I’ll never forget the very first thing she said to me. She said, “Shoes sink. New plan: set A-list dove wings in curl?” On second thought, maybe she said, “Blue-pink toucan wet, hurray! This loving the world?” It also could have been, “You think you can get away with shoving a girl?” It was kind of hard to hear because my testicles were aching from a recent, enthusiastic kick, and dirt was being shoved into my mouth.
Twenty years ago, at the age of seven, I had a gang. My lieutenant was Hakim, a master thief who could get anywhere. My thug was Angelo, who was tall and kind of chubby and therefore intimidating. Rounding us out was my cousin Banjo. Banjo was younger than the rest of us and pretty useless, but he wasn’t annoying, so we let him hang around. If we were a miniature mafia, I was the miniature godfather. Hakim stole what I told him to, Angelo threatened who I told him to, and Banjo stayed out of my way when I said so.
One afternoon, Angelo were hanging out at the school playground, and we saw a girl our age sitting on our swings. I wasn’t having that, so I sent him over to push her off. The fact that she landed in a mud puddle was a sweet bonus. A few mornings later, she retaliated.
Prior to that moment, Hakim, Angelo, Banjo, and I were marching down a path that led to juvenile detention and a mailbox full of welfare checks. But as I went home to clean myself, change my clothes, and lie to my parents so they didn’t know their son just got his huevos handed to him by a girl, I thought about her. If I was this humiliated without witnesses, how did she feel with a couple of her peers pointing and laughing?
From that point on, I had a new mission. I sent Hakim out to retrieve stolen toys and Angelo out to frighten bullies. But after about a week and a half of this, some of the bullies began to fight back, and it became apparent that Angelo was not a very good enforcer. What we needed was someone mean and angry. We needed that little girl.
I tracked her down and paid her five Merde Bars to take care of Simon Largo, one of our more obstinate problems. It worked out so well that we put her on retainer, at a price of one candy bar and a bag of Xtra-spicy Munlach Brand Buffalo Chips per week. Eventually, she loosened up enough with us that she started kicking ass pro bono.
Her name is Lisa Green, and she was the most important friend I’ve ever had.
I’ll never forget the very last words I said to her, ten years after we first met. I said, “Don’t you ever fucking dare ask me for anything ever again.”
I repeated it, just to be sure: “You seriously want me to let you sleep in my place this weekend?”
“You’re right,” she sighed. “I don’t know why I thought calling you was a good idea. It’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
“Pretty high up there, at least.”
We both laughed nervously.
I told her, “I don’t have a choice, do I?”
“You can tell me to fuck off.”
“I don’t want to do that.” I took a moment to squeeze back the tears that were coming. “JFK or LaGuardia?”
“Figures,” I muttered. “See you there.”
“Fuentes,” she told me, “I’ve missed you so much.”
I wanted to say, “I know,” or “Me too,” but my throat had tightened too much to let words out.
At Newark Liberty Airport the next day, I alternated between watching the arrival board and pacing. I couldn’t recall the last time I was this nervous about seeing a girl, especially one I had no plans to seduce.
With the travelers from her flight pouring into the baggage claim area, I paced harder. Would I recognize my long-ago-exiled best friend? Of course I would. I knew that face better than I knew my own. I’d spent my childhood and adolescence witnessing her growing into it.
There was that slightly too-large nose, which I’d had to squeeze shut the first time we’d ever smoked pot. It flared when it was angry, as it did when she’d discovered that the boy to whom she’d lost her virginity was interested only in keeping score. Today it was still a little too big, but smooth and elegant.
There was her jaw–a little too sharp to be feminine–that set when she was hurting, or clenched like it did when she saw me mere moments after uber-bully Ricky Ortega had shattered my nose in retaliation for some stunt I’d pulled. Today, it was still strong, but now soft and relaxed.
There were her eyebrows, furrowed, arched, and raised, now thin and inquisitive; and her hair, greasy and tangled, but now full and soft and bunched into a loose clip at the base of the neck I’d never seen before. There were her engorged lips, which rarely grinned, preferring instead to smirk and pout. Once, they were barely darker than the rest of her face, but now they were crimson, swollen, and sexy.
And then there were her chocolate-colored eyes, able to convey the broadest of emotions by being perpetually narrowed. They could be annoyed, as they always were around Banjo; they could be disappointed, as they always were around my friend Angelo; they could be inquisitive, as they always were around Hakim; they could be judgmental, as they always were around my girlfriend at the time, Heather; they could be stoic, as they always were around her family; they could be coy, as they always were whenever we exchanged secret glances; they could be flirtatious, as they were always were around most boys; and they could be angry, as they were most of the time. On the other side of the baggage carousal, they scanned the crowd until they found me and lit up.
She cautiously moseyed over, her head cocked as she examined me to make sure I was the right guy. As she did, I wondered what she had remembered about my face and whether the current one disappointed her in any way. I gave her a smile.
At this moment, so much needed to be said. She needed to apologize for what she did to make me hate her for so long. I needed to apologize for giving up on her. She needed to tell me how she’d grown up to be such a woman. I needed to tell her about the deep tear I’d made in my soul when I’d walked away from her ten years ago.
She went first. “Fuentes.”
That was my cue. “Hey, Green.”
“It’s good to see you again.”
“You’re wearing lipstick,” I told her.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Started doing it to impress a boy.”
“Did it work?”
“It looks good,” I said.
“You want to get out of here?”