| We didn't mean for things to get so far out of hand. And yet, Jill, Charlie, and I are proud of what happened, and what we did. That's a terrible way to begin a letter of apology, I know, but I won't say I'm sorry if it isn't true.
See, things sort of just...happened. Contrary to what the rumors say, my friends and I weren't looking for trouble, but hiding from it. Waiting for swim class to begin, Charlie and I had been standing by the towel rack, when Jill finally returned from the girls' locker room. She walked towards us, her face puckered into a scowl, her eyes overflowing with dread.
“I thought you guys changed,” she said.
“What's wrong with this?” I asked, tugging at the tattered sleeves of my favorite sweatshirt.
“I have no intention of going into the pool,” Charlie said. “So why bother putting on swim trunks?”
“Says the girl with a towel covering her bare shoulders,” I said.
“Shut up, Andrew. At least towels are supposed to get wet.”
But Charlie silenced us, and pointed towards the boys' locker room. Jordan strolled past us, filling our ears with the sticky slaps of his bare feet against the tile floor. Jordan Phillips, star of the school's soccer team, and the most popular guy in our grade. We stared at the ceiling, at the towel rack, at each other—we looked everywhere and at everything except Jordan himself.
“If you must know,” I said after he'd passed, “I'm only wearing this sweatshirt because I'm cold.”
“Yeah, me too.” Jill wrapped her arms protectively around her stout frame.
“And me, three.” Charlie said. He whistled, nervous and shrill, like a baby bird that has been startled by the meows of a persistent cat.
Resisting the urge to gnaw at my sweatshirt's sleeve, I watched as the other seventh graders trickled out of the locker rooms and into the school's indoor natatorium. Some of them waded into the shallow end of the pool, squealing at the stark contrast between the dense, humid air and the crisp, cold water. The popular kids stood near the bleachers, carrying their towels on their arms. Beads of sweat dripped down my back, but I refused to take my sweatshirt off.
It's been four years now since I moved here from Hawaii, but I'm still treated like an outsider by everyone. Everyone, except for Jill and Charlie. We had been in the same third grade class, and played together at recess. Our favorite game was Animal Kingdom: Each of us would pick an animal, and pretend to be a member of that species. Sometimes we hunted one another, running through the asphalt savannah, while at other times we were members of the same flock, soaring through the air as we leaped off the swing-set.
But as we go older, the other kids started to take notice. What kind of sixth grader howls like a monkey? What freaks! So we stopped playing Animal Kingdom. But the teasing had only just begun.
“Where's Coach Leslie?” Charlie asked. The three of us sat down on the floor, the ceramic tiles cold and damp even through our clothing.
“I'll betcha five dollars she's still in the hallway, flirting with the football coach,” Jill said.
“No thanks,” I said. “That's a bet I'll surely lose.”
“She's so—Guys, look,” Jill's voice dropped to a whisper, and she gestured towards the bleachers. “Trina totally stuffed her swimsuit!”
Trina Baker stood with her hands on her hips. She wore a pink, two-piece swimsuit, and the top piece was unnatural and bulky. Trina's chestnut hair hung past her shoulders in long, crunchy waves. Her lipstick was cotton-candy pink, and her eyelashes were long and stiff, like insect legs.
“I don't see why she bothers,” Charlie said. “Everybody knows she's got the flattest chest in the whole seventh grade.”
Just then, two of Trina's friends emerged from the locker room. They walked towards the bleachers, but hesitated when they realized we were blocking their path. Then they took wide, concerned steps around us.
“Watch out!” Jill shouted. “We might reach out and bite you! Sink our fangs into your flesh, and rip you to bits!”
“You animals!” one of them shrieked.
Charlie offered up his best imitation of a lion, and the two girls squealed and ran to the bleachers, where they were greeted by a chorus of giggles.
“Why is it always us, huh?” Jill asked. “Why are we the laughing stock of the whole school?”
“Well, we are a little strange,” I said. The entire group of bleacher girls crowded together like a herd of frightened antelope. They spoke in hushed whispers, and every so often one would glance over her shoulder to look at us. “You know, maybe Trina's got the right idea.”
“What?” Jill and Charlie stared at me like I was crazy.
“I mean, think about it. She does everything she can to stay on their good side, to blend into the rest of the pack.”
“But how!” Charlie said. “We don't know how!”
“And I'm not going to change who I am just to make those jerks like me,” Jill said.
I sighed, and listened to the gentle slaps of the water as it lapped up against the side of the pool. I thought of my mother, and of all the time she still spends staring out the window of our house, wishing that the prickly, New York grass could be ground into fine, Hawaiian sand.
“You know,” I said, “When I was little, my mom would sometimes let me swim nude, out in the ocean. When nobody else was around, of course.”
“Really?” Jill's eyes grew wide. “That's awesome!”
“Yeah, it was.” I closed my eyes, remembering the feel of the sand as it scratched my bare feet. Gentle ocean waves would wrap themselves around me, leaving behind thick dresses of seaweed that stuck to my arms and legs. “Things were easier back then.”
“Hey, I know! Let's go swim naked, right now!” Charlie said, reaching to pull off his tee-shirt.
“No! Don't!” we shouted. Charlie laughed, and convinced us he was only joking. But to strip away our clothes and dive into the pool, oblivious to everything, and everyone, around us—no, we didn't think it was that simple. It just couldn't be.
All seventh graders are required to take swimming. Last week was our first class, and I was very excited; I'd hardly swam at all since I'd left Hawaii. But my friends were not so enthusiastic. For Charlie and Jill had anticipated a new kind of teasing, something I had been to na´ve to consider: puberty. It raged through some of our bodies like a deadly plague, tormenting those who had been infected almost as badly as those who had not.
Charlie has hardly grown at all since elementary school. He still looks up at Jill and me, broadening his small shoulders and raising himself up onto the balls of his feet. Jill, meanwhile, had always been heavy, but now she has curves that swell up like rising dough around her hips and bust. My body is changing, too: my voice is now soft and strained, and my limbs have grown awkward and stocky. We are caught in that uncomfortable place between childhood and adolescence, and while the stuffing in Trina's swimsuit is proof we aren't the only ones who've felt this pressure, the three of us have been slow to adapt.
But not Jordan. Like a butterfly bursting from its cocoon, he has matured to near-perfection almost overnight. Tall and broad-shouldered, Jordan is one of the lucky ones, and uses this to his advantage.
On that first day, Trina and Jordan had stood with the other popular kids, whispering and giggling amongst one another.
“Hey guys! Guess who I am!” Trina scrunched her face into a scowl, and puffed out her cheeks. They laughed as if she had just told a funny joke.
“Aren't you going to say something?” I asked, turning to Jill.
“Screw 'em. It's not the first time she's called me fat.”
“It's still not right!” Charlie said, clenching his fists.
“I know,” Jill said, “But once we get into the water, the only thing they'll be talking about are Trina's tiny boobs.”
“Yeah, let's just focus on swimming,” I said. “Everything else should just fall into place.” I pulled my tee-shirt up and over my head, and tossed it onto the bench alongside my towel.
“Hey! Look!” Jordan shouted. He pointed right at us. No—he pointed right at me.
“What is it?” Trina asked.
“The Hawaiian kid's as hairy as a wild beast!”
“Why, he's like a wolf-man, or something!” Waves of laughter erupted through the group.
I bit my lip and stared down at my bare feet. I couldn't look either of my friends in the eye until the heat in my cheeks had cooled. Were the changes that had been ravaging through me really that noticeable?
When I looked up, Jill was shaking with rage. Charlie was whistling, but he was way out of tune.
“How dare they!” Jill growled. “I'll punch them right in the--”
“No,” I said. “That will will only prove how much they've upset us.”
“Well, talking to them certainly won't stop them! We gotta act! Do something!”
Before I could offer a rebuttal, Charlie began to jump up and down, and swing his arms wildly. He threw his mouth open as wide as it would go, and made loud, hyena-like noises.
“Charlie! What's the matter with you?” Jill asked.
“Oh my God,” Jordan said, his hands clasped over his mouth. “I think we upset the wildlife!” He put on a look of mock terror, but Trina and the others weren't laughing anymore. They were confused.
I nudged Jill in the arm, and she gave me a knowing smile. We joined in, creating so much noise that everyone in the natatorium stopped to look.
Then Jill bolted, and the three of us chased after the group like a pack of starving cheetahs in hot pursuit of our prey. Nobody heeded Coach Leslie's shrill, glass-shattering whistle until Trina slipped and fell into the pool. She resurfaced unharmed, but her face was red with fury. Her only consolation was that we were slammed with two days of detention (instead of swim class) for causing a disturbance, while she and the others were let off with a warning for breaking the “no running” rule. And yet, we laughed all the way to detention as we recalled the looks on their faces, as if our Animal Kingdom days had never truly ended. But we knew that, sooner or later, we would have go back, to face them once again.
It was only a matter of time before Jordan noticed us. He took wide, confident strides in our direction, while Trina and the rest of their group scuttled along behind him.
“Well, look who decided to show up,” Jordan said. “I'm surprised, given all the risk factors.”
“What risk factors?” Jill asked, bracing herself.
“You don't have to worry,” Trina said. “You'll float, after all.”
Jill bit her lip as the moist echos of their laughter bounced off of the walls. “At least I don't have to stuff the top half of my swimsuit.”
Trina's face flushed an angry red as they laughed, this time, at her expense.
“Charlie,” Jordan said, turning on his next victim, “where are your floaties? You're not big enough to swim without them!” Hurt, Charlie seemed to shrink even smaller.
“Leave him alone,” I said.
“Andrew! I'm surprised to see you here—Wait, never mind; the full moon isn't until next week.” This proved to be the best joke yet, as they literally howled with laughter.
I glanced over at Jill, who was exchanging conspiratorial looks with Charlie. If our scare tactics worked last time, then maybe--
But Jordan saw us, and intervened. “What are guys waiting for? Too chicken to get into the water?” He started flapping his arms, and clucking like a chicken. Catching on, Trina and the others joined in.
“Now what do we do? Charlie asked, though I could barely hear him over all of the clucking. “They stole our idea!”
“We've gotta do something!”
Pressing my fingers to my temples, I tried the block out the noise so that I could think. Getting into a fistfight wouldn't prove anything, and it would make us the instigators if we hit them first. But we couldn't just ignore them, either. We could run away. We could walk into the guidance office, and beg take the class over again in summer school.
I stared into the pool. Sunlight poured in from the windows, making the surface of the water glisten. I didn't want to run away. It wouldn't change anything. Why couldn't things be simple, like they used to be, back when I was little?
Well? Why couldn't they? What was stopping us?
“Hey Jordan!” I shouted. The clucking stopped. “Listen, it was nice chatting with you, but I didn't come here to socialize. I came here to swim!”
My heart thundered in my chest, and a hot, nervous feeling rushed over me like a bucket of hot water. I took off my sweatshirt in one fluid motion. Peals of laughter rippled through the dense, humid air.
“Oh my God! Look at you!”
“Andrew! What are you doing?” Jill asked.
That's when I threw my head back and howled like a coyote. Jordan chuckled, but the others watched in silence as I did the unthinkable: I pulled off my swim trunks and stood butt-naked before the whole class. Nobody moved. Nobody laughed, or even stifled one. Nobody dared to breathe.
Oh God, what had I just done? Everyone was staring at me like I really had transformed into a werewolf! But I stood my ground, and after the longest ten seconds of my life, my friends caught on.
Charlie striped so fast, as though his very life depended on it. Jill almost got stuck in her one piece, but her usual scowl was replaced by a wicked smile.
Jordan's eyes were so wide they threatened to pop out of his head, and Trina's mouth hung open as if she'd been struck in the jaw. Yes-- this was what I'd hoped would happen. Recovering at last, I let adrenaline take over and cannon balled into the pool.
The water was so cold it stung, and though lacking the grit of salt water, it was greasy, and had an artificial and salty taste. I sank down to the bottom, and thousands of tiny bubbles tickled my skin. The only sound to be heard was the water itself as it rushed all around me. Looking up, I saw Charlie and Jill had jumped in after me, and were already rising back up for air. I stayed under for as long as my lungs would allow, then let my body float to the surface.
The first thing I saw when I emerged was Coach Leslie staring down at me. Needless to say, her furious expression was a tell-tale sign that I should be wishing I'd drowned.
Our bare flesh had been covered with rough, scratchy towels, and streams of water slid down our legs, making big puddles on the tiled floor. We sat on the bottom row of the bleachers, while our classmates watched us with wide, scandalized eyes.
“Wait here,” Coach Leslie said, her voice as sharp as an angry wasp's sting. “I'm going to get someone to escort you three to the principal's.” She stormed out of the natatorium and into the hall.
After she was gone, a curious silence descended, save for the occasional splash of water dripping from some unidentifiable place. We couldn't stop grinning.
“See?” Charlie said, “I always knew our weirdness would come in handy for something!”
“Yeah, who would have thought that Andrew was such a badass!” Jill slapped me hard on the shoulder.
“You guys do realize we're screwed, right? They might kick us out of school for this.”
“God, I hope so!” Jill's voice rang out, loud and glorious as a lioness' roar.
“But won't there be new bullies at a new school?” Charlie asked.
“I don't think that's going to be a problem for us anymore,” I said.
“You animals!” Trina shouted. “You contaminated the pool! I refuse to swim at all until after this water has been disinfected. That was more of you weirdos than I ever wanted to see. Disgusting!”
A few kids gasped, while others snickered at Trina's words, but nobody dared voice their own opinion. Jordan, to my surprise, flashed me an approving smile and two thumbs up. Trina wore Jill's old scowl, and tapped her foot impatiently, as if waiting for one of us to say something. But we remained silent, wearing nothing save our towels and grins.
Then Charlie started to whistle, this time strong and triumphant. Recognizing the melody, Jill and I joined in, and together we filled the natatorium with music, like birds in the quiet, early hours of the morning.
“Stop it!” Trina shrieked. “Stop making that noise!”
But we didn't stop. We kept on whistling, even as we were ushered out of the natatorium. Why, I'm still whistling, even now, as I finish writing this so-called letter of apology.