“Really?” I was a bit shocked that they had such an interest in me, but I thought about what Laurie had told me once, when she was explaining why she didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. The world isn’t against you, Deb. It’s only your imagination.
They nodded. “I’ll call her,” I said.
I took a moment to be sure no one was coming. We weren’t supposed to be making personal calls on the store phone during business hours, but at that moment, I didn’t care. The more I thought about it, if I talked to Mother now, I could avoid actually having to interact with her at home. I might just have to meet Jay in my uniform, but so be it.
They continued eating their ice cream and chatting amongst themselves as I dialed the phone. After two rings, she picked up. “Hello?”
“It’s me,” I said.
“Debbie.” She seemed out of breath, flustered. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m going over to Laurie’s house tonight, okay?” I’d never exactly told Mother that we weren’t on speaking terms, and recently she’d asked me why Laurie hadn’t been over to the house in a while.
“It’s late. And we still have a lot to do for tomorrow.”
“You have a lot to do,” I said. “I didn’t want to have this barbecue. I shouldn’t have to help you.” Alex and Sasha watched me, starting to laugh.
“Deborah Gail,” she snapped.
“I’m not asking for your permission, I’m telling you.” I could hear her fuming. “I’ll be back later.” Then, I hung up the phone.
I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. For a long time I’d wanted to stand up to her, and I couldn’t believe that I actually had. The girls were beaming, their laughter playful.
“We’re proud of you, Debbie,” Alex said.
“She’s going to be so mad,” I replied.
“She’ll be okay,” Sasha said.
I saw it was 8:35. I needed to start closing. I told them this, and they said they’d wait. They continued talking amongst themselves. Something about someone named Helen and some grocery store clerk she’d flirted with and how it was so obvious that he’d had it bad for Helen and had never slept with anyone before. I was a bit shocked that they were talking so openly about sex.
By this time, they’d finished their ice cream, and they turned to me. “So where exactly are we going?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” they both with a giggle. Then, out of nowhere, they started singing The Doors’ “Love Street”. I watched them, uncomfortable. They motioned for me to join them.
“I don’t know the song well enough,” I said.
“Why not?” Sasha asked.
“My mom thinks Jim Morrison represents the worst of our generation,” I said.
“Your mom is wrong,” Alex responded. “But that’s okay, we’ll change that.”
Soon enough it was nine, and the store was closed. The heat, for a brief moment, was welcome. I started to get my bike off the rack as they gestured towards their car, a red Chevrolet with Wyoming plates. “Leave your bike here,” Alex instructed. I hesitated. “Come on, no one’s going to steal it.”
I knew she was right. I got in the back seat. In the back of my mind, there was a brief moment of hesitation, of knowing something about this situation wasn’t quite right. But in that moment, it was a call to something different. To something exciting.
Alex got in the driver's seat and Sasha in the passenger’s. Immediately as we began to drive, Sasha turned on the radio. She turned back to me. “What kind of music do you like?” She asked me.
“Um,” I said. “Elvis is good. And I like the Beatles.”
As Alex began to drive, Sasha started flipped through the radio. She lingered on a news channel about the Apollo mission, which was due to depart in a week and a half for the moon. It was secretly something that I wanted to listen to, but I didn’t want them to think I was weird. I had a feeling they were people who thought the entire thing was a waste of money and resources. Even if I thought it was amazing that a man could land on the moon in a few short days, I wasn’t about to say anything now. They eventually settled on Peter Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. It wasn’t what I would have expected, but it was a nice, relaxing song for the late night drive.
Even though I’d lived in Lincoln my whole life, I felt like the drive was one of the first times that I’d really noticed the city. I’d always felt like it was boring, but its empty streets had a quiet peace to them. For a few minutes, no one spoke, and I lost myself in the music. It didn’t take long before the angular outlines of buildings faded into fields. The midwest had to be the most boring part of the country, geographically.
“Are you guys from Wyoming?” I asked. I didn’t know much about it other than Yellowstone was there, so it was probably prettier.
“Oh, no,” said Sasha. “Why do you ask?”
“The license plate.”
“No, we’re not from Wyoming," Alex said.
There was a moment of awkward silence. “We’re probably just in time for the fire,” Sasha said, changing the subject.
We turned onto a dirt path, and I noticed the faint outline of an encampment. One tent, a few sleeping bags, and a fire pit. There were a few sparse trees and a gentle stream. “Are you allowed to camp here?” I asked.
The girls both shrugged. “No one’s said anything to us yet,” Alex said. “We aren’t hurting anyone.”
As we got closer and parked, I noticed a light emanating from the tent. There was also the figure of a young woman sitting by one of the sleeping bags. She was reading a book and put it down and came to meet us. She was very beautiful; long, honey-blonde hair, wide blue eyes, perfect skin. I thought of my own frizzy hair, pored face, and uneven eyebrows. It wasn’t fair. She’d probably never had an intrusive thought about her looks in her life. How could she? She turned to Alex and Sasha.
“How was town?” She asked.
“Good,” Sasha said. “We got ice cream.” They gestured to me. “And we met Debbie.”
The young woman turned to me and smiled. Perfect teeth, of course. “I’m Helen,” she said.
“Debbie.” We shook hands.
“Jay’s in his tent. I’ll tell him you’re back.” She gestured towards the fire pit, which had a pile of kindling next to it. “We got the fire started.”
“I can tell him,” Alex said. Before anyone could react or say anything further, Alex began towards the tent. Sasha started to laugh and then bit her lip, and the three of us formed a small circle. Just then, I noticed the starry night sky. Between it and the calm of the field and the river, I had to admit it all was beautiful.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alex lean down in front of the tent, talking to someone who I couldn’t see. Then, she entered it. I said nothing, and looked back towards Helen and Sasha. Helen noticed my uniform.
“Do you work at Baskin Robbins?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
Just then, Alex emerged, followed by a man. I quite sure what I’d been expecting, but this wasn’t it. I supposed he was handsome, but he seemed old. He approached us, all of the sudden I felt his eyes on me. “Who’s this?” He asked. I was discomforted by the intensity of his gaze, but only because no boy had ever looked at me like that before. The only boy I wanted to look at me like that was Ken Arnold, but to this day he and I had never spoken. But then again, Jay wasn’t a boy.
“I’m Debbie,” I stammered.
I nodded. For a moment I wondered how he knew, but I supposed that most Debbies were really Deborahs so it wasn’t a big leap. Then, he turned the girls, specifically to Helen. “We’ll be there in a minute.” They all seemed to understand and went over to the fire. From the corner of my eye, I could see them beginning to get it started. Jay stepped closer towards me. “What brings you to us, Deborah?” The feeling of being close to him made my body react in ways that I didn’t fully understand.
“I’m, um, Alex and Sasha… they…” I supposed that something about him made me forget how to speak. I felt my gaze shift away from his. A mere moment later, I felt his hand on my chin, forcing our eyes to meet again.
“You have such beautiful eyes,” he said. “But no one’s going to know if you never look at them.”
I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” I finally managed.
I heard chatter in the distance and became aware that the girls had begun to talk amongst themselves. But the moment I began to turn away, his hand pulled me back. “Don’t worry about them right now,” he said. “What matters is us.”
I said nothing, and he must have sensed my discomfort.
“What’s wrong?” He asked. “Why so tense?”
“I don’t know, um, I don’t know.” Nothing I was saying was making any sense.
“Relax,” he said, gently rubbing my shoulders. Even though he was being awfully forward, I didn’t mind it, and in fact I welcomed the attention. I was just unused to it. "I’m glad you’ve joined us tonight,” he said, gesturing towards the fire. He stepped forward, and extend his hand. I took it, aware that the eyes of the others were on me.