THEY WENT TO FLORIDA. Ryan was going to drive, but changed his mind heading south on 75 and made the turn to Detroit Metropolitan, got them seats on a Delta flight to Lauderdale and a Budget Rent a Car to Pompano Beach, a Pinto without air, and by seven o’clock that evening they were in an efficiency at the Vista Del Mar with groceries, new bathing outfits, thongs, and Coppertone, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean.
“There,” Ryan said. “No more thinking for a week. Whoever mentions Perez or the stock or anything connected with it has to put five bucks in the kitty.”
Denise looked around the room, from the picture window to the flowered rattan chairs to the twin beds, against opposite walls, that featured tailored beige spreads and bolsters that disguised them as sofas. Forty-five dollars a day including color TV and the ocean view. What more could you want? Ryan said.
Denise said, “What I’d like more than anything is a glass of wine.”
Ryan went into the kitchen and dug into a grocery bag. He came back out with a bottle of Blue Nun and two jelly glasses.
“You mean it?” Denise said.
“If the corkscrew works,” Ryan said. He took it out of his coat pocket.
Denise watched him twist it into the cork. “You’re gonna have one, too?”
“So you won’t have to drink alone,” Ryan said. He got the cork out. Pouring the wine, he said, “It’s not cold, though.”
“I don’t care.” She took the glass he offered, with yellow daisies on it, and said, “Jesus, I don’t believe it.” Then took a drink and closed her eyes and opened them. “Jesus,” she said again, and watched Ryan sip his wine. “Why’re you doing this?”
“I guess-I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I want us to be like normal everyday people on a vacation. Not think-I don’t mean get drunk and not think. I mean not worry about anything, relax, and have a good time. We can have the steak and a salad, I thought, instead of getting dressed and going out someplace.”
“That sounds fine.”
“I got a bottle of red, too, we can have with the steak.”
“I didn’t see you get the wine.”
“No, well-we can have this before, then the red with dinner. You want to fix it, or you want me to?”
“No, I’ll do it.”
“You feel okay?”
“I feel fine. This morning, it seems like a long time ago,” Denise said. “I was going to take a shower, unless you want to eat right away.”
“No, go ahead,” Ryan said. “We’re not in any hurry. We’re on our vacation.”
They were polite, but it didn’t seem forced. That was the idea, to be natural.
Ryan went outside with his wine. He turned on the orange light by the door, then turned it off again and sat down in a deck chair, propping his feet on the low wall that separated the patio area from the empty beach. It was a good time of the day: alone, feeling the breeze and listening to the ocean as it came in out of the darkness and broke and washed in forty yards away. He was here and she was in the shower and Mr. Perez was somewhere and out there were the Gulf Stream and Bimini, the Bahama Islands, and way out there in the darkness some of Denise’s whales talking to each other, not giving a shit about Mr. Perez getting mad and tense as he telephoned and got no answers. Maybe he’d go out to Denise’s again. Then what? Ryan could think about Mr. Perez without putting five bucks in the kitty, but he wished he could turn the man off in his mind. Kick the habit. He didn’t know what he was doing with the wine. Playing a game. Helping her through a bad time. Having some with her so she wouldn’t feel like a drunk. Making excuses. It didn’t taste that good, yet. She was probably pouring herself another one. He almost got up, but he made himself sit there, looking out at the ocean, and smoked a cigarette, and then, after a few minutes, smoked another one.
“I was thinking about your whales,” Ryan said. “What do whales do?”
“What do they do?” She held her knife and fork poised over the piece of sirloin on her plate and looked from the kitchen to the picture window in the other room. She looked clean and scrubbed in the faded green sweatshirt. Her tongue moved around inside her mouth. “They eat squid,” she said finally. “They love squid. And they like to play around, talk to each other.”
“When the cows are in the mood.”
“It’s up to the girl, uh?”
“I guess so, unless the boy whale’s really horny.”
Ryan was feeling good-when he came in, he saw the wine in the Blue Nun bottle at the same level-but he didn’t want her to think he was working up to something, talking about the whales making out. It was strange, last night she’d been naked, shoving her box at him; but now she was a different person and he was afraid to say the wrong thing.
They had finished the white while she broiled the steak. They were halfway through the Almadén red now. When her glass was down, she wouldn’t pour her own. She’d wait for Ryan to pour it, and he’d feel or imagine her watching him fill their glasses, making sure he didn’t take more for himself. He imagined it because it was something he used to do. He didn’t look up to see if she was watching; he was afraid to.
When they finished eating, there were still two inches of wine left in the bottle. She picked up the bottle as she cleared the table and didn’t seem to know what to do with it.
“You want to finish this?”
“No, I don’t care for any more,” Ryan said.
He watched her set the bottle on the table again. While she was doing the dishes, Ryan drying, he put the cork in the bottle and placed it on top of the refrigerator. There it was for whoever wanted it.
After, they took their shoes off and walked down to the flat smooth sand and stood watching the surf, feeling the shock of cold as the water rushed in and the sand alive beneath their feet as the water was drawn back into the sea. He was at ease with her outside, on the beach, and then sitting in deck chairs on the patio. Even when they were silent he was at ease and felt good.
But when they went in again and were alone in the room he was self-conscious and wondered what she was thinking, if she expected him to touch her and make the moves. The night before, she had said, “I’ve been wondering when it was coming-all the times you’ve been here.” She had been drunk saying it; still, she had thought it and said it. He wanted to touch her and she probably expected him to. He didn’t know why he felt dumb and awkward. If she didn’t want to do it, she’d tell him. But it had to be natural.
She went in the bathroom and came out, and he went in and washed and brushed his teeth and combed his hair. When he came out, she was in bed. The slipcover had been taken off his bed and the light blanket and sheet turned down.
“Where’d you find the pillows?”
“In the closet.”
He took off his shirt and pants. “Well, good night.”
“Good night,” she said. “Sleep well.”
He got in bed and lay on his back staring at the ceiling with the good-looking girl lying in her bed fifteen feet away. An outside light from somewhere reflected on the ceiling.
Maybe she’d come over.
No, she was waiting for him. Go on, for Christ’s sake. She was going to think he was a fag.
In the silence he could hear the surf, a good sound, far away.
She said, in the darkness, “Ryan?”
“You’re a nice guy, you know it?”
“Thanks,” Ryan said. “You’re nice too.” After a little while he rolled over on his side and rolled quietly a few more times in the hour it took him to go to sleep.
She had expected him to come over. She was ready and would have let him get in her bed. When he didn’t, she was surprised, but not disappointed. There was time and she knew it would happen, not with one of them making the move, but letting it happen, perhaps when they least expected it.
He said to her, “You better be careful the first day.”
She said, “No, I look like I burn, but I don’t. I get tan pretty quick, a couple of days. How about you?”
“Yeah, I used to burn, but I don’t anymore.”
That kind of beach conversation and talk about food-Do you like key lime pie? Do you like oysters?-and movies and movie stars and books they’d read, the one Denise was reading-“I know it’s dumb and she’s a terrible writer, but I love it”-lying in the Florida sun, rubbing each other’s back with lotion, going in the water to cool off rather than swim, neither of them was a swimmer-nothing about Mr. Perez. What was he doing? Who gave a shit?-and going to sleep on the beach in the late afternoon, waking up in cool shade, the sun behind the wall of condominiums, going to the Oceanside Shopping Center with the feel of the sun and the sand still on them, natives in one day, to buy straw hats and beach towels that said Pompano Beach, Florida, and oranges and avocados, a half pound of pistachios. They ate ice-cream cones and watched the white Cadillacs of the retirees take fifteen minutes to make a right-hand turn. Ryan said, You know what you do when you’re retired? You wait for the mail. First you wait for the paper and then the mail. Then you wait to get two thousand miles on your car so you can take it in for an oil change and a tune. He said, You see those Bermuda shorts the retired guys wear? You see how high they wear them up over their stomachs? Denise said, Yeah? Ryan said, What I want to know, where do they get zippers that long? Denise said, The same place the wives get the sequined sweaters they wear over their shoulders. Do you think the sleeves are real or fake? Ryan told her why didn’t she ask one of them, a retiree wife? She did, too. She asked a woman in front of the Oceanside Market if the sleeves of her sweater were real or for show. The woman looked at her. They walked back to the Vista Del Mar, past the hot red Pinto parked in front. Washing your car every day is also big, Ryan said. The salt air. Denise said, Washing me isn’t going to be any quick rinse. I’m dying to take a shower. Ryan said, You want some help? She laughed, she didn’t really answer him. It was coming, though.
Denise took her shower first. She came out with a Pompano Beach, Florida, towel wrapped around her, drying her hair with a bathroom towel.
She said, “Your turn.” A look passed between them.
Taking his shower, Ryan thought about the look and the girl in the room in the quiet early evening and felt himself becoming aroused. Drying himself in front of the mirror he liked his color, he liked the way he looked, the way his hair hung down uncombed and the shiny glow on his face. He rubbed in some Ice Blue Aqua Velva. He looked strong and healthy. He felt good.
When he came out, with the bathroom towel around his waist, he saw Denise still in the Pompano Beach, Florida, towel, rubbing her short blond hair. As she brought the towel down, he saw the look again, felt it, and knew she did too. She kept looking at him as he came over to her and put his hands on her arms, then let them slide around her, feeling her hands on his ribs, her hands slowly moving around him as they closed their eyes and kissed, moving their heads a little, getting it good and comfortable, feeling each other’s mouth and parts of lips, holding and pressing gently, making it last and knowing there was a lot more to come. There was relief in it too, finally, the sound of relief when they breathed and came back to each other.
They smiled as they made love.
Boy, it was good, and Ryan told her he didn’t believe it. He said, It’s so good making love to somebody you love. Like the first time, only way better. Do you feel that? He could ask her because he knew she felt it. She smiled and said, Uh-huh, I feel it. He said, God, I don’t know what to do. I want to do everything at once. Seeing the smile in her eyes, knowing they were both feeling the same thing, kissing and not being able to kiss each other enough, putting his hand on the patch of hair between her legs and feeling her girl hand on him, still kissing, their mouths moving, holy shit, it had never been like this before. He said, I’ve never been here before. I’ve never had a feeling like this. She said to him, Put it in me. He watched her eyes and heard the sound that came from her. They were there and he didn’t know if he could stand it, aware of himself for only a moment before he was aware of both of them, trying to get closer, all the way, and somehow get lost within each other. They let go, straining to hold on tight, hearing sounds coming from inside them. He breathed and got his breath and they were kissing again, lying on their sides facing each other, kissing, breathing against each other’s skin, faces, kissing, looking at each other, smiling tired effortless smiles.
When he was lying on his back, looking at the ceiling, she said, “Where are you?”
“What’re you thinking?”
“I was wondering, should we have the ham or the chicken? We could brown some onions and green pepper, put in some tomato sauce…” He felt her move and looked at her, propped up on an elbow. “Why? What were you thinking?”
“Nothing,” Denise said. “I’m not going to tell you now. You’re thinking about food.”
“Come on, tell me.”
“I love you,” Denise said. “I absolutely adore you and I’m in love with you.”
“Yeah, because I’m in love with you.”
“Do you know you said it? You said, making love to somebody you love.”
“It’s something, isn’t it? We’re all set, we’re stuck with each other.”
She lay back on the pillow and was silent. They could hear the surf and the wind gusting through the open window. She said, “But what if after a while…”
“What if after a while, what?” Ryan said. “Do you want to know everything that’s going to happen to you, or you want to take it a day at a time and be surprised?”
She said, “Couldn’t I know just a little of what’s going to happen?”
“Maybe,” Ryan said, “it depends. What’s worrying you?”
She said after a moment, “I was married before.”
“I know you were.”
“I wondered if… you ever pictured me with him. The kind of person he was.”
“I don’t think of him as a person,” Ryan said. “I think of him as a number.”
“You do?” Puzzled. “What number?”
“Eighty-nine. That was the number he had in the morgue. Before he was identified.”
“Oh. You saw him?”
“I saw him, but the only thing I remember about him’s the number. The man who had it’s gone.”
They went out in the sun for five days and turned brown and felt better, both agreed, than they’d ever felt in their lives. Though sometimes when he was silent she would ask him if everything was all right. He’d say, Everything’s fine. She believed him and it would be enough for several hours or until she felt the need to ask him again. She knew about living one day at a time and not worrying about things that might never happen. She felt comfortable and happy being with him, and when they made love she was sure of him beyond any doubt. But she would feel him leave her in his mind and wonder where he was, if he was sorry and had misgivings and was escaping, if he was only being nice to her because she needed someone. She would say to him, standing in the kitchen, “Hold me.” Then it was good again. She could feel he loved her. He told her, often, he loved her. She would say, “But-” And he would say, “Why don’t you just believe me and not think about it?” He would tell her every day to feel and try not to think so much. She said, “But what if I feel and I get scared of the feeling?” He said, “What’s wrong with being scared?” He said, “You have to leave yourself open and take chances and that can be scary, you bet. But if you don’t take chances, what do you win?”
You make molded salads and watch Name That Tune.
She could cross that one off, one less option to think about. And living alone was dumb. So why not bet on Ryan? If she felt good with him, natural, herself, and was happier than she’d ever been, what was the problem? As long as he would reassure her from time to time.
The fifth day the feeling of anxiety would not go away. They didn’t talk or smile at each other as much or as naturally. He’s had enough, Denise thought. He’s bored. She asked him if he wanted to do something, go somewhere. He said, No, he didn’t think so. She didn’t ask him where he was or if everything was all right.
She said, “Your back’s not going to get very tan.”
She was lying on a towel on her stomach, her face turned to Ryan, sitting in a canvas chair with his straw hat tilted low on his eyes, staring at the ocean.
“My back gets whatever it can,” Ryan said. “I don’t like to lie down like that unless I’m gonna take a nap.”
His tone was all right, but he was quiet, inside himself, deeper in there than he had been during the previous days. She had to think up things to say to him. Maybe put him on a little. She raised her face from the towel, looking at the sky.
“We’ve been lucky with the weather.”
He didn’t say anything.
“It’s going to be eighty today, light showers expected tomorrow.”
Ryan looked at her now. “Is that right?”
“One winter in Bad Axe the snow was so deep,” Denise said, and stopped. “You want to know how deep the snow was?”
“How deep was it?” Ryan said.
“It was so deep outside you had to shit in a shotgun and shoot it up the chimney.”
“That’s pretty deep,” Ryan said.
Denise lowered her face to the beach towel. “So are you.”
Neither of them spoke for several minutes. Finally Ryan said, “Okay.”
Denise didn’t say anything right away. She watched him lean over and fish inside the straw bag for something. He brought out his wallet. Denise raised her head a little.
Ryan took out a five-dollar bill, reached over, and let it fall on the end of the towel, by her face.
“Mr. Perez. Let’s go get him.”
“I’ve got a couple of ideas.”
“Is that what you’ve been thinking about?”
“Part of the time,” Ryan said. “You want to go after your money? It’s up to you.”
She liked the line of the straw hat brim, low over his eyes as he looked at her. She liked the quiet sound of his voice and his brown arms and the way he sat in the canvas chair, waiting.
She said, “Why don’t we get it and come back?”
Ryan smiled. “Why don’t we?”
He called and reserved seats on an Eastern flight out of Miami. They had to hurry to make it. They packed and dressed inside a half hour. Denise remembered something as they were ready to go and they put the leftovers in the refrigerator for the maid: ketchup and mustard, pickles, oleo, bread, a ham shank and the two inches of Almaden red that were still in the bottle.