Back then, it felt like everyone who knew Juniper had the same fascination with her. We’d attended the same experimental liberal arts university on the southernmost point of the beach island Sentosa, a school that seemed promising but wound up shuttering after just six years. It was the kind of place most Singaporean kids dreamed of: a small, intimate student body; professors imported from America and Europe; life cloistered in a refurbished Beaux-Arts building. I was part of the second cohort and couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been admitted. Every other day, there was some kind of university social event ripped straight from the imagination of someone who’d grown up reading English boarding school novels — a paint-and-sip night, a jazz listening party, a philosophy club salon — and at the center of all these events was Juniper, a radiant, entouraged sophomore who always stayed late to mingle with us freshmen, never giving off the impression that she had somewhere better to be.
She and I spoke for the first time at a party thrown by the theater students, who were fundraising for a production of Hamlet to be held over the December break. One of them had managed to get their parents to sponsor unlimited box wine and crackers for the mixer, which pretty much guaranteed a full house, though I had other reasons to consider the seven-dollar entry fee a bargain. I’d been trying very hard to believe that the sustained flirtation between me and Sebastian, one of the supporting cast members, would eventually morph into a relationship. We had four classes together and saw each other all the time, but it was hard to tell where I stood with him. Our interactions had consisted of my recommending nineteenth-century literature and hoping that the longing in Austen would make my intentions clear. I had two titles out on loan with him and was waiting for the epiphany to hit.
Sebastian seemed happy enough to see me at the mixer. I found him engaged in an imaginary sword fight with some of the other actors and drew him away to the second-floor windows, where we stood chatting about classes and his thespian-y ambitions until the theater club’s president, who had until recently been the events manager for an Early Starts enrichment center, clinked his fork against a musical triangle and proposed a toast.
“Thank you all,” he said, signaling for the music to be turned down, “for gracing the Fall Soiree with your presence. What a privilege to be here, at Singapore’s first-ever liberal arts college, with some of the finest thinkers and artists of our generation. How long we” — and here he gestured broadly at the few local faculty members dotting the room — “have dreamed of this. Know that you are part of a historic moment.” The president looked quite overcome with emotion. It felt as if he might say a bit more about freedom from capitalist key performance indicators, the chance to nurture meaningful artistic discourse, et cetera — the stuff that’d been expounded to death in the application brochures — but he visibly restrained himself and concluded: “To the beginning of Fall.”
We raised our Dixie cups. “To Fall.”
The party resumed its roar, and Sebastian escaped to refill his drink. I turned and stared out at the sea so it wouldn’t look like I was waiting around. The sun had recently set, and the beach was phosphorescent with pink-and-purple lights affixed to the bases of various palm trees. In the distance, across a short strip of water, cable cars floated to and from mainland Singapore. My cheeks were warm from the pure, simple bliss of cheap wine and conversation; for a couple of minutes, I made a game of letting my eyes go unfocused so the cable cars’ blinking lights would blur and glitter pleasantly. I felt strongly that I had never been this happy before. Then something moved in the window’s reflection. I turned and was startled to find Juniper standing there.
Juniper was one of those supremely self-possessed people who also had the grace to not be a bitch. An intoxicating combination. I’d often see her holding court on the giant stone steps outside campus like some kind of Chinese Kate Middleton, taking lunch out of her Sailor Moon tin while surrounded by a mist of laughter, a ring of admirers who wanted to be close to her and didn’t mind saying so. It was rare to catch her alone, yet here she was, staring at me so intently amidst the din of bodies and chatter that I thought she had me mistaken for someone else. But then she opened her mouth and spoke in a voice so soft that I had to lean in to hear her properly.
“Emaline,” she said as the party swelled around us, “are you in love?”
“Is it that obvious?”
I flushed. I couldn’t believe Juniper knew my name, let alone my desires. I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed us talking, or if Sebastian was coming back. Juniper reached out to touch my cheek.
“Do you mind if I offer a word of advice?”
I glowed. “Please.”
Her voice dipped even more. “Sebastian is being very irresponsible. He’s seeing someone else. Her name is Tammy, and she’s on exchange in Norwich for a semester. They’re in a long-distance relationship.”
Humiliated, I began to apologize.
But Juniper wasn’t having it. “No,” she said, her eyes bright and fierce. “Don’t ever apologize for being in love. To feel so deeply is a privilege.”
Most of the other students were taking full advantage of the unlimited wine and were well on their way to bad hangovers, but not Juniper. I knew — everybody knew — that Juniper didn’t drink due to an alcohol allergy. So she wasn’t drunk, though she had the exuberant intensity of someone who might be. I’d seen her nibbling on a saltine cracker at the start of the night. That was all.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, burning under the kindness in her gaze. “I appreciate it.”
I turned to go, but Juniper reached out again, this time touching my shoulder.
“Emaline,” she said, her voice warm and full, “I meant it. What you’re going through is precious. It’s worthy in and of itself. Don’t be embarrassed.”
Sebastian was surprised the next day when I slid into the seat beside him and asked about his long-distance girlfriend. We were in the back of the lecture hall, and a few students turned around to shush us, but Sebastian didn’t seem to notice. He happily furnished me with everything I wanted to know. There was an air of bemusement in his voice, as if this were information he’d assumed I already had. Of course he had a girlfriend he spoke to every night on the phone. Of course she knew about me; she knew everything about his life.
“Tammy and I have no secrets,” he said, pulling out his iPhone. His Find My Friends app was open, and on it the icon of a stunning Chindian girl with straight, glossy hair blinked at me, pinned somewhere in the middle of Norwich, England. It was 6:00 a.m. where she was, Sebastian told me lovingly. She would be waking up soon.
His transparency hurt me. “I didn’t know you had a girlfriend,” I said again, ignoring impatient glares from the other students.
“Oh. Well, I do.”
Juniper found me later, visibly moping in the school’s open-air car park. She looked like she was on her way to class, but when she saw me squatting in between a green Lexus and a scooter, she squeezed in beside me. Her presence made things worse. The conversation we’d had at the party came flooding back, and in the sober light of day, it seemed a million times more humiliating. I burst into tears.
After I calmed down, she pulled out a bag of sour gummy worms and offered me one.
“I was impressed,” she said, “by your readily admitting to being in love. Most folk our age defer to infatuation or attraction, as if they might protect themselves from the vulnerability of emotion by doing so. There’s something quite old fashioned about the word love.”
Even through my tears, I was dazzled and slightly cowed by Juniper’s presence, by her deliberate way of talking. My heart drummed as I tried to come up with an intelligent response. I didn’t point out that she was the one who’d used the word love at the party; all I’d done was agree. In my silence, a peopled buzz became apparent. A class had just let out. Soon, students would pour out of the building, cutting across the car park to get to the dorms or hopping into cars and taking their lives elsewhere. That Juniper and I’d had two moments alone was more than I could have hoped for. I glanced at the first of the students streaming down the school steps. Juniper stood up to leave.
“Thank you,” I said hurriedly, wanting to prolong the moment.
She smiled at me, folding the packet of gummy worms back into her bag.
“Don’t be a stranger, Emaline,” she said, and was gone.
Though Juniper was a year ahead of me in school, we were the same age. I don’t think she remembered, but the university wasn’t where we’d first met. We’d actually attended the same obscure neighborhood school in Yishun, one that most Singaporeans wouldn’t have even heard of. Though she was quite different back then. She’d been a quiet child, frequently picked on for the Mills & Boon romance novels she carried everywhere, with their hackneyed covers featuring European-looking couples in various states of passionate embrace. The school was big enough that we never spoke, though I remember seeing her cry a lot on the school bus home. Then, in the middle of primary two, she vanished.
Families in our neighborhood were constantly trying to change postal codes and get their kids into better schools; I assumed that was what had happened with her. But when I encountered her again at the university, it came out that she’d bypassed our education system completely and transferred abroad, following her father’s new job in Ireland. The Juniper I met at eighteen spoke in gently modulated tones, knew not to drown her perfectly creased eyelids with makeup, and always sat with her back yoga straight.
I was shocked by the completeness of her transformation: how collected she was, how assuredly and gracefully she moved through campus society. Everything about her was different now — better. The intervening decade hadn’t been as kind to me. Puberty had not catalyzed the beauty I’d hoped for. All it’d done was slap me with a growth spurt and leave me to flounder. At nearly five foot nine, I towered gracelessly over most of my peers, hovering at the fringes, trying to find a way in but somehow always saying the wrong thing.
I tried my best to correct this — see: pursuing Sebastian, desperately scraping together the fees to apply to the university, even joining my local Toastmasters club to seem more interesting — but it didn’t make a difference. I wasn’t an outcast, but you wouldn’t find a single peer who claimed to love me. I’d once believed that social acceptance was just beyond my grasp, that if I could reach out and push through a secret door, I’d fall into the graces of those who understood me, and be warmly embraced for who I was. But the opportunity to prove myself never arose. By the time I’d made it to university, the hope that I’d outgrow my awkwardness had shrunk to the size of a pea.
Running into Juniper again changed that. It took me a while to place her, radiant as she was amidst the second-years during orientation. But when I did, I was surprised that there seemed to be nothing left of the sniveling child I’d known. I watched her from afar, and not once did flashes of her old self break through. It was not transformation, then, but evolution, and if she could do it, so could I. The secret of her past — that she hadn’t always been this precocious, queenly girl — would die with me: a silent offering she never needed to be aware of. I did not expect anything in return, least of all friendship. And so when it bloomed, unexpectedly and fully, I wasn’t ready.
The next time I saw her on the school steps, carefully parsing through her Sailor Moon tin while the girls around her chattered away, I didn’t slow down. I was embarrassed that she’d seen me at my worst. I didn’t want to make eye contact with her and perceive pity in her gaze.
But she called out to me: “Emaline.”
The other girls stopped blabbering at once, their gazes darting from me to her, from her to me.
“I like your socks,” she continued. One girl, sitting at Juniper’s feet, actually had her mouth open.
I looked down. The fluorescent-pink strawberries dotting my crew socks winked at me. I’d gotten them for a dollar at a pasar malam some years back and liked them so much that I’d actually bought a pajama set with a matching print. “Thanks,” I said. “Strawberries are actually a great source of antioxidants.” Then, thinking I’d better quit while I was ahead, I added: “I’m late for class.”
“Bye,” she called. As I left, the conversation picked up around her again.
That week, I became aware of a shift in attitudes toward me, a kind of watching and waiting that I was unaccustomed to. But I was still preoccupied with the fallout of the Sebastian situation; I wanted my books back. The worst thing in the world that could happen was him reading Pride and Prejudice and drawing conclusions between the novel and my own overuse of the word ardently. What was it I’d said when I declared myself to him that night at the mixer, still operating under the impression that we were engaged in a mutual flirtation? I’d called myself a “rational creature.” Oh God.
I cornered him one day after class. “Are you done with my books?”
Sebastian looked wounded. “No,” he said. “I’ve been in rehearsals every day; you know that.”
I began to sweat. “I need them back for something.”
“I thought you really wanted me to read them.”
“I’ll lend them to you again when I’m done.”
“All right,” he said, looking uncertain. “I don’t mean to, well — ”
“What is it?”
Sebastian paused, then said: “You’re being super weird. Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I choked, and fled, leaving him standing outside the classroom, alone.
He returned the books to me a few days later, with a thin strip of shiny card paper sticking out of one of them. A lone ticket to the play.
“I realize I haven’t been as present a friend as you’d like me to be,” he explained. “Anyway, I hope you’ll understand why I’ve been so busy when you see it. It’s very complex.”
I’d already bought my ticket from him — weeks ago. But I turned this one over in my hands and thanked him. My traitorous heart hopped in my chest. “What about Tammy?”
“What about her?”
“She won’t be upset?”
Sebastian’s sweet, blank face looked genuinely confused. “Why would she be?” Then he added: “Her semester ends earlier than ours; she’ll be back by then. You guys can finally meet.”
Later that evening, while I was cramming in the library, a girl approached me. I recognized her as one of Juniper’s groupies. “We’re over there,” she said.
I looked up and saw Juniper sitting with four other girls, their bags occupying a large table at the end of the library. I gathered my books and followed her.
“Emaline,” she said, and beamed. I felt myself defrosting; after that interaction with Sebastian, I thought I’d never feel again. “What are you working on?”
I showed her my exam schedule. The girls at the table pored over it together, their attention solidified by Juniper’s interest. One girl, Naomi, whose brilliant smile I recognized from the “Welcome New Students!” posters around school, was an English major as well. She gave me study tips, the most valuable being that a certain professor who frequented the beach clubs on the tourist end of Sentosa had drunkenly declared an ideological stance against examinations and emailed the final’s questions to a student in exchange for a bottle of Hibiki 17.
The email had, of course, been widely disseminated. This professor taught the same course every semester, Naomi explained as she tapped at her laptop, forwarding the message to me. So far, he’d repeated the questions word for word: Which of Defoe’s satirical works led to arrest and why? Using any given text from the semester, explain how choices in point of view can systematically establish the delusion of freedom. And so on and so forth. Given that I was barely passing the class, I gushed my thanks, but she waved me off.
“Let me buy you coffee,” I insisted. “You have no idea what this means to me.”
Naomi gave me a little pat on the shoulder. “Calm down, girl, you’ll be fine.”
Juniper unwrapped a Chupa Chups. Even though she majored in sociology, not English, she spoke up.
“Examinations are exercises in futility,” she said. “But if they’re going to make you play the game, you might as well play it well.”
None of the other girls in the group reacted. It seemed this sentiment was regular fare for them.
“What?” I said.
“It doesn’t matter if you pass or fail,” Juniper explained, popping the lollipop in her mouth. “Not in the real world. Philosophy, literature, even linguistics” — she waved her hand — “the true point of university is granting us a buffer zone in our youth. It’s the last frontier of equality before the world batters us with its preconceived notions of who we are.”
According to her, it was only at university where your gender, race, class, and sexuality didn’t matter, just what made it down onto the page in the examination hall. And what kind of standard was that? How could a person’s essence be distilled from their ability for rote memorization? It was our great duty to recognize and resist such easy categorization. To be easily judged was to be easily dismissed.
I thought about Sebastian’s Tammy, her long, expensively trimmed hair, her — let’s face it — traditionally beautiful face: the kind of person who could afford to take on a sixteen-thousand-dollar semester abroad in the name of life experience. None of that mattered? Really?
“Okay,” I said. “But I still need to do well. This school is crazy expensive. I can’t afford to lose my scholarship. My parents will actually kill me if my GPA drops below a second upper.”
“I get that,” Juniper said, slurping loudly. Her lollipop was almost gone. The librarian walked over to shush us half-heartedly. It was late, and we were some of the last students left. “We all have different games to play.”
Finals came and went. Naomi’s tip was spot on, but the other papers were hard. I endured them in a haze of sleep-deprived panic, and when they were finally over, I found that I had become habituated to waking in spurts throughout the night, which meant that even without the looming pressure of finals, I couldn’t truly rest. On and on this blank exhaustion went. When I next saw Juniper, walking ahead of me in the canteen, I grabbed her.
“Essence?” I asked. “What did you mean by distilling a person into their essence?”
Campus was quieter over the December break. Those who could afford to had left immediately after finals for holidays in seasonal countries, like Japan and the States. Plenty of students had taken the monorail back to mainland Singapore, but my parents had sublet my room to an Indonesian scholar, so besides the occasional weekend dinner back home, I stayed in the dormitories. The air of the ghost town contributed to the feeling that I was perpetually sleepwalking.
Juniper looked pleased to see me. “When I saw you at that theater mixer,” she said, “I immediately liked you. I knew you were someone who had the rare quality of living an unfiltered life. People are too self-conscious, but you haven’t been polluted by all that yet.”
“I’m self-conscious,” I confessed. “I care about what people think.”
“But you ultimately honor your feelings,” she insisted, “by the way you choose to live.”
I started to feel like I was still swimming in bed. “What are you talking about?”
“None of this matters, Emaline.” She seemed sad that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. “If none of this matters, then isn’t it better to live as sincerely as possible?”
Was she talking about Sebastian? I thought back to the thrall of anticipation that had accompanied my long months of unrequited love. Getting up early to steep my hair in fruity conditioner on the mornings we had classes together. Daydreaming about the depths of character Sebastian might read into each cursively annotated book of mine. It all seemed so stupid now. I could feel Juniper taking me under her wing, trying to pull me along with her, and I wanted desperately to follow. I wanted to be that person who could smile sagely in the face of hurt. But I couldn’t.
“Heartbreak is precious too,” Juniper said, gently.
I shook my head. My heart wasn’t broken. My ego was hurt. “I’d rather not have known.”
Her smile dipped. For a second, she wasn’t just the Juniper who stood before me today but the version I’d known as a child. I took my wallet out of my backpack.
“What are you doing next week?” I asked.
“Do you want to come to the school play with me? I have an extra ticket.”
I gave her my original ticket. Juniper examined it happily.
“See,” she said, cheering up again. “Heartbreak isn’t the end. You’re still indulging in love.”
Naomi hadn’t gone anywhere for the holidays either, though it wasn’t because she couldn’t afford to. She was volunteering in the art department for the play. When I lingered outside the school hall, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sebastian at rehearsals, I saw her lugging a giant wooden cutout of a crescent moon to the car park. She laid it flat and arranged her spray paints on the gravel. I walked over and introduced myself.
“I remember you,” she said. “Juniper’s friend.” Then: “I can’t get the eyes on this fucking moon right.”
The face on the moon was frowning at us, the space where its eyes should have been creepily blank. “I’m coming with Juniper to the play,” I said.
“Oh? I told her I’d sneak her in, but she said she had something else going on. Guess she changed her mind.” Naomi squatted on the grass, using a pencil to trace the moon’s eyeballs. “She’s a funny one, that Juniper.”
I felt awkward standing over Naomi, so I joined her on the grass. She didn’t seem to mind, which was encouraging. “How did you guys meet?”
“We had classes together our first semester. She seemed cool, and she’s super smart. I introduced her to the rest — we were friends from before — and now I guess we all hang out.”
I hoped Naomi would continue, but she subsided into silence, studying the moon.
“She is cool,” I offered. “I like her a lot.”
Naomi squinted at me. “That’s cute.” Then she picked up the can of white spray paint and shook it vigorously. “Well,” she said, “if I fuck this up” — she angled the nozzle and closed one eye — “wish me luck.” Her phone bleeped loudly just as she was about to press down, and we both started. “Fuck,” she said. She put the can down and reached into her back pocket.
“Tam Tam,” she said, fondly, “you asshole. You almost caused me to fuck up the moon.”
I could hear the squiggly voice on the other end of the line, laughing. That voice tinkled beautifully, like glass shards.
Naomi glanced in my direction and continued: “Just a heads up. Juniper is coming to the play too. Yes, I know. Just sit on the other end. Jesus.” She hung up and looked at me. “Pretend you didn’t hear that.”
“Is that Tam Tam, as in Sebastian’s girlfriend?”
Naomi snorted. “Don’t get me started.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept quiet. I hadn’t realized there was anything to get started on.
Naomi looked at me, calculating, then sighed. “Fine. But you didn’t hear this from me. In our first semester, it was a whole thing. Tammy, Juniper, Sebastian. It looked like Sebastian was going to go with Juniper — they were basically inseparable — but then Tam got drunk and publicly declared her love for Sebastian in this long, elaborate speech, and I guess he decided that was more touching or whatever. Juniper was very gracious about stepping back, but Tam’s never gotten over how close they were. Won’t go to a single party if Juniper is going to be there. Can’t stand her accent and clothes. Even the way Juniper walks, you know, with that slight trot? It’s all very silly.”
“I’d hoped the semester abroad would help Tam get over it, but she’s always been mad petty, so, well, I don’t know.” She pursed her lips. “But don’t let me put you off. Tam has a good heart. She just doesn’t get that there’s such a thing as wearing it too much on your sleeve.”
I was still struggling to catch up. Juniper and —
Naomi rolled her eyes. “Don’t look at me. I don’t see the appeal either.” She turned to the moon again, took aim, and pressed down.
The night of the play, I spent a long time getting ready. Every surface in my dorm room was covered with the regurgitated contents of my closet. I ironed all my best clothes and tried them on so many times that they began to rewrinkle. Finally, I settled on a pair of tailored black jeans and an electric-blue tank top. This sort of casual chic was out of character for me, though I was learning. I debated the pink strawberry socks for a long time too, even putting them on, but now their fluorescence pained me. At the last minute, I tore them off and tossed them in the trash.
What was it Juniper had said? Don’t be embarrassed.
For the rest of my life: Juniper conjured before me, every single time I closed my eyes. Saying: To feel so deeply is a privilege, over and over again.
As a final touch, I went to the campus salon and paid for a blowout. Even though it was already late afternoon, I was the first customer that day. The hairdresser, glad to have something to do, gave me all the extras: conditioner, shine treatment, hot tongs, the works.
He complained the entire time I was in that chair. Business was shit. During the semester it was alright, but the school wasn’t even at the good end of Sentosa. There was nothing except the university and a restored World War II fort that occasionally attracted tourists. Not enough students sticking around either. Every day, the grocer complained about the swaths of meat and fruit going bad, but the university’s contract mandated that these on-campus retailers stay open through the break — to give their stakeholders the impression of being busy, alive.
“Why?” I asked, and the hairdresser shrugged. Damned if he knew.
I left the salon looking incredible. Nothing at all like my usual self. When I tried to pay the hairdresser for the extras, he batted my wallet away. “Good luck,” he said.
“I’ve been in this line long enough to know that no one comes in to do their hair like that unless they’re going to battle,” he said, surveying his handiwork. “Or trying to impress a man.”
“So which is it?”
When he saw that I wasn’t about to answer, he smiled. “Alright, then. Must be nice to be so young.”
The play was objectively mediocre, though it was obvious that the actors were trying their best. Hearts broke throughout the auditorium every time Sebastian stepped into the spotlight, emoting for all he was worth, yet conjuring only sweat. During curtain call, we all leaped up and applauded hard. Even from our shitty seats way in the back, I could see tear tracks running down Sebastian’s rapturous face, leaving shining streaks through his foundation. When the house lights went up, everyone filtered outside onto the beach, where the theater kids had set up foldable tables with celebratory wine and charcuterie. They’d even hired students to suit up and walk around with little square trays, handing plastic glasses out.
Sebastian was standing under a palm tree with the rest of the cast and crew, which included Naomi and a bunch of people I didn’t recognize. He was still crying, clinging to Tammy, overwhelmed from the high of performance while she struggled to keep her heels from sinking into the sand. I would go over and say hi, I thought. What did it matter now?
The last thing Juniper said to me as we left the theater was, “You look amazing.” What she meant was that I had succumbed. I looked exactly like the other girls, studied and stylish. Her voice was thick with disappointment, but not suspicion.
I grabbed her hand. Calluses, I remember thinking. The same as mine. “Let’s go congratulate the cast.”
When Tammy saw us, her face twisted.
Juniper was oblivious. “Tabitha,” she said, her voice bright and charming. The crowd cleaved as we approached. She smiled at Naomi too, and Sebastian, who was looking especially dapper, despite the tears and red nose. “How was England?”
“I enjoyed my time there,” Juniper said. “The people are so gentle. I don’t miss the weather, though. It made my skin very dry.”
Up close, Tammy was almost alienating in her beauty. What had I gotten myself into? I felt a surge of panic and stepped closer to Juniper, immediately hating myself for falling back into her orbit so cleanly when faced with uncertainty.
“Hello,” I cut in. “Nice to meet you. My name’s Emaline.”
Everyone ignored me.
“I’d be glad,” Juniper continued, “to give you a moisturizer recommendation.”
“I’m good, thanks.”
For a moment, it seemed like that would be it. But Juniper refused to move, still smiling benevolently in Tammy’s direction. People began to stare. For Tammy to back down would be to admit weakness. Her eyes narrowed.
“When were you there again, exactly?”
“I visited one summer, years ago.”
“Which part of the UK?”
“London. I’ve never been to Norwich, unfortunately, though I hear it’s adorable.”
“It is adorable.” Tammy smiled, her perfect white teeth showing. “And how long were you in Ireland?”
I decided that was enough. “Let’s go,” I whispered, tugging at Juniper’s sleeve. To no avail.
She waved her hand in a vague manner. “Just until I finished high school.” But her breath hitched slightly and held. I’d caught her misstep, and judging by expression, so had Tammy. She cocked her head to one side.
“Did you mean sixth form?” Tammy slipped her arm through Sebastian’s, pressing up against him. “Remember, darling, when your friend here gave me shit for pronouncing her name wrong at your birthday last year? Ju-nai-per, she said, not Ju-nee-per.”
Juniper didn’t flicker. “I apologize if correcting your pronunciation made you feel bad.”
“I didn’t feel bad,” Tammy said, clocking the curious glances around her, enjoying herself now. “So which was it? High school or sixth form? Did you spend some time in America too, then? Or did you get your grading systems mixed up, Mary?”
Sebastian looked between the girls like a big uncomprehending Saint Bernard, knowing something had happened without being able to discern exactly what. “Who’s Mary?”
Tammy pinched him playfully but kept her eyes on Juniper. “I saw your old primary school yearbook photo. How different you looked! Where’d you get those double eyelids done? A recent development, aren’t they?”
When Juniper stayed silent, she went on. “In fact, your fucking name’s not even Juniper, is it?”
Somebody gasped unironically. Tammy, gratified, turned to address the rapt crowd. “I did some asking around. Everything about her is fake. She didn’t go to school abroad, so God knows where that accent is from. Probably YouTube. All of her bullshit about living true and she’s not who she says she is. And who knows if that alcohol allergy is even real or some quirk she invented to seem more interesting?”
My hand tensed around Juniper’s arm. “Why would I lie about something like that?” she asked.
Tammy shot back. “Why’d you lie about anything?”
Juniper, to her credit, held steady. “I didn’t.”
But I alone felt her tremble.
I should have realized then that the situation was spiraling out of control. What had I been thinking when I dragged her over? That life can’t be lived without consequences. That people’s feelings were real, not just things to be played with. Even if you believed that none of this would matter in the long run. Especially if.
“Prove it, then.” Tammy grabbed a plastic champagne flute from a passing server and held it out. “Drink up.”
By the time the ambulance came, Juniper’s status as the school martyr had been solidified. Tammy’s fall from grace was so quick, so permanent, that for years after, people called her a bully in whispers loud enough for her to hear. Juniper shouldn’t have lied to begin with, Tammy argued, over and over. How was I supposed to know? She wasn’t wrong; it seemed reasonable to equate Juniper’s alcohol abstinence with her wanting to avoid some kind of drunken slipup. But it was hard to take the side of someone who’d cornered another person into anaphylactic shock. Hard, too, to think about that split second of pure, electric terror that’d shot through the crowd when Juniper abruptly crumpled. Nothing in the years since has quite come close. That Sebastian and Tammy split shortly after wasn’t a surprise, but even Naomi disavowed Tammy. That was uncalled for, Tam Tam, she’d said. Seriously. She could have died.
When Juniper returned to the dormitories, some of us wept in relief. After that, we continued addressing her as Juniper, not Mary. What about the accent, the whole bit about living in the UK? Juniper herself joked about that invented Irish phase. She’d always been a daydreamer, but yes, making up a whole season abroad when all she did was transfer to yet another obscure neighborhood school was a bit much. That was on her. She charmed everyone with her contrition; it was masterfully done. Even more people gathered around her on the school steps as she took her lunch out of that Sailor Moon tin. Still, no matter how popular she got, she’d call out to me when she saw me booking it to class. Hey, Emaline, she’d say, raising a hand. Hey.
I could never figure out if, or what, she knew. Did I go too far? Did she?
Years later, long after the university had consistently failed to make any world ranking lists and shut down, I ran into Tammy in the feminine care aisle of a Watsons. She was a successful lawyer by then and wore her exhaustion in a very chic way. I didn’t expect her to recognize me, and as we queued to pay, we didn’t exchange a word. But when I ran into her again outside the mall, rolling a cigarette, she nodded at me.
I stopped and accepted one, even though I didn’t smoke. “Did you hear that the university is going to be turned into a museum?” she asked.
I had. The Singapore Tourism Board had bought up the Beaux-Arts building after the university folded. Apparently, its architecture was too beautiful to be demolished.
“A Madame Tussauds,” Tammy scoffed, lighting her cigarette, then mine. “That whole place was a joke.”
We mulled this over. It suddenly occurred to me that there was absolutely no reason for me to be standing here with Tammy, that it had been a long time since I’d felt the compulsion to pant after the slightest sign of interest. I was a full-time mother now and, with whatever free time I had, volunteered as a parish nurse at our neighborhood church. I’d left that other life, a shimmering mirage of girls and chatter, so far behind that at times I had trouble believing any of it had happened, least of all to me.
I didn’t need this, I decided. I’d paid my dues. Just as I was about to make up an excuse to leave, Tammy took a long drag and demanded: “Why do you think she did it?”
I paused, caught out. “Did what?” I asked, reluctantly.
“If she knew she was allergic, why’d she take the drink?”
“I don’t know,” I said, even though I did. “She’s a funny one, that Juniper.”
Tammy shot me a look. “You stayed friends with Naomi, didn’t you?” When I didn’t reply, she tossed her cigarette on the ground and said, “Forget it. It’s so long ago now.” She stomped out the butt. “You take care, Emaline.”
Back in the theater, right after the show was over, under the cover of raucous applause, I had turned to Juniper. She was standing straight, her shoulders lifted, the curve of her lower back pronounced under a sleek black dress, the twin moons of her eyes lined in bright gold. Her hair was falling over her left shoulder in effortless waves, copious and glossy, but up close I could see that she’d meticulously crimped the underlayer to give it more body.
“Do you really think all this is a farce?” I asked. “That nothing that happens in school matters?”
Juniper kept her gaze trained on the stage, at the actors bowing and holding their hands up in the air. Someone shouted for an encore, which was inappropriate because the final scene had been one of simulated murder. Others laughed. A childish rage flared. Look at me, I felt like saying. I’m not just one of your chess pieces to be moved around. I’m learning to play the game too.
By then I had already returned to my parents’ home and dug up evidence of her fraud. The entire time I tore through the storeroom, nursing my hurt, looking for that yearbook, I thought: I’m honoring my feelings. While dialing Naomi and summoning up the tone of confidences, I told myself: I’m only doing what Juniper would do.
But still, even after the stage had been set, I wanted absolution. I wanted Juniper to admit that she bought into her own bullshit just as much as I had.
A long time passed. I thought that perhaps she hadn’t heard me, but then she said: “At this age, things feel more important than they really are. But in five, ten years, the only thing we’ll remember is the experiences we’ve had. The most important thing is to feel.”
“Do you really believe that?”
When she finally turned to me, I saw that her face was shining. “I do, Emaline,” she said, beaming. “I really do.”