by Jenna Beales
Clementine hands me an orange. She’s started to unpeel it, has broken the skin with her thumbnail, but left the rest for me. I set it down gingerly on my beach towel and carefully wipe my hands clean of sunblock before picking it back up.
I peel it in one long strip like I always do, rotating the orange so its skin becomes one unbroken spiral. This has been our ritual ever since we met in the fourth grade. Her mom always packed her oranges in her lunchbox, intended as a cute gesture–a play on her name, and she’d always offer them to me. “I get sick of them, you know,” she’d once confessed to me. I had never turned down an orange from her, though.
Years of friendship between us, and now it’s the summer before we leave for college. Clementine called me yesterday. I picked up not knowing what to expect, but all she’d wanted was to invite me over to swim in the pool in her backyard.“We haven’t gone swimming all summer,” she had said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
Clementine watches me lazily from behind sunglasses. She settles back and reclines on her elbows on the towel right next to mine. She tries to smush her sunhat, secured with a yellow ribbon, more firmly onto her head. The ribbon doesn’t match her purple bikini, and absolutely all of it clashes with her cinnamon hair currently escaping in thick tendrils from under the hat, refusing to be constrained. She sighs and unties the ribbon, setting the hat on the trimmed grass next to her.
The day smells overwhelmingly of citrus, chlorine, and sunblock. I finish breaking the orange apart and offer the segments to Clementine. She takes a piece from my sticky palm and grins at me. Her teeth flash white in her red mouth as orange juice dribbles down her chin. Despite everything, this feels so familiar. I watch as she delicately selects orange segments from my hand until all but one have disappeared. I can’t look away. She picks up the last segment gently between the pads of her fingers, pops it into her mouth, and chomps down. I can hear its tender flesh breaking apart. My pulse races and I wish for something, anything, to divert my attention. She licks the juice from her lips, wipes her chin with her wrist, and covers my hand in hers.
She tugs on my hand half-heartedly and says, “Enough of this. Don’t you want to swim?”
“What are we waiting for, then?”
I stand up first. I try to pull her to her feet, but she lets her limbs go limp and flops around on the towel. I plant my feet and use my whole body mass to drag her. It feels like an inappropriate amount of effort to make just to go swimming with her. My shoulders stretch in their sockets and my arm muscles strain.
As soon as we’re both standing, I drop her hands and wipe my palms on my thighs. Immediately, she’s off. My hands adjust the edges of my black bikini. I follow Clementine with my shoulders drawn back and stomach sucked in. Clementine leaps into the deep end of the pool. In midair, her hair floats around her face in a halo of fire. She hits the water and the surface shatters into disturbed waves. When she resurfaces her sopping hair clings to her skin in matted strands. I feel like I’m burning, but I was careful when I applied my sunblock earlier.
I sit down gingerly at the pool edge and dangle my feet in the water. Clementine swims over next to me and hangs onto the ledge. The surface of the water calms as we both wait for me to do something.
Clementine admonishes after a minute, “Just jump in.”
“It’s too cold. I need to get used to it first.”
“It’s easier to go all at once. Once you dunk your head it’s not cold anymore.”
“I don’t think that’s right,” I reply.
Clementine splashes water into my face and I splutter. She laughs bright, bright, bright like the beating of the late afternoon sun on my bare shoulders.
“Stop stalling,” she tells me. I roll my eyes.
“Thanks,” I say.
Beads of water and sweat intermingle and trickle down my skin in cool tracks. Water droplets are stuck in my eyelashes and make my vision hazy. When I try to look at Clementine, her form blurs red and purple and her whole body is outlined in sunlight. I haven’t seen her since the beginning of summer, and I get the feeling that I’m making her up. The details of her face are just out of reach. All of a sudden, I want the shock of the cold water. I don't want this confusing haziness where I can't tell where the borders of anything are. If I reached out to her, would my hand pass right through? It is so confusing to have everything the same and not the same.
I breathe in slowly and hold the air in my lungs for a few seconds. Making sure to keep my head above the waterline, I slip into the pool. Clementine swims backward into the deepest water, drawing me after her. She looks like a siren entrancing anyone who lays eyes on her. It’s a private show in her backyard. Her nose and mouth are submerged as her hair trails around her shoulders in the water. Her eyes are focused on me. I can easily picture her entrancing sailors to their deaths. I follow after her resignedly, but I keep my distance.
She reaches out for me now as we tread water. She clasps our hands together and intertwines our fingers. I kick harder to keep my head above water without the use of my hands. This time we are both waiting for her to do something.
Clementine pushes me under.
I clench my eyes shut instinctively and resist the urge to gasp underwater in shock. Water rushes over my ears. The water provides a layer of separation between me and the world above water. I sink to the bottom of the pool and open my eyes. I see Clementine above me. She and I are the only two people in our little aquatic world. It’s just the two of us again. The same way it’s been since we were ten years old. At least up until two months ago.
I push off the bottom of the pool and shoot up to the surface. I inhale and feel everything I’ve felt the past two months fill up my lungs until I feel like I am about to burst.
“What’d you do that for?” I question.
“Bet you aren’t cold anymore,” she responds. Like that justifies anything.
“I can’t believe you did that,” I tell her, upset.
More than that, I can’t believe I didn’t predict her. At one point in time, I could’ve told you just about anything about her and she could’ve told you just about anything about me. She told me her favorite songs, her embarrassing stories, her fears, her crush, her everythings. I was the first person to know which schools she had been admitted to. Hearing the exact date she would be leaving me was the breaking point. In that moment, I told her the one thing she hadn’t known. And then I hadn’t heard a word from her until the phone call yesterday.
“Look, I’m sorry. I just thought you needed to dunk,” she says.
“I was going to!”
“No, you weren’t,” she tells me.
“You can’t just make me dunk!” I am insistent.
Clementine squeezes my hands in hers, just as tender as she had been with the pieces of the orange I’d peeled for her before she devoured them.
“I’m sorry, I mean it. I guess I just thought it would be fun if we swam together like always. I thought you weren’t going to dunk. So I thought ‘there’s no better time than now’.”
“You can let go of me,” I say.
“Can you let go?”
I shake our connected hands in frustration to demonstrate it’s not me holding on.
“I didn’t mean that,” Clementine says, “I meant...look, why didn’t we see each other all summer?”
“You stopped texting me.” I am tired of pretending.
“After you stopped responding! And I called you yesterday.”
“I thought you didn’t want to see me anymore.”
“I always want to see you. I hated not seeing you. You’re my best friend,” she says.
“But you didn’t say anything,” I remind her.
“What do you mean?”
“When I said I liked you,” I say.
“Oh, God. Listen.”
And she finally lets go of my hands so she can cup my face in her palms. Clementine kisses me right there in the middle of the pool and her mouth tastes sweet, sweet, sweet like oranges.