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One Foot in the Water

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There was a steady stream of wax pooling beneath the lilac-scented candle on Geneva’s bedside table. Milly leaned over the puffy floral comforter and wondered if she should blow out the flame. Geneva herself hadn’t returned from the kitchen yet, and her room was getting stuffy. Milly could hear the air conditioner chugging in the hall, but Geneva had told her the moment she entered that the vent in her bedroom ceiling was broken. “I know, I’m sorry,” she told Milly. “It’s so stupid. Mom’s supposed to call somebody to fix it, but she hasn’t yet. I mean, can you blame her? It’s fall, it’s supposed to be cold, but it’s like a hundred degrees!”

She then left to get something, leaving Milly alone. She looked at the model horses arranged artfully on the white dresser and the posters of Madonna and New Kids On The Block on the ceiling just below the air conditioner vent. The walls were painted lime-green; there was a furry magenta rug lying just before the bed. Beside the burning candle on the bedside table was a landline that Milly found very impressive. “Do you get a lot of calls?” she asked Geneva, who made a face and then revealed that the phone had been broken for at least a year.

“Don’t tell my parents,” she said. “They think I use the one in the living room because I secretly get tired of being the only one in the house to hear my voice.” She rolled her eyes.

Milly had only been at Geneva’s for about ten minutes, and already she was beginning to regret not changing into a tank top before leaving the house. She was just fantasizing about cracking open a window when the bedroom door burst open, revealing Geneva. She was carrying her backpack. “Hi,” she said. “I’m back. Sorry, just needed to grab this. Mom gets pissed if I leave it at the door.” She heaved it onto the bed with a sigh.

“Do you think we could open a window?” Milly asked immediately, before she could possibly latch onto another topic of conversation. “And is it okay if I blow out that candle?” She pointed sheepishly at its place beside the bed. 

Geneva raised her eyebrows. “Sure! Oh, yeah, sorry. I thought I already opened a window. Hold on, don’t move, I’ll get it.” She strode over to the nearest window and hauled it open halfway, grunting with the strain. “Sorry, it won’t open all the way,” she said, turning to look at her guest. “You probably know this by now, but the houses in this neighborhood are kind of dumpy. My bedroom’s the biggest compared to Sonny’s, but that’s all it’s got going for it.”

Milly nodded, tugging at the collar of her light blue polo so it didn’t stick to her collarbone. “I know what you mean,” she said. “My room’s fine, but Louis’s has sticky windows, too.” She chuckled, as if realizing something, and added, “I think that’s one of the reasons why he always hangs out in the backyard.”

Geneva wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and stuck her face halfway out the window. “Mmm, there’s a breeze,” she sighed, pulling her head back in. A strand of brown hair was pasted to her red forehead; she plucked it off and tucked it behind her ear. 

“You know, I was going to suggest we go to the park or something,” she said ruefully, “but it’s too damn hot. I need to change.” She turned to her closet and began searching for a suitable outfit to replace her St. Monica’s uniform. The hangers made clacking noises as she flicked them aside on the closet rod.

Milly yawned and plucked at her shirt again in a futile attempt to cool off. The stuffy heat of the bedroom was making her sleepy. She wondered if Eric was keeping cool. He’d been unresponsive, mainly, during their session together second period. During phys ed, he’d only stared glassily at the ball and yawned, but that didn’t faze Milly much. All her classmates seemed drowsy—or, at least, drowsier than usual. Her teachers drank deeply from plastic water bottles and commented in some negative or neutral way about the heat. Only Miss D. seemed more energized by it, clapping and crowing raucously as sweat glistened on her brown forehead. It made Milly that much gladder to be working with Eric rather than participating in volleyball. 

“Hey!” Milly snapped to attention. A bandeau-style bikini top hung from the clothes hanger in Geneva’s hand; the matching high-waisted bottoms hung from the pants hanger in the other. She beamed, eyes shining. “I’ve got a great idea!”

“Swimming?” Milly grinned, sitting up straight. “That sounds perfect!”

“I know, right?” Geneva shook the hanger for emphasis, the bikini top swaying. “I got this at the end of summer, stupidly, so I never got the chance to wear it! My friend Christy—she also went to St. Monica’s, I dunno if I mentioned her before—”

“I think you did,” said Milly. “She’s the one who moved schools, right?”

“Yeah, all the way to Wisconsin,” clarified Geneva. “Anyway, I picked this up at the mall, and Christy was with me, and she was like, ‘You can’t wear that!’ She said it super weird, like I was doing something wrong. And something about the way she said it made me think, ‘Oh, it’s because of my weight.’” Geneva squinched up her nose in disgust. “She was always making comments about the stuff I picked out, so I was used to it, but God. I’d die if Rani or Gerri or any of my other friends said that kind of thing to me.” She paused, then added, “I’m so glad she moved away. She was kind of a bitch.”

“I wouldn’t say anything about your weight,” said Milly quickly. “Don’t worry. I mean, I’ve got no room to judge.”

Geneva frowned. She sat on the bed beside her, laying the hangers beside her on the comforter. “What do you mean?” she asked, incredulous. “You’re skinny as a rail.”

“Well, no. I mean, yes, but—” Milly shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s not my weight or anything, but….” She shifted uncomfortably, then rolled up her polo sleeve and raised her arm, exposing the dark little hairs growing on her armpit.

Geneva’s eyes widened. “You don’t shave?”

“Yeah. My mom doesn’t like shaving,” Milly admitted, tucking her arms beneath her armpits. “But I don’t think I like it either. And...I don’t know.” She could feel her face getting hot. “In the locker room, all the other girls...I worry that they’re looking at me and judging me. But whenever I think about getting a razor or whatever, I feel so embarrassed, like I’m being someone I’m not.” She shrugged, trying to keep her voice light. “It’s stupid.”

Geneva’s eyes grew wide. “What? No kidding, I feel the same way! I hate the girls’ locker room. It’s so embarrassing. Everyone gets to see you practically naked. And you can feel everyone’s eyes on you. It’s humiliating.” She shook her head. Milly was surprised to see that she was turning red. “I’m so glad I don’t have to take P.E. after this year.”

“Lucky. I still have to wait the rest of this one, plus another.”

A minute passed. Geneva looked thoughtful. “Hmmm,” she said. 

“What are you thinking?”

“You don’t feel gross not shaving? I feel bad whenever I let my leg hair grow out even a little. Plus, it’s itchy as hell.”

“I don’t feel gross or itchy,” Milly said, flushing. As long as people stop telling me I should. “Mom says it’s totally natural not to shave. She was in the women’s liberation movement and everything.” She could hear herself getting defensive and felt embarrassed by it. Geneva didn’t mean to hurt her feelings, she knew. Why was she being so touchy?

“Oh, that explains it.” Geneva paused, suddenly looking concerned. “There’s only one thing that worries me,” she admitted.

“What?”

Geneva held up the hanger with the bottoms on it. “How are you gonna wear a swimsuit if you don’t shave?”

Milly smiled. “That’s easy! I’ll wear board shorts!”

Board shorts?”

“What, what’s wrong with them!”

“Nothing’s wrong with them! I didn’t say that.”

“Hold on.” Milly brightened; she had an idea. She held up a hand as she slid off the bed. “Before I leave, let me say something. Don’t get mad at me, but I think—”

Geneva’s voice turned deadpan. “We’re not bringing Eric, don’t even ask.”

“But—”

“I’m serious.” Her voice was pleading. “Milly, come on. I don’t even think he can swim.”

“I’ll teach him!” Milly cried.

“You know there’s no lifeguard on duty, right?”

“I can do it.” Milly crossed her arms, turning on her heel to face Geneva once she reached the doorway. “I want to bring him. Come on, Geneva. He might like it!”

“He also might drown, or start having a meltdown, or something. Even if he just sits there, we’ll have to watch him, and I want to have fun!”

You won’t have to do anything.” Milly turned and started to leave. “Don’t worry.”

“Meet me outside my house in twenty!” Geneva cried after her. “And don’t bring Eric!”

 

“Please?” Milly asked, clasping her hands in front of her chest.

Uncle Hugo scratched his scalp, dislodging a small cloud of dandruff in the process. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. He shifted on his armchair in front of the television. Milly flitted around to his left. She watched as he dug out the remote from the crack between the armchair’s cushion and the headrest.

“If he can’t swim, I can watch him,” she said impatiently. “It’ll be a good learning experience. I’m sure Mrs. Sherman would agree.”

She was trying to be persuasive, but the Gibb house made her uneasy. Even now, when Eric’s uncle was awake, the house seemed asleep. The windows were shut, the lights turned off. The faint tick of the kitchen clock paired with the noisy rattle of the air conditioner were the only sounds she could hear. The silence made her voice sound like a strange and overbearing presence.

The TV flicked on. Uncle Hugo changed it from the weather channel to Wheel of Fortune, where a contestant’s guess was met with a smattering of fuzzy applause. The image on screen was desaturated and blocky. “Bad reception,” Uncle Hugo grunted, and stood up. Milly, seeing an opportunity, waved at him to sit down. He did so, and guided her through adjusting the TV antennae. “A little to the left, that’s where the broadcast towers are. Yeah, here it comes.” Both of them watched as the picture and audio cleared up. Vanna Maria White was beaming, her white teeth in full view of the camera.

Milly stood awkwardly beside the television, clasping her hands behind her back. She was wondering if Uncle Hugo had forgotten that she was there when he grunted, “Mind getting me a beer?” When she looked at him warily, he gave her a smile. His teeth were tinged with yellow. 

Milly got him the beer. When he reached up to grab the bottle, he said casually, “You’d be taking care of him?” He stared at her with big, watery eyes.

“Oh, yeah!” Milly replied, nodding furiously. “I mean, Geneva—Geneva Goodman, she lives down the street—will be there too. And I’m a strong swimmer. I used to swim a lot back in my old town. They had a community pool, too.” 

Uncle Hugo gave a slow nod as he dug a bottle-opener out of a pocket in his khaki shorts. He cracked open his beer. Then, he took a long drink, swished it around in his mouth, and swallowed with a sigh.

“And who knows?” Milly continued in a rush. “He might not even want to go in the water! He might just sit in the shade or something. But it’d be good for him to get out. And we might not have another hot day like this until spring!”

Uncle Hugo scratched his head again. For the second time, dandruff flakes settled on the bony tops of his shoulders, on the worn fabric of the armchair. Finally, he gave a long-limbed shrug. “If you watch him,” he said, before turning his gaze to Milly again. “he can go. As long as you watch him.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gibb! We’ll be home before it gets dark.” Milly ran to the landing where the staircase began, only to see Eric sitting on the stairs. “Oh!” she gasped. He looked up at her mildly. 

“Hey, you want to come to the pool with me and Geneva?” she asked. When he naturally didn’t answer, she yelled downstairs, “Does Eric have swim trunks?”

 

Milly stayed in the kitchen while Uncle Hugo helped Eric get ready, glancing occasionally at the clock on the wall. She’d told Louis that they’d be back by five—though he was probably too busy begging her to let him come with them to remember. Milly still felt a little guilty. She’d promised him that she’d take him next time, but that didn’t stop him from whining at her while she searched for beach towels in the unpacked boxes in the garage. He hounded her outside her bedroom door as she got dressed and harassed her while she shook out a plastic bag from under the sink when she couldn’t find the beach bag. Louis had resorted to threatening to cool himself and Max down with a hose by the time she was finally ready to leave. “Alright, good luck,” Milly said as she hefted her plastic bag of fresh clothes, a pair of sunglasses, and a striped beach towel over her shoulder.

“I’ll do it,” Louis insisted. “I swear! And I’ll tell Mom you left me alone!” He stood with his legs apart and arms folded, Max panting happily by his side.

“Don’t be a baby,” Milly replied. “You can stay home by yourself for a few hours. Just don’t make anything on the stove and I’ll bring you back a treat from the snack bar.”

Louis bit his lip, considering. Then, after a moment, he said, “Make it a Hershey’s chocolate with walnuts and you got a deal.”

Milly didn’t know if the Huntington public pool had a snack bar. She hoped they did.

 

Mrs. Goodman hardly batted an eye at Eric accompanying her and Geneva to the pool, to Milly’s relief. She was wearing a sun hat and pink-rimmed sunglasses that flashed as she adjusted her rearview mirror. “I hope you guys have fun,” she chirped as they drove. “It’s so sunny today, isn’t it? We really lucked out.”

“Yeah, Mom,” Geneva replied coolly from the passenger seat, looking out the window. Milly shifted her legs, trying to get comfortable. Eric was sitting with his legs positioned awkwardly so his sneaker was pushed up against her ankle, despite the fact that there was a whole seat between them. He was looking vaguely at the headrest in front of him.

“Scooch,” Milly told him, nudging his leg over with her foot.

Mrs. Goodman turned on the radio. Geneva snatched the volume dial. “Turn it up! It’s ‘St. Elmo’s Fire!’” she crowed. For a minute, John Parr’s triumphant belting soared from the speakers—until her mother inevitably lowered the volume. 

“We’ve heard this hundreds of times already,” Mrs. Goodman tutted, her wide-brimmed sun hat bobbing as she shook her head. “You didn’t even like the movie.”

“I didn’t hate it,” Geneva replied forcefully. “It just didn’t make any sense. It was depressing—like the part when Demi Moore tries to kill herself.”

“Oh, but she got better. She and that one boy has that nice conversation, remember?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Mrs. Goodman sniffed, then looked at Milly in the rearview mirror. “Did you see Saint Elmo’s Fire, Milly?”

“I don’t remember,” she admitted. “What was it about? It sounds familiar.”

Geneva craned her neck to look at her. “It had the freaky girl from The Breakfast Club in it,” she said. “You’ve seen The Breakfast Club. You have to have seen it, right?”

“Of course I’ve seen The Breakfast Club!” cried Milly indignantly. She’d seen it in theaters with her friends Amy and Esther. They’d gone to see it to celebrate her fourteenth birthday, she remembered. Her mother had picked them up from Hebrew school and driven them there. They’d gotten a large Coke with three straws poked through the puckered mouth of the lid, so they could all share. Esther and Amy had insisted on Milly sitting in the seat between them so she could benefit from the privilege of holding the cold, perspiring Coke on her lap. “Because it’s your birthday,” Esther had said. Milly remembered the Dots candy sticking to her braces in the dim light of the theater.

Of course, Amy and Esther had stopped talking to her once her father passed; they’d sat shiva with her family after the funeral, but once summer vacation began, Milly heard zip.

“Wasn’t it amazing?” Geneva gushed. “I loved the loser guy. The burnout. What was his name, Mom? The actor?”

“Judd—”

Geneva snapped her fingers and cried, “Judd Nelson! Yeah! He was great!”

Milly looked over at Eric. He was looking out his window with his hands in his lap, not moving. She wondered what he was thinking about.

 

The parking lot wasn’t as crowded as Geneva expected it to be. Milly knew this because she wouldn’t stop repeating how amazing it was. “Where the hell is everyone?” she asked after her mother drove off. 

Milly donned her sunglasses and looked around, blinking as her eyes adjusted. “Maybe everyone’s home with the A.C.,” she suggested. 

Geneva’s pink shades winked in the sun as she gave a shrug. Milly’s sandals slapped on the hot blacktop as they walked out of the parking lot. Just beyond the gate, a bright turquoise pool shimmered. The sound of people chatting and laughing grew closer. Milly’s heart quickened; she hadn’t been to a pool in forever. When was the last time? Before last summer, with Amy and Esther, certainly.

She took Eric’s hand. “You’re going to be okay,” she told him, even though he seemed to be doing alright. He was looking at the sky and blinking rapidly, but he did that all the time in the school gym, so Milly wasn’t worried. “It’s just the pool. Like a big bathtub.”

Eric stopped in his tracks. Milly jerked back a little before letting go of his hand. When she looked at him, he didn’t catch her eye; instead, he looked at the blacktop. Geneva, who’d walked a little ahead, stopped, looked at Milly and raised her hands in a gesture that undoubtedly said something along the lines of I told you so. “We haven’t even got in the gate,” she moaned.

Milly ignored her. “What’s wrong, Eric?” she asked, keenly aware of the pleading in her voice. “Is it too bright?”

“Maybe he doesn’t like bathtubs,” said Geneva helpfully. 

“Okay, Eric, it’s not like a bathtub. It’s like...I don’t know. Something different.” Milly took his hand and tried to pull him to the gate. After a moment, Eric followed her. Geneva instantly spun around and started walking, passing a family with two dripping young kids in water wings along the way. Milly hurried past them, keeping Eric close.

There were a few people lingering on the pool chairs scattered around the pool, but it seemed most had left, given that the heat of the day was steadily burning off. They dropped off their things at the nearest cluster of empty pool chairs with no trouble. Milly dipped her feet in the pool, sighing with relief as the cold chlorinated water washed up to her ankles. Geneva was already wading in up to her hips, her green rubber goggles clasped tight on her face.

“This is great!” Milly called to her from the edge of the pool, splashing her feet in the water.

“Get in!” Geneva cried back, and dove underwater, legs kicking and splashing. When she came back up, she began to backstroke.

Milly turned to Eric, who was pretending to fly while sitting on one of their pool chairs, surrounded by Geneva’s sunglasses and the girls’ bags. He swayed, staring straight ahead as if he was still on his window sill or in the school gym, arms rigidly spread in an imitation of airplane wings. 

“Eric,” she called to him in a singsong voice. “Eerriiic.”

He finally looked at her, expression grave.

“Come on,” she said. “Dip your feet in. It feels good.”

Eric’s eyes drifted to the pool. He got up and shuffled over on bony white legs, crouching slowly beside her. He didn’t have any swim trunks of his own, so he was wearing a pair of Uncle Hugo’s boxer shorts cinched tight at the waist with a string. It looked funny, Milly thought—especially with the way they bunched up a little at the cuffs. It wasn’t proper swimwear, but it was all Eric’s uncle could think of. She guessed she couldn’t blame him; Eric had no reason to have swim trunks before now.

“Milly!” yelled Geneva from around the middle of the pool. She paddled away from a bobbing beach ball some teenagers were playing with and smoothed down her shining wet hair with her hands, standing up. “Come on! Eric can come in later!”

Milly had to admit, the prospect was tempting. She turned to Eric and said, “I’ll be right back, okay? Dip your feet in at least. But don’t get in all the way till I get back.” 

She waded in up to her waist, shoulders hunching. The water straddled the line between deliciously cool and too cold for comfort. Geneva swam over, grinning at her scrunched face. Her goggles winked in the sunlight when she turned her face toward the sky. “Feels great, doesn’t it? This was an amazing idea,” she sighed, falling backwards into the water with a splash. Milly smiled and agreed, shaking the droplets from her otherwise dry hair.

Eric watched as the girls swam, shifting restlessly. Occasionally, he made an attempt to lift and then lower his foot into the water, only to withdraw. “Go, Eric!” Milly hollered. “You can do it!”

Eric didn’t acknowledge the encouragement, but he did make one more try. When his toes skimmed the pool’s surface, he started, then, in one deliberate motion, immersed his foot fully. Milly cheered, and Eric smiled, gaze fixed on the rippling aquamarine water.

The day wore on. Milly soon ceased practicing her underwater cartwheel—which, like her above-water cartwheel, needed work—and rejoined Eric at the lip of the pool with her towel wrapped around her like a shawl. They watched Geneva, who never seemed to tire of practicing her swim strokes. When she finally eased herself out, she, Eric, and Milly made their way to the snack bar. 

Milly devoured her hot dog as the humid air dried her skin, letting her towel gather loosely around her midsection. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was—the last thing she’d had to eat was school’s cold lunch, which was a tuna sandwich and a bag of wilted baby carrots. She looked over at Eric, who was sitting next to her on her pool chair. He’d forgoed his hot dog for his fruit bar, which was orange (Geneva had claimed the strawberry-flavored one because she’d paid, which in Milly’s opinion was completely reasonable). The bar was perspiring on its wooden stick, on the verge of dripping onto Eric’s fist. He was licking it animatedly and staring off into the distance. When Milly said his name and waved at him, he looked over and smiled. She was glad; it seemed like he was having a nice time. 

I mean, I don’t eat a ton of junk in the first place,” Geneva was passionately saying between bites of her hot dog. “I mean, Jesus, she practically monitors what I eat, you know? She makes dinner every night, she’s the one who buys the groceries, and it’s not like I eat a whole lot, either. But also, it’s my body, you know? So why does she care in the first place?”

“I don’t know,” Milly admitted, feeling somewhat out of her depth. “Maybe she just wants you to be healthy.”

“I am healthy, that’s the thing! I eat a shit-ton of vegetables, trust me. She’s got no excuse!” cried Geneva, shaking her head. She paused in her ranting to wipe her hands with her paper napkin from the snack bar.

There was a faint squeal as the gate to the pool opened. Geneva and Milly exchanged glances, both feeling that more people would sour their experience. Milly just hoped the newcomers wouldn’t have any young kids.

Then, as the people padded into view, Milly’s stomach dropped. She sat up, trying subtly to get a better look. Part of her couldn’t believe it—it was Mona and her boyfriend, Cam.

“What?” said Geneva, noticing Milly’s visible dismay. 

“I know those people,” Milly replied, trying to crouch down as much as she could. Mona and Cam had passed them without looking, but even the potential of them noticing her and Eric was humiliating. “I mean, they go to Taft.”

Geneva looked closely at Mona. “Huh,” she said. “That swimsuit is cute.”

“Don’t compliment her,” snapped Milly, harsher than she meant to. Mona dove into the pool in a perfect athletic arc. Cam followed her example much more sloppily. She threw back her head and laughed, showing off her earrings—thick red plastic hoops that matched the cherries on her halter top bikini.

“Ugh,” Milly said, frowning.

“What?” Geneva unwrapped her fruit bar and took a bite. “Are you jealous or something?” she carefully asked through her mouthful of cold strawberry slush.

“No!” Milly said, aghast.

Geneva shrugged. “I mean, she’s pretty, she’s got a cute boyfriend, a good body—”

“I like my body,” Milly replied, cheeks flaming. “And I don’t need a boyfriend. Especially not one like Cam.” Cam seemed to like being around Mona or her friends that much; from what Milly saw, he took any opportunity to get away from them to hang out with his buddies on the football team.

“Right,” Geneva said. “Okay.”

“I’m not lying!”

“I never said you were! No need to be touchy.”

Milly stood up. “I promised I’d buy Louis a candy bar,” she said. “Be right back.”

“You’re dripping,” said Geneva to Eric after Milly left. Eric continued to lick his treat without acknowledging her, only licking his juice-covered fist after his bar was eaten. Meanwhile, Mona laughed again, the sound carrying in the humid air. 

“She’s kind of loud, isn’t she?” Geneva said. 

Eric didn’t reply.

Mrs. Goodman arrived just after Milly bought Louis his Hershey’s bar (with walnuts), to her relief. On the ride back, Geneva, as before, spoke minimally to her mother, mostly preferring to fiddle with the volume dial on the car stereo system. Eric pushed his foot against Milly’s ankle, also like before, but this time he held her hand. She enjoyed the warmth of his skin, the feeling of his fingers intertwined with hers; it was comforting in the chilly silence of the drive home.

After the Goodmans had dropped them off, Milly and Eric walked together. Milly wondered if Eric’s uncle would be awake when they arrived. She remembered the vague look in his eyes as he stared at Jeopardy! and drank his beer. “You got one foot in the water,” she told Eric, trying to distract herself from the sudden rush of melancholy threatening her good mood. “That’s great! I’ll be sure to tell Uncle Hugo. Maybe, when we go next time, I can teach you how to swim. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Eric looked at Milly. He didn’t look particularly pleased or otherwise about the notion of learning to swim...but, then again, he wasn’t the most expressive person she’d ever met.

“It’ll be fun,” she said coaxingly. “You’ll see.” She squeezed his hand for emphasis.

They held hands all the way home.