I was jealous. Fifteen like me but petite, hair a brown cascade brushing the waistband of her cut-offs. Actually, the shorts were mine. Her battered suitcase had yielded a nightgown, two dresses and an ancient, old-lady swimsuit with built-in breasts. I struggled not to show my annoyance with Mom for giving away my stuff without asking.
Mom explained to me privately that our guest hadn’t brought all that she needed for the shore, perhaps she had forgotten a few things. Much later I came to understand that Olivia’s family had no means for new clothing, that Olivia had never been out of the city and that she wasn’t actually the daughter of Dad’s colleague. My parents hadn’t told me that Olivia’s visit was courtesy of the Fresh Air Club.
The pink water shoes were Mom’s answer to Olivia’s obvious discomfort with bare feet. On her first morning with us, Olivia had winced and gingerly crossed the sand, scarcely getting her toes wet and quickly retreating to a chair. The shoes appeared at lunchtime, tiny alongside my battered flip-flops on the back step. Olivia ran her fingers along the bright mesh and murmured her thanks. For the rest of her time with us, each evening she carefully shook the sand from the shoes and hung them to dry on the wooden fence that separated our house from the dunes. I thought the shoes hideous.
When the tide came in and the waves grew stronger, my friends and I paddled our boards out beyond the breakers and rode until dusk. Olivia sat on a towel and watched. I never saw her go much deeper than her waist. Perhaps she didn’t want to wet her hair. To me this was stupid but after all, she did like pink shoes.
On our final afternoon, Olivia and I built a sandcastle with a moat. She trailed her fingers in the water surrounding the castle, with its sand-drip turrets, drawbridge made of driftwood and tattered flag we’d found while beachcombing.
“Wish I could swim.” It was a whisper.
I was perplexed. Everyone knew how to swim. Olivia was watching a child with sun-bleached hair plastered against his skull diving into the swells.
“Want me to teach you?”
Olivia hung her head. I didn’t press her. She was quiet at dinner.
I shrugged, yawning as I ambled into the kitchen for breakfast.
“Her shoes are missing.” Dad’s voice crackled with worry. The waves were crashing against the shoreline, which had edged closer to the dunes.
“Hurricane out to sea.” Dad used his binoculars but it was Mom who spotted the shoe in a tide pool. It was too early for the lifeguards.
Dad plunged into the surf. Mom ran south along the water’s edge and I ran north, breath ragged. All I found were seagulls and sandpipers.
I turned around. Mom had the other pink shoe.
Olivia’s hair touched the sand as a man in a wetsuit carried her out of the water. Dad was on his knees in the foam, face in his hands. The only normalcy was the smell of drying seaweed and the shriek of seabirds.
I imagined the anguish in Dad’s voice the worst thing I’d ever hear and Mom stroking Olivia’s forehead the saddest thing I’d ever see. The sobs that tore through me for three days straight had to be the most sorrow I’d ever feel.
But then Olivia’s mother and grandmother appeared. I knew no Spanish but the ragged despair and prayers muttered through clenched teeth needed no translation. Olivia’s brother bobbed in the whitecaps and looked at the horizon, as if hoping for a glimpse of his sister, or some meaning in the place that had taken her.
Dad approached them, guilt in his stooped shoulders. It dawned on me that no father had come for Olivia.
“She no swim.”
“I didn’t know.” Mom enfolded Olivia’s mother in her arms. Wet cheeks glimmered.
I closed my eyes but the humiliation in Olivia’s face was seared into my conscience. The weight of knowing why Olivia had gone alone into the sea made me stagger.
That night I dreamt of her. She sat on my bed and smiled. “No te preocupes.” Unintelligible words yet upon awakening, I no longer wept. I fastened the shoes in their spot. Sometimes even now, when I smell seaweed in the sun, I see them, though the fence is long gone, and I smile back at the girl who loved pink shoes.