By Paul Saevig
They said it was Daphne’s decision. At midnight, four hundred of them stood in the sand at The Wedge, on the jetty, or on the knee high wall by the sidewalk. They smoked cigarettes and drank wine or vodka, and they waited. The full moon was out, high in the sky, and lighted the beach, but did not warm them from shivering. The beach officially closed at dusk and police would be here any minute.
Two boys stood in their swim trunks beside their surfboards balanced in the sand. Far apart they were, surrounded by their own friends, although most of the friends were as loyal to both of them.
Never still, the surf gathered and crashed, and waves bounced off the jetty to double their own size. Pale green in the moonlight, these waves broke into pure white foam that shattered the shore, danced in wicked fury that could drown a man with the deadly noise of earth and rock tearing apart.
The two in swim trunks waited, transfixed by the rolling waves that crested, held impossible as a fantasy and suddenly broke. They could not look away, and they asked their friends, “What time is it? What time is it? Is she here? Is she here yet?” The answers failed to console them.
The plan was to finish quickly: they would ride home in triumph, or defeat. Already lights came on in houses on the peninsula, where residents reported them for trespassing.
All four hundred knew who they were waiting for, and there was no sense in being angry or exasperated. For some, Time waits.
Only that morning in their school parking lot, the two boys waited separately for her to arrive, for Daphne. They had always been friends, these boys, until now, and she would decide. Other boys sought her affection, all the way back to 5th and 6th grade, but she was a dove who never lighted on any one long.
The boys this morning were Rusty and Brian, and they both said the other one barged in where he wasn’t welcome, and she was already mine first, we’re going steady, and he can’t do this, and she’ll choose me. Their claims were the same, indignant, affronted. They’d wanted to fight, decided on a place, and then she said how one could win her heart.
Even now, no one knew that much about her, or her unusual name. One day in elementary school she was there, and right away girls surrounded her to make friends. She hardly ever said a word and she listened, not in a way so anybody could tell what she was thinking. When she laughed, she stopped herself right away. No one could predict when she would smile.
She came to school every day with one or more of her brothers and sisters, and rode the bus to high school. Her hair was dark brown, almost black, lighter, jet black, or shimmering black: they disagreed. They saw her differently. The lighting would be different, the time of day, they could not explain. Her eyes were almond shaped, but not like a cat’s, and gray, or blue, or almost aquamarine. Looking directly at her was hard even for her friends. No one would risk displeasing her.
There were a dozen students at school everyone watched but did not know. Daphne was one of them. The curious part about it was that those who watched her expected her to do or say something important, maybe shocking, maybe a revelation or even a scandal, possibly something they would realize they’d known all along. They needed to know, so they waited.
Both Rusty and Brian had kissed her. A few other had, too, but her kisses revealed nothing and drew them no closer to her. These boys could make out with her in a back seat at the drive in theater, or at a hamburger stand, or on dark patio at a party, or after walking away at the beach. She would not allow them to touch her chest. Her arms were tender and smooth, her skin fresh and warm, and they went away frustrated. They called her that night or the next morning, and her brothers or sisters said she wasn't there.
They remembered on the sand at The Wedge, now at quarter past midnight. She told her girlfriends to tell both boys to be here at this hour. Winds came up offshore and fanned the waves now, sent a film of spray that spread in the air and dissolved. The two boys would have to surf here tonight, and only one would win.
She was always late, Daphne. She had tardy slips at school and they called her parents. She was late to slumber parties, barbecues, and when they walked over to get a coke. They expected it of her. No one exactly said she was fun to be with, no, but they wanted her around.
A boy named Gary they all knew surprised everybody by coming their direction with his old surfboard under this arm. He was a small boy without any particular distinction, so they wondered why he was here. His face was red and his eyes looked scared, and he held his mouth shut tight. When he came close and went past them, they greeted him but he remained silent.
When he turned to walk over the sand and stopped between Rusty and Brian, he said loud enough to be heard, “I’m in this, too!”
There was no time to talk about his decision or find out when he decided, because now red police car lights shined in the distance, coming closer. A harbor patrol boat came near, too, and a loudspeaker voice ordered them all to leave the area immediately and go home.
A few obeyed. The rest watched as Rusty, Brian and Gary shifted their feet in the sand and looked all around. Everybody knew whether they could surf very well or not, or if they were average, or not very good.
The waves in The Wedge approached the shore, took on grotesque green shapes, stretched, crested, and broke with explosive wet power. Twenty minutes had passed since midnight, and a fog began rolling in.
The police arrived and got out of their cars, two patrol cars, now three, and an ambulance arrived. Suddenly Rusty sprinted for the water, holding his board chest high, and paddled on his knees.
Before Brian could follow, Gary ran diagonally to the water closest to the jetty. He held his board high while he entered the water, pushed it along the surface, and jumped up to lie on it while he paddled. Right away he went over a rising wave and slid down past it, out of view.
Brian took a more confident approach by paddling in an arc to the north to come around between the sets.
Now the police talked to individual students and told them to leave. Those who hesitated were warned sternly. When Rusty took off on a wave, everybody cheered and then saw him bail out.
More police arrived, and a car that seemed to hold more students. People on the sand turned to look, and also kept track of the action in the water. By now dozens were leaving, ordered by the police, and when Brian took off, only some of his classmates saw him catch a right, hang on, disappear in foam, and then ride out. They yelled and screamed on shore.
So many of them stood on the beach close together now that no one could see through them and distinguish who the people in the last car might be.
“It’s Daphne!” a girl screamed.
From the jetty, “She’s crying! She’s bawling!”
“Where? I don’t see her! Where is she? Is she all right?”
Out in the water, Rusty got into position but decided against a wave.
On the jetty, they were yelling, “Where’s Gary? I don’t see him!”
Four police swept down the jetty and ordered everyone to leave. Rusty took off and wiped out on a big crooked wave that threw him up in the night sky.
A crew of lifeguards arrived and trained search lights on the water. They ordered Brian to come in and he agreed.
Rusty’s brother and his best friend ran frantic along the beach until they saw him trying to walk in waist deep water. His face streamed blood, black in the moonlight. More water polo friends waded into help and discovered his nose was broken and his face was lacerated. They ran with him in their arms across the beach and sidewalk to where they’d parked, and the police let them drive off.
Two dozen others refused to leave the beach and screamed for Gary, who was last seen by the rocks. The lifeguards heard them and began their search, while the police insisted the remaining two dozen leave, or they’d be arrested.
While they all trudged back, there came a cry from near the bay:
“You’ve got to let us find out, officer! Please?” one of the girls begged.
“She can’t be dead!” another girl wailed.
“Who are you talking about?” a police officer asked them.
“Daphne! Our friend!”
“The girl they’re surfing for! She’ll go with the winner!” a boy explained.
“For Christ’s sake,” the officer muttered.
“But what about Gary?” another demanded.
“A search is being conducted. C’mon! On your way!”
They all drove home, in their blue cars, green cars, red and two-toned cars. They went away from the ocean into the dark night with the full moon above. They worried, and smoked cigarettes and listened to the radio. They cried, talked about the surfers, tried to change the subject, wondered what to do and what they’d tell their parents, and some fell asleep in their seats.
The leaders among them decided to stop at Carl’s, which might still be open at 1:15 AM. Not all of them followed. When the place was closed, they decided to continue to Ranch Town and wait.
“Maybe it’ll be on the radio, if they find Gary,” one girl suggested.
One delegation went up to the house where Daphne lived with her parents, brothers and sisters, while the others waited with beer they managed to buy, and smoked cigarettes.
They had a little trouble finding the right house, as they were not her close friends. When they arrived there were already fifty cars parked and waiting, up and down the street. Everyone wanted to see.
Two girls who knew one of Daphne’s brothers went to the front door and knocked. Right away the porch light came on, and somebody answered.
While everybody watched, they saw a gray figure move in the living room picture window. They saw what looked like a girl’s silhouette, and then it vanished in the dark. For the rest of their lives, those classmates believed they’d seen Daphne.
The girls who'd gone up to the door came back and asked for cigarettes first.
“Well? C’mon? What happened?”
“They’re watching the Fabulous 52 movie on Channel 2,” one of girls explained in a flat voice.
The news traveled down the street, from car to car. Engines started and they all went home. They knew Daphne never left her house that night. She was there the whole time while everybody was at The Wedge. The boys surfed for her under the full moon.
Two of the boys who knew her did not feel like sleeping. They drove first up to Brea and through Brea Canyon, into Pomona and up to Arrow Highway, over to Highway 39 and back down to Huntington Beach, and they found an all night hamburger stand where they ate.
“Do you think Gary’s dead?” one asked the other.
“He must be,” his friend said.
They drove up the back way, through the last big orange groves, up to Placentia, Yorba Linda and finally to Fullerton as dawn broke.
They were among the first customers at Easton’s Brown Mug downtown and ordered scrambled eggs and hotcakes with their coffee. The regulars looked at the boys whose fathers they knew.
“What are you doing here?” one plumbing supplies service owner asked them.
“Probably down at Newport,” a city clerk answered. “My daughter told me about the big shindig they had.”
“What the heck?” a real estate broker asked them while he sipped orange juice.
Just then the morning paper arrived, a bundle of fifty for the counter. The two boys didn’t want to snitch, although what happened would be known soon enough. They asked for their bill and reached for their wallets.
The one-inch story appeared on the front page with Gary’s full name, age and address.
They lowered the flag to half mast at the high school that day.