The answer to Lexi’s question, “why won’t you let anyone be your friend?” was one I already knew, but didn’t want to tell her. I don’t want friends because they’re too easy to lose. And it hurts too much to lose them.
After the car crash that killed all of my new friends, I was left with a back that hurt all the time, the Price family who was just beginning to see that I wasn’t Birmingham, Michigan material even if I was related to them, a grim sort of notoriety, and a metric ton of schoolwork to catch up on if I wanted to graduate. That was all there was in my life. It was enough. I had reached a place where I was ready to simply accept anything that happened to me, live through it, and never show anyone how much anything hurt. Anything could come in; nothing went out.
Mikey and Liz screwed that up though. In a good way. I was deep inside my little shell when I met them, on a warmish March day. I stopped by Oakland Mall on the way home from the chiropractor (never could tell if I was in more pain before or after those visits) and dove into a record store that smelled of overwarm vinyl. I saw them when they came in, like a rip in everything mundane. Liz was wearing gray camouflage pants and a lime green t-shirt, and her hair was dyed lime green. I never saw it any other color. Mikey had curly dark hair and an ancient, half-shredded Bauhaus shirt over a thermal undershirt. He was wearing eyeliner. I noticed them instantly. They were more alive than anyone else in the store. I watched them over the aisles, forgetting what I was looking for. I wondered if they’d see me. At the same time, I hated myself for wishing they would.
Mikey found me thumbing through the Sisters of Mercy CDs. I took out Enter the Sisters to look at it and he said suddenly, “Don’t bother. Floodland’s the best.” I looked at him. “Hi. I’m Mikey Arrington. You liked Floodland, didn’t you?”
I raised an eyebrow, then nodded. His eyes were so open and friendly they made me shy. He had a smile that was friendly and sarcastic, like he was laughing at the whole world and maybe wanted me in on the joke.
“Me too. Vision Thing’s okay, but the old stuff’s a step down. Save your money. I’ll let you borrow it if you want. What’s your name?”
He made me smile inside but it never reached my face. As much as I wanted him to talk to me, to make me feel like I belonged there somehow, I felt like it wasn’t possible. He and Liz were on a level I couldn’t reach up to. They were real; I wasn’t.
I told him my name anyway. “I might get it anyway.” I said.
“Why? Just to have it? I’ll let you borrow it. I promise you’ll be underwhelmed.”
“Do you always loan shit to people you don’t know?”
He shrugged, tilting his head to the left and rolling his eyes. “Only on Sundays.”
“It’s Saturday,” I said.
That smile came back, triumphant. “Then I guess I’ll have to get to know you.” There was just a hint of salaciousness in his voice, but his smile kept it from being enough to make me mad.
“I walked right into that, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did, Nikki. You want to come get a cup of coffee and a smoke with me and my platonic best friend Liz?”
“The girl with the green hair?” He nodded. “I don’t know. I’m not very friendly,” I said, being honest. I didn’t feel friendly. He seemed nice, but it’s always my reflex to shy away from people, even when I want to know them better.
“Aw, come on. You look like you need to get off your feet anyway. You’re kind of limping.”
“I’m fine,” I said, a little bit harshly. I dropped the CD back into the rack, punctuating my annoyance with a rattle, and moved a few steps away.
Mikey followed me, bending a little to try and catch my eye. “Is your leg hurt?”
“No, I broke my back.”
He started laughing, then realized that I wasn’t. “Serious?”
“Oh.” His face fell. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to–“
“Forget it,” I said. “No one needs to be sorry for something that was my fault.” He was peering deep into my shell, and I wanted to be farther away. I started up the aisle with a vague thought of looking for some old Shriekback. Mikey followed me again.
“So, um, what happened? To your back.”
“I was in a car crash three months ago.”
“There was a big one out in Canton, some place like that. Right after it snowed.”
“That was it.”
“Seven high school kids got killed…”
“And one didn’t. Nice to meet you.”
He looked like he’d just stepped on my pet mouse. “Oh. Shit. Sorry. I didn’t know it was, I mean, I didn’t think you were…I mean, you don’t look that young. Enough to be in high school. I mean.” His energy collapsed in on itself, looking for a way out of the embarrassment. He blushed, and I instantly liked him better. He looked at his feet, shuffling them in a display of contrition that was straight out of a Saturday morning TV special. “So, um, I bet you want to kick me in the nuts now, don’t you?”
He brightened a little. “Then do you want to go and get coffee or something? You and me and Liz?”
I agreed and we did; Liz got coffee, Mikey and I hot chocolate, from a forgettable coffee shop in the mall and then we went out into the parking lot and sat on the curb. Hot chocolate tastes best when the weather is slightly cold, and the early spring chill outside was perfect. The Michigan winter was reluctant to let go, even at the end of March.
Liz intimidated me at first but she was just as friendly as Mikey. She was a foot taller than me, and was as self-conscious about being tall as I am about being short. When I realized that, I felt more comfortable around her. We talked about music and movies and food for a while. We had a lot of the same tastes. Mikey joked that we could move in together and be a goth-industrial sitcom.
“So can I ask you about the crash?” Mikey asked, finally. I knew he’d been wanting to.
“Michael, please,” Liz said. She rolled her eyes.
“I’d rather not. I don’t like to…” I stopped. I didn’t quite believe in what I was about to say.
He looked apologetic again. “I guess your friends already made you talk yourself sick about it, eh?”
“No, they didn’t.” I didn’t want to tell him I didn’t have any friends; it would have been too melodramatic. I changed the subject a little bit. “There were hundreds of flowers sent to my hospital room. None of them meant anything. They didn’t make me feel better. My family, all the students who sent shit and don’t even know me. This whole fake outpouring of sympathy, but I never had anyone to talk to about it. No one real. When the next tragedy came along they all forgot about me. And I didn’t care.” My sinuses tickled. I was on the edge of tears. I took a breath and held them back.
Mikey and Liz didn’t know what to say. Liz chose not to say anything. Mikey said, “I would’ve listened,” and managed not to sound like he was just saying what I wanted to hear. He wasn’t smiling any more. I suddenly wished he’d put his hand on my shoulder or something.
“You know what I really would have wanted? Someone with the balls to walk into my hospital room and call me a fucking idiot for getting in that truck with all those drunk kids, and me drunk off my ass too. I wish someone had come to me and said, ‘Nikki Saxen, you did a stupid thing, it almost got you killed, and I don’t feel the least bit sorry for you. Not a bit.'”
“If someone had said that to you,” Liz said, “you wouldn’t have had to say it to yourself. It’s harder to punish yourself. You never know when to stop, do you?”
I teared up again. “No, you don’t.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up, should I?” Mikey asked.
“No, s’okay. I needed to talk about it. Maybe.” I sniffled loudly, and there was a long silence. I felt like they were making decisions about me; was I too bitter and hateful and crazy to get to know, or not?
“Well,” Liz said, “we should probably get going.”
Mikey looked at her, then back at me. “You want a ride home or something? I have an extra helmet.”
“Helmet? You’re riding motorcycles?”
“Yup. Beautiful day for it.”
“It’s fifty degrees!”
Liz smiled. “You get used to it.” Mikey laughed.
I shook my head. “That’s okay. But thank you.”
“No problem. Some other time, maybe?”
He didn’t want me to go just yet. “Hey, you ever go out dancing?”
I gave him an incredulous look. “Fuck, I don’t know. Because I’m only seventeen? I can’t get into most places.”
Liz cracked up. Mikey looked sheepish. “Oh yeah. Duh. Well, okay then, see you around.”
“Phone,” Liz said.
“Get her phone number, schmuckboy. You know you want it.” She looked at me. “He wants it. Would you be willing to give it to him?” I liked the way she looked at me. Most of the feeling of inferiority evaporated. I felt like I was an equal in her eyes. Like I was already her friend, even though she was older and had only known me a few minutes. Being in a sitcom with her sounded like it would be fun.
Even though I wanted to stay and get to know them better, there was still the powerful urge to shrink away. I managed to give Mikey my phone number, but after that I had to get away from them.
The urge to hide from them eventually disappeared; I spent my time with Liz and Mikey and Robert and Dennis and Andrew and Pietro to escape the increasingly suffocating air at the Prices’. Robert got me a fake ID so I could go dancing with them, and things were almost like they had been before the crash. Almost. I felt as much at home as I thought I could feel any more.
Mikey died at the beginning of June. It was a stupid accident, like most of them are. He wasn’t even on his bike; he was taking his mother’s car to get the oil changed and a dump truck ran a red light. That was the end of Mikey Arrington. It would have hurt even if I wasn’t falling in love with him, but I was. I don’t think he loved me back. Not quite. He always felt funny because I was seven years younger than him, and that stopped him from actually falling in love. It hurt to lose him anyway. It also reminded me of what always happened to people I cared for. I left Michigan not too long after that.