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I understand now, nearly three years later, that it was a fatherly duty, like ball throwing and knot tying and stick-shift driving, and perhaps the last on the paternal checklist. And the funny thing is that, try as I might, when I think back on it these days, driving through town in the winter with the windows open and the stereo beating and my elbow becoming pink and raw in the vacant window frame, it is our last private interaction I can remember. I know there were more — a dinner or two, a bear hug after graduation, others — but I remember little outside the thickening fog of my own self-interest, and those condoms, in their glossy and embarrassing package, like a Unicef collection box, rising and falling with each breath.
Do-overs don't really exist so I try not to dwell on these things, but I do get a lot of thinking done these days driving around town late into the night with the music crawling from my open windows. I've been delivering booze for Downtown Spirits, cases of wine, mostly to your friends, and since everyone's long gone — Agatha to Bryn Mawr, Sausage to Skidmore, Cuppo to Puget Sound — the whole town sometimes feels like it's mine.
But did I tell you that Mom and I ran into the lady with the convertible? We were in the produce aisle and that Raggedy Ann hair, a ridiculous red, stopped us both. She was squeezing an onion. She held it in front of her face like a softball pitcher starting her wind-up, looking so closely it was nearly touching her sunglasses. Sunglasses! In the white light of the supermarket! Maybe she was hung over. Maybe she'd come from a funeral. I'd wanted to watch some more, to see what else we'd find, but that's all I got before Mom was gone. She was already out the automatic door, and then I was going after her, and when I looked back from the parking lot, all I could see was our cart, abandoned with our food still in it.
• • • • •
By April I was ready to be done with it all, and so was Agatha, I learned one teary night when she ambushed me in her car about why I hadn't asked her to prom.
"You're just mean to me," she said, wiping her eyes with her palms. "You don't acknowledge me. It's like you're two different people completely. Why? I don't get it."
When I shrugged, she kicked me out of her car, which I assumed I was supposed to resist, but instead I walked home in the warm spring air, kicking a pebble in front of me, and feeling, somewhat pleasantly, off the hook. I spent prom night taking bong rips in my rented tuxedo before passing out in Sausage's basement. I saw her occasionally from a distance in the hallways, and in the sea of cheap nylon robes at graduation, but she never seemed to notice me.
I could tell you about how it all felt right, that I felt like a kid again, spending all my time with my dufus buddies and our arsenal of inside jokes, enjoying plastic pouches of fruit snacks and unafraid to recite aloud with the video our favorite scenes from Total Recall. I could tell you about the adamant decisions that passed unanimously in the House and Senate of my mind. I could tell you that although she had done nothing wrong, Agatha Berger had begun to represent everything I hated about myself. I could tell you these things but they wouldn't make sense with the rest of the story.
It was in the invincible joy of early July, at a pool party, no less, that I saw her again. She looked happy, splashing around in the deep end with a quartet of guys I didn't know — buzzed, I assumed, on something. It was dark and the only light in the yard was from the pool, which cast its wavy radioactive glow on the heavy maple limbs above. She wore a plaid bikini that tied around her neck like the waitress at a lewd Dutch Pantry. She had lost weight and yet her breasts looked bigger somehow. When she pushed herself out of the water I could see she was wearing some other guy's lacrosse shorts.
"Look who's here," said Cuppo, reaching for my nipple with his vicious pinchers.
We found each other by the creaky lawn furniture on the shadowy edge of the yard, where I'd been trying unsuccessfully to light a corncob pipe (it was a phase). She'd pulled a loose tank top over her bikini and was, it seemed, looking for a place to pee. The party was late, anonymous, strewn with cups and bottles, as if the very act of littering was part of the thrill of cutting loose.
"Latrine's over there," I said, pointing at the house.
She looked up at me and squinted. "Is that a pipe?"
"Maybe," I said, cupping the flame against the wind again and nearly burning a lighter smiley into my thumb.
"Let me see it." She snatched it from my hands, clenched it in her teeth and with a single flick had it lit. She placed it back in my mouth as if feeding me a carrot. "My Dad smokes one."
"I'm still trying it out," I said, surprised by the ashy taste filling my mouth. It always smelled so sweet clamped in the jaws of old men, filling an entire block with its aroma. I'd assumed it'd taste something like a Werther's Original.
"Your hair's gotten longer," she said, pulling on the straggly bits behind my ear.
"So has yours." She now had a full ponytail, which she tied high on her head with an elastic, and, in the shadow, it looked like a big stringy squid had made its home there. Her hand combed through my dangling hair, then around to the back of my skull.