Alex, Approximately: Chapter 18


“Please let me keep this memory, just this one.”

—Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)


You’d think that two people who maybe, just might like each other (sometimes) and who definitely, usually (almost always) work together would find some time—or any time, really—to be alone. If not for kissing, then at least for talking. But an entire week passed, and all I got from Porter after the visit to his family’s surf shop was a daily greeting, a lot of smiling, and enough desperate across-the-lobby stares to fill up the entire cavern.

Every day, I watched the bruises on his face lighten and his wound heal, but as they disappear, so does the memory of what happened between us, and I am feeling something akin to physical withdrawals. Sure, I received some texts from him during work hours. They included the following:

On a scale from 1 to Hades, how humid is the Hotbox today?

You should wear sandals to work more often. Your feet are sexy. Maybe I’m the one with the foot fetish.

I thought about sneaking out to your house last night, but I didn’t want to risk getting you in trouble with your dad if I got caught.

I’m tired. Let’s go take a nap together in the big teepee.

And when he texted me, I think I need medical care. Will you come nurse me again? I nearly fell off my stool in the ticket booth. But when I texted him back that I would be right there, his reply was: Sigh. I wish. Pangborn is sitting next to me. Awkward.

The boy is killing me. K-i-l-l-i-n-g.

Things were much simpler when we were archenemies.

“Sometime I feel like Porter is Pangborn’s nurse,” I mutter under my breath.

Grace hands tickets through the window and mutes the microphone. “Know what I heard? That all that weed Pangborn vapes might actually really be medicinal. The old goat might have the big C.”

I frown. “What? Cancer? Who told you that?”

“It’s just a rumor going around. Don’t know if it’s true. You know how people talk. That girl Renee up in the café says she heard that he’s been in remission for years, and that he just uses it as an excuse to get high. So who knows? He doesn’t look sick to me.”

Me either, but can you really tell? And it’s not like I’m going to walk up and flat-out ask him. I hate rumors. It makes me sad that people are talking about Pangborn behind his back.

“What the hell is going on between you two, anyway?” Grace asks me as she adjusts the portable fan.

“Pangborn and me?”

She gives me a classic Grace eyeroll that clearly communicates: You know what I’m asking about; don’t play dumb. “Porter and you.”

“Beats me,” I say, thoroughly grumpy. I’d already told her about the kissing. No details. Well . . . some details. Grace has a way of dragging things out of me. “Maybe he’s dating someone else, and he’s trying to juggle two girls at once.”

Grace shakes her head. “No other girlfriend. He works at the surf shop after he leaves here every day. It’s open until nine. Then he turns back around and works there every morning—and that’s if he hasn’t been surfing. When has he got time for another girl?”

Good point. I feel guilty for even joking about it.

“I saw him arguing with Mr. Cavadini about the schedule that just got posted,” she notes as her phone buzzes. She checks the message, texts something back, and smiles to herself.

“And?”

She shrugs as she passes tickets through the window.

Now my phone buzzes with a text. It’s Porter. We both have tomorrow off. If you’re not busy, would you like to go on a date? Time: tomorrow afternoon until? Chance of being caught by your dad: very low. (Please say yes.)

I look up at Grace. “Did you know about this?”

“About what?” she says, the picture of innocence. “And, yes, I’ll cover for you. You can tell your dad you’re spending the day with me. But my parents want to actually meet you, so you’re coming round for dinner on Tuesday. We don’t play nerdy board games, but my dad cooks and will force you to help in the kitchen while he tells stupid jokes, so fair warning there.”

“I owe you big-time, Grace.” I can’t type Yes fast enough.

The next day at noon, I park Baby in the alley behind the surf shop, neatly wedging her into a small nook between the building and Mr. Roth’s van. Mrs. Roth says she’ll keep an eye on it but assures me that no one in their right mind would steal anything from them. One look at Porter’s scary-ass dad and I believe her. But I’m not really all that concerned about Davy rejacking Baby, I’m just relieved to stow the scooter back here, where my dad won’t be likely to see it if he’s out and about.

I slide into the passenger side of Porter’s van and smooth the hem of my vintage-patterned skirt as he speeds out of the alley, making all the rubber sea monsters on his dash bobble comically. It’s sunny and clear, a beautiful summer day, and we haven’t said all that much to each other. We’re both nervous. At least, I know I am, and I’m pretty sure he is too, because he’s exhaling deeply an awful lot and not his usual chatty self. He hasn’t told me where we’re going yet, only that I should be prepared to do some strolling. “It’s air-conditioned, don’t worry. I wouldn’t subject you to Hotbox temperatures on your day off,” he told me yesterday in the parking lot after work. I’ve been in the dark about everything else.

“You really aren’t going to ask where we’re going?” he finally says when we’re headed south on Pacific Coast Highway, following the ocean past the boardwalk and the Cave.

“I like a good mystery.” I have a couple of flashbacks of our last trip this way, when we were looking for my lost scooter, but I’m not going to bring that up. Instead, I’ve been trying to solve the puzzle on my own, deducing things from the direction we’re headed and the time we’re leaving—not exactly primo romantic date time—and what he’s wearing, which is a pair of jeans with an untucked wine-colored shirt that fits obscenely well across his chest. I can’t stop sneaking glances at his arms. Because, let’s face it, they are great arms. Great arms that lead to great hands . . . and I wish those hands were touching me right now.

Once you’ve had an amazing kiss, can you die if you don’t get another one? Because I feel like that’s what’s happening to me. Maybe I like him way more than he likes me. God, that thought makes me feel off balance and a little queasy. Or maybe I don’t like him at all. Maybe our relationship is being held together by the thrill of a good quarrel and raw sexual attraction, and my initial instincts about him were right. I hope this date wasn’t a mistake.

“I’m glad you trust me,” he says, relaxing for the first time today and showing me a hint of that beautiful smile of his. “Since we’ve got some miles ahead of us, let’s test your musical tastes.”

“Oh, brother.” We both break out our phones, and he lets me scroll through his music library, finding we have little in common there—big surprise. But, and I’m not sure why this is, I’m almost glad about it. Because we spend the next half hour debating the merits of the last few eras of music history—disagreeing about almost everything—and it’s . . . fun.

Really fun.

“This is going to sound weird,” I say after some thought, “but I think we’re compatible arguers.”

He considers this for a moment. “You enjoy hating me.”

“I don’t hate you. If I hated you, things would be much simpler, believe me. I just think we’re good at arguing with each other. Maybe it’s because we respect each other’s point of view, even if we don’t agree.”

“Maybe it’s because we like the other person so much, we’re trying our best to convince them to come around to our way of thinking.”

I snort. “You think I like you that much, huh?”

He holds his palms upward on the steering wheel, gesturing toward the open road in front of us. “I’ve planned this for an entire week like a complete loser. Who’s the one who’s whipped here?”

Warmth spreads up my neck and cheeks. I quickly stare out the passenger window and hope my hair shields the rest as I listen to him exhale heavily again. I’m happy and embarrassed at the same time when I think about how much trouble he went to arranging this. He argued with Cavadini for both of us to get the day off. And I wonder who’s covering for him at the surf shop—his sister?

“I was beginning to worry you’d changed your mind about me this week,” I say to the window.

I feel a tug on my sleeve. Porter pulls my hand across the seat and offers me a tentative, unsteady smile that I return. It feels so good to finally touch him again, and now I’m the one exhaling deeply. I’m still nervous, but it’s a different kind of jitters. Before, my anxiety was singing solo. Now all this weird anticipation and jumbled excitement has added some strange harmonies into the mix. I’m a barbershop quartet basket case.

It takes us almost an hour to get to our destination, which is the closest nearby city, Monterey. It’s about the same size as Coronado Cove, but it has a different feel. Fewer surfers, more boats and bicycles. Porter points out a few things, shows me Cannery Row, which was made famous by local legend John Steinbeck, in the book of the same name. We didn’t read that in school—it was The Grapes of Wrath—but Porter’s read everything by Steinbeck, which surprises me, until he starts talking about tidal pools and a marine biologist named Ed Ricketts who was immortalized in Steinbeck’s book as a character named Doc. Then it starts to make sense.

We park a few blocks from the beach near a Spanish-style building with a terra-cotta roof and a stone whale sculpture out front. The sign on the wall reads: PACIFIC GROVE MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY.

Porter clips his keys onto a leather strap that dangles from his belt against his hip as we stand across the street. He’s examining the blank look on my face, which I quickly try to disguise. “I know this may seem strange. You’re thinking, Hey, we work in a museum all day long. Why would we want to come here?”

“I wasn’t thinking that.” Maybe just a tiny bit. “I like museums.”

And I really, really do.

“That morning on the Lifts you told me you wanted to work in a real museum one day,” he says softly, shoving his hands in his pockets.

I nod, suddenly more than a little embarrassed and wishing I hadn’t shared so much of myself with him—yet, at the same time, touched that he remembered.

“Anyway, this isn’t really part of the date. We have an appointment.”

“An appointment,” I repeat, confused.

“Just . . . come on.”

The building doesn’t look all that big from the outside, and when we head past Sandy the Whale through the front doors and Porter pays the optional meager entrance fee, it doesn’t pull a Doctor Who trick and look any bigger on the inside, either. But it’s two stories and brightly lit. And it’s packed full of natural specimens collected in glass cases—stuffed birds and animals, artifacts, dried plants, rocks—all from central California. And even though natural history really isn’t my thing, it has an old-school museum vibe that immediately makes me fall in love with it.

Yeah, totally digging this.

“My parents used to take Lana and me here when we were kids,” Porter tells me as we stroll into the main room and pause in front of an eight-foot-tall brown bear that stands into the second story.

“It’s fantastic,” I say, craning my neck to glance at the bear’s face. And before I realize how geeky I sound, I add, “The lighting is excellent.”

He’s pleased. “Unlike the Cave, all this stuff is the real deal. And the docents are cool. They know their stuff.” He glances at his surf watch. “We’re a little early. We’ve got half an hour, which is almost enough time to do a quickie tour of the whole museum, if you’re interested, that is.”

“Half an hour until our appointment with . . . ?” I ask.

“You’ll see.” He tucks his wild curls behinds his ears, looking devious and excited, and for a brief moment I panic, wondering if I’m being led into some kind of Carrie situation—any second now, prom will be ruined by a big bucket of pig’s blood being dumped on my head. I start to ask him about this, just to double-check, but he interrupts my horror-movie thoughts.

“No sense sitting around while we wait when there’s so much cool stuff in here. There’s a jumbo squid that Ed ‘Doc’ Ricketts donated and a preserved baleen whale eyeball,” he says with the enthusiasm of someone who just scored two tickets to a red-carpet premier of the next Marvel blockbuster movie.

“Okay, I’m game.” I’m still nervous about this appointment thing, but eager to see the museum at the same time, so I follow him.

Case by case, he guides me through the galleries of butterflies, mollusks, abalone, fossils. There’s a garden out back, and a million taxidermied birds—California condors, ahoy! And when he finally points out the preserved baleen whale eye, I think it might haunt me forever. Especially when, as I’m leaning over to inspect it, Porter gooses my sides. I squeal so loud, a group of small children are startled. He can’t stop laughing. I think we’re in danger of getting kicked out, so I pretend to slug him in the shoulder a few times, and that alarms the children even more.

“It’s always the quiet ones who are the most violent,” he tells one of the wide-eyed toddlers as I drag him away.

“You’re a menace to society,” I whisper.

“And you’ve got terrible taste in boys. It’s time for our appointment.”

I follow him back through the galleries to a small gift shop, where we meet a jolly, brown-haired security guard named Ms. Tish. “You look just like your dad,” she says, shaking his hand heartily. For the love of surfing, does everyone in California know the Roths? And do they all have an opinion on which parent Porter favors the most? It’s ridiculous. Then it hits me that Ms. Tish is a museum security guard . . . and Porter’s a museum security guard. Is there some secret guard network I don’t know about?

Porter introduces me and says, “So, yeah, like I said on the phone, Bailey maybe wants to be future curator in an actual real museum—not a schlocky tourist attraction like the Cavern Palace—so I was hoping maybe you could give us a peek behind the curtain.”

“Not a problem,” she says, nodding toward a door marked STAFF. “Follow me.”

I’m in a daze as she leads us through the back hallways. First she gives us a tour of the archives and storerooms, where a guy and girl are quietly tagging fossil samples at a big table, listening to music. They are nice enough when we’re introduced, but you can tell that they’re relieved we’re heading back out. I don’t blame them one bit; the solidarity I’m feeling is total and complete. Swap out those fossils with old movie stills, and this would be my dream job: peace and quiet, nothing to do but concentrate on what you love. Absolute bliss.

Then we’re on to the museum offices, which look a lot different than the Cave’s. It’s smaller, sure. But people are actually working on stuff that matters back here. Real museum things—not making sales quotas and driving more customers. There are desks and clutter and flurry, and people are discussing exhibits and education programs and outreach.

Ms. Tish stops in front of an office marked with a sign that says EXHIBIT CURATOR. She knocks on the doorjamb and a handsomely dressed woman looks up from her desk.

“Mrs. Watts?” the guard says. “These kids are from Coronado Cove. They work at Cavern Palace. This one here says she wants to steal your job one day, so I thought you might to see what she looks like and prepare yourself.”

I’m momentarily appalled until Mrs. Watts grins and stands behind her desk, gesturing for us to come inside. “A future curator? I’m delighted. Have a seat, why don’t you?”

Everything’s a big blur after that. She’s friendly and asks a lot of questions that I’m not prepared to answer. When she realizes that I’m not really all that into natural history, I think she’s disappointed, but Porter picks up my slack and starts talking about kelp forests and limpets and she’s back on board. Then it gets better because she’s doing all the talking, telling us what she does, and it’s actually really interesting. And she’s super laid-back and cool, and I do want her job—I mean, in a theoretical kind of way.

While she’s talking, I sneak a look at Porter, and I’m overwhelmed. This is not technically a romantic date, but it’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for me. All he had to do was take me to the movies. Heck, I would have been content to park at the end of the alley. Who does this kind of thing? No boy I’ve ever known, that’s for sure.

I’m not certain how long we’re in there—a minute or two?—but she gives me her business card, and before we leave she shakes my hand and tells me, “We’d never turn down a good intern. If you’d ever want to put in some time on the weekends, I’m sure something could be arranged. Shoot me an e-mail.”

“Thank you,” I manage to say.

Ms. Tish and Porter make small talk about surfing as we leave the museum, and I think he gives her someone’s phone number to get free tickets to some sort of surfing competition event, I’m not sure. She seems happy. We both thank her and jog down the stairs in tandem, passing Sandy the Whale on our way back to the van.

“Porter.”

“Bailey.” Lazy smile.

“Porter.”

“Bailey.” Lazier smile.

“That was so . . . Ugh. I don’t know what to say.”

“You didn’t think it was stupid?”

I bump his arm with my shoulder as we cross the street. “Shut up.” I’m full-on lost for words now, completely thunderstruck. Could he be any nicer? Doing this today was beyond thoughtful. . . . It’s almost too much.

I exhale hard several times. I’m unable to express how I feel. My words come out fast and crude. “Jesus, Porter. I mean, what the hell?”

He grins. “So I did good?”

It takes me several strides to answer. I swallow hard and finally say, “Today was great—thank you.”

“Don’t make it sound like it’s over—it’s not even two o’clock yet. Strap yourself in, Rydell; we’re headed to stop number two.”

I don’t mean to laugh. I sound like a demented person. I think I’m nervous again. I also feel a little drugged. Porter Roth has that effect on me. “Where to now?” I somehow manage to get out of my mouth.

“If this place was a slice of my childhood, then I’m about to give you a front-row seat to my nightmares.”

Porter’s family has an annual membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and it comes with a guest pass, so he gets us both in for free. This is no Podunk attraction. Porter tells me it draws two million visitors a year, and I believe that. It’s huge and beautiful and more professional than anything in Coronado Cove.

Today the crowds are sporadic, and Porter weaves around them. He’s clearly been here a hundred times, and at first I think it might be a repeat of the museum: He’s going to be giving me a tour, pointing out all manner of marine life. But after we stop to watch a little kid nearly fall headfirst into the stingray pool, things . . . get so much better.

We start holding hands in the middle of the darkened kelp forest exhibit. Unlike the natural history museum, this place is completely romantic, and I hope Porter doesn’t hear the little happy sigh that escapes my lips when his fingers slip through mine. I don’t even care that his knuckles are making my fingers ache a little, I’m not willing to let go.

The next dark place is the jellyfish room. They are gorgeous, all lacy and ethereal, shockingly red and orange floating up and down in tubes of bright blue water. Porter’s thumb follows their fanciful movements, skimming my palm in dreamy circles. A hundred shivers scatter over the surface of my skin. Who can concentrate on jellyfish when I’m getting all this hand action? (Who knew this kind of hand action could be so exciting?)

I would’ve been perfectly content to stay with the jellies, but a tour group is making things much too crowded, so we seek another place where it’s less populated. We didn’t exactly verbalize this to each other, but I’m almost positive we’re on the same page.

“Where?” I ask.

He weighs our options. We try a few places, but the only thing that seems to be empty right now is the place he doesn’t really want to go. Or the place that he does.

The open sea room.

And I think I know why.

“This is what I wanted to show you,” he says in a gravel-rough voice, and I’m both excited and a little worried as we step inside.

It’s almost like a theater. The room is vast and dark, and the focus is an enormous single-pane window into blue water and a single shaft of light beaming through. There’s no coral, no rocks, no fancy staged fish environment. The point is to see what’s like to look into the deep ocean, where there’s nothing but dark water. It’s effective, because it certainly doesn’t look like a tank. It’s endless, no perception of depth or height. I’m a little awestruck.

A few people mingle in front of the enormous viewing window, their black shapes silhouetted against the glass as they point at schools of bluefin tuna and silvery sardines gliding around giant sea turtles. We step up to the glass, finding a spot away from everyone else. At first, all I can see are the bubbles rising and the hundreds of tiny fish—they’re busy, busy, always on the move—and then I see something bigger and brighter moving in the dark water behind the smaller fish.

Porter’s hand tightens around mine.

My pulse quickens.

I squint, trying to watch the bigger, brighter thing, but it slips away, into the black deep. I think I catch sight of it again and move closer to the window, so close that I feel the cool glass against my nose. With no warning, bright silver fills up my vision, blocking out the dark water. I jerk my head away from the glass and find myself inches away from a ginormous shark gliding past.

“Shit!” I start to chuckle at myself for jumping, and then realize that my hand is being squeezed to mincemeat and that Porter hasn’t moved. He’s locked in place, frozen as if by Medusa’s stare, forehead pressed against the glass.

“Porter?”

He doesn’t respond.

“You’re hurting my hand,” I whisper.

It’s like he doesn’t even know I’m there. Now I’m getting freaked out. I forcibly pry my fingers out of his, and it’s beyond difficult: It’s impossible. He’s got me in a deadlock, and he’s crazy strong.

For a brief moment, I panic, looking around, wondering what I should do. Wondering if anyone else notices what’s going on. But it’s dark, and there’s barely anyone in here. He’s suffering in silence.

What do I do? Should I slap him? Shout at him? That would only draw attention to us. I can’t imagine that helping.

“Hey,” I say urgently, still working on loosening his fingers. “Hey, hey. Uh, what kind of shark is that? Is that the same shark that bit you?” I know it wasn’t, but I’m not sure what else to do.

“What?” he asks, sounding bewildered.

“Is that your shark?”

“No,” he says, blinking. “No, mine’s a great white. That’s a Galapagos. They rarely attack humans.” I finally break our hands apart. He looks down between us for the first time and seems to notice something’s wrong. “Oh, Jesus.”

“It’s fine,” I assure him, resisting the urge to shake out my throbbing fingers.

“Fuck.” His face goes cloudy. He turns away from me and faces the tank.

Now I’m worried our beautiful, perfect date is ruined.

I have to summon all my willpower to push back the wave of chaotic emotion that threatens to take me under, because the truth is this: I’ve never been on a date before. Not a real one. Not one that someone planned. I’ve been on a couple of double dates, I guess you’d call them, and some spur-of-the-moment things, like, Hey, do you want to go study at Starbucks after class? But no real dates. This is all new territory. I need this to be okay. I need this to be normal.

Do not panic, Bailey Rydell.

I keep my voice light and tug on the leather key strap that dangles at his hip until he turns to face me again. “Hey, remember how freaked I got at the bonfire? Please. You aren’t half as screwed up as me.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Sorry, I do. This time you’re going to have to trust me.”

“Bailey . . .”

The shark swims by again, a little higher. I jiggle his keys in my palm. “I will admit, though, despite what I’ve been through, Greg Grumbacher looks like a dandelion compared to that beast. Now tell me how big your shark was compared to the Galapagos.”

His shoulders drop, his Adam’s apple rises and falls, and the way he’s looking at me now, suddenly clear-eyed and sharp, satisfied—as if he’s just made an important decision—makes me feel all funny inside. But I’m not worried anymore—not about him, and not that our date is ruined. The danger has passed.

We both face the window, and he begins to tell me in a low, steady voice about the Galapagos and another impressive shark that swims by, a hammerhead, telling me sizes and shapes and diets and endangered status. And as he talks, he moves behind me and wraps his arms around my waist—questioningly at first, but when I pull him in tighter, he relaxes and rests his chin on my shoulder, nestling into the crook of my neck.

He knows all about these sharks. This place is therapy for him. And sure, he got stuck there for a second, but look at these things. Who wouldn’t? Not for the first time, I’m amazed at what he went through. I’m amazed by him.

“In Hawaiian mythology,” he says into my hair, his voice vibrating through me, “people believe spirits of their ancestors continue to live inside animals and rocks and plants. They call an ancestral spirit an aumakua—like a guardian spirit, you know? My mom says the shark that attacked us is our aumakua. That if it had wanted to kill us, it would have. But it was just warning us to take a good, hard look at our lives and reassess things. So we’re supposed to honor that.”

“How do you honor it?” I ask.

“Pops says he’s honoring it by admitting that he’s too old to be on a board and that he’s better off serving his family by staying on dry land. Lana says she’s honoring it by being the best surfer she can be and not fearing the water.”

I trace the scars on his arm with my index finger. “And what about you?”

“When I figure that out, I’ll let you know.”

As the silver of the hammerhead shark glides past, Porter slowly turns me around in his arms. I’m vaguely aware of the silhouettes of the people who stand farther along the viewing window, but I don’t care. In our little corner of peaceful darkness, it feels like we’re alone. With my arms circling him, I dare to dip my fingers under the loose hem of his untucked shirt, reaching upward until I touch the solid, bare skin of his back. Right over the same place on me where one of my own scars is, though I’m not sure if I subconsciously mean to do that or if it’s an accident.

He shivers violently, and it’s the sweetest victory.

A pleasant warmth spreads through my chest. The water’s reflection shimmers on the sharp lines of his cheekbones as he holds my face in both hands and bends his head to kiss me, softly, delicately, like I’m something special that deserves to be honored.

But the thing he doesn’t know, the thing that shocks even me, is that I’m not the gentle guardian spirit; I’m the hungry shark. And I fear his arm won’t be enough. I want all of him.


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