QUIET, AUGUST, TEN O'CLOCK
All the sixth-grade harpies and tastemakers had been looking forward to Carolyn's birthday for weeks -- they all knew that her mother, recently divorced, now waitressed late-night at the diner on Five Points; they'd have free run of the house, away from the bustle of businesses on 119th Street. The dozen or so girls who showed up stuffed themselves with candy and Doritos, played a round of Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror, and had a dance contest. They jumped in the large aboveground swimming pool in the backyard for moonlight volleyball, ate pizza and birthday cake, and ran around the block playing manhunt with Carolyn's rakishly handsome cousins, who then left, and suddenly all was quiet and August and ten o'clock. The backyard was dark and secluded, bordered by a small commuter-college campus on one side, a minefield of oil tanks on another, a dark, asphalt alleyway, and a flimsy fence that led to one of the last remaining swamps and ponds in the area.
Julie proposed they skinny-dip. Gradually they each took off their suits -- all but Maryann, the one who always fell asleep first and got her bra frozen overnight, who tonight waited until she was somehow sure she wasn't being tricked, at which point she took off her Coca-Cola printed swimsuit and joined the others.
They engineered a whirlpool in one direction and then the other, and they weren't sure what to do next, though they had a sense they were being mildly risqué. Not used to being naked in public, they tried to act nonchalant and imitate the way that nude women in forbidden R-rated movies moved; confident and casual, smirking. Pleased with themselves for dreaming up the idea of skinny-dipping, they were reluctant to go inside and crawl in their sleeping bags just yet. They began walking around the backyard and back porch, kicking around a soccer ball, sitting on the lawn talking, and checking each other out like curious strands of wheat, weaving in and out of each other's bodies.
Tess, the solitary redhead, sat naked on the deck of the pool, Indian-style, all pale freckled skin and damp wispy hair, the centerpiece of the yard as she gazed up at the moon and rested back on her hands, her skin illuminated by the white light of the stars and the lime-green bug lamp. Jimmy, who lived a few doors down, wandered into Carolyn's backyard, and someone yelled "Tess, there's a boy here!" so that she'd change her spread-eagle position, but Tess just laughed and drew her knees up to her chest. The rest of the girls, realizing that they outnumbered Jimmy, didn't run for cover indoors either; instead they continued to walk around and whisper in groups, alternately playing with the dog and swimming in the pool, hairless and giggly, and keeping an eye on Jimmy. He wandered amidst them for a while, talking as they acted very blasé and sophisticated about their naked states, as if they did this all the time; and finally, when he realized that he couldn't embarrass or chase them, he left.
At the church picnic the next day, Jimmy saw Maryann, whose bra had again been frozen as soon as she fell asleep. They stood in line inside the pavilion of the local park for free ice cream, the kind served in a plastic cup with a wooden spoon glued on top. That day, the sky was clear enough to see straight across Lake Michigan to Chicago and even make out some of the buildings. The park seemed beautiful and lush, with its crumbling tennis courts, cigarette-littered pier, tiny rose garden circled with stones, and polluted beach, because they'd learned to concentrate on the tiny amounts of green in the neighborhood, and walk as if with blinders past those sweeping acres of oil tanks and fenced-in desolate factories, and the beer cans and gum wrappers strewn like a layer of dust over this wasteland. Maryann's miniscule chest was damp and itchy from her still-drying training bra, and Jimmy followed her around as if he understood something, as if he had one on her, doing a wink-wink nudge-nudge routine and threatening to rat the girls out to Maryann's mother. Dejected when she told him that she didn't care if he did, he hopped on his skateboard and rode away.
Every day during the first week of school that fall, Carolyn showed up with one of the trinkets she'd received as birthday presents: a Scratch-and-Sniff lunchbox, Hello Kitty lip gloss, socks with pom poms, a necklace made of pastel candies. Clustered on the playground at lunchtime, everyone admired the objects. Jimmy, previously a playground pigtail-puller, was now sheepish in the girls' presence. He had also been considered "cute" by the group, in a Brian Adams kind of way, but after that night in Carolyn's backyard, he was rendered innocuous and brotherly by the girls, and he wouldn't have his first kiss until freshman year of high school, when he met a girl from a different grade school. The harpies never spoke of that night again.