Off the coast of Long Beach, there are three walls that were built during World War II to foil German submarines. Together, they constitute the largest human-made breakwater on Earth. After their service as protectors of the coastline, the walls became adversaries of the community. The waves don’t come in as strong; surfers are prompted to find another surf. The tide is dampened; the water purity and quality suffer. Vacationers tilt north or south along the coast; tourists dollars vacate and home values decline.
You’ll see stickers plastered on news dispensers and car bumpers and street lamps: “Sink the breakwater. Save the waves.” Initiatives, city council meetings, they all seem to center around the retired guardianship of the breakwater.
I am not here for surfing or clean water. I have come to Long Beach to get far enough away that I can think about my life without the sense that my life may creep out from shadows and suffocate me. I am here to think of where I’ve been and who I have become, of how the past has wound and which way I want to go now. I am here to get over my most recent wound – hoping the memories will disintegrate in the sand and sea foam.
Cold wind kicks from the shore, and I kick against sand, sprinting southward along the coast. My footsteps trace the tide-line – the new clay just hard enough to run on. My motive is to heat blood and flush skin, running with the wind, awaiting the waves that crash against my feet. The shoreline is lonely. Strangers pass in silhouette, blurring by.
I fell in love with this place when I came here for the first time, when I saw the screaming silence in Shakaya’s eyes and thought that sunlight could save her. Save us. This beach has had a romance since.
My calves begin to burn, my ankles cranking hard against the sand as I seek balance. I am uncertain how much further to run until a pale blue building reveals itself at the edge of my sight, straight south. I will go there, I decide. And then I will turn back.
Despite the despotism of forcing my feet further, the pale blue home seems no closer. A dozen steps, and nothing. A hundred footfalls, and barely bigger on the horizon. A thousand? Finally a sense of progress. I see the street east of the house, a wall to the west – stones extending into the water, dividing Seal Beach and Long Beach. The wall is familiar; I have been here before, years ago.
My calves ache so fiercely that I can’t jog; I walk forward at a trudge then bullet on the balls of my feet. I am breathless, feeling my blood beat in every artery, but it is the calves that want to stop me. Then, after a mile of making footprints that vanish in the tide behind me, I reach my destination. A final push up a steep sandy wall sets me on the side of that pale blue building.
I look down toward the wall, the piles of rocks stacked together without the permission of nature. Then I look south, across a chasm of water that ends in another wall. I realize it was never this place I went to; I only know its parallel. It was four years ago now that I came here with Shakaya and M. I wouldn’t be able to tell you if they’d started their illicit love affair yet; the entire thing happened in that fond former blind spot of mine, my desire to trust the ones I loved.
I look back toward the pale blue home and see three wandering cats. I smile at the gentle juxtaposition with my train of thought. What were we but a trio of strays, running far away from everything for the sake of simply running? We were so young. We were children.
And so was she. My Harte, my brilliant Harte, the girl I’ve written all of this year’s poetry for. Just four years younger than me, but the things you can survive in those four years will change you. Including you, my Harte, my brilliant heart. Some day, when you’ve found out who you are and built up some iron in your spine, you’ll make someone a lot like me very happy – when you can say those same beautiful things, and know what you mean when you say them. As for me, I suspect we will remain strangers as the spark you ignited keeps burning, scorching through all I am – brutally redeeming, leaving room for a new life to grow.
The way the waves bounce between the walls fold the currents in on each other, churning water into webs, prisms, transitory gems. Overhead, a seagull beats its wings against the wind, struggling just to stay in place. It soon changes course and flies south, fast with the wind behind it. Just below it, now, just there on the opposite wall, was where M ran across rocks, a wide smile on his face as he fantasized about a phantom world. I have never met a man who hated himself more. I turn into the wind and begin walking toward the sunset. Just there, north and west, was where Shakaya told me she would always love me. I think she meant to mean it. And all of the sins I must have committed on these stones, on this shore … forgotten, absolved in the waves of this steel ocean. We were children.
I wind back along the tide-line toward a sun that sinks behind imperial clouds now waylaying our horizon – embroidery clinging in wisps to each contour. The hazy glow of the sky speaks the sillogism of detachment, preaches a promise for a day as yet unborn.
The surfers and tourists declare hate for the diminished waves and dirty water, but it’s the loneliness of Long Beach that draws me here. When I first walked these shores, all those years ago, it felt like the beach was just mine. That sense of solitude in the face of the ocean’s expanse made everything seem quieter. I’ve been a hundred different people since, have learned to trace my fingers along new scars and even love their shapes – but the waves haven’t changed. This is where I run to try and get over the girls I’ve loved, to move past the past, hoping the memories will disintegrate in the sand and sea foam. Today, I am lonely here, but the solitude even quiets that.
The 2007 breakwater study cost the city of Long Beach $100,000, and yet the data remains inconclusive. The already complicated process of potential removal was further challenged by the study’s unintended discovery: The walls have become integral to their own ecology. The largest human-made breakwater has been co-opted by the ocean. Removing the breakwater would destroy a place of life.
It is never so simple as tearing something down.
My phone begins its directions by telling me to go south on the freeway and go one exit. Once I’m out, it tells me to make a U-turn and go north on that same freeway and take on exit. I assume I made a mistake until its third direction tells me to make a U-turn and go southbound on that same freeway. I scrap the automatic navigation and figure out the route myself — slowly and far less than effectively.
I arrive at the bar that’s hosting karaoke night, and order a $5 beer rather than take the time to explain I’d rather just be intoxicated by crowds and music. Then I sit down at a comfortable corner couch next to two women. I promptly pull out a poetry book, putting extra efforts into my projection of disinterest. It’s a tactic aimed only at the observer’s solitude; I am here to watch and perhaps sing, not to socialize.
I track down a book of songs and choose R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.” Until I am called to sing, I am mostly acting in counterbalance to my anxiety — pulling the lyrics and a YouTube video of the song to be sure I remember how it starts, plummeting deeply into my book of poems, or thinking very complex thoughts that never go anywhere solid.
I sing. My intention had been to sing the song an octave lower than the vocalist normally does, but I forget my transposition and the microphone is quieter than the music, so I scream my sharp, quivering notes. Moments into the song, my left leg starts to shake. By the end, both legs are shaking. My eyes are glued to the karaoke screen. I know that only the most keen observer would notice my panic.
On the way down, a larger girl — who later performs I-forget-what with surprisingly elegant power — congratulates me flirtatiously. I brush her off, not because I’m uninterested in her — or anyone else in the bar for that matter — but because I do not want to ruin the relationship we have. Everyone in this bar is a stranger to me, and that gift of liberation is too frail and beautiful to be tampered with.
It’s not a redefinition I’m looking for. There was no intent to bravely become the passing idol, the traveling Orpheus who ensnares hearts and then vanishes against the gates of Hades. I seek anonymity, a lack of self to live up to or disappoint.
There are more moments of fractured connection. A boy throws me a flirtatious glance, and I catch myself feeling flattered and even attracted. I pass a girl with a triangle tattooed on her back, and the scent coming off the curly noire of her hair and bitter-sexy is enough to send my eyes to the back of my head and set my teeth on edge. In the restroom, the middle-aged man in the next urinal tells me I did a great job at my song, and I respond with unfeigned surprise at his compliment. I laugh without restraint at a singer who must know she is terrible, who is belting a tuneless chorus at the top of her lungs, and the two women next to me turn toward me, lock eyes, and smile in acknowledgment of my laughter.
Mostly, I am absorbed in my poetry. I realize around page 80 that I’ll be able to finish all 110 pages of this book, and then I’ll be done. Completion. As I realize how ambitiously I’m perusing the pages now, I am bothered. The adrenal rush toward “completion” has robbed the experience of its casual and causal air. It is no longer a thing to be experienced, but a thing to be done. I think of my eagerness to always be finishing something, and how raw my connection between completion and success is. I feel hollow.
Perhaps I am incapable of the frustration of unfinished stories. And this, at last, brings me back to you. This entire trip — this entire year — you have haunted each trail of abstractions, whispering through them. You are my great unfinished story. The lover loved too much in too short a time, who left so many chapters unwritten. The blank pages nag me. They tell me, even now, to find a way to get you back.
I have denied this impulse in path and presence from the beginning of our end. I have reasoned with it. I have berated it. I have guilted it. I have patronized it. I have tortured it. I have imprisoned it.
Today, it has been two months. It was hardly longer than two months from our first to final kiss, and yet you’re here — the great spectre of my mind. And here, in a place of strangers where I have no self to live up to or disappoint, I tell myself that this is okay. I tell myself that I can’t be so focused on reaching an end — any final chapter — that I forget the inbetween.
Then my self-speech shifts from sermonic abstraction to simple confession: I still want you. I still want all of you. I still want to be with you, to breathe with you — to simply breathe you. I want that addiction, the radiance of your resilient optimism. I want you back, and it’s not okay that this isn’t possible. It’s terrible. It’s terrifying. You meant so much to me so quickly, crept under my skin and kept crawling deeper than bone. You shattered my world and made me see something beautiful in its place — a possibility. And then you were gone. And it was too soon. Is it so wrong to want to tell the rest of the story?
I notice that the light hits my shirt in a way that makes my dog tag sparkle through the black fabric. If people could read the tag, they would find a lot out about me. My medications and conditions. Allergies. Donor status. The powerful ethics of DNR. My name. These were the things I thought were important enough to tell the world upon my anonymous death. It is my shortest flash fiction. The rest of my stories are compiled in essays, stories, novels, speeches, conversations, labels, habits….
I finish page 108 and turn to pages 109 and 110 of the poetry book. On impulse, I rip the final page in half. I then fold the torn paper, stand, and calmly throw it in the garbage. I read on and reach 109 and a half pages. A part of me is infuriated by my choice, but the core of me feels freed. The end is impossible to reach, and all that came before it awakens.
I’m not over you. I still want you. I still want all of you.
Each time I confess it, I’m one step closer to being truly honest and it’s one step further from being the truth. Here, surrounded by strangers in a place far from home, I travel briefly through clarity. Who we are doesn’t come from the stories we write for the world, but from the stories we refuse to tell.