The last time I saw my father he was wearing a toupee that looked like a year’s worth of dryer lint, a worn-out Carolina t-shirt, the blue almost white now, green golfing shorts, and penny loafers ... [+]
Her hand moved in circles, signaling to him to roll down the window.
"You come here a lot," she said. "I see you when I walk the beach at night."
"Where are you walking?" he asked.
"Oh, it doesn't matter," she said, lifting her long fingers toward the Atlantic. "I don't keep track of my steps, but they still count."
He wondered how many calories per step her small frame wore off as she battled the salty wind.
"What do you do when you come here at night?" she asked.
"I count the waves."
"From the ocean? Or the people?"
He watched her lift her hand, as if she were hailing an invisible cab; then she was swinging it back and forth, three times, cackling into the dark.
"From the ocean," he replied, flat as ice.
"Tough gig for something that never ends."
His counting did end, though. He always finished when he felt a click in his head, as if a quarter had dropped clean into a pay phone for a clear and even dial tone. At that point, he would turn the car around to move his body back home.
She looked away from the water, toward the highway.
"I used to live in California and drive to the Pacific Ocean at night in this old van I bought in Oakland," she said. "I must have been around your age. How old are you?"
"I'm 26," he said. "And 7 months and 14 days."
"You do like counting, don't you?" she said, laughing when he looked blankly toward her.
"I've never been west," he said.
"Well, what direction do you drive home from here?"
"Away from the water."
"Then you've been west."
Of all the nights he had come here, this was the first time he'd spoken to someone. Usually he would park the car in the lot, empty after the tourists had gone home, and stare at the waves of the Atlantic Ocean breaking over themselves. He would listen to them crash, willing them to line up with the beat of the music on the radio, counting each wave as it rumbled across the sand.
He had always been like this, he considered on his drive home that night, long after the woman disappeared into the dark. As a boy, he'd stayed in from recess to count the tiny chips in the painted classroom wall. He had a friend in class he would exchange notes with: word games, pictures of dinosaurs, spaceships, animals. When he asked his friend to stay in, counting, the friend turned around and ran out the side door, kickball in hand.
"What did you do today?" his mom had asked that afternoon, picking him up from school.
"Counted," he had said. "I counted flies in the windows and pieces of broken chalk. And the minutes in the day until you picked me up."
His mom had reached her hand across the car and rubbed the back of his head. Three times, he had noticed.
When he got to junior high, he counted the spirals in his notebook. When he got his driver's license, he counted cars passing him on the highway. During the following years, it was sips of coffee, pages read, seats on the train, and now, at 26 years (and 7 months and 14 days) old, waves at the beach.
It was always dark when he arrived—the Atlantic as black as a bruise. He enjoyed sitting here, alone, listening to the water at the edge of the continent.
Sometimes, though, it felt like staring at a wall.
The next time he saw her walking at night, she lifted her arm and signaled to him; he opened his hand back to her and rolled down the window.
"You're here again," she said. "As dependable as the ocean in front of us."
"There's always more to count."
"I thought you might leave for the Pacific after our chat."
"Not yet," he said.
"‘Go West, young man.' Someone said that once. Do you know who?"
He did not.
"Me neither," she said. "For all you know, it was me, just now."
"There it is, I was wondering when you would crack," she said. "How many waves have you got tonight?"
"I had 49, until you got here and I lost track."
"And what about these?" She lifted her arm again, moving it back and forth.
"Just you," he said. "Twice."
"Ah, but you waved to me as well," she said. "So that's three."
He smiled again.
"Why do you count the waves?" she asked.
"It's comforting," he said. "The numbers are always there; I know that two follows one."
"Ah, but aren't there numbers between them?" she said. "One and two may sit still, but there's always fractions and decimals growing and shifting, numbers moving that you cannot see."
He hadn't thought of it that way, and he told her so.
"You remind me of myself before I was in California," she said. "Everything was so clean before then—twelve eggs in every carton, a fence in every yard."
She looked toward the highway, away from the waves.
"When I saw the Pacific for the first time, everything felt larger—the opportunities, the energy."
She shifted back to him.
"The waves, too," she said. "I thought that everyone had their life planned out. When I bought that van, I was shocked to see that there was no clock inside. I started to drive to the beach, no matter the time, whenever I felt like seeing the water."
"Was that when you started walking at night?"
He thought he caught her smiling.
"Yes," she said. "And I met plenty of other people who loved walking as much as I do."
The two of them stayed there for a moment—he sitting in the car with the windows down, she standing in the parking lot a few feet away—listening to the subtle moves of the water.
"Sometimes on my walks here," she said, "I look at the Atlantic and think, even the waves crashing here reach west."
After she slinked back into the night, he turned his car around to drive home. West was the only way to go, away from the layered, swirling sea.
His house was 3.2 miles away; the Bay Area was 3,067.5 miles from there, a 46-hour journey he could break up over seven days. He put the odometer to zero. Perhaps one night, he thought, I'll keep driving. There's always something moving, waiting to be discovered between two points.