I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The smell of cut grass and a tint of blue from the moon across its razed surface made me think of blood. I walked, well-dressed, across a wet, open field into an unfamiliar neighborhood where I’d been invited to a party. At the edge of the field, my elementary school stood squat, in darkness, finally small, arbitrary. Monkey bars in the distance looked like wire cages, domelike, sunk into the earth and the limestone beneath. I remembered watching my bicycle being stolen across this field. A teenager with an institutional walk, an ape-like, slumping gait carried it past, while I ran last and out of breath around the track. I stopped to watch him guide it away, intimidated by his sideburns and hairy arms. I was tearfully parting with the glowing red bike, its streamers from the handlebars, lifeless and severed.
I was too afraid to say anything, until he’d gone—then the rush of real time, of consequence and loss, the sting of irremediable experience that would demand honest retelling, humbling repetition. Passing the school, small as a shoebox on the playing field, with portables like roach traps, bolted closets stacked with autoharps and recorders, I think of trapped voices, a clench of words, screams.
I slipped through a fence and crossed the street, into another field littered with cans and tires and magazine pictures. Three houses with gravel driveways sat in a cul-de-sac, yellow, blue, and pink, with ornate plaster seahorses, chalk white against their walls. Cuban music played from a car outside the pink house. A man slumped in its front seat, smoking, feet on the dashboard. A heavyset girl stood outside the front door in a shirt of gathered popcorn fabric, kinky hair pulled back. It was her party, though most of her friends hadn’t arrived. She had the worst English of anyone in our school. She was, they said, slow. I tutored her, and was the only non-Spanish speaker at her party.
She waved as I came up the gravel front, then stood before me, embarrassed by so few guests drifting apart in her heavily decorated living room: the whole ceiling like the skin of a piñata; a rough, short fringe; a crystal bowl with punch, orange sherbet marbling its surface. Rented lights and a DJ overwhelmed the room, especially with so few of us there; it made our hearts pound.
I went to the patio, and sat on a beach chair, now and then lifting the cover from the parrot’s cage, fascinated by its angry wing beat, its ferocious quickness. I sat in the chair, nodding to people as they came out onto the patio, picking up pieces of their conversations, imagining Sonia and I as clairvoyant mutes, able to foretell the deaths of each of her guests. They would laugh at the message the way they laugh at the messenger. Then, too bad for them.
Leaning back in the patio chair, I thought of Key West. I was floating out over the hot backyard, flashes of green light and blue over the shrubs and trees, a tinted ocean of oil, the shrubs like stones jutting from it. I thought of my cousins, our playing in slow, elongated time, the long breathless dives and stretch of our bodies; my older cousin, whose body I watched for the past three years develop with rapidity against the slowness of our summers, like a swimmer against an undertow. I imagined the wet dark hair lying flat on his chest, tasting the salt of the water dried white on his body.
Then a group of boys arrived: older, beautiful, and imposing. Their presence in the living room sends people out on the patio. It is suddenly crowded, and I have to stand to see what’s happening. People press against the patio screen, and some of the girls cover their eyes.
I hear screaming and look out into the yard, flooded with light. A large pig ran through the yard, squealing, knocking into shrubs while a gang of boys and men chased it with machetes. Some of the boys beside me laughed, holding their girlfriends like they do at movies, where squeamishness is sexual entreaty.
Someone brought the blade down on the hind leg of the animal and the crowd reacted with horror and laughter. The pig dragged itself across the yard, the perimeters shrinking. The blood in the floodlights was as dramatic and high as a fountain. My knees buckled. I slipped in sickness to the ground.
Sonia put me in her bed, under a pink and white comforter, strangely cake-like and girlish. She is neither soft nor feminine, but strong and ruddy. Being in her room is like playing doctor with her, dispensation to look inside, touch things you’re not supposed to.
The door opens and a crowd of Cuban boys, just three or four years older than I, stand around the bed. They reach for me as though retrieving a coat. “Someone has to dance with Sonia,” one says through a black mustache and gritted teeth. They are like heads of the same monster, each face mesmerizingly beautiful. My eyes linger too long.
Another says, “Let’s teach the faggot to dance.” He is wearing a knit jersey, I see his gold medallions of saints under the cuts in his shirt. They pull me out to the living room where people are gathered, expectant. There are plantains frying in the kitchen. One of the boys pulls a pint of vodka from his back pocket and pours it into the punch, then ladles out a glass and tells me to drink.
They called Sonia out and pushed me beside her. She was thrilled, not understanding the spectacle we made—retarded girl and faggot. I’m thrown in the ring with something weaker. But her ignorance makes her powerful, natural. I stood woodenly against the music, colored by self-consciousness, a consciousness that comprehends everyone, the terrible probabilities of this amplified drunkenness. She began the Latin hustle to hoots and cheers. She took my hand and led. I could not match her rolling movements, the sensual slackening of her mouth, the low look of her eyes. Any expression of my being in my body would provoke the onlookers. She heard one of the boys comment, “maricón,” and frowned in his direction. They laugh at her dawning awareness. One girl said, “Let’s not watch anymore.” When the music ended, I walked through the group of boys who were throwing wadded up, wet napkins. I called my father to pick me up. “So early?” he asked.
I stood in the gravel driveway, in night air. I felt tapping all around me, lightly at first, then harder, more insistent. A rain of pebbles crashed over me, then a large stone hit the back of my head. “Good-bye faggot cocksucker,” one boy said from the porch, flanked by two or three others. I felt the back of my head, the hair already wet, thick with blood. Another handful of stones. I found the large rock and picked it up, angry, facing them, but unable to throw it. “You throw like a girl,” my father once said. He pulled his car up and stepped out of it, shocked by the blood on my hands. The boys don’t stop at the sight of my father, but continue throwing stones at him, his car. He quickly guides me to the car and steps in. “What did you do?” he asks. The boys come off the porch and prance around the car, they are like phantoms, or rather, like cartoon natives around a cauldron. They are unreal. What is real is the blood from my father’s eye sinking down his face into the velour seat of his Lincoln, and my pleading, “nothing.”
We’d board up the house with hurricane supplies before our drive to the Keys. We used corrugated aluminum sidings over the picture window, closed the awnings down over the bedroom windows, placed reinforcing pins in the sliding glass doors. We did this not for fear of hurricanes, but of marauding gangs, thieves, opportunists. That year my parents wouldn’t go, my mother presiding over my father’s eye, the stitching of his cornea, his head in her lap like an embroidery pattern. “Filthy,” she spat. “Evil. No respect for anyone.” My father reached a weak, consoling hand up to her face. She shooed it away, “Mac and Evie will take you,” my mother said, referring to my aunt and uncle. “Your father and I have enough to worry about here.”
For the first time, I am not to blame, not the provocateur. Guilt does not keep me from feeling satisfied that my father is hurt.
That night I dreamed I was crouched with my parents in a house of tin with a gravel floor. I’d found a buckle in the gummed seam of the tin wall and could see out. Naked boys circled the hut and were shooting through the tin with beebees which penetrated the walls with a reverberating ping; then a rush of coned light would invade the dwelling, illuminating our family, one at a time, in a shamed huddle.
Though we’d always left early in the morning for a road trip, I felt smuggled out that morning. My mother packed my bags the night before and placed them by the front door. She woke me at 4:30 AM and kissed me good-bye. I stood outside and there were still stars overhead, a strange, empty light that seemed to restore richness to the lawns and telephone posts, the well-spaced palms and flowering plants.
My uncle’s car approached; the bleary headlights of his Valiant made the driveway look black and soft. My Aunt Evie rolled down the window and told me to get my bags and put them in the trunk. The distinct shrillness of her voice depressed me.
I looked through the back window expecting to see the odd shape of my cousin’s head, now so familiar to me. Tom had a birth defect, a bubble at the back of his head that gave the impression his brain was split and half of it sat on the top of his skull. Unlike scalp, it was virtually hairless and webbed with veins, like the jellyfish we’d find at the beach and his brother Randy would stab with a stick. They’d had some success in reducing its size through early surgeries. And when he matured it became less pronounced. We were both 13. My heart sank at his absence. Except for Tom, they were all like strangers to me.
I opened the back door where my cousin Randy was pretending to be asleep, spread out over most of the back seat. I noticed for the first time the facial hair that seemed to make him so much older than the 18 years he was. Both he and Tom had been adopted, but it was Randy’s genes that seemed to possess a virulent teleology. He practically dwarfed my aunt and uncle, and had dark ruminative eyes and an almost disdainful expression to his mouth. The rest of the family were fair and light-eyed, even Tom. Each year Randy seemed less bound by the family, and my aunt and uncle conceded, perhaps out of fear, by granting him immunity to the rules they enforced on his brother.
“What’s this?” Randy asked, pulling me by my necklace. It’s a black lava tiki my parents brought back from Hawaii, with little fake red gems for eyes. It’s a little bit of anger from a volcano. “It’s good luck,” I answered.
“That’s really made from lava?” he asked. “That’s pretty cool.” He was already distracted by conch shell dealers set up on the roadside. “I wouldn’t mind living like that,” he said to the irritation of my aunt and uncle.
“Promise me we won’t stop at Sugarloaf,” he said, leaning forward, but really looking at himself in the rearview mirror. I saw the profile of my Uncle Mack flinching, his gaunt features patchy, like a fungus, and his nose bright red.
“This trip isn’t just for you,” he said. He stopped himself.
Randy folded his arms across his chest. “Too bad,” he muttered.
“Where’s Tom?” I asked.
“He’s at a special school this summer,” my aunt said.
“He’s in the psych ward,” Randy corrected, “studying beekeeping.” He titters, rubs his open palms on his knees.
“Enough of you,” my aunt said, turning in her seat and glaring at him. The eyebrows she’d drawn in looked like two exclamation points.
In Sugarloaf Key, we drove off the main road past a scuba rental shop. A dirt road stretched out to the water. All around us the land was barren except for tufts of brown grass. My uncle stopped the car in front of a cement-brick wall. The rest of us followed him out.
“By next year,” he said, “we’ll have a house here, and my boat will be tied over there.” He pointed.
Randy looked restless already and was kicking the pyramids of red ants and bombing their cities with rocks. When he reached for one of the concrete bricks from the top of the wall, my aunt silently took his hand and squeezed it.
My uncle bought the property three years before, and every summer we’d come to visit the plot of land as though it were a gravesite. Now he wanted us to see it as a place we’d come to summer. “Key West,” he would lament, “is becoming just a bunch of private beaches for fruits.” There were no neighbors yet on this tiny Key. We stood there quietly for about 15 minutes before my aunt said she wanted to use the bathroom, and so we went back to the main road. The visit depressed us all. When we finally pulled into a Chevron station, everyone’s mood lifted.
Randy and I stayed in the car while my aunt and uncle went to the bathroom and brought cold drinks from the connected mart.
“Let me wear that,” Randy demanded the moment they slammed their doors. He leaned over and began to remove the tiki from my neck. I let him. It lay flat against the hair on his chest. I reached out and turned it, making its eyes fire with sunlight. I want to spread his legs apart and crawl in closer to him, to let my hands explore under his shirt and up the legs of his shorts. “You can have it,” I said, resting my eyes at the center of his chest.
“Too bad we can’t fuck with Tom again,” he said. I remembered guiding Tom under the pier, telling him Randy wanted us to see something he’d found. The water under the pier was cold and the stones slick with algae. Randy stood beside a leaning piece of seawall, as though it was a large trophy. I could hear the scuttling behind it, stepping back in anticipation of the surprise. When Tom had ventured close enough, Randy toppled the piece of wall and hundreds of blue crabs scrambled off the slippery surface. Tom was beating wildly in the water, a few of the crabs clamped onto him like swinging ornaments. I remember being stunned by how upset he’d become. Later I’d apologized for laughing at him, but it had never ceased being funny to Randy and me. We’d whispered about it from bed to bed after Tom had fallen asleep. I asked Randy about the parties he went to, the girls he met, and how far he’d gone with them. Their behavior fascinated and troubled him. I wanted to ask him how it felt when he kissed them, where he touched them, how they responded. I wanted to offer myself for practicing on—silent and compliant as a pillow.
Instead, I asked him about night swimming, about the powerful undertow that made it off-limits to Tom and me—could he feel it dragging him off course, swallowing his resistance?
We crossed the Seven Mile Bridge under blinding sunlight. It seemed frighteningly insubstantial, stretching out over the ocean’s rough, glinting surface and contradictory currents.
“Some good fishing ahead,” my uncle said. Now he had sunglasses and a thick, white cream on his nose. I knew he was suggesting this to Randy; on the last trip he’d caught me throwing their catch off the boat.
I couldn’t explain my dread of fishing. The gills were the most horrible part, like perfect incisions, pulsing like just-cleaned cuts, sucking hard as though attempting to draw the moisture from the air. Randy would run his fingers through the gills, or slide the fish across the floor of the boat where they’d collect, tails still beating, once a graceful motility. Their mouths would bubble out with gray fish gut, their eyes fixed like glass.
Benevolence in their family was ascribed to Tom—the otherworldliness in him—something serene and reserved he’d developed, perhaps, from the odd shape of his head. He’d once taken a sick bird from a classroom incubator and fed it from a dropper around the clock; then named it Garlic after it had pecked at some, and dizzyingly, comically, staggered from the plate. The bird always remained frightened and small and incapable of flight. It became a creature of the palm rather than one of the air.
In two months it was dead, strangled in Randy’s shoelace in his attempt to make a leash for it. He’d killed Garlic by mistake. He’d never meant to; it was a kind of brutal curiosity he developed around helpless things.
Tom shrank away from him—a reflex. He moved from puzzles to computers, normal interests. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Randy, flattering him with discreet observation, watching his hand play over himself from the other bed, an observation that seemed to encourage him, creating almost a schedule, like a film that starts up when the viewer arrives. Except, of course, when he was at the ocean, night swimming, or guiding girls beneath the piers or around the poolside while their parents slept.
Once I watched him through a slit in the curtains kissing a girl we’d seen at the beach. I watched their figures circling in the cold pool light, all the windows dark, with my hand like a visor to the glass, until I was certain he was watching me, and the two stood only feet away, his kissing merely a distraction from the work of his hands. I watched him clutch her top and tear it down, and stand behind her with his hand over her mouth. He held her hand behind her back and turned her toward the window, her breasts heaving, her back painfully arched, reacting to his kisses like bites, a look about her—like Tom’s with the crabs clamped to him, an almost comic fear, an awkward resistance. I watched her break away from him, and run out to the street.
We arrived at the hotel where we always stayed, the Santa Maria. The owner, Abdallah, brought his face down to the window, smiling broadly at my aunt and uncle. He took my aunt’s hand into his own and kissed it, a strange formality or humorous extravagance he’d carried from Morocco. I rolled my window down and threw my arms around his neck. I loved the scratchiness of his short beard and the limey smell of his cologne.
“Where’s Ahmed?” I asked. His son and I played together. Although I often found him boring, it was an excuse to be near his father in their apartment. They lived in the hotel in a room behind the lobby mailboxes. The small apartment always smelled of spices and coffee, and of chlorine from their wet bathing suits hanging in the sunlit window. Ahmed’s mother had died of cancer, so it was just the two of them, which seemed exotic to me. His father was dark and muscular and rarely wore a shirt. He watched their small television with just his shorts and sandals on. Ahmed would spread his coin collection over the rug, but I never concentrated on it. My eyes would go from the profiles on the coins to his father’s. His nose was long, his eyelashes thick and ink black. His lips were the bright pink of the inside of a conch shell, and always looked soft and glossed and taken care of.
“Ahmed is away at Seacamp for the summer,” he said. Then rubbing my head with the palm of his hand, “come and look at his coins whenever you want.”
I felt a glow of shame come over me. His invitation felt like a seduction. I imagined the lingering of his callused palm over my face, the soft punctuation of his lips on mine. Suddenly Ahmed’s disengaged presence meant everything—the bottle thickness of his glasses and his immersion in coins, his books on sea life. Normal interests. I was faced with my own naked infatuation. I remembered the year before, walking around the poolside in my bathing suit, thinking Ahmed’s father could see me from the reservations desk. Brutally, my father had called my attention to the way I wiggled like a girl, which I blamed on my thongs.
Randy and I had our own room. His parents, in an adjoining room, slept in separate beds, the way they did at home. My mother had told me not to mention it. I watched them unpack at opposite sides of the room. I’d marveled at how they’d divided their responsibilities by each claiming one child. Randy was Mack’s child; Tom was Evie’s. With Tom away that summer, I could feel the divide of their affections—my aunt’s quiet, elderly doting, and my uncle’s almost complete disengagement from me. Randy’s privilege had always stemmed from this arrangement—favoritism from the head of the household. Tom’s indulgence was mother love, a sympathetic accommodation that rendered him impossibly shy around men.
Randy informed his father he’d take the car that night, and Uncle Mack, still folding swim trunks and putting them neatly in a drawer by his bed, consented wordlessly. I followed Randy from their room into ours. He closed the adjoining door and locked it. “I want to go tonight,” I told him pleadingly.
“Maybe some other time. Besides, my mom won’t let you go.”
“She’s not my mom,” I said despondently. “I could sneak out.”
“Not tonight,” he said, turning from the mirror to look at me. “I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.”
That night I walked through the glass-walled lobby of the Santa Maria, the sky mixing orange and dark blue as the sun dropped out of sight behind the ocean. There were only a couple of people inside the bar, the jukebox played “There’s A Kind of Hush.” The lobby with its oversized coral-colored chairs, was empty. I sat in different chairs, first looking out toward the empty pool; then facing the street where some bicyclists were making their way down toward the beach. I imagined Randy and his friends in dark water, clothes piled at the shore, their bodies drifting together like buoys, the movement of their hands hidden beneath the tumbling breath of waves.
I walked to Abdallah’s door and knocked, suddenly anxious. He answered it in shorts. I looked directly at the deep brown creases around his stomach.
“Come in,” he welcomed. He went to his son’s coin collection and withdrew it from a closet shelf. He placed the trays down on the carpet next to his recliner, and put his feet back up, facing the television. His hand drifted down from the armrest and patted my head, then began a thoughtless kind of stroking as he might have done to a cat on his lap. I slowly let my head respond to his hand, rolling it against his palm. The coins remained untouched before me, currencies removed from exchange, just the warm glow of their surfaces and the weight of them.
Randy came in drunk that night; he fell into his bed with sand on his feet and in the hair on his legs. He didn’t turn the light on, just removed his shorts and shirt and dropped them by the side of the bed. He lay on the bed with his arms over his head, watching the play of light from the pool on the ceiling. “You awake?” he asked after a while.
“Yes,” I answered. “What happened?”
“Come here and I’ll tell you.” He looked away.
I crawled into his bed. Up close to him, the hair under his arms looked thick with sweat. “What’d you do?” I asked. His profile was like stone, mottled by short, coarse hair, his lips barely parted, as though his teeth were clenched.
“I fucked some girl,” he said. I see his hand travel under the sheet, a moving knot, toward his groin. I remembered playing with cats and dogs that way, hypnotizing them with the thing under the sheet, at the same time protecting myself from their bites and scratches.
“How’d you do it?” I asked, putting my head beneath the sheet, not needing an answer, smarter than a dog.
I felt his hand clamp to the back of my neck and force me toward his crotch. I reached out for his penis, already hard and gripped by his other hand, but he more insistently moved my mouth to it. The unpracticed act felt nonetheless inevitable, and I approached with anxiousness and dread; I opened my mouth and felt his hips jerk up to deliver it, his hand (and mine) fell away. My eyes and nose were greedy, too, as though instinctively committing it to memory. I breathed in, and the smell of saltwater and the sweat of his crotch commingled. The sight of that part of his cock that wasn’t in my mouth; his testicles, still hanging fully between his parted legs; and the thrust of his hips became permanent, a moment upon which all others would build. But almost fighting this memorial, his hips swing into violent thrusts, rolling over and straddling my head as though it’s a pillow, oblivious to my gagging, the tears forced from my eyes. He whispers, “sshhh,” an exhalation of the breath he’s stolen from me, and then, lifting out of my throat, but still in my mouth, shoots his semen in cathartic bursts, drowning me in the salt of his violence and his pleasure. Before I’ve even swallowed it, he’s pushed me off the bed and onto the floor.
For a moment I remain there watching him; he’s unconcerned even with my humiliation, and falls to sleep with no softening of his features.
I went to my bed and watched him, angry, perhaps by how little he reveals, the invulnerability of his desire and the wretched expression of mine. He sleeps safe and unconcerned; I watch, protecting him from nothing. Nothing has become an enemy of mine.
For days Randy wouldn’t speak to me. He was never in his family’s company, but stayed out from early in the morning until late night. When he’d walk into the room, my breathing would go shallow. I’d put the blankets in my mouth to silence the thin panic, the pang of lust like fists to the stomach. He undressed always facing my bed, and my eyes, with a developed sensitivity to the darkness, could make out the muscles of his stomach and the slight movements of his half-hard penis, fixing it there so that this image of him remained standing at the edge of his bed while he covered himself and slept. I would imagine him naked, walking toward me, secretively, until this image dissolved, just before touching me.
Then, the night before we were to leave Key West, he put his head in the door and told me to come outside. I jumped from my place in front of the television and followed him out. It was probably eight in the evening, but the poolside was empty and the pool lights were on, illuminating the mosaic at its depths. Randy patted a seat and held his finger to his mouth. We were sitting at a large, umbrella-topped table, Randy’s legs outstretched before him.
“You’re just in time,” he whispered, nodding in the direction of a window across the way. “Check out the floor show.” In the window, a woman in her late thirties was standing with her top off and wearing only the barest g-string bikini bottom. Her breasts looked triangulated from the abrupt tan line, her nipples standing out hard from the white skin.
“How long have you been watching her?” I asked.
He was intent on her image; my words were flies around his head. He batted them away.
“I’d like to fuck her good,” he said in a voice almost menacing. I remembered him holding Tom’s face down in a sawdust pit, forcing him to eat from it. Now the woman was sliding off the g-string.
“She’s showing us her pussy,” he said, and the towel over his crotch started to jump. I was afraid to look at the window, but Randy was bold. He sat back, shamelessly rubbing the towel. “Look at that,” he said, perusing violently the thing in the window, commenting on her parts like the opened back of a beef truck.
“Check her out, she’s looking at you.” He challenges me to take my eyes off him. In a cursory glance I see her naked in a chair, one leg thrown over the side, the fingers of one hand lost between her legs. She’s smoking with the other hand. In that instant, my embarrassment seemed to threaten her; she turned her head and blew smoke, as if casually, into the indistinct darkness behind her. It was like watching myself sashay along the poolside in a home movie projected by my father. I wondered if I always appeared as overt as the woman in the window, as hard to look at.
Randy could look at it.
I was flooded with memories that seemed suddenly to expose me—a kiss I’d given another cousin at his wedding that lingered far too long, a game of strip checkers I’d played with two other boys after sending Tom out of the room. When I met up with him later, he seemed not even mildly curious about who had won or lost, or how, in my case, the losing had meant winning.
The woman stepped behind the curtain flashing a last brief smile at Randy. Randy was ecstatic when she turned her light off and drew the curtains. He wanted to get drunk, he told me, and go to her room later. In my desperateness to be useful to him, my mind races like a dog retrieving slippers for its master. “I can get you the key to her room.”
Randy looks skeptically at me. “How?” he asks.
“If I get it,” I say, “you have to promise to take me to the ocean tonight.”
“I’ll even get you drunk.”
“And let me go night swimming,” I insist.
“I’ll let you get as crazy as you want, little pecker, just get me that key.”
I tell him to wait in the lobby, and watch him go into the Castaways bar and take a seat on one of the barstools. I walk over to Abdallah’s door and knock. I knock again, this time with a sinking feeling that he is not home, or is asleep, or that he has seen me from the peephole in the door and has decided not to answer. Then I hear the sound of the lock and see him there in the doorway wearing only his boxer shorts and a gold chain around his neck.
“Isn’t it late for you?” he asks. “Come in.”
“I just wanted to look at some coins for a few minutes,” I tell him.
He opens the closet door where the keys to each room are mounted. He brushes against them when he stretches up to bring down a tray of coins. We walk toward the television and I take my place on the rug beside his chair. He sighs as he settles back into it. His sexiness is lost to his generosity, to the benign mystery of the coins he offers me.
“Where does this one come from?” I ask, feigning interest the way I used to with his son. I’m grateful when he doesn’t answer; it suggests he may not want to move to put them back. I put one like a monocle to my eye and turn to face him. I contrive it; something his son had once done. For a moment he looks down at me, shakes his head at the antic, and returns his attention to the set. I imagine Randy’s impatience, and feel it for Abdallah, whose kindness seems oafish suddenly. Like Sonia, he doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t recognize his part in predation.
“I’ll put this back,” I say.
“You can’t reach it can you?” he asks, not turning as I carry it to the closet.
“Of course I can,” I say, my eyes scanning the keys, the room numbers written over the many hooks on the whitewashed board. I take her key the instant I find it, and, still holding the tray, reach up to put it on the shelf. Keys are more powerful than coins; I think at that moment, perhaps I’ll collect them. He turns just as I pocket it in my shorts. He looks suspiciously at me. “I hope if you’re borrowing a coin, you’ll bring it back tomorrow.”
“No,” I answer, “I’m not borrowing anything.” I turn my pockets out and dangle the key before him. “Just my room key.”
He turns back toward the TV. “Don’t stay out too late.”
“I can’t believe you,” Randy said, as I put the key into his hand. He put his arm around my neck, the key in his fist. “I’ll creep in there and give her what she’s asking for,” he tightened his reign on my neck, his lips almost brushing my ear. “Let’s go get that alcohol I promised.”
I am not jealous of the woman, or worried for her.
We walked from the hotel, and while still quite a distance from the beach, could hear the sound of waves along the seawall.
We walked toward a market, almost like a shack with a portable generated sign boasting “liquors.” Beside Randy I felt part of a gang, as though he had the crowding power of that roomful of Cuban boys. The stretch of road was empty, and I thought here comes the hurricane, everyone stay inside. He left me while he went inside the store. I listened to the ocean crash against the wall.
We headed down toward the sound, Randy drinking beside me. He handed the flask-shaped bottle to me, challenged me. He tossed the empty bottle in the sand and opened another. “Whisky’ll keep you warm out here,” he said, walking backward along the surf. He climbed up on a rock, put his hands behind his head and stretched himself out over it, looking up at a black sky pricked with stars. Suddenly he began to howl and I noticed then the moon, remote, allowing the tides to go out of control. I started to feel uneasy as his howling grew louder, but when I made a turn to move away from him, he gripped my arm.
“What about your swim?” he asked. His laugh was as loud as the roar of waves. I was so drunk I felt my knees buckle. I remembered Tom with those crabs clinging to him. I couldn’t get that foolish dance out of my head.
“What about it?” he asked, amused by something he wasn’t sharing. “Go ahead, I’ll watch you.”
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit,” I answered, my voice lost to wind and the crash of waves.
“Take your clothes off,” he said, “you know you want to.”
I took my shirt and shoes off and put them on the rock beside him. I took off my shorts and underwear next. My body, covered with goose bumps, disappointed me. It was just a kid’s body, shriveled with cold, and clumsy with so little alcohol.
“Go on,” he said. “See if you can swim out to that ship.” He pointed to what looked like a tanker not far from the horizon, a ghost ship.
Under his scrutiny, I walked to the waves and stopped quickly at the first feel of icy water on my toes. I felt the sand breaking up beneath my feet, dissolving. I awkwardly took my first steps into the water, my hands out before me as though I was walking into a place without light. I drew in a deep breath and bent into the water. Under the surface, my arms and legs were fighting in slow motion. I was withdrawing from the shore, just my head moving out over the huge cresting waves. I was exhilarated but exhausted, too, and just let myself rise and fall with the waves. I stretched out my toes as though I expected to feel the undertow my parents had always warned me of, pulling at each of my toes, one at a time, before sucking me under suddenly.
I stayed out for some time, until my bobbing became effortless. But the water got cold again without my effort against it, as though it was charged with memories of another me altogether, wordless, out on the playing field behind my school. I called out to Randy, to lure him in. “There is no undertow.” That’s how drunk I was, because I kept shouting it even as I watched him walking up the beach and disappearing out onto the main road.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee