She was just walking in front of us in her shin-high boots, her hood pulled up, her head down. There’s a certain something to the way girls walk—particularly when they aren’t wearing fancy shoes or anything, when they’re just wearing sneakers or whatever—something about the way their legs connect to their hips. Anyway, the Duke was walking, and there was a certain something to it, and I was kind of disgusted with myself for thinking about that certain something. I mean, my girl cousins probably walked with the same certain something, but the point is that sometimes you notice it and sometimes you don’t. When Brittany the cheerleader walks, you notice it. When the Duke walks, you don’t. Usually.
I spent so long thinking about the Duke and her walk and the lazy wet curls down her back, and the way the thickness of her coat made her arms stick out from her body a little, and all of that, that I took way too long to respond to JP. But finally I said, “Don’t be an asshat.”
And he said, “You just spent a hell of a long time thinking up that quality comeback.”
“No,” I said finally. “I don’t like the Duke, not like that. I’d tell you if I did, but it’s like liking your cousin.”
“It’s funny you should mention that, because I have a really hot cousin, actually.”
“Duke,” JP called. “What were you telling me about cousin-screwing the other day? It’s, like, totally safe?”
She turned around to us and continued walking, her back to the wind, the snow blowing around her and toward us. “No, it’s not totally safe. It raises the risk of birth defects slightly. But I was reading in a book for history that there’s, like, a 99.9999 percent chance that at least one of your great-great-great-grandparents married a first cousin.”
“So what you’re saying is that there’s nothing wrong with hooking up with your cousin.”
The Duke paused and turned to walk with us. She sighed loudly. “That is not what I’m saying. Also I’m a little tired of talking about cousin hookups and hot cheerleaders.”
“What should we talk about instead? The weather? It looks like we’re getting some snow,” JP said.
“Honestly, I would rather talk about the weather.”
I said, “You know, Duke, there are male cheerleaders. You could always just hook up with them.”
The Duke stopped talking and totally snapped. Her face was scrunched up as she yelled at me. “You know what? It’s sexist. Okay? I hate to be, like, the watchdog for the ladies or whatever, but when you spend a whole night talking about doing girls because they’ve got short skirts on, or how hot pom-poms are, or whatever. It’s sexist, okay? Female cheerleaders wearing dainty little male-fantasy outfits—sexist! Just assuming they’re dying to make out with you—sexist! I realize that you are, like, bursting with a constant need to rub yourself against girl flesh or whatever, but can you just try to talk about it a little less in front of me?!”
I looked down at the snow falling on snow. I felt like I’d just gotten caught cheating on a test or something. I wanted to say that I didn’t even care if we went to the Waffle House anymore, but I just shut up. The three of us kept walking in a line. The swirling wind was at our backs now, and I stared down and tried to let it push me on to the Waffle House.
“I’m sorry,” I heard the Duke say to JP.
“Nah, it’s our fault,” he responded without looking over. “I was being an asshat. We just need to . . . I don’t know, sometimes it’s hard to remember.”
“Yeah, maybe I should thrust my boobs out more or something.” The Duke said that loud, like I was supposed to hear it.
There is always the risk: something is good and good and good and good, and then all at once it gets awkward. All at once, she sees you looking at her, and then she doesn’t want to joke around with you anymore, because she doesn’t want to seem flirty, because she doesn’t want you to think she likes you. It’s such a disaster, whenever, in the course of human relationships, someone begins to chisel away at the wall of separation between friendship and kissing. Breaking down that wall is the kind of story that might have a happy middle—oh, look, we broke down this wall, I’m going to look at you like a girl and you’re going to look at me like a boy and we’re going to play a fun game called Can I Put My Hand There What About There What About There. And sometimes that happy middle looks so great that you can convince yourself that it’s not the middle but will last forever.
That middle is never the end, though. It wasn’t the end with Brittany, God knows. And Brittany and I hadn’t even been close friends, not really. Not like the Duke. The Duke was my best friend, if I had to pick. I mean, the one person I’d take to a desert island? The Duke. The one CD I’d take? A mix, called “The Earth Is Blue Like an Orange,” that she made for me last Christmas. The one book I’d take? The longest book I’ve ever liked, The Book Thief, which the Duke recommended to me. And I did not want to have a happy middle with the Duke at the expense of an Inevitably Disastrous Forever.
But then again (and here is one of my main complaints about human consciousness): once you think a thought, it is extremely difficult to unthink it. And I had thought the thought. We whined about the cold. The Duke kept sniffling, because we didn’t have any tissue and she didn’t want to blow her noise on the ground. JP, having agreed not to talk about cheerleaders, kept talking about hash browns instead.
JP meant “hash browns” only as a symbol for cheerleaders—it was clear because he was, like, “My favorite thing about the hash browns at the Waffle House is that they wear the cutest little skirts.” “Hash browns are always in a great mood. And that rubs off. Seeing hash browns happy makes me happy.”
It seemed like as long as it was JP talking, the Duke didn’t find it annoying. She was just laughing and responding by actually talking about hash browns. “They’re going to be so warm,” she said. “So crispy and golden and delicious. I want four large orders. Also some raisin toast. God, I love that raisin toast. Mmm, it’s going to be carbtastic.” I could see the interstate overpass in the distance, the snow piled high on the sides of the bridge. The Waffle House was still probably a half mile away, but it was a straight shot now. The black letters in their yellow boxes promising cheesy waffles, and Keun’s impish smile, and the kind of girls who make unthinking easier.