Joyland

The South |

As If We'd Been There Before

by Eleanor Kriseman

Jazz and I started out that summer spending every day together. I first saw her earlier that year in the parking lot, unloading groceries with her mom. She was wearing a bikini top and denim cutoffs and I was jealous, because I just had a couple of old one-pieces, faded from chlorine and saltwater. We just stared at each other that time. But we were the only girls our age in the building, and soon we were best friends. All the old ladies called us “those girls”, and everyone knew who they were talking about. We looked alike, same blonde hair and brown eyes, and we liked it. We tried to convince everyone we met we were twins, even though Jazz was a year older, thirteen, which sounded much older than twelve.

The temperature hit 105 in Daytona Beach in the middle of June that summer. Jazz got her period for the first time that summer. We met Johnny that summer.

Jazz would come by every morning after my mom left for work, her flip-flops slapping the concrete walkway as she approached. She’d help me fold up the pullout couch in the living room where I slept. Then we’d stand in front of the narrow mirror by the kitchenette, holding our arms against each other to see who’d gotten darker. Jazz had a picture of Christie Brinkley that she’d torn out of a Sports Illustrated at the drugstore. “I want to look like this by the end of the summer,” she’d said. She was perfecting the art of liquid eyeliner, and I’d watch in the mirror as she tried to keep her hand steady, whispering fuck when she slipped up and licking her pointer finger to wipe the mistakes away. Then she’d practice on me. Later, dark streaks would trickle down the sides of our faces as we tanned on the beach, eyes closed to the afternoon sun. 

After doing our makeup, we’d grab towels and flounce downstairs, armed with baby oil and the sunglasses Jazz had stolen for us from the drugstore. I’d watched her do it. She ripped off the tags and stuck the sunglasses in her hair. She even winked at the cashier on our way out, a pimply boy who went to the high school on North Oleander. Jazz would do anything if you dared her to. Sometimes she dared herself if nobody else was around.

*

I figured out which house it was from all the cars parked out front, but nobody acknowledged me when I walked in. I wasn’t really sure why I’d gone. Boredom, I guess. My mom was working late and I didn’t feel like spending another night in that apartment, lying on the couch and watching the minutes pass on the VCR. I found the kitchen, grabbed a beer from the fridge, and knocked the top of the bottle hard against the edge of the counter. The cap fell off easily into my hand and I took a swig from the bottle, getting mostly foam. “That was pretty cool,” someone said. I looked behind me. A boy stood in the doorframe of the kitchen with a red cup in his hand. I shrugged my shoulders.

“I guess,” I said. He stayed where he was, blocking my way out, but not like he wouldn’t have moved if I had asked.

“I mean, most girls would have just asked a guy to open it for them,” he said.

*

I remembered the time when I’d walked into the kitchen one night to get some water because the bathroom tap was broken and I was thirsty and feverish from a summer cold. My mom had been in there with Daryl, about to open another beer, leaning on the counter like she was about to fall over.

“Hey Cal, why don’t you learn to open these for your mom? Just hit it on the side of the counter like this. This is a cool trick,” she said, and knocked the top of the bottle against the edge of the counter. The bottle cap clinked on the tile floor and she kicked it aside, near the trashcan. “Just try it,” she said, and grabbed me another bottle from the fridge. “You can open one for Daryl.” I was eight. My forehead was hot and the cold medicine hadn’t kicked in yet. I wanted water, and I wanted to go to bed.

“It’s gonna break, Mom,” I said.

“No it won’t,” she said again. “Just try it.” I knew she’d get angry if I said no. She was showing off. I took the unopened bottle from her hand, and bumped it on the corner of the counter. Nothing happened. “Harder,” she said.

“Jeanie, don’t you think,” Daryl said, and she shushed him.

“I’m gonna break it, Mom,” I said again.

“Just try it, Cal,” she said. Then she looked at me like I was an adult and said, “You’re always so afraid to try anything.” I slammed it into the counter and the bottle shattered. Shards of brown glass gathered around my bare feet and the stale smell of beer filled the kitchen. The brown liquid spread quickly on the tile. “Goddamnit!” she said, and walked out of the room.

“Don’t move,” Daryl said, and lifted me up. He carried me to the bathtub and set me down. “Wash your feet off and get to bed. I’ll clean up. Hey, don’t cry. Don’t cry, Cal.” I wasn’t crying because I was hurt. I was crying because he was so nice. It was weird how that could make you cry, just someone being nice to you when you didn’t even deserve it.

*

“My mom taught me,” I said to the boy, snapping back to this kitchen, this party, this conversation.

He looked surprised. “Cool,” he said. “I’m KJ.”

“I’m Callie,” I said. He looked young. I mean, he looked my age. His nose was big and peppered with blackheads. Oily. I couldn’t stop staring at it, which I guess was good because otherwise I would have been staring into his eyes. He had long eyelashes. My mom got so mad when she saw boys with long eyelashes. She’d point them out to me, little boys tugging on their mothers’ shorts at the grocery store, or the skateboarders who hung out on the wheelchair ramp outside our building. “It’s not fair, Cal,” she’d say. “I bet he can’t even wear sunglasses, his eyelashes are so long.”

“You have long eyelashes,” I said to KJ, because I realized we’d been quiet for a few seconds. Then I bit my lip. I did it because I was nervous but then I realized it looked like I was flirting. I hadn’t kissed a boy yet. I hadn’t told anyone that. Only Jazz had known, and that was back in seventh grade, when it was still normal if you hadn’t kissed a guy. Ninth grade was different.

He laughed. “So, uh, who do you know here?”

“Nobody,” I said. “Andie’s in my homeroom. She invited me. But I don’t really know anyone else.” I was surprised Andie had invited me. I didn’t think she knew who I was until one morning on the way out of class she told me she liked my shorts. I was wearing denim cutoffs. “I couldn’t pull off shorts that short,” she said. “But your legs are so long it works. I can almost see your ass, but it works.”

*

The day Jazz and I met Johnny I’d been putting off doing laundry until I ran out of everything, so she helped me carry a crusty pile of clothes that smelled of mildew and Hawaiian Tropic to the laundromat. With the extra quarters, we bought bubble gum from the machine outside and filled our mouths with large gobs that hurt to chew. Then we sat on the plastic chairs, sweaty and sticky, and blew bubbles as we watched the laundry turn. Jazz stood next to me while I folded, one pile for me and the other for my mom.  

*

I was still learning how girls talked to each other, how sometimes you couldn’t tell if something was supposed to be a compliment or an insult. I was figuring out my body. I knew my shorts were short but I didn’t have boobs and I thought my legs were nice.

“Thanks,” I said. “Your hair’s really pretty. Mine won’t get that long.” I was lying. I didn’t know where it came from. I’d never tried to grow my hair that long. Andie smiled, then sighed. “It’s such a pain to brush, though.” This was how you accepted a compliment if you were a girl.

*

We’d only been on the beach for a little while that afternoon when Jazz decided we should give up on tanning. The heat was damp and piercing; you felt as if you would fry if you stayed in the same position for too long. Instead, we walked ankle-deep along the shallows toward the Holiday Inn. There was a snack bar there on the beach, and when this one guy was working there, Jazz could usually get us something for free.

We were halfway down the beach when Jazz got bored. “I dare you to ask him for a beer,” she said, and tilted her head towards a potbellied man sitting on a faded towel next to a sweating cooler. I shook my head. “Fine then,” she said. “I’ll do it, if you’re gonna be a baby.”

“Hi sir,” Jazz said. The man looked up and slid off his sunglasses. She leaned over to him real slow, and whispered something in his ear. He scratched his head, then reached into the cooler and handed her a Miller Lite, flipping off the top with his lighter. Jazz smiled sweetly at him and darted back to me, flushed and giddy. “See how easy it is?” she said, as if she almost couldn’t believe it herself. She offered me a sip and even though I didn’t like beer, I took a swig.

Jazz did this kind of thing a lot. I think she liked having me around to watch her, to back up the stories when she told them at school. “Callie was there,” she’d say, hand on her hip, daring anyone to challenge her. “She saw it. Right, Cal?” And I’d be right behind her, telling everyone that yes, Jazz did go skinny-dipping in the rec center pool that night; she wasn’t lying. Jazz never lied.

*

I don’t know, after Jazz there was always this separation between me and any other girls I could have been friends with. It didn’t make sense that you could feel like you existed in a secret world with one other person, that there was some force field around the two of you that wouldn’t let anybody else in, and then one day it could pop and it was as if you’d never even spoken to each other, much less peeled the sunburnt skin from each other’s backs or examined the pale tan-line triangles of your bare chests side by side in the bathroom mirror. And I knew it was my fault, but I didn’t know how to fix it or where she was now or what she’d seen that day and I never wanted to know but at the same time I wanted to know it all if it meant she could forget it.

*

Jazz tossed the empty beer bottle into the ocean when we got to the snack bar. I watched it bob on the surface for a minute, then gather water and sink with the next wave. “Is Derek working today?” she asked the lady behind the counter.

The lady raised her eyebrows. “No, sweetie. But I’ll tell him some girls came looking for him. You know you’re not allowed to sit here unless you buy something.” Derek always let us sit there without buying anything. I felt like he would have preferred it if Jazz showed up alone, but she always brought me along. The woman turned to the guy sitting next to us.

“Now what can I get you, sir?”

“I’ll take a Corona if you’ve got one, and, what the heck, two virgin daiquiris for those two.” He turned toward us and stood up. “Unless you’d rather have piña coladas? I’m Johnny, by the way.” His shoulders were broad and reddened, and when he moved his arm to reach for his wallet, I could see the muscles twitch beneath his skin. He was the kind of guy that looked cute from far away but up close when you saw him in sharper focus he didn’t seem that special. I saw Jazz arch her back slightly. I noticed grey clouds forming above us, and the temperature dropping a bit.

*

KJ had moved out of the doorway and was leaning on the counter beside me. “I came with some of the soccer guys,” he said. I scraped at the label on the beer bottle. “Andie’s kinda hooking up with Jackson, he’s one of my friends on the team, so she told him to bring some people.” I was pretty sure that meant they were having sex but there was no way I could ask that so I just nodded.

*

“Hi Johnny,” Jazz said, in that voice she used to talk to men we didn’t know. “I’m Jazz and this is Callie. We’re twins.”

*

I didn’t know how to talk to guys. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone. I mostly watched TV and drank with my mom at our apartment whenever she was there, which wasn’t much. She was always at the restaurant, working or drinking with her coworkers off the clock. And when I was alone, I was reading library books or rummaging through the fridge, which was always empty and I don’t know why I bothered, or staring at myself in the mirror, appraising my body, wondering when my legs had gotten this long, when my hips had started to hold up my jean shorts.

*

Jazz slipped onto the stool next to Johnny’s and propped her bony elbows on the counter while she sipped her daiquiri. She swiveled back and forth slowly on the seat. We couldn’t touch the floor from the stools, and our feet swung in the air. She’d only been talking to him for a few minutes when the sky rumbled so loudly the counter shook for a second.

*

“So, um, it might be quieter outside,” KJ said. Music had started blaring from the living room, a song with a loud bass that thumped in my chest to a beat I couldn’t quite get the hang of. “It’s a nice night out. You wanna go out there with me?”

*

“Looks like the sky’s about to open up. Tell you what—I’m gonna head back up to my place. Why don’t you two come over, watch some television, wait out the storm?” Johnny said. It was about to pour. And we were pretty far from the condos. But this would be the biggest dare I’d seen Jazz accept yet. I started to say something, but she grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard.

“We’ll come,” she said.

*

“Okay,” I said.

*

Sometimes my mom would bring home a jug of cheap sangria from Rainbow Mart on her way home from work and we’d drive out to the beach and catch the last hour of sun out the dashboard window, drinking sangria out of Styrofoam cups from the restaurant. “I’d rather have you drinking with me than out partying,” she’d say. “I remember high school boys. You’re much better off drinking with me."

I followed KJ out the sliding glass door onto the patio. There were a couple of guys fiddling with the grill, which didn’t seem to be working. A table littered with red cups vibrated from the boombox that sat atop it, its legs wobbling back and forth on the patchy grass. A group of girls sprawled on deck chairs, passing a handle of vodka between them, a two liter bottle of Diet Coke at their feet.

*

Johnny’s building looked just like ours, and it made me feel better, as if somehow we knew him already. As if we’d been there before. There were the same stucco walls, the mosquitoes gathered in the stairwell, the sandy welcome mats in the hall. “After you,” he said when we got to his door, and we stepped inside. He kept his apartment really cold. 

Jazz and I sat down on the couch, our bare thighs sticking to the leather. Johnny took a seat on the armchair next to us. Up close, the skin on his face was bumpy, and he had angry dots on his cheeks, from shaving maybe, or picking at things he should have left alone. He was both old and ageless, in the way that all adults are until you become one yourself. He could have been twenty or forty.

“So what do you girls like to do for fun?” Johnny said. “You certainly seem to spend a lot of time in the sun... both of you have gorgeous tans, y’know. Both of y’all are real cute.”

*

KJ jerked his head to the left, motioning at the shed in the corner of the yard. He shrugged, embarrassed. “Just as loud out here, I guess. I just wanted to get out of that house. It’ll be quieter behind the shed.” He took my hand and led me there. “I think you’re real cute,” he said, and I thought about Johnny, something I hadn’t done in a long time. Both of y’all are real cute. 

*
Jazz smiled. “We don’t do much else during the summer. I don’t want to go back to school.”

“Yeah, school. That’s a bummer. Are you two at Seabreeze?”

Jazz blurted out, “No, Hinson Junior,” before I could stop her, and I bit my lip. But Johnny didn’t seem to care that we weren’t even in high school. He just laughed and said Hoo boy under his breath.

“Do you go to school, Johnny?” Jazz said.

“Nah,” he said. “I’m in construction. Working on one of those new high rises way up on Ocean Shore right now.”

“Oh.” Jazz sounded impressed, or maybe intimidated, because she didn’t say anything back. We were all quiet for a moment. I didn’t know what else to talk about. Then Johnny turned on the television.  There was a movie paused on the screen, and underneath the wavy lines there were two women naked on a bed with a man between them.

*

And then KJ was kissing me, sloppy but gentle. We both tasted like beer. I wasn’t sure what to feel so I froze. He pulled away and said, “I’m sorry. We don’t have to do this. God, I feel like an asshole.” Then he looked down and shook his head like a dog after a bath. “C’mon, I’ll take you back inside.”

*

“Sorry about that.” Johnny laughed the way people do when something isn’t funny but uncomfortable. “That’s for guys like me, not sweet girls like you two.” He looked us up and down like he was trying to memorize our bodies. “Unless you wanna watch it with me.” I thought he’d turn the television off, but he didn’t. The women and the man were frozen on the screen. I couldn’t move. Jazz wasn’t doing anything and if Jazz still thought we were okay, then I had to think so too.

*

I didn’t want KJ to be nice. I didn’t want him to take me back inside. I wanted to kiss him more. Sometimes when somebody was nice to me it made me want to cry. Or sometimes it made me want to be mean to them, just to see how much they would let me.

*

Jazz slapped her hand on her thigh and I jumped. “Mosquito,” she said, wiping it off on the arm of the couch.  “Um, actually, where’s your bathroom?”

“Here, I’ll show you,” Johnny said, and stood up. He put his hand on the small of her back to direct her. “It’s that door on the left there.” Even though it wasn’t me he’d touched I got goosebumps. Johnny sat back down, this time next to me. The cushion sank under his weight, and I leaned to the left to stop myself from sliding toward him. “So, uh, you two are twins? Fraternal, I guess. That’s cool.”

“Well, Jazz likes to say that,” I said real soft, picking at my cuticles. “But we’re just best friends. Not twins.”

*

I put a finger under KJ’s chin and tipped it up again, forcefully. I kissed him and I knew what to do with my lips this time. He pulled away and took a deep breath. “I wasn’t expecting that.” I felt him through his jeans. I was someone else. I fumbled for his zipper. We were still behind the shed, rustling in the weeds while the party raged on around us. I stuck my hand down his boxers. “Wait,” he said, but I pushed him against the shed with my other hand and pinned him to the wall. I wanted to see what he would let me do to him.

*

I didn’t want to get drunk with my mom and it wasn’t like she made me but sometimes she’d challenge me and I knew she didn’t want to win. “C’mon,” she’d say. “Finish your cup. Let me pour you another.” Every time she drove us home I clutched the seatbelt to my chest so tightly that I had trouble unfurling my fingers after we made it across the bridge.  Her hands were always light on the wheel, tapping along to the radio. She liked it loud, so loud I’d have to yell to get her to hear me. She’d get real close to the bumper of the car in front of us, then look over at me and smile, as if she knew it scared me. She did know.

*

And then I was on top of him, in the dirt, all of my weight pressing down on him. He could have flipped me over if he’d tried. I mean, he was tall and he played soccer. He was strong. But I think he was still surprised. I was a girl and I was tall but I was skinny, and not as tall as him, and I was holding him down in the patchy grass of someone else's backyard where anybody could have seen us if they’d walked around the shed. He looked like he liked the surprise of it. And I liked how it felt to be on top.

I pushed myself up so I was sitting on him. “We can go back inside, if you want,” he said. I shook my head, grabbed his hand and put it inside my shirt.

“Take my shirt off,” I said. I was wearing an old tank top and a bra I’d borrowed from my mom. It was black and lacy and I knew it looked good.

*

Sometimes it was, “Cal, I have to drive. You finish it.” She knew I would, because if I didn’t, she would.  She took me to an AA meeting with her once. Most of it was stupid but I couldn’t help but remember some of the words from the packet they handed me on the way out, the terms they used. Were you an enabler? A hero? A mascot? A scapegoat? I was the only one she had. I was all of them. But I remember this one sentence like it was burned into my brain. “The enabler often provides excuses for the alcoholic’s behavior.” Like it was my fault. 

*

Johnny laughed. “So you’re not twins. Anything else you two are lying about?” He raised an eyebrow. “It’s not nice to lie, you know.” Jazz would have known what to say back, how to play along, but all I could do was nod. “Aw, I’m just kidding,” he said. Then he reached out and stroked the top of my right thigh, tracing a circle with his thumb. My tan went white under the pressure of his finger. I bit my tongue. We heard the toilet flush. And then I did something bad. I slipped out from under Johnny’s hand and I ran for the door.

*

 “Are you sure?” KJ asked. He looked confused. Like he was getting what he wanted but he didn’t think it was happening. So I took off my top by myself. I let him watch me. I made him watch me.

*

Johnny called out, “Callie! Wait!” and started to follow me, but he stopped when the bathroom door opened. So did I, but only for a second. Somehow I knew he wouldn’t chase me, not with Jazz still there. I ran to the end of the hallway, and in the staircase I bent over the railing, heaving. I felt like throwing up but nothing would come out. I walked barefoot along the beach back to the condo, following the receding line of the tide. It wasn’t even dark yet. I turned my head each time I saw a girl out of the corner of my eye, but none of them was Jazz.

*

“Your turn,” I said, and lifted up the hem of KJ’s shirt. The weeds must have been scratchy against his back but he didn’t say anything, and he lifted his arms obediently for me. I pressed myself against him, and kissed him. Then I bit his lip, hard. He wasn’t saying anything. I had never felt this kind of hardness beneath me before, but I knew what it meant, even though I’d never kissed a guy before tonight I knew what it meant, and I was grinding on top of him and he was saying “We can wait” and then I was undoing his belt and slipping my underwear to the side underneath my skirt and then he was saying something but it was like I was in a different world and I covered his mouth with one hand and slipped him inside of me with the other and he didn’t want to like it but he did and I was moving harder, and the music was loud and nobody knew where we were, and beneath my hand he moaned and then it was over.

*

When my mom came home from the restaurant that night, I was still up, watching reruns of Love Connection, holding the phone in my hand and dialing the first six digits of Jazz’s phone number over and over, then chickening out. My mom was drunk, I could tell, but I didn’t care because she was smiling. She flopped onto the couch and peeled money from her pocket, sorting ones and fives, humming along to the Love Connection theme song. “God, Callie, I’m dying for a cigarette, come downstairs with me?” I didn’t want to be alone, so I followed her to the parking lot. We sat on the hood of our car, the night air like a warm blanket, and I breathed in the smoke on purpose until it made my lungs raw.

As soon as we got back upstairs, my mom passed out on the couch. I put a blanket over her as she snored softly, then curled up in her bed in the bedroom and fell asleep.

*

KJ looked at me kind of funny, in my bra and skirt on top of him. He said, “I didn’t know you were like that.” He paused. “It was my first time?” He said it like a question. He looked meaner now. “I just didn’t want to lose it to a slut,” he said, and sat up, shoving me roughly off of him. He wiped himself off on his shirt, then put it back on and walked away.

*

My body was warm and achy when I woke up. I went to the bathroom to pee and in the mirror I was bright red. “Ooh, that burn looks bad. Maybe you should stay inside today,” my mom said on her way out the door. “You and Jazz can paint each other’s nails or something. I think there’s aloe vera in the bathroom cabinet.” The skin on my back and shoulders peeled off in lazy strips for days. I wondered if Jazz had gotten burnt, too.

*

It had been my first time, too. But I couldn’t tell him that. He was gone.

I saw Jazz one more time after that, a few months later. I was still stuck in junior high so I didn’t see her at school anymore. I walked out to the parking lot to grab a cassette from the car, and there she was. She had dark circles under her eyes and she looked older, like she could pass for seventeen or eighteen. Jazz spoke first. “We’re moving,” she said, and lifted a suitcase into the trunk. “My mom’s got a boyfriend now and they’re pretty serious. She met him at Caribbean Jack’s, but he’s from Texas. He’s rich. We should have left two hours ago, we’re running late.”

*

My tank top was on the ground. I picked it up, shook it off, put it back on. Liquid seeped through my underwear and dripped down my leg. It hadn’t hurt and I hadn’t bled. I leaned back against the shed. I knew he would tell his friends, leaving out one important detail. That was okay. I would know how to handle them. I would be the one in charge from now on.

*

I hooked my thumbs into the belt loops of my shorts. “Jazz,” I said, but that was all that came out. I meant to say a lot of other things, but I didn’t know how. “Well, write me if you want,” I said instead.

She smiled without opening her mouth, and shrugged her shoulders. “Yeah, I guess,” she said, and climbed into the passenger side. Her mom shifted clumsily, and the car jerked into reverse. I watched them wait at the stop sign, then turn onto South Atlantic and speed away.  I stood there for a long time, in the parking lot of the Bella Vista, until the heat from the asphalt started to burn the soles of my feet.

Photo: Olivia Locher