One Hang Up

Sitting in the sun watching the drownings. The sign by the water said DO NOT INTERFERE. Penalties of $500 per interference. I didn’t have that kind of money. But I did have my eye on a girl.

In my generation, it’s okay to talk about money problems. It’s even okay to talk about junk food problems. But we still have this one hang up. Talking about the drownings always has some kind of fine attached.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her if I tried. I did try, a little. But what could it matter? What’s she going to do, wipe away a lifetime of strong feelings and not drown? Just because some creep on the shore is staring at her? Yeah, right.

The next moment—that was the last I’d ever see of her slender calf muscles. At one point, she must have been quite the runner. Possibly a sprinter or maybe she ran hurdles in school. (Her knees rose gracefully over the big waves, giving me last glances of her calves.)

Our parents’ generation cared a lot about authority figures. If someone with a good chin and the right-sized publicity team said, “Get a job and go to bed on time!” it would be done. It wasn’t okay to look shabby or skimp on your daily exercises. God save you if you stayed up past curfew eating cream puffs!

Know what I did today? Got up at noon and ate leftover pizza, licking the pepperoni grease off my fingers. Didn’t get dressed till after 3:00. Drank cheap beer on the sidewalk with my buddy Mike, who came by just to brag how he stays up later and later each night. Not for any reason, just for fun. Something to live for. Now he’s stayed up two days straight and he said if he falls asleep it’s just because beer makes him nod off.

It was never supposed to be a competition, but now that I think about it, I guess it is. Who snubs authority figures best, him or me?

Then I woke up drunk at the beach. A few of the cans around me still had some booze in them. I finished them off while watching the drowners. Mike, I figured, was probably still wide awake somewhere. Guess he wins when it comes to staying up. Oh well.

Her cute ass was gone by now. I could have stared at it all day, but now it was gone. Her underwear was just the kind I like: minimal. In this case, white, no frills.

We don’t like authority figures in my generation. We don’t like rulers and rule makers. It’s okay to drive fast and have sex in the park or at the bus stop. You can get any drug you want. You can worship any gods you want and yell how much you hate the government till you’re blue in the face. If you ever see a cop, kick him in the nuts or go home, that’s our generation’s anthem. But we still have this one hang up. We can’t say a word against the drownings without becoming slaves to rule makers, just like our parents. And that’s bad. It’s the worst thing. Also, there’s the fine. On this beach, that’s $500. Not cheap.

There she goes, I thought sadly. Water up to her lower back. Next big wave will be up to her shoulders. She’ll be swept away. Bet she just had too much, that’s all. What could have been her problem? Too many drugs? Too loud punk rock? Too much free time or an overload of sex?

Just then she turned and took a glance back at the shore. She caught me staring at her. Wow, those eyes! Hell yeah I stared back. A wave came up to her neck. She lifted up but the wave didn’t carry her away. It pushed her slightly back to the shore. She took a step out to sea again. I thought she’d make a dive. The next wave already building. But instead she looked back again. I raised my beer to her.

She smiled at me.

It was the first time I’d ever heard of someone smiling at a drowning. Generally it’s a pretty somber, personal affair. But there she was. Smiling as the sharks circled. As the waves crashed over her head.

“That’ll be five-hundred bucks, buddy.”

It was Mike, standing over me with a fresh case of beer.

“Shut the hell up,” I said.

“No, man. I saw you looking at the drowner like that. Caught you raising your beer up like a big stop sign. Sending those not-cool messages with your eyes. That’s as good as a violation. And I should know. I’m a licensed Freedom Generation Enforcement Officer.”

“Oh yeah? Since when did you become FGEO? You’re the laziest piece of shit I’ve ever—”

“One of the things I did while staying up. Figured it would help me stay awake if I had something to do.”

He was just handing me a ticket when I realized that the girl was gone. I jumped to my feet in a panic.

“Shit! Shit, man! She’s gone!”

“She’s what?” Mike asked, eyeing me suspiciously and already taking out another ticket. It’s forbidden, of course, to express regret over a drowner, especially during the course of a drowning.

The idea of another fine was too much. From Mike, of all people. I ripped the pen out of his hand. I punched him in the face. Then in the gut. Then kicked him when he was down. I took both tickets and tore them to shreds. Yelling at the top of my lungs, I ran for the waves, right for the place where the girl had gone under. For the first time in my life, this felt like freedom.

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