Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sea Salt (Unknown)

Mid-week work trip. Drive 5 hours, eat a burger and tots at the Shoshone Snack Bar and check in to an old Best Western with a “river view.” There is a great big TV but nothing on and nothing to read but a Holy Bible. “Good Lord,” you say out loud and sigh.

You wash your hands, your face. Eye cream, Vitamin C serum, overnight cream, hand cream. Tomorrow someone will tell you you look younger than your 35 years. Have you fooled them with your snake oil elixirs…or maybe it’s the big zit punctuating your chin.

You turn in early.  Ghosts of the motor inn age: squeaky screens, metal car doors slamming, wafting smoke from a Lucky Strike, interrupt your already compromised sleep. “Good Lord.” Sigh.

The next morning you attempt to fortify yourself at Buddy’s Drive Thru Java Stop. This is a mid-western vanilla mocha double-whip with chocolate chip town and your cappuccino is resolutely thin.

It’s a four-lane road, wide and pitted and dusty. Up ahead and to the left, a digital billboard flashes pixilated fireworks and a robotic American flag. Your name in lights, misspelled. Welcome!!! You pull in the parking lot and park. The air is humid with the smell of chilidogs and pizza. Someone somewhere is practicing duck calls. It is a flat, desperate sound.

Standing there, behind your plastic table with the plastic tablecloth underneath a striped tent you turn on your alternate personality: you smile at everyone, chat easily with strangers, coo at children, tilt your head and nod knowingly. You answer questions and make jokes.

Hours go by, you meet hundreds of people. You chew on ice cubes and feel your voice weakening, cracking from use. You find it exhausting.

About 3 p.m. the throng thins and quiets. For the first time you can just make out the Muzak through the tinny speaker overhead. Don Henley. Sting. You sit down. You check your phone. No messages. You look up and out into the multitude.

He is a mast, tall and slender with broad shoulders, slow motion in the bustle and clang of the crowd. His hair is at once sandy blond and brown and grey. He has the skin of an aging surfer: after years of collecting sunshine he now radiates golden light. As he comes nearer, he smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkling into crow’s feet.

He introduces himself and you shake hands. His hands, the hands of a craftsman, a worker, strong, callused, but clean and soft. You look up into his eyes and realize you have the same eyes: sea green, deep and changeable. You immediately forget his name.

Instantaneously, everything becomes a cliché: it’s an electric surge, the energy, the chemistry. You segue from introductions to life stories in .06 seconds, a speed date at the carnival. In less than five minutes you know his trajectory: the mid-West to L.A. to San Diego to here. School and jobs, travel, a wife and son, the end of a marriage. In his descriptions you hear your own voice, hopeful, open, searching, fearful, brave, anxious, careful. Despite disappointment, tragedy, profound sadness, he knows the beauty of the world and moves into his future with faith and grace. You recognize his path as your own, a brightly colored balloon with no string.

You look down and for the first time in your life you can see your heart through your chest. It is the heart of a Frida Kahlo painting, a vivid violent red organ with twigging veins stretching, pulsing out and up. As you watch, the veins grow and reach, now you are only hearing the sound of his voice, words here and there, static white noise, a thrumming and buzzing as the veins grow and reach. And like tendrils of a vine, shoots of spring, they wrap themselves around the veins of his matching heart, exposed through his soft blue chamois shirt. And for a moment you can feel the soothing warmth of his blood in your veins.

You blink. And just as suddenly as the calm settled over the scene, the clamor and blast of the crowd swells again towards you. Three people, now four, five and you turn your head, turning your eyes away from his to the others around you. You smile and nod and shake hands. He catches your eye one last time and mouths the words “goodbye” and “nice to meet you.”

A few hours later you pack up your bag and throw the Styrofoam cup of melted ice into the trash. At your car you change your shoes and take off your jacket, it is a sunny afternoon. The drive home is long, into the sun, and the wind blows tumbleweeds across the road. The air smells of sage. When you think back over your day, thoughts of him sit like a flake of sea salt on your tongue, satisfyingly pungent, fading.

You just fell in love at first sight, and you’re never going to see him again. 

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