It’s bad enough when we’re at home: watching Dad knock back his fourth scotch of the evening, rolling his eyes and insulting Mom with obvious disdain. Worse still is the way Mom doesn’t seem to mind. She loves him, through it all, turning a blind eye to all his drinking and late nights with his TAs over at the college. I can stay out of it, most of the time: study late at the library, work my after-school job at the art supply store. But here, together under one roof, with my older sister too?
I’m going to lose my mind.
The only reason I said ‘yes’ to this whole charade is that Mom asked me. No, more like she begged, all of us. For some reason, she’s got it into her head we’re going to be one big happy family for one last summer before I go off to art school in California in the fall. I’m counting down the days until I can put a thousand miles between me and Dad, and Carina too, but there’s one thing tainting the thought of my escape: the fact I’ll be leaving Mom too.
The thought of her, alone in that house, with no support against Dad’s bitter, drunken tirades… It fills me with a guilt and shame that only gets stronger, the closer I get to leaving. But part of me resents her for it too—she’s made her choice, she’s choosing to stay with him. Choosing to love him. So why should I feel so guilty, wanting to get the hell away from that toxic house and never make the same mistake as her, never settle for something so cold and silent and still? Love isn’t meant to be a prison like that, trapping you with fear and insecurity. She could go, find something better—hell, anything would be better than the life she has with him—but instead, she hangs on, through everything, waiting for the affection that never comes.
Not me. I brace myself against the splash of the cold surf, breathing in the salt and wind, and the curve of the distant horizon. I don’t know what my life will hold yet, I’m just on the edge of everything, but I swear, it will be better than this.
It has to be.
I stay on the beach taking photos for the rest of the afternoon. When I get back to the house, mom is asleep in the porch chair, so I scribble a note and leave it on the kitchen table.
Gone into town to explore. Back later.
I pause. I’m still dressed in the clothes from the journey out. My shorts and T-shirt are dry now after the rain, but wrinkled and scruffy. I quickly race upstairs and change, picking out a pretty tank top edged in lace, and some cute blue shorts. I catch sight of my reflection in the mirror as I pull the fresh shirt over my head. I blush.
This isn’t for him. I tell myself sternly. For all you know, Emerson doesn’t even live in town; he’s just passing through.
Still, that doesn’t stop me dabbing on some lip-gloss, and fixing my hair in a braid before thundering back downstairs and out to the garage, to pick out one of the rusted old bicycles and push off towards town.
The winding back-road is empty, and the sound of birdsong and rustle of the trees in the wind is a strange backdrop after our city suburb, with the lawns all trimmed neatly, and cookie-cutter houses laid out in straight lines. But as I cycle, I’m not thinking about the scenery, or the freedom of summer stretching out in front of me. There’s only one thing on my mind.
Emerson. I roll the name around my mind, feeling that anxious flutter in my stomach just at the thought of him. It’s crazy, I know, the way I fell to pieces just from one look of those midnight blue eyes. When I remember the way I stuttered and stared at him in a daze, it makes me hot with embarrassment all over again.
And just plain hot.
I grip the handlebars tighter. It was never a big deal in high-school, but now I’ve graduated – about to head off to college – I’m realizing just how inexperienced I am when it comes to guys. To sex. The truth is, the sum total of my romantic experience is a couple of sloppy makeout sessions in the back room of some basement party with a guy from this local garage band. My friend Shana was dating the lead singer, and so when it got late, and everyone else was pairing off, I’d wind up hanging with the drummer, playing video games and killing time waiting for our friends to be done doing… whatever they were doing.
But even then, hooking up with him was more curiosity than anything: an experiment, trying to figure out what it was that sent Shana giggling after her guy with that knowing smile on her face; that made the girls in school pour over their cellphones and ditch class to meet guys. But the experiments never worked. For all my drummer boy’s enthusiastic groping, all I felt was restless, detached. I never got it, never knew what it was I was missing out on.
Not until Emerson smiled at me.
Jesus. I try to shake the thought away as I turn off the dirt road onto Main Street. One smile—it’s like I’m so starved of male attention that I’m melting for the first guy to check me out. But even as I scold myself, I know it’s not true. The heat in his eyes as they trailed over my body lit some answering flame in me; nerves and synapses crackling to life with a deep pull I’d only ever glimpsed from far away. Call it desire, or lust, or just plain possibility, but it was something new. And now I’ve had a taste, I can’t help but look for him on every street as I cycle slowly through town, hoping to see that red truck parked on the corner, or his tall, muscular body strolling down the sidewalk.
I make a slow circuit down to the harbor and back, but it doesn’t take long for me to tour the entirety of Cedar Cove, and soon, I’m right back where I started. I pull over, fastening my bike up outside Mrs. Olsen’s, a cute little diner I remember serving the biggest ice-cream floats I’d ever seen. I must have been seven years old back then, but when I step inside the front door and the bell rings out, I swear, it hasn’t changed at all. Red chequered linoleum covers the floor, and a jukebox in the corner plays old Motown songs to the blue plate special crowd.