She calls your phone at a quarter past five in the morning, crying or close to it—you’re too sleepy to know for sure. “Please, Ash, please,” she says, her voice hoarse through the speaker. She’s halfway through telling you what’s wrong before you realize who she is, and you sit up with your elbow digging a dent in your pillows, your Dachshund wriggling disgruntled and dreaming against your knees. Start again, you tell her, and she does, and a while later: “I can’t swim, so it’s you or the fire department.” Yeah, she’s crying. “I thought I’d try you first. Can you swim? Will you please—”
“Sure,” you say. You kick away your blanket. The Dachshund groans. “Sure I will. Ten minutes, okay?”
You’ve lied: it takes you more than ten minutes, but not much later you’re stumbling down a small dock in the dark next to her, hiking the straps of your suit up over your shoulders. Pointing out across the water, she says, “He’s over there.”
Whether that water’s part of a lake or a really big pond you don’t know, but you look out, out and she’s right, there he is, a little black lump perched on the edge of one of those floating wooden things you haven’t seen since summer camp, for God’s sake. The surface around it is still enough to reflect a perfect replica of the sky above, where the night’s last stars are twinkle-twinkle-twinkling through dawn’s phthalo glaze.
“If you’ll just talk to him,” she says.
You promise to try.
You jump off the dock and the water is freezing, and as you swim out toward the float you think of your brother wearing a skintight black t-shirt at an October rock concert two years before now: you think of him pressing his fingers in an L against his chest, and you think of him saying, “My nips could cut diamonds!” You think you are probably really stupid for doing this. You think you could get sick again—you think you should’ve put that strap on your glasses that keeps them stuck to your head, what if you lose them, and you think think think until your hand slaps the float broadside. It’s covered in soft, stringy green shit that squooshes in your fingers as you haul yourself up.
He’s staring at you. You roll onto your back on the float and pant and throw the green shit at him: it hits his scrawny chest dead center, squick. In thanks he uncurls his hands from around his knees and bestows upon you the twin lengths of his middle fingers.
Not nice, you sign at him.
Fuck you, he signs back. So easy. It breaks your heart: he’s ten years old. When you were eight you said your first curse word ever so the kids in your new neighborhood would let you play with them—“Damn,” you whispered—and you felt so bad about it that you took whole bites of soap in the shower for a week afterward. High school had you before you ever uttered fuck. You suddenly feel very, very old.
Go away. He presses his heels into the float and pivots to face you. His hands flutter. Go away Ash. Go away. Leave me alone.
You are cheery in your refusal. You flick your fingers at him, spraying water. Nope! Nope nope! Can’t do it! Error, error!
He clenches his teeth and turns away from you again, hunching so you can count every knob in his spine. He’s not wearing anything but underwear—his back is covered in goosebumps and you feel them crawling up your arms too. Shivering, you heave yourself onto your belly and elbow-walk over to him, and when you press your face into his ribs from the side he grabs a thick handful of your hair and holds it, his thumbnail a hard crescent in the sensitive skin behind your ear. Neither of you moves for a minute.
You sit up finally. He lets go. He looks at you and you look at him, and you see in the slope of his jaw a shadow of his father Hiroshi, who taught you ASL over twenty years ago now. Hiroshi, who told you some of your first stories. Hiroshi, who died in June.
You’ve been babysitting this kid—Hiroshi’s kid—since you were fifteen. You’ve changed his diapers. You’ve helped him build Revolutionary War dioramas (they were the shit too—you are so good at making cannons out of Play-Doh, dude, no lie) and you’ve attended a few of his plays, and you were there in the stretch of his life where his mom and dad got divorced and their refrigerator was full of nothing but that nasty tri-color pasta and tater tots. You remember when his dad got married again to the lady waiting back on the dock. You remember the funeral.
You look at him. He looks at you.
Of course you want to tell him it’s okay. But it isn’t, it isn’t okay, and it’s not even six o’clock in the morning and you’re soaking wet and cold and so is he, and you lift your hands and you sign to him instead, This is shitty.
You rub your thumb down your knuckles then and flare your hand out, sending it swaying to the side. Everything is shitty.
It’s the first time you’ve ever expressed profanity in his first language in front of him, and he can’t help but like it. He smiles all sour and reluctant and scratches at his cheek: shrugs, nodding. You open your arms. You twiddle the tips of your fingers the way you know his dad used to, puffing out your cheeks, and despite that he looks like he might hate you for it he scooches into your clutch. You sigh and you rock the two of you riotously back and forth until the float sends ripple after ripple across the water, breaking the reflection of the sky into a million-trillion pieces—until he’s breathing hard into your throat and snorting out laughter or sobs. You don’t check.
You do look down eventually, though, because you feel compelled to inform him, Nice undies. Killer. Totally hot.
It’s not too dark to see how red he gets. He punches you in the arm.
He swims back with you.