By Jessica Stilling
At the beach, near the ocean, she can only bring herself to eat shellfish.
And the techno music, the Hamptonites, they are not her scene.
“Women are always talking about it, going into the sea. You know, like The Awakening.” She teaches English at a college on Long Island.
“Oh yeah”, he says. “The Awakening. Yeah. Right, women going into the sea. Hordes of them.” He shakes his head and smiles. She’s not sure what she would call him if he had not told her he was mostly Native American. Navajo, his grandparents from a reservation in the desert, his parents bankers in California. It’s amazing the things you learn about people. She can’t remember what the other bit is, Irish perhaps, Italian, German maybe? There is something to the Asian eyes, the very long, very straight black hair, he is not dark but he is not white and she is glad, very glad, he just came right out and said it the night they met two years ago during the first time she attended this yearly Creative Writing retreat on Montauk. The End they call it, because it stands at the very edge of Long Island. You can’t go any further without walking into the sea.
She looks at him. Stares him down and she can see it in his eyes. She can always see it. “You don’t know what The Awakening is. You’ve never heard of it in your life.” She is serious for a second. Then her face breaks, her smile cracks and he relaxes.
“But I did a pretty good job, right? I mean, let me guess. The Awakening is some book by a woman writer about how oppressed she is being a woman. And so she decides because she’s so damn oppressed that she’ll kill herself by walking into the sea.” He smiles, leans back, takes a sip of his wine. “How’d I do?”
“I liked it better when you were pretending,” she replies, still not so serious. “And it’s hard sometimes, being a woman. Men do not understand.”
“Not when you’re pretty like you,” he says. Reaching out he grasps the side of her face. Cora has smooth skin; Cora has long dark hair and big eyes. Cora is thin and men like her. She feels silly telling him it’s a curse, she knows it would just sound obnoxious like when a woman wearing a size four complains to a much heavier woman that a dress makes her look fat.
“We should go, right?” he says, having finished his lobster. He is thin, with soft wiry muscles going up his bare, subtly tattooed arms. He’s the kind of guy who wears short sleeves to nice restaurants. His hair is very long, past his shoulders and Cora thought she was over that, guys with long hair, guys with tattoos who wear sneakers everywhere, but here she is, in a restaurant with the guy who wrote the short story about the bumblebees on his reservation as if to step single handedly into a cliché. It’s like she’s in college again. She’s not thirty anymore, not even twenty-seven like this man she’s with. He has spun her around and she’s a child.
“This music, it’s bothering you?” he grasps her hand. Cora saw him last year and the year before. They have a rapport. Two years into a relationship that has lasted twelve days. He tried to call the first time, to text, to email, but she doesn’t see the point in having a relationship through technology. Things like that are too cold and impersonal, a relationship with a screen in place of a person. Cora said this, just this, whatever this is, meeting up once a year, a week at a time, it’s for the best.
They pay the bill. He pays the bill. They know how this is done. He grasps her hand as they walk past the docks and grab a taxi near the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream stand. It’s the kind of place that is always hopping. Children out way past their bedtimes run around, they screech those high pitched little children’s screeches, piercing the air with their manic breath and it is almost as incessant as the techno music. They go back to the hotel where the retreat has been booked, taken up the entire east wing, there are writers sitting out smoking something, it does not smell like cigarettes. The girl with short hair and the two overweight guys with shaved heads to hide their not so subtle balding scalps are drinking beer, they’re talking about “craft” and “scene building” on the front balcony. They wave them over and Cora nods, Phillip follows her lead. Cora does not know what it is, but he is always following her lead and Cora does not like being the leader.
They walk past the hotel. Having returned to it, having seen that it is still there, Cora takes off her shoes. $900 Christian Louboutin’s. She is not the kind of girl who wears $900 shoes and yet she has them. They go nicely in the Hamptons and they’re pretty, oh so pretty. And it’s not about the name or the $900 or the fact that a man she once cared for took her into Barneys and told her “You really need nice shoes, no I mean like really nice shoes. Let me buy you nice shoes.” And so she wears them to restaurants that serve lobster and crisp white wine over thumping techno music. She wears them with Philip the software engineer from California who she is always in danger of never seeing again. Yet she is always taking these shoes into the woods (where she got mud on them that it took forever to clean off), out by the sea (where she left them for high tide to sweep away until Philip snatched them up). She left them once at the gym and it is only by the grace of God, by some otherworldly miracle, that they were returned to her.
You cannot take her anywhere. She knows this.
They wander by the sea. Cora looks at it. It would not be wrong to say she has a raging crush on the ocean, but Cora no longer believes feelings such as these render her unique or interesting.
“It’s just so big, you know,” she says as the waves hit the sand, pounding into the quiet earth, the once molten core we tread, cooled and bound into tiny, shifting rocks.
“You know your obsession with size has me a little bit nervous,” Philip fumbles as if he can’t keep up. Cora just looks at him for a second and he goes on. “You know, bigness…makes a guy nervous.” Cora gets his attempt at humor and does not respond. Philip was never the best writer here but then again that’s not why she likes him.
“It’s just too big,” she says again, looking out at the white crests crashing, they sound like pins, not one, not a few, but thousands slowly falling to a tile floor all in unison, only they don’t sound like falling they sound like the build-up, the prelude to falling, it just keeps threatening but it won’t ever get there.
Cora sits in the sand, the granules under her dress. She wore white tonight. She should not have worn white if she was going to sit in the sand and yes you cannot take her anywhere. Still she sits in the sand and looks up at the moon wide and white and full in the sky. There is little light, only the hotels in the distance, a few blocks away. Drunken college students, a few little kids call far off, but they are alone on this stretch of shore. It’s so dark, just so dark. And yet Cora, she can see everything. Phillip’s eyes, the outline of his tattoos, a bottle glistening in the sand and the waves in the distance—no, not the waves, she cannot see the waves, only white crests. “The sand it’s just rock”, she says. Looking up at the moon she points. “But that, right there, it’s just rock as well and look what it can do.”
“What can it do?” Phillip asks. This time he does not pretend.
“The tides,” she replies. “The moon, it pulls the tides.”
“Right, right. No, I knew that. It’s just the way you put it. You don’t always have to be so enigmatic.”
Cora nods. She had not thought she was being enigmatic.
Philips drapes an arm around her. She feels his hands first on her skin, running the length of her arm. He pulls her in closer, kissing her timidly as if he’s never kissed her before. His lips part and after a moment, only a moment, she can feel him above her, her back against the sand as she looks up, hearing the pin prick build up of the ocean as his body descends. Cora stares up at the stars, they are bright tonight, like the white rock of the moon. And she can feel him, she knows him, he’s there, somewhere with her, but there is Venus bright in the night sky, rocky planets with gaseous atmospheres. There are whole other worlds and what is this man compared to Venus? The ocean pulls in and out of the shore and she grasps Philip more tightly as if he is all that is left, the last line before she is pulled out to sea.
Would that be so bad?
“I love Venus,” she finally says. She wants to yell it, to scream it in his ear, but doesn’t. “The planet, right there. I fucking love Venus.”
“Your loyalty is not to me, but to the stars above.”
She laughs. “Don’t quote Bob Dylan. This is not the time, the place, to be quoting Bob Dylan.”
He laughs. He hasn’t stopped but pauses. “Yeah, that right?”
He’s good with her. She knows this.
“The Universe, it’s just so big. You know, so big.”
The diners stay crowded all day in Montauk. They thought at eleven fifteen, too late for breakfast, too early for lunch, they might stand a chance at a table, but no such luck. Brunch, there is brunch here, Cora thinks to herself as they wait outside a T-shirt shop that sells jewelry made of shells crudely decorated with light pink and pearl gray beads and sweaters with the words Montauk – The End running across them in bulky block letters. She is not the kind of girl who thinks about brunch. She cannot remember the last time she ate pancakes.
It does not help that it’s raining. No one is on the beach. No children throwing Astroturf Frisbees, no college students with beer in discrete containers acting not so discreet, no writers with notebooks partaking in conversations about craft under a loosely erected canopy. Montauk is a mess when the beach is so cruelly yanked from it. Tourists, locals, they all rush to greasy diners for pancakes and other hangover food.
It takes a half hour for their name to be called, but they’re lucky, they’re only two and a party of six has been waiting forty-five minutes. They take a table in back, better than at the counter where three large men elbow each other as a couple of smaller college girls in pink and light blue sweats try to muscle their way in.
Cora sips the water they automatically set before her, condensation already forming on the smooth glass surface. Philip sits across from her and she wonders if he’s questioning why he’s not with the rest of the retreat. The writers back at the hotel are working on writing prompts about the end of the world. Fruit has been served. Donuts and fresh coffee. He’s more into her than she is him. Men are so damn easy.
“So you know, some of the group are going to see a movie later,” Philip starts, after the waitress, a tall Russian woman with hair dyed red like berry Kool-aid, pours their coffee. Cora stirs in two sugars, hesitates, rips open a third packet and hopes Philip does not see.
“What’re they going to see?” Cora looks him in the eye. She can see it then, a Native American (and her mother used to call them Indians) on a reservation. She sees braids in his hair and an old gray haired man telling story after story about those tattoos on his arms.
“I don’t know, some Sci-Fi thing. Nothing interesting is playing in Easthampton and I guess that’s what people do when it rains here. It’s the only thing to do.” He looks at her. If they had been together longer, if this were not what it is, if they had spent the last three years actually together, instead of ignoring each other’s existence, then he would have smiled at her, he would have shrugged his shoulders and said something like, ‘or you know, they fuck.’ But he does not say anything like that.
He doesn’t want to be so crass. Even in bed everything is delicate and sacred and just so big.
“We’re gonna have to buy tickets in advance.”
“I already have,” he says, smiling. “We’ll pick them up at the window. Didn’t even need a printer. The show is at 4:30.”
“What if it stops raining?” she asks as the waitress comes to take their order.
“No. It will not stop—the rain,” the waitress says, her accent heavy. “All day a madhouse because of rain.”
Cora nods and orders pancakes.
She watches Philip, more excited by the prospect of pancakes than movies. “You know it’s too bad it’s raining. I wanted to go out by the ocean.”
“The ocean is your boyfriend,” Philip teases, smiling. There is something about that smile, something about that face he makes, as if she has seen it when he wakes up in the morning or when he’s watching television before bed. This is him like he’s reading The Huffington Post, a face that shops at Whole Foods and makes dinner on Sunday, a face that watches television in a mid-level recliner bought on sale from Filene’s Basement.
“I guess the question is,” Cora starts, “how married are you?”
This does not surprise him but he looks sheepishly inside his coffee, reading it like tea leaves. She laughs quietly, thoughtfully. Finally he says. “What was it?”
“What was what?”
“What gave it away?”
She wants to say that look. The fact that even when he tried to call her it was always from a private number. The way he only emailed her at night, California time. But no, it’s not that. And she does not want to say it. She only wants to think it and yet it comes out. “I read your mind silly.” Cora smiles. Cora laughs. “It should be a big deal, right? I should be like mad at you, right?”
“That would be entirely understandable.”
“And yet here I am, smiling away. It’s not fake. It’s just here, we’re just here.”
“That was deep,” Philip replies as if he is unclear about where they stand.
“Not as deep as the ocean.” She pauses, her fork in mid air, and he does not know how to react. She smiles then. She laughs. “Ha, ha. No, that wasn’t funny. That was pretty stupid actually.”
Philip leans back. He smiles and lets himself laugh. “So we’re like, you’re okay?”
“And I’m guessing I mean, you have?” His eyes get large, hopeful.
“I have, of course… there’s someone. I’m thirty years old of course I have someone. There is always someone.”
“I mean really, what’s your story?”
“I don’t have a story.” She shakes her head at herself. She’s being too enigmatic.
He looks at her. She knows he wants to ask for more but he won’t. “The ocean is big,” Philip says, eating his pancakes.
Cora sits on the soft worn wood of the Adirondack chair on the balcony. The hotel is only feet from the ocean, but also near the road, a prime location in some parts of the world, a pain in the ass in others. The rain has not stopped. Philip has gone in to do a workshop on dialogue, Cora considered submitting a story but elected to sit staring out at the ocean instead. The waves, violent, angry with the rain that has only picked up since brunch, sound exactly like the cars, water at their wheel treads, rushing to Easthampton for movies, into town for pancakes. Cora looks down at the water, out to sea and then out at the road, grass growing too long at its edges, black asphalt and yellow, white lines. She cannot take her eyes off the road. There is the ocean but she has to fight it, she has to struggle to take her eyes off the damn road. What is so interesting about the godforsaken road?
She looks back. Takes notes. This is a writing retreat and so one is here to take notes. One is here to collect them all so that later they can put them in neat little packages to be digested by college students reading a literary magazine. Down the hall a couple sit eating potato salad, Cora can smell it from here. She hears their voices but cannot tell what they’re saying. Something about Wednesday and the golf tournament. The housekeeping staff walks the hall below her. One starts a vacuum, a deep, dragging vroooooom, and she wonders if it would scare a dog but there aren’t any dogs here. They all stayed home. A few drunk people getting out of the rain stand under the balcony right below her. She can hear every word, every syllable makes such sense and yet she does not understand it. Not one inch. She does not understand.
The stairs creak. This noise she hears above the rest as the waves keep falling, prick, prick, prick, a great cascade of pinpricks as the cars drive by. “Still up here?” Philip asks as if this is not obvious.
“Yep,” she says, looking out. “I think I’m gonna go for a walk by the water. When’s the movie?”
“Hour and a half,” Philip replies, hands in his pockets. “We should leave in, I don’t know, forty-five minutes? It’s not that far, but traffic is a bitch in Easthampton.”
“So is parking.” She places her hand on the worn wood of the chair and looks out, leaving the Virginia Woolf she’s been reading, and the black notebook where she’d been recording her observations for later consumption. “I’ll be back soon.”
“All right,” Philip replies taking her seat as Cora walks away. “Go be melancholy by the ocean.” He says it so casually, haphazardly as if it is nothing, simply nothing to go be melancholy by the ocean.
There are not many people out in this chilly, this slanting rain. Only flecks like dust in the wind, a figure perhaps a hundred yards off, another with a dog fifty yards in the other direction. She wonders how long it would take to reach them. First she stands and stares at the ocean. Is there any need to walk? It changes, shifting on molten sand every few seconds, turning and turning, the water from one end having come up from Brazil. She breathes in its salt as the rain hits and sometimes a drop of water enters her mouth and it is clear and crisp and other times, as she walks closer to shore, she tastes the salt and knows it has come up from the sea. The water is so different in her mouth, she rolls it around, salt and nothing, salt and nothing. Ocean and rain, ocean and rain and tears (?) perhaps. No. She is not that melancholy. Not that dramatic.
The specks do not move much and so Cora turns right, walking toward one. She takes the direction away from town as the pinprick falling of the waves crash harder into the sand. And the sand is just crushed rock, rock that has been pummeled and pummeled and pummeled by the weight of the ocean for millennia. What will it look like, what will it be in a hundred, a thousand, a million years? It is here, only here by these ancient waters that such units of time are relevant.
She passes a red and white lifeguard chair sitting abandoned, a ghost of itself, and she wonders at the fruitlessness of having a lifeguard in such a vast and dangerous sea. Would it even be worth it to dive in? Wouldn’t it just kill both of them—the cold hard blackness of the ocean—taking, taking. It is always taking somehow because it’s so large. It’s not the last five years. It is not a person driving drunk on the wrong side of the road. It is not a man who cannot recover the loss of his father who was driving instead of himself because he too had had too much to drink but unlike the driver who hit them Cora’s lover had had the wherewithal to not get behind the wheel of the car. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his fault. He had to punish himself and leave everything he loved, including the someone he loved, behind. And she was not driving that night because she’d left her ID at home. You cannot take her anywhere. All that she can make a fist at, that she can rage after,
but this, this wine dark sea? She is no match for it. Best to simply submit.
It is difficult to walk by the sea. The sand is hard, clumpy, it sticks to Cora’s bare feet, which sink further and further in. Rain falls sideways into her face and she closes her eyes but then she can’t see it. She can only hear it and what’s the point of all this if she can’t see the sea? If she cannot look it in the eye and dare it, dare it. The ocean, she knows, would take her up on that challenge every time. Chew her up and spit her out, but isn’t that the point? The specks have moved closer inland as the rain picks up. It had been calm for a moment, still raining yet calm, but the further she walks from the hotel the worse the weather gets and still she walks further, further.
The ocean, the universe perhaps is trying to tell her something.
Then again, Cora thinks, she cannot be so self-absorbed. Nothing so big is trying to tell her anything.
Seagulls stand in formation, four lines evenly spaced with one larger gull at the head, a Flying V as if they’re waiting to attack. Cora draws nearer and one of them flies out, assaulting the water, it does a great loop, a planned dive and flies back, the scout. Another flies out of formation and then another. Like a choreographed dance they all come back to the same spot. Always the same spot.
A little farther down the shore tiny sandpipers, black and white small boned creatures, stand in the same formation like tin soldiers.
The rain is getting to be too much. But all of time converges here, under these rocks that have been pummeled, these stones that were once the earth’s molten core, with this water that has been living, breathing since the dawn of (could it be, could it really be?) all of space and time. This water a product of great space gasses that once inhabited our atmosphere, that came commingling together when the earth was formed and when they got together their byproduct was hydrogen and oxygen. Water. Water from space, what a concept.
But here it is, so big, so dangerous. Cora turns around, she steps slowly back toward the hotel, one cannot be quick here. The wind whips into her face and she sees that before she had been going into the calm, wind-at-your-back direction and now, now she must stand and face the sea.
She is almost back to the spot on the beach, the path to the road to the hotel. She hears cars now in the distance, the same rush as the water. Rain picks up, wind runs through her long dark hair. She should have worn a raincoat, brought an umbrella, pulled her hair back. You cannot take her anywhere.
She feels it now like she felt it that night when the headlights came at her and the car coming toward them was so big…just so big and no amount of force, no blunt trauma could prepare her for such power.
Cora steps closer now, closer to the sea. Her feet touch the cold white crests and she steps nearer, nearer until a hand grasps her arm, pulling her back. He does not say anything. It would be too much to shout and he is not that kind of man who shouts over the weather. His people, she can picture them, they hunted water in the southwestern desert, they weaved baskets and blankets and grew what they could in the tiny pockets of fertile desert soil. All of time, the great backbone of this country, stand in his eyes. He looks out at the sea and pulls her in, closer to him she can sense the strength of his muscle, she smells his wet hair like a dog. She breathes him in but all she can smell is the sea.
“Come on,” he finally calls into her ear. The rain is slowing again. One spurt of rage, another of calm. “The movie’s in a few minutes. You should change. I’ll wait in your room.” She looks up at him, nodding. He kisses the top of her head. “You crazy, crazy, silly girl. I cannot take you anywhere.” Shaking his head they move to head out, away from the sea and towards the road, the hotel.
When they reach the road Cora watches the cars, trucks with open beds, luxury SUVs, close-topped convertibles. She steps hesitantly on the asphalt, having not worn shoes it now slices though her bare feet, the rocks, these manmade concrete creatures, some pulpy mixture of water and earth. She grasps Philip’s arm and he holds her up. “Tim and Mattie are coming. So is Brad. We’ll see the movie. We’ll eat at that place, the one with the lobster.”
Cora nods. She wants to say ‘they’re all the one with the lobster’ but says nothing, does nothing. She stops, looks back at the sea as they come up over the edge of road. “It’s so big,” she says to Philip and he nods, holding her closer he just nods. “It’s just so big.”
Jessica Stilling has published poetry and short fiction in numerous literary journals including Wasafiri, The Warwick Review, and The Saint Katherine Review. Her debut novel Betwixt and Between was published by Ig Publishing in 2013. She has taught creative writing at CUNY, SUNY Old Westbury, The New School, and The Gotham Writer’s Workshop where she currently teaches novel writing. She lives in New York City. You may check out her work at her website jessicastilling.com and her blog thenovelistablog.wordpress.com.