When I was a senior in high school, I believed my best friends would forever be my best friends. Not that I, or any of my friends, were those seventeen years old will be the absolute apex of my achievement and high school was awesome people. If anything, it might have been our collective dismay at being teenagers and steadfast belief in high school being mostly just a thing you survived was what had brought us together in the first place.
In early November, we all found ourselves together at Ivy League’s house, ostensibly to listen to PJ Harvey, do live ironic commentary to “Beverly Hills 90210” and watch a lunar eclipse, not necessarily in that order. Ivy League’s parents went to bed early, leaving us downstairs with David Silver jokes and hazelnut coffee. We tromped out in the front yard to watch the celestial event and, bored of gazing heavenward, rolled over each other in the frosty grass, Steamroller style, like children, which we didn’t know we still were. Inside, talk got self-consciously raunchy. We decided to play bisexual spin the bottle, which seemed as much a college prerequisite as AP exams and a passing familiarity with the Matador records catalog. And overachievers, we undertook the challenge with a precise combination of transgressive glee and studious obligation. I don’t think any of us had any grand, paradigm-shifting epiphanies, save that all seventeen year olds, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, are pretty bad kissers. But it became clear pretty early on in the game that Ivy League and Indie Rock were maybe on the verge of becoming more than friends and, like, really needed to get a room, guys, like, for real. Afterward, Ivy League drove Indie Rock home, by first period the next day, they were together. They seemed happy. We were happy for them.
Ivy League was the first of us to get into college. She earned her nickname with an early decision letter in December, a few weeks after the eclipse She called to tell me the good news and also that she and Indie Rock were probably over. And I was like, today? And she was like, no, not today, but the writing is on the wall. That sounded ominous, but like many things I remember that people told me senior year, I promptly put it out of my mind and went about teaching myself to play Liz Phair songs on the guitar and failing to improve my math grades.
In April, Ivy League told us some fantastically rich New Yorker and his glamorous, Russian wife (not the ones you’re thinking of was sending his seventeen-year-old son to spend his term break from Swiss boarding school with her family. The exact purpose of the visit–internship, independent study on the ways of the not-rich–were as unclear as how he’d ended up at Ivy League’s house to begin with–friend of a friend of a friend or something. We called him Vlad, which was absolutely not his real name. The first night we met him, he sat on the upstairs sofa at the local coffeehouse dive, French-inhaling English cigarettes and conspicuously flashing a Rolex around. He was kind of attractive in that let’s see how many sovereign nations I can invade before starting a world war sort of way that just begged for a sash and an imperial mustache. But also preposterous and unpleasant. I remember thinking is this the writing on the wall she was talking about?
Such was the state of things the night I oh-please I’ll be your best friend, like, forever agreed accompany Vlad to contra-dancing night at Warren Wilson College. Ivy League’s parents had dreamed it up, so Vlad could get some greater insight into local culture. It was a huge ask. For one thing, I didn’t know what contra-dancing was but it sounded like folk dancing and a necessary condition of my continued survival in Appalachian purgatory was strict avoidance of anything described as “folk:” music, art, home remedies, crafts, the world “folksy,” some models of Volkswagens, etc. Also, Vlad was a pompous ass. I figured he’d be the reason my friends broke up, even if he wasn’t the reason my friends broke up. I wore all-black—a skirt that didn’t twirl, boots not made for dancing– to announce my irritation. Vlad also wore all black, under an all black overcoat, so he looked like the Gestapo on Casual Friday.
The dance was in a barn. There were a bunch of fiddlers playing Celtic music while a group of middle-aged white people twirled around in patchwork calico. It felt like the sort of scene my ancestors deliberately left the Old Country to avoid. A beardy redhead dressed like Mick Fleetwood on the cover of “Rumours” came over to lead us onto the dance floor. Vlad sort of snarled in German and the man backed away, but told us we couldn’t smoke in the barn.
We walked around the campus, barely talking until we ran into a couple of students outside a dorm. They led us down to a pasture, where we could hear the distant lowing of livestock. I wandered off, bored. I looked at the stars. I pretended I was in a Bronte novel and Warren Wilson College was the moor. I slipped on something slimy and fell hard onto the grass. The students came over to see if I was all right, but I’d sustained no injury save to my tights and my almost non-existent self-respect.
My boots were covered in manure. Vlad ordered the students to clean my shoes so they wouldn’t befoul his car. Shockingly, they complied. Vlad opened the trunk and pulled out an empty blue mop bucket containing an expensive bottle of champagne he’d bought for (but never consumed at) our prom a few weeks back. He popped the cork theatrically, took a sip and handed it to me, apologetic. It’s warm and this should never be served warm. I thought it tasted delicious. Like ginger ale and stars.
We sat on the trunk for a while, drinking. He told me he really liked Ivy League. He told me they’d hooked up. He told me she was nice and smart and beautiful. I told him that she was my best friend and I knew all of those things were true. I almost felt sorry for him. It occurred to me that I didn’t know why Ivy League couldn’t go dancing with Vlad herself. It occurred to me that maybe she was breaking up with Indie Rock even now as I sat on the trunk of a car with this preening, confused snoot of a teenager. That would change things. That would splinter my friend group, which would be splintered anyway by the college diaspora and some training wheels version of adulthood. I mean, I wasn’t stupid. I’d also longed to leave and have done with this place. But what if I could never make friends like that again? What if this had been my only chance to have friends I actually cared about? Friends that were like me? The thought was devastating. I drank more.
The students came back with my shoes. Vlad said he didn’t care what I did but he was going to dance one dance to say he had. I went with him. Puffy shirt gave us the side-eye, but the song they were playing was a waltz. Vlad looked around for a better partner, any other partner, but finally sighed and asked if I knew how. I was like, Seventh Grade Cotillion classes, comrade. And so we waltzed, which was how I figured out that his black sweater was unsurprisingly cashmere and he smelled like snow and leather, which would have been lovely if he had been anyone but Vlad.
I pretended we were somewhere else, in some other time on the brink of something momentous. I didn’t feel like I was on the brink of something momentous. My friends did. But I wasn’t really getting away. I wasn’t escaping the south. I wasn’t living up to my fullest potential. I wasn’t about to embark on some grand adventure. I felt like a supporting character, the one left behind, the one they’d think about like, crying shame about her, if they thought about me at all. And I worried that maybe this stupid moment, this awkward barn dance with an asshole would end up being a peak achievement. I didn’t think I could live with that. I sniffled a little. Vlad asked me what I was crying about. I said “World War I.” And he said his father was descended from the Hapsburgs and did I know I still smelled like manure.
I don’t remember the drive home. Vlad made a show of opening the car door for me. He shook my hand. Told me he’d had an illuminating night, and, as if suddenly struck by epiphany, opened the trunk and handed me the bucket.
“For you,” he said, and then exactly “A token of my regard and a souvenir of a rare moment that a person like you gets to spend time with a person like me.
I was still laughing at that line as I saw his car disappear down the hill. I stood in the driveway, trying to will the next minute from coming, because if kept from moving, maybe I could just languish in now indefinitely. But my head was spinning and standing still just made it worse.