Life in the Littoral Waters

by Robert Schladale

Saturday morning David Mariner stands on a cliff above the crashing
Pacific, contemplating violence. At the back of a group of thirty, he
feels out of place, a forty-two-year-old who’s wandered into a party
of college students. A wild-haired man is ranting about the destruction
wrought by the power plant occupying the Ventura coastline a
quarter mile to the south, and David thinks how easy it would be to
incite a melee, to push forward punching and kicking until he takes
as many of these bright-eyed eco-freaks as possible over the edge
with him. It’s what they deserve.

Beside him, a girl turns and cocks her head. “You’re Sam’s father,
aren’t you?” she asks. When David startles, she adds, “I knew her
from school.”

Gulls squeal and the man with the deranged curls gesticulates
in his short-sleeve shirt as if excited, or possibly to generate some
warmth on this chilly March morning. David is better prepared in his
UC Santa Barbara sweatshirt, which he chose because it was his and
his wife’s alma mater, and their daughter’s school. Samantha, their
only child, could have gone to Harvard but insisted on staying close
to home.

“Sam would be glad you’re here,” says the girl. Her friendly voice
reminds him of his daughter, though her angular cheekbones and
prominent chin suggest a wary, defensive nature, and her freckled
face lacks Samantha’s pretty blue eyes. “We actually joined Coastal
Action together,” she says. “Sam convinced me.”

The rank smell of seaweed billows around him and David wishes
this girl would shut up. He remembers Sam telling him that Coastal
Action wasn’t a bunch of crazies but intelligent people dedicated to
preserving the littoral waters—the near-shore region—of California’s
coast.

Today their focus is the Rivera Generating Station, one of a dozen
along the coast that uses sea water for cooling, an inexpensive process
that also apparently kills countless fish, seals, otters, and other
ocean inhabitants by crushing them against the steel screens of its
enormous intake pumps.

The wild-haired man finishes his tirade and a second fellow in an
orange sweater takes over. “Next Saturday we’ll split up into three
teams,” he says, explaining that some of them will line the Pacific
Coast Highway and hand out educational flyers to drivers stopped
at the light in front of the plant, others will picket the gates, and
still others will board a small boat with protest banners, symbolically
blockading the power plant from the sea. The same simple acts of
civil disobedience that Sam engaged in. And that, six months earlier,
took her life.

David listens to the fellow in orange, and anger floods him. He
doesn’t give a damn about dead fish. What he wants is retribution.
A chance to make these sanctimonious fools pay for what their idiotic
protests cost him. You have no idea what you’ve done, he means to
shout. But he’s pre-empted by the wild-haired man.

“Excuse me? I’m sorry, but we don’t know you. If you’re from the
power company, we’ll have to ask you to leave.”

David blinks as all eyes turn his way. The power company?

Beside him, the girl puts a hand on his shoulder. “This is Sam’s
dad,” she says.

Faces brighten, but the man with the lunatic hair isn’t happy. “So,
you’re here to—?”

“Help,” David says, although helping these buffoons is the last
thing on his mind.

The wild-haired man and the man in orange confer. Doubtless,
they don’t want his help. The black cloud of the Mariner name. The
reminder of what happened at the first protest of the Rivera plant
last September.

The wild-haired man coughs. “Actually, we have more than enough
volunteers already.”

“He can come with me on the boat.” The girl beside him turns and
faces David. “Assuming you won’t get seasick.”

David shrugs, perplexed by the girl’s persistence. She turns to the
men at the front. “Okay?”

The wild-haired man stares at her, unsmiling, but says nothing.
Later, after the three action groups have been organized and the
group leaders have scheduled training sessions on legal protest practices,
the young woman, whose name is Celia, surprises David by asking
him to walk her to her car.

“I knew you were Samantha’s dad,” she says, taking his arm. “I saw
you at the accident. You probably don’t remember me.”

“No.”

“We were all kind of in shock.”

David’s elbow tingles from her touch, and he’s embarrassed by the
way she leans into him so familiarly. He’s about to push her away
when he realizes she’s limping. Her left foot has a crippled look and
turns under as she walks.

“Tell me something,” he says, when she stops beside a rusty Toyota
Corolla. “Why are you doing this?” It’s a question David has wrestled
with for months. Why did Sam do this?

Celia opens her door and tells him that the littoral waters are
home to more species than any other ecosystem on the planet. “And
they’re right there. It’s sort of hard to grasp because our eyes can’t
see beneath the surface, but they’re our neighbors. We should respect
them.”

“Respect?” David feels his anger return.

“Sure. Imagine living your whole life in your nice California suburb,
and one day you see the family across the street—or your own
family—get sucked into a giant pipe and smashed to a pulp. What
would you think of that?”

“But we aren’t fish. Or seals or whatever.”

“Use your imagination,” Celia says. “That’s all we’re asking. Does
the rest of the life in the world matter?”

David stares at her foot. As far as he can tell nothing matters.

Driving home he wonders what just happened. He went to the
meeting wanting to change his life—destroy it or redeem it, he didn’t
care. Instead, he stumbled into a girl who, though she looks nothing
like Samantha, nevertheless reminds him of her with an immediacy
he can’t shake. Not that that matters, because what he wants
from this crippled girl is nothing more than sex. A crude, destructive
idea: he wants to crush this Celia, to throw her down on the beach
and pour what’s left of him into her. He wants to pound both of
them down into the sand until they are swept away by the surf and
drowned in the same blue littoral waters that she, in her innocence,
wants to save.

***

Three blocks from home, David spots a familiar Ford Fusion parked
at the curb and recognizes his wife from her jumble of hair. Once
a wavy chestnut, Amy’s hair has recently adopted the color of steel
wool. Workdays she clips it in a knot, but on weekends she lets it go,
an unkempt mass that billows out from her skull as if desperate to
escape.

Idling behind Amy’s Fusion is a sheriff’s cruiser. Since Sam’s accident,
Amy occasionally speeds. “Maybe I’ll accidentally hit a pedestrian,”
she said after her first ticket.

Almost certainly she is returning from the library, where she goes
every Saturday to borrow novels in which someone dies and others
have to live with it. Carissa, their marriage and family therapist,
agreed early on that this might help.

Home, David hustles into Amy’s sewing room to check her laptop,
searching for clues to her state of mind. Since telling their minister
she didn’t give a damn if her daughter was with God, she has taken
to searching the Internet for information on how to reunite with the
dead. Twice she’s hired mediums who conducted séances, to no avail.
More recently, David came across a page of search results for common
methods of suicide. Today he finds a web page listing poisonous
foods. Mushrooms, Lima beans, nutmeg, red kidney beans. He has
tried to talk to her about managing grief safely but all she has told
him is not to worry.

He decides to throw some clothes in a duffel, drive to Mexico, never
return. Instead, he wanders outside to clean the pool. At the deep
end, he plunges the telescoping skimmer down to the drain. When he
brings it up, atop the debris in the net lies a field mouse so perfectly
preserved he expects it to gulp a breath and scamper away. He sets
the net on the deck and waits a long minute, then another. Finally, he
carries it to the garbage can and dumps it in.

***

When Sam died, the county coroner told David and Amy that she
died of vehicular trauma. She was handing out flyers at the traffic
light where the PCH intersects with the access road of the Rivera
Generating Station. Somehow, as the mob of Coastal Action protestors
churned at the edge of the highway, chanting and waving signs,
she was jostled out onto the pavement. The light was green. The driver
of the pickup wasn’t even cited.

***

At work on Monday, David can’t focus. He feels like someone trapped
in a submersible, staring through a tiny window into a sea of unfamiliar
life.

As the manager of a Direct Express fulfillment center that ships
two hundred thousand items a day, David has a reputation for paying
such careful attention to operating details that his center’s turnaround
times are among the company’s fastest. Lately, however, he’s
taken to focusing on personnel issues, spending most of his afternoons
listening as his Human Resources Chief, problem employees,
and their supervisors present conflicting perspectives on various
disputes. After each discussion, David makes a decision that, Solomon-
like, he hopes will provide something for everyone. By drowning
himself in other people’s problems, he floats through his days.

At two o’clock, while he sits in the conference room listening to a
package handler explain his incessant trips to the restroom, David’s
private cell phone chimes. The caller ID is one he doesn’t recognize,
and he offers a quick apology to the others around the table as he
answers.

It’s the girl, Celia. She says she called to make sure he knows where
they’re meeting for the protest training on Thursday. He knows,
having sailed out of Ventura Harbor a dozen times on his neighbor’s
Hobie cat, but says, “Give me a sec.” He puts a hand over the phone,
telling the group that he needs to take this call and can they break for
ten minutes?

Retreating to his office, David listens as Celia tells him the slip
number where they’ll meet, all the while imagining the two of them
wrestling in the back of his Ford Explorer. He sees himself yanking
off her jeans, grasping her bony hips. And wonders why.

Dead air fills the connection and he’s about to say that he doesn’t
have time for her boat ride when Celia asks, “Do you think it’s okay
to trust people?”

David sits up straight, spooked by the feeling that she’s somehow
sensed his bitter fantasy. “Maybe. Why?”

“It’s just, my parents fought a lot. When I was ten, my mother went
to visit her sister in Texas and never came back. My father promised
he’d never leave, but then he drowned when I was fifteen. He was on
a boat trying to herd whales away from the coastal shipping lanes, so
they wouldn’t get hit by the big container ships from China. The bow
wave from one of those ships swamped their boat.”

“Bummer. Listen, I have to get back to my meeting—” David pushes
back his chair and stands, but lingers. “So you knew my daughter
from class?”

“Actually she asked to join my study group. I was a year ahead of
her—we all were. But Sam was a great addition.”

“Oh, so you’re a junior.”

“Yes.”

David sits down in his chair. “Majoring in ocean science.”

“Marine science.”

“And you live on campus? Near the beach?”

Celia offers a light laugh. “Questions, questions!”

“Boyfriends?”

“Please. College guys are so immature.”

“So you spend your Saturday nights curled up with a good textbook
and a mug of cocoa.”

Celia breaks into laughter. “No, David. I do heavy drugs and run
around the campus naked.”

David laughs so loud he has to cover his mouth with his hand.

“I won’t ask you what you do on Saturday nights,” Celia says, and
there is no mistaking the tease in her voice. “I’ll just use my imagination.”

David feels his thoughts melt away.

And then she is back where she began. “Anyway, what I was trying
to say is that I know what it’s like to lose someone. I guess that’s why
I called.”

“Thanks. I think I’ll survive.”

“You will.” Celia speaks with conviction. “One day, in one moment,
things will change. It’s like a break opens up in the fabric of time, like
a black hole for sorrow, and a moment later it closes, and all the hurt
is gone.”

“Good,” David says, though the truth is he doesn’t want to forget.
What he wants is to remember so well and so completely that, by dint
of mental power alone, he will bring his daughter back.

***

Amy’s shift at County General, where she supervises a team of ten
nurses and aides, begins at seven a.m. Most days she’s out of the
house before David has breakfast. But Tuesday when he comes into
the kitchen her purse is on the counter, a trio of amber bottles nestled
inside. Zoloft. Wellbutrin. Valium. Ordinarily they reside in
the medicine chest above her vanity. The house is silent, and David
thinks about breaks in time, black holes, and what exactly goes away
when someone dies.

“I thought I’d stop by Ivy Lawn this morning,” Amy says, coming
in with her coat.

“Oh.” David stares at a box of Wheaties. A month ago, during one
of their counseling sessions with Carissa, Amy said she thought it
was time to start letting their daughter go. Instead, she’s increased
the frequency of her visits to Sam’s grave.

Amy grabs her purse and David nods at the pill bottles. “Sure you
want to take those? I mean, well, the sun could diminish their potency.”
Amy steps away from him. “Or I could just sit down beside her
headstone and take them all. Is that what you’re thinking?”

David raises his hands, miming innocence.

“Talk to Carissa next time.” Amy removes the bottles and slaps
them down on the counter. “You never say anything.”

***

When Samantha was an infant, Amy monopolized her care so much
that David called himself the “relief parent.” But as she grew, she discovered
the pleasure of wrestling with her father on the living room
floor, of having him swing her above the surf at the beach, of kicking
a soccer ball back and forth on the lawn. Theirs was a joyous physical
bond, and even into her teenage years Sam retained the habit of
sneaking up and throwing herself onto his back, hanging from his
neck and doing her best to topple them over. Occasionally she succeeded.

***

At his office Tuesday morning, David spends his time eyeballing inventory
reports and daydreaming of Celia, the usual dream of carnal
absurdities. He can’t understand why the dream obsesses him. Three
times he picks up the phone to call her, to ask her to meet him at a
motel. This, he knows, would instantly terminate their pointless relationship.
But each time he presses her number he hangs up. Then,
while he’s eating lunch at his desk, Celia calls.

She asks him if he has any ideas for something to mount their
pennants on; they’ve sewn together colorful flags emblazoned with
SAVE THE COAST, large enough to be read from shore. But the plastic
sprinkler pipe the team fastened them to last time flexed so much
the pennants trailed in the water. David tells her to get some wooden
closet poles at the Home Depot, and she says, “Oh,” and “Perfect!”

“Sam was lucky,” Celia says. “She told me whenever she had a question
about anything, you’d know what to do.”

“Really?” In fact he’s been thinking of himself as the Man Who
Knows Nothing, the Father Failure, the Hapless Husband.

“Seriously. She called you the Answer Man.”

“Well.” David searches for something to say. “Sam was never shy
about asking for help. I think she did it to socialize.”

“Oh, totally.” Celia offers a pretty laugh. “She asked to join our
study group even though she didn’t need anybody’s help. She was
brilliant. She even talked her way into the Marine Institute’s summer
program, which is technically for grad students.”

“Right,” David says, though what he recalls is the disappointment
he felt when Sam turned down the summer internship he’d arranged
for her at the fulfillment center.

“She was so totally committed,” Celia carries on. “She was ready to
quit school and work for Coastal Action full time.”

“Quit school?” David drops his sandwich. “Wait. What?”

“After the summer institute she was majorly psyched. But I told
her no, stay on track. Go off, it’s hellish hard to get back on. I know.”

“Right,” David says, though what he is thinking is that Sam shared
more with Celia than she shared with him. And then, because he
senses there’s something else he’s missed, he says, “What do you
mean, you went off track?”

“Oh,” Celia says in a light-hearted voice, “I got married when I was
eighteen. Divorced in like six months, but it took me years to get
back to school.”

“But you’re fine now?” he says, dazed by the idea of Celia sharing
a man’s bed.

“Sure.”

“Except for your foot.” David cringes; he can’t believe what he’s
said. “Sorry. I couldn’t help noticing.”

Celia lets a long moment tick by before she says, “Car accident.
Anyway, you see why I got on Sam’s case about quitting.”

“Definitely.” David imagines Sam out of school, with no degree, living
in poverty. And then out of nowhere he pictures Celia with Sam,
strolling along a beach, holding hands. Sam never mentioned Celia,
but she never mentioned quitting school, either. What else, David
wonders, had the daughter with whom he thought he was so close
kept from him?

***

Thursday afternoon a forklift operator drops a pallet of propane
tanks on the loading dock, igniting a fire. By the time David helps
suppress the flames and reroutes the shipping lines, it’s after six.

He’s an hour late for Celia’s training at the marina, which is just as
well because he wants to talk to her in private. Two of the other volunteers
have already left and the third, Ben, whose parents own the
eighteen-foot Sea Ray they’ll be using, departs not long after David
arrives.

The sun is setting behind the marina’s breakwater as Celia waves
to Ben and turns to David. Dressed in tight white slacks and a bright
blue top, and sporting soft green eye shadow and blush on her pale
face, Celia looks altogether different from the freckled co-ed he remembers
from the previous Saturday. Before he can mumble more
than, “Hey, you look great,” she says, “I wanted to tell you some
things. About me.”

“Yes,” David says, “I wanted to ask you something.”

Abruptly, words vault out of him, uncontrollable, because the idea
has taken hold in his mind that he is more at fault for Sam’s death
than he realized, that his ignorance about her life at school and his
foolish assumption that she could take care of herself were terrible,
prideful mistakes. “I wanted to ask you,” he says, “what you saw.
When Sam was hit.”

Celia picks a life vest off the deck. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Just—” David feels sweat break out on his forehead. “I want to
know if I could have saved her.”

“No.”

He nods dumbly, yet plunges ahead. “But what happened? Really. I
read the sheriff’s report, but you were there. I remember seeing you
now. You were crying.”

Celia hugs the vest against her and looks out across the marina. “It
was . . . an accident. There was a big gang of us milling around. Cars
were honking. We were jazzed. And then Sam, I guess she tripped.
She stumbled into the road.”

“But—I can’t help thinking—it drives me crazy—she invited us to
come, you see? To your protest. Her mother and me. She said, ‘We’re
in charge of the planet.’ But Amy and I had plans to visit a winery. But
now I can’t help thinking I should’ve been there, I could have saved
her. I’m sure of it.”

Celia hunches her shoulders and looks at him bleakly. “The only
person who could have saved her was me. I was right beside her when
she tripped. I grabbed her arm but she slipped through my fingers.
Literally. I had her. But I didn’t hold on.”

David is stunned. None of this was in the sheriff’s report, but he
knows from the look on Celia’s face she’s telling the truth. He sits
down hard on the starboard cushions as her composure crumbles. He
murmurs that it wasn’t her fault and Celia says, “Don’t.” She drops
the life vest, fighting back tears. David holds out a hand to her and
she sits. As she sobs, he feels his own tears sliding down his cheeks.

“So,” he says after several minutes, when they have both regained
their equilibrium. “What was it you wanted to tell me? About you.”

“Never mind.”

“Go ahead. Please.”

Celia’s face is such a picture of woe that he puts an arm around
her. He hugs her and kisses her forehead. She leans closer and kisses
him on the lips. David kisses her back, marveling at the scent of
her skin and hair. He pulls her closer, remembering the evening after
Sam died, when he went to her room, lifted one of her American Girl
dolls from its spot atop her dresser and, weeping, kissed its lips. He
recalls the slick plastic taste, the crisp dry odor of artificial hair, and
pulls back from this other doll, Celia. She looks at him questioningly,
and David lifts an index finger to her lips, proving that she’s real.

Celia searches around the boat, fishes a tissue from a maroon daypack
and blows her nose. She checks the time on her phone and tells
him her car broke down and she’s got to catch a bus home. David
offers to drive her.

The address she gives him is in Carpinteria, twenty miles north
near Santa Barbara, where she shares a 1960s ranch with two other
young women. Half an hour later they exit the freeway and drive
through a maze of streets. Each time they turn, the light in the sky
changes. On Celia’s street it is night.

She invites him in. “My roommates will want to meet you.”
In fact, the roommates are busy watching Grey’s Anatomy, so Celia
takes him down the hall to her room. “Ta-da,” she says, “Celia’s
world.” David registers the usual furnishings—bed, dresser, desk,
lamp—and walls plastered with posters of ocean and coastal scenes.

“I remember sharing a house in Isla Vista,” he says. Twenty-plus
years ago, and it didn’t seem like long at all. “I should get going.”

“Why?” Celia says.

She lights a candle on her desk and turns off the bright ceiling light.
Into a small Sony boom box, the kind the fulfillment center ships by
the thousands, she places a CD of smooth jazz. She lies down on her
double bed and pats the covers beside her. “Rest,” she says.

Exhausted by months of troubled sleep, David feels his muscles
give way, his body sink into the mattress. His thoughts drift with
the music, and when next he opens his eyes, he finds his shoes have
been removed and Celia snuggling against him, head on his shoulder.
He smells a musky perfume and realizes she’s naked. Instantly, he’s
awake.

In fact, she’s dressed, though she’s traded her slick white pants and
long-sleeve top for a silky tank and gauzy harem pants that suggest
there is nothing underneath.

“What are you doing?” David says.

“Cuddling.”

David is already hard and certain Celia knows it. His mind reels
and he tells her he has to go.

Celia raises her head. “No, it’s okay. It’s good.”

“No, it’s not good.” David turns to her, his lips inches from hers, “I
need to go.”

“David, I’m not a child.” Celia swings one leg over him. “I know
what men want.”

“Yes. That’s kind of you, but—” David reaches down and lifts her
leg off his, swings his feet to the floor and sits up. “Maybe you should
think about what you want.”

Celia frowns. “But—wait a minute. After all the vibes I got from
you? That kiss?”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean. . .” David fumbles with his shoelaces.

“Oh, fuck.” She rolls off the bed and stands with her arms wrapped
around herself. “I’m sorry, I just thought—I’m sorry. Honestly, I’m
sorry I’m alive. I’m sorry I’m a fucking defect.”

“Don’t,” David says, and goes out.

“Thanks for the ride,” Celia snipes, trailing him to the front door.
David glances back. “For the record, you’re no defect. You’re about
as attractive as a girl can get.”

Celia makes a face. “I’ll try to be uglier next time.”

***

Saturday morning David sleeps until ten, then startles awake with
the realization that the Coastal Action demonstration starts at eleven.
In the kitchen, Amy is slumped at the table, head in her arms. He
learns that she drove to the library and discovered it’s closed for Cesar
Chavez’s birthday. “Who the hell is Cesar Chavez?” she asks.

Carefully, David places a hand on her shoulder, frightened because
he knows his touch no longer comforts her. Books comfort her. The
best he can do is forego the protest and watch her. But then he has a
thought.

“Why don’t you try Barnes and Noble? They’re open now.”

Amy shakes her head. “I’m sick of fiction.”

“I’ll drive you.”

She rolls her head back and forth on her arms. “You’ve got that
thing. That demonstration.”

“It isn’t important.”

Amy lifts her head. “Are you okay?”

“Sure.”

“Then go.” She drops her head back down. “We’re supposed to go
on with our lives, remember?”

David exhales. “We’re okay.” He nods, as if convincing himself.

“We’ll be okay.” He places both hands on his wife’s wild, billowing
hair and smoothes it down. Kisses the top of her head. When he lets
go, her hair springs back up.

At the harbor, Celia and Ben are already there, rigging the pennants
to the closet poles. Jason and Kelly, two more members of
Coastal Action, arrive as David does. The day is warm and both young
women are dressed in short shorts and bikini tops as if headed to
a party. All day Friday David wondered what he could say to Celia.
Something reassuring. Something flattering. But now he forgets because
he has more urgent news to share, and with everyone.

“Listen up,” he says in his professional manager’s voice. When everyone
looks his way, he addresses Ben. “Did you check the marine
weather conditions?”

Ben glances toward the ocean, where sunlight sparkles over shimmering
water. “Yeah. Looks good.”

David shakes his head. “There’s a small craft advisory for this afternoon.
Winds increasing to twenty knots with six-to-eight foot swells.
This boat isn’t built for that.”

“Sure it is.” Ben sounds insulted. “Besides, your forecast is full of
shit. Look at it.”

David looks. The sea is calm and the last of the fog is melting away.

“Wait a minute,” Celia says. “We have to go out.”

“No one has to go anywhere,” David says. “And you for one aren’t.”

“Hey, man,” Ben says, “Who the fuck do you think you are, telling
us what we can’t do?”

“I’m not telling you. I’m telling Celia. But I’d advise all of you—”

“Wait a minute.” Celia pinches his arm. “If they go, I go.”

As soon as David tries to speak, the rest of them jump in. Ben
shouts that David’s a dumbass, Jason says it’s too late to back out,
and Kelly insists on checking the forecast on her phone.

Celia grabs the front of David’s polo shirt. “Why are you making
trouble?”

David throws out his arms. “Hey, I was looking forward to this,
too. But I’ve sailed enough to know you don’t toy with the ocean.
What are you going to do if a wave swamps the boat?”

Celia thumps his chest. “You don’t know that will happen.”

“So what happened to your father?”

“Jesus!” She turns away. “This ruins everything.”

Ben says, “You’re not going to listen to him, are you?”

Celia throws the chart she’s holding across the cockpit. She swears,
kicks a coil of rope. David climbs up onto the walkway and retreats
to a nearby bench, sitting with his hands on his knees, tapping. He
imagines dragging her off the boat, but knows he won’t.

“Hey!” Kelly announces that she’s found the forecast and it does
refer to a small craft advisory. Ben yells to fuck the forecast and Jason
says a few waves never hurt anybody. They go back and forth
with Kelly until says she isn’t a very good swimmer so she’d better
not go.

Celia doesn’t say a word. She watches Kelly step off the boat and,
to David’s surprise, follows her. They stand on the walkway and wave
as Ben backs the Sea Ray out of its slip.

“Happy?” Celia says, marching over to David’s bench. “Don’t be.
I did that for Kelly, not you.” She hurtles down the walkway while
David struggles to contain a grin.

Ten minutes later, he spots her familiar limp along Spinnaker and
slows his Explorer to offer a ride. Celia tells him to go to hell. “Already
there,” he says, and she gives him the finger.

He stretches and shoves the passenger door open. Celia scowls.
She tells him she’s hitchhiking to the power plant, to join the team
blocking the gate. When David says, “Exactly where I’m heading,” she
tells him he’s lying. She curses. She climbs in.

They drive in silence and David wonders what he’s doing. He wants
to go home to Amy but he’s afraid he has nothing to offer her.

“Wait,” Celia says, wrenching him out of his reverie. “I don’t want
to have to explain why I didn’t go out with Ben. Go somewhere else.”

David slows, turns left into Point Mugu State Park, a rugged expanse
of bluffs and grassy hills that tower over a stretch of undeveloped
coastline. When he parks, Celia grabs her daypack and is
out before he shuts off the motor. Up the Backbone Trail she blazes,
the hitch in her gait scarcely noticeable. David follows at a distance,
eventually rounding a sandstone outcropping to find her sitting with
her back against a windblown oak and frowning at a panoramic vista
of mountains and sea.

“You don’t know anything about me,” she says, when David settles
nearby. “You think I’m just like Sam. Some privileged college kid.”

“So who are you?”

Celia doesn’t respond. David waits while she inspects her hands,
flicks a burr off her shorts, itches her twisted ankle. She reminds him
of a woman in a personnel meeting a few weeks back who kept pinching
the insides of her arms, pulling them tight against her body, then
pinching again.

“I’m nobody,” Celia says at last. “A nobody whose parents didn’t
want her. A nobody who lived with an aunt who only did it for the
money. A nobody who married an alcoholic bus driver when she was
sixteen, a mean drunk who ran her down with his pickup when she
told him she was leaving. A nobody who got a GED and then a scholarship
this bleeding heart counselor applied for on my behalf. She
said people like stories like mine, it shows I’m resilient, which is bullshit.
Life is bullshit.”

For an instant, David thinks she’s making it all up. But she’s too
angry to be lying.

Celia says, “Sometimes I think the reason I care about fish and
seals and the rest of the life in the ocean is because they can’t talk,
so they can’t bullshit me. Sometimes I think all the people on Earth
should just die.” She picks up a loose rock and heaves it downhill. “I’m
not a nice person.”

David hears the bitterness in her voice. “Did you ever tell Sam any
of this?”

Celia kicks at the dirt. “She said I didn’t have to be a victim. She
said I had a lot to give.”

“And you didn’t believe her?”

Celia doesn’t answer. She catches her bikini strap in her mouth
and chews. “Sam was my best friend. I thought you’d be like her. But
you’re not like her at all.”

Dismay chafes David and he wants to argue the point. But Celia
jumps to her feet. “Time to jet. Don’t worry, I’ll get myself home.”

“Hold on.” Rising, David brushes dirt from his jeans. “Hitchhiking
isn’t safe. I can drop you.”

“I’ve been taking care of myself for years.”

“And doing a bang-up job of it.”

“Fuck you, David.”

Celia starts down and after a moment David hustles after her.
There is something he wants to tell her, something that will make
sense for both of them, but when he tries to formulate the words he
can’t. It’s ludicrous. He’s the manager of an entire fulfillment center,
he has hundreds of employees, he listens to their problems daily and
invariably finds a solution. Why can’t he do the same now?

In the parking lot she is leaning against the fender of his Explorer.
When he approaches, she thrusts out her chin and says she’ll take a
ride as long as he doesn’t try to talk to her. “Not a word,” she says,
“because you do not exist.”

In a robot monotone David murmurs, “Existence is useless.”

***

Heading north on the freeway to Carpinteria, David drums on the
steering wheel. “Don’t forget,” he mumbles to himself, “tonight’s
your turn to make dinner.”

It’s true. David and Amy trade off preparing dinner, though often
they eat separately.

He exits the freeway at the Whole Foods Market in Oxnard. Celia
rustles around in her seat but says nothing. When he parks and goes
inside, she follows.

He finds a cart and heads for the deli, thinking of a pre-roasted
chicken that would only need warming. While he waits for the clerk,
Celia takes the cart and walks away.

He catches up to her in Produce where she has piled red lettuce,
cucumber sprouts, garbanzo beans, shredded coconut, and a dozen
other vegetables and fruits into the cart. When David settles his
chicken into the mix, Celia heads for the checkout stands.

Back on the freeway, he drives three miles and takes the Seaward
Avenue exit. He waits for an objection from Celia or at least a question
asking what the hell he thinks he’s doing. But no complaint is
forthcoming, and when he pulls into his driveway and says, “I need
to put this food in the fridge before I take you home,” Celia is as silent
as a shark. When he shuts off the motor and says, “I could use some
help,” she says, “So right.”

A bag in each arm, David hesitates. Warm yellow light gleams from
every house on the block except his. He refuses to believe that Amy
would actually harm herself, despite the signs. Carissa has talked
about acceptance as if it is as simple as opening your heart.

In fact, Amy is reading in the faint daylight still slipping through
the living room’s picture window, so absorbed that she doesn’t look
up when he and Celia step inside, until the door bangs shut. Then she
blinks, removes her reading glasses and stares. David turns to Celia
and sees that she’s slipped a t-shirt over her bikini. She looks at his
wife warily.

“This is Celia,” he says. “Sam’s friend. We met at the demonstration.”
“Demon—?”

Amy lifts the afghan from her legs and rises with the dazed expression
of someone who has just awakened from a dream. She takes
a step, then stops to pull her hair back in a knot. As she clips it, her
novel slips from the crook of arm and thuds to the floor. She ignores
it.

“Let me take that,” Amy says, grasping one of the two bags that
Celia is carrying.

“Celia and Sam had classes together,” David says, following the
women into the kitchen and setting his bags on the center island.
“Celia offered to help make dinner.”

Amy lifts vegetables from the bag and places them on the granite.

“This is quite a haul,” she says, and regards Celia with a befuddled
look. “It’s very kind of you.”

“Oh,” Celia says, “No problem. Salads are healthy.”

“Yes,” Amy says, “Salads are always good.”

“And chicken. David picked out the chicken.”

“He did?”

David feels as if he’s standing on foreign territory. Amy and Celia
are discussing nutrition, antioxidants and carbohydrates. He retreats
to the living room sofa, turns on a basketball game, keeps the volume
low. From time to time he catches fragments from the kitchen. A
mixing bowl clattering on the counter. The oven door swinging open.
Amy saying, “Cecelia. What a pretty name,” and Celia murmuring,

“Nursing is such a giving profession.”

Knives rattle on a cutting board. A faucet hisses. Amy’s words are
inaudible but Celia’s are clear.

“No, no, no. He’s sweet.”

David settles back on the sofa, flips through channels to a surfing
competition. With the volume off, surfers ride up and down the blue
ocean waves as if free from gravity. When he lifts his eyes to the clock
on the fireplace mantle, half an hour has vanished. Just like that,
time has opened and closed.

In the spare bedroom, he slides a window open just enough to let
in fresh air.

The warm aroma of chicken suffuses the air and he comes to the
kitchen doorway just as Celia is removing the golden brown bird
from the oven. They are so close he can see them, clearly now, all the
rest of the life in the world.

“Hot! Hot! Hot!” Celia says, as Amy hovers behind her, left hand
with an oven mitt at the ready, right hand floating in the air, inches
above the young girl’s shoulder.