Doug walked down to the lake beach almost every day, even in January when the sand was buried under acres of snow. Sometimes he stood at the shore in his sneakers and closed his eyes and listened. In winter, there were the sounds of kids ice skating and playing hockey. In summer, there was the mean spirited, fluid noise of other people's laughter. Every day he told himself not to come down here. He was fourteen yet he couldn't even tread water, let alone swim. He remembered that summer he took lessons at what his mom called "a real beach" because it was saltwater. The swim coach asked him why he couldn't do two things at once. "You move your arms and your move your legs," she'd said. "It's so simple. Ride the bike. Spread the peanut butter."
Because he couldn't ride the bike and spread the peanut butter he hadn't been allowed to advance out of the guppy class. His mother had said the coach was just a college kid know it all and he'd never gone back to lessons.
Still, Lake Sequea was the only destination in his neighborhood and in the doldrums of July, he could only handle hanging out with his mother for so long before he snapped and went down to the beach. If he'd been the one to pick a spot to live, he would have settled by the ocean. This was Cape Cod. Tourists came to go in the saltwater. There was no point to this dinky freshwater lake, but still he came. Sometimes she asked him what he did down there. He would say "nothing" and she would say nothing in return. They both knew that he was weird. "This will pass, honey" is what she would say before changing subjects and talking about a sale on air conditioners. Water was supposed to be this great thing that made the value of homes spike but Doug found it confining. Cape Cod was surrounded by four bodies of water and Doug and his mom lived on a tiny peninsula surrounded part by Lake Sequea and part by a dinky pond that was private, useless property. There was no escaping water, never.
"Whatcha doin?" The sound of another human made Doug's spine tingle and he turned around. Becky Devine. At school they called her "Frisky" and it startled him, seeing a classmate, a popular one, outside of school.
"Whoa. You know my nickname."
"Everybody knows it."
"I guess that's true." She pulled a beach towel out of her bag and shook it for a few seconds before placing it on the ground, tender as a teacup. She sat down Indian style and he didn't know if he was supposed to sit down with her, leave, climb a tree or remain still.
"So do you live near here?"
"Yeah right up the street."
She took out a bottle of Poland Springs water and tilted her head back. Then she set the water in the sand and yawned. He could see the outline of her bikini through her tank top and he gulped. He realized he was still just standing there.
"Do you live near here?" Stupid question. Of course she didn't. He would have known that. She shook her head no and proceeded to sweep her hair into a taut bun. He dug his hands in his pockets and wished that he was wearing flip flops instead of white leather sneakers.
"Nope," she said and then she took out a bottle of nail polish. She shook it and squinted. The sun hung over her head, behind the pine trees. It was blocking his vision, not hers. Her squinting made no sense. Girls confused the hell out of Doug.
"Do you want me to sit down?"
He'd screwed up. "Nothing. I didn't know if I should sit."
"So how's your summer?"
"Good. You know."
She opened the bottle of nail polish and proceeded to turn a clear nail purple. "Your name's Scott right?"
He couldn't control the color from rushing to his cheeks. "It's Doug."
She laughed. "Oops. My bad."
He figured he should at least move so he walked towards her and stood beside her blanket. Alone on the beach with a girl. Hot summer day. Bikini present. The smell of nail polish. In the distance, he saw a kid jump off a dock and he hoped that the kid could see them too, boy and a girl.
"So why don't you have a bathing suit?" she said.
"I have a cold."
"But you can swim if you want."
She laughed and put her hand on display.
"Listen this is gonna sound weird."
His heart raced. "That's okay."
"My boyfriend's coming down and we were totally thinking that cuz it's hazy there would be like nobody here. You know?"
Doug backed away, taking one last breath of her. "I'm gone. I totally know."
"You're such a sweetie."
She yawned and started shaking the freshly painted hand about. "He's freaking crazy if he thinks I'm actually gonna skinny dip in the middle of the day, but whatever right?"
On the walk home Doug picked up errant leaves and picked them apart. He couldn't help but smile. There was something wrong with him. He should feel hurt and left out. He'd thought there was a chance for him and Frisky, which was kind of sad and embarrassing. But at the same time, he'd talked to her and he couldn't help but be grateful. It was just like on his birthday when his dad sent a card with no money and his mother screamed and tore the card up. He always waited for her to fall asleep and dug the pieces out of the trash. A card was enough. So was a conversation.
"Honey! Did you see my purse?"
She was calling to him even before he had the door open and as soon as he heard her voice his spirits plummeted. "No I didn't."
She walked into the foyer and pointed at his shoes. "Take those off please. I don't need sand eating up my vacuum cleaner. Oh where's the damn purse?"
She was gone again and he took off his shoes and looked out the window at Lake Sequea. He wanted to tell his mom about Frisky, about the way she hadn't even known his name and yet the thought of telling her made him feel queasy. He sat down on the couch.
"Doug! I don't see my darned purse anywhere!"
"That stinks." He dug out an old photo album and there was his dad, hoisting a freshwater bass, smiling like an asshole. In the very corner of the picture, Doug saw himself as a baby. He couldn't remember that day.
"Some day I swear I am going to get a hook for the darned purse. Ack!"
Once he'd asked his mom about it and she'd said that it was the one time the bastard had ever let them on his "precious fishing boat". He closed the photo album. It was only July. Somehow, he longed to go back to school. The sound of the kitchen faucet crippled him.
"Damn purses! Where do they go?"
"Can you turn off the water?"
"No I can't turn off the water. And I still can't find my purse, for your information."
He didn't know what stopped him from helping her hunt. He was mad about Frisky. He was mad that they didn't wake up every day and go to one of the saltwater beaches. If his dad hadn't left years ago, when Doug was so young he couldn't have stopped him, could only cry and wear overalls and make oblivious, water-logged faces at the camera, Doug wouldn't be here right now, dry, surrounded by seas and lakes and inlets and faucets. Water in his backyard, fresher water across the street, water for fun, water for romance, water spouting out of the sprinkler, through which he would run and leap and find wet relief were he not so fat and too old for such kiddy high-jinks, bad enough that he still hid G.I. Joe action figures under his bed and feared the neighbors laughing at his flopping belly. It was everywhere, water, drowning him where it let others float like dumb happy buoys. Water for imagination and water, saltier water, older water down the way, water of ages, water of coming of age, water of stupid movies that bore an unfair resemblance to his world, water as seen in old paintings in museums, in houses of the dying grand persons, all royal and swooping in the distance, menacing and indifferent like in a Hemingway story from school, like on the last day of school when none of the other kids were concerned that Doug had no plans for the summer.
"Honey did I leave the dang thing on your bed?"
Water as blessed with salt that coats your skin and dries it out and makes a mother snub it because it makes her look older, she swears it does, water that could bathe the young boy's skin in a coat of fairy dust and make him cool riding a bike back from the beach, if he weren't afraid of bikes and if the idea of a wet T-shirt enunciating his flapping flaws didn't repulse him so. Water that was proof of life, water that gave life and broke, when you were a baby, before you could remember, spilling out of your mother's womb, the same woman who misplaced her purse.
"Is it in the bathroom? Damn purse!"
"I don't know." He mumbled and the faucets drips made him think in terms of ifs.
"The kitchen! Honey you were just in the kitchen—is it there? At least my damn keys!"
If he'd been friendlier to that new kid who started school in May, he might have a friend. If he'd passed his swimming lessons he might have become an ace crawler and his thighs wouldn't rub together. If his dad hadn't run away, he probably wouldn't stay inside playing Atari and turning up the air conditioner and reading Choose Your Own Adventure books. If he'd been swimming when Frisky arrived at the lake, maybe she would have joined him. But was it even cool to go swimming in a lake? He wasn't sure.
"Doug! Do you hear me?
He didn't answer her and when he knew she was out of sight, he sneaked through the living to the stairway and tiptoed into the basement. To be him was hell, wasn't it? To get paler as others in cars driving by darken. To see life and turn away and then accuse life of having turned you away and get mixed up in the violent switch from the cool of the inside to the oven of the outside and not remember if you were mad at the world or if the world was mad at you. To be Doug, and answer these conundrums by eating a Popsicle, an uncooked Pop Tart, a handful of potato chips, sissy food, in silence and listen to his mother apply sunscreen and dilly about the backyard, turning on sprinklers, which you could run through, sprinklers which emanated beads of tap water, wimp water, water for boys who didn't go to the beach, who wouldn't go, who couldn't go, who kept the blinds rolled down and imagined a world without water, grew envious of those who lived in trashy narrows in enormous filthy cities, because he figured there, there in cornfields or on Avenues, proper avenues, improper cracked alleys, where water did not wall you in, there would be misery, but there would be a dry misery, which to Doug was less tragic that the wet walls that surrounded him even as they pulled him.
"Do you want to go to the mall with me? I have to get some dry ice! Ha! There it is! Bad purse, bad purse!"
He looked up at the basement ceiling. What if she came down here? He trembled.
"Doug! Answer me! I still can't find my keys. Damn keys."
"Got em! Got the keys! Sweetie, you wanna go?"
He turned red. "I'm downstairs."
"Well come up!"
"I said I'm downstairs!"
She was supposed to know what "downstairs" meant. She'd be retarded if she hadn't figured it out by now. After all, he jerked off too much and twice he had fallen down the stairs deliberately to get her running out of the bathroom in her bra. For things like this, he was sure to go to hell.
"Doug! Turn off that dang boob tube and come to the mall with me!"
The basement was his only sacred place. Here he could jerk off and watch television and believe that he would have his way with the waters of Cape Cod, that he would one day feel at home, that he wouldn't be in this basement forever. Here he knew that when his body stopped acting against him, when it became more streamlined, when his braces were removed, when the hair under his armpits was bushier, more manly, he would emerge like a butterfly and romance Frisky at the beach.
"Honey I'm counting to five and I'm coming down the stairs."
The guilt kills and it's hard to know what comes first, guilt or loneliness. After all, his complaints aren't the kind anyone wants to hear about. He doesn't have leukemia or a bad ankle or a warped rib cage like the weirdo up the block. He's just a kid who doesn't get to skinny dip with the Friskies and he thinks of his mom again, his dumb mom with her big tits and her stupid choice of a husband and on the number "two" he ejaculates and it's a T-shirt he liked damn it, a T-shirt he was planning to wear back to school, after he'd slimmed down at the end of the summer.
"Want to go get dry ice with me, yes or no?"
She stands here having no idea that he's just spewed. A blanket covers his lap. He clenches the shirt and she refuses to look him in the eye.
"Baby give me that T-shirt…"
"But it's dirty, right?'
"I said no."
She turns for the stairs. "Well you come up after me and we'll go to the mall. You can buy me all new outfits. You can be my prince!"
He stands, burrowing the shirt in the couch. "Yeah whatever."
"I was gonna make brownies later. Sounds good, right?"
"Mom, am I fat?"
She waits too long to respond. "Good God, no! You kids today are all sick, I swear. Remember Marilyn Monroe?"
"Well was she fat?"
"Well then you're not fat either. You're just a big boy. You're insane Doug, I swear."
When she pats him on the back her words are the last fudgesicle in the freezer. How can you not grab it and shut the door and eat it in five big bites?
"Now let's go to the mall for dry ice. And pizza. I feel like pizza. Do you feel like pizza?"
She ushers him up the stairs, she walks behind him, she keeps one hand on his shoulder, as if he is a kid, as if she doesn't know the difference between a T-shirt dirty with boy juice and a T-shirt that's just plain dirty. And if the stairs could go on forever he would never be fat and they would never get to the mall and he would never order a large pepperoni pizza and eat it because she says he's not fat and immerse himself deeper in his pact about the future, about getting back at the water. If only the stairs could go on for miles, they would keep walking, she behind him, babbling on about dry ice and free refills of soda and a sale at Macy's and it would be enough to be granted the permission to eat pizza and he wouldn't have to go and eat it. But fourteen steps later, they're on the ground floor and the sound of a speedboat toying with a waterskier can be heard and Doug is so fat that he can't not go to the mall and gorge on pizza. But someday, he does solemnly swear to whatever God is listening, he will ride those fucking waves. He knows it.
At the mall he sucks down the remains of his diet soda, as if sucking on that straw will push Frisky out of his mind. Ice chips fly against gravity, falling into his throat. He has drained the cup and still she asks whether he wants more. He could sit here until the end of time drinking the diet soda and the fountains would never dry out. Even if they did, the kid with the acne behind the counter would emerge with a tank of Carbon Dioxide and on the sodas would flow. He crumples the cup with one fist.
"No. I'm full." He is full because his lungs are breaking down and he can only clench the cup and stare at the cup, the soggy paper cup and she keeps talking at him, standing now and touching him, his arm. "Doug, Doug are you okay?"
It is hot in Papa Ginos. The ovens burn and the paper cup disintegrates and the heat pours in like a wave from a skylight above. "Doug, I give up. I don't know what to say to you anymore. I give up. Obviously you hate me. You love your dad. You hate me." She touches his shoulder with her pointer finger. "But enough with you. You have to be you and you don't like it? Well honey I gotta be me. And it's not like my life is some damn dreamboat." She crosses her arms and pinches the tiny blonde hairs. She sighs. "Doug, talk to me."
He looks up at her. She's sad. It's in her wrinkles and the mascara bits entangled in her eyelashes. He can't think of anything to say to her. All he can do is see her. She looks so much better when she's tan and he's stolen that, hasn't he? She won't go to the beach alone. She says it's embarrassing. But then she farts, loudly and shrugs.
"So it's gross."
"There's nobody here but us."
"Well it smells like shit in here anyway and you won't talk so what am I supposed to do?"
He can see every ounce of her face in this light and she can probably see every ounce of his and they are exposed to nobody but each other, and the heat could drive anyone in here nuts and they're not in uniform; they don't have to be here. But they are and the smells are ganging up on them like mosquitoes.
"Let's go to the beach."
"I just did."
"No honey," she stared at him. "I mean the real beach, the ocean beach."
By the time they get to Craigville Beach most of the people have left. It's after five and it's just them and a few elderly couples and the lazy kinds of families that can't bear the walk back to the car. He feels guilty, like he's thinking dirty thoughts, but he isn't. It's just being here, at an ocean beach , abandoning the lake, liking it here better, the loud waves, the huge parking lot, the sense that he's like everyone else in the world. They walk down to the water together. She's in her one piece swimsuit and he's in his trunks and T-shirt. He dives into the cold salty water and swims away from her as fast as he can, pretending that she is a shark. And when she's not looking, he takes his soggy T-shirt off and tosses it into the waves. The seagulls mistake it for food. When he finally comes out of the water he walks to the beach where she's sitting with her sunglasses on shivering and attempting to smoke a cigarette. She cries slightly.
"I always hated sunsets."
He thinks of Frisky. He thinks of skinny dipping. He wishes he had something good he could tell her, something that would reel her away from the past. "You're supposed to think they're so beautiful. I remember this one time, me and your dad were here and he wanted to watch the sun set and I was like no, let's just go. And he's like, 'Are you a woman?' And I look at him, you know and I'm like, hello, because I'm sitting here pregnant with his kid. And I don't know Doug. I guess maybe if women are people who love sunsets, then maybe I'm not. Maybe I'm only half woman and part…" She lets it go at that, looking at the ocean like it's going to tell her about this mysterious other part.
He doesn't say anything for a while and everything is okay. Salt water is good like that, so noisy,
so reliably banging against the sand that it's okay to just sit there and not talk. This is why people come to sit by the ocean; the noise of it makes it okay to be quiet. You can't do that at a lake.
"How many calories do you think I burned swimming?"
She stands up and stretches. "A few. But tomorrow we'll get here earlier and you'll burn even more. That'll be good right?"
"So you're saying I'm fat?"
"Oh what are you gonna ask me that every day?"
He pulls his towel around his shoulders.
"Hey, honey. There's nothing wrong with having something to lose. It means you got extra, you know?"
If there were a pizza here, he could eat the whole thing in one bite. But the hot dog stands are closed and his mother's already eaten the candy bar in her pocketbook.
"You know your dad was a real asshole."
"I thought moms weren't supposed to say that to their kids."
"And women aren't supposed to hate sunsets. But don't tell that to your father. Do you even remember the last time he called?"
Three months ago, on a Sunday at night. "No."
"You sit in that basement and think about him and you act like he gets to define everything. But this is him, Doug. He left us. He put all our assets in his girlfriend's name so he could screw me. Whatever you do, never marry an accountant."
"But he's my dad."
"Yeah and I'm your mom. Life's a bitch."
The seagull comes out of nowhere. When they recount the story years later, they'll both agree that the seagull appeared out of thin air. It grasped onto his mother's head and held on for dear life. Doug yanked at the bird but the bird squawked and clung, as if she was a mom and this bun was her nest. When it finally flew away, Doug's mom's hair was covered in bird shit.
It was dark by the time they calmed down and it was dark when they held hands and tip toed through the darkness into the murky night water. She stripped first, said she didn't want poop all over her bathing suit. He followed her lead and stepped out of his damp trunks. It was so dark and new that nothing else in the world existed. The interaction with Frisky wasn't real; being adrift in the black water, that was real.
"It's so much colder at night" he said.
She laughed and he could just make out her profile. "Watch out for jelly fish is all I can say."
When their legs accidentally met they both screamed and she started to hum the theme from Jaws. Doug treaded water the way they'd taught him to in swim class. Spread the peanut butter and ride the bike. He hadn't been very good at in class. He'd always felt self-conscious in the bright sunlight, breathless, all those other kids around. But with his mother humming the scary music and the smell of Frisky's nail polish wafting through his mind every few seconds, he found that he was actually pretty good at treading water.
Caroline is a native Cape Codder currently living in Los Angeles. One of the Hillside Stranglers used to live in her apartment. Boo! The Barcelona Review, Eclectica and Thieves Jargon have each run two of her stories. Other publications include Carve, Duck & Herring's Pocket Field Guide, Eyeshot, Hobart, Monkey Bicycle, Spoiled Ink, Word Riot and Yankee Pot Roast. Her story "My Son, the Priest" was selected as a Notable contender by the Million Writers Awards judges. She has contribued to E! Online's The Awful Truth, Entertainment Weekly, Stuff Magazine, Tiger Beat and JVibe. Now she works as a writer and reporter on Hollywood gossip. Sssh. Actually no. Please dish.
Caroline writes: "I started this story when I was living at home with my parents--temporarily, mind you--on Cape Cod, where I grew up. It started with the water. Growing up year round in a resort community that's surrounded by water has its ups and downs. Cape Cod is awesome, but like living in, say, Disney World, it can be draining when your home base is a playground for out of towners. Mainly I was in one of those moods where I just started ranting on paper about the water. Thinking so much about water made me feel like I was overthinking, made overthinking interesting to me, which made me think of learning to swim and how the directions--ride the bike and spread the peanutbutter--could be so simple and verbal that struggling with it would be frustrating.
"And then came the characters, a son in the throws of pubescent hell, a mother not able to find her purse, let alone deal with her son and of course, Frisky, the person who everyone encounters at some point in their life, the person who seems put on earth solely to remind us of our faults. I wanted lots of echoing, the mother's hunt, the son's obsessing to lead to a place where they couldn't hear themselves or each other, and so another kind of communicated evolved. There's a lot of sadness here, but in the end, I think--okay, hope--that it's a happy story."