James Maguire arrives, a soft-spoken, anxious mess in an ill-fitting blazer, and becomes a permanent fixture in her life.
Having him around is a bit weird at first, what with the English thing and the boy thing. She’s never actually been friends with a boy before, usually relegated to admiring and pining and panicking over them from afar. Though it’s not like she has to worry about doing any of those things with James, on account of the English thing which actually negates the boy thing—anyway. The point is it’s weird to suddenly have a boy around all the time.
He’s barely been in Derry when, walking home from school one day, Erin finds herself alone with James at the back of the pack as Orla hopscotches out in front, followed by an arguing Michelle and Clare. They’re quiet outside of their steps hitting the pavement in sync with one another, and it’s almost unnerving, the silence. Between Michelle cursing and Clare fretting and her ma mothering and her baby sister always crying, Erin’s not really used to much quiet, but she’s gathering that James isn’t like that. Even though he’s getting dragged all over town by Michelle nowadays, half the time he doesn’t even say anything. He stands on the edge of their group, watching them talk and fight and laugh without actually engaging, his eyes going back and forth like he’s watching a tennis match on TV.
A few days after he’d first arrived, she overheard her parents talking about him in the living room while she was washing up in the kitchen. Her Granddad Joe asked if he’d be sticking around for good, and her ma’s voice was quiet, serious when she answered, “Deirdre’s sayin’ so. Said that Cathy’s off selling makeup door to door. Can you imagine—”
She didn’t hear what exactly her ma wanted the other adults to imagine because Orla skipped into the kitchen at that moment and started talking her ear off about a new step aerobics combination she’d picked up. But Erin thought about it later when she tried to fall asleep that night, blankets tucked up to her chin. She loved Derry, barricades and bombs and all, couldn’t dream of living anywhere else. She couldn’t imagine how it’d feel to be plucked out of her home on someone else’s whim and dropped off somewhere new.
Walking side by side now, she clears her throat, digging for something to say to James. This might be the longest she’s been left alone with a boy she hasn’t been related to. “How are you liking Derry?”
His head whips over to look at her, eyes wide, like her question is a trap. She tries her best to smile back in a friendly way. “It’s different,” he allows, and she snorts. If he were a proper Derry boy, she’d be mortified by the sound that comes out of her, but it prompts his features to ease, which causes her shoulders to relax a bit, too. “I’m still getting used to it, I think. Everyone here is a bit more—”
He’s cut off when, ahead of them, Michelle shouts, “For fuck’s sake, Clare!”
“Blunt,” he finishes flatly. He spares her another nervous look, tacking on a “No offense.”
Erin shrugs, gripping tighter to the straps of her backpack. “None taken.”
That night, after he volunteers to wash up after his first dinner with the Quinns’, her ma won’t stop going on about how polite and well-mannered he is, and with friends like hers, Erin tries to take all the good favor she can get for them. Everyone else seems to like him well enough, too, save Michelle who can’t go five minutes without declaring him a dicko—Clare and James often sit together, bent over their maths homework, heads close, and Orla announces that she likes the way his hair looks like the crispy ramen noodle packs Dennis sells at his shop.
And James grows on her in his own right. He goes along with their plans with minimal resistance, never arguing over what movie they’re going to see and spending an entire weekend learning the dance to Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” with them. He asks her about the books she’s reading and actually listens when she tells him, his expression open and patient. When Orla makes off with her diary again, he tugs it out of her hands, chastising her cousin in what Erin suspects he thinks is a harsh tone before handing it back to her.
He’s nice. She doesn’t know if she’s ever had a nice friend before.
And that’s why seeing James taken advantage of by Katya sends her into a spiral, obviously.
Katya practically attacks him, for starters, kissing him without stopping for five minutes straight, her hands pulling ruthlessly at his hair. All the girls are mutually horrified at the sight, but when Erin discovers Katya’s plans to take James’ virginity at Jenny Joyce’s party of all places, she really thinks she’s going to be sick, like truly sick, from the way that her stomach churns.
By the time Erin catches up with him in the kitchen, her heart is pounding in her ears, louder than the Spice Girls song playing in the next room over. “You don’t want to do this, James,” she insists through a mouthful of biscuit. “You’re not ready for it. She doesn’t love you.”
She can hear how she sounds, frantic and distressed and—well, to anyone else around that doesn’t know her and James, they might think that she’s jealous but really, she just has the correct level of concern for her friend. She’s such a great concerned friend, in fact, that she only wants to die a little bit when she has to let her opportunity to hang out with David Donnelly slip away in favor of chasing after James, because she knows that she’s stopping him from making a mistake he’ll regret the rest of his life.
As she takes the stairs two at a time, Erin thinks that James is like Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. They’re both English, for starters, plus they’re gentle and kind, and he deserves someone like Mr. Bingley, equally as kind and head-over-heels in love. Or whatever the girl equivalent of that would look like. Erin frowns to herself, nearly tripping over the last step before reaching the second floor landing. It’s possible this isn’t the best metaphor she could have gone with, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
In the end, after a very minor misunderstanding on her part regarding Katya and a whip round, their entire group is kicked out of the party, and she ends up walking home beside James. She knows that she should be embarrassed for calling Katya a prostitute, but she doesn’t feel all that bad, the urge to boke she’s had all night finally going away.
Still, she figures she should apologize. “Sorry you didn’t get to sleep with Katya.”
James shoots her a look, raises a single eyebrow. “Are you?”
Right. She deserves that. She pulls her denim jacket tighter around her against the chill in the air, her hands shoved deep into the pockets. “I didn’t want you to do anything you’d regret. Friends look out for each other.”
Looking over at him under the streetlights, his green eyes look nearly gold. “Friends look out for one another,” he echoes. The way he says it, she’s not sure if he’s talking to her or himself, but the words sound gentler coming from him. It’s almost like he’s only now realizing that’s what they are: friends.
And of course, James is her friend, just as much as the rest of them. When they join Orla on stage at the talent show, less dancing and more flailing about to Madonna, James catches her hand at one point, his palm warm in hers before he’s letting go, having spun her around into Michelle’s arms. She finds herself pressed against him from hip to thigh to knee when they pile onto the couch to watch Pulp Fiction. Together, they wade through bits of hash scones in the flooded bathroom at Bridie’s wake, and when she catches his eye, she has to press her lips together to keep from laughing at the sheer ridiculous state they’re in.
When James shows up to take her to prom wearing a Doctor Who scarf and his hair meticulously slicked back, her heart leaps into her throat. He smiles at her, like so many times before, but this time, an affection for him blooms in her chest so fierce that it reaches all the way to her toes. She’s not sure what to make of that and fortunately doesn’t have much time to think about it before she’s being Carrie’d in front of her classmates.
“I can’t believe Dee planned this,” James moans as he walks her home, picking out the drying tomato bits in his hair.
Erin can—she never trusted the girl—but she knows now’s not the time for ‘I told you so’s. She’ll save it for the next time she sees Clare. “My mom’s going to lose it when she sees my dress.” It looks like she threw up down the front of it, the entire thing more red than orange now, and the skirt is getting stiffer as the tomato sauce dries.
When she catches James’ face, his worry evident by the furrow in his brow, her ribcage feels a bit tighter, and something compels her to add, “But the dance was good. Before all this.” She gestures towards the massive stain she’s wearing, hesitating a beat before saying, “Thanks for coming with me.”
His expression softens, and a small, crazy part of her thinks she’d do anything to keep him looking at her like that for as long as she can. “‘Course. You’re—” He stops himself suddenly, the words not quite getting out, and he adverts his eyes away from her and focuses on staring intently at the ground instead.
“What?” Without looking up, James shakes his head, a tiny motion, and she elbows him in the side as gently as she can manage. “Come on, now you gotta tell me.”
He looks back at her, and she can see a smudge of tomato sauce across his left cheek. “You’re my best friend,” he says, and it’s written all over his face, that he’s nervous to say this, that he thinks she’d—what? Laugh at him? As if for good measure, he adds, “But you know that already.”
She didn’t, not technically, but she hoped, since he’s one of her best friends, too. She smiles and loops his arm through his, just like she did earlier when he picked her up for the night that she’ll not soon forget, and she lets him lead her home.
After over a year without his ma so much as visiting, she hadn’t really considered what it would be like for James to leave. She’d just kind of thought. . . Well, it seemed like James was here to stay until he’s saying the words: he’s leaving and going back to London with his ma, without even seeing the President of the United States talk, without even giving them a real chance to say goodbye.
She thought he loved it in Derry. She thought he’d grown to consider it his home. She thought he knew that, even though they fight and take the piss out of each other and drive everyone mad, they all care about him, even Michelle—or really, especially Michelle. Erin knows that her friend would’ve never put up with her cousin as long as she has if she didn’t.
She thought James knew that, even though he’s English and awkward and tried to earnestly clean windows with mayonnaise and once pissed in a bin in front of her, she cares about him—that she maybe even likes him.
As soon as she thinks it, the thought knocks the air out of her, so startling and obvious and horrifying: she maybe even likes him.
And then, the idea, the reality of what James means to her, settles in her chest, so heavy and solid and true: she definitely likes him.
She wants to hold his hand as they walk to and from school and go on dates to a chippy where he’d insist that the smell of grease makes him sick and wear his jacket and maybe she’d even try watching Doctor Who since it means so much to him—she wants to do all of that and more, but now her chance to do any of those things is disappearing before she could even firmly hold onto the idea.
Until Orla is prodding her in the shoulder with her bony little finger, insisting she turn around and away from what they’re all supposed to actually be looking at.
And there he is, a head of curly hair and his sherpa-lined jacket, on the bridge waving frantically and yelling something they can’t catch from their spot near the stage. The sight of him seems to magnify her feelings tenfold, like her heart has gotten up on stage on its own to declare into the microphone in front of President Clinton and everybody: I like James Maguire.
Barely aware of what she’s doing as she does so, she grabs Michelle’s hand next to her and takes off running, weaving the wrong way through the crowd. The girls all hurtle towards James when they spot him, ending up in a mess of a group hug, arms and legs everywhere, and Erin buries her face into the crook of his neck, the smell of clean laundry and earl gray tea and a third innately boy thing flooding her senses.
After they untangle themselves, Michelle drapes the purple-pink-30-star flag over his shoulders and off they go down the streets back to the Quinns’. Erin’s not even next to James anymore, but her heart is beating in her chest to the rhythm of I like you I like you I like you. How could she possibly have not known?
Once the rollercoaster of panic and heartbreak and relief of James’ almost departure settles, a new kind of anxiety leaks into her bones, leaving her jumpier and higher strung than usual. Erin’s never known how to act around a boy that she likes. Fortunately, she hasn’t had to confront this fact very often, given the boys she’s liked in the past typically maintain a safe distance.
But James is different.
He’s her friend. He’s around all the time. He’s at her house in the mornings, eating the burnt piece of toast her ma pushes in front of him. He knows what she looks like when she’s just woken up and that she’s never kissed a boy. He’s met her entire mental family, even Uncle Colm, and tried to help her dig up her not dead dog. He’s seen her drunk and sick and in her oldest, rattiest pajamas.
And she has to sit there and just like him all the time.
She considers telling Clare, to get it off her chest to someone, but thinks better of it. She’s not ready to deal with Michelle possibly, definitely losing it when she finds out that she likes her English cousin. Knowing Orla, her diary isn’t even a safe place, so she decides to suffer in silence.
And suffer in silence, she does.
She does her best not to sit too close to him on the couch, sandwiching herself in between Orla and Michelle instead (“Fuck, get off me, Erin, there’s plenty of room next to the prick over there.”) and skirts away from being left alone with him when they walk home from school, dragging Clare along by her elbow (“Jesus Christ, Erin, are you trying to rip my arm out?”). She manages to avoid being alone with him, but even when they’re together as a group, she finds she can’t look at his face either, not when he looks at her all soft and doe-eyed; it’s just too much to bear.
Otherwise, she thinks she’s doing a grand job at keeping her feelings for James a secret until she’s taking the garbage out to the street one evening, and James is there, right in front of her before she can do anything about it.
“Hi,” he says, holding up a hand in a semblance of a wave before he seems to think better of it and quickly drops his arm back by his side.
“Hi.” She loops the handle of the trash bag around her hand one more, gripping it tighter, and digs her nails into her palm. It’s getting late, and the sun has fully set, sunk behind the hill, leaving Derry tinted blue, the stars just beginning to pop out. If she thinks about it too deeply, it’s not that different a night than the one when they went to prom. It’s still cool enough out that James is wearing his jean jacket, and Erin feels the urge to shiver despite her thick jumper. “Michelle’s not here.”
James nods, says, “Right, I know.” And then he stops and shakes his head, taking one small step closer and correcting himself, “I mean, I came to see you.”
Erin draws backwards, her eyes widening. “Me? What for?”
He shoves his hands in his pockets as if to anchor himself to the ground, and she can see him swallow, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “Yeah, I—are you mad at me?” he asks. His eyes don’t leave hers, and she tries to pick out what exactly is reflected in his expression: concern, confusion, something bordering on hurt.
“What?” It comes out higher pitched and shriller than she’d like, and she tries to arrange her features into a more neutral setting. “Why would you think that?”
He opens his mouth to answer then promptly shuts it.
Erin swallows thickly and tries again, the question coming out steadier, softer. “Why would you think that?” To her, it almost sounds like how could you think that?
A shadow of something she can’t pinpoint passes over James’ face, and after weeks of being able to avoid it, all of her consuming idiot feelings, in this moment, she can’t help herself. Without much consideration, she pushes herself onto the balls of her feet and presses her lips against his.
James doesn’t react at first, seemingly frozen in place, and Erin moves to break the kiss as quickly as she initiated it. But, before she can, she feels his hands on her face, his fingers settling against her cheekbones and holding her to him, and he kisses her back. She reaches for him with her free hand, curling her fingers into the soft fleece lining of his jacket collar.
She can’t believe it. She’s kissing a boy—and not just any boy but James, the sweetest boy, her favorite boy. And she’s holding trash.
With that, she drops the garbage bag at her feet with a thump, pulling away from James in the process. He looks dazed, like he can’t believe his luck, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. It’s overwhelming to look at it, and she dips her chin down, her face flushing.
“So, I—I hope that clears things up for you,” she says with a curt nod, managing to keep her voice from wavering despite the fact that she feels ready to vibrate out of her skin.
James blinks once, twice. “Right.” He nods. “It certainly does.”
“See you tomorrow,” she says with a dorky wave goodbye, before she’s turning on the heel of her sneaker and moving to go back in. As she heads back inside, she has to press her fingertips against her lips to keep her smile under control.