I lean back in the grass, propping myself up on my arms behind me, and tell Pearl about Maggie’s party. I leave out all the times I texted her, of course, and all the time I spent waiting for her reply. I tell her about Mary Kate’s terrible karaoking and Maggie’s cringe-worthy elephant charade and Kelly’s incredible trivia knowledge.
And for a moment, everything feels normal.
“Did you get his number or anything?” Pearl’s still lying on her stomach, kicking her legs lazily in the air. Stray wisps of blonde hair flutter next to her face, escaped from her once-perfect ponytail.
“What? Whose?” I blink down at her.
She stacks both fists under her chin and looks at me with a wide smile. “Kelly, of course.”
I laugh because that seems like the appropriate reaction. “Um, of course not. No.” I slap her shoulder for good measure.
Pearl erupts into giggles. “Alright, keep your secrets,” she says with a slanted smile.
An uncertain laugh bubbles out of me, and I feel a wave of irrational anger hit me. Well, not completely irrational. “I don’t have secrets,” I say, my voice laced with annoyance. I shouldn’t have said it like that; we’re supposed to be getting along. I shouldn’t even be upset.
“Ok,” she replies sassily. “If you don’t have secrets, tell me who you like, if it’s not Henry and it’s not Kelly.” She’s got a whisper of a smile on her face, reminiscent of her expression on the bus steps. A challenge.
“That’s not fair,” The words spill out of my mouth without thinking.
“Why?” Pearl rolls onto her back and throws an arm over her eyes.
“Well, I don’t know, you go first,” I say, my mouth on autopilot. My brain’s still whirring for an answer to her question. I mean, I did like hanging out with Kelly, but not in like a… dating kind of way. Ugh. Do I like Kelly?
“Fine. Nevermind,” Pearl says, and I still can’t see much of her face because it’s still blocked by her arm, but I hear something in her voice and I can’t identify what it is.
I sit up and lean over her, but she rolls her face away. “I guess I like--nobody?” I almost say ‘Kelly’ but that feels like a lie. I liked him paying attention to me, but that’s not what liking is, right?
She pulls her arm away from her face just long enough for me to see her squint up at me. “What an answer,” she deadpans.
I set my jaw, because my intention was to stop arguing with Pearl, but at the moment, I don’t know what she wants to hear. I stand up and brush the dirt off my skirt, because it’s my only one since my last one lost a button and I need to wear it to school tomorrow.
“Yeah. Well, one day I’ll meet someone rich and handsome or something. But right now everyone’s just the same gross third-graders we met forever ago. Right?” I stare down at her and fold my arms.
Pearl drags her arm off of her face and concedes, “They are all pretty gross, aren’t they?” Her voice is less playful than I was hoping it would be.
I shift on my feet, wondering if I should sit back down. And wondering what to say next, too, because I’ve run out of words on the current topic.
Instead, Pearl stands up. Her ponytail is mussed now, strands of her blonde hair flying into her face, and she picks up her discarded blouse and shoves it into her backpack.
“So what about your weekend?” I blurt out, suddenly afraid that she’s packing up to leave.
Pearl wrestles with her backpack zipper--it must be broken--and speaks without looking at me. “Do you want to walk the trail?”
Her question catches me off-guard, because although this park does have some walking trails, we’ve never explored any of them. I’m not even sure where any of them go.
“Sure.” I pick up my backpack and put it on.
We walk through the picnic table area, towards the section of the park that’s more wooded. As we step onto the path, the air feels cooler in the shade of the trees, and gooseflesh breaks out on my arms. My flats seem insufficient for the rocky, uneven ground, but I don’t say anything. I just hope I don’t trip or fall over anything.
Pearl walks just ahead of me. “My parents really would be mad if they knew I was here. They won’t know I missed the bus. Yet.”
I pause, and Pearl stops when she notices. I say, “I’m sorry, maybe you should get back. I shouldn’t have convinced you to--”
She surprises me when a smile spreads across her face. “You didn’t convince me of anything, Trinity. I basically asked you to pull me off that bus.”
Seeing her smile gives me the courage to say, “What did happen this weekend?” After a second, I add, “If you want to tell me, anyway. You don’t have to.” But I really, really hope she does.
She starts walking, but this time she times her steps with mine. The path is barely wide enough for the two of us, so we pick our way carefully down the path, over roots and under low-hanging branches.
“I didn’t just have my phone off,” she starts. “I didn’t have it with me at all, where I was.”
I wait, but when I only hear the wind in the leaves above us, I say, “Henry told me you were on vacation?”
Pearl lets out a little laugh, and I smile a little, just to hear the sound. “That’s nice of him. No, I told him where I was, and it wasn’t vacation. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” She takes a deep breath and stops for a moment.
We’re on the path still, but the forest is thinner here, and a patch of mushrooms grows on a tree trunk just behind Pearl. A tiny creek bubbles just a few feet away, and a small wooden bridge has been built over it. It feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, just me and her.
Her wide eyes search mine, and I know I must look confused and anxious and impatient even though I’m trying not to. I can’t help but fiddle with the strap of my backpack.
“I’ve been fighting with my parents… And so they…” Pearl looks down and around and past me and then back at my face. Every part of her is tense. “They sent me to this retreat.” She spits the word, and I don’t know what she means, but it sounds like she didn’t like it.
“I don’t understand,” I say weakly.
Her shoulders loosen slowly, like she’s had to think about how to relax, and she tilts her head, regarding me. “Henry thinks I shouldn’t tell you, but you’re my best friend, you know that right?”
This, at least, makes me smile a little. “And you’re my best friend,” I reply. How could she not be?
She mirrors my expression, then her mouth falters somewhere between a hopeful smile and a frown. “Just promise not to hate me,” she whispers.
I can feel a crease forming between my brows, and my hand tightens on my backpack strap. “I won’t ever hate you.”
She drags a foot in the dirt path, drawing an arch in the loose dirt. “I’m friends with Henry because he’s gay. Partially, anyway. Because I’m kind of like him. Kind of.”
I can feel her watching me, but I have no idea what expression I’m making. I’m not sure I’m making any expression at all. I’m not sure what to think. Like him, like, gay? Like what? Pearl isn’t gay; I would know. This isn’t right. None of this makes any sense.
I know she’s waiting for me to say something, but I’m also reprocessing everything she’s ever said to me. Her hesitation when she told me Henry was gay, her weird reaction when I tried to laugh it off. She’s serious.
“Ok,” I try.
Pearl puts her face into her hands. “I’m sorry, I know, it’s terrible, but it’s true and I--”
I let go of my backpack strap and almost give her a hug, but end up putting a hand on her shoulder and patting her gently. “Don’t be sorry,” I say quietly. “You can’t help it.”
Her eyes are glassy, but they’re also wide and tilted into an angry shape. I drop my hand as she begins to speak. “No, I can’t help it. You think I’m horrible and disgusting, don’t you? Just say it.” She doesn’t sound angry; she sounds broken.
I can’t believe she’s saying any of this. “You’re not--Pearl, you’re not horrible. You’re not any of those things--I’m sorry, I just didn’t know. You’re perfect like this. You’re always perfect.”
I wonder if the breeze is making her cold, because she wraps her arms around herself. “I’m not, but thank you,” she says, her voice thick.
She’s avoiding looking at me now, and I want to say the right thing, to make her understand that it’s ok and she’s ok and I’m ok as long as we get to keep being best friends. But I don’t know what the right words are.
“I tried to tell my parents, and that’s why they sent me to the retreat. To reeducate me. I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid--” Pearl cuts herself off with a deep breath. “And I needed to talk to somebody, so I started hanging out with Henry.”
This is a lot of information all at once, so I’m not sure where to start. I have so many questions but I can’t tell if she wants me to ask them, or if that would be prying and she just told me the extent she’s comfortable sharing.
Selfishly, I ask, “But this doesn’t change anything? I mean, you’re the same Pearl. You’re still my best friend.” Even to my own ears, it sounds like I’m trying to convince myself. But I don’t know. Maybe we’re too different now. Maybe Henry is a better friend for her, maybe I’ll never understand like he does.
She shrugs and drops her backpack onto the ground, wandering a couple of feet off the path to stare into the nearby creek. I follow, discarding my backpack besides hers.
“Yeah. Everything’s the same. I’ve always been like this. And I will be, forever. Even with these retreats,” Pearl says as I join her at the edge of the creek. Her white tennis shoes are dangerously close to the murky water.
I stare down at our feet. “There’s… more than one retreat?”
“I’ve gone to two. This last weekend and the week before.”
“But what… are they?”
Pearl leans down and picks up a handful of rocks, and lets most of them sift out of her palm. She’s left with just a couple of larger stones, and she drops one into the water with a loud plop. “They’re through my church. It’s not specifically for anyone, but everyone knows it’s like religious-military camp. It’s supposed to fix you.” She continues to drop her remaining rocks into the water one by one. “They send all kinds of ‘bad’ kids to them. Sinners. Anyone who’s ever been caught stealing or in a fight or anything like that. And anyone… well, anyone anything like me.” She’s run out of rocks to drop, and she stands there, staring at her hands.
“Do you mind… I’m sorry, I mean, do you mean anyone, like, gay, then?” I stumble through my question, cringing at my inability to string a sentence together.
Pearl looks over at me, but she doesn’t look like she did before, terrified and unsure. In the soft sunlight, her eyes look clear blue, almost matching the baby-blue of her tank top, almost looking as spunky as usual. “No, that’s ok. It’s nice to talk about it. And… yes and no.”
She reaches a hand up to pull some loose strands of her hair off of her face, and it almost looks like her lips have curved upwards. “I’m bisexual, I think. But there’s a lot of different words that I’ve learned recently, and I’m still trying to figure out which ones are right. But it’s not just boys. And it’s not just girls, you know?”
I didn’t know, but I understood what she meant. In concept, anyway. “Yeah,” I say. She looks almost happy again, and not in the bubbly way she has been at school. In the silent way that I normally observe when I see her across the classroom, or when we’re at our picnic table.
“Can I ask you another question?”
She sucks on her bottom lip and says, “Only if I can ask you one first.”
This sounds more like Pearl. “Ok,” I say with a nervous smile.
“You really don’t think it’s, like, bad? Me?”
I pick up a rock and drop it in the creek, like she did. “You? No. No, of course not. Why would I think that?”
I can see her eyes skip down to my uniform. My Saint Paul’s green and blue plaid. “I just thought, because of all the church stuff you’re into, that maybe you’d think it’s wrong. Like my parents.”
I feel my stomach churn at the thought of her parents telling her she’s wrong. Her parents sending her to a retreat to try and change her. “If this is who you are, then it can’t be wrong. Your parents are wrong, not you.”
I need her to believe me, because I do want to believe in the church, but how could it be right? How could it be right when Pearl is the best person I’ve ever known and now they want to change her? Suddenly, everything Pearl has ever done makes so much more sense. Because believing the church has never been complicated for me. But it’s complicated for her.
Her mouth tugs up, and it looks like she’s about to speak, but a buzzing is coming from behind us. Realizing what it is, she walks away and fishes her phone from her backpack.
Wordlessly, her wide eyes find mine, and I know who it is. Her parents, wondering where she’s gone. I want to tell her not to answer, not yet, but she does. And even three feet away, with my flats mere inches from the creek water, I can hear the voice on the other end of the phone. And it does not sound happy.
(first part: https://theprose.com/post/432343/trinity)
(previous part: https://theprose.com/post/435863/trinity-7)
(next part: https://theprose.com/post/438441/trinity-9)