Rules of my best friends.., p.2
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       Rules of My Best Friend's Body, p.2

           Matthue Roth
 
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  great friends

  I could barely sit through classes in Hebrew School that next Sunday. I was giddy, the kind of giddy that little kids got before a movie started in the theater.

  Now if you don’t know, it’s a totally strange thing to be in Hebrew School when you’re fifteen years old. For most kids, you turn thirteen, you get called onstage for your Bar Mitzvah and you say a two-line prayer over the Torah, the audience pelts you with candy, then the next night there’s some kind of party that has next to nothing to do with being Jewish and everything to do with getting all the girls in class into tight strapless dresses, and that’s it. You can forget about being Jewish until you have a baby and they need to circumcise it or something.

  But, post-Bar Mitzvah, everyone’s thinking about college, and extra-curriculars, and also about paying for college. And it just so happens that Hebrew School:

  a) looks great on a college transcript, and

  b) ends, in 12th grade, with you being given a more-or-less official Hebrew School Teacher’s Certification, meaning that you’ll be able to make (according to the school) some ridiculously high hourly salary, teaching the next generation of suckers.

  We weren’t religious or anything. We were just nerds. Some of us were in it for the easy money, some of us were banking on it being the little resume booster that got us into an Ivy, or got us out of going to state school. My friend Damon, who was preternaturally smart and could speak Hebrew better than he spoke English (Hebrew enunciation: perfect; English: he had the same guttural ghetto accent as I did), I’m pretty sure he only came here for the ego boost. I hadn’t really worked out what my motivation was. I was just there because I’d never dropped out, because it was easier to go with the flow than tell my parents I wanted to quit.

  Larissa and I sat in class together, across the room but sneaking glances at every opportunity, texting each other things like 35 MINUTES AND COUNTING when we could get away with it. We’d been texting each other the countdown for roughly 4,320 minutes and counting, ever since that first night. Even the glances couldn’t satiate us. A delicious impatience was hanging in the air.

  I don’t think I drew anything that whole period. I had other priorities now. We hummed with potential.

  Afterward, in the fray of parent pickups, I glanced around, seeing who would notice. The parking lot was filled with Volvos and Buicks and boxy minivans skewed at geometrically inexplicable angles. Kids from my classes, kids who looked cool, or stylish, or intimidating, with football jerseys and hundred-dollar jeans and shoulders that were wide enough to balance a table on, suddenly shrunk to the size of toddlers as they stooped to climb into the backseat of their parents’ minivans. It was the burn of being fifteen, a burn that would someday cool, but now it felt as red-hot and eternal as damnation itself.

  I felt two cool fingers wrap around my wrist. They yanked me southward, toward the bottom curve of the parking lot. “This way,” said Larissa. “Allow me to introduce you to Lulu.”

  “Lulu?”

  The twin syllables had barely dropped from my mouth when I found myself face to face with a massive schooner of a red Oldsmobile. Its headlights were large perceptive ovals that made you feel like it was checking you out, and its grill was definitely shaped to indicate that the car itself was laughing at you.

  “Arthur, this is Lulu. Be a gentleman and say hello.”

  I gaped. I backed away from it. There was no way this was possible, but I could swear that car nudged into me.

  Larissa swung open the door—it was as long as she was tall—and threw her lithe body around to the other side of it, ready to hop in. She was still a good two months from turning sixteen, but she’d taken the necessary tests the first day she was allowed, three months to the day before her birthday—this was one of the first things she told me about herself, a demonstration to prove just how much she hated living in the suburbs. (“You’ve only been driving for a month?” I messaged her. “Are you sure it’s safe?” “If it’s not,” she wrote back, “just think what an epic death we’ll have.”) I must have been staring at her behind the wheel as if she was an alien creature, holding onto Lulu’s door handle to stop myself from floating away. She giggled.

  “I think she likes you.”

  “Um,” I said. “Hello, Lulu.”

  “Okay, enough with the preliminaries,” said Larissa. “Shall we crash this joint?”

  “Actually,” I said, climbing in, “I think crashing a joint is when you show up somewhere?”

  “Well then,” she said, and gunned the ignition, “we’ve got a whole world of joints to crash.”

  The car gave a not insubstantial roar. The next thing I knew, we were sailing past irate parents, kicking up dust clouds in flagrant violation of the parking lot’s fifteen-mile-an-hour speed limit.

  “Where to first?” I asked. I watched her carefully, not touching my seatbelt until she reached for hers.

  Her lips pulled thin, the edges rising into two faint ghosts of a smile.

  “You might kill me….”

  “I won’t kill you.” What power on Earth could make me kill her? I was pretty sure she could say anything and I’d agree to it.

  “You have to promise not to kill me.”

  “I won’t even attempt to murder you.”

  “Can I get that in writing?”

  “Do you have two witnesses?”

  “Have you seen the backseat of this thing?” she said. “Lulu’s big enough to hold a whole grand jury inside.”

  She was messy enough so there might already be a grand jury hiding out somewhere in here. For someone who dressed and groomed herself like Larissa did—A-list dresses, shoes that looked like designer elevators—her car was an impressive wasteland of junk-food wrappers and old newspapers.

  Later I would find out she was an obsessive newspaper reader, on old-school paper, and that she convinced her mom to subscribe to The New York Times. She’d said it was for school, but really it was because Larissa was obsessed with running away to Manhattan. Maybe for a night. Maybe for forever. Soon she’d be asking me to come along, and the yearning to run away would become a dream we shared. But first, she showed me her deep dark secrets. She brought me to the mall.

  *

  On the surface, it’s weird that we ended up being friends at all. Me in my ripped jeans and floppy canvas shoes, her in a spandex dress that managed to be classy and elusive at the same time, the thing I kept asking myself was, what in the world do we have in common? And the thing I kept answering myself was: On the inside, what do we not have in common? I guess what Larissa taught me was, she taught me to be undercover.

  If you’re a superhero, having secret identity is sort of a given. Superman is a bungling reporter, Thor is a successful physician, Wonder Woman is a nurse in the army. Not X-Men—Jubilee and Cyclops and Darwin and Douglock, they’re always Jubilee and Cyclops and the others; those are the only identities they have. This was the only identity I ever thought I needed, being myself. I was like a bad after-school special public service announcement. My body, my wardrobe, my whole social life all proclaimed Be Yourself, Even If Yourself Is the Biggest Loser Ever Known to Humanity.

  But in those early days of knowing Larissa, I discovered the value of a secret identity. She had one. She had a million secret identities, a different one for each person she knew.

  “Come on,” she said. “Don’t lose me!”

  She tugged on my hand, that Sunday afternoon at Franklin Mills Mall, a mall I would have (in my civilian identity) died before setting foot into, as she pulled me through the fake wilderness—dying palm trees planted in a tropical mosaic—situated between two outlet stores. Little kids walked around with their parents. Groups of teens huddled into corners and crevices, up to no good, or wishing they were. Larissa breezed through it all.

  She was so good here. She was such a natural.

  “I hate this place,” she told me. She moved Quicksilver fast. I was at a daze, my brain stuttering, my who
le body caught in the center of a tornado. We flew between worlds, Gap denim fading into Abercrombie crimson, dipping into Hot Topic to sample the dark and flaming miniskirts. “I grew up here,” she said, “and I swore that as soon as I could, I would leave it behind. The people. The chain stores. The desperate wishes for everyone to look just like everyone else.”

  “So why are we here?”

  “Because, my dear Arthur,” she said, “there are some bodily demands that you just have to take care of. And if I went naked, somebody would arrest me, and we wouldn’t be able to hang out anymore.”

  We went to a drugstore. Never had I thought that such a boring place could contain so many cool things. We reenacted the medieval duel from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with rolls of paper towels. She bought deodorant, three flavors of toothpaste (lavender, cinnamon, and gingermint), and a hairbrush that had a demonic-looking Hello Kitty character on it. She hesitated at the entrance gates to the tampon aisle—she shot me a sideways grimace, Do you think you can handle it?, and I held up both fists, mock-boxing, I am so very man enough.

  We went to the clothes store, and she ripped through the racks with a fury like a vengeful god. She swiped aside anything garish, anything sparkly or day-glo or wild, anything too goth, anything too young. I watched her, at first repulsed by the action itself—picking out clothes was something I fundamentally associated with my mom doing—but gradually, and increasingly, curious. I watched her systematic observation of each item of clothing. I watched her purposeful deconstruction of the clothes presented to her.

  And then, one arm piled high with easily a dozen garments that were still somehow all draped gracefully, the other cocked and loaded with a credit card, she passed both to the cashier who magically transformed them all into a single Santa-sack and a receipt. The card, I would later learn, belonged to her mother’s boyfriend. Like Lola, it was a consolation present for not being around—for her absent father, and her nearly-absent mother, and for the boyfriend who was at least in part the reason for her mother’s sporadic vanishings.

  But today she didn’t burden me with any of that. Today, I think she just wanted to feel ecstatic—unhinged, free, otherworldly. She just wanted to frolic. And for this, she needed a suitable partner.

  “That wasn’t so bad,” I said, panting, out of breath, still astounded at the magic of Larissa’s credit card. “What’s next?”

  Her eyes swept the mall court. Past the Sbarro, lingering on the chintzy shop full of novelty pens and unuseful inventions, hesitating momentarily on another shop. My eyes grazed past that shop too, fast, and then I averted them quick, out of habit.

  I saw her looking, pretended not to see her looking, and then I saw her pretend not to see me seeing her.

  “There is one more thing,” she said. “But I don’t know if I should do it with you.”

  “Why not? I’m up for anything. Isn’t that what you said, we should be up for anything?”

  “But it’s a girl thing. I don’t know if—if, like, are we going to be friends? Or is it going to get weird?”

  I swallowed. I looked at her. She was on edge, the first time I’d ever seen her that way.

  “I am weird,” I said. “Being weird’s what you like about me, remember?”

  “I remember. But we’re good weird, right? I don’t want to make anything awkward.”

  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but everything I do is awkward.”

  “Well, okay....” she said. “But tell me if it’s weird.”

  “I’ll tell you. Just tell me!”

  “Well, I sort of need new underwear,” she said, fast, out of the corner of her mouth. “But that might make things really uncomfortable. Wouldn’t it?”

 

  “Would it?” I said.

  Now she looked at me for real.

  “It won’t freak you out?”

  “If you need to do it, let’s do it,” I said. “I told you, I’m in it to win it.”

  The next ten minutes were not my proudest moment, although perhaps—for another me, in another life—they would be. I had such an out-of-body experience: imagine me, the me of two years ago whose head kept getting slammed into concrete, just imagine that he knew I would one day be casually browsing at a lingerie store with a certifiably hot girl, pretending not to look too hard on the way her fingers swept through piles of lace and silk. I don’t know if it was a fantasy—it wasn’t a fantasy I had ever had; I can honestly say I’ve thought that any girl, for example Phoenix, of the X-Men, looked way hotter in her battle suit and some glowing mind blasts than in, like, underpants.

  I stood next to her. I followed her. Like a servant, like a faithful dog. At first I tried to look purposely diffident, totally not interested, with my hands in my pockets and sort of gazing away. Then I realized that my hands maybe shouldn’t be in my pockets—I don’t know what the other women in the store might think I was doing. So I kept them by my sides, the way we used to stand in Boy Scouts. I was careful to watch her selectively, making eye contact and giggling when she was watching me, and when she nudged her eyes selectively toward the ludicrous-looking dummies and we both exchanged silent snarky laughs. And then, the moments when she’d become immersed in the bra-decision-making process, I’d look away, worried and self-conscious and not wanting to affront her.

  Then we waited in line, and again Larissa presented her magic credit card, and the cashier, who looked like she might be in college (and, I noticed, to my embarrassment, wasn’t especially busty or seductive-looking) handed back the receipt and said, “You two enjoy that stuff, all right?”

  Larissa smiled and I, dork to the core, beamed a bright, too-loud “Thanks!” It wasn’t until after I left, back in the between-stores corridor populated by weird plastic trees, that I realized what she’d meant by addressing us both.

  I crushed my face in my palm.

  “Oh no,” I said aloud. “Oh no.”

  Larissa laughed out loud. It sounded warm in her mouth and cold when it bounced around the tiled mall walls. “I’m sure she meant it nicely!” she shrieked. “You know, one day you’ll be old and married and you’ll hope your wife comes home with some nice new underwear.”

  “I know!” I said. “But I don’t want that saleslady thinking about me like that! About us! Larissa, get us out of her head! Oh no!”

  Of course I didn’t mean that.

  Of course, I hoped Larissa didn’t either.

  music

  We sat in her room and listened to music. Computery pop songs that sounded like they’d been written in outer space, angry girls who throttled their acoustic guitars as if they were strangling them.

  don’t say that i look pretty

  then tell me what to wear

  i got plenty of my own thoughts

  you got plenty to beware

  Johnnie McKenna sang, and we felt her surge of hot anger; we identified it with our own. We lay on Larissa’s bed and talked about the things we dreamed of, the things in our daily life that plagued us, the things that we were gonna do when we had the freedom.

  Larissa and I weren’t like other people. Other people watched nighttime sitcoms and reality shows. Other people knew bad things were going on halfway across the world and inside our own government and on the other side of town and didn’t care, or they pushed it to the backs of their minds.

  Other people listened to soft rock stations, hip-hop stations, Muzak. We listened to music that made our blood boil. We didn’t believe in love songs: to us, lyrics mattered. You had to be singing about something you cared about, something nobody else had ever said, or else why were you singing in the first place? We traded names as furtively as everything else in our friendship: How every Neutral Milk Hotel song was written as a letter to Anne Frank. Or that the new Johnnie McKenna song was really about punching out a guy who tried to touch her on the subway.

  Music, for us, became a secret currency: As one of us discovered a new band, through an older cousin or an out-of-tow
n friend or being played on the speaker system at the indie-rock record store downtown, we shared it selectively among ourselves. Proposing a new favorite band was scary and deliberate. There was always the chance of rejection, or a backlash—were they poseurs? Did their lyrics straddle the line between obsessive and predatory? Once one of us pwned the music player and called up our new musical flirtation, this new discovery that was so close to possessing us, the others would yea or nay it, and we would carry on with our lives. Possibly with a new soundtrack. The only approval we ever sought was each other’s. There weren’t many of us.

  Larissa and I started hanging out, and we snapped into place. We understood each other. More than that, we both understood our relationship: When we talked, the things we talked about were deeper and more meaningful and realer than the things we said to other people.

  My other friends, the ones I had, were guys. Larissa told me that most of her friends were guys, too. In spite of everything her parents tried to do to her—overbearing, self-involved suburban folks who spent lots of money on pink a satiny bedroom and pink clothes—she never liked to talk about clothes and makeup. Even as a child, she was more comfortable talking to boys than about them.

 
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