A Walk by the Sea
The sea is showing her friendly face today. Crests of mint water appeased by a serene flax-yellow noon play with the cliffs, gently, patiently; the sun is high in the light aquamarine sky where it meets with the water. After finding a perfect spot in between rocks and shrubs to keep her easel stable and protected from any unpredicted breeze, Meriel sits down on a rock that seems to have been placed there just for her purposes.
She paints away until she finishes putting the base on, a powder blue that later could easily develop into eggplant ennui or mauve nostalgia. Now she can start building up the layers of colour she has captured inside her mind with controlled precision, despite the capriciously fluctuating view before her.
Unwarranted, the familiar nagging sensation that something is amiss rears its head, trying to take root in the soil of emotional inertia. Meriel takes refuge in the adventures on her canvas: she lives through the ferment, the pain, and the joy of those she depicts through her art. Remembering the stranger she saw, she adds colour to him, the unknown human who stood before the sea and just like her, contemplated the waves and perhaps his entire life.
The sound of the waves makes her drowsy. Content with how the painted sea is coming together, she packs her paints and prepares to take a quick nap. She reclines in the sand and closes her eyes. When colours don't distract her any longer, she senses the heat intensifying on her skin. The scent of sea, salty and heavy, crawls into her nostrils. As the noises reverberate through her head, she can picture a wave just crashing into the scarp, leaving thousands of foamy drops of water behind, the seagull flying above her, and the tiny branches coerced to stir and rub together by the wind. She lies on her back in the warmth of sand and sun, feeling the moist airflow tug at the ends of her linen trousers and blow the light material against her legs. Sinking into the peacefulness of a pondering moment, she ventures to take her life into account. She desperately needs reassurances, facts or something she can have as proof that her life was not in vain, because sometimes - even after a satisfyingly creative afternoon - she entertains the very thoughts that are the worst kind for an artist. Increasingly often, she will believe that her life has been a string of wasted years. Perhaps an artistic career void of outstanding moments of success, or perhaps the innate desire to express that which lies at the core of every human being ever born, the inexpressible, will prompt her to belittle her existence.
The light of the summer sun made flame-red by her closed lids is momentarily darkened by a shadow, and she opens her eyes to see its source. Someone is standing above her, blocking the molten sun.
She sits up and squints from under her sheltering palm, trying to make out his face. Dark, longish hair, black beard. Everything else is a blur.
“Hello,” she says.
He merely nods.
She expects him to say something, and when he doesn’t, politeness prompts her on.
“It’s hot, isn’t it?”
This time, he speaks.
“Yes,” and a cough ensues.
His voice is unusually quiet, almost a whisper. It makes her think of ash after a fire, still retaining warmth, but threatened by the wind that will scatter it into nothingness.
To quell her curiosity without sounding nosey, she asks the first thing that comes to her mind.
“Do you have a cold?”
He nods with a smile, and she relaxes.
As the brightness of the sun becomes bearable, she wonders whether he could be Philip’s age. She guesses, rather than sees that his skin shimmers with the quality of soft light bronze and his eyes, which she believes to be dark, effervesce with intent. The contrast between the colourless voice and the complexion that grows more and more spirited as her eyes get accustomed to the back light, is intriguing. He lingers like someone who has nothing better to do, and it occurs to her that he might be looking for some company.
“Do you live nearby?” she asks, settling in the sand to face him better.
He nods and based on the direction of his pointing finger, she notes that they must be almost neighbours. Then he introduces himself.
She receives his hand, soft to the touch, cool in the afternoon sun, and she cringes inwardly at his gentle hold, as if he feared breaking her bone. The thought is more appalling than she wants to admit.
Sunbeams pierce through his shoulder-length hair, creating a wavy tapestry of light and shadow. Meriel watches the undulating motion, then notices his gaze on her, cautious, slightly curious, but not unkind. She wonders what his first impression of her is and she hasn’t wondered about anyone’s first impression of her in almost a lifetime. It’s unnerving, and she tells herself to stop putting thoughts in his head.
He takes a step closer to her unfinished canvas and looks at it with interest. She props herself on a nearby rock to stand up. Remembering that she placed him in the painting, she wonders if he will identify with the figure on the canvas, and if he will feel flattered or annoyed. Unaccustomed to anyone examining her work, she hopes he will offer some kind of polite acknowledgement or critique. He does neither, merely observing the sea and then the painting with what she imagines to be a sigh.
There is a smile on his lips, which could mean anything, and it’s too early to speculate. Nor should she.
“See you around,” he whispers.
She watches him walk leisurely toward the waterfront, asks herself why she hadn’t bumped into him before, and looks forward to more chance encounters. Perhaps the all-seeing Angela will help unravel the mystery of the welcome apparition.
An empty house that stopped carrying the familiar smell of belonging long ago offers no real diversions or things to do; there are no dishes to wash, no dirt to clean off the floors, there is no pet to feed. Philip hardly spends any time at home. Work is keeping him unusually busy, which is both the result and the cause of a simple fact: since Eileen left, the house has been no home to him. He has long forgotten the meaning of the word.
Back then, upon his arriving home from work, Eileen usually mustered a few gentle words of affection before handing over Gabby, their toddler and retiring to the bedroom with usually a splitting headache. Philip throws in a microwave meal, then drops it on a plate and sits down at the kitchen table to eat it.
If Eileen were here, she would pester him about calling Meriel. She was always championing for their reconciliation, regardless of what happened and how Philip felt. She always said it was his duty to reach out to her, no matter what she did or didn’t do. He still sees it differently, but old customs die hard, so to comply with his absent wife’s request, he takes his phone out and taps on his mother’s number.
“Hey mom, am I disturbing?”
“Of course not”, his mother replies, her voice the familiar unperturbed neutrality of porridge.
“So, listen… I think one of your friends gave my contact information to some art dealer in LA.”
“What do you mean?”
“She gave my contact information so that a local art dealer can reach me regarding my mother’s paintings that, incidentally, I knew nothing about until yesterday. This is what I mean.”
That caught her off guard, but rather than offering any explanation, she defends herself.
“I didn’t think you’d be interested,” blaming him at the same time.
He expected nothing less, really. He does his best to keep his resentment in check, but it gets harder by the minute.
“I would have been. I was, but you didn’t want to see it,” he mutters and then bites his lower lip angrily.
“What…?” she sounds genuinely confused, and he shakes his head, then realises she didn’t see that and lets it be.
“Forget it, mom. Anyway, I only called to let you know about the art gallery.”
His mother doesn’t reply right away, she may still be processing.
“Why?” she asks, eventually.
“Why… why did I call you, why did your friend contact an art dealer, or why did they pass on my info…?”
“Well, I… both.”
Her bewilderment makes him strangely relaxed, and he can hardly wait to break her the news that he knows will elicit some kind of reaction.
“I have no clue why your friend chose me as the local contact person. The dealer who called said your art is too dark for their portfolio. I believe he used the word ‘dark’ but it could have been ‘dismal’”.
He just said it out of spite. He never talked to the art dealer. No one called and he sure as hell did not want to waste time chasing down a stranger to extract their opinion on something that didn’t matter to him. But he wanted to hurt her and now he’s biting his lip, feeling happy that he said it. Remorse only comes when she doesn’t give any reply; he did not expect silence, and he hates that she forces him into the interim zone of obscurity, as usual. She was never one to reveal, but the older he got, the more secretive she became. Case in point, her hobby. There must be a reason she kept it a secret from him, maybe she was ashamed of what she produced so far, rightfully so, because as far as he can see it’s not very good.
Stop it, now you’re just being mean.
I’m not being mean. Even if there was a secret door, it would open to a bottomless dark void. A penny for your thoughts, mother.
“Why call me, then?”
The question finds him unprepared, so he deflects.
“I was going to call, anyway. I thought you should know. Maybe you can re-evaluate your artistic goals, or whatever.”
This should extract an unguarded quip from her, but she remains silent.
“Did you know, mom?”
“What? That Angela contacted someone, or that my paintings are useless?”
With no feeling whatsoever. That she evaded his trap almost infuriates him.
“I take it, you're pleased.”
He is being ironic. He can, in fact, never read her, but he doubts she even recognises it in his tone.
“Why would I be pleased?”
“Because your stuff is out there, because someone has been made aware of it. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
She remains silent.
“Surely, that’s every artist’s aspiration,” he adds.
She scoffs, saying nothing and too much at the same time.
“I mean, if I were one…” he continues in a desire to draw a response.
“How would you know,” she cuts him off. “You and your numbers all day long. Even as a child…”
He inhales and counts to five. Now is not the time.
“Well, I guess you can always contact a thousand other galleries. Or not. I just thought that since someone had passed along my info, I would let you know. Don’t shoot the messenger.”
He stares out the window, listening to the traffic speeding by. The ocean is hardly visible through the lattice of palm-trees, he can only smell the rich, weighty smell of salt.
“Enough of that, I wanted to call you, too. Are you doing all right?” his mother asks.
“I’m okay,” he lies. “How’s life in your part of the world?”
He sighs, wants to keep talking and wants her to do the same even though every time one of them speaks it just adds to the world of hurt that’s been accumulating since he was sixteen.
“I thought of my granddaughter the other day,” she says, and his throat constricts. He swallows, then swallows again.
“Send my regards to Eileen,” Meriel says after a while, no doubt realising that he won’t engage in the conversation.
“Will do. Talk to you later.”
He hangs up and places the phone next to his plate and fork. Eileen left ten months ago, and he still hasn’t told his mother about it. He doesn’t want to add his personal failures as man and husband to her general opinion that he’s a deadbeat. He finishes his dinner slowly, listening to some podcast to keep the silence out. It’s about the latest predictions on global economy, but he’s not really paying attention. He pictures two arms encircling his waist as Eileen would rest her head on his back, breathing softly.
You should go visit her, you know, she would say.
Not if I can help it, he would reply.
Maybe patch things up finally, she would say.
I don’t see the need, he would say.
The kid won’t get any smaller and stupider. Do you want her to grow into a family of blame and regrets?
He squeezes his lips tight. There’s a lull in the conversation half imagined, half recreated from the past, as Philip realises he still can’t cope with the loss of their child. He looks out the window at the palm leaves swaying in the wind. She used to love the beach. They both did, and he mostly tagged along for their sake.
My relationship with mom won’t hurt Gabby, he eventually replies Eileen in his mind.
The hell it won’t, the retort comes almost instantly. How will you explain to her when she’s five why she never met her grandma?
It’s uncanny how Eileen wins every single argument, even the imaginary ones.
Philip will never have to explain to a five-year-old Gabby why she never met her grandmother, but he dearly wishes he would have to.Buy the book on Amazon