A Girl, in Seven Parts
When I was six and you were seven, we became friends after you punched me in the face. At the time, I didn’t like you in the least, because you once stole my animal crackers from me and then laughed in my face afterwards; on the other hand, you viewed me with a sort of bored curiosity that you’d mastered already as a child.
The day we officially met, I was holding my new rag doll and you were barreling through our second-grade classroom with a toy truck. As I moved to sit down, my doll’s dress somehow caught on the door handle and ripped neatly in two. I was absolutely horror struck and immediately started bawling. Since I was a quiet, mousy child, nobody in our class really knew what to do.
Except for you. I still remember you calmly setting down your truck and walking up to me. Then, instead of words of soothing comfort, you socked me directly in the face.
In a strange way, though, I suppose it worked. I stopped crying, probably due to shock, and you got sent to the principal’s office, where you had to write out an apology letter to me. When you handed it to me later, the messy scribbles read, “I’m very sorry for punching you.” Behind that was a smiley face.
During recess the next day, you were sitting at the bottom of the slide, kicking up the rubber chips. There was just enough room beside you for me to sit down too, and you looked over slightly. “Hi,” you said.
In reply, I dumped a handful of rubber chips on your head.
You sprang up, shaking your head wildly as I started to laugh. “Now, we’re even,” I said, echoing the words my older brother had taught me to say. The night before, Eli had been half-slumped on his bed, staring at his ceiling blankly. He sat up when I walked in, though, and when I’d told him what happened, he thought it was absolutely hilarious. Eventually, he caught his breath and said he and your sister were acquaintances and, being a senior in high school, knew exactly how to get you back.
You gave me a shrewd look that hovered on grudging respect. Then, you stuck out your hand, with all the formality of an adult. “Truce?” you said. There was still a rubber chip lodged in your golden hair.
“Yes,” I said back.
When I was eight and you were nine, Eli was home from college, and he took us to the state fair. It was fantastically captivating, with glistening towers and wheels of light, all threaded together with thick, pulsing scents of French fries and cotton candy.
You and I held hands so we wouldn’t get lost, as Eli led the way to the merry-go-round. We spun around until I almost threw up everything in my stomach. When we were done, you hugged a bright red horse whose eyes were starting to flake off. “’Bye now,” you said excitedly, as we dove back into the splendor of the fair.
Fifty dollars, one dropped ice cream, and two giant stuffed bears later, I was very ready to go home. Eli, though, decided to go buy me a cotton candy before we did, and you went with him, taking your purple bear with you and leaving me alone with the blue one. “Grapes will keep me company while l eat all the cotton candy before you can,” you told me teasingly, but you were a terrible liar so I didn’t mind in the least.
I remember how long it took – at least thirty minutes, just for a cone of spun sugar. I sat on the cold bench, playing with the purple bear with the heart-shaped eyes until, finally, you and Eli came back. Eli was holding a cone of candy so pink it almost looked scarlet, and you were trailing behind him, with the barest trace of a limp.
I took the cone, and Eli picked up my bear and started back towards the car. I waited until you were next to me, and I realized how stiff you looked. “How was the line?” I asked.
You didn’t look at me. Your left hand dragged the purple bear behind you, so it trailed like a mottled bruise, and the right one tugged on your pants slightly, which were creased and rumpled in odd places. “Long,” you said quietly, and that was the last thing you said to me for nearly a week.
At the end of that week, Eli went back to college, and I was invited over to your house for a playdate. We went up to your room, and played board games for an hour. When we lost the dice and had to find a new one, I ransacked your closet, where your games were stored, and found your bear, violently crushed into the back corner, with its legs folded in on itself and the poor thing crumpled into a heap.
I went back out, with two dice rattling in my palm. “Where’s your bear?” I said loudly, obnoxiously.
Your expression froze, like it had for the last week. Then, your shoulders loosened, and you smiled up at me. “I lost it,” you said, and I never brought it up again.
When I was ten and you were eleven, both of us dressed all in black to attend Eli’s funeral. I cried all the way there, but you were completely silent, as you folded your hands in your lap and let the thin breeze from the AC flap your blue tie gently.
There was a framed picture of my brother there, which captured him at his best (confidently grinning at the camera, green eyes dancing) instead of at the other end of the spectrum (accidently swallowing too many snowy pills at a party, green eyes half-closed). A lot of people were crying, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs as relatives got up to give speeches about how great Eli was when he was alive.
But you were stark white as you stared straight ahead, your hands lacing together quickly, twisting into patterns. You’d insisted on coming to this, and now that you were here, you seemed like you wanted to disappear.
I leaned over and poked you in the side. “Are you okay?”
Your eyes looked over my head, and rested on Eli’s coffin. “Yes,” you said softly, and your voice was so full of conviction, that I believed you were telling the truth.
When I was twelve and you were thirteen, it was the first time I saw you cry. You were at my house, and I was teaching you how to play Blackjack, a tricky feat because there were only two of us there. Still, you picked up on the rules extremely quickly, and in turned out that you were ferociously good at the game; in the first hand alone, I lost 129 dollars. I thought you were cheating, but you put your hand to your chest and announced, “May God strike me down if I am” in such a dramatic way that I burst out laughing.
You leaned in closer, like you were going to tell me a secret. “Hey,” you said, and your tone dropped lower to imitate a gangster from an old film we’d seen several weeks before. “I won’t charge ya for it – jus’ give me the most precious thing ya own.”
I went along with it, and reached under my bed to pull out a stuffed animal, covered with dust. I couldn’t do accents, so I just held it out to you instead. “This,” I said, because it was true. The blue bear that I held represented one of the best nights of my life – where I had both my brother and my best friend beside me.
But you just stopped. Everything in you seemed to shut down, and you became a living statue. The only thing that moved were your eyes, as they widened slightly. There was something openly raw and naked in the way that your hands clenched, digging into the carpet, and a single tear streaked down the side of your face and caught on your shirt collar.
I panicked. I shoved the bear back into its home and my words stumbled out. “Was it something that I said?” I stuttered, then instantly regretted it. Of course it was something that I said. It was probably because the bear reminded him of Eli as well – I knew the two of them had always gotten along.
You just shook your head. “I’m fine,” you said, and your voice tightened. I saw you inhale slowly, as you shifted a trace of a smile onto your lips. “Maybe you want to punch me in the face too?” you said, as you laid out your cards before me. You had twenty-one exactly; a Queen, a King, and an Ace. I started laughing immediately, because not only had you beat me again, but your words had just brought back ten million memories. You joined me, and I laughed even harder, as I remembered how genuinely surprised I had been all those years ago.
I was laughing so hard that I nearly missed it when you stopped laughing first.
When I was fourteen and you were fifteen, you decided to teach me how to smoke a cigarette. We snuck out onto the bleachers during fifth period, as a flurry of papers shifted in the school. I kept looking over my shoulder, certain that a teacher would catch us, as you slid into the small space between the bleachers and the ground with an expert’s hand.
You took a pack of Marlboros from your bag, shook one into your hand, and flicked your lighter. “It’s just a cigarette, you know,” you said with the air of a professional. You sucked down before exhaling, and I watched the trails of smoke hiss in the air before you handed it off to me.
I choked on the first drag, as ash crept down into my lungs. “That’s awful,” I said drily, handing it back to you in distaste.
You smiled at me. You were going through one of your phases, where you adored something for a short while before quickly casting it off – I’d seen it before, through Spiderman, Superman, and the Justice League, and, to me, this “bad boy” façade was no different. You tugged on your earring – the one you’d secretly had pierced without your mother’s permission – and blew a smoke ring in my face in a smug sort of way. “Can’t hold your own?”
I shrugged. This was Jefferson Crown High School, where being able to take at least a shot was practically an initiation. I never liked the idea of losing myself in veils of smoke, though, especially since, for one, Eli had never cared for cigarettes. He said they burned up his insides, and, now, a sliver of guilt probed at me for going against my brother.
You sighed. You leaned back, a dim silhouette in the simmering heat of April. “Why do you look up to him so much?”
The bite in his voice stung. “I don’t,” I said, and we both knew that that was a lie.
When I was sixteen and you were seventeen, you took me to prom because I spent four weeks begging you to. You rolled your eyes and ran your hand through your hair (still brown, because even though I was right about the passing phase, you preferred brown to gold) and told me how utterly stupid prom would be, but in the end, you agreed to take me regardless.
You were right – the decorations were cheap and the music was ridiculously bad – but I didn’t want to give you the satisfaction of knowing that. Instead, we came late and left early, with a bottle of stolen champagne under your jacket. Afterwards, we went back to my house, empty because my parents were trying to forget reality in Vegas, poured each other full glasses, and toasted one another while half-heartedly trying to play a game of chess.
Even in our intoxicated states, you beat me, killing off all my major players in a matter of minutes. I groaned and told you I hated you, but you just rolled your eyes, not fooled at all. “You’re a horrible liar, you know.”
I opened my mouth to reply in a hilariously witty way, but the room was too warm and you were too far away and I was dead-drunk on French champagne and maybe on you too, so I just shut my mouth and smiled tiredly. “Maybe,” I countered. “But so are you.”
Your jaw tensed slightly. You reset the board for another game, and moved out your first pawn. “Do you remember when the two of us were kids?” you asked, taking a deep drink of the liquor.
I shrugged. “Sure,” I said, propping myself up on my elbows. “Remember the rubber chips?”
A thin smile traced your lips. “Yeah,” you replied, but even though I was drunk, I knew you well enough to get that you were thinking about something else. You opened your mouth to speak, but the words seemed to be stuck. I nudged you playfully, trying to help you out. “Cat got your silver tongue?”
Something in you clicked, as you blinked at me. Then, you drank down the rest of your glass and refilled it again. “I hope that never happens to you,” you said, and I moved closer to lean my head against your shoulder and fell asleep like that, with you swishing the alcohol around and me listening to your gentle, steady breathing.
When I was eighteen and you were nineteen, it was February of senior year, and we were both so close to freedom. Classes were blown off, essays were plagiarized, and you spent a good two hours pirating the newest movies off the Internet to watch during calculus.
You caught up to me after I was out of physics, and wanted to know if I could come over that day. And I should’ve – should’ve said yes, of course, definitely. But I was tired and it was just a Tuesday, so I bluffed and said that while I wanted to, no, I couldn’t. I trotted out a list of excuses (lots ofhomeworkhugetestinhis/herclass), but you just brushed them off with a quiet smile. You gave me a quick hug and shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s alright. I’ll see you later, okay?”
And I remember that your veins ran blue into your pale skin and that your backpack had a faded Sharpie drawing on it and your natural roots were finally growing back, crowning brown with gold – but for the life of me, I can’t remember if I said anything back.
That night, you sent me an email with 426 words in them. Out of that, 135 of them detailed our friendship together and how much it all meant to you. Three highlighted that you loved me. 57 asked me to look after your sister and your parents. And 235 words told me what had happened to you ten years ago – what my brother did to you ten years ago – at a pulsing fair among throbbing lights.
I read it two times. Then I called your cell phone, but received the same voicemail that had been there for years: Hey, it’s me. You know what to do.
But that was the thing – I didn’t know what to do. Ten years had passed – and countless opportunities for me to find out – and I had idolized the brother that had made your life a hell. I called your cell phone over and over before I phoned your parents and found out that you had told them that you loved them and then you’d taken the car and left.
I called the police after that, before I screamed – for my parents to come upstairs, for you not to do what I knew you would be doing, for some God somewhere to stop you.
But in the end, the sirens didn’t find you until after a second person called. By the time I heard what had happened, I was wrapped in a brown blanket, sitting in the hospital with a police officer before me, and your written words burned into my eyes as the facts were put in front of me:
There was one car, no moon, and you, standing there in the middle of the road, arms stretched out, unmoving.
In the end, it only took one impact and five seconds.
When I was still here and you were gone, I realized that the silence around me could eat me alive. Everywhere I turned was filled with the soft echoes of you – laughing, shuffling a deck of cards, blowing smoke at me with a self-satisfied half smirk.
I lay flat against the floor, and the shaggy edges of my carpet tickled my cheeks. I let out my breath slowly and thoughts of you came back, as I remembered the second grade and what you’d said that day on the playground, after you’d shaken my hand with a sense of superiority.
I kind of like you, you said, giving me the beginnings of a smile.
I shrugged. You’re kind of mean, I responded.
Your smile grew wider. Maybe, you said. But not all the time, I don’t think.
Then, you took off running, your sneakers kicking up rubber chips, as you screamed at me to follow – but I think you already knew that I was chasing after you, trying the best I could to catch up, just never being quite fast enough.