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Beck’s parents had made her relinquish her phone. It was in a zippered pouch in her father’s bag, shut away with a luggage lock to which only her father knew the combination. He was smart, too. The combination was not anyone’s birthday or her parents’ wedding anniversary or something so simple you wouldn’t think to try it, like 1-2-3, because she had tried all of that when her parents and her brother were at dinner and she had said she was too tired to come. And she couldn’t try any famous dates because she couldn’t remember any without looking them up with her phone. Which of course she didn’t have because her stupid father had locked it in a stupid pouch and by now the battery had probably died and everyone’s texts were just sitting in some dark virtual cloud where texts hover like useless birds before they can be delivered.
Or maybe no one had texted. Not Jayce or Bella or Mari. Not Emma. Not Lucas. It was possible they were all mad still, and she hated not knowing, the not-knowing sat on her chest like one of the weighted balls her dad kept in the basement. The not-knowing seemed to steal her breath, her ability to think freely, everything but her appetite, which was still robust and thriving, despite all her longing to be one of those girls who could say, “I was so upset, I forgot to eat all day.”
She hadn’t committed a crime. She hadn’t even done much wrong except get drunk and kiss a couple of people at Bella’s party, which everyone did sometimes. Mari once made out with six people at a party when she was drunk, even though she had a boyfriend. It just became a funny story. But Beck had kissed the wrong people, people who mattered, like Emma, who actually maybe liked her, but told everyone she was a manipulative straight girl kissing actual queer girls for attention. And Lucas, who she had thought maybe she liked, but who accused her of trying to break up his relationship. And then she threw up on Bella’s living room rug, which made Bella freak out because she knew her parents would freak out. It had not been a good look. She was messy, unsympathetic, inspiring no one to hold back her hair and sweep her away from the party, walk her home in the dark. Instead, she stole someone’s cigarettes and walked home alone, smoking. The streets had been so quiet, so familiar. She could have done it blindfolded. The next day, her family left for vacation early, and as the plane landed, her father snatched her phone before she had service again.
Beck ate the M&M’s she’d bought at the airport and stared out the deck door at the moonlit ocean, which tossed itself onto the shore again and again. It seemed sexual to her somehow, all that repeated motion, rising and crashing. Not that she’d know because she hadn’t yet had sex, or not that kind of sex, because okay, virginity was a construct, but she still wanted what was conventional. Sometimes, she felt she had to hide how boring she really was, how much she just wanted to be little spoon to some muscly boy who made her feel safe and small. Lucas was almost that – stringier than her fantasy with poorly painted nails, but large enough to wrap his whole hand around hers. But he was busy spooning his actual girlfriend and having muffled, tender sex with her while his parents cooked dinner downstairs. It made Beck nauseous to imagine. She tipped more M&M’s into her hand.
The hotel door beeped open and Beck’s family came through with leftovers containers. Beck slipped the M&M’s pack into her pocket.
“You hungry, Beckaroo?” her mom asked, kissing her head.
“Or are you still pouting over your phone?” her father asked.
Beck wanted to tell him to fuck off, but that would have been a lot of trouble. Beck’s brother Skylar pulled out a manga book from his suitcase and began reading on his bed.
“You should at least eat something that’s not processed sugar,” her father said, nodding at the corner of the M&M’s packet peeking from her shorts pocket. He poked her side while handing her salmon and veggies in the takeout container, and she rubbed the spot where his finger had been.
Beck’s parents left for the adjoining room and closed the door. Beck turned on the television and Skylar put on his headphones, even though they weren’t attached to anything.
Beck ate her salmon while watching a movie she couldn’t follow, then fell asleep while Skylar read on into the night.
Her parents woke her up the next morning by pulling back the blackout curtains and letting the sunlight shoot all over her in a painful rush.
“What the fu–”
“Rebecca!” her mother scolded.
“I didn’t say it!”
“Wakey wakey, frog and snakey!” Her father clapped his hands. Skylar slunk out of bed to the bathroom and shut the door. Beck groaned into her pillow. “Come on! Breakfast, then snorkeling. We booked seats on the boat already.”
Beck groped for her phone before remembering its imprisonment. She groaned louder until her parents returned to their room.
Breakfast was a bright buffet of tropical fruit, eggs and pastries. Skylar read through it, eating slices of bacon with one hand while the other held his comics. Beck tuned out her parents’ chatter while she stabbed at pieces of pineapple. The weather was relentlessly beautiful – cloudless azure skies, warmth that wrapped itself over Beck’s skin like silk. Beck wondered if Emma thought she was a coward for not texting right now. She thought of Emma’s hair, soft between her fingers, the broad plane of her hips pushed to her own. She wasn’t faking it, no matter what Emma thought. She had wanted to kiss her, had felt that tug of attraction, still did even all these miles away. Maybe Emma could be her big spoon after all. If she didn’t hate her.
The boat for snorkeling was packed. There was a family with carousing twin boys and another with preteens, giggling and arguing. There were a few old couples, and Beck’s own family, whom she was trying to ignore. There was a father and a son, who looked like he was in college, and although he wasn’t good looking, Beck could round him up to cute if she had the chance to talk to him. Then there was a young couple, somewhere in their twenties, beautiful in a way Beck hadn’t seen before. The woman was so slender she looked like she could slip between the slats of the boat, and the man was reedy and gaunt-faced in a way that was almost shocking. She was liquid; he was sharp geometry. Beck found herself watching them as the boat careened over the water, the woman’s hand grazing the man’s knee, the man giving the woman’s bare shoulder a thoughtless kiss.
The boat carved a frothy line of white through the aqua ocean, then stopped in an unremarkable expanse of water. Everyone stood and squeezed masks over their faces, popped tubes into their mouths, and splashed down in the water. A few more cautious passengers lowered themselves down a ladder, including Beck, who found the water unsettlingly warm, a creepy urine temperature. The mask was tight and uncomfortable suctioned onto her face. She floated face down, watching bright fish wriggle past.
“Rebecca! Come here! Isn’t it beautiful?” Her mom called.
Beck ignored her and paddled away from the twins who were splashing each other. Her face stayed below the surface, taking big, plasticky breaths from her tube. When her ears were below the water, she could imagine she was in her own world, her own colorful queendom, away from her deeply embarrassing family.
When she surfaced, she bumped against someone, and confused, spat the tube from her mouth, lifting her mask to the top of her head. It was the man with the cheekbones from the boat.
“Oh sorry,” she said, a little out of breath. He wasn’t wearing a snorkeling mask. He smiled suddenly, and it transformed his face. He had the kind of creases that made him look more stunning, rather than older.
“It’s not a problem,” he said. He had an unplaceable accent, something European. They floated side by side. “You have lines,” he said, stroking below his own eyes. Beck touched her face and felt the indentations from her mask. She felt herself flush.
“The mask,” she said, unnecessarily. He nodded, then suddenly, flipped onto his back and began to float away, staring at the wide, unchanging sky. Beck watched him go. She looked around for the woman – his girlfriend? Wife? – but couldn’t spot her amongst the tubes bobbing from the water. She fitted her mask back on. She tried to enter her private underwater world again. But the man had seemed to break through the walls and now she no longer felt the same lonely satisfaction. She swam back to the boat.
On the ride back, Beck no longer had a good view of the couple. Skylar stood in front her, arms outstretched, trying to balance without holding on to anything as the boat surged toward the resort. The twins were imitating him, laughing when one of them tumbled to the deck. Her parents were lamenting that neither had brought the underwater camera and debating whether the resort restaurant they’d booked for the evening was the one with the special crab or the special chicken.
They spent the afternoon on the beach. Skylar read his manga and periodically ran into the ocean, throwing himself under the waves. Her mother was reading a book, although it mostly sat on her lap while she tilted her head toward the sun, mouth slightly agape. Her father read something on his Kindle, which Beck thought was unfair, since it seemed suspiciously close to the kind of device he’d outlawed on this vacation. Beck was reading A Farewell To Arms for Honors English and a little in love with it, although she wouldn’t have said so in school. She wanted someone to call her darling, to hide beneath her hair.
At dinner, Beck’s family found themselves seated at a table next to the beautiful couple from the boat. To her horror, her father began to talk to them, introducing the whole family.
“Oren,” said the man, his face breaking into a broad smile again. “And this is my wife.”
“Rose,” said the woman. Her voice was soft, lower than Beck would have expected.
The server’s arrival prevented the need for small talk. But Beck found herself glancing over throughout the meal, watching Oren’s large-knuckled hand trail over the side of his water glass, or Rose’s hair float into her face before she brushed it away. She could have sworn they looked over her at her, too, sometimes catching her eye for a moment before returning to each other’s gaze.
In the hotel room after dinner, Beck’s parents tried and failed to rally enthusiasm for Scattergories, and defeated, returned to their own room. Skylar put his headphones on and read his manga until he passed out with his head on his book. Beck turned off the lights and lay in the dark with the TV on, playing some dumb movie about people who all wanted to have sex with the wrong people. She turned off the TV and listened for the waves surging and crashing. Beck heard her father’s snores boring through the wall. She felt a feeling like she’d had not knowing what her friends were thinking, like a bellows squeezing air from her chest. The room seemed cramped, the beds too big with nowhere to move between them. Skylar’s breath came in little rasps. She pocketed the room key in her pajama shorts, slid into flip flops, and left.
The air outside was wet and still, womblike. She swallowed big breaths. She wandered the fragrant paths through greenery and found herself in the pool and hot tub area, still open. It was lit by lanterns embedded in fake rocks and from within the water itself, so the light shimmered mystically as she approached. Then she saw two figures in the hot tub and stopped short, about to turn back.
“Hey,” said a voice, familiar, accented. It was Oren, and Rose was beside him, sunk so low in the tub that only her face was visible, her hair floating around her.
“Hi. Sorry,” Beck said. She wasn’t sure why she felt the need to apologize. She sensed she’d interrupted something, although she didn’t know if it was sexual or some other intimacy – an argument, a protracted silence.
“Please,” said Rose, raising a slender arm from the water to gesture for Beck to join.
Beck hesitated. She wasn’t in a bathing suit. She also suddenly became aware that she wasn’t in a bra, that her breasts looked pointy and sad. She sat beside the tub on the opposite end from the couple. She dipped her feet into the scalding water.
“Your family is not with you?” Oren asked. He stretched his arms out, resting on the top of the tub, leaning his head back in a luxuriating, feline way.
“But you don’t sleep?”
“I didn’t feel like it.”
The heat was flushing Beck’s cheeks, dampening her hair. Rose lifted herself from the center of the tub and sat beside Oren, leaning against him.
“I can never sleep,” Rose said. “I always feel I’ll miss something the moment I fall asleep.”
“I love sleep,” said Oren. “I sleep like a child, completely out.” Oren snapped his fingers. “Like that.”
“And you snore like a pig,” said Rose, smiling. Oren laughed. Beck twisted the end of her hair between her fingers. Rose frowned thoughtfully at her. “How old are you?”
“Sixteen! What a beautiful age.” Oren grinned.
“I think it kind of sucks,” said Beck.
“That’s because you don’t realize yet. You will look back and remember when you were sixteen and perfectly lovely. And you will wish you could tell yourself at sixteen to really see yourself, to look at all that loveliness and relish it.”
Beck didn’t know what to say. It was so strange to be called lovely by Oren, she just swallowed and trailed her fingers through the water.
“You’ve embarrassed her,” said Rose.
“Good. It’s good to be embarrassed at sixteen.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Beck. She tried to smile. “How long have you been married?”
“Two years?” said Rose, turning to Oren. “Right?”
“Something like that. It was very sudden,” he explained to Beck. “We just decided one day.”
“Sounds romantic,” said Beck.
“It was,” said Oren. “If there is one thing we are, it’s romantic.” His voice had an ironic edge to it, but Beck couldn’t tell what he was trying to imply. Rose gave him an unreadable look. The lights of the pool flickered across their faces, casting a ghostly glow. They looked like Victorian spirits, gorgeous and pale, haunting one another, haunting Beck.
“Are you romantic?” Oren asked.
Beck paused, thinking of Lucas’ arms, Emma’s hair. “Yeah, I think so.”
Oren made a sound with his tongue, as if she’d given the wrong answer. “That is good and bad. Good, because life will be richer. Bad, because life will be more painful. Your parents are not romantic. They won’t understand you. But you’ll have pleasures beyond your friends, the ones who are boring, simple.”
Once again, Beck didn’t know what to say. Rose was looking somewhere past Beck, into the darkness.
After a pause, Beck asked, “What do you guys do? Like, for work?” She flushed as soon as she said it. It seemed like the least romantic question she could have asked.
But Rose laughed. “We’re wedding photographers. We have a wedding here in a couple of days, but we thought we’d arrive early and have a vacation.”
“Stop it. You’ll ruin us for her. She’ll think we’re so pedestrian. A resort holiday.”
Rose rolled her eyes.
In a sudden, forceful movement, Oren kissed her. One hand gripped her hair, the other her shoulder. The hand on her shoulder traveled to her collarbone and rested just above her breast. Then they broke apart, and Rose slipped away to another part of the tub, leaned against the bubble jets, and closed her eyes. Oren smiled.
Beck piled her hair together and fastened it on the top of her head with a hair band. She was sweating. The night hung heavily around her, almost stifling her breath.
“We’ve seen enough weddings to know that what most people call romance is usually a fiction. They are performing a script of romance,” Oren said. He stretched then sunk beneath the water up to his neck. When he emerged and sat against the edge again, he was much closer to Beck. Her calf in the water was close to his ribs, his arm resting above the tub next to her thigh.
“True romance,” said Oren, “is pain. It is fruitless, blinding passion. It’s not flower arrangements and a mediocre DJ.”
Rose rolled her eyes.
“What?” Oren’s voice had a sharpness inside the soft, low accent.
“All this ‘romance is pain.’ Don’t brainwash her with that. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Have we not had pain?” Oren spoke in a whisper, but his tone was fiery. The anger in his face made him somehow more beautiful, and also harder to look at. Beck wanted to edge away, but the heat radiating from his body was magnetic, and she kept still, close to its pull. “Have we not suffered for each other? From each other? And yet I love you so fucking much I would kill for you. I would die for you. I would – I’d tie rocks around my body and sink myself in this fucking hot tub if it would make you happy.”
Rose didn’t look at him. She gazed into the darkness, as if waiting for something, someone to arrive.
Oren’s arm had slid closer to Beck so it was just brushing against her thigh. He looked up at Beck and her stomach flipped. She felt very far away from her hotel room with her father’s snores rumbling through the wall, and even farther from her friends, texting and taking photos and arguing over what music to play, which liquor store was least likely to card. The greenery felt like a jungle encroaching. She wanted Rose to look at her, to smile, to make this an adventure to be recounted to her friends later. But Rose still stared past her, and Oren’s fingers began to play with the hem of her shorts, just lightly, as if testing the fabric’s quality.
Suddenly, Rose did look at her, as if just noticing she had arrived. Beck’s heart was pounding. She felt as if she were on the precipice of a cliff and whether she climbed down or turned back would decide everything. Rose stood, walked toward her slowly through the tub, and took Beck’s face in her hands. Her hands were small and hot, her fingertips bumpy from pruning in the water.
“It doesn’t have to hurt. Not love, not any of it.” She tucked a strand of Beck’s hair behind her ear. “You are…” she paused and Beck thought she might say lovely, hoped she would. She wanted to feel lovely right now. “You are so young.”
It didn’t sound like a compliment. It sounded like a dismissal. Beck noticed that Oren has scooted away and was now examining his own crinkled fingertips. Rose climbed out of the tub, streaming, and held out a hand to him. He took it, and climbed the steps to leave the tub, too. They wrapped themselves in white towels.
“Goodnight,” they said. As they walked away, Beck saw Oren reach for Rose’s hand.
Beck walked slowly back to the hotel room, her flip flops slapping against the rocks. She looked back at Rose and Oren once, and they had stopped in the light of a cabana. They seemed to be talking intently again. She couldn’t tell if they were arguing or just talking, maybe about Beck herself. How lovely, maybe they were saying. Or maybe, how sad.
At the airport days later, Beck was still spinning that night around her head. Oren’s fingers brushing her thigh, Rose’s warm hands on her cheeks. Their fervent kiss. Rose’s faraway gaze. It was like a puzzle Beck was trying to complete without the image on the box. She looked at her own parents, trading a bag of pretzels back and forth and arguing whether it was worth stopping for groceries when they landed or just driving straight home.
She’d seen Oren and Rose only once more during their trip. On their last day, she passed the wedding on the beach. There was an altar covered in tropical flowers and the bride wore a long white halter gown, her hair in immaculate waves. It was a perfectly sunny day. Rose and Oren were in beige linen, but somehow, they still looked chic. They were circling with giant cameras, kneeling, backing away. They were like giant insects with glassy eyes, flitting around while everyone was distracted by the couple up front. They were making the day permanent, fixed in thousands of tiny pixels of colors, coalescing into hundreds of photos, the first day of a marriage. Beck had watched, hoping they’d notice her, hoping they wouldn’t. But they were professionals, never turning from their job. Eventually, Beck walked away.
“Hey, Beckaroo. Special treat for you. Thanks for indulging us this week.” Beck’s father was standing in front of her, holding out her phone.
“Oh. Thanks.” Beck took the phone and let her father rumple her hair before sitting back down next her mother. Skylar had already plugged his headphones back into his phone, but he was still reading.
Automatically, Beck pressed the button to turn the phone on. In a moment, it was buzzing furiously – texts from Bella, from Lucas, from Emma, from the group chat with the whole crew, from the group chat with just Bella and Mari where they talked about the others. She felt a swell of warmth, even though she knew some of the texts would be angry, that there were feelings to untangle, hurts to undo. For a little while, she just held her phone, feeling its tie back to the world she knew, the world of friends’ basements and dizzy walks home along silent streets and arms thrown around her shoulders to pose for photos. For a moment, Beck let herself savor the possibility that they all just wanted to reach her, that they were all just worried she’d disappeared. That in her hand was a barrage of love, love from everyone she knew, streaming in even now, all of it just for her.