Life ends when I pull the trigger.
But that’s what I want, so I do.
It’s sunny today. Ironic, when I consider how the day’s going to end. A picture of us sits on my bedside table, and I stare at you, the way I do every morning. Your hair looks tangerine in the sun, and the ice cream sandwich in your hands forms a white river of molten sugar as it trickles down your arm. Mine isn’t faring much better. There’s barely any ice cream between the two cookies, but I don’t notice because I’m watching you with a wide grin on my face.
The picture was taken in July of 2002 – the summer you moved in next door. I remember how excited I was when Mom told me there was a kid my age moving into the old brick house, the one Mr. Buchard died in. Heart attack, they said. There hadn’t been kids in our neighborhood for years, and I thought you’d be a boy who’d want to watch spy movies with me, or play sports, or help me dig a hole to China. Turns out you were a girl, but at least you didn’t mind playing in the dirt all day. Since you had an older brother, you didn’t mind watching football with me, even though you liked soccer better. You even offered to be goalie. It was love at first sight.
My mom snapped the picture of the two of us during the annual neighborhood block party. We have one every summer, and even though half the neighborhood doesn’t get along, they all pretend to be friends for a day. While the dads talked football and drank Miller Lite, and the moms chatted about drapes and the latest community gossip, you and I sat on my trampoline eating ice cream. It was the day I told you I thought you were pretty. You thought I was lying and when I insisted that I was telling the truth, you ran away giggling. I remember the way your pigtails bounced as you skipped across the lawn, two spiral curls dangling from neon scrunchies like the icicles that sometimes hang from my house in winter. I’d never had a friend who was a girl before, so I had no idea boys my age weren’t supposed to say things like that. I was vaguely aware of cooties, but it was only a periphery concern. For about half an hour you acted as if I were the plague, but eventually got too bored with the adults and came running back.
My fingers curl around the edge of the frame as I pull it closer. I want to stay lost in the memory forever, but I can hear someone coming up the stairs. The sound of Mom rapping on the door makes me flinch. “Jordan, get up!” Her nasally voice booms, causing the dogs downstairs to start barking. I wish we’d just gotten a cat.
“Fuck off,” I grumble, shoving my face into the pillow. It smells of cigarettes and stale bread. I flick a few crumbs onto the floor.
“Fuck you. You’re going to be late.”
And I don’t want to be late today, so I tear my eyes away from the photo and force myself out of bed. I’ll be seeing you soon enough. I stumble down the hallway, my feet barely avoiding tripping over one of the dogs. Buster looks up at me and growls, the sound rumbling in the back of his throat. He’s never liked me. Before he can start nipping at my ankles, I duck into the bathroom and slam the door.
“Fucking dog,” I grumble, yanking my shirt over my head. My hand fumbles for the faucet and I jump in the shower, water pounding against my back as steam billows up around me. I realize this is probably the last time I’ll see the inside of this bathroom, and take a few extra moments to savor the salmon tile and dingy walls. It’s ugly, but it’s home.
Mom bangs on the door after a while and claims she needs the bathroom. I know she’s just trying to rush me, so I stay where I am, hunched against the steady stream of water. My fingers and toes already look like prunes, but the heady scent of body wash and the curling tendrils of steam has me closing my eyes, leaning against the tile as my mind wanders.
I watch as your back disappears into the crowd. You glance back at me, just once, to see if I’m following, but I’m still on the trampoline, a soggy dessert crushed between my fingers.
Flinging it away from me, it lands somewhere in the grass nearby. Mom sees and shoots me a disapproving look before turning back to the pudgy woman in lime green pants and Hawaiian top. She looks like the wallpaper in my grandma’s living room, the stuff that always gives me a headache. They’re both waving their hands as they speak, and I wonder what’s got them so riled up. Taxes, maybe, or the new neighborhood watch program. We started it a few months ago, after one of the houses was vandalized by a group of rambunctious teenagers. Everyone woke up one morning to see a naked lady spray painted on Mrs. Wayland’s garage door. Mom covered my eyes for a week, whenever we’d drive past.
“Disgusting,” she’d mutter, her nails digging into my skin. “You’d better not turn out like those miserable hooligans.” She’d wave a warning finger in my face as we pulled out of the neighborhood, and I’d just nod. I’d never seen a naked woman before, and while I doubted my talents with a can of spray paint, I was intrigued by the graffiti nonetheless.
I watch Mom’s arms swing around in circles, her fingers pointed at Hawaiian Shirt Lady like a gun. I decide the neighborhood watch program is probably correct, and wonder when I’ll get to help guard the people on my block. Dad said when I’m older, but whenever I ask him how old, he never gives me a solid answer. The way I see it, I should get to patrol with the adults now, since Dad’s usually away on business. When he’s not, he’s out patrolling with the other parents. That’s what he tells my mom, anyway; I know it’s a lie because I saw him sitting in Mr. Bailey’s garage drinking beer.
I blow out a sigh and lick away the sticky residue on my fingers. The party’s in full swing, and I can’t see you anymore. You’ve completely disappeared. I think about going after you, so I don’t have to spend the next few hours by myself, but eventually you come back. Grownups are boring, you say, and hand me a granola bar obviously stolen from my pantry.
There’s a long, awkward silence that fills the space between us. It’s never been there before, and I don’t know where it came from. Maybe because I said you were pretty. But why would that matter? I’ve been taught to always tell the truth, and you look nice. Your mom curled your hair, and I like the pink and white checkered dress you’re wearing. I can tell you hate it, and would rather be in shorts, but I think it looks nice anyway. Mom’s always saying girls should wear dresses more often. I agree.
“I’m so itchy.” You tug at the dress’s frilly sleeves, your lips turned down in an exaggerated pout. “I wish I were a boy.”
“No you don’t,” I say, wiping my hands on my khakis. “Mom’s always yelling at me to clean up after her, and Dad tells me I need to be more like him. I’m supposed to be the man of the house when he’s gone.”
“That can’t be that hard. You’re already a boy. What else are you supposed to do?”
“Take care of my mom. But whenever I try, she tells me to leave her alone, and when I don’t try, she yells at me to try harder.” I shrug. “I bet your parents don’t yell at you.” Mr. and Mrs. Monroe are the nicest people I know. I wish I had parents like yours. Whenever I go over to your house, your mom bakes cookies and gives me one right when they come out of the oven. My mom’s definition of cooking is heating up a TV dinner.
“They yell at me when I don’t clean up my room,” you say, and shove the toe of your sneaker into the dirt. “I hate cleaning.”
I hate cleaning too, but I don’t say anything. I’m not sure what to say, now that you keep looking at me funny. Like I’m a perfect stranger, and not the kid you’ve been playing with for the last few weeks. Maybe ten-year-olds aren’t supposed to tell girls they’re pretty; most of the kids in our grade still believe in cooties and Jordan-germs-no-returns. Do you think I have germs? Is that why you won’t sit next to me now?
“I don’t have cooties,” I blurt. I can’t lose my one friend on the block, who has parents kids would kill for, and the prettiest smile I’ve ever seen.
You finally look up at me, but I can’t read your expression. You don’t look angry or disgusted, but you aren’t smiling either, and I hate it when you’re not smiling, since it’s a pretty rare occurrence. I don’t think I know anyone happier than you, and I want to be friends with the girl who’s never sad. I want to be just like her, but the way my life is, I think I frown a lot more than I smile. I only smile when I’m around you.
“I don’t think you have cooties.” You take a step closer to prove it, and then another, until you’re standing right in front of me. I’m still sitting on the trampoline, and you’re standing between my legs, and I can feel the itchy tool of your dress as it tickles the back of my shins. You reach up and ruffle my hair, and I catch the way the corners of your mouth turn up, and the way your cheeks glow ruby red. “I actually kind of like you.”
Magical words to a quiet, sullen kid like me. I can feel my smile straining against the boundaries of my face, and when you rise up on your tiptoes and kiss my cheek, I realize I can’t feel my body. It’s like I’m floating. I can’t remember the last time my mom kissed me goodnight, and am mesmerized by the way your lips feel on my skin. They’re not silk, like I imagined, but kind of rough. I can feel the scab you got when you ran into the tree last week, but somehow the texture of your lips is more endearing than the softness of a mother’s ever could be.
When you pull back, your face is red, but you’re grinning. I think I’m still smiling; I can’t tell because my face has gone numb.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” you say, and before I know it, you’re gone.
I haven’t seen you since the barbecue. I’ve considered hopping the low stone wall separating our yards to see if you want to play, but every time I decide it’s a good idea, I change my mind a second later.
Today, however, I am so bored out of my mind that I can’t take it another minute. I have played video games, tried to read a book, and even played a game of Chinese Checkers with myself. I’ve exhausted every option, and you’re all I’ve got left.
“I’m going over to Laura’s,” I call to an empty house, and grab my football from the hall closet. You’re sitting on my curb when I open the door, scabby legs and holey tennis shoes stretched out in front of you. I can’t help but grin, and after a moment’s hesitation, your lips part in a smile. I notice you’ve lost a tooth. You ask if I want to play a new game today, and I say sure. I leave the football on the front step and follow you into the woods behind your house.
“It’s called spin the bottle,” you tell me, and I learn pretty quickly that playing with two people is infinitely better than playing with a group.
We play all afternoon.