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Like A Lighthouse At Night

By Caley Griebenow

 
Illustration by Casey Gartlan

Illustration by Casey Gartlan

If one was watching the two from afar, it could not be told whether there were two there at all. The old friends sat along the beach next to the dock, drinks in hand, with their shadows overlapping, but not touching, as if their skin would burn up with contact. Many years had passed since they regularly talked and they were veering on the edge of polite acquaintances - a sort a chasm that they wished to repair. Two birds flew overhead, coasting on air currents and swooping down to graze the water. He shifted as his limbs were too long for the seat, took a big sip from his glass, and sighed.

“You know what I read not too long ago, in the paper one morning?”

She traced the bottom of her own glass with her unpainted finger, looking into the dimming sky, muted pinks and purples, then at him.

“What’s that? You come across some weird stuff now and then. Remember when you read that story about a supposed UFO sighting just an hours drive from here up the coast, and you just about hopped in your car to look for it?” She smiled as the drink flowed past her lips.

“Hey, who knows what I could have found,” he says back, wrinkles appearing around his eyes as he looks at her. “But no! The divorce rate around here is 47%. 47! Almost 1 out of 2! Can you believe that? Actually, never mind, I can,” He drank, eyes closed for several seconds, inhaling the salt mingling with the air.

An image of his backyard swing set comes to her mind suddenly like a flash, with its rusty handrails and red seats. She wonders if the red paint has chipped, if two seats were both there, if it collapsed from the weight of the rust.

“My mom drove my dad crazy, and you knew that. He made her want to leave the country sometimes. She always wanted to go to Europe, somewhere like Switzerland, but he would say no honey, it’s too expensive, and maybe she liked it here more than she realized. Then they would find something else to fight about,” his voice trailed off, his eyes gazing beyond the orange clouds, like he was looking for a constellation. The drink clinked against his folding chair.

“Well just because my parents are still married doesn't mean everything's perfect either. They wanted to kill each other sometimes too,” she said, trying to recall if her parents had been married for 38 or 40 years. It had to be an even number. “But wouldn't you say being angry with someone is better than being lonely? Then you can only be mad with yourself.”

His voice was muffled by the breeze. “Yeah. I guess I would. But I mean really. Can you picture sleeping next to someone every night, and you said you would be with them forever, then suddenly that’s shot to hell because compromise got too hard? But maybe the divorce rate is just as high in Switzerland.” He scratched his beard, wrinkling his chin. She noticed a few specks of gray peeking through. Didn’t he used to hate having a beard?

One of the birds landed on the sand in front of them. The other one coasted high above, its bright body illuminated in the darkening sky.

He turned to face her, his eyes now alert and wide, and she felt exposed looking straight at him, like staring into a lighthouse at night.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to be a bird with nowhere to go?”

“Even birds have places to be,” she muttered more into air than at him.

“Or better yet, be a fish. No!” He jolted upright, ignoring her and spilling his glass. “A grain of sand, floating throughout the world’s waters,” he laughed to himself, the idea too outrageous to fathom. “You know I read something about all the different types of sand…”

She hit his leg with her wrist, bringing him back to the chair.

“You used to always get like this when you’ve had a few drinks - filled with all these great philosophical ideas!” she said, exasperated.  “But come Monday, you’ll be perfectly satisfied with your life and your job and your apartment and all the rest of it. If you weren’t, you of all people would have the courage to change something.”

Both birds sat perched on the sand, eavesdropping, their beady eyes scanning.

Silence now hung in between them like strands. Hair flopped in front of her right eye, and she did not move to fix it. The weight of his gaze made her a house of cards; if his breath got too close, she felt as though she would crumble. She had said too much.

His glass was empty, and he shrugged in disappointment.

“Well then screw it. I’m going to Switzerland, like my mom wanted to,” he exclaimed, leaping out of the chair once more, the idea washing over his thoughts like tidal waves. He turned toward her, the whites of his eyes almost glowing, about to speak, about to let the question roll over his lips.

Come with me, would you?  He would ask. It would be incredible, you work too much anyways…

Before he could, the shrill sound of a phone call shattered the air. He looked into his pocket like it was a black hole. Inescapable. The birds took off.

“I’ve got to take this,” he groaned, abandoning his grandiose plans. “I don’t know how long this will be- sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. The beach is probably closing anyway,” She tried to look busy by finishing her drink that was already empty, eyes burned by the sun as it dipped beneath the horizon.

“I am serious about Switzerland though,” he called over his shoulder as he walked onto the beach, taking the long way back to his car, feet sinking into the grains of sand.

“Hi, yeah- I was just on my way…” his voice shrank until she heard only the waves.

She left not long after realizing he would not be returning, stepping in his footprints, his size elevens engulfing her size eights. If someone looked upon the sand moments later, it could not be told whether two had been there at all.

 

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