The summer I turned 13 my friend Peter asked me to come to the shore with him and his parents for a week. Or his parents asked. He was an only child. We swam together. For different teams so I suppose we swam against each other but it never felt that way. He won, I won, we were happy for the other's success. And it was the only time we ever saw each other, at swim meets. He lived in the suburbs I lived nearer the city, but back then, in Pittsburgh, especially Pittsburgh with its Balkan hills and Balkan ways, a few miles of separation could mean as much as a time zone.
Peter was blonde. We were both breaststrokers, equivalent in speed, teetering into adolescence. What a silly word. Such a meager word, a soft word for what in a boy's life can make or break him, or both. To leave boyhood and realize you have to be a man. Your manhood overtaking you and running you into the ground. The muscle, the heat, the sweat, the stink of being male. It grabs and doesn't let go. One day you're pretty, you play with dolls as often as balls, you lean against your mother and your friends, you help her sift flour and sweep the rooms, your bones are fine, you could be called aquiline, the trim of you is neither hard nor soft and then you wake up and you're a plow. A block. A threat. Happy Birthday.
We stayed in an A frame his parents rented in Cape Hatteras. Among a few houses in a field of sea grass, a mile from the only store in town, the Red Drum I think it was called, and the grand lighthouse to the East with its twirled stonework, a short walk to see. When the tide came in the light was surrounded and Peter's father said it was bound to collapse if they didn't move it. Which one summer 20 years later they did.
I would stare at it from the back porch reading Robert Ludlum novels and Clive Cussler and Leon Uris, the moldered paper backs left year after year on the vacation shelves, as his parents smoked and drank and told themselves stories about a family I didn't belong to. Peter's parents were as old as mine which was a rarity in working Pgh. Mine remembered the Depression. My father could have served in the War if he'd wanted to lie well enough. When they'd met they smiled at each other knowing they didn't have to explain, didn't have to bridge the baby boomer gap. Peter and me, the last sons of last son's last son. My mom told me once of her grandmother recalling in her presence that as a young girl she lead the young men down into the basement to hide and be fed. Antietam.
Peter and I went to a water park one afternoon and I remember the perfection of the girl who let me ride behind her on the plunging raft. Unable to let myself put my arms and hands around her breasts I held her by the shoulders. Something unforgivable to me to this day. Nearly throttling her. The maddening firmness and strength of her body and the simple clear fact that she wanted me to touch her. That she offered it. The astonishment that she would. Dawning on a boy in the same way being paid for a job, or rewarded for kindness, or forgiven completely would continue to stun him till he was in his thirties.
I hid myself. I read for hours when I should have roamed the shore with Peter, I was afraid of the solitude I chose but I chose it. We must have gone to the beach occasionally because I remember Peter's hirsute father covering himself in sand and running toward his wife the sharp dust cascading off the dust of him as she emerged smiling from the water. Half naked grown ups. My friend's mother's tits. Her smile. Knowing she still loved her husband. Watching them and feeling like a language was being spoken to me I could not translate in a land I couldn't leave.
I think that week was the end of our friendship, Peter and me. I was too tortured even then, too dark, too inclined already to leave, to walk away, and abandon anyone when the demands and shortcomings of friendship got too dear, the necessary exchange of forgiveness for kindness, got too complicated. We swam a few more times against each other that Fall. I quit swimming, became an anorexic shut-in for a year, reading everything in the house, every book, diary, magazine and paper, my father's Defense Industry monthlies, years of stacked New Yorkers and Smithsonians, two decades of the National Geo and when it came down to it catalogues that my mother paged through for fun, and when that ran dry whatever I could grab from the town library. And then I went to boarding school where at least for awhile the men there dragged me to the surface of a life some could call normal and I excelled.
4 years after that summer Peter and I swam in a race, an exhibition between his HS and my private school and we nearly tied in adjacent lanes. I remember how big his smile was and that he reached across the lane rope and hugged me in his father's gruff way. He shook me. We never saw each other again. I think we spoke once on the phone later when we were adults and I'd been on tv. I seem to remember his voice, deep, older, generous but withheld by what we used to share.
At Hatteras, his parents were friends with a pair of married couples who shared the house next door. The only other house for blocks, if one could call the dunes with lanes dug thru them streets - today I'm sure they're cheek by jowl with development and rented, the wild grass torn away for the pebbled yards owners lay out to save money on gardening in the off season - but then it was acres of tall blue green hay and the tower of the lighthouse rising out of God's nothing and the surf.
The couples were young. One husband had a ragged beard. His wife's name was Gail. "Perfect name for her as she's a wild woman." They seemed weathered, experienced, I found them faded. They were probably in their early thirties. It was Gail's husband who took us to the water park. I remember him telling us that the girls we'd met were hard for him to look at, and then he hooted to the sky and stroked back his beard and made way for the imagined descent of their thighs onto his face. As he told us, and acted out the act I had no idea this was even possible. I remember being ashamed, put off by his candor, by what I didn't even know in me was desire. The facts of life it didn't seem possible were what beauty got boiled down to. The unutterable vision and the perishable flesh I couldn't yet combine.
They smoked a lot, they listened to the Dead who I didn't know were the Dead yet, and they sat behind their screens at sunset, filtered as if on film, and talked and laughed while Peter and I waited for dinner to end. Mr Cochran grilling the fish he'd caught outside under the eave of the house. We'd walk to the beach afterwards every night. It was my only peace, answering the huge tug of the surf. The heave of Hatteras with its monstrous opposing currents, hot and cold, the Gulf and the Labrador crashing into each other and creating a tide that didn't care a rats ass for human life or comfort.
I'd made a sandcastle one afternoon, one rare day in the sun, and I wanted to go back and see how it was doing in the wind, whether the tide had been able to reach it thru my moats and walling. I do remember it was a gorgeous sunset, the glow on our faces almost a force, the waving blue of the land set off like rich fabric against the sky. When I got to the beach a handful of kids who lived nearby and I'd met -I think we'd even body surfed that day, I can still see Peter's expert angling- were hovering around the sandcastle, a few of them smoking, a few of them dressed in finer clothes like the teenagers they were about to become.
I joined them, it got darker, and there was a girl there, with long blonde hair and a light cotton sweater, a useless thing in the evening wind that snapped off the ocean, but which looked like spun ambergris in my eyes against her. A boy, I don't know if he liked her and didn't like that she and I were standing near, or whether he had any idea I'd made the sandcastle at all, then waded into my castle and destroyed it with a few quick sweeps of his leg.
I remember thinking this should hurt my hand as I hit him with my fist, again and again on the mouth as he lay in the sand where I held him. And I remember thinking this is so easy, why doesn't he push back. I could feel his sadness and his fear in my fingers and on my face. I remember thinking even then that it was odd something inanimate, a sandcastle, a stuffed toy, a book with the cover torn off, could mean so much to me, or be the source of so much sorrow. When I bite the knuckles on my right hand, if I need to pull out a splinter, or chew off some stuck residue, I feel his teeth to this day against my fingers as if they were my own.
And I wonder, does he remember going one summer to North Carolina. A trip with a friend or a regular summer spent by the shore with his family. Did he know the girl's name, does he know it still as he approaches 50 and where did he go to school and then graduate and where did he finally settle down to work and make of life a go? Where does he live now? With a family, or divorced and on his own, balding, children, how old and when he sits of an evening by the water does he remember this boy forcing a fist into his mouth time after time because of a little sand. Has he ever told anyone who wasn't there that night what happened?
I dont remember him bleeding. No one tried to stop or pull me away. I do remember crying, heaving cries, sobs with a voice in them, when I let him go and wondered at 13 why am I crying, when I'm not the one who's being hurt.