by T.B. Grennan
It’s getting dark in California, in San Diego, along Mission Beach, at a keg party in the sand, where a girl lies, unmoving, on a soiled towel as a lone horsefly hops and flutters from the beer-saturated sand to the edge of the fabric to the tip of the girl’s downturned nose. Her forehead is lined in sleep, tiny gullies that lie beneath a widow’s peak of black, fibrous hair, hair caked and heavy with drying beach mud, hair that smells of salt and yeast.
There’s a tendril snaked behind one ear, and at its slick, twisting end, tiny droplets of beer and sweat shake loose with each weak little breath, falling onto a soaked bit of towel, leaching into the sand below. One black bra strap is visible on the girl’s upper arm, folded over itself like a mis-buckled seat belt before disappearing into a ribbed, sleeveless top.
She’s surrounded by college boys, by a crowd of Pomona seniors brandishing blue Solo cups, all of them laughing and chatting and drinking like they don’t see her, like she’s not really there. One of them, a bleary-eyed boy in a pink knit Polo, nearly steps on her leg.
The girl’s forearm rises like a drawbridge, its underside marked by wet sand and the indentations of tiny stones. Hangs eerily for a moment. Then flops suddenly onto her chest. And down the beach, Nate realizes that he’s been holding his breath. From where he stands by the empty lifeguard station, the girl is a shrunken figure, too large to blot out with his thumb, too small to clearly see.
But as she lies there, surrounded by that small knot of drunken boys, a strange new feeling flares in his chest. Shaking him. Traveling from his ribcage to the depths of his intestines. A vibration that’s all the stronger because it’s so mysterious, because it seems to emanate from nowhere. Still, if he really thought about it, he’d find answers quickly enough, find them the way your tongue finds a canker sore.
In front of him, down by the water, Celia’s flirting with Evan as the waves rush in, running over the tops of their shoes. Evan’s probably just being polite, but Nate feels himself growing jealous just the same, half-amazed to find that jealousy can co-exist with this shivering unease. He thinks about walking over, joining their flirty little conversation about finals and the pictures they chose for the college yearbook. But even in his head, the conversation withers the moment he joins it.
Nate likes Celia—she’s smart and winningly awkward and cute the way your best friend’s sister is cute—but he can see now that the stories he was told about senior week were cartoons, little explosions of hyperbole
designed to get students through one last semester. You do not, in the end, get to hook up with all the people you spent college thinking about, no matter how drunk you get or how skimpy their bikinis may be. You spend six days in your bathing suit, watching couples paw each other or break up, and then you drive north and graduate.
When Celia gives Evan’s arm a consoling pat, and that pat turns impulsively into a little squeeze, Nate stomps off toward the keg, his stomach clenching, the backs of his flip-flops lifting little spouts of sand behind him. Someone he recognizes from Intro Psych tosses him a plastic cup and greets him by another name (”Curtis! Hey!”). And because Nate feels vicariously embarrassed and because he’s convinced that he’ll never see this guy again, he doesn’t correct him. His former classmate is red-eyed drunk and wants to talk about graduation, about the future and how crazy it all is. Nate indulges him for a while—distracting himself from his real mission, from the nameless fear he’s carrying—before finally stealing a look at the girl on the towel.
She’s a stranger. He’s never seen her before.
But while that anxious feeling is beginning to dissolve into a wash of comfort, another, darker specter rises from somewhere in Nate’s head. A memory of a different girl, a blonde girl, sleeping on her side on a floral-sheeted dorm bed, her pores sweating whiskey, the back of her rib cage pushing in and out of sight with every clockwork breath.
And even as the girl congeals, acquiring an angular face, a lumpy nose, a name (Becca), Nate pulls back, filling his mind with thoughts of Homestar Runner and his father’s favorite WWII documentaries—anything to avoid the moment when the memory might fully bloom. It only takes one small detail, one trigger, and he’ll find himself back in that hellish moment, her spine standing out like an accusation.
Over by the lifeguard station, Celia tugs the hem of her Pomona tee until it nearly covers her bikini bottom. It’s an ugly shirt, one that usually sits in the back of her closet next to the Bank of America sweater she got for opening a checking account, but Celia hasn’t done a real wash since turning in her thesis—just a load or two of underwear. Plus, she’s feeling self-conscious about her stomach, which can stick out a little, especially after meals.
Evan’s telling her that he’s nervous about moving in with his girlfriend, hinting at some unspoken complications, and Celia frowns and nods, which is really all you can do in a conversation like this. Wishing that his girlfriend was back in Claremont instead of a few hundred feet away, watching Roman smoke his way through a pack of cigarettes.
Back in the day, Celia had a crush on Evan. The kind that colonizes your head, that convinces you it’s totally normal to stand for hours at the edge of an Eversole party, nursing your drink to the final sip and gazing at your beloved like he’s a passing comet. She’d been too shy to say anything, and much too shy to do anything, so it was almost a relief when the attraction faded—in part because he’d started dating Natalie, and Celia found it uncomfortable making small talk with a girl whose boyfriend she secretly wanted to fuck.
Sometimes, though, Celia and Evan will be talking, and he’ll just light up at something little she says, one of those all-dimple grins that he seems to save only for her. And for the next five minutes, it’s like she’s stepped back an entire year, when just being with him made her brain go dead and her crotch start to throb.
Actually, it’s been happening all week.
Evan asks if she’s excited about grad school. And Celia, who is excited, very excited, downplays the move, shrugging vaguely and saying that the best thing about UCLA is finally living in the city proper, instead of just the suburbs. Evan nods seriously at that, as though he, too, has always longed to live in the real Los Angeles. But in truth, he’s counting the days until he can leave; he’s sick of the annual fires and the miles of motionless traffic.
Nate returns with a beer in each hand, feeling superfluous even as he passes Celia a cup. Behind them, the sun drops slowly toward the ocean, and as it sinks, the sky burns maroon and orange, painting the sand with light. Celia sips her beer, grimacing at the taste, and stares down the beach, past the keg and her distant classmates to where an amorous teenage couple play-fights in the surf. Thinking, once again, about Evan’s dick. She’d seen it on the tenth of April, the day everybody’s senior theses were due. At Pomona, people usually celebrated afterward by doing a ton of shots in someone’s unswept dorm single and talking in endless detail about the horrors of the experience, like soldiers after a failed mission. Celia, however, had wanted to go skinny-dipping.
They’d scaled the fence, clinging to its metal links with their fingers and toes. Celia undressed in the shadow of the bleachers, her feet clammy on the cold cement floor, while the others casually stripped side by side. Then she’d stood naked with Nate and Natalie in the path of a cool April breeze, watching as Evan lowered himself to the concrete. Hissing suddenly as his warm chest touched the floor. Rolling slowly beneath the facility’s waist-high motion sensors, then slipping silently into the heated water. Emerging a moment later, his hair shining and stuck to his head, his hands motioning for them to follow.
The water was hot and pleasant around her, the thousand small currents reminding Celia over and over that she was swimming sans bathing suit. At the far side of the pool, Evan and Nate idly tossed a water polo ball while Natalie swam furious laps, her tiny butt rising primly from the water at the conclusion of each whiplash turn. Celia contented herself with treading water near the center of the pool and feeling low-level pleased that she’d managed to take her clothes off without blushing.
And as they filed out of the pool, Celia found herself following Evan up the rickety metal ladder, watching from below—her eyes big—as his genitals swung heavily with each step. Wondering why everyone made such noise about the supposed ugliness of the penis. Was it really so much worse than the uvula or the big toe?
There’s a big Kappa Delta party tonight off Pismo Court. And as Celia gazes silently down the beach, twisting split ends between her fingers, Nate asks Evan if he and Natalie are planning to make an appearance. It was intended as small talk, something broad and obvious and easy to answer, but the moment the question leaves Nate’s mouth, Evan glances over at Natalie and starts hedging.
And, despite himself, Nate begins to feel a sympathetic twinge. It’s hard to hate Evan, even at his gleaming-toothed, ab-popping jock-iest, because he’s just so endlessly considerate. But it can be even harder to pity him—he’s too pretty, too rich, the sort of person who’s so capital-P privileged that even his soft, calm way of speaking can sometimes make Nate set his teeth.
Finally, Evan says maybe, that he’s not sure he’s really in the mood. But even as he speaks, his head is elsewhere, imagining the evening ahead, jumping from moment to moment with an obsessive’s fear-driven speed: Natalie leaning, cup in hand, against the cheap drywall of the Pismo Court rental; Natalie in the beer-bong line, two back from the guy coughing liquid onto the carpeted floor; Natalie, lids heavy, talking intensely with a male coworker from Pomona’s Asian-American Resource Center; then a bedroom, its locked door and sticky handle.
Last night, while the others were in bed, Evan and Natalie had it out. Standing on the porch of the two-bedroom, two-couch rental that the five of them are sharing off Portsmouth Court, Natalie made the case for keeping things open, emphasizing the importance of variety, flexibility, and security. Evan argued that living together changed things, that he’d feel uncomfortable if he came back to their apartment to find her, well, occupied. But she brushed it off, saying she’d try to go back to the other guy’s place—and, in a pinch, there was always the old scrunchie-on-the-doorknob trick.
Nothing was settled. Evan and Natalie went to bed angry; they haven’t done more than nod or mumble in each other’s direction since. Still, as he watches Natalie chat and laugh with Roman, Evan can tell that it won’t be long until he walks over and apologizes, the disagreement subsiding for another week, another month.
In Celia’s head, it’s night and the beach is empty.
The sky’s a dark, twilight purple and a black pillar of smoke rises from a doused bonfire. The boys undress quietly, little piles of clothing growing at their feet until Nate is moved to strike a dramatic pose atop a nearby fire pit—the sign at his feet reading CAUTION: HOT. Celia imagines herself beginning to undo her bikini top through the back of her t-shirt, telling herself not to skip to the good parts, that she’ll enjoy this more if she lets things percolate a little. And as she works her t-shirt up her stomach inch by teasing inch, she pictures Evan’s dick starting to rise, starting to slope gently to the left under its own weight.
Well, maybe she’ll skip forward a little.
Celia sees her bikini bottom splayed on the ground, one end half-buried in a sandy footprint. She watches Nate’s hand come to rest on her naked back, realizing suddenly that she’s on her hands and knees. And then, surprised, watches her body push backward. Listening to herself sigh, hearing Nate gasp and swear and say her name like he’s just now learned it.
When she looks up, Evan’s in front of her. Watching them intently through half-closed eyes. And though she knows that he has a girlfriend and likes to think of herself as basically a moral person, Celia still cranes her neck forward, the tip of her tongue peeking out of her mouth. Her knee slips out from under her, sliding across the sand, and as she shifts, Nate swears again at her widening stance, at the charged tableau in front of him.
A low, rumbling hum comes from deep in Evan’s throat as Celia pushes forward, saliva pooling under her frantic tongue. And it’s then, right then, as the scene grows full and textured in Celia’s head, that her eyes snap open and she sees, just past the emptying keg, a girl twisted and frozen on a ratty blue beach towel.
It happens every May, the wave of graduating seniors rushing down the coast from Claremont to San Diego, to the alphabetical streets and weeklong rentals of Mission Beach. The party beginning one Wednesday and ending the the next. Three hundred students in cars packed with tortilla chips and beer fill every every driveway from Aspin to Zanzibar Court, the piles of unlaundered clothes growing in the corners of squat beach houses and prefab vacation condos, the ocean-front walkways marked by vomit and flung-aside condoms. Crowds of students push between houses and parties and hookups, moving from room to room with a rat’s haste. It’s only Friday, but it feels like every hour another group of seniors abandons the beach, piling into a friend’s car and heading north, toward the future.
Across the beach and the cropped grass, past Natalie’s park bench and Roman’s flume of tobacco smoke, over a parking lot filled with hummers and Audis, through the thin, tree-line divider and then up Mission Boulevard past Ventura and the roller-coaster at Belmont Park, there are still pockets of Pomona kids drinking tourist-priced margaritas at the Beachcomber and the Sandbar and the Coaster Saloon, pairs of sleepy-eyed girls walking the cement paths between rented cottages, their loose tops tied on wrong, week-old Phi Beta Kappa keys swinging from their necks.
There’s a group playing frisbee on the north end of the beach, their feet gliding across the sand, past coiled black garlands of rotting seaweed. And further up Mission Boulevard, past Jersey Court and Kennebeck and Pismo, there’s an empty booth along the back wall of the Guava Beach Bar and Grill where two hours from now Natalie will order tequila shots with Evan’s hand on her thigh. Celia will crouch by the jukebox, t-shirt riding up her back as she listens to the two of them cuddle and coo and wetly kiss. While Nate orders another beer, Roman will excuse himself and step outside, supposedly for a cigarette, but actually to vomit—and as he throws up into the street, he’ll feel strange and powerless, unwilling to believe that a mere five drinks could make him sick.
One block up stands the cramped rental where later tonight Nate and Natalie will try cocaine for the very first time.
In five days, these apartments will be empty. Back in Claremont, the seniors will file across the stage in Big Bridges as their parents applaud, and then, next year, another class will fill these bars and pass out on that sand. Celia will be in Westwood then; Roman will be in Bushwick. Up in Anchorage, Nate will cross a brightly-lit street to mail a postcard home, while, in Berkeley, Evan and Natalie silently divide their possessions and prepare for one last night in the same bed, trying to sleep without touching. The details will drift off, layer by layer, until these days are a summary, a fragment—just Senior Week, two linked and empty words.
Natalie can always tell when Celia’s flirting. Even from across the beach, it’s obvious. Her posture gets tight and rigid and her arms start swinging in rapid little circles, until whoever she’s talking to leans in or leans away. Natalie likes Celia, enjoys her company—despite the other girl’s obvious fondness for her boyfriend. But it’s so painful to watch when she’s on the make.
Last fall, Natalie noticed Celia across the room at one of the college's weekly Junior/Senior socials. And found herself watching, enrapt, as Celia leaned precariously against the pool table and made eyes at a cute foreign exchange student. But when the arms started going, he'd excused himself. Saying he wanted another glass of wine...but actually making for the door. And fifteen minutes later, Celia was still waiting. Nervously excited. Glancing now and again at her watch.
Shaking her head, Natalie turns back to Roman and inhales a deep, nostalgic lungful of his smoke. The cloud’s bitter on her tongue, rough as it slides down her throat. Savoring it like a memory from a past life. The things she does for Evan.
Roman snuffs his cigarette, tucks it behind one ear. Asks Natalie if she and Evan have gotten around to signing a lease. It’s only been a couple weeks since Bear Stearns made their offer, but Natalie felt so confident that things would work out that she’d gone apartment-hunting right after her interview. It’s two small rooms and a cramped shower, but come bonus time, they should be able to get a bigger place, decorate a little—maybe after they get married.
She gives Roman the neighborhood rundown, listing off restaurants and bars, the odd tree, until she notices his interest start to flag. Then, trying to be polite, she asks if he’s found a place in New York. Imagining a constrained, arty little loft with pigeons perched on the sills, all sharp angles and cityscape views. But Roman just shrugs, an auburn curl falling over one eye, and says that he’ll be staying with his aunt in Chelsea until his painting career takes off.
The others approach from across the beach, looking sunburned and weary. Celia in front, sand blowing off the tops of her feet. Nate and Evan following a few steps behind, all three of them walking into a rising wind. And though Evan isn’t smiling, isn’t even glancing her way, Natalie knows suddenly that he’s coming to apologize. There’s a beaten smallness to him that’s hard to mistake. It makes her sad, sometimes—but tonight she’s relieved. It’s so exhausting, fighting like this.
Evan asks Natalie if they can go somewhere and talk, and she agrees, with “somewhere” turning out to be a ceramic picnic table maybe fifteen feet away. And as they sit there, mouthing apologies and words of affection, Roman finds himself babysitting Celia and Nate. Celia’s anxious, trying to share some anecdote about the first time her parents brought her to the beach, how she managed to mistake Lake Michigan for the Pacific, but she keeps glancing over one shoulder, stopping mid-sentence, and losing her place, until finally Roman tells her, look, you need to stop talking. Nate, on the other hand, doesn’t say much of anything, which is what Roman has come to expect.
It won’t be until Roman is driving north to Claremont that Nate, riding shotgun, brings up the girl on the towel, her matted hair and torqued limbs, and though Roman will feign disinterest and turn up the radio, the description will stick with him, rising like smoke when his mind is otherwise empty, Nate’s sparse details spreading themselves first across pieces of scratch paper and professional-grade sketch pads before jumping to canvas, the girl’s tank top now a hooded sweatshirt, her hair a nest of charcoal curls, and when Roman has finished and signed his name, it will be purchased from his aunt’s gallery by a retired couple from Staten Island, who will hang it in their living room as a conversation piece.
In time, it will outlast them all.
T.B. Grennan was born in Burlington, Vermont, and currently lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Virginia, and his fiction has been published in Brokelyn, Digital Americana, Inklette, White Stag Journal, The Seventh Wave, Writing Disorder, and Construction Literary Magazine, as well as “Spaces We Have Known,” an anthology of LGBT+ fiction; his nonfiction has appeared in TIMBER, Sunspot, and the Indiana Review.