The Pacific By Justin Ridgeway

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On their way up the coast from the airport an overturned tractor-trailer partially blocks the highway, its wheels spinning in air thick with something burning. “A bit of turbulence,” Greg says as the taxi navigates around trailer doors twisted open. He tilts his head out the window, but there’s nothing to hear other than primal chirps coming from the thick jungle trees lining the gravel shoulder.

“Huh?” Casey says, “No emergency vehicles, not even flares.” She reaches across the back seat for Greg’s hand. The car regains speed and they slip back into the indifferent emptiness of the road, its pavement a cool blue in the low light.

Driving into town plastic prayer flags the color of faded Starburst wrappers with cut-outs of skulls and flowers stretch across nameless gravel streets from second story balconies. Casey says they evoke Nepal, rather than Mexico. She tries to map directions to their vacation rental, but there’s still no service on her phone. Greg speaks to the driver in clipped Spanglish. At the central square the driver pulls over and gets out, gestures with other taxi drivers. Ten minutes later they pull in front of the casa, a compound of smaller casitas linked by frescoed concrete paths slinking amongst palm trees. Greg likes the look of the place in the dying light, the deeply saturated hues of the leafy vegetation and textured shadows on stucco.

He thinks of a day in November, months before, when it was so cold his eyes watered as he walked through midtown. Casey called as he was about to enter a meeting – her test result had come in. Green light, she said. He got off the phone and leaned against a porcelain-tiled wall. The way she said fertilize and egg was giddy, like this wasn’t the real thing, and he knew this wouldn’t be the point when they were about to enter a more permanent phase in their life, it was only a temporary glow, another thing that wouldn’t take hold.

From their balcony Greg surveys the ocean and its surroundings. Houses trickling down the tree-covered hills, a few bars and restaurants on the edge of the sand and a grand resort hotel perched on the side of rocky bluffs. There are still people on the beach, though only a few in the water. The sun has lowered over the backs of the mountains behind them. Casey’s put on a sweatshirt over her t-shirt and cut-off jean shorts.

“You want to go in?” he says.

She looks at the water. It’s not quite black, but deeper than gray. Small whitecaps ripple over its surface. “Maybe tomorrow,” she says.

On their first morning Greg lies in bed examining the casita, a single open-concept room with a glass patio door facing the ocean. The light is white and liquid and he traces its wash over Casey’s shoulder with his fingers. She doesn’t wake. He gets up and walks out to the balcony. The night before he sat outside in the wicker chaise with a novel and a tumbler of Don Julio, thinking about a cigarette and listening to water roll over the rocks and sand lit by the lights of late-night bars and the resort hotel. Shaky Beatles and Stones covers carried up through the trees. At some point he got up to refresh his drink and Casey was standing there in the dark, poking at the over-sized foreign insects clinging to the glass, drawn by the patio lights. She said to shut the doors, then shuffled back to bed. He returned to the chair and his book, but set it down after only a sentence. He listened to the water, the music, the indistinct voices laced between.

At the mouth of the bay squat fishing boats with wide out-riggers line the horizon. Last night Greg counted their white lights, unmoving like stars on a flat, level field. About a hundred yards offshore a handful of surfers float and he can make out the reef below the clear water. He flips through the paperback’s damp and inflated pages.

“I found some Nescafe,” Casey says, nudging her chin into his back.

After coffee, Greg and Casey walk the beach. Teenaged girls lie topless under umbrellas covered in Modelo logos, sipping Coca-Cola and texting. Greg connects the pulse of EDM blaring from the bars to the absent swaying of the girls’ ankles above their glossy curves. He watches surfer girls glide to shore and rise from the water to skip across the sand of finely smashed shells. Sharp heat sears the bottoms of his feet. He grips Casey’s hand a bit tighter.

Casey used to love being in the water until one summer on a small lake upstate – some ex-boyfriend’s cottage – when her kayak flipped. She’s certain she almost drowned. This was a decade before Greg. He’s thought about those years when they were both young, with sleeker bodies, when they were more reckless with the way they went about sharing them. Sometimes Casey tells him stories in bed, a little dirty talk to turn each other on. In other intense moments he’s said to her that those were the years she could’ve had children. It’s unfair, he knows; life is full of things you can’t take back.

Further down the beach the shore narrows and the crowd thins out. Casey says the waves look bigger down that way. “That’s just the way it appears from here,” Greg says. They walk until the crowds are barely visible. They walk until the only sounds come from the ocean.

Under a looming stand of shedding Papelillo trees Casey kicks a tractor tire at the base of an off-balanced stack layered like the balconies of falling buildings at the foot of large boulders. The air is ripe with warm rubber. “There’s going to be those tiny crabs in them,” Greg says. He circles reams of peeled bark, horse-droppings and divots in the sand. He looks to the water thirty yards away.

The waves come up slow and then fast, blue and white marbled foam mixed with brown sand sucked up from the bottom. He counts a lull of ten, fifteen seconds, the cycle on a continuous loop. The sound of the waves reverberates in his chest; it’s another form of perception, something tactile, but without touch. He turns to find Casey sitting with her legs crossed yoga-style atop a boulder ten feet up. He removes his shirt and goes to the water.

The whitewash churns above his knees and he waits for the next set of waves. The first one pushes him backward and the second almost knocks him onto the sand. Then he wades in deeper, into a third cresting overhead. He flattens himself as it picks him up and he dives through the back, emerging onto a steep, but gently rolling plane. He can still touch the bottom. He breaststrokes out farther and dives feet-first, repeating until the surface is arm’s length above his head, and then holds himself underwater. When he re-surfaces it’s to the same small portion of the Pacific.

After the Christmas holidays, Greg went with Casey to the fertility clinic. They had taken the train uptown and come up to the street, into a sudden heavy rain and a blackened version of gray light, an all-day storm version. The doctor apologized, or rather gave his condolences. In the Uber home they weighed their options alongside the costs, neither wanting to say that it was too much, so it came down to Casey to state the obvious. Greg ordered Thai delivery and found something mindlessly distracting on Netflix. All night, he knew, she was waiting for him to disagree.

“How was it?” Casey calls down to Greg when he returns. She’s basking on her boulder, eyes closed.

“We’ve talked about this,” he says.

Her friend, Charles, the one who owns the casa, warned them that people regularly drowned here. He mentioned undertows and Greg didn’t know what that really meant. Greg’s a strong swimmer, but grew up swimming in cottage lakes, training in pools. He dismissed the drowning as accident or rumor.

Casey doesn’t budge.

“It’s only water, babe,” he says. “And I’m here. It’s not like you are going to get taken out to sea.”

“Is that what happens?” she says.

During dinner at the Italian restaurant in town a child with a round, smudged face hovers about the tables, hawking an assortment of wooden tigers, other exotic animals. Casey goes for an orange-striped giraffe with a missing limb. “I’ve seen that girl around,” she says.

“She is persistent,” Greg says.

Casey flicks the toy. It wobbles on the table.

Afterward they wander the streets, looking for somewhere to have a quiet drink. Outside a somber red-brick place two Norte couples smoke cigarettes with a guitar player. The women are in white linen tops flowing midway to their knees. The one with tangerine hibiscus petals folded into her hair strokes the guitarist’s back. Her friend fondles a woody, beaded necklace nestled below her bony clavicle. Their men are older, equally typical in khakis and Ralph Lauren. Casey says they’re like advertisements for something, like an online travel booking service. Or a West Elm catalogue. She sidles through and Greg follows her to a seat at a rustic stone bar. They’re the only other customers it seems. Greg nods to the bartender. “Hola,” he says, feeling he never gets the H‘s right. He orders two glasses of Malbec. He asks Casey if she is fine with that and she rests her head on his shoulder. Greg inhales the smoke wafting in through the glassless windows. In his twenties he traveled Europe alone, just a backpack and some books he’d trade over in each new town. He smells the diesel of cheap buses mixing with cigarette smoke. The couples step in and the women’s fragrance – a musk of sweat, dust, and hot skin cooling off in the evening – stirs him the way Casey does when she comes home from the gym or a run. The couples get louder. They sound like they’re from Texas, but somewhere along the way found the west coast. Greg thinks of hostels and Barcelona.  He swirls around the last of the wine in his glass. “We’ll go after this,” he says.

The crowds have come down from the hills and the hotel. Golf carts line the central square where kids circle about on skateboards and BMX bikes, doing their little tricks, smoking weed and cigarettes. Every few minutes fireworks spark and sizzle on the ground like scattered gunfire. Above the streets, the balconies of late-night discotheques fill with dancers. It will go on like this until almost sunrise.

At the bottom of the steep path to the casa, as they begin to climb, Greg places his hand on Casey’s ribs. She startles and misses a step. Kicking off her clog sandals, she holds her foot in one hand, rubbing the ankle. Greg puts her arm over his shoulder to help her. Halfway up she lets go. “I got this,” she says.

In their casita a table lamp is on by the bed and the room has that feeling of someone having just left. Greg pulls back the sheets as Casey brushes her teeth, then he brushes his. He turns out the light, gets into bed and puts his hands between Casey’s legs. She rolls over to his side and he runs his other hand through her hair, over her mouth. She’s awake, but breathing slowly. He listens to her fall asleep then goes to the bathroom to get himself off. Afterward the kitchen for the tequila. He looks out through the window over the sink. Seven ships out on the edge of the bay. The stars are faint.

Two years ago they were walking the High Line at golden hour, evening sun dripping out over Hoboken across the river. Some kind of fashion or video shoot was setting up with wispy girls stalking about in slivers of bronze dresses. Casey stopped and said she wanted a child. He hadn’t thought of it before, but it occurred to him in that moment that this is where it was going all along. She showed him some information on her phone; she had already been to see a specialist. He was buying into her and what she had planned. Casey monitored her temperature and texted when she needed him home. It became routine. But there was also something enticingly indecent about it, getting down to what was required like needy, rational machines. Some nights she told him to just fuck her. Other nights it was slow and drawn out and he wanted to believe it brought them closer. Still, maybe all of those things were not connected, or not inextricable.

He returns to bed, tired but unable to sleep, his thoughts drifting into the stir of air from the fan above. Behind his eyes he sees the young surfer girls in their swimsuits bobbing on the water.

Returning to their beach spot from yesterday they find the tires melted into a singular volcanic mass. Spray coming off the ocean with the rising afternoon winds cuts the burnt rubber. Greg holds his palms above their matte skin feeling the heat come off.

“What do we do?” Casey says. Hands over her eyes, she’s looking past Greg. Weedy lots terraced with crumbled brick walls scale the hills behind him.

“If we go any further we’ll have to find a way around those,” Greg says, indicating an outcrop of cliffs tapering into the sea a few hundred yards distant.

Casey takes out a bottle of water from the bag looped over her shoulder. In the bright sun, she flickers before Greg’s eyes like a piece of broken glass.

Off from the beach, before all the restaurants and people, Greg spots a narrow road leading into the jungle beside a tiki-hut styled cantina. A Bob Dylan song groans from a mini-stereo atop a refrigerator. They order Pacificos. The bartender drops them off and disappears. They drink their beers quickly.

On the road Casey makes a game of staying inside the dried-mud ruts. The ocean vanishes from view and forest canopy blocks out all sunlight, but it’s not dark. Overgrown. Swallowed. These words echo in Greg’s head. Casey stops in front of a cinder block house that’s buckling under heaps of deadfall and corrugated aluminum. Limping chickens peck about a disassembled Toyota in the yard. “This does go back to town, right?” she says, folding over to wring her ankle. Greg tastes the sweet smoke of sappy wood burning in a charred metal drum. “I think so,” he says and continues walking. He looks back, but Casey hasn’t moved. The road makes a hard turn into the hills at the river. They cross a makeshift footbridge and then the forest abruptly opens to a soccer pitch, dirt-worn with rusted goal posts bending toward the ground. A woman in a purple shawl sits on a bench beside a freezer cart, a cardboard sign taped to its door: Helado. Greg pulls out a Popsicle shaped like a spaceship for Casey. She waves it off and dips in, retrieving a Drumstick. Greg slides the woman a few coins. A pickup truck with a bed full of children drives through sending up a long cloud of vanilla powder from the road.

In their casita Leonard Cohen intones songs from another room. Greg likes to think of Greece and Marianne sitting at a writing desk in nothing but a damp towel. Sometimes I need you naked; sometimes I need you wild, he recites along with the gravelly voice coming from the travel speaker. Casey is slicing lemon circles to go on the fish they had bought from the fishermen on the beach. Greg stands behind her, his hands by her elbows, not touching, but poised there, ready to catch her. “There’s more to that song,” she says. Yes, there’s all the distance. Her loose t-shirt slips off her shoulders. “You got a little too much sun,” he says.

After dinner Casey and Greg take a shower together. They lather each other with soap, but it leads to nothing. Sometimes Greg gets the sense he’s not permitted to look at her, at least not in a certain way, and that this is exactly how she intends him to feel. She steps out of the shower. He stays under the running water, immersed in its white noise. He comes out to find Casey on the balcony with a book and a glass of green liquid. A Ziploc of ice rests across her ankle.

“That little gypsy girl from the Italian restaurant the other night?” she says. “I keep seeing her.”

“Where?”

“On the street. Sleeping in doorways. I feel like I keep walking passed her.” Casey closes the book over her finger, cover facing upward. His Bolaño. “How old do you think she is?” she says. “How old is too old?”

“You mean for us?” he says. It’s been months since adoption has been brought up. He takes the glass from her hand. “What’s this?”

“Wheat grass.”

He leans down and takes the tip of her ear in his teeth. Her shoulders drop.

“This feeling of urgency. It comes and goes,” she says, as if talking about something passing, like the weather, like an afternoon.

“We travel,” he says. “We can leave our jobs and the city. We can live new lives.”

“I don’t know about that,” she says.

It’s after ten p.m. and almost solemn in the bar. At the far end two youthfully middle-aged men in jeans and crisp button down shirts play backgammon. The slightly older man is bald. His companion’s stringy charcoal hair falls to the shoulder. The men’s shirt colors, matching powdery blue, bring out their tans. Greg thinks they must be from Spain, maybe former football stars. Warm wax fills in the room’s empty spaces. Casey signals to the bartender.

“Reposado?” she says to him.

The younger man places his hand on the inside of the other man’s thigh. He moves it slowly, in circular motions. The bartender brings two short glasses of Reposado. The clear liquid glows by candlelight.

“I didn’t order one,” Greg says, shifting his gaze back to the two men.

“Cornflower blue?” Casey says.

“Not Cornflower. But close.”

Greg turns his glass, leaving a wet Venn diagram on the stone.

“I had this friend, Pascale. Really he was a friend of this girl, Sasha, I lived with,” he says. Casey doesn’t lift an eye. Greg continues. “We used to go over to his house once a month and make dinner. Like a family. He was from a small town upstate, but had lived in Dubai. He was a flight attendant for a while. There was this picture on his fridge – he’s standing in a green park in front of a glass skyscraper in his uniform. His uniform was that exact color of blue.”

Greg finishes his drink, looks to the bartender who is scrolling through an iPod. “I used to think that was the life I wanted,” Greg says. “I liked the thought of being in the sky and touching down and then going right back up again.”

“Sounds lonely,” Casey says.

“It is, but it isn’t. Not if you are constantly moving.”

The bartender looks up and makes his way over. “Mas reposado,” Greg says to him, holding up two fingers. “Dos.”

“Pascale was making a lot of money overseas,” Greg says. “He was thirty, thirty-one. He came home – his mom was alone – and met Steven. Steven had dropped out of grad school to look after his own mom. Within a year Pascale married Steven and bought a house outside of town. The house came with a barn and one afternoon, only a few months after moving in, he came home from work – he was now doing some carpentry – and went into the barn to find Steven hanging there. From a beam.”

The bartender returns with their drinks and then to his iPod. He stops the song midway through to start another. The new song sounds the same. At the end of the bar one of the men is crying and shaking. It could be laughter or sorrow. Casey’s eyes are also watery and Greg wants to say he’s sorry but doesn’t know exactly what he’s sorry for.

The next morning Greg is still in bed when Casey returns. He’d been having these heavy dreams. In them, Casey is talking to him on her phone, on her way to the train just after a bomb had gone off in Chelsea. No one died or was injured and normal activity swiftly resumed. This is the world we are living in now, dream Casey said. Greg tried to stay within the dream, to get through their conversation, to its end. But then the dream shifted and he was walking the empty streets of town, alone in the early morning hours. A car raced toward him flashing its high beams and in its wake the buildings began to topple all around. He holds his eyes partially closed as Casey sits on the bed, massaging aloe into her neck with one hand and holding a hand drawn map in the other.

“You were whimpering in your sleep,” she says.

She slides over the sheets and puts the map off to the side. Greg is already hard. His fingers walk up Casey’s spine and then around, under the waistband of her Lululemons. He rolls the elastic off her ponytail so her hair falls forward. The balcony doors are open and half-gray light enters the room; there’s a bit of breeze that turns to a sudden, brief gust. Afterward Greg picks up the map.

“What’s this?” he says.

“Charles, you know the guy from back home who owns this place? He got in last night and I ran into him.”

“Just now?”

“Yeah. I went out for a jog.”

Greg had noticed how her skin felt cool with perspiration as he pushed her tank top up over her stomach.

“He says we need to check out this other beach,” she says.

Out front of the luxury hotel clean white golf carts whisk about over wet cobblestone and cleaning staff in dull purple polo shirts push trolleys of supplies. The woman with the flower behind her ear from the bar the other night leans against a yellow plaster wall near reception, lighting a cigarette. Greg makes eye contact with her. She looks much younger than he had previously thought. He tells Casey the girl looks Eastern European. “A lot of porn is shot here,” he says, meaning places with airy rooms looking out over palm trees.

“This makes me think of France,” Casey says. “The Riviera. Cannes.”

“We’ve only been to Paris together,” Greg says.

They continue through the courtyard pretending to be guests, as Charles instructed, until they find the path leading off from a cluster of shabby bungalows. It takes them uphill to a clearing with a thatched roof gazebo overlooking the bluff. Ambient new age music emanates from within. Casey winces and braces herself as the path winds sharply downhill alongside a cemetery populated with concrete vaults – tiny houses of pale pink and blue, gray where the paint has chipped away. More colored flags are strung from the trees. The air is coated with melted wax and creosote.

“Shrines again,” Casey says, pausing to take weight off her foot. “What’s with us and shrines?”

They had visited a famous one outside Kyoto, climbing steep stone steps up a mountain under an endless series of tall red-orange lumber gates, ghostly green bamboo running alongside. At the top they entered a small village of altars, each with a fox statuette perched and grinning.

The path becomes a road and they follow it up the next hill, catching glimpses through the trees of the water far below. At the end of the road, a shack cantilevers out over a sheer escarpment, suspended by trees. It’s missing a wall; empty water jugs and red plastic crates sit in a corner, a thin, yellowed mattress in the center. Casey consults the map. The dead-end is marked, but not the house. Greg wanders around its side. There’s a hand-written notice on white paper tied to a metal gate: PROPIEDAD PRIVADO. Greg points to an overgrown trail along the side of a concrete wall past the limp gate.

“Hey, we know it’s going down to the water,” Greg says, pushing through the gate. He kicks his feet through the thick underbrush, making noises. At the end of the concrete wall he turns around, but can no longer see Casey. He calls up to her and waits.

The beach is not entirely empty. A senior couple, in the shape of sea lions with robust white bellies, roast under direct sunlight, a portable radio murmuring quietly between them. Meandering across the bay a hunched man picks up shells, rubbing them in his fingers before tossing them away. Greg thinks of cars parked on the shoulder of a highway in a snowstorm. The sun is blinding. The white sand and cloudless sky frame a seemingly calm ocean.

Casey lays a blanket underneath tree shade and pushes her jean shorts below her knees and steps out. Her swimsuit is two-piece, one she had bought for the trip. She applies sunscreen to her legs. Faint white lines cross her toes from the straps of her sandals. Discolored swelling rises above her ankle. Greg retrieves his book from the beach bag. He is drifting off into a light sleep when three voices emerge from behind, projecting over the sea and radio. A guy and two girls, British or Australian, twenty-something. The guy is medium-height, with a subway busker’s man-bun. The two girls are taller, wheat-blonde and slim, in matching straw hats and Wayfarers. The girls remove their bikini tops and stretch their arms overhead and knead their fists into the small of their backs. Their bodies shimmer like distorted light-waves over hot pavement. Casey watches Greg watching them.

“You know, they belonged to someone before,” Casey says. “They were tiny and then small and they grew. And at some point, they became their own thing. Now their parents think of them as something that went away.”

Greg thinks he understands how you lose things and it’s rarely all at once. The same applies to how you keep them. You build your hold up over time. You let go of the obstacles and this allows you to go on. When he looks at Casey, that’s what he wants, he wants to keep going.

The water rises up the beach, successive waves pushing upward and sideways, like a train derailing before coming to rest on its side. The repetitive crashing is absorbed by the sand and the heat, the otherwise stillness. The blonde girls gallop across the sand, charging headfirst into the mounting water, and then reappear on the other side, in the smooth rolling blue, their breasts and faces floating indistinguishably. They wave to the boy on the beach and he runs toward them, throwing himself over the waves.

“You want to go in?” Casey says. She pulls her knees into her chest, rests her chin on top. Something about the narrow fabric on her hipbone, the way it pulls taut.

“I will,” he says, holding up his book, still Bolaño. “In a bit.”

Before those dreams last night Greg lay in bed touching toes with Casey until she flinched with a short cry when he accidently struck her bad ankle. She asked if there was ever an explanation for Steven’s suicide and Greg told her there wasn’t. But how true is that? What kind of truth can you actually get at when it comes to loss? It had been during one of their monthly dinners that Pascale told his story. Even Sasha didn’t know he’d been married before. Afterward Pascale went out to the upstairs balcony for a cigarette. Greg joined him while Sasha stayed inside, falling half-asleep in front of the television. He remembers looking at the sky, seeing the lights of jets overhead and wondering what thoughts Pascale had when he saw them. Pascale finished his cigarette and lit another. Greg asked for a drag. It had been months since he’d had one. Greg felt the head rush and couldn’t get a handle on what was in front of him: aged oaks creaking in a yard; wind chimes somewhere below; the softness of summer at midnight. And then Pascale moved into him. He didn’t take the cigarette. Greg’s hand seemed to separate from his body. Pascale put his lips on Greg’s. All Greg tasted was smoke.

The three young swimmers form a tightening circle and Greg imagines the way the water moves against their bodies and the way their bodies move against each other, pressing, opening, swirling. He feels fleshless, like his insides are dissolving, turning to silt and trickling away. His head tingles.

He puts down his book.

In the water the girls squeal.

Casey smiles, runs a finger across her lips. She tightens the straps of her swimsuit top and pushes off the blanket, with a firm hand on Greg’s shoulder. Coconut evaporates off her skin. “Your eyes,” she says. “You look tired.” She strides to the edge of the water. It surges forward, wrapping around her waist.

And farther out, beyond the waves, the three swimmers drift out to sea.

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Justin Ridgeway

Point A to Point Z: Justin Ridgeway was raised on a farm in south-western Ontario, Canada; he now calls Queens, New York home.

Previous publications include: Dose, Lost In Thought, Umbrella Factory and, most recently, Megatron Press’ journal Omega.

Image from Free-Photos on Pixabay

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