I wanted to go back to sleep. The clock on my dashboard read 4:30am, and the campus outside my Honda Civic felt still, almost barren. Even the leaves on the old oaks refused to bristle as if the trees themselves were holding their breath, not yet ready to greet the new day. It was early. Too early. Life seemed so perfect an hour ago, when I was sleeping peacefully in my bed. A twin extra long had never felt more appealing. I could almost hear the distant echo of my memory foam pillow calling after me as it slowly rose and erased the impression of my head. It was forgetting me.
I yawned and checked my phone. There was a message from Michelle.
Be down in a second!
I rolled my eyes. For her, a second could mean anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. I leaned back in my seat, resting my head and closing my eyes. Michelle had never been punctual. She was one of my first friends at Augustus College. We were assigned to be roommates during our first year, and we clung to each other almost instantly during the first few months of school. We spent the summer together in Los Angeles, interning for the same company and sharing an apartment in the city. Seven months ago, we were in this very car, driving back to school for our sophomore year. I remember all the hope I had. We had grown so close. I called her my best friend. But I also worried that I was her only friend. I had a friend group with the basketball team, but she only had me.
When she met Justin, I was happy for her. They were study partners, and I could tell he liked her from the moment I met him. They started dating in early October, and had been inseparable ever since.
I heard a door close outside, and I jerked my head up, only now realizing that I had fallen asleep. I turned on the radio and switched through the channels until some bouncy classic rock spilled through the speakers. Outside I could see Michelle strolling up to the car, wearing a white T-Shirt and gray sweatpants with Augustus College written along the side of them in navy blue. A black duffel bag hung from her shoulder and she opened the back seat first to toss the bag inside. Then she shut the door a little too hard, and opened the passenger door, plopping herself down.
“Hey,” I said.
She sighed in response and reached for the radio, changing the station to NPR. I forgot how much she liked to listen to NPR. She closed her eyes. I started the car.
We sat in silence as I began to drive down the street. The calm voice on the radio was soothing, I felt myself nodding off. I shook my head and was suddenly angry. I didn’t have to be here. I was doing her a favor. The day before I had received a long, desperate message from her begging me to give her a ride to the train station. It wasn’t until I told her I could do it that she casually mentioned when I needed to pick her up.
“Michelle?” I asked, hoping she was awake.
“Yes, Jade?” She responded in a whisper, her eyes still shut.
“Can you stay awake and talk to me? I actually want to make it to the train station without falling asleep and killing us both.” I didn’t even try to hide the frustration in my voice.
She sat up straighter and rubbed her eyes.
“Yeah,” she said, “Sorry about that. And thanks for doing this for me. It means a lot.” She almost sounded sincere. “So… how are things? It’s been awhile since we actually talked.”
She was right. Her relationship with Justin came with a built-in friend group. His friends were very tight-knit, but they welcomed Michelle with open arms. We began to spend less time together and our friendship waned. Daily meals turned into weekly meals which then became monthly meals. And here we were.
“Things are good,” I lied. “You?”
“Same.” There was a pause as I reached a stop light. The radio droned on and I considered changing it back to the station with the more lively music. If I were listening to loud music, then I wouldn’t have to force a conversation with her. I wanted to change it, but I fought the urge with my better judgment. I needed to repair our friendship. The light turned green and I spoke again.
“If you look outside you might be able to see Venus!” I said, trying to sound excited.“If you are lucky, you should be able to see it right before the sunrise in the East. My mom said it’s supposed to bring you good luck in love.” I laughed at this, because Michelle and I both knew that my mom had the worst luck in love.
Michelle didn’t look outside. She stared at her hands, and her voice quivered as she spoke. “Did you know that they used to think Venus was some tropical paradise. They named it after the goddess of love because, at a distance, it looked beautiful. Bright and yellow. It’s the brightest thing in the sky. But when they finally were able to study it, they realized it’s not a tropical paradise. It’s full of toxic gases. It has tons of sulfuric acid, and there’s no water on the surface. There’s acid rain that turns into water vapor before it touches the surface because it’s so hot.”
There was a long pause. “Cool.” I finally said. Confused by her sudden morbidity.
“That’s kinda like how love is,” Michelle whispered, looking outside the window. “You think it’s all beautiful at a distance, but it’s toxic.”
Then it all made sense. She was alone now, so she came back to me: her reliable old friend who she could walk all over. I heard her sigh. It was heavy and broken. I looked over at her and, for the first time, I noticed a tissue crushed between the fingers of her right hand. I wanted to be there for her. To know she was okay.
I pulled up to the train station, and parked the car. I wanted to talk to her about it. I was thinking of something to say, or if I should say anything. But before I could open my mouth, she was gone. She opened the back door and grabbed her duffel.
“Thanks again,” she mumbled before slamming it shut.
I sat in silence for a while. I watched her disappear behind the sliding doors. Ahead of me was a sea of red and green streetlights that would lead me back to campus, back to my bed. I thought of the pillow, awaiting my return.
I turned off the radio and drove back.