“Wait, I’m confused,” Eli said. He was lying on his back on my bed, throwing a tennis ball up until it grazed the ceiling, and then catching it with alternating hands.
“What’s to be confused about?” I asked as I sat at my desk rummaging through my mother’s makeup bag that I had just hijacked from her bathroom.
Eli caught the ball one more time then rolled onto his side. “You just said that Porter basically told you to stay away from him.”
I angled the mascara’s bristly brush dangerously toward my reluctant eyeball. “That’s not exactly what I said. I said he said that I was smart, pretty,” I made a swipe at my eyelashes and squinted in pain when a sharp sting was my reward. Tears ran from my eye. “And that he had never met any girl quite like me.”
Eli scoffed at this, “Well that’s the truth.”
“Then,” I continued as I pulled a tissue from the box on my desk and wiped the runny black mess off my cheek, “he said that I should stay away from him.”
“Excuse me if I fail to see the difference, and what the hell are you trying to do, blind yourself?” Eli got up off my bed and removed the mascara wand from my hand. He looked first at the wand, and then at me. “You are clearly not qualified to operate this device,” he said, and grabbed the tube from my other hand as he kneeled on the floor in front of me and barked, “Look down.”
I opened my eyes as wide as I could and stared at my lap while Eli expertly applied the black liquid to first my top and then bottom lashes. “No one ever showed me how,” I explained.
“Please, my six-year-old sister can do this better than you, and since when do you attempt to wear makeup anyway?” He screwed the wand back into the tube and started rifling through the rest of the makeup in the bag. He removed eyeliner, lipstick, and foundation.
“What are you going to do with all that?”
“If we’re going to do this, then let’s do it right.” He uncapped the eyeliner and started aiming for my eye again. “Now, please, explain to me how ‘stay away from me’ does not mean ‘stay away from me.’ Look up.”
I looked up and tried to not blink while Eli ran the liner around my eye. “He was only saying that for my benefit. He knows he’s a mess, and it’s like he was trying to warn me.” Eli finished one eye and I took the opportunity to look at him. “I think he actually likes me.”
Eli raised his eyebrows and gave me his are-you-serious? look. “You do realize you sound like super-crazy-stalker chick . . . right?”
I rolled my eyes, “You had to be there. The words he used are not an accurate representation of the message the rest of him was sending.”
Eli nodded while he pursed his lips. “Explained the psycho to the jury.”
I shoved him. “Shut up.”
He swayed away from me then back. “I’m just saying,” he said and aimed the eyeliner for my other eye. “I’m getting a little freaked out—look up—by all this AND that doesn’t even begin to address the fact that I’m kneeling here, putting makeup on the face of a girl who two weeks ago would have kicked my ass for even suggesting such an activity. Don’t think I don’t know what this is all about.”
“Really?” I tried to sound flip, but Eli had me cornered.
He finished my other eye then sat back on his heels. “Yes, really.” He looked down at the liner in his hands then up into my face. “I know you better than anyone, Ruth. I probably know you better than you know yourself. You like this guy . . . you like him a lot.”
I shrugged and stared at my hands. They were cupped in my lap like they were waiting to receive something. “So, I like him,” I admitted. “Is that so wrong?” I looked into Eli’s dark brown eyes and hoped to find acceptance, an anchor, some understanding for the crazy wave of changes that were sweeping over my being and untethering me from every truth I’d ever held about myself.
“It’s not wrong.” Eli put down the eyeliner and picked up one of the lipsticks. “It just changes things.” He held my chin in one hand while his other guided the soft pink color over the swell of my bottom lip. “Change is an inevitable and scary thing.”
“You like Jordan,” I reminded him.
Eli nodded and pressed the lipstick to my top lip.
“That changes things too, you know.”
Eli concentrated all his attentions on following the curve of my lip. “Yeah, I guess.”
A heavy silence filled the room. It fell over us both, the realization that the future was always pressing in, threatening to bring us both the things we wanted and strip us of the comfortable reality that we already knew. “It doesn’t have to change us,” I said.
Eli finished my lips and looked up into my eyes. “It already kinda has,” he said.
When I turned and looked in the mirror, the girl I saw there stunned me. Not because she was the most amazingly beautiful girl I had ever seen—because she wasn’t—but because she was me, amplified. It was like seeing all the best aspects of my regular features fine-tuned, and suddenly, I realized that Porter was right.
Ruth Robinson was pretty.
“You will always be my best friend,” I declared.
Behind me, I heard him stand up and move toward the bed. “I think that too,” he said. “But the other day, I was talking to my mom in the kitchen. Just about stuff . . . life. And I was messing with her about her not having any girlfriends to do stuff with.” He sat down on my bed and we looked at each other through the reflection of my mirror. “You want to know what she said?”
“She said, ‘Your father is my best friend. He has been from almost the day I met him.’”
I didn’t say anything. I sat and stared at Eli, who looked like he’d summed up the entire future of our friendship in a single sentence. “Well . . . I can speak from personal experience, and you’ve met my parents: that’s not always the case.”
Eli nodded. “I know that. But my parents really are best friends, and it occurs to me that nobody goes into a relationship hoping for what your parents have, Ruth. Everyone wants what my parents have.”
I didn’t want to talk about this, any of this, anymore. I turned around in my chair and walked toward Eli. “Well there is clearly only one solution,” I said as I jumped on top of him and started pinching his neck in the places I knew made him laugh hysterically. “You and I will just have to marry each other.”
“Get off me, you psycho!” he laughed.
“And then we’ll just have sex with whoever we want. We’ll have one of those open marriages . . . like celebrities.” I managed to wedge my hand right into the spot between the base of his neck and his shoulder, in the exact spot Eli couldn’t stand.
He screamed and laughed and started bucking like an insane wild person, reaching for my own armpits in a sorry attempt to retaliate. Finally he managed to hook his right leg around my waist and roll me off him, pinning my arms under his knees. “Marry you? You’re insane!” He grabbed one of my pillows from the top of my bed and held it over his head.
I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. “Get off me!” I thrashed my head back and forth. For forever, I had always won these battles—always. But sometime during our sophomore year, the physical strength tables had turned against me, and now Eli outmatched me almost every single time.
I still liked to antagonize him.
“This is end for you, Ruth Robinson!”
“Nooooo!” I screamed.
My door flew open and both Eli and I froze, his hands still clutching the pillow high above his head. Our heads turned together and saw my mother, red faced, standing in my door. “The entire neighborhood is going to think a homicide is happening in here! Knock it off! I’m trying to work!” She turned on her heels and stomped back to her bedroom, slamming her door behind her.
Eli looked back down at me and half a second later we both crumbled into muffled hysterics. My mother had been yelling at us since we were eleven. Eli whispered, “I’m going to kill you, Ruth Robinson.”
“Nooooo,” I whispered back.
Eli placed his finger over his lips. “Shhhh,” he said. “The neighbors.” Then fell over next to me as we both continued to rave as quietly as we could.
The day after my confession to him, Porter didn’t show up at school. My plan had been, against Eli’s better judgment, to pretend like Porter hadn’t advised me to stay away. I wasn’t exactly sure how that was going to work out; it wasn’t much of a plan, and it had taken me all morning to talk myself into the courage I needed to simply walk up to Porter and start a conversation—but I didn’t get the chance anyway.
I brooded, all through calculus, English Lit, and lunch, imagining Porter milling around the public library and then standing outside his sister’s school waiting to pick her up. I thought about leaving myself, going to the library and sitting down next to him, but I had a test in English Lit I couldn’t miss. Also, it was one thing to approach Porter at school, but maybe it would be kind of weird to hunt him down outside.
Eli’s accusation that I was turning into a crazy stalker chick didn’t exactly fall on deaf ears. I didn’t feel confident enough in my assessment of Porter’s feelings to know for sure that I was right.
What if he really did want me to stay away from him? Getting the brush-off at school was nowhere near as bad as tracking someone down in their private world and them feeling like maybe they needed to get a restraining order.
“What is wrong with you today?” Eli asked me at lunch.
“What? Nothing’s wrong.”
He nodded. “Sure, okay. Porter’s not at school again today.”
My brow wrinkled in irritation. “What? I don’t care about that!”
Eli rolled his eyes. “You’re obsessing,” he said, and took a bite of the horsemeat-looking burger that was the best-case scenario on the school lunch menu today.
“I am not,” I hissed, but we both knew he was right.
That night I sat at my desk, forcing myself to focus on my senior honors thesis, and not focus on wondering if Porter Creed might or might not be at school the next day. I would get halfway through a particularly dry paragraph only to find that my brain had slipped into imagining Porter’s many possible reactions to what I had planned as a conversation starter.
“Uggghhhh!” I slammed my laptop shut and went downstairs to make fun of the Wheel of Fortune contestants waiting to be mocked on our DVR.
The next day, thirty seconds into the passing period before Advanced Calculus, Porter Creed walked in the door and all my limbs went tingly and numb at the exact same time. I braced myself, half expecting him to ignore me, especially given my stupid confession, and keep walking past my desk.
Instead, his eyes met mine and he walked right up to me.
“Hi,” my traitorous voice cracked, but Porter didn’t seem to notice.
He nodded, pulled his dirty and ripped backpack from his shoulder, and unzipped the main compartment. I watched, waited to see what he was doing, and wondered what Ryan Miller, the only other student in the classroom so far, was thinking about Porter standing in front of me.
Porter pulled out two wrinkled, slightly ripped pieces of notebook paper and placed them on my desk.
“What’s this?” I asked as my eyes scanned the pages that were filled from edge to edge in pencil writing.
“Some of your project,” he explained.
When I looked up, Porter ran his hand through his hair. “I felt bad, dumping the whole thing back on you . . . I know it’s important to you.” He looked out the window beside me. “So I worked on it some last night.”
I stared down and the pages, stunned. “Thank you,” I managed to get out.
Porter continued to stare out the window but he nodded to acknowledge he had heard me. “I would have done more, but I didn’t know what you already had.”
Porter shrugged. “Well . . . that should help then.”
I pursed my lips and nodded. I wanted to keep talking to him, but everyone else was starting to push through the door and the bell was going to ring any second.
Porter started to walk away, toward his seat.
I didn’t think, I just did it. My hand reached out and touched his.
“After class,” I breathed. “Don’t leave. I want to talk to you.”
One second passed, then another. Mr. T walked in the door; the bell rang.
Porter rotated his wrist and I felt his fingers trail across the inside of my palm, like a secret yes just between us. It was like being hit by lightning. Then, his hand slipped silently away from mine and he walked to his seat.
I swallowed hard and tried to regain some semblance of control over my rampaging nervous system.
“Good morning, my young brainiacs,” Mr. T boomed as he set his huge latte on his desk. “Shall we get started?”
My bag. It was on the floor and I needed things: papers, pencils. Maybe if I was really lucky I would find my brain somewhere in there. I reached for it but every fiber of my body felt shaky and unreliable. Again I wondered if everyone could tell, if they could see, somehow sense the shockwave Porter’s simple act had created inside me.
I hoped not.
Somehow, I managed to get out the things I needed. The tools I needed to get through the next fifty-five minutes were spread on the desk before me. I held my pencil, looked up at Mr. T, listened to the questions, nodded at the answers, copied equations and notes from the white board, and went through all the external motions required.
But my mind—it was carefully tracking the minutes until we would all be released from this class. I was both anticipating and dreading finding out exactly what happened next. I remembered the feel of Porter’s fingers against the inside of my palm. I wondered what that meant, that small action from him. I contemplated how my life had possibly, irrevocably, and completely changed, or was about to in—I looked at the clock—twenty-three minutes.
It felt like I was waiting on a twenty-three-minute-long brink.
It reminded me of that time, the summer after seventh grade when my mother took me to visit my aunt Renee in Colorado. We hiked up in the Rocky Mountains, and after what felt like hours of my heart almost exploding out of my chest as I pushed my legs up and up and up the steep inclined trail, we finally reached the summit of Horsetooth Rock. Which only sort of looked like a horse’s tooth, in my opinion. Anyway, we climbed the rocks and stood at the very top, peering out over the city below us on one side and the valley on the other, and my aunt started telling us about all the different people who had died up on these rocks. Both accidentally and on purpose.
I had stood near the edge, close enough to make my body send panicky signals that I might be in danger, but not so close that I could actually fall. All those people, falling or jumping off these rocks—to their deaths. What did that feel like, that moment right when you realized it was too late, that you were actually going over? What about the people who jumped? Did they regret it in those few seconds they had between the actual leap and the dying part?
Like in Anna Karenina, when she leaps in front of the train and then, before it hits her, she realizes she made a mistake. I stood on the edge of that cliff and imagined falling, imagined jumping—it was only one small decision. One tiny jump, really.
I had scared myself and moved away from the edge.
But that feeling, that being on the edge of something scary and yet also, for a few more moments, still within your control—that’s what I felt like sitting in calc waiting for the bell to ring, waiting to find out what Porter would say when we talked.
A loud shrill filled the room.
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