In the days and even in the hours leading up to Margot’s first boy-girl pool party, I practiced taking my clothes off in front of the mirror. I studied it like it was something to be mastered, relentlessly, lifting the hem of my shirt and slipping it over my head in one fluid motion, the way I saw actresses do it in the movies. Under my clothes was my new bikini, which I wore like a present. My entire body was hairless and soft. I shaved it every day to maintain its hairlessness. I shaved my armpits and my legs and the pink, wrinkled caps of my knees. My body, when shaved, was beautiful. I liked how easy it was to touch. I liked the thought of someone running his hand along my calf and thinking to himself — how smooth!
I bought the bikini a week before Margot’s party. It was the first bikini that I had ever owned, and I bought it specifically for the party, or really for Brandon, who I knew would be there. When I thought about someone’s hands touching my legs, those hands were usually Brandon’s. I liked to imagine him gripping my foot, his thumb rubbing circles on the inside dimple of my left ankle. I thought about him watching as I climbed — shining, newborn-wet — out of the pool and burned my flat soles on the white tile. I thought about him kissing the heart of my foot. His mouth would be cold from swallowing so much chlorine.
Inside the department store, I stripped off my clothes and stood naked in my socks under the fluorescent lights. The bikini that I had chosen was red. Cherry, according to the woman in the store. I loved cherries. In the summer, I would eat so many that they made my stomach hurt. I would eat them all in one sitting, when they were firm but not hard, the flesh swelling with moisture and sweetness, almost bursting from their oily, dark skins — the tautness that held for maybe a day after you took them out of the fridge, before they went soft and old in your mouth. They would leave stains everywhere, all over my lips, my fingers, the front of my shirt.
Once, when I was little, I swallowed a cherry pit, and Margot told me that I was going to die.
“Those are poisonous,” she said. “If you eat them, you go into shock.”
“Right now?” I asked. “I’m going to die right now?”
“We need to make you throw up,” said Margot.
Following her lead, I shoved my index and middle fingers into my throat and prodded them around. My mouth felt so small on the inside. I coughed until I cried, my gag reflex convulsing against my hand.
“Let me do it,” said Margot. “Just hold still.”
When she slipped her fingers into my mouth, I imagined them like pale flashlights, searching through the darkness, past the stalactites and stalagmites of my teeth, towards the strange, red cavern of my pharynx. I coughed and sobbed around her little white hand, and she kept saying, just hold still, I’ve almost got it, until her mom came running out of the house and told me that I would only die if I crushed the pit beneath my teeth and released the poison into my system.
“Did you chew it?” she asked. “Or did you just swallow?”
“I swallowed,” I said.
“You’ll be ok,” she told me. “Be more careful next time.”
After that, I started picturing cherries growing in my stomach. Not the trees with their pink blossoms, but the dark, red fruits — two of them tied together by their stems like twin babies connected by the same umbilical cord.
“I see a lot of girls coming in to buy this one,” the woman in the store had said, shoving the red, nylon scraps into my hands. “It’s very popular for girls your age.”
In the changing room, I put the scraps on and looked at my body in the glass. It did not look like my body, but it was. It was a body in a red bikini, and I realize that it was probably the kind of body that made people turn their heads around and think — wow. As I ran my hand over my stomach and stroked its smoothness, I felt a kind of pleasure that was almost close to sick. I had never known that it could be so beautiful, my body, not just a shape but a series of curves and planes, shining under the department store lights like something out of someone else’s dream.
I looked at myself and looked at myself, until my mother pushed the drapes aside without warning and stepped into the changing room.
“It’s very red,” she said, after a moment.
“It’s supposed to be red,” I replied, annoyed. “I wanted it to be red.”
“Well,” said my mother. “If you’re sure that’s what you want.”
She stood for a second and looked at my reflection. I folded my arms over my chest.
“God,” she sighed. “You have such a perfect body.”
In my room back at home, I put my new bikini on under my clothes and stood before the mirror with the curtains open to let in the light. I took my shirt off. Then I put it back on so that I could take it off again, more intentionally this time. In my head, I was a flower, unfolding myself under the summer heat like you see in a nature documentary, how the petals spread themselves apart, flushed and opened. I unbuttoned my shorts and pushed them down my legs. I let the sun fall on my body, let it run all over my limbs. I did this endlessly. It was an impulse of its own. Every time I put my clothes back on, I would watch my body disappear beneath my t-shirt, obscured by the space between the damp cotton and my own sweaty skin. Then, I always wanted to see it again, just one more time, to prove that it was still there. Nothing could compare to that moment of first nakedness, the surprise I always felt when I saw myself in the glass. I was like a little kid unwrapping a gift, peeling back the paper, and laughing at the toy inside.
Losing clothes was an art, I thought. A thing of perfection, and if I could just get it absolutely right, it would be beautiful.
When we were little, we used to make-believe that we were mermaids in Margot’s pool. It was Margot, Sarah, Sruthi, and me. We would sit on the edge of the water, flashing our legs in the sun like long, gorgeous tails, and we would spread our hair over our bare shoulders the way that mermaids did to cover their breasts, even though we didn’t have breasts yet, and we didn’t spend any time wanting them either. Breasts were uninteresting to us. We weren’t old enough to care about our bodies. We only cared about mermaids.
Sometimes, we would make Margot’s little brother pretend to be a sailor. We would tell him to stand behind the pine tree in the corner of Margot’s backyard, and we would sit in a row along the pool deck, splashing our tails in the water like we didn’t know he was there, even though that was the whole point of the game. When he came charging out into the open, we would beckon at him and laugh.
“Come here!” we would say. “You can’t catch us!”
As soon as he got too close, we would dive into the water, swimming down to the bottom as quickly as our hollow bodies would sink us, our opalescent tails flaring as we dolphin-kicked our way to safety. We imagined him running up to the water and touching his hands against the surface in despair. We imagined him jumping into the pool to chase after us. We imagined him kneeling on a sandy beach with his face to the sun, crying because he knew that he had just seen the most beautiful thing that he would ever see, and now it was lost to him forever.
After an appropriate amount of time had passed, we would swim back up and do it all over again. This was our favorite game.
When, in high school, we finally became friends with boys, it occurred to us that maybe we should start inviting them to pool parties too. Mainly, we wanted to see them shirtless, but nobody ever said this out loud. Of all the boys, I wanted to see Brandon shirtless most of all. Brandon wasn’t exactly cute, but he was tall, and that could screw with your head a little bit because sometimes he would come up and stand behind you while you were doing math homework, and he would tell you exactly what you were doing wrong, and as he was explaining the right way to find the derivative of a tangent function, he would lean so close over your shoulder that you thought you could feel the warmth emanating from his chest to the hairs at the base of your neck.
Two months before Margot’s pool party, we went with the boys to a park, where we sat in a circle on the grass like kindergarteners, but also not kindergarteners because we were all very horny. Brandon complained a lot. He kept groaning over and over again that it was so hot, sitting on the grass with the sun like a warm hand over his nape. It made him sweat. He didn’t like sweating. He showed us the dark and souring spot staining the back of his t-shirt.
“If I could take my shirt off, I wouldn’t be so sweaty,” he said.
“Do it then,” I told him. “You won’t.”
“You think I’m a pussy?” he asked.
In one movement, he pulled his shirt off. He did it so beautifully that I wondered if he had practiced it before. When he threw the shirt triumphantly into the center of the circle, all of us looked at each other and rolled our eyes and laughed, until he lay back down on the ground, pale and sweating, and I kept laughing, but it was different. It had never fully occurred to me before that his body could exist beneath his shirt like mine did. But I realized then that he was hot, in an undercover way. It was like he had been hiding a secret the whole time, and now he seemed to flash behind my eyes, underneath my tongue, like a scar: a broad and solid white line in the scorched grass. We were 14. Everyone was a mystery under their shirt.
“Nice abs,” said Pranav to Brandon.
“Thanks,” Brandon said. “They were intentional.”
It had been so hot that afternoon. I kept looking at him, and then not looking, like he was too much, too bright, for my eyes. He had to be viewed in fragments. When I wasn’t looking at him, I looked at the sky. It, too, looked hot to touch, like the top of a car that has been sitting in the sun all day, and even before you burn your fingers against the metal hood, you can see that kind of sheen on it that tells you it will hurt.
I used to think about mermaids before I went to sleep. It was like the game that we played with Margot’s little brother, only, in my head, it was an actual prince with dark, floppy hair and blue eyes. He would be wandering around in some great, beastly forest, alone. Suddenly, he would push through the bushes and, stumbling upon the edge of a lagoon, he would see a beautiful mermaid swimming there in the sparkling water. Don’t be scared, he would say, when she saw him. Then, in my fantasy, he would tear his shirt off and wade into the shallows and kiss her on the mouth. Their faces would press together — so tightly that the distance between their noses would be erased, would be swallowed by the closeness, so dark and warm and unknown — but they would make no sound because in my head, kissing was supposed to be silent. The truth was, I had never been kissed before. But I could still imagine Brandon and I tasting the wetness on each other’s tongues
The sun kept hitting my eyes. It refracted off the water, the glass of Margot’s sliding doors, and the pale, hot bone of Brandon’s shoulder blade. All that light — it took to my cornea like a metal baseball bat.
“You can’t just stay up there forever,” said Brandon, pulling at the giant, inflated turtle that I was sunbathing on. “Share the wealth.”
I stretched my hairless legs and extended them across the turtle’s rubbery, green back. The rest of our friends were in the shallow end, on the other side of the pool. In my head, I kept replaying the moment when I had emerged from my clothes and stood before Brandon in my new, red bikini, my skin slightly damp from sweat — another surface of refraction. Even without looking, I had felt his eyes sticking to me as I walked up to the lip of the water. His gaze was a coat of white glue, something that dried on you like a second skin and had to be peeled off. He must have looked almost stupid, I thought. A wide-eyed baby sucking milk from its mother’s tit, staring at me like I was the moment that you rewind again and again in a VCR, where the movie star arches her back over the hood of a car and time slows down just to stare at her a little bit longer. I was so beautiful. I was a mermaid, and I just knew that he was looking at me like something he had never seen before. A new discovery, so perfect, it was too much for his mind to conceive.
“Come on,” said Brandon. “Get off.”
“No,” I laughed.
There were little beads of water collecting on my shoulder, and I thought about how nice the cup of that shoulder must seem to him. It was scented with citrus-flavored sunscreen. I believed that I could hear inside of his head. He was looking at me, and he was saying to himself — so beautiful, so beautiful! It looped through my brain like a song, and I was letting myself drop into the rhythm of its chorus, how I pointed my perfect feet and rolled my long, tanned neck to the same beat.
“Fuck you,” Brandon told me. “If you don’t get off, I’ll make you.”
I flipped over so that my back hit the sunlight and grabbed hold of the turtle’s fat, yielding neck.
“Go ahead,” I said.
When he pushed himself up onto the plastic floaty, the water poured off his body the way I imagined it would off the back of a dolphin. His mouth was pink. I knew that it must be clean on the inside. Under the sun, his teeth looked like the tiles that ran around the circumference of the pool: white, hard, and smooth. He grabbed my arm with his right hand and pulled. For a moment — as we toppled off the turtle with the rubbery sound of skin scrubbing against plastic and plunged into the water where the air fell from our lungs and our bodies seemed to disintegrate into the foam that they themselves had produced — I pictured myself colliding against those teeth, crashing with the enamel, my fingernails scratching the ivory of his canines. They were so bright. They took up all the space in my eye.
When we surfaced, Brandon’s hand was still gripping my arm.
“You suck,” I told him.
“I won,” he said.
“You kicked me when we were underwater,” I said.
“You kicked me too,” he replied.
My foot grazed his leg. I felt the hair that grew along his calf with the pad of my big toe. His irises were so blue, they tasted like copper coins under my tongue. I could have swallowed them whole. I imagined us in the middle of the ocean, clinging to each other to survive, licking at each other’s teeth, disappearing into each other’s mouths as we drowned. Kiss me, I thought. I didn’t know much about boys. I didn’t know how anyone knew to kiss anyone else. I didn’t even really want him to kiss me, but I wanted to be the girl wearing the red bikini who was so beautiful that she got kissed in a swimming pool because the boy couldn’t help himself. Kiss me, I willed, again. I was so stupid that I almost believed he would.
For a long time, whenever I thought back to that moment, I would always cut the memory there. Like how you edit the endings of stories you don’t like: I would leave us where we were, floating forever in circles, not saying a word, his hand tethering me like a buoy to the bottom of the ocean, and the water dripping from our hair to our eyes. When I got older and started having a lot of sex — some of it bad, most of it kind of average — I realized that bodies weren’t mysteries at all, that they were in fact just variations of flesh, which could always be boiled down to the same basic compounds. By then, I had started telling this story a lot. I told it like it was a joke, which, in the end, it probably was.
“It was so bad,” I would tell my friends, as we sat in the emptying college dining hall. “I was so horny for this boy. There was more horniness in me than my tiny body knew how to hold.”
My new college friends would grin. They were easier to tell such things to because they hadn’t known me at the time. They couldn’t remind me of how seriously I had taken it, how seriously we had taken all things as children, before we were old enough to look at ourselves and laugh.
“So, we’re floating there,” I would say. “I’m staring into his eyes. My heart is going crazy, and for some reason, I’m like, oh my god, he’s going to kiss me. But then, instead of kissing me, he looks at my chest, turns bright red, and starts stammering. And when I look down at myself, I realize that my entire right boob is just hanging out in the open, and he has basically been making eye-contact with my nipple.”
We would laugh and laugh, until they turned the dining hall lights out over our heads. Then, we would go back to our rooms and remember about how glad we were to be away from that era of our lives, and we would forget how brightly and painfully we had known the world in those days, back when we didn’t talk about our bodies because we spent so much time thinking about them, back when we were excited and humiliated by anything, back when everything under our fingertips seemed so new and so ripe, even our own skin.
Never did I mention exactly how, that day in Margot’s pool, I looked down and saw my own breast collapsed nakedly against my stomach like an exhausted whale — a pale and drowning mound of fat. How I wondered if Brandon thought that I had orchestrated the whole thing on purpose, the way that I had really orchestrated everything else, and how that made me hate myself. And later, after Brandon had swum away to join the others, how I told myself that I didn’t care about him, didn’t care if he thought that I was some kind of sex-crazed sociopath, which I almost believed I was. I dove back down to the bottom of the pool and pretended that I was a mermaid. It was so beautiful there, with the light from the sun carving a white hole through the ripples above my head, and the shadows of those ripples falling all over the pool floor, all over my body, which was a mermaid’s body. This was what we forgot, in our laughter.
We had misunderstood the mermaids in our games, I realized, in those lost moments at the bottom of Margot’s pool. All they really wanted was to swim around where no one else was looking. I stayed under the water until my lungs ran out. It was too bad that I couldn’t be a mermaid. It was too bad that I couldn’t stop myself from wanting the air.