Marsha stood at the front door, Pete by her side. She wore a flowered dress, cute little light-blue canvas deck shoes, a straw hat, and sunglasses. She smiled with excitement.
Pete wore a Hawaian shirt in reds, blue shorts, and sandals. Sunglasses hung by a cord around his neck, and he wore a Lockheed baseball cap. He lugged a huge sack of plastic water toys. A row of suitcases and a cooler and several hand grips sat on the lawn by the van.
"Good morning," Paul answered. "Give me a minute to lock up the house."
Minutes later, they were on their way down into L.A. and from there on the 405 Freeway to the 5 down through Orange County into San Diego.
On the way down, Marsha and Paul chattered about their lives and ambitions, what they enjoyed and didn't enjoy, movies they planned to see. Pete sat on the rear half-seat, playing with toy cars. He sat turned away and concentrated on his game.
Marsha was from Salem, Oregon. Her parents were retired school teachers. ("No wonder Pete inherited all those smarts!" Paul said). Marsha Smith had met Jeffrey Kassner when they were in college together at Oregon State. Jeffrey had been in Air Force ROTC and had served as a pilot at Travis AFB and later Nellis. At Nellis, he'd resigned his commission to become a civilian test pilot. He'd been killed in the crash of an experimental version of the F-4 Phantom. She showed Paul a picture of Jeffreyhe'd been a slim, handsome man with neatly combed blond hair and an expression of complete, quiet self-confidence. "We had it all," Marsha said quietly, so Pete wouldn't hear.
Paul, keeping both hands on the wheel, nodded at the photo and she put it away. He said: "I wish it had turned out differently."
"Thanks." It was clear she wished it too. She sat back and put one bare foot up against the dashboard. "Let's enjoy our weekend."
They tooled down I-5 through Anaheim, where Disneyland was, then through Santa Ana and Oceanside, and by one they were in Solana Beach. They had lunch in a restaurant whose patio overlooked rough surf in which dolphins and seals played, nearly on the beach. Pete gaped, pointing at every marvel. Paul had been here before, and it was a little bit old hat, but still very nice. He was happy for her that Marsha appeared to be enjoying herself. She looked about, her sunglasses reflecting glare, and grinned. "You can really smell the sea here." She coated her face, and Pete's, with sunscreen. "You should really use this too," she told Paul. Sliding closer with her chair, she dabbed little swaths of milky looking cream on Paul's cheeks. Her fingers were gentle but thorough. The smell reminded him of her: clean, lightly coconut, enticing. "Thanks," he told her when she was done. He paid the bill, and they headed down to the water. They carried towels, a small cooler, aluminum tubular-framed chairs to sit in, and two surf boards. One was Paul's; the other had the initials JMK on one end in permanent marker. Paul wondered if Jeffrey's middle name had been Mike or Mark or something. He felt kind of like an intruder, and promised himself to be respectful of her feelings and her space.
There were puffy white clouds on the distant western horizon, far out at sea, and a storm was coming in the next day or two. Marsha, who wore a burgundy two-piece bikini, did not like swimming that much. Paul watched her surreptitiously, liking her. She preferred to wade in the water, letting the four foot swells from the storm rise and fall around her, timing it so that she was in the exact middle of where each wave peaked. Several other men and women were doing the same. The more adventurous, wearing wetsuits, paddled into the tide.
Paul took Pete out a hundred feet or so while Marsha watched anxiously. No needthe water was only about six feet deep here, and the boy was an excellent swimmer, a natural. Paul held the board while Pete climbed onto it and tried so stand. He kept falling down, and this climbing and falling must have taken a half hour before just the right wave came, at just the right moment, and Pete found his sea legs just then. Off he went, flying to the left and right, before falling off. "Good work!" Paul hollered as Pete paddled back. "I think you went 30 feet on your first try. That's darn good."
"It is? Hey, thanks!"
Marsha made her way out, paddling lightly. "How are you guys doing?"
"Just fine," Pete yelled. "Hey mom, watch me surf the wild waves! Help me up, Mr. Owens. Here I go. Whoo-pee!" He caught a wave and sailed along with it, gradually losing his balance, until he fell backward into the water. He emerged splashing and blowing bubbles, yelling "Cool! Did you see that? Man this is great."
"He's having a blast," Marsha said. "Thanks for bringing us along."
Later in the afternoon, they rinsed off at public showers, and then took turns changing in the van. It got cold, and they shivered with goosebumps. Each wore jeans and a thick sweater. Marsha's lips were blue, and Paul put his arm around her. "Let's go get some hot tea!"
"Ggg," she said, and slipped an eel-cold arm around him, making him yelp.
"God you're cold," he said.
"Cold hands, warm heart." She hugged him tightly. He put his other arm around Pete, and together they walked down to the same place they'd had lunch. Darkness fell, and they sat together sipping coffee. Pete walked out on the patio and stood leaning on the wooden railing, watching the sky full of stars above, and lights moving across the Pacific Ocean below.
It was kind of a magic moment, Paul thought. He sat very close beside Marsha in plush beige leather furniture. They were tired from the water. He could have put his arm around her, but he didn't. He was pretty sure she'd let him, but he thought it was enough to sit with her. She sighed dreamily and leaned her head lightly against his shoulder. "I'm hungry, but I can't move."
"Let's order something light," he suggested.
They decided on fish and chips, which wasn't so light, but there wasn't too much to the single order they shared. She wasn't a big eater, so Pete and Paul nearly split the meal. "It's dark, and I'm not up for finding a camp ground at this hour. Let's do it in the morning."
"Oh, Paul! I think it would be wonderful to camp here by the ocean!"
They drove the camper as close as they could to the beach. They sat on the sea wall for a good two hours, chatting with other couples, while Pete found a few local kids to chase around with. Paul and Marsha kept a wary eye on Pete's silhouette as he scampered around the water line. Somebody's large, shaggy old house dog joined the kids in a game of tag, and the dog seemed to know the rules.
"It's nice here," Marsha said dreamily.
"More exciting than Burbank?"
"Reminds me of Oregon. The beaches there are beautiful."
"More beautiful than here?"
"You gonna move back there someday?"
"I dunno. My parents are still around, and I have a brother and sister. The only reason I ever left, really, was because of Jeffrey."
Paul didn't know quite what to say, and so he watched Pete disinterestedly. Suddenly he realized she was sobbing. She held her knuckles to her mouth, and big tear drops squeezed out of her closed eyes. Instinctively, he put his arm around her, but she turned and walked several arms' lengths away.
She stopped crying after a few minutes. Paul handed her a napkin that he'd put in his pocket in the restaurant and then forgotten. "Thank you," she said, and walked away down to the water. "I'm sorry," she whispered over her shoulder. She picked up a frisbee and ran lightly, throwing it to her son, but he dog caught it and ran down the beach. The dark silhouettes chased the dog and ran out of sight.
Paul waited, leaning on the railing. I'm lucky, he thought. I'm alive, and I don't have her problems. Okay, so if I lose the job, I can go back to college and finish my Ph.D. I can always teach. In the same mental breath, he realized how much he'd miss the hands-on work. And, frankly, the secrecy and the urgency were like aphrodisiacs.
Marsha and Pete came up the sand after a while. "I am so tired," she said. Pete was fairly staggering. She put her arm around Paul's and tugged him powerfully along, squeezing his arm against her side. "Let's put this boy to bed. We all going to crash in the van?"
"It's the only solution," Paul said. "I'm too beat."
"Well, you do what's right. I trust you to know the answers."
The ocean breeze was mild, and there was a tang of eucalyptus in the air. It was already quiet along the water. Marsh climbed in back with Pete and spread out his sleeping bag. "I'm going to find us a quieter, darker, safer spot," Paul said. Starting the van, he swung the VW around and trundled up the street with chattering engine. A few streets up and to one side, they came to a residential neighborhood dark with tree crowns. Paul pulled up at the curb, locked all the doors, and pulled curtains on all the windows. He unbolted the popup and pushed it open. The wedge-shaped lid, with plastic accordion sides, locked into place, leaving a shallow space at the rear, tapering quickly to about three feet clearance toward the front.
In the faint dome light, she bent over her son, zipping his bag shut. "He's out cold," she murmured. "I won't be far behind."
"Me neither," Paul said. "I'll sit with you for a few minutes, and then I'll climb up top." He pictured himself pushing the hatch open, climbing up with his sleeping bag, closing the hatch, and crawling into the bag to fade instantly.
With Pete asleep against the far side, and Marsha in the middle, Paul lay on his bag near the sealed sliding door. He turned the dome light out.
In the dark, they listened to a distant ship's horn. A wind blew lightly around the van, nudging it as if someone were pushing a pinkie finger against itvery lightly. Frequently, pine needles or other debris fell on the roof with a faint plop noise. At first Marsha jumped, but he reassured her, and they laughed.
They lay side by side, listening to each other breathe.
"I'm sorry about back there."
"I'm not ready to move on yet, Paul. You're a very nice man, but I'm not even ready to think of you as anything more than a nice friend and neighbor. Can you understand that?"
"I've never had a spouse die on me, so I can only imagine that it's very terrible."
"You're very honest, and quite understanding."
"This is a great trip, don't you think?"
"It's the nicest thing I've done in quite a while. Pete adores you."
"He's a slick little guy. I'm going to be building a new plane in the next few weeks, and he can help me test fly it."
"He talks a lot about you, Paul. I hope he's not a burden to you."
"Not a bit. He's company. I live alone."
"Oh yes. I've forgotten what that's like. Are you okay?"
"I work so many hours that I guess I'm okay. I keep busy."
"Any girlfriends? Am I being too nosy?"
"Nah. Nobody right now. Actually, this van belongs to an ex-girlfriend that I lived with for a year. We're still good friends."
They lay on their backs, looking up, and Paul stared up through a slit between the curtain and the window. A tree branch waved hypnotically over a field of stars. He heard Marsha snoring lightly. Her breath felt cool against his cheek, and he smelled again that faint fresh-coconut lotion. Then sleep overcame him.
Paul awoke to the sound of Pete yelling. "Mom! I'm hungry and I have a headache!"
Paul opened his eyes and looked into the face of Marsha, who lay facing him, studying him as if he were a complex painting. She was so close he could have stretched his neck slightly to kiss her. She put her hand over her mouth and turned away, whispering "I have morning breath."
Groaning, Paul sat up, rubbing his neck. He had only the floor rug for a pad, and his muscles were stiff.
Marsha started feeding Pete milk and crackers with cheese from the cooler. "He says he had bad dreams last night." She leaned close and muttered: "He still has nightmares about his dad crashing and burning." Then: "He gets these headaches and he has to eat or he'll be achy and grouchy all day."
Pete said: "What are we going to do today, Mr. Owens?"
Paul said: "Well, it's Sunday. It's earlyseven a.m. We'll make another long day of it. We'll drive over to Palomar Mountain and go biking, how's that?"
"Sounds adventuresome, Paul."
"It's not quite like climbing Mt. Everest, but it will do."
"Didn't realize you're such an outdoorsman." She squeezed his bicep.
Paul told Pete: "Ever been to the 200 inch telescope there, the Hale?"
Pete made wide eyes.
"It can look farther into space than any other instrument ever made by man."
"So many miles that you couldn't write all the zeroes on a sheet of paper."
"Wow! Can we look at some stars?"
"Well, not in the daytime. But they have a museum."
"Sounds like fun," Marsha said, busily dishing out a makeshift breakfast.
It was a pleasant drive inland, through meandering orange groves filled with millions of fruit as if someone had gone crazy putting cloth dots on a greenboard. They tooled around and around the sides of Palomar Mountain, until they came to a fork about a mile up. "To the left is a state park," Paul said, "and straight ahead is the observatory." He pulled ahead a few yards and swung into a parking lot on the left. "There's a little hippie store here, and a restaurant, and one or two other things. We can wash up a bit and get something warm to eat."
As they walked across the parking lot, Marsha said: "I'm still stiff from all that activity yesterday."
Later, as Paul drove further into the densely wooded summit, the huge dome of the Hale loomed over the treetops.
"It's like science fiction," Marsha said, gaping.
"Wow!" Pete said, "I'll bet they can see a bug on the moon, if there were life there, which there isn't, right, Mr. Owens?"
They bicycled around the summit for a while, getting a little short of breath at the crisp air and high altitude. It was colder up here, Paul noted, and the air was cleaner.
"Man, we're all going to sleep like rocks again tonight," Marsha said laughing as she wobbled along one of the dirt trails.
"Good for you!"
Pete found some kids to run around with. Paul and Marsha sat on a huge granite boulder overlooking the parking lot, in a grove of gigantic ancient cedars of Lebanon. "If only life were always like this," she said.
"We wouldn't enjoy it then."
"You're always so philosophical."
"No, I like it. You can think clearly. You can see a situation and know what to do, how to act. It's a great quality." She gave him a troubled look. "Are you sure I'm not a nuisance? I'm carrying all this weight on my back, this baggage."
"You can start crying again if you'd like."
"About this man I loved so much."
Paul reached out to put his arm around her, remembering how she'd run away last night. What else could he do? "Maybe you need to cry more often."
Tears filled her eyes. "I'm not going to cry this time."
"Maybe crying is good for the soul."
Tears streamed down her face. "I'm not going to cry. I'm going to sit here and just behave myself." She pulled out the same napkinnow shreddedthat he'd given her last night. "I'm really sorry, Paul. I wish I weren't putting you through this."
She dabbed one eye, then the other. "I don't know if I can ever get it together again. I'm 30 years old, and I've been a widow since I was 27. I don't think I can ever love another man, and that's why I just want to be friends. I don't know what Peter would do if he saw me kissing a man or whatever, and I'm sorry we keep having this stupid conversation."
He pulled his arm back. "It's okay, Marsha. I'm having a really hard time at work right now, and I wish I could cry about it. Men just don't cry that easily. I envy you."
"I'm being very selfish." She held her hand over her mouth, horrified.
"No, you're not. You're taking my mind off my troubles by sharing your troubles, which are much more important than mine."
She slid close and put her arm tightly around his shoulders, pulling him close. She stroked his hair with her free hand and said: "I'm willing to listen to your troubles if you want to share them."
He laughed. "The first problem is that my troubles are so top secret that I could go to jail if I tell anyone, and I might take you with me."
They shared a loud laugh, and she still held him, when Pete appeared in the distance. He looked like an animal caught in the headlights.
"Oh no," Marsha said, pulling away.
Pete turned and ran into the forest.
She pulled her feet close and wrapped her arms around her shirt, around her legs. "Oh dear. I wonder how he's going to react now. Maybe he'll punish me. Sometimes he does that because somehow he's mad at me that Jeffrey died." She paused. "Jesus, there I go again. Any man I have a relationship with will have to share me with Jeffrey. It's not fair. I'm never going to get involved again."
Paul cleared his throat. "Well, never is a long time."
She picked at the little woodsy debris and dust by her thigh. "I knew when I fell in love with him that he liked to take risks. He was a sober, good man. Never hit me, never yelled at me, even when I was pregnant and forgetful and kept losing my car keys and my car or running out of gas and dropping things. After Peter grows up, if I ever get involved in a relationship again, I won't do it with a risk taker. I would want a steady, safe man, someone with a secure career, who can provide for us, and who's not going to crash and die. I think you need a more adventuresome woman, Paul."
"Well, I'm not proposing to you."
"I'm just your neighbor. I find you very attractive, but right now everything is wide open, so maybe you'll take another trip like this someday with me, and that's about as far as we have to think ahead, okay?"
The trip back down the mountain was slow and tedious, and the three of them didn't talk much. They sat comfortably in one another's presence and stared at the passing scenery. Darkness fell, and ships' lights appeared on the Pacific as they drove north on I-5. Around 9 p.m., they pulled up at their homes in Madeira. The stars made a twinkling canopy overhead. Paul carried a sleeping Pete into Marsha's houseit was cute inside, feminine without being overly frilly, but very tidy. She ran ahead into a smaller bedroom that was covered posters and toys and stuffed animals. She pulled the covers back, and Paul laid the boy on his side, where he snored. "I have to change him into the jammies," she said. She slipped her arm through his. "Come on, I'll walk you home."
When they were outside, she locked the door, then took Paul's arm. He felt the curve of her waist against his elbow, like the rhythm in a poem, and the sharpness of her hip bone. "We should take walks some evenings," she said.
"I'd like thatwhen I'm not buried in my work."
"I hope all goes well with the job."
"I hope so too."
They came to his little front porch.
She took his hands in hers. "Paul, we had a wonderful time."
"I'm glad." He wanted to take her in his arms, but pushed the idea away.
"You're going to meet someone nice with no complications who's going to be just perfect for you. In the meantime, I do believe that a wonderful date like this deserves a kiss for both participants." She fidgeted awkwardly. "Well, I mean, it's like a custom, right?"
He took her to him, marveling at how well she folded into his embrace, and how soft she felt against his body. He put his hand behind her head and gently tilted it so he could approach her lips with his. He felt her hands rise up his back and cup the back of his head as he encountered the nervous dryness of her mouth. In a moment, their tongues were intertwined, and they kissed in hungry gulps. Weakly, he leaned back against a porch pillar as they continued their starved kissing. Finally, she pulled back. "If I don't run now, Paul, we'll both regret it." She touched his cheek lightly in passing and then sprinted away into the dark. Dazed, he listened as she fumbled with her key. "Good night!" she said.
"Good night." It was all he could say.