It’s early morning. All the young men I love are beginning to climb down the trees. I’m looking out the window from inside the living room at my best friend Julie’s house, or a version of her house. There’s a ceiling to floor glass window, facing out onto a wooden porch. The house is built high up on a hill, so many of the tallest treetops come right up to eye level with the porch. The men seem not to be scared at all, but I am seized with fear, trepidation, as I look out the window onto the tall, tall trees, watching the men like monkeys scaling their ways down the trunks. How can they be so careless with their lives? I feel the living room floor dropping out from under me and I wake up falling.
We are on the beach in Hawaii on the north shore of Oahu. We’ve rented a house up there, a group of friends. Mostly from college, but also a few of us who know each other from before, like me and Julie, who’ve known each other since high school. We’ve been eating raw, red chunks of tuna with soy sauce and fried up shrimps, riding our bikes up and down the path along the beaches. It’s dark out tonight, with barely a sliver of a moon. It’s windy but the air is warm. The waves crash on the shore—some big, some smaller and quieter, like a dog lapping up water. Like any beach—we could be at basically any beach, I think, and then chide myself for being so negative.
We’ve been drinking tequila at the house and now the three of us, me, Julie, and Tim, have walked down to the beach to get some air, because everyone inside started smoking. It occurs to me, as Julie and I sit down on the sand, that we are drunk. I watch Julie put up her dark blond hair, like dirty sand, into a pile on top of her head. At least, I am drunk. Tim is running up and down the long shore, occasionally doing imaginary hurdles or just seeing how far he can jump. He’s still in his bright blue shorts from when we went swimming earlier, his hair longer than I’ve ever seen it. He keeps tucking it behind his ears.
He runs up to us. “I’m going swimming,” he says, breathlessly, throwing his red sweatshirt at me. I catch it and he’s back off into the darkness before either of us can respond. I tuck the sweatshirt over my lap, feeling its cotton arm under my naked thigh. I can just barely see the water’s edge, maybe a hundred feet in front of us, and I think I hear a small splash as he dives into the crashing ocean.
I turn to my side. Julie, her head tilted back, is looking up at the stars. I stare straight up too, closing one eye, and then the other, letting the stars move back and forth, right left right left. I lift up one of my arms and feel the tips of my hair hanging down behind me. If I’d just let it get longer, I could lean back and have it touch the sand, but I always get antsy and cut it. On such a dark night, I can see more stars than we ever could at home, unless we drove out thirty miles, into the desert.
We have no phones, no watch with us. This is part of the vacation for me. When I next remember the water, look down from the sky, it seems like it’s been a while. Many minutes, definitely. The air is getting colder, all of a sudden, and the black water now looks very sinister to me. I don’t want to say anything out loud because that’ll confirm it, make it all real, how long it’s been.
The water is suddenly extremely dark and deep, and he is strong and a good swimmer but he’s been gone a very long time, an unnatural amount of time. I breathe in and then try to let it out quietly. Julie lowers her head to look at the water, too. We both squint in the same direction.
“Do you see him?” Julie finally asks, flatly.
“No. I can’t see anything.”
I wish she wasn’t here for this.
We speak quietly to each other even though no one else is around on the beach. It’s the middle of the night and it’s a touristy area but it gets quiet after dark. Mostly just people taking day trips up here, families and surfers, not as many young people as in the city.
Suddenly, I start wondering what I’ll actually do if we reach the point where it’s not clear where he is. How long do we wait and really, what do we do in the middle of the coast on the North Shore? Is there even a police station? And what do the police do in confrontations with the ocean? Sure, we’re in America still, but barely.
“It’s been a while,” Julie says, and then I am really worried. Julie thinks it’s been a while to be swimming.
I, or perhaps the tequila in my blood, am now angry at him. These boys, running off into the night, thinking only of themselves, needing the adventure, the challenge, the physicality.
I let myself picture, for a moment, calling his parents. What would I say; how could I say it? I’d have no words to explain why he was swimming, what drove him into the water to swim on a lightless night. That we’d been drinking, I’d have to hide it in my voice. It’s now obvious to me that it’s the dumbest idea anyone could imagine, goes against all common sense. I didn’t know.
He’s lost at sea, I hear very clearly in my head, in my own voice. In my stomach, in my chest: dread, a feeling of inevitability, a calling out to God, the way I used to when I was a child and afraid, the most basic instinct. Please, just this one favor, just bring him back alive. I hold my breath like I used to when I was little, to show Him how serious I am about this prayer.
For a moment, with my eyes closed like that, I imagine Julie’s dead brother beside us on the beach. In my mind, he’s the only bright light thing in the dark blueness of the night. He temporarily hovers just next to the two of us. He used to pick up prescriptions for Julie and wait for the two of us after flights, to bring us home from the airport in their family’s dark green van. I can still see his salmon shorts that he wore on family vacations, his tanned calves, the color of iced tea. On Julie’s left, he waits, his presence and memory drawn out by our fear, our anticipation as we sit on the sand.
On the beach I don’t want to call Tim’s name out loud; I don’t want to alarm Julie by showing that I’ve already gone to the worst-case scenario. I need to believe that he’s still swimming, that he’ll hear me if I yell for him, and I’ll feel sheepish when he nonchalantly comes back if I start screaming his name. But now the moment has come where I need to know, my body needs to know before it goes into full panic mode. I will never be able to explain to his parents why I waited so long before I started to look for him, how his body got swept out so far into the ocean. So I stand up, hugging his red sweatshirt in my crossed arms, and start to walk towards the water.
Then Julie stands up too. “Tim!” she calls out first, short, then longer. “Tim!”
I wait, unable to yell because my throat is too sore, and Julie crosses her arms too. She’s always been braver than me. A slight breeze coming off from the ocean, and the palm trees quiet in the night. The stars, still accusingly bright, I don’t want to look at them now. We stand like that for another minute, or perhaps another hour—there’s no watch to rely on—until suddenly he comes running up from the right hand side of the beach, his feet softly padding on the sand like the quietest miracle.
“Hey,” he says, breathing out, coughing a little. “The water’s awesome. Not even that cold.” He reaches one hand out to me for his sweatshirt.
I will not tell him how he terrified me. I won’t remind him about Julie’s brother, about the way people disappear with no notice. I will not tell him I was imagining the phone call to his parents, I was picturing his funeral. Somehow, to say these things out loud would be to make them too real, would be to curse his charmed existence.
I’ll only say, “You freaked me out,” and hand him his sweatshirt.
I’ll hit him on the arm and he’ll respond, “Oh, come on,” and say my name back to me in a sing-song voice: “Me-gan.” We’ll walk back to the house together, apart. Tim, in front, with the longest strides, then me, unable to quite keep up, unwilling to go slower, then Julie, finally, silently and a few steps behind, walking back to the warm, bright, smoky house.
Janet Frishberg lives in a light blue room in San Francisco. She’s currently editing her first book, a memoir. You can find her @jfrishberg, where she’s trying to tweet more consistently.
–Art by Felicia Simion