“Did it hurt?”
She giggled. “I mean, yeah.” They laughed briefly.
“But was it,” Menna paused and looked at Lena, “good?”
Lena giggled again and pushed her lips inward into a thin, embarrassed smile-with-no-teeth, as her cheeks blushed through her faded makeup. Her black mascara had been rubbed off and faded, framing her eye in smudge. She giggled again and placed her hand over her mouth and looked up and said quietly, “Kinda?” as she raised her eyebrows and seemed to pull back her head into her neck bracing for a mixed reaction.
Madeleine gasped. Menna laughed. Eden just looked at her. The tension in Lena’s face and neck relaxed slightly, like wheat dough that loses its shape within minutes of kneading as it slowly flattens onto a cutting board. She relaxed onto her bed, the headboard catching her back as she slumped. White paint chipped off the edges of the headboard revealing a dark wood. A couple years back Lena had used some white nail polish to try to cover it up, but that was chipping too. It was the first bed she had laid on after conquering the crib during the days when her legs only reached the halfway point and the endboard seemed a leg and a half-length away (because it was). Four stretched young girls could lay in it comfortably, back then; now the four of them had to squeeze, two facing the second pair in a zig-zag, legs intertwined, arms falling off the sides or propping up heads.
Menna laughed again, the side of her head in her palm.
“I honestly didn’t think you’d be the first one.”
Eden looked at Menna without changing her blank expression. She moved the tips of her mouth upwards for a brief second but quickly looked back down. Her face looked as if she had walked a while, outside, under an overcast sky. In reality, she had biked like always, that three-and-a-half-or-so mile bike ride she could do with her eyes closed (except for that one speed bump before the last right onto Lena’s street). The ride was mostly down one long road that paralleled the river. For years now she had taken the longer route to ride on the levee. Eden had been thinking of how the breeze would tickle her baby hairs tracing her hairline, exposed under her helmet. How she’d be cold but somehow sweaty. How she’d race up the levee hill dirt path and time herself every time. How she’d wave at the ladies walking their dogs in their typical speed-walk trot.
She looked up and around. “Yeah?”
“Are you even listening? This’s some juicy shit you’re missing,” Madeleine said as she smirked a bit and looked at Lena knowingly as if she were an elementary school girl who had just whispered in her friend’s ear. She raised her eyebrows in waiting for a response, waiting for a kind of reassurance from Eden that she cared.
“I’m all ears,” Eden said. She looked around. Lena’s lips were pursed slightly. They continued.
“So what are you going to tell him?” Madeleine asked.
“That we should just be friends. I don’t want to commit anything. You know that guy from camp? He’s visiting in two weeks. What am I supposed to do? Why couldn’t he have come, like, last month over break or something? You guys know I can’t turn that down.” Lena replied.
Eden scoffed under her breath, but Lena heard. “What?”
“Just a funny worry for you to have. Too much, huh.”
The three didn’t know how to react. Their awkwardness quickly transitioned to a small laugh to overcompensate for the brief silence. Eden followed up. “You know I’m kidding, it’s just a weird thing to complain about.”
“If I had a dollar for every girl that hit me up...I’d have, like, a quarter,” Menna responded with a knowing smile.
“We don’t talk about that in these parts. This is a sacred space.” Lena laughed. The room had been restored.
“Oh come on, she was nice!” Eden attempted to contribute.
“Until she got suspended and her parents sent her ass to Utah. Maybe I’d have a full dollar if there were actual words involved.”
“Okay, but, she looked damn good in that picture,” Madeleine said.
“Hey! What’d I say? We don’t discuss the contents of Menna’s direct messages.” Lena reminded the group.
Eden had heard the story all before. It was a scandal, a complete fiasco, a saga. She laughed, but not along with the other girls. It was a different laugh, more of a brief, breath-out-of-the-nose sound, a sound she meant to keep to herself as her own little commentary. They managed to not notice this time and continued.
“Back to you, Lena. I need a full rundown of what happened. A timeline. Give me a minute-by-minute replay,” Madeleine asked.
What followed was nothing out-of-the-ordinary, nothing she hadn’t read online or heard from her cousins. Eden found herself surprised at her disinterest. The details were of so little importance to her that the noise of the conversation morphed itself into a buzz, a high-pitched fluctuating force that penetrated Eden without the necessity of recognition, but only mere acknowledgment. She smiled when they smiled, laughed when they laughed, nodded when they nodded. But as she scanned for these reactions to mirror, she thought not of Lena, but of the spring of fourth grade.
Puberty had floated off the textbook pages into her skin and was swimming underneath it. Eden had just been the victim of some god-awful bangs which seemed to haunt her above her skin. Her mother insisted change was good, but they had visited the cheap place they went to when that was not a priority ($8 a session). The cut was rather choppy on her thin dark brown hair. Every day that week she wore headbands to pull them back, but on this Friday, she did not—something she regretted by noon. Eden remembered the weather, too: hot, not warm, but it hadn’t been summer; it was too hot for spring and Eden had worn her black jeans—something she also regretted. That Friday had been the day: Eden was going to ask him if she could sit with him at lunch.
The bell rang, the sound heavy. She saw him walk of the classroom, the first one out the door, and she fast-walked to follow him. Once outside, the sun reminded Eden of her sensitive skin as she walked towards the tree he always sat under with his friend, the one who nudged her that one time at the beginning of the year during a math lesson and whispered, “That’s what she said” and she didn’t know what he meant and she didn’t laugh. Her walk held her up to a floating: a fast, chin-down, charged step, with even and consistent strides. It was a determination she had rarely known, like some sort of finish line was in the distance. She forgot the nerves from the lunch bell—now that sound propelled her forward. She passed the basketball courts, tetherball poles, and blacktop track all the way to the first tree on the field. As always, he was there, eating a sandwich, which she knew was banana-and-honey-on-white. His back was against the tree but facing the distant street behind the school. Eden tapped his shoulder. He turned around and looked at her with a grimace that looked like confusion and general distaste, but she continued, despite the shrinking determination in her legs, almost pulling her out in front of her own body. “Can I sit with you?” she said, with a break in confidence as the words crumpled out of her mouth. His grimace deepened, and as he opened his mouth, in that split second, her chest broke, the balloon expanding in her organs released, and she was frozen. She felt her fingers in a funny way. She had never really known what fingers felt like before that moment. His “With you?” reached her finally. The latter inflection shot up like a spiraling drag. It built something up in front of them Eden could not see. She unfroze enough to look down at her shoes, nodding her head as she bowed her neck, looking at her shoes. His following “No thanks” carried a blunt impoliteness she had never heard with those words. She pushed out an “Okay” and walked away, the balls of her feet dragging. She was walking on blunt edges. The heaviness of the lunch bell sat on her shoulders as she carried her feet away from the tree. That “With you?” nested into the middle of her chest and climbed up her esophagus, traveled through her throat, and crept behind her eyes, developing itself into wetness.
Eden felt that creeping wetness once more as her mind worked its way back to the pink bedroom with the white bed frame and the three girls who were her friends. They had finally moved on from Lena’s fateful afternoon but the excitement of the news was still settled within them, nestled into the corners of the bedroom and under her covers. Somehow, the three did not notice Eden as her thoughts trailed off so vividly. She supposed she was used to the lack of attention she received in social contexts. Words would not be spoken when there were not any words in the first place. Eden’s sense of humor was sparing, cultural references minimal, and general taste for the intellect mostly hinged. She tended to contribute the unwanted sympathy for the opposition, yet recently she did not add such a perspective. She had accepted this about herself, she thought, that the spheres of conversation of which she made herself present were full enough without her. Adults had equated this to introversion, her friends to shyness. For Eden, it was merely a neutral state of being. It wasn’t that she was boring--or maybe it was, she thought. Nonetheless, Eden was not one for parties or large gatherings. Even in small groups of friends like which she was currently in, she seemed to always be on the edge. This time it was the edge of the bed.
“Eden,” Madeleine said, “we haven’t heard about that guy from chem in a minute!”
Eden laughed. Guy From Chem sat behind her in their last seating arrangement. She was convinced he was cheating off of her (which was not a good idea as Eden herself was more of a biology person), and his looks didn’t strike her as approvable by the group, but he initiated conversation, which she wasn’t used to. Last time her friends had asked her if she had an eye on anyone, she mentioned him. When he smiled, he was a bit cuter. He actually looked her in the eye when they talked.
“I don’t even like him.”
“Are you at least,” Menna looked around at the three other girls in collective expectation, “intrigued?”
“She doesn’t have to like anyone. High school boys suck anyway. I wish I was--” Lena began, but Menna cut her off. “Don’t say it. You know the drill,” she said, smiling at the familiar circumstance.
Lena sighed and recited as if she had previously practiced, “Don’t wish to be in a discriminated group of people,” as Madeleine joined her, “unless you’re willing to face the discrimination.”
“Fair,” Menna said. Eden nodded in agreement as she fiddled with her finger beds.
“I guess I’m intrigued, I don’t know. He probably sucks like the rest of them,” she decided to add. They followed with laughter and Eden felt satisfied.
Lena sighed as the laughter quickly subsided. “Tell me why today wasn’t even that exciting.”
“But it was!” Menna exclaimed. “I’m so happy for you, this is great.”
“Yeah, maybe it’s just the,” she paused for a moment in thought, “way he looked. It wasn’t as hot as I thought it’d be,” Lena said.
Madeleine smiled. “I know what you mean. Even though I don’t. Makes sense.”
Eden slumped back into her chest as the conversation continued. Her satisfaction left her, and she sighed at the topic of conversation that yet again prevailed. Lena’s complaining was unfounded--or rather--generally unnecessary, she thought.
“You know what this calls for? A celebratory watching of Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging,” Madeleine said. Eden sighed again. There must’ve been a celebration every month because it seemed as if they were always watching that movie. It wasn’t even that good, and its intended audience was certainly preteens. Eden never understood why Madeleine loved it so much.
“Damn! I have work tonight. How unfortunate,” Menna joked. She shared Eden’s disinterest, but she was still usually willing to partake in a screening if the homemade popcorn was buttery enough.
Eden looked down. “I’ve got a bit of a headache, I think I’m just going to head home.”
Lena looked at her questionably. “It just came on?”
“It’s been kind of lingering all night. I’m pretty tired, too. Will you go on without me?”
“All right, feel better,” Lena said. Madeleine pitched a similar sentiment. Eden and Menna got their things, hugged the other two, and headed out of the bedroom. After walking a couple of feet away, Menna pulled Eden in closer.
“You know Kealani? She came over today. Only got to first base, but I’m not complaining.” She elbowed Eden. She smiled at her and murmured a “Nice job” in response.
“I didn’t want to mention it tonight. Didn’t want to take away from Lena’s news.”
“Makes sense,” Eden said. She looked down as they walked down the stairs.
“Hey, are you all right?”
Eden looked up at her, surprised at the question. She supposed she had been rather un-excited, but nothing was too far from her normal character.
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about me.” She smiled a half-smile, the kind that tends to match a shrug.
“If you’re sure,” Menna said as they put on their shoes in the entryway.
“Yeah, no, definitely,” Eden said. She appreciated the thought but wished no one had noticed her reluctance.
“Okay, just text me.”
The two of them escaped small talk with Lena’s mother by their supposed rush and waved goodbye. They walked through the front door onto the porch. The sun had set behind the house, with some light still not yet hidden. Darkness trapped the front of the house, however, and Eden turned on her bike light on the helmet her mother made her wear despite her refusal. She walked her bike to Menna’s car and hugged goodbye before she got in. Eden slouched her shoulders onto her bike, letting her palms fall onto the handles as her legs began to pedal after Menna drove away.
The river reached her soon enough. She sped up the steep levee path and onto the road big enough for a car though she had never seen one. At this time of night, no one was at the river, mostly because of the summer bugs. Occasionally Eden would see groups of teenagers, giggling, walking tightly-knit, their hands in their pockets, sometimes dancing around. They were rare, however, and the dancing even more so. Once in awhile Eden saw people packing up their fishing materials, depending on the day. Today the levee was empty. She rode down the paved path slowly, admiring the reflection of the moon and remnants of light dancing on the water. The straightness of the path was reassuring. Eden closed her eyes for a moment but opened them out of fear of some benign obstacle. She didn’t trust herself. The stretch went on for only a mile or so, but this portion of Eden’s ride felt slower. Down the straight road lined with consistent trees, rocks, and bushes, time stretched out like drying clothes on a line, blown in the wind but stabilized. Deep breaths entered Eden’s chest; she breathed through her nose even though it stung in the wind of her momentum.
Eventually, the boat dock signaled she was to ride back down to the main road. She turned left, let gravity spin her down the smooth cement incline, and took a sharp turn onto the road that stretched for half a mile. She floated forward, cold but sweaty, like always.
As she approached the turn, Eden noticed the old street light burnt out and the familiar darkness was bleaker than usual. She did not see the dip in the road she had always swerved around as she turned. The brief descend thrust her into the moonlit shadow of the five pine trees that created a sort of enclosed sanctuary. In the fall, she’d always stare at the seniors on her way home from school, watching them crouching in the green, giggling and smoking Spirits.
She braked fast. The force followed her closely, fell onto her, and split through the ground. She laid on the pavement for a moment. She could feel the wet July air that made everything full. Now, though, it was cool, and the breeze moved not just the pines but eventually her, too. It was late but it was summer and she was supposed to go out more and feel that full wet air. Now, all she wanted was to get home. Stacking back up, Eden scanned the street for bystanders.
As she scanned she saw a man walking with a cane across the street on the left of the sidewalk. He trotted with a slight horizontal stature as if he was permanently carrying a heavy backpack. The moonlight emphasized his baggy cheeks and weary smile lines around his eyes that seemed to drag, appearing only half open under eyebrows angled upwards like a frowning clown, minus the theatricality. Dotted with sunspots that could only be from years of outdoor light, his face held the indifferent disposition Eden used to see in her grandfather when she visited him in Corvallis every August. She wondered why he was walking alone so late, but soon remembered the retirement home a turn and two stop light crosswalks away. Sometimes she would see the residents of the home on walks as her parents drove her home from school or a friend’s house, their slow footsteps painfully holding up the pedestrian stop light and irritating the impatient drivers on their 5-o’clock trips home. Once, a car ran the red light after the walker crossed their side of the road, zooming away. Eden would wonder why the workers at the home would let the residents walk by themselves, yet she found secret pleasure whenever she saw them in their moments of independence.
Eden remembered her Oregon trip was in less than a month. Corvallis was never fun, she thought. She had already seen the town’s parks and downtown sites what felt like a thousand times. Every year they would go to the same Marketsquare Avenue art gallery that, although changing monthly, always looked the same. Her mom would need to stay home with her grandfather most of the time anyway, giving his home assistant a week break, one of her two vacations every year. His house, rested on a quiet street in the hilly part of town, was small and wholly uninteresting. Last summer Eden’s mom let Eden take her uncle’s old bike and ride to the river two miles away, but after a couple of hours when the sun began to set and the mosquitos began their daily visits to the water’s gleaming edge, she would head back to her grandpa’s before it was dark (there was no reflector on the bike). The dinners were always the same meat-something and the conversation was always dull. Last year her grandpa commented on her height along some remark about how old she was getting, followed by his hearty sigh that sounded like something nearing disappointment. This year, Eden knew the questions about her future would spring up in their kitchen table talk, which she didn’t know how to answer just yet. The “I’m alright” she would say unfailingly when the assistant lady asked how she was would surely get its usual “Just alright?” response.
“Just alright” was a stretch for how Eden felt in the moment as she found herself still standing next to her bike, her right side vaguely aching. She finally mounted the bike and continued home.
After that sharp turn was always the dark stretch. Streetlights did not scatter the streets. The previous streetlight was of no use now that it was broke, and Eden relied on the lights along the next perpendicular street to see. Puddles from the day before’s rain picked up yellows and whites in wavy horizontals. Dark trees draped over the streets, half-a-season from trimming, blocking the bit of wind that traveled above the streets. Eden looked down to see her hands gripping the bars more firmly. Energy sped to her fingers as the wind of her own movement tickled her arm hairs, charging her further. This was the procedure: speed up after the turn, pick up two levels in pacing, and race no one to the stop sign at the end of the street. Every ride, the chasing occurred, and Eden had familiarized her fears by now.
Eden’s house appeared soon enough as she hopped off her bike and walked it to her garage. After putting it away and locking the garage door, she entered her house through the inside. The fridge invited her scanning, yet she only grabbed a small apple that had begun to wrinkle and she sat down at the dinner table.
She sighed. The blinds on the windows adjacent to her revealed the backyard in its moonlit sovereignty. She saw the rose bushes with their metallic, blue-tipped leaves expanding into the fence like large oval balloons. The crooked baby maple’s branches reached like curling fingers. The ground chopped with dark green. The worn red pot with its dried contents spilling to the left. Eden knew this yard, knew dip in the corner that twisted her ankle for what felt like weeks, the garden that overflowed with gleaming plumps of orange and gold this time of year. Despite her knowledge of the yard’s landscaping (the eight almost-ripe tomatoes and the dead thyme), she was uneasy. The darkness breathed, out and in, onto Eden, though she was still indoors.
The procedure reshaped itself: energy filled her toes as it pulled her down the hall and rushed her into her bedroom. Once inside, ease returned to Eden. She dropped herself down onto her bed, legs flopped and head up. She saw her three-pronged fan with one bulb out and thought of Lena’s. Her friends a reach away now, she sighed and closed her eyes. Her chest was pulled back to Lena’s bed, criss-crossed legs atop Menna’s, her face reminded of Lena’s head-pull-back as she waited for their reactions and her laughing, knowing smile regarding the details of her afternoon, and the guy from camp, who was coming in three—no, two—weeks, and Madeleine’s nods, and the picture in Menna’s DM, and her sprint to first base, and the boy at lunch at the tree, and the “No thanks” and the wetness and the “Just alright?” seeped into a smile as the wetness flattened into a tear—but Mama always said to let the tears dry, and so they did.