It was a hot summer day in Cousins. I was lying by the pool with a magazine on my face. My mother was playing solitaire on the front porch, Susannah was inside puttering around the kitchen. She’d probably come out soon with a glass of sun tea and a book I should read. Something romantic.
Conrad and Jeremiah and Steven had been surfing all morning. There’d been a storm the night before. Conrad and Jeremiah came back to the house first. I heard them before I saw them. They walked up the steps, cracking up over how Steven had lost his shorts after a particularly ferocious wave. Conrad strode over to me, lifted the sweaty magazine from my face, and grinned. He said, “You have words on your cheeks.”
I squinted up at him. “What do they say?”
He squatted next to me and said, “I can’t tell. Let me see.” And then he peered at my face in his serious Conrad way. He leaned in, and he kissed me, and his lips were cold and salty from the ocean.
Then Jeremiah said, “You guys need to get a room,” but I knew he was joking. He winked at me as he came from behind, lifted Conrad up, and launched him into the pool.
Jeremiah jumped in too, and he yelled, “Come on, Belly!”
So of course I jumped too. The water felt fine. Better than fine. Just like always, Cousins was the only place I wanted to be.
“Hello? Did you hear anything I just said?”
I opened my eyes. Taylor was snapping her fingers in my face. “Sorry,” I said. “What were you saying?”
I wasn’t in Cousins. Conrad and I weren’t together, and Susannah was dead. Nothing would ever be the same again. It had been—How many days had it been? How many days exactly?—two months since Susannah had died and I still couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t let myself believe it. When a person you love dies, it doesn’t feel real. It’s like it’s happening to someone else. It’s someone else’s life. I’ve never been good with the abstract. What does it mean when someone is really and truly gone?
Sometimes I closed my eyes and in my head, I said over and over again, It isn’t true, it isn’t true, this isn’t real. This wasn’t my life. But it was my life; it was my life now. After.
I was in Marcy Yoo’s backyard. The boys were messing around in the pool and us girls were lying on beach towels, all lined up in a row. I was friends with Marcy, but the rest, Katie and Evelyn and those girls, they were more Taylor’s friends.
It was eighty-seven degrees already, and it was just after noon. It was going to be a hot one. I was on my stomach, and I could feel sweat pooling in the small of my back. I was starting to feel sun-sick. It was only the second day of July, and already, I was counting the days until summer was over.
“I said, what are you going to wear to Justin’s party?” Taylor repeated. She’d lined our towels up close, so it was like we were on one big towel.
“I don’t know,” I said, turning my head so we were face-to-face.
She had tiny sweat beads on her nose. Taylor always sweated first on her nose. She said, “I’m going to wear that new sundress I bought with my mom at the outlet mall.”
I closed my eyes again. I was wearing sunglasses, so she couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or not anyway. “Which one?”
“You know, the one with the little polka dots that ties around the neck. I showed it to you, like, two days ago.” Taylor let out an impatient little sigh.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, but I still didn’t remember and I knew Taylor could tell.
I started to say something else, something nice about the dress, but suddenly I felt ice-cold aluminum sticking to the back of my neck. I shrieked and there was Cory Wheeler, crouched down next to me with a dripping Coke can in his hand, laughing his head off.
I sat up and glared at him, wiping off my neck. I was so sick of today. I just wanted to go home. “What the crap, Cory!”
He was still laughing, which made me madder.
I said, “God, you’re so immature.”
“But you looked really hot,” he protested. “I was trying to cool you off.”
I didn’t answer him, I just kept my hand on the back of my neck. My jaw felt really tight, and I could feel all the other girls staring at me. And then Cory’s smile sort of slipped away and he said, “Sorry. You want this Coke?”
I shook my head, and he shrugged and retreated back over to the pool. I looked over and saw Katie and Evelyn making what’s-her-problem faces, and I felt embarrassed. Being mean to Cory was like being mean to a German shepherd puppy. There was just no sense in it. Too late, I tried to catch Cory’s eye, but he didn’t look back at me.
In a low voice Taylor said, “It was just a joke, Belly.”
I lay back down on my towel, this time faceup. I took a deep breath and let it out, slowly. The music from Marcy’s iPod deck was giving me a headache. It was too loud. And I actually was thirsty. I should have taken that Coke from Cory.
Taylor leaned over and pushed up my sunglasses so she could see my eyes. She peered at me. “Are you mad?”
“No. It’s just too hot out here.” I wiped sweat off my forehead with the back of my arm.
“Don’t be mad. Cory can’t help being an idiot around you. He likes you.”
“Cory doesn’t like me,” I said, looking away from her. But he sort of did like me, and I knew it. I just wished he didn’t.
“Whatever, he’s totally into you. I still think you should give him a chance. It’ll take your mind off of you-know-who.”
I turned my head away from her and she said, “How about I French braid your hair for the party tonight? I can do the front section and pin it to the side like I did last time.”
“What are you going to wear?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, you have to look cute because everybody’s gonna be there,” Taylor said. “I’ll come over early and we can get ready together.”
Justin Ettelbrick had thrown a big blowout birthday party every July first since the eighth grade. By July, I was already at Cousins Beach, and home and school and school friends were a million miles away. I’d never once minded missing out, not even when Taylor told me about the cotton candy machine his parents had rented one year, or the fancy fireworks they shot off over the lake at midnight.
It was the first summer I would be at home for Justin’s party and it was the first summer I wasn’t going back to Cousins. And that, I minded. That, I mourned. I’d thought I’d be in Cousins every summer of my life. The summer house was the only place I wanted to be. It was the only place I ever wanted to be.
“You’re still coming, right?” Taylor asked me.
“Yeah. I told you I was.”
Her nose wrinkled. “I know, but—” Taylor’s voice broke off. “Never mind.”
I knew Taylor was waiting for things to go back to normal again, to be like before. But they could never be like before. I was never going to be like before.
I used to believe. I used to think that if I wanted it bad enough, wished hard enough, everything would work out the way it was supposed to. Destiny, like Susannah said. I wished for Conrad on every birthday, every shooting star, every lost eyelash, every penny in a fountain was dedicated to the one I loved. I thought it would always be that way.
Taylor wanted me to forget about Conrad, to just erase him from my mind and memory. She kept saying things like, “Everybody has to get over a first love, it’s a rite of passage.” But Conrad wasn’t just my first love. He wasn’t some rite of passage. He was so much more than that. He and Jeremiah and Susannah were my family. In my memory, the three of them would always be entwined, forever linked. There couldn’t be one without the others.
If I forgot Conrad, if I evicted him from my heart, pretended like he was never there, it would be like doing those things to Susannah. And that, I couldn’t do.