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from the May 2008 issue

from “Friends for Four Years”

The bunker, located in a quiet, remote corner of the dunes, was surrounded by a low, thorny shrub that kept other beachgoers at arm's length, along with their economy-size cookie wrappers, empty liter soft-drink bottles, and leftover toilet paper. Its steel-framed entrance was sealed off with barbed wire. Three large herring gulls perched on the concrete, which was partially submerged in the sand. Merel took a deep breath of the sea air to clean out her lungs. It had been a good idea to go to the beach after school with the other TC members to escape the oppressive heat. Edo was standing next to her, half a head taller, his arm wrapped firmly around her so she wouldn't blow away even though there was no wind.

The group split into pairs: Ralf and Ellie were the first to sink down into the lyme-grass, followed by Marte and Linso. Too quickly, Merel let herself topple over backward. The soft sand was warm, like an electric blanket. Edo lay down beside her, dark and silent like a shadow. His dominant manner of a moment ago had suddenly become an obliging one, the way some lizardlike creatures suddenly change color. Merel remembered that he sometimes disparagingly called himself a sinjo, or half-caste. He was the grandson of Boudewijn van Randwijck, a Dutch colonial who to the horror of those around him had married a Chinese servant. On days when the heat became too much for him, he gave orders from his hammock—pistol in hand—to the workers who were building a new house for him and his wife on his estate. Edo often said it must have been the headstrong grandfather in him who had spoken to Merel in the canteen that day, because it was contrary to all TC-group rules; they weren't looking for new members at all. But it wasn't that pistol-wielder who was now lying expectantly next to Merel.

With sex you could go further on the beach than anywhere else, and though both Merel and Edo really wanted to, they lay there as if paralyzed. It took a while before they dared to lie close to each other, and it wasn't quite clear who would make the first move. Side by side they peered at the gulls, now flying overhead. They kissed each other, interlaced fingers, exchanged a few words. Edo picked up a piece of stray seaweed from near Merel's head and tossed it away.

Next to them Marte and Linso were tumbling over each other, laughing loudly. Occasionally Linso glanced at Ernst, who was sitting with Sharon on the crest of the dune. Linso would retreat without protest if he had to—Marte belonged to both of them—but for now Ernst was calmly smoking a cigarette and citing poetry. Sharon was gazing at the sea, perhaps musing over her boyfriend who had been expelled from school.

In no time Ellie and Ralf were undressing. Merel shifted her body so she could watch better as Ellie pulled Ralf's singlet over his head. His tanned, angular shoulders were covered with freckles. It was only on second glance that she noticed he wasn't entirely symmetrical and that the left side of his body was less developed than the right. When Ellie and Ralf were almost naked, they smoked a cigarette, at the same time brazenly looking around to see how far the others had progressed.

Linso and Marte's playful tussle was getting wilder. They even bumped into Merel, who let herself roll onto Edo. She felt sand in her hair and clothes and mouth. Unexpectedly Marte stood up, walked up the dune, and sat down next to Ernst, leaving her friend from a moment ago alone in the sand below.

To pretend she was doing something other than just being a voyeur, Merel turned to Edo and gave him a long kiss. It was as if he took it as a cue—like when she had pushed her chair back at school to sit closer to him—because she suddenly felt his hand under her shirt. Until then they had kept their clothes on.

In response Merel straightened up a bit to give Edo more room to maneuver. From now on they communicated only through body language, as though they had suddenly become mute.

Since the last time Edo had touched Merel in the classroom, she had always worn the bra that she had bought in a fancy lingerie shop one afternoon when she was free. She washed it every other day; you never knew what would happen. As Edo's hand inched up towards the white fabric of the sporty, neutral model that she had purchased that afternoon at Total Perfection, she suddenly hesitated about her choice. Wouldn't a colored one have been better? Ultramarine or lime green? Ellie wore a bra with a Japanese motif and lots of lace.

Merel turned onto her belly to make it easier for Edo. She should have thought about the fastener too when she bought her bra. She hoped he would look at her lovingly in a minute when she was naked, and that he wouldn't make rude jokes about her to Ralf in the schoolyard tomorrow. Her surroundings were her mirror and if she saw disapproval in that mirror, she would have to change her surroundings. There was no other choice. She didn't have a clear-cut opinion about her own body—for instance she didn't know if she thought a wasp waist was beautiful or too girlish, that is, childish—but nor did anybody expect her to. To her, her body was a bit like a rented house: it isn't built exactly to the resident's specifications either, but because you inhabit it every day you get used to it. If she and Edo went all the way and she made him happy, hopefully the rented house would be bought. And that was the best thing anyway because a move was out of the question.

By this time Marte and Ernst had walked down the dune and were lying close to Merel. In the distance Linso was poking a dead gull with a stick. Even though Ernst had rolled onto his back, his head resting on a schoolbag, he was still citing poetry, but the breaks between the lines were becoming longer and he occasionally made mistakes. Between two couplets Marte's hand suddenly landed on a special place on his trousers, as though she wanted to awaken him from his dreamworld. She succeeded. From that moment on they too were mute lovers. Merel hesitated about whether to follow Marte's example and move her hand down lower as well. The fact that Marte did it was good reason to try. Marte was friendly and very different from Sharon. Merel had always respected her.

By the time Edo's trousers were open, Merel wasn't thinking much any more and her body took over. It was like being dragged by a powerful ocean current: it wasn't the swimmer who determined where he was going, it was the water. She pulled off Edo's shirt and white jeans. It suited him, being naked. Some people are like that.

Merel rolled onto her back again, the wind brushing against her skin, making her feel more naked than she already was. Edo rested his hands on her shoulders without doing anything right away. They could have lain like that all afternoon if their blood hadn't pumped ever faster and impelled them forward. We'll go a bit further each time, Merel thought, till we get to where it all happens. Edo did what she had already imagined him doing so many times: he cupped her breasts in his hands and took them in his mouth. It was the first time somebody had done that. It wasn't a sacred moment, the way deflowering is in some cultures, even though the other members of the TC group were allowed to witness it. Merel knew she wouldn't go all the way today. None of the TCs would. They would create a foundation on which to build. A solid foundation. Solid enough to build a village on one day.

From Vrienden voor vier jaar. Copyright Anja Sickling. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 Sherry Marx. All rights reserved.

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