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It was the first day of summer, and it was raining, but not hard enough to keep people out of the pool. We watched them from inside Maritza’s car, parked at the top of the clubhouse parking lot, with the windshield wipers dragging and the engine humming beneath us. JaKory was leaning forward from the back seat, his arm bumping against mine in the passenger’s seat, but I hardly noticed. I was transfixed by the people swimming in the rain.
“Let’s go in, just for a minute,” Maritza said. She was trying to sound bold, but I could hear the strain in her voice.
JaKory inhaled sharply. “No, thanks,” he said, shaking his head. “The rain’s gonna pick up, and there could be lightning. They really shouldn’t be in the water.”
It was a group of kids our age, maybe seven or eight of them. They were splashing each other and cannonballing off the diving board and drifting into the corners to make out. We were parked right by the gate, only a few yards from the pool, close enough to see their grins. I wondered if we knew them, if we went to school with them. I wondered why they scared me so much.
“Do they live in here?” Maritza asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, peering harder at their jubilant faces. “I guess they must.”
It was something I should have known, given that it was my neighborhood pool we were parked in front of, but there were so many houses in my huge, sprawling subdivision that it was hard to keep track of who lived in them.
“They look like they’re having a blast,” Maritza said, her expression hungry.
“What if they get in trouble?” JaKory asked. “What if the lifeguard bans them?”
The lifeguard was blowing his whistle so hard that we could hear it from inside the car, but the kids in the pool ignored him. Beyond them, huddled under the canopy that housed the bathrooms, was the usual pool crowd: moms, little kids, swim coaches. They watched the madness with disbelieving frowns on their faces, their towels wrapped tightly around them.
Maritza looked at me. “What do you wanna do, Codi?”
A crack of thunder sounded above us, but the swimmers were oblivious: They had started a chicken fight, the girls squealing on top of the guys’ shoulders, the rain hitting them at a slant. My stomach felt like it was reaching outward, yearning to be in the water with them, yearning for that raw recklessness. It was a feeling I’d had more and more lately.
“We could wait it out…” I said.
“We’ve been waiting for ten minutes already. It’s time to shit or get off the pot.”
Maritza’s biting tone grated on my nerves, but I’d learned over the years that she was chastising herself more than us. She had always been her own harshest critic.
“Why don’t we just go home and watch a movie?” JaKory suggested. “We can swim tomorrow instead.”
Maritza hesitated, her eyes fixed on the pool. Then she turned off the ignition, reached around JaKory, and grabbed a towel from the back seat.
“Maritza,” JaKory whined.
“What?” she said, her voice high-pitched. “We’ve been dying to swim for weeks. I’m not giving that up just because the weather won’t cooperate. Besides, those kids are swimming, so why can’t we?”
She meant it rhetorically, but it sounded more like a plea. We were silent for a beat, looking at each other. Then Maritza opened the door, covered her frizzy dark hair with her towel, and dashed out into the rain. JaKory and I looked at each other, already knowing how this would play out, before we grabbed our own towels and followed her.
It was pouring. My feet were instantly soaked, and the towel over my head was useless. In a matter of seconds the rain got worse, pounding down on us. We caught up to Maritza as the wind picked up and the trees started dancing. Another crack of thunder shook the sky.
“Maybe this wasn’t my smartest idea!” Maritza shouted.
“You think so?!” JaKory shouted back.
We hovered at the pool gate, gripping the bars. Water was moving across the pool like sea spray, and the guys and girls were howling with delight. One girl was floating on her back with her eyes closed, water hitting her from every direction.
I looked at my two best friends. Their eyes were fixed on the kids in the pool, and they looked as inexplicably scared as I was.
“I’m going back!” JaKory yelled. “Unlock the car!”
Maritza turned with him, her key already pointed toward the car, but I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the pool.
“Codi!” Maritza called. “Come on!”
I took one last look and ran after my friends.
* * *
It hadn’t rained on the first day of summer in years. I knew this because for the last five years in a row, Maritza, JaKory, and I had gone swimming on the first day of summer. It was tradition to meet at my house, pack a cooler full of snacks, and flip-flop our way through the burning late-May sun to the clubhouse at the front of my neighborhood. “Clubhouse” sounds bougie, but all the neighborhoods in the suburbs of Atlanta had clubhouses, and all the clubhouses had pools, and all the pools were filled with toddlers in soggy diapers and kids who’d just finished swim team and brave mothers who’d recently moved down from the Midwest or Northeast and were hoping to make friends in this transient half-southern, half-everything-else place. And then there was us: three teenagers splashing around in the shallow end, totally engrossed in playing a game of Celebrity, or practicing back twists, or guessing what songs JaKory was singing underwater.
We’d started this tradition the day after sixth grade ended. That was the day Maritza and JaKory had shown up at my house with swimsuits, squirt guns, and their summer reading books, and I had been so nervous and excited that I’d painted their portraits as a way of thanking them for coming. Embarrassing, I know, but you have to understand that before that sixth-grade year with Maritza and JaKory, I’d never really had a best friend, at least not the kind who lasted more than a single school year. And I knew it was the same for them, because when I’d gone to their houses a few days later, Maritza had taped her portrait to her mirror and JaKory had tacked his above his favorite bookshelf.
“You made me look so pretty and cool,” Maritza had said, beaming at me.
“My mom said you really captured my essence,” JaKory had said, trying not to look too pleased.
I’d soaked in their compliments without saying anything, but in that moment, I felt like I’d swallowed the sun.
Late to the Party. Copyright © 2020 by Kelly Quindlen.