Alex, Approximately: Chapter 23


“I’ve never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it’s most unusual.”

—Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday (1953)


In the middle of July, Porter and I have another day off together. He tells me we can do whatever I want with it, that he’s my genie and will grant me one wish. I tell him that I don’t want to see another soul for an entire afternoon. I have something I’m ready to share.

He picks me up in the camper van at noon, two hours after my standing breakfast date with Grace.

“Where are we going?” I say, folding down the visor to block the sun as I hop into the passenger side. I’m wearing my white vintage Annette Funicello shorts and the leopard sunglasses Wanda and Dad brought me back from San Francisco. My Lana Turner ’do looks especially perfect.

Porter glances at my sandals (they’re the ones he likes), and then my shorts (which he continues to stare at while he talks to me). “You have two choices, beach or woods. The woods have a stream, which is cool, but the beach has an arch made of rock, which is likewise cool. God, those shorts are hot.”

“Thank you. No people at either location?”

“If we see anyone, I will act crazy and chase them off with a stick. But no, these places are both usually deserted.”

After some thought, which included taking deep-woods insects into consideration, there’s really no choice for the purpose I have in mind, so I gather my gumption and say, “Take me to the beach.”

The drive is about fifteen minutes. He has to squeeze through a narrow, rocky road through the woods to get to the beach, pine branches brushing against the top of the van. But when we emerge from the trees, it’s glorious: sand, gray pebbles, tide pools, and rising up from the edge of the shore, an arch of mudstone rock. It’s covered with birds and barnacles and the waves crash through it.

The beach is small.

The beach isn’t sexy.

The beach is ours.

Porter parks the van near the woods. He slides open the side door, and we take off our shoes and toss them in the back. I see he’s got his board and wet suit neatly stowed; he’s been surfing almost every day.

We splash around in the tide pools for a while. They’re teeming with starfish, which I’ve only ever seen dried on a shelf in a souvenir store. He points out some other critters, but I have more than coastal California wonders on my mind. “Hey, where’s the nude beach?”

“What?”

“There’s supposed to be a nude beach in Coronado Cove.”

Porter laughs. “It’s up by the Beacon Resort. It’s not even fifty feet wide. There’s privacy fencing on both sides. You can’t see inside, nor would you want to, I promise.”

“Why?”

“It’s a swingers’ club for retirees. Our parents are too young to get in.”

“No way.”

“Yes way. Ask Wanda. They get busted for violating after-hours noise ordinances with all their swingers’ drinking parties. That’s why they had to put up the fencing. People complained.”

“Gross.”

“You say that now, but when you’re eighty and just want to get nude and be served a fruity umbrella drink on the beach by another eighty-year-old nude person, you’ll be thankful it’s here.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

He squints at me. “Why are you asking me about this?”

I shrug. “Just curious.”

“About getting naked on a beach?”

I don’t say anything.

His eyes go big. “Holy shit, that’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?” He points at me and shakes his head. “Something’s not adding up here. This isn’t you. Now, me, I’m a fan of all things naked. And if you asked me to strip right now, I will. I’m not ashamed. I spent the first few years of my life on this planet naked in the ocean.”

I believe that. I really do.

“But you?” He squints at me. “What’s this all about?”

Hesitating, I chew the inside of my mouth. “You remember when we were making out that night in the museum?”

“Like every waking minute of my day,” he says with a slow smile.

I chuckle. “Me too,” I admit before refocusing. “You remember when you started to touch my stomach, and I stopped you?”

His smile fades. “Yeah. I’ve been wondering when you were going to tell me about that.”

“I think I’m ready now.”

He nods several times. “Cool. I’m glad.”

Of course, now that I’ve said this, fear overtakes me. I hesitate, gritting my teeth. “Thing is, I need to show you, not tell you. I think this is one of the reasons I’ve hated beaches for so long . . . the bikini issue. So I think I should just do this, you know?” I’m not sure if I’m talking to him or myself, but it doesn’t matter. “Yeah. I’m going to do it.”

He looks confused.

“I’m about to get naked on this beach,” I tell him.

“Oh, shit,” he says, looking truly stunned. “Okay. Um, all right. Yeah, okay.”

“But I’ve never been naked on a beach with anyone, so this is weird for me.”

He points at me and grins. “Not a problem. Would you like some company? I’m fond of being naked. It’s easier when the playing field’s even.”

I consider his proposition. “Yeah, okay. That actually would make it easier.”

“I just want you to know that there are so many jokes I could make right now,” he says.

We both laugh, me a little nervously, and then decide upon a strip-poker method to the clothing removal. Porter volunteers to go first. He scans the beach to make sure we’re still alone, and without further ado, peels off his T-shirt. Nice, but it’s not really fair, because (A) I’ve seen it before, and (B) he’s not really exposing anything he can’t expose in public. He signals for me to go next.

Carefully considering all my options (I’m smartly wearing good matching undergarments), I take off my shorts. He’s surprised. He also can’t take his eyes off me. I like that . . . I think. I haven’t decided yet. I just tell myself that it’s the same amount of fabric as wearing a bathing suit, so what’s the difference?

“You play dirty, Rydell,” he says, unbuttoning his shorts. Before I can open my mouth to argue, he’s in nothing but a pair of olive-colored boxer shorts.

Whew. He’s got great legs.

Okay, my turn again, as he helpfully reminds me with get on with it hand gestures. Guess it’s the shirt, I think as I pull it over my head and toss it to the sand. A bra is the same amount of fabric as a bathing suit, and it’s a good bra. I hear him suck in a quick breath, so I think that’s good? My boobs aren’t great, but they aren’t bad, either, and—

His fingers trace the bottom of my scar. “Is this it? This is what I felt?”

I look down at my ribs and cover his hand, pressing it against my stomach. Then I uncover them and we look together. It’s bright and sunny, and we’re both halfway naked. And if there’s anyone I feel safe with . . . if there’s anyone I trust, oddly enough, it’s Porter.

“Yes, this is it,” I say.

He looks at it. Glances at my face. Waits.

“That’s where the bullet went in,” I tell him, fingering the puckered ridge of scarring that’s never completely healed right. I turn to the side and show him my back. “Here’s where it exited.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Greg Grumbacher. That’s where he shot me.”

“You told me . . . I mean, I thought he shot your mom?”

I shake my head slowly. “My mom wasn’t supposed to be home. He followed me home that day because his plan was to kill me. He had a note to leave with my body. His reasoning was that my mom took away his kid in the divorce, so he was taking away hers.”

Porter stares at me.

“Mom lunged for the gun, so he missed most of my vital organs. I bled a lot. They had to sew up some stuff. My lung collapsed.

I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks.”

His shoulders sag. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“You’re the first person I’ve told. My classmates heard, but my mom put me in another school after it happened. Anyway, there you go. Told you I was screwed up,” I say, giving him a small smile.

He curls his hand around my waist, rubbing from the front scar to the back. “Thank you for telling me. For showing me.”

“Thanks for not making it weird. I don’t want it to be a big deal anymore, you know? That’s why I wanted to show you. Out here in the sun.”

“I get it,” he says. “I totally get it.”

I lean forward and press my lips against the sweet dip where his collarbones meet. He pushes back my hair with his palm and kisses me in the middle of my forehead, both eyelids, on the tip of my nose. Then he pulls me tight against him and folds me up in his arms. I breathe him into my lungs as deeply as I can, all his sun-burnished, warm goodness. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I try to tell him with my body. And from the way he’s holding me—like I’m a whole person, not a broken toy—I think he understands.

“Does this mean you want to stop our game now?” he murmurs after a time.

I tilt my head back to see his face. “Are you chickening out on me?”

He grins that slow and cocky grin of his and pushes me back until I’m an arm’s length away. “Both at the same time, on the count of three.”

“Not fair! I’ve got two pieces of clothing left.”

“I’ll close my eyes until you say I can open them. One, two . . .”

With a euphoric cry, I fumble with my bra strap and strip off my underwear. I did it!

“Holy shit, you’re beautiful,” he murmurs.

“Cheater.” I’m 100 percent naked. On a public beach. And more important, I don’t care, because Porter’s taken off his clothes too, and that’s far more interesting than any fleeting sense of modesty I have. Because he’s naked. And he’s gorgeous.

And he’s very excited about our mutual sans-clothing situation.

“Oh,” I say, looking down between us.

“I’m pretty proud of that,” he admits with a smile, urging my hand forward. When I touch him, he stands on tiptoes for a moment and looks like he might pass out, which makes me very excited about our mutual sans-clothing situation.

“Now I’m thinking about the back of the camper van,” I say.

He blows out a hard breath and pushes my hand away. “I think that’s a dicey idea. Maybe we should get dressed first. God, you’re so beautiful.”

“You mentioned that.”

“Let me look at you some more first. I need to memorize all of you for later. In case I never get to see this again. Shit. I can’t believe you talked me into . . .” His eyes are heavy-lidded. “This is either the best or worst idea I’ve ever agreed to. You’re killing me, Bailey Rydell.”

“I know you’ve got condoms in that first-aid kit.”

A wave crashes again the rock bridge.

“Bailey . . .”

“Porter.”

“It might be terrible. Trust me, I have experience in these matters.”

“It might not, though, right?”

Seagulls circle overhead, squawking.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” I say. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last few weeks. And I’ve made up my mind. “If you want to, with me, that is. I’m not trying to pressure you.”

He swears softly. “It’ll be a miracle if I can make it all the way back to the van. But if you change your mind, you can, you know? At any point. Even in the middle of it.”

But I don’t change my mind.

Not on the way to the van, or when we’re dumping his surfboard out to make room. And not when he’s asking me a dozen times if I’m sure, and trying to convince me otherwise by doing the fabulous thing he did to me in the museum with his fingers, which only makes me want him more. Not when we start, and he’s being careful and slow and deliberate, and I can’t bear to look at his face, but I don’t know where to look, so I’m looking between us, because I’m worried it will be messy, and that it’s going to hurt, and it does, but the pain is over fast, and then it’s just . . . so much more intense than I expected. But he’s going so slow, and then he says—

“Are you still okay?” in a husky, breathless voice.

Yes, I still am.

And I don’t change my mind in the middle of it, when it’s overwhelming, and he stops, because he’s afraid I want him to stop, but I’m okay—I’m so okay—and convince him to keep going.

And not after, when we’re clinging to each other like the world just fell apart and is slowly clicking back together, piece by piece, breath by breath . . . heartbeat by beautiful heartbeat.

I do not regret a single moment.

“What is this?” I ask some time later, tugging on something white that’s wedged in a crevice as we lie tangled together on an old blanket in the back of the van. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking that I know for sure I saw another condom in the first-aid kit, and I’m wondering how long I have to wait to bring this up without looking too eager. But I’m propped up on my elbows and Porter’s lazily running his fingers across my back, meandering down my butt and the back of my leg, and this feels pretty freaking good, so I guess I’m in no hurry.

The jagged object I shimmy out of the crevice is about an inch long and triangular, and it’s got a piece of silver fitted on one side, through which a silver jump ring is attached.

“Huh. I thought I lost that,” he says, pausing my sensual back scratch to take it from me. “That came out of my arm. Genuine great white tooth. It’s a lucky charm. Or a curse, whichever way you want to look at it. I had it on my key chain, but I was switching keys out and set it down. Must have rolled off the seat or something.”

“It’s huge,” I say.

“No way, that’s just a baby tooth. You saw the sharks at the aquarium. Great white was twice their size. And he was a teenager.”

I try to imagine the tooth implanted in Porter’s arm. “I know it’s a bad memory, but the tooth itself should be survivor’s pride, or something. A badge of honor.”

“You want to borrow it?”

“Me?”

“For your scooter keys. Might match your whole animal-print vibe.” He pauses. “I mean, if it’s too much, no big deal. I’m not trying to brand you, like you’re my girl or anything.”

Because if people see this, they’ll definitely know we’re dating each other. “Am I? Your girl, I mean.”

“I don’t know. Are you?” He offers the shark tooth in his open palm, hesitates, and closes his fingers around it. “If you are, you have to promise me something first.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ve got to start opening up to me.” He glances toward my back. “Look, I totally understand why you didn’t tell me the whole story about the gunshot wound until now, but you can’t be that way around me anymore. I already had a girlfriend who kept things from me, and I spent weeks walking around oblivious while she was screwing Davy behind my back.”

“First, ew, I have better taste than that, and second, I would never do that to you.”

He kisses my ear. “I believe you.”

“So, yeah, speaking of Chloe . . . Were you and Davy having sex with Chloe at the same time?”

“Together?” He sounds appalled.

I smile. “You know what I mean.”

“No,” he says, sounding sheepish. “Chloe and I were going through a dry spell at the time. There was no cross-contamination, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

I sort of was.

“And we always used condoms. Every time.”

“Good to know,” I mumble. Very good.

“Anyway, back to you,” he says. “What I’m trying to say is that you’re sort of bad about bottling things up. And I’m not saying you’ve got to turn into Grace. I like you just the way you are. But in order for this to work, you’ve got to tell me stuff. I need you to trust me—”

“Of course I do.” Hello. Did we not just have sex?

“—and I need to be able to trust you,” he finishes.

I start to argue, but I’m embarrassed that he’s even brought this up.

He nudges my chin with his, forcing me to face him, and speaks quietly against my mouth. “Listen to me, okay? What’s between us? This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life, and I don’t want it to end. Sometimes you feel so tricky, like fog over the ocean—like you just showed up at the beginning of the summer, and one day the sun will come out and you’ll disappear and go back to your mom. And that scares the hell out of me. So that’s why I tell you things about me, because I figure if I weigh you down with my baggage, then you’ll be less likely to run.”

My heart twists.

I press my brow against his. “Artful Dodger.”

“Huh?”

“That’s me. Or it used to be.” That morning on the beach when Grace was mad at me ghosts through my thoughts. I need to do better. “I’m trying, Porter. I really am. I want you to trust me.”

“That’s all I ask.” He leans back to look at me, smiles softly, and opens up his fingers to reveal the shark tooth again. “So . . . do you want it? People might talk.”

I snatch it up with a grin. “Maybe they’ll say that you’re mine.”

“Bailey, I’ve been yours. I’ve just been waiting for you to make up your mind.”

Later that night, after Porter brings me back home, I’m too blissed out to be around people, especially my dad. So I put on my leopard scarf and sunglasses and take Baby out for a drive around the neighborhood. When I get to the big hill at the end of our street, I throw my hands up in the air, shouting, “I’m in love!” to the redwood trees.


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