Amy’s skin hurt. She felt like a pork rind, but it was only noon. She’d come along for a day at the lake. Prime-time tanning hours were still ahead.
“Why don’t you just go get in the water?” Roberta said, glistening a sweet, caramel brown.
Amy pinked on the next towel over and pursed her lip.
She thought Roberta was asleep. Amy’s fingers lingered over the bottle of sunscreen inside her backpack. “I’m just getting my apple,” she said.
Roberta’s baby oil lay in the sand between them. Noon, and so far, they were the only ones on the beach. The light was high and white, and the water still looked cold. The sand was warm but just on the surface, cool when your feet sunk in. Amy and Roberta had only been at the lake an hour, but Amy felt the freckles boiling up to her cheeks and shoulders already. She itched. Roberta hadn’t moved for the past forty-five minutes, well-reputed Sun-Tan Queen that she was, able to endure fierce rays and sweltering heat for hours-on-end without moving, without even appearing to breathe. Roberta was unmeltable. Shiny, slick and statuesque, and Amy would have rather spontaneously combusted than given in to the sun before Roberta. Not today. She just wanted to sneak a little—
“Put some sunscreen on or something then,” Roberta said, flat on her back, staring boldly at the sky, tiny suns glinting in her mirrored lenses. “I’m not bringing you home with third-degree burns.”
Amy clenched her jaw. She moved her hand back to the sunscreen.
“And grab my sunflower-seeds too.”
* * *
It was the first time Amy had been to the lake with Roberta. They hadn’t lived together long, a few months. Amy was so much younger. Not many nine-year-old girls hung out on Saturday afternoons at the lake with their seventeen-year-old sisters. Or step-sister really. If you wanted to get technical, it wasn’t even a real lake. It was Woodward Reservoir. An hour outside town past orchards, the trees lined up in aisles that led down to little white farm houses filled with little white people, clean behind the ears, saying prayers at supper-time tables; past dairies and Holsteins waiting to be milked, standing like black and white blocks on mounds of shit sweltering in the sun; past everything flat and brown and dead and ugly. Nothing seemed to live out there without struggle. Would’ve been a desert without irrigation. A fight against nature, that’s what it felt like. Trying to make something out of nothing. Like that reservoir. That’s all it was, Amy thought. A fake lake.
They sat Indian-style and ate sunflowerseeds from piles on their towels. Amy knew it was Roberta’s dad’s idea for her to come. Carter. She’d heard them talking about it in the kitchen that morning. Roberta’d been planning to go with her girlfriend, Tina, but Carter said, “No,” that it’d be good for her to spend some time with “Amy.” The way he said Amy’s name, her ear pressed against her closed bedroom door. “Amy,” he’d said, like the name of a dog that needed a walking. “… maybe she’ll keep you away from the boys,” he said. “Away from those God-damn boys, Roberta!” Roberta’s door slammed.
So Amy sat and cracked seeds between her teeth, aware of her post as boy-deflector, and spit shells out over the end of her towel. She felt more like a fire-hydrant than a dog. Stumpy and stuck, pissed on and left. Well, maybe that was a little harsh, but who ever stuck around anyway? It was a hard thing to figure out.
There weren’t many boys around to deflect. In fact, there weren’t many people around yet at all. She wondered how boring the day would get. The little inlet beach they found banked up to a sloping hill of patchy grass and a few splotchy trees. Beyond that was the parking lot, or not really a parking lot. Just a naked space of crushed-down dirt that was empty except for Roberta’s Buick. Some long, brown 1979 model that Carter had salvaged for her at an auction. Amy thought it was hideous, but what really sucked about it was that Roberta still looked cool in it.
It’d only been three months, and already Amy was sick of Roberta – just too much everything for one girl – the looks, the car, the friends, the boys – and Amy had the distinct feeling that it just wasn’t fair. Not at all. Nine-years-old and the one definite statement Amy could make about life was that it just wasn’t fair. And she’d use “fucking” as an adverb if you really got her going. In front of her mom and Carter even. Carter wouldn’t tolerate that, though. But that didn’t limit her use. She and Carter didn’t get along that well. Amy didn’t get along that well with anyone. She wanted to, but there was something about her that made people leave, some stupid thing she’d say. She thought it was about being cool. She wasn’t. The word “dorky” followed her in the halls at school while she kept her eyes down and wondered what it was that showed.
“Did you put the sunscreen on?”
And the fact that Amy had to sit there in her one-piece navy, Saran-wrap suit next to Roberta’s bikini-clad boobs made Amy hate her even more. It was pretty much a given. Boobs weren’t in the cards for Amy, another injustice. Her mom didn’t have any. But then again, Amy didn’t look a thing like her mom. What she saw of her anyway. Her mom was almost always out in the driveway in a mobile trailer turned into an office on wheels where she was “working on school stuff.” Carter had sawed down two-by-fours and stacked them around the tires to keep Amy’s mom from rolling down the street. Amy’s mom was in graduate school. She was a “graduate student,” a dual-purpose statement, a title and an excuse. A title when she used it at the university, Amy trailing along behind her through admissions offices and past financial aid windows.
It was an excuse when Mom forgot to come in to hear Amy’s prayers, Amy laying in bed listening hard through the television in the living room for the sound of her mother’s steps coming from the trailer on the pavement outside. The next morning, Mom, rushing around, dragging her slippers across the carpet with static speed, would say, “I’m sorry Amy,” and stress “sorry” while reaching for a coffee cup in the cupboard. Amy’s mom wasn’t tall. “It’s hard. I’m a graduate student now,” and she’d sip her coffee loudly, pat Amy on the head at the table, and slipper off to the bedroom to do her face. From what Amy could see of her mother – a small, birdlike frame capable of frantic, sometimes spasmatic speeds, an eruptive, chirpie personality that everyone seemed to adore (especially men), and brown eyes instead of blue. They had very little in common.
In fact, it was the invisible father that Amy was always told she looked like. That’s where she got the belly-pink skin and freckles, the thick twists of frizzy red hair, the long limbs and knobby joints that stuck out through tee-shirts, the collar bones and shoulders, the hip-bones at the sides of her jeans. Her dad was tall. That’s where she got the height. She could tell from the pictures.
Amy’d sneaked her baby-book out of the garage when she was about five. That’s when they moved in with Carter. That’s when Amy’s mom and Carter got married, when Amy was five, and she and her mom moved all their stuff to Carter’s house. Amy saw her mom drop her baby-book into a trunk with things that had been in their house before.
“Not enough room right now,” Mom said.
Looking through the book had consumed much of the next few years of Amy’s life. It became her secret obsession. She spent hours studying the photos of her father, looking for herself. Where was she in him? She was skeptical. But somewhere in all of her mother’s apologies, she told Amy that this man, glossy and flat, trapped for Amy to look at without his wanting, was her father. Her mom said so. And that’s all Amy had to go on. No number, no address, no interest. Only pictures. He’d left before Amy was old enough to remember him. And there was no way to get any answers, not at five anyway, or six, or seven, or eight or now at nine. No answers, not THE answer. Not why he left.
But Amy had been trying not to think about him lately. She’d started pretending he was dead, made herself look at him like a photo of a dead person, no chance of a return. It made her not need him. It made things easier. She didn’t need anybody. All she wanted was a bikini, boobs, and boys. Yes, boys, secretly. They were part of it. They meant something. She didn’t know what, but they changed things. Carter was dead-set on keeping Roberta away from them. That was something. And Roberta had a lot of them. It seemed like the more she had, the more they wanted her. It was some sort of power Roberta had. It made her dad want her to come live with them, with him and his new family, Amy and her mom; Roberta had the power to make her dad love her.
The insides of Amy’s cheeks were puckered from all the salt. “Can we have a soda?” she said.
They drank Dr. Peppers from the ice chest and listened to Madonna on the ghetto-blaster. Roberta tapped a purple-pearlescent toe to “Like a Virgin,” and then it was time to flip and lay back down.
“Will you put oil on my back?” Roberta said, stretched out like a spread of peanut butter. Roberta’s dad was tall too, long like that. Amy saw the similarities when Roberta and Carter held their silverware. Or when they watched TV at night, and Amy, from the floor, stole glances at them on the couch through the blue and black light, watched their expressions, waited to see the things they shared.
She squirted the baby-oil on Roberta’s back.
It was softer than she’d imagined, Roberta’s skin. The kind of skin that’s firm but not muscular. The kind of skin Amy thought boys liked to touch. She hated it, the way it made her own hand look white and thin.
“Done,” she said.
“Thanks,” Roberta said, without moving.
Amy lay on her stomach on her towel and turned her head the other direction. She watched families trickle down the bank.
* * *
When she woke up, there was a family camped beside her just a few feet away. A pot-bellied boy in soggy underwear was digging with a green plastic bucket in the dirt.
“Bird! Hey, Berta!”
Amy sat up. A tan guy on a boat out past the shore had his hands cupped around his mouth. He yelled from the nose of a good-sized ski boat. There was another guy and girl inside. They all started to yell.
“Ro-ber-taaaa!” they yelled together.
“Hey,” Amy nudged her. Roberta twisted up on one arm and looked back at the water.
“Hey!” Roberta said, getting up. Her sunglasses slipped off her head. “You assholes! Took you long enough.” Her voiced trailed away as she bounced down the beach and splashed through the water. Amy watched the guy kneel down. Roberta kissed him on the mouth, long, when she got to the boat and then stood there talking in the water, in the sun.
Amy watched. It was sickening how perfect it all looked. Like something from a Thursday-night TV teen soap-show. The water glittered with bits of light, the sun lower and softer in the sky behind them, and the four of them, shiny and happy and perfect and tan, laughed out in the distance while Amy crisped on the sand. She watched Roberta talking, and they all looked at Amy every once in a while.
Then Roberta turned and motioned Amy to come down, come to the boat. Amy hesitated, wasn’t sure she understood, but Roberta motioned again, more insistently. The four of them looked at Amy. She was surprised how quickly she got up, how fast she padded through the sand and slapped through the water. Her face felt strange when she got to the boat, and she realized she was smiling.
“Hey,” Roberta said, an arm on the boat.
“Hey,” Amy grinned back.
“I’m gonna go out on the lake for a bit. I won’t be gone long. Just hang out here, okay?”
A burning little ball started to spin inside Amy’s chest. Roberta was already swinging a leg on board. Tina was pulling her up, and the guys were revving the engine. Amy had images of herself clawing into all that perfectly tanned flesh and tearing Roberta off the boat, screaming “No!” over and over again. Just before they pulled away, Roberta leaned over, close enough just for Amy to hear, “and don’t tell Dad,” she said, and they were going.
Amy watched, burning all over, the wake rolling up to her hips, and screamed after them, “He’s not my dad!” but nobody turned around. Roberta’s hair waved from the back of her head, and the boat skipped away fast across the water.
* * *
When she finally turned around, Amy was surprised to see so many people on the beach. Families thick from end to end, kids running along the shoreline, people littered across the sand. She picked her way back to her towel. No one seemed to notice her. She was glad. From her the towel she could see the boat, a small speck of white glinting from the other side of the lake. She narrowed her eyes and glared at them.
She was gonna tell. Oh, man, was she gonna tell. She would’ve sprinted all the way home and told right now if it weren’t such a long fucking way. She wanted Carter to know. Roberta was a liar, a fake. Amy wanted him to know what Roberta really was, a little slut. A big slut. An ungrateful, selfish slut. That’s what Roberta was, and Amy was going to tell. She wanted to see the look on Carter’s face. She knew it’d hurt him. The beach, the boat, Tina and the boys. Bang, bang, bang. She’d get them back for making her feel like a tag-along. At least she wasn’t a slut.
* * *
Just after three, the boat started to move and took off fast out past a bluff. Amy could make out someone skiing off the end before they rounded the corner and disappeared, headed to the other end of the lake. She waited a half-an-hour. She’s so dead, she thought. I hate her. She’s so fucking dead. I hate her, I hate her, I hate her. The boy with the bucket had a square plastic shovel now and sprayed sand on her towel by accident.
“Stop it you little shit!” Amy yelled. The boy started to cry and scampered over to his parents. They scowled at Amy from under an umbrella. Fuck you, she scowled back, and rolled over. That's when she saw Roberta’s sunglasses gleaming on the towel.
Amy reached over and picked them up. Then she moved over to Roberta’s towel. Then she put on Roberta’s sunglasses.
The world went a dusty shade of blue, and something about it cooled Amy. She leaned back on her hands, stretched out her legs and shook her curls. It wasn’t so bad, alone. She picked up the baby oil and rubbed it over her legs and arms. She thought she looked good shiny like that. Then she turned on Madonna and laid back, shades to the sun, one knee up and the other leg straight, and tapped her finger on the towel. She could wait it out.
* * *
“Is that girl gonna stay here all night, Mommy?” Amy heard a small, far-off voice say. She opened her eyes and saw the last of the beach-goers, a boy and his mother holding hands, climbing the bank and looking over their shoulders at Amy as if she were a homeless person.
She sat up. She was beyond red. Somewhere into scarlet, and it hurt to bend. She felt like a giant bruise. And she was cold and hot at the same time. The beach was in shadow now, a breeze came in with a heavier slap to the waves. No boat. No Roberta. Amy had fallen asleep again. It was five-thirty. She was worried for a minute. She thought Roberta might have left her there, but then the worry turned to hope. She hoped Roberta had forgotten her. She hoped her mom and Carter would have to drive the hour out there to get her when Roberta showed up at home minus a nine-year-old step-sister. That would be great. That would seal Roberta’s fate. She’d be totally busted. Maybe Carter would send her back to live with her mother.
Amy pulled everything up off the beach. She stomped through the sand-castle the soggy-shorts boy had made. He was gone now anyway. She climbed the bank.
She put the towels and the ghetto-blaster in the back-seat of the car, the back-pack and Roberta’s bag that clacked with compacts and lipsticks, closed the door and leaned against the driver’s side. The sun was going, a melting orange oozing over the west-coast range, the black, ragged horizon.
Amy turned her head when she heard feet slapping against the hard dirt of the car-park. She recognized him. Richie Alvarez. A seventh-grader. A big-dog in her book. She’d heard talk that he’d been caught French-kissing Cindy Raven, a ninth-grader, a Freshman, in the high school girl’s bathroom. He was a carbon copy, a lighter tracing of his older brothers.
He slowed to a gangly swinging saunter, lifting his knees, letting his feet fall. It was a strange, camel-like stride. All the while he looked at Amy, smiled. She hoped her face stayed hard to keep him from seeing in. Richie Alvarez. She knew who he was, dark and smooth and shirtless.
And twelve. He was in Junior High. The school across the street from Amy’s elementary. She saw him on the bus in the mornings. He sat in the back with a bunch of other boys, rowdy and bouncy on the bumps. He’d never said anything to her.
He started to slide along the car, up next to her. His swimming-trunks scratched along the paint. Amy watched his smile get closer. She felt like she was going to be sniffed. She crossed her arms over her chest, and squinted at the water. Roberta said never to look when boys whistled. Look straight ahead and keep walking. That way they’ll keep doing it. Amy didn’t know if that applied here, but Richie’s smile sure looked like a whistle.
He was close to her now and leaned against the car too. “You ride the bus,” he said.
“So,” Amy said.
He laughed. Amy was glad she was sunburned so he couldn’t see her blushing. She kept giving him her profile.
“So nothin’. I’ve just seen you is all.”
She wasn’t sure why he was there talking to her, but she felt herself start wanting him to stay, so she tried to get him to leave before he thought of it, “Goody for you,” she said.
But he stayed and leaned against the car with her and didn’t say anything, and she tried not to like the way he smelled like barbecue. And after a minute or two he said, “That’s my brother,” pointing to a figure on the beach in a group of four.
“Right there in the middle,” he leaned closer to her, their cheeks almost touching. Amy felt his ear against hers. He pointed firmly, and they looked down his arm like a scope. “Right there. The one with his hand on that chick’s ass,” he said, and dropped his hand, crossed his arms, and fell against the car with that smile again. Amy felt him looking at her. She kept looking at the water, at the group coming up from the beach.
“That’s my sister,” she said.
“Which one?” his head turned back to the group. “Which one?”
“The chick with your brother’s hand on her ass.”
Then he was looking at her again. She kept looking at the group, squinting her eyes at the sunset and the swaggering silhouettes. He slid next to her. She felt his swimming-trunks against her thigh. His breath burned her sun-burned shoulder. He didn’t say anything, so she finally looked at him, and he grinned like he’d been waiting. A long white smile in the thick of all that black hair. He rolled to his side and faced her.
“You’re pretty,” he said, “but you don’t look like sisters.”
Her chest solidified, wouldn’t expand when she wanted to breathe. She knew they didn’t look like sisters, but it didn’t matter. Richie Alvarez said she was pretty anyway. No boy ever told Amy she was pretty. She wished it were true.
She looked at her feet. Shadow had crept in over her knees. She and Richie glowed waist up in the gold of the sliding light, evening was coming home. The trees shook their leaves like hair in the wind, car doors slammed shut in the car park, rocks crunched beneath tires rolling off down the road.
We’re not real sisters, but she didn’t say it. “My mom married her dad.”
“Mmm,” he said, looking at her neck. He touched her shoulder when he said, “you’re step-sisters then.” He brushed against her, and Amy’s stomach dropped. She felt it. His cock, “cock,” that’s the word Roberta used when she talked about blow-jobs behind her bedroom door with Tina. Amy knew other words for it too, but she liked cock. Secretly. It sounded hard. And Richie’s was. And even though she knew she shouldn’t, Amy liked it. She liked thinking that she made him that way. She made him that way. She wanted to touch it, wrap her hand around it through the fabric. But she turned the other way instead, her back to him. It wasn’t a thought, just an action. And that’s when he touched her.
She saw his hand come from behind and around her hip. She felt his fingers wedge warmly between her legs and then press into the spandex of her swimsuit, leverage her that way, and pull her against him.
“I bet you still like it like she does, though, don’t you? I’ve watched them do it,” he said in her ear, and his fingers moved a little.
She didn’t move at all. One of his fingers slipped under the elastic, just barely, and it paralyzed her. His flesh against her, there. She held her breath but felt light and soft, not tense, but malleable like dough. She waited for it, for something. She didn’t pull away, and his finger moved farther under the elastic. It was just a moment, but to Amy it was a slow-motion minute. She felt it brand itself in her brain, and she arched her back and leaned into him.
It was that something boys could make girls do. She closed her eyes and thought that he might … do something, move his finger somewhere else, and she willed him to go there.
“Richie …” the breeze and the waves and the distance made his mother’s voice soft, but the elastic snapped back hard against the inside of Amy’s thigh.
Her eyes shot open.
He said, “You wish,” pulled his hand back and laughed, was still laughing when she flipped around to see him skipping backward toward the water and sneering at her, his smile gleaming in the violet light. She wanted to chase him down, push him over, and beat her fists into his face, but she was welded to the car. She watched him put the fingers he’d had between her legs in his mouth and pull them out with a wet, sucking pop, and then through his smile slipped a thin, stringy laugh and a pointed tongue, and he wiggled it, his tongue, just the tip. She leaned over her arms, felt the tears rush with the blood to her head, and didn’t see him laugh once more before he turned and sprinted into shadows.
Amy leaned her head against the passenger side window and waited for Roberta. The car was facing north, and to the left along a black horizon a fighting strip of red raged. The night was just about to close in. Amy heard the moan of a train pulling through the distance in some far off direction, going somewhere, anywhere, screaming to get away. She imagined being in one of those cars, sitting at the open door and watching everything blur by until a stop where strangers were strangers and you didn’t have to pretend they were family or hope that they loved you.
She cried and the salt burned her cheeks.
The driver’s-side door swung open.
The car sagged when Roberta got in.
“Yeah, tonight!” Roberta said, shut the door and then saw Amy. “Shit! You’re so fucking red!” she said.