The sand between my toes was uncomfortable, but in a vaguely pleasant way- sort of like that in-between second right before you sneeze. Besides, my shoes were all the way back on the dock and I didn’t want to run back for them. A warm breeze tickled the back of my neck and the sun overhead cast a 5-o’clock shadow on the sand, reminding us that the summer day was quickly fading.
His shoulder nearly touched mine when he walked, him walking closer to the approaching waves than I. I recalled one downtown walk in the city years ago with my father, how he told me: “A man should always walk closer to the curb than a lady. Otherwise, how could he protect her from mud splashed up by the cars?” The parallels between then and now filled me with an unfamiliar melancholy.
Caught off guard by an incipient wave, I yelped as the frigid water lapped my toes. He looked over and me and raised an eyebrow as the foam washed back out to sea, like it was laughing at me. “A little colder than I expected,” I shrugged, kicking up some sand with my toe. I could feel color rushing to my cheeks and didn’t know why. Our first walk down this strip of the beach was still clear in my mind, and all the ones in between. What felt so different about this one? My butterflies, long vanquished, had found their way back into my stomach.
He grabbed my hand and cut our walk short. “Bailey, is everything okay?” The concern in his voice was overwhelming. I broke loose and took a few backwards steps so I could face him.
“I’m fine!” I laughed lightly, playing with my B necklace. I hadn’t taken it off once all summer, not even that day when the waves were so big that I felt as if I was being body slammed into the surf. “We should get back to the house, that’s all. Dinner will be starting soon.” I sounded more confident than I felt.
He approached me and wrapped his arms around my waist. “Don’t tell me you want to go to that stuffy dinner, too,” he teased, in a way that sounded joking and we both knew wasn’t at all.
“I mean, it is our last night,” I replied, suddenly acutely aware of the salt matted in my hair and my uneven tan lines from today’s efforts. This is what I looked like all summer, but now I wondered if he noticed, too. “I think we should at least make an appearance.”
His brow furrowed. What I was saying confused me, too, but I didn’t know what else to say. “That’s exactly why we shouldn’t go, B,” he whispered in my ear. I inhaled; he smelled like sunscreen and sweat. All the other boys I’d been with reeked of newly minted money and their dad’s cologne. A gentle Nantucket evening breeze blew down the beach and shook the leaves of a far-off tree. This time tomorrow I’d be in the car on our long drive home and he’d already be back in Boston.
I laughed nervously. “My mom will kill me if we don’t show, Mason,” I took a few more steps down the sand. “Come on, let’s go.” He exhaled in defeat and we walked back in silence. For a moment I closed my eyes and allowed myself to feel the summer: arriving at the beach in June eager to escape the breakneck pace of life at home, hearing a constant reminder in my head that this was my last Nantucket summer to have fun. The summer after sophomore year, before my parents got into full Ivy League prep mode and I had to be on my A-game, all the time. How quickly I found my people; a group of easygoing girls so different from the cautious nature of my friends at home. And him- tall and broad shouldered, light brown hair reminiscent of the boys at home, yet so utterly unlike any of them. Contemplative and complex. He made me feel more at home in two months than I did in two years at my private high school.
That was why I didn’t understand what I was feeling now. Where did my discomfort stem from? It wasn’t lack of familiarity; our beach walks and midnight meetings were as innumerable as the times I’d fallen asleep in the sun this summer. I tried to shake off the overwhelming feeling of ickiness and lost my footing in the sand, he caught me before I could slip. I didn’t meet his eyes.
When we reached the house, he stopped and faced me expectantly. The sun had just hit its peak and reflected off the polished white wood of his house, illuminating his honey brown hair. I resisted the urge to run my fingers through it. “I’ll see you at dinner, yeah?” It sounded more like an assumption than a question.
“See you there.” My house was only a few blocks from his, but I walked away like I was in a rush. A pebble got caught in my flip flop and I stopped to shake it off when really what I wanted to do was lie down and hope time would slow along with me.
I breezed by my mom, step-dad, and sister when I entered the house, hoping I didn’t look as uneasy as I felt. “Dinner at the Bakers’ is in an hour, Bailey!” my mother called down the hall.
“I know, Mom,” Irritation crept into my voice and I felt a twinge of regret. It wasn’t her fault that I was a confused sixteen year old with nothing but a sunburn and a summer fling. I rinsed off the sand and salt of the day with a quick shower, then got to work on the most important task of the night: picking out a dinner outfit. It was important that I appealed to Mrs. Baker’s sensibilities. Even with summer drawing to a close, she still didn’t think I was the “right match” for her son; thought I was too East Coast prep for his mellow nature. She didn’t know that I wished I could be more like Mason.
Settling on white jeans and a loose, light blue tank top, I laced up my sandals and swiped mascara on just as my step-dad called upstairs for us to go. I breezed down the stairs and bumped into a few boxes in the hallway, reminding me of the early morning departure from this place that awaited us tomorrow. I swallowed, hard.
The air had cooled since our beach walk and I shivered a little. The walk to his house wasn’t long enough to brace myself for seeing him again, and when he opened the door I fell silent. Mrs. Baker breezed past his figure in the doorway, greeting us with kisses and wafts of perfume. Mason met my eyes. God, he looked good. His summertime uniform of board shorts and the occasional shirt had been replaced by a button down and knee-length khakis. He mouthed, “Are you okay?”, and I answered with the briefest of nods. We’d have time to talk everything over after dinner.
Dinner was a blur. Mr. Baker and my stepfather chatted about golfing prospects on the island, and the two moms attempted to engage my little sister in talk about her upcoming seventh-grade year. I sat across from Mason and ate my crab in silence. If anyone noticed how out of it I was, they didn’t say anything- except for him. After the meal, I excused myself to the ladies’ room. I looked at myself in the mirror. My skin was golden-brown after two months of lying on the beach, and my hair damaged by saltwater and a lack of caring. I hadn’t been in school since June, but worry lines furrowed my brow and the corners of my eyes. I exhaled. It was just a summer, I reminded myself.
He caught me on the way out of the restroom and cornered me against a wall. “Bailey, what is going on?” Almost pleading. “Did I do something wrong?”
I almost laughed, the notion was so absurd. “Of course not, you’re perfect. It’s just-”. The words caught in my throat. What was wrong? Did I know the answer to his question? “It’s all just so fast.” Understanding shone painfully bright in his eyes. He grabbed my hand and squeezed tight, sharing the briefest of moments. I recoiled at the sound of my mother’s call from the other room: “Time to go, kids!” Like I was a child, like nothing had been changed in this summer. Panicked, I looked up at him. I wasn’t ready.
Our families appeared in the hallway, adults inebriated and younger siblings dragging behind. Desperation threatened my ability to breathe and I squeezed his hand tighter. Mrs. Baker laughed sloppily, unaware of the silent heartbreak taking place in her house. “Say your goodbyes, lovebirds,” Mason’s father boomed. “You’ll see each other next summer as it is.”
The air grew static, then still. I could almost hear the things we left unsaid taking their dying breath.
Unwilling to leave just yet, we stepped aside to let the rest of my family pass. Thanks and promises to keep in touch were exchanged between the two mothers and my heartbeat accelerated exponentially. I looked up at him and wondered who would be the first to let go.
“Don’t go to sleep,” he whispered in my ear. “I’m coming over later.” Sleep wasn’t my plan in the first place, so I nodded. My mom put her hand on my shoulder, ushering me down the front drive, and I turned around for one last backwards glance. He had already closed the door.
We arrived back home and I propped myself up in bed in the only pair of pajamas that weren’t packed. Ten o’clock turned to eleven, then twelve- surely he would not be able to sneak out before that. By two in the morning, my faith had started to fade. Our bike rides around town with him pedaling and me on the handlebars crossed my mind. I remembered the night three weeks ago when we escaped to the ocean at midnight and brought a blanket, talking about nothing and everything. He would come. When my mom came to shake me awake the next morning I had fallen asleep in my upright position, streaks of dried tears all down my face. He never came.
February 12, 2017