Amber touched the top of her head and found it warm from the sun, and she hoped that the sun would warm her brain and beam light through all the dark corners. The lawn chair she sat in was small, and her legs were cramped and crisscrossed with funny tan lines from where the sun had hit the book she was reading instead of her thighs. A sun tattoo.
When she decided to leave college for home she had been sick, coughing and feverish and unable to sleep. Her young body had begun rejecting the poisons she had forced into it through smoke and liquid and fire. Her parents didn’t ask many questions because they were afraid of the answers she’d give. Or maybe they knew she would lie, and silence was often preferable, even though it was edged black with tension.
She’d been home for three months, with a part-time job nestled in each of those months that never lasted from the first to the thirty-first. Her W2’s would be plentiful this year, her nametags would cover the top of her dresser. With each new job she felt like she might be able to make it stick. She tried hard to not feel bored or depressed or lonely at these menial jobs, but too often they were filled with people like her. Young people who had already been dealt, by genetics or accident or both, the addiction card. These people, like her, smoked too much and drank too much. They spent their paychecks before they were cashed on their alcohol-saturated weekends or at the mall, just like she did. When breaks came, she joined them on the broken down picnic tables in back of the restaurant, or department store, or wine store, or coffee shop) and smoked, searching each of their faces for something recognizable. She tried not to feel attached or attracted to any of them, knowing that she’d leave before the month was up. She always had a good reason for why she had to quit each of the jobs: either the pay was not good or the boss was hateful or racist. Her constant job-hopping bemused and frustrated her parents, who weren’t sure whether to be happy that she occupied her old room (surly as she was in it) or nervous that she’d never leave it again. At least while she was back home, they weren’t up every night wondering if she was lost or drunk or dead in a ditch somewhere. Parents are often very worried about losing their children in ditches.
When Amber wasn’t employed or was enjoying a day off from her twenty-hour-a-week schedule from whatever job she was at that week, she sat in the courtyard behind the townhouse in an old lawn chair. Beside the chair, on the concrete slab, was a copy of The Masterpiece, which she had read in one of her classes in college but was now reading again. A pack of cigarettes, dwindling by the hour, rested beside a cooling cup of Maxwell House. She realized how pretentious and sad this combination would seem to onlookers. College drop-out sits in her parent’s courtyard and smokes while reading intense french novels. She knew she was ridiculous and yes, she cared. But it was better to be outside than in, watching cable or hiding under her comforter and masturbating. Outside she could at least listen to birds and to the traffic outside. Outside there was a breeze (her room was always stifling).
During the summer after her sophomore year of high school she had attended theater camp on the campus of the same university that she had just left, and the innocence and exhilaration of that week was what made her want to attend there in the first place. It had been twenty-four hours a day of creation and art and late nights with new friends. She had fallen in love with a boy who was a startlingly good actor; they called one another on dormitory phones and whispered things that they were too embarrassed to say in person. Over the phone they were bold, and the line crackled with the heat of hormones and kindred spirits. They talked so much on those phones that when they did see each other in the halls the next day they didn’t have to talk at all. After camp, through postcards and letters written with heavy blue ink, he told her that he had been admitted to Julliard. She didn’t write him much after that, in the months after camp had ended she had fallen in love with weed and wine. The nice thoughts and memories of their week at camp together only came in spurts and were painful when they showed up. Actual college did not taste as sweet as camp had, though she wondered if she had stayed innocent and not inhaled so much if it would have been different. Better. Clearer. Certainly her lungs would have been better, and clearer.
Her roommate at school had been Jessica, her best friend from home, a brutally smart and beautiful girl whose innocence had been robbed by a pack of feral boys in their neighborhood. While Amber was at camp, kissing wiry-armed actors and developing a fragile idea of craft and commitment to a story, Jessica was ahead of her, drinking her father’s beer and stumbling over to boys’ houses where the mothers were unmarried, away at work and never home. These boys, wolf-like, hormonal, emboldened by beer and Ecstasy, tore away Jessica’s clothes and left her sleeping on dirty basement couches. Light never made it in to these basements; the summer was rainy, the Venetian blinds dusty, nicotine-stained and shut. For Jessica, too, college had not been the escape she had envisioned, and she also left with her tail between her legs and several plastic bags of clothes. The girls’ dorm room sat empty and institutional after they left, and the smell of Nag Champa and Marlboro’s faded and was replaced with the smell of Pine Sol. The floors had been filthy; neither girl owned a broom. Unlike Amber, Jessica didn’t want to go home, so she sat in stasis and waited for things to get better on their own. She found a job at the grocery store and sat in stasis.
Amber’s stasis was the sunshine filled courtyard, and in the coffee shops that still allowed indoor smoking. She sometimes used her mother’s car to drive down to Jessica, where they would smoke opium and listen to cd’s on the shag carpet in Jessica’s tiny off-campus apartment. Jessica always had good drugs from the guys she worked with, boys who were also either dropouts like Jessica and Amber or still in school and majoring in botany or philosophy. These boys wanted more than anything to fuck Jessica (she had all this long red hair that drove them crazy), but Jessica didn’t care about them besides the drugs they could provide. She put most of her efforts into her adopted shih tzu, into teaching him to use a litter box while she worked twelve hour shifts at the grocery store. Amber hoped Jessica wasn’t becoming a townie, a cliche. Which cliche was preferable, though? One with a steady paycheck and a small apartment (and a litter-trained shih tzu), or one that lived with her parents, ate their food, drove their cars while drunk and high, smoked menthol cigarettes in their bathroom, all the while reading books that were written at minimum two hundred years before she was born?
image by William England, found on Tumblr