They put their towels on the sand, which felt hard-packed beneath them. This part of Miami Beach was old, but like so much of Dade county, it still clung to the idea of glamour, choosing to ignore the years when police cars cruised right on the sand, pounding the shore worse than any natural wave. This half-dead beach is where Hector dropped their things. Yamila was surprised to see so many people there on a Wednesday, though she knew a weekend day would be much worse. The condition of coming on a weekday had made Hector finally agree to come to the beach at all; that, and her promise to show him that at thirty-nine, she could still pull off wearing a bikini. They found a spot not too close to any of the groups of teenagers, whose towels and boom boxes and shining bodies dotted the sand.
Hector's towel snapped in the wind as he put it down, and he walked around all four sides of it, pressing down on each corner with the toe from his bad leg, balancing his weight on the good one. Yamila used several of his mother's Tupperware—still full of food—to anchor the edges. Rap music competed with reggaetón and salsa, but from where they sat, they couldn't tell the music apart from the teenage voices yelling around them. Hector lowered himself to the ground, his track pants making plasticky noises as his legs fumbled against each other, until he was finally down with his legs stretched out in front of him. Yamila stared at his feet, at the yellowed toenails; she could see clearly the three-inch difference in leg length. He flexed the foot of the bad leg, so that the lengths evened out.
Yamila had wanted to ignore his limp when they'd first met almost a month before. She worked as a bank teller, and he'd come in to cash a check. She'd first thought, as he approached her counter, that he was limping on purpose, trying to walk with some style to make himself seem younger, but instead crossing over into parody. As he walked away from her, she'd changed her mind; maybe it was a blister. The next day, he came back with no checks to cash, but approached her window anyway to ask her out. And because she'd thought that maybe someone a decade older than her would have more money and be less likely to cheat on her, she said yes.
He'd told her about the polio, about his mother's refusal to have him vaccinated when it became available in Cuba, over their third margarita. She'd been too buzzed to keep quiet about her disgust with his mother for this, saying, How could she—not my baby, if I had one. He didn't recoil when she said this—in fact, he leaned in closer—and he told her more about his mother: how he still lived with her and how they fought like brother and sister, how she still made him lunch for work, that he could always hear where she was in the house because she never lifted her sandaled feet from the floor when she walked. Hector told Yamila that his mother's sheets were a bizarre neon pink, and her king-sized bed very high, and he wondered how she still managed to get into it without his help. She doesn't know who's taking care of who, he'd said. Yamila had let her hand smooth down the hair on his arm while he talked. She liked the idea that people watching them saw a couple, that when he joked with their waitress or handed the bus boy a glass to save him the hassle of leaning across a table, they couldn't see his leg underneath; all they'd notice was this barely middle-aged woman with an older, maybe even charming man. She swore his eyes watered when he said, I love my mother very much. Close to drunk, she mentally undressed him until she got down to his legs, where she playfully pulled away the muscles of the shorter one like string cheese, until there was nothing but an old, knotted tree branch. She decided from then on that his walk was cute.
—Let's see that bikini you promised, Hector said. He must have smiled at her—the sun was behind him and Yamila could only make out his teeth.
—I don't know if you're ready, Yamila said. It is scandalous.
She gripped the bottom of her shirt as they both laughed. The cotton tank top was so tight on her that her breasts fumbled out from it. Her chest was a blur of freckles and age spots she played off as freckles. She had a tattoo of a tiger on the top of her left breast, but the tiger sagged with age, so that now its head looked too long for its body, its tail too short. She had gotten the tattoo on her twenty-eighth birthday, at the same time that she'd had the tattoo on her lower back, which had read Felipe, covered with a large, snarling panther. The most recent tattoos were on her right shoulder—two Chinese characters that she'd been told meant Beauty and Youth. The bikini was neon green, and it hung off Yamila from two knots—one behind her neck, where it tangled itself in the dark brown roots of her blond hair, and the other behind her back. She shook her hair loose from the tank top and readjusted her breasts in the triangles of material that covered them, trying to make them look firm.
—Holy wow, Hector said, but he had only looked at her for a second. All for me?
She leaned forward so that her breasts hung in the air in front of him as she wiggled out of her jeans. Her thin gold necklaces tangled together even more. One of these had a nameplate on it that she hadn't taken off since she was fifteen. All of her chains, she'd told Hector and many other people, were real gold.
—Maybe, she said.
After their second date, while sitting on her living room couch, she'd told him over a glass of rum how much she liked dancing. She was trying to convince him to take her to a club the next Saturday, and that's when he told her about the old house parties.
—My cousins would drag me to these things, he said. We weren't even fourteen. Of course there was dancing, and of course, I didn't ask girls to dance, but my cousins, they'd find the prettiest girl there and tell her to go ask me, that even though I was busy holding up the wall, I was actually the best dancer there.
Yamila had said, Oh, very softly and put her hand on his thigh, but Hector acted out the story with his arms like it was a favorite joke.
—Of course I say yes to her. I was in junior high, and we're talking older girls, high school girls.
He held his hands out in front of his chest to indicate breasts, and Yamila giggled and rested her glass on the coffee table.
—And it didn't matter what music they played—salsa, merengue, disco—I couldn't move the leg fast enough. So I'd step all over her feet. The girl would turn super red and limp away after one song. My cousins would laugh and laugh, but I was laughing harder. Because who had just danced with the prettiest girl there?
He leaned back and smirked as he shrugged his shoulders.
—My poor mother, he laughed, Always volunteering to chaperone. She called my cousins traitors. Traitors! She never figured it out—that I fell for it on purpose.
While he'd smiled to himself, Yamila had bent forward to shove her tongue in his mouth before he could say anything else.
Now at the beach, she balled up her jeans and threw them at his hairy stomach. Two more knots—one on each of her hips—secured the bottom of the bathing suit to her body. She sucked in her stomach and turned to her side, standing up on her toes. She lifted her arms and pulled her hair away from her face.
—Well? she said. Are you coming?
Hector sat up on his elbows. He looked out towards the ocean, his hair flapping.
—Me? No. No, I—I want to watch you in the water.
She cocked her head at him, about to pout. But a lyric blared from a boom box—a new song starting—and Yamila looked up because she could not make out what the rapper was saying. She glanced over to the closest group of people. Two teenage boys were picking up a girl by her ankles and shoulders, dragging her to the water, all of them laughing and screaming, the girl yelling, Rudy stop it! Another girl, left behind on the towel, yelled, Puta bitches! while smacking sand off of her legs. She spit three times before stretching back out.
Hector was still looking at the ocean. He said, Let me watch you walk. Go on.
She tiptoed over the Tupperware—getting a little sand on Hector's towel—bent down, and kissed him. She tasted Listerine, but the sun warmed her shoulders, so she put her hand on his back and pulled up, peeling his shirt from his sweaty skin. He raised his arms and she tugged it off him. He leaned back on his elbows again, his nipples spreading away from each other, melting across his chest towards the pockets of his armpits. She smiled at his expansive chest hair, at the hope she saw for the hair on his head in his bushy sideburns. She put the shirt to her nose, smelled the sea air mixed with his sweat and his musky cologne, and dropped the shirt on her towel.
She did not turn back to look at him as she went to the water. Two seagulls ran from a wave, barely leaving footprints for it to wash away. She watched them as she swayed her hips and willed her steps to float across the caked sand so that her butt would not jiggle.
The water glittered far out ahead of her. Two massive barges broke the horizon line, and a white cruise ship, only a far-away dot, floated away from shore. The foam of the water crowded around her ankles as her toes sank into softer sand. Her father had always said that going to Miami Beach in the summer was like going for a swim in piss, because the water was almost as hot as the air above it, but Yamila liked slipping into the warmth. So what if the ocean was a toilet? Hadn't they closed it down enough times because of sewage leaks, only to reopen it in time for the weekend, reporting that their tests had been wrong, that everything was fine? She walked further into the water, and when she was deep enough that it covered her waist, she turned around and waved to Hector while she squatted and peed. Hector waved back, and she snickered at her secret, feeling the water get even warmer around her. She dug a foot into the underwater mud, then pushed off of it as hard as she could to move to a fresh spot.
Wandering out further, where the water reached just below her chest, she dunked her whole head to wet her hair. When she was little, she used to hold her breath as long as she could and then suddenly explode out of the water, whipping her hair over her head in an arc like a sprinkler, so that when it landed, smacking her shoulders, it looked slick, molding itself into one long seaweed curl dripping down her back. She would do this over and over again with her younger sister, Yelisa, competing to see who was la más sexy—the standard being which of them, each turn, had flung her hair most like the model in the Presidente beer commercial. The winner got to sing the Presidente jingle in Spanish while pretending to seduce a bottle of beer. They called this game Mermaids. Yelisa would have her second baby—a boy, as far as doctors could tell—in three months.
When Yamila couldn't hold it any longer and finally charged up from under, her face rushing past bubbles of her own air, she half expected to see Yelisa there—bloated, floating better than ever, her hair sopping and already flung back—clearly the winner.
She lost track of Hector while feeling around on the ocean floor for seashells. She had her back to the shore, her chin up towards the sun to prevent a bad neck tan. She shut her eyes and held her arms straight out at her sides—as if she didn't want them to be wet anymore—dangling her already-wrinkled fingertips so that the pads of them just skimmed the water. Waves hardly lapped at her shoulders; aside from four teenagers a few yards away, splashing like animals, the water was tranquil. Her big toe hit a sharp rock—a broken piece of coral, she saw, once she grabbed it with her foot and brought it up—just barely buried in the silt. She heaved it away from her, in the direction of the teen couples, and it sank with a sound like a hard swallow.
She followed it down. Underwater, she could see only their legs, perfect and brown, kicking each other and hopping, treading even though the shallow depth didn't require it. One of the girls had toenails so red that Yamila could make each of them out even through all the silt kicked up.
Suddenly, she saw two sets of legs—the skinnier ones, both of the girls—fly out of the water, as if scooped up by a colossal pelican. She thought, Where is Hector? Yamila flailed her arms, turning back around underwater, and came up for air.
It took her several seconds to find Hector, who was still staring out at the water from his towel, apparently in her direction. Her eyes stung from having them open underwater, and they teared to fix themselves, to cool off, but this only made the pain worse. She coughed a little, swallowing saltwater thick with spit, then waved at him with both arms. When he kept staring but did not wave back, she put her arms down and let her hands claw at her eyes. Behind her she heard the splash of flailing body parts. The burning eased, and she put her hand over her eyes to block out the sun. But Hector had moved away from their towels, a few yards over, standing near the girl the group of kids had left behind. He hovered over her, his weight clearly on his good leg. They seemed to be talking, or maybe he was flirting. Then Yamila snorted at herself for forgetting how this girl must see him—as someone's helpless dad, a lightly deformed old man wearing track pants on the beach. My helpless old-man-dad, Yamila thought, Mine. Her eyes hardly burned anymore. The girl sat up on her elbows and laughed at something Hector said, her chest bouncing. He squatted down next to her, his crippled leg unbending, pointing out towards the ocean.
From the water behind her came screaming. She turned and saw the two girls sitting on the shoulders of the boys, chicken fighting. The girls tucked their feet into their boyfriends' armpits, and their boyfriends grabbed their knees to stabilize them while the two girls shoved each other. Yamila had no idea who was winning. One of the girls slipped off her boy's shoulders a little and grabbed his whole head in her arms, like she would rip it off, until he backed far enough away from the other human pillar that she could readjust herself. Safe from the other team's threat, he let go of one of her knees to push up her butt, tucking her crotch into his neck.
The other boy said, Let's go already!
His hands pushed hills of water at them. His girl wobbled when he let her go to do this, but she kept herself from falling by holding out her arms.
The newly reassembled couple charged towards the other set when they weren't expecting it. The boy on the bottom yelled, Nati, pay attention! as the team hurled into them. Nati, sent backwards by a slam to the shoulders, gave up any chance of staying up, using her hands instead to hold on to her bikini top straps. The other girl screamed at such a high pitch as she pushed that it rattled in her throat like a whistle. Her under-boy laughed, the whole time walking the girl forward, unrelenting in their attack.
Nati, as she was falling over, yelled, Rudy-Rudy-Rudy! until her voice crashed into the water. As she slipped off his shoulders, Nati kicked Rudy in the head with her heel. Her other foot caught him under his chin, kicking his head up while lodging in his neck. Rudy's legs rose out of the water, the rest of him dragged under with Nati. The winning team—the girl still perched on her boy—said together, Oh shit. Yamila looked back and saw that Hector had been following the whole thing.
When Rudy came back up he had his fingers in his mouth, feeling for his tongue. His other hand was rubbing the back of his head as if trying to make it shine. He removed his hand and spit in it, and Yamila saw, along with all his friends, a dark pink arc spew from his lips.
—Fucking shit, Nati, he said.
Nati surfaced, but at first couldn't do anything but cough. Between breaths she said, Baby? She put her arms up to hug him from behind, but he splashed and turned around, pushing her away. Again she said, laughing a little, Baby. Then she said, I'm sorry, you okay?
—I'm bleeding, he yelled, You kicked me!
The other girl slid down from her boyfriend's shoulders, bobbing in the water behind him. Yamila thought the band of them looked so fresh, so bronze, that she wished a wave would crash over them, that the ocean would somehow split them all apart.
—Calm down, the girl said, gliding towards Nati.
—I'm fucking bleeding, he said, pointing both hands towards his mouth.
Nati said, It was an accident, baby, please. She tried to hug his arm, but as soon as she touched the top muscles, the arm sprung away from her, and smacked the water. Rudy faced shore and dove back underwater while the others rubbed salt from their eyes.
Yamila saw his body approaching, a long shadow in front of her. He was not so deep that she couldn't make out each of his limbs, all of them tanned and hairless. His legs kicked behind him, spilling out of his crimson swimming trunks, which hung down to his knees. The current tugged them down as his wide strokes pulled him through the water, revealing a line of peach below the waistband—the beginning of his real color. As he swam by, still in his dive away from his friends, Yamila saw his calves, each like a square-cut jewel, working to move him. She thought his legs were twice the thickness of her own, that he must work out, how easy it must be for him to move fast through the water—with legs like those, he could swim anywhere in no time. As he passed her, his feet only inches away—she could even make out yellow calluses on his heels—she thought, without looking up from the boy, maybe that's why Hector wouldn't join her in the water. Maybe Hector, with his withered baby-leg, could not swim.
Rudy's feet finally broke the surface as he kicked, sending blades of water at Yamila. She had been looking down right at him with her mouth open, and the water stung as it flooded her nose and throat. Rudy stopped and stood up in the water, small trickles falling down his chest like dozens of tiny rivers suddenly drying out. She thought maybe he played football for his high school team. He looked down at himself when he saw Yamila staring at his nipples.
—Sorry, lady, he said.
Yamila half-smiled and smoothed back the wet chunks of hair dangling around her face. Rudy spit into his hand and inspected the red puddle. He dunked his hand underwater to rinse it, looking at the gold chains around Yamila's neck, then scowled at the group before licking his lips. Yamila cleared her throat and joked, Lady? Who, me? but he plunged back below the surface and headed for land.
The other girl said, Forget it, Nati, he's just being pissy.
Yamila watched Rudy swim away, and when she finally looked past him, at the shore, she saw Hector, his body and leg inches from the group's blanket. Yamila dove underwater, pushing herself towards the beach.
Rudy had already planted himself on his towel by the time Yamila reached the shore. He stretched out just a few feet from Hector and the girl, sitting up and spitting in the sand every few seconds. Rudy's towel was near a blue cooler that Yamila could see, as she came closer, had beer bottles in it, even though they were not allowed on the beach. The girl laughed at something else and Yamila sucked in her stomach, but Hector was still bent over the girl and did not see her coming.
—No no, the girl said to Hector, It's Senior Skip Day. Class of '97, 97 days til graduation, so you skip that day. It's Hialeah High tradition.
Before Hector could say anything, Yamila said, Hello? like she was answering a phone.
—Oh hey! the girl said. She smiled at Hector. Is this your wife?
Hector jammed his fingers into the sand and didn't answer.
—I'm his girlfriend, Yamila said. She did not look back at Hector, but looked directly at the girl on the towel. Her body glistened, unconsciously posed. She had a bar through her belly button—a piercing Yamila had once considered. The girl squinted and smiled at Yamila so brightly that Yamila thought she might have to smack her.
—Girlfriend, huh? She cocked her head. Weird, she said.
—Why is that weird? Yamila put her hands on her hips again. Her fingers twitched.
The girl shrugged her shoulders. I dunno, she said, I guess it's not.
Yamila could not tell if the girl was blushing, or if her cheeks had started to burn. The girl bit her lip, then gave Yamila a straight-on grin.
—Girlfriend is such a weird word anyways, the girl said. She looked away, the red deepening. She said, I mean, think about it, right?
Rudy growled to wrangle up more spit. When the clot joined its predecessors in the sand, he said, Ana, lemme get the suntan lotion.
She reached over to her bag and tossed him a brown tube. He caught it and squeezed out a handful of what could have been butter. He rubbed the cream on himself in wide circles, admiring his own chest. Between the spikes the water had combed into his close-shaven hair, Yamila could see his scalp. Still, she could not imagine a future where this gorgeous thing was bald. When he looked up from his torso inspection, he caught Yamila's stare. He tossed the tube towards Ana and turned to his side, grunting as he faced the sun, his back to them. She looked at Hector, who had also followed Rudy's moves, and took in the glint of his bald spot. She thought of knocking him over.
Hector cleared his throat again and tried to stand. He said, Well. We better—
Yamila heard his knee crack, a sound like rocks rubbing together. He fell forward a little and propped his body up with his elbows.
—Oh man, did your leg fall asleep? Ana said. I hate when that happens.
Yamila crossed her arms, waiting for Hector to answer. She returned Ana's stupid smile with one of her own, cocking her head so that the girl would feel comfortable enough to maybe ask some questions.
Hector said, Yeah, me too. It'll wake up in a second.
Yamila tightened her grip around herself, squeezing her own biceps. Hector was bent over, both hands in the sand, trying to right himself. He gnashed his teeth and was soaked with so much sweat it looked like he'd been swimming. As he struggled up, the legs of his track pants rubbed together and sounded like they were being shredded. He seemed stuck in a half-split. Yamila uncrossed her arms, rolled her eyes, and put out her hand.
—Here, she said.
Hector turned his face, his hair flopping forward over one eye. He gritted his teeth like he would bite off her fingers if she came closer.
—I'm fine, he said. Relax, huh?
He balanced himself with one hand so he could use his other to push hers away. It wasn't a hard push, but Yamila took a step back. Ana looked between them and pouted.
Hector finally stood up as straight as he could, slapping the sand away from his hands and pants. He patted his hair back in place. He looked down at Ana and smiled, but he did not smile at Yamila. He rested his hands on his lower back and stared past her, out towards the water. Ana shrugged.
Yamila heard Rudy spit again, this time over and over, like he had a hair on his tongue. Ana shifted on her towel, stretching out her legs and flexing her toes, making her stomach look even flatter, so Yamila sucked in her gut again. She tossed her wet hair, but there was hardly any breeze to make it look seductive. She knew it didn't matter what she looked like, because both Hector and Rudy still refused to face her, even as the sun glinted off her nameplate, her necklaces, even as her hair dripped and she sang the Presidente beer jingle all the way through in her head.
Yamila finally said to Hector, Why don't you take off those silly pants and come into the water? Why don't you come swim with me?
That got him to see her. He opened his eyes wide. The muscles in his jaw tightened, and he puffed out his chest. His hands dropped to his sides in a surrender, but Yamila kept going.
—Come on. And who wears track pants at the beach? Yamila smiled at Ana. Am I right?
—True. You'll get stuck with ugly white legs, Ana said.
Rudy laughed at something down the beach.
Yamila said, Let them get some sun.
Ana leaned forward and tugged on the ankle of his pants. Yamila had to hold herself back from stepping on the girl's hand, squashing it like a spider. Instead, she said, Yeah, go swim.
Hector coughed a little into his hand. He said he hated the ocean.
—Nobody hates the ocean, Ana said.
Hector said he did.
Rudy finally looked back at them. He said, Bro, only losers hate the ocean.
It was the smartest thing Yamila had ever heard a boy like Rudy say. He leaned back on his towel, spit once more, and, seeing that the liquid was finally clear, nodded his head once.
—You hear that, Hector? Yamila said. She stuck her finger in the waistband of his track pants, pulled the waistband out, then let it smack back on him. He jumped at the sting. He ran his palm over his hair, both slick with sweat, and she almost started swaying to the Presidente jingle—she felt that close to winning.
—Yeah, bro, Rudy said. Go swim with your old lady.
Yamila sucked in air through her nose; he could not have meant her. She waited for him to wink at her—something to let her in on his joke—but he just bobbed his head in rhythm with a song she didn't recognize on a station she never listened to. Ana did not slug Rudy's arm, or say She's not old, or even suck her teeth at him. She defended no one. She only said, Yeah, just look at that water! while staring ahead of her at the ancient ocean.
The comeback couldn't form in her head; Hector's mouth twisted in a smile, a face as bright as if Ana had decided to go topless. Showing all his teeth, he watched Yamila as he undid the knot holding up his pants. He pushed them down from his waist and began to move side to side once he got them around his knees, dancing a fast merengue. Underneath the track pants, he wore only boxers, thin white ones with red pinstripes. Now she was sure that even though he'd agreed to go to the beach, he'd never planned to go near the water with her; he knew what he was falling for, so he'd left behind his trunks on purpose.
He kept up his sidestepping dance, looking almost graceful, until the pants were in a pile at his feet. Yamila looked at his bad leg, the knee clinging to the other bones like a wad of gum, but the curls of black hair made the leg look sturdy. He bent down and picked up the pants, shaking the sand from them.
Yamila heard Rudy say, And then, after she smacked the back of my head, she kicked me in the neck. Nati is fucking vicious.
Hector's legs did not match his sun-spotted chest and shoulders. He adjusted his boxers and stretched his arms over his head. She saw the toes on his good foot kneading the sand. Hector threw the pants at Yamila's stomach, breaking her stare. She barely caught them.
—You hold on to those, he said. My turn to swim.
Hector walked past Yamila to the water, his steps falling in with the beat of a far off song, the boxers letting the world see the crooked dance. Yamila waited for the girl to say, What's wrong with his leg? but Ana wasn't even watching him anymore. She was sitting up, cross-legged, listening to Rudy as he reenacted the chicken fight with two beer bottles from the cooler.
But Rudy, Ana said, You can't be mad, she did it by accident. It's not the same as hurting you on purpose.
Yamila let Hector's pants spill out of her hands to the sand. The further away he walked, the more the jerks of his steps turned into a swagger. She saw in his stride the careful rhythm of his feet, a gait he'd choreographed over years, the bad leg dragging itself into place just in time to keep him going. Saltwater dripped from the ends of her hair, splattering her shoulders and chest. With her towel still stretched out on the sand, she had nothing to dry off with, and she shook from the cold, the sun doing little to keep her warm now. Her teeth chattered loudly in her head, drowning out Rudy's distorted account of the chicken fight. Shudders rocked her vision, shaking it so much she wasn't sure if the man she watched crash into the water was still Hector. She had nothing but a trembling picture of a man on his back, his arms wrenching his body away from her as he floated into an empty, ready ocean.