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Same Old Song and Dance


Elizabeth Li


Movie night was going well until you fell into my arms.

Your slender form sprawls across the couch, pushing me to the furthest edge. I hardly dare to breathe with your head in my lap, pinning my right hand beneath your shoulders. I spend the next hour of Supernatural being very careful not to move, even when Mary and Becca stretch on the carpet beneath us and block the screen, or when strands of your dark hair tickle my thighs.

The episode ends, concluding our night-long binge of Supernatural’s fourteenth season. Becca yawns, arching her back. “Think that’s enough for the day.” She flicks off the TV screen.

“Tired already?” Mary teases.

“It’s one in the morning,” Becca points out. She jerks her thumb back at your sleeping form on my lap.

“Besides, I wouldn’t be the first to pass out.”

I look down at you. “I’m not surprised. I sit next to Fei Yan in chem, and she’s basically always asleep.”

“Well it’s her loss,” says Mary, rising from the carpet and flashing me a grin, “‘cause the fun’s just getting started.”

She heads over to her kitchen and returns with a few glasses, carried in two stacks of two, along with a bottle of wine nocked in her left armpit. It’s a bottle of scotch – cheap, though you’d never be able to tell from the fancy gold embellishments on the label. Becca whistles as you pop it open.

You shift slightly from within my lap, drawing my gaze. With a flutter of your lashes, your eyes open and latch onto mine. Your lips quirk faintly. “Did someone say alcohol?”

“No,” I tell you. “Go back to sleep.”

A slight pout flits across your face. “Are you lying to me, Charlie?” You swing yourself into a sitting position and scan the now-filled glasses on the carpet.

“Technically,” I clarify, “no one said anything about alcohol. Your timing is just stupidly terrible.”

Becca passes you a glass, and you lift it theatrically into the air. “Ah, you see, the wine and I – we’re spiritually connected. I’d be able to sense it from the afterlife and beyond.”

“And now I feel guilty for indulging in your drinking problem,” says Mary.

“And not for committing a crime?” I ask.

She tsks. “I don’t know what you mean. Nothing wrong with some good ol’ apple juice.”

Somehow, I don’t think my parents would be too pleased if they discovered I was underage drinking. It wasn’t as if they would find out since we were sleeping over, but the weight of their disappointment still hangs over my neck. They didn’t move all the way from China just for their daughter to become an alcoholic (or so they’d probably say). So when Mary tries to hand me a glass, I wave her down. “I’ll pass.”

“Still the same good-girl Charlie,” sighs Becca.

Mary laughs. “We’ll corrupt you soon enough.”

I roll my eyes. “If your so determined to die of alcohol poisoning, you should take a shot every time Dean stares longingly into Castiel’s eyes.”

“Ugh,” Becca groans in mock-disgust. “Not another Destiel shipper.”

“I’m telling you. No men look at each other like that platonically.”

“It’s too bad they’ll probably be killed off by the end of the show,” you drawl. I glance over, only to find you tipping back the entire glass of scotch.

“Is that a spoiler?”

“Dunno.” You shrug, licking your lips. “It’s simply the well-supported hunch of a Netflix connoisseur.”

“Didn’t you literally sleep through the last three episodes?”

You shake your head in exasperation. “Charlie, Charlie. Here’s a fun fact about the gays in mainstream media.” You reach over and lift my chin with a finger, a cynical little smile on your face. “They don’t get happy endings.”

A morbid statement. But my mind is more focused on the cold tip of your finger, trailing lightly along the underside of my jaw.

We spend the rest of the night (early morning?) sitting cross-legged on Mary’s carpet playing a game of Truth or Drink – a bit unfair, considering my personal no-drinking policy. We run a few rounds of the standard quirky questions about weird food and guilty pleasure novels, before the question we were all expecting finally comes up.

“Out of all the people in our school,” says Becca, a sly slant to her smile, “is there anyone that you like?”

From my left, Mary wrinkles her nose and takes a sip of scotch.

“You’re no fun,” the other girl chides, and then her gaze turns to me. “Your turn, Charlie.”

“I...” My mind blanks. There isn’t anyone that comes to mind, but it feels almost wrong to not give a name. I sift through faces in my mind and settle on a boy in our grade. Tall. Strong. Nice, at least from what other’s say. Nothing wrong with liking a guy like that. “Brian,” I tell them. “Brian Hayes.”

Mary raises an eyebrow. “The captain of the football team? Wouldn’t have expected that from you.” She shrugs. “Well to each their own. Go, Fei Yan.”

I glance over, expecting you to down your drink (not like you’ve had any reservations before). But instead you grin, and say, “What if I said I liked Brian too?”

A pause. “That’s awkward,” Becca comments.

“What can I say? His blue eyes are just so alluring,” you declare with a sigh, putting a hand on your heart. “Well well well, dear Charlie. It seems we must simply compete for his love.”

“Or,” I say, “we could not?”

You throw me a wink. “Sorry darling. All’s fair in love and war.”

***


The soft sound of clacking keys intersperses the silence of the hallway. We sit with our backs pressed against the cold lockers, typing away on our laptops. Even when you’re silent, your presence is deafening; everything about you expands to fill the space you’re in, from the intense focus to your eyes, to the long strands of hair that curtain your reading glasses, to the subtle cock to your head as you scan another article for our research project. Every aspect about the way you hold yourself feels profound.

“Like what you see?”

I startle slightly, realizing I’ve been staring. “Sorry. Zoned out.”

“Eh, I haven’t been working for the past twenty minutes anyways.” You tilt your laptop screen to show me. “I’ve been reading reviews of Jay Chou’s latest album.”

Of course you were. “Well? Is it good?”

“See for yourself.” You pass me an earbud and turn up the volume. I brace myself, but the vocals float in gently with the soft curl of a Taiwanese accent. You show me a few more songs, fully forgetting about the project at hand.

“His ballads are nice,” I comment.

You snort. “Nah, they’re shit. Definitely not his best work. You wanna hear a real ballad?”

I shrug, long having given up on making use of the work period. “Sure.”

“There’s another contemporary singer in China who’s been blowing up – Mao Buyi. Here, I’ll show you my favorite song.”

You search it up on Spotify, and we listen for a minute to the tenor croon of his vocals. With my sub-par mandarin skills, I vaguely pick up lyrics about wine and regret. I can’t help but crack a smile – I can see why you’d like this song.

“He reminds me of you, y’know?” you remark when the song ends.

I raise an eyebrow. “Overdramatic and existentialist? Not usually how I’d describe myself.”

“No no, not that,” you huff. “It’s just that you have the same vibe – cute, in that awkward sort of way. Did you know he had to redo his introduction three times on his Tencent debut? And broke his guitar string too. But he charmed everyone and won anyways.”

“Ah, so bumbling and incompetent. You’re right, that does sound like me.”

You swat me on the arm. “It was a compliment. He was my celebrity crush for a year.”

I raise my eyebrow. “Just a year?”

“Alas, I’ve moved on to greater and better things.”

“Like Brian Hayes.”

You smile faintly. “Exactly.”

We work in silence for the rest of the period as you cycle through your playlist. I wonder if there’ll come a day when you share it with Brian Hayes. If the two of you will sit shoulder-to-shoulder against the cold locker doors, connected by the wire of your headphones and the gentle croon of your music. It’s a perfect, picturesque shot straight out of a romance movie. Yet when I look back at us, the scene falls apart with an imbalanced asymmetry. There is a wrongness, a foreignness to it that would make the director shout “cut!” in a burst of frustration, his fingers twitching to rearrange my face into one suitable for you to kiss in the climax of the plot.

The ridiculousness of my imagination is comedic. Even still, I’m struck with the urge to reach out and put my hand over yours, just like in the movies, and see if the earth will spin and tilt off its axis.


***


Season 15 episode 18: “I love you” says the angel Castiel to the mortal Dean Winchester, his voice trembling and raw. Then a gaping whole in the universe yawns open to reveal a roiling, rotting darkness. It roars forward and swirls around him, swallowing his limbs and body and clawing up his neck before devouring him whole. Apocalypse. Destruction. Tragedy. I stare blankly for a moment, then close my laptop screen.


***


The fall term comes and passes, and soon our world is enveloped in winter. You arrive after me at the entrance to the mall with flecks of snow woven into your dark hair, a constellation spilling across your shoulders. Your thin-framed glasses fog up at the sudden warmth, and you glance around blindly until I tap your shoulder, stifling a laugh.

“Not a word,” you warn me.

We spend the day strolling around the mall, browsing stores and buying boba. Just as I’m scouring the bookshelves at an Indigo Chapters, you suddenly tug on my sleeve and give a pointed jerk of your head. I follow your gaze and notice a familiar face across the store.

“Isn’t that Hayes?”

“Quite dreamy, isn’t he?” you coo, batting your eyelashes. “Today’s our lucky day. Now’s our chance to have him fall head over heels for us.”

Amused, I remark, “And how do you plan to do that? I don’t think he’s noticed either of us.”

“Charlotte, darling, that’s exactly why we must take action now.” A feline grin flickers past your lips.

“What if we held hands to make him jealous?”

I match your mock-coy tone. “What if we cuddled on the sofa?”

“What if he watched me braid your hair?”

“What if we hugged in front of him?”

“What if we kissed?”

I tilt my head. “What if we did?”

“Mm. Could be worth a try.”

Humor dances through your eyes, and I feel a breath of giddiness rush through my lungs. And as we make our way down the aisle, you reach over and interlace your fingers with mine. Your hands are cool, and I can feel the curves of your rings pressing against my skin.

We stay that way, hand in hand, even when Brian Hayes has long since left the store.


***


The end has snuck up on us, summer swooping in on gilded wings. You take Brian Hayes to prom; the two of you look dazzling together, the slender curve of your body fitting perfectly against his muscled chest and broad shoulders.

We sneak away in-between songs to gorge ourselves on cake and fruit punch. You offer to share Hayes with my lovestruck soul, but after seeing the way he mangled your feet on the dance floor, I think I’ll pass.

And then it’s all over: the year, our classes, high school. There’s no more projects for us to stay up on call together to work on. There’s no more Brian Hayes to parade around the mall for. Yet still I find myself in your bedroom on a cool evening night, your window open the slightest of cracks to allow in a cool breeze. I sit cross-legged across from you at the foot of your bed, throwing a pillow between us back and forth with a lazy rhythm.

“Have you packed yet?”

You nod. “Yeah. I’ll be off to China tomorrow morning.”

“My parents say your school’s the best in Nanjing. Congrats.”

“Hah. Thanks.” You toss the pillow back to me. “It’ll be... weird. Taking classes in mandarin again. Having everyone around you speak Chinese. I’ve only been away for four years too.” You sigh. “That was always the plan, you know? Go international for high school and escape the torture that is the gaokao, then test back into China.” You meet my gaze. “It was always meant to be temporary. Life here, I mean.”

I frown. “It doesn’t mean it didn’t matter.”

You shake your head. “No, that’s not what I meant. I just wish...” You glance away. “I wish I could have made something more with my time here. I... I wish I hadn’t been a coward.”

I wrinkle my nose and throw the pillow at your face. “Are you kidding? Coward is not exactly a word I’d use to describe you.” Not you. Never you, who flaunted your terrible gothic fashion in ninth grade. You, who argued with our English teacher over your obscure interpretation of The Great Gatsby. You, who cussed out Lewis Gold in front of a crowd for cheating on Mary before punching him in the face. You’ve always been fēi yān: a whorl of acrid smoke, unafraid to provoke or conquer.

But now your eyes glimmer with an expression I’ve never seen you wear. Fear. It looks foreign on your face. “I want to be brave, Charlotte.”

I shrug. “I think you are.”

And then you reach out, and those long, silver-ringed fingers close around my collar, bunching my shirt. My heart stutters in my chest as you pull me forward. “Is that so?” you murmur.

The world careens and grinds to a halt. In that moment, it’s just the two of us in your cramped and messy bedroom with nothing but the sound of our own breathing between us. The moment is fleeting and eternal, transitory and infinite.

They say the hearts of drummers beat in sync when they match each other’s rhythm. If I match your breathing for long enough, perhaps it will be enough for us to become one. One being, one spirit, our hearts finally aligned, and maybe everything will click into place and feel just right.

My hands cup the sides of your face, but it feels wrong. I’m shaking. You feel like a crime, like a sip of alcohol, like a secret I wasn’t supposed to tell, like a game that was never supposed to be anything more. We were never supposed to do more than sidle against the invisible wall between us. It was never supposed to crack. In the darkest crevices of my mind, my treacherous thoughts whisper of the angel Castiel, devoured alive by the darkness.

You don’t move. You’ve stopped breathing. We stay there: poised and frozen, suspended in time, terrified of being each other’s tragedy.

And then your eyes lower, and your shoulders sag, and your hand slips from my collar. The moment passes. I avert my eyes as well; the taste of regret is bitter on my tongue. Neither of us managed to be brave tonight. Neither of us could overcome that invisible wall, that primal, subconscious hesitance that runs oh-so-deep – even within someone like you, so unabashed and wild. It’s been ingrained by the tales that shape us and fill our lives, that young girls cradle close to our chests. Cultivated by the people we’re taught to adore,

and the people who we see buried, their stories left forever unfinished.

The next day, you text me a selfie of you boarding the plane. “Safe travels,” I send back. I stare at my phone and await the “delivered” subtext that will never appear, knowing that our dance has come to an end.





Elizabeth Li has been previously been published by the Aurora Journal as well as Cathartic Lit. She has also been selected to attend the 2021 Kenyon Young Writers’ Workshop and the Virginia Young Writers Workshop. Furthermore, she has been published a chapbook titled “anatomy of wonderland” through Bottlecap Press, which was also a semifinalist in the 2022 Sundress Chapbook Contest.

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