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It’s hot out, not kind of hot, not medium hot, but midsummer-Arizona hot. Sweltering one hundred and twelve degrees, and you’re floating on the Salt River, the first time ever, on one of those black inner tubes, the old-fashioned, tar-smelling ones that need to be inflated with a tire pump. You’ve already scratched your upper thigh on that poky thing where the air goes in, because you thought it would be easier to put the tube around your waist to lug it into the mucky river. It slid down your body and scraped your leg, leaving a big red welt.
This was not your idea of tubing.
Your idea of tubing was hanging on to a rope from the back of a speedboat while the cool wind whipped through your hair. You imagined clinging to a tube specially designed for the activity, and you would be on a lake, not a crappy river filled with snakes and fish and mud and slimy plants that would wrap around your ankles if you dared to stand for a second and let your feet sink into the gooey bottom.
But it’s your best friend Jae’s sixteenth birthday and her mom planned this surprise for her, and so you came along, not expecting anything like this. There are mostly family members and some friends from her soccer team and church group. Now you’re scorching in the sun, trying to stay cool, wishing more than anything that you could somehow fast-forward this “tubing” experience, because it’s an expected four-hour “float” down the Salt River on burning-hot black inner tubes, and most of the party has gained momentum and you’re stuck in the back with a few stragglers you don’t know.
So you float. And you’re miserable. And you’re stuck.
You plop your hand into the water and splash some droplets onto your chest, trying to cool off. Your mom didn’t want you to wear the bathing suit you wanted to wear because in her opinion it’s too revealing, so you lied to her and told her you wouldn’t. Then you brought the one you wanted to wear and changed into it anyway. Because what does your mother know? She doesn’t remember what it was like to be sixteen. She doesn’t understand the things you need to be concerned with, like wearing a good bathing suit in a crappy river.
But right now, the only thing you have to do is float.
So there’s a lot of time for you to think.
You’re really good at thinking, and there’s a lot to think about. Like about how you look, and how you wish you looked different. You’re too tall. You wish your nose wasn’t so slopey. You hate that your eyebrows could be waxed every week, but your mom only lets you get them waxed every month. You hate the girls your own age, except for Jae. They’re mostly high-pitched girls who only care about how many Instagram likes they have or how many Twitter retweets they get and you wonder what makes them so popular. Most days you wonder what it would be like if the universe were different.
You wonder, if you feel this way on a partially good day—because you know this is supposed to be a good day—how you are going to feel when a bad day hits. Because you also know a bad day is bound to come soon. It’s been a while. There’s been a slew of not-so-bad days, and on this partially good day, when the sun is shining, and you’re floating, you should be feeling good, right?
* * *
“You’re having fun, aren’t you?” Jae asks when you stop at the midway point for lunch.
“Sure,” you say, nodding. “It’s fun.”
You touch her chest and the spot flames from white to bright red under your fingertip. “You’re getting sunburned.”
“So’re you,” Jae says, poking you back.
So you slather each other up with some more sunscreen, which you know isn’t going to do jack shit to keep you from burning because you’re pretty fair anyway, but it’s better than nothing.
Jae’s mom sets food on a rickety wooden picnic table. Lucky her, she opted out of the river ride and delivered lunch instead, although eating lunch is not exactly your favorite activity either. You stand awkwardly while everyone fills their paper plates with hot dogs, chips, potato salad, and fruit. Jae’s mom catches your eye. “Lunchtime?”
You’re doing this little back-and-forth on your heels, feeling jittery, and you pick at your fingernails. “My mom made pancakes for breakfast. I’m not hungry.” One of those statements is true, but you aren’t going to eat with the group. You can’t. “I’ll have a Coke though?”
“Sure, over there.” She points to the blue-and-white cooler past the picnic table.
A guy from the party is by the cooler. You saw him earlier, noticed he was really cute, wanted to get a better look at him, maybe ask Jae who he was, but then he had disappeared into the river with everyone else. Now though, he’s right in front of you. Shirtless. Smiling.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hi,” you say.
“You friends with Jae?”
“Me too. Well, I’m her cousin’s friend. I never met her before. Braden asked her if I could come.”
“It’s too hot,” you say. Then you want to kick yourself because you’re being negative.
But he agrees with you. “Way too hot. You want a drink?”
He bends down and plunges his hand into the icy water to search for a can, and you get a better look at him. You already noticed he is taller than you, a lot taller, probably six inches taller. He’s got thick, dark hair, and his back is muscular and tan. When he stands up to give you your drink he sees you staring at him and he half grins.
“This one okay?” he asks as he hands you a root beer.
“Yeah, it’s good.” You laugh.
Text copyright © 2017 by Stephanie Elliot