We went to Monterey the weekend after our six-month anniversary. As soon as we arrived, Chloe begged that we go to the beach. I was tired after a long Friday and driving three hours down the coast, but Chloe insisted.
I remember the warmth on my neck as the sun finally struggled through the thick bank of fog, the changing blues and grays of the ocean before us, Chloe laughing and pulling gently on my hand as we walked barefoot over the sand to the tide pools. Her childish wonder at every new creature and shell we found as we wound our way along the shoreline. Everything seemed magical and alien. We were captivated by a starfish propped around a mussel, slowly digesting the unlucky crustacean and mesmerized by the constant cascades of sea foam sliding down the rocks. For over an hour we patrolled the endless stretch of beach. We eventually separated and found our own fascinating miracles in the shallow pools of salty water.
“Hey, Evan!” I looked up at the sound of her voice above the waves. “Come here!” She was hidden from view by a mussel-encrusted boulder. I traced the echoes of her voice to a narrow crevasse. She was bent at the waist, back twisted to see the underside of the rocky wall. Waves licked her sandy heels. “I found a sea anemone!”
“Poke it for me.”
“No.” I was enjoying the feel of the sun on my skin and the salt-streaked ocean wind and was in no mood for games.
“It’s not a big deal. I’ve poked a hundred of them.”
“I don’t want to.”
“It is not mean.” Chloe glanced at me, her face changing as she realized I wasn’t just grumpy, but also a little freaked-out by the idea of touching the slimy ball of tentacles. I mean, that’s how they eat things. I would be placing my finger inside a living creature’s mouth. And it’s sticky. What if my finger got stuck and never came out?
She began to laugh. “Babe.”
Humiliation swelled up inside of me and I felt my face turn hot. Looking was one thing; touching was quite another. Weren’t there warning about harassing wildlife? In any case, I was not about to lose my finger to a squishy inert creature barely the size of my fist.
Maybe she could see how upset I was quickly becoming. When she tried to put her arm around me, I shook it off. It wasn’t a big deal. Kids did it all the time. But that didn’t mean I had to; I was a grown man.
“What if we do it together?” She looked serious. Really serious. All the laughter had left her face, and her eyes were the same dark as the wet boulders that surrounded us. I stared at her, wishing I could just cross the sand and kiss her without feeling like world’s biggest wuss. We stood there for what seemed like another hour, blinking and silently daring one another to back down. Finally I nodded.
She took my hand in hers and placed our palms flat against each other. We knelt in the grainy sand, our fingers spread like the arms of a starfish, slowly approaching the purplish tentacles of the anemone. My breath was coming fast and I could feel my heart.
“Easy,” she said as she guided our hands to the covered surface of the rock. I unconsciously recoiled as our fingers made contact, but her other hand had reassuringly found its way to the lower hollow of my back, and she pushed me carefully forward as we pushed into the sea anemone. Nausea and nervousness battled in my stomach, but a small sweet smile came across Chloe’s face as the sea anemone enfolded our fingers with its tendril-like mouth. Focused on her smile and the warmth of her hand on my back, I relaxed, just for a moment. The idea was beyond humorous, two adults crouched beneath a dank rock only to fool this tiny creature for a few seconds. The anemone felt delicate and soft and sticky and tickled enough to make me giggle stupidly, so only Chloe and the sea anemone would ever hear.