So, there’s been a lot going on lately, and about a million things on my mind so I haven’t been able to update much. I’m still too close to things to even really be able to comment on what’s going on right now so I decided instead to put out a non-fiction piece I wrote a year or so ago about a close friend of mine. Hope you like it ❤
I look around the room at my second family, my mom’s best friend’s family: the people who helped raise me, my home away from home. We spend every summer together, passing the season’s milestones in a flurry of cookouts, fireworks, and card games.
Empty paper plates sit in everyone’s lap, forgotten as they stare at the glowing television playing Miss Congeniality. This time in the evening means winding down, relaxing in front of the TV with a full stomach until our eyes grow too heavy to process any more and we wander off to bed.
I nudge Brett, the second oldest of the kids, and my partner in crime. He is nine and I am twelve. I jerk my head towards the door and he nods.
Tiptoeing out of the room, we manage to sneak outside without raising any questions from the zombies.
We run uninhibited through the sparse country acre that makes up the backyard and towards the pool. We laugh as we fly up the plastic white ladder attached to the side and cannonball into the water. It’s lukewarm as it embraces us, refusing to release the heat from the afternoon’s sun.
“Marco,” I call out to Brett, closing my eyes. Night had fallen but the sky is so clear, the full moon so bright, the landscape is perfectly lit.
“Polo,” he answers. I peek through one eye to see if I can spot him. After all, it’s only cheating if I get caught. Ah ha! He’s just to my left. I reach a hand out, grasping air as I hear him splash out of reach.
“Marco,” I call out again.
“Polo,” he says. I lunge forward and out of sheer luck graze his wet shoulder.
He laughs, hearty and loud, the sound echoing off the trees and into the sky as he throws his hands up in surrender.
“I think my sister likes your brother,” he says.
“Ew, we’re practically related!” I exclaim.
“Do you have a boyfriend? You know you can tell me anything, right?” My love life is one of his favorite topics. He’s fascinated by the sophisticated relationships of my twelve-year-old life.
“I know,” I say. “But that’s none of your business!” I splash him before ducking under the water.
My boyfriend and Brett’s girlfriend look at us with a knowing expression as soon as our plates are empty. In our own ways, we had each briefed them on what had become a tradition. So they don’t follow as we set the dishes to the side and sneak out the door.
We run barefoot towards the pool, tossing off the clothes that cover our swimsuits and leaving them to wait for us, scattered across the grass. Brett runs up the squeaky white ladder and jumps in, splashing me. I yell in response and jump in after him.
I grab the nearest pool noodle and sit sideways on it, so it cradles me like a swing, keeping me afloat.
“So, tell me about her,” I say to Brett. He’s attempting to straddle three pool noodles at once and failing miserably. I laugh as he tries to lift his leg over a fourth one and face plants into the water. He comes up coughing, sputtering, and trying to catch his breath before he answers.
“She’s cute, obviously. We have the same math class so at least I get to see her every day.”
“That’s good. Matt’s always busy with his college classes and work so I don’t get to see him as often as I’d like, even though we live five minutes apart.”
“That’s lame,” he says. “I can’t believe you’re graduating this year.”
“I know. I’m excited, but it’s scary too. It feels like everything is going to change.”
He nods. I can only see his silhouette against the darkness but I hear the water move around him. The fireflies are our only light tonight; the moon is hidden behind colorless clouds. Hundreds, maybe thousands of the glowing insects twinkle in the tree line, making it look as if someone had dusted glitter on the leaves.
“Dad cheated on Mom,” Brett says, breaking the silence, his voice heavy.
“I know,” I say. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. Everything feels different, like I don’t know who to trust.” I nod, though I don’t think he is looking at me.
There aren’t words for these things; nothing a person can really say to make it better. So instead, I wade over to him, grab one of his pool noodles, and float silently next to him. I listen in the still night as he purges his pain, his fear that his parents will divorce, and the insecurities that stem from having a father whose affection he feels like he’s never received.
As we walk out the door and into the night this time, there is no one in the room to sneak away from. Brett’s parents went to bed early, his sister lives in another town now, my parents are divorced and in separate cities, and my brother is staying the night with a friend. We’re the only ones there this summer, but we aren’t bitter. By now we understand that families ebb and flow. People leave for a while, come back, and leave again.
We walk towards the pool this time, savoring the feeling of the long grass tickling our ankles. Brett jumps in first, but I take my time on the unsteady, cracked plastic ladder before lowering myself into the water. Automatically, we go to the two rafts we’d left floating along the surface earlier.
I maneuver myself onto the inflatable plastic, positioning my head on the bump that serves as a pillow. Reaching behind my neck, I pull my long hair out from underneath me and spread it out so it’s splayed over the pillow, its ends dancing in the water.
“What happened last month?” Brett asks, skipping the small talk. I’m expecting this question but am not sure I’m ready to talk about it. I don’t bother asking how he knows something happened in the first place. Word travels very fast in our small group.
I don’t answer for a while. Instead, I stare up at the vast, stunning heavens above me. The summer night is clear, the sky deep cobalt, and dotted with bright stars. A full moon floats next to the big dipper and I study its markings while I figure out what to say.
It’s not that I don’t want to tell him. Years of growing up together had proved no subject was off limits between us. It’s more that I’m hesitant to ruin such a peaceful night by smearing its canvas with violence.
“I still can’t bring myself to say it out loud,” I tell him, opting for honesty. The four-letter word, three-word sentence, is still stuck in my throat. Every time I go to say it, I choke and a flashback of hands grabbing me, a stranger’s face, pushing, hurting, makes me physically shake.
Silence is easier.
“Someone hurt you,” he says. It’s not a question. My eyes fill with tears at the concern in his voice. The fear, shame, and pain I’d been trying so hard to keep buried, in a futile effort to function from day to day, rush to the surface. The salty drops fall from my eyes with the faintest plink as they hit the plastic beneath me.
I hear splashing, the sound of Brett paddling his raft over next to mine. He reaches for my hand and holds on to it, a firm symbol of solidarity.
In all the years we have known each other, we have never held hands, but in that moment, it feels right. I can see in his face that he can guess what happened, and it is enough for both of us to know that we understand each other. It is enough that we are still in this together, bonded by something deeper than blood. We have been navigating life’s terrain together since the very beginning, when our hearts were still pure and innocent, and we would remain that way even as the years traded our innocence for weariness and wisdom.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m here.”