That night, Emily pulled her silver Mini into David’s driveway just as Michael was going through the front gate. She parked quickly behind Andre’s (dad’s) Volvo and hopped out. Michael saw her coming, and he slowed down to wait for her. As she got out of her car, Michael clenched his eyes shut, made a fist, and then relaxed slowly, arching a single eyebrow as she walked across the manicured lawn towards him.
“Did you walk over here?” she asked him, adjusting her skirt. She was carrying that vintage Polaroid camera she’d gotten a few months before and had with her ever since.
“It’s a nice evening.” In fact, this was patently untrue. It was June in New Orleans, and the humidity was a physical force. Small lines of sweat ran down his hairline, and his shirt was stuck to his back underneath his light cotton suit. Michael had heard that in other parts of the country there was a phenomenon known as spring fever, caused by excitement over the end of winter. In Louisiana, there was a different term for this: summer dread.
“Wow. You walked all the way over here? That’s, like, twenty…no, thirty blocks.”
“I needed the exercise,” Michael said vaguely. Again, this was also untrue. Not only was Michael in perfectly fine shape, he hadn’t walked over to David’s to begin with. He’d walked three blocks, gotten on the St. Charles streetcar, then hopped off at Washington Avenue and walked another two blocks to David’s house. As Emily looked at the other cars in the driveway, Michael wondered—not for the first time—why he’d lied so easily about it when there was no reason at all to do so.
“Andre’s here. Josephine lives down the street, so she’s probably here. There’s Snoopy’s Head”—Litta’Bit’s gigantic SUV—“so Litta'Bit’s here and probably Robert. Who are we missing?”
“Nobody,” Michael said.
“There’s only three cars here, this can’t be all of us…” Emily did the math in her head. There were nine of them. No, seven. She and Michael were two, Robert and Litta’Bit four, Andre and Josephine were six, David seven.
“I wonder if they took their car,” Michael said quietly, as much to himself as to Emily. He meant the red MG, the two-seat convertible the twins shared. Emily knew that they probably hadn’t, but she didn’t say anything.
Together, they walked through the front door of the Sebastians’ house. (Well, okay, let’s face it: it’s a mansion.) They spent so much of their time over there, it never occurred to either of them to knock. In one of the hallways, there were framed black ‘n’ white pictures of Lillian and David modeling jewelry from Mrs. Sebastian’s boutique in the French Quarter. Emily noticed that Michael didn’t even look over at the pictures. Maybe he forgot they were there.
The two of them stopped for a second in the kitchen to say ‘hi’ to David’s dad, a popular personal-injury lawyer whose commercials run non-stop on late night TV, between the courtroom shows and the dating shows. Mr. Sebastian was smoking—a sure sign that Mrs. Sebastian wasn’t home—and making what he claimed was pesto in the food processor. “Hey, you two crazy kids. David says your friends left town today. I don’t blame them, me. A world of shit…a world of crap is about to fall on their dad’s head.”
“Do you think they’ll be back?” Michael asked.
“What? Oh, sure. Look, by the time school rolls around again there’ll have been at least five more local politicians arrested for corruption and nobody will care one way or the other about Lucas.” Mr. Sebastian looked around the counter, apparently trying to find something.
Emily picked up the olive oil and handed it to him. “So you think he might get off?”
“Thank you. What? No. Christ, the stuff they’ve got him on…I mean, that’s not my professional opinion or anything, I’m just a humble ambulance chaser, but judging from what I read in the paper and what my friends are saying, I’d say he’s pretty well fuc-screwed. Now, if he’d rear-ended a guy, I could tell you with certainty that he would walk, especially if he called The Law Offices Of Yours Truly. But drugs? Young guys? Hey, nice knowin’ you, pal.”
“But you don’t think he actually did all those things, do you?”
Mr. Sebastian turned back to his pesto, shaking his head. “You’re asking the wrong question.”
Emily and Michael found the rest of The Gang in the large sunroom in the back. When not scattered by the pool, this room was where The Gang usually hung out at David’s. His parents had ceded it to him and his friends, and it was the closest thing they had to a secret clubhouse. In fact, their frequent appearances at the Sebastian house had given them their name: David’s dad would often say “the gang’s all here” when they gathered in the sunroom, and eventually “the gang” became The Gang.
Robert, Litta’Bit, Andre, and Josephine were playing a dispirited game of Bridge. A gaunt-looking David, his hands shaking, sat looking out at the courtyard. The card game was forgotten mid-hand as soon as Emily and Michael entered, as none of the players had even been paying much attention to the game to begin with.
Emily and Litta’Bit hugged each other and Michael went to the bar to fix himself a gin and tonic. The Sebastians were relaxed about drinking at their house, one big reason The Gang tended to congregate there. David’s dad joked that he let them drink at his house to drum up business: they might get a DWI and hire him.
Emily turned to Josephine, whose eyes briefly flashed with the helpless terror that she, too, was about to be hugged. But Emily, of course, would never dream of actually touching Josephine. “How are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” she mumbled. “I jogged by their house today and it looked abandoned. It was so weird.”
Nobody said anything. Josephine was usually a bit more monosyllabic than this. She looked up and saw all of them watching her. Her face collapsed into a deep shade of red. “This just really sucks,” she finally said.
“It does,” Emily said. “David, how are you?”
David looked up and stared right through her with bloodshot eyes, then slowly turned away and stared out over the swimming pool and into infinity. The rest of The Gang exchanged looks with each other. David had been in love with Alexander for almost three years now and they were all used to his occasionally overdramatic ways, particularly where boys were concerned. Robert even dared to roll his eyes, for which he received a firm whack in the chest from his girlfriend Litta’Bit.
“Has anyone even talked to the twins?” Andre asked.
“I saw Lillian last night,” Michael said. “She gave me a letter.”
“Really? What did it say?”
“It said she wanted to break up with him because she was madly in love with you, Andre.” Emily said. “I talked to Alexander last night, too, but just for a few minutes. I was supposed to come over and say goodbye to them this morning, but they left before I got there.”
Robert said that he’d spoken to Alexander a week before, but he’d been nervous to bring up the arrest, so they just ended up talking about what shoes Alexander thought would take Robert’s wardrobe “to the next level.”
“Well,” Emily said, “you didn’t need to worry about hurting his feelings. He finds the whole thing hilarious.”
Michael sat his drink down. “Yeah…Lillian, too, in her own way.”
“So…uh.” Robert ran a hand over his barely-there scalp stubble. “Does anyone believe that Mr. Budd is guilty?”
“Nice!” Litta’Bit yelped. “Some friend you are.”
“No, I just mean…I don’t know. I’m incapable of thinking clearly about it. I’ve known the Budds longer than everyone in this room, and Mr. Budd’s been a part of my life since I could remember…he’s like my uncle. Trying to decide if he’s a gay junkie is like trying to decide if your mother is into hardcore S&M.”
“Thank you so much for that.”
“What I’m trying to say is, finding out that he’s just another guy with desires is almost more shocking than finding out what his specific desires are. So I wanna know…is this as hard for you guys to believe as it is for me?”
“I don’t know.” Andre had known the Budds almost as long as Robert had. “It’s weird, I’ve never really gotten a good grasp on who he is, you know? I’ll see him on the news doing something spectacular in court or at a city council meeting and I can never really reconcile that with the guy who comes home with his tie undone and disappears upstairs with Barron’s.”
Emily spoke up. “Same with me. He was never more than someone who filled in the blank of Father Of The Twins. He was always cordial to me, and interested in whatever I told him about, but that was it. I really never gave him any thought at all, which is sad to say. Well, okay, I’d stare at him and Mrs. Budd sometimes at dinner and wonder where in the world their kids had come from, but if we start talking about that, we’ll be here all night.”
David had turned around when everyone had started talking about Lucas Budd. “I don’t know about the drugs,” he whispered, “but he’s not gay.”
“How do you know?”
“Uh…I know, okay?” David managed a weak laugh. “I don’t have much, but I have a killer gaydar.”
Finally Emily stood up and faced all of them. “Well, look…here’s what we know. Alexander and Lillian are gone for at least a month, probably the whole summer. But, hey, they weren’t around last summer, either. None of us were, but nothing changed when we all got back into town.”
The previous summer, The Gang had been temporarily broken up: The Darling Budds went to see their Grampa and Gramma Monroe in Lafayette, then headed northeastward with their mother; Robert and his sister went off to his family’s country house for the summer; Andre went to live with his Aunt Marissa in Phoenix; David visited his uncle in Chicago; Litta’Bit and her brother were given summer jobs in one of their mother’s many storefronts; Emily and her family went on a months-long trip to Europe; and poor Josephine was forced to visit her sister in Los Angeles.
Nobody heard from Michael. When he finally reappeared a week before the start of school, it turned out that he’d been sent back to Macedonia by his strict father, who wanted him to get a taste of his homeland. Michael didn’t want to talk about it very much.
“How do we know they’re coming back at all?” Andre asked, and was immediately shouted down.
“They’re coming back,” Emily said firmly.
“How do you know that? Their dad is going to prison, their last name is a punchline…would you come back? You guys can yell at me all you want, but nobody in here knows anything.”
“I know, okay?” Michael said, suddenly. “I saw Lillian last night, remember? She told me in her letter that they were definitely coming back. Their mom wants them to finish high school at Beaumonde. They might not live in the same house anymore, but they’re coming back.”
“Why didn’t you just say that before?” Robert folded his hands in his lap. “You could have saved us some time.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll believe it on the first day of school,” Andre muttered.
“Look, guys…” Michael walked up and stood beside Emily. “Just because The Darling Budds aren’t around doesn’t mean we can’t be a Gang anymore.”
Everyone on the patio, including David and even Josephine, chuckled darkly to themselves. Andre and Robert openly sneered at each other.
“What?” Michael asked. “What did I say?”
Emily put a hand on his arm. “It’s just…well, there was another period in our lives when the twins weren’t really around for a while. And we had a big meeting to talk about it and I stood in front of everyone and said pretty much what you just said. That just because the twins weren’t around, we could still hang out.”
“When was that? I don’t remember that.”
Emily smiled a little, but just a little. “It was in tenth grade, when you first started at Beaumonde.”
“It was because you started at Beaumonde,” Andre said. “You started school and the twins freaked out and we didn’t see them for, like, two months.”
“Yes, Michael, really. We’re not playing a prank on you. Jesus.” Andre rolled his eyes at Robert. “And then they made you a member of The Gang all of a sudden without asking any of us and the next thing you know they’re back to normal.”
“That’s not entirely fair…” Emily started, but Robert cut her off.
“I agree with Andre. Look at the two of you, standing up there like you’re about to take over for the twins. Is that was you think? Boy, this must be the most exciting thing to ever happen you two.”
“Honey, shut the fuck up,” Litta’Bit said.
“Let him talk,” Emily whispered.
And talk Robert did. “You know, nobody asked either of you to join the Gang. You were forced on us by the twins. I mean, Emily, you’re cool and all, and Michael, you have your moments, but everyone else became a member of The Gang because we liked each other and were friends. But you two were just…introduced to us as our new best friends. And there was no discussion, no anything. You were just squirted in by the Budds and we had to like it. And now they’re gone and the two of you are standing up there—and you two are the newest members, by the way—holding a meeting about the future of the Gang like you’re our leaders.”
At this point, a few small things happened at once. Michael clenched and unclenched his hands several times, then took a small step backwards. Emily smiled sadly at Robert and shook her head. David buried his face in his hands. Andre nodded his head fiercely at Robert and actually said “Hear, hear,” which caused Josephine to glare even harder at the floor.
(Litta’Bit didn’t do anything. She just watched her boyfriend’s face as though from a great distance.)
“Well, I’m sorry you didn’t want me in The Gang,” Emily finally said. “But we’re not trying to take over, that’s ridiculous. This isn’t a coup. This isn’t Parliament. There’s no reason to- Look, they’re coming back in, like, three months.”
David looked up at Emily. His face was wet and his nose was running in a way that would have grossed Alexander out forever. The Gang was used to his histrionics—particularly over guys he was “in love” with—but they’d never actually seen him cry. It was enough to shut everyone up for a few seconds which, frankly, was all he really wanted.
“You guys, don’t fight. We have to stick together…this is, this is a big deal, you know? This could change everything. We can’t fight and…” He said more, but that was all that they could hear. Litta’Bit moved over beside him and he pushed his face against her shoulder. “You don’t understand,” only she heard him whimper. “None of you understand what it’s like.”
Emily sat down beside him and put her arms around both of them. Everyone else looked around uncomfortably. Robert, his rare outburst over, silently observed the scene with an impassive face. Andre adjusted his black shirt a bit so that it covered his belly. And Josephine suddenly became very very involved in cleaning up after everyone.
A few minutes later, Litta’Bit, Emily, and David were drying their eyes and the meeting was pretty much over. Nothing had really been resolved, though everyone made some vague plans to get together again in a few days and begin the summer right. Possibly with a casual dinner party.
Finally, David cleared his throat a little and slipped out the door, and everyone else followed him gratefully. Michael was the last to leave. He couldn’t believe the prom had only been seventeen days ago. He finished his drink, set the glass down, and turned out the light in the sunroom.