She rode on the back of his bike. She was shy about putting her arms around his waist, but she did it anyway. She had a reason now to do so. Her bare legs dangled, no place to go, on either side of the bike. She gripped her toes into her flip-flops, those too were dangling.
She could smell the shampoo from his hair, the back of his head was so close to her face. It was like sneaking a look at him, and even if it was not his face, it was still part of him. She’d take it.
She wondered what he was thinking, having her riding behind him like that. They were just buddies, after all. That is what they officially called each other. But they often put their arms around each other. It was safe to do that, she thought, maybe he did too. They were practicing with one another, as buddies. Buddies. It didn’t really fit to call themselves that. Good friends. They could use that, but they didn’t. He’s the one who came up with buddies.
“We’re just buddies, you and I, right?” he asked her one day.
They had been sitting on a log in the parking lot. It was one of those logs, an old telephone pole they used at the shore to divide the ground into sections for parking on the loose stones that were everywhere. Stones that were used for driveways, whole front yards and back yards, in fact, and here in the parking lot.
Those stones had been caught in her sandals and she had pulled them off and was shaking them out when he started talking.
“Of course we’re buddies, Benny” she answered. “The best kind.”
“You know, Kate, people have started to talk about us and all the time we spend together. They’re starting to think we’re more than just friends.”
The stones were all out of Kate’s sandals, but she shook them some more, for something to do. Kate was fifteen and she knew almost nothing about boys, besides this one. Benny was a year younger, still skinny and gangly. She laughed with him. She was comfortable with him.
Kate felt a pang inside, a kind of hurt and foolishness she knew she couldn’t show to Benny, of all people. She wanted him to like her, to be more than her friend, but Kate pretended as she spoke, “Well, Benny. We are a little more than friends. I’d say we are very good friends, wouldn’t you?” There, she gave him an out, even though she didn’t want him to take it.
“We are, Kate, but that’s it.”
It stung her, but she took it. That’s all she could do. In the time it took for Benny to say this to her, she thought to herself. What did she want, anyway? She didn’t know how to have a boyfriend, she reasoned, so what did it matter if this was all he wanted?
Maybe she wasn’t ready either. She didn’t think about kissing him. She just liked being near him, laughing with him.
So as they rode up the street on his bike, she still held onto him from the back, smelling his shampoo and she thought about the day Benny had officially labeled her as his buddy. Kate wasn’t the conniving type. She truly thought that if she was nice, good things would come to her. It didn’t occur to Kate, at the age of fifteen, that, if she wanted something, she should go and do something about it.
She was too embarrassed to show she was hurt. And she liked Benny too much to push him away. They had half the summer ahead of them. They had that, she told herself. Half a summer left to be near this boy, okay buddy, she corrected herself. And suddenly she was happy for what she had, someone who made her feel happy and warm when he was near.
And there was Benny, who to anyone who took the time to see, was exactly what Kate had hoped he would be. But Benny was also shy about girls. So he did the only thing he could do and that was to be buddies with the girl he liked best, secretly hoping himself that somehow, in some way, the two of them “just friends” would someday cross over and become exactly what Kate had wished for. And he steered his bike, feeling Kate’s arms around him, feeling her breath on his neck, and he too was happy for what he had.
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