He waits until everyone is asleep. Only, I am awake, sleepless in the middle of the night. He lights a cigarette. I hear the scratch of the matchstick, the quick flare of flame jumping in the darkness and just as quickly pinched out. I can smell the sulfur, acrid and chemical, and the smoke is tinged with something sweet, maybe cardamom or seaweed.
And there, in the liquid black, glares a red eye.
My brothers and sisters sprawl across the floor of the motel, lagooned like flotsam and jetsam in sleeping bags zipped up against the chilly air-conditioned room. My parents snore in the double bed, inert mounds under thin white sheets, dead to the world. I hear what sounds like someone licking his lips, patient for the moment when the last sibling drops off, their eyes closed, breathing steadied.
I close my eyes and see the gash of a knife, scenes from the slasher flick Daddy watched before turning off the TV, steel blade biting into the chest of a half-naked teenage girl making out with her boyfriend.
I doze off. Then somewhere a shout and I’m wide awake, my chest throbbing where the knife sliced into me.
I am a child who still believes in fairytales and fiends. I am also a girl on the precipice of womanhood, at the beginning of knowing and dissatisfaction and wild animals who smoke in the middle of the night.
I feel consumed by the confusion and fear, by my growing uncertainty. I am the girl in the slasher flick, the lap of the boyfriend’s tongue warm against my neck. Embarrassment and guilt add heat to my already sun-warmed body. That is scary too, the desire and the shame it provokes. Just for a moment I am grateful for the darkness.
My family is on ‘vacation,’ which really just means a week in this motel, in this town. My grandparents will drive down from Mobile and I will feel, for a little while, normal.
The motel room faces the beach, day trippers splayed on towels in the afternoon sun. Momma let us kids swim all day, traipsing across the hot sand at lunch time for snacks and sun lotion.
I am sunburned and tired and as I lay on the beach towel, listening to the waves and my siblings splashing in the surf. I enjoy the taste of salt on my lips. The warmth of the sun on my bare skin feels delicious, satisfying. I close my eyes and pretend I’m in one of those vintage summer beach movies from the 1960s my mom likes to watch, maybe ‘Beach blanket bingo’ or ‘Where the boys are’ and George Hamilton flashes his brilliant white teeth at Dolores Hart, coy and expecting. On screen, the guys and gals sing songs by a fire and play beach volleyball. Everyone smiles and there’s nothing carnal in their wholesome, fun-filled lives.
Then a shadow blocks the light and I open my eyes to see an older man, maybe in his late 20s or early 30, passing nearby. A cigarette dangles from his lips. He plows through the sand, his eyes sighting my near-naked body, budding breasts barely hidden by the wet, clinging lycra of my bathing suit. I want to turn over but that somehow feels worse, more inviting.
I am scared of invitations.
Truth is I’m scared of everything these days: Of the changes in my body and the way men have started tracking it as I scramble across the beach in my one piece. Of the throb I feel in the back of my throat, between my legs, when I catch the man’s eyes wolfing me. Of what I want but don’t want yet. Of all that is changing.
I am also scared of Daddy’s volcanic temper and the way he’s picked up on the men leering. Their interest is my fault, I’m sure he’ll say. My fear is torqued by the anger erupting from me as sporadically, as uncontrollably, as the pimples on my forehead. But I’m not allowed to show temper any more than the nascent breasts I try to hide.
Hours after dark, my body still radiates heat, plutonium preteen skin blistering. My stomach stings from hunger. But it’s too late. Daddy slapped my rebellious teenage cheek and sent me to bed without supper after I cut my eyes at him in that insolent way.
I fight sleep, eyes blinking. I almost nod off. But the fear surges when I hear a creak, maybe Momma turning in the bed or someone creeping outside. My eyes flash open and I pop up, searching in the swimming night for that flash of red, that single heat. It is still there, the tip of his cigarette, luminescent and unmistakable. I do and also do not want that fire, the warmth of naked skin on mine, a midnight ravishing.
I want to cry out. I want help but I can’t ask Momma and Daddy gets angry if we wake him in the night. Besides, the dog isn’t growling; there cannot be an intruder in this room.
But there’s a gleam, carmine and ominous, and I hold my breath and wait for what must come. I pull the sleeping bag tighter, slink further down into its folds and this feels, in a way, like a devouring, as if the bag is now a wolf eating me alive.
In the morning, there are croissants and fruit for breakfast. Daddy is in a good mood; we can all go to the beach again. I’ve forgotten about the long night, the insomnia, the cigarette burning.
Then I see it, the tiny dot, a flickering ember, aglow within the white plastic of the fire alarm, a disc of safety positioned high up on the wall near the door of the motel room. It reminds me of an eye, watching the room’s occupants. Or maybe, it’s more like the glow that burns at the end of a lit cigarette.
I hurry to get ready, inch my cold, still-wet bathing suit up my skinny legs with an eye on the door and a half-eaten croissant hanging from my mouth.