“Please don’t leave me. You’re all I think about.” Angel tore at his black hair, which stood in tufts framing his boyish face. They stood on her parents’ rooftop garden where the wind dragged its claws across her jacket. The distant cry of a siren below grew into a screaming wail.
Angel touched Sofie’s shoulder and held it there. She could smell the oil and must emanating from his fingers; he hadn’t washed his hair in days. She didn’t want to want him anymore, but she knew that a small part of her still did.
“You cheated on me.” She stepped away from him onto a bed of flowers. She heard the petals crush beneath her feet. Her mother would be so mad. The gardener had designed the violet color to match the living room walls. “You know I can’t stand her. Is that why you did it? To get back at me?”
Something flickered in his sapphire eyes, but she couldn’t read it. Almost like he was formulating a lie, but she couldn’t be sure.
“No, baby. I love you. I was being selfish.”
Sofie stared at him. He was honest about the selfish part. He moved towards her, even closer, his breath hot on her skin.
“Let’s go away,” he said. “Just for the day. Let’s take the train to the edge of the city and see the ocean.”
Sofie wanted to say no, but she felt herself nodding instead. He kissed her on the lips. They had a physical connection that was undeniable, and she was a sucker.
The ride to the ocean only took four hours by the high speed train. At 200 miles per hour, the high rises of Old Chicago gave way to thinner and taller skyscrapers of the Plaines, the tops of which disappeared into cottony clouds. Angel had fallen asleep, his head bobbing forward, his hand still interlaced with hers.
Sofie leaned her head against the windows and watched the buildings whip by in a blur of chipped concrete and rusting steel. She thought she glimpsed a naked man pulling his shades shut, and moments later a little girl sitting on a fire escape, tossing breadcrumbs at the pigeons that roosted on a flower box filled with the corpses of browned leaves.
After awhile, the buildings began to all look the same, but the monotony suited the gentle rocking of the train. There was nothing but endless city all the way to the ocean, most of it uninspired and cheaply made. She sometimes forgot how nice her neighborhood was with its architecturally curated skyscrapers. Her family’s apartment was especially luxe with its rooftop garden and oversized fireplace. She loved the view; there was only endless cloudscape from her bedroom window.
“Wake up,” Angel said. “We’re here.” He was shaking her. Sofie opened her eyes and blinked. She must have fallen asleep.
“First Queens,” the electronic voice announced over the intercom.
Sofie stumbled out of the train into the blinding sunlight with her arm interlaced in Angel’s, her backpack slung over one shoulder. Slipping on a pair of sunglasses, she inhaled. She could smell fish, brine and the putrid stench of sewage and rot. Just outside the train station, the sidewalk was flooded with a shallow pool of water, and seaweed gathered in clumps around the street’s drainage system.
“I haven’t seen the ocean since I was a kid,” she said.
“I was here last summer for the weekend with my parents. Remember? It’s going to be high tide soon. Good thing we got our boots on.”
Sofie did not remember. In fact, she was pretty sure she would have recalled him going away. She wondered suddenly if he’d brought that girl with him. The thought was like a wound that stung. She removed her hand from Angel’s arm.
“I’m so glad we did this.” He pecked her neck with his lips and took her hand again.
The walk to the coast was only ten minutes, but with each block the flooding got a little worse, until they were wading ankle deep through dirty, inky water. They passed by residence towers and saw kids tossing a ball with paint-like splatters of gray sea sprayed across their bare legs. Further down, the shops at ground level had boarded up their windows and relocated to the second and third floors of the high rise buildings.
“Just a little further.” Angel picked up speed, the water at their calves now.
Sofie had been prepared for the flooding, but the fact that she couldn’t see what was beneath the muck was starting to make her sick. Something tangled between her legs. She stumbled and readjusted her backpack. They could now see the ocean between where the street emptied out onto the shore. It was fair blue, reflecting the even bluer sky. But the high tide continued to rise.
She pointed to sign for a bar at the bottom of a set of stairs. “Let’s go inside and wait until the water recedes.”
“Naw,” Angel said. “Let’s check out the ocean now. We can get a drink later.”
“I’m wet. I’d rather get a drink and dry off. The next train isn’t for three hours anyway.”
“I thought we could spend the night.” Angel looked at her like a Golden Retriever humping a pillow. “Maybe just stay up all night looking at the stars and catch the first train home.”
She hesitated. She liked the idea of spending the night on the beach, but she also wanted to punish him. The bastard had cheated on her. “Maybe. Let’s just see how we feel.”
They waited at a bar until the water went down, seated at a two-top that had an expansive view of the ocean. For the first time since she was a girl, she could see the edge of the city. She sipped a gin and tonic with a sallow lime wedge and looked out at the tossing sea.
“Do you think there’s anything out there?” Sofie glanced at Angel. He was on this third beer already, eyes glazed. “I mean, maybe an island with palm trees — you know, like the ones in the pictures?”
Angel took her hand and rubbed it against his cheek. “I don’t know, baby. If there was such an island, don’t you think we’d all be there?”
“And then there’d be no island at all because there’d be too many people.” Sofie withdrew her hand from his gentle grip. “It’s just hard to believe that there’s nothing else.”
“We’re all that matters anyway.” Angel’s hand moved to the inside of her thigh, rubbing it. She closed her legs.
“Let’s get a room,” he said.
“Let’s get another drink first.” She was stalling. She didn’t want to get a room. The ocean seemed sad. This place was depressing. She wanted to go back to Old Chicago.
Angel gestured to the bartender.
A few hours later, Angel was passed out on the table. He cradled his head in his arms. Sofie had switched to tequila at some point. Rather than having a dulling effect, she felt invigorated. The sun was at the horizon, and the water had receded, leaving black water stains along the sides of the skyscrapers and pieces of plastic, dead fish and trash loitering in the streets. A few people had wandered out and bent to pick up the trash. Yet the ocean had calmed, and the waves lapped tamely at the shore. The waning light sparkled like champagne bubbles.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I mean, it’s like something from a dream, wouldn’t you say?” The bartender slipped another drink in front of her. She did not remember ordering it.
She looked up at him. “I guess. I mean, the flooding is bad. When did the water breach the dykes?”
“Oh, maybe ten years ago now. I can’t really remember exactly.”
He straightened his narrow black tie. Sofie realized for the first time that he was dressed in a formal, old-time sort of way. Collared white shirt, pressed and starched, dark trousers, polished dress shoes and a blonde, waxed mustache on his upper lip. An apron was double-tied around his waist. Yet, his head was shaved to his scalp, and she could see that his arms were covered in tattoos. His brown eyes glimmered as he looked out across the ocean.
“I used to come here when I was little,” Sofie said. “It was nice then. There were beach chairs and cotton candy. My mom used drink Campari and tonic.”
“We closed that a long time ago.”
“Why don’t you leave?” she asked, wondering why this man — her own age, probably — would stay in such a sad place. He seemed interesting, like he should be from somewhere else.
“Why don’t you?
She laughed. “I don’t live here. I’m from Old Chicago.”
The bartender’s eyes darted to her, and then Angel, whose face was smushed against his hand. “I meant, why don’t you leave him?”
Without breaking eye contact, she said, “I don’t know.”
He paused. “You came all this way. Why don’t we dip our toes in the ocean?”
It may have been the tequila, but for the first time in a long while, she did what she wanted.