THAT TIME AT SUNSET CLIFFS
The girl sat with her legs crossed, sand covering her legs and dirtying her dress and underwear. She didn’t seem to care that she wasn’t wearing a bathing suit. She scooped the sand with a cracked plastic cup, building turrets and scraping out a moat. It wasn’t the prettiest castle, he thought. But it was good to a see kid playing in the sand. Sandcastles were wholesome. Sandcastles were the antithesis of television.
The girl’s mother was holding a cigarette toward the sky, making sure the smoke didn’t blow in her daughter’s face. Maybe it was an older nanny and not the mother. Or an aunt or other relation. He watched the girl with envy, realizing he hadn’t built a sandcastle for years. Hadn’t even covered his feet with sand since he was a boy. He was eighteen now. He wriggled his toes then started scooping up the fine, dry, gray-gold sand into a mound on top of them.
The wind picked up and blew over the beach from the ocean and whipped the pages of the book he had open and he lost his place. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He was still in the early chapters and hadn’t been paying much attention. Too much backstory, too much philosophy, too much politicking, and not enough love.
To his right and a few feet behind him, two women were sunbathing. One was lying on her stomach and had the top of her bikini untied so she wouldn’t get tan lines. The other was sitting erect with her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. She wore enormous sunglasses. She looked like she was meditating but for all he knew she was staring at him with lust or loathing. Or maybe even crying. It didn’t matter. He loved California.
There weren’t many other people on the beach, but then it was the middle of the week. Two teenaged males ran up the shoreline with their shirts off where the sand was damp and compact. The soles of their feet slapped as they hit, and he laughed at this ugly display, thinking happily that he could beat them in a race. There were people who ran around to look cool and exercise, and you could tell them by their lousy form, and people who knew how to run flat out, and he fancied himself a man who knew how to run. He was eighteen. He’d been a cross-country star. He’d been a track star. And now he was bumming around solo for what was really the first time in his life, visiting colleges.
The air was hazy from the smog of San Diego. Not as bad as it had been in LA, but the beaches in LA had been richer with women. He’d lucked out with these two. Up in Montana, in March, girls were still bundled in sweaters and jeans. The next day he’d tour the campus at San Diego State then cross the border to Tijuana and see what kind of trouble he could get into. He was a man. He had condoms in his car. He carried a lighter around even though he didn’t smoke. These were the things men did when they were single.
With increasing horror, he watched the joggers veer away from the ocean and come up and stop beside the sunbathing girls and begin flirting candidly, unashemedly. He felt he could only continue to sit by and listen, taking in every mortifying word. Why had he lacked the nerve to say anything to the girls himself? His feet were half-covered in sand, and he felt stupidly young. He felt as if he were a seven-year-old, seeing the world but not really living in it—dabbling in the sand, his thoughts constricted to his own head, no one minding him in the least, and no one wanting to listen if he spoke or caring what he had to say, irregardless of his wisdom.
He grabbed his book, leapt up, and strode through the little girl’s masterpiece, smashing it with his bare feet. Mother and daughter shrieked discordantly, the sunbathers gasped, and he began to run—to really run, to sprint. The shouts of the young men reached his ears. They were chasing him but what for? They would never catch him. He was so much faster even with Lady Chatterleyweighing him down. He shot up the beach, going far past the parking lot, heading toward a distant pier. Would he stop at the pier? Would he head to Ocean Beach? Would he cross the outlet of the San Diego River and keep on clear to La Jolla? But by then, once again, no one would care what he did.
He stopped on his heels and let the boys catch up. They were younger than him, darker in complexion. Their chests were thick. They smelled of sweat and of ocean water and their fists were small and hard and their arms were strong. He he fought them off the best he was able, knowing he had to fight well because he was quite alone.
– Lionel Harrington