God. Why had I agreed to this, again? The music was deafening, the volume so loud that I could almost feel it vibrating in my bones. That was an insignificant issue compared to the number of people there, however. Every room was near full capacity, and while I didn’t have claustrophobia, this situation came pretty close to simulating it. I had found a spot that was a bit more removed from others, but that didn’t stop my fear from snowballing.
I lingered on the outskirts, toying with the hem of my shirt, my heart pounding. My best friend Claire had stepped away for a moment to grab us drinks and possibly food. I had tried to convince her to let me join her, but she refused, saying this was a time for me to make some friends. Sometimes I wonder if she knew me at all.
Every moment slogged by. It felt like I was stuck in quicksand; any movement, and I would become trapped even further. I tried to daydream, to think of being alone in my room and far from here, but to no avail. I let my gaze fall to the floor. Maybe if I didn’t make eye contact, no one would try to initiate a conversation with me.
Why was she taking so long? I was a few minutes away from leaving my safe spot and going to find her. My fingers twisted together in an effort to distract myself.
The sudden smell of blackcurrant and bergamot filled my nose. Even after two years, that smell was unmistakable. She can’t be here.
“Girl, what are you doing?” came a loud, confident voice.
I felt my taut muscles release as I looked up to see a girl in a sequined dress. It wasn’t her.
“Why do you look so bored? This is a party! Why aren’t you dancing? Where are your friends?” she continued. She swayed a little to the music, as if to remind me of proper party etiquette.
My social anxiety promptly returned. I bristled, my cheeks slowly growing warm. “Uh, she stepped away to get us drinks.”
“Well, in the meantime, you can join us!” she offered, gesturing to a group of about ten people a little distance away from us. Some of them were dancing, and raucous laughter erupted from them at regular intervals.
Why did she latch onto me like this? Please go away, I thought.
“I think I’m okay. She’ll be back in just a little bit.” I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear.
“All right, suit yourself. You know where we are if you change your mind,” she said, smiling. She raised a bejeweled hand in farewell and sauntered away, returning to her group.
I sighed again, leaning back against my wall. I couldn’t take much more of this. I took out my phone and turned it on, checking the time. I was shocked to find out that we had only been here for a little over an hour. I pressed the power button again.
“I’m back!” came my best friend’s chipper voice. I looked up to see her coming toward me, drinks in tow. Finally. She thrust a plastic cup at me, which I accepted.
“Took you long enough. Some girl walked up to me and started asking me what I was doing just sitting here. She tried to invite me over to her group and just kept going on and on.”
“Well, why didn’t you go with her? She just wanted to include you.” She stirred her drink with a straw, then took a sip from it.
“That’s just it. I don’t want to be included.” I tapped my fingertips against the cup.
“What do you mean? Aren’t you enjoying yourself?”
“No, I’m really not. I hate being around this many people at once, and you know that.” I rolled my eyes.
“It’s good for you! We need to expand your social horizons.”
“Claire, that’s the last thing I need, and you know that.”
“Come on, just a little longer,” she wheedled. “We at least need to finish our drinks.”
I took a deep breath and tipped my head back, almost entirely draining the cup of its contents. I stopped momentarily for air, then finished and set it aside.
“All right, I finished my drink. Can we leave now?”
“Lia, don’t be like that,” she said, exasperated.
I groaned. “All right. We can stay just a little longer. Just don’t leave me again.”
“I won’t,” she promised. She took another sip, seeming to think for a moment.
“Come on.” She grabbed my arm, and together we disappeared into the crowd.
The air was hot with the breath of many bodies compacted into a small space. I thought wistfully of my somewhat isolated corner, but at least I had Claire with me. I wondered if my grip was leaving half-moon indents on her arm.
I could barely tell what all of the rooms in the house looked like with all of the neon colors flashing, but I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to be a pretty picture tomorrow. This many people were bound to create a huge mess.
Looking at the people passing us, I felt my heart jump as I saw familiar blonde hair and brown eyes. I felt my gaze linger on the girl for much too long, trying to figure out if it was really her.
“Lia, are you alright?” came Claire’s voice.
It wasn’t her; this girl was shorter, and her eyes held a warmth that Gemma’s could never have.
I turned back to look at my friend, who raised an eyebrow at me. “Are you looking for someone?” she asked.
I shook my head, sneaking one more glance at the girl to make sure before focusing my attention on Claire. “No, no. I’m okay.”
Her quizzical look didn’t fade, but she took my arm again and we continued through the party.
I found myself wishing for earplugs as we walked past the loudspeakers. I used the hand that wasn’t clutching my friend to plug my left ear, but I could still clearly hear the notes of the pop song that blared through the speakers.
“Oooh, I love this song!” she exclaimed, letting go of me and stopping to dance. She grinned at me and started to mouth the lyrics.
With my hand freed, I was now able to reach up and plug my other ear. I tapped my foot, though not to the beat of the song. All the same, I let her have her moment. She was pretty cute when she got excited, even if she couldn’t dance very well.
“I want to get some food,” I shouted once her song was over.
She nodded and we linked arms again, moving through the people until there was an opening into the kitchen. I cringed at the crusty serving spoons and the carelessly spilled food, but moved forward. Why did people have to be so disgusting? I took a paper plate and proceeded to fill it with food.
“Do you want anything?” I asked her as I scooped a bit of dip onto my plate.
I turned around and saw that she had disappeared again. I fought back the panic threatening to overtake me and tried to focus on my food. It gave me something to do with my hands. I ate, the mechanical motion soothing me a bit.
A few minutes passed, and I started to get antsy. I took out my phone again, losing myself for a moment.
I looked up once more, scanning for my friend. Instead of Claire, I spotted a face in the crowd that I was hoping to never see again. Did she see me? I may have accidentally made eye contact with her, and that scared me more than I wanted to admit.
My eyes darted around the room, looking for an escape. I started to walk in the opposite direction, though I knew that it was likely futile. If she wanted to find me, she could easily do so.
I now searched for the thing that I had spent so much time avoiding before: people. I eventually found a room that was a lot less isolated. Perhaps all the people around me could shield me from her gaze.
“Hey, Lia! There’s someone I want you to meet.” Claire had returned.
I looked over to see my ex-girlfriend on her arm.
“This is Gemma,” she continued.
I felt fear rise up in me, fear that I hadn’t felt for two years. Her cold brown eyes fixed on me. Neither of us said a word. My shoulders and jaw clenched.
Claire gave both of us a half-smile, and then spoke. “Well, I’ll leave you to it!” She walked away, despite my gaze pleading her to stay.
Now it was only us.
“Hey there, Lia,” came her smooth voice.
Two years and she hadn’t changed much at all. She always presented herself as more confident than she actually was. She never learned that arrogance was the wrong extreme of confidence, and that no amount of overconfidence could make up for insecurities.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you here. You never were the party-going type,” she continued.
Anything you say can, and will, be held against you. That had become my mantra throughout the course of our relationship. It still rang true now. My mouth clamped shut.
“We haven’t seen each other for two years and you don’t have anything to say to me?” she pouted. Once I would have found that endearing. Now, it made my stomach churn.
I took in a shuddering breath. “H-hi, Gemma.”
She smirked. “That’s better.” She appraised me before speaking again. “So, how have you been? I’ve missed you.”
“Fine.” I knew that would only prompt more questions from her, but I didn’t see a better alternative. The more I said to her, the more she would know.
“Was that your friend? She seems pretty cute.”
My jaw clenched. “Leave her alone.”
This seemed to surprise her. I was never very assertive around her. “Oh? Is she your girlfriend?”
My hands clenched at my sides. “No.” I quickly added, “And that’s none of your business.”
She smiled. “I see. You know, I’m still single…” She reached out to me, touching my face. “And I’d be willing to take you back.” Her voice was low.
I recoiled from her touch and the intoxicating scent of her perfume. “You just miss having someone to control.” The words tumbled out of my mouth without warning. Regret and fear warred against the odd satisfaction that came from standing up to her.
Hurt crossed her face, hurt that could have been misconstrued as genuine if I didn’t know her so well. “Is that what you call it?”
To my own surprise stood my ground. I wondered if my distance from the situation had something to do with it. “Yes.”
Her voice was quiet. “I didn’t realize you still hated me so much. I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
She went on. “You didn’t even tell your friend―Claire, wasn’t it?―about us. Are you ashamed that you were with me?”
I looked her directly in the eyes, something that I almost never dared to do during my time with her. “Yes.”
She put a hand over her mouth. She always tended towards theatrics. “I’m genuinely hurt by that, Lia.”
“Honestly, Gemma, I don’t give a damn.” I barely had time to glimpse pure shock on her face before I turned my back to her and walked away.
Did I really just say that to her? Shock and an odd sense of satisfaction filled me. It took a moment for my words to sink in. My momentary confidence was once again replaced by fear. She knew about Claire now, and I had likely angered her with my assertive comments.
I parted through the crowd easily, my fear driving me to move. I needed to find Claire, and we needed to get out of here now.
I had a few scares while trying to find Claire.. Gemma wasn’t exactly following me, but I knew that she wasn’t too far behind.
I came upon Claire, who was chatting with an acquaintance of hers, if I remembered correctly. I didn’t much care about anything aside from getting out of here.
“I’ve been looking all over for you. We need to go. Now.” I told her.
She must have realized that this tone was quite uncharacteristic of me, so she finished talking with her friend and turned her attention to me.
“Are you alright? What happened with you and Gemma?” She put a hand on my shoulder.
The sense of urgency and fear turned to anger towards her, anger that I knew was unjustified, but I couldn’t stop it. “I didn’t want to be here in the first place and not only is my toxic ex-girlfriend here, but you brought her directly to me. I’ll walk home if I have to. I just need to get out of here.”
Her mouth hung open. “What? That was your ex? I didn’t even know you had an ex-”
“That doesn’t matter right now. We just need to go,” I snapped.
“You can’t honestly think that I- All right,” she said, her tone quiet. That took me slightly out of my panic. I never wanted to hurt her, but I needed to leave.
She began to walk towards the door, and I trailed behind her. She thanked the host and we walked off to her car. Keys jangling, she unlocked it and we got in. My entire body relaxed upon getting in the front seat and out of that situation. I looked over at my friend and saw no warmth in her eyes, only pain. She focused on starting the car and driving.
Now that the panic had passed, I started reflecting on the way that I had treated her. I hated that I had been so sharp with her. She only wanted to help me, even if she was a little misguided in times like these. I was working myself up to say something to her when she beat me to it.
“Why didn’t you tell me about her?” Her voice was quiet, hurt.
I breathed in and out, focusing on the motion to keep my voice steady. “I don’t know.” My voice broke, prematurely ending my sentence.
“Lia, you have to know that I would never have brought her to you, had I known. God, and I just left you alone with her …” Her bottom lip quivered.
“I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t have.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me? The point of a friendship is to confide in and trust one another. Do you not trust me?”
“It’s not that.” My voice gave out, so I cleared my throat. “We broke up right before I met you and once we had, I didn’t want to burden you with all of my issues with her. I finally had a more positive influence in my life, and I just wanted to focus on that.” My gaze turned downward.
“I understand that at first, but you didn’t think to tell me later?”
Her words lingered in the air as silence stretched out before us.
“You’re my best friend. I trust you more than anyone. But being in a relationship with her taught me to hide so much, and I guess I’m still used to that kind of relationship.”
Now it was her turn to remain silent.
I looked out the window, too ashamed to look at her. It was a cloudy night, but a few stars still peeked out in the sky. The street lights reflected my tired face as we passed them.
“I should have realized that,” she said at length.
Anger rose within me. She was blaming herself for something that I was responsible for? I shook my head. “No. Don’t try to pin this one on you. This is entirely my fault. I should have told you, and the fact that I didn’t is on me.”
“It just has to do with miscommunication on both of our parts. It’s not a matter of placing blame.”
I nodded, stealing another glance out of the window.
She gave me a small smile. “You will learn to trust me, with time. And I’ll be here to help you through it.” She placed her hand over mine. I looked over at her and smiled in return.
We drove for a little longer in contented silence. My ears were ringing pretty badly from the loud music, and I had the beginnings of a headache. I couldn’t wait to get home and go to bed. I laid my head back against the headrest.
After a few minutes, we arrived at my house. I straightened up and gathered my things.
“Well … it was an interesting night.” An uncomfortable, terrifying, yet oddly hopeful night.
Claire smiled and seemed to think for a second. She leaned over the center console and hugged me. Despite the somewhat awkward position that my back was twisted in to reach her, I accepted her affection gratefully.
“Thank you.” I said, my face pressed against her shoulder. The light smell of citrus and vanilla helped replace the last vestiges of blackcurrant and bergamot. I hoped that that would always be the case.
She squeezed my shoulders and released me, smiling.
“Good night, Lia.”
Jessica Hager has always loved to write. Usually it’s a cathartic process; she deals with her problems through writing. Most of her writing falls under the creative nonfiction and occasionally poetry genres.