We were lying on the floor of Anna’s bedroom in the old house off of Hamilton Avenue. It must have been sometime in August because I remember the carpet was rough and painful against my sunburnt arms.
“Joey kissed me,” Anna said.
Her room had a lot in common with all our rooms at that age: the walls were painted a dusty shade of pink, but she had covered as much of them as possible with movie posters and band posters and pictures of good-looking young men who were lead singers or actors or soccer players. On top of her dresser was an old blue stuffed rabbit.
“No he didn’t.” I flipped a page in the thick, glossy Cosmo we had stolen from Anna’s older sister and looked up to meet her smug expression. “Did he?”
“Last Saturday,” she said, rolling over onto her back and looking up at the ceiling. “At the beach. Remember when you and Laura went to go look at the tide pools around the cliffs and Joey and I stayed behind at the wharf?”
“Well, that was when.”
I bit my lip. The magazine was open to an advertisement that could have been for perfume or hair
gel or lip gloss; a young model in a swimsuit top and cut-off jeans walked casually along a beach, her sandals held in one hand and sand caressing the soles of her feet and toes. I liked the way her lips were relaxed and slightly parted, as if she were just about to speak.
Anna gave an exaggerated sigh.
“Well don’t be mad about it,” she said. “I knew you’d be jealous, but please don’t be mad.”
“Jealous? Why would I be jealous of you kissing Joey?” Surprised, I pushed myself up with my burnt arms and sat cross legged. Anna wasn’t looking at me; she was twirling a strand of curly black hair around her finger.
“Because now I’ve been kissed and you haven’t and you’ll be mad and think I’m rubbing it in
your face if I tell you about it. But Audrey, you’re my best friend and I trust you with everything and I couldn’t stand it if you were mad at me.” She said this very quickly, her words running together and tripping over themselves, as if each one wanted to be the first to be heard.
“I’m not mad,” I told her, glancing down at the magazine again. The woman’s bare feet made me think of walking along the beach with Laura, that same Saturday that Anna and Joey had kissed. Our beach was rocky and treacherous with jagged, wet stones. I wondered what it would have been like to go barefoot with Laura along the sand.
When I think about that Saturday now, it comes to me in bits and pieces. Laura is, somehow, clearer than the rest. I remember her red tank top and her black cargo shorts with the small tear near the left pocket. We had wandered away from the wharf and Laura was ahead of me, jumping lightly along the rocks. She was a beacon and she stands out in my memory now, a light in the fog. I can still trace in my mind, in the place deep inside myself where I keep all of the important but ordinary images that are necessary to the preservation of my soul, the places where the sun reflected off of her shoulders.
I slipped and fell on the rocks and the barnacles, with their vicious chalk teeth, cut a deep gash along the top of my foot. I put out a hand to stop my fall and eased myself into a sitting position on the rocks. Threads of red ran across my dirty skin and mixed with the salt of my sweat and the ocean. The blood flowed freely until it gathered in the crevasses of my flesh and stained my sandals.
I called out to Laura and she turned and danced back toward me across the rocks. When she reached me, I had taken off my wet and bloody sandal and was chewing the inside of my cheek in pain as I attempted to wash out the wound with salt water. Laura knelt down in front of me and held my cut foot in her freckled hands.
“Does it look very deep?” I asked.
“Oh Audrey,” she said, pushing her strawberry hair out of her eyes. “I think you’re going to have
a scar.” Offering her hand, she helped me to my feet and I remember that her fingers were stained with
my blood. She didn’t seem to mind, didn’t even bother to wipe her hands clean on her shorts, she just ran them through her hair in spite of the filth.
The tide was out as far as it would go and we walked between the pools, sometimes crouching down to get a better look and imagining we were seeing miniature underwater worlds. For me, the main purpose for venturing out to the tide pools was starfish. You could sometimes find them under the wharf, clinging to the thick wooden pillions, but it wasn’t the same as finding them in the pools. When the starfish were on the beach you could pick them up and hold them in your hands, as long as you kept your fingers away from the strange, alien mouths at their centres, feeling the bumps and ridges of their skin.
She told me she had never held a starfish. For some reason that I could not quite pin down, I wanted find one for her and watch her eyes as she cradled the thing in her fingers. I wanted to see her lips twitch into a smile as the creature twisted against her skin. As she wandered between the pools, her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her shorts and her head bent downward, I turned over rocks and sought out places where the starfish may be hiding. I looked in cool, covered, dark places – places that would offer protection from the violent heat of the afternoon sun. It didn’t take me long; the animal was clinging to the underside of a seaweed coated ridge in the stone and released its grip without much resistance. It was thick and solid, with six royal purple arms. Laura had wandered back toward me and she knelt down close to me as I lifted it from the tide pool. I stood up straight and held the starfish out to her with both hands,expecting her to take it from me.
“I found one,” I said.
Laura placed her hands on my shoulders and leaned toward me. Our faces were close together and I can still remember the scent of salt water and her coconut sunscreen. She took a deep breath and I could hear the sound of the air between us passing into her. Then I felt her blonde hair blow against my cheek as she touched her lips softly against mine and kept them there for a moment, perfectly still.
Neither of us moved. I became conscious of all sorts of strange and insignificant details in that second. As the blush gathered at the back of my neck and rose to my ears I noticed the way my t-shirt stuck to the sweat on my back. I noticed the sting and throb where the salt water had entered the cut on my foot. I noticed Laura’s hands on my shoulders as she increased the pressure of her grip. Between us, I held the starfish in both hands, its solid weight rooting me to the rocks and beach.
Laura pulled away from me. Keeping her hands on my shoulders she said, in a voice that was rougher than I was used to: “Let’s not tell the others.”
We walked back across the stones side by side. I kept hoping, in a hollow sort of way that I was too young to comprehend, that she would reach across the inches between us and wrap her pale fingers around mine.
But I knew she wouldn’t, and she never did.
I can’t recall what Anna told me about the things that had passed between her and Joey that day. To be honest, I am not sure that I was listening. There must have been a time when I would have clung to her words and admired her for being the subject of a boy’s undivided attention, but in that moment, all of it seemed trivial. That day, on Anna’s bedroom floor – on her pink carpet, surrounded by her pink walls – I felt for the first time, that there was a huge canyon between us. The worst part was that she didn’t see it. I was looking at her from across a vast and empty space that neither of us would ever be able to bridge, but she gave no indication that she noticed the distance.
I was still gazing absently at the model in Cosmo when she finished her story. “The first time a boy kisses you,” Anna said seriously. “Promise you’ll tell me all about it?”
I remember assuring her I would as I gazed down at the magazine, unable to look at her eyes. Her dark skin was only a few inches from mine, yet I felt that if I reached out to touch her I would find only air and sunlight beneath my fingers.
“Good,” she said as she took the Cosmo and turned to the next page. I knew it was only my imagination that her voice sounded like an echo, but I couldn’t help but feel that she was only a reflection of something I couldn’t quite see. “I’m so glad we can tell each other everything.”