That particular car ride to St. Margaret’s was longer than I had ever remembered it being, and not just because I had to slow down for an endless stream of trick-or-treaters.
I picked up Sophie first since she lived only a few blocks away from me. It took all my will power not to grin as I walked up the driveway to her front door. Before I knocked I stuck my hand in my coat pocket to double check that the envelope was still in there.
When the door opened I was greeted by a crooked smile. “Hey, Blake.”
“Hey, birthday girl.”
She giggled, the sound as gentle as a butterfly. “Lemme just grab my bag, and we’ll go.”
There was a plastic jack-o-lantern filled with fun sized candy. I wasn’t there a few minutes before the doorbell rang and Sophie’s Dad handed out candy to a princess and a superhero. It reminded me of the first year I met Sophie and we had already become fast friends by her birthday. Chris and David grumbled when our parents told them they were in charge of us, along with Mike, as we ambled throughout the neighborhood. It wasn’t what we wore, or how much candy we got, or how scared Mike was of the creepy clown that seemed to follow us that stuck in my memory. It was how Chris treated Sophie.
He held her hand the entire night, told her that she was the prettiest mermaid he’d ever seen, and although he was joking around with David he made sure that his little sister was safe by always keeping her in his line of sight. I know my brothers love me as much as I love them, but it was obvious that Chris would do anything to protect the sister he loved more than anything. All my life I’d been surrounded by men, but it was my best friends older brother that taught me how to treat a woman.
“Let’s go.” Sophie zipped up a dark green jacket.
“Don’t you want your present?”
“You have it right now?”
Her eyes traced my entire lanky frame, before she grinned, and said, “Is it you, Blake?”
“No, it’s a million times better than me.” I pulled out the lavender envelope with her name etched in black calligraphy on the front, and handed it to her.
“Doesn’t look like a pony.” She ripped open the top with her fingernail.
“They didn’t have any rainbow colored ones, so this will have to do.”
Her pale fingers glided under the gold embossed letters of the tickets that spelled out ‘The Rockettes’. Before I could ask her if she liked it a squeal erupted from her, and she threw her arms around my neck. Words rushed out of her mouth, “Thank you so very much, Blake, it’s the best gift ever.”
I knew I was supposed to say ‘You’re welcome’, but I couldn’t break from the spell of vanilla that her wavy hair seemed to exuded. My hands burned as they rested on the small of her back which blocked any signals from my brain to the rest of my body. When she unwrapped her arms from my neck she looked up at me. I rested my forehead on hers just long enough to imprint the feeling of her skin on mine, and the way her back muscles tightened against my palm. I took a breath, then stepped back two paces, and exhaled. Slowly.
I was still close enough to count the freckles on her cheeks when I said, “I know you always wanted to see them.”
“How’d you know my parents were going to New York for Thanksgiving?”
“I asked them.”
“This is the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me. You must have spent everything you have! I don’t deserve this, seriously.”
“You deserve everything, Sophie. You’re the best person I know.” I noticed that I’d double knotted my left shoe, but not the right.
She laughed. “You really think that?”
“If I could, I’d shrink the Earth, and put it on a chain, so you could wear it around your neck.”
“Well, if you turn the Earth into a pendant then where will we be?”
My gaze met back with hers as I scoffed. “If I have the ability to decrease the atomic mass of a planet without destroying it, I’m sure I’d have access to a space shuttle.”
“I guess you’re right. Thanks again, it’s really cool that you got these tickets.”
“I thought it as on par with a first edition.”
“Totally, let me just put these up.” She rushed up the stairs to her bedroom which gave me a chance to concentrate on steading my heart rate. Her forest green boots bounded back to me, and opened the door just in time to catch the next batch of superheros.
For a second I reached for her hand as we walked down the cracked concrete driveway, but I stopped short. Even if I had just given her a dream present, it just didn’t feel right. I could hear Chris’s voice in my head as if her were behind me, and not in Iraq, yelling ‘Keep your hands off my sister!’. I also dreaded the unending awkwardness between us if she pulled away. I could never touch her, not really, because that could ruin all we had. I could live with us being friends, but I couldn’t live if we were nothing.
That’s why I kept my hands at ten and two once we got into the car.
On the outskirts of the neighborhood we picked up Jasper. He stood at the edge of his paved driveway wearing the white melted mask from the movie Scream. He opened up the passenger door, hopped in, and asked, Sophie, “So, how’s it feel to legally be an adult?”
She rolled her eyes, “Kinda like seventeen did considering I’m talking to someone while they’re wearing a creepy mask.”
He pulled it up so the thin jaw protruded from his forehead like a bill on a cap. “Happy Birthday, Sophie.” Jasper handed her a thin rectangle wrapped in the Sunday comics from the local paper.
“Thanks, but next time, use the crossword.”
“Well, I’d already finished it.”
“How long did it take you?”
Sophie swung her head until she faced, Jasper. “I swear I’m gonna beat you one day.”
He shook his head. “You can’t be great at everything.”
“I know I’m not, I’m just a little competitive.”
Jasper and I asked in unison, “A little?”
Sophie smirked at both of us, and tore off the paper from her present. She slid the mix CD into player. Aimee Mann’s melancholy voice filled the car.
I sighed, very loudly. “Seriously, man. You gave that to her now?”
Jasper shrugged. “It’s her birthday, aren’t we supposed to do whatever she wants.”
“Exactly!” Sophie playfully punched me, not nearly hard enough to jolt my hands, and turn the wheel. “You guys have to listen to what I want to listen to.” She hit the button and the next track started. I smiled at Jasper in the rear view mirror when Radiohead came on.
A few blocks from the church I made a left and Jasper asked from the backseat, “Where are you going, Blake?”
“Oh, this is where Zoe lives.”
“We’re picking up Zoe Malone?”
“Well, yeah. Thought you knew that.”
Jasper straightened his posture, “No, man. I figured since she lived so close she’d walk.”
Sophie shook her head. “And that’s why you’re single, Jasper. You’d make your girlfriend walk to a date in the cold, and at night.”
“Zoe’s just my friend,” I said. “And that’s why I’m picking her up, just like I picked up you two.”
Jasper took the mask off his head, shoved it under my seat, looked at me through the rear view mirror, and said, “We can’t both be your friends, dude.”
“Simple. You and I have never made out, so by definition, I can’t be categorized the same as her.”
“Jesus Christ.” I muttered as I pulled into the Malone’s driveway. Only a friend that’s as much of a dork as me would ‘categorize’ our peers based on social mores. The fact that Sophie’s face had turned crimson when Jasper mentioned Zoe and I kissing took up more of my gray matter than I’d expected. I could feel the tension in her body rise, and not in the same way the muscles in her back reacted to my touch. I knew she was anxious. I just didn’t know if it was because of me, or Zoe.
But I chalked it up to girls were weird about other girls. It was like they were constantly ranking themselves based on the company they kept.
I got out and trekked up to her door, but Zoe opened it before I could knock. Her golden hair had been curled into perfect spirals, it reminded me of the shape of D.N.A. She wore a tight white shirt which made me forget my own name.
“Hey, Blake.” I was glad she reminded me of it.
“Hey.” I heard my voice, but didn’t feel my mouth move.
“So, are we just gonna stand here all night?”
“Oh,” Feeling came back to my extremities. “No, come on.”
When I got back to the car and opened the drivers side door, I saw that Sophie had moved to the backseat with, Jasper. Her arms were folded on her chest, and her eyes refused to meet mine. “Why’d you move?” I asked as I sat down in the driver’s seat.
Sophie shrugged. “I figured Zoe should sit up front.”
Zoe flashed her a smile. “Thanks, and happy birthday, so you’re like nineteen now?”
“No, I’m eighteen.”
“Whoa, how is that? I mean you’re birthday is really late. I mean mine’s in November and I’ll be nineteen. Did you skip a grade or something?”
Sophie nodded. “The fourth grade.”
Zoe’s words were so soft I could barely make them out over Exit Music (For a Film). “Like the fourth grade is really that hard anyway.”
“So, how do you like Annapolis?” Jasper said in a voice deeper in tenor than usual.
“It’s ok, I guess. I mean my Dad said he’d take us sailing, but he’s like, always traveling opening up hotels, and casinos, and stuff.”
Sophie turned to Jasper and said. “Sounds very arduous.”
Zoe nodded at her through the rear view mirror. “I know it is rigorous, all that traveling, is like really hard.”
“That’s not what I said…” Sophie started.
“Yeah, but it means the same thing…” Jasper began.
But, Zoe interrupted them both, “What is this weird music, anyway?”
As her hand reached toward the stereo I said, “It’s Radiohead, one of the best bands ever. They’re up there with The White Stripes and Smashing Pumpkins.”
“Are they like, your favorite band, or something?”
I shook my head, “No.”
Zoe showed me a mouth full of teeth as she smiled. “Who is?”
“Weezer.” Jasper and Sophie said in unison.
“Oh, isn’t that the band with the geek as their lead singer?”
My heart, lungs, and soul were stuck in my throat. “Rivers Cuomo isn’t a geek. I’m a geek, he’s a rockstar.”
Zoe turned back to Jasper and Sophie. “Who’s Rivers Cuomo?”
“He’s the lead singer,” Sophie said.
“Of Blake’s favorite band,” Jasper continued.
Zoe returned her eyes to me. “I just knew him as the guy with the cool glasses.” A long tan finger touched the edge of my frames. “They remind me of yours.”
I know I should have taken it as an insult, since my crush basically called me a nerd, but I chose instead to believe that she called me a rockstar. Thankfully I pulled into the gravel parking lot in front of a single story white church. It’s white steeples reached up into the starlit sky. I didn’t bother locking it considering there wasn’t anything but a graveyard and a scattering of houses amongst acres of green. Besides there were nicer cars to break into than my Mom’s 1996 Ford Taurus.
St. Margaret’s Church had a hospital grade tile floor. A dozen plain glass windows ran along the white concrete walls. I’d never been there on a Sunday, but I didn’t think the cold and impersonal building would make me feel closer to God.
Since it wasn’t a holy day there were two dozen fold out metal chairs in the center of the sanctuary. There was still a crucifix above the stage I assumed the minister used as his pulpit, but the band always played below it, about five feet from the front row. In all the times I’d been there, I’d never seen anyone actually sitting while music was being played. Everyone talked only in between sets, or like now, long before the headliners had started. The three guys were freshman, and their timing made me believe they’d just learned the song a few days ago.
All the teenagers drank our of blue plastic cups, half of which I knew were spiked with something. David had come home a fair share of nights long past curfew, and wasted, after a night at St. Margaret’s. But as further example of how different I was from my older brother I didn’t follow the same path. I still loved live music, besides we lived in Annapolis, what else was I supposed to do with my free time?
“Hey, Morgan,” Trace said my last name, but I didn’t know why. He’d never spoken to me when I was actually in his house at one of the dozen parties Zoe had taken me to.
I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and when I opened my mouth a stranger spoke. “Yeah?”
“You’re friends with the hot red head, right?” He nodded his angular jaw toward a girl dancing in the crowd.
Granted she looked pretty with her long wavy copper hair, tight aqua colored sweater, and leather boots that reached her knees, but I wouldn’t describe her as ‘hot’. “Her name’s Sophie.”
“She’s not seeing anyone is she?”
I shook my head.
He bit his lip as his eyes lingered on her as if he were peeling of her clothes. The jock ran his hand through the thick bushy long hair that verged on an afro. All the lacrosse players wore their hair the same as if it were part of their uniform. Then again I hadn’t had a haircut in months either. “Cool.”
I don’t know if I asked him because I was looking out for my best friend or if I was jealous. “Aren’t you still with, Nina?”
“Nah. I like meeting new people too much.”
In my mind I punched him until his nose bled, and he lay sobbing on the floor. In reality I watched him walk over to Sophie. I didn’t have long to analyze how I felt about the situation before Zoe wrapped her arms around my torso.
“I missed you,” she nibbled on my earlobe. I assumed she did it because she thought I must feel some pleasure from the sensation, but I didn’t. It made me feel as if she were testing me before she decided whether to devour me whole or not. Zoe’s lips fused with mine, which was a sensation I throughly enjoyed, until I heard Trace yell over the blaring music.
“You spilled your drink on her man!” The lacrosse captain pushed the tall dark haired boy. He was on the team too. In fact John had shoved me into a locker when we were in seventh grade. It was Sophie who got me out, and was presently covered in a dark liquid I believed to be beer.
“It was just an accident.” John raised his hands above his head as if Trace were a cop.
Trace pulled on his flannel shirt so their faces were inches apart. “Apologize to her.”
“I’m sorry.” But, John didn’t look in Sophie’s direction.
“Whatever,” she shook her head. “I’m going home.” Sophie walked over to Zoe and me. “Can we go home now, Blake?”
“No we can’t yet, the band hasn’t even played!” Zoe whined still hanging on to me.
Sophie’s glare met with Zoe. “I’m sorry to ruin your night, but I’m covered in beer on my birthday.”
Zoe twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “Your shirt will dry out.”
“Forget it, I’ll take a taxi.” And in a flash my best friend was gone.
I took Zoe’s hand and started toward the door. “I have to take her home.”
“She said she’ll get a cab, Blake.”
I picked up the pace. “If it was the other way around I wouldn’t let you go home alone either.”
“Whatever,” Zoe sighed.
We found Sophie standing in the gravel parking lot as she hung up her phone and dropped it back into her purse.
I came up to the side of her. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride home.”
Sophie shook her head and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Lilly’s five minutes away, I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll wait with you.”
“No, it’s freezing!” Zoe tugged on the sleeve of my jacket.
I looked down at her. “Go back inside where it’s warm, I’ll be back in time to hear the band.”
“OK,” She stood on her tip toes and kissed me before she went back to the safety of the church.
The cold breeze sung in my ears but it couldn’t block out the sound of electric guitars and teenagers cheering.
“You don’t have to wait,” Sophie said.
“Yes I do because something’s wrong,” I said.
“I’m covered in alcohol that I didn’t even have the pleasure of drinking.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. You’ve been acting weird for weeks.”
Her eyes lingered on mine, “It’s nothing.”
I poked her in the ribs in hopes to alleviate the tension, the action made her face turn neon, as if all her freckles had merged together.. “Tell me.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She pulled her black knit beanie down until it covered most of her face save her lips.
“I’ll get it out of you eventually.”
“It wouldn’t make a difference even if I did tell you.”
“What does that mean?”
A car horn honked as Lilly pulled up alongside the curb. Sophie flipped up the edge of her beanie up and turned to me. “It doesn’t matter because you have a girlfriend.”
I brushed the hair off my forehead. The forward momentum of the conversation was starting to take a much darker turn then I’d expected. “Zoe’s not my girlfriend.”
“You keep telling everyone that as if it makes it true.” She yanked the car door open, “Goodnight, Blake.” Her words became a mist that hung in the air, long after she was gone.
What I didn’t understand was why she moved to the backseat when we picked up Zoe? Wouldn’t she want to sit next to me if she really did want to be more than a friend?