This picture was taken sometime during the summer before senior year. We called ourselves “The Group” that summer, and we did everything together. Or maybe it’s better to say we went everywhere together: Six Flags, Lolapalooza, baseball games, the beach at Hightower Lake, the big July 4th fireworks show. Jeremy was a ticket-taker at the Omni 6 multiplex, and he let us in for free if it wasn’t too busy. The Group saw a lot of great movies that way: Terminator 2, Thelma and Louise, Bill & Ted Go to Hell, The Naked Gun 2. Okay, so maybe they weren’t all great movies.
We were smart kids, but we weren’t nerds. We had friends who were popular and accepted us, but we were never in the cool crowd. We were ambitious. We talked a lot that summer about SATs and college applications, about how great it would be to go somewhere like Stanford or Duke or NYU, anyplace far away from Cantering Hills and its suburban ranch-house sameness. We shared a few of our secrets and insecurities with each other, but there was little talk about The Group enduring past senior year. We were all headed in different directions to realize different dreams.
Things started getting weird in late August. That was around the time of the infamous Saturday night sleepover at Shawn’s house. Someone brought a case of Keystone, and I think it was Jennifer who scored a 2-liter of Purple Passion. Most of us crashed on the king-size bed in the master bedroom and, at some point during the night, Shawn and Lexie hooked up. Shawn claimed he unsnapped Lexie’s bra, but Lexie swore that wasn’t true–it was just a lot of making out and maybe a little dry humping. Nobody took their clothes off, she said. At any rate, The Group was never quite the same after that.
That was followed by Jeremy’s Big Crush on Jennifer, an obsession that lasted six weeks and one that Jennifer did not reciprocate. At one point Jeremy made her a mixed tape titled “Shiny/Happy,” which contained the usual dreary alternative songs about heartbreak and rejection. That tape sat in Jen’s Mazda for a whole year but I don’t think she ever listened to it. Everything came to a head after the Fort Mill football game. Jeremy got into a fifth of Wild Turkey and decided to T-P the big oak tree in Jen’s front yard. Unfortunately, her father woke up before Jeremy could unleash all his rolls, and he chased Jeremy down the street while brandishing a 5-iron.
The Group still hung out that fall, usually Saturday nights at the Flowery Branch access on the lake. But the gatherings were less frequent and more awkward. The end came on a chilly November night in the high school parking lot. I had just finished band practice and was heading back to my car with French horn in hand when Jeremy stopped me.
“I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” he said.
I felt a tightness in my throat. I knew what this was about.
“What are you talking about?” I asked anyway.
“The way you treated Todd,” he said. “That was cold. I talked to Shawn about it and he agrees. We don’t want to hang out with you anymore.”
Jeremy was referring to Todd Baker, the sixth member of The Group. I knew Todd had a crush on me. I had known it since the beginning of the summer when we went swimming in the lake and he kept running his hands through my wet, tangled hair. At the movies, Todd would always find a way to sit next to me and sometimes he would thread his popcorn buttered fingers into mine. I finally let him kiss me on the bus ride back from an Honor Society rally we all attended. He had thin lips and was a delicate, almost cautious kisser. We never did anything after that, but now he was pissed off because I was seeing Darren Barnhorse.
“You led him on,” Jeremy said. “You shouldn’t treat Todd like that. He’s your friend.”
“Exactly,” I said, striding toward my Volkswagen Rabbit. “We’re friends, and that’s it.”
I made it to my car and reached for the door handle, but Jeremy blocked me. He leaned in, his breath smelling faintly like a bean burrito. It was 5:30, and the sky had a purplish tint. It felt like it could rain at any moment.
“You think you’re so cool, don’t you?” he said. Then he pressed his lips against mine, hard. It was an angry kiss, but I more than held my own. I pulled away after a few seconds, or maybe it was a few minutes. Jeremy stepped aside and I got into my car and cranked the ignition. He offered a tiny wave as I backed out–not the kind of gesture someone gives you when they don’t want to be friends anymore.
I drove off with two thoughts in my brain: 1.) I had left my French horn somewhere on the asphalt parking lot and, 2.) The Group was seriously fucked.