Future. Time. Plans.
Amber, Mother, and Best Friend Haley pushed through glass doors of the South Meadow Mall, leaving the world of cool refinement for the wobbling hot parking lot.
Caramel Frappuccino oozed down Amber’s lidless cup and in between her fingers. There was something so sophisticated about the burnt sugar/coffee flavor melting down her tongue. But not all sticky on her hand! And now her rhinestone sandal was slipping off her foot. As she stopped to readjust it, Haley slapped her thigh. “Missed a spot, Amb. Or are you a feminist now?”
Amber looked down and sure enough, brown leg hairs glistened in the sun. “Whatever. I’ll shave before Cam’s bonfire.”
“Or don’t. Less competition for me.”
Amber’s mother flashed her a significant look. “Cam? He’s that cute guy you were telling me about, right?”
“Yeah, he is,” Amber confided, smiling. She swiftly frowned again after remembering her vow to not smile and thereby avoid wrinkles—like Kim Kardashian.
“This is the fucking Serengeti!” Haley moaned. She was right. The South Meadow Mall, being the only serious fashion establishment for some twenty mid-sized small towns, did have an expansive parking lot. But Amber didn’t mind. She liked parking lots. They were in between spaces. No decisions had to be made there. Nobody ever had to anything important to do in a parking lot. The heat soaking her skin, the shopping bags in her hand, the bright plans for the rest of the day made her feel like everything was as it should be.
The tradition of going to Starbucks with Haley, harassing employees, and getting carm fraps originated mid-1st semester senior year as something to do after telling her mother and step-dad Michael that she couldn’t go to school because “she was soooooo stressed” (read: senior sliding hardcore).
But now it was summer and the only responsibility was attending the many grad parties she and Haley had been invited to. Haley wanted to make a rule to only go to the ones they had a reasonable hope of sneaking alcohol from. But Amber’s favorites had been the ones semi-popular girls had invited them to with photo-stock cards of them as gap-toothed children. She loved the deer-in-the-headlights look they always flashed her as she actually showed up.
And that was the situation she was walking into today, she supposed—for her cousin Estefani’s party.
“Where am I dropping you off again?” Amber’s mother asked disinterestedly as she fumbled for her keys.
“Stef’s grad party.”
“Oh God. Really?” her mother raised a perfectly penciled eyebrow and laughed. “Haven’t seen the Morales’ since Mistake left for greener pastures.”
Amber stirred her Frappuccino. Freaking barista didn’t put in enough ice. It was melting already. Her mother had the habit of calling her biological father Mistake instead of Miguel, which was fine. Fine.
Honestly, he was a mistake. When Amber was younger, before her mother divorced him, he wasn’t that bad. Quiet, odd, but kind. She thought it was funny when he called her Ahm-Bear because it was “the Spanish way to say it.” And when he watched her in awe as she completed one of her famous up-dos. He would always say he was fixing it by pulling on her curls, which was so annoying.
But when she was twelve, he got laid off and his symptoms started. An old high school friend was out to get him. He controlled the weather. Staring at walls and mumbling to himself was a diverting pastime.
Amber pulled out the pieces of her love for him like she the bobby pins in her up-dos: carefully, one by one, smoothing out the kinks in their absence.
Loving him was the mistake.
“Honey, are you sure you want to go?” Amber’s mother asked her as they arrived. She seemed weary hearing the bachata music and hearty Mexican laughs filling the streets.
“Sure I am.” Amber stepped out of the car, but for a moment she closed her eyes and wished she was back at the parking lot.
“I’ll be there in an hour to save you!” Haley shouted before slamming the door shut.
Amber watched them drive off, and then had no choice but to turn and see what lay in store for her.
Toys and children littered the yard. A crayon-stained plastic table strained to hold its bowl of lip-staining punch, its cooler of sweating Coronas, its mismatched plates of mini wieners and still-steaming tamales. Relative after relative, in five dollar sundresses, in stained khakis and polos, leaned against the table to fill their plates. In eighth grade, Amber had to buy Stef a pair of tweezers and force her to use it only days before the impending doom of her brows merging into one. No one at this party, she comforted herself, had the right to judge her leg hair.
She scanned the crowd: vaguely familiar faces who did not seem to sense her. As nice as it was to sit back and not have to answer to anyone, she wished someone would say hi at least. Finally, girls her age who she assumed were Stef’s private school friends eyed her. Their stares reminded her of Miguel. The fantastic nature of his delusions were nothing to his ability to stare at walls for hours, barely blinking. Sometimes she would have to shake his shoulders and yell his name before his eyes would focus into hers.
Then the stares from Miguel’s family. They were familiar too. When he left they came to her house often, commandeering the kitchen and making meals like someone had died. Amber’s mother tried to shoo them away. It wasn’t a hardship—Miguel was just finally getting the help he needed!—and she didn’t even really like spicy food anyway. Amber couldn’t do her homework at the kitchen table anymore because of the absolute compassion in their eyes.
Sara, Stef’s mother, stood across the yard at that very moment with her eyes squinting in empathy. Amber realized that her invitation to this party might have been more of a formality, an act of pity, and not the for-old-times’-sake she had hoped it would be.
When she went to school the day after her father “entered the facility,” she expected to hear whispers about her crazy dad and more pitying gazes. Instead she got party invites. A boy asked her to prom. Girls in braces shamelessly watching her as if in wait for a makeover. She turned them all down.
It proved that her tan skin, her highlighted, meticulously curled hair, and her designer clothes were all they knew about her.
Which meant she could be anyone.
Amber strode to the cooler, wiped the dew off the sides of beers and stuffed a few into her bag. If she couldn’t get a look of doe-eyed shock to thank her for coming, she was at least going to get alcohol. She stared down some private school girls leaning against the table, daring them to stop her.
Suddenly Amber’s littlest cousin, Rosita, broke out from a pack of running children and embraced her legs, pressing her cheeks right against the area Haley had just been scrutinizing. “Oh hey,” Amber said, unable to stay afloat under the waves of the girl’s excited Spanish. She backed away from the cooler, knelt down, and returned the hug.
Something in the air broke and now Sara could approach her—there was no leaving now. Sara said she missed her, why didn’t she come around more, and how was Miguel?
God. This. Sara hadn’t changed her bit. She started the same way every time, asking the same things since Miguel left.
Amber closed her eyes and wished that all of it would just go away.
“Look, I don’t know how he is, okay? Anymore than you do. I haven’t visited him in a while.”
Sara bit her lips and closed her eyes to stop from crying. “I visit him every week. He doesn’t seem to be getting better. But I bet if you came. . .”
Right. She could visit and make the crazy go away. Because she did that so well when he lived in the same house with her.
Mercifully, Sara turned away as Stef made an appearance, lugging her cello across the yard. Even her littlest cousins stopped mid-tag to watch their sister. Everyone, the whole 100 something person party was captivated by this somewhat clumsy woman whose wide hips, music stand, and cello barely fit on the makeshift stage of her front step. Thank you, thank you for coming, Estefani was saying. She blushed, but Amber noticed that her speech was much less affected than it used to be.
Bitterness rose in her throat. It had been two years ago since she’d really seen her. At their shared quinceañera.
It had started so well. Giggling in excitement with Stef as Sara slowly placed jewelry on each of them. Pieces she had worn at her quinceañera. Her mother watching wanly with light bursts of curiosity like when she scrolled through the newest houses on the market. Her father watching, really seeing her for the first time in months.
“I um, I wrote this song.” Estefani said. “It’s called—well it’s untitled I guess. I’ll just play it.” She said this again in Spanish. And after straightening the instrument, plucking and replucking the strings, and taking a deep sigh, she went on to start the song with cool precision.
At the quinceañera, Amber remembered, she had felt strangely repulsed and seduced to her own self in the mirror. Spinning the light red poof of her skirt with her spidery/delicate arms. Fingering the obnoxious/beautiful brocade of the bodice. Breathing and disturbed/amazed at the rise and fall of her newfound breasts. She had cleavage now, she realized. The adult word made her think that what everyone was saying about her growing up was real and alive and unchangeable.
Amber watched Estefani with an unfamiliar discomfort. It was just that—she didn’t look different, no. It was just that Amber allowed herself, for the first time, to notice that Stef was beautiful. It was in all of the ways that she wasn’t. That she couldn’t have and until this point had been happy not to have. Her glowing dark hair and skin. Her wide hips shimmering in a blue silken dress.
Where was the speaker that was actually playing the ornate, passionate sound? Stef played a trembling note that made the hair on her neck, arms, and legs tickle and she was about to stand up and cheer when she felt nails digging into her wrist. Haley.
Thank God she hadn’t cheered because the song apparently wasn’t over. Haley and Amber wove to the edge of the yard and Haley was saying “Are you done with this little pity fest already? I need your help. I need to get ready for the bonfire tonight. Cam is sooooo hot. Do my hair, please.”
Haley knew she liked Cam. She knew that. Amber’s heart sunk, and not with shock, but with the knowing that this was exactly what she could expect with Haley. After explaining what she was doing, she could have said Haley’s lines right with her: “God, do you still care about Estefani Morales? Are you regretting hanging out with me instead of her?”
Suddenly, against Stef’s song soft in the background, the shrillness of Haley’s voice felt unbearable. Amber turned away and said, “Just go.”
That one moment would mean hours of hell with Haley later, but it felt right. It seemed to match the next movement in Stef’s piece, as she almost sawed the cello, strings breaking and curling at the ends of the instrument. Amber’s fingers curled into her palms. Her blood beat against her ears in some sort of righteous anger, Or maybe it was exhilaration. Or fear. Some feeling that broke the cycle of apathy and Friday nights of pot and vodka. She didn’t even watch to see Haley leave.
Stef only got Haley to go to that quinceañera by explaining that it wasn’t weird, it was just like a sweet sixteen. Haley snapped her bubble gum in the front pew during mass. As soon as they got to Stef’s house, Haley’s nails dug into her wrist. “Where is for the best place to smoke? You owe me for that hour of hell.” Amber trembled up the screaming wood steps to bring her into Estefani’s room.
Amber couldn’t help but smile at the way Stef had resisted her suggestions for redecoration. The posters of “famous” classical musicians and the bed full of stuffed animals comforted her now. It was so nice to be somewhere that was the same when everything else in the world was changing.
But then an earthshaking catastrophe—bears jumping off the bedside as Haley rampaged through. Amber could only watch as she disassembled the smoke detector, crushing other bears as she sat on the bed. Her lighting a little pipe and bringing it to Amber’s mouth and telling her to breathe in real deep.
The door opened, Stef’s wide eyes. “Um,” she had said. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Come here. Let me fix your bangs,” Amber commanded. Stef coughed from the pot smoke but sat by her like she always did, criss cross applesauce as Amber heated up the straight iron.
Miguel barged in, said he’d gotten Stef’s texts (fucking narc).
Even now she tried to forget the way Miguel’s eyes sparkled in the way her new step-dad Michael’s couldn’t. She remembered his smooth face, the way he pressed her to him so she couldn’t breathe, how instead of saying she was pretty he said she was special and smart and should know better than to smoke. That it was really too bad she chose today to do this. For one moment he wasn’t a crazy guy, he was her dad again, and she was his little girl.
Estefani ended the song softly and returned to her shy self, carefully placing her cello back in its case. She stood up and bowed and thanked the whistling audience. “Hey, Amber!” Stef shouted as their eyes met. She leaned her cello against her brother for safekeeping and then rushed off the stage and embraced her in the same open way Rosita had. “Ey prima! I haven’t seen you in so long!”
Amber’s face flushed, surprised. Stef hugged her so long she couldn’t do anything but melt into the embrace. None of this stiff-armed peck on the cheek thing.
And then they stood apart, holding each other’s elbows, looking into each other’s eyes.
They were both silent then. They walked to a table shaded by the canopy until the wind blew it to the side. Relatives from all sides ran over to right it again. It took several tries before they could stand it up and stake it back in the ground before the wind toppled it over again.
“It’s been so long,” Estefani began.
“Yeah. . .” Amber pulled a beer out of her bag and, much to Stef’s alarm, banged the top against the side of the table until the metal cap came off.
“I felt bad—“ BANG “—leaving. I wanted to—“ BANG “—stay and help you find your—“BANG “—way. Especially after your Papi left.” BANG “—I had no idea he was really leaving for good.”
Amber shrugged and sipped victoriously from her now open bottle of beer. “You should have let me curl your hair!” She would have looked so nice with her shiny hair done up. Not to mention some more makeup. Close up, it was clear that she still needed some help.
“I don’t. . . I mean I guess,” Stef said.
“Like, your hair even holds curls better than mine. I remember that.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Stef nodded, fiddling with dull, unmade strands of hair.
“I could come over some time and—”
“I don’t think you know this yet,” Stef said. “But I’m going to Julliard.”
“Oh,” Amber said. “Who’s Julliard?”
Stef smiled and paused, basking in Amber’s ignorance. “It’s a big fancy music school, Amb. In New York City.” She embraced Amber before she could finish congratulating her. “I can’t even believe this is all happening. My dreams are coming true, I mean—the hard work was really worth it! It was so lucky I got to transfer schools.”
Amber strained to imagine Stef outside the context of South Meadow, Minnesota. Maybe in New York or wherever people were into unmade faces and messy hair. Best of fucking luck.
Amber pulled away and choked on a swig of beer as she tried to imitate Haley’s condescending giggle. “Well, Jesus Stef, that private school made you dramatic. Public school wasn’t so bad. I was there to help you along. You were so close to figuring everything out.” It wasn’t a big deal. To just give a shit about how she looked. Take an hour to think about something other than her music for an hour out of every day.
Estefani giggled politely and hugged Amber again, even as she pushed her off. Every embrace felt more and more patronizing.
The moment after she had seen her father (the real him and not just his body) for the last time and for what she knew would be the last time, Stef tucked freshly straightened strands behind her ear, said she got a scholarship to some private school, and was going to transfer. To focus on music.
Amber hadn’t responded to either of them. She locked her mouth together. She was NOT going to ask them. She would not let them see her be that weak.
Haley lied back on the bed, suffocating all those bears, laughing over a joke no one else heard. When everyone else left she said that now that Stef was going, they could finally be BFFL.
And Amber told herself that she was the one making the right choice. Never actually coming out to the quinceañera. Smoking herself out of the choking realm of reality: him leaving. Doing so ever since.
“Isn’t there,” Amber asked Stef, “a music school around here? Is it really necessary to move?”
“There’s nothing for me here.” Estefani drew back, squeezed her shoulders in tender, final way, like they would not be seeing each other for a long, long time.
Amber no longer felt strong enough not to ask: “What about me?”
“Oh yeah,” Stef said brightly. “What are your plans now that you’re graduated?”
Future. Time. Plans. Amber never liked talking about any of them. For a moment, she just stood there, reaching for the words to say the only thing she knew about what was ahead for her.
“I’m going to Cam’s bonfire tonight. . .”