Like Nothing Matters

Mama said no, but I’m going anyway. She doesn’t need to know.

I lower the passenger seat window. The night breeze is a contemplative sort of melancholy. So is the sound of all the cars moving together. Red light. I pull to a stop, then tap my nails against the steering wheel. Green.

Sometimes I forget I am human when I come out to drive at night, all alone. Sometimes I forget that humans exist at all. I’m invisible, submerged in a liminal space, and the whirring of the highway is all there is.

I make a left turn into Sadie’s neighborhood. It’s pitch black. Most of the street lights have stopped working. Some of them are off and on, fizzling out at random times, fizzling on again later. I try to drive slowly, watch out for pedestrians, but there are always none.

The way to her house is too easy.

I park in her driveway and turn off the headlights, about to pick up my phone to call her, but she’s already here, shadow looming in front of the car. She’s wearing a red satin dress with a scoop neck, hair pulled back. My first reaction, when I saw her the first time, was that she was impossibly beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to sink my teeth into her skin right then and admire the bruises.

I unlock the doors. Sadie goes to the back first, dumping her bags there. She sits shotgun, barely raising her eyes to meet mine. “Kyle’s place?” I ask, but I don’t need to.

She nods, cracked lips pressed together, still not looking at me.

“Chapstick in the glove compartment,” I say as I reverse out of her driveway and turn out of her neighborhood. I watch her from the corner of my eye as she rummages through the small makeup bag I keep just for her. 

While turning, I roll the window down. It’s the in-between summer and autumn now, and the crisp night air raises my goosebumps. Without the warmth of the sun, the night is a desolate place. A kind of loneliness that seems to welcome me in.

Just after getting my license, I was cautious about driving others. I followed the speed limit. I checked the mirrors constantly, searching for cops. I let the passengers choose the music, turned up the air conditioning to the perfect temperature, and made conversation so that there was never a moment of silence.

I don’t say anything now.

Sadie is illuminated by the headlights of other cars. Her eyes are dull. We are both accustomed to silence: there are too many things that we can’t say out loud. And perhaps, a part of us would rather not say anything, because once the words escape our lips, they’ll become real. Or maybe it’s just me. I can’t say anything for Sadie, after all.

I wonder what someone else would say if they saw us here. The two of us in the car right now—we are perfect. I don’t dare to ruin it.

What would Mama think if she could see me? She would be disappointed. Not in me, not really, I think. More so in herself. She could never say it to my face and let me see her weakness, that she isn’t perfectly fine all on her own. She always has to go through everything all alone.

She’ll blame herself, of course. It was her fault that she wasn’t a better mother, didn’t raise me better, didn’t be better. God is punishing her like this, with a daughter that is all too much like herself instead of the daughter she wants.

A wide-eyed daughter who wears her heart on her sleeve and dreams too much, too deeply. A daughter who can’t accept the way that things are supposed to be, who fell head-over-heels in love with a white girl who already has a boyfriend. A daughter that sneaks out  in the dead of the night in satin minidresses clinging to her body, mascara smudged on her cheeks, running on two hours of sleep, just to drive the girl she loves to a party.

I think a part of Mama would also be fascinated that the docile child she raised could turn out to look something like I do now. A kind of fearful admiration, or is it confusion? She didn’t raise me to be beautiful. I don’t think I am beautiful, necessarily. But right now, here with Sadie, anything feels possible.

If I had myself as a daughter, I would blame myself for it too. But it’s not Mama’s fault. It’s mine and mine alone.

As soon as I pull into Kyle’s neighborhood, I can hear faint voices.

There are never ragers like this in my own neighborhood, and Sadie’s feels like death. It’s interesting how far sound can travel and still maintain its limits. Before high school I dreamed of doing all the things I knew I shouldn’t. Skip school to go to parties. Drink. Have sex with random boys I’ve never met. Fail my classes. Get high with no one around. But now I know that these things simply fascinate me from the outside, like the voices. Kyle’s street is lined with cars. It’s almost completely blocked, but I manage to squeeze through. I park in Hana’s driveway—it feels safe enough. Then I turn off the car. Sadie doesn’t say thank you. She never does. She knows that she doesn’t have to, that even if she was the shittiest person in the world, I’d still come running at full speed. I hate myself for it, and yet I can’t resist, can’t even breathe when I look at her.

“Do I look okay?” She asks, pulling her hair loose.

You look like an angel put on this earth to torture me and send me to Hell.

“You look beautiful.” I offer a halfhearted smile. “Are you ready to go?”

I fully expect what she says next, but it still rips my heart out of my chest to hear it. 

“Kiss me.” Her eyes are pleading, broken. We both know that at Kyle’s, Zach will be waiting for her rather impatiently. He’ll throw his arm around her shoulder, towering over her, then he’ll steal her away to show off to his group of friends for a while. After beer pong, after his friends get bored, he’ll sneak away with Sadie to a quiet little room. He’ll put his mouth on her shoulder, slide the strap down, peel away all the layers that kept her safe.

We both know that he isn’t a good person. She doesn’t want him. But she craves him, needs him. She needs the feeling of being loved by someone else. Even if it’s not real.

Even if she doesn’t know that I love her.

I shake my head, but she tugs on my arm. “Please,” she whispers urgently, her voice broken. “I need you to. Please, Jenny.”

Our lips touch. That’s all it is, that’s what I tell myself, but I’m drowning in the softness of her. She tastes like my chapstick and smells faintly of roses. She probes her tongue against my lip. I want to pull it in, feel the heat bloom between my legs. I’m addicted, the way she’s addicted to Zach, the way he’s addicted to making promises he has no intention of keeping.

I was doomed from the start. There are no happy endings in this story. When we—she— pull apart, I wipe my lips on the back of my hand. For the sake of my own sanity, I pretend like I don’t want it.

Sadie and I don’t talk about the kiss. We never do. We float past Kyle’s gate like ghosts, push through the crowd of people in the backyard, slip through the back door unnoticed. Zach is leaning against the kitchen island, drink in his hand, tapping his fingers against the marble countertop. He looks up right as we step in, catching sight of us. He looks hungry, sauntering toward Sadie, a lazy smile plastered dumbly on his face. “Hey gorgeous,” he says, then throws his arm around her shoulder without casting a glance at me.

I keep my eyes trained on the back of Sadie’s dress as she disappears into the dining room with Zach. Then I reach for a cup, fill it up with water, and go back outside.

I hear Mama’s voice in my head. “Jiayi, this isn’t our country. Don’t try to take what you can’t have. Don’t try to become more than life.