LATE JUNEBEFORE EIGHTH GRADE
The day is hot. We’re running through the sprinkler in my backyard, dodging in and out of the cold spray that fans over us, shrieking as droplets rain down onto our sun-warmed, tanned skin.
You push me closer as the arc of water returns, and I fall onto the grass, wet, laughing, taking you down with me. The sod under us is new and soft, and the freshly cut blades stick to our limbs, our faces.
We are giddy with summer, with each other. We are still on the cusp of everything.
Afterwards, you turn off the hose, and we lie on faded chaise lounges we drag to the middle of my yard, our chests heaving with rapid, satisfied breaths in our barely-filled-out bikini tops.
You reach out and take my hand and an indescribable sort of electricity shoots through me, real and palpable, as if I could reach out the fingers of my other hand and touch it, some white-hot charge that holds us together.
We are friends—best friends—but more than that. We are entirely, platonically, in love.
“See that cloud, JL?” You let go and point off beyond the top of the tallest sycamore branches. “It looks like a giant mushroom, doesn’t it?” My eyes follow your finger, my hand cold from the loss. “Do you see it there?”
I bust out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” you ask, your voice defensive.
I lean all the way over, tilt your face a bit with my hand to change the angle. “It looks a lot like something else, Aubs. Look again.”
You sit up and squint to see clearer. After a second, you say, “Oh my god, it’s a giant penis cloud, isn’t it?” and we both fall apart laughing.
When our stomachs hurt so bad we have to fight from laughing more, you lie back down and ask softly, “Have you ever seen one for real, JL?”
“A penis? No.” I think for a minute. “I mean, pictures, yes, but not in real life, in person. Why? You?”
You nod and look at me, eyes big, mouth covered by your own hand like you’ve revealed some dangerous secret, making me sit up and demand, “Okay, spill! Whose?” You shake your head hard, your eyes round over your still-cupped fingers. I run off a few names, guessing.
You uncover your mouth. “God, no! I hear it’s giant, though. Like a grown man’s…”
“Well, tell, then.”
“No one from school,” you say, covering your mouth again and adding through half-open fingers, “closer to home, JL. Come on.”
“Ew, Ethan’s?” I squeal too loudly, and you nod, and we both shriek and shudder in exaggerated, disgusted delight. “Oh my god!” I say. “Why?”
“By accident, obviously. I wasn’t trying! I walked in on him in the bathroom. He forgot to lock the door, and—”
“Ew! So gross! Don’t tell me!” I cry, but I have a thousand questions. Ones I will never dare ask.
“Right? Totally. That thing is, like, burned into my brain!” We shudder one more time for good measure.
After, we’re quiet for a while, and the clouds shift and the mushroom one feathers out and disappears.
I take your hand this time, feeling the electric bond return as I swing our clasped fingers together in the space between our chairs.
“I love you,” I say.
“Me too,” you respond too quickly. I roll my head to the side and smile, and you add, “Your boobs are getting bigger than mine. No fair.”
“They are?” I glance down my chest toward my two pathetic, barely-there mounds beneath the bikini fabric.
You nod. “Yes. And you’re so pretty—too pretty—you’re really perfect, you know? I’ve never had a friend as perfect as you.”
It should be a compliment but, instead, the electricity fizzles as if short-circuited, and my chest fills with an inexplicable sense of dread. Your admiration feels somehow fragile and conditional, and impossible to live up to.
“No I’m not, don’t be stupid,” I say, irritated. I want to untangle my fingers, get up, and sprint across the lawn, but you squeeze harder to hold on.
“Yes you are. Admit it.”
“Well, I think you are. I wish I were more like you. Pretty and free, and not afraid of anything, like your mother.”
It feels worse when you add this, because you don’t know me if you think I’m like her. I’m nothing like her, off-kilter and unfettered, nor half as beautiful. I’m plain, but I’m solid. And, yet, it isn’t about me, suddenly. It’s what you have decided. You have judged me as one thing, and at some point, I will disappoint you by proving you wrong.
“I am not,” I say again, to right things.
“Are too,” you insist, making my face redden in protest. But you don’t notice. You don’t see. And even if you turned and looked at me, you couldn’t tell the flush of anger in my cheeks from too much sun. “I just wish I could be more like you. Geesh, that’s all.”
You nod, and squeeze my fingers even harder, and we both close our eyes. I leave them there in yours even though a few are starting to go numb.
“So much,” you say.
So, maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe you’re not judging me at all.
I squeeze back, letting go of my unease, wanting to hold on to whatever spell has you enamored with me, instead.
Or maybe I’m weak and don’t have the heart to call out the lie, and tell you how afraid of everything I really am.
Copyright © 2020 by Gae Polisner