At the Beach, After the Fact

Four young women make their way through groups of people on spread-out towels and blankets. This is the third day of unusually warm weather for June in Maine, and the beach is crowded. They find a spot close to the water, near the line where the sand is wet, and shake out their beach towels. One woman sits cross-legged on her towel in a flowered sundress. Blond hair wisps out from under a floppy straw hat. The others watch, and sit down around her, as if following her lead. After a few moments they remove tee shirts and pull off dresses. They pull out tubes of sunscreen and wipe the white cream on their arms and legs. The blonde woman watches them, and finally pulls off her dress. She takes off her hat, and puts sunscreen on her thighs and on her belly, which pushes over the top of her bikini bottoms more than she would like it to. She sighs, and lies on her back, closing her eyes behind her sunglasses.

Andrea hears the low murmur of her friends’ voices, punctuated by the regular hiss of waves landing on shore. “Oh no, I don’t think so . . .” hssh . . . “That’s what she said. I didn’t ask . . .” hssh . . . There is a moment of silence then, and Andrea feels their attention on her, pushing against her like the sun. She knows they are all thinking of it again, their thoughts drawn back to what they are trying not to talk obsessively about. Jessica, who is least able to hold her tongue when she has a thought, says, “I still think it was a gang thing.”

Andrea raises her voice with effort to be heard over the hssh of the waves and the protesting murmur of the others. “It was not a gang thing. It was more like a fight. Only very short.” She opens her eyes to the brightness of the sun, and closes them again.

“It was just a punch, Jessica. The guy just punched him after Derek said what he said.” The voice belongs to Nicole.

“Oh, right,” Jessica says. “Sorry.” After a pause, Jessica says, “I think I’ll go for something at the snack bar. Would anyone like anything? Andrea, can I get you something?”

“No . . .” she says, then realizes that Jessica wants to be of help. “Well, I’d like a soda, I guess. A Diet Sprite, if they have it.” She lifts a hand and waves toward her bag. “There’s money in there.”

“No, never mind that, I’ll get it.”

Andrea hears her stand and brush sand off her thin legs. She imagines her pulling on a shirt over her two-piece suit before walking away. Then it is silent but for the waves. She feels her friends’ concern thick around her. Though Andrea asked for friends to accompany her to the beach today, this sunny warm Sunday the day before Derek’s funeral, she suddenly finds them intolerable, and wishes she’d come alone, or wishes she’d stayed home. But that would probably have been intolerable, too. At moments she is nearly able to forget about it, or to feel okay, but then something rises in her, as regular as the waves, as strong and as uncontrollable, and she is not able to bear it. Yet she continues to lie here, eyes closed behind her sunglasses, and there is nothing she can do but bear it.

It was just two nights ago. Not Saturday night, last night, but the night before. Saturday early morning, actually, around 1:30 a.m. She had broken up with Derek three months earlier but they had gone out together, for old times’ sake, and because they were still friends. Their friendship, at that point, was an uneasy one. Derek could still not accept that they would no longer be together. His persistence made Andrea exasperated; couldn’t he see that they weren’t right for one another? They’d gone out for two years, and during all that time he’d never seemed to notice her impatience with him, how far she felt from him at times. He’d been oblivious to it, assuming that she was as much in love with him as she used to be, as much in love with him as he was with her.

He’d insisted on paying for her drinks at the bar, even though she protested. “No, no, I’m working now and you’re still a college student,” he said, waving his credit card at the waitress. His engineering degree and GPA had landed him a good job. Andrea had decided to be practical and major in nursing, but she resented her courses, and longed for a freedom she had when she was younger, before she knew Derek, when she’d thought she would major in art. Derek, with his button-down shirts and credit card, was the living picture of stability, practicality. After a few drinks his face turned heavy, his eyes half-lidded and soulful as he’d looked at her. He’d gained a few pounds in the past year, and his stomach pushed against his cotton shirt as he leaned toward her. “Andrea,” he said, and something in his voice made her want to turn away. He became earnest and too sincere when he drank; any irony he was able to summon when sober deserted him entirely.

She took another sip of her gin and tonic, and leaned toward him, a mocking look on her face. Would he even notice? “Derek.”

He stared at her. “I’m serious.”

“I know you’re serious, Derek. I wish you weren’t.”

He leaned back then suddenly and turned toward the room. She’d hurt him. She didn’t want to hear him talk about his feelings for her, and ask again about her feelings for him. “I’m sorry,” she said, raising her voice to be heard above the music. He leaned an arm across the top of the booth behind him, and raised his drink to his mouth with the other.

Jessica has returned with a soda in a can for Andrea. Andrea sits up and pops it open, feels the cool carbonation and artificial sweetness on her tongue. Just like that, she remembers being here on this same beach with Derek, the summer they’d started going out. How could she have forgotten that? Derek was working on a painting crew that summer, and had a t-shirt shaped tan. She’d thought he was sweet, the goofy humor and earnestness then part of his charm, before it came to annoy her. He was lying next to her on the blanket, looking at her from under the brim of a Red Sox hat. He’d touched her cheek, and drawn a line down it with his forefinger. They were new lovers then, and thinking of this, Andrea has to remember what she does not want to remember: how she was the first girl Derek had made love with. Though she had boyfriends before she met Derek, he was a virgin until he met her.

She sets the soda can down next to her so suddenly that droplets spray up from the open mouth. Her friends look at her. She turns to Nicole, to Jessica, to Alli. “I told you we were fighting, right?” They nod, miserably.

“What were you arguing about?” Alli asks, uncertainly. None of them know how to act with her; she doesn’t know how to act with herself anymore.

“Oh, nothing. You know. You know how he gets sometimes.” She hears the present tense come from her mouth but they just nod, and don’t correct her. She stands. “I think I’ll get in.”

Jessica stands up also, awkward. “I’ll go with you.”

But Andrea shakes her head. “I think I’d rather go by myself.” She touches the other girl’s arm. “Don’t take it wrong, Jessie, I love you,” and Jessica smiles.

Andrea gasps when the water hits her, and raises her arms, but makes herself walk farther in. The water is a cold shock; now she knows why only one or two other people bob in the water farther out.

They were both drunk when they left the bar. Her apartment was just a few blocks away, but Derek insisted on walking her, though she said she was fine to walk alone. “C’mon, I do it all the time,” she said. “This is Portland.”

“I care about you, even if you don’t care about yourself.”

She’d stopped at that, hands on hips. The street was empty around them, a night mist making the streetlamp glow hazy above their heads. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Derek had been walking with his hands in his pockets, a toothpick from the bar in his mouth. He took it out before he answered. “You don’t take good care of yourself. You don’t seem to think you’re worth taking care of. You smoke . . .” he gestured to her lit cigarette, “and you do reckless things.”

Andrea didn’t want to hear more about what reckless things he thought she did. He was always protective of her, not recognizing the fact that she was a grown woman who could take care of herself. She turned and headed for the park, a shortcut to her apartment. He talked with his parents every day and she’d been on her own since she was sixteen, but she was stronger for it. Over her shoulder she shouted, “You just need someone to take care of. You don’t feel like a man unless you’re protecting a weak female.”

“No, Andy, I didn’t mean that.” He was walking after her now, trying to catch up. “Let’s go the street way, come on.”

She shook him off and kept walking, dropping her cigarette butt on the sidewalk. The light from a streetlight flickered through leaves onto a small group of young men sitting on a bench just inside the park. They made catcalls at her as she went past, cigarette smoke rising above their heads as they laughed. They shouted something at Derek, walking just behind her; one said something about what he’d show her, since her boyfriend couldn’t. She felt rather than saw Derek pause behind her, heard him say something sharp to them as he walked past without stopping. They were words he wouldn’t normally say, in a place he wouldn’t normally be, but for her. Then the shout, the footsteps, the noise of a fist hitting Derek’s face—just once—and the sound he made as he fell, the back of his head hitting a low concrete border. Then it was just the two of them, Andrea and Derek alone in the park. He lay on the ground with his eyes closed and she crouched next to him, the only sound her sobbing as she fumbled for her cell phone.

The water is cold, but she doesn’t want to get out. Her feet are nearly numb. Maybe this is her being reckless with herself, not caring about herself again. She turns to see her friends sitting on shore, looking out at her. She waves, and they wave, and she turns back toward the ocean. She will not die today, out here; they will not let her die. The small dot of a ship is nearly invisible on the horizon, where the blue sky meets the darker blue water. She lets her thoughts take her again to that street, to the light shaking through leaves as they approach the park. This time she imagines herself stopping in the middle of the street, turning toward Derek instead of running away from him. There is no traffic on this cobblestoned street. She sees herself taking his hand, and lifting it to her lips. It is a thick hand, graceless yet capable, and she feels its warmth beneath her lips. “What are you doing?” Derek asks. “What’s that for?” A smile would, that easily, have taken the anger from his face.

She shrugs and smiles. “You were always good to me,” Andrea imagines saying. It is so true that she can almost believe she did say it to him. “Even when I was being a bitch. You were always sweet to me.”

He laughs then, and moves to take her in his arms. She knows what he would want to happen next between them, and knows that she would not let it happen. Even if she could tell him that she knew she had often been irrationally angry at him; even if she could tell him he had done nothing wrong; even if she could say that she couldn’t trust his love because she’d never had anything like that; she still could not go home with him. That time between them was done.

She sees herself taking his arms from her shoulders and putting them down at his side. She looks at his sweet, gone face once more, at his brown eyes edged in thick black lashes before looking toward the park, toward the dark shadows beyond the trees, where she knows they must go.

Patricia O’Donnell is a Professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she directs the BFA Program in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in many places, including The New Yorker, AGNI, The North American Review, and other journals and anthologies. She lives in a 160-year-old house in Wilton, Maine, with her husband and dog.