“Which one’s yours?” I asked, scanning the meandering crowd.
“University of Michigan t-shirt, over by the Hare Krishnas.”
I looked over at her mark, a man in his twenties or thirties, healthy, seemingly alert, and wondered if Justine knew something I didn’t.
“I’m going to take…Purple fanny pack.” I nodded towards a family buying ice cream from a vendor near the really boring gallery where we always had to go on field trips.
“The dad?” Justine asked. They were all wearing purple fanny packs, along with shorts and tucked in t-shirts.
“Nah, I’m taking the mom.”
We sat, or lay down, shifting our bare limbs a lot, in the crew-cut grass of The Mall. We didn’t have a usual spot. Or maybe you could say we had lots of them. One of them was the Non-Pond, a rectangular water feature that was sort of the Reflecting Pool’s little sister – smaller and situated oddly near a clump of trees and a little brown hut we were convinced had something to do with the FBI or the CIA. We’d been there earlier, smoked a bowl from a pipe we’d fashioned from an apple and bit of foil. Giggling, we ate the apple with alternating bites, tossed the core into the grass and fed the stems and seeds from our off-green schwag reefer to an adolescent duck we’d named James Dean. He was our favourite resident of the Non-Pond, bigger than the other ducklings but still downy, long bodied, almost duck-shaped but not quite grown up.
Still stoned but silent now, we sat on The Mall and waited. Nothing happened for a long time, but that’s how it always went. I kept my eye on Purple Fanny Pack, glancing occasionally at U-Mich t-shirt as well. It was usually easy to keep track of our marks, hunting without having to get up. The Mall is flat and broad, and those long days were harshly bright. And hot. That was the main thing. It started in May or June and lasted until the beginning of the next school year. One hundred degrees, one hundred percent humidity, for a hundred days.
Sometimes I looked at Justine, her green eyes following our marks, but she didn’t look back at me. Some idiot shouted at us – hey ladies, can I come sit with you? We gave him the finger and turned back to our game. We were thirteen and knew we’d have to get used to that kind of thing.
“Dude, dude.” Justine straightened up and nudged me with the toe of her converse high top. I followed her eyes to U-Mich, wobbling now by a map of the local area. He turned, a bit too quickly, and then stopped, mouth open, visibly panting.
“Shit.” I’d lost. He took one step towards a drinks vendor, then another, dropped to his knees and onto all fours. The shock of the fall was restorative, though, and he scrambled to his feet, hurling himself towards the drinks cart where he drained a bottle of water, splashing the last bit over his hair and strained red face. He stood there panting for a while longer with hands on his bent knees, water dripping from his chin.
“You owe me a Coke,” Justine said, like I didn’t know the rules, like this wasn’t the thousandth tourist we’d watched drop down by the monuments and buildings of historical significance.
Just then, Mrs Fanny Pack did a swoon of her own; Mr Fanny Pack caught her before she hit the ground, led her by her elbow to a bench and fanned her with some kind of brochure while the kids looked on with dripping twin pops.
“Shit.” It was a good one, but Justine’s mark bit it first, so mine didn’t count.
I picked at the leather where it was coming away from the steel toe caps of my three-hole Doc Martens. It couldn’t have been the game that made me feel strange in that moment, this game we played almost every day in those summers and never named. My grandmother and Kurt Cobain died a couple of months before, but I was pretty sure they weren’t behind it either. I just needed to cry. I needed everyone to clear out and leave me alone to sit in the thick, fat afternoon air to grimace and whine and weep.
I loved Justine’s hair. She’d taken to dipping sections into a bottle of hydrogen peroxide until the chestnut colour had drained away, and then dyeing the blonde bits green with proper hair dye. Back then I blow-dried mine straight and dyed it red with a paste I’d make with cherry Kool-Aid powder. In my head I looked just like a girl version of Kurt on that cover of Sassy Magazine.
I realised that I’d stopped staring at my shoes and was staring at hers. She had a little red scab on her ankle where she’d cut herself shaving. “Your Chucks stink,” I said finally, for no real reason.
“That’s your upper lip, retard.”
“Are we going to Federal Triangle?”
I wanted to go then but didn’t push it. When I wiped sweat off my hairline my hand came away pink.
We picked two more marks and debated what to do that night. I wanted to see Fugazi and the Bad Brains but Justine’s parents still wouldn’t let her go to the Capital Ballroom. Half Street was a shit hole, fine, but we’d be inside the whole time. It’s not like we were going to be trotting around the neighbourhood on a tour of the crack houses and crack brothels and motels where crooked cops and local politicians went for toothless blowjobs.
“I know, I told them.”
“Can you just say we’re going to my house?”
She rolled her eyes and didn’t answer. If I was going to go to see Fugazi that night, I’d have to go alone.
On the first day of kindergarten Justine had worn a yellow dress and purple glasses. She lived two blocks away – the stop before mine on the school bus – and her birthday was two days before mine. She often wrote in birthday cards, “Ha ha! No matter how hard you try, you’ll never catch up”, or something to that effect.
Both of our new marks headed west, so we pulled ourselves up and followed. But after some time they both seemed fine and we grew bored with them.
“Come on. Let’s go to Federal Triangle,” I urged.
“It’ll rain.” Not that there was any sign of it. Clouds were conspicuously absent, like you could see where the sun had incinerated them that morning.
“Let’s sit on Abe’s lap.” She knew I wouldn’t argue; Abe was my favourite.
So we bounced around the Lincoln Memorial asking passing tourists to help us climb into the building-high lap of the 16th president. It was obnoxious and we knew it. But there was some logic in our pestering. It went something like: if this is the most unpleasant encounter you have with native Washingtonians, you should consider yourself lucky. This place is sticky. Smog sweat clogs your pores. It’s uncomfortable; that’s how it is here.
And, of course, no one stopped, except for the Japanese tourists, for whom we were a curious delight and a relief for their ears.
“Konnichi-wa!” I’d call.
“O genki desu ka?” Justine would ask.
“Lincoln-san wa sukina presidento desu!”
We’d deploy all the Japanese we could muster from the three years when we had it in elementary school. There was a recession on and Japanic set in, so we had Japanese lessons for an hour a day until the economy recovered and the programme was cut, leaving us with just enough vocabulary to accost tourists. Hi, how are you, Mr Lincoln is my favourite president! And to talk about the weather.
Yes, they would answer. Washington is very hot.
We carried on until we’d even begun to annoy ourselves. “Can we please go to Federal Triangle now?” I tugged the strap of Justine’s back pack.
She considered the sky. “Yeah, let’s go.”
On the way we talked about the sleepover from the night before.
“Melissa’s sister’s such a bitch.” She’d made a point of coming in to make fun of us for laughing too loudly, even though she had a car and a boyfriend and really should have had better things to do.
“She plays field hockey.”
“What a loser.”
“She didn’t have any friends until her dad bought her that Lexus.”
“She’s the worst.”
In the morning everyone was getting dressed. Justine hooked her flimsy pink bra in the front and pulled the band 180 degrees around her torso to pull the cups over her breasts, the biggest in our little clique. She looked up and her eyes met mine. She saw that I’d been staring but she didn’t say anything.
The buildings we passed annoyed me. Everything was concrete and grey with flat fronts or facades aping the Parthenon or the Acropolis, none of them taller than the Washington Monument by some outdated decree or resilient taboo, I can’t remember which. My hometown was half-assed and square, a fake city, a municipality. A swamp with a swamp climate, drained and paved and covered with stupid things copied from other, older, real cities.
After ten minutes, or thereabouts, we reached the fountain in Federal Triangle, sat on its edge and pulled off our shoes. I craned my neck, looking out for cops, and when I gave the nod Justine pulled a two-quart bottle of Mr Bubble out of her back pack. We climbed in and emptied it into the middle. The fountain filled up with froth while lobbyists and interns and grown-ups with jobs we didn’t know anything about passed in suits. We pretended not to notice them as we splashed and made Abe Lincoln beards and stovepipe hats with the candy-scented, pinkish-white bubbles.
After a short while a pair of cops – transit cops – approached, shouting at us to get out.
“What?” we yelled, still splashing, watching individual bubbles and clumps of suds get picked up by the wind that was now rising.
“You two, out of the fountain!”
“What are they saying?” I asked Justine.
“I don’t know but they look mighty angry.”
And just when they were close enough that we couldn’t play dumb anymore, the sky lurched onto its side and the blinding rain storm that broke the back of almost every summer’s day roared down, sending the cops bolting for cover, washing all of our bubbles away.
One hundred degrees, one hundred percent humidity for one hundred days – and nothing at all to do…