I was driving my parents’ car down Bohicket Road, headed for a month at the beach. My learner’s permit didn’t allow me to drive on the interstate, but they had let me bring it in the last few miles, which was pretty much the greatest thrill in the world.
If you had asked me at that moment to list what I cared about the most, I would have said, in no particular order: getting my license, jet skis, the NBA finals, Chick-fil-A waffle fries, R.E.M., the new Indiana Jones movie, and a certain group of ninth-grade girls who spent their summers walking around the mall, toting bags from Esprit or Benetton.
The first week of vacation I spent more time on the phone than the beach, usually with one of those girls back home; they had their own phone lines in their rooms and expected regular calls from boys.
But one afternoon my parents managed to drag me out. I was reading on the beach. It was high tide, and our stuff was pulled back in line with everybody else’s.
“Has he fallen off the branch yet?”
I looked up from my book. It was a girl about my age, sitting in the chair next to me.
“Um, what?” I said.
“A Separate Peace. Has Finny fallen off the branch? Myself, I think it was an accident. Oh, sorry! Did I spoil it for you?”
“That would be impossible. It’s assigned summer reading.”
“Oh,” she said.
“What about you?”
“The Prince of Tides,” she said. “Not assigned reading.”
Her name was Jenny. It turned out she was staying with her aunt in the place next to ours. If I hadn’t noticed her before, it’s because she was practically camouflaged compared to the girls I knew back in Charlotte. She didn’t wear makeup or tease her bangs. Her hair and eyes were brown, the freckles on her nose were brown, her skin was brown—not from laying out, but in the way you get from spending all your time outside, sailing, gardening, riding bikes.
Of course, after that day on the beach, I pretty much couldn’t not see her. Sometimes I’d watch her out the window, watering the tomato plants or teaching herself bird names from a field guide.
One morning I was on the phone, looking out the window, and I saw Jenny leaving on her bike.
“So anyway,” the girl I was talking to said, “are y’all
going into Charleston? Are you going to get me a Banana Republic t-shirt?”
“Actually,” I said, “I’ve got to go.”
I ran downstairs.
“Hey,” I called out.
“Hey yourself,” Jenny replied.
“Where are you going with those chicken breasts?”
“They’re chicken necks,” she said. “I’m going crabbing.”
“You need any help?”
“No,” she laughed. “But you’re welcome to come, as long as you don’t cry when you get pinched.”
We biked down to the inlet, tied a string around one of the necks, and tossed it out into the water. Then slowly we pulled the line back in, and there, out of nowhere, was a
blue crab the size of my hand. After about an hour, we’d managed to pull in a bucket full. She showed me how to stroke their bellies till they were hypnotized. One pinched me
pretty bad, but I managed not to let it show how much it
hurt. Back in her aunt’s kitchen, we picked out the meat and cooked it. I’d never cooked anything that didn’t come frozen and battered.
My parents would later say they could tell from their long-distance bill exactly when Jenny and I started spending time together. We were always on our bikes, hitting tennis balls, bodysurfing, kayaking. She was my height, my age, wore the same brand of surf shorts. In a lot of ways, our friendship was just like my friendships back home, or at least the ones I had when I was a little younger, when there were still woods behind our house.
But there were some differences. Unlike most of the guys in my class, she didn’t talk incessantly about cars.
And if I had been on the beach at night with a friend from home, huddled around a cluster of ping-pong-ball-sized sea turtle eggs, and the first tiny turtle poked his head through the shell and started scrambling down the sand to the moonlit waves, I highly doubt any of my buddies would have squealed with delight and grabbed my shoulder like Jenny did.
Not that I minded.
One afternoon we swam out past the breakers; the wind was calm and the water was spread out flat like a swimming pool.
A squirt of salt water hit the side of my head. She had shot it out of her clasped hands. I tried to squirt her back, with no success.
“You suck at that,” she said, floating on her back and firing away like a human water pistol.
“You know,” I said, “I finally got to the part in the book where Finny falls out of the tree.”
“So you don’t think Gene did it on purpose?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. It was just…so awful.”
“Aw,” she said, smiling. “Did your summer reading ruin
“No. Not totally. I mean, I guess you have to think there are happy accidents too, right?”
She tilted her head to the side, traced her fingertips along the top of the water.
“Like—” I managed to finally shoot water from my clasped hands, “like that! Did you see that? Ten feet!”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said.
She cartwheeled her arms toward shore, turned back for a second, and caught a wave into the sand.
The next day we rode our bikes out to an ibis rookery. We were sitting on the ground, eating tomato sandwiches, when all the birds took off at once, dozens of them, their white wings spread wide. I looked behind us and saw a heavy gray storm front moving in.
“C’mon,” she said. “I know a place.”
We sped off, making it to a gazebo overlooking the marsh just as the skies let loose. We put our hands on the railing as the rain came down.
“I guess you know I’m going home tomorrow,” I said.
“Yeah, so?” she said.
“So…I don’t know…I mean, I wish we could stay, but, you know…”
The lightning branched across the sky like a live oak. Her hand was on the railing next to mine. I reached my pinky finger over and intertwined it with hers. The thunder clapped.
“Five seconds,” I said. “That one was about a mile away.”
“So…” she said.
“So, are you going to kiss me or not?”
My parents let me drive some of the way home, but it was no longer the biggest thrill of the summer.
If you’d asked me then to list the things I liked most in
the world, I would have said, in no particular order: fresh crabs, homegrown tomatoes, the little callouses on Jenny’s hands, the freckles across the bridge of her nose, the way she would stand up on her bike and look back at me and smile. And a kiss in a summer storm, beside a green marsh stretched out wide. — j.s.