He could hear the cicadas singing as he broke the surface. The sound suddenly became unmuffled as if he had abruptly removed his hands from his ears. It was dark, and the stars and moon were dappled reflections about his waist as he urged his way free of the ocean’s embrace. He was glad he was here. This was a good choice.
“Lung cancer,” they had said. “Inoperable.”
Wasn’t this always the way it would go? Didn’t he always expect it?
All those days and nights he had spent partying… All the friends he had already lost…
He felt the water leaving his body as he raised his arms and wiped the hair back from his forehead. He still looked good. They’d never know.
“Hey, Paco!” came a yell from the beach fire ahead.
A small group of his friends was gathered around it. He turned his head away, smiling, and tasted the salty water as he spit.
The flames of several tiki torches flittered in the small breeze that constantly played at the coast, and he knew he was home. This was where he was born. This was where he would die.
As he approached the fire, someone kicked a soccer ball his way. He dodged to the left and let it roll into the surf. Too cool.
Plopping himself down on the large driftwood seat they had gathered in daylight, he leaned in close to her. She didn’t know about it either.
“Laura,” he said. “I love you.”
Laura looked surprised. Peter wasn’t usually this forward.
“I’ve always wondered,” she joked.
They had had many years now… must’ve been at least a decade, decade and a half, and along the way, they had collected and discarded friend after friend after friend. This new set was “pretty wonderful” according to Laura, but weren’t they all?
“Why joo always swimming after sundown, bro?” Jorge said as he leaned his head forward, obviously intoxicated. “Joo know es shark season.” He stood with a closed tequila in one hand and an open beer in the other, and he began to tilt toward the fire, losing his balance. He held the tequila upright and away from his body, but the beer tilted with him as he almost tumbled in. A sizzle sounded as the few drops fell on hot coals, but he caught himself, stood straight, and looked at Peter and Laura as if they had caused it.
“Ha-Ha-Haaaaaa!” he screamed, cockeyed and pointing his finger. “Joo almost ha’ me.”
Peter looked at Laura, feigning surprise. “Who? Us?” he acted without saying.
Laura just laughed it away.
There were a few others around the fire also. Peter was sure he had gotten their names, but as soon as the names were his, he lost them again. Now he just pretended that he remembered. They were cool nonetheless. They could stay… until life or boredom pulled them away.
Jorge handed him a cigarette. “Why not?” he thought. The damage was already done. He heard the words in his head- “Dead man walkin’.” It was from some movie he had seen as a child. He looked at Laura again. She looked back.
Peter could see the stars reflecting in her eyes, as the fire waned. Her black hair was all the blacker in the moonlight, but it had a blue sheen where the beams reflected. It was funny to him how colors could appear where none were there… like the colorized MRI scans that showed his malady. So pretty. So temporary. So permanent.
He leaned in to kiss her. Laura pulled back for a moment, surprised, but then she realized and accepted. She was happy to respond. They were deeply in love in her mind. They would be together forever.
Laura was surprised as Peter fell backward from the wood. He landed heavy, sand spreading from either side, and he cackled heartily as he reached for her and pulled her on top of him. They kissed, open-mouthed. Her hair fell down around his cheeks, and they moved their bodies in harmony, love in motion.
“Ha-Ha-Haaaaa!” they heard again, as Jorge stood, pointing. “Dey can’ stop! Joo two need to go!” He took a pull from the large bottle of tequila he had been nursing, and then he also fell backward, landing still upright on his previous sand mound.
Laura turned her head back to Peter. He looked deep in her eyes and said, “I do love you. So much. And I’m sorry.”
His eyes welled a bit, and he leaned suddenly forward from the sand, spilling her to the side.
“Ok,” she blurted as she rolled, sarcastically adding, “Thanks for the warning.”
He didn’t look at her. He just rubbed his eyes, and looked away. “Tell me again what we’ll do. Tell me again how we’ll live.”
She calmed immediately. “Again?” she replied, and she leaned back beside him against that same drift log. She was, again, happy to respond. “It’ll be great…”
There she painted them. Beautiful beach house. Three children. But even before that- a wonderful wedding with all their friends invited, those remembered and those forgotten. It would be a huge event.
Peter stared at the stars the entire time she spoke. He imagined an entire life- one he’d never live. He imagined children and the way he’d raise them. But he’d never get to. Sadness overtook him.
He surged forward, standing, and sand poured off him on all sides. Laura rubbed her face and blew hard between her lips to clear the silica.
“What the hell?” she spurted, and she stood too.
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” Peter said.
Laura’s face melted from anger to anguish so fluidly. Peter hurt inside to watch it, but he still followed through.
“I’ve been busy, you know, and there are a lot of other…uh… people around always…and I just don’t think that we should lock ourselves…um… I… I-uh… Let’s just call it quits. For now, of course. Maybe later…” He had his hands open, palms up, and he waived them a bit indicating openness and possibility.
Laura was livid. She jumped forward, and she pushed him hard. “What the fuck are you saying?!?”
Peter landed hard. He quickly pushed himself back up to lean and look at her.
“I’m—“ he tried.
“NO! You don’t get a spot right now! Who do you think you are?!?” she screamed. “How can you stand there and try to pretend like what we have isn’t worth something?!?”
Peter watched as Laura collapsed. Now she was on the sand as well, knees to her chin and arms draped around them. She sobbed, “I just don’t understand…”
His heart ached. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I love you.” Honesty, for a moment. “I just don’t want—.” “I just think—.”
She looked up from her tears. “What?” she demanded. “What does a person like you tell his girls when he’s finished with them?”
A dagger hit his heart. She could see right through him. All those years, he had been a playboy. He had had so many conquests, so many tally marks on the headboard. But then he found her.
“It’s not like that!” he yelled. “I love you! I just don’t want—“
Jorge stumbled into the scene, holding a bottle. “Hey mane. We chud go soon, you tink?” His hands were raised, as if holding a white flag.
Laura stood up and lanced Jorge with a glare. “Get out of here, George.”
Jorge was taken aback. He still held the tequila in one hand, and he placed the other on his chest, his eyes wide. “’Scuse me, miss. Didn’t mean to offend,” and he wandered away into the dark.
“You should’ve never let me love you,” she said, tears welling.
“You should move on,” he replied.
“You don’t mean that.” They were now streaming down her cheeks. “Why would you ask me again what our future looked like?”
“I was just curious,” Peter said, as he fell back against the sand and looked up to her. “I wanted to see where we’d go… if we could.”
“What are you even talking about?” Laura demanded.
“I just wish we could— Nevermind.” He turned his head away.
Laura stepped two feet on either side of him. “God Dammit! Tell me what’s wrong with you!”
The water had gone now. His body was dry and covered in sand. “I love you. I have cancer.”
Laura collapsed on top of him at the finality of his words. She grabbed his head with both hands and forced him to look her in the eyes. “What?!?” she screamed. “You—what?”
Calm washed over Peter as he gazed into her beautiful almond eyes. “I have cancer… and it can’t be fixed.”
The waves continued to ebb and flow. The sounds of ocean life were in both their ears, but all they could hear was the heartbeat of the person before them… and their own.
Laura rolled over beside him in the sand. Their hearts pounded in unison as they searched the stars for answers. “We should get married.”
Peter lurched up, leaning on his arms. “What?” His face was disbelief.
“We should get married,” she repeated.
Peter’s expression washed with resolution. At this moment, the plan seemed obvious and simple. Damn the consequences. Damn the questions.
“That’s it then,” he said, lifting his head to the stars once again. “A full life in a year. We better get to it. Where do you want to go?”