The year Gina went missing, we lived a block from the lake. We were twelve and thirteen and smoking cigarettes in our basement with friends – Mom and Dad at work, Hall & Oates on forty-five. We practiced strangling ourselves, that ‘fun’ game in which the bravest of us held our breath and squeezed our necks with our own hands until we passed out. The last time I did it, I woke up on the floor; they all stood above me, bent double laughing. ‘You were flopping like a whale. It was hilarious.’ We had just finished seventh grade and hadn’t learned yet how quickly one wrong move escalated to the next.
Later, we played chicken by dropping cigarettes on our forearms. I’d breathe in slowly, turn my skin to slate, close my eyes and count: one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. I could hold it longer than some of the others, but never as long as Gina who practiced pushing her limits. Gina, ten months older than me, made up new games with pocketknives. First it was just small notches on skin, but soon we began carving into our bodies – our tender flesh – the names of boy crushes, Luther, Michael, Carlos. By luck, I liked a boy named Jim. Only three letters. They were small letters too, smaller than my pinky, but I underlined them just in case anyone questioned my resolve. One of the girls got wasted and etched Scott or Sammy or Steve into the full length of her forearm so deep that the name survived long after the relationship faded.
Once, when we got bored with cigarette-chicken and pocketknives, Gina scored a joint from a senior near the gas station. We hid it in our bubblegum rompers and walked to the beach where the partiers hung out. She showed me how to grip the roach clip so I wouldn’t burn my fingers, how to inhale the smoke straight through to the bottom of my lungs and hold it as if I were underwater. Later, she amped it up with Rush, those little vials of liquid speed that sent us soaring. We’d lean back into the couch and inch our way toward oblivion.
By March, just before Gina went missing, we were sneaking out at night by climbing down the tree outside our window. We’d walk up Lake Avenue near the beach, where the biker bars and dance clubs blared ‘Raspberry Beret’ and Foreigner’s ‘Rev on the Red Line’. We’d pucker red lips and hike our skirts as we neared the lot where racers showed off tricked-out Camaros and fire-decaled Novas. The men drank whiskey from flasks and offered us rides. We took those rides – still so brave – but always according to a set of rules: never get sloppy, never get into a windowless van, never get into a car where the men outnumbered the girls, never go it alone.
But one by one we broke those rules. We’d pass flasks and joints in a car full of bearded strangers. We’d drive down the lake to a beach in a grove of trees where others sat on rocks, poured vodka over soda, snorted nitrous oxide, poked sticks into hot flames crackling late into the night. Sometimes New Edition’s ‘Candy Girl’ was in the background, other times it was Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’. Each time we’d sit on laps, or allow hands on legs, and each time they’d pull us in just a little closer.
One day, Gina went out alone to the store or to the beach or to a friend’s.
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