That’s him, my friend announces. Her eyes are deep, empty bowls, hungry for something to fill them up, staring at the tall man approaching. He’s dressed in black, commanding in the way that a bird of prey resonates with focus on the thing it wants to eat — his gaze trained to capture you in places where you thought you could hide, unseen.
He’s older, his thinning hair slicked back, too black to be natural, but we’re young; it looks sort-of cool. We are wearing flimsy summer dresses that graze our legs just above the knees, tickling our thighs; feeling feisty and bored in the way that teenage girls feel on the first hot summer days. Seagulls swoop and quarrel in a rosy sky, the day dwindling, families packing up for the trip home with tired toddlers. Our night is just beginning, my friend saying, let’s have some fun and not be afraid to try something new.
The neon signs of shops ignite, flaring red against the pink swirling clouds. Our mothers said, be careful, on this, our first night down at the beach on our own. They consulted, considered our age as a factor — sixteen won out as old enough. Stay on the strip, call us if anything happens, have fun but use your heads, they said, mixing up margaritas in a blender, toasting vacation.
My friend is restless. She says her heart feels like an open wound. Many times I’ve asked her why, but I think I know. She can’t imagine growing older, life seems too long already; she’s weighted down. Other times she’s inflated, full of helium, dancing above my head, unmoored, silly and reckless.
This man was summoned by her; a way to break the monotony. Let’s have a drink, he says. Take a walk on the pier. A bottle passes among us, filled with something that stings, then turns hot, then settles warm in parts I’ve never felt before; dark, unexplored regions. He drapes an arm over my friend’s tan shoulder. I look her way and she coos, be cool, it’s fine, just chill. Our bare feet flirt with the sand, the sensual softness of it sifting between our toes.
My mind drifts back to age thirteen, the night we risked going to a party with older boys and came home with our necks full of hickeys. We’d just spread out our sleeping bags on the basement floor, ready to curl up, compare the things we’d learned when her step-dad called her upstairs. She came back down later, shaky and brittle as an autumn leaf in the wind. What happened? I asked, again and again, speaking into the dark until finally I heard her voice, detached from her body, he made me undress and sit on the bed while he lectured me on the dangers of boys and growing up too fast. The room tilted. You were sitting there naked? I was appalled, guilty, heartsick — we were just getting used to our new bodies, deeply embarrassed and equally thrilled by these wildly ravishing new forms. She sighed and turned away, he never touched me, you know, just talked on and on and on. A whole life can pivot on just one night.
The sun is dipping low into a cloud of magenta and orange laced with fire. The man is gripping my friend’s hand, the three of us sitting with our legs swinging over the edge of the pier. Lovers stroll by and fishermen cast their lines, still hopeful, or maybe just out of habit. We are sun-worn and drowsy. My friend leans against my side, whispers, don’t leave me. The bottle is passed again. Take bigger sips, says the man. There’s another one in the car. Pretty soon I am loose and fluid, like water pouring out of a bucket. I am splashed on the pier, giddy and amiable. My friend and I hoot with laughter when her sunglasses plop into the water and sink. She tells the man a joke: What’s better than roses on your piano? Tulips on your organ. Get it? Two lips? He snickers, obligingly. His stony eyes are shining, reflecting the last of the day’s light.
Even through my haze I can see where this thing is headed, how this night will unravel in ways that will be impossible to piece back together. But now we are gone, wasted, looking at the cresting waves. The wind is picking up, the sun is collapsing on the sharp edge of the horizon, splitting in two.
He stands now, pulling us up, gathering us into his long arms to guide us away from the beach, worlds away. He is the fulcrum and we swivel unsteadily around him.
Kathy Steblen is an artist who lives in upstate New York, along the Erie Canal. She counsels teenagers at a local high school and gains insight and inspiration from hearing their stories, which reminds her of the many stories from her own youth.