It's more of a short story than a novel
San Diego wasn’t like he thought it would be. Sure, the sun shone brightly everyday and hot girls were walking around in bikinis everywhere he looked, but he always assumed he’d like living there. Something about the place just didn’t feel right to him.
Aunt Carol never let him smoke in the house. It’s not that the rule was actually enforced, but the last time he came to visit and lit up inside, she began a twenty-minute rant about how smoking would kill him and damage her furniture.
He learned to take it outside.
He hadn’t been a heavy smoker until he came to the States. Back in London he only had one, maybe two cigarettes a day. Since he’d been in San Diego, he had become so reliant on their comfort he was going through half a pack a day. He knew that amount would only increase with his time there.
The sun was burning his legs, but he was enjoying his cigarette too much to go inside and put shorts on. He took a long drag and let the smoke play in his mouth before releasing it into the perfect San Diego air. Carol had a nice view from her front porch. There were nice things to look at while he smoked.
His hold on his cigarette was loose; a strong enough breeze would have knocked it out of his hands. That or a powerful stream of water.
“What the-“ his head whipped to the side to see his half burnt cigarette lying on the ground next to him in a puddle of water.
He turned back around to the source of the water. A girl was standing there, a hose, nozzle dripping, in one hand, a glass of pink lemonade in the other. Cut off jean shorts and a loose white tank top hung limply off her skin and bones body. Black ray bans covered her eyes while her feet were bare. Her long brown hair was sitting in a loose knot on the top of her head. Friendship bracelets covered her wrists. As soon as they made eye contact she put her mouth on the straw and took a long sip from her glass.
“What was that for?” he asked, standing up from his spot on the porch. She shrugged and kept the straw in her mouth, continuing to sip her lemonade. He just stared.
“How else was I going to get your attention?” she finally asked when it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything more. The lemonade was almost entirely gone.
“I don’t know. Maybe wave or say hi. Knocking a cigarette out of a guy’s hand with a hose isn’t exactly the kind of attention most people want, is it?”
“Yeah, but it worked.” He couldn’t argue with that. He couldn’t tell if she was for real or not. Nothing about her was easy to read.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I guess that was sort of a stupid question. Why would you make that up?”
He tried to respond, but was immediately cut off by her next question.
“What’s your name?”
“Kurt,” he answered, squinting. The sun was directly behind her head, yet she was the one wearing sunglasses.
“Kurt.” It was more of the question than a statement.
“Like Kurt Cobain,” she said.
“Yeah. Like Kurt Cobain,” he said, feeling cooler than he knew he should.
“Or that gay kid from Glee,” she said, the left side of her mouth rising into a smile.
“Yeah. Him too.” And just like that, the cool feeling was gone.
“Kurt,” she said again, rolling the name around in her mouth to see if she liked the taste. “I’m going to call you River.”
“Why River?” he asked, more than a little confused and, though he would never admit it, slightly offended. What was wrong with the name Kurt?
“Because I miss River Phoenix. I really do. There are no more actors as pure and genuine as he was. The good ones always die young, I swear to God. Just look at Heath Ledger and James Dean”
He tried to think of a clever way to respond. Nothing came to mind.
“Well, River’s cool, I guess.”
“It also sounds really hot when you say River.”
“Really?” he asked, trying to mask the smile that was forcing its way through to his face. She nodded, straw in mouth and finished her lemonade.
“Yup,” she said, turning and hacking her spit half way across her yard. “You got a pool at your place?”
“A house in San Diego that doesn’t have a pool? Jesus, that’s weird. Come over to mine.”
“Yeah. Grab some trunks and come on over. Or just swim naked. I’m easy,” she said, walking away from him and towards the gate that separated the front yard from the back. He didn’t attempt to move. He just watched her. When she reached the gate, she turned back to face him.
“Are you going to change or what?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, and walked into his house. He was glad Carol out; he didn’t want to have to explain to her where he was going. She’d ask a bunch of questions and become overly involved. He hated when adults tried to be overly involved. He couldn’t think of one instance when he genuinely hoped for an adult to ask him about his day.
The stairs creaked under his feet as he made his way up to the top floor. Aunt Carol had lived alone until he moved in. And she didn’t really have friends either. So her house had the bare essentials: a fridge, toilets, bed, the works. There was no artwork, no plants, no TV or stereo. The house looked nice from the outside; it fit in with the rest of the San Diego perfection. But the inside was almost eerie. Kurt hated to be in the house by himself. Which was why he spent most of the time outside.
The door to his bedroom was wooden. The same wood that was used on the walls. And the floor. And it always got stuck. Every time he tried to open it, he had to force it open with his shoulder.
When he finally got it open, he walked to his pitiful excuse for a dresser. He hadn’t brought much with him from London. He stared into the drawers that sat next to his tiny bed in the corner. He wondered if he had even brought swim trunks with him. He honestly couldn’t remember. He dug around for a minute, and luckily found a pair. The trunks were about as pitiful as the dresser.
They were the same pair he’d had since he was thirteen. Good thing he had stayed five-ten for the past four years.
He let his jeans fall to the floor around his ankles and stepped into the trunks. They still fit the way they always had. He left his white t-shirt on and headed back down the stairs.
0nce he was outside, he lit another cigarette and walked over to her back yard. The chain link fence was locked, but he didn’t have any trouble opening it up.
The back yard was pretty plain. Grass and palm trees were the only form of vegetation he could find. He kept walking until he saw the pool. The girl was lying on a Simba towel on a plastic beach chair. She was wearing the same friendship bracelets and sunglasses she had been wearing earlier, but she had changed into a plain black bikini. It made her tan skin look white. He didn’t mind.
“Hey,” she said, propping herself up on her elbow before crossing her legs under her body and sitting up.
“See how easy that was?” He asked, teasing her a bit. “You got my attention and you didn’t even spray me with a hose.”
“I’m also half naked. I had your attention before I even knew you were in the back yard.” He could feel his face getting hot.
“I guess that’s true,” he said, taking a seat on the chair next to hers and setting his cigarette package and lighter on the ground next to him. She laughed.
When she laughed, it was a real laugh. None of those fake little giggles most girls did. She threw her head back and laughed. It was such a friendly sound that he couldn’t help but smirk along with her.
When she calmed down, she directed her head towards him.
“So what brings you to the Golden State?”
“Trouble at home. I sort of wanted to be in a place where people didn’t know me, you know? Things were just getting weird, I guess.”
She stared at him. He wished he could see her eyes. He inhaled and let the smoke distract him.
“You don’t really want to talk about it, do you?”
“That’s cool. So what are your plans for when you’re here?”
“I don’t know. Just living with my aunt. Painting a little bit.”
“You can paint?” she asked, nearly jumping out of her chair.
“I mean, are you a good painter? Like, are you legit or are you one of those people who says they can paint just because they can hold a brush?”
“No, I can actually paint. I’ve gotten national recognition back home for my paintings.”
She smiled widely at him. Her teeth were perfect.
“That’s so cool. I’ve always wanted to be good at something like that.”
“Why couldn’t you be?” he asked, letting his cigarette fall to the ground and stomping it out with his bare heel. She shrugged.
“I don’t know. No one’s ever taught me maybe?”
“I could teach you,” he offered, keeping his eyes set on the cigarette’s ashy remains.
“You probably could,” she said. He looked up to see her smiling. “Or you could just paint me.”
“Yeah. I’ve always wanted someone to paint a picture of me. A good picture, you know? I think that would be so cool.”
“Sure, I could paint you.”
“That’s so awesome!” They way she said it, it almost came out as a squeal, but he could tell she wasn’t the type of girl who squealed. “How long would it take, do you think?”
“Just depends,” he said, stretching out on his chair, letting the sun absorb his body. “I mean if it’s on a large canvas it will obviously take longer than a small canvas. And if you want it to be just you or some sort of elaborate background. Depends on the type of paint. Just little factors like that.”
“I want it to be on a big canvas and of just me. You know how celebrities get those huge pictures taken of themselves all the time? I want it like that but with a painting. I’ve lived two hours away from LA my entire life and I’ve never had anything cool like that done. But I’ve always wanted to. I want to be a celebrity so bad.”
“Why’s that?” he asked, eyes closed.
She didn’t respond for a moment. He could tell by her silence that she’d never really thought about it extensively before.
“I don’t know. I just want to be famous. I mean, I really, really want to be famous. I want people to see me on the streets and know who I am. Is that weird?”
“Not at all.”
“Have you ever wanted to be famous?”
He thought about it for a second.
“No, not really.” She didn’t say anything. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s as good as people make it seem. Plus, I don’t think I’d do well in that sort of limelight. I think being famous is good for a certain type of people, but I don’t think I’m that type of person.”
“Am I?” she asked. Something about the question was reserved, yet somehow completely open at the same time.
“I mean, I think so. I don’t really know you all that well.”
“You don’t have to know me that well. Do you know anyone famous that well? I think you probably base it off the first impression, don’t you?”
“Well, if we’re going by first impressions, then I would say so, yeah.”
“Good.” He could hear her get up off the chair, but didn’t bother opening his eyes to look at her- he didn’t want to seem too desperate. He didn’t open his eyes until he heard a splash. When he raised his head, she was completely submerged. He waited for a few seconds before her head popped up above the surface.
“It feels really good,” she said, dragging out the words like she was singing a song. He smiled. It was then he realized that he couldn’t deny anything that came out of her mouth. He had known her for less than an hour and already she had him completely in the palm of her hand. She could tell him to set every house on the block on fire and he would willingly oblige. He stood up and yanked of his shirt, before tossing it on the chair.
“Ow, ow!” she called from the pool, letting out a laugh and reclining on her back. He smiled a shy smile and walked to the edge of the pool, looking down at his stomach the whole time. He wasn’t fat, but there was definitely nothing to cheer about there. He wondered how the water could possibly be so still with someone in it. It was probably because she was so damn skinny. The water barely rippled around her frail body.
“Get in,” she called again, drifting toward him and sinking lower beneath the surface. Almost her entire body was submerged. The only parts that stuck out above the water were her black Ray Bans and he top of her soaked head. He looked down at the water and jumped in.
The California sun had done nothing for the temperature of the water. As soon as his body made contact, he could feel himself shrivel up in an attempt to preserve body heat. It didn’t work.
“Jesus Christ, this pool is freezing!” he exclaimed after shooting up above the surface. He clutched his arms around his sides as tightly as he could manage. He wanted to get out and lay in the sun, but he didn’t want to look weak. After all, she looked just fine, and he had at least three times that body fat she had. Though most people did, he assumed.
“It’s not heated.”
“Thanks for the heads up.”
“If I had told you, you wouldn’t have gotten in. Besides, it feels good. I love the cold.”
“I hate it. That’s why I was so eager to leave London.”
“Well, you came to the right place if you like constant sunshine,” she said. For a while, they said nothing. They just drifted lazily around each other, as if they were secretly sizing each other up for some sort of fight.
She drifted slowly towards the shallow end, never taking her eyes off him, before diving underwater and into a handstand. Her legs were perfectly still above the water and then they slowly started moving away. He could tell she was walking away on her hands. He wanted to follow her. He liked the look of her perfect smooth legs. Then she stopped. Her legs shot down and her head shot back up. The glasses hadn’t even quivered from the spot where they rested on the bridge of her nose.
“I wasn’t always completely mediocre, you know.” He didn’t know how to respond. He hadn’t known her for long enough to contradict her statement. So he said nothing.
“I used to be a gymnast. Number one on the west coast, number four in the nation.”
“Wow, that’s impressive.” He liked talking with her, but he felt like he never had anything to say. She would throw things in his face and he’d respond with meaningless one-liners. “Why’d you quit?”
“High school girls letting the competition get the best of them. I was pretty hated because of my talent. And I hurt both my wrists at the end of last season. The doctor said I couldn’t have continued with it even if I wanted to.”
“What happened to them?” he asked, his body slowly getting used to the temperature. He treaded water to keep the warmth circulating through his veins.
She paused for a second, and even though he couldn’t see her eyes, he could tell she was looking off somewhere only she was familiar with.
“Well, I can’t give you the scientific terminology or anything. All I know is that I came down on them wrong doing a trick on the floor.”
“God, that sucks. I can’t even imagine having to quit painting. That would kill me.”
“Yeah, not being able to perform anymore killed me too. But you get used to it over time.”
“So you probably can’t do any sports now, huh?” She nodded. “And you can’t paint. What do you do when you’re not at school?”
“Hang out. Be anti-social.” He cocked an eyebrow in her direction, not fully believing what she was telling him.
“I find it hard to believe that you’re anti-social.”
“You also just met me an hour ago.”
“What happened to your first impression philosophy?” She grinned a little bit and shrugged. “And how many anti-social people do you know who get other people’s attention by shooting their cigarette out of their hand with a garden hose?”
It took her a moment to think about. She looked down at the water before coming up with an adequate response.
“Ok, well, I guess I’m just anti-social with the people at my school. I go to a really small school and for some reason gymnastics is, like, really popular there. I mean, we have the fan base most high school football teams envy. So it was pretty easy for all the other gymnasts to turn literally everyone against me.”
“What a b**** move.”
“Tell me about it. It’s like something straight out of a reality TV show. Petty, wanna-be Orange County girls revolving their lives around drama.”
“What did you do to make them turn against you like that?”
“Well, let’s see. I transferred there two summers ago, before my sophomore year, and when I tried out I made number one spot on varsity, no sweat. So that gave all the seniors and other varsity members a reason to dislike me. And then I started winning all sorts of titles and stuff for the school, which they really didn’t like. I had single handedly won more awards my first year on the team than all of them together had won the year before, which is saying a lot because the team has a lot of talent, as much as I hate to admit it. So that’s another reason they didn’t like me. I feel petty saying they didn’t like me purely because they were jealous, but that’s the only reason I can come up with. I can honestly say I never did anything negative to those girls. Except,” she trailed off. He waded toward her, legitimately interested in whatever this ‘except’ might be.
“Well, I did sort of steal the boyfriend of the girl who had been in the number one varsity spot the year before. But in my defense, I had no idea he was her boyfriend. He started flirting with me on my first day and it wasn’t like I was going to pass up the opportunity to have a hot senior boyfriend at my new school. I mean, what girl would turn that down? So we started going out and like a day later all of these girls on the team come up to me and they’re like, “You whore! Brian was Jordan’s boyfriend! You stole him from her, you stupid b****!” And, you know, stuff like that. And, I mean, I didn’t really care. If she couldn’t hold onto a boyfriend, that was her problem. But then she turned it into my problem.”
“She paid one of Brian’s closest friends to say I gave him a blow job at a party.”
“I know. Completely bogus. But Brian dumped me even though he knew I was out of town that night and he knew that I thought his friend Josh was the most disgusting thing that ever came into my life. I guess he had been looking for an excuse to dump me. It didn’t look good going out with the most hated girl in school. So I had no boyfriend, people who didn’t previously know about our fighting now thought I was a total whore, and the gymnastics girls started bullying me. Like, TV worthy bullying. I mean, I didn’t know that girls would actually go out of their way to bully people. I thought that was just a rumor someone made up so everyone would just get along in high school.”
There was only one question he could ask after hearing something like that, but he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate or not. But something about the way she talked made him know that she wanted him to ask.
“What did they do?” he asked cautiously, waiting for rejection to be thrown violently in his face. But none came. She jut rested her head back on the water and let out a deep breath.
“It wasn’t too bad at first. Just the occasional nasty texts or posts on my Facebook wall. I could deal with those. I just blocked their numbers and their pages. When they caught on that attacking me with technology wasn’t working out the way they planned, they started to come at me physically. I’m a naturally small person, but they started putting these weird weight loss things in my water bottle. I mean, I used to be small, but now I’m tiny. I hate the way I look now,” She muttered the last part so he could barely hear her. “One point them.”
He tried to interject to tell her not to give them any sort of credit, but she didn’t even give him time to open his mouth.
“And, I mean, they would trip me and throw pencils at me and shove me into lockers and s***. I don’t know. It sucked.”
“Did you do anything about it?”
“Yeah, I actually got the whole thing resolved. I’m being completely serious. But they still don’t like me because I brought attention to the fact that they were making every waking moment of my life a living hell. So they’re still mad at me, because they were being horrible people.”
He waded back in the pool. Letting the entire story seep into his head.
“What jerks,” he finally said.
“Tell me about it,” she muttered. “But I guess I’m better off. I don’t want to hang out with people who would do something like that to me.”
He nodded slowly, making a sincere effort to bring his head back up each time it had dropped. He had known her for an hour and a half at the most, and already he knew just about everything about her. Her dreams, her life, her accomplishments.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how do you have so many friendship bracelets if you didn’t have any friends? No offense.”
“None taken,” she smirked. “Good question. See, I went to this summer camp every year and in the down time literally all we did was make friendship bracelets. I’ve kept every bracelet anyone’s ever made for me. And for the last year or so, my camp friends have been the only friends I have. Too bad they all live in the north east by the camp.”
He nodded and lifted his feet off the bottom of the pool, letting the tiny ripples in the water move his floating body.
“Have you ever been to camp?” she asked, in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood.
“No,” he said, looking down at his pale arms. “We could never afford it. I used to get sick a lot and so all of our money went to paying for hospital bills.”
“Oh,” she said awkwardly.
She lightly drew circles on the surface of the water while he watched, not understanding how he could be so fascinated with one tiny hand gesture. He was a little relieved she had decided to stop talking and almost grateful for the uncomfortable pause; it gave him time to think about everything she had just given him.
“Sorry I had to lay all that on you. You barely even know me.” It was like she was reading his mind.
“Don’t worry about it. Sometimes it just feels better to vent about things.”
“I heard that,” she scoffed, and dove back under the water. She swam past him, her body just barely skimming the bottom of the pool. He watched her from the moment she went under to the moment she emerged on the other side. She placed her hands on the side of the pool and propelled herself out of the water. She sat on the edge and slipped her thumb under her mass of friendship bracelets in an attempt to massage her wrists before standing up and grabbing her Simba towel. She wrapped herself in the towel and sat back down on the chair. The towel covered her entire body and she was almost a complete bundle of fabric. She looked like she was asleep, but he couldn’t tell. She never took off her glasses.
He used the ladder to get out the pool, even though he didn’t have damaged wrists. His shirt was where he’d left it. The warm cotton felt good against his shivering body. There was only a slight breeze, but it was enough to make him tremble, just a little bit. He went back to the chair next to hers and lay down on his back once more. The rays seemed to fill every pore in his body. His skin had never felt so good.
“So, do you think you could maybe paint me tomorrow?” Her lips were the only part of her body that moved. She still looked like she was asleep.
“Yeah, sure.” Her grin took up her entire face. When she smiled, her cheeks filled her face, and her glasses rose well above her eyebrows.
“Right on. Do you have supplies with you or do you need to go get some? Because I could give you money and I know an art supply place in town that’s pretty good.”
“I hate to ask, but yeah, if I could borrow some money that would be great. I didn’t bring much over with me.”
“Don’t worry about it. There’s money in my bag, just grab how much you think you’ll need.”
After a quick pause, he turned to look in her direction.
“You want me to go now?” he asked, propping himself up on his right arm to get a better look at her.
“Yeah, why not?” she responded, not even bothering to move to face him. “If you get the stuff now you won’t have to waste time getting it tomorrow.”
He shrugged and stood up.
An orange purse was leaning gently against the other side of her chair. He walked over to it and took his time crouching down beside her.
When she had said there was money in her purse, she meant it literally. Bills littered the inside, and that was all.
“You don’t believe in wallets?” he asked, jokingly, pulling out a couple of twenties that were sitting at the top of the bag. Then he grabbed the rest, not knowing how things were priced in California. He didn’t want to show up short.
“They’re too time consuming. It’s easier if you can just reach in and grab your money. I also don’t believe in banks, which is why there’s so much hanging out in there.” While he was rummaging through her bag, she had uncurled her body and was laying flat on the chair. Her upper half was still completely covered by the towel, but from the thigh down was exposed.
He rubbed his hand across his eyes and then through his hair before shaking his sight away from her.
“So where is this place?” he asked, sitting down again on the chair across from her.
She sat up so quickly he thought she might fall back down the other way. In the upright position, she let the towel slide of her shoulders and lay in a heap around her sides.
“It’s so easy to get there from here. So basically you just keep going straight down our street until you get to Market Street and then make a right. It’s on the right hand side next to Ace Hardware. You can’t miss it.” She used the most absurd and unneeded hand gestures when she gave directions.
“And I’m assuming you’re not coming?” The look on her face was almost queasy. She picked up the towel and wrapped it around her shoulders again.
“After last school year I sort of prefer to just stay at my house.” Her gaze was fixed on the concrete that lay below her feet. He waited for her to give him anything else, but she said nothing.
“Alright,” he said, folding up the bills carefully before tucking them into the pocket of the swim trunks. He grabbed his cigarettes and lighter from the ground next to his chair and stood up. “I’ll be on my way then.”
He left without hearing another word from her.