We rolled through the quiet, well-lit streets of Huntington Beach, tiny grains of sand settled in every crack and corner of the neighborhood. The warm air was saturated with the smell of salt and dead ocean life, subtly underscored with hints of hot asphalt.
“That girl’s probably 15,” Walsh sniffed, pointing out a top-heavy girl waiting to cross the street. She was sporting daisy dukes and a tube top, her long, caramel-colored hair pulled up into a tight pony tail on the crown of her head. The yellow street light laid softly against her California tan skin, highlighting the curves of her enviably slim, toned build.
“Out here,” Walsh continued, “You have to ask for ID before you pick a chick up from the bars. Even then, it could be fake.”
We pulled up next to a palm-tree lined boardwalk; a sidewalk and a wide strip of half-dead grass suggesting the line of where concrete ended and the beach began. Coarse, pale gray sand blurred the line between the two, half-covering the sidewalk that ran alongside it. Kelsey, Anthony and I picked a spot on the abandoned beach and dropped our shoes and socks into a small pile.
The sand sifted between our toes as we walked, cool to the touch and slowing our pace. The moon was nearly full, a sphere of silver that dripped down across the rolling, white-capped waves. Everywhere, the dull roar of the ocean bounced against concrete and back to us, drowning us in its voice.
“Aaaaaauuuuggghh!” From somewhere behind us, an adrenaline-filled scream broke the wall of white noise. Before we could react, Walsh shot past us, wearing only his tattoos (there were apparently more than I had initially thought) and a manic grin. He dove into the waves head first, popping back up so he could run against the breaker in slow, jumping strides—the kind of run your brain stores away for dreams. Walsh got the reaction he was looking for—we all laughed, were shocked, and one or two of us may even have been impressed.
“Thank God it’s dark out,” I muttered to Kelsey, as we waded in after him, stripping down to our bras and underwear.
The waves were cool and gentle, not neck-breakingly strong and tits-numbingly cold like the Oregon coast. You waded out to your chest, unafraid of rip tides or jellyfish or the rumored occasional Great White. All those things were here, of course—we were only a few hundred miles south, it was the same ocean—but the water here was something to be enjoyed, played in—not something to be braved. You didn’t play “Who can stay in the longest” on California beaches. Some idiots, I’m sure, even turned their backs to the ocean, here.
A short, stocky man with a military haircut waded up to us from further downshore.
“Hey…nice night, eh?” The newcomer stared at Kelsey and me in an attempt at seduction, before swinging his gaze over to the naked man behind us. Walsh quietly backed into deeper water, appearing to be distracted by something in the opposite direction as he casually covered his dick with his hands.
The newcomer was in the Army, stationed at a base nearby.
“So where are you all from?” He waded closer, his stare intense, taking in every part of the two girls in front of him. We backed up a few steps.
“Oregon…we’re just here for vacation with our friends…in the Marines…” I nodded my head towards Anthony, who was now back on the shore, putting on his shoes.
“That’s cool. I’ve been to Oregon, it’s a great place…” He closed the distance between us again. “What part?” We put it back.
“Yeah…Portland…we’re really not here for very long, my husband is deployed, and—”
“Is that your husband?” The Armyman waded closer again, jerking his head towards Anthony. I had hoped to turn the guy off by telling him I was married—it occured to me now that I just looked like a vacationing whore.
“No, I, he’s just a friend—”
“Hey! Come on, we gotta go!” Anthony stood on the beach, waving at us with a sober, slightly impatient look. He waved again. “We gotta get back, come on!”
Kelsey and I bid our new friend farewell as we started that slow dream-run back to land. The ocean waves pushed us in its urgency, and we body surfed our way as quickly away from our new friend as possible.
As the tide rolled in, I was swept up in the curl of a particularly strong wave. I was rolled head over heels in to shore, hitting my head on the sand under the water hard enough to pop out a contact. I jumped up above the waves, gasping for breath and trying to laugh off the thrill of terror flooding my chest. I had come within inches of drowning in the ocean once before, and the fear it instilled—the fear I thought I had long ago turned into a strong, sober respect for the sea—was dangerously close to overtaking me and sending me into an irrational, flailing state of panic.
We clambered out of the waves, gasping and laughing (and me half blind), and the Armyman stood there, watching us, before turning around and wading back downshore.
When we got to the car, Kelsey and I found the boys changing into dry clothes. We stood on the sandy sidewalk, dripping with salt water, our clothes sagging and stretched.
“I can’t believe we forgot to bring a change of clothes.” Kelsey shivered slightly as a cool breeze swept by. Anthony smirked and tossed the keys to Walsh.
“Yeah man, why wouldn’t you think of that? We brought a bunch of extra shirts and shorts. You never know.”
The urge to slap him was growing.
“Then I guess we can wait until we get back to the hotel.”
“Nah, it’s almost midnight. By the time we drop you guys off, then get back to base, it’s gonna be like four AM.” Still growing.
“So then, what, we sleep in the car?”
“No we can rent a hotel or something, if you’re okay with it.”
“Then can we at least borrow some of your clothes while we wait for ours to dry?”
“Nah, I don’t think they’ll fit you. Besides, your boobs will stretch them all out.”
The urge overwhelmed me, and I pinched his bicep as hard as I could, not just pinching, but rolling a tiny part of his skin between my thumb and forefinger. Anthony yelped.
We cruised the streets of downtown L.A., picking out a hotel that seemed—from the views from the highway—a decent combination of cheap and unlikely to harbor overly-aggressive drug dealers. As Anthony booked a room, the rest of us sat in the car, making uncomfortable small talk and trying to pretend like this was normal. Like getting a hotel room for a group of people, three of whom had never met before, and one of which was married, was a completely acceptable and platonic event.
We were underwhelmed with our hotel room, but it would work for the night. There were two beds, one small bath, and a clunky CRT television on top of the pressboard dresser. Kelsey and I had shared a bed during every sleepover for the past twenty years, and sharing a bed with another man with a wedding band on my finger was scandalous for even me, so we automatically assumed that this time would be no different. But, in a perfectly-executed, if not glaringly obvious act of passive aggression, Anthony and Walsh each grabbed a bed before Kelsey and I had hardly stepped through the door. Despite attempts to reason with, harangue, and physically remove them from one bed or the other (I pinched at as much skin and pulled as many leg hairs as I could reach), they stayed firm in their decisions. Now, instead of just sharing a hotel room, Kelsey and me to one bed, Anthony and Walsh to another, the sexes would be mixed: Me and Anthony, Kelsey and Walsh.
Walsh snapped on the air conditioner, an old, frail-looking device that hung beneath the window that overlooked the parking lot. When I looked at it, I got the vague impression of the old man Jafar disguises himself as in the cartoon Aladdin: hobbled, missing teeth, humped back, relying heavily on a tiny cane. As it choked to life, a wave of cold, mildew-scented air flowed into the room. Kelsey and I shivered in our wet clothes.
“So, how are we supposed to get dry?” I narrowed my eyes at Anthony, who was currently channel-surfing.
“I dunno,” He said, settling on reruns of Family Guy, “but you’re gonna want to figure out something fast cause I’m not letting you get the bed all wet like that.” I dove across the bed and gave him a hard pinch on his neck. In the morning, he’d look like he was on the losing end of a fight with an airsoft gun.
“Why don’t you put them on the air conditioner?” Walsh said, pointing at the machine like it was hidden.
“Because that’s cold air, dumbass. It won’t dry our clothes.”
“Sure it will. It’s blowing air. It’ll dry them.” Walsh over at Anthony, who nodded sagely in support, as though he did this all the time.
With no clothes dryer in the hotel, or even a hair dryer, we were left without any other feasible options. I stripped down, wrapped myself in a scratchy, threadbare towel, and laid my bra, shirt, and pants over the vents. From there, I stepped into the bathroom, locked the door, and—deaf to Anthony’s numerous pleas that he had to take a piss—proceeded to take a deliciously hot shower, washing sand out of places I had previously thought waterproof.
When I opened the bathroom door 15 minutes later (Anthony claimed to have peed in the parking lot), my clothes were ice cold—and still soaking wet.
“I fucking told you this would happen,” I said, shaking my salt-encrusted Bob Marley tank top in Anthony’s direction. “Now it’s not only still wet, but freezing.” Anthony shrugged.
“Well yeah it’s gonna take a while.”
As Kelsey took her shower, I searched the room for anything I could use to help expedite the drying process. The search itself was a rather delicate process, as the towel I was (only) wearing was a little too short in both length and width, so I was constantly hiking it up and pulling it down as I peered into empty dresser drawers and obsessively read the hotel’s accommodation policies.
Suddenly, genius struck. The hotel closet had an iron and ironing board.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kelsey scoffed, as I struggled to drag the ironing board from the closet.
“Why not? It’s heat, and you spritz your clothes with water all the time when you iron them—Anthonydon’tyouclosethatdoorthebathroomhastheonlyoutlet!”
Kelsey gave me that sweet, patronizing smile, then laid out a towel on her bed and watched tv with Walsh. I stood in the room’s narrow hallway, wrapped in a towel and plumes of rising steam that clung to the walls and windows. With the exception of a brief setback—Anthony unplugged the iron so he could finally shut the bathroom door during his shower—I was remarkably successful. The heat had both dried and slightly shrunk my clothes back to their original state, and now they were warm .
Ten minutes later, I was fully dressed, smugly watching Kelsey iron her own clothes.
“Sometimes you have to set it down and let it heat up again,” I directed from my nest of pillows and blankets on the bed.
“Oh shutup,” Kelsey snapped good-naturedly.
Anthony came out of the bathroom, freshly-showered and wearing a ribbed tank top, and a towel wrapped around his waist. He had forgotten to bring most of his clothes with him, but he remembered his phone—he hadn’t let it out of his sight since the beach. He grabbed his shorts and went back to the bathroom to change, never once looking up from his tap-tap-tapping on the phone’s glowing screen, a slight furrow in his brow.
Trying to shrug off my suspicions (“You’re married,” I reminded myself), I checked my own phone for texts from Aaron. He must have been on a mission, because the screen was blank. The one time I needed his clingy attitude.
Two AM rolled around before we were finally wound down enough to turn out the lights and try to sleep. Anthony had rolled over, facing the wall, hogging the blankets. The bed smelled like ancient cigarettes and Anthony—that “natural musk” people talk about that sounds disgusting but in reality is actually rather nice, comforting, foreign. I lay on my side, facing the opposite direction and watching the glowing red numbers on the hotel alarm clock blink the minutes past. Every muscle in my body was tensed as I wrapped my ankles around each other and pinned my elbows to my sides, my fingers fidgeting nervously under the pillow.
In the bed next to us, I could hear Kelsey and Walsh talking quietly.
“When you’re in combat,” Walsh was saying, “Your training just kicks in…it can save your life. It’s how I ended up with this scar, instead of going home in a casket. What do you think of that?”
“Oh,” Kelsey whispered in her most awkward, polite voice, “Well, I’m actually a pacifist, so…”
Meanwhile, Anthony was intentionally casual about the situation, and began taking up more and more of the bed, until I eventually tried to shove him back over to his side. Suddenly, he was deadweight, and I was not so much not pushing him towards his side of the bed as I was pushing myself off of it. I resorted to pinching, adding a new bruise to his growing collection. We began to silently wrestle on the squeaky mattress, hands on wrists and fingers in hair and feet against thighs—pushing against each other so hard we were mostly still. Brief, fitful bouts of action punctuated the moments when we were close enough to feel each other’s breath on our shoulders—an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force.
Kelsey occasionally interrupted Walsh’s ramblings and would ask—not turning around—if we were okay.
“Yep, we’re fine!” I’d grunt, “Just…trying to get some space in here!” Operating on the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Kelsey would avoid any more questions and start to fall asleep. But, minutes later, Walsh would shove her gently, say “shutup, you’re too loud,” and start talking again. I don’t think anyone in that hotel room got more than 3 hours’ sleep that night, and my poor cousin certainly slept the least of any of us.
The next morning, Anthony started another wrestling match. This time, Walsh and (resignedly) Kelsey joined in. Having grown up with her high school wrestling legend older brother, she more than held her own against those Marines, even as she wiggled the top half of her boobs back into her tank top. I was so proud.
By the time we left the motel, the room was in shambles. Our wrestling had peeled back every piece of bedding and balled it up into the corner, and sand permeated every fiber of the gritty, stained carpet.
The only thing we had for breakfast were varying forms of caffeine, and Anthony and Walsh tried to talk us into ditching Disneyland and going back to the beach for the day. I refused, then Anthony and I argued, pouted, refused to talk to each other, and stalked away in opposite directions. Walsh and Kelsey shrugged and followed their respective partners.
“I hope they come back to pick us up tonight,” Kelsey said. I sniffed, and led us into the nearest bathroom to pee. It was dark, Cinderella blue, and smelled of urine and lemon-scented cleaner.
“I’m so glad we made it here,” she said from the adjacent stall.
“Me too—after all these years, it’s finally fucking happening.” I stared at the stall door in front of me, feeling claustrophobic after the gaping freedom of the coast.
“I was genuinely afraid that you’d want to go to the beach and we wouldn’t get to go.”
“Are you kidding?” I realized, all at once, that Kelsey knew how much of a distraction Anthony was for me, and how much I craved spending time with him, even when I wanted to rip his guts out.
“This is the whole reason we came down here! We are getting those fucking umbrellas.”
“Oh, good,” Kelsey sounded satisfied. Then, immensely concerned: “Are you actually sitting on your toilet seat? Because mine is icky, and I don’t wanna know what’s on it.”
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