Who fall before
As far as they can
They just don’t care”
—Alex Chilton, “Holocaust”
ate,” Paul said to me this one night while we were driving around in his car, “why aren’t we a couple? I mean, we spend so much time hanging out together, we might as well hook up, right?”
“No, Paul,” I told him straight out, “I like our friendship just the way it is. I don’t want to have a boyfriend right now. And I’m not so sure we’d be compatible as a couple anyway. We’re pretty good friends—why complicate things?”
“Okay, okay,” he said then, “I get it, just friends.” I know people hate being rejected and they always want to argue with your reasons for rejecting them, but, well, I was consciously working on shaping myself back then. That was part of the deal of becoming a performance artist. They were teaching us how we ourselves, how our lives, had to become for us a work of art. So I was hyper-aware back then of how I was living my own life through the continuum, you know, within the possibilities of time.
Because, you see, during that period when I was hanging out with Paul I had made a vow that I wasn’t going to get into a relationship with anyone for at least a year. I know how it sounds now but, at the time, decisions like that were important to me.
What I mean to say is this: Most of us live our lives open to variables, to chance, to chaos, to luck, to time itself and all of its changes. I, on the other hand, was learning from my performance art classes that I could control my life intellectually, that I could conceptually shape it. Just as an artist controls—well, you don’t really control your art, but you set it in motion—the artworks that they create. You know, for a performance artist sometimes the lines get a little blurred between your life and your work.
Call it pretentious if you like, but that’s what I was learning about and excited to be learning back then. These ideas were new to me and they changed me a lot, both the way I looked at art and the way I looked at my life. I made decisions regarding the form my life was going to take and I held to them—I let the chaos in only when I felt it, only when I needed it in order to feel alive, to appreciate the unexpected, chance, or chaos for what it was. I’ve always been an overly logical person, despite my leanings towards art.
“Let’s just be the friends that we are, okay? At least for now anyway,” and I reached out my hand to Paul to shake on it, to make the whole thing kind of funny, and to reassure him that I did like him, ‘cause I did. I like him and I always will—I’m strangely, even maniacally, loyal to most of the decisions I make about people, to the way that I feel about them.
So he laughed and said, “Okay,” took one of his hands off the steering wheel, and we shook on it. But I don’t know if it was ever quite okay for Paul, our only being friends. It’s not like he was super unattractive or anything, I mean, he’s no knockout, but I’ve dated other not especially good-looking guys. Paul was pretty non-descript, a doesn’t-stand-out-in-a-crowd type of guy. Soft-spoken, chubby, receding hairline, khakis or Dockers, button-down shirts, the full bourgeois jacket—he looked old already somehow at 22—or maybe 23 or 4, or even 25. Come to think of it, I have no idea how old he was. But that’s also why I liked hanging out with him. Knowing Paul was like having a smart older brother that I could talk to.
He was one of those professional students, already working on a second degree when I met him. He’d read an incredible number of great books, and so many obscure ones too, that he was a gold mine of information. I learned so much from him and he was always interested in what I was doing too, my performances and everything. Even though we totally disagreed about the state of the art world, I felt that just having the debate, defending our two opposing points of view, and considering the other side, was important to both of us. The more we disagreed and debated the more fun we had, I always thought.
So, maybe because of my vow, or maybe because of who he was, or how he dressed, or who I was then and what I was trying to do, how I dressed and how I wanted to see myself, Paul just wasn’t attractive to me in a boyfriend kind of way—like my type or whatever. It never occurred to me to think of him in an intimate context. Paul was my intellectual friend, the one with the briefcase, not really someone you thought of cuddling up with. It even seemed to relax me to be around him, like our meeting of the minds was so sexless that it let me totally forget about my own body and its difference when we were together. Plus I’d already been through a string of intense relationships since getting to college and, frankly, I was emotionally worn out. I felt safe and far away from all that animal boy/girl tension when I was with Paul. It didn’t feel like we were in a power struggle either. I always saw our friendship as a meeting of equals.
I especially wasn’t going to get intimate with him after Paul confessed to me that he was a virgin. It’s hard to believe, I know, but he was pretty shy and only attracted to certain women, or certain types, I guess, so it hadn’t ever happened to him. Most of the women he knew must have felt something like the way I did about him—which is a shame, because, let’s face it, I think it would have helped Paul out a lot to get around to losing his virginity. But I wasn’t going to be that girl, no way.
It’s weird thinking of someone that old still not knowing what sex is like. I can remember that feeling, trying to imagine what it would be like, and then it happening and being nothing at all like you thought it’d be—kind of disappointing actually. But then you get used to it and it is as good as you imagined, only different. Poor Paul, it damaged his credibility somehow, his being a virgin.
Anyway, the night that I was telling you about we were on our way out to Baker Beach. That’s where we had most of our intense intellectual dialogues. We’d have dinner somewhere, coffee or dessert after that, and then, around midnight or so, we’d hop into his car, find an open liquor store, grab a bottle of Bordeaux, and cruise on out to the beach. This was our late-night ritual.
On these nights of conversation and debate Paul was like my living encyclopedia. Whatever I wanted to know he could usually tell me, and point me towards the right books to learn more. Let’s face it, hanging out with him was much more fun than going to the library: We had food and wine and his big suburban car as transport. He took me to lots of places that this bus rider would never have had the patience to go. I suppose this all sounds pretty self-serving—and it must have been, at least partially—but Paul was so smart, and so kind to me, that I had real affection for him. You know what? He listened to me and respected my wanting to be an artist and that was rare ‘cause I was a 20-year-old, ripped-up leather jacket, snotty little hair-in-the-air chick with a boatload of attitude and artistic pretension. Don’t get me wrong: I regret nothing. Still, Paul had always taken me more seriously than most people and that meant a lot to me back then, more than I was actually aware of at the time. I probably acted pretty tough around him too ‘cause that’s where my head was at: I was in the process of finding out how much harder it is to be respected doing what you want to do when you’re a woman and I was taking no prisoners and no shit from anybody.
At one point I remember thinking about telling Paul that I was gay (I was hanging out with Alexis and her crowd a lot back then, and they were all pretty militant, so it might have seemed plausible). But he already knew about Stan, my old boyfriend.
As a matter of fact, that’s how I first met Paul, I think. Stan must have introduced us at some point, probably at one of his shows. Then, after he and I had broken up, I’d run into his friends around school all the time. One day I found Paul in the Depot—that’s the coffee shop in the student union out at State—and we started talking. We had an hour break at the same time three days a week that semester, so our little chats became a regular thing. Paul usually hung out with this certain group of people in the Depot and eventually we’d join that group during our parallel break ‘cause they were his friends and, well, I was interested in meeting a lot of people back then. But the day that we first spoke Paul was sitting there alone.
Now that I think back on it, he was probably alone because he wanted to get some homework done that he needed for a class that afternoon. But, well, he never got it done because we talked all during the break and right through our afternoon classes as well. He gave me a lift home afterwards, which was pretty far out of his way, and I invited him in for a cup of tea. Alexis and I were going out that night, so we talked some more at my place until she showed up and we all left together, Alexis and I for the movies, and Paul for home back in San Rafael, I guess.
I remember that clique out at school, the one Paul used to hang out with in the Depot. They only accepted me, I’m sure now, because they thought Paul and I were becoming a couple. Then, when we didn’t hook up, they started looking at me kind of strangely and finding things wrong with me that they could gossip and talk shit about.
Stan was never part of that group and even now I don’t know how he knew Paul. They certainly weren’t anything alike. Stan was a new wave clotheshorse attention-whore, all sharp angles and false intensity, while Paul was a kind of shy, calm, shapeless sort of person. They must have had a class together at some point or something. I knew that we had met before that day in the Depot because Paul knew my name, but I didn’t remember his or anything else about him. I sort of remembered his face, and he seemed innocuous enough, and I guess I didn’t feel like sitting alone that day, or maybe all of the tables were occupied, so I said “Hi,” or whatever, and sat down with him.
If I remember rightly, we talked about Stan. I was still pretty broken up about that relationship’s dissolution, and since Stan was the only thing we knew we had in common, it was a natural starting point. I was venting no doubt, bitching about how Stan had changed as soon as he’d gotten some notoriety for his act. Seriously, it was a nightmare, like a bad TV movie! The guy suddenly developed this huge ego about his performance thing. Hey, if he was going to be a big one-man-band rock star he had to start acting like a fucking rock star, right? What a joke.
So, I wasn’t too thrilled with men in general at the time and that probably helped fuel the way I felt—or didn’t feel—about Paul. Sure, I’ve been on the other end of a crush often enough. But as you get older you learn how to deal with it and not make such a fool of yourself—of course Paul had some catching up to do.
There was this one point, after we’d been friends for a while, when he seemed to be trying to act as if we were a couple in front of other people sometimes, and that was out of line. Maybe he felt like his masculinity was being offended because I hadn’t fallen for him, and it was embarrassing for him in front of people who saw us together all the time in the Depot, so he acted like we were more intimate than we actually were. He didn’t do it in front of his close friends, or any of my friends, only in front of that crowd at the coffee shop. I guess it was his ego looking out for itself, or maybe he honestly thought that we would start going out at some point and this was a totally natural way to act. Maybe it was one of his warped ways of courting me. As it wasn’t threatening or anything, I let it pass—I really didn’t care what those people thought.
I’ve noticed this sort of play-acting with a lot of people; they fucking invent things and then act like their fantasies are real, which is ridiculous. You know, like when people try to tell you what you’re thinking or feeling about something. Stan used to do that to me all the time, say things like, “I know you feel threatened,” or, “Stop being so paranoid,” or some stupid shit like that, like he knew exactly what was going on inside my head if I were upset—and of course it never had anything to do with anything that he’d done. There’s nothing worse than being psychoanalyzed by a fucking amateur! And oh, the thing he used to say that really pissed me off was, “I can feel all this hatred that you have for me.” What a stupid thing to assume about your partner! He would have liked to believe that my emotions were due to the fact I was out to get him rather than an expression of the hurt and anger I was feeling from all of the fucked-up things he’d done to me. Still, I guess he said it so much I started believing him, or at least started acting like I believed him.
It seems to me that most artists don’t have this problem as much as other people. It’s as if we put our imaginations into something else, our work, and keep it there, outside of our actual lives. Most of my close artist friends are very heavy realists and I like that. They know how to deal with things and how to treat other people. You’ve got to ask people what’s going on with them, not tell them what you think they’re feeling or thinking.
Which reminds me of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, or Victor Hugo’s, Adele. (It was Paul who told me about them—they were both famously disturbed women.) Carl Jung treated Joyce’s daughter, and Joyce even said something like the fantasies that he was working out on paper Lucia seemed to be trying to manifest in real life.
That was exactly the kind of information I got from Paul. He knew a little bit about almost everything. He had one of those fact minds. I could never believe the stuff he’d come up with from all of the books he’d read, ancient Greek poets and obscure philosophers I’d never even heard of. I guess all the time the rest of us were out doing drugs and getting laid Paul was at home with a book. Hey, I barely get through the newspaper and the art magazines that keep me up to date with the shows and artists I should know about—and maybe a novel every so often for reading on the bus. I read mostly recent stuff; I have to so I can keep up with what’s going on, and I feel like it would be impossible to go back and catch up on all of the classics, unless I get stranded on a desert island or something.
Paul used to joke about hating the twentieth century—like everything was okay until World War I came along and modernism stepped in and it all went to hell. Sometimes I could almost see his point but, well, not really. It does kind of seem like there’s a lot more despair and full-scale suffering in the twentieth century than there was before, but I think that we’ve also broken through so many barriers, artistically and socially. I mean, as a woman, a hundred years ago I probably wouldn’t have been able even to go to a university, much less think about art as a career, or have any of the ideas that I have about things at all. We’re moving ahead so much faster now than we were before, that’s all, so it’s harder for people to adjust to the speed of the changes. Paul was caught up in those old notions that art should always be beautiful and objective, but I love a lot of art that’s vicious, ugly, self-centered, and self-destructive too.
“That’s the way life goes, Paul,” I said to him as he walked around behind the car and we headed across the parking lot towards the beach. “It’s because you’re living now and not then that makes you think things were so much better before. It’s like old people who sit around talking about ‘the good old days,’ forgetting that they were just as miserable then as they are now—it’s mostly because they weren’t old yet back then that makes them pine for the past. It’s only in retrospect that all that stuff looks so great, not when you’re actually living it.”
We stepped off the pavement and onto the beach, Paul looking down, kicking at the sand in front of him. “You don’t really know what it was like at the turn of the century—you weren’t there to see it or feel how the world felt. Everything must have seemed just as fucked-up then as it does now. The rich are always running everything and the middle class being driven into extinction by some Reagan or other. But, hey, here we are! There’s always been exploitation, change, and resistance to change. But, somehow, we manage to push on through and survive.”
“So, I guess I hate life then. Thanks a lot.” Every once in a while, Paul adopted a sort of hands-in-the-air attitude, taking what you said as an insult to him personally. It signaled that he was in a bad mood. Sensing that this was going to be one of those nights—a bit of a pity party on his part—I tried to lighten the mood.
“Oh, come on, you know I didn’t mean it that way. Although it does seem like you have trouble seeing the positive side of things sometimes. They have cured smallpox, you know.”
“Yeah, like conceptual art?” He laughed derisively. “It’s just that all this experimentation and stuff that you think is so great is too pretentious for my taste. I have trouble enjoying art that’s so contrived and manipulated.”
Fighting the urge to pay him back in kind, as this was pretty close to a personal attack, I took a deep breath. “Well,” I began, “that’s exactly the way I feel when I try to read so many of the so-called ‘classics.’ They’re too conventional, each one imitating the others, no one daring to break the sacred patterns, the hallowed formats, which are mostly only the symptoms of someone’s posturing, only it’s done in the name of realism or naturalism or whatever.” I looked up and down the beach to see if there was anybody sketchy around.
“Can I have some wine?” he asked. I handed him the bottle. While he was drinking, feeling that the evening’s debate had pretty much reached an impasse, I got a sudden urge to run off through that loose beach sand, which is so hard to walk in, down to where the foam was sliding up onto the harder packed sand. I wanted to be able to feel and smell the ocean close-up—and not have to struggle with my balance at every step.
I remember that it was one of those super bright nights, a full moon or close to it. I looked to the left at the cliffs of Land’s End and the lighthouse, and then across the mouth of the bay towards the Marin headlands and the other lighthouse over there. The Golden Gate Bridge stretched itself out across the water, way down past the end of Baker Beach, nearly parallel with our path; it looked like a big toy or some kind of matte painting from down here. The wind, too, was making everything feel clean, and the darkness transformed the beach, the ocean, the headlands, and the dotted lights of the houses into a series of backdrops to the stage set that the moon was lighting up on the sand where we strolled. You always forget about the seashell roar of the ocean, too, but you spend your whole time at the beach shouting and hardly realize it until you shut the door and hear the sudden silence inside your car before you drive away.
“Hey!” Paul called out as he trotted down the sand after me.
“It’s so beautiful tonight—I can’t believe how bright it is.”
“But the wind’s cold.” He kept pulling his pinstriped jacket close around his belly, resting his hands there on his stomach to keep the wind from blowing it open again. He put his collar up too.
“Can I have a sip?” I took a long drink of the sweet white wine and felt fine, warm inside. “Let’s walk to the end, over to the rocks under the bridge.”
“Yeah, I’d like to sit down.”
“Sit down? On a beautifully brisk night like tonight? Sit down?”
“Well, just for a minute, okay?”
“No, no. You’re going to come running with me and work off a little of this.” I patted his hands resting on his belly.
“Hey, don’t do that.”
“I’m sorry. But come on, run with me a little ways.”
“You go ahead and I’ll catch up.”
“I’m sorry, I really don’t feel up to it tonight. Can I have some more wine, please?”
“Here. Look, I’m sorry I teased you.”
“Don’t worry about it—it’s okay.”
I gave him a look then, a warning. I was getting fed up with his pouting.
“No, really, it’s okay,” he said and put his arm around me, which wasn’t much like him, but a spontaneous gesture I think. It was as if he wanted to reassure me, tell me that it really was okay, what I’d said about his belly. As soon as his arm was lying across my shoulders, though, it was awkward. He didn’t know what to do once his arm was resting there and I may have stiffened up, I don’t know, because it was such a surprising thing for him to do.
I trusted Paul, you know, but I didn’t want to get into a bad situation. I didn’t like to be kissed in those days. It felt like men were taking something away from me when they tried to kiss me, as if I had no say in the matter ‘cause you’re supposed to kiss a boy when you’re with him and like it. And it feels pretty awkward to pull away when someone tries to kiss you, to actually physically reject them, so I was trying not to get close enough to anyone for them to try it.
We walked down the beach for what seemed like a long time, talking more small talk, but it didn’t feel like anything around us was changing at all, like we were getting anywhere, walking—all of the landmarks were too far away.
“Hey, so tell me about that performance, you know, the thing you did with your friend Alexis that you wouldn’t tell me about before.” He managed to get his arm down off of my shoulders unobtrusively by stopping to take a drink from the bottle.
“Oh, that. I don’t know if you really want to hear about it, or if I want to talk about it right now.”
“Come on, it sounded so intriguing, what I heard you say about it. What could be so weird?”
“It’s pretty weird. I mean, most people think it’s kind of disgusting.”
“I know you pretty well. I’m not going to freak out or anything.”
“OK—but you asked for it.” I took a deep breath and started to tell him about it: “Do you remember when I told you I wanted to do a performance piece that reflected the things that I thought were the real parts of my education and the people who taught me more abstract, ineffable things, as opposed to my formal university education?”
“Well, I decided that I wanted to combine two things for sure into a ritualistic performance. First, I had the idea to make some sort of tribute to the people who have taught me special things. I also wanted to learn some new skill that I’d need in order to perform the piece, to back up the concept that the performance would be about learning skills and putting practical knowledge to use. I wanted that knowledge to be something I would actively seek out and learn for myself from someone I chose to teach me, instead of being passively taught things that other people think are important for me to know, like the way we’re taught in school.
“Then I was reading something for my mythology class about the ancient mystery religions, and it mentioned that these cult members worshiping the earth goddess Cybele used to drink each other’s blood as a sort of tribute to the goddess. That seemed to me like a kind of beautiful gesture—and, well, challenging too. I’m pretty squeamish by nature, and I thought it would be interesting if I could learn to overcome my squeamishness as part of the performance, a kind of self-teaching through familiarity and repetition, you know, trial and error.
“Everything fell into place then. I drafted a script in which I learn to draw blood—using all the modern medical techniques—and then I use that skill to take some blood from people who I admire, which I then drink in a ritual of sharing and tribute. It all fit together perfectly—and if the whole experience helped me to get over my squeamishness and fear of blood, then I wouldn’t only have to learn a skill to be able to do the performance, but I’d be learning in a sense, too, while I was doing the piece, and that was perfect.”
I waited, but Paul didn’t say anything. When he finally looked up from the ground, “Wow” was what he said, smiling at me kind of crookedly, like he was impressed but also skeptical.
“So,” I went on, “this friend of mine who’s a nurse taught me how to draw blood and I set the whole thing up, using my friend Alexis, as my first, I don’t know, partner, I guess. I got my roommate to photo-document the whole thing. I wanted to do it privately the first time, and then actually to perform the subsequent partners as public rituals, varying the settings each time to suit the people to whom I wanted to pay tribute. It seemed better to start this way both as a trial run and also because Alexis and I have a pretty private relationship, and she had to be the first ‘cause we’re so close—and of course it had a lot to do with trust.”
“And you did it?”
“Well, kind of. I mean, yeah, I drew her blood and we put it into this beautiful crystal chalice and I took a couple of sips and then this terrible feeling that I’d made some sort of a mistake descended on the room.”
“Yeah, it didn’t feel right at all—it was weird. Plus blood congeals a lot faster than you’d think and the glass got all thick and cloudy and I couldn’t finish drinking it and that kind of spoiled the performance.
“Poor Alexis was sitting there with a lump of her blood in a chalice and in these little vials and like doom all around, and I felt kind of bad about the whole thing. I didn’t expect that to happen at all. We didn’t know what to do. It was pretty weird.”
“That’s so interesting.”
“It taught me something—not what I expected to learn—but something.”
“I can’t explain it exactly, but it’s like a mistake that I won’t make again.”
“How did Alexis take it?”
“Pretty well. She mostly shrugged it off, but I was afraid for a while how it was going to affect our friendship. I do feel like I owe her something now. I mean, I’d be a lot quicker to do something she asked me to do than I would have been before.”
Paul laughed at that and I kind of smiled back, I guess, but I didn’t think it was all that funny. I was still worried then that Alexis was mad at me about how the tribute performance had gone but we hadn’t spoken of it directly. I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up if I didn’t have to. I was waiting on her, to see if it was a real problem that we would have to deal with or just something we’d forget about after a while. I should have known better, and I guess we never did get it straight. It’s still sort of a problem between us, maybe only the fact that we’ve never discussed it.
We had almost come to the rocks way down at the end of the beach, right up under the Golden Gate. We stood looking at the brightly lit bridge looming overhead for a while and Paul said, “I still don’t know about performance art. When you explain everything behind one of your performances it’s perfectly clear and fascinating and all that, but when I see someone doing one it usually comes off as pointless to me—without an explanation it’s impossible to figure out what it’s all about.”
“Do you always have to understand things? I don’t think you have to understand a person’s reason for doing a performance to enjoy the piece while it’s happening, to get something out of it.”
“I think that I naturally want to follow a work of art though, to get more out of it by thinking about what it’s about as well as experiencing it. A painter chooses the subject of his painting, right? And that subject is as important as the colors he uses, or the style he paints in. With performance art I don’t know what the real subject is most of the time.”
“Not if it’s an abstract. Even in most still lifes the subject is often pretty much arbitrary. And what about music? Lots of people enjoy music who have no idea how it’s constructed, how scales and chords work, how it’s all mathematically based.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true. I wish I was better at the piano.”
He was probably thinking about the opera that he wanted to write. I still can hardly believe that Paul actually wanted to write an opera. No one else I’ve ever met from our generation even likes listening to opera, much less wants to write one. He had a tape deck in his car and sometimes we’d drive around listening to Wagner’s Ring series. He wanted to write a novel too; it was going to be set at the turn of the century and go up to the First World War, when Paul thought everything went all to hell in the Western world, a kind of “end of the world as we know it” tale.
“Oh, come on, cheer up,” I said. “Take the bottle, have some more wine.
We were at the rocks now and it occurred to me again that we shouldn’t just be standing around on such a beautiful and exuberant night, that we were wasting the unnaturally bright moonlight.
“Come on—let’s go swimming.”
It had suddenly struck me. I wanted to do something crazy and exciting, something stupid maybe, and to do it all the way. “Come on, Paul, it’ll do you good.” Maybe I was only joking at first, but the more Paul tried to shrug me off, the more serious I got.
“You’re kidding, I hope.”
I guess I don’t take being treated like a child very well. As if adulthood were only an excuse for not doing anything interesting anymore, or anything at all. “No, I’m not. Come on! For once in your life take a chance and do something crazy.”
“Do you have any idea how cold it is in that water, how dangerous it is to swim here, even in the daytime—much less at night?”
I started taking off my clothes. No, it didn’t register with me at the time that I probably shouldn’t have been stripping in front of Paul. I was doing it totally spontaneously—I really wanted to go swimming. It’s the not thinking about being naked that gets you to forget about being embarrassed. In a performance or when you do art modeling you have to concentrate on what you’re doing and forget about being naked. I’d pretty much gotten over it.
Paul kept trying to talk me out of going into the water, once he saw I was seriously stripping down to go swimming, but I wanted to show him something about living, about being in the moment and taking chances, so I laid my clothes out on the rocks and ran down the beach a ways to where it was smooth and I went down quickly into the water. Paul came up to where the surf was finishing on the sand and rolling back into the sea and he yelled at me not to go all the way in. But I dove under when I got to where it was deep enough. I never went out any further than where the water was up to my chest, but I crouched down to get my whole body under so it would be all the same temperature and I wouldn’t feel the wind as much. Yeah, it was cold, fucking freezing! I was totally numb in seconds. But it felt good too, each wave coming in at me, sliding up against my body, pushing me back towards the beach, the big ones going right over my head. It was great, that feeling of power so strong and regular, the moon brighter in the sky now that I was out in the middle of the dark water.
“Ah, the fucking universe! Woooooo!” I screamed, adrenaline coursing through every limb.
Paul was still standing at the edge of the beach yelling something at me that I couldn’t hear over the waves, looking worried. Of course in retrospect I know it was a stupid thing to do, but I wanted to see him come in, so I put my head underwater and started splashing around like I was in trouble. I made a pretty good show of it, too—I didn’t yell “Help!” or anything like that, which would have made it totally unbelievable—and I knew Paul was watching me pretty closely, worrying about me. I gasped for air, like I couldn’t call out, and pretended to be pulled under by a wave.
Then, when I looked up and saw him taking off his coat and dropping his shoes frantically in the sand like Clark Kent changing into Superman, I thought that I was being stupid. I didn’t want Paul to play the hero, Popeye to my Olive Oyl, I wanted him to learn to be crazy and to appreciate the rush you can get out of life if you let yourself go once in a while. Poor Paul, I could see that he was seriously worried that I might be in trouble, and I didn’t even know if he could swim. It occurred to me, too, that I was taking advantage of the fact that he cared about me and I didn’t want to do that either. He looked so awkward trying to get his pants off, with his chubby belly and all. So I got out of the water and ran up to stop him.
“I’m okay, I’m okay. I was only kidding. I was just trying to get you to come in and swim with me.”
“Oh,” and he looked at me. He was so forlorn—his shirt half unbuttoned and his pants around his feet—that I had to hug him. I felt bad. I wanted to make it all right. But then I felt his face and his breath against my neck, and I was naked and everything. I guess I kind of pushed him away, stepped back, and ran over to the rocks to get my clothes.
When I’d finished putting my clothes back on, I looked over and Paul was sitting there on the sand, the water washing up around his legs, his head bent down. He was moving the sand around in the water with his hand, playing with it. Oh, what have you done, Kate, I thought, what have you done.
Oakland, California native Lee Foust has lived in Florence, Italy since the mid-1990s. There Lee writes, performs—with and without banging a drum—and teaches literature and creative writing. Lee is the author of Sojourner, stories and poems gathered around the mystery of our relationship to place. “With Paul at the Beach” is part of the forthcoming collection Poison and Antidote, nine inter-connected stories of the artists, writers, musicians, and Bohemians of the San Francisco art scene during the Reagan years. www.leefoust.com