TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
It was horribly hot but her husband insisted on sitting outside. The sun’s glare on the water left spots in the pigments of her eyes. Blinking, she watched a silhouette approach. The woman’s arms were crossed and her red fingernails contrasted sharply with her white, see-through dress. She stopped short in front of both of them. The man’s wife craned her neck as her husband stood up. She then bowed her head, whispering, “Not again…”
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
My sister recommended Myrtle Beach for the clear blue sea and perfect weather. What she forgot to mention was that for the past God-knows-how-long it’s been a holiday destination for college kids, for the affluent, for New Englanders, for curious West Coasters, and for half the state of South Carolina by the looks of it. I mean, get this: When Jeff and I stepped out onto the beach from the hotel early this afternoon, we couldn’t see the water through all the people.
Well-rested after the flight from New York, and feeling good after a fantasy breakfast at the hotel, we smiled one of those big holiday smiles of relief that stretched across his face to mine, and all through our insides. We grabbed our towels and beach gear, smelled that glorious summer sea smell, and walked around the dune towards the beach. My toes tingled in the warm sand. God, I remember that. Such a feeling, full of anticipation and treat. One more step and it evaporated as we stood there looking across the arms and legs and hair of a sea of people blocking the ocean itself. It was like rush hour on the 4/5 underground at Grand Central. We couldn’t see the water.
I stood there with tingling toes and just stared. Jeff cleared his throat and reached for my hand. What had been joyful distant laughter and sounds of summer suddenly peaked to a cacophony of shouts and squeals and seagull cries. The smell of sunscreen was sickening. My field of vision suddenly became a flurry of fluorescent towels and toys and coolers and bathing suits all jumbled into one giant, discordant rainbow. Jeff squeezed my hand. “I see a spot,” he said, and gently pulled me onwards.
It was more than I thought. Jeff guided me over bodies towards whatever he had seen that counted as a spot. “Breathe,” I heard him say, “just keep breathing.” As we stepped through the swarm I saw what he was aiming for, the lifeguard’s perch not far away. A beacon of hope on the beach. I breathed. It somehow brought me some relief and something to aim for. We rounded the last squirming kids and stood in front of the lifeguard station like stranded passengers staring at the Departures board.
“Excuse me,” Jeff said, “but where can we go for a little peace and quiet?” The lifeguard had the sun behind her and all I could see was a silhouette as she sat in her high chair, towering over us. She grunted.
“What did you expect, pretty boy?” she answered.
The heat rushed to my head but Jeff squeezed my hand again and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, see, we arrived from New York last night and we just want to relax.”
“This ain’t the place, NYC,” she said, with an unmistakable meanness as she pronounced the letters. “What you see is what you get.”
I lifted my hand but Jeff squeezed harder and tried again. “Ma’am, there has to be somewhere quieter, no?”
The lifeguard cocked her head and took the gum out of her mouth. “This is as good as it gets,” she said. “Ain’t nothin’ but the sun and the sand and the ocean here, and I don’t hear no-one else complaining. Welcome to paradise, NYC!”
The sun beat down and seemed to amplify the sickening symphony all around us. My knuckles were hurting. Even Jeff was reaching a boiling point. “Please, ma’am,” he tried again, “it’s a special day for us and we’re looking for a break from the crowds. We’ve come a long way, ma’am, we’ve come a long way.” We stood there looking up in sweaty desperation and I saw the silhouette move as she uncrossed her arms. One hand came into the sun and rested on her chair and all I saw was the red of her long nails as she strummed them across the wood. Her tone was unmistakable now. “Hey, New York,” she crooned, “I work three jobs to hold it together. I sit here all day watchin’ people like you acting dumb and in a few minutes my shift is up. Then I gotta go to play waitress to you guys all over again while you sit in the sun and get drunk. What do you want me to do? Y’all are at the beach on a ho-li-day. Live it up!”
My hand was shaking. Jeff started walking away into the crowd but I couldn’t hold it back any longer and shouted over my shoulder as he dragged me away. I don’t even know what I shouted but it must have been real bad because I remember her words and, boy, New York had nothing on the things she said.
It took two hours to decompress. We went straight back to the room and showered. Jeff suggested getting a drink at a local beachfront restaurant and I was only too happy to oblige. God, I needed a drink after that. It was horribly hot but Jeff insisted on sitting outside. The sun’s glare on the water left spots in the pigments of my eyes. I blinked and watched a silhouette approach. The woman’s arms were crossed and her red fingernails contrasted sharply with her white, see-through dress. She stopped short in front of us. I craned my neck in disbelief as Jeff stood up, and then bowed my head, whispering, “Not again…”