Orange Julius

“Kent finds his old tortoise again. And I find out what happened

to our friendship.”

I hadn’t seen Kent over summer break, and meeting over a foamy orange drink was our awkward attempt to reconcile. Then again, everything about Kent was awkward– that’s what I liked so much about him. He slouched because he was tall, and his bed-head bangs covered much of his pale forehead. The arrogance and pride in his brown eyes seemed to extend into his cheeks and jaw. The mopey Pillsbury Doughboy I’d hung out with since sixth grade had grown into an accidental pinup.

In the mall parking lot, Kent stopped when he passed a small tortoise on a curbed island. “Oh my God, I know this tortoise!” he said, setting his Orange Julius down on the bumpy pavement. He picked up the tortoise, and I noticed his fingernails were painted with green glitter. With his back to me he said, “You know? I don’t even remember why were weren’t talking.”

I could feel my cheeks turning red, but I didn’t say anything. I knew exactly why we weren’t talking. I looked toward the row of houses bordering the parking lot. It occurred to me that this might have been his way of apologizing, or maybe he was hinting that we should forget what happened. I just stood there.

“This is Oscar!” he said, and went on with a story of how this very tortoise had lived in a cardboard box in his closet for six years. His parents swore they gave Oscar to a good home, but apparently Kent and Oscar ran into each other now and then. I didn’t know whether to believe him.

“How do you know its the same tortoise?” I asked.

“The scar on his belly, of course.” And without checking first, he showed me the tortoises cream-colored belly. There was a small brown mark on one corner. Kent looked at me as if to say, Are you satisfied? Then he checked out Oscars pale underside himself.

Kent always insisted he was right and ended all kinds of absurd statements with of course. Once in 10th grade, Scott Littrel asked why he was saving earthworms off the highway. Kent replied, “Because everything has a soul, of course.” Most of the time, it was used to make the other person look stupid. But sometimes it became a compliment. Like when we went to the pool, and I refused to get out of the car because my entire right leg was in a cast. He told me, “No ones going to notice, because theyll all be looking at your glam hair, of course.”

I knelt down next to Kent for a closer look at Oscar. I liked that Kent seemed comfortable with hellos and good-byes. “What are we going to do?” I asked, and felt very aware that Kent was looking at me. A funny feeling worked deep inside my stomach, and I tried to push it away. My boyfriend, Coleman Hall, said it was weird that my best friend was a guy. Maybe he was right.

Kent flashed a quick smile and turned his attention to the parking lot. “Over there,” he said, and pointed to a grassy hill at the far end. We wove our bodies between fenders and smooth doors. Kent held Oscar, and I followed. It was as if we’d made some agreement to fall into our old roles: I had the questions, and Kent had the answers. This was booth reassuring and annoying.

New grass had begun to grow through the scorched patches that the sun had burned over the summer. Kent gave Oscar a few taps on the head, and then put him on a patch of green. We watched the tortoise sit there for a moment. “How’s it going with Coleman?” he finally asked. I told him about the pool parties, the movies, and when we TPed Mrs. Moore’s gnome garden. Kent seemed to be concentrating more on taking of his All-Stars. I stopped mid-sentence and watched him throw his shoes over his shoulder one at a time. I could tell he was pretty agitated.

My going out with Coleman probably made Kent feel like I didn’t need him anymore. I’d wanted my friendship with him to stay unchanged, but I also wanted a boyfriend. In my head, I could still see Kent standing in the doorway of my bedroom on that last day of school. He looked defeated and lost with his puffy brown hair and flushed cheeks. His lips were pursed as if struggling to hold back a burst of words. He stood there until Coleman pulled his hand out from under my shirt.

It was all cruel and unfair. Why did having a boyfriend have to change anything? When Kent didn’t call over the next few days, I felt like he was making me choose sides. And we didn’t talk the whole summer.

I watched as Kent jumped up and performed a ridiculous slam dunk in front of Oscar. I tried not to smile. “You know?” he shouted. “I didn’t realize how much I missed the feeling of new grass between my toes until it was gone.” I saw that his drink had tipped over. It had been practically full.

When he’d called that morning, he said he was in desperate need of an Orange Julius. But it seemed what her really wanted was my company. I didn’t think we could ever have things be like old times. “That Friday, after you caught me with Coleman, I wanted to talk to you so bad,” I said. “I climbed over your fence and secretly watched you through your living room window. I wanted to tell you I didn’t care why we weren’t talking, but I chickened out.”

Kent looked over at me with his mouth open. He blinked several times. I watched Oscar take a cautious step. “Okay,” he said. “I wrote you a love letter. It was a haiku really, but I tore it up.”

The sky was heavy with the end of a storm, but I squinted at some sunlight that slipped out from behind a cloud. We didn’t know what to say. Kent wiped a hand on the leg of his pants, then reached down to pick up the tortoise. I was glad to know he still loved me. I reached over and pinched the side of his tight stomach. “So what did the haiku say?”

“It’s a mystery, of course.” Kent grabbed me in one of his hugs and rocked me. He smelled like cotton and sport deodorant. Coleman didn’t understand our closeness, and sometimes I didn’t either. The air was a mix of wet grass and car exhaust. Kent held Oscar in one hand and took mine in the other. His palm felt fragile, and it was shaking.

By Esther Watson

Esther Watson is an artist and writer living in Columbia County, NY. Shes published several picture books, including The Pain Tree and Other Teenage Angst-Ridden Poetry (Houghton Mifflin).