Linda stripped bare and pulled on her navy striped two-piece, still damp from the day before. She put on a pair of shorts and one of her many thick cotton polos, the summer uniform that few at the country club strayed from. On her way out the door she paused at the gold leaf mirror that hung in the front entranceway, frowning at the flush of sunburn across her forehead.
Her flip-flops slapped against the concrete as she began the fifteen-minute walk to the club, a towel draped over one arm. Still five months shy of her sixteenth birthday, Linda did not have a license. She walked in the middle of the road, occasionally skirting the neatly trimmed lawns to let a car pass. The others would have been at the pool for the past hour or so; this had been the case all summer, as they had parents who wouldn’t let them sleep until whenever they pleased. This difference in schedules created an even greater distance, and lately Linda felt that her friends quieted when she arrived, as if they had been discussing her.
Linda shuffled by the familiar sequence of colonials with deep green shutters against white wood, plastic signs with their son’s football number pricking the soft grass. A child wailed like a police siren, a car trunk slammed shut. A lawn company pick-up passed, two men sitting in the truck bed, t-shirts roughly cut off at the shoulders. Sawn branches had been thrown haphazardly beside them, making it seem as if a tree had taken root in the steel truck body.
The country club comprised several tennis courts, a modest pool and a clubhouse that resembled a log cabin. Throughout the grounds were picnic tables and wooden lounge chairs where older town residents would fall asleep in the afternoon sun. Its appeal was its rustic, unostentatious seclusion. High hedges lined the club’s borders, and you could not be admitted unless you were sponsored by another family. Still, the wealthy members believed this was not the elitist country club of other suburbs — there were no sport coats required, no crystal stemware in the clubhouse dining room, no golf course.
Linda signed in at the front desk, making her name an indecipherable series of sharp upward pen strokes. The club was a part of her history: she learned to swim in its pool, had several failed tennis lessons on its courts, angrily holding her racket like a baseball bat in protest. One of its picnic tables was the only place she had ever seen her parents kiss, her mother leaning back into her father’s chest, her sun-browned face turned upwards at an uncomfortable angle to meet his mouth. They looked like Roman statues. Linda noticed the line of her father’s calves, her mother’s fingers cupping the weathered wood of the bench, their faces solemn, unchanging.
“For the love of God, stop picking at it,” a mother snapped at her young son as they walked from the fenced-in pool. The boy jerked his fingers away from a small, brown scab on his forehead, pushing his hands behind him in two fists, his mouth forming an exaggerated ‘O.’ Linda remembered asking her mother once why she had no brothers or sisters, and her mother responding that she couldn’t fathom going through the hell of having a young child all over again.
Emme and Lauren were at the far end of the pool by the diving board, their tanned bodies in the black bikinis they’d bought at the beginning of the summer to look more mature; the sorbet shades of last year now deemed unacceptable, the swimsuits of pre-teens. Scattered around the pool’s concrete edges were mothers and nannies lathering sunscreen on children, small bodies swaying from the heavy, insistent hand strokes; stick-thin middle schoolers splashing and screaming, and the obese Sullivan kid, sitting forward on one of the deck chairs, his back shimmering with sweat.
Linda noticed that the boy Kiel was there again, his hair wet, as if he had just gotten out of the water. He reminded her of a golden retriever; there was something canine in the shape of his skull.
“He’s here again,” Emme said as Linda dropped her towel on a deck chair. Kiel was two years older and came to the pool once every few weeks to do laps in one of the roped off lanes. They had never spoken to him, but often it seemed he was all they spoke about.
At high school, many of the girls were emphatic that Linda was not attractive.
“It’s not even that she’s not pretty, there’s nothing wrong with her, but her face is almost like a boy’s, I think. Handsome, maybe,” Emme had said at lunch — holding her fork upright as if to eat the air —when she thought Linda was out of earshot. .
Linda always found girls incredibly adept at describing the ways in which a pretty girl is not actually pretty. She saw this dissection as an art, a skill acquired after years of critical, cold observance. Inoffensive words take on an air of complete disdain: healthy means inelegant, American means bland, athletic means not thin, pretty means not beautiful. Older generations may not trip over these words, only other girls can hold them up to the light, see the different shapes they take, the cruel shadows.
“You smell like cigarettes, and you’re sunburnt,” Emme said when Linda sat down.
Lauren laughed as she picked at the ends of her hair, each strand the color of browned butter.
“I was practicing pitching in the backyard,” Linda said, touching her forehead to where the burn was. It was a gift Emme had, to zero in on any new flaw: bangs trimmed slightly too short, a loose seam on a sweater.
“Well, I mean, it’s not that bad,” Emme said, turning back to her magazine.
“It’s really not,” Lauren said, though she hadn’t looked up once from her split ends.
Their voices always flattened with insincerity; they couldn’t be bothered to be convincing, to truly put on a show. It was the same tone they took with parents, with teachers: I can’t participate in gym today because of my runner’s knee, her parents are going to take us, I don’t know what happened to the money you left on the counter. They had gotten less passionate in their lying with age, their eyes as unclouded and blameless as a deer’s.
Emme put on her oversized sunglasses, resting them on her slightly too small ears, ears that she always covered with her sheet of white blond hair. Linda snatched Lauren’s bottle of sunscreen from the concrete and began to rub it into her skin, noticing Emme and Lauren exchanging smirks out of the corner of her eye, as brief as a camera flash. She knew they were slowly pulling away from her, but each backward step was so minute she felt like there was nothing to do to stop it, no moment she could pause and ask, Where are you going? Who will I have when you’re gone?