“A Love As Good As”

Originally published in Kweli: Truth from the Diaspora’s Boldest Voices
copyright (c) 2014 by Anjoli Roy

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I hated Boones, but Dev always got a bottle for Val anyway. Me with the cool sister who came home from SDSU for long weekends and bought us booze with her fake ID as long as we promised we’d only drink at home. That was fine by me and Val—Dad was usually traveling for medical conferences and Val basically lived at our house anyway.

Dev’s dusty boombox was on full blast. Prince was singing something about partying like it was 1999. Dev was dancing around in a foxy Cleopatra, paisley-print halter top and baggy jeans, showing off soft brown curves, her college clothes exploding from a poorly packed weekend bag in her otherwise bare room. It didn’t matter that I’d taken to sleeping in there—the place still looked abandoned. Dev had taken everything good with her when she moved away.

“Dev, you are so hot.” Val was eyeing Dev up and down. Val was sitting on the velvet bedspread that was stretched across Dev’s California king. Her fingers danced lightly across something black and lacy hanging out of Dev’s vintage, hard-cased travel bag.

Dev stopped dancing, crossed the nubby Persian carpet, and snapped her travel bag shut, barely missing Val’s fingers. “No. Touching.”

“Jeez.” Val clutched her hand close to her chest, looked wounded.

“Don’t be dumb,” I stage-whispered at Val from the far end of the bed. Val stuck her tongue out at me, tossed her bouncy curls back from her shoulders. I returned to Dev’s CD collection.

“Whatever, Rani.” Val said that like that wasn’t my real name. I glared at her for a moment, lingered on how she looked uncomfortable, twitchy in that way she’d started to look lately. She crossed the bed and sat down next to me, flicked at a few CDs that were piled up in my lap. Her boney knees looked sharp.

“Why do you still listen to this 80s crap?” I called over to Dev.

“Because Prince is sexy. Duh,” Val interjected.

“Your girl might know something after all.” Dev was standing in front of the full-length mirror hanging on the back of her door, pulling down on her jeans. The curve of her hips poked out. She blotted at the red she’d just painted across her mouth.

I couldn’t believe that folks thought Dev and I looked alike. She was so beautiful and full. I pretended not to like it when Dev’s high school friends called me “little Dev” when I ran into them in Old Town. I secretly coveted how they said I looked just like her, that we looked like twins. Maybe I could be beautiful one day too, sexy even.

Right. I was a dull spoon.

Dev crossed the room in front of me to turn up the volume on “Little Red Corvette.”

“Ew, who gave you those?” I pointed at the dark marks on Dev’s visible cleavage.

“Who can remember?” Dev sighed. That meant she was hooking up with loser ex-boyfriends.

Val looked at Dev like she was a god.

A whoosh of red wind tore into the room, rattling the door that connected Dev’s room to the rest of the house along with the second door that opened out to the yard, to the oak tree canopy under which this side of the house fit and the playhouse that Mom and Grandpa had built. The Santa Anas had arrived early from the Mojave. That meant that both forest fires and tempers were flaring during the day. It also meant it was freezing cold at night. Dev slid the windows in the far corner of the room shut.

“Are you gonna take a sweater?” I pointed at Dev’s bare shoulders.

Dev didn’t acknowledge me, but she tied one around her waist.

Dev caught Val staring at her. “Could you give us a second?” She pointed to the door.

“Why?” Val was eyeing her newly French-tipped acrylics and sounding sassy. She looked to me to back her up. When I didn’t, she said, “Fine. Banished to the playhouse once again.”

“I’ll be out in a minute,” I said.

Val rolled her eyes dramatically. She swung the door open, and I saw the spot where there was a big ring indented into the wooden door, evidence of the party Dev had thrown years earlier on some weekend when she was still in high school and I was at Mom’s. Dev was supposed to be at a friend’s. The party got out of control, a kid got jumped, and his boys showed up for vengeance, thinking Dev had set up the whole thing. The guys tried but failed to battery-ram their way inside the house to get at Dev. She hid in the closet. I was eight.

Dev swung the door shut behind Val. “Listen, you know how I feel about that girl. She’s sweet and all, but—” Dev shook her head, looking for words, maybe.

“She’s my best friend, okay?”

“She’s into some shit you’re not ready for, Rani.”

“Maybe I’m ready now,” I said, chucking back my shoulders.

“Maybe you’re not.” Dev took my face in her hand and looked at me like I was bullshitting, like I was a baby. Like I was eight again.

I jerked my face away.

She handed over a clinking liquor store bag and hugged me hard. “Be good tonight,” she said. The scent of her mango body oil filled my nose. I walked her outside, watched her get into her truck, and stood in the driveway until she was gone.

The sun slipped down behind thin hills, and all the light from the sky drained like water from a gold bath.

“Do we really have to drink out here?” Val called over to me from across the yard. She was sitting in the playhouse with the front door open.

I put my fingers to my lips, my eyes wide, and pointed upstairs, where my dad was for once. Val mouthed sorry, and I walked barefoot across a path littered with spiky oak leaves to her.

Val was swatting at spider webs from the grimy glider chair where she was reclining, her feet touching one wall and the top of her head brushing the other in our playhouse. My mom, who fancied herself a carpenter, and grandpa, who gave 50 years to the electric company, built the place when Dev and I were small. With a Dutch door, an A-frame roof, and a now-flaking red paint job with white molding, the little house looked more farm than suburb. Dusty teacups and saucers lined each of the miniature shelves. Grandpa even ran a power line to the playhouse, something that never ceased to amaze the neighborhood kids. The bamboo forest hugging the structure’s backside made the inside heavy and green, swamp-like. The manmade wade pool dug a few steps from the playhouse’s front door was where Mom used to hose me off when I came home too muddy for the clean inside of the house. When Grandpa died, she filled the shallow pool with water from a nearby hose and dumped in some goldfish until raccoons clawed them out as easy as salad from a buffet tray. We emptied the pool then, when the mosquitoes started taking over, when Mom left, but I never stopped getting bitten.

“Dad’s home today. Nowhere else for us to go.” I slapped too late at my leg, watched a pink welt rise on my shin. I sat on a metal trunk filled with neon boas where I imagined fancy spiders lived. I closed the playhouse door behind me, passed Val her Boones from the liquor-store bag, and took out a forty  and a carton of orange juice.

I flicked the light switch by my head. Electricity chugged down toward the little house, pooled in buzzing halogen bulbs, revealing a cluster of dead moths on the plastic light casings.

When I downed the sour, fizzy neck of my forty, I tried not to taste it, and filled the bottle back up again with orange juice. I twisted the cap back on and turned the bottle over carefully before righting it and sipping at the bubbly orange liquid. I smiled big.

Val passed me the Black & Mild she’d just lit. “I don’t know how you can drink that.” She made a vomit face.

I bit at the plastic mouthpiece, inhaled the silk smoke deep and blew it out of the window that faced the end of our property and the beginning of our neighbor’s yard.

“And I don’t know why you hit that like it’s weed,” Val said.

I felt my fingertips tingle, my knees get watery and loose.

Val fiddled with her bird pendant, the one her boyfriend Johnny had given her last spring after their close call. She stretched her hands up and touched the ceiling, then her head from side to side. I passed the Black & Mild back to her. Her neck popped twice.

I tapped the bottle with my acrylics, manicured this afternoon, French tips with a rhinestone on the white of each ring finger, just like Val’s. “This is the only way to drink this shit. Tastes like Orangina.”

“If you say so.”

I took a long swig and put the sweaty bottle between my feet, tying up my wet hair, then burped like a foghorn.

Val rolled her eyes. “Are you going to do something with that?” She pointed at my head. “You want it like mine?” Her hair bounced back from her shoulders.

Obviously.” We turned up our bottles and laughed at our dainty pinkies in the air.

In the distance, the house phone rang. Footsteps crunched across the yard. Bottles clinked as we jammed them into tiny cupboards, behind tiny furniture. I snuffed out the Black & Mild on the sole of my Converse and tossed it out the window into the neighbor’s yard. Girl faces flushed. We held our breaths.

“Rani, I’ve been calling you,” came Dad’s voice.

I swung open the top half of the Dutch door and smiled at him. I didn’t show my teeth.

He poked his head inside at Val and me, eyes searching, his face flushing harder than ours. He was still in his button-down and slacks, his county hospital ID badge clipped to his shirt pocket. “Dr. Sen” was printed in bold letters under an unsmiling picture of him from several years ago, before his hair went gray. “Johnny’s on the phone.”

I took the cordless from him, passed it to Val, smiled, tried to keep the smell of liquor inside my mouth. I pushed the top half of the door shut.

There was a pause before I heard Dad trudging off back toward the house, crushing the prickly spines of dead oak leaves.

“Hey babe,” Val said into the phone, the cordless pressed to her lipsticked mouth.

The crunching steps stopped.

“Rani, can you come here a minute?”

“Daaaad.” I rolled my eyes, opened the door just barely. “I have Valerie here.”

“Out. Now.”

I sighed hard, made a big show of getting up and dusting myself off and dragging my feet across the yard.

“Is Val still with that boy? Johnny? Are they being safe?”

“Gross!”

“I’m serious about telling her mother if it happens again.”

“Got it, Doctor Man. No more morning-after pills.” I mock-saluted him.

He looked at me hard. “Are you two smoking dope in there?”

I burst out laughing, could have sworn that I heard Val giggle too before a hand clamped her mouth. I looked back to the playhouse, saw Val staring out at me through the just-barely-open door with an exaggerated look of dread. She whispered into the phone before she nudged the door shut.

“Rani.”

“Dad.”

“Answer me,” he said in a low growl that was more tin than bass. He sounded scarier when I was a kid. When he was home even less.

“We’re not smoking ‘dope.’”

Valerie’s giggle sounded like marbles falling all over the floor.

“Better not be.” He started walking off toward the house.

“Didn’t you smoke out in college?” I called out to his back.

He stopped heavy in his tracks, turned back to me. He looked like I had just broken something on purpose.

“Dev told me.”

“I was a freshman in college then, not high school.” He turned away from me with a hand over his eyes, like seeing me right now was too much to bear. “What do you girls want for dinner?”

“We’re going out. I told you. Remember?”

He nodded yes though I could tell he didn’t. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Your mother called. She wants to get together with you girls before your sister heads back to San Diego tomorrow.”

“Nice that she waited to plan something until the day before Dev leaves.”

“She’s trying.”

“Right. She just tries when Dev is home.”

He put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s probably easier to make time when you’re both here.”

“Two daughters for the price of one!” I stared at him, and he looked away. “Trying is bullshit.” I kicked at the oak leaves piled up under my feet until I got to bare earth. “She’s the one who cheated. She’s the one who left. Stop defending her.” I stopped there, hating how my chin was starting to tremble. I swallowed hard, the back of my mouth suddenly salty.

He looked up at the branches of the oak tree reaching out above us and looked stung.

“Dev probably won’t be back until late tomorrow morning, right before she’ll have to leave to get back to San Diego anyway.”

“It’s up to you then, okay? Your decision. Call your mother or don’t.” He looked tired. The bags under his eyes were puffy and dark. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of days. He might have been at the hospital the whole time, working on getting infertile ladies pregnant or doing hysterectomies or hormone-replacement therapy or whatever it was he was up to lately. He sighed. “Where is it that you’re going tonight again?”

“Dana’s thing.”

His eyes were fixed back on me, looking for some other kind of reassurance.

“Dana’s sister is picking us up. We’re gonna watch movies over there. No drunk driving. No hard stuff. Home by midnight. You can stop worrying,” I said. “I’m still a virgin!” I pointed two finger pistols at him before calling “Love you!” over my shoulder and bounding back to the playhouse.

He sighed hard, probably the way only dads of daughters do.

*    *    *

“It’s really hard to tell if my makeup is right in here. Orange is not my color.” Val fluffed her hair, dabbed more blush on her cheeks, a few more strokes of mascara on her lashes, the bathroom’s floor-to-ceiling citrus-colored tiles clearly annoying her. Looking at our faces beside each other in the mirror, I saw how Val and I could pass for sisters even though her folks were Nicaraguan and French and a bunch of other stuff and I was Bengali and white. We had the same dark hair, long nose, beige-ish skin, dark eyes. We’d laugh when folks assumed we were both Mexican.

“Do you think you’re gonna let Ricky go all the way yet? Everyone knows you throb for him.”

“You are so gross!” I said. I watched Val let my hair smoke a bit on the curling iron before releasing the spiral from the coil.

“You know you like him, baby.” She smacked her gum like it was sour.

Slim brown arms, defined biceps, straight teeth behind those braces he had, us grinding in the corner at the spring dance until I was so hot I almost didn’t care where I was anymore, or who saw, until our biology teacher, Ms. High, broke us up.

“Are you really trying to be the last virgin in our crew? You know Ricky is tired of waiting.”

“And you know this how?”

“He told Johnny.”

“Shut up.”

“Listen, I’m just saying, if you like him, what’s the big deal? You want it, don’t you?”

I checked my face in the mirror. Stupid baby fat was still hanging onto my cheeks. “Yah . . . I mean, duh, of course I do . . . but I’m not a slut, like some people . . .”

Val’s eyes daggered from her face in the mirror to mine. “Bitch! A slut isn’t someone who’s sleeping with the same guy she’s loved since like elementary.”

“See? You love him, right? It makes sense why you guys have sex—”

“Don’t make such a big deal out of it.” Val sighed. “I’m just saying, if you wanna stay with him, you’ve gotta give him something to work with, okay?” Val swiveled her hips.

I covered my face with my hands. “Just use condoms, will you? My dad’s on my case. He was serious about telling your mom.” I stretched a hair band between my thumb and pointer finger, shot Val right in the reflection.

Val grabbed some hair from the top of my head and yanked it onto the curling iron.

“Ouch! What’s your problem?”

“Don’t act tender-headed.” She glared at me in the mirror. “You really think he’ll tell my mom?”

“Uh, yah, Val. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal or at least super uncool for him to give a minor the morning-after pill without telling her parents or getting their permission or something. He only did it last time because you’re basically his third daughter. And he knows how your mom is.” Ironically, when I’d come crying to my dad that Val was in trouble, that she needed his help, he’d tried to put me on the pill. Me, who hadn’t done more than kissed a boy. He’d said it was for my acne.

“I was thinking about getting that Depo thing.”

“The shot?” I held onto my arm. “Doesn’t that make you go crazy?”

“Don’t be dumb,” she said. “It’s just like the pill. Only this way, my crazy ass Mom won’t have anything to dig up in my room.” Val’s mom was notorious for reading through her journals, drawers, dirty clothes, anything that could be a clue to what Val was up to. The last time we were getting ready to go out at Val’s house, which was super rare, her mom had told us we better not be meeting up with any boys at the movies. She was the opposite from my mom, who walked around our house naked for all of my elementary school days before she finally took off with one of her boyfriends and moved out for good. She lived just fifteen minutes away, in Eagle Rock, but it could have been 15 hours for how often I saw her.

“I guess. I mean, it’s probably a good idea. But my dad won’t give that shot to you. He won’t even give you the pill. Nothing long-term without your mom’s permission, he said, remember?”

“Duh. I can get the shot at Planned Parenthood for free.” She was done with my hair, which she fluffed and shot with a big can of hairspray that she’d brought over from her house. She leaned toward the mirror and blotted at the thick black eyeliner she’d drawn around her almond eyes. I’d done the same with mine, but while Val looked sophisticated, I was still a little girl playing dress up. Val squinted, pouted at her reflection.

Dana’s sister honked from the front yard, flashing her headlights into the bathroom where I watched Val paint her lips blood red and I tried to do the same.

“Yay, you look so pretty!” Val clapped her hands like a little girl, and hugged me hard for a second. She’d always been affectionate. Trusting. Loving. It occurred to me that these bright moments were less frequent lately.

“Is Serena going to be there tonight?” I grabbed my purse.

“Think so. Why?”

I rubbed at the smudge marks from my eyeliner. “You act different around her. Plus, what’s with the eyebrow pencil?”

“You should talk, chulita!”

“Shut up! You know I just plucked too much last time. At least I don’t wax them off and draw them in on purpose.” I ran my middle fingers over my pencil-wide brows.

“Jealous!” Val chucked me on the shoulder. “Ditch the sneakers, please.” She tossed me a pair of pink pumps from her backpack.

“I can’t walk in those!”

“Gotta learn some time. And, plus, they match my lucky shirt.”

I looked down at what else Val had put me in. She was right, the clingy shirt I was wearing had little red hearts and in the same shade as the pumps said “love” in curling script. I remembered then that it was the shirt she’d worn the night she lost her virginity. I fought the urge to rip it off.

Dana’s sister honked again. I grabbed the shoes, padded across the hardwood floor of the living room, and called upstairs to Dad that we were leaving. I shoved my feet into the pumps, hating them already.

The party was at the house of somebody who I’d never met before who lived on Windsor Avenue by Hahamongna Watershed Park across town in Pasadena. When we crossed Suicide Bridge, Val and I held our breaths just as we had since we were little kids. We brushed off the stale stuffing from Dana’s sister’s torn-up upholstery from our jeans before crossing the front lawn to get to the big red door that led to the party. I tried hard to walk on the balls of my feet, but the pumps still sank into the cool grass. A dog growled ominously from the next-door neighbor’s yard, straining against its tether. The bass from the party’s loud speakers thumped even through the closed front door.

Serena, in her leopard tube top, skyscraper heels, and clown eyebrows was at the front door. I tried to tug Val away, but Serena already had her arms hooked around her.

“I’ve got something new for you to try tonight,” she said to Val. Val gave me a look that told me to be cool while she was gone, and the two of them disappeared into a back room with a guy in a red fitted and a jersey. I hadn’t met him before.

I frowned, using the mean face that I reserved for when I was abandoned on crumbly couches at parties where I didn’t know anyone. Big Pun was playing loud on an oversized stereo in the front room. I picked at my fingernails amid the twenty-odd teenagers drifting in and out of the house, kicked at the dusty brown shag carpeting with those dumb pink pumps. When Val finally emerged out of the back room, she looked funny.

“You okay?” I asked. “What were you doing back there?”

“Don’t worry about it, baby.” Her eyes looked glassy, her pupils huge. “We’re gonna go pick up Johnny. You’re cool, right?”

“Val, we just got here.”

“He’s up the road, Rani. We’ll be right back. Promise. Ricky is supposed to be here any minute too.”

I didn’t like the way she was looking at me, but then she was gone. I hugged the arm of the couch, watched the red door.

“You wanna try some too?”

I looked up. It was the guy in the red hat, the jersey. His eyes looked glassy and blown up like Val’s. He showed me some bluish pebbles in a ziplock.

“I’m good. I don’t do hard stuff.”

“I feel you,” he said. “You tried the latest Tiffany’s perfume?” I took a sample bottle of perfume from him before seeing the white powder inside. I handed it back to him.

“I’m good, thanks.”

“I’ve got some x too.”

“Some what?”

X, chica. You like to roll?” He showed me a bag of pills.

“No,” I said, trying to sound firmer this time. Couldn’t this dude leave me alone? I pulled my long-sleeved black sweater around me tighter. Where was Val?

“Weed?”

I shook my head.

“You want a beer?”

“I had a bunch at home.” I fumbled with my sweater, looked again for Val at the door.

“Yo, who brought the after-school special?” the red-hatted guy called out over the music to the now packed room. He was pointing at me. A few folks nearby laughed.

I felt my face flush, then shot up from the couch and darted to the front door.

“Where you going, special—”

The front door slammed behind me before I could hear him finish his sentence. I was too far from my house to walk home, especially in the dumb shoes Val had given me. I wrapped my sweater tighter around me, all the heat from the day gone like it had never been there.

“Ayo, pumps, where you going?” It was Ricky. He was getting out of a car with Johnny and, yep, Val too.

I smiled up at him.

He was wearing a bomber jacket and baggy jeans, sneakers all clean. He looked like he’d just had a haircut. He flashed his braces at me. My heart was doing that fish-out-of-water thing in my chest.

“I was just getting some fresh air.”

When he yoked me up and pulled me back into the party, the nerves went out of me. Val looked over from under Johnny’s arm and smiled before they disappeared into a back bedroom, alone this time. In the backyard, Ricky hunched over a plastic ziplock, a pouch of tobacco, a baggie of weed, and some rolling papers like making the perfect joint was everything that mattered in the world.

When he lick-lick-licked the edge of the rolling paper to seal it, then took the first few puffs, he handed it to me.

I was smoking a Newport that I’d bummed off someone outside. “Don’t wanna ruin your handiwork.”

“Just hit this like the shit you’ve had before is beer and this is the hard stuff.”

I didn’t tell him I hadn’t had other shit. I took a long drag, and was embarrassed when my lungs froze up and I coughed out the sweet smoke hard.

He smiled at me. “Good job, rookie.” He hit it again and passed it on to the circle that had formed around us. He led me deeper into the backyard, to the edge of the property, away from the light of the house and where anyone else was standing.

I didn’t feel anything.

When he kissed me, I tried to stay clear of his braces. When my lips felt raw and Ricky noticed I was shivering because he’d gotten me out of my sweater, he pulled me deeper into the warmth of his bomber jacket, which felt more like a bed than coat, more comforter than even a blanket, even more so when he eased me down to the damp ground, where we kept kissing, his mouth on me so hard, his hands everywhere. I wanted this forever, this feeling where I was in every piece of my body and also at the back of my mind, away from stupid shit like Val disappearing into back rooms and cars without me, and sisters in crop tops, and moms who left and dads who didn’t notice—until I felt Ricky tugging my pants down. I stopped him.

“What’s up?”

“It’s just—I don’t want to. I mean, not here.”

“Come on. The rooms are all taken, mami. And besides, nobody can see.” He curled his weight onto me again.

I looked around at the bedroom we were making of the hedge, remembered the next-door neighbor’s dog but moved a bit deeper into the bushes anyway. “Can’t we just kiss? Like, for now?” I wondered if I shouldn’t just get it over with. It would be easier than saying no every weekend.

Ricky pretended to collapse on me, then rolled onto his back. “Fuck!” he yelled out his frustration.

The cluster of people smoking by the house heard him. “Everything alright over there?” called one of his boys.

I shrank further into the protection of the bushes. A low growl sounded near me, and I looked around to find the source.

“I know you’re a virgin and everything, but kissing only, really?” His words hooked around the wiry edges of his braces.

“I don’t know who told you that. We can do more than—” I pushed myself up from the ground and felt something squish under my palm, unleashing a putrid smell.

“Uh, is that shit?!” Ricky backed fast out of the bush. He was standing in the light now, where his boy and their friends could see him. He was pointing back at me.

“Oh, shit, son! She got shit on her!”

That’s when the dog started barking right next to me, its teeth visible through the hedge. I jumped, remembering my sweater too late after I’d already disentangled myself from the bushes, deciding not to go back for it, and chucked Ricky as I headed inside, sure to get at least a smudge on him. My heart thumped in my chest. I washed my hands in the kitchen sink with lemon-scented dish soap, the half a dozen people inside all plugging their nose at me dramatically. Where the hell was Val?

Red Hat was inside. He was knocked out.

“Have you seen my girl?” I shook him a bit to get his attention.

“Smells like somebody shitted.” His eyes were glassy and even more retreated than when I’d left him last.

“My girl?” I said. “Val?” Goosebumps crawled up my arms. The summertime cold was horrible tonight. The air was so dry, it had no way to hold onto daytime heat.

Red hat started tearing up. “Not again.” He was grabbing at the back pockets of his pants.

“Dude, my friends?”

“They bounced, yo.” He said this firm, but tears were sliding down his face. Then, more quietly, “Do you know where the bathroom is?”

“What do you mean they bounced?!”

“Please, the bathroom? Help me out?” He looked suddenly smaller, more present, scared.

“Oh my god, you didn’t shit yourself. I got some dog shit on me outside.” I put my hands under his nose, knowing the dish soap hadn’t washed all the scent away.

He caught his nose and leaned back fast, then burst out laughing, hiding his face in the neck of his jersey, trying to act cool again. “I knew that, ma. Just fuckin’ with you. That girl, Val? She likes to party, man.” He leaned back into a trance sleep I’d woken him up from. A girl by the stereo turned up the stereo and started to belt “My Love Is the Shhhh!” which woke up Red Hat. “Yo, that smell is crazy though.”

I turned away from him, thinking Val might be in the steady stream of people pouring back into the house. She wouldn’t ditch me, would she?

“Oh no, ma! It’s on your back too. Don’t let them catch you out like that, yo. That’s fucked up.” He said this softly, maybe so no one else could hear, but it was too late.

I looked over my shoulder and sure enough, there was a deep smudge on my back, unmistakable dog shit that streaking through a series of little hearts and loves and all the other crap printed on Val’s shirt. I felt a spectacle forming around me, starting to lean away, point fingers. Red Hat looked almost sorry for me.

I ran to the back of the house and shoved open the back doors of the party, the ones that led to the bedrooms, and found her nowhere, though it was hard to tell at first when all I could glimpse was young flesh gliding, hands and mouths gripping each other.

Ricky was in the kitchen.

I checked the wall clock—it was almost midnight. “Can you give me a ride?”

He plugged his nose dramatically, fell back into the five or six friends he was standing in a semicircle with. The girl standing next to him was pawing with a soapy dishrag at the shit streak I’d smudged on his shirt.

“Please? Home? I’ve gotta make curfew.”

“Nah, girl. Didn’t drive. Besides, rides home are reserved for wifeys.” He put his arm around the soaping girl.

I walked away and heard a new wave of laughs. There was probably more pointing fingers too, but I didn’t turn around to see them. I rushed to the closest phone. I didn’t have enough cash on me to call a cab. I’d have to try my luck calling home. Dad was going to be pissed, but at least I could make up something about sleeping over at Dana’s and find a way home in the morning. I looked around the party, at the sunken couch and shag floors and the busy bedrooms, really hoping I wouldn’t have to crash there for the night. But Dad couldn’t come get me here; he’d never let me out again.

I dialed the yellow kitchen phone, whose long cord I dragged into the quiet of a wood-paneled pantry. I pulled a cord that was hanging from the ceiling and knocked into the now illuminated bulb. I pressed the phone to my mouth. Miraculously, Dev answered. I gave her the address. The engine of her truck roared into the driveway in ten and I slipped out to her. Dev was mad-dogging and looking all chulita in her truck and a bandana despite her slight 5’1” frame. I felt so grateful for her. Even though she did fucked up stuff too sometimes. Even though I wished she was around more, that she hadn’t chosen to go to school two hours away, that she hadn’t left me.

“You get down like this?” She was looking up at the house party that was still in full swing, the bass bumping from the music inside.

I buckled my seat belt, sure not to smear the dog shit on her seat.

“Ah, what the—?” She grabbed her nose as she pulled her truck away from the house.

“I know, I know.” The tears came fast and hard.

Dev looked at me alarmed, went to pull back over again, but I pushed the wheel back to the road. “Jesus, fine. Where’s Val? Isn’t she staying over tonight?”

“I don’t give a fuck where Val is!” I blurted out, hating that I was basically sobbing. I felt the mascara and raccoon eyeliner and caked-on blush all streaking down my face in hideous freak-show rivers.

Dev was quiet for a moment. She kept her eyes on the road. When I finally looked up at her, I saw that she’d thrown a hoodie over her halter, that she was wearing pajama pants.

“What happened to staying out tonight?”

“Ethan was being a douche. I think he’s messing with Melanie again, aaaand I heard she has herpes.”

“Jesus.”

“Yup.” She paused. “Not sexy.”

I started to tell her about Ricky, but stopped myself.

“Rani, I know Val is into some shit right now that you’re not ready for. You can’t try to chase her or keep up with her, you know? Especially if she’s really experimenting.”

I thought of the rocks, the sample perfume, the bag of pills.

“Dad’s freaking out about the morning-after pill.”

“I’m not the one having sex!”

“Yah, but if you hang out with crazy-sex people, folks are gonna think you’re crazy sex too.” There were three camps that high school people fell into, Dev had said to me more than once: crazy sex, crazy fight, and crazy drugs. Whoever you hang with is who you become, she’d warned.

“I know what I’ll do or not do, regardless of who I hang out with.” I stared out the windshield, crossed my arms.

“I know. You’ve been like that since we were kids. But that doesn’t mean you’re not vulnerable. Fuck, I’m vulnerable, Rani.”

I looked at her. Perfect smooth skin and beautiful thick black hair that dried just right without ever having to style it, how she just barely lined her eyes and looked prettier than anybody who put hours in to getting ready, all these guys falling over themselves to be with her. The toughness she had around her jaw line made people respect her. Nobody laughed at Dev. Then again, Dev didn’t have dog shit on her.

“I’m saying I’m not above it. This shit with Mom? With Dad? You were so little when they split. I was already a teenager. I saw too much. This shit I’ve been doing? Just like Mom. I’m acting just fucking like her.” She slammed the steering wheel.

We rode in silence the rest of the way home. When Dev shut off the engine to her truck, I saw Dad’s light turn off upstairs, as if he’d been waiting for us to get home before he went to go to bed.

Her eyes were puffy and she looked small, younger, my age. She pulled me into an awkward hug that she let go of, quick, when she smelled the dog shit again. “Oh c’mon, really?” She looked at her hands and gagged. “Jesus, Rani!” She opened her car door with her pinkies and rushed to the house.

I laughed, right behind her. “It’s not that bad!”

She plugged her nose. “Are you kidding? Burn that shirt or toss it in the dumpster or something before you get inside. And take a shower, for chrissake.”

I pulled my arms out of the sleeves, stood there in the kitchen for a moment in my white bra with blue stars on it and my jeans, somehow no longer cold. I watched Dev soaping up her hands in the kitchen sink. “Are you staying for breakfast with Mom tomorrow or whatever?” I tried to say this as cool as possible, like I didn’t care if she did or didn’t. I buried the shirt in the trashcan by the front door, beneath kitchen scraps of dahl and rice, under the papery skin of the yellow onions and garlic and ginger Dad had caramelized. That’s the simple stuff he cooked for himself when he ate alone, rather than the complex curries and papadum he made when we had dinner together. Something tight squeezed my chest.

Dev shrugged as she slid the sliding-glass door open. “Probably not.” She dried her hands, and I tried not to look disappointed. “You know I like to beat the traffic in the morning.”

“Fine.” I started to head to my room, but she caught my arm and pulled me into a quick, tight hug. “It’s too late for me and Mom, Rani. But I love you!” And then she disappeared down the hall to her room.

When I turned on the hot water to the shower and stepped inside, letting the water wash over me, I wondered if it was too late for me too.

 

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