I was dancing, and couldn’t tell how I looked from the faces around me. This girl across the room was naked from her waist to the top of her shaved head. The small x’s of duct tape that covered her nipples made me want to kiss her. My mouth was too dry, the air thick in my throat.
I didn’t know her name. I knew I’d fallen in love for the first time.
My parents’ stereo system sat in the corner trembling out heavy bass. Someone had hung a plastic disco ball from the ceiling fan and I winced every time it flew above my head.
The cool air made my skin feel wet as I stepped outside, and I still felt breathless. There was a red-haired girl wearing an oversized Little Caesars uniform sitting on the front steps, talking on her phone. I bent over at the waist, arms tight around my stomach.
“You okay?” The girl had her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone, looking up at me. Her name was Leah, a psychology major who’d showed up late. Once we had sat in the campus cafe and talked about pop music and elitism. I shook my head.
“I gotta go,” I heard her say. “I think Jen is freaking out. I’ll call you back.” Then, to me, “Hey, sit down. Here.”
Breathing started to come easier, and Leah patted my shoulder. “You need me to tell people to tone it down? It’s your place, Brian totally blew me off so the night’s a bust anyway… no offense.”
There were birds sitting on the telephone pole across the street, almost invisible clusters of black-feathers-on-black-sky. “Nah, I’m okay,” I muttered. “The air inside is just smoky.”
“Oh, yeah.” She shrugged, and stood up. “Do you want me to get you a drink or something so you can chill out here for a bit?”
“No, that’s okay,” I said, and stared down at the lines of the sidewalk cracks, reaching outwards.
“Okay, well, if you’re okay,” Leah said, and her phone was back in her hand. I nodded, and she went inside, and I thought about my Historical Texts essay, and the pile of clean laundry in the corner of my room, and the idea that no one can fall in love with something they don’t see.
The door opened behind me and noise of the party burst through for a moment. Someone appeared next to me, bare feet on the concrete steps, and I moved over a little to make room for them as they sat.
It was the girl with the shaved head, still shirtless, holding a lit joint between two fingers. “Hey,” she said. Her voice wasn’t as deep as I thought it would be.
“Hey,” I said. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Nah,” she said. “I don’t know where my shirt is now anyway. What’s your name?”
“Jen,” I said, and swallowed. “What’s yours?”
“Reva,” she said. She offered me the joint. I shook my head, and she squinted at me. “Isn’t this your party?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “Sort of. It’s Sara’s birthday, it’s just, my parents are out of town and they have this big place, so...”
“Right, right.” Reva took a drag, and I watched the smoke billow out from her lips. “Sara’s cool.” She threw her head back, nudged me in the side. “So how come you don’t wanna get high at your own party?”
“I don’t know.” I looked over at her, at the way she was rubbing her nose. “I saw you, dancing. You looked like you were having a good time.”
Reva laughed, but something made me feel I’d said the wrong thing. “Yeah, I guess. That’s the goal.” She shivered, grimaced. “You’re right, it is cold out here.”
I unzipped my hoodie and held it out to her, and looked away while she pulled it on. She sniffed a little, and suddenly leaned against my arm. The warmth of her body made me shiver.
“Your parents have a really nice place,” Reva told me. I nodded a little, bit my lip. “My mom’s in the hospital tonight,” she said, and her voice was muffled by the sleeve of my hoodie, held up against her mouth. “She’s got, uh. A tumor. Brain cancer.”
“Oh,” I said, and turned to face her. I put my hand on her arm, instinctively, I think, trying to comfort her. “Shit. Are… are you okay?”
She laughed again, but I felt hot tears land on my shoulder, and she started to sob. Her hands were trembling. I took the joint from her, holding it gingerly. Her face was buried in my neck now, and I worried I was trembling just as much.
We sat shivering together on the cold concrete, ashes falling on my jeans until the joint singed my fingertips and I stubbed it out silently. A car drove past, booming bass to rival the speakers inside, and the birds on the telephone pole cawed and took off in flight.