BY YOUR SIDE, by PARIS KIM
HE WASN’T trying to get sprayed with the soapy water. But he wanted so dearly to be close to her. The tub was too small for a couple anyways; another body in the porcelain would cause too much splash and commotion for the maid, cleaning out the maintenance closet next door, to hear.
June got tanner the more she soaked. Perhaps it was coming on even before he’d arrived in that afternoon. She’d probably been lying out for days under the scorching blaze of the bulb in the blue sky, nothing standing between them. Everything else was beneath her— beneath everyone’s—feet, everything that was only sand and stiff drying grass.
She’d come into the room he’d checked in to bathe, the small orange-painted one at the end of the hall. It was her way of showing gratitude for him driving back in her rusty orange Beetle.
“It’s a charming place, I guess,” Noah said to her, sitting reversed on the desk chair he dragged into the small bathroom and rested against its steel back.
“The charm has gone nowhere after twenty-two years here,” she replied, in the middle of shaving. “It’s not a bad place, but I guess it just depends on the mood I’m in.” He was marveling the sharpness of those blades, but more the slenderness of her legs stretched into the air; neon-red was painted on her toes, like cherries, curling under towards her heels. It didn’t seem to bug her that he was watching something so intimate.
“So this solves one thing,” she went on, smiling up at him and lightly swishing bubbles away from her brunette locks coming out of her loose bun.
“And that is?” he answered. He removed his t-shirt stained with his sweat. He’d have to find a tub of his own soon, to meet this lovely gal’s standards. She surely wouldn’t long for a man who’d driven 300 miles against the heat and bumper to bumper down the rugged coast with his brother Jay to watch her shave those long browning legs of hers.
“You’ve shown me yours, you gotta see mine.” She giggled and buried herself behind the edge of the tub, like she’d never said something so naughty before. “It’s behind the office up the stairs, between the linens closet and my parents’ room. Has a water bed, too.”
He couldn’t help but smile.
It wasn’t that terrible of a movie. Maybe it was because June hated action. She wanted the romcom, as silly as it had looked, but had the tickets not been sold out Noah would’ve endured it for her.
Even if the film was over, their first date hadn’t reached its own conclusion. The cinema on Shattuck was perfectly situated for June and Noah to aimlessly walk about the shops and possibly grab some drinks in one of the cafés or bars. But he had to keep it light. She kept complaining of dizziness for sitting too close to the big screen. If only their ailments could be switched—that she could have the strained neck so he’d be able to touch near her slender smooth back.
A block up the street they got Yogurtland. It was February. It took her by surprise. As they sat in plastic high chairs by the window front spooning up raspberries with the cold tart cream, she asked if it was customary in the Bay to go cold when it was cold.
“Well,” Noah started to answer, “I’ll tell you that it’s customary for Noah to go cold.”
“It’s fucking freezing out!” June squeaked. Her lips were stained a brighter red by the raspberry juice.
“I can do anything as a young careless man,” he said with a sly smile. “After being in cold and fog for pretty much my whole life, it just grows on you. Like lukewarm to me now, I guess.”
“Hmm.” She looked out onto the street. Frost was taking over the bottom of the wide glass, and she looked with sympathy to a small group of homeless men shut away under the lamp post on the corner of the block. One in a dull burgundy sweatshirt got up and was making their way to the window; June pressed her hand into Noah’s, despite how chilly it was. The poor man, tapping on the glass, lifted his tattered Raiders’ cap to smooth out the thinning but long hair underneath and zipped up the sweatshirt, mouthing to the couple if they had any change to spare. Noah looked at the man, shaking his head almost routinely. With June, her heart gave out. She smiled at the man and despite Noah’s plea to not stir, she briskly went out to give him a five dollar bill and patted his back. His face crinkled into a sheepish grin and he rejoined the lamp post gang.
Before Noah could say anything, she explained, “No one should have to stoop so low to ask.”
“I’m just used to turning my head,” was his reply. “I mean I try and give what I can but I can’t give to all. It’s just such a huge problem up here; something that I don’t think needs to be blown up like this. I mean, he could get a job.”
“In this economy I doubt anyone can. Even us! The future is always uncertain, dear.” He looked up from his yogurt to her. She sat prim and straight with her legs warm in their blue tights and taupe oxfords without laces, scooping up the last of her desert. Dear. She said it so casually, but beautifully.
He hadn’t spoken for a few seconds, but came back with, “I’ve got a few places lined up for opportunities. I mean, graphics is a big deal in such a technological-based society we’ve got going on here.”
“Society!” she remarked, rather dramatically. “I think advancement’s boring. Fucking dull, and expected. People always want to strive for the newest thing, but then you’re never going to enjoy what’s in front of you.”
It got Noah to think that night, after he’d walked her back to her Uncle’s apartment, that it was true for new things to always be in pursuit. Him, he wanted to stop now; this new thing had lingered in front of him for the entire evening, lingered long enough to understand what a nostalgic romantic sort of girl she was. He’d sure enjoyed that.
“Where in South-East Asia?”
She didn’t hear him, swimming laps and submerged in the pool water—June came up to the side and grabbed her big red sunglasses, to shield from the sun shining directly from behind Noah. She looked over her shoulder to see if anyone had gotten in with her, but it was only Jay shirtless and wading his legs in the water on the other side of the pool. He was hot, bored. Noah repeated the question to her.
“Ohh! Vietnam. It was around the time of the war. Parents were still quite young, but you know, dad lived here. Wasn’t really affected, actually wasn’t affected at all! Unlike my mom.” “Seemed like she’s adjusted fine to American life.”
“Not at all. Well at first no—just the culture shock of things, I guess. And it sucked more that half the family went to the Bay, and she and my grandparents and uncle down in Long Beach.” “You really can’t hear an accent from her,” Noah said. She pulled herself up on the railing and remained cross-legged by the teal brick ledge, drinking down the chilled Arnold Palmer he’d just handed to her. Jay came over, grunting. “Going inside,” he told them.
“Yeah, fine,” Noah said sharply. “Keep the towels off my bed, eh?” Jay had already left. “And what about your dad?”
“Dad? Born in Long Beach, met my mom there around high school—not much else.”
“Wouldn’t have guessed your mom would go interracial. I mean, new country—culture shock.”
“She’s a funny one isn’t she? Doesn’t really strike her fancy, my dad. But she’s always been adamant on his humor and outlook at life. I remember one night in the back kitchen when I was eleven, there was some shark enthusiasts convention being held out here and when dad actually left us cooking to go chat with the absurd men in the dining hall— gosh mom was sure pissed, but shrugged at me and Alexander and reminded us that dad’s funny quirks were what kept the family going.”
“She said that?”
“Verbatim. As well as that he keeps dreams alive, doesn’t let go of much, if there’s still juice in them.”
“Like the Starlight Palms.” His saying the name put a smile on her face, and she pushed her wet tumbler away to lay her head in his lap.
“Like home. Home’s always going to be alive for me. I used to think it wouldn’t last through high school, you know the lack of check-ins and tons of renovation badly needed back then compared to the more spacious and corporate inns closer to the town; but graduating and coming back to it is like—I’m not bored of it, certainly am not. Some people might not find it the ideal California residence, but it screams California at you when you pass it on the road. I don’t doubt my dad after this place. He’s got a good heart and wild dreams and glorifying the past of his childhood with something kitsch like The Starlight proves anything for him is nothing. Makes it easy I guess for anyone to love him, even my mom, too.”
“The Starlight Palms Inn,” Noah replied, wiping the perspiration from his bare chest, “open since 1952, but making dreams since 1986.” They both were laughing.
“Ah Dad, buying the place in the 80’s was the most perfect thing he could have ever done for me, for my childhood.”
Perfect. Noah looked up from her and stared hard into the road up ahead. The brown hills lined the edges of the bright ocean while Price Street stretched alongside Highway 1. Everything seemed to be leaning outward and away from him, reaching to the broad blue skies ahead. Nothing stained it. It was all untouched. Things seemed perfect out here. June Wyath was perfect to him.
A TRIP ON THE HOG
After the last of the breakfast buffet had been served in the dining hall, Mr. Wyath called Noah and Alexander to the back of the motel. There was a badly white-washed tin shack serving as a two-car garage for the Wyath family. The smell of diesel and Pinesol was expelled once they opened. Inside was the family’s Volvo and June’s rusty orange beetle. And from between them Mr. Wyath wheeled out an older model of a type of motorcycle, something dated and probably from the 80’s, Noah presumed.
“It’s um, really nice, sir,” he said in a pleasant voice, looking down to June’s brother, Alexander. He wasn’t looking amused, and said nothing.
“Glad you think so,” Mr. Wyath replied, and pulled something from the wooden table in the shack’s corner. He placed keys in Noah’s hands. “Go ‘head. Said yourself you liked it.” No, he hadn’t said it that way. But Noah sure was taking a liking to him; he felt obliged by the Wyath hospitality to dust off the bike some more and mounted it. He hadn’t any idea with getting it started or where to go, and why Alexander stood stiff and pouty more than ever observing Noah’s awkwardness.
It was as if his sweetheart could hear these thoughts, saving him in a matter of seconds as she came around the corner wanting to come along with Noah on the drive. “We’ll take it easy,” June whispered into his ear as she wrapped her arms around his waist.
It started out slow, cautious, and the two of them were stiff on the bike as it picked up speed and descended the little hill from the Starlight. He didn’t even plan on going down. But now they were along Price Street, with no traffic to hold up and neither a destination to head to. Somehow, they already were on the entrance ramp to Highway 1 and the pace was picking up; the further down the long road they went the faster the bike went and the quicker Noah’s heart beat. Her laughter was stirring him alive in what seemed like seconds speeding down.
They took an exit off to a gas station just as the ocean started to fade out of views from grassy browning hilltops. “Turn around!” June excitedly shrieked at him. Down the road once more. It wasn’t so bad, since June was right behind him, lifting him over that road like an angel had just taken hold of his life, directing him towards the electric ocean and the golden sun.
She shouted and laughed interchangeably into his ears where to turn and what gears to switch, and then they were driving down Pomeroy Avenue by the pier. June let go once at the stoplight to wave to people she must’ve known standing around outside the Splash Café. “Park there!” she commanded. It was the first time he’d parallel parked, and it was horrible. Between two cars, not even in a car, but he still did it and felt relieved that it wasn’t on some tight hillside curb in San Francisco.
June suggested Noah phone Jay to join them, and while they waited around she crooked her arm into his and led towards the direction of the pier. “Your first bike ride?” she asked, gliding her hand along the old wood of the long stretch before them.
“Some scary shit,” he said with a good laugh, “not gonna lie.”
“At least you’re getting better use of it than Alexander does.” He looked at her perplexedly. “It’s his you know,” she explained. They were just above the shore where the waves violently smashed with the dark sand, and below a single group of little girls had just been ambushed by a massive one that hadn’t quite died at the shore.
“It’s Alex’s. Before he was born, my dad put money aside from the motel to buy a motorcycle for when he grew up. Then they started to notice things, and the doctor officially declared my brother was a dwarf. No use for a motorcycle there. It’s not even Alex’s thing, even if he could manage to ride a motorcycle.”
That explained the sourness from Alexander. “A lot of things must be holding your brother back.”
“He gets by.” She nudged closer to him as they looked out over the pier. Seagulls were coming up, landing beside June and closing in should she have food. It was warm on the waterfront. Skateboarders outnumbered pedestrians on the stretch. Everyone seemed to get by. Pismo Beach was one first trip on a hog Noah wouldn’t forget.
THE MISSION DISTRICT
It was old, it was life. The Mission was where hard dreams refused to die, when they had gone only so far, and just out of reach.
He could see this in the taquerias with their dark windows and dented pick-ups parked along the sidewalks of smutty Victorian houses. Noah lost a silver button out there. He heard the clatter of the round piece as it hit the pavement, still strolling through his endless thoughts as he too strolled along. At the moment he’d been thinking of what would happen to her and him.
She’d taken immediately to the stuffy studio after they both had first rammed through the jammed front door. The sounds they made, stomping through! They were loud, quick, from two youngsters whose high laughter reeked of scotch and marshmallow vodka. It was cold and foggy outside, and they’d just been walking around the streets all the way from the bar on Valencia up to the apartment. Before reaching the place he and June had been huddled together against the fog walking, June having no clue about where they would end up next. Had he known that it would all lead up to the small talk in the blue sheets, Noah would never had second guessed from the start the question he asked Anthony when he agreed to house-sitting his place that weekend. That afternoon he’d met up with his roommate from freshman year, to get the keys and ask if it was alright to have a girl over in the evening.
“It’s not much for a girl to hang in,” Anthony warned, but he was smiling. “She’ll be fine if you’re there. Assures me you won’t be leaving the place unguarded in the nights.” Noah sighed, jingling the apartment keys in his hand as he walked to the BART station a block down. It was a relieving answer that he’d honestly not been expecting, when he had to ask Anthony about letting a girl he’d only met two months ago into his place.
He’d left June back at the bed, enfolded and limp in the sky blue bed sheets. Moments before they’d been holding each other close, making a home out of a strange place and entangled in a stranger’s soft cotton things. They had the radio from a 90’s Bose system set to a whisper, audible for them to pick up the tune but nothing harsh to yell over. Most of the talk was yogurt, parties, holes in socks, the softness of each other’s lips. Most importantly to them was discussing two weeks from now, as it was in this time that they would be graduates of UC Berkeley, and off to a new life with uncertain promises to good or bad.
“It’s like this,” she was saying, touching his cheek and sliding it down to his stubbled jaw line, “What’s there for me back at home besides the hotel? I’m studying marketing just for the sake of helping out with the place. Get it back on the map and a part of Pismo Beach again. Hell, just get back Pismo Beach we all once knew.”
“What would you say Pismo Beach is, essentially?” He sincerely wanted to know.
“Unnoticed, adrift from most stops along Highway 1, from the rest of this sunny fast-lane idea of California. I guess I’ll just be going back to that. But I sure want to change things when I’m back, if that makes sense.”
He kissed her. “I’d like to come back with you,” he said in nearly one breath, truth in every word.
“There’s nothing for graphics out there.”
“San Luis Obispo’s just up the road. There’s bound to be work.” She groaned and turned over, a blast of cool air rushing in as the blue sheets folded over and off their shirtless bodies. “Find work, make a living—make life work. Who wants to make it work, when we don’t have anything to really work for except passing time comfortably? Make it count, make everything count, and that’s all I want.” She sat up, and looked down at Noah on his back, with his hands grabbing her waist. “Like this,” she continued, stroking his extended arm, “I want this to count.”
“You know I do too,” Noah replied. “Every minute. Precious.”
“You’re precious,” she mocked.
“It makes a perfect fit then, precious and frugality. You’re nothing to be wasted, even time. I’ll sure make it count then when I say that I’m in love.” Noah felt her palm press into his wrist, hinting at how startled she’d just been. “I wouldn’t have asked you out here with me,” he went on.
“There wasn’t a better night to tell me,” she finally replied. Smiling, she looked around and continued, “I gotta say, really am impressed with this place.”
The place was 214 off of 24th and Mission, on the third floor, number 5. It wasn’t home to June or Noah. But they were there and here he was, just leaving now, only wishing he didn’t have to get going, sent out by her to find themselves some decent cheap coffee at two in the morning—slowly getting out from underneath the covers where she lay beautifully bare and relaxed—but she was watching him.
“Ooh, sexy,” she said playfully as he pulled his jeans up over his moss briefs. He looked back at her, saying nothing. The Mission was flooded with possibilities, twenty-four seven.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ALEXANDER
The way that he looked on the date—Alexander seemed tired. Noah mused that a man’s 26 birthdays in a row in the same place trying to excite he who found little excitement in his small life was getting redundant to him. June and her parents never thought so.
The window-walled narrow dining hall reflected the teal paper lanterns dangling from the low popcorn ceiling, keeping the brightness to the room as the sun was going down. The long ply-wood table and chairs were dressed and wrapped in long white and yellow crepe paper, and only in the last minutes before the cake was set on the table did June, and with Jay, start tossing about beautiful glitter everywhere, at everyone. The guests seemed to be outshining the birthday candles.
Alexander looked nice, neatly combed chestnut hair and an ash gray Abercrombie polo with the collar popped. The cake, chocolate, was brought forward, and his expression changed to more pleased. The song sung, the candles blown, the cake sliced—everything was as if it should have been, except it wasn’t. The Wyaths made the moments more memorable and remarkable by the over-the-top execution. With the Starlight Palms, it was so small a space for the effect to really shine.
“Get the player out!” June pushed Jay’s iPhone back into his hand, favoring the record player being rolled in by Mr. Wyath and her Uncle Loc. From the cabinet underneath it she pulled some records out and the ones she didn’t feel for she flung freely to Noah for catching. He looked through the rejected vinyl, down at Smoky Robinson and The Byrds. June paused on Dusty Springfield but she too was tossed to Noah. The records probably weren’t hers, only delectable relics just as old as the Starlight Palms where they’d been abandoned.
The party was now livened up by a surprising tune from Echo and the Bunnymen. Now that had been June’s. It wasn’t long after they’d been close together dancing with interlaced fingers that she dragged Noah to the side of the building. It was cold out, as the spray of the ocean brushed past them, and the twilight lingered only enough for her to look up to his shadowed face.
She came close to his face to kiss it, but pulled away a few inches just before their lips touched to playfully hum to the song that was quite special to him, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” The Smiths. He couldn’t stand it, older stuff. But that’s the song she played on his speakers that gorgeous day in April when the weather finally turned to blue skies over Berkeley. Warm winds gently blew while the two of them had sat lazily across the lawn right below the tall Campanile Tower, listening closely to the tune.
The sound of gravel crackling startled them—Alexander turned the corner and jumped back, dropping the pork bun he’d been munching down. “Fucking Christ!” he shouted, flicking sauce from the spilled bun off of his stubby legs. “May I remind you Mom and Dad rent out twenty perfectly good private rooms—”
“Don’t get dramatic there, birthday boy,” June piped, more excited than embarrassed. “I’d hope to get you out here anyways.”
“Alone?” He was doubtful.
“Mmmhm.” She let go of Noah’s hand and knelt down to her brother. From behind her she pulled from out of her blue sash two unlit, long sparklers.
“Oh,” her brother said.
“For you and me!” June explained, “Or both, if you really want them. Noah’s gonna take a picture for me.”
Jay found them. He ran out and handing Noah’s phone to him, said, “Someone from Sawyer Builds or whatever wanting you.”
Sawyer! Noah got away and went back inside to where family members of the Wyaths had snuck the old records into play and moved obscurely about with each other. In a dim corner where a red lantern had blown out, he finally took the call.
“Yes! Hello there.”
“Oh, good. This is Stan Farley calling back about your application from April.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, we’ve just reviewed your portfolio and application only this morning, and it looks like we have open an amazing opportunity here for you at Sawyer Builds and Graphics. We called earlier, and since the office is just about closing I’d thought about taking the liberty to try you once more.”
“Oh yes! No one likes to wait on good news.”
“No indeed! I am glad to have reached you now, even if so late. Will you be able to be in Denver for a proper orientation with my colleagues next week?”
Noah became stiff. “I applied for a position at the San Jose branch.”
“Unfortunately our San Jose locations are well off and overloaded, in fact. Denver’s fresh and new, not even settled five years here. I’m calling from Denver, and Denver’s in need of young blood fresh from college, fresh from California with all those bright sunshine ideas of yours you surely must have.”
“I actually do.”
“Then would next week be any problem?”
He said it wouldn’t. Next week, next week on his mind even as he snapped the red button on June’s Instamatic and when Jay stuck his bony fingers too close to the sparks of Alexander’s sparkler. It was still on his mind when June suggested they all go sit on the hoods of their cars—on top of her orange old Beetle the glass was creaking and she was nestled in his arms. “Sure hope he’s satisfied with this year,” she was telling him, looking out to the ocean in the distance.
“I think so,” Noah replied mindlessly.
“We threw glitter. We never did that before,” she went on, releasing one arm from his embrace to start playing with her long hair, “and we made the cake chocolate. He likes cheesecake.” “Thought chocolate was his thing.”
“Nuh uh, I only suggested chocolate last minute to Mom right before she was buying the cake in town. So we baked chocolate, just to make this year stand out for him.” He looked over to Alexander, leaning his full little body against the top of Jay’s windshield. Jay had brought out some of his weed and the both of them were taking a hit on a single joint. Even stoned, Alexander could not loosen up in the face. “Don’t think he’d like that.”
“Of course not. He makes it known that he doesn’t like much.”
“Can’t blame him.”
“It’s not his dwarfism, if that’s what you’re goin’ at. It’s cause he’s here—we’re always arguing about it. You know how well I like it here, but with Alex there’s just something about the Starlight that really gets on his nerves.”
“Just that it’s grounding him, or something. Didn’t mean that as a joke, either!”
All of a sudden Alexander let out a short laugh, low-pitched but full of heart. 26 birthdays in a row in the same place and trying to excite one’s self when there really was nothing there. There was bitterness in Alexander, Noah could see why.
Denver. Next week. Next week was still on his mind as he gathered a shivering June back into his arms, atop a windshield and looking out to the dark waters dimly-lit by stars just coming out.
It was hot and the air began to stiffen. Jay was just about ready for the road, home.
With that attitude Noah stiffened himself and brushed off his brother for the gas. Jay took up his brother’s challenge to go out and get situated for the long-awaited drive home. Pearl Gas-for-Less took the longest to get to. It was also the cheapest. Jay smiled at the irony.
A pretty Latina pulled up in an ancient BMW convertible and got out. She had cut off white shorts and a weird orange and purple tribal-print top. It was lace-backed as she turned around to grab her purse in the passenger seat. Jay was intrigued, having not even grabbed the nozzle to his own spot. He didn’t say anything, just stared. And she drove off in a matter of minutes without giving him a thought. It was enough for him to rethink his rush.
After Pearl Gas he decided instead of going back to drive out towards the pier. He parked the car along Cypress Street in front of a big concrete lot cheaply fenced off. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he was there. He walked quickly across the street to some brickwork that gated around a spot of really green grass. He sat on a bench that was barely in the shade. Some sort of Spanish style brick layering—he was drawn to it.
The sky was bright, and it seemed whiter than blue, and if it was blue it surely was pale. The buildings were low, spread out and worn out. It made Jay think of those framed postcards in Grandma’s kitchen of old surfing towns along the coast, except those had been taken in Huntington, Oceanside, all much further down the highway towards SoCal. Pismo Beach was strange, awkward in its location. You never really talked about the Central Coast, even in California.
He did want to surf. It was why he came down with Noah in the first place, but he should have known when he didn’t see any boards or suits packed in with the luggage. There were palm trees oddly spaced out on the sidewalk, close to the long black streetlamps. One of the tallest buildings he saw in the town was right behind him, a white windowless block with BILLIARDS printed near the roof over a strip of red paint.
He had a few dollars in his wallet. He went through the fence and cut across the cool grass towards the billiards. The grass led to a vacant back parking lot, vacant except for an old BMW convertible off to the side.
He thought of her. He crossed the lot, but doing so he sat on the hot ground and waited, whistling. He didn’t know what he was singing, just that it came from June’s stumpy short brother who was sure piss-poor entertainment except for his whistling. Jay didn’t whistle until he met Alexander.
Someone walked towards the car. Someone he’d never seen before, where the white cut-offs and lace back shirt should have been. Just a false alarm he laughed at, and the old man in the white wife-beater and green swim trunks stared suspiciously at the nineteen-year-old as he drove his car out of the lot. After his laugh Jay sighed, ardently missing the dark Latina he’d seen for just that moment in the gas station. He’d never see her again.
Still it made him want to stick around, just a bit longer. He couldn’t help but hope something.
It was as if twilight by the Pacific had never left in that moment. The sky was dull but growing lighter, and the clouds were clearing out, the waves shaking the land to slowly wake up. Endless sand mixed with the salt and paved around the world of the Starlight Palms, this world being in that movement a dimming neon sign with the blue and orange flickering, between shaggy palms—and a boy and girl close together in a waterbed. June’s waterbed.
She hadn’t slept that entire night. It wasn’t like the Mission District. They were facing now the imminent truth they were well aware of, but hadn’t seemed to notice those nights by the ocean. June said nothing. They were quiet for most of the time enfolded in the soft coral sheets. They seemed to never be in a place of their own, detached from anything holding them back. Everything was ready to tear them at the seams. Any new sort of intimacy would have to pass out of thoughts for them—the future took hold of everything now.
She rose out of their embrace; her bare back was turning to look at the clock. Her hair was down, draped over the shoulder closer to where he lay, gently running his fingers through the thick tresses. She looked sweet, beautifully naked and pure, even as she was still hung on those words he’d said just a moment before six. “Before noon?” she asked softly, in a whisper.
He nodded. “Have to make check out, don’t I,” Noah replied rather light-heartedly but uneasily. Her face made no change.
She got up to the record player she had near her window. Pulling the curtains back a little with her small skinny hand, she reached for a record that was piled on others by the window sill. She put it on, a scratchy single of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” playing softly as she lowered the volume. She looked back to him, returning to the sheets and smiling a little.
“Better?” he asked her, smiling back.
The mood was simple and slow as she looked away, swaying to the low music. Simple. Life wasn’t simple. He couldn’t have it all just like June knew she could—her world was already made for her, in that little room of that oceanfront rusting motel that desired people only like June to keep them alive. Noah wanted to stay alive, not keep another thing going.
“It’s one of the most beautiful sounds in this world,” she thought out loud. She wasn’t talking about the world. She somehow excluded Noah in those words. Her world was the Starlight, the place he would be leaving shortly. The process had begun.
“You’ll always be beautiful,” he said to her, sitting up and taking her in his arms. She moved a little to loosen the grip. “I’ll grow old,” she simply replied.
“No. I don’t think you will. As long as you have the Starlight you won’t. Has the Starlight gotten any older?”
She shook her head. “But it’s sure stayed behind. Maybe I’ll go out with you.”
“I wouldn’t dream of that. You love it too much out here.”
She was silent for a moment. “At that you’re right.” She laughed a little. Face to face now, they both stared down. “Denver’s awfully cold.”
“I don’t look forward to it.”
“You’re going to miss the sun, the coast. Can’t deny it.”
She was right. There wasn’t one soul who didn’t miss those precious things about the West Coast. She was still looking down, but as he pulled her again back into his arms he could see through her disheveled hair that the corners of her mouth started turning upward, returning to that smile he’d miss more than ever now that the sun was rising, illuminating the distant waters just visible in the window with the dusty blinds half-drawn.
There was everywhere to be in this world, but only one that wanted you. California, she sure liked to flirt, but this golden girl stayed true to your heart—
He’d heard those words somewhere, remembering them now as the spinning record came to a halt. Only Noah forgot who had said them.
HE’S ALONE, squatting on the rustic fire escape three stories above the snow.
Between puffs of his Marlboro he’s thinking of everything they had. What he should have now and where he ought to be.
Fingers are cold and stiff, without the touch of tanning oil that smells like coconuts.
Noah flicks the cigarette down to the street in hopes that the snow and everything with it melts. He wishes somehow for this puddle to be wide and shallow enough to run across back to her on the poolside.
He hates it here now. Someday, Noah sighs, after one last hit, someday will turn out to be the end of the day, when I can drive from work on that hog to that pool and just be by your side.