I walked into the frigid classroom and sat in the second row, fourth chair down that gave view to
the looming window. As I leaned back against the half-cracked seat, a gentle hand touched my earlobe and fitted a metallic earbud into my ear.
I turned to find her grinning at me, tanned from the summer, her freckles seeming to pop out against her dark skin.
She put the other earbud into her own ear and smiled at me with those crooked teeth trapped between braces. To the tune of Queen’s “You’re my Best Friend” she whispered, “Stranger, did you miss me?”
With no expectations but the sappy tune filling my head, the tugging of our past memories in my mind, I matched her grin and replied, “Missed you too much.”
“Should I jump in first?” My gaze slipped over the crowded pool deck, and the lazy waves spread
through the water as my foot carefully pulsed through the cold liquid. Before I could venture further, two hands firmly held my head in place, nimble fingers carefully adjusting my tight goggle straps.
I felt a whisper of her warm breath against my skin as she said, “Old Alice never got in first,” just as those hands pushed me into the water, and the frigidness swallowed me whole.
I sputtered heavily as my legs kicked me up onto the surface. I emerged to find her playfully smirking at me before she joined me seconds later, the gentle caress of her breath still inscribed onto my skin. I shook my head and streamlined off of the wall, chasing her from behind.
After a grueling practice, I dragged myself out of the water and collapsed onto the deck. Seconds later, a panting figure mimicked my motions and plopped down next to me. Unable to speak as I heaved out heavy breaths, I angled my head toward her.
I peered at the perfectly tinted cherry-colored circles flushed along her cheekbones. As she turned to me, her self-cut curtain bangs slipped out of her cap, covering her sugary maple syrup eyes. I hadn’t noticed until now how the pearly brown part of her eye seemed to swirl hazily, the silver highlights intermingling with the iris.
My heartbeat drowned out the chaos echoing in the pool, the mixed laughters turning to low murmurs from across the lane. My hand trembled as I reached out to graze one of her curls.
Just before I could satisfy my curiosity about the silkiness, a piercing whistle blew into my eardrum, restoring my better judgement as I jumped apart from her. I looked up to find Peter peering at me from above. I fumbled for his outstretched hand that lifted me up. I told him I’d be changed in ten minutes.
As I walked to the locker room, I knew that she followed me as I heard her trying to sync our footsteps together. Without turning, I held the door open as we entered the unlit changing room. I fumbled through my bag for my wrinkled clothes, picking up the pace as I slid on my shirt, shorts, socks, and shoes – leaving only the drying of my wet hair.
Quiet settled in oppressively as I plugged the blow dryer into the wall. The chaotic screech of the device filled the room, dispelling the unspoken questions. As I reached for the back of my damp hair, that familiar hand covered mine again.
Her hand repeatedly ran through my tangled hair and my eyes fluttered close as her fingers lulled me into something secure. I almost leaned into the subtle touch, stopping myself just as she turned off the dryer.
I turned around and through the dimness, I saw her dilated eyes scanning me. I let her close the little distance between us. I didn’t move. I let her arms envelop my shoulders. I didn’t move. As her head leaned in close to mine – dangerously close – as her scent of chlorine and intoxicatingly sweet strawberries tantalized me, as her full lips brushed against mine, I did move, her aroma shaking my sense of reality.
I didn’t look as I slipped from her grasp, snatched my bag and pushed open the stubborn door. I sprinted to where Peter stood before me, grabbed his hand, and escaped from the pool deck.
I sat on the bench our family claimed at Church, eyes closed as the man standing above the
pedestal preached today’s prayers. Through the black abyss that claimed my vision, I held the moment of us from weeks ago, transfixed by the memory of her dragging her fingers through my hair – until a rough hand grabbed my wrist.
I broke the surface of my thoughts to find my mother staring at me with pressing concern. I knew the questioning would begin when I arrived home: Why were you so distracted during Church? Can you unoccupy your unsanctioned thoughts?
I wobbled on dangerous lines as I scrunched up the scratchy fabric of my white dress — one my mother had bought to symbolize my untainted self. My dear mother, the one who believed that Peter was my final destiny. My mother, the one who denied that love is love. The stale middle- aged woman who scowled at NBC Worldwide news when they announced Pride month coming up in June.
I dared a glance behind to find Peter staring into his lap, that ever so perfect devout son to his parents and God. Two-faced. But wasn’t I too? He loved me. I supposed I loved him too.
Church ended with the ceremonious ring of the singsong bells. I followed my family out of the mosaic doors to find his hard-cut emerald eyes waiting for me. His rough hands carefully wrapped me into a hug. He led me to my mother, politely asking if we could get brunch together at the local diner — just like every Sunday.
My mother beamed at him, and I knew the instant I saw that proud and noble smile that I would never leave him.
I let him open the car door for me. I traced the torn leather of the seat where I had been picking at it for months. I let his Billy Joel tunes rip through the air, drowning my desperation. I let him lead me to our symbolic third booth where I let him order for me my usual blueberry pancakes.
“Happy ten months, Alice.” He reached in for a kiss and as I stood to meet him halfway, I noticed his hard lips lacking the glossy protection of chapstick. Ten months. 305 days of sending me daffodils, of taking me to the bunny hill to watch sunrises transform to sunsets, of letting him see every part of me.
When we did it four months ago, I truly loved him. Now, as we moved into the back of his car, where his hands once again slid under my dress, I did not.
I imagined his fingernails were painted bubblegum pink. I imagined that the hair tickling my face was curly, always knotty from the lack of a brush. As we finished, I knew that I would stay with him, and that she would never be with me.
Her strawberry fragrance haunted the pool from lanes away. In a few months, she would be moving on to the West Coast for college.
I didn’t let myself feel any sensation other than the adrenaline of my race as I climbed onto the yellow bus home and collapsed into the seat. As that strawberry scent wafted over me, I knew she sat in front of me, and her wet hair released droplets onto my shoulder.
I closed my eyes to escape the reality of my feelings. I stirred, turning my head against the seat and as I tilted up, a calloused hand fluttered over my earlobe, sticking a familiar metallic device into my ear.
It wasn’t the same joyous music of the first time. The piano keys played the beginnings of a bitter tune and the singer hummed words of love and affection and need. The music enticed me, and I imagined us swaying together, clutching her tight enough for oxygen to cease flowing, just to have one moment between us last.
As the song faded away, I felt her trembling, familiar hand grasps mine. I didn’t open my eyes even as our scrawny fingers tangled together. I felt her calluses. I didn’t bother to control my quivering hands, shaking with words I wish I’d said.
I knew it wasn’t wrong to have my hands in hers. But I still looked to see if anyone noticed. It felt like a crime as our hands intertwined, as if our bodies too, were entangled. I gave her hand an everlasting squeeze, hoping she understood my longing and regret.
As the bus slowed to a stop, our hands fell apart. I stood and let myself turn around for the last time. Her eyes held mine and I knew that as I peered once more into the warm and tender brown, clouded with specks of yearning and disappointment, this would be our goodbye.
I loosened against the pool deck, my feet drawing lazy circles along the water. I leaned back
enough until my back arched inches away from the wet surface. I inhaled that sweet and crisp inviting scent of chlorine, beckoning me to come into the pool.
I smiled as I dipped my leg into the water, my feet now fully submerged into the taunting depths. This was my third time here alone.
I pencil-jumped into the water and glided underwater back and forth through the lengths of the pool. As I savored the cool relief against my hot skin, my clothes now sticking onto me like a second layer, I realized I had no desire to come back out. I liked it here.
I dreamt I had let her come near and kiss me. Forget my mother. Forget Peter. I planned to forget everyone but her.
It wasn’t until I was dizzy that I finally saw her again. Through my blurred vision, she appeared in front of me. Her curly hair glowed around her head as if she had been struck by lightning, a startling halo appearing above her head. Her eyes pierced directly into my heart and I let her read my mind, yelling that I was ready to be with her — in front of everyone.
I swam to her as she swam to me, meeting as one at the center of the pool. I pressed into her arms and inhaled her strawberry scent even under the water.
As I reached in to embrace her tighter, she broke away from my grasp and began to race away to the surface. I wanted to breathe, needed some oxygen in my lungs, but I needed the vision of her more. I pulled up faster and faster, the sensation of her quickly evaporating.
Panic etched into my skin as I followed her right below the break of the surface, where she once again let me into her arms. And there we stayed, her holding me, me holding her, until my vision became unfocused again, and the apparition faded. I closed my eyes and smiled — that strawberry scent forever keeping me afloat.