This Is How She Wakes

 Where Shore Road meets Beach Street, someone has strung strings of small white lights above the sidewalk. As she passes under them, Antonia watches them flicker and dim like the Christmas tree lights at Jordan Marsh in Downtown Boston, a world away from Salisbury Beach.

She walks a block or two, following the lights, losing herself in their silent music, mixed with the crash of the ocean, the breeze coming off the sea. She can’t see the water at night, but she knows it’s there, if she listens.

She spies the guy before he sees her. He’s leaning against a blue and white wakeboard, his name, Brad, decaled across its nose. He’s putting on his airs. Wakeboards are new this year. They’re the bullseye boasted by guys with new money. When you talk with them, they brag they invested in dotcoms before it was cool. Now, each has a Maserati parked nearby, but it’s always a shrug and a head-nod too far away to go see.

Guys like him spend their weekdays like ants traversing Boston’s skyline, building digital marvels to be celebrated, discarded, and then forgotten once their jobs are done.

But they never see it that way. They see themselves as the fieldstone in the foundations of those insurance companies, master mechanics who keep all cylinders firing in their rotary engines.

For every man worth meeting, a thousand others come to the beach with masked emotions and wearing money on their faces.

She barely grants Brad a glance as she passes him, under the lights. He’s leaning on his wakeboard, dreaming his important-man dreams of underwriting profits, loss ratios, and ROIs. Antonia soaks in the ocean, tries to be present, and not let his energy from the city infect hers.

The balm of beach pizza soon purges Brad from her memory. Grease the color of blood oranges has dried into the brick of the pizza stand’s façade, layered thick with white paint that washes away each season’s transgressions like high tides reset the beach’s sand.

The line at the counter is five deep. Antonia pushes by, pressing into the bumper of a big car compensating for someone’s small anatomy. Its hood hangs five feet over the sidewalk.

Two girls five years younger than her sit on the bumper’s polished chrome, swirling their sludge of seawater and sunscreen into patterns the two guys in the front seat will later study.

They’re not together. Yet.

The girls wear bikinis in the orange reserved for convicts and lifeguards, made of less material than the stand’s dispenser napkins.

Antonia was them, once—a lifeguard, when they were still studying long division in pigtails and pleated plaid skirts.

“Two slices of pepperoni! Extra cheese,” a line cook rasps. The lifeguards stand. They adjust the spaghetti straps of their bikinis.

The guys’ gaze follows them, passing over Antonia. Five years ago, it would’ve been her their eyes would follow.

Antonia tugs her cover-up to mid-thigh, but no one is watching.

The sharp elbows of a teenage boy carve new bruises into her arms.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he says, vanishing beyond a streetlight’s glow and its swirl of mayflies. He’s gone while she’s still massaging the lump rising below her shoulder.

The security shutters at the Playland Arcade clink down, meeting the pavement with the sound of chain link fences that circle recess yards.

Sand scratches between her toes. Dark has already descended on the ocean; the black waves of high tide wash onto the light sand, erasing the memories of the day.

Ahead, chemical reactions of libidos, frustration, and desperation weave through the clubgoers queued to face a bouncer, a bald man with a head tanned to the color of a brown egg. Antonia angles her path and stays outside the bright lights illuminating the ramp leading to the entrance.

Then, like a wave, their voices surge.

“Hey, someone’s in the waves,” a woman calls out.

“That’s a wakeboard,” says a bronzed man wearing muscles and a speedo.

Antonia walks to the sand’s edge.

“Someone fell off the wakeboard,” says another.

Antonia sees the wakeboard in the moonlight, rising like a dolphin. Blue and white, Brad’s. She glances back, and he’s not there.

The muscle car guys, the lifeguard girls, everyone gathers at the shoreline, for the great show as it starts.

“I see him!” the shorter lifeguard calls out. “To the left of the wakeboard.” She points, but the guys are watching her breasts move against her body, her bathing suit as it gaps where her skin forms folds.

“There!” the other lifeguard confirms, matching the other’s off-duty stance.

Antonia sees him, Brad, his hands waving for help. Black seawater swells and ebbs around him.

“That lady’s going in,” someone says.

Cold water numbs Antonia’s ankles and shins, biting into the razor burn on her knees. She stops to cast her cover-up to the sands. It swims like a wraith on the wind.

But she’s no longer watching. She’s flying into the seawater, arms flapping into the waves like a giant seagull cutting into the surf. She’s a lifeguard again. She finds Brad as the water swells over her shoulders and soaks into her hair.

Her feet lose the seafloor, and she swims.

Her arms find his. He’s floating, still treading water. Her fingers slide against his trunks. He’s lazing toward her as if she’s his last rope to safety.

“You’re beautiful,” he says. He sees her. “The girl from the ice cream stand.”

She bobs and sinks as she wraps her arm around his shoulder.

“I thought no one would come,” Brad says. Like ants, a sea of people lines the shore.

Antonia tugs Brad. Like dancers, they sway toward the shore.

She ponders how the coarse hair on Brad’s arms scratches against her, how his body fits hers.

“Thanks for saving me,” he says. She drags him onto the sand.

The energy of dozens of stares surges through her. His eyes find hers.

She leans low and kisses him.

*****

Ryan Owen is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and Merrimack College. Their work has been featured in Idle Ink, Penumbric, and Merrimack Valley Magazine. They are a member of AWP, NHWP, and Pen Parentis with degrees in business and finance. They also speak Spanish and Portuguese. They live in Massachusetts. 

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