Somehow, I knew the minute she stepped off the boardwalk and into the sand. Maybe it was because I knew what time the Surf & Sub shop closed and guessed approximately how long before she and Braden would be done cleaning. The day had been busy, and they probably had a lot to clean.
My surfboard beside me, I had my Bermuda shorts low on my hips, sitting near the water’s edge, enjoying the horizon and the recently departed ball of fire inking the sky in purples and reds. Time for campfires on the beach. I could almost smell the driftwood smoldering as steam lifted from the scarred edges where salt water would perpetually attempt its escape.
There were always plenty of campfires on the beach. I didn’t even need to start one. People just invited me as I walked by, offering me beer from their coolers. I declined but accepted a water bottle or soda. The girls at the bonfires all wanted me to stick around. The guys didn’t even seem jealous even though they knew all it would take is one carefully worded invitation and their girl would follow me down the beach into the darkness of the night.
I was just that guy.
I never did. I wasn’t ready for any of that yet. Not to say that I don’t like girls. I totally, totally like girls. I just hadn’t met her yet and I wasn’t wasting my first time on some random chick at a bonfire on the beach.
Not sure exactly what was the draw. My charisma, maybe. My long eyelashes and mysteriously colorful eyes. My purposefully messy curls that hung just low enough to touch the collar of my shirt, if I wore one. My six-pack abs and perpetually tanned shoulders. My crooked smile. My prowess on the surfboard. My natural talent with a charcoal. My cocky, overconfidence. Probably a combination.
I got hit on constantly. By guys and girls. But like I said, I prefer girls. I think. I mean, I’ve never taken the time to kiss another person. The thought of putting my lips on someone else’s lips. Gross. What caveman suggested placing one’s mouth against someone else’s and basically licking each other was a good thing? Seriously, whose idea was that? The only substance I was putting in my mouth was food, and even that I was rather particular about.
Always wondered what these pseudo friends would think if they found out I was homeless and lived in a van down by Buddy’s Surf Shop. Not to be mistaken with the Surf & Sub shop, although they were across the street from each other. Totally unrelated. Both cashing in on the location and its propensity to draw surfers and other tourists.
Tourists shopped up front at Buddy’s Surf Shop where the t-shirts and impulse items hung on racks.
Surfers knew to come to the back, where we repaired and waxed and shined and sold surfboards and other equipment. I helped out a lot in exchange for my room and board, ahem, place to legally park my conversion van. I taught surfing lessons sometimes, ordered supplies, received shipments, kept track of purchases.
We had a credit card machine there in the back of the shop where guys could take what they needed on their honor, swipe their own card and type in the amount they owed. They didn’t need us. Wax for your board? You know where it is. Grab it off the shelf and swipe your own dang card. We trust you.
Buddy gave me a key to the surf shop last summer when he realized I was there first thing in the morning anyway so why did he need to leave home so early to be here when the UPS guy showed up at eight a.m.
He did have two other real employees who came and went as he needed them, plus his wife. He didn’t pay me, and I didn’t ask him to pay me. Buddy was like the father I never had. He was almost old enough to be my dad. He and his wife, Lili even had me over for Thanksgiving.
The first time Lili met me she pulled me into her arms and just held me. Her voice was husky when she said, “I’ve heard so much about you and I’m glad you’re here.”
Okay… I patted her on the back and wondered how much Buddy had told her in the three days since we’d met, but whatever. I didn’t have a mom anymore, so I’d take it. Unless I made the four-hour drive to visit my grandparents, I didn’t get many hugs.
I think somewhere deep inside I craved hugs because when Maggie came up behind me, that was the first thing I did. I hopped up, brushed the sand off my backside, then pulled Maggie into a hug. She hugged me back like we were old friends. I didn’t even know her last name.
“Oh hey, I’ve got something for you.” She pulled her arms from around my waist and reached into her bag. “Braden said to give this to you.”
“Bonus!” I quickly unwrapped the sub and took a huge bite. A seventeen-year-old guy is never fully satisfied, and a seventeen-year-old homeless guy is never really properly fed. Thank goodness for people like Braden and Buddy. With my mouth still full I asked, “You ready for a walk on the beach?”
“Uh, okay.” She glanced over toward the pier where amusement park rides were still going strong, the young families with perpetually squealing children having been replaced by teenagers and twenty-somethings on dates.
I rode a few rides when I first moved here but really preferred riding the waves to riding a sticky plastic and metal deathtrap covered in gear grease and barely hosed off vomit.
As for me and my date, we’d head in the other direction. Down the beach where we could sink our toes in the wet sand and let the waves wash away the footprints behind us.
I swallowed and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “Don’t worry, I won’t eat like a starving savage when you have me over for dinner to meet your parents.”
“I’ll keep that in mind if I ever invite you over to meet my parents,” Maggie said.
“When,” I said, nodding.
“When you invite me over to meet your parents.” I took another bite, the sub now half gone.
“You said ‘if’ you ever invite me over to meet your parents,” I explained, gulping down my bite so I wasn’t talking with my mouth full again. “What you meant to say was ‘when’ you invite me over to meet your parents.”
“When are you going to invite me to meet your family?” She bumped my shoulder with hers.
“It’s a four-hour drive, so whenever you’re ready, let me know. We might need to stay the night though because it’s a four hour drive each way.”
“Where do they live?”
“Fresno,” I said, not willing to elaborate. If she truly was the one, like I thought she was, she’d find out soon enough. If not, no reason to get that personal. “You ready for our walk?”
I shoved the last bite of sub into my mouth and wadded up the wrapper then leaned down to grab my board and turned toward the surf shop, assuming she’d follow. She did. I took a detour over to the wastebasket near the edge of the boardwalk and threw away the wrapper from my sub, then offered Maggie my hand to help her up the step to the boardwalk.
“Gotta put my board in my van before we take our walk. Come on.” I boldly kept her hand in mine all the way down to where my van was parked beside the surf shop.