A few weeks back, I set off on a week-long creative retreat in the Sierra Foothills with four friends and four dogs. No phone, no Internet, no cable = no distractions, right? I dusted off the mostly complete draft of a young adult novel I wrote in thirty short days four long years ago, excited to take a break from my novel-in-progress and revisit what I remembered as a rough but fairly clever storyline and interesting, layered characters.
After the packing and the driving and the first night of food and drink and socializing, I got down to business. For about half an hour, anyway. Barely one chapter in, I was bored by my own story. In my defense, I was lounging on the deck with my feet up, surrounded by sunshine and dense woods, dogs and friends – of course, I was distracted! And anyway, it was just the first chapter.
Tucked away in the trees. How was I supposed to concentrate while surrounded by this view?
But as the days went on, I spent more time dozing on the deck or trying to rally my friends to go wine tasting than reviewing/editing my novel. Was it the quiet natural setting? The fact that I was overdue for a vacation? Or perhaps my novel and its characters simply weren’t interesting enough to keep even my own attention.
It was a rather depressing thought.
But then halfway through the novel and mere minutes away from setting aside the “creative” part of this retreat, I read the following chapter and felt—if not fully redeemed—at least encouraged that my novel wasn’t a total snoozefest. I’ll take the little victories where I can get them.
The setting: College dorm party the last night before everyone goes home for the Thanksgiving weekend. Sooni is our heroine, along with friends Anne and Gretchen, and boyfriend William. Gretchen is planning to visit her boyfriend Marc, who is studying in London, over the Christmas holidays.
Sooni Greene (Working Title)
Everyone was in good spirits, except perhaps for Anne, who wasn’t as excited as the others to be going home for the long weekend. Although her mother and younger sister had invited her to join them, Anne had declined in favor of a pre-cooked meal and football with her father.
“The last thing I need is to have the two of them stare at me all day,” she said.
Gretchen, on the other hand, was too busy counting off the days before she left for London to notice Anne’s mood. “I can’t believe it’s less than a month now,” she said, beaming.
Sooni thought she saw the expression on Anne’s face turn sour as she finished her third beer and went in for another. Shortly after that, Anne left the room without a word.
Gretchen and William were chatting animatedly about 1960s menswear, a topic that Sooni had nothing to contribute to. William was detailing for Gretchen the exact cuts and fabrics of the wardrobe he had inherited from his grandfather, who apparently was quite the dresser in his time. Sooni did not participate in this conversation, but was pleased that her boyfriend and her friend were getting along so well. She sat back in her chair and looked around the room. She recognized several of the attendees as Gretchen’s neighbors, but did not know most of them by name. A short girl with what seemed to Sooni like a larger than normal chest caught her eye, and then meandered over to where Sooni was sitting.
“Hey Sooni, how’s it going?” she asked with a beer-soaked smile. “Are you going home for the weekend?”
Sooni nodded, sipping from her beer to try to buy herself time to remember the girl’s name. It was something like Katie or Cathy or- Katrina. It was Katrina and she was in her U.S. History class.
“I’m going home tomorrow,” Sooni said. “What about you?”
Katrina grabbed a nearby chair and sat down next to her. She talked happily about her family’s plans for the weekend, which seemed to involve a great deal of both pie and football.
“Because my brother’s at Berkeley, you know. On the football team,” she said. “By the way, do you know where Anne went?”
Sooni was a little thrown. She didn’t know that Katrina and Anne knew one another, had never seen them exchange a word. She glanced around the room for Anne, but couldn’t locate her among the crowd.
“I don’t know,” she said. “She was here just a little while ago.”
“Oh, okay,” Katrina said, half rising from her chair. “I’ll see if I can find her.”
That was odd, Sooni thought, watching her go. Sooni turned back to Gretchen and William, who were now talking about their favorite old time movie stars.
“Hey Gretchen,” Sooni interrupted. “Is Anne friends with that girl Katrina?”
Gretchen grinned slyly. “I wouldn’t call them friends, exactly,” she said. “Katrina has been following Anne around like a lovesick puppy ever since they hooked up after that art show a few weeks back.”
Sooni furrowed her brows, confused and also a little hurt. Why was this the first she had heard about it? Anne usually had no problem sharing the most intimate details of her sexual encounters, but she had said nothing.
Gretchen seemed to pick up on her thoughts, because she quickly added, “It was the night that you guys went to the planetarium, remember? Anne dragged me to this terrible art show because she didn’t want to go alone, and then ended up drinking a bunch of the free wine and making out with Katrina. To tell you the truth, it was sort of a nightmare.”
William, who had been quietly gazing out into the crowd, spoke up.
“Anne is quite the handful sometimes, isn’t she?” he said. Gretchen’s face fell slightly. “I mean, she’s witty and interesting and all,” he went on. “But she’s also a bit of wild card, no?”
Sooni knew that this was true. She’d had similar thoughts. But Anne was her friend, and she wasn’t going to trash talk her.
“Anne’s all right,” she said, a little louder than she had intended. She cleared her throat. “She has a big personality and all, but she’s…well, she’s an artist.”
William burst into laughter.
“I swear, Sooni,” he said, “you should major in International Relations.”
Gretchen laughed at this, and then Sooni couldn’t resist joining in with a smile of her own.
When Gretchen left to go to the bathroom, Sooni and William scootched closer to one another, holding hands and watching the party. They often did this, whether at the DC or on the lawn by the student union; they could sit in silence for twenty minutes at a time, watching people go by.
When Gretchen returned, she looked tense. When Sooni asked her what was wrong, she shrugged her shoulders.
“Anne,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s drunk. And not in a good way.”
Sooni was about to ask what had happened, but then Anne appeared in the doorway and sauntered into the room. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were hard. She focused right in on Gretchen.
“Didn’t mean to run you off,” she said. Her voice was quite slurred now, and Sooni wondered how much she’d had to drink. Or if she’d had something else, in addition to the beer.
Gretchen did not respond, or even look at Anne. She kept her eyes resolutely focused on the two girls across the room that were trying on each other’s shoes.
“Oh, are we pretending that I’m not standing right in front of you?” Anne said, her smile spreading but her eyes growing colder.
“What the-“ Sooni started, but Anne talked over her.
“It must be hard for you,” she said, in a mock concerned voice. “I’m sure you get lonely with your loyal boyfriend thousands of miles away, but no one’s stopping you from having fun in the meantime. And I don’t hold people up to the same high standards as you do.”
Gretchen narrowed her eyes but still said nothing.
Sooni watched this interaction, completely perplexed. She couldn’t imagine why Anne was goading Gretchen on this way.
“Anne,” Sooni said sharply. “What kind of thing is that to say to someone?”
She felt William stir beside her, but did not look over at him. She fixed her stare on Anne, but Anne waved her away with one flailing hand.
“You’re not part of this, Sooni,” she said.
Before Sooni had a chance to react, Gretchen was up on her feet.
“I’m going to bed,” she said, looking only at Sooni and William. “I hope you both have nice Thanksgivings.”
And then she turned and walked out the door, completely ignoring Anne, who watched her leave.
Then Anne screwed up her face and clutched at her stomach, like she was in terrible pain. Sooni and William were on their feet in seconds, their arms around Anne, leading her out of the room.
“I think I’m gonna-“ she said, but she was too busy throwing up on the linoleum in the corridor to finish her sentence.
“Looks like she had the pasta for dinner,” William said as he and Sooni attempted to hoist Anne back up into a sitting position. Sooni ignored this comment and concentrated on getting Anne’s hair out of the line of fire.
Anne threw up twice more, and then looked up at the audience that had gathered.
“Oh fuck me,” she said, attempting to stand up on her own. She looked at Sooni with heavy eyes. “Get me out of here. Please,” she pleaded quietly.
“We will,” Sooni said, “but we’ve gotta clean up this-“
“I’ll do it,” William said. “You get her back to her room before the RA sees her and kicks her out of the dorms. I’ll clean this up.”
Sooni stared at him, feeling both gratitude and a little shock. “Are you serious?” she asked.
“Go on,” he said. “I’ll come by later.”
Sooni wrapped her arm around Anne’s waist and helped her onto her feet. It was sort of like being in a three-legged race with a one-legged partner, and it took Sooni several tries to get Anne to walk in sync with her. Finally, they made it down the elevator, out of the building, and into their own. Maria had already left for the long weekend, so Sooni dug the keys out of Anne’s pocket, used her shoulder to push the door open, and then dragged Anne to her bed.
Once she had Anne situated and placed a trashcan next to her head in case of further vomiting, Sooni closed the door and collapsed onto Maria’s bed.
“Why do you do these things, Anne?” she asked, exasperated. “I mean, why the hell were you trying to pick a fight with Gretchen? It’s just plain bitchy.”
Anne looked at her through half-closed eyes. “Yelling at me isn’t going to make me feel any better,” she said in an uncharacteristically small voice.
“Well, I’m sorry but your feelings are not exactly on the top of my list of concerns right now,” Sooni exclaimed. “Do you even appreciate the fact that William is back in Stanton Hall right now, cleaning your puke off of the floor? Just because he’s a nice guy?”
It was the first time Sooni had ever raised her voice in anger around Anne, and even in her inebriated state, Anne seemed to pick up on the significance.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just…I just…”
And then she did something so unexpected, so completely out of character that Sooni’s annoyance instantly dissipated. Anne started to cry.
Sooni sat next to her on the bed, and put her hand on her shoulder. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Anne asked through her sobs, covering her eyes with her hands.
Sooni thought for a moment. She knew Anne was less than thrilled about the holidays coming up and all the particular familial tension that came with them. But something else must have triggered this meltdown. Anne’s mood seemed to darken when Gretchen was talking about Christmas and going to London. And now that Sooni thought about it, she could remember other times when Anne had reacted similarly, getting bent out of shape whenever Gretchen talked about Marc. The look on Anne’s face would go from annoyance to resentment to- jealousy?
“Holy shit,” Sooni breathed. “How long have you been in love with Gretchen?”
Anne did not respond but crumpled into renewed sobs. But suddenly everything was making sense to Sooni: why Anne hadn’t wanted to be roommates with Gretchen, why she roundly abused the notion of long distance relationships, or relationships in general. Was this why she so often got drunk and picked up on random girls when they went out, to try to make Gretchen jealous? Or was it to distract herself from the fact that she was in love with a straight girl whom she could never have?
“Wow,” Sooni said aloud. “Does she know?”
“God, I hope not,” Anne said into her pillow, her voice muffled and slurred. Then she suddenly sat upright, and Sooni had to draw back not to get hit in the face by the side of her head. “And that asshole Marc,” Anne said, tears still streaming from her swollen, mascara-ringed eyes. “She talks about him like he’s a fucking saint and a poet, but he doesn’t love her. He treats her exactly as what she is to him, a cute girl to fuck when he comes home from college for a visit. Whenever she’s not around, he sticks his dick into anything that stands still long enough, and Gretchen has no fucking clue.”
“Are you sure? How do you know this?” Sooni asked, shocked.
“Because he tried to fuck me,” Anne replied. “And at least three other girls I know of. He is a complete and utter scumbag.”
“When did this happen? And why didn’t you tell her?”
Anne shook her head. “Don’t be naïve,” she said, although not unkindly. “No one wants to hear that shit. And I’m sure as hell not going to be the messenger.”
“Poor Gretchen,” Sooni sighed. “And she’s so excited to see him.”
At this statement, Anne lunged toward the trashcan and proceeded to throw up again. Sooni quickly reached over to pull her hair out of the way. After a moment, Anne rolled onto her back and looked up at Sooni imploringly. Her face was streaked with tears and eye makeup.
“I feel like shit,” she said. “Do me a favor and kill me now.”
Sooni had to stifle a laugh. The situation, although far from funny, struck her as so bizarre, she almost didn’t know what else to do.
“I’m not going to kill you,” Sooni said, stroking Anne’s hair gently, her fingers lingering over the purple streaks that never seemed to fade. “But I am going to get you some ibuprofen and a glass of water.”
After she had rinsed out the trashcan and watched as Anne dutifully swallowed the ibuprofen, Sooni took off Anne’s shoes and jacket, and pulled the covers over her.
“You know, I wasn’t so sure about you at first,” Anne mumbled. “When Gretchen brought you around. But you’re a good friend, Sooni.”
And with that, she passed out.