Our second place winner for the 2015 literary contest is below.
It was the wrong time to kiss her, but I did it anyway. There on the beach, Lenore lay beneath me in the sand, where we were both soaked from the oncoming waves. Her lips were so slippery that I could hardly keep hold of them, clumsy and biting, and our dresses had ridden up so high around our waists that dirt was scraping our backs and thighs.
Soon the waves rushed at us so hard that they tore us apart. For a moment I went rolling beneath the surface, alone, my throat choked up with water, salt burning my eyes. I came up, gasping, to find Lenore sitting cross-legged across from me, only slightly out of breath. She was staring solemnly at me — no, past me — and her eyes looked black even in the foggy daylight. And the look on her face, like she felt nothing, made me realize what I should’ve always known: there was never going to be a right time to kiss her.
I pulled her into a too-late, ill-fitting embrace. I started to shiver from the cold of being dampened, but she didn’t move to hold me back, to absorb my shock. In reality, she didn’t owe me anything, and besides, tomorrow, she was getting an out: a one-way trip to Europe on a plane where I was not to follow.
There was never going to be a right time to kiss her, but this time was especially wrong, because her papa had just passed. Moments before I asked her to follow me to the beach, “because I need to talk to you, please,” she and I were at the wake.
Lenore was set on calling it all the “celebration of his life,” urging family not to be disheartened. Her papa was sick for nearly a decade, so she knew, with peace in her heart, that any day could be his last. When that day came, she was not devastated. He outlived the doctor’s predictions for years, and for that reason, the services she planned for him were uplifting.
The wake was taking place at a country club in Coronado, the patio overlooking the dark ocean, the pale sky, and the white grains of sand. There were about a hundred black-cloaked people, mostly distant relatives, drinking champagne, eating hors d’oeuvres and leaving roses on the closed casket. I was known among Lenore’s family for my “hard-ass poker face” and “monotone voice,” Lenore’s words not mine, but that day, I couldn’t keep it together. I was jittery, a wreck, and it showed.
I hadn’t spoken to anyone, and was wandering in circles by myself in a corner of the patio. This funeral had me undone, not just because of her papa, who I had fond memories with, too: running and playing tag on her block, just the three of us, feet being scorched on the asphalt as we went back to her, to a home-cooked meal: shrimp ceviche, corn tortillas, and mango salsa.
But also because, in a way, Lenore was dying to me, too. I couldn’t stop staring at my best friend as she walked along the patio, not because of some angst-filled, romantic longing — or at least, not all because of that — but because she had been so still, so calm, and so happy throughout her papa’s passing that it almost disturbed me.
She looked more like the host of an upscale party, entertaining guests, her black-lipped smile never out of place. Probably telling her papa’s friends her acceptance into Cambridge on a full scholarship, the Master’s degree on the horizon, and I kept asking myself, what’s wrong with her? Or more like, what isn’t wrong?
I knew how much she loved her papa, how she spoke of him being her heart, and the reason she got through school. But despite the pain she must’ve felt — or had she felt any? — she was the most composed person on the premises.
And she isn’t even dying,I kept telling myself, pendajo. Why did I feel like this was it, like she wasn’t going to come home once or twice post-graduation? Like I couldn’t write her letters while she was there, although I doubted she would ever reply, if I did.
Lenore was grown now, physically so graceful and different from the scraggly-haired teenager, the scrawny girl who I remembered from childhood. So different from me, Carmella, former chola and professional flight risk who leeched off her for life.
I wanted so badly to be close to her, to be like her, and to follow her, around the wake and to Europe, like a lost child. When she returned one day, in years’ time, to find that nothing about me had changed, would she go away for good?
I grew up alongside Lenore, next door neighbors in East L.A. since birth, and to say I had a crush on her would be an understatement. I was obsessed with my best friend, wanting to be with her every minute and copying everything she said; she was my whole life. Until I was thirteen, anyway; at that age I was forced to move to Guanajuato for high school, as my mother wanted to be with my father, and he wouldn’t come to America. My life in Mexico, separate from her, was rough, and my parents always thought it was wrong, the way I felt about girls; Lenore, who I was supposed to consider family, especially.
And Lenore never wrote to me during those years I was away, even though I wrote her and she had my address. But when I was eighteen, and could choose my own path, I left my parents, penniless, returned to California. Took a risk, took a Greyhound, and wrote to her fleetingly with a time to meet me, and somehow, she showed up.
So she has been getting all my letters, I thought that day. She’s just been choosing not to respond. It didn’t matter though, because she was there now: standing in the bus bay all grown up, her black hair pressed flat, a soft, pink lipstick spread across her closed-lipped, all-knowing smile. I bet she’s had a lot of boyfriends, I thought as she hugged me, and greeted me like family. I was right.
If I’d thought she was beautiful then, I had no idea what I was in for next. Four years later we were living together, and I had no family to speak of but her and hers. My parents hadn’t tried to contact me once since I skipped Guanajuato. As I stayed in Lenore’s apartment, she talked me through the separation. It’s not like there’s shit to talk about, I’d say, and she would look at me like she doubted me, smile, and drop it.
Neither of our families believed in talking about the hard stuff, like love, heartbreak, and death. Instead we ignored it, pushed it down, and puffed up our pride. “It’s that Mexican machismo,” Lenore would always joke, but now I’m not sure how I ever found it funny.
When we lived together, some nights she would stand across the room while I was in bed, and take off her shirt, her back turned towards me. Her back was a work of art, acne scars and violet, blue-red bouquets of bruises tapered across a bronze expanse of skin. Her skin was stretched thin over knife-like shoulders and a thin, knotted spine.
She would undress, near naked, without thinking much of it or me. She knew the way I felt about girls, so she was either trusting that I wouldn’t look, or knowing that I was. I could never tell if what she did was familial, a comfort leftover from a childhood playing naked, or a touch of something more, the intimacy of adulthood, a dare for me to take.
She’d always join me in our too-large bed, and usually, neither of us would sleep. One of us would get up, eventually, and head to the sliding glass door that led to the patio. The other would follow. Usually it was me who followed, watching Lenore’s bare legs and the switch of her white t-shirt, stretched thin across her backside. We’d stand out on the patio at odd hours of the morning, and smoke joints, overlooking the apartment complex, the lights of the pier, the ocean’s edge.
And every night, as I watched the moon pull the tide into the darkness, I’d think about the fact that I couldn’t afford this apartment by myself. That Lenore told me months ago that I should find a new place, but that she hadn’t asked her family if they had rooms, and of course, I couldn’t ask them, no way.
I’d also think about the times throughout the years that Lenore had brought men in and out of our place, kicking me out to sleep on the couch each time. In the mornings she’d always apologize, laughing, and tell me that she loved me.
Ten nights before I kissed her, and moments before her papa died, we stood out there and I told her that winters in California were too cold. She looked at me, smiled, and said,
I frowned. “What’d you mean, wimp.”
“I mean that Guanajuato made you soft.” A beat, then a drag of her joint, and a blow. “Winters in Cambridge aren’t going to be half as cold as this.”
That sentence made my throat close up, as did all the others. She was leaving in eleven days and she said Cambridge would be cold, as if she’d invited me to visit or as if she’d already sent the postcard.
When I looked to her again, she was staring at the swimming pool, down below in the center of the complex. It looked like a sheet of black glass, with the crescent moon reflected on its surface.
“Let’s go swimming,” she said.
She mocked my tone. “Of course, now.”
“No way. I’m not try’na freeze my ass off.”
“You could stand to lose some ass.”
She gave me a teasing look, stuck her tongue out, and smiled in that way that almost pissed me off, made me want to keep chasing her, to jump off bridges and fall down waterfalls after her.
Knowing I would come, she carefully jumped over the railing of the balcony, landed on the fire escape beneath it. Out and down it she went and out I went with her, her barefoot in nothing but the long-john and a pair of black underwear, and we walked through the complex ‘til we reached the center. We climbed the high wrought-iron gate like we were sixteen year old miscreants again, and I was dizzy on the way down from the smells of tobacco and chlorine, from the pace I’d worked up, just trying to keep up with her.
Inside, I stood by the recliner chairs, my back to the water, as she stood beside. For a while I stared at her, the way her dry lips billowed smoke. I zoned out, imagining myself walking to her, opening my mouth, and inhaling her smoke. Then for an even longer time, I gazed up at the dark sky, where the moon was waning; making just enough light for us to see each other clearly, if only we so chose.
Coming back to, I realized she was gone. Then came the clap and splash of Lenore jumping into the pool behind me, causing an icy wave to crash into my back.
“Jesus Christ, Lenore…”
I turned around to curse her, but stopped when I saw her shirt and underwear, dangling on the pool’s edge. When I looked to the bubbling cauldron where she’d gone under, she came above water, naked, the moonlight bouncing off her slick hair. Sticky makeup crowned her cheekbones, and her shoulders, hard, bare, looked like they could cut glass.
“Oh, shit,” I said, too loud.
She laughed boisterously, at me or at herself, I couldn’t tell. Hands tousling through her hair, she floated, and I imagined that Lenore stopped where the water did. That down below, there was nothing I could ever find.
“It’s freezing!” Lenore shouted.
I hesitated. “Didn’t think that one through, huh.”
“No,” she said, laughing again. “But it feels incredible.”
She swayed back and forth, ethereal, mermaid-like, gorgeous. I felt like I wanted to die.
“Come in!” she said.
I tried to sound blasé, to ruin the moment.
“If you’re expecting me strip too, you’re out of your got-damn mind. I don’t want frostbite.”
“So you’re gonna get in, in a sweatshirt and puffy pants?”
The look in her eyes was a dare for me to take, and when she grinned I almost heard her say wimp again.
“Who says I’m getting in,” I tried to contest.
“When you get in,” Lenore corrected. “Be careful. I don’t want to have to save you.”
“I don’t need saving.”
The pool was twelve feet deep, and so dark that I couldn’t see where it ended. As a child I was afraid of the ocean, and Guanajuato was good for that; a city in the center of the country, no beach, no tide, no depths.
But here, I jumped in, my body shocked by the icy water. In the darkness I sank, dragged down by my shoes’ weight. I kicked them off, and they sunk down to a place I’d never find them. I ditched my sweatpants, too, leaving me naked from the waist down, then gasping and shut-eyed, I struggled above the water.
When my eyes stopped stinging, I opened them to find the pool empty, undisturbed. Lenore was swimming beneath somewhere and had been during my plunge, so far down that I couldn’t see her breath’s bubbling trail.
I treaded, I waited, but I was becoming tired. My sweatshirt clung to my chest like a lead blanket. When she finally slipped from under the black glass, all in one motion in front of me, she was smiling, hardly out of breath like she’d been born to live underwater.
She smiled in a way that kicked me in my gut, that said I told you so.
“If I’d been drowning just now,” I snapped, “would you’ve just watched?”
Her smile faded, and she said,
“I knew you weren’t going to drown.”
I knew that, too.
She swam closer.
“How the hell aren’t you shivering,” I said.
And on her face, I saw the one thing that betrayed her: the blue-brown tinge of her swollen lips, the lower trembling with barely noticeable flicker that I’d miss if I blinked.
She was not as immune to the cold as I thought.
But then she moved again, swaying back and forth, slowly putting distance between us. Then she did a shallow dive and came up close enough for our bodies to touch, but not quite. Just inches away from me, she craned her neck back, to look up at the sky. Closed her eyes, yawned, and dipped her head back into the water, stretched her arms out so far that her chest was exposed. The expanse of her throat was tinged violet, and did she want me to touch her? Did she want me to pull her in close, and warm her? Before I could ask, she covered herself up with the black water, opened her eyes and stared at me directly as if nothing was out of order.
“You’ll tire yourself out like that,” she said.
She rolled her eyes, playful.
“The sweatshirt. Take it off.”
She didn’t answer. I didn’t care.
I was becoming exhausted, so I took it off; lifeless, following her direction. Then she swam in close, and finally she slipped around me, and embraced me. Our bodies touched, chest-to-chest, but I was so numb from the cold that all I could feel was a solid mass of skin and bone; the intimacy was lost. I was immune to the details, her jutting hip bones or her soft breasts, her face’s temperature as it glided slowly up against mine.
She whispered into my ear her constant apology, the only goodbye she would give:
“I love you.”
And I couldn’t feel the biting slaps of water as she let go and swam away, the harsh spikes to my face as she kicked her legs, gripped the edge of the pool, got out, and left me alone. Reluctantly, I got out and followed from a distance. From the damp, silent walk back to the apartment, to the screeching of my nails along the fire escape, the bounding of my feet against the stony balcony, there was no emotion, no temperature, and no pain: just movements.
In the bedroom that night, the call came in, and she hung up the phone to tell me about her papa, in a lowered, level voice.