Tommy was infatuated with girls on the cusp of rebellion even though he always seemed to wind up being the whipping boy for their impulsive teenage acting out. Against mom, apple pie, the flag. So he was blamed for their pre-existing tats, piercings, and infatuations with weed or wine or prescription meds. The last two times had been disgustingly messy. One girl’s father, a Montgomery County cop, had threatened to shoot him. His life was fouled up enough without courting trouble like that. And yet, Tommy had spent the entire summer painting himself into brilliant corners where Jessica Hall was concerned. Every time he considered the consequences of asking his old buddy Chip’s little sis out he choked. Why? Her parents would freak of course. They’d lecture him and probably threaten to call the cops. His own folks would throw him out. Not that he hadn’t been that route before, but he was broke right now. Had nowhere to go. No car. And was honestly peeved that he was always blamed for the havoc that so-called goody two-shoes guys had wreaked before he even managed to get a girl’s phone number.
It had been a bad winter and Geeks on Call had let a lot of new people go. Tommy survived the first round of cuts, but was finally axed in the spring, and with the thaw moved back in with his folks. The move was a step backward in his eyes, one he felt labeled him a failure. He’d been down and depressed, looking for a cushy job that would cover his student loan and mounting credit card debt and allow him to get out of his folks’ hair ASAP—before they all killed each other. His parents, seeing his need to get away from the house, arranged for a family membership at the YMCA. Tommy complained bitterly about it at the time, but now silently thanked them. Because he’d just asked his old friend Chip Hall’s little sister Jessica out to the movies.
Tommy had grudgingly gone to the old YMCA pool a couple times. All of the young hard bodies made him feel ancient. He had to admit that he’d been studying so hard in grad school that he hadn’t exercised very much in the past three years. He knew he was flabby and soft. He contented himself with the occasional cannonball off the high dive during adult swim, swam a couple of lazy laps up and down the racing lanes, but was mostly content to watch the little kids squeal and play. Everything changed when he spotted a teal bikini flying toward him and heard a high pitched squeal, which Doppler-effected his name almost incomprehensibly past his ears, “TOMMMMMYYYYYYYYYY.” He was met with a wet and wiggly girl -- arms around his neck, legs around his waist. Damn.
“Tommy,” the girl whipped her wet hair back and kissed him. “Hello, hello. When did you get back? Does Chip know? Of course he doesn’t. He would have told me. Ohmygod, does he know?” She punched his shoulder. “You didn’t come see me.”
Tommy finally recognized Jessica’s coltish smile. He started to say something and thought better of it. “Great tan,” he managed and set her down on the wet concrete.
“Are you back for long?”
“All summer,” he lied.
“Good, good, good.”
Jessica’s friends were gathering around. She introduced them. Tommy weighed the combination of smiles, curiosity, and ill will. Most were awaiting his departure. He stayed. They all swapped the usual small talk, shared histories like they were Chinese takeout.
“Chip’s living in Catonsville with a Japanese girl he met in Wisconsin.”
News to Tommy. Chip had always been unpredictable and they’d lost touch once Tommy hit grad school.
“And how 'bout you?”
“Oh yeah, I’m going to Anne Arundel.”
Jessica said it like she wanted to tell him something important but Tommy felt the conversation slipping away and mumbled something about picking up a pizza sometime.
“Well, I could use a ride home if you’re leaving soon.”
“Sure, right now.”
Jessica met him at the locker room door in a floppy orange coverup, mirror shades, and sandals.
“It’s the blue Tercel over there.”
“Yeah, well . . . It’s my Mom’s car you know.”
Tommy wanted to say something memorable but his mind was blank. He felt stupid and creepy. Most of his women friends were married, divorced, and even re-married. In fact, most of the women his younger brother Alan’s age were married now. He was a college freshmen when Jessica was still in elementary school. This would never work.
He held the door for her and then she was telling him, “You know, I’ve always had a crush on you. I used to love talking with you when you came over to visit Chip.”
She leaned back. He studied the wrinkled fold of her leg where it joined the thigh and he wanted to stop the car. Jessica smiled, reached down, and moved the seat back as far as it would go.
“That was a million years ago. Your bro and I were still in high school.”
Jessica arched her thick eyebrows. Tommy’s mouth went dry. She’d been a cute kid who’d hung around outside Chip’s room eavesdropping on their every word. So, who was this sitting beside him?
She fiddled with his Smiths’ CD. Jumped back a few tracks to “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side,” and surprised him by singing along.
Tommy couldn’t believe she was really sitting there—vibrant, alive, a few inches away. The mirror shades made her inscrutable.
He parked in front of the old split level on the hill with the baby blue shutters.
“Well, thanks. Guess I’ll see you at the pool.”
Tommy started the car but sat there in park and watched her walk up the stairs. Jessica turned around and waved. She seemed glad that he’d watched her. She was flirting with him. Nah you’re being an idiot, she’s just a kid, she’s not that slick. On the drive home he glanced occasionally at the wet imprint her bikini had left on the seat.
Tommy stayed away from the pool for a few days. Too much stress. He called Chip and drove up to see him in Catonsville. Keiko turned out to be Korean not Japanese and was a taller, more imposing presence than he’d imagined. A practicing shrink it turned out.
They had a boozy dinner, shared common ground, and talked high school glory days, while she took them all in. It was mostly forgettable until Chip made some snarky comments about his little sis.
“Tommy here always had the hots for Jessica,” he almost snarled. It sounded like he was on some sort of federal fact-finding mission. He also sounded jealous.
Keiko slipped Tommy her business card. “If you ever want to talk about it,” she said. Tommy most definitely did not want to talk about it. Not now, or ever.
He asked Jessica out the very next day. Tommy watched for her teal trademark bikini amid the comings and goings poolside. Right when he was about to give up and go home, Jessica arrived like a cloudburst.
She waved but he stayed put until she walked over to his lounger.
“How 'bout that movie?” he said.
Jessica smiled and her blonde friend shook car keys and giggled.
“Sure. What time?”
“Pick me up around eight, okay?”
“Think your parents will mind?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”
Tommy changed in the mildewed locker room. He was both psyched and pissed off. He took a longer shower than necessary. Watched a little boy throw a near apocalyptic tantrum because he didn’t want to go home. Covered up when a middle-aged father brought his toddler daughter into the stalls. He realized he was putting off leaving as long as possible because his brother had needed the car and had dropped him off at the pool. He had to walk six blocks home and he’d never felt comfortable in shorts with his skinny too pale legs.
Tommy was finally coming out the door facing the pool when he heard Jessica’s voice. He hesitated. She was talking to the Ukranian lifeguard.
“What are you doing tonight?” the lifeguard asked.
“Got a date.”
“Alan Carpenter’s older brother, Tommy.”
The lifeguard laughed. “Old guy.”
“No, he’s not,” Jessica said.
“Twenty-five maybe. He went to school with my brother.”
The lifeguard reached around her waist and hoisted her effortlessly.
“Serious with him?”
“Are you kidding?”
“I come by later. Two a.m.?”
Tommy waited what he thought was a diplomatic interval and emerged from the locker room with a tight smile glued to his face. The lifeguard released Jessica and turned away but not before Tommy saw the smirk creeping over his face.
Jessica waved. “Don’t forget, eight o’clock.”
“I’ll be there,” Tommy said, but it came out hoarse. He hurried through the turnstile and thought he heard the lifeguard.
“Did he hear?”
And as Tommy pushed open the steel gate Jessica’s tenor answered as sweetly as ever, “No, of course not, silly.”
About the Author: Richard Peabody is a french toast addict and a native Washingtonian. That's native and not naive. He tries to find time for lit stuff when he's not chauffeuring his daughters all over town. He has two new books due out this fall--a book of poetry 'Speed Enforced by Aircraft' (Broadkill River Press), and a book of short stories 'Blue Suburban Skies' (Main Street Rag Press).
Story Song: "Carmella" by Beth Orton