I know him.
Not the guy who’s looking me up and down the way Nona does on Tuesday nights when my mom works late, like I’m too young to wear Color Me Red lipstick, like if it were up to her she’d scrub off all my eyeliner and plait my hair. I’m talking about the guy behind him, the one hunched over the bar with his hand around a bottle of beer. I met him last fall when I got locked out of my house after school one day. I was banging on my front door as he ran past and I watched him slow to a stop, then lift the edge of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face. Damn. You okay? he asked, walking over to me. I forgot my key, I admitted, and he nodded, like he’d done the same thing once or twice. You have someplace you can go? he asked. My mom will be home soon, I said, shrugging, taking care to sound aloof. You need me to wait with you? he offered, and I tamped down so hard on my tears I’m surprised my eyes didn’t bleed diamonds. I don’t need a babysitter, I told him. He gazed at me a while before he looked off in the distance, like I wasn’t the real issue, like maybe he just didn’t want to go home. Then he turned back to me. I’m Joel, he said.
Now I edge forward, caught up in my own luck. Uh… can I help you? the first guy asks, blocking my way. He smells like smoke, not like my mom when she comes home from her book club, reeking of cigarettes and thinking she’s got everybody fooled. More like a campfire, or a match held over one of the Bunsen burners in the science lab. I take a long breath, then remember the Girl Scout motto–always be prepared–and hitch my bag from one hand to the other.
Over his shoulder I see Joel raise his head. I like the moment he recognizes me, but I keep my smile to myself. Let her in, James, he finally says, and his friend lets me by.
If I’d imagined Joel’s house before now—and I didn’t, not really, not enough times to count—I would’ve imagined it exactly like this: ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, a cranky tabby with narrowed eyes. And that painting on the wall, one perfect arm, fingers all stretched out like they’re reaching for something. Who’s responsible for that?
Want a beer? Joel asks me. Okay, I say, playing it cool, but then I get a look at James’s expression and realize there’s no way he’ll ever let that happen. Joel rolls his eyes in my direction. So what’s up? he asks me, and I sit down in the barstool next to his, even though I haven’t been offered a seat. Same old, I say. When he nods my spine shivers. I unzip my bag and pull out a box of Thin Mints. Are you really a Girl Scout? James asks, and I give him a dirty look. Yeah, I’m a Girl Scout, I say, So what? Aren’t you a little old? he asks. Aren’t you a little rude? I snap. He raises his eyebrows and I’m even more self-conscious about the wild sprawl of my hair and my fingernail polish, which I’ve peeled off in strips.
Joel takes out his wallet, then hands me a ten. I stuff it in my bag and count out his change. When James reaches for the Thin Mints I snatch them away from him. Here, I say, passing the box to Joel instead. Want one? he asks, slitting the end. I take what he offers, even though I’m sick of Girl Scout cookies. They’re better if you freeze them, James announces, and Joel gives me a look that makes me dizzy. Then he shakes a cigarette from the pack beside him. Can I? I ask, indicating the pack, and Joel shrugs. James folds his arms across his chest.
With the cigarette between my lips I feel more like myself. I’m three years older, four: old enough. Got a light? I ask, and Joel leans toward me.
No one ever looks at me this way. Not my mom, not Nona, and certainly not the guys at school, whose eyes skirt past me in the halls like I’m nothing worthwhile. But Joel’s got my gaze like we’re sharing something secret, one corner of his mouth curled like he’s trying not to smile. Mine spreads like wildfire. I take an unpracticed drag, then a sly sip of Joel’s beer. Those Thin Mints just might have saved my day.
Flip me the pack, will you? James asks, interrupting us. Joel tosses the Marlboros in his direction, then follows up with the lighter. Flick after flick and nothing ignites. I hide a smug smile, though not so well that Joel doesn’t catch the back end. He laughs out loud, and I laugh with him until James looks at us, annoyed. A little help? he asks in a bitchy tone that reminds me of Nona. I kind of expect Joel to refuse him, but he gestures James forward. At first they can’t line up their cigarettes, until Joel finally grabs James’s hand. To keep it steady, I think, but his eyes are on his friend’s mouth.
Even once the cigarette’s lit his eyes are on his friend’s mouth.
I try another inhale as Joel turns back to his beer, but my cough tears through my chest like something savage. You okay, kid? James asks, and I burst into tears. No, I sob, I’m not prepared.