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It was a hot night, flirting with autumn but not quite there yet. The air smelled of algae from nearby Lake Austin, and Lake Harbor Country Club’s fried mozzarella, and that wet summer night smell of green grass and trees. From a distance off toward the tennis courts, the wind blew in scents of cigarette smoke and citrusy men’s cologne.
We could smell them before we saw them – the Kickers. They shoplifted regularly and rarely got caught. They wore boots, carried knives, drank whiskey, drove trucks, and tried to act like cowboys.
It was Minna’s idea to get too close.
Minna Stephens lived on the edge. In every grade she ran ahead, faster than the rest of us.
In first grade she began using penis as a curse word. Each time the lead of her pencil broke, or she got her hair stuck in a barrette: “Oh, penis!” The rest of us giggled nervously. Penis was a word we didn’t say.
In fourth grade Minna invented a game for our slumber parties called Trust. On person had to hide in the laundry room while the others got to choose any three ingredients (cat food was okay) and mix them together. The person in the laundry room had to come out and taste it and guess the ingredients – trusting that her friends wouldn’t poison her.
In sixth grade Minna grew into an expert toilet paperer of houses.
The summer before ninth grade, Minna lay down in the middle of the road in the middle of the night. Why? Nobody knew and she never said. Luckily our curfew came before any cars did. Minna had a way of beginning a dare with, “Hey you guys…” that made all of her ideas seem exciting and even reasonable.
Minna had a French look about her. She looked good in black. She had hips but no breasts; her light blonde hair angel-ringed in messy halos around her ears, and her lips pouted perfectly. She spoke in a husky voice. The rest of us were clumsy and self-conscious high school freshmen who got up at 5:30 every morning to curl our hair, put on makeup, and shave our legs. We kept calendars of which clothes we wore so that we wouldn’t repeat them too often. We had crushes on boys who took no notice of us. And we wondered what special beauty Minna had.
On this particular autumn night, Minna’s mother dropped us off at Lake Harbor Country Club and went out for drinks with Minna’s dad. “I’ll pick you up at 11,” she called from the car window, leaving us girls alone in the dark parking lot.
Lake Harbor Country Club squats on a large plot of land, spanning down on one side to Lake Austin, a polluted dammed-off Texas river where people dock their boats. On the other side, the club is bordered by a linked network of aging tennis courts with cracked concrete surfaces and saggy nets. It has a clubhouse that serves dinner and locker rooms that forbid children under age 14 from entering. It has crevices and trees and very good hiding places.
We loitered in the ladies’ locker room for an hour, reminiscing about other days spent at Lake Harbor on Minna’s parents’ tab, sneaking into the locker room when we were 13, 12, 11. Sitting in the steam room we recalled the time Minna lost one of our bikini tops in the hot tub – she had dared us all to skinny-dip and the sucking device at the bottom of the hot tub sucked the top right up. Minna had gallantly offered her own lime green bikini as a replacement. We remembered playing spin the bottle on the tennis courts with the Lethem brothers who, from their smiles alone, were destined to go into politics. We all had histories at Lake Harbor simply because it was a place we could go unsupervised, where our parents could leave us for hours and trust that we would be okay. We grew bored of the locker room and walked back into the lawn near the swimming pool.
And then we saw the Kickers.
We saw them in the parking lot, leaning against their gray and forest-green trucks, smoking and drinking, the guys with their arms around the small Kicker girls. A new truck drove fast into the parking lot, spinning its wheels and shooting up gravel. Several of the girls jumped out of the way. The Kicker who got out of the car, laughing and holding up a flask, we recognised as the leader of their pack. In seventh grade he got pulled out of school in handcuffs. Nobody knew what he did – there were rumours he had set the boys’ bathroom on fire – and whether it was true or not did not matter. We all were afraid of him.
Minna whispered, “Hey you guys…” and all our heads turned, expectant. Minna did not let us down. “I have an idea. We’ll go spy on them.”
We knew better than to take this sort of risk. But we all had gone along with Minna’s games before.
We crept single-file around an empty lifeguard’s hut. We were so close that we could see the spark of their cigarette lighters, the glimmer of the thin silver bracelets on the Kicker girls’ arms. The sound of beer cans being crunched under boots crinkled the moist night air.
Then one of us got the hiccups.
“What’s that sound?” a voice said. It was a man’s voice, nothing like the half-squeaked uncertain tones of the boys in our freshman classes.
“Shuddup, man,” said one of the others. “You’re making shit up.”
“Naw, naw, listen. Hang on.” And we heard the sound of heavy boots coming down hard on paved concrete, and suddenly Minna begin to run.
The Kicker saw. “Get ’em!” he hollered, and within seconds a stampede of boots pounded in our direction.
We raced after Minna in our flip-flops, not caring about a thing except that we did not want to die, not tonight, not by the Swiss army knife of some drunk angry sophomore pseudo-cowboy.
We ran and they chased – through the empty parking lot, past the clubhouse, past the swimming pool with the cantina that sold fried mozzarella, and all the while they were hollering things at us like, “You bitch-hos!” and “We’re gonna kill you!”
Up ahead we caught sight of Minna’s blonde hair glowing in the blue light of the swimming pool, then disappearing into the darkness of the gravel path leading down to the lake. We followed her blindly, madly, and somewhere on that path, the Kickers lost us. Either that or they lost interest, figuring they had scared us enough.
Down at the docks, the other girls stood around Minna, catching their breaths, laughing. I could taste at the back corner of my mouth the sour saliva bitterness that comes from breathing deeply and running too hard. The moon gleamed above us, illuminating the boats on both side of the lake. Then there was Minna’s deep baritone voice like honey, saying: “You guys, that was hilarious.”
The other girls nodded, agreeing, their chests heaving like mine, like Minna’s. Did they mean it? How were they not as terrified as I was that we hadn’t been caught by the authorities, but instead chased by other criminals?
We waited by the docks for Minna’s mother to pick us up. She was late. By the time our Swatches read 11:12, our lungs had stopped heaving.
Mrs. Stephens didn’t ask any questions, and we were quiet in the car. Within 15 minutes we were home, safe, close to our sleeping bags where nothing else could go awry, no more of Minna’s plans could be concocted, no other dangerous adventures could be offered up for us to agree to.
In Minna’s bedroom we changed into our pyjamas and spread out our sleeping bags on the floor next to Minna’s bed and in the sleeping loft that you got to by climbing a ladder. The rest of our moms would never have allowed us to have a ladder in our bedrooms. Our mothers would never let us do half the things Minna’s parents didn’t even notice that Minna did. We giggled nervously at the events of our night, and drifted off to sleep.
Everyone except me.
Even tucked deep inside my sleeping bag, I felt a ripening danger in Minna’s room. I stayed awake for hours, lonelier than I had ever been. Revelation after revelation struck like waves. Since first grade I had shadowed Minna because she was fun, she took risks, she wasn’t afraid, and most of all because her recklessness brought the rest of us into the aura of her “we.” But however generous the embrace of the other girls’ “we,” it did not include me. Not truly. This night I knew with complete and humbling certainty that I did not belong.
I fell asleep knowing for the first time in my life that I was an I, just an I, a solitary and fearful I.
But somewhere in my brain, gold and silver synapses fired away, brimming with a trust that there was more to the story. There was something sacred here, even if I was too thick to see it. I was still awake at dawn when the other girls began stirring and Minna Stephens let out a surprising and charming snore. In the darkness behind my eyelids, sparks were beginning to spell out the truth: At least you are an I who values her own life.