he has been there for so long that the girl sometimes wonders if he is part of the beach, if the seaweed and shells fuse themselves to his ankles at night and grow over his browned legs like ivy. he is always still, so still, eyes focused on something distant in the waves that the girl can't quite see, though she tries. the man has a face like a creased paper bag and she finds herself wishing that she could see inside his head.
she watches him all day from the corner of her eye but no one ever joins him in his vigil. he is alone in casting shadows that grow longer and longer as the sun sets. the girl wonders what it is like to be so alone and decides she'd rather be lonely on the beach than spend all her time with people, particularly the people she knows who seem to be full of incessant questions and sharp elbows.
the man is waiting, and so instinctively she waits too.
the girl is the only one to see him cut his palm wide open on a shell. she watches the red droplets fall heavily onto the sand beneath his chair and feels sick without really knowing why.
"are you okay?" she asks tentatively. he jumps at her sudden appearance, clutching his hand protectively to his chest.
"i'm fine," he says. "it's just a little cut."
"you should rinse it off in the water."
he pulls his hand closer to his chest. "no, no. i'm fine, really. i don't ever go into the water, i'd rather just look at it."
"can i look too?" she asks, and he wipes his hand on his shorts and nods. they stare at the ocean together, though the girl is too shy to ask what they are looking for. when the the day grows too hot she slides into the water, rinsing away the sun. the man doesn't move a muscle and is still sitting patiently when she returns.
"why won't you go into the water?"
"sharks," he says seriously, squinting his eyes to look up at her. "and whales. there are all kinds of wee sea beasties that want to swallow me whole and spit out my bones."
the girl frowns. his words sound like a ghost story her mother might tell, and it makes her wonder about the man's family. he looks like he could be a grandfather--his hair is greying and the lines around his eyes look like scars. for a brief second she imagines that her own grandfather didn't die before she was born, that instead he went into hiding by the sea, waiting for the day she'd come and find him. maybe this man is her grandfather.
"you're afraid," she says. warm saltwater drips down her ankle and it feels uncomfortably like blood.
"yes. i'm afraid."
no, there is no time for trumpet-blaring, angel-singing fantasies about lost grandfathers. this man is weak. her grandfather would have loved the ocean like she does. he would have held her hand through every wave.
he isn't her grandfather but she wishes that he were.
"what do you do?" she asks the man offhandedly, stabbing at the sand's crust with a stick she found. he watches her for awhile before he answers.
"i'm a waiter."
"like at a restaurant?"
"no. i mean that i just wait out here on the beach."
"oh," she says. "i see." but she doesn't see, not really.
"and what are you?" he asks politely.
"everyone is something. isn't there anything that you like to do?"
she can feel his eyes on her, expectant and honest, and her cheeks flush red in response. "i play soccer but i don't really like it. i've never scored a goal in my life. and i guess sometimes i try to write stories--but it's stupid really."
"a writer?" the man nods. "you look like a writer."
"but i'm not. i can't. the words, stories, they're in my head but when i try to write them down they just, they just, i...i don't know. i don't want people to laugh at me."
"you should write me a story," the man says, "i won't laugh." the girl forces a smile but her heart drops, bumping every rib as it falls into her stomach. she can't write him a story, even if he won't laugh. there is nothing she can tell him that will be good enough.
but now is not the time for worrying. the man is growing tired with the conversation; his eyes are half-mast against the last stubborn rays of evening sun.
"i'm leaving," she tells him. the girl does not expect the man to answer her--and he doesn't. she avoids glancing at his face as she gets clumsily to her feet and uses the stick to carve her name into the sand before them, each letter painstaking and jagged.
"i'm not a writer," she says defiantly, unsure of whether she is trying to convince herself or the man who sits before her, a statue on the beach, a waiter by the waves.
it becomes like a game to her, waking up earlier and earlier each day to see if the man will be there. it's almost too easy to slip out of her room, to walk down to the beach while the sky is still dark and the ocean heaves before her like some sort of dark, panting beast. he is always there though, no matter how early she comes.
as the girl walks to the man's chair, she finds herself idly pondering stupid questions. when does he eat? does he ever use the bathroom? she opens her mouth to ask him these things but accidentally asks something else.
"do you have a wife?"
the man looks up at her and his paper bag face collapses before quickly composing itself.
"yes," he says carefully, shifting in his seat. the girl watches the man press furrows into the sand with his feet and considers the white, wiry hair on his arms. there is a story in him, she can feel it. it crawls and frets beneath the surface of his skin. the girl knows that it is wrong to press him but she can't stop herself.
"is that who you're waiting for?" she asks, "your wife?" she immediately wants to kick herself for her intrusion, but it's too late. the words float in the air between them, glittering and shaking, impossible to ignore.
"sometimes," he says, and his face slowly breaks into a half-smile. "but right now i'm just waiting for your story."
"no," she tells him. "no stories." he opens his mouth to respond but her body is already moving. the girl's legs take her to where the waves lash against the sand and she dives beneath them, swimming out, out, out to where the ocean floor slopes away and the man and his honest eyes cannot follow her.
she meets him at his chair the next day, refreshed and full of purpose. "come to the water," she begs. "just to the edge." he shakes his head no but she can see his muscles twitching with the promise of movement. "just to the edge, i mean it."
as he stands his bones and joints creak and pop; he is a robot covered in sand from the knees down and she is a water nymph dancing before him, a siren calling him into the rolling sheets of water. he stands with her in the shallows, letting the ocean break against his shins.
"i'm sinking," he says, staring down at his feet. he sounds surprised.
"yes, when the waves leave they take the sand with them." the man nods and watches the beach disappear from underneath him, quietly letting the ocean swallow him inch by inch.
"you don't need to be afraid anymore. it's not so bad, now is it?"
"no, it's not so bad."
she feels unnecessarily proud of him standing there, proud of his pale, vulnerable feet and sun-reddened nose. the feeling overwhelms her from the inside out and makes her brave. "maybe i could try writing you a story," she offers. "and i could read it to you while you wait for your wife. so you won't be so lonely."
"maybe," he says, and the water grasps at his legs with hungry fingers.
it's barely five o' clock in the morning and the beach is far too empty. the chair is gone. the man is gone. the only thing she sees is a pair of footprints that lead to the water and abruptly disappear. she puts her own feet into the indentations and wonders when her life became defined by fear. where is he? are the footprints his?
does it even really matter?
her life is not a novel. if it were, the man might rise now from the foam like some sort of roman god and stand before her, casting off seaweed. or maybe he'd appear from behind the dunes, simultaneously laughing and sputtering apologies for having frightened her. but no, no. she can instinctively tell that there is no clear-cut beginning, middle, or end in sight. no dramatic climax. just the sound of sea gulls and tidewater as the waves lap away the footprints, erasing the evidence than anyone ever stood there before her.
she waits for him.
when the footprints are gone she takes a stick and begins writing a story into the sand, letting the cold water eat away at her finished words:
"he had been there for so long that the girl sometimes wondered if he was part of the beach, if the seaweed and shells fused themselves to his ankles at night and grew over his browned legs like ivy--"