In 9th grade, I briefly thought I was in love. He was charming and handsome, and, better yet, he was entirely infatuated with me. We used to sneak away from our classes to see each other in the single stall bathroom, or under the staircase in the east wing. After school, we went to Giant supermarket across the street and he would kiss me in the dry goods section at the back of the store. And I loved it. But then, at the end of sophomore year, as we sat naked and sweaty in the backseat of his car, he asked me to be his girlfriend. I practically leapt out into the street, pulling on my inside out t-shirt and sticky shorts, and said I would call him later that night. I didn’t call him. Instead, I spent the night at my friend Annie’s house. We lay in bed together eating salt and vinegar chips and tapioca pudding until we fell asleep on our bloated stomachs.
Twenty years removed from grocery store kissing and the sad pock-marked faces of fourteen-year-olds, now in the back seat of an Uber, I suddenly am reminded of Jeremy, that almost-boyfriend, by the way the driver hums to the tunes on the radio. Equal parts annoying and endearing. I get out of the car in front of Tastee Diner, the sight of which also catapults me back: this time to that high school exhilaration and anxiety of late nights and sneaking out, the once in a while successful escape from parental surveillance. Its smell brings back even more visceral memories of late drunken nights. I am going to throw up. Annie is sitting at one of the booths towards the back and I manage a feeble wave before rushing into the bathroom to kneel over the toilet. The dampness of the cold floor seeps through the knees of my pants.
I threw up in this same bathroom after my senior prom. I emptied out everything that I had consumed that night, mostly liquid, and then wiped my nose, washed my face, and chewed some gum before going back out to sit across from my date. I had ordered French fries and when I finished eating them, I licked the salt off of each finger. I thought I looked sort of sexy until I felt an escaping string of spit making its way down my chin.
This time, after turning my insides out into a toilet bowl that smells distinctly of grease and shit, just like it did when I was sixteen, I exit the bathroom to Annie. We hug, and I breathe her in, revelling in her smell. She, too, has the same scent as always; a mixture of sweat and talcum powder that gives me a particular sense of comfort that I realize I haven’t felt in the five years since we’ve last seen each other.
“You don’t know how good it is to have you here, Mel. I’m glad you could make it,” she says.
“Of course.” I don’t know what else to say, so I slide into the booth and stare down at the lard and syrup-slicked menu, not interested in opening it because that would involve touching the dirty plastic. I don’t think I could stomach the feeling of that peculiar mix of slime and stickiness on my fingertips.
“Anyone else coming from high school?”
Annie shifts in her seat at my question and gives me a tight-lipped smile before answering.
“Actually, it’s going to be pretty small. Mostly family. A few of her friends.”
“Of course,” I say, “Seems like what she would have wanted.”
At this, she grimaces a bit and lets out a sound from the back of her throat that is closer to a bark than a laugh.
“I’m not sure about that, but it’s what’s easiest for us, and I suppose that counts for something,” she says.
“Aw Annie, I’m sorry. I’m fucking this all up, aren’t I? I want to say the right thing. But… well, I’ve never had a friend lose a parent. This feels weird. I’m sorry––”
“It’s okay. It’s really okay.”
She takes my hands in hers and her palms are damp. She squeezes my fingers and they burn under her clammy grasp. “Why don’t you tell me about you? We can talk about my mom later, but, honestly, I’m already feeling funeral fatigue and the damn thing hasn’t even happened yet. What I really want is to hear about you.”
Her bony fingers still grip mine and I wonder if my hands are fatter. I wonder if she can tell that I’ve gained weight, not just in my belly, but all over, a little bit of extra padding for my sharp edges. My body is baby proofing itself, taking a lead from what I’ve read in countless parenting prep books: cover the furniture corners, the electrical sockets, anything that might hurt a blundering and curious child. The extra fat around my bones preemptively protects what is growing inside of me.
When I returned home from my first semester at college, I drove Annie to the Planned Parenthood clinic forty-five minutes from where we lived. Unplanned pregnancy was scary, but not unheard of in our town. Annie left the clinic emptied of what had been there when we arrived, but with a comprehensive plan for more reliable birth control.
That weekend, Annie’s mom was away working as a flight attendant for an international trip, so we had the house to ourselves. We spent both days sprawled on her bed watching reality T.V. about young, hot people somehow finding love through a series of inane challenges––obstacle courses, trivia, all sorts of multi-round games. We painted our nails hot pink and green, and made lumpy face masks from a recipe we found in a two-year-old copy of Teen Vogue. For dinner, we ordered pizza and even indulged in extra garlic sauce, sopping it up with the crusts until they were soggy. At night, with our limbs nestled against each other, Annie kicked me in her sleep. When we woke up, the blanket that we had both fallen asleep under covered only me.
Annie’s mom came home Sunday night and roused us from the near-catatonic state that had gripped us both all weekend. I had spent many high school nights at Annie’s and when her mom was home, she would turn on the radio, and sing and dance around the kitchen while she cooked. When I stayed late and ate dinner with them, the three of us sat cross-legged on the couch and slurped soup or rice and curry or spaghetti from purple plastic bowls. This time, though, she came home and slammed the door so hard that the house shuddered.
“Annie––did you start boiling some water like I asked?”
Annie had not, she had not even seen the text from her mother. Her mom came into Annie’s bedroom and sent me out with a stare. I scurried away and sat in the living room, knowing that I should leave but not wanting to be rude and go without saying goodbye. I could hear them in the room directly above me. The entire house shook with their anger. When the light fixture above me shattered and its pieces fell to the floor, I swept the glass into the trash and walked home. On my way, I thought about Annie’s boyfriend whom she had gushed about on the phone. I was equal parts angry at him for managing to skip the whole ordeal and grateful that when it came down to it, it was me she wanted with her and not him.
She married that college boyfriend five years later. I was a five-hour plane ride away when she went into labor for the first time, so I video-called in to see the newborn, Callie, named for Annie’s mother, whose full name was Calliope. A beautiful name, though I was tempted to ask how much say Annie had really had in the decision. But I could hear her mother, newly a grandmother, in the background of the call, so I held my tongue. Their second child, Adam, was three weeks premature and was in and out of the hospital for months after the birth. I checked in most days, however briefly, and I swore that I would make the trip out to see their rapidly growing family sooner rather than later. But then my parents retired and moved to the West coast. I suddenly had even less reason to make the trip all the way home, which is how it came to be that Annie had two kids that I had never met, and a dead mother who I didn’t get to see for the last time, and colder, bonier hands than she had ever had before.
At the diner, Annie orders a coffee; I ask for plain oatmeal and a cup of orange juice. It’s a far cry from our high school orders of mozzarella sticks and onion rings that left grease stains on our sweatshirts, or milkshakes and sundaes with chocolate syrup dripping down mounds of ice cream. Over the meal, if it can be called that, our catch-up is perfunctory. We pay the check and for a moment, sit in silence.
“How about we walk down to the cove? We can talk a bit more on the way,” I say, suddenly desperate to get outside.
The day after our high school graduation, Annie and I ate shrooms smushed into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and spent the whole day at the cove––really a sewage pipe that runs into a pond in the woods across from our high school. There’s a path that goes around the pond and we walked along it in our bare feet, luxuriating in the moss and mud between our toes. At some point during the day, we laid down in a patch of grass; I felt both nauseated and exhilarated by the psychedelics working their way through my system. I basked in my sweat and in Annie’s company and cried at the beauty of an unleashed Australian shepherd that bounded towards us on the path.
It was hot that day, almost 100 degrees, and the east coast humidity bogged our bodies down, but we wore shorts and tank tops and tied our hair up. Today, I am wearing jeans, because it has always seemed to me like adult women who work don’t wear shorts––we are allowed dresses or slacks, jeans for our casual outings. The walk from the diner to the cove is only about 15 minutes and on the way I tell her about the kids in my 7th grade class and about my parents’ new retiree hobbies. When we get to the path, we sit at a bench that has been here for longer than either of us have.
“I’m pregnant,” I say without looking at her. I hadn’t wanted to tell her that while she was saying goodbye to her own mother, I was in those first giddy stages of becoming one. The day she called to tell me her mom was dead, I was on my way to my first ultrasound.
“I’m raising it, him or her, by myself and it’s exactly what I want. I’m really very happy,” I continue. I am met with silence and when I finally look over, Annie is crying.
“I’m so happy for you,” she finally says. “I’m so happy for you.”
The last time we were here together, seventeen years ago, we sat on this same bench. At the time, I was exhausted. The salt from my tears had dried into a barely perceptible crust around my eyes. After hours of sharing our every thought and marveling at the sights around us, Annie and I had fallen silent. For a moment, I had thought that maybe she was asleep, but then I felt her head come to my shoulder and her arm slink around my waist.
This time, I snake my arm behind her back and squeeze her torso. My neck doesn’t nestle into her shoulder quite as well as hers did mine when we were teenagers, but the heat from her body lets me know that this is still Annie.