'Every Other Wave'
First Place winner in CL's Fiction Contest 2019
Holding a 12-pack of beer and waiting for Mark to finish pumping gas, I noticed that every other car driving down Grove had a headlight out. Mark told me it happened like this — first you notice two of something, then everything is the same. Soon all you have is pattern. After the fourth pair of cars went by with one car normal, one car winking, I felt lightheaded.
Mark pulled up. He was much older than me, but he didn’t do the things that older men do. Things like build ships sideways in bottles with long-nosed tweezers, wear loafers without socks, put their wallets in the same place every day so their pants have one ghost-lined pocket. One winking pocket. Instead he cleaned pools, went surfing, aged harder in the sun. I met him on the ocean.
I put the beer in the trunk and sat down. We were fighting before and I wanted him to apologize, but I didn’t feel the same indignation anymore. Like most things, it faded with distraction. We were headed to a beach gathering when his ex-girlfriend Alison had called, sweetly, to ask Mark if he wanted her to pick up booze.
I liked Alison. I understood that things should be bitter between us — that there was somehow a rivalry we didn’t sign up for — but I didn’t mind seeing her, speaking to her. Mark liked to hug her for a second too long, and even that I didn’t really mind. He’d already had her. What I had a problem with was the way Mark refused to talk about himself in any connection with me.
“I’m going to Buddy’s,” he said to Alison on the phone, even though I was sitting in the passenger seat. Even though I was close enough to lick his ear, to count the hairs growing inside.
“Why didn’t you tell her I’m here?” I asked.
“She knows you’re coming.”
“I know. But you aren’t alone right now.”
He rolled his bottom jaw forward. He always did when he was upset, when I took jokes too far, or sometimes when he was bored. It made him look like a primate. The famous rhythm, man slowly learning to stand, losing the link between himself and his ancient past again.
“I think I saw a pattern.” We were on the way to the beach, passing the familiar rise of the elementary school, all the houses with their dull aluminum siding.
“Yeah. Every other car had one headlight out. And then I felt all hot. Like I might fall right over. Is that what it’s like for you?” He took a turn onto the street where my little brother broke his elbow after a skateboarding wipeout. He rolled his jaw back and forth, thinking.
“Have you ever seen a car accident? Or someone get hit by a train?” I said no. I felt the compulsion to know everything he had seen — every tragedy and gift, all the lengths of used-up shoelaces, accordion straw wrappers left on damp tables. He continued. “It’s knowing something is going to happen, something with that game-over feeling. But you can stop it.”
We turned again and could see the ocean lingering forever at the end of the beach. I lived my whole life near the ocean and never got used to the emptiness of it, how if you looked out long enough it was almost like there was nothing there.
“But I doubt that’s what you saw. If it was a pattern, a true one,” he said, shrugging into a parking spot, “you would just know.”
I assumed that I was the first man Mark ever slept with, mostly because he was so tentative when he touched me. The skin around his mouth was rough with wear and stubble, but he kissed me delicately enough that there was only the slightest rub of red on my chin in the bathroom mirror. His hands followed uncharted currents, glancing off my body and landing, settling down again to remain for a heavy second before washing away. I wanted to tell him that there were patterns we could follow, things I had learned from other partners, but I was afraid saying so would frighten him, would make him think about what he was doing. But then sometimes he looked at me so surely that I wondered if it was all an act for my benefit. As if he could tell that I needed him in awe of me, uncertain with his own desire.
“You are fascinating,” I told him after our third or fourth date, while we stared up at his blank ceiling. In the corner, he had a poster of Einstein sticking his tongue out at the world. It had been hanging there so long the black and white had faded in the sun to yellow and grey.
“I’m a loser,” he said. “You’re an angel.”
“No, definitely not,” I said, laughing.
He rolled over and pulled his knees up to his chest. Without looking at me, he told me about the patterns. About how when we met on the water, he talked to me because he felt like he had to break the pattern of boys paddling by on boards.
“So, it’s like fate?”
“Not at all.” He faced me, but he still didn’t look me in the eyes. The skin on his forehead was a tobacco brown, cooked from years of working and playing outdoors. It was incredibly smooth when I ran my finger over it. “It isn’t coincidence, either,” he continued. “This is how the world works. Things happen, they set off a chain of other reactions. I’m the only one who can see when the world hiccups. I’m the only one who knows enough to intervene.”
“What would happen if you did nothing?”
He blinked at me, like I was a fish with legs.
“Everything would fall apart.”
Alison met us at the dunes.
“I’m sick of these people,” she said, shouldering our beer. “Let’s the three of us ditch. They won’t even know we’re gone.”
“We’re here. We’ll say hi.” Mark looked at me as if to punctuate his use of that word, “we.” I didn’t point out that it seemed easier for him to do when Alison was included.
The group on the beach was sitting and listening to music or throwing a football or passing a joint. They were Mark’s eclectic older friends, sprinkled with much younger stoners who liked the way the others talked. If you surfed, you were either old or young. There was no in-between. I was young, Alison was young, Mark was old. The mixing of the two didn’t matter.
Alison handed us each a beer and took one for herself. Her hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail, her nails trimmed and groomed. She took herself seriously, and that’s why I liked her so much. It was so easy to blow yourself off, to let your hair grow greasy with salt from the ocean, and she took great care not to let that happen.
“I’m going to make the rounds,” Mark said, turning to me. “Want to come?”
I had already met all his friends, and although Mark never introduced me as anything specific, his friends seemed to understand and approve of me. I shook my head.
“I’ll say hi to everyone later.”
The tide was coming in and the beach was one flat foot digging into the water. Sometimes the wind at night was unbearable but that night it was only a hoarse whisper, kicking up a small spray of sand. Alison and I sat down on a blanket someone had anchored with a stereo playing instrumental music. From behind the speakers the music sounded like it was coming from very far away, borne back by the breeze and the coming water.
“Do you know about Mark’s patterns?”
Alison took the pull tab off her beer and started working it into the sand near the edge of the blanket.
“Yes,” she said. She looked tired. “Has he told you all about them?”
“He has.” The song changed to the instrumental of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” I located Mark in the crowd, smiling and nodding along with one of his particularly heady friends. “Do you think there’s any chance they could be real?”
She shrugged. “I think you can believe in something enough to make it real. But no, I don’t believe that things happen in patterns. The world can be an awful, random place. Mark recognized that and made up something to help him forget. It’s a choice, and isn’t that something?”
“Yeah, it’s something.” I thought about the cars and their winking headlights. “Have you ever seen one? I mean, a pattern of something that felt like more than coincidence?”
Alison stuck her beer in the sand and leaned back on her elbows. Someone was working on lighting a fire, and the first few flames licked the air, casting her profile in yellow.
“I thought I did, once. Mark never announces when he sees things, as you know, but he gets this look. It’s fear and resignation, sure, but he’s proud to be the one to piece it all together. Once we were on the beach, just waiting around, and a seagull with a candy wrapper flew in front of our boards. Then another. Then another, all with the same wrapper. There were five total, and I freaked. I mean, it’s stupid, but what are the odds?”
“There’s trash everywhere,” I said.
“You’re right. That’s the reasonable answer. But the feeling was different. I wish I hadn’t told him about it, though.”
“Why? What happened?”
“He disappeared,” she said. She picked sand off her lip. “Wasn’t home, didn’t call, for three days. He knocked on my door one morning like nothing happened and we never talked about it again.” I asked her if she thought it was because he wanted to be the only one who saw them, the only special mind able to translate the world’s ones and zeroes. “Maybe, but I don’t think that’s all. I think maybe he’s afraid they might be real.”
I once tried to make a list of everything concrete I knew about Mark. I wrote the following: cleans pools, surfs, likes the idea of math, flosses regularly, went to the same high school as me years before me, barely listens to music, might have a parent still living, sees things others don’t, dated Alison, almost lost a pinky toe to fire coral, drinks one glass of orange juice and one of milk every day. I realized that it was easier to define him by the things he didn’t do — contribute to a retirement account, buy new furniture, pay for haircuts. That list could go on for pages, and I didn’t know if that would be any more or less helpful as I circled Mark in tighter and tighter orbits.
I wondered how it was we had lived in the same town for so long with so little contact. Had he driven by me while I waited at the bus stop? Sat behind me at a Star Wars showing? Rode the same wave down-current from my brother and me? Each scenario I painted was sepia-toned, like memories in movies. I struggled to imagine Mark any other way than how he was to me. Caramelized and mellow, ran-through like raked sand. Grinding his teeth in his sleep and rolling his jaw forward. Smiling at me, looking over his shoulder, counting everything the world did. I wondered what it meant that I was part of a pattern, just another boy on a board. Maybe it could have been anyone else, anyone at all.
The tide was fully in, edging towards the blanket. Two girls stripped to their suits and sat in the water. Alison and I watched the sand layer and un-layer over them with each wave until they eventually had to go all the way in to rinse off. Dark crept in without us realizing, like it did every night on the beach. I remembered night-hunting for hermits in the orb of my flashlight, my brother collecting them in a pint glass with just enough water and sand.
“Want to go in?” Alison asked.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m cold.”
Alison looked at the water and shrugged. “You should join when you warm up.” I could barely make out the two other girls, floating on their backs.
Alison stood and took off her clothes, folding them neatly behind her before walking into the water. The other girls swam to meet her, and the three of them floated together. I got up to meet Mark by the fire, thinking about what Alison said. I wondered how much time Mark spent worrying over the patterns, feeling responsible for the rest of the world. What a terrible burden it all must be. I wondered why he wouldn’t share it with anyone.
Mark smiled when I approached. “You met Jared, right?” he asked, nodding towards a man tossing a football. I reminded him that I had. He grabbed another beer and passed it to me.
“No, thanks. I’m too cold for beer.”
Mark nodded and popped the can for himself. After a minute, he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “Here,” he said. I didn’t say anything, afraid I would scare him away. Sometimes my brother and I had to wait quietly in the dark for nearly ten minutes before the hermits came out of the sand. I could feel him want to turn around, to look out at the three swimming girls, to notice that they all wore black bikinis, to wonder at what that might mean, or about how he should intervene. Instead he and I counted the cracking sounds of the fire, gusts of breeze, every other wave, and anything else we knew to be real.
Lindsey Baker lives in Poncey-Highland. Her fiction has appeared in Bodega, SmokeLong Quarterly and The Forge, among other publications. When she isn’t working or writing, she also assists the wonderful team at About South Podcast. (aboutsouthpodcast.com)