The door to the hostel was sandwiched between the two-star hotel entrance and a restaurant, on a street perpendicular to the beach. You could step out the narrow passageway, cross the street, and in ten running steps plunge into the surf. Simon sat at the small desk behind the service window planning to slip off and do just that over the lunch hour, but at five minutes before noon the outer door opened. It was too early for a customer, so it could only be the skinny American girl.
Linda set the plastic bag of fruit on the floor beside the desk and gave Simon a proprietary kiss on the cheek. Her own cheeks were hollow, and paler than a week ago.
“It’s a bitch out there,” she said, settling herself on the tatty couch across from the desk. “Can’t you turn on some heat?”
She pulled her sweater tight around her shoulders and pulled a hank of dirty blond hair behind her ear. It didn’t stay. She tried again and this time it stayed, but only for a moment. Without makeup, the lips on her bony face were thin and straight, and the eyebrows all but invisible. Her figure was hidden by baggy trousers and the gray Irish-wool sweater she had bragged about finding on sale half-price.
“No heat till the first.”
“Shit,” she said, folding her arms and leaning back. She again brushed the hair from her face. She began rummaging through her sack. “Want a pear?”
“You could’ve stayed at your place.”
“No heat in that fleabag either.”
“Why did you leave California if you don’t like the cold?”
She looked up from rummaging in the sack and gazed at him with colorless gray eyes. “In ten minutes we could generate all the heat we need.”
He looked away. “I had hoped to get in some surfing.”
“In this weather? You must be –” she began again to search the bag. “Obviously you haven’t been out there yet. It must be in the forties, and with the wind…”
“I got a wetsuit, and with weather like this nobody’ll be getting in my way. It’s perfect for surfing.”
“For Eskimos maybe.”
The muscles in his jaw flexed.
She regrouped. “Still thinking about leaving?”
“You’re right. It’ll soon be too cold for surfing.”
She chose a pear and examined it. She took a bite. “That supposed to be an answer to my question?”
“We’ve already been over this. When it gets too cold to surf I have to be moving on.”
The room was cold and drab. The rain spit in angry spurts against the window. In silence and with small bites she ate the pear, swallowing the cool sweet flesh slowly, to ease the knot forming in the back of her throat. She blinked rapidly a few times to clear her vision.
It was time the shitty weather broke. It had been dreary and rainy ever since she arrived nearly a month ago, at the beginning of August, anxious to explore this little resort on the west side of Ireland she had learned about from a travel brochure. Pictures showed the beach to be a broad strip of sand stretching graceful as a cat around a blue-water bay, reaching to bluffs on the far side. In her imaginings the beach had been warm, the surf gentle, and the full moon had been shedding its benediction over all the broad and peaceful world.
Of course she would find a lover. Not right away maybe, but soon. A quiet-spoken student on holiday, possibly, with a soft touch and playful sense of humor. From Dublin most likely, since half of Ireland’s population lived there, and Lahinch was as popular with Dublin beach-goers as it was unknown to Americans. She would meet him at a party on the beach perhaps, joking and laughing with witty friends around the flickering light of a driftwood campfire. Or maybe drinking Guinness in a dimly lit pub, singing ballads in an untrained tenor voice; or, most likely, at the workshop at the community center where she was enrolled to study authentic Irish Music.
After four sunless days she had decided to hell with it – she was going to explore the beach, rain or no rain. She had put on her walking shoes, her jacket and poncho, and hurried off with only an hour of daylight left. The tide had come in, reducing the beach to a narrow strip of soft deep sand near the dunes. In no time the chilly wet wind had worked its way under the poncho and jacket, and the sand into her boots.
“Can’t you at least turn on the lights?” she asked. “The gloom depresses me.”
“I was just going out.”
“But I’m here now. Wouldn’t you rather…why don’t you let me fix you lunch?”
“I just had a can of tuna. I don’t want to dirty up the kitchen before the hikers start coming.”
Her light jacket had been no match for the increasing chill. Twilight was fading and the wind was picking up. Still, she hesitated, and in those few moments the thin cloud cover turned to fast-moving wisps that tumbled like oily rags across face of the rising moon. From below the horizon, the sun’s yellow-orange light still lit the western edge of the sky. Overhead, behind the speeding clouds, the brightest of the stars were becoming visible against the darkening purple backdrop. The stormy bluster was a long way from what she had imagined, and as the surf crashed and thundered onto the beach, she wondered how she could have allowed herself to be so misled by a stupid brochure. Still, except for the shivering, the sensation wasn’t altogether unpleasant.
Just as she decided to head back to the hotel, a figure on a surfboard appeared in her line of vision. The figure slid gracefully on the shore side of a roller, adjusting his board just enough to stay clear of its breaking ridge. Curious, she walked farther along the water’s edge toward the figure until he was directly out from her. He saw her at the last minute before reaching shore and stepped upright off his board, catching it as the last of the wave tipped it up. He was small and slender under the tight-fitting wetsuit. With a prominent and angular chin, chiseled nose and cheekbones, high forehead with thick, black hair tumbling wild as seaweed every which way, and deep, flashing eyes, he was anything but gentle, was not a student, and was pathologically morose. But she fell like a fistful of filings toward a magnet.
“Nobody’s hiking in this weather,” she said, then added, as though to herself, “Anyway, I’m the one always cleans up.”
He smiled thinly. “The tuna was plenty. But I will take that pear now, if you haven’t changed your mind.”
“Why would I change my mind?” Again she rummaged through the sack, this time handing him a piece of the fruit and taking another for herself. She closed the bag and set it back on the floor. “You know, I’ve been thinking…”
He took a bite and chewed silently. She waited.
“Don’t you want to know what I’ve been thinking?” she asked.
He shrugged, swallowed, and took another bite. “Sure. What you been thinking?”
“I got a little money, enough for a ticket…”
“Forget it,” he said, assuming the mien of a man in pain. “I couldn’t let you do it.”
“ ‘Let’ me? ‘Let’ me do what?”
He floundered, but only a moment. “Abandon your music. I couldn’t let you give that up.”
“Irish folk ditties? I’m tired of that stuff, the whole scene. You were right. Hear one piece, you’ve heard them all.”
“You come all this way to study, then change your opinion in four short weeks?”
“I could go with you. I really could.” She looked at him.
“Think about it. You’re always telling me how we’re a perfect match. I never make any demands. There is no downside, when you think about it.”
He leveled a gaze at her, then lowered his eyes. “Nothing would make me happier, believe me.” He studied the window. Again he looked to his lap. He closed his eyes. The surf crashed with slow and endless repetition across the abandoned street.
“You don’t want me, is that it?” she said.
“It’s not that. Of course I want you.”
“Well, then, you got me.”
His eyes flickered up, then down again. “It’s not that easy.”
“It is too that easy, unless you’re not telling me the truth. I can see it might not be so easy if you’re not telling me the truth, but if you are, then tell me, why isn’t it easy?”
He spoke softly. “Lots of reasons.”
“Well, come on, name them. Name one.”
“If you were to stop studying music because of me…”
“That’s bullshit. Try again.”
He lit another of his countless cigarettes. He sucked in a lung full of smoke and exhaled through his nose. “I’ve been bouncing around the world for ten years and intend to do it for ten more. What kind of life it that?” Smoke tumbled out of his mouth in puffs with his words.
“So you like living like a gypsy. What makes you think I don’t? You must not have been listening when I told you what I’ve been doing since high school. Tell me another.”
He raised his voice a notch, in pitch and volume. “I spend long stretches on crummy beaches when I can’t find a job that lets me surf. No tent, no hotel, no hostel, no room, nothing. Sometimes for weeks.”
“I could earn money waiting tables. You could surf to your heart’s content.”
“I could never let a woman support me. Never.”
She leaned back on the couch. She folded her arms and lowered her head. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“What kind of man would I be, to let a woman support me?”
“Honor? You talking about honor?”
“Nothing is more important.”
“Oh my God…”
“Men have died for it.”
“You’d rather die than be with me?”
“It’s what makes a man able to hold up his head.”
“So you don’t want me along because I might earn money.”
“You must see how it is. I wish you could come along. I really do, but it’s just not possible.”
“I understand. Honor and dignity.”
Simon shifted in his seat. “A man owes it to himself to live as he sees fit.”
“But with honor.”
“Yes. With honor.”
She took another bite of the pear and chewed till it turned to paste. It was hard to swallow for the constriction in her throat. “What if I’m pregnant?”
He turned still as stone. Blue smoke curled up from his cigarette. “But you’re not,” he said finally.
“What if I am?”
He flicked the ashes on the floor. With elaborate care he rubbed the glowing tip on the edge of his shoe sole. “That can be cured easier than a cold.”
“What if I don’t have any money?”
“There’s a doctor right here in Lahinch that will do it for a thousand punts, off the books. No one would ever know.”
“I don’t have a thousand punts.”
“You’ll have to call somebody. Your parents, maybe.”
“What if you call yours?”
He raised his eyebrows, but didn’t answer.
“What if I want to have it?”
He looked at her then, eyes flashing. “What would you do with a baby?”
She took a moment to answer, then shrugged. “What would anybody do with a baby?” She looked at her watch. “Almost one o’clock. Too late for surfing.”
“Merde!” he said, “Shit shit shit shit!” He crushed his cigarette butt into an overflowing ashtray. Its smoke continued to rise in lazy curls from the ashes.
Rain-laden wind was still hissing and spitting against the window. It sucked the warmth and softness from the air and leeched the color out of the streets and buildings and awnings, and what little clung to the drab furniture in the room. Huge rollers, cold and gray and streaked with foam, moved in from the sea in endless procession, rising higher and higher as they approached land to crash and boom against the shore with such power and fury she could feel them through the floor of the hostel. On and on they came, tireless and unceasing. She counted. One wave every eight seconds. Almost eight a minute. Jesus…