Cries of activity from the porch interrupted my reveries. Carl, the sweet-talking politico from New Orleans, was assembling troops for a dip in the ocean.
“Gitty up mother fuckers it’s swimmin’ time!” he cried out spiritedly. Eddy trailed reluctantly, his thin French body trembling in anticipation of the water.
“Sheet man, thees will be cold as fuck,” he kept saying.
The pack descended from the porch, crossed the boardwalk, hopped over the ledge and marched through the sand, into the great ocean. I chuckled at the thought of Lewis and Clark, whose westward journey had been a bit more challenging.
Ten feet before the water, Carl accelerated into a mighty sprint; watery foam kicked up in his wake as he lunged into the sea and tripped over the gentle waves, falling into a casual backhand glide, guffawing and whoopeeing to the sky before flipping his body around to charge onward with vigorous overhand strokes. It seemed for a moment he was gonna keep on swimming until nobody ever saw him again.
Inspired, I leapt to my feet to join the battle. As Eddy predicted, the battle was cold as fuck. Sitting under a baking sun, I had received the impression that everything in my immediate vicinity was hot and pleasant. The Pacific, however, was frigid and unobliging. It was in the spirit of camaraderie that I followed my companions into the sea, shivering and teeth-chattering as I hopped over waves and hugged my midriff.
Carl quickly reached the second sand-bar, where big ten foot waves were crashing: The perfect territory for body-surfing. A monstrous badboy was brewing and Carl was timing his movement to perfection. As the wave’s lip reached its summit and prepared to topple, the southern Spartan pumped himself along with mighty breast strokes, wriggling his tightly bound legs like a dolphin while the bellowing furious whitewater flung him forward, like a marine hunter employing mother nature in his quest for prey.
I let the tide carry me south, and soon I was alone. I looked back and saw my friends’ heads and shoulders, bobbing up and down like seals. The folks on shore looked like little mannequins. The beachfront housing resembled a pitiful cardboard rampart erected hastily, as if in fear of an impetuous moon. I couldn’t get the hang of bodysurfing, so I swam ashore and scrambled onto land. Eddy followed me, relieved not to be the first quitter.
“We are like, sheep-wrecked pirates of the 18th century, finding refuge on a Caribbean island,” he managed through chattering teeth.
I toweled off and found my real refuge waiting for me on the porch: an ice-cold pina colada. Nellie had blended a batch and was riling up the remaining sleepyheads by cranking up the electronic thump-thumping. She was singlehandedly pissing off the passersby and initiating another day’s party. I plopped down aside Eddy on the trusty whicker bench. He gave me a cigarette. We sipped on the fruity goodness and speculated over ocean temperatures when the sight of Grace grabbed my attention. I could see her through the sliding glass doors. She had just arrived and was touring one of the living rooms, eyeing her new home with an air of perplexed bemusement. In the back of my mind, I knew she’d arrive sooner or later.
“John-ee, hold thees seat buddy, I need a beer. Thees sheet is too sugary.”
Eddy left and I watched Grace as she slid open the door and stepped on the porch, seeing me as her lips curled ironically; head cocked sideways, ever so slightly; a mysterious strain of compassion nestled in her bright blue eyes. It was Grace’s quintessential face: penetrating insight tempered by worldly sympathy. In her face I saw the best and worst of my life in California. It was a face that had driven me mad for four years, but because I couldn’t get enough of it, I stood up and hugged her close, taking a covetous little sniff from her frizzy blonde hair. Creepy? Absolutely, but I couldn’t help it. You see, Grace’s existence seemed very tenuous to me. When the two of us were alone, I worried she would evaporate and leave behind only a puff of smoke, and that I’d be left bewildered, that no one would believe what had happened, or even that no one would ever know Grace had been real; that Grace had been amongst us from the beginning, that she was the girl of our dreams, and that now she was gone. I think a part of me understood that at least a part of Grace was a projection of a part of my imagination – or something along those lines. In hindsight, maybe she was entirely real and I was her simulation. It seemed to make no difference.
“How are you? I’ve missed you!” She exclaimed in one breath, pulling away from our embrace, holding onto my wrists as if we were dancing.
“I’m just – well – fuck, I’m great! Graduation and all. Now this,” I said stupidly, gesturing to the beach.
“I know, dude, I understand,” she said with a consolatory tone and poignant smile. She understood, even when I spoke like a fifth grader.
“Oh please, sit!” I erupted, conscious of us awkwardly standing in front of the whicker bench. We sat down and she looked around. She was delighted to have officially joined the madhouse.
“So, graduation and all,” she declared with playful mimicry. “How do you feel about it?”
I told her my thoughts. Happy, sad, bittersweet – every cliché in the book, the whole nine yards. She listened keenly and absorbed my feelings. She was deft at absorbing another’s feelings, at reconstituting those feelings in the ebb and flow of conversation, at frolicking amidst those feelings with the dexterity of a dancer.
“How about you? How do you feel about everything?” I asked.
Grace turned to me, surprised. She had no answer. Instead she giggled and shrugged toward the sky. She flicked up the backside of her hand and let out a whoosh of air, as if to say, “Who cares?” She hadn’t spared a second thought to graduation. It was just another thing. Another etch in the timeline, unworthy of prolonged consideration. For Grace, tangential emotions were pointless. She was practical in her own way.
“Ahh, my sweet saving Grace!” cried Eddy in his French lilt. “How are you, my dear?” He kissed her on the cheek like the Frenchman he was and reclaimed a seat, trying to not spill his beer as he squished between myself and Grace. We lit more cigarettes and got to chatting about our favorite beach drinks until a war-cry caught everyone’s attention.
“Sooocccccerrrr, everybody! Down to the beach for soccer!”
It was Nellie with a soccer ball in hand. I was ready for the next activity and grateful for folks like her and Carl, the ones with a knack for getting others to move. If nobody had told me otherwise, I might’ve sat on that trusty whicker bench indefinitely, just drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes until I passed out or threw up.
“Johnny boy!” cried Arnold, emerging through the sliding glass doors. His big brown eyes and bushy red eyebrows were consumed with delight. “Soccer my man, let’s go! Eddy, you too! I know you were a baller in Paris, let’s see what you got! And Grace, you too?”
Grace opted to sit back and relax, but Eddy and I were ready to play. We fashioned seaweed clumps into goalposts and arranged a makeshift field up against the lapping water for a firm playing surface. We divided into two teams and the game began. Arnold was having the time of his life, frolicking like a deer and getting very sandy. He loved team sports, just as he loved his friends. He was the sort of guy you’d want in your battalion. The sort of chap who’d do anything to fulfill a higher purpose.
The game continued for what seemed like hours. When folks bowed out to rest, recruits descended from the porch and took their place. At one point it was five versus five: Arnold, myself, Eddy, and two others against a group of swimmers. They resembled a terracotta Chinese army with their tall bronze exteriors and placid, interchangeable visages. When Carl joined the action, he set up shop between the seaweed clumps and played as a de facto sweeper keeper, coming off his line and winning headers like Manuel Neur. In one such instance, he collided with Shelly. The sole of his foot cleaved some skin off her shin. Carl apologized profusely, but no one cared much, not even Shelly. We were all competitive. Our instinct to win was raw. It had been whittled down like a stick, designed to thrust and jab at whichever objective presented itself.
Before long I was ready for alcohol and tobacco, but dawdling Arnold and indefatigable Carl had other ideas.
“Frisbee, bro! C’mon!”
I was too exhausted to resist. Besides, the crisp ocean breeze was tempering the high sun’s wrath, and beach walkers were few and far between. We converted the foreshore into our personal Frisbee corridor. With the aid of southward winds, a runner would put his head down and take off toward Mexico, while another flung the disk with all his might; the runner kicked up sand and water as he flew, gauging his movement in tandem with the spinning saucer. In one such instance, Carl lunged headfirst into the shallow tide to make a heroic grab. The event was a swirl of elemental force that brought me into a state of supreme lucidity. I had nearly flunked Astronomy, but as I watched the multidimensional collision of Carl, Frisbee and water, the concept of General Relativity became instantaneously obvious, ungarnished and straightforward – an axiom of physics brought into tangible existence.
To celebrate his legendary catch, Carl left to drink beer. I looked at Arnold. He had the biggest smile on his face. He loved Frisbee as much he loved life, his friends, his food, his beer – not to mention that lime green stallion of a machine.
“I think… I think it may be time for skim-boarding,” observed Arnold coyly, rubbing his hands together in gleeful anticipation.
However – because it is a truth universally acknowledged that skim-boarding is more fun under the influence of marijuana – we trudged through the sand and crossed the boardwalk, up the porch and through the living room, past the kitchen and up three flights of stairs, through the doorway and into the Drug Den, where leeches and lords were busily occupied with being high. Arnold and I grabbed the communal bong. We sat on the floor to enjoy some herb. Everyone around us was stoned on painkillers.
“Can I please get a little bump of one of them uppers you got? Please, just an itsy bitsy bump?”
These words belonged to a sallow, stringy-haired leech. He was appealing to Mitch, his feudal overlord. The leech pinched together his thumb and forefinger to demonstrate that, rest assured, he’d be perfectly content with the merest of morsels, the itsy-bitsiest of bumps – just give him a little something for Christ’s sake, Mitch! Have mercy in your benevolence, Mitch!
But the kingpin did not flinch. Instead he smiled understandingly and grabbed the parasite’s shoulders, gazing steadily into its skittish eyes.
“No can do, brother. It’s only because of low supply, you know that. The good stuff won’t be available until evening. You want some more Xanax to tide you over and calm those worries?”
The leech’s lips puckered hopefully.
“Don’t worry about it, we’ve got plenty. I’ll break you off a little piece.” Mitch fished out a bar of Xanax from his pocket and broke off a small piece, as if from a candy bar. “There you go, buddy – it’s my treat, don’t worry about it. The good stuff will be waiting for you in a few hours, just stay here and hang tight.”
The leech offered appreciative grumbles and gobbled up the smidgeon furtively. Arnold speedily packed a bowl of weed and we smoked in silence. The Drug Den felt discordant. It was as though everyone emitted sounds but there was no conversation, like the capacity for comprehension had been left at the doorway.
Sitting on the edge of the bed was a man who looked vaguely familiar. His brown hair was greased back methodically. He wore sky-blue jeans ripped at the knees and a leather jacket, with a pair of Ray-Ban aviators dangling from his plain white t shirt.
“Arnold?” I whispered, wary of puncturing the hectic background noise. I worried the leeches would snap out of it and attack me for disturbing their natural environment.
“What?” he whispered back, glancing around nervously, sharing my Darwinian sentiment.
“Who’s that guy on the bed?”
“The one with the sunglasses?”
“That’s Sammy. Remember him? He graduated like two or three years ago.”
It didn’t surprise me that Sammy had descended on our godforsaken madhouse for Senior Week. I remembered him as a popular senior who strutted around campus wearing lurid tank-tops. Now, he was looking right at me, but he didn’t seem to register the fact that he was making eye-contact with another human being. Like the other leeches, his eyes were glazed over, gone. He sat slouched over, immobile but with a mischievous grin, undergoing the meek happiness of mindless intoxication. Next to him was a thin-faced blonde leaning sadly on his shoulder. They had flown across the country for Senior Week in San Diego. They had flown across the country to sit on a bed and not talk to each other.
“Oxycodone, man… I just, I just can’t… Like, man, this is the… it’s gotta be the sexiest drug, man! THE sexiest drug. I’m talking the SEXIEST fucking drug!” cried Sammy, laughing and satisfied with his pronouncements. Only Arnold and I seemed to notice him.
Sammy’s girlfriend suddenly stood up to consult with Mandy, Mitch’s brother and partner-in-crime. The two began talking animatedly. They were hashing out drug itineraries for the coming night. The girlfriend wanted six points of Molly, three for herself and three for Sammy. Mandy was adamant that four points between them would have to do. She was terribly sorry, but the supply of MDMA was running low. However, since they had flown all the way from Boston, some extra cocaine would be spared to compensate for the lack of MDMA. These discussions roused Sammy from his stupor. He brazenly demanded twenty points of MDMA all for himself. Nobody paid him any attention, except for the stringy-haired leech, who preternaturally sensed a possible fluctuation in the drug distribution chain. His nostrils palpitated like those of a hungry rat.
The thin-faced blonde started to break down. Four points would not be enough, even with the extra cocaine. Mandy reassured the trembling girl. On second thought, maybe Mandy could, after all, out of the goodness of her heart, spare her and Sammy five points. Five was nearly six, and they wouldn’t even notice the difference, right? Mandy held the girl close and whispered some comforting words in her ear. The girl started crying in Mandy’s arms, despairing and bewildered, utterly unsure of her immediate future. What steps had led her to the Drug Den? How had any of us wound up in this godforsaken madhouse?
“Yo, everyone,” proclaimed Sammy from his seat on the bed, “I figured it out: Oxycodone is THE sexiest drug of all time. Wooooeeeeee! Of all fucking time! Yo yo yo, Zane Zinser, my boiiii, let’s take some more oxy and hit up that wicked fucking roller coaster – we can do a little sniff sniff of that Adderall too and get reallllllly off our rockers eyyy?? Ha, I see you liking this idea! Eyyy? Weeeee! Weeeeeeee!” Sammy was throwing up his hands and waving them side to side, as if going downhill on a roller coaster.
Zane sat cross-legged in the corner. His imperturbable expression turned slowly in Sammy’s direction.
“C’mon man,” implored Sammy, more to himself than Zane or anybody else. “We gotta hit that roller coaster while we’re still this fucking high. We gotta go, we just gotta – that shit would be sexy as…” he trailed off, pausing to recall his descriptor – “sexy as FUCK, man – sexy as fuuuuuccck!” he roared in remembrance.
Zane was unenthused. The third kingpin turned away from Sammy – very slowly – and observed the leeches overhead. His blue eyes rippled with dreamy wonder, like those of a child lost at sea.