(With lines from Vera Lynn)
The music flickers like bruised light, her mom’s vinyl irritated by the record player needle. I’m lying on her couch, my arm draped over the edge, eyes fluttering in and out of sleep. I can see her barefoot in the kitchen through the static clouding my vision. Her hair stops at her chin, feathery and wind-whipped, like she’s been standing at a train station for hours, waiting. She’s humming the song on the record player. Sweet. Lilting.
“Vera Lynn,” she says. “She’s one hundred years old now.”
I don’t know who Vera Lynn is. I nod. My forehead burns. I’m sick and I want to say so, but I feel she already knows. The music is making promises it knows it won’t keep but it makes anyway, out of love or desperation. The two aren’t all that different. We’ll meet again, Vera Lynn croons. Don’t know where, don’t know when. But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day. Sun reflecting on the river in the early hours of the morning or bursting over ragged cliffs near the ocean. Blinding.
It was the city, not the sun, that blinded us as we limped at fatal paces across the street. We stared directly into the headlights of the oncoming cars only to leap onto the sidewalk at the last second, our kohl-lined eyes defiant. The roar of the engines in our ears. Daring them to not stop, to slam through our ephemeral bodies and watch us dissolve into dust.
She’s still wearing her black cocktail dress from the party. I’m still wearing my heels. I drag myself up and begin undoing the laces that embrace their way up my ankles. They leave a red impression on my legs, spiraling like geometry.
She comes over to the couch. Her shoes are long since gone, but she walks on her toes. She’s carrying a chipped white mug. She looks like ballet. She hands me the mug and I smile. Hot chocolate, fresh. The music has changed from promising to begging. Besame mucho. Kiss me.
She sits cross-legged in the space where my feet used to be. I tuck a stray tuft of hair behind her ear, my fingers foreign to the abrupt ends.
It happened an hour ago, at the party, before I realized the punch was spiked and after she’d been whistled and sweet talked and stupid bitch-ed too many times. We locked ourselves in the bathroom with a pair of scissors. I knew what to do. She said she wanted to look liberated, a girl on the roof of a building, drinking straight from the bottle, waxed and spiteful. Chunks of brown fell into the sink. When I was done, her hair fluffed out from her head like a halo. Less flapper and more angel, jumping right off that roof and flying.
My hand falls back to my mug, running my thumb along the rim. The clock next to her parents’ wedding photo is poised perfectly at twelve. Midnight. Midnight and we’re wilting on her couch, freezing, shoes sprawled across the floor. Cinderellas of the new millennium.
The song changes again and she starts singing, resting her head on my shoulder. “There’ll be love and laughter,” she murmurs, “and peace ever after. Tomorrow, when the world is free.”
A pause. Then, she explains: “It’s a war song. From ‘42.”
She’s obsessed with the world wars, with blood black-and-white. She can reenact scenes from Casablanca and I fall asleep in the hours she spends rewatching it, dwindling Saturday nights where I can hear the heartbeat of the city when I fall asleep on the floor of her apartment: the veins of cars, neon antibodies.
We didn’t bother to wash her hair down the sink. We left the bathroom and no one noticed her new locks with their unfettered ends. We went to the kitchen where kids, sound-saturated youth, took shots from candy-red cups. Everything was sugar and sweat and smooth legs, razor cuts up to the thigh. Girls climbed onto the table and danced to a cacophony of slurs and catcalls. I threw back glasses of punch from a backwashed bowl. Three before I let words slip through my numb lips like bullets, careless. Four before I climbed onto the table and stumbled more than danced, drugged appeal, kicking abandoned cups onto the floor. Five before a space between, a tooth gap, a gauzy strip of blackness, ruined memory. Then we were on the streets and I was clinging to her shoulder as she pulled me along the sidewalk.
She shook her head. “I can’t believe you made out with Kyle.”
“Who,” —ragged breathing— “the fuck” —manic giggling— “is Kyle?”
She rolled her eyes. “Forget about it.”
“Jealous?” I slurred, each syllable clunky and unbearable. When she didn’t answer, I said, “You look hot,” which was the truest thing I would never say sober.
“You’re drunk,” she replied. Also true. We left it at that.
She’s dead tired, her head resting in the crook of my neck. Her lipstick is glassy and there’s streaks of glitter painting the side of her face. “Layla?” I whisper.
I fumble for the lamp switch. A satisfying click, and then darkness.
The music plays on.
Yasmeen Khan is a student whose work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She lives in Texas and enjoys eating mangoes.