“Yo, you hear me?” said James standing in front of him. He was looking up at James from his seat and then he looked down and slowly stretched his splayed legs, sand spilling over his toes. Both were outside but close by the open-air bar and on the beach. Out on the distant water were some sailing ships with slim masts like toothpicks, and down the beach were twenty-four young tourists wearing blue and white. They were congregating around a wall of stuck-up surfboards, changing clothes and piling them up.
“Something up?” James said to him.
“I’m fine. Just little tired 'cause last night.”
“Where’s she by the way? Lisa coming?”
“Don’t know. I might later.” He cracked a smile.
“Sure, if you want….”
On his head sat a hat, a white panama, which was fraying badly at the brim. He wore it firmly on his brow to stop any sunlight hitting his eyes. He was slouched in a plastic chair, his slender back curling. At his feet in the sand was an empty glass. The small table beside him was covered with grains of sand. A light wind swept from sea to shore.
The salty air flew into his dangling mouth, over his tongue and down his drying throat. It made him a slight sicklier. He wetted his lips, drew the bartender over with a casual hoist of a hand, and, in a raspy, disquieting tone, punctuated with a guttural grunt, he ordered a fourth Cuba Libre with a sweet slice of orange on the rim, which all happened to be Floridan and imported.
“The same, sir?” said the bartender flatly. For the fourth time in that same shift, he had to bend a little to hear the request—by now, a formality.
“Exactly,” said the teen in the same low and tired voice while pinching the bridge of his nose. He handed the bartender the last of his dollars.
“Could you splash more in it? For the taste, la boca, por favor.” He stumbled on the Spanish, unaided by the alcohol.
The teen, whose age and appearance teetered on manhood, pulled out his phone. He punched her number again in a staggered flurry of fingers. He put the phone to his ear and heard it ringing until he tired of the endless ringing and then he hung up again. He sighed and rubbed the edges of his eyes. He knew better.
He adjusted his hat so that the shadow shielded his eyes better. When the nausea returned he squinted as if that did anything. A faint itch arose on the inside of his thigh and he stroked it through his swimming shorts as soft as he could without making it worse. Only sounds he could hear: ceiling fans as they spun; some sound, maybe music, filtering out of something in the overhead rafters behind him; someone faraway talking.
Dressed in ragged but still presentable black, the bartender rolled up his sleeves, tucking them behind his elbows, and opened a chilled can of Coca-Cola that gurgled and hissed and spat when pierced. He handled drink with the skill of a man who had spent years perfecting the preparation of alcohol in the company of mainlanders. He worked alone for no audience. There was no one else around. When he finished, he strode back to the teen and put the glass on the table.
“No,” said the teen, reaching across his body, taking it.
He sipped and grimaced and kept sipping till his sips turned to gulps. The cocktail still tasted not too bad. Somehow he never sloshed any of it onto his bare chest. But after all he’d hung out in the Lower East Side and all that clubbing had conditioned him with some sense of decorum. In truth he hadn’t and still didn’t much care for those sorts of places but he went to them with his teammates and at their urging he got a good time by three glasses or so.
The first night was fun. With the help of his lighter a bonfire was lit on the beach. The portable speakers were stacked in a totem, all dialed to maximum volume so as to render crescendos boring and a karaoke democratic. Everyone present went wilder. Undulating, they pressed each other, arching backs, pounding dry grains onto smooth, shaved legs. A nubile crowd amassed. The beat spiked. Taking the technique into him he became half of two pulsating. One of his cold hands tickled the crevice of her leg, his other snaked under and across her arms, cupping and scooping her breasts toward himself. He and she uttered a series of unknown uh-huhs and both knew they were fake fucking against the pole for safe support. It was an insured show.
It scared him. He didn’t want to admit it. He couldn’t keep up with her, couldn’t keep it up. He didn’t want to disappoint. He always thought now might be different, and he was always this way, even back in those bars in New York, and he hated himself for failing, especially during the dancing. He chalked it up to the climate. He often lied to himself. He thought of implants after he saw a video on Vice. It said he could be fixed with a money-back guarantee: several successes, relationships reconnected. He often dreamt of living in full. Here he tried to be comfortable but he was unused to a warmth he never truly felt before. It clung to his skin and radiated to his tips and it put him in mind of his own awful self-awareness that he despised. That got to him so bad that back home in his dorm he’d spend hours locked in his room after he’d come back sweaty and weary from a night out, with the blinds closed and a lamp positioned and a timer on his smartphone running to see if he could beat his record, exiting only to throw his sodden tissues in the basket in the hall when he failed like clockwork, limp and weak in endless defeat. He’d been like this a long time. He often lied to himself.
They soon stopped. She went off with some others at his polite insistence. He didn’t care to watch. Instead he took a walk in the shade of some palm trees. He leaned on a sloping trunk with somewhat soft bark after he found one he liked and he let his arms hang to the ground as if they were wings. He hustled to finish a lit cigarette before returning to his room to wait for her. By then the sun had set and the sea was dark.
He smiled to himself at his stupidity. In a second his fingers slipped a touch but held strong. He readied himself in his seat, stretching his long, lazy legs backwards so that the skin on his knees became taut. He didn’t notice when she came.
She had on a light shirt that, in a gradient of grey, stretched below her waist to form a summery skirt, through which the outline of her black bikini could be seen. Only sunscreen was on her skin. The bartender glanced. She looked at him. He flicked his eyes down and washed glasses like a dedicated professional.
She drew up an extra chair and sat down. The teen shuffled in his seat and straightened himself slightly.
“Damn, last night was fucked, huh?” he said, stretching his vowels. “I tried calling you.” He massaged his temple. “A lot.” He tried to look at her.
“Really?” she said. “When?”
“Right now. And then before that.”
“I just got your message.”
“My ringer’s broken.”
“Right.” He gulped.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“So, where were you?”
“So, where were you?” He yawned.
“Woke up late?”
“I was wondering where you went.”
“Just getting some air.”
“Around the town, met some people.”
“You don’t speak Spanish,” he said.
“I’m taking classes, I said.”
“Something?” he said, pointing behind him.
“No,” she replied, casting another glance backwards. Turning, she said, “Seriously?” and motioned to his hat. “I was joking.”
He made a noise.
“Been here long?”
“Kind of. I don’t like the humidity.”
“It’s a nice day.”
“I guess.” He was fixated on the horizon, fiddling with the tough patch on his swimming shorts, a logo of a crocodile. Or was it an alligator? He didn’t know. He didn’t like Lacoste a lot.
“We should go home.”
“I wanna go home.”
“And everyone? The meet?”
“I’ll make up an excuse.”
“Well,” she said, “I like it here.”
“It’s nicer than New York,” and then, “I love this song.” She mouthed the lyrics to herself. The water was warm with the dappled hues of the sky and the boats floated soft on the mass of water. Soon she said, “I’m going surfing. I met a guy, offered to sign me up for a class—and most of the team, actually. So, I’m going.”
“Yeah?” He could think of nothing else to say. He thought about a lot of things. All ended up hurting his head. He wanted the pain in his head to vanish. “See you later, then.” But even as he said it, he felt it was the wrong and stupid thing to say, not that he could reel the words back into his mouth and do it all over again. She strode down the beach. He watched her walk and took off his hat and dropped it. He ruffled his choppy hair and felt his suffocated scalp, tiny flakes of dandruff coating the inside of his fingers. With his other hand he tipped most of the rest of the rum-tail into his mouth. His burning tongue enunciated the cuss he’d been hiding behind his sugared teeth: “Putabitch.”
He eyed the last drop in his glass. He tried to suck it out through the plastic straw previously ignored before he threw out the straw and took a chance on gravity to send it careening into his mouth. It stayed stubbornly on the bottom of the glass. He stuck his hand up.
“I’d like another, por favor.”
“I’m afraid I cannot do that, sir.”
“I cannot sell you more than four drinks, sir, it’s the rules.”
“What kind of rule is that?”
“The hotelier’s rules.”
“What about the bottle?”
“No, sir, I cannot sell you the bottles, we need them here.”
“I’m the only guy here.”
“Sir, we need them here to serve other customers.”
“I’m the only customer here.”
“There will be more customers at night,” said the bartender, unbottling a Coke.
The teen leaned to the side, away from the table, and, after wriggling his fingers in his pockets, began stacking pennies in the sand, copper faintly clinking.
“I cannot sell you the bottles, señor, or serve you drinks. If you want, you must go.”
He again tried but he had nothing. Through the twisted lens that was the bottom of his glass, he could see the white and flat and foamy waves move onto the shoreline before being pulled back, glittering, into the sea. He could have seen her rolling her dress up over her head like the rest had done. But he didn’t. Besides it would do nothing to lift his spirit.
When he’d finished taking his fill, finally, he pulled himself up, picked up his hat and walked out the way he came. He stumbled, but was mostly stable. He was searching for someplace where he knew he’d be undisturbed. By his dirty glass, he left a cordial tip of six cents he had no real use for and didn’t want to carry anymore. They took time to clean; the glass—straightforward.
Written by Abhinav Tiku
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