He had come to Big Sur. His goal wasn’t to surf but to see the sunset over the Pacific. A group was forming on the earthen and grass plateau at Molera State Park. Many folks with the same idea, he mused, watching a frisbee throw going before him. He wondered if he could still let that disk fly and decided to find out. It would kill time while waiting for the other disk to light up the western horizon upon its descent. He joined in and found her immediately among the group.
The frisbee came to him. He plucked it from the air with a graceful grab and then sent a horizontal art to her. It bounced off her hand and dropped to the earth. She retrieved it and sent it back to him, a fluttering butterfly that veered right and died on the ground a few yards before him. She shrugged. He smiled. Her gray eyes brightened. The frisbee throw ended. Its participants headed toward the lands’ edge to see the sunset. He didn’t but instead approached her, “Here for the fireworks?”
Looking up at him, the tan skin around her eyes crinkled, “You mean the sunset?”
“One and the same.”
“Yeah, I am.” She brushed her sun-bleached hair off her dark forehead. But it appeared a fruitless exercise. The blond strands just fell back, once again falling in her face, and she shrugged.
“Glad I’m bald.”
She pointed her eyes up to the annoying hair and then tried to blow them off with a failed breath; “Comes with the territory, I guess.” Her lips became a smile. He laughed, and she joined in with giggles which sounded as fresh as a schoolgirl’s. They walked together to the cliff’s edge and looked down at the waves crashing against the cragged stones. A roar followed by a whimper.
When the sun dipped its toe in the Pacific, the horizon celebrated with a festival of spectacular colors: deep orange, fiery red, stormy purple, and a blue so dark you could mistake it for black. The effect was mesmerizing. But he did tear himself away to look at her. His mind worked fast as if he was a mathematician calculating the perfect proportions in creating her face. What he saw burned itself in his memory. He wondered what she thought of him. What he didn’t know was she concluded that his rugged athletic body made up for his plain face.
The sun finally set. Flashlight beams awoke, piercing the near darkness and keeping it from closing in. Murmurs floated on the cooling breeze. The two of them remained quiet for a while.
He didn’t mind the dark. His mother always told him that he had the eyes of a wolf at night. One of the rare things he still recalled from his youth. Most, he blocked. The battered fragments that floated to the surface of his mind were dark and desperate, always involving his father, that bastard, and invariably his mother, his siblings, and himself. He couldn’t allow them to gain a foothold. Not now. Not ever. So, he drowned them back in the inner-most recesses. Call it whatever. He saw it as survival. He decided to break through the wall of silence between them, “Where’s your hometown?”
She gazed at him before answering, “Back east.”
“Farm.” Her eyes made him think she was back there for the moment. But she snapped out of her temporary trance; “How about you?”
Another flash from his past shot through his head like a fiery comet, “Somewhere between there and here.” He understood from the look in her eyes that she would not pursue the subject further. This made him like her more.
When they got back to the campsite, they went to his tent and sat outside. Neither offered other options. After a little while, he rose, “Mind if I make a fire?”
“Why would I? No better time than now.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Knock yourself out.” He strode to the nearby pit, a dug-out hole with rocks circling it. There, he thought about telling her his name. But she hadn’t mentioned hers. And that was fine by him—no need to intrude on the moment with formalities.
Soon, the fire was blazing. Flames danced in the dry, dark air, burning wood crackling like a campfire sonata; “You’re a pro,” she said.
“Guess I am. Guess this is the life for me.”
“I can see.” He sat down next to her. The flames lit her pretty face, and it sent joy to his heart. He sized her up for her late twenties and thought she’d take him for younger than he was. Thirty-nine was how many years he’d put on his life, challenging years, and he had the scars to prove it. But he shared them with no one.
The fire raged. So bright it hurt his eyes, but he would not look away. Finally, he glanced at her. She was steadfastly staring at the blaze, as well; “You cut out for this way of life?” His smoker’s voice was low.
“You mean this?” She waved her hand to take in all before her. “Cut out? Guess that’s what I’m trying to find out.”
He noticed the band of untanned flesh on her ring finger but didn’t mention it. Must’ve been recently removed, he reckoned. He’d had one, too—once, but its imprint was no longer visible.
When the consumed wood burned to embers, he grabbed a water jug and poured its contents on what was once a beautiful blaze. It produced steam and a sizzling hiss. Then he returned to the tent, unzipped its nylon door, and pulled out his sleeping bag, “Perfect night for sleeping under the night sky.” He spread it out on the ground, intending for both of them to sit on it.
But she lay claim to it first, lying down and looking up at the stars. He squeezed next to her, stretched out his long legs, and lit a joint. They passed it back and forth until it was nothing more than a burning nub. He liked the feeling it gave him; she was enamored of it, too, as far as he could tell from her purring eyes. Then he gazed upward. The stars had calmed him since he could remember. He raised his hand and reached for one.
She giggled. “Good luck.”
“One day,” he said; “One day, I’ll own one.”
“High hopes, I’d say.” She turned on her side, facing him, her face like a burning ember.
“I mean to…I never owned a thing. I’ll grab one of those bright, burning dots in the sky. You’ll see.” He felt her faint warm breath on his ear. Then he felt her hand running through his hair. Then her lips were brushing his cheek. At that moment, he wanted to grab a star. And he did. While making love to her, he heard her crying, “Something wrong?”
Her answer came in more whimpers.
He pursued the answer no further and continued what he was otherwise doing, believing he now heard a wolf howling in the distant woods. Even if he knew there were no wolves around here, he thought it.
He awoke, unaware that he’d fallen asleep. The early morning light jarred him out of whatever slumber there was left and caused extra blinks. Then he remembered her. He looked around. She was gone.
Later, he wandered the campgrounds, but she was nowhere. Then he hiked back to where they’d met but no luck. He stood still for a few moments and followed the sound of crashing waves to the edge of the plateau. Below, the banging waves met the jagged cliff. His eyes followed the Pacific to the cloudless blue horizon. Breathtaking. The mist flew up and sprayed his face. He liked how it tingled his skin.
She wasn’t cut out for this kind of life.
But was he?
Philip Goldberg’s stories appeared in Evening Street Review, Words & Whispers, trampset, Dillydoun Review, Halcyone, Thrice Fiction, and Main Street Rag. Microfictions have appeared in Blink Ink and Starwheel. Three works were published in Best of collections and one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently editing his novel.