Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
The shallow end was long enough to sit in, and Franny stretched her legs out. That way, she said, the sun could continue to have direct access to the largest number of pores. Every few minutes, Jackie would swim past, her goggled eyes open and unblinking, leap out of the pool, and run back around to the diving board. This was something Jackie knew Franny liked about her: dogged enthusiasm.
“Hey!” she said as she jogged around the bottom lobe of the pool. It was shaped like an eggplant, they’d decided. A gigantic eggplant filled with chlorine. “Jackknife!” Since Franny didn’t know the names of any dives, Jackie had to make her own requests. Behind her, Jackie could hear her mother’s small groan at the noise they were making.
“Jackie the Jackknife,” Franny said, seconding the motion with as much decorum as possible. She wanted Jackie’s mother to like her. There were countless other girls the Johnsons could have brought in her place: Jackie had shown her photo albums filled with pictures of friends from Portsmouth Abbey. She knew their names by heart: Susan and
Laura and Barbara and Jane. Franny looked most like Jane, who also had dark hair and was small. Jackie’s mother didn’t like Jane, though, and so she’d invited Franny instead. When Franny asked why Jackie’s mother didn’t like Jane, Jackie told her it was because she was a “bad influence,” which meant that Jane smoked and drank too much. Franny didn’t ask more than that. Jackie turned around and waved at her mother and Franny, two sunny bodies. A waiter was bending down to set a drink on the small table next to her mother’s lounge chair. She waved back, her pink nails little kisses in the air.
When Jackie had made it back to the far end of the pool, the stem of the eggplant, she bounced up and down on the diving board. Her swimsuit was black and slick as a seal’s pelt, and with the goggles, she felt like a Russian spy. Franny pushed herself off the wall and doggy-paddled out into the middle of the pool. She could see Jackie watching, or at least she thought she could. It was hard to tell with the goggles.
Before Franny could even yell up and alert Jackie to her newly water-bound presence, Jackie leapt up and did a forward flip. Her head was up, and then it was down. Her feet were down, and then they were up. She could feel her body fold in half, and then open up as straight as a pencil, into the water in one motion. Jackie loved to dive. If she could have stayed underwater forever, she would have. My water baby, that was what her mother used to say. My water baby.
Franny’s legs looked like two white pillars. Her toes scraped against the bottom of the pool. Jackie swam as close as she could, and then grabbed Franny’s left shin and gave it a tug. Jackie could hear Franny scream, even from under the
surface. She popped up next to Franny, laughing, and then lifted the goggles off her eyes and moved them onto her forehead. There were deep indentations in her skin where the goggles had been.
“You look like you got into a fight with an octopus,” Franny said.
Jackie spat out a mouthful of pool water. “What do you think is down there?” she asked, gesturing with her right ear.
“Octopus!” Franny said, and before she’d finished saying it, Jackie was on top of her, underneath her, behind her, swimming like a fish, her hands two tentacles, just for Franny. She screeched, in spite of herself. Jackie hoped that her mother had gone to the ladies’ room.
The day of the ball, they were booked. Mrs. Johnson made the three of them appointments to get their hair done. Jackie huffed and puffed through it all: the rollers were too hot, the hairspray stung her eyes. When they were back in the hotel room, her mother started to loom over Jackie’s face with a mascara wand. She actually screamed.
“I can do it,” Franny said. Jackie could tell that Fran was trying her hardest not to be ready too early. Her dress, on loan from Jackie’s mother, lay flat on the bed, but her hair was done, her makeup, everything. Jackie had loaned her a string of pearls, and she fingered them gingerly. They looked better on Franny.
“Yes,” Jackie said. “Let Franny do it, Mother. We’ll meet you in your room in half an hour, okay?” Mrs. Johnson already had her dress on and didn’t look inclined to wait. “Or we’ll meet you and Dad at the bar, how’s that?”
“A gimlet doesn’t sound like a
idea,” her mother said. “Fine. You girls hurry up, though. I won’t be late.” Her skirt was the color of sea foam and pushed out from her body as though held up by tiny creatures. It was satin, the kind of thing you had to know you wanted, because they didn’t sell it in every store. Not even at Bloomingdale’s. She walked sideways so as not to muss herself and closed the door behind her.
“Jesus,” Jackie said. Another Jewish-issue word. She winced.
“Jesus,” Franny said back. They smiled.
Franny guided Jackie backward until she was sitting on the closed toilet seat. She sat next to her on the lip of the bathtub. They were wearing their slips, peach and white and slippery. She moved her makeup bag into her lap.
“Okay,” Franny said. “Hold still.”
Jackie closed her eyes.
“Your hair is so much poufier than normal,” she said. It was true. The lady in the salon had somehow teased an extra four inches out of Jackie’s hair. “You look pretty.”
She kept her eyes closed. “Not as pretty as you are,” Jackie said.
Franny laughed a little, even though she knew Jackie wasn’t joking. She was prettier; everyone knew that. But there was something in Jackie’s voice that was different. She’d told Fran before that she thought she was prettier, but always in a jokey, self-deprecating way. This time, Jackie said it like she wanted to kiss her. Which she did.
Here are all the boys Franny let kiss her before going to Barnard: Samuel Epstein, who was two years ahead of her at
Midwood and immediately lied about her to all his friends; Josh Schwartz, who was almost as short as she was and had a slippery tongue; Barry Weinstein, who was soft around the middle and touched her with the gentlest hands she’d ever felt, until now.
Here are all the boys Jackie ever let kiss her: zero.
She kept her eyes closed. Jackie didn’t know if Franny found her mouth, or the other way around. One of them had moved closer to the other, or they both had, and Jackie could feel Franny’s mouth in all different parts of her body: her rib cage, where it was vibrating against her chest, and in her underwear, twitching like someone had flipped a switch. Jackie slipped her tongue past Franny’s lips and teeth, and there was a shudder somewhere inside her that she could feel. If Franny had opened her eyes, she would have seen Jackie’s eyes open, too. But Franny kept her eyes closed, as though that would ensure that they would laugh about this later, the way girls laugh when they’re with their friends and they’ve just said something so deeply personal that they had to look at each other in a new way, to recalibrate what they’d previously taken for granted.
When they finally pulled apart, slow as taffy, their chins were red, as though they’d been mining their pores for blackheads. The bathroom mirror stared back at them, agape. Franny put her hand to her mouth, and Jackie did the same, Simon Says.
“Well, are you gonna put that mascara on me or what?” Jackie said, her face now pulling into a sideways grin. The small bathroom smelled like sweat and perfume and possibility. Franny plunged the mascara wand into the bottle a
few times and then leaned forward, moving her hands back to Jackie’s face. She shut her eyes slowly and evenly, as docile as if she’d been hypnotized. If Franny had snapped her fingers, Jackie would have done anything she said. She could have whispered.
The ballroom made Rockefeller Center look like Times Square, seedy and filled with prostitutes. The walls were covered with red and gold silk, and above their heads, chandeliers twinkled like enormous diamond rings. There were round tables circling a dance floor, and the orchestra was already playing: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jackie recognized the song. All around them, people were having the polite kind of talk that sounded like falling leaves, small crunches and murmurs. All the men wore tuxedos and bow ties that matched their wives’ dresses. The waitstaff from the hotel restaurant was present and dolled up in black and white. Young men Jackie recognized from the pool walked by carrying platters of champagne glasses. Inside, in the relative dark, their tans made them look like silent film stars, with features so easily translated into black and white.
“Why didn’t I bring a camera?” Franny said into Jackie’s ear. But of course, there were photographers and flashbulbs, and for the first time, Jackie hoped that one of them would catch her, that maybe one of the photographers would take a picture of Franny and Jackie and their arms would be around each other’s waists and only they would know why they were smiling.
Franny couldn’t stop looking at Jackie, which she knew from her peripheral vision. Whenever Jackie actually turned
to look back, Franny would turn away, cheeks brighter than any man-made blush. Mrs. Johnson cupped her hand around Mr. Johnson’s biceps as they entered the room. As far as Jackie could tell, time had stopped and there was no other party on Earth, no other dinner, nothing that she cared about outside this room. She wanted to sit at the table and fill out her dance card with just one name over and over again:
The table was close to the band, good seats. Mrs. Johnson had pearls in her ears and a pearl on her finger. Jackie’s own set was still strung around Franny’s neck, flat against her collarbones. All around the room, women were just as decked out. Jackie wondered how many pearls were in the ballroom, if there were more pearls than in a hundred miles of the Atlantic Ocean. The three women sat down simultaneously, like a ballet corps, moving individually but with the sense to do it in unison.
“So, Franny, sweetie,” Mrs. Johnson said. A waiter appeared behind her and put champagne glasses in front of them all, in between the gold chargers and the floral centerpieces with their dramatic spikes of red and white. Everything seemed native and wild. “Are there any boys up there at Barnard? Jackie never told us if you had a boyfriend.”
She could see Jackie’s neck, her cheeks, her chin. She could smell the kisses from two seats over. She wasn’t a mother, she was a bloodhound.
“Franny goes out with tons of boys, Mother,” Jackie said. “Tons. The Columbia Lions? All of them. The whole team.” She shook her head in mock disapproval. Franny’s dress had
cap sleeves; Jackie wondered if they were both sweating so much, or if it was just her.
“No,” Franny said, turning to face Mrs. Johnson. “No boys. At least not right now.”
There were boys at Columbia, boys who would call and call and call, but Jackie couldn’t picture any of their faces. She picked up her glass and held it high, her arm straight out and triumphant. “To Franny,” Jackie said, “the pearl of the sea!”
Jackie’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, Edward and Elizabeth, Ed and Bitsy, Bitsy and Bootsy, Bippity Bobbity Boo, everyone in the room seemed to raise their glass, and there was a booming inside Jackie’s chest that would have made the ocean turn green with envy. She and Franny danced with each other and with her parents and with people who looked like they were bored out of their minds. Franny talked about Newport as though she’d been there a hundred times and, really, it was just a matter of changing her address with the post office. Jackie talked to old men about their sailboats and old women about their dachshunds. When the party was winding down, Jackie’s parents toddled off to their room, and she and Franny ran for the beach with their shoes in their hands.
The hard, wet sand looked so dark against their bare feet, like city concrete. Jackie ran fifty yards in her dress, the hem hiked up around her waist with her white slip taut against her thighs. She pictured Franny on Broadway, all those boys fading into the background. When Jackie stopped running, the girls stood there for a moment and stared at each other
in the dark. Jackie could make out Franny’s hair, which was starting to frizz in the humidity, and her dress, puffy under her arms like a barrel. Her feet were still mostly clean; Jackie’s were speckled with sand and dirt. Above them, the Breakers looked like it had been carved out of a cloud, all smooth, all white. The ballroom was still lit up; the orchestra continued to play. Tired dancers could have walked to the window and seen them there, two ghost-girls. Jackie let go of her dress with one hand and waved, inviting Franny farther away from the line of vision.
But Franny didn’t move. What was down the beach? What would she do once she made it there? Jackie thought of the faceless boys on Broadway, and the way that Franny would have run to them, without even giving it a second thought, just because they were handsome and tall and exactly what she’d always imagined she would have. Jackie hadn’t imagined that, not ever. She’d only imagined a girl like Franny, kissing her back and meaning it. The longer they stood there, the more Jackie knew that Fran understood what she had never told her. That it wasn’t a game. Now she could guess why Jane hadn’t been invited along, why she had been chosen in her place. The kiss in the bathroom had not been Jackie’s first, of course not. There were so many things Jackie wanted Franny to do, and one of them was fly across the sand, into the legion of girls like Jackie and Jane, not caring if her borrowed dress was torn to pieces in the surf. Jackie could have made a flying leap, an Olympic leap, right from where she stood into Franny’s arms. She could have spun her out and in, out and in, until their arms were tired and so they’d use their mouths instead. But that was not what she
wanted; even in the dark, that much was clear. Franny’s face was blank and white. She was shivering. Jackie started walking back toward her, her shoulders collapsing with each step, and Jackie turned toward the ocean, offering Fran her profile so that she couldn’t see her face. Jackie didn’t stop when she reached her. Instead, Jackie pointed her body back to the hotel and said, “Well, you coming?” They flew back a few days later and never talked about the trip