Gigi Bridge was flipping through the new Poets & Writers, when she saw the ad for the writers’ conference. What caught her eye was not the name brand faculty, multi-genre workshops, or tuition stipend, but the promise, smack dab in the center, of “lifelong friends.” That’s for me, she thought, tearing out the page.
She was friendly with members of her stay-at-home writers collective, but they claimed, when she called to say hello, that they were busy writing. She was on good terms with her neighbors, but the common refrain was: “Oh wow, I’d love to chat, but I’m busy with my girlfriend, boyfriend, parents, kids, dog, cat sitting, book group, painting group, sitting around and moping group, meditation group, and muddled-at-midlife group, and all of the above.”
She bumped into women she knew at the food co-op. They chatted, catching up, and for a thrilling space of time, up to fifty-five seconds (she had once timed it), she felt she had a friend. But there was always a point when the other woman would place her hands on the metal cart, perhaps to center herself, and say, “Gotta go.” Gigi cringed when that came. It felt like the other woman was laying out neon yellow tape that said, Friend Line. Do Not Cross.
But oh, those seconds that came before, uplifting her, filling her with cheer, making her believe for one moment, this woman could be the friend of a lifetime.
That feeling of hope had inspired her a couple of years earlier to bring her résumé to the Friendship Agency downtown. She had made sure to highlight past friend-making experiences since college, where, as she noted, she had clearly been the Pied Piper of Friends. She wanted one-on-one friendships with women, she told the director, but he explained there was a recession and such friendships were at an all time low; he set her up with a small group. The women seemed nice enough, but when one glanced at her, then leaned close to the other, smiling, Gigi knew they were sending ESP thoughts: Let’s get rid of her; she’s bad news.
She did have one close friend, SoSo. They had met in college, over twenty years ago. When Gigi called now, SoSo would say, “Hey you,” in that warm way she had. And hearing her, Gigi felt immediately better. At the end of the call, SoSo said, “More soon.” “Soon,” Gigi chimed in. More soon was her favorite time. It meant they were close. SoSo understood her.
Her heart tracked SoSo’s comings and goings. Gigi knew what time it was, what season, what day of the year she had last called her: exactly three weeks ago, at eleven o’clock in the morning, on a Tuesday in April. The month before that, Gigi had called on a Friday. The year before, Gigi had visited unannounced, duffel bag in tow. SoSo had once told her, “If you’re ever in the area, you should drop by,” so Gigi had ridden the bus three hours from San Francisco to SoSo’s cottage overlooking the Pacific. SoSo had seemed taken aback by Gigi’s arrival, but maybe that was because she had just woken from a nap. Gigi made her way around old photos, sketchbooks, used napkins, and markers strewn about the floor, and planted herself in the rocking chair, ready for a nice, long catch up session.
She longed for SoSo the way she had yearned for Bena, her high school best friend who left Gigi for another friend their senior year. Bena with her hair flying every which way; who smelled like a cedar grove because she squirted cedar oil on her clothes to keep the moths away; her eyes merry with laughter before she did something wild, like when they rode their bikes to the beach at 3 a.m., jumping the waves and reaching their hands to touch the stars. When Bena left her for Sandra, her chest ached, as if stabbed by glass shards. She didn’t think she’d survive, much less make another best friend. But then in college she met SoSo. They had lingered after meals, talking on their way to and from class about their families, crushes, and the great unknown—Life After College.
Gazing at the ad in Poets and Writers, Gigi wiggled her butt, wincing as the hard wooden chair came in contact with butt blisters. She had been sitting by her phone table practically nonstop, ever since her last call with SoSo. Gigi didn’t have a cell phone. She was trying to pay tribute to the 80s, when she had lots of friends who called on their landlines. Her dry hair prickled against her hand as she twisted it into five short pigtails. “Lifelong friends” sounded like the perfect response to her number one wish.
She picked up the phone receiver, cradling it to her chest, and then dialed. Right as she reached the last number, she almost fell off her chair, but recovered her balance just in time to hear a woman answer.
“Literary Literati, Lotte speaking.” Her voice rose and rose, like each word was on a swing.
“I saw your ad in Poets & Writers. I’d like to sign up.”
“Great! You’re the first.”
Gigi shrieked. She had never been the first at anything.
“Do you have any questions? Don’t forget to bring your manuscript for the Literary Literati Lottery. What do you write?”
“I’m doing business under a fictitious name.”
“Wonderful! I wish I could meet you.”
“Same here.” Gigi smiled. Maybe she and Lotte would become friends. She’d tell her collective, it all started when I called about the writing retreat.
“I’m sure you’ll fit right in,” Lotte said.
Humming, Gigi thanked her and hung up. She’d fit right in. Not like in high school, when she stuck out in her hand-me-down skirt and bargain basement Irish tweed blazer with the cuffs that scratched her elbows. She gave herself a shake, like a dog ridding itself of excess water. Of course, it wouldn’t be like high school. She was a grown woman now.
A few weeks later, after flying east, taking the train north, hopping into a cab that wound its way up and down lush green hills, and then padding through the pine needles into woods smelling of sweet sassafras, she arrived at the retreat. Sweat covered her like a thick wool coat. She ducked her head as a mosquito loop-di-looped, swooping close to her eyes, its buzz piercing the still air. She set her bags by a tree stump and took in the sights–the wooden cabins in a semi-circle, the pond just beyond, and next to the dining hall, two large rusty cans marked Literary Literati Litter. The cabins seemed like models in a museum where she was the only toy figure.
What if when Lotte said, ‘you’re the first,’ what she meant was you’re the only one? Gigi eyed herself in her compact mirror, as she applied more lip balm. Running her tongue over the stale spearmint flavor, she decided her pigtails looked more like her teenaged self, so she released them from the manuscript binder clips, raking her hair with her hand until it resembled a dirt brown hill with fiddlehead ferns at the back. Her left eyebrow was a pointy triangle top and her right eyebrow a thin, flat line. She clicked her mirror shut with a satisfying snap.
Then in the distance, she saw a speck. She peered though her black metal binoculars. Wild turkeys! They waddled through the evergreens. She blinked, the binoculars sticky with sweat against her eyes. The turkeys tramped forward, transforming, as they grew closer, into women carrying backpacks.
“Hi,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m Gigi.”
“Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi.” Women’s palms smacked hers over and over.
As women paraded by, Gigi said hello to each one. She felt like she was in her Bat Mitzvah receiving line, but instead of getting congratulations and presents galore, she got something better—the promise of friendship with a woman whose toes and fingers showed sparkly hearts and who leaned forward for an air hug; another who invited her on a date; a third who winked from inside a puffy down jacket the color of ivy; someone with an ISBN tattooed on her neck and colorful books pictured on her shirt; another with short, spiky purple hair; and a woman whose headphones resembled neon yellow earmuffs. So many women that Gigi’s voice was growing hoarse with her hellos. So many she lost count. They blurred in front of her. They could all be her friends. She staggered backward.
“Let’s go to Oxygen,” the purple-haired woman shouted.
“Oxygen?” Gigi asked.
“The cafeteria, but also where we hang out. We can be ourselves. It’s where we relax, in between workshop sessions.”
“Can I come?”
And that, Gigi imagined telling her writing group, is how we became friends. No wonder it was called Oxygen. Making friends was as easy as breathing.
Inside the cafeteria, women grabbed cake slices and salads, filling cups with soda and orange juice. Gigi placed a red delicious apple and a salad with basil and fresh mozzarella on her tray. She couldn’t think of the salad’s name. It didn’t matter, though. More important–she was here with a group of women pulling out a chair for her at their table. She gave them her best smile, the one that did a jumping jack all the way to her eyes.
“Gigi Bridge,” she said to the woman next to her.
“Ivy.” She peeked up from her phone. Her small eyes and braces made her look fourteen, instead of forty.
“Ella Sammon,” said the sparkly-hearted woman. Her nose was a shiny pink, hooked beak. She fluffed her hair a couple of times, a bird preening.
“Do you know Purple?” She indicated the purple-haired woman.
“We’ve met,” Gigi and Purple said in unison. The fact that they said it at the same time meant something. Not only would they become lifelong friends, they’d call every week and say, remember when we were at the retreat? Then reminisce about everyone and plan to get together.
“Hi,” a woman said in a loud whisper. When she waved from across the table, her crepe paper-like skin rippled in her cheeks and neck. “Zahidi, like the date.”
That was what Zahidi had explained outside. ‘Zahidi, like the date,’ not inviting her on one.
“What’s that?” Ella focused her eyes on the basil.
“It’s this salad I had in Italy, the time I won a writer’s fellowship.”
“What kind of salad?”
“I actually can’t remember.” Gigi laughed, tapping the side of her head. “You know how it is when words disappear into a hole in your brain?”
Two sloped lines, like those forming a tent, furrowed in Ella’s forehead, like she had to strain to understand.
“It’s just a salad,” Purple said.
“Exactly,” Gigi said. “No big deal.”
“I think it’s weird,” Purple said, “that you won a fellowship, but can’t remember what you ate.”
Ivy and Ella nodded. Zahidi rolled her eyes. A smile played at the corner of her mouth.
Gigi took a bite of mozzarella and scowled. It was a little like eating wet paint. She coughed. “It wasn’t a food fellowship. I was there to write.”
“Still,” Ella said, her lips smack-smacking over a chocolate cake morsel. “You should have remembered. Otherwise, why go to Italy? I, on the other hand, have full recall of every single meal, when I ate it, where, each and every single flavor.”
“Are you documenting it for your book?” Ivy asked.
“The one that got optioned for a movie before I even sold it—yes.”
“Are you going to have the screening party at LitLat?” Zahidi asked.
“Probably after. I was thinking we could have a mini-retreat mid-year at my place and combine it with the screening. I’ll email everyone with the details. By then we’ll know who won the Literary Literati Lottery.”
“Oh, you’re going to win for sure,” Ivy said. In the sunlight her coat’s green looked more like poison ivy.
“What is your idea?” Gigi said.
“An encyclopedia of every meal I have eaten, described in chronological order, complete with recipes.” Ella smiled and nodded, like her head was a giant exclamation point.
“And you’re having a party?”
“To celebrate winning the Lottery, getting the agent, the movie, and the book deal.” She clutched her hands together and shook her arms like she was showing off a trophy. “I don’t think my life can get any better.”
“But you haven’t won the Lottery yet, right? This is just hypothetical?”
“Excuse me?” Purple’s screech sent a chill through Gigi. “Not just. Ella’s the best writer here.” Her spoon rang against her glass. “Your attention, please. Check out those books on the table next to us. All written by Literary Literati Luminaries. I’m willing to bet that Ella’s name will be among them soon. Can I have your autograph, madam?”
“Thanks, Purple.” Ella tore a sheet from her notebook, scribbling her name. She turned her head to Gigi. “You’re new, so you don’t know how things work, but the Lottery always goes to a returning student. It’s an incentive to keep us coming back.”
“I guess I’m a little confused,” Gigi said. “Because when I talked with Lotte, she encouraged me to bring a manuscript for the Lottery.”
Ella pursed her lips, her beak wiggling. “That Lotte, she’ll do anything to make a fast buck.”
Gigi’s front teeth scraped at the red apple peel, chopping through the skin and hacking slices, each bite a harsh-sounding growl. She had wanted Lotte to care. She gripped her half-eaten apple between her thumb and forefinger, feeling like chunks had been taken from her heart. The conversation bruised her, like the time with Bena in the cafeteria. Bena had said something about a boy, and Gigi said, “You like a boy?” and Bena said, “God, you are so dumb.” Then Bena nudged her new friend Sandra, and she and Sandra laughed so hard, little bits of food flew out of their mouths. “You just don’t get it, Gigi, do you?” Bena snorted, like a honking goose.
Gigi’s chair now screaked across the floor, as she pushed it away from the Literary Literati table, got up and went outside. She took a breath, the way her mindful-meditating neighbor had taught her, deep and full, her throat clogging with the skunk cabbage odor. Her apple sank to the bottom of the Literary Literati Litter, clonking inside the hollow can.
She turned back, retracing her steps to Oxygen. She had just enough change to call SoSo. SoSo would know what to do. She would soothe Gigi and say comforting things. Her coins clinked into the pay phone like they were entering a slot machine and she was headed for a great prize.
“Hallee, Halloo,” SoSo said in her usual enthusiastic way.
“It’s me, Gigi.”
Gigi beamed. She had a friend and her friend was happy to hear from her. SoSo’s warmth spread through her.
“I’m at this writers’ retreat and…”
“Can you hold on a moment? That’s my call waiting.”
Gigi’s throat tightened. No, I can’t hold on, she thought. “Sure,” she said, her voice low. A lone tear trickled down her cheek. She studied her watch. She liked it because instead of numbers, it showed commas. Though, as the second hand ticked, acting like it was on vacation and had all the time in the world, they seemed more like a gathering of frowns. She leaned against the phone booth, the metal surface stinking of spit, and her reflection stared back, splotchy and teary-eyed.
“Gigi, that was Amy. She’s coming to pick me up. We’re going to hear jazz, but traffic’s a beast, so it’s slowing her down. Rush hour. Yuck.”
Yay, Gigi thought. Hurray for rush hour. Usually, she hated traffic, but it came in handy every now and then.
“So, I can only talk a little while. That’s so great you’re at a writers’ conference. How’s it going?”
“I was looking forward to it. There was this ad that spoke to me. But something’s missing.”
“Did you lose something?” SoSo sounded concerned. “Find out if there’s a Lost & Found.”
“I was… I wanted… I came here to find lifelong…”
“Gigi? That’s the doorbell. I hope you find your lost item. More soon.”
The dial tone blared like it wanted everyone to know what a reject she was. If only she hadn’t called SoSo. She wished she had waited. She should have waited. She should have waited till the middle of her stay. She could have waited to stretch out her time away, her away-from-SoSo time. She was trying to balance on a seesaw so both ends would be perfectly even mid-air, but SoSo had climbed off her end without warning, shooting Gigi’s end high up.
She banged open the cafeteria doors as a bird flew over her head. Lone-ly. Lone-ly, it called. The stench of skunk cabbage made her gag.
She plunked down on a tree stump in the clearing. Across from her, the woman with the ISBN tattoo smiled into her paperback, and Gigi wondered who she was. A woman with white wires hanging from her ears drummed on her thighs. Another woman dug inside her ear with a fork and then sniffed the earwax at the end of the utensil. In the center of the circle, a woman with a red kerchief and oval sunglasses clapped her hands and stamped her feet against the dirt. Her bare feet gave off an unwashed smell that made Gigi think of chocolate nectar.
“I’m Korey Buster. Welcome to Literary Literati.”
Everyone whacked her tree stump in applause.
“We have a great week planned for you. I’ll be going over logistics, but first we’ll have introductions. Please say your name, genre, and what you hope to get out of the workshop. Purpula, do you want to go first?”
“My name is Purpula, but everyone calls me Purple. I write sonnets about knee socks. I hope to gain insight about line breaks.”
“Ella Sammon. I think you all know why I’m here.” She grinned, plumping her hair into a coppery red plume.
Gigi studied the ants trudging to their ant hole.
“Zahidi, like the date,” she whispered. “I need help finishing my nonfiction essay collection about post-swim behavior in women’s locker rooms.”
“Ivy. I’m working on a fiction novel about a feminist ladybug uprising, and I’m having trouble with the ending.”
Next to her, a woman created a breeze that cooled Gigi when she curved her hands like parentheses mid-air. “Parenthetically Speaking.” Metal brackets, like sideways staples, pierced either side of her cheeks, dimpling as she smiled. “Primarily an editor.” At this, the women who had been slouching sat up straight, their tongues sticking out. They panted, blowing tiny saliva bubbles, and pawed at the air, ready to pounce.
“What do you edit?” Ivy asked.
“The Worst Series. Worst poetry, fiction, essays, you name it.”
Gigi shuddered. She had heard tales of bad manuscripts.
Ella’s eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t bother you?”
“That’s the whole point. To be the worst. Not everyone can be the ultimate in boring. Can you?”
“Excellent intro.” Korey nodded at Parenthetically. “We can talk about this more. Parenthetically is on the faculty and will be leading a workshop later in the week. We still have some more participants to hear from, so let’s all tune in to … Gigi.”
Gigi smiled, feeling special. Aside from Purple, she was the only one whose name Korey announced. “As Korey mentioned, my name is Gigi. Gigi Bridge. Like Parenthetically, I wear another hat, though not literally. I do write, but I came, not to write…”
“You wear a hat, but not literally? You write, but came not to write? Are you a riddle writer?” Ella bent over laughing.
“More like a riddled writer.” Ivy smirked. She typed something on her phone. Her eyes were small and hard like the steel squares on her teeth. Light glinted off her braces, as she glared at Gigi.
Zahidi’s nails tick-tcked as she bit, licked, and picked. Tsk-tsk, they scolded Gigi.
Her ears felt hot as the air. “My real goal is…” Her eyelids fluttered as she tried to make contact with everyone. “I’m here to make, what I really want is lifelong friends.”
Ella jerked her head. “You’re not here to write?” She slapped a mosquito on her wrist. “Shame. You shouldn’t be here at all.” She and Purple rolled their eyes. They were so in sync it was like they choreographed it.
Gigi was sure they would spread rumors. Probably Ivy was tweeting Gigi’s error to Poets & Writers. The group would kick her out. She tried to breathe. Sweat dripped from her eyes, trickling out of her nose. She gulped water from her bottle, trying to cover up the bitterness in the back of her throat.
If only she could go home. She’d send off a complaint to the Better Business Bureau. Lifelong friends, her foot.
Pulling her hat low so she couldn’t see anyone’s expression, she hightailed it out of the circle, weaving her way toward Oxygen. Maybe she’d call Tooey, the customer service rep at her favorite stationery store, on the toll-free line. She sometimes gave her a call, when she had no one else to talk to.
“Had enough?” A voice said, followed by cool air wafting over her face.
Gigi craned her neck to see Parenthetically walking by her side.
“I hate groups,” Gigi said.
“I know the feeling.”
“Everyone’s out to get me. They want to ruin me.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Well, I do. I know it well. It happened in high school. Bena, my best friend, was the ringleader.”
“I’m sorry that happened to you.”
“I came to make lifelong friends, just like the ad said.”
“A noble goal.”
“You don’t think I’m weird because I’m at a writers’ conference?”
“People go to conferences for all kinds of reasons.”
“Did you leave the group because I did?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay. I know how it feels to be the odd one out. Also, I wanted to put up my flyers. There are a lot of workshops and I want to make sure people come to mine. Want one?”
Gigi planned to stuff it in her pocket, when she happened to look at the paper. “No offense, but you have a lot of run-ons.”
“I never use punctuation,” Parenthetically said. “I feel freer like I’m at a nudist camp.”
Gigi shivered at the idea. “What about in your series? Surely, you need periods and stuff there.”
“It’s actually my job to take them out.”
“But that must create a giant traffic jam.”
“Whom’s to say…”
“Who’s to say.” Gigi spun so she faced Parenthetically. “Who is the subject.”
“Oh, I don’t care about ‘who.’ Or ‘whom,’ for that matter.”
Gigi’s lips made a loud pop when her jaw dropped. “I need to go,” she said.
“I hope you’ll submit to the Worst Series,” Parenthetically said to her back.
Gigi had to confide in someone. She’d go to Oxygen, and call Tooey, she thought, but when she got to the cafeteria, she saw Purple and Ivy talking by the phone, so she veered, flying over the stone steps that led to the pond. She sat on a log, stripping off white birch bark with her left hand and letting her right hand sift through the grainy mud. Bzzt. A bullfrog sounded like a doorbell. Bzzt, another frog answered. Two doorbells greeting hello, the way hers would, once she made her lifelong friend.
Someone touched her shoulder and she leapt up.
“Sorry,” Zahidi said. “Just wanted to let you know the deadline for manuscript submission is midnight. Korey announced it our meeting, but you had left, so…”
“Okay,” Gigi said, sitting down again.
Zahidi stood on a rock. “What’s your manuscript about?”
“I don’t think so.” Gigi eyed her.
“Do you really think I’d tell you? You just want to take what I say back to Ella and Purple so they can laugh at me some more. No, thanks.”
Zahidi flinched, as if stung by a bee. “I can’t believe it.”
“What have I done now?”
Zahidi shook her head and took off toward the cabins.
Gigi unlocked her cabin door. The small room smelled warm, like baked earth. A triangle of light shone on her paper. She had just enough light to write “Proposal,” at the top. She doodled a dragonfly flying over the word. “Acknowledgments,” she added. “We all seek acknowledgment. Since my favorite things to read are authors’ acknowledgments, this collection will showcase a community where authors can acknowledge one another, and what you say will be heard. No one’s voice will be excluded.” She drew tiny stick figures resembling publishers, editors, and writers running all over the place. Her wet, muddy hand had made some of the letters smear. She sighed. She hated imperfections of any kind, but chances were she wouldn’t win in any case. Ella had made that clear.
Clutching her proposal, Gigi darted out of her cabin, scurrying through the dark to Oxygen. She tiptoed past women talking on the couch, someone playing the Steinway, two hitting a Ping Pong ball in the corner.
She twisted the doorknob to the Literary Literati Larder. Locked. She knocked, not really expecting anyone to respond, but the woman with the ISBN tattoo peeked out.
Gigi held up her proposal.
“Great,” the woman said. “Submissions go in here.” She waved at a caramel-colored wooden box.
“Is this your work study job?” Gigi asked.
The woman threw back her head, laughing and laughing. “Good guess, but no.”
“Okay, well, thanks.” Gigi patted her submission in the box.
The rest of the week flew by, with Gigi running around to all kinds of workshops-“Visioning Your Revision,” “Autobiography of the Bio,” and “How To Get The Draft Out of First Drafts.” Saturday, she was sitting on a small boulder overlooking the pond. The early evening mist laced the water and trees in a giant cobweb.
“Mind if I join you?” said the woman from the larder. A small fan whirred, spinning on top of her baseball hat. “Lucida Blackletter, AKA Agent-at-large.”
“Oh my gosh, I feel so embarrassed, thinking you were doing work study.”
“Don’t be. There’s no way you could have known, since I hadn’t introduced myself. Really, what matters is your proposal. I loved it. I wanted to congratulate you on winning the Literary Literati Lottery. We can talk more, but I’d like to offer you representation.”
“But Ella said the prize usually goes to a workshop alum.”
“I don’t know about that. I’m new here, myself. Besides everyone should get a fair chance, just like you point out in your proposal. Did you come to the workshop to perfect your vision?”
Gigi squinted. “Not with this haze. It’s impossible to see anything.”
Lucida tried to hide a smile. “Vision for your work.”
“I came to make friends, lifelong friends.”
“You speak like your writing. Personal combined with whimsical. The other work lacked that genuine quality. Here’s my card. Let’s have lunch.”
I got an agent! Gigi scrambled to her feet. She couldn’t wait to share her good news. But to who? Whom, she corrected herself, as Parenthetically came to mind. She started walking back to find her.
“Hi,” Parenthetically said, strolling toward her. “Do you want to walk around the pond? It’s really pretty at this time.”
The warm air slid over her, but for once, Gigi wasn’t sweating. Crickets sounded like they were singing “cheer up cheer up cheer up.” Next to her, Parenthetically’s figure, thin and stooped like one of the birch trees, was growing dimmer. The green sky faded out to a black curtain. [This pond was awfully large, Gigi thought.] A rock skittered.
“Oof.” Gigi stumbled.
“Here, take my hand.”
“No, no, I’m fine.” She inched her toes forward, feeling around for rocks, afraid of falling into a snake hole.
“Hold my hand,” Parenthetically said again.
Gigi gripped her fingers, remembering when she and Bena roller-skated at the rink senior year. They were the only two holding hands and Bena said she loved her. The next day Bena had left her for Sandra. Gigi was glad Parenthetically couldn’t see her tears.
“I love how the air smells at dusk, don’t you?” Parenthetically said.
“It’s full of possibilities; exciting things are about to happen. Something did happen–I won the Lottery.”
“Congratulations. I know Lucida desired something unique and totally original. You stood out in the circle earlier in the week.”
“Maybe a little too much.”
“Not so. Editors are always on the lookout for fresh voices.”
“But why can’t the others see that?”
“You think they’re specifically targeting you, but it’s more they’re afraid of what will happen if someone new takes over.”
“Everyone’s supporting Ella.”
“You may have someone rooting for you. Dip. Watch it.” Parenthetically hugged Gigi’s arm to her side. “Don’t worry. I’m not letting go of you.”
Gigi thought of how SoSo let her go. More soon, SoSo always said, when really she meant less soon.
“Thank you,” she told Parenthetically as they neared Oxygen, “for this.”
“My pleasure.” She nodded at Purple running up to them. “Looks like she has something to tell you.”
Purple slung an arm around Gigi, like they were old friends. “Have you heard any news?”
“About the Lottery?”
“You got it.”
“Well, actually I di…” Gigi gave a little laugh.
“The agent is making her decision tonight. We’re going to gather with Ella, cheer her on, and each other. We’re equals, after all. Want to come?”
“I do want to join you, but…”
“But what?” Ivy said, as she walked up with Ella and Zahidi.
“Yeah, what?” Ella said.
Gigi crouched down to yank at her little toenail. “It’s great to know you’ll support me, no matter what.”
“Support you?” Ella cocked her head.
“I don’t think I understand,” Ella said.
“You know, the Lottery. I found out half an hour or so ago. Lucida Blackletter wants to represent…”
“You are fucking kidding me.” Ella’s face contorted till her nose stuck out like a big toe. “You’re not even a real writer.”
“You’re here under false pretenses,” Ivy said. “Confirmed by Lotte, who said you’re doing business under a fictitious name. Ella was supposed to win. The prize always goes to a returning student.”
“The prize is supposed to go to the best proposal and the one that stood out this year was Gigi’s,” Parenthetically said. “Creative, innovative, and original.”
“How do you know?” Purple’s question was punctuated by her spitting.
“I helped with reading submissions. Secretly seeking contributions to my series, and Gigi, I’m afraid your proposal didn’t make the cut. Better luck next year.” Her eyebrow rings glinted like parentheses on either side of her eyes. “But the rest of you made it into the Worst Series.”
“Seriously?” Zahidi said. “First time published. Woo-ee. Best news ever!”
“Hardly,” Ella said. “How’s that supposed to make me feel better? Me of all people?”
“I would gladly give up my award, if I could get what I came for,” Gigi said.
“A friend?” Purple’s mouth drooped like she had eaten something rotten. “I don’t think so. No one’s going to want to be your friend after this. You stole the prize from Ella.”
“What’s that terrible smell?” Ella fanned her face. “Ew. Skunk cabbage.” She laughed, her eyes brushing over Gigi’s.
Gigi felt shaky inside. An image of Bena telling everyone she stunk like garbage popped into her head. Her knee jiggled. It wouldn’t stop trembling.
“Are you being mean because backwards your name is Sammon Ella? I won fair and square. I paid for this conference, just like you. If anyone should be held responsible, Literary Literati should. Lotte told me to bring a manuscript. She shouldn’t have betrayed my confidences. I don’t know why you’re being so mean to me. I belong here.”
“What a joke.” Ivy said. “Wait till Literati funders hear about this. We’ll have to decide what to do.”
“Most definitely,” Zahidi said.
“Are you out to get me, too?” Gigi asked.
“I agree we have to decide what to do because I disagree with them.” Zahidi pointed her finger at Ella, Ivy, and Purple. “Gigi, I’ve been sticking up for you all along. When I rolled my eyes in the cafeteria, I couldn’t believe the behavior of those three. When I smiled just a bit, I thought you were brave. When I reminded you to turn in your manuscript, it was because I like you. It took courage for you to come by yourself and not have writing be your primary goal. You just didn’t get it, did you?”
You just don’t get it, do you? Gigi heard Bena’s voice echoing through her mind. You like a boy? Gigi had asked and Bena had said, God, you are so dumb. Gigi flashed on their conversation; after Bena told Gigi she loved her, Gigi hadn’t responded; she didn’t know what to say. When Bena called her dumb, maybe she meant she couldn’t believe Gigi didn’t realize she liked girls and not just any girl, but Gigi. Perhaps Bena had been scared and lashed out to protect herself. She wished she could go back in time and tell Bena, “It’s okay. I understand you’re scared. Let’s talk about it.” She wished she could tell Bena she had missed her so much it hurt. She wanted to tell her about the retreat, haunted by what happened between them.
“I’m sorry, Gigi,” Ella said, although she said it like a question. She pulled at her fingers, one by one. “I was sure I’d win and when I didn’t, it brought out the worst in me. You must have felt we were attacking you. I didn’t know we were being so mean ’til you spoke up just now. I’ll make it up to you. I know! . . . the party for me can be for you!”
“I want the party to be for all of us,” Gigi said. “That’s what I wrote about. I want everyone celebrated. But before we have the party, I think we need to talk. Because while I do appreciate your apology, I don’t feel safe after how you treated me. And I wouldn’t be able to attend the party. I feel ganged up on and afraid it will happen again.”
“You’re right,” Ella said. “Who wants to talk about what happened?”
“Count me in,” Zahidi said.
“Me, too,” said Parenthetically.
“I, too,” Gig said, and they laughed till they cried. She never expected an anti-grammarian would become her best friend. Parenthetically’s support felt like two parentheses holding her close.
She blinked, not quite believing she had spoken her truth and other women had heard her. A spell had broken; maybe she could be in a group, after all. She’d drop by the Friendship Agency when she returned and see if any local friendship groups were available.
Back at home, Gigi first checked messages. Nothing from SoSo. She didn’t mind. Relying on her false promises had drained Gigi of energy and made her feel fragile. Without SoSo, Gigi felt whole.
She walked to the Friendship Agency, arriving right before 5. The director was talking to someone and looked up to see her.
“Oh hello, I was about to call you. I have a woman who’s new to town, wants friends her age. I mentioned you; she’s hoping that you’ll spend time with her.”
Someone stepped forward, fragrant as a cedar forest. Her hair squiggled in a zillion directions, like she hadn’t combed it in years. Her impish gleam made Gigi feel she only had to say yes and spectacular things would happen.
“Hello, Gigi.” The woman clasped her hands between both of hers. “It’s me, Bena.”
Eva M. Schlesinger has been a Grand Slam contender on The Moth Stage, where she made the audience of 1,400 laugh nonstop.
Her fiction credits include Riggwelter, Tattoo Highway, former cactus, and elsewhere. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks, including three whose covers she designed.
Eva has received the Literal Latte Food Verse Award, and her blog (notesfromthecupcakerescueleague.wordpress.com) has been nominated for a Liebster Award.