At dusk he sat himself in the dense sand left from high tide and pushed his hands into the sand and watched it crack and lift and crumble. Couples on the long stroll from here to there and back detoured into the mellow surf before him without looking down and moved on in the diminishing light. He sensed their coming and going like a rhythm, like the surf, but he watched the sand and couldn’t have recalled anything of them if asked. The wet sand felt cool on his hands and he drove his hands in palms down and lifted and the sand rose firm and then he spread his fingers and it tumbled and fell and he pressed it down and drove again. He sat like this for some time with his eyes trained so and his hands so.
They had walked down together after dinner and now she paced and skipped and pirouetted easily in the water to her ankles and shins and seemed carefree to him, though he neither resented nor envied nor admired her for this. In truth none of this reached him then and he was far away and receding. His hands worked in the sand and he sat and peered but his eyes shifted and he frowned and was only moved by his surroundings to the extent that he was occasionally troubled to find that he wasn’t moved by his surroundings at all. He had brought them here for this and here it was and it meant nothing.
She asked if he would bring her a chair and smiled sincerely when he nodded and rose. Sand clung to his shins and knees and hands and wrists and he was not eager to trudge up the beach and follow the dune walk over the rise to where they’d stashed their chairs and umbrellas in the panicum and sea oats just out of sight of more responsible vacationers, but he knew her foot was still recovering and was sore by day’s end and anyway if he could do nothing else in the world he could drag a folding metal beach chair a hundred feet for her. When he returned with two chairs she was grateful and smiled and he knew she meant it and he lifted the corners of his mouth in return but did not mean it at all.
He dumped the second chair in the wet sand beside hers and moved back up the beach. He could not have explained why he sat again where he’d been but he did, heavily, and wondered if he would still feel the same, exactly the same, sitting in the same spot, if it would be as if nothing had moved or changed, and it was. She positioned her chair in the wet sand facing the ocean and sat with her back to him and the sun set behind them to the west and a broad column of faint clouds and the sky-colored haze out over the sea turned a pale pink as they sat in silence. Before him he flattened the troubled sand with his fingers and then his palms and inspected it for uniformity. When he decided it could not be made perfect he dug around it with his fingers until he’d made a plate-sized plateau between his knees surrounded by a shallow moat. He piled the loose sand over the plateau and ran his fingertips along the moat to make it level.
Sitting there his mind ran away again and he frowned again and before long he sat up and breathed deeply and looked north up the beach and saw two dogs prancing around a woman in a baseball hat and socks and sneakers and they waited for her to throw a ball for them to chase. The black dog chased the ball into the surf and pounced once and twice and retrieved the ball while the brown dog spun in place twice as if to spot the ball hanging from its tail and then chewed its flank happily and seemed to forget the ball altogether. He smiled at this but it was perfunctory and apathetic and when his face was tired of making a smile it simply fell away without any residue of happiness. No one had seen it and it came and went without meaning anything to anyone. His hands pressed the loose sand into a lumpy dome atop his plateau and without consideration or purpose he then set about smoothing and shaping the dome into something approaching geometric fidelity.
She said something and he looked up still in thought and stared with soft eyes and at length began to make sense of her shape. Her chair had sunk in the sand and he could not tell if she was facing forward as if looking out over the ocean to the horizon or facing left as if to call over her shoulder but if it was the latter he could not respond for he’d understood nothing she’d said if in fact she’d said anything at all. He waited like this and when she neither moved nor made any sound he let his gaze fall again to the sand between his knees. He thought it was always this way and she’d learned to not let it bother her and that was to her credit but certainly not to his at all. He should listen more but he was always in his head like this. More and more and further and all the time, it seemed.
With his hands and fingers he deepened the moat and smoothed it and piled the displaced sand on the dome and evened and smoothed it and smoothed the sand outside the moat, too, pressing his palms down firmly with the quick rhythmic movements of a baker kneading dough. He grit his teeth and closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose and his mind was a thousand miles away, already home and back at work and behind, always behind, always desperately behind. He started to pity himself for losing hours of his vacation in this way but felt he did not deserve pity and would not allow it and grit his teeth harder until he could hear them squeaking against one another and then he lifted his head and closed his eyes and breathed deeply again through his nose. In the sand dome he dug in his thumbs near the top and when he looked the dome had cracked and the holes were uneven and he used his palm to press the crack shut and then his fingers to bring the two holes together and begin to smooth out the hole into a smooth cave.
His hands and fingers worked methodically as if he were a craftsman and there was a quiet echo in his mind of artistic pride but it was shouted down and obliterated by the frantic disorganization of his thoughts. He squinted and his eyes shifted and his breath was shallow. He thought whatever notions he’d had of the rehabilitative value of this or any other trip were laughably foolish, and he was alarmed to confront the degree to which those notions had come to shape and enable his day-to-day existence. He knew this was his last night here and it meant nothing and at this thought he sat back and let his hands rest and he breathed deliberately. He tried looking south and then north but found that his eyes would not settle and he looked down and studied his dome with its smooth deep moat and smooth shallow cave and it meant nothing at all. He looked up and she was sitting there as before with her hair spilled over the back of her chair and she could have been asleep but he thought she would be watching the tide come in and the column of dark clouds turn brilliant pink and feeling safe and content and grateful and he was right.
He sat in thought for some minutes watching the back of her head and her shape in the chair and did not want to bother her. He was stiff in the sand and his legs and feet were cold and he sighed deeply and wanted to walk back to the house. He knew she wanted to sit in the surf and watch the sunset and wanted even more to be with him and she would follow him home if he left and he felt he owed it to her to stay. He felt if he joined her just then there would be something at stake. Her evening, this evening, this sunset, this moment, this setting, this scene. But if he left she would follow. He felt he could sit there on the sand before his stupid little sand sculpture and the sun would set and both horizons would burn a saturated pink and eventually the breeze would cool and she would fold her arms and rise and carry her chair and smile sweetly and he would rise and join her and they would lock arms and traverse the darkened dune together and everything would stay the same and she would have this night and many others and he would be there and whatever reckoning would be the problem of some future versions of them. There would always be time to spare her or not.
After a spell he rose and stepped over the little dome and walked slowly to where she sat and lifted the second chair and righted it and sat. She smiled happily and was radiant in the last of the sunlight and he smiled back and meant it. They held hands and sat quietly and at length he leaned his shoulders towards her and still looking out over the ocean he spoke to her and she listened carefully. They huddled there on the beach and spoke quietly and she cried and stroked his hair and he stared out over the waves and said as much as he could say. And some of what was at stake was lost as he’d feared but none of it mattered. She listened carefully and spoke reassuringly and he pulled her close and she pressed her head into his neck and he reached across and grabbed her shoulder and squeezed and they sat there together like that and watched the tide roll in until the breeze cooled and the sky darkened and eventually they were chased from their small huddle by tiny black bugs that bit their legs and feet and hands. They gathered their chairs and he carried them and they locked arms and wound their way across the dunes side by side. And as night fell the sky cleared and the tide rose and rose and by sunrise where their chairs had been there was dark wet sand and a band of tiny seashells and where he’d built the dome with the moat and the cave there was nothing at all.