What they don’t tell you about sleeping on the beach, is that you wake up at sunrise. The only possible way around this, I determined last night, is to sleep underneath a barnacle-clad blue dinghy that somebody left tethered to a post on the shore – the “S.S. Snooze Button,” I’ve dubbed it.
In my dark little cave, my watch read 9:13 AM when suddenly the boat was forcibly un-capsized and sunlight poured in, blinding me. I shielded my eyes and tried to make out any details of the two skinny silhouettes standing above me. “Good morning,” I mumbled.
“Alice! I found a drunk homeless kid!” one of the figures proclaimed as she crouched down to examine me. As her features came into focus, it became apparent that she was too beautiful to be a human being. She was some sort of teenage, hot girl alien. It felt a bit early for the bright red lipstick and the perfectly spiraled curls that fell across her shoulders. Her eyes were the bright blue-green of the gulf behind me, her lips a tantalizing smirk. Her skin was impossibly smooth and blemish free. She had some how transcended adolescent acne with unfathomable ease and my mind was on the verge of some literary comparison, but it was too early in the morning for that. I guess her beauty should have taken my breath away, but it actually bored the hell out of me.
Over her shoulder, Alice came into focus. Now Alice, was a human being. She wore her sun dyed hair in a messy bun atop her head. She had a mole above her top lip, and not like a dainty Marilyn Monroe, but like a mole big enough that most people can’t help but fixate on it when she is talking. “Bea – don’t be rude. He’s probably a runaway,” Alice corrected her goddess friend. When she spoke, her “s” sounds came out like “sh” – another endearing flaw to complement the mole.
“Survey says – Alice is right and Bea is wrong on all accounts. I am indeed a runaway, not homeless in the traditional sense of the word, and not at all drunk – just not a morning person.”
“Should we let you go back to sleep?” Alice offered.
“The whole, all of the sunlight in my face at once would make for a hell of an enhanced interrogation technique. I may never sleep again.” I sat up and brushed the sand off of my hands before rubbing my eyes.
Just as Alice crouched down to bring herself face level with me, Bea stood up as if ready to move on with the rest of her day like our encounter never happened. Hot girls – you’re never more than a momentary observation in their perspective of endless possibilities.
“What are your plans for the day, ‘sober runaway, not homeless in the traditional sense of the word’ boy?” Alice grinned too forcefully.
“My friends call me, Josh. Scratch that. Literally everyone except people who call me ‘sober runaway, not homeless in the traditional sense of the word boy’ call me Josh. And I don’t have any plans or commitment or worries for the rest of my day.”
Her chest spasmed with what seemed to be a singular laugh – the only proper response to a covert Lion King reference. Take note everyone else in the world.
“Then you’re coming to breakfast with us,” Alice stood up and extended her hand down to me.
“But Alice, the shop -“ Bea cut in.
“It’ll be fine! It’s off season and this is the only non-townie that we will see for the next 3 months!”
“Can I brush my teeth first?” I asked.
“Do you have a toothbrush?” Bea asked, her tone that of a curious child.
I produced my hobo pack from beneath the boat. “Last night it was part of a makeshift pillow, but in the cold light of day, it’s definitely a toothbrush.”
Alice pulled me up and pointed me to a public restroom, where I examined my appearance in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. I hated contemplating whether or not I was attractive. It seemed such a meaningless thing to fixate on. I mean, your face is your face and short of surgery, you’re looking at maybe a 10% swing from dressed to the 9s versus sleep deprived and hungover. My hair was extremely disheveled, but I liked it. It gave me runaway cred. I tried to push some of the parts that were standing straight up together to bring some parody of order to the tangled mess.
I liked Alice. Her hair was genetically intended to be brown, but the sun had anointed it with streaks of blonde that managed to make her tan complexion even tanner. She looked like she lived on the beach and with such ease that she didn’t even need to hide under a row boat to sleep.
I emerged from the humid restroom, slinging my hobo pack over my shoulder. Alice feigned amazement. I took a bow.
“Onward to Mason’s!” Alice proclaimed in her charming speech impediment. Bea rolled her eyes for my benefit and then showed me a playful grin that may have made me blush even though her perfection isn’t interesting at all.
Mason’s, by the way, is an unabashedly deteriorated cafe with woodgrain panel walls, harsh halogen bulbs that flicker and hum, and a Waffle-House style counter with back-less stools and a view of the guy flipping your pancakes. “You’re gonna be late,” the guy flipping our pancakes said instead of the more obvious, “Good Morning” or “Welcome to Mason’s.” His eyes looked scolding, in spite of his smile.
“That’s what I said,” Bea mumbled. “We’ll be fine,” Alice said, swatting with her hand as if brushing away the pair’s concerns. Without taking our order, Mason poured more batter onto a flat grill top. He didn’t look over his shoulder as he said, “Who’s the stranger?” It took me a minute to realize that he was referring to me and the delay made me want coffee.
“He’s a drunken hobo runaway!” Alice proclaimed, smirking at me, daring me to be annoyed. “Not exactly, but close enough,” I corrected.
“Well maybe he can help with the work that you two are shirking right now,” Mason said as he delivered three plates of pancakes to us. Then he returned with a dish of butter and a huge pitcher of maple syrup, followed by orange juice for Alice, and apple juice for Bea. “I’m Mason, by the way,” he said, making eye contact with me for the first time. “Good God you need coffee kid.” And then he brought me some.
We started dressing the pancakes, the butter melting into their spongelike structure, preparing it for the deluge of maple syrup to come. “So what brings you to our sleepy town during our sleepiest time of year, Josh?” Alice asked.
“It’s a long story.”
“We’re already remorselessly late for work.” This made Bea squirm just a little bit.
“Okay then. Have you ever met someone who is impossibly talented? Someone who picks up every hobby that they’re halfway interested in and discovers themselves to be a prodigy?”
“For the sake of moving the story ahead, I’ll say yes, I know someone exactly like that,” Alice smiled at me playfully and I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she was flirting.
“Well, my entire existence has been defined by my best friend Cecil’s existence. In pre-school, Cecil was the first to crack the code of coloring inside the lines. In kindergarten, a cult of personality formed around his imaginative recess escapades. In fourth grade, he was the first kid in our school to have a girlfriend. By fifth grade, he was the first kid in our school to have two girlfriends at the same time and the drama that goes along with that. When we were interested in skateboarding, he mastered it within three weeks. He was the captain of the track team, the top scorer on the basketball team, the break out star of the chorus, and a virtuoso at every brass instrument that he laid hands on. He consistently made A honor roll, had perfect attendance, and won citizenship awards so regularly that he never felt the need to find out what a citizenship award was. Girls our age love him. Guys our age want to be him. People our parents age wish their sons were more like him. Old ladies stop him in the grocery store to tell him how handsome he is.” I paused, trying to remember if there is anything left on my long list.
“You got jealous and killed him, didn’t you?” Alice interrupted.
“I wish,” I laughed. “That’s the problem. It’s not something so simple as jealousy. I’ve never wanted any of his infinite talent or versatility and I’ve never begrudged him for having it. The few moments in my life when I’ve had any fraction of the attention that he gets, it’s completely freaked me out and made me self-conscious and uncomfortable.”
“This is complicated, isn’t it?” Alice put a hand between my shoulder blades and moved it in a circular wax-on, wax-off motion. It felt really nice and I started to forget what I was saying.
“I guess I’ve spent so much time in Cecil’s shadow that I’m starting to feel like a supporting character in his story rather than the main character of my own story.”
“Profound. You’ve rehearsed this, haven’t you?”
“I wrote the whole thing out and proofread it a thousand times. It was my ‘I’m running away but don’t worry about me’ letter that I was going to leave my parents.”
“You didn’t leave a letter for your parents?!” Bea interjected. I had kinda forgotten that she was there and the reminder made me wonder if Alice, with her mole and speech impediment, was the Josh to mythically beautiful Bea’s Cecil. Maybe this was the first time that Bea found herself lost in Alice’s shadow when usually it was the other way around. The thought was interrupted when she reached around Alice to slug me in the shoulder, “Your parents are probably worried stupid about you!”
“Ow!” I rubbed the shoulder. “I left a note, just not that one!” The one that I did leave simply said, “I’m okay and I will come back, I promise.” It definitely wasn’t as compelling of a read, but I worried that conflicted feelings about my lifelong best friend would be exactly the kind of trivial teenage problem that parents brush off. Or worse. Every parent of a teenager thinks they have this special insight into what it means to be this age, as if nothing in the world has changed since they were in high school; as if the specific details of each teenager’s life don’t actually alter their circumstances at all.
Mason slid the bill to Alice and I swiped it away from her, filling the little black booklet with enough cash to cover the food and leave a decent tip. Alice didn’t fight me on it or even acknowledge that I made the move. I wondered if that meant that we were on a date.
“Now that you’re here, alone in the world without Cecil, you get to be your own protagonist.” Alice didn’t look at me as she said it. She was staring into space, contemplating her own words.
“Yeah.” I didn’t know what else to say. I had always imagined that explaining this would be so difficult that the whole process of getting someone else to understand would yield some higher understanding. I would have to say how I felt a hundred different ways to get my point across and through phrasing it over and over again, I would discover more about myself; I would come across the key to making it all make sense. Alice understanding right away felt like a warm embrace, but it wasn’t helpful in any way.
We left Mason’s and I followed the girls to a paddle board shop, “The Shop” that Bea had referred to back on the beach. The journey was somber and silent. Inside the shop was a lot of equipment available for rental – paddle boards, surf boards, kayaks, and life jackets; but there was also a little display window like you would find in a deli and before long I realized that this place also sold sandwiches and other picnic supplies.
“So you guys sell surfboards and sandwiches?” I asked, breaking the silence.
“The surfboards are rentals,” Alice clarified, “Can you pull all of the condiments out of that fridge and arrange them on this counter, please?” I acquiesced. “In the offseason, we don’t get many people coming in to rent equipment. We mostly stay afloat through our lunch business.”
“How long is the offseason? Do you want me to bring out all of these pickles and sliced veggies too?”
Alice nodded. “About half the year. Almost all of the businesses in this town pop up for the tourists and then shut down once they leave. The few of us who stay open year round basically stay afloat by supporting each other. All of the locals only go to Mason’s for breakfast. They only come here for lunch. Nautilus gets all of the dinner business.” I tried to imagine an economy based on good will and unwavering consumer loyalty, but it didn’t seem like the math added up. I must have been making a weird face, because Alice clarified, “We make all of our profits during tourist season. The rest of the year, we operate at a slight loss, but we bring in enough revenues to survive until the next tourist season.”
“Hmm.” Something about it seemed awesome, totally romantic, utopian even. Everyone looked out for each other. “I can’t pay you, but if you volunteered to make sandwiches with us today, I promise to let you be the main character,” Alice winked. I laughed, “Count me in.”
All in all, we served about fifty people. Not only did our lunch crowd buy handmade sandwiches, but they washed them down with Alice’s secret recipe cream soda, and most had her homemade ice cream for dessert. It was about 2 PM when Alice called it, “Alright Bea, another successful lunch in the books. You can take off if you want. I’ll handle the cleaning.”
And Bea did take off, but not before hugging Alice and mentioning that she’d be free to meet up later in the evening “unless you’re preoccupied with someone else,” she added, grinning playfully at me and I really needed to get the blushing thing under control.
Then, Alice and I were alone and my heart started pounding. I really liked Alice, everything about her. She was beautiful and fascinating and incredible and I wanted nothing more than to sweep the floors and be in the same room as her for the rest of the day.
We cleaned up after the lunch crowd in silence and I couldn’t help but notice that Alice’s eyes had lost their sparkle. Instead it was replaced by a thin sheen of tears. I’ve never been great with reading the nuances of girls’ emotions, but I felt like asking what was wrong wouldn’t be particularly helpful in this moment.
Instead, I tried to make small talk. I leaned against my broom and studied a framed painting on the wall. “I know someone who does paintings just like this one, the whole beautiful beach landscape thing. She’s actually the one who told me about this town.”
Alice looked up from where she was putting away the sandwich supplies, “Paintings just like that one?”
“Yeah.” I returned to my sweeping, kicking myself for picking such a dead end topic for small talk. I didn’t see her coming, so I was startled when Alice appeared at my side and started looking at the painting. I followed her gaze until we were both studying the contours of every wave, the feathery clouds and the gulls that freckled them, the sand and its whisper of individual granules – an effect both understated and mystifying.
“This painting is an Aberdeen. She grew up here, married a business man and moved away, but became famous for her paintings. She went down in history as the only person from this town ever to make something of herself.”
I was only half listening, “Aberdeen? As in Lucille Aberdeen?!”
“That’s the one,” Alice shrugged.
“That’s the cat lady widow that lives on my street. I help her take care of her twelve cats and clean up around her house. She’s teaching me to paint.” I clammed up. That last part was a sort of embarrassment that I had decided not to share with people. And yet there I was, beet red after having spewed the secret to the girl that I had a huge crush on.
“Lucille Aberdeen is teaching you how to paint? You’re joking.” There was no excitement in her voice, more like a dash of scorn, as if I was mocking her.
“Yeah. I mean, I’m just okay at it and every picture takes a really long time for me to finish, but she’s inhumanly patient…” I trailed off. “Alice, what’s wrong? You’ve seemed so sad ever since Bea left.”
“It’s nothing. It’s just this time of day. The lunch service is over. We did the rewarding stuff – feeding the townspeople and making them happy. Now it’s over and I feel drained and empty. It’s nothing.”
“I’ll stay and help,” I offered. “I can stay all week, or maybe I’ll just never go back,” I smirked as I put my arm across her shoulder.
She pushed me away. “No! You have to go back! This runaway, ‘I’m not the main character in my own story’ crap, what does that even mean? Don’t you care about your parents? About Lucille Aberdeen? Even if you aren’t the driving force in your own life, you’re still an important part of other people’s lives and you just take that for granted and bail on them!”
I didn’t know how to respond. Instead I asked a question that I knew might be hurtful, but I just felt so defensive and mad that she made me feel like crap for even being there. “Who owns this shop? Where are your parents?”
Alice started sobbing spastically, almost hyperventilating. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her face to my chest. One of my hands started stroking her hair without me telling it to do so. The tension in her posture eased and she repositioned herself so that she was holding my free hand as I continued running my fingers through her hair until the messy bun had completely fallen out.
“Mom left. She said she couldn’t stand this town anymore, that nothing ever happened and that we’re all wasting our lives here. Dad stayed to keep up the shop, but he’s just not the same. He sleeps all day, drinks too much at night. He watches TV and barely talks to me.”
I gently slid my thumb across her face, pushing tears away. It all made sense: the instant connection. Alice would run away if she could, but instead she’s trapped here, a supporting character in her dad’s sad story. And here I was, so ungrateful for my parents, for my best friend, for my normal but unexciting life where nobody depended on me for anything; skipping off without explanation to indulge some fantasy where I felt important and in control.
“You’re right. I have to go back.”
“I’m sorry Josh. I never meant to unload all of this onto you. I know that you’re just trying to figure things out.” She sniffled. I kissed her. Her face was wet and unprepared but she kissed me back again and again.
When Alice finally broke away to catch her breath, she proclaimed, “This is all so ridiculous.”
I laughed. “Extra for me because I’m in love with you.” It was one of those things that you say that is totally serious and terrifying so you try to sneak it past as a joke. It may or may not have been worse had Alice not laughed so hard. “Now you’re really rewriting your own story! You can’t be in love with me. We haven’t even known each other for a full day!”
“I’m seventeen. I can fall in love on a dime.”
She never said it back, but I didn’t hold it against her.
Alice flipped the sign on the shop to read “Closed,” and we sat in one of the little cafeteria booths, pressed against each other, alternating conversation and making out until we fell asleep in each other’s arms.
What they don’t tell you about sleeping on a hard plastic bench with a beautiful girl pinning you in an uncomfortable position is that it doesn’t take much to rip you from your shoddy slumber. A few rays of sunshine through a nearby window will do the trick.
“Alice,” I whispered at dawn, and she stirred. “We should have slept somewhere more comfortable.”
I left later that morning. I returned home to my worried parents, to my overachieving best friend, to my famous painting mentor – a supporting character in each of their epic stories. That’s what it means to be there for someone: You’re taken for granted – your parents never fear that you will get arrested or make bad grades; your best friend never worries that you won’t be there to celebrate his latest achievement; the cat lady down the street would never imagine that you might ignore her phone call when she needs help around the house. You’re their stability, one less conflict in their lives. You won’t get top billing in their biographies and they won’t cast Ryan Gosling to play you when their life’s story hits the big screen, but that’s okay. Who you are to someone else doesn’t have to shape who you are to yourself.
In my own story, I’m the guy who spent his entire summer painting a small boat upside down on the beach, a pair of feet sticking out from underneath. In her story, I’m the guy who held her while she cried. In a story that belongs to both of us, I’ll go back someday and we’ll always be there for each other.