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Love at first sight is supposed to happen when locking eyes on a busy Parisian street corner or while sharing a booth during a poetry reading at a crowded SoHo coffee shop. It's not supposed to take place while you're on a rooftop in the middle of night spying on a guy like some pathetic perv. Unfortunately, I seem totally incapable of doing anything the way it's supposed to be.
It wasn't technically first sight. I had seen Zach countless times before, just never with the roller-coaster drop in my stomach or the sudden shift of cabin pressure in my head. As for the spying, there was no premeditation or intent to stare. (At worst it makes me a second-degree Peeping Tom.)
It happened on New Year's Eve, as the worst year of my life was mercifully coming to a very dull and uneventful end. All of the New Year's essentials like cool music, good friends, and a boyfriend to kiss at midnight were glaringly absent.
It was just me all alone on the roof of a decrepit hotel overlooking godforsaken Coconut Beach, Florida. (Okay, "decrepit" and "godforsaken" are a bit harsh, but since this happened a few minutes before my resolution to be less negative and dramatic, I think they're acceptable and appropriate.)
The moment was in stark contrast to the previous New Year's, which I spent at Hadley Montgomery's townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Had's family is sick rich, and the party was loaded like a Lexus. They had a rocking band and shrimp the size of my head. At midnight, when I kissed my boyfriend, Brendan, I closed my eyes, knowing that my life was perfect. Fast-forward three hundred sixty-five days and my eyes are wide open to a very imperfect world.
It would have been one thing if we had come to Florida on some sort of lame family vacation. At least then it would have been tolerable. I could have acted like I was having a good time while secretly counting the seconds until a flight would carry us back to civilization.
But there would be no flight to catch and no civilization to call home. We were not just staying at the hotel. We had moved in permanently!
I'll skip the rancid details. Just know that my father had a full-on midlife crisis and somehow convinced my mom to go along for the ride. (Here's the part I didn't get. If it was his crisis, why was I the one who had to suffer?) He quit his job on Wall Street, cashed out all of his investments, and sold our sweet TriBeCa apartment two blocks from the building where Gisele Bündchen lives. (Not that the two of us hung out or anything, but it was more than a little nice to think we went to the same Starbucks.)
Then he put all of the money together and bought the Seabreeze Hotel. If that sounds glam, believe me, it isn't. The Seabreeze isn't one of those cool hotels in South Beach with Crayola colors and a lobby full of people who look like they're ready for a fashion shoot. It's strictly an old-school wooden dinosaur with guests who are a lot more America's Funniest Home Videos than America's Next Top Model.
The hotel has two main floors, which stretch along the beach so that each room has an ocean view. The third floor is much smaller and only has five rooms, which connect to form a suite. That's where we live. Officially, it's called the penthouse. (As if.) There's even a PH button instead of a 3 in the elevator. (I like to say the PH stands for "piehole.")
Our place looks kind of like the top tier of a wedding cake. I can step over the railing of my balcony directly onto the roof. I keep an old aluminum beach chair hidden up there, and whenever I want to get away from everything, I can slip out onto the roof and practically disappear. Lately this had been an extremely frequent urge. That's why I was up there on New Year's Eve.
There was a pretty decent-size party going on downstairs in the hotel ballroom. It was a fifty-fifty mix of hotel guests and locals, with a band that played covers of pop songs. I hung tough until they decided to bust out "YMCA." That's when I bolted.
I knew it was lame of me not to stay. (Maybe even lamer than their version of "YMCA.") After all, my mother and little brother had completely turned around, so I was the only one still protesting the move. But I was in no mood to party. I faked an upset stomach to get out of it. There was no way my mom believed me, but she let me come upstairs anyway. I think she'd just gotten tired of trying to convert me.
As I sat back in my chair and looked out at the ocean, I could hear the people two stories below counting down the final seconds of the year. They got louder with each one until the clock struck midnight, and then they all blew on toy horns and yelled, "Happy New Year!"
That's when the guilt kicked in. I considered feigning a miraculous recovery and going back down to the party as part of a whole turning-over-a-new-leaf-in-the-new-year kind of thing. But something on the beach caught my eye.
It looked like a person carrying a large object into the water. I've probably seen way too many episodes of CSI: Miami, because my first instinct was that it was someone trying to dump a dead body into the ocean. In truth I couldn't tell what it was. There was a half moon, but it was also really cloudy out, which made it hard to see.
As the clouds drifted across the sky, little bursts of light broke through and let me take a better look. I realized that the person wasn't carrying a body; he was carrying a surfboard. Just like that this guy went from being interestingly criminal to positively idiotic. Only a moron would surf in the middle of the night.
Even without the dead body, I thought about calling the police. It's not against the law to go surfing at night. (Actually, I don't know that. It may very well be.) But I was worried the guy might have had a few too many New Year's cocktails. If he went out into the water drunk, he could easily drown.
But this guy didn't move like he was drunk. In fact he didn't even move like it was nighttime. He glided across the sand and picked up speed as he sprinted through the shallow water, lifting his legs up just high enough to clear the surface. Finally, he slid onto the board and began to paddle out.
I shivered just thinking about how freezing the water must have felt. He was wearing a wet suit, but it only covered his arms down to the biceps and his legs down to the thighs. He didn't seem to mind, though. He never made a noise or acted like it was the slightest bit cold. He just paddled silently out to the swells. When he got there, he sat up on the board with his legs dangling over the sides. He glanced back at the beach just as a cloud shifted, and I was able to get a look at his face. Even though he was out pretty far, I knew it was Zach.
That's why it wasn't first sight. I had seen Zach plenty of times before. He works part-time bussing tables in the hotel dining room. He's pretty cute and extremely quiet. And, as this escapade showed, more than a little weird.
As part of the family, I pitch in to help at the hotel. I wait tables in the dining room three nights a week. In the three months we'd worked together before New Year's Eve, I don't think Zach and I had spoken for more than a total of ten minutes.
I couldn't figure out what he was doing out there, but for some reason I couldn't stop watching. He was just a dark shadow bobbing up and down on the swells, looking for a wave to catch, and I was mesmerized.
The entire episode seemed insane. Not only was the water freezing, but I assumed that nighttime would be when all of the sharks and other deadly sea creatures come out. Whether that was true or not, Zach obviously wasn't worried. Even from as far away as the hotel roof, I could see that he was smiling and totally enjoying himself. Finally, after a few minutes, a set of three waves started to come at him. He lay out flat on the board and started to paddle back in the same direction as the waves. He floated up and over the first two before finally latching onto the last one.
I have to admit it looked pretty freaking cool in the moonlight as he climbed up onto the board, the top of the wave forming a silvery wash at his feet. Even though it wasn't a particularly big wave, he was able to stay up almost all the way in before finally stepping off into the shallow water.
That was it. He only rode that one wave. When it was over, he got up out of the water and carried his board back onto the beach. A breeze kicked up, strong enough to make the palm trees sway, and for the first time he looked cold.
He unzipped his wet suit and stripped down to a pair of board shorts, shivering as he toweled off. (Here's a fact I had never noticed in his busboy outfit: Zach is kind of ripped.) Once he was all dry, he threw on a T-shirt and carried his board back up toward the hotel parking lot.
This is where the perv gene kicked in. I couldn't stop staring at him. It was one thing when he was on the ocean; I could argue that I was staring at him for safety reasons. But here the only explanation was unbridled hormonal intrigue.
As he reached the streetlight at the edge of the parking lot, he looked right up at me. It was as if he'd known I was there all along. Purely by instinct I pressed myself back into the shadows to hide. I don't know why. It wasn't like I was doing anything wrong maybe a little weird, but not wrong. For a moment we just held the look. Then he flashed a smile of epic proportions. Perfect white teeth, dazzling even in the darkness. They were impossible to ignore. I smiled back and gave him my best nonchalant wave. Like it was totally normal for me to be on the roof of the hotel and for him to be surfing at midnight on New Year's Eve.
Then he walked out of the light and disappeared into the darkness. It was in that instant that I had the roller-coaster/cabin-pressure effect. I plopped down in my little beach chair for a second and tried to figure out what it all meant. But I didn't have much time to think about it, because I heard the elevator kick into gear. The rear elevator only goes to the third floor, so I knew it had to be my parents or my brother heading up to the piehole. Luckily, like everything else in the hotel the elevator is ancient and slow. I had more than enough time to fold up my chair and climb in through my window.
I jumped right into bed and did my best to look like I was suffering from a raging upset stomach. My mother knew that I wasn't really sick. And she knew that I knew that she knew. But you still have to go through the motions and play out the entire scene. That's just what mothers and daughters do.
After a few moments there was a knock on the door, and I was ready for my performance. I expected my mother to come in and make sure I wasn't goofing off, and I was going to greet her with deep bronchial hacking. But it wasn't Mom. It was my dad.
"How are you feeling, Darby?" Unlike Mom, Dad probably thought I really was sick.
"Better," I said with a faint cough, now feeling very guilty.
"Well, I just wanted to stop by and wish you a happy new year."
"Happy New Year, Dad."
He looked at me for a long moment and then said something totally unexpected. "I did a terrible thing to you, Darby, and I'm sorry. Making you move right before your senior year is unforgivable."
I wanted to scream, That's right! It's totally, horribly, irrevocably unforgivable! But a New Year's resolution should last at least more than eleven minutes. Besides, with regard to everything else in my life, my dad has always been great. I looked back into his eyes, which seemed filled with concern.
"It's not unforgivable," I said, trying to make myself believe what I was saying. "I don't understand it, but I can forgive it. In fact, I already have."
He flashed me a big smile, leaned over, and kissed me on the forehead. He lingered for a moment with his cheek against my forehead. That's the way he used to check my temperature when I was little and had a fever. I couldn't tell if he was doing it to see if I was sick, or just to go back to a time before I had become such a drama queen.
When he stood up, I saw that my mom had come into the room behind him. She was obviously pleased with what she had seen and heard. As a result she didn't give me a hard time about the pseudo stomach ailment. She just looked at me and smiled.
"Happy New Year, Darby."
"Happy New Year, Mom."
It was the closest thing we'd had to a tender moment since we came to Florida.
After they left, I just lay there in my bed and tried to make sense of the year that was and get my head around the year that was coming. It may have been starting out in Coconut Beach, but it would end with me going off to college. (By the way, the anxiety of waiting for admissions letters also wasn't doing much to help my general mood.)
I followed my normal nighttime routine and looked at my computer screen as I fell asleep. My screen saver was set to be a slide show from back home in New York, with more than fifty pictures in the loop. There were pictures of me and my best friends during all sorts of capers. There were images of some of my favorite New York landmarks, like the Chrysler Building, Central Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge. And there were a lot of pictures of me and my old boyfriend, Brendan.
The thing that was weird was that Brendan and I had never really broken up. My family moved to Florida, and that was the end of the relationship. There'd been no mention of long-distance romance, so we weren't still a couple. But there'd also never been a final moment. That's why I still had his pictures on my computer.
But when I finally closed my eyes to fall asleep, the last image in my mind was not New York or Brendan. It was Zach looking up at me and flashing that smile. As smiles go, I would classify his as dazzling. It also had a hint of mystery. I didn't know if he was smiling with me or smiling at me. Was he laughing at the fact that he'd caught me looking at him? Or was he saying something else?
Copyright © 2008 by James Ponti