This is a completely stand-alone story or the Valentines Day contest. However, for those following the "Strange Arrangement" stories, I know I promised Dottie's story was next, but I didn't like how her story turned out, so it's getting a big rewrite. In the meantime, here is a single-chapter story that includes one minor character from A Strange Arrangement and introduces another character (Macy) who will show up in Dottie's story (and maybe a few others). Timing-wise, this story begins about 4 years before "A Strange Arrangement."
Everything about her was so cliché, I almost couldn't believe it was real. She stood at the end of the pier, her summer dress rippling back from the sea breeze. Her arms were wrapped around her body, holding her light sweater in place as the early evening chill took hold. In one hand, she held a glass bottle. In the bottle was a rolled and folded up piece of paper, kept safe by the cork stuffed in the top. After a few minutes of looking out at the water, she stepped up to the rail, pulled back her arm, and threw the bottle. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched it sail through the air and land with a plunk in the sea a few dozen yards out.
Me? Well, if this was the kind of movie that had a scene like that, then I was the extra in the background. I was the bearded, silent fisherman sitting motionless on the side, adding a touch of reality to the scene. You need that touch of reality because beautiful women throwing messages in bottles into the sea just isn't real.
Yes, she was beautiful- not in a magazine cover, showing off her curves type of way. More like the kind of beauty that men would write poems about- that familiar kind of beauty that reminds you that life can be good. A beauty that put you in touch with something bigger than you or her or anything that might happen between you. A beauty that was more about longing than possessing.
Her reddish-brown hair would have fallen just past her shoulders, if the wind had let it settle down. She needed to keep pushing it away from her eyes- not that there was anything on the horizon for her to see. The wind also did me the favor of blowing her dress against her body, making it hard for her to disguise her form. She was a little shorter than me, and I'm just average. I could tell she wasn't heavy, but she wasn't real thin, either. She had the kind of body a man likes to hold. She was generously equipped up top, but it was all proportional to her size. It occurred to me that it would be nice to lay my head on her chest, but that it would also be nice to have her head resting on my shoulder. I guessed she was about my age, though she looked a little older. She seemed aged by care and sadness, but that might have just been my imagination.
I couldn't get a good look at her face at first- the sun was playing tricks on me, and I didn't want to get caught staring. But what I did see made me want to look some more. If it weren't for her sad expression, I would have said she was radiant. She had hints of freckles across her nose, which turned up a little at the end, giving her a pixie-ish look. She was barefoot, holding her sandals in one hand.
How long she stood there, I'm not sure. One of the reasons I came out there was to lose a sense of time. When I was on the pier, there were no hours or minutes. Just afternoon, sunset, then dark. She got there just before sunset and stayed a little into dark. Then she glanced my direction, turned, and walked away.
I stayed another hour, not seeing another soul the whole time. Reeling in my line and packing up my tackle, I walked around to the shore under the pier. Glancing both directions, I headed towards a hint of a glimmer of glass on one direction. Sure enough, there was the bottle. I wondered if she knew it would just wash up on shore. Or did she have some romantic notion of it floating away into oblivion? I dropped it in my bag and walked to my car. Another Friday well-spent. Nothing caught, but nothing lost.
Have you ever thought about a whisper? Have you ever considered what it means? A whisper means your lips are so close that all you need is a breath of air to share your heart with someone. Just a little breath.
If you were here, I would want your lips next to my ear. It doesn't really matter what words you would say- a simple "I love you," or even "I want you," would be more than enough. If only I could feel that breath, that warm air that tells of presence and life and a beating heart nearby, that would be enough. Just your whisper.
I looked at the hand-written note. I felt a twinge of guilt at what seemed like a invasion of her privacy. But she had thrown it into the sea. It's not like it had an address or even a name on it. It was out there for anyone to find and read. She had to know that. She probably just didn't expect that it would be found a few minutes later by someone who had watched her throw it. Besides, I was curious to see if it was, as I suspected, from the same hand that had written the note I found a while ago. It was the same thing- a green glass bottle, a scrap of paper, a cork, washed up just under the pier.
I had only found the first one because I had dropped my keys on my way out to the pier one afternoon. I was glad I hadn't dropped them in the water, but it did take some sifting through the sand to find them. They had landed only a few feet away from a bottle. Not wanting some unsuspecting runner to get a foot full of glass, I picked up the bottle to throw it away. Naturally, when I saw the paper, I had to read it. It was shorter than today's note, but similar. No names, just a single thought:
I want to miss you when you're gone. Not like missing someone who will never come back, but that kind of missing that waits with eagerness to be reunited. When someone is gone forever, you can't have hope, only foolish fantasies. But when someone promises to return, then all your longings are hopeful- a sadness mixed with the anticipation of joy. I want to miss you like that.
I had found it a little poetic. I had put it back in the bottle, re-corked it, and stashed it in a drawer somewhere. Now that it had a friend, I put them together on a shelf- more as decoration than anything else. The shelf was out of the way, but whenever the bottles caught my eye that week, I thought about them and their mysterious author.
So many possibilities- was she writing to a lost love? To someone who was far away? Someone who would never return? Or was she some eccentric performance artist who did this 'just because'? Did she keep copies of her notes? How often did she 'send' them? It was just curiosity on my part- something to keep my otherwise idle mind occupied.
I soon got my answer to the last question, at least. Over the next month she came every Saturday, just as I did. Same thing every time. Arrive before sunset, watch the water for a while, throw a bottle, stare some more, then leave. And every evening, as I left, there was another bottle on the shore. Every evening, I picked it up and took it home.
My conscience didn't let me read any notes other than those first two. After a while, my shelf was full, so I started putting them in a box in my garage. Not too romantic, I know, but what else was I going to do? Throwing them away didn't seem right.
September was stormy, so I wasn't even looking for her. I had seen her every Saturday evening for 3 months, but when the rain came that afternoon, I didn't expect to see her there. I was wrong. My peripheral vision was a little obscured by the hood of my rain coat, but once she did her wind-up and threw the bottle, I saw her. She was only 10 yards away from me, but the clouds made it dark and, like I said, I couldn't see to the side.
Just as she was turning to leave, I shouted across to her, "I didn't think you'd come."
She looked over at me, took a step or two my direction, then leaned over so I could hear her. "I didn't think you'd be here, either," she said. Then, pulling her hood over her head, she walked away.
After that brief exchange, the only thing that changed between us over the next few weeks was that, before leaving, she would usually give me a little wave or a half-smile. I'd usually just nod in response. Yes, I was curious, and yes I would have liked to know her better, but I didn't think I had the energy to put myself out there again. Not yet, at least.
I was surprised to hear a child's voice behind me. I liked this pier because it was far out of the way of any occasional passers-by. Families on holiday, newlyweds on honeymoons, college kids on break- they all ended up at the main pier a few miles up the coast. A rocky outlet kept people from wandering this far down the beach. You had to want to get here.
I half-turned and saw a brown-haired boy of about 8 years looking intently at my tackle box. He had on a hooded sweatshirt jacket and his hands were stuffed in his pockets.
"Just fishin'" I answered, hoping that was enough.
"It helps me relax"
"Oh," he said, shuffling his feet. "I need to relax sometimes. I get really excited and act crazy. Sometimes my mom cries. I don't mean it, but I can't help it."
"Hm," I grunted, hoping he would take the hint and leave me alone.
"Is that all you do?"
"Fishin'. Is that it- you just sit there?"
"Well, kinda. Yeah."
Without another word, he sat down on the pier, about 5 feet away from me. He scooted forward and dangled his legs over the side. Folding his arms, he rested them on the lowest rung of the railing and stared out at the sea. He remained, to my surprise, quiet. I kept my head angled a little his direction, just to make sure he didn't slip off or, more likely, start digging in my bag. That was probably why I didn't notice bottle lady's arrival until I saw the bottle go sailing through the air.
I looked in her direction briefly, but wanted to keep an eye on the boy, too. After a few minutes of staring at the waves, bottle lady called out towards me, "Randy, what are you doing? Don't bother the nice man." I winced a little at the word 'nice.' I knew what she meant, but the word had another meaning for me.
"I'm fishin'!," the boy hollered back.
I tried not to laugh at that, for his sake. But in his defense, I wasn't really doing much more than he was, so it was an easy mistake.
Bottle lady looked at me and said, "If he bothers you, just tell him to go away. I'm sorry..."
"No, it's fine. He's just being quiet."
She looked at me a little skeptically, but when Randy still made no move, she looked impressed. Once the sun dipped below the horizon, she called out again, "OK Randy, let's go."
Randy pulled his feet up, stood, and skipped over to bottle lady. "Mom," he said, "I like fishin'."
She tousled his hair and laughed, "Oh, really?"
"Yeah!" he said, just as he ran down the length of the pier to the sand. I noticed for the first time that a light-haired little girl, maybe 4 years old, had been on the other side of Randy's mom, clinging to her mother's dress. She had made no sound and hadn't moved the whole time. While bottle lady walked away, the little girl clung to her dress and followed. I'm not sure what possessed me to do so, but I smiled and waved at her. Her eyes went wide in surprise and she tried to hide her face in the folds of her mom's dress. But just before she was out of sight, I saw her lift her hand and wave. After one slight hand motion, she pulled it back and hurried to be closer to her mom.
So bottle lady had kids. That made her story a little more interesting. An hour later, I collected the bottle and went home. I started heating up a pot of water to make dinner, and as I waited for it to boil, I pulled the latest bottle out of my bag. Pushing aside a twinge of guilt, I pulled the cork and shook the paper out.
Silence. Not a bad silence, but a good one. We can be together and be silent because there's no need to entertain each other, no need to explain. We know each other so well, you and I. And though there are times when we talk through the night, sharing secrets and dreams and stories, there are also times when you can hold me in your arms for hours without a word passing between us. And neither of us minds. The feeling of skin touching, of your chest rising and falling with each breath, of your hand touching me intimately- it needs so words, no narration. We both know that we are happy just as we are. Our silence tells us we're happy.
I kept the paper out on the table, reading it again a few times while I ate. I thought of silences that hadn't been so loving. Hannah and I had spent many quiet evenings together during our last few months, some of them just as bottle lady described. Naked in bed, her body against mine, no words passing between us. But for Hannah, it was just that she didn't want to talk.
I tried to. I loved her. She liked me. She said I was, "sweet," and "cute," and "nice." We had been together for 2 years- she had moved in after our first time making love. Whenever I tried to move closer, she backed away. I almost proposed once, but she found the ring I had hidden and returned it to the store while I was at work. She would never talk about her past and wouldn't let me talk about the future. I was left only with the present.
We lived together, we made love, we did things friends and lovers to together. I wondered if that would be our lifelong arrangement. Many times,we ran out of things to talk about. She would lay silent against me, and I would listen to the sound of our breathing. She wouldn't let me speak of love or marriage or children or tomorrow. "Just enjoy this while we have it," she would say. And though that seemed a little romantic,in a fatalistic way, I found it sad.
It wasn't the kind of silence that bottle lady wrote about. It was a silence that shut me out. She would try to chase away that melancholy by sliding down my body and taking me in her mouth. And being only human, I would never object. Her talents were...incomparable. She could make me forget- for a while, at least, that she was only giving me her body and her time- nothing else. When we made love, she would kiss me to stop me from telling her how I felt. When I had finished spending myself inside her, she would hop up and walk away before I could catch my breath and speak tenderly to her.
I wished I could know the kind of silence described in that note. I read it over again, then put it back in its bottle and took it to the garage. I looked at the box and debated opening all the bottles- a collection that had nearly reached two dozen. What else would I do with them? Return them? I was pretty sure that wouldn't go over well. And yet I just couldn't open them. It was irrational, I knew. I had already opened three of them, why not the rest? But it still felt wrong. I was sure that, if she ever knew, it would hurt her.
The next Saturday, she was alone again. After her usual ritual of staring and tossing, she walked my direction. I tried not to look at her until I knew she was walking towards me. I looked up at her face once she was only a few steps away. She was much prettier than I had thought. Her hair was held back in a loose ponytail and she was wearing a sweater over her dress. It only partially concealed her chesty curves. She was smiling, and her arms were wrapped around her body, as usual, sandals in hand. From that distance, I could also see that her toenails were painted a nice sky blue.
"Hey, I'm sorry about last week. My friend usually watches my kids for me, but she was sick. I hope Randy didn't disturb you." She had a sweet voice with a hint of a Southern accent. I had only heard her using her mom voice the week before. When she didn't have to raise her voice, it was melodious.
"He was fine," I said nonchalantly. "I didn't have the heart to tell him he wasn't actually fishing."
She smiled and said, "Well, you know what the say..."
I cocked my head and raised my eyebrows, indicating that I did not know what they say.
"There's a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore looking like an idiot."
It took me a few seconds...OK, more than a few...to get it. But once I did, my laughter was genuine and hearty. I hadn't heard a good joke in a while.
"Well, maybe next time he can hold my line for a few minutes, just to spare him that fate."
"Oh, you don't need to do that. I'm just glad he didn't get into any trouble. He can be a handful."
"He's a young boy. Aren't they all that way?"
"Maybe. But a handful can be overwhelming once you run out of hands," she said wistfully, looking out to the water again. Then, changing her tone again, she said, "Anyway, thanks for being kind to him."
"No problem, ma'am."
"Macy. I'm Macy." She started to extend her hand as if to shake mine, but then lifted it up into a little wave.
"Ernst...Just call me Ernie."
"OK. See you next week, Ernie."
She walked down the pier, and I glanced back a few times, admiring her form. I was glad she didn't turn around and catch me looking- I was pretty sure that would have been awkward. I stayed out a little later than usual, enjoying one of the last warmer evenings of the season. I picked up the bottle on my way out, and once I got home, I held it in my hand for a few minutes, looking through the glass. I forced myself to take it, unmolested, to the box.
The next week, she walked over to me again, just after throwing her bottle. I was surprised and pleased. Even if there was nothing more to it than a little conversation, I enjoyed hearing her voice and seeing her up close. She was a little out of my league, perhaps, but if she didn't mind, I wasn't complaining.
"Do you mind a little company?" she asked, leaning on the railing near me and facing the sunset.
"Not at all."
"I mean, if you'd rather...I could just..." she moved her finger a little in the direction she had just come from. In answer, I reached down next to my bag and picked up a second folding stool. Putting it a little stretch away, but still next to me, I said, "Have a seat, if you like." To be honest, I preferred the view of her standing, since she was just in front of me and I could get away with admiring as much of her body as her dress and the wind would allow, but I figured a seat would be polite, and it would make clear that I really was OK with the company.
"Oh! Have you...always had that?"
"Just today. Just in case."
She sat down with a smile and said a sincere, "Well, thank you."
She didn't say anything for a while, and neither did I. I remembered what she had written about silence, though it didn't really apply to us. I wasn't exactly 'touching her intimately' or whatever. But being comfortable with silence is, I think, a good thing.
As the last sliver of the sun disappeared, she asked softly, "What do you see when you look out there?"
I wasn't sure how to answer. I opted for painful honesty. "I see vastness. I see how big it all is. It reminds me how small I am. Problems don't matter as much when you are looking at something that big."
She straightened up a little and looked at me.
"Surprised?" I asked.
"I was expecting something about fish, I guess."
I chuckled and reeled in my line. It only took a few seconds before the hook was in view. A bare hook.
"Where's your bait?" she asked.
"I don't fish," I said. "I just come here to think. This is all just...props."
"OK, that's weird."
"Let me ask you this, then," I said, dropping my line back into the water. "If you had shown up here and seen me just sitting and staring...every week...what would you have thought."
She rolled her eyes up a bit and moved her head around slightly. "Yeah, I would have been a little creeped out."