After college, my friend Vanessa dyed her hair brown. She kept a silicone stopper where her lip ring used to be and never wore a real hoop anymore. She didn't look like herself. I told her that once and she laughed and said, "I wasn't born with pink hair, you know."
She lived in frigid Minnesota now, where she moved for her boyfriend's job. I resented that she went with him, even if it was for a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic. I refused to go to Minnesota in the winter, and she refused to visit me because of the obligation to see her parents when she was in town. Miami was our compromise.
We ate dinner at one of those tourist restaurants on Ocean Drive. The kind of place where you knew you were being scammed, even if you couldn't pinpoint how. Across the street, homeless people slept in the park under palm trees lit with rope lights. A man jogged past wearing only short shorts. People were always running in South Beach, even at strange and unpleasant times of day.
I was the one to request outdoor seating, but now the cool metal chair bit at my bare legs and traitorous goosebumps sprang up on my arm.
"Do you want my sweater?" Vanessa produced a black, fuzzy cardigan from her tote. Even all bunched up I could see how dowdy it was, as if she had stolen it from a grandmother.
"I'm fine," I said. The restaurant music—some sort of generic mariachi—was so loud we had to raise our voices to hear each other.
Vanessa put the cardigan on and pulled her hair out of the collar. I tried to remember if she had four earrings in her left ear last time I saw her, or three. She looked like the perfectly nice yet evil new girlfriend of an overweight actor in a comedy movie.
"Nothing. You look very put together."
"Thanks." She smiled like she wanted to believe it.
The waiter came and I ordered us oversize novelty cocktails with offensive names like Sandy Balls and Bloody Bikini. I was still at the age where I hoped I wouldn't be carded and was disappointed when he asked for our IDs. The drinks came in margarita glasses so massive we had to move them aside to see each other. Several tables over a woman positioned a camera on a tripod, aimed at her food.
"Are you trying to get me drunk?" Vanessa said.
"Yes, and these are probably very expensive, so drink up."
I took a photo of her peeking out from behind the drinks. The photo was cute, although everything Vanessa did was cute. Even when she cried, she had these huge, adorable anime eyes that just made you want to protect her. I often wondered if she had to practice or if some people were just innately more loveable than others.
We talked like adults, asking how each other's parents were doing. We used to be so close we only bought one tube of toothpaste. Now I wasn't even sure if she had gotten the job she interviewed for a while back and I was embarrassed to not know the answer, so I didn't ask. She had been increasingly difficult to get in touch with, not answering my texts for hours, making it impossible to hold a conversation.
"What's the name of that guy you were dating? Andrew?" she said.
"Aiden? He's like two guys ago. I just started texting a new one, Steve, the other day. He owns a food truck. Seems promising."
"Oh, sorry. I have trouble keeping them straight."
Vanessa pulled her phone from her bag. On the beach that morning, we sunk our spiked seltzer cans into the sand as an airplane pulling an ad reading shoot machine guns! flew past. We had watched a couple roll around in the sand as if in bed, and when they walked to the water we saw the man was wearing boxer briefs, not a swimsuit, and couldn't stop laughing. Now the conversation kept stalling.
"Have you done anything irresponsible lately?" I said.
"Ahmed and I actually played hooky the other day to just stay in bed."
"No Ahmed talk. This is girls' weekend."
Vanessa sighed and made a face I didn't understand.
"I do like him you know," I said.
"The more you say that the less I believe you." She fidgeted with her phone. Then, so quickly it was almost one word, she said, "We're getting married."
"I think you mean, ‘Congratulations Vanessa, I'm so happy for you.'"
I looked down at the table, which was heavy wrought iron in a winding, floral design. A piece of French fry was stuck in the corner of a swirl. I pushed my finger into it, and the fry fell to the ground. "But getting married is so conventional."
"Maybe I'm tired of being unconventional."
The silicone stopper stuck out of her lip like a clear pimple. I tried to remember what she looked like with a real ring there. Back then she was fearless; we both were. Now she had filed off her sharp edges and made herself completely unremarkable. I hated her for it.
We used to stay out all night, going from an album release party to snorting lines of Adderall with a girl Vanessa met in the bathroom, to stashing cans of spray paint in our purses and vandalizing a Whole Foods with a notorious graffiti artist. I tried to be wild and brave without her, but I just kept drinking too much at bars and stumbling home alone. When she agreed to come to Miami, I thought my campaign to win her back had been successful. I now saw the real reason she came: to dump me.
"Why don't you just let your lip ring hole close. It's not like you ever wear one anymore anyway."
"Stop being so immature."
"When you stop pretending to be middle-aged, sure."
Our drinks no longer seemed festive, but pathetic and embarrassing. I wanted to get the check and leave, but the waiter had vanished. Around us, other diners ate their salads and drank their overpriced cocktails, skin glowing red from sunburn. I felt sorry for all of us, trying so hard to be happy.
The man at the table next to ours leaned over. "Excuse me," he said. "Are those drinks any good?"
He had a tan, handsome face and was sitting by himself. I felt the lift of possibility in my chest.
"They're disgusting, but you should get one," I said. "Do you want to try mine?"
The tables were packed so close he didn't even need to get up. I passed him the huge glass with both hands and watched the muscles in his forearms ripple under the skin like ribbons.
He took a sip and made a face. "It tastes like tropical battery acid."
I asked if he wanted to join us and glanced at Vanessa conspiratorially, but she was looking away, toward the street.
He told us his name was Will and he was on sabbatical from an impressive-sounding finance job. He asked what we were doing in Miami and I told him we were college friends and this was our reunion.
"And how's it going?" He leaned back in the chair and crossed his ankle over his knee in that confident, masculine way I found irresistible.
Vanessa took a deep breath and let it out slow, smiling with her lips pressed together.
"We're just trying to be normal," I said.
"Is she always this quiet?" Will said, gesturing towards Vanessa. I had never heard someone describe her as quiet before. I tried to see her through Will's eyes—sitting there with the cardigan on, hair tucked behind her ears.
"We're fighting because she told me she's engaged."
Will threw his hands up in a performance of excitement. "What? That's amazing! Let me see the ring."
"It's out getting resized, but thank you." Vanessa looked at me when she spoke.
"She used to be fun, you know," I said to Will. "My mother called her a ‘bad influence.'"
"Please," Vanessa scoffed. "I'm the reason you're still alive."
"And the reason I almost died in the first place."
"I seem to recall staying up all night with you and washing the sheets after you threw up in the bed." She took her drink in both hands and brought it to her lips. A clear puddle of water had formed on top where the ice had melted.
I put my hands on the table in mock indignation. "That was from the drugs you gave me."
Will looked to Vanessa for a response. She shrugged.
I continued, not wanting to lose the momentum. "I had a headache once and asked her for an Advil. You know what she gave me?"
"No, you make it sound so bad." Vanessa leaned over the table, trying to cover my mouth.
"Wait, I want to hear." Will batted her hands out of the way as though he were looking for an excuse to touch her. Before I could say the punchline, one of them, or maybe both of them, knocked into Vanessa's half-full drink and it tipped off the edge of the table. The thick glass broke into large chunks, red liquid spreading like sweet blood on the sidewalk. The restaurant was so loud, hardly anyone even turned to look.
Will leapt up. "Let's go." He took one big step over the velvet rope barrier and strode up the street. I clapped my hands together in excitement and followed him. I didn't look back, but I could hear the slap of Vanessa's flip-flops behind me and her sharp intake of breath.
Will waited for us on the next corner with his hands in his pockets. He was shorter than I had hoped and looked as if he once worked out, but not in a long time. His jeans were splattered with the spilled drink, and I wondered if he had been lying about the finance job. He looked glad to see us, proud even. I linked my arm through Vanessa's, and she didn't stop me. The night was cooling off, and I wanted to do something reckless.
We went to another bar with booming music so loud it made my ribcage vibrate. A three-person conversation was impossible, so we drank fast and took shots. Will paid for everything and swayed like a palm tree. Once, when the bartender had been ignoring him, I heard him say bitch under his breath. I decided he had been telling the truth about the finance job and was probably a bad person.
At one point a man with a chinstrap beard came up to Vanessa and said something I couldn't hear. She smiled at him vaguely and nodded, and he took her by the hand and spun her around as though they were dancing. Men were always doing things like this to her—acting overfamiliar. I used to think it was because she was hotter than me, but I had come to realize it was because she had an air of vulnerability I lacked. When she was drunk, she looked pretty and slightly dumb, like a baby animal. Unsavory men were drawn to her. I found it terribly unsettling, but I was still jealous.
We left the bar and went back to the street, plunging into the crowd as if jumping in a river. It was getting late, and the street was busier than ever. A high-top passenger van with the sliding door open cruised past, the bachelorette party inside dancing in their seats, a woman near the door holding the unbuckled seatbelt like a suicide bar. Two cops stood on the corner talking, thumbs looped in the armpits of their bullet-proof vests. On a side street, an expensive-looking sports car idled, butterfly doors open, shaking from the bass. I could have stayed out there all night, just waiting for something to happen.
We stopped and sat on the stone wall separating the sidewalk and the beach. Vanessa and I clung to each other as if we needed the other to sit up straight.
"I want a cigarette," I said.
"I want a cigarette," Vanessa repeated.
Will went to buy cigarettes while we sat on the wall. When he came back, he realized we didn't have anything to light them with and sighed loudly, but still went back for matches.
We smoked and walked down to the water. The breeze off the ocean was cool like glass, and the beach was so quiet it felt as if we were underground. Lights from a cargo ship offshore glinted on the horizon.
My cigarette was finished, but Vanessa had some left. I pulled her wrist to my face and took a drag. Will stood very still watching us.
I didn't know how to make men want me the way they wanted Vanessa, but I knew this—I turned my head and kissed her on the cheek. Will's eyebrows moved slightly as if it were physically painful to watch.
Vanessa recoiled. We looked at each other, and I saw an intensity in her gaze I wasn't sure was love or hate. I thought she might hit me. I wanted to say, I'm sorry, I don't know how to make people love me.
Then she leaned in and kissed me full on the mouth. Her lips were soft and parted, she tasted like coconut. She wrapped her arm around the back of my neck. I wanted to tell her she was a hypocrite, but it was a bad time to reignite the fight.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Will run his hand through his hair and take a deep breath. "Oh fuck," he whispered.
We stopped kissing—that kind of performance can only go on for so long—and Vanessa laughed as if this was the first time we had kissed and not what we used to do all the time, just for the attention.
Vanessa's cigarette had gone out, and she tossed it in the sand. I wanted another, but with all the wind, lighting a match would be a pain. None of us noticed the headlight getting closer until it had almost reached us. On the sand, the vehicle was nearly silent. It was a beach cop in a big-wheeled golf cart.
"Beach is closed," the cop called out.
"Fuck off," Vanessa shouted.
The cop shined his flashlight at us. I put my hand up to shield the glare. "I'm going to have to ask you to move on, honey. Beach will be here tomorrow." I couldn't see his face, but I thought he was smiling. I got that unsettled feeling again.
"We don't want to move along," Will said, aggressively. He stepped in front of us.
The cop got out of the cart. "Listen, buddy. The beach is closed."
"No," Will said, childishly.
"Put your hands where I can see them," the cop said.
I looked to Vanessa. She was a silhouette in the dim moonlight, tall and brave, a shape familiar to me as my own. Behind her, the receding tide frothed like milk. I didn't see what happened next—Vanessa grabbed my hand and we ran as fast as we could down the beach, away from Will, away from everything.
Title image "Neutral Territory" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2022.