By Cord Jefferson
Illustrations by Celine Loup
For a few weeks one summer, when I was about eight or nine, my family and I road-tripped from our home in Tucson to the Grand Canyon and then up to Yosemite National Park. We hiked and played and slept for days amid some of the world’s most majestic natural beauty, and yet I can tell you almost nothing about what Yosemite or the Grand Canyon are like from the inside. Instead, my most powerful memory from that trip is an afternoon spent at the beach during a brief stop in Los Angeles.
On that day, the heat was the humid kind that mingles with L.A.’s smog to make everything look thick and dull, as if you were watching the world through wax paper. While my parents read paperback novels and played backgammon, I divided my time between juggling a soccer ball on the beach and swimming in the ocean to cool off. I sprinted back and forth between the two activities for hours, until the setting sun instigated a mass dispersal, when all the beachgoers turning their heads to flick sand from their towels looked like parts of some grand choreographed routine.
As my family and others packed up our bags, I noticed a group of people several plots away from us who appeared to be in no hurry to beat the traffic. It was three young men and two young women, sun-kissed and attractive in a way that they would have looked at home on a cheap picture postcard people send from Santa Monica to Cincinnati. At first I only noticed the group’s peals of laughter, hysterical and unabashed, and I considered how wonderful it must be to be old enough to go to the beach without your parents. And then I saw who they were laughing at.
On sight alone, the woman was nearly everything the group of people pointing and giggling at her was not. Where they were several, she appeared to have wandered up to them by herself before sprawling awkwardly in front of their towels. Where they were taut, tan, and blonde, she was soft, alabaster, and had a scruffy tangle of brown hair. Where they were young, she looked about 40. And while the group of friends was fairly put together despite regularly reaching into a large ice chest of canned beer, the subject of their tittering was wasted. When she spoke, all that emerged was incomprehensible slurs…