What are you thinking?—What are you thinking? How pointless, these four words. How impotent. As if they alone could unravel the tight coil of your arms, your mouth, decipher your silence. Try again, you want to say. Ask me what I’ve learned. The way people betray themselves by degrees. October. Jason in the courtyard, his kind advice and faint condescension. December, a midnight summons. March, don’t sleep around with guys who don’t care, your clothes strewn like flotsam on his bedroom floor. May. Jason yanking the blanket from your bare legs, a sarcastic edge to his tone: does this empower you? There’s so much to be said. But not beside a foreign body in a foreign bed. Not there, not then.
You’ve always been thoroughly unoriginal, and your justifications for recoiling from hookup culture even more so. It’s hedonistic and hollow; it seems to promise only heartache. For all your lip service to the sex-positive views of the day, you remain straitlaced and judgmental at heart. But some part of you longs for upheaval, turbulence. And you are lonely. Since you’re not the sort of girl to whom things simply happen, you download an assortment of dating apps. The messages come pouring in soon enough. There’s something heady in the futility of it all: laughing at the same punchlines in the same coffee shops, revising yourself for the latest love interest, raising the shot glass to your lips with an unfeeling clarity—
You recall your sister taking a sip of Heineken for the first time. How her pretty face contorted for only the briefest of moments before reverting to its former blankness. You can’t help but feel as if you’re barrelling toward an inevitably bitter end. And yet you swallow this certainty the way your sister did the Heineken: that is to say, without question.
It becomes a pastime of yours to scrupulously document these encounters, parse them scene by scene for some hidden meaning. (Does see you later? differ substantially from goodbye? As you soon discover, the answer is no.) Later, you get together with your girlfriends and recount your most recent rendezvous. There’s the gorgeous, sandy-haired athlete; the mild-mannered and unforgivably boring art history major; the champion debater who seeks to rebut even your most innocuous remarks. So I mention that I know a bit about architecture. Huge mistake. Here you pause, revel in your breathless audience. Because he ends up cross-examining me on rustication and suburban sprawl for the next half an hour!
When does the amusement begin to sour? Maybe the first time you’re turned away, like a stray puppy or worse. Litany of the unspeakable: lashes flickering violently, sting of tearless eyes. The brief half-life of each pursuit—how they level gazes that feel less like undressing and more like salve, soften you, then slip away into the night. Still, you think, any company is preferable to solitude. Better to be forgotten than to never be known at all.
You never asked for the obsession. Placing the phone face-down on your desk, waiting for a text that will never come. What if, what if. How young they all look first thing in the morning, eyes squinting in the mulish light. But none of them are truly real to you until they leave. Until you reinvent them from scraps of memory. So this is the game you’ve been playing all along: filling in the gaps, writing your own tragedy. Once upon a time: Jason, soft-spoken and unthinkingly cruel. Tim, regaling you with his hyperbole: where I grew up, kids drive tractors to school and wear camel tuxes to prom. Doug, too slick to be artless, strip-mall savvy. The kind of boy who hasn’t been innocent for a long time, maybe ever.
It’s Doug who takes you to your first house party. The long line by the concrete stairs, oversized American flag in the foyer. Solo cups littering the kitchen counter. He leads you by the hand to the dance floor and it strikes you how cheap this is, the linking of hands, when you distill it to its essence. Meet my friend Lindsay. Haughty, beak-nosed girl who skewers you with a glance. And all around you strangers move to the beat, a mass of bodies slicked with sweat and quiet desperation. It’s beautiful, all of it, the kind of beautiful that only holds up in darkness.
Lindsay toddling through the crowd toward you, squeezing your hand. Why so sweet and pliable all of a sudden? Oh, she’s drunk, sniffling about some Kyle—Doug slings an arm around her shoulder almost tenderly, explains that Kyle wasn’t good for you, can’t she see? Just like his own ex, God knows he’d loved her, but she was a controlling bitch. Lindsay slurring I don’t like that word and Doug saying he doesn’t like that word, either, but she’d been a bitch all right. And you, you looking on with empty Solo cup in hand. Your laughter exploding into the silence. It’s getting late. Hours have passed, or maybe years. You know you ought to head out soon but your feet remain rooted in place and anyway, what does it matter? In the morning you’ll get up and bury yourself in your books, swear you’ve had enough, and the next weekend you’ll do it all again.
Emily Yin is a freshman studying applied math at Princeton University. Her writing has been recognized by the UK Poetry Society and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. Read her work in Indiana Review Online, Track Four Journal, and Rust + Moth, among others.