This story is by jenna langbaum and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Years later we would make out in a coat closet but it wouldn’t go any further because he was too high and his mom was already on her way. And even more years later we would make out on a trampoline and I would almost blurt out I love you but we were going to college and there wasn’t time for such things to begin. And finally, a year after that, we would end up drunk on a patio chair and swirl into something even bigger.
But I didn’t know any of this on a Friday evening in June trapped in Ellie Merlowitz’ unfinished basement huddled under a swarm of pipes and an old washing machine. I had spent the first twenty minutes of the party dipping my toes in the pool, awkwardly holding a Sprite and staring at John’s slim calves coursing through the deep end. Ellie’s eyes hovered on mine hovering on John and decided in true supreme glory that John and I would partake in the first round of seven minutes in heaven. We would stay in her basement until she DECIDED we could come back upstairs.
So down we went, my pruney hands clutching the bannister as John trailed behind me. If I could have put the moment on pause while I rushed to change into something ravishing (my first choice being my Belle costume from two years ago), apply mascara and curl the bottoms of my hair, I would have. But instead it was just me, pale, hair slicked back, body jammed in a one-piece bathing suit that was now wet and sagging like old skin.
Hours before, I stood in the dingy, beige dressing room at Kohl’s, my mother’s tortoise shell sandals pacing outside. I slid open the curtain to reveal the navy blue, Hawaiian-print, Nautica one piece that stretched firmly over the expanse of the lumps and bumps and skin that I called my body.
“VERY flattering, your waist looks tiny.” My mother cooed in the gentle voice we used around my grandmother who we often said “has seriously lost it.”
“Do I look middle aged?” I asked irritated and sweaty.
“You’re thirteen! Don’t be ridiculous!” Her non-answer to my very specific, pointed question bothered me immensely.
I grunted and returned to the dressing room maintaining eye contact with myself in the scratched mirror. My eyes trailed downward towards my large middle – my boobs were my greatest enemy, unlike the buoyant shapes of the Nautica model on the tag of my swimsuit, my boobs were like bags of heavy cream slouched on the kitchen counter, misshapen and strange. Ellie Merlowitz didn’t have boobs – she had the most perfect, small, tight body outfitted in Abercrombie lace tank tops with straps like string cheese. I begrudgingly forced my mother to purchase the suit.
But when I coaxed her over to the Kohl’s cashier, did I think this Hawaiian-print, cinched waist, $17.99 one-piece would be the outfit that I wore when I would be gifted moments alone with John Jameson?
It certainly wasn’t.
The basement smelled like mold, dog and Clorox. John held his arm against a pipe.
“Kinda creepy down here don’t you think?” he whispered – his honey blonde hair side-swept and his braces shining in the dank light. I could hardly see him – the light was so thin and strained from the cracked window on the opposite side of the basement.
“Yeah,” was all my wobbling heart could muster.
John kept his gaze on me. I wasn’t sure if Ellie invited me to the pool party as the freak they could all mock and giggle at as they wiggled around the pool in pastel bikinis and purple lip gloss. I didn’t even really know Ellie, our first meaningful interaction happened just yesterday when I let her borrow a gel-pen in Senora Rosenthal’s eighth period Spanish. She clamped on to the lime green stem and said casually, “I’m having a thing tomorrow night. You should come. It’s at six.” She stood up to leave but looked over her shoulder to say, “Its a pool party. So bring your suit.” She said suit like it was something I had a whole chest of and could so easily toss into a beach bag like oh no problem let me just throw this on rather than the squeezing and sucking and posing required to shove my body into a one piece and pose in high heeled flip flops.
“This whole thing is so lame.” John said.
“What? Like this whole seven minutes in heaven thing?” I squatted down on a sturdier-looking cardboard box of Christmas ornaments.
“No, I meant, I just meant the whole party.” John was holding the pipe like the pole on a bus.
“Oh yeah, totally, so lame.” Goosebumps giggled up my legs – my damp skin cold.
“I feel like you’re cooler than all this,” John said and I start to smile but feel colder and colder. I rubbed the sides of my arms and my body shivered.
“You think I’m cool?” ““You want my towel?”
Our words crisscrossed in the air and my cheeks seemed to flush and grow.
“Your towel?” I couldn’t have choreographed such a perfect moment in my brain. John unwrapped the towel from around his body – his tan, sunken, slender chest suddenly revealed and my own chest suddenly on display. His eyes landed quickly at my boobs as he spread out the orange towel covered in a large cartoon of the word Cowabunga spelled out in surfboards. The moment was so tender – I was paralyzed in joy, so afraid it might end, tears began to well behind my eyes. Just as I suspected, it ended and I screamed in my brain, “Are you seriously almost crying? What the FUCK is wrong with you?” Saying fuck was something I couldn’t do out loud yet but could muster in my head during dire moments.
I smiled coyly. “Thanks John.”
He smirked. “No need to be so formal,” he said, cringing
“So are you like friends with Ellie?” I asked, striving for nonchalance, picking at a Mrs. Claus sticker on the box.
My insides churned at my dumb question.
“Yeah, known her forever, I live down the block on Mulberry.” He pointed to the left.
Like I didn’t know where he lived. In the summer, I would ride my scooter up and down his block imagining throwing pebbles at his soccer-decalled window and kissing him madly in his trim hedges in the front.
“Nice. You like sports right?” I swirled the words around in my brain before they scuttled out.
“Yeah, you should come see me play soccer sometime I’m on JV – defensive.” Then he squats low and mimics the motion of kicking away a ball. If this was anyone else, I would be cringing but not him, it was like he had a halo of light following his every move. He laughed lightly at his charades.
John stopped and suddenly stared right into my eyes. My organs once formed and whole liquified into chlorine and crystals and gallons of nerves. “What?” I asked absolutely dreading the answer.
“I think there’s a lightbulb behind you.” He reached across me, hovering over the Cowabunga towel, smelling like Axe deodroant and sunscreen.
“Sorry for my reach,” he fumbled with the beaded string next to the light bulb. I am frozen. The atmosphere is heavy and quiet but my heart is a shaken bottle of soda spilling and exploding into bubbles and foam.
The lightbulb sparks on and he lingers – our faces close. I remain so still, so unable to move I wonder if I’ve turned to wax. There are neurons of light flashing out of me and I think or rather, I hoped, he saw them too and I think he did. We lived fixed in this saccharine and brittle state for what felt like days. And I felt it – the brilliance of being thirteen and being alone with a boy I liked, both of us nearly naked. It is a purity that has since tarnished and dissolved but in this moment it was glorious and scary. But the incredibly strange part of all of it was when he reached down and kissed my nose ever so slowly, ever so slightly – the tip of my nose redder than Rudolph, my lips trembling in anticipation and just as his face flutters downward, a cackle pierced into my ears and trickled into our reality.
“Alright lovebirds time to come and tell us what dirty things you did.” Ellie Merlowitz’ violent laugh bounced off the rusted pipes and sliced my sacred saga in two.