The tide is rolling out, and Ben is rolling with it.
Even though the riptide warning is low today, there’s always a current that drags down the shore towards Margate. Ben paddles his big hands on either side of his board to fight the slow drift. The water is cold. It’s always cold in June on the Jersey shore, especially before the sun is up, but he’s used to it. He’s numb to a lot of things now.
Ben flips his wet hair off his forehead and looks up, arching his back until the wetsuit pulls tight across his chest. The sky is that dirty white before the sun lights it up, but there aren’t any clouds. It will be a good beach day. The swells of the glassy-grey Atlantic rise and fall under him, like he’s perched on the chest of a sleeping giant. Out past the breakers the waves are gentle, and Ben relaxes into the rhythm.
Nobody else is out there with him– it’s too calm. Surfers in the North Atlantic know to check the wave report before they even bother. But Ben has nothing but time to burn now that he’s been discharged. Bootcamp wired him to rise at five, and no matter how late he stays up or how much he drinks, he can’t seem to shake the habit. Jogging is bad on the shoulder, so that only leaves surfing.
He scans the sand and wipes his eyes with a finger. The beach is empty except for a guy in a Hawaiian-print shirt sweeping the sand with a metal detector and an old woman walking her small dog. The lifeguards won’t be out for a couple of hours yet, and then the crowds will follow.
Ben likes the quiet. It feels like it’s his beach and his water. The wind carries the saltwater spray across his face and it smells both old and fresh at the same time. He prefers being alone, less work.
He cranes his head behind him to check for a wave. There’s one that looks promising. He rubs his collarbone out of habit. It should be all healed now, according to the surgeon, so he should be fine.
Ben readies his board, laying his wide chest down to paddle his considerable mass into motion.
He should be fine now.
“Hello– anyone there? Pardon me?”
The accent catches him first. British or something. Lilting, but with a surprising huskiness that reads as confidence, at least to his New Jersey ears.
Ben looks up from his dog-eared copy of The Catcher in the Rye to find the source of that sound. He’s already read the book twice and the summer has barely begun. By Fall, the ink will have rubbed off on his fingers.
He rises from the old stool to come to the counter, spreading his arms wide on the counter to duck down below the menu sign and find the source of that pretty voice.
And there she is, as pretty as she sounds.
Round face with even rounder eyes, hazel and bright. Slender and fit, and not quite tan but looks like she could be soon. She flashes a quick and easy grin at him, all white teeth, and Ben feels his stomach lurch.
She’s beautiful. Not in a made-up or artificial way, like a model, but simple and natural. Like the ocean at sunset or a spring day right before summer.
“Do you have lemonade?” The girl asks politely, her eyebrows lifting to dual brunette crescents. She looks like she’s asking him a favor rather than ordering from a boardwalk stand. As if she’s a great bother to him.
Ben knows his voice is going to come out scratchy, so he clears it first.
“Yes, we make it.” From this angle, Ben’s generous height and the platform he’s standing on make him look giant compared to her. She looks slight and delicate, like a porcelain figurine or a garden fairy standing on the boards. The girl throws her long brown hair over her shoulder and blinks against the wind, and she suddenly doesn’t look fragile anymore.
She looks stunning.
“What’s in it?”
British, Ben thinks, or maybe Australian. He’s never been to any of those places, never been anywhere really, so he can’t be certain.
“Well, lemons. Have you had lemonade before?” He means it genuinely. He’s not sure they have it where she comes from.
The girl had lifted up the hem of her sweatshirt to fish around in her tiny cut-off pockets– for some money, presumably– but stops and looks at him with her lips parted as her smile drops. She blinks quickly, as if she cannot tell if he’s for real or not.
“Of course I’ve had lemonade. I’m not from Jupiter.”
Ben brushes a hand through his too-long hair and wishes he wasn’t such an idiot. His uncle has been on him to cut it, but he hasn’t found the time to yet. Now he wishes he had, or maybe grown it out even longer, so he could hide behind it forever and not have to face her and his own dumb mouth.
“Yeah, I just– Um. Lemonade is pretty much all the same.”
She finds her dollars and shifts a hip out. “I just wondered if there was a bunch of artificial flavorings or stuff in it? Since this is America.”
Ben brightens. This he can answer. “No, just lemons, water and sugar. I make it right here. I can show you.”
The girl quirks her lips, like she’s trying to suppress a smile. “All right, then. Show me.”
He turns and picks out the fullest lemons, then presses them into the machine with a few practiced strokes. He’s very good at making lemonade because it’s basically just crushing things. Ben’s careful to stand to the side of the lever so she can see him work. He doesn’t say anything- grateful that the process is simple enough to speak for itself and that he doesn’t need to.
Next it’s sugar and ice, then water. He shakes vigorously with one arm to finish. He still hasn’t met her eyes again, and he chews the inside of his cheek as he sets the plastic cup down before her and spreads his arms wide to lean over the counter.
“There you go.”
Rey beams at him. He looks up at her eyes then down again, feeling his cheeks heat. Looking at her directly is like looking at the sun. He wants to, feels the burning urge to, but doesn’t dare.
“Thank you. How much?” she says.
Ben can’t believe what he does next, because there’s no logical reason for it. He’s not a brave dude with the ladies. In fact, he’s usually too shy to speak to a girl he doesn’t know. But something about her makes him feel cavalier, like he wants to be the kind of person who does this.
“It’s on the house.” He’ll put his own money in the register to cover it.
“Really?” She looks surprised and happy.
“Yeah. Tell me how it tastes. Like giving me a review.”
She cocks her head to the side, her smile growing. “You want my opinion?”
“Sure. Tell me if it tastes the same here as where you come from.”
The girl is sticking a straw into the lid when she freezes and frowns at him. “What do you mean? I’m from here.” She looks at him icily.
Shit. Shit! Ben stammers and stands back, putting some space between him and the counter, and nearly bumps his head on the menu sign. He rubs his scalp where it brushed while stuttering out, “I’m sorry, I just as-assumed–”
She bursts into laughter. “I’m teasing! I’m from England.” She throws her head back with giggles, and her face becomes even more adorable, which he hadn’t thought possible.
He huffs out a chuckle. “Damn, you got me.”
“I did, didn’t I?” She takes a sip and makes an expression of pleasure. He feels a twitch down south as she sucks on her straw and moans out, “Oooh, this is delicious.”
Dear Lord. Whatever words he had wrangled before have broken free and left him. He stares down at her, utterly bewitched.
She fills the gap in his side of the conversation. “Thank you– what’s your name?”
For a moment he’s forgotten it. He blinks, “Ben. I’m Ben.” He points dumbly at the name tag pinned to his green polo uniform shirt.
“Hi Ben. I’m Rey.” She sticks her hand over the counter.
He swallows and takes it, still cold from the plastic cup. Somehow the formal gesture feels intimate coming from her, and he feels a thrill roll up his spine at the touch, even though they’re out in public under the blazing summer sun. Her hand is much smaller than his, he notices. It fits nicely.
“I’m working at Wonderland for the summer, too.” She flashes that megawatt grin.
Ben’s lips part with the weight of his jaw dropping down. Rey will be working with him this summer. He’ll see her every day.
He feels like maybe his tides are starting to turn.