In the third story from my collection, two adolescents caught up in a first love retreat to the lagoon where they had their first kiss and learn the ugly truths about one another.
HERE WE ARE. You told your ma you were at Sandy’s house and she believed you again. Duckweed has covered the lagoon and made it nuclear green—the bullfrogs blend in. I see one of their long, pink tongues snare a fly and wonder what it’d taste like. The sky is white but the sun is strong and the clouds look like smudges. You just took my hand for the first time. Even after this day’s over, I know in my head that I’ll keep these lazy moments with you—I’ll think about them till my memory’s all gone.
I can see you so well. You wear pink because you’re such a girl but that’s ok. I often think of that pink skirt of yours. Sometimes while I’m lying in bed, I toss a baseball across my room and imagine you running after it—that pink skirt waving at me to follow. Now it’s draped across the warm grass and blowing ever so slightly. The wind swirls dandelion dust between us and you sneeze so politely that it’s barely a sneeze at all. When I sneeze, I let it all out.
Sundays, when you sing in choir, your eyes close during high notes. I sit in the back with my ma and my brother Drake and try not to take any money from the pot being passed around. I don’t wear a tie because I don’t own one, but one time you said I looked handsome anyway. You talked to me after church that day even though your family looks the other way when they see mine in town.
I’ve heard your friends call me names but I know you don’t think like they do. They make fun of my ma and her ways and for Drake being a senior for the third time. They all laughed when I told them we eat canned soup for dinner, but you didn’t. All I know is, when we go off on our own, your eyes are too blue for me to care about what anyone says. Mine are brown, and I secretly wish I could have yours, just for a day. I’d borrow them and see the world how you see it and wonder if it’d look any different.
Your ma hates me because my jeans are muddy and I act all wild. When I heard her say that, I went right up to her after church and croaked like a frog in her face. I know you wanted to smile and laugh along with me but couldn’t let her see that. She also says I don’t always like to comb my hair and that my ma should be ashamed for never making me cut it neat. I know you like to comb each side of your head a hundred times before bed and prayers. I think that’s foolish but would never tell you so. It’s also foolish that you pray all the time, but I tell you I do as well.
Now our hands are getting sweaty from the sun and the grass is hot against my feet. You let go of my hand and cover your legs with your skirt. I shimmy down towards the lagoon, roll up my jeans, and dip my feet in until the green water reaches my ankles.
“That water’s dirty,” you tell me, but I like it just fine.
“Frogs don’t seem to mind it,” I say, and watch them as they watch the lagoon.
You refuse to answer because you couldn’t care less about frogs. I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever agree on anything. Your ma said you’re too young for boys, but I like you more because we’re kind of a secret. Once Drake saw us standing side by side after church and said he could tell I had it good for you. He’s hounded me ever since, but I pretend like there’s nothing between us.
Slime is clinging to my feet, and I leave a trail of green footprints as I walk back towards you. You make a face but you’re giggling and so I do the same. I take it too far and when I wiggle my toes in the air, bits of duckweed hit your skirt and you’re mad. You stomp away and your face is red. I hate when you cry because I know you’ll do it for a while. Now you run along the edge of the lagoon as tall weeds slap you in the face. I find you over in the shady part, rubbing your skirt against a rock, which just makes it worse.
“Sorry,” I say, and join you on the large rock. We hover over the lagoon. Our reflections ripple and we look like an alien’s shadow in the murky water. Your knees are tucked under your chin and your tears are dirty because your hands were all over the rock and then you touched your eyes. A fly buzzes around your blond hair, and I pretend like I’m a frog about to lap it up. You laugh even though you don’t want to. Soon you cough up those last bits of tears.
“It’s a stupid skirt anyway. My mama makes me wear it but I don’t like it much,” you say, but as you gaze down, I can tell that it meant something to you and you’re upset. I think that sometimes you forget how you’re supposed to be when you’re with me. Sometimes, I think you also wonder why you bother to hang around.
I move in to sit real close, close enough to smell the cherry candy you’ve been sucking on, close enough to feel nervous.
“Feel better if my jeans got all mussed up?” I ask, and roll them down over my green slime ankles. Now they’re soaked at the bottom and heavy.
“I guess,” you say, and shrug your tiny shoulders. A smile appears at the corner of your mouth, and I know we’ll play the game where I do something silly to embarrass myself so you’ll feel better.
“I’ll take them off and throw them in,” I say. “Then there’s no way you can feel bad about a few spots on your skirt.”
You lick your lips, and as you nod, all your blond curls bounce around. I remember one time at recess when you, Sandy, and Amelia were teasing me because I wore the same shirt two days in a row, and I yanked one of your curls until you screamed in my ear. I didn’t let go until our teacher Mrs. Eloman came by and gave me a good scolding. What would you do if I wrapped a curl of yours around my finger right now? Would you scream or let me grab another?
“What’re you doin’?” you ask, as I twist a curl around my finger and admire my handiwork. Our lips are close, and I think about doing what Drake tells me I should do. But then I also think how sad I’d be if it made you so mad that you’d get up and leave.
I can tell afternoon is ending because the outline of the sun through the clouds is sinking real low. It almost touches the far side of the lagoon, but then decides to just hang out for a while. Dragonflies float towards it and become specks. Once it finally dips, the lightning bugs will come out. That’s when I’ll make my move. Drake told me about the right kind of mood the other day when we were tossing a baseball and that nighttime is easier to make things happen with girls. Even though I didn’t really know what he meant, I knew he was right because his grin was wide and he was paying attention to me instead of pushing me around or closing his bedroom door in my face.
“That’s when you’ll get the pants off,” he winked, and beamed a screwball into my glove.
So even though the air was getting cool, I let go of your curls and unbutton my jeans, not caring how cold I’ll be. At first, you watch the frogs leap around, but your eyes can’t stay away from me for long. I stand up on the rock in my underwear and ball up my jeans, ready to toss.
“You just foolin’,” you say, but I’m not, and as I throw them into the water you make a move as if you’re gonna leap after them. I’m giddy and laugh until I feel a pop in my gut. But then you cross your arms. I can tell you’re not pleased.
“What?” I say. My legs shake as the sun stops grazing the lagoon. The air becomes bitter and moist.
“You’re just silly,” you say. “Now whattay’ll do? Your mama’ll have a fit.”
“She’d have a fit even if my jeans weren’t ruined. Fits are what she does well. I’m just savin’ her the trouble.”
You smile at me like you think I’m slow, and I know you kinda do, but I’m not. I know you can’t understand why math and stuff don’t come easy for me, but that’s really all I have trouble with.
“How you gonna get it?” you ask. The cherry candy crunches in your mouth, and you study the grass like it’s gonna answer your question. I know I’m just another frog on a lily pad to you, blending into the green of the lagoon and wondering if you’d ever think of me as more.
I shrug my shoulders. My knees stab together as the sun sizzles into the ground. I think of how dirty my fingernails are and how clean yours will always be. I think of us years from now and wonder if this day by the lagoon will feel like a part of someone else’s life.
You stand up, dust off your dress, and walk towards me biting your lip. You’re so little that I feel grown up when you stand next to me. Your cheeks are red like they always are when they’re hot. You twirl your dress around between your fingers, and I can see that you want to take it off and jump into the water with me. We’d dip down into the black lagoon, barely able to see each other because the duckweed on the surface would tuck us in good. Our feet would kick out to find one another, and I’d feel your toe poke my leg. Would I kiss you and taste the water between us? Would we wonder how long we could stay under or forget that we needed to breathe?
“You think that water’s cold?” you ask, when just minutes ago, our skin was sticky, the sun was high in the sky, and the thought of a good swim seemed like a million dollars.
“Naw,” I say, but the sun is almost gone and the twilight is full of chill. The sky’s a deep red like your candy, and I feel so weird inside I think I might barf some.
“Could always say we fell in,” you say and shrug your shoulders up to your ears. You’re so sweet and innocent that I couldn’t imagine anyone ever saying no to you.
“That’s smart,” I say, and take off my shirt. My chest heaves because I’m breathing hard, but then I breathe harder because you step closer. You smell like girly shampoo and your eyes are so kind, so kind. That’s when you take my hand and there’s something between us as we hold hands and the red sky fades to black—something in your touch, something that makes me forget which ones are my fingers and which ones are yours. We take hands, jump in, and are caught in the air like dragonflies in the sky for what feels like minutes. Down under, the water smells like earth. I can taste it in my mouth and swallow a big gulp as I sink down. It fills my eyes, but when I look up, I can kind of see your pink skirt waving at me, so I swim up.
The air is cold as I break through the surface and slime is all around my face. It’s all in your hair, but you don’t care and you’re giggling and giggling away like I’m tickling you hard. And so I do that, I paw you and get you good in the ribs until you’re struggling and laughing. A foot kicks me in the leg, and I grab onto your shoulders to push you down. I want us beneath the surface where no one can see. I want our first kiss to be in a different world than our own.
We go down and bubbles rise to the top. You have your eyes shut tight and I want to tell you to open them. I want you to see me, but you’re stubborn, and I need to kiss you now. So I do. Even underwater, I taste the cherry candy on your lips, and we stay like that for a while. My eyes are open the whole time, but the water’s so dark that I can only see you floating around in the never-ending blackness. Your cheeks are puffed out, and I hold onto my little blowfish until I feel a strain in my limbs. Then I pull you towards the surface and wonder if when we break through everything will be different under the stars.
Above the water, it’s getting darker and the wind’s whistling a tune. I look for your smile, but you’re chattering your teeth, and your eyes look dull. You whisper something, but I can tell that you’re talking to yourself and not even thinking about me. You wade through the dark green ripples and are so soaked when you get out of the lagoon that you look even smaller then you usually do. I wish I had a towel to dry you off. When I get out of the lagoon, I’m shivering, too. I think that maybe we’d shiver less if we shivered together, but I feel weird suggesting that.
Then you’re crying again, little tears, little sniffles, your arm running under your nose. When I ask you why you’re crying you tell me you don’t know, and I have no idea what to do. Your clothes cling to your body and your hair is thick with sludge. I tell you sorry a million times over but you don’t care to hear any of it.
“What if my mama finds out?” you say. “And my father? What would I say? Why did you do that?”
“Naw, that won’t happen. They won’t know. I did it cause I felt…”
“I’m so wet. They’ll know something happened.”
“You fell in. ‘Member?”
Your lips are blue, and I don’t like how you’re looking at me. Just minutes ago it was all so nice. In just a short time, things changed lots. What happened to the girl before we dove in?
“You don’t know anything,” you say. You say it like you’re better than me.
“Sure I do…” I say, and kick at the weeds. “I know lots…”
Now you’re thinking about what you’re gonna say. I know you’re smart, and I know you like to say the right things. I’ve never been good at arguing.
“If my mama asks me what happened, I’m gonna tell her it was you. I never met you here. You came by and pulled me in.”
“No, tell her you fell in…”
“That’s not what happened. You pulled me in and I didn’t like it.”
“But you were laughing.”
You shake your head.
“You didn’t like none of it?” I ask. My voice rises so high that it floats into the clouds.
“Nuh-uh, none of it. You’re just a boy and I’m not like that. My mama wouldn’t like it at all if I was like that.”
“It was just a kiss,” I say, like it was no big deal, but it was such a big deal that my heart hurts.
“I gotta go,” you say, your eyes following the path that’ll lead you home.
“You wanted it, too,” I yell, because it’s the only thing that feels good to say. “If I know anything I know that. So it don’t matter what you say now. I was there and I remember it right. I’ll always remember it right.”
That’s when you cover your ears and suddenly I’m not sure if we’ll ever go to the lagoon again. Then neither us of speaks until you finally start walking away. So we head back and wind down the dirt road towards our homes. You’re walking a few steps ahead and your arms are crossed. I have nothing to say because I’m not good at coming up with smart things to say. Mostly, I just like to think. I think about everything and when I feel like talking I do.
Your pink skirt doesn’t wave at me anymore. It hugs your legs and drips. I wonder what would happen if I never tried to kiss you, if we never jumped in the water and stayed on the lagoon’s edge watching the frogs without trying to talk. And then I got to thinking about moments—how they can change before you’re ready, and then how even when you finally think you’re ready, you realize that you’ve never been, and you just wanted to make them last for as long as possible. I can remember the moment before we jumped in: fingers laced, the sky a show of stars, me feeling cleaner and richer than ever before, bursting with a story to tell my brother—the way you felt, the way you moved, blue eyes and then some. But now, that all has passed.
We part at the fork in the road, you down one path, me down the other. You to your nice home with your nice ma and your clean things, and me to my house, with my ma probably out at work, Drake calling me names, and a can of beans for dinner. I can see you down the trail for a while, and as your eyes flash over, I catch the way you look at me and take a good picture in my mind. Your tears are gone and you’re smiling so—smiling all the way up to the moon. That’s when I wonder if this was what you wanted all along, if you were done with me and the lagoon and just needed a reason to never come back. And then—‘cause I’m thinking for too long without paying any attention to what’s going on around me—when I look up, that snapshot of you stays in my mind, but you’re long gone.