It’s only your second day on the beach and already you’re not sure you’re glad—actually, you’re sure you’re not glad—that you let your sister convince you to come. Already you’re sick of how everything here, even your older sister, Melanie, makes you feel old. Or bad. She is fit, tanned, organized, disciplined. Always laughing.
Melanie is not really single, but she and Eric, who isn’t really her boyfriend, “I mean, what does boyfriend really mean, anyway,” have an open thing, or “Kind of a polyamorous, um, arrangement,” which you take to mean that Eric is gay, or a little gay anyway, and that it doesn’t matter how perfect your older sister is, dude still wants dick. This is probably a jealous and not overly sophisticated view of things that reflects more your own frustration at your seeming inability to hold on to anyone (David) or anything (David), to produce, elicit, exert the kind of gravity that could hold someone (David) to you. To have held David to you.
Okay, so, the scene: you are in a chaise lounge sometimes drifting towards sleep and sometimes not looking at, but acutely aware of the one fold in your tummy, a deep fold that you have to be basically lying down to eliminate. You are in a chaise lounge on this huge beach that seems to stretch infinitely to your left and infinitely to your right. You are on this huge beach that seems to be playing host to every white young person your age, all from back home even though this beach is attached to a country that your parents would call “Third World,” and that you’ve heard called “Developing,” but no matter what description a person attaches to this place they’re just calling it poor. Recognizing that it is impoverished. There are people from this country here. They ask you to buy things or they bring you drinks and act super nice, then they try and get out of the way, most of them do anyway, because they are an interruption of the illusion whoever is behind all of this is trying to create.
Your sister is stretching in front of your chaise. On her chaise is her towel, which you had to admit is the softest towel you’ve ever felt when your sister made you feel it and asked, “Isn’t that just the softest towel you’ve ever felt?” On the towel is the book she’s reading—something about money and how to make the money you have make more money for you. These things don’t make you feel old, but they make you feel bad.
What makes you feel old is the way your sister, whose stretching is really an elaborate yoga routine designed to highlight her strength, her flexibility and her ass, is drawing the attention of all the guys walking by and all the girls, too, who are trying, and failing, to ignore her.
No, it isn’t that, either.
It’s that she fucked one of the dancers last night, one of the locals handsome enough and with good enough English that they are paid to take women on trips around the dance floor. The guys who work here, in this capacity in the hotels on this stretch of beach, hotels marketed to young people, these are the pick of the crop guys. Top notch. What made you feel old, though, is that you went with your sister, Melanie, to the “club” where all this shit happens, but you had to come home because you couldn’t keep your eyes open. You went back to your room and passed out only to be woken up four hours later by Melanie and this guy Carlos, Melanie being all like, “Could we have a few minutes? Would you mind?”
You sat out on the balcony and willed the sound of the waves to drown out Melanie screaming and moaning into Carlos’s shoulder or the pillow or whatever, to drown out Carlos speaking rapid Spanish.
When it was all over, Melanie slid open the glass door and thanked you. She was still catching her breath. You went and lay down for a bit, but couldn’t get back to sleep. The sun was coming up, so you went for a walk.
That made you feel old.
But the real thing that makes you feel old is you. You have a kid back home and you miss her. As much as you would like to be with somebody, would like to like to be having a good time—actually you’ve not really felt much like having sex since Alice was born—you are just spending all your time thinking about your sweet girl back home with Mum and Dad.
When you see a bikinied woman walking with two guys, hanging off one of their arms, you imagine Alice in a few years and worry about her safety. You don’t imagine yourself in that girl’s shoes, that girl’s bikini top, your breasts a carefully framed and managed object of desire, a lure to help you snag what? Sex, certainly. Companionship. Intimacy. You imagine your breast in Alice’s hungry mouth, her crying mouth. You remember your vulva stretching to accommodate Alice, to welcome Alice. The thought of allowing some giggling doofus on vacation to root around in there looking for his own pleasure, his own gratification, a confirmation of his desirability, whatever else he might be trying to find inside you? Well, it isn’t appealing. Or worse, letting a paid someone perform for you? Would they feel they are earning a living or receiving a tip? Maybe both.
The beach was beautiful this morning. It was quiet, the sun sitting low behind the hotels. Some grey-hairs walked along the shoreline, taking advantage of the fact that many of the people in the hotels on this stretch of sand had just gone to bed. You smiled at them, grateful of the presence of people at a less desperate stage of life than most of your peers. Some of them smiled back. Many of them smiled back. Some of them looked at you like you were violating the natural order being there at that time, being up then. You wanted to ask them about their children, assuming they have or had children, to relate to them adult to adult.
You were wearing your pajamas: loose blue sweatpants with fraying laces cinching the waist; a black tank-top you purchased because its neckline could be pulled down to comfortably accommodate your breast; no bra.
There was a short, dark man in white pants, sandals and a light blue golf shirt with the hotel’s crest embroidered above his heart. He had a short spear that he used to impale a plastic cup. Then he brought the pierced cup to his shoulder, which was covered by the lip of a garbage bag, and he used his shoulder to detach the cup, which disappeared down the mouth of the bag.
You sat down on the foot end of a chaise and watched him perform the same action with a cigar butt, then a cigarette butt. It made you want a cigarette, then a coffee. You looked toward the dining area then back in the direction of your room. The surf sound soothed you with its crashing.
You straddled the chaise, put your hands on the arm rests and brought your butt back so you could settle into the seat, so you could lie against the backrest. You hugged yourself because the wind was whispering chill thoughts against your skin. You weren’t cold exactly.
Breathing the beach air was different without all your peers, without your sister. Without thinking about it you closed your eyes and listened to the conversations of the passing people, listened to the waves carrying on their crashing conversation with the sand.
Something was touching your arm.
You opened your eyes. It was yellow. There was a yellow thing on your arm.
It was one of the cheap, faded yellow towels that were folded and stacked by the pool, that the housekeeping staff left in the closet of your room each morning. “Pardon, Señora.” The garbage man was standing over you. “You were cold, yes?”
“I no mean to wake you.”
The beach traffic had picked up slightly and the sun was throwing your shadow and his shadow into the surf. “No,” you shook your head. “It’s no problem.”
He bent down and lifted his garbage bag from the sand to his shoulder again. It had clearly gotten fuller, heavier. He grabbed his spear from where it was leaning against the chaise. “Pardon for molest, Señora. For disturb you.”
You laughed. “I really appreciate it.” You lifted a corner of the towel. “You’re very thoughtful.”
He stood there a moment.
“Lovely morning,” you said.
“Bery beauty here.”
“Yes,” you said. “It is.”
His eyes searched the beach for the next piece of refuse.
“Are you from around here?”
You pointed vehemently at the sand beside the chaise. “Um, here. Do you live here?”
“No. Beach por visitors. We live . . .” He held his spear in the air and waved it towards the hotel, but at a pace and amplitude that suggested far past the hotel. “Away.”
“Are you from here?”
“Were you born here?”
“Ah. No, bery far. Maybe two hours in car. Small place, yes? Is small.”
“A nice place?”
“Nice? Yes. My wife and children, yes? They live there.”
“And you live here?”
“Yes.” He noticed some people behind you. “Buenos dias,” he said. “Good morning.”
A man and a woman in his and hers Lululemon running outfits and garishly neon sneakers jogged past without acknowledging the garbage man. When they reached the edge of the surf they ran in place and squinted down the beach in both directions trying to decide which way to go.
“My name’s Sarah,” you said.
“Bery nice to meet you, Sarah.”
“It’s lovely to meet you. What’s your name?”
“Alejandro. You call me Alex.”
“Okay, Alex.” You smiled.
Alex nodded. “Yes.”
“You were saying that your family lives two hours away?”
“How old are your kids?”
“What you say? Keeds?”
Your Catholic aunt from Northern Ontario often chastises you for saying kids, which she says is an American thing. “Your children,” you say. “How old are your children?”
“Oh, yes. Yes. My niño is eight and my niña is five.”
“Niño means boy? Son?”
“Yes. His name is Jorge.”
You repeated the name.
“Is George for you.”
You reassured Alex that you can say it the Spanish way.
“Is good. Bueno.”
“And your Niña?” you ask.
“Her name is Ester.”
“They are beautiful names,” you say, though you really mean, ‘Thanks for talking to me, keep talking to me.’
“You think so?”
“Is . . . I worry, you know, they will think is too plain.”
“Is no too plain?”
“Not where I’m from.”
“Is not many George or Ester there?”
“Not to many.”
“You have Keeds?”
“Yes,” you laugh. “One. A niña, a daughter. Alice.”
You smiled thinking about her and about the plane that would fly you home to her in five more days.
“You sad here.”
“I miss her.”
“Is sad for me, too. What is word? Lonely?”
You nodded and looked at Alex.
“How often do you see your family?”
“Ebery four weeks, yes?”
“Is weeks, yes? Is how you say?”
Your eyes teared up at the thought of not seeing Alice for four weeks.
“Pardon,” he said.
“It’s fine,” you said. “I can’t imagine the hardship.”
“Bery sorry. Is vacation for you.”
“Don’t be sorry.”
“What is hardship?”
“Okay. Hardship. Is Alice with her papa?”
The story of Alice’s papa sits like a pound of wet clay somewhere in the region of your diaphragm. This morning, when Alex reminded you of it, you had to shift in your seat to make room for its heavy, slimy mass.
“I am sorry,” he said. “Is not my business.”
“We’re sharing,” you said. “His name was David. Is David,” you began. You skipped the part about David being in a band that you listened to and that your coworker knew; skipped the part about how nervous you were to meet him; skipped the part about how artfully and purposefully he drew you out and how his seeming interest in drawing you out, his seeming determination to draw you out, was part of the art. His art. “He was visiting town for . . . Well, for work.” You skipped that they were spending a month recording at a studio in Kensington Market, that the first night you met him, drinks at the Rivoli with your coworker and some people he’d gone to film school with, that he was sober, but you had too many Manhattans and he kissed you by the bathrooms but refused your offer to take him home with you because you were drunk and he didn’t want to take advantage. ‘I’ll call you as soon as I sober up,’ you said. ‘I’m in the studio all day tomorrow,’ he said. ‘What are you doing tomorrow night?’ you asked. ‘Fucking you, I guess,’ he said, but he blushed. You didn’t tell Alex the part about how David came to your parent’s house that first night because you’d forgotten that it was your aunt’s birthday and he said it was fine, he could see you another night, but you said, ‘No, come,’ and he did and afterwards he stayed the night and you guys, the two of you, did something that at the time and for a while afterwards you would have called making love it was so gentle and respectful. “We fell in love,” you told Alex. “I thought we were in love.”
“Yes,” Alejandro said, meaning, ‘Go on.’
“I got pregnant right away,” you told Alejandro.
David stayed with you for the month the band was in town. Your period was due on the Tuesday of the third week. When it didn’t come, David bought the pregnancy test at a drugstore near the studio and stood in the bathroom with you as you held it between your legs and peed on it. You were both happy, at least in each other’s presence. David kept saying, Wow. You’d fantasized about having children together, about living in the country together, about having peacocks.
David wrote a song ‘Inspired by you,’ and played it for you on the night before he went back home. You guys talked on the phone, sometimes twice a day. They were touring, playing in Pittsburgh the night that he called you to say he thought you should have an abortion. He was in Columbus when he called to apologize. When the band got home from tour, he came back to the city and the two of you found a bigger apartment together.
“We were together for,” you looked out at the surf while you did the calculations, “for almost a year, but . . . ”
David was skeptical of home birth, but you were determined to try it. Your apartment was so close to St. Joe’s that he joked that he would pick you up and carry you to the hospital if something went wrong. David was there when Alice was born on the futon your parents bought you when you turned fifteen. David was there for three weeks afterwards then he had to go back home to rehearse with the band for their European tour.
“. . . But he was, he is a musician and he has to travel a lot.”
“I understand,” Alex told you.
‘I’m— ’ David said. ‘I . . . I don’t think I’m coming back here. I’m not coming back here after Europe.’ He said he loved you and he loved Alice, but he wasn’t in love with you and that, besides, he couldn’t be present enough to be the dad that he wanted to be. Then he expected to stay the night. You told him to get out. You told him you knew that he was out on the road fucking fans, though you didn’t know that at all, but it was just a suspicion you’d been living with. You told him again to get out, that you couldn’t stand to see him. He spent the night at the bus station and took a Greyhound home in the morning.
In the year since, you haven’t had a chance to meet anyone new. You have seen David so that he could see Alice. You tried to arrange with him to look after her while you and Melanie were here, but he was scheduled to play a festival in Whistler, is probably playing in Whistler right now.
Melanie has finished stretching and she heads to the ocean’s edge. With the exception of the short nap that Alex woke you from, you still haven’t slept since she chased you from the room so she could fuck Carlos. You look around the beach, hoping to see Alex. Alejandro. Three guys walk by, two of them checking you out. One of them farts loudly. Another one says, “Oh!” and puts his forearm over his nose and mouth. All three break out in laughter. You give the air a minute to clear and walk to the water’s edge.
Melanie is standing out in the low waves. “Coming in?” she asks.
You tell her you are going back to the room for a nap.
She nods. She’s disappointed. “Are you okay?”
You hesitate before saying yes.
“You want to talk about it?”
You want to push her head underwater and hold it there is what you want. You want to go home.
You shake your head, No. “I just need some rest,” you tell her, and it’s true. Sleep helps your bad moods more than anything else.
“Okay,” she says, like you need her permission. “What if I need something from the room, though?”
“Whatever,” you say. “Just come in if you need to.”
On your way back to the room, you turn over the number of different things you should have said to her about last night, about Carlos, about how you are only here because Melanie convinced you she wanted to do something nice for you.
Getting away from the beach calms you down. More people here have shirts on. You don’t see Alejandro anywhere. What do you want from him? Nothing. Sensible talk. Talk about things that matter to you.
There is a woman in your room, cleaning. She has almost no English other than, Pardon, Finish soon, and You’re welcome. You stand and watch her make your bed for who knows how long before she looks at you and says, “Pardon, finish soon,” and holds her hand out to Melanie’s bed. You sit down on the edge of it and watch the woman’s hands work at folding and flattening the sheets.
When was the last time you made the bed at home? Had you even made the bed before you left for the airport to fly here?
David used to always make the bed. He loved crawling under the covers when the sheets had been straightened, flattened out. You made fun of him for it, but you miss it, you miss those kindnesses.
You manage not to cry before the woman leaves, but you forget to give her a tip.
You take off all your clothes. The sheets feel cool and clean and smell of some sort of pleasant chemical. You hear someone, a man, shout from a nearby pool. People laugh in reply. The sounds are muted and thus relegated so some space where rather than annoy you they can mingle with your memories in a gentle, nostalgic way. The sounds of youthfulness all around you become like birdsong, unfamiliar and beautiful.
Toronto, March 2016
Emoji sequence: Meghan Scott, the Fashion Director of Odalisque Magazine
Story: Lee Sheppard