2022 Quartz Fiction Contest Winner
It was the first night of your bachelorette, and you were drunk before the wheels touched down on the tarmac. This wasn’t your fault— your cousin plied you with mimosas for the entire flight, and you were so light then. You didn’t eat that whole summer. Do you remember how hungry you were?
We got off the plane, and you vomited in the airport bathroom while your sister held your hair back. I stood by a gift store with your cousin, who wobbled drunkenly through the racks of cotton sweatshirts. A cashier told her not to touch the items, and she flipped him off. I told her to chill out, and she told me to fuck off, too.
The four of us were an embarrassing group, even for Vegas. Your sister looked terrified as she wiped down the furry, polka-dotted seats of the Uber with a Clorox wipe. Your cousin looked primal; she was already texting everyone she knew in this city. And you looked— I didn’t know what you looked like. You were in that strange, liminal space between drunk and hangover, eyes glassy and heavy, the fake Eiffel Tower reflected in your gaze as we drove into the heart of the city.
I wish you were my maid of honor, you said to me at one point.
Everyone in the car heard it, though we all pretended not to. You burped, then laughed, as we pulled up to the hotel.
You’ve never understood why I love Las Vegas so much. I get it. We grew up with parents who made the joint decision to ground us for a month after we pierced our belly buttons at the mall. No wonder the naked magician on the street corner looked dangerous to you. No wonder the prostitutes who walked confidently between the throngs of families looked impossible, like apparitions, like black magic.
It’s all so fake, you whispered to me as we rode up the elevator to the ninth floor. Through four inches of glass, the city spilled out before us, beneath us, a battleground of lights that bled into one another: half-lit billboards and skyscrapers backlit in pink and red, a carousel the size of a hamster wheel turning slowly by our feet.
Your cousin pulled out another bottle of champagne.
Your sister warned, Don’t.
I wanted to tell you that the city wasn’t fake, but a mirror, that it reflected the parts of ourselves we were most uncomfortable with, the ones we wanted to show but couldn’t.
The champagne cork shot against the glass, and we all screamed. You tilted your head back, eyes shut, mouth open, as your cousin dribbled the foam over your lips. You choked, coughing bubbles, then asked for more.
The theme of the weekend was glitter. Our hotel suite was covered with a layer of it within minutes of our arrival. Do you remember how that glitter clung to us after we left? I watched it circle the drain of my shower for weeks. Your sister said she shit sparkles for a month.
As your cousin ordered room service, you slipped into a sequined mini dress, thousands of rose gold scales covering your torso, making your limbs look almost matte in comparison.
How do I look? you said.
I can’t count how many times in my life you’ve asked me that. Our friends in high school thought it was rhetorical, but I knew you really wanted to know, that you’ve always had trouble seeing yourself without the light first refracting through the eyes of another. I’m the opposite. I can only find myself when the world goes quiet. It’s why we worked so well as kids, as teenagers: I always stepped forward to remind you who you were in the moments you were about to forget, and you always took a step back to give me the space I needed to do the same. It’s also why we lost each other so quickly when we went away to college. You gravitated towards people who soaked up your reflection and gave none of it back, and I gravitated towards shadows, towards a silence so big it nearly swallowed me whole.
But none of that mattered now. The elastic band that held us together had stretched without snapping, and we’d slowly found our way back to one another, to you standing in front of me in a dress and heels, waiting for me to see you.
You look beautiful, I said honestly. You always do.
I had no idea your cousin brought ecstasy.
It’s called gold rush, she said, a wicked smile on her face. She held her palm out. Two small pink pills sat, innocent, at the intersection of her life and love lines.
I don’t want it, I said. I was the only one who’d been here before. I wanted to be clear-eyed for you. I was also a month loosely sober, not that I’d told you, not that it mattered. I’d known I was going to drink on this trip, but I wanted to be intentional about it, careful, not the girl you’d cleaned up every weekend of high school in the basement bathroom of your house.
But you — who didn’t speak to me for weeks when I first tried pot; who decided to marry the first man she’d ever slept with — had a vision for this trip. It was going to be the aberration in a life defined by behaving well; a rip in the time space continuum, where everything you’d ever tried to keep out came flooding in.
Open, you commanded, and I did.
Your fingers grazed my tongue when you placed the pill on my mouth. I could tell you were still drunk by the way you hooked two fingers against my bottom set of teeth and tugged, making me feel like a fish caught on a line.
You tugged again, then released.
It was an hour later, walking down the long hallway to the elevator, when the ecstasy started to hit. The red, stained velvet of the carpet sent a shiver up my spine. I looked up. I was holding the elevator door open, and you were stumbling towards the three of us like a baby giraffe, legs bowing and buckling, hand trailing the wall for the pretense of balance.
She’s going to end up in the hospital, your sister said.
I, too, was staring at the height of your stilettos, the black lace straps tied in a bow around the narrow bone of your ankle. You reached the elevator and leaned against the far wall of it, breathless, as we whooshed downward. The ecstasy had flushed your cheeks pink.
You opened your eyes, smiled at me. I watched the breath travel up your windpipe. I watched the stale air from a vent in the corner cause the baby hairs by your temple to bend and sway. I watched a small yellow fish swim in circles around the black of your right pupil.
The truth is I’ve never liked being with you when others are around. You’ve called yourself an emotional magnet before, and you’re right — you take too much from the energy that surrounds you. You change yourself to fit into a given conversation, and when it happens, it always makes me feel like you’ve left me for a place I can’t follow you to.
But the ecstasy made it easier. As we wandered through the crowd in the pitch black, everyone staring forward to an empty DJ booth, it felt like a bubble enclosed us. Your hand was laced in mine, and you pulled me through the crowd towards the bar, leaned over the bar top like you’d been here a thousand times. Your face was so alive; everyone was swimming in it. I don’t know where your sister and cousin went, only that this was the point in the night that we lost them, and that neither of us cared they were gone.
I didn’t feel like I needed alcohol, but we threw back shots anyways, a gift from the bartender. That doesn’t happen in Vegas, I shouted to you. The music was loud now, you couldn’t hear me.
When a man asked you what it felt like to be so beautiful, you leaned into it, and I laughed along with you before pulling us both forward.
Drugs, you shouted to me, are fucking fantastic.
I could barely hear you over the pounding of the bass, but I managed to read your lips through the blinking strobe lights, which disoriented me, stripped me of gravity like a wave rolling me under. Your hand gripped mine in the darkness, confetti suspended in the air above, velvet bodies vibrating all around, a thousand hearts kicking towards some unknowable surface. The noise of skin against skin was as loud as the music. I rolled through one epiphany after another, all of it sensory. The English language was so simplistic, I thought to myself, so rudimentary. Nothing real could be communicated with words. I felt wondrous, alive, connected to you by a thousand strings of fishing wire, the lines pulling taut whenever we got too far from one another, reminding us to dance back to center.
We mouthed at one another through the darkness.
This song is amazing
You are amazing
I feel amazing
You look amazing
This drink is amazing
We drank. We danced. We did coke with a stranger in a handicapped bathroom. You put your bride sash on me and kissed me hard on the mouth, then burst into laughter.
We’re engaged, you said proudly to the man who’d invited us back to his table. We’re childhood best friends, and we’re also lovers.
The way you said lovers made him laugh hard, and you kept going, talking over his laughter, faster now, the story falling out of you in one great rushing current. We live in a tiny town in Maine, this house by the water, and we run a bed and breakfast, and I’m perfect for her because I make her smile, and she’s perfect for me because she doesn’t take any of my shit.
I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t like this man, his leering eyes, and I didn’t like the story you were pulling out of nothing, out of the confettied air.
I’ve never once called you out on any of your shit, I said, but neither of you heard me. Did you really not hear me?
The man leaned in to you, raised his eyebrows conspiratorially. If you’re engaged to her, then why are you the only one wearing a ring?
The night you got engaged, we both cried. You were still wearing your scrubs when you FaceTimed me. It was the end of a double shift, and it might just have been the exhaustion of being awake through the night, but I thought you looked stunned, maybe too stunned, maybe even scared.
It’s not going to change anything, you said to me. You are and will always be my soulmate.
It felt less like a statement and more like a question. The pressure of your face was too much, so I buckled. Yes, I said with force, yes, of course it won’t change anything. Everything will be fine.
I don’t know why I said that last part. I only know it felt like I was bound to say it to you, the same way you felt bound to drive three hours to the police station the night I got the DUI.
Everything will be fine, I said to you. It was an echo of what you said to me at the station, and both times it was a lie.
I wondered, then, if you noticed how I didn’t say congratulations, how I barely said anything at all.
If you’re engaged to her, then why are you the only one wearing a ring?
You blinked, sat back. The music switched, the tempo doubled, too fast now for the bodies to keep up. I watched the magic drain from your face. The ecstasy was leaving us, I knew; the coke had been cut with flour, it’d barely done anything at all. My skin felt like nothing now. It felt like skin. Suddenly your lips trembled, like you might cry.
I don’t know, you said after a moment.
You looked lost, then: unsure of this conversation, unsure of how you ended up at this moment, with this man, surrounded by vodka and beer.
The man, disappointed, turned to talk to the women on his other side, who had been staring out at nothing while he was talking to us, legs folded, eyes wide and vacant, like blow-up dolls. Now, they came to life, anchored by his attention.
We wandered out of the club, down one of the long enclosed pathways that connected all of the hotels together. Your sister had been calling us all night. You finally picked up. They were at some pool. She asked us to meet them there.
Your feet were covered in streaks of dried blood, angry blisters from where the straps had rubbed your ankles raw. I held your heels and you walked barefoot alongside me. You were drunker than I was, I hadn’t taken any of the shots that man had given us. Your tears streaked the sheen of highlighter on your face.
Why am I crying? you finally said. We looked at each other and laughed.
We found your sister and your cousin at that massive outdoor pool. They were laughing with a group of men on a bachelor weekend, their necks and arms were orbed with stacks of glow sticks.
I want to go home, you moaned, I want to go to sleep, but I convinced you to stay near them and got us more drinks. I didn’t want the night to end.
We drank vodka Red Bulls and watched your cousin eat two men alive at once. By the second drink, you were euphoric again, head swaying, arrhythmic, to the music blaring from the speakers above. I lay on one of those plastic pool loungers as you danced by my feet, arms over your head, eyes closed. Your gleaming figure swam in double vision, I was drunk too now, I was finally drunk enough, and you dropped to sit by my waist and said, breathless, we should get married tonight for real.
We could, I said. We could be married within the hour.
And we could move to Maine for real, you said. For real for real. Open the bed and breakfast, have dinner parties with all our friends.
There was, for the first time in the evening, a long moment of real, true silence — someone was switching a playlist, perhaps, or maybe the fade out of a song was taking too long — and in that silence I stepped over the side of the universe and fell through visions of the future, visions of you, for three, maybe four seconds, and then the music returned and I hit the ground.
It would be nice, I finally said, my bones crushing. I downed the rest of my drink and dropped the cup.
I love you, you said abruptly. You leaned forward, serious now, and said it again.
You wanted to know when, exactly, the elastic band holding us together finally snapped. It was here, in this moment.
I love you, you said. It was abrupt, a bodily lurch of words. You looked as if you hadn’t known it was going to come out until it did. We’d said it so many times before, so often it meant nothing at all, but this was the first time you said it and looked surprised.
Now, I thought. Now.
I felt the force of all those bleeding lights around me. I felt the rip of your life open before me. For the first time, it was big enough for me to walk through. Your lips were stained an artificial red, your eyes like sinking ships. I couldn’t tell how drunk you were.
I love you, too, I said, but it wasn’t enough, and the fear of losing you finally overcame the fear of you finding me out, so I said it, I said I’m in love with you, right as a chorus of cheers erupted from the other side of the pool, a man had just proposed, he was still down on one knee, and I couldn’t tell if you heard me, but before I could say it again you looked at him and rolled your eyes and shouted, Jesus fucking Christ, I can’t get away, and everyone turned to look at us, and you handed me your empty plastic cup and threw the happy couple the middle finger and ran towards the pool, turning around at the last second so that you fell backwards into the air, arms stretched out wide, your reflection rising up to catch you. Your body hit the surface with a sharp clap, and then you were under.
I sat forward and watched your figure beneath the surface, sequins twinkling up at me through the turquoise water. A few people nearby shouted, they thought you were drowning, and I, too, started to panic, you held your breath for so long, and I stood up right as you broke the surface, sputtering, coughing, laughing, and your smile was so inviting, I almost jumped in.
My name is Caro Claire Burke, and I’m a recent graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. I wrote this story, GOLD RUSH, as a part of my thesis requirement. The story is part of a greater collection I’m working on that explores what it means to write true, contemporary love stories in the short fiction form.