The lens pans the base of the cliffs, gliding over the crush of swirling tides thundering below the trail. In the choppy surf a black shelf emerges from the ebbing waves. Its darkness glistens against the blue water. As if on a ceremonial altar, some gray-scaled fish desperately flops about, its tail smacking feverishly. Even from this distance, its ripples of panic wash over me, and I feel compelled to capture its final, fleeting moments.
Click, whirl. Click, whirl.
“Ryan, let’s go. You’ve already taken a thousand pictures of the tide.”
I glance at Lei, then back to the jagged plateau. By the time I find the cove, a wave has washed the fish back to the ocean, back to life. Disappointed, I let my camera dangle against my chest.
Lei stares out to where the deep blue expanse meets its lighter, shallower foil. Her arm branches from her hip like the trunks of those scraggly trees jutting from the rocky cliffs. I can see the spot on her forearm where the skin wrinkles into a large, red crater. Another mark reminding her of what happened.
Her ballcap veils her eyes. They haven’t shone since the accident—maybe the light had left before then. I don’t know. She told our therapist, Dr. Bynum, that I had changed. That I stopped paying attention to her needs. That I had gotten ‘weird’ and ‘obsessive’ about ‘stupid things.’
But ever since the accident, I’ve started noticing things—glimmers of life, the red-hot flickers of death, all around us. And, yes, the ways Lei has changed.
I pointed out to Dr. Bynum that Lei never looks at me anymore when she talks, but Dr. Bynum never pressed her on it. If she had, she would have likely found that Lei still resents me since I was the one driving the car.
I imagine Lei’s also self-conscious about her eye—its inner blackness has pushed the radiant sapphire to the brink of extinction. I want to fix things. I want to get Lei back to where we were before everything happened. Obviously, there are some scars that will always remain. But she’s still there—what’s left of her is still Lei.
“I’m sorry for taking so many pictures,” I respond. “It seems that I am creating anxiety. I will take your feelings into consideration.” I run through my memory to make sure I followed Dr. Bynum’s template. Did she say I needed to add something after validating Lei’s feelings? I figure I better throw out a positive sentiment to be safe.
“Your enthusiasm inspires me.”
Lei sighs. I’ve disappointed her. Well, at least I’m sure I have. I can’t assume. I can’ t make my assumptions my reality without Lei articulating hers.
“You can take pictures. Just—take less of them,” she says with a more cordial, albeit tired, tone. “I want to finish the trail so I can get ready for the wedding.”
She lifts the front of her ballcap while she speaks and sweeps a strand of her golden hair back under the cap. She moves her hand on the right side of her head and gently brushes her fingers along the mesh of the cap. I don’t think she realizes it, but it’s like she’s checking to see if everything is intact even though the doctors stitched her up just fine.
“Okay,” I respond. “I recognize your desires. I will not take any more pictures of the ocean, but—” I finger the plastic shell of the phone case. I don’t want to further stoke her impatience, but the pressing suggestion feels important. “—could we take a picture here? The two of us?”
Lei’s hip bounces on her extended leg. For a second, I think she’ll say yes, but she winces when the pain flares up, and I see she has been yanked back into the shadows.
“We’ll get some pictures at the wedding. There’ll be an actual photographer there. Plus, it’s on the beach.”
My face flushes like the volcanic currents around us. What did she mean by ‘actual’ photographer? Even if she didn’t mean for it to be a jab at my photography, Dr. Bynum told Lei how important togetherness was after everything that happened. She could have died. Between the two of us, I’m clearly the only one trying to heal.
“Lei,” I begin, “I want a picture together. We haven’t had a picture since—”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she says sharply as she moves down the path.
“But Dr. Bynum said we shouldn’t run from it. She said we need to confront what happened and embrace this second chance at—”
Lei spins, and for the first time, I see her eyes fix on me—one blue and alive, the other mostly black and empty. “I know what she said,” she hisses. “She also said that you need to stop bringing it up all the time.”
Lei storms down the path away from me. I count to ten and sigh. Besides that, I can’t say or do anything else. If I have any hope of reaching her, I need to keep the peace, but I also need to crack her shell, even if it’s like a bird dropping a turtle on the rocks below. I need to get Lei to see that we can’t rebuild our relationship until she acknowledges—what does Dr. Bynum call it—the trauma.
So I push on, trailing her like a plastic bag in the wake of the speeding truck that clipped us.
After another half-mile, the scenery shifts. The path twists from the ocean to a patch of wild shrubs, gnarled branches, and tufts of leaves. Among them, orange and white and pink flowers pucker at Lei and purse at me.
They remind me of all the men who salivated over her, my so-called friends included—all the sets of lips that bloomed in lust even though she was taken. There was that one guy at the bar who had the nerve to blow her kisses before saddling up next to her. When she told him she was taken, he tightened his lips at me as if I had stolen something. If there’s silver lining from the accident, guys aren’t giving Lei the same attention as before. Maybe that’ll keep her—
Lei had stopped abruptly and crouched with her phone out. In the fog of my thoughts, I don’t see her. My knees barrel into her ribs, knocking her onto her hands. She grimaces, and her lips suck in the air around us. After a second, she exhales her discontent.
“What the hell, Ryan? You still can’t watch where you’re fuckin’ going?”
I shrug apologetically, but Lei has already cast me aside. She returns to the object of her focus, pushing back onto the balls of her feet and hovering nearer and nearer to the plants, drawn to an especially vibrant pink plumeria. Even with the annoyance of our collision, the granite of her taut cheeks crack into a smile that I haven’t seen in months.
“God, it’s so beautiful,” she whispers, drawing back the phone and diving into the facsimile of the flower on her screen. The tan on her cheeks emanates in the colors of the previous night’s sunset, which I watched alone. She slides the phone into her pocket, then draws close to the flower, mouth open to breathe her secrets to the craning fauna. She rests her nose on its shoulder, inhales, and shuts her eyes. A tinge of jealousy throbs somewhere in my chest.
“We really should be going,” I say, trying my hardest to sound as matter-of-fact as I can. “After all, we have a schedule.”
I try to keep the appearance of unemotionality—that I don’t begrudge her hypocrisy—but the storm returns to her face, and I realize I’m unsuccessful. Without acknowledging me, she continues the hike, leaving the flowers behind.
I feel the prickles of fire in my neck. Apparently, she does’nt want me to hold her to the timeline. Apparently, only she is allowed to dally. She takes pictures of flowers everywhere we go, and they rarely change—green stem, colored petals, and maybe a strand of yellow antennae sticking out from the center.
At least the ocean changes. At least there’s conflict and consummation and change—the raw potential of things that thunder and crash and crumble.
Lei doesn’t care about those things. She just wants to swim on the surface of life, working her corporate job, slipping into her pajamas at seven o’clock, settling down with a glass of sweet-wine before bed. She wants to cuddle up with monotony and routine and safety while escaping into stupid tv shows with stupid characters that get into stupid, self-inflicted drama. Each roll of the car must have stripped away a piece of her, so that dullness and pettiness would be grafted in place of adventure and depth.
A few feet away, the carcass of some rodent lies in the transition between the gray gravel path and the black boulders beside it. Its guts remind me of those pictures of the cornucopia that make their way around Thanksgiving. All its life spilled out, exposed to the world for the taking. I click the on/off button of my camera. Whether Lei sees me or not, she senses what I am about to do.
“Don’t,” she says, still facing away.
The wind carries the urgency of her message, so I put my hand back into my pocket. I practically have to jog to chase her up another hill that turns from the ocean, cutting through the lawn of another luxury hotel. My legs ache, and the rawness from my new shoes portends a blister. Lei will probably insist I dance with her at the wedding, so I need to attend to this sore post-haste.
“Lei, we should probably turn back. I don’t think there’s much else up ahead.” The mesh ballcap in front of me continues bouncing. “Lei, we need to—”
“I heard you.”
“Then why didn’t you say anything?” My voice breaks. I think of the white caps rolling rhythmically beyond the cove. Up and down and up and down. What happened to our easy-going relationship? “Dr. Bynum said—”
Lei spins toward me. Her lips twist into a scowl, her voice erupts, and I suddenly think of the waves shattering on the rocks.
“I know what Dr. Bynum said, but I said I wanted to see the beach at the end of the trail. I told you that we only had a couple hours, and you said you understood. But you took thirty minutes to take pictures of rocks and couldn’t even give me ten seconds to take a single fucking flower picture. So, yes, I heard you, and, yes, I didn’t say anything because apparently you don’t fucking listen.”
She pivots back around and tilts against the hill, resuming her trek to a beach that, honestly, won’t be worth it. I slow the breaths flooding my lungs, close my eyes, and count to ten, just like Dr. Bynum suggested. However, Lei is leaving her breaths unbridled, which lets her emotions run unchecked.
“Why aren’t you doing the breathing exercises?”
Lei doesn’t respond to my question. She’s supposed to, but she doesn’t. She brushes past an old couple walking leisurely on the path. They don’t mind, but I think it was really rude of her. Her anger doesn’t just affect her, after all. Dr. Bynum made that very clear.
The path swerves back to the left, back to the sea, which lies somewhere beyond the wall of palm trees and overgrown ferns at the base of the hill. When we reach a gap in the canopy, the ocean swells before us. The trees thump along with the wind’s wild pulsations. Birds flutter over the tops, spasming in the gale.
Even considering the lazy old-folks, dulled by the lavish lifestyles they lived, there should be bodies in the ocean. Locals swim here, supposedly, at least according to Steve Rick’s guidebook. Or is it Rick Steve’s? I can’t remember the order of the two first names. It seems stupid to have two first names, but I suppose there’s no solution. It’s not likely a person will change their last name. But Lei has changed so drastically, what’s the difficulty in changing a name? Maybe if she takes my last name, she’ll be happy, and we can start over—
In all my thinking, I lose sight of where I am going. I slam into Lei for a second time. Her elbow stabs into my stomach. I feel the steering wheel and the clamp of my seatbelt. It takes a second to shake off the memory and pull myself back to the present.
Lei doesn’t even turn to scowl at me. Her eyes remain on a crowd of people crouching over some hidden scene, like a half-blossomed flower still hovering over its pollinated center. Against the sun-cooked sand and the diamond-laden sea, the faces of the crowd hang like a fog, dense and somber, wrought with a heaviness that blankets the entire beach.
Between the picket fence of torsos, I see a shirtless blonde teen in red swim trunks; his hands locked and arms straight, rhythmically pumping into the tan chest of some hapless, silver-haired man. The victim’s flabby belly flattens under the gravity of his situation, sloshing with each compression.
Two cords snake from a box on the sand to a pair of pads attached to the unconscious man. The pads are stuck on his chest and rib as if they can plug the retreat of life itself. A blue-uniformed EMT hovers. She glances from the orange plastic box to the chest of the victim.
The bronzed lifeguard pauses and turns to another blue-shirt kneeling beside him. A silent stare threads the two of them momentarily, but it’s cut by the EMT watching the box. She mouths something. The two men lean back from the body while the female EMT presses a button. I expect something significant to happen—a bump of the body, a twitch of limbs, a victim shocked back into a hacking existence, puking water and sputtering “what happened”? But nothing happens.
The male EMT’s head drops slightly while he moves to the balls of his feet. His hands grip the board. The other EMT follows suit. In unison, they lift the open-faced victim from the sand to the gurney.
The onlookers take a step back, as if drowning is contagious. Hands move over mouths. Some of the men shake their heads. An ice-cream stained toddler tugs at his mom’s hands, imploring her to whisk him away to somewhere fun and loud and carefree.
The crowd’s fascination has turned to sudden, intense disdain of what lies in front of them. Sandals and sun-burnt feet inch away until, at a safe distance, they turn back to the umbrellas and towels that mark their place in paradise.
The drowned man’s pallbearers lift him into that white and blue painted vehicle of hope, the chariot called to take the desperate from their darkness into the hospital’s florescent light.
My thoughts flash to Lei being loaded onto the ambulance. She was sobbing and bleeding, but very much alive. She had the attention of every first responder there. She even held tight to one of the guy’s hands. I just got an ice-pack, a blanket, and the name of the hospital they would take her to. Our mangled car lay in the distance, clearly beyond repair.
Lei’s eyes remain affixed on the lifeguard kneeling in the sand. His hands, which had been feverishly occupied moments before, lay open on his knees, palms up and empty. He stays there while the rubber thwaps of sandals click around him. The male EMT that had worked so diligently beside the lifeguard gives the boy a quick pat on the shoulders and says something. The lifeguard gives a slight nod, which sends the EMT into the ambulance. The boxy vehicle slowly pulls from the beach onto the pavement. It doesn’t bother lighting up its red and blue beacons.
Lei’s lips tremble. Most people’s emotions are emitted through their eyes, but Lei’s lips tell her story. Sometimes, they suck in like they’re vacuum sealed. Other times, they lift like balloons. Now, they shake like the lid on a boiling pot of water. I wonder whether she sympathizes with the teen, or maybe she rides in the back of the ambulance beside the old man, gazing at a vision of what could have been.
The image left behind is striking. The teen had given everything to pump life into the old man. Now, the adrenaline wanes, seeping back into the ocean with the crushed seashells on the shore. Dejection, fatigue, failure. The vestige of a lifeguard letting one pass.
I lift my camera and aim it on the boy. The brightness of the day smashes viciously against the darkness in his face. Beads of sweat glisten on his forehead. My camera shudders to life.
When they pulled Lei from the wreck, she had blood smeared across her forehead. It matted her blonde hair. Only her tears shone in the night.
I move the boy to the right of the frame so that the beach revelry loiters in contrast.
We had crashed on the freeway across from an amusement park. While I sat alone by the wreckage of our vehicle, fireworks popped in the sky.
I kneel to level with the boy.
Just like the lone EMT who crouched across from me when he assessed the depths and severity of my injuries.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Lei whispers.
I don’t answer. This moment needs to be captured. I’m sure Dr. Bynum will approve. I’m coping. No, I’m healing. I’m moving forward. Lei might be buried in denial, but I have already dug myself out. I can see life for what it really is: brutal, untamed, strikingly impartial.
“Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you?”
I pretend she’s asking the boy, whose hands hold some U-shaped piece of orange plastic. It takes me a second, but I realize it’s the clip swimmers clasp over their nose to keep the briny water from shooting up their nostrils. It reminds me of the small pieces of debris that streamed from the road to our shattered vehicle.
“Stop,” Lei hisses. “Stop it!”
My subject shifts: he hugs himself with his arms. The stream of floral print swim suits and white-cotton towels churn around him. No one looks in his direction except me, and maybe Lei, though I think she’s fixated on me now.
“I’m talking to you—”
The boy folds over his arms. He rocks from his toes forward onto his knees. I recognize the feeling—the pain from calamity’s swift kick to the gut. My stomach hurt for a week.
Click, whirl. Click, whirl.
Her voice fades with the distant roar of the ocean waves. My senses focus on the tumult in the boy’s face. The water trickling down brown cliffs. The quivering rubble set above his chin. The recurrent swell of emotions assailing him.
Lei doesn’t understand the magnificence in the booms and sizzles of life. The clash of solid things. The anticipation, the approach, the ferocity. The inevitability of the fight between vicious force and a seemingly impervious façade.
Flowers can’t show any of that.
Click, whirl. Click, whirl.
“It’s over,” Lei says as the sand grinds under her twisting feet. “We’re breaking up.”
She walks away heading down the same path that got us here. Dr. Bynum said we shouldn’t use “we” when speaking on our own actions and wants. But I don’t feel like reminding Lei.
I watch her disappear behind the tropical foliage. Then, I turn back.
Click, whirl. Click, whirl.
I don’t want to go to the wedding.
Click, whirl. Click, whirl.
I don’t want to sit through some spurious celebration of life.
Click, whirl. Click, whirl.
I want to honor this moment and consecrate this scene.
Click, whirl. Click, whirl.
I want to memorialize this boy, left broken in death’s wake.