by Sianna Boschetti, with commentary from Ruth Jones
Carmen lay on the floor of her dorm and tossed a ball up into the air, watching it absentmindedly. The room was small and cramped, with folded cardboard boxes stacked in the corner as if they would be filled any time soon. The unspoken consensus was that those boxes would remain empty until right before her life had to be inside of them and out the door.
‘Where is everyone?’ she finally asked.
‘Probably finishing those last-second job applications. Polishing resumes, emailing potential employers – doing what we really should be doing right now,’ Liz said from the swiveling desk chair by the door. ‘If you’re talking about Stella, though, she’s probably asleep.’
College officially ended a week and a day ago. Graduation was tomorrow morning, bright and early. So much needed doing but not much felt all that worthwhile.
‘Yeah, she usually is,’ Carmen said. ‘Whenever I want to hang out, at least.’
Carmen pushed herself off the floor, grabbing a box and packing it with keepsakes from the top of her dresser. Her first legal bottle of alcohol, the drawings on Starbucks napkins. The little purple bear from the carnival.
She couldn’t do it yet. Carmen scrambled to put everything back in place.
The ball, abandoned, rolled over to Liz. She squeezed it gently, her own anxieties contracting and releasing the rubber in perfect rhythm. ‘You’ve got to pack all that up at some point.’
‘Yeah.’ She let the box lazily fall between her legs. ‘Maybe. Or I could just leave it for the next person taking this room. It would at least make it look like I’ve done something with my life for the past four years.’
‘You’ve done things,’ Liz said. ‘It’s just like they say on the pamphlet for graduating seniors – “your heart will always be a part of our lovely campus.” Or something. I can’t remember, but it was cheesy, and the point is you’ve had a decent run in college.’
‘Have I?’ Carmen laid down on her bed and stared at the ceiling once more. ‘Because you’ve, like, led the soccer team and done research with your professors. You’re leaving something behind. I kind of peaked in sophomore year. I’m not even taking something with me, except for maybe a scrapbook.’
‘I don’t know. I just want to take a break for a while before grad school at this point. For once, I want to shelve the existentialism and just not think.’ She dragged her backpack behind her as she started to leave. ‘Wanna get midnight slushies?’
‘I’m just going to lay here for a while, I think,’ Carmen said.
‘Okay. Have fun,’ Liz said.
‘Goodnight,’ she replied, closing her eyes.
Carmen woke up to a stale taste in her mouth and a crick in her neck. She rolled over onto her side to check her phone, but not much was happening outside her head this late at night. She looked around at the build-up of the byproducts of her college life. The guitar she played at open mic nights. The drawings on bar napkins. The bear.
That memory in particular felt so fresh – people had swarmed the fairgrounds on the surprisingly warm October day. Carmen and Stella left Liz at the library at the peak of midterms and braved the crowds alone.
Carmen shook herself out of it and without thinking, she put on her shoes, grabbed the bear, and walked out the door.
She stared out over the lake from the wooden bridge on the edge of campus. Holding the stuffed bear close to her chest, she felt safe. The fur was thin, cheap, but soft and comforting.
The total silence was broken by the sound of gentle, hesitant footsteps approaching. Carmen looked back, wondering if she should leave.
Someone eventually materialized from between the trees. ‘Carmen?’
‘Stella?’ She said. ‘Hey, what are you doing?’
‘You know, just hanging out. I like to come here sometimes.’
Stella stood next to her. They both gazed off into the trees on the other side of the water.
Stella slowly reached for the bear. ‘Who’s this little guy?’
Carmen chuckled a little, embarrassed. ‘Remember that day at the carnival?’
A few moments later, she held the bear, content, as unexpectedly vivid memories flooded her mind.
Stella laughed, ‘I can’t believe you still have this.’
Carmen blushed, but it was too dark outside for it to be noticeable.
‘Yeah, of course I kept it. We had fun that day.’
Both were quiet.
‘You’d know I still have it if we hung out more often.’
Stella shifted and the wooden bridge creaked. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ Carmen said. ‘We’re weird.’
‘Well, that’s not your fault either. It was a weird situation, dude.’ Stella pulled a flask out of her jacket and took a drink. ‘Want some?’
‘What is it?’
Carmen laughed as she drank, feeling the warmth trickle down her throat and spread throughout her body. ‘I don’t know why I asked.’
Silence fell over the lake again as they passed the flask back and forth for what felt like forever.
‘I should be the one apologizing to you,’ Carmen eventually said.
Stella examined the flask, trying to remain unmoved. ‘Why?’
‘I screwed everything up for us.’
‘It really isn’t your fault, Carm. I understand.’
‘You, me, and Liz – we hung out every day.’
‘You and I did everything together.’
‘You were my best friend.’
Stella finished off the whiskey, silent.
‘It wasn’t the same after the carnival.’ Carmen stared out at the lake, stoic.
‘It really wasn’t.’
‘My emotions got the best of me.’
‘It wasn’t all you,’ Stella said. ‘We were basically in a romance movie. A day at the carnival, getting caught in the rain on the way home, the whole deal.’
‘I put my arm around you.’
‘Because we needed to share your jacket.’
‘Under the gazebo in the park, until the rain passed.’
‘I kissed your forehead.’
‘I kissed your lips.’
‘I returned every one of your kisses.’
‘Then the rain cleared up.’
‘We went back to school.’
‘Didn’t talk about it again.’ Carmen felt the bear in Stella’s hands. ‘Barely talked to each other again.’
Stella buttoned her jacket up and turned toward Carmen. ‘We should go to bed, you know. The ceremony is at ten tomorrow.’
‘Yeah,’ Carmen said. ‘Yeah, you’re right.’
Something rustled in the water as they took in the sounds of the lake one last time.
‘I couldn’t lose what we had,’ Stella said. ‘We did anyway, but it hurt me too.’
‘It doesn’t matter now. We’re done with school. No more midnight slushies, no more carnivals, no more any of it.’ Carmen turned to face Stella. ‘We’ll be gone and none of our wasted time will have meant a thing.’
‘We’ll be gone, sure, but something will still matter.’ She reached out to touch the bear’s soft fur again. ‘We’ve done stuff. We’ve left our mark, you know?’
‘On what?’ Carmen watched the water ripple around the bridge. ‘We sat in our rooms for four years, Stella. We didn’t even sit together.’
‘Okay,’ she sighed. ‘We were cool in a way that no one cared about. We were kind of inconsequential, but we were inconsequential together, and that meant a lot to me. Even when we weren’t together.’
Carmen shifted and the dock creaked along with a hidden army of frogs. ‘That meant a lot to me too.’
Stella leaned into Carmen’s chest, the hug feeling hot against her whiskey-warmed skin.
‘Thanks for being here,’ Carmen said. The hug was so inviting after such a long period of indifference between them. She didn’t want to let go for a long time. She didn’t have to.
‘Thanks for everything,’ Stella replied. ‘Now, I’ve got to go sober up. Tomorrow’s a big day.’
The ceremony ended as expected, with students collecting their caps after tossing them into the air and giving each other final hugs goodbye. She wanted to take off her robe and just go to lunch already – she needed to nurse her hangover somewhere other than in a crowd of thousands of her peers.
‘Hungover?’ A voice behind her asked, straining to be heard.
She turned to see Stella squinting in the sunlight. ‘How can you tell?’
‘You’ve always been a lightweight,’ Stella yelled over the crowd, moving a little closer to lower her voice. ‘I am too, though. Are you leaving for the obligatory family lunch now?’
‘Yeah, my dad’s ready to beat the crowds at all the restaurants,’ she laughed.
Stella smiled at her. ‘So, listen,’ she said, moving a little closer and lowering her voice a little more.
‘I’m listening,’ Carmen smiled back.
‘Are you…’ She trailed off, the shy grin forming on her lips giving her away. She continued to close the gap between them. ‘I know how you feel about carnivals. Do you like strawberry festivals too?’