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Group Dynamics

Sidney Haren

My hangover hurt. The brightness of the day was downright oppressive; like maggots drilling through my skull and burrowing into my brain. Everything that moved made me dizzy: cars, squirrels, people walking, people walking their dogs, dogs taking their morning dump. It was just all bad.

I turned into a gas station and parked in a handicap spot right up front. Fuck it. I left the car unlocked, running too, with my phone sitting right on the front seat. The place smelled stale and it reminded me of the rancid hot dog water I used to dump down the drain after each closing shift at the country club. The lights cast a yellow film over everything in the place. I went straight to the back coolers and grabbed a tallboy of Miller High Life. I got halfway to the front when I turned around and went back for another.

The cashier looked familiar. She’d helped me a handful of times before, and her greeting felt oddly personal. I can’t remember what I mumbled back, but it wasn’t warm. I couldn’t be warm if I tried. In the parking lot, I shoved one can into the glovebox and opened the other, sliding an acrylic fingernail under the tab. I slurped a long gulp off the top so it wouldn’t slosh around too much in the cup holder.

I swore under my breath at the broken AC, and made my way to the airport.

“I HATE FLYING,” I grumbled under my breath. I popped a Dramamine.

“Flying is statistically safer than driving,” said Lizzie.

“But driving just feels safer. I dunno. I’d rather be behind the wheel.”

“Is anybody really that safe with you behind the wheel?”

I rolled my eyes as two dead-eyed and lipsticked flight attendants stopped next to us with the beverage cart.

“Drink?” Andi, from the aisle seat.

I shook my head. Lizzie already had her headphones in and her eyes closed. I wanted to reach down and tap the screen on her phone to see whether she was even listening to anything, or just wanted us to leave her alone.

I resented the way Lizzie blamed me for barely making it to the gate on time when Andi reeked vodka herself, at 7:30 in the morning. She’d apparently passed a big exam and went out celebrating with her nursing friends. I’d have thought the three years she spent on the waiting list would’ve given her time to burn it up, but apparently there was plenty of party left in the tank. But mostly, I was just downright happy for her.

I pulled a thin blanket from my backpack and made sure to tuck the ends under my legs so Lizzie couldn’t possibly share it with me. I stared out the window. Lizzie wasn’t always so hard. We’d all decided, in hushed conversations and text messages outside of her earshot, that something must’ve happened over in Oregon that she wasn’t telling us about. When she told us she was moving to Oregon to “get some fresh air,” we were thrilled for her. But every time she’d come home for the holidays she was tired and ashen; just gray from head to toe. I suddenly felt sad at the realization that I missed a person who was sitting right next to me.

I’d closed my eyes during takeoff, gripped the arm rests and said a prayer. In the air, and almost ready to succumb to sleep, I opened my eyes one last time. My fear vanished for a moment as I gazed out the window and saw a winged silhouette against a layered backdrop: deep blue on top of purple; purple on top of red; red on top of orange. I would’ve taken a photo had we been on vacation, but we weren’t. Lizzie had texted me two days prior and told me to book a plane ticket to L.A. because she was worried Viv was in some kind of trouble. I had just been dumped and I was high, so I didn’t care and I didn’t do it. The next morning I got a call from Sofie Baxter asking whether I’d heard from her sister, Ellen. That afternoon, Detective Manny Reyez called me.

Last year, Viv’s stepmom received a free trip to L.A. to attend a business conference. It was all total pyramid scheme stuff, but I suppose she sold enough face cream to earn her a flight to L.A. courtesy of the company. She gave her accompanying plane ticket to Viv, and Viv enjoyed the free trip to somewhere other than Iowa and decided immediately to move there. She didn’t want to do it alone, so she convinced Ellen to drop out of school and move with her. It was a shit idea from the start. There was no plan.

Suddenly I worried about the plane going down.

A DAMPNESS HUNG about the hotel room quite unbearably. Our reunion wasn’t anything like you’d expect for a group of friends getting together for the first time in almost a year. It was quiet. Not awkward; just quiet. The hum of the AC. The television on mute. I’d decided in the uber that I wasn’t going to let anybody give me shit this weekend, but after one too many jabs on the interstate I kept my face on my phone screen, not caring to make conversation.

I felt someone plop down on the bed, but I didn’t care enough to turn around and see who joined me. Two sun-tanned arms reached around my midsection and squeezed me from behind.

“Ignore them,” Ellen– under her breath, chin propped on my shoulder– “Enjoy the California sunshine.” Her words oozed sarcasm. I felt her hand slide into the space between my side and elbow. I looked down, saw a tightly rolled blunt, and I laughed.

“You first,” she said, and kissed me on the shoulder.

She’d always been this way with me which surprised the others, as she adopted a more prickly approach when dealing with them. Ellen’s dad yelled a lot. I always thought her mellow livelihood was somewhat of a curveball.

I held the smoke in my lungs until I wanted to cough and then blew it out slowly. I felt my shoulders relax for the first time that weekend.

Andi spoke up then.

“Anybody wanna go to the beach?”

I jumped up and so did Ellen.

“I don’t have a suit,” she said. I tossed her an extra one I’d packed.

“Put this on.”
“You think my tits are gonna stay in that little thing? Andi, got an extra top?”

“Wear that new one I packed,” Viv said. It sounded genuine; thoughtful almost. Though it halted the familiar banter between us girls that I’d missed so much, it was refreshing. Viv got off the bed and tossed a bikini across the room. Ellen just stared at it for a moment. She tossed it on a chair and stepped out of her jean shorts.

“Thanks,” she mumbled. 

An energy passed through the room that felt like a reconciliation. It felt as if the sharing of the bikini was a white flag on Viv’s part, and in accepting Ellen now had some kind of upper hand.

“You two coming?” Andi asked.

“Nah. Go ahead,” Lizzie said coldly.

After I closed the door behind me, I thought about how fascinating the dynamic among a group of friends. Between the five of us, there were pairs and trios that broke off in every direction. And each of those relationships was complicated and delicate in its own way. Andi was on my first soccer team, and we spent our entire childhood playing midfield opposite one another. Ellen and I became friends because we needed one another. I was a sophomore in high school when I found out my boyfriend was getting blowjobs from the algebra teacher. The betrayal felt like a kick to the stomach, and I couldn’t keep from crying every time one of the other kids made a joke about it. So when word got around about Ellen’s boyfriend too, it was nice to know I wasn’t alone. Viv and I were introduced through Ellen, and it was a slow process to warm up to one another.

A couple of years ago, when Lizzie was “getting some fresh air” in Oregon and Andi was “getting some healthy separation” from us, Viv and I got closer. I thought about the nights we’d gotten high in her stepmom’s basement and sat on the floor eating Twizzlers while watching television shows about paranormal activity. I felt sad because I missed it, and I felt paranoid that we’d only spent the time together because we had nobody else.

Lizzie was instantly my friend. There was no gradual affinity for one another or any certain experience that bonded us. We just liked each other. But she was always so hard on me. For some reason, she never took me all that seriously. Viv was hard on Ellen, and Andi was hard on Viv, and I sometimes resented Andi simply because it felt like nobody was ever hard on her.

I COULDN’T SLEEP that night, kept awake by the general unease about the weekend. I wiggled out of bed and tiptoed to the bathroom.

I ate an Oreo on the toilet and caught the crumbs on my thighs. When I was done, I swept the crumbs into the stool and rinsed my hands without using soap. The knob on the door turned slowly, and sleepy blue eyes looked in at me.

“Can we sit?”

I nodded, and sat next to Ellen on the cold tile; backs against the tub.

“Viv is pregnant,” she whispered. My head snapped sideways. “That’s why we’re all here.”

“I don’t know what to ask first.”

“She’s an escort. She claimed she wasn’t sleeping with any of them, but.” She trailed off and shrugged. Her face gave her away; she didn’t care for Viv much anymore. After this she paused, and when I didn’t say anything she continued in one long sentence; talking as if she were wired. “And Chaz isn’t her boyfriend. He’s her pimp, she’s making six figures but doesn’t see any of the money until the last of the month so she can pay rent and Chaz keeps it all and the fucked up part is that she lives with him— God— can you believe he makes her pay rent? And she sleeps in her car when he locks her out and I guess last week one of his scumbag friends stole her car keys and—”

“What is she going to do about the baby?” I couldn’t process anything until I knew the answer to this question.

“Keep it, I think.”

We spent the next couple of hours sitting on the floor, using towels to soften the tiles against our tailbones. Ellen told me about Chaz and how she and Viv met him at Black Magic— it annoyed me the way she talked about places in L.A. as if I should know what they are— through a friend who was supposed to be getting them into massage therapy. Apparently Viv completed some type of online certification while they were still living in Iowa, and promised Ellen she would “teach her everything” once they “moved to a city with more money up for grabs.” Viv wanted to ditch the massage therapy idea the second she met Chaz, claiming he told her Josh “didn’t know shit about making money.” Within a week, Viv was working full-time for Chaz escorting his wealthy acquaintances around L.A., dipping into speakeasy bars after nights of keeping up appearances at ritzy hotels with older men trying to impress their colleagues. After the massage therapy plan fell through Ellen didn’t have a lot of options, and I guess Chaz took advantage of that. Chaz told Ellen she’d make fast money doing what Viv did, but Ellen’s clients weren’t anything like Viv’s. Ellen’s work consisted of blowjobs in parking lots and shower porn; all Chaz’s douchey friends who never paid up and certainly didn’t take Ellen to hotel benefits or out for drinks first. Ellen said Chaz was always the one behind the camera, too, which made me sick. And I guess once Ellen put out that very first time, Chaz immediately began threatening to send the content to her parents back home if she didn’t continue. And when I asked how Chaz could possibly have Ellen’s parents’ phone numbers she told me that Viv gave Chaz all of her personal information, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting out of the bathroom and tightening my hands around Viv’s neck. I wanted to press my thumbs into her windpipe. And it wasn’t lost on me that none of this was coming from Viv herself but she hadn’t made any attempts to talk to me— I mean really talk to me— in ages and so I let Ellen tell it however she wanted.

Once Ellen had talked herself to death, she stood up and plopped herself on the toilet.

“Be honest with me,” I said.

“Of course.”

“This Chaz guy—the whole situation—are you in some kind of trouble?”

“No,” she lied. “Did somebody say something?”

“No. Your sister is worried. That’s all.”

“Do you know a guy named Manny Reyez?” she fired. She watched me the way you watch a mouse approach a trap, eager for my answer.

“No,” I lied. “Should I know him?”

“Nah, probably not.”

That night I slept wedged between Ellen and Andi in a small bed with stiff sheets. I dreamt my teeth fell out.

I SLAMMED the hotel door behind me and prayed nobody would follow me. After a torturous dinner and a miserable car ride back to the hotel in which they made me sit in a child’s car seat (“I’m not moving it. Just sit in it for fuck’s sake.” “Why don’t you sit in it, then?” “You got the flattest ass.”) I was so sick of them trying to make me feel inferior all the time. I’d boiled over.

It was dark and I felt afraid because I was walking alone in a city I’d never been to without even my phone or my purse with me, but I couldn’t turn around and go back. I felt the hot prick of tears behind my eyeballs, and my vision started to go blurry as I willed myself not to cry. The sound of fast footsteps behind me sobered me, and I became aware that somebody was coming up behind me fast.

“Wait up,” Andi exhaled, catching her breath. “I’m coming with you.”

WE SAT on the edge of the hotel pool.

“You’re the only reason I’m here,” she said. “If it were up to me I’d never go anywhere with any of them ever again. I love them, but I don’t like them anymore.”

I just stared into the pool. Andi went on.

“And Lizzie wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Viv. And Viv wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Lizzie. And Ellen is here because she doesn’t have anybody else and Viv knew that and convinced her to move here because she didn’t wanna do it alone, but I do think she likes you the most out of any of us. And I hate to say it, but it’s all true and you know it.”

I listened to the ocean, and didn’t say anything for a while. There was nothing to say; she was right.

Andi disappeared for a while after Julia drowned, and I didn’t blame her. Those two were closer than any of us, and Andi grieved harder than we did no matter how hard we tried to appear as devastated as she was. It’s not that I wasn’t hurting; I was. But I knew that Julia only ever gave the rest of us the time of day because she loved Andi. I did happen to know that Julia didn’t care much for Viv, and I remember driving Andi home from the bar once and listening to her slurred account of something that happened way back in high school that Julia never quite got over. And then she said that Julia wouldn’t have cared whether anybody from home attended her funeral. And I never asked, but I remember desperately wanting to know whether Julia would’ve wanted me sitting at her funeral.

“I’ve been feeling really anxious again lately,” Andi said. I figured that if she wanted to talk about it now, I’d just be quiet and let her offer up what she wanted. She kicked up a little water and I watched the pool ripple all the way to the middle. “The day before we flew out—early that morning—I almost bailed.” After a deep breath, “I just keep thinking people are gonna die.”

It breaks your heart to see a kind person like this.

“It was me,” I said. Then, my mouth moved again against my own will. “I told that detective everything.”

“I figured,” Andi sighed. “And they know.”

BACK IN HIGH SCHOOL, Viv and I planned to get ourselves into a Mumford and Sons concert without buying tickets. We had no money. It was a school night. And we took my dad’s truck without asking.

“I don’t get the urgency,” my dad said over the top of his readers. “It’s not like they’re going anywhere. It’s Mumford and Sons; they’ll be around for years.”

“It’s the first time they’re playing a show with drums,” I whined.

We drove about forty minutes to a wide open field crawling with white-people dreadlocks and man buns and bare feet and tie dye and body odor.

We parked the truck and walked toward the music, falling in step with people who seemed much older than we did. We noticed how they all wore thick black wristbands; proof they’d purchased a ticket. We’d left straight from soccer practice, so we both still had our hair in long braids. We untangled our braids, feeling sexy with our wavy hair, and put the black ponytail holders side by side to resemble a thick, black wristband. Afraid of security, we moved along the chain link fence in the dark, looking for dips in the grass or a break in the fence.

Viv was thinner than I was, and she crawled through first. As she held the chain link fence up while I shimmied underneath, my overalls got caught. I unbuckled my overalls and slid them off, trying like mad to unhook them from the fence to avoid anybody seeing me in my underwear.

We slunk along behind the semis that were probably packed with drum sets and amps and slimed our way to the front of the crowd. It smelled dank, and I remember that was the first time I’d ever felt the strong desire to smoke weed.

I SAT ON THE BEACH with Lizzie the next morning.

“How’s Lena?” she asked.

I wanted to tell her I didn’t know how Lena was because we broke up days ago. I wanted to know whether she even cared about Lena and I, or if she was just making small talk because the silence felt uncomfortable. I wanted to ask her if she was upset with me for talking to that detective. I wanted to ask her what the hell her life looked like in Oregon, and why she hadn’t been herself for two years. I wanted to know what was so great about L.A. anyway, and I wanted Andi to feel better than she did and I wanted to know why Julia had to die and I wanted to know if things would ever feel normal between all of us ever again and I wanted to know why I couldn’t just stand up and walk away from it all.

“She’s good,” I said instead.

I know nothing of entropy other than Entropy herself knows nothing. It’s all chaos. We meet one another only to feel warm and then watch each karmic link melt in the sunlight. And that connectedness is oppressive; suffocating, and the gradual unraveling of any type of relationship just breaks your spirit slowly over time. And for such a specific pain, language has no perfect words, so we turn to Metaphor because she gets it.

I picture an imaginary rope. And that rope binds me together with every person I’ve ever loved. But because love is not tidy and neat neither is the rope. It’s a tangled, snarly mess. And I want so badly to untangle myself from those who’ve outworn their welcome, but how can I? Even if I could manage to untangle myself; take one end of that unraveled rope and give the other end to any one of them, and I walk East forever and she walks West forever as far as we can possibly go in either direction, we’ll eventually run into each other again. That’s just science; it will happen. And maybe it will be good to see one another and maybe it won’t, but there is no going back. We’ve said too much; lived lives drastically different from one another. It’s like our chemicals are different. Every memory we’d ever made together would be woven through that rope, no doubt, but standing face to face there would be nothing connecting us except for what’s behind us. And that just hurts. But I’d go back and meet them all over again, even if I knew we’d eventually end up sitting side by side on a beach with nothing to say.

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Sidney Haren is in her second year of graduate school at the University of Northern Iowa. She currently lives in her hometown of Parkersburg, Iowa, where she is a middle school librarian. This is her first published work of fiction. 

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