At thirteen, puberty was on us like a swarm of hungry swamp mosquitoes. Nature purged Justine’s awkwardness before her birstday and she filled out, looking more like an adult than a child. Fourth generation American, her great-grandparents came from Spain. She didn’t slouch like the other taller children, always with her shoulders back and dark Baker’s chocolate eyes quick, taking everything in.
Erotic and exotic, a child in a woman’s body, her hair so black it reflected light, dancing in flows around her face and shoulders. Her face, complexion a wonderful brushed mahogany, was symmetrical perfection, obviously God spending extra time to get the features just right.
We liked Saturdays in the mall, us girls, sitting around talking of literature and life, boys and Barbies, puppies and kittens, who liked which and why, menstruation and breasts, all over cherry Cokes and boardwalk fries. Puberty cost Justine some friends. Over the years, she’d been disliked for having ancestors from Spain. She shrugged at the others.
Justine had a practical resolve and strength in the face of reality I liked standing next to.
Spring brought the school’s-letting-out trollers, men, young men driving by slowly. Justine would strut, watching out the corner of her eye, basking in the attention.
She got a lot of attention.
Some men and others, soon-to-be-men from the high school, would hang at the park up the street from our school, trying to look busy while waiting for the parade. Occasionally, we’d be approached, the men gathering enough courage to cross the void.
I felt something toxic in the attention, something corrupt. Yet, I felt filled up and warmed as if by a fire on a cold winter night. These men wanted to meet me. A girl could drown in affirmation like that. The men and soon-to-be-men didn’t have to be witty or particularly good-looking. To impress us, all they had to do was show up.
Stan blocked Justine’s way, dropped his dimpled smile on her, asking: “What do you teach?” and that was that for Justine.
Justine dodged the question, only briefly lost for words. She smiled back up at him.
I gave her my puppy dog look, the look that can melt steel. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand, accepting an invitation for a ride.
Stan was twenty-eight. Yeah, that’s as in years-fucking-old.
Stan was an all-right guy, I guess. Justine was quiet at first about the whole affair, pun intended. I could tell she was burning to share something, anything, with me. The Saturday after their meeting, Stan, with Justine, picked me up and dropped us at the mall. Justine was long getting from the car. They made out like they were both teenagers.
I gave her a double dose of my puppy dog look. “Your parents like him?”
She shrugged. “Like I’d even tell them.” She stopped at a shop window. “I really like kittens better.” A puppy followed her finger on the glass.
“You said dogs.”
Again, the shrug. “Everyone else said kittens.”
“We did it.”
Justine’s proclamation came between a fish stick and draw on her milk.
I blinked twice. “You did?”
Justine twisted her lips, looking down at the cafeteria table. She knew my question rhetorical. “It was OK.” She looked off to the right, the practical resolve and strength in her face dimmed.
I felt suffocating disappointment. I leaned forward, taking her hand. Doing such things was inevitable. I wanted the news to come with trumpets blaring and maybe some table-dancing.
“I guess if you really love him.”
She flashed a look, nothing like a puppy dog look, taking her hand back.
“You used protection?” I only asked because I know that’s what I should ask, as a responsible friend.
Again, the twisted lips. “Said I was on the pill.” She shrugged.
“Look.” She didn’t, still watching her hands. “You weren’t there. You can’t know. I mean, I didn’t want to seem like a little kid, you know.”
I wanted to blurt out she was a little kid. I retook her hand instead and finished my lunch.
Friends don’t judge. Friends do what’s needed.
Soon after school let out for the summer, we took a bus and transferred twice, finally walking about a quarter of a mile. “I’m really sorry I gotta drag you into this.”
She was required to have someone with her.
The waiting room was warm, inviting. The receptionist behind the glass window smiled. She accepted cash from Justine.
Justine and I sat close, our knees and heads together holding hands, submerged in our own universe where only Barbies and kittens are important.
“He’d be here if he could.”
She didn’t have to convince me.
“His wife got suspicious.”
That was new information, not that Justine offered much over the weeks. I tightened my grasp on her hands.
“You must think me really stupid.”
“I feel you’re harder on yourself than I could ever be.”
She sobbed twice.
“I love you.”
A woman, obviously unaware of what was about to take place or sociopathic, stood over us with a clipboard, smiling too much. She offered a hand, saying Justine’s name. “Come with me, please.”
I wanted to yell at the woman. I wanted to tell the entire story, as if giving the story voice, we’d wake up in our beds, the nightmare over. I sat watching the same dramas play out over and over. They were different, but oh, were they the same.
I wasn’t aware I was crying until the receptionist sat beside me, asking whether I was all right, putting an arm around me. I wanted to call Mom so she could come be with me. She knows the pain of a child unborn, after all.
I met Justine at the receptionist’s window, her passing a handful of papers to me. She signed something, nodding, almost smiling.
“I won’t be seeing him again.” Her eyes slow, blind beyond me.
Time would pass. Justine would rise, but never completely.