The air is fragrant with hamburger grease and baby oil. The sun reflects across a medley of red, brown, and white shoulders bobbing in the water. A trio of rambunctious boys fills the air with pre-pubescent shrieks as they run head first into the water. They splash angry waves back toward shore as their more reserved friends halt knee-deep in the chilly water. The closest girl wraps an arm protectively across her exposed midsection. The pressure stretches the minimal fabric of her watermelon string bikini and flashes the tops of her breasts to anyone looking from the beach.
Except I’m not supposed to stare at girls.
I’m supposed to act like my best friend Hannah and drool over Kase Simpson’s ass as he plays chicken in the deep end of the lake. Hannah holds her breath when Kase bobs underwater and foams at the mouth when he stands, his shoulder and back muscles flexing under the weight of his partner. This round he’s paired with Daniel, a JV soccer star and occasional bench warmer for the Varsity team. Daniel slaps the water at Adrianna, who answers by clambering aboard a pinched-shouldered girl I don’t recognize from school. Daniel squeezes the fleshy underside of Adrianna’s upper arm the second she’s within grasp. Kase backpedals in the water. The diamond stud of Adrianna’s belly button ring flashes in the afternoon sun, covering the lake in a haze of golden sunlight. I’m still shielding my eyes from the brilliant flash when Adrianna tumbles off her partner’s sun-kissed shoulders and splashes hard in the water.
“Oh, I’ve missed this,” Hannah coos. “Band camp was nice, but this —”
In the water, Kase and Daniel celebrate with a chest bump and an unsportsmanlike roar aimed at the losing female team. Hannah’s melodramatic sigh tells me she isn’t just talking about the two weeks she missed at the lake. “—is heavenly. Don’t you think?”
“Uh-huh,” I murmur in agreement. A short, dainty girl substitutes into the game when Adrianna’s partner swallows a mouthful of water. Along the shoreline a throng of groupie girls slather each other in scented oils. They pile onto the sand to crisp up their suntans before rushing deep into the water to extinguish the sun’s fiery burn. My eyes scan the mosh pit of splashing legs, arched backs, and dangling bikini tassels. The girl I’m looking for stands away from the crowd at the shallow end of the water, her three-day-old pedicure hidden in the sandy shore. I drop my gaze to the maraschino cherry strings of her bikini bottom curling against her lean outer thighs and narrow hips. She wades deeper, the water staining her skin a shade darker than the burnt butterscotch of Hannah’s hair. She pulls her signature beach bun loose, the hair tumbling down her back like ribbons of dark Belgian chocolate. I swallow a mouthful of spit to quench the dry itch at the back of my throat. I want to brush a strand of hair off her shoulder and press my lips against the knot of tension in the back of her neck. In my mind, the kiss both lasts forever and is over too fast. It tastes like a salted caramel milkshake but more delicious, and I am hungry for more the moment I slurp the last creamy bite from the bottom of the cup.
I don’t know what is wrong with me.
To my left, Hannah cups a hand over her forehead. She blinks to adjust her newly donned contacts and get a better view of the water. Kase abandons the game of chicken to climb aboard the raft docked in the middle of the lake. Water pings onto the oxidized steps, dripping from the wet curls at the nape of his neck. He points over the lake to his audience, like a hitter designating the predetermined spot for his homerun. His hairy toes hug the edge of the platform before back flipping past lily pads, startled fish, and prematurely fallen leaves. His emerald checkered board shorts hit the water with a magnificent explosion. The girls squeal in delight, their peals echoing across the lake past the firework remnants of Kase’s splash. Hannah enthusiastically claps her hands.
“Stop,” I hiss, staring wide eyed at the sappy-smiled, giggling, flirtatious embarrassment masquerading as my best friend. She doesn’t listen to me and only puts down her hands when Kase swims toward a girl flashing deep set collar bones and a flat, concave stomach. I angle my face away from Hannah to hide my smirk just enough to make it less bitchy. Hannah strums a slat of her plastic lounge chair against the back of her knee as Kase’s obvious attention-seeking gymnastic move turns into not-so-subtle flirting with anorexic girl.
“Let’s go to the concession stand.” Hannah urges me from my stares with the lure of Skittles and Slim Jims. My bare feet slap against the sand covered concrete. The path winds around the lifeguard’s rainbow colored umbrella and a six foot tall mushroom. We avoid a group of sopping preschoolers as they splash through the curtains of water raining down from the chipped ceramic. Directly to my left, I hear the whoops and hollers of a triumphant Kase as the chicken game resumes. A redhead in a striped push-up tankini wades in the water. Form-fitting boy shorts ride up her muscular thighs with each step. I glimpse a dimple on the tiny portion of her exposed right butt cheek before Kase dunks her under water and blocks my view. Hannah nudges me closer, her hip bouncing me forward into the concession line.
“Really?” I ask of Hannah’s transparent motivations.
“I need him to know that I exist,” she says as she purchases a Sour Apple Blow Pop. She licks her lips at the up close image of Kase’s rippling ab muscles as he stands and shakes droplets from his water logged hair. Like he’s Michelangelo’s David and she’s some prissy art collector who can’t wait to trail her fingers up and down the masterpiece’s marble. “I want to show him what I learned at camp.” She crinkles the wrapper down around the stick and moves the sucker in slow, wide circles around the side of her mouth. “You think this will help me blip on his radar?”
Her smile is wicked and rebellious. Lust glimmers in the corners of her hazy eyes. My sweet best friend, a first chair trombone player whose crowning high school achievement is a principal approved petition allowing girls to try out for the football team. Turned into a total ho by a shirtless dickwad with a waxed chest.
“If you want to make a real impression,” I mock, “you should buy a pickle.”
“Genius!” Hannah shouts, missing my sarcasm. She buys two.
In front of us, Kase’s next opponent strips off her oversized t-shirt. Kase nods his approval at her black bandeau top and she scrambles aboard Daniel’s welcoming shoulders. Kase comes out of the water with Adrianna on his upper arms. He shifts his neck muscles until Adrianna’s ass sits squarely on his shoulders.
“Wait, I’ve got a wedgie!” Adrianna shouts, pulling at her bikini bottoms. The girl atop Daniel’s shoulders bursts into hyena like snorts, her black bandeau top rising and falling with each bitchy giggle.
“The only thing more fake than that laugh is her tan,” Hannah sneers as she hands over my pickle. Flecks of warm water dribble against my arms and legs, transplanted from the spout of the ceramic mushroom by the tepid breeze. I don’t recognize the oily forehead, puffy eyelids, or scratchy red cheeks of my best friend. I want to wipe the ugliness from her scrunched face with my pickle’s sodden napkin. Her eyes bulge as she stares past me at Kase, his hands planted on Adrianna’s ass as she wiggles into a more comfortable position. Daniel advances and Kase’s hands jerk back into position. Adrianna shrieks as black bandeau girl grabs her right arm and Daniel lurches hard to the left. Kase backpedals to even the momentum, but Adrianna is off balance and tips forward.
Kase right arm flexes against Adrianna’s weight. For a slow second Adrianna straightens and isn’t completely off balance. But just as fast, in the blink of Hannah’s hate-filled eye, Kase lets go of Adrianna’s thigh and snakes his hand up her back. As she pitches face first in the water, Kase tugs on the black bow at her back. Just before the tie pulls free in his hands the string twists into a knot. Adrianna jerks forward and tumbles out of Kase’s reach.
I drop the napkin on the ground.
“Don’t bite it,” Hannah hisses as pickle juice squirts down my leg. She’s wedged the entire top half in her mouth, desperate to get Kase’s attention. Her face morphs into the deep reddish-purple of a fresh bruise, and I’m worried if she doesn’t get oxygen soon she might choke to death. But she won’t take that damn pickle out of her mouth. Kase swims in the opposite direction, after a fleeing Adrianna and his spoils of war. Adrianna reaches higher ground and high steps through the water, one arm tucked across her chest as her loosened top swings out of alignment with each hurried step.
I bite off the pickle’s entire tip with one satisfying crunch.
“Elyse,” Daniel calls from the water. “Come play with us.” He motions his arms through the air in earnest circles. On shore, my salted caramel milkshake shakes her head no. Daniel dramatically turns his full lips into a frown and mock pouts at her rejection.
“Elyse,” I whisper, adding her name to the list of facts I patched together about this beautiful enigma over the last two weeks. Scared of heights, she lets the boys goad her into following them off the high dive. She’ll eat hot dogs every day, with any combination of relish, onions, sauerkraut, or ketchup but not one drop of mustard. A black and white iguana tattoo cradles her hip bone just below her bikini line. She hides the new tattoo from her ultraconservative parents but flaunts it to anyone else interested enough to look.
Three days ago, while Hannah studied the proper technique for a blow job at band camp, I watched Elyse undress. She stood in the grass near her spread beach towel, the wet hair of her loose bun dripping between her slender shoulder blades. She slipped a purple sundress over her shoulders, adjusting the tube top above her chest as she wriggled out of her wet bathing suit. First the maraschino cherry top flopped out. Then the bottoms slid down her slender legs. She scooped up the wet two piece suit and threw it in a bag over her shoulder. She added a smattering of clear lip gloss before hiking in the direction of Adrianna’s idling car.
“What about underwear?” Adrianna giggled.
“Boys go commando all the time,” was Elyse’s rationale.
I watched the cotton dress swirl around her legs as she walked, willing the dress to hike further up her naked thigh. I imagined harnessing the courage to walk up to her and cup my hand between her legs, the thin fabric of her dress the only obstruction between my fingers and the promise of pure pleasure. I didn’t have to imagine the triangular shape of her nipples as her unrestrained breasts pushed against the tube top’s wet fabric.
That night, while Hannah practiced on a banana and thought of Kase, I slid two fingers into my own conflicting wetness and thought of Elyse’s perky breasts.
There is something tragic and deliciously wrong with me.
“C’mon Elyse,” Daniel calls again from the water. “Don’t make me beg!”
She’s still shaking her head when Kase stomps up the beach behind her. Abandoning Adrianna and her re-knotted top, Kase scoops Elyse into his hairy arms. Elyse wriggles and fake fights to escape his powerful grasp, but her joy-filled shrieks grow as Kase’s calf muscles churn into the lake. He dumps her in the deep water and she climbs on Daniel’s shoulders, sputtering and cursing in pretend defiance. Daniel beams as his hands slide up Elyse’s calves, under the tender flesh of her knees, and rest on her thighs. I grit my teeth at Daniel’s blatant groping. At this moment, I understand the mask of hate worn by my best friend.
Kase calls out for a new partner and the closest girls instinctively cling to their bikini tops. Daniel circles around to each girl, looking for someone stupid enough to partner with Kase after his attempt to disrobe Adrianna. On his shoulders, Elyse’s golden brown skin twinkles in the softening afternoon light. Her feet swish in the water as she waits for a volunteer brave enough to climb aboard Kase.
“You should go.” I elbow Hannah.
“What? Me, no—” she stammers. She stills holds the intact pickle in her hand, now wilted and shrunken like the shriveled apparatus I imagine in Kase’s shorts. My bitchy smirk is back and this time I let her see it. I mean, she’s staring at Kase like a lapsed vegetarian longing after a piece of juicy meat. There’s saliva bubbling in the corner of her mouth for chrissakes, and yet she doesn’t have the balls to pull the trigger. She’s all talk about how she learned to perform the perfect blow job the last two weeks at band camp. The opportunity to make an impression on Kase is right in front of her, but she’s a scared little chicken shit. His fingers on her inner thigh could lead to hot, sweaty sex with a dirty-ass boy, but she’s too busy practicing on cucumbers and hotdogs and a giant pink plastic dildo to go claim the seat that is rightfully hers.
And yet, maybe there is another contender for the throne.
My feet splash into the water before my brain knows what my legs are doing. I hear Hannah sputter behind me, but I have no answers to her questions. I don’t know where this courage came from or what I hope to gain by this stupid display of bravery. I just put my face into the water and will my arms to work.
“You want to play?” Kase asks as I bob around him.
I crane my neck into a terse nod but look in Elyse’s direction when I speak. The laugh lines around her lopsided smile fill me with strength. I reach behind my back and loosen the knot of my bikini string into a strategic bow, hoping I haven’t misjudged Kase. “I think I can show you a thing or two,” I boast.
Further out, the slaps of swimmers pushing off the oil drums under the raft sound like hollow booms of thunder. Kase’s laugh tickles against the goose bumps sprouting on my exposed skin. My shoulders tense as Kase plunges underwater, his unwanted fingers trailing against the insides of my trembling thighs. On shore, Hannah’s scowl is too dark to read. I catch a toothy smile from Elyse and breathe. I straighten my shoulders and puff out my chest. Elyse leans slightly forward in anticipation, shifting Daniel off balance. When Kase’s hand shimmies up my back, I know I made the right choice. Kase understands what I want to give Elyse and he will happily oblige.