Why is it that when she searches for images here in cyberspace, images related to concrete things here on earth, the images that come back to her are from space, outer space?
Like this one. That image right there is the Cartwheel Galaxy, 150,000 light years away.
Cartwheels have been on her mind for a while, cartwheels like the ones she used to do when she was little, and also when she was not so little, when she was twenty and living on the ocean for that one summer, and she used to get up early and go down to the beach in the fog, and cartwheel down the beach on the hard-packed sand, plush beneath her feet.
She had just flown back to the U.S. from Taiwan, where she had been living, and the adjustment was disorienting. She was no longer an oddity, so tall, tromping around streets where she was the only one who wasn’t Chinese.
She and her best friend lived in rooms in a tiny town on the ocean, rooms that they rented by the week, in a house where no men were allowed past ten o’clock at night.
They were waitresses that summer, at different restaurants. They worked the dinner shift, and they got back late at night, and they went out after they got back, to the only bar in that tiny town on the ocean.
Her best friend would order a gin and tonic, and she would order something called a Seabreeze, which was a simple drink, a pretty combination of fruit juices that, when combined, turned a coral color in the glass.
The bathroom at the bar was full of girls their ages, hovering before the mirror, eyes narrow and focused, re-applying mascara or lip gloss. The air in the bathroom was heavy with hairspray. She did not wear hairspray or mascara or lip gloss, but she too looked in the mirror, if briefly, covertly.
She was full of longing that summer, intense and unspecific, the kind of longing that kept her from deep sleep at night and woke her at dawn. In memory she makes her way down the narrow path through the dunes to the beach, wearing the pink skirt she bought from a stall in Taipei. Always the pink skirt.
The beach, in memory, is always fogged in at dawn. The high tide line, in memory, is always visible, and the sand down by the water is packed hard.
She raises her arms above her head and does the running skip she always does before the first cartwheel, lifts her right knee high, and then over she goes. She’s in the fog, it doesn’t matter if the skirt flies up above her neck.
Down the beach she goes, cartwheeling over and over, skirt flying up and settling down, flying up and settling down. Now her heart is pounding and she’s out of breath. Her palms are red and imprinted with grains of sand.
From out on the water come the sounds of the fishing boats, the bells, the harbor buoys. There is a boy out there on one of them who brings her fish while she’s at work, when he comes in from fishing. She finds a note on the refrigerator of the house with a stick picture of a fish, an arrow pointing to the freezer, her name, and a smiley face. She would like to see more of this boy, but he works while she sleeps, and he sleeps while she works.
She has a bunch of friends who are men – boys, still – strictly friends is what they all are, and they come visit her that summer, in twos and threes and fours, and what are they to do, with that no men past ten o’clock rule? The only thing they can do, of course: Stay out all night, sleeping in the dunes in sleeping bags and under blankets.
Sleep, always elusive for her, is beautifully eluded that summer, down there on the sand, with her beloved friends asleep around her and the stars massing overhead, hundreds of thousands of light years away.
Late at night, every night, she leaves the noisy hot bar and walks down the street to the house, the ocean air salt and cool on her face. Again, in memory, she’s wearing the pink skirt.
One night she is walking back to the house, making her way through the grass by the side of the road, when a car swishes past her in the darkness. Someone calls her name from an open window, and calls it again.
She has always wondered.
From far away across the years, she is thinking of that night now. The dark night sky full of stars, the waves curling and uncurling on the beach, the grass brushing against her bare legs as she walks barefoot home, holding her sandals in her hand.
She wishes she had the pink skirt, wishes she’d kept it.