Girl Power

Kait Heacock

Veronica hesitated before opening the email. She hated its cartoonish assault, how every evite demanded you drop everything for Taylor’s fifth birthday or Jenna and Samantha’s engagement. There was a loss of elegance in the move from stationary to electronic greetings, but she was intrigued to see her old student’s name.

She hovered over the subject line–“Girl Power: A Cannababe Meetup”–and clicked.

“Veronica, I bet you wouldn’t have guessed five years ago I’d end up in the cannabis industry, but business is blooming. I’m hosting my first event, and I’d love to have a familiar face there. It’s a small, invite-only gathering of influencers, and you! xo, Haley,” read the personal note next to the invitation’s when, where, and what to wear details.

“What to wear” included chokers, babydoll dresses, and “whatever your favorite Spice Girl rocked.”

Veronica remembered Haley from the semester she taught in Portland: Expecting a

class on the West Coast to be filled with passive hippies, Veronica was surprised by Haley’s assertiveness during every discussion in the publicity workshop. She could picture her working her way up to director of publicity, something Veronica had spent twenty years doing in New York.

Veronica had been feeling restless lately, and a trip to Portland was exactly what she needed. As a fulltime consultant, she rarely took days off. Working freelance in her early forties in a shrinking industry in an unforgiving city had caused Veronica to see everything with a scarcity mindset.

Likely to Haley’s surprise, Veronica replied, “yes” to the evite. She was prompted on the following screen to note her Instagram handle, “so we can all connect.”

The first sleepover that matters is Ashleigh Johnson’s thirteenth birthday party because she has a pool. The theme is New Kids on the Block, and everyone loves either Jordan the heartthrob or Joey the youngest. Veronica eats the slice with Donny’s head on it because he’s tough by boy band standards. During truth or dare she is dared to kiss the birthday girl. Afterwards, her mouth almost curls upward until Brenna says, “lesbian” like it has a hard “z” and that word buzzes through Veronica for the next year.

The “Girl Power” party had a whiff of unearned nostalgia. Veronica scanned the faces of women who would have been five when Spice debuted. It made sense then that Haley would cling to the large flowers, smiley faces, and other 90s iconography meant to sell merchandize to little girls.

The venue was a public beach on a small island in the Columbia River. The Pacific Northwest had little sanctuaries like this dotting their major cities. The sky was bleak and misting a soft rain. At least that meant less children swimming nearby while a group of women blew clouds of smoke underneath a promotional canvas tent provided by the sponsoring dispensary.

Veronica purposefully arrived at the exact start time listed on the invitation, enough time to watch the dilatory Millennials arrive from her perch against the drinks table. There was no bar, only a CBD-infused seltzer water, according to the handwritten note sitting delicately against the rustic metal drinks bucket. She smiled approvingly at this thoughtful detail.

Haley talked to her in snippets–“You came” and “Is that vintage?”–as she rearranged joints like they were flower petals spread across the table. Then she trailed off calling after someone.

Were the 90s vintage now? As soon as she replied “yes” to the invite, she pulled out the pair of overalls that were relics from her high school years, stashed in the same box that held yearbooks and mixtapes. Under the baggy Dickies, she wore a spandex crop top she picked up on a whim from a store that was meant for women 20 years younger than her.

All the women arriving at the party were 20 years younger than her and looked like they had their hair and makeup professionally done. These were the “influencers,” Veronica guessed, and she stiffened and nodded as they walked by. They greeted each other with coy handshakes and apologetic tones, “Hey, I don’t think we’ve met before, but I follow you.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Sweet Jane.”

“We’re Mary Jane and Ashley,” answered another on behalf of herself and her twin.

As they continued to rattle off names–Cannabeth, three other plays on the name Mary Jane–Veronica realized they were introducing themselves by their social media handles.

Third grade, Veronica’s best friend Kelsey asks, “Which side does your dad sleep on?” and sticks her hand under the bed in Veronica’s parents’ room. Veronica drops her pointing hand when Kelsey fishes out a Playboy magazine. That she knew to find it there makes Veronica think Kelsey is some kind of clairvoyant for porn. They spend that year looking at each month’s issue, which Kelsey tracks like the full moon.

“I’m so stoned,” Haley announced to the women gathered around the table. She lit joints, taking a hit off of each before she passed them. “This is how we break bread,” she said and giggled.

Veronica said, “No thanks” to three joints before she caved. She remembered book parties in her twenties when she got a little too tipsy off the free wine. All the publicists did. It was compensation for their meager salaries and daily harassment from the male editors who thought the publishing industry had stalled in the 1970s.

Haley buzzed with nervous energy. Her thigh slapped against the table as she wiggled her leg. Veronica sensed she had a script but blanked on the talking points.

“Why not thank the sponsors,” Veronica whispered.

“Yes, thank you to our sponsors: Blazed accessories, Weedstory Magazine, and…” her voice trailed off. Veronica willed her to look down at the table strewn with branded swag that named every sponsor. “And everyone else! Everybody donated awesome gifts. If you reach under the table, you’ll see gift bags.”

The young women tore into their bags with Christmas morning enthusiasm. Veronica stopped herself halfway through shaking her head in dismay. You never gave out the gift bags until the end, otherwise you lost the audience. Why pay attention to the host, as she droned on about the sponsors, when you could leave early with a bag full of free shit?

At a high school sleepover, Jackie Escobar pulls three different sizes of tampons out of her overnight bag when she finds Veronica in the bathroom frantically rinsing her underwear in the sink.

“My mom always makes me pack extra for sleepovers,” Jackie says as she reaches for her toothbrush. Her legs swing from side to side as she sits on the counter and brushes. She is the wisest person Veronica knows.

Later, the girls sip from vodka bottles tucked under sleeping bags and giggle through light as a feather, stiff as a board. When it’s Veronica’s turn to levitate, she closes her eyes and pictures the characters in The Craft. She can feel everyone picking her up. Brenna explains, “It’s not a supernatural phenomenon, it’s weight evenly distributed among a bunch of people.”

Veronica ignores her and lets the girls’ magic carry her.

When Veronica returned from the sand-caked bathroom, a tray of fruit and cheese sat waiting on the table. She noticed all the phones lined up like the guests were paparazzi and the tray of food a celebrity.

“Big thanks to Jessica for making the food,” Haley said and looked around for the chef. “I’ll thank her when she gets back. Be sure to try the compote and the vegan cashew cheese spread, which are both infused with a one-to-one THC-CBD.”

While the other women tucked their phones away and dug into the food as though their munchies had just now occurred to them, Veronica leaned in to Haley and spoke, “It looks great. I love how you used sunflowers for the centerpiece. So cheerful.”

“Thanks. And thanks for flying all the way out here. I can’t believe you did that just for my event. It’s such an honor to have you here. You were the teacher who told me that the best part of publicity is being the last person to champion the author.”

The two-month teaching stint had arrived when Veronica suddenly found herself out of work at 37 after the small press she worked for became an imprint at a publisher that swallowed up and spit out most of the old staff. It seemed like a good opportunity for a reset, so she sublet her apartment and left the heat and rot and general malaise of summer in New York.

“I’m happy that was the impression I left on you.”

“For sure. I wanted to be that to people, especially when it’s something they’ve created. Like their babies.” Veronica now accepted clients who wrote novels about dead girls that sold millions of copies because it meant paying off the mortgage in her Greenpoint apartment. These were ugly babies. Haley shrugged and continued, “But there weren’t book jobs here. It was wait for someone to die or, worse, have a kid.”

“What did you do?” Veronica asked. According to LinkedIn, the other students from the program had ended up in copyediting jobs for tech companies.

“I got a job as a budtender and got to know growers. Then I realized what most of them needed was a champion. So now I put on events and connect brands with influencers,” she explained before pausing to snap a photo of Sweet Jane surrounded by a cloud of smoke. “So cute.”

In college, Brenna is drunk in her dorm room along with four other girls who each fall somewhere on a spectrum of laughing-girl-drunk to crying-girl-drunk. Brenna tells her roommate, Tenley, and Veronica, “You’re gonna be the bridesmaids at my wedding someday.”

Past midnight, after all the others have entered into their bottom shelf tequila slumbers, Tenley and Veronica kiss. Tenley doesn’t pull away from Veronica’s lips, but her body tenses with the anticipation of having to quickly separate should the lights turn on. Veronica is already below the surface, swimming in limbs and hair. Tenley’s is so long and black. Veronica swears she can see it in the dark, she’s studied it for so long. They sleep apart, and in the morning peel themselves silently from the unmoving pile of hungover girls.

Later, Veronica means to bring it up, but she and Tenley are never alone. And suddenly Tenley has a serious boyfriend.

Veronica left the table behind when the cloud of smoke overpowered her. These young women had buoyant lungs, and she hadn’t smoked much since college. She felt giddy as she poured another cup of seltzer and peeked at the woman with a shaved head and a black turtleneck standing on the other side of the table. Where had she been all this time?

“Sporty Spice?” Veronica asked. Was that too coded or not coded enough?

“Sinead O’Connor in the ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ video. But if you’re asking which one I’d go for, Posh Spice.”

“Hi, I’m Veronica,” she said and extended her hand.

“Jay.”

“Is this snake oil?” Veronica asked and tipped her glass toward Jay.

She shook her head and smirked. “Nah. I made it. This is my company. We make a liquid CBD that you can mix with beverages. Strictly a body high, non-psychoactive.”

“What are you, 22? How you’d get the foresight to see pot as the next big thing?”

“I’m 26, and I knew that once it went legal, everybody was going to capitalize on it–any way they could. I believe it can actually do something good for your body.” Veronica watched Jay’s pink lips suck on the last word like a jawbreaker.

Jay pulled her sweater over her head and tugged the wrinkles out of the shirt underneath.

“The Future is Female Ejaculation,” Veronica read out loud and chuckled.

“Girl power,” Jay said and flipped a peace sign.

Veronica turned around so her back leaned against the same tree as Jay. She matched her relaxed posture. “So how do Lilith Fair-era dykes meet people around here?”

“The same place that Autostraddle Camp-era dykes go: Personals.”

Veronica thought she meant the newspaper, but Jay looked like she read everything on her smartphone.

“Craigslist?” Veronica asked with a raised eyebrow that made her feel like a concerned older sister.

“No. The Instagram account for the gays.” Jay looked at Veronica like she was her out-of-touch aunt, but then she said, “You’re cute. Wanna go for a walk?”

She loved younger queer women. Their self-possession was staggering.

A bachelorette party, only Brenna isn’t the bride, she’s the maid of honor. Veronica, along with Tenley’s two sisters, round out the rest of the bridal party at the wine-tasting weekend at a resort outside of Portland. The wedding is in two days. His family is from here. Veronica tells stories about Brooklyn metal bars. She needs to sound cool and detached because there is no right time to break up a wedding.

They’re alone in the kitchen at the end of the night, past midnight margaritas they are still young enough to get away with drinking right after wine, and Tenley’s telling some story about a famous chef in Seattle who just came out and left her husband and kids to be with her lover in LA.

“They’re opening an outpost of her oyster bar there,” Tenley says like she’s repeating a story about her disgraced cousin. “How could she do that to him?”

“Maybe sometimes you realize a little late who you are. Maybe sometimes you go so far down one path that it feels like it’s too late to turn around,” Veronica says and looks at the tequila bottle like she’s waiting for it to agree with her.

Tenley hiccups and covers her mouth. “But she made a commitment. She took vows. You don’t break something sacred like that.”

Veronica keeps her mouth shut during the ceremony. How crazy that the pastor still asks if people object. How crazy if someone actually speaks up.

The name started as a low roar between tight lips before it squawked with the violence of a predatory bird. Veronica couldn’t make out the repeating word. Besides, all her other senses were already engaged: her hands on the sand-sprinkled skin of Jay’s back, her nose inhaling the scent of coconut sunscreen and pungent weed, her tongue enjoying the berry aftertaste of Jay’s mouth. She didn’t recognize the words, but Jay did. She leapt back from Veronica like she had been stung by a bee.

“Jessica! Jesus Christ, there you are,” Haley said and blew past Veronica to the woman whose mouth she had pulled her tongue out of only moments before. Jessica?

“I see you’ve met my bestie.”

Jay nodded and used the back of her hand to wipe Veronica’s lipstick off her mouth.

“She’s the one who encouraged me to start my experiential cannabis business. I’m indebted to you,” Haley said and wrapped her arms around Jay’s shoulders.

“We go way back. She knew me when I was still Jessica.”

“I can’t help it. They’ll always be Jessica to me,” Haley cooed before kissing Jay on the forehead. “Sorry to interrupt your nature walk, but I need to steal my bestie for a photo sesh. Join us, if you want,” Haley said, but she was half turned before she finished the sentence.

“See you back there,” Jay said and gave Veronica a painfully polite nod. Veronica watched Jay follow Haley, close enough that it seemed an invisible leash tethered them. Haley’s black mini dress and pumps, despite being wildly impractical for the beach, made her a dead ringer for Posh Spice. Beautiful and unattainable.

Veronica sees Tenley only once in the ten weeks she teaches in Portland. They brunch. They wait in line in a city where people appear to have nothing else to do but wait. It’s the first time she’s seen her since the wedding. They’ve played phone tag for years.

She sees Tenley first, clinging to a paper cup of coffee like a life preserver, and she’s laughing. Veronica thinks maybe Tenley is reliving a funny memory, until she sees someone familiar beside her: Brenna flew in on the red eye from Chicago.

“Reunion!” Brenna calls and jumps up and down.

Birthday parties, bachelorettes, baby showers. Brunches and book clubs. So many ways, tightly controlled and surface-level, for them to be together.

It took a few minutes until the pressure of Jay’s lips against hers diffused. Veronica pulled her phone out of her pocket, the first time all evening. She despised this trait in Millennialsthe constant stream of entertainment combined with absolute social anxiety. She scrolled through Facebook to pretend she was on there just because. Then she typed Tenley’s name, a search she used to do so often that it autofilled as soon as she hit the “T.”

This wasn’t the first time this month she pulled up Tenley’s account. On a whim, Veronica had scanned it after she received Haley’s invitation, an excuse to come to the city where Tenley had settled down. There it was again, the one little word that prompted Veronica to charge a cross-country flight to her credit card. Tenley’s status said “single” like a declaration. Not even “divorced,” as though by skipping that status she could hit reset on her whole life.

Veronica’s fingers typed two steps ahead of her self-consciousness: “I’m back in town. Checking in on an old student. I’ve never been someone’s mentor before. How are you? Are you here?” She lingered on her word choice. Did she want to end with a vague question–“Are you here?” Or should she try a statement as confident as Tenley’s new post-divorce pixie hair cut: I want to see you. She wondered if there was something more personal than a Facebook DM. She opened her contacts list and scrolled it. She still had Tenley’s number from years ago, before they stopped talking. Veronica wanted to hear her voice. She could use a friend.

Kait Heacock is a fiction writer and book publicist living in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared most recently in The Evergreen Review, Women’s Review of Books, PANK, and Literary Hub, and in her debut story collection Siblings and Other Disappointments (Ooligan Press, 2016). Kait is currently at work on a novel about fears, superficial and existential, and how people face them, as played out at an immersive horror-themed sleepaway camp for adults.