The Beach


Award Co-Winner

The beach was a short drive from Kathy’s house. The shore was all flatland, white sand broken up by iridescent rocks and patches of yellow grass.

“I told you it was beautiful,” said Frank, as he and Kathy spread blankets on the ground.

Jessica didn’t agree. The beach was clean and the water was blue, but it was not beautiful. It was better, at least, than Coney Island, where Frank had taken her on her first night in New York. That beach had smelled like burnt hot dogs and cigarettes, garbage left too long in the sun.

“I bet it’s nothing like the beaches in your country,” Kathy said.

“It’s not that different,” Jessica replied.

Frank uncapped a bottle of suntan lotion, and Jessica reached to help him. He waved her hand away.

It had been three weeks since Jessica came to New York to be with Frank. On the morning she left Santo Domingo, her family had gathered at the airport gate, dressed in their church clothes. Jessica’s sisters looked solemn, carrying red bunches of framboyan, her favorite flower. Hernando, the youngest, slurped loudly from a cup of guarapo Jessica had bought to appease him. Jessica’s father did not come to say goodbye. Her mother refused to embrace her. She wept instead, darkening the collar of her dress and muttering, “This is someone else’s dream. It was never supposed to be yours.”

Frank and Kathy ate oranges, the pulp sliding down their arms, as they gossiped about old classmates from Brown. They had done the same the night before in Kathy’s backyard, when Jessica and Frank arrived for the weekend. They discussed whose children had been admitted to private schools, which women were gaining an unseemly amount of weight, and whose husbands were cheating with the help. Kathy had laughed at all Frank’s jokes, sloshing wine over her lawn chair, a red flush creeping up her neck.

Later that night, in Kathy’s yellow wallpapered guest room, Frank had not wanted to make love.

​“I’m tired, babe,” he had said.

Most nights Frank woke Jessica by shaking her by the shoulders, yanking at the clasp of her bra, and whispering, “Despiértate mamita.” But in Kathy’s guest room, he would not be moved.

“I’m turning off the light,” he had said with finality, and then the room was dark.

Making love was the most attention Frank showed Jessica most nights. Usually, he came home and graded papers over dinner, never thanking her for the rice and pernil that were the greatest accomplishments of her day. If she brought up looking for a job, he advised her to wait until they were married. It was harder to get a job in New York, he said. She was only twenty-one, and not yet a citizen.

Sometimes, Jessica was so lonely after Frank came home that she went out for walks, claiming she needed to buy more celery or soap. She got lost every time, her years of English lessons proving useless. Her mother had paid for the lessons with the money Jessica’s father sent monthly from his own house, in a better neighborhood, elsewhere in the capital.

“Would you like an orange, Yes-ee-ca?”

“No thank you, Kathy.”

“I packed sandwiches, too.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“No wonder you’re so thin. Your women always have such beautiful figures. What’s it called, Frank? An hourglass?”

Kathy touched Frank on the shoulder and waited for him to answer. Her hair tossed in the wind. It was long and pale, the color of the sand. If it were not for the lines at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth when she smiled, she could have been Jessica’s age.

Frank helped himself to a sandwich. “Did you hear about Connor? He and his wife had to give up the house.”

“I heard! And it wasn’t even in that great a neighborhood…”

Jessica had turned down a job at the university in Santo Domingo to follow Frank. She was offered a research position working for the professor who had introduced them. When Frank arrived from New York, Jessica had given him a tour of the capital. She had liked Frank’s clumsy Spanish, the way he asked her opinion on things, the pressure of his hand on her back when they walked down a narrow street. It was easy to say yes, when after a few months, he asked her to follow him.

“It would not have been much of a job anyway,” Jessica had told her mother while they packed her things. “Nothing in this country moves forward.”

Jessica’s mother had warned, “Don’t believe everything a man promises. Look at me.”

“He’s not Papi,” Jessica had answered, zipping her maleta shut with a sound like tearing.

“So, Yes-ee-ca. How long will you be in the United States?

“As long as Frank wants to be here.”

“What’s your plan?”

“Plan?” Jessica repeated.

“Are you going to look for a job? Are you going to go on living with Frank?”

Jessica looked at Frank for an answer, but he did not look up from his sandwich.

“Our plan is to get married.”

“Married? I had no idea. My congratulations.”

Jessica waited again for Frank to say something or take her hand and prove what she had said was true. He tossed aside the crust of his sandwich and stood up.

“I think I’ll go for a swim. Do you ladies want to come along?”

“Frank, you know I only come to the beach to tan,” Kathy said. Jessica shook her head.

“Suit yourselves.”

Frank took off for the water, kicking sand up behind him.

“Just us girls now,” Kathy murmured, pulling apart an orange rind with her teeth.

Before they left for Long Island, Jessica had cleaned Frank’s study, where he spent most of his time. The room had not been properly cleaned in years. Jessica washed the windows and clapped the curtains together, dispersing clouds of dust into the air. She wiped coffee rings and ink stains from the desk. It took hours, but she did not mind the work. The day did not drag as it usually did, and Frank came home early.

When he saw the study, he raked his hand through his hair and frowned.

“Why did you do this?” he asked.

Jessica thought it was obvious. “I was trying to help.”

Frank sighed and dropped his briefcase into the chair.

“I’ve lived in this apartment for ten years. I know how I like my things.”

“Well, I’m here now,” Jessica had said, the sound of her voice surprising her.

“Don’t make this any more difficult.”

“I was trying to help,” she repeated and then left the room to pack for the trip.

She did not cry as she packed, although she came close. She had not been so close since the day she was accepted at the university in Santo Domingo. She had walked to her father’s house in La Plaza Colonial to tell him the good news, but he did not answer the door. She could hear him inside, laughing and eating dinner with his other family. Jessica kept knocking, the acceptance letter crumpled in her hand, until his maid came to the door and said Don Amado was busy and to come back another day.

When Jessica laid their things out on the bed: Frank’s swimming trunks and socks, her underwear and yellow bathing suit, it seemed like the evidence of their life together. She assured herself that Long Island, the beach, would help. Soon, they would be married.

Kathy did not speak after Frank left for the water. She and Jessica ignored each other; they watched other people read and tan, come in and out of sleep.

“I think I’ll go join Frank,” Jessica said after a while. Kathy did not reply.

The sand was sticky between Jessica’s toes. It was not warm and powdery like the beaches in Samaná, where Frank had held her hand as the waves broke over their bodies. After those days at the beach, his skin would be covered in a dry white film and taste like salt.

Frank was already far from the shore when Jessica entered the surf. She tried walking toward him, but the water resisted, pushing her back. The distance between them grew quickly as Frank glided over the waves. It had been quiet on the beach, but out in the ocean, Jessica could not hear anything above the roar of the water. She wanted to call after him, but instead she kept wading, until the water swept her back to where she had been standing. Jessica had never been a good swimmer, and the waves knocked her knees out from under her, dragging her away. The salt stung her eyes. When she surfaced, she could not pick him out from the dozen other pale figures advancing against the tide.

“Frank! Frank!”

She kept calling, but he never turned around.