Pueblo, Florida is a small beach town just outside of Miami. Beaches run behind most of the larger houses in the neighborhood, and it's the type of place where you can spot the ocean from the high school. Nearly everyone knew each other, not just because this was a small town, but because almost everyone here was Cuban or a descendant of a long-deceased Cuban refugee or immigrant.
Elena was meeting her friends at one of the more popular beaches in Pueblo, about a ten minute drive from our house. I used to head down to that same beach with it's bleached sand and salty fragrance nearly every day to meet up with Becca. But things change and, as I learned, people outgrew previous activities.
We shared our backyard with the neighbors that lived on our side of the street. Our private beach was a constant reminder of the beauty of nature that Elena deemed uncool after my social life went extinct. When I was a kid, before Elena was old enough to understand the difference between Revlon and Maybelline cosmetics, I would sit on our porch, protected by the wooden awning, and watch the flickers of lightning play across the clouded ocean sky. There was nothing like the smell of an impending storm as it clashed with the summer heat.
Lately, I'd taken to reading on those same steps that I once raced down as a kid, daring anyone around me to catch me before my feet touched the tepid waters lapping only several yards away. My mind alerted me that perhaps that excursion would come to a halt now that the new guy had moved in.
"I'm so late," Elena whined beside me, her thin arms crossed over her tiny chest. "I hope they didn't leave without me."
I puffed out my cheeks for lack of saying something rude and parked in an empty, sandy spot. Elena was out before I'd even turned the engine off, the heat of the morning snaking in from her opened door.
"Hey," I called out to her just before she'd run off. "I'll call you when it's time to go."
Elena slowly pivoted on the spot and I saw that her eyes were wide. "You're not leaving?"
I shook my head and unbuckled my seatbelt. "Nope, mom told me to stay put until four."
Her jaw dropped, revealing perfect teeth that four years of braces had helped along.
"Sorry, kid," I opened my own door and my feet felt the sharp stinging heat of the sand. "But I'll call you when your play-date is up."
I watched my little sister huff and puff off down the beach, where a small gaggle of pre-teen girls waved and cheered for her to hurry up. I leaned against the SUV and watched them with reminiscent sympathy. My sister: only thirteen and she was already caught up in the whole popularity bit. Sure, I understood why she was--she was gorgeous, even for a kid, and super smart, but her friends, who were more interested in boys and fashion, didn't even know that she was at the top of her class. A mini-me waiting to happen, all over again.
I slipped my bag over my head until it sat snugly against my shoulder, popped the trunk and got a folding chair and a beach umbrella, and started walking towards the shore. I watched moms slather sunblock on toddlers and slightly older children, dogs jump with too much enthusiasm into the water, and boys ogling girls in teeny bikinis. But mostly, I saw my past self giggling like a fool whenever one of the guys from my class picked me up, or made a joke. So much can happen in a year, yet I felt no different. Sure, I'd given up my obsession with my appearance, but my love of words and school stayed with me. I just increased the reclusive tendency I had by a billion. Having no friends in Pueblo provides an easy excuse for not doing anything beyond my home and beach.
I stopped right before the shore and set the chair down close enough to the water so I could dip in my toes, then set to work on getting the umbrella in place. After digging a solid looking hole, I placed the pole of the umbrella into it and smacked the sand around it, securing it in place. I opened the umbrella and sat down, my book easily accessible in my bag. Slipping my earphones on and turning my MP3 player on, I let myself get lost in the words written on the book in front of me.
Elena slouched into the house and slammed the door before I was even out of the car. She'd wanted to stay more time. She'd begged, pleaded in low whispers as I watched her friends scrutinize my sister and I. I was resolute, knowing that mom wasn't up for excuses. In the end, Elena followed me back to the car because she knew that she'd be hurting mom.
Now I sat in the car, unable to turn off the ignition. I wondered what it would be like to be thirteen again. Was I as single-minded? Was I a brat? Every time my parents told me it was time to leave, or said I couldn't go somewhere, did I react like my younger sister? My mind reeled as I finally turned off the engine and stared up at our house, a perfect facade of what went on inside. At least mom would be glad to have Elena home so early.
Before I reached the front door, I heard splashes coming from behind the houses. I frowned and walked a quick route around my house, flowers and weeds tickling my bare legs and making them itch. Our new neighbor was just stepping onto the shore when I finally reach our backyard, his chest bare and toned. Water dripped from his short, dark hair and even from here I could see the easy smile on his handsome face.
I looked around at the other yards and noted that we were the only ones out here. I could just make out my dad's laughter in the kitchen and the sound of furniture being moved around in his house, but other than that it was only the echo of crashing waves that stood between us.
He looked up just as I caught a glimpse of his near-naked self again. My mouth opened and closed, but my feet stayed rooted. He narrowed his eyes and waved an awkward hand. I reciprocated with a lopsided wave before rushing up the porch steps and into the cool kitchen.