slow tingle spreads itself up the back of my neck. Years from now, I'll find myself processing the memory in the same way. I'll want to find foreshadowing in the events of the day. I'll want a sign that this presence was coming, an indication that I'd been flirting with trouble all along.
But there was no omen. Natalie is like an earthquake, the type of natural disaster that no one can predict. It is the characteristic that most draws one to her. My most exciting moments with Natalie come when I least expect them, like love. Her attention span is short, and at any point during our afternoons together, her interest might pass swiftly from one amusement to another. A walk in the woods turns into a walk on the train tracks. A swim turns into a high dive off an old fishing bridge. I invariably find myself standing on a ledge, assessing the risk, while Natalie plunges in headfirst. She will be the blueprint for the kamikaze girlfriends I'll seek well into my twenties, the suicidal personalities who seize the day by letting go of any expectations for a tomorrow.
Inevitably, I perform many feats with Natalie that I have no real interest in doing. I hitchhike. I stuff two Hello Kitty T-shirts into my book bag while a clerk isn't looking. I let her take an X-ACTO blade to my upper arm so we can be blood sisters. I even agree to third-wheel when she goes skinny-dipping with the boy who lives down the lane; I dive down to run my hands along the lake weed, staying clear of their splashing while they do whatever makes Natalie conclude that boys' thingies float.
I don't need anyone to tell me I'm a tagalong, I know it. I operate as Natalie's sidekick. She is the magician, the one who possesses the hocus-pocus, and I see myself as her mousy assistant. It is my job to prepare her instruments and trust her magic, to stand paralyzed against the target while she throws knives at my head.
And yet I never consider her influence to be what a decade's worth of health teachers have called "peer pressure." Pressure doesn't define Natalie. The word is too heavy to explain the tactics of my best friend, a girl who stands under five feet tall, who weighs less than a hundred pounds, who doesn't even have the persuasive powers to persuade her mother to stop buying gallon jugs of limeade. She is not steadily compressing me under the weight of her deviance, the way the word seems to suggest.
If anything, Natalie is fragile. Too many afternoons, I walk into her bedroom and find her curled under her desk, which is the most secluded space she can find ever since her parents unhinged her bedroom door, when they decided she couldn't be trusted with that most basic privacy. The days I find her sobbing in the same position that schoolchildren assume during bomb drills, I am all too happy to apply a five-finger discount at Cumberland Farms, or key her brother's pickup truck, or smoke a pack of cigarettes in her mother's dress closet with the intention of marring its Givenchy suits with the smell of Kools. My petty crimes are sympathy gifts, like flowers or chocolates or teddy bears. I comply with her ploys to make her laugh after a despicable world has made her cry.
I know why I accept Natalie's lessons, but I'm not wholly sure why she offers them to me. I used to think she did it for the sole purpose of testing me. Every new task would find her with the same face a boy makes when he slides his hand up your shirt. It was an expectant look, like she was waiting to see if I leaned into the challenge or pushed it away.
It was that face that lead me to believed she'd passed afternoons this way before. I thought she'd scouted out the inside of the abandoned barn on Longhorn Road before she boosted me into its hayloft. I thought she'd hitchhiked to the skate shop on Route 12 before she had me shadowing her on the road's shoulder, resting my outstretched thumb against my thigh.
Only recently have I begun to wonder if Natalie is faking her know-how. I think her expertise might be another act, a testament to what the vice principal calls Natalie's compulsive lying, and what I call her love for performance. Experienced drinker, smoker, and crook might be little more than personae she makes up at a moment's notice, like the time she convinced the ticket seller at the movie theater we were the owner's daughters and therefore didn't have to pay to see Return of the Living Dead III.
The liquor cabinet might be virgin territory for her, too. It might be like the haunted grove we once hiked to through streams, past tire piles, and over ravines. She might be bringing me along for company because she is too frightened to explore it alone. She might be pretending, for my sake, that she knows the way.