Just formed woman in a pink bikini rising from the sea. Thunderheads piling on the horizon, Atlantic curling crashing hissing aqua and froth, intersected by a line of leg, an arch of back, long hair swinging in a wet arc over a suntanned shoulder, briefest glance and flick of a lip-glossed smile. The perfect adolescent wet dream. All it needed was a clap of thunder.
“Now, that’s new,” I gasped.
“And soon gone, Charlie. Just visiting,” Jackson warned.
“But is she real?”
“They’ve got the Sheridan place for July.”
“Sandy Sheridan? Nice replacement.”
I was still unformed, gawky, shaggy, lacking style or experience. Big and looking older than my age, but unable to hold back or disguise my admiration. It hung out. It stared. It beat audibly. It shook like a kite in a high wind. I wished mightily to be all things sophisticated, but was so straight it was painful. I needed bravado to stay in the game. We were the gazelle and the baboon.
Waves of boys drifted toward her. Volleyballs, footballs, Frisbees all landed near her in the sand. Kites took a hitch in their flight and dove in her direction. Still I hung back, strained for the right opening, but kept losing my nerve. So for over a week she remained an illusion.
I watched her from a distance, sometimes by herself, sometimes tossing a Frisbee with some boy, but most often with other girls, then with her father, his handsome body long-muscled and burned a deep Mediterranean gold, his black hair slicked back in the Italian style. She hung on his arm, ran off into the water, danced around him, flirting. Their voices rose in a dull murmur above the waves.
Once, at dusk, I saw her walking the beach alone, picking up a random shell or a piece of driftwood, studying it, feeling its texture, holding it up to the last rose light, then tossing it back into the waves. She hooked a toe under a horseshoe crab and flipped it back onto its carapace, then stared long and motionless at the frantic workings of its underside, like a child deep in mindless reverie. I almost went forward, but then held back, not wanting to interrupt the vision.
That was the summer the Hobie Cat came East. And I got Jackson to take me on his Hobie 16 out into the advancing tide, skipping along the shore, riding the surf in tight, so close the lifeguards yelled at us. That’s good, that’s good, I thought, maybe she’ll notice. Then we streaked out again, breaking over an incoming crest. Back and forth, in and out. I hung off the side, rising with the outer hull, searching for those tiny strips of pink on the beach, hoping she was watching.
Finally, I had to beg Jackson’s sister Claire to introduce us. Claire was going to be a high school senior that fall and still thought of Jackson and me as kids.
“You’ve got a swelled head, young Charlie,” she laughed.
“Can’t you see I’m in love?”
“You’re cute, but she’s got a couple of years on you.”
“She won’t know if you don’t tell.”
“It’s not just that. She’s too sophisticated for you. Lives in New York City, for God’s sake. I even heard she’s part Brazilian. One of those places. Maybe Colombian.”
“No kidding?” I said. “That’s pretty wild.” For me, New York and South America were then equally foreign and exotic. And when I first heard her name, it too sounded strangely delicious to my untuned Yankee ear. “Felicia,” I savored. “Felicia Bonatti.”
So when Claire finally gave in and took me to her, I was struck temporarily mute, knowing in my heart-of-hearts I was out of my league. I held my worn copy of The Stranger tightly in my hand as an emblem of maturity. It had been, that year, my constant companion. I kept puzzling over Meursault and the unhappy accident of his life. Now, flustered by my own inability to seize this moment properly, I kicked at the sand, looked out at the sea. It was Felicia who broke the awkward silence.
“Was that you sailing out there?” she asked. Her voice was surprisingly as small as a child’s.
“On the Hobie?” I fingered my Camus so casually she had to notice.
“Yes, that catamaran.”
“I was on the trapeze,” I said modestly, still ruffling pages.
“The one hanging way off the side?”
“Balancing the Cat against the wind.”
“You guys looked great,” she said. “Regular beach boys.”
“Maybe you’d like to come out sometime.”
“I would, yes, sometime.” Her voice dwindled off, followed by another awkward pause. I rushed this time to fill it, tapping Camus against my bare leg.
“Claire been showing you around?”
“Not much,” Claire said. “Fé hasn’t been here that long.” Fé was what she liked to be called. Later I learned it meant Faith.
“Bring her around to Tony’s, why don’t you. That’s where everybody’ll be hanging tonight.”
“The pizza joint?” Claire asked.
“OK, maybe,” Felicia said, “Huh, Claire?” Smiling, shading her eyes against the afternoon sun.
That night, there was a loud group of us drinking beers in the parking lot, leaning on cars, laughing. Then, hearing her sudden soprano dancing lightly above our coarse haw-haws, everybody turned to watch her silhouette edging toward me, the passing headlights outlining her body under the soft summer dress – light dark, light dark, approaching in an afterglow. Perhaps my long silences had been mistaken for wisdom, my Tarzan repartee for Buddhist simplicity. Perhaps it was Camus. Or maybe it was just that I had been brave enough to speak to her at all. She came with Claire, but she came to me.
“Is this the excitement?” she asked.
“Not if you’re looking for Times Square.”
“A dance would be nice.”
“Have to wait for Saturday to dance.”
“Once in a while a ballgame.”
“Oh, wow,” she mocked and reached for my can of Budweiser. Then all at once she asked, “So what do you think of that guy Meursault?” Was she testing me? I thought a minute.
“I don’t know,” I said very slowly and seriously. “I’m still trying to figure him. How he handles sex and death and everything. Like it’s no big thing. Like it just happens. Like maybe it’s happening to somebody else.”
“Meursault makes me ache.”
“I don’t think we like knowing we’re not in control.”
“How do you mean?”
“He’s like a bumper car, things coming at him. He’s just reacting.”
“Maybe because he doesn’t believe anything.”
“Or sees too clear.”
“Really.” She gave me a little smile. Then took a sip of my beer.
“You don’t really like beer,” I told her.
“How do you know?”
“Most girls don’t like beer much.”
“In my experience,” I qualified and she smiled again as if she had suspicions.
“Well then, what’s the choice?”
“Pretty limited right now.”
Then there were just the two of us sharing a badly rolled joint – shaken from a pack of unsmoked Salems, clumsily extracted from a wrinkled piece of foil – somewhere behind a dark seaside hedge, with the just-mowed grass smell and the tea scent of privet in bloom, a ribbon of stars through the shore mist, a shift of bare feet in the cool sand. We floated among blue shadows, expanding our horizons. She exhaled, sighed her pleasure and looked up at me, reflecting moonlight. Her fingers pushed damp hair back from the side of my face. I was mute. Still as a rabbit. Tense in anticipation. I felt I should be circling her now like Dylan Thomas’s “dewlapped dogs,” baying my “Excelsiors.”
“Good stuff,” she breathed, the slightest exotic shred of an accent. I could barely hear her voice above my pulse. “Better than Bud.”
“Are you really from Brazil?”
“Brazil? No, Chile. My mother is. I just visit sometimes.”
“Is this your first time on the Cape?”
“First time in all New England.”
“What do you think?” I heard myself mumble in a voice that sounded moronically immature.
“Better than Jersey,” she said softly. “Beaches in Jersey are full of Bozos.”
“Maybe I’m just tired of boardwalk towns.”
We drifted slowly up a long seashell lane where a house loomed sudden and palatial behind tall thick hedges. She led me through a side gate, letting it swing shut with a loud metallic clack. Pale yellow light flowed through French doors, over a wide porch, onto a great sweep of lawn, where croquet wickets threw thin shadows down into black bushes. All was quiet save the sigh of surf, thin distant laughter, a buoy bell.
“So you go to the Jersey shore?”
“We have a place. We’ll be there in August.”
“That can’t be so bad.”
“This is good right here.”
Under rhododendrons, she drew close, our mouths touching softly darkly, tongues slithering like snakes, leaving warm essence of beer and trace of weed. I was surprised to feel her suddenly small and soft against me, smelling something like the fields and tasting faintly of the sea. To dive, to swim. I was spinningly drunk on her, but a boy on a man’s errand. I brought her hungrily up to me, wanting her but knowing little how to be suave about it. So we stood there necking until our mouths were dry. Then passed up along the porch and into the house and kissed some more.
“Don’t move,” she said, as I must have heard once in a movie. “I’ll be right back.”
I was left alone on a pink-flowered, over-stuffed sofa in a high-ceilinged room big enough for basketball, thick rugs on the floor, mammoth gold-framed paintings of clipper ships and seascapes along the walls.
On a table behind the sofa, perfectly positioned to catch the soft light from a nearby lamp, stood a photograph in a handsome art deco frame. Silver warmed by the patina of age. A timeless trio looked down on me. Beautiful mother, handsome father, radiant child, captured by a photographer who knew how to love his subject. Shadows caressed, light suffused. Like those portraits of long-dead Hollywood immortals, this one lifted its subjects toward a higher ideal. I was fascinated. I was jealous. Our family shots had come via Sears. Or some friend’s Instamatic. They were overlit and flat, devoid of mystery, revealing unwanted flaws.
Somewhere toward the back of the house, down mysterious dark corridors, I heard the tinkle of ice cubes and felt vulnerable, expecting to be confronted by suspicious parents lurking in the shadows.
But she returned alone – burnished face and sun-bleached curls floating hauntingly above a pale dress – carrying tall icy gin-and-tonics with pink straws and fat green limes into the lamplight. As if I needed further intoxication. She sat mutely beside me, small and innocent as her voice, as we sucked at the shimmering liquid, mouths puckering on quinine, waiting, then slowly kissing the essence from each other’s lips.
“Look at this,” she laughed, nodding at the necklace and bracelets strewn helter-skelter across the coffee table, next to glasses of melting ice cubes, ashtrays with lipsticked cigarettes and a single manly cigar stub. “Sylvia’s shed the family jewels.”
“Mi mamá, the love goddess. I’ll bet she’s having a rare time in the back room right now.”
Just who with, I was afraid to mention, fearing his name might bring him down like an avenging angel to catch me entwined with his daughter on the sofa, my nervous fingers desperately trying to crack the elusive combination of her minuscule bra-clasp.
“What’s he do?” I whispered.
“Paints,” she breathed on my neck, “Imports things, exports things,” nibbling my ear, then, “Oh, c’mon, Charlie, just pull the damn thing down.” I hesitated, feeling boorish and inept. I had failed my first crucial test. I had wished her magically revealed like Salome, veil by gauzy veil. I had wanted to work with unseen hands, touching her lightly as blown petals, sighing softly over her perfect white breasts and flat brown belly. “Daddy makes me wear the silly things. I tell him he’s just old-fashioned.”
She took my hand now softly in hers and placed it firmly on her knee. That surprised me. But my hand had a life of its own. It treasured her knee’s firm roundness and edged itself tentatively along her inner thigh. I heard my voice mumble her name. Yet even then I was sensing the disturbing weight to my every move, as if I had come down with a slight case of palsy. I wanted things to float effortlessly. Airily. Soulfully. But I had become wary. And I was now sure she also suspected she might not be in expert hands.
In that moment of fragile ecstasy, my lips lingering over her smooth neck under a cover of damp curls, my hand reaching tentatively toward Nirvana, I felt her stiffen slightly. She pushed me back, cradling my face in her small child hands, looking at me coyly questioning.
“Are you a virgin?”
Whatever I had expected, it wasn’t this. It buffeted me sideways, like a great ocean wave. I felt the blood rushing hotly over my scarified pride.
“What do you mean?” I asked innocently, my voice breaking, knowing the jig was up, but still hoping this might just be a joke. The little-girl smile revealed small even teeth, then a mocking titter. Her green eyes taunting. Not emerald or jade in this light, but a very pale fern.
“Damned if you’re not, Charlie Frank. You are still a virgin.”
What curse could be worse for the impostor? I was iced throughout, exposed and speechless. Not even a playground bully could have meted out such shame. At the very height of my passion, Lustus interruptus. My manhood mocked.
Like a drowning man, I struggled to come up with some saving tactic. I took a deep breath and focused on the close proximity, the sensual line of her upper lip, bleached fuzz barely visible. To settle myself. To use cool logic in a warm voice.
“And if I am?” I whispered, being careful not to move. “It doesn’t change how I feel.” Then I slowly carefully laid out before her an exquisite argument concerning the purity of my feelings, the heat of my ardor and the depth of my admiration. I contended that even though it might be my first time, it would also be my most important time. And that she, as my loving teacher, could stamp herself indelibly on my memory. Forever. At least that’s the speech I meant to deliver. But the words came haltingly and the voice lacked confidence. The tide had simply turned as the tide simply does.
“Just how old are you?” she asked.
“Yes, in real time.”
“You mean, my age?”
“Fifteen,” I mumbled. “I’ll be sixteen in December.” That year or two between us now seemed a chasm. Fifteen was just more shame. Now I was twice cursed, by age as well as innocence.
“Oh, boy,” she said. “That’s statutory.”
Was it then I discovered my mortality? Or more to the point, my unelectability? I saw myself left behind as she rocketed past and ahead, never to be caught. I had made it to the Olympics and tripped in the starting blocks.
Outside, I lingered by the dark hedge watching lights come on in upper windows, still imagining her leading me down a shadowy hallway to a great feather bed and pulling me down onto soft, sweet-smelling sheets. Simultaneously, I thought of Meursault awaiting the guillotine. Fifteen is an age of extremes.
I didn’t go to the dance that Saturday. I didn’t look for her on the beach. I was too ashamed. And before I knew it July and Felicia were gone.
Photo by Mandy Jensen