Art by Calliope Pavlides
He waited at the end of her block, like he used to when waiting for her parents’ car to leave the driveway or for her to step recklessly down from the roof and start across the lawn toward him. It was always night then and the darkness hid him from sight. Now it was day, sultry and consumed with light, and he would have been fully visible if not for the bushes, planted and overgrown in the time she’d been away.
Yes, she was coming back today. He had the day marked. It was the end of her first year away and her parents had gone to collect her and bring her home. It was true that, during the latter part of the year, they hadn’t spoken much, not after winter break, not after that night down at the harbor next to the tepid ocean, surface like glass, covered in faintly falling snowflakes. Tears fell too that night and he remembered feeling them freeze and crack on his cheeks as he followed her up the steps, back into the car they’d left running. It was true too that he had not told her he would be waiting for her, nor had she asked, but he had to see her, having banished her from his life, which was just his phone. The town, which was always still, became somehow more stagnant once the school year began and all his friends fled to more exciting areas. He was taking classes online and once he had the money saved, he too would flee these streets, off into new adventures, but for now he explored through the cracked screen of his phone. He coveted blue oceans and orange mountains, gaggles of kids in matching sports gear gathered around tables of beer, old friends with new girlfriends, their arms around one another, smiling drunk and casual cool. Ofttimes he would take a beer or two from the fridge and after finishing them, and after reaching the point in his feed where there were no new pictures, only ads, he would take to the street and walk, hands tucked in his pockets, coat drawn up to his neck no matter the weather. He tried to think while walking, tried to ponder the big questions that the boys at her school no doubt pondered, no doubt formulated opinions on, but he was left only with a hollow sort of longing that he could not quantify or express.
It was that longing that brought him here, the end of her street, hiding behind the bushes. He believed seeing would satisfy that longing, or at least quell it enough that he could find himself able to ponder those big things—life, death, the universe. At last, he saw her parents’ Honda, an ugly ochre hue, and he crouched, sweat-drenched, behind the wild bushes, peering through the tangle of leaves and limbs. Her father, who’d gone gray in the interim year, got out first, then her mother, who kept her hair young. Then she got out of the back seat, a long muscular leg extending, poised on the driveway’s asphalt in waiting, as if she knew he was watching, as if she wanted to goad him. Then the rest of her came, looking tired and unconcerned, and just as beautiful. Her hair was long, near her waist, and she’d leaned into her natural color, having let it go raven black. From the end of the block, through the thicket, he could see she wore no makeup and he had believed he was the only one with the privilege to see her like that. He was wrong.
They collected bags and went inside, then he returned to his aged Mercury Tracer and drove home. He’d made a resolve not to call her, not to text, so as not to give up any power he hoped he still had. Their mutual friends were all coming home and soon there would be parties and gatherings and beer and maybe then he’d talk to her, making up lies about what he’d been up to, places he’d gone on the weekends, mischief he’d gotten into. He’d leave out the trash can full of wadded up tissues, the nights staring at the TV so intently, so mindlessly, that he’d failed to realize he’d been watching an infomercial for an hour. He would try to guide her from sharing her own stories, knowing he was not strong enough to hear them, that his face would contort and crumble, and he couldn’t bear her recognizing that and apologizing.
So he waited.
They lit up the marquee outside the old theater as they always did for the summer. The boats in the harbor were cleaned and their bells clanged in chorus with one another. The football team began practices. Bonfires, sporadic and quiet, were lit and extinguished. At the summer camp, the green team won color wars. Pools, begged for by children, lay open but unused, inflated rafts moving listlessly with the wind. Lawns were mowed. Weeds were trimmed. And the harmonious din of children’s screams of freedom slowly diminished as the summer carried on and the signs for back-to-school sales were hung in the windows of the shops on Main Street.
He got a job at the local liquor store, another job renting kayaks to the few tourists and summering city couples. The liquor store afforded him time in the coolers, reprieve from the heat. It also afforded him discounts for beer he was too young to buy but was allowed to, so long as the manager wasn’t in. The kayaks and the tourist had a more demanding manager who watched him obsessively from the offices that overlooked the shed housing the kayaks. Throughout the day, the sun reflected off the windows of the office, rendering the building a bougie panopticon, and even when he was sure his manager wasn’t watching, the slightest mistake was accompanied by the rending open of that office door, the manager's footfalls on the wooden steps, the manager’s voice paternally calling his name.
There’d been no parties, no adventures. The friends he did see, the ones not away on study-abroads or visiting college friends from different states, only sipped cheap beer and complained of boredom, unaware of how much it stung him that he could not commiserate. The indolent Friday nights of that summer were the most fun he’d had in a year.
And he had not heard from her, though there were a few nights he drafted texts, some feigning nonchalance, others professing all his regrets and his evergreen feelings, but he deleted them all. It wasn’t until the final week of that summer that he reached out to her. They should meet up, he said, get something to eat or drink. She replied, quickly, with a yes and added that she missed him. He missed her too.
Barbary’s on the Coast, a small, ancient restaurant whose name was no longer humorous to locals, rested above the harbor and, from its rear windows, gave a pleasant view of the now idle boats below, the gently rippling waves, and the Horner lighthouse a half mile out into the bay. The lighthouse was a turgid brick square sitting hideously amidst the calm waters of the bay and populated, as local legend has it, only by ghosts since the automatic lighting system had been installed. The iron bars on the windows had tarnished with sea rust and the fence keeping out rebellious sailors was halfway lost to the waters at its base. There was no need for upkeep, as no one, save the technicians who checked wiring quarterly, ventured out there anymore. The lighthouse was located where the waters of the Kennikee River mingled angrily with the cool current of the Atlantic, and though the surface looked calm, it was known to push and pull and exhaust anyone without the aid of wind or a motor. Teens knew there were easier, less risky, places to get drunk, and the few that did venture out in search of ghosts only came back with tall tales that they themselves could not finish without laughing.
He was looking out over the bay from the Barbary’s back windows, at the stunted lighthouse silhouetted by the setting sun, pondering the stories that surrounded it, when she came through the door. He had a moment to watch her while she searched the restaurant for him, a moment to linger on the hope that this meeting would not be as halfhearted as all the other meetings with friends had been, that maybe some of that distant, and possibly imagined, electricity between them would reignite. She noticed him, smiled, and came over. He stood to hug her and after they parted, they each took a seat on opposite sides of the booth.
“How are you?” she said with a new, energetic slant. Gone was her perpetual boredom, the ever-present listlessness that pervaded the voices in that town.
“I’m good. Good. Your hair is … looks cool,” he said, fiddling with a napkin.
“Really? Thanks. My roommate convinced me to do it. I was against it at first but now I really like it. I think it suits me,” she smiled and flipped her hair with flourish.
What else had her roommate convinced her to do?
“It definitely does,” he said.
“So what about you? How have you been?”
“Oh, you know, working.”
“I’m glad you called. I thought I was going to have to go the whole summer without seeing you.”
“Phone works two ways, you know?” he said in the old, teasing tone, and expected her to smile.
“I didn’t know if you wanted to see me … after everything.”
“I’ll always want to see you,” he said.
There was a quick flutter of her old smitten eyes. The ones that looked up at him during their taciturn evenings alone, the nights he thought about when lying in his bed with the windows open, thick summer air and bugs falling through the screen.
“I’m glad,” she said, flutter gone.
The waiter took their orders. He ordered a water and she a Coke and he thought about the drastic changes college had brought. She never drank soda, never had dark hair. After the waiter brought over their drinks and turned away, she dug in her purse (and now she was carrying a purse!) and drew out a flask. She peered around the empty restaurant, a look of sly subterfuge on her face, and poured a bit of the flask’s contents into her glass.
“Want some?” she asked, returning the flask to her lap.
“What is it? I only got water so …”
“It’s gin so no one can tell,” she said, knocking the metal flask against his knees under the table.
He took it, poured some in his water, and returned it. He drank. Plain water and gin tasted awful. He gagged and she laughed and her laugh was the first thing that evening that didn’t seem stricken by something unsaid between them. It seemed to leave behind the tears and his pitiful begging and the mean things he’d said drunk and allowed them to return not to what they were before, but rather a time before even that, when they did not know each other and there was no history between them at all. He figured that was as good as anything else.
So they drank and laughed and picked at potstickers and she regaled him with stories of college—dormitories, parties, classes, and clubs—and he listened and pretended she was a stranger. He interjected only briefly, having only a few stories of his own about spills at the liquor store or the town-rupturing tale of Mayor Lutig’s affair with a town councilwoman. Maybe it was the alcohol or maybe it was just out of necessity, either way he allowed himself to sink into her presence and remain there, suspended, thinking neither of the past nor the future, but only the little moment of now, the first time in a year he’d felt entertained.
“There again was that devilishness, the mischievousness. Yes, it was that haunting, sibilant tone that he’d forgotten and that reminded him it was still her in there. That lurid hissing that made him sneak out all those nights, made him skinny dip and run naked back to his car, made him try the acid she’d gotten from her cousin. And to the soundtrack of her giddy, drunken laughter, they descended the embankment to the shed that stored the rental kayaks, the shed he had the key to.”
Night descended and the beam of the lighthouse swept across the harbor, the rear of Barbary’s, their gin-filled glasses, and their reddening faces. They got kicked out, gently, by their waiter who informed them summer hours were over and Barbary’s was closing. They exited the front door and, realizing they were in no state to drive, descended to the harbor, talking still amongst the sounds of the docked boats.
“I always liked it here,” she said, pausing and looking out toward the lighthouse.
He wanted to add that he liked it too but still he recalled their final night and all he’d said through childlike, blubbering lips. No, for him the harbor now held only shame and heartbreak and no amount of gin and musing would change that.
“I’d like to get a picture,” she said.
“Kids at school, they’re all … city kids, I’d guess you’d say? They’re amazed when I tell them stories about this place.”
“They say it’s so quaint, so picturesque,” she turned from the bay to him, “yes, those are the words they use. They say it sounds like a movie or a book. It doesn’t sound real. I want to show them. Show them where I’m from.”
“Well,” he said, not quite understanding, and gestured toward the bay, “Take a picture.”
“No. I want to take it from the lighthouse.”
There again was that devilishness, the mischievousness. Yes, it was that haunting, sibilant tone that he’d forgotten and that reminded him it was still her in there. That lurid hissing that made him sneak out all those nights, made him skinny dip and run naked back to his car, made him try the acid she’d gotten from her cousin. And to the soundtrack of her giddy, drunken laughter, they descended the embankment to the shed that stored the rental kayaks, the shed he had the key to. The two of them pushed the kayak into the shallows and climbed aboard. In tandem they paddled until the lights of the harbor, the sound of the docked boats, faded behind them.
The lighthouse beam illuminated the small crests in the water and some waves lapped over the side, soaking his pants. The water was cold, despite the time of year. She took breaks from paddling to take pictures. Pictures of the lights growing smaller. Picture of the lighthouse growing larger. Pictures of herself with him smiling over her shoulder. She paused also to take swigs from her flask and offer it to him behind her back. Sometimes he took it, sometimes he did not.
His arms and back began to burn with strain. The demands of high school sports had kept him in shape and he’d not realized just how much the static nature of his new life had dwindled his muscles, ruined his endurance. By the time the bow of the kayak crashed against the rocks at the base of the lighthouse, he was panting. She got out first and helped him afterward. Panting still, he pulled the kayak further onto the rocks and tied it to a piece of fence that was not yet molted by rust. They scrambled up the rocks to the base of the lighthouse.
She looked around in wonderment and the light of the lighthouse shone through her new black hair and he watched her raise her phone and take pictures of the small line of lights that outlined the shore. It was quiet. Just the crash of small waves against the rocks. He regained his breath and was finally able to stand straight.
“Come on,” she said, already starting toward the lighthouse. He followed, dutifully.
The old iron door was chained, as it always was, but, as always, the flaccid chain allowed the door to be opened wide enough for someone to slide through. And they did. She turned on her phone light. He drew his phone from his wet pants, soaked with seawater, and found it dead.
“Fuck,” he said, mutedly.
“I think my phone is fucked.”
He held the volume and lock button. The screen remained black.
He was able to recognize the sinking feeling in his stomach, the dread of just how much a new phone would cost, but the true misery of the realization was unable to break through the gin.
“It’s fine,” he said.
They followed the silver light of her phone up the metal stairs. Through gap-toothed windows and portholes of failing brick he heard the sound of the bay, water slapping the graffitied stones, rattling the derelict fence. She paused once on the stairs to take a photo of him. The light blinded him. When she showed him the photo, he was squirting and ghost white against a background as black as the void.
“That’s a keeper,” she said, smiling at the photo.
They continued up the stairs until they reached the door to the gallery. She pushed it open and light filled the vacant shaft they had just climbed and illuminated the cobwebs, glass bottles, and discarded cigarettes that carpeted the ground. She hung her head over the railing and said, “It looked better without the light.” Then she stepped out onto the galley.
They sat there on the edge, legs dangling, the shadows across their faces ebbing and flowing with the rotating light. They traded swigs of the dwindling gin. To their left were the lights of the harbor, of the town, of their childhood homes, and to the right that endless darkness of the sea. The night dark that caused the ocean and the sky to meld impenetrability and where there should have been stars or the moon or even the reflection of those, there was only uniform and unknowable darkness.
“I miss you,” he said, looking out into that featureless space.
“I miss you too,” she said earnestly.
“This has been the best night of my summer.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“It has. It’s the only night where something has happened. I haven’t done anything in … months.”
“Well, summers are supposed to be lazy.”
“It wasn’t just the summer. It was the whole year. Everyone’s gone.”
“You’re saving up, right? You’ll be gone soon too.”
“No, I won’t,” he said and looked back toward her. Over her shoulder rested all those lights he knew so well.
“Oh, stop. Of course you will.”
He thought to argue or at least to explain. But he found himself unable to think of how to describe what he felt. The finality of it. The sensation of having always known he would never leave, that there was nowhere to go for him, that the confines of the town were all he was supposed to know. And how to explain that even though he’d always known, the realization, the admittance, the acceptance, had been paralyzingly painful and supremely shameful. All the things he’d said he’d do, all the things he was supposed to leave behind, were now lists of things he would never do, things he was perpetually bound to. And there was no one to explain this to, no one to sympathize, to commiserate. He was alone in those familiar lights while everyone he’d ever known was lost in exploration of that vast, unknowable darkness. Even her. With her new hair, manicured nails, and constant photo-taking, it became clear that she was not the girl he had once known. Gone were the tomboyish jeans, the flippancy of Oh, I just left my phone at home, the fingernails embedded with dirt. This at once crushed him and freed him. She was gone, and the pain of that would remain. But it lifted the weight of failure from his shoulders. He had not lost her. She just was no more.
“You’re right,” he said and gave her a small laugh.
They sat together until the gin was gone and until she said she was cold. They stood and she took one last photo of them together with the lights of the town behind them. Then they started down the stairs, lit again by her phone light. Midway down, it died, leaving them in darkness. They hardened their breaths. She whispered his name harshly. There was a pause where all that could be heard was the buzzing of the large bulb above them. Then they began to laugh. Snickering little bursts, like children up too late at a slumber party. Then the two of them howled. They fumbled down the stairs, gripping one another, gripping the rusted railing, bits of chipped paint and flaking metal pricking their fingers. They breathed warm gin breath into each other’s faces and mocked each other’s stench. The way down was long and perilous and he hoped that it would never end.
Eventually they emerged from the base of the lighthouse. The wind had picked up slightly and tossed her hair across her face.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said.
“Where’s the kayak?”
He looked down at the rocks where they’d docked the boat and found there only barnacles and a flailing rope.
He glanced out across the water but, even with the light from the lighthouse, he could not make out the shape of the kayak. Only the steady pulse of the sea.
“Fuck,” he said again.
“It’ll be okay,” she said.
“No, no it won’t.”
“Boats will come by tomorrow. They’ll see us. We just have to, you know, spend the night,” she giggled. “Wish I had more gin though.”
“I can’t lose the kayak. My boss will kill me,” he said, moving about the base of the lighthouse, looking out over the water again.
“It’ll be okay,” she said again.
“No, it fucking won’t. Those things are expensive and I’m not supposed to take them out outside of work hours.”
“Listen,” she said, stepping to him. “It’ll be okay. Your boss will understand. You’ll be able to pay him back. It might take some time but you will, okay?”
He hated her then and the fact that she was so calm. He hated that, rescued as they would be at dawn, she could just leave and forget. He hated too that she would codify this as an adventure, add it to a collection of crazy things she’d done in her youth, a story to share with her college friends as they sat around drinking in some bar far more interesting than Barbary’s. There was no fleeing for him. This story would only be one of shame and anger. He would have to explain to his manager the next day that he’d lost the kayak. He would have to bear that patronizing, righteous tone from his manager as he explained the importance of responsibility, explained the disappointment he felt because he really trusted him as an employee. He would have to watch his paychecks be sucked away, still not covering the cost of the kayak. And his phone! All the money he’d tallied up, saving for school, for the promise of escape, was eaten up in one night.
“Are you okay?” she asked him.
He opened his mouth to tell her no, to tell her she was callous, to tell her she didn’t understand his situation. Who was she, anyway? Who was this pretend person with dyed hair, taking selfies, worried about impressing others? But over her shoulder, the neon green of the kayak caught the light and without answering he sprinted toward the rocks.
“What are you doing?” she yelled.
He did not stop and stayed focused on the neon green spot that shone and faded with the passing light. At the edge of the rocks, he jumped, and even suspended in the air he made note of the kayak, its position, its slight drifting toward the darkness of the ocean beyond the bay. The water consumed him at once, dampening his clothes, weighing him down. It was colder than he’d expected but manageable. He ruptured the surface and took a moment to get his bearings, locating both the kayak which bobbed before him and the lighthouse that sat behind him with her yelling at its base.
He kicked against the current which he found was working against him. He kicked against the weight of his shirt and pants. He lost a shoe while he kicked, even more money wasted. He kicked harder, putting his head down and thrashing against the waves that beat against him, waves that had seemed small from the kayak and from the shore, waves that now seemed mountainous. He kicked and sent his arms out far ahead of him, waiting, expecting, to feel the fiberglass of the kayak’s body against his fingers. He kicked and beat and stroked until his muscles ached as they had before paddling out to the lighthouse. He paused to rest. The kayak was still just as far but the lighthouse had grown smaller, as did the soft sound of her screams, which were now faint as whispers. If they hadn’t shared gin, he would have panicked. But, inebriated, he knew only his purpose of reaching the kayak.
He started to kick again but his legs did not move. He tried to contract his arms but found them stuck in place. He thought he felt his second shoe slide from his foot but wasn’t sure if that was just the loss of feeling. It was colder than he’d expected. The kayak, caught for the last time in the light of the lighthouse, drifted further out toward the indistinguishable horizon. He did too. He drifted until he could no longer hear the tin cry of her voice, until he could no longer feel the prickling cold of the water, until he too became part of that vast darkness beyond the sea.
Ryan Barnhart was raised in New Jersey and currently resides in Tennessee. Excerpts of his work have appeared in Taint, Taint, Taint Literary Magazine. At work on his first novel, he holds a BA from Emerson College and an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Calliope Pavlides (b. 1998) is a Greek artist living in Los Angeles. She graduated with a BFA in painting from Rhode Island School of Design where she received the Florence Leif Award for Excellence. Pavlides has exhibited her work in group and solo shows throughout New York, Los Angeles, Providence, and Athens. She is best known for her vibrantly rendered drawings that inhabit the space between portraiture and still life. Her figures negotiate architectural and landscape forms to breathe life into static objects, animating light, air, and space. Pavlides is represented by Harkawik, NY.