If you’d told me before that fall that I was going to become inseparable from a girl I wasn’t hooking up with, I would have said you were crazy. I was not the type of guy who was meant to have a boy-girl friendship. I played pickup basketball. I lifeguarded at the temple day camp in the summer. When I was stuck at home for too long, I ate too much ice cream and played video games. There was nothing arty or emo about me.
What happened was we both had a late schedule on Tuesdays and one day we ended up taking the same subway home. I knew who Maddie was—new kids were like celebrities at our school—but we hadn’t officially met and I doubted she recognized me, so I just put on my headphones. She came over and sat next to me and started talking to me about the election. Not even an introduction or a bit of small talk before she was telling me how she and her friend Emily were going to spend a night in Ohio so they could knock on doors and spread the gospel.
I’d just had a flu shot and wasn’t in the mood to chat, but we ended up having a pretty heady conversation about the electoral college and Bruce Springsteen, who she said was a model celebrity. I didn’t entirely know what she was getting at, but she seemed impressed when I told her I’d seen him play at Madison Square Garden. I didn’t tell her that I was six at the time, and that the thing I remembered most vividly was the cheese nachos Uncle Nick bought for me. The next thing I knew, we were spending every lunch period together and texting constantly. I never would have pegged somebody who looked like Maddie for a loner, but she had fewer friends at school than I did. She said the girls in our grade never invited her to do things with them. She told me other stuff, too. More than I bet Dr. R had ever heard. I’d heard all sorts of things about Dr. R, like how he made her keep a mood journal and he’d once snored during a session even though his eyes were still open.
The air in the office was thick with old plant smell. I flipped the pages of my book at a rate I hoped seemed convincing and tried to keep myself calm. The last time I’d been forced to come and talk about a problem in front of somebody was in sixth grade, when I got in trouble for squirting Elmer’s glue into David Feiler’s trombone and the principal called my parents.
Maybe Maddie wanted to apologize for how rude she’d been acting. This could be my chance to tell her about Topher. The fact that she didn’t know made me a little sick.
Normally all the stuff about my brother is one of the first things to come up when I become friends with somebody. Everyone—neighbors, teachers, coaches—they all knew. Not Maddie. I guess I liked having a refuge in her. After 11 years at the same tiny school, you get tired of everyone being up in your business.
I came close to telling her the weekend before the sweatshirt incident. Maddie needed a winter coat and had asked me to come shopping with her at Paragon, where Dad always took me to buy basketball shoes during their winter sale. She had me sit in a chair in the hiking department while she modeled half a dozen options, spinning around and pulling zippers up and down while hordes of shoppers tried on boots. Maddie wasn’t just beautiful—there was something else going on, something that dog-whistled just below the surface. When we walked down the street together, people did double-takes all the time.
She looked equally great in everything she tried on, but I pretended to have something different to say about each of the options. “You’re just messing with me,” she said after I’d told her that a jacket was “very charming.” I’d actually meant it, but it was true I had no idea what I was talking about. She bought the jacket I had most vociferously come down against, a bright yellow down one, just to prove she didn’t believe a word of what I’d been saying.
We walked outside and it was one of those days that make it easy to understand why so many people say fall is their favorite season. A chill rode the air and the sun was beating down so hard I had to squint.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you want to come over for dinner later? You still haven’t met my family.”
“I met Uncle Nick,” she said.
“Not my parents. I’m making butternut squash tacos. I got really good at them when I was a vegetarian.” I rocked forward on my feet. “You should come.”
I must have sounded like I was planning on asking her to marry me, because she just grinned coyly and said maybe. She texted later and neglected to mention the dinner invitation. She just told me that she was going to a party at Marion Yagoda’s, and I should meet her there.
Marion’s place was a madhouse when I showed up. A bunch of senior guys were drinking a bottle of red wine that probably cost the Yagodas a hundred dollars and Tom Northrup and Johnny Mazuno were rearranging the paintings on the wall.
“Boarding school parties were never this fun,” Maddie said when I found her. “Or this spazzy.” She used her chin to gesture at Leon Yagoda, who was trying to hoist Denise Fuchs in the air. He was wearing a polo shirt that exposed the new biceps he must have picked up on the Kenyon crew team. It was always funny to see how people made themselves over when they went away to school. If I came back from college a little different, I hoped it wouldn’t feel so forced.
“That’s Marion’s brother,” I said.
“I know, he already introduced himself,” she said. “He said I had beautiful skin. Who says that?” She wrinkled her nose.
“A dermatologist…who doesn’t want the business?”
Maddie giggled. “Do they not have girls to bother at college?”
“He used to be kind of a loser,” I said. “I guess he wants a second chance.”
A smile creeped up on Maddie’s face as she raised a chipped Brooklyn Museum mug to her mouth.
I went to the kitchen to find my own drink. When I came back out, I saw something that stun-gunned me. Maddie was talking to Angus Finegold, one of the most repulsive people on earth. He and I hadn’t spoken since freshman year, and neither of us was looking to change that. When I joined them it was like a stare-off, except without any eye contact. We only addressed Maddie, and we were careful not to bump up against each other. When he’d come back from getting a refill, that would be my cue to wait on the bathroom line. When I’d return, he’d float over to another group. And so forth.