by Harry Buschman
She lay on the sand in the hot sun, flat on her back with her hands cradling her head and her eyes shut tight to shield the glare. Her lips revealed the hint of a smile, as though a pleasant thought had crossed her mind – the way children do in sleep. Her breathing was shallow, almost imperceptible, but looking carefully I could see a pulse beating in her neck just under her ear. But for that she might have been dead.
I thought I heard the cries of distant shore birds and the soft sound of the surf, I might have been mistaken... my senses are not as keen as they used to be.
“It’s no good, our going on this way,” I tried to speak the words as softly as possible. Just loud enough for her to hear. If she heard me it seemed to have no effect.
“Did you hear me, Leona?” Her happy thought faded and with it the hint of her smile. I raised my hand to throw a shadow over her eyes and she opened them.
“It will go on this way as long as we want it to,” she said. “Or it can stop ... forever. I don’t ask for more than we have today.”
“You’re satisfied with this ... the way things are?”
“Of course not,” she answered sharply. “But you learn to take what you’re given ... what comes along.”
“But you hope for more, right?” I interrupted.
She sat up and put her sun glasses on. It was hard to tell where she was looking now, but I knew she wasn’t looking at me. “You don’t expect more,” she said carefully. “You hope for more but you never get the things you expect.”
I made an impatient gesture. “I don’t like talking in riddles, Leona. Look at us – we look like two normal people out for a day at the beach having a picnic, but I don’t feel normal. Do you?” I turned to look at the ocean. “Your husband ran off with my wife – does that sound normal to you?”
“Knowing him it’s perfectly normal. You and I, sitting here together on this beach after they ran off together – that’s not normal. Besides, they didn’t really ‘run off’ ... did they.” She stood up and dusted the sand from her backside. “I’m going to walk along the surf line. Want to come?”
We had a lot in common, Leona and me. Both of us were abandoned you might say. A year ago I discovered a phone number in Estelle’s purse and when I dialed it I found myself talking to Leona. I shouldn’t say I ‘discovered’ of course... I was looking. Estelle and I were drifting further and further apart every day. We seemed to go out of our way to avoid each other – walking around the apartment aimlessly, bumping into one another, and saying, “Excuse me.” Speaking only when it was absolutely necessary. She would come home late and spend the night in the spare room.
While I was alone I looked around the apartment and marveled at the things we accumulated together in seven years of marriage, I tried to think just when, and at what particular point did things go sour. Was it just after the coat tree and just before the little glass statue of Poseidon, or was it just before the microwave? “Why,” I wondered. “Why didn’t I just face her – ask her what the hell was going on. I did think about doing that for a while, but the question burned my mouth dry. I knew damn well what the hell was going on. I wasn’t the man of the house any more.
I could have fought back. Like a Neanderthal I could have clubbed Leona’s husband and dragged Estelle back home with me. Maybe I should have, but instead a strange feeling of impotence and irretrievable loss overcame me and I began to think that living with Estelle was more than I could handle.
Now, I looked at Leona as she walked along the water’s edge. The same thing must have happened to her. She seemed to know who I was the moment I made the phone call.
I caught up to her and walked between her and the surf. “What do you suppose they’re doing now – those two?” she asked.
“Probably growing tired of each other. How do you plan to spend the rest of your life, Leona? You’ve got a big paid up apartment all to yourself – a good job.” I had to laugh to myself, “You’re quite a catch.”
Instead of answering she pointed ahead of her. “What’s that?” She asked. Something glistened in a pile of dark brown kelp at the high tide level.
“I think it’s a conch.” Sure enough, I dug it out of the sand and rinsed it in the water. It was a lovely pinkish golden color. I handed it to her. “Here.” I said, “It’s yours. You saw it first.”
“It’s pretty,” she said. “What will I do with it?”
“Oh, put it on a shelf or a coffee table. It’s rare to find one as perfect as this.” I took it and held it to her ear. “If you hold it to your ear you can hear the ocean.”
“I don’t need that to hear the ocean.”
“Well... in winter... late at night.”
“I want all the ocean. I want to see it, not just hear it in winter. I want to smell it, to feel the sand between my toes. It just isn’t enough to hear it.” She walked to the water’s edge and threw the conch far out in the water. There were tears in her eyes.
We turned around and began walking back. She stayed ahead of me but she occasionally brushed her face quickly with the back of her hand. I could tell she was crying.
She recovered by the time we reached the blanket and we stood there looking at each other wondering if we should stay longer or leave.
“It was a lousy idea to come here, Leona. I should have known better.”
She smiled weakly and said, “We’re survivors, we have too much in common. There’s no way we could ever make it together.” She began putting things in her tote bag. “I discovered something this afternoon too – maybe that’s why I didn’t want the conch. The past is all I have to call my own, I don’t own anything else.” We folded the blanket and shook out the sand at every turn. Then, after a final look at the long line of breakers we headed back to the car.
“Let me start the engine and run the air conditioner for a minute or two, it’ll be hot in there.” We stood there a moment until the passenger side window fogged over. Then she spoke...
“I’m sorry about the shell. I should have given it to you, it would probably mean more to you than it would to me.”