My mother said maybe it would help if I got blond streaks in my hair. I said I didn’t think it would make any goddamned difference but I went out and got my hair highlighted anyway. You’ve got a lot of hair, the stylist said. Shit, she said, I wish I had your hair.
But it didn’t make any goddamned difference.
On the fourth of July, Marcus and I wandered around Capitol Hill trying to find Reggie’s building so we could watch the fireworks from the top. We got a late start because Marcus couldn’t decide if he wanted to go or just sit around at Bug’s. At the last minute he decided we should go, but then we got confused by the whole Northeast/Southeast thing. We were lugging around a cooler of drinks and that slowed us down a bit. By the time we found Reggie’s building the fireworks had started, and it was too late. They were all up on the roof watching and the door was locked. We sat on the front steps and listened to the fireworks pop overhead. We drank beer from the cooler. We couldn’t see anything through the trees. The humidity in the air made my skin feel tacky all over. But just the day before Marcus told me that when I smiled, it was like I was giving him a present. So there was that, and the beer was cold.
Later that night we walked back to Marcus’s place. We were a few blocks from his house when he said, “I was thinking, you know, I’m 34 years old. The girls I knew 10 years ago, the really great girls, are all married now or living with someone and I’m thinking maybe I missed my chance, maybe I missed all of my chances to be with someone I could really connect with.” He stopped walking, and turned to me. I figured he was going to break up with me.
“So, I was wondering if you wanted to marry me,” he said. He was looking down at his empty hands. Bug walked by and saw us standing there.
“What are you guys doing?” Bug asked. Marcus said he was asking me to marry him. And what did you say, Bug wanted to know. I told him I said no.
Then Marcus said, “Can I get you a cab?” I said sure. He flagged one down and I got in and said I was going to Alexandria. Marcus and Bug stood on the curb, peering in my window. Bug was eating a Snickers. The cab driver looked at them, then at me.
“Are they going to Virginia too?” he asked.
“Just me,” I said.
It amazed me how short the cab ride was from Mount Pleasant to Alexandria. I didn’t even have time to cry. On the metro it takes an hour but the cab ride wasn’t more than 10 minutes at that time of night. Before I knew it I was back in my apartment with my burgundy couch and broken window shade.
I gave my brother Jason a call. He invented a girlfriend, Nina, instead of going through the trouble of finding one. My mother loves Nina, although she’s never met her, and Jason doesn’t have any complaints about Nina either, so I thought he might have some advice about my situation. Jason suggested maybe I should try going out with someone who smokes a little less pot. Someone like that might be able to get somewhere on time and, in addition, not be an asshole, according to my brother.
“Why didn’t I think of that?” I said. “You really got the brains in this family. Too bad you’re such a delusional little shit.”
“I may be delusional,” he said, “but at least I didn’t pay two hundred bucks to get stripes in my hair.”
I told him I got it highlighted. Foil highlights, is what they really are. And it cost me three hundred, not two hundred. It’s the American dream — the right to pay someone lots of money to make you look stupid. It means I’m a success, and Marcus is not, because he barely has enough money to get his hair cut, let alone colored or tipped or whatever. I picture him in his room in the attic, playing his bongo drums, the breeze blowing through the open window. He is enjoying the cool hum of the fan, the last cigarette before bed. He is thinking about all the girls he once knew, the really great girls.
Deborah N. Siegel is a writer and editor living in Alexandria, Virginia.