The sand is hot enough that Janet can’t walk barefooted, and Gloria forgot the umbrella they’d purchased from a street cart the night before back near the hotel room. So Janet wears sunglasses, flip flops, slathers herself in sunblock, and lies on their blanket—wide, fleece, a blanket for football games and wholly inappropriate but the only large blanket either of them had—determined to enjoy herself.
Gloria says, “The package doesn’t have us any place specific for lunch.” She stares at a refolded pamphlet. The ocean on the front photo, underneath exultant script for Cape May!, is an impossible, chemical blue, and Janet thought it would not be so blue, but now, sitting in the white sand—the only thing around whiter than she is—she sees that, yes, the ocean is pretty damned blue.
In the exam rooms, the doctors have posters of a beach scene much like where she and Gloria are now, pretty sand, flat horizon, blue everywhere. It says a depressed person sees only sharks lurking and the inconvenience of sand. Or something like that. So what does it say, she wonders, that she looks at the water and considers what kind of pollution makes it so blue?
Gloria’s suit is as loud as the patterned scrubs she wears. It’s a snug, saucy thing, with stripes and panels holding things in and pushing things up and out. Her own suit—deep purple, one piece, low over the hips—looks like what one might wear to a wake held at the pool.
“Did you see any place we could have lunch?” Janet asks.
“Not really.” Gloria looks around. “Do you see anyone from the bus?”
Janet says no, and finds it odd that Gloria would want to seek their advice. They were older, married couples, in Cape May for the birds or the Victorian houses. Though they annoyed Gloria, Janet thought them more her kind of people. While Gloria spoke on the way down of getting drinks and dancing and meeting people, Janet thought how she had only ever been tipsy twice, how dancing meant the occasional contra dance with her niece in State College, and how meeting people happened at church suppers or with the Kiwanis when her father was still alive. From what she knew about Cape May, whatever gave Gloria the idea there was adventure there?
“Surely some of those people are regulars and know where we could eat,” Gloria says. Her head twitches, moving her gaze from face to face. Janet suspects she is getting a headache from squinting for so long in the sun.
Gloria mutters something about a cocktail as Janet notices a thin man walking near the waves, in black jeans, motorcycle boots, with a gray corduroy blazer over a purple t-shirt. A camera hangs from his neck, and he has a pack of beef jerky and a can of Mountain Dew in one hand. His glasses flash as he looks toward them.
“What do you make of him?” Janet mutters to Gloria.
“Where’s the metal detector?” she says. They both titter.
“Look,” Janet says. “He has a moustache. A thin one.”
They see lots of men at their office, because one of the doctors had been a standout receiver for the college and was now a local celebrity. Janet and Gloria knew the age of a man by facial hair. Sideburns of any length? Under 30. Goatee? Family man, mid- to late thirties. Moustache and beard? Academic, usually over 40. Just moustache? Divorced, late forties to fifties. A system reliable as the sun. Except for Gloria’s ex-husband, who at forty-five sported an Amish chin strap of a beard, letting the sideburns go bushy during deer season. But he was unreliable in many ways.
“He’s coming over here,” Gloria says.
“No, I don’t think he is,” Janet says. “Why would he?”
Gloria frowns and arranges herself on the blanket, and then it’s obvious the man is coming to them. He pockets the beef jerky, begins fiddling with the camera. Janet wants to crawl under the blanket. He is in no hurry. He takes a step or two, looks down at his camera, pokes at a button or twists a dial, looks up, glasses flashing in the sun, and takes another step or two. This repeats, with him getting closer all the time. Janet is up on her elbows, a throw on her back, but realizes that because of her suit and the insistence of gravity, she is showing a long line of cleavage. She pulls the throw tighter over her shoulders and, when she looks down to check placement, is struck how her chest is white, almost blue, fine lines gathering where the weight of her breasts pull together.
“I’m Paul,” he says. His tone is clear, like a conductor asking for a train ticket. It is less an introduction than a statement of fact. Neither woman replies.
He stops looking at his camera, lets it hang, arms straight at his sides.
“You from Pittsburgh?” he asks.
“Good guess,” Gloria says. “We’re from Butler.”
“How did you know?” Janet asks.
He points at their blanket, and Janet looks down and realizes it’s a giant Steelers blanket. A skywriter would know they were from Pittsburgh.
“I’m from Bellefonte,” he offers. “Middle of the state. Grew up in Fox Chapel. Before it was snooty.” He says snooty such that it sounds like two words.
Janet notices the white edges of the jacket’s cuffs, the threads wispy where buttons once held, the jeans held closed with a safety pin. Paul looks baggy thin, like a guy who doesn’t cook thinning out after the divorce. The guys who come in with grey skin, high cholesterol and woozy, sleepy feelings after lunch, the army of deserted or deserting men who vaguely realize it’s time to head to the doctor. At least once a week, she finds herself prepping a guy to hear the worst news of his life from a doctor he hasn’t seen for years. It is one of the few times she is glad she never married, making her never have to do this to a man she loves.
“Can I take your picture?” Paul says.
Gloria starts to sit up and Paul thrusts out a hand.
“No, just stay where you are. I got it,” he says. Crouching, he wedges the Mountain Dew in the sand before starting to poke at the camera. Gloria chuckles and pushes her hair away from her forehead. She mouths to Janet, what is he doing? Janet frowns and wishes she hadn’t. Gloria looks wearied, and turns toward Paul, as if he were some bright bauble coming in on the surf.
In one motion, Paul balances the camera on the Mountain Dew, rises, and hops over the two of them. Before she can turn to see where he has gone, Janet feels Paul arrive, pushing between the two of them, his bony hip a sudden push against her, and she can smell coffee in his jacket, old and earthy, the scent of soap, and something minty, not quite toothpaste, probably aftershave. The camera light blinks slowly, and then more rapidly. Smile, he breathes, and she doesn’t. Gloria laughs. The camera sounds its artificial click. Paul says, another one.
He is up again, then crouching at the makeshift tripod. He reviews the picture and says to Janet, “You didn’t smile.” He looks genuinely wounded. Janet wants to say, what are you? Eleven years old? But Gloria says, “Good luck getting a smile out of her.”
Janet’s mouth opens before she can help it. Paul laughs.
“I am perfectly capable of smiling,” Janet says.
“You’ve smiled exactly twice since we’ve been here, and one time was because we had a dinner coupon with our check-in stuff,” Gloria says. “I mean, really, Janet. Why did you come if you were going to be like this?”
“You need to smile this time,” Paul says.
I don’t believe you is on the tip of her tongue, prickling over her face and arms, into her chest, and then it’s laughable, ridiculous. When Paul flops down she is so pissed she’s laughing, and so she seizes it, looking at the camera and its strobing little light, the blinking like a mad alarm before she blows her stack. Gloria says that’s the way, honey, enjoy yourself, and the camera clicks and Paul is up again. As he declares the photo good, Janet says to Gloria, “Why would you say something like that?”
Gloria glances at her and says, “Forget I said it. Let’s see the picture.”
No, Janet thinks, it’s sudden and rude and not a thing to drop. “Really? Why would you say that?”
“Honey—” Gloria says, her voice deepening, “you want to drop it, OK?”
“I am not going to drop it, especially with you saying to drop it. Everybody knows that means there’s more, so what is it?”
“Leave it alone.”
“Why did you invite me if you were going to be like this to me?”
Gloria rolls onto her side, jabs a finger into the blanket, and says, “I invited you because you needed this. Everybody knows you do.”
“Everybody? Everybody who?”
But Gloria doesn’t have to answer. Janet knows. One bad week on the floor, a few days when she dared let on that something was wrong, and every nurse decided she needed a vacation or whatever. She wants to bury herself in the sand, but not before throwing some in Gloria’s face.
Paul returns to the blanket, holding the camera so they can see the picture.
“Perfect,” he says. “It really captures you.”
Janet glances at it. She looks deranged. Gloria looks smug. Paul looks obliviously happy to be there.
“Everybody who, Gloria? Tell me. Who’s saying what?”
Paul fiddles with the camera and Gloria slaps at the air.
“Don’t try to pass this over—you are a real bitch to me sometimes, and this time, I’m not going to take it,” Janet says.
“That’s it,” Gloria says, and she stands. “You know why we’re here? Do you? Do you know why we’re here?”
Janet thinks, because you asked. Nobody asks. Ever. She’d had to find someone to feed her cats, and settled on the older woman who lived in the next townhouse. She’d had to buy a suit because she’d never been to the beach. She’d had to figure out how to get her mail held, because she’d never been gone for more than a day. Then she thought, oh my god—why did she ask? Gloria knew all the other nurses, had been there for years, was the only one, besides herself, who wasn’t married, wasn’t tied down, the only one who could have—
“You wouldn’t shut up about that kid. You just wouldn’t let it go. Even though you’re not the first person to do something stupid.” Her hands shoot to her hips, and she bends at the waist and continues. “Or, not even stupid—I don’t know what you did, but we’ve all done something where it was our fault. But it’s like you had nothing else to talk about. And then, we realized! You don’t have anything else to talk about.”
Paul starts backing off the blanket. “Do you want a copy of this picture?” He looks back and forth, his mouth open a little. In the midst of Gloria’s tirade, even as she feels her chest compressing, Janet notices Paul has a bit of jerky jammed up against a canine.
“We wanted to do something nice, give you something to distract you—”
“You made me a charity case,” Janet says. Her eyes start to burn.
“I’ll need an e-mail or something,” Paul says.
Gloria throws her hands up and turns to him. “Can you give it a minute? Why are you even still here?”
“I can’t believe you think I’m such a disaster that you need to draw the short straw and take me on vacation,” Janet says. “I just—I don’t—”
“You don’t have to yell at me,” Paul says.
Gloria’s jaw sets and she quiets. They all breathe loudly, and Janet thinks Paul might be the next person to blow. Then, Gloria says, “I’m done. I’m going back to the hotel, packing my bag, and finding a bus back or something. Grab your stuff, and we can get out of here.”
Janet looks at Paul, looks out at the beach, inhales and says, trying to calm a tremor, “You go. I’ll find my own way back.”
Paul doesn’t move. He and Janet look at Gloria’s back as she marches, heels efficient as they dig against the sand, arms ratcheting at her sides. The sounds of the beach come back to Janet, seagulls squawking and the burble of children near where the waves slide up.
“Give me your e-mail,” Paul says.
Janet turns to him, unsure of what he said, sweat on the back of her neck, a prickle across the back of her thighs.
Paul clicks a pen and flattens a crumpled business card in his hand. “I know, it’s weird. But in a day or two, when you calm down, you’re going to want this picture, and I need to know where to send it.”
Janet almost says you are a very odd man, but she has never been that forward, and further, the man makes a kind of sense, and so she tells him. When he finishes writing, he hands her another business card, this one with his name, a PO box, three phone numbers, two e-mails, and a Twitter account. The title says only entrepreneur.
Janet does not return to the hotel. She rolls the blanket, disposes of the trash, slips her cover over her suit and pulls on a pair of clam diggers before hoisting her stiff new beach bag to her shoulder and walking toward the little shopping area. At first, she looks for a boardwalk, having heard for years about the boardwalks at the Jersey shore, but a balloon vendor chatting up a lifeguard intoned, when she asked, that Cape May has never had, nor will ever have, a boardwalk. Janet wondered if today she wore a sign that said Shit on me. Please.
She buys taffy—a small box. In another store, an oversized t-shirt to use as a nightgown. She considers a small print of a beach scene, a long boat with chipping paint up on its side, breakers and seagulls in the distance, but decides against it, not wanting to have to sit with it for the entire bus ride back.
When she calls the bus depot, she learns there is a daily to Philadelphia, where she can either continue on another bus, take a train to Pittsburgh, or even get taxied to the airport. When she hangs up with the terse woman at the depot, she says aloud, in a voice whose cheeriness surprises her, “I have options.”
She crosses the street in front of the hotel to a restaurant with a porch wrapped around three sides and decorated with nautical ropes and buoys and seashells, all musty and faded. She requests an outdoor table facing the beach, and because it is early for lunch and it is a Tuesday, she is alone on the porch. When she tells the waitress that the margarita she ordered will be her first, the girl smiles, but Janet sees her roll her eyes as she turns away.
She sips the margarita and watches the beach. The thin man is out there, Paul, approaching other people, this time a couple with a very young child. The child flings sand and the mother smacks its hand each time. Paul talks mostly with the father, a man with a tattoo on his shoulder and a business haircut. Waiting for her drink, she considers whether to go greet him, but before the girl returns, Paul shuffles down the beach, looking almost in a hurry. He stops every few steps, snaps a shot of something, and eventually disappears from view.
She is left with the beach, the sun, the drink, the noise of people moving around her, a sense that she is far from everything she knows. When the girl tells her she is headed for a break but that some other anonymous person will take good care of her, Janet places the drink down and says, evenly, and very much to her surprise, “I hope so. Because you have done a shitty job.”
The waitress mutters whatever, and walks away. To her, the waitress, the beach is full of a thousand Janets a day. But Janet thinks to herself, you only get to be different so often.
Everyone seems to know who Paul is—the guy with the camera, the guy who wears jeans at the beach, the guy who takes pictures without asking. One man, fifty-ish, burst capillaries in his face, rheumy eyes, not long for this world, Janet thinks, knows very well who Paul is.
“I am showing his work here on the Cape,” he says, and Janet cannot tell if the subtle slur in his speech is because he’s gay, loaded, or just someone Gloria would call “a character.”
“You’re showing him work?” Janet says.
He shakes his head. “No—showing his stuff. I have a little gallery, a few blocks away, and I have his photos hanging in there.”
She suppresses the urge to blurt, he’s an ARTIST? She manages to indicate that she will follow the man, only later, as they turn to cut through an alley, she wonders if she is naively walking to her death. If she was, she suspects, she would not wonder about it. As they arrive at the front of the gallery—scabby clapboards, prodigious seagull shit on the steps and eaves—Janet suddenly cannot wait to learn more so she can tell Gloria all she missed by being such a bitch.
The photos make no sense to her. Grey, off-centered, sometimes blurry, all characteristics she knows enough to suspect are done on purpose. In another section she notices two dozen photos of people smiling while camping, tailgating, waiting in lines, sitting at a drive-thru window, milling outside a church. In each photo, Paul is with the people. She sees no one on a beach, but wonders if she, Gloria, and Paul will be on the wall in some other show.
The owner tells her more than she can understand or retain about the photos she sees. All of them have titles that describe them. If her picture with Gloria had been in the collection, it would have been labeled, Two Ladies I Met on Beach, New Jersey. All of the photos are from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and unlike the other photos of crumbling walls and fields, all of the ones with people are crisp.
When she asks the owner for a drink of water, he says all he has is vodka, fruit juice, or club soda, and so she asks him to make her something tasty. He grins and disappears, and she wanders, finding a stack of pamphlets that someone had photocopied from a crooked original. Paul’s last name was Voorhees, the exhibition was called “Present: A Gift, The Now, The Act,” and she sees she was right about something: the note under Paul’s self-portrait notes that the photos were a rediscovery of the world after awakening from the “limiting cocoon that followed my divorce.”
She sips her drink and gets the owner to tell her more about Paul. She learns mainly that he eats lunch at the Cape’s only Mexican place, just at the edge of the actual town of Cape May. When Janet asks if it is walking distance, he grins as if she has just told a dirty joke. “It’s all walking distance if you want to get there bad enough.” She doesn’t like his leer, his dirty teeth, the bags under his eyes, his entire face the evidence of a decades-long war between caffeine and alcohol.
She presses, and he says the restaurant is about two miles from the gallery, but shuttles go out there. A bird sanctuary attracts tourists, and surely enough, she rides with a group of whom half wear binoculars and elaborate sun hats.
Paul is easy to spot, the lone stool-sitter, looking at a sheet of small photos—dark, like an x-ray—with a sweating margarita next to him and a plate of half-eaten enchiladas.
“Well, imagine you being here,” he says. “Get out of my city!”
She cocks her head, but realizes soon enough he means something like get out of town. She starts to ask if she can sit, then just does so. She leaves a stool between them. He returns his attention to the sheet of photos.
“I actually came here looking for you,” Janet says.
He looks up, says nothing.
“You’re the only person I know here,” she says. A tendon in her throat jumps, but she crosses her hands in her lap and concentrates on balancing on the stool. Paul still says nothing.
“You’re not busy,” she says. She intended a question, but it sounded more forceful. “Maybe it’s a good day to get to know someone new.”
Paul turns toward the enchiladas, takes a bite, then drains his margarita in the most deliberate and almost delicate way, leaning forward, lips scarcely touching the glass, as if the draught was taken in a lengthy sip.
“Please don’t make me say come on,” she says.
“No,” Paul says as he folds the sheet of photos and slides it into a pocket inside his blazer. “I think it’s a good idea. Let’s go for a ride.”
She does not think about the deadly record of motorcycles that she herself has witnessed—not as he tells her they will ride to the bird sanctuary, not as he produces a spare helmet, not as she finds her way onto the wide rear part of the seat. Perhaps it is because it is a scooter, and not some belching loud Harley, or perhaps it is because she has willed herself beyond reinvention and into full-bore lunacy, but it is not until she is leaning against his back, holding onto his waist, feeling her chest push against him, with surprisingly little fabric between them, and when she sees how close her mouth is to the base of his skull, to the stiff gray hairs grown in a few weeks after his last haircut, to the moles there that may or may not be sun damage from when he worked as a younger man, not until she is pressed against him does it occur to her how lost she is, how if they were to crash, either death would be swift or the suffering eternal.
The boy didn’t suffer. When his father lost control, the boy was thrown before the bike itself skidded onto its side. He hit his head on a concrete barrier and flipped over it and down an embankment. At the hospital, the attending—a fierce-lipped man with a stiff walk—insisted that the nature of his injuries and brain activity indicated that even if the body expired slowly, there was no suffering as we might conceive of it. His disconnection did not help. Gloria rubbed her shoulders, other nurses steered clear, she napped through parts of her shift in an empty room in obstetrics, out of the view of all but the occasional would-be-mother walking to induce.
The boy didn’t suffer—didn’t suffer growing up, didn’t suffer the stupidity so many men shockingly live through—that his father ultimately lived through— didn’t suffer the dumb risks and needless bingeing of their twenties. He didn’t suffer the thickening isolation of his thirties, the withdrawal so many men do from what they once thought of as vitality, the narrowing of vision, the resignation that each morning’s waking builds, a slow step at a time. She thinks—he didn’t suffer much. He didn’t suffer the gaunt frame of abandonment, by his own device or that of some unthinking person, some expired woman, some final snap of patience.
The boy expired with his family near, nurses at arm’s reach, a whole group of people pulling for him to live into some future they imagined. He expired while still all potential, while still lucky.
Gloria followed Janet for weeks as she made her rounds, delivered meals, listened to the throb of veins in arms, listened to the hiss of a blood pressure cuff, the artificial chime of the nurse button, the endless crinkle and tear of plastic on the floor. Janet cannot remember who she was then, what it must have been like to be around her.
Now she risked the suffering the boy had avoided. In reinventing herself—such a pointless, needless, silly thing to do—she invited avoidable suffering. By the time Paul stops the scooter at the sanctuary’s parking lot, Janet is in tears.
Paul takes off his helmet and his head jolts back. “Hey! Hey—what’s the matter?”
All Janet can muster is a few waves of her hand.
“Is this about the other lady? She didn’t even seem like your friend. Just someone you travel with.”
“No, no—not her,” Janet says. “It’s just that this day—this trip—”
“Whatever it is,” Paul says, and Janet thinks she may hear impatience, “it’s not as big as that.” He points toward the beach. “Nothing is. So you can handle it.”
She blinks several times. She looks at the beach, the scraggly grass there, the scrim of seaweed left from high tide, the gulls strutting around bawling into the wind. “What are you talking about?”
He starts walking away, then turns toward her. “Are you coming? We’re going to go look at birds.”
She wants to say, seriously? I am CRYING here. But she doesn’t. She wants to know what is so large and edifying about sand, broken shells, seagulls. “Tell me what you mean about the beach being big.”
“Walk with me, and I’ll tell you.”
“You’re a little annoying, you know,” she says, some pout to her voice.
“And you’re a little weepy. And sad,” he says. He pulls a camera out of his jacket, a tiny digital thing. “Now, are you coming or should I drive you back?”
They head into a path opening, which becomes a wood-planked path, almost a boardwalk through shoulder-high stands of beach grass. Paul is quiet, and she stops worrying about what she should say. The ocean roar presses its airy rush over them, salt heavy and fragrant. Soon she is watching dunes and grasses for stirs, for the flash of the fiery orange birds streaking to the trees at the edge of the dunes.
Paul says, “I like it here because of the ocean.”
She waits, certain he will say more.
“Everything in the world is smaller than the ocean. Everything you could worry about is wimpy compared to stuff like the moon, tides, the world that’s under water. Did you know the oceans are so powerful that they make the planet kind of wobble? I knew a guy who used to call it terra not-so-firma. Get it?”
He looks at her with a grin—an eleven-year-old again.
“You’re—” but she isn’t sure what to say. She doesn’t want to insult him, but he is flawed somehow, at once old and immature, awkward and bold, polite and presumptuous.
“I know,” he says. “Hey, did you hear about the chickadee with the STD?”
“Yeah. He had chirpies.”
“Oh god,” she says. She walks away from him. He jogs up beside her.
“You gotta let her go. She wasn’t your friend.”
Janet nods. “We went over this already.”
“Well, that’s what you have to do.”
Her heart skips suddenly as she asks, “What did you do to get over rejection? Over something you did?”
“What the heck are you talking about?”
“Your exhibit said something about the cocoon of your divorce or something. You’re so aware of what I should do—what about you?”
Cheer drains from his face, as does any youth. As if his jaw grows stubble in front of her and the moustache thins, as if his eyes redden weakly, he is nothing if not a man in his fifties, lost at midlife, wifeless and probably dying of something he did not yet know about. God, she thinks, let him not say something that will kill me.
He turns from her and starts walking back to the scooter. She follows, and he doesn’t say anything for a long time. When he hands her the helmet, she sees him glance once down her body and back up, before he says, “I moved to the beach to get away from stuff like what just happened. Do you want a ride back somewhere, or do you want to wait for the bus?”
“Don’t be,” he says, cutting her off. “Already forgotten. I’ve gotten good at letting it slide. Now, helmet?” He thrusts it at her.
She takes the helmet. She will hold his back as they ride, and she will watch the road and the sand pass under them, and she will try to feel the life in him through her hands.
And the next day, she will see Gloria at the bus, and not ask where she had been, where she stayed the night, why she did not actually leave. She will note her friend’s haggard eyes, stiff hair, and will wait to ask questions, and maybe won’t ask any. Instead, telling the story of Paul, she will focus on how she rode with him, how they had enchiladas and margaritas, how they photographed the brilliant birds and she thought she might just calm down and enjoy herself. And when Gloria scuffs a laugh that may or may not be derisive, Janet will turn to get a last glimpse of the ocean sliding in and away.