What We Look Like Together by Chris Vanjonack
In the eponymous essay from her 1979 collection The White Album, Joan Didion writes of her home in Los Angeles, a crumbling rental on Franklin Avenue running along the southern tip of the Hollywood Hills. There, guests came and went, a parade so endless that Didion sometimes didn’t know who slept in each bed. There existed the near-constant anticipation of a stranger at the door, an arrival both literal and figurative that echoed the chaotic fever dream of a California haunted by high-profile murders, by injustice of all kinds. A sense of dread seemed to permeate the air, a saturation that lurked and shifted with the winds. Upon her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, Didion wrote, “I had, at the time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was like to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife.”
So too does the stranger arrive in Chris Vanjonack’s short story “What We Look Like Together,” and he brings with him the same foreboding, the same awareness that an unknown entity might, at any moment, invade our safest spaces.
Dread. Vanjonack’s story simmers with it.
A Friday night bar crawl with friends suddenly turns protagonist Lilith’s life on its axis, slipping both her and the reader into the surreal, the unimaginable. No—not entirely inconceivable. Who amongst us hasn’t imagined—or witnessed or lived through—a scenario like the one Vanjonack presents: a man refuses to take no for an answer; he crashes into this young woman’s life and disturbs its very foundation.
With sharp characterization and carefully calibrated prose, “What We Look Like Together” raises questions about aging, about friendship, about settling and loneliness and what we’re willing to put up with to fill the void. What happens when one encounter taints a familiar and beloved space? What happens when we’re forced to acknowledge that trauma cannot be neatly folded away and forgotten?
Here, the narrative shifts again and again, refusing to conform to one genre. Vanjonack puts a horrific, literal spin on the idea that trauma lives within us. It remains. His protagonist continues to work, to see her family and friends, to date. And the stranger? He follows her. —CRAFT
Lilith insists on waiting in line for the photo booth anyway.
It’s Friday night, the middle of winter, and her friends are being unbelievably lame—what with Devyn and Wilson on the brink of yet another drunken argument and Jon refreshing his ex-girlfriend’s Instagram story to track her bar-hop across Old Town. Way too many people, they say when she asks them to join her, each one giving a distracted nod toward the queue that stretches all the way to the bathrooms. She goes into the photo booth just about every time she comes to Pour Brothers. It’s maybe the main reason she loves it here—that and the Moscow Mules and the raucous voices from all over the bar. Taking her picture is a ritual, she thinks. A sacrament. Even tonight, with her friends making her go in solo because Devyn just wants to get home and because Jon says it will remind him too much of the time his ex-girlfriend, Krystin, went in solo and took a photo of her butt.
Lilith tells herself she doesn’t mind. She’s got a bulletin board in her studio apartment, lush with sticky notes and ticket stubs and paraphernalia. Tonight, she wants to add another photo strip.
It’s 10:00 p.m., and five or six couples wait ahead of Lilith as she watches her friends from across the bar. At a high-top near the front entrance, Devyn and Wilson pantomime an argument while Jon looks anxiously at his cell phone and runs his hand through his hair. It’s almost funny: he’s so afraid of running into Krystin that Lilith can’t understand why he even goes out in the first place. The whole thing bums her out. It wasn’t so long ago that nights on the town didn’t end like this, with Devyn and Wilson fighting and with Jon obsessing over Krystin, his heartbreak. Lilith reminds herself this is temporary, that she’ll be out of this city soon enough. She let application season slip by again this year, but next fall, for real this time, she’s applying to graduate programs in public administration. She wants to be a city manager. Or an urban planner. Or a policy analyst. She doesn’t mind it here, her old college town, but it makes her so much sadder than it used to, and she’s afraid of being the last one to move away. Outside, snowfall blankets College Avenue, and the window behind their table is iced over except for a phone number that’s been fingered into the frost. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her degree, exactly, but she knows she wants to live somewhere warm, thinks the ocean might suit her.
Lilith looks down at her own phone, writes a response to Aaron, this guy she works with at the student affairs office and who she’s pretty sure has a thing for her. His last text says, u doing anything fun? and in an alternate reality where her friends are halfway functional, she’d probably invite him out with them. She takes a couple steps forward with the line, types, probably about to call it a night. Then a stranger from the nearest table—the stranger, as she’ll come to know him—says, “Howdy.”
Lilith says, “Hi.” She smiles without looking up from her phone.
“How’s your night?” he asks.
The line moves forward two more steps, and she moves with it, still drafting a text.
“I wasn’t done,” says the stranger, and Lilith can’t help but to look up.
The guy’s all alone at the table, but he’s spread out so aggressively that it can hardly contain him. He looks like he’s in his forties. Handsome, sort of. The way character actors are handsome. There’s nothing threatening about his appearance, exactly, but then all men are threatening.
“Need someone to take a picture with?” He grins.
Lilith turns away. “I do not,” she says. The line moves again, just two couples in front of her now.
“It’s just that you look all alone here,” says the stranger, gesturing at the line. “Real alone. You lonely?” Lilith doesn’t say anything. Almost every night she goes out, she encounters a man like this, a boy like this. “I think that’s sad,” he continues. “You don’t need to be alone.”
She can’t help it: “Sometimes I do.”
The man stands—a production—and shuffles towards her. He grunts as he lurches forward, but quietly, like he’s self-conscious about it. She notices his cheek is scarred. Blistered.
“Come on,” he says.
She steps uncomfortably close to the couple in front of her, hopes they notice her discomfort, invite her into conversation. She glances across the bar to be sure her friends are still there. “I’m sorry,” she says to the stranger, although she is not sorry. “I’m not interested.”
“Well, whatever,” he says. “I’ll take a picture alone then, too. I’ll go after you.”
Lilith shrugs, pretends to continue reading. The couple in front of her step through the curtain into the photo booth, and even though she’s next, she knows she should just call it at this point, but she doesn’t want to let him ruin this for her.
“Can I tell you about my nephew?” the stranger asks.
Lilith doesn’t react. Through a slit in the curtain, she sees the camera flash once, twice, three times.
“He’s bad,” says the stranger. “He’s so bad. You’d like him.”
Lilith’s about to give up her place at the front of the line and head back to her table, but then the couple in the booth stumbles out, and she decides fuck it and slips inside. She closes the curtain, sits on the center of the little bench. In front of her, a touchscreen displays an image of an old-timey camera and the word “Smile!” Lilith can hear her heartbeat, tries to breathe like how the speaker in a Ted Talk once recommended: easily instead of deeply. She presses a button that says “Countdown” and numbers flash across the screen as—
—Lilith fixes her hair and smiles, adjusts her posture—
— and the stranger’s face emerges through the curtain. He slides in, and his body brushes against hers before he even sits. Instinctually, Lilith edges against the wall as his fingers land only a few inches from her thigh and as he scoots impossibly closer. Her muscles tense and she can’t find the air to scream. He puts his hand on her shoulder and whispers—
— “I’ll be with you every day for the rest of your life.”
The camera flashes three times and then two identical photo-strips eject from the machine. The stranger paws them out of the dispenser, pockets one, and holds the other out to her. His hands are so dry they’re cracked. Lilith shakes her head, a horrified little no, but he pushes the strip onto her lap anyway. “There you are, darling,” he says. “You’ll never be lonely again.”
“You mean that guy that just left?” Devyn asks, once Lilith finishes explaining. Devyn has softened her body language since Lilith got back to the high-top. Wilson too. Even Jon puts his phone away.
“I guess so,” Lilith says. She’s jammed the photo into her jacket pocket, and she feels nauseous, wants to sit down even though she is already sitting. She imagines that she looks pale. Her head hurts. She feels hungover. She wishes she were anywhere but here, wants to skip to the part where she never thinks about this again.
“That’s fucked,” Jon says.
He gets belligerent when he’s drunk, and so he announces he’s going to go beat the shit out of the guy. Jon wanders into the shitshow snowy streets to look for the stranger, and Lilith watches through the window as Devyn follows him outside to tell him they’re going home.
Lilith is the designated driver, and so they all walk in silence to her car. She starts the engine, and nobody says anything. The roads are so icy that she stays five miles under the speed limit as she drops Jon off first then gets back onto College.
Her whole body trembles: the visibility is shit and she assumes half the drivers are drunk, and anyway, her stupid brain keeps making her think the stranger is following them, that he was parked outside Pour Brothers, waiting, and he kept the motor running until he saw them leave and then—
Devyn asks, “Lily, why don’t I stay with you tonight?”
They’re ostensibly best friends, Lilith and Devyn, but that doesn’t mean that they hang out one-on-one all that often lately, or that Devyn listens when Lilith tells her she doesn’t want to be called Lily anymore. It’s meant to be affectionate, the nickname, but it’s what her parents and her brother have always called her, and she’s sick of it.
“That’s okay,” Lilith says. “You don’t have to unless, like, you want to.” She wonders if Devyn has noticed that her hands are shaking, or how quiet she’s been.
“I want to.”
“Wait,” Wilson says from the backseat. “I thought you were crashing tonight?”
“Do you really expect her to sleep alone?” Devyn asks.
“No, I get that,” says Wilson. “It’s just: Are we good?”
“We’re fine, Wilson.”
Lilith lets him out in front of his townhouse, and he thanks her for the ride. “Devyn, let’s talk tomorrow? I love you.”
Once they’ve driven off, Devyn rolls her eyes. “That fucking guy,” she says.
As they advance into the white, Lilith starts sobbing. She refuses to pull over because dark roads on snowy nights have always frightened her. She really just wants to get home.
Devyn puts her hand on Lilith’s back as she accelerates.
Someone’s taken Lilith’s parking space, which is just so typical, and so they park on the side of the road and walk carefully up the steps to Lilith’s studio, where Devyn immediately star-fishes on the bed. “God, we haven’t shared a bed in forever,” she says, yanking off a sock.
Lilith asks, “Do you want to see the picture?” She pulls the crumpled photo-strip out of her pocket and gives it a long sideways glance before passing it to Devyn.
The photo-strip, of course, is horrible. Three vertical panels descend chronologically, each separated by only seconds. The stranger is smiling, but it’s more than that—he’s proud of himself. Lilith’s in profile looking towards him. Her mouth is open like she’s about to ask a question and her eyes are bulging. She looks shocked, like something has been taken from her. The stranger’s grin widens across the photos, and Lilith slinks further away from him to the right of the frame.
Devyn only needs a moment to process. “Fuck this,” she says. “We’re burning it.”
They do. They burn it standing against the rail on the walkway outside Lilith’s apartment. And there’s no triumph: Devyn keeps her hands in her jacket as Lilith holds a gas station lighter up to the picture. It takes a few tries, and then a small flame slowly engulfs the photo-strip until it scorches away to nothing in the cold dry wind.
“Do you feel better?” Devyn asks.
Lilith shrugs. How could she?
Back inside, they sprawl out on the bed and watch Forensic Files. After a couple episodes, they pretend like they’re going to sleep, until, of course, Devyn says, You still up? and then they bullshit about work, their parents, that Aaron guy. Devyn never directly mentions Wilson, but he lurks around the fringes of every anecdote. Lilith can’t remember the last time they talked like this. It’s been years—at least since their senior year at CSU, at least since before Devyn and Wilson started dating. It’s funny in a way that scares her, that one person can take the place of so many people, and this is in part why she has always been skeptical of relationships. They suck you up, she thinks. They dilute you.
As they’re falling asleep, Devyn’s phone lights up the dark studio. It’s a text, a text from Wilson, and it reads, I’m sorry? I love you, and Devyn looks at the phone like she is looking at eternity. She groans, rolls over, and wonders out loud how they got this way.
“Do you?” Lilith asks. “Love him?”
Devyn laughs. “I mean,” she says. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with him.”
Lilith will never again encounter the stranger, but she will see him, again, and again, and again.
The first time it happens is a week or so later, in early January, when she participates in a staff photo for the student affairs office. Lilith clusters next to Aaron with something like 150 other employees on the intramural field, where she feels small and a little silly as she smiles for a drone shot. Aaron’s hand touches hers by accident, and he smiles, apologizes. The photo is posted later to CSU’s Instagram, and it’s tough to tell exactly, but when she zooms in, Lilith discovers a man who looks so much like the stranger. He’s standing at the very back of the crowd, and it looks like his eyes are closed. The resolution isn’t sharp enough to make out if he has the scar or not.
She shrugs it off. She would have noticed; it can’t be.
The next Monday, Lilith is alone at home re-watching New Girl when her phone dings with a notification that she has been tagged in one of Wilson’s pictures from a happy hour for Jon’s twenty-sixth birthday. In the photo, Lilith is laughing, Devyn looks like she might be coughing, and standing several feet behind them at a table with a bunch of sorority girls, dressed in a suit and tie and looking uncomfortably at his shoes, is the stranger.
Lilith shows the picture to Devyn. “It does look a lot like him,” she concedes. “But even if it was him, it’s not like Fort Collins is that big of a town. It could just be a weird coincidence.”
“Right,” Lilith rationalizes. “It’s not like it’s Boulder. You run into people.”
The next weekend, she takes the bus to Denver to visit her cousin’s new apartment. They wander Cheesman Park and walk to the Capitol, where they take the light rail to 16th Street Mall and take a selfie in front of Union Station. She uploads the picture to Instagram, tags her cousin, and, midway through the bus ride back into town, someone comments, lol, what’s with the dude in the background?
Obscured by a flock of tourists, the stranger is standing a few feet behind Lilith and her cousin. His hands are at his sides and his mouth is open and he is squinting into the sky as if looking directly at the sun.
Her stomach drops. She cranes her neck wildly to search the bus for the stranger, but there’s no sign of him.
It’s dark by the time the bus lets her off in Fort Collins, and when she gets home, she puts her phone away, tries not to think about it. She spends most of the evening convincing herself to be reasonable, but then turns on every light in her apartment, sits on her bed, unlocks her phone, and clicks for the front-facing camera.
She examines herself on the screen.
It’s her, it’s just her.
Her heartbeat settles. She turns her head, watching her mirror image do the same. Her thumb hovers over the shutter button.
She taps it.
The screen flashes black, and the thumbnail of the picture she’s just taken pops up in the bottom corner. Her thumb hovers again. But it’s already wrong, she can see that. There’s a dark shape where there shouldn’t be. She jabs at the image and it fills the screen, and it’s not just Lilith, of course it isn’t. The stranger is sitting beside her on the bed. Her face is turned toward his. His hand is on her back and he’s got one eye closed, and the other rolled up into his eyelids, his cheeks inflated like he’s about to blow a raspberry.
She calls Devyn. “Can you come over?” she asks. “Just you.”
Within the half hour, Devyn knocks at the door, and when Lilith holds up her phone and swipes through the last few photos in her gallery, Devyn’s voice gets very quiet and she suggests they go someplace else.
“It’s not safe here,” she says.
Lilith nods, grabs her coat. She’s beginning to think it’s not safe anywhere.
At the bar down the street—bright, loud, packed with locals—they resolve to act as scientists, buying two Montucky Cold Snacks and setting up at a high-top by the pool tables.
“Wilson keeps asking when I’ll be home,” Devyn says, and Lilith gives her a look like, really? and asks if they can keep this between the two of them. After Devyn agrees, Lilith takes pictures of her, of the bathroom door, the front patio, while Devyn takes pictures of herself, of the barback, the taxidermied squirrels fastened to the walls. Their movements are frantic, hurried. They snap selfies, snap pictures of each other in portrait mode and in landscape. They take photos through the camera app and through Instagram and through Snapchat. They photograph each other separately, together, with Lilith’s phone and Devyn’s.
After a few minutes have passed, they scroll through the results. The pattern is obvious: if Lilith is present in a photo, so too is the stranger.
A guy at the table across from them leans forward. “Oh hey,” he says, drunk, a little too eager. “Do y’all want your picture taken?”
Lilith assures Devyn she feels safe sleeping alone that night, but back at her apartment, a kind of heaviness falls over her as she settles into bed. The apartment is so quiet that if she listens, she can hear everything: her breath, the furnace, the occasional sputter of traffic. It’s unsettling in a way that’s new to her. Never in her life has she been so aware of silence. Lilith imagines him lying next to her in bed, cross-eyed, teeth bared, brushing his rough hand across the hairs on her neck.
She can’t feel him.
But she can feel him.
Lilith calls Devyn. “I was wrong,” she says. “I shouldn’t be alone right now.”
The week that follows is awful.
On Monday night, Lilith crashes on the sofa at Devyn’s and listens to her whisper-fight with Wilson through the too-thin drywall. You make me miserable, she hears Wilson tell her, and then Devyn says back, Don’t you ever tell me you love me again. Not when you say shit like that. They go back and forth until the arguing turns to crying, then to silence and sex. At least they don’t have to be alone, Lilith thinks, burying her head in a pillow, and she cannot believe she’s envious of this awful thing they have.
On Tuesday, Lilith stays out until sunrise at the 24/7 coffee shop, sipping black coffee and eavesdropping on undergrads. The shit they’re talking about, it’s hilarious: hand jobs and one-hundred-level communication classes. Only a few years ago she and Devyn talked like this, but already the distance between undergrad and her mid-twenties feels unfathomable. She wonders how long it will be until she’s too old for places like this. She wonders if she’s already too old.
On Wednesday, against her own better judgment, Lilith meets with Jon for a beer. He goes on at length about his breakup and his existential dread and his ex-girlfriend’s Instagram. Lilith adored him before he started dating Krystin, tolerated him during, and now finds him basically insufferable. She wishes he would ask her a single question about her life.
“I just hate being alone,” Jon says, at the end of a monologue. “It’s a black hole.”
On Thursday, Lilith feels brave and opts to spend the night by herself. She watches Gilmore Girls, tries to read a few poems from an Andrea Gibson book, but she gets nervous, gets scared, gets drunk on red wine, and takes a hundred desperate selfies in rapid succession. When she swipes through them afterward it’s like scrolling through a flipbook: Lilith barely changes position, but behind her, the stranger dances around the kitchen. He puts his hand in and out of his pants and sniffs her countertops and gyrates.
Lilith smashes her phone and throws up in the toilet, and the next morning the residue looks just like blood.
Lilith shows up to work at the student affairs office hungover. Aaron asks if she’s had a fun night, and she tells him, Something like that.
She messages Devyn on her work computer. Can we all do something tonight? I think it would be good for me to get out.
Totally, Devyn says. My place @ 6.
That night, she climbs the stairs to Devyn’s apartment, and she’s about to knock on the door, but the living room window is cracked, and she overhears her friends discussing her.
I’m just saying she’s been super off the last few weeks, and She’s not being weird; she’s going through some shit, and No, she’s been plenty weird, and It’s like that dude at the bar spooked her or something, and What happened to her was really fucking traumatic, and I don’t even think we should be talking about this.
Then Wilson says, “Hey Devyn?”
“You look nice tonight.”
Lilith knocks on the door. Devyn opens.
“Hey guys,” Lilith says.
“Hey, Lily,” says Jon.
“Pour Bros?” Wilson asks from the couch.
And it’s like: Absolutely fucking not.
Over the next year, Lilith spends very little time alone.
In February, during a celebration for her parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Lilith sees her family. Her mother, drunk, snaps a candid photo: the three of them, plus her brother, who drove out from California, and so the four of them, they take the picture, the five of them. Lilith grabs the phone from the table while her mom is in the bathroom. She deletes the photo, digs her fingernails into her thigh.
In March, Devyn and Wilson split up, in April they get back together, and in May who-knows-what-they’re-doing until a windy night in June when he proposes at a bluegrass show at Avogadro’s Number. The next day, Devyn apologizes for posting a photo of the proposal, which features Lilith in the background, holding a beer, smiling. “It’s just a really big moment for me,” Devyn says, and that afternoon she sets it as her profile picture.
As a university employee, Lilith’s entitled to six free sessions with counseling services, and so not long after the proposal, she decides to try it out in hopes that discussing the stranger might exorcize him. “That’s awesome that you’ve stuck around town,” says the baby-faced grad student, after Lilith tells him a little about herself. “I feel like most undergrads split right after graduation.” She spends the first three sessions explaining the details of her situation—he forced his way into the photo booth; he shows up in every photo of me—and the next two resenting the counselor for questioning her account. Asshole, Lilith thinks, and she never does schedule a sixth session.
Mental health–wise, she comes the closest to a win with her short-lived foray into hallucinogens. After ingesting a few stems, Lilith walks around the Cache la Poudre and worries she didn’t take enough until it becomes clear that she definitely took enough, and she sits in the grass and watches the water pass through rocks. Her eyes settle on a certain stone, and she feels at once planted and expansive.
This stone, she thinks, this stone is fucking onto something.
Lilith laughs and cries and runs her hand through the dirt and realizes there is no going back to normal; there was never any normal.
She feels at peace with not being at peace.
The next morning, she can remember the epiphanies of the day prior, but she no longer feels them, and as she walks to the Bean Cycle for an Americano and a breakfast burrito, she feels hollowed out, wasted, hopeless, and she itches once again for anything to drown out the silence.
In July, Lilith starts seeing Aaron. They’ve been flirting more at work, and she’s invited him out with her friends a few times, so it’s not too surprising that he asks her on a date, but she surprises herself when she says yes. Her first impulse is to turn him down, but then she figures that at least this way she’ll have plans for Thursday night. By the end of the date though, she’s a little into him: he’s kind and funny and flirtatious in a way that matches her way of being kind and funny and flirtatious. After the movie, he drops her off, kisses her. “See you around,” Aaron says, and he winks, which should be disastrous, but she can’t help but to find it charming, a bit weaselly.
At the tail end of their second date, Lilith invites him into her studio, and he steps up to the bulletin board mounted on the wall above her dresser and looks over it, nodding.
“Holy shit,” he says. “How often do you go to Pour Brothers?”
It’s painful, this corkboard, but it would have been even worse somehow to take it down.
“I’m not even twenty-one in this one,” Lilith tells him, pointing. “God, I was such a baby.”
She shows him all the different Liliths from her old lives posted around the bulletin board: versions of her who drink too much, versions of her who are still sleeping with Jackson for God knows what reason, versions who are depressed, who are joyously single, who are evangelical about running. In almost every photo, she’s surrounded by friends: Devyn, Jon, Wilson, and so many others who have moved on since graduation, who she doesn’t even talk to anymore.
“Huh,” Aaron says. “Maybe the next one can be a version of Lily who’s really into this guy, Aaron.”
“Lilith,” she says. “Call me Lilith.”
“But everyone calls you Lily.”
“You’re not everyone.” She steps forward, kisses him, and leads him to her bed. The sex is cautious, strange, and she does not finish, but when he does, she rests her head on his chest and asks, “Do you believe in ghosts?” and he reacts like nobody’s ever asked him before, like he’s never even considered it.
“Of course not,” he says, baffled, and she wraps her arms around him.
It’s exciting, this new relationship. Scary. Aaron keeps trying to get her to take a selfie with him, and she dodges under the veil of flirtation. “I’m trying to stay off the grid,” she says, smirking. Their relationship moves faster than Lilith might like, but she finds herself sleeping a little better. She crashes with Aaron four nights a week. Sometimes five.
For the first time since the stranger, Lilith feels really, truly horny, so much so that a few weeks later, when Aaron asks—playfully, over text and only sort-of joking—for nudes, she turns off her bedroom overhead to allow only for the light of her computer screen to illuminate her body. She’s a little drunk. She concentrates extra hard as she strips her shirt, takes off her bra, and snaps a photo of herself, posing with an awkward facsimile of the detached-but-serious look that she sometimes sees on models. It’s been weeks since she’s seen a new photo of herself, and okay, she’s maybe more than a little drunk. And maybe she knows exactly what she’s doing. And yeah, maybe she doesn’t care how he’ll respond, anyway—it’s not like she’s planning on sticking around Fort Collins much longer, not like this was ever going to be permanent. There is zero chance she’s been infected by Aaron’s normalcy, but Lilith sends him the image anyway.
She thinks maybe it’ll be like ripping off a Band-Aid.
She thinks maybe love is unconditional, that he’ll accept every part of her.
She thinks maybe she doesn’t even want to be in this relationship to begin with.
Lilith waits for little dots to indicate that Aaron is typing. A minute goes by. Two. Three. At last, Aaron begins to type. Then he stops. Starts again. A half hour later, five determined knocks rattle her door, and he pushes through as she opens it.
“What the hell, Lily?” Aaron asks, so mad he’s shaking.
“A really fucked up thing happened to me,” she says.
Aaron does not believe her at first, and so of course she needs to show him exactly what happens when she takes a photo of herself. He’s angry and then he’s skeptical and then he wants to fix it. “Let me help you,” he says, but nothing works in the weeks to follow: the exorcism is a disaster, the psychic is full of shit, and after only a day, she’s already sick of smelling like garlic.
“This might need to be okay,” she tells him one night after a long shower, and, begrudgingly, he agrees. They try to bury it, and August is a blur of dive-bars and sunrise hikes and Saturday morning cartoons. Aaron keeps bringing up the future during pillow talk. “We should buy a house one day,” he muses, late at night, dreamy. “On the south side of town, away from all the college kids.” Lilith keeps her responses noncommittal and he always falls asleep before she does.
By September, Lilith and Aaron have settled into a comfortable rhythm—they have sex a little less, they fight a little more—and now she is never alone, not just at parties or at bars or at free days at the art museum, but on otherwise uneventful Tuesday evenings, when she accompanies Aaron and his friends to sports bars, pool halls, and bowling alleys. “Do you mind if we sneak in one more game?” he asks one night, a rack of pins erupting behind him. Lilith had intended to spend a few hours later on her grad school apps, but she’s glad for any excuse to avoid her apartment, and so she nods, continues scrolling.
In October, Lilith’s grandma—old, sentimental, dying—asks for a picture of the couple for her bedside table. Lilith is nervous to bring it up with Aaron, but she decides to anyway.
“We don’t have to do this,” Aaron says.
“I want to.”
They decide to take it at City Park, in broad daylight with a youth soccer game raging behind them. Later, Aaron tries to crop out the stranger through a bootlegged copy of Photoshop, but the stranger is standing so close to Lilith—his eyes rolled back, his face almost touching hers, his mouth open so wide—that there’s nothing Aaron can do to salvage the image.
The stranger’s proximity again spurs a whole slew of questions, an argument.
“I don’t know,” Lilith shouts, later, in his apartment. “I couldn’t feel him breathing. I don’t know.”
They stay up all night fighting. Aaron accuses her of milking it for sympathy and Lilith lies that he made her miss her application deadline. “We’re always fucking together,” she says, and her voice cracks. “We’re always fucking fighting.”
On Thanksgiving: Pictures.
On Christmas: Pictures.
On New Year’s: Pictures.
“It’s never going to stop,” Lilith tells Devyn at a coffee shop in late February, a few weeks before the wedding. “I’ll be explaining this for the rest of my life.”
It’s been weeks since they’ve seen each other. Devyn is always with Wilson, and Lilith is always with Aaron. Lilith does not tell her friend that she and Aaron have been arguing constantly, and that it’s comforting but also terrible that most of these fights don’t have anything to do with the stranger.
He interrupts her.
He talks down to her.
He keeps calling her Lily.
She’s not herself when she’s with him, but she’s not herself when she’s alone anymore, either, always losing herself to her thoughts and to the stranger, and she’s worried she’ll never get out of this town, and this is horrible, it will always be horrible, and Lilith says so outright when Devyn asks, “Oh yeah. How’s that going?”
Devyn and Wilson get married in April, in Laporte, at a small outdoor venue overlooking Bigham Hill. The sun sets during the outdoor ceremony, an otherworldly orange, and it rains only lightly, romantically. Devyn is beautiful, composed, and Wilson’s vows are a lot better than they have any right to be. Aaron’s grandpa has just died, and so Lilith’s all alone at this thing, and she sits next to Jon during the ceremony. She hasn’t seen him in months—at least since he moved to Denver back in February.
“You look good,” Lilith says. “How are you?”
“I’ve been okay,” Jon says. He looks down the aisle. “Where’s Aaron?”
“He’s got a funeral,” Lilith says, and it strikes her that even just a month ago, his absence would have made her feel something. “He couldn’t be here.”
The reception begins, and Lilith gets drunk and watches from her seat as Devyn and Wilson sway together to a Trampled by Turtles song. It’s their first dance, and they’ve half-assed the choreography, but it’s in a charming way, like how could anybody as in love as they are possibly have the time to learn anything new? Everyone’s tearing up, but Lilith cannot help but feel sad for Devyn, and sorry for Devyn, and sad for Wilson too, but mostly for Devyn. They’ll be screaming at each other again in a week, she figures.
She leans forward and motions to Jon. “I think Aaron and I are going to break up.”
“Oh shit,” he says. “You okay?”
“I’m scared,” she says, and hiccups.
“That’s the worst part,” Jon says, over the music. She braces for him to mention Krystin, but he never does, and it fills Lilith with a sappy gratitude that she doesn’t know what to do with. “You’re going to have to sit with it.”
Later, Lilith slams her drink and joins the rest of her table on the dance floor. “Really, I’m happy for you,” she says mournfully, as she and Devyn slow dance to “Landslide.” For years they’ve imagined this moment, or something like it, but now that it’s here, that one of them is married, it feels at once surreal and anticlimactic. “It’s just that you have your whole life.”
Devyn leans in, rests her head on her friend’s shoulder, and Lilith is not sure when they will ever be this close again. “I know,” she says. “I’m living it.”
Lilith bitter-ends the reception, drinking and dancing and then just dancing once the open bar turns into a cash bar. “Congratulations—goodbye,” she announces, hammered, and no one hears her. She calls a Lyft to take her home, and then, on a wild hair, another to Pour Brothers. The sign above the door says MAKE POUR CHOICES and it is a relief and a sadness to step inside.
“Long time no see,” the bartender says.
“I’ve been in flux,” Lilith tells him.
She nurses a mule, surfing Twitter and sporadically declining conversation from interchangeable fuckboys at the tables across from her. “It’s okay,” she tells them. “My best friend got married today, and so I’m alone tonight. It’s okay.”
Lilith closes out her tab, but then, on her way to the exit, notices that there is no line for the photo booth, well like there is a line, but it’s a small one, just two or three people, and she knows exactly what will happen, but even still, after some consternation, Lilith joins the queue, where she waits, undisturbed, to take a picture.
CHRIS VANJONACK is an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an editorial assistant at Ninth Letter, and a former language arts teacher from Fort Collins, Colorado. He’s also a recipient of the 2020 AWP Intro Journals Award, and his fiction has appeared in One Story, Hobart, The Rumpus, Carve Magazine, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Read more stories at chrisvanjonack.com, and find him on Twitter @chrisvanjonack.
Featured image by Steve Gale courtesy of Unsplash