Melody and Jules are best friends. Fifteen years old, Melody has braces and Jules has the tiniest waist, like a cartoon character. Melody is supposed to take the school bus home, but sometimes she spends time at Jules’ place after school, where they pat foundation all over their faces and apply blue mascara to their lashes. They tease Jules’ older brother, Bernard, because he is a computer nerd with acne and still lives at home. Sometimes it is dusk and Melody has to hitchhike back to her house, because she can’t drive yet and she lives out in the sticks where the public busses and taxis won’t go.
Today, the girls do their makeup after school and then Jules tells her parents she is having a sleepover at Melody’s house, and her parents say, Uh-huh, fine, their faces aglow with television light, the television so loud they don’t hear the door click closed.
The car that picks them up is a silver Oldsmobile, and the guy driving it is named Grip. He’s older than the girls and goes to the same high school, but they don’t know Grip except for his name and that he hangs out in the smoke pit. He passes them a joint and drives 110 kilometres, pushing 120 — though the speed limit is 80 — and Melody doesn’t smoke the joint but gives it to Jules, who inhales and coughs out a cloud of smoke, pungent and sour, all over Melody’s face. Grip turns the music louder and the girls yell, Bernard! Bernard! out the open windows. It’s a code for Grip to decipher, if he cares to: we girls have private jokes about men you don’t know and the next time we get into a car with a stranger we may very well be calling out your name: Grip, Grip!
Grip lifts one side of his mouth in a half smile and accelerates the car. Melody catches his eyes in the rearview mirror, watching Jules laugh, her dark hair wild and churning like waves, whipping around in the wind.
If we make it home alive, Melody thinks, I will never hitchhike again.
But she knows that’s a lie when Grip drops them off at the highway exit and the girls run down the hill to Melody’s rural neighbourhood. In the empty house, Jules and Melody snack on popcorn and crackers and orange juice and then Jules says, Look, and pulls out a fresh joint from her jeans’ pocket and they walk down to the beach to smoke it.
It’s also a lie that teenage girls don’t have deep thoughts. On this night, Melody and Jules think of: how distant and radiant are the stars, and are they old souls? How Grip might be a fragment of their imagination and if he is, are they also a fragment of his? How it’s true that they both have no parents, they are practically orphans. And how they will always remember this moment, huddled on the beach, with that grumpy old seagull over there, whose name is probably Agnus.
When they get back to Melody’s house, ponderous and stoned, the phone rings and Jules leaps for it, Hello? Hello! It’s Shawn, this guy in twelfth grade who has a goatee and longish hair and who Jules has a crush on. I hear you got picked up by Grip, he says, and the girls put him on speaker phone and laugh into their hands. They are exhilarated by Shawn’s deep voice, so monotone against their nerves, and Melody feels her body expand like some newly born, unfurling universe: heat, sweat, pulse, shakes.
I’m coming over, Shawn says, and the girls brush their teeth and Jules rips off her clothes and runs up and down the stairs in her underwear, then pillages Melody’s mother’s closet for a tight sweater and white jeans, high heels, and for a moment Melody wishes she was Agnus the seagull, squabbling and solitary, but it’s eight o’clock on a school night and Jules is screaming now, imitating orgasms. When Shawn knocks on the door, the girls pull him inside and up the stairs and into Melody’s bedroom so fast they feel like bandits of the night, much older than they are, dangerous.
Shawn presents a bottle of beer and spins it on Melody’s carpet. It lands on Jules, but instead of kissing her, Shawn twists off the bottle cap and presses it against her nipple, which is poking through Melody’s mother’s sweater. Then he squeezes her whole breast with one hand and takes a swig of beer with his other hand.
Melody has never French-kissed a guy before, but Jules did last summer with Kyle at the beach in town near the gas station, all the cars going slowly past, 50 kilometres in a playground zone. Now Jules is chugging from the beer bottle and Melody is so dizzy her eyes hurt, so she closes them as the two beside her start kissing, sloshing their mouths against each other and Shawn makes a groaning noise that sounds like a grown-up noise, a noise that is misplaced in Melody’s bedroom with the plastic alarm clock adorned with stickers, the desk with her undone homework, her teddy perched on the pink quilt.
Hey, Shawn says to Melody, and she can already translate this new language, she knows he’s saying: Leave. Jules and Shawn move towards the bed, and Melody grabs her homework and goes downstairs. She paces, listening for her parents’ car in the driveway, but it won’t come, because her mother takes weeknight theatre classes and her father enjoys a long drink after work and thank goodness Melody is that responsible, straight-A kid who can fix her own dinner, and so that’s what she does right now.
Steamed broccoli, green beans, and microwaved fish sticks. Melody pours a half-glass of wine from the bottle her parents keep in the pantry. Upstairs, creaks on the floor and then from the bedsprings. The night is speeding by like Grip’s Oldsmobile. Melody feels the rush all over her own skin. Jules and Shawn, naked in her bed.
She lights a candle and sets herself up at the dinner table. She’ll do her algebra homework and eat. But first, a toast. To Bernard, Melody says, holding up her glass. Bernard! Bernard! The wine is sharp and makes her shudder. She imagines Jules’ brother sitting across from her, pimple- cheeked and polite. What is X minus one? he asks. And Melody stares into her wine glass, concentrating. Her fish-eyed face stares right back. She knows the equation is not just a number. It’s something about Bernard’s acne, and how his sister is so beautiful and desired. It’s something about teddy bears and popcorn and beer bottles and seagulls. It’s feeling like a variable herself, a symbol for something else. She wishes she could hold Bernard’s hand. We are as yet unsolved, Melody writes in her algebra book. But maybe tomorrow will be different. Solving for X includes something about the future, too.