Alex, Approximately: Chapter 7


“I used to hate the water.”

—Roy Scheider, Jaws (1975)


My dad says the second day of something is always better than the first because you know what to expect, and he’s right. The Hotbox is slightly more tolerable today. I sacrifice my long waves for an updo and tie the scarf pinup-style, which keeps the sweat from rolling down the back of my neck. Grace has taken preventative measures too, bringing in a battery-powered oscillating fan from home that she’s mounted between our stations. Our biggest obstacle is juggling bathroom breaks, because we’re drinking more water than horses after the Kentucky Derby.

Halfway through my shift, I get my thirty-minute break. Shucking my orange vest, I head upstairs to the café, where I find a lull in the line. The sugar cookie Porter gave me yesterday was pretty scrumptious, so I buy two and find an empty table in a private alcove under the pirate ship. I pull out my phone and look up what’s been hounding me since I clocked in today.

Bill “Pennywise” Roth was a professional surfer who won a bunch of World Surf League championship titles and Triple Crowns in the 1980s. According to his online biography, he’s continually ranked as one of the top surfers of all time. It looks like he died eight years ago. There’s a photo of a life-size memorial statue out by the surfer’s crosswalk, taken at sunset, with a bunch of flowers and surfboards propped up against it.

I start to read about how he grew up in a poor Jewish family and started surfing at the age of six, and how he fostered this entire multigenerational family of professional surfers: his son, Xander Roth, and his grandchildren—

Hold on. Porter has a younger sister, Lana, sixteen, and she’s a state and nationally ranked surfer who’ll be competing professionally for the first time this fall and predicted to join a yearlong world tour starting next January. But Porter won’t? And what happened to his dad?

A shadow falls over my phone. I hit the power button, but not fast enough.

“Reading up on me?”

I grimace, squeezing my eyes shut for a moment. How did he find me up here? “Are you stalking me on the security cameras?”

“Every move,” Porter says. Metal legs squeak against the slate floor as he spins another chair around backward and straddles it, legs spread, like he’s riding a horse. He crosses his arms on the chair’s back. “If you wanted to know something about my family, all you had to do was ask.”

“I’m good, thanks.” I start to gather up my stuff, but I’m only halfway through the first cookie, so it’s pretty obvious that I just sat down.

“I saw you staring at my dad today.” An accusation.

“I wasn’t—”

“You were.”

A tiny groan escapes my mouth. My shoulders fall. “I didn’t know . . . I mean, Grace kind of mentioned something happened, but I didn’t know what, exactly, so I was just . . .” Just what? Digging my grave a little deeper? “Curious,” I finally finish.

“Okay,” he says, nodding his head slowly. “So what do you already know?”

I turn my phone back on. “I got to here,” I say, and point to the article.

He leans over the back of the chair and squints at the screen. “Ah. That’s it? So you know who my grandfather was and how he died?”

“Didn’t get to the death part,” I say, hoping that doesn’t sound as bad as I think it does.

He doesn’t seem to take offense. “He was a big wave surfer. That means he had steel balls. Took stupid risks, even when he got too old to be doing it. In the winter, after big storms, the waves will crest really high north of the cove, up at Bone Garden. He took a big risk one morning after a storm when I was ten. I watched him from the cliffs. The wave ate him whole and spit him out onto the rocks. That’s why they call it Bone Garden, by the way. He wasn’t the first idiot to die there. Just the most famous one.”

I don’t even know what to say. A large family stops near our table to pose for a photo in front of the sea monster. We lean to get out of their shot, once, twice, three times. They’re finally finished, and we’re left alone again.

Uninterested in dredging up his grandfather again, I try to think of something else to talk about. My mind turns to what I thought I witnessed in the vintage clothing shop. “Was that your buddy or something? That Davy guy?”

Porter grunts. “We grew up together.” He squints at me and says, “Was he bothering you?”

“Not successfully.”

Porter’s mouth twists at the corners. He chuckles softly. “Now, that I believe. He’s not very bright. But he’s pernicious. I do my best to keep my eye on him, but . . .” Porter trails off, like he was going to say more but thinks better about it and clams up. I notice his gaze flick over me, head to bare legs—not really in a lurid way. His eyes are tight, wary, and troubled, and there’s something behind that dark emotion connected to Davy that I don’t understand. I wonder if it has to do with that Chloe girl they were talking about.

Whatever it is, I decide not to pursue this any further. Another evasion tactic I’ve learned: Change the subject as many times as you need in order to avoid uncomfortable conversation.

“I see you have a sister who surfs.”

“Yeah,” he says, and he looks happy that I changed the subject too. “Lana’s killing it. She’s got crazy potential. People say she’ll be way bigger than my pops—maybe even bigger than my granddad.”

I wonder if this is a point of contention between them, if it hurts his boy pride. But he’s digging his phone out from his pocket to show me photos. A girl on a board inside the tunnel of a giant, curling wave. I can’t really make out much about her face, only that she’s wearing a yellow-and-black wet suit like a second skin and looking like she’s about to be swallowed by the ocean. Porter shows me others, some closer, some in which she looks impossibly upside down in the middle of the wave. The last one he shows me is the two of them together on the beach, both of them with curly hair drying in the sun, wet suits peeled down to their waists, brown skin gleaming. He’s behind her, arms around her shoulders, and they’re both grinning.

And right now, sitting across from me, there’s nothing but pride on his face. He doesn’t even try to hide it. His eyes are practically sparkling.

“She’s pretty,” I say.

“Looks like my mom. It’s our Hapa genes.” He glances up at me and explains, “Half Hawaiian. My grandparents were Polynesian and Chinese. My dad met my mom when he was my age, surfing the Pipeline on the North Shore. Here.” He pulls up another photo of his mother. She’s gorgeous. And she’s standing on the boardwalk near my favorite churro cart, in front of a familiar shop: Penny Boards. Well. Guess that answers that; it was his family’s shop, after all. Note to self: Pick another churro cart, already!

Feeling strangely shy, I glance at his face and then quickly look away.

“Is it weird having a younger sister who’s going pro?” I ask, more out of nervousness than anything else.

Porter shrugs. “Not really. She’ll be heading out on the Women’s Championship Tour for the first time next year. It’s kind of a big deal. She gets to travel all over the world.”

“What about school?”

“My dad’s going with her. He’ll homeschool her during the tour. I’ll stay and help my mom run the shop.” Porter must see the look of doubt on my face because he blinks a few times and shakes his head. “Yeah, it’s not ideal, but Lana doesn’t want to wait until she’s eighteen. Anything could happen, and she’s on top of her game now. On the tour, she gets a small salary and a chance to win prize money. But the big thing is the exposure, because the real money is in the product endorsements. That’s pretty much what we used to live off of until Dad lost his arm.”

Sounds a little pageant mom–y, making the kid perform on stage for money, but I keep this opinion to myself. “You guys don’t own the shop?” I say, nodding toward his phone.

“Sure, but what people don’t understand is that the shop barely breaks even. The overhead is ridiculous; rent keeps going up. And now that my dad isn’t surfing anymore . . . well, no one wants a one-armed man pimping hats.”

Yikes. This conversation is heading into awkward waters. I turn away to find the sea monster’s big eye judging me—You had to be on your phone, looking this up at work, didn’t you? Couldn’t wait until you got home?—so I turn back toward the table and pick at my half-eaten cookie.

“I knew one out of three had to be right.”

“Mmm?” I swallow cookie while trying to look cool and nearly choke.

“You like sugar cookies. I didn’t know which one. I was just hoping you weren’t vegan or gluten-free or something.”

I shake my head.

He breaks off a piece of my cookie and eats it, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t know where his hands have been. We aren’t friends. And just because his dad’s missing an arm, doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven him for being a grade-A assbag.

“You aren’t going to ask me?” he says. “Or do you already know?”

“Know what?”

“How my dad lost his arm?”

I shake my head. “No, I don’t already know. Are you going to tell me?” Or should I just wait until you leave and look it up? That works for me, thanks, see you later, hasta luego.

“Three years ago, I was fifteen, a year younger than Lana. I went down to Sweetheart Point to watch my dad surf for this charity thing. It wasn’t a competition or anything. Mostly older surfers, a few big names. Out of nowhere . . .” He pauses for a second, lost in thought, eyes glazed. Then he blinks it away. “I see this big shape cut through the water, a few yards away. At first, I didn’t know what it was. It heads straight for my dad and knocks him right off his board. Then I saw the white collar around its neck and the mouth open. Great white.”

My mouth falls open. I shut it. “Shark?”

“A small male. They say it’s like getting struck by lightning, but damned if it didn’t happen. And let me just tell you—it wasn’t like Jaws. Hundreds of people around me on the beach and no one screamed or ran. They all just stood there staring while this thousand-pound monster was dragging my dad through the water, and he was still leashed to his board by the ankle.”

“Oh, my dear God,” I murmur, stuffing half of the second cookie in my mouth. “Whaa haaappened next?” I say around a mouthful of sugar.

Porter takes the rest of the cookie, biting off a corner and chewing while shaking his head, still looking a little dazed. “It was like a dream. I didn’t think. I just raced into the water. I didn’t even know if my dad was still alive or whether I would be if I bumped into the shark. I swam as hard as I could. I found the board first and followed the leash to the body.”

He pauses, swallowing. “I tasted blood in the water before I got to him.”

“Jesus.”

“The arm was already gone,” Porter says quietly. “Skin flapping. Muscles hanging. It was a mess. And I was so scared I was going to make it worse, carrying him back to shore. He was heavy and unconscious, and nobody was coming to help. And then the shark doubled back and tried to get my arm too. I managed to hit him and scare him off. Took sixty-nine stiches to sew me back together.”

He unfolds his left arm until it’s extended in front of me, and rucks up the short sleeve of his security guard uniform. There, above the bright red surf watch, are his zigzagging pink scars, bared for my perusal. Looking at them feels pornographic. Like I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing, and any moment, someone will catch me . . . but at the same time, I can’t make myself look away. All this golden skin, all these eggshell-glossy scars, a railroad track, crisscrossing miles of sculpted lean muscle. It’s horrifying . . . and the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Seeing the scars reminds me of something else about myself. Something I can’t tell him. But it tugs on a dark memory inside me that I don’t want to think about, and a fluttering of unstable emotions threatens to break the surface.

I breathe deep to push those feelings back down, and when I do, there’s that scent again, Porter’s scent, the wax and the clean coconut. Not the suntan-lotion fake kind. What is this stuff? It’s driving me nuts. I don’t know if it’s the lure of this wonderful smell, or his story about the shark, or my urge to contain my own unwanted memories, but before I know what I’m doing, my fingertips are reaching out to trace the jagged edge of one of the scars by his elbow.

His skin is warm. The scar is raised, a tough, unyielding line. I follow it around his elbow, into the soft, sensitive hollow where his arm bends.

All the golden hairs on his forearm are standing up.

He sucks in a quick breath. I don’t think he meant to, but I heard it. And it’s then that I know I crossed some kind of line. I snatch my hand back and try to think of something to say, to erase what I just did, but it just comes out as a garbled grunt. And that makes things even weirder between us.

“Break,” I finally manage. “Gotta get back.”

I’m so embarrassed, I stumble over my chair as I leave. The ensuing metallic grate of metal on slate echoes through the café, causing several museum guests to look up from their afternoon coffee. Who’s artful now, Rydell? That never happens to me. I’m not clumsy. Ever, ever, ever. He’s messing with my game. I can’t even look at him anymore, because my face is on fire.

What is happening to me? I swear, every time I have any interaction whatsoever with Porter Roth, something always goes screwy. He’s an electrical outlet, and I’m the stupid toddler, always trying to poke around and stick my finger inside.

Someone needs to slap a big danger! sign on that boy’s back before I electrocute myself.

LUMIÈRE FILM FANATICS COMMUNITY PRIVATE MESSAGES>ALEX>NEW!

@mink: Have you ever had a serious girlfriend?

@alex: Yes. I think. Sort of. What do you qualify as serious?

@mink: Hey, you’re the one who said yes. I was just curious. How long and why did you break up?

@alex: Three months and the short story is she said I didn’t want to have fun anymore.

@mink: Ouch. The long story?

@alex: Her idea of fun included hooking up with my best friend when I was out of town.

@mink: I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.

@alex: Don’t be. I’d checked out. It wasn’t all her fault. If you don’t pay attention to things, they wander off. I learned my lesson. I’m vigilant now.

@mink: Vigilant with who?

@alex: I think you mean with WHOM.

@mink: 😛

@alex: No one in particular. I’m just saying, I’m not the same person I used to be. I confessed; now your turn. Anyone you’ve been vigilant about in the past?

@mink: A couple of guys for a couple of weeks, nothing major. Now I pretty much look out for myself. It’s a full-time job. You’d be surprised.

@alex: One day you might need some help.


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