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Coastal Distance
   by Margo McCall

Up until now, Lena has not thought much about Heywood's head. She's considered him a package deal; smooth muscles kept toned by gym workouts, strong jaw and crooked smile, the physical force of a jungle ape. But now she understands, it's his head that counts most.
     She watches him sleep, wondering what a phrenologist would make of those strange protrusions near his temples. Now that his hairline's retreating, there's more to reveal. But of course he doesn't see it that way. He hides what's happening under bright bandanas that shift emphasis to his ponytail. That tangled profusion spreading outward from the nape of his neck is an emblem of lost youth: the glory years of art school, bopping around the East Coast, lazing on the beaches of Fire Island.
     Lena doesn't want to be caught peering at the lines in his face, examining the flicker of his eyelashes as he dreams, or lifting up the covers to sneak an illicit glimpse of his bare chest. In this game, it would be inappropriate to show that much interest. She'll throw on one of his shirts and sit on the back steps. Maybe in a while, he'll wake up.
     Outside the sun is a showy fireball, beaming resplendently through the filter of smog onto the blooming bougainvillea and spindly yucca, burning morning dew from the grass. It's spring. The air is full of new life, new possibilities. Up in the trees, baby birds will soon be pecking at their speckled shells, eager to taste freedom. Then will come the bottle flies, buzzing about on hot afternoons, lighting on glistening skins; and the dragonflies mating, their stick-like bodies connecting instinctively in flight.
     Heywood has plans for his yard. He's already built a bridge over the canal that cuts through his property in a somewhat questionable section of Pasadena. Next will come a hot tub in the back—where everything is left to multiply on its own—placed so he can sit bubbling at night in a field of tall grass.
     Heywood has many plans. One of them is working his way up in The Industry from a gaffer who wears blue jeans to a director of photography who wraps himself entirely in silk. Connections, that's what it will take to get those raw silk suits, billowing silk shirts, silk ties from Italy. Connections to spin himself a cocoon of success.
     "Lighting is my life," he says on the days he's feeling the world is his oyster. On those days Heywood sings, laughs out loud at nothing and strikes up conversations with complete strangers. On the other days, when his dark side dominates, Heywood rents videotapes and sits hunched in front of the television set, absorbed in the light flickering out from the screen.
     Lena has plans of her own—to get a four-wheel-drive vehicle and travel up the coast with her two dogs. Walk through the redwood forests, stand on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, and breathe in the thick aroma of seaweed and salt. Her plans involve leaving her husband, Giles. "It will be a trip of rediscovery," she explains.
     Heywood treats it as a dangerous mission. He asks about it from time to time, as though it's something intensely personal, in which he has no business. "Where exactly will you go?"
     "Where is not important. I'm just going," she says.
     "How will you tell your husband?"
     "I'll just do it. If he doesn't like it, tough."
     Heywood blanches at even the mention of Giles, worried he might get caught in the crossfire of warring partners. He told Lena right from the start: "I don't want a relationship."
     "That's fine," Lena said. "Neither do I."
     But they've continued to see each other. Lena doesn't want to tell him there's a relationship between everything: the sun and the moon, earth and water—everything.
     Heywood calls her at work to arrange their furtive meetings. She calls him at home, but never leaves a message on the machine. They're awkward on the phone. Only in person can they connect.
     They connect on the kitchen counter, the bathroom floor, the futon in the living room and Heywood's king-sized bed. The first time was in the canal, in a dark tunnel filled with roots and the rich smell of earth. The tunnel of love, he called it; a black hole to infinity.
     She'd arrived with friends at his house to drink and play darts. Only a month ago, it seems like much longer. There was something between them: shy glances, a certain recognition. He led her into the tunnel, their feet crunching over broken glass and dead leaves. Later, they walked into the moonlight pretending nothing unusual had happened. But Lena knew that it had.
     She spies a bird slicing through the sunny sky, a brilliant flash of backlit wing. She wonders what its beady eyes see: a slender woman sitting on a stoop, making no attempt to hide her nakedness inside a man's shirt. Heywood's warned her. They're not in the jungle, where one can swing naked from vines, they're in his backyard, with small children living next door.
     He's up now. She hears water splashing in the bathroom, and above it, his voice singing. Soon he'll come looking for her; he'll wrap his arms around her and let his warm breath escape onto her neck. She'd expected this to be one of Heywood's dreary days, since last night he saw his ex-wife, Bess with another man. Lena watched over his restless sleep, getting up only to look out the window at the comforting sky. She never does sleep much in his house. She's always too conscious of being in his bed, with his sheets and pillows, all covered with his warm smell.
     They'd been walking along the boulevard of art stores and cafes in Old Town. There were people eating pasta and sipping white wine in restaurants, cool streams of jazz filtering out open doors, swirling into the night. Under the glaring street lights strolled Bess, leaning on Heywood's replacement, a musician of some notoriety, with long, red dredlocks that swayed seductively around his narrow hips as he walked.
     To see it with his own eyes made Heywood crazy. He made no move to introduce Lena. He wanted to go home; smoke a cigarette to calm his nerves, even though he'd quit six months ago. He paced the living room, running his hand over his head, yanking the ponytail in back, skipping over the bristly part of top.
     He railed about their breakup, the difficulty of his first months alone, how hard it was to let go of their mingled histories and resolve his deep feelings of guilt. He allowed himself to cry as his therapist had taught him. He acted as though Lena wasn't there, as she was, sitting patiently on the sofa, wishing he'd stop.
     Heywood reminded her of a little boy, the same one who pouted on nights she had to get back to Giles, the one who complained, "You just want me for my body." Lena told him, "No, I think there's more," but he still wasn't convinced.
     Lena wonders how Giles will react when she leaves. Will he mourn her like Heywood mourns Bess? Giles seldom bridges the gap anymore to even ask where she's going. He's wrapped up in his own plans: resurrecting broken computer parts with a vengeance. Someday, he thinks his company will be as big as Microsoft. It's his reason for life.
     She wonders if Giles will notice when she leaves. They lead separate lives, joined only by the past and the structure they inhabit. The house feels lonely when Lena returns from being with Heywood. But its vast emptiness gives her a chance to have a shower, and throw her clothes in the laundry basket before the dogs start rubbing their faces in them, inhaling the new scents.
     She's not afraid of being caught. Really, it would make things easier. Thinking about Heywood has made her no longer hungry; there's too much churning in the pit of her stomach. She's already shed ten pounds. All that sad fat clinging around her buttocks and thighs has melted away. It's an obvious clue, but Giles still hasn't caught on.
     All he inspires is a growing feeling of being trapped. Of getting older and more unhappy as life progresses to death. She should have left a long time ago, but she clung to the dead dream like a rock in the ocean. Now she's nearly thirty, looking for a way out.
     At first, she thought Heywood would be that life buoy. He always reaches for her right away, pulling anxiously at her clothes, wanting her so bad he whines. They've been observed in the act by Heywood's roommate, but that doesn't bother Heywood, for later he sings and pounds his chest like an ape. There's a definite passion. But things have a way of getting complicated; now he holds back, realizing there's more to life than animal acts.
     Pulling Heywood's shirt close, Lena wanders into the kitchen to rummage among the dirty dishes for a clean coffee cup. The kitchen is a mess. So like a bachelor's, so different from the neat domicile Giles prefers, where cups hang on brass hooks, and knives and forks and spoons are lined up in the drawer like soldiers instead of thrown into the sink, encrusted with dried food.
     Lena hasn't let her domestic urge take root in Heywood's kitchen, even though his sink cluttered with dirty dishes turns her stomach. On her visits, she brings only what she needs: vegetable juice and fruit. She takes everything with her when she goes—right down to that stray earring on the night table—just in case she won't be back.
     Once Heywood made her dinner in this kitchen. Only once. Pasta with raisins and walnuts so rich it made her gag. They have different tastes in food. Lena likes things airy and light: cucumbers, artichokes, bread. Heywood likes the heavy stuff—steak, chicken, pastrami—meat, always meat.
     The pipes clank as Heywood turns off the shower. He's humming loudly, as though he's forgotten last night ever happened. Barefoot, wrapped in a towel, he waltzes into the room and puts his arms around her like she expected, singing softly in her ear.
     He steers her to the rumpled bed, where they stretch out in the tangle of sheets like cats, caught in a silvery sunbeam of swirling bits of dust. They search each others' faces close up—the lines, enlarged pores, glistening lashes—and inside, something else.
     His lips are cool and salty, like he's been swimming in ocean water. She imagines she's already on her way up the coast. Moving, moving: going somewhere, nowhere, everywhere. Going. The light hair on Heywood's chest feels like soft grass; the smooth skin on his stomach like damp mud, the bony hip ridge like a cliff on a northern coastline.
     The memory of a childhood boat ride: a Girl Scout excursion to the Channel Islands, a dozen little girls packed into a wooden fishing vessel. The waves lapped the sides, splashing saltwater in their faces. That expanse of water filled her with fear. It seemed they'd be left floating in the nothingness forever. When they touched that rocky edge of island, and saw the seabirds wheeling overhead, she was filled with relief.
     She wishes it turned out different. They all cowered against the brisk sea breeze that day, a bunch of scared, cold girls. It might have been better if they were tossed from the boat by a wave. At least they would have developed fins and learned to swim. Or at least gotten used to always floating.
     This trip will be like the plunge into chilly waters that never happened. She'll have that murky sensation of being underwater a long time then coming up for air. And when she does, there will be sandpipers poking their beaks into the wet sand in search of crabs. Strange shells and rocks with holes worn in them over centuries. Dead carcasses of seals brimming with life.
     Through the distance, over the breakers, Lena thinks she can make out two small islands floating delicately on the horizon. But then the mists move in and they are gone. Heywood's hair glistens with sunlight as it ripples down the ridge of his spinal tunnel, and he stares, fixated on something far away.
     There will be other islands as time passes and spring gives way to summer and the dragonflies mate one last time and die. They will be like wildflowers that can be touched but never picked. When their colors fade and they wither, she'll move on.

Copyright©2003 Margo McCall


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