The bikini isn’t even Claire’s thing. Before this winter, if you had said Confederate flag, Claire would have thought of high-school beach trips: rows and rows of tacky souvenir shops along the Ocean City Boardwalk, her best friend Angela muttering they know they lost, right? while Claire tried to remember which side of the Mason-Dixon line Maryland was on. The flag stuff is Jackson’s, and she’s mostly seeing Jackson to piss off Puppy. Puppy, Claire’s almost-stepmother, is legally named Poppy; Puppy is supposedly a childhood nickname stemming from a baby sister’s mispronunciation, but Claire suspects that Puppy has made the whole thing up. Puppy deemed it wasteful to pay twice as much for a direct flight in order for Claire to avoid a layover, and her father listens to Puppy now, so for the first half of her trip, Claire had to go the wrong direction—to Florida from Vermont via Detroit.
Jackson has a drawl and a pickup truck and, in spite of his lack of farming experience, a farmer’s tan. Claire meets him at Burger Boy, the restaurant a few miles from her father’s house. Its chipping red-and-white tiles and musk of grease give it all the glamour of a truck-stop bathroom, but it’s a respite from the lemon-scented and pristine house that brought her father to St. Petersburg for retirement. At college, Claire mostly lives off of the salad bar, but here she picks up a burger and fries to go every afternoon. It is the kind of food Puppy says she can’t eat since she turned thirty, and Puppy, having no job and, from what Claire gathers, limited ambitions beyond strolling the house in expensive loungewear, is always home to miserably watch her eat it. On her fourth Burger Boy visit, Claire picks up Jackson too. They get high and make out in the pool house that afternoon, and the next and the next and the next.
At nineteen, Jackson is six months older than Claire, but still a senior in high school. They try hanging out at his house once, but Claire feels shamed by his mother’s scrutiny, assumes she wants to know what’s damaged or defective about Claire that has her screwing a high-school boy. After that, when they cannot be alone at her house because her father is home (rarely) or Puppy is unbearable (frequently), they find places to park. He gives her the bikini at the end of the first week, after she complains that her father’s move to Florida caught her off guard—she is used to winters that at least make an effort to be winter, but her father’s new life in St. Pete is relentless sunshine, sunburn weather in December. Outside, by the pool, she has resigned herself to wearing t-shirts over one of Puppy’s old suits, which is spangled with faded glitter and sags over Claire’s bee-sting breasts. Jackson presents the bathing suit wadded up in a supermarket plastic bag, the sort of awkward non-gift you give someone in an awkward non-relationship—he bought it for five dollars on a spring break trip, he says, for a girlfriend he subsequently found blowing one of his friends in their shared motel room and broke up with.
It isn’t much—three triangles and some string—but the tag is still attached and Jackson is beaming at her.
“You’d look so hot in this,” he says.
She does look pretty hot: like someone she is not, what with the stars and bars marking her tits and crotch, but a hot someone she is not.
“You look like white trash,” Puppy says to her the first time she sees the bikini.
“You would know,” Claire says back. The bathing suit becomes a habit, even after the temperature dips. Two days before she leaves town, she throws a pair of cutoffs and a T-shirt over it before she and Jackson leave the house, but when they get to the parking space—a clearing in a half-built, abandoned subdivision—she makes a show of stripping off the shorts and shirt. In the few minutes before he takes it off and fucks her in the truck’s cab, Jackson snaps a picture of Claire, radiant and smiling and leaning against the crisp foil-flash of the bumper, the bikini’s Xs making her body a tic-tac-toe board.