Existentialism by Henry Simpson

Otto was sitting on a bench on a walkway overlooking Windansea beach, a popular surfing spot in La Jolla. Night, it was misty with a cold wind blowing, surf crashing on the rocks and sand at the foot of the shallow cliff, roaring loudly and then exploding as the waves collapsed and formed whitewater, violent and peaceful at the same time.

In his mind’s eye Otto recalled a sunny day last June when he was about to carry his longboard out to the water’s edge and saw her, emerging from the ocean, those long legs, full breasts, narrow hips, perfect curves, the face of a goddess, shaking her long blond hair, then hip-swaying across the sand to her beach towel and casting a glance and shy smile his way. He knew right then she had been watching him alone among the other surfers all afternoon and was now displaying herself to him.

He was brought back to now by the sound of footsteps, and noticed a man walking a small dog along the sidewalk. The dog was long-haired and tiny, and even under a streetlight Otto could not see its eyes. It resembled a bouffant wig on a rollerskate, being dragged along on a string by a short man about forty in a dark windbreaker and slacks. He had a soft face with fluffy mustache, neatly combed blondish hair, hornrims with perfect circles for lenses, and resembled a character actor in a movie from the 1930s. Their eyes met as he passed Otto’s bench, and he stopped, stared at Otto, and smiled faintly. “Are you a Christian?” he said in a concerned voice that sounded higher pitched and younger than he looked.

Here we go, Otto thought. A fucking Jehovah’s Witness. When they came to his house, what he usually did was slam the door in their face or, if he was in a bad mood, tell them to get fucked and then slam the door. “Why?” Otto said. “Do you want to tell me about Jesus?”

The short man’s smile faded. “Nothing like that. I just saw you sitting here all by yourself and I said to myself, ‘Well, now, George. That handsome young man is sad about something.’”

“You got that right. My girlfriend just broke up with me. What’s that got to do with being a Christian?”

“If you had said yes, you were a Christian, then I would have offered to pray with you. Praying seems to make Christians feel better when they’re down.”

“No thanks, mister.”

The short man chuckled and sat on Otto’s bench. “Mind if I join you?” He turned to Otto. “Do you come here often?”

“I surf here in the summer.”

“Are you any good?”

“Well, I guess I’m all right.”

“I think I’ve seen you. Way, way out there. You are good.”

“Well, thanks.”

“That VW bus looks familiar too. I’ve seen it parked here many times.”

“That’s mine.”

“They’re getting rare.”

“They sure are.”

“The blue and white paint job, it’s beautiful.”

“Why, thank you. I love it.”

The man chuckled. “People fall in love with a lot of different things. That’s life, I suppose. What’s your name?”


“I’m George.” He extended his hand.

Otto shook it, cool and soft.

George pulled out a blue cigarette pack, shook a cigarette loose, stuck it into a long cigarette holder, cupped his hands over it to light with a match, and let it dangle from the side of his mouth. “Care for a cigarette, Otto?”

“No thanks.”

“Good for you. Smoking stunts your growth.”

Otto laughed. “I don’t believe that.”

“Skeptic, are you?”

“I guess I am. What kinda cigarette is it?”

“Galois. They’re French. I picked them up when I lived in Paris. They’re hard to come by around here. Tell me about your ill-fated romance.”

“Her name is Vanessa. I met her right here, on the beach, last June. We hit it right off. First day I met her, I invited her to a movie and that night we went to a drive in and saw a stinker of a surf’s up flick. It was so bad it was a joke, but that didn’t matter because Vanessa and me, we were making out big time. Next day she was at the beach again and every day after that for the rest of the summer. One wonderful night in August we consummated our love in that little shack up the beach, you can see it from here.”

“I know the place,” George said.

“Somewhere along the way, I really fell in love with her. My friends made jokes. To most of them, making out with chicks was not a serious thing. The deal was to get laid but not get hooked on the nookie. We all knew guys stupid enough to fall into that trap of getting married, having kids, jobs, the whole nine yards. I knew the risks, I plunged in any way, big mistake.”

“So, what happened?”

“Vanessa got a job in a travel agency, moved into an apartment, started running with an older crowd, they all had apartments and new cars. She stopped hanging out with me, then dumped me.”

A long silence.

George dropped his cigarette onto the pavement, crushed it with his loafer, picked it up and wrapped it in a tissue, pocketed it.

What a neat man, Otto thought. How weird.

“I was correct about you being sad,” George said.

“You’re a mind reader.”

“It helps in my line of work.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m a playwright.”

“No kidding,” Otto said, fearing it sounded from his voice that he was impressed, because he was. He had never met a real playwright before, or anyone who was a real writer in the sense that they made their living at it and did more than talk about it or take classes about writing or have other pretensions. “I think I might be a novelist someday.”

“Have you published anything?”

“Just for my high school literary magazine. I wrote an article about rock and roll music and they published it after about a hundred revisions. Then I wrote this stupid six-line poem about the end of the world and they loved it. It was a real piece of shit. I don’t get it.”

“Was it existential?”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing matters, everything’s empty, live life for the moment, like that. Editors love that.”

“Well it was all of those things, all right, but I didn’t think about it very much. I was just having this shitty day is all. Maybe I’m existential and didn’t even know it.”

“Lots of folks are. My plays are like that. We have a lot in common.”

“No kidding. The literary magazine editor wouldn’t take any of my short stories. She said they weren’t serious enough.”

“What did you write about?”

“Drag racing.”

“That can be a serious subject, I suppose. People sometimes die doing that, don’t they?”

“It’s rare, but it does happen.”

“What does that editor know, anyway?”

“I also did a story about surfing. It was set right here.”

“Tell me the story.”

Otto wondered, did George really want to know or was he just being polite, and he also wondered if he could understand a story about the surfer lifestyle. “Are you really, truly interested?”

“Yes, Otto, I really, truly am.”

“This young surfer comes here to Windansea to test himself on the highest surf there is. He waits all summer for the big waves to come. While he’s preparing for the trial, he meets a surfer girl and falls in love with her. He also meets a rival surfer who tries to take his girl away from him. It’s give and take all summer until at the end, a big contest is held to see which surfer has the guts and skill to take on the big waves.”

“How does it end?” George said.

“I don’t want to give that away,” Otto said with anger in his voice. “I might write it up for the New Yorker or some big magazine and publish it someday.”

George nodded. “Very wise of you,” George said. “It’s quite a story.”

“What do you write about?” Otto said.

George lit another cigarette, puffed on it as it dangled from his holder. “My latest project is about two men in a rail yard who stand around waiting for a third man to show up.”

“What happens?”

“They talk.”

“Is that all?”

“That’s pretty much it, Otto.”

“Sounds kinda boring.”

“Do you think so?”

“Maybe you should put some action in it.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know—maybe have the guys get into a fight. Have a yard bull show up and chase everyone away.”

“If they all left, that would be the end of the play.”

“Not necessarily,” Otto said, surprised by the authority he heard in his voice. “They could go somewhere else and start-up again.”

“Change the scene—is that what you mean?”

“Yeah, uh, change the scene.”

“I never thought of that,” George said as if he genuinely appreciated Otto’s suggestion. “Maybe I’ll do something like that. Thanks for the idea. I’m glad I stopped to say hello to you, Otto. You sound like a very intelligent, open-minded kind of young man.”

“I try to be,” Otto said.

George stared at Otto for a moment, and then said, “How would you like to have your cock sucked?”

Otto flinched, but soon recovered. The question did not shock him. He had been asked it before, sometimes by guys who really scared him—athletes, bodybuilders, or otherwise of serious physical prowess. George was no threat at all compared with the roughnecks he’d said no to. “Not particularly,” he said.

George got up from the bench. “I’m so very sorry about your girlfriend, Otto. Maybe you two will get back together.”

“Not very likely,” Otto said.

“Are you absolutely, positively sure you don’t want me to . . .”

“What are you, a pervert? Leave me the fuck alone.”

“Oh my goodness, now I’ve offended you, I’m so sorry. I really do apologize, Otto. I don’t know what got into me. You’re such a nice-looking young man and I’m attracted to young men. There you have it.” He paused. “But you said you were open-minded. Are you afraid of people like me?”

Otto said nothing.

George said, “What do you think I am, anyway?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

“I am so sorry, Otto. There, I’ve gone and ruined your evening. I know you came out here because you were sad and now I’ve made you angry. That’s just awful. To make it up to you, why don’t you come up to my house, meet my roommates, and have a glass of wine?”

“I . . .”

“You are old enough to drink, aren’t you?” He paused. “Well, it doesn’t matter. I can tell that you’re a mature young man.”

“Where do you live?”


George stopped before a small blue bungalow with a white picket fence with a hand-painted sign on the gate that said: Alyson’s Wonderland: French Lessons Given.

“Well, here we are. Come inside and meet the family.”

The front yard contained a dozen blooming rose bushes and a sculpture of a centaur whose bronze eyes seemed to follow Otto as he crossed the yard behind George.

Inside, it was warm and cozy, with a fire burning in the fireplace, and the aroma of burning wood and marijuana. The voice of an old-time female singer was coming from the record player. Two shaggy cats were sleeping peacefully on a bookshelf. Through a window to the backyard Otto glimpsed a life-size sculpture of a female nude standing dramatically beneath a spotlight.

A man was sitting on a couch and a woman in an overstuffed chair. The woman was attractive, mid-thirties, with long black hair, but the lines in her face gave her a shopworn look. She squashed what looked like a hand-rolled doobie in a metal ashtray and pushed down a lever that made the remains disappear beneath a metal cover. The man was about forty, with a muscular build, and looked like someone who worked with his hands, which were large and rough-textured.

“It’s no raid, folks,” George said to them. “I just brought home a friend. This is Otto and he’s alright.”

“Hi, Otto,” said the woman with a friendly smile. “I’m Alyson.” She sounded high.

“I’m George,” said the man.

“You’re both named George?” Otto said to the second George.

“Call me Hugh,” he said, shaking Otto’s hand. “One George around here is enough.” As he held Otto’s hand, his eyes looked Otto over from the top of his head to his toes. “Take off your clothes and pose for me.”

“What?” Otto said.

“Just joking, kid. I’m a sculptor.” He gestured toward his handiwork in the backyard. “But I’ve got to say, you have the build for it. Are you an athlete?”


“I guessed,” Hugh said, finally releasing Otto’s hand.

Alyson smiled, eyes glinting. “You’re kinda cute, Otto. Would you like a toke?”

“A what?” Otto said.

“Mary Jane, Otto,” George said. “Do you know what . . .”

“I’ve smoked weed before,” Otto said. “Maybe later.”

“Oh, sure, honey,” Alyson said. She fished the flushed joint from her complicated ashtray, straightened it out between her fingers, then lit it with a table lighter that resembled a big banana. She inhaled, then passed the joint to Hugh.

George showed Otto to a chair, brought him a glass of red wine, and sat down on the couch beside Hugh.

“It’s not easy . . . ,” Hugh said, voice trailing off.

Alyson looked at George. “He seems a little confused, George.”

“I’m not confused,” Hugh said. “I’m George. That’s what’s confusing.”

“It can be,” George said.

“Got that right, by god.”

“Three of you live here?” Otto said.

“Sure do, Hugh said,” looking at his roommates. “We’re just one big happy family, aren’t we?”

“Long as everyone pays the rent on time,” Alyson said, slurring her words like the singer on the record player.

“Who is that singer?” Otto said.

“That’s Billie Holiday,” George said.

“She’s before his time,” Alyson said.

“Well, now,” George said. “Someone’s terribly sensitive tonight. I wonder could it be the PMS.”

“Shut your hole, George,” Alyson said.

“Oowee sorry, dear. Georgie didn’t mean to offend little Allie.”

“George never does,” Alyson said.

“Maybe you could pass that doobie around, honey,” George said.

Alyson handed George the reefer and he took a long drag on it.

George passed it to Otto. “Just pucker up and suck, Otto.”

The others laughed and looked at Otto. Otto took a drag and passed the joint to Hugh. “You all seem to be artists around here,” Otto said.

They all laughed like stoners.

Alyson said, “You say the nicest things, young man.”

“Call me Otto,” Otto said.


“Uh—what do you do . . . Alyson?”

She thought this over for a while. “I’m a photographer.”

“Where are your photographs?”

“They’re all in storage. Two years ago some truly despicable asshole stole all my camera equipment and I’m still fighting with the insurance company to replace it. At the moment I’m in a slump.”

“Yeah,” George said. “Those insurance companies, they sure can give you constipation of the artistic faculties.”

“George,” Alyson said threateningly. “I’m warning you.”

George ignored the comment, and said, “Guess what, folks, Otto here is a writer. He just told me the most fascinating idea for a love story about surfer boys and surfer girls.” He turned to Otto. “Tell them the story, Otto, just like you told it to me.”

“Wow,” Otto said. “I can really feel this stuff. It’s like a volcano erupting inside my head.”

Their laughter sounded to Otto as if it were coming through an echo chamber. He had smoked weed but never anything with this much kick. It was professional grade shit.

“Come on, Otto,” George was saying from very far off. “Tell your story.”

Otto said, “I don’t think your friends . . . I mean . . . why would they want to hear about that?”

Alyson said, “We’re always interested in young talent, Otto. Please share it with us.”

He told them the story he had told George, this time including the ending, which was how the young surfer won the surfing contest and was offered a movie contract by a Hollywood agent who just happened to be there to witness the happy ending.

“That’s one hell of a story,” Hugh said afterward. “You could sell that to the movies.”

Alyson said, “I agree. Maybe you could get Georgie to write the screenplay. How about it, Georgie?”

Hugh took this occasion to give Otto a tour of the backyard sculpture garden, starting with a nude, well-muscled young man with a handsome face and serene expression ogling a beautiful nude female standing on a seashell who seemed to have a naughty look on her exquisite face as she observed the young man’s huge erection.

“Recognize those?” Hugh said.

“She’s a knockout,” Otto said.

“Knockoff’s more like it. She’s based on Botticelli’s Venus.”

“Oh, yeah? What about the dude?”

“Michelangelo’s David.”

“Italian, huh?”

“I put the two masterpieces together so their subjects could ogle each other’s equipment. The sea-foam is semen. Mythical and Biblical—it’s a fresh take. What do you think?”

“She’s, like, a thousand times more beautiful than my last girlfriend.”

“What about David?”

“I don’t know what to say. That bent wrist makes him look gay, but he’s hung like a horse. I don’t think that’s possible in nature. Not even black guys I know have bats like that.”

“David was favored by the Lord. George thinks he’s grand.”

“I can believe that.”

“You remember what I said earlier about you posing for me? You have a wonderful build and would be a terrific model. I’ll pay you if you’re interested. A model usually gets fifteen bucks an hour.”

“I’m not interested.”

“It’s easy work,” Hugh said.

“Did you have someone pose for Venus in this, because I’d sure like to meet whoever was the model.”

Hugh laughed. “I bet you would. The pose and face are from a famous painting. That’s Alyson’s body, mostly, but Venus is idealized beauty. You won’t find her walking on the beach. In fact, you’ll probably live your whole life and never find her. She only exists in your imagination. You can love her anyway.”

Otto felt a little faint, probably from the wine and dynamite marijuana. He wondered if someone had put something extra in one of them. “Can we go back inside, Hugh?”

He took a step in the direction of the house and his feet collapsed beneath him.

Hugh caught him on the way down, helped him into the house and sat him down in his chair. His glass of wine was still there.

George and Alyson were sitting together on the couch, turning the pages of a big art book with Japanese writing on the cover and a black and white illustration of a Samurai forcing his salami into a geisha. After a while, they passed the book to Otto and he paged through the beautiful, impossible drawings with amazement.

He set the book down and looked up. “I . . . I . . . I don’t understand what’s going on here,” Otto said to Hugh. “You and George and Alyson. What are you three?”

“We’re roommates, Otto. That’s what we are.”

“Is that all?”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. Is it two of you or three of you or if it’s two of you which two of you is it or does it . . .”

“Sometimes it’s two of us, and sometimes it’s three of us, and sometimes, like tonight, it’s four of us. Welcome to the party.”

“Wait a minute, I’m not in your party.”

“Sure you are.”

After that, there was another book, illustrations from the Marquis de Sade, and there may have been others.

And then he fell asleep and dreamed of Venus rising from her shell and heard her soft voice, singing to him.

In complete darkness later, he awoke in a warm bed with a woman beside him, her hot breath upon him.


Or was it Vanessa?

He couldn’t tell.

And it made no difference.

He reached out and touched her warmth, ran his hand along her shoulder and arm, the curvature of her hip.

“Welcome to Wonderland,” she whispered.

Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017).


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