by Britt Canty
Sophia struggled to remain still with her legs tucked beneath her, ensconced in the turquoise linen gathered around her thighs and the weight of Grant’s head in her lap. With her gaze lowered, fixed on the polished gym floor, she tried to maintain the perfect expression of holiness and heartbreak, but her eyes kept wandering to Grant’s closed eyelids fringed with black lashes, the three freckles on the tip of his girlish nose, the pinkness of his parted lips, the naked hull of his chest expanding and sinking with each breath. Sophia had never been this intimate with a boy—had never felt the heat of a boy’s body so close to hers. It was unnerving and exhilarating, and it was in those moments of holding Grant that she felt her heart give birth to what had been gestating there for months: longing.
Each spring, the sophomore class was charged with putting on the high school’s annual Passion of the Christ play. When Mrs. Nunez had cast Sophia in the role of the Virgin Mary and Grant as Jesus, Sophia had gone hot with embarrassment—this meant that when Jesus is taken down from the cross, she would have to cradle Grant’s body in her arms, his skin exposed to her touch, as the whole school watched from the towering bleachers. Grant, who sat in front of her, didn’t move when Mrs. Nunez made the announcement. Sophia willed him to turn around and offer her one of his reassuring winks, but as soon as the bell rang, Grant nearly ran out of the classroom. A piece of her poured out and went with him before she could swallow it back. If only she’d had an instant to search his eyes—those soft, dark rooms, which somehow felt like home—she would feel less emptied, more whole, but she tried to suppress this thought. It was weak, too close to desperate.
Sophia and Grant lived in the same neighborhood, their homes only a house apart, both with long, wooden docks running parallel from their backyards into Boone Creek. Sophia and her family had only been living there since the beginning of the school year, after moving to South Carolina from Virginia. Her father had lost yet another job, and her mother said they needed “a fresh start in a fresh place,” but her enthusiasm was running thin now, threadbare. Sophia almost hated her father for making them leave Virginia—almost because she couldn’t seem to hold onto her anger long enough for it to turn into something greater. She would act out her silent protests, not speaking to him for a couple of days at a time, trying to assert some kind of control in a world where she was still considered a child, powerless. But then her father would catch Sophia in an embrace so fierce she’d feel as though she’d been turned into a rag-doll and might not be able to stand on her own when he released her. She’d inhale the briny, sour smell of him from beneath the mask of his clean, cotton shirt. That smell always reignited Sophia’s anger. As if he could feel the riot flare up again inside her, her father would squeeze her tighter, beg forgiveness, and kiss her head until the fist in her chest relaxed, and she surrendered to the comfort of his strong, familiar frame.
Sophia often thought of running back to Virginia, to the wooded hill of maples, oaks, and dogwoods, where she and her younger sister Luella grew up. She missed exploring that ever-changing slope of land with endless limbs to climb and leaves to trace. In her daydreams of escape, Grant was there, protecting her and leading her back into those luminous woods; she imagined introducing him to her sacred trees and spider-webs and stones—and then, at last, maybe he would hear her, see her. Save her.
He would save her from all of the loneliness she found reflected in the faces of her classmates, and which saturated this new place of mud and saltwater, and which she felt most acutely when she heard her mother and father scream at each other behind their closed bedroom door, repeating the same arguments, the same loneliness.
Sometimes, Sophia would notice Grant fishing from his dock after school and she would wave to him, and he would wave back, inviting her to join. She loved jumping into the brackish, brown water, feeling it rush over her, its sun-warmed surface hugging her shoulders and the coolness of its lower depths licking her ankles, every sensation amplified by her awareness of Grant watching her. He would wait at the edge of his dock, wearing a white T-shirt and blue swim-shorts, ready to grab her hand and pull her from the water. It startled her every time to see him without his school uniform on. He seemed so vulnerable stripped of his Oxford shirt and pleated pants. Before meeting Grant, Sophia hadn’t given much thought to her body in a swimsuit. She’d worn the same athletic one piece for years, but this year, she noticed how the old suit defined her waist and flattened her chest. She liked the way it made her feel graceful and strong. After her swim, they would sit on the dock with their feet in the water and their fishing poles poised, Sophia laughing at Grant’s jokes as they waited for the Spottail to bite and watched the marsh grass glow green and then fade to gray.
Her legs were starting to sweat and itch beneath the folds of linen, but Sophia remained frozen, a statue of blessed grief. Though she wanted the play to be over, to be rid of the burning pressure of the school’s gaze and Grant’s body, she dreaded its end. She felt electrified by this closeness to Grant.
But what if he opened his eyes and caught her measuring his breath, counting his freckles, memorizing the contours of his chest? Sophia had appealed to him as a friend with whom he could fish and make jokes, but if he opened his eyes and found her face awash in longing, she worried she’d become something else to him, something shameful.
It was Saturday, the day after the play, when Sophia’s father told her and Luella to climb inside the big wicker trunk to stay safe from Francis, the hurricane heading straight for Charleston. Their father always had a plan for emergencies, though these plans were typically more playful than practical. No matter how outlandish, they would adopt his ideas with gusto, forgetting any fear they might have felt minutes before. Pulling enough quilts and pillows from the chest to make room for their bodies, they snuggled inside the trunk and shut the lid over their heads, wisps of light falling through the frayed mesh. Sophia imagined the muddy waters of Boone Creek flooding their home, she and Luella like baby birds tucked inside the nest of blankets and reeds—their very own Noah’s Ark—rising up to the surface and floating away to some strange paradise. Perhaps Grant would be watching, waiting to save her and pull her close to him—there, on that silken sand, maybe she could touch his skin without fear or shame.
Those ecstatic moments from the Passion overtook her again, the shape and weight of Grant gathering in her arms, sinking into her thighs until she felt as though they’d become one soaring entity. Thinking about him made Sophia feel as if she had another life somewhere, as if she were divided, or in the process of dividing, splitting from one self to discover and then become another.
Sophia hugged her sister and listened as Francis howled and crashed, beating on the house like a drum. They fell asleep in that wicker vessel, the sound of calm waking them hours later. Outside it was dark and still, with only the faint tap of water on the tin roof, dripping from the overhanging branches and beards of moss. Sophia found her father passed out on the couch, a half-full handle of Jim Beam on the coffee table. With her mother away on business, she felt the need to do something. For Luella’s sake, she told herself. She took the bottle and poured its contents down the kitchen sink, a little surprised by her own boldness. The acrid smell of the whiskey turned her stomach as she watched it gush down the drain. Sophia glanced back at the couch, worried, but her father was still asleep, slack-jawed with his right arm flung over his head.
On Monday morning, as Sophia settled in at her desk, everyone brimming with stories about Francis, she scanned the room for Grant, waiting for him to take his seat in front of her. In the three days that had passed since the play, time felt swollen, thick with life—perhaps in anticipation of this moment when she would see Grant again, for the first time after the Passion.
The intercom gave a shrill beep, and the principal began delivering the morning announcements. Except she didn’t say anything about the Passion of the Christ play or the baseball team or the debate club. Instead, she said her heart was heavy. There had been a boating accident—two students had gone fishing and gotten caught in the storm.
Sophia stared at Grant’s desk, unable to breathe as she tried to take in its impossible emptiness. The classroom and the principal’s voice receded, her mind pulling her back to yesterday afternoon—back to the storm-swept property, where she’d explored the beaten earth with worried tenderness, inspecting the cracked limbs, and tasting the alien air, which was cool and clean, moist with decay. The terrain was familiar yet foreign with its new holes and masses of debris—uprooted trees, pieces of glass, bloated books and shoes, a denuded doll—and Sophia had stood shivering in the flat, orange-gray light, trying to make some sort of reconciliation between her life before the storm and her life after.
The gym erupted in applause and giddy chatter at the end of the play. It was Friday afternoon, and the school had withheld its excitement just long enough to get through the Passion. Grant jumped up from his lifeless pose and then turned to offer Sophia his hand, pulling her up, the waves of linen falling away from her skin. He hesitated before hurrying off stage, his eyes holding onto hers for an extra moment. “There’s something about you,” he said, and the way he said it wrenched her heart from its socket. Grant turned before she could respond, running to catch up with his buddies in the locker rooms. She could still feel the heat on her thighs where his head had lain. Already, she wanted him to come back.
Britt Canty received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her writing has appeared in New Plains Review, In Posse Review, and Bookanista. She lives in Queens, where she’s at work on a novel.