It is the fourth day of July and my roommate — Mila — and I have not felt American for years. We decide that for dinner we’ll go to an oyster bar named “The Mermaid Inn” that’s down the block from our place.
We are illegally subletting a studio apartment for the summer, while I am between college housing and Mila figures out what is keeping her in New York. She found the place through a girl she thinks her on-again off-again boyfriend may have slept with at a point that is impossible to call cheating. The girl’s name is Jessica, and we invoke her often.
I smear Jessica’s lipstick on and put on a pair of her shoes. Mila shimmies into her dress. We fit into her clothes and take turns sleeping in her bed. By the end of the summer, I will wonder if maybe I am Jessica, but then I’ll go back to being myself the day I move out.
I tell Mila, “I’ve never actually had oysters before.”
“They are deliciously salty. It makes me feel like I am eating a chunk of Florida.”
“I didn’t know they had oysters in Florida, but I am glad you can feed yourself bits of your home.”
I don’t tell her, but I think a more Floridian food is alligator. When I was five, my mom fed it to me after saying that it was chicken. My mom is more American than anyone I know.
On Fridays, after I clock out of my internship at the publishing house, I go to Trader Joe’s. I walk up and down the aisles, getting close enough to people so that we have to brush shoulders. There is a test online that tells you how you want to be loved, and I scored highest in “Physical Touch.”
Even though we’ve been in the apartment for over a month, I am still living out of my suitcase. Jessica didn’t empty her drawers, so that’s why we treat it as fair game. If she had moved her shoes, maybe we wouldn’t wear them. I pull on a pair of her pants that barely go over my hips.
“Do you think this is considered stealing?”
I’m an almost-only child, which makes my relationship with sharing complicated. Oftentimes I forget other people want things, expect things. When I buy gifts or seem involved with others, it’s usually a ruse so they’ll reciprocate that attention.
My dad likes it that I want everything wholly and completely; owning things is patriotic. It’s a sign of winning.
Mila shrugs. “I’m giving her thousands of dollars and maybe my boyfriend. Do you think I care?”
When Mila sleeps at his apartment, I splay like a starfish on Jessica’s bed. Sometimes I imagine the decomposing moth trapped in the window panes is a hidden camera. I open my mouth and arch my back for him. He’s been there since they installed the air conditioning. After I finish, I look at him with my forehead pressed to the cool glass.
“Today at work I helped a woman with soaps,” Mila says as we walk out of the building. She works at a retail store in SoHo and helps European tourists purchase soaps and shoes. She is not allowed to help with the other departments, like denim or blouses. When a customer wants something from there, she has to outsource to a fleet of gay men with perfectly quaffed hair.
Mila continues, “I told the customer that the bar of soap was called ‘body souffle’ and she asked me why. I said, ‘Well, you can eat them.’”
“Can they actually eat the soaps?”
“That’s what they told me to say. It makes the soap seem more natural.”
Then she tells me about the assortment of scents they offer. Then we say words like “ethical consumption” and “corporate gains,” but mostly I nod and wish I had more money.
My dad wants to be American because he doesn’t want to be poor. My dad is American because his family was in Alta California when the United States bought the land, which is more luck than destiny.
When we arrive at The Mermaid Inn, the host is a woman with bright blonde hair. The sun is bouncing between the buildings and onto her in a way that makes her hard to look at without squinting. She asks if we want to wait an hour to sit inside or sit immediately outside. Either oysters are more American than I thought, or everyone else realized that there is no reason to be patriotic anymore. We sit outside.
Mila says, “Then, I helped a mustached man with loafers. I kept trying to tell him that he should try somewhere else, but he really wanted to buy them from our store. He thought I got a commission, because he asked me how I felt with his purchase amount. I said it didn’t make any difference and I got paid the same. Then, he gave me his number.”
Mila has a collection of numbers but she doesn’t call any of them. Her boyfriend is leaving on vacation for two months, so if no one makes any decisions, we will both be in a long-distance relationship until fall. I wonder if she will still sleep at his apartment though because Jessica’s couch is small and I’ve become addicted to my vibrator.
When I first noticed the moth, I thought he was alive. I urged him to flutter around, desperate to connect to some deeper part of me that believes in rebirth, in life after death. A week after my aunt killed herself, USPS delivered my birthday present from her. I keep her card with my passport and social security card.
“I have decided that I am going to write a novel,” Mila says.
“Big publishing,” I start to tell her, “doesn’t care about people like us. They only care about how many Instagram followers you have.” At my job, I take notes in meetings and do competitor research. This mostly involves looking up similar books or authors or influencers and jotting down numbers into spreadsheets. I try to picture what I would look like to myself, if only I didn’t know it was me.
She nods. We think the other is filled with good ideas. She says that we should order drinks, so we do.
We both have alcoholic parents and that is, beyond anything else, the biggest reason we are friends. It’s easy to only be friends with other people who were raised around water bottles filled with vodka. It’s hard to explain the dynamics of a parent who isn’t really there, who picks you up from school three hours late, who commits crimes with you present, who commits crimes towards you, who keeps company that you don’t trust, who will never be there. It’s easy to understand if you have an American parent.
I order a twenty dollar cocktail with a nautical themed name. Mila orders a Bloody Mary because she says it will go well with the oysters.
“Should I order clam chowder?”
“No,” Mila says. “That would be unpleasant in this heat.”
We have both started sweating and I can feel drips forming on the hair of my upper lip. My dad calls it a mustache and asks me to bleach it. I told him it wasn’t my fault that we’re Mexican. My mother is practically hairless — including her eyebrows. She handed me a razor at nine.
Later, Mila pours the oysters into her mouth, and I decide to not take any from her. It feels too intimate, sharing a plate of shellfish.
When the waiter returns with our check, he places two small mugs filled with chocolate custard in front of us. And then slides us two plastic fish that curl in ways to “reveal your emotional state.” I am thankful for misogyny’s free perks.
I eat the chocolate in small bites. Then, I hold the sheet of red plastic and it vigorously folds back and forth. It says, “You are passionate.”
Mila’s fish doesn’t move. It lays completely still in the center of her palm and she pokes the edge to see if it will react. According to the packaging, this means that Mila is tired. She nods and says, “Well it’s true.”
I ask Mila to take a photo of me. I want to see who will comment when I post it. More desperately, I’ve been growing out my hair in an attempt to resemble my aunt, and I want someone to notice.
Then, we pay and the waiter doesn’t give Mila his phone number, but as we walk out she says, “I think I will come back soon.”
It is still the fourth day of July and there are no fireworks yet. I have never spent a summer without watching them over the water.
My dad doesn’t like that I live in Manhattan because the sun rises on the water and falls over the city. He tells me that my blood is in Los Angeles.
I stopped feeling American years ago. By the time I graduated high school, patriotism had grown dark. By the time I started college, there were elections and protests and plans to leave or at least change my last name. We looked around and said, it doesn’t seem like this can get better.
The most American I ever feel is when I remember the death that has preceded me. The store where my uncles were murdered by the Mexican Mafia, is now a trendy boba shop. My life feels like the front door after a pathway of tombstones.
Mila and I walk a few blocks to the movie theater and buy tickets to a horror movie. We climb the escalators to the fourth floor and watch the movie hoping to feel something other than alcohol.
Jessica’s shoes are tight on the sides of my feet, but I don’t loosen them. Instead, I lean back into the reclining chair and watch people get gutted and stabbed and I try not to think about anything.
The movie is shot in harsh daylight and I like it because the Americans are the bad guys, the ones being hurt. I like it because the main character’s sister kills herself and then everyone lets her suffer rhythmically. The main character looks like an ex and I think about the last time I felt held.
In a few weeks I will see my girlfriend after three months apart. I will board a plane to Denver, meet her at a train terminal, and we will drive with my parents to The Black Hills and back. My girlfriend doesn’t want to see Mt Rushmore, but my mom does, she wants to cry over it. My dad wants to visit every state, and these are on his list. I will try to kiss her in the car while my parents are in a gas station, and she will tell me that it isn’t a good idea. She will hand me an AirPod and we will watch an Adam Sandler movie and then that’ll be it.
After the Americans are all dead, I turn on my phone and there’s a text from my dad letting me know that my mother hasn’t been drinking, and he thinks it’s good for us to be apart. As much as he hates that I am in New York, he thinks I make her feel guilty, so this is best for all parties.
When we exit the movie theater, Mila talks about whether she could condemn her boyfriend to death. I know what Jessica looks like because of the photos on her fridge, but I’m reinvent her as a lanky red-head.
The moth welcomes us when we walk back into the apartment. I slip out of the borrowed pants and shoes. I post a photo on Instagram where I think I look more like my aunt than any person alive, myself included, and then I turn off my phone.
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