Pam played two games in her head while she was at the Outer Banks with her grandparents. The first was that she was a beautiful and amazing teenager. The second was that she had a prolonged and fatal illness. The cool teenager game was best to play in the morning as she left her grandparents sitting on the beach. She pretended her name was Jenni with an i. She blocked out the view of her grandfather’s knobby chest and knees, blocked out her grandmother’s veined flesh peeking out from the skirt on her swimsuit.
She would leave them behind, sand burning her feet as she made her way to the wooden staircase up the bluff, swinging her bag up onto her shoulder and tossing her hair. Pam’s hair was thin and blonde and stringy, hanging limply down to the middle of her back. The seawater made it sticky. But she would toss her hair like it was smooth and thick; toss it just in case any boys on the beach should notice. That was part of the game. Sometimes, rarely, on a lucky day one of the boys with smooth tan muscles who was so tall in just shorts would glance at her. Pam would toss her hair at him. She would imagine what he would say to her. He would come over, his muscles heaving from the game of catch he was playing with another kid. His dark eyes would look, shyly at first, into hers and he would say in a rich deep voice with an unknown accent, “Hello, my name is Oscar.”
Pam would flit her eyelashes and say softly, just loud enough to hear over the waves in the background, “I’m Jenni.”
And he would say, “I know you are too young for me, but how old are you?”
“Fifteen,” she would lie, she was only twelve.
“I am fifteen, also,” he would say, “I want to take you out on a date this evening. Shall I pick you up?”
And Pam would answer him, “Of course,” in her soft sexy voice. In this game, her grandparents didn’t exist so she wouldn’t have to ask them. Her bathing suit was a black bikini instead of a fluorescent pink one-piece hand-me-down that was too small. When she was Jenni she was tall and tan, skinny, with hips like a boy, and small perfect breasts. Pam was chubby with breasts that were too big for a 12-year-old. She already looked a lot older. “An early developer,” her mom said. She could pass for 15.
Pam repeated the conversation with Oscar over again as she tossed her hair and picked up the beach things. Sometimes she would convince herself that he was watching her, and she would stare out at the waves as if she could see something that no one else could, something that was deep inside of her and somehow was the meaning of the world. A mystery for him to figure out. She imagined her hair flowing behind her, cascading and shiny, like someone in a commercial.
When she didn’t get off the beach fast enough, and her grandmother caught her doing this, her sharp voice broke in, “What’re you doin’ tossin’ your head around like that?” Pam shrugged and blushed, hoping her sunburn hid it. “Silly, just silly,” Grandma muttered to herself while looking at Pam. She didn’t try to explain, knowing she was too old to play pretend. If somebody her age was around, her sister, or a friend or something, they could talk or fight or something. But as it was, there wasn’t anyone.
But when she was Jenni, she was never alone, she was very popular. The beach house was not where her grandparents were staying. It was filled with Jenni’s friends. Jenni had a roommate named Alexis. Alexis was tall and tan, too, and she liked the same clothes as Jenni. Pam scoffed at her grandmother’s comment, standing at the top of the bluff and seeing Grandma down there on the beach, her fat spilling out of the sides of her bathing suit onto her beach towel. She had to think about what she would wear on her date with Oscar.
When Pam got back to the beach house, the best part of the game would begin as she readied herself for the date. She took a long hot shower to wash off the sand and the salt-water stuck on her skin and hair. She used too much conditioner to make her hair extra soft for Oscar. Her conditioner smelled like candy.
After her shower, Pam would spend hours pretending to put on makeup, and hours doing her hair. When she was finally finished, she would pretend Oscar had just rung the doorbell and was standing in the entryway with her grandparents, chatting. Pam as Jenni would descend the beige carpeted stairs and everyone would look up at her and not be able to stop staring at how gorgeous she looked.
“Did you brush your hair at all?” her grandmother said.
She was wearing a pink cotton outfit. On the shirt was a large blue cat, and on the shorts was the same blue cat but smaller.
Her grandmother was reading a Danielle Steele novel.
“Yeah, I just fixed it a different way. It’s how everyone does it at school.” Pam heard her voice getting know-it-all.
Grandma laughed. “Well, go back upstairs and brush it out again, Pammy. It just looks ridiculous.”
The conversation was finished. Grandma was engrossed in her book again. Grandpa sat on one of the footstools, his skin red from the sun, directly in front of the TV. He was hard of hearing, as he said, and had to sit close unless he wanted to blast the volume. He was watching the stock channel. Pam stood on the stairs and watched them. Every once in a while, Grandpa would raise his fist and drawl, “Go Pepsi!” when the Pepsi icon moved across the blue tape on the bottom of the screen. He was the only person she knew who owned stocks. To Pam, stocks were boring: part video game, part report card.
Pam went upstairs and imagined the rest of the date with Oscar as she brushed through the knots she had created in her hair. She would imagine him kissing her, caressing her, telling her how beautiful she was. She imagined he was in bed with her, kissing her breasts, his body pressing up against hers. She imagined them naked together. She lay on the bed and touched herself, pretending it was Oscar, biting her lips together as the feeling came so her grandmother would not hear her breathing heavily. She imagined him calling her Jenni. The game came to end when her body stopped shuddering. Afterwards, Pam would try to be completely still and stare at the patterns the lamp made on the ceiling, with all the blinds closed. Making the feeling come was gross and lonely.
Sometimes she would take walks on the beach and try to make it move her the way it did her grandparents. They would say, “Oh how beautiful,” and look wistfully at it. Pam imagined them being excited, feeling happy from the beauty of it. When she looked at it, she tried to feel, but she saw three lines: sky, water, and sand. She didn’t feel that beauty was exciting or comforting. It seemed separate from her. They must have been seeing something she didn’t they must have known something she didn’t. To Pam, the surf was chaotic and unfeeling. Pam spent every morning at the beach swimming out past the breakers. She thought she knew what she was doing. She thought if she did what she was supposed to, she couldn’t get hurt. But once, at high tide after a storm, a large wave dragged her through the sand, cutting her forehead and the palms of her hands on the broken shells in the sand. Her grandfather had said, “You should never worry when that happens, the tide will always take you back,” as she was crying wrapped in a towel under their umbrella.
The fatal illness game began usually in the afternoon or evening. During dinner, which was the worst part of the day, her grandmother would say, “Lord, child, you eat so fast!” or “You would feel more full if you’d eat more slowly. Chew each bite thirty times, Pam.” Her grandmother hated how fat she was. She was always talking about it. Pam had not really noticed that she was fat before this summer. She wasn’t much fatter than her sister, or her friends back home. She wasn’t talk-show fat, but her grandmother seemed to think there was a problem.
So Pam would chew thirty times, but she would pretend she had to. She had a disease that wouldn’t let her digest food unless it was chewed thirty times. She had to be very careful about which nutrients she ingested. Pam pretended that the carrots on her plate, that she hated, were medicine, and if she did not eat them, she would surely die.
After dinner, the disease would take on a new form. It would become a rare and severe bone disease, that caused Pam to have to limp wherever she went. Only a brace made by a bone specialist could help her. She constructed the brace out of a pair of tube socks, and only wore it when she knew her grandmother wouldn’t see it.
She imagined the attention she would get for the diseases. Her grandmother would feel so sorry she had chastised Pam for eating so fast.
“Oh Pam, I am so sorry. I didn’t realize how much you needed your strength.” Her grandma would become sweet and motherly like other people’s grandmothers. She would bake her cookies to keep her strength up, and take her on special outings in the car. She would teach her the ways of womanhood instead of embarrassing her.
Pam got her period for the second time in her life at the beach. She asked her grandma to get her some tampons at the grocery store. Pam and her grandfather were playing cards at the kitchen table. “Child, I haven’t bought that kind of thing in years!” her grandmother laughed. Pam swallowed, her face burning. She didn’t understand why her grandmother wasn’t menstruating anymore. Pam had to go with her to the grocery store to pick them out herself. Her grandmother wouldn’t put the box of tampons with the other groceries and Pam had to buy it herself in the line. She tried not to look in the clerk’s eyes as she checked out, and grabbed a couple of candy bars so she wouldn’t feel so embarassed.
As she ate the candy bars in her grandmother’s car, staring out the window, her grandmother clucked her tongue.
“You shouldn’t eat so much candy Pammy,” her grandmother said, lifting a hand from the leather steering wheel to run it through her coiffed blonde hair.
“Yeah,” Pam said, staring out the window, her eyes on the rain beating tiny dents into sandy patches on the side of the road, with her mouth full of Snickers.
“You know, your father used to be chubby, too.”
“Yeah.” Pam remembered the picture of her dad when he was about thirteen. He had been bundled up and singing Christmas carols, holding a music book. The photograph was from the fifties. His head was bigger than all the other kids’ heads in the picture, his dimples deeper, his stringy blonde hair lighter. He had a double chin.
“But he put his mind to it, and changed his diet, and exercised, and he lost the weight.”
“Yeah,” Pam said. Her father had told her that when he was sixteen he was in a car accident, and was in a coma for three weeks, and that’s when he lost all the weight. She imagined him now. He was pretty thin, athletic even. Pam wondered if he secretly thought she was fat and hadn’t told her. Maybe the whole world did. Maybe she was. Maybe her parents knew Grandma thought she was fat and that’s why they sent her here, to lose weight. Like fat camp. Maybe that’s why they kept saying what a great opportunity it was. A privilege to be spending all this time at the beach.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for you. Your mother and I can’t afford to take you to the beach,” Dad had said, and so they sent her alone. They weren’t going because they couldn’t stand being around Grandma and Grandpa. And Trisha had summer school.
In her grandmother’s car, Pam took another bite of her candy bar and chewed it thirty times before swallowing it.
Back at the beach house, Pam took a popsicle out of the freezer, went over to the phone, and dialed the number to her house. Her mother answered.
“Sweetheart! How are you? Are you having fun?” Her mother’s voice made her heart hurt.
“Is it just absolutely gorgeous there?”
“We had to take the cat to the vet, and Daddy’s got tickets for us to go to a play tomorrow night. It’s real hot here. What’s the weather like there?”
“It’s raining. How’s Trisha?”
“She’s good. She’s doing well in her math class, she just needed a little extra help.” Pause. Pam said nothing. Do you think I’m fat, she thought.
“Well sweetie, you take care of yourself. I love you. I’ve got to run to work now.”
Pam hung up and went out on the porch. Her bone disease was hurting her, so she leaned, frail, on the railing. She coughed. It had stopped raining. There was a hole in the clouds where the sun was coming through. It looked like a picture in a Sunday school brochure. Pam walked down the steps and toward the beach.
Pam sat cross-legged on the sand, facing the water. She pretended she was Jenni, at a beach barbeque. She unbuttoned the bottom button of her shirt and tied the ends into a knot so her stomach showed, trying to believe that it was tan and flat. She flipped her hair around. Looking down the beach she saw a figure walking in her direction. As the figure got closer she could see it was a man, or maybe a teenage kid. He was chubby, wearing a sweatshirt with cut-off sleeves, with acid wash cutoff shorts. He had black hair that hung in his face a bit. Pam pretended to be Jenni, and smiled at him as he walked past, tossing her hair. He caught her eye and raised his eyebrows. Pam felt kind of outside of herself, like she could do anything. She could be Jenni if she wanted.
He walked a few steps past her and then turned, and smiled at her. Pam thought, be cool, be cool, and smiled back. Pam twirled a piece of hair around her finger as he came back over and stood in front of her. She could see wisps of chest hair and flab coming out of the stretched out sleeves of his tank top.
“Hey,” he said. “Are you here all alone?”
“Uh.” Pam didn’t know what to say. “Uh.” Her voice caught in her throat. She coughed and blushed. He raised his eyebrows again, smirking slightly.
“I’m Christian. Me and some of my friends are playing volleyball down the beach. Do you want to play?” he asked her, tossing his hair out of his face.
“OK,” Pam said. She imagined new friends. She imagined Christian teaching her to play. She let him help her up. His palm felt dry and smooth. It felt good to touch his hand.
“Where’s the game?” Pam asked Christian. He cleared his throat and smiled sideways at her as they walked down the beach. Pam felt too aware of herself. She wanted to disappear when he looked at her. She was embarrassed by the way her mouth moved.
“It’s up here a ways,” he answered her. As they rounded a corner, not speaking, Pam saw an abandoned volleyball net set up high on the beach, next to the roped-off dunes with sign: PREVENT EROSION: KEEP OFF THE DUNES.
Christian stopped. “Oh shit, I guess they must have left or something.”
“Oh.” Pam looked behind her. She couldn’t see the wooden ramp leading from the beach to the boardwalk where she had been sitting. She was disappointed. They would say goodbye and she would have to go on back to the house. She waited for Christian to say something. He looked at her and she felt exposed, like she was wearing a swimsuit instead of shorts and a t-shirt.
The sunlight caught on the water behind him, and blinded her for a second. Christian took her hand.
“We could just stay here and talk.”
Pam’s arm felt limp where he grabbed it and heavy, like it was paralyzed. Her heart beat faster. She wondered briefly if her bone disease was spreading to her arm. Maybe he wanted to be her boyfriend.
“Yeah,” she said, “Let’s just sit and talk.”
Christian led Pam past the erosion sign and onto a high bluff. She sat down and he stood over her for a second, before joining her on the sand. Pam didn’t know what to say. She wanted to make out with him, like Oscar. She waited.
“What’s your name again?” he asked.
“Pam,” she said. “My grandmother, who I’m staying with, calls me Pammy, but I really can’t stand that.”
Christian smiled. “OK Pam.”
“Who are you here with?” Pam asked, feeling like she had given too much away.
“Me?” He raised his eyebrows. “With some friends,” he said. He flipped his hair out of his face, and took her hand again. She tried not to smile. She tried to pretend like this happened to her all the time. The sun, beginning to set behind them, glinted on the ocean. It was empty and flat, like a blue desert.
“Some friends, “Pam repeated, the words sticking awkwardly to her tongue. “The ones we were going to play volleyball with?”
“Yeah,” Christian said. He looked around. “I don’t know where they got off to so fast.” Pam noticed his Carolina drawl. She wanted to ask him if any parents were staying with him and his friends, but she decided that was not a question Jenni would ask.
Instead she asked, “Are you in high school?”
“No.” He laughed. “I been graduated since last year.”
“Oh.” Her heart beat faster.
“How old are you?”
Pam split the difference, “Uh…14.”
Christian didn’t miss a beat. “Oh wow, I remember that age. That’s tough.”
Pam didn’t know what he was talking about. To her, 14 seemed like the perfect age, the age she should be. “Yeah it sucks,” she said.
Christian looked at her more closely, his dark eyes straight into hers. Pam looked away, at their shadows progressing slowly down the bluff. Two cold blue lumps.
“Yeah my grandparents are so boring, and my sister’s not here and my friends aren’t around or anything.” Pam flipped her hair like Jenni.
“Wow, that’s tough,” Christian repeated. “You should come hang out with my buddies. We’ve got a cabin up past the point.”
Christian was silent for a few minutes after that. Pam knew she would never be allowed to go, but she didn’t say anything.
“I like you already,” Christian said, looking Pam straight in the eyes again. “Because you seem so innocent. I think that’s sexy.” His voice became gruff.
Pam was hurt. Innocent was not what she had wanted him to say. She sat up straighter to hide her stomach and stick out her chest.
“You know, I’m really sick,” Pam told him. “My parents made me come here to rest because I have a rare bone disease affecting my right ankle.”
“That’s awful,” Christian drawled. He put his arms around her. Pam didn’t have a chance to move her arms and her wrist bent awkwardly against his chest. She blushed.
“Sometimes, you know, bad things happen to good people, and you just have to keep on keeping on. I’m sure you’ll get better.”
Pam’s heart felt warm. She felt like telling him that she loved him.
He let go of her and then put his hand on her thigh. Pam pushed his hand away. That was what she was supposed to do. Christian laughed. To make up for it, she leaned over and kissed him on the mouth, sticking her tongue between his lips.
“Whoa,” Christian backed off, laughing. Pam frowned nervously. She opened her mouth to say something and Christian leaned over and kissed her, grinding his mouth and tongue against hers. It lasted longer this time, and she could feel the bristles of his unshaven moustache rubbing roughly above her lip. It wasn’t her first kiss ever. The first time was with a boy at a party back home. But as she was kissing Christian, a hot sensation erupted between her legs and she felt dizzy, like she was dreaming. This wasn’t something that would happen to Jenni.
After kissing for a while, Christian pushed Pam back gently against the sand, so she was lying down and he climbed on top of her, pressing his thigh in between her legs. She could feel his boner through his shorts. He started rubbing against her, slower and then faster until he was making grunting sex noises, like in the movies. He cried out and then fell on top of her. His thigh rubbing her private made her feel the way she did when she touched herself, and she bit her lips together to keep from making noise as her body throbbed. When she opened her eyes, Christian was looking at her and laughing. Pam was horrified.
“I have to go. My grandma…” Pam was trembling as she stood up.
“OK,” Christian said, unsmiling now. Pam turned and ran down the bluff towards her grandparents’ house. Christian didn’t follow her. He sat on the bluff and watched her run.
Pam slowed down as she saw the house in the distance, on weather-worn gray stilts with pine trees around it growing out of sand. She imagined the ocean swallowing everything up on level with the porch. She imagined swimming to the door, washing Christian out of her head. Christian was not Oscar. Oscar would have held her in his arms and explained why the ocean was beautiful, and how its blankness was somehow rich and deep. He would have thought she was mature. He wouldn’t have laughed. He would have said, “You are so amazing.”
As Pam opened the back door, she imagined her grandmother waiting for her just inside the door, anxious.
Inside, her grandmother was reading Danielle Steele and her grandfather was watching tennis on TV.
“Hi,” Pam said.
Her grandmother said, “Hi Pammy,” without looking up.
For the first time since she left home, Pam felt like she was going to cry. She imagined Christian walking in with her and saying, “That’s tough.” She was being too picky, she thought. Christian was the reality and Oscar was just the fantasy. Christian could be her boyfriend. Pam left the house to go back to the beach and find him. The sky had clouded over again, and small drops of rain were beginning to fall.
ContributorRachel E. Greer
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