I’d never seen anyone smoking American Spirits before. She didn’t hide them either. Most kids would walk around the back of the basketball courts to where the old tetherball poles rose out of the cracked, crumbled cement. The spot was shielded from Eight Street to the west, and the open end gave way only to the white, brick, windowless wall of the middle school. Her nails weren’t painted. Katherine’s nails were always painted and I hated it. It made her look older or dirtier. It was too much against the simple, beautiful things she was made of. “I’m Erin,” the smoking girl said, taking a drag and letting the smoke ooze out of her lips before pushing it into the whipping wind where it was crumpled, tossed, destroyed. She didn’t seem worried at all about the cherry catching her hair; I would have worried about that. She held the cigarette between her middle finger and thumb as the cherry got lower. When she finished, she flicked it halfway onto the empty court behind her. It scooted around in small, uneven circles, still smoldering. The wind played with it. It rolled the way a baseball bat rolls. She looked up at me from her Indian-style position on the pavement, squinting into the sun, giving no sign of an impending smile or hand shake.
“You don’t meet a lot of Simons.” I didn’t know what to say. I’d heard it before. “Smoke?”
“I’m alright, thanks.”
“But do you smoke?”
“I bet you don’t.” She was always doing that. She lowered her hand and the sun lit her face. She reached over to pick up the cigarette pack and patted at her left pocket with her left hand. Her lighter must have been there. She was always using a different lighter, and I never knew how she got them. I never saw her buy one. They were always Bic’s, and always the bigger ones. She’d peel the little warning label off in one smooth, slow motion and then press the gooey residue away with her right thumbnail, holding the thing one-handed. I bounced the ball to make some kind of noise. “You live around here?” she asked as she stood up. She tugged at the bottom of her tank top with her free hand before using the same hand to brush off her butt and lower back. She pulled out another cigarette. When she turned to place the pack on the ground behind her, I could see the small flecks of gravel and dirt stuck against the tan, firm skin of her thighs. There was a small upside-down V above each of her knees made by the muscles held behind her skin.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding in the direction of the large blue house on the corner, which shielded my much smaller one.
“Me too. My parents just moved from back in the Valley.” I’d never heard anyone talk like that. “They think this’ll be better. Or they say that at least.” Behind her, I watched Mr. Gonzales come out the front of his place across from the large blue house. His head lowered as he leaned forward to spit into the dirt in the small unkept patch of landscaping outside his front door. He looked around, rubbed his rounded belly with both hands, patted himself there twice and then seemed to relax. His body slumped forward and he regained his usual look before padding barefoot back into the house. I felt her eyes on me again. I wondered for a second where they’d gone.
“Not sure why I said that. You’re really tall.”
“How tall are you?”
“Um, about six—.”
“Wait, wait, let me guess.” She used her free hand to cut me off, waving her palm’s bright whiteness in the early afternoon sun. She lowered the hand and took a drag from the cigarette in the other. She was staring at me. She took two steps to one side. She stopped and craned her neck like she was trying to look behind me. She took several steps the other way and repeated the gesture. “You, Simon, are six-foot-four.” I liked the way she said my name. It sounded longer, deliberate, alive.
“You look shorter than that.”
“You just guessed six four.”
“Yeah, but I had a lot of factors to consider. Those are big shoes, and I figured you were kind of strong so you look shorter than you really are.” I’d never heard a girl call me strong before. Katherine called me handsome. “Are you sure you’re not six four?” I shrugged. I bounced the ball again. “Well, are you going to shoot or what?”
“I was waiting for a couple friends. I live closer so—.”
“I’ll play you in horse.” I was a terrible shooter. Every gym teacher and friend of my parents that I’d ever met asked me if I played basketball. Anyone who’d ever seen me play wouldn’t make that mistake. I must have turned red in the face. “Come on. You play with girls right?” My stomach floated. I liked the way she said that.
“Yeah. We can play.” I tried to smile. I think it worked. She smiled. Her teeth were bright white. She wore a small hair tie on the wrist of her left arm, which she took off with her teeth. She held it in her right hand and took her last few puffs the way my dad finishes his second beer at a restaurant even if the check was paid and everyone was waiting to leave. She did the middle finger, thumb thing again and flicked it high into the air this time. The cherry exploded on the ground. I dribbled a few times toward the basket and then looked back at her. She held out both hands and bent her knees slightly. She smiled again. I bounced the ball gently right to her. She wore flip flops. Her legs and arms were the same light brown color. It looked like my mom’s doctored-up coffee. She slid the ball between her knees and held it there as she tied her hair back. Her cheeks were round and soft. I’m sure in the years since, all the woman has pushed through, but she was still very much a girl then. Her ears were small, and with the sun on her face I could see the peach-fuzz where a boy’s sideburn would be. She looked down as she pulled the ponytail tight. When she looked back up—the ball back in both hands—a few strands of hair fell out from the tie and floated together to become a backward comma against the right side of her face. Mr. Gonzales backed the Caravan out of the garage. She kicked off the flip flops. I could hear the door opening from across the soccer field between us. Mrs. G. came out in an apron to hand him something through the driver’s side window, which he rolled only part of the way down.
She didn’t shoot like a girl. She had that forward lean—just enough to get behind the ball—but she didn’t kick a leg back or shoot with both hands. She had spun the ball in both hands, squeezed it to test its firmness, and then without a dribble, she had pulled up from beyond three and left it just off the front of the rim. I expected her to smile or raise an eyebrow, but when I finally caught her eyes, she looked pissed. “Your shot,” she said. I walked to the foul line and took a few dribbles. “Pussy.”
“You’re starting there?” I shook my head left to right and tried to fight the smile I couldn’t even weaken. I felt her eyes on me again. I bent at the knees and let a soft shot go. It spiraled backwards, just as it was supposed to, before clanking off the back of the rim and the right side of the backboard at the same time. I started to move toward the ball and then froze as I felt her behind me. She moved as if she’d anticipated the miss. The ball bounced once before she collected it with her right hand at the peak of its arch. She brought it together between both hands with a smacking sound. Mr. G. waved as he passed. I returned the wave. She didn’t even take a step before pulling up and draining her shot. The net bounced the ball right back to her. She caught it in her left hand against her body and then held it out for me. I couldn’t help but match her smile. “I wouldn’t be smiling if I were you.”
“You can’t lose to a girl. Especially the new girl.”
“I can lose to just about anyone.” She laughed. I blushed. I pulled up and banked it off the backboard and in. “H.”
“You made it.”
“I didn’t call ‘bank’.”
“Weird.” She dribbled this time, right hand to left and back again in a staggered rhythm. She walked past closely. Where I’d expected to find smoke or sweat or something unknown, I smelled sweetness, spring. It was her mom’s laundry sheets, but I didn’t know that yet. The sleeve of my t-shirt flapped with what I thought was a brushing of her shoulder against my arm, but it kept flapping—the wind. “I played, you know.”
“I gathered that.”
“I mean just as a kid. I don’t play now. My dad taught me. We used to have a hoop over the garage.”
“You’re good.” I felt completely incapable of saying anything that could excite this girl. She pulled up from behind me almost at half court. The ball went sideways off the far side of the rim. I took off quickly. Balls that left that side of the court could roll for a while. I smelled her as she passed. Before I could think, she was flipping the ball toward me as if she were saving a live ball from going into the seats.
“My bad,” she said, jogging back a few steps toward me. “I haven’t shot in a while.” I called bank this time and air-balled it from three. I could feel my face burning. She let the ball come to rest below the hoop. I went to go pick it up and she kicked my trailing right foot, which caused me to kick myself in the back of the left calf. I nearly face planted. “Shit,” she said loudly. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Everything had gone white-noise and blurry. The scene steadied quickly.
“No it’s not. That’s not fine. I was just trying to mess around. I don’t even know you. Jesus. Shit. I’m sorry. I can’t believe I did that.” She was talking more to herself than to me.
“Really, it’s fine. I’m fine.”
“I’m awful. We can stop. I can leave if you—.”
“No.” I said it so fast I didn’t know how strong it was going land. It exploded on impact. Only the wind could be heard. My shirt sleeves flapped. She showed her brilliantly white teeth again and then shielded them, but she couldn’t hold it at bay. Her smile leveled me. Her laughter lightened me. I bent down and rested my hands above my knees, laughing. “Sorry.” She laughed harder.
“I trip you—on purpose—and you’re apologizing?”
“I’m sorry for yelling at you.”
“Simon, that was not yelling.”
“Well, whatever. I didn’t mean to blurt it out.”
“You’re a weird guy.” I could feel my shoulders folding in toward my chest. “I like it,” she added. I could hear Zach and Stew: two basketballs bouncing up Eighth. She jogged to the ball and bent to pick it up, exposing the slim horizon of white panties above her belt-less waist. When she straightened back up she tugged up on her khaki shorts and then down on her shirt again. She looked at me with her eyes, though her head was still slightly dropped. It came off as bashful, concealing. It was out of context—out of character for this ten-minute-old person who was materializing before my eyes.
“My friends are coming.”
“We can stop,” she said, shooting the ball from the wing. It swished and the net sent it right back again.
“I don’t want to.” I was feeling brave. She turned red. It was the only color I’d seen in her face. It made her look even tanner. Warmer somehow. She smiled, but she quickly interrupted the upturning at the corners of her mouth with her own words.
“I have a feeling we’ll be spending some time on the court,” she said. She giggled. “We need to get your shot in shape.”
“Either that or you can spend all summer getting beat by a girl.” Nothing sounded better at that moment.
“We hang out here.” I felt like an eight-year-old showing my babysitter around. “At night, I mean, we usually get together around here.”
“Um.” I thought of Katherine. The night before we had shared a blanket on the porch outside her living room while her parents watched X-Files inside. She was so soft in my hands. I smelled her in the morning as I brushed my teeth. “There are like six or seven. Me, Stew and Zach.” I nodded toward the sounds of dribbling and laughter approaching unseen from behind the court. “Katherine, Kelly and some other neighborhood people.”
“Right. Yeah. Maybe I’ll come by tonight?”
“We’ll be here.” I had talked to no one about this. She dribbled a few times and picked up the ball. She squeezed it again. She shot me a pass. I fumbled when it caught my left ring finger straight, but I wrangled it and held the wince in.
“Don’t tell anyone.”
“I don’t know. Don’t tell anyone that a new girl is coming or anything, OK? I’ll probably be here. I’ll come, but—.”
“Yeah. No problem. I’ll introduce you around when you get here.”
“Cool.” She bent over again, and again her panties winked. Another tug at her shirt as she pulled a fresh cigarette out with her teeth. She patted at the lighter before pulling it out. It was blue, like her tank top. Her white bra strap slid off her left shoulder as she put the lighter back into her pocket. She smiled, exhaled and began to walk away. She was strong and lean. Her shorts held my eyes. I turned when I heard a shot go off the rim behind me. Zach smacked Stew in the ass and ran by him, launching his own loose, off-balance skyhook as he jogged toward me.
“Who’s that?” I tried to think of something. Her name kept jumping to mind.
“I mean I don’t know.” He stood close—too close—in that way he always did. His toes nearly touched mine. He looked into my eyes as I tried to look past him. His head moved from side to side. He finally relaxed back on his heels but he kept looking up at me.
“OK?” I tried to sound sarcastic, mocking.
“I know you’re lying, but I don’t know why yet, so, OK.” He smiled. He shrugged and then turned on one heel to meet a bounce pass from Stew intended for either of us. We were bad. Zach missed the entire basket, clearing the top of the backboard on the first shot. He didn’t hesitate for a second before taking off in a dead sprint for the ball. Stew tore off after him. They met in the grass of the soccer field six feet before the ball. Stew connected with Zach’s midsection and they pitched to the left, falling with an audible, “humph.” Mr. G. honked as he came back toward his house. His garage door roared to life again. I turned to look left over my shoulder for the blue tank top and the khaki shorts, but she was out of sight around a corner. I wondered where she lived. I picked up my ball and drained a shot from the left elbow. The ball came straight down and the bouncing noises grew more and more rapid until they stopped all together. The ball hung on the edge of the pavement just off the grass. The wind pushed it over.
* * *
Katherine told me to wash my face with Dove soap and a hand towel. She said to scrub hard. In front of the mirror, I popped a small zit where my right nostril met my upper lip before pulling the shower curtain open. The steam rolled out in a large cloud and spiraled up toward the beckoning petals of the exhaust fan. It was still light out. The fogged glass of the bathroom window reduced the sun to an orange ball in its upper right-hand corner. The curtain screeched closed, and I was alone for a moment. The hand towel was rough against my sunburned face. Katherine had perfect, porcelain, smooth skin. I scrubbed hard and ignored the tiny spots of blood. I rinsed the towel off and hung it from the small metal shower hook before she arrived.
At first, she was clothed. The same blue tank top. The same white bra strap. She bent over and the same white panties peeked out above the rim of the same khaki shorts. She was silent. My eyes closed hard, forced. I began to sweat as the warm water poured over my shoulders and into the slowly growing pool at my feet. She smiled and bent over again. This time, as she rose, she was in only the white underwear and she was saying my name exactly as she’d said it earlier. Her white teeth parted to let the smallest, softest sliver of her red tongue push through, only to be rewound again, repeated. I saw her reach behind her back to unhook her bra. She did it twice in a row; the second time was slower and she tilted her head back as she did it. The white sliver. The small strap falling off a freckled shoulder. Katherine was there for a moment too, with her, and then she was gone. Kelly came. I closed my eyes harder. Things sped up. They were showing me something. Kelly helped her with the strap and then Kelly was gone too and it was just me and the new girl. I laid her down gently and smiled. She looked different looking up at me, flatter, wider—still soft and simple and beautiful. I kissed her neck and felt her hands guide me to where she wanted me. She breathed in sharply, but not with the high-pitched, painful tinge that Katherine’s cry had. It was low and warm and relief. The muscles behind my eyes quickly locked the lids firmly against each other and my skin flushed. My legs felt like Jello. I stuttered forward before regaining my balance. I rinsed my hands under the spray of the shower. I reached for the bar of soap and raised up on to my tip toes to breath in the cooler air outside the steam. I heard my mother’s footsteps in the hall outside.
The window of my room looked out into the Douglas fir in the backyard. A squirrel on the branch nearest my windowsill worked loudly on a black walnut. I heard her steps again before she knocked on the door. “One minute.”
“Dad’s going to get pizza for dinner.”
“I’m eating at Katherine’s.”
“That’s the third time in a week, Simon.” She sounded frustrated. I hadn’t done anything I could remember.
“Her mom keeps inviting me.”
“OK.” She turned and walked back toward the living room. I pictured her throwing her hands up and shaking her head. I could have slept then. I was still wrapped in a towel and looking out the window. My muscles felt limp. Something hung over me. Guilt was too strong a word and it was devoid of all the other things taking up space in my mind. I ran my hands back and forth in my hair, shaking out the water. I pulled on my black Adidas t-shirt because it fit firm against my chest and made me feel strong not fat. Katherine loved the shirt. She usually placed her head right where the leafy symbol was, in the middle of my chest, when we hugged.
“It smells like you,” she told me last time I wore it.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s good. It makes me think of you.”
“I’m wearing it.”
“Yeah, thanks Sherlock.”
The phone rang. I pulled my jeans over my boxers and hoped the heat would wear off quickly. “Simon?”
“Phone.” I shut the door behind me. At the end of the hall, mom’s arm hung over the back of the couch lazily, slowly waving the phone in my direction. “It’s Zach.”
“Thanks.” She didn’t turn her head from the TV. The garage door opened and the trunk of my dad’s Impala crept backwards toward the street.
“Weren’t you just playing basketball with them?”
“Yup.” She shook her head. She was smiling. I could tell, from behind her, by the lift in her ears. “Hey, Z.” I walked back to my room.
“Hey. What’s up?”
“Just got out of the shower.”
“Good. You smelled like shit.”
“OK.” I could hear Tomb Raider being played in the background. Stew was over. I used to hang there all day. “What’s the plan?”
“Dude.” His tone brought it back to me. Stew had stolen some weed from his older brother and we were supposed to smoke it tonight. Zach and I had never smoked.
“Right. I’m going to Katherine’s for dinner.”
“Cool. After that, I’ve got nothing.” My hands were sweating. I held the phone in my right hand, pressed hard into my ear, as I let my jeans fall to the ground around me and pulled my dirty cargo khaki shorts from the hamper. “Why don’t we do it at the school?”
“Other people are always smoking there, and it’s dark at night.”
“They smoke cigs dude.”
“I know. Won’t it kind of blend in?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Well let’s meet there and we’ll figure it out.”
“Later.” He’d hung up before I even said it. The squirrel dropped the nut and watched it fall, frozen on his branch. I didn’t want to smoke pot. Katherine was going to kill me, and I knew I was going to tell her.
“Simon?” Mom shouted down the hall.
“I’m coming.” I carried the cordless back and tossed it on the couch cushion next her. It nearly bounced and fell to the floor. I lunged toward it and then froze as it settled. She gave me her look. I lowered my head. “Sorry.” Her profile smiled at me. “I’m heading over. I’ll be there until dark, and then we’re all meeting at the school.” I nodded toward the out-of-sight playground.
“Katherine’s parents are there?”
“Yes. You ask every time.”
“Whatever. Yeah, and I’ll be home by one.”
“You said one this year. I haven’t been late.” I hated the whine that entered my voice.
“Fine.” I put my hand on the nob and turned. I was forgetting something. I waited a second but it didn’t show. I was out the door before it came to me: I was supposed to bring a lighter. I smiled as I jogged toward Katherine’s, thinking that I knew where to get one.
The afternoon heat had given way. The strong west wind pushed more cool, dry air through the gorge and up against the mountainsides. The pines stood upright while the smaller trees danced below them. Mr. G. waved with a large grill spatula in hand. I waved back without breaking stride. A blue Honda I didn’t recognize waited at the stop sign on Sixth as I passed. It signaled left and turned away from me. I took a right on Fifth toward her house. Katherine was standing in the front yard as if she’d been waiting for me to arrive. I was early. “Hey handsome,” she said quickly, looking back toward her house as I arrived. She raised up on to her tip toes and her lips touched mine. I was sweating—breathing hard. “You ran here?”
“In a rush?”
“I just felt like it.” I smiled at her. She looked into my eyes. I thought of Zach. It felt like people were always reading something I didn’t know was written there.
“OK.” she said. She leaned in quickly and hugged me. I ran my hands down the backs of her arms. She shivered. “I missed you today.”
“I missed you too.”
“What did you guys do?”
“We just played basketball and messed around. Actually,” I laughed awkwardly, “We’re going to meet tonight, too.”
“Yeah. Kelly called. Stew called her I guess. The playground?” She was disappointed.
“We’ll have all evening here. Your parents are here anyway, right?”
“Yeah.” Now she was sad. “But they’re always here and we always—.” She had never intended to finish the sentence. She raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders in place of the words.
“I know. We probably still can.” She smiled a little at that.
“I don’t mean to be needy.” She lowered her head. Only the collar of her red t-shirt was visible under the hoodie she’d zipped almost all the way up. She wore my favorite shorts. They were small and grey, made out of sweatshirt material. They were soft against my hand and hardly there when I didn’t want them to be. She looked up and down at herself and then smiled at me.
“You’re not needy. Come on.”
“You wore my favorite shirt.”
“You wore my favorite shorts.” Foreplay. Her cheeks were almost the color of her t-shirt. Her short, blonde hair hung firm in the impotent wind. “Your fingernails match your shirt.”
“Toenails too,” she said, holding a foot out for me to see. Her legs were freshly lotioned. They glistened. She giggled at my shaking head. “Come on,” she said. She turned to walk in the house. She took a few steps. I could see the outline of her underwear through the thin shorts. I was feeling less tired.
“Hey.” She stopped and took two steps backwards without turning around. She tried to make it look like things were in rewind, but her arms moved in the wrong direction.
“Stew and Zach have—.”
“Kelly told me,” she said quickly.
“Told you what?”
“Come on Simon, I know. I don’t want to do that. You shouldn’t either, but I told her you probably would.” I must have looked confused. I felt angry, but I wasn’t sure why. My face was warm.
“I just wanted to tell you.”
“I appreciate that. I already know. You know it’s stupid, right?”
“They’re my best friends. It might be fun.”
“It’s stupid, but I’m not trying to control you. Do what you want.” I kissed her on the lips before I was aware of what I was doing. It was firmer this time, less sweaty. She smiled and then quickly, purposely wiped it away. I kissed her again to bring it back. “What’s that for?” She said it with cheer and genuine curiosity, but she didn’t wait for an answer. She turned and bounced toward the house. The back of her legs were less formed, more amorphous. I wanted to run my hands down her thighs. I wanted to run my finger along the outline of her underwear. A U-Haul came down Pine toward me. It signaled left as if it were turning on Fifth, but it continued farther west and turned down Sixth. Katherine held the screen door open. “We’re having pizza,” she said as I passed. Her house smelled like her. Her dad nodded from his chair in the corner of the living room. “Mom?” she shouted past him, toward the kitchen.
“Is he here?”
“Yeah. We’ll be on the porch.” She looked up at me when she said it—her smile like a wink.
“I’ll order the pizza. Your father is picking it up.” Her mom aimed the second part with a twist in tone. It became an instruction for the portly guy in the chair. He shook his head at me. I smiled before turning sharply and heading through the open glass doors to the porch. Katherine bent over toward a candle sitting in the middle of the table on the porch. She tried to flick the Bic lighter next to it to life, but it just sputtered.
“You have to hold the button down.”
“I’ve got it,” she said. It sparked to life. She lit the candle and dropped the yellow Bic back on the table. She sunk into the cushion next to me and leaned over, planting a kiss on my cheek. My hand slid up the back of her shirt to find her back, then her stomach. I ran my index finger under the elastic at the hip of her shorts. I felt her skin goosebump. She kissed my neck slowly, wet. My eyes remained locked but unfocused on the lighter and the dancing candle flame.
* * *
I knew she was there. I saw her walk up while I was pinching at Katherine’s sides. Katherine never let anyone touch her stomach. She told me it was different with me. When her blonde hair pitched forward and she let out a shriek, I saw the new girl crossing the soccer field. She stopped and lit a cigarette near midfield. She watched us as she smoked. I was the only one who knew she was looking. I was the only one who knew who she was. I watched her eyes. She was looking at me. It felt like talking or like fighting—proving something. The sun had dropped behind the ridgeline to the west just minutes before, leaving Mount Adams a glowing pink and orange night-light to the north. I had seen it from the air the one time my parents took me on a plane. The volcanic peaks in summer look as though god dropped a snowcone face down onto the pine-tree-carpeted Earth. Mount Hood looks rigid, frozen, new. Mount Adams looks partially melted.
I should have walked over and said something—introduced her. I convinced myself that I was waiting for her to make her way over. I wasn’t. I let her stand there smoking, watching us. She knew I’d seen her. Stew and Zach shot Katherine a look that said, “quiet down.” They were crouched over a small patch of the basketball court. They looked like Boyscouts trying to figure out a campfire. She turned red in the face and looked at me. I shrugged. She and Kelly walked over to the metal barred dome between the basketball court and the baseball field. Katherine sat; Kelly stood in front of her talking. I knew what she was saying. Stew’s right hand was closed tightly around the dry, crumbled nug of weed he’d stolen. Zach was trying to turn a sheet of tinfoil into a bowl. He looked up at me, wondering what I was going to do about the tagalong girls I hadn’t invited in the first place when he saw the stranger watching from the field. “You know her, right?” he said quickly.
“Dude, I don’t care how. We’ve got pot over here.” He was whisper-shouting.
“Yeah, yeah. Jesus.” He stood up and brushed his ass with both hands. He walked toward me. He was smiling. He stood close again. Toe to toe. He read my eyes. I tried to wave as soon as he started waving. She took a step forward. Her face held no expression. As she reached the court she tossed the cigarette down in front of her and stepped on it. She was wearing the same flip flops and shorts. I thought of the white sliver. I smelled her. The mountain was growing darker. It slowly sucked the light from the sky above us. Stars blinked on. She wore an old green hoodie with a Sonics logo at the center. It couldn’t have been hers. The lettering was crumbled and worn. “This is Zach,” I wanted to say. Nothing came out. I cleared my throat. He beat me to it.
“Hey new girl, I’m Zach.”
“How do you know I’m a new girl.”
“Read about it.”
“Oh yeah? It’s a big story.”
“Lucky guess. You know Simon here, right?” He didn’t turn to me as he signaled in my direction with a backward tilt of his head. Kelly and Katherine were walking toward us. I could feel them approaching.
“We met earlier.” She sounded disappointed. I wanted to tell her I didn’t tell anyone about her. I let it go.
“She kicked my ass in horse.”
“Well, we know that doesn’t take much,” Zach said. We laughed. She smiled. I got the feeling she wanted to run in the other direction just as much as she wanted to be there.
“She’s good.” She looked at me when I said it. I lowered my eyes. It felt like ducking a teacher’s eyes when I didn’t do the homework. “She can shoot.”
“Cool. Well, I’m Zach, that’s Stew,” he finally turned away from her. She walked up next to him and stuck her arms in the pouch pocket of the hoodie. She managed to get both arms in all the way up to the elbows. “Kelly is the tall one with long hair. That’s Katherine.”
“I’m Erin.” She looked at me when she said it. Her eyes were telling me something. They danced between embarrassment, sarcasm, shame, secret excitement. “You all live here?”
“Yeah. Within a couple blocks. Where are you from?” Zach asked.
“The valley.” I thought again then of what she’d said earlier: that it would be better here. Or her parents thought it would be better. I got stuck for a moment on all the questions that brought. “I’m over on Sixth.” My face went red, but it was too dark for anyone to see. I was sweating. She looked at me again. I think she tried to smile. I thought of the blue Honda and the U-Haul.
“This is Erin,” Zach said to the two blonde heads behind me. Katherine hip-checked me as she walked by. I thought it was playful. It wasn’t unusual. She didn’t turn around though. She and Kelly walked right up with an arm out as if they’d shake hands. Erin left her arms in the pouch. “She lives by Katherine.” Katherine jumped and started to say something. I cleared my throat loudly and all three girls looked. I turned and walked to Stew. I could hear the girls talking, but my head was making enough noise to obscure the words. The sounds got faster and their voices got higher. I knelt down. Stew had twisted the foil around a pencil and was trying to forge a pipe-like end where we figured the pot should go. His left knee was on the pavement and his chin rested on the right knee. He still held the weed in his hand. I hadn’t seen it yet.
“Is it done?”
“I don’t think it’ll work.” He half-raised the piece as if he were giving it to me to inspect, but he quickly pulled it back down. He was trying to mold the rim of the bowl with the index finger and thumb of the hand holding the weed. “I think we’ll suck it all through. The hole is too big.” I smelled her again. The high pitch talking was still behind me. Stew took a deep breath.
“I can get more foil. My parents won’t care.”
“It’s not that.”
“Is there something else we could use?” I was equal parts hoping for failure and looking for distraction. I could feel my ears pull back on my head as if they were trying to turn around. I knelt.
“Like I know, dude. My brother rolls joints, or he has this huge bong thing he thinks I’ve never seen. We don’t have papers. I think I can get this.” Her laughter floated over my shoulders. I goosebumped. I turned without standing to see Erin a few steps behind me. Katherine and Kelly were behind her talking and laughing together with Zach.
“You guys need a cig.”
“Yeah. No kidding. Here.” I closed my eyes and breathed in as she walked past. It was the first time I’d done that. I would master it. I imagined Katherine’s eyes on my back. Erin worked her way next to Stew and knelt. He handed her the foil without saying anything. She shook her head and set the piece down. Her legs were creamy and summer dark. She didn’t look at me. My eyes rose to her face. It was the first time I could take her in. The moment held. The wind was gone. The nearest light was on the street corner forty feet away, but the mountain and the sun and the stars hadn’t left us completely in the dark. I followed the strands of hair that had fallen from her pony tail down the side of her face to where they pointed at her lips. Her mouth was part smile and part concentration. It felt like she knew. I looked away for a second and then back at the crumpled letters of her sweatshirt. The second S in Sonics had lost the top and bottom. It was just a backslash. She rose for a second. Stew didn’t look up; I did. She tugged at the bottoms of her shorts and pulled one arm out of her hoodie. That hand held a purple Bic and the yellow pack of American Spirits. She lifted the bottom of her sweatshirt with the other hand and pulled down on the blue tank top underneath. Her stomach was flat. I grew firm. When she crouched again my eyes floated from her cleanly shaved right knee along her thigh and into the dark space between her leg and her shorts. My legs were tingling. They were ready to go numb. I didn’t move. In the dark space a white patch of fabric and a thin band of elastic came into view slowly. As soon as I could see the white I saw her eyes. They met mine quickly and she dropped onto her butt. Katherine’s cold hand surprised the back of my neck. I turned and smiled. Katherine was watching Erin too. I looked back for the white and it was gone. I thought of the back of Katherine’s thighs. Erin emptied the end of a cigarette onto the ground next to the tin pipe with a sawing motion of her index finger and thumb against the tobacco. It came out slowly at first, and then a small pile quickly filled up. “Let me see,” she said quietly. Stew opened his palm and looked in her eyes. He was taking in each step of the process. She nodded and emptied out a half-inch more before handing the cigarette to Stew with no instruction. She leaned back on her hands. The white patch filled the dark space again.
“Is that enough space,” Stew asked, raising the cigarette to catch the non-existent light in front of her face.
“Yeah. You have to pack it down against the tobacco or it’ll burn too fast. You can wet the end too,” she said. She raised her head as she said it and I raised mine to catch her eyes, but she looked past me. I turned my head upward and over my shoulder to catch Katherine smiling and watching the process. The last remnant of a bright smile was dissolving from Erin’s face when I turned back to the girl. I’d missed it. “Use the pencil.” She nodded at the pencil Stew had used for the pipe. He smiled. He had it now. He flipped it eraser side down and pushed it into the end of the cigarette. He added more of the crumbled weed from his palm and pressed again. Added. Repeated. The muscles above Erin’s knees winked as she stood. “Do any of you smoke?” No one said anything. Erin pulled a cigarette out from the pack and then put the pack back into the pouch. She pulled out a red Bic. Her face flashed and flickered in the briefest of light. I looked away to clear the spots form my eyes. Erin walked over to the edge of the court. I stood to turn to Katherine. I hadn’t told her about Erin before. I wanted to say something before talk of our game of horse became another of the group’s inside jokes. When I turned Katherine gave me look I couldn’t read and walked over to Erin. I stayed.
“Hey Z,” Stew whisper-shouted. A light went on at the front porch of the Gonzales’ house. It was on a timer. Only Erin turned to look. She let out a long, even plume of smoke that stretched out grey against the darker sky. She laughed at something Katherine said. Katherine wasn’t a funny person. The laugh seemed genuine. Zach came over with Kelly piggy-back.
“You got it?” He sounded surprised. This meant we had to smoke now.
“Yeah. Well, she got it,” he said, gesturing toward the smoking girl.
“Well.” Zach looked at me.
“Well,” Stew echoed. The next move wasn’t clear. Erin was pointing toward Fifth or Sixth. Katherine started to point. Kelly tapped Zach on the shoulder with her right hand and he let her slope toward the ground. She took off to join the girls. “I guess right here is as good as anywhere.”
“We’re kind of in the open.” Zach looked at me. I thought he was waiting for me to back out. I thought he was waiting for excuses. I tried to think of one.
“Dude,” Zach said. I shrugged. I looked around. It hit me.
“Oh, shit. Yeah, the lighter.” Zach and Stew laughed loud enough to quiet the girls. “Hey Erin?” My voice crackled and jumped around her name. I went red in the darkness. Her eyes were watery—glistening in the dim light. “Can we—.” I barely saw her arm move. The purple lighter hit me in the stomach and fell to the pavement. It sparked when it hit the court. Erin turned back to Katherine and they went on talking. I bent to pick up the labelless Bic. Rocks popped under car tires a block away. I brought the lighter to life twice, testing it. Zach was waiting silently, looking from me to Stew and back again. I handed Stew the lighter. The girls were quiet, but I heard whispers. I looked over my shoulder to Katherine. I wanted to catch her eyes. I wanted to say “I’m sorry. I have to. I might even want to.” But she was shaking her head at Erin’s cigarette offering and smiling. She raised her arm up and put it on the new girls shoulder as she finished telling her something. They both smiled. Erin laughed hard. Her voice was meant for me—I knew it. It cut across the court and flirted with my ears. Her eyes stayed on my girlfriend. I heard the lighter spark. Stew was silent. There was a crackling and a smell like pine trees and oranges. I watched to learn. Stew breathed the smoke to the bottom of his lungs and held it there. His cheeks were not puffed out; his chest was. His head was slightly tilted back. His eyes took on the same glassiness I’d just caught from Erin. He held the cigarette like a joint between his middle finger and thumb as he handed it to Z. I thought of Erin’s flicking trick and the way the cherry of her cigarette exploded against the court a few hours ago when no one was here but me and the beautiful, strange new girl. There was more here then—more back and forth, more energy, more light, more wind, more of her smell, only the two of us. The lighter didn’t spark this time. Zach and Stew exhaled together and the pine-citrus smell floated over me. Zach reached the cigarette out. It was softer and lighter than I thought it would be. They both had water-eyes. They shared the same slow motion smile. Katherine didn’t turn as I breathed in the first hit. She didn’t turn when I let out a strong, deep cough. I just heard laughter over my shoulder as spots appeared before my eyes and snot dripped from my nose. I thought the coughing would never end. No one else seemed to notice.
“That a boy,” Stew said—now an expert. “It gets you higher.”
“Yeah,” Zach said. He giggled. “I don’t feel anything.”
“We just started,” Stew said. The girls were suddenly farther away. Kelly was sitting, playing with one of Erin’s lighters while the new girl talked to my girlfriend. Erin and Katherine turned at the same time to consider whatever had been said. They both looked right at me. I waved. They looked at each other and laughter poured out of their mouths like smoke from an open grill. Kelly got the joke too. She chuckled and shook her head without looking up. Zach tapped my right shoulder with the back of his hand and I looked down to see the cigarette waiting there again. “I can kind of feel it now.”
“Yeah,” Zach said. “I feel lighter.” He coughed, burped and a tiny cloud came out. We laughed.
* * *
We laid on the pavement watching the stars vibrate and pulse. The sky pushed at us and then drew back. A heart behind the blackness, sprinkled with light, beat. “Did you see that?” Zach asked. Neither of us answered.
“Whoa.” Stew said.
“Yeah.” Zach agreed, though he didn’t know to what. I placed my hands behind my head. The gravel at the back of my skull had suddenly become unbearable. I thought of the Fourth of July and the way the fireworks came right at you out of nowhere only to shrink back to nothing. I closed my eyes. I could have sworn I could feel the earth rotating beneath me, carrying me gently east. Kelly cleared her throat. “Hey,” Zach said. There was a note of amazement in his voice.
“Yeah, hey,” she said quickly. “I’m out of here.”
“Why?” he said.
“Everyone is being weird. I’m supposed to be home in an hour anyway.” Zach was wounded, but he didn’t stand a chance tonight anyway. “You guys are really stoned,” she said in a different tone.
“No,” Zach pleaded, but I couldn’t tell which line he was fighting against.
“Whatever. See you tomorrow.” Z pushed himself up onto his elbows like he might chase her down. He didn’t move. He leaned over and stuck his face above mine. An upsidedown face with an upsidedown smile.
“You look funny.”
“And you look totally normal, dude.” He laughed. I felt a speckle of spit against my cheek. It was dry when I wiped it. I sat up and everything was blue and dark green, vibrating. I took a deep breath as tiny, glowing bugs sparked around my eyes and then everything was back to black and grey. “Where are they?”
“Over there.” Stew pointed to where Katherine and Erin had stood. A few tiny, white cigarette butts were all that was left of them.
“What?” Stew and Zack both stood up. Stew wavered like he might fall over and then steadied himself. “Whoa.” It sounded different this time. Z put his hand on my shoulder—a silent signal to stand. My heart was racing.
“Seriously, guys, where the hell are they.”
“Dude, it feels so different when you stand,” Zach answered. I walked a few steps away and was overwhelmed with a sensation of falling, of alone. I stepped back toward the other two. Katherine laughed. They were behind the wall separating the court from the school and the tetherball poles. Erin was talking but it was only a hum. Erin was humming and Katherine was laughing. I turned to face the guys. They were both looking at their hands. Mr. G.’s door roared open and for a moment nothing happened. Everything was rumble and crinkle and then sudden silence. Two headlamp beams shot along his driveway and across the street to my out-of-sight house. I looked at my watch. I wasn’t wearing it. I felt naked. I almost told them I’d be gone for just a second; I needed the watch. The lights pushed forward and then crept slowly across the large blue house, down Pine and over the edge of the soccer pitch. I ducked and turned to tell them to get down. Z was already ducking. Stew was looking up at the stars. Zach grabbed Stew’s leg.
“What the hell!” Stew jumped back.
“Shhh.” We both answered together.
“Guys it’s Mr. Gonzales. Chill out.” I wanted to laugh but nothing came out. I looked at my watch again.
“What time is it?”
“Almost midnight I think,” Zach said. He looked up as he answered but didn’t find what he was looking for there.
“It’s ten-thirty,” Stew said. He held the button down on his Indiglo again to confirm. “It does feel later.”
“I need to find Katherine.”
“Or Erin?” Zach said.
“What?” My face was red again. I was sweating. I shivered.
“Nothing.” He said it in that way that meant something. I didn’t care. I walked toward the edge of the wall where the voices had come from. There was another giggle, farther away this time. I looked over my shoulder to see Zach and Stew walking toward the grass of the soccer field. Zach was on Stew’s left. He somehow made that move where he kicked Stew in the ass with his outside foot as they walked. I tried it once and fell over. I thought of Erin and the empty basketball court. I felt myself wishing dearly that things were better for her here, and I no longer cared what that meant. I turned the corner and didn’t see anything at first. My feet crunched on the broken pavement and the gravel beneath them.
“Oh.” I think the new girl said it. Katherine had her back to me. She was looking down, then over her shoulder and quickly down again. She seemed to put something away or down and then she spun around. “We didn’t—.”
“Hi,” Katherine said. It sounded like she hadn’t seen me in hours. It was new and loud. I almost checked my watch but the girls held my eyes. The sympathy, or something like that, in her voice surprised me. “You scared us.” She didn’t sound scared.
“Where did you go?”
“Um. Here,” Katherine said. I looked past her. Erin’s eyes were dropped. Her head was angled away. I expected a cigarette between her fingers but there was nothing. She put her hand into her hoodie pouch. “Are you—ya know.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“How is it?” Erin laughed. Katherine turned but Erin shook her head as if the laugh were in error.
“Um. It’s fine. I didn’t know where you were?”
“We were here. Just right here.” She was more jittery than usual. A burst of light broke out behind her as Erin lit the cigarette. Katherine’s head dropped and she took a deep breath. We stood silently facing each other. I had the feeling of interrupting. I thought of my parents and their whispers when they returned from a night out, thinking I was asleep in the room next door.
“So the cigarette trick worked out alright?” Erin was loud.
“Yeah. I think so.”
“I think so too,” she said. She took a drag. The smoke spewed out for several feet.
“What were you guys—.”
“So is this what you guys do around here?” Erin asked. I wanted to tell her to quiet down. Katherine turned to her. They shared something. “It’s fun and all. It’s kind of quiet, right?”
“Well. We usually play a game or sneak a beer from Z’s parents or—.” I was out of things. I was having trouble getting rid of the interrupting feeling.
“Yeah. It’s maybe a little boring,” Katherine agreed. “We were thinking of heading to my house.” We? “My parents rented a couple movies, and she lives behind me.”
“I know. It’s too late and they’re asleep. I guess I mean Er and me.” A car came north on Eighth toward Pine behind them. Erin turned and blew smoke in its general direction. Katherine watched me. I ducked, stopping myself halfway. I cleared my throat to make a sound. I kicked at a tiny rock in front of me and missed. “Is that OK?”
“Um yeah.” I said it before I knew I would. “Yeah. This is kind of boring, right.”
“Yeah.” They shared the word. Erin flicked the cig hard. It went flying over Katherine toward me. Fourth of July. It made a tiny muted smacking noise against the pavement a few feet to my right. I walked toward it and smushed the red to black. I imagined the heat on the bottom of my shoe. I could feel it through the sole, but that couldn’t have been true. Erin walked past Katherine toward me. Her eyes were lowered. She looked different in the dark. She smelled the same. She caught me off guard with a quick hip-check as she passed and I looked quickly at Katherine. Her eyes were lowered too. I breathed in relief.
“Maybe tomorrow, Simon,” Erin said. She was already around the corner of the wall. I heard a lighter’s scratch. I tried to say something but the letters got jumbled. I nodded at no one. All of a sudden Katherine was moving toward me and talking. Everything got quicker. The door behind me screeched and rumbled as Mr. G. pulled back in. I didn’t have to turn to know.
“Sorry we couldn’t spend more time together tonight. I think maybe tomorrow—well tomorrow I’ve got practice and then Er and I were maybe going to—but you can do that with us. We’ll have time tomorrow. Are you really high?”
“Are you stoned.”
“No.” I wasn’t lying, anymore.
“Well good. That stuff smells better than those cigarettes though. Ha. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll call you.” She was in front of me now. I reached an arm out and ran it along her hip. When I closed my eyes to kiss her I smelled cigarette smoke and the slightest hint of Erin mixed with Katherine. I wanted it all but not all together.
“I’ll miss you.”
“You too. Have fun with the guys. Don’t be late. You don’t want your dad getting pissed.”
“Right.” I leaned down to kiss her and pulled back at the smell. I looked at her eyes. She dropped them and then raised them. The were slightly wet. Her cheeks held color I couldn’t make out in the dark. I met her lips. We both kept our eyes open. By the time I thought about anything else she’d pulled a way. Her kiss was wet but firm. She talked past my shoulder.
“I’d better catch up,” she said nodding beyond me. Erin was past the court, nearing the field.
“You guys have fun.” I felt nothing anymore. The air was clear. Some things had changed. It was darker and the perspective was new from where I stood, alone. Katherine blushed for no discernible reason and then walked past me, leaving me with nothing but a thin, broken trail of the smells that composed her that night. The wind breathed across my face. I lost the scent. I took a few steps forward and rounded the corner back to the courts. Stew and Zach were laying in the grass pointing at the sky. Thirty feet past them, Katherine caught up to the new girl with the glowing cigarette in her hand. My girlfriend raised her hand and put in on Erin’s shoulder. They both slumped forward, stopped, said something, and then rose as if they’d let out a shared deep breath and pulled a clean one in. They walked faster after that and were out of sight past the Gonzales’ house before I even started to wonder what I’d missed. I smiled and then it fell off. I put it on again, shook my head and walked toward my stoned friends.