The Seaside Lightby Carl-John X Veraja
As I sat on the stiff bed in the trapezoidal white room, the one door creaked open and Emily came in. She was five-foot-five and shapely, whereas I was approaching emaciated and six-feet tall—ten pounds lighter than I'd ever been. I was coated in fragrant sun tan lotion and had a buzz that I was feeding with lager. My white, skeletal fingers clasped a cigarette and carried it to my face.
"The beach was great. Have you left the room all day?" asked Emily, in her haughty Florida twang. She slung her towel onto the bed. "Next time we're not getting a hotel where you have to share a bathroom with all the residents. I think people come here to die. Eesh."
She hopped into bed alongside me, shifting her shoulders to get my attention onto her bikini-clad torso. I smelled watermelon lollipop on her breath as I gave her a quick peck.
"What cha want to eat?" I asked, "They have hot dogs and beans at the cafeteria tonight. Plus, I'd like the blueberry pie."
"Again, Vic? Why don't we try that place with outside tables?" she asked. "You can smoke there. And there isn't enough vegetarian at the cafeteria."
There were many stains on the ceiling, I noticed again. Soon, I'd be naming them.
I said, "Did you know that they didn't allow smoking anywhere in this town until the eighties? Also, they forbade liquor to be sold or served. On the weekends, cars were strictly excluded. Plus, you still can't skateboard on the boardwalk, legally. Now, it's getting to be like anywhere else. Except for the humongous church called the Great Auditorium and the tent houses in the middle of town. Perhaps when this generation of Methodists goes under even that will become subject to gentrification. I'd like to see a church with a Pizza Hut in it. You?"
"There isn't even a Pizza Hut in this town," Emily said. "Everything is still non-corporate. I thought you liked it that way."
"My fancy gets brutal in the face of religion," I said. "Brutal."
A breeze blew in through the half-screen which propped open the window and the cheap, gauzy curtains billowed. The oceanic coolness reminded me of Emily's thighs and I moved my hand down one of them. She wasn't bad, Emily. In fact, below the neck, she was exquisite. In the face, I found myself critical of her sad, bulging eyes. I laughed to myself, thinking how I used to want to be recorded as a great lover if I ever became famous and here I was.
"What are you laughing at?" Emily asked.
"Fleeting phantasmagorical eruptions in my besotted imagination," I said.
"Great," she said. "Besotted already."
"I haven't yet been honing my dipsomania," I said. I finished my can of Fosters. "We'll leave that for the restaurant."
I played with my hair in the mirror while Emily dressed and we went out onto the half-busy sidewalk. There were young people, more every year. They were lounging at tables and benches, walking back from the beach in flip-flops, pretending to be interested in the vast character of Ocean Grove, as if admiring the colonial effects of the gorgeous, old architecture while in truth forever obsessing about their New York City business ventures, venue fantasies, and the possibility of turning old manses into bed and breakfast hellholes. They washed up here much in the way syringes and sea glass did. The old were still in the majority in Ocean Grove, however. The old were ladies with orange hair, men walking on stilted legs in garish pants, couples strolling together in deserts of cracked memories. How soothing.
The restaurant was right up the block on Main Street. It was the only wide street in town and cars were parked at a forty-five degree angles on each side. There were about six tables outside that sat on the broad sidewalk underneath a sprawling maple tree. I found myself listening for the ocean but there was only the hubbub of patrons and passersby. I thought I could smell the ocean, though. Its aroma told of trillions of corpses, predations, births, rapes, and the uncountable, violent genetics by which I was ejected into consciousness. It made me tremble and I wanted a Heineken.
We were approached and seated by a square-faced old waitress whose nametag read "Emma".
"I would like a Heineken," I said. "Just the bottle. Please, don't pour it for me."
"You just want the bottle, not the beer in it?" Emma snorted.
"Oh, ha ha," I said.
Emily ordered ice water with no lemon. The waitress soon returned with our drink and two laminated, beige menus.
Above us, two squirrels were getting rambunctious. "This town is full of squirrels," Emily said.
"Of course. They thrive here. The grocery stores have sections devoted to their snacks and the old love to spend a piece of the afternoon feeding them."
Emily was stirring her water, making the ice clink like a dinner bell.
"Come on," I said.
"Don't stir the water," I said. "That sound is exasperating."
"You're always irritated," she said.
The squirrels were racing around tree limbs in maniacal loops, courting, perhaps.
"Squirrels irritate me," I said. "Actually, they don't. It's these damn young folk. They make me solicitous."
"Right," she said. "And you're all of twenty-nine."
"By the church, you can get the squirrels and pigeons to eat right out of your hand," I said. "That church has a powerful aura of some kind. You might want to go there instead of the beach eventually."
"I think it's just all the old people around here feeding them," she said.
"Fine," I said. "But this town does have an effect. Of course, we're fornicating and that cancels it out some. That and my crapulence."
"Vic, I wonder, wonder," Emily said.
"You wonder what?" I asked.
"When you'll stop using all the big words," she said. "My sister, the behavioral psychologist, told me that's a sign of insecurity."
"That's just what she's programmed to think," I said.
Our waitress returned. I tried to give her my menu before telling her my order. She looked disturbed by this, so I relented and ordered mussels and linguine. Emily ordered the vegetarian ravioli. Then Emma took our menus, half-smiled, and headed back inside.
"Mussels," said Emily.
"They're great," I said. "The consummate texture, to be sure."
"I can't believe you eat those things," she said.
"My dad ate them a lot," I said. "I developed my image of masculinity mostly from eating at restaurants with my dad. So, I crave them when in the presence of the castrating female. However, my dad liked to make waitresses cry and I can't stand to see oppressed workers sob in our entrepreneur-worshipping, fascist theocracy of a society. My dad ate lots of weird things from the time he was a child. Pica, they call it, I think."
"Ah," Emily said.
"I didn't inherit that," I said. "Only the alcoholism, which is abating all the time."
"I see that," Emily said.
"My dad was a big man," I said. "Ironic that he died on a horse."
"How is that ironic?" she asked.
"Well, usually you think of jockeys dying on horses," I said.
"Funny. That doesn't even make sense," she said.
"Let's hope not," I said. "But, anyway, I probably told you that story before."
"No," said Emily.
"How remiss of me," I said. "I'm not making things up the way I used to."
Emily was right. She had the ability to remember conversations word-for-word for months at a time. She also spoke five languages and was great in bed. I didn't bother to argue points with her as I didn't really care for actual events as much as I enjoyed love making.
"Actually," said Emily. "You never talk about your parents."
"They were boring. Now, they're dead."
"When you get like this, it's depressing," said Emily.
"Is it?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "I don't understand how you laugh at your tragedies."
"If I could feel nothing, that would be ideal," I said.
"You say that."
There was now a sliver of moon. Love was like walking on the moon. A springy step in your heel like you had a heart for cushioning to step on until it burst and the blood floating in red pods among the glowing craters to be boiled into a refining mist in the naked, eternal sunlight.
This elderly woman was chewing a pork chop at a nearby table and I could practically see her jaw through her papyrus cheek. It seemed to unhinge like a snake's. Perhaps some boyfriend or husband of hers had socked her at some point in the past. My jaw was loose and clicked often. This had been the case since I had gotten punched in the jaw by a little Hispanic man for no reason. I had blacked out momentarily and found myself on the ground where I watched him run into the night with his proud story.
"Do you have to pick up food with your hands?" Emily asked.
"This food," I said.
"I'm only chiding you," Emily said, sticking out her tongue.
I felt angry. The waitress was near. I ordered another Heineken.
"Why don't you just get trashed?"
"Sure," I said.
I was looking into Emily's eyes thinking there was something dead there. Wine gone to vinegar too fast. Had it been missing since I'd known her? Or did the alchemy of our relationship restore her occasionally? Or was I imagining nonsense again?
"I'd like to kill someone," I said.
"I'd like to kill someone. I think I could. Just for the experience," I said.
"Why do you have to say stuff like that?" Emily asked. "Don't you realize that you sound crazy?"
"I'm just open-minded," I said. "I think you should be open to considering and imagining all manner of ideas."
"But you said you think you could actually kill someone. In reality."
"That's a little beyond fantasizing abstractly. You're an English major. What would an English teacher gain by homicidal ideation?" Emily asked.
"Ah. Now your diction has gone pretentious," I said. "Actually, I'm only going to teach because I'm a failed writer. If I could get a book published I would probably have to knock some people off just to get my ideas flowing."
"Nice," she said.
"Fine," I said.
I stared at my oily mess of linguine. Suddenly, I thought I could die. Why not? You could die at any moment, really. Why not here and now? A blood vessel could burst in my brain and my face would plop into the remains of my meal and I would never even know I had existed in the first place.
"I need to go to the bathroom," I said. "I think I'm having an episode."
"Are you ok?" she asked.
I said, "You know better than that."
I got up and rushed inside the restaurant. All the faces looked ignorant and carefree.
The bathroom was a cramped affair with an ancient sink with two cross-shaped faucets which said "Hot" and "Cold" in blue letters. I closed my eyes, started repeating the word to myself that I saved for these occasions and sat on the toilet. My left hand clutched the toilet seat and I felt something cold and soft.
I opened my eyes and looked at my hand. There was a dab of a stranger's shit on my ring finger.
"Shit," I said, too sickened and anxious to be aware of the pun.
I got up and twisted the cross-shaped handle of the hot faucet. It coughed and spat before producing a running stream of water into which I put my sadly soiled finger. The water became increasingly hot and I watched my finger turn red. I turned on the other faucet and then let the cold water run over my finger until it was numb and shut the faucet.
I felt it passing. Sometimes, I would see little sparks racing along the edges of things. This time wasn't so bad. I managed to pee a little.
I tore off some toilet paper and cleaned the seat thoroughly. I found it difficult to imagine that the fecal deposit had gotten there by accident. Still, senior citizens probably had bowels capable of unusual stunts.
I returned to my table feeling spacey.
"Are you alright?" asked Emily.
"C'mon," I said. "I told you not to talk about it. It's my thing."
"Well, it's hard to remember with all your rules. You change them, you know."
"I don't change them. I just ask that you don't speak about it or address the situation in any way. Why can't you just take to my request with alacrity and be assiduous about it?"
Emily knotted her forehead. "It makes me feel so useless that I can't do anything to help you."
I was twirling my linguine with my fork. I was afraid to eat any more. The current diet trends warned that carbohydrates were pure fat fuel. My finger was bothering me. I still felt dirty.
"Well," I said. "I don't know what you want me to do about it."
"You don't want to do anything about it," Emily said.
"That's not true," I said. "Obviously no one would choose to have episodes. There just aren't any answers that work for me. The side effects of meds are too nasty. Anyway, let's forget this. Let's go for a walk and then we'll stop at that ice cream and confectionary shop I told you about. Oh, and tomorrow, remind me that I want to go to that bookstore that's down that block there. I found wonderful texts there before. They get their stuff from the large senior population here and they have no idea what they have."
"Uh huh," said Emily. "Good subject change."
I lit another cigarette. It was night and that always was a better time for me. We paid Emma and left towards the ocean.
The boardwalk had a lot of senior citizens upon it. We seemed to be the only young couple out for an evening stroll. I held Emily's hand and told her about the schizophrenics that used to wander the town. Apparently, the laws changed and now they were kept behind closed doors.
We went out on the section of boardwalk that extended over the ocean. At the end of the boardwalk was a clubhouse. "We can't go all the way to the end of this boardwalk. That clubhouse is locked off by that fence," I said. "Emily, are you afraid of death?"
"No," she said.
"You must be," I said. "Why not?"
"I'm just not," she said. "I believe in God. Death is just the beginning of something wonderful."
"Do you ever think there is no afterlife?"
"Yes," she said. "And, if that's the case, I'm still not worried. Anything after death is just completely irrelevant right here and now. I still just want to be good for its own sake. When my dad died I think he was still sorry about a lot of things that he did."
"Didn't he kill himself?" I asked.
"No," she said. "I told you this before. His liver started bleeding from the painkillers he was prescribed. He drank while taking them."
"Hmm," I said.
"I visited him with Kyle before he died. He spoke about how he kidnapped my brother but was in denial about how my brother had to eat out of garbage cans."
"Not the perfect legacy," I said.
There were many benches on the pier. Each one had a small plaque that dedicated the bench to the memory of a donor to some unnamed cause. We picked the bench dedicated to Eric B. Squaler Esq. and sat.
The moon had sidled up above some twists of cloud. A pyramid of light extended outwards from the shore before it. The waves seemed to do little about it.
"Walks are very soothing," I said. "When I had those really bad years in Tampa my daily walks in the park were the only thing I had to look forward to. When I was able to stand my therapist he told me that my episodes would lessen with age. I guess as you get older you don't care as much if you're going to drop dead out of nowhere."
"Why did you stop seeing your therapist?" Emily asked.
"He told me to forget about writing," I said. "Fuck that."
"Maybe you should," Emily said. "You know, I wonder if you can afford to have children or if you can treat them right. A woman thinks about these things you know."
"Wow," I said. "You sound so out of character all the sudden. Up until recently you were just interested in a good time. I knew there was a catch."
"Well, maybe that's because I see your eyes roll up into the back of your head every time I talk about the future," Emily said. "You've suppressed my finer instincts."
"The future doesn't exist," I said. "I'm in the moment and all is well. And finer instincts? Nest-making?"
I put my arm around her and kissed her. She responded warmly but when we stopped she said, "Ugh. Could you try quitting smoking?"
"Are you crazy?" I asked.
She said, "They don't seem to help the episodes or mood swings."
"True," I said. "But when I'm smoking I feel like I deserve it."
We kissed more. I felt like the ocean breeze was enjoying her body. I supposed it didn't like her face so much, either. Soon, we got up and walked back to the main boardwalk and turned north towards Asbury Park. To the left, the giant glowing cross which fronted the central spire of the Great Auditorium was visible. Ten-thousand people could fit comfortably inside the Great Auditorium. When there were ten-thousand people in there, some senior was almost guaranteed to die before the end of a service. Probably, they thought that this meant they went straight to heaven. Christians came from all over to stay in Ocean Grove. I theorized that there was some sort of energy vortex here similar to that in the Giza Plateau, except this one shot Christians out of the fallen world into heaven like a spiritual bean gun.
"Advertising," I said, withdrawing from her mouth, "is truth."
We were swinging our hands between us just like two dumb, oversexed people. I felt suddenly quite relaxed and happy. Soon, the high façade of the old boardwalk arcade that marked the beginning of Asbury Park loomed above us. The façade was trapezoidal, with many double doors which were topped by a large grid of black windows, many of which were shattered.
"I remember when the arcades were still open in Asbury Park," I said. 'That bar that Bruce Springsteen got his start in is still open here. There used to be calliope music, video games, indoor roller coasters and a fortune telling machine. Now, this looks like the back entrance to hell."
"I don't want to go any further," Emily said.
"It's not really that bad," I said. "Just lots of poor and crazy people. The area requires gentrification."
"Sounds great," she said. "Let's turn around."
I relented. We turned and crossed an empty parking area. I remembered there had been a saltwater pool here once and before that there was an underground tunnel that lead to the beach that was still full of sand since a hurricane hit back in the nineteen-seventies. I'd been coming here since then. Almost yearly. There would always be another old building that had burned down when I returned.
"You ever want to perform arson?" I asked Emily.
"Not again," she said.
"I love fire," I said. "It's like love, destroying itself in the act of consummation with its object of desire."
"Romantic," Emily said. "Maybe we better get some ice cream for you. I think you need some blood sugar."
"I think I need another cigarette," I said. "But we'll head for the parlor."
I took out another cigarette and lit it. Nicotine stoked the inner fires, the clock whirred, and a pulse went into the past. Certainly, I would die here. This town had me. That my family never loved me meant I would have to die at the site of our family vacations. Nicotine strangled the weeds of regret, for another hour. Another love, give me the insensate vision I crave. Oh, great Phillip Morris, bricklayer of souls.
We walked in silence for several blocks. Soon, we were directly before the Great Auditorium, the alien glow of the cross above matching the starlight.
I stepped onto the wooden ramp leading into the ice cream parlor, Emily's hand in mine. I was feeling unreal, an aftershock on my anxiety attack. When I turned and looked at Emily she looked like a composite of all the women who would have nothing to do with me. I had the sense of crossing an invisible threshold and I remembered the old absurd fears that had fueled my early panic attacks. At one time, I believed it quite easy to slip into parallel universes. However, the very act of doing so was a death of one self and the birth of another. Immediately, the new self would be fooled into thinking it had been the old self all along by an immediate transfer of all memories which were, however, instantly altered to give the appearance of belonging in this new reality. I had heard that once one relinquishes his destiny he can do nothing to recapture it. Perhaps I was just lapping up the dregs of my ruin. Or maybe, I was just ordering heavenly hash.
"With sprinkles," I said.
"What would you like?" the bland-faced teenaged girl asked Emily.
"A peanut butter parfait in a small cup," said Emily.
"Get some crumbles on that," I said, pointing.
Emily said, "With crumbles."
The teenaged cashier and her partner began making our desserts. I watched their small hands work the thick metal scoops into the tubs of ice cream. This job probably made them very strong in one arm.
There was an open-air courtyard we could eat in with antique, white tables, but I said, "Let's go into the pigeon park I was telling you about."
"You never told me about any Pigeon Park," Emily said.
"Yes, I did," I said. "Remember. At dinner."
Emily said, "You probably thought you did. You said, 'By the church, you can get the squirrels and pigeons to eat right out of your hand.'"
"No, I did. Right after I told you about reminding me to go to the bookstore," I said.
"Ugh. You're reminding me of Kyle. He always forgot what was said and then wanted to argue about it."
We were crossing the road to the pigeon park that wrapped around the southeastern corner of the Great Auditorium.
"I'm sure I did say this," I said, biting my ice cream and swallowing it hard. "This park is a curiosity to me. And I think that bringing your past boyfriends into things is pretty provocative. I mean, you remind me of every girl I ever dated if you want to get right down to it. You have some librarian's ass, some bartender's tits, some newscaster's legs and some model's brain. I don't bring all that up now, do I?"
We stepped onto the sidewalk on the other side of the road. Emily shook her head and huffed. "I'm sorry," I found myself saying. "I need some sugar."
Emily remained silent. I waved my hand through the air, as if gesturing at something large and familiar. "Forget it," I said. "I know I don't remember real things."
We sat on an old wooden bench that had open sky above it. There were no pigeons to be seen. The moon was higher now and looked like a glowing idiot's forehead.
"Do you remember the way you felt the first night we spent together?" I asked her.
"No," she said, her voice dropping. She smiled, melted beige parfait dividing her lips. "Ok, yes. I remember that I was surprised."
"Remember how the wind was? Making the palm trees whip their fronds around," I said. "But I felt so calm as I sat beside you on the beach.
I had never felt so calm before. Like I finally belonged."
"I know," said Emily. "It was so unexpected. Everything seemed so perfect. And that full moon was gorgeous."
I said, "I think I love you."
"I know," she said.
I watched a slip of paper bounce across the grass as the breeze picked up.
"Do you think we'll always be together?" I asked her.
"No," she said. "I think anything that lasts too long becomes ugly."
I looked across the park at the Great Auditorium. Its doors were gray and as high as barn doors, but opened by rolling sideways on tracks. It had the look of a Hollywood set. You could not see the cross from where we sat. But I suddenly imagined it coming loose in a high wind, spinning towards me and crushing me. I stared at one of the high doors and a montage of memories of Emily flitted through my mind. Even this moment would be a memory.
"Oh," I said.
We finished our ice cream in silence.
"Let's go back to the room," I said.
"Ok," she said.
The Castle Hotel was only a few blocks away. The front steps of the Castle Hotel creaked as we climbed them. Inside, the light was dim and a ceiling fan whirred overhead. The front desk was closed and shuttered.
Once inside our room, I felt like I wished Emily was doing something other than disrobing. "Come to bed," she said, pulling at me.
"Ok," I said.
She was trembling and I moved beside her in the bed. I moved my hands around her body. She had the second largest breasts of any woman I had "known." Clarissa had the largest by size, but not by proportion. On Emily's small frame, they were completely out of proportion, giving them pre-eminence. They had stretch marks on them from growing too fast. I found myself counting her stretch marks and then comparing the number to the number of lovers I had had. I think it was forty-something. And, probably, I had had unsafe sex with all of them. How careless of me. Maybe I should move on to dirty needles in the future.
"Take your belt off," she said. "It pinched me."
I got my belt off with one hand while I worked on her with the other. Something that had always seemed to be missing before now was not. I clutched and pulled her hair as she liked.
Afterwards, while I was pulling a Foster's out of the small refrigerator that hotel provided, Emily asked, "Are you upset?"
"Hold on," I said.
I reached to the floor and removed my cigarettes and lighter from my pants pocket. I lit a cigarette and smoked in the wan light bleeding through the curtains.
I drank. Took another gulp. Then, I said, "I feel rather unusual."
"How so?" asked Emily.
I felt a sudden urge to strike her. Instead, I said, "I think I raped a girl once."
Emily said, "Are you starting again?"
"No. This was real," I said. "It wasn't any random girl."
"I wouldn't want to think that," Emily said.
"Ha. It was a girlfriend. Penelope. But I still don't know for sure," I said.
"You don't know for sure if you raped a girl?" Emily asked, yawning.
"No, listen," I said. "We were camping. We had taken a canoe out to an island in the bay and we had never had sex before. But I always felt that somehow it was because there was something I just didn't get. Finally, one night, Penelope and I were fooling around and I stuck my hand down her pants. Forcibly."
"Uh huh," said Emily, sleepily.
"So," I said. "To continue. She was too thin and I managed to reach down into her pants while they were buttoned and push my fingers into her cunt."
"That word," said Emily.
"Ok. Her orifice," I said, hissing. "I started to try to work her up into a lather and she seemed to like it but then informed me she had her period."
"Ummm," said Emily.
"So, I started to take her clothes off," I said. I sucked at the cigarette and drank a few more gulps of lager. "And she let me, for the first time. Everything except her panties. Then she started to perform fellatio on me. What was also a first. I told her that she was better than her friend, Clarissa, at it."
I paused. Emily was silent.
"Then, I got carried away, I guess. And I pushed her down on a sleeping bag and got on top of her. She started to scream and struggle. At first, I wanted to stop. But something…curiosity would not let me. In fact, I laughed as I pulled down her panties. I slipped it into her and felt that she had a tampon inside. Regardless, I started to pummel her as hard as I could while she gasped and screamed all the more."
I paused for more substances. Emily remained silent.
"Afterwards, Penelope said, 'That was great.' We broke up a week later though because I found a girl I could have consensual sex with. Also, I found out that Penelope went to a hospital right after our trip."
Emily had begun to snore. I was still naked. I enjoyed the breeze as it played across my flesh. I felt a great serenity. The ocean breeze was like the breath of stars.
It was late, so I decided it would be safe to step out on the deck in the nude. Below, one lone figure walked, his feet scraping on the sidewalk.
I looked out to the sea. From where I was, it appeared frozen in the moonlight.