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It’s at Amber Brunati’s annual Pink Party that everything begins to unravel.
The invitation—on thick pink paper, naturally, with gold and turquoise swirls—had declared it to be the last great luncheon of the summer. As if my summer had been packed to bursting with a whole host of other themed luncheons instead of babysitting jobs and shifts at Pinky’s Sub Shop. It also implied that there had been a number of mediocre luncheons this summer, as this was meant to be the last of the great ones.
I stare around Amber’s backyard at clustered tables covered in pink gingham cloths and at the girls around said tables. We’re all wearing pink except for Iris Huang, who had the nerve to arrive in lavender (Amber’s angry whispers carried clear across the lawn), and Kaitlyn Winthrop, who is technically wearing magenta. This seems to incense Amber even more, because while we all know that Iris’s dress is a big official eff you to the entire Pink Party construct, Kaitlyn doesn’t seem to realize that she’s committed a faux pas.
“Someone get that girl a color wheel,” Amber hisses angrily to Madison Lutz, sitting to my left. “Someone get her a fucking Pantone booklet because magenta is not pink. We all know magenta is not pink, right?” She looks to me. “Right?”
“Abso-tootin-lutely!” I declare loudly, because I am a moron.
It’s quiet for a split second, and then a laugh escapes from Madison.
Amber doesn’t laugh, but her lips twitch in amusement. “Yes. Good. Thank you, Claudia. Glad we’re all on the same page.”
In truth, we are rarely all on the same page. More often than not, they’re all on one page, and I’m on a completely different one. It can’t be helped most of the time. Society itself puts us on different pages. They drive Range Rovers and have celebrity deejays at their sweet sixteens. I had to scrape and scrounge and toast subs, and remake the subs that I toasted badly, just to buy a car. A car that isn’t even 100 percent mine. My brother technically owns 40 percent of it and somehow manages to drive it 80 percent of the time.
But I don’t say any of this to Amber for fear she might fling a tray of cookies at me. Instead I watch as Madison pats Amber’s back. “You need to breathe, okay?” she says. “Eat a macaron. They have lavender in them, right? That’s supposed to be calming.”
“Lavender just makes me think of Iris, which makes me enraged,” Amber says.
We all look across the yard to where Iris is seated with Paige Breckner. Together, she and Paige hold the titles of class president three years running (Iris), most popular girl in our grade (Paige), and cutest couple in our school (collectively).
Though “cutest” isn’t quite right. I don’t think anyone who knows her would use the word cute to describe anything relating to Iris Huang. Objectively, she has a roundness-of-face and smallness-of-stature that could traditionally be deemed cute. But she’s also ruthless and unforgiving and, some would say, ill-mannered and incredibly unpleasant. Somehow, this doesn’t seem to affect her political standing, but then again, that often seems to be the case in the real world as well.
But Paige and Iris have been the longest-enduring couple on record during our time at the Prospect-Landower School for Girls, and so they are automatically termed “cutest,” because that’s shorter than “longest-enduring couple on record during our time at the Prospect-Landower School for Girls.”
I saw them once—I mean I’ve seen them lots of times—but once, after school, I saw them sitting on the low wall outside the lit building, sharing a pair of earbuds and listening to something on one of their phones. Their heads were bent together, and then all of a sudden Paige started dancing in her spot, mouthing along the words to whatever song it was.
Iris looked up at her, smiled, and then looked back at the phone. Paige started bopping harder, lip-synching more emphatically, pointing at Iris.
Iris ducked her head, blushed, focused on the screen until Paige got to her feet, took Iris’s hands, and pulled her up, trying to get her to jump around. Iris looked flustered but … endeared, I guess. Fond in a way I had never seen her look.
When Iris finally relented and joined in dancing, the earbud jerked right out of her ear. She scrambled for it, accidentally yanking the other out of Paige’s ear. They both ended up bent over laughing, leaning on each other for support.
It was sweet—that’s why it stuck with me. A rare moment where Iris didn’t seem completely steely but instead kind of awkward and fumbly and smitten.
So maybe “cutest” still means cutest, even where she’s involved.
Right now, Paige is chatting with Sudha Prabhu, laughing behind one hand as Sudha gestures animatedly, while Iris looks for all the world like she’s waiting in an airport terminal and her flight has just been canceled. In a sea of pink, she is unrelentingly purple.
At my table, Madison grins at Amber. “Deep breaths.”
“I just want everything to be perfect,” Amber says, eyes wide and strangely earnest as she looks around the table at each of us. “Is it? Do you like the food? Are you having fun?”
We all affirm the quality of the food and the fun we’re having. I nod emphatically as I hork down a petit four.
“I know it’s silly,” Amber says, “but it’s just, you know. Senior year and all. Everything we do is sort of the last time we get to do it. So it should be perfect, right?”
We double down on the reassurances, and finally Amber seems satisfied.
“Okay. Okay, good.” She stands promptly, smooths down the front of her dress, takes a deep breath, and then heads off to the next table.
I adjust my own dress as the other girls start talking about school. I borrowed it from Zoe, so although it fits the color scheme, it’s also a little too short and a little too tight. When I came downstairs in it, my mom said “Wowza,” and my dad, brow wrinkled, asked, “What kind of party is this again?”
Truth be told, I’d risk Amber’s wrath and wear the wrong color if it meant Zoe could be here with me, wearing this dress instead. She is my best friend, and there’s only so much a text can convey. Some of this stuff you just have to witness to fully appreciate. And most of it, I’d probably have a lot more fun witnessing with her.
But Zoe goes to Springdale High School, and I go to PLSG, and this isn’t really the kind of thing where you can bring a plus one. So I send her a quick text update and then listen in on Madison and Ainsley Stewart discussing some band they both watched on TV last night.
The rest of the luncheon goes well, much to Amber’s relief. We eat fancy finger foods. We toast each other with fizzy pink punch. There are speeches filled with assurances that this is going to be the “best year ever” and a shit ton of light applause.
Paige stands at one point and thanks Amber for hosting.
If you’re giving a presentation in class, Paige is the person who smiles at you when you catch her eye and nods encouragingly, like she’s actually listening. We had gym together freshman year, and whenever she was captain, she insisted on everyone counting off instead of picking teams.
When she finishes her toast, she turns to Iris with a smile. “Do you want to add something, babe?”
They share a look—in the silence, Paige’s expression shifts from hopeful to imploring—until finally Iris pushes her chair back and stands, holding up her glass of punch. She clears her throat.
“Careless tourism and destructive fishing practices are destroying our world’s coral reefs,” she says, and then takes a drink.
I can’t tell if it’s a joke. Like, admittedly you probably shouldn’t joke about the destruction of our world’s coral reefs. A few people chuckle uncomfortably anyway.
Iris sits abruptly. Paige is still standing, her glass raised.
The look on her face is stricken, but somehow she manages to recover a smile. “Thank you again, Amber,” she says. “This is … a great way to end the summer.”
And that’s the last of the speeches. Conversation resumes around our little tables, and I excuse myself after a bit. Amber’s mom points me in the direction of the bathroom, but once I get inside the house, I realize that her directions of “to the left and across from the music room” kind of hinge on knowing which room is the music room. Which I don’t.
So I head to the left and open the first door I come upon, and to my disappointment, it isn’t a bathroom but a bedroom.
I’m in luck though—there’s a bathroom en suite. I dash in and take care of business, and then I spend way too long sampling the products in pretty bottles on the bathroom counter.
I’m admiring the scents that I’ve so expertly layered together (by squirting three random lotions on at the same time) when I hear sounds from the outer room: voices approaching and then the closing of the bedroom door. Sealing the voices inside.
“—believe you would act like that.”
“I didn’t want to make a speech. I thought that was obvious.”
“Coral reefs? Seriously?”
“Tell me we shouldn’t be more concerned about the state of the coral reefs.”
Paige and Iris.
I’d always thought they were a good pair. People don’t like Iris, generally, but they respect that she gets shit done. Conversely, everyone loves Paige. She’s friendly and kind, neutral good through and through. She softens Iris. And I guess Iris gives her an edge. What’s that saying—iron fist in a velvet glove? Iris is the former, and Paige is the latter.
“I’m not saying it’s not true, I’m saying it’s not relevant to the situation. This isn’t a freaking Envirothon meeting!”
“Please. You know I don’t like how those Envirothon kids conduct themselves.”
“You couldn’t think of one nice thing. About Amber, or the summer, or school, or anything. One nice thing. You could’ve said the punch is good.”
“The punch tastes like Windex.”
“At the very least, would it have been so hard to put on a pink dress?”
“I’m not gonna do something just because someone tells me to.”
“You do tons of things because someone tells you to! You wear shoes in restaurants! You obey seat belt laws!”
“There’s a big difference between doing something to prevent myself from flying through a car windshield and doing something to satisfy a meaningless color scheme at a meaningless party that neither of us actually care about.”
“I care about it,” Paige says, and something in her voice sounds frayed. “But that doesn’t matter to you. What I want. You never even ask me. You just assume. You always—always—just assume.”
Silence follows. And in this silence, I realize several things—first, that this is not just a little spat about a speech or a dress code. And second, that my temporal window for stepping out of the bathroom and announcing my presence has entirely closed. I’m in it for the long haul. I have to wait them out.
“I don’t want to do this,” Iris says finally.
A pause. “Do you understand though? About the dress? And the party? Do you get that it’s important to me? And, like, how something that matters to me should be important to you, too?”
“It’s stupid though,” Iris says. “This whole thing is stupid. If it was something that actually mattered, I would—” She cuts off, starts again. “You know I would…” She doesn’t finish.
“You would what?” A beat. “What would you do?”
“I don’t know.” Iris sounds sullen. “I would act like I cared more.”
It’s quiet. Behind me, a bead of water drips from the faucet into the sink.
And then there are footsteps in the outer room. I can’t tell which of them has moved toward the other. Or if they’ve moved away.
When Paige speaks again, her voice is thick. “I love you, Iris,” she says. “But you’re the most selfish person I’ve ever met.”
I press my ear to the door. I’m only human, after all, and this is possibly the best bit of drama I’ve unwittingly stumbled onto in the whole of my high school career.
“What are you saying?”
“I love you,” she says again, and I’m fairly certain she’s crying now. “But I want you to be different. I want, I wa—” Her voice hitches, like a sob. “I want you to be better than you are.”
I dated a boy named Will Sorenson for almost a whole semester in tenth grade. January to April. We were going to go to his junior prom together that year, but he broke up with me just two weeks shy.
We were in his basement, and he was playing an online role-playing game called Battle Quest. His character—a humanoid dragon named Alphoneus Centurion—was approaching a snow-covered vista with a monster in his sights when Will glanced over at me and said, “So I don’t know, I just think maybe we should break up, you know?”
Like we had been having a conversation this whole time that I had somehow missed. I pressed him to explain as Alphoneus Centurion launched a series of attacks against the monster.
“I just think that when you’re with someone, you should … feel something. Right?”
“You don’t feel anything with me?”
“I feel regular with you,” he said. “But I don’t feel … you know. Well, I mean, if you knew, then you’d understand, and you’d want me to feel that with someone else. And if you don’t know, then that means you don’t feel it either, and so we probably shouldn’t be together anyway.”
Alphoneus raised his ax. The monster was a goner.
Up until this moment, I thought that was the most crushing thing you could say to someone you’re dumping. That you feel regular with them. It sort of managed to negate every sweet thing that we ever had together. Like it was all fake. One-sided, on my part. I was elated the first time he held my hand. I thought I might float off the sidewalk. And now looking back, I see that everything that was massive to me, everything that was meaningful—to him it was just regular.
But Paige Breckner just took the cake in the breakup department. I want you to be better than you are. If I were Iris, I would’ve disintegrated on the spot.
Iris does no such thing. She just speaks, after a long pause, her voice in stark contrast to Paige’s. It’s calm. Crisp. No hint of tears.
“Are you breaking up with me?” she says.
Paige doesn’t reply.
“Are you. Breaking up with me?” Iris repeats, razor sharp.
“Yes,” Paige says.
I realize I’m holding my breath. Waiting for—something. A reaction. A movement. A sound. Anything.
And then a sound comes. A loud one in fact—the very clear and deliberate peal of a bell.
For a split second, it doesn’t make any sense. Paige breaks up with Iris and Iris responds by whipping out a handbell?
Then I realize. My phone.
I fumble with my bag. Purses are interdimensional sometimes, I swear—particularly when you’re trying to get something out of one. I finally extricate the phone, but three more texts follow in the intervening time—three more pealing bells—that only serve to further sink me.
The silence that follows is deafening.
I look into my palm. I might as well see the texts that are my undoing.
I need an update, Zoe’s first message reads.
Are you eating cahhhhviahhhr with Ahhhmber
And Mahhhhdison and Aaaaaainsley and Desk Lahhhmp
And all of your other fahhhhhbulous clahhhhssmates?
I almost laugh—it would be funny, normally, but now it’s so terrible it goes from terrible back into funny.
Until there’s the sound of footsteps that are most definitely approaching and a firm knock on the door directly in front of my face. Then it goes right back into terrible.
“Hello?” It’s Paige.
I hold my breath. Maybe if I’m perfectly still, perfectly silent, they’ll think that they’d heard wrong.
“We heard your phone,” Paige says.
“How do you know it wasn’t your phone?” I reply. Because. I am. A moron.
I squeeze my eyes shut. Take a deep breath. And then I open the door.
It’s a Moment, between the three of us. There are just two hundred students at PLSG. Fifty girls a grade. And although I know Amber and Madison and Ainsley and Desk Lamp (there isn’t really a Desk Lamp, but Zoe likes to make fun of the names, how “everyone sounds like an item from a furniture catalog, seriously”) and all the others in a cursory manner, there aren’t many of them that I have had genuine Moments with.
The thing about Moments is that just because a moment is one, doesn’t mean it’s a good one. They are not all Special, or Cherished, as picture frames and embellished scrapbook inserts would have you believe.
This is more of the Painfully Awkward variety. Me, clutching my phone in the bathroom doorway, looking quite like my ear had just been pressed against the door—because my ear had just been pressed against the door. Paige, her face red, cheeks wet, eyes puffy. And Iris Huang, resplendent and terrifying in lavender YSL, looking at me with a quiet, smoldering, single-minded rage.
Paige speaks first. “We didn’t know anyone was in here,” she says, and she’s clearly putting effort into sounding something close to normal, though she doesn’t bother to wipe the tears tracking down her cheeks.
“I didn’t know anyone was out here. I didn’t hear anything,” I say, even though it’s a lie compounded by another lie.
The silence is unbearable.
So I do what I do best, or what I do worst, I suppose—my greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. I break it.
“I had the faucet on,” I say. “Really loud. And I pee pretty loud. I’m surprised you guys didn’t hear me, it was like Niagara Falls in here. Just really … very loud in volume. A lot of … liquids … flowing in a … noisy fashion.”
Paige blinks at me, clearly caught off guard, but Iris’s eyes only narrow, the rage intensifying.
I have to get out of here.
“I’ll just … leave you guys to it.… Not that I know what it is, not that I heard anything,” I say, and make to leave, but Paige moves to the door first.
“No, I’m going,” she says, and then quickly walks out.
Leaving me. And Iris. Alone.
Iris crosses immediately to me and holds a finger up to my face. She forces me backward, back into the bathroom, where I stumble over the rug and catch myself on the fancy towel rack.
“What did you hear?” she says.
“Nothing. I heard nothing.”
“You are, you’re terrible at it. If you go back out there and tell everyone—if you tell them—” She falters. And I would hardly believe it unless I saw it myself, but Iris’s eyes swiftly fill with tears. Her lower lip quivers. It legitimately quivers.
Her voice is thick when she speaks: “I will ruin you.”
And then she turns and leaves.
Copyright © 2017 by Emma Mills