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by Blythe H. Warren
From the moment Jessie Durango wrapped her hands around a pair of drumsticks, she knew her destiny. When she’s not working in her brother’s auto shop she’s devoted to Nuclear Boots—and the band is about to break out of Chicago’s rock scene.
English professor Zoey Carmichael isn’t the mosh pit type, but she’s drawn to the music and message of Nuclear Boots, and smitten with the attentions of the lead vocalist, Neal. But it’s drummer Jessie who arouses feelings that take Zoey utterly by surprise.
Years of hard work might turn into the big time that Jessie and her best friend—Neal—have always dreamed of. But now Jessie’s dreams include something else entirely…
GCLS Goldie Awards
My Best Friend's Girl — Finalist, Lesbian Debut Fiction.
Lambda Literary Awards
My Best Friend's Girl, Finalist, Lesbian Romance
Her school day finally over, Jessie Durango trudged home, reluctant to go inside and start her schoolwork. Normally, she had to do her homework as soon as she got home, and once she finished her assignments and left them on the kitchen table for her mother to review, Jessie was supposed to start her chores. Every Monday through Friday homework then chores filled the time between school and dinner, and Jessie always followed the ritual. But today, the first nice day in a long string of lousy ones, the sun beckoned her to stay outside and play with her friends, though she knew that she wouldn’t. Facing her mother’s disappointment and anger was far worse than missing out on rare pleasant weather, so she dallied as much as possible, extending her enjoyment of the outdoors.
A block from home, though, she spotted her Papa Nestor’s truck parked in front of her house. As usual, her abuelo had filled the bed of his truck, but since he had put a tarp over the lumpy contents, she couldn’t tell what treasures he had found. Forgetting about the sun and the warm, gentle breeze playing with her hair, Jessie ran the rest of the way home.
She burst through the front door of her house, dropped her backpack on the floor and ran to the kitchen. Her grandfather sat at the table reading the newspaper. He had, as was his habit, turned on the radio, and the spacious and pristine kitchen was warmed by the sounds of jazz mingled with her Papa Nestor’s soft, harmonic humming. Nestor Durango inhabited a world filled with music, and even the most mundane aspects of his life took on a fantastic appeal thanks to the addition of his own soundtrack. Like him, Jessie eagerly explored the harmonic world around her. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Papa Nestor had impressed upon Jessie the importance of Latin musical influences, but they had also explored classical music, the blues, gospel, country and, with the help of her tia, some rock and roll. Though he preferred Coltrane and Count Basie to The Clash or The Cure, Papa Nestor indulged his youngest grandchild and musical ally to develop her burgeoning interest in his great passion.
“Papa!” Jessie squealed as she leapt into his lap and threw her arms around his neck, inhaling the faint aromas of pipe tobacco, leather and Old Spice, the smells of her abuelo. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to see you,” he said and groaned a little as he set her back on the floor. “I brought you something.”
“A present? Can I have it now?”
“Jessie!” her mother, home from her job as a high school Spanish teacher, called from the front door that Jessie had left wide open. “I’ve told you about leaving your things all over the floor. Come pick up your bag and start your homework.”
Jessie crossed her eyes and offered a comically pained expression, to her Papa’s amusement, but before her mother had to call her again, Jessie obeyed. “Sorry, Mom,” she offered as she reached for the bag, dreading the math worksheets it contained. “I just got so excited when I saw Papa that I forgot.”
“Your Papa is here?” Her mother’s bewildered expression sent Jessie’s thoughts back to Papa Nestor’s surprise visit to deliver a surprise present and save her, at least temporarily, from homework and chores.
“Buenos tardes, Silvia,” Nestor’s velvety voice sounded from the doorway. “I brought Jessie an early birthday present, but I don’t want to distract her from her studies.”
“Not a difficult task, Nestor, believe me.”
“Please Mom?” Jessie grabbed her mother’s arm. “I promise I’ll do all of my homework and my chores right after. Please can I have it now?” Her tenth birthday was still three weeks away, but as usual her abuelo had started the celebration early. Jessie knew she’d never be able to concentrate on her homework until she found out what Papa Nestor had gotten her.
Silvia Durango smiled at her youngest child and nodded. “I expect you to finish your homework before dinner, mija.”
“I promise,” Jessie swore, hand on heart.
Nestor took a long, slender, newspaper-wrapped packet from behind his back and handed it to his granddaughter. “The rest is in my truck,” he told her, smiling at the quizzical expression on her face as she held her first pair of drumsticks in her soft, small hands. He laughed gently as he caught Silvia’s wide-eyed reaction to his gift.
Together Jessie and her abuelo walked to Papa Nestor’s pickup truck. He pulled the tarp from the mysterious lump in the bed of the truck, and Jessie squealed again and climbed up to inspect her gift more closely. Before her sat a used but well-loved four-piece drum kit. She ran her hand over the finish—a pearly light blue, now her favorite color—and gently tapped the snare with the sticks her abuelo had given her. More than anything she wanted to sit down, start playing and not stop until she had mastered this instrument, but she saw her mother watching from the front door of the house and knew she would have to wait.
“You love music with your soul, like I do, Jessie. We’ve always shared that, and we always will, even when I’m not with you, mija. Remember that.”
“Gracias, Papa,” Jessie said and hugged her grandfather tightly as he lifted her from the truck. They held hands as they headed back inside for Jessie to keep her promise to her mother.
She forgot her Papa’s words as she worked on her assignments and tended to her household chores, but a month later, when her parents broke the news of her beloved grandfather’s death to her and her brother, she remembered what he said. After that, whenever she practiced, she felt close to him, and she felt that she could keep him alive just by making music.
* * *
The thick air in the hallway closed in on Zoey, its overpowering stench of beef and onions gagging her. Still, that wasn’t why she found it so hard to breathe. Looking past her best friend rather than at her, Zoey focused on the sweating window beyond Angela’s wildly wavy brown hair. Outside the rain blew almost horizontally in the brutal wind, but there in the hall outside the Tuckers’ apartment the still air grew even more stifling. Angela’s accusation hung between them, oppressive in its weight.
“You don’t think he’s good enough for you.” She folded her arms across her still flat chest and set her jaw, daring Zoey to deny the truth of this statement. In four years of friendship Zoey had seen that look only a few times, but it was enough to know things never went well for the person on the receiving end.
“No, Ange, that’s not it.”
She’d been best friends with Angela since the fifth grade when the Tuckers had moved into the apartment below Zoey’s family. Zoey’d spent so much time in their home that they’d become a second family to her, with Angie’s older brother, Ian, filling that void in her own life. Even now that he was a senior and she was a lowly freshman, he always talked to her at school. He’d even helped her make it onto the cross-country team, running with her and offering friendly advice after his own varsity training finished for the day. A standout athlete, he knew what would help her and didn’t hesitate to suggest improvements. He was a sweet, wonderful guy, and she loved him. Just not that way.
She searched for the words to explain, but Angela’s stern expression short-circuited Zoey’s brain. “Ian’s a great guy,” she offered apologetically.
“Just not great enough for perfect Zoey Carmichael,” Angela sneered.
“That’s not why I said no.”
Again focusing on the harsh weather, Zoey recalled with anguish Jake Morris, the other cross-country star and the reason she’d started running to begin with. Jake Morris, the boy she loved with all her heart, Jake Morris, the junior that every girl, including seniors, wanted to be with and whom she had been with for two beautiful months. She remembered his brutality, and still she loved him. She saw herself confessing her feelings and heard him agreeing, “Me too,” in that soft, low voice before she gave herself to him entirely. He’d been her first, and a week later he’d dumped her for Julie Mott, a faster runner on the junior varsity team.
She’d skipped practice that day—not caring what fresh torment Coach would have for her—and had run all the way home, straight to Angela’s bedroom where she poured out her soul and sorrow to the only sympathetic ear she needed. She’d cried for hours, wailing so fervently that Ian, finally home from practice, took one look at Zoey and, rather than giving her a hard time, just smiled sympathetically and walked away.
She thought Angela should remember the hurt, would understand why, even after all these weeks, she just couldn’t go out with Ian. Disappointed, hurting, she voiced her concerns. “After the thing with Jake, I don’t want to date anybody. I don’t want to hurt like that again.” She risked a glance at her friend and saw that Angela’s expression had softened. She did understand. Zoey grabbed her best friend’s hands and, squeezing them, said, “Besides Ian’s like a brother to me. It would be weird, I think, and then if things didn’t work out, I might lose your friendship. I couldn’t bear to lose you, Ange. You mean more to me than having a boyfriend.”
Angela’s face hardened again, and she pulled her hands from Zoey’s hastily. “Ian is my brother, and that’s way more important than any friendship.” Angela turned toward her apartment door, her hand reaching for the knob.
“Wait.” Zoey grabbed Angela’s arm, keeping her in the hall. “Angela please.” She choked on her tears. “Please, Ange, I’m sorry. What can I do?”
Turning slightly to face her pathetic friend, Angela told her, “You can’t do anything, Zoey. You really hurt Ian, and he doesn’t want to see you around here anymore.” Wheeling back to the entryway, Angela said to the door, “Neither do I.”
Just like that she walked away from their four-year friendship. Zoey thought she’d heard uncertainty in Angela’s last comment, and hoping that wasn’t just wishful thinking, she tried repeatedly to make amends. Angela rebuffed her at every turn. By the time Angela’s family moved to Park Ridge at the end of the year, any ties they’d had to each other were completely severed. Outside of her family, Zoey felt woefully alone.
Seventeen years after her grandfather’s death, Jessie felt certain he would be proud of her and the passion for all things musical that he had cultivated in her. Over the years, his final gift to her—music—had flourished so that now, Jessie made her love of it an integral part of her existence, earning a respectable following but a small income as the drummer for Nuclear Boots. As would be expected of the determined granddaughter of a never-resting immigrant, she worked tirelessly at her craft, practicing every day whether her bandmates were up for it or not. However, since they all shared an intense dedication to the band, as well as a place in Pilsen, she usually found them as ready to rehearse as she.
The neighborhood’s status as a hub of Hispanics and artists on Chicago’s not quite fashionable Near West Side meant Jessie and her bandmates could easily afford to rent out a three-story house. The bottom two floors belonged, for the most part, to the guys, but as the first floor held their living room and rehearsal space—which the boys had thoughtfully decorated with taxidermic artifacts and beer paraphernalia and in which the musty scent of stale beer and old sweat socks always lingered—Jessie found herself spending a fair amount of time there. The second floor, where the guys each had a bedroom, was a disaster area Jessie passed through as quickly as possible to get to the third floor, a mother-in-law’s apartment that she claimed for herself. For two months, Sean (forgetting or ignoring the fact that Jessie paid more rent) had griped at every opportunity that Jessie was acting like the queen of the band, living in her “palatial suite” while the rest of them shared cramped quarters below her. His complaining stopped when Neal threatened to buy him a pacifier.
Jessie ignored Sean’s surliness unless it affected the music. She wanted no part of his drama (even though he tried to hang it on her), and the benefits of their living arrangement far outweighed Sean’s attitude. Sharing a house—not a grungy apartment—with her band made almost every aspect of their collaboration easier. On top of that, having her own home within a home provided Jessie with a private living space that her house and bandmates only entered with her permission. She suspected that, at least in Sean’s case, this was more out of fear of her overprotective ex-Marine brother (who had made his menacing presence felt the day they all moved in together) than respect for her privacy, but as long as none of them touched her bathroom or kitchen, she didn’t care.
Despite, or perhaps due to, her role as the only female in the band, Jessie refused to play the girl card and be thought of as weaker or less valuable than the guys. The band was just as much her baby as theirs, and because of this, whenever they had a show, she always made sure she was involved in every aspect of preparations, from packing up gear and loading it into her truck to setting up at the venue. The harder she worked on their shared dream, the more invaluable she felt, so she was not angered when, almost finished arranging their equipment in the truck, she spotted Neal Murphy, Nuclear Boots’s singer and lyricist, strolling up the block with his love interest of the moment. Though he’d been seeing Zoey Carmichael for over four months, this was the first time he’d brought her around the band. He’d confided in Jessie, with an endearing shyness she was surprised to see in anyone as sure of himself as Neal, that though he’d initially seen Zoey, like all the others, as a body, he’d grown to respect and admire her.
“She’s smart, Jess, so smart.” He’d beamed as if he was somehow responsible for his girlfriend’s intelligence. “She’s an English professor. She’s got a freakin’ Ph.D.” Quite a turnaround from his usual appreciation for women. Most of his conquests couldn’t string three sentences together.
“If she’s so special, why haven’t I met her?”
“You will. Soon I hope. I don’t want to rush things.”
“Excuse me? You’re like the cheetah of the dating world. You go through women like Paul goes through guitar strings. Since when do you do anything but rush things?”
“Since Zoey,” he’d replied so sweetly she didn’t know whether to hug him or vomit on his perfectly scuffed shoes. “There’s something, I don’t know, different this time. I can’t figure it out, but—” He stopped midsentence, his eyes getting a dreamy, faraway look. He stirred himself from his reverie and spoke, almost shyly, “You’ll meet her soon. I promise.” Still it had been nearly a month since their conversation, and this was the first she’d seen of Zoey.
Beyond curious, Jessie stopped what she was doing and assessed the pair that approached her through the waning sunlight of the early spring afternoon. He strode with the same confidence he exuded onstage, completely self-assured and at ease in his lanky, six-foot frame. His comfortably worn, dirty-looking jeans, old green T-shirt, gas station attendant’s jacket and biker boots were his compromise between personal style and the rock and roll uniform, and though he kept his shaggy brown hair looking greasy and unclean in the grungy style currently favored by local musicians, Jessie knew it was an act. Neal meticulously groomed himself to look like a slob.
At his side, Zoey—busty and pretty like all the rest—was startlingly tall. No mere doll for Neal’s amusement, Zoey had to be five foot ten at least. Jessie eyed her height with the halfhearted disdain she usually reserved for tall girls. (At five foot three, Jessie was the tallest woman in her family but otherwise unenviably short in most groupings.) She wore faded jeans that seemed to fit her slender form perfectly, accentuating strong thighs and a slight curve of hip. Jessie noticed with a mixture of relief at her good sense and further irritation at her height that this girl chose not to mix high heels with jeans, a fashion error that Jessie found unforgivable. Instead, battered Chuck Taylors emerged from beneath the frayed hem of Zoey’s pants. Further separating her from all the other cute blondes in their too clingy, immobilizing blouses, this one had donned a soft, pale blue V-neck sweater, highlighting her full breasts and trim waist. Unlike her many predecessors, Zoey walked next to Neal without draping herself all over him. In fact, aside from holding his hand, she showed no outward signs of infatuation. Watching their approach, an uneasiness settled in Jessie’s stomach.
“How long do you think this one will last?” Sean Black, tall, wiry and very tattooed, lifted his bass into the truck and gestured toward Neal and Zoey with the barest motion of his shaved head.
“She’s hot,” Paul Davidson answered as he scrutinized the pair walking toward them. Paul, closer to Jessie’s height than Neal and Sean, bore a slight resemblance to Kurt Cobain, a similarity which thankfully ended with their shared love of music, Paul’s one true addiction. “Maybe too hot for him. I give it another month before she dumps him.”