That summer, the air in Spring Lake was like a thick wool blanket in your mouth. Mom had good reason to sweat because she owned and operated the local fitness club, but no one in town, from trash men to the mayor, could take a few steps in the sun without feeling the heat. The sun seemed to double in size; the horizons looked greyish-white. Perspiration was a fact of life. I went window shopping at the mall a few times a week just to take advantage of the cool air. Mom couldn't run the air conditioner at home this summer since it cost so much. The gym wasn't bringing in much money and Dad hadn't sent a check in a long time.
When the phone rang, I was sprawled out on Mom's waterbed with one of her romance novels, one with the front cover torn off, and I was getting bothered by the loud window fan Mom had bought at Mass Mercantile to keep air moving through her room. The fan was too loud on its highest setting, but if I turned it down then I couldn't feel the air. I was glaring at the fan and getting huffy, and then Renie called. That was kind of weird. It's not that we were unfriendly or anything, because Renie and I played on the same soccer team and her mom always drove me home from practice, but I was a year older than her and Renie had friends her own age, plus she was a lot more boy-crazy than me, not to mention that, until that day, she had never called me on the phone for any reason. I don't know why she thought of me. Maybe everybody else was busy.
"You want to go to the lake with me? And my little brother, too. My mom's driving. You want to go?"
"Yeah, sure. You got a swimsuit, don't you? I have one you could borrow."
"No, I have a suit. I'll have to dig it up. Maybe it's in my closet. Sure, I'll go."
"Do you need to ask your mom?"
"No, I get to do what I want, mostly."
"Damn, Shayla, your mom is so cool." Renie said "damn" like it was a two-dollar word, something she read in Reader's Digest at the dentist's office. "This'll be fun. My mom's yelling for me. We'll be right over."
My swimming suit was squashed way in the back of my underwear drawer, behind some dark socks I got for Christmas and never had an opportunity to wear. Renie's mom honked for me just as I found it, so I had to grab a beach towel from the hall closet and scramble out to their mini-van before I could put on the suit. I remembered to lock the door. Mom always yelled when I forgot.
"It's nice to see you, Shayla," Renie's mom said.
"Hi, Shayla," said Renie, giving a little wave. "I told you she would come, Mom." Renie looked back at me from the passenger seat while I slammed the car door. "My mom thought you wouldn't come."
"Have you heard who your teacher is this fall?" asked Renie's mom. She had a fluffy feathered haircut and a little too much eye make-up. "Renie is in Miss Lowe's homeroom."
"That's who I had this year. She's nice."
"Who's the seventh grade teacher, Shayla?"
"Uh . . . my mom hasn't registered me yet, I don't think."
"Hmm," Renie's mom said.
"Jesus, Mom, what makes you think we want to talk about school? It's summer!" Renie glared at her mother from the passenger seat.
"Watch your mouth, young lady."
"It doesn't seem possible that Renie is going to be in sixth grade." Renie's mom got emotional. She bit her lip.
"Yeah, it usually comes after fifth grade, Mom."
I sat in the back seat with Renie's nine-year-old brother. He was already in his swim trunks and wasn't wearing a t-shirt. He held a battery-powered water gun against his fish-white baby-fat belly. He stuck his tongue out.
"Butt-snot," Renie's brother said.
"Ignore him," Renie said.
The body of water called Spring Lake was ten minutes north of Spring Lake, the town. "Have you been to the lake this summer?" Renie asked.
"No. It's been a long time. My dad used to take me fishing out there."
"Your dad? I thought your parents were divorced. Your dad doesn't live in Spring Lake, does he?"
Renie's mom shushed her, and I said, "It's all right."
"I've never gone fishing," Renie said.
"It's fun. Dad got me my own pole, one that matched his but was a smaller size. He always loaded the hooks, because I was only seven years old and those hooks are sharp. We usually had the whole place to ourselves. If we fished in the afternoon Mom came and laid out in the sun, but we usually went in the morning, because that's when the fish were really biting."
"Yuck," Renie said. "I hate mornings."
The showers and locker rooms were right next to the parking lot. I still needed to get into my swimming suit, so Renie kept me company in the locker room while her mom and her brother walked down to the water's edge.
"Guess who called me on Friday?" Renie said, eyes bulging. She sat on a wet wooden bench near the showers with her legs crossed nice and ladylike.
"I have no idea." I pulled off my shorts and panties and tried to act as if I undressed in front of people all the time. I had my own room at home and I always closed the door for privacy.
"Jeff Wallace. Can you believe it?"
"Is he in my grade or yours? I know three Jeffs." I pulled my t-shirt over my head, quickly, and stepped into my suit.
"Shayla . . . " Renie was staring at me. "Don't you wear a bra?"
"What?" I slid the straps over my shoulders. My forehead started to feel hot.
"You need a bra."
"What?" I felt really stupid. I crossed my arms over my chest.
"Yeah, look how big you are! You need a bra!"
I lowered my arms and looked at myself. "I'm not that big."
"You ain't flat! When's the last time you wore that swimming suit? It doesn't fit you."
"Look at yourself." Renie thumbed over to the mirrors above the sinks. She was all giggly, like a kid who found her Easter basket. "Your boobs are poking out." Renie was making a big deal out of nothing, but the suit was starting to dig in under my arms. "I brought another suit if you want to wear it. Mom got it at a garage sale for me but it's too big. It should fit you."
"Thanks." I put on Renie's swimsuit as fast as I was able and we headed outside, down to the beach. The sand was rough and hot; I was sure my feet were getting scorched.
Renie wouldn't stop talking. "That's weird that you're getting them before me. Your mom barely has boobs! Sure, you're older, but my mom's huge. She's kind of fat, of course, and your mom is really skinny. Maybe that has something to do with it. You're skinny, too, of course. Maybe it's from your dad's side of the family. Did his mom have big boobs?"
Renie thought it was weird that I never met my dad's parents.
Halfway to the water we started running, the sand was so hot. We threw our towels down by Renie's mom, who was copying recipes from a library cookbook onto three-by-five cards, and raced to the water. Renie's brother was already into it up to his waist.
"It's cold!" he yelled.
I guess I thought he was lying, because I charged right into the water. The reservoir wasn't always so icy cold; at least I didn't remember it that way. My skin got clammy and goose-bumpy.
Renie's brother splashed water at my face. "I see your mosquito bites!" he howled.
"What did you say?"
"Mosquito bites. He means your nipples," said Renie. She was a few yards farther back, shivering, with her arms wrapped around her body. Her lips looked white.
Sure enough, my nipples were plain as day, poking through the swimsuit as if I had asked them to. Renie's brother hooted and whistled. I went a little nuts and dunked him, once right then and two more times later in the afternoon, and that made me feel a little better.
Mom came in that night with a bucket of fried chicken. She was still in her leotard and looked tired. I pulled out a couple of paper plates and some silverware, and a diet soda for Mom, and we ate quietly in front of the TV, watching "Entertainment Tonight" like always. I hadn't really planned to say anything, but it came out all the same.
"Mom, can we go shopping for bras?"
Her eyes barely opened. "What, for you?"
I didn't say anything.
"You don't need a bra. I don't wear one, and I'm thirty-two. You're only twelve, Shayla, don't talk to me about a bra."
I nibbled at a chicken wing and took a long, lingering breath.
"I don't have money lying around to buy you a training bra. Forget it." Mom crammed her paper plate into the bucket of chicken as if it were a trash barrel, but I knew there was still some chicken still in there. Mom rubbed her back as she got up and went to the shower. The bathroom door click-locked. I reached to the end table for the chicken bucket and found a leg under Mom's garbage. I put it on the paper plate and stared at it while my mom shuffled around in the medicine chest. I licked the greasy salty stuff from my fingers, slid my fingers down my chin and along my neck, ending up at my chest. I touched the new fleshy curve under my white t-shirt, poking and probing and wondering if it was all in my imagination. One time I got a wart on my knee and I cried about it for two days. The next time I thought about the wart it was gone, and by then I wondered if it was ever there. I cupped the curves on my chest with the palms of my hands and felt like crying. Mom was smart; she had been through a lot. Maybe she was right.
It had been a month since that day at the lake, and Renie hadn't called me since then. I knew her mom was mad at me for dunking her little brother, so I figured that was part of it. Then Renie called again. "Come over," she said, "I have something to show you."
I rode Mom's ten-speed over to Renie's house, since Mom was working late and wouldn't miss it. Renie met me at the door, all smiles. "Come up to my room," she giggled. She took me upstairs, pushed clothes on the floor and hopped on her bed. I guess I should have expected what happened next.
"I got a bra today. My mom bought me a bra. Look!" She pulled up her t-shirt, exposing her belly and the bra. The new bra was boring white cotton, stretched tight across her flat chest. "I didn't even say anything to her; she just asked if I wanted to wear one. Isn't that weird?" She dropped the t-shirt and leaned forward with big wondering eyes. She looked like a little kid; I noticed how much she resembled her dopey little brother. "Let me see yours."
"What . . . my bra?"
"Yeah, Shayla. Do you wear an A-cup or a B-cup? I bet you wear a B-cup. Where'd you get it?"
I knew my face was turning red but I couldn't stop it. I couldn't figure out why Renie invited me to share this stupid moment with her or why she asked that question. I was stuck. I coughed into my fist and rubbed my nose. I looked at Renie's kitten posters instead of her.
I don't think I said goodbye. I don't remember how I left but I ended up furiously pumping the pedals of mom's ten-speed down Highway 34, which wasn't paved so the dust got in my eyes and made it harder for me to see, especially with sweat dripping down my forehead along my nose where the salty stuff stung and made me tear up. Renie's house was far behind, and so was Spring Lake. The sun was in my eyes so I must have been heading west, away from town. All I saw was the road in front of me, hay fields on either side of the road, and the sky above. My lungs hurt. My shirt was soaking wet and felt cold when it flapped against my back in the wind. My legs were starting to ache. I became a machine, a flesh-and-blood machine that pumped and chugged and overloaded. My legs felt heavy and long, wiggly like spaghetti. The front wheel skidded on the gravel and I tumbled to the ground, hitting hard. I think I screamed then. I kicked the bike, over and over until it slid into the overgrown ditch. I ran down Highway 34 at top speed, even though I knew I was exhausted. I slowed down, turned around, and ran in a circle, sobbing with loose shoulders. I couldn't tell if I was crying or not and that made me feel stupid.
When I returned home it was dark outside and the sweat on my face had dried up. It hadn't cooled down a whole lot -- August nights are pretty sticky in Spring Lake. Mom had the fan running on the high setting. She was really mad.
"Where's my bike? Did you take my bike?"
"Yeah . . . " My shirt was still damp.
"Dammit, Shayla, I thought it was stolen. You had me frantic. I ran in here checking to see if anything else was missing and felt like a fool."
I said I was sorry.
Mom wasn't finished. "I can't wait `til you're eighteen and you're out of my hair."
My arms were streaked with gravel dust so I ran some water in the kitchen sink and started to wipe it off. I knew I needed a shower but I didn't want to think about it.
"I left your dinner on the dishwasher," Mom said. Her voice was trickling off. "Hey, I didn't mean that," she said. "That stuff about you being eighteen."
She closed her bedroom door and I was sure I wouldn't see her for the rest of the night. She was alone in there a lot. When I was little, before I started kindergarten, I woke up feeling like I was going to puke and went in there to get Mom. She was naked, rolling around on the bed with Dad. She scared me when she screamed, and yelled at Dad about putting a lock on the door. Now she locked herself in there every night.
A big white Taco Bell bag was crumpled on the counter top with two little bulges, probably some cold tacos. Dinner.
I heard Mom turn on the radio in her room. She always had it tuned in to the oldies station.
I came up with the plan as I was going to sleep that night, I think, but it might have come to me in a dream. I woke up when Mom drove off to work at eight o'clock that morning. Our Skylark was loud; Mom said it needed a new muffler. I went out to the kitchen and poured a bowl of bland generic rice krispies while I looked through the yellow pages of the finger-thin Spring Lake phone book for pawn shops. The ad for Rudy's Jewelry & Loan on Avenue C said they opened at nine, same as Mass Mercantile. I wrote down the address.
I showered off the remains of last night's bike ride. Then I looked through Mom's storage closets.
One of them was full of dresses and fancy shoes which she never wore anymore. The other closet was full of Dad's old stuff -- sweaters, old Playboys, a group of patterned ties, a shoebox of baseball cards and postcards, and two fishing poles. He called me squirrel-bait when I got too nutty on fishing trips. If I was noisy, sometimes he told me listen to the wind. So I listened to the wind instead of talking, and I heard a neat kind of music. I never caught any fish, so Dad ended each trip with a pat on the head and a maybe-next-time. Then he took me out for ice cream, and went for a drink at Ralph's Bar and Grill while I finished my ice cream cone out in the street.
When I woke up one Sunday, Mom was sitting on the floor, crying, and she said I wouldn't be going fishing. A lot of dishes were broken, and so was the phone. Mom's fingernail had been torn off and she wouldn't tell me how. Dad sent me a letter from Indiana a few weeks later and a postcard on my birthday from Arizona and then he was gone for good. Mom never talked about him anymore.
I took my fishing pole out of the closet and inspected the rod. Dusty. After I wiped off the grime with a paper towel the rod looked brand new. I knew I could get five or ten dollars out of it, easy.
The guy at the pawn shop asked me three times if I had stolen the rod since it was so nice. I gave him my name and address and he handed me a soiled twenty-dollar bill from the cash register. "I should call your parents, you know, but I won't," he said.
"Thanks," I said.
"Stay out of trouble," he said.
The air-conditioning at Mass Mercantile was freezing cold. The place was cavernous, like a warehouse, and every little sound echoed off the merchandise. The place was mostly empty, except for workers in red vests who stocked the shelves and swept the floors. Two old ladies poked through a bargain bin bulging with coloring books. I wanted to look like I was browsing, like I had no big reason to be there, but I was too nervous to walk slowly. The twenty-dollar bill felt wet in my sweaty fist.
It didn't take me long to find the lingerie department. I wandered among the racks, and acted like I did it every day. I looked around to make sure I was alone. A woman in the shoe department matched pairs of loafers; she didn't notice me. Renie thought I needed a B-cup, so I took all the B-cup bras off the rack and slipped into the dressing room. I expected to find the right size through trial and error but they were all too big. As I took off each bra and fumbled on the impossible clasps, I got madder and madder at Renie -- I guessed she was trying to sound smart and didn't even know the difference between an A-cup and a B-cup. This process was getting more frustrating every minute. I put my t-shirt back on and sneaked out to get some other ones. The training bras Mom talked about had colorful tags showing girls with flat chests like Renie, and I wasn't flat enough to wear those. I grabbed a handful of A-cup bras. They looked smaller than the B-cups.
One of the A-cup bras fit pretty well, but it was the smallest one in the batch. The clasp on this bra wasn't so tricky. I liked the way it felt against my skin. It was a little bit silky and shiny, and Mass Mercantile had marked it down. I took a look in the mirror and got a nervous shiver. Who was this girl? She looked good, maybe even pretty, especially when she stood the right way and the light hit her shoulders just right. But I wasn't sure if she looked like me. Mom would get angry when she found out, that was for sure.
I was getting good at taking off bras. I unhooked this one with ease and planned to leave the store without buying anything. I tossed it on the little white bench and put on my t-shirt, and got ready to go. I touched the dressing room door handle and it struck me that I didn't remember my bra size. I picked up the bra and looked at the label, then I checked the little tag on the strap to see if the sizes matched. It felt so nice in my hands. I sat on the little bench and stared at the mirror for a minute or more.
I clutched the bra in one hand and the money in the other and marched to the row of cashiers. There was a guy in the express lane but I went to the lady in aisle six. She smoothed out the grimy twenty and gave me a handful of bills and coins in change along with the receipt. There was a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit. I pushed the automatic door open because it was too slow.
The sun had come up over the trees and beat down on my face. I trudged down an alley to get out of the sun and came out on Avenue A, where I walked past Spring Lake Junior High School and Mom's gym. I could see a white haze on the eastern horizon but most of the sky was flawless blue. I remembered the lake, not so many summers ago, the warm water and the pleasant breeze on my neck as I stood on the dock with Dad. The water reflected the wide blue sky and green rushes on the bank. Mom yelled the time from the beach and we packed up the gear. We drove home.
I unlocked the front door and ran to my bedroom. I tossed the Mass Mercantile sack on my bed and went into Mom's room. I pulled the shoebox of photographs from Dad's old closet and rolled the rubber band from a bundle. We were smiling in every picture -- my first day of school, the Halloween when I dressed up in Dad's greasy overalls, Mom and Dad dancing at her sister's wedding with me in between, the hayrack ride where I broke my leg, the soccer championship. It all really happened.
I turned off the fan and watched the sky through the open window.