Ruth stares into the bright pink drink and wonders if the dye used on the lemon slice will make her stomach hurt later. The tightening pain in her lower back hasn’t loosened yet, despite three glasses of champagne and two rum and Diet Cokes. Maybe this “Pink Panther” drink will do the trick.
Taffy waves at her from the black-and-white checkered dance floor. Her long blonde hair hangs in ringlets down the middle of her exposed back. Her floor-length red sequined dress hugs her hips and exposes several inches of her breasts. She doesn’t look 60.
The young man pressed close to her, nuzzling her neck, has slicked-back hair and tight black leather pants. Ruth wonders if he’s paid to dance with the women here. Maybe it’s like a “Dirty Dancing” situation, part of the resort package. Then again, nobody has asked her to dance.
It’s close to midnight and Ruth wants to go to bed, but she knows Taffy will stay until the band packs their shiny instruments back into their cases and the staff escorts them to their 8th-floor suite with apologies and promises for new adventures in the morning. It’s been three days of this and Ruth’s ready to go home. She’d much rather be laying by the pool all day than following Taffy around.
The two of them have been friends since high school, meeting through the shared trauma of marching band uniforms and having both dated the drum major at the same time. He had terrible acne, but could play the hell out of the trumpet and knew how to sweet talk a girl. He was Ruth’s first love.
They dumped him together at the annual Jazz Festival downtown. He’d just finished playing on the main stage with an adult band from Louisiana, a huge honor for a high school junior. After the applause, Ruth and Taffy slowly walked toward the stage. His face dropped when he saw them holding hands. Taffy slapped him and loudly told the entire audience he’d been dating them both.
“Let’s go for a night swim!” Taffy says, slipping into the turquoise booth beside Ruth.
She takes a drink of the strawberry margarita she’s left sitting out for the last hour. It’s melted and separated, but she doesn’t seem to notice. There’s sweat on her face from dancing giving her a shiny, youthful glow with slightly pink cheeks. She reapplies her red lipstick and smiles at herself in her gold compact. Ruth wonders how they’ve remained friends when they are both clearly wired so differently.
“Night swim. Night swim. Night swim.”
Taffy’s pounding her palms on the table with each word and the few people still in the bar look over. Ruth sucks down the remainder of the pink drink with a few loud gulps hoping the alcohol will give her the courage to stand up to her friend and cease the never-ending party which is hanging out with Taffy. It doesn’t.
She allows Taffy to grab her hands and pull her from the farthest corner booth where she’s spent the last several hours silently drinking. As they pass the matching black-suited salsa band, the drums and trumpets swell. Taffy grabs Ruth and twirls her three times in a circle. Her tropical flowered sundress floats out exposing her Spanx-covered thighs for a brief moment, but Ruth doesn’t mind. She allows Taffy to guide her around and around the dance floor, marveling at her friend’s energy, her fast footwork, and how good it feels to be with her.
With a flourish of her dress and a wave to the band, Taffy guides them out of the bar and into the wide brown-tiled lobby—a place of bright neon colors, seashell chandeliers, egg-shaped chairs, and an abundance of driftwood artwork. At the far end is an ornate brass archway leading outside covered in tiny gleaming depictions of sea creatures. Ruth touches a penguin with her hand thinking how out of place it is among the sea turtles and starfish. Maybe it’s supposed to be a pelican but the artist forgot the legs.
Once outside, the music fades into the soft lapping sound of the ocean dancing along the jagged shoreline. Ruth and Taffy walk hand and hand along the wooden walkway swinging their arms like children, their high heels making matching clicking sounds. When they reach the sand they sit down to take off their shoes. Despite being in the tropics, there’s an autumnal breeze and a light mist.
“I’m so glad you are here with me,” Taffy says.
“Me too,” Ruth says.
Taffy squeezes Ruth’s hand and holds it for a few minutes. She’s considering all the things she wants to say to her friend, but it never quite feels like the right moment. They’ve grown so distant in the last 30 years, living lives very different from each other. She’d really hoped this trip would be a chance to be together and talk, but her friend hasn’t stopped moving. In fact, Ruth isn’t sure Taffy has slept the entire trip.
The quiet moment is broken by the low sound of a fog horn coming from the old lighthouse. Its beam sweeps across the dark waters illuminating large black rocks far from the shoreline. Ruth wonders what dangers lurk in the ocean late at night.
“What are we waiting for?” Taffy cries.
Taffy releases Ruth’s hand, strips off her clothes, throws them in a heap and runs naked into the dark ocean waters. Her aging body looks remarkably the same as it always has, beautifully curved and covered in freckles. She swims quickly away from the shore with a practiced steady breaststroke.
Ruth scans the beach for late-night scuba divers or couples looking for a place to be alone. She’s also thinking about sharks and jellyfish. 30 chest compressions and then two breaths. Clear the airway. 100-120 per minute.
“Come on, Ruth!” Taffy calls from the water. “It feels wonderful!”
“I’m not sure…”
“When will you ever swim in the ocean at night again?”
“No! Don’t think. Come on! Night swim! Night swim! Night swim!”
Ruth carefully takes off her clothes, folds them, and sets them in a pile far from the water’s edge. Naked, she’s aware of the folds and sagging skin of her aging body—a softness and heaviness all her own. She touches the stretch marks on her stomach and smiles. Taffy whistles at her.
“Hey, hot stuff,” she calls.
Ruth spins in a circle and laughs. There was a time, not long ago, she’d have let hoards of self-loathing thoughts take over a moment like this. It would have turned into a full-blown invasion of shame and anger mixed with the kind of jealous-comparing it took nearly 50 years to finally be rid of. She’s proud of how far she’s come and wonders if Taffy’s confidence is true or if she’s trying to mask her own insecurities. If they were different friends, maybe she could ask her.
“Are you waiting for a merman or something?” Taffy calls from the water. “Come in already!”
Ruth laughs and walks into the water. It’s brisk and cool, but not enough to make her shiver. She dives under the low waves and swims out to where her friend treads water with graceful fluid movements. Her fluffy blonde hair looks dark when wet and is stuck flat to her head. The heavy makeup she wears has faded making her look even fresher and younger.
“Hi,” Ruth says.
“About time,” Taffy says. “Want to race?”
“No. I do not.”
“Are you afraid you will lose?”
“No. I will lose. I don’t care.”
“Let’s see who can dive down the furthest?”
“No. Let’s just float.”
Taffy dives under anyway as Ruth allows her body to float on the mostly still saltwater. The white half-moon peeks out from behind the clouds along with a milky sky sprinkled with tiny, bright stars. With her ears under the water, Ruth concentrates on her own breath. In and out. In and out.
Water sprays Ruth’s face and she returns to an upright position to find Taffy swimming in a circle with hard, splashy kicks. She scans the water for any signs of danger, and finding none, feels annoyed at her friend’s behavior. There’s no reason for her to use such aggressive movements in the water.
“What’s that about?” Ruth says. “You okay?”
Taffy stops and treads water a few feet from Ruth. For a few minutes, the friends say nothing. Taffy turns away from her and Ruth has the horrible feeling her friend might be crying. Ruth’s always done the crying for the both of them and she doesn’t know what to do. She swims a little closer.
“The seaweed is always greener
in somebody else’s lake.
You dream about going up there
but that is a big mistake.”
Taffy’s singing “Under the Sea” in her very best Sebastion voice. She’s trying to make Ruth laugh, and it almost works until movement in the dark water makes her stop. There’s something swimming in a circle between them creating a small whirl of movement right below the surface. Both of them freeze, terrified.
“Did you see that?” Ruth says.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
A silent eruption of bubbles floats to the surface around them on all sides. Ruth covers her mouth to stifle a scream and Taffy swims beside her. Leaning close together they watch as the bubbles pop and leave behind tiny balls of light pulsing, circling them. The churning water below them stops.
“What’s happening?” Ruth says.
“I don’t know.”
Taffy reaches out her hand and grabs one of the slightly rainbow-colored bubbles turned solid. It’s heavy, squishy, and warm. The muscles in her body relax, something like a bell ringing fills the air and she can taste the oatmeal cookies her grandmother made her as a child. She looks into the eyes of her friend and truthful words pour forth with fluid ease.
“I’m so lonely,” she says. “I don’t let anyone in and I’m afraid if I stop moving I’ll die.”
It’s as if the words have been waiting behind a wall and the bubbles pressed them through. Taffy stares at the thing in her hand feeling uncertain about what to do next. Ruth touches her friend on the arm and smiles at her. She’s got tears in her eyes.
“Thank you for telling me that,” she says. “You can tell me anything.”
Taffy grabs Ruth’s right hand out of the water and drops the ball into her palm. It dances through her fingers and Ruth makes a fist to keep from losing it. She sighs deeply, tastes fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and hears the sound of doves cooing. Her body feels loose and the words come, like magic, from deep inside.
“I’m lonely too,” she says. “I haven’t told you the truth about so many things. I just couldn’t.”
The balls around them glow brighter and press into them illuminating their faces with a soft white light. The women gather them into their arms, letting the sensations of memory wash over them, freeing up truth and vulnerability. They spin connections sharing stories back and forth as they float in the dark ocean water. One after another the balls sink below the surface.
Night turns to day and the sun makes its climb out of the water and into the morning sky. With the rays of pink and golden light comes the awareness of time and exhaustion. The friends embrace each other.
“I think I’m ready for bed now,” Taffy says.
“You think?” Ruth says.
Side by side the old friends swim back to shore.
Author’s note: A lot of my stories take place in and around water. I’ve been lucky enough to have some powerful moments with friends at the ocean—connections forged through the beauty of vulnerability. This story is dedicated to those in my life who have trusted me with their truths. I see you and love you for being fully yourself with me.
Short Story Challenge | Week 23
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about adult friends on vacation in the tropics. We had to include scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease and mist.
Write With Us
Prompt: The early days of the zombie apocalypse
Include: motherboard, buffalo, Eiffel Tower, raven, motorcycle, envelope, tulip, moon, reflect, sycamore
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars