You and your mom live down the street in a yellow, split-level ranch. In your front yard, an oak grows, which we climb. The narrow driveway, covered in thick blacktop, gets hot as a griddle in summer. We live in a brick and brown-sided colonial. Our driveway is short and steep, and when it is windy, the willow trees in our backyard sound like rushing water. Once, our whole five-by-five-block neighborhood was an orchard. At dusk, all the kids meet at the circle to play kick-the-can. You and I are fast; we dart behind hedges and over fences. No one ever catches us.
I’m wearing the black felt hat you gave me for Christmas. The one I tried on at Claire’s in the mall a few weeks ago. You are in the bathroom; your Dad is waiting for us in the stairwell. “We’re gonna be late for the movie,” he yells. “Come on, girls.”
Gilbert Lake State Park. You like Jason and I like Jeff. I like Jason, too, though. He is shorter than Jeff, but his eyelashes are longer. Jason’s uncle plays drums in The Dead Milkmen and even though we don’t drive, “Bitchin’ Camaro” is our favorite song. At the end of our week camping with your grandparents, Jason gives us his Dead Milkmen t-shirt and you take it home first.
In the summer before sixth grade, we teach ourselves how to tie-dye. Buckets of red, purple, blue, orange, and yellow sit in your garage for a week. We wrap rubber bands around bunched sections of white t-shirts. We hold each banded section in a different dye, hovering over the buckets like fishermen on a bridge. We hang the shirts on a makeshift clothesline in your front yard, add hot water and salt to the buckets trying to make the color last as long as we can.
A year after your wedding, I decide to write you a letter. It is autumn again, and I am feeling sentimental. Here, the aspens are brilliant, gold; where you are, I imagine the cut corn fields, the red maples blazing in the heat of Indian summer. I thought we’d be closer after the wedding, but we haven’t spoken since. The distance between us swollen like a bruise; you’re detached again, miles away. I can’t believe you prefer it this way. I cast my words like a fishing line, hoping to reel in your friendship, to shrink the purple and yellowing emptiness.
Your Dad says I should call him Uncle Dennis. He is tall and slim, all legs and arms, just like you. You have his long nose, and it makes you self-conscious.
We receive a package from Long Island. Jason and Jeff. It is after school, before our mothers get home, and I just ran back to your house from mine. Inside the package we find a letter, a mix tape, and a pair of black shoelaces. We sit on your front porch, the contents spread around us like Christmas presents. The boys’ handwriting is messy, and I read for signs that Jason might like me better. We are both hungry for affection. We reminisce about the summer, recall the names we gave stars in the July sky. We know nothing about sex, we don’t even know about kissing. We are thirteen; in three years we’ll be different people.
In fifth grade, I’m Steamboat Sal and you are Mary Lou in Steamboatin’. On opening night, we dazzle the crowd of parents and siblings sitting on folding chairs in the hot, crowded gymnasium. I wear lacy black gloves and a turquoise dress layered like a cake. Your dress is deep pink, satin, ruffled¾a southern belle. You carry a parasol. I am nervous and stumble over my name, “I’m your gal, I’m Steamgoat Sal.” You project your lines like a real showgirl; you’re comfortable on stage. Our routine¾sashay, step, sashay, step, shuffle-ball-change, step¾is perfect and when our act is over, we get the loudest applause. Secretly, I think my dress is prettier than yours.
You emerge from the bathroom, to your Dad’s relief, and he hails a cab at the corner. The warm cab smells like fried onions and peppers, and the driver speaks too fast for us to understand. “Forty-seven West 56th St.,” your Dad says, closing the door, a U2 sticker stuck on the scratched glass between us and the driver. I look out the window and for a minute, all I see is my reflection. The perm in my hair and the long silver earrings: I crave everything that is older, I want to grow up. You do too. We talk about living in the city, meeting boys, and our daydreams include each other, our futures entwined like fingers. Right now, you, tonight’s dinner, my dangling earrings and the swiftness of the ride are all that matter.
The poem I wrote for you and your fiancé is folded in my lap, damp as a used paper towel in my hands. Gray clouds swirl overhead, goosebumps freckle my arms and legs. My stomach is knotted like a banded t-shirt, my pulse rapid and heavy. I haven’t talked to you since you asked me to read something at your wedding, I haven’t told you what I’ve written. The sound of a bagpipe dampens the air, you and your mother appear at the bottom of the hill. Your plain white dress trails as you walk to the top of the hill where your fiancé stands and waits for you outside a circle of family and friends on chairs. I unfold the poem, the crosses and lines of last minute revisions like razor blades. Your mother gives you away, you take your fiancé’s hand and pass through a wooden arch on the top of the circle together. The preacher begins.
At night, we sneak out of our tent to meet the boys on the baseball field. Last night, we walked to the lake and waded, the water cool and shallow, the moon full like a distant spotlight. Tonight, we walk in the woods¾you and Jason, me and Jeff. Then we lie down in the middle of a park road, stretch out, and believe in the idea of forever. The pavement is cool and gritty but I don’t care and neither do you. We look for the stars we saw last night, name them again, feel darkness like blankets, or secrets. When your grandfather shouts from the far edge of the field, scanning the perimeter with his flashlight, we panic. We dash behind the bushes, whisper a hasty goodnight to the boys. “Alexa! Tara! You better get back to camp now!” When the flashlight has receded, we run faster than FloJo back to our tent and pray that your grandmother hasn’t heard us.
In ninth grade, we are tap dancers in the high school’s production of Anything Goes. We wear the same costume¾white satin shorts edged in silver and blue sequins and matching white satin tops. You help me pin the sailor’s cap on my head at dress rehearsal and the director says we should all smile like you. On opening night, the heel of my tap gets jammed in a small gap on stage and my tap shoe sticks when I kick. My shoe comes off; I stumble, smile, and continue. I stand feet apart, arms overhead, balancing on the bare stocking ball of my foot. Luckily, it happens at the end of the scene and the curtain closes quickly. I pull my shoe out of the hole and shuffle off stage. Maybe, I think, the stage is not for me.
Your cousin Adam meets us for dinner at Benihana’s, your choice for dinner tonight. I think Adam is hot so I am nervous. My palms sweat and I worry that I didn’t use enough deodorant. Adam works on Wall Street and is tall, blonde. At dinner, he talks about the office and the New Year’s party he’ll be hosting in a few days at his apartment; I devour everything he says as if I’m reading the pages of seventeen magazine. It is the first time I’ve eaten teriyaki and I like the chef’s flashing knives, the steam that rises and evaporates from the hibachi table. The food is choreographed here, the sweet and sizzling steak like a Rockettes show at Radio City.
A girl in gym class is more like you. She is all big smiles and loud gestures, like you when you talk about her. She is serious about dance, and you tell me about visiting her house, her dance studio. I see you at her locker in the morning. You meet her there often, and when I look for you after school, I see you walking with her. Her hair is big and curly and she gives you a ride home. You talk with her on the phone at night and I walk home alone, my face hot and swollen, my heart hollowing. The ache of losing someone.
In eleventh grade, you dance a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a show I don’t audition for. You have been trying on the theatre crowd for size, but I can’t stand their black nails, listless bangs, and worn-out Converse. I hear a rumor that the lead girl is having an affair with the teacher and I ask you if it’s true. You say you don’t know, but I don’t believe you. You don’t tell me what you know anymore. On opening night, your leotard and leggings are pale gray and you skitter in and out of the cardboard trees. Your movements are modern, angular, you shape the space around you effortlessly. I sit with another girl in the audience. She asks, “Don’t you and Alexa always dance together?” Later, she will take your place; I will confide in her, tell her things about you. Downstage, you twirl, and the deep purple and mauve swaths of chiffon around your waist float like feathers.
The table linens are bleach bright white, crisp, the napkins in perfect fans across the plates. The salt and pepper shakers are made of cut crystal, capped with shiny screw tops. A matching crystal vase with a single red rose adorns each table and in the ashtrays, unused matchbooks. A woman at the table next to us opens a pack of cigarettes. She is bare-shouldered except for a black shawl draped across her upper arms. She pulls a cigarette from the pack, puts it between her crimson lips, and reaches for the matches. In one handsome swoop, your cousin Adam pulls out his Zippo, leans over, cups the woman’s cigarette, and ignites the flame.
Sam and Kyle replace Jason and Jeff, because last summer is a long time ago, and we haven’t received any more packages. You sit by Sam in biology and Kyle plays soccer, like me. On the weekends we plan elaborate schemes to win their hearts. I am happy, a year later, when Sam shows an interest in you. You accept his invitation to homecoming and in the photograph, you are beaming. He is pinning a corsage on your black velvet jacket in my kitchen, where we’ve gathered for pictures. You know about kissing now, but I don’t, and I ask you what its like.
Your Dad sends you a ticket for Reykjavík, Iceland. You attend the Olympics with him and we do not go to the city for New Year’s. I watch the ice-skating, the ski-jump, and the bobsled on TV and think of you dining fabulously in foreign country.
After school, you’re with Sam now. Kyle never takes to me, though I keep after you for details about him. You eat strawberries in your bed together the first time you have sex. You tell the other girl first, though, and I feel red hot jealousy.
It is the night of your last dance recital at the Palace Theatre. I want to go and I don’t want to go. You didn’t come to my final performance two weeks ago, and you didn’t invite me to your after-prom party on the lake in Vermont. But, I go to see you. I arrive late, as the little bumblebees flutter offstage. You enter stage left in a burnt orange sequined bodice and chiffon skirt. You extend your right leg to the side, raise your left arm high above your head¾an arrow. The lights go down and a chalky spotlight illuminates you. The music starts and suddenly I am teary eyed. I am sad for all the months we haven’t talked, for the ways we’ve ignored each other in the hallways, for what I’ve written about you in my journal.
I see you with the girl at lunch, at study hall, before homeroom. You wait for her to walk to class and pass behind me without saying hi.
After the show, I see you for a short minute. You are high on the performance; the bumblebees trail you, they want to be close to you, to take pictures with you. You are sweat-soaked, thin and muscular.
You choose New York for college, to pursue your dancing, you say. For you, the city is asylum. You love the bright lights, the big buildings, the confusion. You work in a coffee shop, in a dance studio, at the Meadowlands. You break up with Sam and go to the theatre with your city friends. I get the news from my mother. She still talks with your Mom even though we’ve all moved out of the neighborhood.
I tell new girlfriends about you, how you abandoned me. I have trouble getting close to women. In college, there is a girl who reminds me of you. She has brown hair, too. Her eyes are big and soft, like yours, but she doesn’t demand attention. She is quiet, self-contained.
I am relieved when I drop the letter into the mailbox. Finally, I think, the fissure between us can heal. I want to forget about the pain of you, forget about the pain of feeling left out. I imagine your response. It will be understanding, you’ll say you want to be close again, too; you’ll say “Let’s get together this year.”
On New Year’s Eve, we watch Home Alone in a theatre in Manhattan. When the movie lets out, we rush toward Times Square but run into police blockades at every corner. We dash between two blue barricades, and just when I think I’ve made it through, a police officer shoves a blue barrier into my gut.
Eventually, hot water and salt won’t color the shirts anymore. We empty the buckets of watery dye into the sewer.
Finally, your letter arrives. You are sorry, you write, you had no idea. If you’d known, you never would have asked me to write something for your wedding. It is October now, and fierce wind whips and stings. Would you have even invited me? I shouldn’t have written. The past is the past. Buried wounds surface like tangled weeds, an empty thorniness, the letter a regret rather than redemption. In the distance, the jagged peaks of the Rockies are illuminated by the setting sun, and I know where you are it is already dark. Over the farthest peak, a single star rises into the growing night sky.
Like steam rising off the streets of New York, our relationship has evaporated. On the last day of high school, when I ask someone to take a picture of us, you agree, though you are in a hurry. In the courtyard outside the cafeteria, you grin, and we lean our heads together, wrap our arms around each others shoulders. Before I can say ‘I’ll miss you,’ you are gone.
Tara Eaton is the author of thisamericanmom.wordpress.com, a chronicle of her second pregnancy. Tara writes and teaches in upstate New York where she lives with her husband and two young sons.