My cousin Barry and I were friends the summer we were 15 years old. We hung out together, but Barry didn't act like much of a friend. He was always putting me down and laughing at me, but for some reason I kept coming back—hanging around like a beaten puppy that still thinks it's going to get a doggie biscuit.
Barry was big for his age and had started to shave regularly. I'd only recently sprouted hair under my arms and down there, but it would be another four years before I needed a razor. Of course, Barry made fun of my lack of development every chance he got, especially if there were girls around.
"Butch is a baby-face," he'd say. The girls would giggle. I felt the heat rising onto my cheeks. "Look at Butchie blush. He don't even need to go down the Shore to get sunburnt."
"Your cousin Barry is a barbarian," my mother said when I told her what happened. "You should keep your distance from him."
"He's not so bad," I said. "Anyway, he's my friend."
"What kind of friend makes fun of you like that?"
Honestly, I didn't know why I was drawn to him. Maybe I just needed someone to talk to. That's the way it is when you're 15 and kind of lonely. The world was all a puzzle to me, and Barry seemed to have the answers. At least, he acted like he did.
That summer, Barry managed to get a job as a lifeguard. You were supposed to be at least 18, but he looked a lot older and managed somehow to pass the ocean swimming test.
Every morning, I would pull on my swim trunks and make my way alongside the ocean for about a mile to reach Barry's lifeguard stand. That was the best part of the day, feeling the sun hot on my shoulders. I'd keep my head down, looking for sand crabs or cool-looking shells.
Often, when I reached Barry's stand, he'd be talking to some girl or a couple of them. According to Barry, that was the main benefit of being a lifeguard. "I can get any chick I want now," he said.
"Yeah, I bet," I said, and climbed up on the lifeguard stand to sit next to him.
My cousin hardly even looked at the people swimming and playing in the ocean. He was too busy fooling around with the girls or reading Sports Illustrated.
"What if somebody were drowning?" I asked. "Would you know what to do?"
"Shoot," Barry said. "I've already rescued ten people this summer."
Barry punched me in the arm—hard. I acted like it didn't hurt and punched him back. It was like smacking a side of beef.
Every day, near the end of Barry's shift, Louie, the lifeguard lieutenant, would drive down the beach in his open-air Jeep. If Barry was a jerk, Louie the lieutenant was a super jerk. He'd pull his Jeep right up in front of the stand and sit there, staring straight ahead, waiting for Barry to give him a daily report. Louie was probably 30 years old, and had a thick chest and muscular ape arms.
"Who the fuck is this?" he asked when he saw me sitting there.
"My little cousin, Butchie."
"My name is Butch," I said and jumped off the high stand. "I'm going for a swim."
"Maybe I should stick around for the rescue," Louie said.
"Nah, I can pull him out," Barry said.
I flipped them the finger, and then ran down to the surf and dove in. I kept swimming till I was out way beyond the breakers. I was waiting for Barry or Louie to blow their whistles and wave me in, but they never did.
Near the end of summer, Barry told me we were going to a dance. "It's the Lifeguard's Ball. All sorts of hot girls will be there. Maybe we'll even get you laid. There's a first for everybody."
"What do you know about it?"
"Trust me, little cuz—I know all I need to know."
"Yeah, right." I didn't want to talk about that stuff, especially not with Barry. I wasn't sure I believed him about having sex, but I wasn't sure I didn't, either. "Aren't you supposed to have a date for a Lifeguard's Ball?"
"You're my date, pretty boy." Barry reached over and tousled my hair. I batted his hand away.
Still, I agreed to go to the stupid ball. I told Mom we were going to the movies. "Don't be home late" was all she said. Then I walked over to Barry's house.
"What the hell are you wearing?" was the first thing Barry said to me.
"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" I had on the clothes I always wore: dungarees, a white T-shirt, and scruffy old Converse high-tops.
"You can't go to a dance wearing the same ugly clothes you wear every damn day." Barry walked off to his bedroom and came out a minute later holding what looked like a bright red blanket. "Here, put this on, knuckle-brain. Make yourself presentable."
I caught the cloth and opened it out. It was an enormous shirt, bright and shiny. "I can't wear this. I'll look like a giant tomato."
"Just put it on," Barry said. "You'll look sharp."
I was right about the ball. Everybody there did have a date. I felt totally out of place. I quickly scoped out the most secluded corner to hide in while I watched all the handsome lifeguards dance with their pretty girlfriends. I hoped nobody would ask me what I was doing there. I watched Barry as he darted around the dance floor, poking his fat head into one group after another. Knowing my jerk-off cousin, I knew he was making what my mom would call "inappropriate comments" to all the girls. The other lifeguards glared at him, but Barry didn't seem to notice.
Every once in a while, Barry would remember that I was there, and saunter over to my corner. "Get out and circulate, little man. Do some dancing; show us those Philly moves."
"I don't see you dancing, hotshot."
"Barry doesn't dance. Barry is a lover, not a dancer."
"Why don't we get out of here?" I said. "There aren't any single girls anyway."
"That's what you think."
"We don't belong here. I'm leaving."
Just then Lieutenant Louie came strolling over and said to Barry in this made up high-pitched voice, "I love your date's dress. The color is very flattering."
"Fuck off," I said, before I could think better of it.
"What'd you say?" He was wearing a tie that looked like it was choking him and his forehead was all shiny.
"It's not even my shirt," I said.
"He didn't mean anything, Lou," Barry said. "He's not too swift, is all."
"Well, you better tell him to watch his damn mouth."
"You're the one who started it," I said. "You watch your mouth." I wanted to rip the damn tomato shirt off and throw it in his face.
Louie clenched his fist and took a step toward me. Barry grabbed his arm. But Louie just threw him aside like he was a little boy. I knew I was in big trouble, but at the same time felt some sort of weird elation. I didn't have much time to enjoy the feeling, as Louie then grabbed me by the collar and tossed me halfway across the dance floor, where I slithered to a stop at the feet of a clutch of jitterbugging couples.
"I slipped," I mumbled, scrambling to my feet, looking over my shoulder to see if Louie was coming after me.
Instead, it was Barry, who rushed across the floor. He grabbed my arm and didn't even ask if I was OK or anything. He whispered, "Louie says we have to get out of here. Now!"
"No way," I said, pulling my arm away. For some reason I couldn't have named, I did not want to leave the ball. "I want to dance."
"Don't be crazy," Barry said, glancing back over his shoulder.
"You're the one who wanted to come."
"You're gonna get my ass fired." Barry grabbed my elbow and started tugging.
I pulled away. "If you're too scared, go ahead and leave."
Then I started dancing, the red shirt swirling around me like a bullfighter's cape. I jumped and turned, did the mashed potato, the Bristol stomp, the pony. For once in my life, I didn't care who was watching me or what they thought of me.
When the music finally stopped, I caught my breath and looked around. Barry was nowhere in sight. The rest of the lifeguards and their dates were talking, laughing, not paying any attention to me at all.
Then I saw Lieutenant Louie walking towards me. I thought about running, but decided not to. If Louie still wanted to hit me, I would deal with it.
"Yo, kid," Louie called. "Not a bad dancer, are you?" He was smiling and had loosened his tie.
"The name's Butch," I said.
"Yeah, OK," Louie said. "Anyway, your shithead cousin split on you."
"I figured he might."
"Look, I'm not telling you how to live your life, kid." He stopped and chuckled. "I mean, Butch. But that guy ain't doing you no favors."
"Yeah, I know."
"Fact is," Louie said, "the guy's a douchebag. He's not even really 18, is he?"
I didn't answer. Barry was family and you couldn't turn on your family. But I thought about it.
"So, look, you need a ride home?" Louie asked. "Me and my girl are leaving soon."
"No, that's OK, Lou. I'll walk. I need some fresh air."
"I know what you mean, man," he said, then reached out his hand to shake. "You come see me next summer. Maybe we'll make a guard out of you. I already seen you're a hell of a lot better swimmer than your cousin."
I shook his big hand. "Yeah, thanks. I'll do that."
"Maybe you better get going now."
"Right, right," I said, and turned and walked away.
Louie called after me, loud enough for everybody close by to hear. "Hey, Butch." I turned back around. "Get rid of that damn shirt, will you."
I didn't even care when they all started laughing.