In a hotel in Washington, DC in the early 1990s, amongst a group of hormone-addled eighth graders on a school trip, there is a boy wishing he’d remembered to pack swim trunks.
It is April vacation, and back home in New England there is still snow, so he can’t be faulted for his oversight. But, fault or no fault, he can be bummed. Because all of the girls on his floor are running down the hall now, crowding into the elevator with their towels and heading for the pool. The guys he is sharing the room with, they’re going too. Everyone.
The smiling, laughing face it hurts the most to see: Meghan Silverman, with her chin-length mop of auburn curls and her gorgeous nose. His buddies have heard she is embarrassed by it, but it intoxicates him. Her profile, he thinks, is the most striking in their school. And he knows profiles, having learned the art of silhouette portraiture from his great aunt, once upon a time. His buddies tease that she’ll have a nose job some day, as soon she’s old enough to demand the money from her trust fund, but he hopes that they’re wrong about her just as hard as he hopes that he’ll one day have the muscles to kick their asses for the things they say.
As he stands in his doorway, watching them all go—including the boy and girl who will, years from now, recall this stolen trip to the pool at their wedding ceremony—as he stands there, a door opens across the way. It is Kamala, the Muslim girl. She smiles at him, says she is not going either.
“I could go,” she clarifies, wanting him to know that her religion—still strange in their suburb back home—does not forbid it. “I could go,” she says. “I just forgot to bring something appropriate to wear.”
Which makes him wonder, though he does not wonder it aloud, if she brought something inappropriate. He also wonders, before he shakes the thought out of his head, what that something inappropriate might look like. First, on a rack. Then, on her.
“Me, too,” he says. Then he leans back against the door and lets his body slide down it, until he is sitting on the floor.
She does the same, only without the sliding.
They talk about video games, how he is worse at them than his little sister. She says she is terrible at them too, runs Mario into Koopa Troopas with alarming regularity, but when she says it without looking at him in the eye, he suspects she is lying for his benefit.
Then they talk about The Simpsons, which he is surprised that she can watch. He tells her how his mom wasn’t allowed to watch The Three Stooges growing up and she laughs, saying, “Now, those guys. Them, I’m not allowed to watch.”
When talk turns back to the pool, he is thrown for a loop. “Who were you hoping to swim with?” she asks him.
He does not say Meghan’s name, feels that might be a betrayal of some kind. But he does not say Kamala’s name either, for fear that would be inappropriate, or that she’d guess he was just being polite.
“Me,” she says, “I like Carl.”
“The football player?” he says, a bit heartbroken. Every girl likes Carl.
“Sure,” she says, but again she doesn’t look at him.
Is she saying Carl because that’s what she thinks people expect to hear? Is she saying Carl’s name because she wants to say someone else’s name? Who else’s? He wonders.
“Do you think,” she says, “anyone would like to have gone swimming with me?”
He knows how he is supposed to answer. It’s how he thought of answering before. But somehow, in this most important of moments, no sound comes from his mouth.
“I suppose,” she says, “it’s just that I’m still new here.”
“I would have gone with you,” he says, too late. “I can’t believe I forgot to bring shorts.”
She smiles at him, this time looking him straight in the eye. “It was snowing when he left,” she says.
They sit in their doorways, talking, until the elevator dings down the hall and the crowd begins to file out of it. Then they stand up hastily, before they can be seen, before they can be teased, and they step back into their rooms.
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