When he exhaled a deeper breath and a streetlight was near, he saw steam rise up from his mouth and disappear. For some reason he was always afraid he’d lose more than carbon dioxide, like perhaps his soul might fade away into the ether too.
Every now and then a piece of gravel would grind under his wheel and he would grimace. The tyres were always vulnerable, and him with them. He was out for a midnight ride. Black socks, black shorts, black shirt, black helmet; a sentient shadow. The bike path snaked the coastline, blurred like an analog TV picture in the moonlight. He felt like an animal on a track, nose down, about important business; quiet things no one else would ever know. All he could hear were his tyres rotating, his nostrils circulating air, and the sea pounding in his right ear. There was comfort in the fact no one on earth knew where he was in that moment. At his apartment a phone and wallet lay deserted on the kitchen table. His company was his own. His silent company.
Houses stood silent in rows on his left. In one of them there was a baby, he often heard it crying. Sometimes he stopped to listen, just to see if the parents would comfort it back to sleep. They always did eventually. Why he stopped he didn’t quite know but he felt something every time he looked towards the sound of wailing. Longing and regret seemed to swell in him, confusing his thoughts because he didn’t understand why he would react this way. The baby wasn’t crying this time and he didn’t stop. In all the houses bodies rested asleep or awake, it didn’t matter. None of them knew he’d passed by, beating out a cadence on the pedals, flying like a guided spirit to his destination.
One thing bothered him though. There was a dog, a Labrador as far as he could tell. It never came from the same direction but it always settled in behind his back wheel and came chasing after him, not barking or growling but loping along behind like a companion, as if it knew him. If he ever slowed enough for it to catch him he wasn’t sure what would happen, and he never entertained the notion. However, it upset his rhythm, made him feel hurried as he inevitably pedalled faster to lose it. Until the next time.
Tendrils rose off his shoulders to dissipate as he arrived at the rock pool nestled on the beach. He unclipped his helmet and started down the hill, treading the steps carefully in the dark. Halfway down he heard voices and looked up. Disappointment creased his brow as he saw two people sitting on the edge of the pool. Girls by the sound of it and as he looked closer he realised they were naked, or at least topless. They had their backs to him so he decided he’d quickly return the way he came and ride on to the next beach. Angry that anyone but him should be out there at such a time he tramped too heavily and dislodged a stone which rolled down the remaining distance of the stairs. One of the girls, in fact women around his age he noticed when they turned, spied him begin to walk away and called out.
‘Hey, you don’t have to leave.’
Holding his helmet by his side he ran his fingers through tousled hair. Although he was tempted to join them now he’d seen their profiles, he shrugged and shook his head.
‘I kind of came here to be alone.’
The same one spoke again, she had sandy dreadlocks. The other had darker hair, perhaps dyed blue. Their mannerisms didn’t strike him as being typical skinny dippers, whatever that was.
‘You’d rather be alone than share a pool with two nude girls?’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m really not sure how to answer that question.
The other woman piped up. If he was being honest with himself she was stunning, the bones in her face had all cooperated, but it wasn’t what he came for.
‘Hey I think I recognise you, do you remember me?’
Now he’d heard her voice and taken a step or two closer yes he did. They’d had classes together a couple of times. He remembered a few occasions he’d not been able to stop himself admiring her.
‘Yeah I remember you.’ He also recalled she was about twenty-five, which changed his whole perspective of the situation. Mid-twenties skinny dippers were infinitely more interesting than teens. It spoke of breaking the mould, resisting the world view about what growing up meant. He’d never understood why maturity was a word that simply had to replace fun and adventure, frown upon them, and wipe them away like dusters on chalkboards. All the same, neither did he know how to let go of the pressure they had obviously chosen to release in their own lives.
‘Well come down, let’s talk.’
He was finding it hard to make an excuse now. They obviously didn’t care if he saw them; and it wouldn’t hurt if the other thing had to wait.
If they were comfortable than why shouldn’t he be? But for him, the intimacy of looking upon someone’s body should be kept private and exclusive. He joined them anyway. They were indeed naked. And they were beautiful. Why were they doing this to him? He felt like a predator if he looked at them and a prude if he stared away. He must have looked like he was tripping; his eyes were playing tennis in his skull. Had it become such a precondition that he couldn’t look at them without his gaze turning objective? Even focusing on their faces was distracting. The girl he knew, Blue, had a drop of water running arrow-straight down her proud nose to fall onto full lips that smiled too easily.
Dreadlocks, whose eyes gleamed with both mischief and kindness even in the dim light, smirked a little.
‘We were about to go for a swim, want to join us?’
‘Okay’. But he made no move.
‘Are you going to take your clothes off?’
He was taken aback. ‘No.’
‘Why not? You’ve seen us, it’s hardly fair.’
‘It’s entirely fair, you made your choice. You invited me down here. I don’t feel comfortable revealing myself to people I don’t know.’
‘It’s just a body, it has nothing to do with who you are’, said Blue. ‘Except it’s my body and it’s completely a part of who I am. It affects me in so many ways. I have no relationship with you, this sort of closeness and familiarity makes me uncomfortable.’
‘If you say so, but if you ask me, there is nothing individual about a body, everyone knows what’s there.
‘I’m not so at ease with sharing everything.’
‘I suppose we have a fundamental difference then.’
‘I guess we do.’
Dreadlocks slid into the water. ‘Swim?’
He took his shirt off as Blue also submerged. She came up, hair slick, her face emanating a natural glow.
‘Halfway there,’ she grinned.
He laughed but shook his head. He jumped in and felt a lot better now he could only see a small portion of them. What they didn’t understand was he’d already forgotten what they looked like under the water, despite his initial evaluation. Immediately they became ten times more attractive again. He turned his head to look out to the open sea, wondering in bemusement what the fuck was going on right now, and would it mean anything in the long run?
‘So you don’t mind showing your nipples but it’s weird for us?’ Dreadlocks asked, bringing his attention back.
He just twitched his mouth and conceded the point.
‘Do you do this often?’ He asked.
‘When the mood takes us,’ answered Blue.
He nodded. ‘I like that, do what’s fun, do what you feel like doing. Too many people forget that.’
‘Most people would say it’s part of growing up.’
‘Yeah, but what does that mean?’
‘Who knows?’ said Dreadlocks as she duck-dived, her legs driving him to distraction as they disappeared. She came back up and continued. ‘Maybe it just means what everyone tells you it means. Maybe it only means physical change. Getting taller, fatter, skinnier, older, until you fall down, like trees. You’re probably entitled to make up your own mind about it.’
In a slight trance as he considered her words, he murmured; ‘That’s the problem, I don’t think I can.’
Blue floated away on her back.
‘So you do this all the time then?’
‘I don’t generally get naked and swim in the middle of the night, no. But I ride the track a lot. It’s like I’m the only one awake.’
‘Ahh so we ruined it for you.’
‘There’s pros and cons for everything.’
Dreadlocks was doing slow languid laps. ‘Is this illegal?’
‘You could always claim sexual harassment if they arrested you like that.’
‘But, for real?’
‘Well it’s a public pool, and you’re nude so yeah, you’re probably breaking the law.’
‘Ooh that makes it more exciting,’ grinned Blue.
He turned to look back up the hill, checking on his bike despite rationality telling him it was ridiculous to think someone would come along and steal it. He just made it out, a slight sheen on the handle bar aiding him. Standing next to it was the Labrador, seemingly monolithic as it gazed down.
‘Jesus,’ he whispered, unnerved.
‘You see that dog up there, it never leaves me alone.’
‘What dog?’ asked Blue.
‘Right there by my bike.’
Dreadlocks cast a worried glance at her friend. ‘Dude, there isn’t a dog there.’
‘What do you mean it’s right th-’ but he looked again and there was nothing. ‘Oh it’s gone; you must have just missed it in the dark.’
‘I think someone has been awake too long,’ teased Blue.
‘It was there! It’s always there! Following me every night.’
‘Okay okay, it must have learnt to recognise you.’
‘Every night’, he repeated softly to himself.
The girls had moved closer together and further away from him, trying not to make it obvious. One change in the tone of his voice and they immediately perceived him as a threat. He could see in their eyes they no longer assumed he wouldn’t hurt them. Quicker than he could click his fingers he’d been made to feel like had to go out of his way to assure them he wasn’t a predator. It was one of the things he hated about the world, hated the people who did have violence within them. He couldn’t say where, he didn’t know where it sprang from. There was a lot he didn’t know.
He didn’t even want to be there.
‘Maybe I should go,’ he said.
They didn’t argue, the fun had left their faces. As they all ceased moving the water stilled too, like it knew to dance would be inappropriate. The girls looked younger in their doubt but he was more intimidated by them now than ever, he could feel the milling in their heads as they wished for him to leave. It was all he could do, so he did.
He gave them a sad half smile. ‘It was nice talking to you.’ He turned and lifted himself out of the pool to stand, water rushing off him but the sound of it hitting the ground was too loud so he started walking immediately. Surprisingly, Blue called out, ‘Hey, what’s your name? I forgot.’ He looked back, brow narrowed in puzzlement. ‘What does it matter? It’s the least important thing to know about someone.’
‘But it’s your name’, returned Dreadlocks, ‘You carry it your entire life, it’s part of what defines you, eventually it encompasses your experiences. People who know you see memories when they hear your name.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s a label like any other. It’s doesn’t say where I’ve been, where I’m going. It doesn’t tell you what’s inside of me right now.’
The extra distance had opened them back up, and they seemed interested in him again.
‘What’s inside of you?’ asked Blue.
His mind was made up now though. ‘I’m not sure. That’s why I have to go. I need to find out.’
He commenced his track up the hill again, hurrying to his bike. He clipped his helmet and was quickly on the seat, pedalling once again. With little resistance he moved through the comfortable night air. A voice followed, one of the girls’, asking him to wait but it was too late.
The next sea pool along the coast waited in mournful silence as he arrived. A children’s playground on the headland above was nothing but geometric shadows. It held no meaning without the bodies to traverse it. Settled in the calm night, the water of the pool looked bottomless. Normally when he rode he would have music in his ears and everything would take on some kind of significance. The music would show him that all the things he saw were important somehow; there was purpose to them, dignity contained in them, emotion to found amongst them. Without it, the view appeared lifeless and impersonal, like the heart of the land had gone away.
As before, he set his bike down and took the steps to the pool’s edge. Shirt off and tossed aside he sat down to put his feet in. Looking hard, he tried to make out the bottom but he couldn’t, just another unknown. For a long time, he did nothing except stare into the water, trying to process his thoughts. He was confused about a lot of things and no matter how hard he contemplated, no matter how long he stayed unmoving his feelings would not be simplified. If he was being honest, he knew it would come to this all along. For a brief moment he thought the girls might change his path, but ultimately the presence inside was too strong. It was time to see what the future held. Nudging himself forward he slipped into the water, exhaling the air from his lungs as he did so.
Mostly he was hoping the first sign of struggle from his body would convince him to resurface.
For the entirety of his formative years he had been trying to figure out if the world had a place for him, or if he wanted one. At times he felt so alive it was like he was a part of the earth, occasionally he felt like he came close to understanding it all, the minds of the trees, the spirits of the animals. Other times, he just felt all the sadness in the world crush down on him. The helplessness and hopelessness of millions of people in every corner seemed pointlessly cruel. And sometimes he simply felt lonely, even amidst a warm embrace.
Knowing what could be ahead of him if he found a way to get back up to the air, he was surprised when he didn’t start climbing. Instead he started to feel peaceful. Oxygen was in high demand but all he could think about was how quiet it was, how still, and how simple things had finally become. There was nothing here to hurt, and nothing to be hurt. He guessed it was like the time before birth, when everything was out of his control. A time of ultimate quiet and peace. It seemed somewhat of a solution. Suspended there, eyes closed, he could have been in space.
Just as he was ready to let go, a thought nagged at him. He wasn’t in space or the womb or any other place of isolation. He was drowning to death in an ocean pool, and in death he wouldn’t be blissfully alone either. He’d be another number without the ability to do anything. He could help no one, like the millions of helpless souls he’d be joining. Alive, he could at least have the chance to change. Perspective is one thing that can always be altered.
Up there somewhere were people who hadn’t been born yet that could be his family, up there were places of natural beauty that he could visit, up there were songs he could hear, stories he could read and watch, food he could taste, textures he could feel.
He forced his eyes open but was struggling to make his arms and legs move. Starving desperately for air, he had no idea how long he’d been under. No, everything was hurting. The pain in his chest was excruciating, he couldn’t think straight, his brain was bursting trying to make him breathe in, but that would be the end. No, no, just like most other choices he’d made this one was a mistake but he couldn’t fight it off now. He let the real darkness come just as commotion roiled the water above him.
He woke up coughing violently, water coming out of his mouth. He could feel grass under his back and unintelligible voices talking to him. Collapsing his head back to the ground he slowly allowed his vision to clear as his chest heaved. There was a light, from a phone or a torch, moving around. Soon, he could see Dreadlocks and Blue knelt either side of him, concerned. Something was still keeping him from interpreting them properly and he noticed another figure. Next to Dreadlocks stood a black Labrador. This time though it didn’t scare him, he didn’t want to run away. He lifted his hand, noting the animal’s kind eyes, and the dog bent and gave it a lick. Then it turned and wandered off, perhaps back home.
He finally managed to focus his gaze on Dreadlocks and Blue and smiled self-consciously. A boy embarrassed in the company of beautiful women.