Fiction

Beachgoers

By: Jeremy Dorfman

Mindy pushed open the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the balcony. The salt water scent greeted her with friendly ease. The morning breeze wrapped itself around her nightie, then swirled off, carrying any lingering stress from the work week away with it.

“How is it out?” Stuart asked, still lodged in the sheets up to his armpits.

“Perfect,” she said. She closed her eyes. She breathed in the new day’s air.

Stuart lunged across the bed and grabbed the remote. He clicked on the television and flipped mindlessly through the channels.

Mindy closed the sliding door behind her to contain the crackle of slaloming channel samples. She sat in the green plastic chair provided by the hotel and looked out upon the waking beach town. Their balcony faced the cute pastel colored residential rentals that families filled during the summer season. The ocean-side of the building was twice the price and they were saving up for a house.

During their young marriage, she and Stuart had been to Paris and Rome on their honeymoon, as well as Hawaii on a vacation with Stuart’s family. Both trips had been amazing and they hoped to do much more world traveling over the next few years before having children. They had lounged in tropical paradise and explored two of the world’s great cities, but the vacation which brought her greater joy than any other was the hour and forty-minute drive to the Jersey Shore. The Ocean City boardwalk where she had spent so many weekends of her youth was still her favorite escape.

There was comfort in a nostalgia marinated retreat. The pulsing instinct to see and do and not waste a brief itinerary without taking in as much as possible of a place you might never see again was nowhere to be found. You could relax. You could do nothing without any sense of guilt or regret that you might be missing something life-affirming as a result of your laziness. You could lie down in the sand next to your wonderful husband and appreciate how you lucky you were and dream of all the great things to come.

The door behind her slid open and the air conditioned chill of the hotel room struck her back. The sounds of Sportscenter on the TV seized her with their manic energy. Stuart stepped outside, wearing only shorts, fully taking advantage of the beach’s social acceptance of shiftlessness from the moment they crossed the bay. He put his hands on her shoulders and leaned down to kiss her neck.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” she said, a perfect smile bursting through her lips despite the distracting background noise of the TV.

He sat down next to her in the balcony’s twin green chair.

“You happy?” he said warmly, but with a sly hint of mockery.

The Ocean City trip had been her idea, not his. They had been there every summer during the three years they had been together and Stuart was not typically a fan of repetition. Her request for the current vacation had been greeted with reluctance. He preferred to go somewhere new. Eventually, she wore him down. His lack of excitement didn’t deter her own in the least.

“Very,” she said with conviction.

“Good,” he said in a solid, assuring tone. Even though he would not pretend that it was his ideal vacation, Stuart was always genuinely pleased by Mindy’s happiness. It was one of his greatest qualities as a husband, this ability to maintain honesty and integrity as to his own feelings while expressing delight at her wants and desires. “We are two people with two different minds,” he said once, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the things about you that I disagree with.”

Stuart looked out at the ocean. “Beautiful day,” he conceded. “It should be great on the beach today.”

“Mmmm hmmm,” said Mindy, with a twinge of victory in her smile.

#

The mid-July weekday beach teemed with humans of all ages, sizes, and shades of future melanoma sun-tans. Middle aged men hauled the potato sacks of their unacknowledged weight over their ten-year-old elastic bathing suit waists. Tweenage girls tested out their first bikinis, awkwardly dipping their toes both in their sexuality and the freezing Atlantic Ocean water. The fathers of these daughters watched these new young women with outright terror, fearing their skimpy bathing suits and their increasing emotional distance. Toddlers enveloped themselves in damp sand. Senior citizens stiffly and slowly made half hour journeys to their too low to the ground beach chairs, only to realize they had to pee as soon as they sat down. Extended family clans played games of football, without apologies to the nearby vacationers they hit with the ball as frequently as they caught it.

Tucked deep into the middle of this sweaty, salty horde, were Mindy and Stuart.

Mindy lay face down on her stylish Ralph Lauren beach towel, eyes closed, soaking in the sun. Her bikini top was unclipped to prevent tan lines on her exposed back. She had responsibly applied a heavy coating of spf 40 sunblock and now she allowed the rays to bake her skin into an attractive summer glow.

Stuart sat upright in his turquoise beach chair, reading The Wisdom of Crowds, hoping to gain insight for his entrepreneurial future.

An ice cream man rolled his large rubber wheeled cart down the beach, clanging a town-crier bell to announce his blessed arrival.

Kids screamed as the cold ocean waves broke into their exposed mid-sections.

A nearby young child cried.

And cried.

And cried.

Mindy opened her eyes. She sat up, holding her bra tightly on to avoid indecently exposing herself to the already overwhelmed hormones of surrounding teenage boys. She looked around and searched for the source of the tears.

The direction of the sound was hard to pinpoint, especially in an open space so filled with chatter and gusts of ocean wind. The crying seemed to be coming from all directions at once. Surround sound early life tragedy. The crying was heaving and desperate and quickening.

Why is no one helping this poor child? Mindy thought with a mixture of concern and condemnation.

She twisted her arms back to click her top into place. She stood up and scanned the surrounding area with clearer determination.

Stuart noticed his wife’s tense search and placed his book on his knees.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“Do you hear that?”

Stuart considered any number of noises but couldn’t pinpoint anything noteworthy.

“What?” he asked.

“That crying kid,” she said.

Stuart again listened closely.

“Yeah?” he said, after he thought he heard the child Mindy referred to.

“He’s been crying for several minutes and no one is doing anything about it,” she said.

“Mindy, I’m sure he’s fine.” He shifted his eyes sideways in a way that said: this is none of our concern.

“Why aren’t the parents helping him?”
“Some people aren’t great parents. That doesn’t mean we have a right to get involved.”

Stuart resumed reading. Mindy continued scanning the crowd.

Finally, she spotted him. It was a boy in blue swim trunks. He was probably three or four. He sat on the remnants of the morning’s high tide line. His body was crumpled in a defeated twist. Snot hung from his nose. His eyes were red. He wailed and no one gave him any notice. People walked by him without even looking down. A seven-year-old boy chased a girl of the same age around the toddler. They laughed and squeaked and used him as an obstacle, all the while failing to acknowledge him for what he was – a deeply upset human being.

Mindy walked over to the boy. She looked around to see if an oblivious parent or irresponsible older sibling stood nearby. Someone who she could graciously nudge, without expressing judgement, to observe that their child was severely distressed and could use some attention. She hoped that such a negligent guardian waited close by, turned to the ocean, chatting with a friend or buried in their iphone. It was better than the alternative – a lost child, all alone.

No one in her sight line was the obvious culprit. She leaned down to talk to the child.

“What’s the matter sweetie?”

The boy looked at her for a moment. He continued crying without a word.

Mindy watched him cry and felt an almost crippling wave of tenderness. She wanted to take the boy in her arms, hold him tight, and tell him that everything was going to be okay. She wanted to assure him not just for this moment but for all moments. She wanted to protect him from the dangers and horrors of the world, conveying a pacification so deep that it would shine through his every trauma for years after he had forgotten meeting her.

She stood up and looked around once more. It was impossible to tell if any of the nearby strangers were related to the boy. She didn’t wish to cause a commotion, but she had to do what was necessary to help the child.

“Excuse me,” she said with great volume, “Does anyone know this boy?”

Several people looked over but not nearly as many as had heard her. The instinct to ignore strangers, particularly those breaking basic social conventions, was huge. Of those who looked over, the majority returned to their own doings without response as soon as they confirmed that they did not know the boy. The few sympathetic ones, mostly other women, shook their heads sadly, wishing they could help but having nothing to offer.

“Does anyone know this boy?” she repeated louder. She received the same response as the first time, only from a slightly larger circle of people.

Mindy was ashamed by the lack of concern of the strangers around her. Her worry solidified as any answers eluded her. She felt a small burst of pride in her own acceptance of responsibility. She had to help this lost boy because no one else would.

She leaned down to him and moved closer.

“Sweetie, what’s your name?”

He looked at her. He was hesitant.

“Do you know where your mom or dad is?” she asked.

He gave an almost imperceptible shake of the head.

“I’m going to help you find them, okay. You have nothing to be worried about. Everything’s going to be okay.”

She looked around. She needed to talk to Stuart but she didn’t want to leave the child alone, even for a moment. She yelled over to him.

“Stuart!”

He didn’t hear her so she said it louder.

“Stuart!”

He looked up from his book, a look of utter bafflement on his face as to why she would be screaming at him over the heads of strangers.

“Come here!” she said.

Stuart stood up slowly, timidly, wanting anyone who was watching him to see that he was fully aware of the bizarre nature of his wife’s summons.

He approached her. Overcompensating for her volume, he near whispered. “What is it?” he said.

“This boy is all alone,” she said. “He’s upset and alone and we need to do something to help him.”

Stuart looked at the boy in a detached, clinical manner. It was like he was assessing a math problem.

“I’m sure his parents are around somewhere.”

“I called out loudly twice to see if anyone was with him and no one responded. He’s been crying for almost ten minutes.”

Stuart thought quietly. Mindy felt that his brain was trying to find a way around having to face the problem at hand.

“What should we do?” he finally asked her, when he couldn’t access the escape route he wanted his thoughts to provide.

“I don’t know,” she said honestly, “but we have to help.”

“What’s his name?” Stuart said. He spoke of the boy in a distant tone, as if he wasn’t right there, crying at his knees.

Mindy ignored Stuart’s detachment and looked tenderly at the boy once more.

“Honey, could you please tell me your name? We want to help you find your mommy.”

The boy squeaked out a noise.

“I’m sorry sweetie, could you say it again?” said Mindy kindly.

“Mason,” said the boy.

“Mason. What a nice name,” said Mindy. “Mason, let’s get you a tissue.” She looked up at Stuart. “Can you grab a tissue from my purse?”

He nodded and walked over to their beach spot.

“Mason, everything is going to be okay. I promise.”

“I want mommy,” said Mason, his lips shaking steadily.

“I know, I know,” she said. “We’ll find her, I promise.” She reached out and held his hand.

Stuart returned with the tissues. He handed them to Mindy, who took several and wiped Mason’s nose and eyes.

“Can you stand up Mason?” she said. “Can you help me look for your mommy?”

He nodded. She helped him up and he clutched her hand tight. With his free hand he reached for Stuart’s fingers. Stuart pulled them away like the boy’s hand was a pesky mosquito.

Mindy looked at her husband with indignation. He seemed surprised at his own action. Stuart reached back and lightly, uncommitted, cupped the boy’s hand in his own.

“Sorry,” said Stuart. “I didn’t mean…” He didn’t finish his sentence.

Mindy had more pressing concerns than Stuart’s bizarre way of interacting with the boy. She picked Mason up.

“Mason, honey, I need you to look around with me and tell me if you see your mommy.”

Mason sniffled. He said nothing.

“Can you do that for me Mason?” she said. “Okay?”

“Okay,” he said quietly.

“We should take him to the lifeguards,” said Stuart.

“Yeah,” she said. “But he might as well look to see if we can find her on the way over.”

Mindy carried the child forward slowly. Her feet left wide marks in the quickly drying sand as she swiveled in place along frequent stops of observation, hoping Mason would spot his family or they would spot him. Her path zig-zagged vertically and horizontally down the beach, allowing every opportunity for Mason to be identified, as they got closer to the white, tilted throne of the beach patrol guards watching the ocean.

“Where are you going?” said Stuart, impatience dripping off him like sweat.

“Mason, do you see your mom anywhere?” Mindy repeated for the tenth time, ignoring her husband.

“No,” said the boy.

“We need to take him to the lifeguard,” Stuart said insistently. “This child is not our responsibility. I’m sure they have a procedure for dealing with lost kids.”

The harsh tone of Stuart’s speech re-started the flow of Mason’s passionate tears.

Mindy restrained herself from responding to her husband, not wanting to upset the boy anymore. She flitted her eyes at Stuart acrimoniously. Usually she admired his practicality but his directness in this situation was not only aggravating, it was deflating. Where were the heaps of warmth he routinely bestowed upon her? Why was he being so cold towards this scared lost kid?

In truth Mindy knew he was right. The beach patrol would have procedures for lost children. She knew taking Mason to the lifeguards was the best course of action. Nevertheless, she felt somewhat reluctant to turn this specific, terrified, desperately in need of comfort little person over to the sun bleached college kids in red and white, who might not give him the emotional support he needed at this crucial early life moment.

She held Mason tight. “It’s okay. I promise. Everything is going to be okay.”

Stuart stared right into Mindy’s eyes to be sure she would conduct the correct course of action. He did not turn away until she nodded in resignation.

They were just short of the lifeguard tower when they heard the woman calling.

“Mason! Mason! Let go of my son!”

They froze. Now the surrounding strangers seemed interested in the boy. They wouldn’t pay attention when he needed help, Mindy thought bitterly, but now that he’s part of a dramatic spectacle, they’re all eyes.

“Wait, hold on,” Stuart said to the frazzled mother who ran towards them with fury in her eyes. “Are you this boy’s mother?”

“Give me my son!” she shouted and ripped Mason from Mindy’s hands as soon as she reached them.

“Mommy,” said Mason through his tears as she clutched him.

“I’m going to call the police,” said Mason’s mother.

Mindy was speechless. She was frightened, furious, and distraught all at once.

“Calm down,” said Stuart forcefully. “We were taking your boy to the lifeguards because my wife spotted him crying and alone. She called out several times to see if anyone nearby knew him and nobody responded. Where were you?”

The woman responded defensively. “I was talking to my friend. I just turned around for a second and he was gone. I’ve been looking for him all this time, yelling his name!”

“Well we’ve been with him and we haven’t heard you. You need to be more careful about watching him,” said Stuart.

“Don’t you tell me how to be a mother! How do I know you weren’t abducting my son?”

Mindy spoke. She was nearly inaudible, though she didn’t intend to be. The mother and Stuart looked at her, trying to make out what she said. She saw their confusion and repeated herself, struggling to raise her volume through her shaking lips.

“I would never hurt a sweet little boy,” she said. “He was alone and crying and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help. I’m glad we found you. He was all alone. He was scared.”

The mother allowed herself to calm down a degree. There was still a trace of righteous anger without any reasonable foundation, but she now looked upon Mindy with mercy.

“Well thank you,” she said. “For trying to help.”

There was too much emphasis on the word “trying” for Mindy’s taste but she resisted any response that would escalate the situation once more. The watching beachgoers had become bored and stopped eavesdropping.

“See Mason,” Mindy said to the boy, “We found your mommy.” Everyone ignored her.

Mason’s mother turned without another word and carried her son off.

“What a piece of work,” said Stuart as the woman disappeared into the crowd. He turned to Mindy. “Are you okay?” he said to her with tenderness, his hand on the small of her back.

“Yeah,” she said after a moment, “I’m fine.”

#

Mindy and Stuart had dinner that night at one of the only white table cloth restaurants the island had to offer. He liked to create the illusion of a luxurious getaway on at least one evening of their visit, momentarily shutting them off from the yelps of excited children and indulging in finer cuisine than the grease laden regrets that the boardwalk proffered. The little Italian place where they dined was hardly a five-star restaurant, but it had a calm intimate atmosphere, and a feeling of “adulthood” the rest of the town sorely lacked.

Mindy had been quiet most of the afternoon. Her muted mood continued as they waited for their orders to arrive and they snacked on bread and olive oil.

Stuart countered Mindy’s conversational hush by discussing the recent exploits of their mutual friends. Married and settled as they were, their single friends’ dating lives provided fodder for excitement and discussion. Stuart told of a masseuse Eric had been dating, uninterested in the girl’s personality but unable to resist the lure of her erotic profession. Then he talked about Brad’s girlfriend of six months who had a habit of breaking in to tears over minor inconveniences.

Eventually, the lack of Mindy’s usual captivated response at the recent gossip erased Stuart’s enthusiasm to continue.

“Mindy, what’s the matter?” he asked her for the third time since the afternoon on the beach, hoping that this time he would receive an answer.

“Nothing,” she said.

“You really shouldn’t let an asshole like that woman bring you down,” he said, figuring, not incorrectly, that the day’s incident was responsible for her mood. “You handled that situation great. No one else around was willing to help. Some people are shitty parents. It’s sad, but it’s the truth. You did what you could.”

“I know,” she said.

“Good. Then it’s time to move on. There’s nothing else we can do to help that boy. You were excited this morning to be here. Let’s not let that woman ruin our time.”

“I’m not,” she said.

Stuart chomped down on a piece of bread. “You kind of seem like you are,” he said.

“No, it’s not…her,” she said, trailing off.

“What is it then?” said Stuart, determined to patch up the emotional pothole that was delaying their evening’s enjoyment.

Mindy looked at her husband. She knew he wasn’t being entirely selfish. Stuart was not the type of man to attack a negative mood only because it was ruining his own ability to have fun. He was the type of man who believed in confronting pain and robbing it of its power through openness. He wanted her to move on from her sour state for her own good as well as his. He was concerned about her and he didn’t want her mood to tumble downward because of an obnoxious mother whom they could do nothing about.

The problem was that Stuart didn’t actually understand the roots of her mood.

“Let’s just have dinner,” said Mindy. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”

“You don’t sound fine.”

“I’d rather not discuss it,” she said.

He put his hand on hers. He softened his speech. “Min, you know I’m always here for you. I just always think that it’s better to express what’s bothering you. Keeping things inside never helps. It’s easier to move on if you just say what’s bothering you out loud.”

Mindy breathed deeply and affixed her gaze away from Stuart. She debated whether she wanted to give in to his coaxing and say what was on her mind. It slipped out before she had time to fully consider the consequences.

“Do you want to have kids?” she said.

A flit of panic passed over Stuart’s expression like a dark cloud. He did his best to quickly reconstruct a look of steadiness, but the instability shined through.

“Now?” he said, cautiously.

“No, not yet,” she reassured him. Despite her mood, she smiled at his comical male terror. “I meant, eventually.”

Stuart breathed a poorly disguised sigh of relief.

“Yeah. Sure I do,” he said. “You know that.”

“I thought maybe that was just something you said. Because you know that I want kids.”

“I mean I’m not ready for kids anytime real soon. If I’m being honest,” he said. “But I wouldn’t lie about wanting to have a kid at some point. Why would I lie about that?”

“Okay,” she said. She looked down at the bread crumbs on her plate. She gave no sign of having anything else to say.

“What?” said Stuart, a little irritated now, feeling in the dark about some crucial detail of their conversation.

Mindy looked up at him, the man she loved. As she had many times before, she imagined him with their future children. The usual clear image was shaken, unsteady, like an old VHS tape that had degraded over time. Instead of the vivid picture of Stuart with his loving arms wrapped around their kids, there was a fuzzy scene of Stuart watching television and ignoring a toddler’s plea to be played with. She fought, as she had all afternoon, to banish the ugly thought that had appeared for the first time in her mind: There was a small chance that she had married the wrong man. There was a possibility that the loving, devoted husband sitting across from her could never be the caring father in the future family that was the only thing she had ever really wanted.

“Nothing,” she said. She leaned over the table and kissed him. “I promise.”

END

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Categories: Fiction

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