It’s funny how kids will always manipulate formal given names into something else. Usually, it’s a shortening; sometimes just the first letter sticks. I cannot remember ever hearing Lexi’s parents shorten their chosen name, but she allowed me to drop the final letter, but I could only use it when we hung out alone. For a while, we walked to school together.
At her thirteenth birthday party, not too many other boys came, even though boy-girl parties were THE THING then, it seemed. Todd Schumacher and I buddied up and stared at the locked liquor cabinet in Lexi’s parent’s basement for a solid twenty minutes. Todd claimed his older brother knew how to pick locks, but there was little chance this absent brother would be able to pass for a thirteen-year-old if and when he arrived at the door. The only other boy there was Kenny Grimes. Grimesy was that kid who kept to himself unless it was Halloween or a half-day at school or something . Whenever the regular schedule changed, Grimesy came out of his proverbial shell. At this party, however, he remained shy, probably because he had never been to a girl’s house. Todd and I acted like pros, though. We looked comfortable, even though we were outnumbered 14-3 genderwise.
After her mother brought down a tray of hot dogs, she finished the food display by putting out chips and pretzels. Just before going upstairs–for good this time she said–she remembered some Hershey’s kisses she’d saved from Easter. Once the basement was completely parent-free, our attention left the alcohol and turned to the pool table. Lexi said her dad had wanted one for a long time, and (she whispered) even though they fought about how much it cost, he had it installed the previous weekend. He had come down and asked Lexi to remind her friends (even though we could all hear him) that no one should place their drinks or anything else on the table.
Most of the other girls wore outfits they hadn’t worn to school earlier that day. Grimesy had on the same superhero shirt we think he wore every Friday, but Todd and I had only changed tee shirts. That afternoon–one of the warmest of the spring so far–had prompted many of us boys to throw together an impromptu basketball game right after school, so the sleeves of my shirt were stained with sweat. Hanna Caldwell was there, and she was wearing heels. Already the tallest girl in our grade, she now towered above the other girls by two more inches. She was quite pretty; her straight blond hair fell like columns on either side of her freckled cheeks. Trish Underwood, however, was the anti-Hanna. She’d been sitting on the lone sofa since before I arrived. Trish had a habit of examining her fingernails before, during, and after all interactions with other humans.
An hour later or so, Lexi’s dad came back down with a beer in his hand and removed the tan leather cover from the pool table. “Harris!” he bellowed at me with a stern finger. “Play me!” He’d never called me by, well anything, before.
“Dad, c’mon,” Lexi pleaded.
“One game,” he said, not looking at her and applying blue chalk to a cue stick. “I want to teach your boyfriend how to play.”
Needless to say the mood of the party switched permanently at that moment. I distinctly remember looking at her, knowing she wanted to say “He’s not my boyfriend,” but she caught herself. Instead, she stormed to the foot of the basement stairs and called for her mother.
“Mom! Dad and his beer are down here!”
“Jeff!” we heard. “Can you help me in the kitchen?” No one else knew this, but I knew that was code for a fight about to take place. Perhaps she didn’t always use kitchen. He slowly replaced the cue stick on a wall-mounted rack and took a long slurp of his beer. His eyes met mine, but he stayed silent. The only sound was the night-time radio host talking about a weekly top ten list he was beginning soon. As if he’d come back down to earth, Lex’s dad began climbing the stairs and mumbled something about us kids having a good time.
A few minutes later after the girls returned to two different huddles, Todd approached me. “Was that for real? You two are boyfriend-girlfriend?”
I had no idea how to answer. She was a girl and we were friends. I wasn’t stupid enough to think those were the only prerequisites, but I also knew the potential ramifications for saying yes or saying no. As it was happening, i realized this was going to be one of those moments that stuck with me forever. The first alternative that erupted in my head blurted through my teeth.
“Yes, but you can’t say anything to anyone about it.”
I should have known then, and I definitely know now. The words after “yes” in my response were pointless.