The sun didn't seem to care about Manna's sensitive skin, shining mercilessly down on her nearly bare body. Good. She smiled smugly, ignoring the sticky drops of sweat starting to prick up from underneath her flesh. Her skin was already naturally a light bronze, but one could always and should always attempt to go a shade darker.
Ro twisted on the blanket next to Manna, sighing gratefully as the tips of her limbs brushed through the grass. Her olive skin had already gotten two shades darker, Manna noted enviously. By the end of the summer she'd look closer to Nigerian than Pakistani. Manna grimaced. Weren't Latin people supposed to tan easily? Her aunt Nani always came back from her trips to Central America looking completely brown. Maybe it was Manna's displacement of tough Mayan blood with an Irish proclivity for needing cold temperatures. Stupid paternal genes.
Manna's ears perked up as she noticed Ro humming a familiar tune, her voice cracking on the high note. Ro's speaking voice was soft and alluring, but she could barely hold a tune to save her life.
"Bohemian Rhapsody?" Manna somehow managed to make her thick lips move through the humid heat.
Ro stopped humming, exhaling through her teeth lazily. "Ben's going through a Queen phase right now. I can't get it out of my head."
Manna's stomach twisted unpleasantly, but she forced her tone to remain light. "I shouldn't think that'd be such a bad thing."
"Oh, no. There are worse fates." Ro rolled onto her side, propping her head up on her hand. "I actually really like their music. It's so different from what I'm used to."
Manna shifted her head. She couldn't see Ro's eyes behind her large sunglasses. "Pretty different from all those Bollywood records your parents play?"
"And from that Shakira-Shakira stuff you blast in your car." The side of Ro's mouth twitched up.
"How many times do I have to tell you that Shakira does not do reggaeton?" Manna said, exasperated. Ro chuckled.
"Hey, I like that one band you play. Un Cuarteto de Nos?" She poked Manna playfully.
"Stop that!" Manna twisted away from Ro's fingers. Ro crawled over onto Manna's blanket, trying to get a good aim at the pressure point on Manna's side. Manna flipped Ro over and grabbed her wrists, pinning them up above her head.
"I surrender!" Ro gasped with laughter. Her chest heaved as her dark eyes shone up at Manna, brighter than the sun. It took Manna a second to release her hands.
"Eres tan loca," Manna mumbled. Ro crawled back to her blanket, black hair falling from her sticky back as she went. "Estoy tratando relajarme."
"Quesadilla," Ro chirped happily. Even after ten years of friendship, Ro couldn't understand a word of real Spanish. She only clung to phrases she liked, giving them their own meaning.
Manna shifted uncomfortably, trying to push the thought of Ben and Ro from her mind. Ben and Ro listening to Queen in his bedroom. Ben and Ro walking through the mall atrium, and in hand. Ben and Ro in his car after the Spring Fling - no. Stop.
Happy place. Summertime. Sunshine. Imagine the ocean breeze. Manna attempted a happy sigh, trying to force the euphoria upon herself.
"Manny?" Ro's voice interrupted Manna's journey to her happy place once more. "Manna, I gotta tell you something."
Manna's eyes opened. "Yeah? What's up?"
Ro bit her lip, barely able to contain her excitement. "Ben and I had sex."
Manna could feel her mouth go dry. Nothing to do with the heat this time. "Oh," she managed. "Cool."
"That's all you have to say?" Ro exclaimed. "Hello! You're the first person I've told?"
"When... did it happen?" Manna felt numb. "Where? How?" The questions were only perfunctory. She didn't want to know the answers, but Ro wanted to reveal them. Ro wanted her to want to know.
"The last day of school," Ro told her. "We went over to his house after we hung out with you. His parents wren't home, so..."
"What, so it just happened?" Manna asked incredulously. "Is that how these things work, then?"
"No! We'd , like, talked about it. I told him a while ago that I'd be ready soon. So then - the opportunity arose, and we took it."
Manna rolled her head to the side, glancing at her hand. Chipped orange nail polish. She needed to retouch that. "I can't believe you waited a week to tell me."
"I'm sorry!" There was more excitement in Ro's voice than remorse. "I just haven't been able to stop thinking about him. I needed to savor it for a bit, you know?" She grinned. Almost manically, Manna thought. "I love him. So much."
Manna picked at the orange nail polish. "So is he cool with having all your cousins at the wedding, then?"
"Manny!" Ro snorted. "Please."
"Whatever." Manna shrugged. "Congrats on losing your v-card. Glad you're enjoying your vanilla lover."
There was silence for a moment. Rare. Then:
"Yo, Manny, who the fuck pissed in your breakfast burrito?" Ro demanded angrily.
"What?" Manna exclaimed. "What do you want from me?"
"I want you to not be a bitch about this!" Ro grabbed Manna's shoulder and pulled her up to a seated position. "Like geez, is that too much to ask?"
"I'm happy for you. This is huge," Manna supplied emotionlessly.
Ro let go of her. "What is your problem?"
"Nothing. What's your problem?" Manna retorted.
"Don't give me that crap, Manna. I'm not the one acting like a brat." Ro glared at her.
"I'm sorry. I just..." Manna searched for something she could say. "I'm surprised. This came out of nowhere."
Ro let out a sharp laugh. "Nowhere? Not really."
"No, no, I know you and Ben are super ht and heavy. You have been for a while. That's not what I meant." Manna cleared her throat. "But - you and I. We never talked about it. I thought we told each other everything."
"We do," Ro said, her eyebrows drawing together earnestly.
"Yeah, well." Manna picked at the orange chips again, avoiding Ro's gaze. "You didn't tell me about this. I didn't know you were even thinking about taking it to the next level."
"Manuela?" a voice called from inside the house.
"Sí mama, qué pasa?" Manna yelled back.
"Estás con Rosalie? Quieren ustedes algo para comer?"
"No, no tenemos hambre. Gracias."
"Pablo Neruda," Ro said seriously.
Manna sighed. "I just wish you'd told me.
Ro grimaced. "I wanted to -"
"But?" Manna interrupted. "You didn't. So why not?"
Her friend fidgeted nervously, braiding a lock of her thick, dark hair anxiously. "Well lately you - you've been kind of weird. About stuff."
Despite the heat, Manna felt a shiver run through her. "Weird? How? About what stuff?"
"Like - about me and Ben. As if you disapprove or something."
Manna's shoulders relaxed. She hadn't realized they'd been so tense. "Oh." She paused. Nothing else came to her, so she repeated it. "Oh."
Large sunglasses stared at her expectantly. "Is that it? Really?"
"I really don't know what else to say to you, Ro," Manna said, exasperated.
"So you do disapprove of Ben?" Ro asked accusingly.
"No," Manna replied. It was technically true.
"I get it." Ro nodded. "You're jealous. That's what it is."
"No!" Manna protested, louder this time. This time, it was a lie, which Ro would've been able to see if she hadn't tossed her curls back and laughed.
"Silly." Ro reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind Manna's early lovingly. "I know I spend a lot of time with Ben, but I'm always here for you. You know that, right?"
Manna grimaced. "Yeah."
"But you know." Ro giggled. "I could help you find someone to be around when I'm not." She lowered her sunglasses and winked seductively. "To do the things I can't."
The lower part of Manna's stomach twisted again, though not unpleasantly this time. Who said that Ro -
"I don't want a boyfriend," Manna said a little louder than necessary, interrupting her own thoughts.
Ro shrugged. "Fine. Boy toy. Or boy toys. You don't have to tie yourself down unless you want to."
Manna clenched her jaw. "I don't want a boy toy."
"Come on, babe!" Ro sighed loudly. "It's summer. You gotta live a little. When's the last time you hooked up with someone? October?"
"Sure," Manna mumbled, looking down at the ground. She picked a few blades of grass out of the ground glumly. "Something like that."
"A travesty!" Ro declared. "We must fix that. I will not let you die a virgin." She pumped a fist in the air enthusiastically.
Manna had the perverse urge to laugh. A little late for that, she wanted to tell Ro. But she couldn't. They weren't supposed to have secrets from each other.
But maybe -
"Ro," Manna began. But as she spoke, a beat up white Sudan pulled up to the end of her driveway. The passenger window rolled down.
I WANT TO RIDE MY
"Hey ladies!" Ben called out. "Enjoying the sun?"
Ro grinned and bounded over to the car. Manna followed reluctantly.
"What are you doing here?" Ro asked excitedly.
"Stopped by your house, but you weren't there. Wanna get some ice cream?" The question was directed to Ro, but at the last second Ben's electric blue eyes slid over to appraise Manna. Perhaps for a bit too long. Manna looked down at the curb.
"Sure!" Ro exclaimed. She turned to Manna. "You wanna come?"
"Nah, I'm good." Manna glanced back up at Ro and tried to smile. She could feel Ben's eyes still on her.
Ro pouted. "You sure?"
"Yes." Manna made her smile more convincing. "You kids go. Get some helado."
Ro's long arms reached out and brought Manna into a close embrace. Despite the heat, Manna held her tightly, heart racing against her will.
"I'll be back later," Ro promised as she pulled away. "We're still going to the bonfire tonight, right?"
"Of course," Manna replied.
Ro opened the door and climbed into Ben's car. "Got any clothes?" Ben asked, eyeing his girlfriend's bikini.
"Good," he replied with a rakish grin. "See you later, Manna." Their eyes met for another moment before the car window slid up and the car sped off.
Manna walked back over to her blanket and lay down slowly, suddenly feeling extremely tired. It was too much. She put her arm over her eyes and tried not to think.
But think, she did. About summer, fall, and spring. About bonfires, parties, and alcohol. About best friends and lvoers. About blurred vision and blurred lines.
About Ro. "I'll be back later."
Flames flickering against a black sky. Cold sand. Ben's eyes, still so bright despite the darkness. Thick lips mumbling. Another mouth joined to hers. Wrists pinned down, and pain, pain, pain.
And one word: no.
Manna lay there and thought about how, if it hadn't been the wrong person, if it had been another pair of lips, if it had been black eyes instead of blue ones staring down at her that night, the word she'd said wouldn't have been no. It would've been yes.