“Listen, they say the first time ain’t the greatest, but I tell ya
if I had the chance to do it all again, I wouldn’t change a stroke.”
Torrey’s exit into the old State Park Beach was a left turn across oncoming traffic that marooned her to a standstill. Highway One, in its low dips, was a wash-out, useless. But at its higher elevations the coast road still functioned like a road, a road with a view. Before her the coastline arched northeast like a ragged fingernail—the dingy edge of land scratching at the Pacific. She didn’t drive this way anymore and she missed it. Waiting for the traffic, Torrey jammed the Honda’s gearshift into park. She twisted around, yanked her work pants from the backseat and threw them out the car window. Even when a gap in traffic appeared, she didn’t accelerate, instead she watched the khaki pants in her rearview mirror wheel-kick through the dust.
The sour water burned her feet as she shuffled through high tide. When she got to the beach, it looked like she was wearing a pair of pink socks. Out of nostalgia, she headed for a spot below the cliffs about a half-mile south of the parking lot. Before, when people went to the beach, this was a quiet spot because it was too far to haul a cooler without complaint. It was so secluded it had been the city’s nude beach. Now it was mostly under the rubble of cliffs when it wasn’t submerged by high tide.
The little beach that was left was a spit of unhealthy sand, wisped with neon ribboning down from the sandstone cliffs. The city wasn’t sure what the neon could be. The county watershed had changed too quickly to keep track and the runoff and earthquakes made the sandstone so unstable that the cliffs often shook loose and flowed green-yellow sand. From the city’s standpoint, there seemed little point to researching a coast that would disappear.
Out of sight of the highway, she laid her towel below a crook in the cliffs where the tide hadn’t yet reached. Ever since she and her parents had downsized homes, she stored most her wardrobe in the backseat of their Honda and had a two-piece and marginally dry towel on hand. She was supposed to work at the grocery until closing, but her boss had let her go early.
It was a slow day, mid-week. A customer, a man, who must have been trailing through the aisles for a half hour, leaning on his empty shopping cart, passed by her twice as she stocked cereal boxes. A dumb Prince song her father liked was playing over the loudspeakers. To make her Dad laugh she’d sing the chorus wrong—Raz-Mary Parade—and he would stop, no matter what he was doing to dance, badly. The grocery’s shipment hadn’t made it that week and she was singing the song incorrectly to herself and arranging the last few boxes so they took up the entire shelf. People want their food to look full and filling, her boss incanted at her, his recurring mantra every time a shipment stalled. The kind you get at the second-hand store Oh-o– On his second round the cart wheels halted and the man grabbed her hips and upended his weight on top of her. He pinned her to the metal shelves and cereal boxes sputtered to the ground.
She yelped thinking he had fallen, lost his balance and had reached out for her. But when he palmed her pelvis and dug his fingers into the inseam of her khakis, she knew he hadn’t fallen.
He thrust his hips into hers a few times, dislodging more cereal boxes and making her clack into the shelves. The song kept playing, Raz-Mary Parade. When he pushed himself off, the absence of his weight caused her to fall. She saw the back of his silk-screened Padres jersey, the number 56 running down the aisle and toward the exit. Raz-Mary café, I think I love her. She went to stand, to run after him, but only made it to her knees.
The surveillance cameras had stopped working years ago so there wasn’t much to be done. Her co-worker, a woman who’d like to tell her how lucky she was to be skinny and white-looking, said she needed to be more aware. She needed to take a self-defense class, carry pepper spray, a knife, gain weight. “Why didn’t you scream? Kick him in the balls?” She thought the man was falling, not that she was being assaulted. She thought she was catching someone. She felt dumb for crying. This kinda thing—worse—happens all the time, she knew. Her co-workers must’ve been thinking she was being naive, weepy like she was. Welcome to the real world, she imagined they imagined.
Her boss pinned laminated badges of her two boys on her Hawaiian print work shirts and called Torrey, Tor. Torrey was never fond of her. But now she felt different. Her boss hugged her and the laminated badges of her boys clanked together, boisterous even when they were photographs. She told her if she ever saw him again to get her immediately. She sighed, “Torrey,” and gave her an apple and the rest of the day off. “Have a good lunch. Take a bath,” she told her.
They wouldn’t need her at the store. It was a slow day, mid-week.
When the sand flies circled the sweat behind her knees, she went swimming. She knew she shouldn’t enter the contaminated water, but the stinging wouldn’t last forever and she wouldn’t stay in for long. The waves bashed perpendicular into each other and crashed without rhythm. She always liked how calm and in turn violent the ocean could be and when the water was waist high, she dove below the whitewash and the weight of it eclipsed the chaos. Soundless. She battled for what seemed like a long time and it felt good to be weightless and violent, running her blood.
She remembered the apple from work and saved herself from the pains of an empty stomach. Her parents complained about her job at the grocery store, she hadn’t gone to college to stock shelves they said, but she actually hadn’t finished college and she was the only one in the family with a job. With all their unemployed time they wanted her to be a lawyer, like her father had been, or an engineer or a dentist. Something noble, they said. They badgered her to reapply to college. She tried to explain that the university was downsizing, turning away students. Some of her old classmates said the UC system would shut down completely next quarter. Her parents wouldn’t hear it.
“Schools don’t disappear like that,” they scoffed.
“They do if there’s no money. If half the campus is under a landslide.”
They hadn’t left the apartment in a while, but if her father’s law firm could disappear, why couldn’t a university?
She didn’t mind working at the grocery store. Most days she didn’t mind. She worked with people who she never would’ve met in college and she got a small stipend of fresh produce every week. The trickle of edible fruits and vegetables that came into the store was not enough to sell without sparking panic and the boss was generous with her employees. She personally handed it out, piece by piece. Once Torrey brought home two pears for her parents. She cut them up and arranged the thin blades like a fan on a plate. Fresh produce was rare and she liked the idea of the ceremony of it. When her mother saw it, she burst into tears. Apparently treating some browning pears as something special reminded her parents of all the things they’d lost: their food, their money, their cars, their big Spanish-style house. They couldn’t handle it. She stopped bringing home anything fresh. Instead she tried saving the food for her own special occasions, apples, oranges, once a bag of peas, but they were too special to enjoy alone in the parking lot and in trying to save it for an occasion she’d let them wither and brown in the backseat of the Honda.
The apple on the beach was mealy and crumbled when she bit into it. She ate the whole thing anyway: the core, seeds and stem. Today, in some horrible way, had ceremony.
She laid down on her towel and let the humidity melt her goose bumped skin. Her head at the foot of the cliffs, she could look up at the top layers of orange and neon sandstone compacted by the thick sky. The waves made a steady full sound that mixed with the muggy heat and pulled her closer and closer to sleep. She didn’t mind working at the grocery store, but she wouldn’t be going back.
She awoke to the sound of a car door slamming and rose to her elbows. A rusted jeep was between her towel and the waterline. The beach was bigger than before, but not by much and the jeep was close. The lifeguard held his hands on his hips, “Hi,” he said.
She pulled her knees to her chest and crossed her arms over her shins, suddenly conscious of possible bruises from the cereal shelves. She had meant to see if they’d splotched her hip bones.
“You can’t go swimming here. Didn’t you see the signs?” he pointed back toward the other end of the beach. He wore sunglasses and a red baseball cap. He was young, around her age. Rare. Most of the lifeguards left were close to retirement and the county couldn’t afford to hire anyone new. With fewer and fewer beaches, the job was being phased out.
She asked if she should leave.
“You can’t stay this close to the cliffs, ‘cause rocks and stuff might fall.” The lifeguard shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He told her he should write her up for even being on the beach much less swimming.
Her skin was taut from the salt and chemicals and she rubbed her neck with the heel of her palm. She apologized. She made for her backpack.
“I don’t mean to be a hard-ass,” he said. “I mean, I get it, wanting to be here.” It was his job to patrol this stretch and ticket anybody he saw. “People could sue the county for water poisoning or getting nailed by a falling rock. Liability stuff,” he said.
My taxpayer dollars hard at work, she heard her father complain. He still paid his taxes, even when her mother complained it was useless. No one else does, why should we?
The fine would be big. She heard her parents speculate that fines were getting outrageous to offset the county deficit. Any violations—traffic, water restriction, being on a public sidewalk without proper I.D.—all carried staggering fines. She figured being on a closed beach might run her a month’s pay at the store. She and her parents couldn’t afford that, especially if she wanted to find a new job.
The humidity filled her head.
How could the county afford to pay a lifeguard? Whose life could they afford to guard?
He nodded to the cliffs. “You at the college over here?”
She told him yes.
There was a pause that would’ve been enough time for the lifeguard to advise her to leave immediately and have a nice day or write her a colossal ticket, but he shifted his weight again. He looked down the beach, as if still patrolling, as if anyone else were there. “What do you study over there?”
“I study Math,” she said. She had studied Math, but her short time at college was more instructional about incurring debt than about Mathematics, which was a form of Mathematics she figured. But now could she trust herself, she never finished the degree.
“Not very many girls study Math. You must like numbers,” he laughed.
She was tired. Tired from swimming and tired of hearing that she still looked like a girl. She was twenty-three; twenty-three but with not much to show for it.
With her chin tucked and eyes still closed from the glare of the haze, she meant to say, “yes” to the lifeguard with crisp consonants like her mother insisted she pronounce, but the sound that came out was a soft constellation of vowels. It wasn’t until she heard it aloud, after a lag, as if the cliffs had reverberated it back to her that she could ascribe any connotation to it. The sound seemed as if she were describing the sun’s warmth, an inaudible sound of melting, an opening, an invitation. Whatever it was, her mother would say it was not a sound for strangers.
She worried if he took it to mean something other than a quiet conversation with herself. Though he wasn’t unattractive; she also worried that he didn’t hear it at all over the din of the waves. She didn’t know what to do with what she wanted, if she should even want it. That morning her boss had told her to bathe, but Torrey wasn’t sure what clean was anymore. What was clean in a dirty city, on a dirty beach?
She opened one eye against the glare to gauge his reaction. He was barefoot and the knuckles on his toes turned white when he closed the few steps between them. He stuck his hand in front of her knees. “I’m Richie, by the way.”
Torrey uncurled her hold on her shins and shook it, “I’m Claire. Nice to meet you.”
The lifeguard sat down and drew triangles in the sand. He told her how this was the last known beach in San Diego, he pointed out where the Scripps Pier used to be before the wave action dismantled it. She knew all this, but he also pointed out how pretty her hair was and asked if he could kiss her.
She said, “Sure.”
When he kissed her, she remembered being a kid and seeing the purple suctions of an octopus up against the glass of the aquarium, the aquarium that used to be just down the beach. The octopus was completely unaware that its underside, pale and vulnerable, was visible to the shuffling crowds. Torrey thought an aquarium attendant should move it. After kissing for a while, the lifeguard ran his hands over her salt-caked arms and shins, then her stomach. She reminded herself this is what people do, all the time.
Her freshman roommate in college said to imagine you’re peeing. “If you try and tighten up, resist, it won’t feel good. Just let yourself melt. You won’t actually pee,” she had said. They were never close friends, but she was blonde, beautiful, and seemed to have a lot of sex. There was a rumor in the dorm that she was sleeping with a pharmaceutical mogul twice her age. She must’ve been doing something right because she graduated early, moved to a gated community in Denver and got a job with a company that grows acres of corn, while Torrey was stuck in waterlogged San Diego, with her parents, a twenty-three-year-old working at a grocery store.
When he asked, she said yes.
The lifeguard fished an unopened condom from the glovebox, took off his hat and swirled his fingers between her legs before he got on top of her, told her, or maybe himself, how wet she was, even asked her if she was liking it.
She said yes. And she was.
She figured she was enjoying it. It felt like her skin, only her skin, all her skin, was trembling.
She stared up at the cliffs that jerked up and down under the cloud cover. She tried not to feel, in her hips, the cold metal shelves from earlier in the day. Tried not to hear the chorus, Raz-Mary parade. The kind you get from the second-hand store. Tried to imagine it felt good—she had always liked the beach and if this was really the last beach—at least he wasn’t being mean about it. I think I love her.
She gave him her parent’s old home number. She didn’t know why. Even if the number worked, she didn’t want to see him again. But she felt as though the gesture, giving him the attention, gave her virginity a little more ceremony, like how she felt the need to celebrate the fruit she got from work. She didn’t want it to go to waste without it being thinly sliced and arranged on a plate.
The phone number had been imprinted on her brain since she was in kindergarten when a police officer visited her class and urged all the children to memorize their phone numbers and not to talk to strangers. A dutiful citizen, even then, she memorized her phone number that afternoon, reciting it to herself as she walked circles around the marble kitchen island. She’s thought about calling it now and how talking to the strangers on the other end of the line would defy the policeman’s instructions, which instructed her to memorize the number in the first place.
The lifeguard took the slip of paper with the number on it. “Thanks, but I don’t have a phone,” and he passed it back to her. “Maybe we can meet here again? I’m here whenever, patrolling.”
The jeep tires left a wide “U” in the sand. He offered her a ride to the highway, but she asked if she couldn’t stay a little longer. He said that should be fine. She watched the beach widen with the receding tide and the tire track “U” appeared to shrink in comparison to the expanding sand. The beach was an entirely new place from when she first arrived.
In the waves, she rinsed her crotch and lay back on her towel. There again were the topmost layers of the cliffs, spongey, like the mealy apple meat. She tilted her head even further back so her chest pulled open and her ribs gently cracked apart as she looked up the wall of sandstone. She was glad nobody was around to see her.
Before, in a bathing suit, she would’ve been hiding under a towel or big T-shirt. She wouldn’t want anyone to see the stretch marks on her thighs, the escaped pubic hairs that eluded the razor, the treehouse scars on her elbows. As a kid, she’d imagined that if she ever became good looking, beautiful like her mother in old photographs, or like Amber Ng in eighth grade, like her blonde, college roommate, she’d want everyone to see her, why would she hide? Now she was, maybe not beautiful, but pretty at least, young, and still she’d been hiding. She wouldn’t anymore. She was lucky. Someone, a guy who didn’t even know her, an attractive guy, told her she was pretty and then slept with her, on a beach.
Her co-worker was right, she was lucky to be skinny, to be white enough, to be young. She didn’t have much other luck: no degree, a shitty job, parents who were losing it. Why not use what she had? The hips and breasts, the smooth white skin. Claim the responsibility that came with them and why not get to Denver? Get her and her parents out of here?
On the gray and neon beach, in a bikini, her head dropped back and her spine arched, she was a cracked open crustacean, she was something new. She wondered: if he wasn’t a lifeguard, where’d he get the jeep? She wondered: if she’d earned the right to come back to this beach again, how long it would even be here?
But what did it matter now? She was leaving. This was her last beach.
Each crevice of the cliff was smooth, like the cracks were rivulets of dripping candle wax. She picked a single line and followed it down continuing to arch her back until she couldn’t anymore, then turned onto her belly to continue it to the cliff’s base where rocks gathered. Rocks littered the base of the cliffs up and down the beach and for how many there were, rocks must fall all the time, she thought.
She lay on her back again, her head the same size as a rock that lay nearby. Even crumbling sandstone, falling from that high up could be fatal. She needed to watch out for falling debris, just in case. But her eyes closed without her permission. It was the heat, the dried sweat and full sound of the water again.
In the periphery of her closing vision she thought she saw a rock, a clump, fall from a topmost ledge. An orange and rough thing, like a cake crumb, breaking away and falling. It may have been a bird though, a seagull taking flight, but were there still seagulls on this beach? Or maybe it was an eyelash that fell in front of her vision. It was soundless like a bird or an eyelash, even a cake crumb.
It couldn’t have been. The man and the falling cereal boxes—that kinda thing happened all the time. She was lucky it wasn’t worse. She was lucky to be on the last beach in San Diego. And now she was leaving, getting out. She was too lucky for it to be a falling rock.
Author Bio: Josie Mitchell is a recent graduate of the University of Houston’s MFA program in fiction where she was a Non-Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast, as well as adviser to the UH undergraduate literary magazine Glass Mountain and Boldface Conference for Emerging Writers. Currently she is teaching creative writing in Houston. She is from San Diego, California, and is at work on an apocalyptic novel set there. It’s called, Fuck You, El Niño.