Once upon an afternoon at the beach, a harborish beach in New England, I found my mother, after heaving myself into the waves for an hour, sitting under an umbrella whose rifled shaft I’d twisted into the damp sand so that it stood solid against the buffeting of breezes. “It’s such a pleasure,” she said, gazing upon my wet form, to watch a young man glory in his body.” The skin on her legs, I saw, had given out so that it hung mottled and loose off her calves. It rippled. She’d said, “I’m not sure a woman of my age can wear shorts any more.” I’d studied the skin of my glistening girl too, insofar as she was my girl, on another beach, Rockaway I think it was, or rather I’d tried not to study it, her skin. I threw her into weak waves as though she were a child, a freewheeling daughter, and I tried not to investigate her flesh lest I find some undesirable fleck or wiggle. Later as we put drugs into our noses by the breakers she said, “You didn’t seem that into me today. I was hoping we’d fuck on the beach.”
So I swam away from Rockaway beach and away from the glistening girl to Cambridge, to my mother. I was still wearing my swimming trunks which were made of competition grade material that outlined my testicles very competitively when I found my mother crying at the kitchen table. In tears she told me this was to be the last summer on record, “What a terrible shame isn’t it,” she kept saying, “what’ we’ve done to the ozone layer.” I begged her, as one does, to turn off the news. “Burn the New York Times,” I said , and I kept telling myself to get a grip, insofar as one grips anything. “I’ll burn your newspapers to set the charcoal alight tonight, Mom,” I said, since I was going to grill her a gorgeous steak for dinner, two of them in fact, to celebrate my salty return, insofar as I had returned, and they would be beautiful and bleeding and just for us.
The last time I’d seen my glistening girl insofar as she’d been my girl at all, I use the possessive pronoun because it’s simpler than not, isn’t it, her nose was bleeding too, and my cum was leaking out of her, her skin still taut and tangy after our day at the beach. Sometimes one really does simply have another day at the beach, as the saying is said to go. We were pretending to say things that were meaningful and articulate to each other, we were still sun-stunned. I was saying meaningful things and I was trying not to look at her. The creases between her armpits and her tits, inasmuch as there are creases there, had in the sun that summer turned the color of charcoal or rather had the glinting aspect of charcoal before it’s burned. On the sand she fed me rum and together we’d put the drugs into our noses so that by the end of the day our nostrils were sanded down and dripping. “Race you,” she cried, running headlong, inasmuch as one runs headlong into anything, into the luscious ripply swill. The water that summer, the last, according to my crying mother, on record, was teeming, we were told, with sharks, and as I joined the glistening girl in running headlong into the waters, I shouted, as you do, “You’re going to get your legs gnawed off!” And she called back, not turning but just calling back, “You’re going to get your dick gnawed off!” And then with our shins slapping water I said, though she couldn’t hear me over the slap of waves, “I’ll fuck you with my toes then!” Though then I wondered what would happen if I lost both my dick and my toes, all ten of them, and say maybe my hands too, due to sharks or some other gnawing entity–with what then could I fuck my glistening girl on the beach?
The afternoon I washed up in Cambridge, my mother, in a pink swim cap, the rubber of which shaped itself into vague little flower twirl-things, took me to the town pool. We were going to swim laps to improve our bodies. There was an ice cream truck there and as my mother paid my entry fee, she wondered aloud if we’d see the Hershbergers. “You remember their son, the one you built fires with and who turned out to be gay, to hurt his father.” But I couldn’t remember much of what had come before the beach, where my girl had said, “I’m here, look at my face, look at me.”
The pool water in late afternoon was viscous with municipal piss. My mother did the backstroke and I swam freestyle, and as I swam through the thick waters of late-afternoon, thick as apple juice with the dribblings of toddlers, I started writing a postcard in my head, inasmuch as one writes in one’s head, to the girl on the beach. She was sitting somewhere now, say, in the sun, or lying somewhere now that was not near me and would continue not to be near me and her lack of nearness, of propinquity, one might add, or whatever, was, I had to admit, upon reflection, insofar as one reflects, a result of decisions I myself had made: principally the decision to leave her on the beach and swim up to Cambride. I’d lighted upon Harvard Sq after having swum up the Charles River, and when I arrived in the Square I was still brined, my skin was, by the filth of Rockaway. My nose was bleeding, I told myself I felt extraordinarily virile, and as I washed myself ashore I began laughing to myself, as though I’d told myself a joke only I could understand, though I don’t think I had.
My mother swam for thirty-five minutes, and I stopped after fourteen since it had been a long day, inasmuch as days can be long when you’re swimming all day. I longed to lie on the urine-torched grass at the edge of the pool and smoke a cigarette, but my Mother might see, the Hershebergers might see, any number of children might see my hairy legs aflame. When she emerged, having extracted her hearing aids before her swim, my mother was deaf and befogged. She called my name and from the yellow grass I mumbled something very loudly. The girl on the beach never said my name, and that had been a point of pride for her, for some reason, never saying my name. In fact sometimes after sex she would look at me laughing and say, “What’s your name again?” which was a joke until it wasn’t, I think. I told myself, my skin brittle with piss, that on the beach she always did know my name. It was only when we left the beach, after dousing ourselves in tequila at a cop bar, a ritual of ours that shark-ridden summer, that she would look at me, in the cold car of the A train, and say, “We’re still strangers, though, aren’t we?” It was like a shark had mauled my face and now I was someone disfigured and different. I watched my mother toweling her tired old skin and remembered the postcard I’d written in my head, inasmuch as one writes in one’s head as one swims in a pool of tepid piss, and I wondered if there were some way, now that I’d swum so far, of letting the glistening girl know who I truly sort of was, when I wasn’t on a beach.
“Let’s go to the beach tomorrow, Mom,” I called. And she shouted back, her ears all watery and elsewhere, “I can’t hear you,” because she couldn’t. “The beach,” I said, but still I didn’t say it loud enough. We would sit together under the umbrella, the one I would shove deep into the damp sand. Then she would watch me throw myself into the waves, and she would watch as I swam away, as one does, back to Rockaway and back to my glistening girl. She would be there waiting, lying in the sun with a bloody nose.
Drew Ohringer has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is one host of the Our Struggle podcast.