Full disclosure: This story contains me ruining things for other people. Because I am a kill-joy. Also, a ruiner.
Second full disclosure: There are some f-words in this piece. Three of them. FYI.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been taking my kids to the west-side beach at Lake Nokomis for swimming lessons. (Side-note: the swimming program at the Minneapolis lakes through the Park system is a fantastic idea: it’s every day; it’s cheap; it’s crazy fun; and the kids stick around for an hour or two afterwards, practicing everything that they learned in lessons, thereby increasing their skills and strength in the water. Side benefit: my wild-child son, at seven, has started napping again. A miracle!)
My kids have done swimming lessons at the Southwest High School pool through community ed for the last few years, which is all fine and good, but there is something completely awesome about the sand and the mobs of kids and the fish swimming by and the regular appearances of visiting waterfowl, that is just spectacularly summery and wildly fun. A magnificent time has been had by all.
Each day, we arrive about an hour early, swim and play, then they are packed off to their teachers for an hour, and then remain in the water for another hour or two. Or, to clarify, they are in the water for an hour or two. I am sitting under an umbrella, chatting with my brother-in-law and some of the other parents, and watching the beach. Specifically, tuning my ears to the kids on the beach – teenager-type kids, specifically – and trying to hook the cadence of their voices into my brain.
The other day, I had this experience, watching these kids, that was so ludicrously cliche, I don’t think I would have believed it if I read it in a book. I would have assumed that the writer had lifted it out of some gloriously cheesy John-Hughes-knockoff movie (of which there are…..many.) But I swear it’s the truth.
Here’s what happened:
On my way down to the edge of the water, where I was staking my claim on the beach territory, I passed a ridiculously pretty girl who was propped up on her elbows on her beach blanket and holding a phone. She was a young thing – fifteen at the very oldest – with long hair and overly large pink sunglasses, like the sort that Jackie Kennedy would have worn, had she ever gone to the municipal beaches in South Minneapolis.
Just as I was sitting down, I heard a voice calling from the other side of the beach. “Julie,” the voice called, a tiny creak in the edge of the voice, like the squeal of a gear as it sticks in its teeth, and then breaks free. “W. T. F.?” He said this deliberately, a noticeable pause in the gaps between the letters, as if he was thinking each period before going on.
Two boys approached, their bodies recoiling each time their bare feet made contact with the hot sand. They winced and persevered. One had a mop of brown hair that flopped over a moon-round face, still squishy with baby fat. He grinned, open-mouthed, like a muppet, and held his hands open at his side (the universal gesture to show that one means no harm). He moved his hands back and forth – jauntily or jazzily? I couldn’t really tell what he was going for. His feet and head were too large for his body and his hands were too broad for his wrists. He was short and thick, his body the color and texture of bread dough. And he was so happy to see this girl, he could hardly believe his luck. His friend, also in possession of the same wide-open muppet-grin, stood a good foot and a half taller. He was brown and reedy – so thin that when he passed the trunks of trees he seemed to vanish. I could tell, just by the way he walked, that he was either midway, or just finishing, a massive growth spurt. His skin stretched over his joints like tissue paper over barbed wire. He swayed this way and that and tripped over his own feet – not once, but four different times on the short walk from one end of the beach to the other.
The girl looked over, slid her hand under her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. She sighed audibly, tilted her face to the sky, and then returned to her phone. She gave a brief wave at the boys. She said hey without looking. She turned toward her phone, and started thumbing the buttons and swiping the screen, over and over and over again.
“It’s us!” the short boy said. “Nate and Hugo. From Health class.”
She gave a small nod without looking up.
“Front row,” the tall boy added helpfully.
They made it across and planted themselves – at great personal risk, I might add – on the hot sand next to her beach blanket. They gritted their teeth as the plopped their bottoms onto the searing heat.
(I wanted to tell them that they just had to brush away the top half inch of sand, and it was cool underneath, but that would have outed me as an eavesdropper. And eavesdropping is fun.)
The muppet-grins returned. The girl didn’t notice.
“So?” the short boy said. “Wassup?” he waggled his head when he talked. He was having the best day.
The girl raised one finger and thumbed a few more lines into her phone.
“Isn’t it weird,” the tall boy said. “That we’d just be here? On this beach? At the same time as you? Don’t you think that’s weird?”
“Yup,” the girl said. She scanned the beach; she scanned the sky; she scanned her fingers and toes. She didn’t look at the boys.
“So,” the short boy said. “Whatcha been doing? All summer? Did you see I put my phone number in your yearbook? Maybe you didn’t see.”
“Nope,” the girl said. “And I’ve been doing pretty much nothing. Texting.” She held up her phone. She didn’t look at the boys.
“Oh,” the short boy grunted. “I know how that goes. Me too.”
The tall boy rounded on his friend. “You don’t have a cell phone.”
“Well….” the short boy said.
“Your mom won’t let you have one.”
“I know, but….” the short boy said.
“So how can you be texting?” the tall boy said. The girl lifted herself a little higher, pulling herself off of her elbows and onto her hands. She looked at the boys and grinned. She really was – honest to god – astonishingly pretty.
“Good question,” she said.
“Well,” the short boy said. “Not texting, like in the flesh. Mostly it’s, you know, the theory of the thing.”
“There’s a theory of texting?” the girl said.
“Well, yeah,” the short boy said, his doughy face starting to grow an adorable shade of pink. “Well no. Well sorta. It’s yes and no. It’s just, you know, texting, vis a vis doing nothing. If I had the capability of texting while I was doing nothing, then I’d be texting as part of my doing nothing. As it stands, I am doing nothing without texting - sans texting – if you will, but it’s still doing nothing.” He spoke fast, as if he had to yank all of his words out at once, like a bandaid that was stuck to his arm hair.
(I wanted to get up right then, walk over, and put my arm around his shoulders. I wanted to explain, in the kindest way that I knew how, that boys who said things like vis a vis and sans, typically don’t date in high school. And often not in college either.)
The girl pressed her lips into a thin line.
“I’m not ‘doing nothing’ when I’m texting.”
“Oh!” the short boy said. “I don’t mean -”
“I’m doing the opposite of nothing. I’m talking to people. Other people. Other than you, I mean.”
“It’s just -”
“That’s not nothing. That’s something.”
“Of course,” he said. “You’re right.” And he shot the tall boy a poisonous look.
“I have a cell phone,” the tall boy said.
“I know,” the girl said, returning to her phone. “You’ve texted me. Frequently.”
“I told my mom about that,” the short boy said. “I mean, if you have a phone and you haven’t turned into a drug addicted zombie, then surely I won’t either.”
“That’s what she thinks?” the girl said.
“She’s crazy,” the boy said, moving his open hands back and forth so fast they looked like a blur. “And she’s – fuckin – I mean, I’m like, ‘fuck, mom. I mean fuck.”
This boy - this boy! Clearly is unaccustomed to swearing. He said each f-word as though he was spitting a tack into his hand and hoping it would stick into his skin. Each one was foreign. His friend stared at him, open mouthed.
And then I stepped in.
I stood out of my chair, looked straight at him, and said, “Young man!”
The boy froze. His friend elbowed him in the gut. All three of them stared at me in shock.
“Language!” I said. “This beach is crawling with kids. Watch your words.”
(side-note: I do this a lot. I’m the person who tells the guy to watch his mouth on the bus because we’re sitting right there and he’s shouting obscenities into his cellphone, oblivious to the wide eyed children on my lap.)
(second side-note: I have a big, broad, booming voice. I’m pretty sure that people across the lake stopped swearing too.)
The girl turned. “Oooooooooo!” she said. “Look what you did. You made the nice mom mad. Nice work.” She looked thrilled.
The short boy hung his head. His face paled to the color of spoiled milk. “Sorry ma’am,” he mumbled. “I’m really, really sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t,” I said. And I returned to watching my kids follow their swimming instructors around like little baby ducks.
Shortly after, the boys went back to their towels on the other side of the beach. They kept looking back over at the pretty girl, trying to catch her eye, but she kept her gaze on her phone, her thumb continuing to press and press and press.
And then, just before she left, she looked over at me, and smiled. She held up her phone. “It’s not even on,” she said. “It ran out of battery power like an hour ago. Do you think they noticed?”
“No, honey,” I said. “I don’t believe they did.”
She slipped on her flip-flops and trekked up the hot sands, toward home.