Cherry Coke- by Brooke L. Meservey

I’ll preface this with this disclaimer, I’ve got an active imagination. I like to go to my friends shows and socialize like anyone, but every time I’m there I see this woman drinking cherry coke. I know that’s what it is because I’ve heard her order it. Perhaps on occasion it was a water with lime, but never a vodka cran or even a rum and coke. No alcohol. No weed. No powder in the bathroom, except maybe the cosmetic kind for her nose. But, now that I think about it, not really. She always had a complexion that gleamed almost like a shimmer, but it was really a light sweat from the sweltering bar. At least one article of her clothing was always velvet. She wore her hair in braids and soft curls; it really gave her a textured look as she moved under the black lights. I always saw her at the shows, nodding along to the angry lyrics being screamed into a pit of seething leather-clad night owls. Sometimes I’d even see her jump in and shove someone or go back first leaning into it only to be spun around again like a shell being swept away from the shore.

She always looked like she was having fun, but I could tell she felt a touch out of place. A quick tuck of her hair, or darting eyes as she moved through the crowds from one end of the bar to the other. Sometimes the cool exterior melted away to show the anxiety she felt. I could tell something was eating at her. She had let that slip on accident with a soft mention of an ex-boyfriend as she consoled the girl in platforms crying outside the entrance.

“I was once in your position too sweetie, it gets better, I promise. You just have to give yourself the time and care, come, come, let’s get you some water. Oh, you’re finishing your cigarette… well, maybe I’ll have one with you girl!”

She may not have meant to, but I could see as she had that seemingly supportive, solidarity-esque cigarette that she really needed to take the edge off. Talking about stuff like that bothered her, it hit too close to home. Young girl, feeling lost, navigating a breakup with a bad news, older dude. She spoke to that girl and gave advice as if she’d been there. I’m too scared to ask her about it because I don’t know what she’ll say. She’ll console that girl in the platforms and drag her back into the club. They’ll dance and swing each other around, and for that moment she’ll forget about all she was holding within her heart. The grin that filled her face when platform girl began to smile and laugh, you could see how proud she was. I want to ask her, in a moment of intimate quiet outside between sets, what happened to you? But I don’t want to see that proud smile drain away as she’s brought back into the memories of how she loved and lost more than a few nights sleep…more like a few years progress. I want to know her. I want her to know that like she cares for the bar strays crying in the alleys, people care about her well being too.

I imagine, if I ever caught her outside with a cigarette pinched between her red nailed index and middle fingers, she might tell me what happened. She might say something like this.

She was young like platform girl, not well liked or understood. Her childhood friends didn’t like her music, and her parents didn’t get along, and she didn’t know anything other than isolation and that she liked to make art. It was her solace, and the only thing she knew that she did right. She’d tell me that a dark haired man saw that, and through his vintage glasses he looked at her in a way she had never been looked at before. He complimented her, he encouraged her, he befriended her, and they so much spent time together. She was still growing, and he had reached adulthood long ago, yet they still got along. It wasn’t because he was childish, immature, or inappropriate, at least not in her eyes then. It was because she was mature beyond her years, and that’s what he said. She’d tell me he said all the right things, and went above and beyond to show her his affections and intentions. She’d chuckle, and call it love bombing, but that chuckle would turn into a fatigued giggle. She continued to tell me that he said he was in love with her like he had never been before in his thirty-nine years after dating for almost three weeks. She’d pause and think she’d spent too much time on that part of the story, because I might be expecting a quick explanation or backstory. Still, instinctively, she would try to refrain from taking up too much space. I’d assure her I want to know, and she’d hesitantly but more hastily tell the remaining details. They’d love, they’d lose, and then it would happen again. After the first break up, they got back together, and everything was like those first four months again. Until, it wasn’t, and this time it was because he was going back to an ex. This cycle would repeat and repeat until a new step would occur. This time the 7th break up would be because had fallen in love with her best friend, and they didn’t know how to tell her, so they just didn’t. She’d have to be the one to leave, because he wanted it both ways, well…all three ways at once. She’d say she nearly got away, until he texted her with a song about suicide to real her back in. And it did, but the hook didn’t set right. The cycle was only going to continue she’d say breathlessly, ready to leave this subject behind. She’d conclude by saying that when she learned about the term gaslighting, somehow THAT was the last straw.

She’d finish her 7th chain-smoked cigarette and realize that an entire band had gone on while we spoke. The next one was just starting up. She looked at me and held the 8th cigarette between her rouge lips and smiled. She’d cup the cigarette to shield the flame I supplied and she’d breath deep. The suction pulled my flame to the tobacco, and the smoke to her open lips. Much like her aura and demeanor drew me in like a moth to the flame. That nasty smoke would fill her lungs and as she exhaled, she smiled as if she read my thoughts…

“Nasty things, but old habits die hard. You know, only once in a blue moon will I have one of these. But, if I do, you bet your ass I’ll have more than one. Go big or go home…”, she’d muse, but my silence and fallen eyes might impress upon her that I was quiet because I didn’t know what to say. I really just would not want to offend her if I agreed they were nasty, even though I dabble in them myself. I wouldn’t want her to, by association, think I think she was nasty. All these thoughts would flood my brain, but I really thought she was incredible. She would measure my silence and think to herself that she had just laid out a lot of heavy stuff and didn’t want me to feel too badly. She would decide to continue and save me from the silence…

“You know my life isn’t so bad. It was then, and it is for her now. But it gets better. You make room for pain, and if you can manage it, you use it to empower you and help others. Sort of wishy washy, but it is true. I can’t fix her problems, but I wish someone had talked to me that way when I was in the midst of that. People blame you for your seeming weakness. They get uncomfortable with your suffering, and they say focus on you, so they don’t have to, and they wash their hands of the repetitiveness of habitual self-destruction. I don’t know what all the right steps are, I’m still figuring it out, but I can’t help it when I see that. She’s out here crying by herself, who the fuck can just turn a blind eye? Everyone deserves kindness when they’re hurting like that, and if no one else will deal it out unconditionally then I will. Anyway, to answer your question, with all the background out of the way, yeah, her struggle strikes a chord. And I comforted her because even though caring too much got me in trouble in the first place, I want to keep caring because the alternative sucks. It’s lonely, it’s unfulfilling, and it doesn’t make anything or anyone better. Yes, something unfair happened to me, and it was partially my own doing, but it doesn’t mean I deserved it. She doesn’t either. Grown men have no business with teenagers, and that’s that…” she’d state definitively, it would be clear that that was certainly a strongly held conviction that would never waver. She wouldn’t say it that way because she was bitter, she’d say it like she was ready to defend it and protect others from similar fates.

“I hope I quelled your curiosity. Want to head back in for some water? I’m dying of thirst…ugh cigarettes, such nasty things”, she’d say that and pinch off the end of it. Into the bin it’d go, and she’d grab the door handle. The silence of main street in the winter at 11:45 at night would suddenly break as she pulled open the door and the music poured out into the street.

At least, that’s what I imagine she might say and how it would go. I’ve got an active imagination, but when I see her smile, and her crow’s feet wrinkle, and hear her uninhibited laughter, I just know such vibrance reflects a rich soul. Much like a multifaceted crystal shining in sunlight, sending beams of light at different angles striking those not ready for such brilliance. She’s weathered, and worn around the edges, but she’s so tender with others. She catches my eye night after night, and I just know that there’s a story behind why she doesn’t drink, and why she loves metal, and why she is so kind to strangers. I want to know; I want to ask and not imagine for myself. I’m going to find a mirror, straighten my dress and check myself for any eye liner smears or black lipstick on my teeth. My straight hair doesn’t have the dimension hers does, but it lays in a shiny sheet around my shoulders. Maybe she’ll think it’s pretty, I think she is the loveliest woman in the room. I’ll make myself up as best as I can and step out of the bathroom. Then, I’m going to go up to the bar and order two cherry cokes. I think I’ve got half a pack left and my lighter ready to go in my back pocket. My ex-girlfriend got it for me, it’s an Aquarius one.