“I got the alert, but it’s never a thing. Right? I mean, am I wrong? It’s never a thing…”
On the night of the big wave, we ignore the warnings blowing up our phones and stay on the beach. It’s Violet’s idea, of course it is. Whether we’re smoking weed at midnight in the yellow sour grass by the gas station or drinking Kahlua and ice cream shakes on the clock or skimming money off the top of the cash register at work, it’s always Violet’s idea to break rules. And when it’s her idea, we never get caught. She’s good at breaking rules, at finding tiny nooks and crannies between words, inside words to figure out where you can slip through, at finding the inconsistencies between what someone might have said, and what they probably meant, or what you could argue they intended. Back when we were still in school together, dad would shake his head and say anyone who broke rules with that much sophistication would someday be a lawyer or a criminal. Guess which one she chose.
On Tuesdays, I work a different shift at the cooperative grocery on the streets above Nye Beach than Violet, five to one, and it’s a rough shift because produce comes in later that day, which means I have to hustle to get it shelved. With the everlasting drought, farmers are having trouble securing an adequate supply of water for their greenhouses. Outside, the surface of soil has changed, irrevocably, because of how blazing hot it gets in the summer, so they keep building these greenhouses with rich, dark dirt like we used to have. Crops have been emerging paler, wheat and eggplants the color of reflections or ghosts, and blander, too. Less goodness in the soil. And the newspaper columnists have started to offer opinions on developing a technology to produce all food synthetically, since we’ve rocketed past the point of stopping the death of the planet and have neared the precipice. The bell over the door jingles and I glance up from the emaciated tomatoes. Violet arriving at the store for the start of her shift just as I’m done restocking.
“Late, Violet!” I say as she waltzes in. She shrugs, and even her shrug is elegant. She looks beautiful, always does, her raven hair slicked back tight with gel in a ballerina bun, her face starry with pierces, tiny hoops, her lips streaked a shimmery red. There’s a sadness too in her eyes, and it’s the sadness that holds me back from scolding her. Since her mother died in the wildfires a year ago—one of the worst wildfires in history, though if we’re honest, which we’re not, they’re all bad—shadows have spread under her eyes, giving her a perpetually haunted look, like she’s expecting death to come calling for her any day now, or like maybe she’s calling death to her.
“Oh, you know.” She holds up her hands, palms up. “I’m thinking we should go out to the beach. Bonfire tonight? Sunset? We’ll roast marshmallows, smoke out, get crunk. Remember how we used to do that in high school?”
I shrug noncommittally. She always remembers beach bonfires as exquisitely romantic, but the shore was a six-hour drive from our hometown after school, and it turns freezing cold on the beach at night. The starshine made you feel like the world was going to be all right, even though to hear the news it clearly wasn’t, but the wind would whip up so hard and loud you could barely hear each other, and no amount of fuzzy navels, no bonfire could ever warm you up out there. “Why don’t we just rent a movie and invite everyone over? There’s this Swedish horror movie we talked about getting from the library last time.”
“Come on. It’s been years! And how many of those depressing foreign films can you watch in this lifetime? Do you want me to kill myself?”
“All right, yeah, we don’t want that.” I say it reluctantly, but try to smile. She does this, you know? Turns everything into the most dramatic version of itself. Makes even the tiniest sparks a conflagration. You like that about her, I remind myself. That’s why you’re friends.
Excitement’s always tugged me forward, pulled me out of the ravine some folks call depression. But it’s hard to live with someone you like when she’s a straight girl who doesn’t notice the electricity between you, even though it’s plainly there. Her blinders are so huge and convenient. I walk down the snack food aisle, pulling off the store apron, and set it back in the stockroom.
After work, I don’t return to the apartment we share by the ocean. Cramped, with dingy curtains through which a kind of pale, washed-out light trickles. Two bedrooms, though I’d prefer one. Instead I ride the F bus away from the coast, through the grey spring downpour, unyielding, sudden, strange, to the next town over, inland, where the hospital is.
The bus is mostly empty and stinks of shoes. The elderly, braced on black canes, carrying overstuffed grocery bags and wet umbrellas. A young, lone mother in a ratty sweater, no umbrella, with her infant in a hot pink rain jacket. The rubber on the floor of the bus is puddling. The driver taps the brakes, taps them again. The rain is unusually thick, and it’s hard to see anything through the smear of wet on the glass, the swishing windshield wipers, their rhythm like a heart beating too fast. I glance at my watch. I’m not quite late yet, but close.
When the bus stops at the hospital, I jump off, shouting my thanks. I sprint through the lobby, and take the elevator to the third floor. On the third floor is the clinic where they’re conducting the pain study. The pain study is the fourth medical study I’ve done in three years for money. I’m not going to ask or take money from my parents like Violet does. Her dad’s a rich investment banker, or anyway upper-middle class, if you think there’s a difference. Mine are school teachers. Violet keeps telling me I need to get a different job and maybe I should deal Ecstasy on the side like she does, but I can’t find another job, and I can’t get caught dealing, I just can’t. It’s a white coastal town—most of the people we know hire people that remind them of themselves, and that’s not me, it’s never been me—I don’t say this part because Violet is beautiful and I am not, because I get the feeling it might wound her to be reminded how vastly different our situations are.
“That’s not true! They didn’t mean it like that,” she’d say when we were in high school and then community college together and I’d point out how racist someone was. “Is it because he’s white? What if I made comments about brown people?”
I don’t say it, but the thing is, she does make comments when she’s not thinking carefully about me and how I might feel about what she said. Once I think this thought, though, I immediately feel guilty, like I’m betraying her, betraying our years of friendship, even though I haven’t said or done anything to reveal my thoughts. Thought betrayal—that’s not a thing, is it?
I sit down in the white vinyl chair and Lucy the research assistant asks me how my week was. “Fine,” I answer. She always wants to make small talk, and to keep us in harmony for the hour, I try to pretend that I do, too.
“Okay, now how does that feel, scale of one to ten?” she asks me as she presses the iron against my skin. Pain floods my skin, sinks deep into my flesh, but not as badly as it could. And there’s a flicker of pleasure, which I kind of like. It reminds me I’m alive, that I’m someone who’s feeling things, and to me, that’s gold.
“It’s maybe a seven?” She lifts the iron away. I know I’m supposed to tell her a definitive answer. Who can tell what your pain is besides you? But instead I default to asking because it seems, in that moment, looking into her amber eyes, maybe she might know more than I know about my pain. Seriously, she might. My whole life people have been telling me how much this or that should hurt, what should matter, why stop now.
“I’ll write down six,” she says, nodding in that brusque, secretarial way and scribbling notes on her pad. With a gloved hand, she applies Capsaicin cream on the reddish rectangle of skin where she pressed the iron down. I wince at the coldness of her applying the cream, clinical, detached. After so many burn appointments, she knows all the details of my life. We talk about how my roommate still hasn’t figured out I like her. “You should tell her,” Lucy says in that casual, breezy way, as if she’s been there, as if she knows anything about it. “Think about it, wouldn’t you want to know?” She presses the iron down again. “And what’s this?”
“Six?” I ask.
“Six?” she asks back.
I nod. She writes it down on her little pad.
A few minutes later, my phone beeps. An orange alert: our whole town is being evacuated because of a tsunami threat. We’ve received many of these alerts over the last few years. There was a small-wave tsunami a few years ago, and ever since then, scientists have kept close watch on the serene beach our apartment overlooks, and the threats have all been phantoms. Years ago, all the birds flew away from our town. The possums and raccoons abandoned us. The crops dried up due to drought, and we’ve been acquiring our food from the newfangled greenhouse farms. Violet skips fresh food altogether, saying it’s too expensive, and buys astronaut food online, occasionally lifting from the grocery. We all know why the planet’s off-kilter: nobody cares, and yet they pretend to care by issuing these meaningless warnings. Violet and I have evacuated our apartment so many times, taking the car all the way up to Portland where her dad lives now, we joke we’re just not going to evacuate next time, come what may. We’ll sit and watch for the tsunami. It always turns out to be nothing, a blank in our town’s history, and every day trickles on as before.
Lucy hands me my check. There’s one more follow-up, but it’s months from now. I call Violet after I leave the pain clinic. A good thing about working at that store is that the owner’s never there, and most of the time we can just talk to each other on the phone or text bitchy comments about the customers. “Did you get the alert? No bonfire, I guess.”
“I got the alert, but it’s never a thing. Right? I mean, am I wrong? It’s never a thing, so we should have a bonfire.”
“Nobody’s going to come.”
“We’ll be there. Why isn’t that good enough.”
It is good enough. I think about being alone with Violet, and feel certain it’s good enough for me. It’s her who doesn’t find me good enough, who expects us always to be striving towards a better scene, a better moment. And the word, the word tsunami. It’s a word that freaks me out, a word with so much ominous nesting within it, and yet, after all those other times, how likely is it that this time is different? It’s just a word.
I ride the bus back to our apartment, and this time tired employees flood onto it as we travel through the town. The bus is crowded, and the black rubber on the floor is nearly a swamp from waterlogged shoes, unpleasant odors wafting up from it, or maybe from the people around me. It pulls up to the sidewalk a block away, and I struggle to jump off the bus in time. The bus driver almost closes the door on me as I step outside. It’s stopped raining. The sky, a hazy pale blue, and clouds gathering, knitting, cotton being woven overhead.
Up in the apartment, nobody’s inside. The air is all TV dinner, a lasagna with meat sauce or something, and the microwave door is ajar. I wriggle out of my boots and set my backpack down. The living room is in shambles, books lying askew on the puke-beige carpet. The window is open and wet papers are scattered about, no doubt the result of rainy wind blowing in for hours. I shut the window, and the floor is damp on my bare feet. A scrawled handwritten note is taped to the door: Closed up way early. Gone down the stairs, meet me at the beach.
I sigh. Of course she didn’t wait for me. She means the stairs that lead down to the beach, and she’s probably already out there. I look in the refrigerator. Still a six-pack of beer. I grab the beer and fill my backpack with jerky and goldfish crackers we pilfered from the grocery store. I grab a sweater and run down the stairs. Outside the sky is already getting dim, reflecting a dreamy, luminous blue in the pools of water streaking the packed, shadowy sandbar. I can see a dark figure walking along the waves, probably Violet. The beach is empty. I glance around, and the streets are empty, too. Not even one passing car. I manage to light a cigarette in spite of a fierce wind building. It’s another flight of concrete steps down to the beach, and I almost tumble down the stairs trying to hold onto the beer, the railing, and the cigarette.
The sand’s cold, light going fast. The dark figure wandering at the edge of the turbulent ocean walks towards me, skirting the reflections of sky on the beach in the puddling places where tide’s lapped up sand, and it’s not Violet. It’s a middle-aged white man with long stringy hair wearing a trench coat.
“Hey, can I bum a cigarette?”
I look around. Trapped. Nobody is on the beach but us. For miles, just empty sand. The ocean at the shore is endless waves. The staircase far away, small. Reluctantly I set down the beer and start to unzip my backpack where the cigarettes are.
In a moment, the man has grabbed my backpack. He takes off down the beach, his stringy hair flying behind him in the wind. For a moment, I stand stunned, motionless. But my check was in that backpack. I take off after him. He’s fast for someone older, and I’m quickly out of breath. I’m a few paces behind him and reach out my arms, swinging the box of beer bottles, meaning to slow him down with a swift clock to the back, but he makes a sudden left turn towards a second set of stairs. I trip on a rock and fall onto the wet sand. It’s packed and hard. Rough sand across my lips and dribbling into my mouth. I spit it out. Meanwhile, the carton of beer smacks the ground several feet away, and several bottles explode on impact, beer spraying. I climb back into a crouching position and dust the sand off my body. The light sand abrades the dark skin over my legs, a kind of stippled effect. Faraway, the man bounds up the last few concrete steps. He turns to stare back at me. We look at each other, both desolate, alone in all this vastness. He holds up the backpack, salutes me, and disappears. I needed that check. I feel like throwing up.
Why can we never control pain? Why are we always controlled by absence? It’s almost incomprehensible to me, this ever-present, incinerating desire for what’s not there—in this case, the check that represents everything but the slip of paper that it is, the absence of love, the heat of pain on my arm, the sense that my life might have been more than this relentless fear, but now will never be.
The sun slips. Usually, you can spot a loon or pelican out on this side of the shore, but instead, there’s a curious emptiness. I grab the box, emptying out the broken glass, and walk back with three beers towards the spot where Violet and I usually meet. I don’t see anyone on my walk. I glance up at the road, and still no cars. Everyone’s taken the tsunami warning seriously. Violet’s there, sitting on a rock in her heavy black sweater, hair whipping around her head, and trying to light a small mound of driftwood with a lighter. I watch her from a distance for a moment, and in spite of the wind, she seems to get a small blaze going on. She looks up and sees me.
“I brought marshmallows,” she shouts as I approach.
“Where were you twenty minutes ago? I just got robbed.”
“No shit?” She picks up a stick, spears a marshmallow, and hands it to me, a white puff, giving against the sharp stick.
I explain about the man, using the bottle opener on the keys in my pocket to open two bottles, and hand her a beer.
“So we have no food?” She takes a long sip of beer, drinks it like it’s quenching.
“Also, I have no check.”
I’m angry at her for her nonchalance. And angry for not arriving earlier, like why couldn’t she have figured out I was in trouble? I feel like we should be more connected. We’ve been best friends for years; shouldn’t she be able to predict me by now? If you know someone, you should be able to read the little signs, you should be paying attention always. I knew, for example, that she would steal some marshmallows from the store when she closed up, and that’s why all I brought was beer and jerky and crackers. I’ve spent years expecting her to understand me. So why can’t she live up to that? Why do I remain essentially unknowable? Is it me or her? I try not to let my thoughts show, knowing the rage is irrational and a turn-off, to boot.
“I’m sorry,” she says sympathetically. “Are you hurt? Were the burns bad today?”
I can feel tears sliding down my cheeks before I recognize how sad I am. Like so many things, my body knows it before I do. The burns are controlled, perpetrated against just one part of my arm, a part of my arm that, while I am being burned, I forget, as if it is not my arm, but someone else’s arm, and I feel it by mistake. The burning is not all-encompassing, it does not hurt as much as being alone in this world. She reaches out a hand to my face.
“I’m sorry,” she says. I don’t touch her, but I can smell her, Chapstick and some kind of musky perfume.
I lean forward and kiss her, and to my surprise, she sticks her tongue into my mouth. She tastes like the gluttonous ecstasy and sweet too-muchness of marshmallows, the sour of beer, her lips almost waxy. I put my hands on her hips, her red pleather pants soft beneath my fingers. We kiss like this for a long time, growing cold in the salt-stained wind, the roar of ocean so loud, so all-consuming I can’t even hear her breathe, just the feel of her lips. This is the only still place. When we pull away and look up, the ocean seems closer than it did. I squint at it. Yes, definitely closer. And the waves are bigger, too.
“Maybe the tsunami warning was right?” I ask, tentative, wanting her to say no so we can stay here kissing, wanting her to say yes so we can run. Not sure what I want in the midst of the fear that’s flooding every cell in my body, consuming me.
“Probably.” She shrugs and gets up. She starts dancing with her beer by the embers.
We never do roast the marshmallows. There’s a whole bag of them on the sand by the rock where she was sitting. She beckons me. I stand up and I look out at the sun setting, shielding my eyes a little against the supernatural brightness. Next to us the pools of water in the places where tide had spirited away the sand have incandesced into orange, and white, and red striations. Not far enough in the distance I spy a wave.
“Look,” I tell her. I point at it. “Let’s go.” My heart lurches into my throat, but somehow I can’t move, every limb frozen in place. She takes my hand and squeezes it.
The wave is huge, an enormous aqua blue wall, almost translucent at its upper limit, so terribly tall and cresting, almost solid so you can’t really see the dimming sky through its green heart. I can see that if it ever reaches us, it will crush us, drown us, in an instant. I wish with an ache we’d run away while there was still time.
Why hadn’t we listened to all the emergency warnings? Why had we come back here to the beach?
Violet keeps dancing, a strange, drunken floating dance, reminiscent of what she does when we used to sneak into clubs. It’s not a dance to attract anyone, and she’s doing it even though she can see, as clear as I can, death is coming for us, coming in that wave sparkling at its crest, blocking out the sunset.
“Don’t be scared,” she says.
I’m terrified. Is this it? I want to go, but I think about how Violet is my only friend. Where would we go? Inland where crops are drying up and food is meager and scientists are experimenting with how to make counterfeit bread and butter people will eat, now that all the fresh water is disappearing? The wave approaches, closer than ever. Monstrous. The sky’s shifted. A dark, turbulent grey, no glimmer on the wave as it comes closer. Only sound. Only salt. Raging against the light. No time to go anywhere. No time to flee; maybe there never was. Everything trickles on as before, until it doesn’t. We are moments from this moving rampart, this force. I don’t care. There’s always only now. I won’t leave her.
Header photo by Willyam Bradberry, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Anita Felicelli by Amy Perl.