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On the east side of Austin, under the overpass of I-35, homeless people sleep – we drive on. She rolls her window down and lets the smoke of her cigarette spill out the window. I’ve asked her not to smoke but she does anyways and I don’t stop her but instead turn the music up and belt out lyrics to the song I’ve had playing on repeat.
I pull off the highway and emerge on the other side of town before pulling into the parking lot of a 24-hour café meant for college students and drunks and people like us who have nowhere else to be. I have work in the morning creating web copy for a company I don’t love, but I need the money. She’s an Instagram influencer and waits for brands to send her boxes of things she’ll only pretend to love. I’m jealous. Not that I’d ever say it.
We order coffees with oat milk and she picks up the tab because there’s an unspoken agreement between us that she will pick up the tab and I will not let my pride get in the way. There’s possibly dead flowers in a bowl on the table, and she snaps a picture of the possibly dead flowers while we wait for the cashier to place our coffees on the table. After, we manoeuvre through a cobblestone path lined with flowers and potted plants overflowing with green until we reach an empty picnic table with an umbrella opened up, shielding us from stripes of light from the setting sun.
“Fuck daylight savings,” she says. “It gets dark at, like, 5:30.” I nod, and I am grateful to have this extra hour of light that I wouldn’t get if I hadn’t left DC and gone South, fleeing a city that I thought would crumble from unrest and burnout. I open Instagram and see videos in people’s stories of beeping cars and waving signs and balloons depicting the president in a diaper. Even in balloon form, he has a cell phone in his hand, a curl to his hair. I want to pop them all to pieces and forget what he looks like. Instead, I double tap the photos until a red heart appears. I post a picture of my I voted sticker.
She is scrolling through something, too. Neither of us says anything. The sun sets, and the little bulbs that line the perimeter of the outdoor patio of the coffee shop flick on. It is the only thing that gets me to look up from my phone.
I haven’t seen her in a month since she kept rescheduling plans, so there was plenty that I could ask her about; but instead I say: “Yeah, it did get dark out fast. But at least it’s warm out.”
Pivoting from sunset patterns to weather. None of this is very interesting. I take a sip of coffee to have something to do, and it scalds my tongue. I cough and wonder why I’m not at home watching some TV show I’ve already seen 50 times so I don’t have to think about anything.
“It’s been a wild week hasn’t it – waiting for the election results to be called and all?” she asks, setting her phone face-up on the picnic table. I can see the blue light shining and open to all the conversations she’s been having with people who aren’t me.
Wild isn’t how I would describe it, but I still agree. “Yeah, his supporters are going to riot though. Way too many people like this creep.”
“Time to show up downtown in pussy hats like last time. Let them know that we’re still here,” she replies. I picture us taking a selfie in front of the Austin capitol building, which is even bigger than DC’s Capitol building, while wearing those pink hats and posting it on Instagram. She’ll get 4,000 likes. Strangers will post fire and clapping emojis in the comments. In reality, I get panic attacks when I’m in crowds.
I watch her suck on cigarettes while she scrolls, pausing to tap them against the edge of an ashtray. She breathes the smoke right in my face. I drink more coffee to have an excuse to look down. I wish we were still driving so I could have an excuse to have something else to focus on; something I am heading towards.
Back home, in the tiny town where we both grew up, we’d drive together on back roads with high beams on while looking around corners for stray deer that could emerge out of nowhere. Both of our parents thought we were at the other person’s house, but really we’d go nowhere in particular in the dark until we grew tired and mapped ourselves back home again. Now we have nothing to say to each other, and I wonder how we got here.
In high school, she was the hot one. I was something less than that. She was on the volleyball team. I came in last when we ran the mile in gym class. I was top of the class. She didn’t care about being anything close to top of the class. It was the perfect dichotomy set up to tell a story about the two of us, pivoting us against each other. Even now, I compare my moves to hers. I move to Austin because she tells me I should and I was looking for somewhere to escape to. Now we are here.
Our friendship is grandfathered in. I knew her before I left my hometown and tried to become someone different, so I let her stay. Sometimes, I let myself revert back to the teenage version of myself who smokes and doesn’t understand that women haven’t, in fact, achieved equal rights like I was told. I imagine that she does the same.
When I walk back into the coffee shop for a refill, cash she gave me tucked under my arm, I wait behind another girl who is taking a photo of the same dying flowers.
“You got finals coming up?” the cashier asks. He’s assuming I’m in college because I’m short and look young and I don’t have the energy to correct him so I nod. I could be the kind of person who is purchasing a second coffee with her parents’ money because I attend the elite university nearby and I’m pulling an all-nighter. But really I have never pulled an all-nighter, and I am here because I can’t think of anywhere else to be. The cashier hands me the coffee and says: “Good luck, I’ll be here all night too – if you need anything.”
I walk away and let myself imagine that he was flirting with me. A thought emerges before I can stop it: never the hot one. I push the thought away, go back to the table, and set the coffee down in front of her.
“I’ve been talking to this guy on Bumble and I think I’m going to meet him tomorrow,” she says before I’ve swung my foot around the bench of the picnic table. I picture her talking to him, some stranger, the entire time we’ve been together.
“I thought we were going to the rally at the capitol downtown tomorrow?” I say it like a joke, but it is also a question. I half wanted an excuse to bail on the loud noises and the crowd but also know I should go or risk being the apathetic young person people assume my generation to be. I also hate the idea of standing for that long under the Texas sun – hot even in November. Sweater weather for those cooling down from a 110º daily summer, boiling for me after living in 50º weather on the East Coast.
“I can do both. I probably won’t be at the rally the entire day. No one can even hear the speakers anyway.” I want to make a joke about her being there only to take photos and videos for her Instagram story, but I knew she would take it seriously. She goes back to swiping on Bumble. I watch her slide her finger left and right.
“How are the boys?” I ask.
“Too many guns and dead animals, TBH.”
“I guess that’s to be expected.” It could have been a dig at Texas, but men posing with dead animals has existed in all the states I’ve ever opened the app in.
“Clearly wanna marry him,” she says and shows me a profile picture that is just abs.
“You could do worse,” I joke. Neither of us mention the rally again. I consider texting her in the morning to firm up plans.
She extinguishes the cigarette, stamps it into the ashtray until there isn’t anything else. For something to do, I text my parents that 54 percent of people named Jennifer and 56 percent of people named Richard voted for the outgoing president, and neither of them replies. I retweet some videos of people chanting and cheering outside of the White House. I swallow the rest of the coffee which has now gone cold with the wind that has picked up.
When I am about to suggest that perhaps we head home, fireworks burst in the sky above us in celebration of this shift in our country.
I think: This is where we are now.