August on the coastal plains of North Carolina is like being shushed, like being smothered into agreement, a thick heat so relentless no one can raise a ruckus. Where I’d come from, August was packing season, August was leaving season, August was replacing season. But arriving in eastern North Carolina in August meant turning up outside the tobacco barns during curing season, the flue-vents slightly propped open, hundred-year-old rafters the color of chaw juice hung with sheaves, the stifling, unbearable heat a recognized seasoning that the native plant welcomed, the only way to transform into what the people wanted.
August in eastern North Carolina looks like industry, looks like productivity, but it lapses back into indolence within days because curing only lasts one week. The grass is yellow and the air is yellow and so are the dried-out needles from the skinny pine trees soaring eighty feet in the air, the pine trees that lined the streets of my new neighborhood, the pine trees that looked like a permutation of my old home on the other side of the country—the conifered slopes of the Willamette Valley of Oregon. We didn’t have enough money to live up in the tree-filled hills—we’d lived down in the flats—but enough Californians had carpetbagged north that by the time my parents sold their little 1950s ranch, the house had doubled in value, doubled enough to buy us into Club Pines, this middle-to-upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood on the southwest side of town, away from “the urban element,” away from the new university where my father would work.
My new house was nooked into the corner pocket of Club Pines’ main boulevard, the center of the center, a road everyone had to travel. That comforted me, because while the pine trees felt like home, they only formed a facsimile of forest; they stood in clusters like gossipy girls outside the cafeteria, denuded trunks only branching out in the top quarters, boughs whispering a language to each other that you’d had to have been there long enough to understand. Slurred, drawled, words confused, words I should have been able to understand, words with fuzzy meanings, phrases I’d never heard, a code I wanted to write.
The pine trees obscured my house from the road. The storms hadn’t come yet.
Something has been stolen and it needs to be recovered. On the day we’d moved into our new house, Sarahjean crossed the cul-de-sac to scout the scene and I unpacked my Monopoly board and tried to show her that playing House Rules with a bonus $500 every time we passed GO made the game more fun, the way my neighbor and I used to play, but Sarahjean was disinterested. She watched as I arranged my special belongings onto my dresser, the ephemera that seemed so important, an old puzzle piece of Indiana, a rock from a place I couldn’t even remember, a bookmark with a cheetah on it, a half-dollar my grandma had given me, the pin I made in Campfire Girls with melted plastic. When Sarahjean had left and I was still trying to surround myself with the physical reminders that I had a past, I noticed the pin was gone. This house was too clean, too unlived-in. I knew where it had gone. So now I’m double-crossing the cul-de-sac and knocking on Sarahjean’s door and asking if she wants to play. She lets me in, and in the downstairs TV room we watch a half-hour of “Eureeka’s Castle” to placate her younger sister before I excuse myself to the bathroom but I’m not going to the downstairs half-bath; I’m going upstairs and I’m going to her bedroom. It’s easy enough to find, it’s obvious enough. And Sarahjean doesn’t even have the wherewithal to know how to hide it: my pin is sitting right on top of her dresser. I scoop my pin into my pocket and quickly leave her bedroom as Sarahjean bounds upstairs, suspicious, and she points out the bathroom down the hall and I pretend I was lost and Sarahjean goes into her room as I go to the bathroom and I see her look on her dresser before I close the bathroom door but when I exit the bathroom, claiming my mom is probably looking for me and I should go home, Sarahjean doesn’t have the nerve to accuse me of stealing. Stealing what. Stealing back.
Somehow I broker an invite to Amanda’s house even though she’s best friends with Sarahjean. On request, I bring my troll dolls and Amanda and I play a game where we hide them in her front parlor and even though I know I brought seven trolls, we can only find six: the blue-haired one, the one in a kimono, the overalls one, the other one, the other one, the other one. I don’t remember which troll is missing from my collection, which is my fault. Amanda does not invite me over again when she discovers I am, like most of our neighborhood, being bussed from our suburb to the decaying urban public schools and I find out she is a St. Peter’s girl. I sneer at her because I may be a pleb but she is a snob.
An upstairs bonus room, Tom Cruise in Cocktail on our private VCR, we will get in trouble for watching a Rated-R movie but how can you expect us to be surrounded by adult movies and choose Aladdin? The ceiling is vaulted, we unroll our sleeping bags onto the sectional, we brush our teeth downstairs in the bathroom that Alana has to clean every day when she gets home from school; there is a special spray cleaner she has to use in the shower and a special sponge and until I waited for her to finish her chores after school, I hadn’t realized people ever cleaned their showers. All that soap splashing off our bodies didn’t clean the tile walls? Alana’s house backs up to a wooded ditch with an abandoned half-fort near a swampy pond and there’s a barbed-wire fence it’s easy to bend our bodies between; we don’t get caught, even in the dark, and we walk into the tobacco fields behind our neighborhood, hurling dirt clods as far as we can, watching them explode into puffs of smoke in the humid moonlight.
Thick cigarette smoke, stale cigarette smoke, cigarette smoke hanging in the kitchen like oxygen, cigarette smoke like we’re exactly where we are, in the heart of tobacco country, where it’s patriotic to smoke, where it’s a legacy to smoke, where discarded soft-packs line the gutters. Sadie claims her parents only smoke outside, but the house smells like an ashtray. I’ve never been in a house where the parents smoke. Where her teenage sister smokes. Where everything is so saturated with smoke I worry that I’m going to get lung cancer just by staying overnight. I can’t fall asleep there; that’s no surprise. I watch SNL until midnight with her siblings because no one has a bedtime. No rules. I ride my bike home at first light and my mom throws my sleeping bag and Nanny, my ragged yellow baby blanket, directly into the washing machine.
Her mom has macaroni and cheese waiting when Ester gets home from school and Ester eats dinner at 4pm, sitting at the round kitchen table alone, and I’ve never heard of eating so early and I’ve also never eaten dinner without my parents and siblings. Afterwards, I introduce Dirty Barbies to Ester even though we are ten and I assume she’s played this game before. She has, and she knows tricks I’ve never performed. Her older brother sleeps in a huge addition at the back of the house, a bonus room nearly as large as the rest of the house. Ester explains that the boys get all the good stuff. We watch syndicated Saved By the Bell episodes and Ester loves blond Zack Morris, who looks like my four-year-crush from my old life on the other side of the country. Ester tells me that boys like big butts and she sticks out her behind and wiggles it proudly and I’ve never considered my butt as a reason a boy might like me but if Ester says it and Sir Mix-a-Lot says it, I guess it’s true. I don’t know how to counteract the knowledge that mine is so flat it fades into obscurity.
Sweet baby Kim, a little blonde sprite of a child, tiny with glasses and she’s bookish and we are the same age but I can’t stop thinking of her as my younger sister. Kim is an only child, Kim has a bedroom with a white frilly canopy bed and Kim has an upstairs playroom larger than my living room all to herself. Every toy I ever wanted. Every toy I ever saw advertised on TV. A dollhouse and a Lite Brite and puzzles and Cabbage Patch Kids and Kim has the baby doll that poops in a diaper and I get to help her change the diaper when the poop comes out orange and it all feels so helpless, this little girl changing her little fake baby’s diaper. I want to be enchanted by the infinitesimally tiny teacups and saucers carefully placed on the dollhouse dining table, I want to agree to nestling our bodies in the double beanbag by the overflowing bookcase, engrossed in reading aloud from the old red book of Disney stories, but I want to be with Sadie and Ester, skidding our bikes around the neighborhood, trumpeting, “That’s fucking shit!” just because we could swear, just because we were growing up.
Smells like Glade Plug-Ins and some foreign spice whose origin I never find out. Julie lives in a large, two-story-with-third-floor-dormers brick house, white muntined windows, the typical black show-shutters, white pillars holding up a porticoed entry roof, a house presenting its success at blending in to the neighborhood. We make paper fortune-tellers on the back screen porch and we both choose Daniel’s name to be matched with Silver because we both love him, we both love silver. Julie’s brother Ghassan has the larger bedroom because he is a boy. In Julie’s bedroom, I think there are two twin beds, but I don’t make it that long; I don’t even make it to bedtime before I panic—I’m too far from home—and I make the call, bewildering Julie’s mom, who continues to ask what she can do to make me more comfortable until my mom arrives.
I almost know it better than my own after spending countless nights twinned with my best friend, while she was still my best friend. With my eyes closed, I can map out the main level with the sunroom and the oversized formal living room, the four bedrooms and bathrooms and the bonus room on the second story; I know the size of her parents’ bathroom and which two bedrooms Betsy owned and I slept in, the small one at the top of the stairs when her sister still lived at home, and the bedroom nooked in the corner behind the stairwell where Betsy hooked up her grow lights. We tried to watch a murder mystery ghost video in the sunroom, we slapped together vanilla cupcakes with EggBeaters in the kitchen, we never went in the formal dining room. No one went in the formal dining room. I know the shallow backyard where our Collies cautiously sniffed each other, I know the three-car-garage where her hamster cage was kept, I know the corner of the counter where the cordless phone was kept, where Betsy would call to ask if I wanted to come over and play, when we still called it “playing,” when I still anticipated her calls, when she was still my best friend, when she was still.
A word-association poem tucked under magnets on her parents’ fridge that I copied, almost word for word, replacing lines like “Mary Tyler Moore…apples” with “Hillary Rodham Clinton…oranges,” so derivative it embarrassed me, later. A paint-pen company where we personalized notebooks with our paint pens purchased at Bender-Burkot for $5.95 each; I was assigned to buy Carolina blue and silver and expected to donate them to the club for usage but it was a rip-off because Sarah took all the “business” for herself. Sarah has moles curving around her cheeks, enclosing her ears. Sarah is tall. Sarah’s mom is a psychiatrist named Deede and her father’s job doesn’t matter but his name is George and Sarah calls her parents George and Deede and she is their only child and they have a huge compost heap in the back of their yard covered with pine needles. When Sarah comes to my house for my eleventh birthday party, she drinks three large glasses of milk in quick succession. Sarah has a mystery club and a notebook like Harriet the Spy and she is constantly surveilling and she invents a symbol to sign her notes which is a clear sign she has been watching Betsy and me. Sarah starts another club called GGC and it means Gorgeous Guys Club and it is no secret that the only point of this club is to talk about the boys she thinks are gorgeous and I am supposed to agree.
Bologna. The house smells like bologna. I spend a lot of time at Molly’s house because she lives right down the road, three houses and a left-turn, and her mom is a principal who works late and she doesn’t have a father anymore and her older brother watches MTV and we’re not allowed to watch MTV at my house and I see Pearl Jam’s video for “Jeremy” and I’d never realized someone could bring a gun to school. Molly’s bedroom is huge and has a dormer window while her brother is snuffed into a little bedroom to the right of the staircase and eventually Molly will have to share her bedroom with her new stepsister on weekends and I will stop coming over to play with Molly because I prefer hanging out with her sarcastic stepsister but right now Molly shows me her American Girl doll Molly, Molly’s brass doll bed, and we play computer games side-by-side on separate computers in the computer room. I play King’s Quest V and Molly plays Lemmings. We rarely speak.
A white cockatoo screaming from its cage in the corner, a baby brother under a year old rug-burning his knees on the carpet, parents sitting under their Christmas-lights-strung gazebo in the backyard drinking cocktails and listening to Jimmy Buffett. A twin bed, a sleeping bag on the floor beside it, a poster of Vanilla Ice that Erica confesses that she kisses regularly. A small bedroom. A room stuffed with the sort of ephemera you collect on vacation, backscratchers and pillows and seashell collections. Erica curses too but she isn’t like Sadie or Ester; Erica doesn’t know when it’s appropriate, Erica doesn’t know you’re supposed to hide it from my parents. I leave before 9pm, claiming a stomachache, Erica’s mom blowzily proclaiming her sympathy after being summoned from the gazebo, Erica whining that they’ve got Pepto-Bismol. I rush out of the house when I see the headlights of our minivan; my mom doesn’t even make it to the front door.
One story, which is unusual in our neighborhood. Brick. Windows with the plantation blinds always pulled. Newish, but nothing to remark on. Three cars in the driveway, which makes no sense since I think Sheetal is the oldest and she’s only twelve. Who needs three cars with two adults? Maybe there are not two adults. Maybe Sheetal’s grandma lives with them. But no one’s grandma lives with them; everyone’s grandma lives near them. Maybe someone on the bus asked her about it once, but Sheetal probably volunteered the information and anyway, it doesn’t really matter. Sheetal’s house is in the right location, but no one is paying attention. For Christmas, Sheetal buys sets of fake pearl-drop necklaces, bracelets, and anklets from Claire’s and distributes them to me and the other girls who’ve allowed her to sit at our lunch table. No one wears pearls—that will come when the other girls are debutantes—and by then, no one will accept imitations.
After Betsy, I sleep here. I sleep on Heidi’s trundle bed in her bedroom at the front of the house and Heidi falls asleep listening to The Beatles and since I can’t sleep through background noise, I wait until the CD has finished before sliding out of my sleeping bag and quietly, guiltily, stopping it from starting again. I sit on the carpet of Heidi’s bedroom and I write stupid slurs about Betsy in Heidi’s yearbook and I am in Heidi’s bedroom weeks later when I flip to my page and find a whole diatribe of cruelty Betsy has scrawled over my face. Heidi is neutral ground, Heidi is friends with us both, but Heidi’s house is so close to Betsy’s that I know there must be warm summer nights when they meet up on the street without me and I will not know what they say. Not until Betsy wants me to know what they say.
Alana tells me she’s going to be friends with Ashleigh again since summer is coming up and Ashleigh has a pool so I decide to try to be friends with Ashleigh too. Ashleigh’s house is also on a corner lot like mine, but while my house is veiled behind the pine trees, hers sits proud, front-and-center, no need to hide. I bring my Get-Along-Gang towel to Ashleigh’s house because it is cool and vintage and in seventh grade, it’s funny to act like we’re still into our childhoods. The towel is thin and when I wrap it around my body, I soak through it immediately. I’m still wearing a corny old one-piece with bright neon pink and orange straps and I don’t know where Ashleigh and Alana have gotten their swimsuits but it was somewhere geared for grown-ups, for teens, maybe the juniors’ section at Brody’s, not the kid rack at Walmart. I leave my towel behind “on accident” since Ashleigh didn’t comment on it; she will have to return my towel to me at some point and surely she will have a quip about it and that will make us friends. But the towel seems to vanish, or her attention vanishes, because two weeks later I haven’t gotten a phone call from Ashleigh so I call her and ask if I left a towel behind, Get-Along-Gang on it haha remember them? She drawls no, and I have lost my towel, my currency, my reason for invitation.
Later, Heidi gets me invited to a sleepover in Ashleigh’s third-floor attic and Ashleigh gets inexplicably sad listening to “I’ll Never Get Over You (Getting Over Me)” and we are all mystified since Ashleigh isn’t dating anyone at school and never has so we assume it was some boy she met at her beach house on the Outer Banks. Ashleigh refuses to speak about it, and in the morning, Ashleigh has left us all upstairs and she’s sleeping in her bed on the second floor and I awkwardly leave the house, slipping out without saying goodbye to her or her mother, walking the neighborhood streets back to my house.
A two-story vaulted ceiling in the living room, a bedroom upstairs, a piano in the living room where Rie’s mom makes her practice immediately after school, where Rie is practicing when Heidi and I come over. I don’t remember why we went over. Rie was not allowed to leave with us. Rie tried to teach us how to pronounce her name; I said “Ree-ay” and she shook her head. Heidi said “Ree” and she shook her head. “Rlee-ay,” she said. We repeated, “Lee-ay” and she shook her head. “Rlee-ay.” We could not get it right.
We aren’t friends; we’re just on the school softball team together. Everyone knows Erin and Sarah are best friends, but Sarah must be out of town because Erin’s dad comes and picks me up and he drops me and Erin off at the town festival. Erin’s dad gives us twenty bucks and Erin and I fill vases with colored sand and we eat an elephant ear and walk around the three-block-long festival, stopping underneath the awnings of the tents trying to get some shade in the humid summer. I go back to Erin’s house when we’re done being hot and we sit in her bedroom with a window that faces the street, a bedroom positioned in the very front of the house, and while Erin’s an only child just like Sarah, just like Kim, I don’t feel her privilege. I stare out her front window at Betsy’s old house, wondering what Erin has seen.
Her younger sister was more intuitive than she was. Her younger sister would turn around and perch her elbows on the back of the seat to talk to me when we were on our way to a softball game in Ayden-Grifton and I was sitting on a bus bench by myself, ostensibly because we had the space and it felt invasively close to sit beside another girl when there were clearly enough seats for us to spread out, but really because everyone knew my only friend now was Heidi and she didn’t play softball. Danielle was on the softball team too but her little sister Angie was the one who’d talk to me. Danielle had other fish to fry, other girls whose friendship she’d sought, other girls who were popular and had something to offer. I went to Danielle’s house once when Heidi cajoled me to come over, calling on Danielle’s phone, and it felt like a strange ruse because Heidi left three minutes after I arrived and I was hanging out in Danielle’s bedroom for twenty minutes and for what? Because it was a ruse. Because Heidi had planned a surprise birthday/going-away party for me and was at my house helping my parents tie balloons to the deck posts.
Danielle shuffled me out of her house by pretending she just remembered she was going to meet someone at the park and I knew how to read the signs that I wasn’t wanted anymore. I returned home and was met at the front door by my mom, who walked me through our house to the backyard with my eyes blindfolded, and the CD player was queued up to begin blaring John and Paul as they yelled, possessively, “You say it’s your birthday! It’s my birthday too, yeah!” when the blindfold was removed and in a half circle on my deck, sweating in a puncture-hole of thick sunlight—once blocked by the pine tree which had storm-crashed through my bedroom ceiling and coated my bed with pink insulation—there were four girls whose houses I’d never been inside, who didn’t even live in our neighborhood, and Heidi was there front and center and I knew the only reason the others had come was because Heidi had asked them; no one was going to miss me when I was gone.
Kristine Langley Mahler lives and writes on the suburban prairie of Nebraska, where she is completing an erasure book on Seventeen‘s advice to teenage girls, a grant-funded project about immigration/inhabitation on native land through the lens of her French-Canadian ancestors, and a graduate degree in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared/is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, Split Lip, Storm Cellar, the Bitter Southerner, and received the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review. Visit her at kristinelangleymahler.com.