What was the one thing he couldn’t do without? Like, if he was stuck on a desert island forever. He knew his answer right away but took a few moments to ponder so he didn’t seem so strident. “A pencil and a sketchbook, I think.”
“Sorry,” Raquel said, “but that’s two things. The point is, you can only choose one.”
Harry smirked at her, so alert in her posture at the driver’s wheel. A textbook pose from her drivers-ed class. “You can’t have one without the other–they’re an essential pairing.”
“I don’t make the rules, dad. Only one thing.”
“Well, if it’s a desert island, I guess I only need a stick, so I can draw in the sand.”
She threw her head back and laughed without taking her eyes off the road. “You can say anything in the world, and all you want is a stick?”
He showed his palms. “Hey, I’m a simple man. What would you choose, a graphing calculator?”
She peeled her eyes off the road to roll them at him. With her math mind and zeal for detail–about to embark on a degree in civil freaking engineering–she would surely be able to build a beautiful house on her desert island. But maybe he’d sounded sarcastic? He was about to take it back when she said, “I need my music.”
“So an iPod or something?”
“Just a device with all my music on it, that never runs out of power.”
“Don’t you also need headphones? That’s two things.”
“No, it’s just a device that plays any music I want, any time I want.”
“So a transistor radio, with an infinite library of tunes.”
“I guess so, but it has really good sound.”
“So you invented a magical device with access to every song ever recorded, but I can’t have a sketchbook to go with my pencil?”
She made an I-regret-to-inform you face at the road and shrugged. It was the kind of conversation that could last them all the way to California, which was the whole point of this road trip–a last bout of father-daughter bonding before she vanished into college and California and adulthood. He didn’t know if she was feeling as melancholy about it as he was–how could she, with all the excitement and possibility?–but he felt like he was visiting a beloved house for the last time, turning off the lights, closing all the doors.
Movement in the mirror caught his eye with a spike of adrenaline: a truck’s grill and headlight completely filling the sideview. He twisted around to look out the hatchback. The front end of a very large late-model Ford pickup surged at the window, less than a car-length back.
Raquel, both hands gripping the wheel, shot glances in her rearview. “Holy shit, he came out of nowhere.”
“He’s way too close,” Harry said, teeth clenched. Their cruise control was set at 65, precisely the speed limit on this gently curving stretch of desert highway. The center line was dashed, with no oncoming traffic, and there was no reason why the truck couldn’t just pass. Harry lowered his window. Wind battered their cocoon as he jutted an arm out to wave them around.
The truck fell back then gunned ahead, coming within inches of their back bumper. “Steady, Raqui.” He reached over to kill the cruise control. “Let it slow by itself. Hands on the wheel, nice and steady.”
The truck fell back again, then surged forward and cut sharply to the side. With a burst of throaty engine roar, it passed. Someone in the passenger seat banged on the truck’s door as it zoomed by, with shouts that were torn away in the wind. With an abrupt lurch, it pulled back into their lane and sped away, middle fingers flying from both windows.
“Jesus,” Raquel said, slumping but keeping her hands locked at ten and two.
“You’re fine,” Harry said in a calm voice even as his heart slammed. “You did great. Just slow down and let him get some distance.”
“You should’ve wished for a gun instead of a stick.”
They pulled off at the next town to switch drivers, and ended up scarfing a dinner of beef jerky, corn chips, and soda pop on a picnic table beside a gas station. A galaxy of moths pinwheeled around the Conoco sign in the twilight. Harry was counting off in his head how many more meals he was going to have with his daughter. This might be their second-to-last one, he thought as he chewed. In two days, everything would be different and irreversible. He didn’t say anything about that, because why paint someone else with your own shadows?
It was another hour to Menden, the town where he’d reserved two rooms in a boutique hotel. Harry drove with his eyes flicking from shoulder to shoulder and mirror to mirror, alert for crossing animals and road warrior pickups. Antelope stood bright-eyed and frozen off in the brush, and small critters zipped across the pavement. He slowed when they came around a bend and saw the strobing lights of a police cruiser at the side of the road.
An ambulance was just pulling away, flashing and shrieking and heading back towards the freeway. Harry slowed to a crawl as a cop standing by the squad car’s bumper waved them past. Their heads swiveled as they went by. A compact car lay on its crushed roof at the end of a rutted debris trail about thirty feet off the road. Yellow caution tape demarcated the whole area.
“Dad,” Raquel breathed. He knew what she was thinking but he didn’t want to say it. She did. “Those assholes in the pickup ran somebody off the road!”
“You think so?”
“They were just looking for it.” She twisted around to stare at the wreckage even as Harry sped up. He wanted to tell her to look away and keep the sight of car wrecks out of her head, the same way he tried to ignore a TV in a bar. Why fill yourself with garbage and pain? But he didn’t want to nag. Besides, she had a good head on her shoulders; she could decide what she paid attention to. In the mirror, the ambulance sped away, a UFO streaking across the desert.
Their hotel was a chintzy affair, in the only three-story building in downtown Menden. The town was a leafy oasis in a shallow valley, with lunar crags and mesas surrounding. They’d chosen the town as their stopover on the way to LA because of an article Harry had read about a thriving art gallery scene. “The Marfa of Utah,” the article had called it. A tiny community of ranchers and hippies, with a cabal of transplanted artsy weirdos that made the place feel like a sliver of SoHo relocated to a desert oasis. He knew that Raquel would have preferred to stick to the freeway and stay at a Comfort Inn, but she’d agreed to his plan since this would likely be their last road trip together. Artsy weirdos were his tribe, the way math freaks and programmers were hers.
Raquel disappeared into her adjoining room as soon as they got in. She wanted to check in with friends and get a good night’s sleep, so she’d be fresh for their last day of driving. “You should check in too,” she said, wiggling her phone. “Let her know you’ve been thinking about her.”
He waved his hand to dismiss that, but he’d been thinking all day about a short and clever message he could send to the woman he was planning to see in Santa Monica tomorrow night. He splashed cold water on his face, tousled his greying brush of hair, and pulled on a blazer to head out to Main Street, sketchbook in hand.
A single ink line ascends a blank page, two-thirds of the way up, before cutting to the side to describe a gentle curve, then a collection of interlocking squares and rectangles. The tip of the pen never leaves the page, and its progress across the creamy paper never quickens or slows as it accumulates lines, turning back on itself, dipping into another curve, then finishing with a waving line embellished with tiny tassels.
When he finally lifted his pen, he took a sip of red wine and looked at what he’d done. A straight-backed rocking chair appeared to fly like a kite, high at the end of a string. He chewed his cheek and tap-tap-tapped his pen on the café table. The drawing was decipherable, but lacked zing! He turned the page, this time starting with a wavy ocean horizon across the bottom of the page before sending the string upwards again.
An hour passed, at the end of which he had five pages of flying rocking chair kites. Paging back through them, he found that the fourth one had something special: a looseness to the line, with a higher, smaller chair that really looked like it was pulling at the end of its tether in a landward breeze off the ocean. This was the one.
He pulled out his phone, propped the sketchbook up at an angle to catch the light, and snapped a photo. Then he zapped it off in a message to Jackie in Santa Monica, without explanation. The phone swooshed to confirm delivery.
The table where he sat in the back of the Café Cosmos appeared to be a marble and iron artifact transported here from a Parisian sidewalk brasserie, but it was the only table like that. All the furniture was mismatched, with tapestries and draperies hanging everywhere. Pinpoint Christmas lights gleamed like constellations embedded in the folds of fabric. An arched doorway looked over an outdoor terrace where more tables and chairs were arranged under a pergola that dripped with glowing webs of light.
Besides himself and the bearded man at the counter, the place was deserted. Sixties French pop grooved on the speakers. Gazing through the archway at the softly illuminated courtyard with its archipelago of tables, Harry had a feeling of dislocation. Was this Paris? Istanbul? Barcelona? It felt more like any of those places than a small town in the desert.
The man behind the bar said, “Oh my god!”
Harry glanced up. The guy stood behind the bar holding a phone to the side of his face, eyes wide. Then: “What!”
Their eyes met but the guy didn’t seem to be seeing him. He was fully submerged in whatever scandal was currently unfolding inside his ear. Presently he said, “Jesus, poor Deborah. Does she know yet?”
Harry felt his own adrenaline pumping out empathy for whatever this barista and Deborah were going through. He bent to a fresh page and started a new sketch–another rocking chair kite, this one flying even higher and more distant than the others, tossed by a swirling wind that pulled the string taut. He tried to block out the one-sided phone call. The barista finally wrapped up the conversation and killed the call. He stared at Harry. “Dude, do you drink?”
Harry glanced at his nearly empty wine glass. Before he could answer, the barista came out from behind the counter with a half-full bottle of Bulleit and two shot glasses. He took a seat at Harry’s table and poured two fat shots. He held his up and stared over the top of the shimmering booze with shining eyes. “To life,” he said.
Harry picked up the other shot, raised it. “To life.”
They swallowed and set the empty glasses back down with twin clicks.
The barista—long black hair framing a scruffy face, Jack Sparrow-esque with a scarf and bracelets and a paint-spattered shirt—nodded towards the counter. “That was a death notice.”
“A death notice?”
The barista waved at the archway that opened onto the terrace, a blank white wall on the far side. A scaffold there held paint buckets and tools. “The guy I hired to paint that wall–a muralist–he just got killed in a car wreck on 27.”
“Jesus. Highway 27?”
“Rollover accident, went through the windshield.” The barista poured two more shots.
“Wait–I was just on that highway a couple hours ago. I think I saw that wreck.”
“Completely dead,” the barista said, pouring and raising a fresh shot. “You never know.”
Harry raised his too. “You never do.”
The barista sighed and downed his shot. “Transformation, man.”
“Transformation,” Harry said, and drank.
That was the beginning of their transformation from sobriety into drunkenness. They finished the bottle of Bulleit and moved on to a bottle of Johnny Walker, taking occasional breaks to step onto the terrace and smoke a joint that the barista offered up. The guy’s name was Julio and he was originally from Juárez, but he’d grown up in the American southwest, and he’d opened this place just last year. He rose to attend to other tables when people trickled in, but always ended up back at Harry’s table where their shared bottle stood. They’d become boozy compatriots in solidarity against death. Julio tapped the closed sketchbook on the table between them. “Sorry, I cut your inspiration. What were you working on?”
“Have a look, if you like.”
Julio spent ten minutes paging through, making little twitches of surprise or interest. Finally he closed the book and narrowed his eyes at Harry. “You’re a real artist.”
“Well, it’s only a sketchbook. Just the raw stuff.”
“You’re a real artist, though. I can see it.”
“Actually, I’m the art director for a greeting card company. There isn’t as much art involved in that as you might think, but yeah. You could say I do art for a living.”
Julio watched him, a wry wrinkle at one corner of his mouth. His eyes glittered.
Harry knew what was coming next. He saw it as clearly as a sign along the side of the highway.
Muted light throbbed behind the drawn hotel curtains as Raquel’s voice called from the hall. “Anybody alive in there?” she said, rapping on the door. Only when he dragged himself back to consciousness did he notice that his phone alarm was chirping. His head was splitting with the ghosts of wine and whiskey and weed. He couldn’t quite remember how the night had ended, only that he’d been out past midnight. And had he agreed to paint Julio’s damn mural? The sketchbook lay on the bedside table and he leafed through it. Several pages were torn out, raggedy edges along the spine.
He remembered that he’d sent Jackie a snapshot of a sketch, and when he checked his phone, he saw her reply: Am I the kite, or am I holding the string?
Yes, he replied with a dimple in his whiskered cheek.
Her response, moments later, was a googly-eyed smiley-face, every bit as ambiguous as his reply.
Raquel laughed when she saw his face as he shuffled into the breakfast room. “Did you get hit by a truck last night?” she said, then sealed her lips, apparently realizing that the phrase was in poor taste after what they’d seen.
“I made a friend,” he said. He sloshed black coffee into a mug and slurped it down standing by the machine, then poured himself some more.
“How about I start us off driving?” she offered.
“Perfect–I can get caught up with my Instagramming.” He meant it as a joke, and grinned, but Raquel gave him an earnest smile and grabbed a couple of bananas from the fruit bowl. Was this what happened on the cusp of the empty nest? The teen transforms into an adult, and the parent regresses back into adolescence. It felt like that switcheroo had been happening for years now, but the pieces had finally clicked into place. All her life, Raquel had been a proto-adult, and Harry had been an overgrown kid. Time had simply sealed the deal.
Harry swiped left, swiped right, swiped left again, as Raquel held their Prius to a steady 75 across the southern flank of Utah. “How about this one,” he said, reading glasses low on his nose as he read the Tinder profile aloud: “‘Social justice warrior bent on world domination via the synergy of good whiskey, hot jazz, and absurd conversation. Be as sharp as you are tall.’ Wow, I think she’s got my number.”
Raquel blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Dad, please–she sounds amazing, I’ll give you that–but don’t you think you ought to step away from the Tinder for a while? You’ve got a date lined up already. Don’t be a douche.”
“A douche! I’ve never been a douche!”
Raquel snorted. “Said every guy ever.”
Harry hooked an eyebrow at his daughter. “Have boys mistreated you? You never talk about that stuff.”
She scoffed. “Boys mistreat everybody. They’re boys.”
“Well, not every–”
“Dad! You don’t need to worry about me, honestly. Guys really don’t bother me anymore. I can handle myself.”
“Of course you can, Raqui, I know that.” He held his phone out for her to see the woman’s profile pic. “Look at her. She looks like Annie Hall.”
Raquel wouldn’t even glance at it. “My eyes don’t leave the road, dear father. Swipe left, and step away from the app.”
He sighed and clicked the phone off. “I’m just hedging my bets. Jackie could be a total bust.”
“Are these lines from your upcoming part in The Douche Dialogues?” Smirk.
“Okay okay, let’s just concentrate on driving.”
“And what about this ‘friend’ you made last night? What’s up with that?”
“It was just a dude. He owns the café across the street from the hotel.”
“So what if it’s a dude? Love is love.” More smirk.
“Raquel. The road.”
“I know. We’ve met.”
Across a corner of Arizona, through a descending canyon of shipwreck cliffs, in and out of Las Vegas and then into the traffic-congested desert flats of outer California. Raquel stayed behind the wheel, fueled by bananas and corn chips. Harry’s date with Jackie was set for this very evening, 8 pm, on the Santa Monica pier. He hadn’t seen her since high school, until she’d improbably popped up on Harry’s Tinder when he set his location for Santa Monica in anticipation of this trip. He’d recognized her right away: the big eyes and heart-shaped face, the black curtains of long hair parted straight down the middle. She’d been a stoner freak in high school and Harry had been more a part of the goth weirdo crowd, but they’d connected through mutual friends and spent a season hanging out in her bedroom after school smoking and listening to mixtapes of Bauhaus and Alien Sex Fiend and Sisters of Mercy. Her natural beauty had intimidated the hell out of him, and he’d never made a move to kiss her, although it was nearly all he thought about during those autumn days. He was certain she never thought of him that way. Then she got a boyfriend who rode a motorcycle, and she wore leather pants and sleeveless Harley tees to school for the rest of the year. The deathrock afternoons came to an end. Senior year, she moved away, and he never saw her again–until he stared into her nearly unchanged face on Tinder twenty-five years later. “Haroldo!” she’d responded to his initial message, the only one who’d ever called him that. “You haven’t changed! Did you sell your soul to the Devil? How much did He give you?”
He’d changed plenty, of course. His hair was still thick, but it was entirely grey now. Still, his face was thin, but in a hollowed-out way. Were there really any traces of his 16-year-old self left? He peeked in the sideview mirror where the sun fell directly on his face. Death Valley unspooled all around. He looked haggard, dark under the eyes. Not just hungover but used up. Jackie was not going to even recognize him tonight. Maybe he should just cancel? What were they going to do anyway–sit on the pier and google deathrock tunes on their phones?
The sun pinned them from above. Harry felt better after Barstow, but Raquel wanted to keep driving. He tried to engage her in conversation about her living arrangements, sharing a one-bedroom off-campus apartment with a girlfriend from high school, Priya, but Raquel kept her responses monosyllabic. He started to get the feeling that she wanted to be behind the wheel as an excuse for avoiding conversation. By this time next week, he’d be on the highway back home, alone, and he’d be childless. She’d be a grown person, out in the world, and all his biological duties for propagating the species would be over. “You know, Raqui,” he said, looking out over the plain of cacti marching off to the sun blasted horizon, “the finest line is knowing when to trust, and when to be on guard.”
She glanced at him, then scowled at the road.
“And at your age, you need to err on the side of being on guard.”
“I think I’ve been more of a friend than a dad these past few years, and that was probably a mistake. I’m sorry, sweetie.”
She glanced at him again, starting to look alarmed now. “Dad–I get it. But you have to get over mom.”
“What? I’m fine. That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“Don’t get all guilt-trippy about it, dad. You did the best you could–the best anyone could. We’re both going to be fine.”
He looked back at the cactus procession. “The best I could,” he said. It sounded like an epitaph. He kept quiet until they entered the outer freeways of LA.
The hug and kiss that Priya gave Raquel when they arrived outside the apartment confirmed a suspicion in Harry’s mind. Raquel’s grin was supernatural, a vision of a long, rich future full of love and challenge and triumph.
They unloaded the car in a headlong rush, Raquel dumping her things in what was clearly Priya’s bedroom. The ocean was visible out the front window in a sliver of space between two buildings across the street, partially eclipsed by a leaning burst of palm trees. But the air was laced with sea salt and sunlight. Twilight flared over the water as Priya poured them each a shot of tequila. They toasted standing on the balcony where the landward breeze played with their hair. “To fathers,” Priya said.
“To the future,” Raquel said. She leaned into him and clinked her shot to a second time and said, softly, “To you, dad. Thank you.”
Harry grinned. “To love,” he said, and all three of them blushed, and downed their shots to hide it.
Raquel looked a degree of magnitude happier than he’d ever seen her, almost to the point of not being recognizable. For his part, he felt sadder than he’d almost ever felt, except for the days and weeks following his wife’s death. But tonight was a different kind of sadness, tinged with a certain satisfaction. He’d gotten his child this far, after all, and she was going to be all right. Even better–she was going to thrive. You could tell just by the look of her.
Dinner plans took shape quickly. Raquel and Priya were meeting friends of theirs at a local watering hole. Priya invited him, but Raquel put an arm around her roommate’s shoulders and said, “Actually, my dad’s got a hot date tonight.”
“Oh?” Priya said, eyes wide. “Who’s the lucky girl or guy?”
Harry waved a hand. “Just an old friend. We’re going to compare aches and pains.”
Raquel nudged Priya. “Old high school sweethearts–and she’s actually hot. I checked out her profile.”
The tiny apartment became a whirlwind of primping and Fiona Apple, and before he knew it the two girls were heading out. Harry realized that his last dinner with his daughter had already come and gone. He thought of that picnic table in the weeds beside the gas station in Nowhere, Utah, where they’d chowed beef jerky and Fritos, in what had turned out to be their last sit-down meal together as father and child. From here on out, they’d just be two adults. A stricken smile played on his face as first Raquel and then Priya give him a kiss on the cheek.
“Do twice as much listening as talking,” Priya said as she went out the door, finger in the air. “Make her feel respected.”
“Who?” Harry asked, bewildered.
“The hot date.”
“Ah, of course.”
Then they were gone and he was alone on the balcony with an empty shot glass. The sun melted towards the edge of the world. He went back inside to put himself together.
He found the arranged spot on the pier–the farthest end, under one of the last lamp posts–and leaned there in his blazer, shivering with the twilight breeze that whipped off the water. A guitar dude was set up nearby with a tiny amp and microphone, playing folky covers of old Bowie. The guy’s CDs were for sale in his open guitar case for twenty dollars. Harry watched him from his lamp post, feeling annoyed to have a soundtrack imposed on the moment, even if it was Starman.
Halfway through Let’s Dance, a woman walked up to him on clacky heels. She wore a gauzy scarf around dark hair, and kept her hands plunged into the pockets of a long leather coat, a vintage find by the looks of it. Her smile was immediately familiar even if the rest of her was not. “I was waiting for Ch-ch-changes, but it was starting to get cold.”
“Jackie. Damn, you look great.”
They shared a hug, then went back to shoving their hands in their pockets against the wind. “So you’ve been waiting a while?” he said.
She waved at a spot a few lamp posts away. “I just wanted to get a look at you first, make sure you were yourself.”
“So I passed that test! I’ve been wondering if I’m myself, you know.”
She squinted at him. “You’ve improved a lot with age, Haroldo. It’s weird.”
She regarded him, shaking her head, almost angry looking. “Men get to do that–sexy aging? As if you didn’t have all the advantages already. Dudes just never stop getting away with it, right?” Then she broke into a grin.
“Well,” he said, “you’re one to talk. You look amazing.” He wasn’t even sure yet if he meant that, only that it had to be said. But his first glimpse of her suggested that her features had sharpened in a fortunate way. The rosy roundness of her face had diminished, replaced with sculpted angles and lines. He pushed an extra spark into his eyes.
Her look matched his. “Sounds like we’re both going to get lucky.” She laughed and slipped her arm through his.
Dinner in a bistro along the boardwalk where rented beach cruisers coasted past and people strolled as night settled over the shore. He’d expected to reminisce about Bauhaus and all the elements of their junior year as kindred outcasts—the Aquanet, the Benson & Hedges, the Bartles & Jaymes, Ronald Reagan’s bullshit, their future visions of themselves as famous artists and rock stars—but none of that came up. Instead, she asked question after question about his life, his daughter, his work, his prospects. Harry found himself answering as fully and truthfully as he could, aware that he was dropping the ball on Priya’s advice. He finally said something about that. “You know, my daughter’s ‘roommate’ told me to listen twice as much as I talk, but you’re not really letting me do that.”
Jackie leaned forward in the circle of spotlight that illuminated their small table. The tablecloth was littered with crusts and crumbs of the baguette they’d demolished with their bowls of French onion soup. “Why did you say it like that? With air quotes?”
“‘Roommate’? Well, I think there’s more going on that she hasn’t shared with me.”
“But she did share with you. She brought you into the apartment where she’s going to live with this person, and she didn’t try to hide the hug and the kiss, or any of it. That was sharing.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“And it sounds like this ‘roommate’ knows what she’s talking about when it comes to dating scenarios.” They both fingered the slender stems of their wine glasses.
“Okay then,” he said, “now I ask the questions.”
She laced her fingers in front of her, squared her shoulders, and beamed.
She’d been married, ten years, to a chef. During that time, she’d gone to culinary school as well, and they’d opened a restaurant together in Silver Lake. A gourmet vegetarian joint with craft cocktails. But the husband kept screwing the waitresses and hostesses, and she’d finally left him and opened her own place not far from here.
“Why aren’t we eating there?” Harry wanted to know.
“It’s where I freaking work, you know? Besides, I always like to see what the competition is up to.” She looked around with slitty eyes, tenting her fingers together.
“That explains all the cockroaches in the soup.”
Her eyes popped for just a second before they disappeared into crescents under the smile that was unchanged after all these years.
They finished a bottle of wine, then walked back to her condo where they had sex, watched a couple episodes of The Office, had sex again, and fell asleep on her couch. Harry awoke, disoriented. The dawn sky was a grey sheet hanging over a grey ocean outside her balcony door. Jackie’s hair curtained over his face as she leaned down to peck a kiss on his forehead. She was in a bathrobe, puttering in the kitchen where a kettle started to whistle.
“Why didn’t we do this twenty-five years ago?”
“You were too shy,” she said, heading for the stove.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes. A gull hovered in mid-air, almost close enough to touch, just beyond the balcony railing. “You mean if I’d just said something?”
“Well, it depends what you said.” She joined him on the couch with a tray of tiny earthenware teacups and an iron pot that wafted the scent of jasmine.
He pondered. “So it took me twenty-five years, but I finally found the words. Which ones were they?”
“It was all of them, in combination.” She poured steaming ribbons into both cups. “Plus general horniness, and a desire to recapture youth. And the Bowie songs. And the wine. Don’t forget the wine.”
“I won’t forget anything.”
Up close like this, in the pale dawn without make-up or wine goggles, he could see the age on her face, but it worked for her. He hoped the same was true of himself. She seemed to like looking at him, at least.
“You said you were only going to be here a couple days,” she said quietly. “Is that still your plan?”
“No. At this point my plan involves never leaving this couch.”
“I see.” She scrunched her lips in thought. “That means we’ll probably end up screwing a few more times before I get tired of you and kill you.”
“A few? Could be worth it.”
He ended up staying two more days, ostensibly occupying the couch at Raquel and Priya’s tiny place, but actually spending both nights at Jackie’s. She was gone for twelve hours both days and came home exhausted and already a little drunk to find Harry sitting on her balcony making sketches of the street below. The rooftops, the palm crowns, the ocean horizon. She never made him feel unwelcome or that she wasn’t happy to see him, but he knew that the time had come for him to go after they skipped the sex on the third night. He’d dropped into the middle of these people’s lives, and it was time for him to ease back into his own and get it flowing again.
His farewell dinner with Raquel ended up being a home-cooked affair with Priya, who helped him slice onions and garlic. They rustled up a batch of linguini and asparagus with cream sauce. It was simple and good enough. “I never really taught her to cook for herself,” he said to Priya as they were plating nests of noodles. Raquel was setting the table out on the balcony under a web of lights. Strange music made puzzle pieces in the air. “I meant to teach her how to make salsa, and omelets, and beef bourguignon. All she ever wanted to make herself was ramen and cereal.” It felt like an admission of failure.
Priya caught the look on his face and patted the counter between them. “Well, Mr. Stills, you got her this far. Now she’s got people.”
“Please, call me Harry.” He grinned into the warmth of her smile. “And thank God for people.”
They ate under the gradual twilight with the ocean murmuring. “To the future,” he offered, and they clinked their white wines. There was nothing else momentous in their conversation, just a lot of easy chatter about TV shows and antique shops and coffeehouses that stayed open late. Harry felt himself faking a smile at first–he really would be leaving, any minute now–but before long the smile was real. With a crust of bread he drew a face on his plate in a puddle of sauce.
Later, as he was saying goodbye to Raquel at the curbside, she gave him a tight hug that went on and on. Finally, wet-eyed, she pulled away, gave a smile, and ran back up the walk without a word. Harry raised a hand but she didn’t see it before slipping inside. He almost called out, then let her wordlessness linger. What would more words do? He drove out of town, out of the city, in no particular direction.
The Pacific Coast Highway held his attention for a few days. He found rooms in small towns and motels in a meandering route that took him back over the mountains and into the same desert they’d crossed a couple of weeks earlier. His sketchbook had grown full of cross-hatched drawings of vineyards seen from rest areas, lines of telephone poles marching to the horizon, distant thunderheads.
Coming back into Menden in southern Utah, he cruised down Main Street under the noon sun. There it was on the side of the café, on the courtyard wall: a rocking chair straining at the end of a kite string, buffeted in the wind. Bold black lines on a white background, with colorful clouds and mesas along a low horizon. Someone’s name–not his own–was stenciled in the lower right corner, along with birth and death dates. A dedication, he supposed, to the late muralist. He saw it all while stopped at a light and moved on when a horn bleated behind him.
Freaking Julio–the café guy had stolen his sketch! Or–here Harry paused and considered–had he offered it to him? He couldn’t remember the details. Now his design had been recreated on the side of the wall, with Harry’s name nowhere in sight. He smiled to himself. Am I the kite, he thought, or am I holding the string?
He sat pulled over at the side of the road, looking at the wall. The chair strained against the line, reaching for the sky. You make things you love, you send them into the world, and then you let go. And then the next thing happens, and the next thing after that.
A.C. Koch is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has been published in literary journals such as Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, the Columbia Journal, and F(r)iction. A story of his was selected by Robert Olen Butler to win the Raymond Carver Short Story Award at Carve Magazine in 2003. In addition to short fiction, he is an aspiring novelist, and recently completed a draft of a generation-spanning story about a small group of humans leaving a dying Earth to settle a new planet. He lives in Denver, Colorado, where he teaches linguistics at the graduate level and makes music with Firstimers, a power-pop ensemble.
Twitter and IG: @henry_iblis; Music: firstimers.bandcamp.com