I wait with Jillie in this roomy kitchen with frayed blue gingham framing the windows and linoleum worn almost to the wood in a path from the refrigerator to the table. When the peach toast is ready, Jillie devours several servings. I can fit in only a couple of bites. This is why she’s 150 pounds and I’m 116. I wish she’d eat like a normal person, but I’m happy she’s my friend and grateful to have a place where I’m always welcome no matter how long I stay.
At suppertime, Jillie and I forego the burgers sizzling on the stove, and leave Joey howling in Mrs. Keenan’s arms because he’s too young to come along. Melding into a cacophony of clicks, whirrs, screams and laughter at the annual Fourth of July carnival, we zip past the Tilt-O-Whirl, the Scrambler, the Ferris wheel, and game booths until we reach the biggest tent in the field. My heart thumps from running all the way to the canvas behemoth, where a local garage band is pulling off a good rendition of the Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over. I brush flecks of straw from my Wrangler cutoffs and make sure my red-and-white checked blouse is buttoned straight. Jillie opens the flap. We both step in, and her friend Alice rushes over. “Gosh, you guys, it took you long enough,” she says.
“You didn’t tell me she’d be here,” I whisper to Jillie. When Alice’s name comes up at school, people tend to let out eews and ughs and icks. I was leery of being seen with her.
“She’s around when you’re not,” Jillie whispers back. “Besides, if you got to know her, you’d like her.”
Realizing there’s nothing I can do about Alice, I shrug and run my fingers through my hair, making sure no locks are tucked under my collar. Last week, I cut off all the orange ends, remnants of a perm gone awry. Now my nearly black hair falls just below my shoulders, and it’s straight and shiny, which is in style these days. I look better than I ever have, especially since I now wear glasses only to see the chalkboards at school. And lately, some cool boys have noticed me—the ones girls sigh over at night while they hold their pillows and drift off to sleep, the ones whose pictures girls pull out from between textbook pages to peek at during class. I’m feeling like a new girl in town, not the same sad sack orphan who’s been chewing her pencils at school since first grade.
Some cute boys I don’t recognize are near the stage in front of the lead singer, whose hair is in a Beatle cut just like half the guys in the tent. Alice says the boys are from La Grange, Hinsdale’s biggest rival in football. It seems every girl in the tent is looking at them. I glance their way just as a boy in the group checks me out. He has black hair and black eyes, and he dances through the crowd, maintaining eye contact with me all the way. His friends follow. When he reaches me, he asks, “Dance with me?”
“Sure.” I shift away from Jillie to face him.
Then, right by his side, Shelby appears, pigtails bouncing against skin aglow from the first weeks of summer sun. “Hey,” she says. She starts dancing with a real heartthrob with sandy bangs that keep falling into his blue eyes. She smiles at me like we’re fast friends.
I ignore her. I can’t believe she’s pretending everything’s just fine. I focus on the black-eyed boy. We do the Swim, hips wiggling, arms circling around. We even pretend to take breaths over our shoulders, and we both laugh. I can’t be upset when dancing. The rhythm lifts my spirits; the harmony quickens my pulse.
When the song ends, Shelby pulls me aside and says, “I’m fuckin’ sorry, okay?”
“That’s supposed to mean something to me?” I refuse to engage her prodding toffee-colored eyes.
“I know you’re mad, but Trish said to stay away from you, said you’re fuckin’ bad news.”
Trish Carlisle sat behind me way back in sixth grade English. I haven’t had one class with her since then. I got A’s on our tests; she got D’s. She always said, “I hate you” when our teacher returned our papers. I didn’t know she really meant it. It floors me that after all this time Trish is telling people I’m bad news. I wonder who else might be holding grudges for unspoken rules broken when most of us still wore undershirts, not bras.
“You dumped me because Trish told you to?”
The band begins Peter and Gordon’s A World Without Love. The boys start dancing in front of us, and we join them.
“Trish is my neighbor,” Shelby says, bopping in time with the blond guy. “She bugged me about you every day, every fuckin’ day.”
“Why don’t you just go be with her then?” I move to my partner’s other side.
“I’ve missed you,” she calls to me.
After a few more dances, the boys ask if we’d like to take a ride. They are clean, polite and silly, much like our classmates. They seem safe. I check in with Jillie, who has been dancing with Alice.
“So, I’m thinking of taking a ride with these guys,” I say.
“And Shelby?” she says.
“It’s not like I invited her.”
“She only came over because those boys were paying attention to you.”
I look over at my dance partner. He has a devilish smile. “So, I’m gonna go, then. See you tomorrow?”
“Alice’s coming over, too, in case you flake,” Jillie says. She waves me away and resumes dancing with Alice.
Knowing Jillie will be too curious about the rest of my evening to stay angry for long, I leave the tent with Shelby and the boys from La Grange. They lead us to an old Buick convertible parked nearby. I climb into the front seat next to the raven-haired lad, who is driving. He puts his arm around me, and we ride through the hot summer night, the warm wind soothing salty, suntanned skin as we head for a diner that sells giant sodas.
A couple hours later, the black-eyed boy clings to my side as we mosey toward my stepmom’s front door. He reminds me of a bloodhound drooling for Purina’s Gravy Train. Absent a dance floor, I feel no magic between us. On the porch, he leans in for a goodnight kiss. I turn my head and call to Shelby, “I’ve missed you, too.”
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