In honor of May’s National Short Story Month, Flavorwire held its second short story contest and, after much deliberation, emerged with a first-place story, along with three honorable mentions. Over the course of the week, Flavorwire has published each of the four best stories. For this final installment, we present the winning story, “Intern Season” by Amanda Zubillaga.
It’s my first night back, but Sam has already been in town for a little over two weeks. Her internship started the first week in June. I would have been anxious, had it been me — being in a strange city alone and knowing no one — but Sam doesn’t seem like she minded so much. Nights she went out to the bars by herself. She turned twenty-one back in April — her invitation to the adult world, finally — so she figured she should take advantage. I can understand the appeal: no more fat black X’s on our hands telegraphing our inexperience. She took up smoking the first week, realizing that sitting at a bar alone felt awkward without something to do. Smoking not only occupied her, it helped her start conversations; making a quick connection with a stranger is easier when you already share one bad habit, she says. Drinking doesn’t count. Everyone in D.C. drinks.
She’s made friends with the bartenders at this place, so apparently we’re getting hooked up. Russo’s, it’s called. It’s around the corner from our apartment and has a massive sign over the entrance — gold, swirled script, all lit up. Makes it look like it might be fancy inside, but really it’s dark, run-down, and moldy, a basement, laden with dusty green glass behind the bar and sodden navy carpeting underfoot, where men in suits throw back bourbon after bourbon and fratty college students down pitchers of cheap beer, maybe one among them lucking out, finding some sheltered girl from the Midwest, a former corn queen or something, to blow him before passing out for the night, before he gets up and does the same thing all over again. Sam smokes and Sam drinks. I drink. She tells me that when she comes here alone, she likes to play pretend matchmaker and guess who will leave the bar with whom. She also has something of a boyfriend, she says. We suck indiscernible fruit-flavored liquor through straws—peach-orange? a hint of strawberry? — and Sam’s on her third cigarette since I joined her. The boyfriend goes by Clem, apparently a family name. She met him right here at the bar; he’s friends with the bartenders too. He is a lobbyist, she says.
“What’s he like?” I ask, discreetly turning my face over my shoulder to gulp down cleaner air — cleaner being the operative word, since Russo’s stinks of sourness, like stale beer, as bars often do.
“So much fun,” she says, each word better enunciated than the one before. “I’m going over to his house tonight. You should come. He has friends.”
She seems possibly indifferent to my tagging along, but maybe it’s just the way she takes each drag of her cigarette, gracefully, easily, not at all like the giddy Sam I met last summer. We both worked as interns in the Rayburn building. Sam’s office was next door to mine, and the staffers thought it would be nice to introduce us. Then my impression of Sam was that she seemed shy and conservative — the first time we met, she had on a flowered prairie skirt and a pale pink cardigan buttoned all the way to the top. Her hair was frizzy and hung long down her back. She’s at least a head taller than I am, but she seemed small that day standing in Rayburn’s oversized marble hallway. We bonded quickly — eating lunch together in the cafeteria, finagling our way into Congressional mixers with free-flowing booze and hors d’oeuvres aplenty — and by the end of the month we were making plans to room together the following summer. Now, a year later, Sam has taken to wearing fitted pencil skirts and silk blouses that hang from her bony shoulders. She looks sophisticated — like some Hitchcockian femme fatale. Her hair is darker, and she wears it in a smooth, low bun. I look down at my tank top and faded jeans.
“Is this a party? Should I change?” I ask.
Sam shrugs. “You can if you want,” she says.
“Should I? I’m not as dressed up as you.”
Sam stubs out her cigarette in a filthy glass ashtray. “I’m sure you’re fine,” she says, though she doesn’t sound sure at all. She orders us two more drinks before we leave for Clem’s. The bartender — Jim, I think — winks at Sam as he slides a receipt her way.
“What do I owe you?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sam says. She puts a fifty on the bar and says to Jim, “Keep the change.”
“How much are they paying you over at the Water Subcommittee?” I ask. Sam just smiles and sucks down the last of the pinkish ice melting at the bottom of her glass.
Clem lives way up in Georgetown, and, though we often walked to the same neighborhood from Foggy Bottom last year, Sam insists we take a cab. She says only the underaged feel the need to walk twenty blocks just to get to a party. I never feel totally comfortable in cabs — some stranger driving you around, taking shortcuts that are probably actually the long way. Suburbanites aren’t meant to travel like this; we like to feel in control. I say so, but Sam only stares out the window.
“How’s school?” I ask.
“More of the same,” says Sam. “I can’t wait to graduate next year.” She turns back to the glass and stares out at the sidewalk tinged the red and green of traffic lights, at couples waiting for a table at Zed’s and packs of girls power walking in stiletto heels.
The driver takes us far up M, past hoards of Thursday night bar hoppers and yellow street lamps, before turning off to the right, then down one dark cobblestone street after another until we arrive at a small brownstone with a black lacquer door lit by a single lantern. It is among a row of well-kept homes on an upscale street: trim hedges line the sidewalk and leafy vines creep around stone-arched doorframes. The streets are wet — it must have rained while we were at Russo’s, though I hadn’t thought of it before — and the air smells softly green. “Is this where money grows on trees?” I joke, but Sam says, “Hmm?” and I don’t repeat myself. As I have no cash on me, Sam pays again. I follow her steps across the uneven bricks and hold my breath as she rings the bell. I can’t hear music or voices from inside, and I’m about to ask Sam if we have the right place when the door opens. A tall guy wearing a Black Flag shirt surveys us; an unlit cigarette droops from his lips.
“C’mon in,” he says, already with his back to us.
We follow him inside. Sam sets her purse down on the dining room table, and I follow suit. The place is all gold-lit and decorated in a warm, traditional style: the chairs are upholstered in patterns of rose and beige, and the wood is dark and polished.
“This is Clem’s house?” I ask.
“His family’s,” Sam says.
I trail after her into the kitchen, where four guys are standing in a semi-circle, drinks in their hands, laughing at the punch line of a joke we’ve obviously missed. Sam approaches the shortest of the guys, a freckled, red-faced thing with an overbite — an overgrown Howdy Doody. “Babe,” he says, and he throws the hand not busy gripping a beer on the side of her waist. She kisses him on the cheekbone with her eyes closed then settles into the crook of his arm. In her heels, she’s easily two inches taller than he is.
“This is Tiffany,” says Sam.
“Tiffany, nice to meet you.” Clem offers his hand to shake. He has a slight drawl, more good old boy than Southern, exactly. “This is Hood, P.J., and Tom.” The guys nod at me.
“Hi,” I say to no one in particular.
“Well, make yourselves comfortable, girls. Grab a drink. Do you drink, Tiffany?”
“Of course she drinks,” Sam says.
Clem and the guys wander out to the back porch while Sam declares that we should move from mixed drinks to wine. My stomach is already churning from the drinks at Russo’s, in retrospect as jaw-achingly sweet as liquid Pixy Stix, but I’m not quite buzzed yet, so I don’t protest when Sam pours me a large glass of chardonnay.
“Just so you know, Hood sleeps with everybody,” Sam says. I’m not sure if this information is meant as warning or encouragement.
“Oh. Which one is he?”
“Good-looking. In the suit.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t pegged the one in the suit as being the good-looking member of the group, necessarily, but, then again, any of Clem’s friends would seem so by comparison. I start to sidestep toward the backdoor to join the guys on the porch, but Sam doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave the kitchen. She leans back against the granite countertop and sips her wine. I wait for her to tell me something more about Hood, some juicy bit of gossip, but instead she says, “Don’t talk about being an intern, okay?”
“Believe me. Just don’t. Don’t bring up internships at all.”
“But what if they ask me what I’m doing in D.C.?”
“Tell them where you work.”
“Girls!” Clem’s voice echoes through the house. “It’s a gorgeous night. Get out here and join us.”
“Coming,” Sam calls back. She looks at me expectantly. “Not a lie. Just an omission.”
“Can’t I just leave out the part where you’re an intern?” The Sam I knew last summer may have told guys stories for fun — innocent, ridiculous white lies about being the daughter of a Romanian diplomat or growing up in Monaco — but this feels too specific, too small, to be playful.
“Whatever. Do what you want.” Sam strides out of the kitchen, her heels clacking across the hardwood floor. She singsongs, “I’m just telling you.”
Outside a cool mist is wafting inland from the Potomac, and I wish I’d remembered to grab a sweater out of my not-yet-unpacked suitcase. The six of us sit on brown wicker furniture, the porch lit only by the glow of the back windows, the moon, and D.C. light pollution. Clem and his friends talk about which staffer instigated a yelling match when she couldn’t get into an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing and which Rep likes to sleep over with his male press secretary while his wife is back home taking care of their kids in Colorado. Sam giggles and smokes and drinks her wine, and I drink mine, over-thinking what I should or shouldn’t say. Finally, I jump in: “Isn’t it almost time for Congressman Shaffer’s birthday again? Last year Sam and I went to his in-office margarita party and no one even asked to see our IDs. You know, since we look so young, I mean.” Sam looks at me.
“Yeah, Shaffer does that every year,” Hood says. He’s ditched the suit jacket and loosened his tie. The more I look at him the more I agree with Sam — definitely good-looking: dark hair cut short, nice features, broad shoulders. I wonder what else she might know about him, and how.
“You guys do look young,” says the guy in the Black Flag shirt, whose name I already don’t remember. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-four,” Sam says. She smiles and raises her wine glass.
“They’re babies!” Clem pulls her closer to him on the loveseat. “Just last year Samantha was working as an intern for Bonnie Baxter.”
“I was an intern last year too,” I say. “That’s how we met.” I repeat every word in my head after I say it and realize that, technically, every one is true.
“Whoa! Interns!” says the one I’m pretty sure is P.J. He’s skinny with spiked-up hair. I imagine the only thing that’s changed about P.J. since high school is the collection of stick-straight hairs on his pointed chin — a sad attempt at a goatee.
“Can you imagine?” Clem says. The guys laugh and drink their beer. I want to say, Really? Are people still making those jokes? What’s next, a crack about cigars and rug-burned knees? But I say nothing. Clem squeezes Sam’s knee. “Just think,” he says. “If we’d met last summer, I wouldn’ta been able to date you on principle. Would have been a tragedy.” He grabs his chest in mock heart attack, and Sam grins and buries her face in his neck.
I stand up and say, “I’m going to get some more wine.”
“Just bring the whole bottle,” Sam says, coming up for air for a moment before pressing herself back into Clem.
Inside I check my cell phone for missed calls. Only one: my mother in California. She’s recently learned how to text, too: “U get in ok? Call me!” I don’t text back. I’m not sure who else I was expecting to hear from; my last boyfriend broke up with me two months ago. He hadn’t dealt well with my first stint as an intern — constantly calling to check on where I was and who I was with. He couldn’t understand why I’d want to go back to that muggy hellhole instead of staying in Huntington and sitting on the beach all summer watching him surf. I walk into the kitchen to see Black Flag Guy opening a beer.
“Oh, hey,” I say, trying not to appear startled.
“Hey,” he says.
I go about my business, pour myself more chardonnay.
“So. Tiffany, huh?” He takes a swig of beer then wipes his lips with the back of his hand. His cheeks and chin are blanketed in fine, dark stubble; his still un-smoked cigarette is tucked behind his right ear. “You don’t look like a Tiffany.”
“What does a Tiffany look like?” I ask.
“You’re more serious than a Tiffany.”
“I’m not that serious.”
I feel him studying me as I drink my wine. “You look more like an Emily,” he says.
“Emily?” I tell myself that this is just a line; he probably uses this move to pick up girls at bars all the time — what is the ratio of people who hate their given names, anyway? — and yet I’m flattered for some reason, even as I know I shouldn’t be. He’s looking at me, really looking at me, and I see something in his eyes. Something responsive — a thoughtfulness. “I’ve actually never liked Tiffany,” I confess.
“Yeah, she’s kind of a stuck-up bitch,” he says.
I laugh. “I’m sorry. I forgot your name.”
“Hi, Tom.” I’m using my flirty voice. I grab the chardonnay bottle by the neck and turn to go outside, but he takes it out of my hand and sets it back down on the granite.
“You want to see something cool?” Tom says. “It’ll only take a second.”
We walk into the hallway, and he opens a door that looks like a closet but contains a narrow wooden staircase. The steps look old and splintery. “It’s dark down there,” I say.
“Part of the charm,” Tom says. He goes in first, reaching upward and back for my hand. “I got you,” he says. The door shuts behind me, and we are submerged in black. I’m clasping Tom’s hand, bracing myself as we feel our way down the stairs, my wineglass in my other hand. “Almost there,” he says.
“What’s down here?”
“You’ll see in a second.” I take the last step, shorter than the rest, and the terrain changes — there’s something soft and unstable beneath my flip-flops. “Hold on, stay there,” Tom says. He lets go of my hand, and suddenly I’m alone in the darkness. I strain my ears; I can’t hear him at all. I stretch my free arm out in front of me and to the side, but feel nothing, only big, black emptiness and an odd squishiness under my feet. It reminds me of a museum exhibit I saw on a fifth grade field trip. It was a maze, made of heavy, matte-black cloth, devoid of any light source. My classmates and I crawled through on our hands and knees, fingers and elbows and noses and shoes colliding and scraping up against each other, but it was impossible to tell whose was whose or where you were or where you were supposed to go. I was so relieved when I reached the end, unnerved but no different except for a few mussed strands of hair that hung loosely in my face when they should have been tucked back neat beneath my headband. I listen hard.
“Tom? Where’d you go?” I hear a scratching sound over my right shoulder, back behind the stairs. My imagination starts making terrifying and preposterous leaps involving rats, sexual assault, and closed-circuit television, a side effect of watching too many episodes of Dateline with my mother, but then the basement is illuminated in reddish-purple light emanating from a single bare bulb in the ceiling, and Tom, indeed behind the stairs, stands with his hand on the switch. My eyes adjust, and I see that the entire room is covered in pillows and cushions of assorted shapes and sizes, mostly black, many of them arranged to form structures of varying heights and complexities. The back corner is especially busy with pillow-towers and pillow-bungalows: a plush semi-metropolis deserted after all the construction workers have called it quits and gone home for the night.
“What is this?”
“What does it look like?”
“Do you guys…build forts down here?”
“Yep!” Tom grins and swills his beer.
“Oh.” A smile spreads across my face. “You guys are twelve.”
Tom fake-laughs and walks toward me, his feet sinking in with every step. When I think he’s going to stop he keeps on coming, and I drink my chardonnay so that his face can’t get any closer to mine. I occupy myself with looking at the floor.
“What is this we’re standing on?” I make a big show of pushing my flip-flop down to test the firmness.
“Futon mattresses,” Tom says. I imagine there must be a huge pile of rusting, broken-down futon frames in a dump somewhere, irrelevant without their better halves — the yins to their yangs.
“This is the best part of the whole thing,” Tom says. He leads me to a square, neon orange beanbag chair. “Sit,” he commands. He holds my wine while I settle myself down butt-first; the seat sags with my weight, and I feel like I’m only a head and arms and legs. “Comfortable, right?” Tom says.
“Yeah,” I say, “though maybe not the best position to drink wine in?” He grabs my hand and pulls me out with such momentum that I’m propelled too far forward, and I catch myself awkwardly. “Thanks,” I laugh. He hands me back my glass. I look up into his face — smooth lips and wide eyes — and realize that I’m for-sure tipsy, that maybe I’ve had more to drink than I thought, and that I could kiss him, that, in fact, he is waiting for me to kiss him. But I know how kissing goes. It leads to groping, which leads to unzipping and unbuttoning, which leads to fucking, with the very least I can get away with doing being a consolation hand job, and then I’m like every other girl from a middle-class suburb who leaves home to try things with guys who didn’t grow up down the street from her. The worst part is it isn’t new—I’ve already been here and done this, except in a dorm room, the secluded corner of a frat house. I like him, or, at least, I think I do. I could like him. I think about the heat of his unshaven face and meeting his lips with mine like two interlocking puzzle pieces. There’s no reason I can’t do it; I’m not tethered to anyone. There’s no one waiting for me back home who I need to profess my loyalty to. Pillow City seems like a place where such things happen: straps falling easily over shoulders, two people smashing against each other in the dark. I want to kiss him, but it feels like a routine I know too well. It’s become a trap — a dance step I do only because I know how.
“I like your shirt, by the way,” I say finally.
“Do you know Black Flag?” he asks.
“Not really,” I admit. I turn to go back upstairs, but Tom grabs my hand. Don’t do it, I think. Don’t make a move. I don’t want to have to make any decisions about what I want or what could feel good enough to make me not care about anything else right now. His eyes dart around my face, taking me in.
“You have all the power, you know. Beautiful girls.” He takes a strand of my hair between his fingers and tugs it gently. “You don’t understand all the power you have, do you?” I pull away, shake my head. I don’t.
“That hasn’t been my experience,” I say. I go upstairs, leaving him to drink his beer and drown in cushions alone.
I can hear the others’ voices before I emerge from below — Sam’s distant giggling, Clem and the guys talking animatedly. The individual words are unclear, though, and, when I open the door, the main house seems much brighter to me than it did before: it’s like resurfacing in a pool while night swimming. I set my empty wine glass on the counter by the sink, and I hear Clem say, “Hell, yeah! We have to do it! Get a whole buncha fireworks, rent a boat, spend the night on the water —” I follow his voice through the house into the dining room, where Clem sits at the head of the table, Hood and P.J. on either side. Clem’s got a rolled-up dollar bill between his thumb and forefinger and two lines of fine white powder on the mahogany in front of him. My purse has been pushed to the edge of the table. P.J. is punching his fists through the air like a robot, and the guys are laughing so hard that it takes them a few seconds to notice me. “Oh, hey, Tiffany!” Clem says. “I think Sam’s in the bathroom.”
In the hall, I find the door outlined in light, walk toward it, knock, and Sam lets me right in without even asking who it is. She’s putting on lipstick in the mirror, a color not quite red, not quite pink. “You have to go?” she says. “Go ahead. I already went.” I’m generally not one to pee in pairs, but I’m drunk enough that I don’t care. Plus, Sam is preoccupied with staying in the lines.
“You know they’re doing coke on the dining room table out there?” I say. “Right next to my purse. Like, my purse is literally right there, and then there’s some cocaine. Right next to it.”
Sam’s lips are splayed like a butterflied pork loin, and she uses her finger to fix any mistakes. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure they didn’t get any of it on your purse.”
“No, that’s… forget it, never mind.” I want to say that I’ve never seen anyone do cocaine before, that it’s just like the movies. We’ve just entered Boogie Nights. But Sam’s so casual about it that I can’t get the words out. When I’m done I wash my hands, accidently turning the hot handle instead of the cold, and I just let the water run over my fingers as it gets hotter and hotter until it’s scalding and I can’t stand it anymore.
“So, how’d it go down in the basement with Tom?” Sam says. She raises an eyebrow.
“I think I’m going to go back to the apartment,” I say. “Do you think you’ll be ready in a little while?”
“Nah, I’m staying here tonight,” Sam says. “Clem will give me a ride to work in the morning.”
“But…don’t you need clothes?”
“I have some things here.” Sam blots her lips with a single square of toilet paper. “You need directions back? Want me to call you a cab?”
“No, that’s okay.”
Sam grabs me tightly around the shoulders in a bear hug, her fists digging into the center of my back. In the mirror, I see her bright lips say into my ear, “Get home safe.” Her hair smells like nicotine and dew.
Outside there are no stars, just milky gray clouds and a half of silvery moon. It’s even colder since we were out on the porch, and I curl my hands into tight little balls and hold them snug against my outer ribs. No one is on Clem’s street but me, but I feel comfortable here, alone among the bricks and the deep green hedges. Like I can breathe. I sing “Sister Christian” in my head to pass the time. It’s a long walk back to Sam’s and my apartment, and I wish I could see something else in the sky besides airplanes and faded night, but I have no jurisdiction over what goes on up there. I can’t change the bar people spilling out into the streets like shiny, confused beetles, the way they shout for no reason, or the squad cars with their flashing red and blue stationed at the corner of M and Wisconsin. I can’t control the cabs full of drunks whooshing by, though I feel relieved I’m not trapped within them. I can’t erase the things I’ve done, the things I might have done. There is no undo. There’s only now and walking and the bed I have to make up when I get in the door.
Amanda Zubillaga’s writing has appeared in Ghost Town, the new river, and Toad. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is currently at work on a novel.