Liz heaved the last umbrella into the box at Sun and Shade Umbrella Rentals and snapped the combination lock shut. The beach was littered with the signs of a busy weekend day: peach pits, popsicle sticks, indentations in the shapes of bodies in the sand. Dave appeared just as she was zipping her backpack to leave, as he had every evening this week on his way home from the Sun and Shade Rentals two blocks north. He set down a greasy pizza box on a towel and passed a thermos to Liz. She took a long pull and tasted the familiar sourness of lemonade with the surprise bitterness of gin.
“Cheers, boss,” he said, already folding one slice and filling his mouth, dripping grease onto the towel and sand. “Oh and can I have next week off?” Carl had just promoted her to assistant manager this week, which meant an extra dollar an hour and that she gave the breaks on Wednesdays.
“Can I fire you now? I think I can fire you now,” she said, taking her own slice from the box. “Except you brought me boozy lemonade and pizza, so I won’t. And thanks.” Liz knew what the routine would be at home: another casserole still frozen in the middle. She and her sister Evy called them the Imminent Inevitable Death Casseroles, or IIDC’s, but only to each other. In front of their mother, they politely agreed that they were thoughtful and tasty and scribbled thank you notes for even the blandest cream-of-chicken-doused things. In front of Lorraine, their dad’s hospice nurse, the girls avoided trading any celebrity gossip and criticizing the president, both of which would have made Lorraine clear her throat and glare at the girls in between her perfect, careful sheet changes with their dad still in the bed and gentle Vaseline applications. Liz texted Evy three pizza emojis and told her she would be late and to enjoy the IIDC without her, and Evy texted three middle fingers back followed by a thumbs up and a heart.
Dave hadn’t learned much in the past year about how to write songs that kept people from leaving the bars he played at, but he had learned how these simple generous gestures were the best shortcuts to get the kinds of girls he wanted most: the ones laughing over at the jukebox with their friends, the ones reading paperbacks on trains, the ones studying the sculptures at museums. These shortcuts didn’t work with girls holding cocktails and looking bored, but he didn’t want those girls anyway. The girls he wanted were unaccustomed to attention, inexperienced but willing, and oblivious to the fixed set of rules about adopting an aloof, dismissive attitude as their default. They moved through the world with an awkward grace they didn’t see in themselves, with the unbloomed beauty they had yet to grow into. These girls asked questions, of him and anyone who crossed their path, even if they came out half-formed or clumsy. They possessed an informed curiosity that invited immediate trust. These girls wore plain, bright-colored, practical clothes and small silver or faux pearl jewelry. They wore their hair in neat ponytails, knew how to be considerate to waiters, and acted like they were casually glancing at their maps in new cities when they were in fact desperately lost.
Liz was one of those girls.
“Rough crowd today,” she said, taking another drink. “But I still love this job.”
This was the summer she’d asked Carl for this job at Sun and Shade over a hundred other boardwalk jobs, because it was outside, because you worked alone, and because it ended when the sun went down. She was getting used to the certain kind of strength in her back and shoulders from dragging heavy umbrellas around all day. This was the summer she’d stopped running, and she was also getting used to her softened hips and the return of the regular aching of her period.
“I know you do, you weirdo,” Dave said. “What’s your favorite part, when creeps hit on you or when seagulls take a big crap on the umbrellas and you have to clean it up?”
She recognized the sarcasm, the dismissive teasing, the addicting, frenetic attention, because she had studied these patterns day after day during the school year, from fluorescent-lit hallways and from her spot on the splintered bleachers at assemblies. She was starting to understand life was really too short to be a tiny, tight-lipped version of yourself, but it felt like you had to make up that version totally from scratch, invent it from nowhere, and she had no choice but to try out the rules she knew for now before she went breaking them.
“Yeah, I know, that’s so weird,” she said, “how those guys knew yelling down from the boardwalk that they liked my ass was exactly the way to get a date with me.”
The Seaside boardwalk was a weird place to grow up, a constant carnival from May through September. She was used to the sounds of smashing bottles and fireworks through her bedroom window. She was used to the deep, tired quiet that descended after Labor Day. She liked the way a town could be two different kinds of places.
“Is that all a guy has to do?” he asked.
Only someone like Dave, who had put in the time to understand the exact limits and capacities of his own charm, could ask this kind of question in this kind of way: with a swagger and confidence disguised as self-deprecating modesty.
“Yep, just be creepy and yell stuff at me,” she said. “Works every time.” She didn’t know where this confident, flirting version of herself had emerged from, what chemical reaction of gin, lemonade, salt air, deep sadness, and sweat had conjured her. But she silently begged her to please stay forever and whisper in her ear, to be her clever companion and new-model alter-ego.
“Well if you have time, you know before your other date tonight,” he said, “do you want to hang out with a not-creepy guy doing something other than working or eating greasy boardwalk food with sand in it?”
“Yes, I have time,” she said.
Yes, he knew what buttons to push with these girls to get their (usually solid-color, pastel, soft from many washings) panties wet, but he also knew it felt good to spend a whole night listening to them talk about their chasmed families, their untempered ambitions, and their earnest ideas about what their lives would be. He wanted to absorb some of whatever it was that had made them this way as much as he wanted to fuck them.
He knew he was missing something himself, some resilience it seemed like these girls had that protected them when they were alone, when they failed, when they had to see some impossible-seeming thing through to its bitter end. He had said he dropped out of college because of some music-fueled wanderlust, but really he had failed his first physics test, gotten a C on his first comp paper, and been locked out of his room by his horny roommate in there with some girl. That had been enough to make him pack his clothes, leave the brand new sheets and storage crates his mother had bought for him, and buy a ticket to the city to rejoin his struggling band mates. Dave heard the voice in his head, the one saying, “Just go to class again. Just got talk to your professor,” but that voice might as well have been saying, “Just ignore gravity.” It was impulsive, dropping out, and he wondered what was wrong with him that he couldn’t seem to figure out a way to show up and try again, a way to fight for his scholarship and the smoother, surer path it would provide.
He knew his particular brand, the striving-rockstar-dropout, was both what drew these girls to him and what gave them permission to not take him too seriously. As he traveled from city to city and played with his band, he studied these girls, peppering them with jokes and handing them drinks so that the no-filter versions of them would emerge and let him taste between their legs for an hour and then let him know what was keeping them up at night. They could sound so grown-up.
He told them what to do when their inexperienced hands or mouths fumbled, but he wanted them to tell him what to do with all the hours and days and years after that. Because he sure as hell didn’t know.
He had wanted all these girls for all these reasons, but especially tonight he wanted the one smiling and finishing her greasy pizza on the towel with him. Liz stood up and felt the blood rush away from her head, the slow spread of warmth from the gin. They wandered into the warm blur of colored lights and crowds on the boardwalk, finding their way along the crowd’s edges and the dangling pink cotton candy, the swirls of giant rainbow lollipops, the smoke from the Italian sausage. Everywhere people tried to win the games, drawn in by the violent pop of the shoot-out-the star, the tick and whir of the spinning wheel games, the metallic thunk of rubber against the too-small basketball hoops. Liz and Dave knew better, joked at what a waste of a dollar the games were while voices shouted: one win choice, come on down, give it a try. Kids pulled on their parents’ arms and rubbed at their eyes, wanting hermit crabs, temporary tattoos, stuffed tigers, glow-in-the-dark necklaces, wanting to be picked up or put down, wanting one more ride or one more minute to decide which color ICEE they wanted.
“Should I try to win you a stuffed bear? Those guys are all trying to win stuffed bears,” Dave said. Liz felt her face flush, that uncomfortable, uncontrollable giveaway. He passed her the thermos and she took another drink; it was the contrast she liked the most, between the pulsing entropy of the crowd and the muted calm that built with every sip from the thermos. She knew what it felt like to sip on a few warm, watery beers in someone’s basement, to choke down a swig or two of Hot Damn before passing it along to the next person. She drank just enough at those dumb parties so that she could stand listening to cheerleaders talk about selfie filters while her friend Sonia made out sloppily with some linebacker ding-dong a beanbag chair.
This kind of drinking though, this unhurried shared secret, this cold bitter lemonade that turned the color up on everything and muted her worry into a background blur, was new and nice. It made the ugly parts of the boardwalk fade even as they were right in her face: the people who swore in front of their kids, the heaps of trash you had to step around when the cans overflowed, the shrill, nasty things people shouted at each other or at no one in particular.
“Skee-ball is the only game I like,” she said. “It’s way in the back and no one stands there staring at you while you play.”
“Well challenge accepted then,” Dave said, steering them directly into Coin Castle through the maze of screens and whack-a-moles until they were standing barely touching, crouching and ready with two sweaty quarters in their fists. Liz zeroed in, the smooth heavy weight of the ball getting just the right spin and speed and flying into the hole with a solid thud. She beat Dave by 100 points, their tickets snaked out onto the floor, and they left them for someone else before he pulled her out again through the crowd and back down onto the beach in the shadow of the thrum and glow of the rides on the pier.
“I know this move, you know,” she said, “the take-her-down-to-the-beach move? You think it’s gonna work on me?”
She had kissed exactly one person before, in one of those basements with the warm beer, a track team sophomore named Jesse who had rolled toward her on a couch with his eyes closed and put his dry lips against hers for a few seconds before rolling back off her and then emptying a bag full of Dorito crumbs into his mouth. Never mind Dorito breath Jesse, and never mind the vestiges of self-consciousness she was shedding, layer by layer.
“You seemed ok with the see-if-she-wants-to-drink-a-bunch-of-boozy-lemonade move and the let-her-win-at-skeeball move,” he said, shrugging, “so I thought I would at least try it.”
He leaned down to kiss her, and a cold wave rushed over their feet. The lemon and gin taste, the callused guitar-player hands pressed against her back, and the insistent warmth of him as the wind shifted and blew in cooler off the ocean were the special effects in the movie scene where she was finally a girl who was not like other girls.
Liz arrived early to another morning at Sun and Shade. The sand was still cool, the boardwalk still quiet except for some plodding-along joggers, and she spent the last fifteen minutes before she officially opened deleting five drafts of a text to Dave before settling on “Hey. :)”
As in Hey, thank you for the neon lights kiss and the gin-induced-spinniness and hey, let me keep a little of that spinniness and a little of that neon light under my skin, jack up the warm-buzz, the kick-drum pulse, and the soft-focus lens, let the flashbulb-feeling settle a little and let me blink blink and see that ocean sparkle extra special, hey let me have all that, ok, I get that, that’s mine. To keep forever.
As in Hey, I know you fuck hipster groupies, and hey I don’t know what your deal is and whether you’re secretly a scumbag whose game is so good and you nailed me and knew how to press every single effing button or whether you’re a kid like me who just wants adventure and an interesting life, who loves it here and can’t wait to leave and love it more, who doesn’t want to be disappointed.
As in Hey, just text me back. Just hang around these few weeks, because distraction is medicine for teenagers. Hey, just keep bringing me pizza and joking about the boardwalk weirdos, because Maruca’s buttery crust fills a hole in my soul that no casserole can hope to fill. Hey, you really have no idea how much the attention on a warm night and the way you look at me makes me stand up taller, fills me with something bright and certain, whispers to me that this is the teeniest part of what’s ahead—the fun, the corners of the world, the places full of kind oddballs, brilliant fuck-ups, intense introverts, wild old souls out there that I have yet to meet.
Hey, I’ve seen all the movies, and I know how this ends, I know, I know, I know: waving at the beat-up car driving away with the Labor Day traffic. It’s what I’m signing up for, so sign me up for all of it, I get it, I get it.
Hey, text me back, and then take me out anywhere late.
Hey, want my virginity? Please, please, say you do, because I don’t want it. Once is seven hundred universes away from never, and I want once before I go back to those basement parties with the Jesses and then to freshman orientation with slurry frat guys, before never-have-I-ever with roommates from a different state, before Evy and I spend our summer job money on new black flats that will wear holes in our heels from standing too long. Hey, take that virginity, it’s yours, because it doesn’t feel like some special gift but an awkward burden. Hey, let me through that grown-up gate! Hey, take this now, hey, check, check, next!
Hey, have you ever had to take care of someone, like really take care of them?
What have you already lost? Is there a way you get used to it, because every new thing that’s gone feels like a gritty, infected wound exposed to the wind, chafing and blistering and refusing to scab over.
Hey, maybe I’ll keep that to myself.
Maybe that will always be the question I ask about anyone, from now on: what have you already lost?
She turned the combination lock on the umbrella box and felt the smooth release when it opened on the last number. She collected the trash around the box: a broken sand castle mold, greasy paper plates, a straw, some half-buried bottle caps, a plastic spider ring, and four empty cans of Busch Light. And a current In Touch Magazine—a treasure. Then she stacked the chairs into two rows, planted six display umbrellas, hauled out her signs, counted out her bank, and filled her water jug. Ready for another day.