Three years after she first left California, Nadia still hasn’t returned. Finally, though, she’s summoned back by a phone call from Aubrey, who reveals she’s getting married to Luke. When Nadia hangs up, Shadi doesn’t understand why she’s so upset and asks why she isn’t happy about the news. “Because her fiancé’s a dick,” she says. Bennett notes that “a different man, a more perceptive one, might have asked how Nadia knew. But Shadi just pushed off the couch and went to boil noodles for dinner.” After all, Nadia hasn’t even told Shadi about her abortion, worried that he might not understand, despite his progressive views. “Maybe abortion seemed different when it was just an interesting topic to write a paper about or debate over drinks,” Bennett writes, “when you never imagined it might affect you.”
Nadia’s fear of how Shadi would react to her abortion aligns with Bennett’s notion that people are often quick to judge one another based on a single trait or action. Abortion is a particularly sensitive subject that invites all kinds of judgment, so Nadia is especially careful about telling anybody her secret. In fact, nobody knows she was ever even pregnant, except for Luke and the nurses who served her. This, it seems, is how Nadia would like to keep things, for she’s afraid that even somebody like Shadi—a liberal, open-minded man—will view her differently after hearing about her past.
As the wedding approaches, Nadia prepares to return home for the first time since she left for college. Meanwhile, Aubrey plans the bridal shower with Mrs. Sheppard, who has high expectations and wants to make the party perfect. Aubrey, however, is preoccupied with something else: whether or not to invite her mother. When Aubrey tells Monique that she’s considering this, her sister says, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Later, though, Nadia tells Aubrey on the phone that she should do whatever she wants—it’s Aubrey’s wedding, and she has the right to invite her mother if that’s what she wants. “Life is short and if you want to see your mom again, you should,” she says. After a silent moment, Aubrey says, “I’m sorry,” suddenly realizing “how insensitive it [is] to ask Nadia whether she should invite her mother.”
Unlike Nadia, Aubrey has the ability to rekindle her relationship with her mother. Aubrey is open to the idea of including her mother in her life again, accepting that doing so might unearth painful memories and emotions. When she suddenly apologizes to Nadia for being “insensitive,” Aubrey acts like Nadia’s old friends in high school who used to stop laughing as soon as she sat with them because they worried their happiness would be “offensive” to her. In this way, Aubrey inadvertently puts Nadia into the category of a sad and delicate girl—a label Nadia has resented since the very first days after her mother’s death.
The week before Aubrey’s wedding, Nadia comes home to discover that her father has taken down all the pictures of her mother. That night, she calls Shadi, who’s planning to fly to California just before the wedding to be her date. Although she has never cried in front of him, she breaks down on the phone, asking him, “How could he do that? She’s my mother.” When Shadi suggests that perhaps it hurts Robert to look at pictures of his dead wife, Nadia says, “It’s like she was never here. Like he never loved her.” In response, Shadi says, “I think he still loves her. That’s why it hurts so much.”
Although Nadia probably doesn’t want to hear this kind of reasoning, Shadi tries to get her to see that her father has internalized his own grief, and that she isn’t the only one still struggling with Elise’s death. In suggesting that Robert took down his wife’s pictures because he loved her so much that it “hurt” to look at them, Shadi urges Nadia to consider that her father acted out of gried and love rather than callousness. Shadi’s interpretation suggests that Robert hides the photographs of his wife because they dredge up too much pain, which he would rather bury deep inside himself.
Aubrey is overjoyed to see Nadia at the bridal shower, which takes place in the Sheppards’ backyard. Looping her arm around her friend, Aubrey walks through the party with Nadia as guests say, “Well, look who finally decided to come back home” with a certain degree of scorn in their voices. “In their eyes,” Bennett writes, “[Nadia] was a prodigal daughter, worse than that even, because she hadn’t returned home penniless and humbled. A prodigal daughter, you could pity. But she’d abandoned her home and returned better off, with stories of her fascinating college courses, her impressive internships, her cosmopolitan boyfriend, and her world travels.”
Bennett has already established that the Upper Room community expects women to fulfill their supposed duties as mothers and caretakers. In this scene, though, Bennett suggests that the congregation also expects women to take care of men in general, a sentiment expressed by their disapproval of the fact that Nadia has left her father behind in order to pursue her own life as an independent college student. Their belief that she has “abandoned her home” implies that they think she should be putting her own life on hold to focus on caring for her father.
Overwhelmed by the party, Nadia escapes to the bathroom to text Shadi. On her way back, she wanders down the hall into what used to be Luke’s room, venturing in and remembering what it was like to sneak into his bed when they dated. “I don’t live here anymore,” Luke says, surprising her from behind. “Got a place by the river,” he adds. “I don’t care,” she states. “I have a boyfriend.” Luke tells her he already knows, saying, “The African guy,” and Nadia informs him that Shadi is actually American and that his parents are from Sudan. In response, Luke just shrugs. “She hated how casual he seemed,” Bennett writes, “how freely he commented on her life when they hadn’t spoken in years. Anything he knew, he’d learned from Aubrey, and she felt betrayed, imagining the two of them in bed together, chatting about her.”
When Luke “freely comment[s]” on Nadia’s life, he reveals that he has been keeping tabs on her. Although this might alert Nadia to the fact that he still cares about her, she can only focus on the notion that Aubrey has told him about her life, which leaves Nadia feeling “betrayed” by her best friend. To make things worse, Luke is “casual” about their interaction, acting as if it’s no big deal that he knows intimidate details about her current romantic situation.
“I used to steal shit from the church,” Luke announces. “When I was little.” Nadia doesn’t believe him, so to prove it, he reaches under the bed and extracts a small prayer book, which he stole from inside Mother Betty’s piano bench when he was in sixth grade. “That’s my mother’s,” Nadia says, dumbstruck. “She thought she lost it.” Luke says he knows and apologizes for not giving it to her sooner, but he had forgotten about it until he moved out of his parents’ house and found it again. He hands the book to Nadia, who sits next to him on the edge of the bed. Nadia thumbs through the prayer book and smells the faint aroma of her mother’s perfume drifting up from the pages. As her eyes begin to well with tears, she feels Luke’s hand on her back.
By offering Elise’s prayer book to Nadia, Luke suggests he wants to make amends. Indeed, their conversation has thus far been tense, and Nadia has been relatively combative. Suddenly, though, Luke disarms her by giving her the prayer book, an object fraught with her mother’s memory. It’s worth noting that Nadia’s eyes fill with tears as she sits on Luke’s bed, since she didn’t even cry at her mother’s funeral. This suggests that Nadia feels close enough to Luke to show him her grief. Since Nadia avoids letting others know how she’s feeling internally, this is a rare, candid moment.
Aubrey’s mother responds to her invitation the weekend before the wedding. We can’t make it, she writes. But congratulations! The next day, Nadia and Aubrey go to the beach and lie in the sun. In her black swimsuit, Nadia attracts the gazes of men passing on the beach, and Aubrey feels like “the ugly friend.” She wonders if she has always felt this way, or if the thought is only cropping up now because she witnessed Nadia and Luke sitting in her fiancée’s old bedroom at the bridal shower, leaning close and speaking intimately. Aubrey hates how casual Nadia and Luke looked together, considering Aubrey has felt “terrified every time” she gets “closer to Luke.” “But Nadia looked comfortable” with Luke, and Aubrey could tell that “this closeness wasn’t new to them. They shared some sort of past together, and the fact that neither had mentioned it hurt the most.”
When Aubrey feels like Nadia’s “ugly friend,” Bennett begins crafting a tension between the two girls predicated on comparison and competition. This dynamic manifests itself in the way each girl secretly feels jealous of the other regarding their respective relationships with Luke. While Nadia can’t stand to think about Aubrey and Luke talking about her in bed, Aubrey hates how comfortable her fiancée and Nadia seem together. Compounding this tension, Aubrey feels as if she’s been boxed into an archetype as an attractive girl’s lesser half. Bennett expresses this sentiment by using the article “the” in the phrase “the ugly friend,” as if Aubrey belongs to a preexisting category of “ugly” girls who hang out with pretty people like Nadia.
“What happened with you and Luke?” Aubrey asks Nadia. “I know you guys were involved.” Shifting on her towel, Nadia tells her friend that they merely “hooked up a few times” when she was in high school. She assures her that it was nothing, saying, “Do you know how many guys I hooked up with in high school?” She laughs as she says this, and Aubrey feels silly for being so upset. At the same time, though, Aubrey can’t help but compare herself to Nadia, imagining her friend wearing sexy lingerie for Luke—the kind of outfit Aubrey can’t bring herself to put on.
Just as Luke only tells Aubrey half of his secret, Nadia only reveals part of the truth about her and Luke, refraining from telling her best friend that she was pregnant with Luke’s child. Ignorant of Nadia and Luke’s secret, Aubrey focuses on comparing herself to Nadia. This makes Aubrey feel inadequate, since she doesn’t see herself as the type of person who wears sexy lingerie for her husband. After all, she wears a purity ring to remind herself that she “can be clean”—this is an identity she has already committed herself to, so she finds it difficult to compete with Nadia when it comes to sexuality.
Two Marines approach Nadia and Aubrey on the beach and ask them to play volleyball, claiming they need two more players. Aubrey notices that one of them—the tall black one—is looking directly at her “the way most men look at Nadia.” The girls initially decline the Marines’ offer, but eventually Nadia relents, and they join the game. Afterwards, the two girls have dinner with the Marines, and Aubrey flirts with Miller, the tall one who’s clearly interested in her. He’s older—twenty-eight—and has been deployed to Iraq twice. Telling herself she’s not doing any harm, Aubrey allows her thigh to rest against his on the seat beneath the restaurant table.
Aubrey’s realization that Miller looks at her “the way most men look at Nadia” comes to her as a welcome surprise, considering that she has been feeling inadequate in comparison to Nadia. The man’s gaze encourages her to forget about her identity as a pure, “clean,” pious girl. In this way, she allows herself to cut loose from the persona she’s built for herself, suddenly embracing the exciting wildness of flirting with a stranger, just days before her wedding.
When they’re finished with dinner, the group returns to the beach, where they start a small fire before jumping off the pier into the freezing water. Aubrey thinks about how dangerous it is to make this jump—worrying about hitting something and becoming paralyzed—but she does so anyway. Wading back out of the water, though, she notices that Miller has stayed onshore. She asks if he’s scared, and he says “Of dying? Yes.” In response, she says, “I’m not scared.” “Of what?” he asks. “Of you,” she says. Her words hanging in the air, Miller kisses Aubrey, who pulls him into the dark public bathroom and pushes him onto the dirty floor. When she straddles him, he lets out a moan and tells her he doesn’t have a condom, at which point she pulls away, lifts herself off his body, and exits through the bathroom door.
When Aubrey says she’s not afraid of Miller, what she’s truly saying is that she’s not afraid of stepping beyond the boundaries of the identity she has ascribed to herself—at least in this instance. By saying, “I’m not scared […] of you,” it’s almost as if she’s not talking to Miller, but to herself, proving to herself that she can overcome her fear of physical intimacy and her persona as somebody who is always “clean.” Although she maintains this attitude long enough to kiss and straddle Miller, this outlook only takes her so far before she reverts back to her normal ways, peeling her body from Miller’s and leaving him behind when it becomes clear that in order to go through with this radically uncharacteristic moment, she’d have to have unprotected sex.
When the sun starts to rise the next day, Aubrey and Nadia are still awake. Sitting in Robert’s truck, Nadia says she thinks Miller liked Aubrey, and Aubrey considers telling her friend what happened in the bathroom. She wants to tell Nadia “how she had taken charge, how she hadn’t felt afraid,” but she doesn’t, “for the same reason she’d refused Miller’s number at the end of the night”—she knows she’ll never see him again. Instead of saying any of these things, Aubrey asks why Nadia never told her about her relationship with Luke. “Why would I?” Nadia asks. “We hooked up in high school. It’s not a big deal!” In response, Aubrey yells, “It is to me!” Shocked, Nadia whispers that she’s sorry, that she won’t keep anymore secrets from her friend. Pulling Aubrey close, she kisses her forehead, and Aubrey melts into her, exhausted after the long night.
During their conversation in the car, Aubrey gives Nadia another opportunity to tell the truth about her relationship with Luke, but Nadia decides stick to her lie that they only “hooked up in high school.” In doing so, Nadia commits herself to keeping her abortion a secret. Nadia clings tightly to this piece of information, showing that she’d rather lie to her best friend than reveal this traumatic detail that would complicate their already strained friendship.