When Paulie Bleeker was four, he thought his mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, that every woman boasted such bountiful curves and harried gaze. Her hair was softer than candy floss.
When Paulie Bleeker was seven, he met Juno MacGuff. She was just like a little boy, with her hair tied back in pigtail knots and a mouth that beat everyone else in first grade, even that kid whose father was in jail. She said she scared her mother away, her lip trembling as she tried to believe it, and Paulie didn't argue. She was the most beautiful girl in the world.
"Want to hang out after school?" she asked him one day. She took him home to a dim house where her father worked on strange motors and mumbled curse words under his breath. He showed Paulie how to take the screws out of the toaster so it fell apart.
The next day Paulie took Juno home. His mother was at first thrilled to meet his little girlfriend, but then quite displeased when she proceeded to rattle off her father's military-flavored cussing like she'd been doing it all of her short life. She took the toaster apart and cleaned the crumb tray, but it was never quite the same again. (He took to microwaving, after that.) She broke a small knickknack and talked Paulie into a race, which she won easily. Those days, he was always chasing after her, couldn't catch up.
Paulie listened to his mother talk on the phone to the neighbor, saying things like Problem Child and Abandoned by Mother. She didn't forbid him from bringing Juno home, but she was never quite happy when he did.
And Paulie chased after Juno. He was never as clever, never as swift, never as interesting, but sometimes she taught him things. Sometimes she threw him a bone. And they grew up.
When Paulie turned thirteen, everything changed. For a while, he was speaking a totally different language than she was. She caught on quickly, though, and their friendship went on, though with the addition of breasts. He took up cross-country and she watched him run. She never chased him.
He tucked the yearbook under his pillow, waking in the morning with the corners creased across his face. He put on his golden shorts, microwaved a breakfast pastry, went out running. The same time every day. The same thing. Paulie Bleeker would be quite boring, he sometimes reflected, if Juno wasn't in his life.
And then it happened. (They never could agree on who prompted the whole thing, and eventually they gave up trying. It was better that way.)
"Did you hear about that Juno MacGuff?" Paulie's mother said at dinner, looking pointedly across the table at her son, and then at her husband. Paulie's father grunted. His wife was always on a vendetta about something or someone. As long as she left him alone, he didn't care.
"Pregnant! And only sixteen! It's a travesty, I swear. That girl was screwed up when her mother left her, that poor child. And now she's having one of her own! I hope you pay attention to this, Paul. This is why I don't want you hanging out with her. She's a bad influence. Does she even know what she's doing?"
Usually his mother hated being interrupted, but Paulie made an exception. "Adoption," he said, staring into his milk glass. "She found a couple in the Penny Saver."
"The Penny Saver?" Paulie's mother said, taken aback a moment, but then she continued. "Well, good for the child. She probably doesn't even know who the father is."
"Do you?" Paulie's father asked, looking up from his paper at his son. Paulie concentrated hard for a moment and didn't choke on his dinner.
"Yeah," he said hesitantly. "A... guy from school."
"That could have been you!" Paulie's mother said, shaking her finger at her son. "You see what I told you: that Juno is a bad influence."
Paulie wondered how he ever could have thought his mother was pretty. She looked like a hobbit.
Juno wore a sweatshirt that said I CAN'T BELIEVE I'M DOING THIS the day she became Juno Bleeker. She sung her vows. Paulie had traded his golden shorts for a nice pair of dress pants, and a guitar. He sung back to her. Paulie's mother sat on the edge of the park bench, burying her perfectly white shoes in the mud. Vanessa sat on the opposite side, Christopher dressed like a little preacher, but also trailing his shoes in the mud.
When Paulie and Juno walked out of the gazebo, past his mother, Paulie leaned down and said, "I got her pregnant. Before." Juno grinned. Paulie's mother gasped, somehow more scandalized by this fact than by this ridiculous wedding.
"He's good in a chair," Juno said, winking. "But even better in bed."
She took his hand and swung it easily as they walked through the crowd standing there with them. Somehow Juno had gotten a smudge of mud on her cheek and Paulie wiped it off, marveling at the sudden newness of the gesture. She adjusted her skirt with her free hand and smiled, resting her hand for a moment on her (currently) empty belly.
She was the most beautiful woman Paulie Bleeker had ever seen.