Tessa stands with her feet just barely touching the water. It's unusually warm today, more of a height-of-summer warmth than an early-fall cool. She wasn't expecting it when she woke up this morning. The sun is loitering near the clouds like it might decide to duck and hide at any point, and so Tessa too stands at the edge of the lake, not quite jumping in.
Emma Nelson has no such reservations. About as soon as Spike's dented sedan parks, Emma scrambles out of her car seat and sprints down the path toward the water. Spike barely has time to festoon her with water wings and smear sunscreen on her neck before she's off in a blur.
"Chest-deep, Em!" Spike calls as she spreads a bleach-stained towel on the ground. It's not quite sandy ground, so in Tessa's mind, it's not quite a beach, but it's a beautiful lake on a beautiful day.
About two months ago now, Tessa stood at the edge of the same lake, watching for the trademark white glint off of Joey's car. She'd been so excited for this date (she finally started calling their meetings "dates" around the time she started thinking of him as her "boyfriend") that she'd bounced around her house all morning, matching her nail polish to her swimsuit, curling her hair, and doing other little things that Joey would never notice. She couldn't hold it against him. He was happy to see her regardless of how polished she was.
At five after two, Tessa spotted the car and ran to the parking lot. (He wasn't quite on time, but for Joey this practically counted as being early.) As soon as he opened the door, she was there to greet him with a peck to the cheek. "Hi!"
"Hey!" He grinned. "I thought you'd be down on the beach, you know, with an umbrella and stuff."
"I wanted to surprise you." She couldn't help smiling when she saw him. He had one of those irresistible smiles that made her feel like she was glowing. It was a welcome change from Todd's sleazy, vacant smirks.
"Well, then…" he replied, turning away. "I'll race you down!" Before the last word left his mouth, he took off toward the water, kicking up dirt as he went.
"Joey!" she called after him, laughing. "That's not fair, I'm in flip-flops!"
Spike lounges across the towel, watching Emma from over the top of her sunglasses. She's in jean cutoffs and a Black Flag t-shirt— for Spike that may be downright tropical, but it doesn't look like she's planning on swimming. A battered paperback is sticking out of her enormous bag, which once was a diaper bag but has since been reincarnated as a general "supplies-for-a-kindergartner" bag. Tessa may ask for some animal crackers later if she gets hungry.
"This is so nice," Spike groans as she lies back. "Just what I needed."
"Yeah," Tessa replies, sounding a little vacant even to her own ears. "I'm so sick of midterms."
"If I'm not at work, I'm at the library. I feel like I'm going nuts! And they put me on the night shift! Who wants photos developed at 3AM?" Tessa didn't even know the photomat was open at 3AM.
"Mommyyy!" Emma shrieks. "I saw a shark!"
Spike doesn't even look up. "It wasn't a shark, Em, it was probably just a fish."
It was too a shark!" She hops in indignation. Her feet are still touching the lakebed. "I saw it! Manny gave me a shark book and some of them are as big as a school bus."
"I promise you there are no sharks in the lake. Sharks live in the ocean."
Emma seems to consider this for a second. "Well," she says, sounding remarkably calmer, "it's a really big lake. It's almost an ocean."
"If you're that worried about it, come sit with me."
"No!" she squeals, and scrambles further out into the water. The topmost ruffle on her swimsuit has been designated as the dividing line: This Deep and No Deeper. Maybe you needed one of those for yourself , Tessa thinks.
"So university's going okay?" Tessa asks, once the general shark commotion has dissipated.
"It's mostly a lot of reading," Spike replies. "Although I'm thinking of taking some accounting classes. That'd be more math. Oh!" With one hand, she rifles through the diaper bag and eventually unearths a creased pamphlet. "I found some stuff on dual-enrollment for you."
"Oh, thanks." Tessa keeps her eyes fixed on the water.
"Weren't you thinking about dual-enrollment?"
Spike eyes her carefully. "Well, I'll hang onto the pamphlet, so it won't get wet." She shoves it back into the bag. "The more time out of Degrassi, the better, that's what I say."
"Yeah," Tessa says again. Her voice is hollow.
"You can sit on the towel with me if you want."
"No, I think I might swim."
Joey took a flying leap and cannonballed into the shallow water. "C'mon!"
"It looks cold." A few stray droplets of water landed on her arm, and even that gave her goosebumps. Still, she peeled off her cover-up.
Joey gave an exaggerated wolf-whistle.
"Oh, stop," she laughed as she carefully inched into the water.
"What? I can't appreciate a gorgeous babe in a bikini? I thought this was a free country!"
She splashed a handful of water into his face and dog-paddled away, just out of reach. Come on, chase me, she thought yet again but still didn't say.
"Joey left a note in my locker on Friday."
Spike's neck snaps up from her paperback. "Really? Ugh, what a f—" A quick glance toward Emma. "…not-nice person."
"It wasn't a bad note," Tessa says. "It was mostly an apology."
Joey caught up with her quickly. At that distance, it was still shallow enough to barely walk along the soft lakebed, the mud grazing their feet. With an exaggerated swing of his arm, he grabbed her in an awkward, one-armed embrace that somehow managed to splash water in both of their faces.
Tessa spit out a mouthful of lake water. "Ugh, you creep! Good thing I didn't wear lip gloss. I'd be picking little… fishy things out of my mouth all day."
Joey splashed her a bit more, but he aimed away from her face this time, thankfully. "I don't know," he said. "I think you look better without all that."
"I don't do it for you," she replied, "but thank you." Her blush felt warmer underneath the cold droplets on her cheeks. Her ponytail was coming loose; her long hair stuck stubbornly to the back of her neck.
Joey shrugged. "I do like that flavored lip stuff, though."
Before she could come up with a flirty reply, he floated over and kissed her, right in front of everyone, a few feet from shore. It was the sort of kiss she'd been dreaming about ever since they'd started seeing each other— not a frantic, rushed make-out session in his backseat or on her couch, but a slow, gentle kiss, slower and gentler than she'd thought he was capable of.
When he pulled away, she slipped out of his arms and her mouth bobbed below the surface of the water.
Joey didn't miss a beat. He offered her his arm. "Let's get back to the shallower part."
Tessa pulls off her cover-up. Her swimsuit fits the same, yet when she looks down at her belly she still expects to see it growing rounder.
"Can I ask you something?" she blurts out.
Spike puts her book down. "Sure, what's up?"
"Who was with you when Emma was born?"
That's not what she meant to ask. That question is still floating in her mind: Did you ever think about having an abortion? But as soon as that question crystallizes fully Tessa knows it's not worth asking. Of course she did— what fourteen-year-old wouldn't? And regardless, for whatever reason, she did keep Emma, and that has nothing to do with Tessa at all. Beyond a few amorphous white-picket-fence fantasies, Tessa never really thought of keeping the baby, and she doesn't wish she had. But even now, after everything, she can't help but imagine Joey holding her hand in the waiting room, Joey being there when she woke up from anesthesia, Joey staying close after and reassuring her she did the right thing. Joey being there, telling her everything was okay. Joey offering her his arm.
"My mom," Spike replies. "The twins were with me when I first went into labor, but it was just my mom in the delivery room."
"His parents kept him out." Her voice, even after so long, is tinged with bitterness. "Why do you ask?"
Tessa crouches on the ground near the edge of the towel. She keeps her voice low. "I had an abortion this summer."
"Oh, my God," Spike breathes.
"I'm okay with it all, but…" She curls up smaller, her arms around her knees. "I was by myself. They had to get a volunteer to take me home. I couldn't tell my mom."
Spike leans over and wraps one arm around Tessa's shoulder. "Why didn't you call me?" she asks softly, not chidingly. "I would've gone with you."
But Tessa can't explain that it should've been Joey with her when she was lost and far from land. It should've been Joey with his arms around her. So she lets Spike hold her, and she watches Emma splash, thinking of what should have been.
Joey and Tessa paddled back to shore safely. They lay in the sun, drying off and enjoying the rays. She lay with her head on his shoulder, enjoying his closeness.
"I wish every day was like this," Joey said after a moment of quiet.
"You'd get bored of going to the beach every day."
"I don't mean just the beach. But, like…" He stretched his free arm wide. "I've got nothing to do but spend time with a beautiful girl. What's better than that?"
"I'm serious! This is the life, baby."
She rolled over and kissed him again, another slow, lingering kiss, just for the sheer joy of being able to. Then, very quietly, too quietly for him to hear, she whispered, "I love you, Joey Jeremiah."