Joint Custody

Chapter 3: MARZ

(from Joint Custody, © 2002-2024)

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

       You never hear about the pouring sun, do you. They sing songs and do weather warnings about the pouring rain, but they never tell you that sun can pour too. And boy, can it. Maybe you’d have to live in a place like Florida in the heat of summer to really understand it, the way you can feel sun pour on your skin just like water can.

       And right now the sun is now pouring down on all three of our heads, making us all sweat.

       It’s weird, too, since the sun went down a couple hours ago and it’s still throwing clumps of hotness on us. We told Mike’s mom we were going to the store for stuff to eat, which is usually cool with her since we do it all the time and it’s in walking distance. It’s a safe neighborhood, no danger unless you happen to be an animal trying to cross the road, and we’ve never done anything to make Mike’s parents not trust us. Not that they know of, anyway.

       But tonight my friends are in a weird mood. Maybe the heat is making us crazy, but they keep saying “I want to have an adventure!” and I feel that way too, especially since my other choice is sitting in Mike’s room pretending I care about which cards are most valuable in his collection. They’re both into this card game, Mike and Tony, and I don’t care about it but I don’t tell them so.

       I’m always like that. Sometimes I think I’m not even a real kid. I’m a follower. I have a lot of original ideas and stuff but when most other kids open their mouths and let them out, I just shut up and do what my friends do. Maybe if I would let my ideas out I’d have more friends, because the guys I hang out with aren’t all that popular at school, so of course I’m not either. Mostly the other kids just don’t pay attention to us but sometimes they think we’re immature. I wish I could say I don’t care, but I do. And I think they’d like me better if I just had the courage to let them know who I am. But I’m afraid I’m just stupid under all the quiet, so I let them believe what they want.

       Like now, I feel weird because I don’t have my backpack, but Tony told me to leave it at Mike’s and I just did. So this is, like, a part of my life that isn’t in Fritz’s book, because he can’t see me. This is all off the record. It feels kind of wrong, but kind of weirdly grown-up, too, independent. I feel adult wandering through the streets with my friends when no parents know what we’re doing, and I wonder where this is going to lead.

       We end up in the forest between Mike’s neighborhood and the one I lived in before my parents split up. I almost get sick watching Mike chase a beetle and step on it, but I try not to show that I care. I hate that I’m so weak I can’t even speak up for that bug’s life, and now it’s over. I start wishing the “adventure” would be finished, wanting to go back to Mike’s, or to my dad’s house, wherever.

       Mosquitoes start biting us so we try to get out of the forest quickly. But the heat makes us too hot to run at full speed, and once we manage to clear the trees we’re all sweaty. Tony announces that the answer would be to go swimming.

       “Where’re we gonna go swimming, you idiot?” Mike asks. Tony answers by throwing a dirt clod at him.

       “One of these neighborhoods has a community pool. We could just hop the fence and jump in.”

       “What if it’s closed?” I pipe up.

       “Of course it’ll be closed, moron,” says Tony. “It’s after dark. But who cares? You wanna go swimming don’cha?”

       I don’t really wanna swim, but I do want to not be hot anymore. I just nod to him. “If someone catches us we could get in trouble, though,” I say.

       “Yeah, right,” Tony scoffs. “If anyone gives us crap for it, we’ll just say ‘sorry, our friend Bay’s a moron who can’t read the closed sign.’”

       “We’ll forgive you if you can’t read,” teases Mike, joining in.

       “Shut up!” I say, feeling resentful that they’re ganging up on me. Great, now I look like a goody-goody. “If you guys are so smart,” I keep going after I thought for a minute, “what clothes are we supposed to swim in, huh?”

       “Just your pants, duh.”

       “And when we come home all soaked, we just tell your parents ‘Uh, we went to the store and we somehow got wet’?”

       “Stop being such a worrywart, Bay,” Tony says.

       “I bet you’re just scared of swimming in the dark. Woooo, watch out for the water ghosts, they’re coming to get you!” Mike jumps at me and pinches my shoulder, and I shove him back because I don’t want to look like a pushover. Tony gets between us like he really thinks we’re going to fight to the death.

       “Easy, guys.” Yeah, he’s the peacemaker, like in the movies. Now I want to hit him too. But I just relax my fist and rub my hair, embarrassed about wanting to hit him and about not going through with it at the same time.

       Tony makes a follow-me motion and we just shut up and do what we’re told. I miss the weight of my backpack as we walk, and I’m thinking about that and worrying when we somehow turn the corner and there she is.

       Oh yeah, this is Marz’s neighborhood since it’s my old one. I guess she never moved all that time. What’s she doing out by herself after dark? Three guys, even though we’re kids, I can understand. One girl alone? I feel a kind of weird wish to protect her, even if that’s stupid because there’s no bad guys hiding around here, and besides, what could I do if there was?

       Mike’s the first to talk to her. He walks right up to her like they’re friends. What if they are, and I never knew? And why would I care?

       “Hey, where’d your camera go, snapshot girl?” he asks.

       She just looks at him and rolls her eyes.

       “Come on, I asked you a question,” he goes on, moving his hand in a little circle like that will make her talk.

       “Why do you care where my camera is?” she says with attitude. Her voice is neat. I realize now that I can’t really remember hearing it that much, because I didn’t know it would sound like that. Light and snappy. I wonder what other people think my voice sounds like.

       “Well you seemed to be pretty attached to it when you were taking pictures of your lover-boy over there,” Mike says, and I’m glad it’s dark because I can feel that my face is trying to suck up all the blood in my body. But she’s just laughing, standing under the streetlight. Then she starts talking.

       “Well how ’bout you, roadkill boy? Where’s that shovel you love so much? Did your mom like the armadillo pie you made her? I bet she did.”

       Mike gets that narrow-eye look. He’s pretty mad. “What’re you doing out here all by yourself, huh Marz?”

       “Looking for a rock.”

       Neither of my friends seem to know what to say to that. But for some reason I think what she said is really funny. If it was me looking for a rock and some bunch of guys were ganging up on me, I’d probably make a lame excuse or just say “nothin’.” But Marz is actually looking for a rock, I guess, because now she’s turning away from us and walking along the road, looking at the ground. And at that moment I know I really, really don’t want her to walk away.

       So I do something sort of brave. I catch up to her, not caring what my friends think.

       “What kinda rock are you looking for?” I ask her, and she looks up, really looking at me for once.

       “I’ll know it when I see it.”

       I want to ask her what she wants the rock for, but then I think that’d be nosy. So I decide to talk about something else and I end up just saying the first stupid thing that comes in my head.

       “Your sister baby-sat me last weekend.”

       She doesn’t look surprised. “She told me.”

       Now my friends are following us, and they hear my dumb remark about baby-sitting.

       “Your mom gets you a baby-sitter, Bay?” Tony says.

       And I don’t know where the words I say to him came from. Maybe I caught it from Marz when she had an attitude with Mike before, because I actually say something with some fire in it.

       “At least she trusts me enough to even leave the house.”

       That shuts Tony up. His mom thinks he’s a monster and won’t let him do anything without adult supervision. If she knew we were wandering around the neighborhood, she’d kill him.

       “Yeah, get over it,” Marz says, and then she just starts walking again, so I keep up, I can’t make the silly grin get off my face. “Nillie said you were really cool,” Marz says, “and smart too. She told me about your rabbit.”

       “Yeah, we played with him for a while,” I say, thinking I’m lame because she must know that. But she doesn’t seem to care.

       So Mike decides to screw things up. He kicks a stone at me and it hits me in the calf. “Hey, I think I found a good one for you, Marz!” he yells.

       I’m busy rubbing my leg, but I pay very close attention to what Marz does next because I want Fritz to get it in my biography. She just turns around and acts really calm, bends down, and picks up the rock. After looking at it, she smiles and puts it in her pocket.

       “Hey, thanks, Mike. That one’s perfect.”

       Tony and Mike totally bust up laughing. “She got a new pet!” Mike is saying. “She’s gonna feed it and give it water. . . . ”

       “Don’t forget to walk it or it might crap gravel in your bed!” says Tony in between all his stupid laughter.

       Marz rolls her eyes again, and tosses her hair. “You guys are really immature,” she says, and then looks at me. “Bay, you should really teach your friends to grow up.”

       “I might need lots of help there.” Uh-oh, now I’ve said something I kind of wish I didn’t. My friends are starting to look mad that I’m teaming up against them and their side isn’t “winning.”

       “Let’s just go already,” Mike yells. “You coming swimming with us, Bay, or you want to just stay with your girlfriend?”

       Actually I’d really rather hang out with Marz, even if she isn’t my girlfriend. I’d just like to know who she is, especially since just the little things I know about her I like a lot. I start wondering why I’m even friends with those guys if all they do is fight and act like dweebs. But I can’t say that. And plus I’m really hot now and the water will feel good. I get a brainstorm.

       “We’re all gonna go swimming,” I tell Marz, loud enough so I can be sure the guys hear me. “You wanna go with us?”

       “I’d love to,” she says immediately, and now that’s settled. My friends are like cartoon characters with the same dumb expression on their faces, but Marz and I pretend not to notice. “I’ll just go grab my suit, wait for me here.” And off she runs, like something totally normal has happened.

       Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, but now I’m excited. Marz wants to spend time with us. Maybe she’s just bored, I mean the girl was looking for rocks, maybe she doesn’t have anything better to do. But at least that means she doesn’t hate us. So I guess now I have to pretend not to know that my friends are really confused about me inviting her.

       “What do you think she looks like in a bathing suit?” Tony says, breaking the silence. I try to give him my “disgusted look,” which is where I try to put as much annoyance on my face as my dad can.

        “She’ll look like a girl in a bathing suit, stupid. Maybe she can tell us where the pool is so we don’t have to keep wandering around.” They never had a pool back when I was a neighborhood resident here.

       “Maybe we should hide,” Mike says, “and we could watch her house and see what happens when she comes out and nobody’s there.”

       “Mike, Marz was right when she said you need to grow up,” Tony says, surprising me. “This could be cool, let’s just wait and see if she’s any fun.”

       “That’s fine with me,” Mike says quickly, I guess not wanting to be the odd one out. We walk over to her house, with Mike kicking rocks on the way. Tony teases that Marz would be mad that he’s kicking her pets. I really do wonder what she wants with that rock.

       I have a weird wish to walk two streets over from here and see my old house. Of course there’s not enough time to do that, plus I’d have to explain it to my friends in a way that doesn’t sound dumb. They wouldn’t go for it. Then again I thought they wouldn’t go for swimming with Marz either. I’m glad I said it and made them go along with it. Maybe some other time I can see what they’d think about walking over there.

       Marz comes out of her house wearing flip-flops and some kind of beach cover-up, even holding a towel. She knows how to get prepared. I know I’m going to feel stupid just throwing off my shirt and jumping into the pool in my jean shorts. She shouts to us like we’re her old friends—“Hey, I’m ready!”—and we just all start walking. She walks next to me. I wonder if she thinks we’re friends? It’s weird that I know of her so much but I don’t really know her.

       We find this private pool and have no trouble climbing over the fence since the gate is locked. Marz doesn’t even seem to have a problem with us doing this, like she is used to breaking rules. I suddenly think about how Mike said he’d blame me for not being able to read if we got caught. Marz actually can’t read, if her sister was telling the truth that night. I hope they don’t say anything dumb to her. Her towel has words about a tourist place on it. I wonder if she knows what it says.

       She just takes off her cover-up and jumps right in off the side while the three of us are still picking at our clothes and shoes. I noticed while she was on the edge that her bathing suit is really girly, pink with little ruffles around the bottom. She must like pink. It matches her scooter too. Now she’s paddling around and saying the water’s great, telling us to hurry up. I’m the next one in but Tony is making a big show of taking off his shorts. I’m about to throw up because what if he thinks he’s gonna swim in his underwear, but at least he’s wearing boxers under there instead of regular underwear. I would have been really embarrassed.

       Usually with a bunch of guys in a pool there’s dunking and spitting and splashing. But now with Marz in with us we’re not really sure what to do. So I feel really relieved when Mike wants to play Marco Polo and everybody agrees. But then I’m stupid and say “not it” last while I’m busy running my brain around in circles. I hate being “it.”

       Right before I go to a corner to count, Mike comes up and grabs my shoulder, and leans to whisper in my ear.

       “Hey, I dare you to grab her butt.”

       “What?” I’m not even sure I heard him right.

       “When we start, just go after her, and then instead of just tagging her like normal you grab her butt. And say it was an accident.”

       “Yeah, an accident, like the day you got born,” I say, and he gives me a dirty look. I splash him in the face really roughly, and even though he does it back it looks like he got the message. I’m not going to grab Marz’s butt! Besides, he probably just doesn’t want me to go after him.

       After I finish counting and yell “Marco!” I crack my eyelids a little. I always peek when I play this game. I know it’s dishonest but I also am too scared to just never catch anyone and wander around the pool being “it” forever.

       All the answering “Polo!” shouts are loud, which means none of them are scared of me getting them yet. Tony climbs up the ladder and onto the side of the pool, just keeping one hand in as he crawls along. That’s the rules—you can get out of the pool if you want but if the person who’s “it” yells “fish out of water!” when you’re not touching any water, you lose. So he’s safe if he keeps his hand there. I’ll have to watch him.

       Meanwhile, Marz is the closest. I holler “Marco!” again and everyone answers. I start to move toward her, and Mike gets out of my way while Tony keeps up his wussy technique.

       I holler a few more times and make pretend lunges, and then I really start closing in on Marz. She’s moving really quietly. I totally wouldn’t be able to tell she’s there except that I’m peeking. I jump at her when she’s close enough, but somehow she’s fast and she gets out of the way. Now she’s behind me without having made a peep. How’d she even do that?

       I don’t know, it’s like some demon has come up in my body. I turn around, pretending to hear her slight splashes, and just reach under the water until my hand closes around something it shouldn’t. Some of her bathing suit’s ruffle has gotten in the way, but mostly I’m standing there pinching Marz’s butt, just like Mike dared me to.

       So then she’s shrieking and hitting me with a wet slap on my cheek. Oh god, I got smacked for being fresh just like those creepy guys in the movies! I’m the biggest idiot ever. She’s kicking up a froth in the water trying to get away from me while calling me a jerk. And of course my “buddies” are laughing hysterically.

       Marz is already halfway over the fence before I come back to life again. I end up shooting up the ladder and over the fence before I even think about what I’m going to say to her; if this is going to be like the movies, at least I could stupidly run after the girl after I put myself in the doghouse. But I don’t feel like I’m playing a role, really. I feel like I just did something really, really stupid and I want to apologize.

       When I catch up to her I snatch at her wrist, and I open up with “I’m sorry.” She slows down and glares at me, not trusting me, so I come out with more words: “I didn’t really mean to, I wasn’t trying to grab there, I was just playing the game and . . . uh. . . . ”

       She gives me this big disgusted sigh. “I never thought you’d do it, but then you lie about it too?”

       My mouth kind of gets this dry feeling. “What are you talking about?”

       “You have a dog, right, Bay?”

       “Yeah . . . I have my dog Piper . . . why are you asking me?”

       “They kind of have these ears that prick up when they hear their name. They just know you’re talking about them. Well, maybe I’m part dog or something, right?”

       I shake my head back and forth. “I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”

       “I have really good ears. I can always hear stuff other people don’t. Especially if they’re talking about me. I heard your stupid friend when he said grab my butt. Why would you even do it after you seemed so mad about it at first?”

       “I . . . I . . . I. . . . ” I have no idea what part of that to tackle first.

       “You, you, you,” she says, mocking me. “All I can say is you grab my butt ever again and you will be in very serious trouble.” Very serious trouble, sounds like something a mom would say. Hers probably does.

       So I just watch Marz walk away from me, storming in her little pink flip-flops and beach towel. She doesn’t have to worry. I’m not planning on grabbing her butt, or her shoulder or her wrist or even her attention, ever again. I really am a jerk. I deserved to get hit, and I’m just beginning to notice that it really hurts. I spit on the ground and go back to my friends.

       “You made her get mad at me,” I say, standing on the side of the pool.

       “Don’t look at me, dude, you’re the one who grabbed,” Mike says, holding his hands up in this really fake peace gesture.

       “Shut up, it’s your fault,” I yell. “Now she’ll probably never talk to me again!” I can’t even begin to explain how this feels. Marz takes pictures of me for half my life, and then when I finally get to talk to her I can’t even last a night without sending her away practically hysterical.

       “Ooh, they had a lovers’ quarrel,” Mike says in this stupid cooing voice.

       “You gonna file for divorce?” Tony adds.

       That word, divorce, makes me feel like someone stuck a fork in my stomach and started twisting it. I spit in the pool’s chlorinated water, glaring at them.

       “I’m not listening to any of your dares ever again,” I say. “I don’t even know why I did that, it’s like something made me do it.”

       “You got possessed by the butt-grabber phantom,” suggests Mike. “So you want to keep playing Marco Polo? Not as much fun with just three, but it’ll work.”

       “Long as I’m not ‘it,’” I say, giving in. If I could, I would just stomp away from them and be mad for a while, but since I’m sleeping at Mike’s house tonight I can’t exactly pretend I’m going back to Dad’s. That’s across town.

       As I get in the pool I pass something I hadn’t noticed before. Marz remembered to take her shoes and her towel, but not her beach cover-up. It’s still lying by the pool near our shirts and shoes.

       Now at least I have an excuse for coming to her house again.

<—— Back to the previous excerpt × Back to the Joint Custody main page ——>
×Send your comment on this excerpt×