‘She asked me a question,’ I said.
‘She didn’t want an answer, though.’
‘Well, then why did she ask?’
‘Because,’ Leah said, ‘she was gearing up to smacking your face. God! Don’t you know anything about dealing with jealous ex-girlfriends?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not really.’
Maggie smiled. ‘Well, you just got a crash course, then.’
‘Crash being the operative word,’ Leah added. ‘I mean, did you see how pissed off she was? And then she tells you to get lost, or else, and you say…’
‘“All right,”’ Maggie said.
Esther’s eyes widened. ‘No.’
‘She totally did. And said it just like that, too. Like she was doing her a favor by agreeing.’
‘I did not,’ I said. Leah and Maggie just looked at me. ‘Did I?’
‘Yup.’ Leah shook her cup, then took another sip off her straw. ‘Which was either incredibly ballsy, or incredibly stupid. I’m still not sure which.’
Esther laughed, and I just sat there, looking down at my coffee and remembering how completely out of my element I’d been at that party, and that moment. Never before had it been so obvious that although I’d spent my entire life learning, there was a lot of stuff I still didn’t know. Enough to get me into big trouble, apparently, if someone hadn’t been there to help me out.
‘It was stupid,’ I said out loud, thinking this. They all looked at me. ‘I mean, what I said. The truth is, I didn’t have much of a social life in high school. Or ever, for that matter.’
This was greeted with an extended silence. Or maybe it just felt that way to me.
‘You know,’ Leah said, ‘that actually explains a lot.’
‘It does,’ Maggie agreed.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ I asked.
‘Nothing,’ she said quickly. Then, glancing at Leah, she added, ‘I mean, just how you came to town, and hooked up with Jake right away, and then were surprised when people, um, drew conclusions about you.’
‘And by people,’ Leah said, ‘she means us.’
‘Got that,’ I replied. ‘Thanks.’
‘Plus,’ Esther added, ‘there’s the way you’ve always kept to yourself.’
‘Except for tonight,’ Leah pointed out.
‘Except for tonight,’ Maggie agreed. ‘I mean, we just figured you thought you were better than us. But maybe you just didn’t know how to hang out.’
I wanted to believe it was the latter. But I knew in my heart of hearts, my truest place, that I had assumed my superiority. In Maggie’s case, with a single glance.
‘Like I said,’ Leah said, ‘only a girl who didn’t have any real girlfriends would actually begin to answer the question, “What kind of a name is that?”’
‘I thought she wanted to know!’ I said.
‘I doubt Belissa Norwood has much interest in learning about the life of a modern poet famous for his works on politics, nature, and unrequited love,’ Maggie said.
I turned, facing her. ‘You know about Auden?’
‘I wrote my senior thesis on the use of loss in his poems,’ she replied. ‘It’s what got me into Defriese. Hey, Leah, you have any Tic Tacs left?’
I just sat there, stunned into silence as Leah pulled out the pack, passing it to her. I’d had a lot of surprises that day: my mom showing up, almost getting my butt kicked, and learning about Eli’s past. But this was the thing that left me speechless. Maggie was going to Defriese. Just like me.
‘Shoot,’ Esther said, glancing at her watch. ‘It’s past midnight. I better get home. Who needs a ride?’
‘I guess I do,’ Leah said, standing up and wiping off her jeans with her hands, ‘considering I didn’t get to meet some hot guy to drive me home from that party.’
‘Sorry,’ I said.
‘Oh, she’ll survive,’ Esther said, sliding her arm around Leah’s shoulders as we started back down the pier. ‘Tomorrow night, we’ll go to Bentley’s for open mike, and maybe you can find yourself a nice, greasy artist type there.’
‘Maybe I will,’ Leah replied, ‘just to spite you.’
‘What about you, Auden?’ Maggie asked, falling into step beside me. ‘You want a ride back to Heidi’s?’
I looked down the pier to the boardwalk and the road beyond it, the streetlights breaking up the dark. ‘Nah,’ I said. ‘I think I’ll grab some more coffee before I head home.’
‘More coffee?’ Esther said, eyeing my cup. ‘Doesn’t that keep you up, though?’
I shook my head. ‘Nope. It doesn’t.’
At the end of the pier, we said our good-byes, and they headed back to the car. I could hear them still talking, their voices carried by the wind, as I turned and started in the other direction, back to the Gas/Gro, where I was the only customer as I filled up a fresh cup, adding milk, a stirrer, and, after a moment of consideration, a candy bar. The cashier, an older woman with blonde hair and a name tag that said WANDA, was working on a crossword. She put it down, then rang me up while stifling a yawn.
‘Late night,’ she said as I slid my money across to her.
‘Aren’t they all,’ I replied.
Out in the parking lot, the wind was warm and blowing hard, and for a moment I just closed my eyes and stood there, feeling it on my face. Earlier that night, I’d taken off to be alone, only to find – to my surprise – that company was just what I needed. Still, I knew it must have been hard for Maggie to come looking for me, not knowing how I’d react when I saw her. The easiest thing would have been to just leave me alone. But she didn’t go for the easiest thing.
I was a girl who liked a challenge, too. Or at least I liked to think of myself that way. So I went looking for Eli.
On the way to the boardwalk, I passed a cop, driving slowly, his radio crackling. Two girls, arm in arm, one stumbling, the other pulling her forward. The bars still had an hour or so left until closing, with people and music spilling out their open doors. Farther down into the business district, though, all the stores were dark. But in the bike shop, way in back, a light was on.
I raised my hand to knock, then dropped it, reconsidering. So I’d spent a night in the world of girls, big deal. Did it really mean anything had changed, especially me? As I stood there, debating this, I saw someone move across the lit, open back door of the shop: dark hair, blue shirt. Before I knew what I was doing, my hand was rapping the glass, hard.