She ran her hand through her short brown hair one too many times, and I knew exactly what was going to happen. Well, that, and the fact that she had barely touched her plate, and the way she kept putting her hand in the pocket of her blazer, and the way she was looking at me.
“I have to say it again. You l-look absolutely stunning tonight,” she stammered. A gust of wind rattled our table. Except for us, the restaurant’s outdoor deck was empty.
“Oh,” I looked down at my skin-tight leather dress. “Thank y–” I began. But then she stood up, and I felt like there were four walls closing in on me. As she stepped over to my side of the table, the walls got closer. She got down on one knee, and I could feel them pushing against my skin. She reached into her pocket, and I thought I might explode.
“Alana,” she started.
When she opened her mouth again, I was gone. As I ran, the wind blew her words toward me and whispered them in my ear.
I stumbled down the wooden stairs that led to the beach, passing our waiter who was holding a tray with the third glass of wine I’d ordered. I slipped off my high heels and, with them in hand, trudged across the short stretch of cold sand between the restaurant steps and the boardwalk. I listened for frantic footsteps following me, but all I heard were the echoes of those two words.
There was a long stretch of beach to my left and my right, and the ocean water slid on and off the shore, looking dark and grimy in the moonlight. Straight ahead was a long boardwalk over the ocean jutting out forty feet from shore, with a small cabana, a wooden railing, and two chairs at its end. The boardwalk wasn’t too far above the water’s surface; when she and I first arrived at the restaurant just before sunset, there were a few teenagers sitting along the side edge, laughing and swinging their legs inches over the water’s surface.
I had to do something. I had to move. So I rushed down the boardwalk toward the cabana chairs—my skin tingling from the sharp ocean breeze and the knowledge that she was up there, watching me—I walked down the boardwalk, with my black heels in my hand and a warped tune of “Here Comes the Bride” ringing through my head.
I slumped on one of the chairs and stared through the railing at the dark mass of ocean water swelling and shrinking. With every wave, the cold sea water splashed against the wooden floor and scattered on my legs. I tried to breathe, but every breath only filled my nose with the burning scent of salt. I’d told her I wasn’t ready. And she asked me anyway.
I’d told her I wasn’t ready.
My body stiffened as the walls cornered me again. Footsteps. Among the whistles of the wind and the murmurs of the waves, I heard footsteps. She was walking toward me from behind, getting closer and closer and closer until the sounds of her footsteps were right behind me, right behind me, and then—the steps stopped.
I waited four seconds then turned my head slowly, expecting to see her soft smile with her thick eyebrows furrowed over her eyes—the face she makes whenever she’s trying to hide that her feelings are hurt. But I turned and saw a hand holding a glass of red wine outstretched toward me.
It was the waiter. I looked up at his sunburnt face; it was full of lumpy folds which deepened as he smiled. He looked strangely hazy, and I was only convinced of his reality when the cold glass touched my fingertips as I took the cup from him.
“I thought you might need this.” His voice was cool and smooth like blue velvet, and he settled into the chair next to me.
“Is she –”
“No,” he answered. “She left.” We sat there for a while with the waves churning against the boards beneath our feet. The burnt old man leaned forward . “Do you love her?” I looked at him incredulously.
“Of course I love her!” I cried. The man leaned back into his chair, and I turned my head away from him. “But marriage? It’s too much.” I gazed at the darkness as it all came spilling out. “The job I’ve slaved at for the past six years, my matchbox of an apartment, this fucking dress!” I yelled, squirming against the faux leather. “This island, this planet, this galaxy! There’s no way out!” I screamed. The burnt old man shuffled in his seat, and, embarrassed at my outburst, I lowered my voice as I turned back toward him. “Do you ever feel that way?” I scrambled for the right words. “Suffocated? Like there are walls closing in on you? Like your blood is boiling and gurgling within you, and you just might burst and explode? Like you’re –”
“Trapped in your own skin?” he finished. I stared at him. That’s exactly what I mean.
The burnt old man nodded sagely. “I used to, but I found the answer.” The edges of his face looked like they were glowing as he looked up at the night sky. “It’s up.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, and, with the mixture of the proposal and the wine and the walls, I didn’t care. It felt like there was a creature in me, scratching the insides of my skin, begging to get out, get out, get out. I wanted to be like this burnt old man who was staring at the sky with liberation in his eyes. I wanted to be like those kids who were sitting along this boardwalk, throwing their heads back in laughter as if they didn’t have a care in the world, as if they never would.
“You ever feel like you just need to do something?”
The next thing I knew, I was standing on top of the wooden railing of the cabana. The wind whipped my hair around as I held onto the post beside me. “I have to do something!” I yelled against the wind swishing in and out of my ears. “I have to jump in and swim ‘til I can’t anymore.”
“No!” the burnt old man shouted behind me. “Don’t jump down into the water! You need to go up, up, up!” I paid him no attention—I’d already envisioned it in my mind. I’ll jump in, and, I smiled, I’ll kick my legs and swim up and break through the waves. I’ll break free. And I’ll swim away from this place, swim away from my stupid job, swim away from her. And that’s when my heart broke like glass. I can’t marry her. I don’t think I can ever marry her.
I closed my eyes and jumped.
I never reached the water. As soon as my feet were about to crash into the ocean’s surface, wind swirled around me like a soft vortex. My lungs, full with the freshest air, started floating within me and lifting me up toward the night sky. As I gasped more and more air into my body, sea spray flew into my mouth. The salt tasted like sugar, and I started to weep. My dress tore down its middle seams, and the wind pulled the leather into the whirl until it disappeared. The breeze swirled closer around me and hugged me, covering my entire body with its cool embrace and whispering sweet, sweet songs into my ear. I felt like I was dying and living. There were no more walls. I was naked. I was free.
I eased my eyes open and looked down. I was fifteen feet over the surface of the sea, ascending slowly. I glanced at the boardwalk through the blurs of tears and wind. The burnt old man was standing then, with both his arms outstretched toward me. I saw his mouth moving, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying—that is, until the wind blew his voice to me, and I heard the echoes as I drifted away:
“Yes, my friend! Up! Up! Up!”