They’d gathered to watch Hao sing—his first public performance. There’d been fractions of rehearsals, drunk nights in a dim living room, a few songs to end the night after the beer ran out, but never a stage. I only went to get more time with Tulsa, and sat next to her at the back counter, looking at Hao through the beer taps. A Stratocaster belted to his skinny-jeaned hips. His neck craned to the low microphone. Fresnel lights thumbed a shadow across his long face. Six-string chord changes droning under his Johnny Cash drawl, he sang slow enough to rake you with confessional lyrics, always a clever turn in the refrain, and that was the difference between us, I didn’t know how to be clever. We’d come up in a garage band together, playing little basement shows and bar gigs for free drinks. That trailed off sometime before he and Tulsa started dating. Then it was all smiles and Hey sweetheart, never one without the other. Their comfort—boothed across from it in restaurants, elbow-to-elbow with it in bars, how they communicated in glances as if words were an afterthought—had been an eighteen-month sprained ankle for me, a nagging reminder that I was unfamiliar with that ease.
Or maybe I was just jealous of him. We’d been something like inseparable once—those friends who often bickered until stumbling on an old joke and silently forgiving each other. He used to call me a brute cause I’m the stocky sort of Chinese. My mother said our people belonged on the water—thick-necked and short-limbed, dark skin begging for sun—that it takes a specific strength to drag the nets against the tide. Told me this when I got expelled from the ninth grade in Cambridge for fighting. I was heading to Fenwick to live in my aunt’s trailer on the coast, just south of the state line. I’d been there ever since. My aunt passed a couple years back. I remember thinking, Well that’s something, while I gripped the new deed to her place, my name adrift in the lines of bold print.
Hao lived two docks over, separated by the bay’s green fingers. When we met, I was convinced we’d always be the odd men out and day dreamed about heading west to DC, or up to NY where being Asian wasn’t something of note. He was hesitant to believe it, said I was just imagining myself as an outsider. There was German in his blood—he was taller, fairer, made friends easily. As teens, we’d leave his stuffy trailer after band practice and lie on the docks, smoking my aunt’s Virginia Slims. Sometimes, she’d sit with us while we talked about the songs we’d never write. She didn’t care if we drank her liquor, and two pints of MD 20/20 in, Hao said when he was a kid, he used to think the chirps of the crickets were the stars whistling, trying to get his attention. He raised his arm toward the sky, pretending to pinch one faint glow between his thumb and forefinger. I yanked the bottle from his other hand, said, Someone’s had enough. The chalky liquid churned in the bottle, and my aunt smiled, told me not to be jealous and left her cigarettes on the foldout chair.
Now, in the bar, Hao began a song about his first love—a girl from Philadelphia. She’d just graduated, had come to the beach for vacation. Her inevitable return home made them move quick, and at that pace, they found something like meaning. Hao said, She left for home and my home was here, in the scene of that momentary obsession. Tulsa asked me what she’d been like, and I said she was pretty—real pretty—the kind that lingers. The way Hao went about singing it, with contempt for his younger self, all of those summers before we turned twenty-one seemed foreign.
We’d been lifeguards since eighteen, used to walk home from the beach, passing a water bottle full of vodka between us, wondering whether we’d ever get tired of the tourist months. We figured we would but hoped against it. The sun rubbed light on the hem where the sky sank into the bay, the distant thump of hip hop in motel rooms lining the road. I threw my arm over Hao’s shoulder while three girls and a dude came the opposite way. The guy said, Hey where’s the party? Their bathing suits were still waterlogged and dusted with sand. I raised the bottle toward his face, and he smelled the rubbing alcohol scent of the Rikaloff, said, Oh shit. Hao said, Help yourself. They followed us to a good strip of beach north of the boardwalk, one where businesses didn’t shine their patio lights out toward the ocean. We sat in the dark on our towels and played Sip-Sip-Pass until the vodka ran out.
There’s nothing like the ocean at night—the break of the waves unfettered by gull calls or the crowds conversing. Hao showed the girls the stick-and-poke tattoo of a mallard he’d stitched onto his bicep. They circled around him, asked him how he did it, and he recreated the process with a barb of driftwood for a needle, a palm of water as India ink. I stood, joints loose from the booze, in the wet sand with the foam of the wake lapping at my feet. A chill breeze rushed past, and I felt like I was standing on the lip of a mouth, the slow exhales of something giant. I knew how quickly the ocean could eat you. That fear of fragility—of being swallowed up against my will—had burned like fuel in me, was what made me say Yes in the face of self-doubt. I figured I spent too much time in the Atlantic, that one day the water would catch me off-guard, and I’d be damned if I didn’t live a life before it got me.
We’re twenty-six now, and I still get that fist-tightening excitement when summer begins. Route 1 steadily swelling with packs of sandal-wearing families, a herd of college kids, new faces rushing toward the breaking waves. Every week a shuffling of the cards, and Hao and me, we’d been there all along.
Tulsa changed that rhythm. Nights when we’d go to the busier bars down near the single digits, she’d tag along, and then there was no more flirting with vacationers. I used to tell people I only lived there for the summer. At a club, I got a number, and Tulsa leaned against the counter, said, Who wouldn’t want to call the beach home? She didn’t understand. These people didn’t need to know that when they left for the winter, I went back to chasing shifts at the bar, to off-season work scrubbing empty hotel pools, the cleaner eating my cuticles. Few years back, Hao started teaching guitar up in Rehoboth. He was making steady money, year-round work. And with Tulsa waiting for him after his lessons, he stopped grabbing the bus with me downtown.
Shit changed with our friends when he was absent. That first question as I sidled up to the circle—Hey, where’s Hao?—annoyed the shit out of me. Still, I was relieved to be away from their coupling. I downed beer after beer with this image of them splitting Hao’s beat-up leather couch, building a private life up like walls around each other. They didn’t need me. And yet, they were not unkind, inviting me over a couple times a month to listen to records while Hao cooked. I’d bring a six-pack and drank my two as Tulsa asked me about us as boys. I said, We were the kids you wanted to know. You remember Sharkey’s, man? Hao’s sister used to date the bartender there, never carded us.
Hao was chopping onions, took a break to sip his beer, saying: Shit, whatever happened to Marcus? I haven’t seen him since that place shut down. The belly of the trailer filled with the salt-thick scent of fat cooking off flank steak. I said, How many boardwalk girls you think gave us the time of day just cause we knew a spot to drink? Hao’s face went flush, a chuckle low in his throat as he stared into the pan, stirring the vegetables into the meat. Tulsa reached over and mussed his hair. Well it certainly wasn’t for your looks, she said. We talked into the night until the conversation became riddled with quiet gaps—a signal I’d come to understand as a marker for my exit, allowing them to return to that thing they could only occupy alone.
Just after Labor Day last year, Hao’s car broke down, and he asked me to take him to work. I was done on the beach for the season, had the afternoons off, so we hopped in my aunt’s pickup and headed north. He said, What’re you doing for work now? You going back to Rusty’s? Told him I’d gotten a job serving at a crab house, bayside. It did good business, even in the winter. He nodded, slowly, like he wasn’t quite hearing me. The day was overcast, gray clouds blending into the pitch water visible through dips in the sand dunes. Hao’s black hair was tipped with grease. I knew he’d been skipping the shower. When we were younger, we’d go a week without anything but ocean water and a quick rinse in the outdoor faucets stationed on the beach. The salt made our thick hair wavy and malleable, our skin dark and taut. We were creatures born of the sea. He looked out at the dunes, said, You think you can get me some shifts? I asked him if everything was alright, if he still had guitar students. He said, Yeah, yeah. Of course. I’m just trying to stay busy.
No one could tell me why they’d ended it, but it had gotten around that they weren’t dating. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t well up some excitement in me. Worked out we fell back into our old habits without her—drinking till close at the bars we knew, talking about back in the day. I showed him some songs I’d been working on, and he did the same. It was clear how much better he’d gotten over the years with steady practice. I had to be bored to even pick up my SG. We spent more time with music, even talked about starting up a band again, and he said he’d think about it just as soon as he got his record done. He’d been trying to finish for years.
Tulsa talked to each and every person she met as if they were the most important being on her planet. It wasn’t a surprise when our friends tacitly decided that she’d remain one of us—a group she could count on to gather at the beach near 130th, who’d invite her to family dinner every Monday and Industry night at Rusty’s on Sunday. Tulsa hadn’t come up in Ocean City like the rest of us, didn’t know how to keep going in the cold months when the population dropped and the very blood of Coastal Highway slowed to a halt. You need to have people to help make it through the winter.
The audience huddled around Hao, as though for warmth. The half-full room was congested in front of the stage, set apart from the scuffed dance floor by a riser. The crowd clapped with each interval in the music, singing lyrics when they knew them. There was nothing flashy to his performance, nothing anyone hadn’t heard before, and yet Hao had a way of twisting that familiarity to be heartfelt. I leaned over to Tulsa, said, It’s really simple, isn’t it? She hadn’t looked at me since the set started. He’s entirely honest up there, she said.
It happened, at first, unconsciously, that I wanted to elevate her in the way she raised others. That position was unfamiliar to me, and in its strangeness, I became absorbed in how the world I came up in took to her. The nights I wasn’t serving, when I’d ask Hao to go to the bar and he’d turn me down to record, when I would end up going by myself, searching for easy company, I started inviting her along instead. Told myself I was just being a decent friend, a good person. Maybe that was true—if nothing else, it showed I hadn’t just been her friend because she was dating Hao, that she was worth knowing. And yet, I am not a good person, have never really claimed that moniker. I’d always found that if I was honest with myself about what I wanted, those desires interfered with my friends’ lives—couldn’t work there because they fired this person, couldn’t date her because so-and-so has a crush, can’t play in that band because so-and-so got kicked out of it. It didn’t matter if I acted on them. The urge itself condemned me. It was unsurprising that I wanted to be in Tulsa’s presence—her licorice black hair, those blue eyes, the way she burped halfway through a beer. I wanted to be the one she exhaled around.
We discovered a mutual love for pool, had a weekly game at the Sand Dollar where the drinks were cheap and the felt of the tables was red. Few years ago, she’d followed some skateboarder here from Baltimore. The plan was that he’d use the off-season months to practice, to shoot a promo video, then they could party through the summer. When he bailed, she got stuck with the lease, and by the time it ended, she’d found a paying job at a preschool and her coworker had set her up with Hao. We were shooting pool one night, and I was curious, so I nagged her about why she’d ended it, and she said, It was mutual. He’s got such a decent heart in him, but that’s not always enough.
I let her win a few games, bought the next round, then asked her again, saying, Come on, it’s just me. Her expression looked more exhausted than trusting, but trust is a form of giving in. She said, Hao is good. He’s talented and beautiful and good. We wanted it to work, but like, you can only spend so much time thinking everything would make sense eventually, you know? She paused to make the five in the corner, scratching the cue, saying, We weren’t happy.
I could sense her spirit folding as she said it, surrendering to those three words, and I didn’t mean to take her there. I raised my drink off the end table after I missed a glancing shot, said, Well, now you’re stuck with the rest of us lowlifes.
At pool, we’d kept a running record. The day of the show, I was up 58-41, but we hadn’t played in a few months. When summer started, I got a call from my mother. My sister had been in a car wreck. I locked up the trailer, spent the hot months with my family in Minnesota while she recovered. It wasn’t right to leave before she could walk. Weeks slipped away before she could even sit up. In August, she swiveled in her bed and stood barefoot on the sterilized tile. My mother hadn’t touched her while she was bedridden, even when the nurses said some contact was fine. She wore her wool sweater and slacks loose on her rail-like limbs, wringing her hands together instead of clearing sweat from her daughter’s forehead or adjusting the part in her mocha hair, all for fear of worsening the damage. She’d always been like that, thinking she only made things worse. My sister, standing, reached for my mother, and they grasped each other’s shoulders, knees shaking, fingernails digging. My older brother in the corner of the room, shouted, I told you! I told you! Over and over and I ached for him to stop, his words cutting ribbons out of this reunion. In the hallway, I said, You always do that shit. You always involve yourself in other people’s moments.
I’d gotten that news in a voicemail while at work. Mom had caught the last flight out of BWI and booked me the only seat to Minneapolis the following day at three. I could’ve gotten a ride from almost anyone, but Tulsa and I were supposed to shoot pool that night, thought that was reason enough to ask her. It was two AM, and my call woke her. Told her about the accident, about the spinal contusion and the numbness in my little sister’s limbs, how she couldn’t support her own weight. She was a freshman at UM, the passenger in a car on the way home from a party. Driver didn’t make it. I didn’t even know you had a sister, Tulsa said. What can I do? I said, I need a ride to the airport tomorrow. My voice felt disconnected from my lungs as I spoke—worry for my sister made my heartbeat rap on my esophagus, yet part of me was still looking for an excuse to see her.
Tulsa showed up at my place too early. My flight was hours away. She knocked on the trailer window to wake me. I let her in and she examined what I’d thrown on my duffle bag—board shorts, a few T-shirts, the entirety of my clean underwear. She said, Have you ever been to Minneapolis? You need to pack some pants, maybe a sweatshirt. I did as I was told. She looked at me as if I were a stray limping out of the wilderness, hungry for compassion. She said to come on, that she was going to take me somewhere, then carried my luggage to her Civic. The bright red paint on her car used to annoy me. As we pulled out of the cul-de-sac, I couldn’t bring myself to glance over but could still see, in my mind, the maroon trellises lashed to the side of Hao’s trailer, the plastic awning yellowed by the rain.
Route 50 turned north before I asked her where we were going. She said, you just find an appetite. We spoke about my sister’s health until every answer became I don’t know, and then she talked idly about her job, about gossip, things she’d heard around the way. She said, so you’re seeing Tina from Rusty’s? She’s pretty. I shook my head, said we’d gone out a couple times, but it wasn’t right. The road toward the Bay Bridge felt like it was sinking beneath the rain-thick grass, as if the flat fields were soft enough to swallow up the cement. So you’re more of a boob guy? she posted her left hand atop the wheel, right elbow on the middle console. I coughed out a laugh, said, It’s not like that. Tulsa perched her chin atop her fist, head turned my way, eyes slipping from the road ahead. She said, I’d kill for her legs. I took it as an invitation to think of her lower half, a tattoo of an eagle shot full of arrows astride her right thigh, the scar from a bike accident on her left shin. I liked the way she crossed her legs at the ankle as she applied tanning oil, standing beside her beach towel, her back to the sun.
At the ascension of the bridge where the Jersey walls gave way to pale steel barricades, the road cleared the Chesapeake and climbed into the wet air. Tulsa rolled the windows down, the wind whipping her hair about her face. She let her left hand glide out the window—a flesh kite in the current—yelling over the roar of air racing into the car, This thing scares the piss out of me. She flinched, pulling her lips back, not in a smile, but a taut line, the uncomfortable expression of someone expecting pain. In the middle of the ten-minute bridge, under the framework where the barricades rise to a point out of view, it’s easy to feel a caged sort of safety from the green water a hundred feet down. But on the incline, the decline, the barriers are just low enough to see the danger below. As a kid, shuttled across it, I felt no fear, convinced that no man-made structure built allowed harm to those inside it. Looking over the side now, the girders throwing shadows across the red paint of the hood, I thought about when that semi struck a car last year, sent it plunging into the water. How that woman survived, I wasn’t sure. I knew if it were me, I wouldn’t be so lucky.
Tulsa pulled into a strip mall twenty minutes south of the airport, took the keys from the ignition, said, Hao ever bring you here? I shook my head, unfamiliar with the sandstone building, the cyan paint along the roof chipped and faded. The corner Chinese restaurant had a paper sign under the hours that read Dim Sum Every Weekend. My mother had taken the family to Dim Sum when I was younger, and I remembered, fondly, the draping smell of meat and oil, the pristine tablecloths, waiters pushing carts of metal steaming dishes that rattled as the wheel caught a lip in the carpet. I poured her tea and we pointed at the buds of shumai, shrimp dumplings, pork buns and taro pudding. The waiter stamped our ticket, piling the dishes onto our two-top. I shoveled rice into my mouth, said, I never realized how much I missed this. She had a cheek-full of garlic greens, a bit of sauce staining her lip. Another cart came and I shook my head at the tripe and the chicken feet, but Tulsa said we’d have both. She said, What? You’re too good for scraps? She plucked two of the clawed feet from the bowl of broth, holding them above the table and walking them over to my plate as if the bird itself was above the cooked appendages. I looked at the orange limbs, greasy and lifeless, said they were gross. When she spoke, Tulsa looked almost embarrassed, saying, They’re for your sister. It’s a silly thought, I know. Feet for her feet. She glanced at the white table linen for a moment, and I nudged her shoe with mine, saying, Thank you. We ate every appendage to the marrow.
Two beers into the set, Hao played a slowed version of Freak Scene by Dinosaur Jr.—one of my favorite songs. We used to blast it in the trailer, headbanging on the couch until my aunt got off work. Didn’t realize he liked this song that much, I said. I tapped my heel on the footrest, annoyed at how the lyrics still made my hair stand on end, that it was his mouth delivering them. When he got to the last verse, he lifted his head from the crowd, looked me directly in the eye. I couldn’t tell if he was smiling, but I raised my glass off the bar toward him and he turned back to the microphone. Watching his forearm pulse above the guitar, pinched fingers strumming the gap above the pick-up, I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to be there next to him, playing the root chords, letting him embellish the melody, the solo.
When I got back to Ocean City, I called Tulsa to see if she was up for a night at the Sand Dollar, to catch-up, and she asked if I was free that afternoon, said she needed to borrow the truck. I drove her up to Rehoboth to pick up a new mattress. Her last one was her ex’s and she was tired of how soft it was in the middle, tired of waking up with a sore back. We were walking through the aisles of the furniture store as she pressed her palm into the springs of each cushion. Plus, she said, There’s a lot of old boy sweat in mine. I’m ready for a clean break. The thought of Hao’s condensation in her sheets made me cringe, and the souring on my face made her laugh. I was not unaware that the two of us testing mattresses on Saturday afternoon resembled a couple. She said, I need something that is firm enough to sleep on my stomach, but soft enough to spend the occasional day nesting in. I asked what that felt like, and she said she’d know it when she found it. She kept politely shooing sales attendants, eventually found herself stationed on a full-sized pillow-top in the window of the store. I was on my phone, texting people that I was back in town, and We should hangout sometime, watching her bounce on the foot of the bed, her lower back peaking out over her shorts. She collapsed onto it, looked at me from flat on her back, saying, Come here. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t imagine, right then, what it would be like to fall asleep beside her, to feel her forehead, sweat-slicked, against mine, an hour of sex behind us—thinking Fuck you, Hao. Seated on the bare mattress, she said, What do you think? I pressed a hand into it, the springs below the top cushion barely gave. It’s firm, I said. She grabbed a fistful of my shirt, fingers grazing my spine, pulled me alongside her. See? It’s good, right? The ceiling tiles above us were ringed with brown water stains. I could feel her breath churn.
I strapped it to the bed of my pickup, helped her carry it into her home. I’d never been in her room before, was surprised at how bare the walls were, her dresser drawers unclosed and bulging with clothing. By that time, I’d gotten a couple texts about the show, but I didn’t mention it until she said, You know Hao is playing tonight, right? I nodded, seated on the bare mattress again, watching her rifle through shirts in the closet. I said, You going? She got to the last hanger, saying, I should really do laundry. Or clean up a bit. I shrugged, I think you look good. The springs had so little give as she sat down beside me. Rubbing her palms in her lap, she said, He stopped practicing while we were together. I feel like he wouldn’t want me there. I slowed him down. When I wrapped my arm about her and touched her on her side, I wanted to will him from her mind, to reassure her, not that he wouldn’t care, but that for as much as he might not want her around, I did. I said, I’ll go if you go.
Hao’s black hair was brimmed with sweat, the collar of his shirt flattened by the guitar strap. He looked wet and pink, as if he’d just come in from a run, and yet, basking in the attention of the audience, he belonged nowhere else. He said, This last song is a slow one. Not that any of my stuff is that upbeat. The crowd chuckled as he took the capo from the headstock and locked it to a fret, saying, It’s called Last Song for Sweetheart.
I couldn’t tell you the words, just that the chorus lyric was the title phrase repeated twice, paced the first time and even slower the second. Hao’s left hand dragging down three notes in a scale, his vocal following in harmony—I caught the look on Tulsa’s face as he sang it, how she felt every word as if the notes themselves had hooks that flew from the amplifier, snagging her eyelids, her rouged cheek, the very curve of her lips. Twitches like microscopic explosions rippled through her expression, and I knew it as the face of surrender, of recognizing a love you once called home and all the ways it was given up.
Leaning into the bar, I could feel in my chest—was so sure—that I lacked those same barbs to harm her, that I could never eclipse the affection she’d already had, that love she wanted but not enough. I prepared myself for a crippling sort of failure at this, of loss or embarrassment, but found myself beholden to their faces as the song played on. To witness their mutual beauty, to know the circumference of what they meant to each other, and yet to be apart from it, still warmed me like hands over an exposed flame. Long after I moved away from the coast, after I gave up music all together, I find myself rehearsing that moment when they stepped briefly back into that world they built together—how it was there to come back to. It makes for a nice foundation to live upon—a center to raise my walls around, to house my unstill heart, and wait. The song ended, and she teemed with grief. The blue in her irises laminated with a near invisible sheen, and yet, Tulsa smiled. Without taking her eyes from him, she whispered, That’s what’s different. He wants everything painful to be pretty.