A short story about experiencing confounding loss while simultaneously working on finding yourself in an unpredictable, uncertain world…

by: Hart Vetter

Flowers adrift elegantly in the shallow surf, back and forth. Petals soaked, bruised, yet hanging on, reflecting a deadly vibrancy, kissed by the early morning sun. Somebody’s gesture, or maybe just the remnants of a beach wedding and not some dramatic memorial of a confounding loss.

The mere sight touched the heart.

It’s two water worlds around here. There’s the bay side with tall reeds and algae-covered rocks, inlets opening up during low tide with elegant herons, verbose gulls, mysterious horseshoe crabs, occasional entitlement deer. Separated by a narrow patch of land, a sandbar essentially, strutting for miles into the Atlantic is the other side, the surfside. Endless stretches of broad, sandy beaches, pounding waves, bird habitats cordoned off when nesting.

In season the ocean side is off-limits to canines. No dogs for a full six months of the year.

Lola, my curious rescue, weathered dog discrimination on the bayside quite well, as long as I checked beforehand from our upstairs balcony that the water level was down. When the tide was slurping high it left limited wandering options. Our walk in the awakening sun at the brisk of dawn was fun until I came upon the flowers. Carnation mostly, red, white, some lilies. Lola fancied more traditional fare like shells, twigs, the occasional wad of seaweed. Her resolute fangs snapping up some curious find, her snout like a kodiak’s waving a salmon to alert other canines out there of her must-have trophies.

Later I googled. They found the body of a 37-year-old man, at 5AM that morning, upon the tide’s beginning retreat.

Mid morning I biked into the park. Cars were clogging the entrance, and I knew they’d close it any moment. Locking the bicycle in the lot, I headed for the bay dunes to sit and maybe write.

The flowers seemed all lapped away by the massage of the waves. I walked past a little girl with swimmies on her arms, shovel in hand, tending to a little construction project; her parents in chairs nearby. I saw three pyramid castles, safe from the surge for at least another hour, and sprouting out of their peaks, like smoke puffs from a volcano, were perfectly imperfect, bloated blossoms, held up somewhat on barely exposed stems, their color rich and glistening.

“Beautiful,” I said, happy and sad. She smiled, “Thank you”, in the sweetest high pitch.

I settled near the edge of a dune, framed by scraggly grass swaying unfazed by the prospect of an unerring submerge in the hours to come. There was a fallen, gnarly tree across the beach that had been there forever and would be driftwood someday. I sat on a hand towel.

A man in short swim trunks with a physique supporting that look stalled by the other side of the tree, opened a boxy pastel-striped bag he was carrying, pulled out a blanket, and sat. He was youngish, as were most these days in the eyes of the observer, facing away, toward the town at a distance on the other side of the blue bay.

I opened my pocket notebook, then heard a pop. The young man had uncorked a bottle of red. He took a wine glass from the bag and poured. There were signs everywhere: No alcohol! Sunbathers on the ocean side who were more likely to go for a tan and a buzz combo had long learned the hard way to be discreet when it came to booze on the beach because rangers would patrol and do spot-checks. You’d risk a hefty fine, and, if you had no ID, possible arrest.

I approached the guy, “Hey, they’re tough here about drinking.”

He barely looked, “Don’t worry, man.”

At least be fucking discreet, I thought, and returned to my towel. Maybe I should just leave, I figured, not wanting to let someone’s idiocy affect my mood. 

The fool lifted his glass, as if to draw more attention in an overdone salute to the waves, muttering something, then taking an elaborate sip.

Then it dawned on me.

Give him time, I decided. Give him privacy. Five, ten minutes later. he was finishing his glass, facing the same direction toward the water. I went back over, crouched down, and said. “Hi. Is it you…”

“What?” he said, toneless, flat, unannoyed, his face somber. 

“Did you lose…”

“Life’s a bitch.”

“I’m so sorry…”

“Well, yeah…”

“How did it happen?”

“We just…were swimming. It was choppy.”

“A bunch of you?”

“Uh-uh.” He sighed. “Thank you, man.” A polite way of saying, now leave.

I tapped his naked shoulder and rose. “Sorry. If I can help…I have a condo up on the hill…”


I turned and walked.

“One more bon-voyage adieu…” he said as he pulled another plastic wine glass from the bag and gestured to me. I surveyed the surroundings. “Don’t worry about the rangers. I now know most of them by name,” he assured me.

He poured into both glasses lifting his, kneeling, I did likewise. He addressed the wind-stirred ripples, “Miss you forever. Never forget you as long as I shall live, sweet prince.”

I wasn’t sure I could stop the swelling of a little tidal wave forming in my eyes. A stranger’s tears, while understandably human, would not be supportive to the sad fellow whose loss it was, who was celebrating a life and trying to remain strong amidst heinous adversity.

He nodded toward the pricey Cabernet in the boxy bag, “Today would’ve been our fifth anniversary.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Cheers,” was all I could think, as our inelegant plastic goblets met in a subtle crunchy clang. We took a swig. “Lots of good memories,” I said, presumptuous and inane, but nothing better came to mind. “Ryan,” I introduced myself.


I sat on the sand.

“I was out last night or would have noticed the search from my terrace,” I said.

“We were at it till midnight, and again before daybreak.”

“Were you there when they…”

“No. Some fishing guy radioed it in.”

“It’s good to find the…person.” He stirred as I said it. ”I suppose it is,” I added quickly, not sure what was a right or wrong thing to say. Body would have been more appropriate, or simply shutting up.

“So they say.”

“You’re staying in town?”

“Yeah. AirBnB for the week. This is…day three. Our own beach access, that’s where we went in for a dip. It was fucking humid. The park was closed by then, or we’d have gone there.” He fumbled through a pair of regular shorts in the bag and pulled out his phone, searched his photos, clicked on a close-up. “My Tim,” he introduced. His eyes were moist. Tim was smiling. A beach closeup. Short spiked hair, handsome, Asian-Island looks.

The face looked familiar.

Not far away the water was creeping up to the little girl’s flower volcanos and the family migrating to higher ground on a sliver of sand. The waves were drawing closer here, too.

“The flowers,” I said, “were for Tim?”

He nodded, eyes closed.

“A sad remembrance at a pretty place.” I was a writer, not a talker, unable to locate deeper, more soothing words of meaning on short notice.

“The BnB owner, she’d brought flowers, when there was no hope. A bunch of strangers hung around at sundown. We tossed them in. Fed them to the waves that had taken him.” His eyes moist, he tried a smile at the poetic insanity of the gesture.

“His…family knows?”

“Wow, you’re really taking an interest!”

“Sorry. I can’t fathom what all you’re going through. I’ll shut up now.”

Seth still seemed to want company. “His parents don’t acknowledge I exist, other than…being a distant associate. Let the police notify them. They’re doing an autopsy. Didn’t know that’s what they do.”

“Did he have too much to drink?”

“Hardly. I didn’t notice a struggle, he suddenly vanished. It was a bit rough out there, but not terrible. Could have been, who knows, a heart attack maybe. He was in good health, a great swimmer, but…then…I didn’t see him.”

I found it too difficult to look at Seth, too intrusive, emotional.

“I hoped he was playing a fucking trick on me.” He stared at the rise and fall of the tide nearing our feet. “I shouted. Waved. Dived into riled-up muck. Fucking useless.” His voice was quivering. “I hollered. SOS…stupid stuff.” Seth took a moment and then continued. “A kite surfer helped me look. Somebody alerted the lifeguards from the town beach.” 

We sat, still, until the waves were licking our toes.

We exchanged numbers. We hugged and went our separate ways.

I went to the ocean-side beach the next day. The optionality of clothing never diminished its appeal in my book. Only a minority would keep some fabric on, those usually no larger in size than Seth’s skimpy shorts on the other beach.

A memory suddenly hit me. This was where I’d run into Tim. Run-in being fitting terminology.

It was a Sunday three weeks prior, the beach packed. The city ferry had just made it in, unloading mostly men, meandering the long way toward this particular end of the beach. The people already set up in the sand had right of spot, so to speak; they didn’t typically get closely encroached upon by new arrivals. There was lots of space to spread out. I’d been scribbling a story with an opening of some prospect.

A pack of young men in their late twenties and thirties dumped their stuff in the immediate vicinity. It was the first nice weekend in a while, and everyone deserved a good time I figured. The beach-and-sun worshippers already in place didn’t appear to mind that things were getting cramped. The group had barely staked their ground when a pounding, thumping, throbbing, synthetic disco beat filled the air. I paused the alt-rock playing in my headphones to reorient my ears. I always thought disco was dead. The newbies were bobbing to the beat as they were spreading towels and blankets and anchored a few umbrellas.

Asshole that I could be, I got up, “Hey, guys, how are you? You mind turning it down a notch?”

“It’s a beach,” said Tim. White shorts, striped tank top, spiky hair. “It’s party time for all!” He exclaimed this as if he was buying everyone a round.

With an icy smile I pointed at my earbuds.

He hissed, “If you don’t like it, you leave.”

Some guy from the group stepped up, thirties, hairy, too heavy for otter, too light for bear. “Whatsa matter? This is a beach.”

“Exactly,” I said, “just keep the volume down a bit.”

Tim cranked the sound up more. Nobody else showed an appetite for involvement.

Hairy told him, “Come on, don’t.” Tim conceded and returned the volume to its previous level.

“Well,” I said, “this is a park. You must’ve seen the signs: No excessive noise or music.”

“Excessive!” Tim mocked. “We can get you excessive!” He giggled, pulling off his muscle shirt. I turned around.

I saw no signs of a ranger nearby, but would flag one when they were making the rounds. If everyone else was laissez-faire, I’d just crank up my own headphones to halfway drown their noxious dance thump. Maybe it was techno. I was so behind the times.

A half hour later I got up and looked over. Some of the guys were in the water. Tim sat, bare, shouting, “Stop looking our way! Mind your own business!” His stare went through me.

“Life’s a beach!” I said. Nothing less inane came to mind. Some cute Black guy, not in their group, smiled at me and winked. I smiled back, shrugging.

Somehow the ranger van was involved on the other side of the beach.

Hairy came over, placed a hand on my shoulder, “Sorry, man, he’s on something and kinda jerky today. We couldn’t get him to cut the crap.”

Then turn the fucking music down, I felt like saying, and take your fucking hand off me. But all I said was, “Thanks.” I would not afford the jerks the luxury of messing up my day. Other than that, my writing just wouldn’t flow. I stayed longer, intentionally. As I was packing up, slipping on my shorts, Tim skidded over on the hot sand. He looked right at me now.

“What?” I asked. The music had changed, still loud, but with dated accessibility. Cher of all people. “Sorry we got off on the wrong foot,” Tim held out his hand.

We…I wondered. Yet I offered a fist-bump. “Be well,” I said, not seeing a need to score points. This was unusual for me, not my normal reaction, but maybe the sun and Tim’s body were making me pliant.

I called Seth. We met at Tommy’s for dinner. I mentioned the encounter.

“Wow.” He just stared.

I felt horrible. “Honest, I didn’t bring it up to tarnish anything. You know, we all can be jerks sometime.”

“Was Tim with someone?”

“With a whole troop of guys. Over ten.”

“Describe them?”

“A lively group. Brown, white, Black, nice diversity. I thought Tim was the looker in the bunch. He was not with someone.”

“If it was that first nice Sunday in a while, yeah, that day I couldn’t make it.”

“It’s none of my business, and I can shut up totally. Did he sometimes do drugs?”

“You’re right. Butt out. What’s with you anyway? Silver daddies have never done it for me.” That hit me like a left hook.

“Same here,” was all I could think of, unnerved. “I had a breakup from hell. Relax, I’m not in the market. I thought I recognized Tim when you showed me the picture. It was just that he was…very moody for two hours. And then, suddenly, he was cool.”

“Maybe you’d become less of an irritant by then.”

“Good point,” I laughed.

“We had our fights. Everybody does. I’d give in, he’d give in — it’s how it goes, nothing out of the…” His voice trailed off.

“His parents are flying in tomorrow. From Fiji. Anything you know about Fiji?”

“Other than the water?” I smiled. “Have you been?”

“We went for a week. Best snorkeling. Underwater world divine. Floating next to each other, Tim and me, such stunning, crystal-clear capsule memories. He was born there. When he was little the family moved to SoCal. Then, many years later his parents moved back. His real name was Timicy. We stayed at a hotel, not at their place. Had us over for two dinners. He’d explained to them what I meant to him, and their English was fine, yet they kept flipping to their language. I told them I loved their son. They described me as his itokani bisinisi. Business friend. They wouldn’t even give me full friend status.”

“Did Tim set the record straight?”

“Tim said, they’re old, just ignore, let them be. But what I’m gonna tell them tomorrow is I was his Loloma itokani,” he said raising his voice prompting neighboring patrons to look over, “Friend and lover it means.”

Loloma itokani,” I repeated and let our big glasses of red chime for real.

“If I could turn back time,” he said, and my ears heard Cher. “When we were hanging at the bay beach, and it was uncomfortably hot. He was irritable. He could be damn rigid, you know that. His eyes weren’t focused…like he was looking through me. We should have taken a fucking nap inside, AC on full-blast. But he wanted to cool down in the cold water, getting slapped around in the breeze, for our faces to be whiplashed. Swimming was like injecting a boost of fresh life right into our veins. We drifted out. The wind sweeping over the bay, stirring up waves. Invigorating. Until it wasn’t.”

He just stared, we just sat.

“When you meet his folks tomorrow,” I said eventually, “keep this in mind…”

Loloma itokani,” he whispered.

“Nobody in the world got hit harder by the loss than the three of you.”

“Bonding isn’t their style, Ryan.”

Patrolling the shoreline with Lola, I noticed the red-hulled boat that Seth had rented, a runabout, stalled, in the middle of the bay. The kid operating it was seated, three dressed-up people standing, peacefully, in what seemed stone silence. The woman wore a deep red dress, a sulu, they call it, Seth would tell me later, the other man a shirt of the same color and slacks. Seth was in dress shorts and a polo.

And Lola the dog was meanwhile carrying the most enticing, salty, weathered knob of driftwood, bouncing and hopping, sticking her butt out, trying to draw a Portuguese waterdog’s attention away from chasing a tennis ball tumbling in the surf.

His language skills were off, Seth reported later.

When he told them what he meant to their son, Loloma itokani, Seth was immediately corrected by Tim’s father. What Seth was to Tim, he said, was something else.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Seth found it difficult to wrap his tongue around the word Tim’s father attempted to teach him, patiently, over and over. “Liuliunivale, something like that.”

The word they’d taught him, explained the mother, what it meant was husband.


Hart Vetter loves roaming the Jersey Shore with his beautiful rescue, both off-leash. He is surprised how many true-life elements weave their way into a story. Recent work appeared in Literary Heist, Heimat Review, York Literary Review, and elsewhere.

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