Kyle stood next to a girl whose Mohawk kept toppling into her drink when she leaned her head down to take a sip. Her boyfriend offered his straw to her so she didn't have to tilt her head down and she looked at him like he'd slain a dragon or carried out some war in her name. Kyle rolled his eyes and downed his second drink.
There was a substantial crowd, which somehow made Stan's apartment seem bigger, with people hanging out in corners he'd never taken notice of. A girl was DJing with green hair and skeleton makeup. Kyle had been staring with interest at the methodology of creating such a look when she'd winked at him. Since then he'd been watching the way Tweek kept chopping the ice in his cup with his chewed-up straw. The blonde was engaged in a discussion about taxidermy with Henrietta, which Kyle tried to tune out by concentrating on Robert Smith's whining vocals blaring over the speakers.
He hadn't been particularly looking forward to the party. It meant that his temporary bedroom for the past week was going to be full of these drunken goths and their omnipresent cigarette smoke. He'd been avoiding his house by crashing on Stan's couch. So he didn't necessarily relish the idea of making the decision between going home tonight or curling up next to empty beer cans. Stan had assured him that everyone would be gone by the time Kyle would want to go to sleep. But they both knew Stan couldn't promise that, and anyway, he shouldn't have to.
Stan's band was celebrating their sophomore album, which they'd recorded at a production studio one of Ethan's friends ran in Denver. It had coincided with their landlord's vacation, meaning they could play a live show in their living room for their friends before doing their usual tour of the sticky dark clubs in Denver. Last night Kyle had helped Henrietta to hang glittery skeletons from the ceiling and watched as she strategically placed strange framed cases of 19th century medical equipment on shelves around the room. He had to admit that for all the not caring goths claimed to do, they seemed fixated on detail.
"Hey," Stan said, weaving his way through the crowd. "Having a good time?" He was wearing a tight blazer and skinny jeans. His black hair wasn't styled in the same calculated way that Ethan's or Dylan's was, but there had to be something deliberate about its careful dishevelment.
"Yeah," Kyle said, not wanting to disappoint Stan but even he didn't believe his own forced enthusiasm. Maybe he'd never been drunk enough to fully appreciate a party or large crowds in general, because sincere attempts had always failed.
Stan just smiled like Kyle had done something perfect and grabbed his shoulder and pulled him close. "This is all a bit lame," he said. It was hard to hear him over the thudding synth, but Stan kept inching closer, until their shoulders were brushing together. "But I'm glad you're here."
Kyle nodded, appreciating the knowing half-smile that Stan was giving him. "We are going to finish setting up and then I'll be back over," Stan said, waving his hand as he disappeared into the crowd again. Kyle wanted him to come back. To tell him about having broken up with Cartman. But he knew it would be an argument before it was better. Not that Stan had anything to be upset about really. He wasn't anything to Kyle.
"Kyle—Henrietta's offered to stuff me for you, if I die—what do you think?" Tweek said, sipping his beer as he waited for Kyle's answer. Kyle wasn't sure of the question, but something about the way Henrietta was twisting a strand of Tweek's hair between her black nails told him that his answer didn't matter.
"Uh—that's good," he said, but Tweek had already turned back to Henrietta, with a slew of questions about her proposed uses for his stuffed body. Kyle shifted nonchalantly away from them towards the kitchen, where shots were sitting on an ornate silver tray.
From the kitchen he could see Dylan and Stan huddled around amps, plugging cords in, in what he could only guess was an impromptu sound check. He needed a break from his own thoughts. He took a shot and quickly regretted it, leaning over the sink for a second in case he puked. The smell and sight of endless crumpled cigarettes in the sink did little to restrain the feeling. But nothing but spit came out when he gagged. He wasn't entirely glad that he hadn't puked when he straightened up.
It seemed like everyone paired off so neatly. The thought made his stomach churn again.
The song that was playing kept asserting that love goes down the drain. Suddenly he saw the appeal of all things goth. It was probably better to be alone, in some artistic existential way and he felt positive that everyone with their platform creepers and piercings had probably never felt loneliness as acutely as he had. If only they knew, he'd probably be given some sort of award, like king of the goths. He took another drink and laughed a bit to himself at the idea. He turned to tell Tweek, but the blonde had his head pressed against Henrietta's so they could both see through the scope of her camera.
So he turned back to watch Stan put down his guitar and make his way through the crowd. He went into his room. Kyle followed him, with the need to tell Stan that he was king of the goths. But by the time he got to Stan's room he was distracted.
"Are you putting on—eyeliner?" Kyle said, meaning to sound outraged but it came out more interested. Stan turned away from the mirror and blinked at him.
"How did you get so drunk in like ten minutes?" He took the cup from Kyle's hand and it on the dresser before leaning back into the mirror. "Don't you want to remember if we suck or not?"
Kyle laughed too loud at the question and plucked the eyeliner from Stan's hand. "Do me," he said, wrapping an arm around Stan's waist, laughing childishly at himself. Stan returned the gesture, but seemed to be holding Kyle up more than hugging him.
He raised his eyebrow. "Let's never be gay enough to do each other's makeup," he said, dangling the eyeliner from his finger like it was Pandora's Box.
"Come on," Kyle whined when Stan let him go to turn back to the mirror.
Stan sighed but was grinning slightly. "Close your eyes," he said, tilting Kyle's head back
Kyle felt the hesitant pressure of the pencil's tip rub under his lashes. From outside Ethan was warming up, singing, "Teenage Dirtbag" as Dylan strummed an acoustic guitar. Stan mumbled the words under his breath, the scent of cigarettes coming out in puffs against Kyle's cheek.
"Open your eyes," Stan said, frowning a bit, before wiping his thumb under Kyle's left eye. "What..." Stan hands dropped to the collar of Kyle's shirt. "You have a bruise along your shoulder," he said in a strange voice.
"Stan," Ethan said, leaning in the doorway, "we're going on." He was dressed entirely in black, with an earring dangling down the length of his neck. His eyeliner was thicker than Stan's and it stood out more vivid against his paler complexion. Maybe Ethan pretended to be broken, but Kyle realized now, that unlike the goth teen—he really was.
"Just a minute," Stan began, but Kyle jerked his head back at the sound of his voice.
"No—everyone's waiting." Kyle was surprised at the strangled sound of his voice. Stan looked like he wanted to protest, but Ethan cut him off.
"Cool eyeliner," Ethan said in a way that probably mocking but Kyle just laughed and smiled at him. Because everything was funny. But especially the way he kept tripping over his feet on the way out of the bedroom.
Henrietta and Tweek were sitting at the kitchen table and Tweek smiled when he saw Kyle. As he walked over to the table Kyle tried to pretend that Stan was still the pseudo-stranger he'd been two months ago and not someone that he had obligations to be honest with. Somehow this made him sadder.
"The band is going on!" Tweek yelled over the noise of the crowd, motioning to the chair next to him for Kyle to sit in.
"Are you wearing eyeliner?"
"Yeah," Kyle said, touching his face, surprised that his cheeks were still warm. He felt sure he'd be numb all over. "Ethan laughed at me."
Henrietta rolled her eyes. "He probably just thought you looked hot."
"Do I?" Kyle asked her in a distant way, looking towards the stage, trying to find someone to compare himself to. Dylan was turning a knob on his amp, his typical platform creepers replaced with boots that made him almost as tall as Ethan and makeup that gave him the appearance of having two black eyes.
She glanced at Tweek's interested expression. "Uh, in snotty superior sort of way," Henrietta said, "not that superficial appearances are anything more than a show we put on for each other."
"Thanksâ€¦" he said tilting his head to the side, "or fuck you."
Henrietta laughed. "So did Stan give you an autographed copy of the LP?"
"No," Kyle said, "I didn't even know they had copies already."
"Yeah, I was supposed to be selling them at that table over there." She lit a cigarette. Kyle looked over at the empty table by the door. A couple was leaning against it to make out. "I'm not going to be a part of that capitalist bullshit. Ethan can sell his own fucking LP." She blew a cloud of smoke over her shoulder. "I should take a few pictures—then let's get out of here. I've had to sit through practices for this set at least five times."
"Are you in Kyle?" Tweek was nodding as he said it.
"What are you guys doing?" Kyle asked, but he couldn't imagine anything he'd say no to. He couldn't imagine anywhere he wanted to be less than here, where he could feel Stan's hurt expression through the crowd.
"I promised Henrietta I'd show her the photos she took hanging in the café
"Yeah, for maximum shared self-loathing," Henrietta said. "Please join us."
"Okay," Kyle shrugged. Henrietta got up, grabbing her camera as she went.
"She's hilarious," Tweek said, watching the edges of her skirt disappear into the crowd.
Kyle nodded. He was glad he couldn't see the band over the shoulders of the crowd now that everyone was pushing towards the front. It was bad enough that he had to hear them. He was sure that they all looked great, lit from the strings of red and purple lights that were strewn over top of the makeshift stage. The kitchen was lit almost entirely by black lights and candles. He thought it was probably unsafe to mix open flames with clumsy drunk teenage bodies. But no one seemed particularly out of control.
Henrietta returned after one song looking annoyed. "Some dickface stepped on the back of my skirt." She shoved her hands into a long black peacoat that had been hanging on the back of the kitchen chair, and then wrapped a purple scarf up to her chin.
Tweek jumped up, grabbing his car keys. "Let's go," he said, zipping up his hoodie. Henrietta laughed when he pulled a beanie over his blonde hair. "Fucking hipster," she said, tugging on it until it covered his wide eyes.
When they got to the café all the lights were off. It felt strange turning them back on at this time of night.
"Should I make drinks?" he asked, as Henrietta gaped at the prominent display of her artwork.
"Absolutely. Give me one of those extra fat caramel latte fag drinks," she said. "I deserve it." Kyle thought he deserved one too.
He got to work, liking the privacy of the café compared to the party they'd just come from. The snow was piling up against the window outside, and it was hard to see out of it. When he looked back up, Tweek was helping Henrietta take the pictures off the wall. He walked over to them with the drinks.
"I can't believe that Stan is still pretending to work here," she said, looking critically at the latte he handed her. They sat in a circle on the empty area that bands typically played at with Henrietta's pictures in a pile in the center.
"What do you mean?" Kyle asked. He didn't want Stan to be pretending to do anything.
"He just wanted an excuse to talk to you. Now you're friends. So he should stop polluting coffee with sugar and shit," she said, sipping the latte.
Kyle stared at her for a minute to see if she'd elaborate. But she just pried the lid off of the latte.
"Here," she said, producing a silver flask from her coat pocket and pouring a clear liquid into her coffee.Kyle and Tweek held theirs towards her. "You shouldn't be able to taste the vodka through the whipped cream. In theory."
Kyle drank the concoction, feeling the warmth of the vodka and espresso independently. He wasn't as surprised by the revelation as he might have been a few weeks ago. But not thinking about it was better than turning it over for some clue, so he willed the alcohol to work faster.
"We should sell this," Tweek said, already halfway done with his too.
"The government wouldn't let you. It'd make people too happy," Henrietta muttered. She lit a cigarette, inhaling slowly, before turning to Kyle.
"So Kyle Broflovskiâ€¦ you and Stan."
"Don't break his heart. Or at least do it through bad poetry or something if you have to. I listened to him cry for hours in the back seat of Ethan's van on prom night."
"I can't believe you guys went to prom," Tweek interjected.
"We didn't. We were going to sit outside, listen to Morrissey, and smoke. We were hoping to see some conformist Abercrombie and Finch chick break her ankle or better; run crying from the gym. But mainly we saw this kid," she motioned at Kyle, "kneeling in his $500 suit and skinny tie to give Eric Cartman a $5 blow job against the side of the cafeteria."
Kyle felt his stomach turn, but swallowed the rest of his drink.
"Stan started crossing the parking lot to—I don't know—be some sort of jock hero and punch Cartman in his dick. But Ethan and Dylan grabbed him, and pulled him back into the car. We drove to Benny's parking lot. Ethan and Dylan were sitting on the curb, eye fucking one another while I listened to Stan cry about how he'd ruined everything." She took a drag from her cigarette. "You would have thought he single handedly created Hot Topic."
Kyle felt his residual anger at Stan come back to life for a moment. It wasn't for Stan to be saving himâ€¦but if he had. It was too painful to think about, and too confusing from every direction.
"We all did dumb shit in high school," Tweek said quickly, glancing over at Kyle. "Once I sat in Bebe's backyard for hours and cried while I listened to Brand New on my iPod. I left when my fingers got too cold to press the buttons to change songs."
Henrietta looked over at Tweek's fingers clutching the vodka-laced coffee. She blew another cloud of smoke over her shoulder.
"When I was in 11th grade, my mom kicked me out of the house. Ethan came and picked me up in the Wall-Mart parking lot. We drove to Stark's Pond and shared my last cigarette as we sat on a bench. He was trying to explain this e.e. cummings poem to me. But I wasn't listening. I was watching his lips curl around the cigarette. So when he took it out to hand it back to me, I leaned up and kissed him."
"What happened," Kyle asked.
"I wish he would have shoved me away. But he just let me. And when I couldn't feel like lips moving under mine, I pulled back. He looked so disappointed. He just shook his head and handed me the cigarette. I thought I was going to be sick all over his faggy pointed boots."
They were all quiet for a few minutes, as Henrietta sucked on her cigarette. "So what do you think—should we burn these horrible pictures?"
Kyle looked up; Tweek and Henrietta were staring at him, their faces lit mostly from the streetlights coming in through the window. He felt like they were forming some sort of pact. "Where?" he asked. Henrietta would probably make fun of him if he said something about it being symbolic of their pasts. He wanted to make fun of himself.
"In the dumpster out back?" Tweek suggested.
Henrietta shrugged, "It'll be the most artistic thing I can do with these shitty photos."
"Will you make some more lattes Kyle?" Tweek flicked Henrietta's lighter preemptively with his thumb.
"Yeah," he nodded. "Don't light it without me."
Henrietta tossed him the flask before she grabbed some of the frames from the pile. Tweek followed, and nodded.
It felt like they were doing something big and real that they were meant to do all along. But really Kyle knew it was just a bad idea, borne out of some rebellious need in Henrietta that Tweek would go along with to impress her. But it seemed like the perfect night to make bad decisions and he was glad to be a part of one. He felt like he couldn't possibly focus on anything beyond measuring out the vodka equally into their lattes. He carried the drinks out the back door. The pictures were sitting in the dumpster along with the cardboard he'd thrown in it earlier.
"Would you like to do the honors?" Henrietta asked, handing Kyle the lighter. He nodded, flicking the plastic lighter until the cardboard caught fire. It took a few attempts through the snow. But flames appeared on the cardboard and the smell of burning plastic was less than appealing. But Kyle sank with Tweek and Henrietta to the snow-covered ground and didn't mention it.
They drank their lattes, watching the smoke escape the sides of the dumpster. Kyle noticed that at some point Henrietta had reached over to grab Tweek's hand. Or had he grabbed hers?
"It's like we're in Fahrenheit 451. But instead of books we burn shitty art," she said.
"That could be our profession," Kyle said, "travel around the world and burn all the pretentious art in dumpsters."
Tweek nodded. "I'm in."
Kyle leaned his head against the icy bricks of the building and watched the flames lick the lid of the dumpster.
When Tweek looked down at the end of the alley, Kyle assumed the cops had shown up. But it was Ethan, Stan, and Dylan.
Henrietta gave them a half-wave. "You got my text?"
Dylan nodded. "The party was lame."
"It was your party dumbass," Henrietta said, flicking cigarette ashes into the snow.
"Don't be a bitch," Ethan said.
"So you guys are like arsonists." Dylan lit a cigarette on the burning edge of a photograph. He pressed the tip against a second cigarette and handed it to Ethan.
Kyle looked down at his latte, wishing he'd measured more vodka into his. He was still drunk, he tried to remind himself. Everything he did or had done could be blamed on alcohol. It could be blamed on stupidity. And probably on Stan. He would say so if Stan asked. But Stan had just sat down next to him, and Kyle couldn't even look at him. He wondered if Stan would still cry for him like he had all those months ago at prom. But when he turned to ask, Stan's blue eyes were staring over Kyle's head at the fire.
"I need to talk to you," Stan said, lifting him to his feet and brushed the snow from their knees. Kyle looked over at the dumpster to see the flames that were beginning to rescind into a smoldering black mess.
"Fine, I need to talk to you, too." Kyle wished he smoked so he could throw down a cigarette butt with the same amount of drama that Stan was using to raise his eyebrows. "We're going to make more drinks," Kyle said loudly. He pulled Stan by his elbow and wondered briefly if everyone thought they were going to make out against the espresso machine.
"Kyle, why are-" Kyle knew what Stan was going to ask.
"I went to talk to Cartman. To break up with him, officially or whatever, so don't freak out." Kyle soldiered on before Stan could start talking. "Did you start working here just to try and be friends again?"
"Iâ€¦maybe. I didn't know how else to start talking to you again. Why didn't you tell me you were going to see Cartman? I could have come with you." Stan leant against the register counter.
"I didn't need your protection. It was fine. Henrietta wants to know when you're quitting, since you've already patched fences or whatever." Kyle felt the conversation derailing, although he couldn't quite be sure where he'd wanted it to go in the first place.
"Alright, alright. I'm glad you aren't going to see Cartman anymore. He's always been a prick." Stan's head was ducked and he was slouching, but he still looked at Kyle through his bangs. "I'm not planning on quitting anytime soon, Kyle."
"Yea. Well, good." Kyle felt like a deflating hot air balloon. The urge to defend Cartman was surprisingly strong. "He wasn't like, Hitler or anything."
"What the hell? Cartman doesn't deserve any sympathy, least of all from you. You're so much better than him." Kyle could feel the burn of stomach acid at the back of his throat.
"I'm not," he said quietly, looking at the ground. Stan leaned closer to him.
"I'm not, you know, better than Cartman. He's just really upfront about it." He finally made eye contact with Stan. "My heartlessness just takes longer to recognize." Kyle felt every hurtful word that had ever been said about him, by others and himself, sitting on his chest. "You weren't wrong."
"Kyle, no." Stan sounded movie-quality horrified. "I was just trying everything I could to push you away. That's not how it was. Or is." Stan reached for Kyle's hand. Kyle let him hold it. "Things got really fucked up, but we can fix what's left?"
Kyle had sat alone in his room for weeks after Stan had broken it off. And when the self-flagellation hadn't been enough, he'd allowed Cartman to get close to him in order to punish himself. When Cartman piled on the abuse stronger than Kyle had anticipated, it brought all of his hatred to a fever pitch. He didn't know if he could function without that framework of humiliation and remorse scripting what actions he took.
"I want to," Kyle said, realizing for the first time that it was true. And Stan looked so earnest, and hopeful, that he thought maybe there was still something left to fix.
"Come on," Stan said, grabbing Kyle's hand and leading him back outside.
Everyone was standing around the smoking remains of Henrietta's art, like the ruins of some short-lived civilization. Through the smoke and through the snow Stan kissed him. And it wasn't the same as before, but it was familiar. Kyle didn't care if it was a way back or a way forward, as Stan's arms slid around him, pulling him close again.