I lived that summer underwater. My days were filled with submerged somersaults and handstands landed on the sandy bottom of the lake; at night, rain thrummed on the roof that sloped a few feet above my head.
On occasional gray days, my friend Louise and I lay on the sagging twin beds next to the rafters in the loft, drowning ourselves in old paperback romance novels we found on shelves that spanned the unfinished walls. Speckled with insect remains caught between brittle pages, the books had a musty smell. Mildew rose from the scratchy blankets whenever we shifted our feet. I detested the way my bare legs stuck together in the dampness. Sometimes I would read the love scenes in whispers to Louise. We giggled, each secretly hoping that someday the same pleasures would come to us.
On sunny days, when our skin had finally become wrinkled and waterlogged from swimming, we would drag lawn chairs to the end of the dock and read there. Paperback romances were left behind. Instead, thick serious novels like Exodus and David Copperfield, also mined from the cottage’s bookshelves, were considered suitable. I knew the derision the romances would raise: my mother would suck on her cigarette in disgust and Artie, my older brother, would tease.
It was a rented camp; the books belonged to someone else. To me, it seemed as though we were living in a chaotic library, books spilling from the walls and side tables. One bureau held drawers full of books. The collection’s arrangement had no method, except that all the romance novels resided in the attic bedroom where Louise and I slept.
The lake was small. Modest summer camps lined the shore, which alternated between narrow sandy beaches and heaps of boulders mixed with bayberry and juniper. On a point of land near the cottage, a stand of pines grew tall, shading the ground so thoroughly that only a carpet of pine needles was left. On warm days, pitch dripped from the trees and the scent of pine resin rose from the point on hot air, blowing past me as I swam from the dock to the big rock.
If there was a light wind, Louise and I were allowed to take the sunfish out. Louise didn’t like the boat to heel, and sometimes I pushed on the tiller and yanked in the sail until the little boat was practically standing on its side. Louise would go silent for a couple of hours afterwards and I would pretend not to notice. I would rather have sailed alone but I knew my mother would never allow it. I imagined that the boat would skim across the lake like a skipped stone if Louise’s bulk were removed.
This is a fact: Louise was fat. She was fat in the way that twelve-year-old girls sometimes are. Solid, like a rectangle—no breasts or hips interrupted her sturdy outline. This caused her agonies. She already knew the calorie count of a bowl of Jell-O, and knew the recipe for a thick shake made with ice cubes and frozen fruit chunks. She was a junior member of Weight Watchers. She carried packets of saccharine. The one thing she wanted most in the world was to be thin and beautiful.
Another fact: I was not beautiful. But I was not fat, and I was glad for that, though it didn’t seem fair. Louise and I ate the same things: hotdogs, Hershey bars, endless sticks of Beechnut gum. I considered myself rather plain. But not fat, thank goodness.
If it was a windless day, Louise and I might take the canoe out and play around in it. We would tip it over, creating an air pocket—a sanctuary where we could talk without being heard. The first time we tried it, my mother was scared to death to spot the canoe upside down with no sign of us, but by August she had gotten used to it.
On August 20, my mother got up at 7:30, made breakfast and cleaned up but did not take her books out to the chaise by the lake. Instead she announced that my great-aunt and great-uncle, Aunt Hope and Uncle Charles, were coming to visit that afternoon. I explained to Louise that Aunt Hope and Uncle Charles always stopped by in the summer on their way to a summer gathering somewhere north. Artie interjected that it was a commie camp and our mother said, no, it was a camp for peace and world understanding.
Louise looked a little worried about meeting commies, so I told her about Aunt Hope’s paintings of African nobles and her dangly ivory earrings and her dresses made of African prints. I made the pair sound exotic but lighthearted, like something out of a black-and-white movie. I didn’t mention that I was slightly afraid and very much awed by the two of them. Though Aunt Hope and Uncle Charles made a fuss over Artie and me and often brought us clever little gifts, I had a hard time understanding the conversation once they began chatting with our mother.
At four o’clock, as I was coming out of the water to get a snack, I heard the crunching sound of a car coming down the camp’s rough gravel driveway. My mother and Artie and I walked out to meet the ancient rounded sedan. Louise stayed behind, content to swim and watch the progress from the water.
Uncle Charles greeted me first. You look like a soggy angel, he told me, clasping me by the shoulders and looking right at me. He pushed my dripping hair behind my ears and turned to Aunt Hope. I knew it, he said, she doesn’t.
Doesn’t what? My mother looked from him to me and then to Aunt Hope.
Well, you certainly do look grown-up, my dear, said Aunt Hope, gathering my hands in a little bouquet. You’re taller than me. Isn’t she, Charles?
Where’s Louise? My mother looked around the group and then spied Louise paddling around by the beach. Come on, I’ll introduce you to Rachel’s friend, she said to my great-aunt and uncle.
I caught Uncle Charles’s expression as Louise emerged from the lake. He was disappointed, then deliberately charming. Louise blushed from the attention.
Caroline, he said, turning to my mother, may I speak with you for a moment? The two of them walked a few steps away and he spoke softly in her ear. My mother looked doubtful and glanced at me. Just think about it, Uncle Charles said, as he turned back toward Louise and me and Aunt Hope. Artie was carrying a box from the car into the camp, at Aunt Hope’s request.
We all trooped inside. Our mother fixed drinks for my great-aunt and uncle, while Artie, Louise, and I opened the box. Inside were carved pieces wrapped in paper, all making up a street scene in Africa. The wood was smooth and dark. I rubbed one of the camels on my cheek and it felt cool.
Once all the pieces were unwrapped and the scene was set up on the table, Artie and I thanked Aunt Hope and Uncle Charles and immediately ran for the lake, all three of us splashing in and finally diving when the water was deep enough. We played catch with an old tennis ball until we were called for dinner and told to change into something dry.
Dinner was slow. Artie, Louise, and I weren’t often included in the discussion. After the main course, Uncle Charles turned to me. Since I’ve talked your mother into it, he said, I have something to show you. He pulled out a small box that looked like a sewing kit. Through the clear plastic lid, I could see many straight-pins, each with a bright colored ball on one end. There was also a small pen and tiny red rubber cylinders.
All we need now is some ice and rubbing alcohol, said Uncle Charles.
You old fool, said Aunt Hope, you’d better tell her what you intend to do. After all, it’s her body.
Yes, added my mother, and you don’t have to do it, honey, if you don’t want to.
All three of the adults began to speak at once. Then Uncle Charles put up his hand. I will speak, he said. Rachel, do you like the earrings that your Aunt Hope wears?
Have you noticed that she has a hole in each ear where the earring goes?
Yes, I know she has pierced ears. I looked around toward my mother. Mom doesn’t, though.
That’s because your grandmother wouldn’t let me get them pierced, said my mother. And then, when I was older, I never got around to it.
Uncle Charles turned back to me. Would you like to have pierced ears? This is a kit for piercing. I’ve done many, many young girls. Some half your age. In Africa, in Europe, here in America. Your second cousins, Saskia and Cecilia. Hundreds.
Don’t exaggerate, Charles, said Aunt Hope.
Doesn’t it hurt? Louise looked at the kit, white faced. I glanced at her, then looked back at Uncle Charles.
Here’s what I do. First I make a mark with my pen on your ears where you want the hole to be. Then I numb the earlobe with a piece of ice. I quickly poke the needle through the numbed part, snip off the pointed end of the pin, and place a rubber back on it. And voilà, you’re wearing earrings before you feel a thing.
Of course, you never feel a thing, Charles, said Aunt Hope. Sometimes it stings a bit. And we have to put rubbing alcohol on it, Rachel, so it doesn’t get infected—that can sting, too.
I looked again at Louise’s stricken face and was suddenly filled with the desire to be as different from her as possible. I’ll do it, I said.
Splendid, said Uncle Charles. Let’s make a real ceremony of it. Louise, would you be the bearer of ice?
Uncle Charles got up from the table and walked out of the cottage, carrying his kit. The rest of the group followed, Louise a little behind because she’d stopped at the refrigerator for ice. Uncle Charles kicked off his huaraches and waded into the water up to his knees. I felt the water lap at my legs as I stood next to him. He held my face between his hands, then took the pen and made a mark on each ear. Louise passed two ice cubes and he held them on either side of my left earlobe. Then he threw the ice cubes into the lake and held my earlobe with one hand. This one is for passion, Rachel, he said. May you know great searing heart-stopping passion. I heard Louise swallow the same moment I felt a sharp pinching of my earlobe. Uncle Charles repeated the procedure with my right ear. This one’s for freedom, he said. Remember, freedom is always worth fighting for. Guard it. I heard Louise gasp as the pin punctured the skin; she had a better view on this side.
Now Charles, oh great white wise man, said Aunt Hope, may we go back inside and escape these mosquitoes?
I heard the sarcasm in Aunt Hope’s voice. I backed away from the group into the deeper water and let myself slowly sink. My hair welled up before my face, swirling, and the sky became blurry and disappeared. My earlobes were burning. I didn’t care.
[© Barbara Burt; Word count: 1921. Not yet published.]