Jesus On the Shore

Mama once told me before she died that my blonde hair makes the sun go wild with envy. Said I came out of the womb with a full mane flowing out behind me, and if I ever get lost, just to take off my hat or headscarf and somebody’ll come magnetized over to it.

When I was younger, she said I had too much of a body for a girl-child. Too curvy like the sea waves, infinite and easy to lose yourself. She told me this when I came home from school one day and a boy had touched me at the playground. The teacher said I should forgive him because he was simply being a boy, and maybe my parents should know better than to send a prepubescent girl out wearing such a scanty outfit.

She’s not lying, mama said while downing a bottle of vodka at one in the afternoon.

I didn’t want to be touched, I replied.

You can try and stop boys all you want, but in this world they all have a mind of their own and act on it. We girls can’t afford that.

The following morning I was sent to class in the warm spring weather in a warm wool turtleneck. I got dizzy with heat exhaustion, so my teacher sent me home. When I told mama she laughed and said that will show that damn uppity woman.

It’s that hot right now outside, like myself under that turtleneck that spring day. Another sip of my soda.

I came alone to Coney Island. Friendless, alone, sipping on a diet Coca-Cola behind the Ferris wheel. Next to me is a homeless man munching away at the scraps of a corndog he discovered on the boardwalk. I should acknowledge him but I don’t, because maybe he wants to be alone just as much as I do. And I know he’s a good man, because we’re completely in solitude back here and he hasn’t tried to advance at me. It’d be a prime spot for him to knock me upside the head and have his way.

The first and last time I visited Coney Island I was ten. I came with my dad, and he snuck me onto a rollercoaster; I say snuck when most likely the ride operator was apathetic enough not to stop us, but it was the month before dad left us, so I try to make the memories in his favor. Out of respect or to keep me sane—it’s all the same. Sometimes I wish he would’ve left when I was three or something, a time where I wouldn’t have the capability to recollect him. A time where a photograph would be all I could yearn at. But he didn’t, and now I have so many memories of him that they’re all wind in my stomach I just can’t seem to knock out.

I push myself from the wall I’ve leaned against. I glance to my homeless friend and I start to see my dad in his face, so I hastily pull away and head to the beach. I take another swig of pop. A wheeler hollers at me to purchase a hot dog, but it’s too hot, and I can feel the wetness under my breasts. I’m almost to the sand when I’m rammed into by a stroller. The mother and I lock eyes, and the baby whimpers.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry,” I say.

“Don’t you have any decency coming to a place like this wearing a thing like that,” is what she says in return. Her husband tugs at her sleeve. “She looks like a whore, Dick,” she whispers confidentially to him, but just audible enough so I can hear. He shoots me an apologetic stare, but I turn and rush ahead.

I glance down to what I’m wearing. A crop top, a skirt—it’s hot, and it made sense to me. I don’t think it looks slutty; I think it looks like me. There’s a dove perched on the snow cone stand, and I’m pretty confident I’m the only one who spots it until a kid throws a crumb at it. Then I realize it’s nothing but a seagull.

Everything around me shrouds in the noise of gleeful conversation, bawling infants, sloppy necking, arcade buzzing—the soundtrack of a carnival. It’s so loud that it’s almost a silence. I start to smell the salt of the ocean when I see hordes of people crowding at the shore. It must be a brawl, is what I believe, until I get closer and realize no one is making a sound, that they too have drowned in the tumult of the real world.

It was here where it happened. Places are like smells—they can take you back anywhere. Dad led me out in the water to hop waves, and mama sprawled out on a towel and let her eyes close. When she awoke my baby brother wasn’t aside her any longer. We never found him. She began to drink after that. That’s when dad left, and we never found him either. Where the crowd is now, where mama laid her towel, where the beachgoers kept flocking and asking how they could help, and mama got so anxious that she ran into the ocean and started splashing around and screaming…I’m not sure if it occurred exactly here, but it certainly feels like it.

Every time I enter water now I hear my mom’s screams, so I don’t go in anymore.

I push my way through the people until I’m exposed to the scene: a beached man washed ashore, unconscious. Everyone circles him. I want to say something and ask if anyone’s sought out help, but I can’t choke anything up.

It takes time—not much of it—but soon everyone clears out until it’s just me. Perhaps they grew too bored; they lost interest. I kneel beside the man. He has long brown hair that drapes to his shoulders, and scruff that fills the side of his face. He wears a tattered white button- down with baggy pants, barefoot, soaked to his bones. In a way, he looks like portraits of Jesus you see in funeral homes. He’s beautiful, and he looks kind. I very much want him to be kind. He looks like someone I could spend a life with if he’s kind. It’s then I notice his eyes are wide open, and I’m victim to deep brown.

The man ogles at me. I scan the perimeter, but no one gives us the light of day.

“Are you okay, sir?” I say, calculating every word. “You’re at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, in the States. You’re safe with me. I’m not sure how you got here, but it seems you washed ashore. Are you able to talk?”

He doesn’t budge.

“Would you like me to get you some help?”

Then, effortlessly, he leaps to his feet.

He tells me everything about him. He says the ocean conjured him up from coral and sand, spit him out on Christmas day onto the blue where he floated for four-hundred-thirty-three days until reaching land. On the island he was in complete and utter solitude, where he taught himself to build a shelter, but from thereon his life grew foggy and he can’t recollect a thing. Those final days he says the sand grew awfully chatty, and the sound of seven-quintillion-and-one grains prating in his ear drove him mad. So he ran back to the ocean, and she scolded him for going missing. And now he’s here. I ask him his name and he says he doesn’t have one. I don’t question anything further because you don’t question people when they open up to you: you just listen. Or, you should.
I suppose he must be parched, so I lead him to a peddler and buy him a bottle of water. We’re strolling the boardwalk when he proffers me a sip. When I swallow I realize I’m drinking diet Coca Cola. But when I look back at the drink it’s clear as day, and fluid as a river.

I realize that, save the minutes he told me his backstory, the man hasn’t spoken another word. I ask him if he’d like to ride the Ferris wheel, and he simply nods. I forget what he sounds like. I forget that he washed ashore. All I can think about is that he’s paying attention to me. It’s like a drug.

The only date I’ve ever been on we went to a traveling carnival. He was possibly the prettiest boy I’ve come across. I was a freshman in high school—he was a senior. I thought I was naïve, or imaginative, or both to believe that my girly crush would turn into a date, but it did because he asked me out at my locker one June morning. He won me a goldfish at the whack-a-mole game, and then two hours later tried to take advantage of me. Funny thing is I almost let him. I really liked him and when you really like someone not everything is simple to understand. When I tried to explain to mama what had happened, she was flat drunk and guffawed and said maybe I should have worn a turtleneck instead of a sleeveless silk blouse.

Then it was two years later when I lost my virginity to a boy at a party. We were both drunk and fled into a room, and I remember bleeding so much I thought I was dying. I started to sob so we stopped. The next day he had told everybody he fucked me, and just like that I had a reputation. Then more came out and said that they had screwed me once or twice before. Some I didn’t even know their names. No one talked to me. Girls hated me and called me names; boys lusted after me and called me names. I was known around town. Party boy eventually apologized because of how out-of-hand it got, but in the middle of our encounter some jock passed by, high-fived him, and asked if he was going back for seconds. I thought why should he get a high-five and I get this. That’s about when mama drove her car into a church, one hand on the wheel and another on a forty ounce, and I moved in with grandma and paps.

I’ve been stuck in this reverie the whole time our car has drifted to the top. It’s as if you can see all of New York from up here. When I glance over, the man is staring at me. I feel like I’m being watched, but strangely, I like it. We’re so high up I feel as if I could touch Heaven, and every word I say goes straight to God and to the man beside me too. I have an onrush of feeling: the sky the sand the sea the salt the summer, the time right here and now. I think I could fall in love with this man. I can picture our future together.

Then we begin to descend, and I calm myself down. I can’t place what took me over. It scares me. I feel like he knows everything about me, but we’ve hardly shared more than ten words.

When we step off the ride, the man and I saunter to the sea. We plop ourselves on the sand so that the water roams onto our feet. It’s high tide. I look over and he’s sifting sand through his fingers.

“Does it still talk to you?” I ask.

He nods.

“I can hear my mother too, far in the waves.”

The man rises and pulls myself up with him, gliding us into the water. I don’t stop him. I can’t even think of anything other than him. Everything around me goes silent. We drift further and further, and, on an impulse, I dive under a wave.

For a moment my mind goes clear. You can’t know how free it is, to be clear. I open my eyes and watch the sun try to peek through the water, where sheds of light glimmer like a rainstorm of golden glitter.

Each instance where the sun pokes its head, I start to see pieces of my past. In one glint is mama, another dad, a few moments afterwards my baby brother, and the boy from the playground is with the teacher, my first date and party boy too. And they’re all sinking, sinking to the bottom. Flowing down past the depths and the black abyss. I’m drowning them all.

I run short of breath and rise from the bottom, and then I realize I’m alone. I climb back ashore and hike to the boardwalk, where in the distance I can discern the sound of a guitar and the man. Beyond is a flock of doves, a plague of them storming the man, who’s attracted a crowd with his concert. I had forgotten how his voice sounds: like air.

Missiles of white jet from the sky and circle him. It’s not until I’m closer when I register that I am mistaken again, and the doves are seagulls, and they’re crowing so loudly that the man has stopped playing. A security man approaches him and asks him for his permit to play. The man doesn’t answer because he’s trying to bat away the seagulls, and all the beachgoers have fled. I push past and try to explain to the guard that he’s hearing the sand and to give him a minute to gather himself. I’m told he can’t play without a permit, and I respond that he knows, and we will leave immediately. The man keeps flailing his arms until security has had enough and steps toward him, where the man pushes him away.

“That’s enough,” the guard mutters, gripping him at the shoulder, “You’re coming with me.”

He leads the man to a police car despite my begs of no, please don’t, we’ll leave right now. But they rev off.

Albeit leaving my sandals back at the shore, I walk on foot the entire way to the station.

When I arrive I’m greeted by a secretary in white behind a desk. I ask for a man recently taken in from Coney Island. He has no clue who I’m speaking of. So I describe him, and the deskman chuckles. That one. I’m told the man has escaped. Then the deskman explains that I’m to go and pass this message on to his fans awaiting at the boardwalk, and my homeless friend also. Then he takes it back, too afraid of the news of a prison break spreading to the public. We agree to keep the secret between us.

But that’s not what happened. In reality I am not permitted inside the station, and sit on the stairs outside in protest. I remain there for hours, enough that I see the passing of day into night, and the subsequent sunrise. When morning comes I’m still in the same spot. But footsteps sound behind me, and I look up to find the man. He directs me to rise, and to follow him back to Coney Island. He seeks his guitar—his listeners have waited long enough. We return to a parade of shock and celebration, and no one believes he had been incarcerated.

I’m lying about that too. The truth is, when the deskman leads me to the hall, I stumble to the man’s cell and find it empty. I don’t remain there long until I dart out of the station and to the boardwalk, so I can inform the beachgoers of my finding. Running and running to and fro from one visitor to the next. Until I arrive at the shoreline and there he stands, just at the water so it creeps onto his toes.

He turns before I can even acknowledge him aloud, like he senses my presence. Like I’m some apparitional orb or chill of cold air coursing through him. We lock eyes for what feels like a day. I’m so near him that I could throw a rock and it’d kill him, but not near enough I could kiss him.

Then he turns back around. Takes a step forward in the water, doesn’t look back at me this time, and continues ahead. I look closer and I see his feet atop the water surface, like the ocean is floor tile and he’s gliding casually along overhead. His steps come down onto the water top like hardwood, and he continues like this into the direction of the sunset, until the light drowns him into an amber pool and I never see him again.

I wait for him, like this, in the same spot. I never budge. I stay here for months, because I can’t follow him this time. But the past does as it usually does, and crafts the present from the inside out. But he stays there, in the past.

When I finally realize that his return is unlikely, I return to Coney Island every afternoon, gather an audience, and relay the story of him. Soon enough I’m able to begin a cult of worshippers, of those rare ones who don’t find me insane. We write of him, compose poetry, deliver sermons in his name. I do this until I grow old and feeble and unable. My final thought on Earth is of His name, repeating over and over and over again until I fade into nothingness.

painting: “The Last Supper,” Leonardo da Vinci (1495-98)

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