I met Ryan years ago at some dungeon of a school. We were both sent to the principal’s office for being naughty. Sorta. Okay, so it was grad school at ‘the best public uni in the east’ but it still felt like a damn dungeon. He’s a huge deadhead and a great writer. I’m so happy to have two of his stories in this magazine and very proud to announce Beach Ball as my pick for the Pushcart.
“Where are we going again?”
Jim keeps trying to explain it to me, but I still don’t understand.
“It’s a nude beach—” His knuckles are already tightening around the steering wheel. “—that really frowns upon indecent exposure.”
“So,” I say. That’s been my only response.
We pull into the parking lot. There’s an open spot in the row closest to the sand and as we approach the water, I can see what Jim has been talking about. Everyone is naked—there’s no question about that—but out-of-place objects sprinkle the beach and hide their shame. Someone is standing behind a parking meter. Someone is squatting in a cardboard box marked “fragile.” Someone is sleeping beneath a Camille Pissarro.
“Here.” Jim hands me a deflated beach ball as he turns off the car. “Blow this up before you take off your clothes.” He opens the driver’s side door and starts unlacing his sneakers. I’m still searching for the little plastic nozzle by the time he removes both socks.
“What are you going to do?”
“Dunno.” He stares off into the horizon for inspiration. He’s missing the creativity and aptitude right in front of him. A father flies his son’s kite two inches in front of himself. The son has crafted a waist-high sand castle. The mother has decided to stay home.
Jim tosses his pants into the back seat and starts to unbutton his shirt. As my beach ball reaches half-capacity, I wonder why he’s so dressed up.
Teenage boys behind laptops try to flirt with teenage girls behind boogie boards. Surfers refuse to hang ten despite the killer waves and instead keep their bellies rested. A couple refuses to make out underneath a three-by-three grid of opened umbrellas.
Jim finally unbuttons his shirt and reunites it with his pants. The shirt rests over the backrest while the pants dangle over the seat.
The ghost of my husband.
My beach ball is at three-quarters-capacity as he struggles to pull his soaked undershirt from his hairy body. As I blow more air into my outfit for the day, it feels like I haven’t touched Jim’s “hairy body” since it was just “a body.”
I watch a short man eating a three foot sub that hangs from his mouth and wonder when he’s going to stop. I watch a tanned man playing paddle ball and wonder if he’ll swing at anything that’s not directly below his belly button. I watch a hairy man skip down the stone steps and across the sand, unashamed.
It’s my husband.
Two cops tackle him and drag his resistless body across the sand. He goes limp the second they touch him.
My beach ball reaches full-capacity and I plug the nozzle, pushing it back inside so that my beach ball is perfectly round.
As I walk down the same stone steps I hug my costume tightly. I think about squeezing it so hard that it’ll pop and I’ll join Jim, wherever they took him, but I don’t. I think about filling the traces of my husband’s arrested joy but decide to leave it up to the tide. I think about peeking at the people who aren’t quite as good at hiding their shame as the others are, but know better.
Wandering around, I notice this man-about-my-age approaching me. He’s riding a Segway that struggles to roll across the terrain. A large basket rests in front of him with the word “Barry” embroidered across it. It’s in quotation marks. I don’t know what that’s supposed to imply.
“Barry” checks out my beach ball. I can’t tell what he’s thinking.
“Wanna play catch?” he asks.
I nod, careful not to let my chin knock the ball out of my hands. I take a few steps back and wait for him to turn his wheels 180 degrees, move back a few feet, and then turn another 180 degrees.
The man-about-my-age and I stare at each other. I saw the least of his shame when he turned around and I wonder if he wants to see the least of mine.
“Aren’t you going to toss it?”
I notice that the spot where the cops caught Jim is between me and “Barry”—if that’s even his real name. For now, he’s just the man-about-my-age.
Beyond “Barry,” a woman constantly feeds and chases seagulls so that the chaos envelops her body. Another person—I can’t make out the sex—brought a sleeping bag to the beach. An older gentleman nods off in the heat, hoping his body doesn’t drift to the side of the beached whale that’s in front of him when he finally falls asleep.
I wonder what “Barry” sees behind me.
Together, him and I just stand there. Our paths will never cross because they’re pointing at one another. Does that mean that when we start moving again and pass by one another, I’ll learn everything about his past while he learns everything about mine, without ever having the chance to discuss it? Retrace instead of follow? Does it mean that we’ll drift apart the more we learn about one another? As we step further and further into one another’s history?
I’ve already been down that road. It’s a dead end. Maybe the trick is to stay perfectly still. Motionless.
I don’t want to let go of my beach ball. The man-about-my-age doesn’t want to step off his stalled Segway.
So we just stand there, the tide coming in, and I wonder what time beaches like this close.