At work on Monday, no girl comes in to see him or hang around, pretending to look at clothes to get his attention. Jess doesn’t come in to flirt, but during his break, Brandon heads out to the beach to join a few others. I mindlessly watch him from my post. He talks, laughs, lays in the sun, plays volleyball, walks ankle-deep into the ocean, wets his hair, shimmers in the sun, his hair golden and his skin golden too. He tugs off his shirt and lays on his back against the bare sand. I cross my arms and try to look away. He has a constellation of freckles on his back and I find myself connecting them when he sits up. Sally is in today and she joins me, leaning against the chair, catching me.
“Busy?” She asks, knowing what she’s doing.
“Uh, no, I’m not.”
“You look pretty busy,” she jokes with me or at me. “He’s sure a pretty one, isn’t he? I dated a guy like that when I was your age, ended up marrying him too.”
She grabs my full attention. “How old were you when you got married?”
“Twenty-two. We waited until we both finished college.” I look down to her bare finger. “He passed four years ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
She shrugs. “That’s life, I suppose. But you two would make a cute couple, I think. You need someone to pick you up a bit.” My eyes wander back to him. He’s talking with the others now. “You like him, don’t you?” Sally asks.
I swallow, keeping my eyes on him. “Don’t tell him.”
She shakes her head. “Maybe you should. What do ya got to lose? And if it makes you feel any better, the days I’m here, he’s always looking at you.” She raises her eyebrows and spins away, walking back into the shop.
She makes it sound so easy, not like a gamble at all. For some reason, maybe out of boredom, I picture it, our imaginary life together. It would start with a few years of school and dating, years of passion and recklessness and youth. We would fight and make up and make love on the beach or on a boat and lay together until our bodies ached to move. He would graduate before me, but I would come soon after, and we’d get a little place together in the city because Brandon would work for some company in some skyscraper. I’d spend my days doing whatever I love, whatever that is, and at a romantic dinner or vacation, he would ask me to marry him.
I would say yes, of course. The wedding would be on a golf course or at a fancy event place with a pond and view of mountains. It would be a medium-sized wedding and my parents and my Aunt would be there along with Brandon’s and our friends and our coworkers that we like. We’d say our vows, I’d cry, his eyes would glow with love, and we’d kiss and be married. Then, we’d have a honeymoon on some Caribbean island and a few years of success in our careers before buying a house in the suburbs. It’s a safe community for the upper middle class, and we’d have our first baby. A girl named something nature related.
She would be our world, but then another baby would come quick, a boy named after Brandon. Two babies. That’s it. Work. Crying. Daycare. School. Homework. Cooking. Lovemaking late at night. Family vacations. Trips to grandmas and grandpas. Graduations. Sending them off to college. Peace. Peace and quiet except for holidays. We’d feel young again. We’d go on a cruise just us or go spontaneously to Vegas. Then our children’s weddings. Then retirement. Then grandchildren. Then the old life. Then our children would come to visit us with theirs. Then Brandon would get sick real bad, or maybe I would.
Looking up from the empty sidewalk, I find him in front of me. “Yes?” I say, unprepared, my bottom lip quivering just slightly until I press my lips together.
“You’re on break,” Brandon says.
When I arrive home after work I find myself flustered. Without thinking, I begin to pack up my things and zip up my suitcase because I have to go. I’m not going to let it happen again. I can’t. Not with Brandon or with Kaden again, I’m not going to get pulled under by the tide. But, at some point, somewhere between packing up my toothbrush and checking the closet, I fall to my knees and stare at those three initials carved inside. HJ. MT. KL.
Milo Talker had me wrapped around his finger. I followed him around as if I haunted him, hanging off his arm. We became so close that he asked for space, not in a bad way, but just a little time for himself. I become close with Lauren during these times when I’d have nothing else to do. We would go to the beach together or go shopping or hang around with her friends, which loosely included Kaden and his brother.
One day, when we were bored at the boulders, Lauren asked me, “What do you think he’s doing?” I shrugged because I thought he was doing illegal things. I didn’t know that he was with Katelyn or Becca or Jocelyn or whatever their names were—not until Lauren asked me if I trusted him. I said yes, I did, but she kept bringing up scenarios and ‘what if’s’. I became restless so I told her he was just at home. She said, jokingly, “Oh, with who?”
We snuck onto his property. Milo’s family had a summer home in town, and we would go there late at night to be alone and to have sex and to lay together. I often stayed the night without telling my parents where I was. I had formed a dangerous relationship with my parents, something like cat and mouse, but the cat is sleeping and the mouse is crawling on its still paws. The mouse will even nibble, but that cat might be dead. But, I continued anyway. Lauren and I peeped through the downstairs windows, and I saw nothing. His parents’ car was gone, but his convertible was parked in the bricked driveway. My hands began to sweat after Lauren found an open window, when we listened in and heard noises upstairs.
“He’s probably getting ready to go out or something,” I said, wanting to leave. “Come on, we look creepy, let’s just go. I don’t want him to find me doing this.”
I backed away, but Lauren grabbed my arm, her blue nails digging into my forearm, making me slap her away. ”Listen,” she seethed, pulling me back down. There were footsteps growing, coming down the stairs. I thought it was him, and it was, but I expected her to come down as well, and she did, whoever she was. She might have been mysterious, intelligent, charming, irresistible, and everything Milo ever wanted—and there I was, the annoying girlfriend in his way, or maybe it wasn’t like that. Maybe he just couldn’t stand me anymore, he couldn’t commit to our youthful relationship.
Lauren was frozen, but I couldn’t stand still. I wanted to yell through the open window, to bang my fist on the glass and shout, “Who is she? Why?” But I didn’t. I left Lauren at the window and made my way to the front of the house. Overwhelmed, I rang the doorbell. Lauren stood on the side of the house, out of view, likely wondering what I was going to say or ask or scream.
It took him forty-three seconds to open the door and smile and ask, “What are you doing here? I thought you were with Lauren.”
Then, I stood still, I couldn’t find it in myself to move.
“Can I come in?” I asked, quietly, breathlessly.
He said that now wasn’t a good time, that he had to meet his parents down at the dock in half an hour. My body went cold then. He never went anywhere with his parents, and his parents never asked him to go anywhere. The three were all living separate lives, Milo told me this when we laid together in his bed.
I must have worn my distress on my face because he asked if I was alright. “I told you,” I began, shaky and impulsive, “I told you not to hurt me.”
“What are you talking about, Emma?” He said, calling me by my name.
“I should have known, right? I mean, look at you. It’s not your fault that other girls want you, and why should you have to turn them down, right?”
He said my name very careful as if he was warning me. As if he was saying, ‘if you want to keep me, let it go and walk away.’ But I couldn’t walk away. What in-love girl could? No, I stood my ground at stared at his face as my heart suffocated in my chest.
“I saw her through the window. I know she’s in there. I just—why? You said we were meant to be together. We." I felt like an idiot as he looked down at me. “Do you even love me? Was it all talk to get in my pants? Did you just need entertainment? God, will you at least say something?”
“I think you should leave, Emma.”
While thinking all of this over, while the feeling slowly trickles back in, I can’t help but wonder about Lauren. Why did she have to question him? I could have been unknowingly blissful. Milo and I could have been happy until the end of summer, and maybe instead of things ending the way they did, we could have mutually agreed that it was time to go our separate ways. Sure, he would have been sleeping with other girls, but I wouldn’t have known. He could have been perfect in my eyes. So what made her say it?
“Oh, with who?”
Did she know something I didn’t? Why would she assume that? Everyone knew he was in love with me and that I was in love with him, right?
Turning to my dead phone on the dresser, surrounded by shells, I groan. I’d hate to wake the beast, but curiosity and impatience are getting the best of me. I leave my bedroom and eye the living room for my Aunt, but it’s not until I venture outside that I find her sitting with my mother in the back, facing the ocean. They’re on fold-up lounge chairs, drinking something frosty and chatting. They both glance back at me.
“Oh, hi,” my mother chirps, “how was work?”
“It was fine. Aunt Wendy, can I borrow your phone charger?”
“Uh, yeah, it’s beside my bed.”
My mother eyes me. “It’s about time. Your poor friends at home are probably worried about you.”
“It’s not for them,” I mutter, bothered by the thought of them.
“So you’re making friends now?” My Aunt asks.
I give her a cheeky smile. ”Yes.”
Before I can leave through the back door, I hear my mother call, “Don’t get in trouble, Emma.”
Once the thing wakes up, I scroll through my contacts which are blended with my parents, and I find Lauren’s. There is a blue heart next to her name. I tap it and tap call, not patient enough to wait for a text back. Holding the device to my ear is uncomfortable—a forgotten skill, how to be a teenage girl. It rings. It rings. It rings. It rings. I lose hope, but then—
"Hello? Emma? Why are you calling me?” She sounds amused by the not-so-dated idea of talking on the phone.
“Uh, I just was wondering—”
“You remember the year before the last when I was dating Milo?”
She scoffs. “That ass? Yeah, I remember.”
“Did you know he was cheating on me?”
“What? How the hell would I have known?” She’s holding onto her sweet tone but I can hear her growing defensive. “I mean, anyone could have guessed. He was just that kinda guy, right?”
“Trust me, if I knew, I would have told you right away. Why are you thinking about him anyway? That was like forever ago.”
Not wanting to let it go, but forcing myself to, I wave it off, “Oh, I don’t know. Just a random thought.”
“Oh, well don’t trouble yourself with that crap. It’s in the past. It doesn’t matter anymore, not when there is so much more to overthink, like Kaden.”
Confused, I ask, “What about him?”
“It’s pretty obvious that he’s gonna try and get you back.”
“What? No. No, he’s not. I told him that I’m not interested already.”
“Puh-lease, you think that’s going to stop him? The guy’s committed.”
“Where did you hear this?”
“From him. We all still hang out, you know. We miss having you in our little group.”
Annoyed, I ask, “He told you that?”
“Yeah. Like a few days ago.”
I want to hang up now. I want this conversation to be over.
“You know,” Lauren carries on, “we’re getting together tonight if you wanna join. I think we’re going to hang out around the beach, maybe go to the boulders.”
“Uh, I can’t, but thanks. I actually gotta go.”
“Oh okay, I talk to you later then.”