He kisses the redial on his phone once again and orders another draft from the waitress, feeling like he’s becoming conspicuous sitting at the end of the bar near this open bay window to the sea, but gets no answer. Yesterday she choked his messages with questions and appeals and he couldn’t get back to her fast enough.
“Waiting for someone?” asks the waitress as she delivers another frothy special.
“Somewhere in cyberspace…I’ll be leaving soon. Guess I got sorta settled in and lost track of time. “There she is…that’s her!” he exclaims, craning through the window to get a better glimpse of her torso skating by on the boardwalk, but snaps back into the waitress’s entreating glare. “I guess not.”
“She the one you were with a couple weeks ago?”
“Probably…we met here.” He stares at the phone like it’s a telepathic subject ready to offer its secrets and redials again, propping it up against his copy of the local paper. Maybe her phone’s on silent or she forgot it. Gazing out again at the bodies streaming by he imagines what she looked like the last time they met and eco-sketches details into the various versions when a woman beelines through the front door. He reaches for her arm as it passes but she glides past his reach down the bar and disappears before he can catch a glimpse of her face. He redials again and waits.
“Who’s this?” a female voice asks, but it’s one he doesn’t recognize. It’s higher-pitched and more frenetic than what he remembers. “Who are you? What do you want? Hello!”
He hesitates, listening to the garbled background chatter for cues about where she is as he peruses the bar for the woman who cruised by. Suddenly, there’s a spurt of noise somewhere between a gurgle and a giggle and the call is abruptly terminated. He instantly redials and continues to look around the bar, his visual field interrupted by the waitress’s inquisitive glance. Repelling her attention, he jerks up from his seat and steps down the bar for a different vantage while redialing, the extended droning pelting his consciousness like a mocking message. He cancels the call and slips back to his roost, chugging the rest of his draft.
“She pretty important to you or something?” asks the waitress as she arrives ready to retrieve the empty glass.
“She…could be. I’m not…”
“…easy come easy go on the beach, especially when the weather makes you wanna let it all hang out.” The words throb in his mind like a neon sign as she stoops slightly to get the glass, her downward tilt jelloing a few more inches of bulge.
“The eyes can play tricks on you.” He redials from the periphery as the jello retreats and settles, a droning stretch suddenly terminating.
“Did I just see you? Are you at the Bistro?” There’s no response. The sounds in the background are different now, like the waves are trying to clash. Is that her talking or someone else? “You there?”
“Hi…who’s…” A soft thud is followed by a brief tinge of static. Did she drop the phone? Then quickly a louder thud like a body falling on the sand. “Don’t let her get away…catch her!” The voice seems to be that of a young male who’s out of breath. Suddenly applause breaks out, succeeded by a few shrieks and then catcalls of various intonations and lengths.
“Lucy, are you there?” The sounds become fainter like the activity is trailing away from the phone.
She sits in the lotus position on her kitchen table, mesmerized by the pigeons zigzagging across the leaden sky, their movements somehow in rhythm with her breathing patterns. One finally breaks formation and flits to the ledge, diluting her focus. She takes a deep breath. It seems to notice this change and stares at her for several seconds. She opens the window and cups the bird inside to a table next to the window which contains a plate of seed. Its cheeps pitch through undulating octaves of appreciation and it swivels and bobs toward her while she starts to meditate again. After a few minutes her cell flashes. She tries to keep the intrusion at bay but finally snaps to attention and returns the call. The bird closely observes the conversation.
“Hi, is this…who is this?” she asks, like she’s suddenly distracted and can’t recall what she was going to say.
“You mean you forgot me already!” the caller spouts. “Has your caller ID gone on the fritz?”
“No, I know…I know. I was going to call you soon. I…I’ve been trying to relax. The weather’s depressing. I have to have sun…more light.”
“You’ll feel better once you’re outside and moving around…that’s the best therapy for cabin fever.”
“I think I have a…little fever but…I don’t think I can go out right now and…be around people.”
“I’m not people I’m…remember what we did last night…you said you…your face was…radiant.”
“I know…that was yesterday? What did I do? Who are…”
“… you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I am…no, no, these walls are closing in but…I’ve got my companion, my friend…I wanna fly with my friend and be free!”
“Did you stop taking what they gave you?”
Her friend begins to flap its wings and utter slightly different cheeps and she perks up, their timbre and structure approximating a message that she thinks she understands. It…wants to fly with me, she muses.
“Lucy, Lucy…are you there?” He hears strange noises but no answer. Is there interference on the line? She swoons, stricken by the bird’s alliterating sounds. “Lucy…Lucy…you okay?”
“Who do you think it…”
“…sorry, I got distracted. If I could just…if there was just more…light!”
“Let’s meet like we planned. I’m across from Big Daddy’s.”
“Will you be my daddy…take care of me”
“We can…take care of each other.”
“Can you give me…’member what we talked about? That was you?”
“I…I think so. What exactly do you…”
“…you know what I want. Can you give me…”
“…shouldn’t we take things a little slower?”
“No, no, I want…”
“…where should we meet?”
“I don’t know…if I…”
“…Sidewalk Café bar at five for happy hour.”
“Okay, yeah…I want to be with you. I love being with you!” She looks at the bird as it starts to cheep wildly and clasps it in a loving embrace.
Parsing the zones of steamy torpor in front of the Bistro on the way inside, he finds a space near the end of the bar being vacated by a couple and bellies up, retrieving his cell from his pocket and glomming onto it like it’s a cocked weapon. He looks around the room for familiar faces but the twilight fumes cast shadows on them, making recognition difficult. And the view of the boardwalk and beyond to the stretch of sand is obstructed by bobbing heads. While making his final perusal he touches the trigger and looks for conspicuous movement since the momentary buzz of merriment would muffle phone noises.
“Thought you’d be off somewhere experiencing romantic bliss,” quips the waitress as she glides by teetering a tray of drafts to a threesome nearby.
“No bliss…more of a near miss,” he bellows through the din, waiting for her to creep back in his direction. “We were supposed to meet and…well, she didn’t show. And after a very promising chat too!”
“I think I saw her yesterday. Does she skate?”
“I’ve never seen her…but who doesn’t along the beach!”
“She was racing up and down the boardwalk and going pretty fast, weaving through crowds of people. She seemed bursting with energy, wearing a constant, euphoric smile but not much else! Her top was looped around her neck like a kerchief. Pieces of her hair were sticking straight out like her body was plugged into an electric socket. She was getting a big crowd around her until the cops…”
“…I doubt if that was her…she’s…”
“…you should probably think about changing your dating service!”
She creeps along Andalusia toward Abbot Kinney feeling like the low overhanging branches from the trees are choking her and juts into an alley. Taking a respite on a bench behind a garage, she looks back to see if she’s being followed. She’s already a half-hour late for her appointment since for the past fifteen hours or so she has had a hard time getting out of bed. Now that she’s finally outside in the bright of day the world seems like it’s closing in on her. Her therapist will give her something to pick her up if she can only get there. A woman with streaks of pink and purple hair appears around the side of the garage across the way into her frozen gaze and pulls back, bug-eyed, reversing her path. Why is she looking at me like that? A baby raccoon hobbles from the brush near her and scampers up the alley. Maybe my therapist will come and get me! She shakily scrolls down the list of contacts and pins her choice.
“Can you…I can’t move, can you come and…get me?”
“Who’s this? Is it you…Lucy?”
“Yes, yes, it’s…me. Can you…”
“…it’s me. Who you trying to reach? What’s going on? I’ve been calling and calling and…”
“…aren’t you…can you help me? I have to talk to…who are…”
“How did you…I need to get to…”
“…where are you?”
“…I don’t know. I have to get to…”
“Where? Hello. Lucy, you there? Hello!”
“I have to…can you come and help me…take me to…”
“…where are you?”
“I…by this garage and…”
“…what are the cross streets?”
“Near…I can’t remember. I don’t see any signs.”
“Are you near Abbot Kinney?”
“I think so.”
“Stay where you are. I’ll come and…try to find you.”
“I have to hurry…I’m late.”
“I’m on my way. Keep your phone open. We were supposed to meet the other day at the Sidewalk Café but you didn’t show up.”
“I…wanted to but I couldn’t go out.”
“Were you skating on the boardwalk?”
“No…yeah, I like to…it relaxes me. When do you…mean?”
“I…don’t remember when…they said I should see someone and…”
“…I’m on my way.”
So much has happened since their first breakfast at Mao’s restaurant. The tables outside were starting to fill with beachgoers, tourists, and workers from the nearby businesses as the remaining patches of gauzy cloud lifted. Specimens from the city’s shadow society spilled onto the sidewalk from the alley. A trio of skateboarders trolled by and leaped off the curb in formation, jutting across the street through the horns and screeching brakes.
They peered at each other through a mist of prurience, foregoing direct eye contact for fear of dulling the senses stoked from their newly discovered attraction, or perhaps forcing a premature intimacy that might consume them with mind games and block their mutual explorations that intensified the previous night. They might not know what to say or say the wrong thing, plunging their relationship into oblivion.
“What’ll you guys have?” asks the waitress, pulling their gazes out of the mist toward her.
“Oh…I’ll just have the commune pancakes and a Tsingtao,” he instantly responds.
“I guess I’ll have the same, but no beer, just water,” she says, waiting for the waitress to slip back inside. “I just took my… medication. It’s not really, though. My therapist called it some kind of salt that will…I don’t know…make me less active I guess…level me out so I won’t…”
“…you do seem different than yesterday,” he returns, now managing to look her directly in the eye.
She hesitates and looks at him like she’s surprised at who he is, her irises small, flat-brown saucers ringed with a pinkish-white.
“I feel kind of drained, like everything’s been flushed out of me. Last night I guess a lot was, and…”
“…you’re dressed a lot different and you seem like you’re preoccupied. Is something bothering you?”
“No, I…well, about last night I…” The waitress places their orders on the table, interrupting her conclusion, and stares at her like she’s anticipating an enlightening comment. Then she breaks away and the waitress twirls to the door. “Why was she staring at me like that?”
“She’s probably struck by your…presence.”
“The stuff we did last night…I don’t know if I can do that…again.”
“What…what do you mean?”
“I mean…you know, when you…” She peers away at the cars passing by and then up into the sky. “I can’t see…you don’t look the same. Everything seems covered with a film and it won’t stay still.”
“It must be the stuff your therapist gave you. Are you sure it’s gonna do you some good? The best things to put in your body are natural…things that grow from the land or synthetics refined from them.”
“It helps I think most of the…sometimes I have to give it more time but…it keeps me from getting too down.”
“You don’t seem like the type that…”
“…once in a while I forget to take it and I…well, I get kinda…”
“…yesterday you seemed more natural and spontaneous.”
“But those things we did…I’m afraid of going too…”
“…you weren’t on it yesterday?”
“I…got my schedule confused and…”
“…you should purge your body, get off that stuff. It’s blocking the real you. How long have you been seeing that therapist?”
“Not too long…probably about two months.”
“That’s not very long. Who is it?”
“He’s really…cool…very sensitive to my needs. A friend recommended him. He reads my palms and has these cards that…he explains.”
“Wow…he might be putting poison in your body and messing with your mind. I have a friend who experiments with mind-expanding herbs, natural substances that bring out the true self. They make the body healthier. He has a proven…”
“…I’d like to expand my mind but I don’t know for sure what that means. About last night…I can’t…go on without…remember what we talked about?”
“I’m not…sure. What do you mean?”
“I need a family and…”
“You mean you want to…”
“…yes…I want to…”
“…but as you said, we don’t know each other…”
“…not now but I…need a commitment.”
“Well, you need to stop taking that salt…purify your body and your mind will follow. After that I’ll get you something that will help you see differently…better.”
He thumbs the redial on his cell again as he weaves through the boardwalk amblers, staring at the screen like his visual intensity might conjure an answer to the call. As it goes to message he tries to block out the din in hopes of finally hearing one and gestures futilely at the void. A cold draft swaddles him as he approaches the Bistro and he follows the floating patches of low cloud inside. Suddenly all traces of sun are gone and he takes a seat at the end of the bar. The crowd is sparse, as if the sun-worshippers can’t face a day without Hyperion’s full streaming.
“Well, long time no see, stranger!” blurts the waitress asshe hustles through the door from the patio with orders. “Any luck in locating your skater?”
“Not for a while…and been wearing out my phone again.” He raises his cell and grins, thumbing the redial in exclamation.
“I haven’t seen her since that time. Like I said, you need to get a new dating service.”
He places the phone close enough to his ear to hear her answer and at an angle to his face so he can see the screen and waits, but this time there’s not even a message. The cyber-blips stretch on until he finally cancels the call, staring flush into the screen like it might still be possible for her voice to register in defiance of technology.
The waitress, tray-less, slips onto the stool next to him. “I’ve got a short break coming. What’s the latest in this drama?”
“I saw her about a week ago…she called me. Actually, she was calling her therapist and buzzed me by accident. Thanks to her shaky hand and the luck of the alphabet. She was lost in an alley and wanted her therapist to come and get her, bring her to his place so he could give her…something to get her energy back. I’d already gotten her to dump some palm reader who was giving her these salt tablets to…supposedly…even her out. I got her to stop taking those but she’s been very uneven ever since, doing some pretty strange things. Anyway, I went to the alley and she was nearly unconscious on a bench. She wanted me to take her to her therapist and I agreed but when we got there I had a bad feeling since he gave her all sorts of pills with strange names. I pulled her out of there and told her to hang on a little longer and to definitely not take anything else until she purified her system. I set her up with this friend who experiments with mind-expanding natural substances.”
“You mean like…mushrooms?”
“Yeah, but more like the derivatives from peyote…mescaline. He’s kept up with all the research and has been trying to refine and perfect them for years. He works out of his pad above a garage behind Clubhouse. It’s full of vials and canisters and smoking kettles and…lots of curious odors. He said she came by his place not long after that and he gave her his latest concoction. His name’s Krassly. Know him?”
“Yeah, I think I do. Has long wiry hair and a pockmarked face?”
“I met him through my friend Rhoda who lives on Clubhouse. But I’ve never taken any of his substances.”
“They smooth you out and relax you…get you to see better and relate to people better and more equally. Not the spacey journey into your mind’s recesses that most people think. No side effects and…they’re not addictive.”
“You sold me. But I can’t imagine what it might do to your…beach goddess.”
“It’s the chemical answer to the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All of our mental and physical defects stew in a pot and disappear in the cuisine of human improvement. We had some amazing moments when we first met. I can’t imagine what…”
“…he can do all of that on a stove above a garage?”
“It does seem kind of…medieval, I suppose, but he’s as accomplished as a Nobel scientist. The system’s not into his brand of awareness…only profit.”
“Hopefully it’s not like grandma in the kitchen…little of this, little of that and perfecto…no need for a written recipe. But sometimes she misses a spice or two and the meatloaf flops. What if the subject is allergic or…doesn’t get purified?”
The building on Abbot Kinney sits between an upscale boutique and a valet restaurant, and there are no signs or other markings on its facade that broadcast what goes on inside. It needs paint and the windows are boarded up. The dozers could be lying in wait to remove this eyesore. But if from a distance it seems like a dead zone, merely a bridge between consumer spaces, up close it’s another matter. On any given day and often into the wee hours you can feel the vibrations as you approach it. And as you stroll by, the sounds radiate from inside: shrieks, wails, yelps, howls, impassioned pleas, testimonials, expressions of unbearable pain transiting through degrees of pleasure toward ecstasy. Some passersby sense that these are from a revival meeting, that the space is a new storefront worshipping venue for those disaffected by the denominations, others that they’re witnessing an outbreak of New Age orgy. It’s a bit of both, perhaps, and likely all the more reason why its days are numbered. But its designated identity is a place of healing, a clinic. The clusters of health-seekers don’t pray with borrowed scripts or to an extraneous spirit, but to a force that bonds souls that need to get their feelings out and revive the intensity of life, one that compensates for too much quiet reflection and restraint. In sharing their edgy emotions in a confined space they can mate or get suspended in loops of hate and spite, forcing a reset.
He slogs through the soft sand in the final stretch of his workout, ducking an errant Frisbee, and plops on a mound above the water. Several surfers deadhead through the roiling water toward the shore and he can virtually feel the tactile sensations from surviving a sated face-off with nature. He decides to get his board.
The clap of a wave delays his response to his cell. The call is from Lucy. He eagerly listens to the message because it has been several days since their last connection. It’s barely comprehensible due to the loud background noise but she seems excited, like maybe he’s caught her in an upbeat mood. He hastily fingers a reply but checks himself and cancels the call, dropping his head back onto a mound of sand to rekindle his reverie while fighting off the urge to redial. He wonders now what he can possibly say to her. The dashed hopes from the repeated attempts to connect with her have taken their toll, and now that she’s finally accessible he can’t quite muster the energy. Maybe she’s back to…normal or…something even better, he reflects, recalling their early moments together. Maybe she’s in trouble and needs help. He hits the redial.
“Is it you, Lucy?”
“It’s me…you just left me a message.”
“I can’t…hear you. Who’s this?”
“What’s all that noise? Who’s screaming? Where are you?”
“Hold on and I’ll…”
“Lucy…you still there? Lucy!” The noises continue, increase in intensity and then abate. But he can’t make out her voice.
“Aiyeeeeeeee…eeeeeee….ahhhh.” The sounds keep repeating, stretching to extreme lengths and then suddenly cease, beginning again in short bursts from what seem like different voices. It stops again and a male voice can be heard.
“See how good that feels,” says Dr. Primoff, the Picassoesque director of the clinic. “Look at yourself in the mirror…look. You’re more alive now. Your faces, legs, chests, buttocks… I can see the energy seeping from your pores…you’ve expunged all the poison from…”
“Lucy, where are you…what are you doing?”
“…hug each other now…that’s it…that’s it. Now…”
“Lucy, you okay?”
“…eeeeeeahhhhheeee…no, no…stay away from me, please!”
“Everybody relax. Back away from her…let her breathe…give her some space so she can…”
“Lucy, is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me. Who’s this? Oh, oh…are you still there. I wanna talk to you. I’m at the clinic and…” The bursts of screaming cease. A short stretch of silence is succeeded by a muffled then robust round of applause and then supple spurts of tender oohs and aahs.
“Dr. Primoff’s. I’ve been here for several sessions and feel…amazing! I can see so much…feel so many new emotions. My body is so full of energy. Your friend Krassly introduced…I saw him last night. He’s helping me. Can we meet later?”
He sits in a corner of the Bistro patio still fagged from a late-morning surf but the fatigue seems to be lifting and he’s beginning to feel stronger than ever. Pushing his body has done wonders for his muscle tone and stamina, and he’s even begun to eat healthier and cut down on substances. The usual low clouds have evaporated especially early and the high sun slanting down from the east seems to burnish and brighten the faces of the strolling tourists, skaters, and nature worshippers. It’s like they’re being singled out, exposed through a filter that removes all particles of bacteria and smog from the atmosphere, purifying his direct line of vision to them.
“Well, look who slunk in!” spouts the waitress. “I figured you had eloped to some romantic getaway by now. The usual?”
“Orange juice for me and…no, I haven’t…”
“…if you’re drinking orange juice I guess you’re not trying to drown your sorrows so…things must be going well with the…”
“…not…really. I haven’t talked to her for a few weeks. Tryin’ to get my body back in shape so I haven’t sauced it up for a while. Working on a better outlook.”
“So it’s off?”
“Not sure it was ever on but…it was magic for a short while. She took my advice about contacting Krassly and he sent her to Dr. Primoff’s clinic and she…”
“…I know some people who’ve been there. They came through it with new personalities…though not sure they were better ones.”
“Well, she called me from one of her sessions there and it seemed pretty wild. I was looking forward to seeing how her personality might’ve changed but…we set up a time to meet after that and she…”
“How’d you…you seem to know.”
“I’ve been an off-the-cuff beach therapist for a long time. But you’ll see her again. A few weeks aren’t much time. If she took Krassly’s goodies she’s probably…fermenting somewhere. I got some from him last week through a friend. Notice anything different?”
“Somebody call the police…she’s indecent!” screams a sixtyish woman as she springs up from her chair at a table on the west side of the boardwalk that’s piled with Bibles. “What’s this world coming to?” She continues to rant a variation on her themes and a crowd begins to form around her, but they pay virtually no attention to the female she’s referring to. The crowd grows larger as three security officers trot down Dudley and confront her. She seems overly excited and begins to stutter, unable to utter clear syllables. As she continues to try she loses control of her body as if she’s having a seizure. The furrows in her face become lubricated with tears and she starts to drool while frantically pointing at the female. Seemingly ripe for a straightjacket, the officers coax her to a chair while calling the paramedics. The crowd continues to grow.
“What’s with that woman?” he asks while rising from his seat and rubbernecking the scene.
“She’s a fixture on the boardwalk…a born again,” says the waitress.
“Must be something happening…look at all the people,” he returns, shuffling out the door to join them, she in tow.
They can’t see the woman who’s cocooned by the crowd so they edge around it on the west side for a possible glimpse, but still no luck.
“Maybe we’ll read about it in the paper,” he says, shrugging off the adventure as he notices the left edge of a body protruding from a tree ten feet or so toward the water. The person, whose back is flush against the tree, begins to speak to a male a few feet away and he realizes it’s a woman. Though he didn’t hear the short interchange clearly, it must not have been very welcoming since the male moves on. As another male approaches her, he shuffles around the tree for a glimpse of the mystery woman and sees that she’s reading a book, Ulysses, the only inanimate object attached to her person. Her taut skin is perfectly tanned, the reflection of the sun giving it a golden hue. She has yellowish-blonde curls that cascade onto her shoulders and pastel blue eyes that catch the light as she ever-so-slightly shifts position when turning a page. Her long legs are upright, framing the book, and partially covering her large, firm breasts from his angle. She’s totally relaxed and absorbed in the reading, evidenced by her self-satisfied smile. He moves in front of her, seeing her now fully exposed and familiar as the officers appear, stopping ten feet away to ogle. A few more males drift by amid the exploding cacophony of demands from hysterical voices for her to be arrested.
“Lucy…Lucy, what are you doing? Where’ve you been?”
“Oh, hi! I…that’s not…my name. I’m Penelope.”
One year later. He drifts to shore on his surfboard, comes to a brief rest and springs up, gazing at the gallery of sunbathers before dashing off fifty push-ups. Invigorated, he rushes up and over the mound of sand to discover a phalanx of shaved heads sitting in the lotus position. They’re all wearing gold, loose-fitting unis, and there appears to be no basis for discriminating between male and female. None of its members appear to notice him as he trudges through the sand toward the boardwalk, veering around the left side of the group; they stare straight ahead as if they’re in a trance. Then a figure near the rear flinches from formation but quickly jerks back into focus. He stops and gives the person a long look, hoping to re-stir some interest, and steps closer. It seems like a woman but he can’t be sure. He steps yet closer and she, or he, turns sharply toward him like when a person tries to catch someone staring at them. But this is a look of supplication, of the desire to say something meaningful. Convinced now it’s a woman, he notices the pastel blue eyes in her lingering look. She’s heavier and without hair but there’s no doubt that it’s her. The loose-fitting clothes that hardly do her justice can’t hide her bulging stomach.
“Lucy, or…Penelope…what are you…doing? I haven’t seen you for a long time. How have you been?”
She looks slowly away from him and nods toward the bulge with a radiant smile.
“My name’s Hester now and…I’ve got a new family!”