Summertime at the Sea
By Gary Yia Lee
A teenage short story first published in The Cranbrookian, Cranbrook School, May 1968, XLIX (3)
The days were bright and hot; and the sky was blue like the clear water beneath your feet. When you looked at the dim horizon, you could hardly tell where the sea ended and the sky started. They were so blue and so big the mere sight of their misty outlines in the distance made you feel unusually small. When you looked at the beach, it was always packed with people.
Each summer I would often come in my swimming trunks, and stroll along the beach, listening to the sound the waves made against the rocky shore. Sometimes, I would come with my easel and do some seascape painting at a lonely spot.
One afternoon I saw a girl in a yellow bathing suit sitting on my favourite rock. She was gazing out to sea; her hair, almost golden by the sunlight, was floating in the sea breeze. I could not see her face. Only her delicate features against the huge sky told me of her schoolgirl beauty. I stared at her; and she turned around, her sun-tanned face looking puzzled. Then she got up, but slipped and fell over one side of the rock. I ran down to her and said to myself: “If she is hurt, you will be responsible for everything.” I had expected the worst, because the rock was about seven feet high and beyond the rock was the battling sea. But she was not hurt at all, except for a small bruise at her elbow. She was leaning awkwardly with her back against the rough edges of the rock. And when I asked if she was all right she looked as thought I really scared her. I wanted to run away and leave her to herself, but a new wave was coming towards us and I felt more helpless. I did not know what I should do, so I held out my hand to her. She grasped it. Then I led her to the dry land. I said I was sorry, I had not meant to cause her any such accident. She replied it was nothing, that all was her fault and that I should not worry about it anymore.
I did not know how, but before I realised anything, we were already sitting on the grass and I still held her hand. I let it go and moved myself a little farther from her. She looked more beautiful than ever, and I heard myself asking:
“Would you like me to take you home?”
It astonished me that I should have let myself talk to her that way, but she did not show any surprise or anything at all. She just looked at me and smiled. Then she said she would not like to bother me, and she added:
"I guess I could go home all right. It isn’t far from here. All the same, thank you for the help.”
She glanced up to me and smiled, and I thought: Good God, please don’t let her go away yet! My heart was sinking and beating very fast. I said to her it was nothing at all and that she should not have thanked me because it was my fault. I expected her to glance up and say something in her slow and friendly voice, but she just looked away into the sea. I looked at the sky; there were some clouds coming above us, and a wind was blowing. I got up and said:
“I think it’s going to rain.”
“Yes. And I must go. Good-bye.”
Then she was gone. I sat down again on the rock. I felt very dazzled by the afternoon sunlight and it looked as though I was slowly dozing off.
When I woke up it was almost dark. There was nobody about. I felt very tired as I struggled up on my feet. My head was aching and I headed home.
During the evening I kept thinking about the girl I had seen that afternoon at the bay. And I would say to myself that it had only been a dream because I had been sleeping, and that I should forget the whole thing. But the more I tried to forget, the more real it came back to my mind.
In the end, I admitted it to be true, and to prove myself right I went back to the same place the next day. Everything about it remained the same: the sea, the rock and the grass we had sat on. Only there was no sight of any girl anywhere, and I began to wonder if it was not just an illusion after all. I sat down on the rock and carefully went over the events of the day before. Then I heard footsteps behind me and saw the same girl striding in my direction. I closed my eyes and opened them hard to see if I was not only dreaming. But no, she was always there, this time in a light blue bathing suit. I walked over to her and said:
“Hello! Going for a walk?”
She smiled. Then she said:
“Yes. Fine weather today.”
“Yes, not bad. How long have you been doing this? I mean, taking a walk around here.”
“Only since yesterday.”
We were now walking almost side by side along the lonely sandbanks, and I said:
“I hope you don’t mind if I walk with you.”
“Not at all. What are you doing here everyday?”
“I don’t know. Nothing much. Sometimes I swim. Sometimes I just wander around,” I said.
She was looking at me and when I caught her eyes she quickly glanced away, and we both blushed a little. After that we walked in silence, because I did not know what to say and she did not ask me any questions. Soon we got to where the bay ended, the sandbanks giving away swiftly to a white cliff which climbed high above our heads. I asked:
“Shall we go back?”
But she did not hear me because of the noise of a big surf a few yards ahead of us. I walked some paces back, and looked at her. She was staring at some bushy islets around the head of the bay. She seemed lost in her thoughts. After a while she turned to me and we walked back to the beach.
“My name is Robert.”
“Mine is Debbie.”
Then we walked on in silence. I was a little upset she was cold towards me, but perhaps she was only shy. I said:
“I wish we could come here often.”
She glanced back at the cliff, then she smiled but she said nothing. I said:
“I wonder when I could see you again.”
“I don’t know. It all depends on many things, don’t you think?”
My heart was throbbing with wishful wonder as I thought she might not come back again. I said:
“Yes, I think so. It depends on a good many things. Maybe I should not have asked you that.”
“I mean, it’s up to us.”
“Really? In that case ... tomorrow. Would that be all right?”
“I think it would. Good-bye.”
She walked away quickly to the crowded beach, leaving me staring behind her.
The next day Debbie was already there when I arrived. She was sitting on the same rock as two days ago when I first saw her. It was very hot and we went into the water for a dip.
Debbie swam slowly before me. As I caught up with her, she dived to the bottom. I did not see her for a long time. When I saw her again she was swimming near the shore. She laughed at me and I laughed back. I chased her but she always swam very fast and I could never catch up with her. She was still laughing. I was a little tired, and so I sat down on the sand. I thought Debbie was trying to annoy me or maybe she did not want me to touch her.
After some minutes, Debbie swam back and came splashing water all around me. I got up; she gave me her hand and we walked towards the end of the beach where there were only a few people. I said:
“I did not know you could swim so fast.”
“Didn’t you? Now let me tell you something. I did not know you could have such sharp eyes.”
“Do I have sharp eyes?”
“Yes, you do. You see, I could not stand your gaze,” she said. And we both laughed.
“Then I will not look at you again.”
“Oh! Yes, you will – because you have to.”
“But you said you could not stand it.”
“But I can now. See!”
She looked hard at me and I laughed. Then we laughed together. I let her hand go and we sat down on the sand before some breakers. The sunlight was full on us and Debbie was looking up at the blue sky. She leant her hand against a rock and I thought how beautiful her long face was to me at that moment. I asked her why she fell off the rock when I first came upon her. She said:
“Because you were looking at me so hard and I was all stirred up inside.”
“How about now?”
“No, not now. Now the more you stare at me, the happier I feel. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes, it does. It does more than answering my question, I guess.”
“I’m afraid I cannot be here tomorrow. Not until Saturday. I am not allowed out everyday, you see,”
“I see. I will see you Saturday then?”
We both got up and started back without a word.
All the time she was away I did not go to the beach, thought I was thinking of her every minute. For a long time I had wanted to paint Debbie’s picture. And so on the day we met again I brought my easel with me. I did not know how long I waited for her. It must have been a long time before she turned up, because I had been dozing off a little under the heat. When I woke up, she was gazing ahead to the sea and sometimes she would look down at the sand before her. I thought how lovely she looked with her childish way of digging up the sand under her small feet. I ran to her and she started. I laughed. She smiled shyly and said:
“You naughty boy, why did you do that?”
“Because I was afraid you might run away before I could be with you.”
“You know, I think you are a very sentimental boy.”
I lay down beside her.
“Debbie, I think something wonderful has happened to me. I never feel so happy as when I am with you. I want to paint you a picture.”
“You mean you are an artist?”
“No, not really. I am just a dilettante. Could I paint your picture?”
“What is the use, Robbie?”
I did not realise she was calling me “Robbie” until she said again:
“Robbie, I would not like you to paint any picture of me.”
“Because I don’t want you to think too much about me when I am gone,” she said.
“Debbie, don’t let’s think about that. But don’t you ever think about me at all? I mean...”
“Why did you ask a question like that? You know why I am here, don’t you?”
“Yes. And that’s all that matters ... for you and me. Nothing in the world is more wonderful, Debbie.”
“Now I know how sentimental you can be.”
“It’s because of you, Debbie. I can’t help it, can you?”
“No,” she said, looking away from me.
She seemed very miserable suddenly and my heart ached to see her so sad. I sat up.
“Debbie, you know what I think of you?”
“I think you are most beautiful when you are sad, but I don’t want you to look sad.”
“Why?” she said without looking back at me.
“Because I can never look away from your face, then.”
“Robbie, I wish you did not look at me so hard. You never know how much it hurts me.”
“I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t do anything about that. I wish I could.”
“You know, I don’t know why we must carry on like this.”
“Must we, Debbie?” I said, sounding suddenly desperate.
Debbie looked at me, her eyes soft and warm as though she wanted to make me happy. I pulled her into my arms, and kissed her. It was a clumsy little kiss but it sent a thrill down my spine, and I could feel Debbie trembling against me.
Then we looked into each other’s eyes and until then I had never realised our stares could say so many things in that one moment. It was one of those moments when you did not understand what was happening inside you: you felt like being feet above the ground, flying away in a happy dream. And yet you knew all the time that is would hurt a little to walk again when you came down to a rough landing.
Debbie first broke loose; then she looked down as though to hide away her feelings.
“Now I am going to paint that picture of you. Just as you re this very minute. Please don’t move.”
I thought she would refuse again but she said quietly:
“Yes, Robbie. And you will make it your master-piece, won’t you?”
“Yes, I will. And I will keep it to remember my Debbie by.”
I tried to sketch her portrait slowly and said to myself I must not hurry. I must do it slowly so that it would take many days to finish, thus I would have Debbie near me for as long as I wished.
She was very patient, and for a whole week she would come and sit on a rock, silhouetted against the blue sky and the sea. It was quite hot. Every now and then we would dive together into the water. People sometimes looked at us in a peculiar way, but we did not really care. The whole world was nothing for us, because we were happy being so close together. Often, Debbie would teach me how to swim fast, and we would hold onto each other, warm and thrilled in the water.
Once we swam away from the shore and Debbie said she saw a shark coming towards us. She swam quickly into the shallow water, leaving me struggling for my life through the rough sea. I was afraid of the shark as well as the deep sea, and I was near exhaustion when I reached the shore. Debbie laughed at me that whole afternoon, because she was only joking about the shark, but I could never completely forgive her.
I did not allow Debbie to look at my painting until the day I gave the finishing touches to it. After she saw it, she exclaimed excitedly:
“Robbie, I think you must be a real artist! It’s a real master-piece! It’s like the real me!”
“I am glad you really like it.” I said, wanting to tease her.
“I do. Do you?”
“I don’t know. I think I may. Only .... “
“I was thinking maybe you may not come here again now that I have finished this thing.”
“I mean this real master-piece as you call it. I wish I could keep the real person. And not just her unreal image.”
“You know, sometimes you are a very funny boy. And I like you for that,” she said.
“You mean just for that and nothing else?”
“Oh! Yes, Robbie. Something else, too. Something I don’t know how to say.”
“Don’t say it, then.”
“All right. What about you?”
“The same. But you haven’t answered my question.”
I tried to kiss her. She said:
“No, please not on the mouth this time.”
“All right. On the cheek, then.”
“Now I am going to answer your question. What is it?”
“Are you coming back here again? I mean ... “
“I am leaving tomorrow with my parents. I may not see you again. We are on holidays here for only three weeks. And I have been with you all the time. And my parents did now know,” she said.
“I know. I should not have kept you like this.”
“Don’t look sad, Robbie. You have got my picture. Isn’t that enough?”
‘Yes, I know. It’s just that ...”
“Don’t say it if you don’t like to. I feel the same way too. But what can we do? Nothing. And it doesn’t really matter.”
“I mean we may be seeing each other again next year. And we could write if we liked.”
“Would you write back if I wrote to you?”
“Yes. But in that case I should like to keep this master-piece. I mean my picture.”
“You can if you promise you will write to me.”
“Really? Oh! Robbie. I am so very happy. But I must go now. See you perhaps next summer. And thank you very much for the painting.”
“That’s all right. Good luck with your studies, Debbie.”
“Thanks. Same for you, Robbie. Good-bye.”
Debbie went away quickly, folding the painting under her arm. Before she disappeared up the hill, she blew me a kiss with her tiny hand. I tried clumsily to do her the same thing. But then I was numb with a sense of loss mingled with that of happiness.
She promised to write to me. I told myself aloud. Oh! How happy I am! How lucky! How really lucky I must be to have met such a nice girl! She will write to me. And what’s more, I will see her next summer.
I ran into the water and took the deepest plunge I ever did. Then I began to swim the way Debbie had taught me, my heart overwhelmed with joy. But suddenly I stopped smiling. I had just realised that she did not give me her address and I did not give mine to her either. How could we write to each other? Good God! And didn’t she say: “see you perhaps next summer?” Yes, perhaps. Only perhaps. Nothing for certain. And what’s worse, she went away with her picture, something I had wanted so much to keep. Maybe that was what they called teenage flirtation, but to me it had been a kind of first love.
I looked at the sky. It was the same blue sky I first saw. The day was bright and hot. The dim horizon intermingled with the blue sea in the distance; and I felt unusually small again. The beach was always packed with people, so many that it was as if I saw them only for the first time.