—Every year our gang travels, in an erratic caravan, to the barrier islands of the Outer Banks, those losing strips of North Carolina locked in an unceasing decay between the unmoving sounds and wearing forces of the Atlantic. The excursions began in the spring of 2002 (assorted Carolina beaches, North and South) and have continued for 10 years, which may not seem long, but the photographs depicting the decline of our youth present the illusion of considerable length.
Just arrived at charlotte airport, having flown from Tokyo to Detroit and from there to CLT. More than 30 hours in transit. Sweating and dirty. Sleepless. Waiting for my black duffel bag to appear from a hole in the wall as I picture the water, shining light, heat of the sun, beer dripping down my chest.
Exit the airport and experience the painful sensation of humidity across my face and arms. A heavy, old man smokes a cigarette behind me on a bench. Smells like shit. I want a cigarette. Quitting when I hit 29. Got a week left. A pretty mixed girl with an ass like a dream stands near the curb, waiting for her ride. Curved hips rock sideways under tight, black denim to music playing through her tiny earphones. Haven’t seen shapes like that in a while. Carolina in the spring. Love that phrase.
“Carolina in the spring,” I mumble. Mix girl turns around and gives me a “quit staring at my ass” look. I search the cars pulling through to arrivals and up the parking deck where the sun breaks in a straight line on the road.
Gleaming, cobalt-blue hyundai speeds towards me and stops, honking twice.
“You looking for a good time?” a familiar voice asks from the driver seat.
“I guess so,” I say.
Toss my things in the trunk, and pushing into the small backseat behind my old friend Matt, who’s driving. Mikey’s riding shotgun, bearded and grinning behind a pair of sunglasses.
“Tired, buddy?” Matt asks in his usual understated manner.
“I need a shower.”
“No time for showers, man. Got eight hours of road ahead of us,” Mikey says.
“I’ve been on the move forever.”
“Be there before you know it, man.”
“To the beach,” I say.
I-85 North towards Concord, passing Highpoint, Chapel Hill and Durham. I-40 East to Rocky Mount. The sun is shinning and hot through the windows with the smell of exhaust and cut grass. Endless road signs and the rolling flora of N.C.
“Damn Outer Banks is too damn far,” I say.
“The beach is there. We just gotta keep movin,” Mikey says.
“Too bad most everyone’s broke,” Matt says.
“Gonna be fuckin beautiful.”
The hours pass. We stop at the usual Wendy’s. I order a Spicy chicken sandwich and french fries, which look different than I remember. The chicken patty seems inflated and a brighter shade of orange. The fries are brown in places. I pay with a ten thousand yen note. The pretty plump girl behind the counter stares at it, wrinkling her nose.
“What is this?” she asks.
I say ‘oops’ and hand her a ten dollar bill.
“I’m really tired. Just flew in from Japan,” I say.
“Ok,” she says, not giving a shit where the hell I’m coming from. I carry my unfamiliar chicken and fries to the table, feeling like an idiot.
I bite into the sandwich. The texture is different but the flavors remain: Mayo, bread, lettuce, cayenne, onion, paprika and tomato. Warming.
Outside in the parking lot I drink cold cola, crunching the ice between my teeth. Citrus color of the late afternoon sun sets behind the adjoining gas station. I smoke a cigarette with Mikey as Matt waves it out of his face, angrily cursing. He used to smoke and hates it.
“God damn it, get that shit out of my eyes,” he says.
“Suck it up, young lady.”
Matt steps forward twice and moves his arms aggressively, letting out a masculine “Kee-ya!” I laugh and hug him below the arms, lifting him into the air at the waist. He grabs me around the neck, choking me. Mikey tells us to get in the damn car. He’s driving. We take off and I’m in and out of sleep.
A dream about curling a dumbbell that is too heavy to lift. I drop it and wake, kicking the seat in front of me before the fictive weight smashes the bones in my shoeless foot.
Talk radio about the undeniable connection of the city and her food. Songs about the water to inspire our moods.
The lonely sea, It never stops, For you or me, It moves along, From day to day, **That’s why my love (oooo-oooo-oooo), That’s why my love (oooo-oooo-oooo) You’ll never stay (oooo-oooo-oooo)
US- 64 East until we reach the Virginia Dare Memorial bridge, passing the Croatan and Roanoke sounds, which barely move as the wind pushes across the top.
“Look at the sound. Fuckin beautiful,” Mikey says.
“We never stay on the sound side. I think it’s more expensive,” Matt replies.
“I just like that a sound is called a sound,” I say. Matt tosses an empty paper cup and it bounces off the top of my head.
We reach the islands. Another hour riding down 12 south before the beach town of Salvo, which is nothing more than a handful of restaurants, surf shops, holiday rentals, and a few permanents for the townies. It is the same as ever. The beach. All trips are the next production, continuing on and on. There is no year, but the beach crumbles further, little pieces washing away towards Spain and the tip of Morocco.
It is dark. We find our house and park the car under the basket ball hoop. The place is called Wave Reviews. Beach houses are always like that: Dune Nothing, Shore Thang, Beachy Keen. Climbing the wooden stairs to the front door carrying whiskey and a case of beer. They’re all in there, drinking in the living room (high slanted ceiling), smoking on the porch (large one facing the Atlantic), standing in the kitchen taking shots of something (gold in color. Tequila, maybe).
There are twelve of us including my brothers, who approach me in order of age.
“You tired, brother?” Dustin asks.
“Sup, brother,” Adam says.
“Oh great, brother’s here,” Jamey says sarcastically.
We embrace and repeat old jokes between us. Still funny. Adam hooks his phone to a pair of speakers on the tall table near the window.
“Rock it,” he says.
“Cock it,” Jamey says.
I open a beer.
It’s automatic when I talk with old friends the conversation turns to girls we knew when their hair was soft and long and the beach was the place to go…
They are dancing. Brother Adam and other Adam join arms, singing the doo, doo, doo’s of the refrain near the girl named Amanda who executes a sincere portrayal of the twist while spilling something pink and from a champagne flute across the top of her foot.
I pour whiskey over ice into a plastic Bud Light cup. I am delirious but my whiskey, friends, and brothers offer an overwhelming amount of emotion, which becomes excitement, which becomes hysteria.
“Let’s go to the Beach,” Dustin says.
“Beach,” someone says.
“Beach,” someone says.
THE LONELY SEA
We’re all out near the dunes in a circle. The waves break lightly on wet, hard sand. Stars are visible in bright swirls of grey and blue.
“I never see the stars in Tokyo,” I say.
“Feels like you’re in outer space if you look straight up and cover your ears,” Dustin says.
I look up and cover my ears. Muffled laughter though my fingers. I focus on clusters of distant light. Pretty, sparkling dust clouds circle sharp points in blue and black.
Some of us are down by the tide. I walk over and feel the cool water up to my ankles.
“Pretty cold,” I say.
“Should be warmer than last year,” someone says. “Came a month later this time.”
“Thank God for that. That house was cheaper but too cold in May.”
The wind blows with great force across the beach and kicks up the loose sand, spraying our legs. We move away from the water.
We walk in circles drinking beers and discuss friends who could not or would not come. I finish a beer and take pictures of my brother Dustin near the water.
“It looks cool. You’re a beach ghost.” I show him the image.
“They’re too dark,” He says.
The sand starts up again, stinging my legs.
“Feels like bees.”
“I’m heading back,” I say.
It is pitch-black. The crash of the waves and laughter fade as I walk through the dunes, sipping a warm beer. Keep off the dunes, I think. I can’t see where I’m going as I struggle to follow the faint glow of window-light through the trees, holding my can of beer and an empty BUD LIGHT cup. I do my best to avoid the sand-spurs.
Awake in the early afternoon. Shafts of light are placed through broken venetian blinds. It is hot. Four people are still asleep in the room with me. I don’t remember the end of the night. A girl named Stephanie mumbles something.
“What?” I ask.
She is asleep, softly breathing.
Upstairs there are people scattered around the living room on sofas, nursing hangovers, playing street fighter, eating, and drinking coffee.
My brother Adam is in the kitchen toasting waffles. His large, curly hair is thick and does not move when he moves.
“Who you making waffles for?” I ask and touch his curls.
“Me and Babe,” he says. Babe is his girlfriend: a short, blond girl named Kate. She sits at a computer holding her half pomeranian/ half chihuahua mix named Pepe who will continue to gift small, sausage sized shits across the house for the remainder of the trip.
“I don’t want my own waffle. I just want a bite of yours,” she says.
I lie on the sofa (coarse sand beneath my legs). Play multiple rounds of Street Fighter with varying results. No mind. Hungry for bacon. Smell of the salty fat carries through the room.
I fry bacon and eggs for myself and brother Jamey.
“You like hot sauce,” I ask?
“Nah,” Jamey says. His hair is straight like mine, but lighter in color. “Want me to microwave some pancakes?”
“Can you microwave pancakes?”
“Yeah, dude,” he says taking a box from the freezer. “Taste pretty good for frozen pancakes.” He places four cold, hard pancakes on a plate and puts them in the microwave. “Wait till you taste them.”
I splash hot sauce across my over-medium eggs fried in bacon grease and eat them quickly with a microwaved pancake. Brother Dustin stands at the coffee machine. He looks tired and serious about making the coffee. His curls are like Adam’s, but smaller.
“I need a cup,” I say and put a piece of bacon into his mouth. “I made that for you. None left.”
“Thanks. It’s almost done,” he says. “The last pot was shit.”
“Coffee is a serious business,” I say.
“Mikey can’t make a pot of coffee to save his life,” he says. “Too strong.”
Mikey comes up and yells at everyone about the beach.
“Goin to the beach!” he yells. “15 minutes!”
We smoke cigarettes on the screened-in porch. The family next door to us has a pool. We discuss the need for a pool. Maybe next year, we say. If only people had money, we say.
A young girl in a white bathing suit lies on a towel near the shallow end of the clear water.
“How old do you think she is,” Brian asks, pushing up the red bill of his ball cap.
“Maybe 16,” I say.
“I am gonna swim in that pool before we leave,” Mikey says. “10 minutes. Beach.”
“Could be 18,” I say. “I guess she looks younger from far away, because she’s so small.”
The sun shines brightly over the pool-water and the young, reflective girl beside it.
“15 minutes. Beach,” Mikey says.
“You said 10 minutes 5 minutes ago,” I tell him.
“20 minutes, people. Beach.”
I fill a plastic shopping bag with cans of Miller High Life and pour tequila and juice over ice into a plastic Bud Light cup. I take my towel (blue and green illustrations of dolphins and pixelated light shining against sea stones) and my brother’s copy of Nine Stories.
The sun heats the black asphalt. Sweat rolling down my neck as I cross through the trees and over the hot dunes, flipping sand against my calves and up my swimming trunks. It’s quiet, save the clicking of my sandals. Sound of the ocean swells as I walk. Hot light. Ahead there is only sand, as the hills unfold and then between the sloping roundness of the dunes, I see them on towels near the water. Jay, the great organizer of the house, has released a burgundy bocce ball into the air. I track it in an arc before it smashes into the sand, rolling towards the tiny, white jack buried in the warm ground near my bag of beers.
“Who wants to play?” Jay asks. “It’s simple and fun.”
“I’ll play,” I say.
“A tournament!” Mikey yells. His beard is spattered with chunks of sun-block. “Me and Brian are the Bravos. The Bravos are taking the pennant,” he says. Mikey and Brian hum the Atlanta Braves war chant while moving their arms in cadence, chopping slowly through the air.
“Your face looks like you were eating a jar of Mayonnaise,” Brian says.
“Gotta hit those problem areas, baby,” Mikey rubs the lotion into his head, smiling.
We play back and forth between the dunes. The games are short. We argue about distance and rules. Nobody knows how to play. I gloat about my team’s technique and the heavy green, gold, blue and red bocce play across the sand.
“No bocce, no life,” Dustin says.
“He who controls the bocce controls the universe,” Jay yells.
“What we talk about when we talk about bocce.”
I fall into my towel and pull a beer out of a small styrofoam cooler. I drink it and read a story called Down at the Dingy. It is hot. Matt is lying near me. He looks over his sunglasses, stoned eyes under dirty-blonde hair searching the pages of the book.
“What is that?”
“Down at the Dingy.”
“Going down on a Dingy?”
“A famous short story. This one is appropriate now because it describes sunlight and cool water,” I say.
“Show me the sunlight and cool water,” Matt says.
“–The sun, though not especially hot, was nonetheless so brilliant that it made any fairly distant image–a boy, a boat–seem almost as wavering and refractional as a stick in water.”
I finish reading and look back at him. He lies motionless, eyebrows raised. I can see my sunglasses in his sunglasses.
“I just never got into that kind of book,” he says. A seagull hops close to our towels, twichting at the neck. I kick the air and it lifts into the wind.
“What kind of story?”
“The whole slice of life thing.”
“It’s pretty damn popular,” I say. “Read one of these and tell me it doesn’t do something for you.”
“We’ll see,” he says. Sips his beer and looking back at the ocean… maybe shutting his eyes. “Refractional as a stick in the water,” he says.
“Ha,” I yell, pointing at him. “It’s in you.”
“Nope,” he says and covers his face with a t-shirt.
I laugh and look around at my friends. Shocking, radiant sunlight shines brightly on pale, suburned skins as they run or lie over the sand.
“Get yourself in that cool, cool water,” Adam yells from the tide. He walks with our brothers and his girl, Kate. I raise my thumb into the air.
“I’m coming!” I say. Heavy and drunk. Gonna be cold, I think. Drink the rest of my beer. Sprinting towards them and screaming “FUCK” like some kind of idiot as the water swallows me, the world tumbling in circles. Fear of sharks. Sea shells on my back. Standing into the air as another wave smacks me from behind with a loud crack.
“Took the breath out of you, huh?”
“Yes,” I say with water dripping past my closed eyes. “It did.”