A Promise is a Promise

As she watched Richard’s car backing out the driveway, Kristen felt her knees grow weak. She steadied herself against the corner of the garage, smiled gamely, and gave a little wave. Richard beamed at her, and with a quick toot on the car horn, he was gone.

Instantly, a sense of desolation settled over Kristen. Her smile vanished, and a haunted look came into her eyes. She felt a queasy sensation in the pit of her stomach. Reflexively, she brought her knees together, hunched her shoulders forward, and folded her arms across her chest.

She felt… naked. Which was surprising, in a way. It was true, she had left her clothes—all she had with her—up in the kitchen. But she had been totally nude all day at the beach, in the presence of dozens of women and men, and though she was always fully aware of her nudity, she hadn’t felt like this.

Just four days earlier, Kristen had not suspected that the summer lifeguard assignment she accepted so eagerly was at a nude beach. No man had ever seen her naked, she believed, nor had she ever seen a naked man. But all that had changed with startling suddenness. The days since she had learned the truth about her summer job had been an emotional roller coaster ride.

Working as a lifeguard at Black Knife Beach, she wore a “uniform” that consisted solely of a baseball cap with the word “Lifeguard” stitched into it. She was not allowed to wear anything else. The other lifeguards, male and female, were as naked as she was. To her surprise, it hadn’t taken long to grow accustomed to being nude at the beach. After only a day or two there, Kristen found herself wondering who had dreamed up the absurd idea of swaddling the human body in yards of fabric in the first place. It was hard to understand how anyone could be shocked or offended by something as perfectly natural as a naked human being.

But that was at the beach. Right here, right now, the notion that a person could be natural and comfortable with no clothes on seemed ludicrous. Kristen felt as if she was lacking some essential part of herself. Her thoughts turned to the little pile of clothing she had left up in the kitchen. She turned, unconsciously stretching one arm across her breasts, and moving her free hand down to cover her pubic mound. Stooped over, with tiny, awkward steps, always keeping her knees together, she walked to the back of the garage, where a steep stone staircase led up to the back yard of the house. She looked up the stairs. Brenda and Marcie would still be up there, in the kitchen. She felt a tightness in her chest, and her face felt hot.

Earlier in the day, when Richard had told her that he admired her courage, Kristen had puffed up with pride. Richard was the most experienced lifeguard at Black Knife Beach, and his own courage had earned him the respect and admiration of the other lifeguards. When Richard had told his sister Brenda that Kristen was a “damn good” lifeguard, Kristen had blushed. But her heart had beat a little faster, too, and she’d stood a bit taller. Now her cheeks burned again, not from pride, but from shame.

How good a lifeguard could she hope to be if she was frightened of her new housemates? The two hostile women hadn’t intimidated her when Richard had been present. How disappointed would he be if he could see the way she trembled now? Kristen was brave, it seemed, only when she could stand in his shadow.

She saw her own shadow now, falling across the stone steps. She gasped when she saw the hunched and awkward posture of shame that she had unconsciously adopted, and her cheeks felt hotter still. Had the past four days meant nothing? She forced herself to stand up straight. She looked up the stairs again. She would need to be alert every second—she couldn’t let Brenda or Marcie sense any hint of the fear, doubt, and embarrassment that threatened to overwhelm her. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. By an effort of will, she lowered her hands to her sides, then clasped them together behind her back.

Kristen had painted herself into this corner, when she had promised Richard that she would not wear any clothes at the house. He had made the original suggestion in a half-joking manner. He had seemed astonished when Kristen embraced the idea, and when she resisted his attempts to talk her out of it. She couldn’t back down now, no matter how much she might want to. She drew another deep breath, steadied herself against the thick cement retaining wall, and started to climb the steps up to the back yard.

Daylight was fading now. Kristen looked around the yard once again, and a smile spread across her face. She could scarcely believe that this place would be her home for the summer. The grass felt cool and soft under her bare feet. She longed to slip into the sanctuary of the deepening shadows under the trees, or to dive into the blue rippling water of the swimming pool. But she turned instead to the sliding glass patio doors that led into the kitchen. Her stomach churned. She braced herself, took a deep breath, slid the door open, and stepped into the kitchen.

The house was air conditioned. She had scarcely noticed it earlier, but now she felt it with every inch of her bare skin. The cool air was pleasant enough, but the sensation was yet another reminder of her state of dress. She fought off the impulse to cover herself with her hands.

Marcie sat at the kitchen table, her face a mask of tense expectation. Brenda slouched in her seat at the table, looking dejected. She looked up at Kristen with a dull, weary expression. She smiled a curious smile.

“You know who you remind me of?” Brenda asked, her voice soft and sad.

Kristen smiled and shook her head. “Who?”

“A girl I knew in high school,” Brenda said. “She was really pretty, just like you. She was a cheerleader. Everybody liked her—I think she was one of the most popular girls in the school.”

Kristen’s smile broadened. Marcie’s eyes darted from Kristen to Brenda and back again.

Brenda sat a bit more upright. Her dull features became more animated as she spoke. “I hadn’t seen her for years, but I just ran into her a few weeks ago,” she said. She shook her head slowly. “It never lasts, you know. She got married. She’s got two kids now. She’s got stretch marks.” Brenda raked her fingers across her abdomen. There was a harsh edge coming into her voice. “She had a C-section, and she’s got a great big scar. She can’t wear a bikini anymore. She can’t go to the beach.”

“She could come to Black Knife Beach,” Kristen said. “There are people of all ages down there. We don’t discriminate. We don’t judge…”

“All right, enough is enough,” Brenda said sharply, now bolt upright in her chair. “We’ve seen your boobs, Kristen. We’ve seen your butt. Very nice, okay? You’re cute as a button. Now get your clothes on!”

Kristen took a step back, startled by Brenda’s sudden mood change. “I can’t do that,” she said. “You know I can’t. I gave my word.”

Brenda glowered at Kristen with barely contained fury. “You are a guest in my home, and I will not have you running around bare-assed,” she said.

“I—I’m not your guest,” Kristen said. “I’m Richard’s guest.”

“It might be his house, but it’s my home,” Brenda fumed, “and I will not have it.”

“Listen, Richard’s not here now,” Marcie interjected. “He doesn’t have to know a thing about it, and we’re sure not going to tell him if you put your clothes on.”

“A promise is a promise,” Kristen said. She looked around the room uneasily. “Say, where are my clothes, anyway?” she said. “I left them right here, and they’re gone.”

“You go naked all day long at work, then you go naked all the time at home. I thought you didn’t need clothes,” Brenda sneered.

“I need them to get to work in the morning,” Kristen said. “I can’t go like this.”

“I can’t go like this,” Brenda repeated mockingly. “I can’t go like this! Why not? If it’s all as innocent and natural as you say it is, it shouldn’t make any difference.”

“I’d get arrested!” Kristen said, exasperated. “Really, where are my clothes?”

“Did you hear that, Marcie?” Brenda said. “She’d get arrested. Poor Kristen. It sounds like there are still some scattered pockets of decency in this town, after all. Some people still know the meaning of shame.” Marcie nodded, her eyes riveted on Kristen’s face.

Kristen studied Brenda and Marcie’s faces. “You’ve hidden them,” she said. “You’ve hidden my clothes.” Brenda smirked.

Kristen’s eyes darted around the room. “Where’s the phone?” she said. Through the doorway she spotted a phone in the living room. She shot a dismissive glance at Brenda, and headed through the door.

For an instant, there was a panicky look in Brenda’s eyes. She leapt to her feet and followed Kristen to the phone. Kristen had the receiver in her hand, and was dialing her number.

“Oh, is this the way the lifeguard business works?” Brenda said, her face contorted with rage. “So what do you do, Kristen? You race up and down the beach, pointing out drowning people so Richard can rush in and rescue them?”

Kristen winced. Brenda had struck a nerve. The two women locked eyes. Kristen forced a tight-lipped smile. “Yes, if that’s what it takes to get the job done,” she said. She punched the final digits of the phone number. She heard ringing on the other end of the line.

Brenda lunged toward the phone, but Kristen turned and swiveled her hip out to block her.

Marcie rushed into the living room, carrying Kristen’s clothes. Brenda cast a withering look at Marcie, who threw the clothes onto the floor at Kristen’s feet. “Here!” Marcie shouted. “Here are your clothes. We were going to wash them for you!”

For a moment all three women eyed each other, their faces taut and flushed with fury. Then Kristen heard the phone picked up on the other end of the line.

“Hi, Mom, it’s Kristen,” she said. “Guess what—I’ve got a place to stay down here.” Brenda turned away from Kristen, shaking her head and letting out a sharp hiss of breath. Marcie took a step back, but watched Kristen and Brenda warily.

“No, it’s a house,” Kristen said into the phone. “You won’t believe it when you see it. Say, could you bring me out some clothes? My roommates are practical jokers, and I’m not completely sure I trust them.” She looked at Brenda and Marcie, and smiled.

Brenda slumped into a chair and glared balefully at Kristen and Marcie. Marcie took a couple steps back and leaned against the door frame.

Kristen gave her mother the address and directions to the house, then hung up the phone.

“So,” Brenda said icily, “your mother knows you’re prancing around naked all summer?”

“My parents met on Black Knife Beach,” Kristen said. “I never knew about that until Saturday. My mom told me I’m a full-blooded nudist.” She smiled and blushed.

“Unbelievable,” Brenda sneered, shaking her head. “The whole family.”

“You know, Brenda, your brother told me you’re really a very good person,” Kristen said.

Brenda laughed harshly. “Well, now you know that he’s really a very bad liar,” she said.

“I don’t think you realize how—how dear you are to him,” Kristen said. “You know, you’re not very well-liked down at the beach. But whenever one of the other lifeguards or anyone else tried to say anything against you, Richard stood up for you.”

Brenda stared intently into Kristen’s eyes for a moment, then shook her head. “I think I’m gonna be sick,” she said. “Marcie, can you show Pollyanna here up to her room? I don’t have the stomach for it.”

“Okay, Brenda,” Marcie said softly. “Would you follow me, please, Kristen?”

Kristen stooped to gather up the clothes at her feet, and followed Marcie silently down a corridor and up an elaborate staircase to the second floor.

“Hey, thanks for offering to wash these things,” Kristen whispered, hoisting the little bundle of clothes in her hands. “I don’t want to be any trouble, though.” Marcie cast a strange look back at Kristen over her shoulder.

Marcie stopped in front of a large wooden door and turned to face Kristen. “This is your room,” she said. “It’s the master bedroom.” She opened the door to reveal a large, elaborately furnished room with a four-poster bed and a bay window overlooking the pool behind the house.

“Holy cow,” Kristen said, following Marcie into the room. “I—I’m not kicking you or Brenda out of your room, am I? I’d be glad to take a smaller room. I don’t want to be a bother.”

Once again Marcie gave Kristen a strange, dour look. “You didn’t kick anyone out,” Marcie said. “Brenda’s room is next door, and mine’s at the end of the hall. We’ve always used this as a guest room. Richard insisted we give this room to you.”

“This is just too much,” Kristen said, shaking her head and setting her clothes down on a little side table just inside the door. “This room is almost as big as our whole house. I don’t need this much space. I don’t want anyone to go to so much trouble for me.”

“You keep saying that!” Marcie exclaimed sharply. “You don’t want to be any trouble. Don’t you have any idea how much trouble you’re already causing by being here? We’re getting things lined up right now for the official announcement of Brenda’s candidacy for the City Council seat. There are important people coming here every day, you know—lining up support, planning campaign strategy, meeting with reporters. Do you imagine that you can run around here in the raw all the time and not cause any trouble?”

There were tears glistening in Kristen’s eyes. She blinked them away. “I didn’t know anything about that, and neither did Richard. I needed a place to stay, and Richard thought it might do Brenda some good to spend some time around someone from the beach. Maybe she’d learn that we’re not perverts or monsters or…” Her voice trailed off, and she brushed a tear from the corner of her eye. “We’re people, you know. We’ve got feelings.”

Marcie sighed, and gave Kristen a sympathetic smile. “Everybody has feelings,” she said softly. “Look, I’m sorry she’s being so hard on you. She’s a fighter when she needs to be, but she really is a good person. I suppose you just don’t realize the kinds of things you’re liable to stir up by running around like that.”

“I’m not trying to stir up anything,” Kristen said. She sighed and nodded toward the open bedroom door. “Say, what’s Brenda’s problem, anyway?”

Marcie’s smile disappeared. “I can’t believe this,” she fumed. “What’s her problem? You parade around stark naked in public every day, and you’ve got the nerve to ask what Brenda’s problem is?” She shook her head. “You have a lot to learn, Kristen. A lot to learn!” With that, she turned and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Kristen plopped down on the bed and stared at the door. Tears were starting to sting in her eyes. “I know I’ve got a lot to learn,” she muttered. “Maybe the two of you have something to learn, too.”

Kristen went to bed early that night, soon after her mother had dropped off two laundry baskets full of clean summer clothes. She felt better with clothes hanging in the closet and filling the dresser drawers, even if she didn’t intend to wear them. She turned off the air conditioning in her room, and opened the window to let in the fresh night air. The bed was soft and luxurious, with flannel sheets that felt good against her bare skin. Exhausted, she slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep soon after she turned off the lights.

Kristen awakened with a start. She was breathing rapidly, and her heart was pounding. It took a moment for her to remember where she was. The lighted numbers on the nightstand clock showed that it was almost 3:00 o’clock in the morning. She was puzzled by her sudden awakening—she didn’t remember any dreams.

When her breathing and her heartbeat had slowed, she lay back down and closed her eyes. Almost immediately, she heard a quiet splash through the open window. Curious and a little frightened, she got out of bed and tiptoed over to the large bay window.

In the pale moonlight, Kristen saw Brenda, wearing a white terrycloth robe that almost brushed the ground. She was walking very slowly around the edge of the pool, stopping from time to time to trail her foot through the water. While Kristen watched, Brenda completed her slow circuit of the pool. She loosened her belt and let the robe slip off her shoulders.

Kristen was disappointed to see that Brenda wore a dark one-piece swimsuit under the robe. She had imagined that at this hour, in her own pool, even Brenda would swim nude. Brenda slipped quietly into the water, and began to swim the length of the pool. She glided smoothly, swiftly and silently through the water. Kristen stopped counting after a dozen laps, but Brenda kept swimming tirelessly. Kristen was about to go back to bed when Brenda finally pulled herself out of the pool. Brenda picked up a towel and dried herself, then put on the long white robe once again. She picked up the towel, cast a last glance back at the pool, and stepped into the house through the patio doors.

Kristen, feeling a rush of guilt for spying on Brenda in the pool, tiptoed back to her bed. After a few minutes, she heard Brenda passing her door on the way to her own room. Kristen closed her eyes and tried to go to sleep.

The next thing she heard, she heard so faintly that she wasn’t certain she heard it at all. Through the thick bedroom wall, she thought she heard a muffled sobbing from Brenda’s room.