“Stop slouching like that, Katherine. There’s no man I’ve ever met who married a girl with poor posture.”
My grandmother, beside me at the table, ran her gnarled finger up my spine as though just her touch could straighten it. It was summertime, and my family was a group of sardines in a too-big dining-room tin, sat together to eat dinner. The thermometer by the window read thirty degrees, and I wished I was in bed with the standing fan pointed straight at me. It was hot enough that I wanted to be naked all the time, and I resented the fact that I was thirteen—too old to take off my pants in the middle of the living room. I also resented my grandmother’s insistence that I sit up straight. I disregarded her threats that no man would ever love me if I continued to slouch, and made a point of showing how little I cared. I ate my white chicken breast in silence and sunk in my chair even lower than before.
My family spent our summers at the cottage. It was an old building, painted burgundy, and it was bigger than any other on the lake, but didn’t have to be. My father was my grandparents’ only child, and I was his only child, so it was just my parents, my grandmother and I who came to stay in the summer. My grandfather had passed away a couple of years beforehand.
But my family was social and we often hosted barbecues and campfires for the other cottagers. We owned a weak little motorboat, and for every event my father would bring me along as he went around the lake, door to door, inviting our friends to whatever we’d decided to host. This weekend, the first event of the season, we’d be shooting fireworks off of our little dock.
One cottage was always empty when we passed by it in the boat. It was wild-looking, with long grass and deep green ivy crawling up its white walls, and a dock at its shore with soft, faded wood. My dad would never let me get out and explore the vacancy. But on this run, inviting people to our Saturday night firework show, there was a woman planted on the now-manicured lawn in a red Muskoka chair, a shiny magazine in front of her.
“Hello!” My father slowed the boat down and waved with one hand.
“Hello, who’s this?” The woman looked at us from under her sunglasses. Then she shouted in the direction of the cottage: “Marley, sweetie, come down and say hi! We’ve got visitors.”
As my dad introduced himself to the woman, a girl about my age had come out the front door and was running down to greet us at the dock. She had straight dark hair in a ponytail and wore a long dress with blue flowers on it. I suddenly felt inadequate in shorts and a faded button-down. I sat up in the boat, and watched her—Marley—as she went beside her mother. She stood with one knee bent and the other straight, which made her ponytail sway to the side, and I watched it like a pendulum. I was hypnotized. The exchange of words between the adults went directly over my head.
My father tapped me on the shoulder and raised his eyebrows at me. I’d forgotten to introduce myself.
“I’m Katherine. Kate for short,” I recited.
The woman smiled down at me. “I’m Miss Vamos, with no short form, and this is my daughter Marley.”
Marley didn’t say anything, but took a step forward and stuck out her hand. I reached up and shook it, and hoped she couldn’t feel the strength of my pulse through my palm. Something about the formality of the handshake made me feel like we already knew each other, as if this was an inside joke of ours. She’d looked right into my eyes and now she knew everything about me, or at least I knew that if she asked, I would tell her. I was still in a haze as my dad said goodbye and our boat pulled away from the dock, and I stayed that way for the rest of the day. I ate quietly and slouched at dinner that night, which wasn’t out of the ordinary, so I got away with it. As my family chatted over ice cream sandwiches afterwards, I stared off into space and thought about how Marley’s feet had been bare. She must have been fearless, so unafraid of splinters and sap sticking to her toes.
That night, the summer heat continued, and I slept with my blankets kicked to the bottom of the bed. The window was open and night air blew onto my skin, which cooled me down in combination with my sticky sweat. The haze had stayed with me. It was like everything in my brain had reached out and noticed Marley, showed her to me, and as those figurative pointed fingers wiggled at her they were trying to say something. I didn’t know what it was, yet. I just knew I wouldn’t stop thinking about her until I saw her again.
The next day, I obsessively anticipated the firework show, when Marley would come over. I didn’t have a watch, and the only wall clock in the cottage was in the kitchen, so I spent half my day pretending to be interested in cooking so that I could mentally count the hours until eight o’clock. For the other half of the day, I jumped in and out of the lake, and always sat near the dock in case Marley ever found a reason to come nearby. Our lake was rather small, and if I squinted, I could see the white gleam of her cottage from across the water. My parents claimed it was too hot to go swimming with me, which I thought was ridiculous, but I secretly relished my solitude at the lake, my perch. At one point my mother walked down to the water and brought me strawberries straight from the fridge. I flicked the stems into the grass beside me as I ate, still in my wet bathingsuit. The soft, undergrown hairs by my forehead stuck to my face with leftover lakewater.
My mind was overwhelmed with decisions to make. Would she notice or care if I tried to become more tan that afternoon? If I wore sandals or sneakers when I saw her? If I had my hair up, down, or braided? I can’t remember now how I decided to present myself in the end, but I do know what the stress was there, and it was how I passed the time sitting by the lake.
There were other cottagers and family friends scattered around the lakeside by the time Marley and her mother arrived. People sat in folding lawn chairs or on pool floaties or towels on the grass. The air reeked of bugspray and humidity; the heat soldiered on but lessened as the sun set. Every adult had a can in their hand. My father let me take sips of his Radler and, naively, I hoped it would get me drunk and therefore less nervous. That’s what I’d heard alcohol did.
It did nothing, and I watched Marley paddle up to our dock in a dark green canoe.
“We followed the lights!” said her mother, excitedly, dragging the canoe onshore and extracting a cooler. Marley held a flashlight in one hand and helped with the other. I could have helped, too, but I didn’t know what to do with myself. Since yesterday, the Marley in my head had blossomed and grown into a whole person; I loved the idea of her, but now that the real Marley was in front of me I realized I knew nothing about her at all. The haze broke and turned into a quiet panic in my heart.
My father had already taken Marley’s mother under his wing and started introducing her to my mother and the other adults. Their half-drunk laughter echoed across the lake. Both Marley and I were still standing beside the canoe, awkward, and I realized I didn’t know where to place my hands.
“Somebody littered,” she said, pointing with her flashlight to the pile of strawberry stems I’d left in the grass that afternoon.
“Must have been my dad or something.” I made a mental note never to eat strawberries again.
“Will you give me a tour of your place? I haven’t seen any other cottage on the lake except mine. Well, not inside any. Jeez, yours is huge!” Marley marveled at the building, already starting to walk the stone path that led up to the door.
She walked quickly and I had to do the same to keep up with the light she was shining in front of her; otherwise I couldn’t see ahead and got scared of stepping in the wrong place, even though I knew the path inside and out after walking it so often. But I took an extra step in front of her and opened the door. She thanked me. It sounded like a curtsy.
Our front porch that overlooked the lake was just to the left of the entrance and Marley immediately wandered through it. It was a fairly spacious, screened-in room, with a couple of couches and chairs. It took me a second to realize my grandmother was sitting in one of them, staring off into the darkness of the lake at night.
“I’m not a fan of the noise,” she warbled, motioning to the fireworks and commotion outside. I’d already known this, that she’d be distancing herself from the event, but maybe I’d chosen not to remember, wandering the cottage alone with Marley. She and I stood there, still, for a second, not really waiting for anything, but also not knowing what to do.
“Go have fun.” My grandmother flippantly waved her hand at me, smiling as she did so. I turned to Marley, who shrugged, and started making her way to the door that led inside. I followed her, looking back at my grandmother, who was now back in the same position as before, unmoving, looking out at the lake. I wondered what she was thinking about, an observer of the commotion, and of my new friend and myself.
On the ground floor, I showed Marley the kitchen, living room, dining room, the works. I was scared she’d think poorly of it. I was still entranced by the wildness of her cottage, the enchantment and the untouchability. If whatever she had, whatever she was, was so great, I had to be inferior. At least, it felt that way. But my cottage had a second story, and hers didn’t, so she insisted on walking up the stairs. I dreaded showing her my bedroom but at the same time I was ecstatic.
The claw-foot tub in the bathroom didn’t interest her, nor did my grandmother’s or parents’ room, because I was never allowed to go in, and therefore neither was she.
The wooden door to my room was already open, which I thought was odd because I normally closed it, but it must have been the wind coming through the open window. If we kept them closed the house would become an oven, or a sauna, depending on the way you looked at it.
I sat down on my bed and watched Marley wander my room. I knew I kept nothing incriminating around, but I was on edge nonetheless.
“I liked that shirt you were wearing yesterday,” she said, planting herself beside me.
“Thanks. I liked the dress you had on.”
“My mom bought it for me. It’s not really cottage-y. It’s too new. I wish I had a shirt like yours.”
Marley started leaning towards me and my insides went crazy, until I realized she was just reaching for a book that was on the end of my bed.
“It’s not the coolest book to read, ever, but I like it.”
“Don’t say it’s not cool. It’s really cool. I think you’re really cool, you know.”
“What makes you think you aren’t?” she said, challenging me.
“I don’t know.” I spoke but it felt like the words were disconnected from my mouth.
“You read books, you wear cottage-y clothes, your family does firework shows for people. Your grandmother’s sweet. And you have really pretty hair.”
“You’re cool too.”
The sounds of the fireworks outside stopped.
“My mom said we’d leave once everything was over, so I should go back,” said Marley. The reluctance in her voice matched the way my face fell.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I’ll go. But I’ll see you again.”
Marley kissed me on the cheek and swiftly walked away. Some of her lip balm was left on my skin and I could feel it tingle there, even when she was out of sight, even when she was gone.
I didn’t see her for the rest of the night, because once she left, I sat dumbfounded on the bed. It was like my body was stuck in the seconds after you wake up from a deep sleep; I was confused, delirious, and sated.
After a few minutes in thought I wandered to the porch, where my grandmother was still sitting. I took one of the empty chairs beside her, silently crossing my legs and slumping myself down. It was only then that I realized my cheeks hurt; I hadn’t stopped smiling since Marley had left. I also noticed that the night had become cooler, here on the screened-in porch, with the air gently floating through the windows and onto my skin. There was noise, too, and I could hear Marley’s mother’s loud voice saying goodbye, and telling my parents that they would come back soon.
My grandmother turned her head toward me. She lowered her lips to my ear, and said quietly but in the same nagging tone, “No woman will be attracted to you if you slouch, either.” I straightened my back and could see her smirk from the corner of my eye. I never slouched from then on.
ANABELLE ZALUSKI was born in Toronto and moved to Montreal to pursue a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University. She finds strength in fiction and playwriting but enjoys all forms of art, and aims to explore the world both literally and through writing.
Copyright © 2018 by Anabelle Zaluski. All rights reserved.