Mama gave me this big speech before we went to the party tonight. She warned me that drinking too much could lead to bad decision making, and I should make sure there’s someone I trust at the party, and that if anything happened I should call her, no matter what, because the last thing she wants is for someone to get hurt because I was afraid I’d be grounded.
Typical mom stuff, I guess. Leila always says, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” And then she laughs at her own bad joke before Mama tells me not to listen to her.
Mama thinks we’re all in some teen drama, and one of us is going to get pregnant or OD, but Betsy’s house is about two blocks from mine, and it’s all kids I know. And, sorry, my whole family has “the fertility curse”, as Aunt Anastasia puts it. Mama says there’s not a generation of Dabneys without an accidental pregnancy, so I keep my bits to myself, if I can help it.
Connor makes fun of me for that too. He found me grabbing a drink.
“You come here with your totally hot girlfriend,” he said, “who you’re totally ignoring, by the way.”
I rolled my eyes. “She’s playing hostess at the front door.”
Betsy was greeting everyone. If I was the jealous type, I might’ve asked her for a dance, but it’s her party.
“You’re such a square, man,” Connor said. “She’s Betsy Caliente, and you’re letting her play Mary Pleasant.”
“I’ll see her later,” I said, confident. Every time Betsy and I went on a date, she was pretty hands-on. Like I said, I try.
“Hey!” Rachel called as she came in the room. “What are you nerds up to?”
I grinned at her as Connor rolled his eyes.
“We’re at the same party,” he said.
“And you’re hanging out by the punch bowl like you’re afraid girls have cooties.” She gave him a shove. “I saw Molly looking sad by herself. Go ask her to dance.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “You really mean that or are you trying to get some alone time with my boy here?”
“Go,” she insisted and shoved him out the door. “You’ll thank me later.”
“You’re so sure of that,” I said with a laugh.
She waved a hand. “He’ll cuddle up to someone. There is something I wanted to ask you.”
Rachel tugged on my arm and we found a more private corner of the house. People were walking in and out of every room, and she turned her back to the party. A serious look straightened her smile.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Have you seen Betsy since you got here?” she asked. “Like, at all?”
I let out a breath. We’d dropped the whole Betsy thing since our failed movie night. I should’ve known it’d come up tonight.
“Look–” I started but she cut me off.
“Five minutes ago,” she said, “I was dancing in the other room. Octavio was there, and I heard them talking–”
“Rachel,” I tried to interject, but she was rolling down her hate hill.
“She was totally flirting with him,” she said, “and then they disappeared into the hallway. I knew she was using you–”
“Rachel,” I said. “Thanks for looking out, but you don’t have to.”
She let out a huff, her shoulders dropping. Her teeth scraped the bottom of her lip, and finally she said, “You deserve better.”
I put a hand on her shoulder. “Seriously.”
I didn’t say anything else to her as I walked away. In the living room I saw Connor leaning against the wall as he and Molly chatted. Several kids were filling up the empty space as the stereo jammed out hits. The front of the house was packed with people, but not Betsy.
I didn’t want to believe Rachel. She always sniped at girls we talked about, and I’d taken it for her usual annoyance. It didn’t stop paranoia from rising up in my throat, especially as I turned the corner down the back hallway. A giggle elicited from the closet, and my heart dropped into my gut.
The medley of emotions that bubbled up inside me were impossible to decipher in the moment. Hurt and anguish, sure. Anger’s never been an emotion that came easily to me, but I felt that spiteful broil I’m only used to in conversations with Brad. Behind the betrayal and heartbreak, though, was annoyance. Of course Rachel had to be proven right.
Betsy and Octavio didn’t seem to notice me at first. Still dizzy from whatever encounter they’d shared in the hallway closet, they clung to each other. As soon as Betsy saw me frozen there, she pulled away, adopting that easy smile I’d fantasized about more than once.
“Seriously?” was the only word I was able to manage.
Octavio had the decency to look nervous and turn away. Betsy shook her head.
“It’s not like that,” she said. “We broke up weeks ago. I told him I was with you.”
“Inside of the closet?” I pointed to the offending spot.
She placed a hand on my arm. “Let’s talk about in private. Come upstairs and we can–”
“Seriously?!” a shrill voice interrupted, and Betsy gave a startled look to Rachel as she stormed into the hall.
“I can’t believe you think you can sweet talk your way out of this one!” Rachel was in full rage mode, and I knew better than to get in her way. “You’re a real monster, you know? You have one perfectly good boy but that’s not enough for you.”
“Excuse me?” Betsy reeled back in defense, arms out, shoulders up. “Who even invited you to this party?”
“You don’t even have a defense for yourself.” Rachel waved a hand at her. “After we leave you won’t even feel bad.”
“Um, you don’t know a thing about me,” Betsy snapped. “And maybe I feel bad but I’m not going to feel worse by having some rando yell at me. Why don’t you head back home and bleach your roots?”
“Are you kidding me?!” Other kids from the party were peeking in at the sound of Rachel’s shouts. “I’m not the one pretending to be Malibu Barbie!”
“How about,” Betsy said, “instead of bothering me about my dating life, you bother to have one.”
Rachel reeled back, and I grabbed her arm before she did any lasting damage. With only a look to Betsy, I dragged her through the house and out of the party. She was breathing deep and swearing as we stood on the front porch, and I released her, marching away. It was too early to go home without explaining to my moms what happened. The neighborhood fell behind me as I headed towards the park, and Rachel raced to catch up.
She didn’t stop ranting and raving. I let out a breath as we came to the park and I collapsed onto the first bench I found.
“Ugh!” Rachel shouted as she sat down next to me. “I knew she was a total skankarella! She did the same thing last year with Oscar Harris and it’s like everyone forgot. Does she have immunity because she’s tall and skinny? And where does she get off saying I bleach my hair? Like her roots aren’t showing?”
Years of Rachel being my friend has made me used to her rants. Her neighbor’s dog left a mess on their lawn, or her English teacher failed her test, or the girl who sat behind her in Biology did whatever it was that ruined her life every third period. Normally I weathered her tirade with an amused smile and the understanding only a best friend could have, but tonight I couldn’t manage.
“Hey, Rachel,” I said. “Can you shut up for a minute?”
Her eyebrows arched, but her mouth clamped shut. I breathed in the night air. It wasn’t even eleven. Mama might be more worried if I came home early, and Leila would have all kinds of advice I don’t want to listen to.
Next to me, Rachel shifted, dropping her head back. She was fidgeting. Silence was never her strong suit.
“It’s not like she was your soul mate,” she let out in one big breath. “You talked about art. Big deal. I can buy an art book.”
The edges of my lip tugged up. “Last time we went to a museum together you asked if it was still art if you drew bras on all the ladies.”
She sniffed. “You told me that was a fair art criticism.”
“And when we saw the Rothko you raged for fifteen minutes about how all art is meaningless.”
She snorted at that. “I guess Betsy Caliente loved a Rothko.”
The smile dropped. Silence reigned again.
My head scratched with thoughts. It felt stupid now, storming out of that party, except to keep Rachel from straight punching Betsy in the face. Connor probably didn’t even see us leave, and he’d ask a hundred questions as soon as he noticed. Who knows what everyone would say Monday at school? At least Rachel made a big enough scene that I wouldn’t be the topic.
“She’s not worth your time anyway,” Rachel said, shaking me from my thoughts.
I let out a breath. “Yeah. I’m sorry I blew you off.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” she said, offering a smile. “You also act like every girl in our grade isn’t dying to go out with you. You don’t need to be picky.”
“Who’s picky?” I asked. “You told me every boy in our class is a Neanderthal.”
“And I stand by it!” she said. “But you’re alright.”
“Thanks, Rachel,” I said, sitting back. My gaze went to the stars. I wished I had my sketchbook. “You’re alright too.”
We settled into silence, staring up. Despite everything, I felt calm. I’d been annoyed at the time, but now I’m grateful Rachel had my back tonight. She’ll always be there when I need her. Tonight sucked, but at least I had her.