She didn’t smoke and she never smoked but he’d still offer her a drag every time. They were sitting on the edge of the wall of the bridge at night and staring out over the river, the bronze industrial lights reflecting much brighter than the stars. They were close but not touching, not anticipating touching, not nervous, quite comfortable, slouched, feet swinging.
“No thanks,” she said.
He took it back and inhaled. “What was I saying? Oh, yeah, it’s bullshit. Nobody ever really grows up or anything like that. I remember when I first started realizing neither of my parents knew what they were doing. And then I get here and realize I have no idea what I’m gonna do with my own life.”
She leaned back on one arm. “Yeah, I don’t know what I’m doing either. But I think there’s a way people grow up.
“You know how when you’re a little kid and you decide you’re going to, say, draw a picture, and make it the best picture anyone’s ever made, of, like, the perfect strip of green grass with a yellow sun and a single red flower? And it’s gonna look just like real life? And it doesn’t, but you’re still convinced that that was a good start and someday you’re gonna do it right. And then you get to school and work as hard as you can but realize you can do less than what’s perfect or even right and be okay. Perfect is scary and tall and unobtainable but you can skip a last proofread of a paper and go to bed, and drop a math assignment for no reason, or use Wikipedia as your source or whatever, and then it becomes this thing where it’s okay to cut corners because you want to and because you know you don’t have to be the best you can be to skate by. And you make money and buy groceries, then a Honda, then a Benz. It starts to be okay to make other people do work you could have done yourself. It starts to be okay to sell medicine for way more than it costs to poor people, or use child labor on some other continent, or let people not be treated right in some way because it’s not happening in your immediate vicinity and you’re gonna go home and there will still be one ice cream bar left and your flatscreen TV and your wife who’s alright and your kid who’s asleep and you’re just complacent with all of what’s right around you. I think that’s a part of what growing up is, for a lot of people, at least.”
She said this and immediately wanted to take it back, to chomp back down on the sour paragraph and swallow it whole. He could sense her going stiff through the cool night air. In her peripherals, she watched the butt he’d been smoking fall from his lips into the river, and pictured some sickly brown urban river fish trying to take a nibble of it and gagging.
“You’re right but you’re wrong,” he said. (She could have cried with relief.)
“I think the thing is, when you’re an adult, you get to decide what you’re gonna sacrifice for. And, I mean, it could be money, but loads of people pick civil rights or healthcare or music or research or their kids. My mom always worked two jobs; it took until I moved away to realize she picked me. But I don’t know what I’m gonna sacrifice for yet. I don’t know what means that much to me yet,” he said, absently flicking his lighter. “But there’s no way I’m getting some trash job where I’m not. Sacrificing, I mean.”
She pulled her arms further into her sweatshirt, and stared out over the water. Her braid was unraveling, and she anxiously stuffed back locks of hair. She wanted to tell him he was right without just vapidly saying, “Wow, you’re so right.” She realized she was going to have to live his words to prove them.
“Do you want to get a burrito?” he said. She replied “Sure,” but didn’t get one, only picking at a hot brown paper bag of chips. They walked back to his room and watched some show with a guy in a suit and tie and a studio audience that was intended to coax the actual audience into laughter. She dozed off and he chose not to wake her, instead tucking a few extra blankets around her.
When he woke up in the morning and left his bedroom, he saw she was still asleep on in the tiny living room, nestled in the corner of the couch. It took him awhile to realize what he was going to sacrifice for.