We Were All Here, story by Tracy Shawn at Spillwords.com
Sandsun

We Were All Here

We Were All Here

written by: Tracy Shawn

@TracyShawn

 

Lainey drove toward her memories, just a two-hour trip down the highway, but one she hadn’t made since she’d moved away at eighteen. She always had an excuse when her childhood friend, Lisa, begged her to visit through the years: work, single mom-hood, ongoing migraines. Lisa, thank goodness, never took it personally. How could she? She knew—as well as everyone else in their small beach town—that Lainey’s parents were killed in a head-on collision less than a mile from home. How could the grief not slam into her again travelling the same ribbon of highway where her parents, bombed out of their minds on Valium and Drambuie, were mangled on impact when they drifted over the divider and collided with a big rig? But what Lisa didn’t know—and what Lainey could never explain—was that it wasn’t just the memories of loss that kept her away, but the recollections of joy. A joy that saturated itself around her youth. A joy that slowly but surely evaporated with age.

Lainey tried to exhale the last four decades. Starched, dried-out days, flat, numbed-out nights. She had to remind herself that she was going to a party. A reunion with her old schoolmates, her lost friends, the same people who had known what it was like to live in a world where hope elevated itself above all else, a world where they had each other above all else.

Driving by the spot where her parents so abruptly—so absolutely—lost their lives, Lainey stared straight ahead. After so much parched land passed by, she exhaled. She turned down the unmarked lane as twilight draped the sky in violet-blue. Maneuvering the turns, she shrugged off the temptation to turn back and continued on until she made it to the end. Several cars were parked around the perimeter of the dirt-packed circle facing Starfish Beach. With a sigh of relief, Lainey found Lisa’s car and parked her gray Volvo next to Lisa’s sun-yellow Honda. As soon as she got out, she smelled the scent of burning logs and heard a Bee Gees song drift over the beach from what she first pictured was a boombox but guessed was really from someone’s Bluetooth speaker. She remembered how that song played nonstop over the radio in senior year, how she used to tune the dial to a different station whenever it’d come on, irritated by the high-strung disco beat and even higher-pitched singing. Now, she loved it, wanted to sing and dance along. A relic of youth made shinier and more venerated with time.

She walked to the sand, slipped off her shoes, and set them on top of a rock. Ambling over the grainy carpet of beach toward the music, Lainey smiled at the co-mingled voices and laughter. But her eyes grew cloudy by unexpected tears. She swallowed her distress and breathed in the salty air rolling in from the Pacific. She would not allow herself to cry. Trying to pull up whatever optimism still trickled through her veins, she straightened her back and marched toward the party.

Yet, once she was a good twenty feet away from its periphery, she froze. Thankfully, people didn’t seem to notice her, their attention on each other, heads thrown back in laughter, the glow of bonfire illuminating their grinning faces. She saw Lisa laughing along with a heavyset woman who bore a slight resemblance to the young, weedy Lily Kim. Lainey searched for Danny, but the only person who possessed his dark brown skin and almond-shaped eyes was a withered man with a bald head and caved-in-chest. He looked too ancient, too breakable to be Danny. But, then, everyone looked too old. If she hadn’t seen Lisa, she would have sworn that she had stumbled across the wrong party.

Part of her, though, knew this was where she was supposed to be. The other part wanted to flee the grind mill of time: slack-chinned surrender; grief-lined brows; soft-bellied vulnerability—no matter how bright their party-ready expressions were at the moment. She herself couldn’t have aged that much. But taking a step back, she knew. In fact, who was she kidding? She was even more worn-down and slump-shouldered than these barely recognizable people who had shared her youth. But now that she studied them more, she knew each and every one of them, remembered all their names, both first and last, could make out their individual voices, their distinctive laughs, even, somehow, the very essence of who they’d once been. But, still, she didn’t know who they were now.

Just as she was fantasizing about slinking back to her car, Lisa came bounding over. “You didn’t know I could see you?” Lisa gave Lainey her know-it-all smirk.

Lainey shrugged, breathing through sudden nausea. Her friend looked a decade older than the last time they’d seen each other—even though it’d only been a few years since Lisa had last visited. And where had all the long, unruly hair gone? As if Lisa could read her mind, she ran her fingers through her dull gray bob, and Lainey was brought back to junior high, where they had met on the first day of school and quickly bonded over the shared consternation of frizzy manes and chunky thighs.

“I see that look in your eyes,” Lisa said. “And, no, I’m not going to let you leave.” She bearhugged Lainey, her big, solid frame still charmingly awkward, still wonderfully reassuring.

Lainey breathed in the smell of Lisa’s wood-smoke infused sweatshirt mingled with the scent of jasmine perfume. “Am I too late?” After all the hesitation, now she was worried that the party was winding down. She should have left on time.

Lisa took her hand. “Come on, Lainey.” She squeezed her palm as if she were trying to charge her into action. “Everyone’s dying to see you.”

They came into the circle of firelight. People cheered.

Lainey, we’ve missed you.
Where’ve you been all these years?
How are you?

Lainey ducked her head and grinned, not knowing what to say, where to sit. She tried to catch eyes with the man she thought might be Danny, but various people kept coming up to him, patting him on the shoulder and laughing at whatever he had just said. Lisa, meanwhile, had become engaged in an intense flirtation with her first-ever boyfriend, Eddie Samuels. Tilting her head to one side, Lisa looped her pinky around her belt loop—just like she used to do back in the day. Lainey smiled; at least some things could be resurrected. Finally, she found a spot next to Caroline Limewood, who sported the same page-boy haircut she had in high school. But Caroline’s apple-cheeked face had grown gaunt, and her big curious eyes had diminished into a narrow-eyed look of reluctance.

She put her arm around Lainey’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you,” Caroline said, her breath miserably sour—no doubt from the empty bottle of wine lying at her feet.

“It’s good to be here.” Lainey realized she wasn’t lying. She stared into the bonfire, the red-hot embers throwing sparks into the night air that quickly died off without a trace. “Are you still a dancer?”

Caroline shook her head. “Didn’t have enough talent.”

“But I remember how in awe Lisa and I were when you performed in the school musicals.”

Caroline shook her head. “I never made it. But what about you?” Her face brightened and Lainey could see the old spark in her eyes. “I remember you were always talking about how you wanted to save the environment.”

Now it was Lainey’s turn at defeat. Though Caroline didn’t need to know about her misfortunate affair with the head of the environmental studies department during her freshman year, how sorely disappointed she was with the jaded fatalism that spewed out his Quaalude-drenched brain after they had sex: I see it every year. You kids think you’re going to change the world, well good luck with that. “I ended up being a bookkeeper.” She laughed as if life were a joke and she was the butt of it.

“At least you can pay your bills.” Caroline blinked at the firelight without any further explanation.

Then someone cranked up the volume, and the old Kansas hit, “Dust in the Wind,” the soundtrack to so many of their high school slow-dances, resonated over the crackle of bonfire. A hush came over the party and, without any prompting, they all sang along, collective memories shimmering in their eyes. A shiver ran down Lainey’s spine. For a split second, she saw all their young, bright faces shining in the night. Then a beat later, the song ended.

Caroline looked at Lainey and winked as if she had seen the same thing. “Now we need to dance.” She yelled across the bonfire. “Play some Donna Summer.”

“Last Dance” filled the air, and people were suddenly on their feet. In her baggy jeans and bulky sweater, Caroline swayed at first and then gyrated like there was no tomorrow when the song kicked into full disco mode. Lainey couldn’t help but get up and join her. They twirled around each other and did their best 70s moves, imitating John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever.

Lainey laughed so hard, her side cramped. She caught her breath as the song ended. She high-fived Caroline. “Thank you.”

Caroline grinned. “We still got it.”

“Guess so,” Lainey replied, even though she knew they had both lost “it” a long time ago.

Caroline’s smile faded as she glanced across the bonfire at the elderly man with the bald head. “Don’t you think it’s time you said hi to Danny?”

Lainey followed Caroline’s gaze. The man with Danny’s eyes was engaged in conversation with Tom Evans, who Lisa had said became a famous surfer until a back injury flatlined his dream. “Is that,” Lainey swallowed, “Danny?”

“Yep, that old geezer is our old Danny.” Caroline nudged Lainey. “You guys were pretty close.”

“We were just friends.” Once and only once, Lainey had taken him by the hand when they were sitting around a bonfire just like the one before them. She led him onto a secluded inlet of beach, where they tried to make love, Danny hesitant and shaky. Danny crying that he was sorry. Lainey had held him in her arms, never asking what happened, never blaming him—or herself. They never talked about it. But they remained friends, guarding each other’s secrets, upholding each other’s dreams.

“You should go over there,” Caroline said. “I know he misses you.”

Lainey’s eyes watered at the sudden shift of wind. She wanted to ask how Caroline knew this, but thought better of it. Instead, she merely nodded and stood. She slowly made her way, suddenly worried that just as she hadn’t recognized him, he wouldn’t be able to place her time-worn face, either.

Danny looked up. “Lainey!”

And that’s all he needed to say: her name. A rush of homecoming swept over her, a bittersweet squeeze of the soul.

Tom Evans stood. He picked up a bottle of rum that was sitting next to him on a worn tree limb, which had washed up from the big storm during junior year. He gave Danny a knowing nod and then smiled at Lainey. “Catch you later.” He shuffled off; his once-broad, straight back now narrowed and hunched over with what Lainey recognized as chronic pain.

She settled on the sun-bleached limb next to Danny. “It’s been too long,” she said,
“I’m sorry.”

“I understand. You know I do.”

They held each other. She could feel the bones in his back, the wheezy breathing from his lungs, the beating inside his chest. Finally, they pulled away. Lainey wiped her eyes. “So, how’ve you been?”

Danny gave her his half-smile; the boyish dimple still gracing the left side of his cheek. “Remember when we thought we’d never get old? That we’d never stop doing all the things we loved?”

Lainey nodded. “We still can,” she said, trying to nudge his smile back, “but we probably have to modify.”

He didn’t laugh at her attempt at humor. Instead, he sighed. “It all went by so fast.”

It was then that Lainey knew. This was Danny’s last reunion. Without thinking, she stood. “Come with me.”

She took his hand and led him to the very same inlet of beach they had trekked off to so long ago. He plodded along, a labored journey that made him stop every so often to catch his breath. Neither of them spoke. With wet sand underfoot, they watched the half-moon throw an undulating glow over the waves. She turned to him, his face a cool-blue portrait in the evening light. “What am I to do, Danny?” She hadn’t meant to say it. And what exactly did she mean by it, anyway? But after she drew in a shaky breath, she knew. What would life look like knowing that Danny wasn’t around anymore?

He exhaled, staring ahead. “What are any of us to do? But…”

“But what?”

“Did you know,” he said, “that all the starfish here have died off?”

“I didn’t.” Her throat grew raw. “They’ve all died off?” What a horrible irony that all the starfish had vanished off a beach that was named after the once-robust sea star.

“Slowly but surely, they have.”

“Danny?” She grabbed his hand, squeezed it tight. “What’s going on?”

He paused for too long.

“What is it?”

“Cancer,” he declared as if it were a mere nuisance. “Lung cancer.”

She reached for him, not surprised but still devastated. As she held him, her own chest ached, a raw hole that would never be filled.

Coughing, he stepped back. “I’m not sure how much longer now.”

Lainey wanted to tell him how much she had loved him, how she regretted not staying in touch. But if she did, she’d lose it, sob so uncontrollably that he’d have to console her. So, she merely stared into his eyes, hoping he understood.

Finally, he nodded. “Don’t worry, Lainey. I’ve made peace with it.”

She drew in a breath. “I just wish…”

“Listen,” he said, “it’s simple: We were all here.” He looked at her, his gaze weightless. “Then we’ll all be gone.”

“But…”

Out of nowhere, Danny laughed. It was surprisingly loud for such a frail, wheezy man, a laugh that seemed to halt the pounding of waves against rocks. “Now it’s my turn to ask you: ‘But what?’”

“What does it all mean?”

He caressed her face and her sorrow softened. “It means nothing.”

Her heart twisted, remembering how philosophical he’d been as a teen, how even her checked-out mother once commented that he was an ‘old soul.’ “Nothing?”

“Yes.” He gave her another one of his half smiles. “Nothing. Or maybe there is something bigger than us.” He shrugged. “We just don’t know—except that we did beat all the odds in being here at all.”

“Yes,” Lainey replied, the truth of what Danny said washing over her.

Without a word more, they walked back to the party. The bonfire had died, mere embers and gray ash. They promised to see each other again. Lainey knew they wouldn’t.

When she finally made it home that night, she switched on the light and stood in front of her antique mirror, the last vestige she had managed to save from her childhood home. She held her breath and stared. There she was. An old woman wrapped in mortality. And now, suddenly, that sagging skin, those droopy eyes—even the grief and disappointment—had metamorphized into the wonder of finality. A finality that would one day follow Danny. A finality that would ultimately be scattered over the ocean, immersed within the sand.

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