Sunday, 14 June 2020 08:56

Something New by Morgan Horst

Something New by Morgan Horst

“What’s mine is yours,” Lila told me the day I moved into the 1050 square foot apartment; the one I shared with the girl who would soon prove to me that these first words were a life-altering lie.

My arms ached from carrying all my belongings up to the fourth floor earlier that afternoon. The sun had only been absent for maybe an hour, but my first class of the semester started early the next morning, and I just wanted to shower and crawl in bed. It was a relief to see the roommate I’d been assigned seemed nice, but her talkative nature was exhausting. Hoping she’d eventually take the hint, I stayed silent and nodded as she pointed out and asked my opinion on the decor she had accumulated in the week since she’d moved in.

“It’s not much, I know,” she chatted on with a wide white smile. Flipping her strawberry-blonde hair over a bony shoulder, she seemed completely comfortable sitting in her swimsuit in front of a stranger. She had come in from a welcome party at the campus pool when I was unpacking my last box; there was little doubt in my mind she had walked all the way back with nothing to cover up but her beach towel. I found this fascinating and slightly annoying. “I figured we could spice the place up together, right?”

 “Yeah totally,” I said, trying to match the peppy cadence of her voice, though I’m sure my body language gave away the fact that I didn’t want to talk for long. I was slumped in the corner by the fridge, which displayed two pink magnets: a peace sign and a smiley face. I wondered what she thought of the skull pins I had stuck to my backpack, none of which were pink.

“But yeah, you’re welcome to, like, all of it. Everything but what’s in my room, of course.” Here Lila grew somewhat bashful, as if her one rule demanded too much, and she laughed away any awkwardness before it could creep in. “I’ve never had a roommate before, I just commuted from my parents’ house last school year. This is all so new and exciting! What’s your first class tomorrow?”

The way she jumped from topic to topic made my head spin. “Uh, it’s called Minds and Machines. It’s an intro class for philosophy. Starts at 8:00.”

I’d included the last bit to perhaps enlighten her to the fact that I wanted to turn in, but Lila either didn’t catch on or didn’t care. “Oh, awesome. Yeah my classes are more like late morning, but I usually get up really early anyway. Early bird and all.”

“Not me.” I tried to laugh. “I’ll probably sleep until the last second. I prefer staying up late.”

I regretted the words before they finished stumbling out. Lila didn’t need to know that. Why did she care about my day/night preference? Why admit that I was lazier than her? Who said I had to share personal things with her just because we were going to share a few rooms?

It would be nice to have a friend at the start of the semester, which means I better get more comfortable opening up, I thought. But another part of me, the cautious part, was hesitant. Don’t forget what Rousseau says about trust, it warned. “Nature never deceives us; we deceive ourselves.” Don’t deceive yourself. You don’t know who she really is yet.

“I totally feel that,” Lila continued. I wished she’d put on clothes. “I love staying up late, but I hate sleeping late. I guess I just don’t need that much sleep.”

“It seems you’ve got enough energy.” Was that rude to say?

But Lila didn’t miss a beat. I wondered if her brain really worked that fast, or if she was hardly listening to me. “Yeah like, don’t get me wrong, sometimes I just want to stay in bed for hours, but I’m just not one of those people who likes to waste the day, you know?”

She was implying that I was one of those people. I could feel it. But I let it slide. Maybe she hadn’t meant any harm. We had just met, after all.

Before I could get another word in, she continued. “So anyway, when do you like to shower? I don’t want to hop in there in the morning before you leave for class or anything if you need it. And what about a place to put your bathroom stuff? Do you need some extra space? I can move some of my products and such if you…”

Her high voice began to warble in my ears as I struggled to process the upbeat sounds. I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly, more like a moth. All I really wanted to do was get into bed and perform my nightly ritual of crying and thinking thoughts that would only make me cry more before the exhaustion that comes with such things swallowed my mind and put me to sleep. Don’t ask me why I was in a hurry to get to this part of my day. Maybe because it was the only time I could see Samuel.

The same scene always played in my mind before bed, never changing. My heart could have picked a happier clip, but this was the most recent of him, only a week and a half ago. And that meant I felt the closest to him, even if in that moment I’d never felt so far away.

********

“I feel like I can’t really be enough for you, you know?” he said, as if expecting me to agree. I could have scoffed if I hadn’t been afraid. “We’ve taken this as far as it was meant to go.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. The tears had come the second he suggested we had some things to talk about. Now they were following their well-trodden path, running down my cheeks, dripping off my trembling chin and the point of my nose. “I thought it was meant to go on the rest of our lives. We said it was. We said it. Four years down...”

He was supposed to complete my sentence, like he had since we started the habit. Plato once said, “Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.” Samuel and I had thought this was romantic. Now I guessed he believed it was stupid, because he wouldn’t complete my song. Instead, he kept breaking me.

“Of course we did, baby. And at the time, we meant it. But at the time I also thought we had fixed it.”

He said “it,” but he meant “you.” I know he did. But I let him lie. “Four years down...”

“You said I took away the past,” he went on. The blue of his eyes shone like winter ice in the dim light of the lantern hanging near the front door of my mother’s house. I wondered how long the ice had been forming; how long he’d been trying to get rid of me. “And maybe there for a while I did. But you’re back to it, baby. Living in it again. You haven’t been happy in months.” He paused, knowing what he wanted to say next was dangerous but saying it anyway. “It’s draining to be around someone who’s never happy. Who can’t live in the present because she hasn’t moved on. I know things were rough, I get that, but—”

“Four years down...” My voice was growing quieter. The sanity that sat like a vase in my mind was teetering.

“—I’ve realized I can’t make you happy. Not really. I guess you need to do that for yourself. Just like I need to find what makes me happy. I... I don’t know what it is anymore.” He looked at me one last time, as if checking to see that I was totally destroyed, no coming back, and he could go now.

As he turned, walked out the door and shut it gently, I could have screamed his name; begged him to wait and let me try again, let me explain that he was the only long-term steady thing I’d had in my life and now I didn’t know where to go, didn’t even know if I was standing on solid ground anymore. But I didn’t. The vase had fallen. No one was finishing my sentence, so I had to do it myself as the door clicked into place behind him. “…forever to go.”

Then my steady crying became choking hysterics. A different quote from the great Plato ran through my mind then: “There was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life.”

********

Lila’s bedspread was yellow. She left her door open sometimes, and the sun pouring through her blinds made the bed glow. Like her room was actually made of all the sunshine in Philly. Even if I kept my blinds open, the soft grey of my tangled bed sheets wouldn’t reflect the light like that, just suck it in and kill it. Comparing the two spaces, I suddenly thought of the amount of people who had probably lived in these very walls. Were roommates always so different from each other? It could be that my room had been cursed to always house someone lacking the desire to straighten things up or bring too much light in; that the room on the other side of the separating wall was made for bright and sparkling people like Lila, was used to people like her. If this was the case, I doubted the rooms had come across girls as extreme in these respective categories as us. The difference was almost comical.

There was no doubt we were complete opposites. Her room made mine look like a dank cave. Which was, admittedly, how I liked it. Darkness was comforting, and it’s where I belonged. My light, my only light, had been Samuel. I liked to say he was the only real man in my life. My brother had been gone for years, and my father hadn’t been a real man since long before that. Samuel though, he had been everything I needed. Now he wasn’t there, and my theory that all males eventually leave had become a principle.

In hindsight, I think his absence is what led me to break my bubbly roommate’s only rule.

As nice as she was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Lila felt superior to me. Maybe it was the way she talked, the way she dressed and went to parties with other fun people every other night. It was like she had never left high school, and this was probably the problem. She reminded me of the girls in my graduating class. The ones who would talk to me in their peppy, high voices when the situation demanded it, then make snarky comments behind my back. Sometimes I think they wanted me to hear what they had to say about my weight and about my family.

I began to feel like Lila knew she was too good for my companionship when the short conversations we had over the first few days of living together didn’t result in her asking me to meet her friends or inviting me to a party, even to go out for coffee. After a while, there was no questioning it: I wasn’t ever going to be allowed into her life, not in any meaningful way. And I didn’t blame her. I’d never really cared for my company either.

Overall, I saw very little of Lila, and I believed this was intentional on both of our parts. She wasn’t at the apartment very often, and when she was, I stayed locked in my room. But one day, she was home early when I came in after my classes. It had already been a particularly bad day—it was the fourth of the month, Samuel’s and my would-be monthaversary, plus I’d had to give a speech in one of my classes—and I was in no mood to speak. But Lila always was.

“Hey.” Her voice wasn’t chipper this time, but even with the concern infiltrating her eyes, they were as bright as a newborn’s. I didn’t like the concern. It felt insincere.

“Hey.”

“Are you okay?”

“No.”

Her straight teeth bit her pink bottom lip for a moment. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.”

The small feeling of guilt resting below my heart ballooned at the sound of my responses to her attempted charity. I could feel her positive, bright vibes once again trying to penetrate the cloud that had encompassed and become a part of me since Samuel’s departure, but my misery was too thick, and I didn’t accept charity. People only take part in such things when they want to feel better about themselves.

I was relieved when Lila offered to go out and buy me something sweet, though it was more likely she was trying to get away from the cloud than trying to do something nice for me. Why would she?

“Chocolate is the best medicine for a broken heart,” she told me. I didn’t say anything. No philosopher I knew of had ever said that.

As Lila searched the apartment for her keys, I searched her body for any evidence that she had had a chocolate bar in the past year. I couldn’t find any. Which made sense if she believed it was the cure for heartache. I wondered if that was a disease she’d suffered from even once in her life.

Lila left the door to her room wide open when she went to buy the sweets. I faced the entrances to our respective bedrooms. On my left was the door to my hole of grey and dark blue, the bed a tornado of covers and my floor littered with clothes, inviting me to curl up in my messy cocoon. To my right was Lila’s space, the glow from the sun bed reaching out past me into the kitchen. There was no mess on the floor, and the bed was made up as neatly as if she lived in a hotel. The desk on my left was cluttered with textbooks and notebooks and jackets and unframed pictures of Samuel I couldn’t bring myself to leave behind. Hers was nearly bare, as if it was a precious desk that only worthy things could rest upon.

Curiosity and the light pulled me through the door on my right.

The worthy items consisted of two pictures in bright pink frames, a cookbook, and a vase of flowers with orange petals set aflame by the light of the room. The book was Cooking and Baking for Health Nuts, which explained how she knew how to make all the meals of vegetables and lean meats that filled our tiny apartment with their flavorful smells. I thought about her stir frys and zucchini noodle lasagnas. Then I thought about my pizza rolls and cheesesticks that I sometimes dipped in ranch and washed down with whatever sodas I had picked out for the week. Then I became very sad.

One of the frames held a picture of Lila and her parents. They looked like the kind of family that came with these frames when you purchased them from the store: the father in a crisp white shirt with golden cufflinks and the girls in spring dresses with flowers that matched the ones sprinkled in the green field behind them. I assumed this was her backyard. A picture flashed through my mind then of the only backyard I’d ever had: a small grassy square bordered by a tall brown fence that gave you splinters if you touched it. It had been a fun enough place for young children. Then my brother got sick. The big shaggy dog we kept outside died soon after, which left young me to believe we had caused his downfall when we stopped playing with him. The swing set rusted, and one of the chains dragged in the dirt after a bad storm had unhinged it and no one cared to fix it because no one cared to swing. The only time the backyard saw anyone was when my mother ran a lawnmower through it.

My eyes couldn’t leave the face of Lila’s dad. Did his smile look forced because everything is forced when you know others are looking? Or was the clown-like grin under vacant hazel eyes a sign he didn’t want to be there? Which one had been the case for my own father’s smiles? I couldn’t say. Family photos were rare before my parents buried their youngest child, and nonexistent after.

The other frame on the desk was by the vase and held a photo of Lila and the man she sometimes brought over. His name was Tony. He was in law school. In the picture, he stood in front of the Bellagio Fountains with Lila in his arms, and the ring he had put on her finger moments before the camera clicked twinkled in the lights. She told me the wedding would be held in Hawaii the summer after she graduated with her degree in hospitality management. I was welcome to come, as they wanted an extravagant reception and everyone they knew was invited. Even the mailman was on the guest list, probably near the bottom with my name.

I imagined being in Hawaii watching Lila marry the love of her life while mine was out doing who knew what who knew where and not caring that I was alone on a beach running through the vows I’d been writing since our one-year anniversary. I pictured Lila and her lawyer husband Tony with a house by the water and four kids. My heart stopped being numb long enough to sink a few inches, as if wings had been keeping it up and they were growing brittle.

Looking around the room at Lila’s walls, I was greeted with a poster-sized black-and-white sketch of her lips pressed to Tony’s from the top cart of a Ferris Wheel. Over the door I had entered and on her dresser and above her bed were multi-colored wall hangings with Bible verses written in fancy lettering. They reminded me God was still Lila’s friend when He seemed to have abandoned me.

I left the room then, careful not to shut the door. I’d seen enough of someone else’s happiness.

********

I didn’t want to call my mother. We hadn’t spoken since the first week of the semester. She’d reached out once to ask how I was doing, but I didn’t reply to her text. That was answer enough, if you ask me. Seeing the family picture on Lila’s desk planted a bug in my mind, though; one that nagged me to give my own parents a ring. I ignored it, until it told me that’s what Lila would do. And Lila was happy. Maybe I needed to learn a thing or two from her.

My father wasn’t getting any phone calls from me. If he didn’t care to reach out on days other than my birthday or that of Jesus, I sure didn’t. A conversation with my mother, while not preferable, was bearable. Most of the time, anyway. And it was one of those rare days when my mind was in a state of what might be peace, or maybe just temporary acceptance of the status of my life. Part of me thought this could be because some of the sunshine in Lila’s room had soaked into my body and decided to stay for a little bit. Even if the phone call had a good chance of starting my heart on the decline again, I felt I owed it to my mother to share some of the warmth. Not because she really deserved it or anything. Just because she was my mother.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she said when she picked up after the first ring. Her voice was higher than normal; a sign she was surprised. “Everything okay? How are you?”

“Fine.” Then silence. I wasn’t sure what else to say. This already seemed like a mistake.

“How’re classes? Learning a lot?”

“Yeah, they’re fine.” I wanted to say more, but the warmth was already leaving. My mouth couldn’t form the words, my mind couldn’t even think of anything worth saying. I wondered why Mom would even want these calls from her daughter. It’s not like it was enjoyable to talk to me.

“Good, good.” Her voice was weary now. I pictured her sitting at the kitchen table, eyes closed with her forehead in her palm, trying to massage out the right thing to say. “And your roommate?”

“Her name is Lila. She’s really nice.”

“That’s great, honey. Are you two friends? Tell me about her.”

My initial thought was I wouldn’t be able to answer the question. Then I realized I knew more about Lila than would be expected. I definitely knew more about her than she did about me. And more about her than she thought I did. Even if everything I’d studied in her bedroom was fairly surface level, just being in her private space by myself made me feel kinda like a Lila expert. The feeling made my heart beat faster.

“Oh yeah, we’re friends. We hang out all the time. We have movie nights and go out for coffee before class and stuff.” Talking suddenly became easier, as if the words were running away from me and I no longer had to be responsible for them. “She likes to cook and swim and talk, which, you know, I’m not great at, but she’s really understanding. Her boyfriend is cool, and her parents seem sweet. She is, too. I think you’d like her.”

“If she’s a friend to you, I already do.” The soft smile on her face carried through the phone.

I shouldn’t have brought it up, everything was going decently enough, but I couldn’t help it. The words were still running. I was never the best at catching the wrong things to say before it was too late. “Samuel would like her, too.”

My mother sighed, probably massaging her head some more. “I’m sure things haven’t been easy with that, babygirl. But you can’t keep thinking about Samuel, okay? It will only make the hurt linger. When your father left—”

“It’s not the same as you and Dad,” I interjected quickly.

“I know, sweetie, I know. But the wounds are the same.”

“No, they’re not.” I said. Warmth was returning, but it was a different kind of heat. “Don’t give me that. Samuel didn’t leave me for someone else. He loved me. More than Dad loved you, really.” The words weren’t easy to push out, but I hoped they would put an end to the topic. A large part of me wanted to have a relationship with my mother, but it was difficult to build anything when conversations always led to how miserable she was and why. Aristotle said the only way to ultimate happiness is to look for and obtain everything that is good for us to have. My mother chose to stay blind and helpless.

Not that I could say much. I’d had everything that was good for me to have. But since he’d left, I hadn’t looked for anything else.

Still, it was easy to blame her.

“Your father loved me very much. Just, when your brother passed… It’s hard for couples to get through that, you know? I mean, he was the baby of the family. Our little—”

“Dad was seeing her before any of that happened. So stop. Stop talking about it.”

There was a long pause. In my mind, I could see her lip trembling. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just need someone to talk to sometimes. I’ve been so lonely, here all by myself. I miss you.” When I didn’t respond, she continued. “Maybe I should come visit soon. Visit you and Lila. We could have a girls’ night out on the town or something.”

“I don’t think so, Mom. We’re really busy.” Time to end this, I thought. I don’t think she’s going to get out of the ditch now that she’s thrown herself in it. Like daughter like mother, after all. “I’ll see you for Thanksgiving. Okay?”

“That sounds great, baby. Okay. I’ll get to see you then. Will you be sure to help me with the turkey? Your dad always made the turkey, you know, and since he left I can’t seem to—”

“I have to go, Mom, Lila’s here. I’ll text you.”

Then I hung up. The phone fell from my fingers to the dirty carpet. It made a loud thud in the empty apartment. My body wanted to cry—it was habitual to do so after these calls—but I was okay. That was the best conversation we’d had in months.

********

Most weekends, I had the apartment completely to myself. Lila always went out with friends or family or to the home games. A couple months into the semester, though, she got really sick and camped out in our living room all Saturday and most of Sunday. If there had been a shower, toilet, and microwave within the safety of my bedroom, I would have stayed there. The moments I had to step out were so awkward my body grew weary with the tension. Lila was undoubtedly a people person. She wanted company any way she could get it, so when my bladder was at full capacity, I had to brace myself for a chat.

“How’s the studying going?” she asked from her makeshift bed on the couch during one of my rare appearances that weekend.

“It’s going,” I said, making sure my feet were pointed in the direction of the bathroom so she knew I was needed somewhere else.

“It’s for your astronomy test, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be exploring space in my sleep tonight.”

Lila laughed, but I could tell it took great effort for her to do so. Because she was sick, or because she was taking pity on my lack of a good response?

“What’s your major again? Psychology?”

Didn’t she have a trash can to throw up in or something?

“Philosophy,” I muttered.

“Oh right, philosophy. What’re you going to do with your degree?”

The inevitable question. It was always asked, in some form or another, in response to my degree choice. But why did it matter to her? Why right now? So she could feel better about her own degree, one that gave her a lot more options once she crossed the graduation stage? Why did I have to prove my decisions to her?

My shoulders shrugged and my feet took a step toward the bathroom. “I don’t know. Probably teach. Or something.”

“That’s awesome.” Lila smiled. “What made you want to do that? Like, study philosophy, I mean.”

Despite the throb in my lower abdomen, I gave the question some genuine thought. No one had asked me before. No one had cared. Suddenly, my heart rose a little. What if she actually did care?

“I have a lot of questions,” I answered finally. “Might as well get paid to ask them.”

Lila nodded, still smiling, then opened her mouth to say something. Before she could, a series of coughs seized her. Pretty violent ones. I almost asked if she needed some water, but the thought pushed me over the edge and I hurried to the bathroom without another word.

********

A few weeks later, a healthy Lila went out of the city on a trip with her best friend from high school. It was a three-day weekend, and Lila left her door open again, about halfway. I stood just outside her door frame, staring at the yellow bed and reading the verse above it (The prospect of the righteous is joy, but the hopes of the wicked come to nothing. Proverbs 10:28) over and over. Then I grabbed the cookbook off her desk and carried it to the kitchen.

It took me a long time to flip through the pages and decide what to make. Nothing looked appetizing. Everything was made with a lot of rice or beans or “leafy greens.” All the meats were lean, and all the pasta was whole grain. Finally, I found something I could maybe handle in the dessert section: a Greek yogurt fruit tart. Tarts were good.

I didn’t have any ingredients of my own, so I left a note on the counter to remind myself I needed to replenish Lila’s food supply before she came home. None of the cooking or baking utensils were mine either; my groceries were microwave- or oven-easy. It took some time to find everything, but it was all there. What’s mine is yours, she had said when we met. As long as I put the cookbook back on her desk, everything would be fine.

There was a lot of fruit to slice. The sunlight coming through Lila’s window into the kitchen made the little wet circles shine, and it kinda looked like a rainbow on the counter. I even began to hum. The crust for the tart was made of nuts and dates, which didn’t sound like any crust I’d ever heard of, but Lila wouldn’t have complained, so I made it anyway. It wasn’t easy. I’d never made a crust for anything. My family had always bought pies from the store when we wanted them. But I found it was less difficult to make the dessert when I imagined I was someone who knew what they were doing in the kitchen—maybe even Lila. With this strategy, the tart was done in no time, and I took a slice to Lila’s room to eat it at her desk. She’d been the inspiration for the healthy dessert, after all.

The tart was pretty. The fruit slices were spread in a beautiful assortment of colors over a clean, white yogurt background. Looking at it, I was bubbly with excitement and pride. I almost didn’t want to eat it. But I had a lot of cleaning to do in the kitchen, so I picked up my fork and dug in.

I managed three bites, then left the room to write another note, this one for Lila: Help yourself! :) I placed the sticky note on the plastic lid I’d put over the tart and shoved the dessert in the fridge.

Nut and date crust was disgusting.

********

“This tart is so good! I didn’t know you cooked,” Lila said through a mouthful of yogurt and kiwis. “Or baked, whatever.” She laughed.

The blush on my cheeks made me angry. The tart was gross, and I knew it. I didn’t cook, and she knew it. Lila was mocking me, but she was really good at acting like she wasn’t. So I was flattered, anyway.

“Thanks. I’m glad you like it,” I said quietly. I didn’t want her to ask where I got the recipe, or why I decided to make something that wasn’t fish sticks, so I added, “I wanted to make a little something for you, kinda as an apology. I haven’t been the most involved roommate.”

Lila smiled from across our small kitchen island. I thought I saw a strawberry seed in her white teeth, but a blink and her smile was perfect again. “No problem. I get it. Semesters are hectic. And I can tell you’ve been going through some things.”

“Yeah. My boyfriend and I broke up right before I moved in, and I’m just not coping very well,” I said. Then I grew angry with myself again. Why did you tell her that? I thought. So she has another reason to look down on you? Are you going to tell her about everyone who’s ever left?

Lila put on her best sympathetic look. “I’m sorry. But hey, whatever happened, it’s his loss, right?”

I tried to nod, but the movement was more of an awkward shrug.

“I’ll admit,” Lila said, looking at her plate, “I’m a little relieved it’s not me. I thought maybe you didn’t like me.” She laughed again, the sound a little more forced this time.

She was good, I’d give her that. It’s easier to convince someone they’re not the object of scrutiny and dislike when you pretend you feel like the victim. But I’m good, too, and I could see through it.

“No way,” I said. “You’ve been a really patient roommate; I think you’re great.”

Lila smiled again. As much as my mind knew my words weren’t true, my heart wanted to gush more praise. Deep down, I admired Lila. Envied her. And hated myself for it. She was just another fake perfect princess.

And yet, I felt I would do anything for her to like me.

********

The next time I went into Lila’s room, it was a Wednesday night, and she and Tony were out celebrating their anniversary. She hadn’t said if she was going to be staying with him after dinner or if she’d be coming back to the apartment. It didn’t matter. I wouldn’t get caught if I was careful.

The door to her room wasn’t standing open, but it was unlocked when I turned the knob. For the first time, I stood in the middle of her floor without the sunlight shining through the blinds. The room was dim. The light from the kitchen only illuminated a few objects, reflected off the pale faces in the picture frames. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath in. It was easier to smell her in the dark.

Lila wasn’t all that bad, really. Maybe I had been wrong about her. Even if I’d been right, there was still a chance I could show her I’d be a good friend.

A good friend who comes in here when she said not to, I thought, staring into the shadowed corner by Lila’s desk. Look at me. I doubt I’ll prove anything to her except that I’m a freak. Then my guilty mind forced my feet to retreat into the bathroom.

I used her strawberry bubble bath and soaked my crawling skin, thinking, for 15 minutes. When the thinking was over, I reached for the pink and yellow loofah, disregarding my dark purple one. I scrubbed my legs, my arms, my chest and swirled the sponge around my neck four times. When I returned it to the hook next to mine, tears plopped into the bath water at the realization I hadn’t used any soap.

My scratchy towel enveloped my hair and Lila’s fuzzy one hugged my body as I passed by my room and entered hers, making sure to turn the light on this time. Pruned hands with a mind of their own slid the closet door open so I could run the red pads of my fingers over the cool material of her clothes. She wouldn’t be able to tell I had touched them now that I smelled like her, like strawberry bubble bath. Like a sweet fruit basket in a hospital room masking the scent of illness, I thought.

This was the dress she wore in the engagement picture. Here was the white one that nearly matched her mother’s. In a closet in the house my father now lives in with his old mistress is the one dress I’ve owned in the past decade. It’s long, black, and the only kind of flowers it has seen were those on a casket.

The dresses were surrounded by tank tops and crop tops and graphic T-shirts in every color. I felt like Dorothy landing in Oz and seeing a real rainbow for the first time. My wardrobe looked more like an old film noir. After my brother died, I began to embrace my mothiness more through the clothes I wore. Perhaps I felt as if wearing anything but blacks and grays would mean I’ve stopped mourning him, ceased to be sad.

Just a few feet away, my closet had shoes thrown on the floor among the boxes holding every small thing Samuel had given me over the past four years: movie tickets, love letters, old flowers with petals now dry and brown. Lila’s shoes were lined up neatly on a little shelf next to the long necklaces and white gold bracelets too fancy to wear.

I didn’t touch the things in her drawers, but honestly, that may be because I didn’t have the chance. Lila’s top one held her workout clothes and nothing else.

Something rose in my stomach then and drove me back to my room. I opened my own drawers, dumping out the contents of each one onto the heap of clothes already piled on my carpet until I found what I was looking for. Finally, I held up my lone sports bra, four sizes bigger than Lila’s, and my one pair of XXL black running shorts.

My eyes burned, threatening to spill tears again. But I blinked away the sensation and sniffed up the loose stuff in my nose. Then I thought, Tomorrow, I’ll see if she has her workout routine written down anywhere. If I’m going to be more like Lila, I need to look more like her.

********

Samuel flying away from me cracked the dam he had helped me build to hold back the waters of my pains. Cracks don’t heal with time. They expand. They expand until whatever is being kept behind the wall begins to seep through. Then the wall busts.

The result of this busting was drowning me. The only source of oxygen was Lila’s bedroom. She had everything I didn’t, was everything I wasn’t. But her space was a stage in which I could play her. I was finally listening to Aristotle again: seeking and obtaining everything that was good for me to have. Which, I discovered, was what Lila had. I began to turn the cool metal knob when the door to her world was closed and I wanted out of mine. For weeks I studied her cookbook and read journals while at her desk, laid on her rug and daydreamt it was Samuel and I in those beautiful pictures, and imagined God was whispering those verses to me Himself.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my favorite philosopher was the one truly whispering to me in that room. Socrates only needed to drill one of his sayings into my subconscious: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

Yesterday, I sat on Lila’s floor in the space between her dresser and her closet, facing the Bible verse above her bed. Hugging my body was a pair of her workout sweats. They were dark gray with flecks of brown spotting the soft material. The shirt, skin-tight over my breasts, didn’t quite reach the waistband of the sweatpants. My white flesh glared at me through the holes I had created when I sat down; a rip on my upper left thigh, a tear at my hip. I tried to ignore it, tried to read the open diary on the floor in front of me, tried to live out the prom night with Samuel as Tony in my head, but the sight of my body in the torn sweats rather than Lila’s pink mermaid dress made me unhappy.

I’d experienced this feeling in the room before, but not since I first started trespassing. I thought I’d gotten past the ability to ever be sad in here. The realization that maybe I hadn’t wouldn’t let me focus on anything else. It brought my heart rate up and my palms started to become slick with sweat. I swiped them on the pants, avoiding the holes as best I could. How could anything negative infiltrate this space? Had the one place where I could find joy become tainted too? Was there no escape? I looked around, desperate for a sign. There had to be one in here. Maybe there was a hidden Bible verse or a journal I hadn’t flipped through yet that could chase these feelings away.

Suddenly I stopped. The room was glowing so spectacularly from the bedspread’s reflection that I began to cry. Then I realized something very important, what I needed to make sure this place wouldn’t forsake me, too.

Living things don’t just need oxygen. They need sunlight. And I was still living. Right?

My shaking hands pushed my tired body from the floor up onto my feet, which carried me to the door. It clicked into place, and then so did the lock. Pulling back the yellow comforter, the white sheets, and slipping into the cocoon of light and warmth and joy, felt like leaving my old flesh and entering something new.

********

Heraclitus said everything is changing constantly. I’ve known that all my life. What I didn’t fully accept until Lila was everything that followed this statement by the great philosopher: opposite things are identical; therefore, everything is and is not the same.

My roommate has come back from her Caribbean birthday cruise. She tried jiggling the knob for a while, now she knocks on my old door to see if I’m home, calls my name in that peppy, high voice of hers. But I don’t respond to that anymore. In the 24 hours I’ve been wrapped in the sunlight, I’ve metamorphized into something new entirely.

Any second now, the girl who used to be Lila will see that. Through the comforter, my ears pick up the faint tickle of keys on a pink chain. The door will soon open, and she will see what she used to be. I have taken her wings and made them my own. I am Lila.

The light tinkling of clashing keys continues, and my voice begins to match them as I giggle. My eyes are closed, and the sunlight is shielding me from all else. I can’t tell whether or not she has entered the room, is standing near the bed. My happiness comes out in bubbles too loud, laughter too beautifully and finally genuine, for me to hear when she’s made the discovery.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Morgan Horst is a writer from the small town of Sanger, Texas and has been writing since the third grade. She recently graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor's degree in creative writing. While there, her short story "Venusian" was published in the October 2019 edition of the university's life and arts magazine, CoogLife. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novella.