Authors: Ivy Pochoda
For Justin Ames Nowell
ummer is everybody else’s party. It belongs to the recently arrived hipsters in their beat-up sneakers and paint-splattered jeans spilling out of the bar down the block. It belongs to Puerto Rican families with foil trays of meat, sending charcoal smoke signals into the air, even to the old men in front of the VFW, sitting out, watching the neighborhood pass them by.
Val and June lie on Val’s bed on the second floor of her parents’ house on Visitation. The girls are waiting for the night to take shape, watching the facing row of neat three-story brick houses.
Although June has the phone numbers of twenty boys in her cell, ten she’d willingly kiss and ten she swears are dying to kiss her, the girls are alone. June’s been scrolling through her phonebook looking for someone she’s missed, her polished nail clicking against the screen. If she keeps this up, the battery will be dead by midnight, which is what Val’s hoping for.
The girls spent another day working at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary day care, watching the summer escape while they tended a bunch of babies. They missed the community pool and the open fire hydrants. They missed sitting on the stoop in their bikinis. They missed the shift from afternoon to evening, the gradual migration from hanging out to going out. Still, they made a little cash for when they are old enough to spend it on something interesting. But at fifteen, all the interesting stuff seems beyond their grasp.
This is one of the nice streets in Red Hook, tree lined and residential, on the predominantly white waterside of the neighborhood. Cut off by the expressway from the stately brownstone-lined streets of Carroll Gardens, Red Hook is a mile-long spit stranded at the southern point of Brooklyn where the East River opens into the bay. In the middle of the neighborhood sits Coffey Park, which splits the “front” with its decaying waterfront from the fortress of housing projects and low-cost supermarkets at the “back.”
All around the girls the night is heating up. The stoops are filling, some with newcomers dressed in secondhand clothes, others with grizzled men sucking air through their teeth as if this might cool things down. It’s a hot night in a calendar of hot weeks. The community pool has been packed, its surrounding concrete a mosaic of bright towels. The local firehouses, the Red Hook Raiders and the Happy Hookers, have been clocking overtime, circling the neighborhood to shut off illegally opened hydrants, telling kids to go cool off elsewhere. People have been doing their best to stay out of each other’s way. By this point in the summer everyone’s developed a beat-the-heat routine—a soaked do-rag tied around a scalp, a tiny fan held inches from a nose, a cold beer cracked before lunch.
In the backyard, Val’s sister, Rita, and her crowd have taken over the aboveground pool, still celebrating their high school graduation two months on. The paved yard is littered with cans of Coors Light and rolling bottles of high-proof lemonade. Val and June stood at the edge of the party for a while. But the talk turned to things they weren’t supposed to know about. Eventually, Rita sent them indoors.
“That boy in the lawn chair?” June said, as the girls climbed the stairs. “He grabbed my ass. He totally grabbed it.” She’s glowing beneath her outrage.
“Your butt fell into his hand is all,” Val said.
June’s curves are everywhere these days, especially where they don’t belong, bursting through the buttons of her school uniform or falling out of her too-short shorts. The girls, once a matched set, now seem to be fashioned from different material. Val, whose pale skin repels the sun, is made of reeds and twigs—like the sad saplings planted in the park that shoot up but never seem to leaf out. June, blessed with an olive complexion even in winter, is formed from something soft and pliant, clay, maybe, or cookie dough.
Somewhere, Val suspects, there may be boys who admire her bamboo limbs but out in Red Hook everyone goes for June’s generous shape, her elastic breasts and rear that she seems to resculpt every night, giving the neighborhood something fresh to look at. Even her wavy brown hair appears mischievous in the way it curls and bounces. Val’s hair, an unremarkable straw color, strikes her as lacking in enthusiasm.
Val knows that time is short for kids’ stuff. When school starts, they’ll be expected to turn up at parties, looking on-point, made up and polished. But sometimes Val can’t restrain her silliness. After being cooped up in that day care, she wants to be naughty. Not that in-your-face naughtiness of scoring a bottle of something sweet and alcoholic or sneaking a cigarette. What she’s after is a prankish secret the girls can share someday when they are on some guy’s couch tipsy or even high.
The window is open wide. June’s positioned herself near it and hops to her feet each time she hears footsteps. She stretches out her arms, grasping either side of the window frame.
“I’m gonna get my groove on tonight,” she says loud enough for anyone passing to hear. “I’m gonna turn it up.” She rotates her hips and thrusts her chest forward. Her shorts strain at the seams. Val worries that if June arches her back another inch, the whole package is going to burst. “I’m going to show them how it’s done,” she says.
Something about June’s posture reminds Val of a bag of microwave popcorn. She falls back on her bed, her laughter pouring out into the street.
“Baby,” June says. “You laugh like a baby.” She leaves the window, flops down on the bed, but keeps her distance from Val. She checks her nails and pulls out her phone. “Let’s do something.”
“We could camp out on the roof,” Val says.
June does not look up.
“Or watch a movie.”
“You want the world thinking we’re babies forever.”
“There’s nothing wrong with movies.”
June stands up. “I’m getting us a drink.”
Five minutes later June returns with a half-empty bottle of alcoholic lemonade. “Did you pick up someone’s empty?” Val says.
“I drank half on my way up.”
“We could take the raft out,” Val says. “It’s something.”
June finishes the drink. “You have some stupid ideas.”
“Your only idea was stealing a half-empty bottle from my sister.”
“Just get the goddamned raft,” June says. She tilts her head upward, tosses her hair, exhales an invisible cigarette.
“Don’t be such a bitch,” Val says.
The rubber raft was a gift from a crew of older guys who’d taunted and teased them, and finally made a play for the girls at the pool last weekend. What they wanted with a hot pink rubber raft Val and June didn’t know but they took their prize. Tonight, hot and stir-crazy, Val decides what the raft is for. Take a float in the bay, cool off, see what’s what from the water.
The girls hit the street, the raft bumping awkwardly against their legs as they walk. “It’s your raft. You carry it,” June says, dropping her end.
Late summer smells hang in the air—ripe sewers, cookouts, and the scent of stagnant water that lingers in Red Hook no matter the season. The night echoes with other people’s noise, laughter falling from windows and the call-and-response of competing boom boxes. The girls approach Coffey Park at the edge of the Red Hook housing project. June’s walking a few steps ahead, putting a couple of feet between her and Val and the raft. Val lets her go on, not quite sure about the sway of June’s hips and the way she’s shaking her hair like a show pony. At one end of the park is the old luggage factory, now converted into lofts, at the other, the first of the project high-rises, and in between a battleground of basketball and barbecues.
The park benches are filled, many of them turned into soundstages for newbie rappers whose rhymes are muffled now and then by the bass of passing cars. Girls in fluorescent clothes, wrapped tight like gifts, are clustered around the benches, bumping and dipping to the beats. June and Val envy their doorknocker earrings, their careless voices, the grip of their halter tops, and the cling of their short shorts. The way they hang out late and loud.
Sometimes on Sundays, when the service at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary has ended, June and Val slip away from their parents. Fearless in the daylight, they cross Coffey Park and pass through the heart of the projects, until they arrive at the Red Hook Gospel Tabernacle—a small storefront church on a side street where they’re not certain they’re welcome. In spring and summer, the doors are propped open and they can see into the small, fluorescent-lit room, with linoleum tiles and folding chairs. The girls know some of the singers from their old elementary school, before Val and June were sent across the expressway to Catholic school.
It’s nighttime now and the girls aren’t bold enough to enter Coffey Park. They walk along its periphery. Val watches as June rolls the waistband of her shorts so they ride higher.
“You can wear anything. A paper bag would look hot on you,” June told Val the other day. “Me, I’ve got all this to worry about,” she added, cupping her breasts. “You know, my burdens.”
June’s body doesn’t seem to be burdening her too much at the moment. She dawdles in front of each bench, untangling her hair from her silver hoop earrings, adjusting her bikini top beneath her shirt. Val hovers a few steps back, half in, half out of a streetlamp’s yellow glow, her lanky shadow stretching out in front of her.
There’s a girl in one of the groups June knows from their early years in public school. She’s sitting on the back of a bench not far from the park’s entrance. Back then, Monique would hang with them in the Marinos’ basement, helping make broken furniture into castles, spacecrafts, and ships. The three of them dressed up in Rita’s clothes, clomping around the basement in her heels and smearing her makeup on their faces. Once in a while they went to June’s place, for her grandmother’s homemade orange Popsicles or to spit cherry pits from the second-story window. They never went to Monique’s apartment in the projects.
“Hey, Monique,” June calls. “Monique.”
“Someone out for you, Mo,” one of the guys says. He’s rocking a sweaty forty in his palms. He wipes his hand on his baggy basketball shorts. Monique checks June and Val. “You asking your friends to join us?” the guy says, nudging the bottle toward Monique.