When I was in sixth grade, my family moved to a town composed of four stoplights and air perpetually tinged with the smell of chicken shit. With the subjective delicacy of a middle school worldview, I adjusted to my new surroundings like a Harvard Ph.D. candidate dining in a Waffle House at 3 a.m. That is, with mere anthropological interest trimmed in judgment. Burgeoning teenage angst coupled with a superiority complex along with being new to a cohort of kids together since kindergarten lead to the inevitable: I made only one friend.
Her name was Tyler, and she hated it because it sounded too masculine. She tried adding her middle name “Anne,” which to me made her sound more like television redneck heroine Roseanne and less like a delicate feminine flower, but it never caught on anyway.
The first time I went to Tyler’s house, we were dropping her off after she had dinner with my family. Tyler and I sat in the back seat with my little brother, a second grader high on ADD medications.
We pulled up to her house, a trailer with a dirt yard sporting a few errant weeds, a rickety fence enclosing a mangy barking dog, an a honest-to-god chicken pecking around. My brother delivered the hereto unspoken offensive truth: “what are you, poor or something?”
He said it with curiosity not judgment; it was a simple observation he was not old enough to know he was supposed to conceal. He saw a scene he’d only seen animated on Saturday mornings with the harsh realities burred out, poverty in Technicolor. He didn’t know it could be real.
Tyler emerged from the car quickly, the screen door at the top of her bald plywood steps slamming dramatically, while Dad reprimanded my brother. I felt guilty.
I felt guilty for inwardly scoffing at the half tray of off-brand Bagel Bites we shared at her sleepovers, for how proud she was brandishing a mason jar of splurged-for Coke; I felt guilty for shopping for my Valentine’s Dance outfit at the mall while she agonized over the offerings at Walmart; I felt guilty when we signed up for high school classes together and the counselors put in her in vocational classes without consulting herher consultation. I remained on the honors track.
Tyler loved horoscopes. She didn’t have Internet at home, so we’d talk on the phone for hours while I read internet horoscope after horoscope to her. Her insatiable aptitude for predicting the future was pinned on only one hope entirely: a blond-haired boy she met on the bus named Bradley. If her horoscope told her to look out for love, she would wear her best clothes and steal her mom’s mascara and sit next to Bradley on the bus. If the horoscope suggested laying low and avoiding contact with others, she’d pretend to oversleep so her mom would have to drive her to school. Because their fire signs or something were in the same sector of something, she was sure they were soulmates.
I was more skeptical. “Stop obsessing,” I’d write to her in gel pen on ripped sheets of notebook paper. “It’s not like you’re going to marry him or anything.”
Seven years later, I came home for college to be a bridesmaid in her courthouse wedding. The theme was purple, so I wore a wrinkled purple dress I found in the back of my closet. Tyler wore a sundress from Walmart with a purple shawl on top. Bradley wore his Army fatigues.
I videotaped the ceremony in the basement of the courthouse. The justice of the peace kept checking his watch. The whole thing lasted about ten minutes, and Tyler and Bradley were forever bound by holy matrimony. The reception consisted of us meeting in the yard of a fancy restaurant none of us could afford to actually eat at and taking pictures in various combinations. You could smell the shit from the chicken plant a few miles up the road.
Tyler and Bradley had a feverish courtship plucked from the ads of a show on the CW. It only took a few days into our friendship for me to realize the sun rose and set with Bradley and their hour-long bus rides home together.
At precisely 5:10 every afternoon in sixth grade, Tyler would call me and say, “Today, on the bus…”
Today on the bus Bradley looked at me before he looked at the other girls. Today on the bus Bradley let me watch his bookbag while he tried to give Dylan a wedgie. Today on the bus Bradley told me he was moving to Raleigh. Today on the bus Bradley moved back home. Today on the bus Bradley told me about his new girlfriend. Today on the bus Bradley kissed me. Today on the bus Bradley broke up with me.
My bus rides lasted five minutes and I always had my headphones pumping music in and drowning out everything else. Thus, my sympathies were limited: “That’s great!” or “He’s a jerk!” like an automated phone message at a bank. Press one for empathy. Press two for reassurance.
I was better on paper than in person. After getting assigned completely different schedules in seventh grade, we devised a clever plan to stay in touch: The Notebook. The Notebook was a raggedy black binder filled with a mess of college and wide ruled notebook paper of all different brands. We passed it back and forth in the hallway between classes after composing lengthy notes chronicling the human condition.
Tyler’s notes recorded every single thing Bradley ever did, ending with a prompt for my analysis. I delivered carefully crafted interpretations based on my extensive knowledge of the adolescent boy psyche: He is clearly making you jealous by flirting with other girls because he doesn’t have the emotional capacity to express his feelings verbally; his desire to punch and hit you is just his desire to touch you manifesting in a socially acceptable format; he didn’t call you when he said he was going to because he is nervous about showing his commitment to you at such an early age.
Tyler did not take my analysis to heart, though she had an endless capacity for listening to it. In turn, she ignored my half-hearted expressions of love for various middle school boys, identities cleverly disguised by a secret code of circles and hearts and initials that nobody could crack. We lived in fear of the day The Notebook would fall into the wrong hands and we’d end up the stars of our own chick flick, standing helplessly in the hall with our faces buried in our hands while our classmates pasted photocopied pages of our darkest secrets on everyone’s lockers. Fortunately, nobody cared as much as we did.
I rode home with Tyler one afternoon so I could perform my science experiment on her cats (answering the deeply controversial scientific question “do cats have preference for the left or right paw?”) but I was most interested to lay eyes on the vision that was Bradley, to make my own observations from the field instead of relying on secondhand data filtered through an unreliable source. No doubt busses like this one were the source of all adolescent trauma that inspired the villains in those chick flicks.
Bradley was wearing a white t-shirt, the undershirt kind that come with packs of underwear, with a pathetic puff of blonde fuzz poking out of the top of the v-neck. His jeans were grubby, etched with what appeared to be permanent dirt compacted into faded denim. His glasses—glasses I’d never heard mentioned before—were wiry and too small for his face, like a nerdy afterthought. The luscious blond hair Tyler liked to run her hands through looked stringy and unwashed. He smiled at us as we fought toward him through the crowded bus aisle.
Tyler sat with Bradley and I sat in a seat across the aisle with my bookbag primly in my lap for protection while chaos reigned around me. Gangly arms and legs draped over bus seats everywhere, masked in a cloud of body odor, body spray to cover the body odor, and hormones. It was so loud I could barely hear Tyler giggling in the next seat.
“Who are you, new kid?” A girl with a too-small t-shirt exposing a round tire of flesh above her jeans addressed me around a sucker jammed in her mouth.
“I’m with Tyler.”
“Sure looks like it,” she snorted before going back to pinching a sixth grader.
The bus was traveling through a part of town I’d never seen. The street was lined with exploded mailboxes, cow pastures going to weed, and dilapidated trailers. One actually had a tireless truck popped up on cinderblocks in the front yard. A nicely dressed girl from my English class avoided eye contact with me as she skirted oil stains on the way to her front door.
Bradley and I have a love/hate relationship. At first only knew him as a mythical being, an apparition that attended classes in a different side of the middle school. Tyler built him up so much that the actual adolescent boy was bound to be a let down.
When we finally met, Bradley assessed me just like all my classmates assessed me: stuck up, rich good for nothin’ smart kid. But unlike everyone else, this wasn’t his primary line of attack. Instead, he preferred the popular but innocuous form of joke I was, at thirteen, already quite used to: the short joke. They replaced hello.
“You’re so short, you’re the last to find out when it rains.”
“Good morning, Bradley.”
“You’re so short, you can tread water in a kiddie pool.”
“How are you today?”
“You’re so short, your feet dangle when you sit on the curb.”
“Have you seen Tyler around?”
I would give a fake disapproving look, Tyler a real one. Bradley would pat my head like I’m a little kid, and this was the extent of our interaction.
He knew I was the opposition. I whispered “you can do better” in Tyler’s ear over his sweet nothings. In high school, when he got suspended the first time (while dancing around at a pep rally, he accidentally flung his shoe off, sending the baggie of weed he’d concealed there into the principal’s lap in the bleachers), I seized my opportunity to coax Tyler’s ambitions into more fruitful directions. I gave her college brochures, pointing to all the glossy pictures of hunky all-American boys, pointing out how they couldn’t hide weed in their designer sandals. But Bradley’s mom sent him to live with his biological father in Raleigh, and absence just made Tyler’s heart grow fonder. Now he was the hero in his own tragic tale, and Tyler made himself into his lovelorn leading lady. No promise of all-you-can-eat dining halls could compete with that.
Years later, I sat in their newly anointed living room at their housewarming party. All of Tyler and Bradley’s family was there. Bradley had just returned from a year in Afghanistan, and there was a tinge of victory about the gathering, like everyone there had imagined the same event following a funeral instead of moving day.
But there he was, in the flesh, sneaking Coronas on the back porch and burning hamburgers on the grill. He wasn’t 21, and Tyler kept flashing him looks of disapproval, the kinds only wives can give their husbands, the kind love has softened around the edges.
“I’ve served my country, and I can drink this beer!” Bradley protested. His tank top exposed the ever-expanding tattoo collection on his arms: his middle name, Milano, tattooed in old Englishy letters up his forearm, a decorative band that only meant he’d turned 18 and had some cash to burn, and the coat of arms representing his National Guard regimen. His military muscles had slowly been rescinding into pudge since he got home.
“You’re right, little bro!” said Mitchell. Mitchell, who was Tyler’s stepbrother, or some other familial connection I’d never comprehended but definitely not Bradley’s brother, supported any argument that resulted in consuming alcohol. His hair was spiked up in lots of gel, looking more porcupine than Backstreet Boy. He flashed a gun, either real or mimed, in every one of his Facebook pictures, and lived part-time with his stepdad between failed enterprises in home rentership. He was always trying to marry me.
“You sure growed up good,” he said, sitting beside me on the floor. I inched away. “Wanna be my sugar momma?”
I looked around at the life he half-jokingly promised me. Bradley’s obese grandparents threatened to buckle the futon and beamed at their grandson’s household, a moldy rented trailer with smelly shag carpet. His little brother Joey Jr. sat in the floor playing Xbox and imploring Bradley to watch him. Joey Jr. barely has an IQ high enough to read the scripts on Grand Theft Auto but is the politest kid wearing denim overalls and no shirt in the county. Bradley’s mom wears Easter dresses on every occasion—Goodwill, ruffled, floral affairs that accentuate the bagginess of her skin, stretched by cigarettes, reckless sons, and an abusive husband. Big Joey has been kicked out of the house more times than Bradley was thrown out of school. He’s as mean as his arms are pale, sticking out of a curiously ironed wife beater.
They all offer Tyler and Bradley sage advice curated over years of hard living. “Don’t pay the rent until the air conditioning works for two weeks without breaking.” “Don’t buy a used car that’s been parked out in the owner’s yard.” “Don’t buy bread from the front of the shelf.” “Don’t sign checks angry.”
I kept my advice to myself: don’t work for five years for a two-year degree that opens up no job opportunities; don’t buy iPhones when you need to borrow gas money from me to drive to school; don’t buy five almost-broken cars when you can just buy one new one.
I also said not to marry Bradley, and there they were cooperating in the kitchen like an old married couple. He sat a tray of freshly grilled hamburger patties on the table, and corralled Tyler toward him with his other arm. She giggled while he kissed her temple. They were happy. I was wrong.
Their marriage pictures hang in a big collage frame above their bed. They’re paying their own bills. Bradley fought for America. Tyler’s held her job for years. Their families are so proud of them because they’ve achieved in ways their families understand. Marriage is success, employment—even minimum wage—is success, any college at all is success.
Any victory I have dissolves in Dobson. I deal in a foreign currency, my wallet full of writing contests and internships and term papers that nobody cares about. They accept only domesticity: husbands, Elks Lodge memberships, paid electric bills. Everything I have is just paper, a neatly typed one-page resume. My parents still pay my bills, and my minimum wage paycheck buys only movie tickets and superfluous dinners. My life is too easy for Tyler and Bradley to register, my dramas too remote. I’m just primed to be somebody’s sugar mama.
Once on a visit home, sitting in a booth at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Tyler asked me why I hate Dobson so much. The accusatory edge to her tone put a point on all the years of unspoken divide.
I’d been telling her about how I wasn’t planning on coming home after college graduation, how I was looking for schools or jobs far away, in bigger and better places. I let bigger and better be synonyms.
“There’s just nothing here for me.”
“What about your family? And friends?”
I had no answer for that—were they not enough? I couldn’t say the truth, so instead I said I’d still visit plenty. She understood, she said.