One might well wonder whether the only possible heroism was the heroism of the weak.
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
I Corinthians 13:12
After his shower the bathroom air is heavy and smells densely of soap. The steam and the moist gulf air have fogged the top half of the mirror and concealed his head behind a dense cloud of condensation, his reflection now a headless, naked, dripping body. He is squinting his eyes into narrow slits trying to view himself with a stranger’s objectivity, or better yet, to see himself as someone else altogether. His familiarity with his own pathetic nakedness has bred an inescapable contempt.
The thin veils of his eyelashes cannot blur the distinct lines that separate his sunburned arms and legs from the pale rest of him, his skin deprived of the sun’s rays by a long Michigan winter, now exposed to the sun of Venice Beach, where he and his family have rented a condo in a high-rise tower that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico.
“Oh, Sebastian, honey, you’re burned,” his mother said earlier. He was sitting on the couch, paging through an old magazine left by prior renters. “You need to be more careful with such fair skin.”
Nothing fair about it, he thinks. Despite leaving his shirt on and hiding inside the condo or in the shade along the high-rise for much of the week, it’s as if the sun has punished him for ever daring to venture into its presence, whereas everyone else on the beach seemed to blithely bask in its glory, as if they were all Adams and Eves and the apple had never been eaten and he alone was left to bear the brunt of mankind’s fall. Or perhaps his real sin was not audacity but shame, the sunburn a physical manifestation of that guilt. His mother’s skin is the color of a carefully tended grilled cheese sandwich. Sebastian inherited the complexion of his father, who regards the sun in the same way a podiatrist regards high heels: as a short-sighted fix for a nonexistent problem.
From Sebastian’s narrow shoulders dangle long arms that resemble in their thin consistency the wrapping paper tubes left over after Christmas. His belly rises from the flatness of his chest, just enough that when he bows his head slightly, his penis is hidden from view. For reasons he’s never explored—for surely these are not things a boy should be concerned about—he has always coveted larger nipples than the pinks dimes dotting either side of his chest.
Try as he may, he cannot see himself as anyone else—cannot suspend the judgments he assumes others must make about him, or worse, the judgments they see no need to make— including the group of young people who spend all day on the beach in front of their building swimming or playing soccer or volleyball or just lounging around on towels arranged so that everyone’s head is pointed toward the center, all spokes of the same wheel. They are all as one, comfortably inseparable, yet complete in and of themselves. Touched, and yet untouched. Sebastian’s drying skin tingles. He closes his eyes and bites his lower lip.
He watches them furtively as he plows ruts in the sand with his feet. They are playing soccer as the wind has made volleyball almost impossible. The wind blasts sand against Sebastian’s legs—the sun, the sand, his own body, all inescapable down here on the beach. Beyond the sand and behind the beachgoers the palm trees sway and bend as if bowing to Hosanna.
They play in teams of four, two boys and two girls per team. Their field is marked with a towel at each corner while a pair of shoes at each end serve as goals. Occasionally someone will do something nonsensical like run into the water with the ball, but overall the game has an air of competitiveness due to the agility of the participants. One boy in particular, the tallest of them, maneuvers the ball around defenders and gives it a swift kick between a pair of shoes. The ball bounces along the sand, blown by the wind, until coming to rest a few feet from Sebastian. The muscular boy gives his teammates high-fives. When it becomes apparent that no one from the other team intends to chase after the ball, he runs after it.
He might be six feet tall. His hair is a mass of blond waves and curls that hang down his forehead and wrap around his ears. Broad shouldered, his chest narrows into his swimsuit. On the downslope of his pectorals are dark brown nipples the size of quarters. Every muscle flexes as he runs, reminding Sebastian of the poster hanging in his biology classroom depicting the human body without skin, the muscle tendons like a master painter’s deliberate brush strokes; the soccer player’s well defined muscles, however, are wrapped in unblemished bronzed skin impervious to the sun’s rays. Every inch of him is uniformly tanned as if even the areas concealed within his dark blue swimsuit might be the same.
Sebastian rises to his feet before the player reaches the ball. He walks to the water’s edge where his mother and younger brother are set up. He is conscious of his arms swaying and looks back only when he makes it to the water, taking a deep breath as he does—the inhale in relief that they have not watched his retreat, the exhale in disappointment of that same fact.
His younger brother is making a sand castle—more of a shapeless mound of sand really, but he works ardently, digging and sculpting, oblivious of the world around him, stopping only occasionally to survey his creation and smile, as if to say, “It is good.” He says, “Look, Mom,” and she looks up from her magazine and smiles. Sebastian stops to watch, even picks up a shovel. His brother grabs a bucket and runs to the water, returns carrying the bucket precariously, and pours it into what serves as the moat. The water filters into the sand and disappears. When he heads back to the water, Sebastian drops the shovel and walks along the beach toward the soccer players.
As he nears the game, a girl breaks away with the ball and dribbles toward the goal. The tall player remains the only defender between her and the goal. He stands with his hands on his hips. When she tries passing him, he lunges toward her and swipes at the ball, kicking it toward the water, near the imaginary boundary line between the towels.
The two race over and begin to argue whether the ball is out of bounds or not. She picks the ball up and the muscular boy picks her up, wrapping his arms around her so that large areas of their bare skin are touching.
Sebastian reaches his arm across his body and holds his other arm. As he does, his sleeve rises slightly, just above the distinct line between red and white. The game turns into a wrestling match as the two decide who gets the ball: he tugs at the ball while she holds him back, her hand planted firmly on his strong shoulder.
Her back is turned to Sebastian. He can see where her bikini strap has shifted and now runs parallel to a line of lighter skin that had been shielded from the sun’s rays and hidden from view. It is a secret she is sharing with him, a revelation. He traces that line with his finger. The skin between her shoulder blades is soft, fearfully and wonderfully made. He reaches the strap that crosses over her shoulder; he wants to turn right, to follow it under her arm and around the front, but his imagination is stuck on that strap. He doesn’t notice as the game resumes, as the ball is thrown in, is passed, is kicked again.
And now she is running toward Sebastian. The ball rests in the sand near his feet. There she stoops, picks it up, and looks at him. “Do you want to play?” she asks, with no detectable trace of pity in her voice. He shakes his head. There are far too many imagined scenarios where things go badly if he crosses that invisible line onto their field.
She asks is he sure, but Sebastian is entranced by her skin. The sun has been kind to her as well, has turned her shoulders and arms and chest a warm brown, yet the inner halves of her arms and legs are a shade lighter—not tan, not pale, exposed yet hidden. He falls forward onto his knees before her, grabs her arm and pulls it toward him until her wrist is brushing against his cheek. “I’m Grace,” he hears her say. Although, of course, she doesn’t. This is, after all, fantasy, borne from the deepest need: to know and be known.
He looks up at her, but the sun is now behind her and shrouds her face with its glow. She rests her free hand on his shoulder as if blessing him and in a moment he knows all about her high school in Indiana, the volleyball team she is captain of, her struggles with geometry, her parents’ recent separation. He only nods as she speaks, like someone in one of the back pews of a church. “I am weak and sometimes scared,” this high priestess is saying, “just like you, Sebastian. It’s a fallen and broken world we live in, and only a fool denies it. These boys don’t understand.”
Then she is walking away, back to these boys who cannot understand her as he does. She turns to say, “There’s a party tonight at a house up the beach. If you want to come.” Sebastian watches as she returns to the game, his eyes focused on that exposed strip across her back, at once both pure and taboo.
It is night and the lines between light and dark have lost the cutting distinctness of daytime. The light from the beach house illuminates the surrounding sand, but the music can be heard well before entering this sphere of light. At the base of the stairs, a group has congregated in the relative shadow of the deck, each holding the small red glow of a cigarette in front of them. He passes through, unnoticed, and begins his ascent, sees no familiar faces, some clearly older, many holding a beer can or a red plastic cup, assuming postures of adult invincibility.
As he crosses the deck toward the open sliding glass door, the rush and whoosh of wind and wave give way to the reverberating bass of music. The barren beach behind, the room ahead is a place to get lost, to find Grace. He steps through the door into a long, narrow room. All the furniture has been pushed up against the walls, one of which is made up of mirrors, giving the impression that the room is twice as large and filled with twice as many people—a kind of parallel universe where every movement can be monitored and evaluated.
Throughout the room people are dancing. The energy in the room freezes him in place. Bodies are everywhere, moving in rhythm with the music, silhouetted by faint light coming from far corners of the room. The darkness and the music have freed them, but only when someone bumps into Sebastian is he able to move. His inertia amid all the jostling creates an imbalance so he begins to walk across the room, maneuvering among the dancers.
Midway, he turns in retreat and sees himself in the mirror. Something about the movement—the pivoting at his hips, his body reacting to the impulse of his mind, reflected in the mirrored universe where it is him but not him—sets off neurons in his brain. He twists himself back again. And back. His shoulders find the rhythm of the music. It is not dancing, at least not any more than a butterfly wriggling free of a cocoon is.
Then an arm grabs him. He looks into the face of a girl. It is, as far as he can tell, not Grace, not any of the girls from the group of soccer players. At first he is jerked back and forth in her grasp, but then one foot steps forward, then the other, and then his body gathers a momentum spurred by the music and the girl’s dancing. His feet continue stepping, forward, backward, side to side, his free arm sways, then flails, and even when the girl loses her grip of Sebastian’s arm, the swirling energy that has overtaken him maintains its grip and he thrashes about as if caught in some treacherous tide, a drowning-like euphoria replacing all insecurities.
Then the music stops and the lights are back on and the dancers are all settling into pockets about the room. There is nothing left for him but to find Grace, to know that she is here. He moves to the far end of the room, reaches the front of the house, where his options are to walk out the front door or ascend the stairs leading to the second level.
He rests his hand on the banister before pulling himself up. The stairs are empty, but a light shines in the hallway above. The stairs make no noise as he climbs, but his heartbeat does. The noise from downstairs becomes distant once he is in the hallway, which extends to his right. The door at the end is ajar. His shadow rises up the door like a specter emerging through the floor as he approaches, his feet softly padding the carpet, until at last the silhouette has reached its full height and stands opposite him. It is dark in the room. Whoever is within has the advantage of being sheathed in darkness, secure in the refuge of obscurity. He feels exposed by the light and looks for a switch, but when he turns he hears a faint murmur from inside the room. His face is drawn toward the opening, which is just wide enough to frame his narrow face.
As his eyes adjust to the darkness of the room, dimly lit by moonlight, he hears the hushed rustling of fabrics rubbing together and the same smacking noise of his mother making meatloaf, her kneading hands wrist deep in ground beef. In his direct line of vision there is a bed that at first seems alive, but slowly he distinguishes the heads and then arms and legs of two bodies.
He recognizes the hair, first his, then hers, which hangs off the side of the bed. She is lying on her back and his leg is laying across her body. His right hand covers her left breast, the dark skin of his hand contrasting with the pale skin between his fingers. Sebastian becomes aware of the light on the bridge of his own nose, gives him the feeling of being watched. He looks down the hall but no one is there. Peering back into the darkness, a head rises and one of the muscular boy’s eyes reflects the light. For a moment their eyes meet as if they have reached a symbiotic agreement. Then his face disappears again into Grace’s hair.
Sebastian pulls backs slightly, then sees another pair of eyes, hers this time, filled with an expression not of fear or of anger or of lust but of simple recognition. She is here, physically out of reach, but here. A line has been crossed, even if there will be many more. And for now, Sebastian knows, this will have to be enough.