“I'm sorry,” I said, watching as a black carnot himsped past on the road in front of us. “But I made plans already.”
“Oh, come on,” she said, popping her sunglasses up on her forehead and looking at me. “What could be so important to blow off your best friend? Again.” I sighed. Rina always made this hard for me. “I'm not trying to blow you off,” I said. “I just already told him we'd do this thing together.”
“Okay, fine,” she said, flipping her hand. “How about this... we'll go out early, get a burger or something, and then you can meet him later somewhere.”
“I can't,” I said again. “God, Caitlin!” she said, exasperated. She pulled her purse onto her lap and started digging for a cigarette, grabbing my lighter with her other hand. “Look, just let me talk to him, okay? I'll tell him you really need some girl time and I'll promise to have you back home at a decent hour. Let me handle it. I'll tell him”
“I'm serious,” she said. “I know how to handle this. He'll understand. He's coming to pick you up right now, right? So I'll just talk to him now.” She just didn't understand. “It's not a good idea,” I said. “Sure it is,” she said easily, tossing back my lighter. “I can deal with Rogerson. No problem. By the time I'm done with him he'll be putty in my hands.”
“Rina, I said no.” She didn't know what she could do to me. What kind of full contact I could expect at the slightest intervention. My stomach already binding tight, a burning there that seemed to grow each day. “Not another word,” she said lightly, blowing me off while exhaling a long steam of smoke. “It's taken care of.”
“Hush. I told you. It's”
“No,” I snapped, louder than I meant to, and she jerked back, surprised, like I'd slapped her. “I told you, I can't. That's it.“ She cocked her head to the side, her face hurt. ”What, you're not allowed to hang out with me anymore or something? He's telling you what to do now?“ ”No,“ I said, as another black car passed by, the light glinting off it. ”He's not.“ ”That's sure what it sounds like,“ she said, an uppity tone in her voice. ”Well, it isn't,“ I said. We sat there for a few minutes, not talking. All around us people were passing by, on their way to the parking lot or their next class, voices high and laughing. I was thinking back to all those nights of driving and crying, when I listened to Rina wail as the scenery sped past. She could tell me anything, as long as we were in motion. ”What's going on, Caitlin?“ she said suddenly, moving a little closer and lowering her voice. ”Tell me.“ I look at hermy best friendwith her strawberry-?blond hair and pink Coral Ice lipstick, and for a split second I wanted to let it all spill out. About the importance of time, and the helpless feeling I got every time I saw that black BMW, not knowing what waited on the other side of the tinted windows.
About hard fouls, and full contact, and those mermaids, pulling me up to drown. But I couldn't tell her. I couldn't tell anyone. As long as I didn't say it aloud, it wasn't real. So I smiled my best cheerleader smile, shook my head, and said, ”It's nothing, Rina. You worry too much.“ I concentrated on keeping my voice chipper, all pep: I've got spirit, yes I do, I've got spirit, how 'bout you? Rina cocked her head to the side, studying me. She wasn't a dumb girl; she knew something was up. But she still had faith in our friendship, forged in the war zone of junior high. She thought I'd never lie to her. ”Okay,“ she said finally, as if we'd bartered out some kind of agreement. ”But if you need me“ ”I know,” I said, cutting her off. It was right at noon: My safe time was up.
The muscles in my stomach and shoulders were clenching harder as I picked up my backpack and began to move closer to the turnaround. I looked at her, sitting cross-?legged there in her sunglasses, popping her gum, with no greater concern in her life right then than me. And I envied her, quickly and quietly, in a different way than I had all those years we'd spent together. “I gotta go,” I said, and she nodded as I backed away, turning my head to look over at the parking lot entrance where Rogerson was pulling in. I was on time, but just a few feet too far out of sight. I knew she was watching me as I walked toward the car, the engine purring, low and growly, like a dog just warning you to stay back. I didn't know what to expect this time. Trash talk, a hard foul. Full contact. I took a deep breath, walked up to the car, my reflection staring back at me in those black, black windows, and stepped across the sidelines, into the game.
While I was working on being invisible, Cass was slowly coming back to us. She hadn't called on Christmas Eve, which had made my mother teary the entire time we opened gifts and had our annual pancake breakfast with Boo and Stewart the next morning. Cass did send a card, with a picture of her and Adam inside. They were standing in front of their own tree, a small scrubby pine with a few lights, one of those homemade paper chains, and a tinfoil angel on top. He had his arm around her and they were both smiling; Cass looked as happy as I'd ever seen her. My mother put the picture in a frame, immediately, and parked it on the coffee table, displacing a series of glass teddy bears and a small basket of potpourri. “I'm trying to understand what she meant about keeping her life her own, about boundaries,” I heard her say to Boo Christmas day as they cleaned up the kitchen. My father was parked in his chair, watching a game, with Stewart dozing on the couch, one hand on his stomach.
“But this is Christmas, for goodness sake.”
“She's coming around,” Boo said reassuringly. “She seems to think that we controlled her somehow, that we were too involved in her life.” I could hear my mother washing dishes, the water splashing. “And now, I guess, we're not. Or something.” And she sighed, again, that low, sad Cass-?sigh I'd heard daily since the summer. Cass's gifts sat under the tree until we dismantled it. My mother, always fair, had even bought onesmall, but still therefor Adam. Then they were moved to the hall closet, still in their brightly colored paper and ribbons, and stacked behind the vacuum cleaner. When she had finally called, about a week into the New Year, I was lying in my bed, sleeping after another late night, as well as a fresh wrist-?wrenching bruise, courtesy of Rogerson. I knew it was Cass just by the way my mother's voice jumped from its normal, polite hello to a gasp of excitement I could hear clearly through my door and down the hallway. “Happy New Year to you, too!” she cried out, and I could hear her moving around, looking for my father so she could get him on the extension. This was harder for him. He'd get on the line and listen, talking to Cass only when prompted, and then in short, formal sentences, his voice low, as if she was someone he knew only formally. “How are you, honey? How was your Christmas?” I could hear her going through the kitchen to my father's study, her heels clacking across the floor. I rolled over and closed my eyes. “Oh, yes, we had a wonderful time. You missed the blueberry pancakes. But you were on our minds. It just wasn't the same without you.” A pause, and then she whispered, “Jack, it's Cassandra. Pick up that extension.” My mother made affirmative noises as Cass described her Christmas, and then I heard my father say, “Hello, Cassandra.”