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Squinting

 

Me and Joey didn't have air conditioning that summer so the fan worked day and night, moving the heavy air around the small bedroom of our shoebox apartment. I woke up one Saturday to the sound of the fan spinning on the windowsill and discovered that Joey had left our bed without disturbing me. For such a solid guy, Joey moved with great stealth when he wanted to. He could travel from one room to another without a sound, like some breed of jungle cat that wears a baseball cap. The alarm clock showed that I had only slept a half-hour longer than I generally dragged myself out of bed during the week, and I drowsily considered whether I should sleep through the rest of the morning. I guess Joey heard me stirring, because he called my name from the other room. He asked if I wanted to go to the beach with him.

His words sounded like the final after-effects of a dream fading away. Even though Joey took the train out to the ocean most weekends, he had long since stopped inviting me. He knew that, in my head at least, my hobbies and errands took precedence over the unproductive time-suck of sunbathing. Subsequently, my arms and legs were lightly tanned from hours of gardening while my husband had developed a deep olive complexion from head to toe. Even though his skin felt a little dry to me, I always thought it looked good. Sure, Joey had lost some hair since I met him, but I still found him handsome in a lumpy, reckless way. One those nights when he fell asleep before me, I would sometimes lie close to him and stare at the contours and shadows on his face. I would imagine his eyelids fluttering open so I could gaze into his deep dark eyes and feel him looking at mine. He never knew I did these things. Maybe he did the same for me. We didn't talk about it, and perhaps that's where this all came from.

I rarely thought much about the ocean. I knew it was out there, of course, ten miles from where we slept every night. For whatever reason, my awareness of the ocean did not push into my conscious mind very often. Joey, on the other hand, works for a construction company right on the docks. He eats lunch out there with the seagulls whenever the weather cooperates.

"How long has it been," he asked, standing in the bedroom door, still wearing a tee shirt and boxer shorts, "since we went to the beach together?"

Still tangled in the bedsheets and not entirely lucid, I considered my husband's question as if it were a riddle. "Was it last year...?" My voice trailed off.

"Do you want some coffee, Donna?"

"Would you mind getting some for me?" I asked in my little-girl-just-getting-up voice. Joey disappeared into the kitchen, and my head went down the items on my list of things to do: the laundry basket was half-empty, the plants could be re-potted tomorrow, and the cupboards were anything but bare. I rolled out of bed and absent-mindedly stretched. I went to my underwear drawer (out of curiosity more than anything) in search of suitable beachwear. I found Joey's trunks right away.

"What are you looking for?" he asked, returning to the bedroom with a coffee mug in one hand and a dish of orange sections in the other.

"Why can't I find my swimsuit?" I grumbled, rifling through countless pairs of socks.

"Are you going to come with me?" Joey sounded pleased, and gave me a small kiss that tasted like citrus. He had already been munching on those oranges.

I sighed and closed the dresser drawer. "Do you remember the last time I wore my black one-piece?"

"What about that blue bikini?" said Joey, taking a small sip of my coffee before handing it to me. That blue bikini had not been worn since our trip to see Joey's parents at Christmastime. I had made reservations at a hotel with a hot tub, thinking that it would be a nice luxury as long as we were blowing vacation time. Even as I took an orange slice into my mouth, I could picture myself getting ready for the hot tub: stripping to the waist in front of the bathroom mirror, slipping the bikini straps over my arms, fastening the clasp, and finally noting the belly roll peeking over the top of my panties. I remembered turning sideways and looking at my silhouette in the mirror, puffing out my gut and sucking it back in. I adjusted the straps and slipped out of my panties, all the while feeling as if my heart were breaking, consumed by the thought When did this happen to my body? I'm certain that Joey didn't know any of this, just like he probably didn't know that I had outgrown two pairs of jeans since that day.

There had been a time when I felt very much at peace with my body. I had been a dancer as a child, playing the part of the promising young ballerina, practicing for long hours with expensive teachers who applauded my progress. My parents attended all of my recitals. I worked so hard at dance that my grades at school slipped. I didn't care; I had convinced myself that my future was in the performing arts. No one warned me that many ballerinas don't make it past puberty. I didn't become tall and willowy like some girls in my classes. I developed curves in all the wrong places and that was that. I felt betrayed by my own body, which was brutally unfair back then and still stung today, so many years later.

"You think I want to wear that bikini in public?" I snapped, and went to the closet in search of the elusive black one-piece.

"What's wrong with the bikini?" Joey said, sounding wounded. I didn't feel like giving an answer, so Joey sat on the bed for a minute or two waiting for me to say something. Eventually he abandoned the argument and left the room. I guess he went to the basement and got the cooler from our storage space. I figured that I could let him know what was going on in my head when he returned, but it never came up. I threw some towels and books into a bag and we were off to the beach.

 

 

 

It became clear to me, at some point on the train ride to the shore, that Joey didn't have much knowledge about my years in dance. The overlap between my relationship with Joey and my life as a dancer was all too brief. When we started dating, halfway through my first year of college, I was still taking classes twice a week. He tagged along one time and watched politely. I even caught him smiling at me once. Afterwards, he told me that I had the biggest boobs in the whole class. I pointed out that I was the oldest girl there, and while I probably could have also claimed to be the fattest, I didn't do that. Before long I skipped classes to spend evenings with Joey. My grades started to suffer and Dad thought extracurriculars should be the first thing to go. I started smoking around that time, mostly because Joey did. We got married three years later, and both of us quit cigarettes on our first anniversary.

We arrived at the beach right about the time when the sun reached its peak in the sky and the weather switched from sunny to hot and sticky. Joey took off his shirt the moment we stepped out of the subway station. He tucked it into my bag and gave me a kiss on the cheek. That husband of mine had been wearing his sunglasses ever since we left home, even when the train was zipping through underground tunnels on its way through the city. He loved his sexy mirrored shades. Mine cost me five bucks at a drugstore around the corner from our house. Joey wanted me to buy some streamlined ones with yellow lenses, but they didn't suit me. I didn't really care about the money. I wanted to feel comfortable wearing them.

We had to cross a busy boulevard on our way to the beach, and in the middle of the road I saw a thin little girl, preadolescent to be sure, wearing a bikini that held nothing remotely feminine. From the neck down she could have been mistaken for her own brother, yet there she was with a blue band of fabric hiding her potential bosom from the world. I admired her feminine facial features and bright eyes, and thought of myself when the difference between the sexes was largely academic. These days, I felt jerky jiggles as I took every step -- on my bottom, my breasts, and lately my belly -- and couldn't remember a time when this wasn't true. Nothing jiggled on this little girl. I wondered how long that would last for her.

Joey found a spot for us to sit and dropped the cooler in the sand. "Want me to get you something to drink?" he asked, stretching his arms over his head.

"You're going to the concession stand already?"

"Can't I go to the bathroom and pick up some drinks without it being a big deal?" he said, sounding a little exasperated already.

"Do they have Diet Pepsi?"

He nodded and headed off to the boardwalk.

The beach wasn't too crowded yet. That would change as the afternoon wore on: this place was so close to the subway that people spontaneously jumped off the train, making do with shorts and sports bras, and came down to the ocean just to hear the surf. Convenient, certainly, but not really a high-class beach. You noticed lots of urban kids who lacked supervision. You could hear six or seven languages over the course of the day. Everybody seemed to be smoking cigarettes. Jet planes screamed across the sky every few minutes, making it impossible to forget the nearby airport. Joey loved coming here; I had no strong feelings one way or the other. I put down our blanket and waited patiently for my Diet Pepsi.

 

 

 

 

I spent an hour lying on my stomach, turning the pages of a mystery novel and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my back. My mom started reading these trashy things when I was a kid and she now had countless stacks of them stored in the basement. She handed one to me whenever I stopped by the house, and no matter how highly she recommended a book I never failed to find it boring. It gave me something to do, I guess.

Joey didn't do much at the beach, from what I could tell. The boy wasn't one to read. He had been in the same position ever since he got back with our drinks -- leaning back on his arms, sitting upright, watching the waves crash against the sand and slide back again. I reached a particularly monotonous passage in the novel and turned my attention to my husband, who proved to be an interesting subject. He seemed to be sitting in silent judgement over today's crop of beach visitors, curling his lips in disgust as people walked by. It became a game for me too: I tried to spot Joey's victims before he did. One guy had a chest upholstered with curly black hair, and I knew that Joey would freak when the guy entered his field of vision. A wide woman in her sixties lumbered past us, her pale thighs wobbling independently from her legs. Then a pregnant woman in a bikini came by, and Joey gave her a little smile of approval -- maybe because she had such beautiful hair or just because she was bold enough to walk around half-naked in a family way. She was a tall woman, very tall, and I couldn't imagine that Joey would have found her attractive in any circumstance. That was my guess, anyway.

I opened my mystery to the page where I had left off and did my best to become engrossed in the plot. No luck there. Thanks to Joey, I had become fascinated with our neighbors, like the young couple who didn't seem old enough to have three screaming kids (maybe they were nieces and nephews?) and the elderly man with white chest hair growing out of dark leathery skin. Twenty feet away, two girls a few years younger than me were laying in the sun, motionless, frowning, eyes shut tight, like corpses in pursuit of a deeper tan. Both of them had nice bodies, even though they were a little bottom-heavy. Did Joey notice them? Would he fantasize about these girls? Was he voyeuristic like that? His sex drive came and went, but I never noticed that he got horny after being at the beach.

"See those kids over there?" Joey asked, bringing me back down to Earth.

"Over where?"

"Do you see them?" He lifted his hand and pointed down by the water.

I looked at the surf and tried to work out what my husband was talking about. I saw kids everywhere, splashing in the water and screeching in mock terror. Out of the whole crowd, only one group seemed to stick out. "You mean those teenagers?" I said, pointing at a group of bikini girls.

"What's weird about those kids?" he quizzed me.

I scrutinized the girls for Joey's sake, vaguely wondering why he would bring them to my attention. All of them wore skimpy two-piece suits. One had short hair and the others had shoulder-length cuts. As we watched, two hunky boys ran down the beach and called to the group, receiving an enthusiastic response. The shorthaired girl jumped into the arms of one boy; leading me to believe they were a long-standing couple.

"Should I see something weird?" I finally said.

"Don't you think it's strange that every one of them is so skinny? That all those girls are in such good shape?"

He called them kids a moment before, and now they were girls. Joey looked at them and saw ripe sexuality while I had considered them as people. It would have felt about the same if he hit me in the back of the head with a lead pipe. My eyes felt like they were on fire.

"Am I right?" he prodded.

"What do you expect me to say?" I had hoped to give the impression that none of this was affecting me. Maybe Joey sensed that had been acting inappropriately, because the line of questioning ended there. He took a drink of his soda and exhaled loudly.

I looked back at the pages of my mother's mystery and couldn't even make out the words anymore. I sat up and fussed with the towel so it lay flush with the sand. I decided to flip over so I could stare at the sun and even out my tan. I found myself squinting underneath my sunglasses. I could feel the wrinkles forming on my face. I closed my eyes tighter and saw Joey's girls prancing in the surf. They didn't have faces in my head -- just flat bellies, slender legs, perfectly shaped teenage butts. Blood flushed through me and I forced the visions to go away. I felt a wave of heat pass over my body and had the sensation that I had been covered in a layer of bread dough that was rising, rising, rising. I opened my eyes and craned my neck back to the beach.

Joey's girls were still there, ankle-deep in the ocean along with their broad-shouldered boyfriends. A third boy had showed up with a camera and he was gesturing to the whole crowd. I watched with some interest as all the girls bunched together for a photograph while the boys looked on. They posed prettily in what seemed to be a rehearsed formation: one leg locked straight and the other bent just so, backs straight, shoulders back. The shot was taken and everybody laughed merrily. The shorthaired girl jumped on one boy's back -- a different guy this time. Maybe she was just a big flirt? Now one of the young ladies had the camera, and she gave giggling instructions to the most muscular of the three boys. He got down on all fours in the surf and struck a dramatic stance. The girl with the camera shook with glee, and snapped the picture when the tide splashed against his back. Again, everyone was delighted.

I glanced over to Joey, whose attention had drifted to a sailboat on the horizon. He had lost interest in his skinny teenagers. Maybe he never cared that much about them to begin with. When I looked back at the beach, three girls were running along the water's edge while one of the boys stood ready with the camera. When they reached a specific spot or someone yelled out a cue, all three leaped into the air with great athletic grace, stretching their legs out into a dance position I remembered well. The boy took the picture as they flew through the air. Everyone applauded when they landed. Another group of girls ran down the beach so they could do the same.

"You know why they all have such great bodies?" I spoke up, pleased to have learned the reason by simple observation. They were probably all in the same dance company.

Joey seemed spooked to hear my voice. "Who?"

"Remember those kids down there? The ones with the perfect bodies?"

Joey sensed a trap and tensed up. "Did I ever say they had perfect bodies, Donna? Are you putting words in my mouth?"

"Why are you suddenly so defensive?" I said, feeling my pulse quicken. I never wanted this to be a fight. Our eyes locked behind the safety of our sunglasses.

Joey stood up and brushed sand from his swimsuit. "Do you want another Diet Pepsi?" he asked. As soon as I nodded, he tramped away for one more trip to the concession stand. It didn't escape my attention that he failed to ask me if I wanted to come along.

A few minutes passed. The first soda had worked its way through my system and I now had to use the bathroom. I watched for Joey in the distance. I didn't want to leave our things unattended, and it would have been a shame to give up our spot on the beach so early. I waited for a few more minutes and still he was nowhere to be seen. I knew that I would not be able to hold it much longer. I arrived at a compromise, putting Joey's wallet and watch into my bag and leaving everything else with the towels before I headed for the restrooms up by the boulevard. When I reached the sidewalk, I saw the little girl in the blue bikini walking with an adult woman -- maybe her mother, though I saw little resemblance. The woman was small, even shorter than me, and probably outweighed me by twenty pounds, all on her hips and thighs. Her lower half looked kind of comical, shaking firmly with every step, in strong contrast to the little one's boyish figure. The sight made me smile, and I really didn't know why.

I had hoped to see Joey on the way so I could pass off the bag and stop worrying about our towels. He had been gone for fifteen minutes or more by this time. Was there a long line at the concessions? I couldn't imagine what could be keeping him. The restroom faced the beach, so I had to walk around a brick building to reach the doors. Dozens of energetic kids and sunburned parents loitered in front of the restrooms. I moved through the crowd impatiently. I tried to push past a girl smoking a cigarette and accidentally bumped into her. She turned to me and scowled. Our faces were only a few inches apart, and I instantly recognized her as the shorthaired girl who flirted with all the boys. She had a few inches on me but was not particularly pretty; I inadvertently sized up her breasts and decided they were too small. Our exchange would have ended there had I not spotted Joey.

He was only a couple of yards away, talking to another one of the dancers: tall, slender, busty, gorgeous. My husband took a long drag from a cigarette while the girl chattered at him. She flashed her gleaming white teeth in his face before taking an inexperienced puff of her own cigarette. I hadn't seen Joey smoke in years. He took another drag and nodded as the girl told him something. The wind gusted just then, and her long dark hair blew into her face. Joey reached out with two fingers and brushed the hair away from her eyes. I could see naive gratitude swell up in her face.

"What are you looking at?" the shorthaired girl barked. "What's your problem?"

"My husband," I said, answering both questions at once.

I needed the bathroom more than ever now, but I couldn't bear to be there for another second. I shoved my way back to the sidewalk and crossed the boulevard. My face flushed red and I hoped that everyone would think it was sunburn. I went directly to the subway station, feeling my belly quiver every time my foot hit the pavement, and tried to come up with a single reason why I should tell him that I was going home early. I pulled his shirt out of my bag and held it out like a dead animal. A cloud went over the sun, and I suddenly felt very cold.

* * *




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