Summer Babe

By Lauren Waterman

The summer that Courtney Love first recorded the lyric, “I fake it so real, I am beyond fake,” I was fifteen and working full-time as an assistant counselor at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center’s pre-school camp. My charges had to meet no minimum age requirement; instead, they needed only be potty-trained or, as I called it (whilst reprimanding an errant pee-er’s harried parent at pick-up), housebroken.

My sister Rachel was almost twenty, technically an adult. She was halfway through an undistinguished undergraduate career at an overpriced Midwestern safety school, “majoring in history,” as she said, “with a concentration on the Holocaust.”” (That peculiar-sounding and oft-repeated formulation always prompted me to picture her, eyes closed and rubbing her temples, in the middle of a keg party, wholly focused, if only for a few seconds, on Himmler, or Bergen-Belsen.) Plan A, for her, had been a New Jersey shore house shared with seven or so sorority sisters—she’d pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma, which our mother told me was also known by the less-than-flattering sobriquet Visa Visa MasterCard—but when our father declined to bankroll her beach budget, she’d joined me at the JCC.

Neither one of us was particularly fond of children, but we did like camp. I, at least, got to spend a not-insignificant portion of my day ankle-deep in a turquoise wading pool; Rachel, old enough to counsel adolescents, was looking forward to an end-of-summer field trip to the local roller coaster park, of which I was enduringly, achingly jealous. I was also envious, albeit less openly so, of her frequent and prolonged contact with boys: Because the three- and four-year-olds were almost completely segregated from the rest of the camp, the only counselors that I got to interact with on a regular basis were Esther and Deb, the pair of middle-aged (or so I thought at the time—they were probably thirty) mothers who ran the pre-school program.

Every morning, my sister slung her leg across the corner of the console sink and stood, half-naked and flamingo-like, for the better part of an hour, pulling her shoulder-length blonde hair straight under a dryer. When she had achieved the approximate texture and consistency of cotton candy, she’d set her brush aside and line the inside of her lashes with a thin black pencil. Back then, I regarded this elaborate toilette as irrefutable proof that I was somehow better than her, but, in truth, I was almost exactly as vain about my own appearance; my equally rigid evening regimen, meant to “naturally” encourage curls that I could easily have attained with a simple spiral perm had it only still been 1989, involved drip-drying my uncombed hair while lying flat on my back across my double bed, my head hanging upside-down off the mattress.

I was situated just so, reading a paperback, on the night my sister told me that Patrick Gallagher had asked her out. “Actually,” she said, licking her left index finger and then pushing the cuticle down with her right thumbnail, “he invited both of us. Leah?”

I’d sat up too fast, and as the blood rushed away from my brain I was hit with a thrilling, nauseating wave of dizziness; I had to lie back down. “Which one is Patrick?” I asked, even though I knew—he was the cutest of the very few counselors that one or the other of us hadn’t known since Hebrew school. I’d seen him at the Monday morning meetings, bouncing one of those small, marbled-rubber balls—he could get it clear up to the ceiling and back without losing control.

“Soccer,” Rachel said, her concern draining away as she watched me steady myself. “Seventh-grade guys.”

“And what is it he wants us to do?”

“He wants me to go on a date. For you, I guess, he has a friend or something.”

“Sounds scintillating. Isn’t he a little young for you?”

“Jesus Christ, Leah, he’s eighteen. Don’t be such a bitch. Will you come?”

“Oh sure,” I said. “Now I’m definitely on board.”

She ignored my sarcasm and focused on my words, since they contained, after all, the assent she’d been looking for. “Great,” she said, pivoting. “Get dressed. They’re picking us up in an hour.”

*   *   *

Patrick opened with a Jewish joke, which to me seemed ill-advised. “I’m glad you girls were able to make it out,” he said, “even though it’s The Sabbath.” He pronounced The Sabbath in a low, ominous whisper, the way a movie trailer voice-over might say, Judgment Day.

“Technically, we’re only half-,” Rachel replied.

The friend, who’d been introduced as T, laughed. He’d already spent what seemed like a long time looking at my (decidedly non-Semitic-looking) sister, and now, as we approached Patrick’s Jeep, he turned his appreciative gaze, only very slightly dimmed, towards me. “I guess that explains it,” he said.

Assisted by Patrick, who’d offered his hand, Rachel stepped daintily into the front seat. Meanwhile, I placed an espadrille-clad foot on the Wrangler’s big back tire and grabbed the padded center pole, hoisting myself—gamely, I hoped—over the side. T, belatedly realizing that he, too, should offer to help, rushed forward and extended his hands into the air, floating them about three-and-a-half inches below my butt.

“I gotcha spot,” he assured me.

“That’s okay!” I said, too loud. I was wearing Rachel’s denim miniskirt, and I knew that there was no way, from that angle, that he couldn’t see my underpants. I sat down fast, tugging at the skirt’s fraying hem.

The Jeep featured an abbreviated bench-style backseat upon which we were a pretty tight fit; nevertheless, T did his best to allow me my half, dislodging the safety-belt fastener from somewhere beneath him and holding it at a polite angle while I buckled up. As we drove off, I raised my heels and tensed my legs so that my freshly-shaven thighs would look as thin as possible.

“Where’s the party?” Rachel asked.

“There’s a party?” I echoed.

“Doesn’t your sister tell you anything?” Patrick said. Something about his tone made me wonder what else Rachel was so famously not telling me. She depressed the button on the dashboard cigarette lighter and began rummaging through her rattan bag.

“It’s cool,” T said. “Pat never gives me details either. Just the when, and, if I’m lucky, the where.”

“Are you guys related?” It seemed impossible. Patrick was blonde, blue-eyed, and lean, with muscular legs and a long torso. T was tall and broad-shouldered, with black hair and a crop of incipient stubble just below the surface of his slightly-scarred skin.

“Practically,” T said. “Our moms are best friends.”

“Let’s not talk about Jeanne and Mary-Beth,” Patrick said.

The lighter popped out, and my sister pressed the glowing coil against the end of a Marlboro Red. She passed it to Patrick, then lit another for herself. “Do you smoke?” she asked T politely, twisting in her seat to offer him the pack.

“Do you?” I asked. She scowled.

T glanced at me and shook his head. “Not tonight,” he said.

Part Two

Twenty minutes later, Patrick turned into a 7-Eleven parking lot. I started to stand, but Rachel, reapplying her lip-gloss in the passenger-side mirror, saw me and said, “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m just running in to grab some beer,” Patrick explained.

“I know,” I lied. “I want a Slurpee.”

“You can’t go,” Rachel said. “You look twelve.” She plunged the pink-tipped applicator back into the tube and decisively twisted the cap.

“She does not!” T protested.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I’ll get you one,” Patrick offered. “What flavor do you want?”

He was being nice, but I knew what it meant: He agreed with Rachel. I was, of course, accustomed to viewing my youth as a liability—especially that summer, when I spent so much time surrounded by literal babies—but it still stung. “Forget it.”

I’ll grab it,” T said. “Cherry?”

Rachel laughed.

As soon as the boys had passed through the store’s plate-glass door, she turned around. “Charming.”

“Likewise.”

“What’s your damage? Do you not want to be here?

“I don’t even know where we’re going,” I reminded her.

“Neither do I. Who cares? Don’t be so uptight. T’s cute,” she added, in an attempt at being conciliatory. “He looks kind of like Keanu Reeves.”

I exhaled, a little half-laugh.

“You don’t think?”

A station wagon pulled into the space beside ours, and a woman wearing sweatpants and a pair of enormous diamond earrings got out. She looked carefully at Rachel and me, as if evaluating us, and then strode towards the 7-Eleven, waving a keychain remote behind her to lock the Volvo’s doors. I was surprised to notice that she’d left a curly haired toddler asleep in the backseat; unconscious, he clung tightly to a plaid, fuzzy blanket that bore a flattened bunny face.

“There’s a boy at camp,” I began, “named Adam—”

“There’s about a million boys at camp named Adam,” she said. “Haven’t you noticed?”

There was only one Patrick. I’d noticed that.

“Listen,” I said. “That’s not my point. There’s a three-year-old, named Adam, in my morning group, and every single day his mom packs a silver Speedo for him to wear during swim. He calls it his wetsuit.”

“Gross.”

“What’s gross?” Patrick asked. He’d reappeared, carrying two cases of Bud. T held a third, atop which he’d balanced a football-sized Slurpee.

“Leah,” Rachel said.

“One of my campers, actually.”

“Whatever it is, I’ve got worse,” Patrick promised. He and T loaded the beer into the trunk and slammed the door, loud enough to wake the baby in the next car. I watched as his expressive little face cycled rapidly from drowsy confusion to panic to outrage. “I’ve got a kid who thinks it’s cool to pick his nose and chase all the other kids around the soccer field with his finger, threatening to wipe snot on their necks,” Patrick said. “Apparently, he’s on a little Ritalin vacation.”

“I hate that,” Rachel said.

“What is that?” T asked. He climbed into the car and passed me my cup, which was big enough around that I needed both hands to take it.

“Their parents pull them off their meds for the summer,” Patrick explained. “They figure they don’t have to concentrate—or act like human beings—since they’re not in school.”

“The worst,” Rachel said.

Patrick started the Jeep, which caused the kid in the adjacent car to wail even louder. As we pulled out, I peered into the 7-Eleven and saw the mom at the register, buying a box of wine and a Big Gulp.

“Pat,” T said. “Man. I do not understand why you took that job.”

“I get to be outside.”

“Yeah, you do,” T agreed. “But you know what I never have to deal with at work? Fuckin’ boogers.”

“I’ve got a girl that won’t stop staring at my tits,” Rachel volunteered. Naturally, this prompted both Patrick and T to take their own not-so-stealthy looks. “I have to change for Swim in a toilet stall.”

“What are you doing this summer?” I asked T.

“Beeper repair,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“It’s mostly soldering. Connecting one little piece of metal to another. Like in an assembly line, at a factory.”

“So all the beepers are always broken in the exact same place?”

“I guess so. Hey,” he said, tapping the domed plastic lid of my cup. “You know what those are good with?”

“Watermelon Now-and-Laters,” I said automatically.

T laughed. “Probably,” he said, “but that’s not what I meant.” He leaned down and extracted a small bottle from under Patrick’s seat. Vodka. He unscrewed the cap and started to tip it into my drink, angling the bottle through the hole in the lid, past the signature shovel-shaped straw.

“Wait.”

“No?” he asked.

“It’s just . . . too big, right?”

“Good thinking.” He took the cup from my hands, removed the top, and held it over the side of the car, dumping a few fire-engine-red ounces onto the hard asphalt of Lee Highway.

“Christ, T!” Patrick said, swerving. “What the hell?”

“You car’s fine,” T said. “Don’t worry about it.” He poured the vodka into the cup and replaced the lid, jiggling it a few times to mix the contents. “All set,” he said, passing it to me.

Gingerly, I took a sip.

“I can’t even taste it,” I announced.

“Yeah,” Patrick said, glancing at me in the rearview mirror, “that’s pretty much the point.”

*   *   *

It’s not exactly unheard of, I was aware, for two sisters to take an interest in the same boy. Even if for some reason I hadn’t had access to a television, or listened to Top 40 radio, I would have known that—Rachel and I had long since learned the story of our biblical namesakes in Hebrew school.

Even at eight, I identified with Leah. Yes, the birth order was off, but everything else seemed to fit. I couldn’t really imagine how she must have felt—being switched in for her better-looking sister at the last minute, her father having to trick a man into taking her—but it made me flush to think about it. As I sat there in Judaics, watching Adam Goldberg and Eric Sprung shoot folded paper footballs across the table at each other every time Mrs. Siegel turned her back, I wondered if my parents had known. The name I’d loved suddenly felt like a curse.

But it hadn’t yet happened to Rachel and me. We were far enough apart in age, of course, that we didn’t attend the same schools, but it was more than that: I never thought her boyfriends were cute. We didn’t even like the same stars. She’d paste up posters of the pretty-faced lead singer, the clean-cut heartthrob; I’d scavenge the off-brand teen magazines in the back of the supermarket for small, un-posed pictures of the hero’s second sidekick, the too-skinny bassist. I guess I didn’t want to have to compete with her, even in our fantasy lives. It wasn’t until later—much later—that I realized: I wasn’t only scared of losing. I was equally afraid to win.

Part Three

The party, such as it was, consisted of seven of Patrick’s white-hatted University of Virginia fraternity brothers—T, it turned out, went to Tech—plus a lopsided ping-pong table that had been set up in the corner of a semi-finished basement in Centreville. Patrick introduced us as “Rachel and her sister Leah,” and led us around the room in an awkward little circle; it was the first time that anyone even remotely near my age had tried to shake my hand. Four of the boys were playing beer-pong, and they invited us to sub in. I said no at the same moment Rachel said yes.

“That’s okay, you can be the umpire,” Patrick told me.

“Or the ball girl,” Rachel suggested.

I perched atop a too-tall barstool and sipped my spiked Slurpee, engrossed, in spite of myself, by the sight of my usually un-athletic sister dominating the tilting table like a blonde, beer-guzzling Jennifer Capriati. Patrick was good, but she was better: When she served, the pocked plastic sphere seemed to hang in mid-air like a bumblebee, waiting for her to swat it straight into T’s cup. She had acquired this skill at college, I realized—there’d been no trace of it six years earlier, when we’d taken a course of semi-private lessons with the frustrated tennis pro at our grandparents’ country club. Back then, we’d giggled helplessly, missing backhand return after backhand return, united in a shared ineptitude so unshakeable that it felt, somehow, genetic.

I stood, suddenly unsteady, and started towards the staircase at the center of the cellar. I wanted to ask where the parents were, but I still wasn’t sure whose house we were at. Instead, I climbed the steps and pushed hesitantly against the door at the top, which opened into a darkened kitchen. The powder room was around a corner—I closed and locked the door behind me before turning on the light.

The walls were covered with toile-printed paper, an endlessly repeating pattern of vaguely colonial-seeming toddlers frolicking on seesaws, interspersed with lost-looking mini-flocks of downy-coated lambs. I considered splashing my face, but settled for turning the tap to “C” and letting the water run over my upturned wrists. Inspecting myself in the mirror, I was surprised to see that my entire mouth had turned the color of a stop sign. I placed my cup in the wastebasket on my way out.

T was in the kitchen, indifferently examining the contents of the pantry; the lights were still off. “Hey,” he said, extending towards me a half-eaten bag of cheese popcorn. “Smartfood?”

“Don’t need it.”

“Oh yeah?” He set the bag back on a shelf and leaned in close enough that I could smell his beer-scented breath. “Are you a smart one?”

“Is T your real name?” I asked. “What does it stand for? T.J.?”

“T.J.?” He laughed. “No. That stands for something else.”

“I know,” I said defensively. “Thomas Jefferson. That’s my school.”

“Oh yeah?” He squinted. Jefferson is a magnet school, ostensibly focused on science and math, but pretty much everyone from Fairfax County’s various gifted and talented programs applies. “You are a smart one.”

“Whatever.”

“It’s a nickname, short for T-Bo.”

“T-Bone?”

“Thibault.” He spelled it. “Don’t you speak French?”

“I take Spanish.”

“Well, my mother is French-Canadian.”

“Oh.” And, because I was way past tipsy and had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to say next, I added, “Whose isn’t?”

He laughed again, almost as though I’d made a real, functional joke. Then he encircled my wrist with his calloused fingers and tugged, pulling me into the pantry, which was roughly half the size of the walk-in closet in my parents’ bedroom.

“You’re cute,” he whispered. “I mean, beautiful.”

“No.”

He kissed me, as if to prove it.

Curious, I kissed him back. It felt different, somehow, from the kissing I’d done before. Compared to the half-Korean junior varsity lacrosse player I’d “gone with” for eight weeks the previous spring—a semi-enlightened fellow ninth grader who seemed to want to respect my sexual limits more than he actually did, as evidenced by the fact that his much-professed willingness to wait was frequently undercut by assertions that it would be easier for him to do so if I would only name a date, preferably in the not-too-distant future, upon which I finally would feel comfortable engaging with the contents of his home-game uniform—T’s demeanor was downright languorous. With the tip of his tongue, he traced the seam between my lips in a way that made me want to part them.

It wasn’t until he released my wrist and moved his hand to my neck, draping it lightly across the nape in what struck me as a perversely romantic gesture, that I recalled where I was: in someone else’s mother’s kitchen, making out with a boy I’d only very recently met. I pressed lightly against his chest and opened my eyes—they’d adjusted to the dimness, but I felt disoriented nevertheless. “What about Patrick?” I asked, as though he was my boyfriend, and T and I were both betraying him, albeit to varying degrees.

“What about Patrick?” he said, his smile abruptly flattening.

I covered: “What’s up with him and Rachel?”

“I don’t know,” he said, after a beat. “They switched to ping-pong.” He turned to leave the pantry and I followed, trying to discern whether my question had permanently severed the apparently fragile string that our minutes of kissing had stitched between us; I also wondered whether I’d wanted it to.

*   *   *

Rachel had, in fact, abandoned the ping-pong table entirely—it wasn’t clear whether she’d vanquished all challengers or simply gotten bored—and was seated next to Patrick on a dilapidated little loveseat made of rust-colored velvet. I could tell by the appraising way she looked at me that my absence, and T’s, had been noted. “Where were you?” she asked.

“Upstairs,” I said, keeping my voice steady and my gaze straight, a pointless attempt to seem as dignified as possible. It reminded me of when we were little, and our father encouraged us to settle all our petty backseat disputes by staring contest; nine times out of ten, she won.

Patrick’s friends were clustered on the far side of the basement, near a refrigerator that still had a plastic-wrapped warranty scotch-taped to its door. The beer was in there, and they oriented themselves around it like they were gathering around a hearth. One of them—a tallish one, wearing a royal blue t-shirt with the word Marshall written across it—was recounting the trials and tribulations of a person called “the Dooch,” and the others were laughing uproariously. For just a second, my theretofore-unshakeable faith in the coolness of Patrick Gallagher faltered. Then I turned towards him, and was surprised to see that he was looking at me.

“Hi,” I said.

“We’re leaving,” Rachel announced.

“They’ve got a Jacuzzi,” Patrick told T.

It took me a minute to figure out that he was talking about us.

Part Four

Our mother hated it when Rachel let boys get into the hot tub wearing their boxer shorts—ostensibly, something about the residual detergent in the fabric bubbling up the filters. She’d gone so far as to leave a few faded pairs of our father’s old trunks on a shelf above the washing machine, but Rachel would rather get yelled at the next morning than ask Patrick and T to put them on.

In my room, I changed into the bottle-green swimsuit I’d been wearing all summer—I was still a year away from buying my first two-piece. I could hear my parents’ television set mumbling through the wall. When I went downstairs, I found Rachel standing in the kitchen in a turquoise triangle-top bikini, a towel wrapped around her hips. Meanwhile, I’d replaced my entire outfit, including my shoes.

“You’re not coming in?”

It was obvious that she wanted me to, so I thought about saying no. Instead, I tugged on the neckband of my T-shirt, exposing a spaghetti strap.

The boys were outside, sliding the cover off the hot tub and leaning it against the side of the deck; they’d folded their clothes and stacked them neatly atop their sneakers. Shirtless, they were as dangerously compelling as a solar eclipse—I couldn’t look directly at them, but I couldn’t look away, either. I realized then that I’d miscalculated: Removing my skirt and shirt—undressing, really—in front of them would be infinitely more embarrassing than simply dropping a towel. I shut my eyes and stripped as quickly as possible, then stepped into the tub, exhaling only when the bubbles bumped against my clavicle. T passed me a beer.

“Nice setup,” Patrick said. He scanned the backyard, which sloped towards the sparsely wooded creek that, as kids, we’d regularly dredged for inky, apostrophe-shaped tadpoles. “It’s just you guys?”

“And our parents,” I replied.

“Duh,” Rachel said, rolling her eyes at me.

“I meant siblings,” Patrick explained.

“I had a sister,” Rachel said, “but she’s dead.”

Stop,” I said. I angled the word down the neck of my bottle, then took a sip. The beer tasted bitter in my mouth.

“What happened?” Patrick asked.

“She was my twin,” Rachel said. “We were born really early, and she didn’t make it.”

“Whoa.” T brushed my thigh with the backs of his fingers; a tentative, underwater version of taking my hand. I’d positioned myself so that a jet was aimed squarely at the center of my back, but the pressure was starting to make me itch.

“I’m hot,” I complained. No one listened.

“I almost died too,” she continued. “I spent a month in the hospital, in a box. They shaved my head and stuck tubes in it—I still have a little dent, right here.” She ran her hand through her hair, fingering a bald spot above her ear that I knew was no bigger than a dime. “It was, like, really bad.”

“Yeah,” I said, mimicking her, “but wasn’t Rebecca’s situation, like, totally worse?”

Rachel, who’d been gazing picturesquely off into the middle distance, snapped towards me with a suddenness that would have seemed almost snakelike if it hadn’t been so spastic—her arm flailed out, palm first, pushing a miniature wave of warm, frothy water into my face. “Screw you,” she said. Stunned, I glanced at Patrick—he and T were looking at each other, their expressions studiously blank.

“I hate it when you talk about Rebecca,” I sputtered, my eyes stinging. “You always act like it’s some big loss, your dead twin.” For the first time, it occurred to me that I had as much claim on Rebecca as Rachel did. “You always think she would have been just like you, the sister you really wanted. But you were fraternal. Maybe she wouldn’t be anything like you. Maybe, if she’d lived, she would have been exactly like me!” I polished off my beer in two big swallows and released the bottle, letting it bob drunkenly along on the water’s surface. Watching it, I felt my stomach turn.

I looked down, steadfastly avoiding eye contact, and I could see the dewberry-scented lotion I’d so arduously applied only a few hours before swirling off my legs in a series of nearly-invisible little rainbow-tinged eddies. It was oil-based, I guessed. Our mother, exasperated by the endless adolescent-era skirmishes over bathroom time, chore distribution, and the remote control associated with the living room television set, had once compared us to oil and water, only to be instantly overcome by what seemed, to me, like a sudden spasm of misgiving. “Not that oil and water can’t get along,” she’d added, somewhat nonsensically. “Like salad dressing! Shake them up, and they make each other better.”

Well, I felt pretty darn shook.

Part Five

Objectively, it was a blip. I bet Rachel doesn’t even think about it. But the events of that night tested—and, to me, ultimately served as the best possible argument for the permanent ratification of—the unspoken treaty we’d been hammering out in bursts ever since I learned to walk. We’d spent years endeavoring to divide nearly everything in our world into two simple categories: Hers, and Mine. But Patrick seemed like an outlier, a thing that didn’t quite fit. Yes, he was handsome in that clean-cut, polo-shirted way that she usually went for. But he was also younger, nearly as close to my age as he was to hers and—for some stupid reason—I wanted him. It was a brainless teenage desire destabilizing enough that, thereafter, we kept our heads down and redoubled our efforts.

All that relentless sorting led to some unpredictable results. She got: Straight Bs, lipstick, the Dave Matthews Band, a bland, high-paying corporate position, a chic condo in Adams Morgan, wealthy suitors, and, finally, an engagement ring that cost more than I make in a year. Whereas I got: High SAT scores, an Ivy League education, bangs, almost-literally-starving artist boyfriends, and a “day job” copy editing legal briefs which theoretically freed me to focus on my “real” calling, a gig playing keyboards in a once-promising Baltimore-based indie-rock band whose career peaked, unfortunately, with an appearance on the inaugural season of “Last Call with Carson Daly.” Over the years, I’d had ample opportunity to consider whether my near-obsessive avoidance of anything I thought she’d claimed was really serving either of us. But I stayed the course, again and again.

*   *   *

“Let’s all calm down,” Patrick said. He sounded like a camp counselor.

“I can’t,” I admitted.

“I need a cigarette,” Rachel said. She stepped out of the tub and T—the alleged nonsmoker—stood up and started after her. “Right,” he said.

Patrick watched, seemingly nonplussed, as they proceeded through the chemical-coated grass towards the other side of the house. They were heading for the driveway, I figured, which was about as far as you could get from our parents’ bedroom while still remaining on our property. I’d begun to think that I, too, could use a break from being slowly parboiled; I couldn’t sit in the 104-degree water for longer than ten minutes without getting lightheaded, but I’d been reluctant to retreat to my usual tub-side perch because it would have meant exposing my body to the boys.

“I know it can be hard,” Patrick said, after Rachel and T had vanished. “I’ve got an older brother, and it’s pretty much the same thing. Except,” he added, smiling, “more punching. But you’re going to be fine, I can tell. It’s completely obvious. And . . . I think you’re going to be really pretty.” He paused. “Right now, I bet, you guys just have too much in common.”

At his words, the feeling of nausea I’d been fighting for at least a quarter-hour overtook me. I leaned forward, certain I was about to vomit, and instead dunked my entire face into the water. I was, I swear, just about to sit up again when I felt Patrick, his lifeguard arms around me, pulling me out of the tub.

“Rachel!” he stage-whispered, arranging me on the deck’s hard wooden slats. “Leah?”

After a minute, I opened my eyes: He was leaning over me, his face very near mine, his right hand on my shoulder. Inadvertently, he’d hooked his thumb under my bathing suit strap. “Hey,” he said. “Are you okay? I think you fainted.”

I lifted myself just a few inches, sliding my elbows under me for support, and—without giving him time to retreat—I pressed my mouth to his. His lips were rough and dry, like a cat’s tongue, but his eyelids fluttered closed. Then, suddenly, they snapped open again. He looked over his shoulder at the same second I did, and there she was. My sister. She didn’t look stricken, or surprised, as I might have expected. Instead, there was a close-mouthed expression of grim acceptance etched into her beautiful face. She looked at me, I thought, like we finally understood each other.