New Year (Seventeen)
It was New Year’s Eve, but State Street was mostly deserted. Occasional people looked out from lighted bar windows like department store mannequins. My car followed its headlights down to Cabrillo and then along the ocean. I left it in the parking lot of a seafood joint that was closed, and crossed the empty street to the beach.
I saw her from a long way off. It could have been anyone, a slender figure standing at the rail and looking out at the night water, but I knew it was Annie. She waited on the boardwalk, underneath the cone of light from a hooded bulb. I walked toward her, but I didn't hurry. I wanted to look at her for a little while.
When I got close enough, she turned toward me. Her face would never suit a cigarette or liquor advertisement. When she occasionally bothered with lipstick and silk stockings, it was masquerade, like a mermaid with legs.
She was the most beautiful woman I had ever known, and the ancient queens would have understood why, perfectly.
“Have you eaten?” I asked.
She shook her head, no.
“I'll take you somewhere,” I said. “There ought to be something open on the boulevard.”
She shook her head again, and took my arm. She pointed at the stairs that led down to the beach. I let her lead me. Our steps sounded hollow on the boards going down, and then were silent when we landed on the sand. It was as if we'd passed though a barrier.
The smell of ocean got stronger, the surf louder, the darkness wet and vital. I took off my shoes because she did, and the sand felt cold on my bare feet. Annie walked a little way up the beach sat down at the base of the seawall. I sat beside her. The cement was rough against my back. We faced the invisible night-time ocean.
“This is the beginning, not the end,” she murmured. “What’s the earliest New Year's Eve you can remember?”
There was enough light in the cloud cover that I could see the waves. Tiny sparks out on the water came and went, never in the same place. I heard music, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, a long-ago radio playing in my mother’s kitchen. Ice cubes chimed, my long-dead father laughed, and I knew my parents were dancing.
I made out Annie's face, turned toward me. She scared me sometimes, just a little.
“I remember before the beginning,” she said. “My earliest memory is of a river. The water was green, and animals made of stone came down to it to drink. I had a piece of glass, and I took it with me when I went into the river for my bath. When I held it under the surface, it changed color.”
Something burst up from the sand with a strangled cry. It flew over our heads with a sound like laundry flapping on the line, a bare glimpse of paleness in the black air, and was gone out to sea. It was a seabird, or a couple of them.
“Are you afraid ?” she asked.
Her look was palpable, dark and heavy. I felt the weight of it, even in the low light, and it made me breathless. Waves rolled in and spread out whitely, and I thought about telling her that they made me uneasy, but uneasy wasn't the same as afraid, so I kept it to myself.
"It's just foam," she said, as though she could read my mind.
I struggled for words. “It's all different now---since you,” I started.
She sat quietly and waited. I shifted a little against the wall, so that my shoulder touched hers. I was glad when she didn't move away.
“I thought I was okay, but I wasn't,” I said. “I didn’t know any better. It was like a silent movie, but now---there are sounds and colours. I don't want it to be like it was, before you came.”
She leaned into me, just barely.
“I'm afraid of losing that,” I said. “It’s the only thing I’m afraid of.”
We sat very quietly for a long time, and then I sensed her nod. I nodded, too, relieved, and closed my eyes.
“Don’t die first,” she whispered. “Promise me.”
When I opened them, she was gone. I must have gone to sleep for a little while, because the stars had come out, the sea sparkled purple-and-white, and the beach looked as bright as noon. The moon glow was everywhere, like pale ice cream. I touched the sand where she had been sitting. It was cold, and so was I.
I stood up and brushed myself off. I didn't see my shoes, and then I did. I picked them up and started walking, to wherever it was that I was going.