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.
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 take another swig of pop. A wheeler hollers at me to purchase a hot dog, but it’s too hot, I can feel the wetness under my breasts, and I’m almost to the sand when I’m rammed into by a stroller. The mother and I lock eyes, 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. 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, 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 is shrouded 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, I coo, in Brooklyn, in the States; I say, it seems you washed ashore, but you’re safe with me; I ask, are you able to talk?
He doesn’t budge.
“Would you like me to get you some help?”
Then he leaps to his feet.
He tells me everything: He’s of the ocean, he claims, conjured from coral and sand, spit out on Christmas day, upon an infinite blue on which he floated for four-hundred-thirty-three days until reaching land. I laugh, dismiss him—he must be crazy, I tell myself—but he insists: No, I’m telling the truth, on that small island I was in solitude, I taught myself to build a shelter, but from thereon things become foggy. I peer around for eavesdroppers, when truthfully what I wish is to not be associated with this loon. He goes on, he alleges the sand there spoke to him, chatting incessantly, and could I imagine what it was like, the sound of seven-quintillion-and-one particles prattling in your ear? Enough to drive one mad, yes, so he ran back to the ocean, like some newborn who, within minutes disgusted already with the world, drives itself back into the womb. And, look, now he’s here. I ask him his name, 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’m at a loss, so I ask if he’d like to ride the Ferris wheel, and he simply nods. Already I forget what he sounds like, already I forget he washed ashore. It’s like some drug, how all I can think about is him—or, not him as an essence, but him in that he is paying attention to me, listening to me, nodding at my words, gazing into my eyes.
I think back: The only date I’ve ever been on, we went to a traveling carnival. He was, possibly, the prettiest boy I’ve encountered. I was a freshman in high school, he was a senior. I thought I was naïve, or imaginative, or both to believe my girly crush would turn into a date, but it did: He asked me out at my locker one May 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, we 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—yes, fucked, I won’t spare myself the vulgarity of men—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, called me names; boys lusted after me, called me names. My name, my body was known detached from its human owner. Party boy eventually apologized because of how out of hand it got, but in the middle of this, 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 hadn’t realized I closed my eyes. I open them, glance over, realize the man is staring at me. I feel I am being watched, but strangely I like it. On the Ferris wheel, our car has nearly drifted to its peak, and we’re so high up it’s as if I could touch Heaven, and every word I’d say would travel 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 rest a hand on the man’s thigh. I could fall in love with him, I think, I can picture our future together.
We begin to descend, I calm myself down. What took me over, why does it scare me? Why do I have the uncanny notion this man knows everything about me? As if I were one of Vesalius’ showpieces, spread open for him to study every nook and every cranny.
When we step off the ride, the man and I go to the sea. We plop ourselves on the sand, and the water roams onto our feet. It’s high tide. I look over: He’s sifting sand through his fingers.
“Does it still talk to you?” I ask.
“I can hear my mother too, far in the waves.”
But I say this to myself. The man rises, pulls me up with him, glides us into the water. I don’t stop him; I can’t think of anything other than him. Everything around me goes silent. We drift further, 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 to the bottom, flowing down past the depths and the black abyss. I am drowning them all.
I run short of breath rise from the bottom, and realize I’m alone. I climb back ashore and hike to the boardwalk, where in the distance I 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, 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: He’s hearing the sand, have some decency, give him a minute to gather himself, won’t you. I’m told he can’t play without a permit, and I respond that he knows, that we will leave soon. The man keeps flailing his arms until security has had enough and steps toward him. The man pushes him away.
“That’s enough,” the guard mutters, gripping him at the shoulder. He leads the man to a police car despite my begs: no, please don’t, we’ll leave right now. But they rev off.
Albeit leaving my sandals on 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, 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 so near him that I could throw a rock and it’d kill him, but not so near enough that I could kiss him.
Then he turns back around, takes a step forward in the water, doesn’t look back at me, and continues ahead. I look closer, see his feet atop the water surface, like the ocean is floor tile and he’s gliding casually along overhead. His steps land on the water 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.