The beach was crowded. In his street clothes he began to sweat. He watched the people. Everyone seemed to be moving. Some were on Roller-blades. Some girls were playing volleyball in their bikinis. The sun was bright. He bought a baseball cap from a vendor who spoke no English; perhaps he was an Arab. The hat had an American flag on it. It was the cheapest one. Hugh put it on and rolled up his pants and walked down to the shore. Two teenaged girls looked at him and laughed—maybe they didn’t like the hat.
Maybe they thought he was patriotic. Some children were dashing in and out of the waves, laughing. As he approached, they looked at him and he looked away. He had no business looking at small children. You never knew what people could say about you. They could say you were looking at them with interest, and that could imply something strange. Stories could build from nothing, he thought. The ocean was choppy and when the waves broke the water sprayed his face. He found himself thinking about the ancient Greeks, their sophistication, their ingenuity. That had been the beginning; this was nearly the end. He couldn’t help feeling shame—the shame of being a stupid American—and now he regretted buying the hat. The beach was not clean. Trash undulated in the sand, just enough to stir up his anger. People didn’t care; not really they didn’t.
For an hour or two, he lay in the sand and thought. He tried not to think about the producer in that dark trunk. When he could not stand it another minute, he returned to his car and drove out to LAX. He took the airport exit and entered the labyrinth that wound around to long-term parking, taking a ticket at the gate as though he had planned a trip. For a moment he contemplated getting on a plane, going somewhere, Europe perhaps. That would be the smart thing to do, he told himself. The lot was crowded—he had left her car in section H, near the tall fence. The car was still there. He felt a mixture of emotions, both relief and dread. He rolled past its dirty rump, the tidy, German box of the trunk, and thought:
She’s in there.
His heart began to beat very fast as he put his window down. His chest began to hurt. Sweat spread across his back, the tops of his hands. He sat there a moment, listening to the lull of traffic beyond the fence, the expectant quiet of the parking lot, the screaming jets filling the sky, and thought:
What if she’s dead?
Get out and open the trunk.
A car beeped behind him. Hugh glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a woman gesturing for him to move, cursing him. The horn had alerted the gate attendant, who was coming toward him. Hugh signaled his apology and pulled away. When he went through the gate, the attendant noted his ticket and said, “Change of plans?”
Hugh nodded. “Would you believe I forgot my luggage?”
The attendant needed a shave and wore a strained expression like he was in a little bit of pain, but could do nothing about it. He looked at Hugh doubtfully. “No charge.” The gate opened and Hugh drove through it.
The restaurant was a seedy place on a side street near the pier. It took him a while to find a parking space and then he had to search for quarters. You could smell the ocean and the late, damp sunlight. The beach was nearly empty. He saw an old couple shuffling through the sand, lugging their beach chairs, their shoulders hunched, their faces preoccupied and complex.
Ida was waiting at the bar in a sleeveless dress and sandals. Her shoulders were pretty. Her face was like one of those women in the laundry detergent commercials, he thought, a wife who could keep house like nobody’s business. When they kissed hello she smelled lemon-fresh. “Hey.”
“Hey, yourself,” she said. She stood there looking at him. “I took the liberty of ordering. You like oysters, don’t you?”
He told her he did and took the leather stool next to hers and ordered a beer. Ida was drinking something pretty.
“If you’re good I’ll give you the cherry,” she told him.
“Oh, I’ll be good.”
“She’s got you well trained.”
He grunted a laugh. “Is it that obvious?”
“On second thought, you don’t get the cherry.”
“We’re separated,” he told her, and it occurred to him how easy it was to say it. “We’re in transition.”
for you. Transition is an interesting place to be.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“Oh, yeah. Experience is something I happen to have a lot of. Or, as my mother would say,
. My mother has a way of looking at things. She tweaks everything. Like my ex-husband. Instead of admitting he was a cheap fucking bastard, she’d say it’s the thought that counts. Well, you know what? It’s
the thought that counts. Cheap is cheap,
.” She swallowed the last of her drink and shook the ice around in her glass like a rattle. “I’ve been divorced twice.”
“Ouch,” he said.
She made a face like it hurt. She twisted her torso to catch the bar tender’s attention and seesawed her glass. “I guess I’m not the marrying kind, whatever
“I’m not sure I want to know, actually.”
She laughed, showing her little white teeth.
“Maybe it’s not important,” he said.
She looked at him as if the idea had never occurred to her, and then said, “But of course it’s important. It’s the most important thing in the world. And I happen to suck at it.”
“Maybe you just haven’t met the right guy.”
She tilted her head. “Maybe.”
The bartender brought her drink.
“Took you long enough.”
The bartender winked. “Now you really want it.”
“Wanting it’s the least of my problems.”
The bartender looked at Hugh. “You want another?”
“Here,” she said, fishing her cherry out of the glass, holding it by the stem. “I want you to have it after all.”
“Why the change of heart?”
“Something tells me you’ve been deprived.” She dangled the cherry over his mouth. Feeling foolish, he caught the slippery thing in his teeth. When he bit into it the sweet pulp prickled his cheeks.
“They’ve been exploited, of course, like everything else.”
“But they’re symbolic.”
“How do you mean?”
“When you’re a kid you always get the cherry. It’s like a kid-bonus. And then you grow up and you’re not supposed to want it anymore.”
“You’re starting to sound like my shrink.”
She smiled. “Cheap philosophy from a second-rate writer.”
“I doubt that.” He looked at her. She was both charming and pathetic. “Why do you say that?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Because it’s true.”
“What sort of stuff do you write?”
“Crap,” she said. “I’m the first to admit it. I’ve actually made my peace with it.” Her modesty seemed genuine; a little too genuine.
“I don’t believe you.”
She looked down at her hands, shrugged.
“Let me read something. I’ll tell you if it’s crap.”
She gave him a coy smile. She had a look about her that he couldn’t quite figure.
“We can act out the scenes,” he suggested. “I’ll play the hero.”
“Who says there’s a hero?”
“This is America. There’s gotta be a hero. You want to sell tickets, don’t you?”
“All right, if you insist. But you’re not exactly who I pictured for the part.”
“I clean up good.”
“Who said anything about clean?”
“Now I’m getting curious.”
“Dirty interests me.”
“I’m a very convincing actor.”
“I’ll bet you arc.”
They ate oysters, noisily sucking the shells. They drank all afternoon, then stepped out into the dwindling light, blinking. They ran to the beach, kicking off their shoes. The water was cold and very blue. The sky was violet. He could not remember seeing a more beautiful night. Ida looked like a kid, running in the surf. She had short, pale legs, full thighs. He knew he could kiss her if he wanted to. He could feel her thinking about it, wondering if he would. Maybe he would, later. Still, he sensed there was something fragile about her. Maybe she was broken. She had a history. He wasn’t sure he could deal with it.
“I’ll tell you my life story,” she had whispered in his ear at the bar, “if you’ll tell me yours.” Under the circumstances, the way she’d said it with her warm oyster breath had turned him on. She’d been born and raised in Iowa. He tried to imagine her as a girl there with her knock-knees and flat feet and precocious breasts and slightly swayed back. He pictured a tire swing on a big oak tree, somebody’s pickup in the driveway. A clapboard house with a porch. A big red tractor out in the field. She could twirl a baton, she’d said, and he imagined her festooned with pom-poms in the Fourth of July parade. The images seemed familiar to him, selected from his mental archives—visual scraps from old Budweiser commercials—and he realized they were not his own.
Ida was looking out at the ocean, squinting with such earnestness that he thought she must be drunk.
“Hey,” he said, and touched her back. “You look sad.”
“I’m not. Not really, I’m not.”
“What are you looking at? What’s out there?”
“Everything,” she said. “And a whole lot of nothing.”
Holding hands, they walked over to the pier. It was strange holding hands with her and he found himself wondering how to break apart without insulting her. He imagined what Marion might think of it. They walked on the pier, toward the lights of a carnival. Ida wanted to ride the Ferris wheel. The air smelled of popcorn, a buttery rancid smell—maybe it was puke. He had never liked rides and now, whirling up backward after drinking so much, made his stomach turn. “Scaredy cat,” she accused him, as he gripped the handlebar and closed his eyes. She took his hand in her sweaty palm and held it very tight and whispered into his ear, “Don’t be afraid.”
Later, they lay on the beach in the cool sand, looking up at the stars. For a while they didn’t speak. You could hear the ocean, the breaking waves, people screaming on the rides. As he lay there beside her, he thought about the variations of terror that existed in the dark.
He turned onto his side and looked at her. She had put her hair into two braids and looked wholesome as the next Midwestern girl, and yet he was pretty certain that she was not. On the one hand, she was sturdy and resilient and resourceful. She seemed dependable too, like if she said she would do something you could count on her to do it. On the other, she had a kind of wounded beauty that came from being let down. She was like a pressed flower in somebody’s scrapbook, he thought, signifying some important event, the memory of which left something to be desired.
“About my script,” she said. “I’m realizing how awful it is.”
“It’s not awful. I know it’s not.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know you. At least I’m getting to know you.”
“You don’t know me,” she said disdainfully.
“I want to. I want to know you.”
“Maybe you just want to fuck me.”
The comment startled him and he said nothing because there was a possibility that it was true.
“You’re still married.”
“I know. I have to figure that out.”
“I’ve been through a lot,” she said. “I’ve been hurt.”
“I promise not to hurt you,” he said, touching her arm gently, and he meant it.
“Not all men.”
She nodded. “All men. Men can be brutal.”
“Not all men.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“That’s because you’re one of them. I could provoke you, if I wanted to.”
“Why would you do that?”
She looked away. In a strange way, the conversation was turning him on. “Go ahead, provoke me.”
“You asked for it.” She rolled on top of him and started tickling him all over and he laughed even though he hated being tickled and then she pummeled him wickedly all over his chest. He got a little angry and rolled her onto her back and climbed on top of her and held down her wrists and she strained against him and her face changed slightly and for a moment he imagined being inside her. He could feel her squirming, the bones of her hips, her belly, her thighs. He seemed to come out of a haze and released her and rolled back onto the sand. Side by side, they were breathing hard.
“You provoked me,” he said.
“I know. It’s okay. Maybe I liked it.” Her eyes were shining, her face flushed.
He didn’t know what to say to her, so he said nothing.
He lay back down and looked up at the stars. At length he asked, “What are your plans?”
“What do you want?”
She repeated his question without answering.
“In life,” he clarified.
“I have no idea what I want. I don’t know.” Then, like it was a joke, she said, “I want a husband and a little house in the country with a picket fence and a whole gaggle of kids.” He watched her, trying to figure out if she was serious. “I want a high-paying job where I get to be nasty to people.” Then she added, “I want a flat in Paris.”
None of those things seemed to fit her destiny.
“I suppose I want what most women want.”
“Which is what?”
“Sounds like a perfume.”
“I want to feel at peace. In here,” she tapped her heart. “I want to stop feeling like I’m second rate.”
“You always say that. It’s not true.”
“I don’t know why I say it; I
“Maybe you should get out of L.A.”
She shrugged. “I like it here. I like the sunshine.”
“Maybe you’ve gotten used to being second rate.”
“Maybe it’s another one of my bad habits.” She turned onto her side and looked at him. “What about you? What do you want?”