It was a split-second decision, the kind you hear about people making in the most dangerous or serious of situations. This was really neither, but I still was not thinking, just doing, as I reached my hand into the beans, scooping out a big gob with my fingers. Then, before I could reconsider, I turned and launched it right at Eli.
The beans hit him square in the forehead, then splattered back into his hair, a few falling to hit the deck at his feet. I could hear the inhaled breath of everyone else on the deck, indicating their absolute shock, watching this. But I kept my eyes on Eli, who blinked, then reached up, wiping some beans from the tip of his nose.
‘Oh, man,’ he said to me. ‘It’s so on.’
And just like that, he was reaching across me, lightning quick, and grabbing the pot of beans. One smooth movement – too fast to even think, much less stop him – and he’d overturned it on my head. I felt heat on my hair, something slimy trickling down into my eyes, even as I grabbed for a discarded plate nearby, launching the half-eaten hot dog back at him.
‘What the hell…’ I heard Leah say, but the rest of the sentence was lost as Eli pelted me with buns from the bag he’d grabbed off the kitchen counter. I ducked my head – still covered with beans – and ran across the deck, picking up along the way a bag of Cheetos for ammo.
‘Wait!’ Adam yelled. ‘That’s my breakfast for the week!’
‘Oh, lighten up,’ Maggie said, picking up a handful of coleslaw from her plate and tossing it at him. When Leah gasped, she threw another fistful at her.
Leah’s jaw dropped. She looked down at her shirt, then up at Maggie. ‘Oh, boy,’ she said, picking up a beer can and shaking it, hard, before popping the top, ‘you better run.’
Maggie squealed, taking off down the stairs with Leah behind her, the beer already fizzing over. Meanwhile Adam and Wallace were now exchanging rapid fire with the leftover nuts while Esther, arms over her head, ducked behind Jake, who was asleep with a sprinkling of coleslaw over his face. All of this I noticed before running back into the house while trying to simultaneously dodge the Popsicle pieces Eli was tossing at me and chucking potato chips back at him behind me. I was so busy defending myself and keeping up my offensive that I didn’t realize he had me trapped in the kitchen until it was too late.
‘Wait,’ I said, gasping for breath as I leaned against the fridge. I held up my hands. ‘Time-out.’
‘There’s no time-outs in food fights,’ Eli informed me, throwing another slushy piece at me. It hit my shoulder, knocking off some beans.
‘Then how do they end?’
‘Whoever runs out of food first has to formally surrender,’ he said.
I looked at my hands, covered with bean residue and pieces of chips, but basically empty. ‘I’m not good at surrendering.’
‘No one is,’ he said. ‘But sometimes, you lose. Nothing you can do but admit it.’
We were both so filthy, standing there, beans in our hair, food all over our clothes. It was the last moment you’d think would mean anything, and yet somehow, it did. Like only in all this chaos could it finally feel right to say the one thing I’d wanted to, all along.
‘I’m really sorry about your friend,’ I told him.
Eli nodded slowly. He kept his eyes right on me, not wavering a bit, as he said, ‘Thanks.’
Outside, I could hear someone still shrieking, other battles going on. But in the bright light of the kitchen, it was just us. The way it had been those other nights, yet suddenly something felt different. Not like we’d changed so much as that we could. And might.
I was looking right at Eli, thinking this, and he was staring right back at me, and it was suddenly so easy to imagine myself reaching my hand forward to brush his hair from his face. It was all there: how his skin would feel against my fingertips, the strands against my palm, his hands rising up to my waist. Like it was already happening, and then, suddenly, I heard the door bang behind me.
‘Hey,’ Adam called out, and I turned to see him holding up the camera again, the lens pointing right at us. ‘Smile!’
As the shutter snapped, I knew it was likely I’d never see this picture. But even if I did, it wouldn’t come close to capturing everything I was feeling right then. If I ever did get a copy, I already had the perfect place for it: a blue frame, a few words etched beneath. The best of times.
‘Boot cut or boyfriend fit?’
There was a pause. Then, ‘Which do you think looks better?’
‘You know, it’s not an either/or kind of thing. It’s more about how you want your butt to look.’
I sighed, then put the deposit book into the safe and pushed the door shut with my foot. Another day, another opportunity to hear Maggie go on about the gospel of denim. I liked her and all – surprising as that was – but I still had trouble stomaching the seriously girly stuff. Like this.
‘See?’ I heard her say a moment later as the customer emerged again from the fitting room. ‘The boot gives you that nice flow from thigh to ankle. The upturn at the cuff draws your eye right to it, rather than other areas.’
‘Other areas,’ the woman grumbled, ‘are my problem.’
‘Mine, too.’ Maggie sighed. ‘But the boyfriend fit has its strengths also. So you should try them and we’ll compare.’
The woman said something, although I couldn’t hear her over the front door chiming. A moment later, Esther came into the office. She had on army pants and a black tank top, and her expression was grave as she flopped into the chair behind me without comment.
‘Hey,’ I said to her. ‘Are you –’
Maggie suddenly appeared in the open door, eyes wide, her phone in one hand. She glanced at it, then at Esther. ‘I just got your text! Is this for real? Hildy is… dead?’
Esther nodded, still silent.
‘I can’t believe it.’ Maggie shook her head. ‘But she was, like, one of us. I mean, after all this time…’
I opened my mouth to say something, offer some kind of condolence. But before I could, Esther finally spoke. ‘I know,’ she said, her voice tight. ‘She was a great car.’
Outside, the fitting-room door swung open again. ‘Car?’ I asked.
They both looked at me. ‘The best Jetta ever,’ Maggie said. ‘Hildy was our sole source of transportation in high school. She was one of the girls.’