by Rachel V. Olivier
part 1 of 2
“Look, Daddy! The seals!” A black-eyed boy tugged at his father’s hand as he pointed at the whiskery noses and liquid eyes peeking up out of the silvery waves breaking along the shore.
“I see, Tam.” The father gripped his son’s hand while one seal paused longer than the rest, her deep brown eyes looking up at them intensely. They continued to watch the harbor seals frolic and play as the sun sank over the water, eventually leaving father and son in shadow.
* * *
The soft lighting of the restaurant glinted off the instruments of the jazz trio playing in the corner, but Tam still heard the soft susurration of the surf outside. He fidgeted while waiting for Marta, examining his cutlery, rearranging the salt, pepper, and sugar containers while periodically looking out the windows at the waves hitting the beach.
That night out with his father was the last thing he wanted to be thinking about tonight. So instead, he checked his cell phone, noted the time (7:30), played with the stem of his wine glass, but mostly he fingered the small black box in his jacket pocket. The other thing he was thinking about tonight.
Marta had called earlier saying she was working late and to meet her here, it was where they’d had their first date. Where they always came to celebrate and share their milestones. But tonight, Tam felt more nervous than celebratory.
Picking up his table knife yet again, he tried to check his reflection and failed miserably as all he could see was one gold-flecked, black eye, framed by early lines and a flop of misbehaving, curly dark brown hair. Tam put the knife down and ran his hands over his head, self conscious of the small receding spots at the edges.
“That’s not making it look any better you know,” Aidan, his waiter, joked as he set the water glasses down. “Let me know if you need anything.”
Tam chuckled nervously and shrugged. He watched as Aidan moved off, feeling a tinge of envy as he watched the waiter smile and help the clientele as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
Tam caught himself calculating the man’s probable monetary worth and grimaced. Marta would tell him he was bringing work home again. He mentally shoved all accounting thoughts down and tried looking back in the reflection of the table knife again to smooth his hair. Marta had never said anything about his receding spots, but he willed them to grow back just the same. Just as he had willed for his mother to come back the day she had left.
Tam checked his cell phone again: 7:35. His stomach flipped. Marta had never been late before. He had meant to arrive at her apartment door with a bouquet of flowers, sweeping her into his car with a kiss as an opening to his planned romantic evening. He didn’t like waiting. It made him nervous. He liked being on time.
He fiddled with the silverware some more, then checked the box in his pocket, thinking about Marta’s hazel eyes and warm, easy smile.
Hearing a bright laugh, Tam glanced up, sighing with relief as he watched Marta stride past the hostess on the way to his table. The light green of her summer dress brought out the red glints in her rich, chestnut hair; she took his breath away.
As he rose up out of his chair, Tam almost forgot where they were. It was Marta who stopped him from simply grabbing her up into his arms; seizing his hands and landing a light kiss on his cheek in greeting. She thanked Aidan, who had come up to pull out her chair, and sat facing Tam, fiddling with her purse and dress, fidgeting much as Tam had as he waited for her.
Tam opened his napkin in his lap. “Marta, you look...” Tam stopped, seeing Marta purse her lips. That was something she did when she felt self-conscious. He changed his comment. “Were you able to get everything done at work?”
“Yes, thank you,” Marta paused as Aidan brought over their menus, barely glancing at it before laying it aside and ordering a glass of white wine.
The pause grew uncomfortably long as both Tam and Marta peered at each other over glass rims and sipped their wine. Tam hadn’t felt this awkward with her since their first date. Maybe he had moved too hastily. The familiar gnawing of fear began in the pit of his stomach before he shoved it down firmly.
“Marta,” Tam fingered the black box in his pocket.
“No, no, it wasn’t important,” Marta smiled at him, looking relieved. “It can wait. You look excited, what’s the news?” Marta leaned forward and Tam caught a brief sight of her breasts as her scent wafted over him.
He fought to speak past the lump in his throat, grabbing Marta’s hand. His throat dried up, his mind blank. In a rush, he pulled the box out of his pocket, hearing fabric rip. He hoped she could read the question in his eyes as he carefully set it down before her.
Marta, embarrassed, squeezed his hand and pulled away, looking anywhere but at him. “Oh, Tam! I... is this?” Marta looked down at the box — examining it as she would an insect — from afar. Slowly she reached over, picking up the box, opening it to look at the ring inside. “It’s lovely.”
Tam’s heart slowed, his vision telescoping to focus on Marta as he waited to hear her answer. He wasn’t sure he could trust himself to speak.
Marta took a breath, closed the box, set it between them and continued.
“Tam, I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I... I think you’re a wonderful guy, but I don’t think it’s working out. I... I’m sorry.” Looking up at Tam’s crestfallen face she finished hurriedly, “I think I’d better go.”
Grabbing her purse, Marta fled out the door as Tam watched helplessly. Releasing the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, he opened the box and stared at the ring, vision blurring as he gazed at the simple gold and diamond ring he had meant to give Marta.
“Daydreams. I should have known better than to depend on daydreams.” The people at the next table paused, embarrassed at the lone man talking to himself.
Daydreams were what his father accused him of after his mother had left them. Tam had been so sure she’d come back that he’d sit out in the yard checking every car that drove by. Tam could clearly remember when his father had finally thrown out all of his mother’s belongings before receding into himself. Folding his depression around him like a gray blanket, Tam’s father withdrew from the real world never to return again.
Tam became conscious of the waiter hovering by his elbow and a wetness on his cheeks. Scrubbing his face with his hands, he ordered a martini and watched as Aidan cleared away Marta’s place.
Tam had been coming to this restaurant and this beach most of his life, as a child with his mother and father. Then with just his father. And then alone, until he’d met Marta. He knew this place, these people. He felt safe here, and yet he sensed doors clanging shut inside. His father had been right. This was reality, and it was just going to be another night like all the others, followed by a protracted weekend, and an even lengthier week fading into white. Maybe he was his father’s son after all.
“Is everything all right? Can I get you anything else?” Aidan’s hand stopped short of Tam’s shoulder as he set the martini down in front of Tam.
“Yeah, get me another one of these, will you?”
Aiden cocked an eyebrow at Tam, searched his face and then nodded at what he saw there.
“I’ll be right back.”
* * *
Tam lifted his hand to signal Aidan over, knocking over his glass, spilling the leftover contents across the table.
“’N-nother martini... three olives this time... need my ninner,” Tam slurred at Aidan.
“We can’t serve you any more.” Aidan’s soft words of regret caused Tam to look up blurrily.
“What! I’m good for it! He-here, here’s my credit card.” Tam fumbled with his wallet and watched as receipts, bills and cards cascaded across the table in his attempt to fish out his credit card.
“Certainly, and if you want to use that to order coffee or a meal we can assist you with that. But we can no longer serve you alcohol.”
“Don’t be ri-ri-stupid. I can ’andle my liquor.”
Aidan looked pointedly at the mess strewn across Tam’s table.
Tam looked down at the spilled contents of his last drink, the crumpled-up bills and receipts, photos and cards spread over the surface like a tarot card reading, and his little black box in the center of it all. He nodded, stopping as the motion made him queasy. He squinted up at Aidan, noting the concern showing in the young man’s black eyes.
“’’Kay, ’s okay. You’right. Should go,” Tam felt his face flush, embarrassed at his condition as he gathered up his belongings from the table, stuffing them in his pockets.
As he signed the credit card slip he felt a hand on his shoulder again. Turning to look up, he saw it belonged to Aidan, anxiety for Tam’s welfare still showing in his face.
“I’ll call a cab for you, you really shouldn’t drive. But you might feel better if you took a walk on the beach first.” Tam felt an unexpected longing for sea salt air at the suggestion.
Tam felt Aidan’s hand on his shoulder all the way out the door and down to the causeway, yet when he turned to shrug it off, no one was there. Clumsily, he stumbled from the boardwalk onto the sand, but the sea air was having some affect on him. He fumbled in his pockets until he found his cell phone, staring at the pale LCD of the little window as he made out the time. 11:38 PM.
“No wonder I’m ’housed.” Four hours of drinking. Tam straightened his shoulders, looking around. “Fresh air, that’s what I need.”
The beach was deserted, dimly lit by the glow from the restaurant. Maybe this wasn’t the safest place to be at this time of night, but with the crescent moon high in the night sky and the salt air blowing full in his face Tam felt a yearning to walk in the sand, shoes in hand, pants rolled up like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock.
Funny. He hadn’t thought of that poem in years.
“Do I dare? Do I dare?” Tam tried to search past years of business knowledge to the days when he suspected that poetry was magic. Red-rimmed eyes roamed the horizon, searching the waves and sky for the boats, buoys, lights, or other things his father had taught him to look for, back when his father had been present.
Numinous waves flickered in the night. Tam thought he saw flippers, round bodies, whiskers, and dark eyes. It almost looked like a herd of harbor seals, frolicking through the waves. He rubbed his eyes, trying to scrub away the blurriness from the alcohol. Tam thought he could see the short round bodies elongating; flippers transforming into limbs.
A flash of white arm above a wave and a girlish laugh across the water brought him up short. What before had been a herd of harbor seals now looked to be a group of young men and women body surfing through the waves. He shivered in sympathetic response to the cold ocean water.
As he looked on, Tam suddenly remembered more of the verse. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.”
“Don’t be so sure of that,” a familiar voice said softly. Looking around, Tam saw Aidan, from the restaurant, apron off, a leather coat slung over his shoulders, shoes in hand, also watching the nubile skinny-dippers out on the waves.
Copyright © 2011 by Rachel V. Olivier