It’s around noon when a sharp ping from my phone alerts me to a new email in my inbox. I click on the notification, and the words “unfortunate,” “regret,” and “fired” immediately get cataloged into my brain as my eyes skim frantically. My stomach drops and my ears start ringing. I blink once. Twice. Reread the email before looking up. Across from me, Isla is staring at me and shoots a questioning look when my eyes find hers.
“Bad news?” she asks. There isn’t as much concern in her tone as there is curiosity. We’ve known each other long enough to avoid false sympathy. My shoulders lift in a half-shrug. I struggle to calculate in my head how much rent I still owe Pete from the past couple months. The total must be nearing four grand by now. I have no idea what excuse I’m going to give this time when he comes banging on my door with threats of eviction. I’ve already used up all the believable ones.
I just know that this is all Nancy’s fault. I bet she’ll be grinning ear-to-ear like a psychopath when she finds out. She’s been complaining about me non-stop these past few weeks for not showing up to my shift on time, even if I’m at the restaurant at seven p.m. sharp every day. It’s not my fault that she’s always ten minutes early.
Isla sniffs the air when I remain silent. She picks up her cup of chai latte to take a sip, which she can absolutely afford with no problem. Her family is so rich I bet you could trace their last name all the way back in history books. I stare down at my depressing black decaf coffee and wonder how much money I’d be saving if she didn’t insist on us meeting every week at this overpriced café. I’m stupid for accepting her invitations as often as I do. We stopped being real friends a long time ago. I guess I just have a bad habit of holding onto things, even if half the time I’m holding onto nothing.
The deceivingly placid half-smile I’ve forced onto my face from when I first stepped into the café starts hurting my cheeks. I’m definitely getting premature smile lines, and it’s not even worth it.
“I’m gonna head home now,” I say, standing up and gathering my laptop and mouse into my backpack. I stuff my jacket in there as well. “I have a thing to go to in an hour.”
Isla raises an eyebrow in suspicion. “A thing? What thing?” It is incomprehensible to her that I’ve been invited to something at all. She thinks I’m a hermit with the way I never leave my apartment. As far as she knows, she’s the only person I hang out with. She thinks I have no friends and no social life, and it’s embarrassing that she’s not entirely wrong.
I chug the rest of my coffee, which tastes like cold soil. “Just—a small house party thing. With some people from my study group.”
“Hm,” she says, disbelieving. “Which class?”
Isla rolls her eyes. “Which class are they from?”
“Do I know anybody who will be there?”
“Maybe Eric?” There’s no house party happening in an hour. There’s definitely no study group. I just want to go home.
Isla purses her lips, which means she’s about to say something hurtful. To cut her off, I awkwardly lift a hand to wave bye. “I’m calling a cab. See you next week.”
She looks at me, eyebrows furrowing. “I thought you drove here.”
My palms get sweaty. “Yeah, well—” I wave my hands in a circular motion and fumble for an excuse that won’t come as I back towards the door. I chicken out and laugh nervously. “I’ll just come back for it later.” I step out into the springtime warmth of the city and squint my eyes at a flash of yellow. I flag the cab down and barrel into the backseat before I faint.
“The apartment complexes before the university,” I say without elaborating, and am thankful that the driver knows what I mean. I sit criss-cross and pull my backpack onto my lap, hugging it like I’m trying to protect it, like it is a boulder-shaped infant who easily gets carsick. The weight of it holds me down and prevents me from floating away from Earth like a rogue birthday balloon. There’s forty five-ish minutes left of this ride. It’s going to cost me a criminal amount of loose cash and I hate myself for it, but driving was out of the question. I don’t know why it happens that whenever I’m driving alone on a bad day, I get to thinking about what it would be like to end things. A stronger foot on the accelerator or an angry jerk of the steering wheel might be enough to toss me and my Honda off the road into some unsuspecting ravine.
I sigh in despair. My thoughts are a frenetic mess. I want to show up to work tomorrow and slap Nancy in the goddamn face. I try to remember the last time I had at least eight hours of sleep, and yawn in my attempt to do so. I have at least a million emails to reply to. I think my breakfast sandwich from last week is molding in the fridge. Nothing in my life is going right. I have no money. I’ve managed to lose yet another job. And now, my Honda is stranded in the parking garage near the café that I won’t be returning to until next week.
I think back to Isla, probably finishing her chai latte right about now. When we still lived with our parents, the discrepancies between our lifestyles seemed so insignificant. Youth does that to a person—distorts everything from how it really is. Our sleepovers used to entail talk of boys, school drama, and the latest clothing trends. I remember how similar our interests were and how fast we became each other’s confidantes. Even though she lived in a high-rise and I lived where police cars often patrolled at night, money had never really seemed to matter; it was a concern only for adults, and we were still children.
Now, a few years away from the safety net of home, life has only gotten better for Isla while I’ve been floundering like a puppet without strings. Two summers ago, when we went apartment hunting together, Isla had stood in the living room of a lofty duplex and examined the fireplace with a keen eye.
“Wouldn’t it be so nice?” she’d said. “We could invite some guests over during the winter and roast marshmallows here. I’m thinking we could get one of those sectional sofas so that everyone can sit together. Maybe a twelve-seater?”
The look on her face was so serious that I’d almost laughed in shock. For years, Isla and I had talked of living like socialites in a glittering city, but I had dreamed of it like people dreamed of winning the lottery. I should have known that Isla wasn’t the type of person to dream. For her, everything was only a matter of when, instead of what if.
In my mind, Isla had become someone else that day—a woman, while I remained a little girl, wide-eyed with naivete. I realized then that I couldn’t be her roommate because I didn’t want to have to ask for her to pay rent on my behalf. I didn’t want to become her perpetual inferior, to become a guest instead of a friend.
After that, we eventually stopped talking every day because our schedules never aligned; she was always “establishing connections” and I was always working. Not for the first time, I think about how my resentment of her privilege seeded the unraveling of our friendship. I know it’s not her fault, but I don’t know where else to put the blame. Sometimes, it feels like the bitterness and guilt might eat me alive.
By the time I get dropped off, my legs are semi-numb. I take the elevator up to the fifth floor, clutching the railings for support. When I see the neon orange paper taped to my door, all my strength depletes. If Pete is trying to scare me, it’s working. I quickly shove inside my room and drop my arms. My backpack slides onto the floor a little too violently. I hope my laptop didn’t break. I can’t afford another one.
It smells like piss and lavender as I collapse onto my bed. Everything in this room is decaying. I’m decaying. I lay there for several minutes, breathing in time to the ticking of my clock and get frustrated when my tears won’t spill out. I lay there unmoving for hours. When it gets dark outside, I give up hope entirely. I shut my eyes and drift off to sleep, pretending that I am okay.