Fiction

Storm Over Solivita, acrylic by Marcella Simon

Riptide

Lanie walked in single file behind the seagull as if the two of them were in the world’s tiniest parade. The gull glanced back, as if questioning her motives. Then it reluctantly spread its wings, ran a few steps, and took flight. Wheeling briefly, it settled again on the dark sand a bit further away, then strutted toward the water and pecked at something in a tiny bubbling hole.

 

Lanie inhaled, at one with the aroma of salt air and sea. It was just right — the very thing she needed now. She thirsted for a cocktail with a salted rim, imagined the brine of an oyster on the half shell sliding down her throat, followed by creamy clam chowder pocked with savory bites of potato. She might go into one of the little shops and buy some polished, perfect shells and trinkets and a bag of saltwater taffy. Or a kite. Yes, a kite!

There would be time, perhaps, but first, she would meet him. Her online friend.

Any of the people on the beach could be the one she was looking for. She watched each figure with interest — their movements, their mannerisms, whether they appeared to be looking for someone. It was remarkable at what distance she could determine a figure’s gender.

A very long way off a woman in a bulky sweater walked along the beach, stopping to wrap her arms around herself and stare at the sea. Almost enveloped in mist, she seemed not quite real, and yet somehow magnified and larger than life.

Another far-away figure, obviously a man, jogged along the sand at the water’s edge, accompanied by a golden retriever. Men and women had such different running gaits that it was easy to distinguish them from afar. But the runner wasn’t who she was waiting for. Her man would not have a dog. Certainly, he would have told her if he did. Wouldn’t he?

But then, how much did she really know? She had studied a picture he sent her, taken from a considerable distance, and he had shared particulars about himself in their messages. He lived just inland from this little coastal town of Newport, Oregon. He came into town to shop, but otherwise preferred the quiet of his cabin in the woods. He had a calico cat and a few good friends. “It’s just me and the cat out in the boondocks,” Sunsetter had messaged her once. “I don’t get into town that often.” She didn’t even know his real name.

Something brushed Lanie’s arm. She jumped and turned. Was it him?

“Sorry, lady!” A young man ran past her toward the water. He bent to retrieve a Frisbee before it was engulfed by a frothy wave. Another young man scampered on the sand in the opposite direction, waving. The first one whipped the Frisbee toward the runner, who leaped high off the ground to catch it and then appeared to be suspended momentarily in mid-air as he flung it back.

Lanie imagined for a moment that she was part of their game, that she could raise her hand and one of them would send the disk her way. But in fact, she was all alone. It was in times like these when she felt most disconnected — near people, but remote from them. She could just as well be in Iceland.

The meeting time had come and gone. He was not here. Perhaps he would not come.

She turned in a slow circle, seeing the woman in the bulky sweater, the runner and his dog now almost out of sight, the Frisbee players, and a young mother in a beach dress squatting near a toddler who was patting a heap of sand with pudgy hands. And the gulls. Hundreds of them. She was surrounded by earth and sea and sky and all the beings contained in that vast space. A stone’s throw away there were millions of fish and crabs and sea creatures. Perhaps mermaids. The sea held magical things in its secret depths. And yet, with activity and life surging all around her, she was like one of the seashells that dotted the beach, isolated and unnoticed.

Her phone dinged. She looked, and there it was — a text message from Sunsetter. “Hello. Are you here in Newport?”

She was stunned. Of course she was here. They had agreed to this. She was in view of the bridge and the south jetty, a hundred paces from the place where the beach met the dune grass. Exactly where she said she would be, and exactly when. All she could think to type was “Yes.” Then, “Where I said I would be.”

She watched an old man walk through the dune grass and down to the beach with a metal detector. He began to wave it back and forth across the sand. She stared at her dark phone and contemplated hurling it into the churning ocean.

Ding. “I’m sorry. I’ll be there soon.”

She sat down in the sand and began to collect small twigs and beach rocks and create a formation with them, setting her mind against thoughts of her job, the other twenty-somethings she worked with, and her fear about Sunsetter. What if he was not who she imagined?

As a girl, she had come here with her parents and her sister, Stella. The adults were fighting. She remembered this as if it were a video she had replayed many times, even though she was determined to forget it. In this replay, Mother walked stiffly through sand that was cold from a storm, visibly shivering. Father walked ahead. He claimed he was looking for the perfect spot to set up, but Lanie could tell he wanted to be away from them.

Soon he made a fire, and they sat near it, trying to warm their hands. They only had beach towels for added warmth, and Lanie wrapped herself inside hers, her teeth chattering from the cold salt wind coming off the ocean. Stella rocked in her towel, her toes plunged deep in the cold sand. Lanie remembered seeing her parents’ set eyes staring at the fire and knowing in her child’s mind that they had committed to this outing for spite, not pleasure. It was a long time before she could shake off the chill of that day.

But other memories came along after that. Better ones. She had come to this beach town with friends during college. They had dared one another to run waist deep into the icy Pacific water, roasted marshmallows over a small charcoal grill at dusk, and howled at the moon. Where were those girls now? Good old Maggie and Ginny. No doubt married and busy with kids and jobs. And then there was her sister, lovely Stella. Lost and gone.

“Never fall in love, darling,” Mother had cautioned. Mother, who had married twice after she divorced Lanie’s father. Through it all, she shipped her girls off to Aunt Marie’s every summer and tried to smile each time they returned in August.

“Your mother tires easily,” Aunt Marie would tell them. And Lanie understood her aunt was trying to make sure she and Stella never turned against their mother. The little lies were so well-intended. Lanie hardened herself. She got through it. But it all tore at Stella, the sensitive one. Lanie was older, and was able to run away to school. But Stella had nowhere to run. Nothing to do with her own despair, except to end it.

Lanie shook her head to clear away memories that enveloped her like a deadly fog.

Ding. “Could you meet me at Fenster’s? If you fancy a bowl of chowder….”

She stood and brushed the sand from her pants. At last. At last. She was going to meet him. “Yes.”

She walked into the Old Town area, where small shops the size of Barbie houses lined the street, smelling of clams and rock cod. She saw a man shucking oysters in an open-air store made of badly weathered wood. He wore a thick apron and rubber gloves and cracked the oysters with such rapid movements that she wondered how he hadn’t sliced his arm. She considered buying some oysters from him, but he had bushy eyebrows and a cigarette hanging from his lips, which were as dry as old parchment, and she thought better of it. She checked GPS on her phone for Fenster’s. It was just two blocks down.

A group of teenage girls passed, tan and laughing and wearing puka shells. They looked young and flighty, like wild gazelles. Did she look old to them? Was thirty-five old? She imagined she looked like a wizened crone to their eyes. When she passed a store window, she was surprised to see her normal self in the reflection.

Fenster’s was dark. The Saturday afternoon crowd consisted of precisely two men sitting a few bar stools apart, watching baseball on a screen and sipping draft beer. Country music competed with the sounds of the commentator on TV. Why did Sunsetter want to meet here, instead of a bright outdoor cafe? She looked around. Her skin tingled. This was it. Time to meet him. Look into his eyes and… Where was he?

She looked at her phone, wondering if perhaps the battery was dead. But when she pushed the button on the side it glowed dutifully, as if, no matter what, this little soul-less device would come to her rescue and stand-in for a friend. There were no new messages. The bartender, an aging woman with strawberry blonde hair, stepped out of the swinging kitchen door with a plate of hot food and set it in front of one of the men, saying something under her breath that made the men laugh.

Then she looked up at Lanie. “Anything I can do for you, hon?”

“I’m meeting someone. I think.”

“Pour you a stiff one? Comes in handy, especially when they don’t show.”

Lanie smiled, shook her head. “No. Thank you.” He would show. Wouldn’t he? She had come too far — all the way from Eugene over rain-slick streets, across hills and past stands of tall, ominous pine that stood like a warning.

But no. Actually, he wasn’t coming. She realized that now. How could she have been such a fool? He was playing her. She felt herself blush.

Ding. “Sorry. The cat got out. I have to get her back in. There are coyotes around here. And owls. They will see her as a snack. Ha ha. Hang on. I will be there soon.”

Lanie exhaled. So. Okay. He wasn’t standing her up. Of course not. He wasn’t that kind of person. How long had they been together online, sharing confidences and making each other laugh? And other, more intimate things. A few months. A year. It all ran together.

“Ha ha,” he’d typed. He was the kind of guy who could laugh about a cat rescue. She liked that. Life was often so serious. You had to fight against troubles, not succumb to them. They were like riptides, those offshore currents that could suck you down with such force that you were lost. They happened out here on the Oregon coast. Not long ago, a boy was boogie boarding offshore, and the riptide pulled him under. In the news story she remembered, a red-and-white Coast Guard helicopter hovered just off the coast, a frogman dangling in the air from a long tether beyond a giant cheerful sandcastle on the beach. The boy’s body was finally found a day or two later.

The bartender glanced over at her from time to time, while dusting the bottles that lined glass shelves behind the bar. Lanie walked out, back into the sunshine. On the narrow main street of Old Town, warm sun on her face, she breathed and shuddered off the darkness.

She leaned back against the building. He could find her here just as easily as inside that death chamber they called a restaurant. She tried to imagine what his voice might sound like. They had never actually spoken; she’d played it safe because of course she knew the risks. He didn’t know her real name. To him, she was SeaRain. She loved the sound of it, and the idea of rain falling on the sea. Like his pictures, all of hers were taken from a distance. A person who had only seen those pictures could pass right by her on the street and never know.

Not that anyone would understand if she spoke of it. The girls at work all had boyfriends and husbands they had met at their family church or sorority mixers. How? By growing up in families. By doing what normal people do. None of them needed to know that Lanie was only connected to her man by hundreds of nights of texting until midnight. God forbid they would find out.

She looked up and down the street for a man alone. She would recognize his build, perhaps before he called to her. “Is that you, SeaRain?” She didn’t want to look too eager. Nothing was a done deal, here. She would be checking him out and could bolt if she wanted. As she waited, passersby glanced at her and moved on and seagulls swirled and dove at bits of trash.

From some open window nearby, she heard piano music begin to play. It was a bit tentative at first, but then became more assured. Chopin, she thought. The sweet, melancholy sounds intermingled with the hushed voice of the ocean in a somnolent duet. She closed her eyes, for she had always believed that enjoying beautiful music required shutting out distracting sights and sounds.

Ding. “You still there? Sorry. Finally found the cat. Just have to get a couple of bills into the mail, then I’m on my way.”

Lanie sighed and moved away from the wall. Bills? Why was he paying bills? She strolled. The little shops were so close. So pretty. There was certainly time, now. She could go into one or two. There might be shells and saltwater taffy. Perhaps she could find some beach glass. Or even a cup of coffee. Yes, coffee!

She walked into a corner coffee shop. People were sitting at sidewalk tables, sipping lattes and cappuccinos. Some were reading books. Others had open laptops. Two old men played chess. When she walked inside, she recognized the woman with the bulky sweater that she’d seen on the beach. She was standing near the counter, looking as if she had no idea why she was there.

Ding.  “Sorry, I have a visitor,” Sunsetter texted. “Give me 20 minutes.”

She was dumbfounded. “I don’t get it,” she texted back. “Why are you doing this? I’ve come all this way.” She stared at her phone before pressing Send. Was that what she wanted to say? To start an argument? Was he a nut job or was this some kind of foreplay? She thought of just leaving — driving home empty-handed after a failed attempt to meet him at last. She erased the message. She would give him one last chance to come through.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know,” the woman from the beach said. She stood several feet from the counter, scanning the pastry case.

The clerk shrugged and began cleaning the cappuccino machine.

The woman seemed so lost, hugging her sweater around herself as if to keep some kind of anguish from spilling out. When she looked around, Lanie saw that her eyes were moist with barely contained tears.

“Are you… okay?” Lanie asked.

The woman nodded but seemed unable to speak.

“How about if I buy you a coffee?”

The woman appeared stunned, as if completely unsure of how to handle a gesture of kindness. But she nodded. She was an older woman, gracefully weathered as if by the sun and the sea.

Soon they were seated at a table, with afternoon light streaming in through parted clouds. Lanie poured two packets of sugar into her coffee and stirred. She took immeasurable comfort in the fact that this woman, who obviously was dealing with a crisis of her own, did not know her. There was no reason for Lanie to explain her business here in Newport.

The woman took a tentative sip of her coffee. Lanie smiled. “I just thought, I don’t know, that maybe you needed a listening ear.”

“Thank you. I thought coming here was a good idea. To walk on the beach and think.”

Lanie nodded “Sometimes it’s the right thing to do.”

“Yes.” The woman stared into her coffee. “I’ve just lost someone very dear to me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

The cappuccino machine whirred, the voice of a mechanical thing that had a purpose and no feelings and would never know death or sadness.

The woman looked up at Lanie, tears on her cheeks. “Have you ever…?” She stalled, her voice a small rasp.

“Lost anyone?”

The woman nodded, and Lanie shook her head.

“Then maybe you wouldn’t understand.”

“Actually, I mean… yes. It’s just that I don’t like to think about it.” She looked out the window. “I lost my sister.”

The woman frowned, and her tears welled up. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.”

Lanie shook her head. “I was in college when it happened. It was a long time ago.”

But was it, really? No, it was now, and always, like the ocean. Because she blamed herself, and because fault had no beginning and no end. It was the riptide, always pulling at her, attempting to suck her into its depths.

She took a deep breath, resisting its power to overcome her, and turned to the woman. “Who have you lost?”

The woman blinked and set her coffee down. “My husband. He passed on a few weeks ago. And of course, I was so busy… there were arrangements. Family all around. Things to do. But now, it seems, I have to come to grips with it.”

Lanie listened. Waited. “Give it time,” she said after a moment. “It’s hardest in the beginning.”

Ding.

Lanie’s phone sat next to her coffee cup. She didn’t even look for messages. She simply dropped it into the dark recesses of her purse. Then she reached across the table and took the woman’s hand. “What was his name?”

The woman just smiled and was silent, as if to speak his name would take all the air out of the room.

They looked out the window. The afternoon sun had painted the weathered buildings in golden light. The seagulls rose and fell on air currents. Beyond them, the sea appeared as calm and smooth as beach glass, the riptide hidden under its surface, waiting for the next unsuspecting soul to venture in.

 

In Any Given Room
Stories on the Indian Experience
by I. D. Kapur
  “Indra Kapur’s writing is illuminating, entertaining, and perceptive, gracing each topic with beauty and wit that leaves you both completely satisfied and wanting more.” Katherine Longshore, author of the Gilt series “Indra Kapur’s courage in embracing and committing her life to another culture is clear. Her stories delight, break our hearts, and show us an India most of us have never seen before.” Ann Saxton Reh, author of the David Markam mysteries. “These stories deftly capture the nuances and contradictions of their well-drawn characters, many from India, in a range of intriguing and dramatic situations.” Jack Adler, author of The Tides of Faith and other novels. Available on Amazon and from you independent book store.

Bios

Jayna Locke is a Minnesota writer with roots in the Northwest who loves to infuse her stories with a sense of place. She earned her MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Her short stories have appeared in a range of literary journals, including Great Lakes Review, Portage Magazine, and Bright Flash Literary Review, as well as several anthologies. Her collection of short stories, Somewhere in Minnesota, is due out in spring, 2024. She is reachable through her website, https://www.jaynalocke.com, or on X (formerly known as Twitter) at https://twitter.com/jaynatweets.
Marcella Peralta Simon is a retired Latinx grandmother, splitting her time between Cambridge, UK and Kissimmee, Florida. She has been a diplomat, university professor, and instructional designer. She writes poetry and short fiction. Her artwork has been featured in Smoky Blue Literary and Arts MagazineBeyond Words Literary MagazineTofu Ink Arts PressPersimmon Tree, and The Acentos Review.

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