by Ellen Freeman
At the entrance to Costco, I receive a cool blob of Kirkland Signature hand sanitizer in my palm. They’ve rigged up a device that lets an operator sealed inside a clear plastic booth remotely squirt a dollop of gel from an industrial-sized jug down through a tube and into my hand. I was never baptized, but I imagine it’s something like this; cleanliness next to godliness.
My family was neither churchgoing nor Costco-going, but my friend Libby Muller’s family was both. They kept flats of Diet Coke in the garage for her teenage sisters and extra loaves of whole wheat bread in the freezer so that sesame seeds and poppyseeds dropped down with the crushed ice through the fridge door dispenser into your tumbler of Diet Coke. I knew the Our Father prayer from listening to Libby rattle it off over her Cup O’ Noodles in the school cafeteria under her breath. When I called her crying to tell her that my cat had died of feline HIV, she told her dad, who looked like Steve Martin, and he told her to tell me to wash my mouth out with soap.
By the time we got to middle school, it seemed only natural that Libby would be my hot friend, so steeped she was in the aura of body lotion, separate landlines, and burnt hair that emanated from her older sister’s bedrooms. She got her period a full year before me, wore eyeliner on her waterline, and had breasts so budding she had to contain them with a sports bra layered on top of a regular bra. She wore a pair of flares that revealed the embroidered words “Lucky You” when you unbuttoned the fly. We DVRed Daniel Radcliffe’s talk show appearances and wrote him impassioned pleas to be his dates for the next premiere. We made a mix CD called “The Sex Mix”, onto which we Sharpied crude boobs and the words “ugh!” and “harder!” My mom found it in my desk drawer and said, “This is not what sex is like.” We took turns talking to Jack McClellan on the cordless phone in the Muller’s basement, and I pretended not to also have a crush on him once it was clear that he liked her.
On September 11th, I went to Libby’s house after school. We took off our shoes and tip-toed into the deep pile carpet like untouched snow in the front room to play each other the songs we were each learning in our piano lessons on their baby grand. Then my mom called the house and told me I had to come home. “This is a national tragedy,” she said. New York City was as far away to me as any far away place, a city in a movie; I don’t think I had been aware that the Twin Towers existed until I saw them burning on the news. My takeaway from the dinner conversation that night was that a guy named Ben Loudon from Canada had done it. I took a shower and wondered what I would do if, at the moment we were bombed by terrorists, I was naked. A week later, I showed up to hang out at Libby’s house and she answered the door with red eyes and smudged eyeliner. “It all just hit me,” she said. She seemed unknowably mature.
Libby got to come along on a family trip to San Francisco on the condition that she attend mass while we were there. Over the weekend, while my parents went to art galleries, we secretly met up with a boy who she had met the summer before at Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth camp, where the talented youth tongue-kissed and gave each other swirlies. We ran downhill screaming the lyrics to “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” by Jet, and saw the movie Love Actually. At the part when the guy from Walking Dead holds up a sign outside of Keira Knightley’s house that says, “To me you are perfect,” we squeezed each other’s legs and whispered the line in the dark of the theater. Love Actually finished with enough time to spare before my parents got out of whatever they were seeing for us to sneak into Scary Movie 3 in the theater next door. It was Libby’s idea to stay until the end and when we were late to meet my parents in the lobby, they had called the mall security and my mom was crying. That night, sagging into the fold-out sofa bed at our timeshare, Libby taught me how to shake hands and say “Peace be with you, and also with you” and cross my arms over my chest to show that I wasn’t baptized when it was time to receive communion.
The next day was Sunday and we went to the MAC counter to get smoky eyes for mass. The makeup artist had piecey bleached hair and an earring. He was a transplant to San Francisco from somewhere else judging by his accent. To my embarrassment and sheer delight, he fawned over me instead of Libby. “You could be a model,” he said, dusting the apples of my cheeks with bronzer, “you’ve got the bone structure.” I giggled. “Let me guess, the boys just go crazy over you and I’ll bet you — ” he whirled around, pointing the makeup brush at Libby, ‘’are the funny one.” Neither of us corrected him.
In a full face of makeup, I floated uphill to the Catholic church that Libby’s parents had approved of and reveling in the sudden reversal in the natural order of the universe: I was the hot one. Sliding into a pew, I savored the last tacky traces of gloss on my lips and felt sorry for Libby sitting next to me, the undiscovered model. The priest spoke, I mulled over the burden of beauty and then Libby tapped my knee. She mouthed silently, “To me you are perfect.”
“Ohmygod — what?” I whispered, blushing. “No you’re perfect.”
“No,” she whispered, then switched to a British accent. “To me, you ah pahfect.” She was doing the line. My face burned. Libby got up and went down the aisle to receive the body of Christ. I sat in the pew and crossed my arms over my chest.
Today Libby owns an apartment in Paris and, I imagine, shops at Carrefour.