Norah was skinny, almost too skinny, but her house was stocked exclusively with junk food. She lived with her mother, Luann, in a small, dilapidated bungalow at the end of the street. There was a wooden fence, rotted and splintered in most places, around the yard. The house had a crescent of trees surrounding it, preventing the sun’s reach, so it always felt damp and musty and even the yard smelled like an old sponge. Norah didn’t have a dad, she told me that the first time I went over. “My mom had me by herself,” she said, and even though I knew this was impossible or was at least was pretty sure, just the way she said it without looking at me, as though it were it so factual she didn’t have to stop flipping through channels to deliver the news, stopped me from asking anything further.

Luann was barely five feet tall but well over two-hundred pounds. She wore silky colorful muumuus—paisley and floral and cheetah prints. She mostly kept her hair in curlers or tied up with a scarf and had the most beautiful, dewy skin I had ever seen. She spent her days watching soap operas, and the characters were referred to like close friends. The television was a huge old box set and the colors were off so everything look slightly green or pink, and a few spots in the corner had no color at all.

Norah was the only person I knew with an air conditioner. It was a cheap noisy window unit that blasted cold air 24 hours a day. Luann said she couldn’t stand to live without an air conditioner. She told us temperatures in the summer weren’t like this when she was growing up, that global warming was going to be the end of us all and that soon there wouldn’t be any more polar bears. The earth was getting so hot and the icebergs were melting so fast that scientists were finding polar bears that had actually drowned trying to swim to land. Drowned. I didn’t like thinking about drowned polar bears or icebergs melting or the earth heating up like a fried egg, but I thought about it anyway, picturing it in vivid detail usually when I was trying to fall asleep at night. Those furry white bears swimming and swimming in an endless dark ocean until they were so hungry and so tired they couldn’t swim anymore.

On those nights, a thick sadness would fill up my whole stomach until I turned on the light, found the Book under my mattress and flipped through the worn pages.  My mother had given me the Book as a child—it was tattered before I’d received it—a thrift store find that taught the anatomically correct names to young children. There were cheery naked cartoon drawings—a smiling man with curls of dark hair and a penis hanging between his legs. A woman smiling on the opposite page with round breasts and dark nipples, black spirals like little spider legs above her vagina. Each page was a diagram of what made the man and woman different—men have testicles which hold sperm. Men have penises. Penises ejaculate sperm. Women have breasts with areolas and nipples. A woman’s breasts fill with milk when she has a baby. A woman has a vagina. A vagina has a labia which are the lips of the vagina. A baby comes out of a vagina. A woman has ovaries which hold eggs. An egg from a woman and a sperm from a man make a baby. My mother didn’t have a sex talk with me, the Book would suffice, and I suspected she’d forgotten about giving it to me which is why I kept it under my mattress. On the nights anxiety outweighed sleep, it brought me a familiar comfort to see those naked people on the pages. The smiling man and woman who didn’t care that they were naked and I was studying their bodies. I touched each word, analyzed each corresponding part, soothed by the repetition: Vagina, Penis, Testicles, Sperm, Ovary, Egg, Nipples, Areolas, Breasts, Labia. Vagina, Penis, Testicles, Sperm, Ovary, Egg, Nipples, Areolas, Breasts, Labia. Vagina, Penis, Testicles, Sperm, Ovary, Egg, Nipples, Areolas, Breasts, Labia. Over and over until sleep came.


Royal and I weren’t speaking that summer. That was the only reason I began hanging around Norah. He’d started dating a girl in our grade, Stephanie, a few weeks after school let out. I’d seen them riding bikes together, walking up our street holding hands, sitting together at the pool. Something had shifted between us and it was so slight that I hardly noticed it at first, and by the time I did, Royal was with Stephanie and I was gorging myself on ice cream in Norah’s living room. He’d tried to invite me along with them at first, assured me Stephanie was really nice and funny which only made it worse. “I have new friends too,” I told him harshly. “Norah and Luann are hilarious.” Royal looked puzzled, like he was trying to figure out who Luann was and when he realized my new friend was Norah’s obese mother, he smiled sadly and shrugged.

Over a plate of spaghetti that night, I twirled noodles around my fork over and over but never actually took a bite. I was still full from the bag of chips and orange soda I’d consumed at Norah’s that afternoon, and anxious at the thought that this may be the reality of my entire summer: Royal and Stephanie lying together in the sunshine, Norah and I wiping greasy fingers on our bare legs in the dark living room. My mother had recently instituted a strictly organic diet in our house. It wasn’t purely for health reasons though, I knew that much. For years, my mother had been trying to get pregnant. This was another effort to boost her chances of conceiving. My father and I shared mirror images of a birthmark—his was on his jaw and was the shape of California. Mine was on my right hand, faintly colored like a freckle—“reverse California” we called it. For years, my mom’s favorite joke was what the baby’s birthmark would be, as though it was predetermined he or she would have one. “Maybe it will be Michigan or Florida,” she’d say. “Or maybe upside down California.” But there was no baby.


On the days that Luann went to the grocery store or bingo or a Weight Watcher’s meeting, she still wore her muumuu, albeit a specially reserved one not for everyday use. She also wore oversized clip-on gemstone earrings, red lipstick and shiny satin ivory slippers which she hand-washed after every use. During the commercials of our favorite show, Luann told us she was going to find a husband and she’d signed up on an online dating site.

Luann met Jed a few weeks later, and Norah whispered to me that her mom had been staying up late, talking on the phone with him. Jed was a mechanic from Missouri, no children, never married. “You don’t know how rare that is for a man his age, girls” Luann told us. “Very desirable. I’m surprised no one else has snatched him up.” Jed sent photos to Luann every week, often with a check tucked around them. The photographs were always the same: Jed in front of a car with his arms crossed, unsmiling, or in front of a motorcycle with his arms crossed, unsmiling. He had a shaved head, and wore tight white t-shirts that hugged his biceps. I wondered if he knew just how big Luann was—how her breasts swung down to her belly underneath her muumuu, and how when her feet were on the footrest in front of her chair, I could make out a mass of flesh near her vagina that was smooth and swollen like she wasn’t wearing any panties. A new television appeared a few weeks after Luann started talking to Jed—two delivery men heaved it inside and set it on the floor as they removed the old set. Inches of  disturbed dust swirled around the men as they pulled on cords while Luann peered around them from one side of the room and then the other, “This is from my man,” she said proudly.


The final few weeks of school were so hot even the teachers seemed sluggish. They kept the blinds closed and the lights off, and put on movies for us to watch while they fanned themselves at the front of the room. Royal and I had planned to go straight to the pool when we got off the bus, but it was crowded with high school kids already out of school for the summer, and mothers with children too young to be in school. The water had a layer of oily sunscreen residue on the surface. We left and biked the mile to Fisherman’s Cove, a two-story, white shingled estate that sat on a large piece of property facing the river. A realty sign had been in the yard since winter. We drove together off of the driveway and onto the lawn, navigating the long slope to the water. Between an opening in the thick brush and pine trees was a small, sandy beach. I was covered in sweat, thirsty and already feeling the effects of a sunburn. I threw my bike to the side and ran down to the water, wading in to my waist before diving under. When I resurfaced Royal was swimming nearby, he flipped onto his back and floated face up, droplets of water sparkling his chest. There was a faint outline of hair down his sternum, and I looked away quickly.

“You think anyone else comes down here?” Royal asked.

I could hear people swimming and splashing farther down the river. “Probably not,” I answered. “It’s trespassing.”

“Let me rescue you,” he said.

I sighed. “Okay, but last time I swallowed a bunch of water. Make sure my head doesn’t go under this time.”

Royal and I had played this game since we were children and had seen a movie where a young girl was drowning in the ocean and a lifeguard swam into the waves and pulled her lifeless body to shore. The lifeguard then did a series of chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the girl coughed up water and was embraced by her worried mother. Royal and I had been fascinated and a game of saving one another had been born.

I assumed the position of a corpse, placing my face in the water and letting my body go limp. Royal flipped me over and hooked his arm around my neck then began swimming to shore with my body trailing behind him. As he pulled me on to the sand, the routine was that he lightly pump on my chest, blow air into my mouth and then I began to cough dramatically and was pronounced saved. It was a game I had grown bored of in recent years. We were too old for it. But Royal loved to boast how far he could swim using only one arm while pulling me with the other.

Royal was breathing heavily but smiling as he began the fake chest compressions. When he brought his face close to my own, I stayed frozen. My eyes were nearly closed but I could see the sun shining off his wet face, making him look shimmery and ethereal. He blew a burst of warm air into my mouth and began pushing on my chest again. Some unfamiliar feeling began to uncoil deep in my stomach. Royal’s hand brushed the side of my breast, inadvertently, and my nipple hardened. He repeated this routine several more times and I knew that he wanted me to dramatically cough. He wanted to be the hero, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted to stay like this with him touching me, breathing on to my face in the hot sun forever. He brought his lips back to my mouth one more time before declaring, “You’re dead.”


When Jed appeared at Norah’s that afternoon, I knew he hadn’t been invited. I was chewing on a piece of beef jerky when Luann ushered Jed inside and stood him in front of us while she went to her bedroom. Jed had a beard speckled with gray, unlike his photos, and his shaved head had patches of stubble around his high forehead. Jed stared at us then looked around the room. I stopped chewing and pushed a slimy piece of meat to the side of my mouth where the salt stung my cheek. Luann returned a few minutes later wearing her “out and about” muumuu, earrings and lipstick.

“Well, ain’t this some surprise!” she said, clapping her hands over her huge chest. Jed was standing in front of the television. He looked like someone who hadn’t slept in a very long time. He made a move with his arm, as if to pull her to him, but she maneuvered her large body away. “Look at this beauty!” Luann said, gesturing toward the new television. “You’re so good to me.” Jed squinted toward it then at us girls sitting on the couch again as though he had just noticed we were there. “Let me get you something to drink,” she said. “I bet you’re thirsty after that long drive.” Jed followed Luann into the kitchen and I could hear her banging around, turning on the faucet then cracking an ice tray.

Norah and I sat unmoving. I suddenly realized the television was still on. A man had a woman pushed against a wall, she looked frightened but also like she was a little bit excited. Her eyes were soft and her mouth was open. “Tell me you love me,” the man said.


I watched from the window as Stephanie and Royal walked past with their towels. I thought I saw Royal look toward my house but I ducked behind the curtain. I knew he was taking her to our spot, to Fisherman’s Cove, and it felt like a punch in the stomach. After a few minutes I got on my bike and slowed as I neared the pool. When I didn’t see Royal, I stopped my bike completely and looked more closely. Norah was there, sunglasses on and her head tipped back to the sun, her skeletal arms spread on either side of her. I pedaled on, beginning to sweat and pant, afraid I would come upon them as I rode. I thought of what I would say when I found them, how I would fake surprise at seeing them there, pretend that I had been planning an afternoon swim all along. I realized I wasn’t wearing a bathing suit. I was so distracted by my own rehearsal of how things would go that when I turned in to Fisherman’s Cove I didn’t notice the truck at first. It was pulled off to the side, front tires on the grass. I braked and stood at the edge of the house, out of view, wondering if someone had moved in to the house in the past few days.

It was quiet, no one was splashing or swimming from where I stood at the crest of the hill. I left my bike propped against the house and walked up to the driver’s side window of the truck. At first, the truck appeared to be empty, but as I peered inside, I saw a man slouched in the passenger seat, his head pushed against the headrest, his legs spread wide. Another man, seated in the driver’s seat was bent over the passenger’s waist, drawing his head closer and then farther away from the man’s stomach. The passenger had his eyes closed, a faint smirk on his lips. I had known it was him as soon as I looked in the window—his hair, his face, it was all him. But it was California that confirmed it—a stamp right on his jaw.


Royal and I slowly coasted our bikes in to the driveway of Fisherman’s Cove. “I can’t even see you,” Royal whispered in the darkness. It had been another hot day and the humidity hadn’t let up after sunset. We walked to the shore together, listening to the chaos of the night: crickets were chirping, cicadas were crying, and a few birds were still calling to one another. I stripped down to my bathing suit, keeping my back to him even though the darkness concealed us from one another. Royal was already in the water as I waded in. It was warm and welcoming.

“You ever swim naked?”

I hadn’t. “Have you?”

“I am right now.”

A swell of heat rushed over me.

“I don’t want you to look at me,” I said.

“I can’t even see you,” he answered, sincerely.

I walked back to shore and stepped on Royal’s swim shorts. I pulled the straps of my bathing suit down and wiggled it over my hips. It was true, I couldn’t even make him out in the darkness. I tentatively walked back into the water and felt a surge of adrenaline as I swam, the water enveloping my naked form. I swam out to the middle of the river and treaded water, throwing my head back to take in the night sky. It was cloudy and starless. I ran my hands over my naked belly and chest, over a small patch of hair between my legs that had appeared last winter, silky and fair, and had grown courser and darker in recent months.

Royal’s head popped out of the water, startling me. His hair was slicked back, trailing behind him in the darkness. A grumble of thunder grew louder. We swam side by side to the beach.

“You first,” I said.

“Let’s go at the same time.”

Royal agreed and on the count of three, we drew ourselves out of the water and into the shadows of the beach. We both put our clothes back on then sat side by side in the grass. A crack of lightening lit up the sky. We counted in unison until the next crash of thunder.

“It’s getting close,” Royal said.

I fell backward on to the sand. “Are you worried about school?” I asked.

“No. Are you?”

“I wonder if we’ll still be friends.”

“Why wouldn’t we?”

“I don’t know. Different classes, different people, different schedules. You’ll get your driver’s license four months before me. I’ll have to ride the bus by myself.”

“I’ll pick you up every day,” Royal said. He turned to me and placed his hand underneath my arm. I tried to squirm away but he’d placed his other arm on my stomach and was holding me to the ground with his weight. I laughed, pleaded with him to stop.

“You have to say it without laughing.”

I tried again, frantically moving against him as he tickled my neck and arms. In the midst of my flailing, I managed to roll on top of him and grab hold of his underarms while trying to protect my own. Pushing my body against him, I felt the same uncoiling feeling in my stomach I had those days before. Royal went toward for my neck and I fell down on top of him. I hooked one leg over his and felt something firm and resistant poke at my thigh. Royal had stopped tickling me and pushed his face in to my collarbone, breathing heavily.

“I give up,” he said in a low, unfamiliar voice.

My face was at the crown of his head. I could feel his wet hair against my cheek. He pushed his hips against mine and the same hardness jabbed at my leg. “Me too,” I said. Royal, slowly and deliberately, moved his palm up the length of my tank top, touching lightly at the side of my breast before placing his hand to the back of my neck. He let out a small sigh before raising his hips again against my own. I thought of the people in the Book, and the things that made them different. There was a heat coming from every part of my body as I pressed my weight on to him. Another boom of thunder, this time much closer, made us both jump. Royal released me and I stood, stumbling toward my bike. I felt woozy and unsteady on the silent ride home as a thin film of unfamiliar wetness dried on the inside of my thighs. I pedaled up my driveway and ditched my bike behind the porch just a moment before the rain came.


I met Norah in her front yard. The shade from the trees offering a cool reprieve from the blaring sun. I could see the straps of her bathing suit sticking out from under her shirt. Jed’s truck was in the driveway and I peered in the back of it at toolboxes and empty cans. As we walked to the pool together, I felt like my entire stomach was being sucked up by a vacuum, but when we opened the gate there was no sign of Royal or Stephanie. Norah slipped her shorts off, she looked skinnier than usual, her hip bones stuck out like little wings and the crevice in her chest was so deep that her bikini top stretched from one side of her chest to the other without touching in the middle.

We arranged our towels and passed her tanning oil back and forth. “You don’t think Jed has AIDS, do you?” she asked.

I had heard of AIDS, but I wasn’t completely sure what it was. “I don’t think so,” I said, peering across the pool at every person entering to make sure it wasn’t Royal.

“You can get it from kissing, you know, but mostly it’s the gays who get it.”’

“The gays,” I repeated out loud without meaning to.

“Yeah, boys who like boys,” she said matter-of-factly. Norah loved being the imparter of information. It didn’t matter how minute of a detail, knowing she was the first to inform someone else of something thrilled her.

“I know what it is,” I snapped.

“But anyone can get it,” she continued, rubbing more oil in to her legs. “If you do get it then you die. It’s like cancer except you can catch it from other people.” I wondered if my dad had AIDS. If he had AIDS, then my mom had AIDS, and I probably had AIDS too. I had tried hard to erase my last trip to Fisherman’s Cove from my mind but it resurfaced when I least expected it. “My mom’s breaking up with Jed though. She told me he’s too needy,” she continued. I secretly felt bad for Jed. He’d driven all this way for Luann and given her money and a new television, but I nodded to show my agreement. “You should shave your legs,” Norah said, pointing with the bottle. I looked at Norah’s legs, smooth and glistening in oil then at my own which had soft, fine hairs coating them. “My mom said you look like a sasquatch.”

Norah slinked toward the pool, but I stayed in the chair and wrapped the beach towel around my legs. I kept vigil, sure that if I thought of him hard enough, Royal would appear. I wasn’t sure anymore if I wanted him to come or not come. I thought of asking Norah if she wanted to go back to her house, but thinking of her damp, cold living room suddenly made me feel queasy. I didn’t want to see Luann again. I hoped Luann did break up with Jed so he could go back to Missouri and find a nice skinny woman who didn’t take all his money. I wanted to see Royal so badly I ached. I wanted to tell him about my dad and what I’d seen. I wanted to ask him what it meant and if he knew about AIDS and if he thought I had it. Maybe I had given him AIDS, too. I wanted to ask if he’d kissed Stephanie and brought her to our spot. I wanted to know if he still loved me, I wanted to tell him I was sorry, to ask him if we could start again.


I had the sensation that my insides were being wrung out like a dishcloth, slowly and methodically. I stumbled backwards and tripped towards my bike. Halfway home, I stopped in the middle of the road and leaned over the handlebars. Acid started to rise from my throat, my mouth watered, and I spit but nothing else came. The sun was still blaring down from the hazy sky, but I had goose bumps. I rode home, passing by the pool where I could see Royal sitting in a lawn chair by himself. He raised his hand to wave, but I pedaled by as fast as I could without looking back at him. I went straight to my room and climbed under my comforter without removing my clothes. My feet, cold and sweaty, stuck to the sheets and I rubbed them together, back and forth. My fingers were numb but I scratched at my right hand, dug my nail into reverse California as hard as I could. I pictured piercing my skin with scissors, cutting out the entire shape until just a hole was left. I closed my eyes hard. I thought of the Book tucked underneath me and I rolled away from it but could still see the smiling man, his soft penis hanging between his legs.


When Norah and I walked back home, we saw smoke drifting down the street and a motor, the noise like a weedwacker, was whining repeatedly. I could hear someone screaming, and then I saw Luann standing on her porch and waving her hands. Norah and I both stopped in front of my house to look toward the noise. Norah raised her hand to her forehead lazily to block the sun. When she saw her mother, she broke into a run, flip-flops smacking the pavement. I followed her. As I sprinted by, I saw Royal pushing past his screen door, coming to me. We stopped in the gravel driveway, but Norah ran straight up to the steps toward her mother who was crying, rocking her big body back and forth pulling on the porch railing so hard I thought it would pop right off. Jed was lying face down in the grass, his head was bent at an odd angle and blood was seeping through his t-shirt and pooling around him. Royal ran past me and past Jed, toward what was making the droning noise. A chainsaw was idling on its side, the chain going around and around, smoke coming in puffs out of the engine. Royal knelt down near it and when it shut off, the noise was replaced with Luann’s incomprehensible shouts and then sirens. I made a move to go toward Jed but Royal was there and he pushed me back. I kept looking and the blood kept coming—tendons and thick muscles in Jed’s neck were sticking out and the skin there was frayed and tattered.

At some point, my mom and dad appeared. And then police officers were asking Royal and me what we had seen. Jed was dead. Norah and Luann disappeared, my dad said they’d gone to the hospital to be with Jed. I wondered if they’d still watch the television he gave them, I thought they probably would.

My mom was gone for a while and when she came back, she had pizza. It had thick, stringy globs of cheese and oily pepperoni and the three of us ate it, standing quietly huddled together at the counter.


Royal sat down on the grass next to me. The gasoline and smoke smell was gone.  We stared down toward Norah’s house, the only light there was from the television illuminating the front window, flickering blues and reds and bright whites. Royal put his hand on mine, traced reverse California with his finger, softly touched the little scratches on it. Minutes went by and then hours and everything was so quiet. I wanted to remember every moment, but it was too hard and I was too tired. Sitting there together in the night, we looked outward, and kept looking but there was nothing left to see. Dark had swallowed the street whole.