My eyes had grown weary that summer. I remembered that as I stood in the too-bright bar with its unpalatable stock of loud music and louder people. I had long forgotten about the little bugs that found domicile in the bar, swept in with the evening’s balmy ocean breeze through open bay windows. It was exactly the kind of bar one would find on an East Coast boardwalk.
It was the weekend after the September holiday, and everyone there was thirty-fiveplus and from out of state—most from Jersey. I had a half-drunk beer that tasted like salt water and a headache I would not take aspirin for.
“You drinking up or what?” Wyatt said.
I took the shot of Maker’s Mark and slid the glass next to his and Jim’s.
“Liven up, buddy,” he said. “Vacation’s just starting, and that’s only round three.”
His voice was a rasping croak, as it always was, but, for the first time, I had heard an analogue to his voice in the scratchy sounds of shuffling footsteps on the sand-coated fake-hardwood floor. I leaned on the bar top—it was wet in spots and sandy and salty from margarita rims and shots of tequila with training wheels—then kicked my right foot, front to back, a few times to graze the mineralized coating of the floor with the sole of my shoe. In the clamor, the sound was barely there, but I let it talk for a few seconds.
A bartender asked if I needed anything. I didn’t and held up the half-drunk salt water and gave it the slightest of tilts. As I straightened my posture, the woman nodded and saw to another customer. There was a faint buzzing or cracking sound I could not identify. I took a sip from the bottle and looked for something in the room, convinced the bartenders were unfriendly.
Ai and Brittany were sitting behind me with their margaritas. They talked between themselves, but at a volume I could hear if I chose to care. Brittany wanted to hook up with Wyatt. I stopped caring.
I never knew where to look when there was no mirror on the wall behind the bar.
“Relax,” Jim said, “it’s Thursday night. It’ll be better tomorrow. There will be more girls, I promise.”
“Oh, is Friday when the fifty year olds come out?”
My headache returned, so I tried to focus on objects far away, like the kitsch on the walls: the landscape photographs—one, a bird’s-eye view, of course, of the boardwalk, another was a panorama of the shoreline, the third, a skyline of the city—beer signs, pictures of celebrities who, most likely, had never been in the bar, “mounted” plastic fish, more beer signs, something by the entrance that looked like an award— impossible, I figured—and two large tarpaulin sheets, each printed with one of the professional-sports franchise’s schedules, et cetera. There was a blue and black placard for the beer I was drinking, but it was too far away for me to see if there was fine print and, if so, if said fine print mentioned a caveat about its salt-water flavor, but something about the sign registered as a challenge, so I downed the last five ounces and dehydrated myself.
“I know, but I’m just so nervous. I’ve been there for so long that it’s scary to think I might have to leave next year.”
“It is scary,” Ai said. “I’ll be done with grad school in a couple years,” she said. I can’t believe I’ve already finished one year.” She shook her head as if trying to offset a dizzying feeling. “I can’t believe I finished undergrad. I don’t know what I’ll do, but—”
She stopped there, and they both decided to finish their second round of margaritas.
“But,” she continued in her ever-hopeful tone, energized by her drink. “But you have to move if you can. You deserve it. You’ve worked hard, but now you should go back to school while you’re still young.”
Brittany reached toward Ai’s lap and grabbed her hands. Both had such small adult hands that the gesture seemed childlike. Ai was wearing a light-blue sundress with a floral design. Brittany thanked Ai a couple drunken times, and they sat like that until Ai changed leverage and cupped Brittany’s hands, caressing them, and assumed the would-be dominant position in their mano-a-mano embrace. Ai’s hands, medium in tone with a golden hue, seemed to be churning Brittany’s cream-colored hands, to be molding her as if Brittany were made of gypsum.
“You’re going to do great.”
I didn’t know if Brittany believed her, but Ai was ever optimistic and always ready with a bromide she believed in.
The cracking had ended, but the buzzing continued and worsened my headache. I was unprepared for when Wyatt grabbed my shoulder. He had a strong grip. He had small, but thick hands and large knuckles.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, his voice churning in my ears. “Ready for the next round?”
Ai and Brittany had tequila with training wheels. Jim and Wyatt had Jägermeister.
Just then, I heard the singular snap and scatter of a billiards break.
“To vacation,” Wyatt said.
Everyone repeated and knocked glasses.
“Pay attention, silly,” Brittany said.
“Yeah, come on, buddy, drink up.”
A portion of my reflection sloshed in the whiskey. It was the next-best thing to a mirror on the wall behind the bar, behind a prism of bottles of various levels of fulfillment. I shattered it.
“Are you okay?” Ai said, a look of grim concern on her flushed face. “Is it your head, again?” she said.
“You’ve kinda been out of it tonight.”
I said I was fine, that I would sit outside for a bit.
The crowd and noise were unbearable sans the placebo protection of the group’s little bubble at the corner of the bar. As I oozed between people on my way to the door, the percussive cracks of ricocheting balls of resin became importunate and unavoidable. I could see on the plaque by the entrance the word “WINNER” before I turned away. On my penultimate step inside the bar, my foot dragged. I listened to the gravel all the way out the door.
Not even the solid wooden door could keep everything out, not with the large windows open and spewing the bar’s guts to the world. Noise escaped and seemed to follow me as I walked farther away, and, for a second, the sound grew even louder.
“Eitemiller, wait,” Ai said. “Would you come to the water with me?”
I wondered if she would have gone alone or followed me. I decided she would have gone with me. She would have gone with me wherever. I could have taken her anywhere, but I was going nowhere. She knew that, too, yet she still would have gone.
As we walked down the boardwalk in stride with each other, she wanted me to hold her hand. She didn’t have to say anything. The bottom of her gossamer sundress flagged in the breeze and bridged the narrowing gap between us as she moved closer to me while I matched her pace. Her sundress clung close to her breasts, her golden chest somewhat sticky with sweat. I didn’t have to tell her I would not hold her hand, so she wrapped her arm under my left, entwined us, and I was stuck following her as she was following me.
We descended stairs and hopped a waist-high gate to reach the beach, then took off our shoes. The beach was empty and quiet. We sat on the dry sand just before the foam broke and returned to the ocean. There were just the sounds of the waves as they broke in the distance and the sound as they came along flat to the shore. Ai was a silent breather. I liked that about her.
She stretched her legs, put her heels in the damp sand, and waited for the ocean to return. I felt a warmth as I watched her. She stood, feet wet—could I reach her?—and faced me. Her skin was golden as ever against the sky, her cheeks ruddy with delight and the warmth of alcohol.
“I’m going,” she said.
Still facing me, she removed her sundress, then her underwear. She had the kind of figure Renaissance masters would paint: rounded, shapely, supple. She was Titian’s Venus with black hair and narrow eyes. I stood and forgot about everything. Then she ran and disappeared underwater. I removed my clothes and ran nude, raw sienna in complexion, until my legs would not move anymore, until I fell face first into an oncoming wave that bore me back toward the shore.
I regained myself and found her. We stood together in dishabille in ribs-high water. I reached for her. We touched each other, her small, Renaissance hands on my brown skin, my hands on her, perfect and golden. I kissed her, and she tasted sweet. I was hot inside. I wanted to apologize for never seeing her before.
The next wave was on its way, rushing toward us, angry, spewing foam from its crest. We dove into it. It was heavy and implacable and threw us about.
I surfaced out of sorts. Everything looked purple and saturated as if the night and the ocean had gotten into my head. I could have lain out there forever, extinguished and swept away. I thought I heard someone calling my name, saying “Aaron.” There was the shore. There was a light on the shore. It was the brightest light. It was moving.
“Eitemiller,” Ai called. “Eitemiller.”
I swam toward the shore, toward my name.
“She was the only one who could call me ‘Aaron,’” I said.
The light kept moving across the shore.
Ai was waiting for me in the foam and sand. The brightest light was still far behind her. She hugged me. There was no warmth and patience had gone. What had just been supple felt flabby. Her skin, once golden, was now dull as sand. There was no Venus on the shore, and everything tasted like salt water. I had become grotesque. Still, the light kept moving.
“I just want to be Aaron.”
I sprinted to my clothes and almost put on my pants backward. I left everything else.
The large figure moved with no hurry as it passed over the sand, sharing its light. It loomed still in the distance as I tried to catch up to it and the brightest light in the world. It seemed like the only one I had ever seen. My eyes were weary, but the light gave me warmth. She was always hiding in the light. I could see her, soft and white. She said my name. I would always find her there. She abandoned me on a shore, and I kept chasing the brightest light, hoping to discover fire, to start a life.
Sean C Wilson is the author of At a Safe Distance, a collection of short stories to which he no longer owns rights.