By Megan Mikhail
It’s four-thirty on a Thursday afternoon, and Julie Evans, who has been my best friend since we were seven and barely conscious of what being a best friend meant, has confessed she is living a lie.
“No, I said we are living a lie,” Julie clarifies.
“What’s the difference?” I ask. “Aren’t you part of us?”
We are facing off across the four feet of purple carpet between Julie’s desk and her bed, wrapped in the dull grey glow of light filtered through clouds sulking outside her window. A thousand small mementos are pinned to the wall behind her, reminding us just how much of ourselves we have anchored in each other. There is the program from Wicked, the first musical she persuaded me to come with her to see, and the certificate of proficiency from the ghost hunting class we enrolled in to celebrate my thirteenth birthday. There we are at seven, nine, twelve, fourteen, taller and older, changing around the edges—my braces, her glasses—but always connected: my hand on her shoulder, her arm around my waist, our bare feet braced against each other on the grass. More often than not, I am grinning like the after shot in a Sunday morning infomercial, while Julie’s expression is more enigmatic—distracted, sheepish, squinting into the sun.
“It takes two people to live a lie,” Julie says. “One person to tell the lies, and one to believe them.”
“What lies?” I catch myself twisting a strand of hair around my finger and realize that I’m nervous. Julie has seemed distant since we stepped off the bus; as removed and muted as if we were speaking through glass. This conversation has skidded far from the well-worn track of our usual grumbling about homework, and for once, I can’t mouth her lines before she says them.
“What’s one thing you think you know about me?”
I start to laugh because I could write an encyclopedia of answers—Julie Evans, Volumes I-V—but cut it off at a snort. Julie has me fixed in the inquisitional scrutiny of her trademark deathglare: unblinking, unpitying, her mouth heavy with disapproval.
“You like snakes, but you’re afraid of lizards,” I say.
“Not since I worked at the natural history museum last summer.”
“You still sleep with the stuffed polar bear your dad gave you for your first birthday.”
“Not after my mom shredded it in the washer two months ago.”
“Your favorite color is purple.”
I frown. Julie’s room is a study in purple: lavender walls, plum carpet, violet bedspread. “When we were twelve, you spent two hours lecturing me on how purple is the most symbolically charged color in the visible spectrum,” I say.
Julie shakes her head and leans back in her desk chair, pushing herself into shadow. It’s a black leather office chair—the kind that swivels—and she still looks like a kid playing at adulthood when she sits in it. “My favorite color is red. Don’t you remember the huge fight my mom and I got into when she found out I had convinced my dad to let me paint my room ‘caliente crimson’ for my ninth birthday?” She scrunches up her nose in an imitation of my standard caricature of her mother. “‘No daughter of mine is going to sleep in a room the color of sin.’ She wanted to paint it virginal white. Dad had to talk us into purple as a compromise.”
I don’t remember. My cheeks are getting warm. “Okay, so purple isn’t your favorite color. So what? I’ve been your best friend since first grade, and even if you change your mind about lizards and all that stupid stuff, I still know exactly who you are underneath.”
Julie sits forward, and the silent accusation on her face hits me hard and sharp as an elbow to the stomach: you don’t.
She starts to cry. I want to comfort her, but the cold sweat on my palms has frozen my hands to my lap. I can’t remember when she last looked this vulnerable.
“Don’t cry,” I say. “We can fix this.”
“I don’t think so, Elena.” She looks around for a box of tissues, then wipes her nose on the back of her hand. “I don’t think you even really understand what needs fixing.”
“Then stop being so cryptic and tell me!”
Silence. My pulse roars over the tick tick tick of the Mickey Mouse clock above Julie’s door. I feel the tug of a piece of myself pulling away, and even if it’s selfish, I can’t let her go. There’s a kind of necessary atrophy that comes with holding on to someone else for so long, and I don’t know if I have enough muscle mass left to keep my balance on my own.
“Listen to me.” I reach for her hand, but it’s farther than I can stretch, so I settle for leaning forward and repeating the fundamentals: “I’ve known you forever, and I care about you, and nothing you tell me is going to change that.”
“How do you know me if we’ve always been us?”
“I just do.”
“Julie, please—I love you.”
She stiffens, reminding me that we see in different spectrums of love. Julie’s parents raised her on only four colors of it: love for God, love for country, love for family, and love they warn you about in afterschool specials. But I have spent the past nine years nursing the hope that my kind of love was communicable; something that would rub off, something I could teach her to share.
“I think maybe you should go, Elena,” Julie says.
I want to stay. I want to cross my arms and stage a sit-in right here on her bed, and refuse to leave until we understand each other as well as I thought we did two hours ago.
But the butterflies in my stomach have razor-edged wings, and I can’t face the rejection crouched in Julie’s eyes. So I make the only choice open to someone without enough courage to confront her own failings: I leap off the bed, run down the stairs without holding on to the railing, and slam the door on my way out.
Outside it’s drizzling. By the time I get to the end of the street, the rain has written a reprimand in braille on my skin, and I am shivering hard enough to pass for possessed. My umbrella is in my backpack, which is still in Julie’s bedroom, so I decide to keep running the three miles home.
I haven’t run this far since Julie and I were both on the cross country team in seventh grade, and I get a stitch like a knife digging into my ribs after about three blocks, but I don’t slow down. I run past the 7-Eleven where we once chewed our way through nine packs of cinnamon gum trying to learn how to blow bubbles, and the park where she taught me how to jump off the swings and take momentary flight. I make an inventory of everything else I abandoned in her room: one spiral notebook, one calculator, three mechanical pencils, one blue ballpoint pen, one physics textbook, one half-eaten roll of strawberry Mentos. I try very hard not to think about how much her silence stung when I told her I love her.
My front door is unlocked, like my mom always leaves it when she plans to be gone for fifteen minutes and gets a call from a client in the grocery store checkout line. Our living room is quiet as a mausoleum and almost as dusty, though my dad promises to help clean when he has time. I run upstairs to my room, which is a mirror image of Julie’s. We have been each other’s other half for so long that our parts are nearly interchangeable—my bedspread is the same color as hers, though I’ve always preferred blue; my favorite books originally belonged to her; and I bought my Donald Duck clock on the same spur-of-the-moment trip to the Disney store at the mall. I kick off my shoes and peel the wet jeans from my legs, but I can’t stop shaking.
“When did I lose her?” I ask, and I wait for an answer, but all I get is the percussive clicking of my teeth chattering about the rain and the cold.
The first time I told Julie I loved her, we were ten and lounging in matching pairs of magenta pajamas in front of Saturday morning cartoons.
“I love Rocket Power,” I said, inching across the living room carpet to turn up the volume.
“You can’t love a TV show,” said Julie.
“Of course you can. I love Rocket Power, and Pokémon, and The Simpsons—”
“You know I’m not allowed to watch The Simpsons. Anyways, saying you love a TV show is like saying you love chocolate.”
“I do love chocolate. And bananas, and Nutella on toast, and—”
“That’s not real love,” she said, slapping me on the arm. “That’s just liking a lot. Real love is only for people you really care about. You don’t love Rocket Power the way you love your parents.”
I rolled that over in my mind, but it was too early to dig into the nuances of love. “I love you, Julie Evans,” I said, and I grinned, because I knew my comeback was unassailable.
“Love is serious, Elena. You shouldn’t just say things like that.”
“I’m not just saying it. I mean it.”
Julie propped herself up on an elbow and turned to look at me. She wasn’t smiling like I expected. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure I’m sure.”
She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, then flashed me a set of newly-minted grown-up teeth. “Okay.”
I have migrated to the kitchen by the time my mom elbows her way through the door with her cell phone in one hand and a bouquet of plastic bags in the other. She nods at me, and I nod back. Neither of us is loud enough to shout across the thirty years between us, so we have felt out a way to say what is necessary without saying much at all.
“When’s Dad getting home?” I ask.
Late, she mouths, covering the speaker with her fingers. Late is good, because I’ve already taken the liberty of pouring myself a bowl of Lucky Charms for dinner. Early compels my mom to go through the ritual of throwing together a “family meal” at eight or eight-thirty, by which time I’m half-crazed with hunger unless I’ve managed to sneak potato chips from the pantry.
I go back to my room, thinking it will be easier to wait out the hours until I’m tired enough to fall asleep if I’m alone, but I’m not alone. There is Julie’s copy of The Crying of Lot 49, which we have folded and refolded at the corners like recycled origami. There is her third-favorite sweater (lilac), which we rescued from thrift store moths two weeks after her dad died. There is the sand dollar she told me was perfect when she found it under the boardwalk in Miami, but has since acquired a chip on the edge like an open mouth. Everything smells faintly of her coconut shampoo. I consider stripping the sheets off my bed and chasing her out with Meadow Breeze Tide, but that’s not what I need.
What I need is an explanation. Something concrete I can blame. Was Julie upset because I had teased her about giving in to her mother’s convent-strict rules and skipping the party last weekend? Should I have stayed home with her? Pushed her harder to go? Was she worried about our physics test next week, or losing her head over yet another testosterone-dripping creep? Was it that I had gotten a better score than her on our practice SAT?
I could ask. I could call her, email her, text her. I go as far as opening my laptop to check her status on Facebook, but I let my thoughts scatter through cyberspace instead. I can’t risk the possibility that she wouldn’t pick up, wouldn’t write back, wouldn’t reconsider.
What’s one thing you think you know about me?
The first time Julie and I fought seriously about love, we were thirteen and she had just been dumped by her acne-riddled, gum-smacking, boxer-flashing soul mate.
“He was a jerk anyways,” I said. “You could smell his body spray fifty feet down the hall.”
We sat shoulder to shoulder on a bench in front of Fiske Middle School, grazing on handfuls of trail mix from a Ziploc bag on my lap. My mom had promised to take us out for celebratory/commiserative ice cream after closing her latest deal. She was seventeen minutes late so far.
“He is not a jerk. He’s confident. I felt like people actually saw me when I was with him.”
I stifled the urge to gag. Julie had spent all day dashing off between classes to go cry in the bathroom, grieving in five minute intervals that left her face increasingly puffy and red.
“If it looks like a jerk and smells worse than the old socks my dad uses to clean out the garbage disposal, it’s probably not Prince Charming.”
I was trying to make her smile, but she crossed her arms and scooted as far from me as she could without falling off the other side of the bench onto the grass. “You’re so funny I can hardly stand it,” she told the curb.
“I just don’t think you should let a future McDonald’s toilet scrubber make you feel like crap. His loss, right?”
“Not his loss. My loss. You have no idea what it feels like to have the person you love more than anyone look at you and say, ‘I think we should take a break from hanging out for a while.’”
“True,” I said, sliding closer to her, “but I don’t need some guy to love me when I—”
“Don’t say it!” Julie turned and grabbed my shoulders. Later, I would discover the twin imprints of her thumbs pressed into the skin above my collarbone.
“I was only going to—”
“I don’t want to hear it! I don’t want you to tell me you love me, Elena. Don’t even pretend that’s the same.”
“It’s not that different.”
“Oh yeah? When are we going to have our first kiss? Are you planning to marry me? Who do you think the kids will look like?”
We were drowning, mouths open and gasping in the late February sunshine. She was so close I could smell her piña colada hair and the musty hint of sweat bleeding through her deodorant. Desolate fury had aged her into someone harsher and far less tolerant of nuance.
“You look just like your mother,” I said.
A car horn blared over her reply: my mom, five minutes too late. Neither of us moved.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“But I do love you, Julie.”
“We’re just friends,” she said, pulling away. “You don’t know what real love is.”
By ten past ten, I have examined and reexamined every misspoken word and misunderstanding from the past month without finding anything that resembles an answer. My only hope is that Julie will be waiting with my backpack on the bus tomorrow morning, ready to swap apologies and collude in erasing today from the official record of our lives.
I go through all the usual bedtime rituals—brush my teeth, toss the stuffed animals off my bed, and ask God, if there is a God, to please pull Her punches—then start counting sheep for all I’m worth. The clock beside my bed tracks the minutes in radioactive green: 10:30, 10:45, 11:00.
And then I am sitting on Julie’s bed in a nightmare. Everything is the same and everything is different. I am surrounded by shades of red: scarlet walls, fire engine carpet, ruby bedspread under my crossed legs. Even Julie’s eyes are shot through with red around summer sky blue. She’s smaller in my dream—not just smaller, but younger; narrow faced and fragile behind the gold-rimmed glasses she wore at fourteen.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
She sighs. “Nothing. I’m just tired.”
“You’re still not sleeping?”
I feel like I’m reading words off a script. We’ve said these things before, in the flesh.
“‘Grief doesn’t run on a timetable.’” We laugh mechanically at her old counselor’s cliché.
“How long has it been?” I ask, breaking with my memory of this conversation.
“Five weeks, three days. But I don’t want to talk about that.”
Julie reaches into the bottom drawer of her desk and pulls two Cokes out of a secret stash she stopped keeping when she gave up carbonation for Lent last year. She offers me a can, and I take it even though I hate drinking soda warm. It’s disorienting talking to a younger version of her when she has always been three months older than me. How many hours have I spent looking down at her from my perch on her bed without realizing that I held the privileged position?
We take sips in silence. The sun is starting to set between the leaves of the oak tree outside, and I feel my shoulders relax as the red scabs to brown in the fading light. For the first time ever, I find myself aligned with Mrs. Evans’ puritan sensibilities: there’s something vulgar about that kind of intensity.
I manage to choke down at least a half-liter of Coke from the seemingly bottomless can before Julie turns to me and says: “Do you remember the day we met?”
Of course I do. “Halfway through first grade.”
“What do you remember about it?”
“I remember that I was an idiot kid, and you saved me from my own stupidity.”
“You weren’t an idiot. You were lonely.”
I stretch my legs out, and shadows flutter across Julie’s blanket towards me like dark moths drawn to the white of my calves. They’re cool and soft like velvet, and it tickles where they brush my skin.
“A lonely idiot.” I kick my feet, and the shadows retreat. “I tried to play with third graders. They were painting squares of butcher paper, and I wanted to be an artist, so I thought we were perfect for each other until one of them grabbed a bottle of purple paint and sprayed it all over my skirt. Half the school was laughing at me.”
“But not everyone.” Julie laces her fingers behind her head and leans back.
“Not you. You had your hands on your hips, and you looked more serious than anyone our age ever looked.” The Julie Evans deathglare in its infancy. “You walked right up to that boy, snatched the bottle out of his hands, and aimed it into the gut of your tank top. Paint splattered everywhere. I wanted to slink off and hide in the bathroom, but you turned to me and said—”
“Purple is my favorite color.”
We look each other over in the deepening twilight. In fifth grade, our school threw the last pennies of our drama department’s dwindling budget into an avant-garde Halloween production of The Nutcracker. Julie played the hastily-edited role of the sugar pumpkin fairy, and looked perfectly at home in her orange and black tutu: delicate, blonde, radiant with quiet confidence. I was cast as a gnome.
“But purple isn’t your favorite color,” I say. “You lied.”
“If I hadn’t, would we be friends now?”
“We could have still been friends if you told the truth.”
“Are you sure?”
The ceiling lights snap on, flooding the room with a bloody tidal wave of color. My pupils burn in the sudden brilliance, and I lay a hand over my eyes, but it’s impossible to blind myself any longer. Even through the armor of my fingers, I see Julie shake her head.
“I think you’re afraid of the truth,” she says. “Afraid of how much you’ve tried to forget or ignore. Afraid I don’t care about you.”
“I’m not afraid. I know you.”
“Are you sure?”
I’m not sure. Not anymore.
Julie’s room dissolves, and the light fades to grey. I am chilled under a blanket of sweat in my own bedroom, where the clock reads ten past four. There’s something I’ve forgotten, something important I need to tell Julie now, even if I can’t quite grasp what it is.
I fumble for a sweater and a pair of jeans in the soft pre-dawn gloom, knowing I will see the absurdity of what I am about to do if I stop to turn on the lights. I slip down the stairs in my socks, holding my breath and hoping that I am the only insomniac haunting the house this morning.
Outside, I am the sole disturbance in a world so quiet I can hear the crunch of dew-stiffened grass beneath my feet. I orient myself towards flashes of headlights on the main road and walk with their light on my back. Everything is foreign at this time of day. The park where I grew up on hopscotch and Goldfish feels vaguely threatening when it’s empty, like the stillness of the swings is the aftermath of tragedy. The windows of the 7-Eleven are ablaze in a garish parody of an Edward Hopper painting. I walk quickly, head down, hands curled in the pockets of my sweater against the metallic cold of the early morning air.
It’s not until I reach the edge of Julie’s yard that the clues finally slot together in my mind and I remember what I forgot the day before.
“Oh, no,” I whisper. “I’m so sorry, Julie.”
But that won’t be enough to make up for what I didn’t say yesterday. I stop at the bottom of her front steps, stalled by sudden doubt. My breath surges out in silvery bursts like empty speech bubbles waiting for some rush of insight to fill them with words, some eloquence beyond the cleverness I have so often used to amuse and evade.
There’s something important I need to tell Julie, but I still don’t know what it is, so I sit down on her front steps to think and wait.
The first time Julie and I cried over love was five weeks and three days after her universe imploded with the predatory smell of burning rubber on asphalt. I was slouched in my familiar spot on her bed, wading my way through one last paper about the Odyssey before spring break, when I heard a sound like air being forced out of a tire. I glanced up, and Julie stared back at me with the bloodshot vacancy I would learn to associate with death.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She sighed. “Nothing. I’m just tired.”
“You’re still not sleeping?”
“‘Grief doesn’t run on a timetable.’” Her old counselor’s cliché.
“I’m worried about you. Does your mom know—”
“No, and you’re not going to tell her.” Julie’s voice was strained with anger lacquered over fear.
“It took her five days to get out of bed for more than a couple of hours. It was three weeks before she slept through the night. I made my own dinner for almost a month.” She took off her glasses and wiped them on her mulberry tank top. “I’m fourteen, Elena. I still need at least one parent who can take care of me.”
There was nothing I could say. The dual burdens of loss and duty were more than I could have lifted. I jumped off the bed and crawled into that ridiculous oversized office chair next to her, wrapping my arms around her as tightly as I could without adding to her bruises.
Julie blew her nose on my shoulder. We sat in comfortable silence.
I don’t know how long I held her, but it felt like hours, and my arms were numb when I finally stood up to go home.
Julie’s front door opens at a quarter past seven, and I jump up so fast I feel dizzy as she steps outside. If she notices me, she doesn’t show it. She’s not carrying my backpack like I hoped.
She steps nimbly around me onto the grass as I reach to grab her arm. Her eyes are fixed on the corner where the bus stops.
“Your dad—I forgot—I’m sorry.”
Julie stops cold, and I almost run past her. “You’re sorry. Is that all?”
“I’m—I’m really sorry. I can’t believe I forgot the anniversary. I couldn’t sleep because of it.” I try to make eye contact, but she won’t look at me. “This isn’t coming out right. I want to make things better, but I don’t know what to say.”
“You never do.” She starts walking again, more slowly now. “You didn’t say anything when I first told you over the phone, remember? I was fourteen, my dad had just died in a car accident, and I thought you had hung up. Two days later, we sat next to each other on the bus and all you said was ‘I’m sorry.’”
“I didn’t want to make it worse.”
“How could you have made it any worse? There were so many conversations I needed to have. I needed to talk about all those big silences, the gaps, the things no one told me I would miss. How could it have hurt for you to listen?”
My heart kicks into second gear, and I realize I’m angry in spite of myself. “That isn’t fair. You didn’t tell me what you needed.”
“And you didn’t ask.”
“Fine. I’m sorry.”
We reach the bus stop, but a pair of gangly ninth graders has already staked out the corner, so we cross the street before sinking to the sidewalk. Julie steals a sidelong glance at me, then shakes her head.
“Not good enough,” she says, turning away again to stare at the brick house on the opposite side of the road. “When I was thirteen, I broke up with my first boyfriend. We were learning polynomial division in math, and I didn’t understand how the afternoon could feel so empty. I was terrified of how much time he had left me to fill on my own. What did you do to try to understand that?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Neither do I. I guess it wasn’t much.”
“When I was twelve, my mom caught my dad cheating on her with his new paralegal. I had never heard her swear until the day she ran barefoot out onto the lawn and screamed that he was ‘full of fucking bullshit.’ I took refuge over at your house, but you teased me when I told you I would rather watch cartoons than listen to people shout at each other on Judge Judy.”
“Oh God, Julie, that was so long ago, and I didn’t find out until—”
“You said you loved me when we were in elementary school, but how well did you know me even then? You believed the first lie I ever told you, because it made a nice little subplot in the story of us. Yesterday was the second anniversary of my dad’s death—the worst day of my life—and you blew right past it.”
I let my breath out through gritted teeth. “Sorry I didn’t have it circled on my calendar. Forgive me, I’m human. You could have reminded me instead of—”
“You didn’t want me to remind you, Elena! You wanted to forget. You wanted another perfectly happy Julie-and-Elena afternoon, and there’s a part of you that thinks I should be over it already. After all, I have you.”
Julie sniffles. Her hands are clenched, and I can’t tell whether she’s fighting back tears or fighting not to hit me. I know I have to say something, but my thoughts have fragmented into a furious and terrified static that I can’t resolve into any words at all, let alone the right ones.
Then the bus is turning the corner, and Julie is standing up. Julie is walking away, and now I’m crying, tears and snot flowing hot and fast and sticky down my face.
“Julie, wait!” I shout. I stumble into the street after her, shoving aside my anger, ready to forgive first if that means I’ll be forgiven. “I want to know you better. I want to know your favorite color, your favorite song, your favorite Bible story. I want to fill in all the silences, even if the truths are less comfortable than the lies.”
She pauses while the ninth graders scurry onto the bus. Her back is to me, but I know she’s listening, and this is my chance—maybe my only chance—to say something that sticks. I take a deep breath, and try.
“I know you’re not just my other half, but I believe we’re more whole when we’re together than we are by ourselves, and that’s all I really mean when I tell you I love you.”
A confession: there is a moment when I am more than willing to let Julie go.
It’s five-thirty on Thursday afternoon, and I am running home with my arms raised against the barbs of ice-water rain—shivering, dribbling snot, and already soaked through to my underwear—when something inside me crumbles. I deserve better than this, I think.
I have waited nine years for Julie to tell me that our friendship is built on more than convenience and proximity; that it adds up to more than the sum of our shared experiences. I want to know that her faith in us is resilient enough to withstand past misunderstandings and the encroaching ambiguity of life after high school. I want to know that I mean as much to her as she means to me. I want to know that it would break her if I left.
There is a moment when I consider turning around and running back to Julie’s house, dripping wet and furious as the avenging ghost of something drowned. In my fantasy, Julie answers the door, and my fist crashes into her nose like she’s a piñata I’m intent on smashing open. Upstairs, I tear all the pictures off her wall, crumple them up, and throw them into her tacky violet trashcan like so much scrap paper. Kamikaze confidence surges through my veins, and I know for one glorious moment that I have wrenched back control of my emotional fate.
But I don’t do any of that, because I can imagine the moment after. The moment I feel the weight of everything I have shattered settle like broken glass in the pit of my stomach. The moment I realize Julie will never again help me bake cherry pie on March 14th or email me a choir of singing chinchillas on my birthday. The moment I understand that she has spent nine years embracing my quirks and imperfections with the grace of what can only be love.
Megan Mikhail recently graduated with a B.S. from Stanford University, where she studied biology and creative writing. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and can often be found reading poetry in the park or volunteering with young writers at local nonprofit 826 Valencia.