The music is homey, like the table full of food and the presents by the little plastic tree. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… Everyone is on the couch, laughing at their phones, or by the wall taking pictures, or standing off to the side in couplets, holding Trulys. Jordan, wearing green Dickies and an 80s windbreaker, stands at the center of a crowd, cracking up hysterically and causing a ruckus with the others, like he often does. Lilliana stands across the room with a Truly in hand, wearing a mini skirt and a baby tee. She sneaks glances at him, a simmering panic rising in her chest with each second that passes. He doesn’t look at all like he’s upset. He’s smiling insufferably, as if he hadn’t been ignoring her the past week.
She sees Jordan turn towards a girl and imagines what he’s saying. I don’t drink. I just don’t want to be dependent on it, you know? I try to be aware of Machismo, yeah, it’s basically toxic masculinity in Mexican men. Yeah I know, men are shitty. I made a female-power playlist on Spotify with all female artists. Oh, I’m from LA, but my parents are immigrants.
He turns to a guy with painted nails, wearing a crop top. People always think I’m gay but really, I try to be an ally. I don’t eat at Chick-fil-a. It’s only because I actually try to dress well and have a real personality. I just got this jacket from Depop. Yeah, me too, I love thrifting!
Bullshit. She’s used to it, but it’s just begging to be picked on. “Shut up, you don’t even thrift. You just go to curated shops and drop $60 on a lame windbreaker.”
“Yeah? Well at least I’m not someone who claims to be Latina when I don’t even speak Spanish.”
“Well, at least I don’t bring up machismo every time I talk to a girl. What does that say about you?”
“You can’t even pronounce machismo right, so look who’s talking!”
During these exchanges, Jordan always had the final word, and never missed an opportunity to make Lilliana seem like a hopelessly ditzy airhead. She didn’t mind, knowing he only teased her because he likes her, and they would laugh about it with the rest of the crew. Everyone suspected their chemistry ran deeper. Lilliana had been asked several times if she was dating Jordan. Not yet, she’d thought.
When they branched off alone, their masks would melt away. A couple weeks after they first started talking, they drove in the middle of the night, coasting through the streetlights in his Toyota Corolla. He told her about high school, how he was a loner.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He said it with a quiet calmness she never saw in public. “I didn’t have too many friends. No girlfriends, no parties.”
“Were you like an introvert or something?” she asked.
“I thought I was. But when I started college, I got the chance to start over.”
“Is that why you talk like that with people?” she asked.
“Like a walking advertisement, I guess.”
“Well not everyone has natural charisma like you, Lilli,” he said.
“What? No way, shut up.”
“It’s true. It’s annoying, actually, the fact you don’t even have to try and people just like you,” he said.
Ironic, considering most days Lilliana felt like a walking trainwreck, a personified house of cards. But he looked at her at that moment in a way that said I do, too.
“I don’t know, you seem kinda fake with the others,” she said.
“You’re one to talk.”
“Well, apparently I’m better at it.”
“Whatever. Sometimes I wonder if you even like me,” he said, “It feels like you just use me as a free ride, or some kind of social crutch.”
“No, I like hanging out with you, seriously.”
Lilliana had felt drawn to Jordan from the moment she met him. It was welcome week at the start of her first year on campus. She was worried about entering as a junior, since she had transferred in, but she’d already made some friends during orientation. A new friend of a friend invited her to a kickback, and she saw Jordan acting like the MC for a game of beer pong. The way he hyped up the crowd was fun, so she joined in and let him cheer her on as she floored the competition, her win turning the crowd from excited to exhilarated. When she talked with him, she realized how much in common they had, both being transfer students. Their energy flickered like crackling magnets thrown into each other. They spent more time together over the coming weeks, which slowly revealed a gentler, quieter side of Jordan.
“Hey, are you okay?” After a rager during the first week of classes, he’d caught her arm before she could trip over the curb. She had pretended to walk it off, but he’d kept a hand on her shoulder as she’d waddled in her drunken stupor.
“I like being here with you.” They’d been preparing for midterms in a study room. She had asked him if he wanted to leave after sitting with her for four hours. He’d replied with a smile and an insistence that he stay.
“Cool, right?” It was the following weekend and he’d stood next to her at the summit of Griffith Observatory, where, instead of star-gazing, they’d looked over LA city lights.
After each day they’d spent alone together, she’d found herself thinking about him more, checking his Instagram stories, ‘accidentally’ bumping into him between classes. Soon they were hanging out almost every day, spontaneously going out for burgers at 2am, or laughing together in the building’s shared laundry room while waiting for the washers to finish their cycles. Their teasing in private was the same as usual, harmless, but when it bled into public settings, it got… complicated.
Lilliana fidgets with the strap of her purse as she looks around the room. Truthfully, since she usually hangs out with Jordan at these things, she doesn’t really know what to do with herself. A girl she (kinda) recognizes walks in her direction, probably heading toward the drinks on the counter behind her. Lilliana jumps on the opportunity to escape her solitude, immediately complimenting the girl’s dress before easing into some small talk as she pours herself a shot.
“How are your classes?” the girl asks. “All right. I’m just tired,” Lilliana says.
“You excited to graduate?”
Lilliana feels a shot of adrenaline buzzing behind her eyes. “No, not really. I have no idea what I’m doing afterwards. I thought I’d apply to grad school, but I haven’t even started looking at programs. And I hate my major. You know, honestly, I don’t think I like anything. I don’t have any money, and moving back in with my parents isn’t an option. I should be studying for my final tomorrow but I’d rather die. And who even cares about Psychology? It’s a load of bullshit. No one can even get help until they’re at a breaking point anyway. Mental health services are inaccessible, and when made accessible, underfunded. So if you call a therapist’s office in June to make an appointment they’ll tell you their nearest opening is in December—so I’m left feeling shitty for 6 months straight.”
The girl nods and sips her drink quietly. “Oh, I’m sorry… So, what did you get your Secret Santa?”
They exchange some words before the girl is called over to join a group photo. Lilliana watches her go. She definitely scared her off when she started talking about therapy. God, she can’t believe she said all that. Is she stupid or something? Lilliana forces a smile, then glances again in Jordan’s direction. She thinks she catches his gaze for a moment before he throws his head back in laughter, like he’s trying to show off to her.
Lilliana tosses the empty Truly and grabs a solo cup. You know what, it’s time to show him that she can have fun too. She downs one shot after another, four gulps, wincing and coughing. Then she grabs a beer can, spots a tall, attractive guy with a lanyard sticking out of his pocket, and asks him if she can borrow his keys. She proceeds to tear open the aluminum and shotgun the beer, the people surrounding her all turning their heads, shouting Ooooh! Yeah, Lilli! She wipes some residual foam from her lips as people start following her lead, tearing open cans and laughing, patting her on the back. She turns from them to walk straight toward Jordan, who’s stubbornly trying to speak to a girl over all the commotion. But the girl pauses mid-conversation, watching Lilliana approach them.
Lilliana speaks with a ferociously positive attitude. “Wow, you look so good tonight! Where’d you get the top from?”
The girl, somewhat startled, smiles at her. “Aw, you’re so sweet, I got it from a swap meet!”
“The one last weekend?” Lilliana asks.
“Yeah!” she says.
“When’s the next one? I’ll come with!” Lilliana says. She sneaks a glance at Jordan. He’s hovering on the edge of their interaction with a seemingly calm expression, but there’s a steely glint in his stare and his jaw is tense. It fills her with glee.
“They’re the first and last week of each month,” the girl says, “So there’s another this Saturday!”
Shit, Saturday? “What time?” Lilliana asks.
“I think it starts around 11 and ends at 2,” she says, “We could get lunch!”
“Don’t you have therapy every Saturday?” Jordan says flatly.
What the hell? Lilliana’s at a loss of how to respond.
“Oh, uh… We can reschedule, then!” the girl says, like she’s tip-toeing around a landmine.
Lilliana’s heart races as she tries to come up with an excuse.
Then, Jordan speaks. “Yeah, your mental health is important. I know you’ve been struggling lately.”
Lilliana finds no sympathy in his eyes.
Jordan turns his attention to the girl. “I’m free though, when should I pick you up?”
Lilliana hears the echo of his voice accompanied by a ringing as her mind starts to stumble, the vodka and beer seeping into her bloodstream. She needs to fight back by securing this date.
“No, no, I can make it on Saturday! Where do you live again? Maybe we can carpool over—”
The girl has her phone to her ear and she’s turning away from them. “Sorry, sorry. It’s my boyfriend. I’ll be right back!”
Lilliana realizes as the girl leaves that she’s been speaking too loudly. She feels like she’s just barely caught herself while slipping, and she’s still trying to find her balance.
Jordan speaks. “Wow… Did you even hear yourself just now? But it’s not like you ever notice that stuff anyway.”
Lilliana replies. “Yeah? Way to invite yourself on a date with a girl who has a boyfriend.”
He glares at her. “You’re drunk, again, Lilli. Get your shit together.” He walks past her.
The fight had happened last weekend. It was late, and the moon shone full across the ink blot sky. The Corolla was headed to the beachside, where Jordan and Lilliana were meeting with the rest of the welcome week crew at the 24-hour donut shop. Though they were both still decently active in the group chat, it would be the first time in a while either of them had hung out with the whole gang. Lilliana was excited to see them again, already having sent a “so excited for tonight!” text, which accumulated likes. But Jordan kept messing with his hair, asking her if he looked okay, and if she could remind him what everyone’s names and majors were.
“Hey,” he started, “Before we get there, I’ve been meaning to say… I keep giving you second chances.”
“What do you mean?” Lilliana asked.
“You go too far when we’re joking around,” he said.
“What? I’m only following your lead, and anyway, you know I don’t mean it.”
“Sure, but they don’t know.”
Lilliana looked at him in disbelief. “Is it seriously that important they know you support gay rights because you don’t eat at Chick-fil-a? Do you realize how stupid that sounds?”
“Lilli, please just back off. You don’t get it because everyone just loves you.” His tone sounded bitter. “Plus, we hang out together all the time. But I don’t know these guys like that.”
She was pretty sure the crew understood their schtick by now, but Jordan had a dead serious look in his eyes. So she just agreed and went on with the night. At least, she’d planned to.
They were all standing at the end of the pier, donuts and solo cups in-hand. They passed around a bottle of Malibu rum (except Jordan, who waved his hand whenever someone tried to hand it to him), their chatter rivaling the sound of the crashing waves beneath them. Lilliana sipped a little rum as she listened to Jordan, who had them all hooked.
“Lilli’s so funny. You know, she’s pretty slow when it comes to social situations,” he said to all of them. “She gets so anxious, too. Hey Lilli, you’re majoring in psych right? Psych majors are always kinda messed up somehow, so that makes sense. Me? I’m Poli-Sci. I’m planning on going to law school—”
“He hasn’t even studied for the LSAT yet.” Lilliana said. “Maybe he thinks his huge ego will get him there. I don’t know. He’s always smoking instead of studying. But I thought you said you were sober? You only stay away from alcohol, huh?”
Jordan went pale with fury as the group howled with laughter. He mumbled some excuse and started stomping down the pier. Lilliana ran to catch up with him.
“Wait, where are you going? You know you’re my ride!”
“Get a different ride,” he said.
“Come on, I didn’t mean it like that. No one cares, and it doesn’t even matter—”
“Of course it matters! How could you be so dumb? God, if you’re going to drink, try not to get so drunk you say stupid shit. I keep giving you chances—”
“So it’s okay when you do it, but not when I do?” She was completely sober, and completely full of rage, “How is me being ‘messed up’ even funny—”
“Why don’t you do me a favor and just throw yourself off this pier?” He stormed off.
Lilliana felt a deep rattling in her bones as she watched his figure shrink. She remembered when they’d shared the study room. While packing up, she’d made a joke about jumping off the roof of the library instead of finishing her midterm paper.
“Huh?” he’d said, “Are you suicidal?”
She’d stared at him, hesitating, finally saying, “Sometimes.” It was the first time she had told anyone.
Lilliana watches the people around her leaving. It’s midnight, and the party is starting to dissipate. People are arranging carpools, I’m at this housing, Oh me too, I’m going to stay a little longer, I’ll catch a ride with so-and-so, Bye y’all, See ya later, Don’t forget your gift!
Lilliana wanders around what’s left of the party, person-to-person, making forced small talk. The alcohol is really hitting her now, and the conversations pass her by in a blur. She catches a few words. You guys live in the same building, take her home. No, she’s probably fine—No way dude! It’s like 1a.m., just take her. She feels supported by her arm. It’s so familiar. Then she realizes she’s in Jordan’s car.
The smell in his Corolla is comforting. She wants to sit in it for a long while. She takes deep, quiet breaths. It’s unclear if Jordan notices. He turns his body to check behind him as he backs the car out of the space, and in doing so places a hand behind her headrest. She’s acutely aware of how close he is to her. They drive for a minute. Jordan asks her about the party. His total nonchalant attitude infuriates her.
“You’re being awful to me lately,” she says without thinking.
Jordan just sighs. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
“I think I love you.” There’s a pause for a second as the realization of what she just said creeps into her chest. She holds her breath as she checks Jordan’s face, which looks flushed and tense.
“Why the hell would you say that?” There’s a harsh edge to his tone.
“… It’s how I feel—”
“You’re so annoying,” he says.
“What, because I call you out on your bullshit? Your fake-nice, fake-woke, people-pleasing—”
“No shit! You say the most fucked-up shit about me in front of the others. There’s something seriously wrong with you. Why don’t you get it’s not okay? Are you autistic on top of depressed or what?” The car stops at a lone crosswalk, the red lights reflecting in Jordan’s eyes.
Lilliana’s mind flips over a thousand thoughts, tumbling like a washing machine. Maybe he has a point. She hadn’t intended to roast him like that at the pier, not even at the party. What she’d said was horrible and crossing a line, but it was nothing worse than what he’d said about her. But she’d let it slide, knowing he only had the best intentions. It’s true, she drinks too much. She is messed up. She could possibly be autistic, just another diagnosis on top of her other mental issues. It’s harsh, but true. But she only follows his lead, returning the favor by pointing out how fake he is all the time, with the hope he’d realize how ridiculous he’s being. She thought they were close enough for him to understand where she was coming from, and for him to see how much she cares about him.
Knowing now he has no idea, she feels like she shouldn’t exist. Like she’s sinking into the seat, down all the way to the center of the earth, or hell, whatever’s in the afterlife. Strangely, she feels so empty no tears well up inside her. Did she make this all up? Was something really wrong with her? How could he even say all of that? He knew her, her struggles, her shitty home life, and how she finally got the courage to pursue therapy again, that winters, and the holidays, are usually the worst for her—
Jordan pulls into the drop-off area in front of the complex, setting the car into park. “I don’t want this. I don’t know what the hell this is, but I don’t want it. Just leave me alone, Lilli.”
“Can’t we just talk—”
“Get out of my car.”
Lilliana feels the tears this time. She gets out before he can see them, and he drives away.
She’s sniffling, stumbling across the courtyard, too tired, her vision too blurry to make her way to her apartment. She sits outside on one of the benches. A few tears roll down her cheeks as she breathes into her hands, the smoke disappearing into the night air. The absence of stars in the sky reminds her of Griffith Observatory, and of Jordan’s sweet and uninhibited smile. But he feels like such a different person now.
She feels full of something that needs to escape, needs to be channeled. She’s rummaging through her purse for a tissue when she sees the Christmas card that wouldn’t be too obvious, but would subtly hint at how much she cares, and would also convey an apology. The card she didn’t have a chance to give to him—a card with an illustration of two reindeer touching noses below “Merry Christmas!” in cursive, and on the inside cover, written in red ink: “I hope you can tolerate me enough to bear having me around, because I really like having you as a friend. I got us two tickets to go ice-skating for new years, happy xmas, xoxo ❤️”
Lilliana thinks for a second about slipping the card into the garbage, but instead climbs the stairs to the 2nd floor, finding Jordan’s apartment down the hall. She leaves the card resting on his door. When she lies in bed that night, she feels her heart flutter like a butterfly in her throat. She dreams of them skating under fireworks.
About the Author | First in Fiction | Linda Purdy Memorial Prize
Claire Dixon is a writer, poet, and singer-songwriter. She explores themes of mental health, feminism, and young adult relationships in her work. Claire is currently working on a debut album accompanied by a collection of short stories and poems. You can follow her work on Instagram @_clairedavila.