I had been out for a walk when I came upon a small child shuffling along the dirt road that ran from the beach to our new neighborhood. The girl was crying, and I stopped to see if I could help. She rubbed her eyes and pointed toward the ocean behind her. She could not choke back her tears for long enough to speak. I looked around for a parent but found only eavesdropping gulls.
“Are you hurt?” I asked. The girl nodded sorrowfully and renewed the force of her wailing. She moved closer, almost hugging my thigh.
Finally, a young woman came tromping along the wooden platform that led from the beach, her face hidden by large black sunglasses. Narrow strips of a black bikini showed her thin hips and torso, and I could see the tan lines a different bathing suit had made across her skin. She hauled two overflowing beach bags, their straps cast about her pale wrists like tourniquets. I looked again to the gulls; one of them blinked and shat.
“This your girl?” I asked as she got closer. The woman did not seem hurried and did not respond until I could smell the fog of Coppertone as she arrived beside the child. A sigh of wind peppered my legs with sand.
“Stung by a freakin’ jellyfish,” she uttered. “She just needs some Tylenol.” The girl wailed louder and tugged off the top of her bathing suit. I averted my eyes. “You're being so dramatic,” the woman said. She raised her voice, demanding that the child take her hand. Then, remembering, she dropped the girl's hand, hoisted the beach bags, and careened home, her sandals scraping their fractious song against the pavement.
Home, it turned out, was next door to my wife and me. We lived in a small development nestled behind the strip malls along the Dixie Highway. Up the street were jewelry stores, sushi, an ice cream shop, and a pink motel that always seemed to have an ambulance in the parking lot. When my wife and I finally walked over to introduce ourselves, it was Claire who answered the door, flashing nervous green eyes. In the spare tiled entryway, she looked younger than I'd remembered from the beach. The word PINK ran in black letters across her white tank top. A forelock of her blonde hair was dyed electric blue at the tip. She had a quiet, elusive manner so that when you glanced away from her, you suspected she might flee.
We had barely introduced ourselves when Rob—older, puffier—slouched into the threshold, eclipsing her. He wore his black jeans and black Reeboks like armor. A pair of Oakleys rested at his hairline, reflecting our grinning faces. They had moved from Massachusetts, Rob told us. His voice was soft and dim with a grainy quality, each word falling like a stone into sand.
“Us too!” said my wife. “Well, Connecticut—New England, is what I mean.”
“Good spot to land,” Rob said. He gestured appraisingly at the tower of palm trees canted above the neighborhood. It was early evening, and their crooked silhouettes pitched against the sky, bruised with purple clouds. This was his retirement home, he told us.
“What a luxury,” my wife prodded. “You must have done well for yourself.”
He chuckled. “I put in my time.” Cars were his thing, he volunteered, the rarer the better. The glossy Camaro in the driveway was this year's model, but he planned to build a stable of vintage hot rods that he could fix up during the days and flex along the boulevard in the evenings. Our conversation sputtered amid the waning daylight, the rising frog sounds, and eventually stalled. We smiled our way backward down the front steps, and he vanished behind their door.
“Retired?” my wife scoffed as soon as we got home. She had kicked off her