The soda burned my nose a little. I took half the bottle in one swallow anyway. “I want to see the glass blowers,” Jill said.
I pulled the soda bottle away from the face. “The air feels good here,” I said. The clouds over the ocean were rolling in with the tide. We’d been on a beached tree for a few minutes. I had needed the air and I’d hoped the soda would help me in hangover.
Jill put her hand into my jacket pocket and took my box of cigarettes. She put one to her lips and took the book of matches from the cellophane.
She struck one match after another and each one went out in the wind.
“Watch,” I said. I reached for the cigarette on her lips. She let it go. I could not bear the thought of smoking one yet, because of the hangover.
I put her cigarette on my lips. I took the matchbook. I held the book to her. “We got one chance,” I said.
She looked at the book of matches in my hand. “There’re three matches left,” she said. Her face remained blank.
“In this wind, we got one chance. One chance and one half at best,” I said.
“Half a chance,” she said. “That’s funny.”
I held tightly to the soda bottle in one hand and I had the matches in the other. I juggled a moment with these things and finally handed the bottle to Jill.
“Watch,” I said. “Take out two matches. Stagger them like this. Strike. By the time the wind blows out the first one, the second will be lit and if you suck hard enough, you’ll get the cigarette going.”
Without much trouble, it worked the way I thought it would. I got half her cigarette lit.
“Wow,” she said.
“Oh, God, I regret that puff,” I said. “I’m so sick already.”
“I don’t want to be one of those smoking couples,” she said.
“Gotcha,” I said. It had been two days since we’d gotten to Seaside. We had made the decision to start smoking two days back in a bar. We made a very informed democratic decision to start smoking cigarettes.
We’d chained them since. Already on our third pack.
“Smoking couple,” I said after I had thought about it.
“You’ve see those people and they’re both smoking,” she said.
“I come from the Midwest,” I said. “But you know, if one smokes so does the other, right?”
She took a small dainty sip from my soda and handed it back to me. I took a sip too, but it made me feel suddenly very ill. I was in a fragile state. “I won’t smoke today,” I said. “Fuck I’m sick.”
“You won’t smoke today?” she asked.
“Good God no,” I said. I held true to my convictions until two o’clock.
“I don’t know what it is about you,” she said.
Later, we were on the small porch attached to the small holiday cottage. I was drinking coffee from the resort’s Styrofoam cup. “They don’t talk about holes in the ozone anymore, do they?”
“I just want to be so bad. I just want to smoke and eat chocolate and be bad,” she said.
I had been unable to eat lunch, and I was definitely too sick to have eaten breakfast, but I was getting hungry now. “I make you want to eat chocolate?”
“Among other things.” she said.
She snubbed out her cigarette in what seemed like an ancient tea saucer. She stood up from the wooden bench where I still sat.
It was like in the distance the night was edging in. It seemed light enough in our little nook, a few lights on in other cottages. It was nearing three o’clock.
She remained still for a moment and looked out toward the water. Then, she went inside the bedroom sized cottage.
I continued to drink the reluctant coffee.
“Here,” she said. She had that massive camera around her neck. She pulled that monstrous thing to her eye. “Let me take a picture,” she said.
“Please no, Jill. I look like hell.”
“You’re beautiful,” she said.
“Beautiful hell,” I said. “Please, please don’t.”
“It’s black and white film,” she said. She struggled behind the camera adjusting things. I had not heard the shutter.
“Black and white?” I asked.
“Yeah, and in this light, you’ll look mysterious.”
I kept looking forward, not toward her. I held still. I pulled the coffee cup to my lips and took a sip. As the cup lowered I heard the slam of the shutter. “Perfect,” she said.
“You got one, now can we be done?” I asked.
Saying nothing, not one way or the other, she quickly vanished into the cottage. The coffee had a metallic taste. Acidic. Bad.
“I could use some dinner,” I said when she came back outside.
“Goodie,” she said.
“I want some chicken fried steak or meatloaf,” I said.
“You can take the boy out of the Midwest but you can’t take the Midwest out of the boy.”
“Yuck it up,” I said. “I’m just recovering from a long weekend.”
I got my wish. I got corn chowder with ham. I got Mom’s Meatloaf which tasted nothing like mom’s but it wasn’t bad. It was trimmed with peas and carrots and mashed potatoes. I planned on German chocolate for dessert.
“Oh God,” I said. I grabbed at my wrinkled paper napkin.
“Sick?” she asked.
“We go back to life tomorrow,” I said. “I don’t want to go.”
“So don’t go,” she said.
“Yeah, right,” I said. I looked across the table at her. The look on her face was not one I’d seen before. But this should have been of no surprise. We hadn’t known one another for very long, two weeks.
The waiter came. I was unable to figure him out. There was something familiar about him. Something like he’d been at my high school. He seemed like he’d had one of those lives that lead you over the world from Homecoming King to the outer banks of Mongolia to here, Seaside, Oregon: Taffy Town, USA.
The taffy shops lined every street from the beach to HWY 101. We had stopped and watched the massive machines pulling the stringy candy.
We’d watched the kite fliers on the beach. They were intently looking up into the air at their kites fighting the wind sweeping over the mighty Pacific.
We’d gone to the glass blower’s. We watched them for an hour as the intensity of my hangover had crescendoed and fell to the other side.
“I gotta get back to work,” I said.
“Me too,” she said.
The waiter returned with a fingerprint marred silver tray with stale desserts on it.
“Creme Brulee,” Jill said.
I just shook my head and waved my hand. I watched as he walked away. “I feel like I know that guy,” I said.
The circles started from my imagination. I mean, was I some sort of asshole? Here I was at the beach with a beautiful woman. I wasn’t meant to come out this far.
It wasn’t meant to last.
And I was not supposed to have a girlfriend, however brief it was destined to be.
“I’ve really enjoyed the weekend,” I said.
“Me too,” she said.
“I’ve only got one more week in Salem before I—,” I said.
“I know,” she said.
“It’s been a real dream,” I said. It had. It had been a dream.
“I stopped taking my meds,” she said.
The crème brulee came. The waiter put the small plate, doily and all, containing the small dish in front of her. I watched the waiter, of course.
She picked up the spoon. She smiled. She was giddy. She tapped the top of the custard. “I love this,” she said.
“Meds?” I said once we were alone again.
“I know you’re leaving. I didn’t want to scare you before,” she said.
I looked around her head, her messy black beach blown hair. I looked at the walls of the restaurant behind her. “I won’t be able to be as honest with you,” I said.
“Lithium,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“Lithium,” she repeated. “I stopped three weeks ago. Twenty-two days ago, actually.”
“I thought they stopped with lithium in the 60s,” I said.
“I don’t really like taking my meds,” she said.
“Whoa, wait a minute,” I said.
I fell into thinking about it. I thought about Salem, that nasty hotel, the hotel bar where we had met.
There have been women. I’ve had women. The women I’ve had, as I thought about it, were all every bit as complex as Jill. None of them has been nearly as easy.
Finally, I said, “I don’t really know what that means.”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” she said.
“I feel like it does,” I said. “It’s some sort of mental disorder that I don’t really understand.”
“Not a disorder,” Jill said. She put the spoon down and passed the half eaten crème brulee away. “It’s bipolar,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “I still don’t really know what that means.”
“It means that if I’d been on my pills I wouldn’t have talked to you and none of this would ever have happened.”
“I still don’t know what that means,” I said.
“It means that I’ve really valued every minute I’ve had with you. I’m immensely grateful for this experience and it would not have happened if I hadn’t come off the meds.”
I looked at her now. I really tried to see her. “Um, thanks?” I said.
“It’s like we’ve had two or three lifetimes in the last few weeks.”
“Two weeks,” I said.
“I feel like I could tell you anything,” she said.
“I’m married,” I said.
“It’s like I want to tell you everything that’s ever happened to me,”
she said. At the moment my words sunk in, I suddenly saw a look on her face I hadn’t seen before.
The waiter came back, fortunately for me. “May I take this?” he asked.
“Please,” Jill said with a warm smile.
The smile fell quickly once the waiter left. “What did you say?” she said looking at me now.
“I’m married,” I repeated.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Oh my fucking God.”
“Please,” I said. “Please don’t.”
“I can’t believe I’m the other woman,” she said.
“Well,” I said. “You’re just the woman.” She seemed to tremble. She began to fidget. She had been fidgety I had suddenly thought, since the moment we met. Now, she just seemed nervous. “I’m sorry,” I said.
She suddenly looked at me and stilled. “What did you say?”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Before that?” she said.
“Um,” I said. I looked up at the mental chalkboard. “I don’t remember.”
“You said you’re just the woman. That’s what you said.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What’s your wife’s name?” she asked suddenly very serious.
“Bruce,” I said.
“Strange name for a woman,” she said.
“Yes, it would be,” I said.
“A man?” she asked.
“We married last year. We’ve been together for twenty years,” I said.</
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I’m not a man.”
“No,” I said. “You’re not.”
“But you’re gay,” she said.
“I suppose,” I said.
“Bisexual?” she asked.
“I suppose,” I said.
“You’re bisexual and I’m bipolar,” she said. She laughed.
Admittedly, I did not see the humor in it. She was lovely. She was perfect. She was mentally ill.
“Is Bruce a jealous guy?” she asked.
“Probably not,” I said. “He’ll kill me if he finds out I’ve been smoking.”
“Smoking?” she said. “You’ve just had a romantic weekend with a woman young enough to be your daughter, and he’d be angry about the cigarettes?”
“Well, I don’t know what to say. It’s been selfish,” I said.
The waiter returned. Such bad timing. “Can I bring you anything more?” he asked.
“Listen,” I said. I grabbed my wallet and pulled out a card. “Save you a trip,” I said. Once he was gone I looked back to Jill. “I’m really very sorry,” I said.
“I can’t even begin to know what I’ve learned,” she said.
“It wasn’t right of me, I should have told you up front.”
“I wouldn’t have listened.”
“But look at you. You’re perfect. I am a very lucky man.”
“Well, folks, good night,” the waiter said. He put the plate with the credit card slip, pen, card and mints in front of me.
I nodded a snarky smile and grabbed at the plate.
“I wish things were different,” she said.
I signed the slip. I put the pen on the table next to the paperwork. “I’ve always wished that things were different.”
“I don’t care,” she said. “This has been the best experience of my life.”
“It’s been a good one.”
“Well since it’s about to be over, I’ve changed my mind.”
“Oh,” I said. “What about?”
“Well, for as long as it lasts, I want to be one of those smoking couples.”