On the last day of classes at Forest Hills High, Ernest Acherbaum is finally ready. A group of students from his senior class plans to travel to Rockaway Beach as soon as the last bell rings, where they will play volleyball and coo over their yearbooks and smoke into the night. Then they will abandon their empties on the sand and carry the party elsewhere. Ernest does not know or like these students very well, but he plans to accompany them. He has been attending school with them for over five years, from the time when his family moved to Queens from Maryland. He has always been content to keep to himself, though admittedly he has enjoyed the brief atmosphere of camaraderie occasioned by the end of high school. Everyone is a bit afraid, and Ernest understands why they cling to one another. But he does not wish to travel to the beach to participate in their revelry. He wishes to go to speak to Rebecca.
Rebecca has sat beside Ernest in their social studies class all year, so this will not be the first time he has spoken to her. She is the member of the senior class for whom Ernest feels the most affinity, any true affinity at all, in fact, though he doubts that she knows this. When he addresses her she responds without a hardening of irony in her eyes. Next to her at his desk today, as Mr. Young carried on in his swollen exhortations, Ernest suddenly felt sharply the prospective nostalgia gripping his schoolmates. With Rebecca he feels desperate in a manner for which he is not prepared.
Ernest leans back against his locker. He has just cleaned it out, and his bag weighs beside his legs. Around him his fellow students whoop and leap through the halls in celebration. One breaks a vial full of a pungent substance, another bends at the waist, dropping his pants to reveal his genitals grasped between his thighs. Fruit basket! he bellows, and waddles by, but Ernest is concentrating on Rebecca. When he speaks to her at the beach, he will keep in mind the list of attributes that excite his affinity with such strength, though of course he will not recite it aloud. Rebecca has long blonde hair of the type Ernest finds most alluring. She wears midriff shirts and high-heeled platform shoes. Her face is open and kind. She conducts herself with careful consideration. During the school week she has a part-time position at a dentist’s office, where she takes reservations and develops X-Ray prints, a fact which strikes Ernest as significant, suggesting the potential for true compatibility. Rebecca is also a member of the Biking Club and the Young Entrepreneur’s Club, of which Ernest is a charter member. Though she associates with certain members of the self-styled activist circle, the ones who organize the Wednesday moratoriums to abscond from classes and sit on the school’s front lawn chanting idly against the government, she is not infected by their hyperbole. She is kind to people of all social extractions in the senior class. Ernest realizes that this could explain her behavior toward him, though he hopes it does not. But this is not what he will say to her when he speaks to her at the beach, either. He will say, What are your plans for the summer? and, What are your plans for next year? He will tell her that he has enrolled in City College and plans to study dentistry. He will also say, Would you like to go out to get a slice of pizza some time?
From this Ernest hopes more significant things may grow. He believes that he possesses qualities to which Rebecca will be drawn if he is only given the quiet chance to display them. He is an excellent student; his pursuit of knowledge was once described as zestful by his favorite teacher, Mr. Grunwald. His grades are among the top five percent of the graduating class. His motto since moving to Queens has been, Take the Necessary Classes to Enroll in City College and Study Dentistry and Then Go On to Become a Successful Dentist. He anticipates that Rebecca will find his commitment to this goal appealing.
Ernest scans the hallway in search of her. He has not seen her since social studies class. Perhaps she has already left for the beach with her friends. She is likely with Debbie, a dark girl with skeptical eyes whom Ernest does not like but with whom Rebecca is frequently found. Ernest approaches James Barret, one of the leaders of the group traveling to the beach. Are you leaving for the beach soon? he asks. He feels his face redden. Asking such questions always makes him feel turbid. He needs to accompany James and his friends, otherwise he would never have the courage to go to the beach alone. He knows James can sense this, though James answers without malice. Yeah, I was just about to book. You coming?
Sure, Ernest responds.
Ernest follows James out of the school through joyful throngs of students. Several others join them along the way when James informs them of their intentions to leave for the beach. Ernest does not speak. Outside, one student has mounted the expansive encased sign that once read, FOREST HILLS HIGH SCHOOL – HAVE A GREAT SUMMER. He has rearranged the letters to read, FOREST HILLS HIGH SCHOOL EAT HAREM VAG MURSE. A murse is a male nurse, Ernest thinks, as he follows James and his friends out to the parking lot. They arrive at James’s GTO and get in. James activates his eight-track.
Ernest is sitting between two other students in the back seat, his knees raised on the central bump and grasping his heavy bag. All the students in the car gossip about their classmates and anticipate the beach with excitement. They laugh about which teachers they hate the most, love the most, and are most attracted to. Ernest laughs along, and though he does not offer any observations, he believes that Mrs. Sudekker might be pretty if she were to remove her enormous green glasses. The windows are rolled down and wind blows pleasantly on Ernest’s face. He can feel his shoulders rubbing against the students beside him and this makes him wonder if perhaps just today he can consider himself a true member of their group. This is not what he sought from this afternoon, but to his surprise it pleases him nonetheless. He thinks of what Rebecca may be doing at the beach. Perhaps constructing a tower out of horseshoe crab carcasses. He smiles at this improbability.
The drive to the beach is long due to traffic, and the students in the back begin to drowse beside Ernest. He allows himself to lean his head back as well. The seat is leather and sticks to his neck. He can feel the engine humming and he can hear the metronomic bumps of the tires passing over the seams in the road. He begins to fall asleep.
When Ernest awakes, the car has reached 116th Street and the others have climbed out. His mouth is dry and he has a light headache. When he remembers where he is and why he is here, he sits up with a start and exits the car.
Ernest looks around. The day is bright, and on the wind he can smell the corroded odor of the ocean. The other students are removing bags intended to conceal the beer and wine from the trunk. Ernest hastens to them to show he is willing to assist.
On the walk to the beach the group passes stores wherein one can purchase pastel parasols, cheap sunglasses, buckets emblazoned with cartoon crustaceans. Several of the students crane their necks to peer in as they pass, but the momentum of the group carries them forward. They cross a concrete path that runs along the shore and approach a short set of stairs. They look out over the beach.
Shit, yes, one of the students says, and rumbles out onto the sand, pulling off his sandals as he goes. The others follow, but Ernest hesitates at the top of the stairs. His right hand lies limp on the shoulder of the metal railing. In his left hand he holds his own heavy bag as well as the cloth bag of beer, and his fingers are beginning to ache. But he is not thinking about this now; he is thinking about how difficult it will be for him to find Rebecca here. The broad expanse of the beach is thick with bobbing heads and umbrellas which obscure the view. Everywhere one looks one is blinded by aluminum sun reflectors and zinced noses. Should he set out on his own to find Rebecca? Is it wiser to remain with the group and hope that later everyone will congregate at some prescribed location? Ernest feels a pang of despair. The beach is the opportunity he has anticipated, and he cannot let it pass. Here he can approach Rebecca in a casual atmosphere, one in which the common social barriers are temporarily razed, in which members of the graduating class may be prepared to see one another in a new light. If he does not find her today, he has little hope that the prevailing attitudes can be effectively prolonged. Calling her on the phone or approaching her on the street another time would be impossible, ossifying.
Hey, man, you coming? James yells back to him.
Uh, yeah, man, he responds automatically, and descends the stairs.
When Ernest reaches the area where the group has laid out its blankets, he places his bags on the sand and sits. Some of the others have removed their school-day clothes to reveal bathing attire. He admires the girls’ fashionable two-piece suits, though when a classmate approaches him wearing one, he does not know where to rest his eyes, and his face burns again. Some have begun to sip beer out of the bags with furtive glances over their shoulders. The other beach-goers seem indifferent. In the center of the convivial atmosphere, Ernest extracts his yearbook from his bag. Earlier that afternoon, he had asked Mr. Grunwald to inscribe a message for him on its back pages. He has not read it yet; he wishes to savor it. It’s always a good time for Grunwald, he thinks, and smiles. He opens the book and reads Mr. Grunwald’s tight, empirical hand:
Keep it clean.
Ernest considers the potential meanings packaged in these words. All he can picture is a tray laid out with gleaming dental tools resting beside a neat stack of money. A still life. Rebecca would like this. A child runs past and kicks sand onto Ernest’s yearbook. He stares after her, but she is already curling into her mother’s side a few yards away. He replaces his book in his bag, and when he looks up, he sees Rebecca.
Rebecca has just arrived with a large bag over her shoulder accompanied by Debbie. She billows a towel out over the sand no more than ten feet from where Ernest sits, but she does not notice him. She is wearing large brown sunglasses and a white two piece bathing suit with small, dark polka dots. Debbie is cracking gum. The other girls greet Rebecca and Debbie with exaggerated shrieks. Debbie responds in kind but Rebecca remains reserved as she leans forward to hug them. Ernest watches and is filled with curious dignity. Rebecca glances across the beach as if searching for someone.
Ernest turns to the student sitting beside him and initiates a conversation. He does not know exactly which topics he discusses; his attention is pendulous, his eyes flitting to Rebecca, and he worries that he may be saying things with which he disagrees. He is simply waiting for sufficient time to pass so that his approach does not seem overdetermined. But that is what it is, he thinks. But it is for a true cause, he counter-thinks. The mulish young man beside him has just finished speaking and awaits a response. Ernest says, That sounds heavy, man. His interlocutor affirms this and goes on.
Rebecca is sitting cross-legged on the towel beside Debbie, who is laid out on her back, eyes closed to the sun. Milton Thorn, tender lips and back fat, strides over to Rebecca and settles beside her on the sand. Rebecca greets him with a welcoming nod. Ernest curses inside. He has seen Milton trailing Rebecca through the halls at school, flapping gestures and speaking with unnecessary volume. Now that he has secured a place beside her, Milton might monopolize Rebecca for the entire afternoon. Rebecca’s kindness has a soft edge, so she may attempt to signal to Milton her desire to be left alone, but Milton is persistent by nature. For several minutes they converse. Ernest remains fettered to the mulish young man beside him. Then Ellis Margolies spindles up and takes a place next to Rebecca. His body appears breakable above his bathing trunks. Debbie squirms a few inches away on her blanket. Now Ernest will have to wait even longer to approach Rebecca unless he desires to affiliate with this group. He suddenly stiffens with awareness. Might he be just another Milton Thorn or Ellis Margolies? No. Ernest is serious, and if he is serious, he must present his case to Rebecca in a direct manner no matter what the circumstances. He must not wait through the entire afternoon, hovering congealed just ten feet distant. Ernest finds himself rising and moving towards her.
Rebecca notices him before he arrives at her towel. Her face seems to express genuine pleasure. Ernest feels a swell of relief.
Hi, Ernie, she says.
Hi, he responds.
Hi, Ernie, Ellis Margolies says.
Hi, Milton, Thorn coughs.
Ernest sits. He shifts himself over an edge of Rebecca’s towel. He does not wish to remain on the sand. Debbie stands with a brisk sniff and departs.
For a short time the four converse with surprising facility. Rebecca slips into the gaps with grace, occasionally peering past the young men with discretion. Ernest grows more confident before Rebecca, perhaps drawing strength from Milton’s ever more imprudent gusto and Ellis’s gradual attenuation into silence. Eventually both seem to fade, standing and leaving, first Ellis, then Milton, and Rebecca and Ernest are left alone.
So, are you going to miss Mr. Young? Ernest asks. It is his prepared opening line. Rebecca laughs, revealing her large straight teeth. She says she does not think so. They discuss the social studies class, and then Ernest’s preference for biology and his plan to study dentistry. He hopes to one day establish a private practice. Rebecca is impressed, explaining from her experience that dentistry seems a lucrative and desirable profession. The dentist for whom she works drives a fine car and takes frequent days off for the purpose of leisure with his family. Ernest is inwardly pleased. When he asks of her plans for next year, Rebecca tells him that for the past two years she has been working not only in the dentist’s office but also in a clerical position for a local accountant because she needs the money to finance her travels through Europe and Asia. Her parents cannot afford to pay for the trip and even if they could, they would not sanction her travel, particularly because she plans on leaving in July and to them that is too soon. But July is next month, Ernest says. Yes, Rebecca says, I want to go out into the world as soon as I can. Ernest thinks for a moment. Would you like to get a slice of pizza with me some time, he asks. Sure, Ernie, Rebecca says.
A group of students with which Ernest has never spoken approaches and joins them. They are buoyant, limbs draped over one another, holding their cigarettes in a manner that suggests freedom in the moment. Inside, Ernest can match their exuberance, but he also feels heaviness at what he has just learned. He notes their arrival as an opportunity to depart having made his impression on Rebecca. At an appropriate juncture, he offers a general goodbye and then, with a lingering look, treads back to his original blanket. He removes his yearbook from his bag and lies on his stomach. As his eyes rest on the bright page, he thinks, If we begin now, I can always write her letters, and, Maybe knowing she’s leaving will help me be more relaxed on our date. A hand roughly rubs Ernest’s back. It is James Barret. Wanna come play volleyball, man? Ernest hesitates; he is not skillful at volleyball, yet today he does not wish to disappoint. He rises and jogs behind James to the makeshift court.
The match is casual and non-competitive, and many of the participants are clearly drunk. This suits Ernest. When it is his turn to serve, he punches the ball weakly over the net, where it planks into the sand untouched. The player intended to cover that area of the court has drifted over to a spot where several dogs career in giddy circles about their owners. As Ernest observes them, one compact mutt breaks from its owner’s hand and rushes headlong across the sand, catching another dog’s descending waste in its mouth an instant before it touches the ground. The mutt nuzzles satisfied into the neck of the dog whose waste it consumed. Ernest fills with a sadness he cannot fathom. The volleyball caroms off his stomach. Sorry, man, someone calls.
When Ernest returns to his yearbook, Rebecca and her group have departed. He scans the beach for her and notices her muted blonde hair further down the shoreline. She is standing and speaking to a young man Ernest does not recognize from this distance. He squints and shuffles closer on the blanket. It is Steve Kachman. Of course. Ernest surges with envy and regret.
Steve Kachman began to occupy a growing place in the general talk of the students as the school year waned, and though Ernest is removed from such talk and generally cannot judge its quality, he is certain that in the case of Steve Kachman it was favorable. Steve sat one desk over from Ernest in chemistry class last year, so Ernest has had the opportunity to observe him closely. He remembers finding Steve conscientious and sharp, and was often impressed by the elegance of his titrations. Steve is a prominent member of several extracurricular clubs. On the student council, he led the campaign to paint a mural on the rough stucco storage facility behind the school building and convert it into a student art studio. He received a scholarship for math to attend university out of state, which was the source of the talk Ernest overheard. Steve’s successes will likely eclipse Ernest’s. To Rebecca this must be evident.
Bare to his bathing trunks, Steve is wiry. His arms are long and his dark hair swoops wavelike across the top of his face. He has a long straight nose and a disarming smile. Ernest has never seen Steve with Rebecca. Steve Kachman, Ernest thinks, and for a moment Ernest feels like the headlong dog, only to be ripped back, his leash knotted fast.
The two lean in towards one another. Steve is speaking with his eyes turned to the ground. Rebecca tugs his arm and leads him up the beach to a spot that is somewhat secluded. Their postures suggest an intimacy beyond the wistful graspings of high school’s end. But with the intimacy of the day comes loss. They must be speaking of her plans to travel. Ernest clenches his jaw. Perhaps their relationship existed long before; perhaps Steve is making a confession of a candor Ernest could not marshal. It does not matter. For Steve, Rebecca has offered a true private audience, a sincerity that was not in her to offer to Ernest. How could he have missed it? Ernest reviews his talk with her, the questions he had been formulating for so many squalid days at his desk in social studies and in the bedroom of his cramped house, her casual acceptance of his proposition for pizza— pizza, goddamn it—, the damp impressions of Milton and Ellis beside them in the sand. It meant nothing. When Rebecca travels, traversing the dusty roads of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India in her shawl and backpack, subsisting on a battered cylinder of Quaker Oats and eyed from shop awnings by copper men with protruding teeth, she will imagine what it would be like if Steve were traveling alongside her. She will not think of Ernest, or if she does, only in passing as that strange boy who sat beside her in Mr. Young’s class and who once approached her on the beach. But will she even think this? Ernest wishes to inscribe himself on Rebecca, with Rebecca. With time he will develop the qualities he believes she seeks. But Rebecca will not know this; she will never know this. In the end she will choose someone like Steve, or perhaps Steve too will one day sit up from the math dictated by his scholarship in an out-of-state library and wonder where she is at that moment. She is hurtling forward on a broken arc.