The fifth time it happens, I am leaving.
It is too hot to be outside, and especially to be gripping each other so tightly. But we squeeze closer together with every flash until we have a camera full of red-eyed pictures. They will end up in three different albums all entitled “Best Friends Forever.”
We are all reluctant to be the one to call an end to the night. But the decision is made for us when my camera beeps three times, blinks, and dies. The noise startles the crickets into a momentary silence, but they speak again before we do.
I am experiencing that moment I knew would come ever since I told these girls, these sudden sisters of mine, that I would leave. That onslaught of objections, that renaissance of regrets. My precious pair voices all the necessary reassurances and the promises I don’t yet know only one will keep. My legs seem to have caught up with my exhausted mind, and I slump against the car that will be my home for the three-day journey eastward.
Soon it is the only car that remains in my driveway, and I wave as their blurry lights disappear around the corner. Then it is just me alone in the heat that radiates up from the dark pavement. I lift my humidity-ravaged hair from the nape of my neck, and that’s when it gets me.
I hear it buzz angrily away from its makeshift nest in my mane, but I am distracted by my hand growing even hotter than the late July air. Even in the dark, I can see my small finger begin to swell. My mirthless laugh echoes in the empty night, and I go inside for the last time.
The fourth time it happens, I am crying.
Just hours earlier I was squeezing into a satin seafoam contraption that clung to nonexistent curves. Now I am in shapeless sweats that stick to the backs of my thighs in this dank basement bathroom. I lock the door between me and my dancemates and immediately strip down in the stuffy solitude. I forage through my locks, now nearly calcified with hairspray, for the dozens of pins hiding in the depths. Piece by piece, glued groups peel free from my DIY do.
When I put them in, I was buzzing from belated excitement, ready for my year-late date. The date was a formality – a forever friend fulfilling the requirement of arriving on an arm. But as we weaved wildly through the crowd of our classmates, a flyaway fell in my face, the pin dangling helplessly. He returned it to its rightful place, lingering on my neck, my shoulders. It was a fleeting moment, but one that flies back now.
We have spent the last three hours languishing at this listless excuse for an after party. I hovered on the edge of sleep before tiptoeing through the dozen dozing bodies, eyes peering at me through drooping lids. Now, as I watch a resilient ant work its way up the watery wall, I hear movement echoing outside in the crowded room. He says his goodbyes quickly. I hear him trip in his haste. I do the same as I start to step back into my sweats, sure he will stand at the stairs until I emerge. But footsteps echo over my head, and as I slam my own foot through the suffocating fabric, I step on it.
The pain radiates through my leg, and I tumble to the floor, looking at the creature I have overlooked and walked all over. Pants half off, tears filling my eyes, car tires squealing away, I can’t help but know how it feels.
The third time it happens, I am lying.
I tell her it’s okay, I understand. My best friend has become such a master at selling her stories that despite my common sense, I try to ignore the sick sensation sweeping over me. She swears she’s sorry, she shouldn’t have even seen him, she certainly shouldn’t have gone along with it. And I continue to play the part I suddenly realize I have been playing with her all along. I am the ear, the enabler, the eraser. We have sat on my front steps time after time, and I have nodded along with her confessions. I am nodding even now.
She called an hour earlier to invite me to her new pool, an offer I quickly declined. Now, as she keeps rearranging the mud-covered rock bed lining my steps, I realize she wanted the home field advantage. I want to call her out on that, to tell her it wouldn’t have mattered, not when telling me something like this. But all I do is tell her to stop fucking with the rocks. It isn’t until later, like usual, that I see my missed opportunity there – something along the lines of telling her what else she could have avoided fucking.
Her tales are always elaborately weaved, and none more so than this. For a second I think I even see tears forming in her eyes, but when I look closer, she breaks eye contact. It all comes together. He isn’t a good guy, but neither is he the lonely mastermind she has painted him to be.
There is already so much prickly pain spreading through me – from shame, anger, humiliation – that the rapidly growing bite on my knee gets dulled. Her words are becoming a fading buzz in the background. I wordlessly stand up and walk in, locking her outside with the dirt on her hands.
The second time it happens, I am drowning.
Not drowning in sorrow or despair or panic – literally drowning. The weighted toy remains unclaimed at the 15-foot depths, but the water filling my lungs longs to settle me at its side.
Minutes earlier, I had been flushed with childish shame as my poolmates dove in the formidable deep end, forever away from where my feet dangled into the shallows. They paid no mind to the chlorine stinging their eyes. I couldn’t do that. Where they smiled around the sting, I would run away in tears. Where they leapt from the pavement into the man-made waves, I inched my nine-year-old body in step by step. Where their stomachs skimmed the floor, like sharks looking for legs to latch onto, my own stomach barely broke the surface.
When they tired of their game – and their taunts to get me to join – I floated over in fearful curiosity. Once in the water, the deceivingly heavy toy lost its weight, and I lost my nerves.
And seconds later, I lose my breath. I am trapped, too close to push myself to safety, too far to escape without a lungful of acidic water. It rushes in without permission, and my eyes fly open as if my body is saying Look for the light – that’s where you want to be. But all I see are my flailing limbs and the frothy fervor they create, pushing more water into my eyes, my mouth, anywhere it should not be. The pool was cold when I stepped in; now it burns.
With a broken, desperate gasp, I emerge into the sunlight. They haul me up as if I am weightless, as if the water now inside me hadn’t been pulling me down all along. I am sure I only took one horrible breath, but what comes out of me now seems to never stop coming. It isn’t until the flies start circling that I realize, in misplaced embarrassment, that entire contents of my stomach now lie on the hot pavement.
There are more people buzzing around me than I thought existed at this party, but the curious creature still targets me. The fire spreads up my trembling left arm, and I dissolve into disbelieving tears. Others echo me, cursing the pool and the playmates and the party itself, and I let them believe that is why.
The first time it happens, I am running.
We had been warned to stay away. With those words, the innocuous fire escape seemed to gain a mythical glow, one that pulled us ever closer. Hardly anyone had a fire escape in our town; it must lead to something magical.
The iron staircase, its black paint peeling away, scalds our hands. No matter how softly we tiptoe upwards, the stairs clatter so loudly we were sure it echoed across the empty field right through our windows. We grow dizzy as our heads swivel back and forth towards the house, sure we will soon see our parents storming across through the parched brown grass.
When we reach the top unimpeded, we fold our bodies into the tiny space between the dirty step and the even dirtier window. Like usual, my little cousin is the first to gather her courage, and peeks over the sill as my sister and I try to control our nervous giggles. She reports back what she sees: a classroom, a blackboard, a room full of – uh-oh!
She trips over our huddled forms and nearly tumbles down the rickety stairs. The window flies open, and a shaking fist emerges in a sea of black and white. Our legs tangle together in our haste to get back on solid ground. Miraculously, our feet hit the packed earth and we run, run, run, faster than ever before, across the never ending field.
I lag two steps behind the younger girl, who is two steps behind the older girl, and I am sure that at any second I will feel a triumphant hand on the back of my shirt. I turn to see my fate as I run, and all I see is the nun, peering out of her sky high window to see where the three mischief makers will run to.
As I turn back, struggling to keep pace, I feel a sharp pain on my sunburned shoulder. For a second, I am mystified, wondering how she crossed the expanse in a silent second. But as we switch from a sprint to a sneak and slide into the house without suspicion, my sister squashes the creature still clinging to the mark it has made. I try to be brave, but my lower lip trembles with the surety that not only will our pursuer soon barge into the house behind us, but that I will never, never, never feel pain like this again.