Sitting in traffic on 42, Madeline wanted a cigarette. Chloe sang haltingly to “Deceptacon,” her voice dropping in and out of the verses. “Wanna disco? Wanna see my disco?” She belted out in a high, sharp voice before abruptly stopping and beginning to hum. She bobbed her head in time to the music while she gripped the steering wheel at ten and twelve. When Madeline rolled down the window to smoke, letting in the sounds of the idling cars, Chloe turned down the volume.
“You can let it play,” Madeline said.
“No thanks,” Chloe said. “I don’t want anyone to hear me singing.”
Madeline lit her cigarette and shrugged.
“You know we’ll be there in ten minutes, right?” Chloe asked.
“If we’re lucky,” Madeline said.
Chloe winced, and after a few minutes, she turned the music back on and started to hum again. She seemed nervous about the concert, or maybe it was just her energy, which was always cresting and falling in unpredictable waves. That’s why Madeline had tried to back her way out of seeing the Bikini Kill reunion together. “I wish I could,” she’d told Chloe two weeks before. “But I know the tickets are really expensive.”
“Don’t be silly,” Chloe had said, “I have the extra already. It’s my treat. But if you’d just put in an application, you wouldn’t have to worry about stuff like this, you know.”
Chloe had previously planned to go with her boyfriend Mark—although it was hard for Madeline to imagine the DMB enthusiast at a riot girl concert in the first place, and now they’d broken up entirely. Chloe had asked Madeline to come in his stead just a day afterward. Madeline didn’t want to be Chloe’s shoulder to cry on at this moment, especially since Chloe was technically her boss, and held the power to promote or deny her the position of senior project manager, should she choose to apply to it. But that was also a reason to say yes, so now they were in Chloe’s VW bug together, Chloe wearing a plaid skirt and fishnets along with a Le Tigre tee. It looked like something Madeline would’ve worn in college, but she suspected Chloe had bought the ensemble just for the occasion. Madeline, on the other hand, wore black jeans and a leopard print sweater. It was November, now, and no time for fishnets.
There was a break in the traffic, and they sped up for a frictionless mile, the cool air seeping in through the still-open window. They took a right and a left and then it was time to tackle the task of parking. There were people everywhere Madeline looked—other young old people, the men in tight jeans and denim jackets, and the women with brightly colored tote bags with pins on them. “Shit,” Chloe said. “We should’ve come earlier.”
And of course, they had tried to come earlier. Madeline had arrived at Chloe’s an hour before they left but had found herself in Chloe’s apartment for the first time in their two years of adult friendship (or whatever it was), inspecting the Shepard Fairey posters and rose-gold candles while Chloe drank a glass of white wine and tried to apply liquid eyeliner. “Fuck,” she kept saying. “I used to do this all the time.”
Madeline had known Chloe in college, where she’d never worn eyeliner. If she had, she’d know that a felt tip worked better than a fine, delicate brush. Madeline wouldn’t have given Chloe makeup tips then, and it was too late now. Eventually, Chloe scrubbed her face clean and asked to borrow Madeline’s red lipstick. She put it on in the mirror, a slash of red on her pale, freckled face. By the time they were circling the venue, it had already faded thanks to the final sip of wine.
They circled the block once, then twice, then Madeline suggested they try going a few more blocks down. She threw her cigarette butt onto the pavement, but left the window down, as if she could let some of Chloe’s anxiety out into the night air.
Immediately, they found a spot. Then they walked the four blocks to the venue, Chloe near skipping with joy. “Are you so excited?” She asked.
“So excited,” Madeline said, even though other feelings had already begun to creep in. They went through security, displayed their tickets, and on the other side of the barrier, the audience members were taking off their coats. Before them was a sea of men in plaid shirts with sleeves rolled up to reveal tattoos. They chatted with women in worn band tees that revealed the same roses and pin-ups that were inked on the men. She looked down at the anchor on her wrist, then rolled down the sleeves of her sweater. Alone on Napster two decades before, she’d heard Bikini Kill for the first time and felt like she was discovering something precious, something that spoke just to her. Now, she felt like a data point in a marketing segment.
“I love that everyone here is old,” Chloe said.
“I’m guessing the tickets priced out the teens,” Madeline said.
“True,” Chloe said. “I bought mine through an AmEx pre-sale. Do you have one?” She asked.
“No,” Madeline said.
“I’ll refer you. Then we’ll both get the points!” She laughed, then suggested they get a drink. “I think I can have two more and still drive back.”
Madeline wanted to tell her that she could have three, four, who the fuck cared—she could abandon her car and take an Uber back. But she could already feel that the night would be nothing like the ones she’d experienced in college, drinking from a flask while smoking outside MSQ, her body blurry, the music blurry, the whole night something that came in flashes of elation and elbows to the stomach.
They went and found their seats. They were good seats, of course—Chloe wouldn’t have it otherwise—right in the middle of the balcony and right in front of the railing. Chloe sipped her gin and tonic and Madeline sipped her tall boy, peering down at the people standing in the small pit in front of the stage.
In college, Chloe and Madeline hadn’t exactly been friends. They had only reconnected eight years later when Madeline had messaged Chloe on LinkedIn. Madeline had written a tentative message.
Dear Chloe, I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but we went to school together, where we both lived in Clairmont and enrolled in Professor McGrath’s Decadent Literature 0200 Course. Since graduating, I have received an M.A. in Comparative Literature and am currently seeking jobs in the nonprofit space. I see that you are now a Project Manager…
Chloe had responded with enthusiasm, OMG Maddy! Of course I remember you.
The two girls had lived diagonally across the hall in their freshman year of college. On the first day of orientation, they’d walked to a dorm cook-out together, along with Chloe’s roommate Priya. Madeline—Maddy then—had lived in a single. Chloe had complimented her appearance again and again. Her bangs were so cool. Her purse, shaped like a watering can, was so cool too! What would her major be? Art or something? “I’m undecided,” Madeline had said. “Maybe German Studies or something.”
“You speak German?” Chloe asked.
Chloe laughed a high, trilling laugh, and then told Madeline she would be a Government major, but she hoped to do an English minor.
“Cool,” Madeline had said, her eyes wandering off to a man in a designated Resident Advisor shirt with plugs in his ears. Soon after, she’d excused herself to go to the bathroom, struck up a conversation with the RA, Todd, and then followed him downtown to a bar where he bought her a can of Sparks and they ended up making out. After that, Chloe never saw her at a Clairmont floor party, could never find her in the evenings, although she frequently knocked on her door to invite her to lunch and sometimes succeeded in securing her company. On these occasions, Madeline had first talked about Todd, and then they’d broken up and she’d moved on to Adam, who lived off campus. Then, she disappeared wholly from Chloe’s orbit until the fall of sophomore year, when they’d both been in Decadent Literature. Madeline had talked more than anyone else in seminar. In her third semester of German, she was always going on and on about todestrieb, the death drive.
They had never taken another class together, although Chloe continued to wave at her on campus for another year. Then, she’d stopped, seemingly forgetting the other girl, or perhaps finally realizing she’d been rejected. She didn’t even talk to her when they were both drunk in line for the bathroom at the radio station’s senior week party, an occasion on which everyone—even Madeline—was filled with nostalgia, wondering over how quickly four years had gone by.
The eight years after had gone by even more quickly as Madeline finished another degree, got a job as a paralegal, got rejected from law school, switched to retail, hated that, and began moonlighting as a dogwalker. It had been a relief when she received Chloe’s messages and then breezed through the interview, despite her slightly informal attire.
When she began an entry level role, Chloe told her, “I’ll take you under my wing,” and Madeline was too happy about having health insurance to chafe at the idea that her peer would now be her supervisor. It could be a good thing, she thought; she wouldn’t have anything to prove.
In the months after Madeline began, Chloe had often begged her to get a happy-hour drink after work. She invited her underling to her birthday party, which Madeline stayed at for an hour, meeting Chloe’s now-ex-boyfriend and drinking two margaritas before realizing she probably should’ve brought a present.
But that was just one side of their relationship. Chloe made it clear that she was her boss, too. Once, Madeline had been given a very rudimentary task—laminating a few signs for an event. She’d listened to an audiobook as she’d slowly fed the paper in and out of the slot to ensure the sheets came out smoothly. Yet, gripped by a particularly suspenseful passage in The Secret History, she’d suddenly gone too fast and gotten a piece stuck—it became half laminated crumple, half virgin paper. She’d gone to ask Chloe if she had a screwdriver. Finding out what had happened, Chloe followed Madeline back to her cubicle, where her eyes widened. “How did this happen?” She asked.
Chloe took a deep breath. “I know you think this kind of work is beneath you,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you can be careless.”
“I wasn’t. I don’t. It’s just a kind of temperamental process.”
Chloe went silent. When she spoke again, Madeline realized the emotion she was seeing was anger. “We’re not going to argue about this. I’m going to tell you that you need to pay more attention to what you’re doing. This is not acceptable.”
Madeline felt both humiliated and angry herself. On her lunch break, she rifled through the supply closet, found a screwdriver, and easily disassembled the machine, removing the paper. It was no big deal, it was nothing—why had Chloe reacted like that?
Most days, Chloe was beyond friendly, but then sometimes Madeline would make a typo on a flyer, and Chloe would give her the silent treatment for the better part of the day. Sometimes it felt like Madeline had personally let her down. And perhaps the problem was that things were too personal. At happy-hour, Chloe asked her for all the latest gossip about Evan, Madeline’s counterpart in the finance department, who kept asking her out for coffee. After a month of pressure from both of them, Madeline had gone on a date with him and Chloe had wanted to know every detail, every word exchanged. Marianne summed it up: “He took me to Waffle House.”
“He was probably just trying to be ironic.”
“Well, it was lost on me.”
“You can’t be so picky,” Chloe told her.
“Why not?” Madeline asked.
This was the way things were with Chloe. There was always a subtle pressure, whether it to date someone, or to be better, or, most recently, to apply for a promotion. Chloe was moving up a rung in the organization, becoming the assistant director of their department. Madeline was meant to apply for Chloe’s old job. She wasn’t sure she even wanted that kind of responsibility, which she tried to tell Chloe, who asked her why.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I might still want to go back to graduate school, to figure out what I really want to do.”
“And then what? Be back in the same position in a year or five or six?”
Madeline didn’t care what Chloe thought, she really didn’t. Or at least she hadn’t at first. The job was just a job, she told herself, she told her best friend Eve, who had moved to Austin, and who kept encouraging her to join her collective living group there. But it was difficult to stick with apathy, spending day-in and day-out in the office space, under the fluorescent lights, mere feet away from Chloe. If she didn’t at least try to care, her work suffered, and then Chloe got mad. But the more she tried, the harder it was to imagine a future outside of that office, to remember who else she had thought she would be.
Madeline didn’t want to think about it tonight. She wanted to be in it. When Kathleen Hanna started belting out “Rebel Girl,” Madeline stood up to dance, patting Chloe on the shoulder. Feeling the effects of the beer, she started to shimmy her hips, looking sidelong at Chloe, who started to bob her head.
For a second, Madeline lost herself in the feelings—a little tipsy, her limbs felt liquid as she swayed and bounced. Nostalgia and longing rose up together out of her belly, up her throat, and out of her mouth. Now, she was singing more loudly than Chloe had in the car, and she felt the power of being a woman, of admiring another woman, of imagining a future in which they were both stronger, more vibrant, dancing faster and screaming louder and making their truths visible with the force of their bodies.
But then Chloe was tapping her shoulder. Madeline gave her half of her attention, while the other half stayed on her heart beating in her chest. She raised her eyebrows to ask, what?
“We need to sit down,” Chloe hissed.
“What? Why?” Madeline asked.
“The woman behind us just asked me to.”
“Seriously. She said she would call security.”
“This is a punk concert.”
“I don’t want to start a thing. And I paid for the tickets.” Chloe grabbed her hand. “Please.”
The song came to an end and they sat down.
Kathleen was telling the audience that they all had had magical powers. That they could use them if only they believed. That the energy there tonight was enough to change things, really change things.
Madeline whispered to Chloe. “Seriously? We aren’t going to be able to dance because of some uptight bitch?”
“If we dance, she can’t see.”
“She should stand! Everyone should stand.”
“But they’re not, Madeline, okay? So just drop it.”
Madeline sat there in her seat, the between-song monologue becoming a dull drone in her ears. All the joy was sapped out of her, as if by magic. Here she was, surrounded by people who looked like her and liked the same things as her, erupting in applause at the prospect that this moment was somehow significant, magical, when they all knew full well that after the concert they would go home and sleep, only to spend the rest of their evenings that week and that year not enacting magical change but watching Netflix.
Suddenly, she felt like everything she had believed in, everything she identified with, everything she thought herself to be was simply something that the world had foisted on her, and that worse, she had been taught and sold these things not so that she would strive to create change, but so that she wouldn’t—so that her sense of self-righteousness and specialness and importance would keep her numb.
That was how she felt. Numb. Trapped between this world and the one she wanted to live in. Between the person she had once thought she was, and the person she had become.
Chloe clapped along with them. She let out a little “woo!”
Suddenly, Madeline wanted to scream or cry or make a scene. But what could she really do? She had two choices: to continue sitting there in the sea of punk adults or to jump over the fucking railing.
So instead she sat in her seat. She drank one beer, and then another. And then Madeline drove her home, where she opened the front door, and then her laptop.
The next day, she turned in her application.
She didn’t get the rejection from Chloe, but from HR. “There were so many qualified candidates,” the woman told her. “It was a difficult decision to make. And we so value the work you do in your current role.”