Fern’s phone rang while she was in line for the fitting room at Zara. She fumbled the stack of dresses on her arm, dropping one of them as she reached for her cell phone, which was nestled in a gummy pile of nickels at the bottom of her purse. It was Louis.
“Hey,” she said, her phone pinched between ear and shoulder. She tried to flip the dresses back up with her foot, but her heel got caught on the hanger and she tripped. Fuck. She stared at the boot print on the white flowered fabric.
“It’s time we had the talk,” Louis said.
“What?” Fern said, stepping neatly past the fallen dress. “Can I call you back in one second?”
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “I just... met somebody new.”
“Okay,” said Fern. The heating was on in the store or something. She grabbed a pair of tights to fan herself. “Wait. What?”
“I have to tell you not to get obsessed,” he said.
The girls around Fern in line turned to look at her. She winced. “Let me call you back in literally ten minutes.” She was at the front of the line now. Five, she mouthed shakily at the fitting room attendant. The woman handed her a plastic tag and pointed her down the white hallway, which felt even sweatier than the store. Fern lowered her voice. “Pretty strong language, Louis. Obsessed. Why are you being so weird right now? Let me call you back.”
“I don’t want you to get upset second-guessing everything we’ve said and done,” he said. “Like, it was festival season.”
Fern’s eyes smarted unexpectedly. “Um,” she said, closing the white curtain around her and staring at her reflection in the mirror. She dropped her voice to a whisper and tried to keep it steady. "So you're done with this, that's what you're saying." The lights made her skin look translucent, and a greenish-blue vein snaked its way from chin to cheekbone; was that new?
“I never meant to hurt no one,” he said.
“Hurt anyone,” she hissed. “Are you having a fucking stroke? Where is this even coming from? Are you mad because I went home early at Brian's birthday?”
“The only way your heart will mend,” he said, “is when you learn to love again. And it won’t make sense right now, but I’m still your friend.”
“I’m literally at Zara right now,” she said.
“And I let you down easy,” he said.
“Where is this coming from?” said Fern again, slumped against the wall of the little cubicle, the back of her neck damp and sour. The dresses hung sadly on their hangers. A foundation stain beckoned from the collar of the most promising one. Much like life, thought Fern. Much like Louis. “Who’s this new girl? Where the fuck did you meet someone new anyway? Are you meeting people on Tinder?"
Louis paused. Nothing good would come of telling Fern about this new girl, who was not so much a girl as a woman, which he’d never been able to say before about anyone he’d been with. And this woman was a cipher to him still: elfin and peculiar, yet more appealing in her robotic androgyny than Fern (a bit homely, with those bangs always too long) had ever been. And anyway what could you even tell a Fern? That this new woman felt electric, that she gave him something that he’d never even knew he missed? What good would come of trying to explain that there was something so distinctly different about it when they kissed?
No: none of this for Fern. He only hoped that the poor thing would recover in time.
“The only way,” he said, “your heart will mend—”
“Jesus Christ, Louis,” said Fern. “It was a fun summer. I’ll miss your dog. Bye.”
She threw her phone back into her purse and sat down on the small bench, looking at the dresses that dangled in front of her: all of them on sale for $79.99, and she wasn’t even sure if they’d even work for that wedding, for which she now apparently needed a date.
Robyn came on the store speakers. Two friends sharing a dressing room next to Fern squealed. “This song never gets old,” one of them said.