THE GIRLS MET ON THE CORNER to walk to the party. Mae covered her face with that glitter of hers, even though Leah had shown her last week how to swipe it over her cheekbones. When they hugged, the glitter stuck to Leah’s cheek. Mae took her hat off and wrestled it over her friend’s wet hair, because Leah had gone and lost hers, again, and her curls had stiffened in the cold. At the party, they threw their coats into the kitchen and both ate Slim Jims from a friend’s patient palm. They dove in turns, laugher and spit mingling. Mae pretended she was a leaf gobbling up the sun, and that she was still a vegan, and that she was her dog, Lola, back home in Nashville eating under the table.
After the party they hugged, and Mae hurried back to her apartment to vomit. Hours, it must’ve been. Bathroom to bedroom to bathroom, until her suitemate woke to pee and found two pairs of shitstained underwear in the sink. Two hours later, Leah heaved out of bed half a mile away and nearly toppled into the toilet, her body leaking from so many places she couldn’t choose which end to favor with a toilet seat. “Sorry,” she croaked to her boyfriend’s silhouette. Then she switched, her insides spilling out onto the tiles.
NOW THE STORY FALLS from its skin, becoming murky and thin. An infinite number of ways to end itself. For instance: The girls keep on vomiting and vomiting, as if the Slim Jims miss one another so much they’ll riot to reunite. The girls miss exams. The ambulances park beside each other at Mt. Sinai. Lights pierce the uptown sky. Doctors wring their hands and say it can’t possibly just be the Slim Jims at this point. Still, as their doctors and pale-faced parents wheel the girls past each other in the hall, Mae and Leah look up and joke, “those fucking Slim Jims.” Then they lean over and throw up into the space dividing them.
They both die in this version of the story, at the same time but on opposite sides of the hospital hallway, and each with last words of tremendous wit. The local newspapers back home each print an ugly picture of one of them, back in high school with her hair straightened. The funeral is a shared affair. It takes place in a great cavernous church, not in their two synagogues. A thunderstorm beats the windows and the choir strains to be heard over it. Everybody weeps except for the girls, who love it. Mae and Leah go into the earth in one another’s dresses, because nobody could remember which clothes had started out in which girl’s closet. The girls seem to find this funny.
OR THIS ENDING, for instance: Everything goes fine. The girls stop vomiting after a day, though they’ve got a tenderness in their stomachs. The Tuesday after the party they take a study break to eat some matzo ball soup at the deli by Leah’s apartment. Together, they usually stuff themselves, but soup’s all they feel up to, and neither girl finishes her bowl.
“We should’ve just shared,” Leah says.
“Yeah, we’ve got the same germs anyway,” says Mae.
They hug goodbye the morning after finals. Leah’s boyfriend is coming home with her, and she has to go bug him to get ready for the flight. Mae’s heading off on vacation. Mae sends Leah pictures of her yellow bathing suit; Leah sends Mae pictures of her baby nephew laughing. After Mae gets back from vacation, she’s got another twelve days before going back up to school. She eats doughnuts and fights with her mom about eating doughnuts. She drops her little brother at her old high school, because his break is two weeks long and hers is a whole three. The girls come back from break. They burst open the January night with tacos and margaritas, no soup.
“When we grow up,” says Mae, on her second margarita, admiring the saltshakers, “We’re gonna get a cottage to share and we’ll fill it all up with nice pottery.”
“I want our kids to be best friends.” Leah reaches over to adjust Mae’s earring.
“You find me a cute Jewish boy like Daniel and we can be pregnant together and eat all day.”
Thirteen years on, Leah and Daniel pull up in their bright car and Mae runs out, barefoot, with a squeal. The headlights shine over Mae’s tomatoes and kale.
“Mae, honey, don’t wake the baby,” but Leah is laughing, clasping her friend’s chubby hand with its two rings. Mae gasps and takes it upon herself to lift the baby from its car seat. Though she’s ever so gentle, within its sleep the baby feels those two cold spots: Mae’s wedding band and the ring she got for her Bat Mitzvah. The girls walk inside, the girls with the baby between them, Daniel with an arm around Mae, to eat ice cream and fresh tomatoes. Just as they’d imagined.
OR ELSE, A LAST ENDING: The girls stop vomiting after a couple of days. They head to the deli and eat some matzo ball soup. They take their finals, and they hug goodbye in front of the bookstore, the one where they stop and poke around when it’s too chilly to walk straight home. Leah sends Mae pictures of her baby nephew laughing. Mae sends Leah pictures of her new yellow bathing suit. She feels a bit off still but she can go to the beach, dammit. On Christmas morning Leah gets a text message from Mae. HAPPY JESUS DAY MY JEW! it says. Leah sits up in bed next to Daniel, types, BEAUTIFUL JEWESS! CAN WE CHAT SOON IF YOU HAVE SERVICE?
In this last ending, that’s the last text, the one Leah will look at in the library and the subway platform. Each time, it takes longer to find as Mae’s name retreats from her recent messages. Leah gets a call a few days after the twenty-fifth, when her stomach still cannot take more than a few slices of toast, from Mae’s suitemate.
“As far as we know, there are no survivors. I’m so sorry.” The suitemate whispers.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…thank you for telling me.” Leah says. From miles and miles away, the face that is Daniel’s has begun to cry. From miles and miles away a hand without a body is touching skin that might be hers.
As far as we know, as far as we know. Later, Leah realizes those empty words have cleared space in her head for doubt. But now there will be no realizing. Now, there will be the long night in Leah’s childhood bedroom. Leah and Daniel will sit there and call one friend and then another so they can drop the news like a “Happy New Year” or a punchline. She almost laughs when she hears their gasps. Now, there will be the strange smells her body seeps in its confusion. There will be throwing up in her parents’ bathroom, from the sickness and the shock that have sloshed into a cloud, and there will be wondering if Mae threw up too, in the last minutes while her sickness mixed with fear and turbulence. There will be her baby nephew’s skin, all she can stand to touch, his spit-up a prize of aliveness.
Nobody’s certain what happened to the plane. To Mae and her parents and her little brother, stuck inside its metal body while it fell toward that hillside. Fell, or flew or careened or hurtled or, or, or. Who knows. They are not here to say. The beginning and the end clamp down coldly, but between them, in the narrow space of a few minutes, flit a billion fictions. Leah clutches her warm nephew in her winter hands and asks him her questions. Did Mae hold her brother’s hand, or whisper the Shema, or laugh for reasons she couldn’t say, or, or, or? The baby offers no answer. He does not even know how to ask. Each day his softness will roughen, teeth will tear at his gums. The next time she sees him, he’ll be wrapped in a whole new skin. He will not remember the shaking hands gripping this old body of his.
And the more he changes, the further they will have moved from today. And the further they move from today, the further she will be from yesterday, the last day where Mae woke up certain and solid. Mae’s smell will shrink from her pillowcases. Mae’s voice will thin into the outline of a sound. So Leah can trust only herself to do this job, to fend off her nephew’s teeth and April’s first warm morning and all the marks time makes. She will heave Mae’s last living day with her into the present. She will never let it stay still, never let it harden into a the end, a sad old story told and retold—not when Mae isn’t around to do the telling.
Mae’s final day, Leah tells her nephew, will not become past tense. All the better if Leah has to drag it into the now, bloodied and gasping. Those are the protests of the living. Those are the acts of two bodies that shake and shit and vomit and eat together. So, Leah decides: I will clench my body closed to keep these germs we swapped between us, these last certain things, dancing drunken in my gut.
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ELEANOR STERN is a writer from New Orleans. Her work has appeared in the Tahoma Literary Review and the Jewish Literary Journal.