The Streetlamp

That was one of my favorite parts of it all—of Allie and me being friends, I mean—sitting there in her passenger seat, with the streetlamp on my neighbor’s lawn glowing in on us through the dashboard, the night’s playlist soft in the background. I liked when I could just barely see her, except for her eyes, and her golden silhouette, and her manicured toes making tiny rings of fog on the windshield, because she always took off her shoes and propped her feet up on the dashboard.

I couldn’t say why I loved it so much. Maybe it was that this was one of the only times when it was just the two of us, sans the noise of our other girlfriends and school and people doing stupid things. In a way, though, it was kind of scary. Because there was no buffer, and no distractions. Just us was good, but just us also provided no place to hide.

That night, Allie didn’t take off her shoes, or even stay in the car at all. She put her phone in her pocket and got out, and before I could really even open my door, she lay down in the middle of the stretch of cul-de-sac in front of my driveway.

“Um,” I said. “What are y—?”

“I’m looking at your stars.” I was about to ask if that was a John Green reference or some crap, when she said, “It’s like, everyone has their own personal piece of the stars that only they see right before they go to bed or whatever. And you can tell a lot about somebody from their stars.”

I went and lay down next to her, and the slightly less than a foot between us hummed with magnetic possibility that made the hairs on my arms more dance than stand up.

“Really?”

“Unh huh. If you really look.”

“What’s there to look for?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a good party trick anymore, would it?” She looked over at me, and for a second, before I could help it, I just stared at her. She had big eyes that could be doey or a bit buggy depending on the mood, that were the kind of perfect light blue usually reserved for the irises of perfume-ad models. It almost burned to look at her eyes, they were so bright. Her skin was beautiful, though it looked like she fought to keep it that way, due to some well-covered pockmarks on her chin. For some reason, she hated her nose. I didn’t think it was bad, a little commanding maybe, but not bad. And between those eyes and her perfect pouty lips, did it really matter?

She blinked, and I realized it’d been too long, so I laughed and said, “Guess not.”

“Now be quiet and let me look a minute, so I can see what they say.”

I shut up. She made this kinda picture frame with her hands, like she was framing a shot for a movie, and squinted into it. There was this crazy-intense concentration on her face, this ultra-serious line-lipped type look, like a terrified kid at a piano recital. I almost laughed, because it was so exaggerated, so far from her typical breezy grins—until something flashed through her eyes, something real, and she lowered her hands, slowly.

It was like she’d actually seen something, up there, and I knew if there was really anything to see, it would be her face, mapped out in constellations, with more shiny corners than normal, but still her.

“So?” I asked. The tar underneath us felt like it was gonna pitch me off, so I’d be thrown up into nowhere, with no solid ground to come back to. It made me sick.

“They seem to think you’re in love.”

I held my breath for a second, and watched as it all came crashing down. What had I done, what had I said, how long had she known? Could it really be in the sky? Or was it that time… there were a million that times it could have been, a million elongated stares, a million hand brushes, a million laughs that were a little too reverent. I’d been headed straight for this moment, fucked in a perfect beeline, since I shut the car door on that first night, and I knew it. But that didn’t make it any easier.

I managed to squeak out something like, hmmm.

When school started again, I’d be screwed, I knew. Maybe over the rest of this summer it wouldn’t be too bad—I’d still have some people in enclaves she didn’t talk to, but once theater was up and running again, it’d spread around, and I’d be the creepy lesbian girl who stalked Allie Hayes for a year. And the worst thing was it would be kind of true.

“Oh yes.” Allie grinned. “The stars say you’re passionately, deeply, in love—but—what’s this?—you must keep your affair a secret, for fear of judgement.” It was worse than any of the times I’d imagined it, way worse. This wasn’t a frank confrontation. She was making fun of me.

“I’m—I’m seeing a face! It’s… Jiffy!”

“What?” I said.

Oh fuck. She’d been kidding. Of course. The whole time. She wasn’t—

“Jiffy.”

I rolled my eyes, making like I hadn’t heard her. Really, I was just short of stress-cackling, but whatever.

Jiffy—his real name was Tyler, but nobody ever called him that—was this gross kid from theater everyone hated. He was our only true outcast, and showing him any kindness was punishable by weeks of exclusion. The nickname had something to do with him trying to fuck a jar of peanut butter, I guess.

“Jesus, Allie,” I said. “Can we please—?”

She was laughing now, and I started too. “I can imagine it. The two of you, riding into the sunset, the grease from his hair coating your face—”

We were both laughing too hard to go on.

The joke had started after I’d once confessed, in a pinch during Truth or Dare, that I’d dated him for a single day in sixth grade. They gave me relentless shit about it whenever they could. I didn’t think it was funny, and I never had, but every laugh seemed to shake a little weight off my chest.

“It was literally one day,” I said, “and Liz Tanaka dared me to do it, so.” I’d made up the part about Liz Tanaka just then. I definitely didn’t know her, now or ever.

Allie looked at me. “Wait, you used to be friends with Liz Tanaka?”

“Uh, yeah. For like three seconds.”

“Weird.” Liz Tanaka was what you could call a mega slut. If you weren’t a feminist, I mean.

I shrugged, feeling my spaghetti-strapped shoulders scrape on the pavement.

Allie sighed, and took out her phone. The blue glow on her face was like concentrated starlight, only it was clean, and harsh, and I could see the reflection of her Instagram feed in the whites of her eyes. I hated that, how she could just zip off into another world in the palm of her hand. I mean, I kind of could too, but only kind of—that was the thing. I couldn’t ever fully get away from her. Not that I’d want to, but still.

“I heard she’s hella smart, though,” I said, just to bring Allie back.

“What?” She clicked her phone dark. Her sound was on.

“Liz Tanaka. I think she’s going to Harvard or some shit.” She’d just graduated.

“That’s funny,” Allie said.

“What?”

“How some people… like, out of everybody you wouldn’t pick them to do great things, but they still do.”

“Yeah.”

“You’d pick me, though, right?” She turned her head to face me, and saw I’d been looking at her. There was no point in me trying to hide it.

“What do you mean?”

“Like if you had to pick somebody who was gonna do something great.”

“I mean,” I said. “Yeah, I’d pick you. I’m not, like, God, or anything, so it doesn’t matter, but…yeah, I would.”

“You’re funny.” She smiled, her teeth shining in the streetlamp light. An easy, toying smile, that looked like it could float straight off her face with a gust of wind.

I wasn’t trying to be funny. Of course I’d pick her. I probably pictured her name lit up on a Broadway marquee more often than she did. It’d played out behind my eyelids so often it seemed inevitable: her smashing her way into the theater world as the lead in Edward Albee’s new play, getting rave reviews in the vein of “But who really is Broadway’s new It Girl?” Her graceful acceptance speech at the Tonys that year. Then a turn as Juliet, or maybe Cleopatra, before she broke into film. It was history from there. And I’d be there, in the front or maybe up in the booth, the whole time.

“I just think,” she bit her lip, and I thought about how the backs of her front teeth must’ve always been covered in red lipstick, “I mean, I can’t help thinking that I’m meant for something, you know? Because I want it, really, really bad. You think that counts for something, right?”

“Yeah, it definitely—”

“When I was a kid, you know, my dad always told me I could do anything I wanted, as long as I set my mind to it. So I said, Daddy, I want to be an actress. Even from the time I was little, when all the other girls wanted to be princesses, that’s all I ever wanted to be. But my mom doesn’t think I’m good enough to—”

Fuck your mom. Cause you really are. You’re really good.”  I meant it, too. One time, I actually missed a light cue during a show cause she did something that was just so insanely real.

Allie sniffed. I looked at her. Her eyes were a little wet, which I guess they were like eighty percent of the time. “You’re not shitting me?” Her voice was quiet.

I sighed. “I wouldn’t shit you, Allie.”

She kinda laughed, and wiped her eyes. “Okay. Good.” She cleared her throat. “On to business, then.” She jumped up.

For a minute, she just stood there, and I was kinda struck by the way she looked from this angle, me eye-level with her scuffed oxfords. She looked like one of those girls on an album cover, a good album, the kind you can cry to. With soft guitar chords, and lo-fi sound, where the front is made to look like a polaroid, and the girl is smoking a cigarette and leaning on a brick wall with twinkly lights affixed to it.

It was something about the cutoff overalls and striped shirt she had on, and the way the baby hairs sticking out of her French braid were lit up in the streetlamp so the world looked cracked around her face, and her half-bitten-off lipstick.

“So, are you gonna get up or anything?”

“Shit. Yeah. Sorry,” I mumbled.

As soon as I was on my feet she half-ran down my cul-de-sac, out into the main street of the neighborhood, which ran past my house. I followed her, even though I had no idea what the hell she was doing.

It didn’t seem like she was going that fast, but I almost didn’t catch her when she went around the corner, her feet kicking up behind her, so it looked like she was ice-skating down the yellow line in the middle of the road.

When she came up next to the streetlamp on the left sidewalk, she stopped and turned toward it. I was still walking over there when she shook her head a little and ran off again.

“What are we even—?”

Allie stopped and whipped around to face me. “Jesus, Iris, just come on.” She grinned and starting running again, calling, “I’m going to take you on a fabulous adventure!” over her shoulder.

I couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of me, and I actually started running after her. Every muscle in my legs burned, and I was out of breath before the block ended, but I kept going, until we stopped. I put my hand on my chest, and I could feel my heart thudding away. Allie didn’t notice my ragged breathing, or at least it didn’t seem like she did, because all her attention was focused on the streetlamp in front of us.

It looked just the same as every other one we’d seen that night—same yellow cone of light, same black, lined pole—but she must have decided this was the one, because she cocked her head to the side, smirked, and grabbed my hand, leading me over to it. Little trills of goosebumps travelled up my arm. I could tell by the way she was walking that whatever we were about to do was special to her.

When we reached the streetlamp she didn’t let go of my hand, just pressed her ear up against the pole. After the briefest what-the-fuck second, I did too.

The second my ear touched the pole, I knew why we were doing this. It was the sound of the streetlamp, the buzzing it made. Fuzzy, in a way, but not biting like TV static, or whiny like neon, but not beautiful, either, not distracting in its loveliness.

That was the thing about it, I think. The sound was distraction, but only for the part of my brain that hated me most—the part that was always reaching for my phone no matter how much I didn’t want to. The part that won friends with lies, or razor blades when the lies wore out. That part was sucked up into the buzz, so I could kind of just look at everything.

The world sort of looked, in a way, the same as it did in comic books, everything clear and outlined in black and over-exaggerated almost to a point of parody. Once-tiny flecks of silver in the road were full-on cut diamonds. The weary white boards of the fence across from us bowed inward, like God’s crooked bottom teeth. And the cone of yellow light around us was a hard circle, closing us off from the rest of the world. She was perfect like that.

The way she looked just then made me think of this other time, forever ago, before I knew I loved her.

Actually, I guess it wasn’t really that long ago at all, because it was at the end of the school year, which was literally, like, less than two months ago. But you know how these things are, when summer stretches on forever, and you’re in love with somebody and all.

It was opening night of the last play of the year, the second show I’d done in high school at that point, but maybe the millionth show I’d done in general. The play was A Streetcar Named Desire because our teacher, Mr. Taylor, was young and angry that he wasn’t in New York, and didn’t give two shits about being family-friendly.

I’d gotten there at, like, 5:30, which was half an hour early, because Alex wanted me to run through all the cues before call time.

The door was unlocked when I got up to the booth. I went in, sat down in the much-coveted rolly chair, and fired up the board.

Being there was good, and I was glad I’d never bothered with auditioning. I got to have all those nice live wire pre-show jitters without the pressure of the stage and the dark roaring mass in the seats. Up here, I could see everyone, but they couldn’t see me, so it was really the opposite of being onstage. I didn’t even miss the applause, really.

I’d been up there for about ten minutes maybe, just running the cues as fast as I could, when Allie came onstage. What the hell was she doing here? The only people who ever showed up early were tech people, and only ones with important shit to do. But she was striding onstage like she had important shit to do, so I wasn’t about to question it.

Only the white lights were up then, so I just left them that way. She didn’t acknowledge me or anything, so I figured she didn’t know I was there. To her, I knew, the house was empty, except for the echoes of applause to come.

Her hair was up in her typical messy bun, but somehow it still managed to shine in the stage light. She wasn’t in costume yet, but she also wasn’t wearing any of her normal clothes, either, just calf leggings and a white tank top.

In a minute, I saw why. She started out by just walking across the stage, slowly. I didn’t know what she was doing, until I saw it, in the way her bare feet started to slide, and her posture got better. She was becoming Blanche. I didn’t know how she pulled it off, but she did.

With a little shake of her head, she turned back into herself, plopped down on the apron, and started stretching. Dance stretching, things my muscles probably still remembered, even though it’d been years, and I was about as flexible as an iron rod now.

She folded in half, grabbed her heels, and went up on her toes. I didn’t really know what it was called—I remembered something called relevé, which my teacher told us was French for tippy-toes. Then she scrunched down, still on her toes, into what was essentially a squat. When I was a kid, they’d called it “the turtle.” From there, she sat down, put the soles of her feet together, and folded her torso over her legs. Way back when, they called it “the butterfly.” I wondered why everything was named after animals. She probably knew the real French behind it all.

Watching her stretch was weird, kind of, because it made me realize maybe we weren’t so different after all. As little girls we’d been taught pretty much the same things, by the same unspecifically pretty sixteen-year-old dance teachers working for their tuition, which, of course, Allie was now one of. We’d smelled that same chalky, cold, studio smell, looked in the same mirrors, been eventually passed on to the same expired prima hopefuls—the ones who make you call them Madame as they decay on a stool in the corner.

I pictured the two of us side by side at the barre as little girls. We looked almost the same—soft bubblegum tights, knobby blonde buns, Payless ballet shoes. And we could do all the same animal stretches and simple moves. Sure, I was a bit of a chubby kid, but that’s no big deal when you’re four. In the mirror, we became five, and six, and learning a little more each year, moving beyond the basics. At seven, things changed even more. Once you’re seven you’re done with the baby stuff, as ridiculous as that sounds. Our leotards turned black and sleeveless, we ditched the fluttery skirts, and began cutting our newly-grown teeth on the jagged edges of our teacher’s increasingly stern words. Eight and nine passed without incident. But then we hit ten—when pre-pointe training starts. At ten, you decide, essentially, whether the stratosphere is worth shooting for. And I decided it wasn’t.

From there things changed. I got fat and Allie got serious. Her legs lengthened out, perhaps a tad too much for a dancer. She got a nude leotard, a waist, and, finally, pointe shoes. Before I knew it, she towered over me, the shoes giving her a good four inches. I could have been one of her students.

The Allie on the stage jumped up, drawing my attention back, and turned sideways. She raised her left leg in a perfect arabesque, a breathing incarnation of every music box ballerina I’d ever had, sans tutu.

I was kind of struck by that, and it was beautiful to me, even before I knew I loved her. She wasn’t Bolshoi material and never would be, but there was still a tremendous grace in the furrowed-eyebrow determination on her face, and a jittery, plucked-rubber-band energy in the way the line of her body fell, as if this motion was a momentary pause in the middle of teleportation.

It didn’t feel particularly weird to watch her. Maybe it was because she was onstage, or because I was so far above her, or because she was so totally absorbed in what she was doing.

But then she did something that surprised me. She lowered her leg out of the arabesque, and straightened up, like to the other leg. But instead she tipped over into a cartwheel. She did three of them, across the whole width of the stage, her arms and legs flying like pinwheel spokes, tying the whole thing in a sudden, fluid bow.

When she landed, she grinned, planted her hands on her hips, and called, “Well, are you coming down, or what?”

I jumped, more because she knew I was there than anything. But I still got up and poked my head out the door.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” She sighed. “I saw you doing the light cues, earlier.”

“Oh. Yeah. I wasn’t like trying to creep on—”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t care if you were looking at me.” She waved for me to come down. I flipped on some of the house lights and went down the center aisle stairs to the stage.

From the floor below the apron, with the set behind her and the light and everything, she kind of looked like some ten-foot-tall goddess. Her ankles were crossed and her hands were clasped behind her back, so her collarbones jutted forward, like birds’ wings. Her left foot was pointed into a crescent moon. She cocked her head a little to the side and pulled her hands further behind her. I heard her shoulder blades crack.

“Come on up, girly.”

I did this hideous pole-vault-jump wiggle thing, and ended up just heaving myself over the lip of the stage while she waited.

“So you all set for the show?” she asked, once I’d put myself back together.

“Yeah, pretty much.” I was, mostly. Later that night I fucked up one of the cues in the first act, right after the thing with the paper lantern. The thing is, the center lights are supposed to get way softer and kind of blue when Blanche puts on the lantern, which is sort of the whole point, but I fucked up, so it didn’t. But it was whatever. There was another cue, I got it, the world moved on, I guess.

“You?” I asked.

She nodded. “I feel pretty warmed up.”

“Yeah, I bet. What was that, like a solid twenty minutes of stuff?”

She shrugged. “I do that before every show and every dance class.”

“Wow.”

“Comes with the job, I guess.” She didn’t say anything else about it, just kind of folded herself down onto the stage floor, so she was lying flat on her back. She patted the wood next to her and I lay down too.

Thinking back on it, I figured there must have been that same electric field between us, there on the stage. I just hadn’t noticed it yet.

The lights above us were a new kind of bright, a new kind of heat. When you were upright under stage lights, like normal, there was just this kind of tingly warmth on top of your head, and it was hot, sure, but not like this. This heat consumed you, got behind your eyeballs and worked clean through your skull.

But it wasn’t bad. Somehow, it wasn’t bad.

“Huh,” was all I said.

“What?” She turned her head to look at me.

“Nothing.”

“Okay.” She looked back up at the lights, and there was a moment that was quiet except for the humming of the lights.

Then, suddenly, violently almost, her whole face brightened. Fireworks seemed to skitter across the surface of her pupils, and the corners of her mouth sparked into a closed-mouth smile.

“I love this place,” she whispered, so I could just barely hear. “God, I love this place.”

It was that look on her face that fucked me up during the show. Right before she said “we’ve made enchantment,” or whatever that line was, she did that same exact look, and it just got to me. Because I’d never seen anything that real on a stage before, and I doubted I ever would again.

And I guess she kind of had something like that look on her face when we were listening to the streetlamps. And the look was still beautiful.

We stayed like that forever. Or at least that’s how it seemed, just then—standing there, with the weight of her hand getting slightly sticky and very important in mine. Nothing existed but us and the moment and all the happy moments that had ever been and the light, until she slid her hand away, and detached her ear from the pole.

She smiled, and didn’t say anything. She knew I didn’t need an explanation. We walked back to my house slowly, dragging our feet, and not saying a word the whole time. When she got in her car, she said bye, and that was it. We were beyond words, I guess.

And that night, my dreams were all full of yellow light, and Allie’s stark-lined profile, and champagne-bubble buzzing.

Gretchen AdamsGretchen Adams is a freshman at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has previously appeared in Spilled Ink and Canvas Literary Journal. She divides her time equally between her couch and this killer falafel shop in Wicker Park. Harass her on Tumblr at what-are-this.tumblr.com.