The streetlights blink off and a white cat darts across the road. Bungalows sit side by side like postage stamps, towels and bathing suits draped over porch rails.
The "Clam Beach" flag flaps in a warm breeze, the chain clanking its solitary sound.
At this hour the beach is a stretch of emptiness, like a vacant heart, but will soon be covered with bright umbrellas, blankets, barking ice-cream vendors, kids, and sun bathing adults.
I pull off my flip-flops and step into sand that by mid-day turns fiery hot. I twist my left foot inwards and drag it along as I walk, creating a wide smooth surface. Seagulls cruise the sand searching for clams; their sharp cries fan my anxiety. A large breasted gull swoops down, snatches something up in its beak and flies off. If these birds had a mind to, with their size and numbers, they could peck me bloody. I stare out to where sky and sea meet and picture walking towards that perfect line, and disappearing into the horizon.
Jack is home asleep. Disease spreads its unstoppable web from one end of him to the other: his yellow tone, pale sunken eyes large in a shrinking face, big white teeth illuminating a fading self. Often I watch him sleep and trace a finger delicately along his profile, working not to pinch his skin and twist it between my fingers. Jack's hair has grown back fine and wispy, like baby hair, as if he is starting over.
I sit on the beach and thrust my fingers deep into the cool sand and grab a handful. How long can I hold a fist of sand? The ocean's silver mist has begun to burn off; it will be another hot one.
A woman in a wide brimmed hat walks along the shore, pants rolled up and barefoot, examining objects in the sand. Behind her a small child holds hands with a tall, thin man in white baggy pants that flutter in a breeze. I shield my eyes to observe them. The child drops the man's hand and gallops ahead several yards to circle the woman and runs back to the extended hand, his bright orange pail sways side to side. The family does not notice me as they continue down the shore growing smaller and smaller.
I like the beach best when the sky is gray and overcast, about to storm, branches of lightening splayed in the distance like electrified bony fingers. I step out of my khaki shorts and undo Jack's faded blue denim shirt with the pearl snaps from the 60s and walk down to the water. The pure cold shocks me. I continue in all the way hugging myself tightly as I bounce up and down the ocean floor. I whirl around one way, then the other, catching glimpses of my clothes in a pile--a still shot of the formless leftovers of one's life. I swim out in long choppy strokes, then float on my back, letting the current take me, warmed by the sun. When a cloud approaches I bite at it, my head bobbing in the water, my teeth working. As a child I lay on my back lost in an endless sky, imagining elephants and horses, ships and faces in the slow drifting clouds.
How can you cease to be? How can the timbre of your voice stop playing? Where will you go?
I move in closer, pushing myself up against you, throwing an arm around your chest, clutching, clinging, burying my face in your shoulder to breathe you in. My heart bleeds chunks and pieces of sharp fragments. I should have been kinder.
BIO: Penelope made Glimmer Train's Best Start 50 list in 2009 and had two stories published in Offcourse Literary Journal in fall 2010. She worked for many years as a psychiatric social worker with children and families and was the director of a mental health program for homeless women run by NYU's School of Social Work. She lives in NYC with her husband, Thomas.