The Big Bag

It’s the little things.  Noticing them had served him well in life.

Professionally, it was his curiosity about details that had helped him advance.  Things that most people didn’t care about, that frequently ended up being important after he pointed them out.

Personally, it had been the way that he had enchanted women.  Even the ones that everyone else saw as beautiful as well.  He was able  to find something that was truly unique about their beauty, physical or otherwise.

Even now, with the thought of accepting that he was now someone’s ex-husband, he knew that the true beauty of his ex-wife lay elsewhere from the exterior that others saw. It was in the slight change in the pitch of her voice, already phone-sex-operator sexy, to a lower register, and a a slower rhythm when she was on work calls.  Or the way that she would exhale deeply after a kiss, at least that’s what he remembered.   He missed her already, or was it still?

A mere three weeks had passed since she had moved out.  Her stuff at house were not so much reminders that she was gone,  but the reasons that he would briefly forget.   It was only a few days ago that upon waking he looked at the closet door, saw her robe missing and assumed that she was in the bathroom.  He wondered if the cartoon characters who were flattened by falling anvils recovered any more quickly.

This week was different though.  Work had brought him to Hawaii for the first time, and the change was OK.  At the very least, it was a feast for the eyes.  The sideways view of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head from his balcony; the blossoms of plants he had never seen before, much less known the names of; the variety of gorgeous Asian women parading as he sat smoking a Dunhill at the hotel’s outdoor cafe after hours; the crystal clear blue water of the little sections of beach protected by the breakwaters, “the kiddie pools of the Pacific;” and the sunrises from just over his shoulder as he stood with his first cup of coffee, after a pre-dawn swim, watching the surfers slip easily out into the waves.

The week had gone very well, workwise, and even helped a little with his heretofore maudlin mood.  Truly his mother’s son, his spirits were lifted whenever the weight he carried was buoyed by salt water.  His co-workers noticed enough to comment about it, and even he noticed that after about the fourth day, the developing tan no longer traced the permanent frown lines he had recently acquired when looking in the mirror.

To celebrate the success of the project, the five of them had gone for drinks after the last client meeting, a delicious sampler dinner of the foods from the various cultures that intersected in this island chain in the middle of the Pacific.  Conversations got a little louder, the jokes a little bawdier, the laughter a little easier as the pretty waitress brought each successive round of fruity, umbrella-adorned drinks.  Mai Tais gave was to dacquiris of various flavors, and the talk changed from work to travel to tales of drunken stupidity.  It felt good to laugh again, even if it was despite himself.

At some point, he excused himself to go have an all-too-frequent smoke.  He was walking through the lobby of the hotel when he first saw her.  Fortyish, brunette, leggy, in a black dress that was just on the sexy side of professional.  She was walking into the bar, and freed from the prying eyes of anyone he knew, he allowed his eyes to enjoy the approaching beauty, even slowing his normally Olympic-pace walk to a crawl to make it last a little longer.  He waited a few steps before exclaiming “Damn!” aloud.  Accustomed as he was to being invisible to women, he expected that to be the last he saw of her.  Not that he was ready for anything.  Emasculated didn’t begin to describe how the celibacy forced upon him,by Helen, followed by her infidelity, and finally her asking him to leave made him feel.

He smoked in a circle of Japanese and Chinese tourists, trying to figure out if there was a way to fast-forward to the day when the pain was largely behind him.  When he wouldn’t pass up the chance to go the North Shore because it had been somewhere they were going to go.  When he wouldn’t replace sleeping with smoking, joy with doubt, smiles with tears.

He had seen so much of the world, that he had wanted to leave some things to see, for the first time, with that someone special.  His co-worker had brought her boyfriend, and he envied them the opportunity to share the beauty of the islands with someone.  Instead he slept odd hours, for both time zones, worked, swam, and roamed the streets long after the crowds had receded to their hotel rooms,  looking for who knows what.

The last exhale was more a sigh, and as he stepped away from the polyphony of languages he did not speak, he began to steel himself again in preparation for facing the jubilant tablemates, wiping the hint of a tear that had formed in his left eye, and desperately trying to form a smile.  He was near the bar entrance, when she happened to be walking in front of him.  Same dress, same hair, a large bag, too big for a purse, over her right shoulder.  As he got closer, a drunk coming towards them made an awkward attempt first to wave, and then to lean towards her.  Roger stepped between them and with a good-natured, gentle push, guided the drunk towards the exit of the bar.  He turned to her, and asked her why she didn’t say hello to her best friend, the drunk guy.  She smiled, and thanked him for intervening.  Looking at her more closely, he saw the lines on her face, the crows-feet and smile lines accentuated by her tan.  Not that it made her any less gorgeous.  A slight resemblance to Diane Lane was the closest he could find by way of comparison.

They exchanged a couple of jokes as they continued walking, he towards his co-workers, she , he assumed, towards some lucky man.  They were laughing as they got to his table, loudly enough for his work mates to notice that he was talking to the best looking woman in the bar.

She continued towards the corner of the bar, and he craned his neck as he was sitting down to see if it afforded a view of her.  But she seemed to have vanished.  He was glad to have a funny little story to tell as a response to the questions that greeted his return. He was even more glad to have spoken to a woman that wasn’t a relative, a co-worker, a friend, or cashier.  He had loved the sound of her voice, womanly, maybe even that of a fellow smoker, given the hint of raspiness that punctuated her laugh.

Another round and another hour or so later, it was time to call it a night.  Even though it was relatively early, no later than 9:30, early morning flights, a week’s worth of unanswered e-mails and jet-lag made it seem like the right decision.

They said their goodbyes to their female colleague and her boyfriend, and decided to walk back to the hotel along the water.   Three middle-aged men, slightly tipsy, generally acting like schoolboys at the sight of a pretty girl young enough to be their daughter.  They were about two blocks from their hotel when one of them pointed and practically yelled.

“Hey, Roger!  Isn’t that your friend?”

“Yes, it is!” added the quieter one, not so quietly. As Roger turned to where they were pointing, he did indeed see the woman in the black dress sitting on a dimly lit park bench, nestled between the gentle waves and the shore road.

Almost unaware of his actions, Roger slowed down to see if he could decipher anything about the woman’s situation.  Was she alone?  Was she waiting for her partner to pay the bar bill?  He walked away from the other two, and towards her.

As he approached, he joked, “I am sorry, but you will have to stop following me and my friends.”  The last word was barely spoken when he was finally close enough that the light of the full moon allowed him to see she had been crying, a crunched up tissue in her right hand, stained by the tear-dissolved mascara.

“Oh, I am so sorry.  Are you ok?” he asked her, as he quickly looked at the other two and motioned for them to go.

“Yes, fine.  Thank you,” was her terse reply.  He should have apologized and moved on.  He should have afforded her the privacy she obviously was seeking among the crowd.  But he knew that on the recent occasions where tears had forced themselves on him in public, he had wished that someone would have disrespected his privacy enough to at least attempt to comfort him.  He had always been good at that.  He apparently been blessed with good shoulders on which to cry on.  The misfit girl in high school, the slutty girl in college, the heartbroken co-workers, strangers on planes, the Canadian girl on the beach in Massachusetts the summer after his junior year, all had singled out him as the person to whom they would tell their sad tales, all finding him comforting in a way he wished but could never be for himself.

“OK.  Is there anything I can do?” he answered, meekly, in that hushed, sincere tone that one reserves for funerals.

“I wouldn’t mind one of those,” she said, pointing to the cigarette.

“Certainly,” he responded as he opened the pack, handed her one, and struck the Zippo to light it for her.  He hated the part of himself that found such beauty in sorrow, because in that moment, instead of noticing the pain on her face, he was focusing on how beautiful it made her.

“Thank you,” she exhaled along with the smoke from her first drag.  his earlier observation had been correct; she was indeed a smoker.  He noticed the amount of smoke and knew that it had been a deep drag, not the kind that drunk non-smokers take when they annoyingly would ask for one outside some bar which their non-smoking rules had forced him to leave.

He never knew the right thing to say.  Not until he said it.  And this time would be no different.  Whether it was his words, his voice, or the cigarettes, she allowed him to join her on the bench, and slowly, she started talking.  Not about why she was crying, that would happen later.  It was mostly small talk about whether they lived in Hawaii, she did; who the people he was drinking with were, if they were married, both divorced; to what he should do with the last couple of days he had left in Oahu, take a surfing lesson.

It wasn’t long before she laughed at one of his jokes.  Snorted was more like it.  It seemed as her own ability to laugh had caught her by surprise.  He was enjoying having a conversation with a woman that wasn’t painful, didn’t involve lawyers, or both. He was also enjoying being close to her.  When passing cars’ headlights bounced just right off the large windows of the hotel behind them her face, and cleavage, were illuminated.  “God, she’s beautiful!” he thought to himself again.  And then said it to her.

She lowered her eyes, and looked back up at him with a look of sadness and  gratitude, but said nothing.  She had heard that before.  Too many times.  A man talking to her because she was beautiful was passe, almost insulting.  Which was too bad, because Laurie was enjoying the conversation as much as Roger.

“I am sorry, that must sound cliche and trite to you,” he apologized.

She didn’t say anything.  His little outburst had interrupted the easy flow of their conversation and he worried that any second now, she would excuse herself and leave.

In the classic manner of those afraid of silence, Roger started speaking, but luckily for him, his powers of observation saved him.

“I am sorry, if it is something you’ve heard something before, but it’s true.  I watched you move through the lobby of the hotel and the into the bar, and every man turned his gaze towards you, and every woman that accompanied one of them pulled them closer when they saw you approaching.  When you laughed I felt like I had done something right.  You walk into a room and it is a nicer place just by having you in it.” He stopped himself before saying Helen’s name, and he realized that while all of this was true for the stranger next to him, it was his ex-wife he was speaking to.

Encouraged by his own loquaciousness, he continued with a question.

“Would you like to come with while I grab another pack of cigarettes from my room?”  As soon as he said it, he wished he hadn’t.  It sounded like a terrible line, but before he could amend it in any way, she answered with a nod.

He picked up her bag, lighter than he had anticipated, and carried it for her while they completed the walk to his hotel that he had started with his coworkers four hours earlier.  They walked through the lobby, and he observed from the corner of his eye the same pattern as earlier from the valet attendants and the milling tourists.  A bunch of gawking men, herded by their annoyed better halves.

They rode up to his floor in silence and he led the way to the corner room.  Stepping inside, he held the door for her, but instead of passing by him into the room, she stretched to the tips of her toes, threw her arms around him and gave him a smoldering kiss.  Noticing his hesitation, she stopped. Now it was her apologizing.

“No, I was just surprised!” he said, smiling his approval at her action.

“I should go,” she started, eyes pointed at the floor, the embarrassment making her shrink.

“Please don’t,” he plead, “unless it’s back outside to continue talking.  Look, I don’t know what it was that made you cry on that bench, but believe me, you’ve made me feel better tonight than I have in a very long time, and being kissed by you was something I wouldn’t have dared to dream of, much less experience. If it’s all the same to you, I would like this night to continue, at least for a little while.  Please.”

His earnestness was not always well received, but it found its mark this time.  She took the bag, from his hand and set it down next to the desk.  He braced himself as she stepped towards him again, when a lightning strike coursed through the air outside the balcony, but could have just as easily been running between them.

With an outstretched hand, she cupped the nape of his neck and, without any pressure necessary, guided his mouth to hers.

“Mmmm, boozy,” he thought, not in a bad way.  Most of his first kisses had involved alcohol, and the taste of vodka, or in her case rum, was a pleasant memory and current experience.

Lowering herself again, she took a deep breath after their kiss.  He noticed.  It was, again, one of the things that Helen had stopped doing.  Once, before each of his work trips, she would give him one of those kisses that said, “Hurry home!”  It worked every time.  He noticed when they stopped.

“Why don’t we go for that walk?” he asked, offering his hand to her.

Taking his hand, she now led them out of the room, leaving the bag and the sexual tension between them behind.

There was  a lightness between them.  Their handholding felt natural, easy, as if they had done it before.  He looked down to see the happy tangle of digits swinging slightly as they crossed the street and walked the few steps down to the beach chairs.  He noticed that the happy couples, in Hawaii for whatever honeymoon or anniversary, didn’t bother him any more.  Not like earlier, when they served as punctuation on his aloneness.

Nestled side-by-side, they talked easily, as if the kiss had unlocked a deeper connection between them.  They spoke of random things that came up, like what they wanted to be when they were children, pilot and veterinarian, versus what they were doing now, software designer and prostitute.

“Yes,” she responded to his incredulous, impolite stare. “I am a prostitute.”

The bag!  That’s why he noticed it.  He remembered years ago drinking with a hotel security chief who described high class prostitutes as beautiful, dressed in usually dresses that were just a little risque but professional, and always carrying a big bag for the change of clothes.

“So you were working tonight?” he asked, even though he couldn’t think of any real reason that the answer would matter to him, either way.

“Yes.  I was.  And then I quit. I saw my ‘date’ for the night removing his ring as you and I walked into the bar, and decided that I couldn’t bear it any more.  I am not doing it to pay for college, I didn’t just start a couple of months ago, and Richard Gere isn’t going to show up in a Lotus to take me away from all this. I couldn’t be the lipstick on the collar, not even for $3000 a night.  Everyone has their price and mine got higher.”

This time, Roger was stymied.  Stunned, definitely, a little grossed out, maybe, and absolutely impressed that she remembered the car as a Lotus.  But all of it left him speechless.  Until a question popped into his mouth, not necessarily passing through his brain first.

“You got $3000 night? I clear that in about two weeks!  Wow!”

It wasn’t the question Laurie wanted to hear..

“Listen, Roger, it’s almost sunrise, and I know you have work in a bit, and I have…well, nothing really to get to.  Thank you for the cigarettes and the conversation. I appreciate that you cared enough to ask if I was OK.”

“Stay,” he whispered, not sure if he was speaking to her or himself.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“Stay,” he repeated more audibly, but still quietly.

She turned to him, placed a gentle kiss on his lips, and said, “I can’t.  I like you, and normally that would have meant lying to you about what I do, or did.  But something said that I had to be honest with you, and that makes everything more weird.  I’ve dated before and those few times I was honest, I ended feeling like a zoo animal, or a lab rat.  I don’t want to explain the world I’ve lived in to anyone, I don’t want to be a toy, their dress-up fantasy, or their entry fare into the swingers club.  I just want to be held and made love to, but men worry about who I was with before them.  Who was better, bigger, richer.  It’s stupid.  And your question. unfortunately, makes me think that you will be similar, and honestly, I don’t know how I will deal with it later, but for tonight, I can run away, go back home and in the morning try to figure out how I am going to earn a living.”

“OK,” he relented.

With the rising sun clearing the hotels and palm trees, the waves and a little bit of the beach were now illuminated with the bright sunlight of an early May Waikiki morning.  They now cast separate shadows, the thin lines connecting them now severed.  It reminded him of walking out of the restaurant the night his wife told him about her cheating and asking for a divorce.

He looked at his watch.  6:24AM.  Five hours until his flight.  He could think of nothing to say.  As the reached the sidewalk, she turned to him, smiled, kissed him on the cheek, and again thanked him for being kind, before starting to walk away from him.

He didn’t have time to get coffee, not before the 6:30AM call with his boss, who saw nothing wrong with keeping the mid-day Eastern time meeting at the same time as usual, even though Roger was now six hours behind.

He smoked the last of the pack outside of the hotel and started dialing into the conference line while still on the elevator.  Except for the travel, and being able to live anywhere with a phone line and an internet connection, Roger hated his job.  Nothing else in his life made much sense any more either.  He didn’t necessarily mind not knowing what was next, as long as could start heading in some direction soon.

He slid the key into the slot, opened the door and as he walked towards the desk to turn on his computer, he noticed the big blue bag.

Muting his line, he picked it up , and opened the flap to look inside for a way to return it to her.  In an inside pocket he found a set of business cards, more professional looking than his Fortune 500 company ones, for what he assumed was her business.  The name on them was not Laurie, but a quick search on the internet presented him with her picture.

He rejoined the call to say that he had to go to the airport and then hung up before waiting for a response.  He dialed slowly, making sure the number was correct, especially given the early hour, and when the American Airlines agent asked how he could help him, he asked if he could cancel his return trip.

After several phone calls, and message, Laurie finally called him back.  He apologized for the question first, before launching into a soliloquy, one that he had memorized after rehearsing it in his head all day.

“Laurie, I don’t care who you were before me, as all of those things made her the person that you are now.  I realize that the woman whom I married cared a lot less about the vows of marriage than you do. I want to make a new start.  I think you do, too. So, why not together? ”

The moment of silence felt longer than it actually was.

“So, what does that mean?” she asked.

“I hope it means that we can try dating each other, and take the next steps of our lives together.  I hope it means that I can kiss you, without worrying about leaving the next day to return to a life I don’t want anymore.”

“Everyone who comes here wants to question their living situation somewhere else, Roger.  It passes,” she replied, familiar with the temporary lust for Hawaii borne in millions of tourists every year.

“Laurie, I have traveled all around the world, and have seen beautiful places before.  Hawaii is different for me.  The only places that have felt the same for me, have been the places that I have loved living at.  There is a calmness inside of me, like I am home.  This isn’t some snowbound tourist trying to avoid going back to the cold.  I am home.”

She looked at him, and smiled.  His little speech would have sounded crazy had she not ended up in Hawaii the same way.

“Are you sure?  You’re serious about doing this?” she asked in order to validate the veracity of his feelings.

“Yes. I have already canceled my return trip,” he responded.

Laurie paused briefly, took Roger’s and hand, and looked him in the eyes before answering.  “if you are serious, you can stay with me, no strings attached, while you look for a place.”

In the weeks after, Roger flew back home to bring back the essentials, get rid of the rest of his stuff, sell his car, and try to make his puzzled friends and family understand why moving to the middle of the Pacific made sense.  Those that knew him best understood.  They saw the happiness in him.  They could hear his heart.  They just knew.

While nothing was promised or expected, Roger and Laurie got close during this transition period. They were both very honest, and in time, this helped each of them shed their emotional baggage.   He eventually got over the fears about her past, and she did the same about his.  Laurie began studying for a degree she had almost finished before getting married, needing just a few classes before getting her diploma.  It took some finesse to put together a resume that explained the four-year gap in her employment history.

Roger never did find a place of his own.  They ended up moving together to Waimanalo Beach, with its breathtakingly beautiful blue and green jewel-toned water as their front yard.  They surfed together, and he was able to catch up to her skill level quickly, as if he was always a surfer.  Each day started with them jumping into the sea, surfboards beneath them, smiling as they swam out towards the waves.  Eventually, they opened up a surfing school together, and left the corporate world’s worries behind.  They found themselves sharing their love of being one with the ocean with people, most of whom saw it as a sport.  But occasionally, Roger would notice that occasional student, the who felt that it was more of a spiritual journey taken with the body, rather than a feat to be accomplished.  They would pay special attention to those kindred spirits, offering free extra help, or just a conversation over a home-cooked meal.  Over time, they acquired a group of friends from around the world, some of whom were they weird ones, who were surfers in landlocked places like Utah and Austria.

At sunset, they would go surfing while watching the sun set.  They didn’t know what they had done to deserve their wonderful life together, but they regularly gave thanks for it.  Charities earned their time and money, and they joked that if turkey was the appropriate meal for giving thanks, they should have a turkey farm.

After dinner one night, Roger was kissing Laurie’s shoulder when he noticed a spot.  It would be a matter of weeks before he was in a circle of surfers, spreading her ashes into the waters of the bay.   For twelve years, she was his wife-despite never getting married; his surfing partner, his business partner, his moral compass and best friend.  Now, approaching sixty, he found himself without her, without her guidance, without her snorting laughter, without half his heart.

He lived out the rest of his life honoring her memory, as the most giving, honest, trustworthy person and lover of life he had ever met.  He created scholarships in her name, and gave even more freely of his time and wisdom.  He forced himself to live fully, as she had shown him, even taking lovers from time to time.  And definitely still surfing.

When old age robbed him of the ability to surf, he continued to go down to the beach and enter the water, still buoyed by the spirit of the ocean.    Everyone assumed that is where he disappeared to one day after being seen going down for him morning dip.  Those among their loved one who believe in an afterlife, were comforted by the thought of Roger and Laurie reuniting.  Those who don’t were happy to have been part of that circle of love that emanated when the two of them were together.

All they ever found were a notebook with love letters to her, and a towel inside a big blue bag.

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