“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she answered.
It was a blissful first five miles—the highway winds up and down some mountains, which makes for treacherous driving, but we were the only car on the road, and while the road was wet, the salt kept it from being icy. Plus, I was driving a cautious twenty miles an hour, which made the curves seem less terrifying. We were all quiet for a long time—thinking about the hill-topping, I guess—although periodically JP would exhale loudly through his mouth and say, “I can’t believe how not dead we are,” or some variant on that theme. The snow was too thick and the road too wet for music, so we just sat in silence.
And then after a while the Duke said, “What is it with you and cheerleaders anyway?” She was saying this to me; I knew because for a few months I’d gone out with a girl named Brittany, who happened to be a cheerleader. Our cheerleading team was actually quite good; they were, on average, far better athletes than the football team they rooted for. They were also notorious for leaving a trail of broken hearts—Stuart Weintraub, the guy Keun had seen in the Waffle House, had been absolutely annihilated by this cheerleader Chloe.
“Um, could it be how hot they are?” JP suggested.
“No,” I said, trying to be serious. “It was a coincidence. I didn’t like her because she was a cheerleader. I mean, she’s nice, right?”
The Duke scoffed. “Yeah, in that Joseph-Stalin-I-will-crush-my-enemies kind of way.”
JP said to the Duke, “Brittany was cool. She just didn’t like you, because she didn’t get it.”
“Didn’t get what?” asked the Duke.
“You know, that you’re not, like, a threat. Like, most girls, if they have a boyfriend, they don’t want their boyfriend hanging out all the time with another girl. And Brittany didn’t get that you, like, aren’t really a girl.”
“If by that you mean that I dislike celebrity magazines, prefer food to anorexia, refuse to watch TV shows about models, and hate the color pink, then yes. I am proud to be not really a girl.”
It was true that Brittany didn’t like the Duke, but she also didn’t like JP. She didn’t even like me that much, really. The more we hung out, the more Brittany would get annoyed with my sense of humor and my table manners and everything, which was why we broke up. The truth is that it never mattered that much to me. I was bummed when she dumped me, but it wasn’t a Weintraub-style catastrophe. I didn’t ever love Brittany, I guess. That was the difference. She was cute and smart and not uninteresting to talk to, but we never actually did talk about much. I never felt like everything was at stake with her, because I always knew how it would end. She never seemed worth the risk.
God, I hated talking about Brittany, but the Duke brought her up all the time, probably just for the unadulterated pleasure of annoying me. Or else because she never had any drama of her own to discuss. Lots of guys liked the Duke, but she never seemed interested in anybody. She didn’t want to talk your ear off about some guy and how cute he was, and how he sometimes paid her attention and sometimes didn’t and all that crap. I liked that about her. The Duke was just normal: she liked to joke around and talk about movies, and she didn’t mind yelling or getting yelled at. She was much more like a person than other girls were.
“I don’t have a thing for cheerleaders,” I repeated.
“But,” JP said, “we both have a thing for hot girls who love Twister. That’s not about loving cheerleaders, Duke: that’s about loving freedom and hope and the indomitable American spirit.”
“Yeah, well, call me unpatriotic, but I don’t see the cheerleader thing. Cheer isn’t sexy. Dark is sexy. Ambivalent is sexy. Deeper-than-it-looks-at-first-glance is sexy.”
“Right,” JP said. “That’s why you’re going out with Billy Talos. Nothing says dark and brooding like a Waffle House waiter.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror to see if JP was kidding, but he didn’t seem to be. She reached around and punched him on the knee and said, “It’s just a job.”
“Wait, you’re going out with Billy Talos?” I asked. I was surprised mostly because it didn’t seem like the Duke would ever go out with anybody, but also because Billy Talos was a beer-and-football kind of guy, whereas the Duke was more of a Shirley-Temple-and-live-theater kind of girl.
The Duke didn’t say anything for a second. “No. He just asked me to Winter Formal.”
I didn’t say anything. It seemed weird the Duke would tell JP about something but not me. JP said, “No offense, but Billy Talos is a little bit greasy, isn’t he? I feel like if you wrung out his hair every day or two, you could potentially end America’s dependence on foreign oil.”
“No offense taken,” the Duke said, laughing. Clearly she wasn’t that keen on him. But still, I couldn’t picture the Duke with Billy Talos—oily hair aside, he just didn’t seem very, like, funny or interesting. But whatever. The Duke and JP moved on to an impassioned discussion of the Waffle House’s menu, and whether its raisin toast was superior to its regular toast. It was fun background noise for the drive. The snowflakes hit the windshield and instantly melted. The wipers shoved them aside. The high-beam headlights lit up the snow and the wet road, and I could see just enough of the asphalt to know where my lane was, and where I was going.
I could have driven down that road for a long time before I got tired, but it was almost time to turn onto Sunrise Avenue and head through downtown toward the interstate and Waffle House. It was 12:26. In the morning.
“Hey,” I said, interrupting them.
“What?” asked the Duke.
I stole a glance away from the road to talk directly to her. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” she said back. “Merry Christmas, JP.”
“Merry Christmas, asshats.”
The banks of snow on either side of Sunrise Avenue were huge, as tall as the car, and I felt like we were driving at the bottom of an endless snowboard half-pipe. JP and the Duke were being quiet, all of us concentrating on the road. We had a couple miles to go before we got downtown, and then the Waffle House was a mile east, just off the interstate. Our silence was interrupted by a nineties rap song playing on JP’s phone. “Keun,” he said. He turned the speaker on.
“WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GUYS?”