The texts arrived from a number Mari didn’t recognize. Even the area code was unknown to her, and it didn’t help that she thumbed through the messages in reverse order. But there were only two people in the world who called her by that name, and Imogen’s various phone numbers (N.Y. cell, D.C. cell, office, home) were already saved in her contacts. So it had to be Bree.
In the sixth grade, on the subject of Bree, Mari’s mother had this to say: three can get complicated. She was talking about the dynamics of female friendship, a topic that Mari did not relish discussing. In general, she found her mother’s warnings reliably wrong but also impossible to forget, like shampoo slogans or camp songs. When, one Friday afternoon in November, she discovered herself lodged between Imogen and Bree in the backseat of a car heading to the mall, this ear worm wriggled to the surface and she thought at her mother: HA.
They were fine.
A thin stream of air flowed over them, and the radio played a song they knew most of the words to. Bree was saying that they should buy their tickets before they got food in case the movie sold out, and Imogen was saying that a dog waiting at the corner to cross looked a lot like a larger, fluffier version of her dog, Hamish. They all craned their heads to look at the dog. Mari could jump in at any moment with a funny or pointless comment if it occurred to her, but if it didn’t she didn’t have to say anything at all.
Imogen had befriended Mari at the beginning of the second grade, when Mari was the only new girl in the class. Years passed and then Bree arrived, along with an assortment of other sixth-grade girls. Out of all of them Imogen chose Bree, for reasons not obvious to Mari. Bree wore eyeglasses with tinted plastic arms that swooped downward in a secretarial way. She had short, brown hair and the long, waistless torso of a dachshund. On the first day of school, she appeared in a teal sweatshirt violently spattered with paint, a top that Mrs. Schmidt said was jazzy. It looked store-bought, not homemade, like something she had saved up for.
Bree took the trolley to school from a town called Revere with the help of a student-transportation pass that hung from a lanyard around her neck, which she removed every morning and tucked carefully in her book bag as she entered the building. In the locker room, Mari had overheard some girls pronouncing Revere as “Ruh-vee-ah” in order to amuse one another, and this was how she learned that Revere was an undesirable place, inhabited by people who couldn’t tell how thick their accents were. But Bree didn’t say it that way; she spoke quickly and correctly and without any accent at all, participating in class with palpable happiness no matter the subject. She was “bright,” Mari saw early on, which was probably what made her interesting to Imogen. Any girl at their school had to be smart, or at least well-organized, but not many of them, not even a few of them, had an air of intensity.
To be clear, Bree wasn’t excessively studious or preoccupied with cerebral pursuits, and Imogen and Mari weren’t, either. They didn’t read Russian novels or follow current events or dismantle electronics to figure out how they worked. Together they circled the mall and talked about their teachers and occasionally stopped to go inside a store and touch things that they wanted to buy. They ate swirled frozen yogurt and then watched a blockbuster movie full of French kissing and shoot-outs. But if, for instance, the sight of a botanical rendering of lavender wrapped around a bar of soap should suddenly fill Mari with a rich, heady, Eleanor of Aquitaine feeling, and if later she went home and pulled off the cookbook shelf an illustrated guide to medieval herbs from which she painstakingly copied out on little sheets of paper the properties and uses of yarrow, chamomile, mugwort, and horehound, and then dipped the sheets of paper in tea and dried them outside so as to make them look more like parchment, neither Imogen nor Bree would wonder at it. Not that they would ever do the same; they weren’t excited by herbs. It’s just that they would recognize, wordlessly, the impulse to do so.
That’s what the three of them had in common. Otherwise, Mari and Bree were short and Imogen was tall. Imogen and Bree were white and Mari was Japanese. Bree lived in Revere and Imogen and Mari did not. Their differences were evenly distributed, yet when Mari glimpsed a reflection of them gliding past a department store’s plate-glass window, she saw with perfect clarity that Imogen belonged to another species altogether, like a wood elf among dwarves, or a human escorting hobbits. Her hair shone in the muted light pouring through the atrium. Her shoulders were pulled back, and her neck was long. When she laughed, she opened her mouth wide, and you could see practically every one of her straight, gleaming teeth. She didn’t have a single cavity. But sometimes her breath up close could smell a little bit sour, a detail you’d have to be her best friend to know, because to the rest of the world she was just a radiant creature passing by, laughing, her head floating well above the other two.
What did they talk about?
“They’re making us do the mile run next week.”
“Who told you?”
“I love Coach Bell. I wish we had her more often.”
“I can’t do it. I will die. I will collapse from exhaustion, and then they’ll try to revive me on the side of the field and realize I’m dead.”
“What if we walk? Like speed walk? Or jog very slowly and then walk?”
“Last year I tried that, but Coach Boudreau threatened me and said she’d make me do the whole mile over again if I didn’t start moving.”
“Moving with a greater sense of urgency.”
“That’s why you guys always say that?”
“She got the second-fastest time in the grade. And she had a cold.”
“Shannon was so much faster than me, it wasn’t even close.”
“I don’t like being timed. It makes me feel like a racehorse.”
“I’m more like a cow. Cows move at their own pace.”
“We should tell them we’re cows and that running is not in our nature.”
“Running for a mile. That’s dangerous for a cow.”
“Don’t say that. You’re not cows. You’re more graceful than cows.”
And so on.
Mari hadn’t had a new friend in so long that she had almost forgotten what it was like to go to someone’s house for the first time, the inevitable shock to the senses. The smell, most of all, not unpleasant but unfamiliar. The school year was nearly finished when Bree invited them over, and it turned out that she lived on the right side of a graying clapboard house that had an identical left side, where a different family lived. A flight of concrete stairs rose from the sidewalk, and at its top was a shallow concrete porch, and there stood two front doors, exactly symmetrical even down to their storm-door handles, which meant that one door opened up to the left and the other one to the right. Squashed behind the storm door on the left was a scarecrow holding a sign that said “WELCOME” in autumn colors. “We don’t talk to them anymore,” Bree whispered as she extracted her lanyard, which in addition to her trolley pass held her house keys. “Long story.”
She opened the door, and out leaped the smell of her house, indefinable but strong, a little reminiscent of chicken-noodle soup in a can. Soon enough, it went away. Bree had cable TV, tropical fish, and a toilet lid covered in burgundy carpeting. The three of them bargained over which channel they would watch, and somehow it felt easier to be flexible and magnanimous when more than one other party was involved in the negotiations. As they were eating cereal and watching music videos, Bree’s mother appeared, holding Bree’s younger sister, Bevin, by the hand—and although Bree’s mother looked about the right age for Bevin, who was four, she didn’t look like she belonged to Bree, despite having a lot of the same soft, unformed features. With her ponytail and scuffed-up sneakers, she looked more like a big sister, like the eldest in a family of sisters fending for themselves after their parents died in a tragic car accident. Or maybe Mari’s and Imogen’s parents were simply old. Mari couldn’t recall seeing any of them wearing tennis shoes while not playing tennis. “Make yourself at home, girls,” Bree’s mother said to them, with strange formality, and ushered Bevin upstairs for a bath.
Darkness fell, and Bree suggested baking a cake. She made it sound like the idea had only just occurred to her, but in the kitchen she pulled out the bowl and the hand mixer and the measuring cups and the cake mix from a single cabinet, all ready to go, and Mari suddenly filled with so much tenderness that her eyes watered. The mix was Duncan Hines and the flavor was, mysteriously, “yellow.” At Mari’s house, what passed for cake was a nearly flavorless sponge that her mother bought at the Japanese bakery and then urged guests to try, assuring them that it was “very light” and “not too sweet.” When Bree dumped the yellow mix into the bowl, it sent up a mushroom cloud of synthetic sugariness that caused Mari to choke. Imogen perched on the counter and sliced a plastic spatula through the air, as if felling enemies. She didn’t try to contribute anything. She looked on good-naturedly as Mari and Bree followed the box’s directions, and when the cake pans, trembling with batter, were slid into the oven, she held out her arms to receive the empty mixing bowl.
“Oh, nice,” she said. “You left a lot on the sides.” Without hesitating, she sank the spatula into the bowl, circled it around, lifted it back up, and inserted its entire drippy width into her mouth. It came out clean. “Share,” Bree said. Imogen scraped the bowl again and Mari watched the slathered spatula head disappear inside Bree’s mouth.
The third time Imogen dipped into the bowl, she presented the spatula to Mari.
“No, thanks,” Mari said lightly, and drew back. She deliberately did not say what she wanted to say, what was foremost in her mind, what was exactly the thing her mother had spoken ominously of: salmonella. Because her mother was usually wrong. Her mother, for instance, had assumed that, just because Bree was eight years older than her sister, there had to be “different fathers,” as she put it. Something about the tactful tone she used made Mari want to strangle her. “It’s the same dad,” Mari had announced in a clipped voice. “And don’t worry, him and her mom are married. And, yes, she will be at home the whole time we’re there.”
“He and her mom,” her own mother had answered, at which point Mari had covered her ears and let out a moan.
Yet three large eggs had plopped glisteningly into that batter, three large raw eggs probably teeming with bacteria, and just the sight of the yellowness slicking the spatula was making Mari feel queasy. That and the sickly sweet smell. And the buzzy fluorescent lights in Bree’s kitchen. And all the saliva being passed around freely.
By now her friends were looking at each other and smiling. They’d seen right through her airy demurral. Panther-like, Imogen hopped down from the counter while Bree closed in on Mari from the other side.
“Just try some,” Imogen murmured. “You’ll like it.”
She handed the spatula off to Bree but held onto the bowl, dragging the length of her finger along its interior and then extracting it, coated. She slid the finger into her mouth.
“It’s the best part,” Bree said. She swam the spatula closer to Mari’s face. “Trust us. It’s delicious.”
“I don’t want to,” Mari said from under the collar of her T-shirt, which she’d pulled up over her nose.
“Just a little,” Imogen said. “Just a little tiny taste.” Bree stuck out her tongue and delicately pressed the spatula to its tip. “See?” Imogen continued. “It’ll be that tiny. You’ll barely taste it.”
Mouth ajar, Bree darted her tongue in and out, in and out, in and out, very fast. Where did she learn to do that? It looked disturbing, like in a Prince kind of way. A yellow droplet sat at the end of her flickering tongue. Mari twisted her head aside.
“You’re pressuring me.” Her voice was muffled beneath the T-shirt. “I don’t like eating batter or being pressured or throwing up all night and getting hospitalized.”
“Who said anything about throwing up?”
She yanked her shirt back down and glared at them. “Hello—salmonella?”
Somehow it sounded less insane when her mother said it. Imogen and Bree stared at her, speechless. Then they both cackled. “Salmonella?” they repeated. “Salmonella?” Their eyes glittered. A look of silent understanding passed among the three of them.
With a gasp, Mari shoved past Imogen and dove toward the TV room. They flew after her, unleashed, made swift by their socks on the linoleum. Over and around the leather sectional they chased her, careful to avoid the glowing fish tank, no one shrieking or laughing because, upstairs, Bevin was already asleep. Just their heavy breathing filled the room, and when the two of them finally pinned her to the floor, she could feel how all of their chests were heaving rapidly, in unison, like they had run a mile together with matching strides.
“Chariots of Fire” was one of her top-five favorite films. Though she didn’t like to run herself, the sight of British men running was very moving. Whenever they sang “Jerusalem” in morning meeting, she and Imogen and Bree would entertain themselves by surreptitiously acting out the words: they would mime the seizing of the bow, and the spear, and the countenance divine shining forth upon the hills, and they would attack the low note in “arrows of de-sire ” with fake solemnity. But even as they joked around, Mari found the song unspeakably beautiful. That ardent phrase—“Bring me my chariot of fire!”—stirred her.
When the cake batter touched her face, it was not cold, as she thought it might be; it felt only thick and wet. Her eyes were closed at this point. And her mouth, too, of course. Nothing—not Duncan Hines, or egg-borne bacteria, or anything not her own—would cross the threshold. Her lips were squeezed so tightly that they tingled. No one was getting in or out: she kept herself intact, impervious to the panting weight of Imogen and Bree on top of her. With satisfaction, she felt their bodies slacken, the energy dissolving—they were thwarted, and there was nothing to do now but smear batter on Mari’s face. Even with her eyes shut, she could tell when it was Imogen doing it and when it was Bree. Like in “Chariots of Fire,” where the two men ran extremely fast but for different reasons: the Scottish one because he believed so much in God, the Jewish one because he wanted to fit in and show that he was better than all the anti-Semites he met in college. The perfunctory swipes across her cheek—that was Imogen, having already lost interest in the whole thing—but in the precisely centered dabs on her forehead, her nose, her mouth, her chin, she felt the warmth of Bree’s attention, her thoroughness and care.
After they hoisted themselves off her, Mari made her way unsteadily toward the hall bathroom, eyes slitted and face sticky, and it was here that she caught a whiff of the cake baking in the oven. She had never smelled anything like it before. Initially, it reminded her of the cloying scent of Play-Doh, which she had always hated, and in fact hated so much that when she was small she’d refused to touch the stuff, but as she inhaled again she found something spreading underneath the sweetness, a smell similar to that of butter and eggs and vanilla and flour but not quite the real thing, a smell that was artificial but also intoxicating and somehow more intoxicating for being fake. She didn’t have to taste it to know ahead of time how much she was going to like this cake. How moist it would be and how warm, how its faint chemical aftertaste would make her go back for more. Wiping off her face above the sink, she decided to tell her mother that from now on the only kind of cake she wanted for her birthday was yellow cake from a box.
In the middle of seventh grade, Mari heard the Smiths for the first time, on a late-night radio show that played the day’s most-requested songs. She had to spend extra money when buying the band’s record, because it was imported from the U.K.; it had a Dutch-blue cover with a black-and-white photograph on it of a handsome man in profile, in a tank top—a man who turned out not to be one of the Smiths, despite a superficial resemblance to their bass player. Printed tinily on the inside record sleeve was every word to every song, which is how she learned that the correct words were “I am the son and the heir” and not “I am the sun and the air,” as she’d originally thought. At first, she felt unsophisticated for having heard it this way, but then it occurred to her that maybe the ambiguity was deliberate, a mark of genius.
After Mari bought the record, the Smiths became the most important part of her life. She made friends with a girl in her class named Melanie, because Melanie was the only other person she knew who had heard of them. For Mari’s birthday, Melanie wrote a pretend letter in which Johnny Marr, the guitarist, declared his love for her. Speaking as herself, Melanie pointed out that the similarity between Mari’s first name and Johnny’s last name couldn’t be entirely coincidental.
Imogen and Bree didn’t have strong feelings either way about the Smiths—Imogen liked soft rock with soaring choruses, and Bree listened to the kind of dance music played on Kiss 108—but still they were Mari’s best friends. She went back and forth between trying to convert Imogen and Bree to her excellent taste and wanting to keep the Smiths as something sacredly her own. But how could you help but share that which took up so much space in your mind? She talked about the band daily, and, although her friends wouldn’t necessarily know a Smiths song if it hit them over the head, they could recite the names and instruments of the band members, and could recognize them in photos; they now knew that Manchester was a city not only in New Hampshire but also in Northern England, that there was nothing Morrissey relished more than going to a stationery shop and sniffing envelopes. They trailed behind Mari and took turns carrying her book bag as she drifted down the dim aisles of Paine Brothers, inhaling, grazing the reams of paper with her fingertips, attempting through her senses to transport her soul elsewhere.
When that didn’t work, they went across the street to get pizza. Each of them could order for the others: Bree always got sausage-and-mushroom with a medium-sized Sprite. Imogen liked Hawaiian, her favorite meat product being Canadian bacon, but Dino’s didn’t offer that by the slice; you had to order a whole pizza. For just a slice, she’d take pepperoni, as long as there wasn’t too much oil pooling in the pepperoni cups. Mari had stopped eating animals and wanted only two cheese slices and a cup of water, which was free. Without needing to confer, they headed to the booth in the back corner, so that Bree could gaze up at the wood-veneer wall and enjoy the signed photograph of the baseball player who looked like Bruce Boxleitner, star of “Scarecrow and Mrs. King.” That was her favorite TV show, just as Imogen’s was “Jeopardy!,” just as Mari’s was “Masterpiece Theatre.”
The facts in which they were fluent could fill a three-drawer file cabinet: age at which ears were pierced, history of broken bones and origins of scars, score on most recent math test, recurring bad dream, favorite words in French, despised body parts, last book read, secret source of pride, pet peeves, pet names, scents of deodorant and hair conditioner.
There were also things about one another that they didn’t know.
For example: Mari got her period in the sixth grade, right before she turned twelve. By the time she exited the bathroom—sobered, walking strangely, feeling diapered—her mother had already placed calls to her father (he was at work) and to both of her grandmothers (California, Ohio) to tell them the news. From that moment on, Mari didn’t speak of her period to anyone. Discreetly, she carried the necessary implements in an unassuming cotton pouch that looked like a mouse. She had found it in the top drawer of her mother’s dresser, a home to scarves and handkerchiefs and the occasional purposeless gift from relatives in Japan. It was an abstract, teardrop-shaped mouse, with a few inches of silk cord extending from the bottom and, where the tip of its nose would be, a single snap. With this snap as the only form of closure on an otherwise open-mouthed mouse, the pouch was not capable of safely holding much—not money or makeup and certainly not jewelry, nothing small. But Mari discovered that it did well enough with pads, and, in fact, the pads made the mouse look plump, almost like a stuffed toy, and soon the sight of it nestled in her book bag ceased to cause her any embarrassment, so that eventually, a year later, when she had graduated to tampons, she kept these along with her pads inside the mouse, which by then had lost its tail.
One winter afternoon, as the seventh graders were packing up their binders in the final minutes before the bell rang, Mari’s book bag tipped over onto the floor, and the force of the fall sent the tailless mouse sailing out of her bag like a missile, nose first; a single slender-sized tampon came shooting out of the mouse’s open mouth. It was like one of those fireworks that explodes only to reveal that there’s another, smaller explosion inside it. The tampon slid across the homeroom floor without resistance, and Mari watched its journey in frozen horror. It didn’t make the slightest difference that only girls went to her school. Girls in her class thought that periods were disgusting: see how someone had tortured Holly Maynard by leaving a used-looking pad, colored red with a felt-tip marker, on the seat of her chair.
Yet three rows ahead of Mari was Bree’s solid dachshund body, which happened to be bending down patiently to retrieve a highlighter from under her desk just as Mari’s tampon came gliding toward her; she scooped it up, tucked it inside the sleeve of her sweatshirt, and sat back up without glancing around to see where it might have come from. Mari dropped onto her knees to recapture the mouse, and Bree bent over again to pick up the highlighter for real, and there among the legs of chairs and desks and classmates their eyes met. Nodding at the cotton pouch clutched in Mari’s hand, Bree mouthed, “I have it.”
After the last bell, they found themselves laughing uncontrollably in the empty restroom across from the admissions office. Bree had Mari’s tampon and she also had her period—not right then but in life—and she also had got hers the year before. In February. Only weeks after Mari. How could they be such utter idiots? Their laughter made them hold onto each other for balance. “Remember when I said that the gyros from lunch were giving me a stomachache?” Bree asked. “That was cramps!” Mari was laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe. To think that they had been suffering silently, side by side, this whole time: it felt like both the saddest and the funniest thing that had ever happened to them. As Bree wiped her eyes on her sweatshirt, she asked, “Are we going to tell Imogen?” but before she had even finished the question she was already saying, at the same time as Mari, “No.”
It was hard to imagine Imogen having bodily functions. Of course, they had on countless occasions heard her peeing in the next stall over, but the girl who emerged a few seconds later appeared not responsible for the sound. Her bathroom at home was spotless: on the sink sat a cake of soap, a boar-bristle brush, a tube of baking-soda toothpaste. The porcelain had a lovely soft look to it, owing to age and to abrasive cleaners. A tarnished silver baby cup held Imogen’s toothbrush, and though it looked like an antique from the Victorian era, like something you’d find inside a glass case, she used it every morning and night when brushing her teeth. On its rim was a pale crescent of mineral residue.
Imogen’s house was full of such objects. There was a low-slung leather rhinoceros, long enough to sit on, with “Liberty of London” stamped on the underside of its ear. There was a needlepoint sampler hanging on the wall that said “Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore / And that’s what parents were created for.” There was a collection of Edward Gorey books—not the big paperback compilations that Mari owned, but original editions, of varying small sizes, with jewel-colored book jackets—“The Doubtful Guest,” “The Hapless Child,” “The Epiplectic Bicycle,” “The Glorious Nosebleed.” There was a zither and a tabla. A hand-carved bellows beside the fireplace. Dark-blue candles, in pewter candlesticks, that were lit every night at dinner. Also a candle snuffer.
Suffusing everything was the faded smell of woodsmoke from the fireplace, and the stronger smell of eucalyptus branches in earthenware jugs. On top of that, when he came in wet from outside, the musty smell of Hamish.
Hamish was Imogen’s cairn terrier, and she also had a brother named Nicholas. He was older than Imogen by two and a half years. He was large and shaggy and beautiful, not an athlete but the co-captain of the debate team at his school. For Mari, who didn’t have siblings, his presence was slightly stupefying. If they encountered each other in the kitchen, he would greet her with an electric smile and a booming, “Hey you!” but then have nothing more to say. They would go about their business in cordial silence. Wanting to feel like Johnny Marr, she once asked Nicholas if he would show her how to play a chord on his guitar, and after a strenuous minute of wrestling her hand into position, he finally said, “Huh. You’ve kind of got stubby fingers, don’t you.”
When Bree first became friends with them, she was unrestrained on the subject of Nicholas. She embarrassed both Imogen and Mari by acting ridiculous as soon as he left the room: shaking her head in disbelief, fanning her face with her hand. Eventually she caught on and cut it out, or at least she stopped doing it in front of them. But that didn’t mean her worshipful feelings had changed. At school, during midday lulls, Melanie liked to liven things up by going around the lunch table and making each girl disclose the identity of her crush, and the moment it was her turn Bree would pause, look down at her tray, try not to smile. “No one,” would be her faltering response, a performance that was tedious for Mari to watch. She could only imagine how bad it was for Imogen.
Yet Imogen continued to invite them both—not actually invite, because inviting was a nicety no longer needed, but simply to accept that on any given weekend Bree and Mari would be coming over. By the eighth grade, they had reached an unspoken agreement that, among the three houses, Imogen’s was the one they preferred—the closest to school, the most comfortable, the coziest, her parents visibly amused by their enthusiasms. The pantry at Imogen’s house was kept magically full. Every Friday afternoon, they would find it restocked with the snacks they liked most: cheese-flavored popcorn, kettle-cooked potato chips, the dark-chocolate biscuits with the picture of the French schoolboy pressed into them. No oranges or bananas looking tired in a fruit bowl on the counter, but a basket of washed strawberries chilling in the refrigerator, or freshly cut cubes of pineapple—which they wouldn’t hesitate to help themselves to, feeling healthy in advance of phoning in their order at Dino’s.
Imogen’s father didn’t complain about driving them to the video-rental place, where the decision-making process was long and difficult, Mari going off on her own to comb through the old titles, in search of “A Taste of Honey” or “Billy Liar” or anything else about growing up working-class in the North of England, and Imogen and Bree tracking her down in the back of the store to say that the only black-and-white movie they would consent to watching was “Psycho.” Mari was in the thick of developing her sensibility, an essentially solitary endeavor, yet she liked doing so within earshot of familiar voices in the comedy section a few aisles away.
She was not alone in pursuing private, ongoing projects. It had become impossible to deny the fact that Bree’s appearance was changing. The glasses were gone: her parents had finally relented and deemed her ready for soft contacts. Her hair, which she’d been growing out, turned blondish overnight—or “Sunkist,” as she described it jokingly, “like the soda.” She corrected anyone who said she’d dyed it, pointing out that lemon juice is all-natural and actually good for you. Though she remained as short as Mari, she had grown confoundingly slim, and was now behaving like a thin person—wearing tops with spaghetti straps, slicing off the legs of her old jeans—and while Mari tried not to take it personally, she did experience an occasional pang of abandonment. “Cow” no longer applied in the affectionate plural.
Not all of Bree’s self-improvements were successful. One morning, she arrived at school looking different in a way that Mari couldn’t pinpoint.
“It’s my eyebrows,” Bree said. “You hold a pencil along the side of your nose and where the pencil meets your eyebrow, that’s where you start plucking.”
She took a yellow pencil from inside her desk and pressed it up to her cheek to demonstrate. Now Mari saw what was strange about Bree’s face. She asked, “Are you supposed to pluck from that side of the pencil or this side?” and touched the raw gap between Bree’s brows to show where she meant.
“Ohhhhhhhh.” Bree exhaled, letting the pencil fall. “I wondered why my eyebrows didn’t look like the picture. You’re saying they’re too far apart.” She smiled bravely at Mari. “But that’s what makeup is for, right? I can always fill them in.”
The rigors of change did not discourage Bree. It required trial and error, dedication, regular servicing. She had taken to shaving not only her legs and armpits but also the tops of her feet, her underwear line, and, rather weirdly, Mari thought, her forearms. She had figured out a way to isolate the body part she most despised—what she coldly called her double chin but was really just a little softness, a minor lack of definition—through a series of muscle contractions. “It’s like sucking in your stomach,” she explained, “but instead I’m sucking in the area under my chin.”
Mari confessed that she hadn’t noticed, and that, in her opinion, Bree’s chin, her jawline, looked perfectly fine.
“That’s because I’m sucking in all the time,” Bree said. “I’m making it look fine.”
Imogen usually didn’t contribute to these conversations. There wasn’t any disapproval in her silence, or squirminess, and she didn’t act bored. It just felt as if she had politely stepped away for a moment. In fact, she seemed to have excused herself altogether from the fray—the consuming, frantic efforts of creating a self. She still looked like the girl who had befriended Mari in second grade, and Bree in sixth—same heavy curtain of hair, same orderly teeth and narrow body and marvellous skin—except that she was taller now, of course. She liked particular things but was not given to obsessions. She was known for being good at sports, singing in a clear contralto, and leading the student council with Cabinet-level skill. She was curious about other people. She could do complex math problems in her head. She had a delighted-sounding, unrestrained, bell-like laugh. When Mari stopped to think about it, her feeling of wonder was undimmed: How did she ever get so lucky as to have Imogen as her friend?
But by the eighth grade there was something about Imogen that Mari couldn’t quite put her finger on—that refused to be asked about, that was at once much bigger and subtler than the accident involving Bree’s eyebrows—something that had to do with her sense of Imogen staging an imperceptible retreat. Imperceptible, because she was still firmly at the center of everything: a school day felt desultory without her, the weekend shapeless if not spent at her house. Yet Imogen occupied this position while also making herself absent. Sometimes literally—one Friday afternoon, she startled Mari and Bree by appearing in her kitchen clad in the gym clothes she had brought home over the weekend to be washed. She passed right by them—they were standing in the pantry, opening a new box of Petit Écoliers—and headed for the back door. “Where are you going?” they called after her. “Running,” she called back. “On your own?” Mari asked incredulously. “For fun?” But Imogen didn’t hear her; the door had already swung shut.
Still, she was Imogen; she commiserated and argued and teased; she planned birthday parties; she initiated cookie-eating contests; she filled the car or the locker room or the kitchen with her laugh. At the same time, she was elsewhere, and Mari couldn’t tell if her gaze was turned inward or directed at a spot so far in the distance that it was beyond Mari’s ability to see.
For several months, Mari endured the uncertainty of whether she and her friends would go on to high school together. Life as she knew it felt suddenly provisional. Bree said that her family was waiting to see if the school would give them more financial aid, and then there was the question of where Bevin would be going, the possibility of added tuition. “Can’t they just put her in public school until sixth grade,” Mari asked. “Like they did with you?” Imogen’s having a sibling was also proving to be a problem, with her parents making her apply to the boarding school where Nicholas was going to be a senior, on the tiresome principle of exploring one’s options. “But why be in someone else’s shadow?” Mari said. As for Mari, she didn’t want to be the only one remaining for the duration. She was threatening to enroll at her enormous local high school and take her chances on getting into the alternative program where students voted on things and called teachers by their first names—a threat that her mother failed to treat at all seriously.
In the end, Mari and Imogen and Bree decided to stay at their school, a relief that also felt slightly like a prison sentence. Four more years of all girls—and despite the promise of coed leadership conferences and community-service outings, or the annual spring musical with their so-called brother school, this felt like a long time.
The question of how and where to meet boys began to circulate among their classmates, and, resourcefully, Bree started the summer by finding one in her backyard. Mari and Imogen were sitting cross-legged on the floor of Imogen’s room, eating frozen fruit bars, when Bree told them. His name was Alex, he was fifteen, and he lived in the other half of her house.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “My parents aren’t like yours. When I say they’ll kill me, I’m not talking metaphorically. They will kill me.”
“But all he said was hi,” Mari clarified.
“And smiled,” Bree said. “And then took his shirt off.”
“That’s something I always want to do,” Imogen said, “when it’s hot out and I’m playing basketball.”
“The thing is,” Bree said, “he hadn’t even started playing yet.”
Mari had been in Bree’s backyard only a couple of times, because it wasn’t really a backyard, more like a paved-over area where cars could be parked. At one end, a basketball net had been erected. Two wide wooden porches hung off the back of the house and overlooked the parked cars, or, when there weren’t any cars, a makeshift half court. The porch on the first floor belonged to Bree’s family, and it was where they kept the hibachi and Bevin’s Big Wheel, along with her old stroller and play castle and other abandoned baby equipment.
“How did you not notice him before?” Mari asked.
“I did. He was just shorter then and a little chunky. There’s four of them. My mom calls them the brood. You should hear them coming down the stairs in the morning.” Bree wiped a drop of melted strawberry from the hairless expanse of her leg. “He’s not the oldest but he’s the tallest. Over the winter he got tall. And now he’s practicing all the time out in the back. Not with the other kids—by himself.”
Mari waited to see if Imogen wanted to say something. She herself was finding it hard to speak in the breathless tone that Bree seemed to expect of them. Finally, she said, “I don’t think there’s anything for your parents to be worried about. That’s normal, isn’t it, for a neighbor to say hello. I say hello to our neighbors practically every day.”
Bree smiled, almost sadly, at Mari’s vast innocence. “This is different,” she said. “Completely different.”
“Because he took his shirt off?”
“No,” Bree said. “Because of the way he looked at me.”
“And how was that?” (Mari didn’t add “exactly,” but she wanted to.) Bree couldn’t put it into words, she said. It was just a feeling. A back and forth. A spark. She frowned at the feebleness of her phrases. “This sounds arbitrary,” she said, “but it’s sort of like when you’re about to take a test and you turn it over and read the first question and immediately you know the answer, and you know it’s right? It’s that feeling in your chest when you know you know it.”
Mari felt her own chest growing tight as Bree spoke. She tossed her popsicle stick in the vicinity of the wastebasket; unexpectedly, it went in. She tried summoning up the reason that Bree’s family no longer spoke to their neighbors. Was it the noise? Or something about a dog? A pitbull? Nor could she quite remember where they came from, though she was pretty sure it was somewhere that started with a “C.” They were either Cape Verdean or Colombian. Or maybe Cambodian.
Bree was saying, “I could tell from the way he acted that he could feel me looking at him.”
“He started missing the basket?” Imogen asked.
“Nothing that obvious. Though he did miss a few. It was more like he started walking and moving around in a different way, more slowly than before but also with more energy—”
Mari laughed abruptly. “You put a new spring in his step?”
“It was like he was slowly vibrating when he moved.” Bree’s voice was far away, her face dignified. “And after he smiled at me, he never looked over at me. Not once. Not even when it would have been natural to glance in my direction. He made himself not look. And that’s how I could tell.”
“Well, just try not to get pregnant,” Mari said flatly.
But Bree was too happy, too exalted, to even roll her eyes at this remark.
Bree didn’t get pregnant that summer, but she did end up having sex, and more than once. When Mari found out, her numb first thought was, But I was only joking. The acceleration induced a sort of whiplash: how was it possible that Mari and Imogen, who between them had never kissed a single boy, or held hands with a boy, who didn’t really know any boys, had a best friend who was now experienced at having sex?
Bree told them nothing at the time. Throughout the summer, she offered up a handful of distracting details: notes written and exchanged, with the play castle as a mailbox; late-night meetings by the trash cans, parents not registering a new readiness to take out the garbage; brief conversations on the back-porch steps; spasms at the sound of a screen door swinging open. Mari imagined a forbidden love unfolding chastely in a Revere that was gritty and poorly lit but in a picturesque way, as if Bree had been cast in a community-theatre production of “West Side Story.”
The whole time, however, actual real-life sex was being had. And not with Alex, the vaguely brown boy next door, but with Nicholas. Nicholas Pickett. Imogen’s brother was home for the summer before his senior year, and Bree had sex with him. Or he had sex with Bree. Even years later Mari wasn’t sure, when forming the sentence in her head, who to make the subject and who the object of the preposition.
Imogen’s house didn’t have an ordinary backyard: what stretched behind her house was more like a woodland garden, everything shady and dense, with only a small, irregular patch of lawn. A little creek ran through the greenery, and, though you couldn’t always see it, you could always hear its trickling sound. The creek was so narrow that you could easily step over it, but nevertheless a low stone bridge had been built. Moss grew in abundance, also ferns and hostas. A mass of rhododendron turned different shades of pink in the spring. Knee-high statues rose up at random from the undergrowth: an upright frog with arms akimbo, two cherubs grappling, a rabbit absorbed in reading a book. In the sun-speckled depths of the garden stood an obelisk and several urns.
When Imogen and Mari were much younger, they played there after school. Back then, there was less statuary and a little more wilderness, also a primitive tree house and a rope swing and a short zip line. Mari was afraid of heights, afraid of insects, wary of dirt, alert to poison oak, always dodging spiderwebs whether they were there or not. The only pants she owned had an elastic waist and were made of velour. Yet Imogen didn’t despair of her. She remained cheerfully deaf to worries and complaints. Unflappably, she coached Mari over boulders and under fallen branches and through soggy patches. She didn’t sigh when Mari lost her balance or needed to stop and catch her breath. Despite Mari’s hopelessness, Imogen kept inviting her over to play, week after week—months passing, and then years.
Mari would not forget it: the feel of Imogen’s bony grip on her wrist as she pulled her up through the rough opening in the tree-house floor.
The summer before high school began, the girls barely ventured out to the backyard. Maybe once or twice to hose off their feet or to find mint to put into a pitcher of lemonade. Mari’s second attempt at smoking occurred early one morning, alone, beneath the crabapple tree. After swimming in the neighbors’ pool, sometimes they draped their bathing suits on the Adirondack chairs in the backyard to make them dry faster, but usually they just hung them up in the bathroom. Bree always seemed to forget where she’d left her clothes and so had to run through the house in her damp bikini searching for them, squealing with cold.
Because it was summer and they were going into high school, they could sleep over not only on Fridays but on other days of the week as well. On one such night, Mari stumbled upon Bree pushing open the French doors from the outside, stepping into the living room from the garden. She scared Mari nearly half to death. What on earth had she been doing out there? It was late—the middle of the night—Mari didn’t know what time it was. She had awoken with a terrible thirst that only not-from-concentrate orange juice could quench, and was making her silent way to the kitchen.
For a moment Bree didn’t seem to see her. Her face was blank, and she was barefoot, wearing the oversized T-shirt she had put on before bed.
“You gave me a heart attack!” Mari whispered, and Bree jumped, sucked in her breath.
“What are you doing up?” Mari asked, but, before Bree could answer, a large shape appeared behind her in the doorway. It was Nicholas, dressed in his regular clothes, the same khaki shorts and wrinkled white Oxford he’d worn during the day. He wasn’t wearing any shoes.
“Hi Nicholas,” Mari said automatically. And then, stupidly, “I was just getting some orange juice. I think I might be coming down with something.”
The words issued forth without her thinking. As if she were apologizing, as if she were the one who had interrupted or disturbed.
And this would be the moment when she knew. Without needing it spelled out for her, without questions and answers. She would take it all in—the late hour, the naked feet, the two bodies standing in the darkness, one right behind the other—and she would understand. She would see them, and she would know, and Bree would know that she knew. The two of them knowing it together.
Yet this wasn’t how it happened. This was solely the fantasy that Mari concocted—her unwitting discovery, her reservoir of intuition. A look shared between her and Bree in the shadowy living room, followed by an understanding beyond her years.
Mari didn’t stumble upon Nicholas and Bree in the middle of the night. And at no point that summer did Bree confide in her. Mari had to be told—by Melanie, of all people—while flipping through the new-imports bin at a record store near one of the unavoidable universities. They were music shopping before the start of school. Melanie didn’t break down but seemed instead to expand under the weight of her conscience. Her eyes welled up as she told Mari, but Mari remained stony. It was only when her mother picked her up at the end of the afternoon that she slammed the passenger door shut and wept.
Her mother, who was a tentative driver to begin with, drove home extra slowly, as if steering a small craft through a squall. Mari had resolved not to say anything, but that resolve was hard to maintain once she was inside the warm hull of her mother’s Toyota. She couldn’t identify what hurt more: the fact that Bree had had sex; or that she had had sex with their best friend’s brother; or that somehow with all her dumb vamping she’d actually won the attention of golden, unattainable Nicholas; or that Mari had to hear about it secondhand from a random person like Melanie. It was like probing for the fracture in a limb that was alight with pain. As she sobbed, her mother kept asking mundane questions: “Is Bree fifteen now?” (No, fourteen, her birthday was in April), and “Does she still live in Revere?” (Yes, obviously), and “Remind me, how old is Nicholas?” (Sixteen! They had that big party with the tent; you were there. Last fall). Questions with easy answers, the sort Coach Bell would ask when you banged heads with another girl while playing field hockey in P.E. class.
At home, Mari’s mother guided her through the front door, made a pot of tea, and then parted and brushed her hair. Once she finished both braids, she said quietly, “You have to tell Imogen, and I have to tell her parents.” She was standing behind Mari, who was sitting in a kitchen chair. Mari didn’t see why Imogen’s parents needed to know anything, and said so, but her mother then began to undo and rebraid her hair as she explained the meanings of various legal terms: “in loco parentis,” “liability.” When she stepped from behind Mari’s chair to turn on the faucet, Mari saw the look on her face. She feared for an awful moment that her mother was about to cry. But she didn’t; she rinsed out the tea cups and scrubbed the pans left soaking in the sink and paused only to look up briefly and say in mid-thought, to either Mari or her own reflection in the window, “They opened their home to her.”
Imogen looked so plainly delighted when asked to return to the tree house that Mari felt like a monster. “We haven’t been up here in ages,” Imogen said, and stretched her arms up, oblivious to the accumulation of cobwebs. “Look! I’m hitting the ceiling now.”
But, as Mari talked, Imogen’s arms sank down to her sides. She bent over so she could rest her elbows on the filthy edge of the window, and she allowed her sheet of hair to fall forward and hide her face. Mari knew that she was crying, but she also knew not to put her arm around her. When Imogen finally spoke, she didn’t turn to look at her: “This whole time I thought Alex was the one she liked.”
Her voice had a hitch in it, and that made Mari start to cry.
“I thought so, too. I mean, that’s what she told us. But maybe she was just using him as a cover? I don’t know if there was anything really there.”
Imogen was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Maybe she wanted to talk about what she was feeling without having to say who the person was.”
Mari nodded tearfully. “Right. Like a decoy.”
Imogen continued to stare out the window.
Another possible explanation suddenly reared up in Mari’s mind, and she felt her stomach lurch. Maybe Alex had been not decoy but practice. Like a warmup. Low stakes, no pressure. Vaguely brown, formerly chubby Alex. Like shooting baskets in the backyard before the big game. She shuddered. She could never say that aloud.
“You know what?” Imogen said. “I really wish they hadn’t taken down the zip line.”
Mari joined her in gazing at the yard. Below them spread a low layer of broad, glossy foliage. It looked like a shimmering green carpet floating just a few inches above the ground, lush but uncomfortable to lie down in. In, not on, because of course the carpet wasn’t solid but made of large, stiff-leaved plants that would crowd in on you or get crushed under you if you were to try to have sex in their midst. This was part of the strangeness of Mari’s fantasy—there really was no welcoming spot in this woodland garden for two people looking to have sex. Or at least sex according to how she imagined it. To her mind it required a reasonably comfortable surface, one that was by necessity horizontal. Never in a million years would she consider the following possible: on the hood of a Volvo; folded over a table; standing on one foot, pushed up soundlessly against a bathroom door.
How did they begin the conversation with Bree?
“We need to talk to you. About something serious.”
Or: “Melanie told us.”
Or: “Will you close the door?”
Or: “I don’t even know what to say right now.”
All plausible, but none certain. None sounding even faintly familiar. However hard Mari tried, she couldn’t remember. Not what was said, or where. The total blankness made her wonder if a conversation had ever happened. Did Imogen speak alone with Bree? Was Mari not a party to it? Did parents step in and make arrangements among themselves, with the thought of sparing them the pain of talking? Or was Mari’s mere presence during this conversation ignoble enough that her memory now refused to summon it? All plausible, too.
What Mari did know was that whatever happened in such a conversation, however the information was conveyed, Bree would remember. She would be able to recall every detail of it clearly.
Just as Mari could recall where she and Melanie had been standing in the record store that August afternoon; what Melanie was wearing (a saggy blue cardigan over her Buzzcocks shirt); what they had just eaten (roll-up sandwiches with tahini dressing); what was playing on the store’s speakers (Nick Cave doing a cover of “Hey Joe”).
Another detail, impossible to forget: the phrase that Nicholas had pressed into her, hotly and permanently, a phrase describing her mother. During one of the phone calls between her mother and Imogen’s, Nicholas had picked up the receiver in another part of the house—an interruption that wouldn’t even be possible now—and spoken at her mother furiously, in the relentless, punishing style of a seasoned debater. Afterward, she’d walked into Mari’s room looking dazed. “He called me, among many other unpleasant things,” her mother had said, sinking onto the bed, “a busybody. A pathetic busybody who wants to make everyone else as miserable as I am.”
A cooling of relations ensued, but despite what Bree later claimed, it couldn’t be rightly called a banishment. The interlude resembled more of a breather, a period of recovery, than an actual estrangement. After their talk in the tree house, Mari had pictured Imogen and her moving side by side down the school hallways, heads bowed like novitiates, with Bree maintaining a respectful distance, back turned to them, as she spun and spun the combination dial on her locker. And for the first weeks of high school they did give her some space. But not unkindly. They continued to exchange smiles with her; they offered to lend her a pen when she needed one; they waved and said hello, liked her new jacket, laughed when she said something funny in class, held the door open for her.
Being a duo again brought with it the ease of travelling light. Maybe Mari’s mother hadn’t been completely wrong about two being less complicated. On some days it felt good, the way that depriving yourself during Lent felt good, the invigoration of being disciplined and lean. But on some days it was terrible not having Bree at her side, and Mari walked through the school building feeling wobbly and exposed, buffeted by air, as if riding along bumpily in a jeep without a door. In the lunchroom, she watched from the corner of her eye as Bree made forays into other groups—for a while she joined the musically gifted girls, the ones who spent their Saturdays at the conservatory, and then she seemed to hit it off with a new girl named Pam, who lived in a town even farther away than Revere. There were also the two Alisons, whom Bree had always liked and been chatty with. She never sat by herself, in other words; she wasn’t friendless.
One day, Mari saw her leave the lunchroom holding the palm-tree-covered cosmetics bag in which she carried her tampons and briefly felt sick with missing her.
But in only a few months they were back to being friends. The three of them had been placed in the same advanced French class, with sublimely silly M. Bernard, and it was hard not to sit together when there was so much goofiness and group work and all the ridiculous skits going on. Then, separately, Imogen and Bree became possessed by the crazy idea of rowing crew, Bree as a coxswain and Imogen as a bow, and, before long, they were all at Imogen’s house on a Friday night, eating Dino’s. Lifting a slice of Hawaiian pizza from the box, Bree asked, “Am I off probation now?” And even though she asked it sincerely, without any sarcasm or humor, Mari and Imogen both laughed gently, as if she’d made a sweet but impenetrable joke. And so they picked up again, the three of them. The various parents supported it, some more cautiously than others, on the understanding that certain ground rules would be observed.
If Mari was being honest, however, she would admit that even as their friendship continued—and it did continue, ever-shifting in closeness and distance, through high school and college and deep into adulthood—she carried with her an unwanted residue, a sort of fine, nearly invisible grit she’d tracked in without noticing. Hard little traces of something that refused to be swept or smoothed away. When Mari eventually brought a boy around—it took a while—she had to brace herself. She was watchful. Noting the moments Bree turned her smile on him, or touched his arm, or looked up at him from under her cascade of sun-kissed hair. And all her tireless self-grooming—it was no longer a curiosity but a threat. The absurd amount of time Bree needed to prepare herself before leaving the house became enraging, resentment-stirring. Mari knew it was unfair to feel this way. Unfair to perceive what would have been merely annoyances in another friend as evidence in Bree of a failing that had already revealed itself, treacherously. But this was how she felt.
Mari felt unsteady. She had to put down her phone. She felt a shrinking all over her body, and then a wave of prickling, an intolerable heat.
How had she not told Bree about her mother?
She didn’t need to calculate how long it had been. She knew it already; she knew it down to the day. On Saturday, it would be four months. Four months, plus the preceding six months of treatment, and in all that time she hadn’t managed to tell Bree.
There had been long spells of silence before, on both sides—growing longer as they themselves grew older. Mari hadn’t known, for instance, about the beetle study or the bus. She couldn’t remember if she’d mentioned to Bree anything about their moving. She sent holiday cards every year; they texted each other on their birthdays with strings of fond, exuberant emojis. There was no sense of neglect, no recriminations, between the two of them, or none as far as she knew. But this omission on Mari’s part was different—not in degree but in kind. It was a disgrace.
Her mother had made a donation, clearly, and by the sound of it not a small one. This was Mari’s first time hearing of it. Which was surprising, considering that throughout her treatment her mother had been nearly obsessed by the task of getting her accounts in order and taking care of what she called housekeeping. She had enlisted Mari in cataloging the paintings, for instance. She’d said that Mari’s father wouldn’t remember where they had come from, which ones were valuable and which not. She was also preoccupied by the kind of food he was feeding the cats. Mari kept bringing her back to more important matters—financial paperwork, friends she wanted to see. Yet her mother hadn’t said anything about Mari’s friend, or the fund-raising page, or the money she’d given her.
Mari wondered if her gift might have had something to do with the news—her mother used to refer to herself somewhat indulgently as a cable-news junkie, someone who cancelled plans in order to stay home and watch Senate hearings or follow breaking stories—and so much of the recent news had made that particular summer feel close again. The past looked different now, and especially the sex. Why was Bree the bad apple? The one needing to be banished? How could a girl of fourteen be the one held responsible? This wasn’t the first time such questions had occurred to Mari: she was a feminist, for heaven’s sake; she did go to college. But maybe all the zeitgeisty talk had led Mari’s mother to reconsider what had happened decades earlier, and, if it wasn’t too strong a word, to repent of her part in it.
The thought was desolating. Her mother—her practical, refined, brisk, unsentimental, highly opinionated and discerning mother—was capable of experiencing a change of heart, when Mari was not. For all the years she had spent fancying herself a sensitive person, cultivating her feelings and perceptions, her heart had remained tough. Unyielding. No matter how hard she tried to view the past from an enlightened perspective, no matter how much she wanted to see it with clearer eyes, her heart kept stubbornly placing Bree as the subject of the sentence. As agent and initiator. The active, desiring, incautious subject. That was her friend, the girl she remembered. But her mother, evidently, had come to see things differently.
Now, after the awful flush of heat, a coolness. Mari touched her forehead, her cheeks, and felt that they were damp. Picking up her phone, she tapped the screen and looked again at the unfamiliar number. “I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long to send proper thank yo…” There was no chance that she would ever delete the texts, but, at the same time, she couldn’t imagine ever knowing how to reply.
Bree was the one who invented the names. They evolved over time, as nicknames tend to do. First came Imogen’s—it wasn’t so far to get from Pickett to Pickle. This was probably in the seventh grade. The name suited her precisely because it was so perfectly wrong. Nothing salty or squat about Imogen, the very last person you’d expect to find inside a dark briny barrel—which was why it must have been so satisfying to call her that. After months of being addressed almost exclusively as Pickle—your turn, Pickle; can you pass me that, Pickle; merci beaucoup, Pickle—Imogen answered one day with, “You’re welcome, Brickle,” for obvious reasons. And so Bree became Brickle, a name that eventually got shortened to Brick. Upon the introduction of Brickle, Bree made the regal decision that Mari had to have a name, too. During lunch she led them into the school library and heaved open the giant dictionary resting on its stand. She flipped through chunks, then leafed through single pages, then stopped and peered down at an entry.
“Good news!” Bree said. “Guess what it means.” Her finger inched across the page. “Mickle means ‘much, or a large amount,’ as in the phrase ‘Many a little makes a mickle.’ And guess where it means that?”
Behind her glasses, her face was lit up.
Imogen and Mari couldn’t guess.
“In Northern England.” She smiled at them exultantly. “Where Manchester is!” she crowed, as if Mari’s happiness was her own.