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Swim Away Into the World

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Zack doesn’t say anything for a full thirty seconds after you suggest it, the only sounds your breathing and the hiss of the sprinkler out the open window of his bedroom. It’s a Monday night, the end of August. Senior year starts in two days.

Finally he sits down on the edge of the mattress, plucking at a loose thread on the brightly-colored comforter. “Jessie,” he starts, but you cut him off.

“Look,” you say. You already decided, when you made the plan to ask him, that you weren’t going to be embarrassed about this. “It wouldn’t mean anything, obviously. We’re friends, that’s all. And I know you and Kelly already—” You wave your hand.

He raises his eyebrows. “Kelly and I didn’t, actually.”

“Wait.” That’s surprising. “You didn’t?”

“Why?” Zack asks. He’s looking at you a little strangely. “Did she say we had?”

“Well…no,” you admit, sitting sideways in his desk chair and swiveling the seat so you’re facing him. “We never talked about it.” You and Kelly don’t really have that kind of friendship. You don’t really have that kind of friendship with anybody in the gang, actually, except maybe Zack himself. “I guess I just assumed.”

You’re expecting him to make a joke—Zack always makes a joke, and you’ve teed him up for makes an ass out of u and me at the very least—but in all the years you’ve known him, he’s never looked less like he’s kidding. “Wouldn’t you want to—” He hesitates. “Like, with Slater?”

You shake your head. It’s not like you and Slater haven’t talked about it—argued about it, even, in his car and his bedroom and the hotel the night after your dad’s wedding in Palm Springs. But you already know that you and Slater aren’t going to stay together after high school. And Zack—Zack is somebody you can imagine having in your life for a long time.

“No,” is all you say.

Zack nods slowly. You can see his brain working. That child’s mind is a clockmaker’s dream, your mom said once back in middle school, and every now and then you still think about it that way: a beautiful machine for hatching plans and selling stories, the gears turning in his head with perfect exactitude. You think he could be an engineer or a magician or the president. You think he could be anything, if he ever did any work.

“It would mean something,” he says quietly.

“It—” You sit up so straight you almost topple the desk chair. “What?”

“Easy, tiger,” he clarifies quickly, holding his hands up. “I’m not asking you to marry me. It wouldn’t mean we were...” He trails off. “But it wouldn’t mean nothing.” Then, before you can even begin to unpack that particular declaration, he takes a deep breath, wiping his hands on the bleached-out knees of his jeans and standing up. “Okay,” he announces. “Let’s do it.”

You blink, something like panic zipping wildly through you. It’s not that you don’t want to—this was your idea, first of all, on top of which you’re an independent feminist woman with agency over her own body—but all at once you realize you didn’t actually expect him to say yes.

“Okay,” you echo, and stand up too. “So should we just…” You gesture at his bed.

Zack’s eyes widen. “What, like right now?”

“I mean, no time like the present, right?” Your voice is very shrill. “Do you not have a condom?”

“No, of course I have a condom, I’ve had a condom since ninth grade, I just—” He swallows, the movement of his Adam’s apple visible beneath the pale skin of his throat. There’s a tiny scab underneath his jaw where he must have cut himself shaving. “Anyway,” he says, “yeah. Now’s good.”

Neither one of you says anything for a moment, both of you just standing there staring at each other, and it’s only then that you register the expression on his face: he’s nervous, you realize suddenly. You’ve seen it so infrequently you didn’t recognize it at first.

“Have you actually never—?” you can’t keep from asking. You think of all the girls you’ve seen him with over the years—the cheerleaders, the surfer girls. Slater’s sister. Stacey at the Malibu Sands. “Like, with anybody?”

Zack shrugs, a little defensive. “Don’t, like, go around telling people that, please.”

You want to tell him that shame around virginity is an antiquated, patriarchal construct, but you guess you’re not really one to talk. “I won’t,” you promise.

“Thank you.” He takes a step closer to you then, reaching out and curling his hands around your rib cage, his palms hot and a tiny bit damp through your blouse. His eyes look very green. It occurs to you that part of the reason you’ve been able to be Zack’s friend all these years is because at some point you trained yourself not to notice the things that make other girls turn to grape jelly whenever he walks into a room but now it’s like it’s all hitting you at once, his hair and his smile and the drugstore cologne smell of him. The way his muscles have gotten bigger from trying to keep up with Slater in the weight room at Bayside. You giggle, you can’t help it. It’s Zack. It’s Zack, and you’re going to—

“Don’t laugh,” he warns, smiling a little. “If you laugh I’m not gonna be able to—”

“Not going to be able to what, exactly?”

“Just—” Zack makes a face. “Close your eyes, will you?”

“Okay.” You take a deep breath and do it, pressing your lips together. His hands migrate carefully down your body, coming to rest on your hips. “I’m not laughing,” you lie, biting your tongue to keep your lips from twitching, but a second later he starts laughing, too.

Your eyes pop open again. “I thought you said don’t laugh!”

“I did,” Zack admits, only he’s still laughing as he says it, both of you are, and when he ducks his head to kiss you the sound of it rings warmly in your ears.