I didn't expect to actually go swimming when Mrs. Boosalis called me on the telephone and said, "Taylor, darling. Come to my house. Liberterio and Antonio are in the swimming pool wearing only their Speedos."
My mouth went dry. "Speedos?"
"I called you as soon as I saw," she said.
"I'm on my way," I said, and hung up. Then I sat for a moment staring at the wall, trying to decide which swimsuit to wear.
No American man should ever be allowed to wear a Speedo. But when it came to the Boosalis' Italian visitors, let's just say I didn't mind so much.
I wavered as I packed my swim bag. I mean, wouldn't this just be slightly obvious, showing up at the Boosalis' house on a Friday afternoon in my swimsuit? But I pattered down the stairs in my pink bikini with the brown terrycloth cover up none-the-less, dipping my head slightly when I saw Mom on the living room floor attempting sit ups.
"Taylor ... where are ... you going?" she grunted between crunches.
"Boosalises," I said.
Mom sat up and flipped a tendril of hair out of her face. "You and Chara made up, huh?"
Chara was Mrs. Boosalis' fifteen-year-old daughter. My best friend since kindergarten. But more recently, ex-friend.
"Yeah," I lied. "She invited me swimming."
"Are their exchange students still with them for the summer? Those two brothers?"
I tossed my head, avoiding eye contact. "How should I know?" I gripped the door handle.
"What d'you mean 'how should you know'?" Mom said. "I think you'd know if they went back to Italy. You've seemed interested enough in them this whole time."
"Mom! I meant," I said, opening the door, "that I don't know if they'll be there or not. Maybe it'll just be the Boosalises. Maybe they had something else to do." I hated lying to my mom. But ultimately, I just felt stupid. Who'd want to admit to heading out to ogle well-built Italian boys in Speedos? And that Mrs. Boosalis, of all people, was my informant. "I'm going to be late," I added, and went out.
"Sweetie," Mom's voice followed me before I could shut the door.
"Yeah?" I looked back at her.
"Just be careful," she said. "You know how I feel about ... Mrs. Boosalis."
"Mom," I said as I tossed my hair over my shoulder. "I've been going to the Boosalis' house, like, all my life."
"Yeah, but since Chara's dad left ... things just haven't felt ... you know what I mean."
"I'll be fine," I said, and shut the door.
I crossed the street to their house, pausing as I stood out front. I hadn't been inside for two weeks. Not since Chara and I got into that fight. We hadn't spoken to each other since. I took a deep breath and started down the brick walk, lined with white, red, and blue flowers. Just for the fourth of July, of course. That was like Mrs. Boosalis. Chara would flip if she found out her mother had invited me over. I had to think of some other excuse for coming by, but as I approached their door, all I could think about were Italian boys in Speedos.
My hand lingered over the doorbell button for a moment before I pressed it. After the chimes subsided I heard Mrs. Boosalis' accented voice on the other side of the door, her sweeping figure floating past the glassy tiles that framed the doorway. "I'll get it! No, Chara! Stay where you are!"
The door swung back and she stood there, like an elegant swan, long neck extended, white, gauzy wings raised, her small dark eyes glinting at me over the threshold. "You are here!" she cried, feigning surprise. "Chara, my Chara. It is your best friend in all the world, Taylor. Come in, my darling. This is a pleasant surprise." Then, she winked, squeezing her smudgy black eyelids together.
I walked in, obediently, and glanced into the front room, where Chara was sitting with one leg up on the arm of the cream-colored sofa. The rest of her body was hunched over a Nintendo DS. She didn't look up at me. "Go away," she said, her voice muffled by the shaggy hair that hung in her face.
"But," Mrs. Boosalis said quickly, "what a shame! She's just arrived. And maybe she has something to say to you, Chara, my Chara. Oh, but look, you must have come from the pool or somewhere, Taylor dear, for I see your swimming costume underneath your clothes. And perhaps you would like to continue your swim in our pool?"
Now Chara did look up, the fire dancing in her eyes. "Go. Away."
I swallowed, trying to think up something to say. Probably the right thing would be to say sorry. Sorry I had a stupid fight with you over boys. But as I thought about apologizing, I realized I still wasn't sorry. And saying sorry when I was not sorry, even if it was the only way to see Liberterio and Antonio Maroni in the pool, seemed too hypocritical.
"I've always come over before without being invited," I said. "Just because you're mad at me doesn't mean I have to stay away. I can still have relationships with other people in this house."
I looked back at Mrs. Boosalis. She was watching me with that direct, unnerving gaze of hers. Abruptly, I felt uncomfortable. Why had she called me, exactly?
Don't get me wrong. I knew. We'd talked about how hot her two exchange students were. We'd even emailed about this fight between her daughter and me and I knew she thought Chara was being ridiculous. She sided with me. She said all young girls had crushes on older boys. Especially on older boys from countries like Italy, because they have wonderful accents, and just have a different look about them, different than your run-of-the-mill American. If only they were Greek, she'd said. But oh well! Mediterranean men were Mediterranean men. She added that there was nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing at all. And if Chara couldn't accept that, then Chara was crazy.
Mrs. Boosalis was ashamed of Chara. I knew that too. I'd known for a long time that if she could have chosen a daughter, she would've chosen me instead.
I straightened my back as I dropped my swim bag on a nearby chair and turned my back on Chara. I forced myself to smile at Mrs. Boosalis. "A dip in your pool sounds amazing, Mrs. Boosalis. Thanks."
Mrs. Boosalis returned my smile, showing all her white teeth. "Yes, you're always welcome, Taylor dear. We love to see old friends." She shut the door, her long tunic top fluttering. "Ah, but one thing. The Italian boys. They happen to be swimming now. This will not bother you, will it?"
Chara snorted. "Bother her. She probably came over just to see the show."
"No, no. Of course not Chara!" Mrs. Boosalis said. "How would she know? She cannot see our swimming pool from her window. How else would she have known?"
"She probably has radar for that sort of thing, Mom," Chara said. "Boy-crazy girls usually do."
I glared at Chara, but she had gone back to her game, attacking the buttons with vicious thumbs.
"I'd actually like to see Liberterio and Antonio," I said. "After all, we are friends."
"Friends," Chara said without looking up. "After all I've told you about them. You still say they're friends?"
"Tut, tut!" Mrs. Boosalis cried. "Chara, you should be ashamed."
Chara flicked her head. "Ashamed of what? Telling the truth?"
"They're nice guys," I said.
"Yeah," Chara said. "Real nice guys. Whatever. That's why I have to barricade the door to my room every night. Nice guys."
Mrs. Boosalis' mouth was set in a hard line. "That's enough now, Chara. I didn't know I'd raised you to be so -- so disrespectful to our guests."
"I didn't know I had such a flaky best friend before either. I guess we just get to know each other better and better all the time." She was looking at me now, through the curtains of her tangled hair. "Just get out of here, Taylor. I know my mother called you. She's just using you, like she uses everybody. For her own sick enjoyment."
Mrs. Boosalis' laugh was high and nervous."Me, call her! Don't be ridiculous."
"Whatever, Mom," Chara said, slapping the DS closed and struggling to her feet. "You're pathetic. Don't you know I can see right through you?"
I cleared my throat, not daring to look at Mrs. Boosalis. "I'm going swimming."
"Go ahead. Swim with them. Show off your little bikini. Fine." Chara stalked to the staircase. "Just don't come crying to me when they play around with you and dump you. Let yourself believe they're really interested. Go ahead."
"Well, perhaps they are interested in Taylor," Mrs. Boosalis said. Glancing at her face, I saw it was pale with rage. "Why would that be so surprising? She is a beautiful girl. Keeps herself impeccably ... unlike others I know."
"Knock it off, Mom." Chara's voice trembled.
Mrs. Boosalis went on. "And you - you won't even try to attract them!"
"I didn't need to try," Chara's voice was hollow. "But if nobody will believe me, well--"
"You are full of lies!" Mrs. Boosalis hissed. 'You could have boyfriends, but I think sometimes you don't even like boys! Most girls would be happy to have attention from boys like that."
Chara climbed a few steps, and stopped to shove a clump of hair behind her ear. "Yeah, Taylor, you can see. She's been a whole lot of help. You -- you've let me down. If anyone was going to believe me, I thought it would be you."
I saw the tears standing in her eyes, and doubt seized me. I glanced at Mrs. Boosalis. Her steel gray, spiky hair set off the firmness of her jaw. It hit me. What if Chara had been telling the truth all along? What if she wasn't just making stuff up because she was jealous?
I caved. "Maybe I should go."
"No! No!" Mrs. Boosalis cried, rushing at me with a force that nearly threw me off balance. "You go swim for awhile. Entertain the boys. Nothing will happen. I will be there. Don't let my dear Chara dissuade you with her lies."
"Go, Taylor," Chara said, her voice steady. "Run. Get out of this mad house."
I looked up at her, standing there, shoulders pushed back. With her hair out of her face now I could see she had her mother's jaw. Defiant.
"I'm going," I said, stumbling over to the chair and grabbing the straps of my bag.
"You go now," Mrs. Boosalis' voice was hard and cold, "and you will never enter this house again. Never!"
I ran to the door, and with my hand on the silver knob I looked back at Mrs. Boosalis.
"Is this some kind of game to you?" The words came out of my mouth before I realized I'd spoken out loud.
"A game?" Mrs. Boosalis said in little more than a whisper. Then, she swooped at me, her tunic flying out behind her. "You dare to speak to me like this in my own house?" she shrieked. "Out! Out!"
As I ran, with that bird of prey snatching at my heels, I realized how narrow had been my escape, how faithful had been my friend.