Jasmin Aviva Sandelson | Longreads | June 2019 | 28 minutes (7,121 words)
I loved being one of your girls. I wasn’t your favorite, but I didn’t need to be. What we had was different.
I found you on that hiking trip to the Spanish mountains. At first I was wary — at our all-girls’ secondary school you were never alone. But in the thin air we climbed together, lotioned each other’s backs, and hand-washed our socks side-by-side. By the end of the week we felt joined, invincible. Remember how we made those campsite boys pitch our tents? That’s not character-building, the male teachers sneered. We just laughed. We were girls: 13 and power-thrilled. While the others hauled their packs up the dusty hill, we lay together on sleeping bags. Your hazel eyes beamed noise and mischief, and I had found my place.
Back in London, I came to you each day, bounding to your classroom after lunch in the cafeteria. The others were with you, but that didn’t stop me. It made me want you more.
Before all the danger, we dashed about, frantic. We sprawled on desks or piled in a corner. You whispered about our classmates — plain girls, weird ones — and the four of us laughed in sly peals. It was both cruel and loving.
Five sounds like an unstable number, but it wasn’t. It was safe. Maybe because there was one of you, and four of us. We gathered at your house each Saturday, and I passed the journey — the bus, two tubes, and the uphill walk — listening to those songs you liked that I’d Limewired onto my iPod: Death Cab for Cutie, The Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay.
The others lived far away, too, some farther than me, but we all hauled our clothes and makeup across the city to get dressed in your bedroom for whatever we had planned: Smirnoff Ices in the park, a lax-bouncered bar, a house party with boys from our brother school.
We shook out our stuff on your big bed, which had space on either side like an adult’s bed, like my parents’ bed, not like my bed, pushed against a wall. We tried on each other’s things and crowded your full-length mirror as Jack Johnson sang through your iPod speaker.
“Pass the panox!” Ashley said, and you tossed the thumb-sized tube of medicated zit cream that you could only get in America, where your mom was from, and where you went every year. In the drawers that pulled out from under from your bed, you stored the things you brought back from New York: moisturizer with fake-tan, spray deodorant, and panoxyl.
We called it panox because we abbreviated everything.
“Emma, your skirt looks beaut,” I said, as you smoothed the white denim.
“Oh em gee, totes,” Ashley said, dabbing her chin with the pad of her pinky.
We all spoke the same way, rhythms charged and exclusive like an electric fence.
Ashley was your best friend. She didn’t need panoxyl. Her skin was clear and framed by gold hair that reached the lean arcs of her waist. But even though she had all that I didn’t envy her. She didn’t crackle and sparkle like you did; she couldn’t combust into cackles like you and me.
As Ashley capped the cream, I sprayed the air around myself with your perfume and pulled on your leggings. I’d liked my legs covered since I was 6 or 7, back when my friends in gymnastics learned back handsprings while I was stuck with walkovers. In the cool gym, my thighs stayed pink when chill laced theirs with that wine-colored mottle. Mine touched all the way up. Theirs didn’t. To practice, I wore shorts over my leotard.
But you didn’t need leggings. Your legs were firm, cut with muscle down each thigh and behind the knees. I liked your legs. I also liked your straight white teeth — American teeth — and your full, flushed cheeks. I liked your honey-colored hair, the way the thick drape glinted in the light like amber. You were insecure about your stomach and hips — a little bigger than mine and the other girls’ — so I pretended not to notice when you tugged your shirt off your skin so it didn’t cling. To me, all parts of you, hard and soft, were lovely.
Once we were dressed, spritzed, and painted, the five of us — you, me, Ashley, Kat and Kay — trooped down three flights of stairs. In your kitchen, we piled around one corner of the wooden table that could seat 12, and ate whatever your mom cooked, something like pasta with tomato sauce, because she, like you, was a vegetarian. Your mom perched as we ate, not eating herself, but watching you chew with bird eyes, hard and blue. I was usually still hungry because she didn’t cook that much, so I’d buy a chocolate bar from the shop at the station. I always shared it around, but you never took any. Neither did Ashley. The two of you linked arms as Kat and Kay and I ate it up, square by square.
We also bought drinks at the station shop. Kat was 4’10 and looked even younger than 14, but she flashed her older sister’s passport and heaved our low-shelf vodka onto the counter. Glenns or Kirov tasted fine with enough Diet Coke. Kat and Kay bought regular Coke — “full fat Coke,” we called it. You glanced at them and clutched your own bottle closer.
At house parties, we’d flirt limply with whoever, but then you and I would run off. We peeked in bathrooms, jumped on boys’ beds, had swordfights with baguettes grabbed from bread bins, and gave each other hickeys. We looked each other in the eyes and laughed — laughter like a fist around our stomachs as we shook with devilish synchrony.
When we left one party for another, staggering down the sidewalk and dodging the cracks, I wanted to walk all night instead of going to some boy’s preened Hampstead house. I liked the in-between times best, and the befores and afters.
The afters looked like this: when we’d banked enough fun to last the school week, we all turned to you. We caught the last tube or you called a cab from Addison Lee, which we called Add Lee or just Add, and we lay our heads on each other’s shoulders as we waited to pull up at your front door. At the top of your house, in the “upstairs living room,” we flopped on those couches big enough to sleep four. The fifth, usually Kat, who was small and unfussy, lay on the carpet so thick she didn’t even need a sleeping bag. At home it took me hours to fall asleep. But beside you, my body unclenched and I slept deep and dreamless.