The woman was sitting alone by the seashore on a bright morning in April. She sat motionless on a white plastic beach chair staring out toward the far horizon.
The man in the car sipping his hot coffee let his eyes linger on her for long minutes.
A look of deep contemplation had slowly settled on her face. The man had no way of knowing that her mind had surrendered to an earlier resisted mental journey she knew she must take. It had brought her here to look at it more closely without distraction.
His radio had been turned down low the words of a song being played caught the man’s attention for several seconds, “Perhaps love is like a resting place... A shelter from the storm... It exists to give you comfort... It is there to keep you warm... And in those days of trouble... When you are most alone... The memory of love... will always bring you home...”
Sighing inwardly he turned the radio off.
He looked around. He saw that this long stretch of beach was almost empty of human activity. A man jogged far to the south of them. A cat was asleep on a narrow strip of grass near the parking lot. A dog barked in the distance. The woman and he appeared to be the only human visitors to this spot of the shoreline.
The day had begun cool. The early morning breeze had taken up residence.
Removing his eyes from the woman he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced toward it.
A homeless woman in rumpled dirty clothes had emerged from under the shrubbery near the entrance. She walked with jerky pace past his car mumbling aloud to herself. Her eyes were glazed. He wondered what drug she was on but let the question end with its asking.
Gary Alexander touched by the tragedy that was the drug addict sighed and turned his eyes back to the woman in the chair. He had already accepted that he couldn’t save the wandering lost or those indifferent to self-destruction.
He was having trouble directing his present moment.
He felt something stir inside him as he brought his eyes back to the lone woman sitting quietly on the beach chair. She hadn’t moved. Gary sensed a distinct tension in the way she held her body. Her gaze remained fixed far out to sea as though she were a mechanical doll that had been turned off the moment her eyes had found their target .
He thought her attractive. The layered cut of her brown hair allowed the lowest strands to lightly touch her shoulders. She was a small woman. Her body, kept pleasingly proportioned wore the bluejeans, white sweatshirt and blue sneakers as appealingly as a college student on spring break.
Her diminutive foot with the narrow ankle dangling within his line of sight caught his focus for several seconds. He thought he could probably bring a finger to his thumb around it with ease.
Her face wore the years more tellingly as a woman willing to accept that the constancy of beauty and femininity may have to do with something more internally profound than mere time.
She wore no wedding ring on her left hand.
In spite of her motionless posture the man felt something compellingly alluring radiate out of her.
Trying for an instant analysis for what it was that made him feel this way he now felt magnetically drawn to the spot where she sat. He lost his awareness of the world around him.
Everything seemed to disappear for him but the lone woman on the beach.
She had begun to intrigue Gary Alexander.
He wondered what she was thinking.
Charla Ashley Kelly was thinking about her past.
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This morning she had experienced an unusual psychological moment. Her woman’s “self” seemed to have disappeared as though she hadn’t lived within it.
Wondering if her brain had malfunctioned in some way and this was the way it felt to experience an unusual depressive moment, she had sought some past connecting history to today within a stream of unifying memories and hadn’t found it.
Great empty gaps of time had emerged out of her rush to push the earlier experiences of living aside while looking for the substance of her woman’s life.
Much of the years that she had lived had seemed to her to have disappeared from memory as though she had been attending the woman’s school-of-life and had drawn a failing grade.
This morning, she had walked into the bathroom to take a shower her mind filling rapidly with questions. She knew that she had missed much out of being alive. Yet she hadn’t understood why the word “future” had seemed to lose its relevance to her.
Wasn’t life “on” until it was “off” she had asked herself. She hadn’t understood why she couldn’t bring back more memories within a sequence of time.
Looking into the bathroom mirror she had felt as though a stranger stood in her place. Compelled by a sudden impulse, she had wanted to throw something at that lying mirror. Where had time gone? Tears had threatened to erupt into the small room.
A profound loneliness had invaded the moment.
She had showered and dressed before the sun had come up. Grabbing a liquid breakfast out of the refrigerator she had flipped open the can with her finger. She had walked out onto her balcony. It was at that moment, she had decided to go to the beach and attempt to figure things out.
Her restless mind had concluded that perhaps the calmness that always rushed into her during her ocean visits would resurface and quiet her thoughts allowing her life to be examined within some deeper, more clarifying insight.
Gary Alexander opened the car door and threw out the cold remains of his coffee. He leaned back into the seat and stretched his long legs without taking his eyes off the woman on the beach chair.
He wondered how much older this woman was to himself. When she had walked onto the beach she had glanced toward the south entrance seeming to not have noticed him sitting in his car. He had focused on her aware that her life’s experience had imprinted lines on her face that were more apparent than his own.
He didn’t care that she had lived longer than he had. He was drawn to her. He liked the feeling. It seemed a long time ago to Gary Alexander, that any woman had reached that empty inner-space where he now lived and had been able to awaken a gripping interest within himself.
The longer he watched her the more he became curious about who she was and why she had decided to visit the beach alone so early in the morning.
Gary Alexander had learned in a painful way that life could be over in an instant. He had been forced to accept that life took place only in the present moment. Keeping his eyes on her, he began to do battle with the steady increase of desire to walk over to her and begin a conversation.
Still he hesitated. He reminded himself that he was a stranger to her. She wasn’t aware that he had been watching her, much less that he was interested in talking to her. She would probably rebuff him immediately.
Inhaling deeply he glanced away from her wondering if he should just forget the impulse and go his own way. Bringing his eyes back to her he noticed that she had shifted position in her chair. Her body now seemed to have relaxed in spite of the concentrated gaze remaining far out over the water not changing its focus.
Hearing a vehicle engine stop, he looked toward the parking lot and saw two men getting out of a battered pick-up truck. They strolled slowly down toward the water. Gary Alexander made the decision to stay and keep watch over this woman for a while longer.
Gary didn’t know that he was wrestling with some of the same questions, Charla Ashley Kelly was asking herself on the beach that day. He had been carrying an unexamined sadness within himself that wouldn’t go away. His past had seemed more real than his future. Today he was looking for a direction to the rest of his life.
He wasn’t finding it.
He wasn’t even sure he believed in such ideas that the “rest of your life” could be plotted out. He questioned that the lines drawn today would remain within some distinct form that could be recognized tomorrow.
Two years earlier, he had retired after twenty-five years as a firefighter. He had been forced to accept that he was emotionally through dealing with the always unknown consequences of attempting to save lives, homes or commercial interests along with sparing large areas of vegetation from fire damage.
This realization had come to him with the same impact an explosion within a fire-zone changes the response by those fighting the fire. What had worked before wouldn’t work now. It brought back a lesson he had learned, “New gymnastics for new tactics was the new required response,” he smiled at the irony of that early lesson for today.
Knowing he was through with firefighting happened like that for Gary Alexander. His best friend Johnny Hart had been killed during a raging inferno that had overrun his crew. During the exit from the area a large tree had fallen on this experienced firefighter who had been Gary’s long-time friend. He had died instantly. Johnny Hart had been forty-four years old. He left behind a wife. They had no children.
Gary Alexander had always known the risks of his job. He had never known a firefighter who entered the business ignorant of them. Johnny had known them.
What had surprised Gary after Johnny’s death was that knowing Johnny had willingly taken the same risks, he himself had taken on the job brought no relieving moment to Gary’s daily reality that his friend was gone forever, off the planet he had once laughed, worked and played upon.
Gary had stayed on the job trying to shake-off the devastation that his friend’s death had exploded into his own life. For a time, he had suppressed the truth that he had lost his desire to continue to fight fires as a profession.
Finally one day after hanging up his jacket he had accepted that he had been living with the impossible hope that Johnny would stride around the corner of a building or a fire-engine with his easy smile and a new practical joke ready to be sprung on some unsuspecting buddy. Death had never been more personal for Gary Alexander than the loss of Johnny Hart.
It isn’t that Gary hadn’t known loss. The rumbles of the later, explosion-of-loss that would be his defining moment that life happens only in the now had emerged before Johnny Hart’s death. He had known it more than once in his life. He had married twice, divorced twice. His son Kevin who was almost a legal adult and the apple-of-his-eye had been forced to choose between Gary and his ex-wife Carolyn.
During their divorce process she had brooked no torn allegiance from their son. He was either with her or against her. Gary had never blamed his son for his choice to remain with his mother. He had known up-front that living with a firefighter father was too often incompatible with a stable home-life and a young boy’s walk toward manhood.
It was the first time that Gary had felt loss as strong as death.
With Johnny Hart’s dying, Gary had lived within an increasingly personal isolation that had found no comforting value for staying on the job. It had brought the reality of death within a sobering constancy that couldn’t be diminished by life itself.
Within his manhood, he had come to terms with the truth that he was emotionally burnt-out by important relationships that had failed. His interactions with women had now become mere damping-down moments within his attempts to smother the threatening emergence of a rekindled loneliness.
None had filled the longings he carried in the deepest part of himself.
Enjoying the first few months of marking his days by his own choices after retiring he had eventually become bored with no relieving sense that he contributed a special value to the world around him by what he did day-after-day.
He missed the camaraderie that had been part of being a firefighter. The moments of tension that could destroy friendships had also been part of the firefighter life, that had proved of value to him. It had been a demanding give-and-take, high-wire act of living out life and he had earlier thrived on it. Yet in spite of these large changes in his daily life he hadn’t regretted leaving the job.
Within a few months of his new freedom, he had made the decision to return to an employment that might provide him a sense that his life had a meaningful purpose once again.
The desire had brought no opportunity that had met the hope. Instead, he had found for the most part only unfulfilling repetitive work.
His restless boredom had eventually told him that something was better than nothing. His first renewed job effort had been checking out the safety of gas meters for the gas company. If found to be defective he would direct a meter change.
This job had not been without adrenaline-soaring incidents. The first day after gaining access to a property he had been forced into flight over a fence in an effort to save himself from a growling big-headed monster misnamed by his owner, “Dog” - who had instantly convinced Gary - that “Dog” should have been placed in a zoo along with the lions Still the job had proved too routine for Gary to enjoy filling eight hours of his day with its usually mundane requirements.
After that, he had worked for a few weeks as a customer service rep in a large merchandise store. Without looking closely at the feeling he had carried an uncomfortable sense of self-diminishment in the acting-out of each work-day. He quit the job.
This morning, he had gotten up before dawn, cleaned-up, pulled a pair of worn jeans over his long legs, threw a white t-shirt over his head, grabbed a light jacket off its hanger and left his home.
Stopping to pick-up a hot coffee at a local shopping mall he had headed for the beach to watch the sunrise light up the shore-line and think about what he would do next.
Just after the sun rose rapidly flooding the ocean with its unfolding brightness the lone woman had walked onto the beach carrying the beach chair.~~~~~~~
The two men, now on the sand glanced toward each other then back toward the woman. Slowly they began moving toward her. Gary Alexander felt his heart pick-up its beat. He looked around for a police presence. The parking area was empty of security. The entrance to the beach area showed no incoming vehicles.
He opened the glove compartment and grabbed a small but tightly molded, rubber ball. Putting his hand under the seat he reached for and found in seconds a long-handled flash-light. Holding the ball tightly in his left hand he held the flash-light in his right hand.
Getting out of the car he began walking toward the two men who had reached the woman. One of them was making an attempt to talk to her.
He saw her head snap upward and her body stiffen when the taller and more muscular of the two men began to speak. Her face was a mask but Gary knew she didn’t know them.
He saw her jump up from her chair. Just as suddenly she looked frozen in place as though she now couldn’t move. The taller of the two men persisted in his aggressive approach. He attempted to touch her, speaking rapidly in broken English.
Gary shouted toward her, “Hi! SORRY I’M LATE!”
The two men jerked as though they had been shot. They turned and rushed away from the scene without looking back. Gary thought about going after them and quickly changed his mind. What could he prove; whatever they had in mind he had stopped at its beginning.
Charla Ashley Kelly had looked up to see a tall man, powerfully-built, striding toward her. She saw that he was dressed casually in jeans and white t-shirt. His longish blonde hair hanging free of any restraint fell in a sensual dancing caress against his jaw as he rapidly moved toward her. He held a flash-light in his right hand shouting out an apology for being late.
Quickly she understood the meaning of the shout and why he was carrying a flash-light. Relief flowed through her. Her throat felt dry.
He stopped in front of her. She fought to suppress an unrolling shaking that had begun deep inside her body. Hoping she could hide the internal fear attempting to manifest itself she managed to ask him, “Where is your white horse?”
Staring directly down into her green eyes, he wasn’t surprised at her easy humor. She had smile-lines along the sides of her face especially near the eyes. “I think,” he said to himself, “this woman likes to laugh.” A sense of pleasure washed over him.
Grinning widely he responded, playfully, “Sorry -- I left him at Del Mar this morning.....”
He read the relief in her body language.
She breathed out, “Thank you! They wanted money for breakfast. At least that is what the taller one claimed.”
Glancing around the beach, Gary responded gently, “This isn’t the best area for immediate security. It is usually safe but - it’s early in the day. Not a lot of people here yet.”
She nodded, struggling to hold back the shaking that continued to threaten to expose the fragility of her composure. She felt a flash of desire to walk into his strong arms and feel them close tightly around her. She wanted the comfort of her face pressed against his powerful chest. She wanted to hear his heart beating.
Glancing toward the pick-up truck leaving the beach area in a hurry, he swung his eyes back to her. He asked, “Have you had breakfast?”
Startled she said, “Sort of.... it was a protein drink.”
Smiling, he asked, “Are you open to eating breakfast at Denny’s? It’s south of us... half a mile. I’ll pay.”
Her eyes filled with what looked like a questioning skepticism to him, “Do you always feed those you rescue?”
He lifted his face skyward and laughed outright. She felt the pleasant male laugh run through her. She was close enough to smell the fresh scent of his bath. She took-in at that moment that the clothes he had on were clean and pressed. She glanced down to see the careful trim of his finger nails subliminally understanding that he had respect for himself and the way he looked to others even in his casual moments.
Bringing his eyes back to meet her searching look, he hesitated before answering her. When he spoke his voice had deepened with an inviting just short-of-intimate tone, “Only those I find interesting.”
She felt as though he had reached over and embraced her. A thrill zig-zagged through her body. Disconcerted, she lowered her eyes, turning her face briefly away from him. Her gaze traveled out over the water, “Doesn’t it bother you that I’m older than you?”
Gary Alexander felt a shock run through his body. It had nothing to do with her statement that she was older than he. What shot through him was the instant desire to bring her toward him and kiss her.
As quickly as the impulse made itself known to the mind of Gary Alexander the immediacy of the impulse asked for an explanation. No answer came into view. He swiftly put the question away to look at it later.
For silent seconds Gary stood near the woman while a question had flashed through his mind as a whole thought. How could he give her in one sentence, what he had learned when the two women he once had believed - one after the other - would be permanent fixtures in his life had disappeared from his life with amazing speed or that the last of his marriage failures had with harrowing instancy taken his only son out of his daily world.
Gary had concluded that “tomorrow” was an illusion that could never be proven to exist.
In milliseconds his mind gave up how to tell a stranger that life had exploded into a different universe for him after the permanent loss of Johnny Hart and her age didn’t matter to him. He liked what he saw.
Coming back to her question he smiled down at her an emerging twinkle in his brownish eyes. He reached forward to lightly touch her shoulder, “No... It doesn’t bother me. Does it bother you?”
She lifted her face to his. Her eyes came alive within a flashing playfulness, “I guess I can’t hold you responsible for the date of your birth.”
He held back laughter. He smiled down at her thinking, “She’s pretty and funny!”
In spite of her light teasing manner in response to his reaction to her question her mind struggled to examine her own emotions, his offer of breakfast and the implications of his response to her question.
She looked directly into his eyes, “My name is Charla.”
His smile deepened, “It fits you. Its meaning is ‘small woman’ isn’t it?”
This time she laughed aloud surprised he knew, “Yes! But, I’m not sooo small.”
He enjoyed the gentle but immediate self-defense of her size. He let out a deep-throated chuckle, “I am six, two. I’m guessing that you are no more than five feet tall. That makes you small in my eyes.”
Welcoming her intent stare, he completed his reply, “I could probably pick you up with one arm tied behind my back!”
More relaxed now, she had begun to feel the comforting security of his strong presence over her like a canopy. Suddenly, she wished he would try. She chuckled softly this time responding, “My full name is Charla Ashley Kelly.... But, people I know, call me ‘Ashley’”
Presenting his hand, he finished, “My name is Gary Alexander. Nice to meet you, Ashley.”
She enjoyed his immediate willingness to be among the people she knew.
Putting her small hand in his larger one, her smile slid deeper into her eyes. It exposed an impish light, “Alexander! It fits you. It means a man who aids or helps, doesn’t it?”
He chuckled softly, “Touché.”
She was sorry when their hands separated.~~~~~~~~
At the restaurant, Ashley driving her own car had followed him into the parking lot. He pulled up at an open parking space, pointed toward it and moved his car forward so she could access it.
He glanced around for another one open for himself. In seconds he found himself behind a car backing-out and waited until it had moved away and then pulled his vehicle into the now-opened parking space.
Turning off the engine, Ashley asked herself what she was doing. Not finding an immediate answer she glanced in the rear-view mirror and ran her fingers through her hair. She liked the feeling that had flowed through her when he had found her a parking space before he had spotted his own.
She took time to wonder if this behavior expressed mere technique of his male charm or was it more fundamentally a part of the man himself. She hoped it expressed his choice regarding what kind of man he had chosen to be.
Minutes later, sitting in the restaurant booth she lifted her eyes from the menu the waitress had placed before her. Looking briefly at the man across from her, she saw that he was running his eyes down the list of breakfast items. She thought him extraordinarily handsome. He had no wedding band on his left hand. He reminded her of Josh Holloway, the actor, without the dimples.
Glancing toward the window, her blurred image looked back at her. She wondered what he had seen in her that made her interesting to him. Surely, there were many attractive, younger women who were simply waiting for him to take notice of them.
Glancing around the room, she saw the waitress smile as she stared at Gary Alexander. Ashley thought, “I’m surprised she isn’t drooling.”
It wasn’t that Ashley hadn’t dated younger men; she had. She had determined early that she would maintain her health and looks as long as possible. She had kept that promise within the realistic circumstances of her life.
What bothered her today was that the earlier younger-man relationships had happened during a time that seemed significantly distant from this moment. The relationships had not lasted. She had later realized she had never taken any of them seriously.
Staring at this man before her, she felt an excruciating almost painful desire to sleep with him. She envisioned him naked and felt her legs lose strength. Lowering her head she silently felt sadness flow through her.
Charla Ashley Kelly had been born into an unhappy marriage. She had lived within an emotionally desolate and isolated childhood. She had married early hoping to find a place where she could find safety and a sense of belonging. The loneliness had not gone away. The marriage had failed within a short period of time.
Another marriage had filled her time with homemaking and four children. Within a few years she had added significant time in care-giving her parents now plagued with health problems. Time for her had become a long list of everyday time-consuming things she had allowed to be increasingly stuffed into her life that had seemed important at the time.
Each year had seemed to disappear as swiftly as a new one had began. When an exposed reality had forced her to look more closely at her deceitful husband she recognized that she had never known him. He had taught her a painful lesson; it is impossible to know a man who refuses to make himself visible.
She had left him taking their children with no challenge from him and moved as far away as possible from the self-serving man who had married her for other reasons than love and who had denied her right to experience sexual pleasure from him within a shared and faithful intimacy.
He had seen to it that her woman’s experience with him was of service to “family,” not a male and female shared, sensual intimacy that would outlast the adulthood of their children.
She had wondered at the time how many other human beings were living-out unseen desperately lonely sexually-muted lives as she had lived.
She carried with her to this moment, his final arrogant taunt, “I kept you busy so you wouldn’t notice what I was doing.”
At his boast the years of attempting to be his wife, of care-giving both parents and of meeting her children’s unfolding necessities of life; of working dutifully to be there for all the people that dominated each day; of home remodeling, house-cleaning, laundry, ironing, cooking; of listening; of driving back and forth; working those long intimacy-lonely, hours, thinking often, how to help her children grow-up caring, kind and successful, had rushed over her within an explosive sense of outrage.
Outrage, not at the children who had needed her but at the man who had visited his overweening ego on her so arrogantly and indifferently for so long. He had intended she remain only so long as she served his purpose for her. This had been a man who had robbed her of much more than time.
She had experienced a profound sense of irreplaceable loss.
After she had left her children’s father, whenever she tried to explore memories of love and intimacy for herself with him, she couldn’t find them. Her narrow find were memories of living within a haunting emptiness, sexual betrayal, sexual experience with him refused or acted out by an aloof, mechanical robot who had played being a man with genuine feelings only to other women.
She had never missed him.
When her marriage had gone into its count-down, he had told her that he had been deliberately aloof from her because marrying her had fitted his needs of the time. He admitted to her that he had made the early choice to never compliment her or to allow her sensuality to dominate their sexual experience.
A long-suppressed memory had floated to the surface of their exchange. She had felt her female “self” disappear at the memory’s reawakening. His overt cruelty had slaughtered the abiding pleasure of her own sexuality, unfulfilled but sustained by hope.
She had floated out of her own mind unrecognizable drifting off into that outer space of time gone by with no distinguishing sense of having fulfilled the promise of her womanhood. The depth and height of her sensuality now seemed hauntingly unattainable.
At that moment, Ashley had faced the truth that the women who had earlier thrown this man out of their lives before Ashley had entered it had understood far more than she, herself, had understood until life had made escape too difficult for her.
It had been Ashley, who hadn’t known that her husband had grown from early adulthood the mind of an emotional terrorist who sees all those he insidiously destroys as merely collateral damage to a self-justified cause.
Eventually her insight had become complete. She had been amazed at what goes on between the hidden lines of one’s own life year after year. He hadn’t loved any woman. His inner man exhibited itself through a competing mania of tortured male sexual superiority that wouldn’t allow any act of a woman’s sexuality overpower his own.
When Ashley had early overwhelmed him with her sensuality he had punished her, by punishing its power until it had suppressed itself into nothing more than a lingering hope it would one day blossom again.
She and their children had become the collateral damage of his ego’s thirst for domineering power.
Gary Alexander raised his head when the waitress approached to take their order. The waitress focused only on him. She had dismissed Ashley’s presence as insignificant and immaterial to this moment.
Inwardly Ashley sighed. She hadn’t missed that the waitress had opened the top buttons of her uniform exposing her bouncing and bountiful breasts to his immediate view. To make sure he would not miss them the waitress leaned far over in front of him and pointed to the breakfast special, pouring out the words like syrup, “Perhaps your mother would enjoy the special?”
Gary felt the personal affront of her female arrogance. It struck his mind that she must think him a mindless male puppet interested only in a woman who would and could activate his interest by flaunting her breasts.
Glancing toward Ashley, he saw that the waitress’ behavior had made her feel ill-at-ease. She had turned her gaze away from them.
Feeling the anger of the offense to Ashley, he felt his heart-rate increase. Taking a chance on the smile-lines on Ashley’s face he lifted himself up and pushed the waitress gently away from him, “Excuse me,”
He moved into Ashley’s side of the booth.
Turning her startled face toward him, he looked into her eyes and smiled. His right hand came up between them and he gently put his fingers under her chin. He lifted her lips toward his. Kissing her slowly, his instantly awaken body told him that she was kissing him back within a welcoming sensuality.
“Oh, I... huh... I ... Oh!.... I see! - Well!...” the stuttering words of the annoyed waitress shot toward them.
Ashley wanted to giggle. Gary hadn’t enjoyed such a moment of impulse in a long time. When the kiss ended, Gary and Ashley brought their foreheads together and smiled deeply into each other’s eyes.
Turning toward the now dumbstruck waitress, Gary ordered the morning special for both of them.
They laughed softly as she rushed away slipping the top buttons of her uniform back into place.
Gary Alexander didn’t want to go back to the other side of the booth. Turning to look into her eyes once more, he said, “Thanks for not slapping me.”
Her eyes held his. She said quietly, “We’re in a public place. I’m safe aren’t I?”
She glanced toward the agitated waitress, who now refused to look their way. Bringing her eyes back to his, she said, “It was a wonderful kiss. But, maybe we should practice this performance one more time?”
He could see that she enjoyed whimsy, also. She once again looked away from him toward the waitress now fully concentrating on her job then quickly brought her face back toward his, “Just in case she comes back for another try at you?”
His heart-beat rose in expectation of the renewed contact. He softly chuckled, leaned toward her and kissed her again lingeringly.
She was alone with him in a world that had gone away. Certainty entered the moment that she wanted to get to know this cleverly funny and unusual man.
A second waitress brought their breakfast choice to them. Gary and Ashley grinned at each other knowing that they wouldn’t see the first waitress again that morning.
They ate their meal within a companionable relaxed atmosphere. Pausing for a moment, to pick-up his cup of coffee he glanced toward her, “Do you live near-by or are you a tourist?”
Putting her fork down on the plate, she slowly wiped her hands off with a napkin. Turning toward him, she replied cautiously, “I... own a condo at Newport Beach.”
Nodding, he said, “My home is in Irvine. I live in the University Park area. Bought it when I retired a couple of years ago.”
“Retired from....?” she asked.
Taking a drink of the coffee, he put the cup down by his plate before he replied to her question, “I was a firefighter for twenty-five years.”
Her eyes traveled approvingly over his body and back to meet his gaze, “Is that why you look so fit?”
He enjoyed the way she flirted within a cautious but direct exploratory approach. He thought she was attracted to him but was carefully self-protective. To Gary, she seemed almost shy in spite of an intangible strength that seemed to indwell her. It had drawn his attention at the beach.
He felt grateful that he had not driven away from the area earlier and that she had agreed to have breakfast with him.
Gary laughed lightly glancing out the window, “I try to keep fit.” Bringing his eyes back to meet hers, he said, “I see that you take care of yourself, too. You’re an attractive woman.”
She put down the impulse to run her fingers caressingly across the side of his clean-shaven face and put her lips on his. Instead, she smiled and said, “Thank you...,” then moved away reluctantly from his small start toward intimacy, “Do you miss firefighting?”
At the same moment, he had asked, “What do you do for fun or profit?”
Letting her question to him slide, she chuckled, “I’m pretending I’m an author. I write fiction. So far the profit side isn’t great but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Pausing, she looked away from him thinking about the first part of his question. Bringing her eyes back to meet his questioning look, she said, “For fun? Not much... I dislike going places alone. My children have their own busy lives and the ‘singles’ effort is too much like a crap-shoot for me to enjoy.”
He smiled, "Yes, it is."
Thoughtful for a moment, he said,“I’d like to read something you have written.”
Looking into his eyes, she said, “The book is online.”
Laughing lightly she said, “It is a mystery romance. The title is a metaphor... a race against time to find the truth.”
He smiled, “I'll look it up."
Glancing at him, her eyes held a look of pleased caution, “Let me know what you think...?”
The waitress who had brought their meal to them stopped at their booth, “Would you like to order something else?”
Gary glanced at Ashley.
She said, “I’m fine.”
Turning back toward the waitress, he said, “We’re fine, thanks.”
Placing the bill for their meal in front of Gary, her lips smiled, her eyes distant, she said, “Thank you.”
Walking alongside Ashley toward her car Gary felt rushed to make a decision. He asked himself if he were willing for her to walk out of his life. He knew the answer immediately. He wanted to know more about her. Telling himself he needed more time with her his brain rapidly went through the possible options open to him that would allow it to happen.
She stopped at the rear of her car. Turning around to face him, she said, “Thank you for coming to my rescue... and for breakfast. I enjoyed it.”
He heard in her tone of voice and saw in her eyes, that she was talking about their lips meeting not the breakfast itself. He reined-in the desire to kiss her again, “My pleasure, Ashley.”
Their eyes locked for long moments. Ashley wondered if this would be the last time she would see him. A piercing hope had entered the moment that he wouldn’t allow her to walk away from him.
Gary Alexander made up his mind. “Listen! My day is open. Is yours? If it is, how about spending the rest of it with me?”
Ashley, feeling relief flow through her, nodded, “I’d like that.”
She turned slightly away from him. Her eyes surveyed the parking lot, “I think I should drive my car and follow you. Do you have a place in mind where you want to go?”
He thought that his initial feeling that she was carefully self-protective had been correct, “Let’s go back to the beach. I’ve a blanket with me, a large umbrella and a couple of beach sling-backs to lean against.”
“Why don’t we pick-up soft-drinks while we are here?”
He smiled, “What would you like?”
She grinned, “Anything but a cherry flavor. I’ll pay. You paid for breakfast.”
He started to say that it wasn’t necessary, then thought better of it, “Deal,” he replied.
After they picked-up the soft-drinks they headed back toward the beach. The sun had scattered the early morning clouds. The sand was being filled with tourists and their children. The regulars trotting their daily jogging routes along the shoreline were out in full force.
She carried the small container that held the soft-drinks in her right hand and the two light-weight sling-backs hung from her left hand. He held the beach umbrella in his right hand and the tightly rolled-up blanket in his left hand.
Finding a place away from most of the incoming beach-squatters, they set-up their own small tenancy. Gary unrolled the blanket, shook it out and lowered it onto the sand. He reached for the umbrella and pushed its handle as far into the sand as it would allow.
Watching his fluid masculine movements she wanted to stand there and absorb every move. Instead, she looked away, unfolded the sling-backs and placed them close together under the shade of the large umbrella.
Ashley lowered herself onto the blanket and leaned against the small chair-back.
Gary turned toward her glad he hadn’t let her leave the restaurant to go her own way. He sat down on the blanket, pulled the other sling-back closer to him, leaned against it and expelled a contented sigh, “If the umbrella doesn’t hold, I’ll go back to the car and get a stake to stabilize it.”
She nodded. Smiling to herself when she heard the sigh of contentment, she asked, “You said you are retired from firefighting. Early retirement?”
“Yes,” he responded.
She kept her eyes on his face while he examined the direction he wanted his response about his retirement choice to go. Shifting his position slightly, his long strong legs stretched out before him, he let his right hand remain relaxed on his right thigh. His left hand rested on the side of his left hip.
Taking a moment longer to consider what he was willing to tell her, he glanced away from her and then immediately swung his eyes back, this time to remain connected to her eyes, “Yes, I retired early. There were times since then I’ve missed aspects of the job but all-in-all, I know that I am finished with that part of my life.”
Beginning his explanation by going back to the early years on the job, he wanted her to understand that he had chosen a career with a larger meaning for himself beyond drawing a pay-check.
She listened intently while he talked about his firefighting experience. It had included much more than doing battle with fires. He set before her, powerful images of immediate adrenaline-soaring response to fire and non-fire emergency calls his station had received.
She slowly became aware of the wide circle of service his work had provided for the community. Besides responding to fires, his crew had often been the first on the scene of accidents, suicides, homicides, and acts of violence. He and his fellow firefighters had dealt with assault and battery situations along with reacting to rapes, bombings, and school shootings.
The longer he talked the more she could see that firefighting had been a daily hyper-vigilant emotionally-draining and stressful way he had lived out his life’s work. It had taken moral commitment, physical strength and psychological health to maintain his focus to what he needed to do when the call to provide rescue efforts came in.
Ashley had experienced his immediate courage this morning. His story projected both values of protective concern and kindness. He had been willing to place himself in dangerous situations on the job. It didn’t take long for her to see that he was a man who needed to find meaning in what he did day-after-day.
The longer he talked the more she began wondering if this early chosen commitment might explain why he seemed to be resisting moving into the reason he had left firefighting early.
While Gary explained the firefighting life to Ashley he could feel a hovering sadness shadowing the telling of his story. He resisted facing its meaning.
Winding down his preview of his work history, Gary Alexander allowed his friend’s death to come into view. He allowed Ashley to see the personal suffering that had entered his work experience because of it.
A mental pause allowed him to see that he was resisting the emotions that talking about his friend’s death had always forced him to confront in the telling.
Without fully understanding why he detoured again, expanding his reply to her original question by exploring briefly the breakup of his marriages.
Explaining to her that he hadn’t blamed the failures of his marriages on his ex-wives but on himself, he told her that he had accepted the departure of each wife as a result of competing negative situations that had emerged into their lives together. He had continued to live with a sense of personal failure and sorrow that he had not been able to overcome the damaging influences that had ripped apart his marriages.
Remembering his happiness at his son’s birth he recounted the later painful loss of his son within his daily life.
Gary became increasingly aware of her intent focus on him. Her close attention to what he was saying reached inside him enclosing him in a welcoming interest more exquisite than he had ever experienced.
Briefly wondering why he was revealing so much about himself, he broke their eye connection moving his gaze toward a couple walking by. He felt a sense of awe enter the moment that he could expose to a complete stranger, emotions and fears that he had never shared with a wife, friend or close family member.
When he stopped talking Ashley remained silent hoping he would continue revealing his personal experiences to her. She wanted to know all about him. Relief flowed through her when his eyes returned to hers and he began speaking again.
When he explained that nothing had been the same after the mother of his son had exited herself from their intimacy, his son had been removed from his daily life and Johnny Hart’s loss had brought him to the defining moment that had finalized his departure from the job, Ashley turned her hand palm-up and slipped her fingers under his hand lying motionless on his thigh.
The moment he felt the gentle touch of Ashley’s fingers slide under his hand in tender sympathy he fought tears long held-back. He had subconsciously expected subtle questions that would imply censorship for his failure to remain faithful to his calling to the mandatory retirement age.
He hadn’t realized until this moment that he had been defining who he was by his career choice. Her understanding response had allowed disappointment in himself to escape into the meaningful past.
He slowly smiled relief loosening the subliminal harsh self-judgment he had coiled like a ligature around his heart without knowing it. He wrapped his fingers around her small hand holding it in a warm receptive embrace.
He couldn’t speak any longer. Her eyes had planted him on high ground. Her touch had been alive with an unspoken alliance with him. She had seemed to be challenging his own hidden self-censorship.
It was an extraordinary moment for Gary Alexander. He felt the comforting power of her touch surround him as if she had embraced him and had begun to stroke his back in consolation for having endured months of faulty and punishing self-analysis.
It seemed as though she had opened the doorway of his pain and brooding sense of personal failure and had made the decision to walk inside to share his suffering with him.
It was at this moment of emerging awareness about himself that he knew within an exacting certainty she was carrying her own deeply wounding personal experience.
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Of A Mountain Too High
By Duke Stevens
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