Look carefully. The two great plates fought against each other and forced the lands of the eastern plate upward, lifting a range of mountains to the sky. Another range rose to the west of the first range, leaving lowlands between them that filled with the waters of the ocean and created a great inland sea.
February came and I was free of everything. Nancy went back to her know-nothing husband. He had finally agreed to go through counseling, and Nancy, for her part, agreed to move back in with him while they tried to work it out one last time. He would eventually go back to all his old habits – come home, turn on the TV, smoke a joint, fall asleep – and she would file for divorce. The last I heard, she had moved to Alaska to become editor of a small-town newspaper.
I heard very little about Stacy, which was absolutely fine. Back in the valley, with my new permanent job, things that happened on the coast were out of my range. I heard vague hints that she was dating some executive from the East Coast, and I suspected that this was what she needed, anyway – a man with enough money to match her own.
I began an after-work program of playing hacky-sack at a nearby park. I became insanely good at it, sometimes making runs of five hundred touches. Within weeks, I was losing weight, gaining muscle, and, perhaps most importantly, learning the power of solitude.
My return to the social life was the first installment of spring training, the second weekend of March. Though it was tempting to relegate Catch This to the expanding collection of my past-life museum, the song of the little white ball was too powerful, and as yet I had no other dealer.
Our first practice was both brief and violent. Dana, the team’s premier victim of ballophobia, was for some reason pitching batting practice. Her boyfriend, Brian, hit a drive up the middle that followed a line directly to Dana’s nose. The sound of the impact was chilling. The team rushed to her side in a panic. We held her on a picnic table as blood spurted from her face, and Johnny held a T-shirt to her nose.
“You want an ambulance?” asked Johnny. “You want one of use to drive you?”
Dana’s eyes looked wild and frightened. “Drive,” she said. We carried her to someone’s van, and Brian and Johnny accompanied her to the hospital. The rest of us just stood there, not knowing what to do except clean the blood off the pitcher’s mound and call it a day. This was not a good way to start a season.
Still, we were back the next week, at William Frawley Memorial, readying for a practice game with the Live Oak Goons. Dana was absent – lying in bed, still recuperating – and so was Brian, who felt consumed by guilt. Dana’s spirit was with us, however, for ballophobia had stricken the entire team. A dozen errors later, we were trailing by a ten runs.
I was immune to such things, and feeling even better, because Stacy was there, and her presence was having no effect on me. By the sixth inning, though, I glanced out to right to see her dropping her head, not paying the least attention to the game. She was biting her lip, a danger sign I knew all too well. I guess this meant I had to talk to her. After the game, she wandered down the right field line, giving me an opportunity.
I walked up behind her, and when she turned I had no words. We just stood there in the land of ground rule doubles and searched each other for clues.
“Hiyah,” she said.
“How are you?” I said. Her eyes were swollen and bloodshot.
She peered up at two snow-white clouds sailing out over home plate. “I’m not… so good.”
I didn’t really feel like saying anything – I was afraid I might come off sounding vindictive – so I waited until she went on.
“Michael, could you meet me at the condo in a couple hours? I’ve got to meet a friend for lunch, but I really want to talk to you. Something’s come up, but I don’t want to tell you until we’ve got some time.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll go grab a cup of coffee and meet you there at, oh, five?”
“Hey,” I said. “Give me a hug, wouldja?”
My newly honed feelers sensed the urgency in her embrace, but I let the feeling pass. I had trained myself out of that old habit of overinterpretation. I pointed my glove at her and said, “See you at five,” then strolled back to my equipment bag, leaving her leaning against the right-field fence.
She was a half-hour late, a habit of timing I’d come to expect. She apologized profusely and led me to her door. She offered me a cup of coffee, and we sat on the couch. Just as she was settling down, she clicked her tongue and got a devilish look on her face.
“Listen, I’ve got to pick up an order from my wine-of-the-month club. Why don’t we take it down to the beach and have a fire? Yeah, that’s it, let’s do it.”
What could I say? I was only along for the ride. We threw some firewood and newspaper into her car and were on our way. We took off to Bargetto’s winery, picked up two bottles of Gewürtztraminer, then headed to our beach. An hour later the sun was gone and the fire at the final tips of its flaming before settling down to glowing orange coals. We were through the first bottle, things were getting warm and fuzzy, and Stacy and I were getting closer.
“Michael, my promotion finally came through. I’m going back to New Jersey, probably by June, and…”
Her eyes were welling over. She wiped them clean and went on.
“I guess what I’m trying to say to you is, the prospect of leaving this… lovely place has made me realize that I’ve been wasting my time lately with a lot of jerks, and now, since I only have a little time left, I want to spend it with people I really care about, and especially… with you.”
I didn’t say anything, I just leaned over to take her face in my hands and kiss her for a good long time. In the grand picture of things, this was exactly what I needed: a chance to continue our romance, no matter how limited by time and geography, but on my terms, knowing I no longer needed to fill up my self-portrait with borrowed paints.
That night, in bed, as soon as we had begun, I noticed a circle of bluish-purple on her breast. A hickey.
She tried to explain in sad, regretful tones. “He was a real jerk, Michael, a real arrogant… jerk.” I ignored her bruises and returned to my pleasure. Redemption was in sight.
If a spanking in the principal’s office was the worst memory of Washington, the best was a ferry trip to Victoria, British Columbia, taken one spring day with my mother, two sisters and brother. I remember sitting inside and watching dozens of tiny islands pass by, many of them sprinkled with snow. I was not likely to see snow this time, but I enjoyed standing on the prow, pretending to be some 18th century tar, braving cold and wind and bad complexion. We neared the evergreen pelt of a large island, half-hidden under a curtain of fog.
Eventually I headed inside for a poppyside muffin, found a bench at the starboard windows and closed my eyes for a nap. Ferry sleep isn’t very solid, though, and soon I found myself blinking awake at the color red. A redhead seated across from me, with large marquis-cut blue eyes. But this was a feeling I hadn’t dealt with in a while. Attraction. What furthers the sensation is the fact that she’s holding a score of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Her eyes cut back and forth over the measures, calculating the right hand against the left, figuring the spread of the arpeggios. Tick, tick…
This is music, water, atttraction, and now… I head back outside on the left prow, all the way to the end. We pass a camel’s hump of island, a hundred yards away. I reach into the zippered pocket of my jacket and pull out the pebbles from my playground. I hold them for a second, recording their darkness against the cold pink of my palm, then hurl them over the side. They scatter in the air and strike the water in a honeycomb of pockmarks. I take a second handful and do the same.
Rocks, water, music. Rocks, water, music. I can only play the mental soundtrack of this burial at sea if I talk about music. When a singer is not singing, he is not doing nothing, for he is measuring silence, counting the beats of rest until his next entrance. When does any non-musician stop to measure silence?
My choir once sang in Grace Cathedral, an imposing Gothic edifice in the heart of San Francisco. One of our pieces was a negro spiritual that ramped to its loudest point just before the cut, a rather scintillating effect. In the Cathedral, Mr. Stutz cut us off but the tone kept going, echoing through the vaulted ceilings for a full nine seconds.
This is how I am feeling right now. The rocks have completed their journey back to the water and I am left with overtones, weaving in and out of each other like strands of yarn in a scarf, leaving me as clear as this waveless green slate past the railing.
I had only two hours between ferries, so Victoria was a mad dash around the waterfront: the Empress Hotel, the Parliament buildings, a Bass ale and an order of salmon at a British-looking pub adorned with totem poles. I spent most of the trip south to Port Angeles just agog at the dark mastery of the Strait of Juan de Fuca: hordes of darkening rainclouds invading from the ocean, black dolphins jumping in arcs to port and starboard, huge oil tankers and freighters passing us on the way to Vancouver.
It was almost night by the time we skirted the long breakwater of Port Angeles, but I was newly energized and had to drive on. I headed west then south at the fringe of the Olympic Peninsula. The rain stopped by the time I hit Olympic National Park, and the full moon broke through to guide me as the road circled Lake Crescent, the middle of it seemingly broken through with a huge slice of mountain. I pulled into a turnout to read the lake’s Indian myth, some angry god who decided to break the lake in two as punishment, and I stood there for a while, the surface black as a grand piano, a spotlight of moonglow cutting a path across its ebony finish. I measured the silence in meters of waltzing, 3/4 and 6/8, coursing along in the shadows of the mountains.
I drove south and south, ignoring the small peeks at the Pacific through west-facing groves of spruce, and finally took as my endpoint the logging town of Aberdeen, checking into a motel at the south end of town. Before drifting to sleep, I found the image of a blue-eyed pianist inside a cabin atop a mist-covered island, the two of us nestled together before a fire of cedar logs. I balanced it there like a glass of waterfall and let it slide down my throat, overtones widening out and pulling back as the pianist turned into a conductor, waving her hands over the water in a circle of three beats.
Photo by MJV