UNDERTOW by Tara Stillions Whitehead

We pinned their name tags to our knitted sacks. Reynolds. Solomon. Childs. Kennedy. We wrote their room numbers on our wrists and waited for them on the cement benches near the commandant’s office. We sat with our legs crossed, condoms in our back pockets, while they marched the line in their parade uniforms. We tracked sand from dorm to bedroom sheets. Someone’s mother washed their civvies and kept them in the guest room or the pool house, convinced we were the ones doing the civilizing.

There were boys whose names we couldn’t share. Boys whose names we’d seen taped inside other girls’ lockers. Boys whose hips were like rip tides. Boys with thirsty eyes. Boys in beach stairwells and stolen cars. Boys in bathroom stalls above the fire pits at Coyote, behind the air hockey tables in Mr. Peabody’s.

Wharton. Claussen. Holt. Phelps.

We carried their desire. We carried the sea.

When they were expelled or graduated or disappeared, we pinned their names between the Christmas lights on our bulletin boards. We cocooned ourselves in our salty-air bedrooms and drank wine coolers and collaged, high on unspent touch, sweating them out like a forever hangover. We kept their parents’ secrets and sent encrypted letters, silently thanked God for cigarettes and earthquakes and all things California.

Today, I write their names on a receipt with crossed out numbers and a long-past pediatrician appointment scribbled in the corner. Heinneman. Daltz. Prescott. The spellings don’t look right, but when I dig through the few boxes harboring those fugitive years, the photos are too blurry for confirmation.

I search Google and find an article about the boys the commandant gave whiskey to and took home. My chest rises and falls with the surge of events I thought fear and shame had erased. The boy who drowned in the undertow by academy barracks. The dime bags he kept in his beret. The boy who touched so long as I didn’t touch him back, his moaning in the beach stairwell, his blank unrecognition when I saw him at the winter formal. There was the boy who sold pills. The boy who bought and could not stop taking the pills. The boy who got so drunk he told us what had been done to him. The boy who slept with his rifle. The boy who fucked his rifle. The boy who wrote poems and was sent to the desert. Somewhere in between, sometime after, there was the boy who called me to tell me he’d been released from prison, to tell me he is not a boy anymore, that he never was allowed to be a boy then.

In the article, I see the commandant’s face for the first time. I read his name in the caption, five times in the article, one for each charge against him.

I do not see the boys’ names—McKee and Smith and Wright—but I hear them—Webb and Fritz and Oh—calling from the Mariana Trench, whispering just below the surface, translating the language of sand far from the sea. 


Tara Stillions Whitehead is a writer and filmmaker from Southern California now living and teaching in Central Pennsylvania. Her work has has appeared in or is forthcoming from a variety of journals, and magazines including Fairy Tale Review, The Rupture, and PRISM international. Her full-length collection of stories, The Year of the Monster, will be published with Unsolicited Press in 2022, and her hybrid chapbook, Blood Histories, is forthcoming at Galileo Press.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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