We rode our bikes through a gateway, between two old whale lookouts linked by a twenty-foot-long banner — “Welcome to Summer” — a trident-wielding mariner standing sentinel over the final “r.” A few island moms were fussing over deep tin dishes, removing foil from littlenecks, adjusting burners under weakfish stew and Jersey corn chowder. A double- decker barbecue belched saffron-shrimp smoke. Girls jumped double Dutch in the side lot, and high school kids played basketball against the old Coast Guard building at a hoop with a metal chain net.
“Do you see them?” I said, standing on my pedals.
Tubby shook his head.
“What if they don’t show?”
I spit my gum into a garbage barrel. “We should’ve done it yesterday, when we had the chance.”
“Swanny,” he said, “if a fluke were right-eyed, it’d be a flounder.”
I snorted, coasting. It was just one of those things people said in Bay City, and when they said it, you knew exactly what they meant.
We’d first spotted the girls on Memorial Day, six days before, lying facedown on matching towels at the Sixth Street Beach, bikini tops unsnapped. Walked by on our way to the water, close as we could without kicking sand in their hair. We bodysurfed awhile, sneaking glances up the beach between rides, always aware of where they were. When the tide drew us south, we churned our way north until we’d drawn even again. They were about our age. And the whole time we were in the water, we never saw any boyfriend types approach.
Thereafter, we were on the Sixth Street Beach every day. We sucked in our stomachs, puffed up our chests, selected the biggest waves and rode them all the way into the sand crab zone, a skipped shell from their sun-kissed toes. And if they happened to look up or god forbid smile — if they made even fleeting eye contact — our entire world opened up, and every other thing in our lives, good, bad, or ugly, sloughed away.
On the fifth day, we screwed up our courage and followed them home, a couple of James Bonds, dodging for cover every time they turned, crouching behind parked cars. At one point, we cut between houses and, without meaning to, came out on the road in front of them just as they approached, yakking up a storm, beach chairs and bags slung over their shoulders. For three blissful, godforsaken, can’t-ever-get-them-back seconds, maybe four, we’d stood, facing them. My mouth opened and closed with- out a sound, seagull-like. Mercifully, they never looked up. They walked right by.
That’s when we swore to each other: if they showed up at Mariner Fest, we’d make our move. Come hell or high water.
We lived on a barrier island, eighteen miles long, a mile at sea, thin as a pipefish, that slashed up the New Jersey coast on a diagonal. Once upon a time, there’d been a ferry service from Shady Cove and train lines from Philly and New York, but when we were kids, the only way on or off without a boat was via the Causeway — four lanes, two in each direction — a bridge with tubular fluorescent rails that skipped across the Great Bay in two arches, major and minor, like a rainbow with a little extra gas. Back then, before Hurricane Gloria took it down, arriving tourists were greeted with a wooden sign: “Welcome to Bay City Island, Home to 5,118 of the Friendliest People on the Jersey Shore, Plus a Couple of Soreheads.”
Up ’til then, we’d gone to school on the island our whole lives, kindergarten through eighth grade, with the same twelve kids in our class, give or take, and the girls — Cathy, Amy, Jessica, Julia, Penny, Cassidy, and Lauralie — we’d known since we were embryos. That neither Tubby nor I had ever had a girlfriend wasn’t for lack of masturbating. It seemed as if we’d loved them all, at one time or another. But I was the “nice” kid — Lauralie trusted me enough to tell me all about the high school junior she was going with; Penny, to let me carry her books between classes — and Tubby was the “funny” one, famous for the time he put the whoopee cushion under the librarian’s seat just before she sat down, otherwise known as “The Fart Heard ‘Round the World.” We envied Dredge Stiles, who was going with Michelle Willow, a seventh-grader whose quiet shyness only made her that much more desirable. Michelle, who had innocently brushed her chest ever-so-barely against my arm in the lunch line once, emptying my mind of all other thoughts for a week. How to get from “nice” and “funny” to Michelle Willow — what it would be like to kiss a girl and have her kiss you back — these were among the universe’s most perplexing and distracting questions.
With these girls, though, we sensed opportunity. A change in the weather so to speak. They were Mainlanders. They didn’t know us from Neptune. It was a chance for Tubby and me to be Tubby and me, free and easy. If we could just find a way to say “hi” — if we could somehow take a step over the terrifying, stupefying fault line that separated the have-nots from the haves — we
figured we had pretty decent odds.
I’d all but given up hope. We’d been there half an hour, circled the lot three times. Laid our bikes in the sand and split up, weaving through a cast of thousands, coming back together at the buffet. We’d taken turns standing on Shelia DuPree’s step stool. I was fairly well convinced they weren’t coming. Maybe they hadn’t seen the flyers on the telephone poles or bait shop bulletin board. That’s when I noticed Tubby, standing next to the barbecue, hands on hips, staring across the lot — utterly oblivious to the fact that the breeze had shifted, redirecting the smoke, surrounding him in a blue-gray charcoal haze.
“Thar she blows,” he said.
I turned quickly, following his gaze, and felt a shark-in-the- water shot of nerves: the girls were heading right for us.
The one I’d been eyeing all week held a big plastic bowl to her chest. She wore a maroon T-shirt — USC-something — and cutoff blue jeans, frayed at the edges. The other was decked out in a red and white striped shirt and white shorts that showed off her tan. She held a small teal purse at her hip.
“Showtime,” Tubby said. “They’re here.”
“And you’re on.”
“I’m not sure I can do this.” “You can. Trust me.”
“Maybe you should go first.” “Swanny. We drew punks.”
I let out a hard breath. They stopped, scanned the lot. Miss USC pointed and her friend peeled off on a rope for the port-o-john. Then, without further delay, she kept right on coming.
“Best two out of three.”
He lowered his voice. “This is our last chance, Swanny!”
“I know,” I whispered. “But Tub. Seriously. She’s so effin’ hot.”
That’s when he shoved me. And when Tubby Boyd shoved you, it was no small thing. I nearly fell right into her, just as she was on final approach. Somehow, I managed to right myself, pulling up behind her. She must have felt my breeze, though, because she turned and smiled. Looked right at me, in fact, with light brown eyes that shined like treasure in a chest. And the only thing I could remember were the pickup lines Tubby’s older brother Ray had given us. He said they were surefire winners at the clubs.
Are those space pants you’re wearing? Cause your ass is out of this world.
She lowered her eyes, leaned over, placed her bowl of fruit salad on the buffet.
All those curves, and me with no brakes.
Removed the Saran, balled it, stepped back from the table. A second more, and she’d be gone.
“Is there an airport nearby, or is that just my heart taking off?”
She half turned and looked at me. A smattering of freckles, winter-flounder brown, spread across her nose and under her eyes. I gripped my lifelines, hard as I could. Apologize, I thought. Blame Ray. Blame Tourette’s. Blame it on Rio.
“Do you have any overdue library books?”
I looked at her, brow furrowed. “Do I . . . ?”
“Have any overdue library books,” she repeated.
“I . . . we don’t . . . library books? Why?”
“Cuz you’ve got the word ‘fine’ written all over.”
She smiled. I felt myself sway, ever-so-slightly, like the lighthouse in a small craft advisory.
“We’ve seen you guys at the beach,” she said, nodding at Tubby behind me.
“Wasn’t that you? Bodysurfing?”
“It was,” she said. “Nice form.”
“Oh,” I said. “Jeeze. Thanks.”
She glanced down at her fruit salad. Again, I felt sure she was going to skedaddle. Leave me there with my mouth slung low and my heart pumping like a bilge on a sinking ship. She looked across the lot and put a hand over her eyes, a sun shield. When her friend emerged from the john, she waved and just started walking.
“You a Trojans fan?” I said.
She spun fast, eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
I pointed at her T-shirt — USC Football — tucked neatly into shorts that hugged her hips.
“Oh,” she said. “USC. My uncle teaches there. He’s a film- maker. James Earl Jones came to his class once.”
“James Earl Jones?”
“Um, Darth Vader?”
“Oh!” I said. Then, imitating Vader’s voice: “Remember the Force.”
Remember the fucking force? What the hell was I thinking?
That’s when she said: “I like a boy with a little Dark Side in him.”
Once, on a sixth-grade field trip, we visited a fire zone in the Pine Barrens. On one side of the road was a regular forest. The other was burned to a crisp. We walked into the char a ways, smoke-stink rising up all around us, and then our teacher bent, picked up a pinecone. It was interstellar black. Something you’d find in five-alarm ruins. But when he turned it, we saw it had cracked open. A tiny green sapling sprouted from the center. Intense heat causes the pinecone to burst, he explained, so life can begin anew. Standing there, an arm’s length from Miss USC, that’s exactly how I felt.
Her hair was sun-streaked blonde, pulled back in a ponytail, her boobs, three clams out of ten on our rating scale, which, for me, was more than plenty. The wind pivoted, and, like a sudden gift, I could smell her — a brain-jamming swirl of some kind of wild beach blossoms. I sniffed silently, lips shut tight.
“Penn State,” she said, after a moment. “My dad went there. The Nittany Lions — that’s my favorite team.”
For a split second, I thought to say something about my dad, but he hadn’t gone to college. So I stuck out my hand.
“I’m Nick. Nick Swan.”
She took it and shook. “Well, hello there, Mr. Nick,” she said. “I’m Anna. And this” — she forked a thumb over her shoulder as her friend pulled up behind her —“is my best friend, Caitlyn.”
“Hi, Caitlyn.” I waved. She was shorter and roundish, with dark curly hair — Tubby’d dubbed it “mahogany,” but it wasn’t quite. Either way, her rack was impressive: a solid six clams.
Caitlyn pressed her lips together and nodded, then smiled. “Hey.”
I guess he’d seen about all he could stand, because he was next to me in a flash. “And this is Tub—“
“Thomas,” he said, overriding me. He reached out and confiscated Caitlyn’s hand in his mitts. “Thomas Boyd. It’s a pleasure. And, might I add — on behalf of my dad, Slouch Boyd, Mayor, and my mom, Veronica, president of the Bay City Neighborhood Association, Welcome to Bay City, New Jersey.”
Anna’s eyebrows arched. “Your father’s mayor?”
“And plumber,” Tubby said. “And his dad” — he whacked me on the back —“Captain of the Miss Bay City, fishing boat of the stars.”
“Wow.” Anna nodded, eyebrows raised. “What stars?”
“Well, not exactly ‘stars,’ per se.”
Tubby’s eyes widened, incredulous. “Ricky Schroeder’s not a star?”
“Ricky Schroeder was on your dad’s boat?”
“That’s true,” I said. “Ricky Schroeder. He caught an oyster cracker.”
“Did you touch him?”
“Well, yeah. I took him off the hook. You can do it with pliers, if you’re careful.”
“Not the oyster-thingy!” Anna said, wrinkling her nose. “Ricky!”
“Oh, sure. Yeah. I must’ve. He gave me a twenty-dollar tip.”
Anna clapped her hands five times fast, fingers pointing heavenward. “Did you hear that, Caitlyn?”
“Which hand did he touch?”
“I guess, this one, I guess.”
She reached and took it — snatched it right out of thin air. “I’ll never wash my hand again.”
“No,” Tubby said. “I wouldn’t.”
She dropped my hand, and it swung to my side, fingers curled, one hundred percent Neanderthal.
“Speaking of which,” Tubby said, “Nick and I were just about to wade over and get us some grub. How ‘bout we fix you gals a couple of plates? We know what’s good.”
It was the greatest non sequitur in all of recorded time. Not bad for a guy who whacked off to bra ads in the Sears catalog.
We scrambled off to the buffet. “Swanny,” he said, once we were out of their orbit. “We’re in.” I glanced over my shoulder. I half expected to see Drew Johnson sidling in to make his move. Or Dredge Stiles — girls were drawn to him like blues to chum. But Anna and Caitlyn were standing there, right where we’d left them, gabbing, animated, drawing stories in the air with their hands. Awaiting our return.