Racing Season in a Beach Town
You look at the ocean differently than I do. I’m not sure when our perceptions diverged, maybe it was the same time we did. I still remember being stunned for the first time when you couldn’t come over after school.
“Practice,” I echoed. “Practice for what?”
“You know,” you said, already looking past me down the road.
When I look at the ocean, I see every wave as a stack of lines. Crest, shadow, foam, and a green backlight that I’ve never been able to get right in my amateurish paintings. I see salt and current motion wearing away the base of the wind platforms. The waves are the reason I still have my job and the reason I got to watch you sometimes from my little crow’s nest.
You don’t even call them waves. You look at them in aggregate, see the topology of the ocean down your flight path. Anything inside that lane is scrutinized by you and the computer, scanned for markers of wind and air density changes. Anything outside it is pruned, discarded. There’s no room for extra cognition.
I asked you how far ahead you look, and you just shrugged. Depends on the speed, usually a mile. Sometimes closer to two miles on the long stretches. I nodded, like I could tell the difference between one and two miles across the ocean.
That’s what I thought about last week when I was going out to the wind farm. I stood on the bow and squinted out past the sunlight glittering on the waves. Maybe that one there was a mile, and the one a hundred waves further was two. I looked at my watch and tried to figure out how fast we were going. It probably took me longer to go from wave to wave than it did for you to go from mile to mile.
I watched the seagulls riding the wind. I knew your supercruise altitude out here, how high you liked to hover. A little higher than most, so the air is thinner and there’s less of it to push through. If I went up to the highest point on the tug’s mainmast and raised my hands, I’d be almost exactly halfway up.
“Your vision shrinks,” you said to me once as we walked along the beach. We were young, you hadn’t even gotten your first sponsor, but you were buzzing with excitement after qualifying. I knew when you were like that after you’d immersed yourself in something new. Your mind was on fire with it and the fire illuminated the rest of the world.
“Right now,” you said, “we’re looking straight ahead, and we see everything. I see your face next to me in my peripheral vision, and the trees and the sky. But the faster we go, the less we can see around us.”
You curled your hands and held them in front of your eyes.
“This is what it looks like when you’re going fast. I can’t see you anymore. All I can see is that railing at the end of the sidewalk, and I probably have half a second to turn before I hit it.”
I did the same with my own hands. The sun disappeared. Alarmed, I glanced down for a moment to track my feet. Through a dark little tunnel, I saw the ocean beyond the sidewalk. Even though we were walking towards it, our destination barely moved.
“Things off to the sides look like they move more. Your brain can’t process it,” you said, looking straight ahead. “We’re not built to go that fast.”
I tried to imagine it. Lights and lap markers flashing past faster than the eye could track, speed erasing everything but that little region at the center of your vision.
That evening, I ran up and down the boardwalk with my fingers curled in front of my eyes, thinking about you and trying to replicate the feeling until my parents called me back for dinner.
The teacups rattled on the little glass table. I placed an arm to steady it.
Later, much later, I was using you as entertainment on a date.
“They’re coming around the curve,” she murmured, and took her phone out of her purse. I watched her lower her sunglasses to look at the screen and hold it aloft, magnifying the view with her other hand.
“Which one is your friend again?”
“The red and white.”
I raised my own phone. The stabilizers tracked you, half a mile away, across the roofs of the financial district. Antennae and power lines flashed through the tiny rectangle of my vision. You were in third, floating in the wind shadow of the ship ahead of you.
“Is she going to pass?” my date asked.
“Not yet,” I said. “She will, but it wouldn’t be good here. She likes a dramatic ending.”
The group entered the curve and disappeared from view. I watched one of the struts on the next block shiver as the track above us redirected your howling weight at a speed I couldn’t understand.
“Wait until they get down over the ocean again and they open up the engines,” I said, pointing at the TV where drones tracked the school of metal fish. “Things always get interesting around the wind farm.”
She turned back to me, looking over her lowered sunglasses.
“Can we watch from the top of one of the windmills next time?”
I smiled faintly. “They don’t allow guests. But I could probably get you in.”
One night, some seasons in, I got a call from you. I asked if everything was okay. You said it was fine. But that I should come over, if I had already put the kids to bed.
Before I left, I made a thermos of that tea your tío always used to make for us when I came over. As I sat on the night train, I let it warm my hands and refused to open it.
This was the first time I’d been in your garage. The concrete floor was cleaned to a shine like a mausoleum. Cables snaked towards your machine, which hung in the air in a halo of floodlights behind you.
You said we couldn’t keep doing this. I wanted to ask, but you were so quiet. I listened to the central air being pushed through the building.
Eventually you placed a hand on the fuselage and told me: the stuff that makes them hover is slowing down the planet’s rotation, a little each day. The energy had to come from somewhere. Maybe years and years from now, we would figure out how to keep it from happening, put the speed back into the earth. It couldn’t last forever.
You barely touched the tea. I didn’t know what you ate or drank those days, whether you’d still indulge in something that reminded you of home. Our lives kept us both in the air, but I was always attached to the windmills so I wouldn’t fall. I needed things from the earth, drank green tea and used root vegetables in my cooking. Untethered, you sipped high-altitude condensation and fell down the track in a straight line.
When you had a steady sponsorship, those were the good times. Our paths diverged and crossed those years like those of teammates on a split track. You lived in my dreams, shaped the metaphors in my speech. And when the season ended and the days shortened, you’d fly home to our town and tell me about everything.
Like that time you lost a stabilizer and almost ejected on the last lap of the Empire City speedway. But you reached down past the controls, through the layers of software to the metal where it met the air, and you understood what your machine was doing long enough to limp across the finish line.
Or the time when a surprise cold front dropped across the desert last year, pushing a sandstorm through the third stage of the rally. Everyone was flying blind while the sand shredded their engines, knowing the only way out was through.
That was the fundamental split in our personalities. You charged ahead, cut yourself on whatever it was, and grew back stronger. I looked inwards, retreated, hardened myself against the world.
Once, I told you about the time I was working on a turbine and noticed the main shaft was cracked. I cut my safety and dropped off the windmill before it tore itself apart. You smiled and nodded and looked at me, but I knew you weren’t seeing me. The expanse of the track stretched out in your eyes, swallowing both of us.
I was working on the eighth turbine when you saw me for the last time. It was a beautiful day. I got to see the track rising that morning as I was walking out to the docks. Between the buildings, the giant struts slowly stretched and flexed, elevating the banked wall. As the track tilted in the sunrise, the reflected light swept off its surface across the city and out over the ocean.
Once I got to the turbine and ascended to the crow’s nest, I could see it all: the giant curves over the city, flashing turn markers projected from the buoys on the coastline, the crowds on the rooftop bars. The little band of satellites sparkling in the deep blue sky. Behind me, miles and miles off the coast, was the little sandbar that marked the first offshore corner.
The ninth turbine was spinning in the wind a few hundred yards away. Behind it lay the stretch of ocean marked off for the track. A few boats were anchored offshore out of shockwave distance, occupants pacing around inside with binoculars.
I remember hearing a quiet noise overhead and looking up to see a triangle of drones on their way to the starting line.
I didn’t turn around when I heard the fireworks, just kept working. I had stood in the stands with a timer for years during qualifying. I knew the range of two-tenths of a second when you’d be coming out of the city off a perfect launch. And so I worked for a moment longer and then turned around and wiped the sweat out of my eyes. You and everyone else came flying down that long ramp, giving each other space to pick up speed.
I still don’t know what happened to you then, or what you did wrong. I never looked it up. Your ship turned sideways, cartwheeled for half a mile, and hit the base of the ninth turbine, where it exploded.
You knew our home circuit like we used to know our neighborhood. There was one dogleg of track above the financial district that you always said mimicked a shortcut we’d take. A high, banked left as we climbed onto the rim of a fountain, then a long narrow right turn as we’d run along the edge and duck onto a portion of a spiraling maintenance stairway. Then a leap over open air onto a sloped grating where we’d follow it down to the sidewalk.
I sometimes think about that rush, once you’ve cleared the long, sweeping ramp down to the ocean. Once you’re on the water, far enough from the city that your race tech is screaming in your helmet to hit the switch, and you tighten your stabilizers and change the way your engine breathes.
Did your vision shrink preemptively as soon as you flew out over the water? Or did it always happen as late as possible, eyes and brain clinging onto shreds of scenery as metal cones shifted and the fuel-air ratio changed, your body trying its best to keep you alert in a situation it was never equipped to handle?
Of course, it would never save you, but I was too young to know that. What I knew then was your excited whoop when I was on your frequency and you opened up the engine. I knew the white skirt of water vapor around your ship as you broke the sound barrier and the distant crack that arrived late and out of sync with the footage, shuddering in my chest like an extra heartbeat.
But I didn’t mind. Your voice came from my headphones. I watched you through a screen. The sonic boom you sent out was the only way you could speak to me, wave to wave.