Mark had bought a second-hand Comet with the money he’d saved working at McGettigan’s Gas, so he and Margot would get in the car and drive through the sod farms and goldenrod of South Jersey, smoking cigarettes and laughing at the broken-down barns they lived among. The gas, after all, was free—Mark would sneak it off the pumps.
Eventually the fields gave way to pines, and they’d get on one of the sandy roads that led like a contrail into Wharton Forest. They’d drive in, park, and fool around until Margot decided he should stop. Sometimes they’d go skinny-dipping in the tea-colored rivers, and Mark would admire Margot and wonder why he was allowed to enjoy her body only from a distance.
One day, Margot didn’t want to ride down the sandy roads into the pines. She kept talking about Auburn–the college she’d be leaving for in a couple of weeks. Mark liked the sound of the name because it was also the color of Margot’s hair, but he hated everything else about it. Margot explained again how far away it was, how she wasn’t sure she’d be able to fly back, even at Christmas.
They drove in silence for a while. Mark liked to pick a road he’d never been down and just keep going. He was a dog testing the limits of its leash. Towns sprang up and fell away. He wasn’t sure where they were. Slowly, a new smell came in through the window—low-tide mud, brine.
“You’ve never been to the ocean?” asked Margot. She was incredulous and made him drive faster. “The ocean will blow your mind.” She lit a cigarette for each of them and passed one over.
“I’ve seen it in the movies,” he said.
They came to a bridge that lifted them into the overcast air above a bay. The marsh spread out beneath them.
“I’d like to walk out into that grass,” Mark said.
“Don’t,” Margot scoffed. “You’d sink in up to your neck and drown when the tide came back.” She blew a cloud of smoke out the window.
“It looks so pretty,” he said.
“Only from far away,” she said. “It’s full of green flies and crabs.” Then she added thoughtfully, “The people around here hate tourists. You have to not seem like a tourist.”
After they parked, they walked over a small dune ribboned by hurricane fence with trash stuck all over it. The water was far away, and the wind made it hard to hear each other. It took their words and hurled them backward toward the car.
When they got to the tide line, Mark dipped his fingers in and tasted them. He had heard the water was salty, and was pleased at this confirmation. He wanted to drink a palmful of it, but Margot wouldn’t let him.
“People pee in that water,” she said.
The day was gray and threatening rain, and the beach was practically empty. The sun, if they could see it, would be setting soon. For twenty minutes the two of them walked along the water’s edge, watching the ships move slowly across the bottom of the sky. Mark had heard that every ship flew a flag, but these were too far away to tell. Mark picked up an orange shell, the size and shape of a concave half-dollar.
“Do you know the name of this one?” he asked.
She didn’t, and waved him off as she tried to light a cigarette in the relentless wind.
“Someday I’ll go to Europe,” said Margot when she finally got it going, looking out across the water where the ships were disappearing. “I’ll stay in the top floors of the tallest hotels and drink mimosas all day long.”
Mark had never thought about Europe. The farthest his mind had wandered was Auburn. He registered how unlikely it would be for him to ever get there, and it bothered him that he’d never known about the beach, the ocean, the vastness of the world he’d been living beside. His home was only two hours away. And that’s when he knew he would never see Margot again. She was leaving him, and he would travel through the dark in his beat-up Comet, full to the brim with stolen gas, waiting for the road that would take him out of here.
Photo by Michael McKee