People Who Go to the Beach Alone

By SERGIO GUTIÉRREZ NEGRÓN

Translated by HANNAH COOK

 

Bimbo has gone to the beach alone three times. 

The first time was when he bought the used car which he would drive for the next decade, at nineteen. As soon as he arrived at his house after having finalized the transaction and showed it to his family, and as soon as his grandmother had gone back to her telenovela after congratulating him, and his brother back to the phone, stuck talking to his girlfriend, Bimbo went into his room, put a bathing suit on under his jeans, threw two towels into his backpack, got into the car, and descended, alone, from the mountains of Caguas, where three generations of his family still lived. He went alone in his new-but-old Toyota Corolla without air conditioning and with the windows down and the radio tuned to the only English music station that reached them up there. He felt nervous. It was 11 a.m. on a Wednesday. 

If Bimbo were a different person, which for him would mean having a different body, this first outing might have been carried out more like a guilty pleasure than a First Communion. Truthfully, though, there was indeed something sacramental to the excursion, though he’d never say it out loud—he said very little to begin with, even when compared to others in his family, who were never inclined to speak much. He knew that he was gripping the steering wheel too hard, that he was sitting up too straight and was paying too much attention to making the drive flow as if the car’s movements were reactions to the breeze. He couldn’t have done it any other way. He had envisioned this expedition for years. 

Bimbo had gone to the beach maybe a dozen times in his life, always accompanied by his grandmother or brother. They were not—and never had been—people of the sea. Yet, at some point in his teens, Bimbo began to believe that this could change. In fact, he awoke one morning sure that it would change, that just one dive would open a door to the first of a series of changes in his life. He couldn’t say what kinds of changes they’d be, even on that oh-so-certain morning, but he knew they were necessary. 

He went to Ocean Park. He parked on a dead-end street by an abandoned hotel. Inside the car he took off his jeans, threw the towel over his shoulder, took a second one to sit on, put on flip-flops, and hid his backpack under the seat so no one would break open his windows. He took a deep breath before climbing out and walking toward the beach. The street was empty, and in the background he saw two giant palm trees that made a kind of portal to a long stretch of sand that flowed into a sea as blue as Smurfette’s skin. He got excited and began to walk faster, but when he crossed under the palms, he stopped suddenly.

Bimbo had expected to find it empty. Instead, it was full of the kinds of people who go to the beach alone. Everyone splayed out on their individual towels, sunbathing. Some bodies announced themselves among the waves, like islands. He thought about turning around, but didn’t. He insisted and continued onto the sand, took off his flip-flops, laid his towel out, and sat down, watching the water come and go. He told himself he needed a moment before going in to swim, but never ended up doing it. The truth is that he didn’t dare, nor would he ever, take off his shirt. 

The longer he stayed there, sitting alone on his towel, his shirt on, the more conscious he became of the presence of others, whose eyes he felt looking at him, examining him, measuring him up. He felt that his body was made of lead, that it was beginning to weigh even more than it really did, and that he was sinking, little by little, into the sand. He began sweating buckets. He wanted to look at the others, but he didn’t dare do it. Even with eyes closed he could see those perfectly made bodies, those bodies so beautiful and slender, and the freedom they’d been given to be true Caribbeans, to be saltwater animals, to be brown-sugar skin, to be flowery gardens of magical beauty. 

Once he thought enough time had passed to leave without looking stranger than he already did, Bimbo stood up, folded his towel, threw it over his shoulder along with the other one, and walked quickly back to his car. He passed by the other beachgoers, who could have noticed him or not. He didn’t want to look at the palm tree threshold, nor did he want to turn to look at the sea one last time before getting into the car. Instead, he stared at his feet, framed in his flip-flops, and realized that he’d filled the inside of the car with sand. He knew then that he wouldn’t be trying this again for a while. If he were a different person, which for him would mean having a different body, maybe he would blame himself, cry, and swear never to return. But he was not, and so he smiled one of those smiles heavier than tears, took a deep breath, and drove his new-but-old car back home, where he would settle in with his grandmother to watch a telenovela. She would ask him what he had done that day, and he would tell her nothing; he’d say that he’d taken a walk around the neighborhood. Right there, sitting beside the old woman, something in Bimbo would echo that he and his people had never been of the sea. But another voice would insist that if there were some secret corner of the island where it was possible to shed one’s own skin, it would only be possible to find it crossing through those palms, at the bottom of the Smurfette-blue sea. 

The second time that Bimbo went to the beach alone was ten years later, after he was already out of college and Maritere, a neighbor who was his first love, had already broken his heart. Unlike the first time, this trip wasn’t premeditated. It was Wednesday morning, and he was getting ready to go to work. By then he was living alone, and, like most days, he had turned on the radio and sat on the couch where he used to watch telenovelas with his now deceased grandmother. He listened to the same show every day, one of those morning programs, slowly going extinct, in which two sixty-year-old comedians took calls from listeners on a random topic of their choice. The theme of the day was “nightmares in bed,” and that morning they only got calls from women—they were that kind of dirty old men—to whom they asked their age, their occupation, and then the anecdote. Afterward, they’d harass them with double entendres. The gimmick was that they were annoying and disrespectful yet cute, and normally both male and female listeners went along with it. Bimbo poured himself a cup of coffee and continued listening. One woman—twenty-five, human resources manager—told them about a time that she’d had a guy over at her place, and, in an attempt to be sexy, she took off her clothes and laid naked in bed so as to surprise him when he came out of the bathroom, where he had gone to pee. Right when he did and saw her and smiled, she suddenly started bleeding. She didn’t have her period or anything, she explained. The guy’s face, she said, changed suddenly to a look of horror, and only then did she realize what had happened. The hosts couldn’t think of anything funny to say immediately, and the girl changed her tone and added, without any further explanation, that every woman is Sisyphus and her body is the rock. 

There was a long pause, as if everything had stopped along with the statement, and though no one said anything, Bimbo swore he could hear the woman breathing. She breathed in and out quickly, as if hyperventilating. She felt so close that, although he didn’t do it, he was tempted to put a hand over the speaker to feel her breath. After a few seconds, one of the hosts said, “Ay, chus, we’ve got ourselves a philosopher,” and hung up on her. It was abrupt, and there was a tense silence, and the host tried to make a joke about it before they received the next call. 

“Every woman is Sisyphus and her body is the rock,” Bimbo repeated, a bit confused, and he went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. After spitting and wiping his mouth, he looked in the mirror and began to hear the woman’s voice again. 

“Who talks like that, with such precision?” he wanted to ask, and though he didn’t understand any part of it, he repeated: 

“Every woman is Sisyphus and her body is the rock.” He whispered it and felt the sudden need to put on his bathing suit. 

That he did, and he climbed into his old Corolla and, without even thinking that he should go to work, went to the beach. He didn’t switch on the radio the whole ride, but he kept hearing the woman’s voice. 

He got to Ocean Park early, nine in the morning: the street with the abandoned hotel, the palm trees, the long stretch of sand, the Smurfette-colored sea. The sun was just beginning to heat up. He swallowed hard and crossed the threshold, and this time the beach was empty. There wasn’t anyone to his right or left, and Bimbo wanted to cry with happiness, but he didn’t have time for that, because before he realized, he was running toward the waves and kicking off his flip-flops, throwing them in who-knows-what direction, taking off his T-shirt and releasing it to the breeze, and suddenly, splash, saltwater embraced him and covered him completely, coursing through all his folds, and he knew that this right here was what he had been looking for. 

He didn’t see the woman arrive half an hour later, nor did he see her sit on a towel to sunbathe, because he was floating facedown with his eyes closed. He did not see her either when, still in his ecstasy and laughing to himself, he got out of the water and headed in the direction that he remembered throwing his flip-flops and T-shirt. If he had seen her, he would have stayed back and kept swimming. But it was too late, and he was already on the sand, and he was exposed, and she was looking his way. He wanted to cover his body with his arms, but they weren’t enough. His T-shirt wasn’t anywhere to be found. He thought to run away, but he would have to pass by the woman’s side. He breathed deep and sat in the sand, turning his back to her, looking at the ocean. He focused in on the buoys, on how they went up and down, on how the ropes that tied them were covered in seaweed, and he imagined the hundreds of tiny little fish that had made these floating objects a habitat. He wondered who decided exactly where they’d be placed and what the criteria were to determine that it was dangerous to swim beyond them. He feared, for more than a second, that the answers to these questions were obvious, that everyone knew them, and he once again felt incompetent, inept. 

“Honey, you’re going to bake.”

The woman had approached him with a tube of sunblock in hand. Bimbo hadn’t moved in almost an hour. He looked at her over his shoulder and tried to smile at her. She also had her purse on one arm and the towel she’d been sitting on over her shoulder. 

“Sorry?” he asked, because he didn’t understand her. 

She repeated herself. 

“Yes, honestly I always forget,” he said, lying, nervous, and took the bottle, loaded his hands up with cream, and covered his shoulders, chest, and arms. “The good thing is that my melanin works to protect me,” he added, trying to sound casual. 

“You know that’s a myth, right?” she responded, and without asking, put her towel down in the sand beside him and sat down. She was young, about his age. 

Bimbo laughed, but avoided looking at her. He felt enormous, a marine mammal. In that moment he could swear his body was more present than ever; that he could indicate precisely which hair on his head or strands on his arm were moving in the wind. He felt a drop of sweat slide down the middle of his back, losing itself in his stretch marks. 

The woman, like everyone who goes to the beach alone, was thin and attractive and inevitably charismatic. 

“Alriiiight,” she said, stretching the i.“Will you watch over my towel and my things while I go for a dip?”

“Sure,” Bimbo said. 

She stood up, brushed off the sand stuck to her butt, and ran to the shoreline. She didn’t hesitate before dolphin-diving and losing herself in the waves. She was wearing a yellow bathing suit. She wasn’t very tall and was almost as dark as he was, though her darkness was more a result of the sun than anything else. She was a good swimmer. After covering a long distance, she came up to the surface and waved to Bimbo. He raised his arm and gave a thumbs-up, as if to say it was all good. She nodded, turned around, and in a single impulse, headed to the buoys. 

“The buoys,” Bimbo thought, “are a sign: a warning put up to indicate the possibility of danger.” He wanted a similar system to deal with the world. 

The woman came back after a while, soaking and in a good mood. 

“Anyway, I come every Wednesday, early, and I’ve never seen you,” she said. “Who the hell are you?”

“Bimbo,” he said. 

“Like the brand? The little teddy bear on the cookies?”

“Uh-huh.” 

“No, for real, what’s your name?”

“I’m not messing with you—everyone calls me Bimbo.” 

“Aha, but you’re not Bimbo on Facebook, then.” 

“No, of course not.”

“So what’s your real name? Your Facebook name.”

“Miguel.”

“Nice to meet you, Miguel. Everyone calls me Laurita, but—gasp—my real name is Laura,” she said, laughing, stretching out her hand to greet him. 

Bimbo turned back to look at the horizon, saying nothing more. 

“Do you usually come to the beach like this, with nothing?” she asked. 

“Not really, no,” he said and felt embarrassed. 

“So…?” 

He shrugged his shoulders. She looked in the purse she’d brought with her and took out a T-shirt and a pair of flip-flops. 

“I assume these are yours,” she said and passed them to him. 

Bimbo exhaled with deep relief, and as soon as he got his shirt back, he put it on. Covered, he could look at her for the first time, thank her. 

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I don’t usually bother people who go to the beach alone. But I thought these things might’ve been yours and decided to take advantage of it. I said to myself: ‘If this guy watches over my stuff while I go swim, I’ll return his stuff.’” 

“What if I hadn’t watched over your stuff?” Bimbo asked. 

“Well, then I would have taken yours with me. Left you exposed to the elements. Oh, and you would have been screwed,” she said and began searching in her purse again. She pulled out a keychain and gave it to Bimbo, who took it. 

“Wow,” he said, going along with her joke and looking at the keys, which he hadn’t even considered. 

“It’s a cruel world,” she said and flashed him a set of teeth that looked like a parody of a photogenic smile. 

“What happens when there’s no one else at the beach to look after your things?” Bimbo asked, wanting to hide the fact that he actually wanted to know the answer. “You just don’t go in?”

“Depends. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If people around look trustworthy, yes. If not, no.”

“And how does one ‘look’ trustworthy?” he asked, not wanting to seem contentious.

She shrugged her shoulders.

“No idea. I’m just being silly. Last month I told someone to watch over my things, and when I got to the buoys, he took off with my cell phone. I saw him running that way, toward the Ultimo Trolley. So I’m no expert. But that’s the first time that’s happened to me in like a million Wednesdays.”

Laurita pulled from her purse a bag of Doritos and offered one to him. Bimbo said no, no thanks, though he would have loved to say yes. He hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning. 

They were silent while she ate: the sound of the waves, the breeze, a radio in the distance, and the crunch of her chewing.

“Why do you come to the beach alone?” Bimbo asked after a while, not knowing if it was a dumb question. 

“Why do you?” she echoed. 

“I don’t. This is the first or second time.”

“I don’t know,” she said, “I’ve come here ever since I’ve been able to.” 

“And when was that?” 

“When I got a car,” she said. “I live far away.” 

“And… a question that doesn’t have to do with anything,” Bimbo said, after a while. “Do you know who decides to where to put the buoys?” 

Laurita looked and him and shrugged her shoulders. 

“Nope, no idea.”

Bimbo looked at Laurita and smiled. Other people had arrived at the beach, but they’d settled down pretty far from the two of them. Toward the west, he saw a man pushing a little ice cream cart, taking advantage of the first wave of bathers even though it was not yet noon. Bimbo noticed a small crop of seaweed sailing through the waves and traced it until it arrived safely on the shore. He wanted this moment to last forever, wanted it to multiply itself so that its duplicate could appear each morning and accompany him during breakfast; or so that it could turn up at the office and move into the cubicle next to his (which was always vacant) and, from time to time, lean over and invite him to happy hour or just talk to him about whatever was going on that day; that way they, the duplicate of that moment and himself, would tell stupid jokes to each other only to later repeat to people who weren’t really in their lives. Bimbo tried not to think about it, but in sitting there keeping Laurita company, he couldn’t deny that he often felt lonely. 

“And how unemployed are you?” Laurita asked after a while. 

“Not sure yet. I’ll let you know tomorrow.” He responded, thinking for the first time about the fact that he hadn’t showed up to the office. “And you?”

“Me? Can’t you tell from my lazy face?” she said, pointing to herself. She continued: “Just kidding, I work in an office, in human resources. Wednesdays I go in at 1 p.m.”

“What a nice setup.”

“Seriously,” she said. 

  “And how late do you usually stay at the beach?”

“Until right about now.”

“So, you’re going now, then?” 

“No, in a little bit.”

“Will you watch my stuff, then?” he asked. She said of course and swore she wouldn’t steal anything. 

Bimbo stood up and told himself that every woman is Sisyphus and her body is the rock. He closed his eyes for a second and imagined himself arriving at that moment, crossing through the palms and finding himself in that exact same scene. He imagined stopping under the palms like the first time; imagined his anxieties wanting to undermine his will. But he also imagined the voice of the woman on the radio, which suddenly became Laurita’s voice, whispering that he too was Sisyphus and his body would always be the rock. The he who was imagining and the he whom he imagined, both of them, took off their shirts, but instead of tossing them, folded them slowly, exposing themselves in the process. They placed them in the sand, but did not run to the shoreline. They walked slowly—breeze and sun and sand—entered the water, and, once they hit the deep end where they couldn’t touch the bottom, they submerged themselves and began to swim toward the buoys. They came up to the surface several times to breathe, but they kept swimming and swimming, and all the while they also felt Caribbean, also felt worthy of the humidity and heat, and exclaimed, full of admiration, oh, oh, oh, this is the beautiful land that we seek. 

When he got to the buoys, Bimbo clung to one of them and looked over in Laurita’s direction. She stood up and greeted him with her thumb, as he had done just a while ago. She took his things from the ground and faked like she was running away, but she stopped herself and sat back down. He laughed. He swore she did too. 

The third time was going to be on a Wednesday in September, the following month,

but Hurricane Irma interrupted and canceled his plans, leaving him without electricity for the rest of the week. Bimbo told himself he’d go the following Wednesday to meet up with Laurita, with whom he’d kept in contact over the internet, but then Maria hit and the plan became a mere aspiration. His brother had taken refuge in his house with the girlfriend whom he now lived with. On several occasions, while the hurricane was in full swing, Bimbo glanced out of the window and watched the mountain wobble, undress, and fall to pieces. He spent the duration of the hurricane looking out the window and watching the mountain wobble, undress, and fall to pieces. He asked himself, several times, what happened at the beaches during storms. Where did the sand that replenished what had flown off, gust after gust, come from?

When he awoke the following morning, Bimbo found his brother and his girlfriend outside on the balcony, clearing away the branches that the wind had deposited there. Bimbo went out and joined them. They did it in silence, as everything was and had always been done in their household. When his brother finally spoke, it was to point in the direction of the road, which was also covered with fallen trees and telephone poles. 

“Your car,” he said. 

It was true. A mango tree had collapsed on top of the vehicle, almost splitting it in two. It was the tree from which his grandmother used to pick the still-green fruits to eat with salt. It was only then that Bimbo took in his surroundings and realized that the rural greenery had been uprooted, that all around lay bare trunks and brown patches once thick with vegetation. 

“You know,” Bimbo began, somewhere in between a statement and a question, “sometimes I go to the beach alone.” 

They were sitting in the kitchen, all three of them drinking coffee in silence. 

“What do you mean you go to the beach alone?” his brother’s girlfriend asked. 

“I just get in the car and go.”

“That’s weird,” said his brother, glancing at him. 

“It’s not that weird, really. A lot of people do it.”

“So, do you go alone, or do you go to meet up with those people?” 

“I go alone. The other day I went and met someone, but I didn’t go to do that.”

“Huh, would you look at that?” his brother said after a while. “I always thought we weren’t really people of the sea.” 

“Well, maybe we are,” said Bimbo. 

During the following months, which were hard months that alternated between suffocating heat and flash floods, months without institutions but certainly with people, Bimbo often stayed up all night on the balcony, looking at the mountains, whose green was slowly returning, and knew that since this was an island, the sea could not be far off in that same direction. He’d begun to recall to himself little fragments of that second outing as if they were amulets, relics. When he found himself without food in the house, he’d bring up Sisyphus and his body. Or when he feared that his office would never resume its regular schedule or the biweekly paychecks, he thought about the buoys. Or when his brother and sister-in-law announced that they’d definitely have to move in with him after losing their own home, he remembered Laurita and how easy it had been to be beach people. 

In fact, he didn’t speak to Laurita for weeks, because at first there wasn’t any cell service out in the mountains of Caguas. But even after that, when all the telecommunication networks came back on, both were too busy to talk, and Bimbo slowly came to think that the meeting had not been the beginning of a friendship, but rather a matter of chance.

He thought about writing to her again on Sunday, Christmas Eve, before the celebrations began, because that day he’d finally been able to set everything aside, get in his brother’s car, and head to Ocean Park. If he were a different type of person, which for Bimbo had once meant having a different body, he would have done it—would have written and insisted more. But when he got to the beach and found the palms—now a bit more crooked—and the abandoned hotel—now a bit more ruined—he was sure that he was who he was, and that it was okay, and like before, the long stretch of sand led to the Smurfette-blue sea. There were other people there, of course, and Bimbo placed everything down on a towel, asked someone nearby to keep an eye on it, and, finally a Caribbean animal of the sea, he dove. 

 

[Purchase Issue 16 here.]

 

Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón was born in Puerto Rico. His two novels—Palacio and Dicen que los Dormidos—have garnered both local and international recognition. Most recently, he was selected as part of Hay Festival’s Bogotá39-2017, a list of the best thirty-nine Latin American writers under thirty-nine. He currently lives in Oberlin, Ohio.

Hannah Cook is an emerging translator and recent graduate from Oberlin College with a degree in comparative literature and Hispanic studies. She was raised in Northern California and is currently based in Madrid.

 

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