By Jen Pendragon
CW: cigarette use
“I double dare you”. When she said it, she crossed her arms, because this wasn’t a question or even an idea. It was a command. She stood her ground, like this was her new spot and she wouldn’t be able to move until the challenge was complete.
I rolled my eyes, because she was always daring me to do something. Dye your hair, order the hottest sauce on the menu, ride your bike down the hill without hitting the breaks. And she was always this dramatic about it. There was only one dare I really wanted to hear, double or not, but her dares usually put more space between us instead of less. She double dared me to call Peter or Steve or Cliff. She’d look up their numbers in the yellow pages, and she’d tell me where their houses were, and then she’d give me something to say when they picked up the phone. Her dares were never cruel. She was too clever for lying about who liked who or for the classic “your fridge is running”. If no one picked up we biked to their houses and left them notes. We invited them to beach days or to get ice cream or asked them to meet us at the mall. They didn’t usually show up but when they did I was anxious the whole time that she would waste my dare on them.
She knew all the neighborhoods, because she biked around when her mom wasn’t home and her mom was never home. She was lucky she never got kidnapped. Maybe that didn’t happen as often as my parents wanted me to believe.
Today we’d snuck into the pool at the summer camp but the campers must have been on a field trip because the place was empty. I had a feeling she knew, somehow, that we’d be there by ourselves. “Come on.” she whined and inched toward the ladder. “If you won’t do it, I’ll have to, and you know I’m afraid of heights.” They had a 10 foot diving board because the pool was used during the school year for the high school team to train. The sign said you had to be 16 or older, but the sign was easily ignored. And even if there had been a lifeguard, she would have twirled her braids and smiled that smile and said we were sixteen. “We’ll be sixteen soon”, she would promise, and the way she looked in a bathing suit made it believable.
Sometimes I’d demure to get her to dare me. I liked the mischievous arc of her eyebrow and how she came up with rewards. Never the reward I wanted, of course, and I wouldn’t want it as a reward, anyhow. I’d want it to happen naturally, I’d want us to jump into a lake and come up for air and for her to drape her arms around my shoulders and lean in…I wanted Dirty Dancing.
Nine times out of ten, she didn’t have to dare me twice. I only needed a little nudge before I got myself in just as much trouble as she did. It wasn’t peer pressure or wanting to be more like her, I told myself. I liked testing my limits, I just didn’t have it in me without a little persuasion. And it wasn’t everything. Last year some kids on the bus were passing around cigarettes between the back rows of seats and I didn’t like the way they smelled. I took the cigarette when it was handed to me, and I even sniffed it up close, but passed it along without placing it between my lips. Preteens are not the way everyone wants you to believe. There was no booing or questions about why. No one even commented on it. She took the cigarette after me and passed it along without a word. Maybe if she’d done it I would have, too, just to have our lips pressed together in some way.
As the cigarette made its way around the circle, she leaned over and whispered in my ear. “I dare you, next time it comes around–” and before she even finished the dare I was shaking my head.
“Mm-mm.” I whispered back. “It smells so bad.” There it was, the eyebrow quirk. From this close it was even harder to resist, but I knew if I tried to breathe in that air I would throw up. “No.” I channeled her own stubborn tone and stared right into her eyes without flinching.
“Hm.” She sniffed. “Okay.” We stayed in the circle, passing the cigarette off without smoking from it. Maybe it was the way I’d put my foot down, or the fact I didn’t break eye contact. Or maybe she was just as wary as I was, and all she needed was that little pushback. Whatever it was, she didn’t press the issue, even as this shared ritual among our peers continued in and out of week after week.
Our lives were lived in summers, really. The seasons in between passed as though there was a template, and then when mid-June arrived and we were done with school, anything could happen. She liked to read over the summer, and always started the season with a trip to the library. When she made it back to my house the basket on her bike was stuffed with paperbacks at odd angles so that they were wedged against each other and wouldn’t fall when she hit a bump in the road.
She always had a small stack of romance novels with broken spines and creased covers, so I don’t know how she missed the signs. I tried reading one once and it was too much. Too much of what I wanted and knew I would never have. I was fourteen and I already knew my life would never be that way. All I wanted was for my best friend to really see me, finally. I double dared my heart to find someone else, but it didn’t care to listen.