Lydia and Jools and RJ were very drunk and walking home, and the streetlamps made the sidewalk, the apartment buildings sprouting up, fuzzy and golden. Fat snowflakes drifted and found their lazy way onto the girls’ cheeks, their eyelashes, into the necks of their coats and onto the exposed skin of their feet in their high heels. It was fifteen degrees, finally warm enough to snow, after almost a week of frigid nights in their withering Rust Belt city.
“Remember baby ducks?” said Lydia, “Taking care of them in kindergarten?” The soft round penumbras of the streetlamps reminded her of them.
“Baby animals are so cute,” said Jools, weaving as she walked, her face glued to her cell phone screen.
“Why don’t we get a dog!” She thought of puppies filling up her bedroom, too many, she could sleep in a pile of them.
The building that the girls lived in had two apartments on the first floor, facing the street. The one to the right of the door was dark, with the blinds drawn. The one to the left had its blinds up. The girls walked up the stairs and saw that the window was wide open to the cold air. The lights were on, and music with a deep, crushing bass played. It made the hearts of the girls hurt, each muscle aching as it tried to keep its own rhythm. There was a couch facing the window, and three boys, about their age, sat in it. Their heads were down.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” RJ said. It seemed like a good idea. It seemed like maybe they should meet the three boys. All of the girls’ boyfriends were kind of like dads, the way they took the check at dinner and paid it without even showing the girls, wore collared shirts to work, disappeared mysteriously into rooms together and on trips and to the golf club, had a baby they saw on weekends or more than one dog. All of the boyfriends were on a trip now, a bachelor weekend in Cabo. The girls said things like this: “Why don’t you ever take me to Cabo?” and, “Who is even getting married?” and, “How can you afford this?” And the boyfriends sighed and smiled and kissed them on their cheeks and left. RJ and Jools and Lydia had gotten very drunk, in a retaliatory way. They were so bored when the first bartender told them about his house party, when a lost-looking punk with a ketamine drawl told them about his show that night, when they danced in a circle in a dark club and hands attached to unseen bodies crawled up their stomachs, their thighs. Being bored was worse than anything. It was worse than being sad, than being angry, than puking. “Being bored is the worst,” Jools said as they left the club. RJ and Lydia nodded. Lydia worked nights as a receptionist at a hotel, so she knew a lot about being bored.
Now, the girls looked through their neighbors’ window and wondered what it would be like to hang out with boys again, their own age, boys who talked about video games and didn’t pay child support. They couldn’t see the boys’ faces, because they were all sitting upright, their elbows on their knees, their heads down. They looked like they were thinking very deeply. You could see their shoulders, their biceps; six big arms, good manly arms.
“Hey boys!” Jools said, then started laughing so hard, through hiccups.
“Boys!” Lydia said. “Boys!” Lydia started yelling louder, but even though she pushed her face against the window screen, they didn't stir. Lydia started to feel queasy. “Boys! Boys! Boys!”
The fan swung in a wild white buzz above their heads. They were like mushroom boys, growing from the couch, swaying wordlessly.
“They’re on drugs they don’t know how to do,” RJ said. “They’re fucking losers.” Jools was back on her phone, her face pinched into a worried shape, blue in the glow. She was swiping through possible new boyfriends on an app, her cheeks a little damp. She had cried off and on all night, and no one had asked her about it.
Lydia was scared and she didn’t know why. “Let’s go home,” she said, and opened the door, and ran up the stairs. Once a cat had followed her up the stairs from the street. He was hugely fat, and his collar said, “Hello! I’m Leonard! I’m an outdoor cat!” He had climbed in her bed and slept voluptuously next to Lydia all night—sprawled like a king, purring, low and indecent, when she scratched the striped balloon of his belly. He left in the morning when she went for a run. Lydia wondered where he was now. It was too cold now to be an outdoor cat. RJ stomped each step behind her, purposeful, hard, like she was trying to punch her foot through the worn, shabby carpet, through the wood, all the way into the boys’ apartment. “Wake. Up. Boys.”
The girls flopped on the twin bed they pretended was a couch in the living room. Everyone had had sex with their boyfriends on the bed, because sometimes they just wanted to do it somewhere other than their rooms. Friends from all over had slept there, and the girls had never washed the sheets. They actually didn’t clean much at all, except for when Jools became possessed like a demon three days before her erratic period and scrubbed the bathroom, collecting hair and dirt and dead silverfish and mold. “It’s like an owl pellet, but for girls,” she said the last time, dangling it in Lydia’s face.
The girls put Celine Dion on the music channel on the TV. They screamed the lyrics and laughed halfway through. The apartment building was three stories high and built in 1929 and so quiet, and they almost never saw anyone, anywhere, no matter how loud they screamed—at Celine Dion, at a joke, at the boyfriends. Sometimes figures appeared in the dark hallway, round and bulky in hats, scarves, puffy coats, but they swept quickly into their own rooms, swinging the doors shut.
The sheets beneath the girls were hot pink and stained. RJ had been the last to start dating one of the boyfriends—the chain went Lydia with her boyfriend, then Lydia introduced Jools to one of his friends and they started dating, and then RJ hung around enough to meet their other friend. RJ’s boyfriend was an attorney and a famous local drunk and when he fucked RJ on the twin bed, he said he felt like he was back in college and RJ said that made sense because she graduated last year. Before him, RJ was having sex with the woman who managed the 7-Eleven a block away but she never told anyone that, and she never laid out the manager of the 7-Eleven on the hot pink sheets, and actually she still had sex with her sometimes but she didn’t tell anyone that either.
Red lights flashed outside the window. A siren in the distance came closer. The girls ignored it. RJ knew about things that Jools and Lydia had never heard of, and so she found a YouTube video of a performance artist who sat behind glass like she was a prisoner meeting family, and people would come and sit in the chair on the other side of the glass. The performance artist begged each person to touch her, and she would lie and tell them that if they tried hard enough it was possible to get through the glass, so people would try to touch her, but of course they couldn’t. They’d just press their hands against hers with the strip of glass between them, and sometimes the performance artist would kiss her side of the glass and the person viewing her would kiss the other side and their mouths would be open, like the sucker fish at the bottom of the aquarium. The video showed stranger after stranger, and sometimes they cried and one lady started calling for her mother. At the end of the video, the glass was covered in snot and fingerprints and spit and tears. The glass ended up being preserved and displayed in the museum after the installation was over.
“Oh Lyddy, Lyddy don’t cry,” Jools said. She hugged her with one arm; she looked at her phone over her shoulder, crying a little herself. Everyone was so ugly in the app.
RJ stopped the video. “Are you sad?” RJ asked, a nail file appearing. She sawed at her fingernails, bright red and shaped into points. Each girl had a tumbler of whiskey but couldn’t remember when she’d gotten it. They all liked looking at RJ’s nails when she held a glass of liquor or wine, at the sharpness and the shine of the ice and the nails. It was sexy and grown up. RJ had to have nice nails because she was a receptionist at a car dealership and she had to point at things all day. People looked at her nails constantly.
“Yes,” Lydia said. “I’m kind of sad. I liked that guy at the bar tonight.” Lydia had found herself on the porch smoking a cigarette with a stranger.
“What about your boyfriend.”
“He was obese.”
“He wore a fedora.”
“He had a goatee.”
“He was a tollbooth operator.”
He also had deep gray fillings lining all of his back teeth. He had a little lisp too and when Lydia said she had never left the US except to go to Canada, of course, which was only ten miles away, he told her she was fascinating, like a newborn or an alien. He put a Camel Menthol in between her fingers and said, “There are three types of kisses; I learned that in Vienna. I’ll show you one here and two back at your place.” Lydia wanted to learn something. She wanted someone to want to teach her something new. RJ had come outside. “JESUS,” she said, and grabbed Lydia’s hand, spinning her from him. She had looked deep into Lydia’s eyes and held both her hands. “If you fuck him you will hate yourself in the morning.” RJ knew this because she would hate herself in the morning if she fucked him.
On the couch now, RJ and Jools knew they were right to tear her away. Lydia blew her nose. Lights flashed in a rhythm across RJ and Jools’ faces. Lydia’s father always used to say that her mother’s ancestors ate the soup. What he meant was that even though all of her ancestors were Irish immigrants, her father’s parents came from Catholic people who refused to convert, even though it meant starvation and displacement, and her mother came from people who converted when the British came over and got to keep their land, their food, their animals. Even though this story was not true, a fabrication made to enhance an already quite vivid history of degradation and oppression, Lydia knew that what her father meant was that she was from a long line of craven women, operators, people who choose to feed, feed, feed, and always choose to live, their principles shuffled like dice every day, hour, at every decision. That was how she felt when her boyfriend gave her some money for rent, and when she wanted to learn the tollbooth operator’s kisses; instead of feeling ashamed, she felt excited, alive.
A silverfish darted across the floor. The girls screamed. They all had nightmares about silverfish. In Lydia’s nightmare, the silverfish live in a nest like birds, and the nest is under the bed. One morning, Lydia told Jools about her nightmare, and Jools said that all the girls in the whole world have horrible dreams about bugs, even if they don’t remember in the morning, because of evolution. The silverfish were biological but somehow robotic, and that’s how you know they might have a disease. RJ moved so quickly and smacked it with her shoe. A thick soupy gunk stuck to the shoe, to the floor. The girls knew that this was the price of murdering something that needed to die. The girls felt an absurd urge to pray, and they stared silently at the goop. A single leg stuck in the air. They noticed because they were staring really hard. It was late. They had been home for hours, they realized.
RJ didn’t like the sound of the sirens which suddenly sounded so loud. She got up to close the door to the porch—it had been swinging open. None of the girls noticed how cold the apartment was with the door open because they were all so warm after dancing, and with more whiskey slithering into their bellies. They never remembered to lock anything, and Jools didn’t know this yet but one of the neighbors had snuck in one day, a woman, and stolen her grandmother’s emerald ring, a small part of her inheritance, from the bottom of her jewelry box. Everything else in the apartment was worthless. The neighbor sold it and used the money to fill her veins up with heroin, just a few feet away, sighing and relaxing and feeling so fucking good and thanking God that she lived next to careless girls.
“Oh, fuck,” RJ said. Lydia came to the door and Jools followed. Beneath the porch they could see the ambulance, with its lights going. A silent police car. A firetruck. RJ had a secret history, of cousins and aunts and neighbors and grandparents dying in the neighborhood where she grew up, of hoping that people always moved quickly, urgently, of believing with a superstitious fervor that it meant something if the lights were on or off.
The girls watched people file into the boys’ apartment below them. They didn’t come out for a long time. The girls breathed in the cold air and their lungs hurt and the tendrils of hangover headaches crept up from the cervical curve of their spines to the crowns of their heads. “I’m going to bed,” Jools said. All of the girls yawned. “We should all go to bed,” they said to each other. They shut the door to the porch behind them, and this time they locked it.
RJ fell asleep as soon as her head hit her pillow, because she had the superpower of sleeping when she didn’t want to think. Jools stayed awake. She was talking to the men she had swiped yes on, telling one that she was an astronaut, another that she was a spy, another that she was a dominatrix. She deleted the app before she went to sleep, because then it was like it didn’t happen.
Only Lydia couldn’t sleep. She wondered if the boys had heard them calling out to them tonight, before they stopped hearing anything. One night her boyfriend slept on the couch bed. A few nights. She remembered yelling, so angry at him, to get the fuck out, get the fuck out right now. The night before her birthday. Why had she felt that way? It was impossible to remember. Had the boys downstairs heard? Had they wondered about her then, like she wondered about them now?
The window downstairs was never open again. When the girls walked by, every day, they shivered, even when the snow melted and it was warm and the piles of dog shit revealed themselves, sprinkled on lawns. They shivered even when they were older, and walked their children in strollers past their old apartment, when they got matching divorces from different former boyfriends and drove by trying to access the feeling of being in their twenties, when they were much older and Jools died and RJ and Lydia went to see what that old dump looked like, and cried at the stupid brilliant beauty of the young girls in yoga pants and long ponytails walking in and out. Sometimes they imagined the boys still there, never moving, their bones and muscle and skin growing, becoming roots that burst through the floor of the apartment. Their bodies became part of the dirt; their arms, those nice, muscly arms grew and grew and twisted up into the corners of the room, split into many fingers, cracking the ceiling, and someday they would crack the floors of the places the girls lived, and then they wouldn’t be able to ignore the girls anymore.