I remember other things about that year too. That was the year I stopped getting an allowance. The year I turned ten and my mother signed me up for Girl Scouts to teach me a lesson. It was the year I had my first kiss. But that's never what people want to talk about. Whenever one of us mentions that year, 1990, twenty-five years ago, we're really talking about Freddie.
Kayla's tenth birthday party came during the middle of May, a day so hot you could taste the promise of the upcoming summer vacation. The Louisiana air was heavy with the kind of humidity that made seagulls lazy. The A/C in my mother's station wagon was broken, so we drove to Kayla's house with the windows down. My mother had spent forty-five minutes flat ironing my curly hair that morning, and I watched in the rearview mirror as the wind undid her hard work. During the drive I occupied my time imagining the party. I had a good idea of what to expect.
The Monday before, over lunch, Kayla explained how her mother implored her to invite everyone from our class. "I ain't inviting any of the white kids," she said with a mouth half-full of PB&J. She took a swig of chocolate milk and added, "And no boys either."
I didn't tell her that there were only three white kids to choose from, all of whom were boys. Instead I bit into my apple and nodded my approval as usual.
She surveyed the cafeteria until her eyes stopped a few tables away. When I followed her gaze, I saw Freddie Harris laughing at something someone said. His smile was missing a tooth, but it made him look as tough as Mike Tyson. He just kept laughing and shaking his head, his dreadlocks swinging like little metronomes. Kayla's eyes crinkled. She had a hint of a smile when she said, "I might invite Freddie though."
It didn't shock me. Once, during the middle of library reading time, Kayla crept up behind Freddie, armed with a pair of scissors. He was turning a page in his Hardy Boys book when she yanked one of his dreads and snipped it off in one swift motion. I have to give him credit, though: He flinched and patted the spot where his dreadlock had been seconds before, but he didn't snitch on her, didn't say a word.
We pulled into Kayla's neighborhood around noon. "Make sure you grab her present," my mother said, as though Kayla's gift hadn't been sitting beside me in the backseat the whole ride. As though I hadn't been envisioning the face she'd make when ripping through the wrapping paper. I grabbed the present and my mother grabbed my hand and we went.
She rang the doorbell and we heard a voice waft through the open window: "I'll get it!" Moments later Kayla herself answered the door, dressed in a black tutu and a plain T-shirt with a glittery number 10. The tiara on her head sparkled with rhinestones. She looked only slightly disappointed to see that it was me standing on the other side. But then she grinned and said, "Well, get in here, Cece!" and we joined the other girls in the living room while my mother joined the cluster of ladies and mixed drinks in the kitchen.
The living room looked the same as always: family portraits on the mantelpiece, African rugs checkering the floor, bulky box fan jammed in the window. As far as I could tell, the only difference was the group of girls lolling by the fan's breeze, our classmates. An oasis of cornrows and beaded braids, hair frizzed from the humidity.
Left to our own devices, Kayla grabbed a broom from the laundry room and instructed Amina and Adina, the twins with matching cornrows, to hold it steady. We took turns playing limbo, seeing how far down we could go before things got dangerous. I got eliminated during the second round, but Kayla advanced to the finals. She was crouching down low as the coffee table, wobbling forward, when the doorbell chimed.
"I'll get it!" she hollered, bounding to her feet and knocking the broom out of the twins' hands. Over the whine of the fan we heard her squeal, a noise like a tea kettle whistling. Her words came piecemeal, energetic peaks and dips muted by the wall. Minutes later she re-emerged, Freddie in tow. The other girls smiled and chanted, "Hi, Freddie!"
I didn't feel so strongly about him. Our speaking terms began and ended on the first day of fourth grade, during one-on-one icebreakers, when he asked me to tell him something interesting about myself. "I have a dog and three goldfish," I said, and he responded with "I don't know how to swim," and believing I had to match his level of confidentiality, believing these secrets would remain between the two of us, I confessed "I still wet the bed sometimes." He thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard and sprang out of his seat to tell his friends. I sighed and traipsed over to Kayla and before I could sit, she asked if Freddie had mentioned her. "No, but did you know he can't swim?" Even combined our laughter wasn't as loud as Freddie's was across the room.
Since then I'd refused to talk to him, even after I caught him staring at me on more than one occasion, during class, lunch, recess.
Now he scanned the ocean of girls as if somewhere another boy was buoyed. His lips twitched when our eyes met. He looked away before I could see which way his mouth turned.
As it turned out, Freddie wasn't much better than me at limbo. The twins returned the broom to its original height but he couldn't even get past that. He crouched down, his face contorting, and the moment he stepped forward, he flopped to the ground. Some of us giggled—I know I did.
He glowered. "This game is stupid."
Kayla said, slowly, "Yeah, it is." Then she snatched the broom and replaced it with the dirty laundry.
An hour into the party, Kayla wanted to open her presents, so we all gathered in a semi-circle around her. I stood beside my mother as we sang Happy Birthday, smelling her sweet-and-sour cocktail breath.
When Kayla opened our gifts, she wasn't delicate. She grabbed and yanked, eager to see how well we knew her. She smiled when she unwrapped the twins' Boyz II Men CD. She exclaimed "Yes!" after discovering a giant box overflowing with name-brand candy. She unctuously thanked Freddie for his dollar store birthday card and half empty bottle of perfume, even after he walked away.
Then she got to the last gift: mine.
She clawed at the packaging, ripped it with abandon until, at last, we all stared at the big, bright box advertising the Malibu Barbie Dream House that I'd bought with my mom fifty-fifty, spending all my stockpiled allowance money. The room was quiet save for the whir of the fan.
Her mother piped up. "Well, Kayla? What do you say?"
"Cece," Kayla said, turning to me, her face inscrutable. She spoke deliberately. "This ain't something ten-year-old girls play with." I blinked in confusion, so she added, "This is for nine-year-olds, for babies. You know that, right?"
At the time, I blamed the fire in my cheeks on the day, the sun, the humidity. The box fan wasn't enough to cool me. My mother tightened her grip on my shoulder.
I excused myself to the bathroom. No one had anything to say to that, so I went. Snippets of conversation trailed me, Kayla's mother's reproachful voice: "Is that what you say to someone who bought you a gift, missy?" Then plaintively, to my mother: "I'm so sorry, Betty."
The bathroom was locked. I tapped my foot, rapped on the door, listened to the sound of pee striking the water. The toilet flushed and the faucet burbled and the soap dispenser wheezed. Seconds later the door opened and Freddie appeared, inches from my face. We both recoiled.
Then he crossed his arms, slouched against the doorframe, and smirked. "You finally learn how to use the bathroom, Cece?"
I rolled my eyes and tried to squeeze past him, but he intercepted me. His smirk was gone. "Hey, I'm only kidding," he said.
"Well, it ain't very funny." I felt my mouth curving around the word "ain't," borrowed from Kayla's lexicon. It had a nice taste to it, flat vowels and jagged consonants.
Freddie tilted his head. His tongue fidgeted with the gap left by his fallen baby tooth. "Maybe you're right," he whispered.
I tried to think of what Kayla might say. "You gonna move or what? I have to use the bathroom and I don't got all day." I chided myself for not substituting "don't" with "ain't."
"You sound like Kayla when you talk like that." He didn't say it like a compliment.
"How would you know? You don't speak to me." I tried again to slip through the opening between the doorframe and his body.
Freddie stayed put. He hadn't taken his eyes off me. "That was pretty lame what she did, wasn't it? Calling you out like that."
"No, it wasn't," I replied, because what else are you supposed to say when you're ten and your best friend is being defamed? "She's right, we're too old for that kind of junk. We ain't babies."
"Then you're cool with what she did?" he asked. "You would've done the same thing in her shoes?"
I opened my mouth, and shut it just as quickly. I recognized the statement as a trap, a trick question, but I didn't know how to answer it. Or, maybe, I didn't want to answer it truthfully, didn't want to admit to myself the unbridgeable gap between me and Kayla.
I was still thinking of a retort when Freddie stepped forward and put his lips on mine.
They were chapped and it felt a bit like kissing sandpaper. His eyes were closed and I thought maybe I was missing something, so I closed mine too but didn't feel any different. I stepped back and he stood there, lips puckered like a fish. Again my words failed me.
It didn't matter. Without another word, Freddie finally stepped out of the way and straggled back to the living room.
My heart thumped as I entered the bathroom. My lips were still tingling when the water scalded my hands.
By the time I returned, the adults had retreated to the kitchen. Glasses clinked and laughter soared. But in the living room we were quiet, adrift in a sea of wrapping paper. A few girls gave me sympathetic glances, but I just shrugged. The Malibu Barbie Dream House, I noticed, was relegated to a corner of the living room, away from the other presents.
A few minutes later, after a lukewarm attempt at getting us to play pin the tail on the donkey, Kayla announced a change of plans.
She paraded us through the house, past our tipsy parents, until we came to the sun-stained backyard. The house had an in-ground swimming pool, her family's one concession to the upper class lifestyle. The shallow end came with a set of steps that led to the shimmering blue water. The deep end, eight feet to the bottom, had a diving board with enough bounce to put trampolines out of business.
When we were all outside and Freddie slid shut the glass door, Kayla clapped twice and said, "Let's play The Little Mermaid."
She'd informed us beforehand of the possibility of playing in the pool, so we feverishly doffed our sweaty shirts and skirts, revealing two-piece swimsuits in a rainbow of color. Whatever momentum Kayla had lost when she criticized my gift, she now regained.
You have to understand: the movie wasn't even half a year old and we'd all seen it in the theaters over fifty times collectively. Our parents, desperate not to sit through the film again, even tempted us with R-Rated alternatives like Pretty Woman, but we refused. We wanted nothing more than to live vicariously through Ariel, to find princes and happy endings of our own.
We settled into the water, felt its coolness nip at our skin. We looked like we could've been posing for a magazine cover, or part of an elite all-girl swim team. The only outliers were Freddie, who watched us from the edge of the pool with his hands buried in his pockets, and Kayla herself, who entered still wearing her tutu.
Within a minute she assigned our roles. Tanisha, blessed with a faint Creole lilt from her parents, was chosen to be Sebastian the crab. Unsurprisingly, Amina and Adina got Flotsam and Jetsam. Kayla gave me the part of Princess Ariel not because of my singing voice, which sounded like a cat sticking its paw in a paper shredder, but because out of everyone in the group, my skin was the lightest. "And I get to be Ursula," she proclaimed at the end.
We splashed through the water, grateful for the cold. We recited the lines we knew by heart. At a few points, Freddie even finished the prince's dialogue for Amina, whom Kayla had double cast. He'd seen the movie too, a victim of his little sister's Disney infatuation.
It was after the belting of "Poor Unfortunate Souls," after the part in the movie where Ariel trades her voice to become human, as Oleta Watley was doing her best sea king impersonation, that Kayla turned to me and said, "I saw you two kissing."
We looked at Freddie, who observed us all with feigned disinterest. I wanted to duck my head under the water and never come up.
"What?" One word but my voice still shook.
"My mom sent me to apologize. I saw you two."
I said nothing.
Without warning, Kayla fast-forwarded to the part in the movie where Prince Eric and Ariel go into the sea to fight Ursula. She wielded her tiara like a weapon, pointed it straight at Freddie. "Come over here and save Ariel," she demanded with an edge to her voice. "It's a kiss scene. We need a boy."
Freddie stared at us girls like we weren't just of another sex but another species. Tentatively, he walked to the middle of the pool. He dipped half his big toe into the shimmering water before Kayla stopped him. "You're gonna rescue her from the middle of the ocean? That ain't how it went in the movie. What kind of prince are you?" She pointed to the other side.
Glancing over his shoulder at the deep end, Freddie looked more like Flounder than Prince Eric. He cupped his palm over his eyes, blinked.
I looked at him and shook my head. "You don't have to if—"
"You ain't supposed to talk, Ariel," Kayla interrupted, voice as cold as the pool water. "You ain't got a voice, remember?"
I thought I might say nothing, let Kayla have her way as usual. The words left my mouth before I thought them through: "Shut up and don't tell me what to do."
Kayla squinted like she didn't know who I was, like she was just seeing me for the first time. Or maybe it was just the sun in her eyes.
"Don't do it," I said to Freddie, steeling my voice.
"Cece," Kayla warned. Floating there like that, with her black tutu billowing out around her, she really did resemble Ursula.
Freddie rocked back and forth. Half a minute passed before he pivoted and trudged to the deep end. With his chest puffed out, he strode to the end of the diving board, the point just above the eight-foot marker. Standing there on the edge of the board, he leaned down as if assessing how deep the pool really was, how far it went.
It looked like he was still contemplating this when his body pitched forward, and Kayla and I learned at once that he had been telling the truth all those months ago.
Freddie hit the water like rain in a bucket. He popped up seconds later, gasping and flailing his arms and spraying chlorine in every direction. His dreadlocks glistened and his eyes were alive with panic. He opened his mouth, to speak maybe, to scream, but the pool water filled his mouth and drowned his voice, and just like the day Kayla cut off a piece of his hair, he didn't say a word.
Neither did we.
We watched, paralyzed, as Freddie struggled against the weight of his body. I wanted to do something, say something, yell for help, but I didn't. I was ten years old. I was like Ariel, voiceless after a bad run-in with a sea witch. And I knew, right then, the ugly truth about happy endings.
The splashing became less manic as Freddie tuckered himself out. He gave up spitting out pool water. Then he just gave up altogether. His dreadlocks moved like octopus tentacles as he limboed to the bottom of the pool. One of the twins started to sob.
Ripples from the deep end pushed against the water like waves. Then the pool fell still, kept in place by our collective effort at holding our breath. The sun glinted off the water, off our bathing suits and our faces and Kayla's tiara, burning with the impending promise of summer and freedom. It felt hotter than it had ever been.
The sliding glass door squeaked open. Bursts of laughter drifted from the house. Flip-flops smacked against the ground, one pair followed by many, but we didn't look to see who it was. We didn't move at all. We stared straight ahead at the blue water where Freddie Harris had been seconds before and waited for the truth to come to the surface.