“What?” Playing dumb did not work for Ben, but that’s what he went with anyway. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not asking if you like her.” Roo sighed and rolled his eyes as if he weren’t the one who’d brought it up in the first place. “I know you like her. We all know you like her. The entire world knows.” So apparently it wasn’t that much of a secret after all. “I’m saying why.”

“I mean she’s nice enough—”

“No she isn’t.”

“—but we’re not…” Ben’s face looked like he had dunked it in the sangria.

Roo peered at him. “Is it convenience?”


“Because she’s right next door?”

“No,” Ben said vehemently. Whatever else it was, loving Cayenne was not convenient.

“Do you sneak out to meet her in the middle of the night?”

“We share a room.”

“I sleep,” Roo sniffed.

“Me too.”

“But I might not if I had a better option.”

“Like what?”

“Like getting laid next door in the middle of the night.”

“I’m not … we’re not…” They weren’t yet. But they would soon. And it would put an end to more than Ben’s innocence.

“In that case”—Roo went back to his potato salads—“I don’t know what you see in her.”

“You don’t know what anyone sees in anyone,” Ben pointed out. “You don’t like anybody.”

“That’s true,” Roo agreed amiably. “People are annoying.”

When he took Cayenne to homecoming seven weeks later, Ben commissioned Rigel to knit her a corsage. He thought she would want something different from the rosebud/baby’s breath combo every other girl got, and he thought she might appreciate that whereas those mortal floral arrangements wouldn’t last the night, a knit corsage lasts forever. Cayenne’s knit corsage did not last forever because it embarrassed her, and she flushed it down the gym toilet after the last slow song of the night, whereupon the toilets clogged and overflowed, and the after-party was cancelled.

For the eleventh-grade barbecue, Ben decided their anniversary warranted celebration. It was three years since they met and one since she’d held his hand and fed him marshmallows, and he wasn’t about to let the fact that he couldn’t put an accurate label on the occasion get in the way of celebrating it. He read up on the matter and learned that the one-year anniversary gift was paper, so the night of the marshmallows he began, just in case they were together then and would still be together a year on. (Ben was a kid who planned ahead.) Every day, he folded one paper heart and one paper butterfly. By their junior-year barbecue, he had 365 paper hearts and 365 paper butterflies. He spilled them all into her room that afternoon, where they carpeted her dresser and nightstand, her bed and her desk, the piles of clothes, shoes, textbooks, notebooks, devices, and power cords buried on her floor like enemy mines. Then he dug underneath to await her arrival. She shrieked when she found him there, the first time from shock—only his face peeked out, and no one likes a disembodied head—the second with delight. Ben’s heart soared. She appreciated the gesture—maybe not the gesture itself but its lavishness, the evidence it presented of a mad obsession she had herself inspired—but she still refused to nail down the occasion or let Ben call her his girlfriend. And in other ways, the whole thing was a disaster: having buried her bed utterly, they couldn’t use it to celebrate.

That night was a disaster in other ways as well, ways having nothing really to do with young love, and though no one realized it at the time, its impact was vast, and not just for them. While Ben and Cayenne were trying to find her bed, in the Grandersons’ yard out back, the annual barbecue had grown into a Scott-and-Zelda-level soiree. It was perfect Seattle summer weather, endless sunny afternoon cooling slowly into the need for a light sweater, dusk giving way to a crisp, clear night scented by the char of the grill, the flower of ripe peaches, the heady promise of butter and sugar. Logs in the fire pit popped and settled, cracking light and smoke into the twilight.

For the kids, there was something particular about seeing one another outside the bounds of school rules, outside the bounds of home rules, but still in sight or hearing, if they weren’t careful, of their parents. They had parties, of course, when someone’s folks were out of town, or they all met up summer evenings at the beach. They spent hours on screens together outside anyone’s purview. So this was a different thing. Roo tried to decide whether it was more accurate or less, this version of his compatriots, Katie Ferguson without the cigarettes, Kyle Konner without the manic leaping off of anything more than four feet high, Gracey Meyer without the cursing.

But if the proximity of parents turned their progeny toward adulthood, every year without fail the party turned the adults back to kids. Drinking foamy beer out of a plastic cup was somehow completely different from sharing a bottle or two of wine when Frank and Marginny came over for dinner. Penn wasn’t drunker but he felt drunker. He grabbed a water balloon out of Rigel’s hands as he ran by and tossed it at Poppy, who shrieked in indignation. The parents all roared with laughter. Rosie had come over before lunch to help Marginny devil eggs and just stayed, testing and retesting the sangria to see what it might need. Along the way, she’d lost her shoes somehow, and now her feet were one part flesh, three parts dirt, the Snoopy hat she’d stolen off Orion’s head lopsiding over her right eye. Partying with their kids made them less sober, less well behaved than they were with their neighbors the rest of the year. It was as if, observing their children even at half strength, they finally saw how it was done.