Loosely based on “Cartwheel” by Lucy Dacus
My hands were still sticky from holding a lemonade-smothered quarter when she told me.
It was the summer of 2013. My best friend Miriam and I lived in a small, unbearably humid North Carolina town. We were entering the 6th grade, and each day we met up to bike aimlessly around town or jump in the town pool. That day, we were selling lemonade for Girl Scouts, as a fundraiser for our troop to go to Savannah, where Girl Scouts was founded. I was enthralled by the idea of this trip. I hadn’t been to Georgia since I had visited my uncle there years earlier and would not shut up about it to my mother.
Miriam and I met on our first day of kindergarten. After clinging to my mother’s leg for nearly an hour, she finally forced me off of her and I went to go sit next to Miriam, who appeared to be awfully confident. She made me feel welcome and safe, and the rest was history. Miriam meant more to me than anyone else in the world. I was never any good at making new friends, but she was different. Miriam and I fit perfectly together. I never got bored talking to her. I wanted to live in her house so every morning I could wake up and spend the whole day with her. Like many best friends, we had a deal that if neither of us had a husband by 35, we would move in together and adopt a daughter and a Bengal cat or two. As horrible as it sounded, I always secretly wished every boy Miriam ever liked would reject her, or she would reject every boy that liked her, so she would have no choice but to live with me and we could grow old together.
The night before our lemonade stand shift, we had been riding our bikes around all day and came back to Miriam’s house for Creamsicles and a movie. I remembered being in 1st grade after a sweaty, loud field day on a raggedy grass field a few blocks away from our school. We ended the day with popsicles, and Miriam and I were the only two students who had picked Creamsicles out of the large assortment our teacher had brought. I always thought of that as a moment that reaffirmed that we were soulmates in one way or another.
We decided to re-watch the Hunger Games that night. I had read all the books and Miriam thought she was going to marry Liam Hemsworth, so it was always an enjoyable watch. We sat sucking on our ice cream and reciting the lines of the movie we had memorized. I always pointed out which parts, to my great dismay, had been changed from the book. Miriam would roll her eyes and laugh. “Lili, you nerd,” she would always lovingly slap my arm. That night, she kept glancing down at her phone in between her favorite scenes. My ever-nosy eyes wandered to her screen, and I saw a string of messages from Henry.
Henry was a boy who went to school with us. He was ginger with bold freckles and considerably shorter than me. Personally, I had never been fond of him. He was horribly immature, not much unlike most of the other boys from school. Once he broke an old swing on the playground by jumping on it. He was sent to the principal’s office for hours and I later saw him crying as his mother took him out of the building, looking like she was about to drag him by the ear. Him and his friends had always passively made fun of me. I wasn’t nearly as pretty as the other girls at my school, I knew that. My brown hair was inconsistently curly and often knotty. I wrote in my diary frequently, lamenting about my awkward tallness or how I wished I had blue eyes. My mom wouldn’t let me get my ears pierced, so my lobes lay bare while every other girl in my class wore golden hoops or butterfly studs. I was bookish. But regardless of how low I might’ve been on the elementary school social totem pole, I always thought of myself as being lightyears of a better, more interesting person than Henry or any of his other friends. And seeing Miriam, more attractive and intelligent and sociable than me, text him confused me.
“Why are you talking to Henry?” I asked, moving in closer to her on the worn-out couch.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged, still staring at her phone. “We’ve been texting.”
“You didn’t tell me that,” I responded. “What are you texting about?”
Her face grew red, and she let out a little smile. “I don’t know, stuff.”
“I don’t know. We just text.” She threw her back against the couch, and we sat there for another moment, Katniss Everdeen yelling in the background. “He wants to hang out, if you wanna come.”
“When?” I asked. “Now?”
Miriam nodded. “Soon. He’s gonna bring some of his friends too, like Jake and Nathan.”
“But we’re watching a movie,” I protested.
“Lillian, we’ve seen this movie a hundred times.”
Miriam suddenly turned nonchalant about one of her self-proclaimed favorite movies of all time. Her addressing me by my full name, Lillian, also caught me off guard. Miriam always called me Lili. She was the only person who ever called me Lili.
“I just don’t really wanna hang out with Henry right now.” I stared at the floor. “Can’t you do it tomorrow?”
“They’re at the park right now though and it’s right down the street,” Miriam explained. “Plus, I think he likes me.”
“Really?” My head shot up.
“Yeah,” Miriam said bashfully. Her cheeks grew red once again. “He texts me a lot. He said I was pretty.”
My stomach suddenly panged with jealousy. Jealousy of Miriam? For being called pretty by Henry? That couldn’t be it. But the feeling happened, and I let it pass through me.
“It’s kind of late.” I began scrambling for excuses. “I think my mom would be mad if I went out right now to go meet boys.”
“She doesn’t have to know,” Miriam replied. Miriam’s parents did not care about what she did. They were both doctors and worked long hours and were simply too tired and overworked to care about Miriam’s whereabouts all the time. My parents were different. They were Baptists; my father is a banker and my mother is a housewife. I was the youngest of four children, with one older sister and two older brothers, and took special care to make sure we were well-behaved, good Christian children. My mother often warned me against being too slutty, whether that was wearing short shorts or giggling too much around a boy. My father once said in an outburst that “anyone who stays out after midnight is a whore.” So I assumed that if they ever found out I snuck out of Miriam’s house at night to go hang out with boys, I would be in deep trouble.
“I’m gonna go home,” I said after a few seconds of deliberation. “I can walk with you there if you want. But I’m gonna go home.”
“You sure?” Miriam asked. “I can cover for you. Or just say you’re sleeping over or something.”
“You know my parents don’t like last minute plans,” I reminded her. “I’m tired anyways.”
Miriam and I stepped out into the finally cool night sky. I took my bike with me and walked it by my side. It occasionally slammed against my already bruised legs. We loved to go on walks at night, especially after spending the whole day in such intense humidity. Sometimes we would race each other down the backroads of our town. Tonight though, we walked in awkward silence down the streets. Usually, I could be silent with Miriam and still feel filled to the brim with noise and laughter. This time felt much emptier. We walked a few blocks until I had to turn left to go home, and she had to keep going straight to get to the park. “Goodnight,” I said. I turned and started walking as she returned my farewell, not wanting to look her in the eyes for some reason.
I walked home overly aware of how silent and lonely the streets were. My bike continued to bang against my legs, and I let it. I felt like crying but the tears wouldn’t come. I had no reason to cry. I imagined my mother seeing me walk in with a blotchy, wet face and telling me to pull it together, or even worse, asking me what was wrong. I reached my house after what seemed like a very long time, placed my bike in the garage, and made quick conversation with my father who was sitting watching a movie alone in the dark of our living room. I did not fall asleep until very late.
The next morning, my mother dropped me off outside the local grocery store. Upon arrival, we both saw Miriam. She wore a black spaghetti strap tank top and ripped light-wash jean shorts. My mother looked at her in disapproval, shook her head, and looked at me as if to silently warn me to never dress in such a way. I got out of the car and she pulled away quickly.
Miriam seemed full of energy and life today, so full of it that I could feel it from over ten feet away. “Hey!” she exclaimed to me as I sat down in the close-to-broken folding chair next to her.
“Hey,” I replied.
“You get home okay?” she asked, adjusting the straps of her tank top.
“Yup,” I answered. After a minute of silence, and only because I felt like she was waiting for me to, I asked, “How was your night?”
Miriam smiled, her cheeks once again turning red. Miriam had a very sweet smile—a little toothy, but very comforting. Usually, it made me smile as well, but I couldn’t for some reason this time. “Um, it was interesting.” She let out a giggle.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I just…” she trailed off, then swiftly turned her body to face mine. “Okay. So, I get there, and Henry is there with Jake and Nathan, and Meg from school. Did you know Meg and Nathan are dating?” I shook my head. “Oh, well they are. Anyways, they were just kinda sitting around in the park and I sat with them for a while, then Henry asked if I wanted to go on a walk.”
“Did you go?” I hoped the answer was no. I picked up a quarter that was sitting on the folding table. It was sticky from lemonade someone had spilled. I placed it in between the palms of my sweaty hands and played with it to avoid looking at Miriam for too long.
“Yeah,” she replied. “And we walked around the block for a while, and then we stopped and sat on the curb for a minute, and, uh…” She laughed again.
“What?” I tried my hardest to show indifference to whatever she thought was so entertaining. I felt my stomach begin to churn in fear of what she would say next.
“And then we kissed.” Miriam bashfully lowered her head and giggled into her hand.
All at once, I felt a sensation similar but far worse than the one I had felt the night before. A sock in the gut that evolved into tingly nausea in the chest. I could feel the blood shooting to my head and my face felt cold and warm all at once. If I was standing, I think I would’ve lost my balance. I profusely played with the quarter. “What?” I let out.
“Henry and I kissed,” Miriam repeated, either not noticing the look on my face or blatantly ignoring it. After I did not respond, she added “It was just a little kiss. But it was wet. Like really wet. And I could feel his teeth. Did you know that you feel someone’s teeth when you kiss them?”
“Well, no,” I answered. “But that sounds disgusting. I don’t know why you would do that.”
Miriam’s silky black hair shone in the sun as she looked for a response to my apparent disgust. I found myself suddenly annoyed at how it never frizzed up in the Southern humidity, how it was always so perfect and beautiful, and how I almost wanted to run my hands through it.
“Because I like him,” she laughed in a way that felt slightly condescending. “And when you like a boy, it’s fun to kiss him. I mean, he kissed me first. But I kissed him back.”
I didn’t get it. She could’ve explained it to me a million times and I don’t think I would’ve ever gotten it. I had never looked at a boy and felt the urge to put my mouth on his. In fact, I thought it would be quite gross, especially now that I knew there were teeth involved for some reason. “I mean, it’s fine, I guess,” I replied eventually.
“Are you mad that I kissed someone?” Miriam asked.
“I- I’m not mad,” I stammered, “I just… don’t get it, I guess.”
“Sorry that a boy likes me and I like him.” Miriam looked away as she said this, knowing it would probably hurt my feelings.
“Do you think I’m jealous of you?” Miriam shrugged and barely nodded. “Well, I’m not. I said I don’t care. I just don’t want you to start spending all your time with Henry. You’re my best friend and I think I would be mad if you started choosing a boy over me.”
“I’m not going to choose a boy over you,” she defended herself. “I just might hang out with him sometimes instead of you if he asks me to be his girlfriend.”
“Is he going to do that?” I turned my head quickly, the tingling nausea rising and consuming my entire body. “Ask you to be his girlfriend?”
“Well, I hope so.” Miriam sheepishly smiled into the distance.
I felt like I was about to throw up. I swallowed down the sensation occurring in my throat and felt hot tears forming in my eyes. I turned away from Miriam and squeezed them shut. I sat like that for a while.
“Are you okay?” Miriam put her hand on my back after an unknown amount of time.
“I’m gonna go home.” I stood up fast, not making eye contact with her. “I feel sick. But I can walk, it’s not that far.” Without any more deliberation, I began to leave the grocery store parking lot, my grey Converse stomping on the scorching pavement. I think I heard Miriam call out for me, but by the time I had reached the sidewalks, I was so consumed with trying to not make myself sob in public, I couldn’t hear anything except for the empty carousel of thoughts flying through my head.
When I was far enough out of town, I sat on the curb of a street I was vaguely familiar with. I crouched down as fast as possible and buried my face in my hands. They were still sticky from the lemonade-drenched quarter, but now were also drenched with sweat from walking with clenched fists in the North Carolina sun. Between the never-ending flow of angry tears and this, my face was quickly a mess. The sun had started setting, enough so that people could hopefully not see the details of my face from too far away. I didn’t want anyone to see me because crying was embarrassing, but I also had no idea how I would explain to someone why I was crying so hard. My best friend kissed a boy and might have a boyfriend soon. That happens to everyone at some point. I probably should’ve been happy, but I had no idea how or why to do that. I was going to lose Miriam to a boy. I wanted Miriam for myself. I didn’t understand her need for a boyfriend. What could she do with a boy that she couldn’t with me? We were supposed to be together forever. I found myself suddenly wishing she was here so I could hold her and never let go. Maybe in a possessive way, but also in the way that I wanted to protect her, and I wanted her to protect me, and I wanted my face to be in her silky hair. I wanted her to run to me right now and tell me that I was right, that boys suck, that I would be all she ever needed. I had no idea if these feelings were “normal” or not. I don’t think I cared in the moment. I just wanted her to come and sit beside me and never leave.
I didn’t leave my house much for the next few days. Miriam would call my house phone each morning to ask me to come out and ride my bike with her, but I always told my mom I was nauseous and wanted to rest. I sat in my room and reread the books on my shelf. I never touched The Hunger Games series. I doodled in my diary, unable to specify the feelings I was having enough to write them down. I stared at the wall as I played melodramatic songs on my iPod touch. I cried a few more times. Those days were bleak, maybe the bleakest I had known in my 11 years of life.
After about four days of this, there was a knock on my door around 2 pm. It was horribly humid that day and the sky was filled with looming greyish-bluish clouds, sure-fire signs of an oncoming thunderstorm. My mother opened the door and called for me. I felt a shock of sorts run through my body. I looked out my window and saw the top of Miriam’s head. My mother called for me again, and I reluctantly began to go downstairs.
When I reached the door, my mother walked away, and Miriam and I stood there alone.
“Hey,” she awkwardly grinned. She was wearing a grey tee–shirt from the softball team she was on and pink athletic shorts. As usual, her hair was perfect. Despite this, her green eyes portrayed sadness and confusion.
“Hi.” I responded, standing awkwardly at the door.
“Wanna go for a walk?” Miriam asked.
“It’s about to rain.” I nodded towards the overcast sky.
“Not for an hour, maybe.” She protested. “I just wanna talk. Just the two of us.”
I felt a pang in my ribs. I stood there for another second and then nodded. “Let me get my shoes.”
After a prolonged shoe tying, I told my mother I was headed out for a bit. I walked back to the door and stepped outside. Miriam shut the door behind me. We walked in silence until we reached the sidewalk, me being a few steps ahead of her.
“Did I do something?” Miriam asked. “I’m sorry if I did.”
I kept walking, not knowing what to say. “You didn’t really do anything. I’m just in a weird mood, that’s all.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I answered. I still didn’t know, honestly. “I think I was just shocked that you kissed Henry.”
“Why were you shocked?” Miriam clearly did not get it.
“Because, just, I don’t know. I don’t like him that much, you know that. I’ve told you that. Sorry if that hurts your feelings, but I don’t. And I don’t know, just… I think it’s weird that you might start putting someone else above me.”
“I’m not gonna put him above you.” She attempted to reassure me. “I was gonna tell you that he asked me to be his girlfriend. But clearly you don’t like him, so I don’t think it matters much.”
The tingly nausea returned. Tears sprung to my eyes again. I stopped walking abruptly. Miriam turned to face me. “What?” she asked.
“I don’t know!” I exclaimed through tears, which were starting to pour down my sunburnt cheeks. “I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m acting like this.” I sat down on the curb, taking a similar position to the one I did the day of the lemonade stand.
Miriam sat down next to me. “I’m not gonna leave you, Lili.” She was the only one who called me that. “It’s just… I’m allowed to have a best friend and a boyfriend. I’m allowed to love people in a friend way and in a different way.”
“Why can’t I be both?” I burst. Miriam looked at me strangely.
“What does that mean?” she asked, a confused look on her face.
“I don’t…” I stuttered. “I didn’t mean it in a… I just mean why can’t you loving me as your best friend be enough? You’re enough for me.”
Miriam sat, staring at the road. Drops from the sky were beginning the stain the street, one every few seconds. “I don’t know why you’re always so weird about boys.”
“What do you mean, weird about boys?”
“Like,” she paused for a second. “Everyone else our age talks about boys. And I try to talk to you about boys sometimes, but you shut it down so fast. I didn’t tell you about Henry because I thought you would be weird about it. And clearly, I was right, so maybe I just shouldn’t have said anything.”
I sat there silently, considering her point. It was true, I didn’t like to talk about boys. I just didn’t care enough to give the subject much attention. “Sorry,” I laughed in a snarky tone. “I just don’t care about them that much.”
Miriam sat there for a minute, playing with her shoelaces. “Can I ask you something? And can you promise not to get mad?” I nodded. She gulped, then said—“Do you like boys? Like, at all?”
I glanced up at her. “What do you mean?” I responded. Although, I think I already knew.
“Like… I mean, my parents told me about, um, you know… boys who like boys and girls who like girls and stuff,” Miriam said. “I don’t know if your parents ever did. I know it’s not something people like them like to talk about, and-”
“Are you asking if I’m a lesbian?” I cut her off. To be honest, I didn’t really know what a lesbian was. I once had seen two girls kissing when my family took a trip to New York City and my mother grabbed my shoulders and turned me away swiftly. Every time a segment on the news featured streets full of rainbow flags protesting one thing or another, my father grabbed the remote and turned the television off as fast as he could. Miriam was right, my parents didn’t like to talk about these things. Any feelings I had around the topic were that being a lesbian or gay or anything like that was that bad and I shouldn’t do it, or else my parents might try to hide me away the way they hid all other gay people away from me.
“I guess,” Miriam finally replied. “It’s just… you know, my parents talked to me about it. My dad has a gay cousin, so I guess they thought I should know. They don’t really care about that kind of stuff. But once they asked me if I liked you, like in a crush way, just because we spend so much time together. And I said no, I like boys. And then my mom asked if you liked me, and I said no but…” she trailed off. “Do you? In a crush way?”
I didn’t know what to say. The betrayal I felt from Miriam’s mother, who practically was my second mother, was unbearable. Why would she assume that? Why would anyone? I didn’t know if there was any truth to what she had said. I guess I hadn’t really thought about it before then because no one had ever given me a reason to. I started to think about the times my mother had told me what love feels like. She always said it was a feeling of wanting to be with the person all the time, and having the person feel like home to you. Wanting to protect them and wanting them to protect you. Always wanting the best for the person you loved. I mentally checked off all those boxes for the way I felt about Miriam. But my feelings still made no sense to me.
“I don’t think I know.” I finally answered, a silent tear slipping out of my puffy eyes. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“I want you to tell me the truth.” Miriam quickly replied.
“Well, I don’t know the truth.” I snapped back at her. “You just asked me if I was a lesbian, and if I was in love with you. I barely even know what a lesbian is. Why is your mom even asking you that?”
“It’s not in a bad way,” Miriam responded. “She just didn’t know. And I don’t care if you’re a lesbian.”
“Well, do you care if I like you?” I cried back, utterly confused by this conversation.
“I mean, I- I don’t feel that way about you.” Miriam looked down and played with her shoelaces once again. “So, it would be kind of weird, I guess, yeah.”
My brain swirled again, but it was almost too hot to think, and the rain was beginning to come down harder. It had somehow never occurred to me before this moment that my feelings towards Miriam might be something more than friendship. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do about that. It had been made very clear to me by everyone around me that this would be a bad thing. An evil thing. Maybe even a thing that would send me to hell. I couldn’t handle all of that at once. I always wanted Miriam close to me. But in that moment, I felt the sudden urge to be alone.
“Can you leave?” I asked her quietly without looking up.
“I wanna talk more.” She replied.
“It’s starting to rain,” I responded. “I think you should go.”
She picked herself up off the pavement and wiped dirt off her shorts. “Okay, well, goodbye Lili. Tell me when you’re ready to talk again.”
I didn’t respond. She walked away, the rain beginning to wet her hair and make it even darker than its already jet-black tone. I shoved my head between my knees and watched as the rain painted the street with little dots until it covered the charcoal in its entirety. My shirt was soaked. I could get sick. I did not care.
I had a lot to think about.