LIFEGUARDS! Flora is sweet 16 and spending a day at the beach with her BFF Nikki.
There’s mean girls, hot guys, drama and cupcakes. Enjoy!

t was the summer of ’63 when everyone called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind.Okay, not really—it’s summer of 2022—but Dirty Dancing is my favorite movie ever. I love it when the nerdy girl gets the cool guy, because after extensive years of research (my high school years, obvs), I can tell you that it never happens in real life. Like never.

Take my high school, for example (I wish someone would). All the cute guys are either jerks or dating cheerleaders. It’s like a rule or law of nature or something—hot guys date the hot girls.

Suddenly, a high-pitched squeal leaves me deaf in one ear.

“Eeeeee! Oh em gee!”

That’s my best friend Nikki. She’s this super fun ball of energy, kind of like a Golden Retriever in human form—always smiley, always happy, always looking out for me. I love the crazy be-otch to pieces.

You are not going to believe this, Flora!”

Yeah, my parents named me ‘Flora’—it was from a great grandmother or great great grandmother, I’m not sure. But the mean kids at school call me ‘Fauna’. Oh yeah, so funny. Not.

I smile at her over my glasses and raise an eyebrow. My parents let me get contacts last semester, which was neat, so no way am I going to admit that sometimes I get tired and I prefer my glasses.

“’Sup, girlfriend?”

She rolls her eyes. “You’re from San Luis Obispo, not the ‘hood.”

“What, I can’t call you ‘girlfriend’?”

She ignores me.

“News just in: Jethro dumped Holly! Hethro are officially over!”

My heart beats just a little faster because I’ve had a little crush on Jethro since 7thgrade. He’s never noticed me. Nikki knows that. I mean, both things: that I like him, and that he’s never noticed me.

I’ve never met anyone else named Jethro. He has a little brother named Geronimo, so I think he got off lightly. I guess his parents are weird. But that’s not what I said to Nikki.

“Seriously, no one ever called them ‘Hethro’.”

She waves a hand dismissively. “Like that’s important? I think we should go to the beach today … because I also heard that he has a summer job as a lifeguard.”

I already knew that. I have a straight As in everything to do with Jethro. Although I hadn’t heard about him and Holly. It must have happened last night Colin’s party. Colin is one of the popular guys on the football team. That’s another rule, by the way: if you’re on the football team, you’re automatically popular, even if you’re kind of an asshole. Everyone goes to his parties because they’re epic. I’ve never been invited. Maybe next year when I’m a junior. Yeah, right.

Jethro is on the varsity swim team, so he’s really popular, too. And he’s really nice. He held open a door for me once.

And while I’d love to see him in his lifeguard’s uniform, I hate the beach.

“You don’t hate the beach,” says Nikki.

Sometimes I kind of hate that she knows what I’m thinking.

“Just because you’re not a skinny twig, it doesn’t mean you should wear a bag over your head. You’re … curvy.”

See, that’s why she’s my best friend; she’s always trying to make me feel better about myself. So she lies. As any curvy girl knows, ‘curvy’ means fat. My grandma calls me ‘plump’. At least I have good boobs.

“You’re not fat,” Nikki sighs. “Just because Holly called you that one time, doesn’t make it true.”

Except it does.

“Pleeeeease,” Nikki begs. “We don’t even have to sit on the beach that much.”

“It’s a beach. What else is there?”

“You’re such a fun sucker! We can play checkout the shops and eat ice cream … fun stuff. You remember fun, right?”

I sigh because she’s not wrong. I studied really hard for my tests and I haven’t gotten out much since. My social life is on the endangered list.

“Great!” she yells, before I have a chance to say anything else. “Greg is giving us a ride. You have ten minutes.”

I shoot her a look, knowing that I’ve been played. There was no chance we weren’t going to the beach once she made up her mind. Oh, Greg is her brother. He got his driver’s licence and he’s kind of cool about driving us around, unless he’s on a date with his girlfriend Nancy. She’s okay, I guess.

I use my ten minutes to pull on a tankini with boy shorts which are kind of cute but covers up my tummy a little, then apply a load of sunscreen because I have pale skin, red hair and a ton of freckles. I’m totally jealous of Nikki’s olive skin and glossy dark hair. She tans in about a minute—it’s kind of annoying, even if she is my best friend.

Greg nods at me but then ignores us as we sit in the back seat chatting about some cool poets we’ve seen on TikTok. Los Osos where we live has a ton of beautiful sandy beaches, but he drives us to Morro Bay because he has a job as a server at Tognazzini’s, an upscale dockside restaurant, but the beach there is amazing, too. And is just happens to be where Jethro works. Hey, I wasn’t the one who chose to go to Morro, it’s just that Greg works here, so it was on the way, okay?

I breathe in the briny air, stare up at the bright blue sky, squinting against the sun, and I can feel heat seeping up through my flip flops. Yachts are bobbing in the channel, protected from the Pacific by a narrow sandbar. It’s picture postcard perfect.

“Which tower does Jethro work at?” Nikki asks after Greg drops us off.

“I don’t know,” I lie.

“Liar,” she smirks at me.

“I hate you!”

“No, you don’t.”

“No, I don’t,” I sigh. It’s the one furthest away on the other side of the bay.”

I can see Jethro’s tower in the distance and imagine that he’s leaning over the top of the balcony. I visualize his hair, a crazy mop of dark curls waving (or maybe wafting) in the breeze, and his skin is already tanned to burnished gold. (I don’t know what burnished is but it sounds like the kind of tan Jethro would have gotten.) I imagine counting his abs then losing count and having to start again.


But then I hear a shrill voice, a mean that I’ve been hearing since junior high.

“Seriously? The whale and her friend.”

She’s wearing a tiny white bikini that shows off her long, tan legs, and she flicks her wheat blonde hair over her bony shoulders. She’s with her crew and heading in the same direction as us—probably so she can go sit next to Jethro’s tower and win him back by being so freakin’ gorgeous.

“What are they doing at the beach?” she asks in a snippy voice. “Did she get stuck on the sandbar?”

Her friends all laugh and I can feel my cheeks burning.

“Ignore them,” Nikki chants. “Ignore them.”

“I hope she doesn’t go swimming,” Holly taunts. “I asked Jethro how he saves a fat person, and do you know what he said? He said, ‘I grab a leg and float them’. Oh my God! Isn’t that the funniest thing you’ve ever heard?”

“Your know what, Holly?” Nikki says, having forgotten that we’re supposed to be ignoring them. “You were born a bitch and just grew bigger.”

Holly stares. When she replies her tone is bored. “And your point is?”

Nikki’s mouth drops open.

“Ignore her,” I say, tugging on her arm.

As we walk away, laughter bubbles out behind us.

“I really hate her,” Nikki mumbles.

“Preaching to the choir. Come on, we need ice cream.”

“I knew there was a reason we were friends.”

But before we can find the salted caramel with honeycomb that I’m craving…

“Ooh! A kayak rental shop. I’ve always wanted to do that.”

“I don’t know, Nikki…”

“Oh come on! It’ll be fun.”

Famous last words.

Ten minutes later, I’m wearing a float jacket that makes me look the size of a woolly mammoth (without the tusks), black helmet (not so much Sons of Anarchy and more Jim Carrey in The Yes Man), carrying a paddle, and wheezing as I wobble after Nikki, lugging a bright orange kayak that is a hell of a lot heavier than it looks.

From the corner of my eye, I see Holly and the mean girls. She’s rubbing suntan lotion into her legs and passes the tube to Jethro so he can do her back. I can’t look and try to walk faster. Instead, I drop the kayak on my foot and yet out a yelp. (I did mention it’s super heavy, right? Like an aircraft carrier made out of orange plastic.)

They all turn to stare and laugh obnoxiously. Well, the mean girls do. I’m sure Jethro doesn’t laugh because he’s nice. (Did I mention that he held a door open for me once?)

“Are you okay, Flora?” Nikki asks softly.

“Peachy,” I say witheringly, rubbing my sore foot.

I’m not okay. I’m hot, sweaty, and close to tears.

Nikki puts down her end of the kayak and squeezes my hand.

“Ignore them,” she says.

“Yep, not even looking at them,” I mumble as their laughter echoes across the water.

“I know,” says Nikki brightly. “Let’s paddle up to Lil Hut and we can buy an ice cream or one of those amazing iced coffees—they’re to die for.”

(I know I already said famous last words, but I kind of have to say it again at this point.)

We push the heavy kayak into the water and I get in first. The guy who rented us the kayak helpfully told me that the heaviest person should sit in back. The water is so cold I gasp, but then it feels refreshing, and my spirits lift. Nikki is splayed across the front end as she tries to climb in, giggling so hard that she’s in danger of tipping me out.

Soon we’re both laughing and paddling like crazy. It doesn’t take us long to get a rhythm going and it feels like we’re flying.

Flying way too fast as we sail past Lil Hut.

“Um, I think we missed it,” I say to Nikki.

“I know!”

“Just paddle to the right.”

“I’m trying!” she yells, and I can hear the panic in her voice.

Belatedly, I remember that the rental guy told us to stay in the lagoon, but now we’re caught in a rip and it’s dragging us out into the ocean.

I raise one paddle in the air as a sign of distress like we were told, but as soon as I do that, we go even faster. I paddle as hard as I can for the shore, but we’re being pulled further and further out.

“Flora, I’m scared!” Nikki shouts.

“Me, too! Keep paddling, the lifeguards will see us soon!”

I hope.

We keep paddling, struggling against the current, and my arms are getting heavy. Then I spot some small buoys bobbing up ahead: maybe channel markers, maybe lobster pots up, I really don’t care which.

“Nikki, head for those buoys! We’ll try and grab them and hold on until someone sees us.”

We paddle even harder and it looks as though we’re going to make it, but suddenly a small fishing boat passes us, and the wash of water nearly knocks us over. The jerkoff didn’t even slow down.

I manage to grab onto one of the buoys at the last second, but I drop my paddle and watch it bobbing away.

I hang onto the rope, praying for help, praying that I’ll have the strength to hang on. It feels like the current is still dragging us. My eyes are closed and I’m gritting my teeth. It feels as though my skin is being peeled off my hands by the rough rope, but I have to hold on.

Nikki yells something, but I can’t hear her over the wind and the waves and the blood pouding through my ears.

“I’ve got you! You can let go now. You’re okay.”

I hear Jethro’s soothing tone, calm and controlled. I hadn’t even realized that the lifeguards’ RIB had pulled up next to us. Gently, he unpeels my hands from the buoy and ties a rope around the kayak so we can be towed back in.

“Hold on tight!” shouts the other lifeguard. “It’s pretty choppy out here.”

The small RIB fights the current and it sounds like the engine is at full throttle as it tows the heavy kayak with us in it. The bow wash hits me full in the face, the cold water shocking me every three seconds. I squeeze my eyes shut, but water shoots up my nose, making me cough and splutter. Nikki is getting it even worse and I can see that she’s hunched over.

Finally, we get back to the rental place, and I crawl out of the kayak, knees shaking so badly, I can hardly stand.

“Are you okay, Flora?” Jethro asks, wrapping his hand around my arm.

“I’m fine,” I croak, coughing up a load of seawater and accidentally spitting it by his feet.

A piece of seaweed slides down from my helmet while I cough some more.

“Are you sure?”

“Yep.” Cough. Splutter. “Completely…” Hack. Cough. “Fine.”

“Okay, gotta jet—there’s another kayaker in trouble. If you’re sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” I say again. By the time I remember to mumble, “Thank you,” he’s gone.

The rental guy is irritated and maybe worried (but mostly irritated), reminding us of the safety lesson he’d given us, and reminding us that he’d told us to stay in the lagoon. He charges fifty buck to Mom’s credit card for the lost paddle, even though I’m fairly sure he’ll get the money back on insurance.

“Frickin’ tourists,” he finally snorts, turning his back on us.

I don’t even bother to correct him—I’m already humiliated enough.

Nikki puts her arm through mine and we stagger over to the beach to dry out. If I look as bad as she does, we’re both in trouble.

We don’t say much, just sit there enjoying the feeling of being warm and alive. (Especially the second part.)

“He knew your name?”

“Excuse me?” I say, opening one eye.

“Jethro,” says Nikki. “He knew your name,” and she gives me a small smile.

And I know it’s dumb and pathetic and kind of shallow, but the fact that most popular boy in school knows my name makes me feel all warm inside.

I decide that I need to thank Jethro properly.

I may not be super skinny, or super smart, or really pretty, but there is one thing I do better than anyone else at my school: I bake. My lemon polenta cake is to die for, my sponges are so light and fluffy they melt in your mouth, and my cupcakes are legendary.

I spend the evening baking, lost in my happy place of powdered sugar, blueberries and fresh strawberries, frosting and whipped cream. Mom is suspicious, and I have some splainin’ to do when I tell her why I’m cooking up a storm. I’m banned from taking a kayak out again until I’m 30, and that’s just fine with me. But at least she agrees to drive me to the lifeguard center the next day.

Mom offers to help me carry the boxes of cakes and cupcakes, but this is something I’m going to do all by myself. I’m wearing a cute sundress, and I’ve curled my hair. I know he’s already seen me looking like a wreck (a shipwreck LOL), so I think it’s only fair he sees me at my best. I know nothing can happen because he’s the hot guy and I’m the kind-of-okay girl.

Jethro’s eyes widen when he sees me tottering toward him with my tower of cake boxes, and he jogs over to help me.

“I wanted to thank you for yesterday,” I say, my cheeks pink from being so close to him.

“Just doing my job,” he says with a grin.

“I made these for you. And, um, the other lifeguards. To say thank you.”

“Wow! This is amazing! I don’t know what to say.”

“Say you’ll eat them,” I reply with a sass that I didn’t know I had.

He laughs out loud. “I’ll do my best. Do I really have to share them?”

“You really do.”

His smile fades. “It was really smart of you to head for the lobster pots. That rip is crazy strong.”

“I’m sorry we were so dumb and didn’t stay in the lagoon. Tourists, huh?”

“I’m glad you’re okay, Flora.”

“I didn’t know you knew my name.”

“Of course I do.”

We stare at each other, then do some more staring.

“Do you want a cupcake?” he says at last. “I have a few to share.”

I smile and then he smiles, and there’s a whole lot of smiling going on.

And maybe that’s the end of the story and maybe it’s not, but at this moment, my smile couldn’t be any wider.