Dillon pulls off the highway, swings his truck around, and reverses within a foot of the cliff. He turns and grins. “We’re here,” he says, pulling the parking brake and killing the diesel motor.
“I thought you were taking me to the beach,” I say. Cars and semi-trucks zip in front of us, rushing along the coastal highway. We’ve been driving for almost an hour, and I know we’re somewhere between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz.
“That’s right,” Dillon says. “The beach is down there.” He nods behind the truck and grins again.
I turn around and find his tailgate floating over the edge. This is what I get for letting him plan a date. Dillon never does anything the conventional way, and that’s half the reason I love him as much as I do.
“There’s not a better beach within fifty miles.” He reaches behind the vinyl bench seat and grabs two harnesses, a huge coil of climbing rope, helmets, a couple pairs of climbing gloves, and his red backpack.
I open my door and step down from the cab. I stretch, feeling the early evening sunlight warm my skin, before Dillon comes over to help me with my harness. It’s not the first time we’ve gone climbing, so I know to let him fasten the clasps around my thighs and waist. I check the buckles and straps after he’s finished, making sure they’re cinched tight.
We walk to the back of the truck, and I watch Dillon knot one end of the rope to his tow-hitch and then loop the rest of it around the steel ladder-rack that’s bolted to the truck bed. After he clips me in with carabiners, I look over the edge and find a little bean shaped beach below. “How far down is it?” I ask.
“Almost sixty feet.”
I buckle my helmet and put on the gloves that Dillon hands me, then grab the rope with both hands and wait for him to pull the slack nice and tight. When he does, I back up over the edge and start down. Dillon does most of the work to lower me, using the ladder-rack like a makeshift pulley, but I use my feet to push against the sandstone face and guide my descent.
When I land on the soft, sandy beach, I whistle up to Dillon. I unclip the carabiners and take off my helmet, then my gloves, but I leave the harness on. When I look up again, Dillon’s already started his descent. There is no one to help him down, but he’s a skilled climber, and I watch his red backpack move closer and closer.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“It’s perfect,” I say, moving closer to kiss him. “It’s our own little beach.”
Dillon opens his backpack and pulls a checkered blanket from the main compartment.
“What else do you have in there?” I ask.
“Go ahead and see for yourself,” he says, spreading the blanket on the tan sand.
I sit down and find a cardboard box, a twist-off bottle of Syrah, and two cups inside the pack. There’s a rubber band holding the box together and there are little stains on the cardboard. It’s not a small box, but it’s not very big, either.
“Go ahead,” he says, smiling at me and looking at the box. “Open it.”
I slide off the rubber band and open the lid, but all I find is a bunch of apple and orange slices, cheese squares and chocolate chunks.
“What’s the matter?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say, but I can’t hide my disappointment. I toss the box between us and some fruit and chocolate falls out.
“What is it?” he asks.
“I was hoping there was going to be a big, expensive ring in there,” I say.
“Come on, not again. Let’s just eat and enjoy the view. Can we do that?”
I don’t respond. I stare out at the endless ocean.
Dillon starts to eat the fruit and chocolate that fell out of the box. Five minutes later he clears his throat. “Are you still mad?”
“I’m frustrated,” I say. I lie down and stare up at the cloudless sky.
Dillon rolls on top of me and starts to kiss me, but when he tries for more I tell him no, which surprises me. Really, this would be the best place to come together, on our own private beach. The sun is shining down on us and the waves keep crashing less than fifteen feet away. But I’m not in the mood. He rolls off. I know he’s hurt and that the date did not go like he wanted, but I feel the same way.
Dillon pulls an O. Henry book from the front pocket of his pack and starts to read aloud. I love the thickness of Dillon’s voice more than anything, and the way his vocal chords seem to break apart when he gets tired or upset. I close my eyes and listen to him read, but I only focus on his voice. His reading calms me, and my eyelids become heavy.
I wake when a wave rolls up the blanket, soaking my sneakers and jeans. Dillon wakes up, too, having apparently dozed off after me. And then we’re up and packing and trying to stay as dry as possible, but the waves keep coming as the tide rises.
Dillon slings the backpack over his shoulders and starts climbing the rope.
“You’re going to leave me here?” I say, nearly shouting, trying to buckle my helmet.
“I need to climb up first and then I’ll be able to pull you up,” he says. “You’ll never be able to free-climb like me. You don’t have the upper body strength.”
He’s right. I watch him climb as fast as he can, his red backpack moving farther and farther away.
The tide rises above my knees before he makes it up over the lip of the cliff. The waves keep coming and my clothes are soaking wet. I’ll be swimming soon, I think, but I keep looking up, waiting for Dillon to tighten the slack on the rope and pull me up. As I check the carabiners and my harness again, a wave pushes me against the cliff wall. When I look behind me, I notice a white crest looming in the distance. I turn back and try to climb the sandstone face, but it’s no use. I look up, arching my neck, and yell with all my might. “Dillon, I’m waiting!”
The rope jerks and stiffens. I feel Dillon pull me out of the water like a fisherman, slow but steady, and I close my eyes and lean back in my harness. The breaker crashes below. Mist shoots up and sprays against my legs. As he reels me in, I imagine him standing at the edge of the cliff, wearing a gold wedding band; I picture the way it sparkles in the sunlight as he tugs on the rope. One day I’ll see it for real. I squeeze the rope tighter still and dream of my own ring, knowing I can hold on until then.
KYLE BILINSKI has worked as a painting contractor, delivery driver, house cleaner, and flight attendant. He lives in northern California and is currently an MFA candidate at Pacific University, working on fiction. He plays bass and harmonica, and his fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Overtime, Black Heart Magazine, and Life with Objects. Find him online at kylebilinski.weebly.com.