We’ve been swimming for hours, but only up to our necks. Our feet still graze the sand and the baby jellyfish that we’re pretending not to see. We spotted them right away, heaving beneath the tide: bright red and dangerous.
We’re ignoring them the best we can and catching shells between our toes. Sophia’s head is bobbing afloat beside my own, her hair is plastered against her forehead, her ears sticking out much further than usual; we know that it’s impossible to look alluring with wet hair, but we’re trying as hard as we can. She dips below a wave, her hand clamping her nose. I do the same a second later as I am slightly closer inland than her. I don’t cover my nose though, I just don’t inhale, or not for a minute at least. We’re both below the waterline now, our bodies sinking a few feet; legs pushed out in front of us, already in sitting positions; we sink to the sand and plant our hands by our sides, digging our black nails into the sand; steadying ourselves.
We open our eyes, foolishly, and look at each other for a second, we smile, and then I can tell she’s about to laugh, and I shake my head, and she laughs anyway, and the water goes in, and her face thrashes for a second, and she’s full of salt, and dirt, and plankton that no one can see, and she kicks against the seabed and shoots back up to the surface. I am sure gasping for air. I wait, count to ten, and then kick my legs and push upward. Only a meter or so. And I’m there beside her, pushing my hair from my eyes, back behind my head, over my ears, and wiping my face, and looking at her.
“I’ve told you a million times not to laugh”
“I know but,”
And she spits out salt water, pulls seaweed from the strap of her bathing suit. I’ve not seen her spit before, and am a little shocked with how well she sends the liquid flying from her mouth. A good distance. She makes it look easy, no dribble, or restraint; a glob of salt and sand that flies several feet away from us with a plunk as it hits the water. The kind of thing you only learn from older brothers and years of practice. She fascinates me a little more each day. I am collecting my observations of her, on this trip, in a bucket made for making castles, under my bed in the room we are sharing at the beach house. The white sided-walk through the garden-and trees-and weeds-and undergrowth-and dunes-to the beach-beach house.
I watch as she picks something from her ear, examines what it might be, and then washes it away in the surf. She moves closer to the shore, closer to me. I’ve let the waves take me back in a little; the water now barely covers my thighs if I stand. We sit together, side-by-side, the water at our necks, staring out to the late afternoon horizon. We’re watching the waves, straining our faces, our lips pushing- just- above the water.
“Lay back when the water comes. Lie flat and watch it go over you”
As the wave breaks just in front, she slides backward, lays her hair in the sand and the wave washes over her body. I can see her beneath, only an inch or so of water above her, her eyes tightly shut, her lips in a concentrated smile. We’re both a little sunburned and her body looks bright pink in the green of the ocean.
I’m not looking and the next wave hits me in the side of the head. I feel the water soak through my skin, I feel it in my muscle, and my tendons, and the gaps between my capillaries. I start to lean back, ready for the next one. My head just above the surface. It comes and I lay back, and the cloud of white blows past me like a tiny hurricane on it’s way to making land. My hand bumps hers. We’re both in total darkness, eyes sore from all the salt water. We never think to bring the goggles from the house. My fingers clench at the knuckle, and I lift my head, slowly, from the water.
Later that night in the house my grandparents own, she sits on the floor her legs stretched across the wood, staring at the edges of the rug, twisting the fringe with her fingers; the black polish chipping away from the salt and the sun, and the bath she took when we got back from the beach. She pulls at a rough cuticle with her other hand, and blows a whistle through the gap in her teeth. I’m sitting on the bed, my hair curly from the days spent in the sea, and the evenings trying to wash those same oceans out again. My own hands flicking through a magazine I bought at store in town, while our parents bought supplies from the grocery, and looked at each other inappropriately.
We’ve spent most of our time at the beach or in this room, only leaving one or the other for a meal- breakfast on the porch, a dinner at a restaurant in town, a midnight raid of the overstocked refrigerator- or to look at the boys come in off the boats at dusk; me sheepishly rolling my arms against my hips, her sitting out on the dock, her heels in the dark water, blowing out the cigarette smoke from the same gap in her teeth she whistles through now. Her eyes fierce with the fire of days spent restless in the water, shouting down the back-slaps and laughter of the men coming in for the night. Hushed like children into silence as they pass her up to their cars, parked in lines on the hill; their eyes fixed on her pink legs, her mountain range of collarbone, the smoke filling the early evening sky.
Some of the boys coming off the fishing boats with their fathers are only a few years older than us. Some of them similar to the boys back home, who might take us out in their fathers cars once in a while, for pancakes at the Twenty-Four hour diner we’re not supposed to go to, or to the bar by the railway, that doesn’t turn away underage drinkers, and has a back-room with a pool table, and a jukebox that no one ever plays. These are the boys that I smile at, that I lift my head to; that I think about sometimes. She pays them no mind, flat out ignores their heads turning, and stares past them to catch their fathers, their uncles. Pushing her hair back behind one ear, curling it a little with her finger and thumb, and breaking their gaze with her own. She reminds them of lives lived years ago. Of the reasons they have sons, or nephews in the first place. They feel irritated by her presence on the dock, she makes them uneasy, and guilty of something. They have no words to even really explain, let alone understand. The sons and nephews walk by, no one offers either of us a ride home, no one asks us what we’re doing, or whether we’re hungry. She’s a flare that burns up brightly in each of their eyes, that explodes in a flash of pure white, and leaves us invisible, on the dock, under the reddening sky.