The first time Velvetine met me, I barely even noticed. It was midway through September and the leaves hadn’t even started to crunch off the trees. Still, there was a coolness in the air that told me something was going to change. I wasn’t supposed to be at the school and everybody knew it. But my parents paid the school tax so the government had to let me in even if it was just for that one day.
The first time I saw Velvetine, I was halfway through a cartwheel during cheerleader tryouts. I knew I wasn’t going to make the team and I didn’t. It had been that way with everything over the last few years: the swim team, the soccer team, class president, homecoming. No matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to impress my peer-review council of lazy-eyed girls slouching in those beige plastic chairs that squealed when they pushed them back across the tiled floor.
The afternoon wind kicked up and blew my hair to papercut across my eyeballs. Upside down I glanced over Velvetine who was smacking a thin strip of disintegrating Hubba Bubba between her crusty lips. There must have been something Velvetine liked because while all the other girls hardly watched my half-hearted flails, Velvetine’s head tilted just enough to the side, like she was trying to cartwheel with me.
The second time I saw Velvetine, it was New Year’s Eve and I was sweating in my blue snowsuit. It was too short so that my ankles stuck out, and had a splotchy brown stain down the front from the time I tripped on the ice rink and smashed my nose in. I stood on my neighbor’s front steps hacking ice off the bricks with my parent’s bendy plastic snow shovel. It had snowed so much and been so cold that the snow had frozen in big crunchy chunks all over.
Halfway through chiseling, I looked up and there was Velvetine. Despite the cold, she was wearing her yellow and blue cheerleading skirt, arms crossed over a too-big letterman jacket, and she was slapping her gum in a dejected kind of way. She must’ve said something, but I didn’t hear it. I was just wondering how her gum hadn’t frozen to her squirrelly teeth.
“What?” I said.
“I said, aren’t you that homeschool kid from that weird house between Willard and Pine?” she said, her gray gum sliding around, causing little bits of spit to fly out of her mouth.
“Oh,” I replied, still bent on the gray shovel. “I guess.”
“I thought you wanted to be a cheerleader,” she said, leaning forward a little, chunks of her hair sliding forward over her shoulders. Her eyes bugged out—it sounded like an accusation, like I’d done something wrong.
“I didn’t make the team,” I said, pulling at the zipper on my open jacket.
She leaned back on her right hip and squinted a little bit, “But everyone makes the team,” she said. “You just didn’t show up.”
My neighbor paid for my labors in black-market sparklers, and that night Velvetine and I lit them in his backyard. We were too scared of falling sparks to hold them in our hands, so we stuck them in the crunchy snow blobs, their sparks melting holes around their falling stems. Over the pop-pop-popping, Velvetine devised our plan.
After several alterations, it would end up going like this:
- I would wait by my phone until Velvetine got home from school.
- When it rang (and I’d let in ring three times, so I didn’t look desperate), I’d pick it up.
- Velvetine would give Time and Place, and I’d hang up without saying anything.
- I’d slide into my flip flops, or my ice skates, or my tennis shoes, and go to find Velvetine.
- Whatever it was, where ever it was, whenever it was, I’d find her.
Velvetine would always be there twirling a gray piece of gum around her stiff fingers, her eyes looking over my shoulder like she was hoping someone else would show.
Sometimes we’d go on adventures but most times I’d find her at the same few places: the only one-star-rated-on-Yelp bowling alley in the entire state, behind the ugliest church in town, the middle schoolers tennis court, the second worst ice cream stand—after the one I worked at—and the movie theater that had been around since the ‘60s and smelled kind of like puke and pickles.
I was real excited that Velvetine wanted to be my friend. Velvetine was the flyer on the high school cheerleading team, and she had real live friends. I used to see girls’ like her in my neighborhood tanning on their short yellow lawns in the hot summers; burning their white white skin on fresh beach towels while I was stuck drawing hopscotches on the driveway for my baby sister. I used to dream up conversations at night, staring up at my dark bedroom ceiling, thinking about what I would do if I was friends with girls like Velvetine.
It didn’t take me too long figure out that being friends with Velvetine was just so Velvetine could talk, and it didn’t take long for me to find out that she never really stopped. When I went to find her, she’d be already laced up in her moldy bowling shoes, halfway through a story about Steve the Stud from Study Hall or Becky the Bitch from Biology. Velvetine talked a lot and I talked a little, in the nervous kind of way. Like I was always trying to find the right thing to say whenever she paused for breath.
At first it was fun to hear about her life and everything that had ever happened to her in all her fifteen years. But after a while of trying to add an agreement that made sense or giggle at the right moments, I figured out she just wanted me to be quiet. That’s all Velvetine needed to feel like what she was saying was worth something, but I guess that made it a little easier for me.
By March I started to think that Velvetine had an odd taste in places to hang out. But after the thirteenth and a half time Time and Place was at the most disused bowling alley, I began to think Velvetine only wanted to go to places where nobody else would have to see her around me.
“Velvetine,” I said as we made our way down the melting sidewalk. We were going to her parents’ gym; they had indoor racquetball courts. I didn’t know what racquet ball was, and she puffed a big angry ball of air out of her mouth before saying we’d have to go play then. They’d lock us into a big white room, she said, with nets in the middle. The door’s closed and only has a tiny window, she said, and nobody can come in unless they’re already signed into your team.
“How come we can’t go to the school and play at the tennis courts?” I asked, stepping into a gasoline puddle in a break in the sidewalk, my foot pushing out the glimmer ringlets of pink and blue blurs.
“You gotta hit them off the wall,” she said. “The tennis courts are outside.”
“Okay can we play tennis instead then?”
“They have tennis courts here too,” she said, more focused on where she was stepping. I took a deep breath in, but I let it out real slow so she wouldn’t think I was mad, even though I was.
Sometimes, Velvetine would talk about me to me like I wasn’t me. Like I was the broken backboard behind the white church that we’d throw her brother’s deflated basketballs at. She’d talk about why she liked me, why she talked to me. What her friends would think about me if she told them about me, even though she never would. Or why she didn’t like me, or why I wasn’t different enough. She said that I was weird, but the good weird. Velvetine meant it as a compliment because she smiled when she said it, but it still didn’t really feel like one. Those kinds of compliments never do.
I asked her when I could meet her real friends, but she just twinkled that creepy knowing smile, her short teeth twisting, and slammed the basketball off against the backboard. It flipped off the rim and dribbled towards the shed, and she waited as I went to go get it from the spiderwebs that crept up in the corners of the swelling wood.
There was a one-way gap between me and Velvetine, one that she crossed without me saying she could. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if I tried to bridge that gap between Velvetine and me. I’d lay on the hardwood floor of my bedroom and wonder what she would do if I answered the phone with a giggle and gossip or started shaving my legs. I wondered what she would do if I started going to real school and showed up wearing a lettermen jacket, a blue and yellow hair bow, and Maybelline lipstick—the hot pink kind. I wondered what she’d do if I sat down at her lunch table, at the seat that was supposed to be for Becky her BFF from Biology, but I took it for me. And nobody would notice me, because I would be so smooth they would even wonder if I belonged.
By May I realized Velvetine wasn’t ever going to be my best friend. We sat on the slippery taupe concrete beside the indoor pool and she was refusing to get in because she didn’t like holding her breath underwater.
Velvetine was talking but I wasn’t really listening. Nothing had changed and that was the problem—I still waited for hours by the phone and she only called me when she didn’t have anyone else to hang out with, and then she’d just talk about all the people she’d rather be with instead.
I slid into the pool scraping the back of my arms against the concrete. My skin stung as I gently bumped the bottom—despite the sound of the old people aerobics class swishing, I could still hear Velvetine’s voice float from the four feet above my head. From down there, it didn’t sound like her. It could’ve been anyone else.
Best friends weren’t supposed to do that, to ignore me like Velvetine did. I’d seen best friends, in real life and in movies. I’d seen how best friends ate lunch together every day, call each other in the early mornings before school or late at night to plan their outfits to match—I’ll wear the soft blue sweater, if you wear your light pink. All the girls at my ice cream stand were best friends. They’d spend all afternoon sitting on the tops of ice cream freezers, their dangling sneakers bumping dark lines into the white sides that I’d have to spend hours trying to scrub out.
I knew they were best friends because they talked about everything they’d done together, and everything they’d done with other people they both knew. They’d go through lists of parties and names for hours: “Do you know Sarah?” “Who?” “Sarah Clementino, she dated Markus.” “Wait, Sarah dated Markus?” “Yeah, but he’s dating Danielle now.” and it would never stop. I sometimes got distracted from longing to know all those names by wondering how they could possibly know all those names.
But mostly I knew they were best friends because when one would get there, they’d all scream and hug like they hadn’t seen each other in years and had presumed the other had died, when it really had been only a couple of hours since school had let out. When I came in, everyone’s head shot up from inside the thumping, dented freezers, and then they went back to what they were doing like I’d never even said hello.
But Velvetine didn’t like me like I wanted her to. I wanted Velvetine to like me enough to be my Moses—part the sea of her social life with her solemn arms, guiding me with her manicured fingers, hand on my back towards the smiling doll faces of her friends. I wanted that soft hum to emit from the onlookers—look at Velvetine’s new initiation—the social baptism I’d spent my whole life dying for.
I knew it wouldn’t go over well even though I knew it wouldn’t happen. The thing was I was Velvetine’s secret friend, her backup, her always abiding quiet other friend. But Velvetine wasn’t mine. I didn’t have anyone to escape to when Velvetine didn’t quite cut it.
Not having other friends wasn’t a problem for Velvetine. After practice she’d bring all her cheerleader friends to the ice cream stand where I worked, and she would act like she didn’t know me. She’d get a cone of cotton candy, and I’d secretly make hers the smallest, wiping it all around in rainbow sprinkles that had been sitting out longer than the health inspector would like to know. I’d stand at the window, cleaning the same patch of the shiny dented counter, watching her glisten on the picnic benches licking pink ice cream off the side of her hand. Digging my finger nails into my palm, I wasn’t sure which of us I hated more.
Whenever they came to the ice cream stand, I watched them. Sometimes I would go out and clean the same melting plastic trashcan over and over for a half hour, trying to hear what her real friends were saying. From under my hat, I’d watch how they’d flick their muddled hair, how they’d blot their glossy lips with the brown napkins, tucking them in between their crossed thighs for safekeeping.
I’d go home and sit in front of my dirty full-length mirror, eating a PBJ on a wet paper plate that I’d rinsed breakfast off of, mimicking their moments I’d never get right. I knew I’d never get passed the mirror—I didn’t even want to—but it was nice to pretend to be the kind of person Velvetine wouldn’t be embarrassed to want to know.
Velvetine never noticed though. She’d still call me every couple of days, Time and Place always changing just enough to never get caught. I got stuck between being who Velvetine wanted me to be and who I wanted me to be. I’d spend hours before she’d call begging that this time, this one time her always graveled voice would push through the static of my blue princess phone. That it’d be Sasha’s House, 6:30. Prepare For A Sleep Over. Instead it would be her usual: Bowling, 5:30. before the phone would crackle with the weight of her slamming it against the white wall of her parents’ two-story home.
I spent most of my time waiting for Velvetine to call. I pretended I didn’t, but that’s what I was doing. Before, I would finish my school and find something to do: most times it was video games or poking around in the backyard, trying to throw enough twigs in to my neighbor’s yard so I could ask them to pay me to clean it up. But now I’d finished my school at one and sit in my bedroom staring at that princess phone, willing it to ring. I’d stare at it so long without blinking that my eyes dried out and I could hear the sound of scratching sandpaper when I finally forced myself to blink. Sometimes my baby sister would beg me to come play with her. But I’d tell her I was busy.
That June, it finally happened. It happened just like it does in the movies. Velvetine and I were roller skating at the middle school tennis courts, going round and round the green concrete, swerving delicately around parts that had come loose and crumbled into big black lumps all over. My roller skate wheels were plastic and I had to work twice as hard as Velvetine to get a good glide going while she floated along on her rubber wheels. While we turned around the post for the twelfth time that afternoon, a girl and two smaller boys came around the corner.
I knew it was bad when Velvetine slammed on her front-skate-stopper, the rubber skittering across as she jerked forward. I stumbled into her, dodging just slightly to the right, grabbing at the tall, black metal fence.
The girl’s eyes trailed lightly across the path before she settled on Velvetine and me. Her face squished up with recognition, the tip of her hooked nose wrinkling.
“Hey Vee, what’re you doing here?” she said, approaching the other side of the fence, slender legs high stepping over fresh weeds and sinkholes.
Velvetine pushed away from me, rolling over to the fence and pressed her face up against it, long fingers grasping tightly into the chain link.
“Just hanging out,” she said. I’d steadied myself and I stood lamely against the other side of the fence. I hadn’t expected to see anyone, so I didn’t know what to do with my hands, my arms, my face, or my legs.
“Cool,” she said. “With her?” She gestured with a tilt of her round head.
Velvetine glanced quickly over her shoulder and shrugged.
“Oh,” the girl said lamely. Velvetine went on to ask her why she was there, but I stopped listening and kept skating, pretending I didn’t even know Velvetine. My skates bounced up and down on the crumbles, and I looked down to make sure I wouldn’t hit any big ones.
I skated by close enough to hear them just once, and I heard, “You want me to invite her?” in a harsh half-whisper, and I sped up to the other side of the court, arms outstretched, pretending to feel free.
Eventually Velvetine came back. “Let’s go, I’m hungry,” she said, but her voice had lost the usually casual ring, like if I had even tried to say no she would’ve left me there and never tried to find me again.
Velvetine called me on a Saturday while I was fiddling with the hair ties I had stolen from her jacket the weekend earlier. Time and Place. Next Saturday, 6 PM, Her Back Yard. She was having a party, and I was invited. I had never been invited to anything ever at all. I couldn’t tell if I was afraid or excited. Mostly I just felt weird.
That week I spent staring at the same page of geometry homework and biting my already stumpy fingernails to stumpier stumps. Velvetine and I got hot dogs and ice cream at the worst van in town, eating around the mysterious small black and green splotches on the buns. She coached me on what a party was like, and even though I didn’t ask, I listened. She told me not to be too-too weird, and I listened. I stared at the cracks in the concrete. We went back to her house and sat on her itchy pink carpet, and she raked her clammy fingers through my hair. I told her she didn’t have to braid it, but she wanted to, so I had to let her.
The party went like this:
I showed up too early and I was wearing a dress that was too girly—it was Barbie pink, while they all wore black and maroon. It was in her backyard and it was raining a little. Velvetine said hi to me with two of her friends. She said I was the girl that didn’t go to their school. Not even her friend. The girl. I did not see her again. I spent two hours and thirty-two minutes sitting with her baby cousin. I watched her friends. I watched them smile. I watched them dance. I watched them brush shoulders like it was no big deal. I watched them twirl their curly yellowbrownorangeblack hair around their fingers. I watched them talk. I mostly watched their mouths. I wondered how words formed like that. I wondered how it was so easy to just make words that fast, without thinking your lips were going to stick together. I went looking for Velvetine but couldn’t find her. I left. I walked home in my dress. It got wet. I waited by the phone. But she didn’t call. She never did, unless there was nobody better.
Two days later, Velvetine did call. Her voice a throaty crackle against the phone I had pressed into my ear, squinting as if to hear her better. She told me Time and Place and hung up before I could say anything, even though I wouldn’t’ve anyways. Time and Place was 3:37, Behind The Church. I got up and shoved my feet into crumbling sneakers, a weighted itchiness in my arms that I couldn’t scratch even if I wanted to.
We sat up against the back of the church. I kept leaning forward to get the peeling white paint to stop sticking to my shirt, sharp pieces crawling into my shirt and poking at my skin. Velvetine twirled her fingers around the tulle of her skirt, her goose-bumped knees gently knocking the nettled sidewalk. She must have run out of things to say because I had just got up the courage to push words through my sticky mouth. The first crackle that stuttered from my lips was lost to the sound of her new phone buzzing against the pavement. She got up to answer it without hesitating while I tried to scrape off all the skin from my bottom lip with my front teeth.
I watched her pace for an hour, her white high tops scraping gravel every time she turned around to walk in the other direction. My eyes started to hurt from dragging them to follow her; she walked back and forth in quick, tight circles. When I got too cold and the loose gravel stung my palms too much, I left. I walked by her and I looked back to see if she’d noticed. She didn’t.
Even though I was mad at her, I still felt this tug like maybe, still somehow, I’d figure her out. Like I’d know what to say that would change everything to how I wanted it to be. I had tried not to be too-too weird and it still wasn’t enough. After the party when everything stayed the same, I only got more mad. I got mad at Velvetine for always being just out of my reach.
I got mad at the blue and yellow skirt. I got mad at the Hubba Bubba. I got mad at her BFF from Biology and mostly I got mad at Velvetine for ever trying to cartwheel with me in the first place.
When I got mad at Velvetine, I still sat by the phone. When she called, I let it ring four times before I picked it up and then slammed it back down on the receiver, jostling the legs of my dark roll top desk I’d carved creme colored grooves into with the nail of my thumb.
On the fourth day Velvetine called me, I picked up the phone on the fifth ring and listened. She gave me Time and Place. When I didn’t hang up right away, the buzzing told me she was still waiting for me to slam it down like I always did. But I didn’t.
I listened to her husky breath before I said I didn’t want to be her friend anymore. That I didn’t care about Steve the Slug from Study Hall. That if she didn’t have anything else interesting to say that I didn’t want to hear it. I told her she wasn’t cool. I told her I didn’t like her. But all Velvetine did was repeat Time and Place like I never even said anything. I hung up.
I didn’t see her much after that but Velvetine still called. Every couple of days, at 3:20 in the afternoon, my blue princess phone would scream but I was too defiant to pick it up. I saw Velvetine at the ice cream place where I worked. She came and got ice cream with all her real friends, and she still acted like she didn’t know me. I still made hers the smallest, but this time I felt kind of bad about it. All the times I wanted to be someone’s friend they would ignore me, and now I’d done the same thing to Velvetine. But then I’d watched her friends giggle and blot and pull their stray hairs out from between their stilted eyelashes, and I’d feel less bad about it.
I laid awake at night looking up at the glow-in-the-dark stars I had scavenged from the corners of Velvetine’s bedroom when she wasn’t looking. I wondered if I missed Velvetine, or if Velvetine missed me. Even though I knew Velvetine would never.