Cheers for Drowning Girls
by Marta Balcewicz
Lisa’s never seen anyone throw their clothes off so quickly. Walter tosses his esoteric-skater-logo t-shirt and green socks on top of his towel. He darts across the beach without looking back and lunges into the lake with a loud splash. A few seconds pass and he reappears, takes a breath, and goes back underwater.
Lisa checks to see if any of the beachgoers are appreciating their unfolding courtship.
No one’s looking.
Whole families are busy reconfiguring items in red and blue coolers or adjusting their bodies inside folding chairs. The younger kids, ages zero to six, are shoveling sand, and the slightly older kids, ages seven to ten, appear to have formed a beach gang, complete with driftwood 9mms and snack-size Ziploc bags filled with dune grass.
Lisa pulls her t-shirt dress over her head and drops it on her towel. She’s in her royal blue Speedo suit with her school’s swim team crest of a piranha maneuvering around the letters T and H, for J.P. Thomas High. She’d considered wearing a banana-yellow bikini, but the Speedo is what Walter knows from their school pool, and familiarity is the fastest route to more familiarity, which is an expressway to sex.
Lisa looks at her discarded dress for a second. She bends down, picks it up, and sets it directly on top of Walter’s t-shirt and socks, on his towel. She takes another look. Anyone walking by would no doubt know what’s going on here—Lisa’s and Walter’s clothes are doing the deed, and considering the numbers involved, it’s officially an orgy.
Lisa slips off her flip-flops, jogs toward the water, and jumps in. Within a minute, she’s right next to Walter, who’s facing the other direction, bobbing in one place, and ogling a boat launch on the opposite shore. A group of men in baseball caps are waving their arms next to a pickup truck that’s backing a silver Sea-Doo into the water. Walter is smiling and nodding his head at them.
Lisa clears her throat but Walter doesn’t hear. She finger-combs her hair and inches a little closer. The lake is an opaque shade of kitchen sink water—perfect cover for a boy’s hand burrowing its way past her swimsuit hem. When he turns around, she’ll tell him—in the husky voice of a long-time smoker: Like what you see? Want to see more?
The Sea-Doo drops into the water and immediately scoots away. Lisa clears her throat, loud this time. Walter spins around, his eyes large. “Holy shit!” he screams. “You scared me. You’re like a creeping gator!” And zoom—he’s off, sprinting for the beach in his best butterfly.
The water is unseasonably cool, but Lisa feels herself grow hot anyway, mainly around the temples, a little on her neck. She watches Walter reach shore, press his hair back, and walk toward their towels. He carelessly snatches his towel from the sand causing the clothes to fly up, not noticing that a few items were about to orgasm. He then wraps himself in his towel, sits down on hers, pulls an energy bar out of his backpack, and takes a bite.
It’s the final straw.
Lisa whips around, takes a deep breath, and charges, freestyle, toward the men by the boat launch. It was a mistake to ask the best-looking guy on her swim team to the lake. The bus ride there had been unbearable enough. She tried making conversation about parents and college but Walter just shrugged like he didn’t get where any of that was going. After their third long silence, he dug a copy of The Odyssey out of his bag. It was assigned in English; the story pumped him up for swimming, he said. That was the last they spoke.
Lisa barely covers twenty feet when she hears the whistle. Its shrill pitch skips across the lake. She stops and turns her head. Sure enough, the lifeguard is standing on his tower. As soon as he sees her look, he waves his arms like a maniac. Lisa sighs. So what if she swam past the buoys? The adults pull themselves out of their folding chairs. The younger kids charge into knee-deep water and start kicking. A second lifeguard pops out from a gray building behind the public bathroom and dashes toward a red motorboat with an orange spine board strapped to his back.
Lisa doesn’t move. She’s sculling gently underwater. She could float for hours. She doesn’t want to swim toward the beach; these people are crazy. But she knows she shouldn’t keep swimming toward the men with the Sea-Doo either. Everyone on the beach would lose their collective shit.
They’re all standing up by now, like a crowd in the final minutes of Game Seven. Lisa scans the crowd but can’t make Walter out. She can see the older kids from the beach gang hunched and folded into a circle. Eventually they turn around to face her. The fattest kid lifts a piece of driftwood like he’s about to take down his friends, execution-style, but instead, he starts drawing gentle, floaty loops in the air. It’s not a gun. At least not any more. The gang form their mouths into pretty Os and start singing. At first it sounds like nonsense. Then the verses congeal into a coherent number. The fat kid moves the driftwood faster now, with spastic zig-zag motions. Finally, Lisa makes out her name.
Lisa, move your arms
Lisa, move your legs
In the same moment, lifeguard number two starts the motorboat, pulling on the engine cord with an exaggerated jerk. Despite the whir of the motor, she can still hear her name. In fact, if anything, the motor adds a backbeat, elevating the song into refined syncopation.
Lisa, do something
Or else you’ll end up dead.
Lisa refuses lifeguard number two’s help getting out of the motorboat. She stomps past the crowd, toward her towel, keeping her head down. Walter’s standing in the spot where her towel was formerly spread. He’s looking down too.
“Are you okay?” he asks reluctantly.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Lisa snaps. She snatches her dress from the sand and puts on her flip-flops. “Where’s my stupid towel?”
Walter shrugs in the same way he shrugged when she’d asked what his father does for a living. “You know, you swam past the buoys,” he says.
As if on cue, the fat kid yells, “And a-one and a-two…” and the gang starts singing the drowning Lisa song again.
“Where’s my stupid towel?” Lisa repeats, looking from neighboring chair to neighboring chair. The families have lost interest and are slowly trudging back toward their camps.
“I don’t know,” Walter says. “There were a lot of people here during the rescue operation.”
Walter says “rescue operation” like it was really a rescue operation. Lisa glares at him.
The kids are on the “or else you’ll end up dead” outro. “Thanks for telling them my name,” she says and stomps off toward the public bathrooms.
Just before she reaches the bathrooms, Lisa checks her shoulder. No one’s looking. Walter’s sitting on the ground, twisting open a Gatorade and staring at the water. The older kids are nearby, scooping white sand into freezer-size Ziploc bags. The conductor’s baton is sticking out of the elastic band of the fat kid’s swim shorts. The adults have sunk back into their chairs and closed their eyes.
Lisa darts around the bathrooms. She reaches the dune and starts scaling it. Her feet slip on the sand but she grabs onto clumps of beach grass for leverage and finally makes it to the top where she finds a small clearing surrounded by pines and the periphery of the Sunnyside-Up RV Park.
Lisa walks to the closest tree and crouches down next to it. She sets down the bundle of clothes she’s been carrying and a green sock slips out from the folds of her dress. A second green sock follows. Then Walter’s t-shirt appears, looking crumpled and unsettled, the way anyone would look if they were unexpectedly tossed in the air, separated from a host at the apex of an orgasm.
“Shit,” Lisa says.
There’s a nervous energy emanating from the four of them—the two socks, the t-shirt, and her dress. Lisa stares at the clothes in silence. They stare back, a little helpless, like newborn cats.
“Alright, hold on, guys,” she finally says, leaving them by the tree. She walks to the nearest RV. The RV is off-white with blue and purple stripes. It has an awning and a planter and a child playing in the dirt next to its front stoop.
“Hey, where’s your mom?” Lisa says.
The kid stands up and pauses to look at the crest on Lisa’s swimsuit.
“You a cop?” the kid asks.
“No. I’m sixteen years old,” Lisa says. She wonders if the child is hard of seeing.
The kid shrugs, pulls open the screen door of the RV, and disappears. A woman in a trucker hat comes out. She’s wearing an orange bikini, a fanny pack around her waist, and has a large faded crow tattoo on her stomach.
Lisa asks her for a cigarette.
“You eighteen?” the woman says but she’s already pulling a pack of Camel Lights from her fanny pack. She hands Lisa a matchbook as well then brings her head closer to Lisa’s chest.
“T. H.,” she reads. She smirks at the piranha, turns around, and shuts the RV door behind her.
Back by the tree, Lisa lights the cigarette and brings it against the first sock’s ribbed opening. The amber tip brightens. The sock takes a good, long drag.
“There you go,” Lisa says. “Nothing like a smoke afterwards, huh?”
She gives the second sock and the t-shirt a sidelong look. “Your turn’s coming,” she says.
After all three take a turn, Lisa takes a drag. She remembers her dress. Ever since she unfolded it, it’s been looking skittish, folding itself back up into a neat square. “Right,” Lisa realizes. It was its first time.
“Want a pull?” Lisa asks, making her voice softer. But the dress doesn’t respond and only shrinks into a smaller square.
“Come on.” Lisa pries it apart a little and puts the Camel Light against a sleeve opening, other sleeve, the neck, the bottom hem. Nothing. The amber dims.
“Okay.” Lisa lets it be. She offers the others a second round. They accept heartily. A third, fourth, and fifth round follows. The cigarette is reduced to a nib. Lisa stubs it against the tree trunk. Walter’s clothes are definitely feeling better. One could say: ready for more. The socks lie unfurled, relaxed and stretched out, almost to the length of knee-socks. The t-shirt is lying on its back, sleeves akimbo.
Without the distraction of the circulating cigarette, an awkward silence settles on the group. Everyone knows what everyone else is thinking. Lisa’s eyes are on the t-shirt. It’s one of those $59 heavy cotton shirts from the mall skate shops. The logo says XScuffy or maybe XDuffy. It’s hard to tell because the font is at an extreme angle and there’s a bearded elf riding a skateboard down the right side of the X, partly obscuring the letter to its right.
Lisa leans toward the shirt and pushes the collar open just a crack. She reads the tag. MADE IN THE U.S.A. Her face is so close to the fabric that she can smell Walter, some brand of lemony antiperspirant that complements the piney aroma of the woods. It’s pointless to dawdle. Lisa stands up and slaps her hands on her thighs.
“Well,” she says.
The socks and t-shirt tense a little. The dress has managed to scoot away from the group, toward a shrub.
Lisa knows she’ll have to make the first move.
She picks up the t-shirt and one of the socks, the one closest to her, then changes her mind and puts the sock down. For one’s first time, it’s more special if it’s limited to two parties. “Sorry,” she quickly says to the dress. “I should have thought of that earlier.”
The dress mutters something but it’s mostly hidden by shrub so Lisa doesn’t hear.
Lisa and the t-shirt go behind the tree for privacy. She hangs it on a bough by the back of the collar, stands close enough that they’re touching, XScuffy/XDuffy logo flush with piranha.
She peels the first swimsuit shoulder strap and lets it fall to her elbow. She’s about to lift the second strap when she hears the crunch of someone running across the clearing.
“Lisa!” Walter calls and the crunching gets louder. The shirt stiffens. Lisa grabs it by the side seams and calculates they’ve got ten seconds at most.
“Lisa?” Walter yells.
The tree she’s behind is wide in diameter. A sycamore or something. Sufficient for cover.
“Liiiisa!” Walter yells.
She knows it’s his clothes he’s after, not her. She grips the seams harder.
“Where are youuuu?”
Suddenly the t-shirt wrangles out of her hands, taking advantage of the distraction. Lisa doesn’t fight it. What’s the point of forcing her love on to something? What would that say about her when it’s all finished and done?
“My socks!” Walter cries, his voice two feet away.
She hears what she knows is Walter’s ass hitting the forest floor. He’s sat down to pull them on.
“Go on. You’re free to go,” she mouths to the t-shirt. She helps it unhook itself from the bough. “I’m not some kind of monster.” But the t-shirt clings on to the branch, hovering just next to her swimsuit. It pushes itself into a swinging motion, like Tarzan, and comes to rest in the crook of her elbow, collapsing into a messy bundle. The fabric is warm to the touch. Maybe it’s just sun that warmed it.
Lisa hears Walter sigh. He swears. He grunts from the effort of standing up. “Liiiiisa!” he calls. “Where are youuu?”
The crunching resumes, it gains distance, heads toward the RV park.
Marta Balcewicz‘s writing appears or will soon appear in Catapult, AGNI Online, Pithead Chapel, The Offing, Tiny Crimes (Black Balloon Press, 2018), and other places. She lives in Toronto and can be found online at www.martabalcewicz.com and @martabalcewicz.
Image source: Wikimedia via Creative Commons