Focused on far water, Samantha said, “Winky.”
“I see it.”
The sea rose to the morning sun, dark jade and silver, a great shoulder of water shrugging up and rolling smoothly toward the break.
Ryan smelled brine, smelled the iodine of bleeding seaweed, and tasted salt.
“Epic,” Sam called out, sizing the swell.
“Monster,” he agreed.
Instead of rising into a control position, she left the wave to him, her butt on the board, her feet in the water, bait for sharks.
A squadron of gulls streaked landward, shrieking as if to warn those on shore that a behemoth was coming to smash sand castles and swamp picnic hampers.
As the moment of commitment neared, apprehension rose in Ryan, concern that the thrill of the ride might trigger another…episode.
He paddled to catch the wave, got to his feet on the pivot point, arms reaching for balance, fingers spread, palms down, and he caught the break, a perfect peeler that didn’t section on him but instead poured pavement as slick as ice. The moving wave displaced air, and a cool wind rose up the curved wall, pressing against his flattened palms.
Then he was in a tube, a glasshouse, behind the curtain of the breaking wave, shooting the curl, and his apprehension burst like a bubble and was no more.
Using every trick to goose momentum, he emerged from the tube before it collapsed, into the sparkle of sun on water filigreed with foam. The day was so real, so right. He admonished himself, No fear, which was the only way to live.
All morning, into the afternoon, the swells were monoliths. The offshore breeze strengthened, blowing liquid smoke off the lips of the waves.
The beach blanket was not a place to tan. It was for rehab, for massaging the quivers out of overtaxed muscles, for draining sinuses flooded with seawater, for combing bits of kelp and crusted salt out of your hair, for psyching each other into the next session.
Usually, Ryan would want to stay until late afternoon, when the offshore breeze died and the waves stopped hollowing out, when the yearning for eternity-which the ocean represented-became a yearning for burritos and tacos.
By two-thirty, however, during a retreat to the blanket, a pleasant weariness, the kind that follows work well done, overcame him. There was something delicious about this fatigue, a sweetness that made him want to close his eyes and let the sun melt him into sleep….
As he was swimming effortlessly in an abyss vaguely illuminated by clouds of luminescent plankton, a voice spoke to him out of the deep: “Ryan?”
“Were you asleep?”
He felt as though he were still asleep when he opened his eyes and saw her face looming over him: beauty of a degree that seemed mythological, radiant eyes the precise shade of a green sea patinaed by the blue of a summer sky, golden hair crowned with a corona of sunlight, goddess on a holiday from Olympus.
“You were asleep,” Samantha said.
“Too much big surf. I’m quashed.”
“You? When have you ever been quashed?”
Sitting up on the blanket, he said, “Had to be a first time.”
“You really want to pack out?”
“I skipped breakfast. We surfed through lunch.”
“There’s chocolate-cherry granola bars in the cooler.”
“Nothing but a slab of beef will revive me.”
They carried the cooler, the blanket, and their boards to the station wagon, stowed everything in back.
Still sodden with sunshine and loose-limbed from being so long in the water, Ryan almost asked Samantha to drive.
More than once, however, she glanced at him speculatively, as if she sensed that his brief nap on the beach blanket was related to the episode at the beginning of the day, when he floated like a mallard in the lineup, his heart exploding. He didn’t want to worry her. Besides, there was no reason to worry.
Earlier, he’d had an anxiety attack. But if truth were known, most people probably had them these days, considering the events and the pessimistic predictions that constituted the evening news.
Instead of passing the car keys to Sam, Ryan drove the two blocks to her apartment.
Samantha showered first while Ryan brewed a pitcher of fresh iced tea and sliced two lemons to marinate in it.
Her cozy kitchen had a single large window beyond which stood a massive California pepper tree. The elegant limbs, festooned with weeping fernlike leaves divided into many glossy leaflets, appeared to fill the entire world, creating the illusion that her apartment was a tree house.
The pleasant weariness that had flooded through Ryan on the beach now drained away, and a new vitality welled in him.
He began to think of making love to Samantha. Once the urge arose, it swelled into full-blooded desire.
Hair toweled but damp, she returned to the kitchen, wearing turquoise slacks, a crisp white blouse, and white tennies.
If she had been in the mood, she would have been barefoot, wearing only a silk robe.
For weeks at a time, her libido matched his, and she wanted him frequently. He had noticed that her desire was greater during those periods when she was busiest with her writing and the least inclined to consider his proposal of marriage.
A sudden spell of virtuous restraint was a sign that she was brooding about accepting the engagement ring, as though the prospect of matrimony required that sex be regarded as something too serious, perhaps too sacred, to be indulged in lightly.
Ryan happily accepted each turn toward abstinence when it seemed to indicate that she was on the brink of making a commitment to him. At twenty-eight, she was six years younger than he was, and they had a life of lovemaking ahead.
He poured a glass of iced tea for her, and then he went to take a shower. He started with water nearly as cold as the tea.
In the westering sun, the strawberry trees shed elongated leaf shadows on the flagstone floor of the restaurant patio.
Ryan and Samantha shared a caprese salad and lingered over their first glasses of wine, not in a hurry to order entrees.
The smooth peeling bark of the trees was red, especially so in the condensed light of the slowly declining sun.
“Teresa loved the flowers,” Sam said, referring to her sister.
“On these trees. They get panicles of little urn-shaped flowers in the late spring.”
“White and pink,” Ryan remembered.
“Teresa said they look like cascades of tiny bells, wind chimes hung out by fairies.”
Six years previously, Teresa had suffered serious head trauma in a traffic accident. Eventually she had died.
Samantha seldom mentioned her sister. When she spoke of Teresa, she tended to turn inward before much had been said, mummifying her memories in long windings of silence.
Now, as she gazed into the overhanging tree, the expression in her eyes was reminiscent of that look of longing when, straddling her surfboard in the lineup, she studied far water for the first sign of a new set of swells.
Ryan was comfortable with Sam’s occasional silences, which he suspected were always related to thoughts of her sister, even when she had not mentioned Teresa.
They had been identical twins.
To better understand Sam, Ryan had read about twins who had been separated by tragedy. Apparently the survivor’s grief was often mixed with unjustified guilt.
Some said the intense bond between identicals, especially between sisters, could not be broken even by death. A few insisted they still felt the presence of the other, akin to how an amputee often feels sensations in his phantom leg.
Samantha’s contemplative silence gave Ryan an opportunity to study and admire her with a forthrightness that was not possible when she was aware of his stare.
Watching her, he was nailed motionless by admiration, unable to lift his wineglass, or at least disinterested in it, his eyes alone in motion, traveling the contours of her face and the graceful line of her throat.
His life was a pursuit of perfection, of which perhaps the world held none.
Sometimes he imagined that he came close to it when writing lines of code for software. An exquisite digital creation, however, was as cold as a mathematical equation. The most fastidious software architecture was an object of mere precision, not of perfection, for it could not evoke an intense emotional response.
In Samantha Reach, he’d found a beauty so close to perfection that he could convince himself this was his quest fulfilled.
Gazing into the tree but focused on something far beyond the red geometry of those branches, Sam said, “After the accident, she was in a coma for a month. When she came out of it…she wasn’t the same.”
Ryan was kept silent by the smoothness of her skin. This was the first he had heard of Teresa’s coma. Yet the radiance of Sam’s face, in the caress of the late sun, rendered him incapable of comment.
“She still had to be fed through a tube in her stomach.”
The only leaf shadows that touched Samantha’s face were braided across her golden hair and brow, as though she wore the wreath of Nature’s approval.
“The doctors said she was in a permanent vegetative state.”
Her gaze lowered through the branches and fixed on a cruciform of sunlight that, shimmering on the table, was projected by a beam passing through her wineglass.
“I never believed the doctors,” she said. “Teresa was still complete inside her body, trapped but still Teresa. I didn’t want them to take out the feeding tube.”
She raised her eyes to meet his, and he had to make of this a conversation.
“But they took it out anyway?” he asked.
“And starved her to death. They said she wouldn’t feel anything. Supposedly the brain damage assured that she’d have no pain.”
“But you think she suffered.”
“I know she did. During the last day, the last night, I sat with her, holding her hand, and I could feel her looking at me even though she never opened her eyes.”
He did not know what to say to that.
Samantha picked up her glass of wine, causing the cross of light to morph into an arrow that briefly quivered like a compass needle seeking true north in Ryan’s eyes.
“I’ve forgiven my mother for a lot of things, but I’ll never forgive her for what she did to Teresa.”
As Samantha took a sip of wine, Ryan said, “But I thought…your mother was in the same accident.”
“I was under the impression she died in the crash, too. Rebecca. Was that her name?”
“She is dead. To me. Rebecca’s buried in an apartment in Las Vegas. She walks and talks and breathes, but she’s dead all right.”
Samantha’s father had abandoned the family before the twins were two. She had no memory of him.
Feeling that Sam should hold fast to what little family she had, Ryan almost encouraged her to give her mother a chance to earn redemption. But he kept silent on the issue, because Sam had his sympathy and his understanding.
His grandparents and hers-all long dead-were of the generation that defeated Hitler and won the Cold War. Their fortitude and their rectitude had been passed along, if at all, in a diluted form to the next generation.
Ryan’s parents, no less than Sam’s, were of that portion of the post-war generation that rejected the responsibilities of tradition and embraced entitlement. Sometimes it seemed to him that he was the parent, that his mother and father were the children.
Regardless of the consequences of their behavior and decisions, they would see no need for redemption. Giving them the chance to earn it would only offend them. Sam’s mother was most likely of that same mind-set.
Samantha put down her glass, but the sun made nothing of it this time.
After a hesitation, as Ryan poured more wine for both of them, he said, “Funny how something as lovely as strawberry-tree flowers can peel the scab off a bad memory.”
“No need to be.”
“Such a nice day. I didn’t mean to bring it down. Are you as ferociously hungry as I am?”
“Bring me the whole steer,” he said.
In fact, they ordered just the filet mignon, no horns or hooves.
As the descending sun set fire to the western sky, strings of miniature white lights came on in the strawberry trees. On all the tables were candles in amber cups of faceted glass, and busboys lit them.
The ordinary patio had become a magical place, and Samantha was the centerpiece of the enchantment.
By the time the waiter served the steaks, Sam had found the lighter mood that had characterized the rest of the day, and Ryan joined her there.
After the first bite of beef, she raised her wineglass in a toast. “Hey, Dotcom, this one’s to you.”
Dotcom was another nickname that she had for him, used mostly when she wanted to poke fun at his public image as a business genius and tech wizard.
“Why to me?” he asked.
“Today you finally stepped down from the pantheon and revealed that you’re at best a demigod.”
Pretending indignation, he said, “I haven’t done any such thing. I’m still turning the wheel that makes the sun rise in the morning and the moon at night.”
“You used to take the waves until they surrendered and turned mushy. Today you’re beached on a blanket by two-thirty.”
“Did you consider that it might have been boredom, that the swells just weren’t challenging enough for me?”
“I considered it for like two seconds, but you were snoring as if you’d been plenty challenged.”
“I wasn’t sleeping. I was meditating.”
“You and Rip Van Winkle.” After they had assured the attentive waiter that their steaks were excellent, Samantha said, “Seriously, you were okay out there today, weren’t you?”
“I’m thirty-four, Sam. I guess I can’t always thrash the waves like a kid anymore.”
“It’s just-you looked a little gray there.”
He raised a hand to his hair. “Gray where?”
“Your pretty face.”
He grinned. “You think it’s pretty?”
“You can’t keep pulling those thirty-six-hour sessions at the keyboard and then go right out and rip the ocean like you’re the Big Kahuna.”
“I’m not dying, Sam. I’m just aging gracefully.”
He woke in absolute darkness, with the undulant motion of the sea beneath him. Disoriented, he thought for a moment that he was lying faceup on a surfboard, beyond the break, under a sky in which every star had been extinguished.
The hard rapid knocking of his heart alarmed him.
When Ryan felt the surface under him, he realized that it was a bed, not a board. The undulations were not real, merely perceived, a yawing dizziness.