AT LEAST THAT’S WHAT I thought growing up. One reason I was so sure is my older brother, Tommy, kept bringing them home. I guess they trusted him, God knows why. They spoke to him on the family couches in a sitting room that was, outside of company, declared off limits. They were deep, plush couches spread around the corners of the room, like benches by the ropes in a boxing ring. Sooner or later my parents and I would excuse ourselves, mainly out of embarrassment, and give Tommy and his girlfriends the space they needed to do whatever they did alone. I studied each of them hard before trudging off, trying to catch their eyes, and always assumed that he touched them once we were gone, even imagined him doing it.
The years went by and Tommy moved out of the house and on to college. I dated a few times, unconvincingly, in high school. But my own act felt overshadowed, imitative. Girls invariably saw through it. It was an act, after all. As though my brother Tommy would occasionally walk onto my tongue and intone the right words. Then those words would sputter and collapse and the dark, primordial shyness of the impostor would creep back in and everyone, including myself, would smell a rat.
So when I met Leticia the summer after my first year at state college, my prospects seemed dim. Leticia had a summer job as a lifeguard at a pond that was quite stagnant and, on warm, breezeless days, smelled of rotting vegetation. She was a rising college senior and, as she put it, “on the way out.” She meant she was nearly finished with her degree but also that her looks and the sharpness of her mind and everything else that she said counted at all were poised to go rapidly downhill from there. She was very funny in this way. She went to the prestigious college none of us even applied to, much less got into.
“There’s the future they go on about, and then there’s your actual future,” she explained to the throng of suitors gathered around her sentinel chair at the pond. “The real one’s where you get all wrinkled.”
I met Leticia early on that summer by pretending to drown. I walked out to where the pond scum was thickest and feigned a heart attack. Once I’d gone a certain distance beyond the shallows, I clutched my chest, pantomiming cardiac arrest, bending over and stooping to one side. I stumbled out into the algae until it was shoulder height, then one-eightied to steal a final glance at the lifeguard chair before toppling backwards into the murk. The last thing I glimpsed before I went under was the dispassionate gaze of Leticia staring out into her future.
I stayed down for a long time. Prior to this, I’d practiced breath holding for nearly two weeks. I’d read free diving manuals and tutored myself on the mammalian dive reflex. I was prepared to ignore any convulsive protests on the part of my body. But the pond was very shallow and I never arrived at depth. Instead, having equalized six feet down and spread my limbs, I began rising to the surface, then hung there face down like a bloated turtle. I floated like that out in the algae waiting for Leticia—who was famously an expert swimmer though none of us had ever seen her so much as enter the water—beyond the point of knowing where I was.
When I came to, I was laid out flat. A crowd had gathered.
“He’s okay,” someone shouted.
Someone else was leaning over and weighting my chest. It was not Leticia.
“Where’s Leticia?” I asked when finally I could speak.
“What? What did he say?”
“Where’s Leticia?” I repeated more softly.
My head was pounding and water sputtered in the back of my throat that made odd reverberations in my ears. The world was shrouded, bloodless, and there was a moment of confusion I vaguely took in before she came forward. From the little I could see, Leticia herself looked harried, her long hair tangled in her face. By then they were helping me to my feet. Someone who claimed to be a doctor was prying one eye open then the other. His large, strong hands were suctioned to my face.
“Take it easy,” he was saying. They helped me to a log and someone brought cold water. I took a sip.
“What is it?” Leticia asked.
I drew it out so she had to lean in close enough to hear me whisper.
“Nothing,” I told her when she’d come very close. “I was seeing if you were there.”
Leticia had dead straight chestnut hair that ran down almost to the bottom half of her bikini. She was flat-chested and narrow and walked like a wind-up doll. She remained the same even shade of honey brown throughout the summer despite taking regular shifts almost naked from 11am-2pm on the lifeguard chair and wore green-tinted shades that transformed her into an enormous, seated praying mantis.
Her bikini fit her so tightly and was so minor an article that you could discern everything about her body. In fact, although I harbored a passion for Leticia that nearly defeated my ability to live a normal life, I had no particular desire to see her stripped of swim wear. To the contrary, when I fantasized about the two of us becoming infinitely knowledgeable about each other, I envisioned her lying next to me in her bikini that, even dry, seemed perpetually wet and glossy and clung to her with every fiber.
I didn’t go back to the pond for almost a week after my feigned drowning incident. Clearly, Leticia had never thought to save me.
“Hey, what happened out there anyway?” She’d made her way over to my towel, which Lord knows she had never done before. I had my eyes closed and opened them into the sun glaring over her right shoulder.
“No honestly, you really have a heart failure?” She paused, looking down at me carefully, a little shyly. “Or were you pulling something?”
I waited for my eyes to adjust to the light. I squinted and shaded them with a hand, rising up on one elbow.
I took a long look at her body. I jumped from her Ray Bans down to her twitching feet and slowly worked my way along her legs and across her narrow stomach. I lingered over her neck, the pulse of her radiating visibly, powerfully toward her ears. She seemed a kind of deadly machine. Built to destroy. It was the first time, I can say for sure, I felt invented by desire. As though this wild, licking flame was suddenly who I was. It was the first time I’d ever taken a moment to pore over the flesh of a beautiful woman, in a magazine or in life, without being reminded of my older brother, Tommy.
“What?” I asked.
“Wow,” said Leticia. “Idiota.”
For some reason, this encounter gave me confidence. She’d approached me, after all. I began doing pull-ups because I read in the magazines that they acted quickly on the upper frame of a man’s chassis and gave you a V-shaped figure. I held my stomach in and made it a point to walk past the lifeguard chair, for a Pepsi or a grilled cheese, several times during each of Leticia’s shifts. Yet her shaded, bug eyes remained inscrutable.
So I took to doing laps, straight across the pond. I’d make a big deal of limbering up, like I’d seen them do on television, in the general vicinity of the elevated chair. I didn’t have a plan beyond a brash show of physical exertion. The key, I dimly supposed, was to demonstrate to Leticia that I was vigorously constructed. Built for robust trials. I hoped she would somehow extrapolate from this that I must be good for pleasure. So I took to my long, slow laps, initially for an hour or more. By mid-summer I could swim non-stop nearly for the duration of her three-hour shifts. Occasionally, I’d stand in the midst of these performances on the muddy bottom of the pond and glare at her, as though I were a god-human hybrid. Once, I caught Leticia shaking her head in disgust and, having grinned at her broadly, I threw myself with renewed intensity back into my laps.
The exertion did help with my physical yearnings but finally, by mid-summer, I was bursting. I was becoming increasingly unconvinced that there was an unlimited store of female beauty. For some reason, this woman was the one I wanted. There was the tawny arrow of her body that I desired to touch, yes, but more urgently than that, I needed to speak with her. I yearned to know what she was thinking up in her chair. I would have traded my prospects with every other woman in the world for a brief chance with this one. It became nearly unbearable not to tell her things. Not to make pronouncements.
At last, in late July when the throng of suitors was somewhat diminished by the weight of the mid-day heat, I approached the chair. I could see Leticia watching me warily through those gigantic shades.
“Can I come up?”
I saw her jerk.
“Come up here?”
While Leticia had a deep, throaty voice in general, this time it came out in a worried bass, like, having finally jogged beyond the pale, I was liable to do anything.
“Yeah, I’d really like to tell you something.”
“No!” she blurted in obvious horror, “you definitely can’t come up. I’ll come down to you.”
She slowly stepped down, not turning to the rungs as she normally would but facing outward, weighting her heels.
“What do you want?”
I halted here. I’d gotten this far, which was light years beyond where I’d ever expected to arrive, and now crashed against the limits of my abilities as a person. I pushed on them.
“Oh God, not this again,” said Leticia. She turned to climb the rungs, apparently discounting all at once both the prospect of any danger and everything else about me.
“Wait,” I whispered, stepping forward as though we were suddenly alone. “I’m just—crazy about you.”
She whipped back around, one thin, paddle-like foot with its stumpy toes on the third rung. I’d offered my confession directly to her calves and for a moment I stared at her foot, particularly the clean brown toes, not sure where else to look. We were surprisingly close so that I could smell her. She smelled like soap.
“What? What did you say?”
“I’m not usually like this. So—such an idiot.”
Leticia smiled. It was the first time I’d ever seen her smile. She had high, beautiful gums with gaps between her teeth.
“Good,” she said, chuckling softly so I could hear from her throat a deep husky rumble, and, turning again, ascended the rungs to her chair.
After that, I’d bring her drinks and casually mention the tremendous heat. She’d accept them just as casually and take a sip while I stood there, gazing up at her with my neck craned.
“You and Leticia?” said one of the guys who loitered near her chair as I did. “She’s robbing the cradle.”
“Hardly,” I answered.
“But you’d like that,” he went on.
“Yes I would,” I said loudly, matter-of-factly, so all of them could hear. “I most definitely would.” And the whole lot, muscled, with bristly hair and clipped names, began to snicker.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Leticia explained one afternoon when I’d brought her Pepsi, “that you’re so—you know—obvious.”
“Do you want me to lie?”
She seemed to think about this and I realized I enjoyed being outed, having my cards on the table. It put the pressure, if there was any pressure, on everyone else.
“No, I guess not,” she said.
At some point, after weeks of this, Leticia must have come around to the idea that I was not a complete waste of time because she hemmed and hawed and at last agreed to a movie when no one else was in earshot. On a second date, when I’d done nothing to press my luck, she let me kiss her, long and slowly, in the back of the theater. That night I decided my hunch had been right all summer that nothing else in my life had ever mattered. I was encapsulated in darkness. From what I could tell, a velvet cover had been thrown over the two of us together and Leticia’s soft, wide lips, her tongue, were the darkness itself.
“I don’t normally kiss boys,” she whispered when we turned back to the film. It was about two German women on motorcycles who looked to be in their late sixties and were traveling across America. They did not wear helmets and their long grey hair spun outward from the screen.
“I won’t want to leave you tonight,” I whispered, deeply surprised at myself.
Leticia shifted her eyes into this message with the brightness of the film flickering on her face.
“God, you’re such an adult,” she said. “We’ll have to watch this again tomorrow—you’ve made me miss half the action.”
I laughed, because there was no action. They were just driving on and on, like us. In fact, as far as I could tell, we were the action.
I lost my virginity to Leticia in the last, cooling week of summer before we’d each returned to college. I found out in late September that I’d gotten her pregnant. For a split second, before she told me the rest, I was stop-gapped with wild joy. It stunned me, in that moment, the concept that she carried us together. We’d had sex the way all first-timers I knew had had sex — if it wasn’t in the back seat of a car or in the bed of a pick-up or if their parents weren’t away — in the churchyard. Among the dead. We’d chosen a relatively level spot between tall, moldering headstones where we were hidden from all but the moon. It came slanting in over Leticia’s naked breasts and stomach, vaguely illuminating their spare contours.
I blurted out before we even got started that I loved her and she told me for Chrissake to shut up. That, as always, I talked too much.
We’d kissed for a long time before we took our clothes off. I came once in my underwear when our chests first touched and then, after a substantial delay in which she was shivering, twice more inside her. The whole time, Leticia never spoke. She never once parted her lips except to kiss. While it occurred to me to use protection, while I’d hidden a pack of condoms hopefully for almost a month, I’d been flooded with the selfish greed to feel her completely. She, throughout, was serious and passionate. She took me by the back of the head and kissed me hard when I was inside of her. In fact, the main things I can remember are her kissing and the cold, nude feeling of her skin all around me. Beyond that, there remains to this day the chill moonlight that left her trembling and curled up against me, suddenly vulnerable, so my heart flipped over when we walked out between the graves.
“I’m so sorry, Leticia,” I told her once we’d passed through the gate.
“For being such a beast. Not—you know—controlling myself.”
She stopped in her tracks and released my hand.
“You did nothing I didn’t want, idiota.”
We were quiet after that. I walked her home as though there was a moving wall between us. I frankly didn’t have the courage to try to kiss her goodnight. I wondered if the honorable thing was to sleep in the grass beneath her window. Instead, I went home to my bed and looked in the mirror and immediately fell asleep with all the lights on.
“Turns out we’re both fertile,” Leticia said when I got the call in September.
She’d gone back after our summer together to her fancy school where, it had been rumored at the pond, she’d earned a handful of high achievement scholarships in marine biology and established a nearly flawless academic record. Leticia had never mentioned any of this to me. I imagined her at the time of the call lounging in her dorm room with a Pepsi, wide feet up and swaying, and nobody around.
“So I’m ready.” I told her.
“Forget it. I had the abortion.”
There was dead silence on the other end of the phone. I began instantly to reimagine her, this time in a hospital, surrounded by blue frocks moving efficiently, handling her, telling Leticia who looked bored and preoccupied that everything was going to be fine.
“But I just found out you’re pregnant.”
Something sharp and bitter welled within me. For the first time I could remember, since Tommy would pummel me for playing his CDs and I’d walk out behind the shed, I could feel tears on my face.
“You should have told me. I would have gone with you at least. We could have talked about it first.”
“Since when are you the grown up, idiota? Since you went to the movies and had sex with a girl?”
I couldn’t say anything. My chest was heaving and I was standing there holding the phone then bending over and stifling my own noises. When Leticia spoke it sounded to me as though she were no longer attached to a body at all.
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what I thought.”
For a long time, she didn’t return my calls. Tommy came home for Thanksgiving from his new job in the big city, full of what he called “urban energy.” He seemed taller, more polished, more absolute in his convictions. As though the rest of us had finally lost ourselves entirely and shrunken into the corners. But there was no mention of women.
“Mom tells me you had a summer fling,” he snorted.
I winced. I’d grown desperate over the past two months and had trouble focusing on my studies. Twice I’d borrowed my father’s car and driven out to Leticia’s school and she’d refused to see me. Both times, her roommate had fiercely declared her “indisposed.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means she’s not here,” said the roommate. “It means she doesn’t even want to see you.”
“Those aren’t the same thing,” I told her and trudged back out to the car.
Toward the end of Thanksgiving break, on Sunday afternoon, there was a knock on the door. It was Leticia. I stood on the threshold staring at her.
“I tried to visit you,” I said quietly. “But your roommate kept lying—.”
Leticia seemed to be waiting for me to say something else, or to be invited into the house. She was in slick, tight jeans and fidgety Pumas and put weight on one leg then the other while we looked at each other. I struggled, in the meantime, to bring the picture of this woman together with the one I’d had in my mind all summer. I stared back at her, looking for something that was just out of focus.
“Oh God,” she said finally. “We’re back to this again—”
“I went down to the pond,” I cut her off. “While you were up at school. After that last time with your roommate.”
She stared at me dumbly.
“At night, you know, when no one was around.”
I decided midstream that these were the wrong words for Leticia. That she would turn and walk away. But I kept going, I don’t know why, because they were true.
“And cold. It was cold—.”
“You’re going to tell me you went out and drowned yourself again,” Leticia broke in quietly. Her eyes were open, but closed. Like she was in some kind of weird trance. “Because I ruined your life. And for the second time, you’re going to say, I wasn’t there to save you.”
She was crying a little, so her mascara was broadening beneath her eyes, raccooning her. “You’re going to tell me you can never look at me again without hating my guts.” Her whole face quivered and got even smaller than usual. I thought she was beautiful.
I waited and watched her. Fascinated. Everything started to tremble. All at once, her features collapsed together and contorted. She showed me the whole thing, in slow motion, making no effort to hide it. If anything, she brought herself closer. Lifting her bruised eyes to stare at me.
“No,” I said after a while. “I was just going to tell you I finally sat in your chair.”
Inside, the family had magically moved into the sitting room. On the long sloping couches, Leticia was suddenly, and for the first time, amongst them. Though we’d been nearly inseparable for the month of August, I’d never bothered to introduce her to anyone. She’d never once invited me over to her house. It had seemed irrelevant at the time. As if, despite all my fantasies of intimacy, we hadn’t gotten that far. Now she sat slumped on the couch near the fireplace beside me.
“This is Leticia,” I announced to my parents. I watched Tommy take her in.
“Yes, we suspected as much,” said my mother shyly and my father smiled.
We were all quiet. I suppose everyone was waiting for me to speak, to break the ice. But just as in the old days, the cat had my tongue. I sat there, at a small distance from Leticia, swooning in a deep, private silence.
“Are you guys dating?” asked Tommy at last, archly, aggressive in his tone.
I half stood up then sat back down. I felt myself redden and begin to sweat. When I turned toward Leticia, she had cleaned up her eyes and was smirking, having slumped even farther into our couch.
“How old are you?” asked Tommy, looking suddenly alert, interested.
“Old enough to be past my prime,” answered Leticia, grinning not at Tommy but at me, as though he didn’t exist. She was now nearly horizontal.
Tommy shifted forward on his opposing couch, forcing himself practically upright. His chest was puffed out and the solid wave of his hair swung across his brow and collected above one ear. My parents, I could just make out in the slow unfolding of these moments, were both staring at Leticia in something like amazement.
At the sound of Leticia’s voice and perhaps comforted by the strains of her wry humor, as though surfacing after so long and allowing myself to breathe, I suddenly came to. I abruptly leaned far over and down and pressed my lips onto hers. She had a look of genuine shock on her face as I closed in but, after that first moment, when she literally tried to spring upwards and the couch forbade it, didn’t resist me. After a few seconds, she even curled her honey-brown, aquatic hand around to the back of my head and locked me onto her.
“Leticia and I are in love,” I announced to the room, looking at no one in particular, once we’d both come up for air. “We’ve been in love since the summer.”
At this Leticia guffawed and slumped all the way down, her spine completely flat, as if we were back in the churchyard, but at a sharp angle, toward my shoulder. She nestled into me.
“It was quite a summer,” she added, grinning at the ceiling. “Really something.”
There was dead silence in the sitting room. My parents were slack-jawed. Tommy had eased himself back down. His hair had retreated. Leticia meanwhile folded her narrow hand neatly into mine. We looked hard at one another and before I knew it the others had all risen and quietly left the room.