Monday, July 1, 2019

Pacific by Ky Hensley

On an excursion to Costa Rica, Ky Hensley's character visits the ocean for the first time.

Pacific waves are powerful.

I can tell from a considerable distance, as the whitecaps crash on the bright reflective sand and roll up the long stretch of beach. The cars and trucks seem to ripple in the heat of the day. We aren't even there yet, still shielding the sun from our eyes as we attempt to cross the road. Quite frequently, cars honk at the slow-moving trucks, all while seemingly oblivious to the beach stretched out before them like a framed landscape piece. I see a car slowing, and begin to dart across.

Damien's grip tightens around my hand as he pulls me back. "Hold up, Maggie." The car I was watching vrooms past as if frustrated by my indecision. "You trying to get us hit? It'd be a shame to lose my girl like that." Damien laughs at what he thinks is incredible wit. He barely looks both ways before making the decision to drag me into traffic himself.

If that's what it takes.

My lips stay sealed. The beach. I am here for the beach.

A deafening crash of water on the pounded sand makes my heart leap into my chest. I didn't take this Spanish cultural class just to visit the Pacific. It was the language, the life, the excitement that drew me in. I remember a few months back when Damien first started talking to me. He lured me into the magic of Costa Rica with the promise of the school covering airfare costs and endless talk of his adventures on past trips. He talked of sloths and monkeys dancing in the trees, of food better and sweeter than any other, and of community markets loud with the sounds of locals peddling goods and haggling prices. But the Pacific mattered to me and seemed to be the lifeblood of the country.

Growing up in Mount Jackson, Virginia, we didn't have access to the ocean. We were land-locked. Trapped. Our culture didn't come from a mighty body of water, but an indention in the land called the Shenandoah Valley. Everyone always seemed impressed by the national park's endless stretch of trees. Maybe it would be something special to someone who hadn't grown up in the endless shade of the trees, or maybe they had simply never seen the Pacific and its majesty to compare them. I had seen both now, and knew which one won out.

We approach the set of picnic tables concreted into the ground. I set down my bag and slip out of my sandals without a moment's hesitation. My eyes remain fixed on the distant clouds that fly across the sky, as the wind whips through my brown curls. My hair reaches down past my shoulders and the wind tosses it all different ways. I enjoy it for a moment before deciding to tie it up before it gets too tangled.

As I fight to constrain my hair, I place one foot delicately against the sand and find it warm. I knew that the sensation might turn from good to worse, scalding the sensitive soles of my feet. But at the moment, it was good to feel.

I put both feet on the sand and prepare to advance.

"Don't go on without me now," Damien says. I turn back to see him lathering another layer of sunscreen on his tanned skin. By any girl's standards, he is attractive. He's just a few inches taller than me and not really musclebound or scrawny, but somewhere in between. His sandy blond hair is tossed by the wind and shines in the sun. And yet, it is nothing like the near perfect white sand with a touch of grey sediment that spread as far as the eye can see.

I think about going on without him, but instead I study the coastline, trying patience once again.

The sands of the beach are crowded with native families lounging in the day. Most of the adults are tucked under umbrellas, a newspaper or book laid across their laps. Occasionally, they look up to see their children playing contentedly in the sand, building structures for a coming wall of water to tear down. Hardly anyone is wading or swimming in the water, besides a newly married couple farther up the beach having a photoshoot. The water only rises up to their shins with its largest swells. Their laughter echoes back to me. I quickly turn my head.

There's a mangroved area to the far left which our guide Julian had warned us against nearing before we left. Crocodiles, he said. Actual saltwater crocodiles on that part of the beach. I couldn't believe him at first and Damien looked for an instant like he had changed his mind. But eventually, Damien had summoned his courage, told Julian that he'd protect me from the crocs, and we set out alone. But the stretch of white sand is far enough from the mangroves that I am not concerned. Nothing will keep me from the ocean. And what could he do to keep away crocs?

I take a slow, steady breath and wrap my arms around myself. I wish Julian would have joined us. He wouldn't have kept me from crossing the road, or from running to the ocean with open arms. He didn't look at me and see what Damien sees: a little girl in need of guidance. Protection.

Suddenly Damien's arms around me, and any semblance of peace swims out of my reach. He lifts me a few inches off the sand from behind. He laughs as I squirm, my arms locked at my sides by the way he hoists me up, like a fragile statue that he doesn't wish to drop.

The other beachgoers, with their towels laid out facing the crystal green waters, turn to face the confusion of two foreigners making a scene on their beach. Beneath an umbrella, an elderly woman leans over to her spouse and whispers something unintelligible. They laugh, eyes both flitting our way, but are kind enough not to point.

"What the heck are you doing?" I laugh despite my discomfort.

"Didn't want you to burn your feet - oh, holy smokes, this sand is hot!"

From Damien's arms, I monitor our snail's pace speed from where we placed our beach bags. "I can walk. Really. You can put me down." I try to get down myself, yet somehow the simple refusal strengthens Damien's grip.

"I don't mind, darlin'. I don't mind."

I remain tense, but bite my tongue. There was no reasoning with him. If I spoke up, I'd grow angrier and angrier and he'd eventually see it. Then, he would mope. Although he wouldn't say it out loud, I would know I was being unreasonable. So we'd kiss. Make up.

But was it selfish to want to approach the Pacific alone? To introduce myself?

It won't be the same if he drags me there, where the water met and cooled the simmering sand. I want the water to brush up against my feet and soothe the pain. I want to step deeper and deeper, as the tide rises higher and higher, rising to my ankles, my shins, knees, hips.

I'm permitted to walk the last few feet beside him once his strength gives out.

"Well, I'll be. That's about the prettiest thing I've ever seen." There's wonder in his voice, and I imagine his eyes open wide to take in the sunset. He has sparkling green eyes that gleam like emeralds in this light. I turn to him, hoping to share the beauty with him.

Instead, those green eyes lift from my lips to my now-flushed cheeks. My heart pounds.

"But not as pretty as you."

Had I not been compared to all the beauty of Costa Rica, I may have enjoyed the joke.

I laugh emptily, looking down at the waters. I tell myself that my blush is for the sea, which swells forward to say hello. A greeting just for me. Not Damien. Not the other beachgoers who are content with watching the waves dance up the beach. This is a conversation.

An interaction more stimulating than any other I've had with Damien in a long while.

Feeling my anxiety swell again, I focus instead on my fingers as they run through the rough waters. Particles of salt and sand stream over my skin. The texture, the pressure, is calming somehow.

I wade deeper still and I think Damien follows. He's not holding my hand now, possibly because if he were, we'd both capsize under the surge of water and the undertow sucking away at the packed sand beneath us. But he's nearby, I know. Behind me or beside me. That was his pattern.

The ocean had a pattern too. Somehow, that was different. Predictable but... not. Sure, the waves would come, but would they bowl you over like an affectionate puppy after a long day of work? Or would they come softly, nudging you to step deeper?

I see a wave swelling in the distance. I feel it around me too, in the sand's retreat beneath my feet. As I brace myself for the leap I know is coming, a hopeful smile touches my lips. The level rises from my hips to above my shoulders and I am thrown back. Despite the wall of water's resistance, I finally right myself and laugh at the effort it takes.

Standing again, I study the patterns, anticipate the next that will threaten my stability. I get knocked down again. Every time I fall, I laugh and don't ask why. Again. Again.

I realize some time later that I've drifted closer and closer to the mangroves. The ocean has carried me far down the beach, away from Damien. He wades the distance between us. As he makes his way over, the water impedes his progress. I step towards him, to go back up the beach for another bout with the Pacific.

He closes the final step and takes my hand in his. A patient swell breaks around us. The sea seems to stop its stirring. I look at him, actually at him, for the first time in a long while, and wonder what he has to say.

Damien's hand lifts to brush a strand of hair back behind my ear. "You're just -" he pauses, "so dang happy. I don't think I've seen you this happy before."

How long had I been here? I look past him where the sun is sinking down to kiss the edge of the ocean. "I can't help being happy. There's just no other way to explain. It's all so beautiful."

"That's good." Damien looks out at the sun, but the warmth doesn't touch him.

Guilt leaps up inside me like a rabid animal. He knew I hadn't been the same lately, or that my wish to stay behind at the hotel was more than a small headache or exhaustion or laziness. I knew my anxiety was worsening. I'd been retreating deeper and deeper into a shell of anxious thoughts. No one on the trip knew what I was struggling with but Damien. I told him that I'd been seeking counseling, considering medication when we first started dating four months ago. But this week has shown him nothing but how little it had all helped me, because it took an ocean to get me out of my head for more than a minute. It had shown him much I needed him.

I'd have to apologize for keeping it from him, for letting it get between us. "Damien, I -"

"I've been struggling again." He swallows before continuing. "With depression."

Here? Now? "Oh. I'm sorry." My voice catches in my throat. "I didn't know."

"You know how I am. I don't like people seeing that side of me."

My heart pounds harder in my chest, and it's hard to take in another breath. "I'm sorry." That's all I can find to say, as my thoughts spiral out of control. I caused this.

"I know I haven't been the best boyfriend. But the depression won't last. It always passes. I know you'll be right beside me through everything. You always are and I'm just so darn lucky to have you. You're perfect."

No. No, I'm not. "Damien -"

"You don't have to say nothing, darlin'. Just pray, alright? Don't worry about me."

How could I not worry? I want to scream at him as dispassionate waves well up around us. How could I speak? I have nothing to offer but there has to be something I can do. Something to offer. We stand, hands locked together, unmoved by the current.

All I have done is make his life harder and the depression stronger. Yet all he wants is me. My support. My love. Why refuse him that? He deserves it. Needs it.

Damien lifts his hand to turn my face towards his and away from the Pacific. "That's enough of the beach for one day." Using his other hand, which tightly wraps around mine like a boa constrictor, he tugs me up to the beach. The water recedes from my hips to my knees. From knees to shins to ankles, I walk numbly beside him.

"Let me treat you to a copo before we head back." He gestures over to the shaved ice stand nearby. "You still haven't tried one. And don't you argue, 'cause I'm paying."

For once, I don't think of the Costa Rican bills resting idly in my wallet. I don't think about how much money he has spent, how much time he has wasted on me. How could I not have noticed his depression when I caused it? I didn't deserve a copo. I didn't deserve him.

But I couldn't tell him that now.

He follows me back over to the table, letting me walk on the cooling dry sand.

The sun retreats further into the skyline. Beachgoers pack up to leave with umbrellas folded in at their sides and their children sprinting for the same shaved ice stand that Damien had pointed out. The traffic is louder as a result of the exodus, cars honking as they pull out onto the busy, winding road that lead back up to the city. I slip back into my shoes and wrap my towel tightly around me. Damien grabs his wallet and seeks out the copero for our treats.

I take a seat at the table and wait for Damien to return. The ocean seems so distant now. It beckons for me. It tried, perhaps, to make me happy. It tried to get me out of my head, my endless cycle of anxious thoughts. Nothing worked.

Nothing could ever fix this.

I wasn't ready to leave the ocean behind yet. It had so much more to teach me and I didn't have much more time. I'd be home soon, and if Damien's prediction came true, we'd be closer than ever. We'd have no room for any other loves.

Damien returns sooner than I thought he would with the long procession of children buying from the copero too. With a grin, he deposits the bright-red copo into my waiting hands and its coolness leeches into my fingers.

I stir the mixture of shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and cherry syrup together until it's uniformly pastel pink in color. I keep getting distracted by the Pacific, which crawls up the sand closer and closer as the tide rolls in, to whisper one last secret that I can't hear clearly.

Damien looks up from his grape-flavored treat minutes later, already half-finished. He laughs, elbowing me in the side. "You haven't even tried a bite yet. How are you supposed to know if you'll like it if you won't try?"

Under his watchful gaze, I lift a full spoon to my lips. The flavor is so intensely sweet and artificial that my instinct is to swallow it quickly and let it melt away. There, I could say. Tried it. Didn't like it.

But his eyes are so fixed with determination to see me happy, to give him a reason to be happy...

I lift a second scoop to my mouth and force my lips to smile. "Yeah, you've convinced me. This is perfect."

10 comments:

  1. Two people with depression can make it, if the inherent narcissism of the illness can give way to empathy. Not easy though, as we see in this piece. I identify with the happiness aspect on the final paragraph.

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    1. Thank you, Harris! Very insightful.

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  2. This is a deep, thoughtful story that will stay with me for a while. It is very realistic and meaningful.

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    1. I am glad you enjoyed, Billy. Thank you!

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  3. This seems like such a poor match, I wonder how they made it this far.

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    1. I believe couples sometimes hide the parts of themselves they think they should hide to find love. That's what I'm trying to get at with Maggie; while Damiem has been open with his struggles, she's scared of being real with him because of her intense anxieties.
      Thank you for your feedback!

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  4. A complicated relationship between two complicated characters. Love the contrast between their individual coping mechanisms. Nice work, Ky.

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