A ROMANTIC TIME AT EAST BEACH
by Rose Quacker
I worried grains of sand between my toes and between my fingers, pondering the cliché, everlasting thoughts of a romantic. Deep down, I felt my desire grow, a burning ache for some more ice. My paper bags of Tito’s Homemade Vodka were burrowed in the sand next to my eleven dollar clearance Target brand beach chair. The bags and I cooked in the sun and both of us could use more ice.
It was one of those days when sweat pools in underwear and everything stinks of burnt skin. The temperature was nearly ninety-five degrees at East Beach, Galveston. I hated and despised each sweltering second of it. It would all be worth it though when Leo took the Island Transit and walked the extra eight minutes to find my place lying in the sand.
“Kids! Kids!” A man shouted ahead of me, “I’ve got it, the spot, our spot, our spot for our beach adventure!” He held up cloth bags in the air like lumpy, checkered flags and with the other hand, he motioned beyond a flock of umbrellas that obstructed my view. Too many children erupted from the flocked umbrellas behind him. They arrived screeching and chasing after each other, rolling in the sand that burnt their bodies cherry red. I wasn’t sure how many children took place in their herd. There were simply too many for me to bother counting. Behind them, a mother shuffled forward, plunging each foot into the sand, her eyes blinking again and again in rapid succession, trying to blink away the exhaustion that settled over her limbs.
The five or six little creatures started an assembly line, working over the sand to smooth out its surfaces to create their own stomping grounds. They smoothed the depressions and dents, plucked away cigarette buds to throw at each other, and packed the sand down. The youngest of the herd was either one very fast child or twins, I wasn’t sure. Either way, they wouldn’t stop screaming, “Has anyone seen my mood ring? It’s blue! I miss it!”
My waiting game was much better with the added entertainment channel. Leo would arrive in a half an hour but until then, I had the family to keep me amused. Something was clear enough to me, despite the haze. This was the family’s “we-just-needed-this-one-thing” beach adventure. Which really was too bad, it was the beginnings of a disappointment. I couldn’t hold my paper bag steady but even I could see that.
“No, no, no, I would rather DIE!” One of the daughters of the herd had reached her boiling point over something or another. I could see the steam whisk out from her ears. Beachgoers around the family gave pointed stares and threw snide comments. Some of the middle age mothers held up their business thrillers a little higher, to block out the incoming storm. I knew I could have looked away too and spared myself the second-hand embarrassment but I couldn’t.
“Why didn’t you?” I knew Leo would ask after he’d find me in the sand and we’d get drinks at Woody’s Bar. There had to be some way I could explain it to him. I pulled out my notebook from my bookbag, next to my quart size baggie of barbecue chips. I knew I needed to write it down to explain to Leo later or Tito’s would scrub it from my mind. I dug out a pen and tapped it against the paper before I wrote scribbles in debate flow style, trying to bring out words, any words.
I would explain it to him with a memory. In a little less than thirty minutes, when Leo would come to East Beach and the two of us would get past the awkwardness and the bubbled up questions, I would explain my people-watching with a memory. Watching the family struggle in front of me was like watching a hit and run. It’s unimaginable to watch something so horrific and it’s unimaginable to look away. I’d tell him, “It’s just like when you picked me up, after my midnight shift, last February. When we saw that girl run out to I-45?” Watching the trainwreck of that “beach adventure” was like watching the truck slam into the I-45 girl. It was like watching her body soar over the ground in spectacular, Olympic-worthy moves. Watching the “beach adventure” was like watching the I-45 girl tumble into a heap on the ground, a ragdoll with its stuffing ripped out. It’s unimaginable to watch something so horrific and it’s unimaginable to look away.
The father, at the head of the blanket, started to put together a sandwich. With each ingredient, he declared it out to the world. For whose benefit? I had no idea. “Bread,” he pulled out two slices of round bread from a cloth bag next to a few of his kids wrestling on the ground. “Arugula…tomatoes…” He opened a wet ziplock bag and slapped away little hands that reached out to investigate. “Roast beef…” He laid the strips of meat with careful precision. The craftsmanship that went into his sandwich making attempts was astonishing.
The mother was on the other side of the blanket. She was a zookeeper of Noah’s Ark, juggling the four, five, or six children, I was still too drunk to count. Each of those children had their own needs, ambitions, dreams, and coming-of-age Lifetime original movie scenes for East Beach, Galveston. The mother ignored all of it, tossing the scripts of passive, one-dimensional mothers into the trash, and offered sunscreen in an open hand, “Okay kids, who’s up first?”
Each of them refused. “No, I don’t wanna wear sunscreen.”
“I would rather DIE!”
The mother, in turn, grimaced, “Fine, fine,” and won WWE belt after WWE belt, taking each child down on the ground and slap-slap-slapping sunscreen on sweaty backs amidst tears and violent protest.
The protests ended and the sullen children resumed their activities. I took another secret sip of Tito’s to smother my giggles.
I wasn’t sure if Leo was going to be up for people watching. I checked the time on my phone. Soon enough I’d find out. “Leo just got off work…if the shop didn’t ask him to stay late.” I crinkled the paper bag between my fingers, “But it’s a Sunday so he’s at home…trying to contact Overwatch buddies…without success…it’s a Sunday…debating on taking the Island Transit and walking the extra eight minutes to East Beach.” To East Beach, where I was, watching this “we-just-needed-this-one-thing” beach adventure. If all went according to Leo’s regular schedule, he’d be arriving at East Beach in around twenty minutes. And I’d be right, as I always am.
The mother patted the blanket in front of the father and gestured towards the ocean, sparkling in the sunshine. “Babe, look at that water, isn’t it just gorgeous?”
The father grunted in reply.
“I’m so glad we decided to do this. It’s great, isn’t it?” She tried again. “We all just needed a break.” One of her boys started to shrug off his swim trunks. The mother smacked his arm and jerked his pants back into place. “We all just need a break. I know I need a break.” But no matter how many open conversation starters the mother prompted, the father continued to make his sandwich, ignoring his lines and cues.
Other people around us clenched their hands around their paperbacks and their scowls became more pronounced. I, stretched out on my clearance beach chair, was enticed by the family without a common language. Each of them dropped hints, declarations, and questions that went ignored by the rest of the herd. I could write my next critical analysis paper on their dynamic.
I shuffled my items in my bookbag and snuck out a few barbecue chips. I munched between secret sips of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, the two bottles I had found under the sink in my apartment. Leo preferred scotch but I didn’t want him to think I came to East Beach just for him.
Truth be told though, a true romantic would have had fine wine in such a situation but a secret romantic (in a family-friendly beach smack dab on a Texan island) has to improvise to camouflage. This was dinner and a show. I couldn’t afford to get thrown off of East Beach again, there was too much at stake. And besides, something exciting was appearing from the skyline.
Screams and screeches burst from the horizon as a pack of seagulls soared in, flying down in a frenzy or stumbling up to people. They dove down and stole from the families crowded together, moments later panic ensued. I’m not sure if it was the heavy liquor or surprise that kept me where I was but I hid my food a little better and munched on barbecue chips as the scene of chaos unfolded around me and the family-friend beach postcard picture crumbled.
“Jesus!” The father thrust his fist in the air, bellowed profanities at the gulls that soared above him and the few that dared to dance close. They were determined, I’ll give them that. The father placed his roast beef sandwich on the cooler and shook his arms towards some of the seagulls at the side of the blanket. Those gulls shrieked and lurched away, their heads lolled in unnatural twists before flying off closer to the shore.
“Kids, kids, come on, close together, they’re just birds,” The mother rounded up the children and tried to keep order but the too many children screamed and wailed next to her. She was a failing leader in the apocalypse. Some of the children used the opportunity to push out the unfavorable siblings as an offering to the birds. The mother smacked them upside the head, “Stop it, stop it,” and tried to unravel one of the little girls, wrapped around her leg, pressing her tear-streaked face against the mother’s knee.
A part of me hoped that Leo would arrive right at that moment to see the human world turned upside down by a couple of fat birds. It’d be a nice way to start the conversation, in shock and laughter in the chaos. It’d be a nice, silly way to start over and start anew.
It had been three weeks since I told him, “I never want to see you ever again.”
Maybe we needed something a little crazy, like Attack of the Seagulls, to ease tension.
I sat there, watching the seagulls scream and steal bits of scraps before flying away to safety. Children were crying around me, a symphony of the ruined beach adventure.
A little terrier erupted from where the umbrellas were flocked together. He ran towards two seagulls fighting over a golden fast food wrapper and he snapped at them, barking up a storm, telling them off and what not.
The terrier looked nothing like Bubbles but I thought about her anyway. On Fridays and special Tuesdays, I drove from Pasadena after Leo left the shop for the day. Then the three of us would take the Island Transit, walk the extra eight minutes, and stroll along East Beach shore together. Leo and I always held hands, both slick with sweat and without a care in the world, while Bubbles strained against her leash to attack seagulls and small children.
Three weeks ago, I traveled from my garbage apartment in Pasadena to see my two favorite beings in the world. I could still remember knocking on the door, holding a Cattleman Pizza from Mama Teresa’s, waiting to hear Bubbles yipping from inside, scratching at the peeling paint of the front door. I didn’t hear anything. The welcome mat covered in bits of dust and fallen leaves had a secret key hidden underneath it and as I twisted that into the lock, I thought that maybe Leo had locked Bubbles in the kennel if the shop called him in. I found Leo playing Overwatch on the stained sofa, smushed, empty bags of popcorn lying around him and a can of Mountain Dew overturned, seeping into the couch.
“Hey babe, almost done, almost done.”
“Where’s Bubbles? I’ll let her out. I picked up a pizza.”
He looked up and looked back down at the game. “Uh. She’s not here.”
“She at your Mom’s place?”
No, Bubbles was not at Patricia’s place. Leo had gotten tired of having a dog around and Bubbles had just passed eight months old. She wasn’t a cute puppy anymore, she was something that needed too much training and too much time. Sure, a dog was fun and all but it was more fun getting some time to himself. Didn’t I understand how difficult of a decision that had been for him? Couldn’t I understand how hard that had been for him to drop Bubbles off at his nephew’s ex-girlfriend’s aunt’s place? Who was someone Leo knew very well, thank you very much but who didn’t have a first name worthy enough to be remembered when prompted?
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
“Babe. I’m being serious.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Leo shrugged. “I’m serious,” but he wouldn’t meet my eyes, “Come on, don’t make me into the bad guy here.”
I drummed my fingers against the pizza box. “Where’s my stuff?” I hiccuped between tears, “My mugs, my blankets? I’m going home.”
But we just needed to talk about what had happened. If my calculations were right, Leo had just gotten off of work, checked Overwatch, taken the Island Transit, walked the extra eight minutes, and soon enough he’d see me enjoying myself in the sand. It was a foolproof plan. I’d explain I was just at East Beach to relax, we’d strike up a conversation, I’d unblock him from all of my social media accounts (LinkedIn and Netflix included) and we’d pick Bubbles up together from wherever Leo abandoned our baby at.
For a moment, the world cleared around me and I blinked out of the alcohol-induced stupor. The seagulls were still wreaking havoc. I sighed, ran my hands through my hair and rubbed away the sweat that collected on the back of my neck. My head pounded from the sun and I swirled the paper bag in my hand, keeping the liquor just inside the bottle.
Two of the seagulls crept up behind the beach adventure family, inching closer towards the cooler near the umbrella. On top of the cooler was the prize, the partially bitten, perfectly crafted roast beef sandwich. On the other side of the blanket was one of the twins or the single youngest kid, I still wasn’t sure. He was dragging one of the environmentally friendly cloth grocery bags and stumbling away, trying to escape other seagulls that crept closer and closer to the reused, reduced, recycled prize.
The mother was packing up the rest of the things, clapping at the kids to get their attention, “We’re just going to go home if you can’t behave! No! We’re not getting pizza! Or ice cream!” The children screamed back in response.
“I don’t want to leave!”
“Leave?! Mom, I would rather DIE”
The smallest child, dragging the cloth bag, bumbled farther and farther away from the stomping grounds, trying to outmaneuver the seagulls. I almost said something to the parents, almost did, and then I took another sip of Tito’s and rethought the inclination.
I didn’t need to anyway, the father caught notice of seagull intentions and saw them creeping up towards his own flesh and blood. The birds were waddling a little faster after the child dragging the cloth bag behind him. The child realized his mistake and started hurrying, throwing his other hand to the air and belted out cries. The father started towards them, “Oh god. Montgomery! Montgomery!”
“With a name like that,” I took another sip of Tito’s, “He deserves to get chased by gulls.”
“Montgomery!” The father ripped off one of the towels folded over their beach chairs and strode towards the shore, to catch up with his child, “Montgomery!” The father looked back to the rest of the circus family putting away their tent, “Babe, the gulls are going to fly away with-” but he stopped what he was saying.
His roast beef sandwich, resting on the cooler, baking in the sun, was being stalked by one of the seagulls close by. The seagull fluffed out its feathers, cocked its head, and took steps up to the cooler. The father looked back and forth between his greatest creation and the snot-nosed brat he had dragged to the beach only a few minutes ago. I sat up in my seat, trying to see his thought process in the wrinkles that outlined his forehead. His kid was close to being nipped by fat birds, there was no way he’d head back to a warm sandwich.
The father hiked back to his family putting their things in their cloth bags. The seagull and the father paused for a moment, gazing at each other, measuring each other’s worth. With a flick of his wrist, the father snapped the towel at the bird creeping up to the cooler. The seagull jolted back, opened its beak to utter a horrified scream and took off down the beach. “Haha, awesome,” the father took the last step and took a giant bite out of the sandwich that had spent some time heating up on the cooler.
I pushed back from the clearance beach chair and it fell back on to the sand. My bottle of Tito’s slipped out from its paper bag and hit the ground, my notebook plopped into the sand and my pen was nowhere to be seen. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“What?” The father looked over to see me waving my arms at him, “What? What? Did a seagull get you?”
“You just abandoned your kid!” I pointed at the little boy out of sight, “For a sandwich!”
The father stepped back and held up his sandwich, “My kid’s fine.”
“He’s getting chased by birds!”
The father shrugged and held up the sandwich, “I can always make another one.”
One of his children walked up to him, “Mom’s in the car and she can’t find Monte.”
“Hey!” My feet sunk in the sand and the heat pierced my toes, “That’s your kid! Your flesh and blood and memories and everything to you! How could you abandon him for a sandwich?!” The father held up his hands in defense and his kid turned to stare at me. “That’s horrible!” I could feel something wet on the side of my face, leaking out from my eyes.
“Hey. Lady.” The father held up his sandwich and gestured it towards me in wide, sweeping motions, “You smell like booze and you’re screaming at my kid.”
The mother stepped away from the flock of umbrellas and into the sand next to me, “Babe, I’ve got the kids in the car, let’s go get a pizza. I need a drink.” She turned over to look at me, I could feel her eyes on my face and I’m sure she saw the tears streaked across my cheeks.
“Lady,” He started, “Look, you smell like booze-”
I took a deep breath and wrapped my arms around my body, I wasn’t sure if I was shaking or if the rest of the world was. No matter how many times I swallowed the heavy thump in my throat, that dryness wouldn’t leave. All the liquid in my body was pouring out of my eyes. “I can’t, I’m can’t-” I stumbled back to my things and threw everything in my bookbag, the crunch of my quart sized bag of barbecue chips was unmistakable.
“Lady, I think you’ve been drinking-”
I ignored him and tossed my bag over my shoulder, wheeling around to walk away from the line of judgemental umbrellas. In the burning, dying sun, my blood ran cold when I saw the mess of brown curls towering over the umbrellas and peeks of an Overwatch fan shirt, strides ahead of me. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Jack, what’d she say? Kidding? Jack, she’s freaking out the kids.”
In the breaks of families, I could see Leo’s tie-dye Overwatch shirt, I’d recognize those brown curls anywhere. “Oh, Jesus.”
I pivoted another 180 degrees and pushed past the beach adventure family. I pushed past them and stomped through the sand, it burned my bare feet. I remembered walking into the beach in periwinkle dollar store sandals and I had no idea where those ended up at. But I also remembered seeing the Overwatch shirt and the brown curls, coming right to where I was just a moment ago. Panic set in and my heart lurched in my throat like my body lurched back and forth in the sand. I shrugged one of the towels out of my bag and wrapped it around my body, hunkering down into it. The world in front of me was split into a hazy, lapping blue and pure gold that bled into each other, the same colors I tried to escape from.
A pack of seagulls, clustered together, were in front of me, waiting paces behind the little boy to see what treasures he withheld. The child and I were at the break before the softer sand that kissed the ocean, on the outskirts of the family fun postcard. I needed a way to cut myself out of the postcard, something to break me away.
“I need to walk back to my car,” I shrugged out my last bottle of Tito’s Handmade and I poured it on my feet, blessing the sand beneath me. “I parked…I parked in the free parking…I need to get back without…without anyone seeing me…” I refused to say his name because I knew the moment I did, he’d appear next to me. I emptied out the bottle and dropped it onto the ground with a heavy thump in the sand. “I’ll call Carrie…I’ll call Rex…I’ll call someone,” I had to get back to Pasadena. I’d find someone in my contacts and offer them tears or fifty bucks, whatever worked. “I just need someone to drive me home. I just need someone with tinted windows in their car,” I mumbled into the daylight.
“What?” The little boy waddled closer to me.
“Oh, you’re the drunk lady, my Mom said I can’t talk to you.”
I stopped in the sand and stared at him. The seagulls had started to waddle away from Montgomery’s precarious position. I took out my baggie of barbecue chips and I shook the bag in the air, the birds glanced back and caught eye with me.
“You smell, my Mom doesn’t smell when she drinks.”
The seagulls snapped into attention when I shook the bag again and I sent a silent prayer to God before I opened the baggie.
The little boy wove his hand towards his family and took the first step before I tossed the baggie of crushed potato chips to him. The bag hit his shoulder and the dark red bits stuck to his sweaty skin. The seagulls shrieked and descended on him, trying to get a piece of the baggie.
I spun around and stumbled away from him. I hugged against the lines of beachgoers stretched out on towels, starting to lean up and crane their necks, to see why a child was yelling close by. Beachgoers shuffled out of the chairs to investigate the commotion and I only glanced back once, to see the Overwatch shirt heading off to the direction of the kid.
I’d call somebody once I’d get off the sand. Once I’d get away from the sand, I’d call somebody with tinted windows, just in case. I just needed someone who drove with tinted windows, just in case, I saw anyone walking the extra eight minutes to East Beach. I just needed someone who drove with tinted windows, just in case, I saw anyone I knew.