Ellie J. Anderson
Teri and Hal drove past the leaning cardboard shacks of Tijuana to a large old hotel at Estero Beach. They’d been separated for eight months and Hal had been living with a woman named Marilyn. He came home one day, said he’d made a mistake and wanted their marriage to work. He wanted to take a trip. Teri thought the trip might be a good idea. She hadn’t been able to come to grips with her grief over the lost marriage. And she hadn’t been able to get a job. If they were getting back together, they needed to talk. But then, Hal insisted on driving with the convertible top down and they couldn’t hear each other.
Teri sank into the plush upholstery. She didn’t know what to do with her hands. They felt hot and swollen. Sometimes she held them in her lap and sometimes she jammed them into her coat pockets. She wanted to know what was attractive about that woman, Marilyn. And she wanted to say something about that word: reconciliation. What exactly did it mean? Instead, she re-tied her scarf and watched the waves hit the rocky shore and fly into foam.
She hated the way Hal drove. He thought other drivers deliberately crowded him. He blinked his high beam, sped up, dodged through traffic, and tapped his brake quickly so the light flashed to warn the motorist behind not to get too close. On this trip, he seemed to be driving reasonably. She hoped he was doing it so he wouldn’t irritate her, though she was sure he’d never be that considerate.
When they got out of the car in Ensenada, Hal lifted the hood. Teri felt as if the wind had blown the life out of her. She took her scarf off and brushed her hair while Hal looked at the battery. The waves of heat rising off the engine distorted him. He slammed the hood, and they went inside the hotel. It had an interior courtyard filled with ferns and waist-high red geraniums. Teri thought it was strange to register as man and wife. It seemed to happen so easily.
Right after Hal left to live with Marilyn, Teri slept for twenty hours a day. Then she began to lie awake in the dark and hear noises. Cats thumping hollowly on the deck made her think someone was trying to break in. She heard footsteps coming down the hall. She worried that someone would find out she lived alone now and come to murder her. Once, after falling into an exhausted sleep, she decided she had to change, or she’d be crazy. She disciplined herself to get up, comb her hair, clean the house, and send out résumés. She decided she was better off without Hal.
Now she was checking into a Mexican hotel with him like she belonged there. Hal took out his gold pen and signed, his over-large signature crowded at the edge of the paper. Long ago, on their honeymoon, a hotel clerk demanded to see their marriage license. It meant something to that clerk then. Did anyone ever do that now? She’d been so young, so full of wonderful dreams, wearing a white dress and a corsage of pink rosebuds. Now, she washed her hands at the water fountain in the corner of the lobby. She wiped them on her skirt.
They unpacked, put on their bathing suits, and headed for the beach, carrying towels and a basket lunch. The beach in front of the hotel was littered, the water dirty. “This must be the industrial section,” Hal said. Loud Mexican music poured out the door of a small tavern sitting on an outcropping of rock at the water’s edge. “Why wouldn’t the hotel keep this beach clean?”
“What’s that over there?” Teri asked. Something large and dark lay in the debris. She stepped closer. “It’s a dead seal,” she said. When the traffic sounds on the street behind them stopped for a second, she heard another seal barking. It lay between several wet cardboard boxes, a few feet away from the dead one. Was it sick? Or only mourning? She walked toward it.
“There’s broken glass all over,” Hal said. He went back to the sidewalk.
Teri knew he wouldn’t go with her.
A man rushed out of the tavern waving his arms. The seal lifted its head and barked and then put its head down. “You can’t swim here,” the man said. His round face bobbed above a brilliant white shirt.
“What’s wrong with that seal?” she asked.
“It’s sick,” he said. “I am the owner of this tavern. Come later for a drink.”
She wanted to ask more questions, but the man walked away. He’d probably think it was silly to be concerned. Teri walked quickly to catch up to Hal. “You should’ve waited,” she said. “That seal is sick.” She always expected Hal to care. “Shouldn’t we do something?” she asked.
“What? Chicken soup? Blankets?”
“There must be something we can do.” The breeze shifted, bringing the smell of the dead seal. “Maybe call a vet?”
Hal’s nostrils seemed to close. “Sick animals are dangerous,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Tin cans on the beach glittered in the sun. He was right, of course. If they were home, they might call a vet or a wildlife agency. But here, they didn’t know. It would be best to forget it.
They drove south to a dazzling white sand beach. The orange and blue sail of a windsurfer floated on the horizon and brown pelicans flew overhead, their wings so large they creaked. Teri and Hal ate chicken sandwiches and mangoes and drank Mexican beer.
“What did you tell Marilyn when you left?”
“It was hard to tell her anything.” He peeled the label off his beer bottle.
“Did you tell her you don’t love her and you really love me? Did you tell her that?”
“Don’t push it, Teri.”
“Did she throw you out?”
“What was the reason you gave her for leaving?”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“I thought the point of this trip was to talk. If we’re going to rebuild, you have to give me a reason. Otherwise, I’ll manufacture my own.” She sifted through a handful of shells, putting the perfect ones on the corner of her towel. “Like maybe you came back to spend a lot of money on yourself and then split. That way you’d get a better property settlement. Or maybe you were impotent with her.” She looked at him sharply. “Was that it?”
Hal sipped his beer and watched the pelicans. “It didn’t work out with Marilyn. We don’t live together very well.”
“You just sleep together very well.”
“Jesus, I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain this without getting into it with you.” He wadded up the beer label he’d been shredding and flicked it across the sand.
“You thought you could come back as if nothing happened?”
He raised his arm as if to hide his face. She could see the white skin that never got tanned on the underside of his arm. It made him seem vulnerable. “I realized that I love you. Not her. And so I came back. After I sort it all out, we’ll talk about it.”
“So I should wait for you to think it all through. How do I know you’re doing that?”
“You’ll have to trust me.”
“Precisely.” Teri opened a bottle of beer. It seemed as if he should say something about forgiveness. She wondered where the nearest airport was. She drank the beer and opened another bottle. The sun beat down in waves. She felt sleepy and dozed off.
Back at the hotel that night, Teri sipped brandy and watched Hal dip clams in butter. He tore off a piece of a loaf of bread. “Getting hungry?” he asked.
“My stomach is upset,” she said. She watched the gardener water the geraniums.
Each night since they’d started on this trip, Hal left her after dinner to go to the lobby to make a call. He said he had poor cell coverage. Tonight he left her sipping her brandy, saying, “I’ll put this on the tab.” She followed him out to the lobby and sat on a brown leather sofa where she could see him. She watched him pay the bill and walk to a bank of phones alongside the desk. He leaned into the phone, laughing and waving his arms and talking like he never did with her. When he hung up, she stood and waved. He looked irritated to see her.
“Why can’t you call the office from our room?” she asked.
“We always get back there so late.”
“You’re a liar,” she said. “Those aren’t business calls.” She gave him a moment to deny it. He riffled through a newspaper on the end of the sofa. She wondered if he planned to leave her again. “You won’t talk to me,” she said loudly, “but you talk to someone else.” People in the lobby turned to look at her. Hal seemed to be reading. She wanted to rip the phones off the wall.
“There’s a museum down the street,” he said. “It’s open ’til ten. Let’s go down there.”
“We’re not going to any damn museum. We’re going to sit here and talk.” She yanked the newspaper out of his hands and threw it on the floor.
Hal sighed and leaned back on the sofa. “The phone calls are not important,” he said.
“I thought we were starting over.” When he didn’t respond and wouldn’t look at her, she said, “I had this picture of roses with the breakfast tray, and you and I dancing on the beach in the moonlight.”
“We’re past that stage, Teri. We can’t go back there.” He picked up the newspaper and straightened it. “Besides, roses and scrambled eggs aren’t a good combination, and if you take a radio to the beach at night, it’ll get stolen.”
“Why didn’t you divorce me?” Teri asked. “You were halfway there.”
He seemed to think about this. “I couldn’t just walk away.” He straightened his cuffs. “You couldn’t even get a job.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” she said. “I try so goddamned hard with you.”
“You’ve had too much to drink,” he said.
“You’ve always got some real good reason for not answering my questions.” Teri stood up. “I want to know why you felt you had to have another woman.” She started to cross the lobby.
Hal followed. “It wasn’t like that.”
“Tell me how it was, then.” As they passed the phones, she said, “Go ahead, call her. I’ll hang around and listen. She’ll probably be glad to hear from you again, and I can find out how it is now.”
“All right,” Hal said. “No more phone calls. It was wrong of me to do that. I’m sorry.” He put his arm around her waist. “Please forgive me. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I know exactly what you’re doing. You’re covering all possibilities.”
That night, Hal slept with one arm hanging off the bed. When she was a kid, Teri believed there were monsters hiding in the dark who ate things nobody cared about. Letting your arm hang off the bed in the cold was a sign you didn’t care about it. She pulled his arm under the covers.
She and Hal had once gone to a movie about a man who came home after many years. His father was confined to a wheelchair. He tried to find a relationship with the deaf and senile man. He wound up shouting his philosophy of life and then repeating it, and then the father heard it wrong and got confused.
When she and Hal left the theater, they ran into a group of friends. “How was the movie?” one of them asked. Teri opened her mouth to say Wonderful, but Hal said, “Awful, boring. You ought to go to the other show.”
Teri had laughed. “Did we go to the same movie?” she asked. “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen.”
Now she decided it wasn’t funny. They’d never seen the same movie. She studied Hal’s eyelids and thought about the way he saw the world. She couldn’t fall asleep. The sounds of traffic faded at 2:00 a.m. The only noise after that was a seal barking. She got up, dressed, and went to the beach.
A pack of dogs harassed the same sick seal. Teri yelled and threw rocks at them. She chased them off. They snarled and yipped. Their teeth flashed in the darkness. They waited for her to go away. The tavern keeper came out. “Why doesn’t someone shoot that seal?” she asked.
“That’s a lot of trouble,” he said. “Let the dogs have it. They’re starving. It will be a good meal for them.” He was so calm, so matter-of-fact.
“Does this happen often?” she asked.
“No, or they’d be fatter.”
“Why don’t they eat that dead one?”
“They ate part of it. This is natural for them.”
Cardboard boxes flapped in the wind, making a scraping sound in the sand. The dogs and the tavern keeper watched her as if she might have the power to change things. It was low tide so the seal was completely out of the water. It lifted its head and bawled. She stepped closer. “Could we push it into the water?”
“That’s not a good idea,” the tavern keeper said. “They bite.”
The water seemed quiet. Moonlight glinted off the little rolls of white on the curve of each wave. The closer she got to the seal, the more agitated the dogs became, as if she had come to help them kill it. “Get back,” she yelled. “Get away.” One of them ran toward the seal, and then dodged back and ran toward her. It snapped at her ankle. She kicked out and caught it in the jaw. It howled and loped off. She sat down on a rock.
Light poured out the door of the tavern in a yellow rectangle. The foul wind blew through her hair. The dogs stopped barking. One of them lay down panting. Its ribcage seemed to stick out of the sand. Bones and hair. The dogs whined. The seal barked and moaned. Teri had seen seals playing in the water, black and sleek and powerful. She wished she had a gun.
The tavern keeper picked his way slowly toward her. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“If we beat it with a board, do you think we could kill it?”
“It would be very hard to kill that way,” he said. “It’s best to leave it alone.”
“Is there a heavy board around here?” she asked.
“Don’t do that,” he said. “Wait a minute.” He went back into the tavern. A few minutes later, he returned carrying two steaming cups. “Tia Maria and coffee. I hope you like it?” He handed her a cup and sat down beside her. “There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “The seal might take days to die.”
The seal had grown quiet, but then it barked loudly. At four the sky lightened. The tide was coming in now. The surf roared. The seal screamed and put its head down. The dogs slept. One of them got up, stretched, and went to sniff at the seal. This time, the seal didn’t move. The only sounds were the surf and the wind.
“She’s gone,” the tavern keeper said.
A gust of wind blew a wad of tissue over Teri’s shoe. The dogs fanned out around the seal, moving slowly as if not to disturb its sleep. Teri gave the tavern keeper her empty cup. She’d been clutching it and her hands felt stiff. “Thanks for the drink. And the company.”
She went back to the hotel, aware that the dogs still watched her. In their room, Hal snored quietly. Teri turned on the lights and got into bed without undressing. She lay on her back. She wondered how people forgave each other. She reviewed all the people she knew who’d forgiven the misdeeds of others. She tried to remember how they looked when they talked about it, the way they held their hands.
Teri tried not to imagine the scene on the beach but concentrated instead on how the waves rushed up on clean white sand on other beaches. How the waves always sparkled in the morning sun. And then she fell asleep.
Ellie J. Anderson is a Canadian living in the Pacific Northwest with a stray cat from Thailand and a man from Tennessee. Her stories have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, New Delta, Capilano Review, Geist, Double Back, and Caesura. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Eyster Prize for fiction. Her poems have appeared in the San Pedro River Review, Deep Wild, Third Wednesday, The Rupture, Evening Street, and Bryant Literary Review. For more, visit her website, and to read book reviews, excerpts, and general nonsense, please visit Ellie J. Anderson’s Literature on Facebook.
Cover Design by Karen Rile