The Saddest House of Cards
“I love her natural flavor,” Cam mumbled under the purple covers. She inhaled. “It’s like a nutty spice.”
“Ew. Her flavor?” Kyle crinkled his face from across the room. He was slipping on his dirty white Vans, pressing a hand against the door to steady himself.
The late afternoon sun filtered in at a sharp angle through the grimy windows, spilling long stripes of gold along the worn, hardwood floor. The June breeze buzzed with distant cars and mosquitos through the screen, still not hot enough to warrant an expensive window-mounted AC unit in Manhattan. The surprisingly spacious one-bedroom apartment was a cheap, semi-furnished sublet for the summer, the only one Cam’s mom and Tirah’s parents agreed to pay for; they were dedicated to wearing only underwear and sitting as still as house plants if that’s what it took to live without cold air.
Tirah exhaled a big sigh and yanked the covers from Cam’s face. They were sitting side by side in their shared bed—a full-sized mattress the subletter plopped on the floor. Tirah shoved her best friend and squeezed out a cocky smile.
“I think she means my scent, Tirah said, “Éstupido.”
“Bro I don’t know, she said flavor,” Kyle laughed. “That’s, like, kinda sus.”
He turned his back to the bed to fix his hair in the floor length mirror propped against the wall, tossing shaggy, sand-colored strands around his head in concentration. His lack of a filter and unbridled vanity was something Cam begrudgingly found attractive.
“What, are you jealous?” Tirah said, standing up from the bed to throw a pillow at her cousin’s legs.
Kyle and Tirah acted more like siblings than cousins, though they looked nothing alike: Tirah was tall, dark, sturdy, full in her lips and nose and cheekbones, whereas Kyle looked more like his waifish, sunburned, Irish dad.
He kicked the pillow aside and looked at his phone. “Fuck, I might not catch this train back to Brooklyn,” he groaned to no one in particular. Princess Nokia’s swaggering rap poured from the tinny speakers of a MacBook propped on a folding chair. He looked at his feet. “Maybe we can chill a little longer?”
Kyle had dropped by unannounced to “visit his lil cuz” but instead spent a few hours nervously sitting at the foot of the bed while Cam and Tirah dulled last night’s hangover with Chipotle burrito bowls and gossip. He recently moved from Oakland to pursue his music career with some producers he’d become friends with over the internet. At 26, he’d already been in a punk/rap group in the Bay, but was making moves to become a solo performer like he’d always dreamed. He rapped in Spanish, English, and Nahuatl in honor of his mother’s ancestors and wore solid gold slugs. He shared a three-bedroom apartment with three other musicians deep in Bushwick and invited everyone he knew to come through to the “studio.”
Last night was the first time Cam met Kyle. They’d drunkenly made out at a club in the Meatpacking District in front of all his friends. It was something Tirah set up.
Flashbacks of the scene made Cam shiver with pleasure. Even though the fog machines burned her eyes and the bass boomed so loud she could feel it in her sternum, there was a surprising tenderness between her and Kyle when they danced like sloppy teenagers. The liquor made them all sweat and eye contact, so she made a move.
“If you guys got together, we’d be familia for real,” Tirah had reasoned before the meetup. The girls were in a cab downtown and Tirah was texting a promoter she knew from back home to skip the line, her head swaying as she squinted at her screen with one eye open. It seemed like everyone from Oakland found each other out here, Cam remembered thinking.
“That’s not weird for you?” Cam slurred. They were already five or six tequila shots deep because it was a celebration to have your blood in the city.
“Nah dude,” Tirah giggled. “He’s an idiot but he’s been asking about you. It’s hella cute.”
But now, in their naked sobriety, it was definitely weird. A palpable current of tension charged by Kyle’s uncharacteristic self-doubt and Tirah’s vague distance flowed between the three of them.
Cam and Tirah had been inseparable for the past year now. They did everything together: they studied and partied and napped and ate and cried and worked out and flirted with boys, side by side. Even when they weren’t together physically, they texted constantly. It hurt too much when something happened in Cam’s life, no matter how small, and Tirah didn’t know. But since Kyle appeared, Tirah hadn’t once returned Cam’s conspiratorial eye contact.
It was Saturday night and Cam and Tirah had no plans. Maybe they would go downstairs and sit at the bar around the corner because they didn’t card and Cam knew a girl there from her English lecture who bartended. Kyle shifted by the door; Tirah looked at her phone.
“Um, we were thinking of checking out that bar?” Cam offered behind a sip of ice blue Gatorade. She could really use a whiskey sour to relieve the pressure behind her eyes.
Kyle sat in the corner of the room, back turned, thumbing through his Thrasher magazine as he waited for the girls to get ready. They flicked identical eyeliner wings over their nearly identical eyes, Cam’s jet black, Tirah’s shiny and electric blue. Junglepussy’s mixtape Satisfaction Guaranteed bounced off the white walls of the diming apartment, transmuting their recovery den into a pregame party for two. Miss Dior Cherie, coconut lotion, and Trader Joe’s wine filled the air. Cam patted highlighter on her cheek absentmindedly as she watched Tirah dance into a short black denim dress to the beat of “Picky Bitch Checklist.” She had her best friend back. Her heart swelled with the possibility of the night.
“Could you zip me, C?” Tirah turned around and Cam followed her lead. The bronze zipper slithered up her spine, slowly so no skin was pinched. Tirah’s shoulders were slender and delicate, and Cam wondered if she’d always wish to have what her best friend had. Tirah was shockingly beautiful, so outgoing and effusive, yet unafraid to be vulnerable. Her brightness illuminated parts of Cam she didn’t know she possessed: an ability to be loved, a desire to show love. She couldn’t believe someone like that had chosen her, so small and dreary, to tell her secrets.
It was like there was a time before Tirah and after Tirah—a life of numbing nothingness following the death of Cam’s father when she was eighteen, and life now, guided by Tirah’s glow. She was the one who smoothed back Cam’s long, black hair that one spring morning outside the library and suggested they stay in the city this summer. Cam was sobbing because she’d failed two classes and things were rough again with “Mr. Needy,” her pretentious, on-again-off-again boyfriend whom Tirah openly despised. It was her who told Cam to ignore his FaceTime calls, to sign up for summer classes and beg her mom for rent money.
“You would look really good in that mesh top,” Tirah said, eyeing Cam’s childish frame and beige bralette. “And change into a sexier bra, dude.”
Kyle cleared his throat loudly.
They got lucky and snagged a booth by the pool table. The bar was narrow and shadowy, its wood-paneled walls soaking up the murky glow from the table lamps and fairy lights. Kyle and Tirah were busy arguing over which friends from Oakland were fucking, feeding off each other’s playful energies and expressive hands. Cam finished her whiskey sour too fast. She looked at the TV mounted above the pool table and saw they were playing 1978’s Watership Down. Her stomach clenched remembering the movie from childhood, how her dad had showed it to her and how disturbed she was by those suffering rabbit cartoons. They moved like animals but their expressive human eyes bulged with panic and pain. Cam felt herself leaving her body. But then, she decided to feel giddy and outrageous.
“This is the place where me and Tirah first kissed.” Cam interrupted.
Tirah stopped mid-sentence, met Cam’s gaze, and they laughed.
“Aw, yeah C. Doesn’t that feel forever ago?” Tirah gulped her vodka soda with extra limes. “I think this is where Lexie and I also kissed for the first time.” She rolled her eyes for effect. “I just love smooching my friends when I’m drunk!”
Cam shot Kyle a look like she’s so crazy huh? but he was still looking at Tirah.
“I’m gonna go say hi to Mr. Orgo,” Tirah announced to the table. Her eyes trailed a group of guys moving through the crowd. “Be back, pendejo!”
Alone for the first time, Cam and Kyle wilted in their seats. The forgotten tension returned.
“Mr. Orgo is this Australian in Tirah’s Organic Chemistry section who she thinks is hot,” Cam shouted. The small bar had become very crowded since they arrived, so they had to lean over the sticky table to hear one another.
“Yeah, no, for sure,” Kyle nodded, seeming preoccupied. His blue eyes rested on her mouth. “So, like, what’s your intentions with my cousin?” he asked while pushing back his hair, something Cam noticed he did when he was trying to portray nonchalance.
“What do you mean?” Cam chuckled, confused.
Kyle chuckled in return and cradled his drink like it was keeping him alive. “No, no, like, where do you see yourself?”
Cam just stared, running her mind over whatever communication breakdown was happening between them. She knew Kyle and Tirah were close; Tirah’s parents practically adopted Kyle in high school when shit hit the fan with his mom. Was he being protective?
Cam shrugged, shaking a piece of ice into her mouth from the empty glass. “I love your cousin, she’s like my sister. She’s my best friend forever. I don’t know what I would do without her.”
She crunched the ice, thinking further. “And she’s been going through it this year, too. I like to think we’ve got each other’s backs out here, you know?”
The whiskey wiggled in her chest and the urge to kiss Kyle flashed like an intrusive thought.
Kyle smiled. “Cool, cool.” The gold glimmered behind his lips as he relaxed into the cracked leather booth. Last night’s tenderness returned to his flushing cheeks.
Cam smirked and bent closer to his opening body. “I know this is lame but I just wanted to say—"
“C!” Tirah grabbed Cam’s shoulder from behind. “So, Mr. Orgo’s roommate’s friend is having a party like five blocks from here. I wanna go.”
Cam clutched her hand and held it there. “I’m down. Kyle?”
A look of bewilderment twitched across his face before he could correct himself. He sat up taller and shook his head. “You’re family and all, cuz, but I don’t really feel like partying with nerds.”
Cam’s stomach clenched again. They shimmied out of the booth and fought through the bodies to the exit with Tirah leading the way, stopping a couple times to say hi to people she knew. Outside the bar, the cousins said their goodbyes and Tirah called Mr. Orgo. Cam hugged Kyle a little too long.
“I’m happy we got to hang,” He grinned. If Cam was any drunker she would have gone for it, again.
Cam and Tirah walked arm in arm down the avenue, cutting through the humid summer night on wobbly legs. The streets were crawling with drunk students, some in large groups, some in pairs like them. Cam wondered if they looked like a couple to strangers.
“Kyle’s a lot more reserved than I thought,” Cam declared. She tugged at the skin-tight, black mesh crop top riding up her ribcage. She risked it. “I didn’t wanna make the move again this time, but he just sat there.”
She felt Tirah’s arm stiffen.
“Sorry, if you changed your mind, we don’t have to talk about this,” Cam said after a beat of silence.
Tirah busied herself with her phone, pretending to look at Google Maps.
“I mean, I have no problem with you guys being friends, but I didn’t expect it to happen this fast,” she said to her screen. A group of girls laughed theatrically across the street outside of a dollar slice pizza shop.
“I don’t know if you’d call it friends, Tirah,” Cam replied. Did she hallucinate that entire familia conversation in the back of the cab?
“I don’t know. He’s into something with someone else back in the Bay and it’s just kind of unclear right now,” Tirah said.
“Wait, someone, someone else?” Cam said, her voice cracking.
Tirah frowned. “I just didn’t think you would be this into him.” She huffed like an annoyed preteen. “It’s like, I leave you alone for two seconds and you’re already all over him.”
Cam flinched as if she’d been slapped in the face and felt the burn of humiliation—it was mortifying that she already liked Kyle after knowing him for five minutes, that she didn’t foresee how bizarre this whole situation was going to be with her best friend’s cousin. She felt herself leaving her body again and observed the buildings around her ripple like water. She leaned into Tirah’s arm, focusing on plodding her right platform heel in front of the left as they turned the corner.
“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” Cam’s anger felt frightening and spiky in her throat. She’d never spoken to her best friend like this before. Usually, it was Tirah’s love life and the handful of boys she entertained that was the subject of their discussions. Cam didn’t dare step on Tirah’s toes, was always on her side.
Tirah pursed her lips, as if thinking. “Didn’t seem like a big deal,” she said.
The rest of the night descended into a blackhole of a blackout. All Cam could remember was being anxious in a room full of fratty white guys she’d never met before, decked out in their Alma Mater’s merch like a brochure photo. There’s a memory with crimpled edges, saturated in a yellow kitchen light: vodka and warm diet Sprite in a red solo cup, an overheard conversation between Tirah and some guy named Josh. She was letting Josh know that Cam wasn’t interested in his friend, sorry. A prickling confrontation: Cam didn’t know Josh’s friend was asking about her, he actually seemed like a nice dude, why was Tirah speaking for her? Next memory: back at the sublet, standing in the bathroom, yelling.
“Why are you fucking sabotaging this for me?” Cam remembered seething.
She couldn’t remember if she meant with Josh’s friend or Kyle because both didn’t really warrant this kind of indignation. There was a betrayal between the two of them, but it couldn’t be placed.
“I thought you were my friend, Ti.”
Tirah’s pretty face collapsed like the saddest house of cards. She yelled through wet, desperate eyes, but Cam couldn’t remember about what. Somehow, they ended up in the bed, Cam shushing Tirah’s tears.
“When your eyes are sad it makes me sad, too,” Cam breathed. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. No one is more important than you.”
Then, Tirah said something about her narcissistic mother, something that made her cry in a different, more primal way. Cam’s last memory: they’re holding each other with the lights on.
The bedroom is cavernous, flooding with pastoral light from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and Cam hears a voice calling her name. She rises from a milk-white bed and recognizes the voice as Tirah.
“Cam, please, Cam.”
Tirah pleads from an unknown place, but her words are clear and ringing in Cam’s head as if her lips are pressed against her ear. Cam gets out of bed, tip-toes across the cold marble floor towards the wrought iron door of the room. It’s staged with creamy, mid-century furniture and towering, twisting succulents. Little black snakes loop around her feet and she’s careful not to step on them.
Cam closes her eyes and sees Tirah now, laying on the building’s rooftop in her white bikini, writhing in the tall, luscious grass that’s growing around her. Her skin is wet, like she’d been swimming, her hair covers her face.
“Cam, where are you?” she begs, dragging her hands up her thighs like a burlesque dancer, glittering in the sun. Tirah’s hands stop at her jawline, reach around and untie the dripping strap from around her neck. “Come here.”
Cam knows what she has to do. It’s finally time. Her legs throbs with urgency as she creeps up the metal ladder towards the rooftop hatch, but the ladder keeps stretching longer and longer.
“Cam, I’m waiting for you,” Tirah whispers.
“I’m coming,” Cam whispers back. She knows once she gets there, everything will be set right between them.
Anxiety rattled behind Cam’s eyelids, forcing them open. She was back on floor-mattress, still wearing last night’s clothes. She didn’t even get under the covers or take off her socks. She looked around the bare room; Tirah wasn’t there.
Cam’s nerves droned like cicadas as a sharp headache draped her vision.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she mumbled under her breath, covering her mouth. “What did I say?” she questioned herself quietly.
She was overcome with a vague regret, an embarrassment unique to a night of drinking and forgetting. She slapped her forehead lightly and crawled onto the ground, looking for her phone.
Cam had no missed or outgoing calls, no new texts sent out or received. Nothing from Tirah or Kyle. From the way the sun came in through the dirty windows, she could tell it was already past morning. She scrolled through her Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, trying frantically to locate the object of her worry and eradicate it from the source. After a few minutes of sleuthing last night’s inebriated alternate ego, she finally relaxed her shoulders and acknowledged the rancid taste in her mouth.
“Water,” she whined.
But when Cam opened the bedroom door, she watched herself turning left towards the building’s hallway, not right towards the shared kitchenette. She climbed the stairs to the fifth floor and eyed the rusting metal ladder leading to the rooftop. The hatch was already pushed open, leaving a perfect blue square of sky above. Cam pulled herself up the handful of rungs and onto the hot, inky roofing tar. There was a wiggle in her chest when she noticed Tirah’s back, her fingers wrapped around the nape of her neck as she looked out into the city.