It was another hot summer day. We drove down the highway with all the windows rolled down, the ocean spreading out to my left as my hair whipped around my face in the passenger seat. Music blared from the stereo. Lana had made a new mixtape. Grungy love songs. I closed my eyes, listened, and smiled against the salt-tinged wind.
She held my hand in her right hand, her left on the steering wheel. I squeezed her hand, our fingers interlaced, brought her hands to my lips. She smiled at me from behind her big, dark sunglasses.
We curved around the highway at the point where the tiny swallow sculptures appeared on the chain-link fence.
“Should we take this exit?” I asked.
“No, a few more.” Lana handled the car deftly. The wind pulled at the big, loose shirt she wore.
We had been driving since Lana picked me up after school. I had told my parents I was going to an SAT study group. They trusted me; I got decent grades and didn’t cause them any trouble other than the occasional late night out with friends at the movies. They had met Lana before, at a back to school night the year before. She was pretty, they said, she probably has a lot of sang-sah, a lot of boyfriends. Lana had since graduated, and she didn’t have any boyfriends.
She had me.
We passed through another city. All the beach cities were nestled so close together, and their names all sounded so fanciful. Spanish words for “stars” and “paradise.” Those, coupled with the rolling green hills, small boutique shops, and large houses made South Orange County seem surreal.
Then, the beaches were long, sandy stretches without the litter that were normal on beaches farther north. There was plentiful parking, and the water was bluer, too. Clearer.
Lana finally chose an exit. Something with “stars” in the name. We pulled off the freeway and into a small town, streets sparsely lined with shops, a few palm trees swaying. There was something lazy and quiet about these towns, ruined by the overwhelming air of easy wealth. Very different from our neighborhoods, and it made us a little bit uncomfortable, but we kept going to these places over and over again anyway. I got better and better at acting like I did not notice people looking at us, at pretending I did not think that they were wondering what I was doing with Lana. Perhaps they didn’t think it was strange that we were walking around together. Perhaps it was only that we were holding hands that made them blink at us. Knowing this, I still could not helping feeling small and brown and ugly in those towns where there were so many blonde, blue-eyed faces, people who carried themselves with complete confidence they belonged exactly where they were.
Lana was tall, with features that made people mistake her for being half Asian, half white. She was Vietnamese as far she knew, though with colonial history, she might have had French ancestor somewhere in her family tree. She was willowy, with wavy black hair that fell past her shoulders if she ever let it down. Most of the time she kept it pulled back into a pony tail. She had a way of always looking like she could be wherever she wanted, and that she belonged there no matter what anyone might think. It was easy to be confident with her, no matter how intimidated I felt walking into shops or even down those streets.
On the beach, at the sand, however, it was different. We took off our sandals and laid down our beach towels and stripped down to our bathing suits and did not think about whether the car we had driven there was older or dirtier and we did not have to wonder if people thought we didn’t belong there– the beach belonged to everyone, though state agencies placed gates around the nearest parking and signs gave opening and closing times.
Lana found a parking spot two blocks away from the shore. I scooted as close to her as the bucket seats would allow, wrapped my arms around her and kissed her neck as she maneuvered her car into the parking space. She turned off the engine and the music that had been playing went quiet. She leaned into me and my kisses, eyes closed.
“When do you have to be back home?” She asked.
“Can’t– be– too– late,” I said between kisses, “After traffic? Is that okay?”
“Yeah, of course,” she said, “Maybe I could stay over again? Help you study?”
“Mmhm, you are very helpful.” I licked at a drop of sweat that had collected in the hollow of her collarbone. “They should be fine with it.”
“Mm. Let’s go?” She pulled away and kissed me quickly on the lips. “It’s hot! I want to get in the water.”
“Oh, fine, fine.”
We spent the afternoon laying on the warm sand, dipping into the ocean for a few minutes at a time, kissing languidly but carefully because of how exposed we were. I did a little bit of studying. Lana read a few pages of the assignment she had for her class. She was taking courses at the community college, going the route of transferring after the first two years in order to save money on tuition. She had gotten into nearly ever school she applied to last year, but financial aid awards had been sparse. She would work at her parents’ dry cleaning shop and save more money before applying for a transfer in the spring.
It was not yet approaching dark by the time we pulled ourselves from the beach; the summer sun was deceptive. It was nearing eight o’ clock and I knew my parents would be concerned. I hadn’t told them I wouldn’t be home for dinner. We knocked as much sand as we could off of our shoes and out of our bags and got back into Lana’s car.
“Do you have everything you need to spend the night? Should we stop by your house first?” I asked though I already knew the answer; Lana was always ready to spend the night somewhere other than her home.
“Yes, I’m fine, we can go straight to your place.” Lana tossed her beach bag into the backseat of her car. “I have extra clothes in that other bag. Besides, I could always borrow yours.”
I loved seeing Lana in my clothes. I knew that they would eventually smell like her and I loved to wear them afterward, inhale her scent, imagine her warm flesh inside the t-shirts.
We walked back to her car with our arms wrapped around each other’s waists, the heat that had beat down on us earlier abated and the cool ocean breezes began to give us gooseflesh.
The sun set over Lana’s left shoulder as she drove us northward to my house. Traffic had thinned since rush hour was over. Most of the cars were going south anyway. Lana and I held hands over the center console. I ran my fingers down her arm, her skin still sun-warm from our long afternoon. The air cooled enough for me to roll up the windows and I leaned my head against Lana’s shoulder. As we left the beach cities and moved inland, the rolling hills faded away, the highway veered away from the ocean, there were more and more chain stores, and the buildings got taller and stood closer and closer to one another. We passed large malls and offices and apartment buildings. Those eventually, quickly, faded away as well as we reached my quiet suburban neighborhood.
We pulled into my driveway after nine o’ clock. My parents would be getting ready for bed.
I held Lana’s hand up until I turned my key in the door.