Every summer they were the first to arrive. Even the shop owners had not yet come up from Boston; the whole village was shuttered to the warming wind. Her sister, six years her elder, hated it more each year: their parents were like sharp book-ends that kept her bound and separate from her friends, her band, her drugs and her love for the shadows of large buildings at dawn.
But the girl from her infancy loved the chilled shore, and while aware of the tight hold of her bickering mother and father, she felt them fade to white noise as she settled in to the slow life of summering coastal vacationers. By the time she was a young girl, she observed that the faces of the other families were the same, and the bodies of the other children were growing up and out, as hers probably was as well, though of these details she rarely took notice. She was, as her mother often noted in an easily decoded private language to her father, not a physically gifted or socially graceful child, and the older she got the more forgetful and dismissive the girl became of the requisites of feminine evolution: clothing, hair, cultivated friendships – they all slipped through and past her mind, not from resistance but from some other, unidentifiable source. Her mother, with her lively and interesting features, wide and long-lashed eyes, huge and varied wardrobe and equally huge and varied group of friends, sometimes wondered if her daughter was a bit thick. Or, worse, was already defining herself in opposition to the maternal force and love in her young life.
What was one to do, the girl’s mother often thought, with a child who read a book a day but either couldn’t or wouldn’t take part in the simplest dialogue? Could a creature that small already be so private? In secret her mother sometimes read fashionable articles on autism and, to her mother much more palatable, short books on the signs of Asperger’s, but of these worries the girl knew nothing, or, if she knew she didn’t care: her universe was a singularly private one.
The girl’s family leased the same house each summer. And each summer the same argument would ensue between her mother and father: we must buy the house, her mother would predictably declare. There is not the money to do so, her father would just as predictably answer. The girl’s sister, her dark hair falling down over kohl-lined eyes the same width as her mother’s, used to take part in the argument, signalling her support for her father and for the fact that if there was money to spare she needed a new guitar and just how, come to think of it, is she supposed to pay for NYU on her own… but after a few summers of this she grew as tired of the argument as she was of the location around which the argument revolved, and so when it began, as it always did, she would theatrically pull out her headphones worth many hundreds of dollars and silence the droning with the heroic voice of Exene Cervenka. Then she would look at her little sister, whom she knew lived in a far away place, which was cool but kind of lonely, and grin.
The house always smelled familiar when they arrived: salt-warped wood floors, months of trapped winter sun, a small handful of moth balls and old towels faded from the sea. Because it was a rental the house was furnished in the barest and simplest manner, with each of the three bedrooms containing only a bed, the mattresses old and dusty, a small desk and matching pale wood chairs that had obviously been purchased at a yard sale many years ago. The largest bedroom, however, was gifted with a beautiful ancient brass bedframe, and when the sun drifted in from the West in the late afternoon the orbs crowning the headboard glowed like newly lit fire.
The girl had long ago claimed the room facing East, and the summer sun woke her early. By the time she was ten she developed among her many seaside rituals the habit of dragging the wooden desk chair to the window, where she would sit with a book, her old bunny (now missing an ear and half a plastic eye), and a pilfered sweet, her gaze alternating between the page and the grey tide. The house at that hour was always silent with sleep, and when she opened the window to taste the salt breeze the sound of the shore seemed always startlingly loud.
She found the rock the summer of her eleventh birthday. She was still as angular and knock-kneed as an eight year old, but her eyes had taken on a weary, occasionally sarcastic cast that alternately worried and reassured her mother. This was the year she remained rooted to her books and her solitude, but she also, in the sudden way only children manage, shifted into an occasionally social child, spending hours on a Friday night at a friend’s house, forgetting to call when she should. This more than anything assured her mother that the girl might be alright, at least someday, and would go to university not just for the academics but for the boys and the drinking and the adventure too. The girl’s mother was exhausted by her elder daughter; all she wanted anymore was to not worry, and to return to a familiar life of friends and travel, gossip and therapy and books. About this desire the child’s mother felt unending guilt, knowing that every moment she yearned for a life beyond, or beside, or outside of her children that her oddly perceptive youngest child took note and cataloged the distance between them.
Six days before her birthday, on a still and unusually hot late June morning, the girl left the house before her family woke. She walked north along the beach, stopping to peer into fresh tide pools, lazily observing the miniature worlds that lived there. Small crabs, trapped translucent fish, broken sand dollars, seaweed and of course starfish of varying shapes and tone. If the pool seemed particularly clear and interesting she would stick her index finger into the center and stir, imagining she was creating vibrations throughout an entire universe separate from her own. She carried with her a thin and difficult book – Nabokov’s Mary, which she intuited was too difficult for her to fully understand but she enjoyed the challenge, and also the feeling it gave her to be close to genius, even if it was a genius far out of her young mind’s reach. She had read that every book he wrote was dedicated to his wife, and she couldn’t decide if that was true love or a literary publicity stunt. She knew, already, that of course there was no such thing as “real” love, a belief that made her feel safe, and superior, and above all, wise.
The rock, about half a mile up the shore from her house, was her destination, as it had been every morning since her discovery of it the second day of her arrival. Although logic told her otherwise, she felt the rock was a new addition to the landscape; her familiarity with that part of the coastline was too intimate, too long-lived, to not have seen it before. And yet she hadn’t, until this summer. The fact that the rock, huge, ancient, proffering a perfect vista of the coast, was both new to her and clearly a deeply embedded part of a world she knew so well made the thing seem magical, even a bit fearsome. A great boulder, thrown up by the sea long ago, and it had been, she thought, just waiting for her all this time. She projected her life into the future, and saw that perhaps it would be here, on this rough and salted surface that she would create her first “great” poem, and her biographers would come to the place like a pilgrimage. She was blessedly too young to be embarrassed by such thoughts, and so her imagination, as she perched on the rock like a small nereid, flowed along uninterrupted, and slowly her body melded to the dark ochre outcrop. Sea and sun, breezes carrying scents of pine and salt and damp; thoughts floating like hollowed wood on water, the strange sentences of Nabokov: soon enough her world formed a tonic of deadened sleep, the sleep of the young, the sleep of the sea and a mind imbued with exquisite and transient innocence.
In the haze of a high sun covered with the slightest shroud of a gathering afternoon storm, the girl woke, and sat up with an immediate, frightened animal-knowing that someone was there, or had been there, and was aware of her. The strap of her pale yellow swimsuit had fallen off her shoulder, and her thighs had burned to the red of a pomegranate seed. Her feet felt like sandpaper from the rock and beach and her head felt heavy with sleep and burned heat. She put her hand over aching eyes and gazed at the horizon, feeling at once very high and very exposed.
As she slowly descended her rock she saw him, a small boy sitting in the shade. He was drinking something dark and pink from an old mason jar, and his hair was a long tangle of salt-bleached curls. He had no shirt, and was wearing a long and fraying pair of patterned swim trunks clearly two sizes too large. On his calloused feet were ancient black sandals. His knees were reddened and dry and the rest of his thin small body was so dark he looked, to her, like a Hawaiian or an Indian. Almost instantly, however, she saw that he possessed none of those interesting antecedents: he was just a local.
She pulled herself up in the condescending, almost mannered way that her mother found so irritating and cold. With her shoulders back and her long light hair tied in a silky bow she had found at a craft fair, her eyes peering down at him from her perch half way down the rock, she looked to him like a child queen.
You were looking at me, she said to the boy.
Yes. Yes I saw you sleeping.
And what did you see, what did you see when you saw me sleeping? her voice was curious, almost kind.
Sensing a softening, or, dare he wish, a mild friendliness, he replied, I saw that your strap was down. And that your eyes were closed even though it’s very bright, and I thought that was kind of funny.
And, he said, feeling bold and that she might be kind – you are pretty.
The blow came so quickly he still wasn’t sure what body part had struck him. Stunned, breathless, he wrapped his tiny arms about his torso, the pain sharp and thorough throughout the right side of his body. He looked up, and saw that it had been her small left foot that had shot out at him, and the boy looked down in embarrassment and rage.
You should not look, she said. And you should not be on my rock. Tightening the bow in her hair and quickly pulling up her yellow strap, thin as wire on her shoulder, she stared at him.
And then she walked away, wondering at her cruelty, at her wish for the boy’s pain. She had not done anything like this before. How, she wondered, to feel about it? Guilty, interested, curious, sad? She mused over her actions, and suddenly had two thoughts at once: a story. She could write a story about this. And – oh! – she had forgotten her book on the rock.