The 24-hour pharmacy line is too long, wavy drunk, so Paula Cole stares at the carpet (which isn’t gray but also somehow definitely is) when it comes on, her most successful song—a banger, really. In drops the string of do-do-do, do-do-do, do-do-dos, and its reluctant infection spreads beneath the fluorescent lights to everyone in the store, right into their stupid ears—why can’t it be ignored???—so Paula Cole closes her eyes, and the woman behind her doesn’t even try to cough politely; no, she chainsaw hacks, her mouth obviously uncovered because Paula Cole can feel it in her hair. She thinks immediately, There’s cough in my hair, but then she remembers what’s about to happen and begins her prayer slash mantra slash exercise slash thing her brain does pretty automatically: she thinks, please, don’t recognize me.
Thing is, 1997 was a situation. The world was infatuated with a three-hour movie about a ship sinking even though everyone knew how it ended before it began (spoiler: the ship sinks). The Packers won the Super Bowl after thirty years of sucking cheese. Seriously: Heaven’s Gate and Dolly the sheep. Jeff Buckley drowned but the Spice Girls, from atop the charts, told people what they wanted—what they really, really wanted—and sure, at least the country was between the Bushes and Clinton wasn’t gross yet—but in general, they were confusing times. Zig-a-zig, ah.
What Paula Cole is saying is people weren’t asking great questions.
Paula Cole also wants to gently remind everyone she’s from Massachusetts. Dry-ass Rockport, Mass., where The Picture came from. Above ten bulldoggy grandmas hangs the words, “Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Not Touch Ours.” Seventy-five-year old Hannah Jumper and her kettle of lady followers? The clutch of them invaded their own town with hatchets and death-slashed every single container of alcohol. On the school bus, Paula Cole used to lean into Ashley Dixon’s hair and together they giggled. The world’s first sex strike! Or, Like anyone’d wanna do them! And they’d snort at how dumb it was, how dumb everything was, and once in a magical while, they’d snort so hard they’d inhale a burst of the other’s hair then start it all over again, the snort-laughing, the best laughing, a laughter that could carry you far, far away.
Every year they covered it in school, and it seemed to Paula Cole like the older she got, the more ridiculous the details her teachers let fly. The Hatchet Gang went from kooky old ladies to the first feminists to something else entirely: wild-eyed, nearly feral, their frocks streaming behind them like cotton pitchforks. By the time she tried out for the role of Hannah Jumper in her high school’s production of the locally written cautionary musical—Prohibition Lips!—Paula Cole had zeroed in on the truth: women know how terrible boozy men are, so they called one another in—at first in church whispers, eventually in glances, in energy. Women are good at that. Exchanging ideas—whole paragraphs—without words.
Paula Cole knew more about Latin than cowboys, and she didn’t even take Latin, merci beaucoup. She thought of Latin and cowboys in equal terms and kept them filed in her brain under D for dead languages.
It was basically a joke, Paula Cole’s question. And it wasn’t even hers. Paula Cole flew from Cali’s north shore (where she’d gone to college) to Boston’s north shore (it was closest to Rockport) for her 23rd birthday, which was the first time they’d seen each other since they’d graduated. Even though Paula Cole had gone about as far west as a human could, Ashley Dixon had stayed exactly where she still was. They made the kind of plans they used to—diner for a grilled cheese then a movie, candy obviously smuggled—and she wondered if maybe it wouldn’t feel like it used to because they’d been apart for a while, probably too long, and all fires need stoking. She hadn’t meant to, but Paula Cole had disappeared into her music because she had to let the songs out of her skin before her body burst, and Ashley Dixon was okay at the local grocery, with greeting Bob Henderson every morning, and, well, she never seemed ready to burst, which was a big part of why Paula Cole loved her. Every ocean needs a bay.
Paula Cole wondered a lot of things. If she didn’t have a record deal by twenty-five, was her career stumped, her life just eternal jazz clubs, no money in sight? Would Ashley Dixon marry someone they went to high school with? And why would it be Brandon Bates? Were there girls right now turning on their wobbly granny voices to screech, “Lips that touch liquor shall not touch ours!” before snort-laughing each other’s hair? But she never—not once—wondered THE question.
Paula Cole and Ashley Dixon saw Thelma & Louise because of course they did. Paula Cole thought the ampersand was everything, and she wondered if Ashley Dixon thought the same. They shared the big popcorn, extra butter, and when the usher slid around the corner, they emptied two boxes of Raisinets on top and swirled it and waited for ten seconds, which they counted off by whispering one Hannah Jumper, two Hannah Jumper, so the candy and popcorn would fuse. By the time Brad Pitt took his shirt off, Paula & Ashley had brushstrokes of chocolate everywhere and were missing key plot points, but they didn’t really care because, actually, things did feel like they used to—so easily—and Paula Cole knew that even if Ashley Dixon did marry Brandon Bates, it wouldn’t matter, not even a little.
Paula Cole reminded herself to tell Ashley Dixon all of that when the movie was over, but then Thelma said, “Let’s not get caught. Let’s keep going,” and those words hinged in Paula Cole’s throat, words like a fish’s spine, and instead she wanted to tell Ashley Dixon that Thelma’s plea sounded like what it felt like to burn from the inside. She wanted to tell Ashley Dixon that they could keep going too, but she couldn’t get the words out, so she presented her sticky, chocolate palm to Ashley Dixon, and Ashley Dixon’s hand clapped and squeezed and for a second—for a second of a second—she thought they might do it, they might keep going, so her throat zipped shut further and her eyes watered, and maybe that’s what Hannah Jumper had thought too—let’s keep going—and yeah: in that second of a second when Paula Cole thought it all might be possible and her eyes welled, she turned to Ashley Dixon who stared at the credits, blinked twice, and asked sadly: where have all the cowboys gone? It sounded so good, like if a slice of cheesecake were made of words, that Paula Cole pictured her music studio back in the city, and she knew immediately that she would, indeed, keep going. Going alone.
All of that: that’s what whirled in some part of her mind in Walgreens directly after “there’s cough in my hair” and “please don’t recognize me.” Paula Cole doesn’t want to take a selfie or answer questions about oh my god, what are you up to now, because, like, she buying party-sized tampons and Sudafed at 2 am, so things are going great, and really she’s sorry she ever re-asked Ashley Dixon’s question. Sure, Paula Cole thinks the Grammy is nice, but it’s not as nice as two women who decide to keep going, so Paula Cole closes her eyes again and starts counting—one Hannah Jumper, two Hannah Jumper—and she sees so freaking clearly every woman in line rise strong and bold, this wake of Walgreens women, each with her frock fluttering behind her like glorious wings, a moment perfectly synched, not a drop of rehearsal, and Paula Cole means it, look at them, look at them, never stop looking: wings tye-dyed and denimed and leopard-splotched and— do-do-do, do-do-do, do-do-do—just try and stop this grass-fed parade of goddesses. Go ahead. Paula Cole dares you.
Lisa Nikolidakis is the author of the memoir No One Crosses the Wolf (Little A, 2022). Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, Los Angeles Review, Orion, LitHub, Hunger Mountain, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Salt Hill, The Rumpus, Nimrod, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at TCU and in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program.