TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 3

Undertow

 · Fiction

As if a starting pistol has been fired, the doors of the station wagon burst open and the children tumble out: thirteen-year-old Sally, her ten-year-old brother Jimmy, her sister Carrie, seven, and their new friends, Tina, fourteen, Thomas, eight, and Charles, five. Sally has started thinking of people’s ages as significant numbers they carry, numbers that have influence over their lives each year, although what that influence might be, she doesn’t know. Thirteen is traditionally an unlucky number, but she feels that her age, being unlucky itself, can protect her from misfortune, which magically it has. She crosses her fingers thinking of her family’s journey across the country two months ago from Chicago to Berkeley, California, where her father has a new job, and their rented house with all the old things back in place, the same dishes on the shelves of the maple cupboard in the dining room, just as they were in Chicago. Everything is different, yet the same. They have been very lucky.

The year, 1959, hangs at the edge of a new decade, like jumping off a cliff into the unknown, lucky or unlucky, depending on how you land. The roll of film in her Brownie box camera holds twelve pictures, two taken this morning before they left, the first of the bare back yard of their house, the next of the bedroom she shares with Carrie, their beds side by side with her desk between them, just as they were in Chicago. That one probably won’t come out because her camera doesn’t have a flash attachment. Now she has ten pictures left for the beach.

Sally’s mother, Joan, had insisted they leave early this morning, warning that they’d be too late to find parking, but after a drive over the mountains to the coast, they find that the lot is nearly empty. The gulls circle overhead while the mothers, Joan and her old friend, Rachel, sit for a quiet moment in Rachel’s station wagon after the children have escaped.

“There’s always parking here,” says Rachel, with an impatient sigh.

“The lot will be full by noon,” Joan responds.

Sally, who stands beside the car where she can hear them, thinks her mother might be right because even though they’ve been to the ocean only once before, on a crowded Saturday, this beach isn’t so different from the beaches on Lake Michigan: water all the way to the horizon, and a parking lot packed by noon even in the middle of the week. These California people seem to think Sally should be impressed by the ocean, but it seems the same as the beaches at home, except for the salty water and the huge, crashing surf.

Still a little dizzy from the long, winding drive, Sally pans her camera to find something that will look interesting in flat black and white, an image that might reveal some deeper dimension. Perhaps the car could represent a journey beyond itself, but no, it’s just an ordinary brown station wagon. She continues panning across the parking lot, across the horizon where the clouds are starting to lift and the ocean meets the sky. Like the movie director she wants to become someday, she searches for the perfect image. When she finds it — snap — she takes a picture of sun sparkling on sand and water, but eliminates the fog still clinging to the hills.

The mothers are forty, at least Joan is; she had her fortieth birthday the week before they moved. Rachel must be the same age because they went to school together, although Sally isn’t sure if they were in the same grade, but Rachel’s number is a mystery she won’t divulge no matter how nicely Sally asks.

“When you’re grown up, age doesn’t matter, you don’t care how old anyone is,” Joan has told Sally more than once, yet she seems proud of her own number, telling everyone she meets she’s just turned forty, and here she is, starting over in California, where it won’t snow in winter.

Numbers matter to Sally because Rachel’s eldest, Tina, is fourteen, which means she’ll be in high school next month. Already she barely speaks to Sally, who will be in eighth grade at a new school where she knows no one. Fourteen means that Tina helps their mothers unload the car while the younger children head to the beach. As they race each other to the ocean, Rachel calls after them to stop, pointing to a sign at the edge of the sand.

“This beach isn’t safe for swimming, so remember to stay near the shore. If you go in too far, the undertow can grab you and pull you out to sea.”

But they keep running.

“Here,” Joan says to Sally, handing her their old straw picnic basket with the unraveling handle. “You carry this. Tina will take the towels and blanket.”

Rachel and Joan lead the way, carrying the metal ice chest between them. Sally lets them all go ahead, walking as slowly as she can toward the sand, which has drifted over the parking lot, getting inside her sandals and sticking to the bottoms of her feet. As the mothers walk onto the beach, Sally sets down the basket and lifts her camera, imagining them in a static black and white square. Tina enters the frame, letting the blanket drag in the sand. Sally can’t see the ocean from this angle, just sand dunes rising to meet the sky where sunbeams pierce the last of the fog. She pans back and forth until she finds what she wants, the mothers with Tina behind them, silhouetted against the dunes, Tina dragging that blanket as if it’s a huge burden. She wears her sweatshirt with the hood up, and the mothers both have long dresses over their bathing suits. When they’re far enough away to look more like an ancient tribe crossing the desert than ordinary people at the beach, Sally quickly snaps the shutter, then follows them, stopping to read the sign that says: No lifeguard. Danger. Undertow. No swimming or surfing. What this undertow thing is remains a mystery, like ghosts, or the devil, an invisible sea monster she’s not sure she believes in. She runs to catch up with the others, the basket banging against her leg.

She doesn’t know these people all that well, although Joan told her she and Rachel have always been as close as sisters, even when they lived 2,000 miles apart. When Sally and her family first arrived, when they were spending a week with Rachel’s family, she heard Tina tell someone on the phone that people from back East were staying with them. Sally had never thought of Chicago as being East. To her, East was New York or Washington, D.C., places she’d been on family vacations, but now she’ll start the eighth grade as the strange new girl from “back East.”

She wants to be in high school. She wants Tina to be her best friend. In fact, Tina is just ten months older than she is, which shouldn’t matter at all. Joan has told Sally many times that Tina was her inspiration, that seeing a new baby made her want one, too. And then, before Sally was even born, Tina’s father took Tina and Rachel away to California, but here they all are, together again because Sally’s father has a new job, so they’ll all have a new life repeating an old history, except that Tina has so far refused to be Sally’s friend, as Rachel was Joan’s.

Sally raises her camera, looking through the lens to see what she can find, but there’s only the sky, clearing now, and, when she lowers the camera, her mother and Rachel spreading the blanket on the sand in a protected spot between two dunes, with Tina in the background, wandering toward the ocean. For the picture she wants, she needs a movie camera: herself and Tina with a group of high school friends, a beach party without mothers telling everyone to be careful, don’t go in too far, there’s an undertow, there’s no llifeguard. Sally wants to find night, the flicker of bonfires, music, dancing, and guys throwing the girls into the surf, like in movies she’s seen.

“Carrie!” her mother calls. “Jimmy, you listen. Stay near the shore. You heard Rachel: The waves can be dangerous. This isn’t like the lake, you know.”

But it’s not the waves, thinks Sally. It’s what you can’t see.

Carrie and Jimmy are really Caroline and James, as Sally herself is Sarah. Tina, Thomas, and Charles are just that because Rachel doesn’t believe in nicknames.

“I named my children what I wanted to call them,” she told Sally when she asked why the boys weren’t called Tommy or Charlie. “If I’d wanted a Tommy, I would have named him Tommy instead of Thomas.”

“But Tina is short for Christina,” Sally had protested.

“No, it’s not, Sal, ” explained Rachel. “Tina is herself, short for nothing. I wanted a Tina, so there she is.”

But Sally had caught her shortening her name to Sal, which she rather likes. Nicknames seem to her to be a sign of affection, so she’s pleased to feel that perhaps Rachel loves her.

She walks closer to the mothers, keeping them in her camera’s viewfinder. Her own mother is plump and cheerful in her brightly colored beach dress, her short brown curls blowing in the breeze, but Rachel fascinates her, in her long black dress, a wide-brimmed woven hat covering her head, one of those Mexican hats with loose blades of straw sticking up in a fringe around the edges.

Rachel takes off her hat and waves it at Sally. “Come on, movie director! Join us.”

Sally thinks Rachel is the most beautiful woman she’s ever seen. Her long blond hair is pulled back in a bun, and she wears dark glasses hiding eyes Sally knows are clear and green as emeralds. She sits in the shade of the dune pouring coffee from a thermos into a plastic cup while beside her Joan pulls her dress over her head and lies down in the sun in her red bathing suit. Sally focuses her camera on Rachel and snaps a picture of her looking out over the ocean, her cup in her hand, alone on the beach even though she’s surrounded by family and friends who won’t appear in the picture.

“Where’s Tina?” Sally asks the mothers, as she dangles her camera by its strap.

“Gone off somewhere,” Rachel says with a shrug.

Sally looks up and down the beach until she spots Tina walking toward the rocks at the far end, and sets out after her.

“You can leave your camera here so you won’t drop it,” says Joan, who’s already half asleep in the sun, but Sally says, “No, I want to take more pictures. I’m not going in the water.”

The truth is, she’s taken Rachel’s warning to heart: she’s scared of the undertow, whatever it is. She stays away from the water, watching the four children play in the surf as she walks down the beach. They wave and call to her to come in, but she continues on to the rocks, where she thinks Tina hides because she doesn’t want the embarrassment of a friendship with an eighth-grader.

As she walks, Sally takes off the white terry-cloth jacket she wears over her bathing suit, tying the sleeves around her waist. Pebbles and larger stones are now under her feet, so she steps carefully, looking down to see if any are worth picking up or photographing, but they’re dull, gray, ordinary things.

She can see Tina on the rocks in her new blue and white striped two-piece bathing suit, not a bikini because no girl their age would be allowed to wear a bikini, but a two-piece is almost as good. Sally wasn’t allowed to get one of those this year because her plain old green one-piece from last year still fits. Tina in her perfect suit is bending down to look at something Sally can’t see, her short blond hair blowing in the breeze. Sally lifts her camera, but the shot she wants is too far away. She walks closer, keeping Tina in her viewfinder until she can see her face, eyes squinting at something the rock holds. After she captures the picture, she turns and runs before Tina can notice her.

Away from the rocks, she walks down the beach, her eyes fixed on the glassy ocean beyond the surf, which looks so calm and safe she can’t believe an undertow exists, or what it might look like if it did. Her stomach quivers as she imagines a huge monster-wave sprouting from the depths, sucking Carrie, Jimmy, Thomas, and Charles into eternity. Now they’re racing each other along the edge of the surf, but she knows they won’t be satisfied with this game much longer, especially Jimmy, who wants the surfboard his mother forbids him to have.

Surfers have appeared on the beach, dressed like seals in slick black rubber, marching to the water and paddling their boards out beyond where the waves break. They come because the “No Surfing” sign means, according to Jimmy, that the waves here are the best. With no lifeguard, who’s going to tell them they can’t surf? Jimmy stops to watch. Sally raises her camera and captures him looking at two more surfers, who pass by without a glance.

Sally worries about Jimmy because she’s heard her mother call him a reckless child. That’s how she learns everything, by hanging at the edges of conversations, which is what she’s trudging back down the beach to do. When she’s near the blanket where Joan lies in the sun and Rachel still sits in the shade, she squats down beside the dune, just out of their view.

Rachel stretches and takes off her hat, then pulls her dress over her head to reveal the black bathing suit underneath.

“It’s all right to get a little sun,” Joan murmurs.

“You’re starting to burn,” Rachel says, with a flick of her fingers on Sally’s mother’s shoulder. “Sun can cause cancer.”

Sally wonders where Rachel gets her information, and if it’s true.

“Nonsense,” says Joan. “Sun gives your skin a little healthy color.”

“I cultivate the pale look,” Rachel answers, lying down carefully so that only her legs are in the sun.

Cultivate. Sally likes the sound of that word, the idea that you can cultivate yourself like a garden. She points her camera at Rachel’s legs. She wants another picture of this woman who looks so beautiful (cultivated, she thinks) even if her face is colorless. In a crowd of summer sun-burnished women, her porcelain complexion would stand out, but the view of her legs alone is somehow unappetizing, like unbaked loaves of long French bread. She takes the shot anyway.

“Do you think Michael wants to go back to Mexico City?” Joan asks.

“I don’t ask. I know he wants to see his son.”

Sally lowers her camera and stops breathing so she can hear better. This is more of the stuff no one knows she knows, about how Tina’s father left Rachel when Tina was two, and for three years lived in Mexico with another woman. His mistress, the mothers call her. This is why Tina is six years older than Thomas. There was that gap, when her father wasn’t there. Was with the mistress.

The son is new information. The mistress had his son. Another child, between Tina and Thomas. How old would he be? Nine or ten, Jimmy’s age? During this long-ago time when her husband was gone, Rachel and Tina visited Chicago, but Sally barely remembers this. She recalls images that seem like some movie she saw long ago: Rachel crying in a rocking chair, and Tina chasing Sally down the hall, catching her, pinching her. Were they two and three, or three and four? Tina wrestling with her on the lawn, holding her face down in the grass. And then they were gone, back to California, where Rachel had a job. And then Michael returned.

Sand blows into Sally’s face, making her sneeze, so the mothers say nothing more.

“Hey,” Rachel calls. “What are you doing back there?”

Sally comes out from behind the dune, her camera to her eye, focused on Rachel’s face. She can’t imagine why any man would want to leave Rachel, whose laughter sounds like the rippling waves of a lake. But now that they know Sally is here, they aren’t going to talk about the mistress or the child anymore.

Joan sits up, opens the cooler, and pulls out the tuna sandwiches she’s made, a bottle of lemonade, and a bag of apples. Rachel opens the basket and takes out the paper plates, cups, and a bag of the oatmeal cookies she baked last night. The sun is high now, the clouds completely gone. Sally pans her camera, picking out Jimmy and Carrie, Thomas and Charles, from the other children now scattered in the surf. She sees Tina wandering toward them from the shore.

Rachel stands up and waves, calling, “Thomas, Charles, Carrie, Jim! Lunch!” but they ignore her.

Tina comes up to the blanket and sits on the edge, looking out at the ocean while sniffing the air. “I hate tuna,” she says, taking an apple.

“Cookies!” Rachel shouts, which gets the children’s attention. Suddenly there they are, squirming all over the blanket, shedding the sand that has stuck to their damp bodies.

Rachel walks around the blanket to get out of their way, and drops down beside Tina, a hand on her shoulder, whispering something while Tina chews her apple. They’re so close, thinks Sally. When did Joan ever put a hand on her shoulder for a confidential chat? Not for a long time, not since the move, certainly. She wants Rachel to be her mother, or her mother to be more like Rachel.

Joan passes around the sandwiches.

“I want cookies,” Carrie says, but Joan makes her eat a sandwich first. They drink the lemonade so fast there’s none left when Sally tries to pour herself a cup.

“Take a picture of us,” Joan orders.

But Sally finds this scene too common, people posing on a blanket at the beach, stuffing tuna sandwiches into their mouths. She would prefer to sneak up on them when they don’t expect to have their picture taken, and then study the pictures later, searching for who they really are beneath the image. “I don’t want to,” she says.

“Come on,” Joan says. “You have a camera, so it’s your duty to keep a record of this day.” She and Rachel laugh as if to show her they’re joking about duty.

“If you don’t want to, I will,” Rachel says, taking the camera, which Sally gives up willingly because she would give anything to Rachel, who points the camera at her and clicks. “You should have a picture of yourself,” she says. “You look lovely today.”

It happens so fast Sally is astonished, and years later she’ll still feel surprised when she looks at this image: a beautiful girl she never saw in the mirror, a picture taken so quickly she isn’t posing, she isn’t smiling, she is just thirteen years old, her dark curly hair held back in a ponytail, a blueprint of who she might become. It’s a message transmitted over the years from Rachel to her: You are lovely. Don’t forget.

Then Joan grabs the camera and shoots Carrie and Jimmy grinning the picture grins that look like every other photo of them, then Tina takes over, calling, “All right, who wants to be next?” as Charles and Thomas pose before her with their frozen smiles, waiting for the camera to capture the smooth surface of their faces instead of the active little boys Sally knows.

As the four children run back to the shore, Sally takes her camera from Tina and shoots their retreating backs, a view of them she finds typical because aren’t children always running away?

“They’re perpetual motion machines,” Joan remarks. “It wears me out just watching.”

Charles shrieks as he drops his cookie in the sand. “Oh, Lord,” says Rachel. “I suppose he expects me to bring him another. “Come back!” she calls to him. She picks up the bag of cookies and waves it, but he decides to follow the others to the edge of the water.

Rachel sighs. “Not even cookies can draw him back to me.”

“It’s independence,” says Joan. “That’s the stage he’s in, saying No to everything. He’s practicing for this fall when he’ll have to leave you for kindergarten.” Joan talks a lot about stages of childhood, which she’s learning about in her education classes. She’s been working on a teaching credential, which she’ll finish here in California to get a good job so that all her children can go to college, whether they want to or not, without having to work to pay their own way like she and their father did. And if anything happens with Sally’s father’s new job, she’ll have a well-paying professional career, so they’ll be all right. This Sally doesn’t find reassuring. What could happen?

She walks away from her mother, Rachel, and Tina, who have all stretched out on the blanket, until she’s far enough away to get them in the frame. They look in different directions, Rachel toward the beach and the children, Tina at the rocks, and Joan at the sky. This is how Sally wants to remember them: closely unconnected. But the camera won’t click and the film won’t advance any further, so she rewinds, walks back to the blanket, and dumps her camera next to her mother.

“It’s finished,” she states.

Joan sits up to scan the ocean. “What?”

“I’m out of film. Because of those pictures you took.”

“It was only a couple of pictures,” Joan argues. Her own camera broke on the cross-country drive when Jimmy knocked it off a picnic table in a park where they’d stopped for lunch, so she reminds Sally that her camera was their gift to her last Christmas. “And who paid for the film, anyway?” Joan adds.

“Me.”

“And who gives you an allowance to buy things with?”

Joan’s tone is dangerous. They are slipping into the family money argument that has been circling around her father’s new job, his delayed salary. All this means to the children is cuts in their weekly allowance and no new clothes for school, but Sally has been hiding around corners, listening for details.

“You’re a scientist, you could work anywhere. Why work for the government?” her mother has said repeatedly.

“The pay. The benefits. Retirement,” were his sensible words in response.

“So tell me again, when will you see that pay?”

“As soon as I get clearance.”

This “clearance” has to do with security, with not being a Communist, which of course he isn’t, but still they wonder how the government will interpret his work for Stevenson’s presidential campaign back in 1952, or that summer camp where he worked in the kitchen when he was seventeen, which later turned out to have been run by Socialists. If he doesn’t get that clearance, he won’t get this job, although he’s already working. Will he be paid for what he’s done? Of course. But they’ve moved out here, sold their house in Chicago, so where would they be if he loses this job? Stuck in a shabby rental house in Berkeley, living off the money from the sale of their old house? It’ll be a year before Joan gets her teaching credential. She’ll have to go back to waitressing to support them and pay for the rest of her education.

“I can always find another job! Chemists can work anywhere, you know that. You’re the one who wanted to live in California, so here we are.”

“You should have stayed with the plastics company. Or, we shouldn’t have moved out here so soon. You should have gone ahead first, until everything was settled.” There was an edge to her voice as she listed all these shoulds.

Joan said nothing to the children because she wanted them to believe everything was fine: their successful father would be paid, and then they’d buy a house.

“Can’t we buy this house?” Sally didn’t want to move again.

Joan laughed, thinking of the peeling paint, the crack in one corner of the living room window, and the tall weeds in the front yard. “We’ll have a better house,” she promised. “We’ll live up in the hills, near Rachel.”

Remembering all this, Sally crosses the sand to the rocks at the far end of the beach. She shouldn’t have mentioned the camera, the film, her comments an opening for Joan’s fear. She hates the things unseen beneath the surface, her mother smiling on this beach while the money leaks away. But of course her father will get his clearance and a regular paycheck. How could it be otherwise?

As she climbs the rocks, she can see all over the beach: scattered groups of people on towels and blankets, children running in the surf, their mothers watching. There’s Thomas and Jimmy wrestling on the shore, Jimmy winning because he’s bigger, Thomas running back to the blanket where his mother sits beneath her hat. Joan is stretched out on her stomach facing the ocean. Sally settles herself on a flat warm rock.

Tina runs down the beach, dodging in and out of the surf as she makes her way back to the rocks, cantering, slowing, then running again, glancing at the surfers as they ride the waves to shore. When she reaches the rocks, she climbs until she finds Sally.

“There you are,” Tina says. “Isn’t it nice up here where you can see everything?”

Sally is suspicious of Tina’s sudden friendliness, which she suspects comes from Rachel, who probably told Tina to be nice to this new, lonely girl back there on the blanket at lunch when they murmured together. Rachel’s kindness almost makes Sally angry with its subterranean hint that, needing someone to be nice to her, she is a failure. She’d rather be Tina, with a mother like Rachel, the two of them so filled with perfection and generosity that they can be nice to lonely girls.

Tina crawls across the rock. “Come on, I’ll show you something.”

Sally follows, climbing down to a lower rock where there’s a bowl-like depression that holds water. Tina crouches beside it.

“Look.” She stirs the water with a stick, bringing it to life. Little black fish dart about and a blue bug skates across the surface. There’s a strand of brown seaweed on top, and something green growing beneath the water. “It’s a tide pool,” Tina explains. “A whole miniature universe. When the tide’s high, the ocean comes all the way up these rocks and washes everything away, and leaves new stuff. Neat, huh?”

Sally shivers in the hot sun, wondering how it would feel to have her life wiped away, not just once, but over and over. Her friends back in Chicago, starting eighth grade without her, her old house, with new people living in it, all washed away, and herself repeating a new beginning at every high tide. She wants to ask if this is what undertow means, but is afraid of sounding stupid.

“That’s what keeps it alive,” Tina is explaining. “If the ocean didn’t wash it away, this tide pool and everything in it would dry up and die.”

Sally doesn’t want to think about how everything has to change to stay alive. “Why don’t you have a real name?” she asks. “Tina’s actually a nickname for Christina. If you had a full name like that, you could change it. You could be Chris next year in high school.”

“Tina’s my real name. It’s what’s on my birth certificate.” She looks out at the ocean. “I could call myself anything I want: Chris, Sue, Lynn. I could pick any name next year and tell everyone that’s what I want to be called. I think Sally’s really kind of a childish name. All you guys have baby names: Jimmy, Carrie, Sally.”

“I could be Sarah, my real name,” Sally answers. “Or Sal.” She likes the name Rachel gave her. A Sal would be brave, afraid of nothing, not even leaving all her friends to start over in California where she only knows Tina, who doesn’t count because she’s been told to be friendly. “Yes, next year I’ll be Sal,” she says, chin in the air.

Tina stirs the tide pool again. “Actually, Tina suits me fine.” Like a deer she leaps back up onto the flat rock.

Sally follows, sitting down beside her and surveying the beach, the children, their faraway mothers on the blanket, no doubt talking freely now that they can’t be overheard. She wonders what new details she’s missing as she watches Jimmy jump in and out of the surf, edging farther out than their mother would want him to go. She thinks Tina might know something about her father and his mistress.

“Have you ever met your other brother, the one in Mexico?” she asks.

Tina stiffens. “How do you know about him?”

“I listen. I hear stuff. I’ve heard that your father lived in Mexico for a while. With his mistress.”

Tina shrugs. “That’s something I don’t remember. He was back by the time I was in kindergarten, he wasn’t gone long. That woman had a baby. Miguel. Which is the same as Michael, after my dad. I’ve never met him, but Dad talks to him on the phone. My mom won’t let him come visit us, like my dad wants. The little boys don’t know about him yet.”

Tina talks in a monotone, scratching on the rock with a pebble as if she were writing the story. “I hear them fight about it sometimes, late at night when the kids are asleep. She hates that he sends them money. She says he has to choose which family he wants. She doesn’t want us to meet.”

So we have that in common, thinks Sally. We listen.

“Aren’t you curious?” she asks.

“Sometimes.”

Sally tries to imagine Rachel fighting and being so unkind she won’t let the boy visit his father, his sister, his brothers, an ugly Rachel who lives beneath the generous Rachel she sees and admires, the woman who would want Miguel to live with them forever.

“Do you see that cute guy out there?” asks Tina, pointing to one of the surfers. “I’ve been watching him all day.”

Sally can’t see anything special about him from this far away, zipped into his wetsuit like the others. With their strange black outfits and uniformly short hair, she thinks they all look like they just landed from outer space.

“When you’re closer you can see he has a great smile,” Tina says, with a sigh. “I’d love to surf, but my mom thinks it’s too dangerous up here. In L.A., everyone surfs and the water’s so warm you can just wear your bathing suit. I might go to college down there.” She pauses, then asks, “Have you ever kissed a guy?”

“What?” Sally feels like she’s just been plunged into the cold ocean, dangerous waves rising around her.

“I have,” Tina continues. “A guy I dated a couple of months ago. Well, it wasn’t really a date, we went to the movies with a bunch of people, but he kissed me there, in the dark. If you haven’t done it yet, you should really practice so you’ll know what to do.”

Sally says nothing, but feels her heart lurch when Tina puts an arm around her shoulder to pull her closer. “This is how he did it at the movies,” she says.

Sally feels Tina’s breath along her cheek, and turns her face towards her.

“That’s right,” murmurs Tina as her mouth lands on Sally’s, lips moving against hers, then opening, her tongue flicking between Sally’s lips, pushing them apart, probing, sliding along her teeth.

Sally pulls away, suddenly remembering, for no reason, a dream she had about a car with her whole family in it, her father driving up a hill so steep that the car flips back until it’s upside down.

“Don’t,” says Tina. “You were doing so well.”

When she kisses her again, Sally leaves her wet lips apart, moving her own tongue into Tina’s mouth, surprised that this is how kissing is done, glad to know what to do while at the same time anxious for this to stop. It confuses her to realize that those rubber-suited surfers smelling like old tires wouldn’t be half as nice to kiss as Tina, and that this kiss is certainly not something Rachel told Tina to do. On the other hand, maybe it’s a kiss that means they’ll be friends, like Rachel and Joan. Or they might not even remember they kissed because there’s no camera to record it. Instead, there’s Thomas’s head poking up over the rock.

“Ha!” he shouts. “Mom was asking where you were, but I knew.”

“Get down,” says Tina, pushing Sally away. “You’re too young to be climbing these rocks.”

“Am not,” says Thomas, pulling himself up beside them.

“Brat,” Tina mutters. “I certainly don’t need another one of you around.”

Sally laughs at this veiled reference to Miguel, though nothing seems funny. She feels her own life beginning to bubble under the surface, as if she’s gone too far out.

“Look at Jimmy,” says Thomas.

Sally follows his pointing finger and sees Jimmy swimming along the beach beyond where the surf breaks. She stands up. Their mothers are lying down now, probably still talking, not noticing.

“They should be watching!” Sally starts to scramble down the rocks.

Tina follows her. “He’ll be fine. My dad says the warning signs aren’t true, that’s why we come here. The undertow isn’t really so bad at this beach.”

“But there’s no lifeguard!” Sally starts to run as soon as her feet hit the sand, listening to Thomas and Tina breathe as they run behind her.

When she gets to the edge of the surf, Jimmy comes tumbling to shore a few feet from her, crawling out of the foam.

“Hi,” he says as he gets up. His face has gone very white, and he’s shaking. “The water’s cold,” he gasps.

Sally takes his hand, something she hasn’t done in years, and they walk up the beach.

“Are you O.K.?” Tina asks from behind them.

“Sure,” Jimmy says, and then to Sally, “It’s true what they say. Something strong was pulling me so I couldn’t get back to the beach. It sucks you underneath the water.”

“You shouldn’t go out so far,” Sally scolds.

“Listen, don’t tell Mom, O.K.?”

Sally wishes there were a picture of the two of them walking hand in hand on the beach, both of them rescued.

When they get back to the blanket, Rachel is sitting up. “Time to count heads,” she says. “Jimmy, Thomas, all right. And there’s Carrie and Charles digging a hole to God knows where.” She stands and waves, calling their names.

Joan stands up. “Your hair’s wet,” she says to Jimmy. “Did you go all the way in like I told you not to?”

“I just lay down in the surf at the edge,” says Jimmy. “It couldn’t pull me in.”

Joan frowns as she rubs his hair with a towel. Sally fears an edge of anger coming, but Joan just says, “Well, I hope not.”

They pack up and reverse their arrival, the caravan across the beach, the children walking slowly, damp and sandy, the mothers silent, having said everything Sally missed when she was on the rock with Tina. Tina lags behind, dragging the blanket, and Sally comes last of all, carrying the empty camera, the film rolled up in the pocket of her beach jacket.

She looks through the viewfinder, imagining what she sees there is simple, flat, black and white, but it doesn’t work. Instead, she sees everything exposed: sunlight flashing off car mirrors and dented bumpers, the colorful glitter of ripped candy wrappers on the ground, a seagull poking at a red and white soda can, while another pecks at an empty white, blue, and red box of cracker jacks. She wishes it would all wash away so the pristine morning could return. When she catches the toe of her sandal in a crack in the pavement of the parking lot, she almost trips.

“Watch it!” Joan calls to her.

But she’s afraid of what she might see beneath the day’s clutter if she watches too closely.

 


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