venice beach

Okay, we've Eastered. Now what? Beach day? We waffle. Kind of cold, swimming would be out of the question. Lay on the sand bundled up? I'm itching for the ocean, but it's also getting late. "I can get us there in half an hour." Fuck it, let's go.

I haven't been to Venice since high school. The intersection we turn at looks exactly the same, the one where we spent our meager teenage dollars on imitation Ray-Bans, leather bracelets, mood rings. Where the oldest looking among us hoodwinked the liquor store cashier into selling him a six pack of Zima. My first hangover. Long live young Thespians.

Whiplash back to the present: a parking attendant is demanding $30 for a spot in a makeshift lot near the main drag. "You're out of your mind," I scoff, but as we start to pull away I call back to him: "Will you take twenty?" It's packed out here today, and I'm antsy to get moving. But Terence thinks he can find street parking, and a few minutes later, he does. I hoist the beach tote, heavy with just-in-case, over my shoulder. Rash guard just in case. Sunscreen just in case. Flip flops just in case. Blanket just in case.

The wind starts my eyes watering immediately. I zip up my jacket, squinting into the already low sun. We get our bearings, taking in the shuffling crowd: colorful locals mixed with tourists and day trippers, teens on bikes, skateboarders. More pit bulls than I've seen in one place, ever.

Slightly more decrepit than I remember but not much different otherwise. Ethnic food every few feet. Souvenir shops spilling slang-covered shirts onto the walkway. "Ratchet 1" catches my eye, an in-joke with neighborfriend. I debate buying it for her while Terence checks out a hooded muscle tank: I FLEXED AND THE SLEEVES FELL OFF. I'd been wanting to find him a fun tank for Bonnaroo - this is perfect. The arm holes aren't too deep and he'll break his hand from the high fives it gets him. We've got spirit, yes we do. We've got spirit, how 'bout you?

A sunburned, dusty looking kid in neon and cargo shorts latches onto us. Store employee - one of several. They work on commission. He's already trying to sell me the "Ratchet" top, saw me laughing at it. Ten years ago I would have given in; the kid is cute and clearly hungry. But today I shake my head. "It'd be a fun gag for about ten seconds, but she'd never wear it." Quite a little racket they've got going in this place: prices vary wildly depending on clothing article and complexity of design. $35 for a beach tee. Eh, it'll be worth it. It'll be fun. God, Bonnaroo. Just around the corner.

Already feeling like we've won, like we've made the trip worth it, we step back out into crowd, getting swept along mindlessly until I spot a sign. Soft-serve ice cream. Yes. Tiny little place, staff scurrying to shove hot dogs and pretzels and slurpees into the hands of hungry children and frazzled parents. Terence gets a corn dog, spraying me with mustard when the pump on the condiment table sticks. I retreat back outside but he comes after me with a fistful of napkins. "Where did I get you?" No matter: I'm already busy with my own mess. Dripping swirls of chocolate and vanilla, melting much too fast considering the cold, as if it knows it's in Southern California, has a reputation to uphold.

We eat besides an outdoor gym: parallel bars and rings and climbing ropes mounted into concrete, inches from the sand. No serious contenders here today, though, just a few toughs in undershirts showing off for their girlfriends, or each other. They shimmy self-consciously up thick cables, refusing to look at anyone when they reach the top or slide back down, obviously pleased with themselves. "Do you think you could do it?" "God no. You?" "Maybe."

I notice the color. Look left at the row of businesses, begging with all their might for attention, see a splashy wonderland. Painted walls, painted plastic. Some of the people beg for attention, too. Spiked hair, spiked shoes, leopard print and leotards. But look right, out towards the water? A desert. Wasteland of grey-beige sand, much of it dusted up into the air, hazing over the sunshine. The beach looks barren.

We notice the sound: the wind, whooshing through palm trees whose fronds are lifted and flattened as if against a wall, on the ocean side. Here away from the crowd it's all you hear. We look at one another, marveling at this small thing.

Snacks consumed, we amble on in search of - what? More food? Sights? Not sure. We just amble. The sidewalk grows narrow and chokes up with foot traffic; we skirt along on the browning, brushy grass hill beside. So many dogs! I smile down at them as if they'll notice my appreciation. Mastiff sighting! Huge, wrinkly, pensive looking as he watches passerby. "He must have had his smarts brought up too high", a reference to our practice of rubbing Chaucy's "smart bump" every morning in accordance with what he'll need that day.

Cluster of actual sit-down restaurants. I don't feel like shopping around; there are too many people, it's starting to feel complicated, let's just go here. So we go here. Outside table, sure, we can seat you right away - only there's no alcohol served outside. Hm, okay.

We're arguing. Are we arguing? What happened? What am I annoyed about? Indecision, confusion, we were on a track but you suggested something else. My brain gets overloaded. I want to copilot together. We eat in silence, each nursing a pointless anger. Turkey burger's really good; I feel guilty on top of everything that I'm Not Speaking To You Right Now or I'd share a bite. It's really damn good.

Meal goes mercifully fast, though we bicker a good five minutes more, clomping back down a suddenly sparser path. Maybe everyone heard us fighting and decided to clear off. Don't blame them. But now we're getting somewhere. Something's been unlocked. Was it you? Usually you. You have more keys than me. And now we're hugging, clinging actually, two is stronger than one against this wind. It's made your face red, the wind. Mine too, that means. So goes the selfie.

What are we talking about? Us? Today? The little bump we hit or the landscape of the whole mountain. It doesn't feel like it matters, because we've made ourselves understood. You asked me what I remember from my teenage visit. I told you there was something I wanted, that I didn't get - a piece of jewelry, something cheap and silly that made an impression on me. I'd planned to go back to the shop and buy it but for some reason I didn't. "Let's try to find it," you say. As if we could. But my god how sweet.

For a moment we just stand there, hanging in the space between pain and peace. The wind is a wingman, conspiring to push us together. A guy in dreads stands on a tree stump, silhouetted against the sunset, twirling balls on a rope. What's that called? You see it sometimes at festivals. Just for the fun of it. Just for the thrill of balance and coordination. It must relax the mind. It relaxes me to watch him. A pretty young couple hop up on stumps beside him. He's going to teach them how to do it, I think. But I won't know for sure because now we're in a candy shop.

Gummi bears. Every last motherfucking kind of gummi bear. 

Now. Now we're ready. I unlace my tennis shoes, dropping them into the tote. Holy fuck the sand is cold. But it's an unspoken rule: you have to go to the water, no matter what. Touch it or don't but you have to at least get close to it. Wrapping the blanket around me, trying to anyway. The wind turns it turns into a sail, slowing me down while you charge ahead. Hipstamatic time. I shake and tap, shake and tap. Random pairings of film and lens. You are so photogenic. And you love the seagulls, who make you laugh as we return to the paved walkway. You think they're playing, showing off as they ride the breeze. And they might be, baby. They might be.

The sun is really dipping now, and the temperature. We're dragging our feet back to where we turned in from the street. We should probably go home. I veer off here and there to take pictures. Shake and tap. I've missed this app so much. Why did I ever stop?

And then we hear it. I've been listening for minutes now without realizing, but you extend your hand. Look. Out there. I can't comprehend what I'm seeing. Some mass on the sand, towards the water. Something. I can't understand at first what you do right away: it's a huge group of people. A hundred or more. "It's a drum circle." But I'm incredulous. No way. What? Why? Just a bunch of strangers huddled together like that? "A sunset drum circle," you repeat. "I've seen them here before."

And just like that, we're off, running to join them. Running, running, running, the expanse between us and them feels endless. Why are we running? Because we didn't have a choice, feels like. So dry, blank, cold, colorless even with the sun radiating across the water, rushing now it seems, to say goodnight. You're faster, several feet ahead of me, though you look back and we laugh, breathless. What is this? What's happening? A pair of teenage boys passes us, leaving the beating throng. "You should go in there," they say, smiling big. "It's really fun." They mean the center of everyone, which now that we're upon it is like a slow-shifting animal with a single throbbing heartbeat.

Dozens of drums sound, though we can only see a few. Tambourines. Even a whistle. The crowd is locked in tight in the middle, looser at the edges. We watch, wordless. Women in sarongs sway and whip their hair. Men with crossed arms stand stolidly as if at attention. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible, sneaking a few photos. You hold me, and quietly we agree that this is the closet we'll probably ever get to Burning Man. And that's okay.

Time to go home. The last drops of light stretch our shadows across cold sand. The houses a safe block away from the chaos are cheery yellows and blues, but they look sleepy. One final look back: everything dark save for a daub of pink on the horizon. A short visit, but intense. I'm glad we came.