Read an Excerpt
Arnold: WHEN WE WERE FRIENDS
In high school I came up with fifty-eight ways in which Sydney might die. I wrote them in a spiral notebook, numbered them, even illustrated the possibilities that pleased me most.
• Number 18: Stomach penetration by swallowed toothpick.
• Number 24: Curling iron electrocution.
• Number 37: Asphyxiation under sewage.
Etcetera, etcetera, all written in angry black Sharpie. But high school—even when it resembles the seventh circle of hell—is only temporary. Eventually I’d burned the notebook, and in the years after, I’d tried to see Sydney as just an unfortunate chapter in an otherwise not-so-bad life; something I could look back on coolly, thinking only how we’d both had a lot of growing up to do. Tried but apparently had not succeeded, seeing as I was now in the bathtub, digging my fingers into a bar of soap in an attempt to clean the paint embedded under my nails. Not wanting the dung-colored ridges to detract from the gleam of my fake engagement ring. Which, yeah. I know.
But today, for the first time in eighteen years, I was going to see Sydney again.
Sydney and I had been best friends since the second grade when she moved from Petaluma to Newport News, Virginia. We were best friends because we both needed glasses to see the board, which when we were seven was enough of a reason. Also because we both sucked at gym, and because neither of us had a father.
I remember her entering our classroom, escorted by Vice Principal Brooks, her reddish-blond hair lit from behind like the haloes in paintings of saints. Her Danskin pants were an inch too short and her T-shirt collar frayed, but still she beamed at us, turning her head loftily right and left as if expecting admiration.
I think the other kids sensed her desperation, because they mostly stayed away. But I felt bad for her and so that afternoon, seeing her standing alone at recess, I approached her. “My name’s Lainey,” I said. “I’m in your class.”
She eyed me warily, didn’t speak.
“I like your glasses,” I said. “They’re cool.”
In retrospect they weren’t cool, pink cat’s eye frames studded with rhinestones. But on Sydney they looked fierce somehow, gave her a tigress edge—a taste of what would, in later years, turn into sexiness.
“Want to try them?” she said, then plucked the plain, oversized tortoiseshell glasses off my nose and replaced them with hers.
I felt a sudden dizzy nausea—Sydney was farsighted and I was horribly nearsighted—followed by a wave of hilarity as I looked over the blurred playground. “I’m blind! I’m blind!”
She slipped on my glasses and snorted. “Your glasses suck.”
“Can you walk?” I said. “Pretend this, pretend this. Pretend we’re on a tightrope and there’s sharks under us, so if we don’t walk straight we’ll die.”
So that was how we spent the next half hour, arms splayed, drunkenly wobbling heel to toe across the macadam, howling whenever we stumbled to convey the agony of death-by-shark-attack. And when the bell rang to call us back inside, we exchanged glasses and I turned to her and smiled. “Want to be friends?”
She studied my face a moment, then gave a short nod. “Okay,” she said. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It wasn’t long before the other kids stopped trying to penetrate the wall we built around our friendship. We did everything together, got A’s in language arts and D’s in math, grew overbites and whiteheads on our chins. The years went by without anybody especially liking us or hating us, or paying much attention to us at all, which was okay because we had each other, and having one best-best friend is all anyone needs.
But when we were fifteen, Sydney saw an optometrist, an orthodontist, and a dermatologist all in six months, the same six months that I stopped growing and didn’t stop eating. That was the beginning of the worst year of my life.
Maybe I should’ve realized the sort of person Sydney would become; in retrospect the signs were everywhere. But of course I’d only been seven, a reckless, cavalier age, and at the time everything about her had seemed mysterious, from her red hair to her fascination with Fantasy Island. That this mysterious creature would want to be my friend was, in itself, mysterious, and I hadn’t let myself look any further than my own gratitude.
What would it be like to be seven again? To feel the magic of nightly baths, of plastic cups and propeller boats and the honey- floral smell of Breck shampoo, hair that floated a halo at my shoulders, Like a mermaid! Star would say, and I’d picture myself as Esther Williams in her scaly bathing suit.
But I’d lost all sense of that seven-year-old body. Today my head swam in the heat, and even under the water I could feel a furry coat of sweat. You didn’t sweat at seven, or if you did you didn’t care. You could slide from one end of the tub to the other on your butt until the water drained to a slippery sheen. Seven was good and I should’ve appreciated it more. I should’ve learned how to cartwheel and climbed some trees, and chased boys around the playground while that was still socially acceptable. But it was too late now; I couldn’t go back again, not even in this little way.
Ironic, then, that my feelings about seeing Sydney today were the same at thirty-six as they had been at sixteen passing her in the hall, her glance like a physical force wringing my insides with nausea, terror and behind it all—pathetically—hope.
She was working in an occult shop of all places, Six of Swords. When I’d called the shop last month to order candles and root powders and amulets for my mother, I’d recognized her voice immediately. After a minute of stunned silence I’d slammed the phone down and never called again. But last week when the owner contacted me to see if I’d consider doing a mural, I’d decided to think of it as fate and . . . a learning experience. “Well what a surprise,” I’d say when I saw her. It would have to be spoken with the right mix of nonchalance and sarcasm, and then I’d shrug and turn away like I had better things to do.
I pulled myself from the tub, screwing my face against the groaning in my knees. The reality of baths is always a little disappointing, but you tend to forget the disappointment when you aren’t actually in one. I didn’t know why I even bothered to take baths anymore, except that they seemed like they should be a good idea, like if I just knew how to do them right they would, in a New-Agey way, bring peace.
I dressed in a black skirt, a little dressy but not too dressy, a little slimming, but not enough. I look better without clothes on. It’s an unfortunate fact, since people don’t usually see me without clothes. But the way I’m built, muscular and curvy smooth, like something sculpted out of clay that’s a little too wet for precise sculpting, the clothes manage to drape themselves in such a way that you’d think my belly starts where my breasts end, and my head looks too small for my shoulders. I’ve read lots of articles on vertical stripes and A-lines and bias cuts, but the conclusion I’ve come to is that for my body type, the only way to emphasize the good points would be to strip and show them in all their glory. Not acceptable in most situations, so usually I’ll just wear black, which is what the articles recommend for almost everybody anyway.
I combed my hair back into a chignon, decided it was too much and combed it forward again, then took out the ring I’d bought. A gumball-machine sort of ring, gold-painted with a plastic diamond the size of North Dakota, but it’d look real enough for this one day. I smiled into the mirror, showing my teeth. I had good teeth. Excellent teeth. Anyone would be jealous of these teeth.
“Lainey!” Star called.
I tilted my face to the ceiling. “What!”
There was no answer. I started for Star’s bedroom. “What?”
She was in bed with her incense dish, her head propped on pillows. She cupped her hand over the burning stick and blew, a patchouli cloud veiling her face and obscuring the smile lines so that with her rounded cheekbones and wide eyes she looked twenty. My mother had been truly beautiful once but now she was sallow, gaunt, as if she’d spent the past decade trapped inside a dark box. Which, in effect, she had. “Mmmm, aren’t you pretty today,” she said. “Why you all dressed up?”
“I’m not.” I pulled up the blinds, waving away the smoke. “You want something?”
“You didn’t say good morning.”
“You were asleep.”
“You’re full of crap; I’ve been up since six. I know when I’m being avoided.” She smiled and nodded at the desk. “Bills’re done, you can take them out. Oh, and when you get a chance next day or two, I could use a barber.” She pulled her hair into her face and wrinkled her nose. “I look like Cousin It.”
It had been over twenty years that I’d been cutting my mother’s hair. I wondered if she even realized women had long ago decided their hair was too precious for barbers. I pulled a brush from her nightstand and sat on her bed, began brushing the hair back from her forehead. “I’ll do it tonight. Actually, I’m on my way out to an occult shop if you want anything. They’re looking for someone to do their walls, and I was thinking of some kind of Druid theme.”
“An occult shop? How fun is that! Which one?”
I hesitated a second. But there was no reason not to tell her; she wouldn’t remember it was Sydney’s store. “It’s called Six of Swords.”
Star pulled away. “Six of Swords? You mean Sydney’s store?”
My shoulders stiffened. I focused on pulling loose hairs from her brush, holding them to the light to see whether there was any blond left. Seemed like recently it had all gone white. “It’s not Sydney’s, Ma, she just happens to work there. I’m bringing over my portfolio.”
Star nodded slowly. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
I made a face. “I’m sure the Lord has better things to do. If I’m lucky they’ll have me painting at night and Sydney won’t even be there.”
She kept nodding. “Would you get me my cards?”
“I don’t want a reading.”
“And I don’t want wrinkles or drooping boobs. Don’t be difficult. At her best that girl is unpredictable. At her worst, she’s dangerous.” She said this last in a jovial whisper.
“I’m not sixteen anymore, Ma.”
“You are.” She thumped her chest as she rose. “In here you’re like me, we’re both sixteen.” She pulled a red velvet cloth from her top dresser drawer, unfolded it and handed the deck forward.
The cards were old and yellowed with age, their edges smudged and worn. I’d bought her three new packs before I finally gave up trying. It was Star’s belief that age and use had made the cards more powerful, engrained their connection to the spirit world. Before the pack had been Star’s it had belonged to my grandmother, who’d used it in county fairs and then, once she’d established a loyal customer base, in private readings at her parlor in Roanoke. (Rumor had it that my grandmother had done readings for the likes of Lady Bird Johnson and Elvis, but more than likely the stories were just Nana Sterling’s imagination at work, because really what would Elvis be doing in Roanoke?)
“Shuffle,” Star said. I knew the drill, had known it since childhood, shuffle, cut the deck and stack, shuffle, cut the deck and stack. She’d made a living from her readings back when I was a kid; mostly women, all unsatisfied with marriage, job and children (or lack thereof), who’d confessed their problems while I listened from behind the closed door.
Her clients had dwindled—due, I suspected, to a number of faulty readings—down to seven women who treated the readings like therapy. So with nothing else to take her time, Star had turned all her attention onto me.
With every new year in school, every trip to the doctor, every trek to the swimming pool or sledding hill, anywhere something might possibly go wrong, there was a reading. And as Star grew more afraid of the outside world, the readings became an everyday ordeal. As if laying the future out on the table could protect me from it, in the same way holing herself behind closed doors protected her from what might lie on the other side.
“So this here represents the central issue between you,” Star said, laying a card face up. She raised her eyebrows and dealt three more cards on each side: the Relationship Spread. “Well,” she said. “Well.”
“So what is it?” I tried not to sound indulgent.
Star rolled her eyes meaningfully. “Very strange is all.” She traced her fingers over the center card. “Three of Swords represents betrayal, being cheated by someone you trust. And here’s the Tower card.” She pointed to the crumbling tower, animals leaping from its roof. “Which means a shake-up, unexpected change. This here is Sydney, the Magician, and it’s reversed, which means she’s a manipulator, intoxicated with her own power.” She glanced at me, looking vaguely amused. “Which I guess we already know. And this is you, the Eight of Cups, which means an injury to your heart. Which all sounds bad, but this here is the Ten of Cups which signifies bliss, things unfolding exactly the way they should.”
She laid another card on top of the center card, and her face froze. Death. I used to freak myself out with that card when I was a kid, the black-caped man with his scepter, dismembered limbs at his feet. I used to sneak into Star’s room and pull it out from the deck, then stare at it, my insides squirming, for as long as I could stand to look. I raised my eyebrows. “So I’m gonna kill her?”
Star gathered the cards, slipping Death to the center of the deck before she looked up into my eyes. “Wouldn’t blame you if you did,” she said.