By Kath Richards
|Photo by Rendan Lovell|
Nora hooded a hand over her eyes, a feeble attempt at blocking the yellow light blistering through the window of her cousin’s PT Cruiser. Talia had burst into Nora’s room an hour before, all energy and makeup and clothes that Nora had to borrow—no buts—because Nora had a great ass and the dress never looked right on Talia anyway.
“I’ve got a headache,” Nora had said. Talia just rifled through her child-sized purse and dropped a bottle of Motrin into Nora’s lap before plugging in her curling iron.
Talia had been right, at least—the dress made her ass look terrific, but it was tight under the arms and about four inches shorter than Nora was used to. Her bare thighs adhered to the cracked leather seats as they rolled towards the lake.
She was already sweating.
“I want to go home,” Nora said again, “it’s too hot for a barbeque today.”
“Don’t be like that,” Talia said. “And what do you mean, too hot? Don’t even try.”
Nora said nothing.
“It’ll be fun,” she added. “Everyone’s excited to see you after all that.”
“All that,” Nora repeated.
All that could mean anything. Nora’s shiny degree—interior design completed in four years, summa cum laude, thanks—or her dad’s heart attack, maybe. The way she’d made a mad dash out of this town like everyone was contagious only to move back six years later to take over running the café like it was no big deal—as if she deserved to be back in everyone’s good graces and wasn’t the least bit bitter about uprooting her entire life in Arizona. Could even be the new haircut, she guessed.
Talia turned up the radio.
“Who?” Nora said.
“This is the new Adele.”
“No, who’s excited to see me?”
“Oh,” Talia said. “Everyone.”
“Yeah? Thom even?”
Talia shot a look at Nora over these tiny leopard-print glasses perched on her nose.
“I think he’s busy,” Talia said, and then, “I thought you were over all that.”
“All that,” Nora said and rested her head against the window.
Across town, Thom was considering all that.
His classroom (along with the entire school) was empty. The school year hadn’t started yet, but Thom was there to move the desks around and pin up the example graphs and times-tables he’d collected over the last few years. This, unfortunately, had only taken about thirty minutes.
Pacing about the clusters of desks, Thom read his brother’s text again.
BBQ @ the lake tonight for Nora. 6 PM. Bring that lemon shit if you can.
Thom sent back, I’ll see if I can get out of work. That lemon shit was actually just cans of limoncello La Croix, which he could easily pick up on the way if he was going, if he had time, if a lot of things.
It had been four hours since he got that text, six since his mom called to ask if he’d seen sweet Nora Goodwin since she moved back to town, and how was her dad doing after all that heart attack business?
He was driving to the gym when she called. Thom could only say that he knew there was a heart attack and Mr. Goodwin didn’t die, thank God, but he didn’t know that Nora was coming back and that she was back as soon as right now and he could drive past her at any moment.
He told his mom he’d call her back and turned the sedan around, heading directly for the school where he had been since.
And he couldn’t go, right?
Thom still grimaced when he remembered what he could of that night. He’d been sick from cinnamon vodka, eighteen years old, looking up at the fat full moon the night of senior prom. Thom remembered telling Jeremy Chandler about why he didn’t have a date, about Nora’s break-up text. It was a cloudless midnight. Thom had known she’d be at the lake, probably alone, probably swimming, probably naked, and he told Jeremy as much. Jeremy had poured another shooter into Thom’s Big Gulp of Dr. Pepper and loaded him into the back seat of his truck.
Thom had blacked out for a while after that, but with whatever was left of his consciousness, he’d deluded himself into believing they weren’t going to the lake. They weren’t going to show up there with half of the baseball team behind them, and if they did, Nora wouldn’t be there, anyway. But Jeremy was a cruel person, and Thom felt the truck rumbling over the gravel road to the lake, and she was always there because nobody else ever was.
Thom had been no help when they got there; the baseball team was quick to leer and holler and take photos. They might have been called off by Thom if he wasn’t busy spewing, (the vodka burned more on its way out) but at least Talia had heard about it and showed up with her teeth bared and prom dress all ruined by the mud.
It’s no big deal, Thom remembered Jeremy shouting, Just a joke. Jeremy probably still has a scar on his cheek from Talia’s nails.
Thom could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen or talked to Nora since, which was impressive since you could hardly step out of your house in this town without seeing someone you knew, and she was always back for Thanksgiving.
She’d told him she was over it, but she didn’t want to talk to him anymore.
Now everything he knew about her life he’d heard from someone else or gleaned from her occasional Facebook posts. If she’d moved back, was it alone? He could handle it if she had a boyfriend. It had been years, after all.
If she was with someone, he’d have moved to town with her, surely. Maybe he was weird-looking, this boyfriend, or maybe he just didn’t really know Nora.
Thom let out a startled laugh because, all these years later, he didn’t really know Nora anymore either.
He unlocked his phone and looked at the text again.
When Nora and Talia finally drove into the dirt parking lot, Talia smeared on a purple-tinted lip gloss and pinched her cheeks. Nora pushed out of the car, her legs peeling away from the leather, leaving the skin bright pink and stinging like a fresh sunburn.
“Behave,” Talia said. “This is a party for you. Be nice.”
Nora did not want to behave. She wanted to kick off Talia’s plastic sandals and peel off the dress, push past everyone with their lukewarm beer and Pringles, and head straight for the water, letting the bite of the sun-warmed snow-melt shock the skin between her fingers and the entirety of her scalp as she dove in. She didn’t want to think about how she’d ended up at the same barbeque as everyone she’d thought would be stifled by this town; she wanted to hold her breath and scream beneath the surface until her throat ached, like she used to.
“You said you would try,” Talia said, and she was so earnest about it. So hopeful and sweet and excited to have Nora back in town. Nora nodded.
She made polite conversation, laughed when she was supposed to, held her old friends’ babies and gushed about their noses and toes, and told stories about life in Phoenix when she was asked. These people had been nice to her in high school when she was focused solely on getting out of this place, and they were nice to her now, too, which she was wise enough to know she did not deserve.
And then Thom showed up because of course he would show up, and to anyone watching, he was happy to see Nora. He smiled with his hands stuffed in his jean pockets, looking all too much like he had in high school. His smile was still lopsided, a crease now forming in his cheek from the expression, and one of his bottom front teeth still crooked.“Happy to see you,” he even said.
“Happy to see you,” Thom said, which was a lie. He wasn’t happy to see her, he was elated, intoxicated on the sight of her, his skin buzzing and jaw aching from holding back a grin. Thom had graduated college, placed in track tournaments all around the country—even studied in Brazil for a semester—became an uncle two times over, watched the 2016 Olympics in person, and yet seeing her now, he was fifteen again, her best friend (her only real friend, she used to say), and just as obsessed as he’d been then.
Nora looked less impressed.
She sat on the edge of the dock that stretched out over the lake, where kids glided atop paddle boards or splashed in their faded life jackets. Thom sat down next to her, their sides not touching. If they were, he would detonate, no doubt.
“Yeah,” Nora said and pushed her hair behind both ears. She had a new piercing above the old one on her earlobe, both with little hoops. Her hands rested at her neck for a moment before dropping back to her lap.
Thom was staring.
He cleared his throat.
“Did you get a burger?” she asked before he could say something substantial, which he probably wouldn’t have been able to anyway.
“Not yet, no.”
Thom held up a can of something… sparkling water? Nora was certain that he never would have drunk that in high school—would have said that if something was going to act like a soda, it should go all the way or not at all.
“Brought these,” he said. “Ted loves them.”
“Oh,” Nora said and glanced at the shore where his brother Ted was flipping burgers on the little charcoal grill.
Thom looked like she remembered, just held himself taller, less acne, with wider shoulders. She’d seen on Facebook that he graduated with a degree in math teaching and now was doing that while coaching the basketball and track teams at the high school. Unmarried, but he’d been “in a relationship” with Melanie from two grades below them for a couple of years and then not in another since. Nothing Facebook official, at least.
Nora did not look the same, she figured, because it was probably impossible to look just like you did six years after you graduated high school. She had the haircut, for one thing.
“Surprised you’re not in there,” Thom said motioning with his face towards the lake.
“Yeah, well,” Nora’s feet kicked at the cool water, “you know.”
He nodded as if he did know and Nora nodded back, both of their heads going at it like that for a moment too long before Nora pulled her feet out of the water and stood up.
“I’m gonna…” she motioned vaguely in the direction of the food tables on the shore. “Yep.”
After the party at the lake, Talia drove Nora home, and the two of them sang to Destiny’s Child with the windows down, humid air moving through the car as they shouted the lyrics.
They’d been at the lake for hours and Nora was exhausted, but her cousin really was sweet and Nora had said she would try, so she turned up the volume as high as the tinny speakers would allow without crackling, and the two of them sang. It was the same CD they’d used as kids to choreograph dances for their parents. The disk was scratched and skipped during “Bills, Bills, Bills,” but the cousins knew when to halt before resuming in the chorus.
Her dad was asleep in the living room and Nora nudged him awake, dropped a dose of heart medicine into his palm with a glass of water, and then shooed him off the couch. Yes, the party was fun, yes, she had a nice time, no, it wasn’t too hot outside, he should sleep, she would see him in the morning.
She knew she should go to sleep herself so she might be at Fishhooks with the sunrise, but her fingertips were tingling, so she plucked the key to her dad’s truck from the hook by the door. Her sedan sat in the carport as she left, but it felt almost irreverent to take it.
It didn’t take long to rattle back to the lake where everyone had long since gone home or relocated to continue their parties elsewhere. The surface was like a portal, this gaping maw in the earth reflecting the moon, which was so low it lit the lake and every tree on its bank.
Nora kicked off the sneakers she’d changed into and deposited her bra and her cousin’s dress in a heap atop them. Sprinting across the dock and shrieking as she jumped, the soles of her feet touched the water first and then the rest of her as the water gobbled her up and held her under for just a moment before she pushed back to the top.
A few minutes were needed to go through the hoops of her ritual, gulping air before ducking beneath the surface and emptying her lungs with as great a scream as she could muster until she had to resurface. The bubbles swarmed around her face, tickling her cheeks, and her throat ached, but she went on until she was panting and laughing to herself.
She lifted her hips and stretched her arms away from her sides. Nora pined for this moon in Phoenix, for the feeling of floating on her back and looking at the mammoth orb hanging heavy over everything.
A bit of splashing shook her from her reverie. Her hair pooled just around her shoulders as she looked towards the dock where Thom, of course Thom, sat with his ankles in the lake.
He was looking at her, but also not looking at her, naked as she was, and there was no way for her to tell that he was blushing, but she could tell. It had been easier to pretend that she didn’t want him to show up when he wasn’t sitting there like that.
She paddled towards the creaking dock, and Thom’s face pinched like he was about to say something, but as he breathed in to speak, Nora ducked beneath the water. She held her breath for as long as she could before popping back up.
After a stunned moment, Thom opened his mouth again, but Nora was beneath the surface before his voice could reach her ears. After two more goes of this, Thom was laughing, his hands up in surrender.
His laugh, at least, was the same as she remembered.
“Just you here this time?” She’d meant it to sound teasing, but it was earnest instead.
“Nora—”“You have to get in if you want to say something,” she said, so he did.
Thom thought that swimming naked in the middle of the night with this Nora would be a lot like it had been with younger Nora, when it had been so routine they hardly blinked. This was like the first time, when they were barely sixteen, and Nora had made him turn around while she stripped off her shorts and shirt and rushed into the water, which was freezing but their cheeks and necks were hot. Back then, they’d both ducked under to see who could scream louder, and they’d done it again and again until they weren’t so nervous anymore.
Now, Nora and Thom treaded water just across from each other, close enough that if one of them reached out they could touch the other’s arm. Thom looked at the trees around the lake, else at her hair, but not her shoulders and certainly not her eyes, which he knew were watching him.
Nora could just make out the goosebumps across his collarbones.
His eyes squeezed shut as he took a lungful of air in before sliding beneath the water and shouting. Nora couldn’t hear it, but she knew because bubbles floated from where his head retreated each time. He kept going until his chest was heaving.
Thom’s hair was stuck to his forehead and water dripped off his weird cute nose, and it was too much like a memory for Nora’s comfort. Like six years and two college degrees between them didn’t separate this moment from the dozens they’d shared like it.
“I’m going,” she said before turning to swim towards where her shoes sat.
“Wait,” his palm on her arm was so warm she thought it could have burned her. “I’m sorry, can we just…”
She let him trail off without responding and raised her eyebrows because she was certainly not going to help him through this one and, besides, still had half a mind to swim right to shore and shiver towards the truck and all the way home.
“I missed you,” Thom said.
Thom studied her face, which was as no-nonsense as she could make it, before shaking his head slowly.
“What?” he said.
Nora snorted. Said that whoever he missed wasn’t who she was now and if that wasn’t obvious yet it would soon become clear to him and everyone in this damn town that she could never be the city girl they thought she’d become but she wasn’t who she’d been before, either. And just because she hadn’t gone and gotten drafted by the MLB like Jeremy Fucking Chandler, the literal worst person in the world, that didn’t mean that she’d failed out there and come back to lick her wounds and work for her dad, that wasn’t it at all and yes—she sighed—obviously people know that, Thom, but it didn’t mean it didn’t feel like that every time she stepped out of the house, every time she woke up and pulled clothes out of boxes because she couldn’t bring herself to unpack into the room that felt more like an artifact than anything else.
A shiver made its way from Nora’s head to her toes when she was done and Thom inclined his head toward the shore.
“C’mon. I brought towels,” he said, because he knew she’d forget, and she had. She dropped beneath the water one last time before following.
Thom watched in his peripheral as Nora sat huddled beneath one of the striped beach towels he threw in his trunk before leaving that night. They were the same towels he had the last time he’d seen her, and he’d wrapped one around her then, too, after pulling off Talia and barrelling sloppy fists into Jeremy’s face a few times himself.
Nora looked out at the lake, her teeth chattering sometimes.
If they were seventeen, he’d have his arm around her and his nose pressed against her hair because it would smell like her shampoo and lake water, and he loved that combination. Now, they sat next to each other, but not close, and all Thom could smell was the fabric softener he’d used on the towels.
“I’m sorry about your dad,” Thom said.
“He’s okay,” she said, voice small.
“Good of you to come back to help him.”
Nora was quiet.
“Think you’ll stay a while?” he asked.
The water was lightly lapping against the dock and the shore, and some cicadas were going at it with their thrumming.
“It’s stupid,” Thom said, “but I think about you all the time.”
His wince was immediate with the realization that it was probably the weirdest, most wrong thing to say and Nora snorted again which practically proved it.
“I wonder about how you’re doing. If you’ve heard the same music as me, what the weather is like where you are, that sort of thing,” he said, meeting her eyes and then glancing away.
“I don’t,” she said, and then, “I haven’t. Not really.” But she was looking at him and then not looking at him, and her eyes were moving when she said it.
“Sometimes I’m still mad at you,” she said. “I know it was just high school and not even that bad but I was just, God I was so mad at you.”
“You should be,” Thom said. “Could be mad forever, I think.”
They breathed, looking at each other. Nora’s toes were dug into the cold sand, her hands were tight around the corners of the towel.
“I didn’t come to beg your forgiveness, I just,” Thom started and trailed off. He looked at her lips and then forced himself to quit that. He looked at the lake instead.
“It’s okay if you’re never over it—” he shook himself. “I knew you would forget your towel because you’re always doing that,” Thom whispered, and Nora’s eyes roamed all over his face in a way that made him want to bury himself or sweep back into the water or kiss her on the mouth.
Nora stood up and wiped sand from the bottoms of her feet before stuffing them into her sneakers. Thom looked pointedly away from her until she’d picked up the dress and wrangled it over her skin. He watched as she patted her hair with the towel, before holding it out to Thom.
“I don’t want to talk anymore,” she said.
Thom nodded and stood to take the towel, keeping his eyes low.
Before he could grab the towel though, she pulled it back, just a bit. Thom looked to her face, which, he remembered from earlier, was stippled with freckles like it hadn’t been before. All sorts of them on her cheeks and nose and forehead.
“Maybe tomorrow night though,” she said. “If you bring the towels.”