Jemima’s high school friend Amanda was having an engagement party for herself in their home town of Birchwood. Jemima, who didn’t really want to go for several reasons, starting with the three-hour bus ride and ending with the guest list, which was comprised of her entire high school graduating class, was at least pleased that she would not be going alone for she had asked Noel to accompany her. They were going to stay the night at her parents’ house. Her mother had informed her that they’d already set up the air mattress in the basement for him because there was not a chance in hell they would ever let Jemima sleep in the same bed as a man under their roof. Maybe her future husband, but even then she was pretty sure her father would have a coronary.
Unbeknownst to her, however, Noel had quite recently kissed Sybil in a darkened and sticky bar. Sybil, who felt she should probably say something about it to Jemima at some point, had yet to do so under the empty hope that, if she ignored the problem for long enough, she could avoid saying or doing anything at all. It was proving more and more difficult with each passing day, however, as she helped Noel and his band work on recording their debut album. And Chris, who had initially been quite shocked as well, now found the whole debacle amusing and was largely unhelpful.
Jemima and Noel took the bus to Richmond, which was the closest city to Birchwood on a bus line. From there, her father picked them up in the turquoise minivan they’d owned since the early 90s. It was slowly falling apart one piece at a time and it made a horrible squawking noise at the back when it was running. It was a sound akin to turkeys being chased. To say it was embarrassing would be putting it mildly. Plus, she had decided to wear her Mennonite skirt on the journey because it was comfortable, but there were actual Mennonites in Birchwood and she began to blend in a little too much as they drew closer and closer to her hometown. Noel found it all terribly amusing, which was also more than a little embarrassing. Jemima wasn’t going to survive the weekend if things continued at this rate.
They changed for the engagement dinner at her parents’ house and then the whole family left together in the turquoise minivan. Amanda had invited Jemima’s parents because they had been a large part of her childhood, but also because she had invited the entire town. It was not a large place; everybody knew everybody. Noel stood out not only because he was wearing a silver, sequin suit jacket with fringed epaulettes, but because he was an unfamiliar face in a town full of very familiar faces. It didn’t seem to bother him, though. He found the whole town and the whole experience charming. He made her mother blush four separate times on the van ride to Amanda’s parents’ farmhouse.
The party was held in the backyard. It was rustic and beautiful. There were floating candles in punch bowls and strings of fairy lights hanging from the old maple trees as well as the lattice covering the deck Amanda’s father had built. Their family’s Irish wolfhound was running around with a gold and pink bow tied to her collar. She bounded over to Jemima the minute she and Noel had stepped into the backyard. She just about bowled her over.
“Oh God, Megan, you’re enormous,” Jemima said, pushing the dog back a bit so that she wouldn’t actually be able to jump on Jemima’s shoulders as she’d been attempting.
“Megan?” Noel repeated incredulously, grinning like it was the single greatest thing he’d ever heard.
“Yeah, it’s her name,” Jemima replied, feeling embarrassed yet again over something she couldn’t even control. She was beginning to think it was actually possible to die of embarrassment and that it was definitely going to happen to her. She suggested they go get drinks because she assumed that would be a good way to deal with the way she was feeling. It had worked when they’d gone on what turned out not be their first date to the drag show at the Thai restaurant. On the other hand, she probably didn’t want to be as drunk as she’d been that night, not around her parents and a town full of people who had watched her grow up. She’d already seen her pastor four times since arrival and they’d only been there five minutes.
At the bar, they ran into Erin, which seemed right; Jemima assumed Erin was preparing to set up camp for the night next to the least accurate bartender. To Jemima’s immense surprise, Erin had brought Oscar as her date. Jemima had been unaware that Oscar and Erin were dating. She wondered if Priscilla knew. She wondered if Priscilla cared. It seemed strange that she hadn’t known one of her long-time friends was dating the guy who spent a lot of time lying on her other friends’ living room floor.
“This is already horrible,” Erin said the moment she saw them. “Greg Bozniak called me Erica two minutes ago, as if he wasn’t in my class from kindergarten to grade twelve. He’s such an ass, I swear. He knows my name. He wrote ‘Catch you on the flipside, Small Tits Erin’ in my senior yearbook.”
“Charming,” Oscar grimaced.
“Doesn’t matter how big they are, so long as they don’t look like tube socks,” Noel grinned at her, complete with finger guns. Jemima wasn’t sure it was as reassuring as he meant it to be.
“It’s stupid because he didn’t even call the other Erin, Erin Timmons, Big Tits Erin,” Erin continued grumpily.
“First of all, he used to call me Big Tits Jemima and I was the only Jemima in the whole town,” Jemima pointed out in return. “And secondly, he called her Back-fat Erin so it’s possible you actually came out on top of that particular situation.”
“Jesus, what a crap bag,” Oscar interjected. Jemima really appreciated the sentiment.
For most of the evening, Jemima hung out with Noel, Erin, and Oscar, though they were joined by Ruby and her pro baller boyfriend for a bit and then Lauren and her son Alistair as well. Alistair picked his nose and babbled about cupcakes for a long time. He seemed to be distracted by Noel’s jacket, which was fair as so was most of the party and they were adults. Noel was unbothered, totally at ease with a kind of self-confidence that Jemima envied. Jemima and Erin spent a lot of the evening introducing both Oscar and Noel to their old classmates, most of whom seemed determined to call Erin by the wrong name.
“These people have literally known me since birth,” she grumbled bitterly after someone had called her Ellen in passing. “Why do they not know my name? It isn’t even that hard.”
They got to spend some time with Amanda herself after they had been there for about three hours. She fawned over Noel, apparently not having forgotten the stellar time he had shown them at a club when she’d come to Roehampton for a night out. She was significantly less impressed with Oscar, but he didn’t seem overly fond of her either so Jemima figured it was alright. She invited them to the after-party, explaining that this was the classy engagement garden party she and her mother had always dreamed of, but that there would be a rager thrown in her honour as well. In Jemima’s experience, a rager in Birchwood was just a shorter way of saying that they would be getting drunk off of really cheap beer in an open field somewhere, getting devoured by mosquitoes and black flies. And she was right.
“Greg Bozniak is throwing a bush party in the preserve afterward,” Amanda explained. Erin made a face.
“What are we, sixteen?” She asked after Amanda had walked off to talk to the rest of her guests. “We can drink in public now. What do I want to get drunk in a forest in the dead of the night for?”
Jemima didn’t really see the appeal either so instead of hitting up the after-party bush party, she and Noel returned to her family home with her parents in the minivan after the garden party wrapped up. Jemima’s mother showed Noel to the air mattress in the basement and Jemima once again felt certain she would drop dead of mortification at any minute. Noel didn’t seem particularly bothered, however. He thanked her parents for their hospitality and said good night. In the morning, Jemima’s dad dropped them off at the bus stop in Richmond. Then the pair of them rode the bus all the way back to Roehampton together. All Noel said about the air mattress was that it was surprisingly comfortable and that he liked that it had a cup holder attached. Jemima couldn’t figure out if he was only being polite or if he genuinely didn’t see anything strange about being asked to sleep on an air mattress in the basement by her parents, which made her wonder if she was in fact dating him as she had previously thought she was, leaving her back at square one.