I remember the beach the most from the day that I met her. Why I’d been there, I couldn’t recall now. The couple walking their petite dog, if you can still call it a dog at such a size, as they talked about the roasting of coffee beans and what nuance of flavor suited a roast the best. The single gull that hung in the air, its wings spread wide just cupping the upturned breeze. And the waves that pelted the shores. The daring naysayers that ignored the word of those standing far back enough to see the ferocity of the waters as they took to their boards and tried to defy nature, to tame it. The waters were warm the day they pulled her under.
Midnight came and turned to daylight as I watched the men and women jump from coastal boats in full gear as they disappeared beneath the now calmed waters around. I was there long after the news crews had come and gone. Had told the story of the drowning of Cori Dunning. Interviewed her parents as they sat not far from my own standing. How her mother had cried for hours, as if she’d never truly stop. The man I took as her father, stoic, firm, comforting the woman who could find no comfort.
A young man showed up, his hair long and bleached by hours in the sun. When the woman’s arms found him they threatened not to let go, as if holding him would protect him from a similar sudden fate. Her brother I took it. Something about the nose, a rounded front. And the eyes, my how they were just as dark. And it caught in my own throat as I looked into them.
The cigarette I hung upon would keep me from appearing like the mother. Her father took up the habit around the same moment, perhaps for a shared reason. I thought to raise the little lit stick in my hand, as if in reverence. How stupid that would have been. To people I didn’t even know. Had never gotten to know.
She, Cori, had only passed me once. I was here, where I still remained. What had brought me there, to that moment, to that spot, and where I was supposed to be, they no longer mattered. Her eyes I noticed first, dark but bright. A life in them I found only equaled by her most honest of smiles. So much of this place, these people, was fake. Finding something true, why, it was almost as if you had found someone’s long lost pet very far away from home. As if it didn’t belong here and you could feel it and you just wanted to scoop it up and get it back where it belonged before it was expunged from existence.
She’d had her hair pulled back, tightly braided and draped like swaying dark icicles from the back of her head. She wore a wet suit and carried a board nearly twice her length. It was yellow and orange and painted in sunburst. She walked along with her friends after passing me and knocking me with her board. She’d turned around, and it was not embarrassment or annoyance like all the others, but joy, joy in this befuddlement of happenings as she smiled and laughed and eyes opened to an apology.
“I’m so sorry!” She’d said in a voice I’d never heard but could never forget. “I didn’t mean to hit you!”
“Please, don’t worry about it.” I said and must have sounded like a fool. “I’m glad it did.”
She laughed sweetly and I know I smiled. How couldn’t I? She said that she was going to surf, and turned to go. That I even let her walk a step is unforgivable. Finally I spoke again, “My name is Curtis Bennet. My friends call me Bennett!”
She stopped, turned once more to me, laughing once again as she responded. “Cori Dunning!” And then she was off with her friends walking to the waters that I could hardly imagine going towards even from here. I could say something, but then what? That smile she’d left me with would be exchanged for annoyance. I mean, I didn’t even know her. And as I watched her struggle to paddle out, getting flipped over, slapped in the face with wave after coming wave, getting washed up to the beach, my foot faltered for a moment as it almost pulled me from my spot. But I held my posture.
She would try only once more, her friends already falling back for their third time and finding the sands a far more welcome sight than they’d left. I watched as they waved to her, called out, but she kept paddling. She only made it another second before she was flipped over again and her board flew away from where she’d been. My feet made me move, of course, but only a step. When I saw her face emerge, I stopped, and I saw her. So far away, but I could see that whatever fire had been there as she passed me moments before was already gone, stripped from her. And for a moment I could swear that she looked my way, one last goodbye, before the waters removed her as if the painting had simply made a brush stroke and taken her from it.
As day came, her family was spent. Her mother was still heaving quickened bursts of breath to and from her dry lips. Even her father’s stoic appearance had shattered and he too looked on the verge of breaking apart like the woman in his arms. The brother simply sat, staring out in the waters that offered only the divers coming back on board the boats, the search called off. Undoubtedly there would be a broader search throughout the day, but only in an attempt to find her body floating out to sea. The smile she’d given me would be the last she’d given to anyone, but I knew it wasn’t for me to keep.
As her father pulled his wife to her shivering feet, I stepped over to them, a face they’d never seen before. But on theirs, one I’d never forget.
“I’m so sorry.” The words came out as useless and unhelpful as anyone else’s.
“Thank you.” Her father replied, and I could see her mother’s eyes only shatter further.
“She was amazing.” I said, and I don’t know why. “She was truly amazing.”
The father faltered for a moment before speaking. “Thank you. Thank you so much. We should get going.”
“Yes of course.” I said feeling the absurdity of saying anything but feeling helpless as I continued. “She was everything. Everything I’d ever dreamed of, and I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for her.”
I hadn’t known why I’d said anything at all. But as the father’s eyes broke and his appearance shuddered, her mother looked at me for a moment, the only one she could spare as she smiled and said a simple “Thank you.”
They walked away and I finally moved from my spot to again join the world I’d hopelessly forgotten. Wherever it was I was supposed to be, it was probably time I got there.