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Harry Buschman

She lay on the sand in the hot sun, flat on her back with her hands cradling her head. Her eyes were shut tight to shield the glare. Her lips revealed the hint of a smile. Not so much as a grin, just a look as though a pleasant thought had crossed her mind. Her breathing was shallow, almost imperceptible -- and if you looked carefully you could see a pulse beating in her neck just under her ear. But for that she might have been dead.

I thought I heard the cries of distant shore birds and the soft sound of the surf, I might have been mistaken ... my senses were keener in the old days.

"It's no good, our going on this way," I tried to speak the words as softly as I possibly could. Just loud enough for her to hear. If she heard me it seemed to have no effect.

"Did you hear me, Leona?" Her happy thought faded and with it the hint of her smile. I raised my hand to throw a shadow over her eyes and she opened them.

"It could go on this way forever," she said. "Or it could stop forever. I don't ask for more than I have today."

"You're satisfied with things as they are?"

"Of course not," she answered sharply. "But you take what you're given ..."

"Then you ask for more, right?" I interrupted.

She sat up and put her sun glasses on. It was hard to tell where she was looking, but I knew she wasn't looking at me. "You don't ask for more," she said carefully. "You hope for more."

I made an impatient gesture. "I don't like talking in riddles, Leona. Look at us -- we look like two normal people out for a day at the beach having a picnic, but I don't feel normal. Do you?" I turned to look at the ocean. "Your husband ran off with my wife -- does that sound normal to you?"

"Perfectly normal. You and I, sitting here together on this beach -- that's not normal." She stood up and dusted the sand from her backside. "I'm going to walk along the surf line. Want to come?"

We had a lot in common, both of us were abandoned you might say. A year ago I discovered a phone number in Estelle's purse and I suddenly found myself talking to Leona. I shouldn't say I 'discovered' of course ... I was looking. Estelle and I were drifting further and further apart every day, we seemed to go out of our way to avoid each other. Walking around the apartment, bumping into one another, and saying, "Excuse me." Speaking only when it was absolutely necessary. She would come home late and spend the night in the spare room. While I was alone I looked around the apartment and marveled at the things we accumulated together in seven years of marriage, I tried to think just when -- at what particular point did things go sour. Was it just after the coat tree and just before the little glass statue of Poseidon, or was it just before the microwave?

"Why," I wondered. "Why didn't I just face her -- ask her just what the hell was going on. I did think about doing that for a while, but the question burned my mouth dry. I knew damn well what the hell was going on. I wasn't the man of the house any more.

I could have fought back. Like a Neanderthal I could have clubbed Leona's husband and dragged Estelle back home with me. Maybe I should have, but instead a strange feeling of impotence and irretrievable loss overcame me and I began to think that living with Estelle was more than I could handle.

Now, I looked at Leona as she picked her way along the water's edge. The same thing must have happened to her -- she seemed to know who I was the moment I made the phone call.

"What do you suppose they're doing now, those two," she asked?

"Probably growing tired of each other. How do you plan to spend the rest of your life, Leona? You've got a big paid up apartment all to yourself -- a good job." I had to laugh to myself, "You're quite a catch."

Instead of answering she pointed ahead of her. "What's that?" She asked. Something glistened in a pile of kelp at the high tide level.

"I think it's a conch." Sure enough, I dug it out of the sand and rinsed it in the water. It was a lovely pinkish golden color. I handed it to her. "Here." I said, "It's yours ... you saw it first."

"It's pretty," she said. "What will I do with it?"

"Oh, put it on a shelf or a coffee table. It's rare to find one as perfect as this." I took it and held it up to her ear. "If you hold it to your ear you can hear the ocean."

"I don't need that to hear the ocean."

"Well ... in winter ... late at night."

"I want to see the ocean, not just hear it. I want to smell it, to feel the sand between my toes. It just isn't enough to hear it." She walked to the water's edge and threw the conch far out in the water. There were tears in her eyes.

We turned around and began walking back. She stayed ahead of me but she occasionally brushed her face quickly with the back of her hand. I could tell she was crying. She recovered by the time we reached the blanket and we stood there looking at each other wondering if we should stay longer or leave.

"It was a lousy idea to come here, Leona. I should have known better."

She smiled weakly and said, "We're survivors, we have too much in common. There's no way we could ever make it together." She began putting things in her tote bag. "I discovered something this afternoon too -- maybe that's why I didn't want the conch. The past is all I have to call my own, I don't own anything else." We folded the blanket and shook out the sand at every turn. Then, after a final look at the long line of breakers we headed back to the car.

"Let me start the engine and run the air conditioner for a minute or two, it'll be hot in there." We stood there a moment until the passenger side window fogged over. Then she spoke ...

"I'm sorry about the shell. I should have given it to you, it would probably mean more to you than it would to me."

©Harry Buschman 2002

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