‘What I find,’ Maggie said, ‘is that when you get gum, you always need something else. Because gum isn’t really a snack.’
‘So true,’ Esther agreed.
‘If I do get gum, I always grab some chips, or maybe a cookie two-pack, as well. That way you know you’ve got your food and something refreshing for afterward.’
Leah shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘What about Tic Tacs? They’re like gum, but I’ve been known to eat them for a meal before.’
‘Tic Tacs you actually swallow, though,’ Esther pointed out. ‘You own a Tic Tac. Gum is just borrowed.’
Maggie turned to her, smiling. ‘Impressive.’
‘Thank you,’ Esther replied. ‘I always feel inspired here at the Gas/Gro.’
I, however, was not feeling inspired. Or impressed. If anything, I felt completely out of my element, a stranger in a strange world. One minute I was alone on the beach, and the next, I was here, a girl among girls, maybe even a store-goer.
When Maggie had first sat down beside me, I’d had no idea what to expect. I had friends from the various schools I’d attended, but the one common denominator was that I’d never really done the girly thing with any of them. Our interactions, instead, were mostly limited to academic discussions, our solid common ground. So all I had to go on were the snippets of chick flicks I’d caught here and there on basic cable, where women only seemed to bond while drinking too much, playing disco music, dancing together, or all of the above. But since none of these things was going to happen on my watch, even in my depressed state, I had to wonder what, exactly would. When Maggie finally spoke, though, she managed to surprise me. Again.
‘So your mom’s kind of a badass, huh.’
I turned to look at her. She was staring out at the water, her hair blowing around her face, knees pulled to her chest. I said, ‘That’s one word for her.’
She smiled, then reached over for her bag, plopping it between us and then reaching a hand in to dig around for something. After a moment, she pulled a magazine out, and I braced myself for some celebrity analogy, God help me. Instead, I was shocked to see it was a college catalog from the U as she pulled it into her lap, flipping through a few pages until she found one with the corner folded down. Then she handed it to me.
U ENGLISH AND YOU it said. The words were somewhat hard to read, as I had only the distant glow of the house behind us to go on. But the picture of my mom – sitting at the head of a seminar table, her glasses in one hand, clearly mid-lecture – I would have known in any light, any distance.
‘Where did you get this?’ I asked her.
‘It came with my application package. The English department was the main reason I applied there.’
‘You’re going to the U?’
She shook her head, and I felt bad for asking, as a rejection had to be a sore subject. ‘I did tons of research, though. I knew your mom looked familiar in the store today. But I couldn’t figure out why until I went home and found that.’
I looked down at my mom’s picture again, then slowly shut the catalog. ‘She’s… complex,’ I said. ‘It’s not always easy being her daughter.’
‘I think,’ she said, ‘sometimes it’s hard no matter whose daughter you are.’
I considered this as I handed the catalog back to her and she returned it to her bag. For a moment we just sat there, both of us quiet, looking at the water. All I could think was that of everyone I’d met so far in Colby, she was the last person I ever would have thought I would end up with like this. Which reminded me of something else.
‘You know,’ I said finally, ‘Jake really was nothing to me. I’m embarrassed I ever had anything to do with him.’
She nodded slowly. ‘He tends to have that effect on people.’
‘Really, though. If I had it to do over…’ I took in a breath. ‘I wouldn’t.’
‘And you,’ she said, stretching her legs out in front of her, ‘were only with him for one night. Imagine wasting two years of your life, like I did.’
I couldn’t, of course. I’d never even had a real boyfriend, even a crappy one. I said, ‘You must have really loved him.’
‘I did.’ This was said simply, easily. The truth. ‘I guess everyone has that, though, right?’
‘That first love. And the first one who breaks your heart. For me, they just happen to be the same person. At least I’m efficient, right?’ She reached into her bag, rummaging around again, before finally pulling out a pack of gum. She went to pull out a stick, then furrowed her brow. ‘Empty. Time to hit the Gas/Gro.’
I looked up at her as she got to her feet, brushing sand off herself before grabbing her bag. ‘Well,’ I said. ‘Thanks. For checking in on me.’
‘You’re not coming?’ she asked.
‘To the Gas/Gro?’
‘Or wherever.’ She hiked her bag over her shoulder. ‘I mean, you can just sit here, I guess. But it seems kind of lonely. Especially if you’re already feeling rotten.’
I just sat there, looking at her for a moment. I felt like I should be honest, let her know that lonely actually appealed to me, even at my most rotten, and at times was actually preferable. But then I remembered how I’d been feeling, sitting there watching the sun go down, and wondered if this was still true. Maybe. Maybe not. It seemed a lot to decide, right in that moment. So instead, I went with another truth, one that was never in doubt.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I guess I could use some more coffee.’
Then, somehow, I was standing up. Chucking my empty cup in a nearby trash can. And falling into step beside her, down the sand to the boardwalk, past the gathered tourists, to the Gas/Gro, where Esther and Leah were sitting outside on the bumper of a beat-up Jetta, waiting for us.
Now, I watched as Maggie grabbed a pack of cookies and her gum, and paused, her hand over the Twizzlers, before deciding against them. Esther, beside her, was studying a package of sunflower seeds.
‘All night I’ve been thinking about these,’ she said. ‘But now, here in the moment, I’m just not sure they have enough snack bang.’
‘Snack bang?’ I asked.
‘It’s the amount of taste and sustenance you get from any given snack,’ Maggie explained as Leah grabbed a box of Tic Tacs, shaking them. ‘So, like, sunflower seeds have very little. But beef jerky has tons.’