I said, ‘You know, I have to be honest. I just don’t get this.’
‘Get what?’ Leah asked.
‘This whole obsession with stores, and snacks, and analyzing the minutiae of every single choice and pairing,’ I said. ‘What is that all about?’
They all looked at one another. Then Esther said, ‘I don’t know. It’s like, we’re headed out somewhere. You never know what’s going to happen. So you stop for supplies.’
‘The store-going comes first,’ Maggie added, ‘and then the adventure follows.’
They headed for the register, and I grabbed a fresh cup, filling it up with GroRoast. It was simple: I required nothing else. But on my way to the register, I found myself suddenly reaching out to grab a pack of two chocolate cupcakes. I knew they were extraneous, highly caloric, a waste of money. And yet I had to wonder if they were right. When you don’t know where you’re going, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to have more than you need.
‘Oh, God,’ Esther groaned. ‘Like we haven’t been here before.’
We were standing in the driveway of a big house right on the beach. There were people packed on the front steps, moving in shadows across lit-up windows, filling both decks and scattered across the sand below. Plus, there still were cars arriving, parking behind those already lining the narrow road and cluttering the cul-de-sac. In the two minutes we’d been standing there, at least fifteen people had walked past us, heading in.
‘And because we have been here before,’ Esther continued as a car drove by behind us, radio blaring, ‘I vote that we leave now, while we still have our dignity.’
‘I’m not planning to be undignified,’ Leah said, opening her Tic Tacs and popping one in her mouth. ‘I just want to have a good time.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, it is not,’ Leah said. ‘Would you just relax, for once? This might be fun.’
‘This kind of party is never fun,’ Esther said. ‘Unless you like having beer spilled on you, or some meaty guy grab your ass in some crowded hallway. Which, apparently, you do.’
Leah sighed, blowing her hair out of her face. ‘Look. Last night, I went to Club Caramel and sat there while that girl played the xylophone and sang ten songs about communism. And did I complain?’
‘Yes,’ Maggie and Esther said in unison. Esther added, ‘Loudly.’
‘But I went,’ Leah continued, ignoring this. ‘And in return, I got to choose what we did tonight. And I pick this. So let’s go in.’
She didn’t wait for agreement, instead just pocketing her Tic Tacs and starting toward the house with long, confident strides. Esther followed along behind her, decidedly less enthusiastic, while Maggie glanced at me. ‘It won’t be that bad,’ she said. ‘I mean, it’s just your typical weekend house party. You know.’
I didn’t, though. I had no idea, not that I was going to say so. I just followed Maggie up the driveway, taking care to step over the many beer cans that were littering the driveway and stairs.
Inside the house, the hallway was crowded, people packed in on either side. The only way through was navigating a narrow passage, single file, and even then it was a tight squeeze. It smelled like cologne and sweat and beer, an odor that just grew more potent the farther we proceeded. I tried to look straight ahead, but occasionally, out of the corner of my eye, I’d see a guy watching me, his brow damp with sweat, or hear a voice say something – ‘Hey baby, how you doing?’ – maybe meant for me, or anyone.
We finally reached the living room, where there was a bit more breathing room, and a lot more people. Music was blaring from a stereo I couldn’t see, and there was a group of people dancing off to one side, mostly girls, while a bunch of guys looked on. In the kitchen directly to my right, I could see a keg, as well as a bunch of various liquor bottles cluttering the counter by the sink. There was also, inexplicably, two trays of pastries: one of beautiful cupcakes, clearly hand-iced, each dotted with roses, and another of various bars – lemon, chocolate chip, raspberry – carefully arranged on tiny paper doilies.
Maggie, seeing me notice this, motioned for me to lean closer to her. Then she said, right in my ear, ‘Belissa’s parents own Sweet Petite bakery. This is her house.’
She nodded toward a girl with long, dark hair streaked with blonde, wearing a white tank top and jeans, who was dancing with the group in the living room. She had her head thrown back, laughing, and her lipstick was bright, bright red, the same color as the tiny roses on each of the cupcakes.
‘We need beer,’ Leah announced from Maggie’s other side. She grabbed a couple of red cups from somewhere, then handed them to me. ‘Here. You’re closest.’
I looked down at the cups, then at the keg beside me. Leah and Maggie were now talking about something – Esther had vanished – so neither of them noticed me hesitate before turning to face the keg, where I assumed I was supposed to get the beer. It seemed simple enough, so I picked up the spigot attached to it and turned the top. Nothing happened.
I glanced around me. Leah and Maggie were still talking, and the only other people nearby – a couple, making out against the fridge – weren’t paying me, or anything else, any attention. I twisted the top again – nothing – and felt my face flush, embarrassed. I had never been good at asking for help with anything, especially something that people assumed you already knew. And I knew plenty, but this simple, stupid thing was all new to me.
I took a breath, about to try again, when suddenly a hand appeared over mine, the fingers pressing down on the spigot, and beer began to fill the cup I was holding.
‘Let me guess,’ Eli said, his voice that low, even timbre, as always. ‘Drinking from kegs also falls under outdoor activity.’
I just looked at him, standing there in jeans and the same blue hoodie he’d had on the first time I met him. Maybe it was the embarrassment, which had been bad enough before I had an audience, but I was instantly annoyed. I said, ‘Are we outside?’
He glanced around, as if needing to confirm this. ‘Nope.’
‘Then no.’ I turned my attention back to the keg.
He removed his hand from the spigot, then stood there watching me as I filled another cup. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I’ve noticed you’re kind of defensive.’
‘And I,’ I replied, ‘have noticed that you are very judgmental.’