The water is cold, yet that doesn’t stop me from wading into it, only up to my ankles. I have my Converse in my hands, the laces wrapped around my fingers, and the wind is picking up, like it always does. It’s too dark to see far out over the low waves, but I can still hear the ocean crashing and rolling around me, and I almost forget that I’m not alone. There’s also the sound of fireworks, of laughter and voices, celebration and joy. I almost forget, just for a second, that it’s the Fourth of July.
A girl runs past me, through the water, disrupting the calm and gentle flow. A guy is chasing her. Boyfriend, probably. He accidentally splashes water on me as he brushes past, laughing out loud before he grasps the girl and pulls her against him. I’m grinding my teeth together before I even realize it, my grip around my laces tightening. These people are around my age, but I’ve never seen them before. They’ve most likely come from out of town, from a neighboring city, to celebrate the good old Fourth of July in Santa Monica. I don’t know why. The Fourth of July isn’t anything spectacular here. Fireworks are illegal, which is the second-biggest bullshit law I’ve ever encountered in my entire life after it being illegal to pump your own gas back in Oregon. So there are no fireworks, only those from Marina del Rey to the south and Pacific Palisades to the north, which are visible from here. It’s after 9PM, so both displays have just begun. The colors light up the sky far in the distance, small and out of focus, but they’re enough to satisfy the tourists and the locals.
The couple are kissing in the water now, in the dark beneath the lights of Pacific Park. I turn my eyes away. I begin to walk away from the pier, wading slowly through the Pacific Ocean as I distance myself from all of the Fourth of July commotion. The crowds are much thicker up on the pier. Down here on the beach, it’s not so busy, so I have room to breathe. This year, I’m just not feeling the whole Independence Day excitement. There are too many memories attached to this day that I don’t want to remember, so I keep walking, further and further along the coast.
I only stop when Rachael calls my name. Until then, I’d forgotten that I’d been waiting for her to return. I turn around in the water to face my best friend as she half leaps, half jogs across the sand toward me. There’s an American flag bandana wrapped around her head and she comes bearing two sundaes. She disappeared to get them almost fifteen minutes ago from Soda Jerks, which, like most stores along the pier, is open later than usual tonight.
“I got there just as they were closing up,” Rachael says, slightly breathless. Her ponytail swings around her shoulders as she comes to a stop and hands me the sundae, but not before she licks some of the overflowing ice cream from her index finger.
I edge out of the water to join her, thanking her with a smile. I’ve been quiet all night and I still can’t bring myself to pretend that I’m okay, that I’m happy just like everyone else. So I take my sundae in my free hand, my red Converse still in the other—red footwear is as patriotic as I’m going to get today—and quickly run my eyes over the ice cream. It’s called the Toboggan Carousel, named after the Toboggan carousel itself, which is inside the Looff Hippodrome up on the pier. Soda Jerks is on the corner. In the three weeks that I’ve been home, we’ve stopped by for sundaes more than once. In fact, I think we take an ice cream break more often than we take a coffee break these days. It’s much more comforting.
“Everyone’s up on the pier,” Rachael reminds me. “Maybe we should head up.” She sounds almost cautious as she makes the suggestion, like she’s expecting me to immediately cut her off and say no. She drops her blue eyes to her ice cream and scoops up a quick mouthful.
As she swallows, my eyes drift over her shoulder to the pier. The Pacific Wheel is performing its annual Fourth of July show, where its thousands of LED lights are programmed to display transitioning sequences of red, blue and white. It started just after eight, at sunset. The two of us watched it for a few minutes when it first began, but it got very boring very fast. Holding back a sigh, I shift my gaze to the boardwalk instead. It’s way too overcrowded, yet I don’t want to test Rachael’s patience any more than I already have, so I say sure.
We turn back and head across the beach, weaving our way through the people spending their evening down on the sand, and eating our sundaes in silence from our plastic to-go trays. After a few minutes, I stop to slip my Chucks back on.
“Did you find Meghan yet?”
I glance up at Rachael as I finish tucking my laces in. “Haven’t seen her.” In all honesty, I haven’t been looking. Although Meghan is an old friend of ours, that’s all she seems to be. Nothing more than that. But she’s home for the summer too, so Rachael’s making the effort to reunite our former trio.
“We’ll find her eventually,” she says, and then changes the subject almost immediately by adding, “Did you hear that the wheel is apparently programmed to the beat of a Daft Punk song this year?” She skips ahead of me, twirling on the sand and shimmying back over. She reaches for my free hand and pulls me toward her, her grin wide and dazzling as she spins me around. Unwillingly, I dance a little with her despite the fact that there’s no music. “Another summer, another year.”
I pull back from her, careful not to drop my sundae, and study her. She’s still swaying, still dancing to whatever song is in her head. As she closes her eyes and twirls again, I think about her words. Another summer, another year. It’s our fourth summer of being best friends, and despite a slight fallout last year, we’re as close as ever. I wasn’t sure if she’d ever forgive me for the mistakes I made, but she did. She let it go, because there were more important things to focus on. Like supplying me with ice cream and taking me on road trips around the state to distract me, to make me feel better. Desperate times call for best friends. Yet despite the fact that the time came for me to head off to Chicago, where I’ve spent the past year surviving my freshman year of college, we’ve still remained best friends. Now that I’m back in Santa Monica until September, we have months to hang out together.
“You’re drawing a crowd,” I tell her. The corners of my lips pull up into a smile as her eyes flash open, her cheeks flushing with color as she glances around. Several people nearby have been observing her silent dancing.
“Time to make our getaway,” she whispers. She latches onto my wrist and starts to run. She yanks me across the beach, kicking up the sand beneath our feet, our laughter echoing around us as I’m given no option but to dash off with her. We don’t run far: only a few yards, far enough to get her away from her spectators. “In my defense,” she huffs, “you’re allowed to look like an idiot on the Fourth of July. It’s a rite of passage. It emphasizes the fact that we’re a free nation. You know, ’cause we can do whatever the hell we want.”