“Okay,” she said. “We’ll try it for a couple of weeks.”
“It’s what I want to do,” he said. “Just going. No schedule.”
“If it’s what you need.”
Dan sat in his chair, looking at his wife. She sat across the room. She stared out the living room window. The street was empty as the morning wore on. Both of them were silent for a while, until Sam began to talk.
“What are we going to do with the house?”
Dan looked up to answer, but then looked back at the floor.
“If you don’t want to do this.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to do it. I just want to know what we’re going to do with the house. Who’s gonna watch it?”
“Let’s just do it. Right now. Forget the house.”
Sam looked at her husband. She faced the window again. A boy was hopping past their lawn on a pogo stick. She watched him until he disappeared behind the hedge.
“Whatever you want.”
“I love you.”
Sam watched the street. Dan rose from his chair and crossed the room. He bent over to kiss his wife’s cheek. She raised it slightly to him as he kissed it. Dan left for the bedroom. Halfway there he turned to her.
“Gonna help pack?”
“You know what we’re going to need.”
The boy was hopping back down the sidewalk. Sam went to the front door and opened it.
“Honey, better watch the water from the lawn,” she called. “You might slip.” The boy stopped bouncing and walked past the house.
Dan walked into the bedroom. He opened the closet and stared into it. It was stuffed with clothes and shoes and old checkbook boxes and too-fat ties. Suits and dresses, a jewelry box on a shelf. He put his hand to his forehead and thought. Suitcases. He looked down at his socks. Suitcases? It didn’t feel right. Too structured. Too trip-like. He pulled off his socks and wiggled his old toes into the carpet. Dan smiled as he remembered the old duffel bag he kept in the garage. On his way out of the bedroom he bumped into Sam.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “I know what to pack in.”
“I’m going over to the Knoblocks,” she said. “They can keep an eye on the house.” She turned to go.
She faced him. A strand of reddish-brown hair fell down her forehead. She quickly put it behind her ear.
“Can’t this be just our secret? I mean, it wouldn’t work right if everybody knew.”
“Dan, somebody’s got to watch the house.”
Both stood still. Sam turned.
“Can I at least stop the paper?”
“I think so.” He took a step toward her but stopped. “I’m sorry.”
She went to the phone. Dan heard her pushing numbers and went out into the garage. Boxes were neatly stacked on boards laid across the rafters and clearly labeled with their contents. Dan scanned the boxes stacked near the garage door for the one marked “Dan — Memorabilia.” He removed the ladder from its hitch on the wall and placed it underneath the boxes above the rafters. Carefully climbing onto the boards, he began searching for his box. He found it behind the Christmas ornaments, and brought it to the edge of the board.
Getting the duffel out of the box wasn’t difficult. It was right on top of a few magazines and college sweatshirts. Dan remembered when he bought it at the army surplus store. He was on one of those sentimental journeys that day, and the bag reminded him of his friends during college. Some of them left for Vietnam. He and friends left in school used to drink to the soldiers’ honor, mostly. Maybe to the end of the war. Or the future. But definitely to something.
Dan woke and descended the ladder and walked into the house with the bag in hand. Sam stood in the kitchen washing the dishes in the sink. She looked out the window in front of her and hummed the notes of a song. It sounded like “Edelweiss.” Dan came up behind her and held the green bag in front of her.
“I found it.” He dropped it back over his shoulder. He put his arms around Sam and squeezed. “I’ll use it to pack the two things we need.”
Sam continued to wash. She stopped humming.
Dan said: “It’ll be good. You’ll see.” She rinsed a glass and put it in the drainer.
“What time do you want to leave?” she asked.
“As soon as I pack. Do you need something special?”
“I think you should at least call Brandon. He’ll worry.”
“I don’t know.”
Dan felt anxiety streak through him. It froze his mind.
“When does he call anyway?”
“What?” Sam turned and took his hands from around her waist. “That doesn’t matter. Tell him anything, but tell him something.” She looked up at Dan. She reached for a dishtowel. “He will worry.”
“All I want to do is leave. I just want to leave. I’m going to pack.”
“You can’t keep…” Sam stopped as Dan looked at her. “You know how you want to do this.”
“Please just let me. What’s the point if you can’t just pick up and leave?”
She put the towel on the stove and walked out of the kitchen.
“At least watch me pack.”
“Forget it.” Dan picked the bag off the floor and walked into the bedroom. He threw the bag into the closet and stood. After a few minutes, Sam came to sit on the bed with a book.
“I’ll call him. I’ll tell him we’re going to Morro Bay.” Dan stared into the full closet.
He began putting sweaters in the bag. Sam read.
Their truck moved past Santa Barbara, heading north. In the bed of the truck was the green army bag and two sleeping bags Dan put there. Sam rested on a pillow propped up against the window as Dan drove. The ocean was on Dan’s left. He rolled his window down and let his arm hang outside the truck; the ocean air made it feel wet and dry at the same time. Sort of sticky-dry. He waved to other drivers as they sped back to the city. No one waved back, but Dan felt pretty good all the same, lighter.
Sam slept. Sometimes she shifted as Dan drove. Dan looked over at her. She looked so calm, so beautiful. She’s always been beautiful. Dan reached over and put his hand on her thigh. She started to shift again, and he removed his hand. She was awake, though. The image was gone, and the light feeling along with it.
“Where are we?”
“By the ocean!” he said as he lifted his left arm from the outside of the door and pointed to the ocean. He smiled at her.
“I know that. I mean where are we?”
“About to El Capitan.” Dan looked out at the ocean. The wind gently lifted his hair from his forehead, and Dan found himself smiling again. “We should be in Morro Bay in time to watch the sunset. I can hardly wait to get to the beach.”
Sam reached for the radio and turned it on. She leaned back against the pillow and looked out her window. Brown brown hills sped past.
“I remember spending nights at the beach with Aaron and Barbara. You remember? Man, we used to do everything together. And that magazine we tried to start at ‘Bispo. ‘On People We Have Met.’ Reading through all those stories and thinking we could have done everything better if we’d written it ourselves.”
Dan glanced to Sam, who was still watching the hills blur by. He went on thinking about the campfires they had at the beach. They would pack their sleeping bags into the back of Aaron’s car and drive the twelve miles from Cal Poly to Morro Bay, usually late at night after drinking a lot. As the sparks from the fire blew upward toward the stars they would talk. They wondered where they would be in twenty years and were sure they’d be the same, living life on the edge and rejecting anything that tied them down. The fire would go out, but the talk would go on. In moments of silence Dan would sense a quiet passion within himself that left him both happy and sad. It was something that would leave him searching for days, that something had touched him and told him he was alive. They would all fall asleep after telling each other how their dreams. And how they would stick together. “Dan,” Aaron would say. “Brothers.”
“Don’t ever let me fall away from myself.”
“I need to stop,” Sam said.
Dan didn’t hear.
“Dan, I need to stop for a drink.”
“Okay. Buellton.” He went back to concentrating on the road. A grin came to his face.
“Before we stop, though, answer me one question.”
“Come Dan, I don’t want to play these games. I just want a Pepsi.”
“Just tell me what I asked Aaron that last night on the beach.”
“That was forty years ago. How am I supposed to remember what you told Aaron?
“You really don’t remember?”
“No, I really don’t. Why don’t you tell me.”
Dan went back to the ocean.
Dan pulled into the Shell and shut off the engine.
While Sam was inside the market, Dan got out of the truck to stretch. He faced road, a restaurant across that had been there forever. Anderson’s. After running his hand through his hair, he walked a little stiffly to the edge and let the wind wave across him. Cars passed quickly. They distracted Dan, who was trying to remember the way it all used to look. He remembered something comforting about the way things were. No barriers. No restrictions. The cars troubled Dan. He turned his head toward the station and saw Sam exiting with a large wooden paddle with a key on the end. She held it up and pointed to the bathroom. Dan nodded and turned back to the road. The late-afternoon sun was turning the sky golden. Dan felt the wind rush at him a final time before turning for the truck.
Sam sipped her Pepsi as the truck began down the highway. Dan tried tuning the radio again. He turned off the radio and turned his attention to the road.
“You told Aaron not to let you lose yourself.”
Dan turned to his wife. She was composed, not offering an explanation.
“Where do you want to stay in Morro Bay?” Sam asked.
“If the Tradewinds is still there, there. Why didn’t you answer back there? I thought you’d forgotten.”
“I haven’t forgotten you.” She stopped. “I don’t like trips down memory lane. I hate when you make me take them. That’s what all this is about, isn’t it? Going back in time?”
Dan couldn’t say anything. His chest felt heavy, like hopelessness had taken weight and was pressing him down. He couldn’t think of what to say.
Sam fluffed her pillow and leaned it up against the window. Watching the shoulder of the road go by, she said, “I’m sorry.”
Dan felt choked. Everything inside him was tight. He sank deep into himself and drove on.
The streetlights in Morro Bay lit up the circles of fall fog that formed around them. Sam was asleep. Dan drove the truck through town before turning to the motel. He glared at the thrift stores that lined the street. Cars were parked along the street in front of the shops, probably for the movie theater. A few pedestrians strolled along. The shops themselves were from the seventies. He didn’t remember so many thrift stores. Dan continued to stare at each store as he drove by, at the cars parked along the road. He didn’t remember Morro Bay having bumper-to-bumper parked cars.
Dan turned on Main. He breathed a little easier as he got to Harbor. It was exactly as he remembered them. A bar, motels, plain beach houses with chain-link fences around molting yards. In the mornings after they spent the night on the beach they would walk through this neighborhood. The blue sky and the ocean wind would turn reality into something soft and peaceful. He would walk through the streets with Sam. Barbara and Aaron would walk behind them quietly. The sky and the wind made everything freer.
Dan finished on Beach Street and looked left to the Tradewinds motel. Sam was beginning to wake up. Through the mist Dan noticed the “No Vacancy” sign glowing.
“Are we there yet?” Sam asked. She asked with her face still in her pillow.
“Yes. But the Tradewinds is full.”
“Well let’s find another hotel.”
Dan stared at the motel sign.
“Maybe they do have room.”
Sam sat up. “But you just said they were full.”
“The sign says they’re full. Maybe they.” Dan cut himself off.
“Dan, hotels do fill up.” She paused. “Let’s find another one. My back hurts.”
Sam looked up and down Beach Avenue. Across the street from the Tradewinds she saw the Travelodge. She pointed to it. Dan had already seen it. He looked at the No Vacancy sign on the Tradewinds.
“The Travelodge has rooms.” Sam looked at Dan. “If we get there sometime tonight, maybe we can have one of them.”
Dan pulled into the Travelodge.
Sam was in the shower. The sound of water relaxed Dan as he lay in bed watching television. It always seemed easier to relax when Sam was steaming up a bathroom. Dan flipped through the channels, watched the weather for a while, and then turned it off. He heard Sam shut off the shower. A few minutes later she emerged from the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her.
“Feel better?” Dan asked. She was going through the green army bag.
“Yeah. What did you pack for me?”
Sam stopped looking through the bag. “Very funny. What did you pack?”
“I told you.” Dan flipped back the covers. “Nothing.”
Sam stood before the bed. “Tomorrow,” she said, “we are going to buy something for me to wear to bed.” Dan began covering himself with the bedspread. Sam’s face changed from stern to grin. “Tonight….”
Sam let the towel drop from her.
Dan raised the bedspread from him once more and was happy.
Sam was in Dan’s arms. Dan whispered into Sam’s ear.
“I love you.”
Sam gently squeezed her husband’s hand.
“We don’t have to drive to be happy.”
Dan woke with Sam’s hair flushed over his face. Strong light was breaking through the crack between the heavy motel curtains. He kissed her shoulder as he rose from the bed. He peeked through the curtains at the early morning sky. Blue without even a trace of a cloud. He saw the Tradewinds motel across the street and smiled. The sea breeze was gently blowing the flowers in front.
Dan turned around and held open the curtain. Light flooded the room. Sam shielded her eyes from the glare.
“Somebody’s gonna walk by.”
“Oh, well.” He let the curtain go and walked back over to the bed. “I have a plan. First, breakfast. Seconds, going over to ‘Bispo. I want to see it again. Third, shopping for you. Fourth, dinner at Harbor Hut. It’s all coming back. And last, laying under the stars at night. Falling asleep in our sleeping bags. Just like old times.”
Sam looked at her husband, standing naked in front of her, a grin taking his face.
“Does it sound like a plan?”
“Whatever you want is okay.”
“I would sort of like it if you wanted to do it too.”
Sam didn’t respond at first. She got up from the bed and wrapped the topsheet around her, heading for the bathroom.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Whatever you want to do today is fine.” She shut the bathroom door.
Dan sat on the bed, laid back and closed his eyes. He heard Sam turn on the faucet. She’s washing her face, he thought.
Sam sat with the menu before her, browsing the breakfast section. Dan sat opposite her with his hands around a mug of coffee.
“The eggs benedict looks good.”
“Yeah,” Sam said.
“But then so does the lobster.”
Dan took down the top of her menu. “There is no lobster.”
Dan let the menu back up. “Nevermind.”
After a few minutes the waitress walked up to the table. She pulled at her brown skirt and wiped her hands on her half-apron.
“You ready to order?”
“Sam, you ready?”
“Go ahead. I’ll decide by the time you’re done.”
The waitress looked back at Dan. “What’ll you have?”
“And for you?”
“I’m not sure.” Sam looked over her menu.
“I’ll come back.” The waitress turned to go.
“I have a question for you,” Dan said as she walked away. “What ever happened to Chuck’s, down the street?”
“Not sure. Only been here a few months.” She turned toward the grill. Dan cupped the coffee again.
“She’s only twenty, Dan,” Sam said behind the breakfast section. “How could she know about Chuck’s?”
“You’d think somebody would. I just wanted to know when it was torn down.”
“Probably the day after we left here.” Sam put down the menu.
“Probably.” He couldn’t speak.
“Dan. I’m still here. Where are you?” She looked at the couple sitting next to them and lowered her voice. “Don’t you see what’s going on?”
“I guess not. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Would you just talk to me?”
Dan broke. He got up from the table and walked out of the restaurant. He stood on the sidewalk facing the street.
Sam walked out after him. She stood to his left. After a moment she began walking up the sidewalk. Dan watched her go.
Dan sat on the beach a long time that afternoon. He watched the waves roll in and the little kids on the beach run from them. The wind pushed at him. It was difficult to concentrate. The sound of the sea, something he remembered as crisp and clean, was garbled with the screams of the children. Things were muffled, unclear. The sunlight glared up from the water. It hurt to look out over the ocean. Dan cupped his ears and closed his eyes and listened. His heart beat in his ears. He couldn’t hear the familiar rumble of the water. Just the beat of his heart and strands of his hair slapping back from the wind. He sat silent for a long time.
The inside of the bar was dark as the sun went down. Dan entered as dusk approached. He was drinking beer. The bar wasn’t the same one his friends and he used to go to. That one was in ‘Bispo and for all he knew it wasn’t there anymore. He raised his bottle to the bartender and downed the last.
“One more, please.”
“I’m not driving. Another, please.”
The man behind the bar looked at Dan and opened a bottle without taking his eyes off him.
Dan raised the bottle to him. “Here’s to taking it easy.” His lips round the bottle. He drank. Memories spilled out. Dan set the bottle on the counter. They came back stronger, taking life. There was music behind him in that twilight world. He took another drink. The music was coming from the old radio in another bar. Raising shots to people over better music, better sounds falling across him.
Raising glasses to people they really didn’t know anything about. Fighting in jungles not in America, living with rot he would never understand, but they were close, his friends were his friends and they used to dream together until the world turning into another day chased them away.
Dan put his hands around the bottom of the glass. It was almost empty. Sam came to mind. The thought of her made him lost and real. Her long reddish-brown hair in the ocean wind, the way he felt when she was close to him. Like a warm center standing by his side. Dan loved the way she loved him. It was soft, a breeze, but solid. Real. Something that would warm his spirit and give him dreams. He loved her. She made him feel, crazy and stupid. Lost in his own life and okay, complicated and confused.
He left the bar, needing her.
Dan walked down Main Street. The new fog hung in the air. The streetlamps already marked the way to Beach Street. Dan looked at his watch as he walked. He quickened his walk. At Beach he headed down to the motel. He entered the dark room. There was no one there. Dan walked to the bathroom and turned on the light. Sam was not in the room. Dan slowly paced the room. He tried to clear his mind. He sat on the bed and needed Sam.
Dan noticed a note by the phone. “On the beach.”
He left for the Rock.
Dan walked over the sand. He saw no fire on the beach. The air made his hair feel wet. He wandered toward the water. Dan could hear the waves crash against Morro Rock. He took a deep breath and wandered further. There were no lights on the black water. It was dark and unbroken. He tried to capture the night in his memory. He stood thinking, unable to contain the black water. It made him feel full and empty.
“Sam,” he called. His voice sounded old and strange, muffled against the wind and waves. It didn’t seem to go very far. Dan looked down the beach in front of him. He could see nothing except the lights near the Rock. Then he noticed someone walking with a flashlight, close to where the water waved up, right near the eddy. He walked toward the person.
“Sam?” The flashlight came up at him and returned to the sand. The two walked closer. They stopped and stood apart.
“Do you remember when we’d sit in the sand and watch the fire?” Sam asked.
Sam looked out to the ocean. Her hair hung in the moist air.
“Do you remember what I used to tell you?”
“I used to say you were my life.” In the small light Dan could see her chin becoming tight.
“Sam, what’s wrong?”
“You still are.”
“Sam…” He went towards her. She turned on him.
Dan stopped. He understood.
Sam looked at the ocean.
Dan was quiet. His mind was on fire. He felt the familiar weight growing in his chest. He loved it.
He said: “We’d come out here and I knew what things stood for. I could listen to the ocean and wish I was in the middle of it and it seemed like I was happier being out there.” Dan stopped. “The pot of gold was always out there in the middle of there.” He pointed out to sea. “At least I knew where it was. I was happy there.”
Sam broke. The hurt inside pushed through. She fought everything but the tears.
“I’ve been a fool.” He took a step toward her.
“You have.” Sam began to cry harder. Tears came from nowhere and told everything. The hurt, the sadness, the loss. She sat down in the sand.
Dan sat next to her. He put his arm around her and her face sank into his chest. She cried into his coat. “You know what? This beach is terrible.”
She coughed as she laughed.
“It’s pretty with you,” he said.
“Stop.” But she was still close.
Dan brushed Sam’s hair back over her ear. Sam could hear Dan’s heart beating through his coat. She hugged him and grew quiet. She understood was happy.
Dan looked out into the black. “Wanna go?”
“I’m cold,” she said.
“So am I.”
Sam didn’t say anything. She hugged her husband and kissed his neck.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he said, but he said it like a little boy says things.
Sam took her head away from Dan’s shoulder. “You always used to say that.”
“I liked him.”
“So did I. But I like this guy more.”
Dan was quiet. “I really miss it, sometimes.”
“No. The future.”
“We’re not dead yet.”
“No, not the future. I miss not knowing. It seems like I’ve figured things out.” Dan played with the sand, letting it fall through his hands in small mountains.
“Men.” Sam was silent.
Dan said, “I know.”
Dan played with the sand. He let it fall through his fingers again and dug deeper after it left his hands. Then he stood up and looked to the ocean. He walked toward the water and tried to see the horizon line. He felt nothing. He was filled and empty.
The world stilled. He stood a long time. He turned back to his wife, helped her, and left the beach.
He didn’t look at the ocean as they left. He just left.