The Pacific Ocean in Venice Beach looked as if it extended for thousands of miles, up and down the coast.
It never rained much, but this morning it was cloudy and cold. I swung my legs off the boulder as the tide came in and walked toward the steps. The salty air pelted my uncovered skin. Tiny drops of water ran down my face. Men don’t cry, I was told again and again. They are the protectors and providers. They must always be strong. I believed that. So, it must be drops of water from the ocean, not tears running down my face.
“You have been on that boulder for a long time.” A life guard walked over, her wet suit making a squishing sound.
I looked up at her, then back at the sand. A crab lay in the sand, flies around it, so it must be dying. I walked over and removed the piece of seaweed wrapped around its tiny body. I placed it back into the ocean, hoping it would get another chance to live.
“Every time the tide comes in and goes back out, many of them die,” she said.
I nodded my head, walked back to the boulder, and closed my eyes. It has been a year, but the pain is still as fresh as it was the day she walked away. I thought, time would heal and it would become just a memory. They say there is heaven and hell on this earth and I have come to believe that.
“My name is Amy Jones,” the lifeguard said.
Tiny lines furrowed her forehead. Her skin was browned and weathered from the sun and wind. Her dark blue eyes had a distant look, as if they were seeing beyond what was immediately visible.
“I have been watching you for the last two hours.”
“Mine is Mark Orman,” I said.
I turned my gaze back to the ocean. The water was almost up to the boulder on the edge of the sand.
“I am on my break. There’s hot coffee in there.” She pointed to a small building. “We lifeguards hang out in there when we are not on watch.”
I got off the boulder and followed her, my hands in my jacket pocket, my head bowed. I wished that there were no more drops of water in the air. I’m tired of wiping my eyes.
The room was small. Two large armchairs, one red and the other green, sat opposite each other. There were four wooden chairs around an old dining room table and the floor was scuffed and scratched. A small green rug was next to the sliding door leading out to the deck.
I looked at her and saw kindness in those dark blue eyes.
“You are very sad,” she said.
I looked through the glass wall. A sea gull stood on the railing next to a pair of huge binoculars. I tapped on the sliding door. The bird turned and looked at me, then flew away. Waves struck the boulder. Water, silver and hard, fell on the sand washing away everything in its path.
“Sit,” she said and handed me a hot cup of coffee.
It was my first day of class after a long time. I left work early that day and went home. I tried to scrub the dust from the concrete and bricks off me. No matter how hard I scrubbed, my fingernails remained stained with grime and dirt. No matter how much cream I used, my hands were dry, chapped, and coarse.
That day I made sure I was the first one in class. I picked my seat, the one in the furthest corner of the room. Then she walked in.
Petite with dark eyes and hair. A smile that lit up her face.
I didn’t know it then but she walked right into my heart and stayed there. She stepped into the classroom, spotted me, came over and sat in the seat next to me.
“I always get lost, so I have to leave home very early,” she whispered.
She dropped her bag on the floor and sat down. I looked down at my book, but she kept whispering.
“I didn’t want to sign up for this class, but my best friend insisted that I did.”
I looked at her and wondered if I should change seats. Was she ever going to be quiet? She reached into her bag, pulled out a notebook and began writing.
“What are you writing?” I asked.
“A poem, but I am having a problem with this line.”
She bent her head and continued scribbling. She sensed that I was watching her and looked up and smiled. The class filled up with students and the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves.
“My name is Ellen Radcliff and I’m an aspiring poet,” she said.
“My name is Mark Orman,” I said. “I am a brick mason during the day and at night I write poetry.”
After class I walked to my car and saw her looking around the parking lot.
“Do you know where parking lot C is?” she asked.
I stared at her, then pointed in the opposite direction of where she was walking.
“You are late,” my wife grumbled as I walked in the door.
“Class ran late.” I said. “I stopped at the library to do research for my assignment. Can I read it to you?”
“It’s your turn with the baby,” she said and handed me David, then walked out of the apartment.
I looked at my son. His tiny arms and legs were waving in the air and I felt my heart tighten. I tickled his stomach. He smiled and blew a bubble. I held him closer and smelled that special baby smell of milk and powder. I whispered to him how much I loved him, then made up a silly song and sang to him. He continued smiling and I laid down on the floor with him, singing.
My wife walked back into the apartment. She spotted my working boots, caked with cement and dust. I tried so hard not to make a mess, but sometimes dust from my boots gets all over the carpet. She becomes very upset.
“Don’t fall asleep like that. You know you always fall asleep when you lay down,” she said as she grabbed her keys.
“Don’t hold him like that. And this time when you change his diaper try and get it right, so there are no leaks.”
“Can I read what I’ve written when you come back?” I asked.
“No. I’ll be tired.”
David fell asleep. I picked him and laid him in his crib. I stood, watching him breathe for a while, before I started typing my assignment.
I couldn’t wait for Thursday, for class. I thought about it all week
“What’s the matter?” Ellen asked as I sat down. I was late for class that week and the only empty seat was next to her.
“I hurt my back and shoulders,” I said. “We’re working on a children’s wing for a hospital.”
“I am so sorry.”
She smiled at me, her dark eyes soft and gentle as she patted my hand. I walked out with her after class. We talked as we headed in the direction of parking lot C.
I thought of Ellen throughout the week. Her face floated into my mind as I ate lunch or laid bricks. I was late the next week. I had hoped to get a seat where I could watch her face light up and her eyes crinkle at the corners when she laughed.
At the end of class she looked at me. Without saying a word, we walked towards the parking lot.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She pointed to the stars.
“Yes,” I said, not having a clue what she was talking about. I just wanting to hear her voice. I wanted to ask her to have coffee with me, to sit and talk with me. I wanted to stay with her, hear her laughter, her teasing me gently. I wanted to feel her hands touching me. The pain was almost physical.
“I have to go,” I said instead.
I got into my car, started to drive and realized that I didn’t want to go to the apartment. Six more weeks of classes went by very quickly. It took me a while to realize I was falling in love with Ellen. We talked about poetry, philosophy, music, and religion. We laughed at the same things and wanted the same things in life.
It was Thursday again and my turn to read my poem. I was nervous about what I had written. Ellen was late and when she came in, she took a seat far away from me. I stood and read my poem.
She remained silent during class. I kept looking at her, but she never looked at me. After class I walked over to her and waited.
“I am leaving at the end of this semester,” she said. “I’m moving.”
She remained silent. My heart contracted. I understood then that this woman had become so precious and important to me. This woman had filled my life. She had filled me with a sense of peace and hope and now, sorrow and pain. I had been waiting for her my whole life, searching for the other part of me.
I finally found her. Now she was leaving.
I rubbed my chest. There was an ache in there—a longing that promised, tomorrow could have been different—and that for once, life would be different. My words from my poem came to me, helpless, dying, and trapped.
“You know why,” she said, turning her face away. “I’m in love with you, but you’re not free.”
She turned, walked across the floor and out of the classroom. I watched the door close and listened to her steps going down the hallway, toward the parking lot. Faint, then silent. I kept listening.
I sat down, my shoulders shaking. I looked at my hands, rough, chapped, and coarse, fingers cracked and bent. I was never ashamed of my hands when I was with Ellen.
“They provide and protect,” she had said. “They are beautiful.”
I listened to the silence, knowing that she was leaving me, knowing I was stuck in a marriage because of an idea of morality and honor. Yet, all I wanted was for her to touch me, my hands, my face. I wanted to feel her pressed against me, feel the fullness of her lips, and the warmth of her breath against my skin. I wanted to stroke her face, her neck, and her bare arms. Feel the glide of the sheet, with her, against my bare skin. The pain was physical.
I walked to parking lot C and looked around, but her car was gone. It was empty except for a piece of paper blowing in the wind. I bowed my head and wiped the drops of water running down my face.
I realized I couldn’t go to the apartment; instead I went to my Mau Thai kickboxing class. I walked in late, automatically dropped and did a hundred pushups. It was full contact sparring that day. I warmed with some jumping jacks and ignored the pain in my back and shoulders.
My instructor pointed to Jim, my fighting partner and me.
We bowed to each other and circled, bobbing, weaving, jabbing, punching, parrying and blocking. I kicked Jim below the belt and above the knees. He dropped to the floor.
I walked around striking my right fist against my left hand and waited to make sure he was alright. He got up, and we started again. I kicked his solar plexus. He doubled over and fell to the mat. The instructor made me sit on my knees facing the wall. Jim was fine except for the wind knocked out of him.
“Get up and go to my office,” she said.
I waited in the office for her, walking back and forth. She stood in the doorway watching me. I looked into her brown eyes, and she shook her head from side to side.
“I want you to work with the speed ball for ten minutes, then on the punching bag for another ten. If you still have energy, we’ll do something different. We’ll begin stick fighting tonight.”
I nodded, bent my head as I walked past her. She tugged at my left sleeve.
“If you need a friend, I’m here.”
I shook my head. How could I explain how angry and hurt I was?
I was angry at Ellen for making me believe in laughter and life, for giving me hope. At Sarah for being my wife. At myself for letting Ellen walk away.
I stayed out late despite knowing Sarah was waiting for me.
“Maybe we should have another baby.”
Sarah smiled at me as I walked into the bedroom. I swallowed and nodded. I closed my eyes as I touched her and thought of Ellen. It was Ellen I wanted.
“My back hurts,” I said. “I need a hot shower.”
I showered and went back into the room. The baby was crying. I closed my eyes and realized I couldn’t sleep. I walked to the computer, sat down to write and looked at my future without Ellen. It would be one of loneliness, duty, responsibility, and trying to do what’s right.
She is leaving. I rubbed my chest and buried my heart in my writing.
“Oh!” Amy the lifeguard said. “Your hand is bleeding.”
I looked at my right hand. I had squeezed the handle of the cup so hard it had broken. “It’s just a scratch.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“She is somewhere in this area.”
“What will you do?” She handed me another cup of coffee.
“I’m going to find her and this time, I’ll never let her go.”
“Were you in love with her?”
“Yes.” I hesitated, then placed the coffee cup on the table.
“Did you tell her?”
“No. What if there is someone else in her life?”
“And that thought hurts. You let her go.”
“No, you let her walk away,” Amy said.
“I wanted to do the right thing.”
“You shouldn’t have let her go. Why didn’t you tell your wife that the marriage wasn’t working?”
I looked at Amy and then looked away. So many times I’ve looked for Ellen in other women’s faces.
“I realized I could live with Sarah,” I said. “But I can’t live without Ellen.”
“You can stay here for a while.”
Amy stood up and looked at me with pity in those dark, blue eyes.“My break is over. I have to go back to work.”
She rinsed her cup, placed it in the rack and walked out of the sliding glass doors. I rubbed my chest. There was that ache in my heart.
Life would have been different if I had been with Ellen.
I walked to the deck and looked out over the lonely coast. A ruined wall stood behind the building, broken in many places. Huge clumps of seaweed hung from it, trembling with every breath of the wind.
Darn spray, I thought, wiping drops of water running down my face.