THE WATER TOWER
She makes sure to take a picture of him, wades shin-deep into the Pacific Ocean so near to their new house, hoping her fingers won’t slip, waiting for him to catch a wave. When she has put the phone back into her bag and looks again at the ocean, the current has already taken him so far north she can’t find him immediately.
The water tower stands on a hill, with only its bulbous tank visible and white over the dunes. When viewed from the beach—its spindly legs only hinted at—it appears to be floating, alien-like, an errant weather balloon. A dog runs past, untethered, spraying sand into her open mouth and onto her blanket. She spits and watches the saliva contract with the change in temperature, drawing around itself individual grains of sand.
She questions the resources wasted—think of the water alone—in taking a dog to the beach immediately after having it groomed but doesn’t say so.
Battered by the unfamiliar shore break, he exits the water instead of paddling south against the pull of the ocean flowing under the bridge and into the bay. He walks past her, heading south, and waves, or stops to kiss her perfunctorily, and she wonders what they look like together through the eyes of the fully dressed people sitting on the dunes. She watches him overtaken by whitewash over and over again until he disappears.
The dog uses her sloping back as a springboard to catch its ball and leaves faint gashes, pink welts in the spots it’d used most for purchase before temporary flight. The dog’s owners run up to apologize, to vouch for the dog’s usually impeccable manners, and to assure her of the cleanliness of its claws; they’d been to the groomer’s only that morning.
She questions the resources wasted—think of the water alone—in taking a dog to the beach immediately after having it groomed but doesn’t say so. She rearranges her hair and twists her arm behind her to feel for blood, but there isn’t any. The dog returns with the ball and places it reverently at its owners’ feet. It’s a dog with long, golden hair—and it does look clean. The owners hesitate at her silence, so she picks the ball up and throws it toward the ocean. The dog runs off and the owners follow with less enthusiasm.
She finally recognizes the snowy plovers the signs along the beach caution recreators against disturbing; they settle in the dunes, they scuttle along the ebbing waterline, little heads bobbing and dashing down, short beaks submerged in wet sand.
She’d laid out her blanket without noticing the proximity of tire tracks; the patrol truck swerves slightly west as it passes her and she feels its rumbling weight through the sand and imagines the crunch of her splayed toes beneath its wheels.
At their bedroom window she tries to separate the sounds: freeway or ocean roar. Even a month into the new house it is still a revelation; no freeway, just ocean roar. It echoes off the stucco houses as they crawl up gentle inclines. The streets are tunnels funneling noise that lands on the hardwood floors like a bag of something hard edged and fine being emptied, always.
Other sounds are also constant, though less enjoyable. The windows of the house are double-paned, but the house itself trembles when garbage trucks or school buses drive by—the first half-second an unimpressive earthquake. Nothing discrete inside the house shakes except her body in its armchair. The neighbors whose backyards abut her own must leave their crying babies to cool off on the sills of open windows, like pies.
At their living room window she decides that, in the future, she will vacate her house during the hour the corner school lets out; the screaming of children and the imploring tone of negotiating parents are too much.
She tells him she’ll go out for a minute, that she’ll take her book and her work and go to the beach. She packs a bag with blanket, papers, pens, and jacket. The bright sunlight makes her eyes water a little, and her calves are tight with the slope of the street that leads six blocks down to the beach. She waits for the traffic that comes in spurts and crosses the Great Highway against the lights. The sand is unexpectedly hot when it wedges between her feet and sandals, though moist patches of it wind down in rivulets from the light rain the night before, exposing harder stone and the root structures of ice plants.
She reaches the crest of the dunes, and makes sure to turn around and take a picture of her street from the beach, multicolored and cloudless. She wanders through the grass and finds an open patch, obscured but offering an ocean view. She lays out the blanket and takes out the papers and the pens, folds her jacket so that it holds everything at an angle.
It’s too hot, and the sweat is already pooling in the hollows of her collarbones. She rearranges her hair. It’s too hot, and she questions whether it’s any different to lie on the beach in her underwear and bra or in a bikini. It’s too hot, so she takes off her jeans and she takes off her shirt, folds them and places them on some grass that has been flattened by the rain, protecting them from the sand.
She thinks about the difference between lying on the beach where everyone can see you, and lying on the beach where maybe only one weirdo can see you. Maybe the same as the difference between bikinis and underwear, private and public displays.
Dogs run back and forth from their owners to the water, and the snowy plovers scuttle and flurry. The ocean roars and the sun beats.
A voice behind her asks her if she knows there’s someone wandering around up here, looking at her. She turns and the voice is coming from a man with torn jeans and a weather-beaten gut. She says that no, she didn’t know that. The man says, hold on, there he is, but she doesn’t look in the direction he’s pointing and instead pretends to contemplate the ocean. She sees sweatpants and rubber sandals, sunglasses and bleached hair and a can of beer in her periphery, anyway.
The man with the brown stomach suggests that she go down to the beach, informs her that there are a lot of weirdos wandering around up here, advises her that she should try to be safe. She thanks him and says that maybe she’d better go.
The man has surely got too much sand in his sneakers. She thinks about the difference between lying on the beach where everyone can see you, and lying on the beach where maybe only one weirdo can see you. Maybe the same as the difference between bikinis and underwear, private and public displays.
She pulls jeans and shirt on over sweat, and packs her bag again. The man with the bleached hair and the beer can is walking down the dunes toward the Great Highway. He places his beer can in a recycling bin. He walks along the sand.
The water tower doesn’t look any less fragile from a closer vantage point, tiny legs still wondrously supporting all that weight. Rungs leading to a kind of observation deck only start their climb almost five feet above the ground, but she jumps and grabs at them and eventually manages to extend one leg high enough, though she loses her bag while upside down. Some of the rungs are missing but the ones that are there are sturdy and only superficially corroded. She can see a door that might open. The observation deck is floored with wooden boards and she can see her bag on the ground through the gaps. She can see the Great Highway and the ocean and the dunes, and she can see the streets and the houses marching up the hills in straight lines. There are hawks flying above the trees in the park, and the ocean, even here, is roaring.
She watches the beginnings of a sunset from the observation deck, but the cloudless sky renders it less beautiful than she feels this vantage deserves.
She can’t see the man with the bleached hair who’d held a beer can, though she’d followed him along the Great Highway, at a close distance. He could feel her eyes on his back, she was sure, because he kept looking behind him, but they never made eye contact through sunglasses.
She wanted him to feel threatened, to increase his pace, to hunch his shoulders and swing his arms stiffly. She wanted him to move through crowded places, trying to lose her, but he kept walking along the Great Highway and stealing glances back. At some point he turned right at an intersection, and headed into the wooded park. She didn’t follow him then, but kept walking forward, the water tower growing closer.
She watches the beginnings of a sunset from the observation deck, but the cloudless sky renders it less beautiful than she feels this vantage deserves. She lowers herself back down the spindly legs of the water tower, and when she lets go of the final rung and drops back to the earth there’s an ache in her ankles and her palms are rust colored and smell like a playground.
The walk back along the Great Highway is fine, the sunset still unspectacular, and the streetlights turn on, throwing their orange sodium glow on the asphalt. Inside it’s still a little warm from the afternoon sun but a night breeze is coming in through the kitchen window. He’s in the shower, and she sits outside the door.
She says that she’s home, and he says that she was out for a while. She tells him about the man with the gut, and the man with the bleached hair and the beer can, how they were watching her. She doesn’t tell him about the water tower. She doesn’t tell him about the difference between bikinis and underwear. The water turns off and he opens the door, toweling and laughing. Something is being emptied onto the hardwood floor.