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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
We lay still in bed, out of sleep’s reach, buzzing electric in the dark. At the appointed time, we slipped from the house, careful not to wake the adults as we unlatched the back door. They’d packed us along on their family vacation, three girls for the price of one, and we were one—one mind, one thing in mind, never I, always we.
We had flat teenaged-stomachs, long hair, cut-off shorts and nerves to spare. The boys we’d met on the beach that day were waiting, bikes leaning against trees, sunburned arms hooked around six packs of beer.
Beer was new to us, as were boys, as were nights within earshot of the surf—we were suburban girls, shy ones, landlocked at that. We took drags of the boys’ cigarettes not for the buzz but for the chance to put our lips where their lips had been. We left cherry-chapstick Os, the impression that we were sweet and we were.
We were somnambulant, stumbling along the drowsy edges of the resort, a place for families and golfers, a limbo for us, the in-betweens. At fifteen, it’s minor infractions that lead to major ones. We’d been grounded for a small indiscretion—the breaching of an unguarded beach where someone recently went missing, matters made worse by the brazen bikinis we were wearing when caught. Had we been allowed out earlier we might have gone for ice cream cones with those boys, taken a sundown stroll and been back to watch a movie with the adults before bed. And yet, forbidden to leave the house, we wound up wound around boys under a palm tree canopy, sand at our backs, hands in our hair. There were more of them than there were of us so, not for the last time, a math equation took place before we could pair off, a division by two, leaving a remainder—the drunkest one with the crew cut and close-set eyes—to wander off into the night.
The night was elastic; we stretched it to its limit. We kissed until the boys’ lips were slicked with our chapstick and then until no one’s lips were cherry-flavored any more, we took breaks to brush away palmetto bugs and shake out sand from our shorts and for some of us to throw up on the other side of the trees, we said the first “no”s we’d ever had to mean. It was the first night we’d ever lived through, the first one we’d ever seen come to an end. It was the light, dim as it was, that snapped us out of our new nocturnal world, that sent us tiptoeing back to our other lives.
Other lives ended, we learned upon waking, midday, mouths dry, heads vice-grip aching; having eluded the tide for days, the missing swimmer finally washed ashore overnight. Faced with the adults’ bereft expressions as they relayed the news, we were careful not to react, careful not to act as though we’d been out there in the murky dark, too. We didn’t think they’d ever have to worry, not about us. We demurred when offered lunch; hungry only for salt, we returned to the beach. Pulling towels around our shoulders to guard against the breeze, fall breathing down our necks, we whispered, breathless, about the remainder—not the boy with the crew cut, not the swimmer, not those separated from the crowd like we never would be—no, we whispered, inaudible over the surf, about the remainder of our lives, how summer was ending but we were beginning.
Nicole Haroutunian‘s fiction has appeared in Two Serious Ladies, Barnstorm, BAP Quarterly, Red Line Blues and Pearl. She is co-editor of the digital journal Underwater New York, writes the book blog Our Books Are Better Than We Are, and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Woodside, Queens.