“It tastes kind of like Pixie Sticks,” Kate said after taking a slurp of Micaela’s Starburst Freeze. She slid the cup over to me and I had to agree that the syrupy pink slush tasted more like the powdered sugar candy than strawberry-flavored Starburst.
The three of us sat in the corner booth of the St. Clairsville Taco Bell, which was surprisingly empty for a Saturday night. Only one other table was occupied by a family whose three kids ran circles around the island stocked with condiments, napkins, and straws. Workers bustled around behind the counter, shouting orders from the drive-thru, which had a line so long that it snaked around the building and ended outside our window with the last car’s taillights reflecting red against the glass. I suppose no one wanted to come inside and enjoy the ambiance of gaudy abstract art, sticky vinyl booths, and the always enticing smell of sewage that wafted from either the bathroom or the kitchen, reminding me of why I ate dinner at Steak ‘N Shake before coming here.
Micaela sighed, swirling the straw through her slushy. “I’ve had to switch up where I eat this semester because I just can’t get to the Lair between classes, but god, do I miss their pizza.” She pushed back her carefully highlighted blonde hair, which had been almost black the last time I saw her. Then again, that was back in October.
“Same here,” Kate said. “Espress-OH is the only place that I still go from last semester because first of all, I work there, and second of all, I need my coffee and it’s so much better than Starbucks.”
I let out a laugh. “Well, considering Mount Union only has one cafeteria, I haven’t switched it up much. The caf usually has a decent variety of food, though, and it’s convenient for bigger dinner groups.”
“You eat in groups?” Micaela said, surprised. “I eat almost every meal alone, and so do most people at WVU outside of frat and sorority members.”
“Yeah,” Kate agreed. “I eat by myself or with one other person—two on occasion, but that’s rare.”
“Well, I mean I don’t always eat in groups,” I said. “My Tuesdays and Thursdays are busy, so I eat at a weird time after class and either go with Matt or by myself in the garden room.”
Kate and Micaela nodded, but a blank look crossed both of their faces. I realized that they had no idea who or what I was talking about, but neither asked, probably just to avoid a clarification that they would forget tomorrow. A somewhat awkward pause followed as Micaela checked her text messages and Kate scrolled through Instagram. My phone had died an hour ago, so I folded a straw wrapper into smaller and smaller rectangles, carefully creasing the folds and making sure the edges lined up. One of the kids from the other table suddenly ran into the bathroom beside us, whipping the door open and sending a gust of air into my nostrils, confirming the source of the sewage smell.
Kate rubbed her nose, clicked the lock button on her phone, and said, “Hey, let’s go to the Meadows.”
As we left, Micaela tossed the flavorless remnants of her slushy in the trash, and Kate rang the silver bell that hung by the exit, rousing a monotonous chorus of “Thank you” from the Taco Bell workers. She laughed, recounting a story about her friend John who rang the bell for two minutes straight, trapping that day’s workers (including his best friend) in ceaseless expressions of gratitude and causing more than a few headaches.
We piled into Micaela’s gold Pontiac with Kate in the passenger seat and me in the back. My window remained open an inch, permanently stuck due to a wiring malfunction. The night air seeped through the gap and caressed my face with cold fingers, sending chills across my cheeks and down the back of my neck. I burrowed into my coat, pulling the collar up around my neck. We drove down Main Street past houses with dimly lit porches and a police car stealthily monitoring speeds from behind a pale green sign that said “Curtis Urology: www.vasectomy.com.” Micaela turned onto a winding back road, and the number of potholes suddenly tripled, bouncing her car like a baby on a mother’s knee.
After a few minutes of small talk about the newest viral Vines, Micaela turned left onto the Meadows, a narrow inclining street with houses that grew progressively nicer as we drove along. As we crested the hill, the tips of four mansions rose into view, piercing the night sky. They lined the edge of a cul-de-sac like knights seated around the round table. One was a dark Tudor style with peaked roofs like dark arrowheads. The next was made entirely of ivory brick with marble pillars supporting the porch roof. Wrought-iron balconies jutted over the ivy-draped brick walls of the next. The last house was angular and modern with different levels of roofs, only built a few years ago. Lights flickered from inside each of the mansions, giving them an ethereal glow. They looked like something straight out of a postcard, a sharp contrast from the rickety trailers that dotted the back roads we traveled to get here. Micaela pulled to a stop in the center of the cul-de-sac. We stared at the houses in silence for a moment, collectively admiring their beauty.
“Man,” Micaela said. “How nice it must be to live in one of these.”
Kate and I murmured our agreement. The Meadows were the unattainable, the castles set atop a hill protected by a barrier of trees and mazelike roads. We found them by accident once on one of the back road expeditions we’d been leading ever since Kate got her license sophomore year. It was hard to believe that just outside the city full of boarded-up storefronts, fast food restaurants, and empty houses with old ‘For Sale’ signs existed a remnant of the upper class. None of us would ever experience that lifestyle—well, maybe Kate, if she made it through medical school.
We stayed for a few more minutes before Micaela rounded the cul-de-sac and drove us back out of the Meadows. We kept driving the country roads for a while, passing barns, dark houses, a couple of stray gas stations, and the occasional car. We jammed to the Saturday night radio mix on KISS FM, even though Micaela was the only one who knew the lyrics to most of the songs. I stared out the cracked window at the cloudless night sky, admiring the moon that hung pale and full. A multitude of stars dotted the blackness. When the road curved and faced the right area of the sky, I could see Orion’s Belt, the only constellation I could readily identify other than the Big Dipper. I read somewhere that some of the stars visible from Earth actually died long ago. What we see are the remnants of light that take years to travel the distance to our planet, illusions of the past.
Eventually we headed back into St. Clairsville, specifically to Steak ‘N Shake, where Kate and I had left our cars, which sat side-by-side with my Impala dwarfing The Bug, her Volkswagen Beetle. Kate jumped out of the passenger seat and yelled “Peace!” The Bug’s engine sputtered on before Micaela or I could even open our mouths to say goodbye.
“Well, thanks for the ride,” I said to Micaela with my hand on the door handle.
“No problem. Good luck with the rest of the semester.”
“Same to you, man. See you in the summer.”
“We’ll have to find some parties together since Kate’s staying at OSU.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, even though a twinge in my gut doubted that would happen. Micaela and I had only ever really hung out when Kate was around. She was the spinner of our web of friends; without her, it would probably unravel.
“Yeah, see ya.”
I shut the door, and the gold Pontiac rumbled away, following the trail of smoke that Kate’s diesel tailpipe had left lingering in the air. The wind blew across my face, carrying the smell of Steak ‘N Shake grease and exhaust. I climbed into my car, which thankfully was still warm from the earlier sunshine. I turned my iPod onto my driving playlist, and the vocals of Bitter:Sweet pumped through the speakers.
I cruised down the highway, enjoying the road that lay empty before me except for a few red dots of taillights far in the distance. It felt strange to do this again—to head home after a night of loitering around St. Clairsville with my high school friends. The last time I had done this was the night before freshman move-in day when Kate and I had sat beneath the overhang outside a Mexican restaurant called Tlaquepaque while a storm raged around us, flooding the parking lot that was vacant except for our cars that glinted like silver fish in the fluorescent lamp above them. We sat on the warm concrete and talked until 3 a.m. that night, waiting for the rain to slow down (or at least that was our excuse). After the rain finally did stop, we both had hesitated to leave and tear the dreamlike veil of the night, knowing that the reality of an uncertain future lay waiting at home in the form of packed suitcases and expensive textbooks. When we finally did part ways, I remembered feeling like I was submerged deep underwater, suspended between the lightness of the air in my lungs and the weight of the water. I felt the same kind of inexplicable paradox tonight as I approached Shadyside; emptiness filled my stomach.
Suddenly epileptic flashes of orange and red rushed past me in the passing lane. An ambulance sped by without sirens, just the flashing lights. I hadn’t even noticed it behind me. Then I remembered the old rumor that a silent ambulance with its lights turned on means that the patient inside has passed away. The paramedics keep the flashers on out of respect for the deceased, but the battle for life is over with time and distance as the silent victors.
Funny how often they defeat us.