Night Air by Willa Zhang
Willa Zhang’s “Night Air” is the first-place winner of the 2021 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Kirstin Valdez Quade.
In this deeply affecting story, a woman reflects on the night twenty years ago that her closest friend was lost to her. The story opens with the pair walking home one night in the safe ease of one another’s company; page by page, the tension is heightened in deft, nearly imperceptible increments, until by the end we’re in a new and awful reality. The menace we dread both is and is not the menace that catches us unawares. In prose that is precise, probing, and smart, “Night Air” is a closely-observed exploration of friendship and grief and fear, of the losses that ripple out from a single terrible—and terribly ordinary—act of violence. —Kirstin Valdez Quade
One night in college, my roommate Anna and I walked home together from the bus stop. We’d gone downtown to watch a movie, which turned out to be pretty good, and then eaten at a taco truck, which turned out to be excellent. It seemed our expectations had not been very high for either, so it was nice to be surprised.
We sat on a low brick wall surrounding the gas station licking the chorizo grease from our fingers and discussing the movie. It was spring then—one of the first truly warm nights in Chicago after a long winter. Those were memorable nights, even when nothing happened except a breeze blew in off the lake and lifted the long hair off our necks. I was wearing complicated heeled sandals after a winter of heavy boots and feeling all the more agile and alive for it.
I could tell Anna was in a similar mood. She’d recently completed a particularly intense run of late nights at the lab where she worked as a research assistant. We kicked our feet against the wall as she explained their current project.
Often alone at one or two a.m. in the basement of the biological sciences building, she watched and recorded the behavior of diseased mice. The diseases weren’t natural—it was she who had injected the mice with bacteria several days prior to cause infections. The PhD students would be able to learn what was altered in certain parts of the brain when the bacteria attacked.
“So then what do you do?” I asked. “Scan their brains?”
She stared at me. The freckles across the bridge of her nose were winking away after a winter spent in the basement. It was such a familiar face, a composite of all the different times of day we saw each other—early mornings eating yogurt in the kitchen, afternoons walking across the quad to class, late nights at the library peeking over at each other from behind the walls of our study carrels. Four years had gone by like this. I knew her face so intimately it was almost my own.
“No, I have to kill them. And then I slice their brains and prepare glass slides for the grad students to look at.”
I laughed, unbidden, horrified. She said, “Thin slices.”
“That’s not what I expected at all.”
“What did you expect?”
History majors dabble in prepackaged deaths, ones that had already come and gone and shaped the events of the world in their wake. We study the contents of the past assiduously, but sometimes I had to look up from my books and remind myself that these forces that shaped our lives—power, violence, desire, love—never faded. They march on within us and out into the world.
I could only shake my head while I thought about it. “I don’t know, X-rays?”
She laughed, lifting the last scattered bits of onion to her mouth.
“No-o-pe,” she said, drawing out the word. “But that’s science, right? The mice die for a good cause in the end. They’ve fulfilled the purpose they were bred for.”
“At least that’s what you have to tell yourself,” I said.
“At least that’s what I have to tell myself.”
Some part of her had to be made to look away.
We returned to our own neighborhood around midnight. Our voices echoed against the uniform rows of brick apartments. We lived on the South Side in a nice area surrounded by some not so nice areas, and the boundaries that formed these distinctions were often subtle or impossible to pin down. The trees rustled above us. The hour of the night moved forward. We shivered slightly as we made our way down the street.
A block from our apartment, we ran into a girl I knew. Not very well—she was a sophomore and I was a senior—but we had mutual friends. One said to me once, “You know, Natalia really admires you. She always says she wants to be better friends with you.”
I was startled and wished she hadn’t given me this information. It was uncomfortable to imagine this desire projected silently toward me, and it was worse to hear it confessed out loud to another person. But the real problem was that, back then, I simply did not like Natalia. I thought she was way over the top, too dramatic. She always seemed to be playing a part, a character who was essentially her but with the volume and saturation dialed high. I could almost see her switching on whenever I talked to her.
We’d taken an urban history class together with an eccentric professor who told jokes in absolute deadpan. It would take the class a second to catch on, but I always felt that Natalia had to laugh first, laugh the loudest. She would toss her hair back in a big arc as if to say, I get it!
Whenever we met, I was careful to keep my distance, but she pushed forward and spoke to me with a familiarity that I didn’t return. I didn’t know how to foil her expectations of me when she seemed so oblivious.
On this night, I saw her rushing toward us alone, head hunched. Fleetingly, I wondered if I could pass unnoticed.
“Oh, hey!” she said, noticing me as she looked up.
“Natalia, hi!” I said, automatically.
On campus, she played the part of college girl well—some internal self-assuredness always seemed to hold her strictly upright. But now, her shoulders were stiff, and an expression of anxiety pinched her face as we stood talking.
I introduced her to Anna, who asked how we knew each other. Natalia told her about the urban history class. How one of the professor’s many strange habits was to eat granola bars while he lectured and roamed, dropping crumbs as he went. She recalled how once, he had stood above her, inadvertently dropping crumbs in her lap.
“I didn’t know what to do! I didn’t want to open my mouth to say anything in case some crumbs got in.”
We laughed. “You should have started flicking them back at him,” Anna said, pantomiming.
We mimicked him some more and then compared classes for this semester. When enough time passed that it seemed we were ready to part ways, she suddenly asked, “Where are you guys going?”
“We’re just heading home. We were watching a movie downtown,” I said.
“Oh, which one?” she asked.
“That one time travel rom-com that everyone keeps talking about. Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be.”
“Please, you loved it!” Anna poked me.
“Okay fine, we both secretly loved it.”
Natalia responded eagerly, asking about the actors, the theater we’d gone to, which train or bus we’d taken to get there. Had we gone anywhere else? What time had we come back?
Finally, Anna began shifting from foot to foot. “Well…”
“We should probably head home,” I said.
Natalia’s expression shifted. “Actually—”
I tensed, wondering what it was that she wanted.
“I’m so sorry to ask, but do you guys mind walking with me for a bit? It’s just, I’m trying to get to my boyfriend’s but he’s not picking up and there was this guy on a bike who might’ve been following me and maybe I’m being paranoid but now I’m just feeling really nervous about walking alone.”
I looked at Anna and she looked at me. She knew that whatever it was with Natalia, I wouldn’t want to get involved. I shivered with regret at the thought of walking away from the warmth of our apartment, almost within reach. But we couldn’t leave her.
Anna reached for Natalia’s arm. “Of course we’ll walk with you,” she said, no questions asked.
We headed back the way we’d come. Without saying anything, the three of us began walking faster and faster. Then the complicated sandals with the heels that had brought me such pleasure earlier were a nuisance as I struggled to keep up. The straps dug into my skin and I could feel heat building where a patch of skin was being rubbed raw above the ankle. The wind picked up and our footsteps tapped the sidewalk in a disordered syncopation.
I waited for Natalia to fill the silence as she normally would, but instead only felt her shivering at my side. “Are you okay?” I asked.
She nodded, “Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry for being so annoying, I don’t know if I’m being paranoid or what but I’ve been at this all-day rehearsal and maybe it all went to my head I just don’t know—”
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Anna stopped her, grabbing her arm again. “What happened?”
She had been at an all-day theater rehearsal. The performance hall was two miles from her boyfriend’s apartment, where she was now headed, but she had wanted to walk rather than wait for the bus in order to clear her head of the role she was playing.
“I know it’s not smart at this time of night, but I just couldn’t really bear the thought of standing there waiting for the bus,” she said.
The play was being directed by her friend for his senior thesis project. Initially, she had felt excited to collaborate artistically with him. But the rehearsal was going badly. The director friend was in a rage. Something felt off between her and the boy who played her love interest.
“A deep, intense attraction! I want something raw, something primal! You’ve known each other forever, for god’s sakes!” the director friend roared. The blocking had them circling the stage as they drew closer and closer. But when she was close enough to feel the heat radiating from his body, she kept cringing away. She was meant to nestle closer but she held her body at a distance. She didn’t know why. She did know why.
She’d seen him at the cast party before rehearsals began. Loud, drunk, leaning against a girl whose eyes darted around the room as she smiled and clutched a red plastic cup to her chest. All night, he seemed to trail her around the crowded house, refilling her cup at every turn. She remembered the girl because she was one of the few freshmen involved in the play. They’d had a conversation early in the night where she told the group gathered that she came from a small farm town of about 5,000 people. Acting was something she’d always wanted to try, but she hadn’t been part of the right group in high school to go for it. Her face was already flushed red from the excitement and half a beer.
Later, nothing was ever formally charged, but there was a university investigation. Word got around. People took sides. The girl took an indefinite leave of absence. The boy vehemently denied everything and continued on his way.
On stage, he had become impatient with her, rolling his eyes each time the director called to reset. Their timing and delivery would not sync up. During the break, he huddled with his friends in the corner. Occasionally she thought she saw them all look over at her. She began to worry that the rest of the cast was irritated with her for failing to get it right, for keeping them all hanging around watching and waiting while Saturday night rolled by. It became harder and harder for her to concentrate.
Afterward, many of them piled into cars and went zooming off, heading towards the campus pub, whooping and hollering as they went. The director friend tried to persuade her to come. She didn’t catch sight of the boy through any of the car windows, but still, she decided to just head to her boyfriend’s and go to sleep.
The intimacy the scenes required meant that she spent a great deal of mental energy each time undergoing the transformation out of herself and into her character—and then at the end of rehearsals, back again. She had been walking slowly in order to disentangle theater from reality. Across the quad, turn right, past the science library, gym, biological sciences building.
Then she heard the crunch of tires behind her. She instinctively moved to the side and waited for someone to pass, but nothing happened. When she turned to look, she saw that it was a man riding his bike in the street, further behind than she expected. He was far enough away that she couldn’t make out his face. But his bike was a bright, electric blue, like a boy’s first bike might be. The streets were well lit but empty.
She kept expecting him to pass her and ride away at any moment. Instead, he continued to ride slowly. Stayed behind her. Suddenly, in a burst of speed, he swooped past her. Further up, he began to carve slow circles in the middle of the street, waiting for her to catch up.
Her hands were already in her pockets, one hand holding her phone, but she hadn’t wanted to alert him to her fear. Hadn’t wanted to seem provoked by his presence. There was nothing to indicate that she knew him, and he didn’t say a single word. But the way he kept passing forward and backwards—he was playing with her. And she couldn’t shake the feeling that he knew who she was. That it was for her that this had been designed to terrify. It didn’t matter if this was true or not—the feeling, she told me years later, persisted.
She’d walked a little quicker, feeling an icy fear lace her chest tight as her ears began to ring. She imagined the scene from above—lone girl walking home late at night, deserted streets, thick-walled apartments and blank windows staring down at her. Calculated the scale of her vulnerability. I thought back to our urban history class. All those windows but no eyes on the street—Jane Jacobs knew what it meant to be a woman in the city.
He was playing a game with her that she didn’t know how to quit. Speeding up, slowing down, never saying anything and never showing his face. Slowly riding behind her. Once, he biked past her and continued on far ahead as if leaving. She felt the edges of a tremendous relief, but then he returned, passing her and wheeling around so that he was once again gliding slowly behind.
She prodded herself to think but felt numb. After a while, she didn’t know how long, she seized a moment when he was far ahead and, as she turned a corner, she ducked behind a thick row of bushes. Crouching in someone’s front yard, she waited in a cold sweat. In the dark, she strained to hear any signs that he had returned to find her.
She heard nothing but the chirping of crickets. Her back was slick with sweat. She stared at the darkened windows of the house behind her, the wicker chairs on the porch, the unretrieved newspaper in condensation-blurred plastic on the front walk. She felt sick with the desire to be home. She stood and made herself start walking again. Her boyfriend was not picking up his phone. She kept breaking into a run and then forcing herself to slow down. That’s when she saw us.
I watched her fish for her keys as we neared the boyfriend’s building. There was a neat line of bushes under the first-floor windows and I could suddenly picture her crouching there, terrified. In the light from the foyer that spilled onto the sidewalk, I realized how exhausted she looked. Her hair, which she normally kept so carefully curled and was part of the inexplicable distrust I had toward her, had fallen limp and flat. She had smudges of black mascara beneath her eyes.
“Was I imagining things?” she asked, searching my face.
I shook my head.
“After all,” she said, “nothing happened, right?” I knew that was not true. Within an accounting of the past, this was the one thing that held true—every moment, no matter how small, rippled forward with consequences.
I knew what she was really asking—why me? And I couldn’t answer that. But then I saw something else in her eyes, something defiant, something that refused to be cowed, and I didn’t know if she needed anything more from me.
She apologized to us several more times, but we told her there was no need to be sorry. Anna and I walked home quickly, gripping each other’s arms tight. I blinked hard, trying to keep the street firmly in view.
Five weeks passed. The trees that lined our street exploded in fresh green leaves. Anna and I would soon be graduating. Every time I thought about it, every time I pictured the day we would hug goodbye for the final time—her heading home to New York before med school in Texas, me in our Chicago apartment by myself for two weeks before hopping on an international flight to teach English on a small island off the coast of Japan for a year—I felt sick. I clung to her, and we spent nearly every waking moment together. We were nearing the end of something, and we both knew it.
I asked other friends the same questions—how was it ending so soon? Where had the time gone? And what did it all mean? They seemed equally as dazed as me.
Some nights Anna and I lay in my bed until obscene hours of the early morning, watching movies and Korean dramas on my laptop and eating popcorn until our lips swelled and the sky grew lighter. The mice quotas were forcing her to condemn many to their deaths and my thesis was due soon—we required these distractions.
We’d finish a movie and then spend hours googling the actors and their personal lives, reading clickbait-y articles with headlines like “HOTTEST Nineties Movie Stars Where Are They Now?” Sometimes I would remember: Here is a separate and distinct person from myself. She is lying next to me with her own thoughts, her own memories, her own way of perceiving the world. She is not me.
One gray dawn, we walked to the lake just to watch the waves roll in, then ran home laughing and shivering. Falling asleep under the quilt littered with chip bags and candy wrappers, we were just two warm bodies caught in a moment of perfect stillness before the sun lit the sky anew.
When we reluctantly roused ourselves in the afternoon, I saw that the mutual friend between me and Natalia, Kelly, had texted asking if we wanted to see Natalia’s play that night.
“Should we go?” I asked Anna as we shuffled groggily towards campus. She often had to be persuaded to try new activities outside our usual circuit.
“A play? Since when do you want to watch a student play?” she said.
“I’m curious now, especially after what she told us about that night. I have to see it for myself.”
She looked at me. “Did you think she was being overly dramatic?”
“Well, she’s an actress, right?”
She shot me a look.
I considered her question more seriously. “No, it’s not that. Things like that happen all the time in our neighborhood. Well, not all the time, but sometimes. And we all know it. We take precautions. So why did she chance it? Why was she walking alone?”
“Isn’t it sad if we’re too scared to ever do anything alone? Just because it might be dangerous? You have to walk alone sometimes, that’s just how life is.”
Then I felt that she was slipping away from this moment already. College fading behind her as she pinned her eyes to the future. Medical school, residency, a solid career. Then perhaps a husband, a child, a house, a whole wonderful world unfurling before her. Was our friendship a part of that future?
But she was right. “Still,” I said, “I can’t stop thinking about what happened, or didn’t happen to her. In a way, it’s worse because we’ll never know what his intentions were.”
“Does it matter? We know enough to imagine.”
We stopped where the paths to the lab and the library diverged.
“We’re going tonight,” I decided. I tapped at my phone and bought us two tickets to the play as we parted.
Outside the theater, I met up with Kelly and her boyfriend. We stationed ourselves by the entrance to the auditorium, scanning the crowd for Anna until the ushers began motioning for us and other stragglers to head in. Her text came through at the last moment: sorry, held up at lab but will be there for intermission! I texted back that we’d save her a seat.
The play began. The plot was not groundbreaking: man faces the task of taking over the family business, chafes at the responsibility. Man’s childhood sweetheart returns with a bang, man holds in his desires at first, kisses his wife and kids resolutely, but then wonders what if? The bill told me Natalia played the childhood sweetheart.
The play was going along pretty much how I expected—fine, but clearly a student production with varying levels of talent—until Natalia came on. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation of the night before. Maybe it was something about the light or the lines or the moment. But when she came onstage, in a rage, I felt an electric current run through the audience.
She had undersold herself, had exaggerated the disastrous rehearsals. She was naked with raw emotion. Whatever had happened behind the scenes, onstage she showed no hesitation as she delivered her lines, paced back and forth across the stage, simmered with years of frustration as she dismantled the rosy past this man had painted of the time they spent together, the pain he’d inflicted upon her in their youth. She unraveled his secrets, forced him to see her as she was. She did not need him in any way, but this, she needed him to know. In that moment, she was the most powerful person in the building.
From within her role, she suddenly felt more real to me. I was seeing her true self for the first time. When the lights came up for intermission, Kelly and her boyfriend laughed as I turned to them with my shocked face.
“I told you she was really good. You didn’t believe me,” my friend said. I just shook my head in disbelief. I checked my phone for Anna, wanting her to see this too. She had texted ten minutes earlier saying she was heading over—the lab was just a couple blocks from the auditorium.
“Ooh gotta go, Anna should be here now. I can’t wait for her to see.”
In the lobby, I pushed through the chatting crowd, searching for her face. where are you? i’m by the snack stand, I texted. I stood waiting for a while before heading to check the long bathroom lines. I milled around, looking at faces. I called her, but the phone rang and rang and went to voicemail. I paced the entrance, occasionally stepping outside into the cool night air, looking both ways down the street. I strained to catch a glimpse of her—she’d come with coat flapping, tote bag dragging, full of apologies.
It was strange how, many years later, the way I felt when she withdrew from my life felt so similar to this moment—the feeling that if I just waited a little bit longer, staring at my pale reflection alone in the distortion of the glass doors, I could will her back to me, unchanged. Of course, it wasn’t possible. There was our friendship and there was the night a man on the street accosted her. They were thin slices of the same life, but the conditions for the closeness we once shared could never again be replicated.
The chimes rang and others began filing back into the theater. When the final note rang out, the ushers began shutting the doors. One herded me in with practiced deftness and closed the door behind me. I stumbled in just as the lights dimmed to dark. I checked my phone one more time—nothing.
I took my place next to my friends, but couldn’t stop checking my phone, trying to hide the light in my lap. “Where’s Anna?” my friend whispered.
“I don’t know.”
“What should we do?”
I shook my head, trying to think. On stage, the scenery had changed, the actors had reset. The man, or the boy playing the man, was alone on stage now, pacing. I could already picture the redemptive arc the script would carry out—he would promise to learn, he would repent, he would soften. But it was unmistakable, who he really was. I saw the way he carried himself, remorse and apology resting lightly, a flimsy sheet. He would not apologize for the way he lived in this world. He would never look backwards. Then I was standing up and squeezing past my friend, her boyfriend, the whole row of students.
Twenty years later, sitting with Natalia at a sleek bar on the North Side of Chicago far from our old neighborhood and talking about the past, I paused. When she reached out, I happened to be in town for the weekend. When she laughed, she still flung her hair back in an arc, but the gesture now felt loose, lovely. The past sat before me so suddenly.
Would she believe me if I said that in that moment in the theater, I already knew what was to come? That the night Anna needed me, I already knew I was too late. History was cementing all around us, drying in sharp ridges and plains that I’d come back later to tread and retread alone. It all made sense but it didn’t make sense, it was all happening at once. Nothing to do but run forward.
I dashed out the doors and into the lobby. The problem was that too much time had passed since she’d texted. She was walking alone. It was not so late, but it was late enough.
In the quiet lobby, I called her one more time, pressing my ear tightly against the phone, straining to hear something, anything, beyond the ringing in my ear.
Then I was running down the street. The wind brushed past my face, the cars passed slowly—none of it came to me then. I was her I was me I was her I was me and in my dreams, I knew that if I ran just a little bit faster, this time, I would make sure she walked away unharmed.
WILLA ZHANG is a writer from Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in The Masters Review, and her nonfiction can be found in The Rumpus and The Sun Magazine. She also interviews Asian-American writers for Hyphen Magazine. More of her work can be found at willazhang.com.
Featured image by Andreas Glöckner courtesy of Pixabay