Christine had been pleased to get the invitation, but surprised. She hardly knew Erin—they had a sociology course together, but they didn’t really talk. But it was difficult to meet people when you lived off campus, and she had made a resolution to make friends this year. So she decided she should go.
She had spotted the cactus in a trendy design shop on Main Street, and thought it would be the perfect gift. Something to add flair to Erin’s dorm room, something that didn’t need much attention. But now, walking to the party, she was starting to feel like it was the worst thing she could have chosen.
Erin would probably think it was an insult—that she was calling her prickly, or that she was making fun of her for being single, or something. And why hadn’t she thought to wrap it at all? She should have brought it in some cellophane, with a little raffia bow and a card.
She had already thrown out the card—she had written “Happy Birthday Erin” too small, and then ran out of things to say. A sea of awkward white space gaped around the words.
She arrived at the bar to find all the benches on the patio full of students laughing and drinking. The tables were littered with foaming glasses and empty pitchers. She spotted a few people from class, but no one seemed to recognize her. Everyone was so noisy and casual. Her chest felt tight.
She walked around the patio, searching for Erin. She tried inside, but it was just a mass of frat guys playing pool. She walked all the way around the room once, then headed back out to the patio. There were people here who she recognized from the Facebook event, but she hadn’t met them before. Should she ask someone where Erin was? She didn’t want to seem needy.
Ten minutes after she arrived, the situation had become dire. Soon, people would begin to notice her hovering awkwardly on the margins. Soon, people would probably begin to question what someone like her was even doing there.
Twelve minutes after she arrived she had a revelation, and left, cactus in hand.
Outside, she berated herself, furious at her cowardice. But no one had noticed she was there, so it was just as though she had not come at all. She was free. Her feet took her automatically towards the water, and she sat down on a ledge overlooking the beach.
Gulls soared low over the waves, which lapped softly at the shore below. The sun was sinking to the horizon. Christine realized she hadn’t been breathing, and started.
When the sun had fully disappeared, she stood up to leave, a little stiff but relaxed. On the bus, she cradled the cactus under her arm. It was a nice little cactus, she thought. Erin might not have appreciated it. She would put it in a quiet corner window, where it would get lots of sun.