We’ve just arrived at prom and already I want to leave.
Should we take a photo? Chris asks.
I clock the long line, my classmates barely recognizable without their signature Hollister t-shirts and hoodies, skin-tight low rise jeans. We just took a bunch of photos in my backyard, me in my coral floor-length gown from the thrift store, he in a borrowed tux and bowtie. Around my wrist the corsage his mom made.
Nah. I don’t feel like waiting in line.
I find my friends seated at a round banquet table, introduce them to my date. An acquaintance, not in attendance, is throwing a party we’re planning to catch afterward. I wonder what’s the minimum amount of time we’re expected to stick around. One song? Maybe two?
We’ve been hanging out most days since prom. Chris has the entire basement to himself, a penthouse by teenage standards. Tonight, he shows off his limited edition Beck album pressed in blue vinyl, too precious to play. He puts on The Beatles instead. I love everything after Abbey Road. None of their early pop stuff.
Before we know it, it’s past curfew and I need to get home. You know how my parents are. On my way out, I run into his kid brother, who comes up to my shoulder and is unexpectedly blonde. Chris introduces us, we exchange hellos. When I get home I receive a text:
My brother asked if you were my girlfriend.
Yeah? And what’d you say?
The theme for this year’s prom is ‘Masquerade,’ but you wouldn’t know it by the lack of masks. We leave half-finished plates at the table and make our rounds, snapping photos with my digital camera. Bass thumps from the adjoining room. People begin to file onto the dance floor.
It’s literally the equivalent of liquid cement, the stylist assured me as she sprayed my hair. Now, just a few hours later, the curls have fallen straight.
I turn eighteen two weeks after graduation. Chris throws me a party at a place he’s housesitting, invites his older friend to bartend. The friend offers people their choice of Jim Beam and Coke, Skol and Sprite, straight shots. Tabs of acid to those who want it. It all feels very grown up, playing house in an actual house, serving alcohol to guests.
Later that night I’m lying in the grass, waving around a neon green butterfly net from the dollar store, attempting to catch the stars. Reality heightened to its purest form. The way we’re meant to experience it. When we’re alone, Chris gifts me the bird charm from the necklace he always wore. I want you to have this. I wear the charm around my neck for the rest of that summer.
Partnerless stud earring? Keep. Tarnished quarter-machine mood ring? Trash. Handmade friendship anklet from middle school? Trash.
A visit home from college. I’m in my old bedroom, the glaring orange walls with creased posters of Jim Morrison, The Beatles, a dozen AOL free trial discs arranged in a spiral pattern. I’m about to enter my twenties. No sense in hanging onto childish things. I go through my old jewelry box. The decisions come quickly and easily, so sure I am about what needs to go.
Guitar pick earring? Keep. Bird charm from Chris? Trash.
We should talk about what’s going to happen to us when we leave for college, he says.
We lie under a tarp that’s been fastened to a tree branch, a makeshift tent. The fire is dying. It’s surprisingly chilly for a summer night.
I should’ve known better than to get involved with someone. But I really like you.
It catches me off guard, the directness of this question. But I’ve already planned what to say. I think it’d make the most sense to break up when we leave. I mean, we’ll be in different states.
Yeah, he agrees. I was thinking that too. I’m open to long-distance if you wanted to. But yeah, breaking up makes sense. We’ll just have to make the most out of this summer.
We carry on until the night before my parents drive me down to campus. It’s for the best.
Six months out of college. I drive to my parents’ house after work, on a mission.
I check the plastic tackle box where I keep my old jewelry. I open a plastic pencil case covered in Lisa Frank stickers, finger the broken number 2 pencils, slim packs of .5mm lead, a stale pink eraser. I open box after shoebox, through a mess of pen caps, loose buttons, neon shoelaces, floppy discs, USBs.
UMMA! I scream, as I’m told I often did as a child.
My mom’s at the door in seconds. What’s wrong?
Remember that bird charm I used to wear? On a necklace? I can’t find it. Did you throw it away? It’s really important and I can’t find it where is it I NEED IT NOW!
I kick the stupid boxes that I know don’t hold what I’m looking for. But maybe she can somehow work her Mom-magic to summon it. She rifles through some boxes to appease me, probably wondering why her 22-year-old daughter finally came for an unexpected visit only to throw a tantrum. It’s bound to be around here somewhere…
I don’t tell her why I suddenly need this charm, and she doesn’t ask.
I find my old journals in the closet, stacks of spiral notebooks—the kind always on back-to-school shopping lists. They’ve been sitting here in my childhood bedroom through all four years of college, the entirety of my twenties. I bring them to my apartment, set them on a shelf in my current bedroom closet next to a pair of strappy black heels I only ever wear to weddings.
They stay untouched for months.
Another couple rides in the backseat on our way to prom. A hand appears between the driver’s and passenger seat, presenting a marbled glass pipe. Wanna hit this?
I take the pipe, hold it up for Chris, who’s driving. He shakes his head and smiles when he catches my eye. No, I’m good. I want to remember this night.
Where did they come from? The man’s gaze pans over us like we’re vermin infesting the train. It’s 3 a.m., and we’re crammed like cattle in the middle section between two cars, where passengers can enter and exit. The last train home from the city, and every single seat is full. The conductor, standing guard as if to protect the other riders, scoffs as he names our suburban town. Oh, you know, future drug addicts, alcoholics.
They speak as if we’re not here, as if we don’t count. Shame surges up my spine, blooms on my face. I try to keep my feet planted in the magic of the evening, but their words make me unsteady. I feel stupid, herded into this in-between space. Too old for the body glitter, the temporary tattoos littering my skin.
To be completely honest, I’m really nervous playing for you.
We’ve stopped by his house to change out of our prom-wear and into our regular clothes for the afterparty. He’s perched on a stool in the garage, acoustic guitar in hand. A metal rack around his neck holds a harmonica in front of his lips. Fingernails graze the metal strings, thin strips of brass vibrate with each inhale and exhale. An impromptu private concert during the evening’s intermission.
Freshman year of college, my first weekend in the dorm. The girl from across the hall and I are playing a drinking game with a pair of boys in their room, two floors below. A modified version of Ring of Fire—like Russian Roulette, if you swap out the gun for an unopened can of Mountain Dew, replace the bullets with shots of vodka. We take turns wedging the corner of a playing card beneath the unopened soda tab, praying that our card isn’t the one to trigger its release. Hold your breath. Insert. Exhale. Hold your breath. Insert. Exhale. Hold your breath. Insert. Psssst. Fuck.
After the sixth, seventh, eighth shot, fluorescent orange spews out of one boy’s mouth, a slurry of Cheetos, Mountain Dew, vodka. He ducks his head in a trash bin and jabs his finger towards the door. The girl and I run out of their room, exchange glances like two outlaws escaping a crime scene. We race down the hallway, sandals clip-clopping against the glossy linoleum floor.
I throw open the door to the stairwell that will lead us to the safety of the girls’ floor and run into a boy wrapped in a bedsheet toga. Neon green bandanna across his forehead, startled grin on his face. This is the boy who will make me forget about Chris.
Over winter break, we catch up over dinner and a movie, a dating cliche we mostly avoided when we were actually dating.
Hey how’s college? Meet any cool people? I’ve really missed you.
Afterward, we return to his house. He has something for me. He grabs a folded piece of cloth and unfurls it, revealing a paisley-patterned peasant skirt he found in his student housing ‘free’ box. I’ve been holding onto this for months. It reminded me of you.
A Christmas tree emits a warm glow from the corner of the living room. His dad and brother are there, wearing excited grins. They want to show me something. I peer through a pair of cardboard 3D glasses. Each light on the tree magically turns into a tiny snowman.
Have you seen Chris’s Facebook?
Chris… from prom? I log onto Facebook during my lunch break at work.
RIP Chris. God. Damnit. You were one of the good ones.
There is no words. Im gonna miss u brother. rest in peace.
Dozens of messages, going back almost six weeks. Details for a memorial that has already passed. I send a message to someone I don’t know. Someone who entered his life after that summer, just over four years ago now. I learn that after a night of partying, Chris fell asleep on a friend’s couch and never woke up.
I think of all the times I’ve let myself sink deep into a friend’s couch, into unconsciousness, trusting my body to wake up in the morning.
I click out of Facebook. My lunch break is over.
I get back to work. Check my emails, double-click on desktop icons, make some phone calls, schedule meetings. I’m twenty-two, fresh out of college. This is what adults do. My thoughts hover in the space between all those posts I just read, careful not to touch. Eventually, I land on this: Whatever happened to the bird charm?
I head to my parents’ house after work, back to my old bedroom.
We head to Denny’s the morning after prom, my hair a tangled nest, stiff from the liquid cement. We each order a coffee and a Signature Slam. I’m not big on sweet breakfast. Yeah, me either. I can’t believe they banned indoor smoking. I could really use a cigarette.
When I get home, I grab my notebook, write down every detail I can remember from the previous night. I transcribe memorable bits of dialogue like I’m writing a movie script.
Chris: You’re so cute.
Me: I know. But you’re cuter.
Chris: I’m not cute, I’m burly and gnarly and pretty legitly the beefmaster 3000 yo!
Nine months into the pandemic. I peer into my bedroom closet for the hundredth time, hoping to find something to organize. It’s too cold to hang outdoors, and I’m desperate for an activity that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.
I spot the spiral notebooks, next to the heels I’m not sure I’ll ever wear again. My handwriting then was much the same as it is now—the rushed scrawls of someone trying to lay down their thoughts before the onset of a wrist cramp.
May 23, 2000. Dear Journal, Hi! This is the first time writing in you. School’s almost out!!
May 7, 2001. BAD NEWS. 5th-grade graduation… ON MY GOLDEN BIRTHDAY!
December 3, 2003. Was called “semi-ugly” today.
March 15, 2005. Just had 4 shots of vodka. God dammit that shit tastes fuckin gross.
October 21, 2007. Wow. Van Halen concert. Wow.
May 8, 2008. So I’m going to prom with Chris.
There’s a long-stemmed rose and a handwritten note tucked under my windshield wiper.
Prom? Chris 🙂
The cute boy with chin-length curls I sometimes meet at the burger place near our school to get weed. I’ve never been asked to a dance, never been interested in attending. But this is senior prom, a big deal.
Chris wants to know if he has a chance with you, a mutual friend texts.
Yea, he seems cool.
Great. I won’t have to break his little heart. Prom will be cute. He was really nervous about asking you.
Bird charm from Chris? Keep.
In an alternate timeline, I save the charm. I stumble across the Facebook posts during my lunch break. Each time I hit refresh, they multiply. I tag him in a picture from prom, so people know. RIP miss you Chris. I pen the details for the upcoming memorial in my planner.
I return to my old bedroom, locate the charm in the plastic tackle box where I store retired jewelry. I bury it in my fist, feel the tips of its wings dig into my palm.
At his memorial, I wear it on a sterling silver chain instead of knotted hemp. I approach his family, brandish the charm like a VIP pass. Of course I kept it.
I see familiar faces, greet them with nods or hugs. I’m the type to keep in touch with old friends, eager to reminisce. Wasn’t expecting a highschool reunion so soon, someone says. We swap stories, seamlessly weave together the past through laughter and tears. Hey, remember our bonfire jams? Yo that Flaming Lips show was fire. Show off our NA recovery chips. I’ll have six months in February. One year for me.
In this version, he’s won the race to the end, the only one to cross the finish line. Awarded the most tears shed, crowned as my muse. I cherish my participation medal. Wear it around my neck in remembrance, on a silver chain.
My eighteenth birthday. The night retains just enough of the afternoon heat to make the air feel like a warm bath. Plush grass cushions my back, prickles my shoulders.
I grip the flimsy plastic handle of a neon green butterfly net, wave my arm into the night sky. The stars are dancing fireflies, elusive, impossible to catch. They tease, blink on and off, beckon us to pursue. The brightest one leads us to the edge of a cliff. I peer down into nothingness, one foot firmly planted in the dirt, the other flirting with the edge. Solid ground or reality in its purest form?
I summon my wings, jump into the stars.
When the spell wears off, we turn into ghosts.
I never recover the bird charm.
I miss his memorial service. I never reach out to his family. I briefly consider sending his mom and dad the awkward prom photos taken in our backyard, but I’m not sure how they’d be received. Our time together so brief, too insignificant to warrant a reemergence in the lives of those closest to him. Just one summer out of his twenty-three. I barely talk about him at all, with anyone.
As if he were never here. As if he doesn’t count.
Just one boy out of many. One summer out of thirty and counting. The charm a piece of metal, mass-produced and cast into the shape of a tiny bird.
Chris isn’t the one that got away, the great love of my life, or even my first—it doesn’t take a decade of hindsight to see that. But that summer, I believe he could be. And so I write down everything I want to remember, on those wide-ruled pages with the pale blue lines. Each entry becomes a way back in.
We’re trapped in the space in-between, traveling with more bags than we can carry. Riding the track towards the only future we can imagine. I stand at the edge of a cliff, look out into the starless night. Feet planted, no longer enchanted. From here, I can almost feel the warmth of that summer radiating through the shadow of what will come to pass. Almost, but never quite.
I want to dip early from prom to attend a friend’s afterparty, where booze will be plentiful. But he insists on staying for at least one slow dance.
I step gently into this moment, a ghost from the future, and approach my younger self. I plead with her to wait out the Top 40 dance hits, that the party and booze can wait another half hour. She doesn’t hear me.
After a song or two, the boy, perhaps sensing her restlessness, agrees to leave. He takes her hand. They disappear without saying goodbye.
Dhaea Kang is from Chicago, IL. Her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, So to Speak Journal, Passengers Journal, and The Grief Diaries.
Cover Design by Karen Rile