The waves heaved with foam and the sun illuminated everything until it was so bright the edges of objects seemed to be drawn in black. Claire leaned forward and spit up into the bushes that dotted the perimeter of the beach. But it was more than spit-up. It turned out it was a whole stream of purple. She’d been drinking wine cooler all afternoon, and now the beautiful color of it came out and landed in the long grass there at the edge of the beach, almost on her canvas tennis shoes. It was her sixteenth birthday, and she felt very thin and insubstantial in the wind that blew her long hair forward. She heaved a second time. She watched the tips touch the grape vomit. The wind pitched small granules of a stinging sand across her thighs.
She straightened and rubbed at her mouth with the back of her hand. Her throat hurt from the acid of the wine cooler. She didn’t have a tissue, only her hand, so she used her fingertips to comb and shake her hair and loose any gunk. She looked for her hair elastic on her wrist: the wrist was naked. She checked her shoulder for the strap of her purse but that was gone too.
She glanced back at the congregation of orange and blue tents, far off, small from where she stood. But her eyes were slit against the wind, and slit too against the six o’clock light. Then she walked away from the tents, from the place where her friends were and where he was, this Aaron, through the parking lot in her bikini bottoms. Every step felt long and hard and she was aware of a wet feeling. She felt faint and her head was hot. She watched the arm of the parking lot entrance come closer. She wore a men’s plaid shirt someone had given her: a whiff of campfire crept up into her nostrils from its collar. Beneath it, she could feel her breasts were free. She’d lost her bathing suit top.
When Claire came to the parking lot entrance she saw there was a booth and a guy in his twenties there—maybe older than the guys they’d met, maybe the same age. She didn’t want to talk to him because he would see that she was still drunk. She turned and looked down the road in both directions. She saw nothing but a stripe of sky between trees. There was a sign that said, For Your Safety and Enjoyment in big red letters. Beneath that were a bunch of rules: No glass containers; No horseplay or fighting; Lot closes at sundown. Claire squinted at it, pretending to read.
Then she stepped up to the window. “Can I use your phone?” she asked. “I need a cab or a ride, or something.”
“No reception out here,” the attendant said. Through the Plexiglas she saw him peering at her, and she knew that he knew. He had eyes the color of ice cubes. He pointed off to the right. “Go down the road, past those trees there’s a side road. Walk about a mile and before the highway there’s a store with a payphone.”
Claire thanked him but didn’t move. Who was she going to call? Her friends were back there with him. Aaron, she said in her mind, Aaron, that was his name. Before he did what he did, he told her his name. His real name. And that’s why Claire wasn’t sure what to think. He clearly wanted to know her, wanted her to know him.
Aaron of the cologne and the two-day-beard. She knew his last name was real because his friends had called him that. He’d seemed like he liked her, but after a while he just went off and left her passed out on the floor of the tent. She didn’t know whose tent it was—was it his tent? Or one of his friends’? He’d said they had to get out of there and not to mess it up, so probably not his. She lay there for she couldn’t say how long, her clothes half off and her hair a nest. Claire didn’t remember putting on her shoes or walking to the beach to throw up. That part was blank white like the large clouds overhead.
She stood peering down the road. She swayed and leaned against the lot attendant’s booth.
“Hey, are you all right?” He said it like he didn’t really care, but felt he should ask. His voice was muted through the glass. He sounded older than the guys Aaron hung around—like thirty.
She looked in and concentrated on this guy’s mouth. She watched his lips move. He was pointing, one finger reluctantly ticking, almost like he was marking the number 1 of a score in the air.
“There’s, um, some blood… on your leg.”
Claire looked down. A red-brown splotch like engine oil. That was the wet. She swore and muttered to herself, “I’m not even supposed to get my—”
Her head grew hotter as the guy reached down somewhere under the window. When his hand came back up, he held out a rough brown paper towel to her. She took it, rubbed at the blood, which was still fresh enough to smear. She rubbed at it again, feeling like she might throw up again because there was a hollow feeling in her stomach.
“The rain will hollow out rock, if it drips in one spot long enough… Did I say that out loud?” Claire asked. It was something she’d read somewhere, but as soon as she said it she realized it sounded like one of those inspirational quotes people were always posting online.
The attendant stared at her.
She wadded up the paper without thanking him, and threw it in a big plastic garbage can as she left the lot. She tottered around the bend in the road where the trees covered her and hid her from him, and from the beach, and the camp.
Aaron was kissing her. He clasped her half under the arms, half around the back. He was laughing, saying, Don’t spill my drink. Then they were inside a bright space, the sun through fabric. You’ve got pretty eyes, you know that? It was sweltering in the tent as he grabbed her and she grabbed him. She didn’t know how far she’d walked off with him or where the tent was exactly. He was sticking his tongue in her mouth, swirling it around. Claire was saying, No one ever kissed me before. He said, Really? but he was already hooking one thumb across her bralette, was rubbing a nipple through the black-and-white dotted spandex. What about this?
Then Alexis was crawling into the tent. Alexis was saying, Uh, are you okay in here?
I think I love him, Claire whispered. I didn’t hear anything, Aaron was saying.
Claire didn’t remember having sex with Aaron. That was what she said when Elena picked her up from a place with four gas pumps and a counter of chips and Trident: “I met this guy and I might not be a virgin anymore, but it’s all like, super fuzzy.”
Elena had gotten her license two weeks before. She and Claire used to be best friends, but lately they just weren’t. But Alexis and Alison were back at the camp, and Elena had come, what, forty minutes from the city, and now she sat there looking nervous as a hamster. “What do you mean you don’t know? Like you’re not sure, or you’re not sure if it counts?”
“Please don’t be mad at me,” Claire said as Elena got out of the car.
“I’m mad you didn’t invite me to your birthday. I’m not mad you called me. I mean, what would I be doing anyway? Sitting at home watching a Mindy Project marathon.”
Claire nodded. The world still felt big, heavy, as the highway traffic sped past, throwing her hair around in the dirty wind.
“But did you want to? I mean, did you say ‘yes’?” Elena asked, handing Claire a pad from her purse. “Let me come in with you,” Elena insisted and both girls went into the convenience store bathroom. It was outside and they needed a key for it.
Inside the grubby white concrete cube, Claire pointed at the tampon dispenser on the wall. “Before you got here I tried to use one of those, but it hurt too much.”
“But you use tampons.”
“Yeah, but I just couldn’t.” Claire struggled into the jean cut-offs Elena had brought her. They were tight because Elena was smaller.
“Does it hurt?” Elena raised one eyebrow as Claire fixed the pad in her bikini and wiped at her thighs where the blood had smeared again.
“No. Kind of. I don’t know. Only if I pee.”
“Are you sobering up?”
Claire didn’t remember leaving the store bathroom. They were driving, Elena’s big sunglasses covering the tips of her long black bangs. She struck Claire as being comically little behind the steering wheel. The seat was pulled forward as far as it would go. Claire put her head against the passenger window. “I’m normal now I think. I just need something to eat.”
Elena looked annoyed. “We were just at a store.”
“I don’t have any money. And you always have gum.”
“There might be something in the glove compartment. My sister sometimes stashes power bars in there.” Elena’s sister, Tess, was twenty-four and in college. She came home weekends and told Elena everything, which meant Elena often heard of everything first, even though she was in no way cool on her own. “Tess says you have to eat every three hours or your metabolism slows down and your blood sugar drops.”
“Tess says…” Claire rolled her eyes but she knew it didn’t register—she was still looking out at the world through slits. “I didn’t eat all day.” To Claire’s relief, the glove box housed a lone granola bar. She shoved half of it into her mouth. Why did it always take longer to get home than it did to get out there, she wondered.
Elena reminded Claire that she’d bought her coffee at the store.
“This is mine?” Claire reached for the tall paper cup between them. She drank it quickly, holding onto it with both hands like its round white lid was a life preserver.
“What was it like?” Elena asked flicking her signal on and passing a tractor-trailer. “Was he sexy? Was he cute? Remember that time we sat on my roof and said how we thought it would be.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Claire said. Then she started laughing. “I mean he was cute. He looked like that actor, from that movie.”
Which one? Elena wanted to know, and Claire snapped her fingers several times and didn’t say anything more.
Elena pointed out a massive bruise that had started to form on Claire’s shin. It bloomed on the skin, purplish-red and flower-shaped.
“That I remember. I tripped over a beer cooler. That’s how we met them. I ran right into their volleyball game.”
“You hate volleyball.”
“I know. That’s why I thought it was so hilarious. You see the irony. Then I told them about my independent study project on Robespierre and the reign of terror.”
“Sounds like a great way to meet guys. Breaking up their sports to talk French Revolution.”
“Yeah. God—I don’t even know what it was like. I remember kissing and fooling around, that’s it. I feel so gross.” Claire leaned her head against the window again. She could feel the glass rattling beneath her temple. She brought the plaid shirttail up and smelled it. “I don’t know if this is his shirt. It smells like it might be. But we weren’t, like, in his tent. He said that.”
“You should text Alexis or Alison. They’re gonna worry.”
“You do it.”
Elena winced. She said she could Facebook-message them but she’d deleted their numbers one night when she was mad. “We don’t all want to drink. It doesn’t make me a prude. Tess says everyone gets stupid when they drink. It’s true too, look at everyone at school who does that.”
“Look at me,” Claire said. “I don’t even have my phone. It’s back there.” Claire looked out the window, shielding her eyes from the light. “And I lost my hat.”
“That new one, the black broad-brimmed one?”
Claire nodded. Before her head had felt heavy, now it was lighter but it ached right at the base of her skull.
“You can’t lose that. We have to go back.”
“He was such a good kisser. Why did he just leave me passed out like that? I thought he liked me.”
Elena pulled the car over onto the shoulder, brought it to a stop. She said they couldn’t leave Claire’s things, her phone and ID just sitting in the woods somewhere. Not to mention the hat.
“No,” Claire said. She said it a bunch of times, and even to her ears it sounded like one of the little kids she baby-sat on Saturdays throwing a fit. Then she got out of Elena’s car and staggered a few steps and threw up in the ditch. The wine cooler was already out of her system though, and it was just a bit of pink spittle.
When she climbed back inside, Elena was on her cell phone with her sister. Claire could tell by her tone and because she was agreeing with everything the person on the other end was saying. While still yeah-yeahing her sister, “Yeah, he was drinking too,” and “Yeah, she’s wrecked,” Elena pulled a toothbrush out of her purse and handed it to Claire, because Elena was exactly the type of girl who carried a toothbrush and dental floss and used them in the Chipotle bathroom while their friends made fun of her. The toothbrush had a little blue snap-case around one end to keep the bristles clean.
“Can your hymen break if someone’s you know, just like, fingering you?” Elena said into the cellphone.
“Elena!” Claire interjected.
“Well, did he finger you?”
“I—I told him I loved him. Oh my god, I actually said I love you. I think I told Alexis I loved her too. I think that’s when she stopped coming into the tent.”
“You told Alexis that? They’ve only been friends for a month,” Elena said into the phone to her sister, though she stared at Claire with a face that had a bitten look. “Yeah, yeah, I’m starting to think that,” she said into the phone. “I know. Totally. How old did you say he was, Claire, twenty-one or twenty-two?”
Claire felt hot again. She got out of the car and brushed her teeth on the side of the road, using some water from Elena’s squeezable bottle.
Behind her she thought she heard Elena say, “Really, if you were her, would you go to the police?”
Claire scrubbed at her teeth until she felt her gums begin to bleed a little. Then she swished and spat. Somehow she could still taste the tart grape flavor of the alcohol. She opened and closed her mouth several times, sticking out her tongue.
What are you doing? Claire was falling over laughing. Aaron’s hand was inside her bikini bottoms. Do you want to do anything to me? he was asking, kneeling in front of her. What? Oh my god. Claire was laughing. I’m sorry, I can’t stop laughing. Are you asking me to touch your dick? I can’t believe you just asked me to touch your dick. She was falling over again, harder than she expected to, and her cheek was mashing into the tarp floor of the tent, which smelled like grass and mildew. Can we just kiss again, I really really liked kissing you, she was saying, struggling to sit up.
They drove in silence, Elena with her lips pressed tight.
Claire felt suddenly sober and tried for a joke. “You know, I paid over $40 for that hat.”
“It’s worth way more than that,” Elena said.
It was 7:30 when they passed the store again. Elena had picked Claire up there only an hour before. They’d ridden in silence for about ten minutes, neither of them wanting to say what they were going to do at the beach. The light was suddenly fading, frothing up as if the dark trees were bleeding their color out into it.
“I wanted to make out with him,” Claire said. “Right now I want to be telling you about it, like, the fun parts, the way we said we would tell each other.”
“I know.” Elena tightened her grip on the wheel, pulling the car closer to the centerline.
Claire pressed two spots on either thigh about two inches below the hem of the jean shorts. “It’s really tender here, like when you ride your bike too long. It feels like it’s gonna bruise.”
Elena shot a sideways glance at Claire. It was bruised, she said. She could see a faint blue from there. “This Aaron, he was skinny, wasn’t he?”
“Not skinny. He was fit.” Claire reached out and grabbed Elena’s purse, rummaging through it. “Do you have gum? I can’t get this wine taste out of my mouth.”
Elena shook her head, her hair swishing gently. She licked her lips. “Um, those spots are, like, him being on you.” Then once it was out and she’d said it, her eyes narrowed and she said quietly, “Like he fucked you. He did it when you were passed out. That fucking fucker.”
Claire held up her hand. “No, he didn’t. He wouldn’t. Would he?” Her voice hitched up high at the end.
“Is that it up there?” Elena pointed through the trees and flipped on her signal. There was the For Your Safety and Enjoyment sign again.
“Oh no, this guy,” Claire rasped, covering her face with one hand as they neared the parking lot attendant’s booth.
Claire watched Elena stride across the parking lot toward the cluster of tents, just beyond the beach, tucked back among the trees. Dusk was taking the beach and the insides of the tents glowed like party lanterns. There was probably a fire, but Claire couldn’t see it, only imagine the scent and people around it laughing and talking like everything was normal. Claire drew her knees up to her chest, sneaker heels against her butt there on the front seat. But that was tender too, so she put her feet down again. She listened to the waves crashing.
She flipped down the vanity mirror and looked at herself. A sunburned girl with red eyes looked back at her. She found a hair elastic wrapped around the emergency parking brake, and pulled it off and fixed her hair as best as she could. The dashboard clock said she’d been sitting there for twenty minutes. She got out and walked to the bathroom on the edge of the beach. After peeing, she started towards the camp. Her steps were slow in the sand, as though she could feel every grain giving way.
She was almost there when Elena came running out from the trees, face flushed, her sunglasses pushed up in her hair, bouncing on top of her head with each step. She had Claire’s bag over her shoulder, the black broad-brimmed hat in one hand. Elena grabbed her forcefully, panting. “What are you doing here? I told you to stay in the car.”
“I thought—thought you might kill him.”
With what? Elena demanded. Her evil eye? Her trusty toothbrush?
“I want to talk to him. I want to know. I want to know why he did that when I liked him so much.”
Elena stroked her arm. She pulled out her phone, and showed Claire a picture. Aaron. It was a little blurry and dark. There were trees and a triangle of orange tent coming out of his head because Elena had caught him up close. Only three hours before Claire had been wrapping her arms around his neck. The guy looked angry, nothing like he did in Claire’s mind. But there was the two-day beard. The lips. “Is this him?”
Had she talked to him? Claire wanted to know. Is that why he looked pissed off?
Elena didn’t respond. Her expression had gotten hard.
“Seriously, what did you say, Elena?”
“I told him I knew his name and was going to Tweet his photo, that he raped my friend.”
“You used that word?”
“Yeah,” Elena said. Her five-foot frame bounced with triumph as she walked.
Claire took the phone from Elena and held it in her hand. “When he was with me, he had softer eyes.” The picture shook as her hand shook.
Claire was closing her eyes. Already she was dropping back into darkness, a damp fevered dark. She couldn’t hear that Aaron was untying his board shorts. She couldn’t feel that Aaron was lying on top of her. She was aware of a sense memory of someone trying to stretch a balloon around a barbell, but she couldn’t say she wasn’t dreaming, or why everything was so uncomfortable. Spittle flecked her lips and her body flopped absently beneath him. Aaron was yanking his shorts back on and saying, Don’t throw up in here okay? as he tugged the tent flap shut with a zip.
She felt Elena take her arm and lead her back toward the car as she spoke. “I think you should charge him,” Elena said. She was constantly checking over her shoulder in the direction of the campground.
When Claire didn’t say anything, Elena chronicled calmly, in a way she often did. She sounded like Tess, but for once Claire didn’t mind. “You know his name, you have those bruises. I’ve got his picture. The guy in the parking lot booth—he’s a witness because he saw the blood and knew you were drunk. And there’s Alexis and Alison. OMFG, and you’re still wearing this Aaron’s shirt.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know what happened.” Claire held the phone, looking down into it though the screen had gone dark.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re sixteen. He’s twenty-one.”
“But what do I get out of it,” Claire asked as they crossed the lot and stood outside the car. She shivered as the wind kicked up again and gusted around them. She watched sand drift over the concrete. She spoke up as if Elena wouldn’t hear her over the wind, even though they were side by side. “I go through all that and what do I get?”
“What do you get now?”
Standing in the parking lot, Claire tipped her head back and looked at the sky. In the city when Claire walked down the street the sky felt very narrow and obvious, like a landing strip of gray or blue, but out here it seemed to go on, blending with the trees and the horizon. Claire felt dizzy. Her breath came hard.
“Why did I let this…happen?”
Elena crossed her arms. “You didn’t. You got out of there and called me as soon as you could walk. You walked like, three fucking miles drunk and bleeding to a store in the middle nowhere and picked up the phone. Because you knew I’d come and do the things Alexis and Alison couldn’t.”
Claire’s breath continued rippling through her. She put her hand out. “Quick, Elena, give me some gum. I can’t get this awful taste out of my mouth. I can’t get it out.”
Claire could hardly hear over the wind, over how fast her breaths were coming. What she felt was a hand on her back and the car door opening, Elena pushing her inside. Inside there was only the dashboard and Elena’s iPod, the empty coffee cup and water bottle. Claire kept her eyes down, only letting the objects in the car be real. She didn’t want to see Aaron, who was there. Outside, dark-eyed, slim, with arms like hard knots of rope, yelling something at Elena. She didn’t want to hear them. But she could hear them. Darkness had closed in around the car and the streetlights burned white-blue.
Aaron was grabbing Elena’s shoulder. Aaron was saying, It was a thing. That’s all. It was just a hookup, no big deal. Aaron was glancing into the car. He was calling through the glass, Why don’t you come out here? Elena was rounding the front bumper away from him, heading for the driver’s side. Elena had the door open when he seized her shirt and yanked. Erase that fucking picture, Aaron was insisting. She tried to pull away but he yanked back. Her body jerked sideways and the glasses fell from her head, rattled on the concrete. I’m not going to hurt you, I just want to talk, he said and smiled. Let go of me, she said.
Through the open car door, Claire watched Elena fighting him, unable to pull away. She saw a man that was a stranger to her. She looked down and found Elena’s phone clutched in her hand from before. She unlocked the screen and found it was still in camera mode. She switched it to video, lifted it and filmed Aaron outside the window, his fist gripping Elena’s blouse, him talking to her close in her face. When he saw what Claire was doing, he let go in shock. Elena dove into the driver’s seat, slammed the door and hit the locks.
“Hurry,” Claire told her. “Drive.” Claire licked her lips and felt the saliva returning to her mouth.