by Jan Saenz
I lie on a thin beach towel, in the grass, just outside the chain-link fence of the neighborhood swimming pool. I point my finger and squint one eye, counting the stars like candles on a cake. My thirteenth birthday was last month but no one really noticed. No one but Peter.
Peter is beside me. His eyes follow my finger, like he wants to lick it.
My plastic yellow wristwatch reads 9:14, but the sky doesn’t match the time. It’s Pepsi blue, bright and plain. The early evening hasn’t given up yet. It lingers like my three-year-old brother refusing to go to bed, begging me to keep the light on as I lead him down the hall. His tiny feet, kicking dad’s empty beer cans along the way. That’s what the sky looks like tonight. A kid—drunk on sleep—not yet ready to pass out.
Either the air is too moist or my watch is too tight. The band keeps sticking to my skin. Peter’s hand reaches over, rotating the face of the clock, twisting the doughy flesh stuck underneath.
“I don’t want to keep you out too late,” he says, he breathes. Peter tends to breathe a lot when we’re close, like I’m something to be inhaled. It embarrasses him, I can tell.
Peter gift-wrapped this watch inside the pages of a comic book (not the one I lent him a few weeks ago, a different one). I tore through the wrapping with a smile, and when I saw his gift, he lovingly fastened it around my wrist. “I hope it’s not too small,” he said. I shook my head. Hid my blush. Normally I wear Dad’s watch when I go out so I can keep track of the time. I don’t have a cell phone. Dad says I’m not old enough.
The streetlamp above the swimming pool is out, making the water look black as ink. I look at the sky. Blue. I look at the water. Black. Hm. Doesn’t make sense really.
I sit behind Peter on the school bus. Jessie Fairchild sits way in the back. Peter likes me but I think Jessie is the cutest boy in the 8th grade. And the funniest. Peter calls Jessie “a waste of good blood” and all the polo shirt girly-girls swear the same. “Rude white trash. That’s what he is,” they all agree, posing in tight circles. Nodding their yellow python heads. “I wouldn’t fuck him if you paid me.” I’ve spent many afternoons watching Jessie from the sideline. Watching him taxi around skinny high school girls on the handlebars of his bike, kissing their tan lines. Chasing them with roadkill. I’m not jealous, just hopeful.
Peter rolls his body to the side. “That’s a shame the light’s out. I wanted to look at you.” His fingers trace the curls of my hair, the same root-to-tip pattern my mother used when I was little. She’d read bedtime stories, always stopping before the last page—cueing me to finish. She’d trace my curls and stare at my words. Nodding encouragement. A kiss for every period reached.
Peter hasn’t kissed me much. He kissed me a lot when I showed him I brought a towel. His mucky white sneakers kicked pebbles of loose gravel as we walked. The scratchy sound tickled my ear, the same ear he kept whispering into. “Let’s go to the pool.” His mouth smelled like cigarettes and tasted like canned vegetables. Every time he leaned down to breathe in my ear, the oily pepper scabs of his cheek would rub up against my face. His words echoed inside my head like the rustling of the trees. Their dead leaves, crunching beneath my steps. Let’s go to the pool. Let’s go to the pool.
I turn my head and stare up into the dark metal canister of the burnt-out streetlamp. Peter tugs on my watch before fingering the pale pink cuticles of my nail beds. His touch excites me, just not in a good way. Not the way I thought it would.
“Peter? Do you like my nail polish?”
“I don’t want to keep you out too late.”
“But do you like my nail polish?”
“It’s beautiful. Like you.” He snuggles up close and kisses my cheek.
Jessie likes this nail polish. He told me one morning while a bunch of us waited for the bus to arrive. It was a cold day, but the sun was shining down on me. I had forgotten my coat. “Cold?” he asked. I nodded. He came toward me, opening the front panels of his green army jacket. It was much too big for him. I suspected it was his dad’s jacket, something sentimental. He pulled me into his chest and enclosed me in the panels, zipping it up snug behind my back. My fingers curled against his warm chest. “I like your nail polish,” he said. We chuckled inside our dwelling—our polyester burrito—all while fighting to keep our balance. My new breasts pressed against his new shirt. To move, one had to walk backward while the other led the way. I was Cinderella, dancing at the ball while the other girls stared in disbelief. That week, I thought he might want to be my boyfriend. I knocked on his front door a few times. “He’s not here,” his mom slurred from behind the fence, even before I had asked a question. Even before I knew there was a fence.
Peter is now on top of me and the fabric of the towel has gone damp, saturated in the muddy grass squished underneath. I look up at my hand resting on his shoulder. Small islands of sparkled nail polish stare back and I wonder if Jessie Fairchild ever takes his girlfriends to the pool.
“Peter, am I your girlfriend?” I ask.
He grins and fiddles with my shorts. He asks me to undo his. And before anyone knows it, I’m not thirteen anymore. I am something else. Somewhere else. Gone.
Despite not kissing me much, Peter is very gentle. His breathing is not. The smell of his dinner accompanies the words of encouragement he dribbles over my cheek. But the words sound like they’re more for him than for me.
“Am I hurting you?” he asks.
I shake my head. I shake it for a long time, back and forth. I put my ear to the ground and the sword of my stud earring digs into the skin behind the lobe and for a second, I can’t breathe, but I can still see the black surface of the swimming pool. The color. It doesn’t make sense, I almost whisper, but the words don’t quite reach. My mouth moves. I’m a text message on silent.
Time passes in tiny delicate ticks as I focus on the face of my watch, embedded against the knot of Peter’s shoulder. Everything working in different motions. Different tempos. The back of my shirt is soaked through. I hear moisture.
The minute hand is on the six when Peter stops what he’s doing, a sudden smile on his face. “You are so beautiful. Has anyone ever told you that?”
In my head I see the memory of my dad, standing behind a chain-link fence. A beer in one hand, catcher’s mit in the other. “Beautiful!” he barked, watching my fastballs sail toward him, hitting the fence that stood between us. “Do it again, girl, come on, girl, right here.” He had taped off a strike-zone. A window framing his crotch. “Come on, girl, show me that arm.” My cheeks, swollen with sunburn, rose with each smile we shared. My muscles ached but his delight numbed me, and every time I threw the ball, it would hit the fence and erupt into the sound of a thousand house keys. “Beautiful!” He chuckled into his beer can. I remember his teeth and the drunken echo of his breath when he closed his eyes to take a sip. “Goddamn beautiful.”
“Will you smile for me?” Peter asks. “Come on.”
It takes me a second but I smile.
“Will you give me a kiss?” he asks.
I smile bigger. Finally, he wants to kiss. I like kissing. I prefer it over the other stuff.
Peter is sweet to pull up my shorts and fasten them shut before he leaves. I lie on my back, staring up at the sky. The burnt-out streetlamp. The chain-link fence. The night is still moist and the air is still blue and the pool is still black. Nothing around me has changed but it feels like something might be wrong.
Peter didn’t say why he needed to go and I didn’t ask why he took the watch with him. I wonder if Peter is my boyfriend now. I don’t have his cell number, and I don’t think he’s coming back, and I’m not quite sure what is making me want to stay. My stomach aches. I have a test tomorrow.
For a second, I daydream about someone passing by and finding me. If I see a shooting star, I’ll wish for Jessie Fairchild. I’ll wish for him to come walking down the street right now, wearing that same green oversized jacket. He’ll cloak our bodies, just like he did before, and we’ll laugh about nail polish and school buses. We’ll waltz around the eerie demon-eyed swimming pool and everything will make sense again, and I’ll know that nights like this happen for a reason.
Rubber tires grind down over loose gravel and the harsh headlights of a car shine a spotlight over my body. I lift a hand over my eyes and squint.
“Lizzie? Lizzie!” Dad barks, straining to get his chest and belly out the driver’s side window. “Girl, get your fat ass in this car. Do you know what time it is? Do you know what time it is?” I can’t see my little brother, but I hear his sobs from inside the car.
I check to make sure all my clothes are intact, and that the buttons of my shorts are fastened. I stand and shake out my soiled beach towel. A few blades of grass escape free. I’m missing a flip-flop.
“Girl, get in this car right now!”
I search the ground around me, mud seeping through the cracks of my naked toes as I bundle the towel under my arm and attempt a few uneven steps. I read on the internet that it can hurt afterward, but that that’s OK.
I peek over my shoulder, eyeing the black tar swimming pool—now an abyss. It just doesn’t make sense. Something wet falls and catches inside the hammock of my underwear and I wonder if Peter could tell it was my first time. I guess I’ll see him on the bus tomorrow.
Peter says he doesn’t want to be a bus driver forever. He wants to go back to school and get his teaching degree. “So I can be with kids just like you,” he said one day from his captain’s chair, tapping my nose with the tip of his middle finger. He then turned and winked at my reflection in the rearview mirror. I blushed and watched the neighborhood houses carousel through the frame of my passenger window, replaying Peter’s compliment in my head. Over and over.
Kids just like me.
Jan Saenz is a Houston-based writer and serial thrift shopper. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Paper Darts, Bending Genres and Jellyfish Review. She is currently working on her third novel. To stalk her, visit http://www.jansaenz.com or follow @jan_saenz.