Authors: Rebecca Serle
I wait to go back inside until I hear the crunch of David’s car returning on the gravel. By that time, the sun has already almost entirely set. There is just the fading of light, a slight blue on the disappearing horizon.
When Bella and I were in high school, we used to play a game we called Stop. We’d see how far we could get in describing the grossest, nastiest thing before the other would be so revolted they’d have to yell out stop. It started with an unfortunate piece of forgotten freezer meat and carried on from there. There were ant hills, poison ivy welts, the intestines of a cow, and the microenvironment at the bottom of the community swimming pool.
This game comes to mind the next morning when I come upon a dead seagull on my run. Its head is bent at an impossible angle and its wings are shredded, the meaty portion, or what’s left of it, being feasted on by flies. A piece of its red spine sits disconnected from its body.
I remember reading once that when a seagull dies it falls out of sky on the spot. You could be just sitting on the beach, enjoying an orange ice pop, and wham, seagull to the head.
The fog is thick—a hazy mist that hangs over sand like a blanket. If I could see for a mile, which I can’t, I might spot a fellow morning jogger, out training for the fall marathon. But as far as my eye can see, it’s just me here now.
I bend down closer to the seagull. I don’t think it has been dead a long time. but here, out in nature, things evolve quickly.
I snap a picture to show Bella.
No one was awake when I got up. David was snoring next to me, and the upstairs was still, but then it was barely six. Sometimes Ariel gets up to do work. I tried last summer to get her to jog with me, but there were so many excuses and it took so long that this year I vowed to invite no one.
I’ve never been a late sleeper, but these days anything past seven feels like noon. I need the morning. There’s something about being the first one awake that feels precious, rare. I feel accomplished before I’ve even had my first cup of coffee. The whole day is better.
The return is short, no more than two miles, and when I get back the house is still asleep. I take the gray-shingled stairs to the kitchen and edge the sliding door open. My shirt is damp from my run—a combination of sweat and sea mist. I take it off, toss it over the back of a chair, and head toward the coffeepot, just in my sports bra.
Lid up, filter in, four giant scoops and an extra for the pot. It’s a full house. I’m leaning forward, elbows on the counter waiting for the first drips of caffeine, when I hear Bella’s feet on the stairs. I can always tell it’s her. I know the way her body sounds. I can hear the way she walks, honed from decades of sleepovers, her cushioned feet padding around the kitchen for late-night snacks. If I were blind, I think, I’d be able to tell every time she entered a room.
“You’re up early,” I say.
“I didn’t drink last night.” I hear her slide onto a stool, and I take a second mug down from the cabinet. “Did you sleep well?”
David is a silent sleeper. No snoring, no movement. Being in bed with him is like being alone. “I love waking up to the ocean,” I say.
“It reminds me of when your parents had that place at the shore, remember?”
The coffee starts to descend in a sputtering fit. I turn toward Bella. Her hair is down and tangled around her, and she’s wearing a white lace nightgown with a long terrycloth bathrobe, opened, over it.
“You came there?” I ask.
She looks at me like I’m crazy. “Yeah. You guys had it until we were like fourteen.”
I shake my head. “We got rid of it after Michael—,” I say. Still, all these years later, I can’t bring myself to use the word.
“No, you didn’t,” she says. “You kept it for like four more summers. The place in Margate. The one with the blue awning?”
I take the pot out. It hisses in anger—it’s not time—and I pour her half a cup, setting it down on the counter in front of her. “That wasn’t ours.”
“No, it was,” Bella says. “It was on the ocean block. That little white house with the blue awning. The blue awning!”
“There was no awning,” I say. I go to the refrigerator and take out almond milk and hazelnut Coffee Mate. Bella remembered and picked it up for me.
“Yes there was,” she says. “It was two blocks from the Wawa, and you guys kept bikes down there and we’d lock them up at the condos with the blue awnings!”
I hand her the almond milk. She shakes and pours.
“There was a dead seagull on the beach today,” I say.
“Gross. Rotting carcass? Snapped spine into bone-popping shreds? Fly-eaten eyes pecked down to hollow sockets?”
“Stop.” I slide her my phone, and she looks.
“I’ve seen worse.”
“You know they fall out of the sky when they die?” I say.
“Yeah? What else would you expect them to do?”
The coffee machine downshifts into maintenance, and I pour myself a full cup, adding a hefty portion of creamer.
I go to sit next to Bella at the counter.
“Doesn’t look like a beach day,” she says. She swivels on her stool and looks outside.
“It’ll burn off.”
She shrugs, takes a sip, makes a face.
“I don’t know how you drink that almond water,” I say. “Why suffer? Do you know how good this is?” I hold my cup out to her.
“It’s milk,” she says.
“It’s really not.”
“It’s me,” she says. “I’ve just been feeling funky all week.”
“Are you sick?”
She swallows. I feel something catch in my throat.
“I’m pregnant,” she says. “I mean, I’m pretty sure.”
I look at her. Her whole face is shining. It’s like staring at the sun.
“You think or you know?”
“Think,” she says. “Know?”
“I know. It’s crazy. I started feeling strange last week, though.”
“Have you taken a test?”
She shakes her head.
Bella was pregnant once before. A guy named Markus, whom she loved as much as he loved cocaine. She never told him. We were twenty-two, maybe twenty-three. Our first stumbling, dazzling year in New York.
“I missed my period,” she says. “I sort of thought maybe I’d get it, but I haven’t. My stomach feels weird, my boobs feel weird. I’ve been putting it off, but I think . . .” She trails off.
“Did you tell Aaron?”
She shakes her head. “I wasn’t sure there’d be anything to tell.”
“How long ago was your missed period?”
She takes another sip. She looks at me. “Eleven days ago.”
We go to the store as we are—she in the nightgown with a sweatshirt thrown over, me in my running clothes. There is no one at the small-town drugstore but the woman who works there, and she smiles when we hand over the test. It always surprises me that we’re old enough to receive smiles now, have these moments be blessings, not curses.
When we get back, the house is still quiet, asleep. We crouch in the downstairs bathroom, just the two of us, sitting nervously on the edge of the tub stealing glances at the counter.
The timer dings.
“You look,” she says. “You tell me. I can’t do it.”
Two pink lines.
“It’s positive,” I say.
Her face falls into a sea of relief so powerful I have no choice. My eyes fill with tears.
“Bella,” I say. Stunned.
“A baby,” she mouths.
We close the space between us, and she is in my arms—my Bella. She smells like talcum powder and lavender and all things dewy and precious and young. I feel so protective over these two beating hearts in my arms that I can barely breathe.
We pull apart, misty-eyed and incredulous and laughing.
“Do you think he’ll be mad?” she asks me suddenly.
All at once, she’s in the driver’s seat of her silver Range Rover and we’re listening to Anna Begins with the windows down. It’s summer, and it’s late. We were supposed to be home hours ago, but no one is at Bella’s house. Her mother is in New York for the opening of a restaurant and her father is traveling for work.
We’re coming from Josh’s house—,or is it Trey’s? They both have pools. We’re still wearing our bathing suits, but they’re dry now. The air is hot and sticky, and I have this sense in me—born of youth and vodka and the Counting Crows—that we are invincible. I look over at Bella, sitting back at the wheel, mouth open, singing, and I think that I never want to be without her—and then, that I never want to share her. That she belongs to me. That we belong to each other.
“I don’t know,” I say. “But it doesn’t matter. This is our baby.”
She giggles. “I love him,” she says. “I know it sounds crazy. I know you think I’m crazy. But I really, really do.” She puts a hand on her belly, right on top of her nightgown.
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” I say. “I trust you.”
“That’s a first,” she says. Her hand is still resting there on her belly. I see it growing, floating out in front of her like an inflatable balloon.
“Well,” I say. “Then it’s about time.”
Bella says she doesn’t want to tell anyone. Not this weekend, not until she’s back in the city with Aaron. Let’s just enjoy the beach, she says. And we do.
We bring coolers, chairs, and blankets to the beach and stay there, swimming and eating salty chips and dripping watermelon, drinking beers and lemonade until the sun slips into the horizon.
Ariel and Morgan go for a walk in between swim sessions. I see them down the beach, clad in matching board shorts, holding hands. David and Aaron toss a Frisbee for a little while. Bella and I lounge under an umbrella. It’s idyllic, and I have a flash of years forward—all of us here, together, and her baby, toddling by the shore.
“Want to go for a walk?” I ask David when he comes back. He plops down on the blanket next to me. His shirt is wet at the chest, and his sunglasses hang down by his nose. I take them off and see that the skin around his eyes is sunburned—rimmed. We love it out here, but neither of us was made for the sun.
“I was hoping for a nap,” he says. He kisses my cheek. His face is sweaty, and I feel the moisture on my skin. I hand him the sunblock.
I look up to see Aaron dripping over me, a beach towel flung over his right shoulder.
“Oh.” I look to my side, to where Bella is fast asleep on a beach blanket, her mouth slightly ajar, her foot dangling softly in the sand like a limp puppet.
I look to David. “Problem solved,” he says.
“Okay,” I say to Aaron.
I stand up and brush myself off. I’m wearing board shorts, a bikini top, and a wide-brimmed hat I got at a resort in Turks and Caicos on a trip with David’s family three years ago. I tighten the string.
“East or west?” he asks me.
“I actually think it’s north or south.”
He’s not wearing sunglasses and he squints at me, his face scrunching against the sun.
“Left,” I say.
The Amagansett beach is wide and long, one of the many reasons I love it so much. You can walk for miles uninterrupted, and many stretches are nearly deserted, even in the summer months.
We start walking. Aaron loops his towel around his neck and pulls with each hand at the edges. Neither one of us speaks for a minute. I’m struck, not by the silence but by the crash of the ocean—the sense of peace I feel in nature, I feel here. I don’t think I realize, living in New York, how much light and noise pollution affect my day-to-day life. I tell him this now.
“It’s true,” he says. “I really miss Colorado.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
He shakes his head. “It’s where I lived after college. I just moved to New York like ten months ago.”
He laughs. “Am I that jaded already?”
I shake my head. “No, I’m just surprised whenever someone has spent a good portion of their adult life somewhere else. Weird, I know.”
“Not weird,” he says. “I get it. New York kind of makes you feel like it’s the only place in existence.”
I kick up a shell. “That’s because it is. Says its insanely biased inhabitants.”
Aaron threads his fingers together and stretches upward. I keep my eyes on the sand.
“David’s great,” he says. “It’s been nice to spend some time with him this weekend.”
I look down at my left hand. The ring catches the summer light in sudden, brilliant bursts. I should have taken it off today. I could lose it in the water.
“Yeah,” I say. “He’s great.”
“I’m jealous of your relationship with Bella. I don’t have that many friends from high school I’m still that close with.”
“We’ve been friends since we were seven years old,” I say. “I barely have a childhood memory she’s not a part of.”
“You’re protective of her,” he says. It’s not a question.
“Yes. She’s my family.”
“I’m glad someone is looking out for her. You know, besides me.” He tries for a smile.
“I know you are,” I say. “It wasn’t you. She’s just dated people who didn’t really put her first. She falls in love quickly.”
“I don’t,” he says. He clears his throat. The moment stretches out to the horizon. “I mean, I haven’t, in the past.”
I know what he’s saying—what he’s hesitant to say now, even to me. He’s in love with her. My best friend. I look over at him, and his eyes are fixed out on the ocean.
“Do you surf?” he asks me.
He turns back to me. He wears a sheepish expression. “I thought I might be embarrassing you with this bleeding heart.”
“You weren’t,” I say. “I think I brought it up.” I walk a few paces down to the water’s edge. Aaron joins me. “No,” I say. “I don’t surf.” There are no surfers out there right now, but it’s late. The real ones are usually gone by 9 a.m. “Do you?”
“No, but I always wanted to. I didn’t grow up around the ocean. I was sixteen before I went to the beach for the first time.”
“Really? Where are you from?”
“Wisconsin,” he says. “My parents weren’t big travelers, but when we went on vacation it was always to the lake. We rented this house on Lake Michigan every summer. We’d stay there for a week and just live on the water.”
“Sounds nice,” I say.
“I’m trying to convince Bella to go with me in the fall. It’s still one of my favorite places.”
“She’s not much of a lake girl,” I say.
“I think she’d like it.”
He clears his throat. “Hey,” he says. “Thanks for earlier. I don’t really ever talk about my mom.”
I look down at my feet. “It’s okay,” I say. “I get it.”
The water comes up to greet us.
Aaron jumps back. “Shit, that’s cold,” he says.
“It’s not that bad; it’s August. You don’t even want to know what it feels like in May.”
He hops around for another moment and then stops, staring at me. All at once, he kicks up the retreating water. It lands on me in a cascade, the icy droplets dotting my body like chicken pox.
“Not cool,” I say.
I splash him back, and he holds up his towel in defense. But then we’re running farther into the ocean, gathering more and more water in our attacks until we’re both soaking wet, his towel nothing more than a dripping deadweight.
I duck my head under the water and let the shock of cold cool my head. I don’t bother taking off my hat. When I come back up, Aaron is a foot from me. He stares at me so intently I have the instinct to look behind me but don’t.
“Nothing,” he says. “I just . . .” He shrugs. “I like you.”
Instantly, I’m not in the Atlantic anymore; we’re not here on this beach but, instead, in that apartment, in that bed. His hands, devoid of the sopping towel, are on me. His mouth on my neck, his body moving slowly, deliberately over mine—asking, kneading, pressing. The pulse of the blood in my veins pumping to a rhythm of
I close my eyes.
Stop. Stop. Stop.
“Race you back,” I say.
I kick up some water and take off. I know I’m faster than him—I’m faster than most people, and he’s weighed down by ten pounds of towel. I’ll beat him in a flash. When I get back to the blanket, Bella is awake. She rolls over, sleepily, shielding her eyes from the sun.
“Where did you go?” she asks.
I’m breathing too hard to answer.