I walked up to Augie’s house, a modest-sized ranch covered in a warm-brown brick. The grass was well-kept and green (then again, whose wasn’t?), the door painted a crisp white with a flower wreath hanging on it. Pink rose bushes and perennials hugged the front side of the house.
The house fit in well. Here, it was all about the illusion of perfection. The families were WASPy enough to avoid talking about their real problems and their houses and lawns matched that. Everything and everyone were just fine, thank you. At least that’s the answer you would get if you asked, but just wait for the trust funds to come out. Nothing was ever just fine.
I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath, and walked down the brick pathway. I pressed the doorbell and a cheery song played back. Jesus, who were these people, the Cleavers? A middle-aged woman answered, she had shiny shoulder length chestnut hair and Augie’s dark brown, friendly eyes. Her nose was pointier than his. Well, at least she wasn’t wearing an apron.
“You must be Arianna, I’ve heard so much about you. Please, come in.” She stepped aside and I flashed her my best parents-and-teachers smile.
“Just Ari is fine.”
I looked around. The door opened into a small entranceway that connected to the living room, the kitchen on the side. The floor was a shining dark hardwood and the room smelled like Pine Sol and vanilla candles.
“Are you hungry or thirsty, sweetie, can I get you anything?”
“No, I’m fine.” I smiled and ran my hands on my arms. God, why was I nervous? I was Arianna Gold, queen bee. I stood up taller, lifting my chin. I’d perfected fake it till you make it.
She leaned in closer and I could smell her perfume, something floral, like jasmine. “You know, I have to be honest, I’m glad Augie has a girl as a friend now. It’s a nice break from Raj and Mark and their video games.” She gave a husky laugh and I smiled back.
Augie bounded into the room, grinning. He was wearing white socks, faded jeans and a graphic tee with a Space Invader on it. He groaned when he saw his mom laughing and leaning close to me. “Oh Mom! What are you telling her?”
“Nothing, hon. You guys have fun and let me know if you need anything.” She opened the sliding door and disappeared out into the backyard.
Augie rolled his eyes. “Sorry. She sometimes thinks she’s funny. Hah.”
“Your mom seems pretty cool, if you ask me. At least compared to my mom.”
“Everyone always thinks that. Come on, my room is this way.”
I hesitated and he didn’t miss a beat. “Unless, you want to study somewhere else? We have a pretty sick setup in the basement.”
Of course they did. I always wanted one of those sweet finished basements to hang out in, far away from parents. “That sounds great.”
“Hold on.” He ran into the kitchen and came back with two cans of orange soda. I followed him past a door and down a set of steep stairs. His basement was straight out of the 70s: wood paneled walls and thick carpeting. But it did have a large-screened TV on the wall, a huge leather couch, a bar and an old-school pinball machine. I walked towards it.
“Damn, this thing is sweet.” I ran my hand along the metal sides. There was a blonde pinup girl on the back.
Augie blushed, “Yeah my dad collects old video games and stuff. You can play, it works.” He went around the back and it lit up. “My high score is 56,000 but I can’t beat it.”
“I bet I could kick your ass.” He laughed. “What, you don’t think I can?”
“Oh, no, I just uh…never heard you swear before.”
“Oh,” I giggled. “I may be a blonde cheerleader, but I curse like a sailor. Parents taught me everything they knew I guess.” Why was I telling him all of this? I didn’t talk to anybody about my parents. I crossed my arms.
“Ah…that’s cool. My mom gets mad when I swear, as if I’m still 12.”
“Hm.” So they were the Cleavers. I’d once read that children believe that whatever surrounds them is normal. Augie’s norm was a lot different than mine.
I walked over to the bar and began inspecting their booze. A good mix of top shelf liquor and cheap wine. “So, what’s your dad like?” I asked, turning around and leaning against the bar. “Besides a nerd like you.” I smiled to let him know I was joking but he averted his gaze.
“Uh, you know.” He scratched the back of his head. “Tall. He does tech stuff for GE. Can’t figure out why I don’t have a girlfriend. That kind of stuff.”
It went silent and I stuffed my hands in my pockets. This was awkward. “Tell him that the girls at our school are pretty lame. Believe me, I’d know.”
“Yeahh, Shauna and Rachel are—”
“Bitches?” I said, point-blank.
“I mean, they’re your friends so I wasn’t gonna say that.”
I laughed, “Plus you gotta mind your swearing around your mom.”
“That too. So how come you aren’t lame by association?”
“Are you saying I’m cool?”
“Well, you aren’t a bitch…Not that I would call a girl a bitch.”
I laid my hand on my heart. “No? You’re very good at compliments.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Nah, I’m just messing with you. I don’t know, I guess we are just friends because we do the same things and hang around with the same people. I don’t really trust them with my secrets.”
“Still must feel good to be popular, though.” He frowned and flopped onto a bean bag chair painted like a baseball.
I sat at the end of the couch and grabbed a soda from him, snapping it open. “I’m not gonna lie, it is kind of nice. But it gets exhausting, always keeping up with appearances. Sometimes I wish I was more like you.”
“What? A loser?”
“You’re not a loser. It just must be nice to be unapologetically yourself and make your own decisions. You guys always seem like you’re having a lot of fun.”
He shrugged, “You should just be yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“What’s the point of any of it?”
“Are you having an existential crisis?” he asked, totally deadpan.
“Shut up!” I laughed and threw a couch pillow at him. He cracked up and shook his head.
“You know, you’re really different outside of school.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, sharper than I meant to, feeling myself retreat. I knew that I’d told him too much. It was like word vomit, I couldn’t stop. He was just so easy to talk to.
“Well you were just talking about wishing you could be more like yourself. I feel like outside of school…you’re different. In a good way!” he threw in nervously.
“You’re probably right.” I sighed, followed by another awkward silence. This was so weird. What was I doing in August Stone’s basement?
“I guess we should start studying now. I’ll go grab my algebra book.” He ran up the stairs two at a time and I took my phone out. I’d told Bryce I was studying at the library, knowing he’d never set foot in one. I opened a text from him.
Hey baby, how much longer will you be studying? I want to see you.
Just getting started. I don’t think I will be able to see you today.
Fine. I’ll go hang out with Brandon. Probably smoking in the old shed if you need us.
I shook my head. The stupid old shed they’d discovered in the forest behind Bryce’s house had become their smoking spot. Brandon was his best friend, but everyone knew that he was a better football player. There was some sort of weird competition going on between them. In our group it was hard to have any real friends because everyone was always competing against each other. Captain of the team, looks, grades, who hooked up with whom. It was exhausting.
Augie came back down the stairs, a book, binder, pencil and highlighter in his hands. I wasn’t sure why no one liked Augie. He was a nerd, and sometimes he had breakouts like all of us, but he was handsome. His brown hair was always sweeping into his eyes, which were big and dark. He had a straight nose and a strong jaw. He was nice and he didn’t pick on people, which I guess made him a “loser”. I knew that he was some sort of science prodigy so every teacher fawned over him and that sometimes he wore black hipster glasses. I’m guessing he usually wore contacts to avoid being made fun of (not that it helped much). Him and his friends often won the science fair. Didn’t seem like enough to condemn a person, but then again, my friends were the instigators of it.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked, sounding bewildered. He had to have an ulterior motive. Everyone did. That’s just the way the world worked; I wasn’t naïve about it.
“What do you mean?” He opened his book and pushed it closer to me. Even his books smelled like his mother’s cleaning supplies. And, the margins weren’t full of lewd drawings.
“Augie, my friends are so fucking mean to you. I’ve barely ever spoken to you. Why don’t you just let me fail? Because I will, you know.” My voice cracked and he looked up at me, his expression serious.
“Because, not everyone is defined by their friends. And, well, this is gonna sound really nerdy but—” He wiped his hands on his jeans. “Education is important to me, and I don’t want anyone to fail. Plus, if I can help you learn something, why not? Maybe later you can help me.”
“With what?” Here it comes…
“I don’t know. Just say hi to me in the hallway or something.” He raised one shoulder.
“That’s all you want?” I knew what he meant. Maybe if people saw me being nice to him, they’d stop picking on him. My friends would have a field day, but I owed it to him. I didn’t want to be a bitch all the time, and I didn’t want to end up angry with life like my parents. My therapist was always telling me that I wasn’t like my parents. That I was already doing so much to better my life. It didn’t feel that way. And it certainly didn’t feel that way whenever Bryce stepped all over Augie. I knew what it felt like to be hurt.
“Sure, Augie, I’ll do that.” He smiled crookedly at me.
“At least have them come up with something better than August the Smallest.” I snorted and he laughed.