I’m home from college for Christmas. I don’t know why. College is tedious, but holidays are ghastly.
The air is so thick when I step off the plane I can barely breathe. My friend picks me up from the airport and mentions something about a party near the Marina. He lights a cigarette, seems strung out. His eyes are glazed, inundated by paranoia. He mentions the party again and I’m not sure if he thinks I didn’t hear or immediately forgot he told me. Regardless, he never asks if I want to go, he just drives there. His driving is sluggish and he won’t stop talking. I sit still, half listening to him.
We arrive at the party and the thick air turns to rain. The place is nice, but there are too many loud people there. My ears hurt.
A girl comes up to me at some point and tells me her name. I can’t hear what it is, but nod anyway. She asks if I want some coke. I tell her no.
“Where you from?” she asks.
“I haven’t seen you around.”
“I’ve been away.”
The music is so loud I can barely hear her. “All over,” I say.
“You’ve been all over?”
“What about New York? You been to New York?”
“Paris? I bet you’ve never been to Paris.”
“Yeah, been there.”
“How ‘bout the moon then?”
“Of course. I go there all the time.”
She stares at me, doesn’t think I’m funny. We stand there like mannequins, listening to the music ten seconds longer than I’d have liked. She asks again if I want some coke.
Can people not hear me?
I tell her no again and she wanders off with some other guy. This guy has tattoos and muscles and is wearing a spiked collar. He looks sort of like a dog. At any moment his mouth could start to foam and his fat tongue will loll out of his even-fatter mouth. They go into a back room and close the door. College seems so far away.
I go get another drink. A scotch. I don’t drink it; I just wander around with it. When the ice melts I dump out the booze and pour another.
I hear a chorus of carolers roving through the streets. I think about going outside to watch them, but, instead, watch the ice melt in my cup. The sound of the carolers fades away and the party’s droning music reestablishes its reign.
I see the Coke Girl a little while later. Her eyes are red and angry, but strangely vacant. She wipes her mouth and licks her lips, makes a sour face.
The dog collar guy who went with her keeps sniffing and scratching his nose. They both look insane. Though, I’m sure they’re thinking the same about me. I don’t mind. There are worse things than insanity.
I step out on the balcony and feel the city’s cold, brutal breath. It stops raining. I think about lighting a cigarette, realize I don’t have any. I smell the air instead and it hurts my lungs. The entire atmosphere seems foreign. I’m a stranger in my own town. It’s as if I want to wander, but realize I’m not lost.
I hang out on the balcony until the party winds down and my friend finds me. He’s with Coke Girl. I don’t see the guy with the dog collar and realize my friend has now become the insane one. He tells me she’s coming back with us. I shrug and she reintroduces herself, offers me coke again. I tell her no. She says her name again, but I still don’t hear it. She’ll always be Coke Girl to me.
They tell me they’re going to pull the car around front. My friend is stumbling and I wonder who’s going to drive.
Not long after, I see his car come careening around the corner. The car swerves, straightens, then veers into a mailbox. The mailbox tips over and letters spill everywhere. Sparks spew up from between the metal and concrete. A fine mist of steam leaks out from under the car’s hood. A gust of wind races up the street and carries some of the letters away. I can’t help but wonder where those letters were going.
My friend gets out of the driver's seat, starts to yell. He’s too far away for me to untangle his mess of words, but I can tell he’s irate. Coke Girl gets out of the car and he starts yelling at her, spewing irrational accusations as his pale face flushes.
She yells back, also indecipherable.
In spite of the steam, his car doesn’t look too bad. The mailbox took the brunt of it.
My friend yells something that sounds like “bitch” and then doubles over and vomits.
Coke Girl screams as if she’s never seen anyone puke before. She covers her mouth, leans over, and retches.
I wonder where the dog collar guy is. He doesn’t know it, but he sure lucked out.
A few minutes later Coke Girl and my friend get back in the car and drive away. I guess they forgot about me. The cops never come. A group of college kids pass by the letters, but they’re too drunk to notice. Nobody pays too much attention to a broken mailbox nowadays.
I look back inside and realize more people are leaving. After a while everyone has left. The host of the party comes and asks me when I’m going to go. I don’t answer. I keep staring out at the city, transfixed. She gets annoyed and makes some veiled threat about going to get her boyfriend. I wonder if it’s dog collar guy.
Still, I don’t leave.
She heads off yelling the name Joe or John or Jay or some combination of all three. Her boyfriend never comes and I’m not surprised. Even her non-existent boyfriend has better things to do.
The city is quiet and I savor the fact that the party’s dead. I see the bridge in the distance and think I see somebody readying to jump. There is a shadow moving across the beams, steady, unwavering, as if the shadow has done this a thousand times before. I squint through the fog just as the shadow jumps from the bridge’s lower beam. I wait and wait and wait, but don’t see a splash. The wind kicks up and carries a few more letters away. I convince myself the shadow was just my imagination. Besides, shadows can’t kill themselves.
I take a cab home and the cabbie asks me which way to take. I tell him I’m not sure and he says it’s gonna cost me. I keep repeating the address and he closes the divider between the front and back seats. He turns up the radio and I listen to the ramblings of some lyricist I’ve never heard of.
I get home and my father is waiting up for me. He launches into a lecture about responsibility and respect, but I can’t stop thinking about the shadow on the bridge.
How lucky it must be to be a shadow, I realize as spittle flies from my father’s mouth. His eyes look as insane as my friend’s, as Coke Girl’s, as dog collar guy’s, and as the boyfriend-less party-thrower’s. I think he’s about ready to have an aneurysm when he pours himself a scotch and settles down next to me.
“You have a good flight?” he asks.
I notice his hands are shaking.
“Not to bumpy, I hope.”
“Sorry I couldn’t pick you up.”
I shrug again.
He downs his scotch and goes to bed. I watch the remaining ice in his glass melt before going to bed myself.
The next morning I peruse the newspaper to see if anyone offed themselves. I don’t see anything and I’m not sure if I’m glad or not. I turn on the news, but all the anchors are talking about are the weather, the high school Class 5A state football results, and a young boy with autism who saved a cat from a storm drain. A fireman is patting the boy on the head. The boy holds the cat close to his chest, but doesn’t seem too pleased.
I turn off the TV and go outside to check the mail, but the postman hasn’t come. It must be Sunday. Or the holiday has finally arrived. Or maybe it was the postman who jumped from that bridge. Either way, the mail isn’t coming.
Originally published in Diverse Voices Quarterly and Honorable Mention Recipient for Glimmer Train Press’s New Writer Award.