It was late August and on the spur of the moment, Joseph and Gomez decided to go to the beach. They had already taken a few bowl hits in the car and now intended on topping that off with the six-pack they were lugging with them across the boardwalk, which looked out over the southern shore of Long Island. Although there was still a few hours of sunlight left, you could already catch a golden glimmer of light bouncing off the ocean's surface, as the water whittled away, little by little, at the sandy earth.
"I'm sorry I left you hanging all afternoon," Gomez said. "I wasn't sure if I would be able to hang out today."
"Don't worry about it," said Joseph. "I can't believe it's already the twenty-seventh and I've only been to the beach twice this summer."
"I can't believe it's the twenty-seventh in general," Gomez said. "It's already starting to get darker earlier and earlier. Before you know it, it's going to be pitch black by five o'clock."
"That's depressing," said Joseph. "It seems just like yesterday that the summer started."
Gomez pulled two beers from the bag and handed one to Joseph. They toasted to the "dying of the light" and took a long sip of the pale lagers.
The sunlight was fading, and Joseph and Gomez stopped to look out over the ocean. The waves reached the shore with a ferocity you don't see too often. It was toward the end of the season, so the water had absorbed the summer's heat. This meant it was as warm as it was going to get — and that made it all the more inviting. But you still couldn't help but feel intimidated by the restlessness of the ocean waves. As Joseph took in the view, the dwindling, but still overbearing sunlight forced him to look away. It was then that he saw something in Gomez's eyes. It was unsettling, but not unfamiliar. It was the anger that he had come to know in their several years of friendship, since the end of high school.
Gomez must've sensed Joseph's eyes on him. He turned away from the ocean, and after a short pause, he asked what Joseph was looking at. "Nothing." Joseph was caught off guard. "The sun was in my eye." They continued down the boardwalk.
"Is it alright to drink at the beach?" asked Joseph.
"What the hell kind of a question is that?" Gomez laughed. "Have you ever been to the beach? It's like drinking on the train at night. It's all people do."
Joseph and Gomez walked down the wooden steps to the boardwalk and trudged out onto the sand, leaving a trail of footprints behind them. Not too far down the beach, they came along a curved, granite memorial, which stood atop the steep rim facing the ocean. It had been constructed in honor of a commercial airliner that went down about fifteen miles out at sea. Flags from over a dozen countries stood up from the structure's base.
"How long ago did it crash?"
"It has to be almost twenty years by now," Joseph said. "I remember my parents took me here the summer they opened the memorial."
"How many people were on board?"
"It was over two hundred."
"There was supposedly foul play, right?"
"Well, that's what some people say," Joseph said. "When the plane blew up the way it did, people are going to talk." He went on, briefly, about the investigators who said it was a faulty fuel tank that caused the explosion, and the conspiracy theorists who say the Navy accidentally shot the plane down while trying to prevent a terrorist attack.
"And doesn't Plum Island fit into all of this somehow?"
Joseph laughed. "Yeah, everyone around here knows about Plum Island." Despite the fact that the plane exploded over the south shore of Long Island, Plum Island is on the north shore. The island is home to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Biological weapons were tested there during the Cold War, and until the mid-1950s, it was the site of the former military base Fort Terry. "Homeland Security still controls access to the island," Joseph said. "There's an author… I can't remember his name… but he wrote a novel about the place."
"Plum Island by Nelson DeMille," Gomez said. "I've never read anything by him, but I hear he's good."
The wind picked up, causing the flags that stood up from the memorial to whip back and forth. The friends figured there was one for all the nationalities of the people who died. "I wonder how much longer they're going to last," Joseph said.
"Well… not the flags per say," said Joseph. "But the countries they represent. Just look at how much the map… any map has changed over the years. It just goes to show, it really doesn't matter how much we hold out."
"In the end, everything returns to the land," Gomez said. "But you can expect one hell of a fight first."
Joseph and Gomez continued down the beach, finishing off one beer after another. The further they went, the less people they came across. When Joseph looked back, he could no longer see the memorial or the flags that flew above it. Being this far removed from anything else made him a little uneasy. But when he looked over at Gomez, his friend seemed oblivious to the fact they were the only people on this part of the beach. It was either that; or, he just didn't care.
And then there were the waves. It must've been high tide since they were advancing up the shore. As aggressive as they appeared earlier, they were only intensifying.
Once again, Joseph noticed the anger in his friend's eyes. He always hoped Gomez would rid himself of it as the years went on. To let everything go at once would be impractical. Joseph knew this. But as they walked along the beach, he realized the anger had become so embedded in him that Gomez would carry it with him for the rest of his days.
There are many reasons why someone would hold onto the same anger throughout their life. Maybe they always felt their mother preferred one of their siblings to them. Maybe they never won over the love of their life. Maybe they never took that dream vacation, wherever it might've been. Or maybe they just never became what they always wanted to be. For Gomez, it was the fact his little sister died. It didn't matter how it happened. All that mattered was: she was no longer here.
"This looks like a good place to stop," Gomez said.
They finished the last of their beers and gazed at the blue, wavy desert in front of them. Although Joseph was the one who suggested going to the beach, he began to have second thoughts about going for a swim when he saw how strong the waves had become.
"So, are we going in or what?"
"Of course we are," said Joseph.
"Great." Gomez kicked off his crocs and started taking off the rest of his clothes.
Joseph did the same. "I see you went with the crocs today," he said as he undid his belt.
"Do you have a problem with crocs?"
"Say what you want about me wearing boots in the summer," Joseph said, "but those are atrocious. They're right up there with tuxedo t-shirts."
The friends stood side by side in their boxers. As they waited to take the inevitable plunge, the wind decided to pick up, sending a chill down the side of their backs. Joseph could feel his teeth rattling inside his head. "We go on three," Gomez shouted over the wind gust. He made it to two while leaning towards the water, ready to take off.
Gomez eased up. "What is it?"
"Before we go," Joseph said, "there's something I have to ask you." Gomez waited, patiently. "Are you… alright?"
Gomez didn't respond right away. "Yeah," he said, "I just miss her."
"I know you do."
Gomez shied away. He looked straight ahead, towards the ocean. "Are you ready?"
Joseph's stomach churned at the sight of the waves, but in the end, he conceded.
On the count of three they were off. The wind quacked in their ears and the muscles in their legs burned as they raced to the water. With every stride, the sensation of the sand at their feet and the breeze on their bodies became stronger. The friends were neck and neck for most of their run. It was only where the tide created a steep drop that Gomez took the lead. He leaped down without a second's hesitation and kept running; where Joseph approached with a degree of caution before sliding down. He felt the sand go from dry to wet, and by the time his ankles hit the water, Gomez was already in up to his waist.
Joseph struggled to catch up. With every step he took, the water became deeper and his feet sank into the loose sand below. He watched as Gomez pushed through ripple after ripple, and finally dove head first into the next oncoming wave. The same wave now headed for Joseph. He didn't confront it the same way as his friend. Joseph braced for impact as best he could, but it still knocked him off his feet, tossing and turning him beneath the shallow coastline. His head compressed and all he could hear was the sound of the water returning to where it came from.
When Joseph emerged from the water, he saw Gomez was on the move again.
"Come on," Gomez waved, egging Joseph on. "Let's go!" Joseph followed. He now had to paddle with his arms, since his feet narrowly touched the ground. The same ripples that slowed Joseph down did little to stop Gomez's advance.
Joseph finally got within arm's length of Gomez when another wave hit. It was small, but still caught him off guard. Gomez wasn't fazed in the least, though. He wanted to keep going. "I think we should turn back," Joseph yelled. Gomez howled as the next wave hit — this one larger than the last. "We shouldn't go too far out," Joseph said, wiping the salt water from his eyelids. "The waves are strong."
Gomez waited, anxiously, as the next wave neared, this one being much larger than the previous ones. Joseph clenched his face and stretched his legs as far as he could, hoping it would give him some kind of a steady footing. But just before the wave hit, a strange calm came over him. He paid close attention to the different sounds around him — the wind, the rustling sea surface, and the approaching wave. The muscles in his face loosened and his legs gave out, and he joined Gomez in his battle cry as the water overcame them.
The next thing Joseph realized, he was back on shore. His underwear had ridden up into every crevice imaginable. It had also felt like someone took a cheese grater to his back and sides. As he rose to his feet and adjusted his boxers, Joseph spotted Gomez, glaring at the ocean that had just spat them out. He wanted another shot at the unforgiving body in front of him. He wanted to settle this grievance he had against the world where everything, as he put it earlier: "returns to the land." And now so did Joseph.
Their roars were long and loud, and could be heard over the crashing of the waves. Their charge was something out of legend; reminiscent of Hastings, Bannockburn, Crecy, and other medieval battles long since forgotten.
Joseph and Gomez made it past the breaker and the waves that followed. The soft, shard-laden ground kept dropping until there was no ground to stand on. The friends swam in almost perfect unity, kicking their feet and throwing one arm in front of the other as they jockeyed through one ripple after another. Soon they were well past the point where they had been dragged back to shore. It was here that the ocean began to settle. Gomez threw his fists down into the water in triumph. Joseph, on the other hand, was just glad to be taking a breather. He lay back, letting the ocean gently rock him as he looked up at the darkening sky.
"Come on," Gomez said. "Let's keep going."
Joseph looked back and saw that the shore was hardly visible. "Wait," he sprung up. His friend was already on the move. "Gomez, stop." He didn't. Joseph started swimming after him, but pulled himself back, not wanting to go any further. "We're too far out!" He didn't know if Gomez couldn't hear him; or, if he was ignoring his pleas. "God damn it, Gomez! Get back here!"
This time he finally stopped and faced Joseph. "What?" Gomez asked, half amused, but also half annoyed.
"We have to go back."
"Why? We're not that far out."
"We're not that far out? We can barely see the shore!"
"Oh, please. What, are you scared?"
Joseph looked back at the shore again. "Yes," he raised his arms in defeat. "Yes, I am. Now, can we please go back?"
"What are you afraid of?"
"I'm afraid…" Joseph hesitated. "I'm afraid we're not going to make it back. I want to feel the ground again. I just want to go back."
Gomez understood. "It's okay," he said. "You go back."
"I can't do that," Joseph said. "Not without you."
"Because you're my friend," said Joseph. "You're my best friend."
It took a lot for Gomez to smile the way he did. As a matter of fact, Joseph wasn't sure if he ever saw his friend smile that way. "You're my best friend too," Gomez said.
"And I'm sorry I'm doing this to you. But you see it. <>It gets to me."
"It gets to you?" Joseph screamed, pounding his fists into the water. "It gets to all of us."
"I just can't do it anymore," Gomez said. "So, I might as well see how far I can go." He then asked Joseph to look at the ocean. "Really look at it."
"It is," Gomez said. And with that, he was on his way.
Joseph watched as the ocean swayed him back and forth. It didn't take him long to think of something to say to lure his friend back. "What would your sister say?"
That got Gomez's attention. He stopped and faced Joseph. "Why would you say that?"
"Why not? What would your sister think?"
It took a moment for Joseph's question to settle in. Gomez flung a handful of water at Joseph and started swimming back. "Don't you ever mention her," he muttered under his breath. "Don't ever mention her!" Before Joseph knew it, Gomez was on him. His speech became incomprehensible as he swung at his friend, repeatedly. Joseph struggled to block Gomez's flimsy blows, which quickly slowed down, weakened, and eventually ended with one last cry, leaving a silence out on the ocean that evening in late August.
Gomez collapsed into Joseph's arms. "I've got you," Joseph said. "I've got you."
"I miss her," said Gomez. "I miss her so much."
"I know," Joseph said. "But we have to get back."
Gomez agreed. And, as if right on cue, the sound he had scared away returned. But the only sound worth noting belonged to the great wave coming toward them. Joseph and Gomez started paddling away from the curling water. They tried with everything they had, but were still sucked into the wave.
Joseph kept his eyes shut as he was hurled, helplessly, through the vortex. Salt water filled his mouth and nose, weighing him down. But the swell finally passed, allowing him to surface. As he gasped for air, Joseph saw Gomez come up from the water not too far away. He also saw the wave heading towards the shore. The shore he could no longer see.
"I can't see the shore!" Gomez swam over to Joseph as he started taking deep, panicked breaths. "I can't see the shore," he screamed, flailing his arms.
"Stop it," Gomez said. He grabbed Joseph's shoulders. "Stay calm."
Joseph lashed out. "We can't see the shore!"
"I know," Gomez said, looking in the direction where the shore would be. "But you have to relax. If you don't, you're going to tire yourself out."
Joseph continued to thrash and soon dropped below the water. Gomez immediately pulled him back up. "I can't stay up," Joseph cried. "You're always getting me into this shit. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who makes an effort to stay friends. And now you've dragged me all the way out here to drown!"
Once again, Joseph dropped below the water, and once again, Gomez pulled him back up. "I know I can be a shitty friend," Gomez said. "And I'm sorry. But it's going to be okay. Relax and let the tide take us back."
"But I can't stay above the water. I can't do it."
"Sure you can. We're going to make it back. Stop fighting and let it take us back."
Gomez seemed confident, but Joseph still sensed some doubt in his friend's voice.
It was then that Joseph asked perhaps the purest question he would ever ask. "But what if it doesn't? What if it doesn't take us back?"
Gomez thought about his answer. "Then that's what the current decided."
With nothing else to go on, they headed back. Soon Joseph and Gomez saw the coastline. It seemed like a mirage at first, but it still gave them the right boost to keep going.
They then felt their feet sink into the loose soil below. The wet sand and the seaweed found its way between their toes and slipped out with each step they took. There was no need to paddle anymore. Joseph and Gomez were taking giant steps up the slope towards the land. First, their shoulders rose above the sea level, then their waists, and finally, their knees. They fell to their faces and crawled the rest of the way to the shore as the small ripples washed over them. Joseph felt the sand go from soaking wet and loose, to damp and dense, to dry and loose. Gomez tried to get to his feet, but collapsed next to Joseph as he gave a long howl, celebrating their return.
They lay in the sand for a short period of time before picking themselves up and brushing off as much sand as they could while they went to retrieve their belongings. They got dressed, grabbed the rest of their possessions, and started heading back, leaving a fresh trail of footprints behind them. The wind had blown away the ones from before.
"I have to say," Joseph said, "that water killed whatever buzz I had earlier. I'm so dehydrated."
"Salt water will do that to you," said Gomez. "Did you know every time you drink salt water, you're basically drinking whale cum?" Joseph gave his friend a double take. Gomez insisted it was true. "Whales cum a lot," he said, "and that's why the oceans are so salty." Joseph knew this couldn't be true, but Gomez said it with such a straight face, and such certainty, that he was tempted to believe the absurd explanation. Gomez broke out laughing. "I had you there, didn't I?" Joseph laughed as well. "That's not why the oceans are salty," Gomez said, "but whales do cum a lot. They can basically fill an entire eighteen-wheeler with one of their loads."
Joseph kept snickering at the improvised spiel, but he still wanted to touch upon what had happened. "So, whatever that was back there," he said, "is it out of your system?"
"I think so," Gomez said. "At least for now. Why did you follow me?"
"I couldn't sit back and watch you go at it alone," said Joseph. "I guess I have it in me too."
"I think you do, my friend," Gomez said. "And it's good to do sometimes."
"Sometimes it's good to do what?"
"To rage against what?"
"Everything," Gomez said.
The boardwalk and the memorial were now in sight, and soon Joseph and Gomez were trudging their way up the wooden steps to whatever came next. But not before taking one more look at the darkened ocean, which in the presence of the dying sun, continued to whittle away, little by little, at the sandy earth.