My friend Jay shaved her head after a bad haircut. She was in Alabama for the summer, selling Cut-Rite knives door-to-door. I was in China. Jay would send texts to my phone, which I had left at home in Virginia. When I came back in August, my phone had maybe fifty messages from her. The day she shaved her head, she sent me two.
Two dogs humping in the backyard. Had to turn the hose on them. Thought of you, you horndog.
Whiskey drunk and handling knives.
Jay had never worn her hair long, but I remember it being shoulder length in our video chats. She had this black hair, so black it looked purple-tinted in the sunlight. She told me she was one-quarter Cherokee, which was why she hadn’t burned that time we went to the beach after classes officially ended. I had gotten a splotchy sunburn that looked like it was dripping down my stomach, red and angry.
She had her step-cousin, Faith, do the shearing. Faith had three brothers in the military and a pair of clippers in the family bathroom. They spread old People magazines on the cracked tiles to catch all the hair. The sound of the first, heavy lock hitting the ground must have cut through the mechanical buzzing. Muffled, heavy despite its softness, like a pillow of snow falling from a tree branch – the sound waking you up in the middle of the night without you ever knowing why. I don’t know when she started drinking that day, but I can imagine her gripping a glass of Jim Beam, her eyes fixed to the ceiling, as Faith raked the clipper’s whirring fingers through Jay’s hair.
I met Jay on our first day at Wampanoag College – she was my roommate. She had driven up to Massachusetts by herself, driving straight through the night on a diet of coffee and her little sister’s Adderall. She was curled up on the bare mattress of the bottom bunk when I came in with my parents. Still rubbing her eyes, she shook our hands and then excused herself to go to the bathroom. She didn’t come back until after my parents had made my bed, mopped the floor, and set up my Internet connection.
‘How long was I gone for?’ Jay asked, pushing the door open with a bony shoulder.
My mom and dad had just left, reluctantly. They had even lingered at the threshold, fussing with the scuffs on the floor.
‘Two, three hours I think.’
‘Fell asleep in one of the bathroom stalls,’ she said, letting out a gurgling laugh, like a baby. ‘Just passed out right on the toilet like a bum.’
She walked over to the mini-fridge she had brought from home. ‘Want a beer?’ she asked, leaning into it. Her hair parted in the back to reveal the string of freckles dotting the nape of her neck.
‘To college,’ she toasted and we clinked cans.
I remember she had taken thirsty gulps, her throat undulating with every swallow. Jay finished the rest of the six-pack while I nursed my beer. I had sipped so slowly that it had gone warm and flat halfway through. With every new can, she had raised her arm and said, ‘To college,’ with the snap and hiss of the popped tab following her words.
I’ve decided it’s bad luck to smoke in a cemetery.
I think Jay was a little mad at me for leaving her that summer to go to Beijing. She’d never been to Asia, or really anywhere outside of the States. She could hardly afford college, though Wampanoag had covered most of the cost. A part-time job at the library and bartending at the community sports bar on the weekend paid for her cigarettes, her bourbon, and gas for her car.
Jay liked to drive around town after class and sometimes she would invite me along. Her favorite route took her through the historical section of Wampanoag, then curved along the little river where students could kayak in warm weather, and ended with the only suburban road free of speed bumps and school zones. Jay would point out her favorite houses to me, ashing her cigarette into the cold coffee resting in her cup holder.
‘I love a set of colonial pillars, even on a house that small,’ she would say.
She would moan over the window shutters of the house on the corner of Maple and show me the goosebumps raised on her arm by the paint job on the Tudor-style home at the intersection of Quietwood and Oak.
‘I spent ten years in my grandma’s trailer,’ Jay said one afternoon as she slowed her car to a crawl by the river. ‘Two rooms, no real doors, and three people sharing one bed. Can you even imagine how sick I got of everyone’s breath brushing against me?’
She had parked, without warning, on a gravel inlet. It was the tail end of winter and by then I had gotten used to her impulses. I followed her out. Her strides quickly outdistanced mine. She was tall with size nine-and-a-half feet that crunched deep impressions into the frozen grass. I jumped from footstep to footstep, leaving none of my own, while keeping an eye on her red coat, which kept disappearing behind barren branches as she wove her way deeper into the underbrush.
I lost sight of her at the river’s edge. Thinking she had jumped in, I ran to the spot only to see that she had squatted down and was now gathering stones. She handed me a smooth, rounded rock without a word and then threw the one she was holding into the water with a quick snap of her wrist. The stone skimmed the surface a few feet before finally sinking. The stones that followed traveled even farther.
‘My dad taught me how to skip rocks by the creek,’ Jay finally said. ‘I was thinking that I might have forgotten how to do it. I wanted to make sure I still could.’
Gum commercial says the average person spends 20,000 mins kissing in their life. I think I need to double that.
I was learning Chinese at Peking University, memorizing almost a hundred new characters every day. There would be gaps of two, three weeks between my video chats with Jay. My webcam was slow, the images grainy and unfocused, and I didn’t register her new haircut until she bent her head to the camera, filling my screen with her velvety scalp.
‘Oh, shit, Jay, what happened?’ I said, imagining the scream of an ambulance siren, blood splashed against a hospital gurney.
She sat back and frowned at me.
‘You don’t like it?’
‘You did that on purpose?’
‘I knew you wouldn’t like it,’ she said, lighting a cigarette. ‘I went to the barber and they fucked up my hair. So I decided to shave it all off, rather than look like a dork.’
‘It actually looks good,’ I said, deciding that the shape of her head suited the cut. ‘Once you get over the shock. It looks good, I promise.’
‘People are nicer to me,’ she giggled. ‘They think I’ve got cancer or something. The guy at the liquor store gave me a bottle of wine for free.’
‘Won’t that hurt your chances with the Alabama boys?’
She smiled, linking her fingers behind her and arching her back.
‘Actually, I’ve got a date tonight. I met him at the park. He’s a caricature artist.’
She leaned out of camera to grab something from her desk, a sheet torn out of a sketchbook that she held in front of her for me to study.
‘See, he did one of me,’ she said from behind the drawing. ‘Pretty good, right?’
The drawing of Jay made her look like a pixie, her eyes as wide as Bambi’s and her mouth puffed out into a porn star’s pout. It was hard to overstate Jay’s already exaggerated features and the result made her seem just un-human enough to make me shiver.
‘You look like a slutty cherub,’ I said. ‘I think your date might be a pedophile.’
‘I am technically still a teenager,’ she said. ‘Also, I know you’ll disapprove, but I think he’s over thirty.’
‘He told me he’s only twenty-five, but he’s already got crow’s feet. He looks older than my dad before he died.’
Though she had mentioned her dad’s death before, and always in the same irreverent manner, I still had trouble keeping the shock off my face. Having never had anyone close to me die, I had always assumed you kept the information close to your chest. When forced to, you were allowed to allude to the death in such an oblique manner that outsiders might think your loved one was on vacation. A death in the family was an embarrassment; the very mention of it made others uncomfortable. It was scandalous to be so forthright. But Jay was unabashed.
I could see, in the corner of my screen, the small rectangle of my face twitch in response. The back of my neck prickled when I realized my nervous reaction would be magnified on Jay’s computer.
‘I knew you’d judge,’ she whined, mistaking the reason for my facial tic. ‘It’s just one date. I want to have some fun. And it’s a free dinner.’
‘I’m not judging,’ I said, but Jay had already moved on.
‘I saw on the news that the world’s fattest man is getting married. How crazy is that? Is it wrong of me to be jealous? I can’t believe I’m not married yet.’
She yearned for the affirming weight of an engagement ring on her finger, a wish that she both defended and derided. Jay was chronically Southern. She treated her mannerisms like a disease, one that she had bravely shouldered with the grimly set face of someone with lupus. She had mastered a flat tone as blank as a canvas, but her accent crept into her speech when she drank, as slyly as oil covers a face. On the phone with her stepfather, who had refused to pay her tuition, she called him ‘Sir.’
‘You’re not being fair,’ I would overhear her say in the bedroom. ‘I call almost every day, you just don’t pick up. Why can’t I talk to my sisters?’ A pause, then: ‘Yes, sir.’
Usually so unapologetic, Jay sounded like a stranger to me in these moments. He was being such a bastard to her and yet she was still calling him, ‘Sir,’ like some sort of verbal curtsy. Around Jay, I made a conscious effort not to talk about my parents, whose bi-weekly calls I more often than not ignored. And when I did pick up, I left the room to chat if Jay was there. It seemed rude otherwise.
Jay going to college in New England was just one more error on a long list of bad decisions in her extended family’s eyes. Her stepsister, younger by two years, was already married and pregnant. Jay’s mother had gotten knocked up at fifteen, the same with her grandmother.
‘I’m setting a new record every year,’ Jay would say.
This may be my period talking, but I’m falling in love with every guy I pass on the street.
Jay told me on the second night of college that her high school boyfriend had dumped her just last week. We were sitting on the grate outside our dorm room, the slats imprinting red marks on the backs of our thighs. It was two in the morning and my vision was swimming in a haze of nicotine. Jay had visited the cigar shop five minutes off campus that afternoon and had just stormed into the room after a party suggesting we share a plug. I had been in my pajamas, too homesick to leave the room, but too wired from the new environment to sleep.
‘Marcus was an ass,’ she said about her ex. ‘But it’s okay. I met someone tonight. I think there might be something between us.’
‘Already?’ I had said. ‘You’re making me feel bad, like I’m falling behind or something.’
She brushed my comment away like a strand of hair. ‘I’ve always been ahead of the curve. I haven’t been single in years. It’s not in my blood. I’m a serial monogamist, for sure.’
‘Who’s the guy?’
‘His name is Greg. He’s from Nashville, a freshman like us. We talked about Nascar and he walked me back.’
‘Southern gentleman, nice,’ I said, my gut crimping with jealousy.
‘Totally.’ She sucked on the cigar, rolling the smoke around in her mouth like a jawbreaker.
Greg didn’t last. None of them did, but then again, the stretches between boyfriends were even shorter. Jay was indiscriminate with her affections, latching on to whoever was closest like a lovely barnacle. As a result, there was no reason to get attached to any one boy – they were all the same and therefore as disposable as tissue paper. Which was why I was always surprised to find Jay brooding in her bed, moping and sipping bourbon, after every break-up. It was like being upset over the sun setting. Didn’t she know that the sun would rise again?
No one to talk to. Why aren’t you on this hemisphere?
Jay was an intoxicating mix of soft and hard, her massive, childlike eyes unblinking as she called a difficult professor ‘Miss Cunty.’ She hurtled towards bad decisions with a kamikaze’s spirit. She still gave silent treatments. Sometimes, she would climb into the top bunk with me, swaddling herself in my blankets.
‘I’m an affectionate person,’ she told me. ‘I’m like one of those monkey babies that grow up twitchy without someone to cuddle with. Will you be my surrogate snuggler?’
I had never met someone so open. Like a flesh wound she was almost unnecessarily sensitive. She sought affection like a pup nuzzles for a teat: persistent, but really could you blame her? She required it, she was starving for it. It was a pleasure for me to be so needed. She would tell me that she loved me and I would repeat it back to her, more surprised by my ability to say the words than hers.
Around me, Jay never watched what she said or did, and I got this idea into my head that she was always this outspoken and free. But the first time we went to a party together, I turned to ask her if she knew anyone, only to watch as she practically curled into herself. The cramped dorm room, humid from so many people’s bodies, seemed to frighten her. As I walked around, saying hello to some classmates, Jay trailed after me, as wooden and unresponsive as a dead limb. It hadn’t occurred to me that before this party, I had never seen Jay around other people.
This was probably a month into college. I almost never saw Jay outside our room because it was impossible to lock down her routine. She would find an abandoned desk in the library’s basement stairwell and cut up old medical journals to make a collage for our wall, reasoning that no one was going to read them anyways. Or she would take a catnap in the engineering school only to decide she liked the lounge’s couch more than her bed and stay the night. She drove out to concerts in towns six hours away. On a Wednesday, she would wake up and decide to go to Six Flags and ride all the roller coasters, twice. Then there would be days where she wouldn’t leave the bed, sleeping until her eyes were swollen. She would ask me to bring her apples from the dining hall and eat everything, the waxy core, the brittle seeds, everything. I would hand her her ukulele and she would strum and hum while I tapped a beat on the post of our bunk bed. I thought, in these moments, that she was magnificent. That I lived to serve her.
‘I like to go about every day like a young person should,’ she said once, while steeping cranberries in a bottle of vodka. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I don’t care what other people think about me.’
I laughed at the contradiction, only to realize Jay was being dead serious.
It seemed that having me see her wilting like a mimosa plant embarrassed Jay. Pulling me out of the party after ten minutes, Jay revealed that she had been homeschooled until her junior year of high school, when her mother married her stepdad. She had been enrolled in an online program. If her mother didn’t feel like driving her, Jay would have to hitch a ride into town to use the public library’s computer. Some days, she wouldn’t talk to a single other person. She’d never picked up the knack for making friends.
‘That time your parents were here and I went up to the bathroom,’ she said. ‘I was hiding. I mean, I did end up falling asleep, but I also just felt really uncomfortable. Defensive, even.’
That was the closest we ever got to talking about my family. It started to embarrass me, having a mother who sent cookies in the mail and a dad who had a doctorate in organic chemistry. Once, after she had tried hash for the first time, Jay told me that she had caught her stepdad peeking through the keyhole while she was showering; that he would slap her butt in a way that wasn’t playful. She had brought everything she owned to Wampanoag because there was no way she was moving back into that house, even for the summer.
I talked her into going back into the crowded room. I had seen how many eyes kept glancing over at her before we left. She had Audrey Hepburn’s cheekbones and chin, and eyelashes like little fans, flicking back and forth with a courtesan’s flair. Sure enough, she was approached almost as soon as we walked back in. I can’t say that I wasn’t put off by the lack of attention thrown my way. But then I thought of how my parents had driven up to school on my birthday just to take me out to dinner and I was grateful that Jay could still love me after seeing me sandwiched between parents who knew how to take care of their kid.
Who needs lipstick when red wine gets the business done?
I practiced Chinese on my program’s teachers every day for an hour. Every student was put on a rotation so that we never practiced with the same teacher two days in a row. The teacher chose the topic, but I managed to bring the conversation to Jay every time. By the end of week two, every teacher had heard my worries about her. I thought she might unravel without the fixed knot of my presence. Jay’s anxieties would grow if left un-pruned for too long, trapping her in a thorny labyrinth. Her job as a salesman would only heighten her sense of awkwardness and I could picture her locked in the apartment she was house-sitting, venturing outside only to smoke.
‘You’re a good friend, to worry so much,’ my teachers all told me.
I would bow my head, gracious but not humble. I was a good friend. At only eighteen, I had the capacity to love a girl who was so different from me, to see her as the sister I never had. She was someone I would donate a chunk of my liver to – our hospital beds side-by-side so that I could watch her jaundice fade and her glow return, bolstered by my selfless deed. It felt good to be so good.
I’m in the mood to steal a baby.
When Jay’s stepsister gave birth in May, Jay cried. I didn’t understand why she wanted to be a mother so badly, least of all because she would have to give up smoking and drinking. She clearly wanted to be mothered herself. When she set limits, she would grow frustrated, first by the boundaries and then by her inability to constrain herself to them.
She tried to quit smoking sometime in April, throwing away a full pack of cigarettes, only to dig them out two days later. I found her pacing the courtyard, sniffling and smoking. I took the pack from her and told her I was giving them away for her own good. She had burrowed her wet face into my collarbone, stepping on my feet in her puppy-like clumsiness.
Jay stopped putting her birth control case in her wallet, leaving it thrown on her bed or buried under a pile of clothes. She sometimes had to gulp three down after a weekend sequestered away in a boy’s room. Although Jay wasn’t purposefully forgetting to take the pill, she seemed to be playing into her absentmindedness. Knowing that if she didn’t see the pills, she wouldn’t take them, I would go through her clutter to find the little red case, pawing through a rainbow of bras and unpaired socks just so that when she came back to the room the packet would be right on her desk.
‘I’m thinking of taking a hormone break,’ she said to me on one of the rare Saturdays when she slept in her own bed. ‘I’ve been on the pill for almost two years now and I want my body to take a breather.’
‘Makes sense,’ I said, my breath quickening. ‘But why do it when the pill is subsidized? It’s too cheap right now not to keep taking it. Wait until the pill starts costing fifty, sixty dollars.’
‘So thrifty,’ she said. ‘I guess you’re right. I probably shouldn’t ever stop. I think I’m allergic to latex, so most times it’s just easier to say fuck it.’ She giggled. ‘Just fuck it and let’s fuck!’
I’m going a little crazy. Too many knives in the apartment. Just kidding. Don’t worry so much.
I couldn’t help but worry. It seemed that all I did that summer was worry and memorize Chinese idioms. Her fling with the middle-aged caricaturist was short-lived and almost predatory on his part. He forcibly taught her how to tango in his living room and then led her into his bedroom and stripped naked without warning. She was afraid to leave, so she let him massage her for half an hour before feigning a stomach ache.
‘I was making these panicked faces the entire time, like you were across from me and might be able to rescue me,’ Jay said, scratching at her hair, which had grown out to cover her necklace of freckles. ‘I’m keeping the drawing, though. It’s damn good.’
The last time I talked to her over the computer, she told me she had started a flirty friendship with an Australian boy she had met in a chatroom for classic rock lovers. He refused to video chat, claiming he didn’t have a webcam.
‘Anyone with a computer has a webcam,’ I said. ‘Only freaks and fatties use that excuse. Would you date a freak?’
‘I’d date a fatty,’ she said, laughing, before sobering up. ‘Seriously though, I think I love him.’
‘You can’t possibly,’ I said. ‘You’ve known him for less than a month and you’ve never even seen him!’
‘He’s been talking about visiting me and taking me to Disney World,’ she said, hugging her legs to her chest, grinning into her kneecaps.
‘So he’ll shell out a thousand dollars to come to America, but not fifteen for a camera?’
‘Look, I like talking to him,’ she said. ‘He says I’m one of his best friends. He gets jealous when I hang out with other guys. It’s cute.’
‘It’s crazy,’ I said, waving my hands in the air. ‘It’s absolutely crazy.’
‘Crazy’s not such a bad thing,’ she said as she scooted her rolling chair back and forth, her image shrinking and growing on my screen. ‘At least it’s never boring.’
Did I ever tell you that my uncle taught me how to cook meth when I was younger? I forget how to now. Shame.
‘It’s like Jay has a scent that attracts losers,’ I would tell my Chinese teachers, though what I actually said was closer to, ‘Jay has a flavor that bad eggs enjoy.’
Each one would murmur her disapproval, and then correct my grammar.
Her last relationship that year was also her longest – two months with a graduate student named Jerry. Jay started drinking even more than usual after the relationship imploded; Jerry had cheated on her with a high school senior he was tutoring in remedial math. I tried one night to hide her bourbon before I went to a study session. But she had found it easily, polishing off most of the fifth before the bottle slipped from her grasp, smashing open on the floor. She cut her hand open trying to pick up the pieces. Walking back into the room to see her kneeling on the ground, laughing with tears running down her face, I had almost started laughing with her. Her mania was contagious. Instead, I called an ambulance, which took her to the hospital to get sixteen stitches in her right palm.
Jay sweet-talked a Vicodin prescription from the doctor. Unable to drive after class, she would instead wash down half a capsule with a beer and take an inflatable raft to the university pool, her right hand swaddled in five plastic shopping bags. I would go with her so that the lifeguard would give us our own lane. We usually shared the left-most lane and I would swim laps, ducking underneath the plastic lounge chair, until she decided to get out. Sometimes, when I got bored, I would push her up and down the lane, or float directly under the chair, jouncing the raft and threatening to unseat her.
She had put on weight since starting college, which I hadn’t noticed until she made me grab the little pot belly she had developed over the winter. But her waist remained small, as if cinched in by a tight string. I had the physique of a cushion. I would compulsively compare my body to hers, and at the pool I would try to pop up as high as possible with my breast stroke to grab a look at her reclining form. I didn’t know if I wanted to find a flaw or not. When I finally spotted a speckle of cellulite dimpling the backs of her thighs I found that I couldn’t quite look at her the rest of the day.
Lovely weather. Spent the day indoors.
After nine months of living in such close quarters, I started to notice that the bedroom took on a particular smell after we’d spent the night sleeping. I couldn’t put my finger on the scent – it smelled like a warm body, not quite musky, not quite unpleasant. I figured the smell was distinctly Jay’s, because you weren’t supposed to be able to smell your own body odor. It smelled a bit like what I imagined sex would, of sweat, heavy breathing, a damp bedspread, and furtive rodent-like movements. Squirrely. Gamey. I never did get used to it.
I didn’t quite understand how you could love someone and yet be disgusted by their most natural qualities. And I sometimes wondered if I looked up to Jay, or down. For me, it seemed that platonic love either had to come from a place of idolization or patronization. You could be friends with someone you respected as an equal, but you couldn’t love them because it would interfere with the absorbed, innate love you held for yourself. I had plenty of friends, good friends, friends who I had known for almost ten years, but I did not love them. I loved Jay. I just didn’t know why.
Deep thought for the day: people think diamonds are flawless, but isn’t it true that they can only shine when cut over and over again?
Jay had little scars running up the insides of her arms from her ‘tortured middle school days.’ I joked that she embodied the ghost of hot mess past, present, and future. She didn’t find that funny.
Once, she grew distraught over the fact that you were never aware of the moment when you fell asleep. You would be awake, and then suddenly it would be morning.
‘There’s no control,’ she said, clutching her temples. ‘I feel so violated.’
She stayed up for three days, fighting sleep so ferociously that when I watched as sleep finally won, I wanted to shake her awake. But she woke up claiming that she knew exactly when she had nodded off, crowing that she had seized back her agency. I was torn – I was always torn—between laughing with or at her. I wanted to be more like Jay, but at the same time I wanted to fix her, not just to polish her up but to switch out ‘faulty’ parts for new ones. I admired her spontaneity, her conviction, her creativity, but I laughed at her compulsiveness, her obsessive nature, her eccentricity. It was like I could only see Jay from an angle, an ever-changing perspective that convinced me not that Jay was inconsistent, but that I only ever had a partial view of her.
‘I can’t believe we’re friends sometimes,’ I let slip right before school ended.
We weren’t living together the next year because Jay decided it would be cheaper to rent an apartment thirty minutes off campus than to pay for university housing.
‘Why not?’ she demanded. ‘I take care of you, you take care of me.’
It couldn’t come down to such a simple answer. But I saw that for Jay, it was that simple.
I’m moving to Australia. Actually, by the time you read this, I’ve already moved to Australia. I know this is bad form, but I knew you’d try to talk me out of it, and I would have let you. I’m in love. I sold my laptop to pay for the ticket, but when I buy a phone, I’ll give you a call. Don’t be mad. Love ya, Jay.
She broke my heart. Her stupid, feckless message was the first thing I read on my phone. I couldn’t bring myself to read the rest of her forty-nine messages for weeks. I still haven’t deleted them from my inbox. Love ya, Jay, without the line break after the comma only seemed to further comment on her selfishness. Jay was the only person who Jay loved.
I viciously hoped that the Australian turned out to be a psycho, but when the summer ended without Jay calling, I prayed that she was too wrapped up in her relationship to bother, rather than the other alternative. I finally got a postcard from her the day college restarted. She didn’t mention the guy, only jotting off a quick sentence about how she was bartending at a pub, how the accents were yummy, and how she missed me. There was no return address. I studied her script, as if her penmanship might allow me a glimpse of her, pulling lagers in a smoky bar and sneaking a shot of whiskey when the manager wasn’t looking. Her hair would have grown out, but I bet she’d kept it short, liking how it cut down on showering time. I’d never seen her handwriting before and I felt foolishly weepy as I traced her swooping p’s and y’s, her cramped n’s, and her slapdash i’s. This was the closest I had ever come to a break-up. It was just as sentimental as, if not more than, what I had seen in movies.
The other week, I took a bus to the apartment she would have lived in. Climbing to the sixth floor – ‘I’ll finally get back to fighting weight,’ she’d joked – I knocked on the door to room 603. The footsteps from inside the apartment were heavy and I heard the click of a cane. I left, practically skidding as I turned into the stairwell, because I’d rather not know who was living there instead of Jay. Melodramatic, yes, but without Jay, who else would fill the weekly quota for melodrama?
It feels trite to say that I miss her. But then, I often make the mistake of thinking that the most basic understanding of things is also the crudest. I had believed it was only men who assigned women more significance than was fair to heap onto another person. It turns out it’s an easy trap to fall into. Jay was, is, just a girl. A friend. Nothing more. The hurt from her leaving comes from the idea that she owed me something. Owed me because I had worried about her, owed me because I would give her my liver.
Like romantic love, you can’t ever replicate your first best-friendship. The friends I keep now I like, but when they’re not around, I don’t think of them. Out of sight, out of mind. But I still think about Jay. Just yesterday, I remembered our beach trip and the painful sunburn that had throbbed like a fresh slap. I had had to lie down in the backseat of her car on the ride home because sitting made my stomach fold over itself in the worst way. I fell asleep almost immediately and woke up to Jay singing along with the radio, her voice cracking splendidly on the high notes and disappearing into her chest on the low. It was like happening upon a bird in its natural habitat, unselfconscious and undisturbed. I want to say that I was seeing her clearly for the first time, but let’s not make it more than what it was. It was a deliciously uncomplicated moment. I closed my eyes and let her sing us home.
‘Blue Jay’ is taken from Lillian Li’s forthcoming collection.
Photograph by Phil Whitehouse