The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried
I DON’T WANT TO BE here. Spending the afternoon collecting trash on the beach isn’t how I wanted to spend one, or any, of my summer days. I could be sleeping or working at a job that pays me or reading or smack-talking some random kid while I kick his butt at Paradox Legion online. Instead, I’m here. At the beach. Picking up beer cans and candy wrappers and ignoring the occasional used condom because there’s no way I’m touching that. Not even wearing gloves.
If you have sex on the beach, throw away your own goddamn condoms.
Sick of Picking Up Your Rubbers
I look up.
“Smile!” Rafi Merza snaps a picture of me with his phone, and I’m not fast enough to give him the finger.
Rafi shrugs and wraps his arm around my waist and slaps a kiss on my cheek. His carefully cultivated stubble scrubs my skin. Everything about Rafi is intentional and precise. His thick black hair swooped up and back to give it the illusion of messiness, his pink tank top to highlight his thick arms, the board shorts he thinks make his ass look good. He’s right; they do. It’s showing off. If I looked like Rafi, I’d want to flaunt it too. Thankfully there’s an underlying insecurity to his vanity that keeps it from slipping across the border into narcissism.
“I’m fine,” I say. “People need to worry about themselves.” I point down the beach at Dafne and Jamal, who’re poking at a gelatinous mass in the sand. “I hope they know jellyfish can still sting even when they’re dead.”
“They’ll find out one way or another.” Rafi has a hint of an accent that sounds vaguely British with weird New England undertones, which makes sense since his dad’s from Boston and his mom’s from Pakistan by way of London.
“And I’ll keep my phone out just in case,” I say.
“To call the paramedics?”
“To record them getting stung.”
Rafi pulls away from me. “Sure, because there’s nothing funnier than someone else’s pain.”
“They’re playing with a jellyfish, not a live grenade.”
He nudges me and I catch my reflection in his sunglasses. My enormous bobble head and long nose and I don’t even know what the hell’s going on with my hair. “No one dragged you out here—”
“You showed up at my house at dawn with coffee and doughnuts,” I say. “You know I can’t resist doughnuts.”
Rafi tries to take my hand, but I shake free. “I get that today’s difficult for you, Dino—”
“I’m here for you.” Rafi raises his shades, giving me the amber-eyed puppy dog stare that snared me from across an Apple store a year ago. “If you want, we can take off and go somewhere to talk.”
Looking across the beach and then into Rafi’s eyes makes the offer so tempting that I go so far as to open my mouth to say yes. But then I don’t. “July Cooper is dead. Talking won’t change it.” I kick the wet sand, sending a clod flying toward the water. “Besides, we weren’t even friends.”
Rafi leans his forehead against mine. He’s a little shorter than me, so I have to bend down a bit. “I’m your friend, right?”
“Of course you are.”
“And so are they.” He doesn’t have to motion to them for me to know he’s talking about everyone else who’s out here with us on a summer day cleaning the beach. The kids from the community center: Kandis and Jamal and Charlie and Dafne and Leon. “They’re your family.”
“I’ve got a family,” I say.
Rafi kisses me softly. His lips barely graze mine, and still I flinch from the public display, but if Rafi notices, he doesn’t mention it. “That’s the family you were born into. We’re the family you chose.”
There’s a moment where I feel like Rafi expects me to say something or that there’s something he’s trying to say. It charges the air between us like we’re the two poles of a Jacob’s ladder. But either I imagined it or the moment passes, because Rafi steps away and starts walking down the shore, linking his first finger through mine and pulling me along with him.
The sun beats on us as we keep working to clean the beach. It’s an impossible task but still worthwhile. My arms and legs are pink, and I have to stop to apply more sunscreen. I try to convince Rafi to put some on too, but he claims it defeats the purpose of summer. I’m kind of jealous of the way Rafi’s skin turns a rich brown in the sun rather than a crispy red like mine.
“Don’t forget about the party tonight,” Rafi says as he rubs sunscreen into my back.
“It’s not actually a party. The gang, pizza, pool, movies. Nothing too exciting.”
My whole body tenses, and Rafi must feel it because he stops rubbing. “You don’t have to come. I thought it’d be better than sitting home alone.”
“The funeral’s tomorrow, so I should probably—”
“I get it—”
“It’s not that I don’t want to see you—”
“Of course, of course.”
This time there’s no electricity in the silence. No expectation. Instead, it’s a void. A chasm growing wider with each passing second. I know I should throw Rafi a line before the distance between us expands too far, but I don’t know what to say.
“My offer stands,” Rafi says.
I sigh heavily without meaning to. “If I change my mind about the party—”
“Not the party. The funeral. If you want me to go with you, I will.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Have you ever seen me in my black suit?” he asks. “I look like James Bond. But, you know, browner.”
I can’t help laughing because it’s impossible to tell whether Rafi’s bragging or begging for compliments. “While the thought of you doing your best sexy secret agent impersonation is tempting, I think I need to go to the funeral alone.”
Rafi squeezes my shoulders and says, “Yeah, okay,” before finishing with the sunscreen. Funerals are awful, especially if you don’t know the person who’s died, but I can’t help feeling like Rafi’s disappointed.
“Come on,” I say. “I probably need to get home soon.” I pull Rafi the way he pulled me earlier, but instead of following, he digs his feet into the sand. His lips are turned down, and he’s looking at the ground instead of at my face.
I covertly glance around to make sure no one’s watching, and
then I brush his cheek with my thumb and kiss him. “Fine. I’ll consider coming tonight.”
Rafi’s face brightens immediately. He goes from pouty lips to dimples and smiles in under a second. “Really?”
“Maybe,” I say.
“Maybe closer to yes or maybe closer to no?”
This time when I kiss him, I don’t care if we’ve got an audience. “Maybe if you agree to go with me to Kennedy Space Center before the end of the summer, I’ll think real hard about making an appearance.”
Rafi turns up his nose. “But I went there in middle school, and it’s so boring.”
“Compromise is the price you pay for being my boyfriend.”
“Fine.” Rafi rolls his eyes dramatically. “But this relationship is getting pretty expensive.”
“You’re rich. You can afford it.” I grab his hand. “Now, let’s get out of here before I change my mind.”