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The Soft Sort of Shit

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*It started rather innocuously… an innocent and involuntary magnetism.*

Of any number of configurations their 5-member disaster party of a friend group could be arranged in, Erin and James ended up next to each other significantly more often than not. Standing, walking, sitting, dancing—wherever one was, the other was sure to be within half a meter of that space. They quietly surrounded each other. But then again, all the girls were attached at the hip. What was the difference if Erin and James brushed elbows now and again? It certainly couldn’t possibly mean anything at all that James was always near enough to Erin that the slightest shift of her head or any light breeze would send her hair right into his eye. She had nearly poked Orla’s eyes out a good number of times with some of her more forceful hair flips.
Erin and James were no closer than the rest of them. And if Erin and James did somehow manage to be nearer to each other than was typical of the girls, it was only because she ran cold and he was always inexplicably warm for an English fella, and by the law of thermodynamics or equilibrium or some shit like that, it would have been far stranger to not be drawn to each other. Their heads were almost touching. “It was a greyhound, Orla.” Everyone knows heads are the epicenter of heat-transference, anyway.

***

*It grew just as unintentionally.*

Erin’s friends were absolutely crazy—that was no epiphany considering Erin herself was just as mad, and quite frequently took up as ringleader of their insane-idea-club. What Erin also had a penchant for doing, however, was romanticizing herself as a quiet genius of a girl—a brooding and tortured artist. Which is why, for the first few times the cacophony of Clare, Michelle, and Orla faded down the hallways of her house in a mad search for food, Erin didn’t realize that sitting in silence with James was far more comfortable than it should have been. She waxed poetic in her head of how important and dramatic it was to be left alone with her deep and revelatory thoughts, though her thoughts were no more deep or revelatory than simply imagining them to be so. To her credit, James hadn’t been as observant either; busy wallowing in the misery of being an “English rose among thorns.” In fact, it was their shared penchant for getting so stuck in their heads that led them to being frequently left behind during group sustenance expeditions. It took a fair bit of time before Erin and James realized the brief and treasured moments of silence were communal introspective experiences, and had been just as comfortable as slipping into one’s own socks. Strangely, sitting in quiet together seemed every bit as dynamic as their quick-quipping at one another in the group.
Still, what was more natural than silence among friends? Surely, hunter-gatherers had to become accustomed to silence in groups—their lives depended on it. If anything, James and Erin’s easy quiet compared to the other girls must have meant that they probably evolved from the same group of ancient peoples, and there was absolutely nothing special about that at all.

***

*At some indistinguishable point, it had long passed the border of inoffensive.*

It should have been a giant feckin’ red flag that absolutely no alarms went off in Erin’s head at Jenny Joyce’s party that night. She had been nearly feral; all panic and not a shred of reasonableness. The sound of her own voice in her head was that of a banshee, shrieking and flying about, grabbing on to James, watching James, trying anything at all to control James. But Erin had tunnel vision on Katya, despite the entirety of everything surrounding what Aunt Sarah refers to as “the night wee Erin experienced demonic possession” being James, James, James. His name had been on her tongue all night, but all anyone remembers is the name she spoke when it all went to hell. Later that night, when Erin finally wrote about everything in her diary, she briefly wonders if it was ever really about Katya at all. And however close she gets to understanding that it was always James and never Katya is null as soon as she starts musing on the sociopolitical effects of her life in Derry impacting her interactions with more diverse groups of people.

Caring-to-action is not something that was isolated to Erin, and was something that came fairly easy to James. You needed him to do the dishes? Sure. You needed him to hold all your bags? Of course he would. James cared about a lot of things, and was soft-spoken enough to understand how to express it through his actions (especially since the sound of his voice made everyone in Derry fly into a rage). He loved his cousin and their friends and he would do anything for them. So when Erin’s ma called him 'round eight at night to tell him John Paul stood her daughter up, he didn’t even have to think twice before he was combing back his hair and going straight to Erin’s house to take her to prom himself. James would have done that for any of the girls. Maybe not the combing his hair part, but that wasn’t significant at all. Nor was it significant that taking Erin to prom meant missing the Doctor Who convention. It certainly wasn’t of any importance that he had foregone his reminder of home and childhood and stepfathers and a mother who was present. Prom was definitely more important, and there was no subtext whatsoever in the act of James taking Erin. And there was no significance in the fact that that’s what both Erin and James remember most—especially since by the end of that night the only thing the other girls remember about prom is tomato juice.

***

*At a very distinguishable point, there is no subtext anywhere—least of all in people’s faces.*

It started before prom, but Erin can’t seem to remember a time before then when she knew the power of speaking without words. She opened the door and he’s standing there, and her face must be screaming confusion and relief because James answers her questions before she can ask. He’s calm and patient and kind and she runs upstairs and back down as fast as she can. They don’t look much at each other the rest of the night, bar some dancing—in which she definitely did not stare at his cheekbone for ten whole seconds.

It happened again when President Clinton came to Derry. James and Erin don’t really meet each other’s eyes when he says he’s leaving. She’s searching and grasping but this is between cousins and friends and she doesn’t feel like much of either in that moment, and he leaves anyway. But then Orla is pointing and yelling and Erin turns around and James was also yelling, and then everyone is running and hugging and everything happens so fast that when he finally looks her in the eyes it was like slow motion. And all James knew in that moment is that whatever regrets he felt about leaving his mum are suddenly gone—the regret is nonexistent—and what is present is the intensity of Michelle’s hugs, and the feeling of Orla’s hand in his, and the complete joy bubbling inside him from the sunshine of Clare’s smile. His face might’ve broken in two, but he sees Erin’s glassy eyes and rosy grin and there are no words exchanged even though the air seemed to have shifted. His eyelids grow heavy and his smile becomes dazed and he feels very much at home, crushed among these terrifying and wonderful women.

If two people can find each other in seconds across a crowded room, they must be very good friends indeed. That’s how the old saying goes right? Because that’s what Erin and James were—Very Good Friends. That was the only possible reason they were able to immediately catch eyes in any room, at any occupancy level, and at any time. They spoke to each other in wild gestures and steady gazes, in the furrow of a brow and the twitch of the lips. They developed a fluency in nonverbal communication, and a fairly flawless internal navigation system calibrated to the other. It was simply the side effect of a Very Good Friendship.

***

*It can no longer be described as unintentional and involuntary.*

She’s sitting next to him on her small couch, both of them concentrated on Take That. His sweater was warm against her skin. Which obviously meant that he was warm, because sweaters obviously don’t spontaneously get warm without a heat source present. Her elbow wasn’t digging into his ribs like the arm of the couch was. It was nice.

They were all caught in a verifiable stampede of people vying for spots during Rock the Boat and Erin grabs James, losing him just as quickly as she held him. James pops back up out of nowhere to grab her and set her right in front of him and neither of them wonder for even a moment why they didn't grab or go back for any of the other girls. But then they’re sitting and every so often Erin leans back into James and he gets a whiff of her hair. And every so often James’ hands hit her back and sides. And every so often, Erin and James have to make an effort to say focused on the song and motions.
The girls are wading through drug-scone toilet water and it’s a panic of towels and whisper-screams and Clare is just hitting the toilet handle and Michelle is cussing at the bowl. Erin is on the verge of tears, and fear is the only thing keeping her from losing everything and taking a jackhammer to the ground. James is crossing in front of her in an ill-advised attempt to reach one of the pink towels on the back wall and he stumbles a little into Erin. They’re staring at each other, clutching each other’s forearms so tightly their skin has gone paper-white. Blood is rushing through Erin’s ears and James is hyperventilating a little but they’re frozen until a rogue piece of scone goes flying in between them. James straightens up and he and Erin keep hold of one arm as he continues his trek to the wall. Later, James simultaneously blushes and pales imagining the scoots-situation Erin had told her Ma.

He reaches around her waist, trying to peel her off of Jenny Joyce. Everything was too slippery and they all trip and fall over each other, Erin knocking the air out of his lungs as she lands on top of James. Her eyes were blazing and later that night while writing in her diary she’d write from an authentically tactile perspective for the first time, but in that moment, she was slipping and raging and reaching for Jenny. James’ hand was grasping her upper arm and Michelle is screeching obscenities at Aisling and Orla’s laugh pierces the air and Mae is growling. Sister Michael breaks it all up and even though Michelle is also covered in tomato juice, James holds on to Erin and she’s glad she’s not wearing that stupid blue dress because she definitely wouldn’t have been able to jump Jenny Joyce in that thing. As soon as Mae is escorted out, the girls carefully hobble off the stage for a quick dance before their impending parent-pocalypse. Michelle is holding hands with Clare—a solid meter between them and their dresses. Orla and Joe waltz circles around everyone, and James’s hand is hot on Erin’s back, their hands clasped tightly together as they sway in an exhausted half-hug.

James was back and everyone was jumping on top of each other and the air is thick where Erin and James breathe. It’s hard to reach James from her spot in the dogpile, but her fingers touch his shoulder and he knows it’s her. And when they’re all walking away from the crowd and James’ arm is around Michelle, his hand brushes Erin's hip and she smiles to herself.

And when they all hang out at night, Erin’s pinky finds James’ and somehow their hands end up totally, platonically tangled together. Her hands are just cold, there’s nothing weird about it.

***

*It travels to Egypt and sets up camp in a river.*

At some indeterminate point, James and Erin began to respect each other—and with that mutual respect, there slowly grew a sense of trust. It was an inevitable consequence of their Very Good Friendship that they became each other’s confidants and first calls when things went to shit. James would walk into the library and stride right up to Erin, sitting down across from her, grabbing her paper in one hand and clasping her palm in the other. “It’ll be fine.” And when James would find himself panicking, he would go right over to Erin’s house, where she would let him braid her hair to calm down. Erin would run to him with ruddy cheeks and wild eyes and they’d walk to The Walls and sit for a while. He’d look at her with a heavy gaze and shoulders slumped and she’d put her arms around him and give him a quick peck on the cheek. They were certainly not in a pit of denial, not at all. So what if they bought matching friendship bracelets? Erin and Clare had necklaces, which were far more romantic than bracelets! It was of no consequence that they made sure to keep the bracelets very carefully hidden under their blazers. Neither of them wanted to get shit from Michelle, especially not for being Very Good Friends. Friendship was indeed an undervalued relationship, and far be it from Erin and James to corrupt the sanctity of it.
Using their virtual desert of a love life to prove they had anything other than a stable friendship was ridiculous. Erin and James were just more mature now. No more silly teenage hormones for those two pals. And if Michelle gave James side-eye whenever he turned down a date (which was a rarity in Derry, and happened, at most, three times in five years) to help Erin study, or if Clare huffed when James and Erin ended up showing up to every event together ("It's efficient," argued Erin), it was just because they were jealous of such a strong friendship. Even though there was absolutely nothing to be jealous about, they were equally friends with everyone equally, and if Erin loved any one of them more, logic dictated it would be Orla.

***

*In which it all goes to shit and no one is really surprised because it’s a soft sort of shit. It’ll flush well and live out its days happily in the sewer.*

Erin had only ever been accustomed to affection in her mother saying “you are mine, I know you well,” hidden behind a curtain of cutting words and suspicious glances. Affection in the form of a father rolling his eyes and rolling up his sleeves to help and not coddle, affection in the invasiveness of Orla—biting her shoulder, following her to the toilet, holding her hand, running headfirst into Erin with a bull’s-eye on her lungs—and in the girls, in their sarcastic comments and little laughs and eloquently abrasive speeches. Erin knew affection as inner softness, guarded by walls of words and actions meant to throw you off. That was how Erin expressed affection herself; awkwardly, bluntly, and just a little crassly. Anticipation of being burnt ruled her approach to risk, whether it be to cannonball into the fire or clumsily dodge the flames.
But James was looking at her as he always had, softness bare to her gaze, nothing to work through, no hidden meaning to derive, no armor. His face is dopey, looking at her with that hopeful expression from back when she doled out jobs to the girls. He was just smiling and open and looked like the fluffiest marshmallow in the bag. Even after years of knowing James, Erin was not prepared. “What’s wrong with your face?” James just smiled more and Erin crinkled her nose. That was how James showed affection; vulnerable and honest and giving. He understood how Erin loved. It was similar to how his cousin loved, how his aunt loved, and Ma Mary, too. He came from a mother whose affection was deceptive, and a string of stepfathers whose emotional expression shaped the way he gave and received. James was comfortable with Erin’s defenses. He had grown wary, but not jaded, of duality in the love he was given.
And then all he said was her name, in the same sneakily tender way he had when telling her that confidence was what boys liked, in the same sneakily tender way he always had said her name despite the circumstances. Erin’s face relaxed, her shoulders dropping slowly. Maybe the love he was offering was soft enough to cushion her edges. And maybe the love she was able to give would be sturdy enough to contain this absolute puddle of a fella.

“Oh my God, get a room, you guys are disgustin’. I can practically hear you two thinking in stupid sonnets.”

“Shut up, Michelle!”

“I absolutely will not! It took them years to figure out they want to ride each other and now what? They’re just going to stare at each other? I reckon that’s worse than doin’ it right in front of us.”

“Aye, I agree with Clare. This movie’s not half bad.”

Erin looked at her friends from over James’ shoulder. “Shut up.” She turned back to James, with his shiny pink cheeks and his glittery green eyes and his stupid curls, and heat rushed to her own cheeks as her breath caught. She smiled at him and he rose to his feet, both fumbling a little in their quest to meet halfway for a kiss.
In that moment it didn't matter that all their friends were watching. And it certainly didn't matter that their parents must think of James and Erin as absolutely insane. Because when you're Very Good Friends for more years than you'd care to admit, jumping right to marriage is far less crazy than pretending you wouldn't eventually end up there anyway.