Elliott and Roxanne used to steal napkins from fast food restaurants when they were sixteen. Roxanne would stuff them in her bra and examine her unsmiling figure in the mirror. Elliott would jot down lyrics to a forgotten song with a ballpoint pen. They would also draw, but only figures that existed in their imagination. Weeping lotus flowers and splitting guitars. Roxanne wanted a tattoo but Eliottt knew she’d never get one. He knew the shapes of life and Roxanne with her suspiciously large breasts didn’t.
Together they ate chicken strips and French fries. Roxanne thought about her weight and her thin mother who didn’t love her. Elliott’s mother liked it better when he was a girl and that’s why he played the guitar. To get away from unisex names and pictures of long-haired girls on the mantel.
But that was when the days were long and the sun opened its arms. When they handed out little peppermint balls instead of toothpicks at fast food restaurants. Now they were forty-three and still best friends. Elliott had the feeling he’d wasted time leaning back in plastic chairs but staying with Roxanne taught him better.
As the waves licked the rotting wood of the boardwalk with their salty tongues, he got an idea. He’d shaved his chin this morning but when he saw the thick facial hair on the street performers he thought never again. He saw their blistered fingertips and the way they bled tears at midday. He wanted to do that with her.
Roxanne did not approve at first. She looked into the horizon and down at her chipped green nail polish. She said things were just starting to smooth down with her mother. Elliott knew she didn’t understand the feeling of confusion when your mother only accepted you with mascara and a husband from the farmer’s market.
But she eventually agreed. They piled stained napkins on the table over laminated menus and read the lyrics aloud. Words they would never repeat that dissolved into the clouds.
It rained in the afternoon and they should’ve seen it coming. They shared an umbrella with their hands interlinked but Roxanne didn’t feel it. So after Elliott walked her home, she blasted music with her door closed. She sang along with the sky’s voice and it thundered an applause. Roxanne was on the verge of being broken and Elliott already was.
In the morning Elliott ate cereal from his palm. He grabbed his guitar and didn’t bother locking his apartment. He splashed in the rain that ran along the street like a gray snake, getting concerned looks from children walking by. A grown man with no beard soaking his boots in dirty street water.
Roxanne was late. Elliott raked a hand through his balding head and leaned against the railing. He wanted to dive into the sea but now was not the time. It was never the time.
Suddenly, a figure threw themselves into his arms. Roxanne. Her face was blotchy and she tugged at his sleeves. Sobs choked in her throat and she rubbed her tears into his green shirt. They colored it a darker shade. Elliott held her chin with his fingertips and he turned it to face him.
Her lower lip quivered and she straightened. “I’m homeless now.”
“What do you mean?” Elliott asked, picking up his guitar case by the leather handle.
“My mother,” Roxanne said, pursing her lips and tapping her foot, “kicked me out. I thought she loved me but I guess I was wrong.”
Elliott could see her mother, short with a polka-dotted apron. Telling his best friend that she couldn’t live there anymore. He knew the reason she was allowed to crash there in the first place was that her mother was lonely after her father passed away. Roxanne herself was not loved, but rather her company.
“She is seventy-something,” he recalled. “And she shows videos of you dancing to music in the kitchen.” Roxanne swallowed because there was nothing to be said.
Elliott knew that Roxanne would live with him but she needed to sing. Sing while he played the guitar. This is how the boardwalk became both of their homes. It smelt of fried foods and cigarettes but they still loved it.
They recited a song that was written on the napkins. The people pressed notes and silver coins into Elliott’s hat. He thanked them with a blink of his eyes. Roxanne saw it and she touched their faces. For now it was happiness but later it wouldn’t be.
After, they treated themselves to ice cream with the money they earned. Elliott knew and warned Roxanne that if they wanted to keep his apartment they better come back and do this every day.
She dropped her spoon and smiled at him. It didn’t reach her eyes. Roxanne leaned across the table, cradled Elliott’s face, and pressed her lips to his. Their breaths mixed and she closed her eyes despite the screams of the seagulls.
Elliott pulled away first, probably too quickly. Roxanne smoothed the wrinkles beside his eyes and frowned slightly. He pushed his ice cream away, untangled himself from her, and stood. He recognized the crazy look in her eye. She ripped apart napkins until they were only wisps of paper.
He excused himself, locking his hands into his pockets and bowing his head so she could glimpse the hairless spots.
“I miss my mother,” Roxanne called after him.
“I know,” he muttered under his breath. She still heard it.
They were forty-three and the boardwalk was their home. It’s like nothing had changed since they were sixteen but Elliott was walking away from her, clicking the end of a pen and thinking about napkins. Roxanne, waiting back in the plastic seat of the fast food restaurant, looked at herself in a makeup compact mirror. Thinking things along the lines of if she appeared prettier her mother would love her.
Roxanne was always Elliott’s inspiration and now he had some mismatched lyrics that would forever stay in his back pocket.