Falling In Love

Victoria Romero, Shoreline, 2023. Digital drawing and photo collage, 2023.

 

By Tracy Schrader

        It had been two years to the day since Abby Kingston started her job at the car wash, and she was about to take her first vacation day. She sat on a shiny plastic stool by her bathroom sink and ran a fine-toothed comb through her hair. Dried bits of soap from her years at the entrance to the tunnel flaked off in her fingers. She grimaced, knowing she had never taken the time to meticulously clean her hair since she started her job. Her regularly scheduled “rest days” were mostly spent watching reruns of reality TV. That had always been satisfying enough for Abby’s bland life, but something had changed. 

        As she began blow-drying her hair, she reminisced on her years of boredom and loneliness at the car wash. She didn’t make friends easily, and her coworkers were no exception. She considered them acquaintances, not worthy of accompanying her on her vacation excursion. They had all probably been to the beach before, anyway, and would spoil the novelty of it for her. 

        “Yes,” Abby said to her reflection, barely able to hear herself over the roar of the blow-dryer. “I am going to the beach.” 

        Tomorrow, she planned on hopping in her beat-up 1995 Honda Civic with a large umbrella, picnic basket, and a grin that was nothing like her usual pasted-on smile. She could imagine cranking up the radio, letting her hair fall in loose brown curls down her back, and rolling down the windows to smell the ocean breeze. After all, it was fifty miles to Coronado Beach, and she planned to enjoy every inch of it.

        When Abby drove up to the beach the next day, the lifeguard peered over the top of her pink-and-black striped sunglasses and saw her leaning her head out the window and laughing into the wind, brown hair streaming out behind her. She smirked. 

        “Tourists,” she muttered and returned her gaze to the waves. 

        The “tourist” in question hopped out of her car and pulled a large teal umbrella after her, heedless of the lifeguard’s amused disdain. She grabbed a white picnic basket and ran, giggling, down to the sand. Her clean white flip flops skidded to a stop as she surveyed the beach. 

        Abby had never seen the ocean before. She had never imagined there could be so much water collected in one place. In all her days at the car wash, there had only been a steady drip from a leaky pipe overhead or a muddy drenching if she dared venture within the tunnel. 

        The ocean, in contrast, sparkled. Each wave was tipped with ripples of foam, almost like an aristocratic lady’s French manicure. She was sure some sea nymph lived beneath those waves, calling out to her. 

        A fresh waft of salty air brushed past her. She took another step. She could imagine being Queen of the Sea, gliding past loyal followers as she took her first steps onto the sand. Nymphs, selkies, and mermaids would watch from the shallows, admiring their queen. 

        Abby remembered learning about mythology of all sorts in her eighth grade history class. Selkies and sirens were familiar to her, as were the monsters of old, but her favorite was wise and beautiful Amphitrite, wife of Poseidon. She would guide ships through her husband’s tropical storms and deposit them safely on dry land. 

        Abby reached a spot of clean white sand and stuck her umbrella into the ground. The few families around her were mostly fathers with squealing young daughters or bored mothers reading as their toddler sons made elaborate sand castles. All had some sort of blanket to lay or sit on. Abby, a first-time beachgoer, was not as well prepared. She shrugged it off and lay down directly onto the warm sand. The heat warmed her back and shoulders, making her sigh in delight. 

        An hour later, the sun was still traveling its slow, gliding ascent into the sky. Abby stood up and brushed the small grains of sand off her orange tankini. 

        After all, it was no use to just admire the deep blue sea. She had to walk into it. 

        Her flip flops were tossed with reckless abandon into the sand dunes, never to be found again. She set her favorite pair of wire-rimmed sunglasses next to her umbrella and ran into the surf. A gust of wind sent one large wave splashing all over her. She shrieked at the unexpected cold, but her scream turned into laughter. 

        The lifeguard stifled a giggle. 

        She ran further into the waves, eventually stumbling over some hermit crab’s abandoned shell and falling forward into the cold, waist-deep water. Her head plunged underwater, and her hair billowed about her ears. The soft current tugged at her, brushing against her face and neck with a soft caress. 

        She pulled her head back up with a gasp and spat out a quantity of water. Her hair felt heavier than ever down her back, and her eyes blinked furiously from the pain of the salt within them.

        She’d never felt more alive. 

        “Hi, what can I get for you?” The cashier eyed her disdainfully from under a blue cap. 

        “I’d like to, uh, surf? What do I need for that?”

        “Have you ever done it before?”

        “No.” 

        The cashier raised an eyebrow. “Well, you need a board.” He pulled a teal and orange board from the rack behind him. “Try this one out.”

        Abby ran a hand over the surfboard on the counter. “How much?” she said, opening her wallet. 

        Within a few minutes, Abby was back on the beach with surfboard in hand. She saw a group of college-age young men surfing in the distance, and she tried to copy them. Each time she fell off her surfboard, she sprang up from the waves and tried again, gritting her teeth. She told herself it was no harder than learning to ride a bike, and she had just as many falls back then as she was having now. At least surfing didn’t come with skinned knees. 

        After hours of falling, Abby saw the perfect wave. She bent her knees and spread her arms wide, tottering to her feet atop her new board. That wave carried her all the way to the shallows, where she hopped off as gracefully as if she was stepping out of a royal carriage.

        “Hello, how may I assist you?” 

        “Can I have one of those scuba masks?” 

        The cashier from before passed one to her, and she paid him for it in spare change. 

        “Are you done surfing?” he asked as he put it into the cash register.

        “For now. I rode a great wave.” Her dripping hair left a puddle on the floor of the store and her tankini was stained with sand, but she was beaming radiantly. 

        “Who taught you?”

        “I did.”

        He looked up and raised both eyebrows. “Impressive.”

        Abby smiled and walked away. As she got back to her spot beneath the teal umbrella, she strapped her cheap scuba mask on. This time, she didn’t hesitate when she felt the cold of the ocean. She embraced it.

        She waded as far as she could go, swimming a little from time to time. She’d done swim team as a teenager, and she finally had a reason to be grateful for it. When she reached a spot far enough from the other swimmers, she put in the mouthpiece and sank below the surface. 

        A paradise awaited her. 

        Fish with flame-colored fins flitted through spirals of brightly-colored coral. A starfish’s arms waved in the current, barely brushing a yellow fish who swam away quickly. A school of minnows passed Abby, swimming as smoothly as molten silver. Bubbles floated upward, drawing her eyes to the dancing beams of light streaming down upon the seabed. Everything weaved and waved around her in a massive dance. 

        She sank lower, making sure to keep the tube connected to her mouthpiece above water. Abby knew she should’ve felt fear. She had watched Jaws, knew of electric eels and piranhas–except she didn’t think piranhas lived in the California ocean … or did they? Piranhas or not, Abby didn’t care.

        She finally knew what it was like to be fearless. 

        As the sun fell beyond the horizon and the smirking lifeguard hung an “Off Duty” sign on her chair, Abby laid on the cooling sand. Her hair was dirty and disheveled again, her skin reddened with sunburn, and her feet bruised from hitting ocean-floor shells. She let out a sigh. 

        “The ocean is wonderful,” she whispered to the canopy of stars. “I never knew.” 

        She paused, letting the grains of sand stirred up by the evening breeze sting her cheeks. She had barely noticed the sound of the ocean all day, but now she heard the quiet, small waves lapping at the shore and the larger waves farther back colliding with immense force. 

        “I never knew.”

        Abby never went back to the car wash. She stayed at the beach, the first night sleeping peacefully on the sand, the next on a carefully unfolded blanket, the next in a cheap beachside apartment. She sold handmade seashell bracelets on the sand every day with a smile that was nothing if not genuine. After years, she married the cashier, Cody, who she’d met on her first day there. She even became close friends with Natalie, the lifeguard.

        The car wash kept her name on their list of employees until six months had passed, and it became clear that Abby was not coming back. They printed a pink slip, but never found Abby to give it to her. Even years later, the owner would wonder what happened to her. 

        And Abby herself? She enjoyed every minute of her life and every inch of that beach. Most days, she could be found under an almost unrecognisably faded teal umbrella, soaking up the warmth of the sun with her surfboard beside her. 

        Yes, Abby Kingston was never the same, not after the day she fell in love with the ocean.