Alex, Approximately: Chapter 22

“I’m not who you think I am.”

—John Boyega, Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

I don’t really know how long it takes for people to start feeling normal again after someone dies. But I think I expected Porter to bounce back faster because he’s so confident. I have to remind myself that he’s already emotionally scarred, and that some of his cockiness is just for show. So when I see him sinking into what I fear is depression after Pangborn’s funeral, I wonder if I should say or do something to help him. I just don’t know what, exactly.

He tells me he’ll be okay, that he just needs time to get over it. When I ask if he wants to grab something to eat after work, he says he might be too tired. He does look tired. He apologizes a lot. That doesn’t seem like him—at all, frankly.

Dad tells me not to push him too hard. I’m not exactly a pushy kind of person. But after what seems like an endless stretch of Porter’s melancholy, I’m starting to wonder if I need to start nudging. But Grace echoes my dad’s advice, telling me to give Porter some space. And what’s even weirder is that for once, I’m the one who doesn’t want to be alone. I guess Grace can sense this, or something, because she’s been asking me to hang out a lot. Our prework breakfast dates at the Pancake Shack are now becoming routine. A definite bright spot of my day. It’s helped to get my mind off Pangborn—and stopped me from worrying so much about Porter. Sort of. It doesn’t soothe the funny ache in my heart when I think about him dealing with all of this on his own. I wish he’d let me help. I wish he’d talk to me. At this point, I’d give my right pinky toe for one of our good, old-fashioned arguments. Can you miss someone you see almost every day?

A couple of weeks after Pangborn’s funeral, at six forty-five a.m., I’m awakened by a series of buzzes. It’s my phone. Who’s texting me this early? My first reaction is panic, because, let’s face it, life has been a shit sandwich lately.

Porter: Wake up.

Porter: Waaaake uuuuup.

Porter: How late do you sleep, anyway? You need an alarm clock. (I’d like to be that alarm clock, actually.) (God, please don’t let your dad pick up your phone.)

Porter: Come on, sleepyhead. If you don’t wake up soon, I’m leaving without you.

I type a quick reply: What’s going on?

Porter: Good surfing, that’s what.

Me: You mean, surfing for you?

Porter: That was the idea. So, are you coming to watch me surf?

Me: Try and stop me.

I’m so excited, I throw off the covers and leap out of bed. Okay, so maybe this isn’t a romantic invitation, because a few more texts tell me where I’ll be meeting his family, but I don’t care. I’m just relieved that he sounds cheerful. My only problem is Grace, my breakfast date this morning. She’s already up, and when I text her to ask for a rain check, she asks if she can tag along. When I don’t answer right away, two more texts follow—

Grace: Pretty please?

Grace: I really need a chin-wag.

Me: ???

Grace: A chat. Girl talk. Yeah?

Normally, I’d say sure, but I haven’t spent time with Porter since the Big Lebowski viewing after the funeral. What if he doesn’t want a big audience? I consider the best way to handle it as I get dressed, but my mind keeps wandering to Porter.

When I head out, the fog hasn’t cleared. The place I’m meeting the Roths is a spot a couple of miles north of town, just up the beach from the Bone Garden. It’s pretty out here, all wild and pebble-strewn. And though it’s not crowded like the beach at the boardwalk, I’m surprised to see anyone at all this early in the morning. Apparently, it’s a popular surf spot, because a dozen other vans are parked along the road and several other onlookers gather, including a couple of people walking along the beach with their dogs as the waves roll and crash.

Clearly, this wasn’t a private affair. I even see Sharonda, the president of Brightsea’s drama club, who Grace introduced me to at the bonfire party. For a moment, I remember Grace, and tell myself I need to text her back, but Mrs. Roth waves me down, and she’s brought doughnuts. I don’t want to be rude, and she’s in a great mood, so I put Grace out of my mind for the time being and silence my phone.

While I make small talk with Mrs. Roth, I catch sight of the rest of the family. Mr. Roth is in training mode, unloading a board with Lana, and barking commands. But I’m having trouble paying attention to anything but Porter. If there are any traces of melancholy left on him, he’s packed them away. It’s a new day, and I can see the change in the way he walks across the sand, the way he holds his head high. He’s ready to move on.

He’s donned a sleeveless black-and-aqua wet suit, and it’s clinging in all the right places. Standing next to Mrs. Roth, I’m afraid to look too closely all at once, but hot damn. I catch his eyes once when his mom’s busy chatting with Sharonda, who is apparently friends with Lana. I can’t wink, so I just look him up and down and mouth, Wow. He gives me a spectacular grin in return. He’s so cocky; the boy knows how good he looks. I roll my eyes, but I can’t stop smiling, and he loves the attention. He could build sand castles on the beach and never even surf one wave for all I care. Mission accomplished.

After that exchange, his focus shifts. I notice the moment it happens. He’s stretching, both him and Lana, legs and arms, normal stretches and some weird jumping. They’re both super limber. And the entire time, his eyes are on the water. He’s calculating the big waves. Timing them, or something. He checks his watch occasionally, but mostly he’s watching the water and checking the sky. He’s very intense. I like him this way.

There’s some sort of surfing etiquette I don’t understand, but I can tell Porter and Lana are waiting their turn. And I can also tell that the other surfers aren’t very good, and some of them are giving up and clearing out. After a minute, Mr. Roth gives his wife a head signal.

“Okay, girls,” she says to me and Sharonda. “We’re going up there.”

“Up there” is a short hike up a massive sand dune that gives us a great view of the ocean. From here, we can see the waves rolling in much more clearly and all the other surfers who are either surfing on the smaller waves closer to shore (not impressive), or trying to ride the bigger waves farther out and not lasting very long. The ocean is eating them alive. Now I’m a little worried.

“They’re not surfing those, are they?” I ask. The big waves looked smaller and flatter from the beach.

“You bet your sweet patootie they are,” she says, all fierce mom pride. And from the looks of the crowd gathering behind us to watch, she isn’t the only one interested in the show.

I hope this is a shark-free zone.

Lana’s in yellow and black, and she goes first. She lies flat on her board and paddles out, and that takes longer than you’d think. Porter gives her some distance, but he’s paddling now too. The farther out they go, the scarier it gets. They sometimes disappear under the smaller rolling waves, like speed bumps in a road, then reappear on the other side.

“Have you seen them surf before?” I ask Sharonda, taking a bite of doughnut. I hate to break it to Mrs. Roth, but this is no churro or vanilla moon muffin.

“Yeah, I live down the road, so I see Lana surf a couple of times a week. Sometimes I go watch events, if they aren’t too far. I once rode down to Huntington Beach with the Roths. Remember that?”

“Sure do, honey,” Mrs. Roth says, watching the water.

“What about Porter?” I ask.

Sharonda nods. “I’ve been watching Porter compete locally since he was, like, thirteen. He used to have hair down to here,” she says, putting her hand halfway down her back. “Nothing but curls. All the girls in our class had a crush on him.”

Mrs. Roth sticks out her bottom lip, looking sentimental. “He was such a sweet boy. My little grommet.”

“Oh, and we’ll be watching all of Lana’s surfing heats together on TV,” Sharonda says excitedly, reaching around me to tap Mrs. Roth’s arm. “Maybe we can have viewing parties?”

This surprises me. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that Lana will be that professional. Now that I know her, she just seems like a good-natured kid who chews a lot of gum and drools when she falls asleep on the couch, which is what happened that afternoon at their house.

Lana and Porter are both floating on their boards, bobbing in the rolling waves. I’m not sure what they’re waiting for, but everyone is tense. Before I can ask what’s happening, Lana’s yellow-and-black suit pops onto her board. She’s standing, crouched on her board, and cutting through a massive wave I didn’t even realize was there.

There she goes!

She’s like a beautiful black-and-yellow bee, zipping through the water, making tight zigzag motions that seem to go on forever. I can’t believe she can ride the wave for so long. It’s crazy. How is this possible? Seems like it goes against nature.

“Yeah, Lana,” Mrs. Roth calls out to the ocean, clapping in time with all of Lana’s zigzagging. “Go, baby, go!”

By the time Lana finishes, she’s so far on the other side of the dune, it’s going to take her five minutes to walk back to us. No wonder these kids are in shape. This surfing gig is exhausting.

The crowd on the sand dune explodes into applause and whistles, and I clap along, too. Mrs. Roth rotates her hand in the air, egging them on. “That little peanut is going to win it all,” she tells everyone around us, and some of them high-five her.

She’s so proud. Everyone’s smiling. It’s all exciting, but now I’m watching Porter, because he’s paddled out just a little farther, and that makes my stomach drop.

Mr. Roth comes bounding up the sand dune, eyes on the water. How long has it been since Porter’s surfed like this? I’m suddenly nervous. If he crashes, or whatever it’s called, I don’t want him to do it in front of me and be embarrassed later. I can’t handle that. I want to look away, maybe make some excuse, like I got sick from the doughnut and had to leave. I can hear about it later.

Then he pops up on his board.

Too late. Can’t look away now.

His wave is bigger than Lana’s. His stance is different from Lana’s. He rides the board up the curling water, up, up, up . . . (please don’t fall!) and at the top, he’s— Holy Mother of Sheep, he’s flying up in the air, board and body! Impossibly, on a dime, he turns the board one hundred and eighty degrees, sharply. Then he rides the wave right back down, smooth as glass, white foam kicking out from the tail of his board like the train of a wedding dress.

“YES!” Mr. Roth bellows, holding up his arm.

The crowd behind me shouts along with Mrs. Roth.

It’s happening so fast. That was just one move, and though Porter doesn’t take the board up in the air again, he’s already made turn number two (crouching low at base of wave, wait, wait . . . rides up again), and whoosh! Turn three! Now he’s riding back down, still going, arms out for balance, like fins.

Lana’s style was fast and quick, full of spunk; Porter is slower and his moves are grander. Poetic. Beautiful. He’s cutting through the water as if he’s painting a picture with his body.

I didn’t know surfing looked like this.

I didn’t know Porter could do this.

He makes the last turn at the end of the wave, a baby turn, because there isn’t much wave left to ride, and then neatly comes to a stop where the sand rises toward the beach, the wave washing all around him, as if the ocean found him shipwrecked and is delivering him safely to shore.

The crowd roars.

I crush my doughnut in my hand. “Holy shit,” I say in amazement, then apologize, then say it again several times, but no one is listening or cares.

Mr. Roth turns around, grins at the crowd—grins!—and kisses his wife before running down the other side of the dune to greet his son. Mrs. Roth picks me up in a bear hug. For a woman who isn’t an athlete, she sure is strong. When she puts me back down, she cups my face in her hands and, shockingly, kisses me straight on the lips. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I knew you could get him out here.”

“I didn’t do anything,” I say, flushing with excitement and a little embarrassment.

“Oh baby, yes you did,” she says, her eyes shining. “He hasn’t surfed like that since the shark.”

Porter surfs nearly a dozen more big waves. He screws up once, falling off his board pretty hard trying to pull an aerial “alley-oop.” Mrs. Roth blames the wipeout on the wind. But otherwise, he’s pretty much a demon. He and Lana engage in a friendly sibling competition, and it’s awesome. After a couple of hours, word has spread, and a hundred people or so line the beach. My throat goes hoarse from cheering.

When it seems as though they’re slowing down—both the waves and the surfers—Mrs. Roth tells her husband to call her “babies” back to shore soon. She doesn’t want Porter overdoing it and injuring himself. Mr. Roth grunts and seems dismissive, but he slowly makes his way back down the dune. I guess Lana was right when she said her mom wears the pants in their family.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. “How are they doing?”

I turn around to find Grace, dressed in a magenta jacket and oversize gold sunglasses. Her mouth is arrow-straight, matching the tense line of her shoulders. She is not a happy camper.

“Grace,” Mrs. Roth says cheerfully. “You should have come earlier. Porter was on fire.”

Grace smiles at her, and it’s almost genuine. “Is that so? I’m sorry I missed it. Took me a bit to find out where they were surfing.”

“You could have called me,” Mrs. Roth says absently, only halfway paying attention.

Grace aims two bladelike eyes on me. “It’s fine. I texted Porter and he was more than happy to let me know.”

Oh, God. “Grace,” I whisper. “I totally forgot to text you back.”

“No big deal. I’m not exciting enough, I suppose,” she says, and walks away.

My heart sinks. The Artful Dodger in me whispers to let Grace go, but another part of my brain is panicking. I get Mrs. Roth’s attention. “Sorry, but I need to talk to Grace.”

Mrs. Roth makes a shooing motion. “Go on, baby. They’re just about done. I’ll send Porter to find you after he’s back to shore.”

Quickly, I follow Grace away from the small crowd on the beach, down the sand dune, calling her name. She stops near a rock with a clump of yellow lupine scrub growing out of it. My throat is tight, and I can’t look her in the eyes. She’s so agitated, I can almost feel the emotion radiating off her like heat from a furnace. And she’s never been upset at me. Ever.

“Why do you want to talk to me now?” Grace says. “You didn’t bother to answer my texts this morning.”

“I’m sorry!” I blurt out. “I was going to text you back, but—”

“I called two times”—she angrily claps along with her words to drive her point home—“after the texts. It went straight to voice mail.”

I wince. My fingers itch to dive into my pocket and check my abandoned phone, but I resist. “It’s just—”

“Easy to forget about your friend when your boyfriend is suddenly back in the picture. When he was moping, you had all the time in the world for me. But the second he calls, you throw me away faster than yesterday’s news.”

Shame and regret roll through me. “That’s not true. I just got distracted. I didn’t throw you away.”

“Well, that’s what it feels like. Don’t think I haven’t been here before with other friends. The second they fall for someone, they forget all about me. Well, I’ll tell you what, Bailey Rydell. I’m tired of being the placeholder. If you don’t want a real friendship with me, then find someone else who doesn’t mind being disposable.”

I don’t know what to say. Don’t know how to make this better. I’m a surfer, wiping out and drowning under one of those monster waves. Only, I don’t think I’m skilled enough to get back up again.

After a long, awkward silence I say, “I’m not good at this.”

“At what?”

“Being close to people.” I gesture at her, then me. “I screw it up. A lot. It’s easier for me to avoid things than deal with confrontation.”

“That’s your excuse?” she says.

“It’s not an excuse. It’s the truth.”

Why did I do this? If I could wind the clock back to this morning, I’d text her back and everything would be fine. Whether I actively or passively avoided Grace’s texts, forgot them on purpose or unintentionally, none of it matters. I failed her. And maybe in doing so, I failed myself a little too.

I don’t want to lose Grace. Somehow, while Porter barged in my front door, she sneaked in the back. I try the only thing I have left: the truth.

“You’re right,” I tell her, words tumbling out. “I took you for granted. I forgot about you this morning because I assumed that you’d always be there, because you always are. I can count on you, because you’re dependable. And I’m not. I wish . . . I wish you could count on me like I can count on you. I want to be more like you. You’re not a placeholder for me, Grace.”

She doesn’t say anything, but I can hear her breathing pick up.

“I guess I told myself you wouldn’t miss me,” I say, picking at the yellow lupine shrub. “That’s how I justified it.”

“Well, I did miss you. You picked a fine day not to show. Because I really could have used a shoulder today,” she says, still somewhat upset, but now moving into another emotion I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s hard to decode people when they’re wearing big sunglasses and their arms are crossed over their chest.

A wind whips through my hair. I wait until it passes, then ask, “Did something happen?”

“Yes, something happened,” she complains. But now I can hear the distress in her voice, and when she lifts her sunglasses to rest them atop her head, I see it mirrored in her eyes. “Taran’s not coming back. He’s staying in India for the rest of the summer. Maybe for good.”

“Oh, God. Grace.” My chest constricts painfully.

Slow, silent tears roll down her cheeks. “We’ve been together for a year. We were going to attend the same college. This isn’t how life is supposed to work.”

Tentatively, I reach for her, not sure if she’ll accept me. But there’s not even a heartbeat of hesitation, and she’s throwing her arms around me, crying softly as she clings. Her sunglasses fall off her head and land in the sand.

“I’m sorry,” I choke out, surprised to find that I’m crying along with her. “For everything.”

My old therapist warned me that avoidance is a dysfunctional way to interact with people you care about, but now I’m starting to understand what he meant when he said it could hurt them, too. Maybe it’s time I figure out a better way to deal with my problems. Maybe Artful Dodger isn’t working so well for me anymore.


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