Life gets complicated when you’re the only girl living in a boys’ boarding school.
Suzette stretched across the back seat of her parents’ car and scratched the silky ears of her dog, Skipper. Even boys who were terrified to speak to her father, the Commandant, or his family loved his dog. The terrier turned out to be a real ice breaker—the perfect excuse for midshipmen to strike up a conversation with her or her mother.
She leaned back into the seat and watched palm trees whizzing past the car window. Hard to believe it was 1972—one year since she moved to the Sanford Naval Academy, a private boys’ boarding school in Florida that sounded more impressive than it was. She remembered worrying about so much stuff—leaving her friends in Boston, attending a Catholic high school and finding new friends in such a weird place. It seemed silly, now.
She lived among the “Anchor Clankers.” At least that’s what the local boys called the midshipmen who lived in dorm rooms above her family’s apartment. As the only girl who crossed paths daily with hundreds of guys, Suzette understood exactly how a goldfish in a bowl might feel. Since the naval academy didn’t allow girls, she was forced to attend Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt, a parochial school across town. She had adjusted to a lot of changes over the last year and finished with an A- average and a few good friends.
Still, Suzette was thrilled to hang up her ugly school uniform for the summer. She hadn’t missed the white roll-up sleeve blouse, the ankle socks, or the ugly gray pleated skirt since she left them in a pile on her bedroom floor after the last day of classes. Suzette shuddered when she thought of having to wear them again once school started in August.
“Can you turn up the air conditioning, please? Skipper is panting back here.”
Even after a year, she wasn’t used to the suffocating summer heat or the mosquitoes, gnats, and an alien species called no-see-ums that ate her alive in Florida. She envied her older sister, who stayed in Boston for college and didn’t have to deal with the tropical pests.
Today her parents were driving along the shore of Lake Monroe, heading for the turnpike that would take them south to Fort Pierce. It had been two months since the senior class graduated and the empty school building felt depressing over the summer. Suzette missed seeing the midshipmen, so when her friend (and surrogate “big brother”) Tim Johnson invited the family to his engagement party, she was delighted. He had been one of her mom’s favorite midshipmen—athletically gifted, but academically unmotivated. She knew this weekend would be fun.
After they checked into their hotel and took Skipper for a walk, the family changed clothes for dinner and climbed back into the car. Their invitation was for cocktails at Tim’s home, followed by the party at a country club.
When they pulled up, Suzette thought the waterfront residence looked more like a five-star resort, combined with the elegance of a stately southern home. His mother and stepfather welcomed them inside, where whisper-soft shades of blue highlighted the walls and oversized sofas and chairs in pale linen. Suzette put her glass of cola down on a dark wood table, terrified of spilling it. She was glad they left Skipper asleep on the hotel bed. This was definitely not a place where dirty paws or accidents would be welcome.
A gilded mirror glowed on the wall. Suzette admired it, gradually paying more attention to the adults’ conversation.
“Then I tried to end it all and, of course, Timmy found me,” his mother said.
Wait a minute, whaaat…?
Suzette couldn’t believe what she just heard. Her eyes opened as wide as sand dollars and she checked to be sure her mouth hadn’t dropped open in shock. Glancing at Tim, who had been sitting and smiling at his mother as she spoke, Suzette noticed the clenched muscles in his jaw. At that moment, the corners of his mouth turned down in a slight grimace.
Her mind raced. His mother once tried to commit suicide and Tim found her? When was this? How old was he? How awful would that experience be?
The adults kept chatting and Suzette looked at her father’s glass. It was nearly full of Scotch. He had barely touched it, but that wasn’t unusual. He behaved pretty well in front of an audience. His drinking got worse when he was at home. Tonight, Suzette wouldn’t worry.
Tim caught her eye, raised his eyebrows and nodded toward the front door. She stood as he announced, “Excuse us, everyone. I’m going to show Suzette the dock.”
They walked outside to a symphony of frogs croaking in a nearby pond. The scent of Confederate jasmine wafted from a hedge beside the house. She bent to sniff the tiny white flowers and breathed in the sweetest aroma she had ever smelled.
“Sorry, the conversation was getting pretty heavy in there,” Tim shook his head. “It really wasn’t as bad as you think. We were having dinner one night and my parents were arguing about the divorce.”
He stared at the water for awhile before he continued. “Mom yelled something like, ‘I know how to end all this.’ Then she grabbed one of my dad’s pistols and ran out of the house.”
He closed his eyes as if it might make the memory go away.
“I ran after her, of course,” he continued. “She broke down and cried and eventually gave me the gun. I don’t even think it was loaded. My dad was drinking a lot back then. But I remember later that night he told me not to worry about my mom. He said that most of the people who talk about killing themselves never actually do it.”
“That’s good to know.” Suzette wondered if it was actually true. “But it must’ve been awful for you to worry about your mom.”
“Hey, I don’t want to be a downer.” Tim smiled. “Life is pretty good right now. I’ve got a great job and I’m getting married. That makes me a lucky guy.”
He paused and Suzette raised a hand to shade her eyes from the sun.
“I ran into a former midshipman who graduated from the academy a couple of years ago,” he continued. “It was before your dad became commandant. Anyway, this guy was a real jock, captain of the football team, the basketball team, and senior class president, too, I think. All the younger kids looked up to him. He was a big deal, man. He told me he flunked out of college and was painting houses. All he could talk about was the naval academy.”
He shook his head.
“It’s sad. I think people who believe high school was the greatest only remember their triumphs. They were the sports heroes, dated cheerleaders, and had everything they wanted. Eventually, they grew up and landed in the real world where no one knew anything about them. Their professors or bosses and coworkers didn’t give a shit that they’d scored the winning touchdown or were voted class president. The real world is one big disappointment to them.”
He turned to Suzette and grinned. “That’s not going to happen to us, right?”
The next morning, Suzette and her parents met Tim and his fiancée on the dock. She thought it was kind of funny that he could hardly wait to show off the expensive ski boat his dad had given him for graduation. Suzette figured that was one of the perks of divorce—parents competing for their kids’ love with extravagant gifts.
“All right Ski Queen, are you ready to walk on water?” He grinned.
“Umm, why don’t you show me how?” Suzette was annoyed at his cockiness, his obvious athletic ability, and his years of experience on the water. Maybe it was good she didn’t have a real brother after all. Tim was the closest thing to it, and he could be pretty annoying.
She was nervous because she couldn’t wear her glasses or contact lenses in the water, so she couldn’t see anyone in the boat very well. The roar of the engine made it hard to hear them, too.
Her father slid behind the wheel of the boat as Tim buckled his life jacket.
“I’ll yell, ‘Hit it’ when I’m ready, Sir.”
The Captain adjusted his sunglasses, gripped the ship’s wheel and grinned at his wife. Suzette marveled at how her mother never had a hair out of place. Pale blonde locks swept dramatically away from her face and were woven into an immaculate chignon on the back of her head. Today, she had tied a scarf under her chin and expertly applied Merle Norman Frosted Coral lipstick to her lips. Suzette was pretty sure the woman would look just as perfect when she stepped off the boat as when she stepped onto it.
“You two ladies can be my spotters,” the Captain said. “Let me know if Tim falls.”
Like that’s ever going to happen. Suzette had watched him ski many times.
Tim stood in shallow water and hopped onto a slalom ski at the exact moment the tow rope became taut. Gliding effortlessly across the water, he crossed the boat wake, back and forth, in fluid movements.
He probably learned to ski before he learned to walk.
After the boat made a large circle, Tim let go of the rope and slowly began to sink. Effortlessly, he swam to the stern, as the boat idled, handed the slalom ski over the rail to her father, and climbed aboard.
Next, it was Suzette’s turn.
“It helps to wet the skis before putting them on because it makes them easier to slide on your feet,” Tim explained as he adjusted the black rubber guard to a smaller size. “It should feel tight, so it might take a little wiggling to get your feet in all the way.”
Suzette pulled the rubber boot over her foot but when she bent over, the life jacket slid up to her nose, obstructing her view.
“Guess we better tighten that jacket, too,” Tim laughed.
Suzette swung her legs over the side of the boat and slipped into the water. It was warmer on the surface than the bottom, where her toes were. Slimy weeds brushed her ankles and salty water splashed in her mouth.
“Hold the handle with your hands next to each other. Both palms should be facing down, and the rope should be between the tips of your skis.”
Easier said than done. Things float in different directions once in the water.
“The most important thing is the boat will start from zero very quickly and that helps you get up on the skis smoothly.”
Now Suzette was really nervous. She didn’t like the sound of the word “quickly.” She had attempted to waterski before but never quite mastered standing up on skis. She would have been even more terrified if she was with a real guy, but this was just Tim.
“Keep your arms out straight,” he hollered. “Don’t bend your elbows.”
Mom smiled and waved as Tim hit the throttle. Suzette lurched forward, over the skis and hit the water face first. Her lifejacket lodged up around her ears, taking her bikini top with it. She tried to yank them both down when she noticed her skis floating upside-down in the water.
Tim circled around and turned off the motor when the boat approacjed Suzette. He let the boat’s momentum bring it alongside her.
“Next time, let the life jacket keep you floating on top of the water and just lean back.”
Suzette nodded. When she was in position again, the Captain gave a thumbs-up and the boat accelerated. She held on as long as she could, until her skis careened in opposite directions and the tow rope handle slipped out of her hands.
“You have to let the boat pull you out of the water,” Tim suggested. “When you try to pull yourself up out of the water, you lose your balance.”
She had heard this advice before, of course, during several failed attempts to waterski. It sounded simple, but Suzette struggled to get her two skis pointing skyward because her feet kept drifting apart. Whenever they got close together, the skis crossed over each other. Even the smallest wave seemed to push them out of control.
“There shouldn’t be any slack in the rope, or when the boat starts, it will jerk you forward and cause you to fall,” Tim cautioned. “When I see the rope is tight in your hands, I’ll go slow and drag you for a few seconds before I hit the gas.”
Wet hair covered her face as she was dragged along behind the boat. Suzette held onto the rope and heard the word “Ready?” before she was airborne. It felt fantastic until her right ski skidded over the boat’s wake. At full speed she landed in a perfect split—forcing her bikini bottom into a painful wedgie.
“If you try to cross the wake with one ski at a time, you’ll fall,” Tim shook his head. “And if you go too slowly, you’ll fall.”
On a positive note, doing a split at cheerleading practice should be a piece of cake after this. Suzette’s leg muscles began to twitch weirdly after six attempts.
“Shall we try this again, some other time?” she asked, pushing the floating skis toward the boat ladder. Mom looked relieved.
“You had enough, Ski Queen?”
As his fiancée reached down and grabbed Suzette’s arm to hoist her into the boat, her diamond engagement ring flashed in the sun. Out of breath, Suzette collapsed in her seat just as another ski boat pulled alongside them.
Tim looked up and grinned. “Hey John, how’s it going?”
John Elliott, the incoming Battalion Commander and a senior at the naval academy, waved and cut his engine. Like Tim, John’s family lived in Vero Beach and occasionally Tim gave him a ride home for holidays.
“Pretty good, Tim. Captain LeBlanc, it’s nice to see you and Mrs. LeBlanc. I heard you would be in town for the weekend.”
Suzette peered from beneath her wind-knotted hair and squinted at the boat. John’s hair was longer than she remembered, and he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Instead of the gray uniform, he wore slightly frayed denim cutoffs, which made his tanned chest and legs look even darker.
Unfortunately, a girl stood next to him in the boat and Suzette heard the name, Jill. She was wearing an oversized T-shirt—probably one of John’s—but underneath it appeared to be the outline of a pretty decent figure.
“And you remember our daughter, Suzette?”
John waved and Suzette nodded weakly, pulling the wet towel tighter around herself. Oh God, her hair looked frightening. She hoped there wasn’t any seaweed sticking out of it.
Why didn’t I remember to put on a baseball cap? As the other boat sped off, she found herself staring at its wake and feeling a little annoyed … or was it … jealous? There wasn’t anything to be jealous about. Okay, so there was definitely more to John than she had first thought. He wasn’t just some military geek-turned-battalion-commander. He looked pretty normal out of his uniform. Maybe even better than normal. When classes started and he returned to the naval academy next month, she definitely wanted to get to know him better.