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1st Prize in the Sheldon Currie Fiction Contest

I remember three things about Mr. Lemarad: the dark hair that covered his bronzed shoulders, a five o'clock shadow that appeared at 3:00, and a sharp awareness that I was female in his presence. I first noticed him during my thirteenth summer, when I was no longer a girl but barely a woman with my boyish hips and tiny breasts, ("mosquito bites," my mom called them.)

That summer, in 1967, my family's beach club locker stood beside Luke Lemarad's. The Sound Beach Club--two pools, a snack bar and lockers, perched on a patch of rocky Connecticut shoreline--assigned every club family with one of these tiny rooms. Club members used them for changing into swimsuits and storing beach gear. Our locker number was 53, while Luke Lemarad and his wife, Mona, had number 54.

Mr. Lemarad was a husky man with thick black curly hair that seemed to have spread from his chest onto his back like a bad case of poison ivy. His trim waist, strong arms and sinewy legs made him look fitter than the other middle-aged men at the club. Even though I was only 13, I thought he walked as if he knew this.

Occasionally, Mr. Lemarad and I would arrive at our lockers at the same time. This always felt awkward to me, since I was at the age when all things having to do with adults felt strangely foreign or simply embarrassing. Pausing in front of his door, he would place his canvas tote bag at his feet and begin to dial the combination of the silver lock. On hot sticky days, I could see the sweat forming on his forearms and hear him breathe in and out. I'd be distracted enough to forget to turn the dial of my lock past zero, yank it downward only to find it still closed tight, causing a spark of embarrassment to shoot from my head to my feet. Back then, I believed that the entire world was watching me and that Mr. Lemarad had taken careful note of my mistake. I would redo the combination and then enter the locker to change into my suit.

As I slipped my toes through my cutoffs, I listened to his movements through the thin particleboard wall that divided us. I had inspected the walls for knotholes and cracks, so I was sure that no one could see in. When I heard his trousers hit the floorboards, I stood perfectly still, careful not to make any noise at all. There was something exotically threatening about him being so close by with no clothes on. At 13, my friends and I doubled over in laughter at the word naked. Truth be told, I'd never seen a man naked, and I felt both curious and frightened by the thought of it. Any self- consciousness I felt in the presence of a grown man, I seemed to feel that much more of it around Mr. Lemarad.

On days when he and I crossed paths in front of our lockers, he said, "Good morning" in the friendly but formal tone common among grownups that talked to other club members' children.

Barely meeting his gaze, I would mumble, "Hi." The whole idea of these formalities seemed discomfiting, especially when I felt his eyes on me, as if they saw through my pink, checkered two-piece suit.

There was always talk about Mr. Lemarad. After all, he was married to Mona, the most beautiful woman in the club, which gave him a special place among the other members. My mother called him a real ladies man. At the time, this puzzled me.

I knew that many of the mothers liked Mr. Lemarad and occasionally came by his locker to chat. "Luke, great tan," said Ginny Kirk. "Are you coming to the club cookout this weekend?"

"I hope Mona's signed us up," he'd answer, with a boyish concern, even though everyone knew that the Lemarads never missed a club event. Then he'd add, just as the conversation was about to end, a small compliment about Mrs. Kirk's sunhat or the shade of her toenail polish.

One day, while heading down the stairs toward the pool to meet with my friends Laurie, Teeny and Caroline, I found myself face to face with Mr. Lemarad. His beach chair and tote had taken up most of the room on the stair. I maneuvered my way past, brushing against his arm. This touch so startled me that I snatched my limbs into myself. That was when he looked straight at me. For too long. This look was not like other people whose eyes shifted all around.

"Nina," he said. In his stare was something I had never known before. I felt it resonate deep within me as a strange feeling I wasn't ready to know. I moved away quickly, pulling at the sides of my top to make sure nothing was showing.

Later, I asked my mother what she meant about him being a "ladies man."

"He has a way with the women," she said. "There's just something about him. Some of the wives throw themselves at him." I could tell from her tone that she didn't approve of this.

All I could think of were Mr. Lemarad's hairy shoulders and the look he had just given me. Charm was something I had yet to learn about in a man. I thought my dad and the fathers of my girlfriends were all strange. Dad's chief concern was neither my mother nor other women, but the renovation of our house. That summer he spent weekends running a mechanical pencil over plans that he laid out on our dining room table. He measured doorways and cut, sawed and hammered plasterboard in place, as he turned an old pantry into his study.

Occasionally, my dad spent time with me, but never in the usual activities shared by my friends and their fathers. Caroline's dad attended every one of her swim meets, and Laurie's taught her how to play tennis. My father took me to see buildings and plants under construction. He liked visiting these places and my mother always refused to go with him. "I can't stand walking around in all that dirt and cement," she would say when I asked her to come.

On our last excursion, Dad and I drove to the edge of town where ground had been broken on a sewage plant. As we pulled up, a soft drizzle began to fall, which soaked the dirt, and bounced off the puddles. My father glanced at me. "Do you still want to go?" he asked.

I could see him trying to stifle his excitement, which was hiding just beneath the surface of his placid expression. I looked at the high piles of rust colored dirt, mucky tire tracks, large cement blocks, metal pipes of all widths stacked in neat rows, then back at him. Seeing him so eager in this strange place, I tried my best to look enthusiastic, and then opened my car door, pulled up the hood on my sweatshirt and stepped into the mud.

As we walked along together, he talked about the project. "Look at the work they're doing laying down these pipes," he said, running his hand along the wet, gray tubing. We wound our way amongst the huge drainage pipes and foundations while my dad described the process of sewage treatment. "The waste will enter here," he said. I skipped from one section of concrete to another. "Here's where the water will run into Long Island Sound, almost clean enough to drink," he continued. He looked at me then, as if hoping that I would revel, as he was doing, in his discovery. We were on opposite sides of a trough. I looked across at him knowing I was sharing something dear to him. Yet, he felt much farther away than the six feet that separated us. There was a discomfort my father had with himself that was always there. That day, it seeped into me the way the cold humidity settled into the car, even though the windows were rolled up.

One cloudy day near the end of August, a few of the girls and boys my age were playing cards, because it was too cold to swim. A Northeaster was approaching, so we had bundled up in jeans and sweatshirts and were sitting up against the sea wall for protection from the breeze. I beat Tyler, one of the boys who was part of our group, at a game of Gin Rummy. "I win you lose!" I shouted. We all laughed but him. He threw his cards on the sand, then stood up and put one arm around my waist and the other under my legs and lifted me up.

I tried to yell, "Stop it!" but my words came out as a high-pitched giggle. He carried me to the edge of the pool and hurled me into the deep end. The water quickly soaked through my sweatshirt and jeans. I was a strong swimmer so I paddled to the pool edge, while Tyler disappeared down the rows of lockers. I spent the rest of the day in my bathing suit, wrapped in a towel waiting for my clothes to dry. Each time I thought of Tyler, I imagined sneaking up on him from behind and shoving him into the cold pool, but I never got my chance.

Laurie told me not to. "He likes you," she had said, her confident tone highlighting how small and young she sometimes made me feel. I searched Laurie's gaze to make sure she wasn't teasing.

"No he doesn't," I said. Laurie had hinted at the beginning of the summer about Tyler. He was a quiet boy with a shy grin, long eyelashes, and known as a top backstroker for the swim team. All season I'd ached for a sign from him, a private shared smile, or him filling an empty seat beside me on the picnic table bench. Every time I had found a place near him, he had teased me about my curly hair and high voice, "Here comes the poodle bird." I usually punched him in the arm.

"Tyler told me he liked you," Laurie said, letting the back of her hand fly and flick my shoulder. Laurie was a year older than Teeny and me and had already had a boyfriend last winter. When she wanted to act old, she'd mention him by his name, Lawrence, making sure to emphasize the "L," or she used the endearment of "Lar." When she spoke of him or any of the details of what sounded like a brief romance that had ended on the last day of her family's stay at a Florida resort, there was a tone she used that bugged me, as if she was superior. Other times she'd simply readjust her bathing suit top to remind me that she wore a size 32B not a 30AA like me.

When I returned home, I wasn't sure I should tell my mother about my accidental swim in the pool. Eventually I let details trickle out as my mother cut tomatoes for a salad. "You know Tyler?" I said. "He threw me into the deep end today." Her knife swiftly cut the remaining slice into four equal parts.

"I suppose that's just what boys do when they like a girl," she said. "You're getting to be that age."

I wanted to ask her what she meant, whether this was good or bad. I felt both ways and wanted to choose one. "Can you hand me the celery from the fridge?" She asked and didn't seem to give my story another thought. I didn't push for more of an answer. She wasn't that kind of mom. She expected me to figure things out, even when I didn't know how to.

After dinner, up in my room with the door closed tight, I privately replayed the day's events, including my high shriek, the shock of landing in water and shivering for an hour in the icy East wind. Sure, I was still mad about the soaking. But, if this was a sign of Tyler liking me, he was forgiven. That evening, I felt pretty for the first time in my life. For years, girls with lean graceful figures and blond pigtails, or straight, thick chestnut hair were considered beautiful, but not me. My large nose dominated my face and my dark hair was so curly it often required brushing out by my mother who called it a "rat's nest."

As I readied myself for bed, I stood before the mirror and studied my appearance. I stared at my brown eyes, and admired how my long, black waves framed my face and imagined the way it appeared to Tyler. I fluffed the stands on the crown of my head with my fingertips and then shook the longer tresses. They fluttered around my shoulders just the way I had done several times when Tyler had been standing nearby me at the club.

That summer, the other girls and I were obsessed with the one true beauty we knew, Mona Lemarad. Laurie, the ringleader of our group, would always announce Mona's arrival. We'd raise ourselves up from our towels on our elbows and observe Mona's and Luke's entrance. They would stroll through the front gate, she in a short eyelet beach robe and a straw beach bag slung over her shoulder and he carrying a small canvas tote bag. Mona usually headed straight to the deck where she baked her lean body in the sun.

Mr. Lemarad would meander towards his locker, pausing to chat with friends along the way, his head cocked to one side, his smile always ready to flash. He would emerge from his locker prepared to swim, and stride toward the pool where he'd take a shallow racing dive off a starting block and then complete several dozen laps of the crawl. When he hoisted himself out of the pool with his tanned arms, I always noticed the way his soggy suit clung to his behind even though I pretended not to. He was a man, old like my dad, so I had no desire to kiss him or anything. It was just that I was curious about this entirely different world of men, one that I'd never really paid attention to until now. It was Tyler who was cute with his sun- streaked brown hair, muscular back of a swimmer and tiny racing suit. My friends didn't pay much attention to Mr. Lemarad the way I did. They were more obsessed with Mona. She was the only woman past the age of forty at the club fit enough to wear a bikini. My mom said it was because she never had children; others reasoned that she just had good genes, the same ones that had gotten her a job as a fashion model when she was young. Whenever she strode past us, we gazed at her long tanned legs and pink leopard bikini that tapered to bows at the tops of her thighs. When she removed her high-heeled sandals before stepping off the walkway onto the sand, our conversation paused as we admired her. Laurie would sigh, and say, "I'm not eating anymore ice cream sandwiches," and pat the taut, smooth muscles of her own tanned abdomen.

"You're skinny," Teeny would say, in a reassuring voice.

But Laurie would always counter with another self-deprecating thought.

"My thighs are huge."

Everyone knew she had perfect legs. It was just her way of getting us to notice how thin she was. I usually remained silent during these exchanges. It bothered me, Laurie always fishing for compliments.

We weren't the only ones interested in Mona. Most of the men at the club watched her as she moved about. After all, the other wives wore one-piece suits as they unpacked beach bags and supplied towels to toddlers. Even though Mona was old, she looked more like a girlfriend than a mom or a wife. When she ordered a salad at the snack bar, she said, "Saaalid." When she gave another mom a compliment, she always said, "Faaabulous."

Two days after Tyler pushed me into the pool, a Northeaster arrived, dropped two inches of rain, and blew in tides a foot and a half higher than normal. Although the club remained open, the pools were closed and the sailing and swim team practices were cancelled. Instead, we watched gray frothy waves rise and tumble towards us, break over the sea wall, flood the deck and pool, and leave a mucky brown foam behind. The club staff was busy with the clean up, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

While most of the club members were content to stay home until conditions improved, my group of friends delighted in the prospect of a near empty and barely functioning club. Laurie usually arrived before the rest of us and took control of several sheltered picnic tables, which stood a few steps from the snack bar and near the ping-pong tables. The rest of our crew, which included me, Tyler, Teeny, and Brad and several others, arrived throughout the morning. We'd drop our towels and knapsacks near the table, play a hand of Hearts or game of ping-pong, and talk about everything and nothing.

After about a day and a half, when the rain had quieted to an occasional drizzle, we grew bored. Laurie scooped up the last hand of cards, leaned into the table and said, "Time for Truth or Dare." The force of her declaration was felt by all of us. Even Teeny, who talked all the time, was quieted. I glanced at Laurie's arched brows and wide grin, which looked almost futuristic with its metal braces and intricate series of rubber bands. Laurie's enthusiasm spilled out towards all of us. But I knew better. In fact, I usually avoided such games, not wanting to be singled out and laughed at. With so few of us sitting at the table that day, I knew it would be hard to slip away.

Teeny was Laurie's first victim, whom she ordered to stroll around the club wearing her bikini top inside out. I felt sorry for her as she marched around the big pool, with the ample white padding from her bathing suit on display, leaving little doubt that any cleavage she'd shown all summer was the result of bathing suit design, not puberty. Teeny held her hand to her mouth as if to hide her humiliation, which revealed itself in both her hiccupping laughter and an expression that I thought might dissolve into tears at any moment. When she finished, she raced past me to the bathroom to change her top back. I rested my hands on a railing, feeling the unevenly painted surface, and dug my short nails into a spot that was peeling, scratching away paint in small bits.

Next, Laurie told Brad to model his mother's skirted one-piece bathing suit. We choked with laughter as we saw his long skinny legs stick out from his mother's roomy suit. Brad took the dare less seriously than Teeny, and when he finished his march around the pool, he took a bow.

I was still laughing when I felt Laurie's hand on my back.

"Nina's turn," she said as she shoved me down a row of lockers. She opened the door to one where Tyler was already waiting and pushed me inside.

"You can come out after you guys kiss," she whispered through the door. The room was completely dark except for the cracks of light that spilled in from under the door. I sat on a small bench and squinted at Tyler. When my eyes adjusted to the low light, I noticed him staring at me. His deeply tanned face made his sun-bleached eyebrows look almost white, even in the dim light. We stood there looking at each other for a while. I think Tyler seemed a little scared. Outside, the pool pump sounded and the bathroom door slammed, I pressed my palms down on my thighs while I waited for Tyler to do something.

He sat down beside me, folded his arms around my shoulders and then clamped his mouth onto mine. He pressed hard against my lips and then he tried to stick his tongue between my teeth. It was weird to me at first, since I had never kissed a boy before. I was afraid to move my mouth away, even though I wanted to. Instead, I kept my lips pressed onto Tyler's and eventually, I relaxed and then felt his lips soften, too.

Footsteps and then a loud bang on the door interrupted us and we sprung away from each other. I inhaled deeply, since I had held my breath the entire time that we had kissed. Tyler stood, opened the door, and looked out. A water balloon flew towards him and landed at his feet. He reached down, hurled it back and quickly shut the door and locked the latch.

"Laurie's nuts," he said.

I nodded thrilled to find an ally in Tyler. He stood resting his shoulder against the door and I was drawn toward him in a way I'd never known. He gazed at me from under his brown bangs; I felt as though a wave had picked me up and carried me to shore. Laurie had said that Tyler liked me and finally, I believed her. He returned to his seat next to me and we kissed again. My lips found their way to new places and spots. His cheeks felt cool on my mouth but as I pressed my lips to his ear and the soft skin of his neck, it felt warm, almost hot. That's when I kissed him really hard on the spot where people check their pulses. I had overheard the eighth grade girls on the school bus last year talk about how, if you kissed hard enough, you could leave a mark. I don't know what made me do it. It just happened. But I kissed him that way on the soft skin of his neck.

"What are you doing?" Tyler pushed away from me and held his neck. He looked around the narrow space and found a small, discolored mirror on the wall and squinted at it while I sat very still hoping his intense reaction would fade like a loud noise.

He rubbed the spot hard with his hand and then looked at me. "What if my mom sees this?"

I shrugged, and offered no answer because I had none.

Then he unlatched the door and left.

I stayed in the locker, trying to understand what had happened. Things had gone terribly wrong. I pulled my legs up to my chest and rested my cheek on my knees, feeling the cool soft skin of my own face.

Laurie stuck her head inside the doorway.

"Nina," said Laurie, "are you in there?"

I looked up.

"Where's Tyler?"

"He left."

She looked at me curiously for a moment, then held up a handful of uninflated balloons and grinned.

I grabbed some from her hand and we headed to the water fountain. We filled the balloons until we couldn't fit anymore into our arms and then hid near the stairway behind a wall. We hurled them at the kids when they walked past. We threw balloon after balloon, shrieking and giggling each time our water bombs found a target. It was only when our afternoon ended and I was placing my towel into my bike basket and began to pedal home that I felt the sting of Tyler's voice and its hurt spread through me like a slow fire. As I was falling asleep that night, I thought about my first kiss, thrilled with both the idea and its taste. A moment later, I crossed my fingers as hard as I could, hoping that I hadn't ruined it.

Despite the bright sun that shone through my bedroom curtains the following morning, the shame of the prior day's events darkened my mood as I recalled the sharp tone of Tyler's voice. I pulled on my shorts and tee shirt and then hurried through breakfast to avoid questions from my mother about my plans for the day. I knew even an innocent mention of my friends' names risked all my worry bubbling over. Perhaps Tyler was no longer upset and we could all play water polo or swim in the Sound, now that the sun was shining. This was all I could think about when I tapped my bike's kickstand, gathered my beach bag, and walked down the walkway to the club's entrance.

Laurie was already sitting at the table, shuffling a deck of cards, She looked serious, with the expression a teacher might have before she hands out a test. "Why did you do that?"

"What?" I asked, pretending I didn't know what she was talking about.

"The hickey. Tyler's Mom is so mad she grounded him."

Although my downcast eyes betrayed my shame, I tried to look indifferent, as if her words couldn't hurt me.

"I can't believe you did that. I mean like, why?"

"I dunno. I thought he'd think it was cool."

"Totally not cool," she said. "You know, he liked you before this." Laurie turned away from me and reached into her beach bag for some lip balm.

I sat down on the bench, pulled out my towel, and wrapped it around my shoulders. I had to look calm even if my insides were turned upside down. Otherwise, Laurie would torture me even more. I'd seen her act this way before. When Caroline told Teeny last summer that Laurie wasn't swimming because she had her period, not a cold as Laurie had claimed, Caroline suffered for weeks afterward. Laurie barred her from the girls' showers until the rest of us had used up all the warm water; Caroline wasn't included in card games unless we were desperate for a fourth.

I pulled my towel closer and rubbed my chin against the terrycloth, then pulled several loops of nap out with my teeth. I had crushed something, without giving it a chance to grow, and my face felt hot with the disgrace of it.

Laurie didn't even try to subdue her enthusiasm, the moment Teeny walked through the front gate. "Teeny sit here!" she said as she scooted across the bench to make room for her between the two of us. Laurie and I had sat next to each other all summer long. Now Teeny was beside her, feeling the boost that came with Laurie' s attention. Teeny glanced at me and then looked down at her flip-flops. She must have heard. All the kids probably had heard, and I felt then the weight of my indiscretion, like bad odor I couldn't escape.

Laurie ignored me over the next few days. Finally, towards the end of the week, she softened after I offered some bubble gum for the bike ride home. We both blew bubbles as we rode, each trying to create a translucent pink orb. I made sure that Laurie's bubbles were always larger than mine, so that she could feel like she was the best. By the time she turned off in the direction of her home, I thought that things had been resolved.

The following day, I returned to the club eager to get back my seat at the picnic table and to play a few games of cards. I arrived around lunchtime, after shopping in the morning with my Mom for school. I carried a bag of chips and a Coke towards our table, where everyone was already busy eating. No one moved to make room next to Laurie so instead I squeezed into a tiny spot at the end of the bench and looked in Laurie's direction.

Laurie stared right past me, toward the sundeck. I felt the others who were seated at the table paying close attention to us. Things became very quiet. "I have a new nickname for you," she said.

The kids shifted their eyes to their laps, and stifled giggles, while it felt like there was a rock growing in my stomach. I swallowed. Laurie smiled, a mean, metallic grin. "It's Bloodsucker."

There were snickers and then Teeny laughed so hard that she choked on her soda and had to spit it out on the ground. I looked down at my chips, and then ripped the plastic bag slowly and deliberately, knowing that the only way to survive was to good-naturedly go along with it. Then I reached for my Coke. They were still staring, waiting for me to do something. That's when I realized that the whole table would break out laughing as soon as my lips touched the straw. I set the soda to the side and swallowed some dry, salty chips instead.

Tyler returned to the club within the week, but by then the pools were clean and the swim team was having additional practices in preparation for the county finals leaving him little time for card games. I dawdled by the starting blocks hoping for a smile or even a nod of recognition. Instead, he climbed the pool ladder, pulled down his towel from the railing and began to rub his head while he walked to his locker. Although he kept the mark well covered with his towel, one afternoon, I managed to catch a glimpse of the nickel-sized splotch. The dark color surprised me. It looked like an indelible birthmark, bold and slightly menacing. The sight of it embarrassed and thrilled me.

On Labor Day weekend, I walked behind my parents across the hot pavement of the parking lot to the club gate. We were attending the annual end-of-the-season cookout, an event that almost all the club members patronized, as it was the last social event of the summer. It had always been one of my favorite events of the year, with its live band, torches marking the walkways and the checkerboard tablecloths.

Usually the parents gathered on the deck for drinks, their chatter and laughter rose and fell like the waves that hit the nearby sea wall. Grilled chicken and boiled lobster were prepared by the snack bar workers, while the kids ran around the pool and up and down the locker rows until the band began to play. I wore a pale pink shift sporting a zipper running up the front that my mother and I had picked out during the August sales. She had said the dress showed off my delicate frame and that the pastel color accented my tanned complexion. When we arrived at the club entrance, I felt pretty and seeing a crowd already gathered for the party, I was lifted by the sight.

Teeny and Laurie were standing on the steps to the club house when I approached. I felt Laurie's stare as soon as I neared and was glad I'd worn the new dress. When I got closer, though, I sensed a cruel smile resting right beneath her placid expression. "What's with the dress?" she asked.

She and Teeny each wore short, pleated skirts and tank tops. Teeny had applied dark makeup around her eyes and tinted lip-gloss to her mouth, something my mother had said I was still too young to do. The two slouched against the clubhouse wall with a bored look that immediately dampened my earlier excitement.

Before I had a chance to reply, they had shifted their attention away. I turned and saw Tyler, Brad and a boy I didn't know climb out of the station wagon Tyler's mother drove. Caroline, who had just returned from her month away at tennis camp, followed right behind them. The boys disappeared in the direction of the docks and Caroline joined us. I could tell from her slight smirk that Laurie had already told her everything.

I'm not sure that Teeny or Laurie understood how terrible I felt. I was tired of pretending that their teasing and shunning didn't matter to me--or worse--worrying about when their next attack would begin.

Our dinner together was uneventful, and I made sure to drink soda right from the can, not a straw. The boys grabbed some food and then ran around after each other on the sand. Teeny and I went to find more cream soda while Laurie and Caroline saved us spots to sit near the band. It was a relief to have a task to perform and I eagerly dug through the large metal tub to find four cans.

When we returned, the band had started to play, and Teeny, Laurie, Caroline and I sipped our sodas and watched. Day had turned to night. The pool lights were turned on and a tiara of Christmas lights strung from the clubhouse ceiling beams cast an amber glow over the crowd. The grownups slowly slipped onto the dance floor and the small space filled quickly. My parents were there, my father holding my mother close. I smiled watching them, and felt a warmth grow inside me when I saw my mother rest her head of my Dad's shoulder.

Luke and Mona sat nearby at one of the picnic tables that had been dressed up for the evening with votive candles and an empty tin can filled with hydrangeas. Mona, who had twisted her ankle, arrived at the party on crutches with her bandaged leg draped in an orange scarf. She sat with it hoisted up on a bench while Luke rested in a chair next to her. Mona looked radiant with her dark tan, long dangly earrings and a black clingy dress. Her working leg looked sleek, brown and smooth against her black sandals, and it tapped to the beat of the music. While watching the dancers glide, step and sway, I imagined myself on the same floor some day with Tyler. I could almost feel his embrace and I crossed my arms over my chest and hugged myself.

Teeny and Caroline followed Laurie in the direction of the bathroom. Teeny probably wanted to paint on more lip-gloss. She was always untwisting the wand case and dabbing her mouth. I stayed seated, absorbing the music and mood. I looked at the floor, which hours before had been covered with a dusting of beach sand and a film of water from dripping wet bathing suits, and thought it a small miracle that it could be so beautifully transformed.

Then I saw the six of them dancing together. Teeny with Brad, Caroline with Brad's friend and towering Laurie with Tyler. They were up close to one another, swaying to the music's beat, arm in arm, hip to hip. Seeing them was like having sparks blow into nay eyes. I quickly moved my gaze away, afraid they might see me upset.

Except for Mona and Luke, I was the only person not dancing. Even the young kids were out on the floor moving to the music in one big group. There had been plenty of other summer evenings when I would have joined the kids on the floor. But now I felt too old. Instead, I sat and waited, feeling each note of the music telegraph the message that I was the only one still seated. I sipped at my soda, hoping to look busy, engaged, like I hadn't noticed, or if I had, that I didn't care.

I avoided my parents' stare too. If they had caught my eye, they would gesture to me to join them, which would have been humiliating. I looked out to safety, to the dark waters of Long Island Sound, and watched the glimmering lights of sailboats still making their way toward their moorings, and the amber glow from homes that rimmed the shoreline. I squinted to see the flickering faint blaze of the few stars that showed through the late August haze.

Then there was a hand resting on my shoulder. I looked up to see Mr. Lemarad at my side. He mouthed the words, "May I have this dance." I pointed to my chest and said, "Me?" He nodded in the direction of the music, and extended his hand. I hesitated for a moment, and then reached toward him.

All I could hear was the pounding in my chest as he led me onto the dance floor. He held my waist with one hand and clasped my fingers with another.

"Just follow me," he said.

I could barely see over his shoulder and felt the soft fabric of his blazer on my face. His aftershave smelled strong and citrusy up close, and private, like a secret most people didn't know.

I moved to the right and then to the left, my feet tripping over each other until they found their way. He spun me round and round, twirling, dipping, and yet I felt that he was always guiding me. As the music and beat continued, my feet began to stay in time and moved in tandem to my partner's.

Until my feet moved in unison with Mr. Lemarad's, I hadn't known the fun of such dancing. With each gliding step, dip or twirl, my mouth stretched into a smile, one that I couldn't have squelched if I tried. As we sped round and round, I watched the twinkling Christmas lights, the twirling hemlines, and the excitement on the faces of the other dancers. His hand clasped mine, and it felt dry, strong, and warm. We turned and I spotted the back of Tyler's head, which was resting on Laurie's shoulder. There, on his neck was the purple spot, much paler and probably invisible to most unless you were looking for it. My body stiffened at the sight of it.

Mr. Lemarad steadied me, then moved his hand to my chin, and gently shifted my gaze away from them.

"If I was 25 years younger, Nina, I'd be quite smitten," he said. He dipped my head toward the floor and held me there for a moment, so that I thought I might crash, if he let go. Then I was upright again. I stole a glance at Mr. Lemarad, feeling the lights reflect off his face onto mine. Being so close to him felt strange and foreign, almost uncomfortable, yet I didn't want the dance to end. My gaze rested on his eyes for an instant. It touched off a flash in a distant spot inside me and I caught my breath.

The band stopped for a break and Mr. Lemerad led me back to my seat. He clasped my hand, shook it firmly and said, "Thank you very much, Nina. You are the prettiest young lady on the dance floor tonight." I searched him for that look that grown-ups sometimes have when they aren't sincere about a compliment. But his expression was steady, certain and true.

Then I looked over to where the regal and radiant Mona sat and saw her smiling at me. That's when I knew for sure that there would be other worlds in front of me filled with promise, ones with only a hazy outline of what they would become. They were out there beyond the club's rocky coastline, and the tiny lights on the far shore, way past the inky black waters of Long Island Sound. Yes, they were there with all their wonderment, just ahead.
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Author:Marcusa, Andrea
Publication:Antigonish Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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