by Yaamini Lalitha Rao
I am alone again. I stand behind the JuiceBar in the alley where the dumpsters huddle together in a shadowy mass. The ventilator is humming and blowing cool, moist air all around me. It's a good change because the stagnant, motionless humidity of the night has caused pools of sweat to form all over my body. I'm a sight already because of stains that cover my apron. They are dark and black, like coagulated blood-- that particular color associated with death and flies. Luckily, I have no one to meet tonight.
The customers who came in today were all the same. Virtually all of the girls were the pushy, sporty types. They wanted people to notice that they weren't in 31 Flavors buying shakes like "other" girls; their originality led them to the JuiceBar. These trendsetting hip-chicks craved followers, and soon enough they would have them.
Hardly any men came in today. Those that did were boyfriends of the push types, or fathers who wanted sugar-free children. Everyone ordered the same types of smoothies: "healthy" ones with additions of protein powder and wheat grass. I made sure to blend the grass behind the glass pane that surrounds the counter. After seeing the grass transform into a thick, darkly pigmented liquid, almost all of the people asked for the addition to be changed.
The only person who didn't come was Elise. She stops by twice a day at least to see how I am doing. I give her free drinks and make sure to use small-size cups instead of tiny thumbnail taster-cups. As the flurry of customers moved in and out today, I knew she wouldn't be among them. Still, like everyday this week, I waited hopefully for her to appear at the door.
Without seeing Elise, I couldn't concentrate on my work. I spilled countless mixtures of fruit-flavored yogurt, soiling my spotless apron. Forgetting to fully blend a few drinks, I caused a general JuiceBar uproar. When the high whine of ceiling fans became unbearable, I turned them off. The lack of air circulation caused customers to complain and their insistent voices made up for any lost noise. My boss witnessed little of my mediocre performance. He sat in the back room and read the paper, never letting emotion get the best of him.
The day has come to a close. I lean against the stucco wall, my arms folded and my shoulders hunched. I am frustrated and angry with Elise for getting upset at me, for chiding my childish actions and foolish curiosity. I have let her down; made her feel vulnerable, betrayed. And she has stopped speaking to me.
I'm scheduled to close shop tonight. I grab a wet dish towel and start wiping the tables. I move the cloth in big circles, leaving thick layers of soap. I stop to scrawl my name on one of the wet surfaces. Under it, I add "hates Elise." The action is so immature that I wipe away the words disconsolately. Suddenly I'm tired, and my focus is lost. The tables can be streaked and dirty in the morning. I just don't care anymore. I hang the towel up behind the counter. Untying the back of my coarse apron, I pull the thin strap over my head. I bunch the cloth into a ball and throw it into a corner. Taking the keys from a countertop, I lock the back entrance. I switch the lights off and flip the sign in the window to read "closed." I lock the main door and stare at the empty street, watching as solitary cars race by.
I'm parked in front of a Chinese take-out. The neon sign flickers on and off, periodically illuminating my car. The leather seat sticks to my skin as I turn on the ignition and pull into a lane. I rush past the bright lights of car dealerships and fast-food restaurants, their signs competing for space in the sky. My eyes sting as I think of Elise.
It was such a trivial pact, or so I thought. But she took it to heart, which really makes me feel guilty. About two years ago we promised on our solid friendship that we wouldn't succumb to the pressures of drinking at parties, or smoking out for "the experience." Together, we decided we were above that. According to her, I was to be the first one enticed to break my word. I was sure I wasn't. The bottom line is I didn't care about it because I didn't think she would.
But last weekend my curiosity got the better of me. I tried weed with my friends. I got so buzzed that I gulped down a half-bottle of Kikoman's Soy Sauce thinking it was Coke. I'll admit it: the high was amazing. The world mellowed out and I could feel the Earth spin.
"You did what?" was all Elise said. Her face fell and her eyes teared. "How could you, Thom? You promised me-" She clenched her teeth, looking away. I tried to laugh it off because I wasn't sure what to do. "You promised me you wouldn't. How could you?" I didn't realize just how hard she would take it. After that, the car ride was completely silent. Elise didn't say goodbye when we reached her house. She left without looking back. I haven't spoken to her since.
I try to stop thinking of her teary eyes, but I can't. I turn the car into my street and slow it down. Elise's room is at the top of the first house on the right. I lean my whole body over the passenger seat to see if her light is on. The house is dark-- a silhouette of a roof and windows. No cars are in the driveway. Sighing, I drive on.
Entering my house, I hear the hum of the television in the family room. Sweat glistens on my forearm and my body is heavy and wet. I walk into the kitchen and open the refrigerator door. The coolness from the freon floods the room. Taking out a Pepsi, I rest the can on my forehead. The clash of my overheated body and the coldness of the can make my temples swell and throb. I decide to lie down to rid of the pain and shuffle to my room.
Lying on the undone sheets of the bed, I place my cheek on the cool pillowcase. Slowly, the throbbing eases. The phone rings and the stillness is broken. I grope around the floor next to the bed for the receiver.
"Hello?" I say. It's loud on the other end of the line. I hear the sound of many voices and music.
"Thom!" My head spins as I push myself to sit up. It's Elise.
"Elise? Elisey is that you?" I ask. My pulse is in my throat, choking me as I try to speak.
"Thom, look, I need you. Thom?" Something is odd about Elise's voice. A sense of urgency underlies her slurred words. I get up from the bed. I don't know what to think or what to say.
"Lisey, where are you? What are you talking about?" I begin to pace between clothes and magazines, clutching my hair.
"I'm at a party and these guys...Thom? Come now. I need you to come. Please? I'm at, I'm at Kate's. Thom?" Her words are disjointed and incoherent. The thickness in her voice is so strange.
"I'll be there in ten minutes. Elise, stay calm. I'm coming." I hang up the phone and dash out of the room. Opening the front door, I run to the car. I swerve out of the driveway and speed down the street as fast as I can, heading toward Kate's house.
My hands sweat and slip off of the wheel. I am anxious to see Elise's face and know that she is all right. The slurs of her speech make me uneasy. Every light I pass by is nerve wracking and every slow driver is being damned to hell.
"Come on, come on," I mutter as I make my turns. They are wide spanning two lanes. Each red light is a sign that some guy... Oh God. I need to know Elise is all right, she just has to be all right.
I park the car in part of Kate's blocked driveway. The mansion that is her "house" is pounding with bass and I'm running up the steps. Random people are strewn about 4 outside, and there are cans littering the ground. I hear a few greetings, which I don't return. There are people everywhere inside the house, most of whom I know. Everyone seems out of it which, at this time, irritates me.
I ask a shirtless guy if he knows where Elise is. He looks right through me and runs outside. I turn back towards the open door. Behind it, sitting crouched on the floor is Elise. Her wide black eyes look up at me. They fill with tears and I want to cry too.
I grab Elise's hand, hoist her up, and march her out of the party. She flops down in the front seat of the car. She lays her head on an arm, her black hair spilling over her face. I start the engine in silent relief. As we are pulling out, a funny smell fills the car. I am speeding down the street when I realize what it is. It's the smell of alcohol.
"What the hell do you think you are doing?" I yell. Her face tenses up. "You stop talking to me because I smoke out once and break some 'pact' we made? And here you are, drunk with some guys...God, Elise, what's wrong with you?"
"Me? Me? What's wrong with you?" She explodes. "You smoke out with those stupid loser boys and those cheesy girls; you tell me and then laugh in my face. Don't you think I had trouble with that? You stupid idiot!" She bursts into tears. They run down her face in channels, one after another. "I just wanted you to feel like the child-- instead of me."
The words hit me hard. I lose my concentration, driving past the turn for our street. The car dealerships still illuminate the main road so I drive all the way to the JuiceBar. I park outside the Chinese take-out. Elise's face is tear-stained, but she's lost that hurt look. We walk to the JuiceBar without speaking. I unlock the door and turn on the lights. I make her sit at a table, instructing her not to put her hands on it.
I go behind the counter and put on a fresh apron. Scooping raspberry yogurt into a blender, I proceed to make her a smoothie. I watch her sitting still and realize I've really missed her. I've missed the times when we'd tease each other about inane things like people I find attractive, or how she can't share food. A week shouldn't have passed without an all-out brawl that ends when I lift her off the ground. Our endless car rides, random conversations; everything. A week is a long time when you've made someone feel bad about who they are.
I give Elise the smoothie and we walk out back to the coolness of the ventilator. I sit on the stoop leading to the alleyway. She stands beside me, leaning against the stucco wall. After a few sips she asks me whether I actually liked getting high. I turn red and tell her the truth. She smiles sadly and puts the smoothie down. A warm breeze blows, heating our arms and legs. Elise sits beside me watching treetops sway under a streetlight. She leans against me, closing her eyes. Soon her breathing becomes slow and even. I sit perfectly still and try not to disturb her.
I may be on my own in my actions, yes, but when Elise awakens I will never have to be alone again.