My kid brother Junior and I meet Archie in our cousins’ pink-walled bedroom. Every Thanksgiving and Easter, we meet them again. Our cousins have a subscription. In the past, my cousins have told me and Junior jokes we do not understand. Now we have caught up, but our cousin-ly roles are fixed.
Downstairs, a regulation-size pool table awaits, covered in a piece of plywood and orange plastic tablecloths. Later, the women and we kids will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. The men will eat from TV trays in front of the game.
I am too old for Archie comics. I don’t care. I feel the comic strip characters have wisdom to impart about my failed attempts at friendship. Yellow-haired Betty is like no one I have ever known: wholesome in gingham and shorts. She smells of vanilla and clean sweat. Black-haired Veronica, on the other hand, is like the Mean Carries at school. Nobody is rich in Rochester, but strata exist and are never forgotten.
Veronica thinks love can be bought with money. The more you have, the better you are. She passes along her old clothes to Betty, who takes them politely but never wears them. Like the bags of clothes my mom insists on bringing here to our aunt’s house, on these visits.
Sweet Betty is baking, her unmanicured toes in pink houseshoes that bear no imprint of her feet. Meanwhile, Veronica’s across town between the sheets at Archie’s, insulting the meager thread count, Archie’s no-name track shoes, the cry he emits when he comes. Like Betty, Archie is wary about taking what he is given.
Atop the springy cloud, Jughead sits too close. It’s just another way he communicates. Since Jughead is almost always eating, he’s a man of few words. Also, he is a leaner. Archie has long accepted that his old friend means nothing by this. Jughead’s trademark porkpie hat has fallen a mile below them. His black hair is plastered to his head. Jughead is motivated by food, so Archie suspected his Groupon for cloud tasting would go over well with his old friend. He was right. The two finish their cloud samples, each lost in thought.
There is a television commercial for perfume. The claim is that the scent interacts with each and every woman, resulting in a completely unique scent. “Alls I’m saying is,” Archie says,” Betty and Veronica probably taste different. Down there. Hand to God, I aim to find out.”
“Betty?” Jugheads says at last. “Graham crackers. Tuna salad on toasted white.” The besotted redhead catches a whiff of his friend’s own musky scent. He shifts to hide his full body buzz.
“And Veronica?” Archie’s voice cracks on the second syllable.
Jughead performs a chef kiss, then distracted, starts to lick his fingers.
The server brings the second tasting, more cirrus than cumulous. Purple, with lightening inside. This sample tastes of darker things. Archie thinks about the smell of his parents’ bedroom on the weekends when his mother makes the bed carelessly or not at all. In his father’s nightstand drawer is a small tub of Vaseline with a finger trough in the center. Sometimes after lunch, his orange-headed dad will say, “Come up and visit me, Momma,” and his mother will duck her head and follow him up the stairs, leaving Archie to clear the table. Martin Denny music seeps from under their door.
“Veronica?” Archie repeats, louder this time.
“Black cherry and fertilizer,” Jughead answers, holding Archie’s gaze with mock intensity until Archie cracks up, wishing he could trace Jughead’s thin lips with his finger.
“Ants’ brains are in their bottoms!” Betty says after she and Archie are settled in the blue velvet theatre seats. It’s the poor people theatre: 99 cents for all shows before 3 pm. They are the only ones so far, but it’s early. There is so much to appreciate about Betty. Her bare arms, with their faint spray of freckles; nothing like Archie’s copper constellations. The way she leaves baked goods on his porch at night. She signals him by drumming her fingertips on his bedroom window before righting her bike and pumping home down the tree-lined street.
Archie agitates the popcorn tub in invitation and Betty shakes her head. She is dieting again. In any case, Betty is a cheap date, always suggesting this second run theatre in the dying Riverdale mall, which the chain stores have all fled.
“Did you say ants?” he says to be polite. She probably has it wrong.
The theatre is filling up fast. Mostly it is weary parents and their kids. Archie begins counting down backward by 100. When he reaches 49, the lights dim. Archie employs the same move he always does with the sweet blonde. Slides his palm into the opening of her checked blouse, gliding toward her pumping heart.
He does this because it is expected. In fact, Archie is hopelessly in love with his old friend Jughead. It is 1978. But like my brother Junior, Archie knows it is simply not safe to admit this.
An hour after our last high school final, Junior moves from Rochester to Manhattan. He takes only a duffel bag, which he carries on his lap on the train. He wears a fedora hat. He is sixteen years old.
In Rochester, Junior has been cornered and beaten up at least once. Another time, the Christian kids told me they wanted to talk to me about something very serious and then informed me they were concerned that my brother “might be attracted to males.” They didn’t want him to go to hell, they explained. I told them to move out of my fucking airspace.
Today Junior accepts their friend requests on social media, and has no hard feelings. I am not a big enough person to do this. I began marrying early and often. Moved 3,000 miles away. Changed my name, my address, my hair color — orange, yellow, black — over and over again.
Patricia Q. Bidar is a lifelong Californian with roots in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. Her stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, New Patuxent Review, The Pinch, Wigleaf, and Pithead Chapel. Apart from fiction, Patricia writes for progressive nonprofit organizations. She lives with her DJ husband in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit Patricia on Twitter (@patriciabidar) or at www.patriciaqbidar.com.
Photography by: Inbal Marilli