GONE TO SEASIDE
by Tom Cowell
It's morning now, a sunny one with pink billowy clouds about the horizon. Ron's sitting in a wooden rocker on the balcony, he's been watching the shifts in the morning light with a kind of indifference, a deserved kind of ignorance. His mind is planted on his wife, and everything else, the events of real-time, move without his impression.
Issue #70 soundtrack: Matthew Carefully & the Memorial Concern "Who Will" (a Will Stratton cover)
He nurses a cappuccino he'd gone down to a cafe for. A blueberry scone, behind him on the kitchen counter still in its paper bag, rests beside his phone. Ron's been visiting this town each summer for the past six summers now, minus that one summer they'd splurged and gone to Italy instead. Had that been three or four years ago? He furrows his brow and rubs at his eyes in an effort to remember, as if remembering will fix things.
He'd had a bad night's sleep. He'd poured himself a nightcap while waiting in vain for his phone to light up with a text or a call. In the course of a few wasted hours he'd finished off the whiskey and passed out with his socks on.
Linda's absence feels stronger than her presence. This truth makes Ron wonder if maybe they have in fact been together too long. But then he shakes his head. A foolish thought. No such thing as together too long, not if there's mutual love. He's been married to her almost thirty years, and now this?
He finishes the last of his cappuccino, thinks he should've gotten a triple-shot. He still feels like hell. His slouched, tired body feels glued to the seat. He realizes no amount of caffeine can help his situation, that more sleep would be best but that it's momentarily out of the question.
The sun's steadily climbing, the clouds on the horizon are losing their pinkness, turning white. The people on the boardwalk go from antique walkers fighting arthritis to middle age joggers fighting fat to twenty-something-year-olds on bicycles clutching surfboards under their arms. It doesn't take long before all the tourists swarm the beach and the boardwalk, the turnaround point, snapping pictures in front of the Lewis and Clark statue, the sun-shimmering ocean behind them, whitecaps breaking.
Ron spots a young girl tossing bread crumbs into the sand. A group of seagulls dive from the top of some light posts on the boardwalk. The girl makes a little squeal of excitement. She stomps her feet and claps her hands. Her young parents stand happily by her side. This is a moment for them, one they'll treasure for years. Tourists slow on the boardwalk to watch. Some take pictures. The young parents are a little embarrassed by the commotion their daughter's started. Being the leaders of honest, quiet lives, they sense their embarrassment between themselves.
Ron guesses there to be about thirty seagulls competing over the breadcrumbs. The birds squawk, flutter their wings, and peck at each other. The scene brings back memories from the summer six years ago, back when the kids were on the initial track to starting their own lives and it was just them again, as it’d been in the beginning.
Linda had tossed a hunk of French bread from the balcony, the same balcony where Ron's sitting now. The bread had landed in the sand in front of a lone seagull sitting as complacently as a mother hen warming its eggs. Soon other seagulls crash-landed in the sand. He and Linda watched for a while as they fought over the bread. Then they went back inside, into the kitchen for more bread. When they turned around the seagulls had taken over the length of their balcony, staring in at them with their unreadable beady black eyes. Ron can still remember how Linda had laughed. She’d laughed so hard that her feet gave out from under her, until it finally looked like she was crying on the hardwood floor.
Sitting there in the wooden rocker, he shivers under the memory. He still needs her, he realizes, he still loves her the same as ever.
After she'd given him the news, the, to him, completely-out-of-left-field news, Ron had been speechless, thinking at first that it was some sort of cruel joke, that perhaps humor was like fashion and it had changed under his nose. For a second he even wondered if it was April Fool's Day before realizing it was the middle of May. His wife's face had remained the same, though, composed, devoid of or hiding emotion. Ron felt the blood drain from his own face.
"Why?" It was all he could manage.
"Life's too short to live my life like it's over."
He can't get her response out of his head. It was a shock, a blow. Ron didn't know where she'd gotten it from, where she'd read it or which of her friends had brainwashed her. He wondered whether this was some kind of rare post-menopausal mental condition where women suffered brain lapses of logic and uttered unintelligible nonsense.
Before locking up the house in Portland and getting in his leather-seated sedan, Ron had left a note on the dinner table. Gone to Seaside, he wrote in his sloppy cursive hand. Hope to see you there.
Linda's Subaru was absent the gravel driveway when he backed out. He didn't know where she'd gone off to, thought she'd just gone for a walk and a breath of fresh air, didn't want to believe that her words had been sincere or that, roaming imagination be damned, she'd been sleeping with another man. It seemed a little belated in life for sensual pleasures. Ron could've understood maybe if she'd been in her thirties or even her forties, but his Linda was fifty-one.
The timing seemed impeccable in other ways outside of age though. Ron came to recognize this soon after hitting the Sunset Highway. Their kids had finally settled into career-type jobs of their own, even Danny, the oldest, who hadn't received his B.A. until last fall, two weeks before his twenty-ninth birthday.
Driving west past tree-shrouded hillsides and flat yellow prairies, Ron wondered if the crux of his and Linda's marriage had always rested on the kids. His mind reached into the past. In those days he'd been swamped with work, stranded at his downtown law office for ten-hour days. Linda had worked too, juggling the role of professionalism meets maternalism, both real estate agent and housewife. Naturally stubborn, she'd rejected Ron's repeated suggestion of hiring a babysitter. She'd wanted to do it all and had somehow found the time, not to mention the energy, to pull it off. Ron had to give her credit for that. He had helped too, of course, as much as he could. As he drove in the direction of the sea, he wondered if she could've harbored resentment towards him for not being more involved. He wondered what kind of woman she was deep down, if maybe he'd missed something. They say love is blind.
Around eleven, the sun bright, Ron stands up from the wooden rocker with a sigh and turns his back from the balcony. Back in the kitchen he picks his phone up off the counter. He finds a voice message from Danielle, his loyal secretary. His mouth tightens as he puts the phone to his ear. His eyes close as he listens to Danielle's slightly queasy voice. He doesn't want to think about work at a time like this, and her voice suddenly makes him want to break something. Her message informs him of a young man charged by his pregnant girlfriend for domestic violence. Does he wish to represent the sleaze-bag?
Ron sighs as he takes the phone from his ear. He searches for any other missed calls, texts, suddenly aware of the beating of his heart. He puts his phone in his pant pocket, puts his shoes on and then goes out the front door.
He starts down familiar sidewalks, glancing into storefront windows. He sees plastic hand shovels, striped towels and beach balls. There's a place to ride bumper cars, a merry go-round, an arcade. Ron passes people who all seem to share similar traits, like struggling to finish ice cream cones before they melt onto shirtfronts. Passing familiar cafes, restaurants he'd discovered with his wife, Ron feels her absence rush over him again. Though he hadn't touched his breakfast scone, he can't bring himself to enter the sandwich shop, or Pig 'N Pancake, or the cafe by the bridge with the white wicker chairs and the oriental paintings on the walls. Instead, he veers into a dark, musty-looking bar, the kind of place he wouldn't be able to drag his wife inside for anything.
Three whiskey-on-the-rocks later, plus a jumbo dog to cover both breakfast and lunch, Ron's back on the sidewalk, squinting his eyes against the day. Unsure, he retraces his steps down Broadway towards the beach. He takes his phone out of his pocket, squints at it. He finds no messages, no missed calls.
"Goddamnit, Linda," he mutters, shoving the phone back in his pocket.
People are flying kites now from the sand. The kites hang in the sky, suspended on the breeze. Ron looks up at them, sees their colors. He looks away. The whiskey's given him a good buzz. He feels he could walk forever. As long as he's outside, moving, he'll be all right. Linda will either call or leave a text, he feels sure of it now. Her tone will be apologetic, and he'll comfort her with forgiveness. They'll make up and pretend that nothing happened. They won't tell their grown-up kids, they'll never know how close they'd come.
As he walks up the boardwalk, passing the beachfront hotels and apartments, other condominiums, Ron wonders if maybe Linda's on her way to Seaside at this very moment. He imagines her entering the condo, imagines her waiting there for him in her favorite armchair. It's an exhilarating thought. Ron grins wolfishly at the ground as he turns down a street that winds through a quiet residential neighborhood of shingled two-story houses.
He makes a broad loop, as he gets back on the boardwalk he passes an aquarium where people can feed seals fish, something he's done two or three times with Linda. The boardwalk takes him back to Broadway, the Lewis and Clark statue, the roundabout.
Back in the condo, there's the disappointment of emptiness. Ron checks his phone again. Surely there's a message. But no, there's nothing.
He can't hold out any longer. I'm worried, Linda, he texts. Please tell me you're coming. He stares at the text, and then adds an “I miss you” to it. He wants to say more, but stops himself. He hits send, leaves the phone back on the kitchen counter beside the scone still in its bag. He crawls into bed with his clothes on, closes his eyes, breathes. His head's spinning, his heart rises in his chest like he's on a roller-coaster ride. The whiskey buzz is wearing off. In its place is a dead-tired feeling.
When Ron wakes up it's after dinnertime. He goes straight to his phone. He sees there's a text from Linda. His hand shakes as he reads it.
I'm not sure what to say. I guess I feel that I've sacrificed so much over the years that I don't know who I am anymore. I'm afraid my life has been one big joke, or at least it feels that way. I mean, what do I have to show for everything? We raised some kids, sure, but anyone can do that. I want more, Ron. You probably think it sounds silly, but that's how I feel. All I know is that I'm not content with things the way they are. I'd say don't take it personally, because it's not your fault, but knowing you, you probably will. I hope Seaside is relaxing. Send me some pics if you feel like it. We'll talk more later. Bye for now.
It’s probably the longest text he’s ever received. Ron reads it twice. When he looks up he finds himself back out on the balcony. The sun's setting. People are out on the beach, the boardwalk. A few fires burn in the sand, spread over lengthy distances. At the fire nearest him a young woman is hula hooping. There are LED lights on her hoop that shine blue and orange. The lights spin around and around, impossibly fast as the hoop travels up and down her body, around her arms to her hands, over her head. The hoop looks attached to her, it doesn't seem possible that she doesn't drop it, doesn't make a single falter.
A young man, unable to take his eyes off her, sits before the fire on a log of driftwood. Ron slowly lowers himself back into the wooden rocker. The tears that come sting his eyes. He realizes he can’t stay in this town any longer as he watches the lights of that hula-hoop spin around and around in a blur of color. He realizes it was a mistake coming here. He stands back up, turns his back to the beach to gather his things and leave.
Tom Cowell is a 29 year-old Washingtonian who enjoys long walks in the woods with his neighbor's bird dog. He also has a fiction piece published in the latest volume of Torrid Literature Journal.
Christopher Leibow is a poet, visual artist and performer of small slights of hand. He is an MFA graduate of Antioch and has been published in numerous journals and online, including Circa, Interim, and Barrow Street and Likewise Folio with upcoming publications in 2 Bridges and the Sugarhouse Review. His art has appeared in Lumina, 491 Magazine and has been a featured artist online with Cha: A Journal of Asian Writing, OFZOOs with upcomong publications in Convergence, and Gambling the Aisle. He is a two time Pushcart Award nominee, a Utah Book Award Nominee, and the winner of the Writers@Work Writers Advocate Award in 2008. Christopher currently lives in Salt Lake City, with his cat Count Orly.
Matthew Carefully & the Memorial Concern is a band from upstate New York. "Who Will" is a cover of a song originally composed and performed by Will Stratton, a singer songwriter Storychord previously featured in Issue #10. The track appears on If You Wait Long Enough, a benefit album to help cover Stratton's medical bills, following his stage III testicular cancer diagnosis last September. For more info on the benefit compilation, click to willstrattonbenefit.bandcamp.com. And for more information on Matthew Carefully & the Memorial Concern, visit matthewcarefully.com.