At the Labor Day farmers market, Jade buys cherries: black, ripe, overpriced. On the bus ride home, she eats half of them. She bites each cherry open, teases the pit out with her tongue (stem sticking out of her mouth like a cigarette, wide guileless grin), and spits it into her palm, storing the fruit in her cheek. The pit and stem go in her skirt pocket.
Rose takes one cherry. It is stemless, firm. She sucks at the peel, then the flesh, then the pit.
Dark red stains Jade's mouth and fingers. Sticky juice spots her chin, her wrists, her dress. By the time they disembark, her skirt pocket's bulging with pits. (To be fair, it is a rather small pocket.)
Three flights' trek, a moment of panic when Jade thinks she's lost the key (she hasn't), and they're home. Rose goes to shower off her sweat in the single bathroom--the September heat does no favors for one with her genetic makeup--and Jade puts the groceries away.
Usually the water takes a while to heat, but the cracked mirror fogs within minutes. Rose watches her reflection haze over. Her hair is soaked before she steps into the shower.
Matted black hair blocks the drain. She toes it aside, steps under the lukewarm spray. The water pressure here is atrocious. She reaches for the nearest bottle without thinking, then remembers the rosemary mint shampoo Jade chose for her. (I couldn't find a rose one, but I think this suits you, she said. Jade's own shampoo is gardenia.)
Rose lathers her hair methodically, closes her eyes, and lets the water run. She does not picture Jade here, humming within a cloud of flower-smell. She does not dwell on the warmth of Jade's skin, or the fluid silk of her hair. She certainly doesn't imagine flushed cheeks or gleaming curves, or messy kisses slick with cherry-tongue. In fact, she thinks of very little at all.
Jade is attending polytechnic school. She brings a new person home every week, though most don't return once they realize she's only after friendship. About half attempt to chat up her quiet, spooky roommate.
"So, uh, what do you do?" they invariably ask.
Rose lets Jade answer first. "Rose is finding herself!"
"What she means to say, is that I'm neither enrolled nor employed in any meaningful capacity."
At this point, Jade usually doofs her. If the friend is entertaining enough, Rose might chat for a few more minutes. Otherwise, she's off to the shared bedroom, to read or drink or feverishly knit.
When she Sees, nowadays, it is always through the bottom of a glass.
Jade shaves her head midway through October, in what Rose can only assume is a bizarre stab at one-upmanship. Decade plus of a pageboy cut aside, she's been outmaneuvered. How much further can one go, beyond plucking each hair out at the root or sarcastically undergoing chemotherapy? (Not that she'd seriously consider the latter. The ironically offensive is more Dave's province.)
She is further confused, and then enlightened, the week before Halloween, when Jade brings home a blue costume wig.
"You don't need to be bald to wear a wig, Jade. They're designed to accommodate hair."
Embarrassment flashes across Jade's face. "...hahaha, Rose. I knew that!"
"Haha! But I was gonna say, you should come to this party with me." She turns her best smile on Rose, and Rose--though she's seen that smile dozens of times, though she herself possesses not inconsiderable feminine charm and is familiar with its application, and though she as a rule at least mildly dislikes most of humanity--cannot help but accept the invitation.
It turns out the blue wig is for a Sailor Mercury costume. Jade watches a whole season to "get into character," and coaxes Rose to dress as Minako. "You don't even need a wig, really!" But Rose stands firm, and so acquires cat ears and a tail.
The party is five miles down the road ("So we can walk back, if we really have to.") The house where it's held is almost laughably ill-kept. Jumbled-up possessions line the halls, and the black sheets draped over the living room couches don't conceal their torn and soiled upholstery.
Revelers pack the house. Most hail from Jade's school, but many claim less illustrious origin. There are four cats: a decent Catwoman, a lackluster but accurate Black Cat, a superb Cheetara, and Rose, the generic black cat, sorriest of all. Her whiskers and nose were accomplished with a quarter-inch of eyeliner pencil, her front paws are fingerless gloves, and she is wearing Hello Kitty sneakers. Despite Jade's cajoling, she doesn't feel like mingling. She selects a wine cooler to nurse and a corner to brood in, and wishes she had brought that pocket flask.
Jade makes a charming, if flawed, Sailor Mercury. Several partygoers have dressed as Sailor Scouts or villains, and she engages every one of them in enthusiastic improvised roleplaying. (Results vary.)
An hour or so into the party, Rose has imbibed roughly four standard units of alcohol, knocked over one abandoned soda can (though any stain will likely escape notice, judging by the condition of the carpet), and fielded three attempts at small talk. In the meantime, Jade's wig has fallen off twice. This could be due to a lack of wig cap (Rose warned her, dammit), or an excess of passion for reenacting battle scenes. In any case, she is very popular. And drunk.
"Wassaaaaap?" she breathes into Rose's ear, having bounded across the room and invaded her personal space.
"You reek of Kanekalon and cheap vodka," says Rose.
"Well, uh...your face!" She grins, wobbles. "C'mon, join the party." A sweep of her hand indicates the room's larger population.
"I'm fine here."
Jade pouts, then shoots her a sly look from under her lashes (Rose's breath does not catch in her throat). "Fine," she echoes.
"Really," Rose begins, but Jade's already scampered off. Soon an awkwardly flirtatious Domo-kun blocks her vision, and it's all she can do to escape his(?) slack-jawed advances. If the thought of Jade's safety flits across her mind, she does not pursue it. Jade has never not been able to take care of herself.
(Later, Rose will kick herself. Figuratively. So much for not being fooled by the least subtle applications of foreshadowing.)
A survey of the downstairs rooms yields little intrigue, much comic book character costume. Upstairs, Rose discovers an unlocked, empty bedroom. The bookshelves hold few volumes of interest. She ends up penciling editorial comments in the margins of a mediocre fantasy novel. (Which she could do at home, but defacing one's own property has such less allure than vandalism.)
Two hundred pages are made short work of. Her concluding notes exceed the space provided in the blank back pages. She debates whether to write over the back cover, or to prize blank pages from another book; a third option would be to abandon this meta-literary exercise and rejoin the party.
Suddenly the door busts open, making the decision for her. It's one of Jade's better friends, a third-year civil engineering student. He appears frantic.
"Do you know where she is?" he demands.
"No idea." Rose is unconcerned.
"She went off with some guys, she's really drunk, uh... I think we should go look for her."
Making their way through the house is like trying to slide a knife through the middle of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without it getting stuck. Rose must have drunk more than she thought, because halls that seemed straight and navigable now curve and meander endlessly.
They pick up more worried friends along the way. Jade cannot be found upstairs, nor in the living room or kitchen or foyer. She isn't waiting in line for the bathroom, and she isn't loitering at the hookah bench outside. Then someone shouts from the garage, and their little troupe takes off in that direction. (Takes off, that is, relatively speaking. The pace more resembles a frenzied shuffle.)
The garage is even filthier than the house. A pool table's tucked in one corner, and that's where the people crouch. Two men? Three? Some quantity of men. Rose stops counting when she notices the shape passed out beneath the table. Ice grips her heart.
"Hey, is that her roommate?"
"Jade isn't doing so well. You should get her home."
Someone drives them there--Rose recites the address, dully, and somebody else gives directions. On the way, Jade's a lump. Bewigged head limp in her lap, breathing shallow and slow.
They help her drag Jade upstairs. Rose can take her from there. She lugs Jade into bed, strips her with clinical care, and buttons her into a Scottie dog print nightgown. Her head's still swimming, she feels grimy and nauseated, and it's two a.m.
Rose makes coffee. And sits by Jade's bed. And waits.