Tag Archives: rome revisited

Beach Boys

9 Jan

This story is a companion to the eleven-part series that began here.

I.

The San Onofre crew is accustomed to week-long interlopers every now and then. Some appear on their little slice of beach every year, others just drift in and out. Some are memorable, but even those are never more than a stray story, a remember when so-and-so and such-and-such that provides a background bass line to the chatter at the Ex-Con-Tiki bar every weekend.

He shows up with a beginner’s surfboard and a wetsuit, and little else. He doesn’t wear any surf shop gear, makes no effort convey any talent or experience. They all agree he is attractive and looks the part of a beach poser: long scraggly hair pulled back beneath a backwards hat, muted tone tank tops and generic board shorts, well-sculpted shoulders and legs that show he’s more than a casual athlete. His wide, brown eyes bear an eternal look of someone peering off into the horizon, someone who gazes toward the light to see what it can reveal. After watching him for four days, Casey decides that this interloper, intentional or not, has become the platonic ideal of the beach. He makes it seem effortless without deploying any effort, a shockingly rare achievement along the California coast.

He has no great talent as a surfer. Not once does he attempt anything bold or inventive, his movements always deliberate and precise. But his form is on point, no wasted effort on his board, and he’s clearly done his homework, knows the nuances of the wave in a way few rookies do. Nor is he one to repeat mistakes, each lesson stored away in a trove of knowledge that Adrian suspects must border on the encyclopedic. Surely he’s been to San Onofre before, Casey asks him, and he shrugs and says yes, years ago, when he was just a kid. Neera suspects this is a lie to enhance his intrigue, but when pressed, the kid pulls up a picture of his preteen self on this very beach, grinning between two parents as he clutches this very surfboard. The memory means something to him, clearly, but what they cannot be sure.

When they break into his cabana to see what else he has, they find no more than a bottle of bourbon, sipped at in moderation; a pile of cheap microwave meals, though of the semi-healthy variety; and a few little notebooks half-filled with unintelligible scrawl. Adrian sees a picture of a girl on his phone background, but Jack, who holes up in the cabin next door, reports only one late night phone conversation, and it with a guy at some East Coast college. He is agreeable enough, shares a few beers with the Samoan proprietor of the Ex-Con-Tiki, can talk about the wave and downplay his own skill with the best of them. But even Neera, the most skilled prosecutor on these sunny shores, fails to fish out any details when she sidles up to him with a drink and her voluminous eyelashes.

Over the boy’s first four days at San Onofre he is tentative, avoids others unless they address him, willingly accepts his position as the rookie on the fringes of the lineup. He simply goes about his wave work within his limits, creates as small of a swell as he can. Neera invites him to a club in San Clemente, but he demurs and spends his night reading some cliched travelogue outside his cabin. His heart isn’t in it.

The interloper is a source of mild interest at the club that night; if Neera weren’t newly single, they wouldn’t have given him much mind. But Alexandra, eager to quash Neera’s intrigue, convenes a meeting of the minds before the boys inevitably disappear to the back alley to toke a bowl. The last thing she needs is to babysit yet another brokenhearted roommate.

“What was the name again?”

“Evan. His bag says Gopher hockey on it.” Frantic googling ensues.

“Sure enough, that’s him. Walk-on. Guess he’s got some talent.” Alexandra shows them his roster profile on his phone.

“He’s got good form for a kid from the middle of bumfuck nowhere,” says Jack, already half out of his seat for his trip to the alley.

“And he’s a cutie,” Neera muses. “Probably real nice. Minnesotans always are.”

“Some midwestern bro living out his fantasy,” says Casey.

“I’ll tell you what he is,” Alexandra says. “He’s a climber. He doesn’t want you to think he’s after anything…but he’s after something.”

“He’ll fit right in in this town,” Casey says, trying to give her a significant look. Alexandra ignores his puppy eyes and instead checks Neera’s reaction: concern, fear that her Minnesota Nice diagnosis may be awry. Yes, that’s exactly what she’d hoped for.

“There’s no fitting in in this town,” she replies. “Either you grab the wave or you end up washed up on the beach.”

II.

“Alright, kids, welcome to Solomon’s Temple,” Mark announces as the procession of cabs pulls up to the beach house.

“Did they add on a new wing since I was here?” asks Matt.

“Yup. New sun room on the side, and another bedroom below it where we can stuff a few more bodies.”

“You’ve been here before?” asks Dante, a newcomer to the group.

“Marky and I go all the way back,” says Matt. “Been dealing with this snob since I was ten, even when he went off to Minnesota and New Haven. Been in the family since way before you, right?”

“That it has. And Matty was one of the few Dirty Jersey friends my parents let me have out here on the island,” Mark says. “No freaking clue what they saw in him.”

“I just remember us out on that beach when we were like twelve, thinking we were hot shit and going after high school girls.”

“Better luck this time, Matty,” Mark teases.

“Why Solomon’s Temple?” Amelia asks from the back seat.

“Parents went through a religious phase. Plus my dad’s gone through almost 700 wives, so it’s fitting.” To Mark’s mild annoyance, the allusion goes over the heads of everyone in the car.

Lost references aside, Mark is proud of his plans for a long Nantucket weekend. He’s made his invites carefully, fifteen in total, six men and nine women, the ratio off-kilter to get the group to the front of bar lines and provide more options for his enjoyment. There are three couples, already paired off, and Leslie, his lesbian work life confidante; to the mix he adds Dante, a Camden-based writer who went to Princeton with Matt, proof this week is more than his own sandbox. No, he’s collected his interesting people, all with some purpose unknown to them. Dante the poet, Leslie the life coach, the couples to provide stability, and Matt, his foil, both a competitor and a partner in the pursuit of the four eligible ladies. They know the unspoken rules of the game they both relish.

The first night goes according to plan. They are all drunk by eight and pile into two cabs Mark has contracted for the week for a venture to a strip of bars in town. Nora, the most attractive and least stable of the four singles, trips on a loose sidewalk brick and goes down in a heap. They are a bit on the drunk side for the finer bars in this outpost, but Mark has curated his guests well enough that he knows no one will go full Jersey Shore on him. They plow through a few fine cocktails before beginning the inevitable push back to the one dive bar on the island, where Mark suspects all their nights will end. The first one has enough novelty that he can ride it through, play his part, head home happily drunk at the end of the night and settle for a few sloppy kisses with Nora. Matt goes to bed empty-handed, and Mark claims pyrrhic sort of victory on night one.

He’s paced himself well. He wakes the next morning with no hint of a hangover and heads out for a ten-mile run along the coastal roads out to Siasconset and back. A handful of his housemates have stirred to life by the time he returns, all in awe of his early morning feat of athleticism. He shrugs off their praise with practiced nonchalance, the borderline arrogance of a man whose achievements require no acknowledgment. He is who he is.

Even so, Mark senses a distance growing between him and the rest of the house as it stirs to life. He has classified himself as a breed apart, and now it is his duty to reclaim his charm. He takes orders for mimosas and coaches Leslie and Dante on the Markian approach to beach life, to dive immediately back in. His disciples laugh and follow his lead. The god has come down from the clouds.

They pass most of the day on the beach. Mark drifts in and out of a few games of volleyball, works his tan, settles under an umbrella to keep his steady buzz and samples the edibles brought by Patrick and Erica, two underlings of his who have managed to hide their romance from everyone else in the office save Mark’s prying eyes. He caught their subtle winks, their well-timed bathroom trips, their aligned vacation schedules. Erica buries herself in the sand and gazes out at the waves in peace, and Patrick nuzzles up against her. Mark nestles near them on his towel, close enough for idle observation but far enough to give them space. They’re a fascinating specimen, this couple that has found love in a desolate office. He’s in a good enough place that he can stave off the wistful thoughts they inspire in him.

Night two involves less pretense, a quick pregame that moves on to a unified beach party with several other homes. This night, Mark expects, will be the most debauched of the week, and he steals a thirty-minute nap beforehand to steel himself for it.

“Game on,” he whispers to Matt as he settles in to bed.

“Remind me how many extra points I get per college girl?”

“Careful, Matty. Can’t talk like that anymore these days. You trying to tell me you aren’t here to find undying love?”

“C’mon, it’s not wrong if they’re in on the game, too.”

By the end of the night they are back in the room they share with two girls who claim they’re headed into their senior years at Dartmouth. In time it comes out that they’re merely Brooklyn baristas, but by this point Mark and Matt are in too deep. Mark thinks Matt wrapped up the proceedings with the slightly cuter one, but his finds just the right level of pleasure to sustain him through the longest finish he can ever remember. He is content to call the night a draw.

Mark wakes to find his new acquaintance wrapped in sheets at his side. Matt’s bedmate, he sees, has slipped off in the night. He deserves extra credit for that. He stays in bed until the girl wakes and politely sees her on her way, though he does not invite her to stay for the brunch Dante has promised to whip up to start day three. She was lovely, but he doesn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. His prize will be no barista, no random encounter on the beach. He’s already culled his herd.

The group applauds Mark and Matt for their conquests, though Leslie groans as they settle in on the beach with Nora’s foul anti-hangover concoction.

“This isn’t the Mark I like. The one I like is the one who was grilling Amelia on what AI is going to mean for humanity.”

“That Mark does get a little tired of always having to be the know-it-all cynic.”

“Okay then. How about the one who kicked all our asses at volleyball then had some pot brownies with me on the beach yesterday?”

“You know I’d go freaking crazy if I tried to live like that.”

“You don’t make this easy, do you?”

“The world is a complicated place. Just…being one with its waves, you know?”

“Hah. Clever turn, I’ll give you that.”

“I’m good for that, if nothing else.”

“You’re in Sad Mark mode again, aren’t you?”

“Me? Sad? I fucking rule my world.”

“Doesn’t seem to do much for you.”

“Does plenty for me. Just hungry enough to want even more. There you go. There’s a thirst no AI can ever have.” He pours himself another mimosa.

III.

On day five, it all changes. The boy barges in to Adrian’s turf on the wave, commands the inside of the tube, pulls a series of hard turns in succession. The conditions aren’t particularly good, and he still has an erratic streak that nearly creates a few collisions. Yet he surfs with reckless abandon, just hanging on to an edge of control. Even Alexandra rises up from her droll position on the beach to eyeball this display of reckless bravado. Later, when he washes up immediately in front of her, just as composed as when he’d emerged from the waves the two days before, she can’t help but flash him a quick smile.  

Evan ignores her. When Adrian snarls at him over his lack of decorum, he rolls his eyes and doesn’t reply. When Casey asks if he wants the video he’s shot of him, he’s downright scornful: he’s not here to be found, to time it just right for the perfect conditions, to pull off any particular move. He’s here to surf.

That night the interloper shows up at the bar for the first time since the second night. After a survey of the room, he gives the boys an awkward nod of respect. They reciprocate, an invitation to become one of them for the night. Evan accepts, but Casey can tell he’s not after their approval. Instead, his eyes flit toward Alexandra at every opportunity.

Alexandra is the queen bee of the San Onofre crew, a daughter of New Yorker socialites who fled west to try show business, found it vapid, and now lives off a trust fund with some beach bums. She’s convinced her parents she’s still seeking out modeling opportunities, and she staved off her mother’s inquiries at the latest visit with a carefully concocted story of her pursuit of some surf magazine. Her housemates are all complicit, bought off with the promise of Alexandra’s influence, and her willingness to pay the freight for the booze and drugs at the parties they host. The girls of the Ex-Con-Tiki have a reputation to keep.

Over the first few drinks of the evening, Evan pulls this story out of his fellow lustful males. Adrian has no interest in her uppity style, though this doesn’t stop him from telling Evan what he’d like to do to her in lurid detail. Evan pointedly turns to Casey and Jack, where he finds contradictory takes: Casey finds the addition of her tight mini-skirts and bottomless purse an unquestioned perk, while Jack tells anyone around him that she’s attracting the wrong type to San Onofre.

“Super high-maintenance.”

“Bunch of valley girls,” Casey admits.

“Exactly. None of the chill natives who actually know their way around a board.” Casey concedes the point, and Evan nods gravely.

That settles it, Casey thinks: the interloper stands for nothing if not purity, so he’s the last person he would expect to seek out Alexandra. He’s free to set up his own play. But it’s too late: Evan buys them all another round, slams his immediately, and marches across the bar to greet her. The boys watch, enthralled: will she eat this new kid for dinner as she has so many times before, or do those searching eyes know something she doesn’t?

Alexandra isn’t even sure why she’s here tonight. She’s cut back her drinking to a light trickle, and the charm of this beach dive wore off months ago. Her tablemates are all shrill harpies, and the crowd is otherwise sparse, a few aging wannabes in the corner and the tiresome Casey there in the middle with his unremarkable friends, headed for yet another stupor. And now up walks this boy who tries so hard to project some air of confidence.

“Slow night here,” Evan muses. It’s a comment for Alexandra alone, not the other four girls at her table.

“We don’t do much speed here,” she answers. “Unless you mean meth. Ask the bartender and he can hook you up for a decent price.” Evan’s eyes flit to the Samoan, who’d told him a tear-jerking tale of his turn to clean living after his release from prison the night before. They make eye contact, and he seems to know exactly what Alexandra just told him. He closes his eyes and musters up his cool.

“Appreciate the reference. Got a trailer we can take it back to?”

“Not much peace and quiet at my place. I hear you’ve got a little hermit cabin down toward the old nuke plant?”

“Out in the wilderness, just like Saint Onofre himself.”

“You’re a smart little fuck.”

“I try to be versatile. A renaissance man. A soldier-scholar. A philosopher king.”

“A drunk college jock who needs a haircut and wants it bad.”

“All of the above. Can I get you something?”

“You can get me out of here, that’s for sure.”

“Now you’re talking.” Evan steps aside to let her out of her booth and leads the way toward the exit. He doesn’t bother looking to see what sort of reaction he’s inspired, but Alexandra makes sure to give Casey a triumphant leer before she slips out behind him.

They don’t head straight for a bedroom. Freed from the need to perform, Evan sets a contemplative pace up the beach, and Alexandra regales him with the inner dynamics of her house. After five minutes of blather, she gets the sneaking suspicion he isn’t paying attention. Casey would have kept fawning after her the entire time, but no, this kid is subtly showing her he’s bored, that he doesn’t need her, that she should be the one seeking him out, not vice versa.

“Let’s head to my place,” she snaps, and he returns his attention to her.

“Not my wilderness hut?”

“Not sure I should trust men who think that sort of thing is fun. Trust me, a night in my bed will be an upgrade.”

Evan shrugs, nonplussed. Only later does Alexandra realize he already knows where she lives, her backstory, her reputation. She’s not sure if his homework should flatter or disturb her.

She drives him the five miles in to a San Clemente neighborhood near the pier. The house is compact but carries a veneer of refinement, laden with the latest IKEA furniture and a mélange of perfumes that trip Evan’s allergies, an upgrade only when compared to the piggish squalor of Casey’s apartment or the eternal pot smell of Adrian’s. He pours them both lemonades to distract himself from her waterfall of apologies.

“Want to watch something?”

“Not particularly.”

“So who are you, really?”

“Some kid who likes to surf.”

“No shit.”

For the first time since he’d swaggered over to her table, Alexandra suspects some uncertainty in Evan. He blows his nose in a tissue and lets his eyes dart about the apartment, not processing anything they didn’t see the first time. He doesn’t seem like a person eager to get on with easy sex.

“You’re such a loner,” she chances.

“I try to surround myself with the right kind of people.”

“What are those?”

“The people who fuel my fire.”

“And who does that?” she asks as she unbuttons her shirt to reveal a pink polka-dotted bra.

“Not many people.” He tugs off his shirt and lets Alexandra run her hands around his chest in gentle massage circles.

“You’re sunburned.”

“Never can escape that, yeah. I’m not a beach kid.”

“You could play one on TV.”

“I’ll remember that if my business career doesn’t work out.”

“Why are you even here?”

“To surf.”

“No, shit. But out of all the beaches…”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“Quit being smart.”

“Fine, fine.” He gazes at their reflection in a window across the room. “My family used to come here when I was young. My aunt lived out this way for a bit and my parents fell for the place. It’s been ten years now, though. Was curious if it had changed.”

“Huh. Has it?”

“Hard to tell whether I’ve changed or it’s changed.”

“For the better?”

“Well, puberty did enhance one aspect of it. But mostly, no. Everything that seemed big back then seems small now. And people are just as petty here as they are anywhere.”

Alexandra isn’t sure if this is directed at her or not. She casts about for a response that will be on his level.

“You see places better when you don’t see them as a kid. You can see what they actually are. Not what you wish they still were.”

Her would-be lover smiles. “You’d be perfect for my buddy at Yale, saying things like that.”

“I went to high school just up the road from there. Choate. Bunch of self-righteous dicks.”

“My point exactly.”

Alexandra cackles and slides a few fingers in beneath his boxers. He reaches down and clasps his hands over hers, a caress that nonetheless stops her progress.

“You never answered my question,” she says.

“It’s not an interesting story.”

“I’m curious, though!”

“Living out some childhood fantasy, I guess you could say.”

“Oh, forget it, you’re impossible. Let’s fuck.”

He turns back toward her, and Alexandra is once again drawn in to those wide eyes.

“Nah.”

“Seriously? You put in that much effort and then you run away?”

“Got a girl back home. I’m loyal.”

“Loyal. Then what the hell are we even doing here? Loyal. Holy fucking shit. Loyal.”

“You make it sound like a foreign concept.”

“You sound like the clingiest kid ever.”

“When you know what loss is, you become that.” He pulls his shirt back on, cocks his cap back in place, and heads out the door.

IV.

Night three is Mark’s night for excess. After an early win, he can let Matt take the lead in the pursuit and just follow along, let instincts do the rest. He makes a few overtures to Carmina, the shapeliest of the four single girls, but her speech is slurring before they even finish dinner, and after three bars, Mark is little better. Matt paces himself better and takes home an androgynous gender studies major from Barnard. Under normal circumstances Mark would find intrigue in his friend choosing an interesting chat over the easiest lay, but is thankful he is so drunk that he can just pass out, his only lasting memory of the night formed through Dante’s reenactments of the girl’s relentless moaning.

Day four is drizzly and grey. Nora stumbles in with a ballet dancer she’d hooked up with the night before just as the group wraps up brunch, and he has the nerve to whine about the temperature of the leftover eggs. Leslie overhears Patrick criticizing the waitstaff at the dive bar and lectures him on his lack of empathy, leading Mark to edge out of the room in annoyance. He gives Matt a nod, which Dante catches as well, and they both follow him into the kitchen.

“Gotta love the white girl from Westchester lecturing us on privilege,” says Matt.

“You said it, not me,” says Mark, relieved that the two people of color in the party can be his confidantes.

“I give her points for trying,” says Dante. “But doesn’t she work at the same firm as you?”

“That she does,” Mark replies as he contemplates the empty Bloody Mary pitcher with a frown. “We’re all sinners here. Cept you, maybe, Dante.”

“Bro, his parents run a hedge fund,” says Matt. Mark cackles with glee while Dante blushes.

“Not where you come from, but what you do with it, right?”

“Sure. Something like that,” says Matt. “Ugh, the fridge is out of beer. I’ll get more.”

Dante shakes his head as Matt goes. “You and Matt together are a hell of a pair.”

“We’ve been playing the same game our whole lives, Delbarton all the way back.”

“I had you pegged as more of an Exeter kid.”

“Dad was a sleazebag. He fit in better in Jersey.” Mark grabs a tennis ball off a nearby counter and bounces it off the floor.

“Hey now, you know I’m in Camden.”

“Gotta get some good material there.”

“Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“I spent a summer in Detroit. Went to an all-black bar most nights. I’ve seen a thing or two.” Mark idly bounces the ball.

“What were you after?”

“Probably the same thing you’re after.”

“Sure, but you ain’t black, dude. Those are my people there.”

“Right. I realize there are things I’ll never understand about that. Why can’t I try as much as I can to make them mine, too?”

Dante looks at him quizzically. “What the hell you doing here, then, getting trashed on this beach?”

“Playing the game, like I told you.”

Dante shakes his head. “Leslie says you should leave Wall Street. Says you need more than an intellectual dead zone.”

“Everywhere seems that way after Yale, really.”

“Let me show you Camden. See if you still think that after. You can get so much more than this.”

Mark’s eyes flit out at the waves through the rain-spackled window. The tempo of the tennis ball accelerates.

“Roots are complicated things. And mine are here.”

Mark’s heart isn’t in night four. He skips most of the day drinking games and plays cribbage in the lounge with Leslie, who knows him well enough to give him space. He halfheartedly coaches Dante as they size up a group of townies at a less popular beach, the best he can do to escape the motions of a tiresome routine, but Dante has no real interest in his game. Matt is back with the Barnard girl, who makes it clear she has no interest in Mark’s droll act; what exactly she sees in Matt, other than perhaps a brown kid with a lower outward privilege score, is unclear. After staying tight for three nights, their group spreads out across three bars in downtown: the couples choose a quieter locale for date night, Dante and Leslie join an edgier crowd at the dive bar, and Mark trails after the single girls intent upon a party, taking no joy in his role as the playboy.

To his relief, Matt slips away from his hook-up from the night before and employs a full court press on Eva. Mark takes his cue that he’s free to do as he pleases and turns his attention to his target for the whole week: Amelia, the prettiest of the bunch in his eyes, less busty than Eva or Nora but eternally poised and prim, an early employee at a start-up who has drifted into its inner ring. This conquest requires no great art, nor any drunken oblivion: merely the two best-credentialed people in the house taking their natural place at each other’s side.

Mark and Amelia cab back to Solomon’s Temple and wander along the dunes. She’s had more than him but is still in control, content to let him drape and arm around her shoulder and let it sneak downward. He can feel the tension draining out of her as they go and lets himself follow suit, a pair of neurotics twinned in escape.

“Isn’t this absurd, getting trashed out here every night?” he asks her.

“It is. How fucked up do we have to be to want this?”

“If this is fucked up, do we want to know normal?”

“Damn. And we’re the successful ones.”

“Just know how to keep up appearances as we play the game.”

“It’s all a game to you, isn’t it?”

“You got a better way to treat this thing we do?”

“Just make sure we don’t always play the game the same way.”

“Oh, I try. Matty and I are in competition all week.”

“I picked up on that. What’s tonight’s challenge?”

“We’re gonna see who can bring a girl home for a night on the beach.”

Amelia stops and glares at him. “I see you’ve won.”

“Always do.”

“Well, tell Matt to get his junk and whatever pussy he’s found to go with it down here with us.”

“The four of us, under the stars?”

“Why not?”

This seems too easy. Mark wants to ask her what exactly it is she’s looking for, but some instinct tells him it isn’t a prudent question. He calls Matt and orders him to the beach, hypes up an impending orgy even though he knows it will be nothing of the sort. He and Amelia pick their way back to Solomon’s Temple and arrive just as Matt and Eva climb out of their cab. The foursome is quiet, and Mark tries to diagnose the mood in the house, some mix of exhaustion and hope for something new; unspoken dreams for transcendence, or merely a release of pent-up drives?

Amelia and Eva collect a few wine bottles from the cellar while Mark and Matt and scope out the dunes for a leeward pocket where they can settle in beneath a few blankets. After the girls arrive, they chug the wine to warm themselves. Amelia is shuddering in the cool night air, and Mark nuzzles up against her. He wants to tell her that he’s been scheming for this moment since he met her two months ago; down the slope, he catches snatches of Matt and Eva’s debate over the most comfortable position with the added variables of sand and dune grass, and is tempted to test their advice.

But he says nothing. Amelia nests her body into his and settles into the rhythmic pulse of sleep, and he can only lie there, wide awake, loath to call it a night but even more reluctant to disturb her peace. He runs his hand gently up and down her side, content drain his plastic cup and meld his body into hers. Something about this feels different, less a conquest and instead a comfortable place to lay his head. He’s not sure he trusts it.

Mark wakes with a start when the first rays of sun creep over the beach, and his shudder stirs Amelia to life. He feels somehow wronged as she peels herself from him, but he musters up a bemused grin that she returns. She lets him kiss her gently.

“I do need to get back to the city today,” she says as she pulls away and climbs to her feet.

“Gotta get outta here before you start feeling something. I get it.”

“You almost sound sad about it, you soulless leech.”

“I can have an emotion every now and then.”

“Cute, kid.”

“Drinks sometime next week?”

“If I’m in the mood.” She swings a blanket over her shoulder and stalks her way back toward the house. Eva yells after her and hurries to follow, sick from how much she drank the night before. Matt sits up on his blanket, rubs his eyes, and looks up at Mark as if he were some heavenly apparition.

“You get all the points. Damn, Marky. She’s such a boss.”

“I guess,” Mark shrugs. “If she were as in control as she pretends she is, she’d say eff the boss and take more of this for herself.”

“She’s got the balls to leave this behind. I give her real credit for that.”

Mark cocks his head. “Dude, you just slept with a Vanity Fair model on a Nantucket beach. You really gonna question all this?”

Matt frowns as he massages his temples with one hand and adjusts his package with the other. “I am. Just too much of the same, day after day.”

“You the last person I thought I’d hear that from.”

“I’m serious, bro. I think you need to start seeing someone.”

“Nah. Not how I operate.”

“You’re allowed to win with help from other people sometimes.”

“You givin up on my game, Matty?”

“Shit, dude, you’re a one-track machine.”

Mark blinks at Matt, shocked to hear his closest comrade abandon the cause. Is he that neurotic, that driven to excess? For all his claims to the contrary, he has to concede the point. His life has taken on a manic pace, its successes more sustained but punctuated by these sporadic crashes when he just loses all self-control and lapses into days of sputtering misery.

Matt is too loyal to leave him alone and march off up the beach after the girls, but even as they collect themselves and their blankets and their empty bottles and begin to walk back toward the house together, he senses a new divide between them. Everyone else has found their stops off this train, but he just plows on toward the end of the line, wherever that might be.

V.

The next day, Evan is back to a life of complete isolation. At first Alexandra just diagnoses cold feet, a retreat from intimacy for a kid who only has a few days left on the beach. She’s seen it before, this fear of commitment. But Jack suspects something different: he looks at all of them the same way, some mixture of intrigue and pity, as if he dreads some great tragedy that he knows will befall them as they party on in their ignorance. Weeks later, when Alexandra looks back on this most bizarre of her summer forays, she will agree: he was a breed apart.

Evan has no knowledge of Jack and Alexandra’s blowout argument at the Ex-Con-Tiki. He is back in his cabin, alone, though alert enough to flash Casey a middle finger when he tries to peek in his window after bar close. As far as Casey can tell, he is only brooding, his notebooks untended, his phone forgotten on the bedside table; those eyes, unable to squint out toward the light, just fixed on the dark void where the nuclear power plant used to be.

Once Evan is sure Casey is gone, he dons all his surf gear again and takes his board down to the beach. He laughs at himself, this necessity of looking the part, even in the wilderness. He’s an actor playing a role, but aren’t they all actors on some great stage?

The waves aren’t right. It’s too calm, too still. He won’t have the final triumph he dreamed of to round out this trip. He turns to leave the ocean; might as well get a full night’s sleep. But he doesn’t get far before another instinct forces him to turn back.

Evan saunters over to where he’d washed up in front of Alexandra the day before. He drives his board into the sand and takes a seat next to it. He holds his knees in his arms and closes his eyes, his sole focus the inward crashes and outward pulls of the surf.

Every step on this beach has stirred up some memory, some past dream. It’s a home of sorts, and it’s tempting to remain in this world, to never leave behind the San Onofre of his youth. Evan could settle into a life here, set up in a little shack and drop his pretense and befriend someone like Jack. He could be happy here. He can just surf.

But this trip has never been about that. He’s passed his test, rode into the jaws of death and tempted himself as he’s never been tempted before. He’s come out triumphant. Back in the cabana a half hour later, Evan jots down a notes for a few calls he’ll make the next day. He’ll go back to Minnesota with no need to linger any further on what this beach means to him, no need to play out a dozen different futures in his mind any longer. He knows how the next chapter in his story will read. Now he just needs to write it.

VI.

Scandal is under way when Matt and Mark return to Solomon’s Temple. Erica, high on cocaine, made drunken passes at Dante in the kitchen the night before. The poet pleads his innocence, but Patrick demands culpability, and the house has separated into Team Patrick and Team Dante. Mark’s natural instinct is to sequester the two of them and order them to find a resolution, but today he feels drained, and for the first time all week, he has no Amelia to perform for. Does he still have time to catch her ferry back to Hyannis?

Mark tells Matt to sort it all out and heads to his room. His hangover, lurking in the backdrop since he woke, roars into full force by late morning, as his worst ones always do. He wants to crawl back into bed, but there is no time, he convinces himself; time, perhaps, is running out. His feelings are too complicated, too cluttered even for a mind attuned to life among shades of grey. He needs to purge any conflicting feelings. He needs to run. Matt can only watch in incredulity as Mark changes into his Yale shorts and a tight athletic top and begins his easy jog out to the beach.

The first mile goes easily enough, but by the time Mark swings inland toward Milestone Road, he knows he’s made a mistake. His stomach churns with the unprocessed concoction of six different types of alcohol, all intent upon making its way out into the world; whether upward or downward he cannot tell. Lightheaded, he slows to a stumble and waits for a slow-moving truck to pass him before he dips into a convenient shrubbery. He squats, wills his digestive tract to act, forces out what he can and wipes his anus with some inadequate sandplain grasses. He is revolted, but he must go on. Perhaps he can cut this short and make a loop down the airport road, though there’s too much traffic there. Maybe this little side lane will do the job?

For a moment he resumes his brisk early pace, seemingly cleansed. But it’s a false reassurance. A quarter mile later, he’s seizing up more than before. He drops his rate to a slow walk, unable to keep a straight line, the world starting to swim before him. A middle-aged woman driving her Prius the other direction gives him a look of concern, but pushes on. Freed from any prying eyes, he returns again to the hedges, this time intent to stay for as long as he needs. He pushes across a grassy plain to another clump of scrub oak, tries to force more out but nothing will come; he fears he’ll vomit, but that too stays down. He breaks out in an intense sweat, feels the color drain from his face, wonders if he’s on the verge of a collapse into the bushes. There’s a house maybe five hundred feet away. Should he call for help? Ask someone to summon an ambulance? Spell out his will and testament in the sand before him?

He’s not quite sure how long his agony lasts, whether it is five minutes or half an hour, but it doesn’t matter. This is more than some stray hangover. He is a piece of trash, a useless scum, a kid with promise who’s pissing it away in a silly performative world of endless nothing. This will be the end of the line, the wake-up call he needs and the liberation of a sickened soul. No more descents into hedonism without purpose, no more sad nights alone in his room. And then there, squatting in a bush, clothing caked in sweat, hands buried deep in his disheveled hair, he turns his gaze upward and his closed eyes perceive the world through those of a child, future or past he cannot be sure, and suddenly he feels the pain easing away, drained out into this sandy Nantucket soil where it can remain.

Mark rises and begins a steady trot back to the beach house, ready to guide his charges out on a tour of the island’s lighthouses and feed them a fresh seafood dinner. His stomach rumbles softly. The wind tugs his hair in and out of his eyes. He smiles a manic smile. He’s found his pace.