John’s friends are busy competing to see how many fries they can fit into their mouths, or how fast they can chug their milkshakes. They’re laughing and jostling one another in the cramped confines of the booth, throwing balled-up napkins at one another and belching and snickering.
He laughs at them enough so they don’t notice how distracted he really is. His attention is not on eating competitions or belching contests.
It’s on the girl wearing the cherry-printed dress in the booth by the door.
Now and then the summer breeze blows through the plastic strips hanging over the entrance, and her hair waves lazily around her face. Her lips are painted red and before she takes a sip of her milkshake, she swirls the straw around in order to stir up the ice cream.
He thinks she’s pretty, and he’s embarrassed, because he doesn’t think that he’s meant to find girls pretty. He’s meant to find them sexy or foxy or – or something. Pretty doesn’t seem right. It seems embarrassingly real and somewhat pathetic, like suddenly he’s revealing too much instead of hiding behind a curtain of smug remarks deemed suitable by his peers.
Tim is declared the winner of the fry-eating contest. He downs the rest of his soda in celebration, and then nudges John to get out of the booth. He slides out and his friends follow, talking about heading down to the beach in an effort to catch some sun – and maybe some skin, if they’re lucky and if there are girls in flimsy bikinis.
He casts one last, longing look at the girl by the door as he passes by. She ignores him, listening intently to her friend’s chatter and stirring the ice cream in her milkshake with her straw.
The sun is almost too bright. The sidewalk is jam-packed with other kids revelling in their summer break. They shout and laugh, jostling one another as they head for the beach or the cool shade of the diners and arcades and little tourist shops lining the street.
John and his friends head for the sand, following the sloping street, their flip flops slapping against their heels and the sun beating down on their shoulders. They pass by swarms of girls, all giggling and tanned, some of them shiny with suntan oil, and John feels a tightening in his belly as he catches eyefuls of bare skin and bikinis.
One of the swarms attaches itself to their group, and soon there’s a tall blonde brushing her bare arm against John’s and asking him where he’s from.
“Hartford,” he says. “Connecticut.”
She says she grew up in Rhode Island, and by the time they get to the beach, she’s slipped her hand into his and is asking him to help her with her suntan lotion.
He smiles, because it’s summer break and because he’s been lucky enough to catch a girl most days he’s been here. It’s something his friends joke about, and it’s something that sometimes makes him feel a little self-conscious. Mostly, though, he feels pleased.
But when he pours the oil into his palm and runs it over the blonde’s shoulders, he starts to wish he had better luck at attracting certain girls to him. The ones he really wanted.
Like the ones that wear cherry-printed dresses.
John’s days often begin late. Usually he wakes still tasting of beer, and the sun is already high in the sky. Sometimes there’s a girl in the bed with him. Sometimes they’re easy to shake, sometimes they’re not.
It’s not that he’s against having just one girl, exactly. It’s just that he’s on vacation, and everyone his age is looking for multiples of everything. He figures this part of his life isn’t going to last forever. He figures a different girl every couple of days is a pretty sweet deal. It’s summer, and he’s young. There’s time to settle down later. Right?
He doesn’t ever tell the girls he’s looking for something serious. That way, he feels justified when he denies them more of himself. He still feels a little uncomfortable when it becomes obvious to them he’s no longer interested. But their heartache never lasts long – they’re on vacation too, after all, and there are plenty of others to fill his place.
Still, it makes him uneasy, and it makes him wonder if he was cut out for this in the first place. It makes him wonder why he came here, if this is all there is. He worries that maybe he’s getting a little too good at swapping one girl for another, and he knows that deep down it’s something he doesn’t want to be good at.
John and his friends spend the afternoons on the beach. There are always parties. There’s always alcohol, and music. Sometimes someone will pass a joint around. He always passes it on, because somewhere in there, even under the alcohol and the heady scent of summer and girls, John Pike knows that getting caught with a joint in his hand isn’t a good idea.
He hasn’t seen the girl in the cherry-printed dress again. He wonders why he’s still thinking about her.
He puts his arm around a tanned brunette in denim cut-offs and a string bikini top, and she grins at him in the light of the bonfire.
“I’m Mandy,” she breathes in his ear.
“I’m John,” he says, and she presses her lips against the side of his neck.
He sees the girl again when he’s swimming.
She’s in a blue dress this time, and the bottom of it is wet around her knees. She’s shrieking and laughing, running towards the waves and squealing when the cold water rushes over her ankles.
John is so busy watching her, Tim tips him up and he flounders about in the waves for a solid minute, trying to find his feet again as his friends roar with laughter and push him over again, dunking him beneath the water.
He’s choking when he finally surfaces with salt in his eyes. “Assholes,” he says.
They laugh, and Tim splashes him. “Stay alert, Pike.” He launches himself forwards into a wave, cutting cleanly through the water, carving a strong stroke towards two girls who are watching him with admiration.
The girl – the pretty girl, the one in John’s head with cherry prints and red lips – she’s still on the beach, wandering along the wet sand, one hand clenching the soaked hem of her dress.
He wants to go and talk to her. He finds it easy to talk to the other girls. He puts his arm around them and they lean against him and flutter their lashes at him.
This girl, though, keeps him frozen, and he let the waves wash against his back as he watches her wander along the sand with her friends.
She disappears into the crowd, and he breathes heavily once she’s out of sight, cursing himself for another lost opportunity.
She’s on the beach, holding a bottle of beer. The fire lights up her hair and her warm skin.
She’s in white, and the way her dress floats and shifts makes it seem almost transparent. It makes John’s throat ache.
He moves his way around the fire, keeping his eyes on her so he doesn’t lose her again. There’s a boy next to her – younger than John. She laughs with him, and John narrows his eyes at his competition.
He stands just behind her and drinks his beer, listening to her as she talks. Her voice is clear and pretty. Everything about her is pretty.
He rubs his thumb over the wet lip of his beer bottle before he drains it, hoping it won’t make his breath too bad. Hoping it’ll give him the courage to finally say something to her.
“So where are you from?” John’s competition asks her.
“Stamford,” she answers.
John snatches the conversational opening with both hands. “Connecticut,” he says, and she turns and looks up at him in surprise. He smiles at her, and she smiles back and the ache in his throat almost sends him to his knees.
“I’m from Newark,” his competition says hopefully, still desperate to cling to his pretty companion.
“Where are you from?” she asks John, and she sways a little, looking up at him with that smile still on her face.
“Hartford,” he says, and her smile grows.
“Connecticut!” she says, and he grins at her.
He wants to take her hand, but she’s untouchable. She’s pretty, and small and sweet and she’s not like the other girls that he’s had. She doesn’t seem like a girl who wakes up in the morning with tousled hair and smudged makeup.
He breathes hungrily, as though he can smell her warmth, and she smiles at him again.
“I’m Dee,” she says.
“I’m John.” He smiles back at her again, nervous, desperate and afraid, and his competition curses and stomps away, spraying sand with his footsteps.
“I saw you swimming today,” Dee says, swaying again, closing inches between them before she rocks back on her heels and distances herself once more. “Drowning, anyway.”
He cringes, and she laughs at his embarrassment.
“I saw you, too,” he says. “At least I got in.” He nods towards the waves. There are still people swimming, though the sun has set. They’re only just visible in the pearly moonlight; black shadows in the rolling water.
“It was cold,” she says defensively. She grins at him and suddenly it’s not just his throat that’s aching, it’s everything, everywhere.
“Want to go for a swim now?” he asks. His voice sounds strangely strangled.
“I don’t swim with strangers,” she answers. She lifts her beer to her lips and narrows her eyes at him. “I don’t sleep with strangers, either, so if that’s what you’re after, don’t waste your time.”
Her audacity is like a shock of electricity straight to his chest. He shakes his head, but he can’t find any words to back up his denial.
She smirks at him, but she doesn’t walk away.
He wants to act cool. Usually, it’s easy enough. He’s attracted several different girls over the past week, anyway. One more shouldn’t be that difficult...
“Want another beer?” Dee asks. She takes the empty bottle from his limp fingers.
“Yeah,” he answers.
She smiles at him again.
Midnight finds John sitting with Dee in the shadows of one of the beach houses. Further down the beach, fires spot the darkness, and shouts and laughter can be heard over the solid beat of boom boxes.
“So are you here on vacation?” she asks him quietly, drawing her knees up and curling her arms around them.
“Uh-huh. Usually I work over the summer, but Tim just turned 21 and he wanted to take a break. His parents own the house we’re staying in.”
“Where do you work?” Dee asks, trailing her hand through the sand between their sitting bodies.
John watches her for a moment. His heart is beating like he’s just run a marathon. He’s embarrassed about it; about how pretty he thinks she is.
“I help out at my dad’s law firm.”
“That sounds okay,” she says. “I waitress. I hate it.” She digs her bare toes into the sand.
He wants to touch her. He wants to put his arm around her and breathe warmly against her ear. He wants to know what her hair smells like, what her skin tastes like, what her breasts feel like in his palm.
He dares not get any closer. He could stand being rejected by any of the other girls around the fire. He couldn’t stand rejection from Dee.
“So are you in college, then?” she asks.
“Uh-huh.” He wishes he could sound more intelligent. He is intelligent, he knows it. He can express himself with clever words and phrases; he can give confident smiles to anyone who looks his way...
Dee scatters his confidence and leaves him breathless and desperate for approval.
“What are you studying?”
“Like your dad?”
“Uh-huh.” He rolls his empty beer bottle between his palms. “Are you in college?”
“Mm-hm. I want to be a teacher. I love kids.” She stretches, and John watches the clean curve of her arm in the moonlight. Dee watches the waves rolling in towards the beach.
“I’m kind of tired,” she says after a while. “I should go to bed.”
He’s disappointed, but he can’t find the words that will convince her to stay. “Okay,” he says in defeat.
She looks at him in surprise, and smiles again. “Really? No convincing me to stay? No invitation to your bed?”
“Do you want one?” He’s aware that his voice sounds a little too eager. He tries to counter it with a grin.
She laughs and shakes her head. “No.” She gets to her feet and brushes sand off her dress.
He tries not to, but he can’t help noticing the curves of her body as she smooths the dress under her palms. The ache in his throat comes back again.
“So will I see you around, then?” she asks after a moment. Her eyes focus on his shoulder instead of his face, and he wonders for a moment if she feels as self-conscious and hopeful as he does.
“Sure,” he says. “Want to go for a milkshake or something?”
She beams, and bounces slightly on her heels, the sand sinking beneath her weight. “Okay,” she says. “I’ll find you.”
She smiles and waves over her shoulder. “I know where to find you,” she calls.
John’s heart hammers in his chest. Suddenly, his confidence is back.
The girl who wears the cherry-printed dress is going to find him tomorrow.
He’s never felt so good.
Dee wears a cotton dress in a sea of bikini-clad bodies, and John only has eyes for her. He suddenly realises that not seeing everything at once is much more tantalising than seeing nearly all of it.
The dress scoops low at the back, showing tanned skin and a slight scattering of freckles. He can’t help but feel a little breathless whenever his eyes chance upon her skin.
She talks a lot. But that’s okay, because listening to Dee isn’t a chore. She’s funny, and she smiles at him as she speaks, and words like college and history and beach have never sounded so wonderful before.
She wants to be a teacher. She loves kids. Her favourite season is summer, and she likes vanilla ice cream better than chocolate ice cream.
When the sun sets, John’s standing in the low tide with her, watching seaweed bob and curtain in the waves.
“I hate it when it wraps around me,” Dee admits, watching a big clump of it drift in the current. “It’s gross.”
He grins at her. If Tim and the others were here, they’d be throwing seaweed around, slapping one another with it, launching huge clumps of it spinning through the air. He’s relieved to have escaped them for the day.
Dee steps forward into the waves. The water rushes up against her knees, and she lifts her dress up her thighs. Her smooth, tanned skin is lit up by the sun as it sinks down in the sky. For a moment all John can think about is pressing kisses against the soft inside line of her thigh.
The cold water of the sea is almost a relief. He lets it rush against his knees as he follows Dee into the blue water. She has her eyes closed and her face lifted to the sky, feeling the way with her feet.
He scoops a clump of seaweed out of her way, and she opens her eyes and spots him throwing it aside.
She smiles at him. “Thanks,” she says, and she gives a small laugh, looking a little flustered and embarrassed.
He can’t help it. It’s all built up inside him to the point where it’s a headache, now, and he’s got to let it out. “You’re beautiful,” he says, and he reaches for her hand.
She lets him sweep her fingers into his grip, and she offers no resistance when he pulls her slowly towards him. She sloshes through the water with another smile, and drops the hem of her dress. It’s soaked against the waves, and she stumbles a little.
John kisses Dee in the ocean with the sunset flagging her shoulders and lighting up her hair. Her mouth is warm and wet and sweet, and her cheek is smooth and soft in the palm of his hand.
“I don’t usually do this.” Her voice is a frantic whisper.
John’s breath is ragged. The loose skirt of Dee’s dress is clenched in his hand and her body is firm and warm against his. “We can stop,” he assures her, though he thinks that if she asks him to stop, he’ll physically break from the disappointment of it.
The house is dark and full of shadow and silver moonlight. Dee’s bed is neatly-made and narrow, and she pulls John onto it, wet and sand-covered.
He kisses her again, hungry for her, and she folds herself around him. Her fingers are in his hair, her nails against his scalp, and his body is trembling from the sheer pleasure and excitement of having her so close.
She tastes salty like the sea, and underneath, John thinks he can taste vanilla from the milkshake he bought her.
“I mean it,” she whispers desperately, her chest heaving when they break the kiss. “I don’t usually do this.”
“I know,” he whispers back, though he doesn’t, really. But he believes her. Deep down, beneath the heady rush of pleasure and excitement and nervousness, he knows he’s incredibly lucky to be lying so twined with her.
She doesn’t do this with just anyone. But John’s not just anyone. John is someone to Dee, and that’s why he’s here, and the thought of it makes him dizzy.
He kisses her again and her body shifts and softens beneath him, adjusting to fit him to her, and she has to know – has to know – how good it makes him feel, having her beneath him like this.
She takes his shirt in her fists and pulls at it, and he lets her tug it over his head. It catches on his shoulders and his arms and he struggles out of it and flings it to the floor impatiently.
He kisses the sweet curve of Dee’s throat and she lets out a breathy giggle when he tickles her skin.
“I like you,” she whispers.
John kisses her mouth again, warm, wet, slow. Dee breathes through her nose and he feels her breath on his cheek.
“I like you, too,” he whispers, and his voice is husky and ragged, like he barely knows how to use it.
Like isn’t an appropriate word, but love doesn’t seem right either. It’s too soon, and John’s never been in love before. He doesn’t think it’s meant to happen this quickly.
But if it’s not love, he’s not sure what it is. Maybe there’s no word for it yet – this thing he has with Dee.
She keeps her eyes on him when she unclips the button at the back of her neck. Her pupils are deep and dark in the pale moonlight spilling through the window. The halter straps to her dress sit loose against her skin.
John slides his fingers over her chest and eases one of the straps down, pulling the cup of material away from her bare breast. She’s breathing steadily. Nervously.
He traces his initials over her heart with his finger before he cups her breast in his hand. Her nipple is a firm point against his palm, her skin warm and soft.
She kisses him again, leaning her body into his hands. Outside, the waves pound against the sand. John can hear them like a deep drum in his chest.
He peels the dress away from Dee’s skin, brushing his lips across her body. She twitches and giggles nervously when his mouth rests against her breast.
He wants to ask her what she wants; where she wants him to touch her. But she’s quiet now, and he doesn’t want to embarrass her, so he trails his tongue over her and takes note of all the times her body jolts against his. He follows with his hands so she writhes and pants under him, mussing the blankets beneath her and clenching her fingers into his hair.
He slides her bikini bottoms down her thighs, watching her face as he flicks his tongue over the point of her hip. She keeps her eyes closed and there’s a faint blush on her cheeks, though she urges her hips towards him.
He presses soft kisses up her thighs and he can taste the ocean on her skin.
When he closes his mouth over her and moves his tongue against her, she moans, and the sound of it drives itself down into his gut and makes him pant for air.
She reaches for him and he obeys, sliding over her, kicking his swimming trunks to the floor, bare skin against bare skin, warm and soft and ocean-bathed.
He moves slowly inside her, his fingers splayed against her hips, and she opens her eyes and looks up at him, her nose drawing lightly over the pulse in his throat.
She breathes out and sweeps one leg up across his lower back, pulling him close, hooking him to her.
They move slowly together, and John listens to her breath rush and pull against him. He holds her, smiling into her shoulder when she squirms and rolls against him, her hips moving, her chest heaving. He touches her everywhere and she whispers something hot and lost and desperate in his ear.
“Faster,” she breathes. Her heels lock against the small of his back and he steadies one sweat-slickened hand against her hip, the other nestled into her hair, and he thrusts against her, listening to her whimper and gasp at every movement.
She comes, clenching around him, her nails digging into his skin, and her breath halts and then rushes out against his chest, her body tensing and trembling.
She swears. “Fuck,” she gasps, and that’s all it takes to pull John over the edge with her, his face buried against her neck and his teeth against her skin, grazing over her shoulder, his tongue wet against her as he shudders and sinks.
Dee’s skin is sweat-dampened and warm. She breathes heavily, her arms locked around him. She looks up at him with dark eyes, her cheeks flushed in the pale night.
“John,” she breathes.
The sky outside the window is clear and blue. The sun is high and John can hear laughter and shouting from the beach.
He closes his eyes again and breathes in the warm scent of Dee’s skin. Her breast is warm and small in his hand, her body curved and nestled against his.
Sand is rough and prickly in the sheets, but it’s a discomfort John has easily put up with. Dee has been beside him all night, breathing sweetly and deeply in her sleep.
She sighs, and he presses kisses against her shoulder until she stirs and rolls over, her eyes closed and a smile on her face.
“You’re still here,” she says. She nuzzles against his neck.
“Still here,” he answers. He trails his hand down her spine and she squirms and opens her eyes.
“I was worried you’d leave,” she admits softly, blinking at him.
He shakes his head and shifts slightly, pulling her closer and running his hands over her. He can feel sand, and it rolls between his palm and the smooth skin of her back.
“We should’ve showered first,” Dee says, sweeping some of it out of the bed onto the floor.
John laughs, and she grins down at him. She kisses him softly, once, on the mouth.
“When do you go home?” she asks. Her voice is a whisper.
“Sunday.” He pulls her hips towards him and her leg slides over him.
She pouts. “I go home a whole week after you do. Can’t you stay longer?”
The thrill of her request burns through his body. He grins. “I can’t. I gotta go back to work.” He kisses the pulse in her neck.
“Oh,” she sighs, sounding disappointed. She kisses him, and her hands drift over his chest and his stomach.
He feels hot and shaky. He keeps his hands on her hips, his thumbs tracing circles. “Maybe I could come and visit you sometime,” he whispers hopefully, suddenly worried that the request is too much and too serious for a girl he only laid eyes on four days ago.
She grins at him. “Really?”
“If you want.”
She kisses the point of his jaw and the hollow just behind his ear. He closes his eyes when her breath fleets across his skin.
“You taste like the ocean,” she whispers. She smiles at him, and the light from the window glows warm against the side of her face.
John traces the sun down the straight line of her nose. Outside, the waves wash steadily against the beach.
“I wasn’t sure I liked Sea City that much,” Dee continues, her fingers curling against his skin, her thumb running along the stubbled edge of his jaw. “It hasn’t been bad, so far.”
He chuckles and smiles up at her. “I know what you mean.”
She smiles back at him and her thigh presses soft and warm against his hip. “How far is Hartford from Stamford?”
“I don’t know. A couple of hours, I guess.”
“Maybe I could meet you half way.” She looks shy and hopeful and he grins when he realises she likes him just as much as he likes her.
She crinkles her nose when she thinks, and he curls his fingers into her hair, still wild and salt-roughened from the sea.
“Stoneybrook, I guess?” she whispers, bending closer to him. “I could meet you in Stoneybrook sometimes.”
“Okay.” He doesn’t really care where he has to go. He wants to tell her he’d go anywhere for her, but at the same time he’s still too scared; still too worried about what’s too much or too serious.
“So aren’t you worried I might meet another guy after you leave?” she asks. Her grin is teasing.
John rolls and pins her to the mattress beneath him, the blankets pulling against his skin, sand prickling their bodies. He looks down at her and he does worry, because he thinks she’s too pretty to not have every other guy chasing after her. He doesn’t know how he managed to find a window of opportunity – he thinks she probably has a guy chasing after her all the time.
“I’m worried,” he admits, and he feels embarrassed, but he smiles at her anyway.
She trails her fingers across the back of his neck. “You don’t have another girl back home or anything, do you?”
“You’d better not.”
He laughs at her seriousness and the warning tone in her voice, and his stomach tightens again. He buries his face in her neck.
“Dee,” he murmurs. He closes his eyes.
She wraps her arms around him and he kisses her again, smiling when they part for breath, his hips already moving slowly against her.
She still tastes like the ocean.