By Lucas Sheperd
It is one hundred and fourteen degrees according to the thermometer at the base swimming pool, and all I can see are clean haircuts, off the ears with neatly-trimmed necklines. No one is in the water. We spray on sunscreen, except Michael, who is from Oregon and has skin that is somehow dark year round. He shaves his head and has mean brown eyes and is the most athletic of our group. He’s always on the floor of his room thrusting upwards and clapping his hands, or facing the wall locker doing calf-raises.
Ditching our sandals and t-shirts under plastic chairs, we dance over the scalding concrete and dive into the ten-foot section. Sure enough, the lukewarm water is of no relief from the oversized Texas sun. We retreat from the water, hot-footing it to the chairs again. The ripples in the pool even out slowly.
Chaz starts talking about diodes and alternating current and the block test we all have to take on Tuesday. Although Chaz gets the best grades in class, he also frets the most. He calls himself an “idiot” for missing one question on a test when the rest of us sigh relief at a 75 or 80. He was an honors graduate in basic. I saw the ribbon once when we all got in trouble and had to visit the commander in full service dress. He’s also easy going and would probably help me study before each block test even if he hasn’t been my roommate since I moved to the 320th.
“You know those burritos I got at the commissary?” Chaz is talking to me now. We have a tiny little fridge in our room, where we keep Pop Tarts and other junk food. “They taste like cheeseburgers, but with a different texture.” Chaz raises his eyebrows while jutting out his bottom lip, his way of conveying approval of something.
Michael sits up in his chair. “When I had strep throat once, I begged and begged my mom to get me a Big Mac. She finally did, but I couldn’t open up my mouth wide enough. So she threw it in the blender with a little cola.” He begins to chuckle. “That was nasty.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” I say, secretly promising to try a Big Mac shake one day.
Beside me, Kyle is tossing a toy football from left to right hand. He wears these sporty sunglasses that I think look ridiculous on anyone but NASCAR drivers and baseball outfielders.
“Look at that,” he says.
Outside the fence, jackrabbits rest under a shade tree. They are stretched out on their backs, a curious pose. “It’s not even this hot in Florida,” Kyle says. I start to ask him if there are rabbits in the Sunshine State. “Guys.”
Michael diverts our gaze to the far side, the entrance. Everyone else’s attention is at the entrance as well, including the lifeguard’s. Two females come in, towels wrapped around their swimsuits. They choose some chairs, wobbly and plastic and as far away as possible from the other patrons’ stares. The men begin to fill the pool, wrestling and jockeying for position in the four-foot section. They splash and shout and laugh about the latest military idioms.
The shorter one of the pair, a brunette, gets up and slides in feet-first with her sunglasses still on. She emerges near the edge and spits pool water to the side. Her hair is a little curly, even when soaking wet. The blonde remains perched on her reclined lounge chair, seemingly oblivious to the testosterone on display.
We take turns on the diving board, and Michael attempts a few gainers before the lifeguard blows a warning whistle. Even Chaz ditches his anxiety and plops in, a cannonball that spouts a geyser behind him. He treads water like a dog, and I lob the football to him. The shorter girl marches over to our side of the pool. The two pieces of her bathing suit don’t match. It appears to be a sports bra and blue PT shorts that she borrowed from a more petite friend. Her legs look strong and muscular.
She curves around close to me, stopping inches from my chest. “I like your tattoos.” Beads of water slip in between freckles and down her narrow chin, and I see that she has a pale white scar on her forehead. It is probably more noticeable because of the rich tan she has everywhere else. The pool water dripping from her face and hair lands on my toes.
“Thanks,” I say.
The reactions in the pool range from shock to envy as she leans in past the space necessary for secret whispers and indulges her curiosity about the provocative markings around my torso and arms. She traces the outline of my devil lady with her index finger, and I feel slightly molested. The ink on my skin is wearing high heels with a red dress and a long, pointed tail. “Sexy,” says my new admirer. “I like this one.” Her fingernail hops over each protruding rib bone. I try to see the girl’s eyes, but her sunglasses are heavily mirrored. And all this time the sun grows hotter on my back.
She keeps her hand at my side the whole time, touching the red-and-black devil lady tattoo on my ribcage. She flicks her tongue over her lips and asks me, “What does it mean?”
Lucas Shepherd will be studying English this fall as a junior at The University of Iowa. This story was inspired by Mary Howitt’s poem “The Spider and the Fly.”