I was sitting at the dinning room table reading The Plague. My parents and Madeleine all came in at once, like an intervention.
"Nancy," my mother said, smiling at me kindly and pityingly. "Madeleine is going to a party."
My mother had begun to repulse me lately. In a surprisingly obvious revelation, I’d realized two things about her. She was a blinker; and she could only talk about superficial things. God, she could go on and on about food.
I looked past her to Madeleine. She looked unutterably bored. We were identical— yet Madeleine was much prettier.
"Whose party?" I asked her, just for the sake of pleasing my mother and getting those eyes off of me. I felt like I was acting in a play, and it was kind of embarrassing, like something I’d have to apologize for later, when Madeleine and I were alone.
"Uh-huh." Madeleine crossed her arms. Truth was, she and Justin were a thing. I had found out last week, from a friend. So what about Justin York and your sister? Like he made her untouchable, golden. I’d said What about them? which had served as a way to take in the information and process it. What about them? Because I had no idea what about them. Madeleine wasn’t talking to me anymore. I had faded into the periphery. It hurt; it made me furious. Like finding the box of tampons in the bathroom when we were thirteen, realizing that she’d gotten hers and hadn’t told me. A secret, just between her and Mom. Or maybe not even.
"Why don’t you go, Nan?" my father said. "Leave your homework for once."
There was no use arguing.
"Okay. Do I need a coat?" I asked, disgusted with them and disgusted with myself.
"Probably not," my mother said. "It’s gotten quite warm, hasn’t it?" No one bothered to answer as Madeleine opened the door and breezed out. I followed. I could just imagine what they were saying or at least thinking: I’m so glad she’s going. She never gets out. Shouldn’t she have a boyfriend? Madeleine always does.
"You can drop me off at Emma’s," I told Madeleine as we got into her car, which was my car too, except that I never thought of it as my car, because I still didn’t have my license.
"You don’t always have to give in to them," she answered, searching through her backpack for the keys.
"I know. I’m sorry."
Madeleine started the car and turned on the radio. It was only about ten o’clock, and already lights were turning off in houses. As she drove, I kept trying to think of conversations to start. How’s it going? What are you thinking about? What did you do today? It was agitating. I’d never really had to think about what to say to Madeleine before. Even when we were fighting, words had just come out; she was my sister. As I kept taking in breaths to say something, then catching them in doubt, I wondered what the hell had happened. We’d gone on vacation for the first two weeks of August like we did every summer, and when we came back Madeleine and I compared schedules like we had since graduating from grammar school. No classes together, and field hockey try-outs the next day. I remember Madeleine saying I should try out too. I remember snorting at the thought of wearing those little skirts, of hanging out with those girls. And I remember the look that Madeleine gave me; I remember not understanding the look.
She made Varsity by a fluke. Suddenly she had new friends and no time. Suddenly I didn’t know what to say to her anymore, and suddenly when I did, she didn’t respond in ways that made sense. And I wasn’t allowed to say that this was unusual, or hard to adjust to.
"Mrs. Peterson asked me if we would apply to the same colleges," I said abruptly. I sort of laughed. Madeleine glanced at me and frowned. I looked out the window and pretended to be deep in thought.
We arrived at the party. The large house was twinkling, and music pushed out to us as if we were under water. Madeleine parked and put on some lipstick. I climbed out.
"You and I both know I’m not going in there," I said to her.
Madeleine cocked her head to the side. "Surprise me."
I slammed the door and walked up the driveway and into the house. I’d never actually been to a "real" high school party, but this pretty much looked like all the reasons I’d never wanted to: boys in hoodies smoking on the front steps, someone puking into a sink-full of beer bottles, a very drunk girl crying while her friends tried to help her stand up, the creepy older guys who made the party possible.
I had no idea what to do with myself. I walked into the room with the music and leaned against a wall, faking boredom. Across the room, Justin York himself came in, holding two red plastic cups. He came straight for me.
"Hey babe," he said. For a second I was taken aback, because it actually was unusual for people to confuse Madeleine and me. You could just tell. A walk through our house would explain: in every family picture, we’re standing next to each other (wearing the same clothes in the pictures before, say, twelve) and I’m always the one who’s slightly awkward, slightly less cute, not for any concrete reason, just is. But perhaps alcohol could have been a factor in Justin’s mix-up.
He handed me one of the cups.
"Thanks," I said. He took out a cigarette for himself, and then a cigarette for me. I quickly put it in my mouth— the less time holding it, the less chance of looking like an idiot. Justin moved closer, and for a second I panicked. It felt so intimate. I realized he was going to light my cigarette.
"What took you so long?" he asked.
"Traffic," I answered.
"You’re so funny," he said. I took a drag, thinking inhale cigarettes, don’t inhale cigars. I was funny, but that was not what Justin meant, because he thought that I was Madeleine, and so I could conclude that if she were to say something like that, it would not be odd, it would make sense that she had said it. It hurt, suddenly, because Madeleine and I were similar, we had a lot in common, including a sort of dry humor that came from growing up with our parents, and I appreciated these little things, these little intimacies. I took another drag, glanced around the room and saw Madeleine near the stereo, half looking through a CD book, half watching us.
I looked at Justin. He was very attractive. More than that, though, he was bad. He fucked around in class. He talked back. He did drugs. He threw parties when his parents went away. He was just a kid, he had pimples like the rest of us, but there was something so dangerous about him. My heart pounded. He smiled at me. And so I let it happen: I took a drag and moved my hand away, he waited for me to exhale, and he kissed me. It was my first kiss, actually, and I was surprised by how soft another person’s lips are, silky even, and I was surprised that he was a good kisser, it was very gentle, a nice little squeeze, like a hug. I used the hand holding the cigarette to gently push him away. He smiled at me. I looked across the room to where Madeleine was still half looking through CDs, half watching us. Her face was blank, cool. I gave Justin my red plastic cup, walked across the room to her, and lifted the cigarette to her lips. She formed an oh, like a staged surprise, to receive it.
ANNE MCPEAK is the managing editor of the Brooklyn-based magazine A Public Space.
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