The Pacific frothed at the shore, its distant gray spreading into white foam and retreating, flattened by its own mass against the long curve of the horizon. The sea has neither mercy nor pity, she thought, not recognizing her plagiarism for a full minute. Chekhov. Check off the boxes on your formal education and file it away; it does so little good out here in the world.
Snuggled into her sofa, she sipped her coffee and watched wind whip the ocean. Caffeine would kill her cravings. Claudia wallowed in her appetite’s sharpness, a reminder of her body and its needs. She ate her last banana yesterday, but she hadn’t made it back to the store, or even to Maggie’s house, gripped by a powerful sense of foreboding she did not quite understand. They’re just people, she told herself. They don’t hate you. That’s just how their faces are.
The door thundered under a hard double knock. She froze. Whoever it was knew she was here. She shouldn’t show distrust so early into her stay.
Peter filled the doorframe. There was barely any sky around him. She smiled. So did he.
“In the neighborhood?”
“Thought I’d see how you were settling in.” He shifted, big boots scuffling.
“I’ve been meaning to get out on the beach. Walk with me?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ve been cooped up.”
“I’ll get my things.”
They had talked on the porch, but once they passed through the narrow wooden gate to the beach, they stopped talking and just walked, shuffling and squeaking through the peaks and valleys of dune grasses, which were sparse and the kind of green that Claudia last saw on olive trees. The beach grew firmer, crunchy with bands of shells and littered here and there with heaps of kelp.
Elsewhere on the reservation, the driftwood seemed from another time, the fallen trunks taller than people, their rounded root systems tipped toward the sky, carving dark suns into the horizon.
But here, where bonfires were a ritual of witness that involved beer and cigarettes, where tourists pocketed anything pretty with the sly acquisitiveness of raccoons, the driftwood was spare, and so were the good shells.
Claudia had thrown out so much before she left Seattle, shedding her shells and pebbles with the practiced satisfaction of a dog shaking off a bath. Some of her beach glass had been gathered here. Peter kicked a can and scowled at the container ships anchored off the coast. For all she knew, her trash boarded a ship on its way back to Asia, destined for a distant beach community and its own flocks of garbage pickers.
Peter cleared his throat and paused as he came between her path and the shore. The pale sun backed behind the clouds, snuffing out the shadows of his face, his black hair absorbing all the light, as black as anything around it, blacker.
Stop staring, she told herself, and smiled, bright, but he did not return it, and kept instead a steady gaze that said he had seen her hunger. She dropped her eyes to the tangled bull kelp at her feet, their slimy fronds twisted around a net at the wrack line, where breakers made their final sally before retreating, restless. A cloud of black flies floated around her ankles; her tennis shoes squished into a nest of smaller sea plants.
She stepped past the wreckage of the last high tide and onto the smooth, flat sand, and they kept on, not talking, their footprints erasing themselves with damp exhales from beneath, the closest she’d get to leave no trace, or walking on water.
The sea stood up and toppled over, dragging kelp and sand into itself before rising again and again, reaching for the shore. Its passage left a thick sheen on the crust of crushed shells, which rolled on their sides and sighed, sated.
Their shoulders brushed once, and again, as they walked, footsteps moving toward and away from each other in subtle waves that stretched long with the languid tempo of dune ridges, or dolphins.
Grazing his hand, her entire body aligned to him like filings on a magnet. She looked without looking, hearing his weight change on the beach.
Ruddy cliffs held back a cedar forest that spilled over, curving toward the sea atop a dark headland, tide pools bared to the sky. She kept her focus on that outcropping, trying not to watch Peter from the corners of her eyes as they drew nearer. His shadow at her periphery had taken over her full attention.
She was relieved when they came to the headland’s surf-addled rock, where the lava had cooled into pockets, trapping untold numbers of bubbles. Where air had been, life crept in, a profusion of glossy mussels and rough barnacles, orange and purple sea stars, lime and crimson anemones, and emerald plants she could not name.
Claudia crouched before the first pool, its stillness a pane of glass onto a world that did and did not pertain to her. A velvety red anemone swayed, stirred by some unseen force.
She pushed a finger into its cold home, slow and careful. The anemone tuned to her, its rubbery receptors waving in her direction, beckoning. They clung to her as she slipped her nail into the folds of its body, trying to be gentle. It held her, and she lingered, feeling how dear it was, this aggressive embrace, and how it was this creature’s weakness – and not the ferocity of its intent, nor the cunning of its perception – which made it dear. Her power inspired a rising tenderness. She tickled but poked no further, inclining her head so a sky mirror drew over the pool and she could regard herself being maternal.
Beside her shifting face she saw Peter. His eyes were on her. The air thickened into mist, blurring their reflection.
“Come again tomorrow,” he said, and left her there.
An excerpt from this chapter was previously published in Pacifica Literary Review.
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