Special Friend

It’s important to let the grass grow a little while longer. It’s not necessary to cut the grass—let it grow for a few more days. You can wait until it’s up to your waist, then you can cut it. You can wade into the water until it’s waist-high—then you can dive in. Even on the coldest days, I take a swim in the ocean. I swim out to where the horizon meets the sky, and then I swim back to shore. A strange woman awaits me on the shore, holding a towel, just like my mother did when I was a child. “Let me dry you off,” my mother said. I would change from my wet suit to a dry suit in the men’s bathhouse. Some girls were peeking through the windows of the men’s bathhouse, watching the men undress. It was strange to be standing around in the bathhouse with a lot of naked men. My father was there and some of his friends. The girls were at the window, staring at the naked men. I had seen my mother naked, and maybe my sister, and that’s it.

 I like to hold my head underwater and count. Sometimes, I stay under for more than a minute. I like to swim past the ropes to the diving board with my father watching me from the shore. My mother sits on a blanket with her friends. She doesn’t swim. One night a week we have dinner at a restaurant, The Knotty Pine. It’s still there. A few years ago, my wife and I visited this town from my distant past. We went to the restaurant, where I used to go with my parents, but the food was horrible. First, we had a drink at the bar. Then we sat down. It was a special occasion—going to this restaurant with my parents. It’s the end of summer, and the water is too cold to swim. All we can do is sit in our bathing suits on the shore. My father plays hearts with his friends on a blanket. It’s important to let the grass grow—but now it’s time to cut it. I can feel it in my bones—time to let it all go. The beach, the shoreline, the horizon, the diving board, the bathhouse with the girls peeking through the window at the naked men. And the restaurant where we used to go on warm nights, after a day at the beach, walking single file along the side of the road.

Maybe once a week we went to this restaurant. I always ordered the same thing—Southern Fried Chicken. It seemed to be something an older person might eat. I wanted to be older than I was. We went to the beach every day. I stood in the cold water. Then I swam past the ropes to the diving board. You could see the trees and the houses on the opposite shore. Then it was time to swim back with your head underwater until you reached the ropes. Your mother was waiting on the shore with a towel. You went to the bathhouse to change into a dry suit and there were the girls, peeking through the window. You knew their names: Joyce, Margaret, Ellen Sue. Their parents were friends of my parents. It was odd that no one complained. The men just walked into the bathhouse and began taking off their clothes. The girls hid under the window. My thighs were chafed. At night I put talcum powder on my thighs. I thought of the girls at the window and of people back home in the city, the girls in my classroom. Sometimes, in the evening, we went to the movies. There was one movie theater in town. One night we watched The War of the Worlds and a sister of one of my friends started screaming and ran down the aisle of the theater. It’s time to let it all fade away. The town, the movie theater, the girls at the bathhouse window watching the men take off their clothes. What were they thinking? I turned my back to them. I could hear them whispering. I was alone in the bathhouse and they were watching me undress.

There was a rumor that some of the parents went swimming at night. In the nude, of course. But not my parents. I wondered what it would be like to peek through the window of the women’s bathhouse, but I never did. Instead, we were on the beach, and I was swimming past the ropes to the diving board with the trees in the distance and a motor boat chugging through the waves. The sound of the motor boat— the wind through the trees. The sound of the crickets as we walked home from The Knotty Pine, the snakes slithering through the grass. The body of a dead chipmunk. The moss on the side of a stone.

I imagined all the bodies of all the adults on the beach swimming in the nude late at night. Getting out of the water naked in front of everyone and no one minded if one husband saw another man’s wife or some woman saw another woman’s husband. I wondered what happened afterward when they came out of the water into the moonlight on the sand. I imagined the girls in my class back home, and some of my teachers when they turned their backs to the class, and a woman on TV who swirled her skirt when she was dancing, and you could see the tops of her thighs. It was what I thought about when I was lying in bed.

The tops of the trees were moving in the wind. There were people sitting in beach chairs on the docks outside their houses. A motorboat, a rowboat, a canoe. Some people fall asleep on the blanket in the afternoon. There were two couples fucking on the beach at night. The friends of my parents. I wondered what I would do with the woman on TV in the short skirt. It all came back to me, as if in a dream. You could see the reflections of the trees and the houses in the water. My suit was wet. “You can change in the bathhouse,” my mother said. The girls were on their knees at the back window. I took off my bathing suit in the bathhouse and turned around. I could hear them laughing.

We went there every summer, and then we stopped. Things were the same and different. I was different, but I can remember everything. I can remember the couples fucking on the beach. The husband with someone else’s wife, the wife with someone else’s husband. I can hear one of the women crying out in the night. There was a full moon, and you could see the bodies covered with sand. They were the parents of my friends. I knew them all well. It was easy to imagine running out of the water onto the sand, like in the movie From Here to Eternity, but in this case, everyone is naked. In From Here to Eternity, Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster run out of the water and lie down on the sand. They’re wearing bathing suits. Half-naked bodies rolling around, one on top of the other, as if they were fucking. I lay awake in bed thinking of someone I had seen for a few moments. We had stopped for gas—me, my parents, and my sister—and she was sitting in a convertible at the gas station. She was wearing a straw hat and a white dress. Her arms were bare. I could see her blonde hair under the hat. It wasn’t hard to imagine what it would be like putting your hands under her dress in the car if you were driving. It was possible to drive with one hand and put the other hand between her legs. That’s what I thought about when I was lying in bed—and what else? Everyone I saw on the street, every teacher who stood in front of a class, every girl in the class, the mothers of all my friends.

You knock on the door and there she is—Paul’s mother, Dorothy­—but he isn’t home. “Do you want to wait for him?” Dorothy says. Paul is your best friend and once, when you were visiting him, you saw his mother undressing. The door of her bedroom was half-open, but she didn’t see you. Or possibly she left it open on purpose? You saw the reddish hair between her legs and the tips of her breasts. It seemed possible to reach out and put your hand down the front of her blouse. That she would let you do anything.

Once, I went to the movies on Saturday afternoon with a girl in my class named Bettina. Everyone sitting around us was locked in a passionate embrace. I wanted to watch the movie. It was starring Cornel Wilde. Bettina was looking at me as if she was waiting for something to happen. I thought I should take her hand and put it down the front of my pants, but I didn’t. I put my arm around her shoulders and she inched toward me. The top buttons of her blouse were open, and I placed my hand on the skin below her neck. I could see the tips of her breasts pointing outwards. Her breasts were larger than most of the girls in my class. Cornel Wilde was riding a camel across the desert. The sand seemed hot, and there was no water for miles.

She leaned toward me in the movie theater, and we kissed with our mouths closed. Everyone around us was doing the same thing. It didn’t take long to forget where I was. She took my hand and placed it down the front of her blouse. I didn’t move. She was wearing a bra, of course. I was touching the tops of her breasts and we were pressing our lips together. It would be awhile before I learned how to kiss in any other way. Or what you were supposed to do, even now, touching her breasts, if you were supposed to go further, whether she wanted you to or not. It was up to you to take the initiative, but you didn’t want her to push you away. You wanted to do whatever you wanted. That’s what it was about, in bed, before going to sleep. It was as far as either of you wanted to go, especially in the crowded movie theater. Maybe some other time, when you were in her house after school, and her parents were at work. Then it would be different. I had to admit that I wanted to go further. I touched her nipple for a second and felt her breath in my ear, as if I had done what she wanted. I didn’t know anything. The movie wasn’t very good. There was no incentive to stop what we were doing. All around, people we didn’t know were kissing and touching one another. I could only imagine what anyone else was doing. It’s something I’ll never know. Later, we walked home, holding hands in the evening light. She lived in a private house on Mulliner Avenue, two blocks from where I lived. Her parents were often gone during the day, but I didn’t have the nerve to visit her in her house. Every week, for a long time, we met outside the theater on Saturday afternoon, and every time, in the dark theater, she let me put my hand down the front of her blouse.

We no longer went to the lake for the summer. The kids were older and wanted to do other things. I wonder what happened to the people on the beach, and whether the couples stayed together. It wasn’t like they exchanged partners in secret. They took off their clothing and ran into the water. Afterward, you could see them having sex on the sand. There were some people there whom I didn’t know. Ellen Sue’s mother was lying on the beach, and some men were standing over her. I didn’t know how long I could continue watching or thinking about what had happened. I wanted to say, “Nothing happened,” but it isn’t true. Something had happened. She was lying on the beach, and there were two men leaning over her. Then a third man joined them. She was on her knees. This is what I wanted to happen. This is what happened. I was lying in bed. My sister and I shared a room. I was twelve. She was fourteen. My parents slept in the living room. My sister was asleep. I was thinking of the woman on the beach, surrounded by three men. They were the parents of my friends. The woman was crying, but one of the men put his hand over her mouth. All the windows in all the houses across the lake were dark. It was the middle of night.

The scenarios were endless. I played them over in my head. The woman in the gas station, the teacher who turned her back to the class. The smell of the teacher’s hair as she leaned over your desk. Her name was Miss Patrick. All the boys were in love with her. The girls too. Everyone wanted to be her special friend. Sometimes it’s important to have a special friend. Someone no one knows about but you.

One evening Bettina and I walked home from the movies, and she asked me if I wanted to come in. Her parents weren’t home. I hesitated for a moment, not knowing what it meant. “You don’t have to,” she said, looking like I’d done something to hurt her feelings. Part of me was content just to kiss in the movie theater. I didn’t know what else was expected of me, or what I wanted to do. She locked the door behind her and we went to her room. I felt envious of her for having her own room, for living in a big house, while I shared a room with my sister, and my parents didn’t even have a room of their own. But here we are. “My parents won’t be home till late,” she said, sitting down on the side of her bed.

It was what I imagined, lying in bed at night, what I would do if we were ever alone, and here we are. But it was different to imagine something. The reality of it all was too strange. I wasn’t ready for it, in a way, though it was what I thought I wanted. Sometimes there’s pleasure in thinking about things. Sometimes there’s no reason to venture outside. It’s all happening in your head, and no one knows anything.

She unbuttoned her blouse and lay back on the bed. I thought that the next step was removing her bra. I fumbled around in the dark but couldn’t do it. Instead, I pushed the straps of her bra down her arms. Then I touched the tip of her breast with my tongue. That was something I had never done before. Everything was new. Everything was happening for the first time. We were kissing and I was touching her breasts and pushing her skirt up over her knees. I thought she was going to stop me but she didn’t.

Contributor

Lewis Warsh

LEWIS WARSH is the author of numerous books of poetry, fiction and autobiography, most recently A Place in the Sun (Spuyten Duyvil, 2010) and Inseparable: Poems 1995-2005 (Granary, 2008). He is editor and publisher of United Artists Books and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Long Island University in Brooklyn.

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