In the early morning before fully waking, Mara imagined Miguel, who was one of her mother’s housemates, forcing her to sit on the kitchen stool in her skirt but without any underwear. She held out her small pointy breasts to him, as he reached his calloused hand under her skirt. Her wet thighs trembled. With a balled up sheet stuffed between her legs, she came in hard, nearly painful waves.
Her phone alarm chimed at 5:30 AM. She crawled to the opposite side of her bed and peered out the window at the pale orange sky over the rooftops of a few other houses to the slit of washed out blue ocean. Wearily she pulled on a t-shirt that read I Support Fish, frayed denim short-shorts, and a white hoodie and wiggled her feet into a pair of flip flops studded with tiny hearts.
She was 15. She and her mom, Robin, lived with four housemates in a beach house with light blue siding, dark blue shutters, flowers in the window box and a miniature picket fence two blocks from the ocean. Her given name was Maratea though no one ever called her that.
In the kitchen she scribbled a note for her mom. The back door leading out to the deck was already open.
Miguel was folded over his guitar, picking out notes. He and Robin had regular folk singing gigs in bars and coffee houses all over Southern California. (They’d met at the Seventy7 Lounge in Culver City where they’d both been performing.) A clove cigarette burned in the painted ceramic ashtray, the smoke curling up into the palmetto trees.
“What are you doing up so early?” Mara said, trying to make her voice sound light.
Miguel looked up through his black Jesus hair. “I could not sleep. And you?”
Mara turned towards her bike which was leaning on the deck’s wooden fence. She’d known him all her life, yet somehow, he’d returned from a four month guitar tour, entirely new to her. Despite the same oversized Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts and scuffed sneakers he looked thinner, more hardened, sexier. Her mother often reminded Mara she used to climb on his lap and brush his hair when she was a toddler but she’d had no memory of it. Before the tour he’d been like an uncle or an older brother. But now he was messed up in her mind.
She thought of how he’d once told her when she was just a little kid, to never forget that she was a very special girl and though she hadn’t understood why, it stuck in her head. She didn’t feel any different than her friends, not when she was with them and she didn’t think it was because her family was unordinary, which it was. But she knew she had a certain untested power and was lucky to be that girl.
“What do you think Mom would say about this?” she said. She turned her back to him, lifted her shirt and hoodie to show off the tattoo – a minimalistic drawing of a mermaid just above her bra line.
“You look like all the other teenagers,” said Miguel.
“No one can even see it.”
“So I don’t understand the purpose. No, mi amour. Your mami will not like it.”
Miguel rubbed his bristly beard with the palm of his hand. “It should not matter what I think,” he said, staring at her as if she were a kid that had done something wrong. Then his face softened. “You are your mother’s whole heart.”
Mara zipped her hoodie. “You know how she used to call me mermaid. It’s ironic.”
“Hahaha,” she said. She flipped up her kickstand, led her bike through the gate and down the wooden steps to the street.
The bike path was already cluttered with riders. The morning mist was clearing. Slowly the coastline came into view, the sky deepening to reveal its true blue color. Of course the fantasy of him and her was nothing she’d actually want to happen but it had made her so awkward around him, that her mind could conjure such an exciting and upsetting wish. But for the moment, buoyed by the wind, barely needing to pedal, both the fantasy and the fear of her imagination made her laugh.
At El Porto beach, Mara locked her bike to the stand, checked for her cell in one pocket and wrinkled bills from babysitting in the other and walked to the coffee truck in the parking lot. Ashley and Vera texted. Vera wanted hot chocolate, Ashley, a black coffee. With three hot drinks in her hands, she trekked down the sandy path. The girls were sitting on big rocks where the beach began. Vera jumped up to kiss Mara, took the two drinks and handed one to Ash. Half-Mexican and half-Irish, Vera was short and plump but sturdy with big square teeth and a perpetual smile. Vera and Mara had grown up together and when Ash came along in middle school, she’d mesmerized them with her intelligence and sassiness.
Ash stood slowly, as if in pain. Ash was Mara’s best friend, pale and blue-eyed with cheekbones of steel. She wore an oversized loosely-knit yellow sweater which covered her entire body; visible only were her long twiggy legs. Unlike Mara who was tall and curvy with wide hips, a flat belly and thick bisque colored thighs, Ash struggled with anorexia.
In the water a half dozen boys were catching waves, their dark shapes glinting in the sun.
“Who’s that boy down at the water?” asked Mara.
Ash explained that he was her brother’s new friend –Joey O’Malley. His mother had married a football player half her age and they’d moved down from Sacramento.
“Just like your mom and her boy toy,” said Vera
Mara gave Vera the finger and Vera blew her a kiss. They were always testing their friendship to make sure it was indestructible.
The boy-toy, aka Al, had been Mara’s mother’s partner for five years. Mara was weary of their whole set-up, though compared to her dad she could see why her mom chose Al. Her father was a coder in Silicon Valley, awkward and alone. Despite his wealth (and the alimony that supported them), Mara felt a little sorry for him.
The day opened up to be warm and bright, the ocean’s surface, sequined like a dress. The girls twirled on the sand and batted around a volleyball. After about a dozen sets and half-assed digs, Ash dropped the ball and strutted over to Mara. Vera followed.
“Have you showed your mom the mermaid?”
“Nope. Miguel saw it this morning.”
“What is it with you and Miguel?” said Ash.
“Nothing,” said Mara defensively. “He’s like 30 years old. Gross.”
“Yea, I suppose,” said Ash thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t mind being with an older guy. But 30 is old-old.”
“Whoa, I’d give anything to ride a wave like that,” said Vera, eyes wide behind her thick framed glasses.
“His form sucks,” said Ash, patting Vera on the back. Ash could be so patronizing, thought Mara.
Twice, she’d dreamt of Miguel. Both times he’d appeared in one of those underwater dreams and she’d awakened creamy between her legs. Did love come with sex? she wondered. Was it gradual or did it come at you like a thunderous wave that would knock you over if you didn’t dive under in time?
By 7:30 the volleyball courts were full. Joey ambled up in their direction.
“Hey Joey, come meet my friends,” yelled Ash. Loose jeans hung on his hips. He was shirtless, hairless, with flared shoulders, a long chin and wispy hair bleached yellowy white. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and, as he introduced himself, each time he nodded, his hair fell across his eyes.
They watched the ball popping up and down. “You play?” Joey asked Mara.
“Everyone around here does.” Mara felt her face getting pink. “Do you surf?” she asked him.
“Just moved from Sacramento but I’ll learn soon enough. I’m waiting for Kel and his boys. We’re going to my crib to jam.” Ash’s older brother Kel, aka Kelvin was a senior.
“Is that how they talk in Sacramento? Yo bruh, let’s jam in my crib,” Vera said with the accompanying body language.
“I guess,” Joey said casually.
“Can we come?” asked Ash, batting her eyes.
“Sure, we could use some groupies.” He turned to Mara. “Is groupies a cool word?”
She gave him a thumbs up, a lame-o move, if ever there was one.
Mara watched Joey watching the guys walk up from the beach with surfboards on their heads. He noticed her looking and smiled sheepishly. Trailing behind Kel, were two sandy-haired boys named Max and Garrett. After they peeled off their wetsuits and strapped their surfboards on top of Kel’s Expedition, they all squeezed in. She’d pick up her bike later. She took out her phone to call her mom and realized she’d forgotten to charge it.
As soon as they opened the door to Joey’s house, dogs started barking and thumping across the room. Unpacked boxes were piled high in corners.
In the middle of the paneled den there was a drum set, a keyboard, mics and a couple of guitars still in their cases.
“Hey, this is tope!” said Garrett. He was just another boy with tight curls on his head. He could have been anyone.
Joey explained that his father was a musician and when his parents split, his mother kept all his equipment. “She sounds like a vengeful be-atch,” said Ash.
“I was just a little kid,” said Joey with a sad shrug. Mara pictured a custody battle, his mother throwing shit out the front door, fights in front of his elementary school at dismissal.
There was symmetry in their circumstances, she thought. Her mom and his dad were both musicians. Both their mom’s had boy-toys.
The boys took turns banging on the drums. Joey plugged one of his guitars into an enormous speaker. Kel took the mike. The girls plopped down on the big striped couch. Mara slipped off her flip-flops, saw that her feet were grey from the sooty sand at Porto. Joey told Max to grab some Coors from the mini-fridge.
The music, if you could call it that, was awful. Mara had been raised on Joni Mitchell and Hall and Oates and Miguel’s blues guitar. Thinking about him, she felt a spark of heat between her legs. She pictured him looming over her, her eyes caught in his stare, hands on her ribcage tracing the curve of her body, his long hair grazing her breasts. Her knees began knocking, trying to ward off the feeling.
“Your phone’s all charged,” said Vera, handing it back to Mara.
“Where are you?” her mother asked.
“What’s a Joey?”
Mara explained that he was Ashley’s brother’s friend from school. “They’re forming a band and we’re listening. Joey’s a senior. Any other questions?”
“Yes, where does your new friend Joey live?”
“Newport. Stop it, mom.” She heard how snotty that sounded but it was out of her control.
“Come to the Kettle. I finish at 5. Al can pick you up.”
“I’ll get a ride from my friends,” said Mara and hung up.
Ash typed something on her phone. Joey reminds me of a blonde Adam Levine.
Hell prolly ask one of you gys out, typed Vera.
M’s into older guys, typed Ash with a winky face. Mara swatted Ash.
At 4:30, she waited for whatever it was they were playing to end, stood and announced she had to go.
Joey unplugged his guitar. “I can give you a ride on my Kawasaki.”
She knew then that he liked her. Joey was guarded, quiet but cute. She needed a boyfriend. It was time. It made sense.
He gave her a helmet that looked like something from WW1. She pulled the band from her ponytail and let her hair loose.
The sun had warmed the black seat.
“Put your feet on those pegs and grab onto my waist.”
He wasn’t a show-offy rider but it still felt deliciously dangerous. When he turned and the bike tipped she gripped his waist tighter and pressed the side of her head against his lean muscular back. Flying through wind, weaving around cars was intoxicating. She was the girl in that TV commercial. She even loved the way he scraped his feet on the pavement whenever they came to a red light. When she got off the bike, she felt as light as foam on the wave.
Mara’s mother was at the counter refilling ketchup bottles so Mara took a seat on a stool and swiveled around to face her. Her thighs spread. “Sorry for not calling. Sorry for being a be-atch.”
“Apology accepted,” said her mother curtly. “How’d you get here?”
Mara giggled. “Joey gave me a ride on his motorcycle.”
“That is not cool, you hear me?” Her mother was from Oklahoma, hardened by the old fashioned ways of her family. Mara understood her flaws. Her mom thought she knew what freedom meant but the truth was she was still repressed and fighting against her own idea of letting Mara be free.
Pedro walked in from the back, and as he passed her, she spun the stool around and made a show of crossing her legs.
“Hey Pedro, que pasa?” she said
“Muy bien. How’s your Spanish coming along, Mami?”
“I’m not learning real Spanish. It’s just tenses and junk. I’ll never be any good,” she pouted. “Unless of course you want to help me?”
Pedro glanced at her mom as if asking permission.
“She’s 15. I have to clock out. Go wait outside for me.”
Mara hopped up from the stool and blew a kiss at Pedro.
They crossed the boulevard. Shops and restaurants were clogged with tourists, men in shirts and ties and trust fund kids with boogie boards. Another five blocks and they’d be home.
“Do you have to flirt with every man you see?” said Robin
“That was Pedro.”
“Yes, I know who that was. Pedro, the dishwasher.”
“God, Mom you’re such a racist.”
“I’m worried about you. You’re at a vulnerable age. You have to be more careful about acting sexy and coming on to every Tom, Dick and Harry.”
A lot of her mother’s life was a secret. She knew her mom ran away from home, married young and divorced when Mara was just a baby. She had shared a room and bed with her mom and would hear her moan or flinch in her sleep and nervously rub her back. When Mara turned 11 one of the housemates moved out and she got the small corner room that looked out onto the ocean. The older Mara got, the more elusive her mother became.
“Can I go out with my friends tonight?”
“We’re just hanging at Ash’s or I don’t know, the pier maybe. Look, we’re not doing drugs. I think that’s gross.”
“I don’t want you on that bike, especially in the dark.”
They were at the top of their street which sloped down to the water. Mara inhaled the briny air. “Lighten up mom. Life is good,” she said. Then she kissed her mother on the cheek and trotted up the porch steps into the house.
After her shower, on the way back to her room, her body and hair both wrapped in a towel, she heard Miguel and Ray, a jazz musician and the newest housemate, playing guitar and keyboard. She grabbed her headphones to block out the music, unwrapped the towel, flopped face down on her bed and slid a sheet over her naked body. It wasn’t Miguel or Joey. A man without a face was cupping her breasts, trying to spread her legs apart. When he finally succeeded, a wave of pleasure swept over her. After the throbbing faded away and her breath evened out, she took off her headphones and lay there peacefully. But then the electrifying tickle started up and there was Miguel forcing her to sit naked on the stool again. Afterwards, she jumped out of bed and peered in the mirror over her shoulder, twisting to see the tattoo. She hadn’t meant it to be vindictive, only rebellious. She wished she could scrub it off. Mara dressed quickly. Outside her window the setting sun was a solid orange ball, spraying hot pink and orange streaks across the sky. She clunked down the steps in 3 inch caged disco shoes, a pale cotton miniskirt, spaghetti strap top and paper-thin black sweater to hide the mermaid tattoo.
They were all in the kitchen. Her mom was at the sink, hands buried in sudsy water, Miguel next to her drying the dishes. Sybil, the raven-haired owner of the house who was supposed to be “a second mother,” the boy-toy and Ray were seated on tall wooden stools around the island, drinking jug wine.
“Miguel and I have a gig tonight so I won’t be home until late. There’s soup and homemade bread in the fridge,” said her mother, still at the sink.”
“Kel and Ash are picking me up at 7.”
“Joey too?” said her mother sarcastically.
“His name is Joseph O’Malley.”
Mara microwaved the soup and ate it standing up.
Sybil looked up from her wine. “Those shoes are outrageous.”
Her mother turned to Al and said, “Look at those shoes. Al, I’m talking to you.”
“Huh?” said Al, looking up from his laptop. He and his team of geeks had developed an app similar to Snapchat. “You look nice,” he said absent-mindedly and went back to what he was doing.
“I’m sorry, sweetie pie, but you cannot wear that outfit,” said her mom. “You’re asking for trouble and I’m surprised you don’t realize it.”
“You’re forty and you dress like some old hippie.”
“Forty-four,” said her mother stiffly.
“It’s only shoes, Mom. Nothing’s going to happen to me that wouldn’t also happen in a pair of sneakers.”
“Miguel, what do you think?” said Mara.
Miguel looked at Mara and then back at her shoes, then back at Mara. “Querida, you are a teenager and not yet a woman.”
Kel’s SUV horn honked and Mara dashed out the door, ignoring her mother’s protests.
Joey suggested they should go climb the big rocks at El Porto in the dark.
“That’s a great idea,” said Mara, wanting to forget home and disappear in the darkness.
Vera wanted to hang back. She said she would be fine on a bench catching up on Instagram.
“I’ll wait with you,” said Garrett.
“Excellent,” said Ash and kissed Vera good bye. Mara kissed her too.
They walked down the sandy path from the parking lot using their phones as flashlights. Mara stopped for a moment to take off her sandals, leaving them where they fell, while Joey lingered beside her.
She’d never been to Porto at night. The rocks were jagged and slippery. The waves crashing on the beach were louder. The wind blew in from the ocean. As they navigated up the cliff Ash peppered Joey with questions. His mother was a former beauty queen; his stepfather had been drafted to the Chargers. He’d been accepted into UC Davis and U. of Arizona.
Joey asked Mara, “Don’t you have any questions?”
“Right now I’m trying not to slide off a rock and drown in the ocean.”
“Let’s sit,” said Ash.
“We’re going to keep climbing,” said Kel. He and Max were ten yards ahead.
Mara, Ash and Joey sat. “Someone should have brought a blanket,” said Ash.
Being there was both magnificent and terrifying. The pounding of the surf, blackness everywhere except for a few blurry stars, Joey on one side, Ash on the other. Mara’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. She saw her friend hunched up and hugging herself. She leaned over and pulled Ash’s cashmere sweater up around her neck.
“So what do you girls want to be when you grow up?” Joey asked.
“Do you think this is grade school?” said Ash.
“Psychologist,” said Mara. “I like knowing what makes people tick”.
“You’d be great at it. You’re insightful,” said Ash.
“Haha. I can’t see a fucking thing.”
“That’s because it’s really dark out here, sweetheart,” said Joey. He slung his arm around her shoulder. HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, the boys called up ahead. Mara was conscious of the weight of Joey’s arm, the way it lay in a heap across her shoulder but didn’t make her feel any warmer. The girls had watched every love and sex movie ever made (Vera’s mother was a movie critic for a local radio station and had dozens of pre-released movies) so Mara thought she knew what it would be like: the licking, stroking, probing, groping. But offering yourself up to a boy was something altogether different and she wasn’t going to be careless about it. She wasn’t sure she wanted to even touch another person.
“Let’s go,” said Ash, unfolding herself to a stand.
“What’s the rush?” said Joey.
“I’m fucking freezing,” said Ash helping Mara stand. Reluctantly, Joey stood too and slipped his fingers through Mara’s.
It was a relief to be on solid ground. Mara felt strangely giddy. At the edge of the parking lot Vera and Garrett were huddled together on a bench watching YouTube. She was happy for Vera, who was spunky but certainly not pretty. Neither she nor Vera had ever had real boyfriends, except when she was in 7th grade and ‘went steady’ with some dork and all they did was make out.
They decided to go back to her house to warm up because it was the closest. She thought about texting her mom but knew it would be kinder just to let her sing and not be reminded she had a daughter.
Mara was a little embarrassed. The house had an unfinished look. In the living room a ratty couch was covered by an afghan Sybil had crocheted. Ash grabbed it and wrapped it around herself like a shawl. A framed Bob Marley poster hung above the couch, lava lamp on the side table, melted candles on the coffee table. Only her mom had made an effort with stick-on stencils on the kitchen and bathroom tiles.
The boys were hungry. She went into the kitchen and took out some cheese and a box of Wheat Thins. Joey looked over her shoulder into the fridge.
“Is it ok if I have one of these?” He pulled a Michelob Ultra-Light beer free from one of the two 6-packs on Miguel’s shelf. Miguel had said the beer was crap, white trash beer, but that he’d gotten addicted.
She’d never seen Miguel angry. “Go for it,” said Mara.
They sat around watching “Jane the Virgin.” Mara felt kind of jittery trying to decide if she were ready, trying to decide how much she wanted Joey,
“Hey, Joey, wanna see my room?” she asked.
“It’s a great room,” said Vera.
Mara blanched. “I don’t need any help.
“Sure,” said Joey, letting her get away with it.
Upstairs she switched on the lamp light on her night table. “You can see the ocean out this window. Not now of course. But in the morning there’s white gold..”
He flopped down on the bed and patted the blanket next to him. “Come lie down.” She lay down next to him self-consciously. They just lay there for a minute staring at the star stickers on her ceiling. “Mind if I…” said Joey rolling against her. She lay there, waiting to see what would happen next. Then he rolled all the way on top of her. Mara’s limbs were leaden. Something shifted in her brain. Joey was an intrusion, a hard lumpy boy.
He rubbed his thigh between her legs. She started to feel that familiar secret heat. Joey rolled off of her and pulled off his football jersey and his long sleeved undershirt. The lamp light gave his chest a glossy sheen. “Take off your shirt,” he said gently. Mara took her tank top off. He kissed her on the neck. “Is this okay?” He reached around her back and popped the hooks on her bra with one hand. He licked one nipple, then the other. “Are you a virgin?”
“Are you sure you’re ready? I’ll be gentle.”
It was now or never. “Okay,” she whispered under her breath.
Joey unzipped his jeans and there was his dick, stiff and veiny, much uglier than what she’d ever imagined.
He kissed her, snaking his tongue around inside her mouth. The kiss was disappointing.
“Suck on me a little bit. That way my cock will be good and hard.” She felt a spurt of terror at the word cock but tamped it down. She leaned over and put her mouth on him, trying to pretend she was licking an ice cream cone, something she’d read in Glamour. But it didn’t taste like ice cream. Joey slid his hand under her skirt and under her panties, flicking his fingers up and down against her vagina. She whimpered and jerked her mouth away.
“I don’t think you’re ready for this. You don’t seem into it at all,” said Joey.
Maybe he was right. Maybe this is crazy, she thought. She pulled her top back on. “We should get back downstairs.”
“Here, have some of my beer. Finish it. It looks like you could use it,” he said. “Do you mind if I jerk off?”
“Whatever.” She turned her head away, not daring to look, rethinking the day, the motorcycle ride, the rocks, Miguel’s put down.
In the living room, Kel was mindlessly strumming one of Robin’s guitars, clearly bored. Vera had fallen asleep with her head on Ash’s lap. Max and Garrett were on the porch just standing there, staring into the darkness.
“Have fun?” said Ash.
“Kinda,” said Mara cooly.
After everyone stumbled out, Mara walked through the empty house in a daze, tossing beer cans in the recycling bin, putting the plate of dried out cheese and Saltines in the fridge with no thought to what she was doing. She passed her mother’s note on the kitchen island.
“I’m at Monica’s tonight. Be good, honey.”
The bouncer didn’t want to let her in.
“That’s my mother singing. I can hear her,” said Mara gazing up the flight of steps.
“Sorry miss. No ID. No can let you in.”
“Can I sit on the steps and listen?”
“The steps only. I’m going to be checking on you.”
Robin was singing You Belong to My Heart, the Spanish version, her high voice both soothing and sensuous. In the Uber, Mara had been trembly the whole way to Monica’s, flashing back to the feel of Joey’s dick in her mouth, his fingers fumbling to find the opening of her vagina, suddenly angry and humiliated, fighting to hold back tears. How she’d hated him in the Uber. Now with her mother’s voice drifting down, she began to unravel, letting the tears roll down her cheeks, watching them drop into her lap.
Sweat beaded on her back. She took off her sweater, stuffed it in her shoulder bag and wiped away her tears.
A nice-looking, athletic college guy wearing a UCLA t-shirt came bouncing down the steps. Mara immediately got to her feet though there was plenty of room.
“Hey mermaid. What’s up? You okay?” he asked.
She could go wherever he was going, have an adventure if she wanted. She knew it. She was no longer crying but her eyes shone.
“I’m fine,” said Mara. “Just waiting for someone.”
Lyn Stevens won the 2014 Saturday’s Child Press short story contest. Her stories have also appeared in Prism Review, Greensboro Review, Eclectica Magazine, Wordrunner eChapbooks, Main Street Rag and the American Literary Review. In 1999 she had a prize-winning story in the American Literary Review Fiction Contest judged by Antonya Nelson. Lyn lives in the Bronx.