His Tender Affection
“Yo, did you hear me?” said James standing in front of him. He was looking up at James from his seat and then he looked down and slowly stretched his splayed legs, clumps of sand forming between and over his toes. Both of them were outside but close by the open-air bar and on the beach. Out on the distant water were some sailing ships with slim masts like toothpicks, and way down the beach were about twenty young tourists. All of them were congregating around a wall of surfboards, changing clothes and putting them in a pile. James waved to them, and turned back to him.
“Is something up, man?”
“I’m fine. I’m just a little tired after last night.” He smiled a little.
“Where is she, by the way? Is Lisa coming?”
“I don’t know. I might come in a bit, or later. You guys go ahead.”
“Okay, if you want…”
On his head sat a hat, a white panama. It was fraying badly at the brim. He wore it low over his brow to block the low rays of the sun from hitting his sensitive eyes. The general lack of metronomic blinking made them a little teary. His slender back was slouched in a plastic chair, and at his feet in the sand, an empty glass. The small table beside him was bare save for grains of sand. A light wind swept from sea to shore.
The salty air flew into his half-open mouth, over his tongue and down his drying throat. It was warm, it made him feel a slight more sickly. He licked his lips before waving the barman over and in a rasped, disquieting tone, punctuated with a guttural grunt, he ordered a fourth Cuba Libre with a sweet slice of orange on the rim.
“The exact same, sir?” said the barman. For the fourth time during that same shift, he had to bend a little to hear the request.
“Exactly,” said the teen in the same low and tired voice while he pinched the bridge of his nose. His breathing was a little labored. He handed the barman the last of his paper cash.
“Very well, sir.”
He paused a moment, then said, “Could you splash more rum in it this time? And more coke, por favor.” He stumbled upon saying the Spanish, unaided by the alcohol.
The teen—if he could actually be called that, given his age and appearance that teetered on manhood (a recent red zit in the midst of blackening stubble, fresh eyes bloodshot with erratic sleep and rimmed with dried mucus, a button-nose pockmarked with blackheads)—pulled out his phone. He punched her number again in a staggered flurry of fingers, he put the phone to his ear and heard it ringing until he got tired of the endless ringing and then he hung up, again. He sighed and rubbed his eyes. He knew better but he hoped the drinks would give him something to say to her. The skin on his elbows and knuckles were still taught and grey from the lack of good lotion and absence of care.
He adjusted his hat so that a larger rim of shadow shielded his eyes. He scrunched them up when he felt the nausea returning. A faint itch soon developed on the inside of his thigh and he stroked it through his swimming shorts as soft as he could to not irritate it. But discomfort soon multiplied. Only sounds he could hear: spinning ceiling fans; distant orations of an instructor warming for a surfing lesson; some guitar rap filtering out of a small radio stuck, precariously, in the overhead rafters. It wasn’t very relaxing.
Meanwhile the barman—a man of sharp features and dressed in strict black—rolled up his sleeves higher and unbottled a chilled Coca-Cola with a single sharp hiss. He handled drink with the skill of a man who had spent years perfecting the preparation of alcohol in the company of mainlanders.
When he had finished, the barman poured the mixture of Bacardi and soda over moist ice cubes and into a clean tall glass with a thick base. He walked over to the teen and held it out to him, who said, “Thanks” in a curt and strained voice.
Upon taking the glass, his fingers recoiled slightly for it felt bitter cold on his dry digits. He sipped, grimaced, and took another sip and kept sipping till his sips turned to gulps. A subtle sneer stretched the thin line of his mouth once a smooth rhythm of imbibing had been established. The cocktail still tasted good. It, along with its three predecessors, distracted his concerns momentarily. Yet he never drank in a noisy manner nor a sloppy one. He never sloshed any of it onto his bare chest because a long time spent hanging out in fashionable clubs in the Upper West Side had conditioned him with some sense of decorum. In truth he hadn’t and still didn’t much care for them but he went to them with his teammates and at their urging he got a good time by three glasses or so.
He first met Lisa in one of those places. He didn’t remember the exact name of the venue, nor its address, choosing instead those spatial details only he would recognize upon private reflection. Students like him and his friends went a little downtown to catch a flash of nightlife. The team were attracting some tag-alongs of the loving sort as Spring Break approached day by day. Groups formed at the whim of a text or of an illusory hookup.
He didn’t actually get with Lisa. They just kissed a little in a crowded corner, bending their knees and adjusting height so as to mutually graze chapped lips. It was dangerously flirtatious. He didn’t feel really ready for anything further. He wasn’t sure if he could perform to either of their satisfactions. He knew he couldn’t to his own but he liked to think otherwise. He lied to himself often. He invited her along on the trip. He had to shout in her ear because the sound in the club was so loud. They left with everyone from Columbia on Friday out of LaGuardia on their own expense as per rules.
The first night was fun. With the help of his lighter a bonfire was lit on the beach. Hip-hop blared through a rectangular totem constructed mostly of portable speakers, all dialed to maximum volume so as to render crescendos boring and a karaoke democratic. The team went wilder, all of each undulating against their partners in turns, backs both arched and upright, feet pounding dry grains onto smooth legs. Soon a nubile crowd began to grow and the beat of the perreo doble paso spiked into intensity and taking the technique into him he became half a couple smacking in sloppy yet punchy rhythm at a frenetic and ecstatic and pulsating pace, connected by crotch and separated by denim, one of his cold hands on the crevice of her leg and the other pulling her shoulder up to his own and with his and her utterance of unknown uh-uhs it was fake fucking of the primal against the pole for safe support. It scared him. He didn’t want to admit it. He couldn’t keep up with her, couldn’t keep it up, not despite her energy but in spite of it for it only made his burden harder. He always didn’t want to disappoint. He always thought it might be different, and he was always this way, even back in those bars in New York, and he hated himself for failing, especially during the dancing. He chalked it up to the climate. He often lied to himself. He thought of implants for a while after he saw a video on Vice. It said he could be fixed with a money-back guarantee: several successes, relationships reconnected. He often dreamt of living in full. Here he tried to be comfortable but he was unused to a warmth he never really felt before. It clung to his skin and radiated to his extremities and it put him in mind of his own awful self-awareness and he despised it. It got to him so bad that back home in his dorm he’d spend hours locked in his room after he came back sweaty and weary from a night-out, with the blinds closed and a lamp positioned and a timer on his smartphone running to see if he could beat his record, only exiting to throw his sodden tissues in the basket in the hall when he failed like clockwork, limp and weak in endless defeat. He’d been like this for a very long time. He very often lied to himself.
When they stopped she went off to dance with some others at his polite insistence. He didn’t care to watch. He took a short walk in the shade of some palm trees, and resting against the sloping trunks he hustled to finish a lit cigarette halfway before returning to his room to wait for her. By then the sun had set and it was very dark.
He smiled, or rather sneered, to himself at his stupidity, and in a second his fingers slipped a touch as the glass was tugged to the ground and he readied himself upright again in his seat but with a bit of rigid exertion because of his long, lazy legs. He was so concerned with his haggard etiquette he didn’t notice when Lisa came into the bar behind him.
She wore a light shirt that, in a gradient of grey, stretched below her waist to form a summery skirt, through which the outline of her obscure bikini could be seen vaguely. Her flip-flops gently smacked the wooden floor, causing the occasional creak. She was a young beaut whose hair in the light was an auburn sheen and lips a thin shade of crackled pink. Only sunscreen was on her skin. It didn’t hide the one visible mark on her face: a dash of bluish blush below her left eye. It was a relic of last night’s un-consummation. The barman glanced at her and when she looked at him, he flicked his eyes down, washing glasses in an overly professional manner.
She drew an extra chair up by the teen and sat down. The small table stood between them. He shuffled in his seat and straightened himself up a little more.
“Damn, last night was fucked, huh?” he said, stretching his vowels. “I tried calling you.” He massaged his temple with a blunt nail. “A lot.” He couldn’t look at her, he tried to look at her.
“Really?” she said. ”When?”
“Couple of minutes ago. And then before that.”
“I just got your message.”
“My ringer’s broken.”
“Right, I forgot.” He took a gulp.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“So, where were you?”
“So, where were you?” He yawned.
“Did you just wake up?”
“I was wondering where you went.”
“Just getting some air.”
“Around the town. I met some people.”
“You don’t speak Spanish,” he said, his eyebrows narrowing.
“I’m taking classes,” she said. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“Want something?” he said, pointing towards the bar.
“No,” she replied, casting a glance to the barman. Turning back she said, “You actually bought that?” motioning to his hat. “At the airport? I thought you were joking.” He shrugged. He didn’t meet her gaze.
“Been here long?” she continued.
“Kind of. I don’t like the humidity.”
“It’s a nice day.”
“I guess.” He was fixated on the horizon, and he was fiddling with the tough patch on his swimming shorts, a logo of a crocodile. Or was it an alligator? He didn’t really know.
“Let’s forget it,” he said at last.
“No, let’s not.”
“It was an accident.”
“No. You’re not.”
“I’m sorry. I lost control. Look, that’s it, that’s all there is. I’m sorry I pushed you.”
“You—I can’t—I don’t want to deal with this, I was trying to help.”
“I know, I just had a little too much to drink, and was in a bad mood.”
“Please cut the bullshit. Just do that much.”
“No, it’s not, it’s just—it was a one thing. It won’t happen again,” he said as solemnly as he could then. “It’s never happened before, not that.”
“Did you not want it? After the dancing?”
“No, I want—I wanted it but I couldn’t, I can’t…” The words stopped in his mouth. He continued to itch his thigh. It felt really uncomfortable. Her stare was solidly on him only. It felt like last night. He hated how it felt.
“Is that the problem? Me dancing with the others? Why didn’t you just say so?”
“I—I can’t really explain. It’s messy, it’s complicated. I’m sorry.”
“It was a mistake.”
“No, it’s how you really felt. You said it.”
“Look, I, I was—I’m sorry.”
“I know, I know what I did, I know.” He glanced at her. She was pressing her sandals into the sand slowly, her hand over her face in the spot where he touched her in frenzy. At last he said, “We should go home.”
“I wanna go home.”
“What about the team? And everyone?”
“I’ll make up an excuse.”
“Well,” she said, “I want to stay.”
“I like it here. It’s nicer than New York.”
He was beginning to get a little nauseous again and more irritated and he rubbed his eyes once more. He stifled a lurching inclination. His headache wasn’t going away. “This air, it’s way too humid. Sticky. Unbearable.”
The barman was busy cooling his hands with a wet towel he had soaked in the refrigerator hours previously. He occasionally watched the two converse but he couldn’t really hear anything. He was tapping his foot to the song from the radio and humming quietly.
She looked out toward the ocean, which in the evening reflected the warm dappling hues of the sky, and at the boats bobbing in the slow shaking tide. She said, “I’m going surfing. I met a guy. Last night I went to see him after—well, we got to talking, and he offered to sign me up for a class this afternoon. He offered to sign us all up for a class. Thought I’d give it a try with some of your friends.”
“You met a guy?” He could think of nothing else to say. He thought about a lot of things, but all of them only ended up hurting his head, and he went back to rubbing his temples, scratching his thigh. He only wanted the pain in his head to go away. “You met a guy?” he whispered to himself.
“It’ll soon be raining probably, so I better leave.”
“I’ll see you later.” But even as he said it, he felt it was the wrong and stupid thing to say, not that he could reel the words back into his mouth and hit reset on their conversation. As she strode down the beach he watched her walk away for a while before he took his hat off and dropped it onto the sand. He ruffled his choppy hair and felt his suffocated scalp. Tiny flakes of dandruff stuck to the sides of his fingers. With his other hand he tipped the most of the rest of his rum-tail into his mouth, before his burning tongue enunciated the ugly cuss he’d been hiding behind his sugared teeth: “Putabitch.”
He spotted a last drop in his glass, and tried in vain to suck it out through a plastic straw before he threw the straw out and took a chance on gravity to send it careening into his mouth. It stayed stubbornly at the bottom. His eyes had become even more bloodshot from all the rubbing and the warm air he still very much hated. He waved the barman over yet again and the barman, ever dutiful to his position, responded.
“Yes, sir?” he asked.
“I’d like another, por favor.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”
“I can’t sell you more than four drinks, sir. It’s the rules.”
Annoyed, he said, ”What kind of rule is that?”
“The hotelier’s rules,” the barman replied, his tone strict.
“What about the bottle?”
“No, sir. I can’t sell you the bottles. We need them here.”
“I’m the only guy here.”
“Sir, we need them here to serve other customers.”
“I’m the only customer here.”
“There will be more customers when night comes soon,” said the irritated barman.
The teen leaned over and after fishing around in his pockets, began stacking pennies in the sand, copper gently clinking. The barman glanced at the pennies and looked back to him.
“I can’t sell you the bottles, señor. Or serve you any more drinks. If you want more, you must go elsewhere.”
He returned to gulping the last of the watery leftovers of his lukewarm drink. Through the twisted lens at the bottom of the glass, he could see the white foam of the waves move onto the shoreline before being pulled back into the glittering sea. A group of surfers was heading off just as the waves were receding into flatness. He could’ve seen her rolling her dress up over her head like the rest had done, but he didn’t. It would do nothing to lift his spirit.
When he’d finished taking his fill, finally, he pulled himself up, donned his hat around his brow, and walked out the way he came. He stumbled in the direction of the city a little, but for the most part he straddled the line that demarcated road and beach and he followed how it dipped against and into the sand and back again for a long time. By his dirty empty glass, he left a cordial tip of six cents he had no real use for and didn’t want to carry anymore.
The barman, after watching him go away, cleaned the chair swiftly, dropped the pennies into an old sock full of old American coins, which he then pocketed and he returned to washing the last glass with his rag, collecting the sand that had blown into it and beating the crumby rag with the flat of his hand. His shift ended a little while later. His replacement was identical in dress and was a soft-eyed man and had paler streaks of slick hair and when he asked him about any news, the barman mentioned the sedentary gringo he had to cut. The replacement, pushing his sleeves up, merely smiled and nodded slyly. He told him of one time how he had a guy who kept coming back for at least a month, night adding on night, until he could speak sort of fluent if really poor Spanish only while intoxicated and seated for he could not stand strong at all. Both chuckled, and the one coming in said, “No hay nada, no hay nada” to the one leaving with his sock stuffed in his pocket.