The only way you could tell it was day time at Fluke's was the syrupy light that came through the red, green, blue, and yellow stained glass on the front wall. And once in a while the front door would open, letting bright California sun shine in a door shape, someone's silhouette appearing with it for a moment. And then one time it was hers.
I could tell it was a woman, the shape of her skirt clinging to her legs, short but not too short. And her hair, sort of a bob, but I couldn't see the color. I didn't see many females at this time of day - we'd only just opened an hour ago. It was still early afternoon, and it was starting to feel like it. Hot and sweaty, so I wished I could take my shirt off in the little bar.
She came straight over to me, and it felt like she was just going to ask for directions. Like she had some important business to attend to. As she approached I could see she was older, maybe 40 or so, dressed professionally in a white skirt suit, a floral print scarf around her neck. I thought she'd look younger if she wore something else. She was smiling.
"Come with me," she said.
"Hi," I said, sort of at the same time, greeting her like any customer, not sure I'd heard her right under the music, some early Metallica. "What?" I asked, leaning closer.
She set both elbows on the bar and leaned in toward me too, so close I moved back a little bit. I could see her cleavage even with the scarf. "I said, come with me. You don't work here anymore."
I shook my head, more out of confusion than anything. For a second I thought she knew Fluke and was firing me. "Who are you?" I asked.
"That doesn't matter right now." She smiled in a way that softened how hard she was acting. I could see now her hair was red.
"You know Fluke?" I asked, folding my arms in front of me.
"No, I don't know him."
"Then how do you know where I don't work anymore?"
"You like working here?"
I shrugged. "It's okay."
"How much do you make in a year?"
I shook my head. "What do you care?"
Then she sat down like she wasn't going anywhere. And the way she looked at me, it was like she just wanted to help. Like we were already old friends, or something. "What does it hurt to tell me?" she asked. She looked around the mostly empty room, a couple of drunks at the far ends of the bar, our conversation hidden under the music, Guns N' Roses now.
"Depends. Maybe 40k."
"That's nothing," she said. "I can give you that today."
"Nothing?" I asked.
"You could have the whole year free. If I give it to you, will you come with me?"
I should tell her to go fuck herself, but that's not what I feel like doing. "If you give it to me, will I really be free?" I asked.
She laughs. "Once I give it to you, I have no way to ensure that you'll do what I want. But I think you'll have a lot more fun if you do."
"I can't just up and leave," I said, motioning around, but there was hardly anyone there.
"You can," she said like a hypnotist, and she opened her bag to reveal a thick envelope stuffed with $100 bills. "...If you had the money." Then she closed the bag and said "Half now, half at the end of the week. 50 grand, then the rest of the year is yours."
I'll admit I've been scammed before but this didn't feel like one. I started to get excited, still I wanted more time. "Why right now? Why not tomorrow?"
She looked disappointed. "Because tomorrow might never come," she said. "I'm not from around here, and I'm not waiting one more hour in this town without you." It was strange, the way she spoke, like we'd already been lovers. The amount of effort being put in, yet the carelessness about it all. She was desperate, yet confident. In the moment of silence, before one song changed to the next, without thinking too much, I just blurted out "Okay" as if the music were still loud, so the others could suddenly hear my consent ring out. I took advantage of the silence to tell them "Back in 10" in case something went wrong, which of course it could.
Frank, one of the regulars, nodded, holding up his beer in a toast to whatever was up between myself and the strange woman, presumably sex as he saw it, I thought.
With a strange feeling of lightness, I left, nothing to even take with me, just my mostly empty wallet in my back pocket. I made my way around the long counter and she let me lead the way out as a couple of the guys cheered and clapped. The smell of alcohol permeated everything in the bar so, like always, the lack of it was noticeable upon breaking through to the outside world again. The sun hurt my eyes so I squinted at her, and she looked just as attractive in the light, her hair redder than I thought, her outfit whiter, and the floral scarf came alive with pastel color that looked like a work of art. I turned my head as if to ask 'Which way?'
She laughed. Then started walking in the bright sunshine. I followed, comforting myself with the thought I could still go back.
Then we were already there, at her new white car, a Mercedes, tinted windows, tinted moonroof, perfectly clean. She opened the passenger's side for me. It was almost too hot to get in, but I did, leaving the door open a moment. She got in the driver's seat and immediately started up the car. The AC blasted warm on us.
"Where are we going?" I asked again, this time out loud.
She opened her bag again and took out the money. "Let's count it," she said, then leafed through the bills, five hundred of them. It actually started to get boring, but as we neared the end I felt excited. It seemed to be happening. Then she stuffed it all back in a pristine envelope and handed it to me.
"I don't have anywhere to put it," I said.
"How about in your bank account," she suggested, buckling her seat belt carefully, then driving off.
I felt dumb sitting next to her, like a little kid. But it also felt good, like she was protecting me from the danger she was also bringing into my life.
"Which bank?" she asked.
"Oh, it's the credit union," I said and she looked me over for a moment.
When we arrived at the small stone building, I felt like we were there to rob the place. She stayed in the car. I stepped out with the bulging envelope clutched in both hands.
I lifted the shining glass door and slipped from the blistering heat into the cold interior of the bank, where I was greeted by a petite Asian woman. She smiled.
"How can I help you?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah, I'd like to deposit this," I said, holding up the fat envelope.
When she opened and counted it, she stopped smiling. "Just a minute," she said, going over to consult with her colleague. I turned around to face the parking lot, to watch the woman whose name I didn't yet know. All I could see was that the car was still there.
"You'd like to deposit 25,000 cash?" the colleague asked.
"Uh huh," I said.
She just looked at me a moment before continuing.
"Sean?" a voice asked from behind me then.
I turned. "Marissa?"
"Hey! I thought that was you."
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Oh, you know, banking?"
"How are you doing?" she asked in a way that made it clear she had seen what had just transpired.
"Yeah, okay... Are you..."
"What are you doing after this? Maybe we could get some..."
"Oh. Yeah. I kind of have something I have to do now."
"Oh," she said, and nothing else.
When I got back into the car it was almost too cold.
"All set?" the woman asked.
Then she began driving, not asking me where I wanted to go this time. We moved silently through the town, then onto the highway. I felt myself moving farther from all the possessions in my apartment, pictured the bar with no tender, pretty sure that Frank and the latecomers would be raiding the stash by now. Fluke showing up finally, the look on his face.
"Who was that?" she finally asked.
She just waited for me to figure it out.
"Oh. This girl I used to date."
She was silent a while longer, then she said, "I like to leave the past where it belongs."
"In the past," she said, facing me though I couldn't see her eyes through her sunglasses. "What just happened there, in the bank, it's already the past. Even what I just told you. It's all gone, and all that remains is all the wonderful realities of the future that are due to us."
I wasn't sure what to say so I said, "Yeah, there's a lot of possibilities."
"Not possibilities. Because they're going to happen. They're happening already, now that you met me."
I laughed. This much confidence made me a little scared. I thought there must be something wrong with someone who thought they knew it all. "What's happening?"
"Your life," she said, veering off the exit suddenly, like she'd just made the decision to stop as I said that. I gripped the side of the door with one hand and my seat with the other, where her hand was suddenly resting on top of mine.
She removed it as we swerved down a hilly green descent to the ocean, riding alongside its fresh salt smell as she rolled down both windows just slightly.
"So what's the plan?" I asked.
She shook her head at the road. "Did you think there was a plan?"
"Oh, well, I..."
"This is your life," she said. "What do you want to do?"
I started to feel like I was listening to my parents, so the fun of the adventure waned. "You mean in terms of my career?"
"I mean in terms of ice cream," she said, swerving into the lot for an ice cream shop.
I nursed a rocky road cone beside the wide open state route while the occasional car whooshed by, just far back enough to hear birds sing on the other side, where the backyards turned to farmland. She had already gotten through most of her vanilla cup. It made me glad to see her eat it - it was the only thing that seemed to put us on the same level. It felt hotter here, farther inland. Her jacket was in the car and now the scarf came off so only a thin rose-colored sleeveless top remained over her perfect white suit skirt. She wasn't wearing stockings, so I tried not to look.
"So what would you like to do next?" she asked.
I laughed, letting some chocolate drip onto the white plastic table below. "I thought you were going to tell me what to do. Isn't that why you...bought me?"
Now she laughed at me, but still quietly, reserved. "I didn't buy you. I set you free."
"But I have to spend the week with you," I protested.
She took one more spoonful of white to her lips. "Is that really so bad?"
"Oh, no... I just meant, I can't do whatever I want."
"What if you could?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, maybe spending time with me will allow you to do what you really want. What is it you most want to do right now? It's up to you."
"Hmm," I said. I smiled. I looked at her for a long time then, hoping she would figure it out.
"You have to say it," she finally said.
I looked down. "To fuck you," I said.
We drove down the coast to a scenic spot, riding to the very end of the large parking lot. The sun was bright, shining on the waves ahead of us. Even with the tinted windows, it seemed anyone who walked around the front of the car could see us, so I was a little scared when she opened her door and moved to the backseat. When she got there, I watched as she hiked up her skirt and removed her bright red panties. Then she sat there, leaned back, perfect clothes now wrinkled, waiting for me. My nerves stung and my heart beat harder as I opened my door, got out, and closed it. I wanted to wait outside but didn't want anyone to see me, so I joined her back there after a few seconds.
Then I stopped caring what people thought. I put my hands on both of her exposed thighs, then positioned her to my liking in the center of the seats, legs spread apart. We were both already sweaty and I could still smell the sea through the new car smell and her very faint perfume. She didn't touch me but she didn't complain as I hurriedly unzipped my jeans, just breathed more deeply when I lay my hand on her neck, and I didn't kiss her until I was already inside her.
We walked on the beach after, not exactly arm in arm but I would reach over and touch her every so often while she just gazed ahead or to the water. The loud crashing waves made it unnecessary to talk, but after a while she did anyway.
"You know this isn't about us," she reminded me.
"Oh," I said but it sounded like a question.
We walked all the way down to the giant rocks that blocked the shore, past some playing children and a few lazy tourists. She stepped in the water that formed a swirling pattern at the rocks when the waves disappeared and were drawn back to sea. I felt the cool sand beneath my feet.
"Then what is it about?" I finally asked.
"You," she said. "Living your life."
I smiled and shook my head. Then I made my way into the water, three slow strides through the blue. I dove forward and swam as far out as I could.
"Where should we go?" she asked when we got back to the lot, leaning her bare arms against what looked like a very hot car.
"Well you can decide when we get there."
Then we rode in silence through the winding mountain roads, sun through the redwoods. She said she wasn't from around here but she seemed to know every turn. As she drove I worried over the decision I would make. How much of my not-too-hard earned money did I want to gamble on a few days in a place I didn't know? Why was I letting her talk me into going anywhere at all? I wondered if this was my problem, why I lived the kind of life I did. Did I just go along with things?
When we drove up past taxis unloading suitcases, I still hadn't decided, and neither of us had a suitcase. We got out and she let someone else park her car. The sign for departures was flashing when we stepped inside. St. Paul, Vancouver, LA, Berlin, New York...
I tried to think of somewhere that wouldn't make me seem like a tourist.
"Honolulu?" I asked.
She laughed at me.
Then we were just there. Hot air hit us as we stepped out the sliding airport doors, and a green kind of smell, like plants. I had the sense we were slipping into a different time. True, it was two hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time and six hours since we'd taken off, but more than that it seemed the new part of my life had officially begun.
I expected her to take the lead, but she let me hail an air-conditioned cab and just tell the driver to go to "a hotel. A decent hotel."
It didn't seem to be by the beach, but I was tired and didn't care. As soon as we got to our room, I fucked her again and fell into a deep sleep. I didn't dream, and when I woke up the first thing I thought was, What the fuck have I done?
Outside it was so humid I felt we were stepping into a body of water, but the novelty made it nice, and the smell of flowers I didn't know came to us at every corner.
"Those smell a little like your perfume, don't they?"
I stopped and picked one of the long purple flowers for her. "Now you won't need to wear perfume," I said, pushing her hair back and tucking the stem behind her ear.
"We're not going to the beach again?" she asked with a covered yawn.
I smiled yes.
"We already went there today," she said.
"But we didn't see the sunset."
We wandered through the tropical streets, talking about all sorts of things. When we reached the ocean, we agreed this beach was even better than the last. Bigger, more profound, and far away from everything we both knew.
"Is this what you want to do then, go to beaches?"
"Pretty much," I said.
"Then that's what you should do."
We sampled beaches for the next couple of days, noting their different qualities, bluer water, higher waves. We saw one with the softest white sand, one with broken pieces of different colored glass that the sea had turned to soft round pebbles, one hidden far beneath a lush green mountain and where we saw dolphins, or sharks.
Then one night we watched the most amazing sunset. It started off with a blue sky that got darker, then lighter, separating into a rainbow of horizontal stripes that flew up and out, becoming pink, red, orange, yellow... I swear I could see it reflected in her eyes when we were up close.
We waited till it was dark, and then we watched the stars come out. More than I had ever seen back home, stars I'd probably never seen before. Making obvious constellations I couldn't identify, and what they did seemed like more than twinkling - they burned in the sky and I imagined the roaring sounds they would make up close. I wanted to be there with them, and yet I felt there was nowhere I'd rather be than this beach with this strange woman I may never really get to know.
"We should leave here tomorrow," I told her.
"That's fine with me," she said calmly over the sound of the rolling waves. Minutes passed before she asked "What made you decide that now?"
"Because here won't get any better than this."
When we get to the airport I already wish I could go in without her, that this was our big goodbye. Then I'd really be free, to spend time with or without whomever I pleased. But more, so I wouldn't have to worry about how she felt when I decided where to go next.
I was wearing a red and purple lei over the faded green T-shirt I left California in, she a white mesh dress she'd bought between beaches. We both stared up at the screens filled with city names.
"What do you think," I asked without looking at her, "of those people who say it doesn't matter where you go, cause there you are?"
"I think they've never been anywhere. So where do you want to go?"
Maybe my problem wasn't that I didn't have enough money. Maybe it was that I didn't have the balls.
"I can't decide."
Now I looked at her but couldn't see her eyes through the sunglasses she still wore.
"You have to."
"Wouldn't you rather just go where you want? Why do I have to?"
"I've already been everywhere. And if you don't do it now, you never will."
She could tell I wasn't convinced. "Let's get something to eat."
We made our way through crowds whose sweat was cooling, to the couple of places that didn't require a ticket to get into. One was a Hawai'ian Barbeque. We ordered and got a booth across from an old couple who sat the same as us so I was parallel to the old man and she to the woman. Even our colors almost matched.
Where are we going?, I kept asking myself. Where are we going to.
We finished eating and went out into the crowds again. We stood side by side, looking up at the blue glow of the monitors like children transfixed by their favorite show. As others rushed around us, I just smiled, taking in all the future possibilities of what my life had become. For the first time in my life, I felt like it was up to me. And then I took her hand.