Chipped Paint

A small town, coming of age friendship story

The high school parking lot after practice let out was like a mini-version of Penn Station. I only knew that because for honor society freshman year, they took us to the city to go to the Museum of Natural History. The station had been a better exhibit, in my opinion, and on my one and only trip to the big apple, I would have much rather seen the art museums anyway.

Band practice had just ended and Audrey and I sat on the curb, flicking small stones across the lot while we waited for my mom to pick us up. Upperclassmen took off in their own cars, most of them giving rides to sophomore plebeians like us. Town was so small everyone knew where everyone lived, but Audrey and I always rode together and despite the last few weeks of drifting apart, it was the one thing we’d left untouched. We watched as girls literally had to climb into their boyfriend’s trucks like they were scaling a wall to freedom.

“Could that truck be any bigger?” I asked, under my breath.

Audrey snorted next to me. “Could her shorts be any shorter?” She twisted half a cigarette between her slender fingers, her black painted nails bitten to the quick. I knew she’d save that butt until it was nothing, even though it was already nothing. She put it between her lips and gently bobbed it.

“You know that’s not lit, right?” I teased.

“It’s just the feel. You wouldn’t get it.” Audrey tucked the butt in the laces of her Doc Martens. My mother smoked at least pack a day, but no I wouldn’t get it. All I got was yellowed walls and a constant headache on weekends. What would I know? But I didn’t really care if Audrey smoked. It was 1992; most our friends did. I just longed for the easy conversation like we used to have in junior high, conversation that was never as laced with…what was it? Contempt? Indifference? I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something had changed over the summer. So far, sophomore year was turning into a social experiment of how different two people could be and still claim to call each other best friends. Why we held on, I didn’t know. Maybe simply because my mom still picked us up.

“Auditions for the play are in a few weeks,” I said, trying to be upbeat. “I really want to try for a role.”

Audrey watched the last truck leave and nodded. “You’d be good at that.”

“I’m going to try everything,” I said. “Now’s our chance, right?”

Audrey scoffed, but looked at me. “You really want to try something new?”

I had a feeling about what she was going to suggest, so I just looked out across the empty parking lot and said nothing. This would be the breaking point of our friendship, the day she’d try to get me to do more than smoking. I’d sensed it coming, but I couldn’t do parties and drinking and weed like the rest of them. And I didn’t know how to explain it to her either. I just knew what alcohol had done to my parents, the absence of a father and a shell of a mother it left behind. I wanted nothing to do with it.

Audrey nudged my shoulder with hers. “Varsity cheering has open tryouts coming up. Anyone can sign up.”

My head almost involuntarily swung back in the face of her insane suggestion. I was not expecting that. I scrunched up my nose and laughed. “What?”

She turned to me a little bit, elbow on her knee, fingers in blonde curls. Her blue eyes lit up like when we were younger and she had the greatest plans ever. Every summer, every weekend. Her blue eyes and the stars. We’d sneak out in the dead of night to go to a neighbor’s trailer and listen outside under his window screen as he played guitar, or we’d steal the raft from her father’s shed, literally risking his wrath, anchor it off a tree near the river and swim under the moon. We ran through corn fields and swam in the farmer’s bins of soybeans, and stole peaches from the orchard, all under the watchful eye of a starry Pennsylvania night. There was always something crafty going on in her head and I was always the Bonnie to her Clyde.

Until this year. This year I was hesitant.

I grew afraid because the games got riskier. She made friends with people who wanted to break into the town pool and skinny dip, swim at the closed slate quarries where many kids had drowned through the years, race on Cemetery Curve with the kids who could drive. And then she wanted to climb the sheer face of the hill that overlooked town. Every year, right before the final football game the rock was traditionally painted in our school’s or the neighboring school’s colors — whoever got there first — it was a rivalry that had gone on for decades. A kid had died there the year before. Audrey wanted to paint a giant smiley face on the notorious rock and end it all. Her new friends weren’t awful but I just couldn’t join in with any of it. And I wasn’t even sure why except that it all was part of her leaning toward the party scene, all these other kids I didn’t know and was afraid to meet, and so it had left me drawing a line in the sand.

“I’m serious. Hear me out.” She raised her hands like she was showing me a billboard. “Picture it. Me…” She framed her heart-shaped face, dark thick eyeliner, red lipstick, pale porcelain skin. “You…” She waved a hand up and down my scrawny, drowning in overalls that smelled like horses, barefoot, a waif of girl. “They wouldn’t know what hit them.”

I doubled over with laughter. “You hate cheerleaders!”

Audrey looked shocked. “And you don’t?”

“Well, I mean, not like…you. But why would we try out. We make fun of them at every game. Plus, we’re in band. We have to play at the games.”

“This is for basketball, not football. We can still do band and infiltrate the cheerleaders at the same time.”

“Oh my god, what is this? A special ops mission?”

“Come on, Jenna. They almost never have open tryouts. You know it’s like a secret club to get in there. And we can totally do it. My choreography, your big mouth. It’s a done deal.”

“My big mouth? Thank you?”

“You project well. That’s why you’ll be great in the play too.” She pulled out a piece of folded paper from her back pocket and handed it to me: a flyer for the cheerleading tryout.

“You stole a flyer off the wall. You’re really serious about this aren’t you?”

“I’m so tired of the unbreakable clique,” Audrey said. “It’s like you have to be born into the family or something. If you don’t come from three generations of cheerleaders, and join at the age of four, forget it. It’s ridiculous.”

She was right. We lived in a Friday Night Lights town. Generations came out to our high school football games, moms and dads and grandparents who all had either played football, cheered football, or wish they did. They still wore the maroon and white, they still hated the rival team. It was both endearing and pathetic and pulled me in multiple directions all the time. I didn’t come from here, I moved in and tried to acclimate. Three years in and I still hadn’t accomplished much.

The basketball scene wasn’t much different than football. Ours was a town of people whose lives never left the high school stadiums and courts and fields, and when they had children they dressed them up to play the same part. I had no desire to be part of that. I loved being involved with a lot of things but I was not staying in this town past graduation. I had a hard time thinking Audrey, with her punk hair and black nail polish, would either.

“Let’s prove them wrong,” she said. “Let’s prove anyone can do it.”

It had been so long since Audrey and I were teamed up against the world, I couldn’t say no. And maybe that’s why, after weeks of almost no hanging out together, she asked me. But I truly wondered if I could do it. We might make fun of those girls on the daily, but they were still athletes and although I spent all my free time outside, I was the farthest thing from an athlete.

I pointed to the cigarette butt in Audrey’s shoe. “Better quit that then. Your black lungs will never keep up.”

She glared at me but her red lips curled up in her signature half-smile. “Ha. Nice try.”

That weekend I slept over her house, something we hadn’t done for many months. Seventh to ninth grade had been marked by legendary sleep overs, often overflowing to Mondays insisting we could get up in time for the bus, but somewhere toward the middle of this last summer, Audrey began spending more time with other friends. To be fair, friends more like her, more daring, more mouthy, more eye makeup, more grunge. I’d begun seeking new circles too, but it wasn’t the same anymore. We’d had a bond that would never be replicated, and even now I knew that, even in a new shared goal of taking down the cheerleading supremacy, I knew we’d never have those years back. We’d never hide under the covers of the same bed, giggling in the dark for hours. Or braid each other’s hair, and paint each other’s nails as we poured over teen magazines. But it was something.

I sat on a little futon in her room and she sat on the bed and we began brainstorming cheers. They didn’t have to be very long, and we could make up any chants we wanted, but they had to have a certain combination of choreography to show we knew all the moves, motions, and steps. Audrey had been studying them apparently, because she knew everything.

“No, your hands go here,” she moved me into place. “Make sure your wrists are strong and straight, not flipped up like that.”

I corrected my posture until I got her approval. It was difficult for me to lock the poses because all of my joints overextended. I was the freaky girl at lunch who could bend her thumbs all the way to the back of her hand, or pop out her elbow so her arm looked like something from Frankenstein’s creation. All great cafeteria tricks, all a major disadvantage in cheerleading. I looked like a broken doll in every pose. I felt like one too. I couldn’t command my body or the space around me like Audrey could.

“Jenna, you’re so long and skinny, it should be perfect, you just have to watch your knees,” Audrey said, gently kicking my leg into a straighter position, which for me, felt awkwardly bent.

“Okay?”

“Okay!”

We ran through cheers all weekend, made up some of the most ridiculous chants. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time. The one thing I could nail over and over was a split. Audrey said I was a shoo-in, splits made me untouchable.

“Here’s one more I was working on,” Audrey said, taking over the floor. She moved her hips, and snapped her arms like a pro. I might be able to do a split, but she could do everything else.

“You think you bad? Sad!

You think you hot? Not!

You think you score? Whore!”

I fell over laughing on the bed. “We can’t use that!”

“Wouldn’t it be great though?” she said. “Can you imagine that hard-ass coach’s face?” Audrey flopped on the bed next to me.

“Can you imagine Lindsay’s?”

“Ugh. That girl.”

I sat up and looked at Audrey. “Seriously though. If we make it, we’ll have to practice with her every day.”

“We’d never have to talk to her.”

“She’s the captain!”

Audrey shrugged. “Maybe it’s time for a new captain.”

I stood up. “Okay, how about this instead.” And I mimicked her choreography

“You think you bad? How sad!

You think you hot? So not!

You think you score? No more!”

Audrey smirked. “I like my version better.”

“Yeah, well, I think we have to stick to the PG version.”

“Kinda like you,” Audrey said as she got up to organize all our cheer papers. Teasing, but with a layer of sludgy truth. It stung. I lay there staring at the ceiling, faked a laugh. It was no secret between us that Audrey was far more willing to do and try new things. I wondered if this is what peer pressure really was. All those stupid films in middle school where big ugly bullies in black leather jackets are trying to push drugs on you in some alley? It’s just not the truth.

Real peer pressure is watching your best friend grow up without you.

“I had sex with Mark,” I blurted. Audrey stopped shuffling her papers and stared at me as if I’d just announced I was blowing up the school.

“You did not.”

“I did. About a month ago.”

She sat back down on the bed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I shrugged.

“Where?” She seemed hesitant to ask. “His parents are like prison wardens.”

I covered my face with a pillow. “Don’t ask me that. It’s so embarrassing.”

“You’re the one who blurted it out! You have to tell me the details!”

When I didn’t offer any, she ripped the pillow off my face. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” I said. “I felt stupid I guess. I’m like, so behind you. I’m stunted or something.”

Audrey looked surprised, and then hurt. “Well, you just surpassed me, baby girl.”

I sat up. “What do you mean?”

“I haven’t done it yet. So if it’s a race, congratulations. You win.”

“I thought you and Nick…”

Audrey shook her head. “You’re only fifteen,” she almost whispered it. It knocked the air out of my chest. I thought my confession would impress her, I thought it would bring me back into her orbit. I was more unmoored than ever.

“I’ll be sixteen in like two months.” Now it was my time to sit up and be offended. “Are you judging me right now? Because I had sex with my boyfriend, who’s been my boyfriend for…”

“What? Weeks? And why is sixteen the prime age?”

I had no idea what to say to her. Truth was I hadn’t thought any of it through, I just felt like if you were sixteen it was okay and I was close enough. I had no idea where I got that idea from. “We really like each other,” I said. “It just sort of happened.”

Audrey looked skeptical. “So, what, in the back seat of his car or something?”

I didn’t answer.

“Jenna. You’ve got to be kidding me. What are you, an 80’s movie? Please tell me you used a…”

“Yes! Jesus.” My face was burning. It was only noon and my mom wouldn’t be there to pick me up until two or three. I never should have said anything to Audrey. Some strange part of me thought she’d be proud.

We didn’t talk for a few minutes. Audrey kept shuffling and reorganizing our cheers. I stared at the floor while the chasm between us grew back to its enormous size.

“Well,” she finally said. “I think we should use these three, and the one you rewrote for me.”

“You still want to do this?”

“Take the cheerleaders down in a coup d’etat?” She put a finger on her chin. “Let me think about it. Yes.”

“I mean, with me.”

“As long as you can keep your gumby body from bending out of position, yes.”

We both laughed. Then she looked at me severely and embraced herself in a hug. “I bet he loved being with you, your bendy limbs all wrapped around him like an octopus…”

“Gross!” I shrieked and hit her with the pillow. And then she picked up a second pillow and like ten-year-olds we had an all-out fight until we were sweating and screaming at the top of our lungs and gasping for breath. We fell back on the bed, both slightly embarrassed, but smiling hard.

“It wasn’t that great,” I finally said.

“The pillow fight?”

“No, Audrey — ”

She rolled over and leaned on her elbow to look at me. “Did it hurt?”

I nodded. “I mean I wanted to do it, I was ready. But it just wasn’t much of anything. Like, I guess I’ll always remember it because it was the first time, but I don’t know. I hope it gets better. Do you think I should have waited?”

“I think that it wouldn’t be much of anything no matter how old you were. The first time is weird. Or so I hear. I’m sorry I got kind of judgy. I was just really surprised.”

“It’s okay.”

“Do you love him?”

“I guess?”

Audrey nodded, but I could tell she didn’t really believe me either.

“Remember the summer before freshman year when we spent a couple weeks at the beach?” she asked. “And you didn’t really want to kiss that guy we met?”

“Yeah.” I remembered well. I remembered being so swept up in the idea that I could have a summer romance, that someone I’d never known was interested in me. But when he leaned in to kiss me it was the most awkward, awful thing ever. Not because he was awful. I wanted him to want to kiss me, I just didn’t want to be kissed. But I did it anyway because those feelings together didn’t make any sense. And then it seemed like a rite of passage. Something I was supposed to do whether I liked it or not. Basically the same way I felt in the back of Mark’s car.

“I know you pride yourself on not going to parties and all — ”

“I don’t pride myself, Audrey, I just don’t like them, so I don’t go.”

She pursed her lips. Point proven. I rolled my eyes. “You’re being judgy again.”

“I am not.” She sat up. “There’s a big difference between us and it’s not about parties. It’s that I don’t do things that make me feel guilty later. If I want to smoke, I smoke. If I want to have a beer, I have a beer. I make a choice to do it and I don’t feel ashamed of these things later because I’m fully aware of what I’m doing.”

“I’m not ashamed.”

“Your face is bright red. And I saw you at the beach.” Her voice became gentle. “You don’t have to say yes to them.”

I swallowed my defense. She was right. But I’d wanted to say yes to that boy on the beach, to my boyfriend in his car, hadn’t I? Now I wasn’t even sure. “Sometimes it just seems like it’s the next thing, you know? You like someone, you kiss them. You kiss someone, you do more.”

“So, now that you’ve had sex, what’s next? Marriage and kids?”

“No. You know what I mean.”

“I do, but, Jenna, there’s no rule book. There’s not an agenda. You don’t have to follow some arbitrary order.”

I hadn’t thought about it like that, but Audrey was right. Order was comfortable. Order made sense. If I followed an order it took me one step and another step and another closer to getting out, to being an adult. Closer to understanding what I was supposed to do with my life. But it wasn’t any clearer yet, so she had a point.

I held out my hands. “Will you paint my nails like yours?”

She squinched her eyebrows together. She knew I hated black.

“For tryouts. We should match when we take down hierarchy.”

Audrey grinned. “Now you’re talking.” She grabbed the jar of black polish off her desk, and carefully painted each of my nails.

One week later, we both made the varsity squad. And then sometime after basketball season, we stopped talking altogether. There was no reason, really. And there were no bad feelings. I knew I’d always miss her, and maybe she’d miss me. But she had her friends, I had Mark. Our friendship simply chipped and faded away, like the polish that had once been black as the night of our first sleepover. When we ran hand in hand in the dark, our eyes shining like the stars, back when no one could touch us.

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www.jessrinker.com

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Jess Rinker

Jess Rinker

www.jessrinker.com

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