The tide was out when he turned back north. It left a flat sheet of hard sand, scarred by tide pools and gobs of tarry rocks. The sunset waned behind the grass dunes, where a few teenagers leaned against the beach access stairway, wiping away the last of the day's salt and sand.
"What street does this go to?" Sean called to them and, in his continued fit of social daring, cupped his hands around his mouth. "Nelson?"
"King," one called back.
The lights came on across St. Simons Sound: a white lighthouse above a northeasterly string of hotels and vacation homes gave the lip of St. Simons proper the horizon of a distant pier. There weren’t so many lights on this island. Usually it made him feel inferior—the party always elsewhere—but tonight the thought filled him up warm. St. Simons looked busy and alive; here it was empty and cool and black. But it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was better. The darkness meant stars and sparkling dots of ships passing down the coast. The darkness meant privacy.
A figure wandered southward, a final molecule of the day. She was blonde with reedy limbs and wore a pink beach towel around her waist. Thusly threatened, he would usually seek a credible distraction for his gaze, but tonight he found his lungs thick with air.
"Hello," he said.
"Hello," she said. Her smile was sympathetic.
The beach access stairway near Dexter was familiar, the only one that continued west as a tiny causeway over the dunes. He set his phone on the rail and checked the boulder hedge for crabs.
In all his years vacationing here, how many times had he retreated indoors for a sandwich or poker with the cousins, come dusk? Out here it was quiet and peaceful and the sea whistled pleasantly. Well, he thought, the cousins will wonder where I am, and I'll let them wonder. Back on Dexter the rental house would be full of golden light, the air heavy with garlic and pesto and a dozen wayward conversations. If anyone noticed that he still wasn't back yet, they would only figure he was at Uncle Paul's or Aunt Cat's. Sean could sit and wait a moment.
Hands still shaking, he took in a long breath and let it out as a sigh. He would content himself to daydream while he waited for the woman with the silver necklace. His eyes took him back to St. Simons, and his thoughts followed.
"It's a topless beach," she said.
"It is?" Sean looked around. There was the St. Simons lighthouse to the south, scanning the world, and the uncomfortable proximity of a beachfront hotel still alive and awake.
"Don't do that look," she said. "You're so serious."
"Looking for eyes. Do you want to see me naked?"
"Someone will see.”
"That's the idea." She ran into the water, kicking up white foam, tugging at the bottom of her peplum tee. It was something in her tone. All at once it occurred to him that she didn't honestly mean to be impudent; she wanted to be snatched away and rescued from her silliness.
"All right," he said instead, charging in. The water was dark but still hot. He put her arms around her waist and squeezed, lifting and spinning so high his face was at her navel. She let out a grateful yip. Then he let her down slowly, body to body, head up between her breasts, and stopped when he saw the silver necklace. He felt for the clasp, did the yanking, and with a single snap it was his. He ran up the beach to safety, giddy.
"Asshole!" she had to say, in hot pursuit.
He let her catch up under a grassy mound, feigning a collapse. She mounted him and poked around for the necklace, tried pinching and tickling until finally he held the silver necklace to his chest in a tight fist and said, "Kiss me for it."
She had a big wave of tousled sandy hair, which fell so cleanly into his lips he had to spit it out.
She wrapped her legs tightly around his and soon the peplum tee was gone. Somehow they'd absconded from under the lights of St. Simons and found themselves in a little invisible corner of the earth. He felt cheerfully sightless and knew she did too—the hurried way she undid his belt buckle, her short urgent breaths. Maybe they weren't invisible; maybe passersby giggled and pointed, but if so they would go ignored. He'd lost the fear, and somehow it wasn't her legs or hips or breasts against him that stole the rest of his senses, but the knowledge she was his reward for his momentary burst of courage, the decision to be quick and bold, finally giving in to his own red hot blood. Her lips weren't pleasure. They were victory.
A cruise ship appeared in the northeast, well past St. Simons. Cruise ships were easy to tell from the others: tall above the water, studded with solid rows of lights. Some of the sunset lingered behind him but over the sea night had already begun. They'd be wearing blazers and gambling and holding champagne flutes, saying wonderfully profound and witty things as they leaned over the rails, pointing at the cute Georgian lighthouse on the coast.
He felt silly and somehow intrusive—watching it alone—so he sat tight against the Dexter stairs and closed his eyes.
A woman came laughing up the beach. Sean stood, ready to shout "here!" when he saw she was short and brunette and nothing like the woman with the silver necklace.
"You're so slow!" a man said, racing past her. "High knees, remember, high knees." She giggled; they were plainly drunk. The woman ran up and tackled the man, and he let her win, feigning outrage at her cheating, pulling her in all the while. When they stopped laughing Sean knew they were kissing.
There was no graceful exit. He'd walked the Dexter stairs a hundred times and the wood planks always pounded loudly under his feet—certainly loud enough they could hear. He could stand up and walk up the beach a little more, but somehow he knew that he'd be discovered, and in the process of being discovered had embarrassed them all equally. Instead Sean made himself smaller. He tucked his face closely to his knees and set his phone screen-down in the sand.
"Do you have a condom?" the woman asked.
That was worse. Sean could have left, boldly, a moment ago, but now his crime included the weight of his obvious indecision. He wondered how close they were. Fifteen yards? If he sneezed, would they hear him, or would it disappear in the ocean air? Then he decided. If her shirt came off, he was going to stand up and gun back for Dexter Lane and never let them see his face. All he had to do was wait for the absolute optimal moment.
"Shit," the man said finally. “No.”
"Let's go home."
"Just another…" He finished his sentence on her lips.
The woman sat up, her face half-obscured in the dwindling light. "It feels weird now."
Defeated, the man came up after her. They wiped themselves free of the sand and disappeared up the beach. Sean pushed two dots into the beach and sculpted a little U underneath. He'd never been so relieved to be alone.
He had first spotted her after his second drink at the Beachview Club veranda. She wore a straw hat and a pale green sundress which the breeze blew into billowing silk behind her. In one hand she had a glass—empty, except for a dot of wine—and in the other a busy smartphone. For a nervous moment he imagined the audacity of shuffling his feet, finding the same spot against the wood rail, speaking a few bold words—but first she swerved, quite abruptly, and spotted him leaning abashed against the bar.
"Are you staring at me?" she asked, with feigned scandal.
"Yeah,” he said, blithely, as though he’d been asked if he wanted ice with his drink.
She smiled, leaned over the rail and struck a model pose—pursed lips and all. Then he might as well take her picture, she said, and he pretended to do exactly that: framing her between his hands and clicking his tongue, yelling faux-photographer idioms at her like good! and no, show me intensity…show me Paris! When she tugged the front of her dress down and pushed her breasts together, he said his camera needed more “film” and that she should absolutely hold that pose and not budge an inch while he replaced it. Then the dam burst. She saw what he was doing and rushed over to punch him on the shoulder; they exchanged the usual introductions, though when he reached to shake her hand she hugged him instead and squealed my favorite photographer; she bought him a terrible shot of Jameson’s and Tabasco, and after the second or third he noted how drunk they were; she agreed wholeheartedly and together they decided the antidote to alcohol was walking up the beach in the salty air. "To breathe out the vapors," she said. “The body gets rid of alcohol through the lungs.” In their private haze, the science seemed credible and binding.
They barely made the beach. She stopped him just past the orange honeycomb fence, hand-in-hand, when she first took him in to kiss.
The day waned around them for a while. He tried to catch crabs in one of the new tidepools; she was poking a beached jellyfish when the new man arrived.
“Darren!” she shouted.
Darren had hard blue eyes and an unflinching glare, with the square posture of ex-military. “Let’s go for that walk,” he said.
“Okay!” She splashed across the tide pool and hugged Sean goodbye, pressing her face against his to whisper. “Can I go for this walk quick? I told him I would.”
“You aren’t mad?”
“No,” he had to say.
“I’ll come back after the walk.” She bit his earlobe. “After sunset. Meet you at the…Dexter stairs?”
They disappeared down the beach, and it occurred to him that he hadn’t even asked her name.
Sean could see walking back for her, taking her hand, making an excuse—“I have to show you something”—and absconding up the beach with her. She would laugh and coyly object; he would smile and overrule. It was half tempting. The other half was unnerving. In all his years coming to the island he’d only been in this arena as a spectator. And now his chance was walking away. The farther she was the more awkward he’d look, running down the beach. He liked her smile and her wild sandy hair and decided she would be worth the risk, but the absolute optimal moment had vanished. It had taken him too long to digest the thought. She just a dot down the beach by then, so he turned back north toward the lights of St. Simons—to wait.
The tide was out.
The sunlight finally melted to afterglow; the Atlantic was ink. The Dexter stairs pounded—an intruder.
“Sean! There you are. We’re playing ‘Cards Against Humanity’. We need your scathing wit.”
Emma, his cousin’s girlfriend, was a first-timer here and always wanted everyone to be together.
“Sorry—I can’t come in yet.”
“Why not? It’s too dark to do anything outside.”
“I’m waiting for someone.”
“I met this girl down at the Beachview Club.”
“Look at you! A girl! Who is she?”
“I don’t really know. She said she’d meet me up here.”
“At night? Who meets a stranger at night?”
“She said sunset. She’s just late.”
“I was talking to her and she came across this guy she knew—“
“—and she said she’d meet me up here later.”
“And he snatched her away.”
“What, was I going to just take her away by the hand?”
“Yeah. If you want to get some, at least.”
Sean smiled at that. “I told her I would meet her here. I don’t want to stand her up. That would be…rude.”
“Yes, I can tell you’re very concerned about being polite.”
“Give me a few more minutes. In case she comes.”
Emma tucked in next to him on the beach stair, elbows over her knees. “Who is she, anyway?”
“She was at the bar. I didn’t get her name.”
“You don’t know her name?”
“I know she’s beautiful.”
“I’m a beautiful woman too, that doesn’t mean I go around hooking up with strangers.”
“Different how?” He didn’t have an answer for that, so she went on. “I know her type. If she’s late it’s because she forgot, and if you keep waiting you’ll just feel like an idiot. Come on back inside. It’s weird out here. There are zero lights.”
“Ten more minutes. Then I’ll be inside.”
She stood up and shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
When she was gone, Sean stretched and sighed, threw a cracked seashell down the beach. Then he closed his eyes.
The St. Simons marina was only a few juts of docks into Fancy Bluff Creek on the western side of the island, but at the long dock halfway across the creek there were big yachts without sails. Sean unhooked his and stood atop his like the Gloucester fisherman, steering them out to sea. On the main deck they had champagne and finger foods—and music, too, Vampire Weekend singing Walcott and Oxford Comma.
It was bright and clear when they came upon the ocean proper. “Look at all the shrimp boats,” someone said. There was more besides that, two cruise ships on the horizon and sailboats to the north along St. Simons. All of his friends called him down to the deck.
“Thanks for having us,” someone said.
“It’s my pleasure,” Sean said. “You’re welcome on this boat any time.” They toasted to the day.
Then he saw that she was there too, biting her lip, sliding her fingers around the silver necklace. He winked at her and she winked back.
“I love this music,” someone said.
“Sean picked it out,” the woman with the silver necklace said.
“Let’s just keep going,” someone said. “Let’s go clear across the Atlantic. Due east. Where would that take us, Sean?”
“I think Morocco.”
“Let’s go to Morocco. I want to go to Casablanca.”
“You’ve never even seen Casablanca,” someone said.
“I saw the ending on YouTube. That’s enough.” They laughed.
Sean steered them due east for a while, but that was as long as the friends lasted. Then it was just him and the woman with the silver necklace. They danced together a little on the deck, his hands on her waist and her head on his shoulders. It felt real. It felt like they had been together all that time, years maybe. It was too easy to imagine, like school daydreams. Then she was gone too.
By then the sea was empty save for the distant lights of St. Simons and a glimmering orange layer of waves. Sean held his breath and jumped in. The goal was two minutes. At first the water was orange and transparent, then red, then blood-red, then there was nothing at all except the muted sound of his own bubbles. One minute. His cheeks puffed and he let out a gasp, but he never took in any water. His feet found the bottom and to his surprise it was only empty sand. It turned out underneath the ocean near St. Simons there were no crabs, no sharks, no stingrays. There was only the sound of bubbles around your head. One minute thirty. If he looked up, he knew the ocean would be black above him. No way to swim up. He would succeed or he would be buried. One minute forty five. Fifty. Fifty-two--
He gasped and sucked in the salty air.
Now the night was black. Sean pushed a hollow twig into the sand and gave up when it folded in half.
It was strange to be at the beach at night. Usually he was inside watching TV by then, or walking with a cousin to another house with the trees draped over the roads. The beach made for a better sky, but it was lonelier.
The Dexter stairs tapped behind him.
“I don’t think she’s coming.” She said it as if she bore the rejection too. “Do you want to come inside? We’re still playing.”
Sean wiped the sand from his ankles and sighed. “All right. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Yay! I’ll go tell them.”
He cleaned the rest, shaking his phone, kicking off the excess sand against the beach stairs. After one last look at the sky he walked over the Dexter stair and onto the sand and tall grass on the other side. The beach access tunneled between a few trees next to someone’s property but they wouldn’t mind, even this late at night. Then it was dark asphalt the rest of the way.
I know when, he thought. When I made the mistake. When he had been waiting for the optimal moment. That was it. When it felt the silliest to run down the beach after her and tell her nevermind, that he still wanted to be with her. The man, Darren, he would have objected. But what would he have done? He would have stood there frozen, most likely, and she would have promised to meet Darren later, and then she would turn to Sean and whisper that she really didn’t mean it, that she was glad he came to rescue her. She couldn’t have been impolite to Darren, after all. That would have been silly. That was when, Sean thought. Even when she was so far away, at least I still knew where to find her. Right when it seemed awkward and strange. That was the optimal moment. It just hadn’t felt that way.
Finally he saw the house. The windows were bright and there was laughing inside. It wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was better.
Farther south along the beach there was a sandbar that extended a few hundred yards out into the ocean. At low tide it was walkable. The man peeled off his shirt and ran straight into it, first down to his waist and then back up above the water again. “Come on!”
“It’s too dark!” she called, dipping a toe into the water.
“Good! No one will see!”
The sea was almost still, giving only flimsy waves at the shoreline. The water was only up to his knees. That seemed safe enough. She found a dry spot on the beach and left her phone there. She flicked off her sandals. She peeled off her bracelet. She tugged her hair free of its clip and ruffled it free again, then pulled up the pale green sundress and stripped off all the rest, save the silver necklace.