Lori Yeghiayan Friedman
I should have lied and told her, “No, I didn’t take anything.” How was I supposed to know the rules had changed? At every store on the Venice boardwalk, we each had taken something in a game of Who Could Get the Best Thing, the Biggest Thing, the Most Hidden Thing. I had snagged a neon green top-and-shorts set by stuffing it in my backpack in the dressing room while she chatted up the old guy, the store owner, who was telling her about his wife who was in the hospital, his daughter that she reminded him of, blah, blah, blah, in what I thought was a diversionary tactic.
My cousin, with her heart-shaped face, her treacly-voice, could charm any adult. I should have known it was the real deal given her need to be the star, the center of attention, always needing, needing, needing. Why couldn’t she be more like me, shrinking myself into non-existence, folding myself in half, then in half and in half again until I was just a folded-up unfeeling thing, like when I stayed with her last summer and she snatched my favorite pair of ripped-at-the-knee jeans from my suitcase, holding them up against her petite frame and said: “These are huge! You fit into these?” and, I didn’t feel it at all. I felt nothing at all.
Instead, after we left the store, I cried: “What did you get?” and she said, “You actually took something?” I said: “Yes!” retrieving the neon green beaut from my backpack. Her face went slack. “I couldn’t do that to that sweet old man,” she said, brown eyes like a puppy dog’s.
I held the set away from me like a dead fish and looked toward the water. The sun had cast a jagged line of light that split the Pacific in two like the “Best Friends” heart charms we wore. I looked around at the smiling tourists, shirtless men on roller blades, teens weaving bracelets—and deflated like a helium balloon after the party. Her long-planned visit, once buoyant, was sinking.
I dropped the outfit into a trash bin like an empty Slurpee cup, all the sweetness sucked out. The straight leg cut of the shorts would have stretched across my hips emphasizing the wrongness of my body, anyway.
Further down the boardwalk, as we listlessly modeled purses in a full-length mirror, she asked how my mother was doing because it seemed like she’d “really let herself go.” That’s what her mother had said, anyway. “Well, at least she’s not an angry shrew like your mom,” I said.
“That really hurt my feelings,” she said, making whimpering sounds that made me want to kick her. I was so sick of watching her bleed out in a constant explosion of feeling, like her father, a big man whose every aspect took up space, his large body, booming voice, mass of curly dark hair. Their whole house smelled of his pipe smoke but no room more than his office, that dark-wood-womb that contained his framed William Saroyan poster and his secrets. It was in that office that she told me, last summer, that he’d been suspended from the high school where he taught because of an accusation by a student. It was such a hard time for him that some nights he would come to confide in her, ask her for the comfort he needed that only she could give.
Is that what fathers do? I had wondered. Mine rarely spoke to me unless it was to snap at me for not holding my plate close enough while he doled out spaghetti, his eyes glued to the stock-ticker on the TV screen, its endless undulation a hypnotic.
At the Greyhound station the next day we hugged and I thought about how, dressed in our velvet finery, we used to spy on the adults during Christmas parties at my medzmama’s house; how we used to write long letters to each other in our matching curly script; how we would sit on her white wicker dressing table repeating dirty words in Armenian―vardigs (underwear) and eshegg (jackass)―until we fell onto the floor laughing, hot liquid trickling out the corners of our eyes.
My cousin took her half of the broken heart charm home and, no doubt, created a shrine to lost friendship, bleeding out all over the place, while I buried mine in my bedroom closet and bled out the right way: internally, where the only person who would drown was me.
Lori Yeghiayan Friedman’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, XRAY Literary Magazine, Hippocampus, Emerge Journal, JMWW, Autofocus Lit, The Citron Review, Hobart, Los Angeles Times, and Bending Genres. Her creative nonfiction piece “How to Survive a Genocide” appeared in Exposition Review’s 2020 Act/Break issue and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA in Theatre from UC San Diego.