Lola and the Boy Next Door
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But . . . he still wasn’t making any moves. Lindsey supposed he was waiting for the right moment, something significant. Maybe my birthday. His is exactly one month after mine, also on the twentieth, so he’d always remembered. That morning, I was heartened to see a sign taped to his glass: HAPPY LOLA DAY! WE’RE THE SAME AGE AGAIN!
I leaned out my window. “For a month!”
He appeared with a smile, his hands rubbing together. “It’s a good month.”
“You’ll forget about me when you turn sixteen,” I teased.
“Impossible.” His voice cracked on the word, and it shook my heart.
Andy took over Betsy’s afternoon walk so that we could have complete freedom. Cricket greeted me at the usual time, raising two pizza boxes over his head. I was about to say I was still stuffed from lunch when . . . “Are those empty or full?” My question was sly. I had a feeling this wasn’t about pizza.
He opened up a box and smiled. “Empty.”
“I haven’t been there in years!”
“Same here. Calliope and I were probably with you the last time I went.”
We took off running down the hill, toward the park at the other end of our street—the one that barely counted because it was tiny and sandwiched between two houses—back up another hill, past the spray-painted sign warning NO ADULTS ALLOWED UNLESS ACCOMPANIED BY CHILDREN, and to the top of the Seward Street slides.
“Oh God.” I had a jolt of terror. “Were they always this steep?”
Cricket unfolded the boxes and laid them long and greasy side down, one on each narrow concrete slide. “I claim left.”
I sat down on my box. “Sucks to be you. The right side is faster.”
“No way! The left side always wins.”
“Says the guy who hasn’t been here since he was six. Keep your arms tucked in.”
He grinned. “There’s no way I’ve forgotten those scrapes and burns.”
On the count of three, we took off. The slides are short and fast, and we flew to the bottom, holding in our screams so as not to disturb the Seward Witch, the mean old lady who shouted obscenities at people enjoying themselves too loudly and just another reason why the slides were so much fun. Cricket’s feet flew off first, followed quickly by his bottom. He hit the ground with a smack that had us rolling with laughter.
“I think my ass is actually smoking,” he said.
I bit down the obvious comment, that his pants had made this fact abundantly clear in June.
We stayed for half an hour, sharing the slides with two guys in their twenties who were high and a playgroup of moms and preschoolers. We were waiting behind the moms, about to go down for the last time, when I heard snickering. I looked over my shoulder and discovered the arrival of three girls from school. My heart sank.
“Nice dress,” Marta Velazquez said. “Is it your mommy’s?”
I was wearing a vintage polka-dot swing dress—two sizes too large that I’d tightened with safety pins—over a longsleeved striped shirt and jeans rolled greaser-style. I wanted to look pretty for my birthday.
I no longer felt pretty.
Cricket turned around, confused. And then . . . he did something that changed everything. He stepped deliberately in front of them and blocked my view. “Don’t listen to them. I like how you dress.”
He liked me just as I was.
I sat down quietly on my pizza box. “It’s our turn.”
But what I ached to say was, I need you.
On the walk home, he had me joking and laughing about the people who’d tormented me for years. I finally realized how absurd it was that I’d worried so much about what my classmates thought about me. It’s not like I wanted to look like them.
“Cricket!” Andy said, when he saw us approaching. “You’re coming over for the birthday dinner, right?”
I looked at Cricket hopefully. He put his hands in his pockets. “Sure.”
It was simple and perfect. My only guests were Nathan, Andy, Lindsey, and Cricket. We ate Margherita pizza, followed by an extravagant cake shaped like a crown. I ate the first piece, Cricket ate the biggest. Afterward, I walked my friends outside. Lindsey gave me a nudge in the back and disappeared.
Cricket shuffled his feet. “I’m not great with gifts.”
My heart leaped. But instead of a kiss, he removed a fistful of watch parts and candy wrappers from his pocket. Cricket sifted through the pile until he found a soda-bottle cap, metallic pink. He held it up. “Your first.”
Perhaps most girls would’ve been disappointed, but I am not most girls. We’d recently seen a belt made out of bottle caps in a store window, and I’d said that I wanted to make one. “You remembered!”
Cricket smiled in relief. “I thought it was a good one. Colorful.” And as he placed it in my open palm, I reread the message scrawled onto the back of his hand for the hundredth time that day: FUSE NOW.
This was the moment.
I gripped the cap and stepped forward. His breathing quickened. So did mine.
“You promised you’d be there!”
We jumped apart. Calliope was on the porch next door, seemingly on the verge of tears. “I needed you, and you weren’t there.”
An unmistakable flash of panic in his eyes. “Oh God, Cal. I can’t believe I forgot.”
She was wearing a delicate cardigan, but the way she crossed her arms was anything but soft. “You’ve been forgetting a lot of things lately.”
“I’m sorry. It slipped my mind, I’m so sorry.” He tried to shake the wrappers and watch parts back into his pocket, but they spilled onto my porch.
“Smooth, Cricket.” She looked at me and scowled. “I don’t know why you’re wasting your time.”
But she was still talking to him.
“Thanks for dinner,” he mumbled, shoving everything back into his pockets. “Happy birthday.” He left without looking at me. From their porch, Calliope was still glaring. I felt slapped in the face. Ashamed. I didn’t have anything to be ashamed about, but she had that effect. If she wanted you to feel something, you would.
Later, Cricket told me that he was supposed to have gone to some meeting. He was vague about it. After that, it was as if we’d taken a small step backward. We started school. He hung out with Lindsey and me, while Calliope made new friends. There was a quiet tension between the twins. Cricket didn’t talk about it, but I knew he was upset.