Emma had never thought of Richmond as beautiful. It looked like it tonight, though, with all the Christmas lights glowing in the darkness. The little light-up reindeer displays she remembered from visiting her mom’s office as a kid were out in full force, creating a tableau of festivity across St. James’s Plaza. Even the flags reading DOWNTOWN in big white letters, hanging from the gigantic lampposts, had holly and poinsettias stitched on them. Snow had come early for Virginia this winter (by which she of course meant December and not February). A light powder coated the roads. The salting hadn’t started yet, leaving the snow pure and white. Not the grayish slush she and Cole had left behind in Chicago. She hadn’t driven down these streets in a while. This section of Broad Street had been pretty heavily revitalized in the last decade or so, pairing old school buildings with bright neon signs and freshly painted trim. Many of the places she knew were still there, marching steadily on even as the world around them blurred and shifted as Emma did too. Growing up and up and up until the city couldn’t contain her anymore. Their car was the only one brave enough to be out in such a storm, a whole three quarters of an inch slated to fall by tomorrow morning. She could see in her mind’s eye twisting lines at every Ukrop’s, everyone buying bread and milk, the saviors of any snowpocalypse. When they got to the hotel, she’d have to put on Channel 12 and see just how many schools were cancelled tomorrow. Cole would get a kick out of it. “It’s really coming down out there, isn’t it?” she couldn’t resist teasing, turning to face him in the driver’s seat. He scoffed. “Don’t even joke about it. I’m actually offended that we are the only ones on the road right now,” he replied. Cole hadn’t been south of DC before, though not for lack of trying. They’d started dating in March of their sophomore year of college and while he offered, she didn’t let him come visit that summer. She went to him instead. Her parents were… a lot. And she didn’t mean in the “Oh my God they’re so embarrassing” way a lot of nineteen-year-old girls meant. They were a lot in the overbearing, overprotective, over-involved way that made her house stifling. Always being watched, always being judged. Plus, they were divorced. And to keep the peace Emma, even at nineteen, was still getting shuttled back and forth between houses. So she didn’t tell her parents she had a boyfriend and found a convenient excuse to go to New York for a week. She told her parents eventually, of course. Cole met her dad that fall at parents’ weekend. He didn’t meet her mother or stepmother until graduation. He understood where she was coming from, which was enough. Even though he clearly didn’t like it, he let her make excuses for them not to go to Richmond for Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or just because. Always letting her brush her family off with what about Cole’s parents--also divorced, both remarried, but living in different states? What about their siblings and step-siblings, all grown and scattered about the country? What about their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins? But the time had come, as she knew it would. She could no longer put off bringing him home. Cole, who wanted to see where she grew up. Cole, who wanted to spend more time with her family (voluntarily!). Cole, who had a ring she wasn’t supposed to know about. So, here they were. She put her foot down on staying with either of her parents, though. Cole had asked her whose house she wanted to spend it at and she’d laughed in his face. It was, admittedly, an overreaction. But of course they couldn’t stay with her mom, because if Emma was around her mom too long her mental health started to spiral, and plus that would upset her dad, who would text her every five minutes asking her to come over to his house. And of course they couldn’t stay with her dad, because if Emma was around her dad too long her mental health started to spiral, and plus that would upset her mom, though her mom would stew in silence for a bit and then make passive aggressive comments once Emma inevitably was forced to see her. So, hotel. Downtown hotel, with a half hour’s distance from both parents and the mental health spirals that accompanied them. Her dad was still probably going to text her every five minutes and her mom was still probably going to stew in silence and make passive aggressive comments. But at least Emma had a larger space to return to for venting purposes than just her and Cole’s rental car. Her dad had really pushed for them to stay at one of the places off 64 not five minutes from both of her parents’ houses. But Cole could see suburbia anywhere. Stay at a Comfort Inn whenever he wanted. Besides, she’d never stayed at the Quirk, the hotel with a bar that all the hip people from her high school tagged themselves at pretty frequently. She’d spent so little time downtown, period. She’d been scouring TripAdvisor and StyleWeekly for the best places to take him, feeling a little like a tourist in the place she’d spent over twenty years of her life. All she normally did when she came home was bounce back and forth between her parents’ houses and her three favorite restaurants. She and Cole checked in and found themselves opening the door to a rather minimalist suite decorated in ballet pinks and daffodil yellows and snow whites. A millenial decorator’s paradise. Their window looked out into the city and the spire of the Main Street train station keeping watch over it all. She could see why so many of the former hipsters of Fairmont Academy, now slowly settling into finance jobs and marriages and suburban starter homes, liked it here. Even if they probably never left the bar. Cole immediately kicked off his shoes, his Converse flying across the room and banging against the radiator, and dove onto the bed, stretching out across it like a starfish. He let out a rather obscene sounding groan as he sank into it. “When we get home, we’re buying a new mattress,” he announced, voice muffled into the pillow, “And new pillows and new sheets. I want to redo our bed.” “I wasn’t aware you had qualms with our bed.” She slipped her own shoes off and left them near the door to the ensuite before coming back over to join him, forcing him onto his side so they could lay next to each other. She was immediately cocooned in decorative pillows, the mattress hugging every curve of her body. “But I see why you like this one. Good God, what is the thread count on these?” “We’re adults now. We deserve better than what we have, and what we have is shit compared to this,” he said, nodding decisively into the pillow. She snorted, even as she looked for a tag on the duvet (it was very soft and fluffy). She wouldn’t mind upgrading theirs, the first thing neither of them hated at Target when they moved in together a few years ago, for something like this. “I could actually fall asleep right here, right now. What time is it?” she said. Abandoning her tag search, she twisted her head around without waiting for his response to read the alarm clock on the bedside table: 7:44 PM. She groaned. If she went to sleep now, she’d be up early and never get back to sleep. “How about you lay here for twenty minutes and watch Food Network while I shower, and then we’ll go eat apps and have a drink at the bar? Hotel TV, greasy food, and wine will perk you right up,” Cole suggested. “I’ve never been more attracted to you,” she replied, which earned her a peck on the lips before he stood up. “Love you, too.” Chopped was up and running before he’d even turned the shower on. She hauled her suitcase up onto the bed. She figured showing up to a real restaurant in an athletic tank top and leggings stained with Cheeto dust was probably a bad idea. She slipped into a dress that she could still wear her sports bra with. Then she collapsed back on the bed to settle in for a very stressful twenty minutes of watching people try to turn frozen margaritas into entrées. During the show’s commercial break, she checked the hotel bar menu and discovered they had mozzarella sticks, which was all the motivation she needed to put on heels and leave the room the second Cole was ready to go. He headed to the bar to order drinks and she went searching for a table, spotting a booth in the back right corner. Her phone dinged as she sat down. YOU HAVE ONE NEW MESSAGE FROM: DAD Lydia and I are going to Ben and Robin’s for a bit and then we’ll be home. If you want to stop by you’re welcome to. She sighed, setting her phone back down, screen first. When she looked back up, she found herself staring directly at Annabeth Robbins. Emma met Annabeth on the playground during recess. They fought over whose turn it was on the monkey bars. Six year olds aren’t quick to hold grudges, so within the hour they were friends, and by the end of the year, best friends. Like most things in her life, it didn’t stay that way. Annabeth stood before Emma could look away. She smiled, hoping it looked genuine and not like a grimace. Annabeth took tentative steps towards her, like she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. “Emma Parker? Are my eyes deceiving me?” “Hi, Annabeth,” she said, standing. Annabeth squealed in that high-pitched way Emma had forgotten she did, squeezing her into a tight hug. “Oh my God, hi!” “Hi!” Emma replied, wincing at the fake sincerity of her own tone. Annabeth didn’t seem to notice and let her go. “It’s been so long! How are you?” she asked, scanning Emma over. “I’m good. How about you?” “Wonderful, thank you. It’s so good to see you!” She laughed a little, like she couldn’t believe it. “You look fantastic.” “Oh, thank you. It’s called five hours of travel,” Emma said, striking a little pose. Annabeth snorted. When they’d been ten, Annabeth had been mortified over her snort-like laugh. She would cover her nose with one hand, like it would keep the sound in, and use her other hand to try and get Emma to stop making her laugh. Emma had always loved her laugh, so she never did stop. “You look great, too,” she added. The ring’s even prettier in person.” Annabeth blushed, raising her left hand over her heart. While Emma could count on one hand the people from Fairmont she wanted to talk to with any frequency, she did love keeping track of weddings and babies on Facebook and Instagram. According to a panel at a feminism event she’d organized recently, the average age of marriage for women in the US was 31 last year. Yet for the female graduates of Fairmont, it appeared to be about 27. Someone in her graduating class had gotten married before Emma had even left college. There’d been about six or seven weddings in the two years post-college graduations alone. For a graduating class of 131 students, that felt like too many. Honestly, she’d been a little surprised when she saw Annabeth was engaged. Emma had obviously never met her fiancé, so she couldn’t speak to him at all. But growing up, Annabeth had never struck her as the “stereotypical Fairmont girl.” Then she’d gone and majored in business and worked at Goldman Sachs for two years, and the illusion shattered. Last Emma heard, Annabeth was at the Richmond branch of Capital One, engaged, and probably lived around the corner from her parents. Emma couldn’t imagine that ever being her life. “Yes, it’s coming up! This March,” she said, moving her hand off her heart but not dropping it right away. Ostensibly so that Emma could admire the ring in person. She didn’t reach for it. “Wow.” What was the appropriate response to your childhood friend talking about the wedding they hadn’t bothered to invite you to? (She remembered being eight years old and imagining Annabeth as one of the bridesmaids at her wedding.) Annabeth dropped her hand. “We’re leaving tomorrow to head up to DC and spend the holidays with his parents. I take it that’s what brings you to town?” “Yep, Christmas with the parents, both sets. Double the fun, right?” (She remembered crying into Annabeth’s shoulder on the playground the day after she found out her parents were divorcing.) A hand on the small of her back jolted her out of the memory. She inhaled Cole’s cologne and relaxed immediately into his touch. “They didn’t have riesling so I got you pinot grigio,” he said, stopping just behind her. He flicked his eyes over to Annabeth. “Who’s this?” “Cole, this is Annabeth Robbins, an old friend from school. Annabeth, this is my partner Cole Tate,” she said. And then she immediately took a large gulp of wine and prayed. “So nice to meet you,” Annabeth said in a high voice reminiscent of Alexis from Schitt’s Creek, eyes widening. She stuck her hand out as she mouthed, He’s cute! at Emma, who wanted to curl into a ball and hide under the table. “Likewise,” Cole replied. He shook her hand like a gentleman who had never heard a bad thing about her. Which was not not the case. “Are you the ballet dancer?” “Not anymore, I’m afraid, but yes.” She practically preened at the comment. As if she took a certain amount of satisfaction in the fact that Emma still talked about her. Would she still react that way if she knew it came up in the context of Emma’s fears of abandonment and rejection? “Are you two meeting someone? If not, you’re welcome to join us.” She gestured to the assembled group she’d been sitting with. Emma realized with a sinking stomach that she knew every single person on that couch: Maggie Wright, a ninth grade transfer from St. Mary’s; Holden Cook, the valedictorian who’d gone to Yale; and Cameron Manning, the student government president a year above them. Emma took another gulp of wine. Was it too soon to get a second? Honestly, out of the 1 million people making up the Greater Richmond Region, why did it have to be these ones that she ran into? “Sounds fun,” Cole replied. Annabeth did that little squeal again and then took them over to her table. She actually dragged Emma by the hand. Cole almost spilled his drink trying to catch up. Cameron was the only one Emma had never directly interacted with before. After introductions and handshakes and hugs, they all sat down on the big U couch, Emma squeezed up against Maggie in a position that felt much too intimate for someone she’d simply shared homeroom with in ninth grade. Emma blinked and for a second they were all seventeen again, sitting around one of the circular tables in the cafeteria. Only this time, she had Cole next to her. She ran her hand along his thigh, squeezing when she reached his knee. He tossed her a smile before turning back to the rest of the table, shaking everyone’s hand. “Remind me where you’re living now?” Annabeth asked, leaning towards her across the table. “I know you went to Massachusetts for college. Are you still there?” “Chicago, actually. Cole did his master’s at UChicago so I moved there with him about...eighteen months after we left Amherst?” Emma replied, turning to Cole for confirmation. He nodded. “Right, I forgot you were one of the few brave souls to trek north with me,” Holden said, smiling. Emma resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She knew exactly what he was going to say before he said it as he turned to Cole and added, “I went to Yale.” “Oh, wow,” Cole said, just the right amount of impressed--which is to say, only somewhat. “Yes, I’m in Boston now. My partner and I are visiting his parents in Charlottesville for Christmas, so I thought I’d drive in and see the gang for the night.” Holden shrugged like it was no big deal to drive ninety minutes during a stay with his boyfriend’s family to grab drinks with some friends from high school. Emma blinked. Would she do that? “Where’s Charlottesville?” Cole asked. Emma winced as Cameron’s mouth fell open for just a split second. Of all the questions to ask… “Where UVA is?” Maggie said, less scandalized and more surprised. “Where did you say you were from originally, Cole?” “Harlem.” The hardness of his tone melted with a smile, the gently placating smile he used on her own parents whenever they were pushing his buttons. “I take it the rest of you live here?” It continued like that, almost like a game, turning their information over in exchange for what Emma mostly already knew, between Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, which Holden in particular was prolific on. Maggie taught now at St. Mary’s after spending her first few years out of Rice in Texas. She’d gotten married over the summer to her college boyfriend. Emma remembered liking all the photos, even though privately she’d thought they looked ridiculous. In her professional, event-planner opinion, cowboy boots at weddings and mason jar centerpieces were, as a rule, ridiculous. Especially when you didn’t even get married at, much less live on, a farm! If she remembered correctly, Maggie grew up in one of the massive houses off of Grove Avenue. Cameron had married her high school sweetheart two years ago, a lacrosse player Emma vaguely remembered named Somers (all the men at their school seemed to have last names for first names). Apparently, she was a few months pregnant, too, though Emma couldn’t tell that just from looking at her across the booth. Explained her water, though. Emma blinked again at that revelation. Wasn’t Cameron just riding around the Fairmont gym on a tricycle in men’s football gear as part of the Homecoming court relay? And now she was having a baby? Cole, unsurprisingly, considering what she’d found in his desk drawer, didn’t seem all that thrown by such an announcement. (Then again, he hadn’t seen Cameron riding around on that tricycle.) He knew the questions to ask and the jokes to tell to charm all three of them. He was good with people, always had been--at least, compared to her--but she’d never seen him quite so “on” before. Almost as if he was trying to take the spotlight from her and spare her the glare of it. Annabeth turned away from Cole to look directly at Emma. “Are you gonna be back for reunion this spring?” “Oh, shit, yeah, that’s next year!” Maggie said before Emma could, putting her head in her hands. “When did we get old?” “Twenty-seven is not old,” Cameron--a year older than them--all but scoffed. “You know what I mean.” “I have to see Jack Dunnings and Caroline Steiner together. I literally don’t understand how that happened,” Holden said. “Oh my God, yes! I have so many questions!” Emma hit the table, leaning forward. “I saw their first couple photos on Instagram and was so confused!” “Right!” From there, it devolved into a conversation on everyone else they’d gone to school with: Wesley Willard had moved to LA and been an extra in some summer blockbuster, Martha Peterson and Peyton Adams were on their third child at twenty-seven (which even Cameron thought was crazy), Elaina Zhou graduated top of her class at Brown, Lucas Mitchell was still an asshole, et cetera, et cetera. “I’m feeling pretty tired, so I’m going to head to bed,” Cole announced, slapping his thighs. “It was lovely to meet all of you.” He stood up and leaned down to kiss Emma on the forehead. “Take your time, alright?” She had two options. She could say she was tired, too, and stand up and go with him. Make excuses to these people who she’d maybe see in six months and maybe not for another several years, if ever. Go upstairs, show her gratitude for Cole, prepare to face her father tomorrow. Or she could stay here. She could keep talking to them. Drink wine, eat mozzarella sticks, gossip about the kids she’d hated even though she barely knew most of them, even after thirteen years together. “I won’t be much longer,” she said. And if Cole was surprised, he hid it well. He waved to them all one last time and then headed out. “He seems really great, Emi.” Emma’s stomach dropped, hearing the once-familiar nickname come tumbling out of Annabeth’s mouth. How long had it been since anyone had called her that? Emi and Annie against the world, unstoppable. Then Emma’s parents divorced. With hindsight, she could say she hadn’t handled it well. She’d already been in her ugly duckling, pre-teen phase, wondering who she was and what she deserved. Then came the split, cleanly dividing her life into “before” and “after.” Annabeth had tried her best, but Emma didn’t treat her well. Lashed out, was moody, didn’t take initiative in hanging out. She hadn’t noticed it then, hadn’t realized it. She simply pulled away. Annabeth only could do so much, and eventually, she’d stopped. Emma spent many nights crying over the end of their friendship, the question of what she’d done, or what it was about her that drove people away, ringing in her head, unable to find the answer in her childhood bedroom. It had been a long time since then. A lot of time she’d spent working herself out, sitting in therapy, fighting with Cole. She’d known Annabeth for almost half of her life, a thought that was rather scary to think. But she’d also had half of her life to figure out what had happened and how to not repeat it in every other relationship she had. And losing Annabeth didn’t mean that everyone else would leave. People grew apart. They grew up. It was natural. It was okay. “Yeah, he is,” she said, watching his retreating back exit the bar into the hotel lobby. She turned back to the table, smiling at them. “Anywhere in particular I should show him around? He hasn’t been here before.” They threw out so many suggestions she could barely keep up. Places she loved, places she vaguely remembered, and places she’d never heard of. It was a list so long it was barely worth remembering any of them. As a driver, she’d been a late bloomer, not getting her license until a few after she turned eighteen. She remembered the first time she drove down Monument Avenue by herself, the first time she’d had the freedom to go where she wanted when she wanted, and the city she’d found that had been at her fingertips this whole time. A world beyond the walls of Fairmont Academy, beyond Henrico’s suburban neighborhoods of large white houses, beyond Libbie and Grove’s overpriced preppy cafés the St. Mary’s girls frequented. A city she could’ve fallen in love with had she found it sooner, had she not run away as soon as she could. It was barely ten minutes later that Cameron was begging off and so Emma stood, too. Annabeth gave her a big hug and told her to keep in touch. Emma promised that she would. And she thought she might just actually do it. The night had been odd, certainly. She probably wouldn’t have gone with them if Cole hadn’t forced her. But she didn’t hate it. It was almost… nice. Maybe she would entertain coming back for the reunion. She opened the door to their room and latched it shut with a quiet click. Cole lounged on the bed, a hockey game on the TV. She started to make for the bed, but then she went over to the window and took in the view again: the spire of Main Street Station, the tracks of endless possibility gliding in and out of the city. It was probably the prettiest building downtown, affixed on many of the postcards. And in the snowglobe her dad had given her the year she started college. It was the only one of her once sprawling collection she’d taken to school with her. Even now it was on one of the bookshelves in their apartment, with one for New York across the shelf. She stared at her snowglobe, sometimes. At her mother’s office building etched on the side, thinking of the tears in her dad’s eyes as he handed it to her. Almost as if he knew she wasn’t going to come back all the way back then, when she hadn’t even figured it out for herself yet. “You okay?” Cole called. She spun around, smiling at him. “Yeah. I think I am.” She came to join him on the bed. “What did you think?” “They seemed nice enough.” He didn’t move his eyes from the TV. She kicked his foot. “That’s all you have to say? You were getting all chummy with them.” He shrugged. “Your stories from high school make a lot more sense.” “What does that mean?” she asked with a frown. This time he did turn to her. “I mean… the AP classes, the sprawling urban campus, the cotillion dances and all of that. Don’t get me wrong, I knew you grew up with more than I did--” “What? How?” He had the nerve to laugh at her. “You attended a NESCAC with no financial aid and own a Canada Goose jacket. I clocked that pretty quickly.” “So, what, you thought I was stuck up?” “Isn’t that the initial foundation of our whole relationship? I thought you were stuck-up, you thought I was a know-it-all, then I charmed you with my witty Google Docs comments?” She didn’t answer right away, in part because he was right. Every time he spoke in their Spanish 240 class, she’d felt like he was showing off how well-read he was, how well he understood the film, how well he knew his relative pronouns, how good of an accent he had, et cetera. He’d caught her making a face after one of his answers and had raised an eyebrow at her. She’d stared right back, unflinching. It had become almost like a game. He asked one of her teammates for her number so that he could ask a question about a paper, and they’d started texting, a little. Mostly him asking her a question. She always responded, promptly, too. It was a nice little power trip to know that the only kid who might be better than you in the class needed your help and advice, wanted you to read their papers for grammar mistakes. Of course, from there, she’d learned that he grew up in Harlem with his dad. Spanish was practically his second language, though neither of his parents spoke it. He wasn’t a know-it-all; he just had a better background. From there, she’d learned other things. How protective he was over his family and the kids on his caseload. How hard he laughed at his own dumb jokes. How he had a tendency to work himself to the point of exhaustion unless someone stepped in to make him rest. And that they fit together, if not perfectly, then at least they held tight enough to stay. “You’ve always been so concerned with what people think of you,” he continued, running a hand through her hair. “What people think about your money, in particular.” “Well, yeah. Fairmont girls lived so expensively I didn’t even know really until I got to Amherst just how much I had. And I--” She stopped. She’d always associated money with the people she didn’t like. People she didn’t want to be associated with. People she didn’t want to become. And Fairmont made Richmond so small. Made the whole city become something she didn’t want to be associated with. Somewhere she didn’t want to be. “Was never one of those girls, not really,” Cole finished for her. He shrugged again. “But you know how to do it when you need to. It was...weird, honestly, watching you, I won’t lie. But…” He reached for her hand, squeezing it. “I like to think that I know who you are, wealth and all, and I like it.” Hence the ring in the desk drawer. The one she might just wear sooner rather than later. “Even when I’m full Southern belle?” she drawled in her best Southern accent. He smiled. “Even then.” She nodded, playing with the fingers holding her hand. She thought about Monument Avenue again. It had probably changed the most these last few years, with the J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson statues of her childhood long gone. But she could still see them. Could still remember the turns to get to her preschool. The Science Museum. The baseball stadium. Forever frozen in time. A part of her. Whether she liked it or not. “Let’s go for a drive tomorrow before brunch with my dad and Lydia.” “Why? Aren’t the roads going to be dangerous?” he teased. She rolled her eyes. “I have some more to learn about this place, I think. This place in me. And I want to do that with you. If you want to do it with me.” He smiled again. “Show me your world, Emma Parker.”
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Olivia Dimond is a writer from Richmond, VA who loves finding ways to reinvent the stories we think we know. You can find her at oliviadimond.com or on Twitter @livdimond.