BELLA ROSS - THE CHAIN
She’s looking at me.
She’s looking at me from across the school parking lot. I’m looking at her, too.
She rocks back onto her heels and sighs, her breath puffing up into a thin cloud around her mouth. Although it’s March now, it’s still bitterly cold outside. Some of the snow has melted, exposing dead brown grass, matted to the earth; some has mixed with dirt, churning into a dark slush that coats the corners of the pavement.
She stares at me for a moment more, and then she walks over. “Hey.”
I want to smile, get into my car, and leave. But I don’t. I can’t.
“We haven’t seen each other in forever,” she says.
“We see each other every day, Hailey,” I reply, my face carefully blank. “We have Calc and English together.”
“Yeah, but like…” she teases with a soft smile, as if it’s all a joke to her. “You know what I mean.”
I stare at her, silent. The corner of her boot lies poised in a puddle of oil, distorting the color of the leather. She’s wearing all white, with the exception of a baby blue jacket, but her hair is black. She twists it with her fingers, a habit picked up at thirteen, sold to her by a tween-magazine on how to attract boys. A habit that she forgot to drop.
Her smile turns wobbly in the silence. “We haven’t hung out, I mean.”
“Yeah,” I reply softly. My shoulders ache from leaning against my car door, but I don’t move.
“Your mom and dad…”
“They’re working things out.”
“I knew they would.”
I don’t reply, and I don’t look away.
“Julia, I know you’re pissed at me,” she huffs, looking off to her left. “But you’re being a little dramatic.”
I pause, affronted, then shake my head with a humorless laugh. “You’re not even going to apologize, are you?”
She looks down, scuffing her boots against the sidewalk. She holds her fingers in one hand, twisting them back and forth. She’s nervous, maybe, or just cold. I know she’s not going to say anything.
We’ve played this game before. We’ll probably play it again. There are a few different options.
Maybe, she’ll call me up crying. She misses me. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She had a fight with her mom. She failed a test. It doesn’t matter what happened — it doesn’t matter if anything happened at all. It could all be a lie, because that’s not the point. The point is: I answer the phone.
Or, maybe it’ll be more casual. She’ll be at lunch, laughing with a group of friends. She’ll spot me in line and wave me over. I’ll hesitate at the register, my tray wobbling in my hands, my eyes racing around in search of shelter. Then she’ll get the attention of the rest of the table, and get them to call me over, and if I don’t come, I’m a bitch. It doesn’t matter that I’m still just as mad. It doesn’t matter that I’m more upset than I was before. That’s not the point. The point is: I sit next to her.
But, always, she’ll reach her hand out to mine, and I’ll take it. I have nothing else to grab. I’m there when she wants me around, and I’m there when she doesn’t. Where else do I have to go?
She reaches forward and touches my bracelet.
“This isn’t real gold, is it?” she asks, “It’s starting to turn green.”
I snap my arm back. “Fuck off.”
“Oh, come on,” Hailey laughs. “It’s just a joke.”
She’s always liked to laugh, ever since we were kids. Ever since I was in my mother’s womb and she was in hers and she was born beautiful and I was born blue and veiny and three pounds too small, she’s liked to laugh.
She moves forward to smooth down a wisp of my hair, licking her lips. She whispers something, soft and affectionate, but I don’t hear it. My face is numb, and my lips are dry from the wind.
“So, uh. We’re all going to a party tonight, if you wanna come.” She shrugs, her gaze gliding in the air above me, her chin floating up.
There's a cord that hooks around my bottom rib, swims through muscle and fat, and pierces my skin. Hailey seems to hold it, and it tugs whenever she moves.
“Yeah,” I answer. “Okay.”
She pulls me along, the way she always has.
That's the way it is. Here’s the way it was:
“It fits,” Hailey said, standing with me in front of the full-length mirror in the corner of her bedroom. “You can keep it, if you want.”
“It looks better on you,” I said. Her mother had purchased the dress for her while online shopping one day, and I could tell I wasn’t meant to wear it. It had flattered Hailey’s feminine frame, but it was too tight around my waist and too loose around my chest, folding awkwardly above my breasts.
“I don’t want it. Keep it.” She was wearing only her bra and underwear, and I could see her skin pulled taut over her ribs, as if there wasn’t enough of it. As if she couldn’t fit inside herself. She walked behind me, her chin knocking lightly against the top of my head, and pulled the dress up at the waist so it shortened by a half inch. “Better?”
I shrugged. “I guess,” I said, though there was no way to hold the dress up like that.
“You look really cute in it. Seriously. That color is so pretty on you.”
In the mirror, I watched a small but irrepressible smile bloom on my face. Hailey complimented me constantly, but I never got used to it.
She began to get dressed. “You can wear it to Zoe’s birthday dinner on Saturday.”
“I wasn’t invited.”
“Oh,” Hailey replied, going still. “Do you wanna go?”
I hesitated. “I dunno. It would’ve been nice to be invited.”
“I’ll tell Zoe to invite you.”
“That’s not really the point. I don’t care about the party.”
She chewed her bottom lip. “Well, I want you there.”
“I’m gonna go get water. I’ll be right back,” she declared, cutting me off. Then she was gone.
It was rare that I was alone in her house. At first, I sat on her bed quietly. I toyed with the strings of the dress that embraced my ribcage, just tight enough to be a little uncomfortable. I couldn’t get out of the dress myself; Hailey had to unzip me.
My gaze fell on her dresser and the framed photos that lay on it: Hailey, smiling with her boyfriend, Nick. Hailey, smiling with her friends. Hailey, smiling with me. Smiling, smiling, smiling.
I never understood what Hailey got out of me, specifically. Why I had been picked out of everyone else, how I managed to break in, and when—why the girl who shone the brightest chose the flickering candle. Perhaps she liked being the special one, or perhaps it was just because I had always been there, like an ungainly, devoted younger sibling.
I slipped off the bed, my feet hitting the floor with a muted thud, and wandered into her closet. She had given me so much, so much that I never asked for, that I never wanted. Forced all of it on me, all of her rejects. So, I thought, it’s only fair that I could take something for myself, something that I truly want. A pair of shoes that had never fit her anyway. A shirt that she didn't wear anymore. An analog watch that she didn’t know how to read. I stopped myself there, afraid of getting caught, and jammed my pickings into my backpack.
I stood up and exhaled shakily. It was the first time I’d ever betrayed her like this. For a moment, I was certain she’d be able to see the treachery on my face, as if she could read my mind. She couldn’t, though, and even if she could, she wouldn’t bother. So I walked away, with my breathing shallow but my back straight and legs steady, until I got to the mirror in her bathroom.
I looked around at the mess on her counter: makeup, lotions, acne creams, all in disarray. I reached for her red lipstick, the one she wore to nice dinners and fancy parties and sometimes to school, if she felt like it. I stared at myself in the mirror, unblinking, letting my vision blur until I could barely see myself.
I applied the lipstick slowly. My lips weren’t full like Hailey’s and the color didn’t flatter my skin like it did hers. Her hair was thick and dark and long, her eyes bright blue, her cheekbones high and nose straight. My hair was wispy and thin, burned blonde by a spring break in Florida. My eyes were a dull brown, my eyelids stained with blue veins, my skin a little dry. But I wore her lipstick, and that was the only thing I could see through the tears in my eyes.
And when I’d finally crawled into her skin, she walked back in.
“Julia, I made — what are you doing?”
I blinked, and my vision snapped back into focus. “I wanted to see how it would look with lipstick,” I answered, my voice weak.
She stared for a moment, holding my gaze. “I don’t think red is very flattering on you.”
I should have known; she'd only ever given me the parts of her that she didn't like.
I nodded. “Yeah. I just — I just wanted to see.”
“Ask next time you want to use my lipstick.”
I left maybe twenty minutes later. Hailey didn’t feel like giving me a ride, so I walked, the wind blowing with my body. I caught my wobbly, translucent reflection in the window of a shop, and with her dress on my body and her lipstick on my face and her clothing in my backpack, I felt like her. I felt beautiful, like her, and I was proud.
“What’s my birthday?” Hailey asked, retying the drawstring on her pajama shorts. She did this sometimes. Tested me on information, spitting out vicious insults when I fumbled on something trivial. Once, she told me that I didn’t know her at all. Another time, she said that I only ever paid attention to myself, that I was a horrible friend.
So I didn’t fumble. Not anymore.
I started to roll out of bed, a step behind her. She had slept at my house the previous night, and we’d both been up for hours, lying in bed giggling, watching the sun shrink and rise in the sky. She had gone to bed wearing socks, but she lost them both in her sleep.
“That’s an easy one.”
We made our way to the kitchen.
“What’s my favorite color?” Hailey asked.
“What’s mine?” I retorted.
She smiled at me, tilting her head to the side. “Is your dad home?”
“What? No. I don’t think so.”
“Weird how he’s gone so much.”
“Blue,” I said. “Your favorite color is blue.”
We fell into an easy rhythm in the kitchen. We’d slept at each other’s houses enough times to know the drill. I’d switch on the lights and turn on the fan while she let the dog out of the crate. She’d get the mugs while I started the coffee-maker. She’d hand me the creamer and sugars; I’d stir them into the cups. She’d bring over the bowls --
One shattered on the floor.
“Fuck,” she exhaled, “Fuck.”
She placed the other bowl on the counter and squatted down to try and pick up the glass, but some of the shards were too small to be grabbed. They lodged into her palms, piercing her skin and standing like buoys in tiny pools of blood.
“Fuck,” she repeated, over and over, still trying to grab at the glass.
“Hailey, stop, let me get a vacuum,” I said, approaching her cautiously.
She didn’t stop.
“Hailey, stop it. You’re gonna hurt yourself. You’re bleeding.”
I had to kneel down and grab her to get her to stop moving. I circled my hands around her wrists and pulled them apart, so the glass dropped into our laps and onto the floor.
Her wrists had bruises on them. They did all the time now, underneath her long sleeves. Her boyfriend didn’t care what she wanted or when she wanted it. She never talked about it, but I knew. Everything was always his choice with them, so everything was always her choice with us. I loosened my grip on her wrists.
“Why are you freaking out?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
There was no one else who saw her this way. No one else knew that she existed when she wasn’t smiling, when she wasn’t partying, when she wasn’t making them laugh. Everyone knew she had drama, of course—that’s something that comes with a loud reputation and a million friends, all held at arm’s length. But no one knew about this. I was the one to chew everything sour that touched her, and then feed it back to her in a form she could digest, like a mother penguin.
Abruptly, Hailey broke out of her haze and stood up, pouring glass onto my thighs. She walked over to the sink, carefully stepping over fragments of the bowl, and washed her hands. She methodically removed pieces of glass from her palms, staring with unfocused eyes. She let the blood mix with the water and run down the drain, and I knew it must have stung. When she was done, she turned back to me, and I realized I hadn’t moved.
“Get the vacuum,” she said.
I did as I was told. Once I was done cleaning up the mess on the ground, and she was done cleaning up the mess on her hands, we got the cereal out of the cabinet. We poured it into our bowls and sat on the couch together to eat.
“How old was I when I had my first kiss?” Hailey asked.
“Fifteen,” I said. “What’s my favorite color?”
She looked at me and tucked her hair behind her ear, a tiny bit of blood smudging onto her temple, and she laughed.
Weeks later, at another sleepover, I woke up alone. Hailey wasn’t in my bed and she wasn’t in the bathroom either. I went downstairs, expecting to find her in the kitchen, getting a glass of water or a bowl of cereal. Scrolling through her phone.
What I didn’t expect was to see her sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. Hailey’s voice was low, not quite a whisper, while my mom’s was gone altogether. I coughed, and they both turned to me. My mom had a white-knuckled grip on her coffee mug and tears in her eyes. Hailey had her bag.
“What’s going on?”
My mom took a watery breath. “I think it’s time for Hailey to go home. You have a lot of homework to do.”
Hailey stood up and made her way to the door. “See you tomorrow.”
I grabbed her wrist, squeezed it, watched her flinch. Then I dragged her outside, into the front yard, where my mom couldn’t hear us talk. It was cold and windy, the dewy grass chilling my bare feet, but I didn’t move.
“What was that?” I growled. I barely recognized the sound of my own voice.
She shrugged. “A conversation.”
“No. What did you do?”
“I told your mom about your dad,” Hailey said easily.
I paused, my lips opening slightly. “You told her…”
“She deserves to know.” Her voice was light, casual, but her shoulders were raised, her jaw clenched.
“She already knows. Obviously, she fucking knows! Everyone knows! You didn’t have to bring it up!”
“Come on, Juli,” she said, her voice softening with the nickname, “He was cheating on her. Something needed to change.”
“And what, that’s your decision to make? My parents’ relationship is your jurisdiction now?” I seethed.
“I was trying to do the right thing.”
“Fuck that. No, you weren’t. Do you want my parents to get divorced? Is that what you want for me?”
She was quiet for a moment, staring off somewhere behind me. “You stole my clothes.”
“You stole my clothes.” Her voice was getting higher pitched, faster. Tears were in her eyes. “The day I gave you my dress, you stole my red tee-shirt, and my watch, and my black heels, the ones with the — “
“You did this…” I said, stopping her, “because I took your clothes?”
“I did! You can’t just do that! It’s not—it wasn’t an accident, you wanted to hurt me! Nick’s always doing stuff like that, he’s always—taking, and, and not asking, and you don’t get to do that! You don’t get to do that.”
I stared at her, at her red cheeks, her teary eyes, and I didn’t care. I had never cared less about Nick or what he did to her. I turned my back to her and stared through the window into my house.
I imagined her at six, holding my hand as we walked. I imagined her at ten, licking the batter off of a whisk as I held it up to her mouth and giggled. I imagined her at fourteen, walking into high school a couple steps ahead me, looking back at me to make sure I was there.
I imagined her at eighteen, in a college across the country from me. I imagined her at eighteen, with a boyfriend that rapes her and without a best friend to hold her hand when he’s done. I imagined her at eighteen, alone.
“You fucking psychotic bitch,” I whispered, “I’m never talking to you again.”
I spent a lot of time thinking about what school would be like the next day. I knew that Hailey would be standing by my locker, waiting for me. I prepared for it. I imagined myself ignoring her easily, a little thinner in my mind, a little taller, a little prettier.
It didn’t quite go that way. Because I had a pimple on the corner of my nose and I was bloated from the ice cream I had eaten the night before and she was leaning against my locker so I couldn’t even open it. I didn’t have it in me to say “excuse me” and nothing else, so I said nothing at all, and just kept walking.
My notebooks were all in my locker, so I went through the day without them. I tried to ask the boy sitting next to me in class for an extra sheet of paper, but I couldn’t manage it. I was certain he’d say no. At lunch, I hid in a classroom, because I knew Hailey was sitting at a lunch table with everyone I ever talked to, and there’d be nowhere for me to go that she hadn’t touched. And when I came home, I watched TV while my phone sat quiet and waiting, because I’d blocked Hailey’s number, and who would call me besides her? No one cared about me on my own. I only existed when I was with her.
My house was quiet, my mother’s grief wrapped around our home like a wet shirt that clung to your skin, heavy and cold and too tight. Every few minutes the silence was broken by the television’s laugh track or my mom’s screaming or my father’s apologies, but the stillness always sucked us back up.
I kept it up for a week. Then Hailey stared at me from across the school parking lot.
We ended up going to the party. Nick was going, and there was no way I was leaving her alone with him.
We both got spectacularly drunk, so much that I really only remember the night in bits and pieces. Her death grip on my hand all night, not even letting go when Nick tugged her close and whispered something in her ear. I remember her crying in the bathroom about something, I remember saying, “Why don’t you break up with him?” Someone pounding on the door before she could answer, and both of us running out like a couple of cockroaches.
I started that night hating myself for being there with her, but that was hard to keep up, with her crying and Nick glaring and the eyeshadow she put on me smearing. And as we danced together, as we shouted the lyrics to our favorite songs, I found a sense of ferocity in the heat of her body pressed against mine, in the fluttering of her heart whenever she saw Nick looking at her, in the way she begged me to let her sleep at my house so she didn’t have to go home with him. I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but I didn’t need to.
The party went until late—hours and hours of us just smashed together, of our fingers intertwined and sweaty. In the car ride home, I was practically asleep when she pressed a kiss against my cheek, and whispered, “I love you so much.”
I pressed by cheek against her shoulder and groaned, the world spinning beneath my closed eyelids.
“Did you hear me?” she asked. “I don’t know what I’d do about him without you. I love you so much.”
Of course, I said it back.
Weeks later, my mom stands in my doorway and says: “You need to stop talking to her."
Now, Hailey and I are speaking again. We’re together even more often now, as if we’re making up for the lost time. We're at each other’s houses nearly every day after school doing anything but homework. We were both hit hard by the apathy of second-semester senior year, and we’re having fun. She doesn’t seem to be spending much time around Nick, but what’s he going to do about it, with me always by her side?
My head snaps up from my lap top. “What?”
“Hailey. She needs to go,” she says, and I wonder if Hailey’s said something again. Done something.
“We’ve been best friends since we were five,” I answer, smiling uncomfortably. “I can’t just — I don’t really have that many friends.”
“And whose fault is that?”
She narrows her eyes, purses her lips. “It’s hers, Julia. She’s so possessive.”
“I graduate in six weeks,” I say softly. “It’s not worth it to start a fight right now.”
“She treats you — “
“You’re really in no position to be telling me how people treat me, with everything Dad’s pulling.” I regret the words before I even finish saying them.
She twitches, like a glitching robot, then turns stony. “After you graduate, then. Don’t talk to her at all after that.”
I think about it for several days, the idea of riding this out until graduation and then letting it go. I think about it while Hailey looks through her college’s course atlas, while she helps me search for a roommate.
What would it would be like to hold onto Hailey in college? We’ll be in different states, but that might just make things worse. Would she want to visit me? What would she do about my new friends? Would she hold onto Nick, too? Would she find a new me? I think about my mom, how she let my dad cheat on her for years and still thinks that Hailey goes too far. I think of Nick, too, but--
Maybe she doesn’t deserve to be protected.
Nick walks across the stage to receive his diploma just before I do. The sunlight bounces off the crimson, glittering HARVARD painted across the back of his graduation cap. His mom probably decorated it for him, eager to show off her son’s success and willing to sit in the kitchen late at night with paint and glitter while he parties. I remember him telling Hailey and me that he wants to be a lawyer one day, maybe a judge. I close my eyes against the glare, and I wonder if he’ll ever make it to that courtroom.
I accept my diploma with a smile and a handshake, and then someone else’s name is called, and it’s all over. I’m shuffled around the school courtyard, taking pictures with everyone I barely know—everyone except Hailey. The hot, sticky air pastes everyone’s clothes against their skin, forces us all to squint against the sun in our photos. We all congratulate each other and go our separate ways.
Hailey doesn’t find me until I’m in the parking lot, about to leave. I can feel her eyes on my back before she makes any sound.
“Julia!” she calls.
I jolt, my breath freezing in my throat, and I feel sweat pooling on my upper lip. I just need to make it to my car.
“Julia!” she tries again.
Though I’m turned away from her, I can still see her perfectly. I always can, I realize. I can see everything she does; I know her thoughts and decisions, her turmoil and tears. She sees nothing of me; she just knows that I'm there. I always thought of her as a god, but maybe I had the roles mixed up.
I think of rings of bruises around wrists and the long-sleeved shirts worn to cover them. I think of scraped knees and excuses. I think of wet eyes and bloody noses and torn hymens.
I turn to her.
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