NADINE and I are at my house, playing with Cookie, my hamster. We put him in his plastic ball and let him run around the downstairs of my house.
I got Cookie more than three years ago, in grade three, after my orthodontist appointment one day. This happened after spending most of the summer trying to convince Mom it was a good idea.
I remember how I begged: “Pleeeease, Mom. I’ve never had a pet before.”
“Why do you want a rat? They are so dirty. I don’t understand,” she said.
Me: “It’s not a rat. It’s a hamster. They’re small and cute and they don’t have those long tails.”
She actually looked slightly thoughtful. She said hesitantly, “Just how long are their tails?”
“No longer than a centimeter, I swear.”
“And when will it die?”
“In two years, I promise.”
It’s now past the two-year death wish and my hamster is still going strong. He’s almost four years old. I’m not kidding. He’s even got gray hair and survived a stroke. But I think the reason my hamster has lived so long is because when I first got him, my mom was too freaked out to let him in the house so she banned the cage to the garage. Cookie spent the first year inhaling the fumes of Mom’s stinky Chinese medicine that she cooks on a little camping stove in the middle of the garage.
In the garage at night:
The pot simmers on low. My hamster runs on his wheel. Then he gets off and goes into the middle of the cage. He stands up on his hind legs, sniffing the air and breathing in the medicine.
Slowly, my hamster becomes . . . Super Hamster.
Cookie is so smart. And getting more so with age. We put him in his plastic ball and he runs all around the house in it. But when we want him to appear, all I have to say is, “Cookie, come here!” And he does, a small plastic ball spinning toward us, his little teddy bear face inside.
On the weekends during the school year, while I do my homework, I put Cookie in my left koala slipper to sleep. I even lay down one of Mom’s maxi pads just in case he pees. But he never does. He is the best hamster ever.
Anyway, since it’s Friday night, it’s sleepover night, at Nadine’s house. But we are still at my house.
Nadine: “Can we eat here, then go to my house? My mom’s making meatloaf.” (For the record, I actually like her meatloaf. But I think you always like someone else’s mom’s food.)
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s eat here.”
Mom, from downstairs: “I’ll make you bibimbap!”
In a bowl: Steamed white rice. Different kinds of namul on top: spinach, thinly sliced carrots, radish, spicy bean sprouts, mountain fernbrake, beef, and fried egg. I mush it all up: a rainbow in my bowl.
After dinner, we help Mom put everything away, and I watch Nadine stand at the sink to do the dishes with my mom. “You’re so lucky,” she once said. “I wish your mom was my mom.” Which is funny, because I wish hers was mine. It’s more fun at her house. Mrs. Ando is so relaxed, and we do whatever we want without her getting mad at us. Plus she’s always making cookies. My mom is stricter, like Nadine’s father. Nadine and I often think that my mom and her dad should be married and that my dad and her mom should be married instead. But it’s good to have balance, I guess. A bit of both.
Cookie will be sleeping over too. I grab the cage and we start walking across the street. It’s dark outside and the streetlights cast a big spotlight on us and Cookie’s cage, like we’re movie stars. Or prisoners.
In Nadine’s room:
We stay up late, lying on her bedroom floor in our sleeping bags, and talk about what we’re going to do the last few weeks of summer. Like go to Crescent Beach when the tide is out, play hide-and-seek in the forest, and research new looks in magazines for grade seven. I’m secretly excited for summer to be over. I can tell Nadine is too. We can’t wait to be the oldest in the school and rule the school. Hey. That rhymes.
Moonlight streams through the window, between the blinds, and onto our faces.
The shine of Nadine’s retainer and my headgear match the shine of the wire on Cookie’s cage. As Nadine sleeps beside me, a strand of hair is in her face, and I lightly brush it with my fingers and tuck it behind her ear.
In the mall, I buy a gold pendant in the shape of a heart that says Best Friends. You’re supposed to break it in half and give half to your best friend and keep the other for yourself. I’m going to wait for the right moment to give Nadine half of the heart.
I’m waiting for her to finish her ballet class.
I buy two chocolate bars from the vending machine, one for me and one for Nadine. But I eat mine right away, I can’t wait.
Through the big glass window: A wooden floor that stretches under pink satin slippers, and when you look up, there is Nadine, in her pink bodysuit with her black hair coiled on top of her head, and her leg stretched out further than the rest.
After, when she’s walking out with her pink bag over her shoulder, I give her her chocolate bar, already partially unwrapped for her convenience. She takes a huge bite and puts her arm around me and we walk down the hall and out the door together.
I love Nadine Ando. I love the way she spreads peanut butter perfectly on bread for me after school without making the bread tear underneath, and how she always smells like vanilla lip gloss because she applies it, like, every ten minutes, and how she walks with her feet slightly pointed outward kinda like a duck because she’s permanently stuck in first position.
It’s only ever been Nadine and me, her family and mine. And though we live in separate houses and have separate names, it’s never really felt like we have separate lives. It’s the way my shoes line up at their front door, the way my favorite snack sits on their kitchen table after school, the way I can still smell her house on my clothes when I come home. Sometimes, because we are together so much, it feels like we are one person. And I don’t think this will ever change.