As soon as I got home, though, three very big things happened. First, I started my job at Milton’s. Scarlett and I had spent the end of the school year going around filling out applications, and it was the only place with enough positions to hire us both. By the time I got home from the trip, Scarlett had already been there two weeks, so she taught me the ropes. Second, she introduced me to Ginny Tabor, whom she’d met at the pool while I’d been gone. Ginny was a cheerleader with a wild streak a mile wide and a reputation among the football team for more than her cheers and famous midair splits. She lived a few miles away in the Arbors, a fancy development of Tudor houses with a country club, pool, and golf course. Ginny Tabor’s father was a dentist, and her mother weighed about eighty pounds, chain-smoked Benson and Hedges 100’s, and had skin that was as leathery as the ottoman in our living room. She threw money at Ginny and left us alone to prowl the streets of the Arbors on our way to the pool, or sneak out across the golf course at night to meet boys.
Which, in turn, led to the third big event that summer, when two weeks after coming home I broke off my dull, one-year romance with Noah Vaughn.
Noah was my first “boyfriend,” which meant we called each other on the phone and kissed sometimes. He was tall and skinny, with thick black hair and a bit of acne. His parents were best friends with mine, and we’d spent Friday night together, at our house or theirs, for most of my lifetime. He’d been all right for a start. But when I was inducted into the new crazy world of Ginny Tabor, he had to go.
He didn’t take it well. He sulked around, glowered at me, and still came over every Friday with his little sister and his parents, sitting stony-faced on the couch as I slipped out the door, yelling good-bye. I always said I was going to Scarlett’s, but instead we were usually meeting boys at the pool or hanging out with Ginny. My mother was more sad about our breakup than anyone; I think she’d half expected I’d marry him. But this was the New Me, someone I was evolving into with every hot and humid long summer day. I learned to smoke cigarettes, drank my first beer, got a deep tan, and double-pierced my ears as I began to drift, almost imperceptibly at first, from my mother.
There’s a picture on our mantel that always reminds me of what my mother and I were then. We’re at the Grand Canyon, at one of those overlook sites, with it spread out huge and gaping behind us. We have on matching T-shirts, sunglasses, and big smiles as we pose, arms around each other. We have never, in any picture before or since, looked more alike. We have the same small nose, the same stance, the same goofy smile. We look happy, standing there in the sunshine, the sky spread out blue and forever in the distance. My mother framed that picture when we got home, sticking it front and center on the mantel where you couldn’t help but see it. It was like she knew, somehow, that it would be a relic just months later, proof of another time and place neither of us could imagine had existed: my mother and I, best friends, posing at the Grand Canyon.
Scarlett was sitting on her front steps when we pulled up. It was early evening, just getting dark, and all up and down our street, lights were on in the houses, people out walking their dogs or children. Someone a few streets over was barbecuing, the smell mingling in the air with cut grass and recent rain.
I got out of the car and put my bag on the front walk, looking across the street at Scarlett’s house, the only light coming from her kitchen and spilling out into the empty carport. She lifted one hand and waved at me from the stoop.
“Mom, I’m going to Scarlett’s,” I said.
“Fine.” I still wasn’t totally forgiven for this, not yet. But it was late, she was tired, and these days, we had to pick our battles.
I knew the way across the street and up Scarlett’s walk by heart; I could have done it with every sense lost. The dip in the street halfway across, the two prickly bushes on either end of her walk that left tiny scratches on your skin when you brushed against them. It was eighteen steps from the beginning of the walk to the front stoop; we’d measured it when we were in sixth grade and obsessed with facts and details. We’d spent months calculating distances and counting steps, trying to organize the world into manageable bits and pieces.
Now I just walked toward her in the half-darkness, aware only of the sound of my own footfalls and the air conditioner humming softly under the side window.
“Hey,” I said, and she scooted over to make room for me. “How’s it going?”
It seemed like the stupidest thing to ask once I’d said it, but there really weren’t any right words. I looked over at her as she sat beside me, barefoot, her hair pulled away from her face in a loose ponytail. She’d been crying.
I wasn’t used to seeing her this way. Scarlett had always been the stronger, the livelier, the braver. The girl who punched out Missy Lassiter, the meanest, most fiendish of the pink-bike girls that first summer she moved in, on a day when they surrounded us and tried to make us cry. The girl who kept a house, and her mother, up and running since she was five, now playing mother to a thirty-five-year-old child. The girl who had kept the world from swallowing me whole, or so I’d always believed.
“Scarlett?” I said, there in the dark, and as she turned to me I saw her face was streaked with tears. For a minute, I didn’t know what to do. I thought again of that picture tucked in her mirror, of her and Michael just weeks ago, the water so bright and shiny behind them. And I thought of what she had done all the millions of times I’d cried to her, collapsing at even the slightest wounding of my heart or pride.
So I reached over and pulled her to me, wrapping my arms around her, and held my best friend close, returning so many favors all at once. We sat there for a long time, Scarlett and me, with her house looming over us and mine right across the street staring back with its bright windows. It was the end of summer; it was the end of a lot of things. I sat there with her, feeling her shoulders shake under my hands. I had no idea what to do or what came next. All I knew was that she needed me and I was here. And for now, that was about the best we could do.
Scarlett was a redhead, but not in an orangey, carrot-top kind of way. Her color was more auburn, deep and red mixed with browns that made her green eyes seem almost luminous. Her skin was pale, with masses of freckles for the first few years I knew her; as we grew older, they faded into a sprinkling across her nose, as if they’d been scattered there by hand. She was an inch and three-quarters shorter than me, her feet a size larger, and she had a scar on her stomach that looked like a mouth smiling from when she’d gotten her appendix out. She was beautiful in all the unconscious, accidental ways that I wasn’t, and I was jealous more than I’d ever have admitted. To me, Scarlett was foreign and exotic. But she said she would have given anything for my long hair and tan in summer, for my thick eyelashes and eyebrows. Not to mention my father, my conventional family, away from Marion with her whims and fancies. It was an even trade, our envy of each other; it made everything fair.