By Lisa Gordon
My first time out of the country, I still hadn’t outgrown my tomboy stage. My parents liked beach vacations and didn’t apologize for it, so I went, an eighth grader with two fraying Speedo suits, to Barbados, worried about how I’d be able to tape my growing boobs down when I’d surely be sweating through my T-shirts. My twin brother went begrudgingly as well; there wasn’t anything he was interested in doing if it didn’t include a soccer ball. And we were a pair, us two, fretting on the plane about whether there would be cable in our room and if we’d gotten too old to order off the kid’s menu at whatever fancy restaurants our parents would drag us to. The plane landed in the middle of the tarmac, and the airport looked like a large strip mall with a roof slapped on top; the humidity felt like a womb, and I thought, this is what people dream of?
We piled off the plane and waited while a rickety baggage claim band spat our bags at us, then we waited outside, the sun oppressive, for one of the many white vans, each with a different resort name emblazoned on the sides, to reach us. It shook with an old engine; dust from its wheels clouded the view of run-down homes sloping into the ground, of clothesline after clothesline of brightly colored fabrics and tattered sheets flapping in the wind. Our driver’s shirt was sweat-stained and, despite having the fewest teeth I’d ever seen in anyone’s mouth, he smiled widely at all of us, welcoming. He answered every question, began every comment with a laugh, two short exhales of breath, his mouth a visible half-moon from the rear view mirror. And yet, there was a dullness to his eyes, which I’d later learn to blame on a variety of vices.
J. and I sat squeezed together on a tattered bench seat, clutching our backpacks. I stared out the window, he stared at the dashboard, watching the speedometer, which ticked back and forth like a broken clock as we lurched over dirt road pot holes. Back then, with no cell phones or tablets or social media or wifi, there was nothing to do but look. Everything was new, and, still young enough to not have seen anything like it outside of National Geographic, I was awestruck. I saw full-bodied women with fabrics coiled around their heads, skinny-legged children chasing after dried coconut skins the way we chased balls. They clapped their hands over their heads and when we drove past, “Hey, HEY!” they cried out, jumping back, their eyes both curious and territorial. They knew who we were—we were all the same to them. The driver waved at them, a tight fan shape with his hand, before placing it back on the wheel.
And then: the resort, a majestic, sprawling thing, framed by impeccably pruned lush plants and magenta flowers with petals as big as leaves. Through the lobby, the ocean touched the sky. A man approached us with a tray of drinks and I reached for one; the minute I tasted it, I knew. My first time trying alcohol, and it wasn’t even on purpose. My father laughed, and while my mother’s back was turned, tipped it to my mouth just one more time. Inside the lobby, it wasn’t air-conditioned so much as it was pumped with a cooling mist. I was neither hot nor cold and the air, light and fragrant, made me feel weightless.
It was nearly dinner, the sun was about to set, the sky pregnant with turning colors, and all I could think about was—how big was the pool, and was there a vending machine?
I wore overalls to dinner that night, a stark contrast to the other women, dressed in resort wear: linen pantsuits, chunky jewelry made with coral and turquoise, plunging necklines. The only girls my age I could see were employees. They wore their hair slicked back into taut buns and their uniforms looked like a glamorized version of a candy striper’s. They had a trained, polished way about them, a deliberate smile, a polite nod, whisking away plates and delivering extra napkins and silverware. I studied them, ignoring my mother’s reminder that it was impolite to stare. Always good at making friends, a “natural leader,” as my parents liked to call me, I wondered if I could talk to them. But I realized quickly, when confronted with the reality of having to say thank you as one girl cleared my plate, that when they said “you’re welcome,” with an accent of clipped song, that it was because they had to. We would not be friends. It was naive for me to have thought as much. And though recognizing that made me feel grown up, I also felt at once troubled by something I didn’t understand.
A string quartet played light dinner music while we buttered our rolls. None of the fish was pronounceable, but I recognized shrimp, something I knew I liked at home, with coconut batter, and ordered that. We ate quietly, watching the moon illuminate the lightly lapping waves, the big sprawling window so clear it nearly wasn’t there. During dessert, other patrons having cleared out and the restaurant more or less our own, the band began to play a familiar song. My father, prone to asking us questions when he had our unrivaled attention (what’s 20% of 500, who was the 13th president), asked if we knew the song. He marveled when I told him: “Daniel,” by Elton John. My mother laughed and rolled her eyes, reminding him that their car radios were constantly set on the soft rock channel, and of course we’d pick it up—in fact, we knew all the words to all the songs. And J. and I began to hum, then sing: Daniel my brother, you are…older than me, do you still feel the pain…louder and louder and the wider our parents’ smiles became, turning to laughter when we flubbed the last line, my brother’s voice squeaking high and low. My parents looked mighty contented, with their twins and their full bellies and empty wine glasses and a week to go at a beach resort, and it was then I understood how temporal vacation was. The girls came to clear our plates and I felt embarrassed by our happiness. You’re a star we knew, but it wasn’t until years later, when that song came on the radio when I was driving in my own car, that I made out the end: in the face of the sky.
The next morning was spent wracked with inconclusiveness over which was better: the beach or the pool. Mom and Dad were beach people through and through but J. preferred the pool and I preferred what he preferred. Occasionally, I’d slip over the fine, white sand littered with bodies and colored squares of towels to dip my toes in the water, a light aqua I’d never seen before. I liked how it seemed to appear endless, but I knew it had to end somewhere, and I pictured a brawling tidal pool, thousands of miles away, between the serene Caribbean Sea and the messy, thick, nearly black Atlantic Ocean of home.
Otherwise, I was at the pool. Which wasn’t just a pool: it was six pools, all connected in a lolling expanse of turquoise water and pebbled walkways. J. and I paddled in the shallow end, drinking non-alcoholic pina coladas with pineapple triangles the size of watermelon slices and did not talk about a single thing. I still believe that one of the lessons learned from having a twin is that there is so much more in shared experiences than anything that can be said out loud. We did not even read. We watched the same people, over and over, all day: the mother with the yellow bikini, her body rippled with C-section scars, the suave-looking middle-aged man on a black brick cell phone. Some of the girls from the dining room the night before appeared in flashes, delivering drinks on well-balanced trays. Their legs were muscular and sleek; they reflected the sun in a dull luster that seemed exquisite. I covered my stomach with my hands, dipped below the water so that only my head would appear, self-conscious of my full-bodied tank suit, aware of my body in a way that did not feel familiar, nor feminine.
Later, Mom came calling, waving a sunblock bottle. “We know, we know,” we cried, “we did, we did.” But we had not. And later, after being convinced to ride the banana boat, which I did out of spite, my legs stretched too far to straddle what felt too big for a young girl, my arms uncomfortably around an older lady in front of me, the life vest straps digging painfully into my ribs, I felt the sun beating down on me, evenly in its harshness, like being covered with a blanket from head to toe. And in the morning, my face was a marshmallow, my eyes so swollen I could not open them.
Did it hurt? My parents wanted to know, folding over me in the bright bathroom light, their hands flapping around my face. I wasn’t in pain so much as floating inside my own body, wrapped in a pressure that sustained me tautly. It wasn’t uncomfortable. It was somehow safe and contained. My head pounded with the sensation of a painless headache, like I was wearing some sort of helmet. The slits of my eyes could see enough for me to navigate slowly on my own, but my pupils, unsure of what kind of light adjustment to make, made me dizzy. I was too sunburned to feel it yet. My body buzzed with a new vibrancy, like energy just under my skin, a kind of heat, but not of temperature. J. brought me water and flipped through the television while my parents went through a corral of phone calls, trying to connect with a doctor. After I’d fallen asleep again, they woke me. “We found one,” they said. “An island doctor.”
I could not see the man who helped me into the taxi, but he gripped my elbow in a gentlemanly fashion, and made a joke about the sun. “She is not your friend, no?” he said, smiling a similar toothless smile to the man from the shuttle. My face felt like it extended in front of me for miles. I’d not looked in a mirror.
The taxi drove us to what appeared to be the center of the island. A bustling downtown, the wind, non-existent at the resort, whipped between buildings and palm trees. It felt good on my skin. None of the locals bothered to look at me, or if they did, they pretended not to see. My mother held my hand. She was anxious, but calming. I wished for a friend who would tell me how bad it really was, how bad I really looked.
The pharmacy, from what I could tell, was a run-down drug store with a counter in the back that looked like an apothecary: glass bottles, white powders, and a man with an apron. I could sense how overwrought my mother was. I don’t remember the words exchanged, just her cool hand on the back of my neck, and the way the bottle shook, like a rattle, when she put it in her purse. It was a large bottle, the size of a can of beans. And the pills themselves: bigger than any pill I’d ever seen. Horse pills, J. called them when we got home. I hadn’t learned to swallow pills yet. I kept choking on them, coughing them up, wasting pill after pill. It had a terrifically terrible taste, putrid, bitter. My tongue hung outside my mouth like a dog, panting. Finally, J. ran off to find ice cream, per my father’s request; half an hour later, he returned with some in a Styrofoam container. My mother crushed it up in mine, and we sat at the table, eating ice cream, as I slowly succumbed to the sunburn. “Cellulitis,” I heard my mother say to Dad, and J. make a joke I couldn’t make out, and I tucked myself into bed, bracing myself for what I hoped wasn’t pain as much as patience.
My parents were in no mood to vacation, even the next day, and J. wasn’t either, so we booked our flights home early. I finally looked in the mirror as we packed our things. My eyes looked like they were surrounded by different, puffy body parts, sleek half moons both above and below. My cheeks were tight and full at the same time, tender to every move or expression I made, voluntarily or not. My head was nearly too heavy to bear on my own neck and my body, exhausted from the bright pain that had seared it, was a criss-crossed contrast of tomato and flesh, a pervasive, full-body feeling of “Indian sunburns”—how sometimes, as kids, we’d put our hands on a friend’s forearms and twist in opposite directions. J. carried my bags and gave me his hoodie, which I zipped up all the way, despite the 90-degree heat. He gave me the window seat and made sure the tiny fan was zoomed down on me at full blast, and when the plane finally landed and I startled awake, he turned my overhead light off and said, “almost.”
I couldn’t go to school for a couple of days. J. had to field questions about where I was. He made the mistake of telling them I was sunburned, which only fueled the fire. How badly? And specifically, people wanted to know: where? Boys chuckled, perhaps considered this, long after the day was done. Perhaps girls as well. Dressing myself for school, I nearly had a breakdown. The duct tape I’d been using to keep down my breasts hurt too much against my tender skin. The thought of exposing myself, parts of my girlhood, with my body in this condition threw me into a fit. I feigned a reprise of the bouts of nausea that the pills had induced early on, but my mother saw right through it. She allowed my father to drive me, and I’d managed to miss my first class, but I was early for the second, early enough that I walked through the pristine, quiet halls, shrouded in a hooded sweatshirt, another of J.’s, as if I was walking into a new course of life, convinced, as soon as people saw me, that they’d see me for what I was.
I arrived early to my classroom and sat in my seat, second from the back, near the window. The students piled in slowly. Some waved in my direction, others didn’t glance my way. My heart, my head, pounding so hard, I had to close my eyes, take a deep breath in, and try to remember that the world was not ending. I opened them when I felt a light touch on my face—one cheek, and then the other: just a light fingertip. N, crush-worthy N, touching my face. “You’re back,” he said, already behind me as the words hung in my ears, already sitting down, pushing back the sleeves of his shirt, slapping hands with his buddy, laughing, joking, punching as usual. He walked right by me when class ended that day and we barely ever spoke again. He had not intended it to be meaningful. And yet, as quickly as he’d forgotten it, its significance finds me, again and again.
Lisa Gordon’s writing has been published in Paper Darts, Storychord, Hypertext Magazine, Eleven Eleven, Brilliant Flash Fiction, the Rumpus, BelleSf, and others. She is at work on a story collection. She lives in Boston.