You’re wide awake at six a.m. when the sun tips its hand. You barely slept at all last night in the hot box that is your cramped third-floor apartment. There’s no air-conditioning, the windows are all propped open. You spent most the night on top of the sheets, waiting for a breeze that never came, just listening to the sounds of the city; cars whirring by on the street, college kids passing by on the sidewalk below, talking excitedly about their night at the bar. It sounded too familiar. That’s why you moved, to get out of the rut you were in. So far, it isn’t working.
You might have slept for an hour or two, long enough to have dreamt about the beach—which is odd. You’re not a beach person. You haven’t gone swimming in years. Still, the idea echoes in your head while the heat begins to build, while broad swaths of yellow light climb the cream-colored walls around you.
It’s a Saturday. You don’t have to work today and it’s going to be viciously hot again. Your friends back home would rag you to no end for even considering going to a beach by yourself. “Pathetic,” they’d say. But they’re not here, and you’re not there. Besides, there’s no one you know well enough to ask to join you.
It’s settled: You will go to the beach.
There’s a nice one within walking distance. You’ve driven past it dozens of times and walked around it once or twice, watching everyone else have fun. Today you’ll see for yourself what it’s all about.
Tell yourself it’s because you’re bored, because any more time spent in this broiling apartment might drive you mad. But deep down inside you know you’re going for the girls. Five months without a date is a long time. Four months in a new town with none of your old friends to fall back on has been a lifetime in itself. You moved, and that’s good, but now it’s time to get moving.
You roll free of the damp sheets. Your feet hit the gritty wood floor. The dry boards feel warm, not cool like you were hoping.
Your second cup of coffee goes down smooth. You’re just enjoying the morning, reading the newspaper, and taking it all in. You can feel the city waking up around you and it thrills you in some vague way knowing you’re a small part of it. The light morning traffic sounds like a symphony to you. People jog by and zoom past on bicycles. There’s energy in the air, everything seems alive, possible. You never had this sense back home. The shaded downtown streets always seemed empty, the people you did walk past hardly ever looked your way.
The picnic table on the sidewalk outside the coffeehouse was empty when you got there and you have room to spread out your paper. You’re just getting to the sports page when a pretty girl steps outside with her coffee. From the corner of your eye you can see her thinking about joining you. She’s attractive, somewhere right around your age—twenty-five, you guess—give or take. She has long blonde hair and is wearing round, blue-tinted sunglasses. She looks to you like everything you’ve been missing out on your whole life.
The words to invite her to sit down are on the tip of your tongue, where they’ve always been when it comes to being anywhere near forward, but they refuse to fly. Instead you get nervous and swallow self-consciously. You study your paper for a moment, feign a look of grim concentration, and then look up at her hopefully. She returns your gaze and even gives you a friendly smile before turning around and going back inside. You smile, too, wryly, before flipping the page.
You promise yourself right then and there the next time a chance to meet a girl comes along you will go for it, because it’s better to die on the mountain than starve in the valley. Or something like that.
It’s still early. You aren’t thinking clearly yet.
Instead of walking home after leaving the coffeehouse, you decide to go the grocery store to get supplies for the day. Before the heat comes down, before you change your mind and all you feel like doing is hiding out at the mall, maybe seeing a matinee by yourself. But you know that’s a dead-end street, with no chance for any interaction. No, the beach is where you should be today. You need to be out among people.
The morning air outside is already heavy, but not choking like it will be later in the day. You listen to the birds singing in the trees. Even they sound restrained. The sky above you is a stark blue and streaked with traces of high, silver clouds. It looks to you as though one more scorching day might bleach away what color remains.
Thoughts of the beach have you feeling light for the first time in weeks, happy. Your light-brown sandals flop rhythmically on the sidewalk, the sound echoing down the block.
The back streets are quiet, there’s barely any traffic at all. Nothing seems to move but you. You almost wish someone would walk past you just so you could smile at them, and perhaps even risk a “Good morning!” if they happened to make eye contact with you. Smiling, you look up at the sky. There’s no sense getting too carried away.
It has to be at least ten degrees cooler inside the store. You grab a handbasket and walk over to the fruit and vegetable section. You’re in the heart of the trendy part of Minneapolis and the health-conscious hippies are out in force. You look at their tattoos and their piercings, and the way they intently study each piece of fruit, as though the fate of the world depended on them finding just the right bunch of bananas.
A pale young woman with jet-black hair cropped in a bowl cut catches your eye. You freeze and then hazard a small smile. She rolls her eyes like she expected nothing less from you. You grab a pound bag of red grapes and move on.
It amuses you to think that here you’re the strange one. You, with your scrawny build, dark tousled hair and nondescript, clean-shaven face. You and your white T-shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. It would have bothered you once, not so long ago, the way she looked at you. It would have made you feel small and insecure.
Now it just makes you laugh.