Friday, March 10, 2006

"Getting the 8 x 10"

by Susan Henderson

Have you read anything by my friend Susan Henderson? If not, you're missing a special kind of magic. Susan has a way of touching your heart with such deft elegance you don't even notice she's doing it. You get pulled along by the characters, the story, the spare details rich with meaning and before you know it the tenderest part of you is opened. I think you'll enjoy this ...

Getting the 8 x 10
By Susan Henderson

All summer I smothered myself in Crisco vegetable shortening, hoping for a good tan and maybe, finally, a boyfriend.

I lived at the swimming pool, where I pretended that I, like the other girls my age, had had my period. I occasionally spent a ridiculous amount of time in the bathroom stall, rustling paper and complaining of cramps. My tan was better than any of theirs but I was never asked to compare strap lines. And I was never asked about my crushes, though I had plenty. I liked the boy who mowed the pool grounds, some lifeguards, of course, and a guy who played ping pong all day. But mostly I liked the diving coach, who wore mirrored sunglasses and was actually short enough for me to kiss.

Most people at the pool called him Scott the Diving Coach, but I just called him Scott because we talked every day. I went wherever he went—water fountain, front desk, side of the pool, snack bar.

One day he handed me a cherry freeze from the snack bar, no charge. He sat next to me on the hot bench and said, "You're pretty much at the pool from opening to closing, am I right?"

"Every day," I said. I tipped the ice out of the paper cup and set it back in, upside down, to eat the soft part. I offered him a lick and he declined.

"Since you're around all the time anyway, would you like to be the manager of my diving team?"

I was a great manager: came early, stayed late, and did absolutely everything he asked without a complaint, which included carrying his clipboard and not letting it get wet, and writing things about the members of the diving team in my best handwriting. In the photo of the diving team, I was practically standing on his feet.

Scott was probably unaware, but he gave me status with the girls who left their Stayfree Mini Pad wrappers on the back of the toilet. While they stood back and giggled, I felt comfortable pulling up a lawn chair beside him or fetching balls when he played pingpong. At night I practiced kissing my arm.

My tan was progressing, but I wasn't sure that Scott and I were. Labor Day was fast approaching, meaning the pool would soon close. And worse, I learned Scott was going away to college. I tried to think of something to give him that would make us kiss, or at least make him pine for me from school. Desperate, I told my mom I was in love with the diving coach.

"Well," she said. "We could take a picture of you that looks like you're not wearing anything, and you can give that to him."

She got the Polaroid while I put on a bikini and a pair of her high heels. On a cardboard sign, I wrote: "Happy School." Except I wrote slash marks through the o's, the same way Scott did, because he was into computers and being original. Then, as directed by my mom, I covered the bottom part of my bikini with the sign and my mom took a picture of me from my stomach down.

"I'll bet he's cute," Mom said. But she'll never go to the pool because she looks pretty in dresses, not shorts and bathing suit ware. And she hides now when she's in sunlight because she says it makes her look old, so the house now is dim, the ceiling bulbs have long burnt out of the rooms she uses, and there are only table lamps with colored bulbs or lamps with scarves thrown over the lamp shade.

"If things go great," I said, "I'll bring him here to meet you."

I put the Polaroid in one of those photo cubes. There were spaces for five more pictures of me, but I wanted to wait until he asked. Then I wrapped the cube in his towel. He never said he got it but I know I would never mistake his towel for anyone else's.

The next time I saw him, I asked if he had a school picture he could give me. I still had plenty of mine leftover and maybe he'd ask for a trade. Scott said he gave them away. I realized he probably gave them away to girls—to the kinds of girls who were not like me.

"It doesn't matter," I said.

"But wait," he said. "I still have the 8 x 10."

He brought it the next day and signed it. I was careful to sunbathe but not swim so the photo would not get wet. Scott watched me that day with the same puzzled look he had in his picture.

On the last day the pool was open, I showed Scott I could forge his signature and I could imitate his walk and the slurp of his flip-flops. I even had the 8 x 10 with me again in case he wanted to write more. He didn't, said he couldn't think of anything else to say.

I tacked his photo to my closet door. Someday, his being short would no longer be a plus. Someday, having my period would not be my greatest ambition. Someday, I would surely pay the price for sunbathing in Crisco. But for the moment, I relished in the way Scott looked awkward in his formal clothes: He was old enough to shave but not old enough to look secure wearing a tie. And when I felt lonely, I could pretend it had something to do with him.

* * *
This story first appeared in Happy

I hope you loved this story as much as I did. To read more like this, visit and order Susan's story, Motorhead. It's exquisite! To learn more about Susan, visit her Publishers Marketplace page.


Myfanwy Collins said...

Outstanding. Poignant and funny. Love it, Susan!

David Niall Wilson said...

Well-written, very believable (much like the girl in Motorhead) and I liked the portrayal of the mother, dimming the lights around her while she helped her daughter try to step into the light...



Susan Henderson said...

That's the nicest introduction, Ellen. Wow. Way better than the story itself.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Susan!

So real. So touching. I absolutely love it!

Tish Cohen

P.S. I used Johnson's baby oil, but I bet Crisco worked better...

Ellen said...

Myf, David, Tish ... so glad you love this story, too!

Sue ... ha! A well-deserved introduction, I promise. :)

Justin Crouse said...


two fantastic story choices so far!! thanks for doing this.

suze, this is great. my favorite thing is how well you captured the jaded non-chalance of a high school boy. Scott was perfect.


Stephanie said...

So funny, real, and painful. :)

katrina said...

I love this! I've been waiting all day to finally have the time to sit and read it. It was worth the wait!

Susan Henderson said...

Aw, you all made my day. What great people you are!

RobinSlick said...

Oh, this story makes me want to cry.

I had a lifeguard crush, too...same thing...he was going to college, I was going to be a freshman in high school.

What a beautiful, beautiful slice of life, Susan.

Ha ha, anonymous - I used baby oil with iodine. What a different, innocent world it was "back then". That's what Susan really captures here, too.

Ellen, thanks so much for this. It's a real treat.