Emily and I had planned this night meticulously. It was Our First Sleepover Back From Our First Year of College. What we had not planned was The Silence. My bedroom was Deathly Quiet. Over the past two weeks, we had been sending each other long texts in all capital letters filled with emojis, and gifs, and every other kind of digital excitement, longing for the time we could catch each other up on EVERYTHING! without a screen in between us. I would have preferred a screen. This was a cinder block wall.
I open my mouth to try to speak, hoping maybe it will become normal if one of us just breaks the silence, but nothing emerges. It’s like being underwater. Just bubbles.
Back in high school we couldn’t talk fast enough, taking turns pouring out secrets to the other in conspiratorial whispers, fighting our closing eyes as long as possible. But the only sounds in the room tonight were the soft hum of the humidifier, the low murmur of the air conditioning. If I strained, I could hear the dishwasher downstairs. I open my mouth to try to speak, hoping maybe it will become normal if one of us just breaks the silence, but nothing emerges. It’s like being underwater. Just bubbles. I stare at the ceiling, avoiding looking over at Emily in the twin bed next to mine. In high school my mom used to joke that it was her bed, Emily, her third daughter. My house is closer to school than hers, and if we had a game, or the promise of a snow day, or, more likely, if we just missed each other–because spending eight hours at school together somehow never was quite enough–she would make the phone call to her mom and say “I’m sleeping at Nat’s tonight!” Senior year, it got to the point where she kept a toothbrush in my bathroom, and an extra school uniform in my closet.
This room was ours. It was here that she told me about her first kiss (in a hot tub!). She described to me what vodka tasted like (it didn’t go down easy she said, and I imagined it tasted something like the apple cider vinegar my mom would force down my throat when I was coming down with a cold. I, unlike Emily, was not a rebellious teenager). Here she confessed that she thought she might actually like that cute Southern boy who just moved to her neighborhood, and, almost a year after they started dating, lying in that same spot, she told me that she was going to break up with that same sweet boy. (We attended an all girls school, and I, the dedicated student and diligent athlete who had no time for boys, found all of this daringly romantic). It was in these beds, our faces turned towards each other, that we laughed about things we couldn’t say to anyone else (do you think your parents still have sex?), muffling our giggles into our pillows, daring my mother to walk to the base of the stairs to call up at us, “Girls, bedtime, you have a busy day tomorrow!”
It was in this room, my fingers similarly clenched, my toes just as cold, when I first baptized my pillow with tears. We were twelve. She had been having anxiety attacks, and her dad was moving away for the year. It wasn’t the only cause, but it didn’t help. Emily described what the attacks were like, how she could feel her throat closing up, how she couldn't breathe, couldn’t stop hysterically crying. A feeling of being hopelessly alone. I would later witness many of these moments, and I would be thankful she had used that night to teach me what to do when they happened, what best to say. When she turned to me in tenth grade history class with a panicked look on her face, I was the one who gently, discreetly, pulled her out of the room. I hugged her in the hallway, and talked to her in a calm voice, like an old cowboy with a wild stallion, waiting until she could breathe again.
Her breathing now was regular, calm. It was eerily quiet. Too quiet. The wall was growing. With every second that passed by in silence, another brick, another obstacle to speaking. I knew I should turn towards her, look at her in person after all these months, but I refused, preferring instead my own mental image. I envisioned her laughing, showing off her perfectly orthodontured, blindingly white teeth. She laughed often, and, as a result, felt it was necessary to continue to wear her retainer. I, the more serious, clumsier friend, had lost mine years ago. I could practically count her joyous freckles dancing across her nose and cheeks. I went through her moods, her scrunched up face of confusion when approached with a math problem or a difficult topic of conversation. I pictured her long black eyelashes, thick with tears when she cried, which was often (seeing an adorable baby in the grocery store, watching the Titanic, reading about the Holocaust in eighth grade English). I could easily just look at her, the Real In The Flesh Emily, but I stuck with my mental composite made of hundreds of sleepovers past.
She would always wake first. She was an up-and-at-em, jump right out of the bed person. I had an old, addictive habit of flipping my pillows back over my head and going back to sleep, a process I would repeat until finally mustering the strength to get out of bed. Upon opening my eyes, the very first thing I would see were her manicured feet skipping around, getting dressed, packing her bag back up. “Good mornnnninnng,” she would say, too cheerily, and I would groan and roll back over. We would talk while we brushed our teeth, her chipper remarks slowly waking me up until I could coherently speak, at which point I would ask what we should eat for breakfast. High School Emily loved waffles. Who knew what College Emily ate for breakfast. I wondered if she even ate breakfast. I smiled, because I knew, even if I had started to skip the most important meal of the day for an extra hour of sleep, Emily would never. But I didn’t ask.
A dog barked. Possible topics of conversation bounce around in my head: how I had made friends with two boys down the hall from me (a surprising feat for someone who avoided that particular gender at all costs in high school), how I hated the raspberry muffins at the dining hall (I had eaten sponges that were better), how I had failed my first Economics midterm (this from a previously straight A student), how I was just a tiny bit in love with this junior on the golf team (a lanky, quiet boy with a curly mop of blonde hair, tanned from spending all his time on the green). They bounce and bounce, but I reject each in turn. They seem too hard to describe (how to explain a year’s worth of friendship?), too banal (they were just muffins, for God’s sake), too boring (supply and demand curves are not a sleepover topic), and too dramatic (I had never even spoken to that beautiful junior).
I rest briefly on that one moment on a Thursday at three in the afternoon after Introduction to Psychology when I walked in to find my roommate and her boyfriend naked on the floor and screamed. It really is the perfect story. It is funny and light-hearted, but exemplary of my greater college experience, of my exclusion from all of those “typical college behaviors” of drinking, and drugs, and sex. I can imagine Emily’s easy laugh at my description of my oh-so-innocent chatterbox of a roommate and her socially awkward jazz playing boyfriend, of them tangled up on the floor, and then I can see myself becoming quieter, a little less sure of myself. I will say that I have never been the girl on the floor, have always been the one holding the hair, have never been the one vomiting. We will laugh about how everyone calls me Mom, and then she, in her typical Emily way, will comfort me, like we had done for each other a hundred times. She had been there when my sister had fainted during school and had been taken to the hospital, she had talked to me for hours when I found out my uncle had been physically abusing my young cousins. She had said that it was going to be okay then, and she would say that it was going to be okay now. And we would smile at each other in the dark, maybe even reach out so our fingers could touch before fading off to sleep. But I didn’t start the story. I didn’t say a thing. The wall grew. Barbed wire attached itself to the top. It was impossible to climb over.
My mind wandered. Back to school, back to Margot and Clay–short for Cassandra–my two best friends from college. The Terrible Triplets, we were named by those boys down the hall. We liked to flirt with them, a skill Emily had been blessed with since birth, one I had slowly picked up over the past year. I thought about Margot’s room, where Clay and I often slept over as she had luckily drawn a random room assignment without a roommate. In the grand tradition of college freshmen, fairy lights littered the walls, and what seemed like thousands of photos were posted everywhere, many of the three of us. My favorite was one taken in the dining hall, each of us smiling holding a spoon, whipped cream on Clay’s nose, a giant sundae of our own creation the centerpiece of the Polaroid. One night, in February, we had a movie night (Margot also was one of the few people I knew with her own television). We made popcorn in the dorm kitchen, and piled a stack of mismatched pillows from each of our rooms, dwarfing her little bed. As the final credits rolled, we began to speak. We talked all night, giving up our secret fears, offering our darkest moments, our willingness to be vulnerable with each other a confirmation of trust, love, Friendship For Life. Clay’s younger sister’s suicide attempt. Margot’s mother’s institutionalization. My uncle’s alcoholism that lead to abuse. We fell asleep, all three of us, in that tiny twin bed, not needing, not wanting, to go back to our own rooms. The space between Emily and I now, two feet at most, is immense compared to the way I had been sandwiched between Margot and Clay’s bodies, legs folding over each other, arms wrapped tightly. Hair entangled on pillows. Waking up, nestled into each other’s bodies, my head on Margot’s shoulder, my arm molded to the curve of Clay’s hip. The wall was now equipped with a laser activated security system. Guard dogs. I realize, suddenly, that it isn’t a failure of finding the perfect topic of conversation that keeps me from speaking, but something else. Something scarier.
For the first time in ten years, I do not want to tell Emily anything.
The silence coming from her bed tells me I am not the only one. I let go of the edges of my blanket and untense my legs. I flip over, quietly, but I am sure she still hears, sure she can tell that she is now looking at the back of my head. “Goodnight,” I whisper into the darkness. I don’t know if she hears, don’t know if the wall is soundproofed, too. I gently fall asleep, immune to the sounds of her breathing. And in the morning, when I roll over, expecting to see her feet, and hear her cheery “Good Morning,” I find that I am the first awake.
Natalie Landau is a sophomore English major at Amherst College from Providence, Rhode Island. In her free time, she can be found playing soccer, FaceTiming her younger sister, or reading. While she is not inclined to pick favorites, she has recently enjoyed Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Educated by Tara Westover, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.