Ted turned off the music. He wanted to hear the sound of the beach: the seagulls squawking, the honk of a passing boat’s horn, the roar of the surf. But before the sounds, came the smell of salt air….”
by greg barbera
Ted pulled into the driveway of the mill house Kathy rented behind an elderly couple, left the ignition running, the radio blaring a classic rock staple – AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” – and rang the doorbell.
Kathy answered in a towel, her hair still wet from the shower she just took.
“Pack your self a bag,” said Ted, a sly smile on his face.“We’re taking a road trip.”
Kathy got a whiff of the suntan lotion Ted had slathered on himself and knew instantly their destination: the beach.
The beach was a special place for them. It was the place they first met some twenty years ago and the spot Ted always took her when he wanted to rekindle the flame that had stirred inside him for her. Their relationship was a tumultuous one. They spent the summer after they graduated from college at the beach and fell in love. Ted had always loved Kathy but it was that summer that sealed it for her: because Ted accepted her unconditionally. Kathy was wild and unpredictable but Ted could weather any storm she brought on him. Yet Kathy never told Ted this and never really owned up to it herself until years later, after she had married a man she worked with at Wachovia Bank.
It was quick, her marriage to Kyle Massey. Just six months after she had started the job they went on their first date. And six months after that, they were married. When she broke the news to Ted she knew he would be heart broken. She knew he would be devastated. It came as quite a surprise to her that when she called to tell him the news he didn’t seemed to be affected by it all. As a matter of fact, Ted had long since given up on having Kathy as his wife and had himself set out to find a sensible woman to marry. He didn’t care if he loved this woman or not. He was just looking for someone who was compatible. And he found that in Evelyn Coffman, a bright young girl he’d met about a year after Kathy got married. They share the same taste in art house movies, crime fiction and rock’n’roll. The only problem was that Evelyn was stiff as a dead fish in bed. And that Ted still had it for Kathy.
Kathy’s marriage ended about as quickly as it started and soon she was bouncing from boyfriend to boyfriend sizing men up mostly by their DNA capabilities. If she was going to have children, she surely didn’t want ugly ones. Kathy gave up on true love and set her quest on finding a good steed with good seeds. Ted’s marriage lasted quite a substantial time, a good decade and about five years longer than Kathy had banked given the insights to Ted’s wife that he fed her.
So here they were, two divorcees, trying to figure it all out. Their past was so great, so deep; it was hard for one to imagine life without the other. They shared a common bond for open, honest communication. They could tell each other anything, even hurtful things, things that would penetrate most folks’ mental armor, but not theirs. So after twenty some years of friendship, they were back to courting each other again. At least, that’s what Kathy thought as she hopped in the truck and tossed her duffle bag in the back. “I brought a bikini,” she said. “Is that appropriate attire for where we are going Ted?” she said with her eyebrows raised and held tilted and teeth-baring smile. “Yep,” said Ted and he patted her thigh, slipped the gear in reverse and backed out of her driveway.
Ted stopped at a gas station before hopping on the interstate as he thought of it. He had got out, swiped his debit card in the pump and began fueling up as he thought of it. Kathy got out and meandered her way into the mini-mart as he thought of it. She walked down the aisles looking for sustenance for the ride as he thought of it. It would be a couple of hours before they reached the beach as he thought of it. She came back out with a brown bag that had a bag of sea salt and vinegar potato chips sticking out the top as he thought of them. They were Ted’s favorite.
Ted turned the ignition and started the truck. They made a quick left out of the gas station, then another left at the stoplight to the interstate on-ramp an eighth of a mile down the road on the right. He rolled down his window before merging into traffic. Kathy soon followed suit as he thought of it. He pressed the volume knob, and listened to the music — a double CD by the Drive-by Truckers called Southern Rock Opera — get louder. He looked over at Kathy and watched the strands of her hair blow about her face. She had opened the bag of chips and was chewing. She turned and looked at him. Smiled and then offered him the bag. He shook his head no. She reached down between her legs into the bag that now rested on the floorboard before her, and pulled out a 22-ounce can of Coors Light. Popped the top and handed it to Ted. “Double Deuce,” she shouted above the din of the music and then turned and nodded her head to the music. He took a swig. It was cold. And refreshing.
Kathy waited for Ted to take a few sips before digging in the bag for the beef jerky. She ripped open the top and handed it to Ted, who had one free hand now that he stuffed the can of beer between his legs. He turned and nodded to Kathy, smiling-this was the breakfast of road trips. Nothing like an old friend, Ted thought, who knows what you want before you even wanted it. He turned toward the open real estate of the highway and got lost in song as he thought of it.
Kathy knew Ted didn’t like Coors. But for Ted, Coors Light was driving beer because it packed a little punch. He could drink it all day and never catch a buzz. But he liked the fact that Kathy was watching over him, thinking his thoughts in tandem. Halfway through the beer, he reached over and put his hand on her thigh, squeezed it, and mouthed the words “I love you,” through the din of the music. Kathy mouthed back, “I know.”
As they got closer to the beach, Ted turned off the music. He wanted to hear the sound of the beach: the seagulls squawking, the honk of a passing boat’s horn, the roar of the surf. But before the sounds, came the smell of salt air.
Salt air did something funny to Ted. It cured what ailed him. Invigorated him. And most of all, gave him an erection. He shifted in his seat, handing Kathy his empty, and adjusted his crotch at first whiff. Kathy took note. After he crushed the can and put it in the bag with the other dead double deuces – three for each of them – and the near-empty beef jerky and potato chip bags, she leaned over to Ted, wriggled her eyebrows at him as she began to unzip his trousers. “Sweet Jesus,” said Ted as he set his sights on concentrating to drive while Kathy went down on him.
In the lobby of the hotel Kathy noticed a sign for college reunion that was taking place in the ballroom that night. It was the university that Kevin Kirk had attended. He was the boy she lost her virginity to. As Ted stood waiting at the front desk for a room key, Kathy sat at the complimentary computer terminal. She googled and found the web site for the reunion. She clicked on it. There was a list of names: FOUND it said next to Kevin Kirk. She scrolled down the page and saw that he had RSVPed.
“C’mon,” called out Ted to Kathy, holding the room key up in the air. “Let’s get changed and hit the beach.”
Ted felt like a shower. The beers and blowjob had made him sleepy so he turned on the cold water and stepped in. Kathy slipped into her bikini, the yellowed had faded over the years but she liked the way it hugged her shapely body; the way it cupped her breasts and the way it didn’t make her ass look too big. While Ted was in the shower, Kathy picked up the phone and called the front desk. “Could you tell me what room Kevin Kirk is in?” she asked. “Who is calling?” said the girl at the front desk. “I’m from the reunion planning committee. Sandy Silverstein,” said Kathy marveling at the lie she had just made up. “He’s in room 214,” said the front desk attendant. “Thanks a bunch!” said Kathy, feigning enthusiasm.
Ted got out of the shower and toweled off in front of the mirror. He stared into it like he had done so many times before, looking at the tattoo of the noose around his neck. Over time, what once was a taught rope around his neck had now sagged down to his collarbone. “Time,” Ted mumbled under his breath. He walked out of the bathroom, threw the towel in the corner, and put on his bathing trunks. “Ready?” asked Kathy. “Yep,” replied Ted.
On the way down in the elevator Ted asked Kathy if she was going to swim in the ocean. She hadn’t been in the ocean since high school; not since she got stung by a stingray. She said she’d think about it. Ted loved the ocean. He wasn’t much of a swimmer. He wasn’t the type to do laps in a pool or wade about in the lake. But the ocean, the ocean called him. It was so powerful and majestic. And much like the sea salt air, Ted felt the ocean possessed healing powers, an elixir for the soul. He had a wart on the tip of his thumb once. Had it for about a year when he was in college. He went to the beach for the weekend with some friends and after swimming in the ocean, the wart went away and never came back.
Kathy watched Ted from the comfort of her blanket. He’d dive under the big waves and pop up on the other side. Sometimes he’d turn his back on the wave and let it break over him. She began to study his body. He was a good shape for a man his age. He had a small beer belly but for the most part he was all muscle and bones. He looked good standing there with his body all wet. She felt a tingle in her crotch. They would be fucking soon, she thought.
After a few hours on the beach, which included a leisurely stroll up to the inlet and a nap, they retreated from the sun to the lobby bar. Kathy ordered a chardonnay and Ted a vodka tonic. The crowd began to swell with reunion attendees, most looking like they had just arrived from a Jimmy Buffet concert: Hawaiian tees, open-toed sandals and khaki shorts. Ted decided it was time to head back to the room. Kathy wanted another glass of wine. She was a lush and Ted worried about leaving her there alone but he had to piss so he kissed her on the forehead and whispered in her ear, “Don’t be long.”
An hour later a very worried Ted answered the door. Kathy’s gentle knock was masked over by the sound of her weeping. “What happened, baby?” asked Ted. A loaded question for sure, he thought. This was Kathy after all that he was dealing with as he thought of it. “I just got humiliated. It was horrible,” she said between sobs. Ted ushered her over to the side of the bed and knelt down in front of her trying to see her face behind the tears and the hands that tried to stop them from coming.
“Do you remember Kevin Kirk?” said Kathy. Ted thought about his tattoo. Of course he remembered Kevin Kirk. He was Kathy’s first; she had lost her virginity to him. “How could I forget him?” said Ted. Kathy then began to explain how the “folks” having the reunion were Kevin’s classmates. That she had discovered that Kevin was staying in the exact same hotel as them. She told Ted how after her third glass of wine she decided to go knock on his door. That was a bad idea, Ted thought. So she did. And he answered. He was with his wife. Presumably second, as she was considerably younger. A good ten to 15 years. She asked him if he remembered her. He stared at her face hard but kept a blank expression.
Clearly he didn’t remember. She said her name, mentioned the summers at the beach. “I’m sorry but I don’t know who the fuck you are,” he said. “And I don’t care to know.” Then he slammed the door in her face. The following year after losing her virginity, Kathy said, she began to confuse sex with love. She thought Kevin was her one true love. But he couldn’t even remember her name one week later much less two decades later. Kathy knew this because she called his dorm room once and his roommate answered. She heard his roommate ask the question. And the she heard Kevin’s reply: “I don’t know any Kathy.”
As a teenager Kathy’s psyche was fragile. It was at that moment, after the phone call, that her family finally discovered how tortured her soul was, because Kathy spent the next hour plucking out every single eyelash. To this day, she has no greater fear than her own self-hate.
Ted shook his head. Fucked up again, he thought. But he was used to it now. “Okay, it’s going to be alright.” He gathered up their things and they quietly checked out of the hotel.
“I’m sorry Ted,” she said as they pulled onto the interstate. “I’m sorry.”
“Whatever,” said Ted and then slowly began to mesmerize himself by staring at the centerline.
(illustration: troy dockins )
Greg Barbera lives in Durham, North Carolina where he is a stay-at-home dad. He has two boys, a wife, a cat and a punk rock band called the Chest Pains. And he blogs at: www.thechestpains.blogspot.com