Five Rules For Fun Aunts | Emily Mirengoff

45 mins read

Rule #1: The venue sets the tone for everything that happens next.

The Sugar Factory on Ocean Drive has become the rendezvous spot for these clandestine meetings with Sydney. They chose it because it’s where Rachel’s 12-year-old niece, Naomi, feels comfortable seeing her mother. Intuitively, this makes sense: it’s hard to imagine anything going wrong, or being in any kind of danger, in this Wonka Factory outpost. The pristine white walls are covered in decorative candy buttons or lined with clear candy dispensers. No personal chaos or drama could withstand the regimentation of a place where each jelly bean flavor has its own individual container.

Rachel and Naomi find Sydney sitting at a table inside, near the ice cream counter. Rachel’s ex-sister-in-law has aged ten years in the last three. Her tan, once so meticulously maintained, is gone, leaving only premature wrinkles as a souvenir. Her blonde hair clashes with her newly pallid complexion; combined with her bloodshot eyes, she looks washed out. She has lost so much weight that her breasts—the only unchanged parts of her—hang off her like overinflated balloons attached to a limp string.

But even as she observes all of this, Rachel acknowledges that Sydney makes an effort for these meetings. She’s lined her eyes with her signature Christian Dior eyeliner (Captivating Blue), and her lipsticked mouth splits with a beam of joy when she spots them. “Oh, sweetie,” she breathes, jumping out of her chair and opening her arms.

“Hi, Mom,” Naomi whispers, her hazel eyes downcast until her mother envelops her.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” Rachel announces, to give mother and daughter a few minutes—just a few—to themselves. When she returns, Sydney is gently prying Naomi for updates about school, Bat Mitzvah preparations, and her friends—information Rachel already knows.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything? An ice cream sundae?” Sydney keeps asking.

“No thanks, Mom. Auntie and I just came from lunch.”

“Thank you,” Sydney says to Rachel. It’s the first time she’s looked at her since they arrived, but her eyes overfill with gratitude. She reaches for her wallet. “Can I pay you back?” Rachel shakes her head.

“How are you, Mom?” Naomi asks, her girlish voice even higher than usual. “Have you been staying…” she cannot bring herself to say sober. “…good?”

“I’m working very hard,” Sydney says. “I’m good. Zayde and Bubbe are taking good care of me. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“Are you in pain?” Naomi whispers, her voice so quiet that they lipread rather than hear her.

Three teenage girls traipse past them, and the odor of sickly-saccharine vanilla perfume overpowers the usual waffle cone smell. 

“Sometimes,” Sydney says, unsticking the word from her throat, “but sometimes our bodies are meant to be in pain. It’s how we know something is wrong, and that we need to heal ourselves.”

Naomi nods. Her precocious solemnity would almost be funny if it weren’t so heartbreaking. “I know.” 

After about an hour, Rachel stands up and says to Naomi, “You should use the bathroom before we leave.” In Miami traffic, the eight mile drive from South Beach to Brickell, where Naomi lives with her father, could easily take two hours.

This is the worst part of these visits, when it’s just her and Sydney. “You’re so good with her,” Sydney notes. It’s unclear whether or not that pleases her. When Naomi’s around, Sydney tamps everything down, keeps herself in check. But when they’re alone, she unleashes the hunger in her eyes. It’s the look that drew Rachel to Sydney when they first met decades earlier. Back then, Rachel assumed it was a zest for life, like Sydney was happy to consume whatever her circumstances served up. These days, it’s a discomfiting ravenousness, like she might devour the entire candy shop, including Rachel herself. “I was wondering…has Jonathan mentioned anything about me? About our case?”

A few feet away, an unsupervised child cranks gummy worms into his baggie until it overflows, creating a small candy minefield. He starts jumping in it, squishing the worms with abandon. 


“Oh.” A long pause hangs in the air. “I thought you should know—I’m appealing the custody agreement. I’m not asking for shared custody, obviously. I just want visitation rights. Like we’re doing now, but regularly, more often. And without relying on you. I know I’m asking too much of you.”

“You’re not asking it. Naomi is.” Rachel’s voice is flat.

“Right, I know,” Sydney says quickly. “That’s what I meant. But anyway, it shouldn’t fall on you. And I hate that Naomi’s lying to Jonathan. It shouldn’t be like this. It’s incredibly rare to have visitation rights taken away, did you know that? One phone call a month, that’s nothing, I wouldn’t even see how tall she’s getting. But your brother’s lawyers—they’re vicious.”

Rachel knows this; she’s heard about Jonathan’s biweekly visits to Coral Gables to strategize with them.

“They’re burying mine. But if you talked to him—convince him to let up—he’d listen to you. He trusts you. If I was ever your best friend—” Sydney’s voice breaks and a tear trickles down her cheek.

It’s not fair of Sydney, bringing up their past. Rachel doesn’t need reminding of any of it: the moment when they both held out their arms, laughing, as baby Naomi toddled her first tentative steps toward them. Or before that, when Sydney, in her stunning lace-and-beaded wedding gown, grabbed Rachel’s hand and dragged her toward the photographer, insisting, “I need one of me and my sister!” Or before that, the slumber parties where they blow-dried each other’s hair for hours while singing along, off-key, to Mariah Carey. But Sydney has lost the right to invoke these memories. 

“How long have you been sober for?” Rachel interrupts.

“Seven months.”

Naomi returns from the bathroom, looking from her mother’s tearstained face to Rachel’s folded arms and back.

“Time to go, Nome. Say goodbye to your mom.”

Rule #2: What happens in South Beach stays in South Beach.

Rachel and Naomi ride back to Brickell in Rachel’s Z4 with the top down; the wind on Biscayne Bay makes their curls trail merrily behind them, like party streamers unfurling.

“Auntie, the next time we come out here, can we go bra shopping?”

“I just bought you bras last month!”

“Yeah, but…”

“But what?”

“They’re boring,” Naomi murmurs to the dashboard.

Rachel narrows her eyes. The air is salty with humidity and cigarette smoke, wafting from the top-down Lamborghini ahead of them. “Who told you that?” What boys have been looking at your bras?

“No one,” Naomi says. Rachel’s glove compartment is littered with free tchotchkes from her job; Naomi grabs the Bacardi-branded letter opener to fidget with, oblivious to Rachel’s rising anxiety. “It’s just, they don’t look like the ones in the magazines. You know. With lace and satin and stuff.”

“Well, you don’t really need those yet,” Rachel says, choosing her words with care. “Those are more…for show. Yours are meant for every day.”

Naomi is silent as Rachel searches for something wise to say. If she’d wanted this kind of responsibility, she would have had kids of her own. She’s the fun aunt; these aren’t supposed to be her conversations. She is about to change the subject when:

“Auntie, your boobs aren’t real, are they?”

She can’t help smiling at this. “No, they’re not.”

“When did you get them done? Did Dad do them for you?”

In her distraction, she almost misses a red light; she slams on the brake. “Jesus Christ, no.”

Naomi’s eyebrows rise in defense of her father. “Why not? Don’t you trust him?”

“Of course I do, he’s the best,” Rachel says, trying not to laugh. “I’ve sent lots of friends to him. But he’s my brother. It would be super weird. Besides, I got them done way before he graduated from medical school.”

“You were young, then,” Naomi says, sounding thoughtful. “Like my age?”

“No!” Rachel shouts, revving up the engine and cutting off an old lady driving fifteen under the speed limit. 

Okay. You don’t have to yell.”

Rachel takes a deep breath. “Nome, I was way, way older than you are now. Way older.”

“How old?”

“Twenty,” Rachel lies. “You’ve got to give yourself some time, kid. Your body is just starting to grow. Who knows? You might not need fake ones. You might have a Kardashian gene hiding in there, just waiting for puberty to hit you with your own giant boobs.”

“You don’t have that gene. Neither does Mom. Hers are fake too.”

“She didn’t really need it,” Rachel murmurs. Even though Sydney had been talking about it practically since her Bat Mitzvah, Rachel hadn’t thought she’d really do it; Sydney was already a generous C-cup. She still remembers the day Sydney returned to Ransom Everglades High School after her surgery in that plunging red shirt. When Rachel asked her why, Sydney waved a hand dismissively, explaining, “I was so gross-looking before.” This, even though Sydney had ranked second in the entire school on the guys’ leaked “Most Fuckable Girls” list. If you’re gross-looking, what am I? Rachel had wondered. By then she’d already been considering implants for herself, but Sydney’s decision sealed it. She misses those days, when she trusted Sydney’s judgment without question.  

“She just…wanted extra. But that’s not the point,” Rachel adds, snapping to attention and concentrating on the road. “No doctor would let you get them done until you’re much, much older. And your dad definitely won’t.”

The inevitable traffic of the Venetian Causeway finally catches up with them; the Z4 idles in line for the toll booth. Rachel lets her mind drift to her work to-do list. Trade, the South Beach nightclub she manages, will open again in a few hours, and Saturdays are her busiest nights.

She’s so engrossed in her thoughts about coordinating with promoters and retesting a faulty speaker that she almost doesn’t hear Naomi whisper, “Thanks for helping me see Mom again.”

“You’re welcome. Just remember, it’s our secret.”

“Uh-huh.” A gust of wind blows, snatching the letter opener out of Naomi’s hands and tossing it into the ocean. “Whoops.” 

 Rachel turns to her. “Seriously, Nomes. This is a real secret. Your mom and I could get in trouble if anyone finds out, especially your dad. You understand, right?”

Naomi stares out the side of the car, losing herself in the tranquil blue water and the palm trees. The Miami skyline looms before them, low to the ground, ready to engulf them. “Yes.”

Rule #3: Don’t argue with the bouncer.

Rachel inserts the penthouse-access key into the elevator, which deposits her and Naomi into her brother’s home. The apartment’s open layout creates a spacious and inviting impression: the sun-dappled, hardwood kitchen, dining area, and living room form one massive space, with the bedrooms and bathrooms tucked down hallways on either side. The balcony, where her brother occasionally grills, perches directly over the bay.

When they arrive, Jonathan is typing away at his computer. He gets up to hug Naomi. “You know, every time you two come back from South Beach, I think to myself, ‘That’s it, they’ve bought the entire island this time.’ And yet,” he says, shaking his head at their bags, “somehow, every time you go back, there’s still more for you to buy. It’s one of the world’s great mysteries.”

Naomi grins and raises her bags in the air, evidence of their innocuous outing. “Thanks, Auntie.” She flits off to her bedroom, humming to herself. Within a minute, her teenybopper pop blasts from the crack under the door.

“So, you guys have fun? Any problems?” Jonathan asks, adjusting the position of his custom desk chair.

Rachel is 42 years old to Jonathan’s 40, but, as has been true for most of their lives, it’s not obvious which one is the eldest. On this particular afternoon, Jonathan’s hazel eyes look brighter than Rachel’s, and his pale skin less lined. Of course, in his line of work, he has access to all the latest dermatological lotions and potions; of course, in hers, she relies on the cover of night to conceal a multitude of sins, including her age.

“All good.” She lowers her voice. “By the way, if Naomi asks you about my tits, I got them when I was 20.” 

Jonathan frowns. “Why would she?”

“Because she asked me about them. She was very interested.”

“Jesus, she’s twelve. How can she be thinking about that already?” he murmurs.

This is her opening, to make Sydney’s pitch. She’s breaking her own rule here—Jonathan is the bouncer in Naomi’s life, and arguments with bouncers are unwinnable. Still, she has to try. “It’s normal. This is the age when it starts for girls. But to be honest, I’m not sure I’m the one who should be talking to her about it.”

“Who else? I doubt she’ll want to talk to me.”

Does he have to make this so hard? “No, I mean—she has a mother.”

He chokes on a snort. “Are you kidding me? Sydney? How many times did she get hers redone? Five?”


He continues as if he didn’t hear her. “And they were always fine—better than fine! Shit, if anyone would know, it’s me.” He buries his head in his hands and rubs his eyes. “But she was never happy. I can’t stand the idea of Nome living like that. Never satisfied, never…”

Jonathan’s skin may be deceptively wrinkle-free, but there’s no question that the last three years have aged him: his dark curls are thinning at the temple, and a slight paunch has begun to burgeon at his waist. He would never let one of his patients run around looking like that.

“Look, I know how you feel about Sydney, but she’s Naomi’s mom.”

“So, what are you saying? I should hand my child over to her like she’s some kind of trustworthy adult? She already gets one phone call a month.”

“What about visitation rights? Occasional, supervised visits,” Rachel hastens to add. “What if—what if she’s really getting clean?”

He looks like he’s about to start yelling, though he actually lowers his voice to make sure Naomi can’t hear. “Getting clean? Like she was three years ago?”

Rachel is usually so good at suppressing it, the worst day of her life, but it surfaces now, unbidden and unwelcome: she and Jonathan bursting into that double room at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Sydney in one bed, Naomi in the other. Naomi’s limbs were set in casts and slings, hoisted into the air at odd angles; she looked like a marionette. The doctor kept explaining that, considering how fast the car was going, it was a miracle that they were both alive. She was saying that Naomi’s wrist and legs would heal but Sydney would need extensive physical therapy.

Jonathan didn’t seem to hear a word. He grabbed his wife’s file from the doctor’s hands and flipped the pages until he found her test results, confirming Sydney’s blood alcohol level. He looked up in horror, staring at the unconscious bodies of his wife and daughter, and spat: “Of course she fucking was.”

It’s not just the words that have scarred themselves into Rachel’s memory. In her entire life, she had never heard her brother sound so disgusted, so bitter. Jonathan had loved Sydney since childhood, long before Sydney considered him a potential romantic prospect, back when he was just Rachel’s nerdy little brother. He was patient and supportive for so many years: sending Sydney to the best doctors, the most expensive rehabs. He had promised to help her, that they would defeat her demons together.

But that was another lifetime, another marriage ago. Before that day, before that medical chart, Rachel would have guessed that the sound of love dying was silence, or weeping, or screaming. Now she knew better.

She tightens her throat to steady her voice; it feels like she’s choking herself. “I don’t disagree with you. But it’s not about what Sydney deserves. It’s about what Naomi needs. She wants to see her mom, Jon.”

 “She told you that?” He narrows his eyes, and Rachel feels like she’s under his MRI, being scanned for lies.

Does she owe Sydney this much, after all they’ve been through together? Maybe. But Rachel is not thinking of Sydney at this moment. She’s remembering Naomi’s expression at The Sugar Factory. Every visit begins the same way: her niece, staring at her pink trainers, working up the courage to look at her mother. After she dares to flick her eyes upward and confirm Sydney’s sobriety, Naomi’s entire body unsnaps like a released rubber band, and she beams at Rachel, flushing with joy. 

“Yes,” Rachel tells her brother.

Jonathan’s face softens into that troubled, thoughtful expression he gets when he’s really considering something, and a small balloon of hope floats through Rachel’s chest. 

Then the moment passes. He shakes his head. “I know it’s hard for Nome. But she’s better off without Sydney, we both know that. Besides, she doesn’t need her. She has you.”

“Ha ha.”

“Seriously, Rach, you’re the best aunt in the world,” he says quietly. “I don’t know what Naomi and I would do without you.”

Rule #4: Drunk dialing is never cute.

Rachel and Naomi are back on Lincoln Road a month later, but there’s no meeting planned with Sydney; this time their shopping errand is legitimate. They need to buy a present for Naomi’s friend’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah.

Lincoln Road, South Beach’s immense pedestrian shopping avenue, teems with tourists, who keep pausing to ogle the shops or take selfies. Rachel and Naomi weave through the crowd with skills honed from years of practice. Jonathan has given them explicit instructions—Naomi is to use her credit card only for the friend’s gift—so Rachel circumvents him by buying everything else Naomi wants on her own tab: two pairs of shorts at Aerie, and a Swatch watch to match the one Naomi buys her friend. “Dad never said you couldn’t buy me stuff,” Naomi titters, lowering her eyes with mischief.

“Ha! Like he could stop me if he wanted to.”

Once they’ve worked up an appetite, they head to their usual spot. Balans is an all-American eatery with a kid- and adult-friendly menu. Rachel flashes her Trade business card and they skip the hour-long wait for a table. The umbrella provides just enough shade to make Miami at 1 pm bearable.

“Auntie, if I tell you something, do you promise to keep it a secret?” Something about Naomi’s expression, the seriousness of it, is new to her childish face; a trace of Sydneyesque desperation has perturbed the peace of her eyes. 

“Of course,” Rachel takes a sip of her coconut mojito and tries to smile. 

“You promise?” Naomi demands. “You won’t tell anyone? Not even Dad?”

“Of course, Nome. You know me.” A lump of dread begins to congeal in the base of her belly, but she tries to rationalize it away. Naomi is a kid, and kids have no sense of proportion or gravity. Maybe she’s about to announce that a stranger assaulted her on her way to school, or maybe she’s going to proclaim her all-consuming crush on a classmate; with a twelve-year-old, either one could plausibly cause her grave expression.

“Mom called me the other night.”

This is forbidden under the current custody agreement; Sydney’s calls must be scheduled in advance. “What did she say?”

“I missed her call, it was the middle of the night.” Nobody at Balans pays them any attention, but Naomi still whispers, as if spies might be seated at the next table. “She left me a voicemail.”

Rachel waits, to make space for whatever Naomi wants to say.

“She sounded…off.” Naomi’s eyes turn down to the cherrywood tabletop.

“Off?” Rachel forces herself to keep breathing normally.

“You know. Off.” She hazards a look at her aunt, trying to gauge her understanding. “Like before.” 

All those dinners, pretending, for Naomi’s sake, that Sydney’s too-loud, off-topic comments belonged in the conversation. The empty bottles overflowing in the recycling bin. The questions, sometimes gentle, sometimes not; the denials, always the same. 

I’m so stupid. I can’t believe I thought she was really sober this time. Rachel feels the color flood her face, but her voice is even and steady: “Did you save it? The voicemail?”

Naomi nods, opens the app, and passes her phone to Rachel. “Naooooomi my love,” Sydney drawls. In the background, Rachel can hear the whoops of revelers and a thumping bass; at some point a glass shatters. “My beautiful girl. Do you know? Do you know how much I love you? Don’t let your father tell you that I don’t. He’ll lie about me. He doesn’t—he’s not—” Here Sydney audibly hiccups, or maybe burps. “My beautiful girl—”

Rachel pauses the message and glances down; apparently there are three more minutes of this. She wants to let her finger slide over the delete button, save Naomi from the temptation of replaying it, but she doesn’t. Instead, she sends it to herself before returning Naomi’s phone.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a hundred times? Whose fault is that? She had stuck her neck out for Sydney with Jonathan, and here’s how Sydney repaid her.

“I’m worried about her,” Naomi whispers as the waitress hands them their entrees: a cheeseburger for Naomi, a garden salad with grilled chicken for Rachel. “I thought Bubbe and Zayde were supposed to make sure that, you know. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Rachel fidgets with her napkin. “Well, you know. Sometimes things happen that we don’t mean to. Sometimes when people have problems like your mom, even though they don’t plan to drink, they relapse.” At Naomi’s furrowed brow, Rachel feels compelled to continue, “Relapse means…it means you accidentally go back to using the thing you’re trying not to use.”

“How do you accidentally use something?” Naomi wonders. Her timid, girlish question belies the image she’s trying so hard to cultivate: her pale complexion coated in foundation two shades too dark; her hazel eyes ringed, owl-like, with Captivating Blue Dior eyeliner. Her wine-red lips are pursed, but when speaks, her metallic braces glint in the sunlight. “Like, she drank alcohol without meaning to? Like she thought it was juice and didn’t realize?”

“Not…quite. More like, she didn’t want to drink, but then she decided to.”

“That doesn’t make sense. If you don’t want to do something, then you just don’t do it,” Naomi insists with the unmitigated certainty of a teenager.

“I’m sorry, kid. I don’t know how to explain it any better.” Rachel understands why Naomi doesn’t ask Jonathan about this—she’s pretty sure they never discuss Sydney. But what good is a doctor in the family if he can’t answer these questions? Maybe Rachel will try to teach herself about it, watch a YouTube video. She feels unprepared, like she’s taking a test she never studied for. They never covered addiction in hospitality school. “Sometimes people make mistakes.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Naomi sounds unconvinced.

All around them, people knock back Bloody Marys and mimosas, flirting and laughing. Even the families with little kids seem to be giggling and teasing each other. Only Rachel and Naomi stare bleakly at the table, rendered silent by this alcohol-laden weight on their shoulders. Rachel takes a sip from her coconut mojito. Maybe I shouldn’t have ordered this. Is she demonstrating that it is possible to drink in moderation, or is she just setting a bad example? It didn’t even occur to Rachel when she ordered that her weekend lunch drink might have to be sacrificed, like so many more important things already have been, on the altar of shit that Sydney has ruined. 

“You really, really promise you won’t tell Dad, right?” Naomi demands, her urgency startling Rachel again. “I don’t want her to get in trouble. I still want to see her. Even if she did relapse, like you said.”

“No, Nome. I won’t tell. It’s our secret.” But The Sugar Factory visits are over. Rachel didn’t protect herself from the endless cycle of hope and disillusionment, but she will protect Naomi. She will not let Sydney betray them all again. 

Rule #5: Don’t tolerate lies.

The judge had tried to keep it from coming to this. “If I have to make a ruling, I will,” she’d said. “But I promise neither of you will end up happy. It’s much better for your daughter if you can settle this amicably.”

But Sydney and Jonathan’s demands had calcified long ago; there was no thaw to be negotiated.

“You’ll testify on my behalf, won’t you?” Jonathan had asked Rachel. “The judge will listen to you. She knows how close you and Naomi are. She trusts you to have her best interests.”

“I do have her best interests,” Rachel reminded him.

And that’s how she ended up on the witness stand in the courtroom, which is so much smaller and shabbier than the ones on TV. There is no jury, not even a jury box, just Judge Ana Gonzalez in her elevated seat, and in the three small pews facing her, Jonathan, Sydney, and Sydney’s parents. Mercifully, Naomi herself testified the day before in the privacy of the judge’s chambers and was spared the rest of the proceedings.

Once they’ve dispensed with the formalities, Jonathan’s lawyer adopts a fake-sympathetic expression that makes Rachel want to scream. “Ms. Levinson, you and your former sister-in-law Sydney Levinson were best friends for many years, correct?”


“And we’ve already established that you’re very close to your brother and your niece. So, knowing all three parties so well, even loving all three parties so much—it is nevertheless your belief that Mrs. Levinson should be denied visitation rights with Naomi?”

She lets herself dwell in that feeling she usually buries—in the disappointment and foolishness of believing in Sydney. She tastes the self-loathing that rises every time Sydney dupes her into thinking that this time, finally, things will be different, she will be different. The feeling curdles on her tongue, and she tells herself: I won’t let her do this to Naomi again

She turns to face the dais, so that the judge can see how clear-eyed she is about this, how unflinching. “It is.”

Jonathan’s lawyer thanks her with a repulsive flourish and clears the way for Sydney’s. “Ms. Levinson, would you say that you and Mrs. Levinson are still close friends? Confidantes?”

Rachel shakes her head. “No.”

 “So, then. You haven’t heard anything about Sydney’s daily AA meetings, the community service she’s performed, the intensive psychotherapy that she’s undergone? You haven’t been following her progression to sobriety?”

“Not really.”

“So, then. How can you be so certain that Mrs. Levinson can’t be trusted to visit with her daughter? When your information is so out-of-date?”

She stares at Sydney and hates her, hates the desperate yearning in Sydney’s eyes, the hunger that has formed her daughter’s inheritance. She thinks I don’t know about that voicemail. Maybe she doesn’t even remember it herself. 

“Your Honor, will Naomi be able to see what I’ve said here?”

“Ms. Levinson, you are under oath regardless,” the Judge says, glaring. “But to answer your question, no. There’s no transcript here today.”

She can either lie under oath or betray Naomi’s secret. How did it come to this? How did Sydney manage to turn her into just another liar, just another mother figure betraying Naomi’s trust? All she ever wanted was to be the fun aunt, the vault for harmless secrets like crushes and school gossip. Even without a transcript, Naomi will probably find out that Rachel broke her promise of secrecy. How will she ever trust Rachel again?

I have to. I can’t let Sydney keep doing this to her.

“Okay, Your Honor.” She turns back to the attorney. “I do know, actually. Sydney relapsed just last month. She left Naomi a drunk voicemail and scared the shit out of her.”

“Objection, hearsay,” the lawyer interrupts.

“Ms. Levinson, do you have that voicemail?”

Rachel hesitates, glancing at her brother. Even though this evidence will help his case, he looks livid—because of Sydney’s relapse and phone call, or because Naomi and Rachel concealed it from him?

“Yeah. I have it.”

Somehow it sounds even worse in the courtroom. Each slurred word reverberates through the claustrophobic wooden walls. Jonathan is white with rage, but Rachel isn’t watching him; she is hypnotized by Sydney.

The yearning, the hunger, is gone. Her body, which had been taut as a string, collapses limply as she listens to herself. She is weeping, and she looks like all her essential Sydneyness has been scooped out.

She shouldn’t have tried to bullshit me. But the self-righteousness tastes rotten and artificial, even in her own head. Sydney has repeatedly proven that she can’t stay sober, even if she tries. But without any chance of seeing Naomi, will she even try? What is it like for Sydney, her inability to stop hurting herself? What if the attorney is right, what if she really was trying? Rachel closes her eyes. What have I done? The question reverberates in her head. This isn’t my fault. She will repeat it in her mind until it drowns out the other thought, until she believes it. 

The crazy thing is, even after everything they’ve been through, there’s still only one person Rachel wants to talk to about all of this. She needs her best friend to take her out for drinks. She needs her best friend to help brainstorm silly rules for their club manager/fun aunts list, to reassure her that Naomi could never hate her. “You know what we should do? Go shopping. No, go dancing! You can’t let yourself fixate on bad thoughts, you’ll get wrinkles,” Sydney would say, and her laugh would actually convince Rachel for a moment. “You don’t see me sitting around and moping, do you? Try to be more like me.”

Emily Mirengoff is a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Her words have also appeared in STORY, Santa Monica Review, Yemassee, and Lunch Ticket. She earned her bachelor’s in history from Dartmouth College and her master’s in Communication from the University of Miami. She currently resides in the DC area. Find her at or @emirengoff on Twitter.