Erica’s in our spot, her gold hair shining in the sun. I drop my best friend Birdie’s hand and get ready to run. I’ve spent eighty-eight miserable days waiting for a glimpse of her. She won’t notice me until I’m past the newsstand. I’ll skid to a stop, slide my hands around her waist, and pull her toward me. Her mouth will tickle my ear as she whispers hello. Right in the middle of Harvard Square, where anyone could see us, her lips will ask a question and mine will answer oh hell yes.
Birdie squints through the crowd. “It’s not her, Rye.”
This girl smokes as she contemplates her ratty Doc Martens. Her hair falls in her face. I’m staring so hard she’s got to feel my gaze. Then she’ll look up. And I’ll know for sure.
In my fantasies, Erica says she didn’t mean it. She asks me to be her girlfriend. I play it cool and pretend to think about it. Oh hell yes.
Birdie nudges me. “She’s wearing glasses. It’s not her.”
The near run-in with Erica leaves me with shaky hands and a weird mix of emotions. I know what I want, and I’m ready to fight. I think. I fix my hair, feeling the tremble in my fingers, the nervous mess I’ve become.
Birdie points out a flyer in the diner window. “Something’s wrong. Like really wrong.”
“What, like they changed their menu for the first time in eighty years? Hardly.” I smear on the lip gloss that reminds me of Erica, then smack my lips.
When Birdie whines again, I lean forward. I rush through the flyer, then read it again, then just the first sentence, the one that says, We regret to inform you Haven Diner will be closing. This is a joke. It has to be a joke. They can’t be serious.
I yank open the diner’s door. Our favorite waitress, Noreen, heckles the afternoon regulars like usual. There’s a pair of orange vinyl stools by the pie case, and I hurl myself onto one, dropping my backpack to the ground. I fiddle with the menu, which I know by heart because I’ve been coming here with my family forever. Well, until Mom walked out on us.
I start yelling when Noreen comes over with coffee. “That’s a joke, right, that sign in the window? Someone’s idea of a prank? Cause it isn’t funny. You have to take it down.” My feet tap Morse Code against the floor. My face doesn’t know whether to cry or crumble.
Noreen doesn’t sass me as she slaps down creamers, and that’s when I know it’s true. The notice said something about a rent increase. It said there would be a community meeting, that they would “explore their options” and “determine whether there are viable grounds to remain in our historic location.”
“We’ll have the usual,” Birdie says.
Noreen wipes the counter, even though it’s not dirty. “Believe me, I wish this was a joke.”
“Why do they want more money? Why now? And you guys can afford to pay more, right? I mean, the diner is packed all the time, I’m sure the owners can afford it, if it’s just about the rent.” I clench my toes, trying to slow my mind so it can catch up to this gut punch.
Noreen moves her lips like she’s trying to be delicate. “This is a university town. What the school wants, they get. One way or another. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, kid, but that’s life. You kids. I’m gonna miss you kids,” she mutters as she pulls pies out of the refrigerated case.
Along the back wall, students hunch over a tower of books. By the window, some distinguished professor my dad knows pens a crossword. “Maybe outside, they think they’re better than us regular folk, but in here we’re the same. We all belong. Even me.” I wave a hand over my chub and ignore Birdie’s sad puppy face. “It’s not an insult if I say it.”
I’m big-boned with large thighs and a belly that folds in thirds when I sit. I’ve spent the last ten years wishing I could magic away the chub, but it hasn’t happened yet. If I’m never going to be thin, am I supposed to hate myself for the rest of my life?
Noreen slides the bill under the napkin dispenser. “Look, I don’t have the answers you want, but come to the meeting and someone smarter than me will. I’m going to fight this, and so are the guys in the kitchen. If all of you show up to fight it too, maybe they’ll listen.”
Birdie digs into his mushroom burger with fries. “Tell me about your new school.”
“This day is shit enough, I’d rather not.”
Birdie switches gears. “I’m practicing for auditions for the musical. And I joined the gay-straight alliance.”
“Was she at the meeting?”
“Girl, please! She wouldn’t be caught dead at GSA. She’s not like us. She’s afraid to be different.”
As Birdie carries on about the gay-straight alliance, I sneak another bite of pie. He’s wrong about me. I don’t wave my freak flag proudly, like he does. I wish I could blend in, but my thunder thighs don’t let me. If he thinks I really don’t care how people see me, he’s falling for my act.
Two weeks go by before I see Erica. I’m in the Pit, on the chewing gum-laden brick retaining wall where everyone hangs out. A few feet away, a trio of college-aged women read a magazine. I envy their familiarity, the casual way they lean into each other and laugh at the articles. It reminds me of lazy afternoons hanging out with Erica and Birdie and all the others. It’s funny how last year feels like a lifetime ago.
Erica’s groupies trickle out of the ice cream shop and claim a spot on the wall. I head toward the group, waving until I get their attention.
“Hey, girl, how are you?” Sara asks. She’s taller than I remember, maybe because she is wearing a midriff shirt and styled her hair into a mohawk.
“Your hair is incredible. What did you use?”
“School glue.” Sara giggles.
“Erica will be so psyched to see you!” Hannah tries to one-up her friend. What would she say if she knew the truth?
When Erica comes out of the coffee shop carrying a large iced coffee, extra light and sweet, my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. All those things I planned to say, and I can’t remember any of them. But it doesn’t matter, because she breaks into a run. The skinny silver bangles on her arm crash together when she stops opposite me. “Oh my god, Rye, you’re alive! I thought your parents shipped you off to boarding school until Birdie told me what happened.”
For one crazy second I’m afraid she’s going to kiss me in front of all her friends. I part my lips and tilt my head expectantly. She looks at me through greasy bangs. “You don’t hate me, right?”
“Why would I hate you? Because you didn’t answer my emails? Because you never called me back?” Hannah and Sara are ranking the skater boys on the other side of the Pit, so they don’t hear my joke bomb. In my fantasies, this was natural, but somehow we’ve forgotten how to talk to one another. Or it’s like there’s so much we’re trying not to say that we can’t say anything. I hear Birdie’s voice in my head. You’re not sure if you’re bi, Rye? Girls don’t kiss other girls for no reason.
Erica settles on the retaining wall with a sigh. “School is a waste. Your life is probably way more exciting.”
I plop down on the wall, letting my thigh touch hers. “Hardly.” Her familiar scent—cigarettes, coffee, and Herbal Essences shampoo—gets me buzzed. She scans the crowd like she’s watching for something. Or someone. I can’t take my eyes off her, but she doesn’t notice. “So how’s school? Am I missing anything? Other than you?”
She pulls out a tin of mints. I forgot how she was always tonguing those chalky peppermints, and remembering it now makes me sad. Meanwhile she shifts down the wall so our legs aren’t touching, but in a smooth enough way I can pretend it wasn’t on purpose. Erica plucks a mint then extends the tin to me. “Want one?”
“I’d love a coffee, actually. Come with me?”
“Uh, I already have coffee.”
“Walk with me. Come on, please, I haven’t seen you since.”
Her face clouds. She’s not coming to get coffee with me, not after what happened.
Or maybe she’s nervous. Maybe it will get better if I give it time, prove I’m not going anywhere, that I can wait until she’s ready. “Forget coffee, then. What’s new? What am I missing?”
“Jack dumped Melanie after they slept together, and she won’t shut up about it. Plus, everyone is forbidden from dating him, which sucks because we made out at a party and he’s an amazing kisser.”
She’s kissed other people since we kissed. “Whose party?”
“Melanie’s. Don’t judge.” Her sneaker touches mine. I can’t decide if she means anything by it.
“Just wanna make sure if you have a party you invite me.” It’s a throwaway remark. I shouldn’t care about gossip, but when she doesn’t say anything, it sinks in. Erica had a party, and she didn’t invite me.
“You’re not grounded for life?”
“Why? It’s not like you are.”
Erica drums her high-tops against the wall.
“Let me have a mint.” I hold out my hand, stretching my fingers to disguise a slight tremble. I’m hoping she’ll touch my palm but she pinches a mint and drops it into my waiting hand. We silently suck mints until Sara and Hannah drift over, giggling about some inside joke.
“Have you heard about Haven?” When they give me blank looks, I reach into my backpack for the flyer I made. “The building owner is raising the rent. All the tenants are getting squeezed out including Haven. You think eight years would be worth saving, but no.”
“My dad was saying how rich people wanna get richer. He used to go there all the time,” Hannah says.
“Mine too. I’m gonna flyer the Square with these so everyone knows what’s going on. Whatever I can do to help, I’m gonna do it. Once Haven goes, it’s not gonna be long until they’re trying to put a Starbucks in its place and kick us out.” I toss a hand at the mix of punk teens, buskers, and college students spread out along the brick wall. We’re all different, but here, being different is celebrated. “If you want this place to stay ours, come to this meeting and bring your friends.”
Sara leans forward. “Can I have some of those to put up?”
“Yeah, of course. Thanks for helping!”
“Those are amazing. I can’t believe you made them.” Erica looks at me, stunned out of hiding for a second. “This is the only place we can be real. They can’t kick us out. Let’s fight the man.”
My fingers brush against Erica’s, accidentally-on-purpose. She looks away. But she’s into me, even if she wishes she weren’t. I feel it in the way she moves closer, her eyes averted like she’s shy about it when Erica’s not shy about anything. Heading home, I pull her into a quick hug and whisper, “Don’t forget my invite next time you have a party.”
The night of the meeting, I wait outside the library. Birdie trots up with five minutes to spare, muttering about a train delay. I grab his hand and pull him into the building. I haven’t seen Erica but maybe she got here before I did. Maybe she’s downstairs waiting for me. She promised she’d come.
The community room is packed with people my parents’ age. Some have the same absentminded professor look as my dad. A few are diner regulars, like the Thursday night Intro to Mandarin study group. They take turns ordering in Mandarin while someone else translates. Noreen rolls her eyes when they come in, but it’s an act. Last week, she gave them two chocolate milkshakes on the house. She pretended it was an oops order, but Noreen never makes mistakes.
A librarian brings the room to order. She explains the format for the meeting. I catch every third word. Erica said she’d be here. She isn’t. Birdie nudges me. We’re doing breakout groups. As everyone splinters off, I push us toward the far wall, where Hannah and Sara lean, carrying twin messenger bags covered in patches and safety pins.
In our group is a guy with a patchy goatee who blinks constantly and a girl from school who glowers at everything. “Hey, I’m Sam,” she says, raking a hand through her dyed-orange bangs. “I’m here cause I saw this on a flyer.”
“Her flyer.” Sara thumbs at me.
Sam’s frown flips into a smile so deep her dimples show, so deep it almost makes me forget about Erica. The others comment on my initiative. I find Birdie’s hand for a reassuring squeeze. I hate being the center of attention. “Anything for Haven,” I say when the group stops gushing.
“Could you do one for a protest? Everyone here is great. But we need to be out there, in the streets. We need to block traffic, sing and dance, and fuck things up,” Sam finishes, a blush creeping up her cheeks. She might be shyer than I am. It’s adorable, in a friend crush way.
“Yessss, a protest dance party!” Birdie squeals.
The older folks look at us with bemused expressions. I’m sure they talk about “kids these days” and how we’re so self-obsessed, but this is proof we’re not. The library staffer offers to look into permits from the city. A mom with a baby sling nominates me to give a speech.
“Defend Harvard Square.” I want to take the words back as soon as they’re out of my mouth but Sam, Sara, and Hannah nod like they’re on board. While the others make plans, I zone out and replay the conversation in my mind. Me. Giving a speech. To a street full of people. With a megaphone.
“I don’t get it,” I complain as I walk Birdie to the subway. “She promised me.” We’re on a quiet, tree-lined block in a residential neighborhood, but still I talk in whispers. I’m so conditioned to keep quiet. Things were different with Erica. I was different with Erica. Winning her mischievous grin as we cooked up a scheme, I could’ve cared less what anyone thought. She gave me a taste of boldness, and now I crave something I’ll never have.
“She’s not like us,” he tells me, suppressing a sigh. “I know how you feel, even if you can’t admit it. But don’t you think it’s time to move on?”
I’m still thinking about what Birdie said on the weekend when I go to Sam’s house to make protest signs. Markers are scattered all over the lilac carpet. Sam holds up a sign that says “Whose city? Our city!” on one side, and “Keep Harvard Square Weird” on the other.
She pulls me to the computer, where she spent all morning making a playlist of protest songs. It’s got everything from sixties music to reggae to hip-hop. “This one’s my favorite,” she says, pointing at a track. “What? You don’t like it? What kind of music do you like, then?”
“It isn’t that. There was a girl. She ruined the song for me.”
“There’s always a girl.” Sam leans back against her bed, prepared to wait as long as it takes to get the full story.
“She got under my skin for a long time. But I’m done. I’m done! She’s dead to me now.” It’s aspirational, but Birdie was right. It’s time to move on.
Sam tosses me a pack of markers and tells me to take my feelings out on my protest sign. I outline my message in big block letters: Defend Harvard Square. Defend goes in all black. While I fill in the other letters with rainbow colors, I think back to the night I told Erica and her friends about the fight for Haven. This was our place, we agreed. They weren’t going to stop at a diner, so we had to fight for all the other independent businesses. Maybe part of Erica’s boldness rubbed off on me.
Sam’s eyes skate from the floor to my face. “Last year, there was another gay girl at Longfellow. When she left, I kinda…well, things got bad.”
“Women make you do crazy things.” My voice cracks as I continue. “The friend I mentioned? She’s one of those girls everyone either wants to be or be with. When we kissed, I thought it was the beginning of something.”
I see it all again—Erica sat on my lap, our hands everywhere—but every word I pick to summarize what happened between us seems inadequate. “She’s been hot and cold ever since. I guess it was easier for her to let me think I had a chance than to set me straight.”
All this time, I’d been so focused on Erica. How to fix things between us. How to win her back. How to prove that we could make this work, as improbable as a relationship seemed. It turns out this wasn’t about Erica, this was about me. What kind of person I was and how I let people treat me. I don’t know where my journey leads next, but I know I’m done staying silent. “Even though it didn’t work out between us, she helped me figure out some things.”
For the rest of the week, I float along on a gratitude kick. I was ashamed of my size because other people wanted me to hate myself. Sick of self-hate, I tried making peace with my body. I began to appreciate all the things my body did for me, like trekking up and down stairs so I could flyer all around Harvard Square. I don’t love my body, but I’m not fighting it, either—peace is progress. Talking to Sam helped me accept my bisexuality. I’ve been ashamed of all my differences, but I’m starting to think they’re my secret superpower.
So when I see Erica in the basement bathroom of the Garage, I smile.
She’s slouched against the wall, squinting into a hand mirror and applying mascara. She looks up at the sound of my voice. “Hi, Rye.” Her tone is bright, as if everything’s cool between us.
When she pulls out her box of mints and offers me one, I take one. “How are you?”
“I’ve been better,” she admits, tossing three mints into her mouth. “Feel like going to Urban and trying on clothes? We haven’t done that in forever.”
Old me would’ve counted the days. Old me would’ve accepted her offer without a second thought. Old me wouldn’t be carrying a backpack full of flyers for the protest she planned, where she’s going to speak in front of who-knows-how-many strangers. “Yeah, I guess we haven’t.”
Erica looks at me through a curtain of bangs. “Come on, Rye. I don’t want to go home yet, and I know you don’t either. We can have fun.”
As she brushes past me to wash her hands, her shoulder skims mine. When I feel nothing, relief floods my body. “Sure.”
Flipping through the racks at Urban, I remember what it felt like to be a part of her whirlwind, that tug in my stomach at her infectious laugh. That rebound tug of desire that kept me crawling back to her when she gave me less than nothing in return is gone. Maybe Erica and I have traveled far enough to come back around and pick up a friendship. Stranger things have happened.
She tosses me a stretchy dress in an electric blue hue and says, “Try this. With fishnets, you’d look hot.”
The dress is low-cut with a high waist. It hugs my curves, then flares at the hips, falling to just above the knee. I’d never have picked it out for myself. But when I try it on, I don’t feel the need to cover my waist with my hands or hide my cleavage in a sweater. The color is badass. This dress makes me look like a new woman. Someone who is curvy and accepts it, someone who knows what she’s worth and isn’t going to settle for less, someone whose voice won’t shake when she reads her speech at the protest. “You were right, I look amazing!” I yell over the dressing room door.
“Where to next?” I ask when Erica emerges from her dressing room and dumps an armful of clothes on the rack outside.
She twists up her hair and lets it fall everywhere. “We can hit up the Pit. Maybe someone’ll buy us beers.”
“Maybe you could help me with something.” I pat my backpack, where I’ve got fifty flyers, a pair of scissors, and a roll of packing tape.
Erica shrugs, but once we’re on the street she disappears around the corner, a hand pressed to her ear to drown out the busker playing. I tape a few flyers by T station, then some on the window outside Haven. In the same building, there’s an ice cream shop, and a Chinese place that puts on late-night parties. The Chinese place will be fine if the rent hikes go through, but I don’t know about the ice cream place. It’s been here forever, too.
It was our summer ritual when I was a kid. We’d walk down here for cones then take the long way home. I can’t remember the last time Dad brought ice cream home. I can’t remember the last time I got a cone with Mom, either. It makes me think of all the times I took simple pleasures for granted, of all the things we’ll never do as a family again.
Zooming forward, is every milestone occasion in my life going to be marked by restrained tension from my divorced parents? Is everything I love going to change? Is it going to hurt as much as losing Erica hurt? Does all the work we’re doing to save Haven matter?
Zoom out far enough and we’re all brief candles to quote that Shakespeare monologue Birdie was obsessed with last year.
Erica saunters back into sight with a paper bag in one hand. She sweet-talked some college guy into buying her beer. We sit on the wall and people watch the way we’ve done a million times before, but this time I tell her there’s someone new. “Well, it’s a crush, but it could turn into something.”
Her mouth hangs open in surprise, but her eyes look sad. “Are they a better kisser than me?”
“Is Jack a better kisser than me?”
“Jack’s a useless waste of space.”
“Do you want to talk about it? Or anything else? I know you’re sad.” I nudge her sneaker with mine in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“I want to get drunk. I got you one too, if you want it.”
“Maybe we should eat first.” I take her to Haven. The diner is quiet but cozy. It’s between dinner and late night. Underneath the jazz music Noreen likes to play, you can hear the sizzle of the grill. The yummy smells make my stomach rumble. “Can I get some fries?” I ask Noreen.
“Mmmhkay, do you want chicken fingers with that? Or a burger?”
“Not tonight, thanks.”
“Fries aren’t a meal, sweetie.”
“I already ate,” I lie.
“High school guys suck,” Erica says.
For months, I’ve dreamed of being here with her. Now she’s here beside me. She’s opening up about whatever’s bugging her. She’s letting me in. I spread my hands on the counter until our hands touch. “Jack doesn’t deserve your tears,” I say, wondering if she cried over me.
“It’s not Jack. Or not all Jack,” she amends, clamping a hand over her mouth like she’s said too much.
“If you want to talk.”
“I know. And I appreciate it.” The fries come, golden and sizzling. Erica scoops a handful of fries onto her plate then drowns them in black pepper.
The gesture brings me back to reality. Whatever truce we’ve reached for tonight won’t hold. Erica’s by my side tonight, but the next time I run into her, she’ll probably pretend this night never happened. If I know that, why am I letting her in again?
If the protest doesn’t change minds, Haven could shut its doors. This could be one of my last memories here. I’ve spent so much time fighting to save this place: going to meetings, making signs, and now the protest. I haven’t let myself consider what it’d mean if we fail but being here with Erica, it’s hard not to think about endings. When things ended between us, I fell apart. Haven—having something to fight for—put me back together. If I lose this, too…I slap cash on the counter and wave goodnight to Noreen. Then I turn to Erica. “Let’s do it. Let’s get drunk.”
Next to the UU church there’s a small colonial-era cemetery. I must’ve walked by it a thousand times and never noticed it. Erica leads me there, then hops the low wrought iron fence.
“Is there a gate?” I ask.
“Yeah, this way.” Erica waits for me. She takes my hand and leads me toward the middle of the cemetery. “My secret place,” she says with a giggle. “So close to everything yet so unseen.”
I settle between two gravestones and Erica hands me a beer. It’s a giant can, too big for me to get a hand around. The brew tastes watery and faintly metallic. Suds pop against my tongue. We’re quiet together, but it doesn’t feel weird. I sit and sip my beer. Before I know it, half is gone and my head tingles. “Why haven’t we done this before?”
“We haven’t?” She laces our fingers. Her skin is warm and smooth.
“This can be my new place,” I hiccup. “When they close Haven.” I take a gulp to calm the flutter in my heart. I shouldn’t have taken her to the diner. I finally got what I wanted, and I’m not happier for it. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s an omen of more change to come. I let the others down because I didn’t finish flyering. I let Erica steal my focus away from what matters and now the beer is letting my guard down. I don’t like her that way anymore, but I don’t want to spend my life wondering what could’ve been.
“You worry too much. This’ll help you relax, Rye.” Erica shifts toward me, closing the gap between us. I feel buzzy from the contact, or the beer. I put the can on the ground then run a finger around the lip. I could make an excuse to leave, take the long way home, and hope I’m sober enough to fool Dad. Or I can stay and be here for Erica while beer blurs the edges of things. I push the pop top this way and that, thinking over what kind of person I am.
We’re out of the path of the streetlight. I can’t see Erica’s eyes but I can feel her watching me, weighing something. I pick up the can to give my hands something to hold, even though I know that means I’ll probably drink the rest. “Should I be worried about you? Birdie doesn’t tell me much. He thinks he’s being a good friend. He thinks I’ll get upset if I know what’s going on. He’s wrong.”
“It’s nothing. High school ennui and all that.” In between sips, Erica tells me about her plans for the future. Now she wants to be a makeup stylist in New York City. She’ll hang out with musicians and actors. She’ll be invited to secret loft parties. She’ll date someone older, someone with money, someone who isn’t threatened by her alpha nature. “I have to get out of this place.” Her tone is subdued, like she’s got doubts.
“You’ll get out of here,” I tell her. “I believe in you.” When we made our dream collages, the plan was to go together, us and Birdie. We’d get an apartment. It’d be a fifth-floor walkup with a roof deck so we could make wishes on shooting stars. Birdie would get his big break. Erica would—god what did she want? I’ve forgotten.
It used to make me sad, forgetting these little details. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t need the anonymity of New York. I need Haven, and Haven needs me. And that’s given me the drive to do a whole lot of things I never thought I could do. I have new friends. I’m not eating lunch alone. I’m not hiding with my head down, hoping to skate through unseen. I’m where I need to be. And if they take this from me—if they take this from us—they’ll find out the kind of fight this fat girl can bring.