When By the Sea

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When Elle pulled up to the restaurant she had already decided she was going to eat fast and head right back to her rented cottage. The weather was rough. Rain had pummeled her car so hard it was miraculous she could follow the white stripes on the winding road.

It slackened, turned into a metered rainfall as soon as she parked. Due to fickle coastal skies, her getaway had been shaped by many languid hours by a fire in the old brick fireplace, books and wine glass, a notebook and pen. The beach had been nearly deserted early that morning so she had walked without distraction, sifting through sea detritus the storms had left behind. It was like paradise, as always. Her thriving counseling practice had kept this beach escape too long delayed. 

She gave her name to the hostess, then waited by the door with a small group of women. They circled up, intimate conversation kept low. She looked out the windowed wall below the waiting area and was lulled by the Pacific Ocean. She wondered what kind of fortune it would take to buy a beach house. Peter, her husband of sixteen years, wouldn’t even consider it; he was citified start to finish. He would rather buy a large photograph of the sea and admire the idea of being there. He enjoyed his own vacation in Seattle or Vancouver, BC twice a year. She had her coveted beach spots.

The door opened and Elle’s eye caught two wing-tipped shoes, large and scuffed. An accompanying pair were stylish flats, black patent leather with a narrow crisscross of fabric at the instep. Mr. Wing Tips strode to the desk, long black wool coat shedding raindrops. He had a hat in hand and smoothed down neat white waves. The woman beside him turned and looked into the parking lot as though longing to escape. Her iridescent teal coat warmed a complexion that reminded Elle of old ivory. The woman’s eyes, blue and slightly tilted at the outer corners, were like still pools. Her shoulders seemed weighted, as if she found being there a chore.

Mr. Wing Tips bent toward her. ‘”Is fifteen minutes a wait alright?” His voice was solicitous.

She nodded, then sat on the bench with head held up, but her arms were pulled close as if she felt crowded. The man sharpened his hat’s crease. Even sitting at ease he was self-possessed. And tall. He half-smiled down at the woman but she was looking at her shiny shoes.

Elle told herself to not pay any attention, it was rude to stare, but then admired the woman’s hair, its silvery swath picking up light that sneaked in. It was wrapped into a chignon. Not a hair had strayed. Had they been to a church function? Perhaps going to a birthday gathering later? Maybe they had visited someone in the hospital and the prognosis was poor. Elle looked away when the woman shifted and her eyes moved upwards. The hostess came back and led Elle to a table close to a perfect view of the rain-swept ocean. She ordered what she usually ate there, grilled mahi mahi and thick garlic french fires.

She thought of Peter and his concerns about her visit. It had been stormy for most of three days and nights. He’d cautioned her to not go, citing landslides, high winds and the cottage being too far, over the Coast Mountains, stated as though it was all the way to Japan. Peter worried about many things; Elle journaled about things, then forgot them. But by now he had dived into his research on Chaucer, not giving any thought to Elle and her “wilderness streak” as he insisted on calling it, every room awash in Bach concertos. If only he could appreciate what it meant to nourish one’s self with nature’s unique array of offerings. With solitude. Without garish sensory bombardment of city life. The flash and dazzle of intellectual brouhaha.

A poem that had awakened with her at dawn came from a place she had neglected a very long while. She recalled it as she sipped her water.

If by the sea winds carry love,
my arms will be translucent sails, 

take my soul to the edge of the world so
we dance with anemones, sleep with stars.

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She had no idea where that came from but her next thought was: where had the romance gone? Not the brief, fun firecracker times she and Peter experienced in college and their first years together. She could manage–had done–without the surfeit of lust. And now they respected each other’s separateness, gave each other room. But what about the deeper romance that should hold them in tandem like the natural things on earth, easy but vital like flower and earth, water and river bank? She felt a lick of sorrow creep up. She backed away from it, returned to the current moment.

The man and woman from the lobby took a table across from her. The best one by the picture window above the cliff. He helped his companion take off her shimmery coat, pulled out a chair for her, then removed his elegant coat. Cashmere, Elle thought.

“Renee, I’m to the washroom. ”

Renee nodded at him, then put chin in hand and stared out over the cliff to uproarious waves and wind-tailored trees. Her eyes closed, then widened, as  though to re-focus on a distant place without and without. Her profile was classic, like an older Grace Kelly’s: no feature too pronounced, symmetrical, with barely lined, silken fair skin. Her lips were perfect even while pursed.

Elle’s meal arrived. She ate slowly, enjoying surreptitious glimpses of the captivating couple. The man had returned and was gesturing out the window. He sat, then caught Renee’s fingers in his. She didn’t pull away.

“You see out there past the spit? Yes, there, perhaps a harbor seal?”

Renee considered the seascape, then extricated her fingers and tasted her salad with a shrug. He ate with relish, fettuccine noodles slipping between his lips. Renee’s brows bunched a little as she noted a slurp from him, then she looked to the sea’s sterling waves. Her expression enlivened.

“Putnam, wait, see that? You are so right about such things. Or a sea lion…? Is that possible as well?”

Elle stared at Renee, then her companion. The man’s name was unusual–she liked it, thought it might be a family name–but it was her voice that surprised with its throatiness. There was a frayed edge to the words, like that of a two pack a day smoker, and it was louder than his. Elle had expected it to be refined, sweet to match Putnam’s gentlemanly manner, his careful way of enunciating. They had seemed like minor royalty at the start.

“Sure, and those cormorants there? They’re so hearty. Adaptable in all weather, yes? As one must be to thrive here.”

“As we all must be to just live, my dear. Most certainly to live well.”

And with that Renee gave up tension, worry or sadness, whichever she had brought into the place, and she transformed, her eyes a vibrant blue, her smile dimpling soft cheeks. She barely laughed–a chirp, really–but Putnam tilted his head and winked. Then each gave full attention to their meals.

Elle tried to not stare further. She scolded herself for being so hyper-observant and letting her thoughts become meddlesome. It was a bad habit. She just loved to study people, wanted to know what made them yearn and hope and care. What motivated their effort to really live their lives. Or not. Was Putnam a retired small-town doctor who married this younger woman of good standing, both stylish and attentive, a few years after a first wife had died? Or was she someone who had long been independent and given in to his persistence only after he visited her numerous times at a classy lounge where she sang jazz standards with a sultry alto? Perhaps they had fallen on hard times lately and this good meal was a blessing.

Renee reached across the table. Touched the edge of his white shirt sleeve. Putnam raised his eyes. They said something indiscernible due to the shepherding of more diners to their corner. But Elle could see they had almost imperceptibly mended things, passed a hard turn and were moving on. Renee had given in to his warmth and consideration. Their conversations flowed to and fro and so, Elle suspected, did their silences. She wished the new diners would quiet down so she could hear the couple but knew she should stop. It was not her business, after all.

Her own dinner was finished. She signaled for coffee and a dessert menu. Why not tiramisu? She had never tasted the extravagant coffee-flavored, cheese and chocolate-filled cake. But tonight there was no Peter to caution her against sugar or calories. And no Peter to tempt.

The rain had stopped. Renee and Putnam and Elle all looked to the sea. Sunlight burnished mighty waves, sea spray like fine lace. Clouds fell apart, leaking cerulean sky though slate grey. The sunset would be noteworthy.

Elle turned her head slowly toward Renee, and the older woman looked her way. Their eyes rested on each other. Renee nodded once, perhaps to acknowledge her awareness of Elle’s scrutiny, then returned her attention to Putnam and the sea’s beguiling performance.

The next few moments were full of chocolate that lit up Elle with pleasure. She wondered if Pete would take a bite off her fork, just one, and admit its virtues. She looked at her cell phone, then dialed.

“Hello? Elle?” he said, alarmed. Bach was blaring.

“I was thinking. Could we take a vacation together this year? By the sea part of the time, by city another part. So we can hang out, share it all. For a change.”

Pete said nothing as Bach changed to Mozart. She licked the last of the tiramisu from her fork.

“Just when are you coming back?” he asked. “I’ve missed you. Yes, we surely can find a place we both want to be. I think…but how about home for starters?”

“Be there tomorrow night, early. Maybe Victoria?”

“Hmm.” He sounded pleased.

Elle paid her bill and left without a backward glance. The wind whipped and sang out, brought scents of sea creatures and sand and gnarled trees. Tulips, brave and bold, wore rain like jewels. She did wonder what Renee and Putnam were going to do but she longed more to leave them. She needed to make her way back home and just hold Peter.

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Case of the Velvety Glove

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When I got home there was only one velvety, paisley-swirled black glove stuffed in my pocket. Surprise followed by consternation: how can this be? I took them off a brief time, perhaps five blocks out of three times as many during an hour’s walk. Although there was a cold drizzle developing, I immediately started out in search of a right-handed glove. The rain cooled my resolve after three blocks.

Earlier I had been taking photographs as often happens when walking in our historic neighborhood. There are wonders to capture and to use the camera at least one glove is removed. And I am digit-clad two-thirds of the year even in the temperate Pacific Northwest. I have Reynaud’s, a circulatory disorder that equates very cold and painful hands in temperatures below fifty-five degrees. It is a challenge to find the right gloves: comfortable, not cumbersome,  passably attractive. I’ve bought all sorts of gloves; leather insulated gloves are good but pricey. These latest gloves are a cut above.

Last fall I’d talked my husband into a getaway week-end at an oceanside town, Cannon Beach. Marc had been long overworked (we’re talking seventy hour work weeks) and needed more than two days to rejuvenate but was happy to get there. The condo was  replete with fireplace and located a block from the ocean and a short walk to unique shops and restaurants. As we walked the length of sandy beach, the wind was more wintry. Despite living in Oregon for over twenty years I had brought inadequate gloves. I decided to shop.

The merchandise can be expensive there. Browsing, I tried on a fluffy fake fur jacket that was cozy, chic, pricey. My husband raised his eyebrows and we laughed. I am more a Land’s End sort of gal since I love being outside. And dressing up went by the wayside when I stopped working.

Then I saw the gloves.

There were only four pairs: purple, black herringbone with red trim, brown and black with a silver paisley pattern. I picked up the paisley gloves. They were insulated and warm. They were soft and plush velour, the closest to velvet I had felt since I bought real velvet dress slacks over ten years ago. In short, they were a little fancy, very practical, costly for something synthetic but, all in all, perfect. We agreed: “A little pizzazz.”

Maybe we both needed a  lift. That week-end was a slow-as-molasses time, freed of the tentacles of stress. Hikes in the sun-illumined chill of autumn, dinners at a homey restaurant, late mornings sipping coffee as we read and chatted, and nights eased with firelight. It made a difference, and those unique, supremely useful gloves did their job during coastal explorations.

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So I had to find the lost one. I got my car and started back down the route I’d taken. Since it was comprised of quieter residential streets, I drove at tortoise pace, peering at wet sidewalks, grassy areas and the streets. It was getting darker. Frustration crimped my shoulders as I cruised one block after another, recollecting where I may have used my camera. How was it that I lost so many things? Some say pixies are to blame…I say it’s my carelessness or a true mystery.

Tears threatened to flow. I know, tears for a glove? I have written before about both my ordinary and beautiful possessions, lamenting how often they get broken or misplaced. The real kicker is that I am an excellent finder of things for others. But I have acknowledged that I may like my things a bit too much. I don’t own a lot of expensive objects. My home is comfortable but humble. So those I appreciate greatly, like most people, I value. Ultimately, though, I view possessions as a challenge spiritually and emotionally. I do work at rising above. But listen: since Thanksgiving I have lost one earring each of three pairs I loved (one pair, a Christmas gift) and two more hand crafted mugs have lost their handles. A plate my mother gave me was broken and tossed without my knowledge; a grandchild was worried I’d be mad and sad. Yes, just things.

I kept driving and more than half traversed the familiar streets. I saw a road crew worker at a corner and then it hit me.  This was a block I’d paused for a couple more photos. I glanced to my right and squinted at a dark little heap, did a U-turn. The worker watched me as I parked on the wrong side of the street. Jumping out, I crept up to what could have been a dead creature. Unbelieving, I gasped and grabbed it’s damp, tumbled form. Turned to the woman and waved my glove wildly at her.

“Found my lost glove! My favorite ones! Isn’t that great?”

She waved right back. “Good for you! Lucky day!”

Was it luck? Some things vanish, never to be found again. Were those dratted pixies playing games? More likely, my determination to not lose one thing more (for now) guided me to that spot. And after all, I’d only been gone about twenty-five minutes; it couldn’t have crawled off by itself. Still. Those finger warming, heartwarming gloves meant something –that excellent beach trip, the efficient way they ease my suffering hands. That silly silver paisley, so soft. It just had to be one happy ending.

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Rain Talk

My favorite beach spot in Oregon is Yachats, but Oceanside, on the northern coast, nestles nicely into its own hillside and bluff. Whether it is crouched in deep fog or illuminated by a dozen gradations of light, it asserts a homey beauty. As you round the last bend that descends to the ocean, it reels you in, saying: come. So we have, for twenty-five years and counting, walking the lazy length of beach, exploring the nooks and crannies between rocky protuberances. Out to sea a bit rise the Three Arch Rocks, housing for bird colonies. Our lengthy treasure hunts net milky-white, yellow and amber agates that are pleasing to eye and palm. Sometimes we sit on the driftwood and admire surfers as they patiently wait for a good wave. Climbing the huge rocks are a standard bit of exericse. There is a tunnel that cuts through the headland that we like to follow to another side of the beach. This visit, I carefully navigated water-covered rocks in the near-darkness until I reached the end. I watched from the opening as the tide surged forward and the sky brightened, the rain eased.  It was as if a small doorway opened to yet another heavenly place.

We have stayed at both condos and a place that perches high atop the headland. This time we decided to finally try small motel that sits closer to the sea, right in the village. It offered an efficiency apartment-style room, which meant we could dine in, as we prefer. We made reservations in late August for mid-October, knowing the weather could turn from carefree to dour and chilly, plain ole wet. That is just one more mood of the coast that we love.

And it did just that: rained and rained. From misty breezes to downpours that drummed against the roof and swept across the balcony of the room, the rain dominated day and night. Marc traversed the beach alone the first morning as I slept luxuriously late. He returned thoroughly saturated from sea and rain. “Just a little damp,” he smiled, although pants and jacket were draped, dripping, in front of an electric wall heater. He showed me a handful of rocks he rescued from the beach. After a late brunch, we ventured out on a short shopping jaunt, admiring the slick red- and yellow-leafed trees among the conifers, the cows, horses and deer unperturbed by the weather.  We returned to our spot in the afternoon, glad to be back.

We refilled our coffee mugs and settled down on the couch with sandwiches. For a time neither of us spoke much. The water drilled the roof and battered the windows; the wind swept across the sea. The tide rolled in, then gradually retreated.  We watched from the warm quietude. Shadows were nearly indiscernable; the last fingers of light pulled back quickly.

The soothing rainy rhythms crowded out stray thoughts, our feet touching, our heads bent over reading materials. Marc worked on Sudoku puzzles, then read a history of the Cascades, a book he always seemed to take on trips. I poured over the latest Smithsonian magazine, although four other books lay nearby. It’s our belief that one can never pack too many reading materials.

As we read on, we sporadically shared what we found amusing or intriguing, tidbits of fact and myth, a small feasting on ideas. We discussed beauty in a variety of forms and functions, from mathematics to NASA’s Hi-C telescopic images of the Sun’s corona and the curious study of pulchronomics, or the connection between beauty and economics. We laughed over “pulchritudinous”, as it seems such an unpleasant word to refer to beauty. Brain function was brought up as I read to Marc about neuroscience chiming in on how the brain processes art. A poem was offered.

Time vanished as the light diminished. The worries of work and home faded. We were afloat in a world of thought, the pleasures of easy discourse, with the music of rainfall imbuing the night with all that was good.

We turned the lamps on and travelled to the African Republic forest to learn about western lowland gorillas. He shared with me about the Cascade Mountains insects and plants, trees and explorers. That led to random sharing on nature, hiking, health, our gratitude. I arrived at the topic of books and book reviews, a couple of which I read aloud, then wondered over.

“This book talks about the electricity it requires to flex a muscle or smell a flower. It’s all about charged particles moving across cell membranes. I bet we glow a lot more than we realize. Probably send off charges as we breathe, even. And this one is about dance in the ordinary, daily world, a photography book of dancers doing fabulous things. Moving for the joy of it…Well, none of this planet and the life on it is very ordinary, is it? Can I come up with a new way to write about this?”

Marc said, “Why don’t we do this more often at home? Just sit for hours and read and talk?”

We determined to be more attentive to one another and to what matters most, then circled back to silence. One short afternoon and early evening had allowed us the chance to do nothing but think, imagine, share ideas and wonder. We smiled at each other from our respective ends of the couch, toe-to-toe, stilled by abiding affection and contentment.

Cool rain swayed and fell outside our window; the ocean drew back and gathered her powers and again flushed the sands. The wind came up and fell like a swirling veil upon rooftops. Gulls lined up on the balcony railing as an autumn horizon melded with white-crested waves. The gentle drumming of October rain spoke in secret ways– words can sometimes only say so much.