They were naked when they came out of the water. Their skin glowed dully in the haze of dawn. We watched them stagger across the sand, one by one, like the last finishers in some ghostly marathon.
“Uh-oh,” Kai said. “Company.”
“I told you,” Marcus said, “didn’t I? We’re not alone in the universe. We have this huge circle of friends.”
“Hide the stash, just in case.”
A boat horn sounded in the distance, maybe coming towards us, maybe going away. The aliens ignored it. They huddled down by the water’s edge, rubbing their pale arms together, shivering. You could practically count the bones in their rib cages. Long ropes of seaweed coiled around their ankles, stiffening as they dried. The aliens didn’t even bother to brush them off. They turned and gestured out at the waves, as if someone they knew was still out there. Maybe this was only the advance group, I thought, the reconnaissance team, and the rest were still getting off-loaded from the mother ship.
“Hey, assholes!” Lisa was on her feet, waving her arms. “Can’t you read the sign? No skinny-dipping! It’s the law!”
The aliens craned their heads in our direction, squinting to get a better view of us, or of something they saw, or expected to see, or would have preferred to see, in the parking lot behind us. Then they went back to their huddle. The sight of our little group sharing their beach did not appear to light up their faces much.
“Yo, be nice,” Marcus said quietly. He was rolling a joint on his longboard, an activity that could be relied upon to make him philosophical. “They’ve travelled all this way.”
“Could be Chinese,” Yuko said.
“Get real,” Kai snorted. “There’s no Chinese people in outer space.”
Our visitors were not, as a whole, particularly attractive to look at. I’m sure there are life forms in this universe who can pull off being naked in a natural, easy way, though god knows I wasn’t one of them—with these blotchy, jiggling flesh pods around my thighs, passed down so thoughtfully by my mother—and neither were these poor soaking emaciated creatures, these walking x-rays, who, from the way they were tilting and teetering against each other just to stay vertical, had yet to adjust to our system of gravity. As if to illustrate this point, one of them dropped to his knees and began puking noiselessly on the sand.
Marcus grunted. “I guess when you’ve been out in space that long, our atmosphere’s tough to take. All those chemicals and shit.”
“Good,” Kai said. “Maybe they’ll think twice next time they decide to scoot around the galaxy, probing minds.”
“Of course in your case that’ll take what,” Lisa said, “half a second?”
“Lisa’s mad,” Kai told us. “She’s hoping they’ll probe, you know, that other thing.”
“They’ve probably lost their sun,” Jeremy said, fitting a zoom onto the Nikon his parents had given him just for being, as they put it, himself. The pictures wouldn’t come out—the light was too dim and he had no flash—but I wasn’t going to say anything. Jeremy’s self-confidence was precious to me. It was like a lever I held in my hand; I could steer it up or down. Frankly, I’d have preferred not to have that power, though that didn’t stop me from exercising it more and more of late.
“Suns flame out eventually,” Jeremy continued, “even the big ones. It’s basic thermodynamics. Ziobro covered it last year in AP.”
And the voice of the Honor Roll was heard in the land.
“So if you’re an intelligent life form,” he concluded, swinging the lens from the aliens down the beach and over to his favorite model, moi—right away I ducked my head into my shirt, as usual—”you either adapt or move on.”
“I got another theory,” Marcus said calmly. He flicked his lighter, inhaled, and blew out two successive jets of smoke, one headed east and one headed west. He liked to slow time this way, to maximize our attention; it was a kind of quiet tyranny he exercised for our own good. In Marcus’ view we all talked too much about the wrong things. He had a sister in rehab and at least one cousin in a penitentiary upstate; the presence of these dark, pulped-out apples in his family tree gave him extra authority. “It goes like this,” he said. “They’re here because they’re here.”
“Actually, if you think about it,” I said, “they’re here because we’re here.”
Everyone turned and gave me an unfriendly glare. Jeremy, who’d gone back to what he’d been doing before the aliens arrived—feeling me up—abruptly pulled away, as if this sudden tendency of his girlfriend to make baffling, stupid declarations might be contagious. He was applying early admission to Brown in the fall; he had to be careful.
Lisa, with her usual zero-tolerance for ambiguity, said, “And what the fuck does that mean, oh wise one?”
“It means,” I said, “if we weren’t here, we wouldn’t be seeing them now. And if we didn’t see them now, then they wouldn’t really be here. At least not to us. It’s like if an alien tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear.”
“Whoa,” Marcus said, nodding. Anything the vaguest bit zen-like appealed to him. “That’s cool.”
“Let’s test out Mimi’s hypothesis,” Jeremy said helpfully. “Everyone close your eyes and we’ll see what happens.”
“Wait,” Kai said, “I don’t get it. Alien tree? What the fuck is that?”
“Close your eyes.”
As for why we were there that night, well, that was my fault. I was the one who’d heard about the eclipse on the radio that morning and recruited Jeremy and his Nikon, and then Lisa, and then Yuko, who’d mentioned it to Marcus, who was hanging out that day with Kai, to come watch it with me. Admittedly, science was not my best subject; going in, I’d been sort of vague about the technical details—was it lunar or solar? total or partial?—so it’s hard to say what I was expecting: something with shape, I suppose, and brilliant contrasts, something that singled us out and rewarded us for paying attention, or consoled us, at least, for having nothing better to do than wait there in the howling wind for an hour and a half in trancey silence, smoking weed and scrunching our toes up and down in the sand. It was a sincere effort, at least on my part; I was really trying to tune into what was happening out there in the cosmos. The trick according to Yuko was to listen closely. Japanese people, she told us, experience nature in a different, more intense way. Nature has syntax for them. It’s like a language. It has to do with the hemispheres of the brain. Japanese use the same hemisphere to process natural sounds as they do to process words, so for them it’s all one thing. Apparently the rest of us aren’t wired that way, however. Apparently for the rest of us they’re two separate things, language and nature, which is why no matter how hard I listened I heard nothing unusual that evening, nothing that inspired me to think about life in a different way. I could not hear that. But I could see perfectly well and could recognize a real loser when it stared me in the face, and that’s what this eclipse was.
If you can classify eclipses by gender, the way you do hurricanes, then the one that night must have been male: it made a big wide-screen production of arrival, peaked before we were ready, and then slipped away without a word. What was left was a formless smear, like one of Jeremy’s photos, that seemed to implicate us all in its stubborn, amateurish failure to develop and left us feeling, after a while, more than a little cranky and demoralized.
“Thanks a lot, Mimi,” Lisa had said, in case anyone had forgotten who’d dragged us there. “I like skipped rehearsal for this shit.”
“Yeah, right. I’m Superman, I totally control these things.”
“Whoa now.” Marcus nodded at us pleasantly over his pampered longboard. Tiny seeds and stems could be seen here and there, sticking to the lacquer. Sometimes, though not often, he even used it for surfing. “Keep the peace, ladies. Try some focus and detachment. Use your impermanence. As the gatha says, three hundred years from now, where will you be and where shall I be?”
“You’ll be stoned, Marcus,” Lisa said. “As usual.”
We’d watched the twenty or so people who had come out for the eclipse head back to their cars, toting blankets and coolers, expensive cameras, their kids trailing behind, clutching notepads to their chests so the wind wouldn’t blow away their science notes. No one looked disappointed. Maybe they had seen more than we had. Or maybe just coming had been enough. Just putting themselves in the way of the event.
“Yo,” Kai said, suddenly furious, “I have to tell you something, Lisa. I fucking hate that play you’re in. It’s the lamest, most racist suck-ass play ever written.”
“Moron. You said that about Hamlet too, and everyone in it was white.”
“I didn’t mean Hamlet. I meant the one with that black dude who strangles his wife. Macbeth.”
“That’s not Macbeth, you dickhead. That’s Othello.”
“This is not focus and detachment,” Marcus informed us. “This is, like, exactly the opposite.”
“My dad shaved his head last night,” I announced. “I watched him do it.”
The problem with being shy is that when you finally do manage to send up the occasional little flare of verbal communication, it’s always too bright, too loud, too sudden, too loopy; it mesmerizes for half a second and then sputters out. Really I hadn’t intended to say anything; it was just one of those involuntary reflexes, the random firing of some lonely twitching nerve in my head. Anyway, the end result was pretty dismal. You might have thought that, given the general witlessness of the conversation that night, everyone would be glad to have a new subject introduced. But instead they looked repulsed. At least Jeremy did, and he was the one closest to me, basically about a tongue’s length away, in fact.
“Dude,” Marcus said, having pondered the matter for a while. “I always wanted to do that.”
“Oh, Marcus,” Lisa said. She eyed me protectively.
“Oh, Marcus, what?”
Yuko got up, brushed sand off her legs, came over to where I was sitting, and put her hand on my arm. “Let’s go look for dolphins,” she said. “This is when they come.”
“Oh, Marcus, what?”
“Call me if you see them,” I said. “I’ll be right here.”
We built a fire out of driftwood, not so much for warmth as for light, and then Kai lit a bowl and passed it around and we stared at the flames with something like smugness, because we had managed to achieve for ourselves some of what the sky had failed to provide for us earlier, that reversal of darkness, that transformation. Everyone partook of the bong but Lisa. She was cutting back on weed, she told us, “to preserve my throat.”
“Well, that’s one thing, anyway,” I murmured to Jeremy. It was beyond me that night to pass up an opportunity for meanness.
Jeremy laughed, nuzzling my ear with his soft, papery cheeks. “I’m going to really miss you,” he told me, for about the tenth time that night. “You know?”
“Yeah,” I said, having learned in Geometry that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. “Me too.”
“I never felt this way before. I mean about a girl.”
“Two weeks,” he said.
“What’s going to happen to us, Mimi? Are we going to make it, you think?”
I could feel my shoulders rising up against my will towards the lobes of my ears, forming exactly the kind of lazy, involuntary, noncommittal shrug that sent both Jeremy and me into a fury sometimes, though for different reasons, when someone—Yuko, as it turned out—let go a shriek.
“There! Over there!”
She stood ankle-deep in the surf, pointing.
“I saw something out there! It was so beautiful!”
So we all trooped down to investigate. Never mind that it was dark, and that the sight of dolphins rising out of the waves was one we’d all grown up with, and that there were only so many things dolphins, upon close inspection, actually did; it still seemed worth our while, hanging around in case these particular dolphins showed up to perform some unexpected trick. But there were no dolphins. Maybe what Yuko saw were the alien rafts, which were, we found out later, still drifting in towards shore. Or maybe she saw some other kind of creatures altogether. Whoever they were, they appeared to have no interest in exposing themselves to anyone but Yuko, which was pretty typical mammalian behavior, come to think of it, where Yuko was concerned.
In any event, now that the ocean too had officially disappointed us, we could sit down again near the fire and get properly stoned, confirmed in the knowledge that our lives were not quite the stellar and propulsive forces in the world they were rumored to be. It was sort of a relief. Between that and the warm, salty breeze, and the fact that it was a Thursday night in early June and none of the standardized tests we’d take in school the next day could possibly be either studied for or remotely important, and also let’s not forget all the opiated substances we had on hand . . . these things, taken together, seemed to entitle us to blow everything off and just basically hang out at the beach all night. The sky was not exactly black and not exactly blue; it was, however, amazingly dark, as if someone had forgotten to throw the switch that turned on the stars. There was only a pale, pockmarked moon and, way out at the edge of the horizon, some sketchy shapes—they looked like fishing boats—against the violet smoke the sun left behind as it dipped into the water. It still looked pretty lit up over there, across the ocean. I’d have liked to see it. Ever since my dad had moved us to the West Coast as part of his ongoing midlife project of changing jobs every four years, making things as hard on everyone as possible, my life had gotten turned around; a lot of the time I felt like I had my back to the rest of the country—or vice versa—and was now facing the other way, towards Asia, that cool, whispery continent, where people lived in paper houses right on top of each other and shuffled along in slippers. If only I could swim that far, I thought, just kick off from the shore and go. I pictured myself floating out across all those imaginary lines, those borders and time zones, shedding everything I knew like a skin, until one day I’d wash up on the other side all pink and new. Look, they’d say, an orphan girl has arrived, let’s adopt her. People here were always going off to Asia and adopting girls; why not give the Asians one of ours? I saw myself hanging out in my new home, a tiny house with paper walls, built on the side of a mountain. That would be a cool life. I’d watched some Japanese movies with my father, so I knew something about it.
Also I watched Yuko. She carried it around inside her, this secret, alternative knowledge, this second life; it bulged like money in her pockets. Her looks, her grades, her musicianship, her clothes, even the food her mother served for lunch, those tiny, rolled-up, complicated sushis—all were fed by this underground source, this hidden spring. No wonder the guys studied her in the corridors as she walked past, ticking off her features like a resume. Her black hair, her calm, sad eyes, her flawless skin, et cetera. Even I’d stare sometimes, like in Language Arts, where I sat two rows behind her, wondering over her bare, unblemished shoulders, so slender, so pale, so incredibly smooth, that even the knobs of her spine, as she wrote out her assignments in her tiny script, hung low in her skin, reticent. Next to that tender and delicate assembly that was Yuko I felt like a gross, clueless creature—a dog, not a cat, a clumsy white girl, out of place in my own skin.
So I had some sympathy for Marcus that night, polishing his board and trying to look unfazed while Yuko cooed quietly into her cell phone to Ivan. Ivan had graduated in January, enlisted in the navy, and shipped out to Guam in an effort to protect us from terrorism. It was a big responsibility and, according to Ivan, way less than fun. For one thing, he missed Yuko. He lamented loudly, loud enough for the news to travel six thousand miles without the aid of phone wires and still reach our ears, how much he missed her and how often; like, say, every time he beat off, which from the sound of it was not exactly an infrequent pastime over there, he pretended she was right there in his bunk with him, her hot little mouth pumping up and down on his love muscle, et cetera. Talk about Language Arts. Lisa, who’d gone out with Ivan before he’d started up with Yuko—for that matter, she’d gone out with Marcus too, before he’d started up with Yuko—couldn’t take it; she got up and, without a word, began to dance around the fire in these odd, not quite syncopated hula steps, singing a tune I recognized to be one of her featured numbers from The King and I at a volume I recognized to be ramping up towards way too loud. Singing show tunes was Lisa’s default mode: she did it in times of stress. Apparently that’s what she was under at the moment, stress. And in case the rest of us were somehow immune to such things, now we’d all be given a good dose of hers.
Yuko folded up the phone, but too late: Lisa had arrived at the last chorus, flinging back her neck to show off her vibrato and also, incidentally, though there was nothing incidental about it, her humongous, freckled cleavage, which shone like wax in the glow from the fire. That Lisa. It was easy to hate the girl, but if she had been just a little less of a bitch I would have loved her. As it was, I loved her anyway. Even now, listening to her voice wobble precariously towards a note she’d never reach, I was ready to believe that she was as good as she pretended, good enough to carry off these sappy torch songs and the whole slinky, tragic, woman-of-mystery affect she tried so hard to maintain.
Maybe it would all come true for her, I thought. Or maybe that would be her tragedy, not having any tragedy to sing of, and she could sing about that. Either way she was prepared for the worst. I admired that.
Still, there was nothing slinky or mysterious about the way she was flashing her boobs around that night. I would have laughed in her face, but the skin on mine had long since stiffened up from the salt water. It felt like I was wearing a mask. Even kissing Jeremy, which I’d been doing on and off for a while now, that mask feeling remained. On the other hand, I’d begun to get that mask sensation in other circumstances too. I remembered feeling it the night before, when I wandered into the bathroom to find my father shaving the hair off his head and into the sink.
“So how do I look?” he’d asked, with a crooked grin that made him look truly awful, as a matter of fact.
“I don’t know. Like a bald guy, I guess.”
“I should have done this a long time ago. It’s very purifying. Very meditative and relaxing.”
“What are you going to do for relaxation next, cut off your dick?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “The doctors’ll do that for me.”
“Thank you and good night.”
“Listen, Sweetpea, don’t be mad. Believe it or not, I’m doing this for you.”
“Well, don’t,” I said. The mask was on; my mouth felt encased in a hard shell. “I didn’t ask you to.”
“You think I’m not scared? Fifty-three years old, man. Fifty-three. Is that fair?”
“No,” I conceded. “It’s definitely not.”
“The invasion begins quietly,” he said, washing lather off his scalp. “A foothold is established. You’re forced to respond. Dig in, marshal your reserves, and seize back control. It’s the only way. Otherwise you keep losing ground.” He looked at me in the mirror. “What?”
“You’re thinking, why is he talking like the History Channel all of a sudden.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything.” Actually what I was thinking was, He’s enjoying this cancer. He’s finally the star of his own independent movie.
“Don’t be a hard case,” he said. “I’m trying to find the right attitude here. It isn’t easy.”
“It’s not just a symbolic gesture, shaving my head. It has practical value too. Better to get it over with. All at once. Don’t you see? I’m trying to spare you, so you don’t have to watch your dear old dad falling apart.”
“Good,” I said. “So close the door.”
The tide was murky and the fog was in; we could hardly tell where the ocean left off and the beach began. All we could see were the aliens’ white backs and twiggy out-flung arms, flashing through the mist like a special effect. The fact that we’d already colonized this particular corner of the planet had not yet registered on them, apparently. They waded back out into the surf and hauled up some rafts that had been floating there behind them, waiting to be towed in. They heaved them up onto the sand and dumped them over. All these shopping bags spilled out, full of clothes. We watched them sorting out the pants and shirts, talking to each other in their harsh, clipped-off language, even laughing a little, as if they took some weird pleasure in capsizing themselves this way.
“So much for traveling light,” Kai said.
There was a ten o’clock curfew at that beach—they’d posted a sign in the parking lot—but the local cops weren’t paid enough to enforce it: until the aliens showed up we’d had the whole place to ourselves. Which was a good thing, because it probably wasn’t legal to have that big fire going either, or to be smoking Kai’s hash, or drinking all that Czech beer that Marcus had liberated from his dad’s garage, or scarfing up the Ritalin Lisa had brought with her, because aside from her voice, that was kind of her major talent area, pharmaceuticals . . . and what Jeremy had done to me with his tongue on the other side of the dunes, after I’d wriggled my shorts down, god, that hummingbird routine of his, that silent dip and flutter, that filthy raid . . . I mean that couldn’t have been legal. But maybe it was.
I cried when he stopped. I don’t know why. It was a confusing night.
“Tell me you love me,” Jeremy said, pulling himself up so he could see my eyes.
But I was too busy crying. I’d been crying on and off for about five weeks at that point; I was getting pretty good at it. The fact that more often than not I had no clue what I was crying about did nothing to stop me from crying so much. If anything, it made me cry more.
Jeremy’s long face looked washy in the moonlight. It was like I was draining the life out of him. The lines on his forehead wheezed up and down like an accordion.
“Don’t I feel good, Mimi?” he whispered. “Don’t I make you feel safe?”
The sand was digging into me at this point, leaving marks that would show up later in my skin. I tried to get more comfortable. Down the beach behind us, the fire was twirling higher, flinging sparks at the vacant places in the sky where the stars had been. The heads of our friends bobbed in and out of view, watching the aliens get dressed. I could see their faces, all of them, when I closed my eyes.
Me me, I heard Jeremy saying. Me me, me me, don’t I feel good?
“Two weeks,” he reminded me. “Then, you know. Zoom.”
“I wish I wasn’t going.”
“Especially now, with your father and all.”
“The thing is, I don’t even know if you’ll miss me.”
“Know what?” He narrowed his eyes at me. “You know you’ll miss me, or you know you won’t?”
“Neither,” I said. “Neither one.”
“Are you fucking with my head here, Mimi? I don’t know, it feels like you’re fucking with my head.”
“Shhh.” I stroked the soft hairs on his rounded upper arm, back and forth, trying to shut him up. He was a great guy in a lot of ways, very sweet and attentive, and I sort of loved him better than any boyfriend I’d ever had—not that there had been so many—but he was starting to mess up my high with these morose countdowns of his, ticking off the weeks we had left, this weird, sloppy pre-nostalgia he practiced which gave everything that happened between us too much weight.
All I’d meant to say was that I knew he didn’t know if I’d miss him or not. That from where I stood that particular distinction did not seem terribly important. Nothing more controversial than that.
If anything, I envied Jeremy his intensity, the way he bore down on us both, reading meanings into everything I said or didn’t say. He thought I should feel more intensely about some things, like him, for instance, or my father’s sickness, than I did. Apparently crying all the time didn’t count as intense enough in his book. I should be more verbally expressive. This was one of his mantras, ever since we’d downloaded our SAT scores off the Internet. The distance between us had been there all along, but Jeremy hadn’t seen it, not until the numbers came back from Princeton, New Jersey. Now that he’d caught a glimpse of the hard, East Coast, Ivy League facts, he knew he had a project on his hands. He knew that in a year or so, thanks in no small part to our SAT scores, he’d fly off to Brown, where he’d really get going on his intense, verbally expressive life, and somehow wind up making a lot of money from it down the road, and thanks to those same scores and the lack of those same qualities, plus a general shortage of savings around our house, I wouldn’t be around to share it, not with Jeremy, not the way he thought he wanted me to.
But that was next year’s headache. At this point we were still equal partners, more or less, in that boring and interminable talent show called high school. In a couple of weeks I’d be lifeguarding at the East Central pool again, and Jeremy would be off in Chicago, helping out in his uncle’s law office. Or maybe it was the other lawyer uncle’s office, the one in New York. Or the journalist cousin in D.C. He had more relatives doing more interesting things in more cities than any boy I knew. Maybe that was what made him feel so tender and important about himself, so entitled to certainty—all those family pictures on his refrigerator, this bright collage of cheerful, accomplished faces who adored him the world over. If you feel you are already home, you don’t need to run anymore. The world opens up to you and welcomes you in. The only thing that wasn’t opening up to Jeremy the right way at the moment was me.
Me me, me me, don’t I feel good?
“Ahem, people,” Kai said. “The ETs are getting restless.”
The black rafts were now collapsed on the beach, flattened and faded like old chewing gum. The aliens stood beside them in their baseball caps, their cheap-looking sweatshirts, cargoes and jeans, the most hopelessly dressed posse of losers imaginable. Still, you had to hand it to them, they knew what they were doing: they looked very much like human beings.
It was just past six. The sun was rising behind us, peeking its fat yellow eye over the roof of the movie theater, bleaching the color from their faces and, for that matter, from ours. We all looked more or less like blank slates. The shadows of the parking meters stretched onto the sand, striping that area of the beach like a cage. Some of us had cars in the lot. We’d have to pay for the night we’d just spent, eventually.
I gestured back at the aliens, tying up their sneakers, putting the last touches on their cheap Old Navy outfits. “Shouldn’t we try to talk to them?” I said.
“I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right, sitting up here this way, just gawking down at the freaks.”
“Mimi’s got a point,” Marcus said. “One of us should go down there and have us a close encounter. Tell them our intentions are, you know, peaceful.”
“No way,” Kai said. “I’m not going to hand my brain over to some alien in a fucking jogging suit.”
“Believe me,” Lisa said, “no one will know the difference.”
“I’d go,” Marcus said, “only I’m feeling kind of punky, all of a sudden. I haven’t slept in two days.”
“What kind of a reason is that?”
“It’s not a reason. It’s just what is.”
“You and your bullshit, Marcus. You and your fucking bullshit.”
“I’ll go,” I said.
“No, you won’t,” Jeremy said.
“Because I’m not letting you.” And then, to soften it, to make himself sound at least slightly less fascist and paternal, he added, “Not alone, anyway.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Well, then, you’ll be even finer if I come too.”
“No, Jeremy, I won’t.”
“Ouch,” Lisa said, giggling. “Check it out. The mouse that roared.”
Jeremy turned to me with his big, heavy-looking, lit-up eyes. “What is it with you, Mimi? Why are you working so hard to pull away?”
“Well, what do you call it?”
“I’m just—” but it seemed impossible to explain to him, or even to myself, what I was just doing. I didn’t know. Still, I could see that it was of tremendous significance to him, this thing I didn’t know I was about to do, which was why his lips in that moment compressed into a tight line, and his eyes went hard, and his hands balled up into fists in the pockets of his cross-country jacket, and why that little mobile facial muscle of his that I so adored, the one roughly midway between his fuzzy cheek and his bony jaw, kept twitching like the second hand of a watch (I pictured him two weeks from now, the first morning in Chicago, shaving all that fine stubble off in the bathroom sink . . . So how do I look?) as he dug divots with his feet in that clammy, colorless sand, trying to avoid my eyes. He was already afraid of what I would say. Or maybe he thought he knew. That’s what I don’t like about having boyfriends, how you reach that point where every move you make is an either/or, either towards them or away, either gaining ground or losing it, when really, more often than not, it’s neither one. Or maybe they’re right: maybe it’s always one of those things. Maybe if I’d been smarter, more verbally expressive, I’d have found a way to make Jeremy understand what I meant and would not have had to endure this self-absorbed confusion of his, and the pain that seemed to be waiting for him, like a boat just offshore, when that confusion passed.
Around then we heard the first sirens.
“Uh-oh,” Marcus said. “The fucking cavalry.”
After that things unraveled pretty fast. I sort of half-ran down the beach, trying to think of something to say when I got there, and the aliens went about their business as if they didn’t see me, buttoning their jeans and tying up their sneakers, getting ready to move on. Yuko was right, by the way: underneath the baseball caps they did look vaguely Chinese. In fact, the closer I came, the more it began to seem possible, even probable, even, I’m sorry to say, incredibly freaking obvious, that they were Chinese.
“Whoa,” I said, breathing hard. “You’re Chinese.”
The Chinese guys, or at least the few who looked up when I spoke, did not seem terribly surprised to hear this news about themselves. I stood there gawking. I’d heard of Chinese refugees sneaking in on freighters, hidden away in shipping containers; there had been pieces on the news. But rubber rafts? Could they travel that far, all the way from Asia, on a rubber raft?
“We thought you might be from outer space.”
This too failed to earn much of a response. Clearly they did not speak our dense, stupid language. They looked dazed and a little frantic, as if my talking to them was evidence that their plan had gone wrong, that now they’d have to bail out before they were ready and find their way to wherever they were going. But where? They were always finding people from other countries out in the desert, or some stranded freight car, or the locked hold of a ship, often dead, or nearly so, because things had gone wrong, because not everything that happened once you crossed that line in space from where you were to where you wanted to be—the one which, though you couldn’t see it, determined pretty much everything—went according to plan. But it was an old story, people sneaking their way into this country through a side door; we were a popular destination with the tired, poor, and huddled masses, the Mexicans, the Haitians, the Vietnamese, the Cubans . . . they loved us, loved us to death. My own great-grandfather had snuck in, so they said, on a boat with no papers, starving and sick, in flight from some shithole in Poland the name of which I could never manage to remember, and would in any case never find, given that between one fascist dictator and another it had been completely obliterated at least four or five times by now.
What, I wondered, would that fierce-looking graybeard in the collarless smock who glared down at us from the mantle over the fake fireplace think of his great-granddaughter now, with her crying jags, her bitchy friends, her lousy SATs? Was it worth the trip?
“Hey, listen,” I said, “on behalf of me and my friends, we want you to know we’re happy to have you here in West La Honda.”
I watched my little speech do a 747, whooshing over their heads. They were too busy fumbling with their laces, stuffing their pockets with coins or keys or whatever bright metal objects had gotten stuck at the bottom of the shopping bags.
“It’s kind of a shitty place to live,” I acknowledged, “but at least there’s the beach and all, which is good for partying. Though probably you guys don’t do much of that, I realize . . .”
The aliens watched me like a television going in the background, flickering away harmlessly, making noise. Fair enough. I grinned and babbled and flapped my arms like a puppet on a string. That seemed to be the thing to do, to put them at ease: show them how silly I was, how ungainly, how much at the mercy of larger forces, because silly and ungainly people, as we all know, are incapable of harm.
But that’s not true. They do plenty of harm, silly and ungainly people. To remind us of this we had only to listen: the sirens were getting closer.
“Hey, listen,” I said, really loudly, grabbing the nearest alien as he went by. “You better get out of here. I’m serious. Someone’s coming.”
He looked at my hand on his arm with considerable hostility, until I removed it.
“I not deaf,” he said.
“Oh, god, you speak English, I mean what a break, that’ll really come in handy. Because they’re going to be looking for you, and it’ll make it easier to get away if you can actually speak the, I mean . . .”
He just stood there, waiting for me to say something useful. I should have brought Jeremy with me, I thought. He’d know how to talk to them. I lacked the talent for these situations. I’d never get into college, I’d never get married, I’d never be able to supply what everyone wanted in the way of verbal expression. The Chinese guy obviously knew this about me, which was why he continued to look hostile, though in a very patient, grounded, thorough way, as if hostility was a solid object that had settled deep inside of him and found shelter there. He adjusted his baseball cap just so, as if he was watching himself do it in the mirror.
“My friends and I, we’ve been watching from up there. You probably saw us when you waded in.”
“We saw. You play in sand.”
“Yeah, I guess we do.”
“We very busy now.”
“I know. You should get going.”
But for some reason neither of us moved. I noticed he wore a wedding ring, a silver band. His eyes were red, his black hair full of sand. I could see a tiny thread of saliva dangling from the corner of his mouth. It was hard to look away.
“Listen,” I said, “you like the Mariners?” I pointed to his cap. “ ‘Cause they play kind of far away from here, if you’re trying to fit in. I mean the Dodgers would work better for that. The Dodgers or the Angels. It depends on what league you prefer, National or American.”
“America,” he said. “America best.”
“Me too,” I said, though in fact I couldn’t care less. I was tempted to ask him what his wife thought about this preference of his, what she was doing while he shot the shit over here with me. “You must be hungry. We’ve got some Doritos and stuff back there . . . it might help tide you over.”
“Food!” He nodded vigorously, his face lighting up. “Thank you!”
“Okay, I’ll go get it.”
“No food!” he said, still nodding the same way. “No time!”
Make up your freaking mind, I thought. But maybe he didn’t understand. I had read about people volunteering to help translate for immigrants, to cook and clean and help them line up basic services. Maybe I could do that for these Chinese guys. Someone had to tell them that the Mariners played way up in Seattle, for instance, not in Southern California.
The sirens were everywhere—behind us on the street, but also I now saw, offshore, boats with patrol lights, bearing down on us.
“Come with me,” I said, taking him by the hand. “We’re just over those dunes. There’s a bunch of us. It’s cool, really. We won’t let them take you.”
“That’s right. We’re cool.”
His eyes, though, did not appear to be responding to our conversation—they went so round, all of a sudden, that I could see the sun burning in the coals of his pupils as he stared over my shoulder. The next thing I knew I’d dropped his hand, or he’d dropped mine, and Jeremy was running at us full speed. I had wished for him a moment ago, and here he was, charging forward, like something out of a dream. Except his mouth was fixed into an angry, violent O, and the sand was exploding up behind him from the sheer force of his steps as he came closer and closer.
“Me me! Me me! Me me!”
And now, thanks to Jeremy, or to the people behind him, or maybe even thanks to me, Mimi, all the aliens started running away, even the guy I’d been chatting with, he took off like a thief. Red lights were strafing the beach. Men in windbreakers were talking through bullhorns, giving instructions. Hands up. Walk slow. Stay together. At some point Jeremy had draped his arm around me. I thought it was to protect me at first, but then I realized he was pulling me away. Or not away, but towards—towards the parking lot, where several patrol cars were idling, and where half a dozen guys in white shirts were herding some of the aliens, along with Lisa, Kai, Yuko, and Marcus, into an unmarked van.
“Wait,” I said. “Where are you taking me?”
The signs had come on in the storefronts across the street. A taco stand and a donut shop. The donut shop, like most in that area, was run by Cambodians. Maybe my little Mariner had escaped and was hiding in there. I hoped so.
“We gotta go talk to them, Mimi. They mean business.”
“But they’re here for the Chinese guys,” I said.
“They want to talk to us too.”
“But we’re not the aliens.”
“Look,” Jeremy said, in a tired, calm, exasperated voice that I found both scary and impressive, given his psychotic charge a few moments before, “they just want to know what we saw.” He was still red-cheeked, which made the wispy white hairs on his face that much more prominent. How long could their softness last, before he had to start shaving them away? “These are federal people, Mimi. They’ve got better things to do than hassle a bunch of kids.”
He was already trudging back the way he had come, smushing the footsteps his own feet had left in the sand, never turning, not even once, to see if I was following him. Either he assumed I was or he assumed just the opposite, or quite possibly he wasn’t thinking of me at all. I wasn’t either at the moment, though of course that wouldn’t last: soon enough, and for the rest of the summer, I’d do almost nothing else.
But not just then. Then what I did was get down on my knees on the cold sand and try to pick up some of the stuff the aliens had dropped when they ran away. I found gum, cigarettes, matches. I found an address book. Packets of dried fruit. A pair of sweat socks. The most interesting item that turned up was a damp, heavily abused little Polaroid of a mother and two kids, one boy and one girl. The girl was around my age, though prettier than me, I thought, more somber, more substantial and mature. And now she’d lost her father, which would make her even more somber and substantial and mature, to say nothing of totally miserable, probably. But then it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t need to feel sorry, not for her. The odds were, given what a botch their whole illegal entry had been, that in a couple of weeks this girl would get her father back.
“Come forward, please,” someone shouted not too patiently through his bullhorn. “We’re asking that you please come forward at once.”
A crew from the local station pulled into the lot. The back door slid open. Two guys came running out with a camera and a boom mike, both of which homed in on me at once, before I could turn away.
“What’s that?” they called. “What’s that in your hand?”
And that’s how I looked that night, on the evening news—alone, frozen in the light, dangling that soggy photo in the air like a flag.