Clear Water, Bright Lights

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

I remember the date when I first realized I was drowning. December 19, 2014. It was written in violent pink on the bachelorette party invitation email. Eunice missed the wedding season, I’ll give her that, but there’s something cruel about inviting a bunch of twenty-somethings to go out drinking in the dead of winter in Chicago.

The wind was already clipping in off the lake with a sting, and I realized that this would be the first time I’d seen Clara in three months.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Clara. I mean, she was my best friend in college. We’d lived in the same house our senior year, with Eunice, of course. We all three spent the last week together in a drunken haze hitting pieces of fruit out the window with tennis rackets. The sharp snap of an apple against wire. The spray of juice and fruit flesh.

And we all three ended up in Chi-town. Only a bus and a Loop apart.

But there’s something about living different lives, or there’s something about living no life at all that stifles conversation.

And I was living no life at all.

What do you call selling your soul to a non-profit? Waking up every day as if it were Wednesday. The blue glare of the computer screen. Styrofoam coffee cups with bite marks along the rim. The printer asking again and again if you’d remove the goddamn paper, please?

Squabbling with my roommates about rent. Telling my mother that, no, I wasn’t going to be producing grandchildren just because I turned twenty-three which is, yes, the same age she had been when she had me.

So, I hadn’t talked to Clara in a while. Three months. Since John proposed.

I mean I had to have seen it coming.

We took the train out to the Dunes, because John has always had this weird idea that I want to return to Indiana. That I hadn’t been running from it for four years. That I could forget the smell of burning trash out in the neighbor’s back yard. That I didn’t remember the depression of an endless cornfield. The dead white sky.

Yeah, we went to the Dunes. And idiot that I was, I was surprised when I turned around and he was on one knee. There was sand and wind whipping into my eyes, so I didn’t have to pretend to cry.

I said yes, because he’s a nice guy, and my mother would be happy. I hadn’t told Clara about it yet.

The bachelorette party was at a kind of dive-y bar. It used to be a stage for improv groups, people just spit-balling, coming up with crazy shit. I guess it didn’t really change that much.

They still had old posters for shows, a few pictures of the celebrities who had once been there. I showed up a little too early so it was just me and Eunice and Eunice’s sister for a while.

Eunice asked me about John. I asked her about her soon-to-be husband, even though I wanted to ask about her instead. That was the way it was when you were in a relationship. Your status suddenly revolved around this other person. This other life.

John was a consultant, making good money. I’d move into his apartment when we married.

I’d slowly submerge my life into his, forgetting the little peculiarities about myself. My urge to talk through movies, my desire to be a painter, the way I still couldn’t tell left from right without using my hands. But I was happy. And Eunice was happy. So what was the problem?

Other people began to arrive and I lost Eunice. It was dark. The stools were uncomfortable. I was nursing a white Russian in the corner while the others were taking shots of whatever. There were little white Christmas lights hung over the bar and everything felt soft and out of focus and I couldn’t give a fuck about anything.

Until Clara walked in.

What can I say about Clara? She has one of those faces that’s full of energy, like every line is dynamic and moving and if you could trace the path of just one of them you’d find the little buzzing center of the universe. Her eyes are the deepest, softest brown I’ve ever seen. They remind me of soil and the smell of spring. Or something.

So in walked Clara wearing her classic amazing style: a black jumpsuit that would look tacky on anyone else but looks like she just got off the plane from Paris. Which maybe she did, because it’s Clara. And she’s kind of really fucking rich.

She didn’t notice me at first, because I was hunched. I’m a huncher, and I liked watching her before saying anything. But eventually she caught me staring and smiled her smile that’s just for me and walked over.

“Ellie!” she said and we were just the two of us together and alone.

“Hey,” I said. “What’s up with you?”

“Oh goodness,” she said, “what can I say? I just got a new job and you won’t believe it. I’m working in this basement with this guy who smells like lima beans and it’s top secret and

ridiculous. And the other night I got called back to be in this toothpaste commercial. And I just got invited to spend Christmas in Florence. So things are pretty normal. You?”

“Yeah,” I said, “similar stuff going on here. I just got a new Swiffer, but I don’t like to brag.”

Clara laughed. I stood up and we hugged. We gave each other the traditional it’s-been-so-long hug. Arms around each other, pull tight, not long enough to get comfortable, just long enough to remember how comfortable it used to be.

In college we had a turtle for a few weeks. Not for very long. It mysteriously disappeared out of our modified fish bowl and we never figured out what really happened. We pretended it was our child. Decided what religion it would be. Reprimanded it for smoking in the room. Gave it the sex talk just to embarrass it.

“What kind of party is this?” Clara asked. “Everyone looks all washed up.”

It was true that everyone, myself included, looked like they were trying just a little too hard. Dramatic make-up, dramatic dresses, dramatic laughter. We needed this fix.

“Yeah,” I said, “well we can’t all leave lives of romance and adventure.”

“Not from what I hear,” Clara said and looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I asked.

“How’s John?” Clara asked even more pointedly.

“Okay, okay,” I said.Yeah, he proposed. How did you hear?”

“Eunice, John, John’s friend Brian, Kelly…” Clara said ticking them off her fingers.

“Yeah,” I said, “I need new friends.”

“Yes,” she said, “you do.” She paused. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

There was a tinkling of ice in a glass somewhere behind me. The soft lighting seemed to flicker.

I exhaled. “I wanted to tell you in person.”

“Well,” she said, “here I am.”

“John got down on one knee,” I said. “And then I said yes. And we’re getting married in June.”

“Classic,” Clara said. “You’re gonna have to get your claws out if you want to get anything good.”

“I haven’t really started thinking about it yet,” I said.

“For real?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why not?”

But then Eunice found Clara and we got pulled into doing a reminiscent shot of Patrone. And then someone pushed another mixed drink into my hand. And enough people had arrived so that a dance party started on the tiny dance floor.

Around midnight we moved on to the club that Eunice’s sister had picked out. It was loud and there were more shots and things were spinning just a little when Clara found me again.

“Maid of Honor?” she asked.

I pretended not to hear her the first time.

“Maid of Honor?” she shouted.

“Yes,” I said.

“Who is it?” she asked.

Lights of red, yellow, green, blue danced along the wall and dropped onto Clara’s shoulders, arms, legs, feet. They jumped onto her face, speckled her hair.

We went to Mid-Winter Ball together our junior year. We danced until one. The DJ was awful and someone peed from the upper floor down onto the crowd. I was drunk but not drunk enough to forget that she kissed me on the cheek when we were staggering our way out into the cold. The cold felt like nothing compared to the burning of her lips on my cheek.

“You,” I said, “I mean…you… if you…”

“Oh,” even over the bass it was not a happy sound. “Ellie,” she said, “I can’t be there. I’m gone in June. My new job. I’ll be traveling.”

“Oh,” I said. I turned towards the bar. “Let’s do a shot,” I said.

“Ellie,” she said.

“Shots,” I said.

Next thing I remember we were on the shore of Lake Michigan. The rest of the party was scattered down a ways from us. Someone was vomiting behind a bush. Eunice was being lifted on people’s shoulders. She had left her coat somewhere and was now wearing the coat from the guy at the club. It flapped against the wind.

“It wasn’t anything serious,” Clara was saying, “but I just felt a connection you know?”

“What?” I asked.

Jeremy,” Clara said.

“Oh right,” I said trying to get back to the thread of the conversation.

Eunice rose and fell screaming in the wind.

The waves pushed up against the shore little and icy. I couldn’t feel my feet or my face. The pebbles stood out, etched by moonlight.

“Yeah,” Clara continued. “Like, I’d never felt that way about anybody before? It was strange because I knew it couldn’t last. Like,” she stopped and swayed a little. “Like, if it did last I’d burn up too soon or something.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Like a star,” Clara said, “stars when they go supernova or whatever. They’ve gotten to big and their atoms like just can’t bounce that fast anymore, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. She swayed a little more and bumped into me. She rested her forehead on my shoulder.

“So,” she said and inhaled deeply, “I ended it, right? Because I can’t supernova, man.”

I nodded and looked out at the long swathe of dark water. It rose up over me and for a second I wondered if it would come crashing down.

The night before I turned twenty-two, my senior year of college, Clara and I went down to the river and jumped in together. It was early March and freezing. The water knocked the breath out of me, and when we emerged the stars were out and my body was cold and on fire and alive and dancing. And hers was too.

The next day I went back and picked up a feather that lay on the spot where we jumped in. I never told her about that part. That day before going to the bachelorette party, I put the feather into my purse. It was still there burning a little hole against the lining.

“Clara,” I said. Her name felt so good against my tongue, so I said it again. “Clara.”

Mmmm,” she said from my shoulder.

“I— ”

“That’s how you feel about John, huh?” Clara said and turned her face to me. Her eyes so brown, the bottom of the lake, so deep. “You feel like you’re burning all the time? Super-fucking-nova?”

“No,” I said. I pushed her off my shoulder gently. “I feel like I’m drowning,” I said.

“Huh,” Clara said. She took a step to the left and looked at me. “Drowning. Love is water, Ellie.

“Yeah, Clara,” I said, “love is water.”

The next morning I woke up in Eunice’s apartment with the biggest hangover of my life. My head split into two equal halves, each half screaming at me for my stupidity.

Clara was on the couch across from me. Her hair swept across her face like the shadow of a shadow.

I left without waking anyone else up.

It was bright outside. Gray and white and bright bright bright.

I staggered down a few streets and took a taxi down to the shore again. In the daylight the lake looked smaller, bleaker.

I took off my shoes. Each step stung, each pebble felt like a knife. I walked down to the edge and let the waves hit my toes again and again. They lapped up the tops of my feet, my ankles, my shins. I walked further in. It grabbed at the edge of my skirt.

I looked across the water towards the place where John proposed. The other side of the waves. A different lifetime a different universe. Supernovas, man.

I opened my purse and pulled out the feather. I dropped it into the waves and walked back


My legs screamed at me all the way home.

I called John from the cab.

“Hey, honey,” I said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I had a good time. I love you, too.”

I looked out the window of the cab up at the skyscrapers so high above my head, the bright sky so high above my head, and I was drowning, drowning, drowning and could never come up for air.

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