as beauteous within as ravishing without

Fiction, 1/27/12

Dawn broke over the North Cascades and bathed the Fraser River delta in bruised salmon-glow. It promised to be a warm, clear-skied day, and the light winds from the north-west, which tousled the boughs of the firs and pines and brought aromatic salt-spray inland from the bay, would be welcomed by all fortunate enough to feel it. The Bellingham summer had waxed radiantly into late June, and by the time the salmon-glow had reached the rail yards and marinas of the waterfront Elena Calhoe had already risen, taken her German shepherd Sampson for a short walk around the block, and was halfway through a series of yogic stretches she performed for twenty minutes every morning.

At around eight she decided she would fix herself a light breakfast of oats and honey with walnut butter. As the oats boiled she gave Sampson his breakfast of dry kibble and walked into her living room, where a diptych of rectangular windows offered a largely unobstructed view of the waterfront and the bay beyond. The bay’s surface was swimming with tiny waves and a massive barge laden with railcars slowly cut through them, sailing north. Elena turned off the gas burner, mixed her oats and honey and walnut butter in a bowl, and took up a seat on the sofa in the living room. Sampson lay obediently at her feet. It was Friday, and Elena had the day off from the hospital. As she leisurely dipped her spoon into the oats, Elena thought that she might enjoy going to the beach later, if the temperature reached the highs that had been predicted by the Herald’s five-day forecast. First, however, she would have to run a few errands in town.

By eight-thirty the rising sun had reached the weeping willow standing crown-level outside the bedroom of Jonah Pratt, setting fire to its woody tresses and stirring the nearby flock of house sparrows to rapturous melody. Jonah opened his eyes, stretched, and yawned. He glanced at his watch, then came awake with a start. Because it was Friday, he was needed at the Public Market at nine o’ clock to work a six-hour shift. Cursing his faulty alarm, Jonah leapt from his bed and hastily dressed. He paused in the bathroom to brush his teeth, running a hand through the shaggy brown curls that hung lank about his head. Fearing he would arrive late if he tarried a moment longer, Jonah tore down the stairs, called a garbled “See you later!” to his roommate Michael, who was sitting at the dining table reading the Herald, and hopped onto his bicycle to sprint the three-mile route downtown.

Jonah clocked in at five past nine, sweating lightly and out of breath. Feeling slightly out of sorts, he spent the first thirty minutes of his shift trying to find a rhythm to his day. As one of three cashiers on an often-slow Friday morning, he needed that rhythm to survive; otherwise, the hours seemed to creep by interminably. When there were no customers to ring up he was forced to busy himself with banal tasks such as “facing” the shelves and arranging displays of produce. At ten-thirty Jonah was called over to assist with stacking the romanesco, and he sighed lugubriously at the prospect. With all the rush to get to work earlier that morning, he had not even had time to partake in his daily wake-and-bake ritual. Jonah looked longingly out the window at the blue sky. The rhythm would be elusive today—he had a dark feeling about it. He sighed again and marched slowly over to produce.

At a quarter to eleven Elena parked her Jeep outside Avellino’s and walked in to order a vanilla chai. Earlier she had visited the bank, stopped at Clark’s for some dog food, and returned her books at the library and taken out new ones. The last item on her mental to-do list was grocery shopping. Normally Elena preferred the Co-op because it was closer to her house, but since she had already ventured this far north she decided to shop at the Public Market.

She grabbed a hand-basket and strode purposely toward the produce, where she carefully selected bunches of carrots, kale, two crowns of broccoli, and a number of apples and plums. The newly-arrayed whorls of romanesco caught her attention and for a moment she admired their attractive color and knobby texture, and it was at this point that Jonah glimpsed her from his vantage atop a ladder. He was in the process of refilling the bulk legumes, and he nearly dropped a sack of adzuki beans in his surprise and delight.

Jonah was hopelessly in love with Elena. They had met through mutual friends the previous summer, and Jonah was smitten from the outset. Elena had long, brown, wavy locks that appeared perpetually unkempt yet comely, and her long-lashed eyes were of an improbably viridian hue, flecked with gold. Splashed delicately across her face were hundreds of tawny freckles that clustered on her button nose. She wore practical clothes always, but she looked glamorous in them: impeccably unstudied, eminently comfortable in her skin. To him she seemed goddess-like, kindly but aloof, amenable to conversation but only in prescribed doses—and she of course would be calling the shots.

They had socialized at numerous parties during that summer, usually ones held at the commodious home of their mutual acquaintance, Sarah Delaney. Those raucous affairs would often extend far into the night, with drugs and alcohol in ample supply. Jonah would get good and liquored up and approach Elena to ask if she wanted to smoke with him; she almost never refused, and after the first couple of times she realized that Jonah was a perfectly pleasant smoke buddy. (And besides, he had had a steady girlfriend at the time.) He wanted only to talk to her, about anything and everything, and they would get high and confabulate on Sarah’s porch until the party had petered out and the need to sleep became dire. Once, when Elena was taking leave from an especially rowdy gala, Jonah had kissed her goodnight on the cheek—whereupon she smiled and looked at him searchingly, then turned and, without another word, walked out the door. Jonah had considered it a rebuff, an admonishment, and vowed never to repeat the stunt. He remembered reaching the conclusion that night that Elena was undoubtedly the loveliest creature on God’s green Earth.

And now, in the span of a year, the situation had considerably changed. After that summer, Elena had transferred universities and moved to San Diego, while Jonah had pursued his undergraduate in Seattle and broken up with his longtime girlfriend in January. Jonah had graduated in March and moved back to Bellingham, where he and his former classmate Michael had found an old house to rent on North Forest Street, and soon afterward Jonah took the position at the Public Market. He had vague plans to attend graduate school in Vancouver, but then spring blossomed fragrantly into summer, and Jonah realized that he wanted nothing more than to spend that summer basking in the salmon-glow, one last time. Elena, decidedly more practical, had moved back in May to work as a licensed practical nurse at St. Joseph’s, where she had volunteered in her undergrad years. Both ended up back in Bellingham, older and perhaps wiser, but the passage of time and the distances apart had worn thin the ties of their curious attachment—so that, prior to eleven on that particular Friday morning in late June, neither Jonah nor Elena had the slightest idea where the other was, or what they were up to.

Jonah hurriedly finished filling the beans and climbed down the ladder. He thought that he might just walk up to Elena and greet her effusively, and envelope her in a bear hug—because that was the notion that gripped him fiercely then—but he decided it would be more prudent to allow her to finish her shopping, and let her come to him. He took up his station at the check-out stand and tried to focus on his customers. He felt strangely nervous, and he found himself continually glancing around the store to be assured that she was still there, that she would not disappear on him again.

At eleven past eleven, as the sunlight burst through the windowed storefront and illuminated the motes of dust drifting about, Elena bagged up her almonds and Mission figs and proceeded to the check-out. She took her place in line behind a wiry old man, set her basket down on the ground, and began rummaging through her handbag for her wallet. She did not notice the checker until a familiar voice from across the conveyor belt caused her to look up abruptly.

“Have a great day, sir,” Jonah said to the old man. He turned toward her, smiling shyly. “Hello, Elena.”

She stood shocked for a moment, as surprise and a welcome recognition passed over her face. “Hi, Jonah! Wow, I didn’t know…” She laughed warmly, that same melodious cascade that to Jonah sounded perfectly divine. “Well, how are you?” She looked at him and smiled expectantly, her mouth slightly agape, showing her small, even teeth. Besides a sparse growth of beard on his chin and a slight gauntness to his face and arms, Jonah’s mien appeared almost unchanged to Elena.

“I’m doing good, doing good. Jeez, how long has it been, a year? I feel as if I haven’t seen you since last summer.” He found her presence incredibly distracting, and he almost forgot that she was standing before him as a customer, with groceries to buy. With a start he grabbed the broccoli and placed it on the electronic scale. “Heh-heh, whoops. I should probably do my job, huh?”

They chatted amiably while he rung up her purchases, and Jonah inquired as to her plans for the day.

“I would love to go to the beach today–it’s supposed to get very warm out.” She looked out at the sun-drenched parking lot. Elena paused, mulling over her next thought. “Are you off soon? Would you want to come along with me and Sampson? I’m thinking Clayton Beach.”

Jonah could scarcely believe his ears. And Sampson! He had nearly forgotten that hulking dog-bear. “Um, yeah, sure! But I don’t get off until three, so…” He looked despairingly at the clock.

Elena shook her head, sending her wavy locks sashaying back and forth. “No, no, that’s perfect. What’s your number? I’ve replaced my phone at least twice in the last year. ”

They agreed to meet at Elena’s house at three-thirty and take her Jeep from there. The remainder of Jonah’s shift passed in agonizing slow-motion; he kept replaying their encounter in his head, analyzing her comments and body language, trying to decide how exactly to conduct himself later that afternoon. This petty analysis he tempered with a shimmering beatitude, for the day had made an about-face toward ultimate redemption: warm sunshine, the beloved beach, Elena. A veritable trifecta, in Jonah’s eyes. He concluded that a detached, sarcastic air would be appropriate, but he wasn’t sure how to adopt such an affectation. It was distressing him, this not knowing how to act, so he gave it up and decided he would roll a joint before heading over. Perhaps she would humor him, for old time’s sake.

Elena spent the early afternoon reading in the sunshine on her front porch, after having made a sumptuous luncheon of lentil dal and roasted vegetables with her housemates, Mary and Caitlyn. Sampson’s considerable form lay stretched out on the lawn, his tongue lolling between his pearly canines.  Elena was having a splendid day off. Seeing Jonah again had awakened in her a deeply nostalgic feeling, and she remembered fondly those nights of reckless merrymaking that had brought them together, seemingly ages ago now. She was a different person then—a child, really, compared to how she behaved now—and she wondered when it was that her mindset had changed. People grow up, people grow apart; the vicissitudes of life sway and buckle one’s resolve and the whole affair becomes a delicate balancing act in which some perform beautifully, and others find themselves always teetering on edge, afraid of the fall.

Jonah pulled up to Elena’s on his bicycle at three-thirty on the dot, and an ecstatic Sampson woofed and loped down the walk to greet him. “Hello, you savage animal.” At Jonah’s command, the dog jumped up and placed its forepaws on his shoulders, and Elena came out of the house to see the pair waltzing on the lawn. It had been Jonah, in fact, that taught Sampson the trick long ago.

“Clearly he remembers you!” They packed some water, apples, and a bag of trail mix Jonah had brought from the Public Market, and the three of them piled into the Jeep. Elena drove south on State Street, eventually turning onto Chuckanut Drive. “I really, really love this drive,” she remarked. Jonah agreed. He was content to let her do the talking, as she seemed eager to fill him in on the details of her job, her roommates, her time at school in San Diego. They wound along the sinuous highway, passing sandstone bluffs and turnouts on the right that offered panoramic views of the bay.

They parked at the trailhead on the shoulder and started the three-quarter mile trek to the shore. “Hey Elena,” Jonah began, just as they had entered the cover of the underbrush, “would you be interested in smoking a little?”

Elena had anticipated this, and was surprised at how ambivalent she felt. On the one hand, she had not smoked since she left Bellingham for California, just under a year ago. She wanted to focus on her studies, and she had long ago sensed a mild dependency on the drug that troubled her. But, on the other hand, this dalliance with Jonah was a delightful trip down Memory Lane, and she found herself wanting to revisit that altered state of mind to complete the effect.

“Oh, why not,” she said, laughing. “I had a feeling you would ask!”

They smoked the joint covertly, with Sampson on guard duty. As they neared the beach, Jonah felt his anxiety lift bodily away from him, as though he had shrugged off a heavy fur coat. The smell of brine tickled his nostrils and his pace quickened. Soon they broke through the trees onto the pale expanse of sand, and they saw immediately that the tide was low—so low, actually, that the intertidal mud flats were exposed, and the beach stretched literally for miles. The sandstone cliffs that defined the shore at high tide were a good quarter-mile from the water. Besides a group of young men bouldering on the cliffs to their right, the beach was devoid of human life. A great blue heron stalked the shallows far out in the surf, and the gulls laughed and wheeled overhead. At once Jonah sensed a warm, profoundly innervating sensation that started in the pit of his stomach and traveled out through his arms to the tips of his fingers and toes, and when he blinked in the sunlight he found that there were tears in his eyes.

“This place is…really, truly…phenomenal,” he said awkwardly, looking from Elena to the coruscating bay. He was stoned, and he started to giggle. “I think I’m crying! But I feel great.” She looked at him blankly and he felt stupid for his sentimentality. So much for the air of detachment. Jonah wiped at his eyes and sighed heavily. This lovely non-pareil standing before him, on a beach that felt simultaneously solid under his feet yet unreal, was impossibly far away. “I’m so glad you invited me on this adventure. It’s sort of overwhelming, you know?”

Elena stared into his eyes, feeling increasingly dopey herself. “Maybe it’s because you’re happy. I’m happy, too. This is amazing. Come on!” They started out toward the surf, Sampson leading the way, his lupine body veering this way and that to follow those unseen scent trails that enliven the days of dogs. Horse clams and geoducks sprayed geysers of seawater as they passed, their undeniably phallic siphons retreating into the squelching sand. Jonah could not help but notice the firm definition of Elena’s calves, and the high arches of what she called her “dancer’s feet”, as she skipped ahead of him, calling after the dog.

With an eerily objective clarity, he realized that Elena would forever remain out of his reach. Equally clear, however, was the realization that this was a day he would likely never forget, and he followed woman and dog toward the ebbing surf, where the sky and the water had melted together in an infinitely expanding horizon of blue.

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