What a lovely opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. The Ranger's best friend from high school, Roop Dog, is here visiting from the-hill-country-of-western-Pennsylvania and wants to hear my version of how I met the Ranger. So here it is.
Disclaimer: Sorry if you already read this in an email way back when, during a spell of great ambivalence, but we do a lot of recycling here in Oregon. And if you're one of those folks who thinks I'm a BIG MEANIE when I write about my ex-husband, well then I invite you on over to the treehouse where I promise to bend over so you can KISS MY ASS, after which I will fix you a big bowl of pasta to warm your hands, like the good hostess I am, using, of course, the whole wheat variety, because it seems a bit of fiber is in order.
Sneaker Waves Appear Without Warning
Never let your new lover Google you when you’re naked. A buzz killer. Things pop up that you don’t really feel like explaining while languid, on a Saturday afternoon, after a good shagging. My fault, really. I was tired of hearing The Ranger doubt my references, the facts of my life so I said, “just Google me, for Godsakes.” Granted, I didn’t really instill a good deal of trust right out of the gates with my rather enormous lies, or creative non-fictions, as I like to call them, but once I come clean, I stay clean.
My laptop is propped open on his stomach, his lovely stomach. He’s frowning at the screen, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. He stops, leans in, frowns deeper, then scrolls some more.
“Your ex-husband is a doctor.”
“Yup, a surgeon.” I glance at the website he’s locked onto. Some foundation for some disease in Albuquerque. Home. Or at least it was before all of this.
“Wow. So you were rich.” He states this as a fact, without judgment.
I pull on my socks because here on the Oregon Coast, I’m always cold. My big toe bursts out of a large, frayed hole. “And as you can see, those days are over.”
“Really come down in the world, haven’t you, from a doctor to a park ranger? No wonder your parents are freaking.”
I lean over and kiss his wrinkled brow. “First of all, I haven’t come down in the world. I’m happy and that’s a step up. And my parents are freaking because you’re 25 and I’m 43. Your parents are freaking.”
He snaps the laptop closed, slips it onto the floor and rolls onto his side, facing me. “Sometimes it’s weird to think you had a whole life before I met you, a life I’ll never know anything about.” He runs his thumb across my lower lip making it very hard to concentrate. “What do you miss about your husband, the doctor?”
“What do you miss?”
“Let’s see.” I flop onto my stomach so he can’t see my face. “Easy access to prescription drugs. A lifetime’s supply of bandaids. Getting drunk at the hospital fundraiser. Um…always having somebody around who really knows how to carve a turkey.”
“Seriously, what do you miss?”
I know I have to answer this one carefully, and not take too long doing it. “I miss his hands. He had big, graceful hands. A bit of a paradox, but he could tie his shoelaces using chopsticks. It’s quite the bar trick.”
Slam dunk. A perfect balance of sincerity without attachment. And it’s true. I used to love watching the Surgeon in the operating room, his gloved, ghostly fingers flying in and out of the harsh lights, twirling sutures or clasping instruments. An orchestra conductor at the peak of his talent. He could fix anything with those hands. The swamp cooler. The hard drive. Cancer. Well, almost anything.
When he rowed a guide boat or wrangled a fish to shore, it wasn’t the action I was watching. It was always his hands because that was where he was most alive. And he knew that, too. Drawing up our living wills, he specified that if he ever lost use of his hands, it was over, he wanted to be euthanized. He made me promise.
In the last month of his father’s life, when a heart valve was beginning to crash, the Surgeon was convinced that the reason he couldn’t understand his father’s words, the reason his voice was getting smaller and smaller, was because there was something wrong with our telephone. So I came home from work one day to find him calmly sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of tea nearby, his hands flat and quiet. He was staring at all the pieces in front of him: circuits, knobs, buttons, panels, wires. Laid out neatly and artfully like in one of those visual encyclopedias that are now so popular. “Can’t quite figure out the problem,” he said, “but I know once I do, I can fix it.”
I boosted the heavy bag of groceries on to the counter, walked over to him and squeezed his shoulders, but he shrugged me off. He didn’t want my sympathy. Two weeks later, his father was dead.
The Ranger sits up suddenly and holds his hands out, palms up. They look like leather mitts, rough and calloused, with two new blisters just beginning to heal making his right palm look raw and painful. He’d spent yesterday burying a dead sea lion that had washed ashore, then fixed a broken water main at the camp site.
“Never be accused of being graceful.” He squints at his hands as if they’d just sprouted from the ends of his arms.
I grab hold and press their grittiness to my cheeks. These hands that always deliver my cup of coffee exactly the way I like it. That rub my neck after hours on the computer. That give me so much pleasure at the end of the day, everyday.
“What else do you miss?”
“TIVO?” I so want this conversation to be over.
He pulls his hands away and rolls out of bed, tugs on fatigue pants, a sweatshirt, boots. “Better chop some more wood. Feels like a storm coming through.”
“We have plenty.” I curl up like a lazy cat trying to look alluring in a Victoria Secret, pre-packaged sort of way. “Come back to bed, whipper-snapper.”
“Good to stay ahead of the cold.” He pulls on a cap, his dark green Park Service jacket and strides out of the room without looking at me. He hates lying. He’s never lied to me, not once. I envy that kind of ease with the truth, but in my experience, it doesn’t set you free, it just ups the ante.
I flop back down, disgusted with myself, and I tick off my list, barely scratching the surface of how different these two men really are. I know I shouldn’t compare, but it’s a survival instinct. It’s how we know not to eat those poisonous berries ever again.
Ranger - Leatherman; Surgeon - Blackberry
Ranger - Won’t dance, except at weddings; Surgeon - Won’t dance, except at weddings
Ranger - ESPN; Surgeon - PBS
Ranger - Bud Light; Surgeon - Pinot Noir
Ranger - Eddie Bauer; Surgeon - Hickey Freeman
Ranger - Biscuits and Sausage Gravy; Surgeon - Protein Shake w/banana and flax seed
Ranger - Hockey; Surgeon - Hockney
Ranger - Biceps; Surgeon - Bifocals
Ranger - Nascar; Surgeon - Nasdaq
Ranger - Johnny Cash; Surgeon - Jon Stewart
Ranger - Mama’s Boy; Surgeon - Ditto
The Ranger and I met where every risky launch finds some footing – a bar. I always meet men in bars. It’s the laptop. Like catnip, they can’t help but sniff and rub up against it. You’re a writer so you must be witty, know how to hold your liquor and show little discretion when it comes to making out with someone at the end of the night. If nothing else, you’ll be able to tell a good story. And that’s exactly what I was doing, parked at the Rogue Brewery after a bowl of chowder and a pint of Brutal Bitter, a beer, I swear was named after me.
“What are you writing?”
Annoyed at the interruption, I tossed an answer, “A story.”
“A story? Cool. What’s it about?”
The accent slowed me, a little bit of country in a bustling fishing town. Far from home, like me. I glance over. A boy, dark brown, soulful eyes, strong arms, an unmade bed hunched over a pint. Perfect.
“A story about you.”
“About me?” He peers at the screen. “What did I do?”
“Nothin’ interesting yet, but I’m waiting.”
He thinks about this for a minute. “I know a hike. It’s not easy, but it’s amazing. Starts in the woods, then over a bluff, a scramble across this headland where there’s this awesome lighthouse. At sunset the whales are out. Want to see?”
I stopped typing. I pictured the headline, the grainy photo with bad hair. He sensed my hesitation.
Then I remembered why I’m on this road trip. I promised to start living life like I had a terminal disease. A Buddhist thing. Well, not exactly, but close. I slapped the computer closed and held out my hand. “Let’s go.”
He smiled beautifully, grabbed my hand and pulled me off the stool, “Call me Ranger. Want to ride with me or take your own car? And what’s your name anyway?”
“I’ll drive myself.” I’m not that crazy. “As for my name…not so fast.”
And there you have it. 0 to 60 in 10.5 seconds. No chit-chat, no wink. Maybe this is how it will be done in the future, after marriage becomes a laughable, antiquated institution. I pick you. Let’s mate. Cool. Shall we hit the liquor store on the way?
Back on 101, I tapped the gas and scooted closer to the Chevy Lumina in front of me so I could get a better look. Squeezing the cellphone between my chin and shoulder, I waited, waited, waited for Pen to pick up. Come on. Come on.
“Hello.” Pen sounded a million miles away. Home.
“Take down this number.”
“What number? Why?”
“Oregon plate NZR 324. Got that. Oregon NZR 324.” Paper shuffling in the background. The sucking of cigarette smoke. Damn her bad habits. “I’m going hiking with this guy I just met. And that’s his plate number. You know, just in case.”
“Jesus, in case of what?”
“In case they find my partially decomposed body in the woods after the spring thaw, after my disappearance has made headlines, my dad has dropped dead from grief and some lucky bitch skimming from the church sale ends up wearing all my Italian leather pumps.”
“Hold on, hold on, let me pour a glass of wine and you can tell me what’s going on there.” Pen always listens better with alcohol. It greases her wheel.
“Says he’s gonna show me some lighthouse where the whales swim at sunset. I met him in a bar. Says he’s a park ranger, but who knows how much of that is true. Isn’t that what serial killers say, that they’re park rangers? They buy those green pants from surplus stores and then casually strangle you while wearing a Smokey the bear hat.”
“What his name?”
“Where does he work? What park?”
“Where’s this lighthouse?”
“Great. Fucking great.” I hear the clink of ice in the background. “You really have to stop drinking in the middle of the day. You could end up off a cliff.”
“You know what they say. Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
“He must be pretty cute.”
“Adorable. A cross between Keanu Reeves and Johnny Depp, I’m thinking.”
“Young. Nice job. You always did like the Matrix. Welcome to Zion.” Pen snorted. She often cracked herself up. “So tell me, who are you in this town?”
“I’m a 33-year-old English professor at the University of Washington.”
“Whoa. You really know how to sex things up.”
“Well, it beats being a 43-year-old burned out advertising executive from Albuquerque with fresh divorce papers, a modest amount of debt and chronic insomnia.”
“Hey, gotta go. We’re turning off into a thick, dark, impenetrable forest, with no mile marker, no sign. I’ll probably lose the signal. Wish me luck.”
“Call when you live to tell the tale.”
We parked at the trailhead and ducked into a mossy forest where the ground gave way under our feet and tree roots buckled the surface. The darkness of the canopy was startling after so much sunshine, but soon we burst out onto a bluff, a vertical bluff that demanded some hand to foot to hand scrambling before bouldering down the other side. And there it was, the Yaquina Head lighthouse. Just like in the postcards. Jutting out at the edge of the rock, blinding white and perfect, a nostalgic spin of light. The Ranger counted out the signature: “1234567891011121314 flash 123 second flash.”
“The locals say this lighthouse is haunted. What do you think?
“Of course it is.” The Ranger pulls his hood up to warm his ears. “They all are. I take care of the one at Heceta Head, and I definitely feel something there, a woman, a sad woman.”
At the edge of the cliff, I held fast to the railing to keep from being blown backwards by the huffing wind. The sun melted as it hit the water, flattening and waning, until all that was left was a long orange streak sandwiched by a layer of blue, the last flick of a summer day. A family of pelicans hung suspended in the air, pinned against the flaming sky.
“Look to the left of the largest sea stack.” The Ranger, he stands behind me and points over my shoulder. I can feel his breath on my frozen ear.
In the near distance, a pod of gray whales, maybe five, blow their way around the point, rising and falling in an off beat. The guy promised whales at sunset and there they were. I admit, at that point in my life I didn’t much believe in men stepping up, delivering on a promise.
“Nice job, Ranger. So what happens next? You know, in the story.”
“A kiss. This is where the Ranger leans over and kisses the Professor so the story can go on.”
I frowned, not sure I was comfortable with this narrative arc.
He opens his arms. “Come on. It doesn’t get any better than this. You’re at a lighthouse, the gem of the Oregon Coast. At sunset. Whales. Two strangers. There’s got to be a kiss.”
He had a point. It was worth risking the cliché. His nose was cold. Mine was colder. But the kiss was warm and shy. Like teenagers. Like starting over.
Now, two months later, I admire that lighthouse everyday, outside the kitchen window. When I finally told the Ranger I wasn’t really a 33-year-old college professor, he looked like a man who’d just taken a bullet to the chest. His eyes widened as the bubble popped: marriage & children, Crate & Barrel. Gone. But to his credit, he recovered quickly, shrugged away my apologies and said, “We’re good together. I still want you here with me. Let’s just leave it at that.”
And we have. But he doesn’t entirely trust me. Once, he was supposed to pick me up from yoga class, but the woman at the front desk gave him bad information, confusing me with another woman with the same name so when she said “She left with her boyfriend a few minutes ago. You just missed her,” the Ranger got in his car and drove away. But who can blame him. My line between truth and fiction has always been pretty blurry. It’s what’s made me so good at advertising. It’s why I didn’t turn my car around and head south toward the sun and home despite Pen flying out for a week to try and talk some sense into me.
“This is your sneaker wave, Dude. Didn’t you see the sign on 101? Never turn your back on the ocean.”
“I’m not saying The Ranger and I have a future or that…”
“Of course you don’t have a future. You’re on the road. This is what happens when you travel. You should see the morsel I picked up in Guatemala ten years ago. Name was Paulo, Pablo, something like that. Had a great time. Got our passports stamped plenty, but back in the states, it was over. This guy, this Ranger, he’s only as good as the Oregon Coast. It’s so damn beautiful here, it would be a shame not to have a fling. And that’s all this is, a fling. You’re in it because he’s the complete flip side of your X. But come on, you guys don’t have the bones to go the distance, you said so yourself. He’s never read a book, can’t talk politics, and thinks your second language is Mexican. He’ll never be able to keep up with you.”
This is when Pen frightens me the most. When she sounds exactly like the voice inside my head, a frontal lobe standing in front of me wearing a skull t-shirt, designer jeans and black, leather boots.
“But I love him.” Oh God, I sound like one of those characters from daytime television, standing in the drawing room by the fire, clutching a gilded photograph to my breast.
Pen rolls her eyes and grabs her purse. “Snap out of it. What you need is to go shopping. Seeing you slumped there wearing fleece and fingerless gloves just creeps me out.”
Standing at the bedroom window, I watch the Ranger wield an ax and am overwhelmed with the happy childhood memory of always wanting to be Laura Ingalls Wilder in gingham dresses and shiny braids. Feeling my eyes on his back, he looks up and waves, a smile lighting his face. He’s never angry for long. Not like the Surgeon who could snap a computer keyboard in half and slam every door in the house before settling into a week-long sulk. I’ve just now stopped flinching.
Yet, between the outbursts were long stretches of brilliance. What I can’t say is this: I miss my ex-husband’s incredible mind, the hot white light that was his brain, like boiling glass before the glassblower turns it to beauty. I miss the tall stack of books on his side of the bed, everything from urban planning and environmental policy to medical journals, Richard Ford, the history of WWII and how-to books on veneering. I miss him shouting his tree-hugging, Green Party propaganda at the TV during political debates, his steamed, articulate letters to the editor, the way he could watch Battlestar Galactica and read a four-inch text on colon cancer, at the same time, following both storylines.
His smarts still made me laugh, even at the very end, before things got so deadly, when we were sitting at a café with our real estate agent preparing to sell the house.
“Sir, what would you like to drink?”
“An Arnold Palmer.”
“You know, half lemonade, half ice tea.”
“Oh, of course. Here, we call that a Fuzzy Zoeller.”
“Call it whatever you like, just don’t call it a Louis Pasteur.”
After the wood is stacked, the trash can pushed to the road, and the dishwasher emptied, we take a run into town for groceries. At Fred Meyer, our cart looks like a prankster lives there. The Ranger reaches for ground round. I reach for tofu. The Ranger reaches for Cheez Its, I reach for kale. We agree on French roast coffee, organic cheese, red wine.
At the check-out line, the old man in front of us is struggling. His back stiff and unyielding, he can’t quite reach into his cart to unload it so the Ranger steps up and without saying a word, takes everything out and stacks it neatly on the conveyor belt. At first the old man looked frightened, but then he smiled, nodding in my direction.
“You did a nice job raising your son, ma’am. Looks big and tough, but I can tell he’s got a good heart.”
The Ranger laughs but his cheeks burn pink. I clap my hand over my mouth, a nervous reaction – really, I don’t know what to say -- and feel tears fill my eyes which, more than anything, pisses me off. Shit. We pay the cashier. We load the car. We buckle up. We drive off. In silence.
“He’s right, you know.”
“What are you talking about?” The Ranger turns south on 101 instead of north towards home.
“I am too old for you.”
“Since when do you care what people think?”
I snap because I find his calm infuriating. “It’s easy for you. You’re the young, handsome dude. I’m the one people judge. The predator. Mrs. Robinson, lurking near the playground, waiting to pounce.”
“Who’s Mrs. Robinson?”
“Jesus fucking Christ, forget it.”
The Ranger slaps the steering wheel. “Why are you mad at me? What did I do?”
“You were born in 1981. That’s what you did. And some day soon you’re going to meet a nice girl with a sassy flip in her hair who will pop out a handful of children, and you’ll all live in a tidy house by the sea, kitchen knobs courtesy of Restoration Hardware. I can see it now -- weekend barbeques with potato salad and sporks where all the neighborhood kids run around, wading in and out of the inflatable pool. And this will all be just a pleasant memory of that fall, that winter you spent with this faded hippie who showed you the ins and outs of cooking a mean bouillabaisse and who never once demanded anything of you. But you better enjoy it now, buddy, because if there’s one thing I know about wives, it’s that we are a pain in the ass.”
His jaw tightens, but he doesn’t say anything. Just parks the car at the trailhead for Seal Rock, turns off the engine and gets out, quietly clicking the door shut. I follow him down the path to the bluff. The tide is in and winter storms have pushed 20-foot swells to shore where they smash the jagged sea stacks that line this half-mile of coastline. My favorite beach, which is, of course, why we’re here.
Leaning his forearms against the rail, he finally speaks. “Are you breaking up with me? Is that what this is. Because I’ve heard this speech before and I got to admit, Honey, I don’t know what it means, except maybe that you’re breaking up with me.”
I sink my head into my hands. “Please God, don’t call me your ‘girlfriend.’ You have no idea how old that makes me feel. And how demoted.”
“You know this isn’t easy for me either. My brother calls me ‘boy-toy.’ You are not easy. Hell, I don’t know what I want. But you don’t either.” He tugs his sleeves down over his hands, fighting the chill. “Maybe I choose you. Every day I choose you. Why is that so hard for you to understand?”
I stuff my numb hands into my jacket. And in the left pocket, an agate, cool and smooth fills my palm. One of the promises the Ranger made when I took a leap of faith and showed up with a single suitcase and an exit strategy. Holding the stone up to the dying sun, I admire its quiet amber glow. “They hold magic,” he told me once, “it’s up to you to figure out how to use them.”
I find agates in my pant pockets, my socks, at the bottom of my coffee cup, under my pillow, in my curled hand when I wake in the morning. And I know this is how he says he loves me.
I lean my forehead against his chest and breath deep. He smells like citrus soap and sweat. “I don’t know how to be a girlfriend. I can’t even unpack my one bag.”
He wraps his arms around me and I feel the pull in his strength. Here there is no comparison. This man, his heart is soft and spacious, wider, taller than a stack of books. When I’m late coming home, he waits at the end of the dirt road, shouldering the fog and the rain.
“What would you like me to call you then?”
I tug his sweathshirt with both hands, bringing his face down to mine. And I kiss him long and hard until I have an answer.