‘I didn’t –’
‘You know what I mean. Friend.’ Jamie crossed her legs and sat back on the metal bench, observing the school courtyard. ‘Huge insult.’
Cole grappled for words, and didn’t find any before Jamie ploughed on.
‘Friend is a massive demotion. It’s like you clipped on your manager badge, leant over my counter and said, “I’m sorry, but you’re not check-out girl material. It’s not working out. But don’t worry – we’ve got a nice position out back for you. Night shift stacking shelves; and the big plus is this way no one has to see your face.’”
‘What?! How’s saying – what I said, anything like that?’
Jamie took another bite out of her biscuit, and chewed quickly. ‘It’s exactly like that,’ she said, her voice muffled through the burnt sugar and choc chips. Swallowing, she went on, ‘In theory it’s saying, “I won’t get rid of you entirely”, but in practice it means, “I’ll stick you somewhere where I don’t have to deal with you”.
‘Then, before you know it, our contact is limited to Facebook – where once in a while you throw me a pity thumbs-up on a photo, or if I mention lunch you mention that you are also eating a sandwich and isn’t it great that we’re talking? Yes, peanut butter has a wonderful taste…smooth with a subtle crunch; 52 other Facey friends will agree, and your thread on an utterly pointless conversation will help you connect with the hot girl you just met at the gym who you actually want to talk to. Come in for an interview, lady. That’s what you’ll say. Of course, there is now a position available. And, by the way, she doesn’t eat peanut butter and only commented on your post to tell you you should quit too, because it’s much too fatty – and don’t you want the body you’ve always dreamed of? Then you get your perfect body – which includes Daniel Craig abs – and you get hers, and the two of you are oh so damn hashtag-happy together.’
For a moment, Cole stared. Then he burst out laughing. ‘I’ll never understand how you do that. God, you’re funny!’
Jamie switched into her Woolworths manager voice, and pretended to scan an invisible clipboard. ‘I’m sorry…”funny” doesn’t rank high on the list of attributes we’re looking for. And no amount of experience in this field will compensate for your, er….lack of other certain necessary skills.’
‘Oh, look…it’s not like I fired you. And you are funny.’
Jamie raised her eyebrows, and the sarcastic smile she wore faded.
‘You’re a lot of things. You’re great, just…’
‘Not for you,’ she finished.
Cole looked at his hands clasped in his lap. Then he said, quietly, ‘I really wanted to like you.’
‘That is such crap,’ Jamie said calmly. ‘You did like me; I know you did.’
She watched him wrestle briefly with frustration, tugging a hand through his short, ash hair. Then Cole said, echoing her own forced calm, ‘How do you know what I feel?’
The answer came without thinking, and flowed from her mouth. ‘Because I know you. I’ve always been able to see exactly what you’re thinking. That’s why you used to blush in English, when we were thirteen. Because I’d catch you looking at Kathie Springer, and around her you were reasonably okay at hiding it…you’d try to play it cool…but around me, you couldn’t. You’d know that I knew how you felt, and get all embarrassed – even though I didn’t tease you that much…’
‘Every day for six months!’ Cole spluttered. ‘ “How’s Kathie today? You gonna talk to Kathie? Ready to spring into action?”’
Jamie giggled. ‘It wasn’t that bad.’
He looked at her, and smiled reluctantly. ‘I guess not.’
There was silence for a beat, and Jamie tucked a stray strand of auburn hair behind her ear.
‘I could tell you were the one who smashed the window on your mum’s car, because of your face. I made Jasper leave when you got your arm x-rayed, because it’d been broken for a hour before they’d see you, and I knew you were about to cry. You didn’t want him to see that.’
Watching her, Cole agreed without words and she went on.
‘I knew every time you had a crush on a girl: Kathie, Hayley, Bianca.’
‘You skipped someone –’
‘No, I didn’t,’ Jamie said, with a touch of annoyance. ‘Then there was Rhiannon. All brown hair and massive eyes, like a possum. She was like Kathie; I mean, you acted the same around her. You could keep it together, have a conversation with her – sneak looks at the girl in homegroup without her noticing. You were fine unless you looked at me. Then you’d stare at your desk, red as a beetroot, even though I was done with teasing you about girls.
‘And then…there was me. One day I realised that you weren’t embarrassed about another girl any more; you were blushing for me. You got awkward around me. Polite. It was weird. I’d wait for you to dare me to do something, like you used to. Dare me to meet you under the Surf Club House, even though it was thunderstorming, or hide Dwayne’s art journal so he’d flip out. But you didn’t. And when you picked me up, you didn’t drive up alongside some old people and dare me to stick my head out the window and pretend to be a dog…’ She laughed at the memory. ‘You just stopped doing all that dumb stuff, and I missed it. And then…we had that fight.’
Cole nodded, his green eyes round and solemn. ‘The big one.’
Jamie nodded back. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been so mad with anyone.’
‘Ditto. But I wasn’t really mad at you. I was furious with myself.’
‘Really?’ she asked, surprised. ‘Because I was really mad at you.’
‘Oh man, Jamie, how d’you do that?’ Cole asked, shaking his head.
‘You surprise me. You always surprise me. I think I know you so well, and you know me – you’re right, you do – and you still…’
She shook her hands like a cheerleader making spirit fingers. ‘Surprise.’
‘Don’t tell me you wanted to like me,’ Jamie said. ‘Because you did. That night – where we had the big fight – I know you remember how it ended.’
He nodded, looking back at his hands.
‘You felt it, Cole. I know you did.’ She paused. ‘We spent the entire dance at each other’s throats. You said you’d get me some punch, and then you must’ve drunken it yourself, because you came back without anything. I wanted to dance, but you didn’t ask me to…and you flirted with every other girl in the hall, like an idiot, even though you never talk to them in class. I still don’t know why you did that.’
‘I was…I wanted to be social, I guess,’ he mumbled. ‘I wanted you to think I was cool.’
‘I thought you were a loser, that’s what I thought. My friend had turned into a promiscuous loser.’
‘Why’s it okay when you say ‘friend’?’
‘That’s all we were back then!’
‘Okay. Well,’ he said, ‘you weren’t exactly nice that night, either. You hid my keys!’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Duh. That way you’d have to talk to me. Can’t go home without your car.’
‘You could’ve just told me you were upset…’
‘And you could’ve not asked if I needed a ride, and then ignored me.’
Cole looked a little humbled. ‘Yeah, I could’ve done that. God, I still can’t believe – after all that –’
Hers was the ghost of a smile. ‘You kissed me.’ Jamie swallowed and then said, in a rush, ‘You know, I never told you – but it was like you electrified me. I jitterred the whole way home.’
‘I knew. I could feel you shaking.’
She could remember his arms on her back, drawing her in. When her hands found his shoulders, they were twitching. ‘Yeah. And you were too.’
Colour crept into his cheeks as he met her eyes. ‘I didn’t know you knew that.’
Jamie shrugged. ‘I could feel you too.’ She added, in the gentlest voice she’d used throughout their conversation, ‘So why would you pretend you didn’t care?’
‘Because.’ Cole bit his lip. ‘Because I…’
Jamie raised her chin, a challenge glinting in her eyes. ‘Just say it.’
‘I couldn’t imagine a future. I thought it was better to go back…you know, to how things were.’
‘You couldn’t see a future,’ Jamie repeated. ‘Poor you. Lucky the rest of us have crystal balls.’
‘Jamie, be serious.’
‘Sorry,’ she said, with a sigh, ‘defence mechanism. Okay. You didn’t think we were going anywhere. Why not?’
‘Jamie, you don’t want to hear this. Can we just…not?’
‘No, I want to know. Tell me.’
His head dipped. ‘I still thought about other girls, okay?’
‘Oh,’ she said, her heart thumping weirdly, ‘and did you do anything about that? Was there…someone else?’
‘Well, no,’ Cole said, and she heard genuine shock in his voice. ‘I wouldn’t do that to you. I just thought, if we were really, you know, special, that that wouldn’t happen.’
‘Do you want to run off with one of these mystery girls?’
Cole hesitated. ‘Sometimes. Don’t hate me, Jamie.’
She frowned, deep in thought. ‘So you like other people…but not enough to do anything about it?’
‘I know it’s not going to happen. They’re just…dreams, you know.’
‘Yeah? Well, I dream-cheated on you with Channing Tatum. It’s the same thing.’
He held back a smile. ‘But that’s not fair. I shouldn’t be half somewhere else. It means we’re not working.’
‘So, work harder.’
‘I’m so confused…I thought you were the check-out girl the evil boss – A.K.A. me – stuck in the back? Now you’re the manager cracking the whip?’
She tutted. ‘They don’t have whips in Woollies. If you’re going to continue with my story, at least get it right.’
‘But that’s it too, Jamie! We do this so well – the back-and-forth, the fun stuff – can we do the rest of it? Do we talk about anything real? It’s like whenever things get serious, we end up joking.’
Her mouth twisted, and she shrugged again. ‘I like joking with you. But you want a D and M, you’ve got it.’
‘It’s just…we’ve never done that. We don’t know how to. I feel like we’re stuck being what we always were to each other. Friends. That’s all we know how to be.’
‘I’m going to disagree with you, sir. Sorry, drop the sir, no joking. All seriousness, now. Okay, we have branched out. You kissing me, that’s not what we used to do. And movie-going has become a whole new experience. You’re kinda cuddly, when you want to be. You know, I never realised those arms in the cinema chairs can go up?’
‘I know. I mean, I know that you didn’t know. Because when I told you to put yours up so you could scoot over, you flung the arm up with your frozen Coke stuck in it and it sprayed everywhere, but mostly over me.’
‘Oh yeah. That was hilarious.’
‘My shirt was sticky for the rest of the night.’ Cole paused. ‘See Jamie, we’re doing it again.’ Fidgeting, he looked out over the courtyard. Other groups were spread over benches, trading gossip and weekend plans, while Alastair and his girlfriend Andy sat slouched against a wall mural of the local river, plugged into the same iPod. Their legs were folded over each other. Pete, Les and Megan played handball in the centre squares, between lunch tables. Les missed an easy shot, and Megan took his position as Queen with a grin and a bow. Cole took them all in, casting his mind about for words. They were all wearing the same olive skirts or trousers, and, at a glance, it was difficult to tell one student from another. But, looking closely, the uniform fell differently on each body, changed depending on a person’s stance or walk.
‘You know when my parents split?’ he said, finally.
‘That really sucked. I felt like my life was this smooth piece of paper someone picked up and scrunched into a ball, you know?’
‘We never talked about it. I didn’t know how to talk to you.’
‘But you could’ve,’ Jamie said, uncrossing her ankles. ‘You could’ve told me anything. I knew how you felt; I could see it. I tried to do what I could.’
‘Yeah, and we played cards, and Nintendo, you got me to the last course on Poke’mon Snap – which I thought was impossible, by the way – and then you convinced me that Mewtwo really isn’t in that game, because when I saw Mew I thought he must be. You were great. You helped me smile. But it wasn’t…’
‘I wasn’t enough?’ She brushed her hair back from her forehead. ‘That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That I’m great and all, and you do feel something, but it’s not enough?’
He said nothing.
‘You’re not enough, either.’
Cole blinked, and dropped his gaze, but not before she saw his hurt.
‘None of us are,’ she said, with a wide gesture. ‘It’s not who we are, it’s who we can become. I talk too much. I don’t know how to do serious, which is ironic because most of what I feel is serious. I just can’t express it all that well. You’ve got wish-fulfilment issues, and like the girls who you can’t have for whatever reason.’ She held up her fingers on one hand, and folded them down one by one as she talked, ‘Boyfriend, Nut-job, Lesbian…’
‘Bianca’s not a lesbian!’
Jamie dismissed his words with a wave of her hand. ‘Fine, we’ll call her bi-curious. Anyway, I’m getting side-tracked again. I guess that’s one of my issues. Point is: people change, Cole. That’s what they do. Whatever you say, we don’t have the same relationship we did when we were thirteen. But I want to see you blush for me. I want to dance with you; I want us to have awful fights, and then make up. Because that big fight – that was lousy, but it was also the best night of my life. I’d prefer to fight with you than talk to anyone else.’ She swallowed, and drew in a short breath. ‘Wow, just being really honest here. But, you want serious, I can do serious. I want to fight with you, because I want to fight for you. And if we both do that – if we fight for each other, then that’s enough. It makes us enough.’
Cole leant his face into his hand, and studied her. ‘You make the future sound like that dance on repeat. Over and over again.’
‘Yeah…and no. I’m sure if we stayed together we’d find new things to argue about.’
The bell rang; a sharp, clear brill that even those plugged into their iPods found impossible to ignore. Cole stuffed his half-eaten sandwich into his lunchbox, and Jamie stood, brushing biscuit crumbs off her skirt.
‘Come on,’ Cole said, automatically, moving towards the locker room. ‘We don’t want to miss class.’
‘I’m moving faster than you,’ Jamie fired back.
Truer words rose to the surface of Cole’s mind; the ones he wanted to ask. He let his steps trail, and stopped walking. ‘You really think this can work?’
Turning, Jamie saw doubt inscribed in the stiffness of his neck, and wrinkled brow. She also heard the quiet plea in his voice. ‘I hope it can,’ she told him. ‘I want to say yes.’
Cole stayed perfectly still, but Jamie felt his gaze examining every fleck of colour in her eyes. He once told her her eyes were like starbursts of blue. A cheesy line, she’d thought, and teased him.
He had never looked at her so carefully. Then Cole said, softly, ‘I just don’t know, Jamie. But I want to, too. I…want to dance with you.’
Emily Larkin is an Australian writer specialising in young adult fiction. She completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of the Sunshine Coast in 2014, and spends her free time reading, writing, discussing Horcruxes, iris-cams, and magic cupboards with her family, and having long conversations with her characters. Emily believes that reading a story is the best way to gain a fresh perspective.