hold.”
They were sitting in her kitchen, at the small, round table set Jillian had just bought at the thrift store that afternoon. The white paint chipped to show undercurrents of rusting metal and dirt, but Jillian didn’t mind, she enjoyed playing with bumps and bruises. Camilla’s fingers interlaced around the mug of coffee she wouldn’t drink as she peered outside the window that faced the brick exterior of a shorter, renovated building. Her cheeks were hollow, and her collarbones poked through her shirt, but she glowed with a newfound contentment that refreshed her features nonetheless. She knew what she had done, and that she was okay. Really, she was just fine. She had always been one to easily persuade herself of opinions she wished to hold. Her feelings were minute anyway to her clumsy, toppling, but overwhelmingly present thoughts, so she never had qualms about planting morals through twisted logic. As Camilla stared at the monotonous brick outside the narrow window, she saw a small, green plant writhing out of the rooftop, skinny but completely visible. The corners of her lips dragged unwillingly towards the ceiling into a grand smile as she tapped her overgrown fingernails into the mug rhythmically.
“Would you quit it?” Jillian spat.
She was picking the skin off her nails at an alarming rate. Spots of blood marked the napkin by her elbow, resting on the unfortunate table. Jillian was raised in a less graceful manner than Camilla. Her slight wrists seemed harsh and rigid as she carried herself with a certain natural tightness that engrossed her whole demeanor. It was as if she was in an eternal flinch. She was always prepared to duck and bend her body to avoid damage. She had attempted to correct this manner with her nonchalant tone, that danced with any inappropriate remark, and a nasty habit of smoking cigarettes that she made absolutely certain dangled from her lips so loosely, it almost always fell out. Her clothes hung loosely off her slender body, but despite her insistence on casualty, she only shopped at lavish retailers where a white cotton T-shirt would cost upwards of $60. She did this not to boast of her wealth — she had virtually nothing — but to be among delicacy and worth to perhaps elevate her own. Unlike Camilla, who was raised in a family who sent out Christmas cards each year, she was a victim of passionate emotions and had a secret affinity for the melodramatic.
When they had been assigned roommates at their liberal arts school out in California as freshmen, merely because they both were from big east coast cities, they fought about nearly all issues roommates could possibly endure. Yet, their rants were punctuated with similar passive-aggressive jabs until they realized they were truly perfectly matched. They had been inseparable since, until two months prior to the second semester term on a Saturday night, when they had maimed a girl.
Camilla began to pick through a magazine with minimal interest. Jillian let out an exaggerated sigh.
“Yes?” Camilla asked blankly, her eyes fixed on an article on the importance of completely renewing your wardrobe every six months.
“I don’t know,” Jillian said, slouching back into the chair, with something very clearly on her mind.
Knowing of Jillian’s desire to be probed, Camilla touched her finger to her tongue to flip the page once again. “Alright,” she resigned.
“Well, you can’t just sit here and pretend to be unaffected or whatever, okay? I’m not gonna take it,” Jillian stared pointedly at Camilla, who was onto the most daring runway fashions of the year. “You’re being childish, frankly, and I don’t see a reason for us not to talk about it like adults, or whatever we are.”
At this, Camilla snapped the magazine shut and set it on the table. A few golden locks that had fallen out of her ponytail made their way gingerly into her eyelashes, and she tucked them back behind her ear.
“Adults?” she repeated. “Barely. You can’t go around dragging people by their necks and be mad when they’ve learned how to handle it –” she pushed the strands that had untucked back again, “so you can enjoy your ‘intense sense of justice’ and ‘heated emotions’ and whatnot, and pretend to care about that bitch because I sure as hell won’t.”
Jillian was slightly taken aback. Though profanities took up a large slot in her vocabulary, Camilla had rarely let curse words rush so coarsely out from her mouth. Her mother had made the act of cleaning her mouth out with a bar of soap commonplace in their household. It startled Jillian even more that it was being used against the girl least deserving of all.
“That bitch?” she asked, alarmed.
“Well, what do you want me to call her? She always seemed fake. I know I’m practically forced to now, but I just don’t like her. Never did.”
“Bullshit. You like her more than you like me even,” Jillian remarked matter-of-factly, a tone Camilla found detestable. “You’re lying to yourself.”
Jillian now had three years to learn that Camilla was more malleable than clay. If circumstances changed, she almost always changed along with it and had no problem doing so. It was in sharp contrast to her high level of intellect or, maybe, perfect correlation. She knew better than to get caught up in one stance, even if it meant having an identity.
Camilla rolled her eyes in frustration, “Listen, I’m not lying to myself. I didn’t like her. I don’t like her. I don’t have to because I didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t either.”
She picked up the flimsy magazine again and, this time, pretended to marvel at the advertisements. Jillian, on the other hand, could’ve had a flame lit under her chair, for she was practically jumping out. She gripped onto the arm rests with both hands and shifted her weight forwards, looking at Camilla with such unkempt fury that when Camilla darted her eyes to catch a glimpse, her eyebrows knitted together in momentary surprise before she composed herself again a second later.
“You’re just sitting here in your stupid puddle of arrogance and pretend like you’re not at fault at all!” Jillian exclaimed. She shook her head, “I can’t believe you. You’re acting like your mom, you know that? You’re fucking unbelievable.”
With that, Camilla’s neck snapped up in attention. Her mother, a safe distance away in a cemetery in Chicago, was her biggest and, practically, only fear. She had tortured Camilla with judgemental side-glances and responses of no more than two sentences throughout her entire childhood. She had one time infamously poked Camilla’s small arm, when she was but ten years old, and told her shrewdly that she was thinner at her age.
Jillian quickly backed up. Her own mother smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and spent her nights on an old, tattered couch watching movies of rich, gorgeous women who she pretended to be. She would return from her job, sitting in the toll booth on the highway, watching cars and people zoom in and out of existence, and smearing her lips with red lipstick she had bought in 1987. She’d apply mascara and a dash of perfume, put on her fanciest dress with her pearls, and plop down on the couch to watch glamour through a 25” screen. On nights when Jillian couldn’t sleep — which was nearly all of them — she would often imagine walking through the doors of her single-floor home to find that her mother had taken her near-absence one level deeper and had truly fled. She’d seen her mother’s wardrobe brimming with all she had accumulated in her life, save for the dress, the pearls, and her makeup bag. The image of her mother on a flight to Hollywood in her silly dress with an eternal smile plastered on her face provided Jillian with a rush of comfort or perhaps relief — she couldn’t quite place it. But of course, each time Jillian called, her mother had picked up the telephone she kept right at the foot of the couch and coughed out a rasp, “Who’s this?”
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I didn’t even want to go that Saturday night in the first place. All I’m saying is that you can’t say we didn’t do anything. She didn’t just trip or whatever.”
Jillian pulled a cigarette from out of the backpack lounging under her chair. She clasped it between her lips tightly at first, then remembered her adjustments and loosened her grip. She cupped her bony hand over the lighter out of habit and drew in the smoke.
“I don’t know, maybe. We were there, and I was screaming at her kind of loudly, I guess. I didn’t mean to, I was just caught up in it and all. And then she was… it just kind of happened,” Camilla’s elegant stance got lost just as her words did, and she seemed to almost concave into herself.
It was as if someone had hit her square in the stomach, and her spine drew the letter c to avoid it. For a moment, she remembered Emma’s body mangled in the bike rack. The spot her head had hit was blue and purple, and blood rained down her skin, marring her beauty with terror and gore that somehow enhanced her features at the same time. Her body was so small, and the blood seemed to swallow her whole. Camilla’s hands shook, and they grasped either arm above the elbows, and her fingernails dug into her soft, pale skin.
She regained composure after only seconds. “Hey, would you quit it? I’m not ready to die of lung cancer,” she waved her hand in front of her face to emphasize her point.
“That’s just what they say to scare you. Stop being a baby,” Jillian pinched it out and flicked the cigarette to the ground anyways.
She had witnessed Camilla’s small break but wasn’t prepared to internalize it. Camilla’s icy blue eyes that had melted slightly in the momentary rush of anxiety, cooled once more.
“Do you think Emma will tell them we were there?”
“Shit doesn’t just happen to you. We weren’t ‘there.’ We made it happen. Maybe we deserve to be told on,” Jillian said, and resumed to pick at the skin on her fingernails.
A new spot of blood was added to the napkin. Camilla narrowed her eyes and peered back at Jillian.
“Don’t say that. Seriously, no we don’t. Don’t be so dramatic.”
“Cami, we pushed her. Hard, okay? Her head slammed into that bike rack! We need to… to…” she was frantic now, “… to acknowledge that or something! Do something!”
In her exasperation, she had moved the table two inches away from her, towards Camilla. Camilla pushed it back harshly. “God, I can’t take your flimsy morals and opinions anymore, okay?! I was the one who was closer with her. You said it yourself. You barely even liked her! You don’t want to be responsible for this the rest of your life,” she exclaimed in anger.
She had a strong sense that Jillian’s cries were insincere.
“Cause she was acting so fake all year! I said it, okay? But that doesn’t mean we can go knocking her head into bike racks and just running, accident or not!” Jillian added, “You’re such a child that you can’t seem to understand that.”
“Maybe I choose not to. Maybe you’re the child.”
They stared at each other. They knew every silent quirk and whim about each other, but the shadow of an injured girl loomed between them and erased them all to the point of incoherence. Camilla didn’t care for repair. She was fine being on her own and had made a gaggle of friends more similar to her. She thought them all quite impetuous, with vacuous laughs that always came after a very unfunny quip. But no matter, she liked them well enough, and Jillian resided permanently in the gray area, a position Camilla refused to even flirt with.
Jillian had always been drawn to logic but failed to ever utilize it. She had never had someone like Camilla, an almost perpetual ground that stood firm. She loved it. She wanted to absorb it in a way, eat it, and have a permanent stream of Camilla’s concrete conscience within her. But, after all, she was too stringent, and Jillian was fond of breaking the rules. She almost always felt it was necessary.
They stared at each other. They knew they needed each other.
“You’re right. We can’t visit her. It’s too risky. She’ll remember it was us,” Jillian said.
Emma was a nice girl, both Jillian’s and Camilla’s least favorite adjective. She had golden hair that fell near to the middle of her back in waves. She was a talented dancer and always seemed to move her body lyrically. Her mother had been a ballerina but stopped when she had Emma’s older brother. Her family was very close-knit, and Emma spent some nights on the phone with her mother, telling her about the essay on sixteenth-century European art she had to complete by Friday, or about the boy who kissed her but didn’t answer her calls the next day. Emma’s mother would listen, and probably even nod in understanding, at the other end of the line.
The three of them became close friends last Spring semester. Emma was in Jillian’s French class, and the two of them had went for drinks one night where they met Camilla. The conversation never left trivial matters, but Camilla and Jillian didn’t need it to. Jillian liked Emma but couldn’t help but see the obvious air of privilege that wrapped around her daintily. She was happy and had people there in case she wasn’t. To Jillian’s dismay, she wasn’t even dumb or simple; she spoke from a place of intelligence, having read a wide variety of books that ranged from Dostoevsky to Kafka to Kerouac. Albeit a kindness that was often too urgent it seemed disingenuous, she was a ruthless cynic when circumstances provided its necessity. Sometimes, manipulative remarks fell so crassly from her mouth, one would be momentarily stunned, or even blinked twice, as if to clear their vision and make sure their senses were working correctly. She had an athletic build, and her reddish-blonde hair softened her pretty features to the point where she appeared as nothing but harmless. Camilla liked that Emma didn’t get too attached to anything. She even admired her for it. Yet, she would often say how Emma seemed a bit self-centered, making comments to Jillian like, “I mean, you told her, but she probably didn’t care to listen,” or, “she always assumes they’re talking to her.” But the three of them were friends that shrieked in excitement when they learned they would room together the following year.
On a Saturday night, the three of them went to a party at a senior’s apartment. Emma was on the phone with her mother at their dorm before when Jillian widened her eyes at her to indicate that they had to hurry to make it on time. When she turned to the door again, she rolled her eyes in frustration, muttering “bitch” for only Camilla to hear. Camilla laughed and the two headed out the door, Emma falling in a few steps later.
They danced and drank rum mixed with anonymous soda when they arrived a few minutes later. This was convenient for Camilla and Jillian when the paramedics smelled the alcohol on Emma’s breath a few hours later and blamed everything on “a drunken stumble.”
After they had left the apartment, three hours and four shots each later, they laughed as they stumbled down the street. Jillian had to pause every three minutes to yank her flimsy, velvet jacket back over her shoulders, so Camilla and Emma would mindlessly skip further ahead, heads tilted back in the laughter one could only experience with a damaged liver after a night of little to no control. Their entire bodies shook with this roaring happiness that seemed to engulf them completely. It was astonishing that their legs still managed to keep them upright without collapse.
When Jillian caught up to them, the invincible vitality had shattered. Camilla was screaming about her mother.
“Hey! Whadduyou mean?” Camilla’s words slurred out of her mouth. “Don’t say that! She’s a bitch, and guess what? Y’know what?” She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, truly wishing her to guess, “So are you!”
“What’s going on?” Jillian asked, pulling up her jacket once again.
She really shouldn’t have wasted her paycheck on it. The velvet wasn’t even real.
“Don’t look at me. I just asked her why she never spoke to her mom or something like that,” Emma said defensively.
There was a frantic tone to her voice that her words came out as if they were one. She had never seen Camilla in such disorder, and it frightened her. She was a people-pleaser on top of everything else, and she was very unaccustomed to this kind of eruption, especially from such a reliable source of reason.
“Not everyone is so fucking cute all the time! Grow up!” Camilla was nearly incoherent at this point.
She had stepped closer to Emma and even took the liberty of sticking up her polished finger, poking her square in the chest. Emma pushed her back slightly, merely to get her away for a moment. She was stifled by Camilla’s overwhelming anger and looked at her face, her eyes wild and confused. But to Jillian, who hadn’t been too fond of their growing relationship, it seemed Emma was becoming aggressive.
“What the fuck, Em?” Jillian shouted.
She pushed her back, a bit harder than the initial shove, but nothing harrowing. Jillian was surprised with herself. She had never been violent. She was, in fact, adamantly opposed to the act as she had seen what it had done to her mother. But, to her discomfort, it gave her an odd sense of stability and power that she realized she’d perhaps been craving. Emma gasped at this strike, and her shock registered plainly on her face as her mouth formed a wide O-shape, and her usually delicate eyes sharpened. She stumbled back a bit, and Camilla, whose unwarranted rage had been accumulating beside them, threw her tired arms into Emma’s chest with just a bit too much might, increasing her stumble into a spiral as she cursed.
Jillian screamed for a moment in horror and utter surprise. Emma had fallen three feet back as her body, already loose in a drunken stupor, gave in to the blow. Her head slammed into the unforgiving metal bike rack that an elderly professor had built out of consideration to the underclassmen who weren’t allowed cars on campus.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if her right eye hadn’t hit the large winding screw poking out.
She slumped down, her body in a very unnatural position, and lay completely still.
Jillian stood there, too afraid to move, her figure rigid as it was truly meant to be. She then whipped her head towards Camilla, whose arms were still out in mid-shove, but her elbows bent slightly, as if broken or interrupted.
Jillian grabbed Camilla by her slender wrist and took her as she ran as far as she possibly could.
“Definitely too risky,” Camilla agreed, leaning back in the white chair. She faltered for a moment. “You don’t feel guilty?” she questioned cautiously.
Jillian fluttered her lips and swallowed the large, wretched rock that had been making itself increasingly present in her throat, “I mean I did, but whatever. She pushed you first anyways, remember?”
“Yeah, I mean, I guess she kinda did,” Camilla nodded, and picked up the magazine once more, the look of contentment resurfacing through her features.
“And she always acted like she was above us, did you notice that?” Jillian reached over and grabbed up the bloody napkin.
She stood up, bent down to pick up the cigarette she had flicked away earlier, and tossed them in the garbage can.
“Exactly, and her family always treated her like a goddamn princess. It definitely got to her head,” Camilla rifled through the glossy pages, stopping at an article on dyeing your hair without exposing the roots.
“I’m gonna go take a shower,” Jillian said, her arms swinging lazily as she walked towards the hall.
She wrapped her white towel tightly around her torso.
“Okay,” Camilla said, “I’ll be here.”
As Jillian left to wash herself of whatever she possibly could, Camilla looked back through the narrow window and let her eyes fall once again on the escapist green plant. She felt an unparalleled warmth flood over her, and a smile tugged at her lips once again as she read on.