My prettiness is wasted tonight.
Frances wanted to sit at the back of the bus, but has settled for the middle so that she doesn’t have to sit next to anyone. It is a cold clear night. Her bare lips are stained, the souls of glasses of red wine. Her phone lies silent in her pocket, settled against her thigh.
Frances goes out on Friday nights. All her friends go out on Friday nights. Usually they get together first and drink until they are rosy and alive, until their secrets come tumbling from their tongues into each other’s open palms. They talk about the things that happened to them over the past week; inanities become important and tragedies are passed off as dramas. Then cleansed, triumphant in their communal girlhood, they help each other straighten dresses and fix hair and march off into yet another night of neon youth.
This Friday night is like every other. Her evening class finished, Frances makes the short, cold walk through the warm bustle of campus. She feels good. She’s wearing her favourite jacket and new jeans. She took the time to do her hair this morning. She feels like the whole world might be looking at her. On the way to the bus stop, she takes out her phone to see what her life has been doing without her. Messages from other girls, full of giggles two-dimensionalized and burgeoning plans. An email from her mother. Right, must call tomorrow. Finally, the important one:
Hey bitch. Drinks at 9 at Lucy’s.
Frances feels the tiny, secret thrill of being called a bad word by your best friend.
The bus ride home is quiet. The young people are absorbed in their own worlds, plugged in to the anticipation of tonight and tomorrow, the as-yet virgin time between now and another Monday. Older people, ones with serious jobs and families tucked away in distant suburbs, sit with half-closed eyes, letting the slackening mood of the city wash over them. Frances texts busily.
She gets off the bus at the right stop, unlocks her door, takes off her shoes. Her room mates are all at home.
“Hey girl! Lucy’s at nine.”
“Yeah, I know. Kate texted me. What are you wearing?”
She eats dinner quickly and has a glass of wine, just to get started. She sings in the shower, songs she hopes to dance to later tonight. Then it begins. Bottom drawer, black stockings. The first ones have a run. She throws them out and puts on a new pair. The dress. Three are tried on and discarded before the perfect one is found. It is examined critically, at angles. Its skirt sits perfectly flat across her hips, flaring out a little at the bottom. It cradles her small waist and neat bosom and opens at the neck to reveal strong, taut skin. Frances knows that one day her skin will lose its shape in all the used places like an old pair of jeans, but she cannot feel it yet. She hangs a long chain and bauble around her neck – not the jewellery her family gives her for birthdays. Then the hair, half up in a way that she hopes looks effortless, the rest falling around her shoulders. Ready for anything. Through all this, girls swirl in and out of the room steadily.
“Can I borrow your shirt with the cut-outs?”
“Are you wearing your high-waisted jeans?”
“Do you think Curtis will be there? I don’t want to see him, but I feel like if he’s there I’ll, like, have to talk to him.”
Frances laughs and suggests through it all, always the helpful friend. Finally, she closes her door so she can be alone for the last and most important part. She plasters her face in even peach and then apples her cheeks. Slowly, carefully, she draws a dark frame around her eyes. She tars her lashes just so and places strategic spots of glitter at the corners of her lids. Last of all, she spreads thick, strong colour over her stretched smile, traces her cupid’s bow, covering up every millimeter of lip. Just as she turns for one last look in the mirror, the door is conquered by the room mates’ siege.
“Hurry up, it’s time to go!” And the night begins.
They all pile into the crowded bus to go to Lucy’s. Teenagers carrying poisoned Seven-Up bottles maintain a steady barrage of obnoxious, giddy laughter. People with sad jobs and denim skin are just now coming home from work. A lady at the front of the bus stares straight out the window, cradling a grocery bag on her lap. Her eyes are deeply weary. Frances’ roommates are discussing potentials for the night. Who will look best, who will be a mess, who will kiss whom. Frances laughs along, glances into the reflective surface of the bus at intervals. Behind her face, she can see the dark sky skulking heavy over still-lit shops.
When they arrive, Lucy comes to the door of her apartment. She is tall, thin, and Asian, and takes understated pride in her pseudo-exoticism. She’s wearing her favourite outfit: sky-high socks and infinitesimal shorts. They emphasize the subtle triangle nestled between her thighs.
“Hurry up, bitches. We’re already drinking.”
The gaggle of girls takes the stairs two at a time up to the apartment. Frances is the last one through the door. High-pitched kerfuffle greets her. Through the flurry of hugs, her friend Kate grabs her and drags her to a couch. For a split, safe second, Frances is wrapped in thin arms and affection. Then Kate thrusts her away, looks her up and down.
“I think what you’re wearing is perfect. Stand up,” she orders. Frances stands, twirls. “Yeah. So cute.”
“Thanks!” A moment of triumph. “It’s a new dress.” She perches on the edge of the couch once more. “What’s the plan?”
“We. Are going. To have. The best time tonight.” Kate proceeds to list a bright streak of places and names, the other girls chiming in. Frances feels excitement rise in her stomach and her head starts humming with possibilities. Someone puts a glass of wine in her hand, followed in a few minutes by a shot of vodka.
Boys have been invited tonight. They lumber into the apartment. They are somehow too big for the room and for a moment, they stand awkwardly suspended in the doorway. Then Lucy jumps up to greet them, and the party is resumed, the yammer instantly becoming more crazed. The smells of whiskey and pot mingle with hairspray and vodka, and a lower rumble settles in underneath the bright, burbling conversation.
Frances is introduced to a Jack and a Tim and a Roy. Jack starts talking loudly about a rapper that he has allegedly discovered. Frances thinks that his exaggerated arm movements make him look like a vertiginous stork. She has another drink and joins Tim and Roy in a very intense conversation about campus politics in which they all nod at each other a lot. Tim has a sweet, crooked smile, and he looks over at her often. Frances thinks this is making her dizzy, but she has also lost track of how much she has drunk.
After a while, Kate comes bursting into their little circle, a gleaming force of delight. “Stop being so serious.”
“We’re not being serious.”
“Are too. It’s fucking Friday night!”
The party crescendos up and up and up, noisier and more colourful, the conversation becoming more excitable and the flirtation more overt. At this point everyone is breathing liquor like dragons, and in the corner Frances thinks she sees Lucy and Jack and a few of the other girls taking some kind of pill. She and Tim are talking – she has forgotten what about, but she is laughing, throwing her head back. She is giddy and charming. Then someone puts music on. Some of the girls abandon self-consciousness and dance, more join, the rhythm of conversation competes with the rhythm of aggressive electronica. And just when it seems that the apartment cannot hold all the light and energy, that it will burst and send them all, projectile, into the black night, the clarion call sounds: “Bus comes in THREE MINUTES!” Everyone clambers for scarves and coats and purses, jostles for one last look in the mirror. Then they are out the door, a flurry of resilient limbs and smiling shouts, dashing for the stop. On board, they occupy the bus completely. Impossible to notice anyone else.
The club is chaos. The music pounds until Frances’ brain loses touch with her body. She is drawn into the tangle of sweaty people; her friends seem to have disappeared the moment they walked in the door. She looks around desperately, her stomach tightening. Where ARE they? Through the crowd, she spies a familiar face. Tim, with his crooked smile. She waves. He comes over and takes her hand. She wishes she’d had time to fix her hair.
“Want to sit down?”
They find a booth by the bar and order drinks. They send shy glances at each other over the table. She giggles and he starts laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” she asks.
“I’m laughing because you’re laughing!”
“I’m a little bit drunk,” she confesses, as if it is an intimate detail.
“Aren’t we all.” He lets out another laugh, this time laced with something bitter. “How old are you?”
“And you’re still having fun?”
“What do you mean?”
He gestures to the club at large with his drink. “You’re not tired of it yet?”
She pauses, unsure of the answer. Then she narrows her eyes at him. “You think you’re cooler than me because you’re bored of clubs? These are my friends. This is what we do on Friday night.” He looks comically surprised for an instant, and then his face settles back into placidity. “And you’re here too.”
He shrugs. “Whatever. Want to go dance?”
On the dance floor, Frances can feel strangers’ body parts touching her. Normally this would make her uncomfortable, but on Friday night it is exhilarating, all the unknown particles of someone else’s skin jittering up against hers. Her head feels light and she moves to the music without thought. She and Tim are pressed very close together by the other dancers around them. He is clutching a handful of fabric at the back of her dress, which she finds odd, but she doesn’t mind. I don’t mind! And then his lips are on hers, and this, too, is exciting, they have just barely met and his lips are warm and wet and his tongue is in her mouth and she feels vaguely nauseous – Barf or butterflies?– and then they are kissing. After what seems like ages, he pulls away with an expression she can’t interpret. She looks up at him earnestly. He scratches his head.
“I have to go now, so…”
What’s that supposed to mean? Am I supposed to offer to go with him?
They stand looking at each other, their closeness now awkward.
“You’re so pretty,” he says. “I had a lot of fun with you.” Then he turns and leaves. Frances watches him go in bafflement, being bumped in the back and the sides by other people’s elbows and asses. Right.
Just then, Kate emerges out of the crowd, half-lurching. She wears the remnant of a wide, giddy laugh and her hair is messy. She takes both of Frances’ hands, catches her up in a just-invented dance move. Frances lets herself be swung around, limp and dizzy.
“Where the heck did you go?” she asks Kate.
“I’m dancing! Why aren’t you dancing?”
“I don’t feel like it right now.”
Kate stops, immobile against the blur of the night, and cradles Frances’ chin. She steadies her eyes on Frances’ pupils.
“But you’re always my best partner in crime.” Reanimated, she leaps up onto her tiptoes and gestures to someone in the crowd. “I’ll get you another drink.”
“Kate, no. I’m just tired.”
“You can’t be tired! This is life!”
“I – ”
But Kate is gone again, flowed back into the writhing organism of strangers.
Frances is sitting in the middle of the bus. Her hair is still in place. She reapplies her lipstick in her pocket mirror. She wonders if anyone wonders where she is, but her phone lies completely still. The bus is almost empty at this time of night, and silent. It floats down the street, a dim tube of moving light, indifferent to the world outside. At the next stop, the doors whoosh open and a drunken crow of a man is blown in. He wears a long black leather jacket. Greasy grey tendrils frame dancing eyes and a sparse mustache. He swings into the seat opposite Frances and begins to address the bus generally.
“These city women don’t like me. Been eight years that no woman loved me.”
He sways dangerously, his eyes half closed. He opens his mouth too much when he speaks, cavernous gaps and rotting molars.
“I don’t love…don’t love no one anymore. ‘Cept vodka.”
He chuckles grotesquely at himself. Frances is scared. Suddenly, he looks straight at her, and she realizes she has been staring. He will not let her go.
“I was young too, eh? Like all you pretty little people.”
Her mouth is opening and closing noiselessly. She is paralyzed, a goldfish skewered on a harpoon.
“You think I don’t know what it’s like? Think it’ll make you happy, eh.”
She cannot look away. He turns from her for a second, looking out the window, and then, before she knows what is happening, he has jumped from his seat and is bearing down on her, arms outstretched, mouth wide open.
“YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL, LITTLE GIRL! YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL! YOU’RE THE MOST GODDAMN FUCKING BEAUTIFUL THING I’VE EVER SEEN!”
The bus driver has pulled over, is getting up from his seat. Frances hears him yell, “Sir, sit down!” behind her. But she has already leapt from the back door in retreat, she is sprinting through the snow. She knows she is sobbing but she cannot feel it.
She arrives home damp and miserable. She gets into bed and sinks under the covers still in her party dress. Her ruined makeup smears onto her sheets. The glow of passing cars sneaks in through the cracks in her curtains and flits across the wall, fast and constant. She buries her face in her pillow and screams until she can’t anymore.