Paul took the road to Bondi Gardens as the engine hummed under that January sun. In those few months I had gotten to know him and his brother Nate. It was Paul I met first, I had finished my surf that October morning and saw him play his music at the waterfront. He looked at me, as he played, and barrelled me. I came to his street performances every chance I got after that, to reach that height. Two or three weeks later, I started to pack up each set with the brothers. It was a while before Nate explained that they grew up in Albuquerque. He had said that when their father died Paul had left and, well—Nate couldn’t let him go on his own. I tried not to press, but asked Nate about their mother.
“Does she ever come to visit?”
A shadow crossed his face. “No, no, Mama stayed home.” He sensed my concern and added, “She couldn’t leave, she just… well she’s like Paul here. She’s got a quieter, gentler heart, and well, when Dad was gone” —his gaze had fixed on the gray of the city — “she couldn’t make sense of anything else.”
That January afternoon Paul parked the old VW van into the parking lot. Bondi Gardens had sixteen apartments; the white stucco matched the bars of each balcony. Nate put a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder, who continued to fume after his performance in the square that morning. The brothers, like interlocked parts, worked to unpack the mess of instruments. Paul moved like a rusted gear, but Nate adjusted to his pace. When Paul approached me, and I passed him the last of the instruments, I caught the scent of his cologne and felt like I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t like it, but the hairs on my arms rose despite that. I could still smell sandalwood as he disappeared up the stairs to his apartment.
Nate’s voice interrupted, “Dorothy?” As my sunburnt senses failed me, I struggled to see him get into the driver’s seat. “I’ve got some work… Keep an eye on him for me. He’ll cook if you stay,” he said, and gave me a wink. “Maybe you could go to the beach later – I know you two love to walk together. Plus, you know he could use the company.”
“What will we talk about?” I shouted as he drove away. I could hear him laugh down the road as the 70s style curtains swayed in the rear window of the van. Paul hadn’t talked to me— about his dad, or anything really. When we walked, we just watched the waves. At the beach he would draw as I swam… I turned to see him on the balcony. His eyes seemed softer from there; his sandy hair blown by the wind.
He seemed tired, “It’s a beautiful place.” I twisted to mimic his view; my black hair swished with the movement. The city seemed to come out of the ocean, like debris left on its shore. The railings creaked behind me as he shifted to leave. My stomach churned. Nate said—
The screen door opened, “Are you hungry?” Paul asked. I swallowed, nodded, and caught his smile before he disappeared into the apartment. I made my way up.
The kitchen light swung low inside his apartment. I took a seat as he began to cook. He served the supper in ceramic, and the low light glowed between our faces. Our legs nearly touched underneath the two-person table, and I noticed his caution to avoid the collision. His gaze only reached my lips.
Afterwards, I thanked him and went to the sink with our dishes. The metallic sink stared back at me. He always looked, never saw. I was right there. I clutched the linoleum counter and felt the tension blister from my fingertips to my spine. What did I think? That he would know I only thought of him? That he would realize I saw him? I couldn’t look anymore. I had tried.
Paul’s muscular hand wrapped itself around my waist. I turned around in his arms, to face him.
“Thank you,” he said.
I dug my hands into the neckline of his shirt, the cotton was thick beneath my fingers. My tears seeped into the fabric like water into sand.
As we parted, he looked into my crystal eyes, and there was that softness again. He said, “There’s something I want to show you.” He took my hand and led me to his room, where the waves seemed to pass through the window. We sat on his bed, and he stretched to pull a score from his nightstand. The page had been torn from a notebook, written in pencil. “This was my first song.” He took the guitar that had leaned against the wall and scratched out a 5th chord.
He told me how his dad had helped him learn to play. As Paul spoke, I could almost smell the tequila on his father’s breath. The sweetness drew me into Paul’s memories. The old man’s smile cracked his face open the first time Paul nailed a G chord. Hans picked the strings of his guitar in celebration of the boy’s accomplishment. He showed the notes to his son on the same ledger lines I looked at then. When Paul turned 15 he sang his first song to his father at 3am. The swallows had sung in the trees outside. Hans put his hand on his son’s back and had a drink to celebrate.
Paul placed the guitar back against the wall, and I could hear the waves of the ocean again. He grabbed his journal and showed me the unfinished composition.
“In my music, I feel like I can’t reach him. I just get so angry. But this score… This is my first score where he makes me smile.”
I tried to search his face for what he couldn’t say.
I remembered Paul’s figure in the square that October morning, bent over his electric cello, just as beautiful as the first time I saw him. I had made my way to the open square after a surf at dawn, and thought I heard a sort of hum. When I got there, I saw the crowd. The cello’s voice became stronger as I walked to the frontline. The electronic loop, the didgeridoo, the acoustic guitar, all sat at his feet like children. He let waves of rhythm flow from the djembe he was seated on. Each wave crashed against the buildings around us. It seemed that he shook chains he could not break. He recorded the loop and then swung to his guitar—steely green eyes soared through the crowd. They landed on me, surrounded me like a barrel wave, and retreated. His fingers flitted around the frets and seemed to burst as his voice echoed their flight. The notes seemed to have wounded him, but Paul let the notes ring before he put his lips to the top of the didgeridoo. Its long wooden funnel stretched from the ground to his mouth like a tree. The tones were almost indiscriminate at first, but they had become deeper and differentiated like branches as each listener began to nod in synchrony. His whole body shook as he strummed his guitar. His voice and guitar ended together like a wash of water on the shore. When he placed the guitar in its stand, my heart dropped. I needed to hear more. Then he ran a hand through his hair and his torso tensed and I realized that like a shore break without any shore to break on, he needed more too. I barely noticed when I clapped along with the others.
As the memory faded, he placed an old photo of a man against a car into my hand. It was worn from nights of tears, prayers. “He got drunk every night by the time I was 12. He would come home from the bar through the streets, him and whatever person the cartel had sent.” The man in the photo was gruff, compact. I flipped the Polaroid over, “Hans” was written on the back. Paul took back the picture when I offered; the photo looked small in his hands despite its paralytic effect it had on him.
I rose from the bed and looked out the window. I asked over my shoulder, with a swing of my thumb, “Beach?”
He relaxed and returned my smile with a nod. He slid his guitar out of its case and picked up his journal. He slipped on earth-tone sandals. The sunset burned across the water as we walked to the beach. His stride was straightforward, full of grace; his eyes never dropped to the ground but stayed on the horizon. When we got to the beach we found a slice of space, and I ran to meet the ocean.
I came back to shore, and he was writing. I reclined in the sand to face him. I gave my raven hair a shake before I nodded to his journal. “Your piece?”
He let his pen rest and nodded.
The day before, I would have watched the January afterglow beside him, but not then. I closed my eyes, if just a little. In the static behind my eyelids, I saw a younger Paul, like the one Nate had shown me in pictures. This Paul laughed softly and climbed balconies alongside his brother through the streets. This Paul wore scuffed sneakers.
“How is the surf this week?” he asked.
My eyes fluttered open and faced the sky above, “It was better last week; it’s best when the wind’s in the east.” I bent back in the sand to point to the bay. “Since we had storms during the day there would be bigger waves in the morning.” He watched as I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “Anyway, the waves are always better in the morning, before there’s time to think.” I said. When I looked up at Paul—he looked back at me with his pen on the page.
“He was always strong,” his lungs sucked in a breath. “After he came home, he would be angry too. I think—I think it was because the people from the cartel always asked him to compromise… I think he was mad at himself. It was like he was chained to us, one son for each hand, and he didn’t know how to get out.”
“He would create transport connections, an easy job for a mechanic. It started that way, but after a while, we carried product for the cartel too – Nate and I. He did it to keep us safe, but that wasn’t enough,” Paul’s soft eyes rippled with memories. “When Nate got in a fight with a rival dealer, dad hit him.”
I noticed then, the indentations of many scars just below the sleeve of his t-shirt. The white lines on his arms shone in the afterglow.
“It became a regular occurrence, for both of us,” he looked down. “Once he started, he couldn’t stop.”
“Nate does the odd job for them now, just a few things to keep Mama safe at home. Like Dad, makes connections, cuts deals,” his eyes started to tear. “I should help, but I can’t. I can’t seem to do it anymore.”
Someone vomited close by, and he started in that direction. My hand moved to cover his. My fingers relaxed in its heat.
“Did you want to go back to the Gardens?” I asked.
He nodded, slung his guitar behind him and we left: our hands woven together like lace.
When we got back to the apartment Paul had collapsed on his mossy sheets. I came in afterwards with a mug of chamomile tea. I sat beside him. As I looked at his tan face from across my folded legs, I remembered something from the beach. I lifted the arm of his t-shirt sleeve, and he flinched. His celadon eyes seemed about to break. He breathed in once before he lifted his shirt with my hands. At the center of his chest was a tree in black ink. I realized dark slashes like leaves were swallows that burst from every limb—but not all the indentations were black; there were long white scars stretched about his torso. I wrapped him in my arms. We laid there and breathed. As the moonlight shone, the waves swept through the room and put us to sleep.