My friend Sarah slides onto the middle of two twin beds, pushed together, and offers a man named Angel a hand massage. He’s twenty-three? Twenty-four? Old enough to rent an apartment a few blocks away from our junior high school.
And us? In my memory, we’re too young to realize he’s too old.
Sarah digs her thumbs into Angel’s palms and laughs about his big, soft hands. I hover in the bedroom doorway. A pair of red camp chairs sit the living room, two or three ashtrays on the carpet between them. That’s it for furniture.
The air is sour. Dusty miniblinds keep our small town hidden away—3,500 people working hard, keeping secrets, working hard at keeping secrets.
I overhear Angel’s loud whispers as they burrow into Sarah’s ears, but I will not remember his words in a couple of days, decades.
Keys jingle in the lock. It’s Chris, Angel’s roommate—a few years younger, a few inches taller. Sarah shakes her wavy brown hair out of a ponytail and pushes past me into the living room before the front door closes Chris into the apartment.
Next week Sarah and I will buy cotton thong underwear and Cheetos from the drugstore and smuggle them into her parents’ basement, but for now we’re here. Here for the bangs in front of Chris’s dark eyes, for his guitar leaning in the corner. Here because Sarah borrowed his sweatshirt and needs to give it back, because Saturdays are too long, because their apartment is right on the way to Dairy Queen, anyway.
Sarah peels Chris’s sweatshirt off. He can take it, she says, but how will she sleep without it? Chris swigs from a half empty bottle of Mountain Dew and smirks.
That lilt in Sarah’s laugh.
These are the years Sarah and I share cans of Diet Coke at the lunch table, write notes and swap clothes, trade dogeared Sweet Valley High paperbacks. We suntan on trampolines and walk our dogs together. When one of us laughs until she pees her pants in the nature preserve behind the school, the other lends her a pair of clean underwear and never tells.
Angel slides into the bedroom doorway and I shuffle to a corner six feet away. He licks his cracked lips. I cannot see the color of Angel’s eyes as he calls Chris into the bedroom—for a nap, he says. And that’s what I believe they’re doing from the space I’ve claimed by the window, ignoring the dirt and dead bugs under my Doc Martin knockoffs.
I do not know where he’s from or if Angel is a nickname—or if he has wisdom teeth, knows how to swim, scramble an egg, change a tire. Did he play Risk or Battleship with his brothers, growing up, if he had brothers? Does he have any allergies? Would he go down with a handful of peanuts, a plate of shellfish? I will make lists for decades of the things I’ll never know about Angel.
Sarah tunes Chris’s guitar and strums the first few chords of a love song I will always almost remember. As someone rings a bicycle bell outside on a street that a yellow school bus takes me down five days a week, the bedroom door opens to Chris, shirtless, hanging his head upside-down from the foot of the bed. We’re taking a nap, he shouts. We’re sleeping, he sings before rolling off the bed and throwing a long laugh at the ceiling.
In twenty years, I will wish Sarah and I were hey, remember that time? friends instead of the kind that chat for two minutes in a grocery store aisle every other holiday season. I will ache to throw stones that shatter the past wide open.
Rubber burns and Angel stares out with black eyes, all pupil, and then Sarah is inside the room, somehow. The door is closed and I’m a girl alone—pressing my tongue into the roof of my mouth, counting seconds with my bouncing toes, waiting for the end of a moment to come around.
A ribbon-less typewriter, I click the first words of regret into imaginary keys on my thighs. It’s already an old habit—so much hidden in these fluttery fingers. Leave no trace.
We were angels once, Sarah and I. Matching white sheets, silver halos, stars painted on our cheeks, the divine messengers of our Sunday School Christmas pageant. We skipped up and down the center aisle, blowing soap bubbles at the congregation—miracles, miracles, miracles!
I bite my tongue, use it to break my own fall.