Brand New Some boys don’t try hard enough in the summer. They get lazy, loose-limbed and half stupid, letting just about anything slip past their lips. Hey, girl, yeah you. Smile for me. Not looking to cuff or be cuffed, only for something fast and fleeting, that lasts as long as the pool water stays cold or as long as a stolen pint of whiskey shared in the side alley. There are white boys at the apartment building pool today too, but they never say much. They watch though, wading in the deep end, audacious in the way they crane their necks to look. The late afternoon sun has them boiling in the under-chlorinated water, red in the face and scrawny shoulders. Bri comes downstairs and meets Renee at the front gate, swishing her hips, dressed in coochie cutters that only this heat and a body like hers permit. Renee's mother still scolds her for wearing things like that, though she's grown now. Twenty since June, out of her clumsy teenagehood with her underripe self-esteem intact. She hadn’t found her lifelong love, nor had she been important or desirable enough to be on either side of heartbreak. But at fourteen, perpetually teary-eyed and too shy for her own good, she’d found Bri and fell victim to the type of infatuation that sinks its thorns into all of your softest parts. No one had warned her of its persistence, that it’d remain as a thatch of untended feelings tangled inside of her. Renee follows Bri around the quad of dead grass, catching glimpses of the sunburned boys through gaps in the rusted fence. Their light eyes have her second-guessing the way she walks, wishing she could mimic the way Bri’s body moves like beach sand slipping through fingers. Effortless and natural, doing what it’s supposed to do. Boys always look at her like she’s something to consume, not like the marvel she is. She’s black and brown smoothed into one rich tone, glittering when the light hits right. Renee holds her preciously, but it’d be a bald-faced lie to say she’s never stared slack-jawed with spit pooled between her teeth and bottom lip. Those boys shout careless and senseless, shooting their shot the only way they know how. Bri rolls her eyes, her face screwed up somewhere between disgust and boredom because she’s smarter than that. They’ve got to come better than whistles and half-assed compliments. Bri’s something else. An artist like the women in old paintings who look aloof and wise beyond their years, who pass time and shed woes by building beauty with their bare hands from scratch because it’s the one thing that’s theirs and theirs alone. Bri plays guitar, but she’s disinterested in vying for fame. She says she’s not good enough, or passionate enough, even though she’ll only play for Renee. It’s because she trusts Renee, she says. More than anyone. That’s passionate, Renee thinks, that she trusts that Renee won’t laugh when she plays one sour note out of a hundred. Renee will stay quiet, attentive, and receptive, and Bri knows this. That’s passion, and Renee tells her this because it’s too hot out to lie. She’s sweating enough as is. For the dozenth time, Bri says Renee thinks too much. “It’s not good for you.” Renee wants to say she doesn’t think enough, but it sounds too harsh in her head. She isn’t witty the way she wants to be and maybe that’s something else that will come with age, some grasp on self-deprecating humor that conveys maturity. Bri would know she’s joking regardless, since Renee is as predictable and familiar as the calluses on her fingertips. “It’s hot as hell.” They’re baking in Bri’s bedroom, the AC unit’s abilities dubious at best. Renee starfishes out on the bed, head turned to watch Bri fiddling with the box fan in the window. A gust of hot, dusty air cools the sweat on Renee’s forehead and for a minute, she’s content. Moments later, when Bri tugs her t-shirt over her head, Renee grows warm again. She nods and wets her lips. Bri’s sports bra is tight on her sloped shoulders, elastic stretched over delicate collarbones. Lower, the silver key skimming against her breastbone draws Renee’s eye and along with it, some illogical jealousy. She’s only laid her cheek there in passing, through cotton or polyester, never having the fortune of knowing that part of Bri’s body the same way a thin chain and metal pendant does. Bri speaks over the fan’s old blades and whirring motor. “Would go to the pool, but… it’s cute, right?” Renee jerks her gaze up so fast from the curve of Bri’s spine that her neck cracks. Bri’s shaking her head from side to side, her silk pressed hair bouncing in a dark halo. “Really cute.” In high school, she’d change her hair every other week, never one to shy away from attention. She’d weave beads and streamers into her braids for every dance performance and gyrate better than anyone else on the team, wearing tight pink spandex and an intoxicating smile. Tucking her guitar into its case, she asks, “What are you thinking about now?” “Too much.” Renee looks up from Bri’s legs, then leans against overstuffed pillows, making room for Bri at her side. The bed dips with her weight, shifting them both to the middle, and Renee thinks she could live right here next to her forever. For the rest of the summer, at least, if her heart would grant her the ease. Despite Bri’s tact for sympathetic rejections, Renee keeps her mouth shut and her desire trapped where it belongs. She’ll live in the interim between realization and inevitable confession, where she knows she’s loved like a best friend. “Like you said, always thinking too much.” “Don’t,” Bri says, and smiles all gentle and easy, glossy brown lips and white teeth, a flash of her pink tongue. Candy floss, sugar-coated fruit, all things that taste as pretty and sweet as they look. Her eyes are as tempting, unwavering in silences like this, coaxing hallucinations of Bri calling Renee’s name and echoing her want. It’s an unnerving thought, one that always has her looking away before she can consider its validity. Bri stares on, as she tends to do in response to Renee’s timidness, and Renee thinks again of what this habit could mean, balling her itching hands into fists. A knock at the window snatches Renee out of her reverie, and Bri slides off the bed to tug the curtain aside. From behind the glass, Eric grins and taps his fingers on the back of the box fan. The first time he’d climbed up the trellis, clinging to the balcony railing next door for leverage, he’d scared them both half to death. He’s been pushing their buttons for years, chasing their affections like a schoolboy, and neither of them have given into the pitiful crush that pendulates from Bri to Renee and back again every few weeks. Eric’s like a cousin to me, Bri has told her. A dumbass little cousin, like they're much older than the year they have on him. Renee agreed, and took her notice of his offbeat charm as nothing other than more of the same. Any boy who could lasso a giggle out of her was worthy of paying attention to, after all. He’s been away for most of the summer though, staying with a friend near his school’s campus, and he looks like a proper man now. A real haircut, lined up and faded, and deliberate stubble on his cheeks. Muscles that stretch his t-shirt a little tighter around his biceps. A redness under his brown skin, a constant blush hinting at the boyhood he’s shed. The same look on his face like he knows something everyone else doesn’t, set deeper in his features now. A part of him, secrets shining in his eyes and stuck in the creases at the corners of his smirk. It makes Renee squirm, knocking her knees together and flexing her toes. Bri only pops her hip, mumbling under her breath about how annoying he is as she sets the fan on the floor. “What, no reunion kiss?” Eric says, climbing inside. He winks at Bri and she calls him ugly with a smile twitching at her lips, earning a full belly laugh in return. When he turns to Renee, it goes soft, a musical hum. “Hey, you.” At once, Renee understands every poem that compares desire to desperate teeth and pursed lips sucking flesh from mango seeds in the summer. Letting tongues loll out of mouths to seek after juices before they dry sticky and unsightly on knuckles, obvious to any prying eyes. The rewarding fresh, cool sweetness is reprise from longing. Eric drapes himself over the end of the bed, reaching out a hand to tickle the bottom of Renee’s foot. Renee kicks at him, something like pride bubbling up inside her when he laughs again. “What are y'all up to?” Bri puts the fan back in the window and joins them on the bed. “None of your business.” With all three of them here, the space is smaller, as if any miniscule movement could have them pressed chest to chest, and too sharp an inhale or forceful an exhale could threaten to suck all the oxygen out of the room. Bri and Eric smile at each other, the moment as intimate as it is brief, and Renee thinks the mass of her want might sink the bed right through the floor. “Can I watch?” Eric asks, wiggling his eyebrows. “You're nasty,” Bri says, and gives him another kick in the side. “We should swim. Ricky, Chris, and them won't bother you. I talked to them. And I know the white boys won't either.” “What about you and Hassan? He's down there too, right?” “Yeah, he drove up with me.” Eric grins, rolling onto his belly. His fingertip finds Renee’s ankle, tracing x’s and o’s over the bone. “We might bother y'all a little bit.” They wait until sunset to head down. The water is colder that way, and Bri drops all her faux reluctance once she’s sitting on Eric’s shoulders, fingers interlaced with Renee’s. Hassan is nice enough, carrying Renee above the surface with ease, his hands never roaming from their place at the top of her thighs. He’s an extra, a background character in the scene they’re building, fading out of frame as a vignette closes in on them. Renee takes in the matching curves of Eric and Bri’s lips, swooning at the way both their gazes stay fixed on her like she’s the star, like she’s something worth looking at. An overture swells over their laughs and Renee sways to it, a love song only she can hear. After a while it's the three of them again, dark out except from the pool's blue glow, a few yellowed lights at its perimeter, and the moon overhead. Bri sits pretty on the steps of the shallow end, head tilted towards the sky. Eric does lazy laps from one end of the pool to the other, pausing every now and then to jostle Renee on her float. “How come you never get all the way in, Bri-Bri? Scared?” “No. You just play too damn much.” Eric splashes water in Bri’s direction and she cusses to herself, shields her hair, and stomps to the opposite corner to stick her feet back in the water. Renee abandons the float and wades up to her, playing as if she's going to pull her in by the ankles, and Bri smiles. There's that brazen trust again, and Renee isn’t sure how she’s supposed to live with that and not call it like it is, much less behave. She slides both hands up Bri's smooth calves, rests them on her knees. “Your hair still looks cute, don’t worry.” “Thank you.” Bri drops her hands on top of Renee’s, rubbing with her thumbs. "And you look pretty like this, with your hair wet." “Renee.” Her name in Eric’s mouth is thick, tongue sliding heavy over each consonant and vowel the way fingers might pluck at guitar strings. Testing out notes, trying for something seductive. He’s floating on his back, arms spread wide. "Were you baptized when you were little?" "I don't think so." “I like the idea of it. They say a prayer, dunk you in some water, and that's it. You're cleansed. Brand new. That’s how it works, right?” He makes a pensive sound, staring straight up at the sky. “I think, maybe . . . everyone should be baptized, then. Even if it's not an ordained or religious thing. It should be like New Year's resolutions. You know what I mean? You just start over.” “My granny would call something like that blasphemy,” Bri says, and combs her talented fingers through Renee’s curling hair. Renee leans into the touch, fighting to keep her eyes open. “Renee,” Eric repeats, just air behind it now, stroking the back of her neck with the word. "You want me to baptize you?" With Eric’s broad palm at the base of her spine, Renee floats on her back. “Because it's better this way, I promise. You'll feel it,” he says, and she doesn't ask what it is because it’s there in her weightlessness, in her vulnerability, in the way his stare cradles her as well as his hand does, the way his promise of newness traps itself between his fingers and her skin. Eric doesn’t say a prayer. Instead, he tells her to think of all the things she wants to change. Right above her, he’s all she sees. Blue light illuminates his face, the water casting shiny ripples over his jaw and cheekbones. Somewhere off to the side, Bri must be kicking her feet. Renee’s become attuned to her every movement by now, and the way each one has its effect on her. Now, Bri’s current pushes and pulls her, an evocation of a slow dance. Holding a gasp in her lungs, Renee thinks everything in her life is exactly as it should be. She’s only underwater for a second, then her feet are under her and Eric's urging her into his arms. Blinking water from her vision, she finds that he looks young up close, all bright-eyed and smooth skinned, but his hands on her waist are strong. Experienced. Full-grown. "Feel good?" Renee nods, loose and tingling down to her toes. His answering smile lures her into the deep end after him and she chases his touch, an eager young girl again, fresh-faced and clean, too naïve for subtlety. She takes the hand he offers, his unhesitant reciprocation staving off the shyness and embarrassment that thrums underneath her excitement like bass through drywall. Eric ducks underwater, knees tucked to his chest, and pulls her with him, anchoring her with his arms around her hips. Renee keeps her eyes shut, listening to muffled swishing where his legs slide against hers, half intertwined. Seconds stretch on and she's light in his embrace, the solid plane of his chest forcing her still and lax. When they surface, he presses his lips to hers, careful and reckless at once, a calm cacophony of early manhood. From across the pool, Bri watches them, head tilted, mouth slack. Her stare glimmers under heavy eyelids, curious the same way a tentative tongue might lap at sugar cubes. She’s here too, rocking to the same soft rhythm of the waves they make, as Eric holds Renee with facile boldness and makes her new again, and again, and again.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Leandra Marshall (she/her) is a Black millennial from Southern California. Her work has been published in Maudlin House, OFIC Magazine, and Midnight & Indigo.