CITY GIRLS | When a friendship runs its course in Lizzie Cooper-Smith’s short story, Jada’s perspective shifts.
by Lizzie Cooper-Smith
I meet Yasmin on the first day of Year Five. She has dark curly hair and train track braces that somehow suit her. Our friendship begins the moment a tractor rumbles past the playground gates and she turns to me and says, ‘This isn’t like London,’ and I reply, ‘You too?’ We are the pair of new girls plucked from the capital, strange outsiders dragging our city-dirty heels around a village primary school. We are best friends by lunchtime, because at that age making friends is uncomplicated in a way it never can be again, and because us city girls need to stick together.
Yasmin is from north London and I am from south. We both say that our side of the river is better than the other, even though we are too young to explain why. It doesn’t matter either way – we both have that same London grit, that same kind of heart. We are both exactly nine years and six days old, both born on the last day of August. Yasmin likes pickled-onion-flavoured Monster Munch and theme parks, and I like Twirls and reading adventure books. She says this is good because we won’t argue over snacks at sleepovers, and also that we should go on a rollercoaster sometime. I am both scared and delighted.
We become inseparable, intoxicated by each other’s company. We sit together at the back of the classroom and get told off for talking, which never used to happen to me, but I like it. I like being the chatty girl who wears the ‘best’ half of the ‘best friends’ bracelet. After school, we rush home to message each other on MSN until one of us has to go to bed. We spend weekends at each other’s houses, begging to stay for just five more minutes when home time comes. Whenever I’m at Yasmin’s and her parents start arguing, we hide under her duvet and play our favourite game. We imagine our twenty-something-year-old selves living in an apartment in New York, creating our future in excited whispers. We have dates at the best restaurants, a walk-in wardrobe full of high heels and one of those big American fridges that makes ice. When the shouting stops, Yasmin uses her glitter stick on my cheeks and French plaits my hair. I keep it in for two days.
On the first day of senior school, Miss Walker asks everyone to tell the class their name and something interesting about themselves. When my turn comes, I say that me and my best friend have the same birthday. Yasmin grins at me from across the room. Miss Walker cocks her head to one side and says, ‘That’s not really a fact about you, Jada,’ which I don’t really understand because Yasmin has always been something interesting about me. ‘Can you tell us something about you?’
When the divorce is finalised, Yasmin and her brother get to stay in the village with her dad. She is happy about this, but her brother isn’t. I don’t know what to say to her about it, because at home it’s only ever been Mum and me, so there isn’t really a family to break up. I give her my grape gel pen and some of my favourite furry stickers for her school planner. A few weeks later, she misses a morning of school to get her braces taken off. When she comes back at lunchtime, she starts crying in the locker room. I take her to the old sports block toilets and let her sob on my shoulder. She smells like toothpaste and Impulse body spray.
‘Is my face all puffy?’ she says.
I hand her blue paper towels and my cherry lip balm. ‘If anyone asks, I’ll say it’s because getting your braces off is really painful.’
She smiles, her teeth straight and gleaming.
We make other friends, but everybody knows that Yasmin and I come as a pair. Whenever I invite our group over, Yasmin comes half an hour early and leaves after everyone else. We stay up giggling over nothing in particular until Mum comes downstairs in her dressing-gown and says it’s probably time Yasmin went home. Whenever either of us doesn’t turn up to school on time, the teachers always ask, ‘Where’s the other one of you, then?’ They know we have secrets. By Year Eleven, I’m the only one who knows that Yasmin hasn’t started her period yet, even though she’s told all the other girls she has. Yasmin is the only one who knows why I always go to the toilet straight after lunch and never run out of spearmint gum.
It is Yasmin who I call when my mother finds the laxatives in my underwear drawer. It is Yasmin who comes with me to every appointment and waits outside to make sure I go in. We don’t talk about it unless I talk about it first, apart from the one time she looked at my dry, calloused hands and said, ‘This is making me sad, Jada.’ We walked in silence to Waterstones, where Yasmin ordered a cappuccino from the café and I bought a book of Sylvia Plath’s poetry.
“We are the pair of new girls plucked from the capital, strange outsiders dragging our city-dirty heels around a village primary school.”
I don’t do well in sixth form. Our other friends stop talking to me directly and start talking to me through Yasmin, which I can understand, because I’m sort of not really there anymore. Yasmin always eats lunch with me and insists that we study together. It doesn’t help, because she has a science brain, and I am trying to write pages on how Gothic settings help writers to shape their presentation of heroines in danger.
Yasmin gets into Nottingham University, her second choice. After hours of phone calls and pep talks from Mum, I get a place at Chichester through clearing. Later, basking in the evening sun in Yasmin’s garden, I am strangely happy that neither of us are going to London universities like we wanted to. We won’t be together, but I won’t be alone. Yasmin puts her cider down and lies flat on the grass next to me.
‘Actually, it might be nice to be at a campus uni,’ she says, looking up at the sky. ‘I’m glad it’s all worked out, you know?’
Yasmin organises a camping trip with our school friends before we leave for university. I only find out when I invite her over, a few days after results.
‘I didn’t know you liked camping,’ I say. In all these years, it had never occurred to me that my fellow city girl might actually enjoy nature.
She sips her coffee. ‘I thought it might be fun.’
‘I know it’s not your kind of thing, so I didn’t ask.’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘I’m a bit busy, actually. Got reading to do for my course, so.’
She leaves, and I watch the rest of her coffee go cold.
I FaceTime Yasmin from my bedroom floor two weeks after Fresher’s Week. My door is locked and the flat is full of people I don’t know. I remember after about twenty rings that she’s lost her phone, but I can’t bring myself to hang up. I lie there and let the ringing fill my head until I can’t hear anything else. I don’t mention I tried to call her when we talk a week later on Skype. She’s getting ready for a night out and I can hear Daft Punk in the background. I’m about to say for the first time out loud that I’m miserable here, when her flatmates burst in yelling her name and insisting that she downs something.
‘Sorry,’ she says after they’ve left, still grinning. ‘What was it you were going to say?’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Just that – that I’m not… having the best time here.’
‘It’s only been three weeks, Jada.’ She shakes her hair out and starts putting her hoop earrings in. ‘You’ll find your people eventually.’
I don’t find my people. In three years, I find precisely two people. Eva, who is in most of my seminars and saves us the good seats in the library, and Mack, who works in the campus shop and gave me a free Twirl once when I’d been crying. I have one-night stands, which everyone mistakes for having fun, and I get good grades, which everyone mistakes for being happy. Mum and Yasmin are the only two people I really text. Yasmin is always busy and always sorry about it. She plays Ultimate Frisbee now.
I move to London as soon as I have a job that pays me enough to rent a box room. One weekend when I’m staying with Mum, I bump into Nina Price, who we used to be friends with at school. I ask her if she’s still in touch with Yasmin and she says yes, actually, they had coffee together yesterday.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I didn’t know she was back home.’
‘Flying visit, I think,’ Nina says, shrugging.
Yasmin is apologetic when I text her, as usual. It’s her final year and things have been completely non-stop, she says. Do I want to come over for a movie night before she goes back to Notts tomorrow, she asks? I hate that she calls it Notts.
We watch Clueless and paint our nails like we used to. I start to think that things might go back to the way they were between us, that maybe we could be each other’s everything again, but then at 10 p.m. she says she’s tired and starts packing away the cotton pads and toe separators. She hasn’t taken out her contact lenses yet, so I know she’s lying. The conversation just isn’t flowing anymore.
‘No worries.’ I fake a yawn. ‘I’m knackered as well, actually.’
I walk home thinking about the time we stayed up until 2 a.m. putting glow-in-the-dark condoms on carrots and screaming with laughter.
Mack, now my boyfriend, calls me when I get in. He asks if I had a nice evening and I realise I’m crying.
‘Yeah,’ I lie, because the truth is imperceptible to anyone but me. I don’t love him, and I wish I could talk to Yasmin about it.
When we break up two years later, I don’t tell Yasmin for a week and a half, because there never seems to be a right time to mention it. When I do tell her, it feels like an overshare. She replies to my text after two days, ‘Hope you’re okay’ and a series of heart emojis. I don’t fill her in on the details.
I’m walking along South Bank when I find out via Instagram that Yasmin is engaged to her boyfriend of three years. We last spoke on our twenty-sixth birthday, a month ago. These days, a month isn’t a long time for us to go without speaking. I’m on my way to my first acting class, because I’m young enough to try something new and old enough not to care if I’m bad at it. The teacher, a short woman wearing bright blue eyeshadow, asks us to tell everyone our name and something about ourselves.
‘I’m Jada,’ I say. ‘I write poetry sometimes. I had one published in a zine last week.’ I had sort of forgotten about it until I said it.
The teacher smiles at me warmly. ‘Great,’ she says. ‘Thanks, Jada.’
After class, a woman around my age in a pink jumper and Doc Martens asks to swap numbers with me. Her name is Imogen and she runs a poetry night that I might like to come along to some time. We walk back to the tube chatting, and for the first time since I was nine, I think that maybe friendships could be simple. Just two city girls with something in common.
I get out at Brixton and wait for phone signal. I type a simple ‘Congratulations!’ underneath Yasmin’s photo. Then I carry on walking home to the familiar sound of sirens.
Lizzie Cooper-Smith | @evlbyname | evlbyname.com
Lizzie is a copywriter by trade with a passion for ballet and baking. In her spare time, she tries to navigate the chaos of her twenties through poetry, creative non-fiction, and just about any other form of prose that works.