On the last night ever, the five of us girls stand naked on the beach and look at each other’s bodies by the moonlight. The next day starts and never ends.
Here we are: Mara, whose parents own the house (mansion); Chloe, my best friend, Dana, on whom I have a crush (that I don’t know is a crush); Toni, Dana’s best friend; and me. I am a writer.
We are out on Mara’s family’s beach, which is flung far out on a peninsula. It’s August of the summer before college. The longest month of our life so far. Back in her house with long, freezing hallways, nine bedrooms with attached bathrooms, and her genial, absent father, Mara had mixed us a pitcher of gin, Sprite, and cranberry juice. The rest of us peered inside the walk-in liquor cabinet to watch her. We had never seen so many bottles. My parents keep red wine and a bottle of scotch in the cupboard. They would notice if I took any.
We carry firewood, weed of unknown origin, clove cigarettes, piles of blankets, and the pitcher out to the faraway beach, the one that’s just around a jutting bluff of granite. The waves sigh in the dark.
Years from now, once the whole world has adjusted to the never-ending days, Chloe, Mara, and I will come back to this beach right before Mara sells the house. The shoreline will look slightly different from the rocks shifting over the years and the field creeping onto the beach like growing baby hair. We will all remember this last night for different reasons. Now that we are constantly bathed in light, or perhaps simply because we are older, we struggle to tell each other about it.
Giggling and jostling, we settle ourselves on a flat rock face to build the fire. On her way up the rock, Chloe knocks into Mara, who spills some of the gin and juice on the rough granite.
“Alcohol abuse!” yells Mara. She’s the comedienne. We don’t think the joke is that distasteful yet, at least I don’t, because nothing really rough has happened to me yet. My mother, if she heard it, would frown that sad frown she has, and explain to me what it was like to watch her father get drunk in the afternoons.
While Mara and Toni build a fire, Dana and I huddle together under a blanket. Chloe passes around the pitcher and we swig from it.
Later in the night, after we warm our bellies with sweet and bitter liquid, we will strip off our cumbersome clothes and embrace the cool summer night. We will run to the beach and slide our fingers through the black water. We will feel our feet make transient impressions in the sand. We will look up at the swath of stars so thick across the sky it reminds us of the glittery, silver nail polish we coveted as younger girls. Like someone just smeared it across the dome of the sky. We will be giddy in our nakedness. The darkness will protect us from the shame we have been taught.
As the fire flares up, Dana and I pack a bowl with dry, crumbly weed. Our heads are close together and I can hear her breathing in my ear. She is holding the soot-smeared pipe and I am breaking apart the dry buds with my fingers and placing them delicately in the little chamber. The sides of our bodies are pasted close together.
“You’re packing it too tight,” she says.
“Am I?” I’ve never done this before. I try to fluff the weed, but it’s sticking to the tarry bowl.
Dana brings the bowl to her lips and inhales with the flick of a lighter. Wrapped in the blanket, she looks momentarily hunched and skittish, but when she pulls the bowl away, she raises her chest and her hair blows wildly. She lets the smoke out in a tight gust like a tea kettle. We all watch her in awe. She has spent the summer hanging out with her older cousin, who has taught her how to smoke. She smiles her huge smile and passes me the bowl. Her long fingers are cold when they touch mine, except for the pads of her thumbs.
I try and fail to imitate her a few times. Eventually, she has to hold the lighter for me. She lets the flame catch and whispers now! I take a deep, resonant breath. The smoke makes a sharp pain in my chest and I cough it out in fits and bursts. I cannot seem to stop coughing. The others laugh, but Dana puts one hand on my back and rubs my chest with the other.
“You’re ok,” she says. “That was an awesome hit.”
Chloe passes me the pitcher and I let the cool liquid run down my throat and into my chest. The taste reminds me of the smell of those little fake trees that people dangle from their rearview mirrors to make the car smell like pine. Dana takes two fingers and wiggles them into the top of my shirt until she’s touching the center of my breastbone. She massages in slow circles.
Chloe, Mara, and Toni take turns too—and, like Dana says, they cough as well.
“Someday we will be good at this,” says Chloe.
“I plan on majoring in it in college,” says Mara.
“You know what I want right now?” says Toni. She drags her skin down her face with her fingers. “S’mores.”
“Toni, you are a genius.”
“Mara, you have s’more stuff, don’t you?”
“Of course,” says Mara. “We have everything. It’s in the second pantry—the one in the vestibule.”
“What the fuck is a vestibule?” says Chloe.
“Mara’s house has all these fancy-pants rooms,” says Toni. “No normal house has a conservatory or more than one guest room.”
“Well plenty of houses have vestibules,” says Mara.
“Let’s go get them,” says Dana. She stands, letting the blanket flutter down to the rock, and pulls me up. “If we can locate the second pantry.”
We leave the others giggling on the rock. We stumble back toward the house, using our phone faces as flashlights. As we walk, I look up at the smeary stars. I’ve never been high before, and I don’t think I am now. I am just walking as if I’m swimming, and I’m thinking how alive and bright the night is. How we will need sticks for holding marshmallows, how we need to make them pointy by whittling them, how everyone really should carry a pocketknife.
“I have something to tell you.” Dana has waited until we are alone. Every time I notice something like that, I tuck it away in my chest where it glows. We have found the vestibule (which turns out only to be the area where the outside things are kept—the shoes and coats and firewood—my family calls it a mud room.) We are walking back with our arms loaded. “Jasper asked me to be his girlfriend.” Her voice sounds rich and warm.
“Did you say yes?”
“Of course, duh. I’ve never had a boyfriend before.”
“I didn’t realize you liked him. He’s so tall.”
“And so wiry. And cool—cooler than me.”
“When did this happen?”
“He drove me home after rehearsal last week, and we stopped at the reversing falls and had ice cream. Then we made out in the back seat of his car. Well, his mom’s car, technically. It’s a Subaru so you can lay the seats down in the back.”
I hear the energy in her voice, like she’s raising her eyebrows. I know she’s not telling me all of it—she’s saving some of it for her and Jasper. Perhaps she thinks I’ll make a joke. As we near the rock where our party is shining orange in the night from the fire, I notice a shift. Perhaps I am a bit high. I’m behind her—I have no interest in sex yet, although I am enamored with romance. I think penises are strange and unsettling. We stay in stride, but I know that things have changed. I miss how I felt on the way to the house, but the moment is gone forever.
Later, when we are naked on the beach, I will look at Dana and I will think how elegant her body is. The fuzzy blackness will blur her usually sharp outline. I will worry about my own body—my belly which has been gaining fat, my breasts which already feel saggy—isn’t that supposed to happen when you are old? I will think about the word supple. How it is always applied to young women’s bodies, but it doesn’t seem to fit mine. I do not feel perky or ripe or supple or tender. Most of the time I feel crammed tight like I’m sitting in a too-small desk-chair. I am always banging my hips into sharp corners. Naked in the dark, I will not feel embarrassed. It is even better than night-swimming. In the last dark hours before the constant light, I will see and be seen.
As we near the fire, we hear the others singing. They are singing a song we all learned in hippie kindergarten. Their voices are clear and bright. As I get older, I will lose the ability to sing like that, so high and resonant.
Oh, the earth’s been good to me, and so I thank the earth
For giving me, the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple tree
We join in when we get up the rock. The earth’s been good to me. Toni has been crying, I can tell by her mascara, but she is smiling now. Chloe is grasping her hand and Mara is standing and gyrating her hips to the song. Dana flops beside Toni and hugs her, smoothing her hair under her palm. I don’t ask. I don’t actually know Toni that well, even though she is a vital member of our group. I know that she was a dating a boy, and that he dumped her after his freshman year of college, and that her parents have divorced, but the rest I can only guess at. I am a teenager so I am not good yet at seeing beyond my own perspective (except in books), so when I categorize bad things I only come up with stuff I know: depression (exaggerated, perhaps), and heartbreak, and body shame, and not getting cast in the musical again, and being kissed when I didn’t want to be, and those teachers (men) who give me the creeps at school.
One night, years from now, in the Bayside Bar where the nighttime is created by heavy curtains, Chloe will tell me that Toni has disappeared. (In the fancy bars in the city where I live the windows themselves are tinted and grow black with the “night,” which is now a relic, like a dial-tone or a floppy disc.) When I ask her what she means she says that Toni has de-activated her social media, told her parents to respect her boundaries, and slipped away into the chaos. (Sometimes we still say slipped away into the night, but then we catch ourselves, and say something else.) I worry about Toni for years. Occasionally I’ll Google her, and Mara and Chloe and I will sometimes text each other to ask if we know anything. Then, I see in the news one day, a picture with Toni’s round, smiling face in a human-interest story about a group of women who live in Arizona and worship the constant starlight.
It is not constant sun, the scientists are clear to say, for the earth remains in orbit. We are, for reasons yet unknown, receiving the light of all of the stars. The theories abound but none are proven. My favorite is that the universe is collapsing on itself, and the light we are receiving is ancient starlight, reaching us now because of the decreasing distance. The first few years without nights will be horrifying and strange. Crime will go up, and so will religious extremism, but as the strange becomes normal, we settle into a begrudging, skittish stasis. Humans are extremely adaptable. When I read about Toni my chest feels clear, like it does on the first sunny day after weeks of rain, and I text all of them—I even message Dana—to let them know not to worry.
When the gin and s’mores are gone, we move carefully to the beach. The moon is bright and the edge of the sky where it meets the sea is blurry and not quite black. We stand in the water and let the Atlantic wash our toes. It is no one’s idea exactly, to strip. It happens organically. Chloe splashes Mara, who splashes me, who tries to splash Dana, who takes off down the beach in a shrieking sprint. Her body becomes a formless mass like the scattered rocks looming in the darkness, but we can hear her laughing.
“Don’t even think about splashing me!” Toni picks up a strange, dark mass from the water. “I’ve always loved this seaweed that looks like hair.”
“Let me see,” says Chloe. Toni places the brown, scraggly seaweed on top of Chloe’s head. Chloe blinks water out of her eyes and laughs with her mouth open.
“Look.” Mara points to another dark clump in the water. Up close you can see that, when it floats in the water, it does look like long, dark, fine hair.
“Like the hair of a murdered maiden,” I say.
“Maiden?” Chloe snorts.
“It reminds me of this song my dad used to sing called The Wind And The Rain.”
“I know that song,” says Mara. “The older sister pushes her younger sister into the river when she steals her boyfriend, and her body floats down the river. Of course, her hair is yellow—how typical.”
“It’s a murder ballad,” I say. “It’s a whole genre. It’s usually women who get murdered, for whatever reason.”
“Sexism, probably.” We are all budding feminists, but it will take another few years for us to feel the full impact—to feel the way our bodies absorb the anxiety of constantly looking over our shoulders.
Chloe wooshes her hands through the water and throws a pile of cold water at me. The dousing perks up the ends of my skin and breaks the haze of the night.
Out of the water, the four of us take off layers of our wet clothes. We lay out our wet pants and t-shirts on a rock and whirl around in circles in just our bras and underwear with our arms flung out. This is what I’m talking about. Years later, I will say to Chloe, I’m trying to write a story about girlhood friendships that feel like romances. But that’s not even what I mean. It’s something else entirely. Its own category. Friendships that feel like pacts, like your whole life. We are not very old—this is the most moment of our lives so far. I am buoyed up with happiness. I am obsessed with every star, and with each of my friends.
Dana reappears by leaping off a nearby outcrop of granite and growling at us like a wild thing. We shriek and fall backward, laughing and tripping. She’s completely naked.
“Join me!” she hollers. “I should have become a nudist years ago!”
We do. We strip properly and take off after her down the beach. We tear up the sand. We grab our breasts to hold them still while we run. We clamber up the rocks and run through the field, which is rougher and more full of twigs and bristly plants than it looks.
We end up back on the beach. Standing in a circle, we throw our heads up and breathe at the stars, and then we look at each other. Our fire has burnt down. Our eyes have adjusted to the night; we can see like animals. We gaze at each other with warmth. We show off. I have never liked my body as much as when it is naked in the bright darkness, being seen. I have no stomachache, no pains anywhere. Nothing feels tight. What a gift the nights were. We don’t know that in the constant starlight, we will crave darkness. This is the last time I will ever feel like this, except for a few times with my wife. We don’t say much. We just stay in the circle until the moment is over.
Ten years from now, Chloe will marry a man she met on a dating app. She will have three daughters who won’t know what nighttime is. Stars dancing on the black sky, shimmering white on dark ocean water, will be history to them. They will know nothing of contrast. Mara will be living in New York, working for a magazine: the fantasy version of my life that I no longer wish for. I am still a writer. I write the nights—what I can remember. My stories are published alongside a plethora of other nostalgia-based fiction. We all miss something different. Most of all, I miss how every new night held possibility. Some new way of seeing ourselves.
At Chloe’s wedding, I run into Dana again for the first time since that summer. When she sees me, she smiles that smile that you make when you pretend you’ve only just noticed someone. I wonder what my face looks like to her. We volley pleasantries—I meet her husband; she meets my wife. I think of telling her how I felt when she abandoned me, but I don’t. I remember what my wife has told me many times, that not everything needs to be said. Instead, I amuse my friends. I ask them to name the things that don’t have the same impact, now that the nights are gone. We come up with the usual list: sex, bonfires, sunsets, night-clubs, Christmas trees. The things we are glad to live without: walking home late in the dark, alleys, driving at night.
Later, after the dancing and the drinks, when Mara and I are walking through the sunny cemetery to escape the noise on the beach where the wedding is dissolving into a true party, Mara tells me that Dana told her, years ago, that she felt abandoned by me. That I—in my teenage foolishness—made her feel awkward and ostracized when she started dating Jasper. That the new light was strange and scary for her too, and that she wished we could have stayed up drinking white wine with ice cubes in it till morning like we used to, even after the darkness was gone. I feel a weird wallop of pain—regret, I think—and then I pull out my notebook and make a note about how everyone has their own narrative truth. I intend to use it in a story.
On the way back to the house on that last night of darkness, after the fire has been stomped out and the clothes and blankets gathered up, the sky is getting that very subtle flavor of dull light. It’s past three. Dana and I walk a few paces behind the others, who are stumbling in front of us like toddlers, weighted down by sleepiness. Dana holds my hand, very suddenly. I stop and turn to face her. She throws her arms around me and we hug, pressing our faces together.
“I’m going to miss you!” she whispers dramatically.
“Me too,” I say. I pull away and—in a fit of mad instinct—kiss her cold cheek. I’ve done it before. It’s a normal gesture for our group, but this kiss lands hot. She kisses my cheek and then I kiss her mouth. I don’t think to do it—it just happens. (That’s not true. I do think, just only for a blink of a moment. Too fast to decide no.) We kiss, and my body rears up, and I think oh shit. It’s over a second later. I wish I could remember everything about the feel of it, but it’s lost, like a lot of my memories from before I was twenty-five. We smile at each other in the darkness. We grip sweaty hands tightly together as we run to catch up with the others.
In the morning, late morning, I pack up the car to drive Toni, Chloe, and me back to town. Dana says she has a ride coming. It’s Jasper in his mom’s Subaru, and when she sees him, she squeals and pulls her hands inside her sweatshirt sleeves. He stands wide-legged when he hugs her, wrapping long arms around her, bending his head down toward his chest where her head lands, to kiss her tangled hair. The day never ends, of course. I am a grumpy, miserable mess for the rest of the summer. I leave for college without forgiving her. Jasper waves at us, and Dana settles herself into the front seat. She blows us (ironic?) kisses as they pull away down the long driveway. Just like that, the night is gone.
Eleanor Howell is a writer and former baker living in the Pacific Northwest. She recently earned an MFA at Western Washington University, and is the Nonfiction Editor for Sweet Tree Review. Her work has been published in The Southeast Review, semicolon literary magazine, The Normal School, and Bodega Magazine.