The summer I’m 17, I spend my days sipping sweet iced coffee, tanning in the driveway, and flirting with boys I don’t like all that much over text. Then, when the sunset sucks the humidity from the air, I stroll the neighborhood with my friends. Some nights we walk to the ice cream shop and pay in quarters for our cones—vanilla soft-serve with sprinkles, birthday cake, mint chocolate chip. Other nights, my friends sneak blunts from their boyfriends and practice how to blow smoke rings at the 46 School playground. I don’t usually smoke with them, but I, too, consider what I do to be practice: trying to appear cool and carefree; trying to embody the untouchable, reckless confidence only 17-year-old girls possess.
I’m not very good. I worry too much and poorly hide it. I bite my hangnails, pick at the zits on my chin, strap into polka-dotted push-up bras and blush when boys stare, as if this isn’t exactly what I wanted when I pulled my shirt so low. I’ve never kissed a boy, but I’m curious, so I kiss my friends instead. It’s just practice, we say. At sleepovers, we play spin the bottle with empty cans of Arizona Iced Tea, our nervous fingers denting the aluminum.
All summer, I’ve been letting a boy named Nick sext me at night, while I watch Full House reruns. Nick is a friend of a friend, super annoying, but he thinks I’m pretty and I don’t have anything better to do. I want to kiss you, he says, and Wanna send a pic of ur boobs?
I consider it briefly before writing back: I have a flip phone.
Despite my tremendous disinterest, Nick is persistent. One night he promises to buy me a pack of rubber bands shaped like dinosaurs if I give him a hand job. He says: You know, like an exchange. LOL 😉
I’m on a hot streak in Tetris when he texts, so I don’t message him back until I lose 40 minutes later.
Oh, I say. Hmm.
I don’t want to give him a hand job, but I like making him think I might. He handles the rejection as gracefully as a sixteen-year-old boy can—LOL ok—but this discussion triggers a small lick of panic to grow inside me. Someday, I will touch a penis, and it could very well be Nick’s. I’m not ready to touch a penis. I’m still not positive what one looks like.
I slowly stop answering Nick’s texts. He asks, What happened? I delete his number instead of texting back. But I miss him immediately, or I think I do. I liked his attention more than I ever liked him. Competing thoughts torment me—look at me, look away. My body vibrates with anxiety.
While I lather my skin in sunscreen and waste away my summer, Mom works overtime. From June into July, and to this hot, muggy August, the scene stays the same: Mom returns home and discovers I forgot to complete the list of chores she left me on the kitchen table. Empty dishwasher. Water flowers. Apply for jobs. It infuriates her. She embodies her anger by loudly doing my chores herself.
“You need a job,” she says, overflowing the watering can.
I stand beside her, arms crossed and barefoot. The pavement stings my feet. “I know,” I say. “I’m trying.”
I’m not really trying. I’ve applied everywhere I can within walking distance, since I failed my road test. Twice. But I am inexperienced and unqualified and, frankly, a little lazy. I like my routine: staying up late, sleeping later, watching The Price Is Right while I eat breakfast. My life is simple and uncomplicated. My proximity to boys, weed, and crushed cans of Four Loko gives the illusion that I’m independent and effortless and so mature, but I lack any real responsibility.
I’m just like the song: not a girl, not yet a woman.
The following fall I finally find a job. Mom’s friend Jody knows the owner of Captain Jim’s Fish Market and says he’s looking for a new counter girl. The restaurant is a three-minute walk from my house, and Jody tells me I’ll make great tips. She also advises that I wear supportive sneakers and only my rattiest T-shirts, since I’ll smell deep-fried.
It’s not a hard job. I stand behind a sticky counter and answer the phone, “Hi, Captain Jim’s,” so often that I begin to answer my cell the same way. I ring up customers at the cash register and press the wrong button and make the machine bleat. I swipe dust from the stiff scuba suit nailed to the wood-paneled walls. And I’m never tempted to eat on my shift, since I hate seafood. It’s a texture thing—the rubber bounce of shrimp, the gumminess of scallops, the slimy grit of shucked oysters.
Mostly, I endure my shifts by smiling at the middle-aged men who flirt with me so that they might drop a tip in my fishbowl. These customers say how lucky my boyfriend must be to have snagged a gal like me. They ask my age, and when I say 17 their eyes seem only to glow a little brighter. One man lowers his voice and says, “Barely legal,” grinning at me.
I correct him in my head: Not-yet-legal. That distinction seems important.
Sometimes my customers try to school me on fish facts.
Like this one guy, Freddie. Freddie pretends he’s a regular, entering loudly and winking at my boss’s mother, who silently scoops macaroni salad into a Styrofoam container. “You must be new,” he says as I jot down his fish fry order. I’m not new; I’ve been here three months now.
“Uh huh,” I say.
Freddie taps my arm and says, “Used to vacation in Maryland, you know. Went crabbing every morning. Ever heard about crabbing in Maryland?”
“Maybe,” I say. “Was your order for here or to go?”
“We caught the biggest king crabs you’ve ever seen. You know about them? Maryland king crabs? Probably not, a pretty girl like you…”
“Hmm, right,” I say. “Fries and coleslaw okay with that?”
“When you get home take a look at those king crabs. Search ‘em on the web. Imagine me catching them.” Freddie dips closer and drums his rough fingers on my wrist. The gesture feels profoundly intimate. Tiny drops of his spit wet the tacky blue counter. “I could tell you all about it sometime. Huge king crabs.”
Freddie’s wrong. I’m a fast learner, even here at Captain Jim’s Fish Market. King crabs—massive things with sharp, pointed claws—are caught in Alaskan waters. We keep an extra box of king crab legs and claws in the industrial freezer. Whenever I weigh a claw ($24.99 a pound) I stab myself and draw blood. It’s the blue crab that’s native to Maryland. The thing is even the state crustacean, a fact so stupid of course I know it’s true. I’ve never eaten a blue crab, but I do know when you boil them, the hot water shocks their shells bright red.
I don’t tell Freddie this. I am mastering a new kind of performance: feigned interest, pretend pleasantness. I’m practicing how to be polite and laugh at unfunny jokes, how to let men think they’re smarter than me. I’m learning that sometimes men will touch me when I won’t want them to, but I’ll let them do it, anyway. You know, like an exchange.
So I smile at Freddie and say, “Cash or card?”
After he leaves, I dump my fishbowl on the counter and tally the tip he left me: two quarters and four dimes; six nickels; a penny.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Laurence Anderson