Coolbox

Diogo said that everyone should wear white T-shirts and blue jeans so everyone wore white T-shirts and blue jeans. Diogo said that nobody could wear flipflops or sneakers so most people went barefoot, except for Catarina who owned steel-toe caps. And everyone was supposed to bring their CD, the CD of their life, the album that made them who they were, as if we had any clue who we were. But nobody was really gonna bring those albums anyway. They’d bring the album they thought probably should have made them who they were. Something from the Rolling Stone Top Ten or else something totally obscure that only three people in the world have ever listened to. Both of these are heavy, worthy things. Certainly it mustn’t have appeared in any official top ten after 2010 and it probably shouldn’t have reached number one in the pop chart ever. Diogo would be annoyed by this, say it defeated the point, but he couldn’t change the way the world worked in one night.

I parked my car up in front of Catarina’s dad’s house. He has a proper house. Like, not an apartment, I mean. There’s a huge garden at the back with a lawn, a fence around a front yard where her dogs sleep at night. The house has three floors and Cat has a floor just for her, which is a weird kind of consolation prize for the messiest divorce in human history. I texted her to say I was outside and fiddled with the radio, trying to find something not shit. She slammed the door behind her and smirked at me because her stepmum hates noise and she hates her stepmum. I climbed over the gearstick into the passenger seat and she climbed through the window. The door works fine but she has to be ridiculous. A group of men working on the house next door whistled as she disappeared into the car. She called them dickheads in English and adjusted her clothes.

I forgot my CD and only remembered when Cat handed me hers and I saw the deep hollow below Joni’s Mitchell’s blue cheekbone. I hadn’t known what to bring and had decided to leave it for the morning then slept through the morning, spent the afternoon watching cartoons in my pants and forgot. I had so many ideas too. Mellow Gold, Tusk, Rid of Me, Horses, Dar & Receber. The ghosts of seminal music past flew by the window, gurning and staring. How will you defend your existence now? they cried. Who will care now? Not Catarina in her steel-toe caps and certainly not Diogo.

I looked in the glove box and found a bunch of scratched ‘best of’ albums, a Harry Potter audiobook, and an album I’d bought off a street singer in Manchester like four years ago. I was surprised to find the right CD inside the case of that one, unscratched. It would have to do. The street singer was called Paul Pringley and the album was self-titled, which was a mistake because the poor guy was never gonna make it with a name like that. In the picture on the front he’s wearing a fedora. When I met him he told me my English was very good, which is when I learned that I spoke English with an accent. I told him my dad was from Hull and he said he had an aunt or an ex-wife or something from Hull and I didn’t know how to respond to that. He told me that he was going to be on The X Factor so I kept an eye out for him. I had to install a VPN on my computer so I could access British TV, which seems like a lot of effort to go to I know, but I did see him at one point when they did one of those wide shots of the audition waiting room. But maybe it wasn’t him at all, I only met him once.

The air conditioning in my car was broken and the dashboard told me it was thirty-six degrees outside. Or inside. I never know if the dashboard shows the internal or external temperature and no one else ever seems to know. I thought about asking Cat but I knew she’d consider that a pointless question. We had the windows down as low as they would go but the air was hot and heavy, dusting our lips and eyelashes with dirt. I had a line of sweat along my hairline which I’d given up wiping away and my T-shirt was stuck to my back, moulding itself to the contours of my shoulder blades. Catarina was driving. She doesn’t actually have a license but we look so much alike that even if we were pulled over, she could just show mine. People always ask us if we’re sisters. She finds it funny but I find it annoying. We had sex once, just to try it, but she acts like it never happened. Sometimes I think she clings to the idea that people think we’re sisters so that no one ever suspects that she put two of her fingers inside me once. Neither of us enjoyed it much actually but that’s not the point.

She had one arm out of the window and the other on the wheel. Her skin was a kind of yellowy-brown and the hairs on her arms were almost black, her throat had a sheen of sweat which looked like oil. She was mouthing along to the lyrics of the Joy Division song she insisted we listen to, but her lips were hardly moving, which made me think she didn’t know she was doing it. I like it when she does that, she does it watching movies too. But maybe she wanted me to see her singing along, maybe she was telling me something about herself. I felt like it probably had something to do with Joni Mitchell. Her English is shit though, so if anything she was mouthing along with the vowel sounds, which doesn’t really count. Don’t know why we always have to listen to English music anyway.

I turned the CD round and looked at the track listing, sighing in despair at myself. Catarina told me I should just take the audiobook but that would be ridiculous. I don’t think I could even pretend to be subverting something with that. Maybe if it was an audio version of the Communist Manifesto or something, but Harry Potter? No. It would have to be Paul Pringley. Eleven tracks, forty minutes, standard album length. A couple of covers but mostly originals. Track one was called ‘Don’t Lock the Door’. Was he going to be home late? Or did he want to leave early? Was he expecting a fire? Or was it a metaphor? Like a never-say-never kind of thing. Don’t lock the door, Catarina, you might want me to finger you again someday. Lol.

Track two was a cover of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, which is what I’d heard him playing when I saw him in Manchester. I’d only just discovered Bob Dylan and didn’t realise that everyone in the whole world knew ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. It was raining and Dad didn’t want to stop but I made him. I listened almost desperately, sure that if this guy liked Bob Dylan, he must get it. Dad just didn’t get it. No one else got it, not really. I don’t like Bob Dylan that much anymore.

A track halfway down the list was called ‘Sad Eyes’. My dad used to say I had melancholy eyes, which I guess is the same thing as sad eyes. He doesn’t say that anymore because it used to annoy me, but now it doesn’t annoy me and I wish he would say it again. Just to know if it’s still true. But that’s not the sort of question you can ask about yourself. Tell me, do I still have melancholy eyes? How conceited is that? But I would like to know, and I’d like to hear him say it. Sometimes I think he’s afraid of me. I’m not an especially sad person anyway. No more than anyone else. Being a teenager nowadays is just not it. It sucks. You can’t just figure yourself out, you have to be the finished thing. You can’t fuck up, you can’t change your mind, you can’t make mistakes and you can’t erase anything. Ever. Even if you delete it, somebody somewhere has screenshots.

We stopped for gas and Catarina parked on the wrong side of the pump so I had to stretch the hose over the top of the car. I watched her in the wing mirror holding her phone up to her face and I imagined the whole station going up in a burst of flame. Funny how they put warnings up everywhere but that literally never happens. I watched until I heard the click from the pump telling me the tank was full. She has a whole catalogue of poses that come so naturally to her. All of us apparently hate social media and think it’s choking a generation but everyone likes Catarina’s photos. I asked her if she wanted anything from the shop. She wanted an ice-cream. I bought her a Solero and she made a face. I said, How am I supposed to know what you like? but I actually thought she did like Soleros. I thought they were her favourite. They always used to be her favourite.

The last track was called ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ and I thought that was a cover. I recognised the name. Either way, I was convinced by then that Paul definitely got it. My friends live like they’re never gonna die or get a wrinkle but it makes me feel sick to think about the seconds ticking themselves away. My childhood becoming like that bit of pink skin where a scab used to be. Soon it’ll be gone and I won’t remember how it looked or how it felt. Mum and Dad don’t look at me the same anymore. I’m a person separate from them now, an almost adult who isn’t who they imagined she’d be. After I lost my virginity, I was certain they could tell. I felt like they avoided touching me or looking at me in the eye. Sometimes I imagine crawling inside the washing machine when Mum’s doing the clothes. It almost makes me cry to think how surprised and happy she’d be when I came out all clean and cute again.

Little orange drops were spattering Catarina’s thighs. I wanted to kiss them off. Or some part of me did, the part that thinks weird thoughts like that. She tilted the ice-cream sideways and sucked the dripping juice off her hand.

This is why I hate Soleros, she said.

That happens with every ice-cream, I said.

She rolled her eyes.

What’s the matter with you?

Nothing.

I asked her if she was nervous and she made a noise in her throat. Why would she be nervous? But I knew her better than that. I knew that she really cared what people thought of her. I knew she was in love with Diogo and that she’d had sex with him in a cave on the beach the week before. I knew she’d sent him a message the next day and he’d left her on read since then. I don’t even know why we like Diogo. I always make up my mind to hate him and then as soon as I see him, I forget. Because he’s funny and smart and he gets it. He’s not a horrible person, nowhere close to the worst, but I’m glad I’ve never liked him like that. He’s one of those guys that’s read The Bell Jar and paints his nails but still won’t text you back or wear a condom. And I get the feeling he sort of hates girls deep down.

When we arrived I closed the car door slowly, deliberately, like I was proving something to myself. I could smell the smoke from the fire and I was torn between running towards it and running away. You can never fully know what will happen with fire, you can’t predict how it will behave. People are like that too and a group of people is even worse. I held on to Paul Pringley and ran my thumb along the hard edge of the CD case. We headed for the row of trees that looks like the edge of a whole forest but isn’t really. The sensitive underside of my bare feet howled over the twigs and burdocks. Soft feet, pretty feet, fetish-worthy, girly feet. Cat walked on ahead a few paces and dropped into a half-squat. I pushed down on her shoulders and jumped, wrapping my legs around her waist. She’s surprisingly strong for a small person.

The line where the trees end and the field begins is completely straight, a strip of brown meets a strip of green. It’s weird. Like how you imagine borders when you’re a kid. You were there and now you’re here. Simple. When she lowered me to the grass I slipped because the skin between my thighs and her hands was sweating and I landed funny on the side of my foot. I could feel the bass from Diogo’s inherited boombox through my toes, it felt unnatural, almost vulgar. I wiped the back of my legs with my hoodie and Catarina grabbed my hand. Cat and I hold hands all the time but this was different. It was urgent, afraid. So I kind of locked my limbs and didn’t move or breathe until she’d taken whatever she needed from me. She let go and started walking in the same movement, raising her arm to wave at Marisa who’d called her name. I let her walk a little bit ahead of me. Dunno why, it’s just something I do. I guess to give her space to gather all she needs to be the person she is. The queen bee, wild child, object of envy and desire. It can’t be possible to maintain something like that without some unseen arm holding you up.

Rui, Diogo’s brother, greeted her with a hand at her waist, kissing her gently on both cheeks. I paused to indulgently pull a thorn from my foot and rub a tiny scratch on my ankle, pissed off at Diogo’s stupid rules and thinking he was a fucking tyrant. A dark orb rose with a thumping sound above heads and smoke and arced down towards me. I instinctively ran and kicked it back up to where the fire was eating its way through four wooden pallets, then swore because it hurt. Rui caught the ball before it landed in the flames and ran at me, grabbing me around the waist and throwing me over his shoulder. He put me down quite roughly and I felt the difference between me and Cat in the way my hip bone hit the ground.

It was hot, and though the sun was starting to go down it was way too early for a fire and I started to feel sick with the heat. Diogo’s coolbox was covered in band stickers and half-full of ice. I took a beer from it and cold spheres of water slid down the bottle and onto my feet. It felt really good. I looked around me at my Friends. Capitalised because it’s not possible to really know that many people. There’s always that threat of something, of awkwardness and danger. Words spoken about you when you’re not there, little jealousies and feelings held in and held on to. I tucked Paul Pringley into the waistband at the back of my shorts, taking a seat on a log next to Rui, pretending to listen to him go on about Dark Souls, as if I care about video games. Everyone just assumes I’m the kind of girl who likes video games. I don’t.

I drank a couple more beers and shared a thin, badly rolled cigarette with Rui. The fire spat and the evening hummed with cicada wings. I watched Rui throw the butt onto the grass and crush it with his bare heel and was about to comment on it when someone cut the music. It was Diogo.

Alright, he said. Shut the fuck up.

I glanced at Cat and noticed that he didn’t. Not once. She was amazing though, laughing with light in the eyes, unbothered. I was proud of her.

Before we get too fucked to remember why we’re here.

A high-pitched squeal interrupted him. The irritation pinched his face around the eyes and mouth but was gone as soon as it had appeared.

Sorry, Rui’s girlfriend, Joana, said, pushing his hands off her.

It’s fine, he continued, this weird magnetic force pulling us towards him. It was annoying and I fought it but failed. So we all know that the world is fucked, right? We’re the most depressed, stressed out generation in history. Everyone tells us what we should want and who we should be, how we should look and what we should say. And it’s fucking relentless. It never stops and it’s always changing and you better keep up or you’re nothing. We pretend we’re connected, we believe we are, but we’re not. We’re alone. Completely alone. And nothing that was supposed to make us happy makes us happy. In fact, it just makes us miserable.

A few people were laughing because most of us aren’t as serious as Diogo, but we were listening. We felt like renegades in a sci-fi movie. Like the resistance. They can say what they like about us. They can do their comedy sketches and tell us we’re vapid, say we’re the end of intelligent thought. They’re the ones posting photos of us on Facebook from the moment we’re born. They fed us this crap. How can they expect us not to live in the house they built for us? How could there not be fire and broken bones when they locked the door and left us there alone? If we get out, it’s because we did it. On our own.

I told you to bring your CDs.

He waved an album in the air but it was too dark to see what it was.

These albums are the rebellion. The part of you that you chose. Something that no one could assign for you. And today we have to let them go.

People were looking at each other, unsure whether to laugh or not. Whether to pretend they understood or whether they really did understand.

We’re gonna burn them.

I felt sick. I gripped the plastic case so hard I heard a crack as it broke. He couldn’t really be telling us to burn our CDs. Why did I even care? It was just a CD. I only listened to them in the car anyway and I never listened to that one. Around me, unease, nervous laughter, a cheer from someone.

Throw it onto the fire. Free up your hands and your minds for something new. Make a line and go one at a time.

Nobody moved.

Fine. I’ll go first and you line up behind me.

He turned some music on. The nervous laughter was gone or I didn’t hear it. I was tempted to laugh to spite him but I couldn’t get it out. I took my place in the line and swallowed over and over. As more CDs were added to the fire it started to smell weird and I felt myself panicking a bit, thinking I should never have come, that this was stupid and we looked like a cult. But I kept putting one foot in front of the other anyway. Catarina was before me and the heat when we reached the fire was like a stopwatch, a deadline. She wasn’t moving. I touched her shoulder.

I can’t do it, she said.

Let’s do it together, I said.

Diogo said…

Oh, who cares what Diogo said. I’ll do it with you. We’ll do it at the same time.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It should be easy.

I know.

She was crying. A tear landed in Joni Mitchell’s eye. I looked at Paul Pringley and suddenly it felt impossible to part with him. I felt annoyed at Diogo and this stupid party and then weirdly sad. But underneath that, behind all those things, there was this voice, my voice I think, getting louder and telling me that this was something I had to do, something I was always going to have to do, and for a second I understood it perfectly. I felt like I was digging away with something very sharp at something very deep in my flesh. He was right. I took Cat’s hand and counted to three, we hurled them into the fire and in a moment, it was done. Something lost forever. You could taste it in the air.

We all laughed then, bewildered that we could have been so serious literally minutes before. We covered our individual embarrassment with the safety of collective experience. Nobody could mock us for what we’d all done. What we’d all felt. It was almost dark by then and the world had shrunk, zoomed in to this one field and this one group of people standing around a fire, barely decipherable from all the others who’ve ever done the same since the dawn of time. My head was aching and throbbing behind the brow bone.

I stood staring at the shifting light with dry eyes and a million thoughts. I had the feeling that this weird, stupid party would end up being one of those moments that I’ll obsess over when I’m old. A rambling, incoherent story that I’ll bore someone with at a bus stop or on an aeroplane, because no matter how many times I tell it, I’ll never tell it quite right. I’ll never quite manage to get to the truth of what happened there and I’ll probably remember it quite differently from how it was. The faces of my friends will take on the veil of memory, becoming like angels.

My headache had spread to the back of my neck and I was trying to massage it away when somebody elbowed me. Diogo. I laughed, elbowed him back and complimented him on his coolbox because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. He was himself, many things all at once. Totally present and a hundred miles away. Like all of us and nothing like anyone. He’ll for sure be that friend that disappears after graduation and only comes back when one of us dies. The guy that turns up late to the funeral in sneakers and dark glasses with a Middle Eastern boyfriend or a kid or something. Or else he’ll join a revolution somewhere in South America and end up getting shot and Catarina will marry the first guy who asks because the real love of her life couldn’t love her back and where will I be in all this? I don’t think I wanna know actually.

I didn’t want to talk to Diogo. I wanted to drink. I wanted to laugh and think of nothing. I wanted to pretend that it was all gonna work out fine. I wanted that ghostly future me, old and bitter with memory, to leave me alone, to vanish into the fire and stop haunting me. I grabbed another beer from the pool of water at the bottom of the coolbox but something was stuck to the bottle so I peeled it off. It was an empty Solero wrapper, the juice all congealed, sticky and dusted with sand.

Kezia Warwood was born in Cornwall, England in the 90s, the third of four children from two marriages. She spent eight years writing and performing music in the UK and internationally. She is currently living in Portugal where she is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

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