For a beat, it just lies there, like a glove thrown down. Smack.
Then I meet his eyes. I don’t know what mine are saying, but after a moment, he looks away, up to the sky, then down at me, lips parted. I follow his gaze to my chest, where of course my too-tight tank top is completely plastered. White. Practically transparent.
That’s what this is about?
I snap my fingers. “My face is up here.”
Cass reaches for his towel, now an interesting shade of mot-tled pink, wraps it tightly around his waist. “Um, sorry. Are you cold, by any chance, Gwen?”An infinitesimal smile, just enough to bring out one dimple, pulls at the corner of his mouth.
I groan. “You have no idea what a pain these are. Since I was twelve I’ve gotten this! Like I’m boobs attached to a faceless woman. Sometimes I just want to take ’em off and hand them to whoever can’t be bothered to see the rest of me and say, ‘Here. I think this is what you’re really after.’”
Cass flips his hair back. “And we were doing so well there for a second. I didn’t mean to objectify you or disrespect your personhood. You look”—he throws his hand toward me—“like you look. Sue me for noticing.” He meets my eyes.
“By the way—just let me give your little brother a few lessons.
Otherwise, you’re going to have a heart attack worrying, or an ulcer blaming yourself for not being on guard twenty-four/
seven. And let’s make tutoring happen. At this point you’re just making bullshit excuses. I need this, okay? I need to stay on the team.”
“Why is that so important to you?” I ask. “It’s not like you’re applying to the Coast Guard. You’ll get into whatever college you want.”
He shakes his head. Looks at me. “You have no idea what I want. None.” His voice has abruptly gotten hard.
I take a deep breath, shut my eyes, exhale. “You’re right. I don’t. I don’t know what you want. You did a good thing and I’m being a jerk.”
I’m relieved to see both dimples groove deep. “Whoa. Is that an actual apology? I forgive you. If you forgive me for standing in front of a girl like you and letting my eyes wander.
My mom would be pissed with me.”
I have only the haziest of memories of Cass’s mom from that one summer. Adults you don’t know well all seem blend together when you’re little—someone big who talks about things you don’t understand that don’t sound interesting. No memory at all whether she was tall or short, blond or dark. Or even kind or not. I try to picture her at meets and I can’t. I can just see Cass’s dad cheering.
“She’s a therapist,” he adds. “Specializes in empowering girls and women. She’s written books about it. How the Patri-archy Silences the Female Voice. That was her best seller. Oh, and Men, Why Do We Bother? ”
“Ouch,” I say. “Really?”
“Yep . Mom doesn’t like to leave any feeling undelved . . .”
He wrinkles his nose, squinting. “Is that a word?”
“Close enough,” I say. Try harder to remember Cass’s mom.
Picture her in hemp clothing with wild hair, fingers tented.
Then with hair drawn back into a stern bun, power suit on.
Neither seems right.
“Sometimes family dinners are like therapy sessions. I feel like we should all be lying around on couches while my mom over-explores our psyches. ‘How does having pizza again make you fee-el, Cass? I think we need to examine your broccoli issues, Bill.’”
I’m still stuck on Men, Why Do We Bother? I don’t want Cass to have some uptight, disapproving family. It doesn’t fit with my image of his dad from that summer, from my memories of feeling comfortable running into their house, never bothering to kick off my shoes outside the door. “And she wound up with three sons,” I say.
“Yup, I was the one last try for a girl. I would have been Cassandra . . . you know, after the girl no one listened to in the Iliad. Who died.”
“Instead you got named after the cool guy in an iconic clas-sic movie.”
“Yeah, well, he got offed in the end too.”
“Well, my mom named me after the world’s most famously unfaithful woman.”
Cass flinches, then looks out to sea. “I’d better get home. I’ve got this—family thing tonight—and you’d better go dry off.
I’ll put together a program for Emory.”
He strides down the pier without looking back. I scan the parking lot, half expecting to see Spence’s car idling there like the other day. It’s not. But it might as well be, because Spence was right there between us.
And we were doing so well there for a second.
Mom plops heavily down on the couch as Nic and I describe what happened with Em, both of us trying to take a bigger share of the blame as though it’s the last slice of pie.
“This was all me, Aunt Luce. I was stupid-focused—didn’t even get that he didn’t have a life jacket—”
“No, Mom, it was my fault. I was”— distracted by Cass in his swim trunks and this weird truce we keep zigzagging in out out of—“not paying attention when I should have—”
“It shouldn’t always have to be Gwen, Aunt Luce. I dropped the ball completely, ’cause I—” Nic’s face turns red.
“I was the one who was on the dock with Emory—I was the one who brought him there. With no life jacket.”
Finally, as we both stutter to a halt, Mom sighs, her eyes tak-ing in Em, already nodding to sleep on the corner of the couch, long eyelashes fluttering, still clutching Hideout. She brushes her hand under her eyes, then ruffles Nic’s hair, cups my chin.
“I ask too much of you two, I know. I look at you both, good kids, and I want you to have everything I ever wanted and didn’t get. But we can’t let Emory slip through the cracks. We have to keep him safe. He can’t do that for himself.”
Grandpa Ben, who is punching tobacco into the pipe he hardly ever smokes, a rare sign of extreme agitation, points the barrel of the pipe at me, then Nic, in turn. “Our coehlo needs the swimming lessons. We will get the young yard boy. He talked to me about it the other day.”
Nic bristles. “I can teach him. Why do we have to bring in Cassidy Somers?”