Patting my hair down as best I could. I found a washcloth, dampened it, and rubbed it over my face. I also rinsed my mouth of the awful taste of the late contents of my stomach. As nausea claimed me again, I moved over to the toilet. The convulsion made me double over, but the only thing that came out was a loud belch. I had to grab the doorjamb for support as the burning behind my eyes joined forces with the spike bisecting my brain.
That’s when I noticed the bed. Well, not only the bed, but the fact there was someone in the bed. A form half covered by a sheet, wearing a faded purple Led Zeppelin T-shirt stirred. Mandy. Mandy is in my bed, my fevered brain fairly screamed. Or technically a bed I had also been in. What the fuck? I mean, yay, Mandy’s in my bed, but how the heck did that happen? She opened her vivid blue eyes and murmured, “You’re staring at me. Come back over here.”
Like an old man relearning to walk after a stroke, I stumbled to the low bed and plopped down on it. That made the pain in my head skyrocket and my stomach take a tumble.
“I think I’m dying,” I moaned through a mouth filled with fur. At least it felt like it. What is going on? None of this makes any sense. I liked my world ordered, certain and uneventful. This was none of those. But I also liked Mandy. Man, do I ever like Mandy.
We’d met on the beach a couple weeks ago. It was right after the Fourth of July. My parents and Jeremy and me always came to our cottage at the beach in North Carolina after the fourth. Mom was adamant we come after the ‘riff raff’ Independence Day celebrants had left and depart before the ‘dreadful tourist trash’ showed up for Labor Day. Aunt Cam and Nana sometimes used it in the fall.
The second day here, I had been walking on the beach with my towel looking for a place to sit and watch people. I was lost without my brother. Jeremy was the ringleader, always thinking of fun things to do, places to go. He was the Pied Piper to my willing follower. Everyone loved Jeremy. He was golden. I just skulked in his shadow, hoping to reflect a little of the glory.
I noticed a pair of girls on a blanket I was passing. The brunette was beautiful. I couldn’t tell about the blonde. She was lying face down with her bikini top unclasped, browning in the sun. But she definitely had all the right curves in all the right places.
“Heads up!” came from a nearby muscular young man playing Frisbee with a group of small kids. He had miscalculated his throw and the plastic disk flew right into the lap of the brunette who was busy rubbing lotion into her leg with her right hand. In her left hand was a cup filled with ice and soda. The Frisbee startled her, and the cup of soda flew from her hand and landed on the back of the blonde.
With a shriek, she jumped up, topless, and whirled toward me. Our eyes met briefly, then my eyes dropped to a more enticing sight. She yelled at me, “Pervert! Are you just going to stare at my tits or help?” This startled me into action, and I threw my towel around her shoulders to give her cover. She pulled it tighter and ran up the nearby boardwalk into a cottage, huffing and cursing all the way. The brunette followed her, pleading how sorry she was. The guy who threw the Frisbee was doubled over laughing his ass off. I stood there a moment. That was my favorite towel. I hoped I’d get it back.
“Hung over, huh?” Mandy asked. She rubbed my shoulder in sympathy for my distress.
“Is that what this is? Do people die from it?” I was only half joking.
“Not usually. It just feels that way. Poor baby. Your first?”
“Yeah, I don’t drink.”
“Well, you can’t say that anymore. You were a wild man last night.”
“Oh, jeez. I don’t remember. Did I do anything stupid?”
“Yes, but you were adorable.” And she pecked me on the cheek.
On the third day I noticed the two girls and the young man in the same place. I also saw my beach towel, cleaned and folded, lying beside the blonde. As I walked up the brunette nudged the blonde and said, “It’s Towel Boy.” The blonde shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed up at me. She was as beautiful as the brunette, maybe even more. But girls like her dismissed me.
She handed me the towel and said, “Thanks for letting me use your towel. It’s nice to see there are at least some gentlemen left.” With that she gave a dismissive “hmpf” to the young man on the blanket. He mugged at her and laughed.
“I’m Mandy, by the way. Have a seat. This is Savannah, and the Neanderthal is my brother Nathan.”
“Hi. Robbie.” And I sat, pleased I had formed a coherent sentence, kinda.
The little group was friendly and adopted me as one of their own. I learned that Mandy was sixteen as I was. Savannah, her best friend, and Nathan’s girlfriend was seventeen. Nathan was, in his words, “older”. I guessed somewhere between eighteen and twenty. They were from southern Georgia. Much to my credit I refrained from making a joke about Savannah’s name. It was nice to have someone to talk with and spend time with at the beach.
Jeremy had always been my mainstay. What Jeremy wanted to do; we did. Where Jeremy wanted to go; we went. I didn’t dare contradict him or voice an opinion. I just stood in the glow of Jeremy’s outward charm. ‘Reluctant Robbie’ is what Jeremy sometimes called me. I guess I’m a bit shy, but why bother? Jeremy was whip smart and already doing pre-college work and accepted at Princeton this fall on a full academic scholarship. Jeremy was popular and handsome. I looked like a dork. Totally unremarkable. Even our parents said, “Why can’t you be more like Jeremy?” Yeah, everyone thought Jeremy was perfect. Everyone but me. I was the only one who knew the evil lurking beneath his charming surface.
As Mandy continued to pet and coo over me about my physical distress, my brain, still in agony, put together a few thoughts. I’m in Mandy’s bedroom. We slept in the same bed. Did we ‘do’ anything? Am I no longer a virgin and don’t even know it? Crap! Or did we try to, and I failed? Even worse! Or did I attack her? No, I doubt she’d be here so friendly if I did something inappropriate. Or maybe she’s simply being nice to the nerdy kid. Well, this is just plain awkward.
Mandy and Savannah had decided I was too skinny, so they began including snacks for me on the beach. They also invited me to the cottage for lunches. Mandy’s parents only breezed through now and again. Nathan was the chaperone. Their folks were clueless.
Two weeks after we met, Mandy told me they were going to the carnival in town that evening and asked if I’d like to come along. She gave me a winning smile and said she hoped I’d say yes. Who am I to argue with a beautiful girl? I came by the cottage at sunset, and we began strolling along the beach towards the small town. The little carnival ran all summer. It featured small rides for the little kids, a Tilt-a-Whirl for the older ones, games, cotton candy, Madame X telling fortunes and other small ways of separating tourists from their money.
I’d been to the carnival every summer growing up, but it never held this much appeal before. It was as if I was seeing it in a new light. The neon lights were brighter, the games more fun, even Madame X with her three teeth seemed mysterious rather than just creepy. We laughed so much that night that I felt my sides hurt. I bested them all in putt-putt, much to Nathan’s dismay. He got his revenge, insisting we go through the House of Horrors. Over Savannah’s complaints of “I hate this ride”, we climbed in the little carts.
Mandy sat close to me in our cart. There was nothing horrific, as the name would imply or particularly frightening in the House of Horrors but as we got to the section with plastic zombies moving around to menace us, I put a protective arm around Mandy and pulled her closer. She snuggled in. She laid her head against my neck and seemed content to leave it there. As the carts burst into the light at the end, we noticed that Savannah and Nathan were locked in a passionate kiss.
“Get a room, you two,” Mandy razzed them. Without breaking the kiss Nathan showed her his middle finger. We laughed as if it were the funniest thing we had ever seen. After the ride, Mandy and I leaned toward each other as we walked along and met glances more often. We brushed knuckles a few times. Then I picked up her hand as we walked past the cheap games.
“Oh, oh. We need pictures,” Mandy exclaimed as we approached the photo booth. We piled in and took photos of the four of us, next as couples, then the girls cutting up, and last me and Nathan mock glaring at each other. The girls loved the prints. Mandy said she wanted to keep hers “forever”. Savannah crooned, “I love the one of me and my sweetie.” Nathan preened.
When we decided to call it quits and head home, Mandy grabbed my hand and pulled me a few hundred feet along the beach ahead of Savannah and Nathan. “Let’s give the lovebirds a little privacy,” she murmured. I liked that she didn’t drop my hand.
It was a perfect night. Once away from town, the only light was the full Carolina moon, casting a brilliant silver ribbon of light across the ocean. The roaring waters were black as ink, washing up as silvery foam. A warm breeze pushed us along. I leaned my shoulder against hers. I dropped her hand and put my arm around her waist. She did the same and laid her head in the crook of my neck.
The moment was so beautiful I nearly ached. I wished I could stop time and be here, in this moment, forever. I don’t know how I found the courage, but without agonizing over what I was doing, I slowed to a stop, moved around in front of her, lifted her chin with my fingers and kissed her. She slid both arms around my waist and pressed into me. The breeze died at that moment, so I wasn’t sure if the heat in my face was from the warm night or the bright flame of passion.
“Get a room, you two,” Nathan said as he and Savannah strolled by. We began giggling so hard we had to break the kiss.
Over the next few days, our desire for each other had only grown. We found reasons to touch each other. If we had moments alone, we stole kisses. I felt I was in heaven. The next Friday night we went into town again to see a band play at the Pump House. Nathan got a band around his wrist since he was old enough to drink beer. He had one beer that he shared with Savannah. When Mandy tried to get him to include her, he pretended he couldn’t see her.
When we got back to the cottage Mandy groused that she hadn’t had anything to drink. Nathan looked around the kitchen.
“We got strawberries, we got vodka, and we got ice. Know what that sounds like?”
“Daiquiris!” they all, except me, yelled in unison. Which led to my current predicament.
I thought if I laid perfectly still, the nausea would not drive me to the toilet again. Nothing could be done for my head. If God is merciful, I will die soon, and it will all be over.
“If I live, I swear I’ll never drink again,” I moaned.
“Said every hungover person in the history of the world. I think I can help.” Mandy reached over to a table and picked up a carved wooden box. She took out a lighter and what I decided must be a joint. Jeremy had gotten me to smoke pot twice, but it didn’t seem to do much for me. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Mandy lit it, took a puff, and held it out to me.
“I’m too sick to do any of that. Just let me lie here. Maybe I’ll die soon.”
“Take it, you dick. It’ll make you feel better.” I was pretty sure it wouldn’t, but I took it anyway. I inhaled a bit, held it, and exploded in a coughing fit. My brain seemed to burst in my head, lighting up like the recent Fourth of July. Each cough clanged in my head so hard I saw red flashes around the edges of my vision. Has a hangover ever made anyone’s eyes explode?
“Amateur,” Mandy smirked. Although my throat was now as hot as the area behind my eyes, I croaked, “What exactly happened last night?”
“We discovered you love strawberry daiquiris. Really love strawberry daiquiris. After the seventh or eighth you were singing Kid Rock and falling over the furniture. You were so cute.”
“Oh, jeez. Just shoot me now,” I moaned.
She gave me the joint again. No coughing this time. Watery eyes, though.
“How did I end up here, like this?” I indicated my undressed state. I had only now noticed that I wasn’t embarrassed to be in my underwear. Well, she sees as much skin in my swim trunks. And that T-shirt she was wearing revealed considerably less skin than her bikini, unfortunately.
“When it became apparent that you were several drinks past your limit, Nathan and I toted you in here. I figured you didn’t want to sleep in your clothes, so I undressed you. Savannah usually sleeps in here with me when the ‘rents are around. Last night she stayed with Nathan. I could have put you in the extra bed, but I like to snuggle. And you were a perfect gentleman. A perfect unconscious gentleman.”
Oh my God! My parents. I sat up straight, eyes wide, but grabbed my head moaning and fell back, “Oh, that was not smart,” I whimpered. Mandy gave me another toke of the joint.
“Was I here all night? My parents must be frantic. I’m in so much trouble.”
“Don’t worry. Nathan took care of it. You’re his new bestie, so he asked your Mommy if you could have a sleepover. See? Simple.”
“Yeah, he is useful sometimes, in his own alpha ape way.”
“You two poke at each other all the time, but it’s obvious you love each other so much. I envy that. I could never talk to Jeremy like that. It wouldn’t seem right. He also might pound me.”
“Maybe it’s time you did. Just saying.”
Yes, everyone thought Jeremy was perfect. But they didn’t know about his lies, the drinking, the dangerous thugs he hung with. They didn’t hear about all the girls he slept with and cheated on. They didn’t see the bruises I had when I crossed Jeremy or even when I didn’t. But I always covered for Jeremy because that’s what brothers do for each other. At least that’s what Jeremy said. Yet, I was always doing for Jeremy, not the other way around. I didn’t lie, except to cover for him. I didn’t drink, well, until this, or run with a bad crowd. I didn’t have girlfriends to cheat on and wouldn’t even if I did. But even with these truths, I worshipped Jeremy along with the rest of the world.
“So, how’s the head?” Mandy asked. I drew in a breath to moan how much I hurt but paused.
“Hey, my head doesn’t hurt. I hadn’t noticed the pain was gone. That’s so crazy.”
“And how’s the tummy?”
“Wonderful,” I answered after a moment to check in with my internal organs. “Did the pot do that?”
“Yep. Marijuana, good for what ails ya.”
I laid back, more comfortable now. In a moment I realized I was just grooving on feeling good.
“You’re buzzed,” Mandy grinned.
“Yeah,” I admitted.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to be like Jeremy. Who wouldn’t? He had everything just handed to him. I thought maybe our parents might have loved me as much as they did Jeremy if I just made the effort to be more like him. But it wasn’t in my nature. I didn’t know how to be charming. I didn’t have the gift of gab, as Dad called it. I didn’t have the looks or the confidence. Nor was I willing to pay the price. I couldn’t face myself if I lived and treated people the way he did. That wasn’t in my nature, either.
On the plus side, I did have a few friends. I didn’t face the ultimate high school disgrace of eating lunch alone. Girls didn’t sneer at me. They just ignored me. And my grades were good. I wouldn’t have any trouble getting into a state university in a couple of years. I just hated to upset my calm world where everything and everybody was predictable. No surprises. No danger. Change caused crap to go wrong, or Jeremy to get angry. And things could get messy. I never liked messy. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a stupid saying. It is best to keep things simple and safe.
“You know what else I like about pot?” Mandy asked in my ear. I giggled as her breath tickled.
“What?” I murmured.
“It makes me like to do this.” She ran a finger up my side, trailing it over my rib lines. I thought of squirming away but was too laid back to bother. Then she leaned over and flicked her tongue over my nipple. Wow! My entire body arched as every muscle in my body flexed at once. It was as if someone had shoved a live wire up my ass.
“Christ!” I shouted.
“Keep it down, babe. You want to wake everyone?”
“Sorry, but wow.”
“Nice, huh?” she smiled.
She dipped her head and nuzzled again, licking and nipping at my nipple. I writhed in exquisite ecstasy, trying to keep my gasps and moans low. Then she moved to the other nipple. I was lost in a world of beautiful torment. She swung one leg over me so she could sit astride. She lowered her face to mine, and we began kissing. Amid this I became very aware that I had possibly the strongest erection I’ve ever had. And Mandy was rubbing herself against it.
“Mmm. Feels so good,” she purred.
“Mmm,” I echoed.
Mandy sat up. Tucking her fingers under the edges of her T-shirt, she stripped it off, flinging it aside, sitting astride me naked. I smiled and enjoyed the view.
“You’re staring at my tits again,” she teased.
“Well, yeah. Kinda hard not to. They’re sorta magnificent.” I reached out and began rubbing them. Then I pulled her closer to nuzzle her as she had done me. It felt as if she just melted into me.
After a few minutes of this, she whispered in my ear, “Robbie, I want you.”
It nearly killed me to say, “I’m sorry. I don’t have any protection.”
“It’s okay. I stole some from Nathan.” She handed me a small packet containing a condom.
Yes! There is a God. I pulled off my underpants, and we rubbed against each other’s nakedness for a while. Then Mandy helped me roll on the condom and then find her entrance. She eased herself down on me. I was in heaven. For about five seconds. Then my orgasm came rushing over me as I spent myself inside her. I was mortified.
“I’m sorry,” I said, looking anywhere but in her face.
“Don’t be. It was your first, huh?” I stared at the sheet. “Happens all the time. We’re sixteen. You’ll be ready to try again in five minutes. And we have more condoms.” She smiled cheerily. And she was right.
“Was I okay?” I asked later.
“Yes, Robbie. You were wonderful.”
“I mean all the guys talk about how big they are, but I’ve never seen another guy’s dick erect so I don’t know if I’m normal.” I hated how all my insecurities just poured out.
“Honestly, men and their dicks. Size is not everything. And I’m not exactly the Whore of Babylon. How many dicks do you think I’ve seen, for Christ’s sake?”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just wanted to be sure I was good enough for you. I thought you had done it before.”
“Well, I’m not a slut,” she mumbled, balling her fists in her lap. “I’ve done it a few times with my boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. Commonly known as the Bottom-Dwelling Scum-Faced Two-Timing Jerk.”
“Sounds like a nice guy,” I had to smile.
“Let’s not talk about him. I just want to be.” She wrapped herself more tightly around me, her face pressed into my neck.
After a while she murmured, “Why can’t I find boys like you? You’re sweet, kind, don’t have to be the center of everything. You’re just you. Why can’t I find boys as uncomplicated as that?”
“Uh, you found me,” I whispered.
“Yes, I did. I just wish it could be forever.”
At some point I realized that if I had been keeping a journal, the entry for every day would have to be ‘Best Summer Ever’. For it truly was. Even though Mandy had been joking about Nathan being my ‘bestie’, it turned out we did bond. I spent almost as much time with him as with Mandy. Being a complete gym rat, Nathan soon had me involved in work outs, eating muscle building supplements, and weight training. It didn’t hurt that he had a complete setup of weights in the lower level of their beach house. I found that I enjoyed the ease and camaraderie of working out with Nathan. He was an easy guy to be around. I also enjoyed challenging myself with the weights. I’d always hated competition sports, mostly because I fared so poorly. But in working out I only competed against myself.
I also found I enjoyed the pure physicality of it. I’ve always been a computer nerd, never demanding much of my body. Nathan said I was releasing endorphins. I don’t know what it was, but when I was “in the zone”, it was just me and the weights.
“If you become all muscle bound like my Neanderthal brother, I’ll never speak to you again,” Mandy threatened. Since I had become Nathan’s friend, I didn’t feel bad asking my parents for multiple sleep overs during the following month. Well, not too bad. It wasn’t as if they’d notice, anyway.
On an August afternoon, Mandy and I were lying on a blanket on the beach. Savannah and Nathan had wandered off, so it was just the two of us. I had been lying on my stomach but rolled over to my side and propped my head on my hand to watch Mandy spread lotion on her leg. The smooth stroking up and down, up and down was hypnotic.
She looked down at me, her face in shadow from the sun behind her, the light streaming through her honey toned hair creating a nimbus around her. It looked like a halo. My beach angel.
“I heard you and Savannah talking last night,” I murmured.
“Mmhm?” She continued stroking.
“What did she mean when she said, ‘You’re doing it again’?” Mandy ceased the stroking only for a moment and then resumed. I realized I may have touched a nerve.
“You weren’t supposed to hear that,” she said.
“If you don’t want to tell me, that’s okay. I shouldn’t have been listening, anyway.”
“No, I’ll tell you. She means that I’m continuing to make the mistakes I made at home. Isn’t there a book called ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’? Well, that’s my love life. Chris, Jason, Jackson, Dean. I’ve gone from one bad relationship to another. Savannah says it’s because I give my heart too easily. I leap before I look. But isn’t it better to put yourself out there, follow your heart and possibly get burned than to sit home and binge watch Netflix every Saturday night?”
“I think my life classifies as binge watching Netflix.”
“I told Savannah she’s wrong. I’m not doing it again with you. Yes, I’ve given you my heart, but not without thinking. I got to know you before it happened. I got to see you as something other than some random guy trying to get into my pants.”
“Well, yeah. You and Savannah are totally out of my league.”
“Oh, don’t say that, Robbie. You are wonderful. I was thinking I would have to give up on men until you came along. You are restoring my faith.” She offered me a smile.
“But why me? I’m nothing special. I mean, look at us. You’re you and I’m, well, me.”
“Oh, you’re so adorable. I remember the stiff, awkward boy who stared at my tits only a month ago. The skinny little kid who was scared of the world. You’ve grown. We talked about you. Nathan liked you right off the bat. Savannah reserved judgment, but I thought you were sweet. You did protect my honor with your towel, after all. But once you got comfortable with us, we saw your wonderful personality. You are sweet. You’re warm, caring, and loyal. When Savannah or I say anything, you don’t bowl us over being all macho, gotta save the day, save us damsels in distress. You listen. And you don’t judge. And best of all, I had to get in your pants rather than the other way around.” She laughed as I’m sure I turned red.
“You make me feel special, Robbie. You make me feel comfortable and loved.”
“More than Chris, Jackson or Dean ever did?” I needled. She stuck her tongue out at me.
“Which one was the Bottom-Dwelling Scum-Faced Two-Timing Jerk?”
“Ugh. Dean. Do you know I actually caught him with his dick in a former friend’s mouth?”
“Yeah. He told me he wasn’t available one afternoon because he had a doctor’s appointment. I was in his neighborhood and decided to drop off a little thinking of you note on his door. His car was in the drive, but since his mom’s car was gone, I figured she had taken him to the doc. When I got on his front porch, I was sure I heard noises inside. He has one of those long front porches that runs the width of the house. I walked over to the window to the den. The blinds were drawn but there was a space at the side, only a half inch wide, where I could see in. And there in his dad’s La-Z-Boy was Dean with his pants around his ankles. And Molly Summers’ head bobbing up and down.” Mandy had said she was over him, but I think I detected a little extra moistness in her eyes.
“I had my cell with me. I thought about whipping it out and videoing what I could see and live stream it to the net but took the high road. Savannah says I definitely should have done it.”
“That would have been wild.” I couldn’t help but laugh. And have a little pride in her moxie. “Public breakups are messy, though. There’s a girl back home who broke up with her boyfriend in a Starbucks. It turned into a brawl. Of course, someone caught it on their cell and posted it to the web. It humiliated the girl. She shouldn’t have been, though. She came out as the good guy. Her boyfriend was a total creep.”
“Poor girl. You just don’t understand girls. I can see why it bothered her. Girls take ownership of the relationship. If anything goes wrong, we take responsibility, like it reflects on us. It always feels like it’s our fault, even when it’s not. That’s the same reason I didn’t post Dean to the web. I just told both of them to never speak to me again. And I put the word out that Molly is a slut. They still don’t know I saw them. I like it that way. Keeps ‘em wondering.”
“My mystery girl. I love it.” I leaned in for a kiss.
I came in later than usual one night, pausing in the entry as I heard my folks talking.
“I’m worried about Jeremy,” Mom was saying. “We haven’t spoken in days; do you think he’s all right?”
“Now, Barbara. He’s busy getting ready for college. It’s an important time for him.”
“But he has always been with us at the beach. It doesn’t seem right to just leave him behind. I’m going to call him tomorrow, to let him know we’re thinking of him.”
“No, Barb,” Dad chided. “Let the boy be. He’s fine, I’m sure. No teenager wants his mom calling him all the time.”
I walked past the sitting area on the way to my room. “Robbie,” Dad called to me. “I was getting worried about you. It’s quite late for you to be out.” I stuck my head in the room, trying to look ashamed.
“Oh, were you out?” Mom was preoccupied and unaware I’d been gone. “Playing with your friend, Ned is it, again?” She looked up in my direction without making eye contact. She never looked directly at me.
“Yes, well, goodnight.” She dismissed me with a little wiggle of her fingers.
I sometimes thought if I disappeared no one would care. Dad would notice, but Mom would just be satisfied that there was one less aggravation in her life. Then she could devote all her time to Jeremy.
But suddenly I’d found someone who cared. Someone who looked for me, who smiled when she saw me and was sad when I left. I was intoxicated with Mandy. I wanted her every waking moment. We made love during afternoon siestas at the cottage and during my many sleep overs. Our passion for each other seemed boundless. It was perfect.
Then it all came crashing down one day in late August when my mother exclaimed, “Guess what? Jeremy can get time off. He’s coming in to visit this week. Isn’t that wonderful? You can introduce him to your little friends.”
Yeah, wonderful. I’ve missed Jeremy, right? Jeremy who? The more I thought about it, the shallower I seemed. I had latched onto my brother for sixteen years. I lived for him. He was my center. Did I simply exchange it for Mandy and Nathan? Was I that needy and shallow? No, that couldn’t be it. Nathan never bossed me around or made me feel bad about myself. And though I would gladly walk through fire for Mandy, she never made demands or caused drama. She seemed completely devoted to me. And Savannah was just the best. I realized how much I valued her respect. And I was also realizing that my relationship with my brother wasn’t the healthiest. I’d allowed myself to be a doormat. So, if I was addicted to my new friends, it was for all the right reasons.
Jeremy arrived on Friday evening. He seemed a bit strung out from the long drive. After hugging Mom and Dad, he fist bumped me.
“How ya doing, twerp?” I hated that term, but Jeremy used it fondly, and often. “You been moping all summer without me?”
“I’ve made do,” I replied.
“You been working out, too. Look at you, all muscled up. I’m impressed.” Any other time I would have been over the moon. But now it was more like, I couldn’t care less what he thought. Still, I smiled as if pleased that Jeremy had noticed me.
Saturday Jeremy said he wanted to hang out with me, for old time’s sake. We drove to town and relived memories of all the places of our childhood. It was nice. It was at times like this that I loved Jeremy as my big brother, Bubby as I had called him when I was little. Unfortunately, these times had been rare and brief lately.
Later Jeremy pulled into a secluded parking area and took a small package from under the seat.
“I’ve got some primo blow here. Want to do some, bro?”
“Cocaine? Are you nuts? If you get caught there goes your scholarship, and that stuff is addictive as hell.”
“Ah, Reluctant Robbie, got his panties in a wad already. Lighten up, bro. You gotta live a little.”
“You and the cocaine can live all you want. I’m outta here.” I opened the door and got out to walk back towards our cottage.
“Robbie, you idiot. Get back here! Jeez, man. I’m just messing with you. We don’t have to do anything you aren’t comfortable with.” I gave him a dubious look but got back in the car.
“You’ve changed, man,” Jeremy said. “Something’s different. I’m not sure I like it. Has somebody been messing with your head?”
“No one’s messing with my head. It’s that I’ve met some kids my age and we’ve had a good time together this summer. Seeing you all of a sudden has just been, well sudden.”
“Yeah, Mom said you have a girlfriend. Baby brother, gettin’ some action,” he leered and punched my shoulder lightly. “Has she got big hooters? You got to first base with her yet or are you still just holding her hand like a little pansy schoolboy?”
“I don’t want you talking about her like that,” I yelled suddenly hot. I could feel my heart start to race. I wouldn’t have him sully what I had with Mandy with his nasty talk. “You may be a slut who’ll fuck any girl who’ll look at you, but I’m not like that. My relationship with Mandy is different.”
“Relationship? Here’s a newsflash, bud. Summer is over. In a week, your ‘relationship’ will be history. You need to chew on the reality of that.”
“I don’t know how I ever looked up to you. You are the biggest son of a bitch I ever met. Just a low class, loudmouth bully. A total loser!” With that, I did leave the car. I kept on walking toward the beach despite Jeremy’s yelling and cursing. I was afraid my galloping heart would burst, and angry tears threatened.
I ended up at Mandy’s cottage.
“Where’s big, bad bro?” she asked.
“You won’t be meeting. I just had it out with him. Told him what I really think of him. No telling what happens now. He probably won’t beat me up in front of Mom and Dad, but I’m sure they will punish me for my so-called bad behavior.”
She put her arms around my neck. Her gentleness calmed me. I drew strength from her touch.
“Beat you up? Have you looked in a mirror lately? Unless he’s as big as Nathan, you could take him with one muscular arm tied behind your back.”
“No, I don’t think I could ever hit Jeremy. But I don’t know if I can be his brother anymore. I finally realized what an ass he is and how he’s used me all my life. And I let him.”
“Oh, my poor baby,” she crooned. “I know it hurt, but I’m so proud of you.”
Nathan came into the room. “Did I hear someone say your brother’s a dick? Let’s go beat him up.”
“Easy there, killer. He’s not worth the effort. But I’ll keep you in mind if anything changes.”
“Just remember, I got your back, bro,” Nathan said. I realized then that when Nathan said ‘bro’ it meant so much more than when Jeremy said it. Coming from Nathan it was what actual brotherhood should be. And when he said, “I got your back”, he meant it. I stood there and basked in the warmth of it. Why couldn’t I have a brother like Nathan, to look up to, to show me the true meaning of brotherhood?
Mandy pressed her body against me and whispered, “And I’ve got your front.”
“Jeez, get a room, you two,” Nathan said.
Mom and Dad were not happy. Mom wouldn’t even look at me, but then she rarely did anyway. Dad took me out on the deck for a “discussion”.
“Jeremy said you were pretty angry with him today. Said you went off for no reason. That you walked off in town. He was worried that you might not be able to get back on your own. He looked all over for you. Is that how you want to treat your brother? He came all this way partly because of you and you disrespect him like that?”
Goddammit, I’m done with covering.
“He’s got you so snowed. You don’t even know who he is. Yeah, I was mad today. I was mad at the way he and you and this whole goddamn family has treated me like yesterday’s garbage for the last sixteen years. You think the sun and moon revolve around him. He’s lowlife scum. He wasn’t jittery yesterday from the drive. Ask him about his habit. You don’t know about the lies or the girls. Or ask him how I ‘fell’ out of the tree house when I was a kid. Or how I had so many bruises because I was always ‘clumsy’. He’s just a bully and you let him get away with it.” I was breathless and on a roll.
“I’ll not have you making all these awful accusations about your brother. You get in there and apologize to him right now.”
“Not even if my life depended on it. You can put me on the street or send me to reform school or whatever you want, but I’m done with this family’s bullshit Jeremy worship.”
“Those kids you’ve been hanging around this summer have stirred up all this defiance in you. I don’t want you to see them anymore. Luckily, there’s only a few days left. You can take it as a cooling-off period. Consider yourself grounded until you see fit to apologize to your brother. He was so concerned about you, and you’re as ungrateful and jealous as you’ve always been.”
And I stormed off to my bedroom. I threw myself on the bed trying to keep in control, not be consumed by my rage. I felt as if Dad had sucker punched me by calling me ungrateful and jealous. Where had that come from? I’ve always been content to stand in the shadows and let Jeremy get everything. I let him shine. I’m just “the other one”, the afterthought, the shadow, the one who’s not quite good enough, the punchline, or punching bag. I buried my head in my pillow so no one could hear me scream. Or sob.
Once the house got quiet, I locked the bedroom door and slipped out the window. The salty air stung my reddened eyes. The wind rasped in my sore throat.
“I thought you might be back,” Mandy said when I appeared on her deck.
“I’m grounded, probably for the rest of my life.”
“And I can see it’s working.”
“Mandy, what are we going to do? I don’t want to lose us, but what do we do?”
Tears flooded down her face and she burst into sobbing. I took her in my arms.
“I’ve been pretending it didn’t have to end,” she choked out. “But we know it will.”
“We’ve only got a few more days. I’m not going to let them ruin it. I’ll sneak out whenever I can. They can’t actually tie me to the bed.”
She sniffed, straining to get herself under control. “Okay. Can you stay with me a few more hours?”
“You know I’m all yours, always.”
She batted my shoulder. “Now you’re making me cry again.”
I slipped into my room a little before dawn. No one’s the wiser. I fell into an exhausted sleep. I was awakened around eight by shouting. Dad bellowing something and Mom being shrill. It sounded like they were both yelling at Jeremy. Now that’s unusual. I distinctly heard Dad say something along the lines of “bringing drugs into my house”. I decided to just wait it out. No need to get in the middle of this. I’m in deep enough shit already. By nine I heard the door slam and tires squealing as Jeremy’s car peeled out. The house was still as if abandoned. Soon I heard Mom’s muffled crying. Something terrible had happened. I decided I needed to find out what was going on.
I entered the kitchen where Mom with a cup of coffee sat on a stool by the counter looking awful. Her face was puffy, and her eyes were red. Dad sat at the table with a cup of his own in front of him. I eased in with eyes wide as saucers.
“Robbie,” Dad said in a doleful greeting.
“Dad,” I answered in kind.
He pulled his hand over his face as if wiping away misery. Here it comes. “Robbie, how much of what you said last night was true?”
I was completely floored. “Um, all of it.” Dad sighed. There was weariness on his face. Mom hiccupped a stifled sob.
“I, uh, well, I. I looked in Jeremy’s car this morning and saw some things that disturbed me. Drug paraphernalia. Do you know anything about that?”
“Only that yesterday he told me he had some cocaine.”
“I asked him about some other things you said. At first he denied everything.”
“I’m sure. He’s a very accomplished liar.”
Mom hiccupped a sob again.
“Yeah, once we got into it and he got mad, he threw a few lies in our faces. I’m sorry, son. We’ve always wanted what’s best for you two. He just seemed to excel, and we followed along. A parent is always proud of his child’s successes,” he reasoned.
“But never my successes,” I said in a small voice. The silence and blank look told me he couldn’t think of one. This, more than anything else, broke my heart. I couldn’t keep a hot tear from rolling over my cheek.
“Don’t be dramatic,” my mother said. The venom in her voice shocked me. I guess she’s already trying to figure out how this was all my fault.
“Barbara,” Dad warned. She stared into her coffee cup. He continued, “We never intended to do anything hurtful. We gave you the best of everything.”
“Except your love. Or approval.” Another tear, much to my chagrin.
“You must have known we loved you. Was it really all that bad?”
I looked at Dad’s haggard face. This had aged him. He had seen behind the façade of his bright, shining son to the sordid man he had become. I didn’t want to hurt him any further. But neither did I want to lie. It was all I could do not to burst into sobs.
“Yeah, it was that bad.” I turned and fled back to the bedroom, just in time.
The twelve-hour drive back to Foxborough was the most uncomfortable ever. My parents drove, taking turns at the wheel. They did not ask me to help, and I didn’t offer. I put on my headphones and huddled in the back seat ignoring everything. I figured my parents assumed any red eyes or errant sniffs were my grief over the problems with Jeremy. Whatever. I was pissed that it was always about Jeremy. For years I’d lived with all the wonderful qualities of Jeremy. Now the focus was how unfortunate it was that he has strayed. Even in his disgrace it was still all about Jeremy. Just once, why can’t it be at least a little about me, about Robbie?
After a few days at home Dad began asking me what I knew about Jeremy’s “problems”. After the second time I told him “If you want to know what Jeremy has done, I suggest you ask Jeremy.” God, I’m sick to death of this. The Jeremy issue was unresolved because he was at Princeton under full academic scholarship. Our parents couldn’t threaten him with loss of financial support.
I suspected that Jeremy was padding his income by working with drug dealers and feared it would not end well. However, my parents were in discussions with him and there was talk of him coming home for Thanksgiving. That was way sooner than I was willing to face him. The hurt was still too fresh. The trauma of the psychological as well as physical abuse piled on me throughout my childhood by Jeremy and enabled by our parents could not be easily erased. I was unsure how long it would be before I could abide even being in the same house with Jeremy.
Of course, no one asked my thoughts on this. Once again, my family was disregarding me. I remembered Nathan’s parting words. He had stumbled upon Mandy and me clinging to each other on my last day, she crying, me only red eyed.
“Jeez Louise, guys,” Nathan complained. “Aw, Hell” and he walked over and put his arms around me in a big bear hug.
“I’m gonna miss you, bro,” Nathan said against my neck. “Take care of yourself. I mean it. You take care of Robbie. It seems obvious no one else will.”
‘Take care of yourself, no one else will,’ was an accurate description of my situation. Well, I thought, it’s time to start taking care of myself. So I called my Nana.
“Hi, Nana, it’s Robbie.”
“Oh, Robbie, how wonderful. How’s my favorite grandson?”
Nana said that to all her grandchildren when they called. Even knowing that, the love and acceptance that came over the phone was palpable and almost overwhelming. Like food for a starving man. How come I never get that at home?
“I’m fine, Nana. We just got back from the beach and I was wondering how you are doing?”
“Robbie, I know you didn’t call so I could ramble on about my gout. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. You’re my only Nana and I miss you. And I wanted to ask a favor.”
Nana chuckled. “What is it, love?”
“Can I come visit you for Thanksgiving?”
“Robbie, honey. You know I’d love to have you all, but these old bones can’t entertain on the scale I used to. Even though it would only be five, that’s a lot of work.”
“No, not everybody. Only me.”
Nana was silent for a moment. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing much. I just need to get away for a bit. Get some breathing room.”
“Would this have anything to do with that good-for-nothing brother of yours?”
I was completely floored, once again. What did Nana know?
“Honey, I love all my grandchildren, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to their faults. Jeremy can charm birds out of the trees if he sets his mind to it, but I haven’t lived this long without knowing when I’m having smoke blown up my ass. I’ve known since he was little that he was trouble. What’s he done?”
“They don’t want me talking about it.”
“Figures. I hope he hasn’t gotten you mixed up in anything.”
“No. I’ve been steering clear of him.”
“Good, keep it that way. Come on up for the holiday. You and me will do it up right. We’ll do something, even if it’s wrong,” Nana chuckled at one of her favorite sayings. “And don’t worry. I’ll keep this on the down low, as you kids say, until you’re ready to tell your folks. I assume they don’t know.”
“No, I haven’t told them yet,” I admitted.
“I expect they’ll blow a gasket.”
“Like I care.”
“Honey, don’t be too hard on them. I’m sure they’re hurting. I’ll give your dad a call tonight. You know, just Mom checking in. He’ll probably be all squirrelly. I’ll use that as my excuse to give him the third degree. He could never keep information from me when I grilled him. He’ll fold like an old tent. I’ll see what’s what.”
“Nana, you’re the best.”
“I know. Spread the word. Gotta go now. Tai chi’s in fifteen minutes.”
The morning glare made it difficult to see the screen of my phone. I was squinting and holding it at different angles but still couldn’t see anything. It was more than a week since that last day at the beach. Mom had gone through the classic stages of grief. She was currently on guilt. She extended this beyond her ‘failings as a mother to Jeremy’ to also guilt for the way she had treated me. I intended to enjoy it as long as it lasted. She pulled the car to a stop in the school parking lot.
“Ready for junior year?” she said with the hopeful optimism of a guilty person. She even reached over and brushed a lock of hair off my forehead. It seemed sad that such an intimate, motherly gesture felt so alien to me.
“Yeah,” I muttered, climbing out of the car.
Mandy and I had spent the last couple of days at the beach coming to terms with our impending separation. After much crying we faced two unalterable facts. One, we lived a thousand miles apart and two, no one meets their soulmate at sixteen. No matter what they think. The final agreement was to become best friends and let the romance part fade into a happy memory. No sappy phone calls, no mushy letters. But plenty of texting, as all BFFs do. We felt this was the best solution, actually the only solution. Mandy said her family planned to be back at this cottage next summer. I guessed if my family survived intact, we might be there also. So, there was hope we might see each other again.
“In the meantime, you go meet some beautiful women,” Mandy ordered.
“That’ll be hard. When I think of beauty, I only think of you.”
“Yeah, use lines like that. Women fall hard for that crap,” she laughed.
“And you go out and find someone who’s not a Bottom-Dwelling Scum-Faced Two-Timing Jerk.”
“I will. You may have broken my jinx. Now I know what a great boyfriend is supposed to be, I’ll be more discriminating. I may be setting my sights too high, but I’ll be looking for someone just like you.”
“Better looking, I hope.”
“Oh, Robbie. I wish you could see what I see when I look at you. You are beautiful inside and out. And with that new body Nathan helped you get, you are totally hot. The girls won’t be able to resist you. Go for it.”
“So, I guess we’re friends, huh?” I asked. “With benefits?”
Mandy blew in exasperation. “Boys! Is sex all you think about?”
“Pretty much. I am sixteen, you know.”
“Well… I guess.”
I had sneaked out of my room again and spent the entire last night with Mandy. I walked with her on the deck of the cottage as the dawn started a slow glow in the east. I held her hand in a tight clasp, knowing that letting go meant it was over. I finally, reluctantly released her hand, as my heart was torn to shreds.
“I’ll text you from the road.”
She was tearing up again, holding her hand over her mouth. “Bye.”
“Bye.” I turned to walk away, my head down, my soul heavy.
“Are you going to be okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I murmured, with little conviction.
I relived those last moments again as I had a thousand times in the past few days. I had in a pocket of my backpack the picture of Mandy and me from that night at the carnival. It was the only picture I had of her. But even if I had dozens more, I knew this would always be my favorite. We took it the night we fell in love. You could see all the innocence and beauty of first love in our eyes. I might one day get over her, but Mandy will always have a special place in my heart as my first and sweetest love. Nothing could change that.
As I neared the school building, I sat for a moment on the low brick wall and checked my phone. I saw I had a message from Mandy.
Mandy:Secret Agent 007. Your mission, should you accept it, is to make contact with 5 beautiful women today. Pix required. I will determine if they meet my criteria. This message will self-destruct in 5 seconds…4…3…2…1…sizzle…pfft.
I answered back.
The question isn’t if I’m ready for junior year, but is junior year ready for me? Reluctant Robbie is dead. The new Robbie is ready to rock and I’m taking this school by storm. Buckle your seatbelts, kiddos. It’s gonna be a wild ride. I never would have expected it a few days ago, but I entered the school building smiling.