Jess begins to wonder which habits to keep and which to break.
By Karli Shields
“I really don’t think cocaine is vegan.”
Jess says this casually, like it was what they had been talking about all along. She and Anna aren’t smoking cocaine, but they are sitting on the roof smoking. Jess knows her mom would think smoking is just as bad as anything else, a gateway to a life of drugs and crime and desperation. The girls are almost old enough to smoke, but not quite. Anna begged her brother Charlie to buy a pack for them. She says it was because she was pulled over by her old D.A.R.E. officer last week and remembered how much she hated that guy, so really they are on the roof out of spite. Jess has noticed that Anna does a lot of things out of spite. When they have the one English sub who always makes them read Hemingway stories, Anna won’t do any of the reading. This is because the first time Mr. Hegstad subbed for them he didn’t pronounce Anna’s last name correctly, and Anna is Polish, so he was clearly being discriminatory. Jess didn’t point out that “Brzozowksi” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Something tells Jess that Anna wasn’t really pulled over by her old D.A.R.E. officer. Anna probably wants to take up smoking because now she and Colin, whose sweatshirts always smell like stale cigarettes, could actually have something in common for once. But Jess doesn’t say anything. Instead, she just thinks about how she’s smoking on the roof because her best friend told her to, even though she’s never done anything bad in her life, and her mom will be so disappointed when she finds out, and she’s on her second cigarette already and can’t figure out why, and at the rate they’re going they might as well start buying blow from the drug cartel.
So that’s why Jess mentioned the cocaine. Anna became a vegan about a month ago because her brother Charlie said there was no way in hell she could do it. Jess doesn’t tell Anna that she saw her eating chicken nuggets in the caf last Friday. But Anna seems pretty serious about the vegan thing on the whole, and while she’s never mentioned starting up a cocaine habit, she’s never not mentioned it, so maybe Jess could stop the idea before it ever comes to fruition.
Anna finishes exhaling before she answers. Jess holds her breath until the smoke blows away. “Jess, what the fuck?”
“I’m just saying, I don’t think it’s vegan. I read somewhere that it can have lactose in it.”
“So, you’re a vegan now. You can’t have lactose.”
“You’re so weird sometimes.”
“I just—” Jess coughs, then rubs the cigarette out on a shingle. “I just thought you should know.”
“Whatever. So, I’m trying to convince Colin not to get a haircut. He always cuts it too short and it looks weird for like three weeks, and I really can’t handle that right now.”
The next week Anna officially gives up veganism, so cocaine is still on the table. Well, not really, but they are back out on Jess’s roof with the same pack Charlie bought them. There’s only enough room for them to lean back against Jess’s window, and she’s afraid that her mom will look into her bedroom and see what they’re doing. It’s been an hour, and she’s going to call them down for dinner soon, probably. But they’re both almost done with their cigarettes. Or, at least, Jess thinks they are. She doesn’t really know how you can tell.
“I told my mom you’re eating meat again,” Jess says.
“You weren’t supposed to tell her I stopped in the first place.”
“You eat here, like, every other night.”
“Yeah, but I don’t need Sharon knowing I failed. Veganism is totally overrated, anyway, but still.”
Jess waits for Anna to take a long drag. She doesn’t cough. Anna’s gotten the hang of this whole thing rather quickly.
“Does Charlie know yet?”
“Nope. Whenever he graces me with his presence I just eat a salad.”
“And you’re gonna keep that up forever?”
Anna faces Jess and exhales with a flourish. The smoke forces Jess to close her eyes.
“Jessica, darling, have you learned nothing about me?”
Jess and Anna have been friends since they were five years old. Their mothers met in a neighborhood book club, and once a week Anna and her mother would come over to Jess’s house. They would go play while their mothers pretended to have read Oprah’s pick of the month. Anna continued to be dropped off at Jess’s house long after the book club disbanded. Anna liked Jess because Jess would watch Anna play the Sims and let her talk about all the gross boys in their classes. Jess liked Anna because she’d sometimes give Jess her extra fruit snacks during lunch—the grape ones Anna didn’t like—and because she once punched Jack Matthews for throwing mud at them during recess. After school almost every day, Anna would come over to Jess’s house, and the two would sit and talk and, while the Sim version of Jack Matthews was swimming, they’d remove all of the ladders from the pool and watch him drown.
When Jess and Anna were in the fifth grade, Anna decided it would be fun to change up their routine and sit in Jess’s dad’s study with glasses of apple juice and a bag of pretzel sticks and pretend they were drinking whiskey at a cigar club. They would take long drags from the pretzel sticks and talk about serious adult things, of course. They started doing this every day for almost a year. One time Jess asked why Anna’s dad was never home anymore. They never went in the study after that.
It’s almost seven years later, and Jess wants to ask Anna if she remembers the apple juice and the pretzel sticks, but decides against it. They are on the roof again, talking about serious adult things. Of course.
“The thing is, I don’t even care that he waited until two weeks before the dance,” Anna says, pulling the BIC lighter from her sweatshirt pocket. “It’s that he wrote ‘Homecoming?’ on a soccer ball. We get it, I play soccer.” She pauses to hold the cigarette with her teeth so she can shield the flame with her other hand. When she’s done, she hands the lighter to Jess and pulls the cigarette from her mouth. “We’ve been dating for a year. He couldn’t come up with anything better?”
Jess nods in agreement. She doesn’t try to light the cigarette resting in her fingers. She just plays with the lighter a bit, gently running her thumb over the spark wheel. “I told Colin to come to me if he wanted ideas,” she finally says.
“Yeah, well, for prom, he fucking better. I swear, Jess, that boy needs to shape up.”
Jess lights her cigarette. She doesn’t tell Anna that Colin had, in fact, already come to her for ideas.
It’s Jess’s birthday, and Anna goes with her to the 7-11. Jess buys herself a scratch-off to celebrate. They sit on the curb, drinking Slurpees and scratching off numbers. Anna picks them. Jess wins five dollars. But really, Anna was the one who did all the work, so technically those five dollars belong to her. So Jess goes back inside and buys a pack of Marlboros for the two of them for later.
Jess’s mom asks Anna if she wants to go to Olive Garden with them tonight, and Anna says yes. Their waiter is young and cute and tells Jess he likes her shirt before he even introduces himself to the rest of the table. The shirt in question is emblazoned with the logos of a few sci-fi shows Jess still watches even though Anna sometimes makes fun of her for it. Jess blushes and says thank you, and then the pair have a brief discussion about their favorite characters. They’re well into discussing the finer points of “Doctor Who” when they’re interrupted by a loud cough from Anna. The waiter apologizes and asks what everyone wants to drink, winking at Jess before he walks away. Jess wore makeup tonight, which she usually doesn’t do. She’s sort of surprised that he isn’t paying extra attention to Anna, which is what usually happens, but Anna also didn’t have time to do her hair after soccer practice today, so maybe that was it.
Every time the waiter comes to check on them, he uses another reference to the shows, smiling at Jess every time he fills her water glass or grates cheese on her salad. Anna rolls her eyes and calls them nerds, just affectionately enough so that Jess doesn’t think anything about it. Anna’s been uncharacteristically quiet the whole dinner, constantly fiddling with her phone even though she knows Sharon hates that. Jess guesses that Colin won’t text her back.
After he brings them their third round of breadsticks, Anna announces that she and Jess have to go to the bathroom.
Jess is used to bathroom excursions with Anna, but she’s not used to Anna’s silence. She wonders if something other than Colin is pissing her off.
“The waiter’s cute, right?” Jess asks while she’s washing her hands.
“He’s okay,” says Anna.
“I think he’s hitting on me.” This doesn’t happen to Jess, not a lot, anyway, and it’d be nice to have the reassurance.
“It’s your birthday, Jessica. He wants a bigger tip.”
Jess dries her hands in silence. Anna checks her phone, impatient, and announces that if her chicken parmesan doesn’t come out soon she’s going to throw something.
Jess and Anna are sitting on the roof smoking, because of course they are. Homecoming was a disaster, and Anna had to come over so she could do something to make herself stop shaking with rage. That’s what Anna says, anyways, but Jess knows they’re only smoking so that if Anna starts crying she has something else to blame.
The two of them look ridiculous, still in their dresses, wrapped in the quilt Jess’s grandma made for her, chain smoking whatever was left of the pack Jess bought at the 7-11. But the occasion, Anna assures Jess, certainly calls for it.
Colin and Anna broke up. It happened at the dance, without any warning. Jess thinks about saying there was actually plenty of warning for everyone but Anna. Colin had stopped letting Anna borrow his sweatshirts because his second period Spanish class was too cold. He had mysteriously started getting out of English class too late to meet Anna at her locker before 5th period. Sometimes Jess had seen him outside the auditorium before school talking to Becca Handler when he should’ve been walking Anna to her homeroom. And tonight, he forgot to buy Anna a corsage. Jess could try to explain all of these warning signs to Anna, but then she remembers how easy it would be for Anna to push her off the roof. Anna wouldn’t do it, not really. But it wouldn’t help anything if Jess told her the truth, so she doesn’t.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” Jess asks.
“No,” says Anna. Her hands have stopped shaking, even though her teeth are chattering from the cold. Jess knows that Anna very much wants to talk about it, and that she’s waiting for Jess to say all the you’re-too-good-for-hims and he-doesn’t-deserve-yous that a best friend is supposed to say. But for once, Jess doesn’t really feel like lying to her, and just continues smoking.
“I can’t believe him!” Anna says after a few minutes. “He actually had the nerve. Homecoming. Senior year Homecoming, and he goes and screws me over.”
“At the dance. At the actual, motherfucking dance. I can get over the breakup, really. High school relationships are overrated. But to mortify me in front of the entire school… Who the hell does he think he is?”
“I don’t know…”
Anna turns towards Jess and makes a point of rolling her eyes. “That’s all you ever say. ‘Yeah,'” Anna imitates Jess, giving her a high-pitched voice she doesn’t have, “‘I don’t know.’ Real helpful, Jess. Great to hear in a crisis. I’m beginning to wonder why I keep you around.”
This doesn’t sting as much as Jess thinks it should. Anna has probably said worse to her before, when she’s angry. But, on the principle of the thing, she plucks Anna’s cigarette from her mouth and rubs it out on the roof, announcing that it was time for Anna to go home. Anna grabs Jess’s arm, tentatively.
“Jess, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
Jess and Anna are sitting on the roof. They’re not smoking. Jess’s mom found the empty box of Marlboros in Jess’s trashcan and went ballistic. Anna points out that it was weird Sharon found the box in the first place, the two of them were normally so careful. Jess shrugs. It was an honest mistake.
Anna takes out the BIC lighter and begins playing with it. She looks a little lost, honestly, and for a minute Jess is almost sad. Anna tries to talk about Colin again, but stops, maybe realizing that this is the third time in a week that she’s tried to tell the story of their disastrous second date and how she really should have taken that as a sign to not date him in the first place. They listen to the Henderson’s golden retriever bark at a passing car, and Jess notices for the first time just how much of the talking Anna did for the two of them. Jess doesn’t feel like trying to fill the silence, so she doesn’t.
Instead, she wonders how hard it will be to quit smoking.
Karli Shields is a recent graduate of Knox College, where she received her BA in Creative Writing with minors in theatre and film studies. She was a finalist in the 2016 ONSTAGE national play competition, and her work has appeared in “Catch” and “Quiver” magazines. By day, Karli is an editor for an eCommerce site; by night, she has side gigs in improv comedy and vigilante justice. She lives in Chicago, where the pizza is better.