Kayla and I were not friends, so when she called me out of the blue, on a blistering July morning, to ask if I wanted to join her and her dad on the lake for the day, it was like NASA calling to invite me to the moon.
“My dad has a boat,” she said. “We can go tubing.”
“OK,” I replied, startled. “Sure. Why not.”
“Cool. I’ll pick you up in an hour. Wear your suit.”
My questions were many: How had she gotten my number? How did she know where I lived? And why, after four years in school together, was she trying to hang out with me now?
All through college our lives had run parallel but never intersected. We took the same literature surveys, the same creative-writing workshops, the same seminars. The spring before, we had tied for first place in a playwriting competition sponsored by a local bookstore. But while the honor had thrilled me for months, sending a rush of adrenaline through my body each time I thought of it, Kayla had simply stashed it among her other trophies and moved on. The next week she won an award for community engagement, and the week after that, a prize for a service project that involved sending poetry books to female prisoners. She had big plans. Life goals. The week before graduation, I heard she had received a Rhodes Scholarship and would be heading to Oxford in the fall. Everyone kept going on about how prestigious it was, which confused me. I thought it was spelled “roads” and had something to do with the Department of Transportation. Then I looked it up.
If there was a reason why we had never become friends, it was this: Kayla was the real deal, and I was an off brand. My life was destined to remain small, local, unimpressive, whereas hers was meant to grow and expand until one day NASA might very well call and invite her to the moon. In September she would leave for Oxford, and I would stay in Kansas and proofread phone books.
The more I thought about it, the more the invitation to join her for a day on the lake befuddled me. Maybe she wanted to leave town thinking we were friends. Or maybe it was just a brilliant summer day and she didn’t want to spend it alone with her dad.
Whatever she wanted, I felt I could give it to her. What would it cost me?
Kayla picked me up in a gleaming white 4Runner. When I got in, she said, “Hey,” and immediately turned up the stereo and rolled down the windows. She wore gold bangles, a white cotton swimsuit cover-up, and purple flip-flops, her dark hair held back by two tortoise-shell clips. The music was too loud for us to talk, so we drove the hour to the lake without speaking. Though my confusion mounted, I wasn’t having a bad time. I liked the music, and with my arm out the window, I could feel the air’s invisible grooves and daydream about flight.
The lake was like every lake in Kansas: artificial. Just water pumped into a muddy hole. On the “beach” near the marina, half-naked children chased one another with neon-colored squirt guns as their parents observed from plastic folding chairs, flabby arms pink with summer sun. Mosquitoes skimmed atop the lake like fizz popping on a Diet Coke. The air smelled of suntan oil, gasoline, and stagnant water. Yet somehow the whole scene excited me. Whether it was the lake itself — its happy people and their public laughter — or just being out in the world with someone like Kayla, I couldn’t say.
Kayla surveyed the parking lot, using her hand as a visor. “This place is majorly gross.”
“Totally,” I agreed.
I followed her to the marina, where a man I assumed to be her dad was untying a boat with Kayla Jane written in glittery silver cursive on the bow. Lean and tidy-looking, with a thin halo of gray hair, he looked wealthy, competent, and sensible. Like a lawyer. Which he was.
“Hello, Martin,” Kayla said.
He lifted his head and smiled, revealing large teeth. “Well, look here,” he said. “My international scholar.” He dropped the knot and hugged Kayla, then pumped my hand as if I were there for a job interview. I immediately wanted him to approve of me.
I knew from Kayla’s writing that he was a tax attorney who drank too much but was supposedly sober now. According to a short story she’d written freshman year, he’d once forgotten to pick her up at school, and she’d had to walk to a nearby gas station and call a cab. I hadn’t even known there were cabs in Kansas. From a poem she’d written junior year, I knew about the time she’d run away, and instead of looking for her, he’d played a round of golf. These confessions made me like Kayla more and dulled the resentment I felt each time she appeared in class with a new Coach bag or spoke casually of her family vacations to Puerto Vallarta. I hadn’t seen my own dad since my eleventh birthday, when he’d swept his eyes from my ankles to my forehead and said, “You’re looking thinner, Stephanie.” According to my mom, he was working as a groundskeeper for Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction in Branson, Missouri, and dating a ventriloquist named Cocoa Roller.
Martin helped me onto the boat. His hand was warm and moist, his grip tight, as if to keep me from running off. He wore a salmon-colored polo shirt, and his forearms were burned and peeling. On his neck a mole the size of a chocolate chip sprouted a single long hair. “We’ll take this baby for a loop around the lake; then you girls can tube,” he said. “Have you tubed before, Stephanie?”
“I haven’t,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, pushing a bottle of Mike’s Hard Strawberry Lemonade into my hand, “you’re in for a treat. Kay loves a good tube. Don’t you, Kay?”
“You bet,” Kayla said, offering a tight-lipped smile.
Martin winked at me, and I felt suddenly uncomfortable, my swimsuit too revealing. I wondered if I’d been invited not to keep Kayla company but to be a shield between her and her father. I could tell there was some hidden pretext to this outing, and I hoped it wouldn’t reveal itself on the lake.
As Kayla and I nursed our alcoholic lemonades, Martin took a long, indulgent sip from a can of Diet Sprite, his Adam’s apple bobbing so forcefully I had to look away.
“Hits the spot,” he said. “Not the spot I want it to hit, but it’s definitely hitting something.”
Kayla gave him a look. “Dad.”
“Sorry, Kay. Just fooling around. At your service. Here we go, into the wild blue.”
He untied a few more ropes, turned a key, cranked the wheel, and we were off. The boat was faster than I’d expected. We shot across the lake, frothy brown water slapping at the hull. I had spent all twenty-two years of my life in landlocked Kansas and was not comfortable on the water. The last time I’d been on a boat was when I was seven: My dad had taken me fishing with a buddy of his. I’d spent most of the trip vomiting into the water while my dad had laughed and said, “More food for the fish!”
I observed Martin as he smiled around his cigarette, one hand gripping the Sprite, the other loosely guiding the steering wheel. He was sweating, and sunscreen pooled in the creases of his reddening neck.
“Kayla tells me you’re a writer,” Martin said. He had put on aviators, but I could tell he was looking at me intently. Perhaps he wanted to know more about me as a way of getting to know more about his daughter, or to demonstrate to her that he took an interest in her friends.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a writer — not like Kayla.”
“What does that mean?” Kayla asked.
“Just, you know. I like to write, but I’ll never become a writer like you.”
“Do you or do you not write plays?”
“Well, yeah, but that’s not the same as what you’re doing.”
“What exactly am I doing that makes me more of a writer than you?”
She wasn’t angry, but her voice had taken on the aggressive, determined tone she sometimes used in workshop, as if her words were a drill pointed to the center of the earth.
“You’re going to Oxford,” I said.
“Did you apply for the Rhodes?”
“No, but — all I’m saying is that you’re on a different level than me. Don’t you think?”
“Why would I think that? What have I done, either through my words or my actions, that makes you believe I think that?”
I’d thought I was complimenting her, but clearly I had done the opposite. I wasn’t sure how to recover.
“Let me give you some advice,” Martin said to me. “A little trick I learned with her mother: when she starts asking questions like that, just tell her she’s right and move on. It’ll save you both a lot of time and energy.”
He winked at Kayla, who squinted at him and said, “Just drive the boat, Martin.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” he said, giving her a playful salute. I couldn’t tell whether Kayla was annoyed or if this was their usual family banter.
As we zoomed across the lake, Kayla sat primly on a cooler, her legs crossed, her long black hair pulled into a tight topknot. Her gaze was fixed on the horizon: nothing out there except dirty water and white sky, the marina growing blurry in the distance. I thought about an urban legend I’d heard in school: Once, in the early nineties, a guy had dropped an envelope of hundred-dollar bills into an outhouse toilet at the lake’s picnic area. He’d climbed down into the muck to retrieve it and gotten stuck there overnight, standing on his tiptoes and craning his neck above the sewage to breathe. One of the professors in the film department had supposedly written a screenplay about it, though everyone I asked had never seen the script. Whenever I thought about this story, my question was always the same: Did the guy get the envelope or not?
“Should we lay out?” Kayla asked, sounding bored and defeated.
“Sure,” I said. She could have asked if I’d wanted to play chess, or sing show tunes, or scrub the poop deck, and I would have nodded yes, of course.
She removed her cover-up to reveal a black Speedo one-piece, like athletes wear. I felt suddenly ridiculous in my hot-pink bikini with its gold metal hardware. This is why she’s going to Oxford, I told myself. This is why you’re staying behind. She then set out two oversized beach towels: one Toy Story, the other Frozen. “My sister’s,” she said.
“I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“She’s from my dad’s second marriage. She’s eight.”
“That’s cool. I love Frozen.”
“I’ve never seen it,” Kayla said coolly.
I wondered what kind of movies she had watched as a child. Les Misérables? Schindler’s List? We sprawled on the towels, the heat from the sun pressing down. Kayla coated herself in Banana Boat suntan oil, which smelled of sugar and coconuts. She handed me the bottle, and I did the same, though I had never intentionally tanned before. A girl in my middle school had died of melanoma, and the painted wooden statue they had erected of her in the school’s courtyard still haunted me.
For a while we lay there, unmoving, as Martin drove us farther from shore. A small radio near the captain’s seat pushed out a steady stream of classic rock: “Bad Moon Rising.” “Ramble On.” “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Lying there, alcohol in my blood, the sun overhead, I felt a sudden, unexpected happiness. Yes, Kayla was going to Oxford, but she had invited me to join her on her dad’s boat. She had suggested that I was a writer as much as she was. What if this signaled something about my prospects? I was staying in Kansas for another year. Everything after that was pure potential. Maybe I could apply to graduate school overseas. Maybe I would write a play so good a theater company in Chicago would agree to perform it. Maybe my star would rise even higher than Kayla’s. Nothing said it couldn’t.
As if she could sense my change in outlook, Kayla turned to me and asked, “Do you remember in workshop when Dr. Singer said a character can’t be smarter than its writer?” She was wearing sunglasses, so our eyes didn’t really meet. Her voice sounded drowsy. I couldn’t tell whether she was relaxed or just bored.
I could recall Dr. Singer’s words exactly: A moderately intelligent writer can write as many morons as she wants, but she can never write a genius.
“Yeah, I remember. What about it?”
“Do you think it applies to other qualities, too? Like, not just intelligence?”
She flared her nostrils, something she did when thinking. I was amazed by how much silence she allowed to pass while she considered what to say. Sometimes, as she gathered her thoughts, our entire class would sit quietly as if waiting for a butterfly to burst from a cocoon. “Like, could I write a character whose emotions I’ve never felt before?”
The question took me by surprise. This was one of the differences between Kayla and me: she seemed to have two sets of eyes — one that focused inward, and one that looked up.
“Because if it’s true,” she continued, “then we can only really write the same stories over and over. It’s like everyone has a box of crayons, and whatever colors we have in it are the only colors we can draw with. It just feels . . . limiting. You know?”
I thought about it for a second. “Maybe,” I said. “But maybe we can also see the colors other people draw with. And maybe we can mix and match our crayons to create those new colors.”
“But what if you’re not good at it?”
“Seeing those colors in other people.”
I scrunched my brow to indicate deep contemplation. “I think it just means we have to practice.”
“How do you practice something like that?”
“Like it’s a muscle. You have to actively imagine what it’s like to be another person, or else that muscle won’t grow.”
“You’re mixing metaphors,” she said, clearly agitated.
I immediately knew I’d said something too touchy-feely for her tastes. If I had learned one thing about Kayla, it was that she lived in the world of facts and did not like to operate in the gray area of feelings. Her creative work was always shot through with other disciplines: sociology, history, economics. She could work into a play the history of the 1934 textile workers’ strike or the life and work of Margaret Mead. Her characters expounded on esoteric subjects and had large vocabularies, but they sometimes felt two-dimensional. Maybe she was insecure about this. If so, she had nothing to worry about. She was smart, and her work sounded smart, and the professors in charge of giving out awards tended to give them to her. Over the years I had worked hard to moderate my envy. I’d thought often, to the point of neurosis, of what Dr. Singer had said about writing intelligent characters, and I’d decided I would only ever be able to write slightly above-average people like myself: confused, dejected girls who searched for self-worth in the least-generous places. Emotional morons.
Kayla turned onto her stomach. “I’m napping now,” she said, ending our conversation. “Wake me up if something happens.”
I turned onto my own belly, head to one side, and stared at Kayla’s back, watching her breathing become rhythmic. I wondered what kind of shampoo she used to get her hair so shiny and smooth. I wondered if there would come a time in my life when I could buy myself nice shampoo, rather than whatever was on sale at the grocery store. I thought of how, the semester before, Dr. Singer had stapled a poem by Marge Piercy to my final portfolio. The poem had hurt my feelings, particularly these lines:
The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.
I had to look up phlogiston: a fire-like element scientists once thought existed in all combustible objects. I wanted to ask the other writers in workshop whether they had received the same poem, but I was too afraid. What was Dr. Singer trying to say about me? About my talent? I was thinking about this and admiring how thin Kayla’s ankles were when I noticed Martin waving his arms at me from the front of the boat. “Steph,” he whispered.
I sat up and blinked at him.
“Do me a favor?”
I looked at Kayla, who remained motionless. “Sure,” I whispered back.
He pointed to a can of Rolling Rock in his hand — when had he grabbed a Rolling Rock? — and then to the cooler next to where Kayla lay. “Get me another?” he mouthed, before crushing the empty beer can and tossing it into the water.
He made a gesture like: It’s OK. This is normal.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did what he wanted.
I was opening the cooler when Kayla said, “What are you doing?”
“I’m — I’m just getting a beer.”
A spike of fear ran up my spine. “Um.”
She sat up and turned to Martin. “Are you kidding me?”
Martin looked wounded, then angry. “Oh, come on. Is this your boat, Kay? Did you work an eighty-hour week? Let your dad have a goddamn beer if he wants.”
“Are we really going to do this every time?” he said. “And in front of your new friend?”
Kayla looked at me, a deep-pink color moving from her neck to her cheeks. “Steph, just sit down. It’s OK.”
I froze in place, half standing, half sitting. I wanted nothing more than to be on solid earth. The motion of the boat, plus the buzz from the hard lemonade, was making my stomach turn.
Martin nodded to me. “Go on, Steph. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine,” Kayla said.
He threw up his hands. Then, almost apologetically, he pushed me out of the way and retrieved a green can from the cooler, the aluminum sweating and glinting in the sun. I could feel for a moment how precious it was to him.
“If you drink that,” Kayla said, “Steph and I are swimming back.”
“Is that so?” He cracked open the beer and began chugging it. I thought Kayla might be joking about the swimming thing, but her face was deadpan. She had likely grown up with swimming lessons at the country club or perhaps a pool in her backyard. I hadn’t swum — not really — since the eighth grade, when my whole class had taken a bus to the YMCA so we could fulfill our swimming credit for PE.
When Martin was done drinking, he stifled a belch and frowned at Kayla. “You know, you’re just like your mom sometimes. So dramatic. Just live and let live, Kay. We’re having a nice day here. Your friend is having a nice time.”
“Is that true?” Kayla asked me. “Are you having a nice time?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
“See?” Kayla said. “She feels weird. You made her feel weird. And I feel weird, too. This was a mistake.” She stood up, kicked off her flip-flops.
“Kayla,” I whispered, “I don’t think I can swim that far.”
“It’s really not far,” she said, glancing at the marina, which looked about a hundred miles away.
“I just don’t think I feel very good. . . .” Saying it out loud made it more true. A wave of nausea came over me, and sparks of light fell across my field of vision. I leaned over the edge of the boat and released a quick waterfall of pink liquid.
“Wonderful,” Martin said. “Your friend is sick, and you’re over here making a scene.”
“I’m making a scene?”
“Well, I’m certainly not.”
“All right. That’s it. I’m going. Bye.” She removed her digital watch, the one she always wore to class, and set it on the cooler. “You coming, Steph?”
I wiped my mouth with the back of my wrist. My tongue tasted like acid. The last thing I wanted to do was test my swimming skills. “You’re serious?”
She frowned as if I had disappointed her. “Whatever you thought today would be, it’s not going to be like that. Once he starts, he doesn’t stop. I really, really think you should come with me.”
I looked to her, then at Martin.
“She’s being dramatic,” he said. “Stay here, and I’ll take you both back to shore. Let’s all just calm down.”
“Dad, we do not want a drunk person zipping us around on a lake.”
He slammed his palm into the steering wheel. “I’m not drunk, Kay. I’m enjoying a beer on a weekend. There’s a difference. Why can’t you leave me be?”
“You told Mom you stopped.”
“And your mom told me she wasn’t sleeping around.”
Kayla stepped onto the edge of the boat and did a little dive. Plop. Into the water. Just like that.
Within moments she was far away from the boat, much farther than I would have imagined she could swim in that amount of time. Martin wasn’t even looking at her; he was already digging into the cooler for another Rolling Rock. There was a kind of relief in his face, that he was finally alone with the beer. That’s what made up my mind.
“I’m sorry. It was really nice to meet you,” I said. “Maybe next time we can go tubing.” I removed my sandals and placed them next to Kayla’s. Then, limbs jittery, I jumped in.
The water felt oddly good, and my seasickness dissolved immediately. It hadn’t been the water’s fault, I realized, but the boat’s. Though I hadn’t swum in years, it came back to me like an old jump-rope song: one arm, breathe, other arm, breathe, kick the feet, faster, tummy up, breathe. Soon I was within reach of Kayla, who was not actually as fast of a swimmer as she looked; the boat had just been going in the other direction. She turned to me and offered a sad smile.
“Is this fucked up or what?” she asked, both of us treading water to stay afloat in the middle of the lake. I knew that, if Martin had been my dad, I would have stayed on the boat and endured whatever was coming. I would not have been brave enough to jump in the water, to leave him, and this fact made me sad for myself.
“I’m sorry about your dad,” I said.
“He’s fine. I mean, he’s not fine, but I’m used to it. Anyway, I’m leaving soon. It doesn’t matter.”
“You don’t have to be used to it,” I said. “My dad left a long time ago, and I’m still not used to it. It bothers me every time I think about it, actually.” I realized this was true, though I had never said it out loud in a single sentence before, with grammar and syntax, something I could show to another person. I felt uncomfortable, bobbing there, my whole body aching for a response I knew Kayla could not provide, because we weren’t actually friends.
Perhaps she sensed this and felt awkward, too, because she dunked her head and stayed under a beat too long. She resurfaced and blinked at me, tiny drops of water on her eyelids. “I know it’s weird that I invited you to this,” she said.
“It’s not weird,” I said unconvincingly.
“I just thought maybe if you were here, things might be different. Like he might act different, and if you saw it, then it would feel more true, and I could move away thinking he was better.”
I looked back at the boat, where Martin stood, beer in hand, the sunlight behind him casting him in darkness. Though I couldn’t see his eyes, I knew he was watching us, waiting to see what Kayla would do. “Maybe he also thought today would be different.”
Something twitched on Kayla’s face. “He’s not really like that.”
“Like, I don’t think he really cares how he makes me feel.”
“He named his boat after you.”
She blinked at me, as if this meant nothing.
“Maybe he cares a lot,” I said, “but he’s sick. And it tortures him that his sickness is stronger.” I wanted to say, My dad is perfectly well, and he still chose to leave me.
There were tears in Kayla’s eyes; I chastised myself for meddling. Wanting to give her a moment of privacy, I dunked my head underwater the way she had, though I knew it looked spastic instead of cool and sensual. By the time I surfaced, Kayla was swimming away, toward the marina. I felt a flicker of hurt but forced myself to get over it. This would be my life, I understood: watching others shoot ahead. But I had learned to swim, long ago. I knew how. I took a breath and began to swim after her, trusting my body to remember.