“Ripped jeans on rugged rocks ripping into my skin. I actually took some time to count it one day, when I wasn’t doing anything (I usually am), and there were twenty six. Twenty six old scars and new scrapes. Twenty six days I sat at the corner of a beach no one goes to, waiting for a person who, in theory, doesn’t even exist.”
It’s never comfortable, but I do it anyway. Just because my legs will go numb soon enough. Just because I’m way too stubborn to bring a chair and, honestly, I probably don’t deserve one.
So I sit.
Ripped jeans on rugged rocks ripping into my skin. I actually took some time to count it one day, when I wasn’t doing anything (I usually am), and there were twenty six. Twenty six old scars and new scrapes. Twenty six days I sat at the corner of a beach no one goes to, waiting for a person who, in theory, doesn’t even exist.
Waiting for someone who might not even be on the face of the Earth anymore, and someone who might have never existed in the first place.
It hits me just now that I might be crazy. Like actually “wrap me up and throw me in the loon house, boys, turns out I created an entire person in my mind and wait for her everyday after school for hours” kind of crazy.
I can feel my palms start sweating at the thought — because that’s super messed up, right? — I could make it on TV or something. Chills.
Dr. Phil, if you’re out there… who am I kidding? Dr. Phil is always out there. Dr. Phil, buddy, you’re perfect, and I love you, and I know you can read my thoughts right now. I know.
Ha… just kidding.
I weigh the pebble I stuffed in my pocket earlier in both hands and choke down a laugh because I really shouldn’t be laughing. I might not think Dr. Phil is secretly monitoring my thoughts now — but you know, if I’m really crazy, I might soon. Or maybe I’m onto something?
I chuck the rock into the sea. Probably not.
Tracing the ripples as they surface with my eyes and my fingertips, I think about the sea, the stars, everything beyond everything. Time and space. Me and Gwen. Dr. Phil and my possible mental delusion, and how beautiful the beach is on winter afternoons. Even in ripped jeans and freezing, I can appreciate beauty.
And this, right here, is beautiful.
It would be more beautiful if it weren’t below fifty degrees, but you know, I’ll take what I can get.
“Hey,” a voice calls out from a couple yards behind me — probably just on the outskirts of the rock cliff I’m on now — and I jump at the sound, my heart all of the sudden interested in a track/cross country combo. “What up, Maxine?”
I know that voice.
“Hey, man,” I say, coolly. “Good to see you.”
And it is good to see him. He may be the only person it’s good to see right about now — and I smile — because having someone here will have to put a pause on my existential crisis.
My best friend.
It really is good to see him.
“Hey uh,” he calls out, starting to climb the rocks, pausing to eye one falling down the abyss, “Didn’t see you at school?!”
“That makes sense!”
Then his eyes dart to me, shining. Alive. The color of storm clouds and concrete and steel. His hair, cocoa brown, falls loosely over his olive skin, and his smile beaming brightly at me silently says, go on.
“Didn’t go in today,” I say. “Cici’s sick.”
Cici’s my little half sister. She’s cute. Around four or five — really sweet — my only complaint is that I can recite around three episodes of Danny Phantom and make mass amounts of pizza bagels. Big enough to feed like three grown men. And apparently, one Cici.
He nods. Closer now. Halfway up.
“So, how long you been up here?”
I have to stop and think about it. And when I do, I recognize I have no idea what time it is. I freeze.
“I got here around three?”
“No kidding…” I say, taking my phone out of my back pocket. And to really no one’s surprise but my own, it’s eight thirty seven, and I’d magically been here for five hours.
He sits beside me, and there’s a faint moment of silence. Remembrance. Grief for all the hours I just wasted sitting on this big rock thinking about famous talk show hosts and the ward.
“So, spider Max… tell me, how’d I know I’d find you here?” he asks.
“Easy.” I say. “You’re super creepy.”
He staggers backward, as if somehow wounded by the thought, and leans against the rock, facing me. Me and only me, and somehow, I know. I know what he’s about to ask.
I say nothing.
“Are you ever going to tell me?”
“I mean,” he catches his tone. “You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.”
“But you can trust me.”
“If you want.”
You can trust me. I repeat in my mind. You can trust me. I brush my hair behind my ears and rest my head in between my arms, draped at either side. Are you ever going to tell me? My throat chokes up, and I breathe in the sea air. If you want.
I can trust him? Trust him? And tell him what?
My vision super focuses on the sea, straight through him and his questions. The “oh, you poor thing” face I can tell he’s ogling at me. That classic untimely look. Coupled with a ridged brow and a sympathetic half cock of a smile, squinted eyes, pouted lips… he feels bad for me. Or something. I cannot stand it. I cannot stand when people pity me.
I grit my teeth and ball my hands in fists, tightly squeezing the color out of them. They’re so blue, they’re purple at this point. Everything around me goes blotched and hazy, and I want so badly for the world to just stop for one second. Stop so I can catch my breath. Stop so I can figure out what’s wrong with me.
There’s something wrong with me. I feel like I’m dying.
“Is this what dying feels like?” I say, as I swallow the lump in my throat, and it falls to my chest. Now I’m not about to break down crying, but I feel the exact same.
“Am I still alive?”
Maybe I’m talking to Jude. Or Gwen.
“I think I’m crazy.”
And I do. And I am. Or? Who knows. What.
He sits up, looking at me, looking for my eyes. Which, by the way, are not looking at him. They’re looking at the sea.
“For Gwen,” I say.
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see his expression. He’s shock and confusion embodied in a teenage boy. He’s lost. So am I, actually. Haha. I turn to him. I can feel how bland my face must look to him, the numb exterior I’ve put up to the world. No one can touch me now.
His eyes, once strong and fierce and confident, are scared. Full of love that cannot fix me now. The color of loose change, pencil shavings, hair in old age… they look to me in empathy. Screaming silently.
I bite my lip to keep from laughing. I absolutely should not be laughing. Nobody’s laughing. Nothing is funny.
“Hey,” I say, “hey” being the only thing that I can get out of my mouth. “Jude. You said… I can trust you?”
“Yes. Yes, you can. I, uh, are you alright? Maxine?”
“When I was eleven, I used to love swimming.”
“Ah… I’ve never seen you swim. You swim?”
“Not anymore,” I reply.
Not until I know she’s okay.
“It was July or something. I don’t remember.”
“I came out here with baby Cici and my parents. We sat over there.” I point to a strip of sand to our right. It’s covered in snow now. “And it was one of those, you know, we had another kid but we still love you the same spiel, so they let me do what I wanted. Helped me build sand castles and stuff. You know. Then we went in the water.”
“That sounds… nice.”
“And the tide pulled me away from them. Pushing me under the waves. I couldn’t breathe. No one could get to me. I was in the middle of the ocean. Oh man, I have never been so scared in my entire life.”
“What the hell.”
“Then I was under, and I kept going down. I was going to die there. My life was, like, flashing before my eyes. It was terrible. I was falling under so fast, Jude. I saw fish I’d never seen before. And the sun. It was so far up, I thought I’d never see it again. I was so scared.”
“It was starting to hurt. The not breathing and stuff. Then…”
“Then?” he asks, putting his right hand on my left shoulder.
“Gwen? As in ‘for Gwen?’ That super ominous thing you said a couple minutes ago.”
“She saved my life, broseph.”
“Is that who you’re waiting for? Is she like… a–”
“Mermaid,” I say, tearing my stare away from him and back to the sea, a smile growing on my face as the thought of her surfaces. “It was green… some kind of beautiful, arctic green tail and lavender hair. Tan skin, brown eyes. I saw her face underwater, then I saw it on land. She saved my life. Pulled me up, or something, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
He doesn’t say anything to that. I get it.
So I go on, “She was… young. Like me. Beautiful. You know. Perfect. And we talked. She told me about mermaids. I told her about people. We talked until it was night, and she said she’d come back one day. Back for me. Then she dived headfirst back into the water.”
“And you wait for her,” he says.
“And I wait for her,” I repeat. “I told my parents.”
“They think I’m crazy. That I swam all the way back to the beach somehow and passed out. That Gwen was never here, and I just made her up because I watched The Little Mermaid and couldn’t process the idea of death.”
He presses a fist to my cheek, lovingly imitating a fist to the face.
The way he says it is breathless. I can almost see his brain trying to process everything. The wheels that must be turning in his head. I kind of feel bad, you know. Usually, he’s thinking about soccer, guys, and video games.
“So,” I say, leaning forward, letting my hair cover my face. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
“Why would I think you’re crazy?” he asks. Like the idea never even crossed his mind and I’m the sanest person in the world. “Of course not. I’m big on the supernatural stuff. You know that! Plus, like, seventy percent of the ocean is unexplored, and y–”
My shoulders heave as tears stream down my face. Like a broken waterfall… the rain.
His voice sounds apologetic. Like he’d done something wrong, that telling me I’m not crazy is the opposite of what I want to hear, that somehow, getting the biggest secret off of my chest and welcomed with open arms would make me sob. And, okay, I guess he’s right. But I’m not heaving because I’m sad. I’m heaving because this is the best I’ve felt since that same day in July I can’t remember.
“Thanks,” I say, picking up my head and wiping a tear stream off my face. “Thanks, Jude.”
We stayed there the rest of the night, and I told him about Gwen. The stars beamed, ocean rushed, and cherry rose gas station. Vodka kept us warm and safe from the bitter cold. Everything about it was perfect. And after that, I had someone. A secret henchman. A sidekick.
Three Years Later: College
Warm conversations and light-hearted small talk escape into my earbuds as I get on my bus home. Lights whizz by. As do people. The only constant being me, my music, and my thoughts. The drip of the air conditioner, the binder in my lap. Everything is at peace.
I feel like this is the end scene of a movie where you drive into the sunset with the girl or guy of your dreams and a tank load of cash in the trunk. Feels just like it.
I smile to myself. A big one, too. Teeth and everything.
I look forward, seeing some of my classmates a couple rows ahead. We usually get off at the same stop and gossip about professors and our futures and what to do with my psych major and what a liberal arts major is, but not today. So I keep to the back and get off a couple stops early.
The beach breeze flows through my red scarf, and as I take it off, I spot him.
“Jude!” I call out, running as fast as I can in ripped skinny jeans and knee high boots.
It’s nice to be so close to him. He’s studying in Greece, I think. Greece or Japan. We text and facetime, but, you know, just being next to someone is unmatchable.
As the night goes on, we rekindle what we used to be. He tells me about a guy named Chris, and I tell him about my evil professor, Mrs. Garfee. It’s so easy talking to him.
“Really?” I ask, shrieking slightly in laughter, trailing on my “y” and turning to face the ocean I used to spend so much time in.
I’m not an artist, but I promise I could paint this from memory any day. Easy. The blues and beiges of the water and sand, and how it mixes in with the dark black of the rock cliff.
“Uhhh, of course? Never in my life have I ever been that disrespected, so of course I hi–” He inhales sharply, and his eyes widen.
Like he’d just seen a ghost. I know that expression. But not why it’s on him.
He points to the water, and alas, there she is.
He hadn’t seen a ghost. He saw a mermaid.