A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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They had driven down the coast from San Francisco on a whim and located what seemed to Ruth to be the most expensive inn between Carmel and Big Sur. The owner was a delightful man, an elegant old Austrian; “A Jew of the old school,” Wayne said knowledgeably, as if he had any idea what that meant. Almost ninety now, the innkeeper had known Freud in Vienna. He had known Wittgenstein. “A very sad man, Wittgenstein,” he said.
Wayne tipped him tremendously; Wayne tipped almost everyone tremendously, lavishing money everywhere. It made Ruth nervous, though it smoothed things out in the most extraordinary way. The innkeeper tried to carry their bags to their room, but Wayne wouldn’t have it — he gave the man another five dollars just to leave them alone.
The innkeeper looked at Ruth and smiled. “Your husband is a generous man,” he said.
“He’s not my husband,” she replied.
Wayne, bags in hand, looked pained for a moment. Then he recovered. “We’re engaged,” he told the man.
“Of course. Wonderful. Congratulations.”
Wayne set the bags down and took out yet another five; apparently he felt the need to reestablish some sort of equilibrium — or perhaps to buy forgiveness for the obvious lie: his wedding ring gleamed on his knuckle.
The innkeeper shook his head. “Please, no,” he said. “It is enough that you have shared your happiness. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“He knew,” Wayne said when they got to their room, a wonderful wood-paneled haven with two dormer windows looking out over the Pacific. “I’m sure he —”
“Of course he knew,” Ruth said. “You tip like a man with a guilty conscience.”
“Money is a universal language,” Wayne said defensively. “All I’m trying to do is communicate.”
“And that wedding ring —”
“This ring represents a substantial commitment. You know that. I could never take it off without divorcing Jane. Besides . . . when I take it off it leaves a tan line, and that looks even worse.”
What a difference a week makes, Ruth thought. The week before, they had gone all the way to Big Sur, to Esalen. Wayne had paid for two weekend seminars, which they hadn’t even bothered to attend, just so they could sit in the warm pools on the cliffs. They told themselves that theirs was a free passion between loving adults — it needn’t affect his marriage, nor her relationship with Darien. There wasn’t a reason in the world a human being couldn’t love more than one person at a time. A mere thousand dollars, a few hits of MDMA, and a cabin in the trees were enough to make it all seem possible; the sex was spectacular — as much like love as sex ever got: the fire, the ease, the sense that the world is right. Darien hadn’t wanted her like that in years. Wayne wrote her poetry and rubbed her back with jasmine oil; he went home on Monday glowing with their breakthrough to a responsible, grown-up love. He and his wife of sixteen years had embarked upon an “experimental phase” and were “opening up to other relationships.” Or at least Wayne was. As far as Ruth could tell, Jane had spent the weekend with their four kids.
Then on Thursday Wayne called Ruth from his car phone: They needed to talk. His wife was edgy, and he was worrying that the open-marriage concept wouldn’t work. He needed to feel “clean.”
“Well, you know —”
“Forget it,” Ruth said. “That wasn’t the deal.”
What the deal was, she could no longer say with real confidence. But they got past it somehow, reaffirming the principles of free, mature relationships before the car phone’s reception started to break up in the Oakland hills.
Now they were trying to repeat the magic of the previous weekend. Wayne was determined to spend another thousand dollars on her — perhaps he could feel clean at great expense.
Wayne was hovering near the bed like a nervous priest before the altar, fluffing the pillows and turning down the Amish quilt. At last he sat down on it, facing her.
“You’re an angel,” he said. “Just seeing you there, with the light on the water behind you —”
Ruth cut him off. She had been “an angel” for three days straight at Esalen. “Let’s drink something,” she said. “Let’s do some drugs.”
For a while, it was all right. They lay in bed and ate canned oysters with their fingers. The Ecstasy kicked in and Ruth saw everything in a smooth golden glow; she fed the glow tequila, and it deepened. Wayne rubbed her breasts with oil from the canned oysters — realizing a longtime fantasy of his, he confided. She set him free in so many ways, he told her. He was getting in touch with his sensuality. “It’s going to work out all right. You’ll see,” he said earnestly, for the tenth time. Ecstasy made him garrulous.
Enveloped in the golden glow, Ruth smiled indulgently. It was more obvious to her than ever that Wayne was a fool.
“No, I’m serious,” Wayne insisted.
“I know you’re serious.”
“I am. All it takes is faith.”
“And what does faith take?” Ruth said.
In the morning there were more drugs, and more oysters. (Only in a drugged state could Ruth have allowed her body to be rubbed with oyster oil.) But by midafternoon they were driving north, heading home a day early at Ruth’s request. Wayne had proposed marriage, and she had told him she wasn’t sure she wanted to be married right now. Actually, all she wanted was a long, hot shower. She wondered how this man could ever have made her think her heart had opened as never before. It was becoming something of an ordeal just to be polite.
Wayne, meanwhile, grew visibly morose. He knew, of course, by now; he had to know. Still, as they approached San Francisco, he kept wanting to buy her things: a lobster dinner, a jade necklace, gold earrings. He seemed unable to pass up a single roadside spending opportunity. Ruth recognized that he was trying to “communicate,” and it sharpened her contempt.
Just as they reached the city, Wayne stopped the car at Ocean Beach and suggested they take a last walk at sunset before returning to their “real lives,” as he glumly put it. He seemed put out that she wasn’t glum, as well, and she realized with a shock that he didn’t know.
When they reached the sand, she took off the bright white sneakers Wayne had bought her the week before. They made her self-conscious now — so glaringly white — but she had needed new shoes, and she had been in love then.
She carried the too white shoes in her hand as they walked toward Seal Rock. The sun was sinking swiftly and without color over the Pacific. They walked along the shore, past joggers, fishermen, and picnickers holding hands around bonfires. She could feel a headache beginning to assert itself at the base of her skull, little stabs, like the first distant flashes of an approaching storm.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Wayne said.
“That’s about what they’re worth.”
“It’s Jane, isn’t it?”
A wave broke near them and ran over their calves; the foamy surf splashed Wayne’s expensive slacks. His feet were ugly, she realized, as the water receded. How had she not noticed until now?
“It’s not hesitation, Wayne,” she said. “It’s a refusal. I never bargained for this.”
“Look, Jane can handle it,” he said.
“Handle you marrying me?”
“If it comes to that. She and I are —”
“ ‘— responsible, mature adults, secure in the freedom of our love.’ ”
“You make it sound so cynical. I told you, we’ve agreed to be free to pursue other relationships.” He stopped walking. “Marry me, Ruth.”
“Take me home, Wayne.”
“Is that a yes?”
He was crazy, she realized. He was, perhaps, literally insane.
As they slogged back through the deep sand toward the car, Wayne continued to present his case for responsible infidelity, though Ruth couldn’t quite follow the logic of his argument anymore. Her skull was throbbing as though it might split. She’d never done well on Ecstasy — Darien and she had sworn off it the year before.
As they skirted a sunset barbecue party now packing up to leave, a man called out to them. Ruth glanced over at him distractedly, surprised by his urgency; and at that instant, she realized she had stepped in something. At first, it felt oddly like ice — as if she had put her right foot down on a giant ice cube buried in the sand and her skin had stuck to it. Then she realized it was hot. She had walked directly into the gray, burning embers of a bonfire covered lightly with sand.
She leapt, but landed in coals again, searing her left foot, too. Wayne looked baffled, then alarmed as she took one more agonizing step on her right foot and collapsed.
“Oh, shit,” she said. “Shit, shit, shit!” The pain was extraordinary, and made worse by the fact that she still could not quite believe what she had done. Wayne hovered over her, comically ineffectual. Everything was blurring together, the world going a little red at the edges. One of the picnickers was apologizing profusely; another hurried over with a cooler half filled with melting ice and water. Ruth stuck her feet in it gratefully, but the shock of the cold water made her cry out again. Her right foot had already blistered; the left was bright red.
“We should get her to a hospital,” a woman said; and, as if in a dream, Ruth heard herself agree, and marveled at that distant person’s composure: she sounded so very, very calm.
As they pulled up to the emergency room, Wayne’s pager sounded. He cursed, as he always did when his beeper went off, even though, Ruth had noticed, he loved it when it did; it made him feel secure, part of the larger action. He got Ruth set up on a chair in the waiting room, then hurried off to find a phone. Ruth put her feet back in the cooler (the mortified picnickers had insisted that she keep it) and noticed that there were three beers in among the melting ice. She opened one and drank deeply. It was wonderfully cold.
A few minutes later, a nurse came over to take down some vital information, and asked her to relinquish the beer. Ruth surrendered the bottle reluctantly, and as soon as the nurse was out of sight reached into the cooler for another, recalling as she did that one of the Esalen seminars she and Wayne had paid for but never attended the weekend before had been on fire-walking. The brochure had assured them that with sufficient presence of mind one could walk across a bed of hot coals barefoot, without being burned. It was all a matter of right thinking.
Wayne came back from the telephone looking uneasy. Ruth smiled; if they had been married, she would have been sure he was having an affair.
“That was my wife,” he said. “She’s at Pacific Presbyterian — my oldest son broke his ankle at a Little League game. She thinks I should be there.”
“Of course,” Ruth said. “Sure.”
“I mean, I hate to leave you here and all, but —”
“It’s OK, Wayne, really. I understand. It’s your family.”
He looked relieved. “You’re an angel.”
As he prepared to hurry off, he offered awkwardly to leave her cab fare and to pay the hospital bill. Ruth refused both offers firmly. Wayne seemed increasingly, blessedly, unreal to her, and paying for everything herself helped to cultivate that perception.
When the door closed behind him, Ruth opened another beer. By the time the doctor came around, the splitting headache she’d had earlier was miraculously gone.
“Hey ho, what have we here?” the doctor said. He was just a young intern, really, but had no doubt already seen his share of bizarre injuries, and didn’t even pause at the sight of Ruth’s blistered feet. Yet, during the examination, it became apparent that something was bothering him, and she began to worry.
Finally, he asked, “What is that smell? Fish?”
“No,” she said with a sigh. “Oyster oil.”