Broken Bottles

My wetsuit clung clammily to me as I followed her out of the water. I hate the feel of the wet fabric, sticking, cold, unyielding. I pawed at my back, trying to find the zipper tab. It had been broken long before, making taking the suit off even more irritating than usual. The early morning mist blew in off the Pacific, fanning out over the wave pools caught in the basaltic flows of a point of land sticking far off the coast. She paused in the sunlight, carefully placing her surfboard on the ground beside her. She pawed her hair back out of her face, catching the wayward dripping strands in a tie magically rolled from her wrist. Without a glance at me, she peeled her suit from her body, and her skin was white. Trailing a leash and dripping polyurethane, she walked from stone to stone along the rough, barely-there path to the broken bit of sand above, where my old truck sat rusting, wishing for days without sand, nights without salty air.

The wind was cold. The tequila was not. The bottle winked in the sunlight as she held it aloft, inspecting the contents. The residue inside floated lazily around in the unyielding glare of the mid-morning sun. Our session in the surf had been cut short by a presence, real or imagined, skimming beneath us in the piercing blue water of the mighty western ocean. We had not commented on the likelihood of sharkiness this far South on the Baja, as most surfers did in those days immediately after the horror of 9/11. It was as if the mention of the Tiburon gave us something tangible, real to be afraid of.

The Old Man, Bonita, The Reaper – The Great White Shark was something in all of our minds, those of us who dared leave the U.S., once a homeland so safe, so excluded from the violence that plagued the rest of the world. For those who dipped their boards into the cold blue waters of the Pacific south of the world, our fear of the unknown, the terror that manifested itself real, was given life and realness in the cold terror of the shark.

We passed the bottle back and forth, and I wondered if her hair was blond or red. Streaks of both appeared as her ponytail dried in the sun. The bottle dangled from her fingertips when I passed it back to her. In a world inundated with tan, her skin was a mystery. Pale as a starlet, like the waning moon in early summer, she seemed untouched by the manifestation of brown. Everything was brown here. The sand, the dust, the rocks, the buildings, the people. Everything. My skin and hair had long since merged into one blanched dirt-colored uniform covering of bones and flesh. Years later, I would stare at myself in the mirror, marveling at the color and texture of skin sheltered from the elements, hidden from the sun by promotions and a corner office.

She was untouched by the world around us, as pristine as a newborn. Somehow plunked down in the middle of the finger of a peninsula of land surrounded on three sides by water, she appeared to have teleported there from somewhere safe, somewhere white. Buzzed from no food and the contents of the now empty bottle, I wondered where she was from. I dared not ask, for reasons I did not understand. She laughed at my attempts at humor, and I felt something stir, some loneliness for the mountains of green that I had left behind.

Nothing seemed real anymore, in this wasteland, this place where the dirt met ocean, where fear met peace and the waves washed every evening away into the future. A future no longer certain, or safe, or controllable. We walked the street of the tiny town, passing the day away. Her SUV was in the parking lot of the only café, a red beacon in an impoverished area, as out of place as a diamond ring in a bowl of clay. I wondered again at the strangeness of it all, then put it out of my mind. An easy thing, what with the tequila.

We shared Mexican Chocolate, walking the brick sidewalks, uneven and halting in the turmoil of the earth beneath. We ducked into a narrow alley, so close my fingertips brushed both sides. The wind blew hard and cold and I hated it and loved it at the same time. Her eyes were blue, flecked with green and sunshine and the sea. Her hair was blonde and red and brown. She was a natural brunette. Her hair was brown. Her skin was white. Her eyes were blue. The tequila was lukewarm the wind was bitter and I gagged a little, in those days before whiskey became a way out of the endless parade of sameness. Before my days merged into one ceaseless cascade of nothingness.

She was gone the next morning, along with her white surfboard and red SUV and black suit and blue eyes. The empty bottle of tequila was broken, with brightly colored shards of molten sand where a vessel has once been. I contemplated my doused campfire and stretched out sore muscles, still limber enough after sleeping in the back of an old truck for months on end.

I wish the bottle had not broken.

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