It was Sunday, late afternoon, a suspended sliver of day that was reserved for reading magazines while splayed out on the floor, pretending away homework, mindlessly biting nails, waiting for Anat to call.
Clara, my father said.
You finish your homework?
Not yet. Reading.
You’re always reading—and never for school, he said, sighing. When I stopped biting my nails and looked over at him, though, I could see a wry smile. I rolled my eyes. He sat in his leather recliner, thumbing through Goldmine, while I read Rolling Stone. It was a commemorative issue with Jimi Hendrix on the cover. He was holding up his guitar like an offering to the rock gods, and his eyes were closed as if he were in deep prayer. The light from our old lamps cast the black print in a honey glaze. My mother was in the kitchen, painting and cooking. Outside the apartment it was raining. Central Park looked like a dark forest, blurry and empty.
Why don’t you put something on, my father said.
I got up listlessly and walked over to his shelves of records lining the wall and almost picked out Hendrix, then selected Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited instead.
Ah, good choice. You remember when we listened to this on the drive to Chicago?
Yeah, I said. Do you remember? We had driven from New York to Chicago the year before to visit his sister and my cousins, who moved there to follow my aunt’s new love interest, some swoon-worthy accountant. Dad had frequently dozed off at the wheel because of his condition, sleep apnea, and I’d had to keep him awake. I had to take the wheel before I had even learned how to drive. I’d done everything I could think of—made him pull over for more coffee, rolled down all the windows, talked his ear off, and, finally, blasted music. When the CD track switched to Dylan, my father caught an unexpected wind and started singing along. We both sang Like a Rolling Stone at the top of our lungs, and everything seemed like it would be okay. Somehow, we made it to my aunt’s.
My father was singing now as he put the record on, exaggerating Dylan’s vowels, but I didn’t laugh along. I was too old for this, and irritated that he couldn’t see how obvious it was. I knew if he could hang out in his chair and listen to his records all day, he’d be happy. My father seemed simple on the surface—simple questions should yield simple answers, simple problems balanced by simple pleasures. But there was also something running underneath—the same miscast eyes, the same distant, unsatisfied expression I saw in old photos of Dylan—that made me wonder what sort of dissatisfaction was lurking inside of me, its hard, ugly features waiting to be revealed.
Just as the record came on, my mother shouted my name.
Hold on a minute, Dad yelled back. But it was Anat, finally, on the phone. We always talked on Sundays, alternating who called, to replay events from the past week and iron out details for the upcoming one.
Where’re you going? my father asked, but I was already through the doorway as the first familiar notes of the song filled up the room.
I took the phone from my mother.
What’s up, old lady?
I froze. It was a boy’s voice, one I recognized as soon as I heard the slightly affected baritone.
Sorry, can’t talk now, dinner’s calling, I said quickly.
My mother eyed me from the table, where she was working on a new watercolor..
Who was that? she asked.
Telemarketer, I said. It’s like, I don’t want to put a down payment on a new car.
My mother frowned. Before she could chastise me, the phone rang again. I answered hesitantly.
Clarakins, Anat said, Turn on the news. You see the weather?
I clicked on the small TV that sat in a corner on top of the counter. The forecaster was gesturing wildly. Apparently it was going to be unusually warm for this time of year, early November. A rare souvenir of summer before cold and frost settled into our skin. A cartoon sun, sweating and smiling, pulsed on the screen.
Yeah, I said, anticipation twisting inside me.
Well, should we do it?
I wrapped the cord around my finger and glanced at my mother, who’d gone back to her painting. Anat and I had talked about going to the beach before school started again, but we’d never gotten around to it. I could tell now that she’d hatched some sort of plan, and when she had something fixed in her mind, no matter how silly or farfetched, she couldn’t think about anything else. I could practically feel her breath on my ear.
Hello? You have any exams tomorrow?
Just prep for Spanish vocab, but I already memorized the words, I said.
Okay, she said, Let’s see. La carpeta.
Squash, she said. Close enough.
These aren’t even the words on my test.
I’m keeping you on your toes.
Alright, I said. Let’s do it.
When I met Anat, four years ago, we were varying degrees of gawky fifth grader. She had just moved to the city with her family—she liked to say they were itinerant Israelis as opposed to wandering Jews—and I was drawn to her in the way many adolescents who don’t have a set social group latch onto the new girl, who remains untainted, usually, until she opens her mouth. While Anat never became cool—she seemed to watch people for too long, staring at them in the hallway, in gym, in art class—she was also never not cool.
We became inseparable. Once, after a painting lesson, Anat told me with professional, necessary calm that I was a horrible painter, and encouraged me to find another talent. Best friends typically didn’t come so self-assured, ruthlessly truthful, and staunchly supportive as she did.
On Monday, after the first bell rang, I went to our designated meeting spot, an alleyway separating the school building from the basketball court. The school safety officer had gone inside after making her outdoor round. I felt the familiar sense of shame creep up on me—what was I doing?—but then I was shocked by how easy it was, skipping school. When I saw Anat, smiling her crooked little smile, it hit me all over again that she was leaving. Her family was moving back to Israel in January. She took my hand.
Come on, she said, we can’t just stand here.
We caught the C at 86th Street, thrown into the bustle of rush hour, scrunched between a woman with thick painted-on eyebrows and a gray-stubbled man wearing sunglasses. As the train emptied out the farther down we went, Anat opened her backpack, which was stuffed with towels. I showed her the sandwiches I’d brought. We swayed among the pressed suits, making funny faces at each other. As unseasoned members of the morning commute, we were extra alert. The train suddenly screeched to a halt and flung me into Anat, who jammed into someone else’s back. A woman trying to read the paper glared at us. Around 14th Street, a mass of people funneled out, and we finally grabbed two seats together.
I was up so late last night, Anat said. My dad was quizzing me on binary covalent compounds. I had to pretend I was taking the exam. She rolled her eyes. Who cares? I’m leaving anyway.
Anat’s father, a professor, got a job at Tel Aviv University. She would finish high school in a place so far away and foreign I couldn’t wrap my head around it. All I knew from the news was that there was unrest punctured by spikes of violence. Peace, whatever that was, was elusive. But I also knew from Anat’s family that people from Israel wore the country like a badge of honor. When I’d asked my father about the Middle East, pelting him with question after question, he finally said he’d never live there. He said we’re bad Jews anyway. But Anat said people aren’t very religious there either, they’re actually very secular. I didn’t know what to believe.
Don’t you have to fight in the army there? I asked now, tossing my knowledge out casually.
I don’t think I have to. She smiled. But maybe I’ll want to.
I tried to picture Anat in a drab, shapeless military uniform, an AK-47 strapped to her back, the butt disappearing into her tangle of copper hair. Her glass-green eyes separating her from everyone else. The hardest part to imagine was her taking orders from someone.
Which bathing suit do you have on? She pulled the collar of my t-shirt with the crook of her finger and peered at the blue crocheted bikini I’d found at the bottom of my drawer. She made a low hum of approval.
When Anat told me a few weeks ago that she was leaving, it was casually discarded in a rush of important bulletins—did you see Leigh Powell’s orange socks with that dress, do you want to see a movie at the Lincoln Plaza this weekend, I think it’s supposed to rain, my family is going back to Israel, I’ll have to see if I can pack my drums. She told me what her father had said to her, imitating his gruff, accented voice, dropping the articles. It usually made me laugh when she did that.
Well, she finally offered when I was silent on the other line. It’s not for a while. She didn’t tell me then how she’d cried afterward, how her father had told her that this was part of growing up, learning about yourself in another place.
After we hung up, I opened one of my yearbooks and stared at the faces of my peers. I didn’t really know any of them. I rarely talked to them. Instead, I could gaze at them from a distance through Anat’s amused, mildly disparaging eyes. When I got to my picture, I recognized the waiting-to-be-dazzled smile, the squinty-narrow eyes, the banana-curled hair, but it was like looking at another classmate.
The periods passed in my head—math, then gym—as the train hurtled into Brooklyn. I felt a rush, a giddy sense of panic, the farther we got from home. If we were caught, I knew the look my mother would give my father, as if my stupid ideas were his fault. I tried to push it out of my head. But then the idea occurred to me that I wouldn’t get into college because of this. I pictured reaching the lush grounds of a campus and being turned away. I wondered what the alternatives would be. I could come back home, get a job. Something vague, consumer experience consultant, like my cousin in Chicago did. Or maybe I could go to Israel. Anat told me once about something called a kibbutz, where you work on a slice of land and grow your own food and live with strangers who become like family. I pictured the two of us, strong and lean and baked by the sun, living in the countryside. I could see it.
Anat rested her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes. I watched as people filtered in and out at the Utica Avenue stop. The most amazing part of the city to me was this constant filtering, as if the world were one big turnstile. Sometimes I thought faces looked familiar, but then I forgot them as quickly as they had gone.
The train car hollowed out, and soon there were just a few men scattered around, maybe off night shifts, heads heavy on their chests. One sat across from us. His arms were crossed over his chest and his legs spread in a wide V. His mouth was slightly open, revealing a hard, brilliant set of teeth. His jeans were faded to almost white at the knees. He smiled at me. I tried to give him one of Anat’s barely discernable headshakes, a devastating flick of disapproval. But his lips just twitched with amusement.
Anat woke up just as he gave me a last, lingering look, before he stood to get off. She sat upright.
What’d I miss? she asked.
Are you sure?
Well, one of us had to stay awake.
In case what?
What do you mean?
Stay awake, or what?
Or we might end up on the eleven o’clock news, I said, borrowing one of my mother’s expressions.
Oh. Anat smiled, stretched her arms lazily. You’re such a worrier.
I thought of the call from Tommy, and felt ashamed for avoiding him. He liked me, he didn’t. If he did, he’d stop soon. If he stopped, that would be easier. I forced a smile. No worries here.
I’m hungry, Anat said. Where are we?
We just passed Euclid, I said, feeling the first pangs of an empty stomach. Math, gym, lunch.
Sunlight filled the car as the train charged above ground. We squinted, adjusting our eyes, craning our necks to get a glimpse outside. A plane flying out of JFK left a trail of white dust in the blue sky. We stepped off the train in Far Rockaway as if entering a different country, blinking, shading our eyes from the sun, scanning signs on the platform. It was deserted except for a few wooden benches. Trees in the distance had long changed colors, but the reds and yellows and purples were outlined in a thick, uniform gold. As the train rumbled away, I imagined this was what the suburbs sounded like—nothing. No sirens, honks, shrieks. The air smelled different, like crisp grass and saltwater, and the sun shone brighter, shot through our skin like a medicine.
We passed small yards squared in by wire fences and blocky, pastel-colored homes. We passed an empty hair salon and a Dollar Store and a deli with a cardboard cutout of a grinning chef holding a platter of sandwiches, a Dunkin’ Donuts where longhaired guys smoked outside.
We reached the beach and tried to spread our towels, but they flapped in the wind and crumpled like napkins. Shit, I didn’t think it would be so cold here, said Anat.
Yeah, I guess we’re by the water.
It’s, like, ten degrees colder than in the city. I don’t even think I can take my clothes off!
We finally got a towel open, Anat holding one end and I grabbing the other with my hands behind my back so I could sit on it as soon as the towel hit the ground. We inched closer and huddled, backs hunched, knees pressed to our chests.
This is crazy, I said, shivering.
I know, Anat said, I just wanted to do it before—
Before it gets cold again, Anat said sharply. Then, calmer, Isn’t it pretty like this, empty?
We gazed out at the vista, sparsely dotted with people slanted at different angles, as if the sky had just dropped them there. A man, oily with lotion, in orange trunks. A young mother with her toddler in a summery, wide-brimmed hat. A large woman with cropped white hair lying on her back on top of a giant towel, wearing sunglasses and a bathing suit with pineapples all over. Our eyes drifted to a couple very close to the water, their bodies tangled so you couldn’t tell where one started and the other ended. We could only make out the tops of their heads, her long dark hair and his short dark hair, which she’d grab onto. He whispered something in her ear and she threw her head back and laughed, and then they started kissing, hard, getting into it, like the beach was their sprawling bed. We started giggling, and then grew silent and serious before giggling again.
What if sand gets in their mouths? Look how wide he’s opening, Anat said.
They don’t even notice the tide is about to pull them in, I said.
Yeah, the water keeps coming closer. Oh my god.
Anat took off her clothes, revealing a lacy black bikini—I didn’t tell her it wasn’t really her style—and a constellation of birthmarks on her back that led to a larger one stretched over part of her shoulder. It looked like a work of art. She got up.
Where are you going? I asked.
I’m going to tell them to watch out, she said with a grin.
She strode over, her toothpick legs carrying her to the couple and the lapping blue-green water. She went up to them but then quickly changed course and splashed her feet.
Hey! the guy yelled. Find another spot of water, why dontcha!
Sorry! My friend and I were admiring you. But we thought you should know, you’re about to drown.
I shook my head. My father would say she had chutzpah. Watching her carry on a conversation, I realized that Anat could make friends anywhere. Then Tommy tripped back into my head—his careless, mussed hair, his chapped full lips, his feminine lemony scent. He seemed like the type who let his mother hug him. Would Tommy be my friend? What did friend mean, anyway? Was it something different now?
The thought of him made my nerves come back and tighten around my stomach. He’d kept calling me after that afternoon last week, but I told my mother to tell him I was busy and I’d see him at school. She’d gotten upset—Clara, don’t you want to talk to this boy? He keeps calling!
I just kept remembering that afternoon, replaying it in my head. Shame and more shame, that seemed to be the only reaction to losing my virginity. Was this something I’d actually feel good about one day?
Anat came back, dripping water. She sat down, practically on top of me.
Oh, come on. It’s just a little water. Let’s see that sexy bathing suit.
Begrudgingly I took off my t-shirt and jeans. You know, you have a nice body, Anat said matter-of-factly. You shouldn’t hide it.
I stared down at my breasts, vulnerable and pale, swaddled by the knit fabric, and felt more confusion and shame ooze out of me like pus from a pimple.
I had sex with Tommy Sills, I said.
What? she asked, confused. What do you mean?
You’re not the only one who knows and does everything.
What I really wanted was to tell her about being in his aunt’s apartment in East Harlem. About how he’d made a joke about her artwork, which featured lots of naked women. How while we made out, his gum found its way into my hair. How he very carefully extracted it without leaving a bald spot and then held it out for me to see, his face open and triumphant. How I’d had the urge to take the chewed wad and stick it in my mouth, but instead he flicked it away and took my clothes off.
Anat was staring at a fixed point somewhere in the distance.
Anat, I don’t—
Did he say anything about me? she asked casually.
You? I asked, startled.
He brought you up. Said that you always walk around like you have a power anthem stuck in your head.
She snorted. Tell him, next time you see him, I think he’s a chazer. He likes learning Yiddish.
I turned away, looked at the water. The couple wasn’t there anymore. I scanned the horizon, trying to spot them, see if they’d moved. Finally I just watched as the waves washed over the same smooth, dark plane of sand.
Tell him yourself, I said.
Without a word, we ate the sandwiches I’d packed. It was getting close to one-thirty, according to the watch I put in my bag. I ate my sandwich in three giant, messy bites, Anat in four slightly daintier ones. Afterward, we lay on our backs, sighing.
When I move, I’m going to eat fish every day, Anat said. I’ll be right on the Mediterranean.
I’ll eat so much hummus, she continued. It’s not even the same here. And I’ll go to the Dead Sea all the time. You can’t sink there. Only float.
I turned toward her. She looked like she always did, like she didn’t have a care in the world, that distant gaze infuriating but inspiring something in me, the need to know her innermost thoughts.
Who’s going to float with you? I asked.
I’ll find someone, she said. She removed a stray twig caught in my bathing suit.
Anat, I said, my voice shaky. The thought of being so easily replaced put me on the verge of tears.
Don’t ruin our beach day, she said. The water washed up closer to where we were sitting, leaving behind a film on the sand. The crashes that had been rhythmic and soothing now unsettled me. The sand made me itchy and irritated. I could feel it everywhere, in my bathing suit, on my skin, in my hair. I wondered if I would ever see anything beyond this shoreline.
So, are you going to tell me? she asked. How was it?
I don’t know, I said. Weird.
I had to change the sheets after.
What? Where were you?
At his aunt’s apartment. She was at her book club. We did it on her musty old bed.
Anat opened her mouth, but nothing came out. We burst into laughter at the same time.
Oh my god, she said. Tommy Sheets. What an amateur.
Tommy Sheets is full of shit, I said.
He should start his own dry-cleaning business.
Got come all over your comforter?
Take it to Tommy Sheets!
I smiled, watching her. She looked like herself again. The line etched between her brows had disappeared and the hard set of her jaw had softened. As another wave crashed, I was overwhelmed by affection for her. Still, I knew she was leaving, and that I would call Tommy Sheets, Sills, back. I wanted to hear his deep voice again. I churned with vague desire and anticipation and turned to Anat and grabbed her hand.
Come on, I said, let’s go in.
The water was freezing, but I plunged in anyway, letting the shock run along my body in one unbroken current. The air was still warm, but the sun was turning into a hard little nut in the sky, signaling late afternoon. I could feel Anat’s eyes on my back. She was waiting for a sign that it wasn’t a completely deranged idea to jump in after me. I was aware of every part of my body in cruel isolation, feet kicking, legs scissoring, arms circling. A voice in my head told me not to stop moving. I took a mouthful of water and spit it out above my head. I floated and then tumbled into a wave that sucked me in and spit me out on my stomach, where I drifted closer to Anat’s feet, which were sunken underneath a layer of sand.
Come on! I said. She had her arms crossed over her chest, covering her lacy black top. The saltiness sloshed around my tongue. She finally began walking toward me, and I began to swim farther out, until I could no longer feel the promise of sand underneath my feet. She kept coming closer. I kept moving away.
What are you doing? she yelled. Don’t go so far!
Come on! I said again. It seemed that the farther I drifted away, the more I was desperately searching for something that would anchor me to her.
Another wave came, starting a ways off and then gathering shape, but I was too far out to catch it and instead it slammed into Anat, knocking her off her feet. She tried to regain her balance, but she was suddenly thrown again. It had been hard to tell how strong the current was from the safety of the sand. I wasn’t even sure I could really swim in it either, but I was already far, past the first buoy that the lifeguards told you not to go beyond, and so I had to tell myself I could.
Anat! I screamed when I couldn’t see her.
She surfaced finally, and I tried to paddle my way over to her. The waves gained momentum, and by sheer luck I managed to ride one closer to shore. I used my last burst of energy to move quickly, thrusting my entire body forward so I wouldn’t get dragged back in. When I reached her, Anat was sitting on a patch of sand in a shallow area, water running up her legs. She was crying, quiet and alone.
Anat, I said, dropping next to her, wheezing and gasping, terrified and exhilarated. She was shivering. I put my arms, my whole soaking body, around her. With the waves in the background now, the crashes sounded like drums, growing more distant.
We held onto each other. A Parks Department officer patrolling the beach found us an unexpected distance from our towels and asked, with a mixture of concern and surprise, what the hell we were doing there, we better get back home, it was a school night and nearly winter for Chrissakes, the beach was closed.