I was bravest in the summer.
We met before that season actually began, when the morning was fresh with the promise of it and the calendar said May. The beach was empty and full of possibilities. Billy and I spoke because we were the only kids there. By the time the shadow of the sun swam over us that day, we were friends.
From then on, my parents, Billy’s, and his older sister Denise went to Field 5 every weekend. Each family set up their blanket, umbrella, and cooler in the same place. Billy’s mom took out, inspected, and displayed her lotions and sprays. The adults didn’t talk much, but became friendly because of their kids’ ability to babysit one another. Our mothers read, our fathers slept and occasionally went in the water to cool off. Denise ignored everyone. Billy and I were left alone. No one bothered to tell us not to swim after we ate, or that the lady who walked around selling jewelry and went into the ocean with all of her clothes on was crazy and to stay away from her — we learned these things on our own.
At that age, whoever you’re with is your best friend. But I couldn’t define Billy when I wasn’t at the beach, and when we were together, this was just understood. We didn’t live in the same town, so when I told my other friends about him from the branches of our neighborhood’s trees, I called him “this kid Billy,” as if it would insult them that he was more important than them. When I’d tell them about things that happened when I wasn’t with them, like the time that we put a crab in Denise’s bag, they rolled their eyes. The beach was our place, a wide open secret that couldn’t be told or translated.
In the few days the weather kept us from being outside we just went to the restaurant on the other side of the beach and stared at the ocean as it surrounded Long Island, filling up with rainwater, looking like it was going to spill over the sides. The lightning storms were my favorite; although they kept us from swimming, I waited for a spark to hit the flatness of the horizon and erupt it. I waited for a surge.
All that time, we tried to conquer the ocean, to make an escape. We’d make a run for it with our hands held tightly together, starting wherever the water last stained the sand. But the surf would always push us back, taking our energy and our time, still insisting we belonged on the shore. By the time the sun had crossed over the dunes and started to dip behind the cars in the lot each day, we would pack up and run back across the dry, scorching beach.
The ocean was everything: the rhythm we moved to, the picture we stared at, the place to get lost inside. Some days it was stronger than others. When September came, our feet were calloused and sluggish. It felt like accomplishment against the elements. It made me think we could finally take on the surf, or at least make peace with it.
“It’s the goddamn moon,” Billy’s dad said, as he knelt next to us, untangling seaweed from his toes. I didn’t understand it, but it felt like change. It was Labor Day, and the air had a hint of fall. Now the Moon was in charge. Our days had always seemed ruled by the Sun.
Billy seemed not to notice and was busy digging for treasure. I watched his dad scour the sand and waited for him to say more. Instead, he walked back to the blue umbrella where Billy’s mom sat. I could see her hand him a pink bottle and turn around. I watched him paint her back just a lighter shade of white than she was before. He picked up a cigarette and coolly lit it like they did in the movies.
I looked back at my mother, sitting in her yellow chair, wearing the accomplished expression of a woman who finally adjusted the skirt of her bathing suit just right. My father sat silently next to her and he slapped a horsefly on his arm.
I let my gaze flow back to Billy, turned away from me and staring at the water. Even from the stillness of his head, I knew that inside it, Billy was planning, thinking; ideas rolling into each other, just like the ocean in front of us. I thought about sixth grade starting the following week, and this being our last chance. Above the distant sound of the lifeguard’s whistle, I shouted, “Let’s go in, it’s our last — ”
Without a word, he jumped up, grabbed my hand, and the wave met us like a wall.
When it hits you, it’s exciting and painful and full of hope. I saw a shimmer of Billy’s green shorts as he bounced off of the wave and I felt his hand slip from mine. I hit rocks at the bottom that I’d never felt before, shells that scratched and scraped and tumbled behind me as the undertow took me to the part of the ocean I always wanted to see, but never alone, and never without warning. My eyes blinked and saw nothing and even when closed I was still searching for Billy, willing him to come find me under the murk and pull me up to shore.
It was the surge. I made it, and I was living from the other side of the surface. This was an ocean that I didn’t recognize. When my lungs were just at bursting, I broke the surface, back to life, but Billy didn’t. His limp body was carried by a lifeguard when I was already on the shore, shivering. The waves continued in their rhythm, and even while I stared at his body, I knew Billy was with them. He belonged there.
Courtney England lives in New York City and regrets it a little less each day.