He had been dating her for just under a year when a particular heading in the travel section of the newspaper caught his attention: OCEANFRONT COTTAGE. What a romantic notion, he mused. He decided that he should make reservations for the weekend in secret and surprise her with the news that evening. She had been acting standoffish lately; perhaps this gesture would do the trick.
He made the phone call to the owner of the cottage, and learned that the beach was strewn with rocks and had not been raked or cleaned for a few seasons. The owner warned him that strolling down there would be less than pleasant.
"But there's an ocean view, right?"
The owner said the view alone was worth the price and gave his personal guarantee that the two lovers would have a wonderful weekend. The cottage was reserved for two days.
She arrived at his apartment that night after several hours at the research library, burned out and ready for bed. He could barely contain his glee. The advertisement had been laid across the pillow on her side of the bed -- that is, the side she preferred when she chose to stay the night. she slipped out of her jeans and found a pair of sweatpants in his dresser drawer. As she tied the drawstrings, he stopped being coy and showed her what he had done. Her reaction left him cold.
"It sounds lovely," she said, but went on to scold him for failing to give her advance notice. She disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes, and returned to find him under the covers looking at her with wounded eyes. She pushed her ponytail over one shoulder and looked at the ceiling. "This is a crucial week for me," she said. "I need to learn Chinese, remember? I can't lose sight of that goal. Not now."
"You can bring your books to the cottage," he offered.
She got into bed with him and tickled under his chin. "I'll still be distracted, darling."
"Think of it as a vacation," he said.
"It's a vacation for you," she said. "The steam whistle doesn't blow at five o'clock in my world."
"Will you come? I paid the deposit this afternoon, and I can't get a refund." He thought it fair to twist arm with a white lie (he didn't have to put down any cash until Thursday) because the trip would do her some good. The deception paid off. She agreed to accompany him and turned out the light. They had a quick kiss in the darkness.
While she rolled over and fell into a dream, memories touched the edges of his consciousness. There had been a time when both of them were students, looking at graduation day as a final goal. A subtle difference divided them: he had always looked at school as a running race for a diploma while she had chosen academics as her career. He tried to be supportive when term papers came due, but fastening that top button and wearing a necktie had changed his perceptions about academia. He sometimes thought that her educational efforts were sucking the life out of her. School had certainly affected their relationship; that much was obvious. He breathed in and out with purpose. Finally, he shifted positions, put his arm around her waist, and drifted off to sleep.
He packed light, needing little to survive apart from a change of clothing and some toiletries. She loaded her bag with textbooks and pads of paper, and even brought a paperback book for free reading. He thought it fortunate that her beauty routine didn't require a makeup case or hair-styling products -- where would she carry them? They loaded two knapsacks into the hatch of his subcompact car and hit the road.
She never cared much for road trips, and he knew it. The country roads made her dizzy and the freeway system bored her. He hoped that she wouldn't complain this time. She also had obscure issues with his tiny little car. The payments were reasonable enough, but considering that he first bought the car in college and was now earning good money, it seemed that he should look for a more comfortable car. It served the purpose, he always said, and who did he have to impress? She didn't have a car of her own. He had always been willing to drive her where she needed to go, and she could walk to her classes. One-sided as it was, the arrangement had been working fine.
He hadn't checked the weather forecast, which was unremarkable. He never thought about details when struck by a spontaneous mood. When the first raindrops splashed on the windshield, she cringed. "It's raining," she said.
"I can see that," he said. "It doesn't look too bad."
"Famous last words," she said, and they didn't speak for the next hour.
The rain grew stronger as time wore on. It pelted the roof of his car in a madcap rhythm and streaked across the windshield. The speed of his wipers didn't have a discernible effect. Oncoming headlights looked fuzzy through the windshield, but he pretended that he could see his way clearly. She asked if they were lost.
"No, we're fine. Don't worry. We're fine." He leaned forward in the driver's seat and peered into the distance. He rubbed fog from the glass and narrowed his eyes.
"What highway are we supposed to be on?"
"Don't worry about it. I have good directions."
She left it at that, and stared through the passenger side window at the shadows on the horizon.
The hour grew late, and she became impatient. He recognized the huff in her exhalations as a precursor to sighs, and saw that her leg was bouncing up and down in a nervous twitch. He knew that his time was almost up.
"We got turned around somehow. We'd better stop for the night."
She kept her lips together and nodded.
"Don't be mad at me. We'll find it in the morning. All the roads are connected somehow. We'll pick it up again tomorrow."
"There's a place," she said.
He looked ahead and saw the glow of tall lights illuminating a parking lot on the side of the road. Beyond the lot he could see the outline of a modest inn with a neon sign flashing VACANCY into the darkness.
"We're in luck!" he said. She didn't respond. He knew she was angry about the situation and he didn't know how to change those feelings. He pulled into a parking stall and turned off the car. He found an old newspaper in the back seat and handed it to her. "Use this as an umbrella," he said.
She pushed it away, yanked the door handle and popped out. Sheets of water invaded the car before she could slam the door and sprint to dry ground under the canopy that decorated the entrance to the inn. He was left holding the stained newspaper, considering whether he should use the newspaper now that she had rejected the idea. The color drained out of his face.
They entered the inn together. "The restaurant is still open," she said. "Let's get something to eat."
"We should get a room first."
"I don't want to wait. I'm hungry. We can check in after we eat."
"Go get a table," he snapped. "I'll meet you there in a minute." She took a step back as he spoke. Their eyes met and he saw something new in the intensity of her glare. Before his perception could become concrete, she turned away and stormed into the restaurant. He held his teeth close together and approached the front desk of the inn.
Moments later, he joined her at a small table near the front window of the restaurant. He held the keys tightly in his fist. The menu at his seat was closed; the one before her had been opened to the page of appetizers. She had her eyes on the ribbons of water streaming down the panes. He noticed a droplet rolling along the edge of her nose and reached across the table to catch it. She pulled away.
Just then, a zesty mambo rhythm pounded out of the ceiling speakers and caught his attention. "Listen to that," he said, smiling. "Do you want to dance?"
She shook her head.
"Come on. There's a little dance floor over by the fireplace. We never dance anymore. Don't you miss it? After a few minutes, we'll be dry and then we can eat...."
"Please don't do this."
The smile faded from his lips. His stomach had been hollow; now it felt bottomless.
"It's not working," she said. "You can stay here tonight, but I'm going home. I can't do this anymore. It's not working."
He nodded. He didn't know what else to do.
A colorful placard in the lobby proclaimed lobster to be a specialty of the restaurant. Her request for the special resulted in a polite apology from the waiter. Sadly, they had none to serve on this evening. The waiter offered a certificate that entitled her to a free lobster dinner on a future visit, but she flatly refused. She ordered a salad.
They ate dinner in silence. He paid the check as a show of contrition, and then raced into the rain to pull both duffel bags from the hatch. The clothes on his back became drenched within seconds. He dripped up the stairs with her at his side -- no, a step behind him -- and they found his room. Once there, she used the courtesy phone to make a few calls. He prayed that the weather would force her to remain at the inn until morning, but it took little effort and even less time for her to locate a girlfriend who was willing to make the drive. From what he overheard, the rainstorm had not affected the city in the least little bit. An odd circumstance, considering that the city was due north.
As she put down the phone, he let out a big sigh. He could feel her eyes trailing along his limp body as it sprawled on the bed in a pitiful pose with water dripping from his hair. He listened hard -- was she crying? He rubbed his hands together and, with his teeth close together, spoke to her.
"Is there anything I can say to make you stay?"
"My ride is already on the way," she said.
"That's not what I asked you."
She stepped over to the bed, drawing air slowly through her nose. She crouched next to him. "It's not working. We're in two different places, even when we're together. Don't you feel that?"
"No," he said, speaking emphatically.
"I don't know how to explain," she said, "but I know I'm doing the right thing. Once you put everything in perspective...."
"Don't patronize me," he snapped. He closed his eyes.
She wasted no time in crossing the room. She took her purse into the bathroom and closed the door with great care. He turned his head and stared at the bathroom door. He could imagine her rolling the elastic from her ponytail. He knew the angle of her elbow when she brushed her hair and the precise wrinkle which appeared above her eyebrow when she secured the ponytail once again. He knew how her skin smelled first thing in the morning and how her fingers tasted when he kissed them.
The toilet flushed. When the door opened, she was ready to go. He pictured himself rushing across the room and taking her breath away with a sweeping romantic kiss, convincing her to stay with passion where words had failed.
"Goodbye," she said. "Maybe we can do this some other time." With that, she left the room to wait in the lobby.
He laid back on the bed. Now that he was alone, he could hear the rain pounding on the windows, insistent, snapping, like gunfire. In his head, he continued the conversation without benefit of her presence, offering a thousand different arguments and scenarios so that she would change her mind. In every case, the voice in his head pushed them apart.
When the beating of his heart slowed down, he went to the window and lifted the curtain. He could see the highway. Eighteen-wheelers came along every few minutes, but he didn't see any cars. He looked at the alarm clock and calculated the length of time it would take to drive to the inn from the city. He jumped to his feet, found his jacket and quickly made his way out of the room. He needed to find her. He would bargain, beg and plead, find the words she wanted to hear and say them with sincere inflections. Two steps into the hallway, he remembered that the key was still sitting on the bedside table. His back went into spasm at the sound of the slamming door.
As he bolted down the lobby stairs, he felt certain that the front door of the inn was slowly easing back into its frame because she had just stepped outside. Thoroughly convinced that he had seen her ponytail fluttering into the night, he leaped across the lobby, grabbed the handle before the latch could engage, and heaved the door open.
The parking lot was abandoned, destitute. He rushed into the rain and madly searched the rows of parked cars for any trace of her. The hunt proved fruitless. She was gone.
He spent the weekend in solitude at the oceanfront cottage. In the light of day he found it simple to reach the place, but didn't know how to spend his time once there. When he made the plans, he had imagined that they would make love all morning and spend the rest of the day trying to muster enough energy for anything else. Every time this crossed his mind, he felt foolish. He purchased a copy of the Sunday newspaper on Saturday evening and read every page, front to back, before the stroke of midnight. Over the course of the weekend, he made three attempts to call her. The answering machine picked up every time. On the third try, the outgoing message had changed slightly so he was certain she had returned home safely.
The rain never quite let up. He spent an hour pacing the beach on Sunday, growing more soggy every minute. He didn't care; he felt the chill entering his flesh and secretly hoped that it would take root and make him desperately sick. As he drove home, he kept a keen eye alert for the wrong turn he had taken on Friday night, but he couldn't see where he had diverged from the instructions. When he got back to the city, he called her on the telephone and left another message on the machine. She never called back. He didn't press the issue.
Obviously, it was all over.
Three summers passed. After such a long tenure in the corporate world, he surprised his fellow employees by announcing his resignation and vowing to earn his master's degree. His bosses supported the decision unanimously until they learned that he would not be pursuing a business degree. Philosophy? No one could understand why he would chase after a piece of paper that could never fully repay the investment being made. He explained that some goals are worth the trouble, regardless of cost. After saying this, he was often met with blank stares.
When he thought about his experience at the cottage, and he often did, he felt empty and dissatisfied. As his time in a shirt and tie dwindled away, he daydreamed about that weekend and the tasks he could have completed in those empty hours. He knew that his first week of unemployment should be spent sorting and completing the stack of forms that the university had stuffed into his mailbox. How could he avoid the distractions of day-to-day life in his apartment? He couldn't, of course. He decided to return to the cottage and make better use of his time. He found the credit card receipt and called the man who had rented to him previously. That man had sold the cottage, but he was happy to release the new owner's phone number. A few minutes later, the cottage had been reserved for a full week.
On his final day at the company, he made a sincere speech at the weekly meeting to the friends and acquaintances he was leaving behind and was rewarded with kind applause. He refused several offers for drinks after work in deference to starting the journey immediately. A friend made mention of the flawless weather forecast and hinted that he should bring a guest to the cottage.
"I need to be alone," he said. "That's that."
The subcompact car had been paid off for two years and had started to show signs of its age. The dashboard lights inexplicably went dark the prior winter, and his fan belt made odd noises in damp weather. He would make these minor repairs in the weeks that followed, after completing the tasks at hand. He gassed the car, turned the ignition, listened to the whine of the fan belt, and made notes on the map before starting down the highway. He estimated that he would arrive at the cottage by nightfall.
Afternoon turned to early evening. On occasion, he remembered the name of a town on a roadside sign or recognized a billboard that had been an eyesore three years earlier and remained quite ugly. He sang along with the radio and daydreamed about treehouses he had built in his youth. He scrunched his shoulders up to his ears to stretch out his back. After a while, a pressure developed in his bladder. He didn't want to stop for fear of losing the daylight, but his biology wouldn't allow anything else. He counted out ten miles on the odometer and started looking for a place to take a pit stop.
Even though the lights in the parking lot had not yet been switched on, he knew the little roadside inn for what it was in the instant he laid his eyes upon it. Without a thought, he turned into the lot and found a spot for his car. A smile appeared on his face.
As he entered the inn, he made eye contact with the man at the courtesy desk and nodded as if to indicate that he was only browsing. The place had not changed in the least. He used the restroom and then, as if taking a self-guided tour, he shuffled around the lobby. He stopped at the stairway, raised and lowered his head, and then examined the menu which had been posted near the door to the restaurant. He heard the soft mambo music trickling from the speakers in the next room. His toe started tapping.
A crack of thunder exploded in his ears, and he narrowed his eyes in curiosity. He could hear the sudden rhythm of raindrops pounding against the wall. He took a few quick steps in the direction of the door and became startled when it swung open.
She, too, had returned to the inn.
He recognized her in an instant, even though her raindrop-glazed hair had been given a short-cropped cut. Using the heels of her hands, she wiped the wetness from her face and shook it away. He couldn't take his eyes off of her. Were his feet nailed to the floor? She blinked a few times and then his face came into her field of vision. She dropped her purse. He leaned down to retrieve it just as she crouched to the floor. She pulled the purse to her feet.
"When did it start raining?" he asked, softly.
"It came out of nowhere," she said. Her mouth tried to form other words, but her throat released no sounds.
"You don't need to say anything," he whispered.
She shook her head in nervous frustration. "Correct me if I'm wrong," she said, wrinkling her forehead, "but I think I owe you dinner." Clutching the purse to her chest, she stood up. He did, too, and then took a step backwards. Thunder bellowed across the sky.
They were seated at a different table this time; he breathed a little bit easier when that happened. The greeter placed two menus on the table but neither of them reached for one.
"Wow," he said.
"Exactly what I was thinking," she said. "What are you...?"
"I stopped to use the bathroom," he said.
"Why here?" she asked, then caught herself. "I suppose you could ask me the same thing."
He shrugged. "It's human nature. We are drawn to the familiar."
"It's good to see you," she said, nodding with nervous ebullience.
They had a moment of silence. "Same here," he finally said.
"Anything you want to say to me is fair game," she said, speaking quickly. "I never meant to -- "
He interrupted her, calmly. "Don't give it a thought," he said.
They exchanged stories. Neither of them had married. She could not get used to the haircut and often regretted having it done. He had come quite close to getting a tattoo but chickened out. She described an irregular pap smear which had inspired a cancer scare but in the end, it turned out to be nothing. One of his cousins had been killed in an auto accident and there were some residual legal hassles; she remembered hearing about it on the news. He couldn't believe that she had bought her own car and she found it charming that he still drove the same old beater.
When he revealed the reason he was driving to the coast, she acted suspicious. He presented the key and receipt to prove his story. She had been in that same region for the last few days, having attended a training seminar for her new job, and during the downpour had decided to take a break at the inn. She said she didn't recognize the place until she had parked. She shook her head in disbelief. He asked if she had started teaching and she described the supervisory position she had recently accepted at a textbook publishing company. He listened carefully, sipping slowly on a glass of water.
"It's not what I want to do," she said, "but the bills need to be paid. Student loans can only go so far, and credit cards are no more than an illusion. What about you?"
"I quit my job. Everyone at work thinks I'm loony. I'm going back to school. Philosophy."
"Philosophy," she repeated.
"It's all pretty amazing, isn't it? How did we get back here again?"
"All the roads are connected somehow," she said, smiling.
Without warning, South American music swelled grandly and filled the space between words. She stopped abruptly and burst into laughter, then modestly covered her face. As hard as he tried to stifle his own laughter, he could keep from joining her. The giggles and snorts fed into each other and grew stronger. The sound was infectious. Tears streamed down her face and dripped from her reddened cheeks. Gasping for a full breath, he staggered to his feet and playfully reached out his hand.
"Shall we dance?" he said.
She pushed the chair back and joined him. He slid his arm around her waist. They clasped hands. He made a few cha-cha movements and she expertly fell in step. Moments later, her eyes brightened and she made a persuasive request:
"Let's dance in the rain."
"That's the spirit!" he howled. Hand in hand, they barreled out of the restaurant, across the lobby, and dashed through the front door just as two middle-aged marrieds struggled to enter. She took a ballerina's pose and he gracefully slid up beside her. The rain came down in buckets, as it had that first night, and within seconds the two dancers were drenched. They shouted lyrics to showtunes at top volume, filling in the gaps with nonsense words. They did a manic waltz around the parking lot, chanting the theme to The Brady Bunch. He had never felt so crazy; she had never looked so carefree. He stumbled over a heap of gravel and landed in a mud puddle, releasing a melodramatic scream as he splashed down. She pulled him up and dragged him under the canopy. Both of them out of breath and soaked to the bone.
"Looks like rain," he said, gasping for air.
Back at their table in the restaurant, they used the cloth napkins to mop up dribbles of water. When he saw her mascara smearing, he wondered why she started wearing makeup. Before he could ask, a confused waiter approached the table with a white hotel towel in each hand. He accepted their grateful comments and took their drink orders.
"I don't think I'll ever be dry again," she said, toweling her hair.
"Is that so bad?" he asked. "It's not unpleasant to be wet -- getting wet is another matter. The process is the ordeal."
"Interesting," she said. "Did you read that in a philosophy book?"
"No. It became clear to me just this minute."
Their eyes met across the table. He picked up his menu, intending to look over the options, but could not break the connection. In that few moments, he replayed every moment of their relationship, from the very first meeting to the theological arguments about atheism to the coin toss when they decided whose family to visit during the holidays to that night in the rain when they gave up. From what he could see, the same events were running through her mind.
He reached across the table and laid his hand on hers. He expected it to feel cold and clammy. Not so. She radiated a comfortable warmth. He opened his mouth, and the words came out.
"There's an ocean view, you know."
She nodded, and the decision was made.
The waiter came back with their drinks and recited a list of the specials. He made mention of the lobster dinner, and they shared a moment of amusement. Minutes later, both were cracking lobster shells.
He licked butter from his fingers. "Eat quickly. We're losing daylight."
"We can find it in the dark this time," she said.
He took another bit into his mouth, chewed for a moment, and said, "How can you be so sure?"
"You can feel it, can't you?"
"There's something, but..."
"It's magic," she said.
"Hold on there," he said, laughing. "It's a terrific coincidence, I'll admit, but nothing more."
Her expression darkened. "Don't you feel the energy? Didn't the rain affect you? My heart and soul are on fire. Don't you feel it?"
He closed his eyes and concentrated. "I have a tingle in my head, but there's no..." He looked at her. "You could call it fate, but not magic."
"An hour ago," she began, with the weight of a campfire storyteller, "I considered my life to be without direction. Every morning I felt a little less ignorant than the day before, but what did that do for me? I made decisions, I climbed ladders, I bailed out of airplanes, and the results left me cold. I'm hearing different voices now. Being here, seeing you, taking stock of who I am...."
"Magic," he said. "It feels like I've put the past behind me. Like I'm ready to take the next step. That's the tingle."
She nodded. "Let's go now. Right now. Before it passes." She found two twenty-dollar bills in her pocketbook and placed them on the table. He took one last drink of water. He reached for her hand and they marched from the restaurant to the lobby and through the doors to the outside world.
The quiet deafened him. What was missing? The glow of the setting sun lent an eerie tint to the parking lot. He puzzled for a moment more, and then made the connection:
What had happened to the rain?
The puddles had disappeared. The gravel had clearly not been wet anytime recently. The parking lot was packed with cars, and not one of them glinted with beads of water. Every cloud on the horizon resembled the wings of an angel, white and pure.
She tripped over her own feet; he caught her by the elbow and restored her balance. Her mouth had dropped open, creating a stupid expression. He imagined that he looked the same.
As he released her arm, she took a few cautious steps. Dust trailed behind her heels. He watched with great interest as she walked across the lot and stopped on the edge of the highway, right under the tall sign that advertised the inn. She looked both ways. Then he coughed, letting air into his lungs for the first time since they stepped outside, and moved to his car. He noticed the rear view mirror reflecting the sunset and turned around to witness the real event. Purple, blue, orange and yellow mixed on the skyline. The beauty of the sunset staggered him. His attention drifted. She turned around and moved back into the parking lot, but he didn't see that happen. When she came to his attention, he looked at her as one of the many elements in his line of sight. She walked in a wide arc. At one point she came within twenty feet of him and he could see the color in her eyes. He stepped away from his car and she stopped short.
His feet moved slowly at first, then faster. She moved toward him and they collided into a rough embrace. He reached behind her neck and pulled her into a kiss. She surrendered to the moment. He felt her arms sliding up and down his back. He ran out of breath and coughed. She pulled back, smiling, and put her finger to his lips. He nodded.
When he closed the door to his subcompact, he was alone. He clicked his headlights and slid the gearshift into reverse. The tires rolled noisily across the crumbling gravel as he backed up. One more shift and he was on his way to the oceanfront cottage for a week of solitude, as he had planned. He looked in the rear view mirror and imagined that he saw her car in the distance, glowing red lights making trails on the horizon.