I lie in the back of my boyfriend Petey’s truck, wet and cold, still in my new O’Neill wetsuit. I am unable to shiver, just as I am unable to do anything but stare. The tingling in my legs has spread to my arms and face. Petey has me gently wrapped in the woolen Mexican blanket that he pulled off the bench seat of his truck. It smells like beer and cigarettes, and even though the wind has engulfed the bed of his pick-up, the smell lingers in my nostrils. Above the roar of the engine, I can hear his voice coming from the cab of the truck.
The same word over and over. “Shit. Shit. Shit.” Punctuated by a fist to the dashboard.
I call to him. “Petey! Please stop. I need help.” But these are only thoughts that are stuck somewhere in my head, thoughts that are unable to form into the words I need so desperately. The words I need to stop the truck.
Red-tiled roof tops go by in somber succession as we careen through the avenues. I roll side to side with each turn and pitch forward and backward at every stop sign but I remain on my back like a piece of driftwood, eyes fixed upon the darkening sky. The glow of the sunset has faded and the billowy clouds, grow grayer at the edges. The wind lifts fronds of my wet hair, and I can taste the salt of the Pacific as they lick at my mouth and face.
The streetlights pass overhead, breaking up the darkening sky with their salmon glow. Suddenly, the wind engulfing the bed of the truck starts to die and I slide forward as Petey downshifts and we begin to pull over. He stops the truck and jumps out without closing the door behind him. I hear his feet hurry up some stairs, and my heart sinks because I know there wouldn’t be any stairs at the entrance of a hospital. What are you doing? Help me.
I start to think that my older sister was right when she said, “Petey is handsome, but not the sharpest tool in the shed.” But, to me, he is pure golden heat. Underneath the hard surface is a warm loving core. With him, I feel more alive than I knew was possible.
The sky is almost black now, and cold. After a couple of minutes I hear the hurried shuffle of feet coming down the stairs. I hear voices getting closer until finally two faces come into view. They loom over me in the back of Petey’s truck. Their shadowy outlines seem to marvel at the sight of me, unmoving, like I’m a mermaid that’s been hauled out of the ocean. As they move closer I can see that the faces belong to Devin O’Leary and Tommy Breslin. I hate Tommy Breslin. They’re smiling like its Christmas morning.
Devin says, “Is that Maggie Dunnigan? Dude, she is the finest chick at that all-girl school, what’s it called? Star of the Sea?”
Petey appears over the back of the truck and lets out a long sigh. “Yeah, that’s her,” he says. He seems so worried and scared. I start to wonder what my injury is, what it looks like.
“Man, she looks hot,” Tommy says between puffs of a cigarette.
The words make me cringe inside, but my disgust won’t bubble to the surface. He takes a step away from the truck and Petey glares at him.
Devin moves in closer, the smile erasing from his face. “Dude, what’s wrong with her?”
There is a long pause. Petey puts his hands over his face and pushes his golden mane back, locking his hands together behind his neck. Devin breaks the silence. “What the fuck happened, man?”
Petey grabs a cigarette from Tommy and begins to nervously clear his throat. I gaze straight up beyond their faces which glow orange with each drag of a cigarette, to the silent morphing clouds.
“Well, we’ve been hanging out for a couple of months, you know, taking it slow. Nobody really even knows we’ve been dating. The other day, Maggie asks me to teach her how to surf.
“Shit,” says Tommy. “You’re no surfer. Your brother’s the surfer”
“Yeah, I know,” says Petey. “But look at her. I couldn’t say no; nobody could.”
“So we pack up some boards after school and go down to Sloat. The waves were huge and a lot of sleeper waves were coming from the outside. It took us almost twenty minutes to paddle out. Maggie was exhausted and scared when we finally came up beyond the breakers. We didn’t even have time to catch our breath before a fast moving set of outside waves came rolling in. We tried paddling further out but, without warning, a twelve-footer started breaking just as Maggie was climbing it. She went over the top and got pummeled. She was under for at least fifteen seconds.”
“Oh man,” says Devin. “Why can’t she talk or move or anything?”
“I don’t know. I found her on shore with half of her broken board still tethered to her ankle by the leash. She was breathing and her eyes were open but she couldn’t respond. I couldn’t even tell if she was seeing me. She has this huge purple mark on her temple. Must’ve been from the tip of her board slamming into her head.”
Petey lifts the blanket from the right side of my face and I hear gasps from Devin and Tommy. I can see Devin leaning in to get a closer look at me. His face is all fear. “You have to take her to the hospital,” he says.
“You know I can’t do that,” says Petey. “I’m supposed to be under house arrest. It will mean jail for me, man. You understand? Look, your sister is a nurse. Is she home? That’s why I’m here. Can’t she help us?”
“She’s working until 11:00. And seriously, bro, I don’t think you can wait.”
Petey begins to punch and kick the truck. “Fuck,” he yells. “What am I supposed to do? Devin, I need to use your phone. I need to call my brother.”
Lying in the back of the truck, I see Devin and Petey disappear. The tingling now covers my whole body. I feel like I am living in a beehive with thousands of tiny wings beating against my skin. Tommy peers over the bed of the truck and I realize that he didn’t go upstairs with Petey and Devin. Even in the dark, I can see his lopsided grin. His eyes are just shadows under his pronounced brow.
“Hi beautiful,” he says as he puts his cigarette out on the side of the truck. He peels away the blanket Petey has me so carefully wrapped in and starts roughly combing his fingers through my hair. He lifts my head slightly and I realize that he is trying to get at the zipper of my wetsuit. His face turns angry as he struggles to find the top of the zipper. I hear it unzip and Tommy moves both hands under my wetsuit and rests his hands on my chest. I would spit in his face if I could. He turns his head to meet my gaze and says, “I knew they would be nice”.
I hear footsteps again but Tommy doesn’t, he is too caught up in fondling me. In a blur of flesh and flannel, Petey’s fist collides with Tommy’s jaw and I can hear the snap of bone. Tommy’s hands almost seem to wave goodbye as they follow his body down to the pavement. “What the fuck are you doing?” asks Devin on the run. He slams Petey against the truck and it sways like a raft caught in a ship’s wake.
Devin glances at my open wetsuit as he holds Petey against the rear fender. “What the fuck, Pete? My sister isn’t home, your brother didn’t answer the phone, and Maggie’s hurt. What are you going to do?”
Petey pushes Devin off of him. Holding his head down, he sighs, shielding his eyes like he has a headache. “You’re right man,” he says. “I just lost it. I’m losing my fucking mind.” They mumble something and carry Tommy off. A moment later, Petey returns. He leans over me and whispers, “Sorry”. As he zips up my wetsuit, I can see tears gathering in his eyes. He gently brushes my face with the back of his hand and whispers how beautiful he thinks I am, how everything will be ok.
I can see that the evening fog is moving in, carrying the smell of the Pacific with it, salty and alive. Petey disappears from view and I hear the truck door slam. We drive off into the thick mist that is now creeping into every corner of neighborhood.
Time ceases to exist for me as I drift deeper into isolation. The droning engine, the creaking truck bed, the radio — all have yielded to the sound of the ocean in my head. The waves become louder with every passing block.
Notes of eucalyptus cut through the fog, its incense familiar and calming. I don’t care where we are going anymore, I only want to sleep. We pass under a lavender balloon tangled in the telephone wires above. It has pink letters that say Happy Birthday. I wonder if it might be one of the balloons from little Mary Macready’s birthday party last week. She lives down the street from me. Maybe Petey is taking me home.
It is as if the truck floating now. We drift so slowly that I can read a street sign as we pass. Wawona. The street my house is on, the street where I have lived my whole life. A swirling mass of fog lifts me from the back of Petey’s truck. I begin to rise above the truck and slowly roll over, suspended in a bluish white cloud. I look down and see droplets of saltwater falling from me into the truck below as I float further upward. I hover above it like a kite. We are slowly inching our way down my street. All is like a dream.
Petey opens the tailgate and carefully pulls me from the back of his truck. I am like a rag doll in his arms as he carries me up the terrazzo steps to my front door. He lays me down on the landing and I stare into his sad eyes. They possess only devastation and sadness. He wraps me tighter in the coarse blanket, kisses me on the forehead, then the lips. I can taste the salt of his tears, the salt of ocean.
He descends the stairs slowly; no knock at the door, no ring of the doorbell. I watch him disappear from view into the recess of cowardice as the fog engulfs me entirely. From inside the house, I can hear my father’s voice coming to the door. “Did you hear something?” he says.