Sabina Willmott is a third-year student pursuing a degree in English and Creative Writing. It is difficult for her to write about herself because her sense of her own identity seems to shift every day, but baking, painting, and letter-writing always remain constants in her life. Right now, she’s trying not to take life too seriously (an attitude that resulted in this story).
Katrina called at 10.
I hadn’t seen her since the summer but we’d texted a little. Weed was still illegal then and she had a hook up. When I’d known her in high school she’d never have touched it, but she had tried on several personalities since then, which she’d discarded every year or so, indiscriminately, like shoes by the door at a party. Smoking seemed to be the most recent faux-personality trait.
Anyway when she called I knew it would be good stuff, and didn’t think so much about anything else. She said she’d meet us on Willingdon.
I said, we left the car at Nick’s, we can’t get there so fast.
She said, Ok. Ok. I’ll pick you up. Be there in five. And this Nick better be fuckable.
She laughed. I felt nauseous. See you.
Elliot scuffed the heel of his sneaker against a flux in the pavement. Nick chuckled.
Why do your friends always say shit like that? Elliot rubbed his shoulder against his cheek. I had put her on speakerphone; they had heard the conversation; she had heard them in the background. That was probably why she had said it.
Really man, I don’t care, Nick said. Is she hot?
I don’t know, I haven’t seen her in a while.
Elliot was on edge that night, I could tell. Possibly his dad had said something to him about us going out again, I don’t know. Elliot and I had met in high school. We didn’t move in the same circles but we had sex at a house party at the start of our senior year. It was the first time for both of us. We’d both been sitting out on the steps of the porch beside where the smokers were, Nick among them. Elliot was pretty drunk. A tall girl was leaning in to Nick and he pulled her chin closer to blow out the smoke from his juul over her lips.
Elliot grimaced. Why do people have to do that, it’s disgusting.
I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me.
When she pulled up I got in the passenger seat and Nick and Elliot got in the back. She was wearing eyeliner and a bikini-top as a shirt.
Madeleine! she said. It’s been too fucking long, you look beautiful. She pressed her mouth to my cheek, left a pink stain. It felt nice. I leaned into her. Then Elliot flashed a face in the rear-view mirror. I knew what it meant—nobody ever called me by my full name.
It’s so good to see you again, Kat, I said.
Nick leaned forward from the back. It’s just four or five blocks up to the right. On the corner of College.
Ok, she said. Got it.
When we got there Nick said we should use the hot tub. We hot-boxed the car and I was high by the time I sank into the water. The four of us lounged there for a few moments, looking up at the stars. Nick was texting someone, then he put his phone down.
I started imagining new constellations over top of the original ones. A microwave, a beer bottle. I found one that looked like a wonky version of Elliot’s face and started laughing.
What is it? he asked. He was smiling at me, looking directly at me, not with his half face like he usually did when we were with other people.
Nothing, I shook my head. I giggled and looked back up at the stars. I thought that there might be infinite happiness in things that were so far away.
Do you ever think of yourself as a celestial being?
He laughed at me. Katrina was rolling a cigarette on the sill of the hot tub.
I have no idea what you mean, he said. Then he pulled me onto his lap and kissed my jaw.
Nick grunted. Elliot loosened his grip a little, and I let myself drift onto the seat beside him, warm water curling around my body.
Katrina had finished rolling her cigarette, and started to take long drags, blowing them out into the dark air above her. I was vaguely uncomfortable; I had never smoked nicotine and never wanted to. Plus it was blocking the stars.
Celestial beings, she chuckled. Fuck, I used to believe in those. But now I think I’ve gotta be a Christian, or I’m gonna get the shit kicked out of me in Hell.
Really? I said. This seemed distinctly unlike her, although she was so unpredictable that there were very few things she could do that weren’t “like her”. What makes you think that?
She shifted and snuffed her cigarette out on the porch. Elliot winced. Nick made some offhand comment about blaming his brother that made them both laugh. Then Katrina leaned in and started to speak.
I’d just moved in to my new place a month or two ago, right? She waved her hand. Over on Barrie, the complex? So when I was moving my stuff in I noticed this statue I hadn’t clocked on the walk-through, it’s about a foot tall resting on this high mantel-piece in the living room. And guess who it is?
She looked around expectantly at all of us with wild eyes. Snow had started to fall through the stillness from somewhere up there in the un-reachable darkness. I pressed my hand against the jet, felt its force.
The virgin-fucking-Mary! Decked out in robes, this look on her face that’s somehow both serene and disapproving… I tried to take it down but I couldn’t reach it. I asked my landlord about it and he said he had no idea where it came from.
Nick and Elliot had their eyes closed, but I could tell they were listening. My fingers had gone numb against the jet. I pulled them away.
Anyway, we forgot about it for a couple weeks. Then one night, Petra’s boyfriend came over and we had been drinking, Neil was there too, and a couple others. And I said to Petra’s boyfriend, you’re like 6’4 or something! Put it to good use and take the fucking virgin down off her high horse! So Ben pulled a chair up and he starts climbing up on it, and he’s all wobbly because he’s plastered at this point, and he grabs her! So I said don’t be shy, dude, kiss her—and god, he must have been really fucked up because he was trying to stick his tongue down a throat she didn’t have. It was actually hilarious—Petra didn’t think so, so much, but ah well. After that we poured a couple shots of vodka and poured them over her mouth—
Elliot shot Nick a glance, Nick smirked. I knew at this point they were wishing I hadn’t invited her. I had been feeling that way too, but my picture of the night without her wasn’t much better. We’d probably be sitting here in silence, or Nick and Elliot would talk about the party they had been to the other night. Certainly not celestial beings.
No, I know, Katrina cackled, oblivious. We were so wasted. But here’s the good part: the next morning we were sitting at the kitchen table, so hungover. Petra got up to get Ben a glass of water ‘cause he wasn’t doing so hot. He lifted it up to his mouth to take a sip—
Katrina mimed it, lifting an invisible glass to her lips. Nick tracked her movements. He obviously did think she was hot, but suddenly I didn’t want her to be available to him. I knew he was interested in her eccentricity only as sexuality and I couldn’t stomach it. She continued.
And then all of a sudden there’s this jangling in the bottom of the glass—and you won’t believe this—there’s a fucking retainer floating around in the water!
What? Elliot’s eyes narrowed. A retainer? Nick was back on his phone. I couldn’t tell if he wanted to seem aloof or if he really was.
Yeah I know, Katrina said, it’s crazy. We asked all around, nobody who’d been to the house had a retainer. And I just knew it was her, the Virgin-fucking-Mary! I could feel it. After that I put her back on the mantel and I haven’t touched her. I’d go to church, but I’m not sure I would fit in with all these piercings. She snickered.
Nick looked up.
So God put some kid’s retainer in this guy’s water to punish you for debauching a statue of his baby mama?
From anyone else it might have sounded confrontational, but from Nick it sounded somehow conspiratorial, as if he were letting you in on the joke, and in the pleasure of inclusion you’d forget it was at your expense.
Elliot did not possess this skill. You’d have to be a whacko to believe that, he said.
Katrina whipped around.
Oh yeah? She said. What’s your analysis?
Look, Elliot said. I just don’t believe God is up there summoning retainers, okay? A strained laugh. Right? He looked between me and Nick.
I don’t know, I said. It’d be nice to think God has some imagination.
He scoffed. You don’t believe in God.
I’m not sure what I believe. I’d like to think there’s some kind of rhyme or reason to our lives, a moral structure. Maybe not an old man with a beard but—
What? So God is a non-binary alien?
Katrina and Nick looked uncomfortable. Two people who rarely looked that way.
Ok, well. Katrina said. I haven’t, like, been born again. It’s just something that happened to me. Some things just can’t be explained.
Whatever, Elliot said. I’m just saying I find it highly unlikely that God is paying close attention to you, Katrina.
The house loomed in my peripheral vision. The warmth of a life from inside: a semicircle of sofas, someone had left the tv on. Katrina’s eyes met mine across the hot tub. I saw disappointment there, and turned away from it. I knew she wasn’t offended. She felt sorry for me, and that was worse. But now I saw something in her too, that I had known in highschool but probably resented, and only consciously recognized now. There was some essential thread that went through everything she said and did; that no matter what it was, she remained, at her core, Katrina.
She stood up. She was in her underwear because she hadn’t brought a bathing suit. I have to get going, she said. I’ll go dry off. I’ll come with you, I said. She stepped out, dripping. Okay.
Inside she scrunched her hair up in the hand towel.
Elliot seemed nice, she said.
No he didn’t, I said, leaning against the door.
No. She gave me a weak smile. He didn’t.
It was late when Elliot and I drove home. When he got to my house he stopped there and moved his mouth around like words were stuck inside. Then he tilted his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes.
Maddie… I’m sorry. That was dumb. It’s just this terrible dinner with my dad and Carol earlier.
I gave him a little smile, I knew how difficult his family was. When he looked like that I wanted him to be right, I wanted everything in the world to have an explanation. And I knew why he wanted that.
I said, No, I get it. Besides she’s a little unhinged. I squeezed his shoulder.
He turned to me. I love you, you know.
We both smiled.
Imagine her as a mom, I said. The moment that kid gets their braces off it’ll be the end of days every day.
Elliot laughed and leaned into me. He stroked my hair. Doesn’t really seem like the mom type, anyway.
What do you mean? I said. He put his head in my lap and I touched his cheek. He closed his eyes and smiled.
Well she’d poison those children with her psycho-fucking theories. She’d probably be in one of those poly-whatever relationships. Fuck her kids up for life.
I jerked my hand back. Suddenly he looked ugly, I couldn’t look at him. He lifted his head.
No, you know what I mean, he said. Somebody like her would turn a kid into a nutjob. Or a fine arts student or something. He winked. It wasn’t even a little amusing.
What, so that would be the worst thing in the world? I said.
I felt a violence building inside me. Possibly it had been for months. I had wanted to be on the inside of Elliot’s life for so long, and in the hot tub I had finally felt that I was let in to some interior worldview that he and Nick shared. Their looks made sense to me; I was finally included in the secret meaning behind their words. But the truth was that whatever quality they had detected as ludicrous in Katrina was what they had failed to see in me. I saw it now: coiled in my belly, poisonous.
Maddie, don’t twist my words, he said. You know I just don’t buy that new-age crap. You don’t either, what’re you mad about? She’s just a crack-head.
I shook my head.
What do you believe in then, Elliot? What’s one thing?
He softened, taken aback. But I couldn’t stop myself now. I got out of the car. An exhaustion had come over me that was pressing against the inside of my stomach like a spear and I needed it to rip through and impale someone else instead.
I stepped back and shook my head again. My arms were crossed, I had started crying for some reason. The street lights were hurting my eyes.
Elliot leaned as far as he could over the passenger seat and reached for my hand.
I believe in you, Maddie. I do.
I dropped his hand. You don’t even fucking know me.
It pierced the air. Everything went still and I knew I shouldn’t have said it. His expression was like those faces you find in inanimate objects; two nails become eyes, a wall socket looking afraid. Like his face didn’t know how to arrange itself to make room for the feelings inside him. He moved to close the car door, fear swept over me. I hurried forward and held it open.
Look, I’m sorry. I’m sorry okay? I’m just high, I didn’t mean that.
Fuck you, he said. Fuck you.
You know what it actually is Maddie? You know what the real problem is? You don’t fucking know you.
He closed the door and pulled away from the curb. I sat down on the sidewalk, my head was spinning. I cried harder. I watched his taillights burn into the black until he turned the corner.
Maybe it’s not so bad to be unknowable, I thought. I could live on my own lonely planet like the Little Prince and never speak again. I looked up at the stars for guidance. But they were back to their usual constellations.
I went inside and rubbed my shoes on the mat. My parents were in bed, I said goodnight. I got in bed. The violence had left me; I was only a shell of it.
In the morning Elliot called.
It’s alright, I told him. It’s okay.