There were 12 or so of us playing flip cup in the dining room, spilling beer and jungle juice onto the plastic tablecloth. Like a tribute to fallen homies. This was after we introduced Javier to beer pong, which he called “el juego americano con las pelotas.” We played until the juice bowl was empty and our heads spinning like turntables. This way then that way then both ways then everywhere. Wasn’t long before I forgot I was partying in Madrid, and not Chicago.
We played music from my phone. A Spanish playlist of Hector Lavoe and Marc Anthony and Bad Bunny that had hips moving. All of them, even the ones that weren’t sure how. They swayed to the beat and sent currents through the room, bumped us into each other, into dances that weren’t quite accidental but seemed that way. Kari smiled as hers bumped mine, thick and with a strong arch. Like the ones you see in the Alhambra or the Alcazar. Thick and sturdy and intimidating but always inviting. I know you have some moves, she said.
I ain’t respond. Pulled her into a six-count step and added a kick in between for a small flex. Hit her with a cross-body lead then spun her into a closed position, how Leo taught me at his house parties. Exhales from her nose kissed the corner of my mouth, prompting me to give her that look. You know which one.
Yes? she said, her top lip perking closer to her nose.
Aren’t there better things to look at?
What’s better than beauty?
Her smile bloomed into her eyes, tiny roots sprouting from their edges. Her eyes rolled the words you’re too smooth toward me, before she left for a drink. Spinning and dancing made the alcohol sprint through me, my head incapable of balancing it out. I grabbed my phone from the couch and saw there were 7 notifications for my Facebook post. Everyone was spreading love they never had. Mine was real.
Tucking my phone beneath the couch cushion, I rose to top myself off. Several grantees from the Foundation were in the dining room, surrounding the drinks table as if the bottles might run away. I stumbled through them to reach Noah. You seem excited, I said.
Expected more people to show.
There are like 20 here.
Still feels kinda empty to me.
He looked at me inquisitively, Should there be?
Isn’t there always?
Nah, I don’t think so.
Someone’s always missing.
Kari reentered the living room and Noah joined her for a dance. Kari had on a see-through shawl that was covered in roses. If you looked close enough, if her hair parted at just the right moment, you’d see three freckles that betrayed a smile on her left shoulder. She was smiling through the veil and for a second my lungs felt lighter. I sat there and sipped while the two of them danced, Kari sneaking feathery grins past Noah, over to me. Fluttering to my heart and hovering there.
You good? she mouthed when I didn’t return the smile. I nodded, my eyes weighing heavier on my head than before. My head hung low for a second. I dug for my phone, the screen brought to life by my post. Another notification, possibly a few. Made me wonder why he wasn’t hosting this party instead of Noah, but then I remembered the world I now live in. I tucked the phone back into the couch, grabbed a random drink from the coffee table and left for the balcony.
It was chilly outside but my jacket was in the dining room. Noah and Kari were still dancing when I left–more talking than dancing–and the others were spread between the dining room and kitchen, probably complaining about a small Foundation stipend that was like a fortune to me. I ain’t really fuck with that energy, so being around them wasn’t ideal.
I stood on the balcony and watched hordes of people walk past with their girls their dudes their homies. They passed by smiling and laughing and touching and holding and smiling. Smiled at each other like it was the first time they’d gotten the chance to. Like they’d never done it before and may never get to do it again. Smiled as Noah knocked on the door, music invading the balcony before he shut it. I wished he hadn’t. You good? he asked.
Kari send you?
Nah, why do you think that?
I don’t know, she’s Kari that way.
True, he paused and looked at the smiling hordes. You seem off.
I’m good, I said. Party still feel empty?
It’s alright, I guess.
Why don’t you just invite her?
You know who. It got silent for a few seconds. I’m good, I said, just need to breathe.
Noah went back inside and I inhaled strongly before Kari joined me. The sweet aroma of her sweat grew stronger as she drew closer, crisp and fresh but still immature, like a young wine. My nostrils perked, again. Dance with me, she said, wrapping my hand with hers. Her pinky moved across mine like a caterpillar. Trembling softly.
What’s up? Her eyebrows slouched and her hand tightened.
Nothing, just need to breathe.
Why can’t you breathe?
Cause this air ain’t made for me.
That’s not true, you know that.
I don’t belong here, Kari.
You do. You worked hard to get here, so you do.
Not hard enough. I know people who worked harder and ain’t never get shit, I said then paused to exhale the tension from my chest. I wish I was back with them sometimes.
But you love Madrid, I know you do. Her left hand clenched mine while the other caressed my face. Talk to me, she said, your eyes are glassy. I let her rub my face, cup my cheek and the runaway tears that wandered down. I just miss him sometimes, I said.
My boy, Leo. I wish he was here. Kari stepped closer to me in an attempt to catch my eyes. Where is he now? she asked.
Over in Mount Olive, in Chicago.
Is that his university?
He ain’t make it to school, none of them did. Only me, I said before turning to the crowd of smiles as they laughed and touched and held each other and smiled. I looked at them and imagined myself in their place, maybe with Kari. Lost in a smile. Where’s he at then? Kari curved her face over the railing, turning mine toward her. Your eyes, she said.
Mount Olive, he just moved there today.
I know, Alex, but…
It’s a cemetery, I said as the runaways wandered past her palm. He just moved there today.