King of the World by Jackie Reitzes
There are 13 of us at the lake-house that weekend, no parents, no teachers. It is after the last day of high school but before graduation. We’re out on a motorboat on a lake—my friends and I, six boys and seven girls, the girls in J.Crew two-pieces, the boys in surfer trunks, and the sky is gray.
When Tim stalls the boat we hop in the lake, and because the water is a bottle-green color, the girls take off their tops, testing the ripples that curve around our skin without actually having to reveal anything. We giggle and wave the stringy bathing-suit pieces above our heads. The guys on the boat—our friends, our confidants in daily sixth-period peer leadership, which is kind of like group therapy for senior “mentors,” don’t quite know what to make of this—of us, their co-leaders, making a spectacle, unsure what exactly their reaction should be.
We pull up the suits and refasten the straps before emerging on the steps of the boat, which Tim’s parents are letting us use for the weekend along with the lake-house. We are not the kind of kids who would trash it—at night it’s just movies and big dinners and maybe some six-packs, maybe some morning runs along mountain roads.
My tee-shirt is from the girls’ basketball tournament, a team for whom I no longer play but whose wins I will still follow. The shirt is bunched in a corner of the boat and a towel is wrapped around my waist. I have a black scab on my big toe that I try to hide with my other toe.
We are all leaving soon—Vassaar, Washington & Lee, Michigan, Cornell, Emory, Brandeis, B.U. A smattering of us, like lightning bugs across a wide dark field. These are not my closest friends, but they are among them, and they are a circle in front of whom I’ve cried and told the truth a number of times, as have they.
I am horsing around, getting people to laugh as we approach a cove maybe a hundred yards away. I step over the rail of the boat onto its triangled beak and pretend I am in Titanic, arms outstretched for camp appeal, the king of the world. It is the kind of risk you only take when people are watching, to try and get a reaction. The motor churns below as the boat trips closer to the shore. The waves rise up in ledges, a steady rocking up then back.
Until— there is a snag, and I’m loosed from the edge of the boat as we’re still moving, pitched over its triangular beak, and, in the oddest way, rather than flap my arms backwards and resist the lurch, as a good senior mentor would, the responsible girl I’ve always, been, it’s almost like, knowing where I’m headed, I lean into the fall.
Beneath the white underbelly of the boat— my eyes snap open, I cannot help it, and then slam shut. Trapped beneath, it’s passing forward above me as I slide back, sliding, sliding, in opposite directions, like the body and cover of a calculator. I know there are blades to contend with— motor, engine, where must those be? The water is seaweed colored, the boat’s belly white. There is the thought— maybe this is it, maybe I will not be leaving after all. Maybe my parents would kill me if I die doing a Leonardo DiCaprio impersonation. And the release of leaning into the fall, the surrender because there’s nothing to be done but wait. Close your eyes. Brace yourself. Hold your breath. See.
When I emerge, my head pops up first—and the boat is stalled and everybody is peering out at me, leaning over the rail I was too cool to let contain me, only it doesn’t feel cool now. It feels embarrassing. I wave, laugh a little, breast-stroke over, let the boys hoist me up. It’s a scary kind of quiet. I laugh again and tell them I’m fine, and then it’s as if everybody is talking at once, and I’m wondering how it’s possible to play this one off—and Tim is describing how he knew to throw the gear into reverse to stall the engine, and that’s the only reason I’m not pot-stickers right now, and how, if David had still been driving… there’s relief and it passes, though when we get to the cove I still feel awkward, like the silence that follows a flat joke. We set down towels and lay on the shore. Boys run off the cliffs, but I’ve had enough for one day.
It is only later, when we’re on the road back to Atlanta, stopped at a famous barbeque pit, as I retell the story to a friend’s mom, that I realize enough to be scared. The somersault of hair and muffled sound, streamers up my nose; a seahorse, or the back flips you practice as a kid in the deep end from a tread position; neck, belly, crick of thighs, toes.
When I go to sleep that night, the feel of the water is the only thing running through me.
© Jackie Reitzes, 2012
Jackie Reitzes hails from Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a BA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from Cornell University. Her work has appeared in ESPN: The Magazine, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Iron Horse Literary Review. She is currently one of The Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writer Fellows and began teaching just this week at NYU’s Expository Writing Center.
King of the World was read by Virginia Bosch on 5th September 2012