I’ve never rolled a joint before and wished I’d been honest about it. But admitting to Elliot that I usually ask my brother, Mike, to pre-roll them would be embarrassing. We sit on the couch in my dorm room, fumbling with the rolling paper. I’ve made instant coffee—too much milk—and our mugs sit, lukewarm, alongside cans of Coke and chip packets peppered across the carpet at our feet. The TV glows, muted, in front of us.
My dorm neighbour’s music pulses dimly through the wall. Campus lights spill in through the window, glazing Elliot’s face. Fuck’s sake, the windowpane’s dusty, should I have cleaned it before he came over? Why do I care about a dirty win—
‘Here,’ Elliot says, holding the joint to me. It looks a little sad and loose, a confused worm.
I grin. ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ I say, more confidently than I feel.
‘I’m not the one who didn’t even know you needed a filter, Josh,’ Elliot jokes. ‘You’ve never smoked before, have you?’
Okay, so maybe I’ve only watched Mike roll before attempting, like, a single inhalation. It was New Year’s in New York and spending that time away from Bear, our conservative little hometown—a place that used to feel as snug as a scarf but now feels more like one scratching around your neck in mid-July—was overwhelming enough.
‘Not really, but I’ve watched my brother enough times to know you’ve done a terrible job,’ I say.
Elliot holds up the joint, scrutinising it. It looks like it might split in half. He shrugs.
We laugh and it’s nice. This type of newfound friendship is weird. It feels, I guess, chilled and comfortable, but still like tripping over only the surface layers. It’s easy to laugh at things like this. A droopy joint on a winter’s evening with the guy you sit next to in Stats. This is what college students do, right? But I wouldn’t tell Elliot about the way Bear feels nowadays, or ask him if his hometown feels the same. And it’s Friday night—a night that, usually, Ruby and James would be sitting here or I’d be at theirs. Friday nights have been ours for almost eleven years, since the three of us were kids. They used to be Bible study. Now all three of us have replaced Bear for the same college, we mostly watch movies—sober, but hey. Baby steps. It’s probably my first Friday night in months without them.
I reach out, attempting to fix the joint in Elliot’s hand. His fingers are cooler than mine.
‘I mean, let’s be real, neither of us really knows what we’re doing,’ he says.
We straighten the joint as best we can and then light it. The flame tints Elliot’s eyelashes golden for a moment and I wonder if I should notice that. He puts it to his lips, inhales the way Mike does—expertly—and suddenly I’m nervous. He passes it to me, and I think he maybe knows I’m self-conscious so he pretends to take a sip of cold coffee, and I inhale and cough everywhere, like in New York. Elliot purses his lips together, trying not to laugh. He fails and spits out some of his coffee, and then we’re both laughing and it’s fine.
‘Well, this is humiliating,’ I say, feeling lighter.
‘What you wanna do is—’ he says this the way he does when he’s describing a stats equation, and then he mimes breathing in deeply, ‘as opposed to, like—’ he mimes a shallow, small-mouthed breath. It’s funny for some reason and I start laughing again.
‘What? I’m helping you!’ He’s faux serious.
‘I know, I know. Sorry.’
I try inhaling again, and it goes a little better. I imagine the smoke settling in my lungs and sifting into my bloodstream. Elliot has a little more and I wonder if the smoke moves differently through him than through me.
When we start laughing again, it’s a different kind—a sleepy laughter bubbling up from my stomach, the type you get in the middle of class, in high school, sharing stupid looks with your friend and trying to stifle the sound. Ruby and I used to do that and Miss Fletcher would lose her mind.
I’m telling Elliot this before I can register the words falling over my tongue. He grins.
‘I like her. Ruby. The one from Intro to Psyche, right?’
‘You guys have known each other that long?’
I nod again. My eyelids feel chalky.
‘That’s cool. Did you ever—? I mean, are you guys—?’
‘No, no. She’s—I mean. She’s just my friend. Best friend.’
His question makes me feel weird, so I tell him about the way Ruby never turns down a dare—how she’d once snorted wasabi up her nose and didn’t even blink, even when she started to cry from the burn.
Elliot cracks up and I know it’s mostly because of the weed but it still makes me happy. He passes me what’s left of the joint. It’s small and hot between our fingers and tastes mostly of smoke.
When I wake up, I’m a little cold and the couch is scratching my cheek. My thoughts are muffled. Elliot is next to me, close, sleeping. The light from the TV flickers across his face. I watch it. I’m probably still high.
I let a thought settle for a moment: I got high, with a new friend. Mike would be proud. Our parents would die.
The room’s cooler and darker—less light from the dorm windows opposite. When I get up I step on a chip packet and almost knock the cans and coffee over.
Elliot doesn’t stir. I pick my way over to the window and close it; there’s frost blooming at the corners of the glass.
There’s something weird about Elliot’s sleepy voice, here, in my room, so late. I guess Ruby was right: coming from Bear has made anything slightly new feel strange.
‘Hey,’ I say, then, uselessly: ‘It’s cold.’
He nods, rubbing his eyes. ‘Need to pee.’ He gets up and goes over to the bathroom.
I sit on the couch. Stand up. Sit again. Pull on a hoodie and start clearing the snacks away.
And then Elliot makes a kind of cheerful noise from the bathroom. ‘Oh my god, the floor. It’s, like, warm?’ he yells.
‘Oh, oh yeah. It’s the uh—I was so confused, but I figured out it comes from the dryers. They’re underneath the bathroom.’
‘What, the laundry?’ I hear the splash of Elliot washing his hands.
‘And this bathroom’s like twice the size of mine, too.’
‘I know. Got lucky. But you’ve got the games room. And heating.’
I give up on clearing up the mess. My head still feels funny; I didn’t know weed lasted this long. I hear the tap turn off.
‘Yeah? You’ve got to try this.’
I frown and walk into the bathroom. Elliot’s lying on the floor in the almost-darkness, a strip of light from the little window spilling across his cheek gently. I don’t know why, but that makes my heart squirm a bit. I laugh. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Bro, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.’ He spreads his arms wide across the tiles, like he’s making a snow angel, then looks up at me. ‘What? It’s cold out there. And this is nice—heat, no light.’
‘Are you still high?’
‘Probably. Are you?
I lie down next to him. The tiles are warm against my back.
‘Maybe that’s why this feels extra nice,’ he says.
Elliot’s right—it’s big for a dorm bathroom. Outside, I see tiny flecks of snow beginning to fall against the night sky. I stretch my arms out a bit, my fingers brushing the side of the wall. I shift, and my other hand hits Elliot’s.
‘Sorry,’ I say, jerking it back.
I look over at him, at his profile, then quickly turn away. His eyes are closed.
‘If you could be anything, what would you be?’ he asks.
‘Um. I dunno. Maybe a fish—’
‘A fish?’ he cracks up. I love the sound of it.
‘Yeah, you know. Those deep-sea ones. They see parts of the ocean we never have before.’ I want to tell him I’d like to be something else—that sometimes, I’d take just about anything else.
‘Fair enough. That’d be cool.’
‘Or, I dunno. Just free,’ I say, instantly regretting it.
He turns to me, cheek pressed against the floor, brows furrowed.
I shrug. ‘Yeah. You?’
I nod. ‘I think you’re pretty brave.’
‘Really?’ he scoffs. ‘How?’
I shrug again. ‘You argued with Professor Penham that one time, in front of everyone.’
Elliot grins. ‘I guess.’
We lie there for a second, looking up at the ceiling, at the snow beginning to gather in the window frame.
‘Is it always this warm? The floor?’ He stretches his arms out again.
I start to say no, not always, and then his fingers briefly graze mine. My heart does the thing again and I don’t like it one bit. I feel him turn to look at me. I look back at him, then look away before he does. My throat feels tight.
‘Yeah.’ My voice sounds funny.
I turn to look at him again. His eyes are very green in the dim light, the whites slightly reddened. Making them greener. Should I be noticing this? I don’t think I should be noticing this.
‘Are you thinking a lot?’ he asks.
‘You look like you’re thinking a lot.’
‘Sorry.’ I say.
He smiles, but it looks different. Nervous. I’ve never seen him nervous. ‘Don’t be.’
I feel his fingers scrape against mine again. Lightly, unsure. I swallow, just like in the movies, but it doesn’t help; my throat still feels like my heart has settled inside it. And suddenly, I want him to be as brave as he was in Penham’s class. Braver, even. So I try not to think and instead let my hand fall against his on the warm tiles.
He looks at me, and I study his face—the curve of his eyebrow, the line of his nose. He has a nice nose. He has a nice everything. Please, God, let me still be very high. Otherwise please, God, let you not be real after all.
I think Elliot sees me thinking a lot again, because he shifts closer, puts his hand on my cheek, and presses his mouth to mine, maybe to help me stop. I freeze, he freezes, I unfreeze, he unfreezes.
His lips are cool and taste of coffee and weed and I don’t want to be something else. I want to lie here against the warm floor and be me and have Elliot kiss me and for that to be okay. I want the snow to keep falling until it’s so thick it covers the whole windowpane, then the whole campus, and then maybe the whole world, so that we can keep lying here, not knowing what we’re doing, together.