THE TOGA PARTY
The summer I turned fifteen, I resolved to become a real teenager. All of a sudden I couldn’t bear to be a kid for one day longer. I still had posters of baby animals on my bedroom walls: a ginger kitten with a caption saying “Make My Day;” a Greenpeace poster with a photo of a whale’s tail. I ripped those posters down but I had nothing to replace them with. I could take the bus to the record shop in Dundee and buy some posters of Suede or Nirvana or Elastica, but the people I was trying to impress—the “alt cool girls,” as I referred to them in my diary—would know I was just trying to impress them. My parents would try to take an interest in my life by asking about Suede and Nirvana and Elastica and I didn’t necessarily know much about them. I didn’t necessarily like them. The music I actually enjoyed listening to was my parents’ old cassette tape of Abba’s greatest hits, which I had stashed down the side of my mattress and only listened to when I was sure that nobody—not even my parents, not even my childhood best friend Susan—would hear.
Susan had little interest in trying to buy beer and seeking out boys to roll around with in the sand dunes at the freezing cold beach parties where the youth of St. Andrews hung out. She was still happy to spend our Saturday nights making elaborate ice cream sundaes, watching “The Hand That Rocked the Cradle” and “Fatal Attraction” too many times to count, and acting like staying up till one in the morning was rebellious, like it had been when we were thirteen. If I suggested walking into town and trying to buy a can of cider at Oddbins, Susan would roll her eyes. “Then what? Are we going to sit at the bus station with Ross and Phil, sipping our Scrumpy together? If you want to drink, why don’t you just ask your parents for a can of beer?”
My parents would’ve given us beer if we’d asked, but didn’t Susan understand that wasn’t the point? I was fifteen, I had never drunk alcohol without parental supervision, and I had never kissed a boy, let alone had a boyfriend. If I didn’t find a way to get a new group of friends, I was going to miss out on this stage entirely.
So I made a plan. I wouldn’t dump Susan outright because I didn’t want to end up with no friends, and anyway I needed Susan. Susan was funny and popular. She did things like getting our prim, lipstick-toothed Latin teacher to say “the boy comes” as many times as possible, and getting the whole class to convince our history teacher that he had forgotten to give us homework the previous week. When Susan and I were a twosome, people wanted us around. I couldn’t afford to lose Susan, but I would work on integrating us into other social groups. Social groups that had their priorities straight and hadn’t prematurely outgrown being teenagers. The kind of people who might casually invite us to beach parties. Once I was there, in proximity to alcohol, cigarettes, and boys, the rest would follow.
So when school started back in September, Susan and I began tagging along with Carly and Rebecca and their alt cool girl posse, who wore denim jackets in midwinter and spent their lunchtimes smoking cigarettes and eating chocolate bars or apples, if anything, at the University Gardens (known as the UVG). Now that we were in fourth year, nobody ate lunch in the cafeteria anymore. The six hundred or so kids from our high school poured out onto the streets of St. Andrews, the medieval college town where we lived, and swarmed the town’s newsagents, bakeries, and supermarket for fifty minutes, putting shopkeepers on alert for shoplifting and causing old ladies to tut about mini-skirts and untucked shirts. Our high school was right next door to the UVG so the garden was a popular spot for high school kids to congregate at lunch times.
Carly, the leader of the alt cool girls, was one of those girls who was neither thin nor pretty but managed to be popular anyway, by sheer force of personality—the kind of personality that would flatten you if you stood in her way, or if you did everything to stay out of her way but she felt like flattening you anyway. Carly’s best friend Rebecca was the pretty one—tall and striding in her Doc Marten boots, she had bleached blonde hair and smudged, dark red lipstick and everyone said she looked like Courtney Love. Rebecca didn’t need to be mean to be popular. She just did what she wanted. The others just seemed like regular girls who were allowed to tag along with Carly and Rebecca and therefore had access to their social life of beach parties and weed-smoking boys with floppy hair and oversize plaid shirts. That was what I aspired to be: a regular girl who had access to that stuff.
The first time we tagged along with the alt cool girls at lunch time, Susan insisted on stopping at the bakery and spending £2 on a whole baked potato with butter and cheese for lunch. Had she missed the memo that we were teenage girls? Teenage girls weren’t supposed to eat real food. We were supposed to be on a constant diet and eat only a chocolate bar for lunch so we could save our money for cigarettes. If Susan had been skinny, that would be one thing, but she was average size. Average size and totally comfortable with it.
At WH Smith, the newsagent where the rest of us bought our “lunch,” Carly and Rebecca shoplifted chocolate bars, slipping them under the overstretched black cardigans that they wore over their baggy white school shirts and black miniskirts—a version of our school’s uniform that was a stretch by all accounts, but by the time you were in fourth year the teachers picked their battles. I was afraid to shoplift so I paid 25p for my Galaxy bar and tried to ignore Susan’s disapproving looks until she made it impossible by launching into a shrill impression of our social studies teacher:
“Rrrreeechel! Is that a nutrrritious lunch? Are we eating all shreeee essential food grrrroups?”
Of course, Carly and Rebecca thought it was hilarious and joined in.
“Rrrrreeechel! Chocolate for lunch? Is that a nutrrritious meal?”
So I had to pretend to think it was funny.
“But chocolate has milk in it!” I mock-argued. “Milk has calcium in it!”
Why the fuck did Susan have to single me out for attention when I was just trying to blend in?
At the UVG, I perched at the end of the row of girls on the back of the bench (nobody sat on the seat of the bench because it was always damp, because it had always just rained, because we lived in Scotland), listening to Carly and Rebecca talk about how they needed to quit smoking and wondering how I could inconspicuously become a smoker and get addicted without anyone calling me out for just trying to be cool.
My first opportunity to socialize with the alt cool girls outside of school came one Friday night when we all went to the cinema to see “The Lion King.” Susan was going skiing in the Highlands with her family that weekend so I would finally have a chance to fully be my new self, uninhibited by her judgment. I followed Rebecca, Carly, and the others to the back row. Smoking was still allowed in cinemas in those days, which made it a popular destination for teenagers when it was too cold to hang out at the beach. To avoid being spotted by friends of parents, smoking teens headed for the back row and waited for the lights to go down before lighting up.
When Rebecca passed her pack of Marlboro Lights down the row, everyone took one. So did I. Emma offered me a light and I held my cigarette out to the flame but nothing happened.
“Um, Rachel? You have to put it in your mouth to light it,” said Carly. She turned to tell Rebecca what I’d done, and then they were all whispering and laughing.
“Is that your first cigarette, Rachel?” asked Carly.
In the end, one of the other girls, Emma, took pity on me and lit my cigarette for me.
I can’t remember much about the rest of the night. I think I sank into a deep shame spiral and blocked it out. Ten years later, when I watched “The Lion King” with my three-year-old niece, I couldn’t figure out why that “Circle of Life” song provoked a feeling of impending doom, until I remembered.
After I started buying my own cigarettes, Susan stopped coming to the UVG with us at lunch. Carly went from ignoring me to actively saying things that made it clear she didn’t want me around. “Excuse me, Rachel. Do you mind not eating while I smoke?” I attempted a laugh. “I’m not joking,” she said. I kept a smile pinned to my face. If I didn’t acknowledge that they didn’t want me there, it wasn’t real.
Instead of gracefully accepting my rejection, I doubled down on showing up. The alt cool girls met at the lockers at the beginning of lunch time to walk to the UVG. If I wasn’t there when they were ready to go, they wouldn’t wait for me. So toward the end of fourth period, I packed up my books early so I’d be ready to sprint to the lockers as soon as the bell went. I’d come this far. I wasn’t going to give up now.
One Monday lunchtime, everyone was gossiping about Rebecca’s new boyfriend, Jonny, whose blond curtain hair and Nirvana T-shirts had earned him the nickname Kurt. As the hottest alt cool boy and girl at our school, it was practically mandatory for them to date at some point. “It’s Kurt and Courtney!” kids yelled as they walked hand-in-hand to the bus.
For a few weeks, I listened to the girls’ stories about their adventures with Jonny and his friends, Ben and Christian: who had drunk what, who had made out with whom, and who had threatened to commit suicide. The boys were a year below us so they still attended the middle school on the other side of town, but I felt like I knew them: Jonny, the hot, arrogant one; Christian, the deep, suicidal one; Ben, the pathetic but lovable weirdo.
“Christian says the most profound things when he’s drunk,” said Karen.
“If Christian didn’t have so much acne I would fuck him tomorrow and every day for the rest of my life,” said Carly, who was always talking about who she would fuck if they changed one thing about themselves. Nobody dared to question whether they would want to fuck her.
“Ben, on the other hand…” said Rebecca.
“Aw, I think Ben’s sweet!” said Emma.
Ben had greasy hair and a big nose and he wore dresses in his front yard after school to antagonize the townies, who would chase him through town and beat him up whenever they got a chance.
“He’s Ben. He’s an individual,” said Emma. “Plus, did you hear he won the poetry competition with a love poem he wrote for Lauren?”
Carly laughed so hard she choked and dropped her cigarette in a puddle.
A few weeks later, Rebecca dumped Jonny, which was as inevitable as them going out in the first place.
“All the teeny-boppers in second year are soooo excited that Jonny’s single again,” said Carly.
“They’re lathering their pale pink lip gloss all over their faces and praying he’ll sit in their section of the bus,” said Rebecca. She flicked the sparkwheel of her translucent yellow lighter unsuccessfully a few times before tossing it under the bench and reaching into Carly’s back pocket for her lighter.
“He’ll be married with children before you know it,” said Carly.
Everyone fell around laughing. Even I understood that this was a reference to a conversation they’d had at a recent beach party about who was which song on the new Oasis album, Definitely Maybe. Emma was “Digsy’s Dinner” because she wanted to be treated like a queen and given strawberries and cream. Christian was “Slide Away” because he was always talking about how suicidal he was. Jonny was “Cigarettes and Alcohol” because he smoked Marlboro Reds, which were so strong they burned your throat. And Rebecca was “Married with Children” because she was so over it and whenever she was with the boys she said, “Goodbye, I’m going home.”
I hadn’t been at the beach party, of course, but if I had been I would’ve been “Live Forever,” because I saw things they’d never see and I was going to be famous one day.
One lunch time the following week, I failed to reach the lockers before the group left for the UVG. I ran and caught up with them in WH Smith. None of them acknowledged me and I could tell something was different. I grabbed a Caramel and slunk into line behind Carly, but instead of ignoring me, she turned around and addressed me directly:
“We never actually invited you to come to lunch with us.”
She turned to face the front of the line, saving me, at least, the pressure of coming up with a response. None of the others turned around to look at me.
I didn’t follow the alt cool girls to the UVG that day. After I’d paid for my Caramel I walked back to school, grabbed my backpack from the lockers, and walked straight home.
The next day I ate my lunch in a toilet cubicle because everyone knew you couldn’t be seen eating lunch on your own. The day after that I spent lunchtime in the library with Carrie and Marion, two mousy girls I’d been vaguely friends with in second year. They were the kind of girls who went on about how they were in love with Damon Albarn from Blur but actually listened to Take That. I kept glancing at the door, hoping no-one would come in and see what I’d been reduced to.
Then, as I was walking from History to French that afternoon, Emma caught up with me and asked if I was busy that night and if I wanted to meet at the beach.
“Who else is going?” I asked.
“Me.” She shrugged. “And maybe you?”
And so it happened that, a few days before the first day of the summer holidays, Emma and I met in town and walked down to the beach together, just the two of us. The Castle Sands was the smallest of the three beaches in St. Andrews, nestled between the Castle and the Cathedral, medieval ruins to which coachloads of tourists flocked during the summer months. To us local teenagers who had grown up playing in the grounds of these historic ruins, however, the only history that lived here was our own: the paper library cards my sister and I used to show at the entrance when Mum brought us to play here after school to prove we were local residents, entitled to free entry; the time Susan’s brother climbed too far out over the rocks and fell off a cliff and somebody’s dad had to climb down and rescue him.
Emma led me to a secret cave that she had discovered in the side of the cliffs.
“It’s the perfect place to smoke because no one can see you from the beach or the street,” she said.
Emma had brought two cans of beer. We sat in the cave and sipped the foamy bitterness, staring out at the sea, the wind whipping our hair in our faces. When I took my cigarettes out, Emma passed me a light.
“You know the best thing about summer?” Emma asked.
“We don’t have to see Carly every day. Or any day.”
I laughed. A real laugh. Maybe things would be different this summer.
Since Rebecca had dumped Jonny back in May, she and Carly no longer had any interest in hanging around with Jonny, Christian, and Ben. The boys’ distinguishing characteristics of talking about how depressed they were and threatening to overdose on paracetamol, which had once been seen as profound and hot, were now considered pathetic by the alt cool girls. To me, being suicidal still seemed like the height of cool, so when Emma engineered a beach party with those boys and invited me, I was so excited I thought about nothing else all week.
Emma and I were already buzzed by the time we got off the bus in Crail on the first Friday night of the summer holidays—I had successfully purchased a bottle of wine at Oddbins and we’d been sipping it in the back of the bus. In Crail we didn’t have to worry about parents so we smoked cigarettes brazenly as we walked down the main street toward the beach.
“Emma! Rachel!” Ben was already drunk and he tripped a couple of times as he ran across the beach to hug us. Jonny and Christian waved nonchalantly from farther down the beach as we walked over to join them. A few middle-aged couples strolled on the beach, ignoring our raucous cluster of five as we passed wine bottles and cider cans back and forth and dropped our empty cigarette packets wherever we felt like it. It was June and the sun wouldn’t go down until midnight so there was no chance of cover of darkness, but we weren’t afraid of anyone. There were five of us, we were teenagers, and we were wasted.
I had spent so many years yearning to lose my kissing virginity that even while it was happening I didn’t fully believe it. The five of us were clustered together in a group hug, then all of a sudden Ben and I were making out, and then the others noticed and I could hear them talking about us so I knew that it was really happening. Immediately afterward I made out with Jonny and Christian too, just to solidify my place in the ranks of girls who had kissed.
The next morning I woke at five. The thrill of last night washed over me and I grinned as I remembered that I had really done the thing that I’d been panicking about not having done for the past three years. And not only once but three times, with three different boys! It was full daylight and the birds were already singing. There was no way I was getting back to sleep but I didn’t care.
Thus began a summer of real teenagering. We formed our own posse of five—Emma, Ben, Jonny, Christian, and me—and spent most of our days and nights together, hanging around the streets, beaches, and UVG. In the days before cell phones we had to call each other’s houses and speak to each other’s parents in order to make plans. If we didn’t get around to calling, we would wander around town until we found each other. We always managed to procure alcohol somehow, and once we had it we headed to the UVG or the beach to get wasted. Some nights we managed to get into a pub but we usually got kicked out for swiping people’s drinks from their tables or stumbling around begging for cigarettes. So we moved on to the next place. It was summer in Scotland and the daylight went on and on.
We found endless ways to do all-nighters, telling our parents we were staying at each other’s houses, not caring about the cold or the discomfort of sleeping on benches or beaches, or about things like not eating dinner. Sometimes we went “camping” in the woods on the outskirts of town, where Ben lived. This really meant sitting around drinking, smoking, playing truth and dare, coupling off and making out. Ben was no longer in love with Lauren and was now in love with me. Everyone knew this, and I was secretly delighted to be the acknowledged subject of a crush for the first time in my life, but I couldn’t stoop to being Ben’s girlfriend. Even with summer here, I had to retain a modicum of dignity. Alcohol, however, gave me the excuse I needed to reach for his hands and pull them inside my clothes whenever we ended up lying beside each other on the beach or the grass or in the woods.
I had spent years wanting to kiss a boy in order to reach an acceptable level of coolness, but this new and urgent desire for hands all over my body was not driven by the social hierarchy. In fact it was almost certainly detrimental to my social standing, since Ben was universally regarded as ugly and pathetic. But my body didn’t care what the alt cool girls would think, at least not when I was drunk. At least as long as summer lasted. In the morning I would just blame it on the cider and tell Ben sorry, I still can’t be your girlfriend.
The best thing about Emma’s new boyfriend, Simon, was that he loved Abba. Simon was eighteen and his family had recently moved to St. Andrews from England. “He’s obviously gay,” said everyone at the theater group where Emma had met him, but what did they know? Being gay didn’t mean much to us and we didn’t give it much thought. The problem was that Simon would be leaving for drama school in Glasgow at the end of the summer. Emma had already memorized the bus schedule from St. Andrews to Glasgow. Simon seemed more interested in memorizing the lyrics to the musical “Chess,” the Abba musical.
Simon’s unashamed love of Abba provided the excuse I needed to dig my parents’ old Abba cassette tape out from under my mattress. Emma, Simon, and I brought my battery-operated stereo out into the garden and played it loud and proud, singing along to “Super Trouper” and “Mamma Mia,” not caring if the neighbors heard us. It was summer and all social rules were off.
Some afternoons we even took the stereo to the beach and played Abba while sitting in our secret cave, sharing cigarettes and gazing out at the sea. To reach our cave, you had to leap across slimy rocks at the water’s edge then clamber up the steps in the side of the cliff. Those steps had probably been painstakingly carved by eleventh-century peasants, but to us they were a magical staircase to a secret den created especially for us. The graffiti and empty beer cans suggested we were not the only teens who frequented this cave, but when we were there we felt untouchable. Like if we could just find a way to never leave the cave, we could be free forever.
“We should stay the night in the cave one night,” Emma said.
“Oh my god, yes!” I said.
So Emma and I hatched an elaborate plan to have a toga party on the last night of the summer holidays. We would wear bed sheets as togas, limbo dance under bean poles, drink white wine, smoke menthol cigarettes, and listen to Abba. We wrote these plans down in green pen in Emma’s notebook, making lists of who would be there and what each person would bring. We made a plan to swipe the bean poles from Simon’s garden and the bed sheets from our parents’ linen closets. We even made a budget for wine, menthols, and chocolate chip cookies and wrote down the date and time that we planned to purchase the alcohol, with a backup date in case we didn’t get served the first time.
It became a joke among our little group that, whenever we were drunk or bored, Emma and I would pull out the notebook and green pen and add more details to our toga party plans. We drew pictures of what the six of us would look like in our togas. We made fun of ourselves, but we were also serious. We couldn’t make summer last forever, but we could honor its magic by creating the perfect ending.
So, on the afternoon of the second last day of the summer holidays, Emma and I met at Simon’s house to select the bean poles from his mom’s garden to use as limbo poles for the toga party that night. Simon’s family had just returned from holiday in France and he had come back smoking Gauloises Menthols, which the three of us were now obsessed with.
“Can I have a Gauloises Menthol?” said Emma.
“Can I have a Gauloises Menthol too?” I said.
Simon rolled his eyes, shook out three cigarettes, and passed us his lighter—an actual Zippo, which he had also acquired in France.
As we sat on the edge of Simon’s mom’s curated rockery and ran our hands through the still-dewey grass, we inhaled our Gauloises Menthols like pros and squinted into the sun.
“This summer’s been so perfect,” said Emma. “Spending our days at the beach and our nights sipping wine and smoking menthols.”
“You mean spending our days bored out of our minds and our nights getting drunk and crying and arguing and watching fourteen-year-old boys cutting themselves with razor blades?” said Simon. “Oh Emma, I’m going to miss your ability to see the world through rose-tinted spectacles.”
Emma and I laughed, or at least attempted to. To acknowledge that Simon would miss Emma meant acknowledging that things were going to change once school started, and neither of us wanted to do that.
“Silence for the greatest Abba song ever written,” said Simon. It was “The Winner Takes It All,” and for a moment, it was happening. The toga party was really happening. It was a clear, warm evening, still bright daylight, even though August was almost over. The seagulls were squawking persistently overhead, as they always had done, reminding us of childhood afternoons spent playing in the rock pools. The tide was out so we hadn’t even gotten our feet wet when we scrambled over the rocks. And now we were here, Simon, Emma, and me, sitting on the sandy floor of our cave, drinking white wine, smoking menthols, and listening to Abba on my portable cassette player, just as we’d planned. We weren’t wearing our togas yet but we had the bed sheets in our bags, ready for when we were drunk enough. We had the bean poles too, for limbo dancing.
The day after tomorrow we would be back at school. Who knew if things would be as bad as they had been last year, but they wouldn’t be like this. There would be no more blasting Abba at full volume. There would be no more making out with losers without social repercussions. There would be Carly and Rebecca and the politics of lunchtime. Everything we did would have a label and a cost. But before that, we would have our toga party, just the way we had planned it.
“I hope the boys come,” I said.
“I hope they don’t,” said Simon, with a perky shrug.
“Of course they’re going to come,” said Emma. “What else would they be doing on the last night of the summer holidays?”
We heard the boys before we saw them: shouting instead of talking, marking their presence as teenage boys, the centre of the universe, as they strode down the sloping path that led from the street to the beach; Christian cursing as he dropped a cigarette in the sand and stopped to look for it; Jonny shouting at Christian to hurry the fuck up, he wanted to get wasted; Ben mumbling something inaudible. Then we saw them: intentional lopsided boy-strides over the rocks, Christian holding a lit cigarette in his teeth and a clinking plastic bag in one hand. They didn’t use their hands to steady themselves as they clambered over the rocks, preferring to fall than to make any moves that would separate them from men. Except for Ben, who didn’t care about masculinity and whined every time he got his feet wet.
“Alright Rach,” said Jonny, plunking himself down in the middle of my blanket and plucking a Marlboro Red out of a crumpled pack. Christian and Ben scrambled up the rock into the cave after him.
The boys hadn’t brought sheets to make into togas. (Did I really think they would?) They hadn’t brought white wine either, they’d brought neat vodka, and they tolerated Abba for all of five minutes before they slipped Christian’s Veruca Salt tape into my cassette player and turned the volume way up.
Emma and Simon decided they needed to have a serious conversation and wandered off to sit on the rocks at the far end of the beach. Without them, I was the only one left who cared about the toga party. It became clear that Jonny and Christian were already wasted, and their wastedness had a mean edge to it tonight. Even Ben, who usually backed me up whatever I did, seemed to have lost the stars in his eyes. When I complained, for the fourth time, that Christian and Jonny were ruining the toga party, he said, “Oh, stop whining, Rach.”
It was like they had already given up on summer. Of course I knew things wouldn’t be the same once school started, but we still had tonight, didn’t we? Willing the tears not to come, I sat cross-legged and glugged wine straight from the bottle, cursing myself for believing the toga party could really happen.
When Emma returned, she was alone. I ran over the rocks to meet her, letting my tears out as I told her about Jonny and Christian acting weird and Ben being mean to me.
“They’re not going to wear togas, are they?” I sobbed.
Emma was red-eyed herself, but I didn’t ask what had happened or why Simon was still sitting on the rocks at the other end of the beach.
“They probably never were,” said Emma.
“I’m starving,” I cried.
None of us had eaten dinner. In general, dinner was low on our list of priorities.
“Me too. Let’s go to the Shell Garage and get more chocolate chip cookies.”
Emma always had a practical solution to our problems.
The part of the night that became a mini-legend in our town—the part that even our parents heard about, prompting my dad to give me a rare serious talk about how it wasn’t a good idea to hang out with boys who “seemed unstable”—happened in the twenty minutes when Emma and I were walking to and from the Shell Garage on the other side of town, the only shop open at this time of night. We were discussing the state of our relationships: Simon had told Emma he thought they should break up when he went to drama school. I was thinking about making things official with Ben, despite what people would say. We cried and laughed and invented scenarios for what we would do if our parents happened to drive past and ask us why we were wandering around town in the middle of the night when we were supposed to be staying at each other’s houses.
We missed the part where Jonny and Christian emerged from the cave acting really weird and announced that they’d overdosed on paracetamol and they were going to die that night. We missed the part where Simon freaked out and ran to a phone box to call 999 while Ben yelled at him to stop overreacting. We missed the ambulance that showed up and parked outside the castle, lights flashing, while paramedics dragged Jonny and Christian away to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee to have their stomachs pumped.
We heard about all this from Ben, who was the only one left when we arrived back at the beach with our cookies.
“They tried to jump the fence into the castle but the cops pulled them down,” Ben told us. “Then Jonny started singing ‘Where did you sleep last night?’”
“You’re joking?” said Emma. Both of us were half laughing, half crying by this point.
“At the police station giving a statement,” said Ben with an eye roll.
“You’re joking!” said Emma, now just crying. “The cops are going to call our parents!”
“It’s Simon’s fault for calling the cops,” said Ben. “They weren’t going to fucking die.”
Emma went straight to the police station to look for Simon while Ben and I headed back to the cave and started making out. What else was there to do? Bed sheets and limbo dancing were off the cards. There didn’t seem any point in putting the Abba tape back on now.
“Get up! The tide’s coming in!”
Ben and I untangled our limbs and leapt up at the sound of Emma shouting from the beach. She and Simon had returned from giving a police statement to find the sea lapping at the mouth of the cave. An hour more and we would’ve been trapped—something we had not considered when we made our plan to stay the night in the cave.
In a haze, I grabbed my stereo, chocolate chip cookies, and backpack full of bed sheets from the now-dark cave and clambered down, jumping from rock to rock toward the shadowy figures of Emma and Simon on the beach
“We could go to the UVG,” Emma and I said at the same time.
“I’m not going to the fucking UVG,” said Ben, who was lagging behind in the cave, taking his time to find his shoes.
“You’ll drown if you stay in the cave!” I shouted back.
Nobody drowned. Nobody died of an overdose. Emma, Simon, and I left Ben whining on the beach and made our way through the streets of St. Andrews to the UVG where we piled onto a single bench, one on top of the other for warmth, and fell into a drunken sleep. “At least we’ve got these sheets,” said Emma. She draped a flowery sheet over the top of the pile of us and we all passed out.
A few weeks after school started, Ben and I became an official couple and everything went downhill from there. Instead of worshipping me and seeking my approval, he now did things like telling his friends that we’d gone to third base and then telling me to stop being so uptight about it. “Things were better when we were just friends,” he said. I cried and asked why he’d been trying to be my boyfriend for four months, and he shrugged. And then he broke up with me.
The next week I got a virus that kept me home from school for a week, puking green bile. It was strangely cathartic to have no choice but to opt out of life. I emerged from that hazy week feeling purged of more than just the contents of my guts. Gone, too, was the intensity of the past year. In its place was a sense of relative calm. Relative calm and irreversible loss.
I still sat next to Susan in Latin and History but she no longer pranked the teachers. It seemed the whole class had grown up and moved on. We made small talk about our homework and sometimes laughed at shared childhood memories (that time we hid our lyrics sheets in a plant before choir practice because we were supposed to have memorized the words by now!) but it felt like we were talking about other people’s lives.
Emma and I stayed friends—placeholder friends, at least. We did things like choosing to go to the cinema, and not just because it was a warm place where we could smoke without our parents seeing us. We went to pubs once in a while, but we were now too mature for beach parties. “I feel so sorry for those poor third-years freezing on the beach because they can’t get into pubs,” said Emma. I nodded, secretly yearning to freeze on the beach.
The following summer, I wrote a 90-page screenplay documenting the night of the toga party, mundane conversations recalled word for word, Abba featuring prominently on the soundtrack. In my screenplay version of events, after Emma, Simon, and I wake up on the bench, we dress up in our togas and begin dancing around the UVG singing along to “Dance While the Music Still Goes On.” The camera then cuts to the hospital, where Jonny and Christian rip the sheets off their hospital beds, wear them as togas, and dance around the ward singing along to Abba. We then cut to Ben, sitting in the cave by himself, crying. And finally, back to Emma, Simon, and me, limboing under the bean poles in the UVG as the camera pans up.