“This is one of those things you’ll regret not doing,” Jenny laughed from behind me.
“Really, Jen? What’s your proof?” I snapped back. I was not in the mood to deal with her derision. The sun was wearing through the skin on my neck, and my only respite from the heat would come from the one thing I dreaded most: the pool. Normally, I had no issue with pools (aside from the harsh chemical smell), but this day I had one. The issue being that it was about 10 feet beneath me, and I was attempting to balance above it on a fragile, wobbly plank.
“C’mon, Nora. I’ve done it a million times. Trust me.”
Contrary to Jenny’s beliefs, I wanted nothing less than to step off the board and go flying through the air, limbs tangled, panic escaping my throat in a scream that would be referenced for years to come.
“Let me down. I mean it.” I started for the ladder, acting as if I was going to push Jenny’s small frame out of the way. She was wearing a pink bikini — something I’d never seen her wear before, even though we had spent all of last summer together. It was unnecessary, really; Jenny had no boobs, so the bikini looked sad, hanging flat over her chest. I, on the other hand, sported the same sad, faded one-piece with the green apple pattern which I had worn for the past three summers. The stitching on the bottom had deteriorated so much as to make the fabric puff out. Jenny swore that it gave the impression that I wore a diaper underneath, but I still loved it.
Jenny didn’t budge, of course. The glimmer in her eye told me that there was only one way I would be permitted to leave the diving board, and it was not by using the ladder. Furthermore, it kindly informed me that if I was unwilling to jump on my own, she would be pleased to take the initiative and push me off. After all, Jenny was trying to impress that lifeguard, the one who looked like he was sleeping right now, tilted back in his chair, with his hat pulled down to shield his face. In her line of reasoning, if I didn’t jump, he might recognize us for the 12-year-olds we were and lose interest.
Not that I’d mind if that occurred. I’d always thought that he looked too much like a gorilla to be attractive: the hair on his arms was thick and black, almost long enough to curl on a curling iron. Plus he was in high school, a full 5 years older than us. Last summer, he had a girlfriend, but it didn’t stop Jenny from dragging me over to his chair to bother him every half hour. I think he was more amused by her flirtation than intrigued, but I never dared to share that opinion with her.
Jenny’s voice took on a more sympathetic, pleading tone. “Nora, come on. It’s actually so much fun,” she said, flashing me that classic Jenny smile. She was so lucky — the girl would never need braces. Her teeth were as uniform and shiny as the luxury cars at her father’s dealership. My eyes rolling involuntarily, I turned around and faced the shimmering blue of the pool. Maybe it wouldn’t be that embarrassing. My only audience was a group of ancient ladies playing cards, the two lifeguards, and a man playing with his baby son in the shallow end. The baby’s giggles bounced off the artificial waves and carried all the way to the top of the diving board, providing some small reassurance. I steeled myself. I was going to do it. I was going to jump off the diving board. I was ready. I could do —
The push on the small of my back, while not entirely unexpected, was still highly unwelcome, and as the force pushed me into the open air, I attempted to correct my posture. Unfortunately, I must have overcorrected, since I ended up with my face where my feet should have been. With my eyes plastered wide open, I felt the full impact of the 10-foot-fall slam into my retinas, filling my eyesight equally with bubbles and pain.
“This is one of those things you’ll regret not doing,” Jenny whispered.
“I sincerely doubt that,” I responded drolly, instigating a giggle from Natasha. Jenny was not pleased with this; she expected me and Natasha to submit more easily to the plan. The three boys sat just beyond the flames of the fire pit, their backs illuminated in flickers as they had what I presumed was the exact same conversation we were having.
Jenny fidgeted in the sand, fixing a wedgie subtly. She had taught me her trick for it, which was the only reason that I recognized the action; a passerby would have assumed she was just idly playing with the back of her shirt. Despite the cold, she was wearing a skimpy tee and shorts. I had opted for the safer, albeit uglier, sweatshirt. Summer was almost over — the days were still hot, but after sunset temperatures dropped immediately.
She opened and closed her mouth two times before figuring out what she wanted to say. “Nora, you know I would do anything for you. You know that, right?” Natasha didn’t know where this was going, but I had the privilege of a long history with Jenny, so I knew exactly what Jenny was gearing up to. I chose to curtly nod. “And you know I love you, right? I mean, we’ve spent every summer together since we were babies, practically. You’re like my sister.”
Natasha’s breath came quickly, and I was reminded that she was jealous of our closeness. It didn’t make much sense to me, but I accepted it; people had often envied our friendship in the past. While not hurt by Natasha’s jealousy, I couldn’t help but resent her for always taking Jenny’s side in hopes of gaining admittance to our exclusive partnership. I listened to the rest of Jenny’s speech with growing dread.
“I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it weren’t really important to me. You know I’ve been obsessed with Kyle this entire summer! Please just hook up with his friend. I’ll owe you forever. Seriously, Natasha is on board, I just need to get Kyle alone.” Again, in Jenny’s world, my actions would have direct consequences for her. Would Kyle really avoid hooking up with Jenny if I didn’t kiss his friend? “I’ve wanted this forever. Don’t mess this up.” She accompanied this rather hostile statement with a million-watt grin that could’ve convinced the stubbornest mule to waltz off a cliff.
Then, before I had any chance to object further, Kyle’s arm had snaked around Jenny’s thin shoulders. I watched as his fingers traveled to the place where her bikini had once laid flat, unoccupied. She shared a secret smile with him, the sight of which made me feel like an intruder, a voyeur. It was sickening, watching his tiny mind race to comprehend his own good luck — I turned away, looking for another route of escape but finding none. I didn’t honor Jenny with a farewell as the two of them slinked off toward the waves. After a few feet, they disappeared from view entirely, and the light cast by the firepit did not play on their shadowy faces again that night.
There were a few words spoken after Jenny and Kyle left the warmth of the fire, but I didn’t hear them. Instead, I left my body behind and watched the events unfold as if they were a film, muted, with a slight delay. I didn’t realize that I had left the group with the boy until his tongue had already meandered into my mouth and taken up residence. During the entire slobbery spectacle, I couldn’t get Jenny out of my mind, hoping she would return and help me remove myself from this boy’s embrace. I kept hoping and praying, even though I knew she wasn’t coming back for me.
“This is one of those things you’ll regret not doing,” Jenny coughed.
The text had read, “SOS, I need you. Come here,” followed by an address. My heart rate had jumped through the roof when I saw Jenny’s name buzzing on the screen of my phone. I hadn’t seen her since early September, and now the snow was melting on either side of my tires as I sped toward the address she had sent me. I could see my breath in the air, a tense fog, suspended by the terror pressing on my lungs.
Jenny wouldn’t text me if it weren’t urgent. She wouldn’t ever think to, not after what happened in September. My memory of the day had faded a little by now, but I remembered her tear-stained face, her manipulative words piercing my eardrums, her pleas perforating the enclosed space of her claustrophobic bedroom. I escaped before my face could become similarly wet, but I couldn’t get out of the driveway before my tears started flowing. I had told her the damage she had done to our friendship was irreparable, that there was nothing she could do to win my trust again. She had said that I was not worth the work, that I was no fun, that she could find a better friend than me with no trouble. With only a few months left of high school, and with her living two towns away, I imagined I might never see her face again, a thought which left a sour taste on my tongue.
In any case, no matter how much I missed her, I never called her. Not once. Jenny may not have been out of my mind, but she was wholly out of my life — I expected that my memory would take the hint eventually. I was only just beginning to erase her presence from my life when she solidified it with that text: that terrible, terrifying text. “SOS, I need you.”
I arrived at the address, 79 St. John’s Place, just after midnight. It was a personal record: I must have been going 85 mph on a road that called for 60. The smell of sweet burning herbs had carried through the open windows of the black townhouse and into the icy street, where it covered the remainders of the snow, hovering above it: a scented, hazy blanket on top of the whiteness. My nose led me to the front door immediately. It made sense. Of course the thing Jenny needed me to rescue her from was a party. I could hear the inebriation from the doorstep. It was a white noise, every person yelling softly as they swayed with drinks in their hands, their voices adding up to a din that simultaneously cancelled itself out. Entering through the unlocked door, I realized why everything was so mellow. This was no teenage party. Everyone my eyes landed upon was sporting a tattoo, a goatee, or piercings on piercings. They were drinking shots of whiskey, not cheap beer. On the television screen, images of naked bodies flitted wearily. How had Jenny gotten here? And speaking of Jenny, where could she be?
I considered asking one of the adults standing around the walls of the room, but their stink warned me to stay away. Bracing myself for the worst, I headed straight for the rickety staircase and ascended slowly, still scanning the downstairs area but knowing in my heart that Jenny would be upstairs. After all, this was Jenny. Jenny who taught me to dive headfirst into the pool before I knew how to jump, Jenny who taught me the power of my own body, Jenny who must be teaching me something now, one last time. The smoke was thick at the top of the stairs, and I heard a coughing I recognized from years of spluttering around in the pool under the too-hot summer sun.
“Nooora!” Jenny’s singsong was wrong, a note too high, a beat off. “You came!” I was engulfed in a hug that tasted salty, like tears and regret, but I was met with a face that smiled too large, teeth glinting even under the dim light of a single desk lamp. Jenny was full of contradictions, even when she wasn’t quite herself.
She coughed again, and I could hear it scraping her throat on its way out. Ignoring it, she lay back down, snuggled up to a man with a black tear stitched onto his left cheek. He handed her a pipe and something to put in it, which she hurriedly stuffed in, breathing heavily. A quick inhale, and then her attention was back on me, beckoning, pleading — and all of a sudden, I was thrown into the past.
“This is one of those things you’ll regret not doing, Nora. I swear. It fixes you.” Her smile was still wide, slightly reminiscent of the one she flashed at me 5 years previously. But now it had lost something, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. In the flickering light, the once graceful curves of her face appeared to harshen, and I wasn’t sure whether they could ever regain that pristine quality. Instead I watched as her smile grew more and more toothy, her lips and gums receding, until I knew if I didn’t look away the only thing left would be teeth, long, wavering and unruly. She was still Jenny, but something was infecting her.
Not sure whether it was her own spirit or other forces swirling around us, I grabbed her arm and dragged her out of the house. She collapsed when we were halfway across the lawn, halfway to my car, my humble, homey car. I laid down with her on the mixture of brown grass and brown snow and tears washed down my face once more, without provocation this time. Jenny was somehow sleeping already, tiny snores escaping her open mouth, always dainty. Her teeth rested quietly in the confines of her mouth, and seeing this gave me warmth despite the late winter chill. She was safe, and she was no longer my responsibility.
I whispered, “I don’t need to be fixed by you,” softly, more for myself than for her sleeping ears, and lifted myself into the car. As the image of her body lying in the snow in my rearview mirror blurred and then disappeared altogether, my tears dried up and I smiled my own smile, all lips and no teeth.