‘Says who?’ I asked. Esther opened her mouth to answer, but before she could I said, ‘Society. The same society, I might add, that dictates that little girls should always be sugar and spice and everything nice, which encourages them to not be assertive. And that, in turn, then leads to low self-esteem, which can lead to eating disorders and increased tolerance and acceptance of domestic, sexual, and substance abuse.’
They all looked at me. ‘You get all that,’ Leah said after a moment, ‘from a pink Onesie?’
Just then, Thisbe began to whimper, turning her head from side to side. ‘Uh-oh,’ I said, pushing the stroller forward, then back. ‘This does not bode well.’
‘Is she hungry or something?’ Esther asked.
‘Maybe it’s her low self-esteem,’ Leah said.
I ignored this as I bent down to unbuckle the baby, scooping her up into my arms. Her skin was warm, her cries just starting to get loud as I turned her around, locking my hands around her waist, and bent my knees. Up, down. Up, down. By the third round, she was quiet.
‘Wow,’ Maggie said. ‘You’ve got the touch, huh?’
‘It’s called the elevator,’ I told her. ‘Works every time.’
They all watched me for a moment. Then Esther said, ‘You know, I think Auden’s right. The black isn’t so weird. It’s kind of radical, actually.’
‘Of course you’d say that,’ Leah said. ‘Look what you’re wearing.’
Esther glanced down at her dark T-shirt. ‘This isn’t black. It’s navy.’
The other two girls snorted. Then Leah turned to me, saying, ‘That’s what she said all during her goth period, when she wouldn’t wear anything but black. Black clothes, black shoes…’
‘Black eyeliner, black lipstick,’ Maggie added.
‘Are you guys ever going to let that go?’ Esther asked. She sighed. ‘It was a phase, all right? Like you two never did anything you regretted in high school.’
‘Two words,’ Maggie replied. ‘Jake Stock.’
‘No kidding,’ Leah agreed.
‘And you,’ Esther said, pointing at her, ‘dyed your hair blonde for Joe Parker. Which –’
‘No real redhead should ever do,’ Leah finished. ‘I’m still ashamed.’
Through all of this, I was still doing the elevator with Thisbe in my arms. She’d gone back into her trance, quiet, and for a moment we all just watched her moving up and down. Finally Maggie said, ‘Isn’t it weird to think we were all that little, once?’
‘Totally.’ Leah reached out, taking Thisbe’s hand and squeezing it. ‘She’s like a clean slate. No mistakes yet.’
‘Lucky girl,’ Esther said. Then, leaning closer, she added, ‘A word of advice: don’t do the goth thing. Nobody ever lets you forget it.’
‘And don’t change for a guy, ever,’ Leah added. ‘If they’re worthy, they’ll like you just the way you are.’
‘Always wear your helmet on the dirt jumps,’ Maggie said.
‘Don’t eat beef jerky before you get on a roller coaster,’ Leah said.
‘A nose piercing,’ Esther chimed in, ‘does not look good on everyone. Trust me.’
Thisbe took all this in with her same, solemn expression. I shifted her in my arms, leaning down to breathe in her smell, a mix of milk and baby shampoo. ‘Come on, Auden,’ Leah said. ‘You must have some wisdom to share.’
I thought for a moment. ‘Don’t flirt with a girl’s boyfriend in her own kitchen,’ I said. ‘Or answer the question “What kind of a name is that?”’
‘And you know someone will ask her that,’ Leah said. ‘With a name like Thisbe, it’s guaranteed.’
‘What about this,’ Maggie said. ‘Stay clear of cute boys on bikes. They’ll only break your heart.’ I glanced over at her, and she smiled. ‘Of course, that’s easier said than done. Right?’
I just looked at her, wondering what she meant. I hadn’t told anyone about me and Eli, mostly because I knew they would just assume we were hooking up. What else would you be doing all night, every night, with someone else? The very fact that there were so many answers to that question made me want to leave this one, that Maggie was asking and yet not asking, unanswered.
‘God, Maggie,’ Leah said, ‘I thought you’d let that Jake thing go, already.’
‘I have,’ Maggie told her.
‘Then why are you bugging Auden about it now?’ Leah shook her head.
‘That’s not what I was –’
This thought was interrupted, suddenly, by a crash from the front entrance. We all looked over just in time to see Adam bending back from the glass, rubbing his arm.
‘Pull open,’ Maggie called out. As Leah rolled her eyes, she said, ‘He never remembers. It’s so weird.’
‘Can’t say I don’t make an entrance,’ Adam said, hardly bothered by what some would consider a public humiliation of sorts as he walked toward us, carrying a plastic grocery bag in one hand. ‘So, ladies. An announcement.’
Leah shot a wary look at the bag. ‘Are you selling candy bars to raise money for math club again?’
Adam just looked at her. ‘That was eighth grade,’ he said. ‘And school’s over, remember?’
‘Ignore her,’ Maggie told him as Leah shrugged, going back behind the counter. ‘What’s the announcement?’
He grinned, reaching into the bag. ‘Hot-dog party,’ he said, pulling out a value pack of wieners. ‘The first of the summer. After work, at me and Wallace’s. Bring your own condiments.’
‘Count me out,’ Esther said, hopping up on the counter. ‘I’m a vegetarian.’
Adam reached back into the bag, pulling out another pack of dogs. ‘Bam!’ he said, shaking it at her. ‘Tofu Pups! Just for you!’
‘Is the bathroom going to be clean?’ Leah asked.
‘Isn’t it always?’
‘No,’ Leah, Maggie, and Esther said in unison.
‘Well, it will be tonight. I’ll bust out my Clorox Clean-Up and everything.’
Maggie smiled as he dropped the dogs back into the bag, twisting it shut. ‘It’s been a long time since the last hotdog party,’ she said. ‘What’s the occasion?’
‘The housewarming party we forgot to have two months ago when we moved in,’ he said. ‘Plus, it’s been a while, you know? It just seemed like maybe it was time.’