three nights now I have watched the woman below go out onto the beach in darkness,
and I have watched her cast strange shadows under moonlight. Tonight she went
from the room below mine, after the full moon pulled the tide far into the ocean
and the sand glittered with pools of trapped water. There could be dangerous things
in the water but she goes barefoot anyway, in baggy black cotton pants I can never
seem to buy myself, and a black tank top. Her dark hair is chin length, not quite
Away from the patio light, out against the sky, it's too dark to see this -- almost too dark to know she's a woman. Only her exposed skin is visible, and like water sprayed it makes white arcs in the darkness when she moves. Her feet flash on the ground, walking first and then pounding the sand in a hard run. Every night she moves away from me, toward the water.
Because of the full moon the tides along the outer beaches of the cape have been stretched farther out to the rest of the sea. We have more beach, maybe a mile or two. In the distance the sea is a rolling blanket of muted black and I can hear the crash of the waves only faintly. The woman dances through the sand a long way off, and I see her hands and feet moving, and I see her face and the shine of her hair.
I walk along the shore in daylight where the waves crash and the things that burrow hide, the shells wash away. I wonder if this woman has ever thought that she could step on something, be injured, lose toes. It's possible she doesn't know, or that on the night when the moon and tides are both so high and so full, she doesn't care. When she returns I'm sitting on the porch in the shadow of the overhang. If she can see my cigarette tip glowing in the darkness she doesn't say so.
Below me the patio door is opened then closed, and the woman and Rosie trail out from under my balcony. The woman throws something in the direction of the water - a Frisbee with lights around its perimeter that flash when thrown. Rosie starts off after, playing a night game they must play together often. The woman walks barefoot out into the tidal plain again, calling and whisteling, still only the quick motion of feet and the swing of arms. As they run the beach the three of them form an odd arc, the glowing woman, the flashing green disk, the invisible dog barking just ahead of her.
Six months ago I parted company with my husband here, when James returned to work and I wanted to keep staring out at the ocean at night, and couldn't explain to him why.
During the two weeks we were here James brought me supper faithfully and encouraged me to come to bed around midnight. He was prone to moods like this too, to listening to music in the dark and taking long walks, to thinking deeply about things that he couldn't change, couldn't tell me about. It's the way you have conversations with yourself while driving or washing dishes -- the way that on a good day, with the sun shining, all of the problems of the day can be solved -- and the opposite.
James has never been afraid of our separations, the distance that exists when our bodies occupy the same place but our minds range far off. That last night he put his hand on my shoulder, forming a bridge between us that the light from the porch seemed to follow, and he waited for me to make a decision. Lately he and I had held together in a relationship of form, of the fulfillment of each other's quiet idiosyncrasies, of the order and care it took to keep a set of bills paid, to stave off summer colds and winter fevers, to maintain the ties that kept us in orbit around each other.
That night James followed my line of sight out over the water. An outcropping of rock jutted up into the sky, a dark hulk in the shadows showing up patchily when the clouds scudded in front of the moon. He told me slowly that he couldn't stay here any longer, that he had to go back to work, that he wanted to. I told him I understood. I would be home soon. We sat for a long time, until James became a dim outline against the water, finally visible only in the light from the other porches.
He went back into the room. I heard him over the sound of the waves, brushing his teeth, and then the lights went off. Near two a.m. a cold breeze picked up from the north, and it began to drizzle. I went inside and found James packing. Stripping off my clothes, I crawled under the covers and listened to him fumble in the dark with his suitcase, until finally he stopped and stood next to the bed, watching me fake sleep. He leaned over and kissed me good bye, then stopped again at the door.
"Take care of yourself, Paula."
"I'll give you another two weeks on the room."
"Good night, James."
He closed the door softly when he left, and I heard him turn the room key in the lock.
Ruthie lets me stay at the Breeze Way motel as part of a business arrangement. I work the desk five nights a week in exchange for $300 a month, food from the restaurant, and a room with a view of the water. Ruthie hired me a week after James left. She let me stay in the same room we had been in, on the second story of the three story building, facing the beach. Ruthie lives in a two-room suite in the single story building just to the left of the largest square parking lot. Every morning in the off season I put coffee on at 6:55 for her and open all the curtains over the lobby windows. Ruthie comes in with a copy of the paper, and we get breakfast from the restaurant to eat at the desk.
Ruthie and I have a running disagreement about the curtains that hang in the lobby windows. A police brochure on store safety that Ruthie picked up said to keep the windows clear of obstructions so that police or security could see a crime being committed. I keep the curtains closed. The first few nights of sitting in the lobby, swimming in the brightness and space like a fish in its bowl, made the decision for me. I don't want to be a random victim; seen from the street, chosen by chance, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Easy. I keep the curtains drawn so that someone will have to come in purposely to case out the lobby. So they will have to come find me.
This morning Ruthie comes in with her hair still wet. Instead of checking to see how many rooms are rented, she puts the morning paper down and points the headline out to me: "New Clues in Stabbing." It's a story from a couple of months previous. There were pictures all over the newspapers, on local tv. The murdered woman will be one of the people who never really leave us -- her picture here, and the ones with the original story -- the body on a stretcher in a big plastic bag, and up in the corner, the woman as she used to be -- blonde, fairly young. Alive. I remember that there were no details to make her death less random. She hadn't been drinking, hadn't chosen an angry boyfriend, wasn't wearing expensive jewelry.
I read the first several paragraphs to find out that the police don't know much more, only that they think the perpetrator is local. The paper doesn't say how they guessed this. Ruthie gives up reading over my shoulder and paces across the wood parquet floor.
Ruthie worries often, but not usually about things outside of her control. I watch her pace for several minutes, and when I can't watch her anymore I stand up, and pour the coffee, and set it in front of her. Ruthie returns to the counter, takes a hesitant sip through the steam. Wordlessly, she reaches underneath the counter and takes out the little metallic green derringer she keeps and checks the ammunition and the safety. She cradles the gun in her hands, watching the light reflect off of its surface, brushing her fingers over the grip the way a child studies her first caught fish. After a minute she puts it back.
I know that Ruthie carries, on her, a stiletto knife. I've seen it outlined in the pocket of her denim jacket, watched her throw it at the dart board when Tracy was on the desk and we were the only two people in the lounge. Watching her handle the gun, I think she's afraid of it. Sometimes I think of Ruthie as cautious to the point of shrewdness, but I've never thought of her as afraid before. Yet watching Ruthie handle that gun is watching someone handle an object that refuses to be anything but itself. The knife could be used to cut steak, my can of mace becomes very strong perfume or a household chemical like oven cleaner or upholstery shampoo. But we can't make the derringer comfortable or ordinary. As Ruthie puts it back behind the counter I think she sees this.
I leave her reading the paper and go get us breakfast. When I come back she passes me a cup of coffee.
"You know I don't even like crossing the parking lot at night anymore." Ruthie eats a forkfull of scrambled eggs, then begins to make patterns on the plate with the rest. Every night she makes the rounds of the hotel at about eleven, before she turns in.
"Why don't you hire security?" I ask.
Ruthie nods no, but then says "May have to."
"Do you want to carry the gun instead of the knife?"
Ruthie nods no again, "I can use a knife better." She glances at the counter, over the drawer where the gun is hidden, then folds the paper up and pushes it aside.
No one can use a knife better than a gun, and I wonder why Ruthie doesn't just get rid of it. The gun isn't even community property -- I don't care if there's a gun tucked under the counter, and Tracy hates it and locks it in the office when she's on desk. Yet for all that I hate it I know that I would never not pull that gun if someone came in one night when I was alone in the lounge reading or watching tv -- the only person still up, still moving. I know I would pick it up and take off the safety and point it at them and pray that we both knew what we were doing; that either he had the sense to back off, or that I did too, and I would think in a split second how much is your life worth, Paula, and how much is your body worth, in the end. I don't know what I would do for all the times that I've repeated this story to myself, and I know that I will never be able to tell until I decide finally, when I need to. However it happens, the gun is a sign, whether it stays in the drawer under the counter or whether I have to aim it at someone, that our lives have been irrevocably changed. By the gun's being under the counter our lives are changed anyway. Sitting in the drawer the tiny green gun has become bigger and greater than any of us, and fiercer. Ruthie and the invisible counter are a part of this feeling, but I think sometimes that I can feel the glow coming off the surface too, and it is like being watched, that color. It's the far off shining of eyes.
Ruthie begins to sculpt with her scrambled eggs again when she says finally, into her coffee cup, "Lee Cavanaugh, that woman in 12, is crazy going out at night like she does."
So Ruthie has been watching her too.
I haven't told Ruthie that I'm also a solitary night walker. Usually it's just down to the boardwalk and back, my can of mace at my side, watching the shadows. The urge to go out takes hold of me some nights, when I have been reading for hours near the window, or the balcony begins to feel too small, or I've been in front of the tv too long. The sky outside, fading to pink and lavender, looks so open, so benign. This is something James always understood when I asked him to come with me, passing through the narrow corridors of light from the street lamps and porch lights, the smoky light clinging to the open doorways of bars and clubs. There was the certain knowledge that just as we could see the occupants of the buildings more clearly than they could see us, so there were people in the shadowed alleys for whom we were brightly lit. With James there that didn't seem to matter. We were outside, that was all. This is what's closing, I think. These subtle gradients of darkness.
I decide to go out walking by myself. I've been forgetting lately why I do this. I take a walk down to the boardwalk and I stop and look out, over the water that always seems to have a life of its own. Aside from the noise of the ocean there is silence. I've missed this sometimes, the silence of a lonely warm night, of an aloneness that's hard to find anymore. In front of me the stars in the sky look like the white tips on the breaking waves, and the moon stooping to meet itself in the water makes it hard to tell where the sky ends and the sea begins. I've lost the horizon, yet it feels as though I could reach out and touch it with my fingers. This could only happen here. Now.
I've come out here a couple of nights in the last six months. This time I'm thinking about Lee and why she does this. The constellations overhead, given time, will move and rise and set, and I have watched them do this, night after night, in different places. The moon following behind my shoulder is like another person walking beside me. This must be what it is like for Lee - the size of it and the knowledge. Outside at night in other times and places I've talked with strangers about the heavy beauty of sunsets and the distant fields of stars and we have been at home there. In two more blocks I climb the rail and then I'm walking up the beach away from the lights, out toward the glitter that is both ocean and sky, alone in the darkness.
The next morning Ruthie comes in early, puts the paper down in front of me, takes her place behind the counter. The food from the kitchen smells good and I've been thinking about that since it opened, but then I look down at the paper and my stomach goes cold. "Attack On 9th and Abernathy." Ruthie sits in a chair by the window while I read.
"Says the police think by her description that she broke his nose and a couple of ribs." Lee Cavanaugh, six blocks up from where I was and an hour and a half later, buying bread and milk and dog food at the fast mart, fought for a moment and scared someone off. I look over at Ruthie, who is pale and agitated, and finish reading the story.
We are both imagining the same thing, I think. The knife blade against your ribs, or at your throat, your pulse beating hard enough against the skin to make the knife cut you if you move. I see the explosion of the jug of milk as it hits the ground, bounces, splits like an apple left too long in the sun. Ruthie sees these things too, the hand that fumbles for your wallet, or the button on your jeans. The voice that says lay down, bend over, or eat it. This is what we're afraid of; not the bruises or the broken jaw, or even the long scar that may run from your ear over your lips, neck, the bridge of your nose. It is not even the pulse stopping, the blood running cold and then still. It's the thing that no one else will see when it's over that we think of first. Across the room Ruthie isn't drinking coffee, she hasn't gone for breakfast, she isn't watching me finish the article.
"Hire security." I tell her, waiting until she looks at me, "Move into the building with the restaurant and the office. It's about forty feet to the main building from here. It's well lit."
Ruthie doesn't answer, then says, "You have to sit in the unlocked office all night. . ." she twirls a pen back and forth between her knuckles, staring over at the curtains that I keep closed at night, "I don't think you should do this any more."
"That isn't practical, Ruthie." I tell her, but it isn't practical even now, with both of us up nights, carrying things we both hate. Ruthie takes out the phone book, begins paging toward the "s" section. "If something happens to you that I could have prevented. . ." Ruthie is running her fingers down the columns, and even our tiny tourist town must have a long list of rent-a-cops.
"Well, Lee is still up." I say optimistically. "Maybe you could hire her."
"Not any more, probably."
I remember my walk last night, think of how a feeling like clouds dipping low over water could weave itself unshakably into your life. "I bet she'll be out."
"You think so?" Ruthie tears her eyes away from the book but keeps her finger on the column.
"You want to wait up for her?" I ask.
That evening Ruthie and I sit on the balcony, talking slowly about nothing. We play several hands of gin, I smoke my cigarettes and Ruthie sips on bottles of beer, and we spy on the woman below us. In the last couple of hours, as the sun begins to set, it's become vitally important that Lee come out tonight. I'm betting all the walks I ever took with James on this -- that I really wanted him there, that he wasn't a convenient person to have along because I couldn't go alone. I don't know what Ruthie is betting. Maybe something just as important.
It's a little after eleven, and with a bright moon only two days past full the beach is bathed in soft light. Below us a latch clicks, and the patio door is slid aside. There is the soft click of claws on cement and then the door slides shut again, and locked.
"I'll be damned." Ruthie whispers. "But she stops to lock the door. Look at that. I wonder how far she'll go?"
We watch for a few more minutes, until the figures are nearly out of sight. It takes Lee a while, but she goes on, maybe a mile down the beach now, a light bobbing as she plays catch with Rosie, throwing a florescent ball.
"God, she's a fool." Ruthie whispers finally.
"It's beautiful out there though. Quiet." I tell her, but I know that this isn't it, really. It isn't the silence so much as the beautiful perfect order, the cosmos visible to us in its gradient, the full float of colors, the wash of cold or heat. The things that we can only seem to feel away from the light washes of the porches and the tv screens. Ruthie is still watching Lee, probably a look of disbelief on her face, although it's too dark to tell. She's sitting in the rocker, moving back and forth gently, and she's stopped speaking. Even I don't know whether Lee will decide to stay in sight of us or not, to take advantage of what little comfort and protection we give, up here looking on. Ruthie and I are silent longer and then Lee has disappeared, not even the fluorescent ball down the beach marks her place. I settle back and watch the water, thinking of the unsheltered wind, the dark streets, and an expanse of empty sand without a balcony rail in front of it.
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