She was brunette back then, doing the same thing I was: escaping family to walk down the beach. At some point we fell into step together and I did the sort of uncharacteristically adventurous thing 15-year olds do only on vacation: I spoke. Some dumb thing about the nice weather. She followed my dumb thing with an unexpected thing: she smiled. Every time I saw her smile after that, I judged it against that first one, that one which seemed so genuine. I never saw her smile like that again.
“It’s always beautiful here,” she said. “Peaceful. We come every year.” She acted like she didn’t notice adult men snapping their necks for a double-take, or their wives glaring and elbowing. Even then, people couldn’t help but gawk at her.
There were lots of things I could’ve told her, but she seemed the sort who’d heard enough of football or honor rolls or youth groups, so I told her I played music. What I meant by this was that I owned a guitar and had a spiral-bound notebook full of melodramatic scribbles about heartbreak I thought I’d known.
“Really?” she asked. “Me too. Who’s your agent?”
I went red, told her I was still working on that.
She turned at the pier, too. On the way back, we walked so close our shoulders touched once—a shock of soft warmth. She laughed a lot, though her laughter wasn’t predicated on anything being funny. It was more a vocal smile.
“How long are you here?” she asked. “Tonight,” I told her, and she looked sad, didn’t say anything else.
“What are you doing?” Dad asked when I dutifully sat down between my folks.
“I said I’d come back.”
“But—” Dad was flushed and speechless. “You were walking with her and you stopped? Go!”
But of course, she was gone, a trail of craned necks left in her wake.
MTV’s name was not yet a lie, so I was sofa-watching videos the next time I saw her. It was October, and I went pale as her face filled the screen. The camera zoomed out to her whole figure, to that pleated skirt, then she danced. I was excited—and then crushed because the song was terrible. I hated it, but couldn’t help wanting to see her again and again. The song went into overdrive rotation; I think my cat memorized the melody.
At Sonic Boom, I ignored the clerk’s incredulous brow when I bought that CD. I flipped it over so the cover faced downward but the clerk pointedly flipped it before she scanned. “That’s 15.98.”
Every time I went back into the shop, the same girl was at the checkout. She knew what I’d bought, and she deemed me unworthy to browse the row of bins labeled alternative. She crinkled her pierced nose and half-snorted every time I brought the Vaselines or Sonic Youth to the register, and I just smiled back, because what did she know, anyway?
Brooks Rexroat lives and teaches in Huntington, West Virginia. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing-fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and his work has appeared in such publications as Day One, Weave Magazine, The Montreal Review, Matchbook Literary Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. Visit him online at http://brooksrexroat.com.