I stood next to her under a brutally hot beach sun, quietly apologizing for a few things. Earlier, a parade of friends recounted details of the embarrassing scene I had made the night before, all of them wearing the type of shit-eating grin earned exclusively from a close, personal friend’s misfortune. I deserved their merciless roasting, along with the stink-eyes I received from the neighbors, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of sound I emitted on the quiet streets of the town.
But, to my relief, she had kept me from making further mockery of the decorum and decency we’ve become accustomed to on the family-friendly beaches of Southern New Jersey. And for this reason that I stood with her under the hot sun, quietly apologizing for a few things.
As I spoke to her, I gesticulated wildly, which was not charming or enlightening to my defense. I stood in the sand, shirtless, with shoulders matching my red swim trunks, which made my figure at once both humiliating and humiliated.
I deposed my case, which she dismissed with a gentle, polite smile and a firm, civilized cut it out, which was almost British in its ennoblement, and with a nod I was finished. This motion of hers had almost Shakespearean timing, as there comes a point very quickly in any First Act where the deservedly more beautiful and rich characters come to the fore, and the bovid are asked kindly to move aside.
She was, as Hemingway once wrote, very beautiful. She stood tall but not imposingly at 5 feet 8 inches, with bright blue eyes and long, straight blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She stood delightfully still when speaking with people, which had the odd effect of sincere and undistracted attention. She wore smiles much more often than frowns, pleasant ones that felt non-maniacal in their function.
Much of her beauty came from her sincerity, which is something that’s instantly recognizable in people who have it, and not so easily recognized in those who don’t. At rest, her face looked as if someone had just written her a letter: charmed and more than slightly moved by the gesture. Her modesty upon receiving compliments was legendary and thus helped her receive them more often. She spoke calmly and quietly, always graceful and measured. As I continued speaking at her about my night’s transgressions, she would laugh and smile, but without resentment.
We’ve all met people like her somewhere, and it’s natural to leave them feeling emboldened or changed in a way that feels as if you’ve grown merely by witnessing this person work. These are the people who just sort of handle things. They do the dirty work. They do it very well. But she would always give the same efforts and consideration to great causes as she would to any problem, and it was this loyalty to improving the human condition, both great and inconsequential in scale, that defined her.
As the sun beat down, I stood with the corner of my mouth slightly askance in the way that is necessary only after a task is accomplished with exceeding lameness. She looked down towards the water and waved, the mood lightening instantly when a familiar figure came towards us, awkwardly stamping and sliding in the sand.
He smiled. She smiled. I smiled. We all smiled.
As he came closer it was apparent that he wasn’t quite as tan as originally predicted, rather completely coated in sand up to his neck, the color gradually transitioning from tiny white and black spots to a lighter, blondish mess of hair on top of his head by way of a boyish attempt at a beard.
Physically speaking, he was remarkably powerful, and we rewarded him for this with absurd, manly nicknames. He possessed a genuine, dangerous joviality, as if a full grown lion were bounding towards you, thrilled to be receiving your company. He laughed as he approached and stopped, gently touching her hand that she’d reached towards him.
His shorts were red like mine, but they didn’t look stupid on him because they fit. He tried to play benevolent chaperone in the previous night’s escapades, attempting to herd us into a boardwalk arcade, or more frequently out of the way of the tram cars. The most successful strategy for him was the ferris wheel, which, if nothing else, held us all captive for minutes at a time in great, floating chairs in the sky where we could cause little damage.
We had been friends for many formative years, and together had built a quick and occasionally incoherent conversational style. He looked towards me and joked around momentarily, mumbling a string of nonsense that I caught, curled, and hurled back to him in our own way, and then he turned to her and held her hand a little tighter.
Her eyes rested on him the entire time, waiting, knowing that he would make me feel comfortable before he turned to her. He was always working on the never-ending task of being decent and kind to people, and so she waited patiently until he had accomplished his duty once more. When he squoze, she kept smiling the kind of smile that belies intimate, unspoken things between lovers.
It was cute, assuredly. But when they stood together, I realized that she stood next to him today the same way she did when his mother passed away. It was many years ago when he broke the news, and none of us really knew how to process it. We were young and new to the idea that life could change so quickly.
Of course they were together then. At the time, she held his hand as he stood in front of the ten of us, his friends, an undeservedly broken man. We were far too young to be there for our friend like that, and he was far too gracious to host us in the thoughtful manner that he did.
When we first saw him there, he bowed his head and said, “I love you all” as we silently embraced him one at a time. To us it was an effort to give him any of the strength we could. But he didn’t need it. He was strong, too. Far too strong seeming at the time, although what’s easy to see now is that he had the strength of two.
On the beach he turned to her and they both became quiet while they saw the other. It was probably a poignant moment. But I was otherwise disengaged by reality’s soundtrack, which distracted me with gulls and the uneven rhythms of waves crashing on the shore. I scratched at my peeling skin and let my mind wander. I figured they were both thinking the same thing. They were the luckiest people on Earth.
And they were, of course. These were two people, super-people, whatever, who had from a remarkably young age understood that inside of them was a better version of themselves, and that this person they had met would ultimately help them realize themselves in a way that nobody else could. They understood that they could help the other realize that same self-growth, and that supporting someone that they loved was an even more meaningful feeling, one that could grow through the rest of their lives together.
It came over me that this was more troubling than beautiful. How do you recognize that in a person? Especially so young. Some feel it’s with actions: finding the like-minded physical connections and motivations that stir our innards and enrich our lives. Some find it with thoughts and words: curious ideas with charming ends, smiles from the simplicity of thought, great lifelong satisfaction from ideological fusion. And other people never felt it, and instead bonded with another on the absurdity of it all.
The whole thing barely made sense. No, it did not make any sense. And this idea was ruinous to me, and quite sudden. And so I became jealous, and for a brief flash I tried to turn the young couple’s moment onto myself. What I saw made me sad.
I had that once. I, for a time, had that same unbelievable luck. In the too recent past, I had given myself inside and out to someone I felt had deserved it. That someone had felt the same way, and together we were happy. The look of adoration I saw between the young couple in front of me was once mine, and I thought that I knew what they were feeling at this moment exactly.
I knew, for example, that they probably held their hands up to each other’s so many times that they knew each other’s fingerprints by feel. I knew that they too had marveled in the effect of the surreal, moon reflected light on each other’s skin. I knew the feeling of the absurd, cinematic intimacy of pressing your forehead against the person you love. But those experiences, as they had been for a little while, were gone from me. What I felt now was different.
As I stood with my two happy friends, the cancerous black mass of jealousy clawed at the deepest, most exposed section of my throat and pitilessly began to scratch. My memories now were of hands slipping away. The forehead was persistently furrowed, angry, misunderstanding. My forearms that had once pressed my lover’s body closer to me now appeared extended, grasping at air to stop her from leaving.
I had said goodbye to her countless times, although very few of those times did I want her to hear it. Once, I had whispered to her quiet things. Now I said nothing to her. When it was just love, the words I said were confessions of intimacy and giving one’s self to another. But now that sentiment had turned danse horrible, and I nearly shouted, to anyone who would listen, some sort of confessions of love and claims of intimacy to them. I sought forgiveness during the day. But I found wickedness at night.
The night before I had seen, improbably, my former lover in this decaying, shit beach town, miles and miles from home, and I was not ready. The interaction was wordless and embarrassing for both of us. We did nothing and said nothing, each quietly ignoring the other, allowing everything we’d ever felt to hang in the air and die pathetically once again. Needless to say, I got out of there, went on a tear and became someone else’s problem.
But my friends were there for me. He, distracting, laughing, shepherding. She, quiet, knowing, subtle in her assistance. They both knew what happened of course, that nothing happened. But they both knew that nothing was somehow even worse. When we were out of there, she turned to me. “Hey,” she said. “It’s OK. She’s gone.” The strength of two.
From the outside it was easy to see that what I was doing was mourning. Not for her, but for myself, and for the invasion of thousands of terrifying thoughts that overtake the psyche in times of loss.
There’s a particular nobility in death that doesn’t follow a person in the same way through the end of a relationship, though they are really cousins in life’s experiences. In Love, one must continue the pattern of civility day after day, which is something rarely asked of the deceased. Who would handle such situations better, corpse or youth, is still unresolved.
Back on the beach I stared at the sand and felt my eyes change. Once pointed and focused, I felt them turn oval and soft around the left and right extremes, my middle eyebrows opening slightly. Looking at nothing, I realized I could see mostly nothing, and that my sight was reduced to doubles and shakes. My hand leapt to my eyes to squeeze them, and while breathing in I once again adjusted my body in a way that framed the lovers in front of me, unavoidable to observe.
I opened my eyes to see these two lovers, my beautiful friends, standing there on a beach, very simply looking at each other.
He smiled. So I smiled. Then she smiled. We were all smiling.