Kids These Days, by Monique Briones

My ex-best friend is prematurely aging. I think it’s my fault.

The day after the fight, Miranda comes to school in her thirties, taller, pear-shaped, and grey showing at the roots of her blonde hair. She is late to our literature class, where she sits at the back of the cramped room, a book propped up between her face and the rest of us. Whispers make a crescendo from the back desks to the front ones, all of us wondering what had happened. Those who had seen my fallout with Miranda tilt their heads at me, as if to ask how I had done this to her. I shrug back at them and keep my eyes forward until the end of the period, running out of the classroom as the bell sounds.

“Serves her right, Juliet,” Liz says at lunch the next day. Everyone at the table nods, the corners of their lips turning upwards. “That girl is crazy. Crazy jealous of you, too.”

The cafeteria’s wide windows and low foldout tables invite the sun in, shining a perfect spotlight on a middle-aged Miranda. She must be in her fifties. Liver spots sprout across her arms and neckline. Her hunched posture over her food makes it appear as if her bones are sagging. As Miranda eats her salad alone at the edge of the cafeteria, Liz points out her discolored, crooked teeth and her heavy makeup. When Miranda’s green eyes lock with mine from across the room, I flinch and look away, spilling the spoonful of chili I had been holding all over my lap. Liz steers conversation towards whether any of us have ordered our graduation gowns yet, joking about how the girls’ blue gowns will look awful with her purple-streaked hair. Gordon helps wipe the chili stains off my jeans, and then he rests his rough palm on my thigh. I lean my head on Gordon’s shoulder, the left temple of my glasses digging into the side of my head. He smells like a forest, with a touch of something peppery.

“Liz has a point,” he says. “Jules, Miranda’s toxic. You shouldn’t keep her around.”

“She reminds me of a cicada,” I tell him. “Miranda and I used to collect their shells after they molted. We’d place them in little mason jars. It’s like she’s one of those husks now.”

He places a finger on my lips. I still have the jars in my bedroom, at the bottom of a wooden chest I keep at the foot of my bed. Everything that Miranda and I have done together in our nine years as friends has a place in that chest—balls of yarn from when we learned to knit, bicycle parts from the summer we spent cycling, magazine cutouts of boys, bottles of paint, notebooks filled with bad poetry. The cicada shell-collecting was our first adventure together. It had been just the two of us at the time, clear-cut and simple. No competitions, no constant comparisons to each other. When Gordon and I are alone, reading each other’s poems in his car after school, he asks if I miss those times enough to be friends with her again. I don’t respond immediately, but both of us know that it would be impossible for me to get the old Miranda back.

~ ~ ~

Despite the following day being Saturday, Miranda shows up at my door that afternoon, now a fragile grandmother. As she stands on my porch, wagging her finger at me, I knit my eyebrows together. How did she get so old so quickly? Three days ago, she was my age, on our last stretch of high school, college-bound. Even while aging, Miranda looked sturdy the past two days, getting older at a constant pace. It made me believe she wouldn’t reach this ninety-year-old appearance until Monday morning, in the back corner of literature class again. But she looks like she’s aged a thousand years in a single night. Miranda is aging still, in front of me, clumps of her hair turning white and falling onto her pink hoodie, her denim jeans, and my rubber doormat.

Then, she speaks. I hadn’t talked to her since the fight. It’s disconcerting to hear her voice skipping from adolescence to old age, but the same icy malice she had towards me resurfaces.

“Bitch,” she screams, finger still wagging. “Juliet, you’re a bitch.”

There’s no BMW in my driveway, so Miranda must have walked to my house in this chilly, early spring weather. She lives three streets over, and I wonder how she made it even that short distance in the state she’s in. I grab the hand that’s in my face and lead her down the porch steps. Her arm feels much frailer than it looks, and she takes each step at a molasses-like speed. On the last step, she stumbles and nearly falls onto the concrete pathway, but I catch her. I don’t breathe at first, scared that she might still have broken something, until she talks again.

“Who do you think you are?” Miranda says. “Are you trying to hurt me again?”

My mind races, wondering if it’s such a good idea to walk Miranda back to her home. My parents would be at a continuing education workshop for a few more hours until evening, when they wanted to have Gordon over for dinner to meet him. In five minutes, I haven’t even made it ten feet away from my own house. The distance to hers seems incalculable. Miranda’s eyes, the green in them muddled, have a pedantic worry to them as she looks out at the quiet neighborhood, lost and scared as if she can’t remember where she is. I give Miranda time to get her balance back after tripping and lead her through the front door of my home.

She clutches my hand even after I sit her down in the old, floral armchair in the living room, the closest to the door. I prop her feet up on the matching ottoman, then I run upstairs to find a fleece blanket in the linen closet. When I run back down to wrap her in it, Miranda smiles at me, her face even older than a couple of minutes ago. Because of the weekends I spend as a helper on the cosmetics floor at the department store, I look at Miranda straight on, another client at the glass makeup counter. I can often guess how many layers of foundation a woman would need based on her age in decades, but the wrinkles number like tree rings on Miranda’s face.

“Are you alright now, Miranda?” I ask, bending down so that my face is level with hers. “What are you here for? What do you want me to do for you?”

Miranda glares at me, the smile gone. I’m about to straighten back up when I feel a set of nails swipe against my cheek. One of them lands hard on my face and scratches deep.

“Bitch,” Miranda screams again. “Why does everyone listen to you, Juliet?”

My hand flies to my cheek, and when I pull it away, there’s blood on my fingertips. I put pressure on the scratch using the sleeve of my sweater, running to the bathroom down the hall to wash the cut. Miranda continues screeching insults and questions at me.

“Are you really so much better than me? Attention-seeking brat. Conniving whore. Why do you keep ignoring me? Why do you steal everything from me? All of this is because of you.”

After I finish checking the scratch in the bathroom mirror, I walk back into the living room and find a calmer Miranda. Or rather, the energy that Miranda had in her arms when she scratched me a few moments ago is gone now. Miranda gives up trying to lift her arms at me and crosses them instead, disappointed that I’m too far away for her to scratch more. The sting on my face eases to an afterthought, and the cut is less deep than I had expected, so I let the anger pass and ask Miranda if she can stand up. She mumbles to herself about me instead and doesn’t budge from the armchair. I try to move her legs off the ottoman, to which she starts screaming at me again. She can’t move her limbs. Miranda starts crying, looking more shriveled as time passes. My mind draws a blank over how to get her out of my house, how to keep her out of my life, how easily I could let Miranda take control of me, how I was going to let her keep accusing me of hurting her, how I really deserved this all anyway, how it was all my fault.

~ ~ ~

 “Are you okay?” Gordon asks on the phone. I’m hiding in the kitchen, which is across from the living room. From my spot behind the island, I wonder if the decrepit woman in the armchair who used to be my best friend will forget that I’m here, hoping that she won’t think to look over her right shoulder and spot me. Even though I’m short as it is, I keep my entire body crouched under the cold, marble countertop so that she doesn’t hurl more harsh words in my direction. My voice on the phone is low and hushed.

Gordon volunteers at the nursing home, a flat, brick building at the edge of town. He assists the staff by looking after the residents who are at the highest risk of falling and who tend to suffer from late-stage dementia. I call him up and keep him on the line to see what I should be doing about Miranda, wondering if he has any advice about what I could do to get her to leave. He tells me he’s gotten scratches and bruises before from residents with fast arms and unchecked nails. I send him a photo of the cut on my face. Then he asks if I need him to come over to my house sooner, before my parents come back for dinner.

 “Are you sure you’re okay, Jules?” he asks. “Miranda’s been a bitch to you way before this whole aging thing went down. Before the fight, too. She’s probably hated you ever since you won that prize.”

 “I’m fine, I can handle this,” I say. I’m firm when I tell Gordon this, but I’m also louder, and Miranda looks up from her angry mumbling to start screaming at me again.

“Who are you talking to? Another boy you didn’t tell me about? Or is it still the one who you show your poems to before you show them to me? When’s the last time you read any of my poems, Juliet? You’re so spoiled. You get everything so easily,” she calls to me from the armchair. The walls seem to tighten, bringing the armchair in the living room and the kitchen island closer. Gordon catches every word she says.

 “Look, I’ll be there in about an hour,” he says. “It’s no big deal. I’m not doing anything else. Turn the TV on for her and see if that distracts her from you. Old people love TV. Don’t listen to her, Juliet. I love you.”

 I thank Gordon and hang up, wondering if I should let him help me when it was me who let Miranda into my house and got myself into this mess. As Miranda watches me approach the living room, she tells me that I don’t know what hard work means. That one day, the world will stop handing stuff to me. That people will see past who I am and realize that I’m a fraud. The armchair groans under her weight as she leans forward, reaching for my long, dark hair with stiff arms she can barely raise. I pick the remote control up from the low, steel coffee table and turn the TV on. The screen jumps awake and shows a romantic comedy movie, one that has blonde-haired, green-eyed girls with fun, successful careers. Miranda falls silent, wishing she were one of them, and I sit down on the yellow, vinyl couch. We watch the movie together, a pattern we’ve fallen into ever since we first became friends.

We get sucked in by the sun-kissed skin, the flawless hair, the perfect clothes, the witty dialogue. Miranda laughs at the heroine’s mistakes and starts singing along to the background music of one of the scenes, a bubblegum-like, Britney Spears song I remember she loved when we were younger. We watch beautiful adults spend time in coffee shops in faraway cities we want to visit, meeting other beautiful adults who like what they like. We watch them fall in love. Miranda sighs. I notice that all her teeth are gone and that her entire body is getting smaller.

“I can’t wait to have someone fall in love with me like that,” she says. “I can’t wait to be noticed. You’re so lucky, Juliet.”

The male lead in the movie has the same wavy, brown hair and lopsided smile as Gordon, and I think about how it was already late into our senior year when he asked me out. Gordon is my first boyfriend. He watches 13 Going on 30 with me without complaining, and he likes how I look in red lipstick, and he reads all my poems, and he knows how to cook pancakes from memory, and because of all this, I pretend that the odds of our relationship lasting into college are just a little better than most couples’. I pretend that I felt more grown up after we first admitted to each other that we were in love, but I didn’t, just more vulnerable.

Miranda is completely absorbed by the movie, her toothless grin widening when the heroine and the male lead get closer to each other. She smiled when Gordon and I told her about us being a couple, too, a week after I had won first place in the school district’s annual poetry competition and Gordon had won second. We could tell from the start that she hated seeing the two of us together. Her empty flattery and hollow excitement of how cute we looked together, how nice it was to find someone with the same interests, and how we were inseparable turned into increasingly passive-aggressive statements that revolved around her.

“Looks like I’ll be the third wheel again,” Miranda would say. “No need to show so much affection, you two, you can get a room later. It’s so convenient that you two would read and edit each other’s work. I wish there was enough time for you to do the same with my poetry.”

Miranda’s eyes never leave the screen. She gasps and giggles whenever the romance gets more intense. We watch the actors live the lives we want, in a world where everyone falls in love and becomes successful and turns beautiful at the same time. We watch them be the adults we want to be.

~ ~ ~

Miranda seems to be shrinking faster. The wrinkles on her face and neck look like they’re folding her into a cocoon. The movie ends and the credits roll. She turns to face me, and her eyes look much more like how I remember them. Clear, bright, and warm.

“We were best friends before, right, Juliet?” she asks. Her voice is gentler, careful and hesitant instead of squawking and vitriolic. I turn the TV off.

“We were,” I say. “And then we fought.”

Miranda looks at the TV, sees that it’s off, and then looks down to stare at her feet, raising the heavy, fleece blanket off the ottoman. Her legs are half the size they were when I led her into the house. I find it hard to look at her, so I focus my gaze right past her head, out the window. A pair of sparrows hops across my porch railing. I sink deeper into the couch cushions.

“No, when we fought, we weren’t best friends at that point. We fought just a few days ago. We haven’t been best friends for a long time,” she says. “We were in the cafeteria. Our friends were there. Gordon was there. A lot of others, too. They watched us. We were very loud. I told you that you weren’t a good friend.”

“Because I forgot to invite you to hang out with me. You used to sleep over every week,” I say. “And because I kept telling you I never had time to help you with your poetry.”

“Because you won that poetry competition when I should have,” Miranda continues. “Because you found a boyfriend when I wanted one. You’re very spoiled, Juliet. You get so much attention.”

My shoulders tense, waiting for her to start screaming again. Instead, Miranda leans back, her breathing heavy. I can just barely see her face, the blanket covering her entire body and her wrinkles enveloping her.

“It was like you were growing faster than me,” Miranda says. “You didn’t seem to realize that. You didn’t know that you were changing. I couldn’t keep up.”

“So you called me a bitch,” I answer. I feel my face get hot and red. “So you compared yourself to me when it came to writing and boys and dreams and success. So you made fun of my lipstick and my poetry. So you made me think it was all my fault.”

“Yes, I did all of that,” Miranda says. She closes her eyes. “So you told me to grow up. ‘Grow the fuck up, Miranda.’”

“I did,” I say. “I needed you to stop blaming me. I needed you to grow up.”

“And everyone else told me to grow up, too,” Miranda continues. “Everyone was on your side. People were laughing. They joined in, yelling at me to ‘grow the fuck up.’”

I feel my glasses fog up at the corners, and my vision gets blurry. When I wipe my eyes, Miranda’s staring straight at me.

“You never yell, Juliet,” she says. “It was the first time you yelled at me.”

Both of us are silent. Then Miranda shifts her body around in the armchair, leaning towards my spot on the couch.

“Do you remember when we collected cicada shells?” Miranda asks. “I miss that. I want just that. Can you take me back to that, Juliet?”

I lift Miranda up from the armchair, including the blanket. She’s the weight of a bowling ball, and I cradle her as I walk up the stairs. I open the door to my bedroom, small and sparsely furnished, and place Miranda on the throw rug on my floor. I sit beside her, lifting the lid of the wooden chest. I pick her up in both hands so she can look inside.

“Yes, the chest,” Miranda says. She tries lifting her hand again, pointing to the jars of cicada shells, then the bottles of paint, then the bicycle chains. “I remember all of this. This is what I want.”

 “This is what I want, too,” I say, nodding.

I put her back on the rug. The notebooks and yarn are easy to shove to the side, and I line an empty corner of the chest with the blanket. Miranda shrinks even more, and she’s barely the size of a grapefruit when I place her inside the chest. Her eyes close, and she looks as though she’s asleep. She doesn’t make a noise when I close the lid.

“Goodbye,” I think I hear. But the doorbell rings once the chest is shut, and I rush down the stairs to greet Gordon. I tell him that everything has been taken care of, and we make dinner together before my parents come home.

Besides Gordon, who knows where it came from, I lie to everyone and say the scratch on my cheek came from a run-in with the neighbor’s cat. Once the night ends, I go to bed and fall asleep immediately. I don’t open the chest, and leave everything inside it behind when I pack for college.

~ ~ ~

Months after that afternoon, after graduation, after the summer, after Gordon and I break up, after I move into the eighth floor of a dorm with a theatre arts major who hates my taste in books but loves my writing, my roommate offers to smoke a bowl with me. The smoke curls in on itself like it’s withering and I feel like I’ve forgotten something from long ago, maybe a mason jar or a movie title or an errand to run, and I wonder why it seemed so important at the time, or why I spent so many days so sure, so scared, that this was how the rest of my life would be.

Monique Briones is a writer and blogger from Philadelphia. She currently lives in Pittsburgh.

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