The thing about a small town, at least this small town, is that it doesn’t change. I had the same kids in my class all through elementary school, and I can still recite their names from memory: Katie, Julie, Candice, Kyla, Amelia, Jessi, Jessica, Amber, Austin, Tony, Brandon, Dylan, Cameron, Jeffrey, Luis, Dustin, and Matt. I spent most of my time with Candice and Jessi. Amber hated me. I hated Julie. I didn’t think too much about the boys, honestly; even in the fifth grade, when everyone had a little crush, I sure didn’t. “Boys are dumb,” I said. I just wanted to keep pretending to be horses and riding our bikes and spending every day that was warm enough in the tree house Jessi’s brothers built before they left home. I wanted to keep lying next to Candice on her bed with Jessi’s feet poking up between us, whispering and giggling even after Candice’s mom came in to tell us to go to sleep. I didn’t want anything to change.
But nothing stays good forever. In sixth grade, we all went to the middle school, the one we had to ride the bus to Edgewood for. There was a whole bunch of new kids, all of a sudden, and I didn’t know their names. Or mostly I didn’t know. There was one name I learned really fast: Jolene.
You could tell right away that Jolene was a town girl. She had nicer, newer clothes, and brand-new shoes that had never been through mud; she never wore her brother’s hand-me-downs. She never showed up to school sweaty from a long ride in a hot bus; her mother drove her. She had long, soft-looking, shiny hair that she wore loose, not in a ponytail. And she smiled and blushed and when she said hi, her voice was soft but everyone heard it, somehow.
All the girls wanted to be her friend. I wanted to be her friend. She spent more time with the boys, though, even back then. By October, she and Luis spent all their time together. They stood way out by the fence before school, talking and laughing, and even back then, Jolene knew how to flip her hair like no one else: she’d give her head a toss, and that thick dark red hair would flow in a wave over her shoulder.
I watched Jolene with Luis, and for the first time I understood why all the girls wanted a boy. I wanted someone like that, someone whose attention was all on me, who listened to what I said and laughed at my jokes. I set my sights on Dustin. He was about the middle of the pack of boys, and I was about the middle of the pack of girls, so it made sense. I liked his jeans and the big clunky boots he wore year-round. He smiled a lot, sometimes even at me. When you’re 12, that’s all that matters.
I didn’t know how to get Dustin, exactly. I tried smiling at him more, but he didn’t seem to get it. I watched Jolene and Luis for tips, but Luis just seemed pulled to her like she was a magnet, and I knew for sure there wasn’t a magnet in me.
One Friday night, over at Candice’s house, getting ready for a sleepover, I whispered that I liked Dustin.
“Dustin?” Jessi said. She was putting her hair in two brown braids, the way she always wore it for bed, and she snapped on the last rubber band before she said anything. “Isn’t he kind of – slow?” Her nose wrinkled up so all her freckles bunched together.
“He’s nice,” Candice said, because really she was the nice one. “He’d be good for you, Stella.” She slipped on the curl cap her mother made her wear to bed to protect her kinky hair, and slathered moisturizer on her face, arms, and legs.
“Well,” Jessi said. “Okay. Sure. Why not?”
On Monday, somehow everyone knew I liked Dustin, and I wanted to die. People poked their friends and whispered when they saw me, and whenever Dustin and I were in the same room, which was most of the time, people giggled and stared.
When the bell rang to end fifth period and start lunch, I felt sick. I felt sicker after Jessi said, “Grab a table for us, we’ll catch up to you!” and then disappeared off with Candice somewhere. I did, but I could feel the eyes of everyone in the cafeteria on me. My face was hotter than the sun, and my eyes burned and stung. Don’t cry, I told myself. Do. Not. Cry.
I sat at one of the tables available to sixth graders – no one ever said anything, but we all still knew that sixth graders were only allowed to sit at the tables nearest the trash cans – and stared hard at my brown-bag sandwich and chips, waiting for Jessi and Candice.
They didn’t come and didn’t come, and after what felt like forever, someone else sat down across from me. Dustin, I realized. I went from hot all over to ice and froze solid. I couldn’t move, couldn’t look at him, couldn’t say a word. I sure couldn’t eat. He didn’t say anything, either, just sat with his lunch tray, picking at his chicken nuggets.
The silence between us got bigger and bigger, until it was the biggest thing at the table, until it pushed on me so hard I could barely breathe. I wanted Jessi and Candice to come, or the bell to ring, or the fire alarm to go off, or to just die right there.
Instead, Jolene came over. “Hi,” she said, and her voice was like it always was, like it always would be: coated in honey and cream, the kind of voice anyone would want to listen to for hours. “Can I sit here?”
I was going to say yes, because I was raised to be polite, but Dustin jumped in first. “Yeah, of course, sure,” he said, and waved his hand at the spot next to him on the bench.
“Thanks,” she said, expertly flipping back her hair. She sat next to him, put down her lunch in its special insulated bag covered with cats, and said, “You’re in second period English, right, Stella?”
“Yes,” I whispered. She and Dustin were sitting so close. There was barely any light at all between them.
“I have last period English,” she said. “But today I have to miss it. My mom’s coming to get me early so we can go see my grandma. What will I miss?”
I was slow to answer her, and Dustin, who had fourth period English, spoke first. “Just more of that Wrinkle in Time,” he said, and his voice made it clear what he thought of it. “Talking about the chapter and writing some dumb thing about it.”
“Oh,” she said, soft and sad. “I wish I was missing the spelling test instead. I love that book.”
Dustin said, “I love it, too. Meg, right? She’s great.” And right then I knew he wouldn’t ever be mine.
By the end of eighth grade, every other girl in my class had had a boyfriend, except the super-religious girls who prayed together at lunchtime and carried Bibles everywhere they went, and Helen, who had bad zits and read books in the library at lunch. I wasn’t religious, and I didn’t want to be Helen. I wanted to be like the other girls. I wanted a boyfriend.
All summer, Candice and Dolores and me (Jessi was best friends with Amber and her crowd by then, and she barely noticed us in the halls) planned for high school. Edgewood just had one high school. Everyone went there.
“It’s going to be so many more people,” Dolores said, chewing on a chunk of her dark brown braid. She was from Edgewood, and she hated crowds. She liked coming to Silverton to visit me and Candice, somehow preferring a dusty middle of nowhere that smelled like peanuts to Edgewood, which at least had a Walmart. We didn’t do sleepovers, not with Dolores – her mom didn’t like her to be away for the night and thought Silverton was too far in case of emergencies – but we did still spend a ton of time in Candice’s bedroom after school.
“It’ll be nice!” Candice said. She was on a soccer team in Edgewood, so she knew lots of girls from the other middle schools. “You’ll love it.”
I didn’t think I would, but there was no point in complaining. It couldn’t be fixed. So I focused on something I could fix: the Boyfriend Problem.
“Just tell me there will be someone who actually wants to date me,” I said. “Surely there’s got to be one, right?”
Dolores looked at me, her lips pursed, clearly considering. “The thing is, you’re really pretty,” she said, and I looked down and blushed. “You just never show the boys you’re interested.”
“I don’t know how to toss my hair,” I said instantly. “I’m not Jolene.” I knew that for sure, because I’d spent so many hours brushing my dishwater-dull hair and trying to toss it back in that perfect, shining wave. It never worked. There was Jolene, the perfect girl, and then there was – whatever I was.
“You don’t have to be,” Dolores said. “You just have to be you, but” – she hesitated, clearly reaching for the best word – “approachable,” she finally decided.
“How am I not approachable?” Did I not smile enough? I tried hard to be friendly, to be nice, not to be pushy, not to demand anything or say anything that sounded bitchy. I didn’t understand how I could still be hard to approach.
Candice hugged me. “It’s not that people don’t like you! You’re sweet and everyone knows it.” That wasn’t true, but, well, Candice. She wrinkled up her face like she was thinking hard about how to put something, and my stomach sank. I really wasn’t nice enough, obviously. “Boys just never think you’re interested. You have to show them you’re interested. But not be, you know.” She dropped her voice a little. “Slutty. Which I know you would never! But you just have to walk that line, you know?”
I didn’t know, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Two days into my freshman year, Josh swooped into my life. I liked his shaggy blond hair, his big blue eyes, and his smile. A little after that, I liked his soft hands. Kissing was fine – just kind of wet, and I always felt smushed – but I mostly did it because Josh liked it. Holding hands in the hallway, though, that I loved. I felt wanted. Other people could see that I was wanted.
“You have a boyfriend!” Candice squeaked over the phone to me, and I realized I did. My stomach swooped and my heart pounded and I wondered if maybe this was love at first sight.
A week later, Josh said to me, “Hey, you’re friends with Jolene, right?”
A week after that, Josh broke up with me. I know he asked Jolene out later that same day, because everyone in school made sure I knew, but she said no.
I hoped she didn’t think she was doing me a favor. I wasn’t grateful.
Jolene made everything look so easy. Her parents let her have makeup way before my mom let me, and hers was always perfect. She wore this cherry-red lipstick that made her lips look soft and lush and kissable. I don’t know what else she used, but as she got older her skin looked creamier and her eyes looked greener, and she was so flawless Candice spent three weeks obsessed with finding out her brand of concealer.
I finally got to wear makeup when I turned 16, and furtive sessions practicing in Dolores’s room weren’t really enough. I woke up half an hour early to put it on the day after my birthday, thinking that this would be the thing that transformed me, that made me approachable, that made boys look at me the way they looked at Jolene, but after 45 minutes I was blinking through teary eyes at a smeary mess, and I was out of time to fix it. I threw all my new makeup in my bag and ran for the bus, head down, hoping everything would look better in natural lighting. But I knew it didn’t.
Jolene had a knack for being there at my worst moments, and that day was no different. She was climbing out of her mother’s car right when I got off the bus, and she called out, “I hope you had a happy birthday, Stella!” And then her face did something, and she came over to me. “Oh, I love that shade of eyeliner!” she said, sugar-sweet. “But I think you maybe rubbed your eyes on the bus. Come on, I’ll help you fix it,” and she was towing me to the girls’ bathroom before I could figure out the nice way to tell that soft voice to leave me the hell alone.
In the bathroom, as girls filed in and out to fix their hair and check their makeup and pee before class, Jolene wiped off all my makeup. Then she said, “We don’t really have time for the full face, but let’s just put on some notes.” She pulled something out of her bag. “I love this lip balm,” she said. “It tastes so great. I always put it on before I put on lipstick. Here, try some,” and she pulled a little wand out of the tube in her hand and stroked it over my lips, her hands confident in a way I knew mine never would be. With every touch, I imagined my lips like hers: cherry red, soft, kissable, like I could catch her beauty from using her makeup. Next she put my lipstick on me, and some eye makeup, and the whole time my face was hot and my hands were shaky and I felt almost sick.
I wanted to tell her I wasn’t a child, but at the same time, I didn’t want her to stop. This close to her, it was easy to see that her beautiful skin wasn’t thanks to concealer, and that her perfect eyes weren’t thanks to her skill with makeup. It was easy to see I would never be her, and I wanted to be. Oh, how I wanted to be.
I knew how much better my life would be if I looked like her, smelled like her, talked like her, but that wasn’t even why I wanted to. I just wanted to like myself, and I knew I would, if only I could be like her.
“There,” Jolene said, stepping back from me with a smile. With her further away, I felt like I could breathe again. “You look beautiful.” And even though I knew she was lying – no makeup was going to achieve that – I almost didn’t hate her for saying it, since she sounded so sincere.
“Thanks,” I said, my voice rough with embarrassment, and then I bolted out of the girls’ room for my first period class.
I rushed to my desk and sat down clumsily, trying to calm down. Brandon leaned over from the desk next to mine and said, “You look real pretty today.”
“It’s just makeup,” I snarled at him. “I’m not pretty.”
“Jeez, okay,” he said, sitting back in his chair and pointedly looking away, and the whole thing just made me madder. I wanted to kick myself. The makeup had made me more approachable, but I screwed it up anyway.
Brandon never smiled at me again. I knew it wasn’t fair to blame Jolene for losing that boy, but I did anyway.
We all graduated from high school and we went our separate ways. Jolene went away to college, of course. I got a job in Edgewood working at the front desk of Dolores’s father’s auto shop, and I took classes at the community college part-time. Dolores and Candice went to college, and so did Amber, so pretty soon I was hanging out with Jessi again. Neither of us had a lot of time, but we’d meet sometimes on the ECC campus for coffee before classes, and a few nights a month, when neither of us was working, we’d go out. Technically, there weren’t any places that would let us in, but Jessi had a fake ID, and she helped me get one, too.
I was dancing when I met Bryan. He smiled at me from the dance floor, and after one song he shouted, “Can I buy you a drink?”
“Sure,” I said, and waved to Jessi as I headed over to a table with him.
Bryan was short, but he had a great smile and gorgeous green eyes. When he looked at me, I felt like he was seeing me, and he liked me anyway. We sat at the table and he handed me a rum and Coke and I felt so grown up, so real.
“Tell me about you,” he said.
I did. I tried to make myself sound interesting – I said I was an office manager and I told him I was majoring in business, when in reality I was still taking general courses and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. After the second rum and Coke, things got a little fuzzy, and I don’t really remember what else we talked about.
At some point, Jessi came over and reminded me that we had to get back, and I left with her even though I really wanted to go home with Bryan. He gave me his phone number, though, and pretty soon I was on another date with him, and another, and another. He seemed like he came from a different world. He knew so much, and he spent so much time teaching me things, telling me how to behave and dress and be in a relationship. When we went out to dinner, he ordered for me, and even if I didn’t always like the food, I always tried to. No food could have tasted as good as the approval in his eyes when I ate the cioppino instead of the pasta I would have ordered if I’d been left to my own devices.
He wasn’t my first time, though I told him he was, and sex with him was better than it had ever been before. I was never very good at sex, somehow, always awkward and nervous and never able to get into it the way men did, but at least with Bryan there were good parts. He was so soft and cuddly afterward. He’d pet my hair and tell me I was pretty, and I never had to worry about if he was enjoying himself, because he taught me how to make it good for him. I liked that, that he was clear. I never had to guess what he wanted.
About a week before Christmas, Bryan took me out to a nice restaurant – I had a Caesar salad because he said I needed to keep an eye on my weight, but he gave me two of his fries –- and afterwards, we went to his favorite bar.
I loved dating a man who had his own favorite bar.
Bryan always said Joey’s Place had “just a little hint of dive bar about it, just the way I like it,” but to me it seemed perfect: dark wood bar, pool tables in the back, little round tables just perfect for two.
Bryan got me a rum and Coke – he drank gin and tonic, but he said I needed time for my palate to mature – and we settled in at our favorite table. I sipped my drink and felt like a million dollars.
Then Jolene walked in. I saw her first, before he did, and I tried to look away from her, to show her that I was busy, I didn’t want company. But somehow I couldn’t. She’d changed her hairstyle, cut it shorter, and my heart twinged. It wasn’t that I’d liked her old hair, just that it had been part of my life for so long that I sometimes saw it when I closed my eyes at night.
She looked great, of course; she was wearing a dark dress with a sprinkle of flowers around the hem and a low neckline, and it hugged her body but still looked soft and so touchable. I wanted one for myself, even though I knew I’d never look like she did in it.
She caught me looking at her, smiled hugely, and came right up to our table.
“Hi, Stella!” she said, her voice as honey-rich as ever. “How have you been?” She did such a great job of faking excitement, like she’d really missed me off at her big fancy big-city school, that I almost believed her.
“I’ve been --” I started to say, but Bryan broke in.
“Hey,” he said to her, and I could feel his attention switching from me to her. “I’m Bryan. You must be one of Stella’s friends.”
Jolene looked at him, her head tilted, and her smile changed. “Yeah. We graduated from high school together. Last year.”
“Well,” he said. “Any friend of Stella’s.” Bryan expertly hooked his foot around a chair at a different table and dragged it over to ours, and Jolene sat down. I prayed that she’d leave soon, told myself that someone as worldly and experienced as Bryan wouldn’t fall for her.
Bryan offered to buy her a drink. “Oh, I’m not 21,” she said.
“Does it matter?” he asked, laughing. “Stella likes rum and Coke, I’ll get you one of those.”
He headed for the bar, and Jolene turned to me. “I’m really glad to see you,” she said.
“Yeah, I. Me too,” I said, because I knew I couldn’t just beg her to leave, please, before Bryan forgot I existed.
“How have you been? I saw Jessi yesterday and she told me she barely sees you anymore.”
“Well, work. School. And Bryan,” I said. Bryan said he preferred to keep our time together just for us, and we spent every second we could together. It didn’t leave a lot of time for friends.
“Now, what are you two lovely ladies talking about?” Bryan said from behind me. He slid a rum and Coke in front of Jolene, and I wanted to take it from her. That was my drink, the one he’d picked out for me.
“Just catching up,” she said. “It’s been a while!” I didn’t understand why Bryan couldn’t hear how fake she sounded.
“Oh, really? Where have you been?” Bryan asked her, and she smiled at him and tilted her head forward a little, so her hair fell into her face. My heart clenched painfully with jealousy.
“In college,” she said, and after he asked her where, she said, “Rice. In Houston.”
“That’s a good school,” Bryan said, and he didn’t sound exactly pleased with her. I was so relieved.
“I’m really liking it,” she said. “How do you know Stella?”
“Saw her on the dance floor and couldn’t resist her,” Bryan said, and the words were right, but he wasn’t looking at me.
“We’ve been dating for two months,” I said, feeling like I was interrupting, like I didn’t even belong at this table.
“Wow,” Jolene said, and then she looked over behind me. “Oh, pool tables! Do either of you play?”
“I sure do,” Bryan said, getting up.
“I’d like to learn,” I said, because I was not about to sit at the table while Jolene Morris played pool with my boyfriend.
“I’ll show you,” Bryan said.
I spent the next hour and a half playing a game I couldn’t begin to understand while my boyfriend laughed at me. Every shot Jolene took, she bent down low over the table, and the beautiful dress fell away just enough to show more of her cleavage, soft and creamy and perfect and touchable, and every time, Bryan watched, his lips a little parted, his eyes bright and entirely on her. When she rubbed chalk on her cue, Bryan stared at her, though she never looked back at him. I could tell that, because she mostly watched me like she was trying to tell me something. I had to assume it was, “If I want him, I can take him,” because it was so obviously true.
Every time she picked up her cue, she ran her hand over the smooth wood like she wanted it to feel good, and every time, Bryan licked his lips while my heart pounded and my mouth went dry with everything I wasn’t saying.
I tried to be a good sport, and when I couldn’t do that, I tried not to be a jealous bitch. I told myself it was meaningless. Bryan might be watching Jolene, but she was so beautiful everyone watched her. And no matter how touchable she looked, how incandescent and lovely she was, he’d be going home with me.
He did, too. And then, the next morning, as I was getting ready for work, he said, “I think – I think we need to take a break, Stella.”
As far as I know, he never managed to get with Jolene, though he tried. She didn’t even want him, and she took him away from me anyway.
I cried a lot that January. I hated her.
It took me a while, but I finally did find a man. Ten years later, I was with Bud, and I thought I had let the whole Jolene thing go; I thought I’d put the past behind me. Settled down. Someday, I knew, Bud would ask me to marry him, and I’d say yes, and then we’d have a couple of kids, maybe. I figured my life was going the way it was supposed to go, and I was happy enough.
And then Jolene came back.
She got Mrs. Stafford’s job at the library. I heard about it from Manuel at work; he told me she moved into the apartment upstairs from him. “She’s real nice,” he said, smiling. “Pretty, good to talk to, and so far she’s not going clonk clonk clonk all the time up there like the last one.”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to keep my voice cheerful and professional. “Guys always love her.”
He laughed. “Oh, not me. I can see I’m not her type,” he said. “And I don’t like a challenge, you know? Lots of women out there who are into this,” and he gestured at his body.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, they’re lining up for you. Do you have the parts order ready yet?”
“Almost, taskmaster,” he said, and walked away still grinning.
Six o’clock came, and I went home and made dinner and ate it with Bud, and I spent the whole time thinking about her, so it wasn’t even a surprise when he said, as we settled on the couch to watch The Bachelorette, “Remember Jolene?”
Of course I did. I’d never been allowed to forget her. But all I said was, “Yeah.”
“Saw her today.” He drank down the rest of his beer and burped. “She’s something, you know? A real woman. She said to tell you hi.”
“How nice,” I said, and I don’t think I gritted my teeth at all. “I’ll have to go tell her hello.”
“Yup,” he said. He scratched his stomach through his shirt.
We watched an episode, and then we watched something else I didn’t really see, and then Bud said, “Gonna head to bed.”
He kissed me goodnight and I went to the kitchen to clean up. He got up at five, so he fell asleep pretty quickly once he was in bed, and it saved a lot of mess and effort if I waited until he was asleep to head to bed myself. Most nights, I just cleaned until I heard him snoring and then I went to bed myself, but that night as I wiped down the counters and scrubbed the dishes, I couldn’t stop thinking: Bud’s already talked to Jolene. He thinks she’s pretty. She smiled at him, the way she does, probably flipping back her hair, and I know what she’s like.
And I just couldn’t get past the unfairness of it all. I knew Bud was it for me. There weren’t many options, not a lot of good men in town, and he was mine. It took forever for me to find him, and I knew he was the best I could do. She, though – she could have any man, in any town. She just always took what was mine.
And I always let her.
But not anymore.
Once the decision was made, I acted on it, quick. I refused to put back on my work clothes for Jolene or anybody, but I changed out of the holey sweat pants I wore around the apartment, and because it was Jolene, I pulled out my going-out jeans, the ones I hadn’t worn since Bud moved in and we stopped going out. I brushed my teeth, in case I had garlic breath from the pasta we had for dinner, and I fixed my hair and makeup. To confront Jolene, I wanted to look as good as I could.
As I put on my lip gloss, a memory hit me so strongly it was almost like reliving it. I remembered Jolene putting hers on me, all those years ago, and I flushed hot.
And then I slipped on my shoes and headed out, driving through nearly empty streets to Manuel’s building. I knew where he lived from a thousand work forms: one of the beige, identical fourplexes over by the Walmart, in apartment 1A. Which meant Jolene had to be in 2A.
I parked my car, took a deep breath, and climbed the metal outdoor stairs that led up to the second storey. As I climbed, I tried not to think about what I was going to say to her, because just imagining being face to face with her made my heart pound, made me feel dizzy and a little sick, and I didn’t want to chicken out. Instead I focused on each step up the stairs, forced myself to think about how dangerous they must be when it gets icy.
There were lights on in the living room of 2A, and I didn’t know whether I was glad or sorry about that, but either way, I knocked with a hand that only shook a little.
A few seconds later, the door opened, and it was like being hit in the face. She wasn’t how I’d been imagining her. Her hair was different, no longer short, no longer straight. Instead, it fell in soft waves, framing her face. Her eyes were the same brilliant green they’d always been, though. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, and somehow it made her look softer, more touchable. She’d changed, but she was still as beautiful as ever.
No. She was more beautiful than ever.
Her face went from surprise to a big smile. “Stella! Hi!” Her voice was so sweet, and it was hard to believe, listening to her, that she was how I knew she was. That she’d taken everything I ever wanted from me, just because she could. And even then I knew that was an exaggeration, but it was almost not, because I never wanted too much. I was always really careful about that.
“Hi,” I said, and I was proud of how steady my voice was. My years of dealing with angry customers kept me calm and collected seeming, even though my heart was pounding. “Can we talk?”
“Sure,” she said. “Come on in. Can I get you something? I have tea, water, soda. Or, even better, I could open a bottle of wine. I have a nice chardonnay I’ve been wanting to try?” She looked at me hopefully.
I understood, then, how come men found it so difficult to tell her no. I opened my mouth to say I was good, thanks, and what came out was, “Wine would be great.”
Five minutes later, I was sitting on Jolene’s couch, sipping Jolene’s wine, and I felt like things were already spinning out of my control. I tried to refocus. “I heard from Bud – my boyfriend – that you were back in town.”
“Yeah,” she said. “My parents are getting older, and a position opened up. I thought I’d give it a try. It’s weird being back, you know? Everything is the same, but it looks different somehow.”
And I just didn’t know what to say next, how to bring up what I went there to say, so I fell back on my work instincts. “Oh really?” I said, sounding neutral but interested, and took a sip of my wine.
“Yeah,” she said. She laughed. “I know what’s really different is me, though. When you’re grown and you know yourself, your perspective shifts, right?”
I didn’t know. Nothing ever looked any different to me, and I found myself wondering if the problem was me, if I wasn’t grown enough, if I didn’t know myself. But what was there to know? I was just Stella, same as always. “So,” I said, trying to hint my way to the right topic. “Are you seeing anyone?”
Jolene looked away. “No. I was, but we broke up about a year ago. Another reason to move, try a new place. Change of scenery, you know?” She looked rueful, quirking up her mouth a little.
“Oh,” I said. I cleared my throat and said, awkwardly as hell, “I am, though. I’m seeing Bud, like I said.” I could almost hear the screeching of the wheels as I forced the conversation onto a new track.
She just nodded. “I hope you’re happy with him. He seems very … solid.”
I didn’t like that pause, but she was right. Bud was solid. That was what I liked about him. He might not set the bedroom on fire, he might not be the greatest conversationalist, but he was a steady as a rock. “I’m happy enough,” I said firmly.
Her answering smile was big, but for the first time in my life, I could see that it was fake. “I’m glad,” she said, and steered the conversation back off track. “How’s work?”
I let her do it, partly because I was chickening out, and partly because, well, I tried not to talk about work too much to Bud, because he didn’t like to hear complaints and he didn’t think my stories were funny. I didn’t want to complain to Jolene, mostly because I didn’t want her pitying me, but I did tell her my funny customer stories, and pretty soon she was laughing, and not too long later so was I, and then she told me how some of those same people acted at the library, and then I was laughing, too.
A tiny voice in my head was screaming what are you doing? at me, because I was sitting there with Jolene, giggling like we were friends, but mostly I was just enjoying myself. Most of my friends were already married – I’d been in Jessi’s wedding, then Dolores’s, then Candice’s – and they didn’t have a lot of time to just hang out. I realized I missed talking like that.
I was searching for a way to bring up Bud, I really was, but then she said, “So, what do you like to read?”
I took a second to figure out how I wanted to play it: dignity or truth? And then I remembered that I was talking to Jolene. Dignity was never going to be an option. Instead I chose truth, and shrugged. “Trashy books where the heroine ends up with a werewolf or something,” I said. “I’m not fancy. You?”
“You’re plenty fancy,” Jolene said, smiling. “So are you more a Patricia Briggs or a Charlaine Harris person?”
And that was it, we were off, and soon I was making notes in my phone of books she thought I should read, and we were laughing about how much we’d once loved Laurell K. Hamilton, and I was mostly having fun, but also kind of pissed at myself because I was having a good time instead of defending my relationship. So finally I forced myself to do it.
“Do you remember” – I ran through the catalog hastily – “Bryan?”
She went into the kitchen, came back with two glasses of water. “The guy I met at the pool hall with you?”
“Yeah. He broke up with me right after that.” I took a deep breath. “I think. I think he broke up with me because he wanted you. Were you flirting with him that night?”
She sipped her water. “Yes,” she said.
I expected to be angry. I wanted to be angry. Instead, my body went limp with relief, relief that she remembered, that she was admitting it, that this wasn’t all just in my head. It was in her head, too. Which meant there were answers for me. “Why?” I asked her, from where I was slumped in my chair.
She looked at me, blinking, startled. “Because he was an asshole,” she said, like she was surprised I even asked. “He was using you.”
I spent a few seconds thinking about that, trying to think of where to start. I couldn’t dispute the asshole part of it; what had seemed cool and cosmopolitan and sexy to me at 19 looked different ten years later. I finally went with, “Why did you even care?”
She looked directly into my eyes and smiled. “Oh, Stella. I’ve always cared.”
“Was that – was that what was going on with Dustin? With Josh?” I knew better than to mention Brandon.
She laughed a little awkwardly and looked away. “Probably,” she said, and she shrugged. “It took me a while to figure out why I did stuff. What I felt and why I felt it.”
I turned that around in my head a few times, but couldn’t find an angle where it made sense.
“Then why?” I said, and I was embarrassed by how scratchy my voice sounded. “It seemed like every time anyone showed any interest in me, there you were, reminding them they could do better.”
She bit her lip and looked down at her hands. “It was never about them, if that helps.” I made a noise of frustration and confusion, and she took a deep breath. “It was about you,” she said, and when I obviously still didn’t get it, she continued, “I didn’t know why I didn’t want anyone to date you. I didn’t know why I spent so much time thinking about your smile. Then,” and she laughed a little, “I got to college and suddenly it was all really clear.”
I stared at her. “I’m glad it was clear for you, but seriously, what the fuck?”
She buried her face in her hands. “Oh my god, Stella, I don’t know how to spell this out any more than I have. I was into you! I didn’t want those boys to have you because I wanted you myself, and I didn’t know it, or I wouldn’t admit it, anyway, and so I acted like a jerk. I’m sorry,” she added.
I knew I was supposed to say something, but I couldn’t. Every part of my brain was busy reconfiguring, sorting back through the years and changing perspectives on anything. It was like reading a book a second time, when you know who the killer is. Jolene never wanted to take things away from me. She wanted me. Me, Stella, plain and boring and ordinary. She wanted me.
The knowledge hit me like a rum and Coke, like four rum and Cokes. My face went hot, my stomach filled with butterflies, and I felt like I could fly, like I could do anything I wanted.
And, I realized, I wanted. “Jolene,” I said, but she didn’t let me finish.
“Obviously I’m not going to be creepy about it,” she said. “I wasn’t even going to bring it up, except – well, it seems like I wasn’t as subtle as I thought I was, no surprise there, and you deserved an explanation. But it’s fine. I’m happy just being friends with you.”
“I” – don’t want to be friends, I was going to say, but I didn’t want to talk anymore. I wanted – my whole body felt flushed and I was turned toward Jolene like she was sunlight. “I.”
Jolene looked at me consideringly. “Or do you want something other than friends?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and tried to make my uncooperative brain think. But it was busy wanting, wanting in a way I’d never experienced before: not wanting because it was time, or it was expected, or I was supposed to. Just … just wanting.
I said the only thing I could. “I want,” I started, but I couldn’t finish the sentence because there wasn’t anywhere to go from there. I did want, I knew that, but I didn’t know exactly what. So instead I got up and walked towards her, and at first it felt like walking ten miles, but then she met me halfway, and I was touching her shoulder, her face. Kissing her.
She was soft and warm, and her body pressed against mine felt like the only right thing in the world, and when I gasped, she slid her tongue into my mouth and I felt like I was melting.
I pulled away, panting, and said, “I – I can’t. I have a boyfriend.” I thought about him – solid, stable Bud – and my heart sank. “I have to break up with him,” I said, only realizing it when I said it out loud.
“Wait,” Jolene said, and my eyes caught on her mouth, redder now, and it took me a second to focus on what she was saying. “I know – it’s a lot. Take some time, think about what you want.” Her face was flushed and she was a little breathless, and I was the one who did that to her. My whole body went hotter, more liquid, more yearning.
“I already know,” I said. “For once, I really do know. I’m not waiting anymore.”
She put her hand on my cheek and kissed me once, gently, mouth closed. “Do what you need to do,” she said. “And if it takes some time – seriously, this crush has lasted fifteen years, so no rush.”
I looked at her mouth and felt the heat between my legs. “There kind of is,” I said. “But I do have to – do some stuff first. Can I see you tomorrow?”
Jolene smiled. “I’ll be here,” she said.