The man standing on the edge of the beach said he was there to change the sea. He was staring into the distance when he said it—alone, watching the sunrise, wearing overalls, a hardhat. The thin and foamy edge of the water lapped at the tips of his black boots.
“Sure,” we said. “You’re here to change the sea.” We laughed and shook our heads, walking further up the beach. It was empty this early, deserted in all directions, the sand stretching out in an arc, hugging the water. You said it was your favorite time to be at the beach, before the crowds. We spread out our towel and put up our umbrella. The sky seemed sprinkled with blush and powder, wispy clouds strung out like crepe paper.
As the day got hotter, the crowds caught up to us—children clutching inner tubes and laughing or crying, parents spreading suntan lotion, teenagers with kites and volleyballs—all staking their claim on a tiny piece of beachfront property that used to be ours. I cut up strawberries and kiwis that you packed for lunch, watching the waves roll in. You laughed at something in the book you’d brought, sun still climbing and crisping your skin till it looked the flesh of a golden apple.
I packed up our stuff a few hours later while the beach emptied out. I watched the ground, trying to avoid stepping on any of the soda cans and cigarette butts that lay scattered, half-buried in the sand. You nudged me and pointed. He was still there, the man who came to change the sea, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses that reflected the sun off the waves.
We stopped for a second—you looking at me, me looking at him, him watching the horizon. He noticed us, turned, and waved.
“I hope he’s not here again tomorrow,” you said.
The next morning, he was there again waving to us. Only now he had fourteen friends standing in a line, all dressed in overalls, hardhats, sunglasses. They all waved. Some of them had clipboards, one used a theodolite on a tripod. They turned back to look out at the horizon. The beach was empty for miles in either direction—except for them and us.
“If any of them comes near us, use the knife,” you whispered as we walked up the beach. There was a chill in the air.
“You brought a knife?” I said.
“For the fruit. To skin the kiwis.” You dug in the basket and held it up. The dull edge and round tip gleamed in the early morning sun. “If it can skin a kiwi, it can skin a man.” You waved it at me.
We spread out our towel far up the beach, away from the men, and went for a quick swim. You wore that yellow bathing suit I liked, mostly because of the way it stuck to you after a swim, wet and clinging. The whole thing was your idea. You planned out the summer this way, the same rituals every day: the beach, the umbrella, the bathing suit, the strawberries. Making every day the same, you said, was the only way to create an era. We’d quit jobs, sold possessions, left behind everyone in this attempt to “just live,” as you described it, “while we still can.” You waved to me from the shore, radiant, saltwater dripping from your chin.
A few people gradually filtered onto the beach, but so did the vans. One by one, the men in hardhats walked off the beach. They drove back in large white vans that they parked equidistant from each other and sat for hours with their engines running as the beach filled up around them. It was one of the more crowded days that summer, an expanse of bobbing heads and bouncing balls that made the sand almost completely invisible, a strip of humanity clinging to the edge of the earth. Rising between all those heads—like ominous crabs, fat and crouched, powerful and protected—were the vans. People set their towels between them, used them for shade. You frowned, watching.
We came back that night, your idea. I could never turn you down when you had that mischievous arch to your eyebrow, a hint of adventure tugging at the corner of your lips. Creeping through the town at that hour, we realized we didn’t really know the place, not like we thought. Instead of the buses and cafes and sidewalks we’d come to know, the place was ruled by an unfamiliar stillness and quiet, the moon covered by clouds drawn with charcoal. The roads seemed to swell and contract like slow breathing.
You led me by the hand, making fun of your own paranoia, saying we wouldn’t find anything but a pair of lovers fucking in the sand. You laughed as we went over the ridge, the shoreline coming into view. We stopped short, the laugh hanging suspended from your lips.
Hundreds of white vans covered the beach, way more than the fourteen from earlier in the day. They stretched out as far as we could see in either direction, each parked exactly the same distance from the next, engines running, brilliant and visible in the night.
“What do you think they’re doing?”
“Changing the sea,” I said. We stood silently for a moment, watching. The water, darker than the sky, looked like a roiling endless organism of ink.
We got a late start the next day. Light filtered through the floor-to-ceiling windows and curtains, leaving the hotel room cast in an orange hue, anonymous and warm. Everything still and silent, as if the world outside was a land of perfect marble statues waiting for our arrival to strike them into motion.
I heard the sheets rustle. You rolled over and stretched out, a bare arm breaking the air.
“It’s already 10:30.” You yawned, your arm falling back onto the bed. “The beach is going to be so crowded.”
I inched closer, wrapping my arm around a warm hip, feeling your bare back pressing against my chest. “Let’s skip today,” I said. “We can just spend all day in bed.” I let my arm fall over your stomach, feeling the soft curve. Streaks of light crawled over the ceiling.
You sat up, my arm fell in your lap. “No,” you said. “We can go a couple miles north, see if it’s less crowded than the usual spot.” You stood, orange light outlined your body.
“The vans are just going to be there, too,” I said.
“That’s what I want to see.”
“How about if I just stay here and you tell me about it when you get back?”
“The whole point is to spend this time together. You’re not giving up.”
“No, I mean—”
You looked at me with a blank expression.
“Can we at least stop and get some breakfast? My treat,” I said.
“You have money left?” You stretched your arms up above your head, pulling your body taut.
You threw my bathing suit at my face, still damp from the day before. “Put something on. You’re indecent.”
The bus north smelled like flesh and tanning oil, full of people squeezed into small bathing suits—baskets of snacks and books and towels between their feet, round sunglasses planted in their hair or over their eyes. Everyone stared into space, listening to headphones or the engine, swaying, synchronized with the movement of the bus.
We got off at North Beach and didn’t see any vans because all we could see were trucks. They were big steel container trucks, like huge barrels put on wheels; metal flanks gleamed in the sun and made us squint and sneeze and shield our eyes. They were laid out in a solid line along the road, blocking all view of the sea. A crowd of the beach-bound stood in the road in their sandals and speedos, staring at the trucks. Disappointed children whined. People murmured about what was going on past the trucks, about what a bad time it was to change the sea, why couldn’t they wait for autumn, or better yet, winter. Behind all this chattering, we could hear a massive sound from the other side, like a giant drain coming unclogged and bubbling, gasping for air.
We pushed past the people. Your grip strong, dragging me by the hand. Hum of engines and the sloshing of water came from the trucks as we squeezed through the few bare inches between them. The beach looked gigantic, like low-tide had grown lazy and hopeless and fallen even lower. Sea shells and flopping fish lay exposed on yards of newly revealed sand. The white vans laid out on the beach like toys. Large corrugated tubes snaked out from the edge of the water to the inside of each van and then on to the container trucks waiting in the road. The sound was louder now, like a choking victim with a megaphone.
A man in a hard hat came running up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! You can’t be here. We’re doing very delicate work.”
We looked around—men in overalls leaned on the vans, chatting with each other, smoking cigarettes or drinking coffee.
“Just what exactly are you guys doing out here?” you said, still holding my hand.
“What’s it look like?” he said, waving a hand behind him.
“It looks like you’re draining all the water in the ocean.”
“This ain’t no ocean, it’s a sea.”
“What difference does that make?”
“ Look it up,” he said and snorted. Your cheeks flushed a little.
“Do you work for the city?”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but you really have to go.” He whistled and a few of the other men started walking up the beach. We were gone before they got anywhere near us, up the beach, past the trucks, up onto the road, and back through the angry crowds.
We headed for the cliffs. We knew from experience that they were secluded and wild, dense with foliage. To get there, we had to trek through a half-mile of woods, and then crawl across boulders and down unexpected sandy trails. It was a misnomer, “the cliffs,” but that’s what everyone called the spot—it was really just a craggy, ribbed outcropping of rocks and sand-floored caves not far above the waterline. Large waves would sometimes envelop the boulders in a spray of mist and flood the smaller cavities.
When we arrived, we discovered that “the cliffs” was now an accurate description—there was a sheer drop of twenty-five feet from the edge of the furthest outcropping down to muddy sand. The water, what was left, started a little below the sand. Once unpredictable and surging waves gently lapping now like a bathtub. It looked the same all up the coast, dark bowl of sand and salt surrounding the waterline, marking where it used to be.
A boy was sitting on the edge of the cliffs, dangling his legs over and knocking a stick against the rocks. He wore sandals and long bathing shorts, but his curly brown hair looked dry.
“Hi,” he said, turning to look at us, showing a missing tooth.
“Hi,” I said. “What are you doing up here?”
“Waiting for them to finish changing the sea. Can’t wait.”
I smiled. “Why’s that?”
He pointed with the stick towards the horizon. Three large black crosses rose from the center of the sea, their reflections rippling and elongated in the water. You squinted, looking in the distance, the corners of your eyes folding in a familiar way.
“What is it?” I asked the boy. You put your hand over your brow.
“Pirate ship,” he said and grinned.
I looked toward it again, surprised.
“They’re masts,” you said, still squinted against the sun.
“But . . . there were never any pirates in this sea,” I said. “No Spanish trade came through here.”
“I knew there was something special about this place,” you said, smiling. “Do you think the state even knows about this?”
“Don’t you know?” the boy asked you. He smiled, flashing the hole in his teeth again. “They sold the sea.”
The next day, barricades were in place, stretching down the road, printed in large black block letters: PROPERTY OF AQUATECT, INC. The trucks and white vans were still parked in place—hoses running between them like fat and thirsty worms—but they were empty, unmanned, and inaudible. The crowd of beach-goers were angry the beach was still closed—during the best holiday of the summer! People talked about the city’s budget in conspiratorial tones, that the state had sold the sea, privatized it, to close a shortfall. We heard something about a seventy-five-year contract. We heard something about forever.
The workers had the day off because of the holiday, union rules. So you pushed lightly against the barricade. It teetered before gravity clutched it, hitting the ground with a slap. We agreed right there that whenever we retold this story it would involve us “storming” the barricades like revolutionaries, Molotov cocktails in hand.
We squeezed through the trucks, heat radiating off the mirrored chrome, and people followed, catching a glimpse of the sea. All the water was gone and a desert lay in its place, horizons unknown. Our familiar sandy slopes dropped down to a shoreline that was now cracked mud, rotting fish, smears of salt-streaked sun-baked seaweed. A landscape of flies.
A sign stuck up out of the mud, painted with a view of boats on the water trailing para-sails headed for an enormous red Ferris wheel sprouting water slides. In bold letters at the top: A NEW, IMPROVED SEA—COMING SOON FROM AQUATECT, INC. Smaller letters on the bottom: PARDON OUR APPEARANCE, THIS AREA IS BEING REFURBISHED FOR YOUR FUTURE ENJOYMENT.
Even without the water, people set out their blankets and umbrellas in the sand, blowing up balls and miming their way through holiday rituals. It was important, you said, to reestablish our own rituals, to reestablish the era—I set down our basket and we ate the strawberries, just like any other day. Children set off fireworks in the mud flats. Streaks of light, sparks, smoke floating softly amid the summer sun and stink of sea life. I offered you more, we had packed a whole meal—grapes, dried apricots, almonds, chocolate—but you waved them away. I reached down and took your hand in mine, sticky with peanut butter.
“I was thinking of getting a job,” I said.
You let go. “I thought we agreed.”
An old man with a metal detector walked through the cracked mud.
“We were going to spend this entire summer at the beach,” you said. “We were going to enjoy the time we had left, the era.”
“We did,” I said. We’d left behind houses, siblings, careers, spouses.
“You know what everyone will say: they were right, we were stupid.”
Other people started picking through the mud, swatting flies and avoiding fireworks, finding bits of polished glass and unusually colored shells.
“Summer’s not over,” you said. “There’s still time for us.”
You took my hand, led me to the edge of the beach, past the smoke and the kids, past the men digging for jewels in the filth. You stood there amid the flies and looked into the distance, towards the center of the sea.
“We can still make it work,” you said.
I woke that night—you were gone. Moonlight poured in through the curtains, painting the hotel ceiling in black and white. Your pillow cool, the closet open.
A crumpled piece of paper on the floor with your handwriting.
Bank Account: $208.32
Hotel Bill: $909.25
208.32 − 909.25 = FUCKED
I put it in the garbage, got dressed, put a kiwi in my pocket.
The streets outside were breathing again in long slow breaths, the city hanging silently around me. Perspiration formed on the windows of air-conditioned houses.
In our usual blanket spot, I found a trail of footprints through the mud: one side a sandal’s tread, the other a perfect impression of a bare foot leading out into the desert at the edge of the beach. I followed them out past decaying fish, salt-rinded smears of seaweed. Mud sucking at my shoes, flies buzzing in my ears, in my nose. Stink of death.
I found you, at last, sitting alone in the muck next to a boulder. Wearing one sandal, the other foot bare, hair matted, body splattered in mud. Clutching the fruit knife. You didn’t seem surprised to see me.
“What are you doing out here?” I said.
“Just sitting,” you said.
“You’re covered in filth.”
“Went for a walk.”
“Out in the mud?”
“Out in the sea.” You waved your hand around, smiled weakly. “You never wondered what it would be like to walk on the bottom of the sea?”
“And what was it like?”
“Hearing about Neil Armstrong for the first time. Pretending he’s Moses.” You pulled your muddy knees up to your chest. “I went to the masts.”
“The pirate ship?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t. Not really. There were pirates but—not real.”
“Everything was made of plastic. You know how people put little castles and treasure chests in aquariums for their fish? It’s like that, for whenever they finish changing the sea. For divers, I guess. They swim through, see some skeletons, some treasure. Everything made of plastic: the gold, the masts, the seaweed, even the hull.”
Next day, the men would return with new machines, they would again gaze at the horizon. The machines would scrape the bottom of the sea clean, collecting the mud, crusted over with salt and infused with vital nutrients, to be bottled and sold as exfoliating mud masks. The beach would be sucked up, replaced with hypoallergenic sand that was soft and photographed well. When the water was pumped back, the sea would be filtered, chlorinated. The Ferris wheel would be enormous, the parasailing would be very popular, the admission would be ten dollars.
But that night, when you were sitting covered in mud, distant sound of the last fireworks still echoing, the beach was still ours and there was still time. I sat down in the mud next to you, took your knife, skinned the kiwi, fed it to you, took you in my arms. Seabed still empty, still bathed in moonlight, still haunted like memory, like ruins—like buried Babylon, empty and enormous.
And it was all ours, the end of the era.