I’ve never been to the beach before, never seen waves rolling onto the sand, never heard the swishing and rumbling that sounds like horses running through tall grass when you’re behind the dunes and can’t yet see the water. Mary Anne always described it as thunder, but the thunder at home doesn’t swish. Maybe it does in Santa Cruz; I’ve never heard it there. Mary Anne said the waves sound like thunder when you walk along the beach by the boardwalk, late, when the people have all left and it’s closed for the night. She’s going to take me there, she says, even after she stopped describing the waves’ thunder and smiling at the thought of showing me where she grew up. When college stress made her frown more and I learned how to massage the anger out of her hands, she still said she’d take me there.
She is taking me to Santa Cruz, once she gets the car started again.
I’ve been sitting in the passenger seat watching the hood of the car as if I can see her through it, head bent over an engine that was tired before either of us was born. Her dad is a car mechanic, she says, so she can fix it herself when it breaks like this, which it does a lot. I have to wait in the car, she says, because otherwise I might get a sunburn, or heat stroke. She worries about me because she loves me, she says. She tells me what to do because she cares, and I’m bad at looking after myself. My many trips to the student health center are proof of this, even if most of the bruises were her fingerprints.
The car is fixed now, but when she comes back she doesn’t talk to me, doesn’t say anything. She just starts the car, listens to it sputter once, twice, before it actually starts. Usually she says it does that because it’s lazy, like me, and reaches over to drag my hand into her lap. It makes the center console dig into my ribs, but Mary Anne says girlfriends hold hands in the car so I’ve learned not to complain. Now, she just frowns.
When we get to the beach Mary Anne turns off the car and tells me to get out. I’m the one who wanted to put my toes in the sand, she says, so I could go put my damn toes in the sand. She would not be joining me.
I hear the swish and rumble of the running horses and imagine I’m running with them, my bare feet shush-thudding in the loose sand and Mary Anne beside me, smiling, her hand in mine, voice drowned out by our rumbling steps. Instead she sits silently in the car, wisps of acrid cigarette smoke drifting from the open windows, and I walk, my toes sinking into the sand that is almost too warm from soaking in the afternoon sun, humming quietly to myself and the empty shoreline. The waves hide the sputtering of the engine—once, twice—before it starts and then grumbles away, the smell of smoke drifting faintly on the breeze.
Perhaps I should be more surprised at her abandonment, but with it comes the freedom to stand, eyes closed against the glare of light on the water, and feel the slow drying and tightening of the skin across my cheeks as the sun burns away my tears. I’d left the sunscreen in the car.
Nic Job is a student of the world, and spends as much time as they can traveling and observing. Cultures, places, people, and themself.
A Song for Nic