There was something to be said about the beach at night. It didn’t look like the beach everyone knew when the sun was high in the sky. There was something mysterious about it. It seemed unexplored, different. It could almost be seen as dangerous if there was a new moon. Everything about this part of town called to the teenagers, something about the allure of the ocean, the freedom of it. It made young people do things they never thought they would. It makes nights feel like they could last forever.
Seniors had been throwing their bonfire night the night before graduation near the caves on the beach since Mary Ellen’s parents had been in high school, probably long before, even. Both her older brothers had their senior night down the beach. RJ had even snuck her along with him the year before, but this night, it being her own special night, made it all the more exciting. The bonfire was going before she parked her car by the boardwalk; she could smell it before she saw it as she approached the seawall. She kicked off her Tom’s, holding them in her left hand and letting her toes sink into the warm sand. Her dark hair flew in her face as she walked toward the growing crowd of classmates, the sea breeze keeping the heat of the day at bay.
Graduation was the next afternoon, in a day most the people in front of her would no longer be her classmates, the faces she saw every day and interacted with, but just people she went to school with, people she knew once. The events of the previous week: the class trip to the amusement park, the movie day in the library to make up a snow day so they could graduate on time, the walking rehearsals, had made the small class grow close. Mary Ellen knew it would never last, after tomorrow they’d all be strangers again. Some of them would only see each other at reunions, maybe never, but tonight, this night was everything, one last grab at being young and stupid; one last chance to say everything they wanted to say before it was all over.
As she finally approached the fire, she spotted her two best friends, Lex and Carmen, sitting on a small pile of rocks near the fire, away from the rest of the people, but close enough for a passerby would know they were part of that group. She planted herself next to Lex and did her best to enjoy the calm of day.
“Tomorrow it’s over,” Carmen said. “It’s kind of sad, right?”
“Or a giant relief,” Lex replied. “We never have to talk to most of these people ever again.”
“Just like the occasional life-changing event post on Facebook,” Mary Ellen added. “I can live with that amount of social contact with most of these people.”
The three girls sat in silence, just observing. They watched the prom queen, Trish Hamilton, and her friends dance in the pink-orange light of sunset. They watched the boys throw stones into the ocean and laugh at unheard jokes.
“Do you ever feel like you missed out on it all?” Mary Ellen asked after some time had passed. “Like we spent too long trying to prove we’re better than these people that we never got to experience any of it?”
“Sometimes,” Carmen nodded.
“No,” Lex chuckled. “I’m very sound in my life choices.”
“RJ was talking about it yesterday,” Mary Ellen shrugged. “He told me that I was too uptight and lame.”
“No offense, Mare,” Lex said seriously. “But I really don’t think you should be taking life advice from someone who has taken a year off from school to ‘explore himself.’”
“He’s going to State in the fall,” Mary Ellen defended. “School was stressful for him, he just needed a break. It happens. He saved a ton of money working with my dad this year, so he doesn’t have to take out loans. It’s kind of brilliant really.”
“RJ has been a cautionary tale for all of us for years,” Lex said shaking her head.
“He may be an idiot, but he had straight A’s,” Mary Ellen replied. “He’s getting better. He’s not as off the wall and ridiculous as he was we were little. Just because he liked to break the rules and dance to his own beat doesn’t mean he’s completely worthless. We could all learn something from him. He’s a free spirit. I wish I had inherited some of that.”
Lex shrugged and turned back to fun unfolding in front of her.
“I think Mary Ellen’s right,” Carmen said as she pushed herself up off the rocks. “Spontaneity.” She reached her hands down, offering one to each of her friends. Mary Ellen grabbed it and let Carmen pull her up. The two turned to look at Lex, Carmen’s hand still extended.
“Oh, come on,” Mary Ellen sighed. She walked behind Lex and lifted her up by the shoulders.
“Like you said earlier, this is the second to last time we’re going to see these people,” Carmen smiled, linking arms with Lex.
“After we walk tomorrow, its goodbye forever,” Mary Ellen added taking her other arm. “We can all learn to be a little reckless once and while.”
Lex reluctantly let Carmen and Mary Ellen lead her across the beach, leaving their shoes and purses on the rocks. They made their way toward the fire where many of the girls in their class were dancing and just letting the moment wash over them.
“Finally,” Trish giggled. “We were starting to think that you guys were just going to hang out there and being lame.”
“The night is still young,” Mary Ellen joked. “Come on, Lex, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“It’s not going to kill you to just let go,” Carmen added as a new song started to play from the iPod speakers on top of the cooler. She extended her hand to Trish who took it and let her to the other side of the fire where they started to dance in that way that only teenage girls who don’t care if people are watching dance.
Mary Ellen looked Lex in the eyes and started to sway with the music. She put her hands over her head and twirled, hip checking Lex a couple times with a big genuine smile on her face.
Lex took a deep breath and rolled her eyes then finally visibly relaxed. “You only live once right?” Lex smiled as she finally gave in and let the music take control.