I’m sitting next to my best friend, Jenna, trying to convince her that she isn’t going to die. That that isn’t going to kill her. That this is, in fact, something she wanted—something she asked for. She’s already signed the paperwork. The piercer guy comes back from washing his hands and gloves up. Jenna grips my hand as he wipes an antibacterial towelette over her nose and explains, one more time, how the procedure will go. Her fingers are cold.
“That needle looks fucking huge,” she says.
The piercer guy shrugs and you can just tell he’s seen it all, or at least thinks he’s seen it all. That there’s nothing left that will impress or disappoint him. The stories he tells to his buddies over cans of PBR are ten years old because it’s been that long since something even came close to interesting him. We are not interesting to him, but we are paying customers.
We walk out of there less than 20 minutes later, shiny studs in each of our left nostrils. Tears run down our cheeks, smearing our mascara. We giggle now that it’s over.
“Let’s go get a drink,” she says. “That shit hurt.”
I climb into the passenger seat of her SUV, like I always do, like I’ve been doing for almost 15 years. She got her license first and always wanted to drive, always wanted to be on the move, always wanted to avoid the horror of introspection that stillness invites. For the most part, I’m fine with being a passenger because it means I can be a watcher: of the other people in the other cars, of folks waiting at bus stops, of the gas station logos and dogs being walked, of the rare grouping of trees in suburbia and the birds that swoop in and out of their branches. As we pass by one of those groupings, I put my hands around my face, blocking out the apartment complexes and big box stores, make-believing we are at the edge of a deep forest.
We go to the bar down the street from her place. The barstools are sticky. We order Malibu rum with orange juice, our standard. We’ve got about half an hour before her husband starts to text, blowing up her phone, whining about being left alone with the kids too long. This whole afternoon, the piercing and the drinks, is for her 30th birthday. That’s the only reason he let her leave the house alone. The bartender brings us our drinks and I don’t know about her, but I’m pretending we’re about 10 years in the past, or at least in some alternate timeline, where she is freer and so I can feel freer when I’m around her. The pungent sweetness of the drink helps. The old pop song on the radio helps, too.
There’s not much new to say, so we don’t say anything at all. That’s one thing about being best friends with someone since we were four years old—we’re okay with sitting in silence together. The bartender asks if we want another round. We shake our heads no in unison. I cover the tab.
Back at her place, an Oreo ice cream cake with glittery candles awaits. A surprise from her husband that she later claims he only did to make himself look good in front of me. I lead the kids in a rousing version of the happy birthday song. We eat the cake. Jenna is lactose-intolerant, but that’s never stopped her before. She pops a Lactaid, deals with it, claims it’s worth it. I play with the kids on the living room floor for a bit, which mostly just means they show me their toys and explain what each one does. Later, I sleep on the couch.
In the morning, I return to my own life—my somewhat meaningful job, my stack of books, my organic produce, my boyfriend who never hounds me about my whereabouts but is always ready to listen to me or cook for me—and I automatically feel freer, even though nothing has really changed. Just like our friendship—even though so much has changed, some things just refuse to change.
Jenna’s piercing gets infected. This surprises no one. It was the same for her belly button, the three on each of her earlobes, and her cartilage. Her body has a history of launching a heightened immune response to any foreign object, outdoing itself in attack mode. Somehow, she pushes through. She buys bottles of hydrogen peroxide and tea tree oil, forces healing on her body, forces it to stop fighting back by drying it out and neutralizing its defenses. Somehow, she interprets her body’s pushbacks as minor misunderstandings, instead of what they might be—attempts to communicate. She keeps doing the things she wants. She claims it’s worth it.
The other day, amid texts complaining about the kids and the husband and the weather, she also sends this: thinking about getting a seashell tattoo.
I’m not afraid of needles, but she is. I’ll go along for the ride. I’ll watch what happens.
Erin Schallmoser (she/her) lives in Bellingham, WA, works by day as a naturopathic clinic manager, and delights in moss, slugs, stones, wildflowers, small birds, and the moon, when she can see it. She’s also a poetry/prose editor and staff contributor at The Aurora Journal and is still figuring out Twitter @dialogofadream. You can read more at erinschallmoser.com/.