It’s the end of summer, and we spend long days fluttering like moths drunk off a porch light. Julie and me, fresh-faced and shoulders freckled, hair always smelling of salt and low tide. We’re sixteen, hysterical with freedom, unwavering in our repose. On the craggy beaches of our coastal town, we stretch out our itching limbs and offer ourselves to the sun. Until daylight wanes. Then we tear out against the breeze and into the night, all woozy and beat, dresses damping through our wet bikinis.
Julie’s long hair has turned coarse as a doll’s, with split ends that catch shimmers of the setting light. We bike the dirt path near my old house, and Julie pulls a cigarette from the front basket where we keep our treasures: Marlboros and breath mints, the little bag of pot she stole from her brother, the pristine condom we’ve yet to need. She lights the cigarette one-handed, and we pass it back and forth. Our tires smack against the muddy path, and fiddler crabs, with their big and little weapon hands, shy back into their holes.
“Don’t hide, my loves. I won’t hurt you,” Julie says. But then she picks up speed and curves onto the main road.
We’re riding straight to Jackson’s party, because we like to take the beach with us. During the school year, we’re socks and sweaters, plaid skirts with dropped hems. But now, we’ve become creeping things, snails that squirm between toes in tide pools. We’re slathered in salt water, coated in the briny breath of ocean winds. Sea foam and upturned rocks, tangled seaweed drying in the sun. We’re fireflies dancing through dusky lawns, raccoons on the deck, millipedes that die curled up in the corners of musty rooms.
We slow down to ride side by side.
“I didn’t know you love crabs,” I say.
“Bitch!” Julie says. “Don’t miss the turn. We’re almost there.”
I follow her tracks up the hill along the shore, where we can see the whole coast. Further up, we pass a field of reeds that’s alive with a million humming bugs.
The gateway appears before us, Jackson’s brick house visible through the slats in the wrought iron. Julie presses a button on the control panel and we wait for the doors to part. Beyond the gate, a pristine lawn displays his parents’ sculpture collection, six oversized iron cubes that we nicknamed The Shrapnel. His family vacations on the Cape for the summer, but Jackson drives home some weekends and stays on the estate. Like mine, his parents are distracted. We rage against a break wall that never fails. By fall, his parents will return to Connecticut and the house parties will end. Years from now, I’ll read about Jackson in the town reports, battery and resisting arrest. But that’s after.
* * *
Julie and I drop our bikes in the driveway and scramble up the front steps. She sticks her foot out as if to trip me, and I roll my eyes at her.
She rings the doorbell. I tuck the tag of her dress back under the collar.
Julie looks back at me then tends to a mosquito bite behind her knee, scratching the skin a rawish pink.
I stare at the spot and hold my breath as we wait for the night to play on. The air is hazy and thick enough to taste.
* * *
Inside the house, we all buzz through the oversized rooms, establishing territory, settling in. The jocks play beer pong on the dining table. A spill is hastily wiped clean. In the kitchen, Julie plugs her nose and drinks vodka straight from the handle. She passes me the bottle and hoists herself onto the granite counter.
“Careful,” she says. “Don’t take too big a swig.”
I nod, serious and staring at her, like she’s giving me instructions to diffuse a bomb. The scent of the liquor is invigorating, sickening, the whole experience at once. I drink and feel warmth swirling then settling deep inside.
Julie and I pass the bottle back and forth. We smoke a joint outside on the stone veranda as the sun lowers behind a horizon of glittering waves. Jackson turns on music, a thick quaking bass. Soon it’s dark, and we dance across the stone, all sparkling and lit up.
Ross cuts in between Julie and me. His body’s peaking awkward adolescence and as thick as a tree stump. The color of his plaid shorts is a Pepto-Bismol pink, and he wears sunglasses perched on his forehead even though it’s dark. I know Ross from Cotillion in middle school, where we were taught to foxtrot and take formal tea wearing white gloves. Ross once told me his father owned Pepsi and that he fucked a girl during lunch period on the auditorium stage.
I finish a drink that tastes like rubbing alcohol. Ross gives me a high five then whispers in Julie’s ear. She takes his hand and he twirls her around. They do a sloppy dip. He can hardly handle the complexity of holding onto her and moving to music at the same time. But she gives her flirty Julie laugh, the trebly brook sound I know is not necessarily a reaction to humor. I sway backward onto a lawn chair, lie down and watch the stars spin. Something like a satellite traces a course across the dome of sky. It could be a meteorite. I really don’t know.
When I pull myself up, Julie and Ross, some other people too, are sitting at a table smoking cigarettes. I see the sweat on her forehead glistening, the two strands of hair plastered down in a way she would hate if she knew.
I sway over and perch on the edge of Ross’ chair, pull one of his cigarettes from the pack and light it off his cherry. The conversation circles the rounds of our teenage preoccupations, bands and vacations, girls we despise, drugs we’re proud to have tried.
Ross takes off his hat and runs his hand through his hair. I see him glance at Julie, so quick and desperate.
Someone hands me a glass, and I pass it along to Ross.
“Tomorrow’s going to be hilarious,” he says to her. “We’re going to get fucked up in the city and crash that protest. There’ll be like thousands of people. You should come.” The other boys nod, already briefed and onboard.
“What’s the protest for?” I ask.
“The same shit. I don’t know,” Ross says. “Our days are numbered though. Two more weeks of vacation. We have to go hard.” He finishes the drink and twitches. “Also, Jackson got psilocybin from his boss.”
Julie spreads her legs and puts her fists in the space between them on the chair like a frog ready to leap. Eyes alight, she’s forming a plan, and I wait for it, whatever it is.
“Let’s go swimming,” she interrupts.
“Now?” Ross says.
“Yes. Night swim.”
The boys groan, probably imagining the icy water’s effect on their penises.
“No way,” they say to each other.
But I stand up. Julie smiles at me, and I take her hand.
Julie and I skip down the beach to the shore. At the water’s edge, we hush in silent reverence of the night, the brackish air, the almost full moon. Tiny waves lick the rocks then tumble back again. We remove our shoes and toss them up the beach.
“Careful,” Julie says. “The rocks are sharp.”
“Okay,” I say. I tug on her hand to hold myself up straight.
At the same time, we pull our dresses over our heads and stand for a minute on tiptoes, hugging our skin. She toes the water and immediately retracts her foot. But we have to do it. We want to. And the water’s not that cold.
Hip-deep, we stop to shiver and whine. Our teeth chatter recklessly and we bounce up and down to keep our blood moving. Underwater, our limbs almost touch, and I think we must be edging closer together.
I try not to smile. Heat is standoffish, a physical nuisance. Heat says, “Anything but this. I can’t bear this.” Cold is pure craving.
Nearby, sailboat masts ping in the expansive silence of the night.
“We need body warmth,” I say through chattering teeth. “Come here.”
Julie moves toward me in the water and giggles something I can’t understand. We get close together, and this is it. We slide into each other’s negative spaces, like suctioned together mollusks, barnacles stuck on rocks. We carved this out for ourselves, this dark, cold place in the middle of nothing. I raise my hand out of the water and guide it toward Julie’s waist, so pale, almost spectral under the moon. Her hip crescents against my palm, tiny goose bumps prickling to my touch. I rub the shape and slide my hand up to where her bones ripple, up where she swells.
“Oh!” Julie shrieks. I drop my hand. “You dripped on me! It was so cold!”
I back away, blindsided. Julie dunks fully in the water and comes up splashing. There’s a flicker under the surface, fluorescent green.
“Did you see that!” she yells. “Tell me you saw that!”
“I saw it,” I say.
Julie swirls her arms through the water, and it’s like the sea is waking up to her dance. Green specks of bioluminescence flash like emerald jewels, and we ooh and point. But then the water settles, and they’re gone.
* * *
Back at the house, we wrap towels around our pruned bodies and thaw out beside the fire pit in silence. I watch the horizon, sure and still in the distance, the orange glow from Manhattan’s light pollution a constant force in the sky, protective, looming. Ross appears again near Julie, and Jackson edges up beside me. Smoke rises from the fire pit in a perfect gray curl that reminds me of a picture book from childhood, a little cartoon cabin in winter.
Ross whispers in Julie’s ear. He reaches around her waist and touches the skin over her ribcage. I sip a beer and squeeze blood out of a fresh cut in my heel.
Julie stands up. She pulls the towel tight around her shoulders and whips damp hair out of her eyes. “It got so cold,” she says. Ross murmurs something about warming up. He weaves his giant fingers into Julie’s hand. She stares at me, frowning, but I can’t speak.
Together, they stagger toward the pool house.
* * *
Jackson tells me we’ll sleep in his parents’ room, the one with the balcony and mirrored ceiling. I fall onto the bed while the lights are still on, too sluggish to protest as he unwraps the towel from around me. Outside, the crickets fall quiet. There’s a stale silence, then his breath on my skin. Lying on my back, I see my own reflection above me, doubled and spinning. He crawls on top of me and whispers that he’ll go slow.
I turn my head away from him and focus on a framed photo on the nightstand. Jackson’s family poses in neon ski gear, standing arms linked and smiling atop a mountain of fresh-fallen snow.
By Ginny Levy