It could have been any old summer night. It was cooler outside, the heat and humidity finally giving way to some relief; you almost felt a slight chill on your bare arms after being drenched in sunshine all day. The air smelled like sprinkler water and fresh-cut grass. We were driving around, going past each of our friends’ houses and looking to see if their cars were parked out front. That’s what we did before cell phones existed; it’s how you found out where the party was.
You were driving; I can still picture your hands on the steering wheel, with the pile of friendship bracelets you wore bunched up on your right wrist. Your car always smelled like peaches because of the lotion you wore that you bought at the mall. We both wore denim cut-offs, mine not as daringly short as yours. I’d always slip my feet out of my Havaianas and put them on the dashboard until you screamed at me to stop.
Back then, you liked my brother even though you had a boyfriend. It both fascinated and disgusted me, the way you could play off their affections with flippancy of a seal bouncing a rubber ball on its nose. Back then, our circle of friends was everything, and you had the power in your hands to change the balance of our whole world.
We didn’t know anything different or any better. College still loomed in the future, less of a certainty, existing only as a pile of applications that we kept shoving off to deal with later despite the nagging of our parents. Mike, your boyfriend, was also my friend and I didn’t want to see him get hurt by you. Or maybe I did, secretly, because he’d been obsessed with you since freshman year and he should know the truth about what you were really like. My brother, Emmett, was a year older and pretended to roll his eyes over our girl talk when we took over conversation at the dinner table. But later, I’d catch him staring at you while you helped our mom wash the dishes. You stayed over for dinner so often.
As we drove around, scanning sleepy suburban streets for a bounty of teenager-owned shitbox cars parked in front of any particular house, I wondered whose car you were looking for the most. You were leaned back in the driver’s seat, flipping your long blond hair over one tank-top-bare shoulder, eyes scanning the curbs. You and your damn hair that you got highlighted every 6 weeks; you spent more money on your hair than I did on anything.
Eventually, we saw Mike’s car in front of Kevin McKittrick’s house. For a brief second, you almost looked disappointed. A shadow slipped over your face, just for a heartbeat, so fast that I thought I might have imagined it. You parked your car and slid out of the driver’s side, slow and languid like a pampered house cat.
“C’mon, let’s go in,” you said to me, one hip cocked out and your keys dangling from your hand. I’d recognize that stance anywhere, even in the minimal moonlight.
We walked together up the driveway to the house, bare tanned legs moving in unison. Everything was ahead of us: the night and its possibilities, the juggled boyfriends, the college applications. It was like one of those folded paper fortunetellers we used to make together at sleepovers, where each option was tucked away, waiting to be unfolded. You never knew what you’d end up with; we used to shriek in delight or mock horror depending on what results we got. Mansion, apartment, shack, house. Movie star, teacher, bum. Mike, Emmett, someone you’ve yet to meet.
On those long, lazy summer nights, I thought we’d always be friends. I didn’t know yet that we’d go to different schools, do a shitty job of keeping in touch while we lived on opposite sides of the country. Facebook didn’t exist yet, and we couldn’t drive past each other’s houses anymore. You went out west to a school in a state with cacti instead of trees, and I did the opposite, hunkering down in a tiny New England college town with a terrible climate and reputation for partying. You got married a few years after graduation, which I heard about from Casey Gilligan when I ran into her at a bar once when I was home for Thanksgiving. You were a high school teacher, which surprised me; you barely went to class when we were in school, opting to not return after open lunch and head to the mall instead. I became a journalist, continuing my lifetime role of the outside observer. Then one day, I saw your face on the AP wire: TUCSON AREA HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER ARRESTED FOR AFFAIR WITH STUDENT. You still had the blond highlights; I could tell even in the terrible low-res photo of you leaving the courthouse with mascara stains running down your cheeks. The boy, name withheld, was in your Language Arts class.
I wondered if you were trying to recapture the feeling of those summer nights, of walking into a house with a bunch of cars parked out front and seeing who was there inside. Maybe you missed the feeling of having all of those possibilities out in front of you, of not knowing what you’d get when you opened up the paper flap of a fortune teller. Maybe you weren’t happy with the results you got the first time around. I’ll never know for sure, unless I reach out and try to talk to you in prison. But for now, I’m just sitting back, watching, like I always have.
About the Author: Kim Nelson is a writer, performer, and retired roller derby skater from Chicago. She is a regular contributor and co-editor at Drinkers with Writing Problems. Follow her on Twitter @ponytailup.
Story Song: "Doll Parts" by Hole
Photo Credit: Leesa Cross-Smith