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I was thinner in North Carolina and tan for the first time in my life. My lobster burn cracked, and Carrie sat me on a toilet and patiently sanded around my eyes with an improvised scrub that left our rented kitchen without sugar or salt. She presented me, in a hand mirror, with a better version of my face than I’ve known before or since: soft and brown, a face created by her own commitment. And when my brown face smiled, its teeth were white, and its eyes were blue as the southern sky and it dared her out into the water.
It was late May, the last off-season week in a beach town. The wind was cold on shore and the shops were empty and the first ocean I had ever seen belonged only to me. In truth, she owned it, swimming far out and bracing correctly against the big waves while I held back, feeling every bloody pinch of coral and shell that punctured the soles of my feet.
It grew late and we showered. She fell asleep early. I let myself out to walk dark streets that were one week from being bright and unlocked and open all hours. So close to Cape Fear, I was Robert Mitchum, shirt unbuttoned, sleeves rolled. Trailed by nicotine clouds, my lungs still immune from childhood good health. I walked through the last hours of a hibernating town that would soon roar awake and not sleep again until fall.
The sky brightened, and a shop girl opened, and I walked in for overpriced cigarettes and sugar and salt. Her face was pierced. Hers was the first smile to push its full weight into that new ring I wore, to make me powerless but to hold that arm low and awkward, as if with injury. But I was temporarily fit and tan, so the bum arm was given a pass. She spoke in that golden, native accent—far from the familiar, Northern Kentucky draw I knew back home, the accent of inbred puppies in a box along the freeway—and her eyes gleamed invitation and possibility at my borrowed face. But, even then, in my best moment, I was only me. Only, only.
So, I smiled, white teeth against brown skin, and escaped out into the full, hot North Carolina morning, wondering if Carrie was awake yet.