Beside the sea, I stand alone, listening to the laughter of the bodies that stand beyond the faded lights. I walked away an hour ago, and so far I see no indication of worry that I am missing. I am at peace beside the sea, tasting the remnants of champagne on my tongue, the champagne that I swapped with my sparkling cider when no one was looking.
He told me that he would meet me beside the sea at eleven, and at ten, I slipped behind the white curtains that enclosed the patio and found my way down the soft grass toward the glassy dark waters. My mother had the microphone at the time; she was too caught up in her words to notice my leaving.
I see him approaching me. He walks with his head down, his arms wrapping his jacket tighter around his body, his shoes shuffling down the hill. I am watching him the entire time, but he does not look up until he is only feet away from me. But when he does look, his eyes widen, and a smile blossoms on his glowing face.
“How was the ceremony?” he asks in a raspy voice as he gets closer.
“Mediocre,” I answer dully.
He takes my hand in his and smooths his thumb across my skin. I eye him cautiously, but he still smiles. He asks me if I want to walk with him beside the sea, I nod my head yes. We walk silently for a while until he speaks suddenly.
“Iris, you know I love it when you visit, right?” His voice has a certain uncertainty that makes me shiver with anxiety.
“Sure I do,” I say with forced optimism.
“But you’re only here once a year, maybe twice if we’re lucky.”
“And?” I say, drawing out the syllable.
He stops abruptly and turns to me. “Are you cold? I should give you my jacket. You look cold.”
I look down at my dress, the thin chiffon flowing with the wind. The cardigan I had brought with me is not as warm as I thought it would be, so I do not argue when he removes his jacket and places it over my shoulders.
He stands quietly for a minute, fidgeting with his fingers. Finally, he speaks: “I’ve fallen in love, Iris,” he takes a breath, “but not with you.”
“You’re seventeen, Malcolm; you can’t be in love.” That is all I say to him before beginning to walk again.
He catches up to me quickly. “What do you mean, I can’t be in love?”
“You don’t even know what love is.”
“Because I’m seventeen?”
“That’s only part of it.”
“Okay, well, how about this - does anyone even know what love is? Iris, do you know what love is?”
“Absolutely not. I’m only seventeen.” This time, I am the one who stops abruptly. “Who is she?” I ask with a tired voice.
“We’ve been dating for a month. I told her I loved her last weekend, and she said it back. Iris, I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?” I say as I cross my arms.
“Because she’s not you, I suppose.”
There is a small ledge beside the sea near where we are standing, and we decide to sit down on it. He leans in close to me; I hesitate, then lay my head on his shoulder.
“What would she think about this?” I ask.
“She wouldn’t like this,” he answers but does not move away from me.
I think about Malcolm and his love, and then I think about my grandparents in their house beside the sea, and I think of my older cousin in her white dress gliding across the living room of that house in the arms of her husband, whom just yesterday she called her fiancé. I think about how I stood in a line of women in chiffon dresses and watched as two people began an entirely new chapter of their lives. I think about how every summer my parents and I and my two younger brothers drive five hours to my grandparents' house beside the sea. I think about how excited Malcolm was on the phone when I told him that my cousin wanted a winter wedding, and my grandparents offered their home to her. I think of the laughter in the house and how even if I was there, I would not be laughing.
“I think you should go, Malcolm,” I whisper.
I hope the wind is too loud for him to hear me, but it is not, and he stands up from the ledge. I hand him his jacket and watch as he slips his arms into the sleeves.
“You don’t want me to walk you back?” he asks politely.
I shake my head no. “I’ll be fine.”
He smiles at me, one last beaming smile, then turns and walks away. I sit for a long time, gazing at the water, every once in a while taking a glance back up at the house. I know I should go back inside, slip through the doors quietly, pick up a half-empty glass, and fit myself into the dance floor, but I cannot bring myself to move in that direction. Instead, I walk closer to the sea. I remove my sandals and toss them aside. My bare feet sink into the sand, but I do not mind. I let myself near the sea even more, closing my eyes and smiling as the water washes over my feet and ankles. Soon, the hem of my dress is soaked and sticks to my legs. I do not mind at all; in fact, I welcome it. I descend into the blackness of the sea, coming up only to take a breath. Leaning back, I stare up at the moon, at the splattering of stars across the midnight sky. I exhale and begin to laugh - a real laugh. And not the kind of laugh I force out of myself when my uncle tells a joke or when my mother tells stories of when I was a small child. I have not laughed like this since my last summer with Malcolm.
Thinking of Malcolm, I sit up in the water. I hope his love is real - I really do.
As I look around me, I notice that some of the lights in the house have gone out, and as quickly as my drenched body can, I make my way out of the water. I grab my sandals and run toward the house. The curtains only move slightly as I wander in. A few guests eye me curiously, but I am able to maneuver upstairs to my bedroom before any of my family notices.
In my room, I peel off my dress and lay it on the window sill to dry. Wrapping a blanket around my naked body, I stare out into the night. Beside the sea stands a house, and in that house stands me. I am not alone; solitude is merely a concept. The shore spreads for miles in both directions, and I know somewhere along it stands another house with someone like me in it, someone standing before an open window staring out at the sea, someone who understands the sea, who has bathed in its glory.
And I know in that moment that my heart will forever be beside the sea.