By Alexander Santo
Crumpled water bottle in one hand, Aaron used his other to steer off the sidewalk and onto the cement patch between the male and female changing rooms. He came to a halt in front of a blue drinking fountain standing apart from the two cheaply built shacks and stared at the beach in front of him. It was full, but it was also the middle of June in Minnesota and the sun shined, so he’d expected it to be. Putting one hand on the long bag strapped to his back, he slid off his seat and walked his Schwinn to the crowded bike rack. This too was full, so he pushed out the kickstand with one foot and left it standing next to all the others. Then he plodded down to the beach and stood in one of the few open spots.
From where he stood, holding one hand over his brow, he could see the opposite side of the lake and the large houses that bordered it. Between him and that opposite edge was the blue, nearly waveless water and in it twenty or so boats idly drifted along, their occupants casting lines and, occasionally, pulling a small sunfish back up. Aaron wondered why the hell anyone still tried to catch anything in this lake. It had been fished out years ago and, anyway, it wasn’t like it was hard to find another lake in a state so well stocked with them. Frowning at these boaters, he unscrewed the cap of his water bottle and took a quick sip. He grimaced and inhaled sharply at the taste of the vodka he’d poured into the bottle earlier that morning, before setting off from his apartment on his ten-speed.
After replacing the cap, he let the bottle drop back into the sand and took the long, rectangular bag off his shoulder. He pulled on the cords that kept its top closed, withdrew a small paperback and, after it, the chair that gave the bag its shape. He pulled at two corners of the chair and it unfolded into a comfortable seat. It was the kind soccer moms and dads brought to their kids’ games. The thought of soccer reminded him of the minivan his sister had owned briefly and he shook his head to get the image of the vehicle out his mind. It was a ridiculous looking thing, he’d told her. She’d said style wasn’t going to keep her children safe, but the boxy van surely would.
Aaron eased himself into the chair, bent forward to pick up his public-friendly bottle of vodka, and stuffed it into the seat’s built-in drink holder. That ridiculous van of his sister’s had had something like twelve of them. He figured the Japanese car makers had thought their American consumers would need at least two soft drinks apiece. And Aaron wouldn’t have bet against some people taking advantage of the opportunity. But he really did not want to think about the van’s cup holders, he was here to take it easy and drink at least half his bottle of cheap vodka. He also had half a mind to read some of the book he’d brought with, a tattered science fiction novel he’d picked up at a garage sale for twenty-five cents. He hadn’t read anything for a long time, but the half-naked alien girl on the cover had intrigued him enough to drop the quarter onto the garage owner’s card table.
He thumbed its soft, yellowing pages and smelled them. He thought about being inconspicuous while doing this, but the combination of his first swallow of vodka and the crowd around him were enough to reinforce his sense of anonymity. In fact, after smelling the old paper, he tilted his thick-rimmed sunglasses over his nose and stared unabashedly at everyone surrounding him. The lake wasn’t a big one, and its man-made beach was proportionate in size. There were maybe fifty souls in all basking in the sun or under umbrellas, but they filled the sand out well enough. Most of them were young. The youth was followed in majority by young mothers, many still confident enough to wear a two-piece, and then a few couples in their twenties, dads—mostly pale and flabby—and, one or two people above sixty. As he looked around himself, Aaron saw a group of young girls rollerblading down the sidewalk, where they eventually skidded to a halt next to his bike. He could see the straps of their bikinis beneath their tank tops and wished girls had dressed like that when he’d been growing up. Or perhaps they had, he’d never really gone to the beach as a teenager. Too much shoulder acne.
After a moment of looking out at the water again, and watching one child destroy another’s sandcastle (three mounds of sand in the shape of buckets) he bent forward once more, untied his shoes, slid his socks off and buried his bare feet in the sand. He thanked whatever divinity there was that there hadn’t been any bits of broken glass for his toes to sink into. The thought of broken glass also brought up the image of his sister’s van and he reached for the water bottle again. It crackled in his hand as he tipped it over his mouth and took another swallow. In the distance, a speed boat pulled a skier across the calm water. It went back and forth in a narrow loop from one end of the lake to the other. To Aaron, the whole experience looked dull.
Because the beach was so small, the newcomers were picking out any free space on the sand. A few people were resting in the grass to the left of the beach, but Aaron couldn’t imagine it was quite the same experience. Next to him the three girls on rollerblades walked awkwardly to a clear spot on the right of Aaron’s chair and sat down in the sand. They pulled off their blades, the effort of which made them happy to subsequently toss them off to the side before sliding off their socks and jean shorts—they were all wearing jean shorts. Aaron looked down at his book as they pulled their tank tops over their heads and chased one another down to the water. Despite his (mostly) happy relationship with his girlfriend of three years, whom he’d left, still sleeping, in their apartment, he felt guilty looking at anyone under the age of eighteen. It was probably because of all the television shows he’d watched about sexual predators. He had never given the subject any thought before watching those programs but now he actively avoided contact with anyone who was not an adult. He thought having children might help him relax but instead of giving that idea another thought, he took another drink of vodka instead.
Finally deciding to read the book, Aaron folded the cover back so no one else could see the green skinned lush on its cover. He was halfway through the first chapter, and nearly falling asleep, when the girls ran back up the sand and laid out towels near their discarded rollerblades. The girl nearest to him had a plain blue beach towel; the others’ had characters he didn’t recognize on them. He wondered if perhaps those two were being ironic. They were young, maybe twelve or fourteen, but the characters looked marketed towards much younger children. Somehow he couldn’t fathom the idea of a twelve year old being ironic. But then again, when he was twelve, his female classmates hadn’t grown breasts yet either.
The sun reached its zenith as Aaron slumped over in his chair and the book fell out of his hands. The politics of alien life had driven his eyelids down, but the shock of the book hitting one of his feet sprang them back open. He made a noise as he woke back up and looked around himself, blinking. As he yawned and leaned to retrieve the book, he heard the girl nearest him, on the blue towel, giggle. He looked at her with raised eyebrows and saw she was looking back at him with one glittering eye. She lay on her stomach and her head rested on her arms, but she raised it and, squinting at him, said, “Tired?”
Aaron saw her companions open their own eyes briefly, but they were obviously used to their friend talking to strangers because they closed them after a moment and settled back into their ironic towels. “Just a boring book,” Aaron said, raising the offending tome.
“What is it?” the girl asked, propping her head up with one hand.
Aaron was not going to show her the cover, though he suspected it was nothing she hadn’t seen before. “Oh,” he said, “Um, just a science fiction thing. I didn’t know what it was about.” He looked out at the lake again, as if that ended the brief engagement.
“I’m not into sci-fi either,” said the girl.
Aaron looked at her again, “Oh.”
The girl was still smiling. “That’s not water in your bottle is it?” She laughed at the expression on Aaron’s face and his immediate attempt to deny it. “I could tell by the way you were drinking it,” she said and made a face like she’d just tasted something sour. “Always making that face afterwards. It’s okay,” she said when Aaron didn’t respond, “I won’t tell anyone.” She looked down and adjusted her top, making Aaron look away again, suddenly interested in the grassy section off to the side of the beach.
“Thanks,” he said, looking down at the book, “Anyway, I think I’ll give this another try so…”
“But it’s boring,” said the girl.
“Yes,” said Aaron, risking another look at her. He was nervous about someone watching him talk to this child and getting the wrong idea. He knew no one was, and he knew he wasn’t doing anything wrong, but it seemed the mass media had gotten to him. He felt guilty already and then ashamed at having such unfounded guilt. “I’m not even through the first chapter,” he told her.
“Well that’s the one that’s supposed to catch your attention,” said the girl, “It’s not going to get any better from there.”
“I still want to give it a try,” Aaron said, flipping through the pages to find the one he’d fallen asleep to. He couldn’t remember reading anything he was looking at, but knew he’d been pretty far along so he chose a paragraph at random and began to read it determinedly.
The girl was still looking at him, smiling skeptically, “Okay, sorry for bothering you.”
Aaron wanted to leave then, but knew it would be too obvious why, and figured doing so would only cause the girl to say something more. And he really wasn’t ready to bike back to this apartment. His subconscious, apparently playing the word association game today, pictured the calendar in the apartment’s kitchen and then, before he could prevent it, remembered that today was the day his sister was supposed to get her cast off. Though Aaron had been asked, their brother Steven was driving her to the hospital. His brother-in-law had made several legitimate excuses not to drive his wife, but both Aaron and Steven knew he wasn’t yet up to driving again. They weren’t sure if he ever would be. He reached for the water bottle again and the girl on the blue beach towel giggled. He ignored her and took a quick sip before sliding it back into the cup holder.
He was sitting with his eyes closed, trying not to focus on anything, when he heard one of the girl’s companions complain that she was hot. “So go back in the water,” the blue towel girl said. Her friend didn’t want to go alone. The other friend yawned loudly, smacked her lips, and laughed.
She said, “I’ll go with you. You want to go back in?” This last was to the girl on the blue towel.
“Not really, I like being dry.”
This made the other two giggle, which in turn made Aaron frown. The two girls went running back down into the water, leaving their friend to continue sunbathing. This made Aaron feel immediately uncomfortable and it wasn’t long before the girl spoke up again. “Don’t you feel weird going to the beach by yourself?” the girl asked.
Aaron still had his eyes closed, but he knew the girl could tell he wasn’t sleeping. He opened them reluctantly and looked down at her. She had sat up, cross legged on her blue towel. He did feel weird. “No,” he said.
“Good, you shouldn’t,” said the girl. She uncrossed her legs and wiggled her toes in the sand below Aaron’s chair. “My friends say people who go the beach alone are creepers. I don’t though, I think it’d be sort of nice to be here all by myself. I mean…I wouldn’t though just in case there are creepers. But it’s like…you’re alone, but at the same time you’re not, you know?”
“I think so,” said Aaron. He wasn’t looking at her.
“You want to know how I know you’re not a creeper?”
He did actually. Maybe others could see it too.
He turned to her again, one eyebrow raised. It was the first time he really looked at her face and saw how intelligent she looked. He didn’t know if someone looking intelligent had anything to do with their actual intelligence, but the light in her eyes couldn’t all be coming from the blazing sun above them. She smiled at him again. “Yep. The last time I talked to a creeper, like this, he got really excited. I don’t mean in a gross way, but…I don’t know, like he wanted to show me the music he was listening to, and wanted me listen to it. He was very curious. And he asked if I liked my parents or if I ever thought about running away from home.”
Aaron’s mouth hung open as she told him this, “Someone actually asked all that? You actually talked to someone like that?” He shook his head before the girl could speak again. “You shouldn’t do that, you shouldn’t even be talking to me. How do you know I’m not a creep? Just because I seem embarrassed?”
The girl shrugged. “I can’t explain it.” She felt around the top of her head and pulled at a brightly colored band that kept her hair off her shoulders. “You also look sad. That’s the main reason I’m talking with you.” She laughed. “You don’t think I just start talking to strange men all the time, do you?”
"How old are you?” Aaron asked.
“Now there’s a creeper question!” The girl sat up again with her legs beneath her and watched Aaron’s face flush before answering. “Fourteen.”
“Oh. It’s just…hard to tell. You seem really smart for a fourteen year old…um, no offense.”
“Wow,” said the girl, nodding. “You’re getting pretty good at the creeper comments. If you say I look much older than am, I’m going to reach for the pepper spray in my beach bag.”
Finally Aaron laughed and girl clapped her hands. “There!” she said, “Something other than that sad face. What are you so sad about?”
She waved him away, “People who aren’t sad don’t bring alcohol to the beach unless they’re also bringing hotdogs and friends.”
Aaron was struck by the girl’s bluntness. “Okay fine, I’m sad. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to share my sorrows with a fourteen year old girl I just met at the beach.” He paused and rubbed at his eyes. “Or anyone I just met at the beach.”
“Fine with me,” said the girl. She was silent then, and looked out at the water. Aaron watched the boats again and felt the hot sand under his feet. He thought about the three mile bike ride back to his apartment and how tiring it would be now that the sun was in full force. He could almost feel his leg muscles burning already from the ride and it seemed appealing to him. He stood up and the girl looked at him. “Leaving?”
“Oh…” She watched him pack the chair and book away and swing the bag over his shoulder. The bottle in his hand was still a quarter of the way full. “I hope you feel less sad,” she said.
Aaron thanked her, not looking at her, and walked back to his bike. There were others now alongside it, and he pulled it backwards before pushing back the kickstand and hopping up on the seat. As he set off again down the path, tears began to stream from his eyes. His mind would not stop playing the association game. This time it matched the girl on the blue beach towel with his brown haired niece who he had looked after one night a few months ago while his sister and brother-in-law went out to dinner. His girlfriend had made the three of them spaghetti and afterwards his niece had wanted to play dolls with her uncle. His girlfriend was already asleep on the couch and Aaron remembered having that same guilty feeling at being alone with the young girl. “No,” he’d told her, “why don’t you just go play by yourself in the living room? Uncle Aaron has some work to finish on the computer.”
He’d never been able to interact with his niece. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, but even that thought set his teeth on edge. His sister had confronted him once about his aloofness towards her. “She’s my daughter, you can at least be nice to her.” And then one night he’d been following their minivan down the highway back from their parent’s house when a car crossed the median and smashed the side of the boxy vehicle inward at a sharp angle. If it had been a smaller car, a less ridiculous looking car Aaron was sure everyone in it would have died. In this case, it was only the little brown haired girl.
As he biked, Aaron remembered the half-serious, half-joking tone of his sister saying, “She’s my daughter, you can at least be nice to her.”
Photo credit: photomars-stock.deviantart.com