The love affair began with salt.
Thick salt. The kind that coated shivering skin in chalky warmth and crusted like splintering glass in between tiny strands of hair, seeking the water, seeking the sun, seeking the froth.
Salt that crackled across his tongue and burned in the corners of his tear ducts. That whipped through the crevices of his pruny fingertips and nestled thickly in the hair under his arms, the tiny crevice underneath his big toe nails, the hidden curve just behind his ear. That dried and slithered in shrinking flakes across the skin of his forearms under the baking sun.
“Jesus, stop licking your skin, Johnny, you crusty old shrimp,” his mom said to him, warm smile on her lips where she stood with one hip propped against the metal doorframe of their little red and white seaside mobile home. She had cotton balls stuck between her freshly painted coral toenails, hairnet over curlers and a languishing Lucky Strike perched between her fingers.
She always called him a crusty old shrimp when she was happy – when her Friday night date after her shift at Lou’s diner went well and she came home to John already tucked in his bed with the bowl from his cornflakes washed and drying in the sink. She’d step out of her little white Baby Doll shoes with her pink and white frilled waitress cap still bobby pinned to her curls and press a kiss to his salt-free forehead drowning out the sound of the waves. And John would pretend to be asleep while she rummaged through the hamper of their clothes all fresh and dry from the laundry line in the sun until she found his little pale blue swimming shorts and set them on the bed for him to find as a surprise when he woke up to the clanging of his Bugs Bunny alarm clock. The promise of a full Saturday’s worth of daylight spent waist deep in salt water and sand.
When John was ten years and four months old he shut off the radio during the final credits of Cisco Kid and stood up on his tiptoes to wash his cornflakes bowl in the sink. He checked that the screen door was shut tight and sucked a little toothpaste onto his tongue so his mom would think he brushed his teeth and climbed into his little couch bed dreaming of the salt that crested and fizzled in the white froth of the waves. Of the way his pale blue swimming shorts floated and swished around his legs in the soft, wet swells and crusted in the hot and heavy Long Beach sun.
He waited and waited for the bubblegum kiss to his salt-free forehead. Waited and slept and dreamed. Until he woke up in the morning to a blaring Bugs Bunny alarm clock and an empty trailer and no pale blue swimming shorts laid out on his bed. No frilly waitress cap hanging off the metal doorknob.
John’s aunt took him in after his mom looked the wrong way stepping off the moonlit curb at the end of the pier and met with the hood of a cherry red Chrysler speeding on its way to catch Teddy Edwards at the Lighthouse Café up in Hermosa Beach.
Auntie Cath lived way out in the San Fernando Valley in some chicken ranch desert called Reseda. Her house wasn’t made of metal and didn’t sit on wheels with a screen door that rattled in the sea breeze. Her kids Ron and Susan ate Kix instead of cornflakes and didn’t listen to Cisco Kid on Friday evenings. When John asked them if they liked to lick the salt off their skin too after playing sunup to sundown out in the waves, they told him they’d only ever been to the beach once. It took Auntie Cath and Uncle Ron almost two hours to navigate the old station wagon through the Las Virgenes pass to make it all the way out to Zuma Beach, and by the time they got there they had just enough time to suck on some popsicles, dip their toes in the icy water, pack up and leave again.
John didn’t taste the salt again for years. His forehead stayed clean and fresh. Salt-free. The little crevice behind his ear was as sterile as a freshly washed palm.
When he turned seventeen he hopped in the passenger seat of Billy Murray’s dad’s old Buick and handed him a wad of money he saved bagging groceries to use for gas. They drove and drove until they reached the fizzling licks of salty waves lapping at the Santa Monica sand, baking in pools of golden sunset light. There was a bonfire, and chilled bottles of Pabst. Girls in little white swimsuits and the same four chords played over and over again on an old cheap guitar. And when John took Lisa Kerny’s hand and lead her away into the quiet, pristine bed of velvet sand and tide pools, and let her drag her pink coral nails across his bare chest chasing little droplets of sandy water, he licked the salt off her skin at the place where her neck met her shoulder, and it tasted like a crusty old shrimp.