Ever since the three of you graduated from college, Gina has been different. The confidence and charisma that’s been her trademark throughout your entire lives seems to be draining out of her. She’s listless and petulant, pushing buttons and boundaries, doing that thing where she tries to make everyone prove that they’ll love her no matter what. And you will. And you’ll prove it as often as she wants. But you wish you didn’t have to.
Any and all attempts to talk about it are rebuffed with either a heavy-lidded stare or a snide comment. She’ll bottle it up until it explodes in everybody’s faces. That’s just the way she does things. Rox is less than helpful when it comes to pesky “girl problems” like experiencing human emotions. She can’t or won’t understand feeling helpless. She’s never had to. What she has isn’t even confidence, because that implies the possibility of being un-confident. She just is what she is. It’s impressive and infuriating at the same time. You wish she could walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but apparently, having empathy for others is exclusively your job.
It’s also your job to do all the cooking. If you didn’t, the two of them would try to survive on protein shakes and prepackaged frozen smoothies, respectively. You don’t mind being the only thing standing between your two best friends and certain malnutrition—you like to cook. The kitchen is your space, the place you feel most in control, more so than your bedroom, even. You just wish someone would help you do the dishes.
“Gina, do you want to dry?” you ask, waving a dishrag at her where she sits on the couch, scrolling on her phone. It’s Friday night, the conclusion to yet another thrilling post-grad week trapped in the dystopian clutches of the gig economy. She looks really, really tired in a way that no amount of panicked all-nighters or three-day benders had ever seemed to make her.
“Influencers don’t have to do chores,” she replies without even looking up.
“That’s really cool for them, but it doesn’t really answer my question.” That gets her attention. She narrows her eyes at you, but you just smile innocently.
“Fine.” She stands up and snatches the dishrag out of your hand. She turns on the old Bluetooth speaker you all share and bumps her cheesy goth music while she sashays around the kitchen putting the dishes away. You bob along to the grungy beat while you scrub.
“You got no moves,” she teases.
“You know I got moves,” you shoot back. You may know how to get under her skin, but she knows how to get under yours just as well. Your competitive streak is a mile wide.
“Your moves suck, dude.”
“My moves are legendary!”
When Rox comes in the front door ten minutes later with her boyfriend, the two of you have abandoned the dishes and are having a full-fledged dance-off in the kitchen. You’re whipping your ponytail back and forth, mid-shimmy, while Gina appears to be trying to do a way less coordinated Flashdance.
“What is this?” Rox asks, dropping her keys on the counter, blinking as if she’s just walked in on you in the middle of chopping up a body.
“Dance!” you command, out of breath. She stares blankly at you, but DJ obligingly busts a move. He’s almost too nice.
“Don’t encourage them,” she admonishes, dragging him off toward her bedroom.
You both collapse against the counter, giggling, more out of shape than you would like to admit. It’s really nice to see Gina smile, but you catch yourself before you say it out loud. She would just make fun of you.
“Do you have any plans for the night?” you ask once you get your breath back, moving to actually finish the dishes. The smile is gone from her face immediately.
“You’re looking at ‘em.”
In high school and college, she’d always had somewhere to be, someone to hang out with, guys blowing up her phone all weekend. She spends a lot more time alone now; you’re not sure what happened. Did all those admirers scatter, or is she isolating herself on purpose?
“You wanna hang out?” You glance at her out of the corner of your eye. She picks up the dish towel again and shrugs.
“Sure. What are we doing?”
“We could watch a movie—”
“Lame!” she interjects immediately, twisting the dish towel and whipping it at you. “Let’s go out.”
You dodge out of the way just before it hits your butt. All those years of gymnastics weren’t for nothing. “I should have known you were gonna say that.”
Once you’ve finally finished cleaning the kitchen, you go to your room to get ready. You stand in front of your closet for a long time, staring at your clothes, most of which would be better suited for a chill hang at the park than a club. You don’t really like dressing up; it always feels like wearing a Halloween costume. You’re good at blending in with a crowd. Gina is the showstopper. For her part, Rox isn’t even aware of how she looks at any given time. She’d wear sweatpants to a club and fail to see the problem when it was pointed out to her.
You finally settle on a silky lime-colored tank top that’s so old you’re pretty sure your dad bought it for you and a pair of black jeans you hope are fashionable. You let your long hair down from its usual ponytail and brush it out. Give it a shake so that it looks messy-on-purpose. Change your mind and brush it again. Good enough. It’ll take Gina at least ten times longer to get ready, so you might as well go and watch her work. Watching her put on makeup is like watching someone painstakingly retouch a famous painting; at least, for you it is.
“Gina, you have to do my makeup, you know I can’t—” You stop in the doorway of her bedroom, cutting yourself off mid-sentence. She’s sitting on her bed, still wearing the clothes she was in before. She’s put a headband on to keep her newly chopped hair out of her face while she does her makeup, but only one eyelid is sparkly purple. She’s staring down at the eye-shadow palette, crying softly.
You pick your way through the ever-present clutter on her floor and sit down on the edge of the bed. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
She shakes her head. “What’s the point?”
“What do you mean?”
“No matter what I do, I just feel so fucking empty.” You take the palette from her hand and tuck it back into her makeup bag, zipping it up and putting it aside. If there’s one thing you’ve gotten good at over the course of your parallel lives, it’s cleaning up after Gina.
She lets her forehead fall onto on your shoulder, and you wrap your arms around her, giving her a squeeze.
“I’m not even a person,” she sobs. “I’m a freakshow.”
“You are a person. One of my favorites.”
You’re so close to just spitting it out. It’s not the right moment, not even close, but keeping the secret is burning you alive. With her limp in your arms like a sad, goth Raggedy-Ann, her face wet against your bare shoulder, the life that you want seems so close and so infinitely far away at the same time.
You’ve never resented anything about your friendship. You’re the easy-going class clown, the girl who gets along with everyone, the perfect companion for two of the most difficult people in the entire universe. Gina may go through boyfriends as fast as she goes through black hair dye, but no matter what, you’ve taken for granted that you’ll always be inseparably close. It took you a long time, a lot of bargaining and pretending, to come to terms with how you feel about her. By the time you were anywhere close to okay with it, you were halfway through college. The two of you had too much history. You were afraid of losing your friendship. You still are.
“Do you still wanna hang out with me?” she asks after her tears have let up, voice small.
“I always wanna hang out with you.” She sits up, and you let her go. She wipes her face on her sleeve, smearing makeup everywhere.
“Where are your makeup wipes?” you ask. She points to the dresser, an antique piece painted black, where the wipes are sitting between a real cat skull and a messy box of charcoal sticks and pencils. You grab them and pull one out, hold it up and wait for her go-ahead. She nods her assent. You dab at her face gently, removing pale foundation and streaks of purple sparkles and whatever that stuff is that people put on their eyebrows. Underneath, her skin is blotchy and red from crying. She keeps her dark eyes locked on your face the whole time, even when she has to close one so that you can get the creases of her eyelid. By the time you finish, your heart has crawled halfway up your throat.
“There,” you say briskly just to break the silence, balling up the used wipes in your fist. “Never happened.”
“You look really pretty,” Gina sniffles, taking in your ensemble for the first time. “I always say you should take your hair down more often.” She reaches out and fluffs your hair with her fingers, somehow making it do exactly the thing you’d wanted it to do without even trying.
“Thanks,” you say with a small, self-conscious smile. Sometimes it feels like she knows. You’re not sure if that’s better or worse. You don’t want to think that she would use it against you even though that’s exactly what she does to everyone else: make them fall in love with her, wring whatever she wants from them, and then toss them aside when she’s done. You know that it’s not fair to think that way, but you can’t help it.
Before she can say anything else, Rox materializes in the doorway, eating a sandwich.
“What’s wrong with you two?” she asks with her mouth full, leaning against the door frame.
“What’s wrong with you? ” Gina shoots back, chucking a decorative pillow at her. “Were you raised in a fucking barn?”
“Yup,” Rox responds, letting the pillow glance off her shoulder, unconcerned. “Wanna watch a movie with me and Johnny? Nothing scary, ’cause then he’ll make me sleep with the lights on.”
“Don’t tell people that!” DJ yells from the living room, but he’s laughing.
“Sure,” Gina replies. “We were gonna go out, but I don’t really feel like it anymore.” Rox shoots a finger gun at her and wanders back into the living room.
“I better change, then,” you say. “Are you okay?”
She nods, taking her headband off and trying in vain to fix her hair. “You know me. Drama queen.”
You sit there for another moment, at a loss for words, before you stand up to leave. When you get to the doorway, you pause.
You breathe out hard, self-loathing welling up deep in the pit of your stomach. Maybe you’re the manipulative one, the one who only wants people for what you can squeeze out of them. You shake your head.