Coca-Cola Used To Be Fifty Cents and We Used To Be Close

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Bubble Trouble // Header by Viv Le

Like a character in Mad Men reaching for a cigarette in bed, after sex you always want a Coke. Not a cigarette. Not water. Coke. Something that feels like cleaning solution in your mouth, foaming and noisy. Something with a taste you desire. Something to suck down all at once.

Speaking of Mad Men, your version of interior decor is to tear out the photos in a 2011 Mad Men calendar and tape them to your walls, to the back of your dresser that serves as a semi-barrier between your room, an expanse of neutral space, and your atticmate’s room. Yes, you live in an attic. An uninsulated attic in Michigan. “Room” is a stretch. It’s just an open attic. The rent’s cheap, and your atticmate is a good friend. She doesn’t comment on your ugly Mad Men “decor.”

The attic’s especially fine, because you don’t spend much time there. From classes, you go straight to the newsroom where you work on the student-run daily paper. Even when you’re not actively working on production for the newspaper or editing or writing articles, you can probably be found in the newsroom or on the lower level of the building that houses it. The attic is where you sleep, but the newsroom is home. You turn up your nose at Greek life on campus, but isn’t this your own version of a sorority? A clique skewed cult-like in its rituals and codependent relationships and very. specific. power structures.

On that lower level of the building, there’s a Coke vending machine with prices that haven’t been updated since the 90s. This makes it almost mythical. You can’t think of another vending machine on campus that slings soda cans for just fifty cents. TWO QUARTERS? Sometimes, even if you’re not heading to the newsroom, you go out of your way to walk past it so you can snag a can of discounted Coke.

(Stop writing about the Coke when what you’re really trying to write about is the end of a friendship and then another and then another.)

Well, no, the Coke is important.

She drinks diet, and you drink regular.

You’ve long been known for drinking Coke, the hard stuff that comes in the red can, none of that silver bullshit that lingers on the tongue too long. Like any small thing you can cling to as yours, you’ve wrapped your legs around this association and squeezed, hoping to absorb something into you. You’ve done this with Mad Men, with Vampire Diaries, with sour gummy worms, with mozzarella sticks, with regular Coke. These interests define you, even if they don’t make you special.

She drinks diet, and you drink regular.

You belong to two different trios with her, the two of you a constant, package deal. Two boys fill in the rotating third slot. You all work at the paper, and in theory, you’re sometimes a quartet, but no, it doesn’t work like that for some reason. It’s always you and one of these boys, a buffer maybe. One boy is gay and one is straight, and the gay one likes to make lesbian jokes about you, and you laugh with him, and it isn’t faked. You can’t say it bothers you, because it doesn’t.

(When you do come out to him, it goes horribly, something you don’t see coming at all, because shouldn’t he remember how much this sucks?)

The other boy is not gay, but he does have a girlfriend. In other words, neither third in your trio provides a buffer in a sense of romantic viability. But maybe that’s what makes them perfect buffers.

Between the four of you — and yet, not a quartet! — you’re always passing around the same fifty cents. Whoever’s got quarters that day is the banker, loaning out coins so you can all keep your respective dependencies in check. You crave the breaks downstairs to the fifty cent Coke machine the most.

Trips downstairs with her get longer, and then you’ve suddenly claimed an entire room down there, not technically part of the newsroom but part of the office where the people on the financial side of the newspaper work. They work regular hours, and you work newspaper hours, so it’s always vacant down there by the time your shifts start in earnest. You name this room. It is a much realer room than your one in the attic. Time slows in this room. You’re spending a lot of time in there doing nothing.

Just drinking sodas and coming up with a compendium of inside jokes that swells so big you can’t even keep track of them all.

When you’re not physically with her, you’re probably writing something untranslatable from this ever-expanding inside joke language on her Facebook wall.

(God, 2011 was a mortifying time for crushes, especially closeted ones. Playing out so publicly, so visible to everyone else but yourself.)

You start fighting, and you don’t know why, but you do know it usually only happens when you’ve both been drinking — and not soda. Soda’s when you’re always at your silliest. Beer and tequila pulled from plastic bottles bring out something different.

She has a boyfriend who you don’t like, and you’re not sure if she even does either, but it’s fine, because he’s far away. Soon, you’ll be far away, too. You want to move to Los Angeles after this.

Then, the straight boy in your trio breaks up with his girlfriend. A pressure valve you can’t see opens, begins to hiss.

Your friend is mad at you. She’s mad at you, because, she says, you’ve changed everything. You’ve confessed feelings for the boy, and now you can’t be a trio, but she won’t explain it further. You try to do the math over and over, but you’ve never been particularly good at math, have you?

The fights worsen. One night, she deletes her entire text history with you and this, for some reason, feels huge. It was just a swipe of her finger, a press of a button, but she may as well have told you to fuck off.

“Are you guys breaking up?” the gay boy jokes at a party about you and her after another one of your fights. It’s cold, but everyone’s drinking outside, because that’s just what you do here. He asks because you’re fighting again, this time in public, and you realize that is probably exactly what it looks like, a couple’s quarrel, and this amuses you, but only if you let the icy beer fog your brain. Don’t look too closely.

She is wearing a henley and a thermal vest and a backwards cap, because she wears the same thing almost every day, like a cartoon character. She hates when you call her hair red or even strawberry blonde. Your secret language is still expanding, but sometimes the words sting.

You’ve already had sex with women at this point, but nobody knows that. You’ve barely held onto the memory yourself, not because you literally don’t remember but because you’ve decided it was a fluke. Something far away, long ago, because even one semester ago or last summer feels like a distant past. You never wanted Coke after sex with women.

You start having sex with the straight boy, and after, you crave Coke more than anything. Dorm room sex is a little debasing, but the attic isn’t an option. You don’t even have a real door, the ceilings are low, creatures live in the walls. In the dorms, Coke costs more than fifty cents. You should probably start stocking up.

This is ruining everything, you’re reminded, often. And the truth is, you agree. But you keep doing it anyway. Every time, you choose a quick hit of fizz, even if it goes flat fast.

It all feels very complicated, the explosion of both trios. You wish you could map it out on one of those murder conspiracy boards. The ends of these friendships happen in either slow-motion or hyperspeed, you can’t decide. You all shared more than just quarters, every combination of you. You’ve never been very good math, but it turns out there are three different ways to pair off in a group of four, so maybe you were a trio all along, a trio of pairs. You were taking more than that from each other, too. You aren’t the only one who doesn’t know what you want. All four of you are grasping at something, and badly.

This is when you still think you’re cursed, still actively tell people so. It started in high school, and you’ve carried your curse all the way here, to the attic. This is how you explain your curse: Everyone you desire is unavailable to you. You really believe this. You cry about it sometimes, this curse you’ve invented.

It’s so easy to believe in magic. In a cursed princess atop her uninsulated tower, in shiny coins that extract elixirs, in merry bands of three, severed so easily. It feels like this to you sometimes, like a story you’re floating through rather than living in. Online, you live a second life separate from all of this, one you won’t let any part of the trio into, even though they’re recurring characters in the stories you share there. It’s getting harder to keep track of which life is more real. You miss your three friends, and they’re not even gone yet. Graduation looms. Everything is about to change, again, fizzy fast or in slow motion, you can’t be sure. In the end, you lose all three.

Bubble Trouble is a series helmed by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya about the nostalgia, effervescence, and never-ending appeal of carbonated beverages.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 840 articles for us.


  1. This is so authentic in expressing what it’s like at that age – the way you get thrown together with people and you simultaneously connect with them like nobody else and keep tripping because of faultlines that you didn’t know were there. The way things often feel their most secure right before they come apart.

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