Andrew McIntosh is from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at The Ohio State University. He has published work in SmokeLong Quarterly and Flashquake. His poetry is currently touring
the country in an exhibition called “Speak Peace: American Writers Respond to Vietnamese Children’s Paintings.”
They don’t talk much in the car on the way to the beach. Pietro drives and Mary sits with him up front. Mary has straight, dark bangs and the beginning of good, strong features. She’s not legal age-wise, but Pietro tells himself that her vibe is the only thing he’s after.
He thought it would be just Mary and him at the beach. Some guy named Marco was hanging around her though. Now Marco is sitting in the back seat and Pietro must not seem overly interested in whether they’re boyfriend and girlfriend. Pietro must play it cool. The only reason they’re hanging out is because he likes her vibe anyway, he keeps reminding himself.
The beach is a khaki-colored split in the earth ringed by scrub trees and sheltered from the prevailing winds. It’s fifteen miles south of San Francisco. They climb down a ravine to get there. At the bottom, Mary stands on a pile of stones and detaches strands of hair from her lipsticky lips. Marco smokes a cigarette. There’s a middle-aged Japanese man sitting cross-legged in the sand near the water. He’s naked from the waist up and his eyes are closed in meditation. He’s the only other person on the beach.
Mary says in a whisper: “That guy is meditating so he can go swimming. Otherwise the shrapnel will cut him up.”
“What shrapnel?” asks Pietro.
“I meant seaweed,” Mary replies.
Marco makes pseudo-racist comments, slanting his eyes and bucking his teeth. That gives Pietro a good reason to throw Marco to the ground using an old aikido hold. At first their wrestling seems funny and they’re laughing, but when they realize it’s an even match—Pietro’s skill against Marco’s bulk—things get serious. The Japanese man opens his right eye, peering at them. Marco loses a contact. Sputtering, sand clinging to his shirt and dotting his face, Marco climbs the ravine path back to the highway. He swears he’ll be able to hitchhike.
“Is he bluffing?” Pietro inquires. Mary ignores him, shrugging her shoulders and turning to face the sea. Pietro feels a weight heavy on his chest. He implores the seaweed-littered waves for a prognostication, the gray sky falling darkly on the cliffs where the head of the tapeworm that is the Pacific Coast Highway winds southward toward Los Angeles. Mary has chosen him. But he will try nothing with her, he knows. He just likes her vibe. He just likes it, he tells himself.
Standing together on the smooth stones of the beach, they watch the Japanese man enter the water. He swims fast, straight out, and while Mary goes down to skip stones, Pietro removes a sketchbook from his pocket and pretends to draw. When she comes back up, he pretends to finish drawing. He is both relieved and annoyed that she doesn’t want to see what he supposedly drew.
The swimmer is gone.
“What happened to him?” Pietro asks.
“He’s swimming to Japan,” says Mary.
Night comes again, though it never really left. Searchlights in the sky for entertainment or war Pietro isn’t sure, caressing the contours of the clouds and scattering light across the bay. Marco sends Mary a text message saying that he got a ride from a friend. Pietro almost falls asleep at the wheel twice on the way to Redwood City.
Our first date, Pietro thinks. And what a relief, he thinks, dropping Mary on a street corner that she describes as being near her parent’s house, that a goodnight kiss, to give or not to give, is not even remotely an issue.
Over the next few weeks Pietro and Mary go to the Legion of Honor Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, Coit Tower, Ghirardelli Square, and other city landmarks. They go after school gets out—as to what grade she’s in, Pietro is afraid to ask. When Pietro is not spending time with Mary, or sleeping, or getting stoned and watching television, he’s thinking about how his art will Put An End To The City. It’s an idea he’s been wrestling with since college. He’s now thirty-eight years old. So he’s been wrestling with the idea, effectively, for nearly two decades now. Will a further contemplation of Mary’s vibe help him to reach a breakthrough, the vein of truth that he seeks?
Once again, without any explanation, Marco begins popping up. He’s a mound of baby fat bearing with him a gray driftwood-type energy. Pietro gets his friend to make a fake ID for Mary. That allows him to hide her in the bars and clubs of San Francisco. It works for a few weeks until, one night in early March, Pietro and Mary are hanging out at a club in the Haight when Marco comes inside.
“He has a fake ID now,” Mary whispers.
Marco sits down and Pietro stands up. Pietro exits the club under the auspices of having to drive a friend to the airport. On the corner outside of the club he waits to see whether Mary will call or text him. She doesn’t. He goes to a different club, drinks more, and walks in a stupor past the fake bums in the Haight. He enters a burrito store and orders a burrito. He eats the burrito and sleeps in his car until dawn. He wakes up because a police officer is pounding on his window.
Later that day, Mary calls Pietro and asks whether he will drive her to a party in Santa Cruz. She needs a ride. Pietro says he’ll drive but that Marco is not allowed to come. Mary agrees. There are no explanations and no apologies. Everything’s going great on the way to Santa Cruz until they hit a wall of brake lights. Using her mobile phone, Mary determines that an accident in the hills has backed up traffic for over three miles. Pietro turns around and drives aimlessly west. As he does he watches Mary deflate, the energy going out of her and her eyes closing again and again. He parks near the beach at Half Moon Bay. Mary says it’s important that they’ve ended up there. Then she falls asleep.
Pietro walks out onto the beach thinking, what did she mean—what did she mean? Is it a signal? Is she really sleeping? Is she crazy; should I put my arm around her?
The Japanese man climbs out of the ocean, his skin gray like the sides of a fish. He looks Pietro up and down in the moonlight.
“Where’s your friend?” he asks.
“In the car,” Pietro replies.
The man swipes water from his body with open-palm chops. He’s a man of precision, not a muscle out of place.
“What you want to do is criminal,” he says.
“I guess I’m just a flower child,” Pietro replies.
The man’s eyes go wide. “No! You’re not a flower child,” he says. “You’re the child of flower children.”
The man tries to show Pietro something in the sand. He is drawing Japanese characters with a stick, but Pietro tires quickly of watching it. He returns to the car. He finds that Mary is now wide awake and going through his sketchbook. She’s used up most of his paper drawing strange, interconnected shapes and lines. When she woke up and she couldn’t find him, she says, she took a tab of acid.
“Where’d you get a tab of acid?” Pietro demands.
“From Marco,” she says. “When you said he couldn’t come, I decided to bring him in spirit.”
Pietro jams his key into the ignition and heads back toward Redwood City.
“I’m tired of driving you around,” he says. “I’m not your chauffer.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Mary replies.
“You need to be tough,” he says. “You need to have a take on things these days or you’re going to get trampled. You can’t just coast through life. I’m an artist. I have perspective. You have to find out who you are. I’m sorry about Marco, but he is who he is.”
Mary says she understands. “I didn’t know you were an artist,” she says.
“What did you think I was?”
“I thought you were a trust-fund baby,” says Mary.
She closes the door and doesn’t look back as he drives away. She steals his sketchbook. Pietro is so upset that he doesn’t realize it’s gone until he gets home. That night the rain comes, early spring rain falling unhurried and thick, a cascade of droplets that explode on his window sill and catch like a scattering of diamonds in the wire mesh of the screen. The next morning the sky is clear and sunny. From the bedroom of his condominium, Pietro listens to the drone of helicopters overhead. They circle endlessly, and he recalls that the young people in his building have organized a nude sunbathing club up on the roof.