Julie had a little girl’s voice, large brown eyes that didn’t smile, and straight black hair down her back. I hadn’t seen her at the candy store before.
I said, “I’m Anthony,” and offered to buy her an egg cream.
We grabbed green vinyl, chrome-stemmed stools at the white marble counter.
She said, “I love your beard.”
I was a junior at Saint Francis, and high school had just finished for the summer. I started my Serpico look the last week of class, and Brother Liam, who looked like a sumo wrestler with black, horn rimmed glasses, spotted me in the hall and gave me a slap and detention for facial hair the last day of school.
We sipped our sodas, and Julie brought up the beach. She said, “I swim far out.” She looked down and stirred her drink with a straw. “It’s so peaceful. I could just float away.”
I said, “I like to ride the waves.”
We agreed we’d go to Rockaway the next day.
* * *
Julie’s brother, Vito, was fat, in his mid-twenties, had a black goat-tee and wore a blue Banlon shirt with a fiber snag stuck out at the shoulder. While I waited for Julie in the kitchen, Vito bragged about his latest efforts at theft, some stereos, and tried to sell me a turntable. The moment Julie walked in, I couldn’t hear Vito. She had on a dark blue bikini top, with tiny white polka dots and a red border, and jeans shorts. I could see the outline of Julie’s raised nipples through the material. I swallowed.
On the train, I asked why Julie moved from Brooklyn.
She looked out the window. “My father made us leave.” Julie ran her finger along the aluminum frame. “The principal sent me to the school psychologist. She wanted to have my father come to school for an interview, but he got mad when I brought the note home. We were in the kitchen, and he started throwing things, saying ‘who the hell does she think she is?’ My mom sat frozen, and I buried my face in my hands. Then he said we were moving.” Julie looked at me. “I don’t go to counselors anymore.”
“Wow, what did you tell her?”
She shrugged her shoulder.
“I need to get out of my house,” she said. “My father said he’ll kill me first, but if I get a clerical job in Manhattan, I’ll have money for a small apartment somewhere in the city where he can’t find me.”
I thought of the picture of Julie’s fat father I saw in her house and clenched my fists.
* * *
We got off at Beach 44th Street. The sun was a burning disk hung on an azure canvass. We spread our blanket where the sand was packed dark brown from high tide and cool on our feet. The rush of briny swells rumbled forward like thunder in a foamy crescendo that faded and repeated. The air carried the scent of boardwalk, baked knish and coconut sunscreen. Julie and I put a mixture of baby oil and iodine on each other’s back. I took my time with her, and when it was her turn, I laid face down with my forehead on my arms. I focused on the massage of her hands. I’d never done it with a girl. The sight of Julie in a bikini, her scent and the touch of her hands triggered images. The warnings of my parents and Saint Francis Brothers about getting a girl pregnant fought for a space in my head. Overhead, seagulls squawked in derision of my dilemma.
* * *
Julie and I went steady after that. You know, movies, the beach, hanging out at the candy store or on a stoop. We’d cuddle and listen to the transistor radio for hours. Her lips were soft to kiss. But she was slow to smile. When we weren’t together, Julie was all I thought about.
My parents had a wedding and evening reception to attend, and my pulse raced. I suggested to Julie that we listen to records at my house. We had a floor lamp near the living room window on a timer that had snapped on before we arrived. I didn’t turn on any other lights. I led Julie to sit on the couch while I went to turn on the stereo and get us something to drink. When I put on The Chicago Transit Authority, “Beginnings,” my hand trembled and the turntable arm slipped and scratched the record. I lowered the volume so that if I didn’t see my parents’ car lights, I’d hear the garage door open. My hand trembled when I poured a couple of Cokes in the kitchen and put them on coasters on the cocktail table. Julie showed no emotion when I put my arms around her and started to make out. She didn’t resist when I cupped her breast and then unbuttoned her top. I unclipped her bra with one hand and caressed her neck and breasts. I unzipped her jeans and pulled them down but didn’t think to take off her sneakers until they snagged the pants’ legs. I ran my hand up her thighs and then under the silky fabric of her panties, and slipped them down her legs. My heart pounded. I stood from the couch, unbuckled my belt and nearly fell over when I took off my jeans and BVDs. I lifted Julie’s legs, folded at the knees, but I was as limp as a spaghetti noodle. Sweat raised on my forehead and back. I tugged, no success. Julie’s face was expressionless. Finally, I sat back on the couch. Julie didn’t say a word. Red-cheeked, I got dressed, went into the bathroom and splashed water on my face. I wanted to cry and scream at the same time. After a bit I went back into the living room. Julie was dressed and sipped her Coke. I said we should go, and we walked the eight blocks to her house in silence.
* * *
I hid out at home and didn’t call Julie. I figured she mentioned my failure to a girlfriend, and now everyone knew. The image of teasing kids repeated in my head like cawing ravens, and my gut sickened. But a buddy called and said nothing. I took a breath without angst in my belly. Julie’s face came to mind, and I smiled. She had my feelings in her hands, and she didn’t crush them. Was that love?
I raced to Julie’s house. Vito came to the door and told me that she was in a psychiatric clinic for depression. My heart deflated like it had been stuck with a needle.
Later that week, I ran into an ex-girlfriend, Chickie, short, curly dark hair and heavy eye make-up. She’d heard that Julie underwent electro-shock treatment.
Chickie said. “Won’t that scramble her brain?”
I had to walk away.
* * *
Summer vacation was almost over, and I started to feel the dread of a return to Saint Francis. I was on Liberty Avenue and I saw Julie, alone; she’d just come out of the Woolworths. My spirits leapt. The elevated train rumbled overhead, so she couldn’t hear my shout. I dodged traffic and ran across the street and stood in her path with a stupid smile on my face. She stopped short but without a hint of recognition. She looked happy, pretty. I lifted my arms to hug her, but her face became alarmed, and she took a step back, so I stopped.
“Julie,” I said, “Don’t you recognize me?”
She said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve had a little trouble remembering things lately. It’s not your fault, just me. Where did I know you from?”
I looked into her eyes. I said, “Don’t apologize. We know each other from around the neighborhood. You’re feeling better?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you. I’m sorry I need to get home. I hope to see you around, but don’t get angry if I don’t remember again.”
“I won’t. Don’t worry. See you.”
I watched Julie as she’d walked down the street and around the corner. She didn’t turn around.