Chapter Twenty-three

     The ocean was the perfect end-of-summer temperature, cool enough to register on her skin but so warm Theresa hardly needed to adjust once she jumped in. She backstroked out past the surf line, bobbed on the waves, then cruised underwater with her eyes closed. It was late Tuesday afternoon, so the beach was pretty clear for late August. Most of the other swimmers headed home when the lifeguards quit for the day. She glanced over the tops of the waves every once in a while, just to stay oriented, but the rest of the time she simply basked in the flow of water along her body. 

     Feeling wrung out, she tried to bodysurf back to shore and misjudged the wave. There had been a beach replenishment project the year before, and the beach sloped steeply. The water rolled her up in a brown-green carpet and hammered her into the sand. She crawled up from the foam, shrieking laughter, then screeched as she realized her left boob had flopped loose. She was wearing the black one-piece with the low neckline. It had been a long time since she’d even wanted to go swimming, and she’d forgotten about that particular wardrobe malfunction.

     The scars slid along her fingers as she maneuvered herself back into the swimsuit. When everything was properly tucked away, she looked up and saw the two men staring at her.

     They were smiling, shirtless, stepping along slowly in their sandals and baggy shorts down to their knees. Both white guys in their late twenties, maybe early thirties, one buzzed, the other shaggy. Theresa froze, and the next wave burst around her knees and foamed between her thighs. She looked down, anything to get away from their eyes, and the slurry of retreating froth made her dizzy. Her stomach knotted and gooseflesh pimpled her body. She moved as fast as she could, getting her feet clear of the churning sand, arms crossed against her breasts, not looking at the men.

     Lisa was sitting at their blanket, all smile and sunglasses under a broad-brimmed straw hat.

     Theresa walked quickly, keeping control. Nobody was going to come up behind her. Nobody was going to cover her mouth and pluck her away from her life. Nobody was stalking her. Everything would be fine when she reached the blanket and Lisa.

     The blanket. Theresa sat down and closed her eyes, waiting for her heart to stop hammering.

     “Are you okay? Did they say something?”

     Theresa shook her head. “They looked too much. They caught me off guard, that’s all.”

     Lisa took her hand under the towels. She squeezed.

     “They seem harmless enough.”

     “Guess we’re gonna find out,” Theresa whispered. She stared off to the side as the men approached.

     “Scuze us, ladies,” the buzzed one said.

     Lisa pushed up the brim of her hat. “You’re excused,” she said, but her tone was light and playful.

     “Do you live around here? We’re looking for a place to go later, this bar we heard about that sells the famous crab cakes. We’re asking around but nobody knows what we’re talking about.”

     “Kelsey’s?” Lisa said.

     “Yes!” The shaggy one pumped his fist.

     “Kelsey’s! Thank you!” The buzzed guy was grinning wide. He was trying to catch Theresa’s eye, but she had turned to stone.

     “Ocean Gate Boulevard,” Lisa said. “Like, a block up from the water park.”

     “So it’s good?”

     “It’s great.”

     Buzz looked down at Lisa, though he kept glancing in Theresa’s direction. “What would be even greater is if you’d like to meet up with us there, like maybe eight? It’s the least we could do for the pretty ladies who straightened us out about the place.”

     “Thanks,” Lisa grinned up at him. “But it’s not gonna be a social night for us tonight.”

     The men exchanged shrugs. The shaggy guy said: “Cool. Hope we see you when it does get social.”

     “One never knows, do one?” Lisa never burned a bridge if she could help it.

     The buzzed guy leaned over at Theresa. “I hope you feel better. Whatever it is, I hope it all works out for you.”

     Lines of muscle strained along Theresa’s bare arms. Lisa pretended to hold the brim in place as she watched the men slouch off. Theresa’s hand, still tight in hers, stopped trembling after a few minutes.     She shifted in a way that Lisa recognized without thinking. She let her sister settle her head in her lap, then she stroked her hair back from her eyes. Theresa stared out at the waves.

     “I always loved the beach,” she muttered.

     “The beach loves you back. You looked fantastic out there in the waves. I thought you were going to ride off on a dolphin and we’d never see you again.”

     Theresa laughed – a gravelly sound. “A whale, maybe.”

     “Bullshit.”

     Another laugh, this one clearer.

     “So, you don’t like this? It isn’t working for you?”

     “It works, all right.” She sighed, and her breath puffed across Lisa’s leg. “The sound of the ocean always puts me right. I probably wouldn’t want to be here if you weren’t here, but I love this.”

     “That’s what I want to hear about. Things you love.”

     “What is it about that sound, I wonder.”

     “We were all floating around in water before we were born,” Lisa said. “All that sloshing along with mom’s heartbeat. It probably makes you think of the womb, before you were born.”

     Theresa laughed. She twisted around to look up at Lisa. “Where did that come from?”

     “I dunno,” Lisa said. “It just popped out.”

     Theresa sat up and hugged her knees. She squinted after the two men, who were a few yards away but seemed in no hurry to move along.

     “That was nice, what he said.”

     “It was,” Lisa said.

     “I shouldn’t have freaked like that. I still get caught off guard sometimes.”

     The sun was setting behind them, and the evening haze was full of pink and purple light. A couple of hundred yards away, four young girls were climbing an overturned lifeguard boat and jumping off. A couple in their twenties walked past, holding hands and bumping shoulders. The man’s arms were a dense weave of tattoos. The woman had a neon pink feather in her black hair. The plumage changed, but the rituals stayed the same.

     I don’t want to be Poor Theresa my whole life. So she gave herself a push.

     “I ever tell you, the first time I gave it up was at the Shore?”

     “Oh yeah?” Lisa was very interested. “Not here, was it?”

     “No, not here. Sandy Hook.”

     “No shit! Did I know the guy?”

     “Barry Connolly.”

     “My mind is a blank.”

     Theresa remembered him as a tall, slim, red-haired boy. The memory awakened a little tremor of sexual interest, and she almost gasped at the sensation. Something involving her body that was actually a pleasure to remember. She basked in it.

     “You remember Gina Catanese?  I went with her and her family and we met up with a bunch of their friends. Barry was with them. Somebody’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s brother, whatever. I was sixteen and he was eighteen.”

     “When you were sixteen you looked twenty-five.”

     “Don’t I remember.” The cousins staring overtly, the husbands staring covertly, all focused on Theresa in her red bikini top and cutoffs and her new pageboy haircut. Men and their eyes. She could write a book about the ways men used their eyes on women. She went off with Barry partly to get away from the hungry stares, but mostly because when Barry looked at her, she felt comfortable looking back. “We snuck off together. He wanted to show me the castle.”

     “He wanted to show you the castle. And you fell for that line. Uh huh.”

     “It was there, all right. He knew all kinds of stuff about the place.”

     “Uh huh. What else did he show you?”

     Motionless air, almost too hot to breathe. The two of them stepping over a dune fence. Barry had wanted to climb one of the dunes and look over at the lighthouse. Barry reaching down and taking her hand, the muscles in his arm tensing as he pulled her up, his strong hands on her hips as he steered her around and in front of him. Chattering on about the Fresnel lens in the lighthouse, even as he turned her around to face him. When he bent to kiss her, Theresa rose up on the balls of her feet and put her whole body into returning the kiss.

     “It was so incredibly hot, we were just drenched in sweat and suntan lotion, we were slick. We started kissing and it was like our clothes just slipped off.” Lisa laughed, and Theresa joined her, loving how it felt to ride the memory. “I was all greasy outside and all wet inside. When he put it in me, it didn’t hurt at all. It was like a little boink, and then he was inside me.”

     “Boink?”

     “You know . . . not a big hurt or anything. Just a little plink.”

     “Plink?”

     “Bitch, cut me some slack, okay?”                            

     Lisa howled. “I’ve been waiting to hear that tone of voice again.”

     Theresa laughed, remembering how she put her head back and squinched her eyes shut against the bright sky, letting Barry’s sweat fall into her mouth like droplets of salt rain, his slick hips working inside her slick thighs, feeling his climax, wrapping her arms around his neck as he mumbled her name and rocked her inside the cradle of his arms. The two of them stumbling back down the sandy slope, drugged with the feel of each other, taking forever to get back to the party because every few steps Barry would stop and gather Theresa in for a big, hungry kiss and a luxurious, sandy embrace. Then they sat together on the slope of the beach and let the foamy waves cool them, washing away the traces of blood on Theresa’s legs.

     I want that again.

     I’m gonna have that again. I want a grubby bar with a really loud band and I’m leaning against a sweaty guy whose boner is poking me in the side. And all rapists can roast in hell.

     “You ever get together after that?”

     “Couple times. Then he went off to college, and by then I had a couple boys closer to my age chasing me.” She smiled into the distance, watching the horizon fade as the water turned slate gray.

     “I wouldn’t have been able to talk about that before now.”

     “I know, baby. I haven’t said anything, but I can see a difference lately. Seeing those animals in jail must have helped a lot.”

     “It helps a lot,” Theresa said. “Lynne helps a lot.” She bumped Lisa with her shoulder. “You really help a lot. As usual.”

     “Hell and high water,” Lisa said. “We’ve been there together.”

     After a long interlude of quiet, Theresa looked over at Lisa.

     “Maybe you should go to Kelsey’s,” she said. “Meet up with those guys.”

     “And meanwhile you do what? Or do you wanna go?”

     “I don’t think I’m up for that yet. I’d only be a drag.”

     “You gonna make me say bullshit again?” 

     Theresa’s shoulders shook as she tried to hold in her laugh.

     “This is your night, big sister. You wanna watch TV, we watch TV. You wanna go cruise the boardwalk, we go cruise the boardwalk.”

     Theresa hugged her knees, stared off at the two men, then put two fingers in her mouth and whistled. When they turned, she waved at them.

     Lisa stared. “Theresa?”

     “Play through the pain, right? Play through the fear.” She squeezed Lisa’s hand. “You got my back?”

     “Like there’s any question?”

     The men came back a lot faster than they’d gone. Theresa stared up at the buzzed guy and said, “Thank you for what you said. That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard all week.”

     “You’re welcome.” He spread his hand across his chest. “It came from here.”

     “You gonna tell me your name?”

     “Garth.” His smile was bright against his deepwater tan. “And now I’m gonna ask your name.”

     “Which is Theresa. And your friend is . . . ”

     “Joel,” the shaggy one said.

     “Which leaves me, Lisa.”

     “Do you guys like to dance?” Theresa asked.

     They looked at each other for confirmation as they said yes.

     “In that case, why don’t you meet us at Kelsey’s at nine-thirty and we’ll help you find the perfect crab cakes.”

     “Oh man, that would be great,” Garth said. “We’re really out of our depth on that.”

     “Depth, right?” Joel said. “Get it? Seafood?”

     “You’re not gonna make jokes like that all night, are you?”

     “God, no,” Joel said.

     “In that case, let’s meet up later.”

     The men took off, moving a lot faster this time, and Lisa chuckled watching them go. Then she glanced over at her sister, who was shaking from the effort of keeping back tears.

     “Hey!” Lisa cried. “Hey!”

     “How bad am I gonna fuck this up?” Theresa rasped. “The hell am I thinking?”

     “Jesus, baby!” Lisa rubbed a circle on her trembling back. “It’s gonna be fun. They seem like nice guys. It looks like Garth really digs you.”

     “That’s even better,” she gasped. “How long before he gets a look at how fucked up I am? You dig scars, Garth, I got some beauties here. Tits look like a pack of dogs chewed on them – that should really get him hot. Can’t wait to see what happens then.”

     “Don’t judge him before he gets a chance. You set the pace. Be honest with him. And if he fucks up, then it’s on him, not you.”

     “And I go . . . on . . . to some . . . body better,” Theresa said between sobs. “It’d be nice . . . skip that step. Just go right to the winner. That’d be a nice change.”

     “Yeah, baby. It would.”

     Theresa, not saying a word, got to her knees and wrapped her arms around Lisa’s shoulders. She sat back, bringing Lisa with her, bringing her legs around to make it a full-body hug. When Lisa shivered, Theresa clutched a fistful of blanket and pulled it free of the sand. She then wrapped it around both of them, and they settled into their cocoon. They stayed that way, heads touching, not saying anything, watching as the night swept in across the waves.  

 

     As it turned out, Garth wasn’t much of a dancer. He was, however, willing to listen at least as much as he talked, and after a few pitchers of margaritas, showed himself to be a more than passable kisser. They hung back by the gazebo behind the restaurant, shoes crunching faintly on the white gravel, strings of lights threaded through the hedges and lattices, electric piano music just loud enough to notice. He was tall, but not too tall, and when he drew her in for a long soft kiss, her head tipped back at a comfortable angle. Being controlled and enjoyed – that kind of gentle conquest had been one of her favorite sensations. So far, so good.

     She slipped her arms around his waist and nuzzled his neck. She was getting drunk simply on physical contact, burrowing under Garth’s neck and slipping her hands inside his shirt. He was soft around the waist and had the beginnings of a beer belly, but she was luxuriating in the feel and the smell of him. At one point she squeezed him and ground out: “Where do you get this soft skin? I should have skin like this. Where do I get it?”

     “Oh, you know,” Garth said. “Buy it by the yard.” Another grapple left them both breathless, and Garth grabbed Theresa’s hand. He half-led, half-dragged her from the restaurant. Theresa caught a glimpse of Lisa talking to Joel at the bar; they waved to each other, and then Theresa was on the sidewalk, with Garth pulling her in for another kiss.

     There was going to be a crash – there was always a crash – but for the time being Theresa had never felt so buoyant. Garth would stop every three feet to give her a kiss, and the sidewalk became a sand dune, and she was a girl dancing along the rim of life. There were lots of people streaming every which way, and the humid air felt charged and alive. When Garth wasn’t hugging her, he was holding her hand, or whispering little compliments in her ear, and Theresa thought that when you were at the Shore, this was what you wanted every night to be like.

     “Here’s the castle,” Garth said. “Me and Joel are on the second floor.”

     Here was the crash, right on schedule. Garth vaulted up the steps to the big open front porch and started fumbling with his keys. Theresa stayed on the sidewalk and looked back the way they’d come.

     “Hey, Garth.”

     “I’m here.”

     “I can’t help noticing you live two blocks away from Kelsey’s.” She stared up at Garth without blinking or smiling.

     “Yeah.” Garth stepped to the edge of the porch.

     “So all that bullshit about not knowing how to find Kelsey’s, that was a line? Something to get talking with us?”

     “Yes,” Garth said, holding his hands out in a you-busted-me gesture. He sat down on the top step. “So, I’m an asshole now?”

     “Before I decide that,” Theresa said, her voice cracking slightly, “tell me what you meant about how you hoped I felt better. Was that a line, too?” She patted her chest. “It came from here, you said.”

     Garth nodded without looking away. “It did.”

     “Why did you say that? You don’t know anything about me.”

     “The way you looked at us, coming out of the water. One minute you were like this laughing mermaid, then you looked like death was coming to grab you. When we came up to talk to you on the blanket, you were holding your sister’s hand so hard I could see the muscles popping in your arm. So yeah, it did something to me, you know? Seeing you go from laughing and having fun to being scared shitless because a couple of guys were checking you out. You looked like you’d caught some hell.”

     “Huh,” Theresa said. Her heart had gone from almost-zero to sixty. She pushed her hair back from her forehead and tried to take deep breaths without being too conspicuous about it.

     “So yeah, the Kelsey’s thing was a line. I did it because I didn’t want the meeting to end there. I wanted to get to know you better. I’d spend the rest of my life kicking myself in the ass if I didn’t at least try that.”

     The easiest thing would be to stay pissed at him, walk off in a huff, go back to the pills and the regular drinking binges. At least she would know what was coming. It could be managed.

      “So, I dunno,” Garth said. “Maybe you think everything I say is bullshit now.” Was that a little catch in his voice? “Seeing how you were, it made me want to do something for you.”

     Theresa slung the bag off her shoulder and walked up the steps. She sat on the top step, next to Garth, and spoke without looking directly at him. “I’m climbing back from something awful, and I need to do something drastic, and I’m scared shitless about doing it. And I thought you might be somebody I could trust enough to go through it with me, and I think maybe you still are, but it’s going to be weird and probably scary. And if that puts you off, then okay, you’re not the guy I thought you were, and that’s fine.” She took his hand and held it to her lips. Her voice had grown so thick with emotion that she could hardly form the words she needed to say. “But if you go through this with me . . . oh Jesus.” She kissed his hand. “Oh my God.”

     Garth’s hand slid up her trembling back. “I said I wanted to do something for you,” he whispered. “Tell me what you want me to do.”

     Theresa slumped against him. “I can’t tell you. I have to show you.”

     “We can do it any way you want.” He kissed her head. “Do you want to go somewhere for a while? Work your way up to it?”

     She shook her head. She slipped as she got up, then swiftly walked across the porch and huddled against the wall, not looking at Garth. He stood behind her as he fished out his keys, gently stroking her back as he turned the key. He pushed open the door, snapped on the light, and waited. After a few moments, she swept past him and moved up the stairs. 

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