Sleetmagazine.com

Volume 13 • Number 1 • Spring-Summer 2021

K.K. O'Brien

Our Dog Days

We went down to the shore, Nick and I. We’d parked our bikes and wandered through a desert of sand dunes before the cooler surface by the water saved our blistering feet.

Nick flipped his vintage sunglasses up, or I did, scanning for the perfect spot. “Just there.” We set our towels down.

“Are you coming in?”

“Not yet. You go ahead.”

He tromped to the water’s edge, back muscles flexed in anticipation of the icy shock. I propped myself up on my elbows, waiting for him to jump in. He was such a graceful swimmer. Just then, he turned and ran back towards me.

“Forgot my glasses,” he said, setting them delicately on his towel. “What’s wrong? You seem caught off-guard.”

“What? No, I’m fine.”

He paused, his brow furrowed. Suddenly, he grabbed my hands and pulled me up. “C’mon, let’s go in. I’ll race you.”

The water’s spray was at first a relief against the sun’s heat, but quickly stung as we went further in. I drew in my breath as a wave crashed against my chest.

But Nick was fearless. His body became the ocean, with nothing to tell you where he ended and the water began apart from a change in color. “I’m getting out for a second,” I called to him.

Panting as I walked out of the waves, I sat down on the hard sand and picked up a shell. A soft smudge of orange swirled around its middle. I put it to my ear and closed my eyes, listening to its unique roar.

***

We set our towels down and stretched ourselves out on top of them. The rhythmic crashing of the waves and wind washed out the voices of other people here with us.

Sitting up, I looked over at Nick. His legs were shiny and hairless. “What did you do?” I gestured.

“Shaved them,” he replied. “I like how smooth they are. Feel.”

I reached over and gently brushed his leg with my fingers. “Huh.”

Nimbly, he flipped onto his stomach. “I’m so thirsty. Could you get me a water?”

I pulled two warm bottles out from my backpack. I gave Nick his, and we tapped the tops against each other.

“To our dog days,” I said.

With Nick moving across the country for college next month, these were some of our last harmonious days together. The sun made us sticky and I gazed out at the white waves, beating into the shore and hungrily sucking back to the sea. What did they pull back with them, hidden beneath the water?

I looked over at Nick. He was peeling hangnails from his fingers like string cheese, carelessly tossing them aside into the sand. He glanced up. “You ever wonder if we give away things about our personalities in our physical appearance?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, you have brown eyes, right? Maybe your eyes are so dark, people can’t always see what’s going on inside your mind.”

“I hope not.”

“But then mine,” he said, looking out at the sea, “are so clear, I worry that emotion just coolly disappears into them. Like a deep pool.”

“I’ve never thought that,” I said.

“Really?” he pulled his sunglasses down and looked directly at me.

I wanted to know what he was feeling, but I couldn’t. I never did. “Really.”

He put his glasses back on and twisted around to get his water bottle.

“Hey,” he said after a sip, “did I tell you that dinner with Christine yesterday actually went pretty well?”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yeah. Did you ever call what’s-her-name? We could double up.”

I laid back down onto my towel. “No, I don’t think I will... let’s just listen to the waves for a minute.”

***

I was down on the shore, maybe a quarter mile. The sand, once firm, gave way under my feet and water rushed into the pits they created, flooding them. A hundred yards away, a yellow flag hung limply atop the lifeguard station, as if held in place by the oppressive heat. Weren’t there other people here today? I couldn’t see anyone.

In the water, almost invisible, Nick swam with slow, deliberate strokes. He seemed tired.

“Remember, go sideways and I’ll follow you,” I called, though I don’t think he heard me. “I’m going to stay with you.”

***

Carrying a Frisbee, we went down to the water’s edge. The sand was heavy like velvet and reluctantly gave way beneath our feet.

Nick laughed, falling as he tried to catch the Frisbee. Behind him, several seagulls had wandered into the shoreline. A wave broke and the tide began to come in. The group of birds scuttled towards the shore, but the tide was too quick for them and one by one they resigned themselves to it, bobbing in the choppy waves.

“What are you looking at?” Nick asked.

“Nothing.” I threw the Frisbee to him. “How was dinner at Christine’s yesterday?”

“Oh... good, you know.” He lingered, wanting to say more. “I mean, we’re different people. She’s very cold, sometimes.”

“Like when?”

He tossed me the Frisbee one last time, then went to the shoreline and splashed some water on his face and hair. Walking back to me, he sat down and pushed his feet deep into the sand.

“Like in bed. Sometimes. Anyway,” he added, leaning back on his elbows, “I just want to listen to the waves for a minute.”

***

We were cycling towards the beach. Nick pedalled hard for a moment, then lifted his feet out to the sides. One of his flip-flops dangled off his foot.

“Watch your shoe!” I called out to him.

We got to the beach and plopped down on top of our towels. “Tom, this feels so good,” Nick groaned, starfishing his arms and legs out, until he was making a sort of sand angel.

“Yeah, but now your towel’s all twisted.”

He sat up stiffly, sand sliding down his back. “I’m thirsty. Could you get me a water?”

We tapped the plastic tops of the bottles together. “To our dog days.”

***

While Nick swam, I walked down to the water’s edge, sat, and stretched my legs so that the water sputtered onto my feet at the end of each wave. I pushed my hands into the sand, gripping against a crashing swell that I knew wouldn’t come. The sun warmed my stomach and I began to feel lazy.

Some realizations come to us slowly, developing intensity and focus as they arrive, and others smack into us with the same startling effect as bumping into a stranger on the street when neither of you were paying attention. I looked behind me and saw the yellow flag atop an empty lifeguard tower. Nick bobbed in the water, at least 50 feet farther out than he’d been before.

“Nick!” I yelled.

It almost looked as though two waves were encroaching on him from either side. Around him the color of the water was lighter, indistinguishable from his flesh. I ran up to the water’s edge and waved my arms.

“You’ve got to swim sideways!”

I ached to go in, but it wouldn’t do any good. We both knew he was the better swimmer. White tops of choppy surf rolled around him and for a few terrifying moments, I couldn’t find him. In these moments, when you feel like you’ve lost yourself, a blackness rushes into your mind and you don’t know what to do, you can’t think and you just say the same thing over and over in different ways. “Swim to the side!”

At last I saw his arms reaching out of the water, moving parallel to the sand. He seemed to move deliberately, like each slow stroke taxed him in mental and physical energy.

I walked along the shoreline, following him out of the riptide. At last, he crawled out of the water.

With one arm, I helped him back to our towels and he collapsed on his stomach, breathing deeply. We lay there, side by side, until the sun began to set.

***

“Don’t forget the Frisbee,” Nick called back as we walked up the dune to our towels. I bent down to pick it up, my fingers swinging over the top once before I managed to grab it.

“I wish we’d thought to bring a beach ball. I guess we didn’t have much room.”

“Tom,” Nick widened his eyes mordantly, “you just deflate it and blow it up when you get to the beach.” He sat back on his elbows and bit into a strawberry we’d brought. They were warm by now, practically fermented. “Anyway, why would we bring a beach ball down here?”

I began burying his feet in the sand. “I don’t know... it’s just what people do, isn’t it?”

“Get my legs too. I want to be a merman,” Nick said, throwing his arms up in the air. “But seriously, let’s not do stupid stuff just because it’s what other people do.”

“But we already do.” I stared at him.

“Well then, let’s stop from now on.”

I covered his smooth legs and hips with sand, patting and shaping as I went. I chuckled with a sudden thought. “Do you remember when we were cycling in, and I dropped my shoe in the street?”

Nick looked up and smiled at me.

K.K. O'Brien is a writer whose work often blends historical settings with the fight for social justice. Her fiction, reviews, and travel pieces have appeared in print journals and online. Her teleplay about the Radium Girls was recognized in numerous competitions, including the Austin Film Festival and Script Pipeline. She is currently working on her first novel.