Updated: Jan 3, 2021
I only drink when I’m bored. New Years Eve I’m always bored. Even when I plan and tell myself, ‘This year will be different, I’ll head out and get myself dinner,’ that’s only an hour and I end up home, out here, in the chaise on the belvedere, the sunset knocking on my lids, the rolling thunder of surf and the treble of my mother and the party organizer leaking through the slide- glass behind my ear.
The feeling on the night of these things, it’s hard to describe. Curious dread, like the eve of a sacrificial rite - something formal, communal, vicious, emetic but necessary. Most people would convulse - electrified! by the social wattage coming tonight. The Vynns, the Maguarys, the Sotters, the Kleines, the Dewers, the Manns, the Nordbergs, the O’Neals - about everyone on Ariana, most up a terrace on Mariana, and a number of others from accredited neighborhoods.
It’s a slipping 62 degrees but facing the sun you could get away with a teeshirt. Though I am wholly awake I haven’t used my eyes in what seems like hours. I hold them open long enough to check on that destroyer parked on the horizon in front of Pendleton. The handful of pleasure sails bob like swan-wings around the white-caps, which by this hour aren’t speckled and wig-waging, but dim as iron and frighteningly sharp. I’ve flanked my lounge with two side- tables; one hand cycles the ice in a rum sour with a mini-straw, the other hovers over an In-N- Out cup and picks a cold fry when I remember they’re there.
I’m simulating how it’ll go with the O’Neals coming. The mother, Holly O’Neal, shucked the husband last year. The husband kept the house down the row and is still a friend of my father; we’re so close that I’m supposed to call him “Uncle Rob” when he comes over, which is often. The two of them used to go hog-hunting on Molokai in the 80s, and when I was younger I would watch them play intramural volleyball down on the sands in the summer tourney; I used to be the Modelo kid, whose job was to pull two dripping Modelos from the Yeti and run it across the July sands.
Holly isn’t a Beach Row-er anymore, or even a Cyprus Shore homeowner. She’s a Talegan now so she’ll have to get a pass from Gary at the guard-shack - Gary, who she never looked at, waved to or mouthed an insincere “thank you” when rolling to a half-stop in her big lease, creeping forward on the brakes, matching the verdigris gate motoring open smooth and bated like the gates of Heaven. For this and other reasons she was out. Anathema. Hooked, cast far into the outer darkness, and cut. She wouldn’t have been invited had my mother not bumped into her at Gelson’s, where Holly asked - so nuanced and apparently unrehearsed that it would’ve slipped past most decent people - if we were hosting a party for New Years.
The slide-glass suctions open and they step into the breeze. Without asking for it the rum sour is at my lips. My mother gives dictation to a clipboard and a scribbling young organizer in a finger-trap-tight blue dress.
“And I wanted,” she taps toward me in heels on Spanish tile, “the chairs out here to be set against the glass over there, out of the - Honey move,” she throws in. “If we could move these chairs out of the way, maybe around the corner with the trashcans. And I wanted string-lights put up with holly or something green drooping down from them, kind of giving it a forest-y feel.”
Rising, I pick up my rum sour too quickly and let the coaster with the cliche mosaic- facade of a compass crash an wobble on the trellised, faux-iron side-table. My mother keeps gesturing but I catch the deep, muted inhale and subtle, demur flair of the gorgeous organizer girl’s brows. She wants to say, “Uh-huh. A forest thirty feet above the ocean, in low-desert California, with Spanish tile instead of leaf-litter, and The Eagles and Eddie Money standing behind it all. This is what I went to design-school for.”
Inside I dip into the kitchen and watch from afar the muscle in company tees moving the sofa and the lamps, the Stickley dining table and the prim, ecru colored chairs with the tight- fabric backs shaped like scallops. A small troop of ladies wait against the wainscoting in the hall tapping their toes and tucking their elbows to fit the muscle hauling in the boxes of ware, speakers, and the kind of laminated hose-and-wipe stainless stools you’d see chained on the curb-side bars of Bourbon Street.
You’d think we’re moving in. I turn the glass into my mouth and set it in the sink.
In my room I turn on and mute a Kings pregame. My plan is to lock myself behind headphones but the noise-cancelers don’t work, which I expected. It moves between forms for some four hours: the rub of table legs, the sound system tests, the hot organizer tapping up and down my hall talking on the phone.
Kings loose one-six to the Leafs and they’re broadcasting the entire game again only with “REPLAY” stamped in the corner. Outside they’ve got The Bangles and Iggy Pop bowing the walls, like the first floor of every coed dorm in 1989. I’m sure it’s fantasy but my imagination impresses the scene. I see jello colored spotlights cross paths above the fog machine’s knee-high, swampy vapor which balding, sagging, graying and fraying Beach-Rowers cut through doing ‘the eel,’ or ‘the dancing in the dark,’ or attempting ‘the running man.’ The sofas are against the wall and seating a kick-line of drunk moms in Madonna bras rolling their palms in the air - the husbands watch and try to clap holding their drinks.
Just knowing it’s out there - or could be out there - gets to me. So at the end of the second first period I trade my sweats for some jeans and a polo and come down the hallway under the cove-lights and shimmy past the line for the restroom.
My mother is at the front door, antsy, shaking her hair back, waiting for the next pair to come in and cue that ecstatic greeting women master in the womb. If you want a headache just keep track of all the new names at the threshold; every old friend has a new spouse and a new 15-year-old. That’s how it goes; the marriage permutations can get outrageous on Beach Row. I remember Chris Gellar’s dad had an impressive six ex-wives, gifting Chris 24 step-siblings.
Already I can see I’m overdressed. The wives look good: slimming mini-coats, Mechlin lace and pearl-seed décolletages and healthy, exposed arms glowing with Skinfood’s equivalent to aisle 33 Nivea Creme. But their children. Flat-billed sons with gray, ghoulish, gamer skin and yellow, e-cig teeth, with plugs like Swiss-holes drilled through their lobes. Then there’s the hot and unlikeable daughters pulling off the ‘debutante in blue jeans’ look. To mother and daughter’s credit, they left the workaday Lulus at home. The kids muse around, test the hired bartender, then make their way back out front. I know they’re smoking out there, making the bumpers of Teslas and four-door Wranglers into benches.
I see the portable bar is getting spent, not surprisingly. The Latino mixer - in his velvet vest, elastic bow-tie and loose, netty tuxedo-pants that I imagine could be torn off via velcro when the fifties start flying - ducks down to a hidden cache and there’s a resounding snap of packaging. He comes back up and reloads over a commotion of juiced cheers; he sets up these racks - like beaker-holders in biology class - that hold your standard white and brown liquors, a sexy bottle of Maraschino liqueur figured like Jessica Rabbit, and two silver tubs of stacked mint-leaves and lime wedges.
It looks like the appetizers are a hit too, especially those creamy, cheesy, wet and melting morsels of cheddar and sour-cream and bacon and chives, measured and dropped into little roasted pimento boats at the commandeered kitchen counter and sent floating around the room on the wrists of two servers hardly older than myself. Far from the frenzy at the bar, there’s a less popular table of hot-trays keeping warm tins of asparagus tips, shredded crab, tomato and mushroom canapé, and beside them metal thimbles of mayonnaise dips set into a vat of ice that hums faintly over the burble of the guests. I keep getting older guys slapping my shoulder as though I should remember them, so I move a bit further down to the desserts which haven’t yet been touched. The thin cursive on the laminated stationary are more appetizing than the real thing: Dark Belgium Double-Truffle Gelato with Kahlua; Caramel-Blanched Almond-Vanilla Ice Cream; Carob Chips (Keto-Friendly); “Quarts” (Caramelized Marshmallow); Mozambique Cashews (Spalled); Coconut Shavings; Coarse Havana Sugar…
The slide-glass is open and there’s a larger group out on the belvedere either lined and looking out at nothing over the edge or paired off under the string-lights wrapped in fake-ivy. Oingo Boingo hovers over everyone but even still you can hear the rolling thunder of waves falling down there in the darkness, and it is total darkness absent a couple boats bleeding purple, blue and green Christmas lights that run like water-colors.
There are maybe five big circles of guests chatting it up, and then there’s a detached corner-pocket of huffy swine turned into each other and leaning back on their hips eyeing the rest of us. I give it a second take and squint at the dry, lizard tongues flicking into their gin-neats, and find too the faintest pink needle-scars pocking their lifted, folded, molded faces - not a sign of your usual wear that can even be a beauty of itself, but a professional patch-job that’s done too good to fool you. If you ask me it looks like they’re wearing rubber masks, something’s just off; the obsessive smoothing and tightening over the concealed structure of rolling skull-bones make their $28,000, 39 year-old faces look mock-sincere, unreadable, not quite human. I cross the sea of stenciled grins and chuckling breasts and crane over the reserve table of d’oeuvres. As I inch nearer I hear them whisper soto voce behind their third glass - which is like a shot of apple juice for this group, “She looks healthy...I hate the smell of fajitas...I think I know where she got the idea...Oh really?...Well psychology is an easy degree...Her son’s going to Boston U, did you know that?”
When I was a kid, there was an old-money guy about forty five years old, Larry, the inheritor of a small place a few streets up the terrace, on one of the early parcels Nixon let go to the market. His parents were one of those early beach-front buyers who got theirs back in the ‘60s for a steal. They had set up the money-trickle to carry Larry all the way to his predictably early death. I don’t think he ever paid a bill in his life, though he did work general-contracting and became a disability lifer, having burned his forearm soldering a brass pipe under a house. “Fourth degree burn,” he told me. He had blonde, Norse-woman hair, and then you’d turn him around and see the pocky flesh-tints - like gravel under his face which he never bothered to have removed and is now a part of him - and the kind of scores and scars you’d expect from bar- hopping. He would wheelie his Honda up and down the cul de sacs and fiddle with its innards outside the community center, crouched and bearing his crack to God and man alike. I’d ask him about his bike and he would answer sometimes between fits of unbelievably creative expletives.
I remember the “Old Jewels” walking past one day - in their track-suits and gray, iron-curler bob cuts and QVC cosmetics - making some sour, passive-aggressive comment loud enough for Larry to hear. Not that I blame the Jewels; Larry was a bone in the throat of all decent people and it’s probably for the better of humanity that he’s away, somewhere - either dead or nearing it in some god-awful, Fear-and-Loathing- type place like Laughlin or Slab City. By that age I suppose the old infant had gotten into enough scraps that he knew to ignore them, and so they passed. “Rich old women,” he blew the hair from his eyes and slurred through his early-onset Parkinson’s. “Well-kept graves. Orange County’s one big cemetery. Got to get away.”
Yup, I grin and pop a crab hors d’oeuvres.
It’s a little sick how well I know them - us, maybe. Boston carries weight in Cyprus Shores. USC is a base, it’s normative. Anybody can get their kid into USC, we all know how; just send in the check and write the family name in large, eligible script beneath the zeros. It’s so known that nobody - absolutely nobody, hangs the school flag over their garage. Certainly they don’t dare buy the “USC Mom” license plate cover (maybe it could be gifted, as a joke, but you’d have to be good friends, otherwise...). For UCLA, Chapman, Stanford, and Boston, the generous donations aren’t enough; they need that 3.2, and most of these kids are straight out of an ape exhibit in terms of intelligence. But these big-facades, these cattle-brands you lean into briefly and wear forever - UCLA, Chapman, Standford - these are the Mecca-Medina-Riyadh of Beach Row chic. When the admissions story broke about a year ago and every jet-set columnist and hungry politician dolled on their indignant-faces and, coming into the nations’ living-rooms, ladled themselves with the virtue of moral outrage, I thought to myself, This is news? I didn’t know it was possible not to know this was going on. Why now?
To tell the truth, it’s “connections.” Wait ten seconds and you’ll here that word in ordinary, idiopathic, non-ironic conversation. The seven million dollar one-story, the mortgaged G-Wagon, the timeshare, just means to the end: connections. Beach-Row parties? You bet. These are bring-your-own-connections parties, and at a certain level - far beneath friendship but above the free booze and the double-meaning insults - everyone here knows that’s what this is all about. After tonight, there will be cross-pollination of names and numbers and promises of drinks like you wouldn’t believe.
Everyone here shares one connection: Jason A., the contractor who sound proofed the surf-side of all the homes on Ariana and a few up a terrace on Mariana. He’s here, standing in a line with some other guys detached in the living room, the lights of a Laker game curving atop the reflection of his head. They’re dressed California formal, like all the guys here: untucked shirts with the shoulders one size too big, Rainbow sandals, and the rare pair of blue jeans because it’s chilly.
My father is one of them and so is Holly O’Neal’s ex-husband. There’s a turn-over and they all huff and mumble and take a sip. Something tells me to turn and so I sweep - like I’m the a-cam in a feature film - the entire party. I sweep the receding hairlines and hip level drinks, the seeping stares and chucking breasts of Phony Corner, the Latin sweating his tan off behind the bar, the sons looking for anything to pocket, the daughters standing outside the circles thumbing their phones, and my mother floating about but keeping an eye on the open door and the foyer - and I see Holly and the O’Neals’ daughter, Katie, coming up the steps from the sidewalk.
Something tells me to get behind a lock, soon, so I grab another crab popper and start for my room. I nearly make around the corner when my mother hooks my collar with “Honey. Honey!” I turn to meet them with a dumb, bewildered look. “Honey,” my mother says, “take Katie down to the beach, will you please?”
As the moms do their little peruser-distancer dance, Katie sweeps the floor with her eyes like she’s the extra bag and someone’s got to pay to bring her onto the plane. Katie grew up a few doors down and lagged me by just two wide years. I’m old enough to remember her chalk drawings on the sidewalk; there was always a Clifford or a Minnie Mouse outside our driveway, and when it rained she’d be back out there the next Saturday hard at work. Over the years we’ve sat next to each other at restaurants, and passed quietly in the halls when our years lined up. We never talked and there was always a heavy understanding that we knew we never talked. The last time I saw her was in junior year, getting gurnied out of the girl’s locker room from an overdose in the stalls.
Cove-lights always flatter and talc one’s skin but even still she’s impossibly pale for a SOCAL blonde. She’s fragile-thin and petite in height, and there’s an eye-catching constellation of marks half the size of melon-seeds mapped on her cheeks which look erase-able with a kiss. I was about to call her a functional addict, but first off I really don’t know how she’s doing now and second everyone here is a functional addict (you should hear the recycle-bins on trash-day).
How little I feel for these people’s kids, yet she gets to me. Maybe it’s cause I don’t know enough about her. Have you ever noticed the more you know someone the less you can sympathize?
I butt in over-eager and say that I’d love to but that I need a jacket from my room.
“Okay, but come back,” my mother says with a certain verbal flare at the end which she knew only I would catch.
I come through my door fast and find two kids laying with their feet crossed up high at the foot of my bed watching Adult Swim. They look over their pointy shoulders startled, but I let it go - better they watch this than the cartoons outside, at least they know these aren’t real. In my closet I put my box of pocketknives up two shelves, take down my sandals, then flick through the abacus beads of hangers and pull down my go-to, heather-gray, zip-up hoodie and slip it on. I’m thinking she’ll need one so I take down a deep-blue down-jacket with an inner fleece lining and lay it on my bed.
For some reason I’m surprised to find a couple adolescents casing my bathroom. “Yeah no Benzedrine here,” I shove their heads toward the door. “Get! Check your mothers’ cabinets ya little jerk-offs.” I push a glob of gel through my hair and look through the tops of my eyes into the mirror. “Dirty, dirty little dope-fiends.” When I rush back into the bedroom the two watching tv look at me expecting to get tossed out. I drape the coat on my forearm and slide into my sandals. “You two are fine,” I say and throw my free arm at them.
Katie stands in the hall holding her arm like a nervous stray. I close the door and she looks up at me for half a second, blinks big, then back to the floor biting her lower lip. She follows me until we’re on the sidewalk where I turn and align with her.
Outside the kids are smoking, just like I said. We turn up Ariana and walk past. They’re parked on the bumper of an Escalade reeking of that syrup e-cig stink that makes you wish they were huffing brake cleaner, heating a spoon, eating Krispy Kreme - something that killed them which didn’t stink. Useless, unreformed animals. They’re cautions; they’ll be dead in a decade, every one of them, and if Katie could hear me she’d nod. Maybe the ingredients will line up and their heart will stall or their flue will close up before the others in the room sober up enough to notice. Maybe they’ll get it running the Porsche and a couple of simpering girls into one of those gorgeous dividers of Valencian oaks. Maybe they’ll get it trying to crawl across PCH riding some bad ecstasy. I’ve heard all these, some of their parents are in my house right now. There are maybe two or four a year that get it, common enough that Gary knows the 1-800 Flowers guy and lets him in without stopping for a pass. They’ll get it, all these kids, I just hope I’m not around when it happens.
We walk the skinny sidewalk of Ariana, the sea-fronts on our right and the terrace-hill of salvia plants, bark-chips, and patio lights coming down from the crest. Our shoulders bump every couple feet. Beach-Row didn’t used to be so tight but nowadays the price per square foot is so inflated there’s just too much money for things not to be maximized; garbage cans hardly fit between the fence and houses, and there’s about two feet between the sidewalk and the garage- doors. There’s also height restrictions for Ariana, so everyone has a stout one story.
Katie and I don’t speak but I do look over as we pass her old house. When we were kids her place was a quintessential Spanish. Today it’s your typical Modern spasm of ugliness - something everyone wishes would catch fire when it first gets put up, but then we all get used to it like a bad spouse and try out best in avoid interacting with it.
The new guy in her house is an ex-MLB player. His wife is a nasally Instagram model who paces the street making endless phone calls in her pajamas and smoking these rolled squares of caffeine laced paper made from plants that are supposed to suppress weight. Their 12-year-old son has purple an green hair, and drives a golf cart around with an aluminum bat knocking over trash cans and safety cones. You see, we are now, in Cyprus Shore, a second generation neighborhood. The first were people like Larry’s parents: frugal, retired, working-stiffs whose only interests were golf in the case of the husbands and gardening in the case of the wives; the only children within the gates were when the grandkids visited. There are a few still doddering but most are dead, on the way out, or have fled south-east to avoid the taxes they couldn’t envision thirty years ago. The only buyers who can afford the quintuply inflated land are the young families of 34 year-old, passive-income Babbits who surf four days a week.
She slows and stares - deep enough that she doesn’t feel my eyes on her - over my shoulder at the drought-resistant planters, her missing font and dwarf flamboyan tree that used to stick over the stucco wall, the cold, functionalist, coroner-office-blue LEDs lighting the edgeless front door and the flat facade its set into. I slow too but when I do she turns froward and gets back to pace.
We’re at the end of the street and walk the railing down the concrete slope toward the beach-access where decades of slushy, summer sands have caramelized atop the steps and become a coating of clear, greasy, sand-speckled jelly. She’s wearing flip-flops too so I mention that it’s slippery but also keep my arm hinched in case she falls. The gate comes into view and my heart stops with the fact that I didn’t bring the beach keys. Thankfully the last person left it ajar in spite of all the HOA memos. I push and it swings opens in steps. “Oh thank God,” I let fall out of my mouth all at once. She passes and I ease the gate so that the latch rests atop the box. The whole thing is sharp with rust like an anchor from one of those 19th century shipwrecks, even the barbwire strung up above it. When I was a kid I was in the same situation except the gate was locked. Being the immortal adolescent, I tossed my boogie board over and slid between two lines of wire, snagging my trunks on the barbs coming down. It wasn’t until I set down the towel at my usual spot that I noticed the breeze whipping through the tear that exposed my shining, white, 12 year-old buttock.
It’s an oblivion on the beach, a steppe of deep darkness. There are the cliff lights, the pier’s jaundice line of pearls, and the green Amtrack orb low up the coast, but nothing visual to tell there was a fitful, winter ocean kicking in all direction. There’s no way she can see the bench of petrified beach-wood that’s been at the top of the berm since I was born, yet - out of rote I suppose, she heads for it and sits down and I join her.
We sit for at least two, mute-attenuated minutes and rake the sand with our toes. The heat’s still there, a few inches down. By now our eyes have adjusted some and the black about us has become a moving puzzle of grainy, colorless dots. The wind coming off the seascape holds just enough water to smart your eyes and build on your skin; if we stayed here all night we’d be soaked by morning.
“How are you?” I say at last and turn my chin at her. If her hair weren’t so light, so separating, she’d disappear into the dark behind her.
She doesn’t answer. Is she even here? I ask and press the folded coat toward her. Nothing, nothing, then it’s pulled from my hands with the quietest, “Thanks,” so quiet I’m not sure she actually said it. There’s a rustle of down. “Did it always play that sound?” Her voice is brittle and sere. It sounds painful, as though the thorns in her throat gouge the words as they come out.
She’s talking about the bells from the old Nixon place. I stiffen-up.
“Yeah. Always has. I’ve heard it so many times I don’t notice anymore. Like the waves. You don’t remember them?”
A disjointed “Happy New Year!” sounds from the glowing nest up the cliff and Katie checks the time for some reason. The screen stings but before it dims I find her in the volume of my coat: her tiny pale chin, the dowdy lashes, the hue-less hazel eye, the mended pupil, the monarch spots on her cheek, the weak posture and the sobriety ring winking on the nearest hand braced flat upon the bench between our pant-pockets. She smells like nothing, I tell myself. Like a sister. All of a sudden - just as her phone goes out and puts us deeper within ourselves, her image fresh in my mind’s eye comes under an epiphanic lamp. She looks much younger, more familiar; an overlay of the Katie I would see pedaling past the front window with chalk-sticks in her pocket, and the one sharing a bench with me: drear, tamped, plodding up from the low-road with bloody ankles and track marks under her sleeve.
I feel my arm wanting to fall around an hold her against my chest and carry her home on my shoulders, but it’s aborted by another quaking kaboom of surf and the raking roar of break- pebbles crackling. As the waves reset, we hear some lame-ass - Jean Dreesen I think - scream from the aerie up the hill, “I haven’t had a drink since last year!”
“Do you believe in God?” she stabs me, out of nowhere, loud and pointed - almost accusatory.
I catch the quick reply before it jumps.
“Why do you ask?”
A patio-light from the hill comes on and puts some color in my vision; it shows the loose hairs of her outline, though a slice of light slides past her ear and grazes her bottom lip. She’s close and looking at me, I at her. My eyes drop slightly from hers and find that illuminated bottom lip and see it move, “‘Thank God,’ you said.”
I turn and bite mine at the horizon. A minute of surf tumbles. My eyes I keep open though it makes no difference. I turn back to that bottom lip and nod, and while I nod I can’t help but frown - a deep, defenseless frown grown in the soil of the soul but made immanent here, in this place.
She sniggers and takes her lip out of the light. “What’s his name?”
Suddenly everything here is making me sweat. I look around at nothing in all directions, numb and cold in the drowning refrain of the same water falling eternally. The dark absence becomes a choking slime pressing out life and nonsense; a black-felt burlap that covers the cage I’m in. My heartbeat jabs at the bars of my ribs and my cheeks flush with furnance-fear. I fear as though something is falling from space and is only a half-second from crushing me. I want only to get away from it, step out, delay it.
What’s his name?
“I don’t know yet,” I shiver and shut my eyes.
My hand drops to the dry-wood and runs atop the sun-blanched whorls in the grain. When my eyes spill over, my finger tips find hers. At once she pulls away, then sheets her palm over my knuckles.
My name is Chase Seely graduating senior from Concordia University Irvine. I am a writing major earning a minor in psychology, and considering future schooling in an MFA program. Though my bias is fiction, I also write essays on music, literature, theology, and culture. When not writing I enjoy baking, watching hockey, and listening to classical music. I live in San Clemente, California with my tuxedo cat, Ollie. We are both creatures of habit.
Beach Row was written in the wake of my encounter with Tom Wolfe and his uniquely journalistic attitude toward writing. With that in mind,Beach Rowwas an exercise in creative journalism; the setting is real, taking place in my own neighborhood, and is populated by people with behaviors and histories that I’ve been observing now for nearly two and a half decades. In seeking to appear both as a player and observer, the immediacy of present tense has been set inside the perspective of a late adolescent; raised knowing both the comfort and crudeness of coastal California, he is nonetheless harassed by the inceptive sense that life on Beach Row deprives individuals of some serious, existential need. Having been set into motion and then severed from the tested sources of meaning, on this New Year's Eve the dislocated protagonist briefly rights himself from the whorl of nihilism and malevolence, and steps toward the open palm of consolation.