Alex and I were on the second floor of his parents’ timeshare beach house. School had ended in mid June and we celebrated by taking a trip to the Banks. When school would begin again in September 2007, we’d be parting paths. I would head off to the Virginia Beach Performing Arts Academy for theatrical acting, and Alex would stick to Bayside. I had just recently turned fourteen, and Alex was a year older than me, having been held back a year in sixth grade. Alex’s older brother, Diego, had some friends and cousins coming in from Bayamon to spend a weekend at the house; the parents trusted us since Diego was twenty-one and a senior in college.
I leaned my head back in the patio hot tub, resting my atlas and axis bones on the rim of the tub. The hot tub was outside on the second floor patio, and I knew that the stars were out, but black clouds obscured them. Heat lightning shot across the sky, scattering silently in threaded frays. The flashes were like neon Silly String being shot out by an ethereal spider. We were listening to Jimi Hendrix’s live Woodstock recording on a CD stereo balanced on a foldable coffee stand, and I couldn’t help but imagine said spider decked out in it’s own woven webbed robes, covered in drifting hues of purple and indigo.
Alex passed me the joint. Alex was second-generation Puerto Rican. He never talked about being Puerto Rican, but he’d be quick to tell you if an artist from his island was playing on the radio. He’d lean into my face and maintain eye contact while belting out the lyrics to Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” every time it came on the air.
Someone in Jimi’s crowd shouted Jimi are you high? and Alex and I both laughed hard enough to heave lungs and guts out of our throats. My hand with the joint began to sink closer and closer to the water.
“Watch it, watch it, watch it man.” He cupped my hand in his and raised it above the water. I took a drag.
“So, how do you know when, when it’s on, man?” I asked Alex.
Alex stared at me, jaw and lips tightly stretched across his face, eyes squinted. He chuckled, and we both ruptured our lungs and organs again.
We had taken around 150mg of acid roughly fifteen minutes ago. We’d gotten it from his older brother who’d poked out tabs from his sheet for us. Alex stayed right next to me in the tub because I was terrified.
I had just started smoking pot when I met Alex, but acid was entirely new. Everything I knew about acid at that point was from lyrics on my grandma’s Jefferson Airplane records and the monomanic research I did on my middle school’s library computers. Acid was developed on my birthday, April 16th, Bicycle Day. Lysergic acid diethylamide. I couldn’t find any reported deaths caused directly by the drug, but deaths were associated with activities involving it. Open windows would become wormholes to fly through. The vast open spaces of cliff edges were zero gravity playgrounds. People died swimming from being underwater too long, probably believing that some prenatal breathing technique would kick in.
I didn’t begin having these thoughts about the metaphysical nature of things and dabbling with counter culture until I started hanging out with Alex. It was the first time since I’d moved to Virginia Beach that I felt like it was okay to let my guard down and be vulnerable. To be goofy, awkward, and curious. We’d blow the dust off old 45s and spin them just to listen to how bad Pat Boone’s “Tooti Fruiti” cover sounded. Alex introduced me to the artwork of H.R. Gieger and Ralph Steadman, oddities that that had a newness and texture I had never run my hands across. Meeting Alex was an influx of a new world. New language.
By this point, I had been a year and a half out of Tennessee, and finally free from a reclusive End Times grounded Christian fundamentalist group. I met Alex halfway through my first year in school, and started reading Sagan, listening to Radiohead, and smoking weed. It all happened so quickly. It was as if the combinations of beliefs, power structures, and religious indoctrinations that composed me were rooted and landlocked. Outside of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, once the mist of the peaks cleared, God couldn’t follow me. None of the kids in my new neighborhood gave a shit about God. Divine glossolalia was drowned out by Kanye’s 808 and Heartbreak. With my folks out working, I could smuggle in whatever books, music, and movies I wanted with ease.
Leaving God in the mountains, I could indulge without feeling watched. I binged Donnie Darko over and over again, later on finding out that the screenwriter was from the same city I grew up in. I wasn’t fully agnostic yet, it’s just that religion becomes less of an oppressive force when everyone around you isn’t afraid of it. I didn’t have the words to describe this shift at the time. This intangible binding social contract that my reality had been constructed around was simply gone. Like an ant without a colony, whatever conceptual chemtrail I’d been following had dissipated. I was left to drift. To wander. I drifted into shitty pubhouses, catching local music scenes. Crust Punk, Hip Hop, Lo-fi. I went to whatever show Alex dragged me into.
Hendrix’s “Lover Man” began blasting beating percussions and squeaking out guitar pitches higher than the sound system could sustain. The reverb of both the bass and guitar clipped out in their lower ranges, reduced to a low rumbling that could have been spilling from over the horizon. Heat lightning flashed again, leaving a veiny glare highlighting the doughy texture of the cumulus clouds above. I wondered if the clouds felt lightning, like a pulse in an artery.
“My boy Velez!” Alex began slapping syncopated drum beats on the surface of the hot tub water.
“Velez!” I shouted back and tried to follow his slapping pattern, my hands stumbling over themselves. Gerardo Velez of Puerto Rico was Jimi’s drummer at Woodstock. I didn’t know this at the time. I assumed that it was just something people dropping acid and listening to dope music said.
Lights on the inside of the hot tub refracted wobbling blobs on whatever surface the light touched. So long as the lights were holding still, I could see them for the authentic yellow color that they were, but with us beating the water, shattering the wholeness of the shine, the light began refracting into kaleidoscopes of colors that jabbed my retinas.
I felt warmer, the water felt warmer. My heart crashed faster than Velez’s cymbals. I wondered if he was beating out the last RPMs of my life. I then remembered that RPMs were not BPMs, and we didn’t have wheels in our hearts.
By then the joint had drowned in the water, and I had become a crane with two hovering hands over the swell of the waves we made. The waves tasted my hovering palms, licked the spaces between my fingers. I could feel each individual droplet as it trailed through the miniscule cracks in my palms. My heart was hammering. It felt good. The amount of air I could suck through my lungs made me feel like I was processing more oxygen. Like I was processing something more than oxygen.
“Alex,” I said, “you wanna dick drag on some waves?” Dick dragging was the act of riding a surfboard like a boogie board. I had recently started getting into surfing, and I was both entranced by the physical act and verbally freed by the playfulness of the West Coast lingo it came from. I wanted to go surfing and see if the light in the ocean would be more colorful than the lights shimmering in the jacuzzi.
I wanted to see if sight could become sound. If light could become mantra. A heartbeat. To see if I could wake something up inside of myself. I wanted to be amazed at something else’s existence, and for it to be amazed at my own. To drift.
Staring up at the night sky, the clouds had dissipated. I was certain that the stars were still, but looking up and staring long enough, I would see a few dip away. They would randomly find energy and trajectory and zip away into oblivion, leaving a glowing string trail from where they had seated. I had a hard time imagining that, a celestial rock in senseless motion, drifting without purpose or observation. Waiting for disintegration or impact. But waiting wasn’t even the right word. Waiting implied a pause, that there was something else somewhere else waiting. High on acid, watching comets that probably weren’t there whiz by, I wondered about how much frustration they would have if they tried to construct a narrative around their perpetual motion, how freeing it would be to not desire plot points in the first place.
Moving from Tennessee to Virginia Beach was a plot point in my own life that I could feel in my skin.
We rode the waves that night, brushed our legs, arms, bodies, and faces against the salt of the earth. Waves thudded like heartbeats.
The secular world was a corrupting culture, something my mom wanted us to have nothing to do with in Tennessee. But economics trumped idealism. Moving to VA Beach raised our cost of living, so my mom had to pick up a job which meant me and my two brothers went into public schools. When we were homeschooled, everything was a contextualized contained unit. God wasn’t just an entity, he was a lens for all existence, a semantic interpretive force.
I started middle school in the Fall of 2006. I have never met an individual that enjoyed eighth grade. It’s even worse if you were isolated and homeschooled all your life. Testosterone kicked in during my first year in school, pumping out acne, angst, and growth spurts. I had no idea what a blowjob was. What a sploof was, what a bong was, what shotgunning was, which forty to get your uncle to buy. I’d never seen a boob, that is, until Tanika asked me during lunch if I’d ever seen a boob. I shook my head no with a pizza slice half raised to my mouth. She pulled down her shirt and bra, flashing me her black nipples, two dots constellated on her brown skin. The table burst out in shrieking laughter and shouts of “oh shit!” and “yoooooo!”
“He blushin’! Mofucka blushin’!” Darius shouted while jabbing a finger at my face and erupting again. A cop shouted through a megaphone at our table to calm down or he’d come over. Two armed cops were in the cafeteria at all times.
At least one fight broke out during every lunch, at least one student got tased and arrested during the week. It was always a black student, a realization that skimmed over my head at that age. I was the only white kid in my history class, my math class, and in computer science. There were two other white kids, Chris and Cody, in my class year. Both of them were skaters rocking Volcom products and listening to Green Day or Anti-Flag.
Being the only white kid never really scared me. I’d been the only white kid in my friends’ group back in Tennessee. We’d secretly head-nodded to Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, and Biggie. Our mom bought us DC Talk CDs and Kirk Franklin’s albums, but everything they produced sounded strategic, as if it was blatantly targeted to an audience rather than being an outpouring of heart and thought. The point of Christian rap was to preach. The objective of their words was to get me into a church. It’s a sales pitch with a calculated objective. This motivation always overshadowed their tone, their craft. Obviously there is a monetary objective for the secular music industry, but the voices in it were diversified enough not to bother me.
Whenever I talked to Darius or Tanika about hip-hop, they’d give me strange looks because I would listen to KRS-One and they would listen to T.I., Kanye West, and Jay-Z. Being out of sync with what was currently topping the charts just proved my own detachment from VA Beach’s culture. No one in Tennessee’s projects had ever told me that I should’ve stopped listening to Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours” years ago. The hip hop we’d known was what we’d stolen from our parents. A lot of it was tapes from their past, CDs before they came over to Christ. Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane, and some Tupac if we were lucky. None of us were allowed to listen to the radio and would get our asses beat if we were ever caught. Smuggling CDs from our parents was the only means we could get our hands on this shit.
The Christian Music Industry merely mimicked what secular artists were doing; the production sounds of KJ52 trying to copy Eminem’s lyrical structure made it painstakingly obvious that this was a second rate cut to something much more raw. None of us in the projects back in Tennessee compromised. I knew it was wrong, we all did, and we’d pray for forgiveness after divinely reciting the lyrics to Queen Latifa’s “U.N.I.T.Y.”
But Queen Latifa was Tanika’s and Daruis’s mothers’ music. Shit wasn’t cool to bump to anymore.
We all had a study period together. One day Darius walked over to my desk and slid me Lloyd Banks Rotten Apple album before class began and the teacher walked in.
“This is shit you bang to, lil youngin.” Darius was older than me by two years. I was thirteen in eighth grade at Bayside Middle, which frequently made me the youngest in the group. I didn’t say anything back to him, I slid the album into my backpack and sealed it. I was sticking out, listening to different shit and drawing attention to myself. Darius didn’t have to help me. I tried to imagine how he benefited by giving me that album.
“You fuck yet?” he asked me.
“Yeah.” I didn’t look at him and kept staring down at the book I wasn’t reading.
“Shit fam, you ain’t get no pussy. Get you some.” He sat back down in his seat, grinning and shaking his head the whole time.
Darius sold green around his neighborhood. He’d glad bag whatever spare shake and dust his brother had, and dab it together in nugs. I’d smoked once with him before, ducking our heads down on the school bus and puffing clouds upward.
I began realizing that middle school was a series of encoded rituals I was never taught. I had to relearn how to walk, how to hold my head. How to check my peripherals while pulling books out of my locker without making it too obvious.
It was late fall when I was reading Dune at the bus stop. Mike stepped behind me and began reading over my shoulder. Other people didn’t like Mike. That much was obvious. He was another white guy from my neighborhood. He’d wear fake gold chains and rocked an Eminem inspired crew cut. Mike blew the pages of my book, trying to see if I would do anything about it, and then put me in a full nelson when I didn’t react. By this point I’d been in a few fights, lost every single one, and knew I was going to lose this one. Not putting up a fight just made them come back and hit harder. I took my licks from Mike that day and stopped reading books in public.
At lunch, Mike always tried to sit with the black kids from Norfolk, tried to speak their lingo and make the same inside jokes they did. Mike would get roasted for being a cousin fucker from The Baker Street mobile homes and sent back. He’d stalk back from the corner, quiet, to a table by himself, sipping orange juice and staring at the carved names on the table.
Darius and I were watching him. I touched my busted lip. Darius leaned to me, his shoulders bumping mine.
“You wanna piss off a black man, Chad, go off thinkin’ you’re one.”
“So is he supposed to be white?” I asked looking at Mike. He sat with folded fists resting on the table as if he meant to strike it, but he seemed to have lost the motivation to even raise them. I knew that he was going to probably come for me at the bus stop again.
“He is white,” Darius said.
Seeing Mike sit off by himself, while I sat with Darius, Tanika, and a few other kids from the town houses a block over from me made me feel, in some ephemeral way, like I was in. No one from my own block fucked with me except Mike, and no one from the block fucked with Mike.
“I wanna fuck him up, Darius.”
Darius grabbed my wrist – the entirety of his palm alone wrapped around it – and shook my arm, listening as if he expected the bones to clack together. I was composed of reeds and twine.
“Damn, son watcha gonna fight him with?”
“Nah man, not talkin’ ‘bout no fight. I wanna fuck him up. You get me?”
I kept running my tongue over my busted lip, preventing it from drying up and scabbing. Darius would back hand me on the chest everytime I did, warning me not to look so goddamn stupid with him.
Mike stared straight down at the table, fingers still folded and fists held apart, as if he expected to be captured in a photo. I never learned whether he had a step father that beat him, a mother dying from cancer, or some other traumatizing experience. None of it mattered in the moment. At age thirteen, people were simple. Mike was the entity that was attached to limbs that would bust my lips against my incisors.
I wish I could chalk assaulting Mike to self defense, but of all my bullies in eighth grade he was the one I preemptively went after. He was also the only one with no social circle to sic after me. I’ve heard stories of someone’s cousin getting out of jail, finding out their family member lost a fight, and curb painting with an opponent’s face. I partly did it to see if I had it in me. Darius would run up on some kid from around the block if they had a history with him and his clique. Tanika had taken a bike lock to some girl’s brains the previous year. When you’re greeted by violence on a daily basis, it becomes the air around you, the cracked corners of the bricks that hold a school together. If you are not engaging with it, then you will be engaged, so you make offerings and play ritual.
“What book you on now, cuz?” asked Alex.
I had met Alex in April. I started sitting next to him on the bus because Mike’s beatings became more frequent, and I didn’t want to bother Darius anymore. I was ruining his credibility.
Alex was an anomaly. Middle school is structured society composed of rhythms and pivots. We all knew the steps, where and when to pirouette. The spaces between certain kids on certain blocks were filled with projected static. Like between two south and south magnets, a palpable force filled the emptiness. Know your lot. Stay put. This kid, Alex, would just whizz through these spaces.
“Dune,” I said.
Alex always wore tie-dye hoodies with the Grateful Dead’s skull and roses symbol. He had multiples of these hoodies; the color patterns would always shift between various emeralds and crimsons. I noticed that all the tour locations were in the South West.
I tried not to talk to the kid too much. He’d break all the rules Darius had passed on to me. Sometimes in our economics class he’d start beating a Mickey Heart rhythm on the desk, crooning to himself “when the windows all are broken and your love’s become a toothless crone…” Surprisingly, no one fucked with him.
The book’s cover art was by John Schoenherr. A giant sandworm burst out of the ground, its scales composed of deep, sloppily dashed charcoal and chalk lines. I would sometimes swipe my hand over the Frank Herbert book cover, mistaking the dusty texture of his work to be actual dust on the old book I’d nicked from my dad.
“That shit’s wild man.” Alex pawed the book out of my hand. He flipped through some of the pages snickering to himself. I balled up my fist, expecting him to start dogging me over what I was reading.
“What’s a slig fam?” he asked.
“It’s a pig/slug hybrid.”
Alex chuckled and read from the book: “The sweetest meat this side of heaven.”
He passed me back the book, and I unballed my fist to take it back.
He massaged his chin. “So, uh, what’s that spice they talk bout?”
“It’s, um, it’s what they harvest. Bends time and space. Blows wide the mind.”
The kid laughed, doubling over and leaning the side of his face on the seat in front of him.
“The spice,” he said, after sucking his laughs back into his guts. He nodded looking at me.
I nodded back, spoke from the side of my mouth. “Yeah man, the spice.”
“I think your boy Frank on that spice.”
I chuckled, and the bus pulled up to the school. I slipped the book into my backpack and stood up when the kid slapped me on my elbow.
“Hey man, you got any more of them books?”
People began shuffling behind me, nudging into my backpack, like a stream tugging in one direction.
“Yeah, um, which ones?”
He scratched the top of his head, tilting it at the same time. “I don’t know, just some, you know, some mind blowing shit, cuz.”
I sat back down on the bus, taking cover behind the seat.
“I can get you a shit ton, but not here, man.”
I was excited, though I tried to hide it. At the time, my grandmother was the only person I could really talk books with, and she visited only briefly in the winter. Talking books in middle school was shooting a red flare through the hallways. It was bloodletting in the South Pacific. Because secular books had been banned by my mom in Tennessee, I’d assumed that they’d be precious and valuable to the secular world. That as we clacked away in computer class, we’d feel William Gibson on the tips of our fingers, guiding our skin to the proper key strokes, feel him in our retinas as we stared into an HEV screen. That in biology class, when life itself was dismantled and reassembled into Golgi vesicles and cytoplasm, blocks and mortar, we would see Philip K Dick’s android in the slab of carbon. Instead, these names weren’t just unknown, but their concepts were stigmatized. Knowing what a replicator is, or having to explain what it is, would get you face slammed to bricks. Ideas had a weight on the body. I had to figure out quickly which ones were worth keeping, and which needed to be discarded.
“The fuck you mean ‘not here?’” Alex said.
“Damn, man, just not fucking here.” From what I understood, the lessons Darius taught me were universal. Yet this kid, Alex, would belt out Jefferson Airplane lyrics in the hallway, swaying like a sitar’s tempo while singing them, and not a motherfucker would touch him.
“Kay, you wanna swing by my place later? You could just get off at my stop.” Alex lived a few blocks southwest of me. My parents didn’t come home till three hours after school. They wouldn’t mind me being gone, one of the advantages of being a middle child.
The bus’s exhaust began leaking through the window, the smell of melted erasers.
“Mate, I’ll catch you later.”
A few weeks later, we spent afternoons playing Street Fighter II on a beat up SNES and watching Ghost in the Shell over and over again. One day we wound up on the beach. We’d peddled through Diamond Spring’s swamps on a wooden path to get there. I had to pick between swatting mosquitoes and maintaining balance. Alex carried the green on him because he didn’t want me to wet it by falling into the water.
I’d read an article that an amoeba crawled into some kid’s ear when he fell into a swamp and partially ate his brain. Upon reading it, I was simultaneously astounded and horrified. It was pulp sci-fi manifest in real life.
“It fuckin’ ate his brains?” Alex asked me when we reached the beach. We were sitting on the same towel watching the sunset over the ocean, a spliff lit between us. I thought back to that picture hanging in his father’s garage of two guys sitting on a ragged cloth at Woodstock, how shabby and relaxed they looked.
“Tchya, some sci-fi shit, eh?” I dug my hands into the sand after patting it to make sure no blue shell crabs lay beneath. It was April, and the sand was still cool.
“How much brain you think it can eat before you start losing yourself?” Alex asked.
We were both watching the sunset. The neon pink glow intensified. Stopped being photons and became a spray paint. I hit the spliff again.
“I don’t know man. Prolly more gradual than a switch, you know?” I could see it. An amoeba eating my brain, and because it was eating the wet sponge that caused pain in the first place, I imagined it wouldn’t hurt that much. From what I read, the brain didn’t have pain receptors. An amoeba could suck away at my pink matter, and like droplets trickling down a bald man’s head, I’d feel the tickling sensation of God slip away, the fuzzy murmur of my ego drifting away into the background.
Alex slapped me on the back and passed me the spliff. I hit it again, feeling my lungs sag with this take.
We didn’t speak as the sun dipped into the waters. The stars soon descended. The swish of waves filled the space between us. Carried the scene for a bit.
Alex took off his hoodie. He was shirtless underneath it.
“You wanna see if we can hear any whale calls?”
“It’s kinda cold man.” I sucked harder on the spliff, filling my mouth and throat with smoke, trying to choke some words down.
“Shit, it’s warmer today.”
“I’m just not feeling it, man. You wanna show me that new LCD album you had? You bring that with you?”
Alex paused with his hands on his hips. He patted his pockets and dived on his back pack, pulling out LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver album and a scratched up CD player. He plopped down next to me and I swapped him the spliff for an ear bud. We head nodded in silence, listening to waves grazing sand, squawking seagulls, and glitched drum snares coupled with James Murphy’s intentionally unenthusiastic lo-fi croning.
I didn’t want to take my shirt off because there was a knee cap sized bruise right where my right rib cage touched my abs. Two days ago Mike walked by and whispered “faggot” in my ear while passing me, probably due to me spending more time with Alex in public. I shouted down the hallway for him to come back and say it again. He did and then jabbed his knee into my ribs and choked me. He spat in my face and said it again. Faggot. I sat on the ground wiping drool from my bottom lip. I sat there for a solid hour hoping that none of the other students would acknowledge me. They didn’t. I sat on the floor until well past the final period. The school resource officer walked over and told me to head to the nurse if I was sick.
I never talked about Mike with anyone other than Darius. I didn’t want to bring it up with Alex, didn’t want to bring that onto the beach with us. Right then, all I wanted was the smell of pot in the air, cool sand on my palms, and Alex rambling about some Acid Jazz band I needed to check out. These were moments that were self sustaining, encapsulated. I felt locked in a snowglobe on that beach with him. No matter how shook up shit got, it’d be okay.
I straddled Mike’s face between my knees. His grin looked like a tweaked smile, orange street light gleamed across his front teeth. The blood from his gums filled the teeth’s crevices.
The side of his head swelled up from where I’d struck him with a rebar hidden up my sleeve. My heart screamed with blood pumps and thuds. It had the same sound as my fist coming down on his face. I screamed “fuck you, fuck you” with every knuckle jab to his eye socket. A purple flower bloomed where his eye hole was.
It was Mike’s face I was hitting, but I had no idea who it was I was striking. I felt like since I’d moved to Virginia Beach, entered into society like a normal kid, I’d realized that I couldn’t fit in, that I was misshapen driftwood. I never learned the dance, the rituals. I felt like I was floating on a comet through space, a wall built between me and the rest of the galaxy, a wall tall enough that not even a scream could climb it. I was caught between secularism and fundamentalism.
I had stalked Mike to his trailer after school. He’d sneaked out to smoke Newports in a wooded passage between the trailer park and I-64. There wasn’t much of a struggle. I wasn’t looking for a full on fight. I just wanted to scream words that were beyond my grasp. I wanted to scream to see if there was anyone out there. The religiosity I was raised with was melting away. Violence wasn’t anything new to me. God wiped out the Canaanites entirely. I had no words for my scream, no way to conceptualize this change.
My left hand bled from how tightly I wrapped his own chains around his neck. Punches felt like heartbeats. They sounded like words. They were screams that made it over that conceptual wall. Something beyond my brain and body that could be seen and heard. Mike had beaten me up plenty of times. What I did was not self defense. It was assimilation.
I stood up and began kicking his face in with my heel. His jaw popped and a heavy, drowned sob erupted from him. Maybe someone heard it, and they drew their curtains shut. Turned the TV volume up a bit louder.
I stood up and stomped his guts down, hoping that eventually I could inscribe shoe tread into his stomach. Press my everything, even my clothes, into his skin. Have the pops and cracks of his ribcage be a morse code.
I left Mike in the woods, walked away from him in a stupor. His groans were eons behind me. It felt good. Right then and there. I felt heard. I felt understood. The isolation, the distance, it was traversed, brought together by a mechanism that was familiar. Violence made me feel complete. It was the first time I had jumped someone.
Mike didn’t show up to school the next morning. He didn’t show up the day after that. There were only two weeks left before the summer break.
I didn’t see Mike at all for any of those. I graduated from Bayside Middle and never saw him again. I knew that this wasn’t a climax. The conflict just shifted to someone else. In those two weeks, Darius would dap me up, telling me “you did good, cuz.” I was expecting an eventual angry mom. Cops. Instead, I was awarded silence. Distance. Fewer people threw paper balls at me. There was nothing victorious to be felt, just a soft, glowing murmur. Now that it was over whatever I was retracted back over the wall. Hunkered down in a dark quietness that was comfortable only because of familiarity.
On the night that I dropped acid and surfed, Diego had some friends come over to the beach house before we downed some tabs. They were all college-aged people. Bros in tank tops snorting coke off of hand railings, sorority sisters in two pieces double fisting Smirnoff. I was decent at handling my own smoke, but it was my first time being high in a crowd. Surprisingly, I didn’t panic. Instead I walked in an awestruck state high fiving people who wore band shirts I approved of. I licked my hand and rubbed some guy’s rose tattoo to see if it would come off and got the room rolling.
Alex wanted to go for a walk and see if we could find any beach fires to sit by, or any seashells to gather. We walked together in the sunset, feeling the coolness of the night creep in with the spray and ocean mist. The Outer Banks’ beach was riddled with small shells. They were as numerous as the sand itself. You could seriously fuck yourself up if you bailed on a wave too close to the shore.
We stood in the swash zone. I had a habit of looking down, watching the waves roll back into the water. I’d subconsciously follow them in until I was knee deep in the ocean. That’s one thing Alex and I shared. We could stand in the ocean or drift in it for hours in silence. Like an unspoken communion, whatever was transcending didn’t require semantics, a frame.
The sun’s golden rays radiated through the droplets that Alex shook off from his fingertips. He held a small conch in his hand and held it up to the sun to stare at the veins. Alex interacted with all visual stimuli as if there was a linguistic transmission happening. This transmission offered an interpretive dance between the shell’s calcium and the sun’s gamma rays.
Alex tossed me the conch. “Hey man, you know we’re not going to be together in school anymore.” He didn’t say this with sadness, more with a forced wryness.
“Yeah. It’ll be okay man.” I held the conch to my ear to hear the resonance and to look like I cared about something else in that moment.
Alex sputtered out a laugh. “The fuck are you doing? The ocean is literally right here.”
“I’m just catching some conch, man,” I said with a smirk.
“Getting conched up.”
“I swear, this conch isn’t mine officer.”
I loved Alex’s laugh. Making someone who knew so much about the world laugh meant that I brought something new to him. It crossed my mind to maybe tell Alex about Mike. Why he didn’t show up for the past two weeks. It felt like a compulsive confession. Like the problem would disappear if I vocalized it, carried it out into the air with the ocean spray and wind.
“You think you’ll be studying special effects?” Alex asked. He walked back into the sand and sat down. I did the same.
“Yeah man. They got courses for that, stage combat, lighting, the whole thing man.”
“You’re gonna have to teach me a few things. Shit sounds dope.”
The wind had picked up, flicking sand in my ear. Over in the distance, a pod of dolphins grazed their fins on the surface of the water. They passed by like a collective shadow. They stirred through the water without realizing that they were being observed, without observing the water surrounding them.
“Hey, Alex.” He turned to me and I dapped him up. “Thanks, man.”
“I gotcha, dude.”
I’m not sure if Alex knew what I was thanking him for. I’m not sure I knew what I was thanking him for. I had moved enough to know what a prolonged goodbye was. I never stayed in touch with the people I left behind. I wish that I could have held on to Tennessee just a bit longer, clung to the granite face of the Smoky Mountains. Let there be a climax, a conclusion.
Alex snatched the conch out of my hand and held it like a newborn king above his own head. “You think you’d be able to find this again?”
“Fuck if I know.”
Alex hurled it into the ocean. It’s splash was covered up by a curling wave. It could take weeks, months, to wash it back onto the shore. I knew by the time that happened, whatever was between me and Alex would dissolve. I was fine with that. Maybe a climax wasn’t needed. It was forcing a format onto life that just didn’t fit. It was another form of fundamentalism, a self -worship that demanded the universe to conform to my needs. Maybe there was nothing wrong with tumbling in the waves for a bit. Letting go.
Chad MacDonald has a bachelors in English from Longwood University and a Master of Fine Arts from West Virginia Wesleyan. He has previously been published in Five 2 One Magazine, WordPress, Shark Reef Magazine, and others. Chad is currently writing short screenplays while working as a communications specialist for a law firm.