I plucked the hair from beneath my chair. My groceries sat in the passenger seat where L. used to sit. My car’s engine ticked. My keys swung in the ignition. I brought the hair, longer than any on my body and sun-bleached, above the steering wheel and into the light of memory.
At Stardust Cafe, shortly after L. had left me, I met up with one friend to try and explain what happened. I didn’t have much insight except reporting the facts: After a weekend beach trip, L. had packed a bag to go to her mom’s. Before she left our apartment, she revealed a well of resentment. When she returned, she said she didn’t want to be married and she had information about lawyers already.
Then, a woman with hair as fiery as herself walked by the cafe’s chairs. I had last seen her at Lazy Moon Pizza just before moving with L. to the Midwest for me to go to grad school. I almost couldn’t believe who it was, except Orlando was a small world.
“Hey, S.,” I said and then added her last name. I always remembered high school friends’ first and last names.
“Hi…” S. said and then asked, “Can you remind me of your name?”
I couldn’t believe that S. didn’t remember my name. We used to be each others’ opposing sides in debate class. S. was as fiery as her reddish hair and I was as steely as my Brooks Brothers glasses.
S. and I exchanged numbers to catch up from our pasts. She was back in Orlando working on her dissertation on the geography of public health. She was a hiker and I needed a friend to walk and talk with who was outside the scope of my marriage. S. needed a friend to walk and talk with who wasn’t part of her typical group of guys who she never named, but always only called each of them, “My ex.”
After meeting at several trailheads for hikes together, S. suggested going to the beach before the spring breakers crowded the shores. And so, I drove us to Cocoa Beach when the rumors of an unknown respiratory virus began to churn like a seemingly far off swell. We didn’t know the set of waves that would crash from coast to coast. We just sat on an old sheet and under the shade of a green umbrella that I had last used with L. to celebrate our fifth anniversary. Then, the shore had been covered with piles of sea grapes that baked in the sun until the skin ripped and out seeped noxious fumes.
I rubbed in lotion on S.’s back while she told me the story of her tattoos: a motorcycle rider in Thailand who penned elephants on her neck, her upper hip with a blossoming lotus inked right after high school, a coven trio adding to a bubbling cauldron-like S.’s own knowledge of herbs on one shoulder and the Gomek-sized gator on her other shoulder to always remember Florida, the Feminist Power fist inked on one calf and a broken bottle on the other matching some girlfriends’ skin, and a friend’s stick-and-poke in New Orleans of a hobo sign on her foot that meant “a good lady lives here.”
S. and I walked and talked on the clear shore. I looked for the best shell to give to her. I would find a shell and show it to her. A white semi-circle, but with a chip. She tossed it. An orange striped one with an offset hole. She tossed that one, too. Then, I picked up an indigo one like a bruise. I knew she would keep it. I put it in her hand and her fingers held my thumb for a moment.
After our walk, S. was so comfortable with me that she napped. The sun illuminated her freckles. The salty breeze swept the heat off her skin. She occasionally snored.
L. used to snore; not annoyingly, but like she couldn’t fully breathe. She also used to get so hot under the covers that she would sweat. Then, she would flip the covers off of us and I would chill.
My last beach day with L. was spent on the Gulf; it felt so different from my day at Cocoa with S. We walked, but L. didn’t talk. She hid behind her sunglasses. She was in her head. I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t get in there; I didn’t want to get in there. I wanted her out there with me in the breeze and the clear water and the light.
The last time L. and I slept in the same room, we had stayed with a friend of mine on the Gulf Coast. My friend had two single mattresses and so we slept apart. I didn’t hear L. snore. I didn’t feel her heat. I only saw her bed-head hair when I went to wake her up for the last morning.
I had woken up to so much of L.’s brownish hairstyles: long naturally curly locks in Orlando, edged bangs in the Midwest, grown out and swept bangs in the Southwest, and then layered to lighten the weight back in Orlando. In the end, L. piled her hair on top of her head for court like she used to when she hadn’t slept well the night before.
When S. woke up she coughed a bit. We both joked about whether it was a dry cough.
How could I not crush on S.? She was funny and she didn’t mind laughing at herself. She was a talker, but also a listener. She was smart, but not snobby. She was fit and wasn’t against having a Twisty Treat cone after a hot day in the sun.
I drove S. home. Later, I told her I had feelings maybe beyond friendship and S. said that she didn’t think I was what she wanted in that way. I said that that was O.K. and that it was probably just feeling so close to her which was so different than feeling distanced—severed—from L. And so, S. and I agreed to still to go on hikes, but I doubted we would go to the beach again.
We waited to go on a hike again since S. got a fever, flu-like symptoms, and a wet cough. She isolated at her childhood home—two weeks in a bedroom by herself—not even seeing her mom. By the time I saw S. again we drove in separate cars. While we walked, we stayed too far apart to put anything in each others’ hands.
I grabbed my groceries and my keys. I opened my car door and stepped out. I let go of the hair. Then, I locked and shut the door.