Featured in Colorado Review
Reward for BraveryFeatured, Fiction
Published Spring 2013
I was born on a hill two blocks back from the Pacific Ocean. I was born in a garage apartment that I never saw, and then my parents moved even farther from the shore. That was before my father went back to Vietnam, taken with a violent nostalgia for war and obsessed with creating a family who wasn’t us, and before my mom moved up in the world, at least a little, to the white stucco house with hot pink weeds clamoring all over, the one we live in now. She called those voracious hot pink things a garden, the cactus too. We were close enough to where the rich people lived, so the rich people were our friends, invited my mom to their parties, and I slept in their bedrooms under soft, white comforters. Growing up, the water was everywhere. My best friend, Vee, had a house right on the cliffs. It was the real deal, with shining, silver cars covered up in the garage, and paintings splattered in grays and olive greens hanging on walls, everything worth millions. Her house would also be the first place to go if the earth moved at all underneath it, just sliding right down those cliff walls and being taken by the sea. No one seemed too concerned with that, though they should have been. Vee and I knew how precarious every structure was, including our own little skeletons, the black hole of ourselves, the crumpling center of our chests where each breath went.
It didn’t matter what else we knew about geography; when we stood on Vee’s deck we knew it was the edge of the whole entire world, and also the end. In those days no one’s parents were concerned about the strength of the tide. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted. Even when we were far younger, we chased the edge of the water, smooth rocks in our hands, imaginary contests unfolding, as our parents stood with their backs to us. We took our shoes off when the water came in and trapped us along the cliffs, but nothing bad ever happened. We saw the lagoons of green far out, farther than we could swim. We were never trapped long. Our backs pressed against the red silt, and the tide fell back again. In that way we were freed, again and again.
“There are two tides each day,” Vee recited patiently, her wind-snarled hair pressed to her salty mouth. We both knew equal amounts about the water. I knew about the pressing core of the deep that lured sailors downward. I knew about the broken lighthouses, the shipwrecks, the women with pulsing, turquoise legs. Some nights I wished I were one of the latter, concerned only with swimming and water, as I mostly was anyway, and the considerations of a sky only over ocean, never over land. Some nights without Vee, I walked all those blocks to the beach from my own small house and pressed my feet into the sand all the way down to the break. I don’t want to admit it, exactly, that I hoped I might transform there in the dark all alone, with no one looking. I pinched my legs and threw myself on the ground and kicked and was still, but nothing. My human girl legs continued to stretch out long in front of me.
The rich parents had granite-topped kitchen counters and leaned over them with wet glasses in their hands, gin and ice inside. We understood what they talked about, sort of. We eavesdropped when we remembered to. Their afternoon cocktail hours were a vague and daily anthropology class for us. It was the first time I heard words like hysterectomy, a thing that sounded medieval, or fugitive. Vee said it had something to do with what was essential to making us women, something inside us we might not be allowed to keep.
Women had an ambivalent power, it was clear, something painful and put-upon about their air when they spoke to their husbands and sons, not that my mother had a husband to attempt this discord with. Despite the cool, encompassing luxury I sensed everywhere, nothing was exactly the way the grown-up women wanted it. Not their beautifully windowed mansions, not their Zen garden pathways, not their endless afternoons at the meditation center with the curling, golden roof. Vee and I were never able to piece together enough for any of it to fit perfectly, and we both knew she was in far more danger of growing up to be this type of woman than I was. There were beautiful, expensive tables where meals were never eaten, and when the sun was setting brilliantly right over the water, Vee’s mom would draw the shades over the glass, enormous white things like animal skins. She would draw the shades instead of contemplating that fiery descent.
Sometimes we listened intently to our mothers in the afternoon, but mostly we flitted lazily into our own investigations. During one afternoon gathering, we snuck into Vee’s parents’ shower, a regal affair with no door and handprints on the glass. These full prints were faintly sensual or criminal. Looking at them created some wafting sensation that we had no name for. I felt sure Vee’s parents had fucked in here, her mother’s hands pressed to the glass in visceral smears. I didn’t want to say that to Vee. I didn’t have parents who might fuck, and it was hard to understand if that idea would be too personal or too weird to consider. I was sure I’d be ok with it, but it was hard to know. It was true I hated the idea of my mom fucking any of the rich men at these afternoon gatherings, her letting any one of them consider themselves worthy of such beauty. And my mom was beautiful, always wrapped in something sheer, always not entirely where she was. Another consideration, both more and less sad, was maybe Vee’s mom was in here alone, her hands pressing rose-scented shampoo through her wet hair, the warm water draining over the tiles at her feet, something that would never be spoken aloud splashing inside her mind.
We turned the water on, two faucets, one right above to feel like rain, another diagonally aimed, like a normal shower, like the kind in my house. We wore our first real bras, matching violet with lace, terribly grown-up in a way that almost made me homesick. Vee had ordered them with her mother’s credit card, and they came three days later, the exact same sizes, a color, and especially a texture, like nothing I’d ever seen. We wore them with our long board shorts, pleased by the contrasts of ourselves. We stood in the shower and I was mesmerized by the handprint, by whose it was and why it was there so fully. I resisted allowing mine to hover over it. I turned away from it. Other people’s houses, the smells especially, made it seem like any life was possible, not just the familiar tones of my own house, my mother and brother, the damp white of my small bedroom, the drawers pushed full of sparkling nail polish, an orange alarm clock, the objects that were mine.
“Well, what do we have here?” Deuce asked. He was one of the older surfer boys, nineteen, maybe even twenty. He always got invited by Vee’s bored, flirtatious mom to attend cocktail hour. Or it was because he was our friend Mickey’s older brother that he hung around all the time. He had his reasons, and we didn’t care. He let Vee’s mom rest her hand on his tanned forearm. He called her Mrs. K as a joke, as if there were no way she deserved that reverence. She got this joke, and her laughter broke everywhere around them. Right now, for a moment, the open bathroom door where Deuce stood allowed the jazz record sounds in, the adult laughter quieter, the sloshy ice cubes melting loudly against the glasses.
“What are you two up to?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Vee said. I considered how our identical bras fit us differently, though mostly our differences still lay ahead of us. Now, at thirteen, our breasts were basically the same, though hers would grow tanner, more triangular, stay the same size. Mine would get bigger, rounder, like how European women look when they are naked in the movies, perhaps more womanly in some way, but also more troublesome.
“I would,” Deuce agreed, unmoving.
I wanted to point out the handprint to him. It seemed like the scene of a crime. The light from the skylight always confused me, tricked me into thinking it was electrical light when really it was our little bit of sky. I had nothing clever to say and waited hopefully for Vee, mostly able to save us when we were caught in some strange gesture. I concentrated on the showerhead above me. My wet hair stuck to my shoulders. I was grateful for our new bras, at least.
“Well . . . ,” she said. Her trailing off must have made him think he could get under the water with us, because he did. He had tiny specks of black sand on him, like something was wrong with his perfect skin. It floated down his skin and pooled on the granite before disappearing. We got cleaner and cleaner, unmoving under the two faucets. Deuce was very close to us under the water, and I wondered if he was technically closer to Vee or to me. I felt a little bit of what Mrs. K must have felt, like his attention caused some unconscious quiver in me that had nothing to do with my brain, which truly could have taken him or left him either way.
“This house is sick,” he said finally. “I need to come to more of these little soirees.”
“As long as you leave my mom out of it,” Vee said, stepping out of the shower and engulfing herself in a nearby towel. I was impressed she mentioned it, but Deuce didn’t seem fazed. If I were really a mermaid, I might have taken a strand of his blond hair in my mouth; I might have busted the lights of the lighthouse and let him flounder in the dark waters. It was hypnotic to watch him surf, how he glided along like some arrogant bird. He was good at it, even won competitions sometimes. He talked of farther west, of going to Hawaii, where the waves were skyscraper high. But he didn’t bring that up right then. Once it was just Deuce and me in the shower, he turned and it was like he was a sun radiating only at me. I turned the cold knob stronger and felt the difference.
“Cold,” he said, and he reached his hand out to where my new violet bra divided into two skinny straps that curved up toward my shoulder. He hooked his pointer finger around the strap and gave this little tug, like that was supposed to move me toward him. I let it, just the tiniest bit. The sand on the shower tile felt good on my bare feet.
“Come on,” Vee said. And I stepped out from under the water, the handprint on the glass enveloped by steam.
Really, it was impressive that more of us didn’t drown. Between the enormous doorless showers, the swimming pools and the hot tubs, the culverts that led to the storm drains, and obviously the impressive, nonstop roar of the Pacific, probably all of us ought to have drowned by the time our adolescence was up. Most of the boys wanted to be famous surfers. Vee and I could only concern ourselves with the older boys—their barely dressed casualness, the way their bodies seemed so easy to them. Mine never seemed easy to me, and I watched the boys lope into the waves, watched them lie there bobbing, waiting, choosing the exact right moment to pull themselves upward. The closest thing to being a boy, to living that effortless way, seemed to be that you had to get their attention, get them to turn from the water and face you. Vee and I were mostly unsuccessful at this. I daydreamed of surfing lessons, but could barely do ten full boy push-ups. Or I daydreamed that one of the older boys would emerge from the waves, and scan the beach for me, and I would be the one he walked toward.
The next day Vee and I sat on the shore and watched them, at least twenty dotting the waves, the little dark circles of their bodies rising to catch the swells. We picked our favorites, a daily rotation of Sam, Mark, Daniel, Chris, Deuce, Francisco, depending.
“I can’t believe Deuce had the balls to do that. Just come in the shower like that,” Vee said. But her complaint was disingenuous at best. I didn’t know how to answer her, how to agree.
“What do you think he wanted?” I asked, instead.
“He wants to fuck my mom is what he wants.”
“But your mom wasn’t in there. We were,” I said. The half-moon of his fingernail had pressed against the front of my shoulder, into some soft part of me I hadn’t paid that much attention to before. Vee must have seen it.
“It’s better to wait for the biggest one, to let it take you under,” Vee guessed. “I mean, to have the chance for the best ride.”
“I guess,” I said. I agreed, but watched Francisco catch a medium-sized wave, ride it all the way to the end instead of disappearing inside the white crash of it. A larger assessment was at stake here than just one wave or another. All decisions were about the degree of satisfaction you were willing to go for. Risk versus payoff, and all of that. I wiggled my toes inside the sand. The remarkable sights of that beach, a place named after some phase of the moon, went ignored. By this I mean the perfect gliding formation of pelicans. The way you could see the rain far off on the water, just a gray column of it, and the sun would still be shining over your head. I mean the hundred feet of surf, the waves breaking, and the dark gray, endless expanse beyond until the sliver of the purest white light, a line of it separating earth from sky. I mean the insistence of the desert closing in, the giant orange flowers and cacti. I mean the way you could see the green translucence of the wave when the sun set behind it. All of it went ignored for the simple fact that it was far too difficult to comprehend such expansiveness, and our attentions were much more selfish and inward and anxious than all that beauty. We studied the supernatural sleekness of the tan boys instead. We inhabited ourselves fitfully, encased in misunderstandings and discomfort of all sorts. One thing I wish is that I’d known then how easy it all should have been. Really, we were perfect and we didn’t know it at all.
I didn’t tell Vee that Francisco was my favorite. He was the most and least likely choice, the one who stood out clearly. His dark skin wasn’t from his hours in the sun like all those blond boys who might just as well have lived in the center of the country, somewhere midwestern and landlocked, far from the coast, whose ancestors built boats ten thousand years ago and got themselves here, or whatever. Francisco was from Mexico, and he wore a sparkling turquoise gem in his ear, his dark, curly hair radiating from his amazing skull. His speech was littered with authentically pronounced Spanish, primarily bad words, I guessed, and slang that I longed to imitate. What’s more, he never once looked at me. I mean, not once. He lived with Vee’s neighbors, the Kellers, and there was some vague story about an escape, exotic and dangerous reasons he was here instead of elsewhere. His father was in jail, either because he was very good and revolutionary or very criminal, depending on who you spoke to. His father jumped from a plane. He’d lost all the fingernails on his left hand. He’d had enough money to send Francisco away. Francisco seduced every girl between fourteen and seventeen in Encinitas, but I was thirteen, and that was a problem. Or it was part of the problem. I’d convinced myself that if I were old enough, I might have been the most special, the one who would ruin him for all the girls after me. Francisco took girls to parties and dances and beach bonfires and at some point, a day or a night or a week or a month later, those girls always ended up somewhere crying, and everyone saw.
I don’t know why I knew it, but I did. He wouldn’t be able to make me cry, no matter what. He would tell me things he’d never told anyone else. I alone had a spell to cast. It was only a matter of time, which Vee and I felt sure we had a lot of. Sure enough, one afternoon Francisco not only spoke to me, but acknowledged knowing something about me. I imagined the trail of gossip as it wove its way from me and toward him, tentative and riddled with delicate inaccuracies. I pictured the places where the information was exchanged, and how it came up, either with intention or just accidentally, how maybe he’d heard my name or a story or both, and it just stuck.
“I hear your dad died in Vietnam,” he said. I wouldn’t have even known he was talking to me except what he’d just said was a thing people believed about me, and that I often said about myself. He and Deuce had come in from the ocean, wet suits pulled down to their hip bones. We’d seen them coming, Francisco scaling the fence and falling backward, catching himself in a somersault. Deuce was disheveled; he had pulled on his thin T-shirt branded with a drawling script that said Comedy Machine, but Francisco was bare chested. They were dripping on the deck where Vee and I were lounging in the sun, and now Francisco had said this thing. I shielded my eyes with my hand and looked up at his shape there in front of me.
“That’s cool,” he said. “I mean, it’s not cool. But, you know.”
The parents were all inside the sliding glass door, their voices low and slow, revealing only bits and pieces of their mystifying vocabulary. This was far more interesting. Deuce sat on the chaise at Vee’s feet and said something low to her that she ignored.
“He got a Purple Heart,” I said. “Because of his bravery.” This was not a lie. It was something that my mom had in her desk drawer. It looked like what you might win at Field Day, but was a much bigger deal, a gold medal and a purple ribbon, his name inscribed. It was official, and solemn, and meant that my dad had tried to save someone.
Vee’s legs were drawn up, the hot tub bubbling behind us, the rain coming in.
“You get that for almost dying. Not for bravery,” Francisco said. He was dripping near me. I nearly put my hand out to feel the water.
“Almost dying is pretty brave,” Vee said. I appreciated her for backing me up, but felt some cavernous sense of the disparity between what I thought and what was true, the measurement of my being mistaken.
“Well, yeah. And that’s the thing anyway—he almost died. He didn’t actually die. He still lives there. In Vietnam.”
I waited for Francisco to tell me something in return. About his own faraway family, or something more I didn’t know about being brave. “I don’t want to just sit around here,” Francisco said. “Deuce, I know you love hanging out with the old ladies, but let’s get going.”
Deuce and Francisco invited us along, probably just because we were there, but either way we were going too. We slipped our sandals on and climbed down from the deck so we didn’t have to go back through the house. Vee grabbed my hand in hers, and we followed the boys from the bottom of the deck back out onto the street.
They had this idea. They were going to build a raft out of whatever they could find, starting with a simple piece of plywood from the Kellers’ garage. I didn’t ask why a raft needed to be constructed when they had perfectly good surfboards. They were bored or showing off and I didn’t really want to interrupt whatever it was that was allowing us along. Francisco wielded the plywood proudly, like a surfboard, over his head, his arms straining above him, the insides of his elbows at his ears. They built it carefully, but still acted like they were joking the whole time. Francisco cursed and Deuce solved construction issues that arose. It was like they wanted to do it, but it was also just a way to fill the afternoon, the day orange tinted and sputtering out as we stood there watching the two of them.
We followed them around, not wanting to be too intrusive, fearing our default invitation could easily be rescinded. I thought about whispering to Vee that Francisco was the one I’d picked, just in case she secretly thought of him too. It seemed that whoever said it out loud first got dibs, but a small part of me feared she could get him either way. There was no real reason to think that. As the boys haphazardly nailed and built this cumbersome, silly surfboard, Francisco looked up and it was me he considered, briefly, before his eyes dropped back down to this afternoon task. Vee and I sat in the empty street not talking, the pavement hot on our bare legs. And when they were done, they had a flimsy, unworkable thing—half raft, half surfboard.
“It’ll be awesome,” Francisco proclaimed. They were going to surf down the storm drain. The recent rains had filled them to a reasonable level, and the water pushed down through the culverts, then fell underground, then spilled out onto the beach near Vee’s house.
“How is that going to work exactly?” I asked, but no one answered. I felt an unwelcome sense of danger. It seemed a dumb sort of reckless, not the impressive kind that took them out onto the ocean waves.
“For good luck,” Francisco said, and I looked up at him not understanding. He was smirking, or something else distracted and unkind, like a gambler who has the pretty girl blow on his closed fist with the dice inside. He bent down and kissed me, this wet, salty, brief moment of his mouth. It was over immediately, and I felt like I’d swallowed needles, or like maybe he’d hit me.
It’s funny the way memories work when you don’t understand what is happening in the first place, when you are still trying to decipher the meaning of the world and so your memory is clouded by that confusion and decoding. I remember the graph paper inside my mom’s hardback journal, the pages gold around the edges and numbers written inside, rows and rows of them, mostly a never-ending subtraction problem. I also found my horoscope in her journal, the alignment of the planets and stars at the time of my birth written in calligraphy, along with what those positions meant. Certain things were inescapable. My horoscope meant many things about me, as did the events and misconceptions of my youth. I didn’t understand that those numbers in the journal meant we were much poorer than my mom ever let on. We walked blocks to the million-dollar cliff-side mansions of my mom’s friends, and to Vee’s. Our house was far away from theirs. My mom attended the parties in her floor-length cotton dresses, golden snakes coiled on her wrists, embroidery thread woven in her long hair. Her lover, my father, lived somewhere in what I can only picture as another planet, perhaps with different moons and skies above it. I learned much later he had a wife and real children whom he raised. People I never met, who looked nothing like me. I guess at some point in his never coming back, he ceased being her lover, and she forgot him, or missed him in some secret way I was never told.
Francisco and Deuce slid the plywood raft into the culvert that led somewhere under the streets and into the storm drains, then ultimately opened back up to the beach and the ocean. It had rained a lot that spring, and the water rushed away from us and toward the beach.
“It seems like a bad idea,” Mickey ventured. He’d just joined us on the street and looked warily at what the other boys had built. It was a bold move, disagreeing with the older boys. But he was ignored the same as I was.
“Want to come?” Francisco asked. I thought about stepping onto that board, holding onto him from behind, my hands in that curve that boys have between hip bone and stomach, that perfect line. Francisco’s ankles and his black rubber legs and his seawater appendages seemed up to real adventure. Deuce looked like the kind of boy who might fling himself from any height. Yet the two of them never got in trouble.
“Not this time,” I said. I tried to pretend like I wasn’t riveted, though it was the only reason we were all there, obviously. My hip jutted out and I wrapped my hand around it, my sandaled feet soft on the pavement of our boring, beautiful streets. I looked away from Francisco, even. I did. I pretended it didn’t matter to me if the rafting was a success or not. I pretended not to think of falling under the streets with him into secret tunnels. I looked at the nearby garden sloping down the hill, wondered if it just grew like that or not—so disorderly, but still knowing when to stop. None of us knew where the culvert went between where we were on the hill and where it let out onto the beach.
On other nights before that one, Vee and I had ventured into the storm drains ourselves, not brave enough to explore much farther than the satanic graffiti a few hundred feet in. Vee had theories about whose handiwork it was. Articles had appeared in the paper decrying certain entirely non-satanic metal bands. We heard Deuce and Francisco laughing over these. They implicated themselves.
Deuce and Francisco stood upright for just a silly second or two, triumphant as warriors. I even had a chance to picture Francisco’s unreachable heart. The water, despite how shallow it was, moved fast and took them fast. The plywood shot away, and their feet and legs and the rest of them followed after. It was far clumsier than it should have been, not impressive like when they caught a wave, not even as bold as when they emerged from the ocean water after being knocked down from their surfboards. The raft slipped so fast along the surface, and they disappeared down the hill. Mickey, Vee, and I stood quietly for a moment. I thought about political protest. I thought about wars in other countries. I thought about why anyone ever leaves a place. I thought about Francisco, how his back foot pressed on the plywood and guided him when he was on his surfboard in a far more dangerous body of water than this suburban culvert. How he lived so far away from his parents and his brother, his dad in jail. I decided to ask my mom about my dad. I decided I would never forget the street where I was born, up on the hill, two blocks back from the water. I imagined having to leave this place, having to escape. It wasn’t a feeling I could conjure exactly, like a sense of empathy or anything concrete. It was a different sort of chill, a mysterious light bobbing on the horizon.
At the top of the hill we saw them disappear suddenly into the other end of the culvert, the one that led to the storm drains and then to the ocean.
“Do you think they’re ok?” I asked. It seemed unsophisticated to worry, like when someone drove too fast along the cliff-side highway and I said so, and people laughed at me when nothing overturned or capsized or crashed, when everyone’s spine and neck and skull remained intact, when we all fell laughing from the car parked safely in someone’s driveway.
“See?” Vee would always say, as if that meant anything other than the split-second avoidance of the fate we all had coming instead. I’m not saying it’s all planned out, but some things . . . well, they are magnetic and unavoidable.
“I don’t know,” Mickey said, a weird, sick look on his face. “I think those things can suck you in.” None of us wanted to be the one to admit how uncool it was to worry, to know somehow, despite ourselves, how the narrow drains could capture you, could drown you there with barely any water. All you need to drown is a few inches.
Vee and I ran back to the house, slamming into the murmuring adult party to say, after we’d caught our breath, that we had a bad feeling. Mickey went to where the culvert opened up onto the beach, hoping to share in the inevitable bravado. But when I turned, I saw he wasn’t running. He was a shadow, somehow, he was already going backward, too slow. Breathless, we whispered, “Mom, Mom, Mom,” to anyone’s mom who might hear. Mine leaned in the corner with Theodore Keller, where he was, no doubt, letting her know about the land he owned in distant places I would never see. The south of France, or somewhere where mangrove trees grew, entire islands, wherever it was we couldn’t see from the deck. I knew my mom was only thinking of one place, a place where thirteen years ago there’d been a war. Vee danced and waved in front of her mother, the one without a uterus, but was shushed and shushed away. When we rejoined Mickey at the culvert opening, all he had to show us was the plywood raft. There was no sign of Francisco or Deuce, whom I imagined laughing in an underground tunnel somewhere, having discovered something we would all soon be envious of. I squinted against the metallic sheen of the bursting sunset; we stood right there in the light of it. I thought I saw them, for a moment, their dark heads rising above the waves. Each ocean is different, I’m sure, but this was the one we knew.
“Look,” I said. “They’re out there.” I pointed, but I pointed to empty, giant waves.
“You didn’t see them,” Vee insisted later. She was jealous, and I was pretending the facts of it didn’t disprove my claim entirely.
“I did,” I said. I couldn’t explain it, how I pictured mermaids and shipwrecks, and the two boys out there too, so at ease and at the mercy of a body far more full of rage than theirs. The paramedics had found them under the streets in a deep well of water that had sucked them in and trapped them before they even had a chance to know that they weren’t kidding around anymore. I couldn’t get my head around it. That something so seemingly small, lacking in power, could kill the two of them. That boys like that, bursting out of their own heads, could die at all.
“See?” I wanted to say. “See?” But I wasn’t sure what I would have been pointing to, what I saw or wanted anyone else to see.
Many years later I stood at that same large opening of the culvert on the beach. I was getting ready to go east for college. Vee and her parents had long since moved away, her old house renovated and inhabited by a widow, a woman I saw sometimes in the window, the walls a different color behind her than they were during those long-ago cocktail parties. It isn’t necessarily sad to be alone. I saw her eating dinner there often when I walked by. That isn’t the lesson, or the thing I thought when I spied inside the windows where all those unintelligible hours passed. Love is a dumb word. You know what I mean. Something intangible happened in those days that wasn’t love exactly. We followed Francisco out onto the street, that plywood board over his head. And Deuce. I knew, somehow, that something remarkable was going to happen that afternoon. I’d just hoped for some different sort of remarkable, I guess. I couldn’t have wished for anything to do with love. I might have asked Francisco how he heard that thing about my dad, and we could have talked about the events we didn’t understand, the moments of our past that lead us to each new moment, and to each other, in a way.
Now I walked to the entrance of the culvert, its metal mouth as tall as me and as wide as I could reach my hands. I hung from the entrance with my face toward the barely there water, both leaning in and holding myself back. How this place could be deadly, I didn’t know. Though how it could be anything other than that, I didn’t know either.
“Be careful,” he said. I was with a boy from school, a surfer too, whose family had just moved here. He’d heard the story of the boys pulled along the culvert and inside, who’d died in the storm drains under the street, and he wanted to see it. I told him I knew where it was, but not that I’d been there that afternoon. Not what it felt like. The street on my bare feet after I kicked off my sandals, Vee and I matching always, and not, pretending to be women, how I hoped being present for Francisco’s daring might make me braver by association, inventive, ready for a boy like him. The culvert now seemed so unremarkable. It wasn’t golden. The water rushing from it was muddy with recent rain and carved tunnels into the sand that led out to the water we all loved.
“I don’t really understand,” the boy said.
“So often the worst doesn’t happen,” I said. “I mean, they had a million parties.”
“Who? What parties?”
Although in so many ways my life had been very short, it seemed impossible to fill this boy in. It wasn’t his fault. I didn’t know him either, didn’t have the right questions to ask. I couldn’t very well explain how Vee and I had lain, stomachs down, on her deck that night, in shock, watching the sun drop, betting money how fast, five minutes or one, both being wrong. It’s a wonder anyone figures anything out. I admitted to her that Francisco had been mine, the one I felt obsessed by, the one I thought I would remember forever, those three seconds of his mouth, how I might have drowned with him if I’d said yes. She nodded like she understood. “Yeah,” she whispered into the deck wood. I don’t know what secrets she kept from me, or if maybe she’d loved him too. There are infinite branches and hierarchies to secrets. Maybe Francisco had already kissed her, maybe she had wiggled her finger hard into the pressure between wet suit and hip bone to feel his skin there. She might have.
“There isn’t much to see,” the boy said, and I swung myself back out of the mouth of the culvert and into the dusk of the place I was about to leave.
“No,” I agreed, but I didn’t mean it. There was everything to see.
I wanted to ask him about which wave he thought was the best kind to choose. But I already knew. Vee had been right. You had to choose the biggest, roughest one. You had to be brave, because when you emerged from the water, you’d lived to tell about that sort of power and your struggle with it. And if the power of the ocean got the best of you, if you didn’t live, well, you left behind all those less brave than you were. I don’t know about the others left behind, about Vee and Mrs. K, or even my mom. But most mornings I go into the ocean, I lie on my board, and I wait.
Laura Schadler grew up in the mountains of Virginia and now lives in San Francisco. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, West Branch Wired, and Denver Quarterly, among others. She just completed her first novel.