Published in Think Journal in 2010; Finalist in the Delaware Beach Life Writing Contest 2007
Penny’s four roommates were waiting back at the apartment so Nols and Moises drove north on Coastal Highway instead. Neither mentioned they had passed the clumps of buildings where Penny lived, even when they had gone sixty streets beyond the hotels at the end of the boardwalk.
Nols slumped in the seat of Moises’s Camaro. Street light sliced across the peeling dashboard. Grunge guitar crackled from blown-out speakers. They drove faster, past 100th Street, where crowds and cops thinned. That’s when Moises reached under the seat and pulled out a fifth of rum. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he drank then passed the bottle.
“I was saving this for a special occasion,” he said, flipping shaggy, brown hair from his eyes. “Tonight’s as good as any, I guess.” Moises was twenty-five, from San Juan, and had yellowed teeth from drinking a pot of coffee every morning.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” Nols whispered, holding the rum against his thigh. “What do I tell them?” He watched tourists playing a cheap miniature golf course: pink with sunburn, they still wore fuchsia swimsuits and flip-flops from the beach. Mosquitoes tumbled in the fluorescent lights above the parking lot.
“You should start with that rum,” Moises said. “Some things nobody should do sober.”
Ocean City, Maryland, and its boardwalk puts on a grand show for tourists. On the stage they find clean entertainment: smart aleck tee shirts, picture key chains, incense, hermit crabs, caramel popcorn, salt water taffy—everything costs a mint, payment in cash.
Behind that façade, where smorgasbord eaters can’t see, live the stiffs who work at crab shacks or wrap threadlocks in your kids’ hair. Girls from Europe and former soviet countries; boys on work permits from England, Scotland or Ireland. They slum in efficiency apartments by the half dozen drinking Rolling Rock beer. They smoke pot on balconies, blaring Alice in Chains three blocks from the minivans in the inlet.
That’s how Nols met Penny: they both waited tables at a seafood restaurant on the bay. Moises cooked in the kitchen. All day the fishing boats and jet skis motored across the water, cutting wake. Nobody called him Allen that summer—plain, boring Allen. Penny, who came from London, started calling him Nols because his last name is Nolan. Everyone else did, too.
On slow days, the waitstaff pretended they came from different countries. Nols faked being from Dublin but sounded Scottish; Penny played American. “Welcome! I’m Lisa, a college student from Indiana,” Penny told a table of four guys on a golf vacation. “Customers tip better when they think you’re poor, young and American,” she told him later and put her finger to her lips in a silent Shh.
Nols was a local, living with his parents before going back to Frostburg State in the fall: he knew she was right.
In his wallet, Nols kept his two favorite pictures of Penny, half a column of those four black-and-white shots that only come from photo booths. The kind that go in sequence. The kind that couples buy on the boardwalk to mark their romance’s giddy beginning.
That July evening Nols had spun the stool to the right height, crammed in the tiny booth with Penny on his lap, then pulled the powder blue curtain closed. The light was hot, like he imagined a movie set would be, and there they were together: his hands pressed against her ribs, feeling her breath; Penny grinning, her crooked eyeteeth turned out. Then the camera flash, sharp, unexpected.
They held the photographs, still wet with chemicals, and agreed Penny would keep the first two snapshots, and Nols the others. He had memorized the entire progression. In the first two, Penny and he were smiling, her temple on his cheek; the third, they wagged their tongues. The fourth picture captured them kissing, like kids’ faces pressed on a window, their teeth clicking against each other. Nols and Penny laughed afterward, surprised and embarrassed by what just happened: their first kiss.
Be sure to check back September 22 for Part 2.