It’s too cold outside for the dress I’m wearing, but I don’t really care. It’s only autumn, and the coldest November in San Francisco is still warmer than the warmest one back east. Goosebumps never killed anyone.
I have my shoes in my hand and I am walking the sandy edge of the Pacific Ocean, leaving footprints behind me which are dissolved by the relentless washing of the waves almost as soon as I leave them. The sky is cloudy and dark, but I don’t think anything will come of it. The drought in California is tenacious, and I doubt that this afternoon is going to be when it loses its grip on the west.
There are still ribbons in my hair, thin and red and woven so that they will be difficult to take out on my own. I want to think that I can still feel Christopher’s fingers working the ribbons in, but if I am honest with myself, I can’t. Some histories become ancient even if they are only hours old.
I haven’t smoked in years. The need for a cigarette now weighs on me like the pressure at the bottom of the ocean. I am weak enough to know that if I were at a market, I would buy a pack, but strong enough to know that I will make myself stay at land’s end until the need passes.
Ahead of me stands a young girl with blue hair, also with her shoes in her hand, also letting the waves splash up her legs. Her jeans are rolled up to her knees, and she looks out over the ocean as though she is waiting for something, something that is hidden over the curve of the horizon. As I come closer, I can see that her makeup is smeared, her eyes black, the back of her hand smeared with mascara. She glances at me as I near her, and I nod, saying nothing. If I were wearing makeup, it would have looked like hers. The briefest shadow of a smile slips across her face, and then she turns back to the horizon and whatever she imagines is over it.
I can’t feel Christopher’s hands, but I can see them, soft and small, caught in the rectangle of morning light which had come into our bedroom this morning. His delicate fingers, more like a woman’s than a man’s, and knowing that mine hadn’t been the only hair he’d put ribbons into this week. He said that she didn’t exist, but his phone said that her name was Kalie.
Ribbons like a trail of breadcrumbs, leading in reverse from fairy tale to reality.
I left broken dishes on the kitchen floor.
A man is walking along the shore toward me, pants dry, boots on. He keeps near the water, and moves in tandem with the rolling waves, up nearer to the highway as the water comes in, then back to the shore as the ocean recedes. He carries a closed umbrella in one hand, and the other is on the canvas satchel that he wears strapped across his shoulder. His gaze is fixed on me, and I hold it a few moments before turning my head to look at the sea. I am in no mood to be regarded in a stranger’s eyes, and as a child would, I pretend that if I can’t see him, then he can’t see me.
As we approach one another, it becomes impossible to ignore him, because he speaks to me. “Olivia,” he says. I stop and look at him, dark-haired and tall, neither handsome nor ugly. He knows my name, but I don’t know his. His face is one I don’t recall having seen before.
“You don’t remember me,” he says, having picked up on my confusion.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t.”
“Arthur,” he says. “Arthur McIsaac. We met at Tina’s party.”
“Oh, of course,” I say. I don’t remember him, and I don’t remember going to a party at Tina’s. He must be mistaken, but he does know my name, so we must have met at some point. “How are you?”
“Cold,” he says. “It’s going to rain soon.”
“I don’t think so. It never rains anymore.”
He raises his wrist and checks his watch. “Trust me. It’s definitely going to rain. It’s nice to see you again,” he says, lowering his arm. “I was wondering when I was going to bump into you.”
“It’s a small town,” I say. “It was bound to happen sooner or later.”
“Are you still working at… where was it? Camera store?”
“Richman’s,” I say. “A studio, not a store.”
He nods. “Right. I made that mistake last time too.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“You never know,” he says. “It’s the little things that can derail you sometimes.” He looks up at the dark sky. “It really is going to rain.” He looks at me again and says, “You’re still dating Christopher, right?”
“Yes,” I say, although I really can’t say if I am. Probably not, but I haven’t had time to fit the idea into my head yet.
“Good,” he says, “because then I can ask if you want to go get some coffee without it sounding weird.”
“It doesn’t sound weird.”
“Have you been to Trouble?” he asks, and I am confused by his use of the word a moment until he continues. “It’s on Judah, like five blocks from here.”
“Wait, you mean coffee now? I couldn’t right now. It’s not a good time.”
He checks his watch again. “It’s a great time. It’s the best time. If you stay out here, you’re just going to get wet.”
“We can do it another time,” I say. “It’s not going to rain. Seriously.”
He raises his umbrella up then, and without saying a word, slides it open and steps closer to me to hold it over the both of us. At almost the same instant, as if a faucet were being turned, the sky above us opens up, and great sheets of rain begin to crash down. Involuntarily, I press nearer to him, startled by the sudden storm.
“Told you,” he says. “It always rains now. Always.”
“You’re some weatherman,” I say, and I am struck by the nervousness in my voice, unfamiliar and a little frightening to me. “How’d you know that was going to happen?”
“Come have coffee with me,” he says. “I’ll tell you, but we have to go have coffee first.”
The rain is hammering the top of the umbrella like stones, and the noise is almost deafening. The wind off the ocean blows the water against my back, and already my dress is beginning to stick to me like another skin. Umbrella or not, I’m going to be soaked before much longer.
I look up at him on his side of the umbrella. “Did we really meet at a party?” I ask loudly, straining to be heard over the rain. “Did we?”
He waits a beat, and then says, “No.”
A peal of thunder rips across the sky. “Are you going to tell me where we did?”
He looks away from me at toward the trees at the edge of Golden Gate Park, and without turning his head back, slips one hand into the bag hanging at his side. He removes something—a photograph—and hands it to me. I take it and hold it up, keeping it dry beneath the umbrella. It is dusk in the photo, and Arthur is standing in the center of a cobbled street, between two rows of wooden houses, which recede into the dim light before being lost to the darkness. There is a woman standing next to him, with dirty blonde hair curling behind her ears and over her shoulders, holding Arthur’s hand in hers, and smiling for the camera in a way that I’ve not seen her do in so very, very long.
The woman is me.
“What is this?” I ask. “I don’t remember this.”
“Over coffee,” he says. “I’ll tell you over coffee.”
“You made this, right? Photoshop?”
“Come with me and I’ll tell you. Keep the photo and I’ll tell you everything.”
I decide there is no way I am going to go anywhere with this man—Arthur, he says. This rain is weird, the situation is weird, and I have had enough weirdness for one day already. Everything is off balance and unsettled, and all I want to do is to go home.
Although my home is not just mine. Christopher will be there as well. Of course he will.
I am not ready for Christopher just now. Now yet.
I look at the photo again. I work at a studio, and I know Photoshop. It’s an excellent creation, a magnificent forgery. Everything about it is perfect. My smile is perfect.
Why is everything there so perfect?
“Okay,” I say to Arthur. “Let’s go get coffee.”
He grins like a little boy. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear you say that.”
“I’m driving myself,” I tell him. “And if I decide this is too weird, I’m just going to keep on driving.”
“Trouble,” he says. “Not me, the name of the coffee shop. Right up Judah. Big piece of driftwood on the sidewalk out front. You’ll probably have to park on a side street.”
“If I’m not there in twenty minutes, I won’t be.” I grab the handle of the umbrella. “I’m taking this with me. Don’t walk me to my car.”
He reaches into his bag and pulls out a small travel umbrella. “I thought you might say that,” he says. He opens the umbrella and covers himself with it, holding it low and close to his head. “Go ahead to your car. I’ll wait here until you’re off the beach.”
“I may go home anyway. I’m cold and wet.”
“I’ll take the risk,” he says.
I look at him, and then I look at the photo again before handing it back to him. “I don’t have anywhere dry to put it. It’ll get ruined.”
He takes the photo and returns it to his bag. “I’ll give it back at Trouble.”
“If I’m there,” I say.
“If you’re there.”
I nod and start to walk away, the liberated umbrella held above me. Before I’ve gone three steps, I turn my head to Arthur and say, “If you think this is some creative way of hitting on me, I’m telling you right now, I’m going to kick your ass.”
“I know you will,” he says. “You’ve done it before.”
I frown at that, but say nothing else before heading for my car. The going is slow in the wet sand, but whenever I glance back over my shoulder to see if Arthur is following me, I see that he is not. He isn’t even watching me walk away, but has turned to face the open sea, umbrella low, rain splashing down on him from the thick clouds above.
Home, I think. I need to go home. He’s going to cut off my head and put it in a bag.
I start the car, pull into traffic, and head for Trouble, five blocks away.