A couple days before my birthday my gal comes up to me and says, “Sweetie, I got a surprise for you. This weekend we’re gonna go on a trip.” Now wait, I say, now hold on a minute, alright? You know I don’t like surprises, and what’s this about a trip, huh? Where are we gonna go? She won’t tell me where but says I should pack my camera and binoculars, and some warm clothes for the weekend. “It’s gonna be lots of fun, I promise.” I can tell she is real excited about this so I shut my trap and try not to think about what the surprise could be. She says we’re leaving on Friday, right after work.
Friday afternoon rolls around and I pretty much have my bag packed, warm clothes and camera included. The weather has been slow to heat up this spring; most days have barely topped sixty degrees, with lots of rain thrown in. She comes home and she has this huge smile on her face. “You ready to go?” she asks, and I nod. She grabs her bag and I get into the passenger seat of her Toyota. As she climbs in she leans over and gives me a kiss. “I’d prefer to blindfold you, but it’s sort of a long drive and I know you wouldn’t enjoy that.” I laugh, a short barking sound. She’s absolutely right, of course. “So you’ll just have to pretend that you have no idea where we’re going, okay?” Okay, I say. Let’s just go, alright?
We take the interstate down to Olympia and head west on Highway 8, toward the coast. The beaches of the Pacific, I say—those sure would be nice to see. She doesn’t respond. I really dig the beach, so us turning west makes me smile a little bit. So hey, I say to her, hopeful now, are we going to the beach? At this point I had been watching the signs for Ocean Shores and Westport for dozens of miles. “Just you wait and see,” she answers, smiling and patting my knee. The timber lands on either side of us offer views of undulating hills covered with pulp trees. The trees were planted in 1998, a Weyerhaeuser sign reads, and would be cut down after ten years for “processing”. Douglas firs, every one of them—all the same height, clustered tightly together, like an enormous Christmas tree farm.
It’s getting on toward dinnertime when we arrive at Aberdeen, where the Wishkah and South Montesano Rivers feed into the bay. The water is dammed up and filled with hundreds of floating logs. “Let’s get a bite to eat,” she says, “something quick, because there’s still a little further to go.” Food sounds good to me, I say. We pull into a fast food joint and I’m almost through the door when she stops and curses. My hand is still on the door and I turn and she’s looking off to our right, toward the parking lot, emphatically mouthing words to someone. I walk over. “Damnit, you guys,” she says, but she’s laughing. “What are the chances, huh?” Standing beside their car are our old friends Aaron, Bernie, Candice and Kendra, looking startled and a little sheepish. Aaron and Kendra are dating—have been for a long time—as are Bernie and Candice. I haven’t seen them in years, not since I left for college. “They were supposed to meet us there,” my gal tells me, hooking my arm at the elbow. “Well…surprise!” I wave awkwardly at the couples. So where is there, I say to her, not looking at them. I mean, where is it that we’re going? Everyone is staring at me and I feel a touch of anger flare up, apropos of nothing. They all seem confused by my reaction, exchanging concerned glances. Finally she says, “We’re going to Copalis Beach. But let’s eat, okay? We’ve still got an hour or so of driving left.” She gives me a look and I walk past her into the restaurant.
We scarf down some food and I stumble through the small talk. Yes, I tell them, it’s been far too long; yes, things are going well, thanks a bunch. I am desperately uncomfortable, clenching and unclenching my fists under the table. After ten minutes of this my gal comes to the rescue and starts talking about the weekend. “So we reserved a yurt on the beach…” she begins, obviously relishing the role of party planner. She addresses the whole group but it’s a formality of course, because they already know; really she’s pleading with me, trying to win me over, I can tell. Again I feel their eyes on me and I want to disappear, to get back in the car and put many miles between myself and their scrutiny. We walk out to our respective vehicles. They will follow us to the campground, as agreed. Overhead, dark rainclouds threaten in billowing, pregnant swells. There is a pall come over us as she noses the Toyota back onto the highway.
“What’s wrong,” she says flatly, her eyes staring ahead at the road. “Tell me what’s wrong.” I am slow to reply, aware that what I want to say and what I ought to say are two vastly different things. Aberdeen’s ugly downtown passes by in my window, a dark, damp smudge through the glass. I just…well, I dunno…I guess I wasn’t really expecting to see them, that’s all, I finally say. Her eyes are still on the road, but they’re watery, maybe tearing up a bit. “You mean, you don’t want to see them at all. They’re your friends, right? Why aren’t you happy to see them?” Her voice is thick-sounding. Rain begins to pelt the windshield in torrents. Look, I tell her, it’s not that…I just wasn’t ready to see them, that’s all. You know I don’t like surprises. Just gimme some time, alright? I cross my arms, literally furious at being shanghaied like this. I look over at her and she’s really crying now, tears streaking mascara down her face. “You know,” she says, her voice wavering, “I’ve been planning this for more than a month. I really thought you would love going to the beach with your friends. I really did! I don’t understand why you’re acting like this.” I stare out the window and shake my head. My fingers are pressed deep into the flesh of my bicep. I try to keep my voice level as I say, It’s…I dunno…just gimme some time, okay? I’m sure it’ll be fun. Okay? She doesn’t answer but the tears have stopped. Silence fills the cab and I reach for the stereo, putting on a Sam Cooke album that we both enjoy. Outside, the sky is a picture of blackness, the rain unrelenting.
We get to the campground in Copalis Beach at around nine. It’s still pouring, so we quickly transfer the supplies to the yurt. Mostly it’s food, bedding, and alcohol—lots of it. The group had pooled together their funds and bought two cases of my favorite beer, as well as a huge berry pie. “We heard you hate cake,” Kendra says, and I have to agree. Yes, I tell her, pie is infinitely superior, thank you for that. When I look over, my gal is beaming at me. I quickly look away—it feels as if I am being monitored, my comportment evaluated. Inside the yurt are, conveniently enough, exactly three beds and a large coffee table in the center. There’s also board games and a brand-new, nature-themed jigsaw puzzle, a pastime that I unabashedly adore. At this I actually smile a little, despite myself. That night, my birthday’s eve, everyone claims to be too tired to party—which is a relief—and instead the group settles on playing Cranium. “We’ve got to save our energy for the birthday tomorrow,” my gal says after the game, and I tell them, Thanks, you guys, for all this. It’s great, it really is. Hopefully tomorrow we can play on the beach. As I say this, I look up at the ceiling. The rain continues to pound the shingled rooftop; a gusty wind blows sheets of it sideways against the windows. Smiling, they nod their heads complacently and I am glad to have placated them.
The next morning it is still raining and even windier than before. “Happy birthday,” she murmurs in my ear, and in thanks I peck her cheek. They decide to head into town for lunch, and afterward the girls say they want to go shopping. I almost say that I would rather just stay at the yurt by myself, but something tells me this move would invite serious reproach from all sides, so I keep my mouth shut. We drive down to Ocean Shores and find a seafood place on the boardwalk. I pick at my crab fritters and everyone is talking about something they’re showing on the TV in the bar, something stupid about a celebrity behaving badly in New York. It’s so stupid I can’t even bring myself to say anything about it. “Well,” says my gal, once we’d finished eating, “we ladies are gonna go shop for a little bit. What are the boys gonna do?” Bernie and Aaron are shrugging and looking at me. Stop looking at me, I want to say. “What does the birthday boy wanna do?” she presses. I finally come up with an idea. I’m gonna go to that used bookstore, I say, maybe treat myself with something good if I find it. How about that? Bernie and Aaron say they don’t really want to look at books, so they’ll sort of tag along with the girls. My gal looks at me like she’s figured out my strategy, and I laugh and give her a tight-lipped smile.
All afternoon it continues to rain, but the time passes pleasantly enough in the bookstore. I drink a coffee and buy a Steinbeck book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, to read in the cushy chair near the entryway. I am so absorbed in this quiet contemplation that by five o’ clock I had almost forgotten about meeting the others. I hurried back to the seafood place, where inside they all were waiting. So sorry, I say to them, lost track of time. “Did you get a good book?” Candice asks. I want to say, Candice, you wouldn’t know a good book if it hit you square in the face. But instead I say, Yes, I did, and I was absorbed in reading it, so I’m really sorry to have kept you all waiting. My gal comes and stands by me. “It’s ok. I mean, it is your birthday and all. So what do you guys want to do for dinner?”
That night the rain relents enough for Bernie and Aaron to barbeque some burgers out by the firepit. Everyone is drinking, swapping stories of the “salad days”, as Bernie describes them. Even I have allowed myself a couple beers. “Oh my gosh,” gasps Kendra, already four drinks in, “so do you guys remember prom? When we booked that whole floor of the hotel? And Aaron and Bernie and Marcus jumped into that fountain in the lobby? Haha, that was so much fun!” The others remembered, of course, and soon those worn-out tales from high school are dusted off and spun anew. I decide to step outside to smoke a cigarette and check out the surf. Less than a quarter-mile from our yurt is Copalis Beach, a vast north-to-south tract of grayish-white sand that slopes down to the Pacific. Walking through the dunegrass, I hear sandpipers and black plovers and I wish it were light enough to see them wheeling and banking against the ferocious wind. I stand at the crest of a dune, facing the surf, until my cigarette goes out in the soaking, mist-like rain.
Back in the yurt, the group has plunged deeper into inebriety. “He returns!” proclaims Bernie, spreading his arms in a grand, sweeping gesture. My gal stands up and totters over. “Sweetie, where’d you go? You’re all wet!” She paws at my shoulders clumsily. I went for a little walk, I tell her, and I am about to tell her about the birds I heard out there when she interrupts and says, “Hey, Kendra, let’s get the pie out! It’s time to sing, everyone!” I brace myself for the song. Once it’s over, I gratefully accept a hefty slice of pie. Around a mouthful of mixed-berry filling, I say, Thanks, you guys, it’s real nice to be out here—a wonderful idea, for sure. You guys picked a real good spot. Bernie and Candice raise their forks in a salute and I’m already moving on to my second piece. People are taking shots of Captain Morgan, which I not-so-politely refuse. After a little while my gal reaches behind our bed and pulls out some sort of board game wrapped in plastic. “So today we girls decided to get a board game to play tonight—one that would mix well with drinking, haha!” She puts it on the coffee table and I can see right away that it’s some sort of adult-themed game, a role-playing adventure with campy sexual overtones. The idea of playing this raunchy game with these people is so utterly repugnant, so unequivocally not what I want to be doing right then, that I simply stare at it in disbelief. I cannot muster the antipathy to protest. My gal tears the shrinkwrap off the box and Aaron grabs lustily for the rulebook. “So…who wants to play?” she asks, eyes on me. I’m still staring at the game and my shoulders shrug ever so slightly. Later that night Kendra asks my gal if she and Aaron can have some privacy in the yurt; the other two couples are summarily kicked out. We head to our respective cars for some humping. “She should’ve let us go first,” she says petulantly, as we open the rear doors of the Toyota. I shrug again, not caring a whit. We do it and it feels crass, forced, vaguely ridiculous. I am reluctant to go back to the yurt but we do, awkwardly knocking on the door first to be let in.
The morning brings the first glimpse of sunshine all weekend, and even before breakfast is discussed I am dressed to go to the beach. A used condom—not mine, obviously—lies under the coffee table, twisted up like a limp water balloon. Disgusting, but not my problem. Okay everyone, I say to the just-stirring group, I’m gonna go to the beach. Anyone who wants to come, by all means, please join me. “Sweetie, can’t you wait just a minute? People just woke up.” My gal looks so haggard and puffy-eyed that I almost laugh at her. No, I’m going, I say to her. You’ll see me and catch up. It’s just open beach, right? I grab my binoculars and walk out the door.
In the daylight the beach appears endless, the sandy edges blurring into the horizon in a foggy haze. I walk south toward a flock of white seabirds standing in the surf: Caspian terns, as big as gulls, their black caps swept back rakishly across their brows. With my binoculars I scan the coast, looking for anything conspicuous against the light gray sand, frothy surf, and white-capped sea. Further down the beach I spot something. There, perhaps a mile and a half distant, lies a large black mound on the beach. It could be a log, it could be something else. I start out walking toward it, and then, pulling off my shoes, I break into a run. The cool, pliant sand feels good under my feet. When I’m maybe twenty yards away I see what the mound is: a dead Steller’s sea lion, lying on its back. It’s enormous, tawny-brown, maybe nine feet long from nose to flipper. Its eyes have recently been pecked out by birds and there is what appears to be a high-caliber gunshot wound to its head. I tentatively place my hand on its matted coat. The corpse doesn’t smell yet, so presumably it is still fresh, having washed up with last night’s tide. I turn to look up the beach and spot five silhouettes making their way toward me and the sea lion. Even with the gauzy sunshine, the wind gusting off the water is intensely cold, numbing my fingers, prying at my clothes. I raise my binocs to the group shambling across the sand. For the first time this weekend, despite myself, I am finally ready to see them.