The water below is murky and green. Dark shadows of fish move beneath the surface.
My elbows are looped around the railing behind me and my toes dangle over open air.
“Do it,” says Emily. “Do it, Gracie.”
I shake my head. “There could be brain eating amoebas in there.”
She, on the safe side of the bridge's railing, rests her elbows on the ledge and leans close. “Chickenshit,” she whispers.
I can feel a flush creep up my neck. She smells like sunblock and oranges.
She stretches out one of my curls then lets it go. It boings back into its spiral. “Your hair is so pretty.”
She told me once that the great travesty of her life was that she was born with straight, brown hair. She said we should switch, that she was a big-red-hair person and that my personality, quiet and thoughtful, was more suited to hers.
I caution a glance to my left. The sunlight reveals hidden strands of honey and gold among the brunette.
I think her hair is beautiful.
She catches my eye and pouts. “Don’t be lame.”
I turn back to the drop. I lift one foot. It hovers in the air.
I plant it on the edge of the bridge again and squeeze my eyes shut. “This is so dumb.”
I hear Emily sigh exasperatedly. Her breath is warm on my shoulder.
“Fine. Then you have to tell me a secret. A really juicy one. Them’s the rules.”
I scan my brain. “Vice Principal Klein has a stash of weed in his office.”
Emily jabs my shoulder. “Dummy, I told you that.”
I open my eyes and look down. I tighten my grip on the railing. “Jenna Morrison might be pregnant.”
“Yawn. Boring. Jenna’s always maybe pregnant. Like, just buy a Costco pack of condoms.”
“An anti-family size pack.”
Emily snorts. “She’s so stupid.” She snaps my bathing suit strap. “Come on, Grace. Tell me a good secret.”
I look at her, at that devilish half smile and the constellations of freckles I’ve memorized. Everything about her is beachy and tan.
Emily starts jumping up and down. “Sec-ret! Sec-ret! Sec-ret!” she chants.
The bridge wobbles. “Stop! Emily, stop!” But’s she’s laughing and I’m laughing and I feel light headed when I look down.
Her eyes are the same color as the water.
“I love you.”
The words just slip out. They’ve been echoing in my skull for weeks, but they sound so childish out loud.
Emily stops shaking the railing. She tucks a curl behind my ear.
My bones turn to liquid.
She rests a hand on my shoulder and brings her face close to mine.
And pushes me off the bridge.
I don’t have time to scream before I hit the water. It floods into my nose and mouth. Spluttering, I break the surface in time to see Emily leap off the bridge with a shriek.
I tread water as she swims toward me.
What the fuck, Emily?
That was so dangerous.
I love you.
All I say is, “But I told you a secret.”
She rolls her eyes. “That’s not a secret,” she grins. “You’re so obvious, Gracie.” She kisses me, then kicks away, laughing.
I want to tell her not to kiss me anymore, or to kiss me forever.
Instead I sink under the water. Better to drown here than in Emily’s eyes.
We pull ourselves onto the riverbank, her like an elegant mermaid and me with a series of grunts and false starts. She sprawls on her back in the grass near our pile of clothes. I lower myself beside her, shivering.
A woodpecker drums on a distant tree. I chew my lip.
Emily hums and makes her pointer and index fingers do the can-can dance on her stomach. “My mom sent me an email,” she says.
“Did you read it?”
“I deleted it. Then emptied the trash three times to make sure. Probably just pictures of the new bay-bee.” She makes a face.
I stare at the clouds. “About what I said…” I begin.
She rolls onto her side and her finger dancer jumps the gap and lands on my thigh. She marches it up my leg.
“It was stupid,” I mumble.
She leans over me and puts her hands on either side of my head, her torso suspended over mine. “Aw, Gracie,” she smirks. Droplets fall from her hair onto my skin. “It’s okay that you love me.” She leans forward and presses our lips together. She runs her hand down my stomach, traces my hipbone. My eyes are closed but I can feel her smile. Her body is heavy on mine. It’s all that’s keeping me from floating away.
Too soon, her weight is gone. She stands and pulls her shorts over her bikini bottoms.
I watch a beetle crawl across my wrist.
“Ben invited me to a bonfire on the beach tonight if you want to tag along,” she says.”
I flick the beetle off my arm.
“Does he care that we… that you kiss me and stuff?”
She shrugs. “No. It’s whatever. He’s very evolved.” She wrings out her hair. “We have a mature relationship.”
"Yeah, cause he’s a senior citizen.”
Emily throws a towel at me. “Oh my god, he’s twenty-four.”
“We’re still in high school.”
I frown and yank my shirt over my head.
“Oh, don’t be mopey.” She drops to all fours in front of me. “He’s my boyfriend and you’re…” she taps my nose, “…my Grace. Now, come on.” She springs up and trots toward the parking lot, squealing when her bare feet touch the hot asphalt.
And you, Emily? Do you care that you kiss me?
I follow after her, carrying her shoes.
I sneak out at midnight. On my way to Emily’s house, I pass by the beach. I can see the bonfire, really more of a meek campfire, glowing orange in the dark. I stick my tongue out at it.
I wait in her driveway and tug at my hair. It dried into a massive frizzball after the day’s swimming. Emily creeps out her front door and floats down the steps in an off the shoulder summer dress. I tell her she looks pretty.
She strikes a pose. “Virginal white, worn ironically, of course.” She takes my hand and skips down the sidewalk, pulling me along beside her. She tells me that we’re going to meet up with Ben and some of his classmates from his graduate level poetry colloquium. I groan. We’re not even there yet and I already want to go home.
When we arrive, Ben and four other twenty-somethings are sitting around the fire.
“We’re just surrounded by bullshit, but whatever we say about the bullshit is also bullshit,” Ben is telling a pasty boy in a trench coat. Ben is wearing a dark turtleneck sweater and loafers to the beach. Dork.
Emily untwines her fingers from mine and squeezes into a space between Ben and an Asian girl with bleached blonde hair. I stand with my hands in my sweatshirt pockets.
“Oh, guys,” Ben announces. “This is Emily. And this is…” He pauses.
“Grace,” I say.
Emily wriggles under his arm and stretches her legs over his lap. “Ben, you know Grace! You’ve met.”
“I remember,” he says, removing his arm from her shoulders to grab a beer. “I was getting to it. Yeah, this is her friend…”
“Grace!” Emily shouts.
“I was kidding!” he laughs.
I doubt it.
I sit on an open patch of sand between the bleached blonde and a black girl with an afro. I hug my knees and wish my sweatshirt was big enough to pitch like a tent over my whole body. Emily’s eyes look glassy in the firelight.
The girl with the afro nudges my shoulder. “Hey, Grace. I’m Shauna.”
“Hi, I'm Grace.” I awkwardly extend my hand. She chuckles and shakes it.
I wince. “Sorry. That was weird. Shaking hands is for, like, job interviews.”
She grins. “No, I love it. You’re adorable.”
Ben is waving his hands animatedly. I see Emily scoot over to avoid becoming an accidental casualty of his sloshing beer. I hide my smile behind my curtain of hair.
“…which is crazy,” Ben is practically yelling, “and Naomi had this incredible insight into how the tentacles of body commoditization creep into female prepubescence witnessed through…”
Shauna cuts him off. “How about we hear it from, Naomi, yeah? Cause it was her insight.”
I want to be Shauna when I grow up.
The blonde Asian, Naomi, stretches. She’s wearing red fishnet gloves. “When I was in seventh grade, I adored my science teacher. I was teacher’s pet. Then he didn’t come to class anymore and I found out he had been arrested for molesting another female student. And my first thought was, ‘Why didn’t he pick me?’”
All the graduate students are nodding at Naomi and murmuring sympathetically.
“Brilliant,” says Ben. “Naomi fuckin’ nails it every time.”
“Wow,” says Trench Coat Boy. “Being a woman is so difficult.” He gives Naomi a half bow with his hands in front of him in prayer. “Thank you. Really. Thank you.”
I look at Emily and will her to look at me so we can share a private laugh at Trench Coat Boy’s questionable actions, but she’s frowning at the ground. I wonder if she’s cold.
A white guy leans over Shauna. “Beer?” he offers me. The deep V of his shirt exposes a tribal tattoo that seems to cover his whole chest.
Shauna holds up a wine bottle. “Or we have this. Next time someone needs to bring better stuff. The lack of ambitious alcoholism is probably why our poetry sucks. No romanticism.”
Tattoo Guy raises his beer to the moon and yells, “To shitty poetry!”
“To shitty poetry!” the group echoes.
I accept the half empty wine bottle and take a sip. I really hope no one has mono.
“Wait!” Tattoo Guy shouts. I freeze. “You’re in high school, right?”
“Then you can’t drink!”
I look at Emily. She’s whispering something to Ben. Her arms are crossed. I hand the wine to Tattoo Guy. “Sorry,” I mutter.
He snickers and Shauna smacks his arm. “Quit it.” She pushes the bottle back into my hand. “He’s kidding. And maybe drunk. We love corrupting youth.”
“To the corruption of youth!” he cheers. They stare at me until I take another drink. Tattoo Guy claps.
The discussion turns toward the ethics of actors portraying sexualities other than the one they identify with. Naomi says she is fine with anyone playing anything so long as the sex on screen is “fully realized” and not merely simulated. Trench Coat Boy agrees. Shauna tells him porn is free on the internet. I tune them out.
Emily and Ben are having their own conversation entirely in heated whispers. She looks pissed. She reminds me of a swan, majestic and delicate until it’s attacking you. I hope she’s not cold.
I drink more wine.
Emily stands up. Ben sighs then slowly does the same.
“We’re going on a walk,” she publicizes.
“Okay?” says Naomi, raising one eyebrow. I bet she’s practiced that in a mirror. Naomi turns back to Trench Coat Boy. “Anyway…”
Emily spins on her heel and marches down the dark beach, Ben at her side. They’re not holding hands.
I drink and watch the fire burn. Tiny embers drift on the breeze and fizzle out. I bury my sneakers in the sand. It’s a stupid thing to do; I’m going to be finding sand in the crevices for weeks. I tip the bottle back and find it’s empty. Oops. Maybe I can put a message in it and throw it out to sea. SOS. Or SOL: Shit Outta Luck.
Shauna clicks her tongue. “So. Grace. Can I ask you something?”
I hold up the empty bottle. “I’m sorry. I drank it.”
“That’s what it’s for. No, I was wondering…” She gestures at the seats Emily and Ben vacated. “What do you think of that… situation?”
“Because it’s weird, right?” Shauna says. “I don’t like to judge, but she’s a child.”
“Children should be children,” nods Trench Coat Boy.
I pour more sand over my entombed sneakers. “We’re eighteen.”
“Yeah, but you still take the bus to school.”
Everyone is looking at me. I’m not sure if it’s from the wine or too much sun today, but I suddenly feel dizzy.
“Emily drives,” I mumble as I stand up. I walk away from the bonfire, scattering sand as I pull my feet out from their burial. I hear hushed voices behind me. Someone burps. My guess is Tattoo Guy. I want to go home, but I sit on a picnic bench and wait for Emily.
The moon is just a sliver tonight but it’s incredibly bright. I underestimated how bright it could be. “I’m sorry,” I whisper to the moon.
I rest my head on the table and close my eyes. The rolling waves sound like a giant’s slow exhales. Exhale. Exhale. Exhale. He better breath in soon or he’s going to pass out.
I rub my eyes and squint as a blurry piece of the moon, bright and white, stomps toward me.
“Hello, Moon,” I giggle as it pulls me to my feet.
Emily glares at me. “Grace, are you drunk?”
“No.” Just sad.
Emily speeds across the beach. I hurry after her.
“God, I knew it! I fucking knew it. He didn’t introduce me as his girlfriend, did you notice that? What the fuck was that?”
We reach the sidewalk and make a left toward her house. “You can just tell, you know, that she’s a slut?” she says.
Emily is shivering. I take off my sweatshirt and hand it to her. She pulls it over her head without stopping and wipes her nose on the sleeve. I rub my hands up and down my goose pimply arms. We pass an empty playground.
Emily stops short and I bump into her. She turns to me. Her mascara is in streaks down her cheeks.
“Grace, am I pretty?”
“Ugh!” she screams. She storms onto the playground and plops on a swing. She covers her face with her hands and shrieks and stamps her feet on the mulch.
I sit on the swing next to her.
“You know that I think you’re pretty,” I say quietly.
She pushes her hair out of her face. “He hooked up with her. Naomi,” she sneers. “He says she has an enlightened mind. She has a sex addiction is more likely.” She kicks off the ground and pumps her legs. “Come on, Gracie,” she calls as her swing lifts higher, “jump off with me!” Her hair streams behind her as she soars up and obscures her face as she flies backwards. Her dress billows around her long legs as she bends them under her to pick up speed.
She holds out her hand to me. “Come on, Grace!”
I don’t take it.
“Grace, why aren’t you swinging?” Slowly, her arc diminishes until her swing comes to a stop next to mine.
She glares at me. “Fine. Let’s just go.” She stands. “Grace?”
“She’s just his Naomi,” I say to my feet.
Emily stares at me. “Huh?”
“You get one, he gets one. Seems fair.”
“What is your problem, Grace? Can’t you see I’m in distress?”
“Let him have a Naomi. He can have a Shauna and a Tattoo Guy too.”
I’m clutching the chains of the swing. “You and me, we do stuff. You said I was your Grace."
“Can you not do this right now?”
“We hook up."
“Grace, I’m upset.” She pinches the bridge of her nose.
“Why are you upset? I don’t understand why you’re so upset about this.”
"Why are you making this about you?"
“We hook up too.”
“Why? Why is it different? Tell me why it’s different, Emily!”
“Cause he’s super into her!” Emily yells.
I’m standing. I don’t remember standing.
She glows under the streetlight. Her skin looks so soft my heart aches.
“Why am I not real to you?” I whisper.
Emily sighs. “Look, I’m tired. Let's not, please? I can’t deal with my issues and yours right now.”
“I told you that I loved you and you pushed me off a bridge.”
“That was a joke-”
“I told you that I loved you and you pushed me off a bridge.” I feel tears on my face. I swipe at them with the heel of my hand.
Emily is staring at me with her beautiful eyes, the color of our river. “Grace...”
“I told you I loved you, Emily.”
She closes the gap between us and brushes a tear from my cheek with her thumb. She tangles her fingers in my hair. “I know,” she murmurs. “Let’s just erase tonight.”
Her eyes, green and murky, are all I see.
“I love you, Gracie,” she says.
But she’s lying. She only loves that I love her.
“Sorry,” I whisper. “I don’t feel like drowning today.”
And I walk away.
But she doesn’t. I knew that she wouldn’t.
So No One’s Grace keeps walking.