The lake did not begin easily. For a foot it was sand and then five it was rocks and then after, it became sand again. This was the nearest beach. I was pulling off my bodysuit. On the hanger it had been crisp as a soap opera hospital. Yet when I’d pulled it on its color became oatish. This made me disconsolate in a minor way. Sasha was lying on the blanket already with her swimsuit on in the cool of my pulling shadow. There was no one watching us. At noon the lifeguards would come.
It was six am. On Saturdays we had learned a kind of petty subversion in rising early. No one on our floor interested us as much as we interested each other. Or, no one was as interesting as we were to ourselves while in each other’s company. Or, this is what I would identify about the early female friendships of my life, once in the amniotic safety of a long and secure partner relationship.
Sasha had bought her own bodysuit and an identical one for me. Though I was not often interested in trends I recognized this item from the bodies of even younger teenagers, who wore also shredded denim and hoof-blunt heels. I was not this sort of warrior. Rather, on, it made me feel like a fresh little gymnast: an occupation which I did not covet nor have any aptitude to fulfill. I pulled the item off; I stood in my underwear and bra top only, for I had not left the dorms knowing we would go to the beach. Yet Sasha was here in her two-piece and because of this I did not then speak to her. I did not make any further noise.
We had one or two hours until the joggers, another until the cyclists careening, four until the traffic was audible from Lake Shore Drive, whence roundabout the hordes would flush the park. Fraternities of adult men, reuning; families with Hibachis and multiple toddlers and perhaps a new puppy shambling and shitting; teen boys and their teen boy neighbors with their mini-PAs and lazy rap; couples with fantasies of hand sex in the water. But until the hordes we could lay as we liked.
While I had been stripping Sasha had shut off her presence with a nap. Her breath bellowed her navel. I was alone, and walked to the water. There was caution tape snapping where the land had crumbled between two bluffs. There was a pen of hurricane fencing around a still construction site. I wondered what were they building. Perhaps an additional restroom. My stomach pulsed with the thought.
The changing rooms back by the shore were locked overnight. I was not satisfied with what I perceived to be a cruel disregard for the many homeless in the area. Would it not be so bad for a teen lifeguard to occasionally scoop and vanquish an errant pile of shit, in exchange for some needing people to have somewhere to rinse their bodies and relieve themselves in privacy. Of course I did not think about the potentials of crime. I was young, not an activist, merely a worrier. I did not yet understand my role or who I was to the world, which was no one. I was standing near naked in the first foot of flat sand on the shore. I was gathering courage to cut up my feet a little before the open water.
But the pain was dull and lasted three moments. And then I was in space, I mean, in water, shivering and baring my teeth to the open sky. There was not a detectable living thing in the water. Save me. It was clear that I could see the birthmark on my thigh. I could move my limbs and meet no barrier, only the yielding cold softness of water. When I came up from under I smelled the rank floral of my shampoo, and then lay my cheek on the water’s surface like it and the lake were confidants. It lapped me.
The prior evening I—stubborn and invert—had gone to bed early, sleeping strongly through the fiestas, I imagined, snuffling on in resolute slumber. Yet now here in the body, in waking, in water, I yearned for a scrap of that night fun; ideated a large falls of sangria, under which I would stand, pelted sweetly by fruit, gulping, before unsticking in the cool clear water. Not even the seagulls, large as mailboxes, were yet swooping. Occasionally a boat ran along the horizon. The orange buoys nodded companionably in the middle distance. I was young and alone in my thoughts and action. Being nineteen was very much about thinking about being nineteen, that I can remember now.
For then I saw, out down along the far reaches of the bike path, earlier than scheduled, two slow forms, shirttails flapping like butt banners in the lake breeze. At their existence I surged and then scrabbled to shore, dripping on sleeping Sasha, and huffing in some unexpected delight.
She opened her eyes like a woken doll. “What?”
“There’s some guys down the path.”
Sasha shimmied her shoulders and addled her head and rolled her eyes and in this way she was for a moment only gestural choreography. I hummed.
“What?” she asked again.
“I was in the water.”
“You aren’t now.”
“Neither are you.”
“Great,” she said.
“Great,” I said.
So I sat beside her, ass-on-sand. It was then I saw that my underwear was reporting on a new scenario. Sasha saw it too.
“Moon time’s here,” she snorted.
Yet I went on sitting there like I didn’t have to work on some MacGyver feint.
It had seemed a fun, funny thing, leaving the dorms in our fresh white bodysuits and shoes and nothing else, a misplaced self-celebrity. Sasha had her ID card around her neck on the lanyard they’d given out at orientation. At this clumsy sartorial decision I had been astonished. I knew nothing of efficiency then, nor of prudence. I pulled the bodysuit back on.
For now our fun had a mote, or two. Increasingly my underwear and now the bodysuit accepted the red spreading. I had not been thinking, had only wanted to cover my breasts. “If you can find some tissues or whatever, I’ll give you my bottoms to get home in,” Sasha said. At this I ran my vision across the horizon and saw only the male figures, closer. They were passing the construction site with its hurricane pen. I saw that they seemed to be laughing and felt I could hear their laughs as well, scumbling the back of my neck.
“Maybe they have something.” Sasha was looking at them too. “Are handkerchiefs ever a thing now?”
From this shortening distance I could begin to see that the men were neither young nor old. As they approached I folded my hands ladily in my lap as cover. I closed my eyes and when I opened them the two men stood before us, talking.
They had thick slow tongues, like cough syrup in audible syllables. “Been such a long night it’s morning,” one of them explained to us.
“Shut up,” said the other.
One asked if we’d grown up near this lake and I said yes. It was a large lake, lapping four states. The lie seemed to hide me momentarily. I spread my fingers out like ferns, like fronds, across my crotch. The other betted we were strong swimmers then, weren’t we.
What can I say to describe these people who stood above us. They were men. In my memory it is as if someone has dissolved their faces into illegible forms, courtesy a caustic. Even in memory I cannot tell if they were at the time menacing or if it was merely that they were inebriated adult men, employed with their own manhood no matter how askew they found their current circumstances. A take-chargeness as opposed to a violence. Of course I did not like men then much at all.
Though I saw their whole bodies apart from us, not touching, the breeze had gone all electric prod. Their hover above us was insistent, rigid. I wanted them very far away.
“You guys should go in the water though,” I suggested while petting my earlobe.
“It’s really lovely,” Sasha said. Did she offer them a smile. Oh, probably. In younger years I myself was poor at smiling; later I no longer wanted to try. Now when my muscles pull I obey them.
“Will you come in with us?” one or the other asked.
“I won’t, but I bet she will,” Sasha said. “My hair.”
I shook my head such that my own hair lashed my face. It was still damp and sand coated its hanks like unbaked batter and I felt like a dog.
“Come on,” came a coo.
“Aren’t you getting hot?”
We looked at them and would no longer speak, only warming our eyes enough to goad them out.
Of course I still do not like men much though I like male people, male people who refer to themselves as men, but not the sociocultural idea of men, men, with all their freight, weight, and bluster. I have not yet figured on how I will relate to my toddler son this concept. I am hoping there will be a honeycomb panoply of identifications and presentations by the time the toddler is grown. I am a terrific conservative nightmare, or I pet this idea when confronted with the identifiable ills of capitalist democracy and all its inhuman disrepair.
When over evening salads or sandwiches Dan and I discuss the day’s news my spit turns bitter and yet I keep on jawing. I cannot stop myself, pedaling and paddling and attempting not to lose myself and my only life in the midst of so many men and their wayward decisions. Though when in bed Dan requests his wrists be tied together with his knee sock it takes me a minute before I submit.
And this is where I am then: on the beach with Sasha, in my white bodysuit, leaking uterine lining. So often I am there, watching the men remove their clothes. They ask us to watch them and jog to the shore. Their penises angle in air, their sacks trundling to and fro. Their white asses recede. They hop like hot oil on the sharp rocks. They sizzle and melt into the open water.
Once they are out in the lake, dreamy floating splinters of men, out and further out and drifting southerly as the waves rush, Sasha rises to inspect their piles.
In one pocket she finds keys. In another, keys. A watch neither valuable nor fashionable. One leather wallet, one canvas. Two cellular phones. My midsection is cramping darkly. The May heat is unfair. “Are they out there?” she asks. I tell her they are. They are, I suppose, but I do not look.
I am watching Sasha. She holds high a pair of boxer briefs. “For you,” she says, and I laugh like I think she is kidding. I take them, pick up her bodysuit, our shoes, watch her swipe and scoop with her long young arm the wallets and the phones. She nods and soon enough I run after. Her bodysuit is a streak of white behind us, a lying flag; my red crotch is the real thing.
I follow and continue to follow her, further off by Lakeshore Drive, where there is a new wildlife area in which dogs are not allowed because, the sign logics, dogs scare ducks. We steal in. The path is woodchips, and the frenzy of grasses deck themselves with purple flowers, and then black-eyed susans, and then the fretting of Queen Anne’s lace, purple yellow white purple yellow white, in a reliable, stylish pattern.
She pulls me down into cosseting grasses. I shut my eyes as if to make myself invisible. I am thankful for the way the white bodysuit is sticking to my wet skin, the cloth suckered as if protective. When I look up Sasha is squatting with the wallets and phones and making two piles. Duck-footed I watch the blood drip-collect below me, watch the ants begin their investigation. Sasha pulls on her bodysuit, seeing and sawing, still fisting the men’s cash.
We can hear the men coming now, their shouts. We hold hands. The shouts do not sound mean or blue, only pulsing, only carried on the breeze across the lake beach, only defeated. We pant. Sasha’s hand is slick and this surprises me.
“It’s getting worse,” I whisper, and point to where the ants are feasting with brandished mandibles. In response she makes a sight gag about the fist of money and my vagina. My own logic is scrambled. So like a dummy I take her seriously and hold out my hand for the fat stack but she stops me. “You’ll get lockjaw,” she breathes. “You’ll get scabies.”
Below me the ants clot with delight it seems. Flying things ricochet off our skins.
At this age I have never seen a horror movie in full. I have never watched a person hide behind bush or bed, for my entertainment.
When we no longer hear the men I take my underwear and shove them up like a dam. It feels somewhat like a sock in a mouth. Then I pull the boxer briefs on over the bodysuit. I am thus freshly made, pulsing with my pal’s petty theft. The elastic of the stranger’s underwear holds me certainly.
In the grasses we do not wait for so long. The men are still drunk, we think. They will not call the cops for their sotty assortment of ones and fives or their insured phones. Not on us. There is no sound of them on the breeze. I take an eye up above the nature area horizon. There are some joggers only. We take a stand! We are bold in our criminal fun, having made no promises or true transgressions. The men are no longer anywhere. This is a story we will tell ourselves. I think this as we take the alleys back to campus. Our flip pride cuts through the dumpster odor. We broach the campus border like we are a union that will last forever.
Amanda Goldblatt lives in Chicago, where she teaches creative writing at Northeastern Illinois University. The spring of 2018 has been dominated by Patricia Highsmith, particularly The Two Faces of January (1964) and Little Tales of Misogyny (1975), and her fascinating/maddening female archetypes. Amanda’s work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in NOON, Diagram, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. She is a 2018 NEA Creative Writing Fellow. More information is available at amandagoldblatt.com.