There was a pack of lions swimming in the water. Two adult lions and several smaller adolescent cubs. She could see them only 500 feet down the busy crowded beach. All around her the brightly colored striped tents of the permanent beach vendors, hawking fried things and frozen things, swirled and crusted and crumbling with sugar, were shining golden and red in the dying sun. The tanned stretched out plastic bodies of Wrightsville Beach lounged everywhere, on the splintery picnic tables that had been beaten gray by ocean wind, young people laughing and flirting with each other, old people sitting quietly in groups, and then those angry middle aged people freaking out over everything - their kids, other people, the fact that the earth was turning in space and they would soon have to go home because they were no longer free to stay in the drunken wilds of the beach after dark. People in general seemed happy and good natured until they hit middle age, that weird vast void between being pretty and not caring about being pretty anymore. No one seemed to notice the lions swimming out in the waves, but especially the middle aged people didn't notice, they deliberately didn't notice.
She was caught between the tide of people not watching, and,the pull of the lions in the waves, and with a short tug she pulled herself out of the thicket of the main drag and onto the empty coastline stretch, into the real sand. Behind her, humanity murmured, in front of her the water was humming, and for a moment she could hear the sound of her own breath before one sound or the other overwhelmed, she hovered on the threshold between the two atmospheres. Then she was free of the swell, and trudged towards the waters edge. The lions were playing only a few feet deep, and a young man stood on shore by them, watching them, a handful of leashes dangling by his side. She instantly resented him being there, it was the illusion of wild lions that had drawn her, now she knew they were only tame cats, but still they were impressive - their dark heavy bodies soaked in sea water, heaving and jumping and all their muscles were defined by their wet fur, monstrous animals with the face of kittens and the joy of killers. The sunset light caught the edge of their hair, and lit it up in gleaming gold neon outlines of their ears and snouts and thick necks, the soft pussy willow tips of their tails. Only predators have the capacity to be as happy as these cats were, herbivores can't relax long enough to smile. She walked up to him, her eyes transfixed on the lions. He smiled at her, also never taking his eyes off the cats.
"They're yours?" She had to shout a little into the wind. He had coffee brown skin and little black ringlets blowing around his half shell ears. His shoulders were very wide, and he gave the physical impression of being immovable by wind or weather. She could feel his concreteness through her hoodie, as surely as if she was standing next to a pillar of stone, the cold and wet air masking any smell of human that he had. It made sense that he was the lion tamer, if they tried to bite him they would only break their eyeteeth.
"Sure." He didn't turn his face to her when he answered, and the word almost completely escaped, she had to reach out and grab it from the air. She took out her phone to take a photo, and only this action seem to poke him, he turned and looked at her with disappointment. She was vaguely aware that she very quickly decided she didn't care about his opinion of whether or not she should be enjoying the moment as it happened, she wanted a photo to remember this by, and as she focused the camera and stared at them through the screen, she thought about when she had turned into this person, someone who sometimes didn't care. She was proud of herself, in another time she would have felt a stab of shame, and done whatever his large brown eyes were pleading her to do. But there would be no more boys making her feel ashamed, not lion tamer strangers or anyone. If he didn't want anyone taking photos of his cats, he shouldn't bring them swimming at the public beach. The photos of course bore no resemblance to the scene in front of her, but only because there are qualities of light we will never capture, just like there are qualities of lions and qualities of boys that aren't tangible.
She watched the rest of the time in silence, until the light was really almost gone. He gave a short guttural bark, and the pack came bounding back, rushing towards them in doggish obedience, the cubs following in kind only because they didn't want to lose their parents. The sensation of lions running at you is hard to recreate without risking death, and the experience of lions running at you with a complete sense of safety is reserved for only very special people, ones who have decided to live their lives in close proximity to beasts - zookeepers and vets, circus trainers. They stood around shaking the salt water off in arcing rainbow spatters while he attached the leashes to the giant collars that impossibly circled their huge primeval necks. She was obsessed with their necks, tendons the size of her arms tensing and flexing underneath the smelly wet animal hair. She had a deep need to lay her hand on them, put her head down against them, be cheek to cheek with their huge quiet faces.
He took them home, and she walked back towards town. The throng of the beach city had turned to the nighttime crowd, tanned lithe girls in white shorts and shiny cheekbones, smiling flirting boys buying them beers, the few middle-agers left who were nice, well on their way to old people status, already gathered in their social groups. The tents were strung with colored lights, the glows were green and blue and pink, and they cast theatre shadows against the high dark stone walls that separated the sands from the city. She stopped under the colossal arch of one of the dozen walkways, leaned against the cold dirty masonry, and watched the two sides - on the other side of one arch there was the beach with lights and loud wantonness, and then on the city side - streetlights and well dressed women in heels leaning on the arms of their dates, getting in and out of taxis, the antique storefronts lit up like a period movie set. She had salt and sand curdled on her skin and in the folds of her jeans, her hair falling stringy and wind tangled, any traces of makeup she left the house with completely bled off by now, and she belonged in neither of these places, but the only way out was one or the other, you couldn't go up.