“Hey,” Rogerson said to the girl, who looked up and smiled at him. She had a pretty face and cat-?shaped eyes. “Hey yourself,” she said, reaching over to lift a stack of magazines off the couch beside her. “Have a seat. Dave's in the kitchen making lunch.“ ”Is that Rogerson?“ a guy's voice yelled from the next room. ”Yeah,“ Rogerson said. ”Get in here, man. I need to talk to you.“ Rogerson stood up, squeezing my shoulder, and walked to a swinging door, leaning into it to push it open. I caught a glimpse of a guy in his early twenties, in cutoffs and a long flannel shirt, barefoot, standing over a frying pan. On the wall behind him there was a huge velvet Elvis, hanging by a row of cabinets. When the guy saw me he lifted his spatula, smiling, and waved at me before the door swung shut again. ”That's Dave,“ the girl beside me said. ”He's making Hamburger Helper. I'm Corinna.“ ”Caitlin,“ I said, and she nodded, smiling at me. ”Rogerson has problems with introductions.”
“No big deal. We're definitely not formal here,” she said, flicking her wrist absently, clattering the thin silver bangles she wore there. Then she reached forward to stub out her cigarette in an ashtray shaped like Texas, picking up the remote with her other hand to flip channels. She cruised by MTV, a political news show, and two old movies before finally landing on an infomercial about acne medicine, where they were interviewing a kid with horrible skin, all red and splotchy and riddled with bumps like the surface of the moon. “Oh, man,” she said, reaching over the arm of the couch, feeling around for something, and coming up with a blue ceramic bowl and a bag of pot. “That poor kid. Look at that. Like high school isn't bad enough, you know?” She opened the bag and quickly packed the bowl, pressing down on it with her index finger. “I had acne in high school, but it wasn't that bad, thank God. And I still couldn't get a date. But you probably don't have that problem, right?” She fumbled around on the coffee table, moving a TV Guide and two emery boards to unearth a lighter. “I mean, you have great skin.”
“Oh, well,” I said, watching as she lit the bowl, drew in a deep breath, and held it a second before slowly letting out a long stream of smoke. “Not really.”
“Oh, you do, though. It's all genes. Does your mom have good skin?” It was strange to think of my mother, here, but her face popped into my head instantly, smiling, lipstick perfect. “Yeah, she does.”
“See?” She tapped the bowl with the lighter. “Genes.” And then she handed it to me. Up until that point, I'd only smoked a few times: with Rina, experimenting; at one or two parties with the more rebellious of the jocks; and the night I'd seen Rogerson's dad hit him. I'd never cared one way or the other for it, but being in that little farmhouse, on a sunny afternoon, sitting in the corner of that big comfortable couch talking to Corinna, it just seemed right, or as right as anything technically wrong could be.
“Thanks,” I said, taking it, lighting the lighter and drawing in a big hit of smoke, which immediately set me to coughing like crazy. The next one went down easier. And by the third, I felt like an old pro.
Afterward, Corinna lit a cigarette and offered me one, too, which I took, lighting it and smoking like I'd been doing it all my life. We sat there together, smoking and watching the acne doctors work their magic.
By now they'd moved onto a cheerleader with bug eyes and skin so bad it seemed like she was wearing a big red mask. “I admire her so much,” Corinna said, picking up the ashtray and moving it onto the couch between us. “I mean, being a cheerleader and getting up in front of people with that face. She must really have some self-?esteem, you know?“ ”I know,” I agreed, tapping my ash and pulling my legs up underneath me, like Corinna. “Plus cheerleading is so awful anyway.” She looked at me, tucking a few blond strands behind her ear, her bracelets tinkling against each other, like music. “You think so? I always wanted to be a cheerleader. And a prom queen. And I was, like, neither. Not even close.”
“I'm a cheerleader,” I said, taking another drag off my cigarette. “And I hate it.” And there it was, the truth, popping out when I least expected it: I did hate cheerleading, always had. And this girl, this stranger, was the only one I'd ever told. “Wow,” she said, laughing, “that was, like, so direct. I love that.” I laughed, too: It seemed funny to me now, almost hysterical in fact. My head felt fuzzy and relaxed and the fish on top of the TV just kept swimming, around and around, and Corinna flipped her long blond hair, smiling that cat-?smile. Something smelled good from the kitchen and it was a lazy Sunday and everything was okay, suddenly as okay as things had been since Cass left and the summer ended even if just for an instant.
We sat there, watching the infomercial and talking, for what seemed like a long time. Corinna told me she worked at Applebee's, waiting tables, producing her ask me about soup 'n' skillets! button from under a couch cushion. She and Dave had been together since high schoolthey'd gone to Jackson, too, graduating five years earlierand sometime soon, they were planning to move to California. “Palm trees, movie stars,” Corinna said with a smile. She was so nice, I felt like I knew her already. She reminded me of Cass that way, the kind of person you felt friendly with at first sight. “I can't wait to get the hell out of this place.” A few minutes later, as they were showing the After pictures of both acne victims, the kitchen door swung open and Dave and Roger-?son came in. I'd forgotten, temporarily, that they were even in the house. Dave was carrying the frying pan, Rogerson a stack of plates. “Dinner is served,” Dave said, kissing Corinna on the top of the head as he sat down beside her. “It's lunchtime,” she told him. “Lunch then. Whatever. Anytime is a good time for Hamburger Helper ˆla Dave ,” he said, passing his hand over the frying pan with an exaggerated flourish. “Which means,” Corinna explained to me, “that we didn't have money for hamburger this week so it's just noodles.”
“Better for you anyway,” I said. “A diet heavy in meat causes heart disease and high blood pressure.” Dave raised his eyebrows at me and smiled. He had short brown hair and bright blue eyes and looked, strangely, a little bit like Mike Evans. “I like this girl,” he said to Rogerson, handing me a plate and a fork. “That's Caitlin,” Corinna said, digging into the pile of noodles on her plate. “She's a rebel cheerleader.”