We walked along the Strip, just the two of us, not quite holding hands. At Treasure Island, we stopped and leaned against the railing, looking out over the water and away from everything else.
The lagoon in front of the hotel was lined with plastic, full of scummy water and fiberglass galleys captained by mannequins. The sails were ragged from the hot breeze that blew all summer. It had leeched the color out of the mast flags, turning the boats into ghost ships. The air rising off the street smelled black and greasy like gasoline. After a minute, I lit a cigarette.
“That’s so bad for you,” Alex said. It was the first thing he’d said in a while. “It’s like sucking on a can of Raid.”
“I wish I were a pirate,” I said, not really meaning it, but just to say something. “I’d be a pirate captain with a parrot and everything. You could be my right-hand guy.”
“The first mate?”
“Yeah, that. We’d go all over the Mediterranean and the Caribbean and loot stuff.”
“I don’t want to loot things. I think it would scare people.”
“That’s the point.”
He didn’t answer, just sighed and leaned his chin on his hand.
I’d started kissing boys. It didn’t matter where. In the back seats of cars, in the front seats. On the hoods at night, when the heat pressed down in waves. They never cared when our elbows made dents in the metal. They just pressed harder, and I pressed harder, waiting for summer to end.
Alex didn’t know. Or maybe he did, but he never said anything.
It wasn’t like the kissing meant something. They weren’t anything I wanted to keep. They were a collection of mouths, hands, shoulders, hips, but not like people.
Some of them had bruises. Their eyes glittered like armor. Some of them shook like birds, electric, pulses racing. They were the ones who had to unroll their dollar bills when we stopped to buy cigarettes.
Under the streetlights, I would look down into the hollows of their palms. In the lines of their hands, I saw all the things they did to keep themselves from crying. When they drove me home, I never let them come up to the front door. I always left them at the corner. Every night, I walked up the block alone, crossing our lawn to the sound of Alex’s brother Walker shouting next door, and a pair of shadows, backlit through the kitchen window, arms thrashing like branches in a storm.
In front of us, the frigates in the Treasure Island lagoon looked broken-down and pathetic. All the mannequins were chipped and wore eye-patches.
Alex slid his hand closer to mine, like he was reaching for me and didn’t want to be reaching. His wrist was thin and freckled. His hand on the railing was turned palm-down. I knew that if I took it, I’d be able to read the sadness there, so I didn’t. But he told me anyway.
“I think Walker’s going to join the Navy,” he said, all in one long breath. “He really lost it last night. Came down bad on my mom. He said if she doesn’t kick Craig out, he’s leaving.”
“Will she, do you think—kick Craig out?”
He shook his head. “I think they’re going to get married. She’s pregnant.”
I touched the base of my throat. “I’m sorry.”
“It’ll be okay.”
“Except that Walker will leave, right?”
I looked out at the water and imagined seagulls, picking over the wreckage. “I didn’t know he was even thinking about leaving.”
“Yeah. Neither did I.”
“Maybe he should be a pirate too. He’d make a good one.”
“But you wouldn’t.” Alex turned to look up at me. I’d always thought that he’d get taller than me eventually, but he was fifteen now, and still kind of like a kid. “You should be a mermaid.”
“And sit out in the middle of that pond, with everyone’s Coke cans and candy bar wrappers floating around me?”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “Mermaids don’t live here. I mean real mermaids, wild and rare.”
“Real mermaids.” I laughed, blowing smoke out toward the water. “That’s a good one.”
“If I could do anything,” he said in a strange, husky voice, like he was trying hard to make me see. “Anything in the world, I’d make it so you were a mermaid. You could live in the middle of the ocean with the dolphins and the whales, and nothing could touch you.”
“That might be nice,” I told him, grinding out my cigarette on the railing.
He nodded and moved closer. I knew, suddenly, that if he reached for my hand, he’d see too much about me, too much that was ugly, so I shoved them in my pockets.
After a while, we went home.