by Anne Leigh Parrish
Losing love is like the season’s thinning light. You know it’s coming, yet it always takes you by surprise. Summer marches down through the mountains and onto the beach just the way a man descends on your heart. He’s happy there for a while. You find a rhythm. Then the wind blows from a different direction and the sun slides lower in the sky.
With the town so full of people, the emptying is hard to imagine. Its arrival brings regret. Wanting the sidewalk all to yourself, then wishing you weren’t walking on it alone. Getting through the line at the store in a jiff, then wishing you’d had a little more time to stand and overhear little bits of other people’s conversation, other people’s lives.
The exodus never fails. Labor Day is last big crush of bodies everywhere.
Sally’s business falls off then, too. She sells salmon burgers over the counter of a food truck. What she had to go through to get the city council to let her do it still irks. Crystal Beach isn’t that kind of town, she was told. They want to keep their tony atmosphere. Yet it’s the owner of one of higher-end galleries that comes to her defense, citing freedom of expression, of all things.
He takes her to dinner afterwards at La Reine. Over the coquilles he tells her he admires a woman who’s practical, business-minded. When the second bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild has been opened, brought from the climate-controlled wine cellar and held by the waiter as adoringly as if it were the baby Jesus, he asks her if she’d like to have an affair.
An exchange of physical pleasure isn’t the only thing on offer. He wants to back her financially.
She doesn’t understand. She owns the truck outright.
What if she were to expand her business? Have more than one truck? Maybe one day a whole fleet?
“Why would you do that?” she asks.
“I’m in love with you.”
It’s not the first time she’s been told this. It’s taken years, but she finally accepts that she’s beautiful, even at her age.
Derek’s 49. She’s 51. He’s divorced; she’s never been married. Neither has children. He wants to take care of her because he’s lonely, though he doesn’t say this. He’s bored with his own success. He wants to be excited for hers.
They sleep together a couple of times. That is, they try to. He can’t manage it. Each time, he apologizes. She sees how hard it is for him to accept the loss of his virility. Can’t he take something for it? He would, for her. If she became his. She can’t do that, and he says he really didn’t meant it. They remain friends. Nothing more is ever said of his financial largesse. Or of love.
That was over a year ago. Winter comes and goes. March brings the day-trippers out from Portland, and some loose-enders up from California—people who work seasonally, pitch tents beyond the town limits, and can’t afford the expensive restaurants. Which makes Sally’s truck a big draw. Artists, many of them. A few photographers. One woman develops a sudden hard crush, and begs Sally to pose nude, in candlelight. Sally does.
The shots are taken at Sally’s place, a two-bedroom cottage back in the trees where you can hear the ocean but not see it. The woman, Laura, thinks it’s charming. She asks if she can move in, take the second bedroom.
“In exchange for what?” Sally asks. Laura looked miserably at her hands, thrown carelessly in her lap.
“I’ll clean and cook,” Laura says.
“Are you a good cook?”
“Maybe I’ll teach you.”
Sally says when it no longer suits her, she’ll ask Laura to leave, unless Laura goes on her way, first. The look in Laura’s eyes says she doesn’t think that’s likely. Laura’s 31 and obviously looking for a mother—a mother for whom she lusts, but Sally doesn’t draw hard lines around love. Love tends to break all rules and customs.
As the spring rains drive people indoors, business is spotty at the truck. Sally doesn’t mind. She’s frugal; her savings account flush despite the low season. She sits in the back and works on her needlework. She has a passion for needlework, developed in childhood at the knee of a grandmother whose hands always held thread, yarn, silk, floss, anything she could make something beautiful and vibrant out of.
The current canvas is an abstraction of muted color. It would be a shame to make it into another decorative cushion to sell at the crafts fair in Portland. She doesn’t do the selling herself, that’s handled by Marie, a weaver and painter. Marie goes up every summer when the fair runs weekends along the Willamette. Sally’s work is always admired, less often bought. But still, it brings in a few dollars. Marie taught Sally how to weave, and a small loom sits in her cottage, unused. Sally thinks she’ll change that, this year in fact. She’s been stuck, she realizes. Too comfortable. Too predictable.
Easter comes, and Sally treats Marie, Laura, and Derek to a leg of lamb. Her mother taught her the recipe years before. Sally thinks often of her mother, and the unhappiness she endured at the hands of her father. She thinks of her sister, too, who always took the father’s side. What little the man had went to her when he died. The sister lives on the east coast. She and Sally don’t talk. There’s nothing to say, because there’s no love between them.
After Marie and Derek leave, Laura does the dishes and breaks down crying. Sally tries to get to the bottom of it and can’t. In the morning Laura tells her she’s leaving, going home to Indiana where her brother’s offered her a job as a bookkeeper in his auto shop. She’s never going to make anything of herself as a photographer, she sees that now. Sally says dreams take hard work. Laura asks Sally what her dreams are, what she works for.
At the moment, Sally can’t think of anything to say.
Her mood suffers, as a result. Laura’s departure makes the cottage feels larger than it really is. Sally’s not used to loneliness. She’s not used to feeling unmoored. Her dreams are full of waves rising over the bows of ships, of sliding into freezing, murky depths.
The third week of April is stormy. Rain falls daily, sometimes hard, lashing the beach. Business is terrible. Sally closes up the truck and stays home. She even calls Derek to see if he wants to come over for a spirited game of Scrabble, but he doesn’t answer. She remembers him saying over dinner that he was going to Europe. She could have gone with him. He’d have been glad to take her.
She drops by Marie’s. Marie lives in a leaning two-story house on a bluff, left her by a grandfather who’d developed sections of the Oregon Coast. His estate had been cash-poor, which means Marie is now, too, something she says is freeing in its way. She knows what limits there are on her life, which lets other limits, like on her creativity, disappear.
She’s not alone. Her nephew’s out from Iowa, thinking about relocating over the summer. The nephew is Nolan, an old family name, Marie explains, as he and Sally shake hands. Nolan says Marie talks about her all the time, which Sally’s sure isn’t true. Nolan’s one to curry favor, that’s clear. Sally doesn’t mind. She doesn’t mind at all.
He needs work. Sally might take him on. Can he cook? Operate a grill? Is he good with the public?
Marie says he can charm the skin off a snake.
His blush throws Sally into a panic, the kind that only a handsome man can cause.
She knows it’s going to happen, yet doesn’t rejoice. It’s always hard to lose her heart to someone.
He likes that she’s older. He says it gets certain problems out of the way.
“Like what?” she asks. They’re at her place, the sun rising through the trees. She sits at her vanity, brushing her hair. She’s let it grow to her waist. She thinks now of cutting it. Nolan lies in the rumpled sheets, smoking a cigarette, though she hates the smell. Every time he lights one she thinks to mention it, and every time she doesn’t.
“Insecurity. Lack of experience,” Nolan says.
“You find women your age insecure and inexperienced?”
He thinks. “They all just want babies.”
Nolan is 34.
Sally had wanted a child at that age, too. The man she was with didn’t. She considered going it alone, then thought it would have been unfair to the person she brought into the world.
Nolan pats the empty space in the bed next to him. Sally regards him in her mirror. Her eye traces the curve of his bicep. She wonders if her teeth left a mark.
What makes him different from all the others? Not his intelligence, which is slightly above average. Not his sexual skill, though it’s pretty damn good. The color of his eyes? The shape of his mouth?
Just the way he makes her feel. As if, when he’s inside her, everything makes sense.
Is she simply living out the cliché that he completes her, and makes her whole? No, she’s already complete and whole. What he does is make the world whole.
She wonders what he’d say if she said so. She hasn’t decided yet if he’s cruel. It doesn’t matter, really. She can handle cruel.
She holds out her hand to him, and he gets up and comes to her. He stands behind her, then bends down and kisses her cheek. It’s a devoted, worshipping kind of kiss. As a girl, she’d once kissed the marble foot of the Virgin Mary that way.
He’s a good worker at the truck. Fast, accurate, cheerful. He takes over making the coleslaw, and she admits it’s better than hers. In the evenings they walk on the beach. The town fills up, and the beach is crowded. Still, they go. He’s drawn to the waves. He stands and watches them for a long time. Sally wishes she could be so easily awed. But this is what time does to us, isn’t it? Takes a bit of the wonder out of things.
He doesn’t lose any of his shine, though. If anything, he glows under her attention.
Her connection to him deepens until she wants him to disappear inside her, stay a while, then come back out with something of hers imprinted on him. Something he’ll never lose.
Maybe she’s being vain, or possessive, or just nuts, she’s not sure. This desire to absorb a man hasn’t happened to her before. It’s a wild feeling, and she loves it.
An old girlfriend hits town, someone he’d left behind in Iowa a couple of years ago. Dana. Her head’s shaved. She wears a thick leather band around her neck and on each wrist. Her face is chiseled, not gaunt exactly, just very well-defined. She’s not beautiful, but she’s interesting to look at.
As to brains, it’s hard to say. When she hangs around the truck, she barely speaks. But Nolan always seems to know what’s on her mind. He doesn’t say how long they were together, but it’s clear that duration wasn’t as important as intensity.
Sally feels him change. He quiets, pull into himself, touches her with less heat.
When she finds herself crying in the shower, she takes herself to task. This is the way it is. When he says he’s moving out, she says nothing. He’s kind about it. He doesn’t want her to feel like he’s gotten tired of her.
“What, then?” she asks.
He doesn’t know.
Nolan quits the food truck so he can get ready to leave Crystal Beach. He and Dana haven’t decided yet where they’ll go. California, probably. Dana comes by to pick up his last check. Sally gives it to her through the service window. Dana looks at her. What’s in her eyes? Regret? An apology? Does she want to absorb him? Return him in an altered state?
Sally thinks it’s okay, in the scheme of things, to impute her mad urges to another woman.
“Give him back,” Sally says.
“You don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand.”
It doesn’t matter. Dana might not be up to it, anyway.
Sally buys wool in shades of red for the unused loom. She sits in her cottage and works that rigid heddle like a pro. Nolan comes by. He says he’s broken it off with Dana, that he’s been a fool, that he can’t leave Sally.
“Yes you can,” she says.
He sits beside her and cries.
He tells her his affairs have always been scant, in terms of the heart. Even with Dana. What he realizes is that Sally’s the one.
How can she say that here’s the proof that she changed him? Given him something he didn’t have before?
She holds him. He stops crying. She tells him how it is with her. She has nothing more to give him. He needs a woman who has love stored up.
He asks where love goes. She doesn’t know. She’s never known. Out there somewhere, with the waves and the sand. Maybe that’s what the gulls sing about every day, as they glide aloft. She tells him to go and find it.
When he leaves town, Dana stays behind. She’s adrift and angry. She speaks bitterly to Sally, who hires her to replace Nolan at the truck.
“If you’re so upset, go after him. He shouldn’t be hard to find,” Sally says.
Nolan’s in Eureka, California. He texts Dana his address, and tells her to drop in whenever she wants.
“Why would I do that? He’d just up and leave again,” Dana says. She’s exchanged her leather bands for silver beads. Sally finds it an improvement. Her hair’s growing out, too. It’s the lightest blonde Sally had ever seen.
“Probably,” Sally says.
Dana looked accusingly at Sally.
“What?” Sally asks.
“You drove him away.”
“It was over.”
“He didn’t think so.”
“He did when he told me he was leaving town with you.”
Dana concedes the point.
Sally tells her to watch the salmon on the grill. It’s smoking. Dana flips the filet expertly. She catches on fast.
The lunch crowd thins, then dies off. Business is slower each day. Sally tells Dana she won’t be able to keep her on through the winter. Dana says that’s cool. She’ll figure something out.
The sorrow in her eyes brims. Sally’s heart is heavy, too. Another’s misery is never easy to bear. Dana lifts her eyes. They soften when they see Sally looking at her. She kisses her on the mouth. Sally doesn’t pull away. She’s never been with a woman, and is pretty sure it won’t be as good, but maybe the world, now whole, can be further enhanced.
As Dana reaches for her, Sally thinks, why not?
Anne Leigh Parrish’s fifth novel, A Winter Night, will be published in March 2021 by Unsolicited Press. Previous titles are: Maggie’s Ruse, a novel, (Unsolicited Press, 2019); The Amendment, a novel, (Unsolicited Press, 2018); Women Within, a novel (Black Rose Writing, 2017); By the Wayside, stories (Unsolicited Press, 2017); What Is Found, What Is Lost, a novel, (She Writes Press, 2014); Our Love Could Light The World, stories (She Writes Press, 2013); and All The Roads That Lead From Home, stories, (Press 53, 2011). Her short fiction has recently appeared in New Pop Lit, The Slag Review, and O:JA&L. Recent poems have appeared in Mocking Heart Review, Crow Literary Review, S/tick, Wilde Boy, Feminine Collective, 34thParallel Magazine, and Q/A Poetry. She lives among the evergreen trees in the South Sound region of Washington State.