*Featured Image: “No One Believed Me” by Claire LawrenceI do what Becky does. She pulls the cord when we hit Laguna Main, and I follow from bus stop to gas mart. I choose the third largest cinnamon roll from the plastic case. We sit on the curb at the parking lot edge and we eat our rolls there: Becky, her friend, and I.
You can just sit on a curb in a gas station parking lot, I guess, without anyone noticing or telling you to move. It may be my first time invisible. Cars line up and gas is pumped and the bus loads and unloads, and no one even looks at our huddle on damp concrete near dirty azalea. The hoods of our sweatshirts bow our heads.
I sense this is a ritual, the cinnamon roll, the curb, the early arrival to downtown Laguna. I hope it will last all season, the Summer before I enter high school and the first Summer I am allowed to do something with friends, without adults. Becky is a year older. She leads the way.
We head to the beach. The sky behind me toward home is dead and gray, the fog still and desolate. We cross the highway and walk across the grass and the small wooden boardwalk. The beach is still and waiting. There is no one near the water. A few joggers, the wet swoosh of traffic, seagulls hunting garbage and some people who look as though they slept on the short spongy grass or sandy sidewalk. I have never seen it like this, monochrome and cold. Laguna Main is a picture postcard when the sun is out, which is most days of the year. This secret bleakness thrills.
We land on our towels and wait. I dig my feet into the clammy sand. Becky monotones a series of judgments, slid through a narrow window of acceptable human behavior. I nod and blank out my personality.
A couple of kids down the beach run to the water to test it. They are wearing cut-off jeans as swimsuits, and have translucent skin.
“Tourists.” Becky shakes her head.
I feel the mortification of an improper swimsuit. Even boys should have board shorts or some kind of proper trunks. Cut-offs seem messy and alien, like the pale Midwesterners who dance to the water and shriek with cold.
I never talk about books or music with Becky. The blank stares that met “Up On Cripple Creek” at my last birthday party taught me well. None of my friends ever get it. Becky’s favorite song is “My Sharona,” which sounds fresh and brash and lights a fire for rhythm in my cells. I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times. It is not anything my father would like. The song is mine. For the first time my father doesn’t have a handle on the coolest thing. Sharona is different. Everyone thinks it cool, Becky’s older brother and his friends and Becky and everyone. My father is on the outside of this one. This is the first time.
The sea comes into focus and high above, the clouds begin to texture. Thin wisps blow across the heavy bank, and at moments I see blue sky widen and disappear. Now it is really burning off. I marvel at the way it happens, all at once. The sea greens and color appears everywhere, on the emerald palm fronds and the caramel tree trunks, the red net-less hoops on the basketball court.
A few men possess the court. I have seen these men before. Fit, darkly tanned, perfectly groomed 40- and 50-year olds, they are always here. They must live in walking distance, in one of the big homes on the hills. Somehow, they live their lives at the beach. They are men who seem satisfied with their lot, always smiling, easy, joking. They make a show of everything they do. The late-morning basketball skirmish. The inside jokes, the collapses of laughter. It is attention-seeking yet secret and elusive.
I hear one of them cheer a Porsche in flight. A finger is waved. The distraction frees an arcing shot and the backboard answers the boom of a rogue set of waves.
“That’s three!” The shooter pedals to the edge of the court, tosses the ball over and opens a cooler.
This self-assuredness will forever be a mystery to me. I will come to both admire and detest this quality in a man, this light and entitled ease.
Men have started to pay a different kind of attention to me, even those my father’s age. I lean back and wonder if this is the Summer these Laguna men will notice me. Their bodies are oiled and sweaty and dark, and they sit in low beach chairs now, four or five of them, talking and gazing evenly at the expanse of sand, as if surveying their property.
A girl crosses in front of us, then over to the court. I guess her age to be 17 or 18, and the beauty of her burns off the final marine layer. She throws her long, straight hair over her shoulder and it falls down her back. She is sunlight, walking.
I look away with envy, then look back and watch from the side of my glasses. Her face is open, with a light humor to the mouth and intelligence and joy in the eyes, which reflect back the sky. Her nose is so thin and perfectly straight, not pugged like mine. Its shape adds an aching elegance. She makes her way across the sand, sinking and rising in a magic undulation that seems light-hearted. If we were to cast a California Girl, here then is the mold.
The men fidget with her approach, sitting up straighter in their low chairs, and I see one straighten his shorts nonchalantly and expectantly. They seem for a moment to pause in mid-air, and then spill out a greeting that is loud yet laconic as she stops before them. In one graceful movement she kisses a cheek. I see how she laughs at their funny, authoritative teasing. I strain to hear the conversation, but only hear rhythm of jokes: low murmurs, lilting laughter of secrets taking flight. Hands gesticulate a secret language of belonging. She tosses that magnificent mane toward the sea.
I look down at my cotton suit and pudgy belly and feel I am a different species. Does every girl get to be her, at one point in life?
Sharona bleats from a nearby radio and I close my eyes and imagine Sharona, object of adoration. I imagine Jim Morrison, on a beach with a guitar, writing about his LA woman. I love the Doors. I move to ask if Becky likes the Doors, but her back stops the words from forming, glossy and solid and resolute in the bright sun. It seems that every back, every face these days locks me out. The words stay in my throat. Forget it. I lean back on sinking elbows and close my eyes against the glare.
Jim Morrison lolls on the beach in my mind, and I let go of the day and follow him down to this other world. Do women get to be so free, lounging, writing, owning their dreams? Who will write of me?
I hear the girl at the basketball court say goodbye, and I open my eyes. She dips with a parting kiss, balanced and graceful.
“Hey. Let’s walk over and get a bite.” In one movement, Becky stands into her shorts. I do the same, with more effort. We leave our towels where they are. As we near the court, the golden girl walks past us, and I vaguely wonder if we will catch any of the gaze the men rest on her. Nothing. Invisible.
The men watch as the girl makes her way toward the water. As I pass them, I see her aquaintance, the one she seemed to know so well, turn to his friend. I hear him say, as his eyes follow her progress,
“You know, if she lost 10 pounds, she would be perfect.”
He lifts a beer. Back to scanning his world.
Loveliness drains from the day through a grate in my heart. Everything here is now suspect:the houses on the hill crumple and windows gaze cruelly. Water crashes and a bottle cap teethes the ball of my foot. I hunch my shoulders in humiliation.
Christy orders a bag of pretzels and a diet soda. I add chili to a dog. The girls watch as I step outside acceptable dietary lines. Everyone can screw off.
We head back to the towels and the sand is burning now. We need to trot and I see myself from the vantage of the basketball court: rushing, hunched, stomach round with chili dog and hair a frizzy mop. My skin crawls with the idea of the men watching me now. They don’t.
I lie for a while and imagine the sky and sea a backdrop like a movie set, flat, like one big panel. Could I unzip the whole thing down the center and reveal what lies behind? I am desperate to know all I don’t know.
I toss sand from hand to hand in fury for a while, then follow the girls to the water.
Becky and her friend ease in and I collapse into a wave, falling into the shock of chill and dragging my hair through the foam as I surface. I am weightless here, my hair straight and sleek. I make my way past the break, sliding under the waves and emerging through the back of them. I could swim to China if they’d let me.
I lie on my back and fill my eyes with blue while the girls shriek at something funny. They bob in the swells, trying to look poised in the tossing. A wave lifts me and I see a man with them, a blonde 20-something wearing mirrored sunglasses as he swims. He is making Becky’s friend laugh. Becky gives him haughty and worldly responses that make me wish I had brothers. I am annoyed at his intrusion, but soon he gets close and makes me laugh with his silly antics and his teasing.
I want to just float, to watch the sky overhead and enjoy the weightlessness. I guess the way to get rid of him is to get out of the water, so Becky does. I follow.
Rivulets of ocean drip from my bottoms and into my towel. The man slips into the sand at our feet.
Becky sounds annoyed, but he seems to take her sharp and increasingly caustic comments as flirtation. Their banter is a yet another secret language I try to decipher.
This man is not like the men in the beach chairs behind me. He seems wild, dirty, and stupid. I feel that there is something he is almost desperate for, underneath his white smile and his easy and fidgety way. His body is sinewy and it sort of grosses me out, tendons and muscles so naked and striving. His blond leg hair curls and bunches and grabs on to bits of sand. The raw knuckles pull the sand into little piles and then flatten them out.
He wants something, wants us to do something. I feel stupid for not noticing this earlier. He wants us to walk down to the curve, to the rocky, tide-pool area, away from the eye of the beach. Becky is refusing. Her friend is refusing.
His gaze sets on me. I’ve given up figuring anything out.
“Okay. I’ll walk down there with you.”
The girls suck their breath. I stand and fumble for my shorts.
“Don’t go with that guy!” Becky nearly shouts.
“I want to walk down to the rocks.”
I jog to the cool dampness without waiting. I can feel Becky and her friend staring as if I’ve left them mid-sentence. The man catches up and he’s taller than I thought and his energy seems wound up. He bounces in front and beside me. I walk quickly, kicking water, looking straight ahead, looking toward the rocks.
“You still go to school?”
He seems shocked. We’re going to have a conversation. I feel him catching up.
“Nah, got out of that as soon as I could.”
“That’s interesting. You didn’t like school.”
“I like to read. I really like the Beat Poets.” I am speaking incessantly and brightly, friendly and normally, as if there is no reason two people shouldn’t be walking toward the bend in the beach, chatting about life and literature as they skim to where things are hidden.
“You live near here? I live in El Toro, but I used to live in Anaheim. It gets a lot hotter there than by the beach. It seems like when you’re by the beach it’s never as hot.”
The words fall, breathless and unstoppable. Becky’s gaze is a third companion as we walk. Behind her, rich men take the game.
“I usually go to Aliso but they wanted to come here today. My friend has a house at Thalia and I’ve spent a lot of time down there too. Main is okay though, it’s fine for what it is. A lot of tourists, but it’s still alright.”
I busy the air between us with local beach names. The man keeps up, tongue-tied.
I am the leader here. I am the one.
The sand gets jagged where the rock tumbles down. We finally reach the place where the girls can’t see us anymore. My hand moves to point out how the anemones startle and grip, but I yank it back in time, in relief. Tide-pools are a baby thing to care about.
The man reaches the big rocks.
He changes, takes control of the situation. He swoops for my hand and I stumble and dodge him. He scrambles up the first level of rock, and looks back as I pause.
“Up there. Let’s head up there.” His voice has changed to low. He points toward the dark shelf of cliff. His body spiders up and again he extends his hand, reaching to pull me to him.
I pause and look into the crevices. I see his sweaty face above me, red and unfamiliar. A silhouette of my head flashes in his mirrors and time pivots. I’ve looked in my dad’s mirrored glasses for years. I can always see my face in his.
“You know, I’m going back. It was nice talking to you.”
I turn and quickly pick my way through slate to open sand. A sharp edge bites my heel but I keep going. I need to go fast and keep going. I don’t understand why, I just do.
“Wait!” His sharp tone catches me and I glance back.
“I thought we were going to party!”
He starts down the rocks and yells something I don’t understand. A wave of obligation slows me for a moment, but my momentum untangles me from his energy. As I move I see myself from his eyes: pudgy thighs, frizzy hair. Why bother. I feel him let me go.
I get back in sight of Becky and her friend and they are looking toward the bend in the beach as if they never stopped.
The rush of water slows my steps. When I get close to our spot I stand with my back to them, to the whole beach, and look out to the horizon. I feel Becky’s attention release. I hear the men score a point on the court. The horizon tilts. What if I just start swimming?
I drop to the wet sand and dig my feet in deep. In the glare of sun on sea, I glory in being a faint shadow against retinas blinded in daylight. The lapping edge of the entire ocean gently buries me deep and deeper until my legs disappear to the knee. The tide desires to drag me from where I am rooted, to bend me to its will.
A rushing wave climbs my body and I fall back, salt in my nose, sand in my hair, splayed out. I must look ridiculous, if anyone cared to see. My muscles surrender, allowing the foam to lift me in invitation. I could just float, driftwood. No one would even notice if I just floated away.
I right myself and sit back again, the sea licking my feet. My thighs glisten with sand and salt and this is the first time I see them, tanned and taut, shimmering in the glare. Over the years I will watch as they get womanly and sexy and age. Thin and heavy, starved and strong, supple and tired, they’ll hold me up, keep me running, buckle and rise again. Between them, many men: privilege and lack, control and dissolution. The stage has been set, the game in motion. The court where the rich men play and the dark caves on the fringe are the borders between which I’ll run, back and forth, pushing each boundary a little further over time. Where safety, where danger?
On the beach, I fling myself onto the towel with a sigh.
“That guy was so dumb.”
Two chroming backs, heads turned away.