Pleasure Island was both a community in coastal North Carolina and an adult board game that my ex-wife had found one evening at a local thrift store. She said starting the club would bring the island together. Back then, only a few neighbors came to the meetings, and instead of stripping off our clothes and kissing someone else’s husband, we only sipped wine and laughed at the activities we were supposed to perform. That lasted about a month. Then, as the club’s membership grew, bras and boxers became less required, and the more adventurous people convinced the others to start playing the game for real.
One night I found Rachel on the boardwalk with my neighbor. “What? It’s part of the game,” she said, shrugging. And though I moved to Georgia soon after, I could never stop thinking about the two of them kissing on the boardwalk, the ocean calmly moving with them in the background.
Sometimes I returned to Pleasure Island to rent, under a false name, a small condo a few blocks from the ocean. Between my visits the shoreline eroded, but the spot remained where Rachel and I had always sunbathed together. A family now sat beside those rocks, a tent pitched above them, their children scurrying underneath with buckets, shovels, and smiles. This visit saddened me, like all the others. Near the north end of the island, large machines floated a hundred feet offshore and pumped sand from the bottom of the ocean. These dredgers fought to keep the beach in existence.
The town rebuilt the boardwalk before my first visit back. The composite material looked the same as wood from a distance, but the texture reminded me of plastic, smooth and sterile. I never walked there anymore, choosing to access the beach from the street instead. They ruined the boardwalk for the sake of durability.
I passed through the barricade of boulders, which separated a thin strip of beach from the row of oceanfront condos. An older woman smiled as she climbed the other direction up the rocks. I nodded, squeezing the lighter in my pocket and hoping she wasn’t someone who would recognize me. She wasn’t. The unfamiliar faces of summer tourists relaxed me. After she passed, I watched a teenage boy and girl who floated on waves together in the distance, and I wondered if the Pleasure Island Club still met on Saturdays, and if Rachel was still leading the meetings, and if this young couple had ever stumbled upon one of their drunken orgies. Something was wrong, though, and they started swimming to shore, a pair of fins not far behind them. I knew the fins belonged to dolphins, nothing to worry about, but I took off my shirt and ducked under the roll of a wave, anyway, to help them to land. Maybe I just wanted somebody to save.
“They were just dolphins?” the boy said, his long hair sticking against his cheek.
“Just dolphins,” I said.
They walked north, headed toward the pier, and in their place appeared a woman my age, holding my shirt. I studied her, trying to remember if I’d ever seen her at a club meeting. She didn’t look familiar. But something about her expression, her curiosity, reminded me of Rachel.
“That was real brave of you,” she said, handing over my shirt.
“They were just dolphins,” I said. “We haven’t met before, have we?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“So you’re not from around here?”
She said she was from Raleigh—and her name was Kristen—but her mom had a beach house on the island, and a few times a year she visited with her son. She pointed to a toddler who carried a plastic shovel and chased a flock of seagulls. Perhaps he was the product of a late night club meeting. I glanced at the boardwalk; the composite wood of the newer sections, replaced after the fire, was greener than the rest. And I thought of Rachel’s skin shimmering from the moonlight, our neighbor’s body pressed against her.
“Did you lose something?” Kristen asked, pointing to my pocket, where my thumb clicked against the lighter.
“Just a nervous habit,” I said, showing her the rusted lighter. Then I surveyed the beach, wanting to change subjects. “The erosion’s getting bad here. A lot of boulders and dredging equipment around.”
“Yeah, but it’s even worse other places,” she said.
An older man approached. He looked familiar, and there was something about his walk that bothered me, something about the looseness of his hips: a member of the Pleasure Island Club, I realized—though I couldn’t remember his name, and I hoped he wouldn’t recognize me.
“We should tell people about your bravery,” Kristen said, smiling. “Not everyone would jump in the water like that.”
“They were just dolphins,” I said.
She waved the old man to a stop and made a joke about me saving people from the dolphin-infested ocean.
The old man studied me. “John?” he said. “It is you. No beard, but you can’t hide those ears. There’s a reason people joked about how you were always listening.”
“You’ve got the wrong person.”
“Listen. I get it,” he said. “But you can’t keep coming back here.”
Kristen inched away.
“I don’t know you,” I said. “Leave me alone.”
“Okay, sure,” the old man said. “But Rachel’s the only reason you’re not in trouble. She still feels somehow responsible, I guess.” The old man rubbed the sweat off the bridge of his nose. “You should thank her sometime. You should thank all of us,” he said, before walking away.
Kristen made an excuse about having to leave to cook dinner. She returned to her child and hurriedly gathered their stuff while I tried to spark a flame with the soaked lighter in my pocket, my thumb beginning to blister. I started back to the condo. But before leaving, I glanced one last time at the giant machines near the north end of the island. Day and night, they dredged, trying to replace what the ocean swept away.