The Sea

A seventeen-year-old finds herself in surprisingly deep water

My uncle was a boxer, and the brutality of the sport made me nervous around him. That, and he always greeted me the same way, by squeezing that part of my leg where thigh meets knee. And I mean squeezed—well past the point of a tickle, his laugh too loud. It hurt; how could he not know it hurt? Maybe he did. In any case, he taught me something: to smile instead of squirm, to pretend to like it, and he’d let me go sooner.

• • •

Sometime during my eighth-grade year, I was called out of class and told to go to the front office. My mother was there, in her work clothes. She was a county prosecutor in a traditional community, a job that made for wild dinner conversations and made her different from my friends’ mothers, who (if they worked outside the home at all) were teachers or secretaries—ladylike occupations. I was around my mom’s office enough to notice that the place was full of women: receptionists and secretaries for each of the seven attorneys (all men, but my mom, and then later one other female prosecutor). Those women took orders, but my mom was different because she made the demands. One night at dinner, she gleefully told us she’d been called a four-eyed bitch in court that day. Sometimes she was threatened. And her family, her children, were threatened. She didn’t share that at dinner, but my bedroom window faced the street at the front of the house, and there were nights when a patrol car stayed parked out front, keeping watch.

And now she was at my school, in the office, and so were the principal, the vice principal, and the school resource officer, the four of them looking ghoulish under the fluorescent light. This seemed like Big Trouble, but I was a good kid who liked school, already favored button-up shirts, and had hardly any friends, so what could I have done?

It wasn’t big trouble, just bad news. My mom explained very directly, as she does, what we were all doing there. She had just won a major verdict against my classmate’s father. The boy, Matthew, had testified in court and given crucial, damning evidence under her questioning.

The four adults had talked and decided I was not to be alone at school. If I was in the halls, the school resource officer would be too. If I was in the restroom, the officer would wait outside the door. I would be seen safely to and from my bus. I was not to tell anyone why the SRO was my shadow. And no, no one could tell me for how long this would go on.

Just being thirteen was mortifying enough, so to add this was taking mortification to a new depth. I could think of only one way to push back: shake the officer. And one day it happened, with the least possible effort. Mildly bored in class, I got a laminated yellow bathroom pass and happily found myself alone in the hall. I thought the officer would be looking for me, or somebody would be, but even after I’d been gone for ages—fifteen minutes at least—I was still alone, heady with freedom. The halls were empty and quiet, teachers’ voices muffled behind classroom doors. Then I turned a corner into another long, quiet hallway, and there was Matthew. He was alone, a pale boy dressed all in black, with a wallet chain on his sagging, enormous jeans.

Driven partly by drama, partly by empathy, I’d spent a lot of time thinking about this boy and what he could have seen that had damned his father. Throughout her career, my mother specialized in violent and sex crimes; the victims she helped were nearly always women and children. I imagined Matthew, at the very least, was witness to some kind of violence, and likely a victim of it too. I was cocooned in a world where battered women and children were a vague idea; I lacked details to give them any definition. I had wondered if Matthew was someone to fear. This was only a few years after Columbine, before school shootings became a routine horror, so I wasn’t worried he had plans like that. More just some non-specific violence acted out on me. But now, looking at him, I felt pity. I couldn’t have articulated it, but I sensed the injustice of the inequality of our lives.

We looked at each other and he nodded at me, and that night I told my mother that whatever she was worried about with him, she didn’t need to be anymore. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me.

• • •

For years, starting when I was around eight years old, three times a week, I walked in pink tights and leg warmers and with my sandy hair in a bun from my mom’s office downtown to my ballet classes. My teachers were a married couple, retired dancers with Ballet West who ran a small studio together. John taught the younger dancers, teaching the foundations, both mental and physical, before we advanced to pointe work with Janice. He’d shout at us all while we did floor work—leaps or complicated combinations—to control our breathing, that no one wanted to see us panting. We learned to economize, to breathe in at the beginning of a jump, to not show our ribs heaving.

John had a practice of quietly raging at us at the barre, hinging gracefully at the waist to be near my face while volleying questions at me, progressing from Who was the third president of the United States? to What are you even doing here? all while snapping his fingers to the music, literally never missing a beat. My job was to stay composed, to keep my eyes facing forward, head tilted just right to catch the light on my cheekbone, and to dance the exercise perfectly. He told me once that I was a better dancer when I was angry and that he did his best to fire me up. I was proud to be the only one of my classmates to have never cried in the studio. I could save it for the street.

John was always pressing, demanding more from my developing brain, my changing body. But there was tenderness too. I collapsed in class one afternoon from the pain of an ovarian cyst, and he scooped me up in his arms and out of the studio, as if carrying a teenage bride over the threshold.

Those humiliating and intoxicating lessons ushered me through the years of a changing body, honing my muscles and proprioception until I was lithe and sure.

• • •

The summer before our senior year of high school, my two best friends and I all turned seventeen. That summer, Lindy and Caitlin and I slept on cots in a field of alfalfa after watching a meteor shower in the clear Idaho sky. We skinny-dipped late at night in the town’s outdoor pool and again at the marina of the small lake that flowed into the Snake River. Mostly, we spent the warm summer nights in our cars, singing along to songs about being seventeen—ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” Winger’s “Seventeen,” the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” and my favorite, “Let’s Go” by the Cars. All these songs told us there was some kind of magic in the number, and we felt it. It wasn’t that we’d never gotten attention from boys; we had. It was that we’d never gotten attention from men. But now . . . now we were. It was a double take, a lingering glance, an obscene gesture from the man in the next lane at a red light. It was lunch at the Frosty Gator and the table of men who offered to pay our bill—if we gave them our phone numbers. It was newfound power—finally!—and I wanted to test it to see how far it would go.

• • •

And then summer ended, and we started our senior year. I’d dated the same boy for all of high school, but he was a year older and had left for college, and I felt free and grown and everything those songs say about being seventeen.

I did stats for the boys soccer team that fall. There was a new, young assistant soccer coach. Here’s what I don’t remember—did I volunteer to do stats only after I’d seen the new coach? Very possible. Or was I already committed when I first saw him? I can’t say for sure anymore, though I remember many other things in great detail. I am sure that I nicknamed him Adonis. That he was twenty-six years old. That he had dark, curly, shoulder-length hair, which, heaven help me, I remember being shiny. He went shirtless during practices, showing off his broad shoulders and slim waist—a hyper-fit man’s body made more glorious in contrast to the still-lanky boys he was coaching.

I talked Lindy and Caitlin into doing stats with me, and we admired the coach during games and practices. It seemed to me like he worked hard not to look our way, but that could have been wishful thinking. But soon enough, there was progress. He’d say goodbye to me after a game. Then there was some extended eye contact, an encouraging smile, and with a boldness reserved for the young, I told Caitlin and Lindy I was going to hook up with him—and that when I did, they were going to buy me a root beer float. The girls laughed, but I was serious.

 I was seventeen and—the songs told me—irresistible, and when I handed him my phone number and the stats after a game and threw a long smile over my shoulder as I walked away, I knew he’d be in touch.

• • •

The next Friday night, I sat in the driver’s seat of my silver 1994 Chevy Silverado behind the only big movie theater in our southeastern Idaho town of 50,000. My heart was beating fast and my stomach felt tight; I was deliciously aware of my body as I waited. This was the fall of 2005, and lots of adults had cell phones, though only a few of my high school friends did. I’d had mine for two years—it was a hand-me-down from my dad. I got his phone and phone number and occasionally still got calls from his past criminal defense clients.

The coach had a cell too, and he and I had been sending flirty text messages back and forth all week. (Laboriously, by today’s standards, though we didn’t know it then. This was two years before the first iPhone; we had to multi-tap the numbers of the phone’s keypad to spell each word.) It went unsaid, but he and I both knew we had to find a place to meet where no one would see us—somewhere public enough for me to feel safe, while still private. And so we’d agreed on this place at this time, and I was naive enough not to wonder what his expectations might be.

I hadn’t told Caitlin or Lindy what I’d done. They didn’t know I’d given him my phone number or that we’d been texting for days, or that I was now waiting to meet him. It was my first real secret.

When I saw him walking toward my truck through the dusk, hands in his pockets, I thrilled at what I’d done. It was as though I had conjured him. He sat on the passenger seat, I turned my truck off, and the headlights went dark. We chatted about nothing, shoulders angled toward each other, faces vague in the dim light, desire crackling between us until he moved across the bench seat and kissed me. His lips felt sharp and his tongue pointed like a dart and the door’s armrest was pressing into my back and my hand was in his hair and both his arms were around me, and as soon as it started I knew, desperately, that I did not want to be there.

Under the coach’s body and hands I felt like I might drown. How to stop this thing?

Jack, my oldest brother, was home from college for the weekend. Holding my phone behind the coach’s back, still kissing but with my eyes open, I tapped out an SOS to him. Something like, give me an excuse to get home now.

The weekend before, some friends had been at my house and ended up shooting each other with paintballs—each other, and my neighbors’ homes. One of those neighbors had called the police, and because this was a group of white boys in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, nothing more happened than the officer telling the boys to stop. So when Jack called and said the police were back, wanting to talk more about what had happened, it was a lie so good I half forgot there wouldn’t actually be a patrol car waiting in the driveway when I got home.

The coach kissed me hard once more before getting out of the truck. I smiled. He tried to make plans for when we could be together again. He asked me to tell my homecoming date I wouldn’t go anymore. I begged off. I drove home in silence, no music this time. I smoothed out my long, dyed-blonde hair and reapplied my Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker. I filled my chest with air—huge, deep breaths, controlled in just the way I’d been taught in ballet—and by the time I was home I was perfectly composed, projecting calm.

I had to pass Jack’s bedroom to get to my own. His door was open.

“Mackenzie.” He was holding a book. “You’re not stupid. Don’t do stupid things.” And that’s all that we ever said about it.

• • •

Lindy and Caitlin did buy me that root beer float, and I did tell them a version of what happened. Not this version, though—not the truth. I told them a breezy, flippant version, one where I was in control instead of being unmoored. I didn’t tell them I felt I’d made a narrow escape. I didn’t tell them I was reeling. Didn’t ask, What power did I have? I’d believed I had it all. But really, I only had enough to get him there; he could have made me stay. 

I thought of myself standing with Matthew in that hallway, two children acted upon. I’d thought that all I had to do was wait, and that with being grown—with the gifts of youth and the beauty that came with youth—came control, supremacy, not understanding that I was stepping from a pond into a sea.

Plunged into a sea of knowledge, I was choking on the realization that there was so much I didn’t know about being a woman, that it was all different than I had thought it would be. Through the waves I could see the vague shapes, distantly, of the challenges to come, the people who would try to take away my power. I’ll push against them, again, again, forever, kick my legs and come up for air.

About the Author

Mackenzie Branson

Mackenzie Branson is an editor at JuxtaProse and has a degree in English and creative writing. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband and four children.

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One thought on “The Sea

  1. Great narrative control.

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