Debbie Ocean is eight years old the first time she ever sees Lou Miller.
Debbie at eight is quiet. She is a rule follower. She isn’t especially popular, but no one really has problems with her, either. Her brother Danny, older than her by ten years, is the golden child of the family, and always has been. He cheerfully raises hell and gets out of any trouble with nothing more than a smile. He is funny and quick; charming and brilliant. Debbie spent the first part of her life running as fast as she could just to stay on his heels, but then he turned eighteen and decided he needed to see the world. And there’s not room for a little sister on that kind of adventure.
Debbie, as usual, was left behind. Sometimes Debbie feels like everyone she knows and loves is on a train headed somewhere foreign and exciting, but she’s been left on the platform with nothing but their empty promises of eventual return, with nothing to do but wave and wave as they disappear over the horizon.
Debbie at eight is lonely. Debbie at eight is waiting for something, even if she doesn’t yet know what that something is.
But then, like magic trick, a miracle: enter Lou Miller.
She is new to their 3rd grade class, skinny but tall for her age, all elbows and skinned knees and loudmouth accent. She’s from Australia, which is nothing to her classmates but a little smudge on a map, a place as impossible as Neverland. Lou is gap-toothed and messy-haired. She is swagger and laughter and effortless comebacks when cruel, popular Susan Maple makes fun of her lopsided blonde braids. She is blue eyes and freckles and ungainly limbs. She is newness, she is firecracker spark, she is joy.
Debbie at eight is curious.
(And maybe possibly probably more than a little smitten.)
One afternoon, during recess, Debbie and Tammy are playing marbles on the blacktop when Lou skips over to them. “Hi,” she says, hands planted on her hips. Tammy and Debbie stare up at her expectantly.
Lou sits down and joins them on the blacktop, her long legs criss-crossed beneath her. “This school is stupid and boring,” she tells them without any sort of pretense, “but you two aren’t, I don’t think. So you’re my friends now. Alright?”
Tammy looks at Debbie, who shrugs. “Okay,” Debbie says. “We’ll be your friends.” Tammy nods affirmatively.
Lou beams. “Cool,” she says. “Do you want to sleep over at my apartment next weekend? My dad is still in Australia and my mum works a lot, so we can do pretty much whatever we want. But don’t tell your mums that, probably.”
(Debbie doesn’t know it yet, but this is the beginning of her life’s greatest love story.)
Debbie and Lou, and often Tammy, spend nearly the entire summer between 3rd and 4th grade playing outside. Lou’s apartment building is only a few blocks away from Tammy and Debbie’s neighborhood, and there’s a big park en route that functions as a perfect halfway point. Lou was right when she said her mother wasn’t around a lot. Debbie has been friends with Lou for the better part of nine months now and she’s yet to meet her. Lou at eight is wild, even a little feral. She reminds Debbie of a Lost Boy, but not like the ones from the Disney movie; she’s a bit sadder, somehow, like the ones in the book.
Debbie bikes over to Tammy’s house every morning to meet up with her, and then the two of them bike to the park. Lou is usually already there by the time they arrive, her eyes bright with mischief, her mind whirring with games and plans. One day they venture deep into the woods, deeper than people are really meant to go, and build a huge fort out of branches and leaves and plywood that Tammy found in her basement. Lou christens it The Shire, which she says is in her favorite book The Hobbit, and if Tammy and Debbie haven’t read that yet they really need to get on it already.
There is a big public pool in the park, too, and when Lou, Debbie, and Tammy tire of the playground or The Shire or running around in the woods, they go the pool to cool off and terrorize the lifeguards. Lou nearly gets them banned forever when she lies face down in the water for what seems to be a scary long time to Tammy and Debbie and a lifeguard named Todd has to jump in the pool to “rescue” her. Lou squirms out of his arms, giggling madly, and darts away quick as a fish.
They combine their allowances and buy sparklers from a stand in a grocery store parking lot. They light them on the evening of the Fourth of July, careening around the park, whooping and screaming “like Indians,” Lou says. They lie side by side on a grassy knoll and watch the fireworks show. They hold hands and squeal with delight and terror at each big, ground-shaking boom. To Debbie, it feels like the Earth suddenly has a heartbeat. She thinks that maybe she’s never been this happy in her entire life.
They are midway through the 4th grade when Debbie gets into her first fight.
Tammy, Debbie, and Lou are all magically in the same class again. Less magically, Susan Maple is with them too. She’s mostly the same, just meaner. She and her dumb, giggly gang of friends derive great pleasure out of mocking Lou’s patchy hand-me-down clothes, Tammy’s lisp, Debbie’s “delinquent big brother.” But Debbie, Tammy, and Lou are a tightly knit tribe, and not much phases them as long as they have each other. And Lou gives as good as she gets.
One morning, Debbie is in a bathroom stall when several girls walk in. They are laughing and whispering and shushing each other, and while she can’t know for sure, Debbie has a pretty good feeling who they are. She pulls her feet up onto the toilet and listens.
“She thinks she’s sooooooo pretty but she’s really not,” Susan’s voice. Debbie’s brow furrows. Who thinks she’s pretty?
“Lou is always showing off to the boys,” Cynthia Kissick, one of Susan’s cronies, says dismissively. “She pretends she like likes them, but it’s only so they bring her comics and gum and stuff.”
Debbie blinks; they’re talking about Lou. She feels herself getting indignant. Lou does not show off for any boys because she happens to know that Lou thinks all boys are stupid. And if they bring her things it’s just because they think she’s cool, which she is.
“Her mom is a slut,” Susan says smugly, and Debbie is amazed to hear such an ugly, grown-up word roll off her tongue so easily. “That’s what my mom says. That’s why Lou doesn’t tell anyone who her dad is, it’s because she doesn’t even know.” Debbie’s face flames, and she’s quickly moving past indignation and on to righteous fury.
“Ewwwwww!” all the girls squeal.
Susan waits a moment before continuing, as if to give what she’s about to say the appropriate amount of gravitas. “Have you ever seen that movie Pretty Baby?” she whispers. “Like, how Brooke Shields’s mom makes her do things with boys for money? I bet Lou does that, too. I bet she does it every single night.”
Before Debbie really knows what she is doing, she has burst out of the bathroom stall and punched Susan directly in her nose. Debbie has never punched anyone before, and she is surprised it hurts her hand as much as it does. There is a sickening crunch when her fist makes contact, and blood immediately spurts everywhere. Susan screams, and so do her friends.
“You broke my nose!” Susan yells at Debbie, and lunges for her. Debbie ducks, but Susan manages to get a handful of Debbie’s long hair and yanks it, hard. Debbie yelps and tries to pull away, but Susan’s grip is tight. She elbows Susan in her chest and Susan pulls Debbie’s hair harder. Debbie is aware that being in a fight is a very bad thing and that she is probably going to get into a lot of trouble, but all she can think about in that moment is how Lou is going to be so proud when she hears that she kicked the crap out of Susan Maple.
A pair of strong arms pulls her off of Susan. It’s a man teacher, from fifth grade, but Debbie doesn’t know his name. The vice principal, Mr. Blakely, is holding onto Susan. Neither of them look happy. Debbie gulps.
She gets off admittedly easy, just one full day of out of school suspension since this was the first time she’d ever been in trouble, let alone fought anyone. She probably would’ve gotten even less of a punishment if she’d explained what caused her to punch Susan Maple in the first place, but she couldn’t bring herself to repeat the awful things she said about Lou.
That night she stretches the spiral phone cord as far as it will go and gleefully relays all the details of the fight to Lou. “You really, really broke her nose?” Lou gasps.
“I smashed it, Lou,” Debbie says happily. “Blood everywhere. Major carnage, baby.”
Lou does not ask why Debbie did it, and Debbie--unprompted--makes up some lame excuse about how Susan was calling her names and she just didn’t want to listen to it anymore. But she gets the feeling Lou knows the real reason why Debbie hit Susan, and that makes Debbie’s heart hurt in a way she can’t quite understand.
Of the three of them, Tammy is the first to get a boyfriend.
His name is Jamie Henry, and he’s been in Debbie’s class every year since they were in kindergarten. He has reddish brown hair and his ears kind of stick out from his head, but he has a nice smile and one time he gave Debbie half of his Hershey bar when she fell down and skinned her knee during recess. He passes Tammy a note during social studies that reads: Will you go out with me. Check yes or no. Debbie, from her seat next to Tammy, watches Tammy’s ears turn bright crimson. She checks yes.
Debbie isn’t surprised by any of this, really. Tammy has always been the prettiest. She has blonde hair like Lou, but it’s always clean and bouncy and neatly brushed. She’s not too tall or too short, and her eyes are very big and round. She is sweet, soft spoken, and easygoing. Debbie has always thought that the main reason why Susan Maple makes fun of Tammy is because she’s secretly jealous of her.
And it’s not like they’re really boyfriend and girlfriend, as Lou points out. They hold hands and walk circles around the blacktop during recess, and Tammy always gives one of her two Hostess Snowballs to Jamie during lunch. However, when Lou slyly asks Tammy if they’ve sucked face yet, Tammy all but swoons. It’s in name only, like when they’d play pretend as little kids.
But Debbie can’t help the hurt that wells inside her when Tammy is chosen for something instead of her. Which she knows is stupid, because it’s not like she even wants a boyfriend in the first place. She doesn’t really think any of the boys in their class are that cute, not even Jamie, and there’s not a chance they’re half as interesting as Lou. When she thinks about what it would be like spending all her time with some boring boy who probably couldn’t even make her laugh, instead of spending it with Lou, who makes her laugh harder than anyone in the world, her stomach feels a bit sickish and strange.
Lou, for her part, doesn’t seem remotely interested in boys either. Not even in an abstract, theoretical sort of way like Debbie sometimes is. Which is funny, because boys are definitely interested in Lou. She’s pretty as well, but it’s a different kind of pretty than Tammy’s pretty. She’s still tall, but not nearly so gangly and awkward. Her face, too, has a strange, ethereal, alien sort of beauty that’s all its own. She’s smart and charismatic and wickedly funny, and could probably have any boyfriend she wanted. This also makes Debbie’s stomach feel sickish and strange, but for entirely different reasons.
They meet at the park one evening just before sunset. They sit on the swings and twist the chains tight, trying to see who can spin out the fastest. “I won,” Lou announces, and Debbie is too distracted by her own thoughts to argue.
“Hey,” Lou says, grabbing at Debbie’s swing. “What’s wrong?”
Debbie looks at Lou and cocks her head to the side. “Do you ever wonder what it’s like to kiss a boy?”
Lou wrinkles her nose. “No,” she says decisively.
Lou shrugs. “Because I don’t want to do that,” she says, as if that’s that.
Debbie raises her eyebrows. “Ever?” she says disbelievingly.
“I don’t know,” Lou says, twisting in her swing again. “I haven’t decided.”
Debbie is quiet for a moment. She kicks her feet in the dirt and ponders what Lou said. “Have you ever kissed anyone before?” she asks.
“Nope,” Lou answers as she spins, blonde hair whipping around her face.
Debbie takes a deep breath. “Do you wanna...try?” she asks tentatively.
Lou waits until her swing stops spinning before she looks at Debbie. Her cheeks are flushed and her hair is messy. “You mean right now?” she asks. “With you?”
Debbie is suddenly so embarrassed that she wishes the ground would just swallow her whole. “I don’t know,” she mumbles. “I mean, I just--I’ve always wondered--”
Debbie doesn’t get to explain what she’s always wondered, though, because Lou’s mouth is pressed against her own and every word that’s ever been in her brain promptly vanishes. Lou kisses her for six seconds--Debbie times it--before she pulls away and grins. “You taste like bubblegum,” Lou informs her. “Are you still curious?”
“Am I a good kisser?” Debbie asks faintly.
Lou waggles her eyebrows to make Debbie laugh, and Debbie does. “Any boy would be lucky to kiss you,” Lou confirms, “even though all boys are dumb.”
Debbie knows this should please her, but instead it makes her feel hollow and emptied out, as if something was taken from her that she didn’t even know she had.
August & September 1984
A few weeks before they begin junior high, Tammy, Lou, and Debbie stand in Lou’s small bathroom, reading the instructions on a box of blue hair dye.
Lou leans her head over the sink while Debbie and Tammy, plastic gloves on their hands, take turns meticulously coating each blonde strand. “Are you guys sure you don’t want any?” Lou wheedles. “My hair is pretty short; there should be some leftover.”
“My parents would kill me,” Tammy says firmly.
Debbie shakes her head. “I don’t think blue is really my color,” she says. “Also, my parents would probably kill me.”
Lou sighs. “Killjoys,” she says ruefully.
Fifteen minutes later, Tammy and Debbie stand off to the side as Lou leans her head under the shower and rinses electric blue Manic Panic out of her hair. Debbie can already tell that it’s going to look totally badass.
So Lou starts junior high with blue hair and black kohl liner smeared around her eyes. She wears tee shirts advertising bands that Debbie has never heard of: The Dead Kennedys, The Runaways, The Stooges, The Buzzcocks, Agent Orange. She still has hand-me-downs, but she rips holes in the knees of her jeans to make the patchiness and wear look like a purposeful statement.
Next to Lou, Debbie feels impossibly dorky and young, and she imagines Tammy probably feels the same way. Lou doesn’t seem to care, though, because Lou hasn’t ever been bothered by anything. Junior high is bigger than elementary school, lots bigger, but they are still a trio, still inseparable, still undeniably them. Sometimes Debbie wonders if Lou will ever get wise and realize that she could be hanging out with much cooler people and ditch them, and then she tries with all her might not to wonder that because imagining her life without Lou is like falling into a black hole.
The third Friday of the year there’s a back to school dance for all the 7th graders. In the days leading up to it everyone is practically vibrating with anticipation; this is why they were all so excited to start junior high. Jamie Henry and Tammy broke up just before the end of 6th grade (Debbie and Lou were frankly astounded that they stayed together for over a year), but Tammy decides to go with him as friends.
“It’ll be nice to go with a boy, you know?” Tammy tells them during the Spanish class they share. “I won’t have to worry about whether anyone will ask me to dance or not, or that whole thing of like, oh no, what if someone totally weird asks me? Plus, Jamie is so sweet, and I like hanging out with him.”
Lou seems unbothered, but Debbie is anxious; she assumed they would go as a group and then sleep over at Tammy’s house, just like they did for the 6th grade graduation dance only a few months before. She wants to go, but Tammy and Lou are her only real friends, and there’s no way any boy is going to ask her. And what if a boy asks Lou? Debbie doesn’t think she’d say yes, but what if she does?
Debbie is quiet and distracted for the rest of the day. She senses Lou knows why, but she doesn’t ask, and Debbie is a strange mix of sad and grateful. During the bus ride home, Debbie and Lou take their usual seat next to each other; Tammy is staying after for drama club. When they get off at their shared stop, Lou grabs Debbie’s arm. “Alright, Ocean,” she says, “spit it out. You’ve been acting weird the whole day. What’s going on?”
Debbie plays with a beaded keychain on her backpack. “I’m just...I’m worried,” she says haltingly, “about the dance.”
Lou makes a surprised face. “What’re you worried about that dumb dance for?” she asks.
Debbie rolls her eyes and huffs. Of course Lou isn’t worried. “Because Tammy is going with Jamie and we’re not going as a group and a boy is probably going to ask you because you’re so pretty and cool and then you’ll go with him and I’ll never see you again.” She blurts out this last part without meeting Lou’s eyes, her cheeks flaming.
Lou glares at Debbie. Debbie blushes an even deeper red under this intense scrutiny. “What?” she asks, her voice small even to her own ears.
“You’re crazy,” Lou says simply. “Has anyone ever told you that before?”
“You have, loads of times.”
“Well, that’s because you are,” Lou says in a duh tone of voice. “I would never pick a boy over you, Deb. Not in a zillion years.”
The relief that rushes through Debbie is so intense and immediate that she very nearly falls over. “Never?” she asks.
They stand silently for a moment, grinning at each other shyly. “You know,” Lou finally says, “I’ll go to that idiot dance with you. If you want.”
“Like...as friends?” Debbie asks. “The way that Tammy and Jamie are?”
“Sure, Deb,” Lou says in a voice Debbie can’t quite read. “As friends.”
It’s not until hours later, as Debbie is falling asleep, that it occurs to her that Lou might’ve initially meant something different. She wonders if this should scare her, and she finds that it doesn’t. That somehow ends up being even scarier.
They’re too old for trick-or-treating, but it’s the first Halloween that they’re all teenagers, and Lou is determined that they do something to honor this momentous occasion. “We can do anything you want as long as we don’t smash any Jack-o’-lanterns,” Tammy says seriously. “When I was in second grade a bunch of high school boys got drunk and smashed all the pumpkins on my block, and it was very traumatic for me, Lou.”
They finally settle on a convoluted plan that involves Debbie telling her parents that she’s sleeping over at Tammy’s, and Tammy telling her parents that she’s sleeping over at Lou’s, and Lou not telling anyone anything because no one is all that concerned about where she goes or what she does anyway.
They ultimately meet up at Lou’s, and then take a bus (the driver looks at them suspiciously but doesn’t ask questions when they give him the exact right fare) to the mall movie theater. They buy gummi bears and wax lips and popcorn and massive Cokes, and then Lou has to sweet talk them into the special Halloween double feature she’s insisted they see, because both movies are technically rated R. Tammy and Debbie put on bright Debbie Harry-inspired makeup before they left in a last ditch attempt to appear older, but Lou is bare faced as usual. She somehow looks even more mature this way. She smirks teasingly at the pimply, long-haired teenage boy who rips tickets, and he turns pink and lets them through without any hesitation.
“That was almost too easy,” Lou laughs as they find seats.
“I think he came in his pants,” Tammy whispers gleefully, and Debbie cackles as Lou hits Tammy and tells her to shut up.
Lou wouldn’t tell them what either movies in the double feature were before they started, which was smart, because it turns out they’re seeing Halloween followed by Suspiria. Tammy watches both movies through her fingers and screams any time it even seems like something might happen. Debbie mostly keeps her face buried in Lou’s shoulder, peeking at the screen whenever she feels brave enough. It’s kind of nice, Debbie decides at one point. Lou smells like peppermint and laundry detergent and she’s very, very warm.
By the time the double feature lets out it’s after 1 am, but all three girls are too hyped up on sugar and caffeine and adrenaline to be tired. They find an all night diner and scrounge up enough leftover money to buy ice cream sundaes and coffee. Debbie hasn’t ever tried coffee before, and she thinks it tastes repulsive, but Lou enjoys hers--or at least does a good job of pretending she enjoys it--so Debbie chooses not to mention that she thinks it tastes like battery acid.
It’s a Saturday and a holiday, which means the buses are running late, and that’s good because it saves them the embarrassment of having to call one of their parents and rat themselves out. They squeeze into a single seat, their arms and legs so draped over each other that Debbie can’t tell where one one of them begins and the other ends. Tammy sleeps against the window for the 20 minute ride home, but Debbie and Lou stay awake. They listen to a Bruce Springsteen tape (Debbie’s pick) on Lou’s walkman, faces pressed together so they can share the headphones.
There’s a sadness hidden in that pretty face...a sadness all her own, from which no man can keep Candy safe….
Debbie looks at Lou. Her face is glowing from the streetlights they pass, and she is smiling slightly as she hums along to “Candy’s Room.” The dark quiet of the bus cradles and protects Debbie. She leans her head on Lou’s shoulder, just like she did at the movie theater. “Hey Lou?” she murmurs.
“I’m glad you’re my friend.”
Lou’s answering laugh is gentle and genuine. “I’m glad I’m your friend too, Deb.”
Debbie realizes the moment she starts high school that she was silly to ever think junior high was big. High school is big; high school is enormous. There are so many teachers that Debbie can’t keep track of them; sometimes she can’t even remember the names of the ones she actually has. For the first time since probably second grade, she and Lou and Tammy don’t share a single class--not even gym--but they do have the same lunch at least. They buy gobs of junk food and spread it buffet-style in the center of their table.
Tammy still does drama club and ends up being cast as Sarah Brown in the winter musical production of Guys and Dolls, which is practically unheard of for a freshman. She spends a lot of time at rehearsals, and briefly goes out with the boy who’s playing Nathan Detroit--Charlie Page, a junior--but then they break up (very publicly, and Debbie hears through the grapevine it involves the senior playing Adelaide, but she has the good sense not to ask Tammy to confirm or deny). Lou and Debbie show up at Tammy’s house the Saturday after it happens with sappy romance videos and three cartons of ice cream and a bottle of wine Lou found in her fridge. They get dizzy drunk and dance around Tammy’s room to Madonna until they’re laughing too hard to catch their breath.
Lou is still all half-smirk smiles and punk bands, all grungy jeans and dark eyeliner (though her blue hair has long since faded back to blonde), but there’s something more serious about her now, more cultured. Tammy and Debbie are in all honors classes because it felt like what they were supposed to do, but Lou is only in one: honors English. She doesn’t seem particularly interested in doing the homework, but she loves the books and the class discussions, Debbie can tell by how animated Lou is when she talks about them. She reads what they’re assigned by the teacher--Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Death Be Not Proud--but she reads books she seeks out on her own, too; books Debbie hasn’t even heard of, let alone read herself. A Confederacy of Dunces, Howl, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Naked Lunch. She scribbles poems and stories on scraps of paper that she shoves in the bottom of her backpack; she lets Debbie read some of what she writes, but not everything. She asks Debbie very seriously for feedback, and Debbie isn’t just being nice when she tells her it’s brilliant, because it is. Debbie gets good grades on the essays she does for her own English class, but Lou’s writing is different. It is sharp, raw, insightful. It’s Lou, whittled down to a single sheet of looseleaf.
Lou joins the AV club and falls in love with movies; there’s a small theater downtown that does retrospectives of classic films and Lou drags Debbie there nearly every Saturday for showings of Casablanca and Psycho and Citizen Kane. Debbie always groans and rolls her eyes and acts like she thinks the movies are so boring, Lou, honestly, but really she craves these Saturday hours with Lou because there are entire days where it feels like Lou is slipping away from her. She, Tammy, and Lou are still a trio, and when they’re together they’re still their own little universe, but high school brought new people with it, new social groups. Tammy has her theatre friends; Lou has the AV club. They are carving out niches for themselves, slowly building their lives.
But Debbie is still just Debbie. She doesn’t join any clubs because joining hasn’t ever been her thing; she does fine in her classes, but not spectacular; people like her fine, though no one--save Lou and Tammy--go out of their way to invite her places. It’s like she’s gone backwards in time and she’s the lonely 3rd grader again, waiting for life to happen, waiting for adventure, waiting for someone to see her and say, you’re special I like you. It feels like life before Lou, sometimes, and it makes Debbie want to howl and cry because what if in her desperate bids to keep Lou close to her, all she’s doing is pushing her away?
The day before Christmas break Debbie is at her locker, changing out books before last period, when she hears someone say Lou’s name. There’s a group of girls standing a few feet away, whispering intently, and though none of the girls are Susan Maple--she moved away after 6th grade--they remind Debbie uncomfortably of her. Debbie leans closer to them, heart thudding. The warning bell rings, and she’s probably going to be late to class, but she doesn’t care.
“Yeah, they got caught making out in the lighting booth, if you can believe it--”
“Lou Miller and Gisela Rodriguez, don’t you fucking listen? God. But yeah, no, they were making out, even though Lou is just a freshman and Gisela is a senior--”
“How do you even know all this?”
“My brother told me, stupid. Duh. And he said that he heard from Tommy who heard from his girlfriend Katie that they were doing a little more than making out, if you know what I mean.”
“Ohmigod, like what? How much more?”
“Definitely some fingering action, and maybe even tongue stuff.”
“Are they lesbians?”
“Ugh, probably. Gross, right? I mean, Lou has always been so weird and she wears those dumb jeans and band shirts--”
“Remember her blue hair?”
“Yes! So embarrassing.”
“But Gisela is really, really pretty and cool, why would she go for a girl like Lou--”
Debbie slams her locker shut and runs towards the nearest bathroom, trying not to hyperventilate. She locks herself in a stall and sits down on the toilet. She draws her legs to her chest and holds them tightly, because otherwise she’s scared she may implode. The final bell rings, and Debbie has never skipped a class in her life, but she can’t bring herself to move. Her chest hurts and her head is pounding. Thoughts buzz like feverish, angry wasps around her brain: Lou kissed someone Lou kissed someone and didn’t tell you Lou kissed a girl Lou kissed a girl and didn’t tell you Lou didn’t tell you didn’t tell you didn’t tell you Lou kissed someone Lou kissed a girl kissed a girl kissed a girl kissed a girl.
She’s being ridiculous. She knows she is. It’s not any of her business who Lou kisses. And maybe it only just happened and Lou hasn’t had a chance to bring it up yet; maybe it was just an oversight; maybe she forgot. Lou has been her best friend for almost half their lives. Gisela whoever the fuck she is can’t replace her. It’s not a big deal. Lou can kiss whoever she wants.
But despite Debbie’s best efforts, the tears come all the same. She buries her head in her arms and she sobs.
Lou, Debbie, and Tammy are all on the same bus again, and usually they meet up at Tammy’s locker before they head home, but today Debbie rushes out to the parking lot without them. She takes her seat and presses her face against the window, trying to make her body as small as possible, trying to just vanish forever and never be found. Lou is going to sit with her because she always sits with her and Debbie doesn’t know how the hell she’s supposed to face her.
Lou, inevitably and eventually, gets on the bus and takes her customary seat next to Debbie. Tammy sits a few rows behind them; she’s dating a boy who rides their bus, Ryan something, and they use the short ride home as an opportunity to messily make out. Lou nudges Debbie with her elbow. “You didn’t meet up with Tammy and me,” she says, brow furrowed. “Did something happen?”
Debbie shakes her head mutely, not trusting herself to speak. She stares obstinately out the window, trying to swallow against the rising column of tears in her throat. She picks at her cuticles, an old habit, not really caring if they bleed. Sort of hoping that they do.
Lou nudges her again. “Debbie,” she says, and there is genuine worry in her voice mixed with a bit of exasperation, “what’s wrong? Why are you acting so upset? What’s going on?”
Debbie’s lip quivers and she curls more tightly in on herself. The thought of having this conversation with Lou on the bus, in front of God and everyone, makes her feel like throwing up. She takes deep breaths and counts to ten. It doesn’t really help but she keeps trying because if she stops she might scream.
“Fine,” Lou says, and Debbie can hear that she’s rolling her eyes. “Whatever. Don’t talk about it.” Lou rummages in her backpack and Debbie watches from the corner of her eye as she takes out her Walkman, puts the headphones on her ears. She is scowling at the seat in front of them, as if it’s done something to deeply wound her.
When their stop comes, Lou starts walking toward her apartment building without waiting to say goodbye to Debbie. Her hands are shoved in her pockets and her shoulders are slumped. Her stride is long and angry.
“Do you love her?” Debbie blurts out, when Lou is still close enough to hear.
Lou turns slowly around, walks back to Debbie. “What the fuck are you talking about?” Lou asks flatly.
Debbie exhales sharply. “Well, I just think if you’re going to let someone finger you in a lighting booth you should like her, or at least know any-fucking-thing about her,” she says, hurt turning her words dagger sharp.
Debbie expects Lou to get angry back, or at least be annoyed, but instead she just laughs and that makes Debbie even angrier. “That’s what this all about?” Lou says incredulously. “Because I made out with Gisela Rodriguez in the lighting booth one time? Jesus, Deb.”
“Oh, don’t you act all superior and too cool for everyone else--”
“Debbie, it’s not a big deal. At all,” Lou says. “Really. I don’t even think I like her; she’s just, you know, pretty. And a good kisser.” She smirks as she says that last part, like Debbie is just supposed to find this charming and fun and oh-so-Lou.
“It is a big deal!” Debbie says, stamping her foot even though she knows it’s a babyish thing to do. “You’re my best friend and I had to hear about something really important from a bunch of girls I don’t even know--”
“I was going to tell you,” Lou says, composure still infuriatingly unruffled. “Why is this bothering you so much, Deb? We’ve never talked much about crushes and dating and stuff; that’s always been Tammy’s thing. I didn’t think you’d really care. And it’s not like we’re dating.”
“Well, I do care,” Debbie says petulantly. “So there.” She sits down on the curb and watches a line of ants march down the asphalt. “Do you,” she swallows, “like…girls? In that way?”
Lou sits down next to her and props her chin in her hands. “Well, yeah,” Lou says, as effortlessly and honestly as she says everything. “I kind of always have, I think.”
“You never talked to me about it.”
Lou shrugs her left shoulder. “I didn’t really officially know until not that long ago,” she says slowly. “I mean, I knew, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure. And I didn’t want to make a big deal out of something and tell you and Tammy all about it and then it end up not being true or real, I guess.”
She lifts her chin slightly and watches Debbie, and for the first time Debbie sees something like worry in her eyes. “It’s okay with you, right?” Lou asks. “The whole ‘liking only girls’ thing? It doesn’t bother you, does it?”
Debbie immediately shakes her head no. “Of course it doesn’t bother me,” she says. “I don’t care who you like, as long as they like make you happy and stuff.” She grabs Lou’s hand. “It just felt really, really bad that there was this huge thing in your life and I didn’t know about it at all.”
It’s begun to snow a little, but neither Debbie nor Lou gets up from the curb. Debbie looks over at Lou and finally, finally voices the thing that’s been scaring her for so long. “I don’t want to lose you, Lou,” she says, softly.
Lou scoots over so her shoulder is leaning up against Debbie’s. “You’re not going to lose me,” she says, and her voice is so certain that Debbie almost smiles, “because I don’t want to be lost.” She grins. “You can’t get rid of me that easy, Ocean.”
After a while, they stand up and make their separate ways back home. Lou hugs her before they part, which is weird because they’ve never been the kind of friends who hug, but nice all the same. Debbie tries not to worry about it, she really does, but it still feels like something is changing between her and Lou. That soon it will all be different and there’s nothing she can do to stop it.
The summer Debbie turns seventeen, two things happen: she gets her driver’s license and she gets a boyfriend.
The first ends up being more excited than the second, mostly because with the license comes a car, and with a car comes more freedom than she can begin to comprehend. She, Lou, and Tammy are suddenly mobile; they no longer have to depend on the whims of parents or the city bus. The first night Debbie has a car, she picks up Tammy and Lou and they just drive. They don’t have any particular destination in mind, and they don’t really need one; the humid summer wind whipping through the open windows and Lou’s feet on the dashboard and Tammy singing from the backseat are so much more than enough. They blast Blondie and Prince and David Bowie, and Debbie insists on “Dancing Queen” even though it makes Lou gag exaggeratedly and insist that her ears are bleeding. They end up parking next to a big field and lying side by side on the hood of the car. Debbie is reminded of a summer night so many years ago, when they were small but didn’t know it, and they held hands as fireworks boomed and the Earth throbbed beneath their thin shoulders.
The boyfriend is less exciting than the car, but exciting nonetheless. Debbie spends the summer lifeguarding at the pool where she, Tammy, and Lou went as kids, and that’s where she meets him. Taylor Kessler. One night, after an especially long and hideously hot shift, he asks her if she wants to go get ice cream at Dairy Queen. She leaves her car in the parking lot so he can drive, and Debbie finds that she doesn’t at all mind being the passenger in a nice boy’s car. It makes her feel warm and safe and delightfully a part of something. He pays for her Blizzard and they sit at a plastic table outside and when they’re both finished he very politely asks if he can kiss her because he’s been watching her since summer started and he thinks she’s really, really pretty.
Debbie tells Tammy all this first, because she knows with Tammy it will be easy, and Tammy proves her right; she squeals and grabs Debbie’s hands and they jump up and down and Tammy demands that Debbie tell her everything and if she leaves out a single detail there will be major trouble. Debbie loves telling the story, its little cinematic details, and wonders if this is part of why girls like having boyfriends so much.
Debbie tells Lou all this second, because she knows with Lou it will be hard, and Lou proves her right. It’s not that she’s not happy; she is. Or at least acts like she is. She smiles and teases Debbie about using protection and tells her that it’s great there’s a boy who likes her so much, but there’s a hollowness to everything she says, like it’s coming from some deep, empty place inside of her. It makes guilt swirl in Debbie’s stomach, which bothers her, because it’s not like Lou doesn’t kiss people. She kisses plenty of people, and has even had a few girlfriends. And, as Lou pointed out one frigid afternoon when they were fourteen, they aren’t dating. They’ve never dated.
And yet. And still.
Debbie and Taylor go on eleven more dates after the night at Dairy Queen. He steals her freeze pops from the pool clubhouse fridge. Once, they drive to the pool when it’s late and climb over the fence and go night swimming. They kiss in the deep end, under the diving boards. Debbie is wearing her bra and underwear and the water turns them see-through, and she’s self-conscious, but Taylor tells her that she’s beautiful. They talk on the phone every night, even if they lifeguarded together during the day. They have sex exactly once; Debbie’s first time. They do it on his bed one humid afternoon after the pool closed early because of thunderstorms. He still has glow in the dark stars on his ceiling and Star Wars action figures on his desk, which makes Debbie like him even more. They remember to use protection. It’s over faster than Debbie thought it would be. It hurts, though not much, and she doesn’t bleed. After, they lie next to each other without talking, and Debbie pretends that she feels older and wiser and closer to Taylor, even though she doesn’t, really.
When she tells Tammy and Lou, days later, Tammy nods seriously and tells Debbie: “It gets better after you do it a few times.” She’d had sex for the first time six months ago, with Jamie Henry, her sweet, goofy-eared, elementary school crush finally turned long term boyfriend. “But at first it does feel really weird and uncomfortable.”
Lou says nothing, just smiles softly at Debbie, her eyes sad in a way that Debbie can’t quite place.
Then, not quite eight weeks after Debbie and Taylor first went to Dairy Queen, Debbie walks into the supply closet at the pool to get a skimmer and discovers Taylor kissing another lifeguard, Deanna, who is nineteen and goes to college in Mississippi. All she can do is stand there and stare, and finally Taylor opens his eyes and notices her. His jaw drops so dramatically he almost looks like a cartoon character, and he calls her name but Debbie is already gone.
She pounds on Lou’s door, and just as it’s occurring to her that Lou might not even be at home and she’s making a lot of noise for no reason, the door opens. Lou stands in front of her, wearing a pair of basketball shorts and a tank top, and her bangs are pinned back with two butterfly barrettes that used to be Tammy’s, and her face is so familiar and wonderful and Lou that Debbie immediately bursts into tears. Lou asks no questions, just leads Debbie into the small apartment and helps her sit down on the couch.
“He...was...kissing...someone...else,” Debbie manages through heaving sobs.
“Well fuck him.” Anger radiates off Lou in waves. “What a fucking asshole. I’m so fucking sorry, Deb.”
“She was so much prettier than me, Lou,” Debbie whispers, every word wet and wavering like when a little kid is crying too hard to catch their breath. “And I felt so fucking ugly and small and--”
“Bullshit,” Lou interrupts, so adamantly that Debbie’s tears briefly stop.
She takes Debbie’s cheeks in her hands. Her face is blazing, as if lit from within. “There is no one prettier than you, Deborah Ocean,” she says, low and fierce. “No one. You are the most beautiful human being I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Lou--” Debbie begins faintly, but Lou hushes her.
“You’ve been the most beautiful person I’ve ever met since we were eight years old and you were fucking playing marbles on the blacktop with Tammy,” she continues seriously. “I swear to God. It’s fucking wild, how pretty you are. It floors me, like, every single day.”
“Lou,” Debbie finally manages to get in, “please, just, shut up. For a moment, so I can say this.” She takes a huge breath, hoping desperately that the words that come out will be the right ones. “You’re my favorite person. And I think I’m...uhm... maybe, like, a little a lot in love with you? Emphasis on the a lot. And not...as friends. Because I’ve always loved you as a friend, but also I’ve always maybe been in love with you, and...yeah.” She trails off, staring down at her hands.
Lou leans back on her elbows and watches Debbie intently. She worries a strand of Debbie’s hair in her fingers before she speaks again. “You can’t fuck with me,” she says, and even though her voice is flinty, Debbie can see the vulnerability in her eyes, scared and hopeful and wanting, all at once. “Look, I’ve been with a lot of girls who didn’t know what the hell they were, and experimenting can be really great, but. Not with you. I can’t do that with you. You’re different. You’ve always been different.”
Debbie laughs, teary and hiccoughing. “Lou,” she says, “the first time I heard about you kissing someone I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for all of last period.”
Lou wipes a tear from Debbie’s face with her thumb. “A compelling point,” she says. “Tell me more.”
Debbie leans back on the couch and thinks for a moment. “You’re the only person who sees me,” she eventually settles on. “Like, really, really sees me. I just...I feel so boring, and lost, and lonely sometimes, like there’s this whole world and I’m in it but not really, you know? And then I look at you, and you always have this look on your face that’s like, oh, there you are. Like I’m your person. And that’s insane, because you’re my person.”
She looks at Lou, and realizes they’re both crying. “You’re my person Lou,” she says, then grabs both her hands. “You know me. You’re maybe the only person I let know me.”
Lou’s breath is coming is fast, panting little gasps. She leans forward, and before Debbie knows what’s happening, they’re kissing, and it feels new and different and strange, but it also feels remarkably like going home. It’s nothing like kissing Taylor, which always felt a little like she was a girl in a movie kissing a boy in a movie. Kissing Lou is realer, somehow, like kissing anyone else would be silly and superfluous. Lou’s lips are softer than any boy’s, and she smells like lavender.
When they finally pull away, every nerve in Debbie’s body is singing. “Do I still taste like bubblegum?” she asks, and Lou throws back her head and cackles.
“Maybe,” Lou says, “but mostly you taste like my best friend.”
“That’s a little sappy, Lou.”
“Shut the fuck up and make out with me, dummy.”
The next time they see Tammy, two days later, they don’t out get a single word of explanation before Tammy narrows her eyes, looks them up and down, throws her hands in the air, and yells, “Fucking finally. Jesus Christ, you two, it’s about goddamn time.”
“We’re not actually going, are we?”
It’s two weeks before graduation, and Lou, Tammy, and Debbie are in the middle of a very serious three-way call regarding the validity of prom vs. no prom.
Tammy sighs, the rush of air staticky over the line. “Jamie and I were supposed to go,” she says wistfully. “But that’s obviously not happening anymore.” They’d broken up, for the final time, several weeks prior when Tammy told Jamie that she wasn’t going to go to the University of Alabama just because that’s where he was going.
“We could go as a group,” Debbie offers, “like it’s middle school again.”
“What, and I’d drink spiked punch and watch you two drool all over each other all night?” Tammy scoffs. “No thanks.”
Lou makes loud, obnoxious kissing sounds that sound more like rain boots squelching through mud, and Tammy groans.
“I think it could be fun to go,” Debbie says, “but also I wouldn’t really be bothered if we didn’t go, either.” Lou hums her agreement.
“Wait, oh my God,” Tammy says suddenly. “The lake house.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My parents own a lake house; I always forget about it--”
“My, how the other half does live--”
“Shut up. We have a lake house and we could totally drive down and spend the night there instead of prom,” Tammy explains. “My mom and dad won’t care.”
There’s silence on the other line for a few moments before Lou says, “I’ve never been drunk at a lake before. Let’s do it.”
The Saturday of prom arrives, and while the entire rest of the senior class is getting dressed to the nines and renting limos and booking rooms in swanky hotels, Lou, Tammy, and Debbie pile into Debbie’s car and drive to the beach.
The house itself is relatively secluded and has a gorgeous view of the lake, but more importantly the bar is fully stocked. “Shit, Tim-Tam,” Lou says, examining the liquors and mixers, “this is the good stuff.”
“Momsie and Popsie do know how to party,” Tammy says, dropping her duffel on the floor, “and luckily so do we.”
Tammy makes them all mimosas, heavy on the champagne, which they drink on the back porch, their feet kicked up on the railing. They eat cinnamon buns and take sex quizzes from a pile of Cosmos they found under Tammy’s mom’s bed. It’s only mid-May but it’s hot, and after her third mimosa Lou announces that they need to go swimming.
They spend the entire afternoon splashing and shrieking in the water, jumping off the dock, lying out on the beach. Lou, the fairest of them, turns pink, then red, and Tammy tells her she looks like a lobster. Debbie can’t help but be reminded of summer afternoons from years and years ago, when Lou was a holy terror who drove the lifeguards at the park pool crazy, and Tammy decided they all needed mermaid names. She feels very grown-up and very young; old, but not wise.
That night, they build a bonfire on the beach. They toast marshmallows and drink so many beers Debbie loses count. They sing “Home on the Range” until they’re laughing too hard to form words. They lie in the sand and search for constellations; Tammy rambles on about the myth of Orion until Lou tells her to hush. They hold hands and then they all cry a little because they’ve orbited around each other for so long, but forces beyond their control are disrupting it, ready or not.
They stumble into bed around 2 am, crashing fully clothed onto the massive king bed in the master suite. They cuddle close together and synchronize their breathing without even meaning to. They smell like lake water and smoke and sweat, like comfort, like love. As Debbie’s eyes close, she knows that this is the safest she has ever been.
Debbie wakes just before sunrise with a jolt of adrenaline that comes from falling asleep in a strange place. Next to her, Lou’s eyes are open, too. Silently, carefully, so as not to disturb Tammy, they slip out of bed and down the hall into one of the guest rooms. They have sex, and sex with Lou is always good, like really, really good, but this time it is so sweet and tender that it makes Debbie ache. When she comes, it is soft and delicate, and then she’s crying again, and she knows Lou is, too.
They hold hands and walk outside to the beach. They sit down in the sand and watch the sun slowly come up. The water laps at their toes; the wind ruffles their hair. They don’t talk, because they don’t need to.
The sun is almost completely risen before either of them says anything. “I was thinking,” Debbie says slowly, “that I might...wait a little while. Before I go to college.”
She’d gotten into a few schools, some of them quite good, but hadn’t decided on anywhere yet. Tammy is going to Sarah Lawrence; she’d applied early decision, her only school. Lou hadn’t applied anywhere, but she said she was proud of Debbie and Tammy. They don’t talk about college much, though; it is an unspoken truth, hanging heavy between them.
“Oh yeah?” Lou says carefully.
“Yeah,” Debbie says. “I was thinking I might travel. Experience the world and broaden my mind and all that.”
“Huh,” Lou says, and then she is silent.
“And I was thinking,” Debbie says, a few moments later, “that I’d really love it if you came with me.” She smiles. “I could use a partner.”
Lou’s expression is so scared and hopeful that it nearly shatters something inside of Debbie. “Really?” she asks.
Debbie nods. “Yeah,” she says, crying and smiling. “It’s always been you, Lou. You have to know that.”
Lou lies down so her head is in Debbie’s lap. “It’s us against the world, kid,” she murmurs drowsily, and they are so very young, and they don’t know much of anything, but Debbie knows that this, at least, is true.
She runs her fingers through Lou’s hair as Lou dozes. She has no idea what she’s going to do with her life, what happens next, but maybe, just maybe, the two of them together is all she’s ever really needed.