THE sand was so hot through his white tennis shorts that he had to grit his teeth and close his eyes for a few seconds after sitting down. The pain was oddly satisfying and centered him down a bit so that when he opened his eyes again he was able to look more carefully at where he was.
He was fairly sure he had taken no turns after leaving the hotel, just gone straight up the main street of Key West that according to the tourist brochures led from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Duval Street.
He remembered the first few blocks, the waves of radiant heat passing through mirages of tourist boutiques and bars, side streets sprouting strange jungle growth behind old spider mansions, rusty auto bodies, wrecked machine shops, decay. Then gradually the heat mixed with his anger and discomfort until his mind registered only the cadence of the march.
So this water in front of him was probably the Atlantic, such as it was. No horizon. The sea was so calm and the sky so white that they'd welded perfectly together in a sizzling polished globe. The beach was marly and narrow, covered with seaweed and brown bodies. A rickety pier protruded out into waist-deep water.In back of him, rusty tin letters on the roof of a driftwood bar or restaurant read "ANDS."
He sat on the sand as long as he could, until the first few snakes of memory about the morning, the morning and the lunch, began to twist through his head. His watch said 2 p.m. He'd been in Key West exactly 5 hours and had exactly 5 hours to go. The return trip to Washington would be half as expensive, though, because this time there was only one seat to pay for.
What if she'd gone and booked a seat on the same flight? Sunshine Airlines it was called, with its yellow DC-3s.
He shed his new French jersey and his running shoes and waded 50 feet or so until the water reached his thighs. Then he started swimming -- a quick, stylish Australian crawl that exhausted him after just a few minutes. He took five last hard strokes, stretched out and drifted toward the Gulf Stream with his face down in the water and his eyes closed.
It seemed as if he could hold his breath forever. The water was neither hot nor cold, exactly bloodwarm. As he drifted through it, he thought he could feel the physical outlines of his body beginning to blur into the ocean, and the inside of his mind turning pale, translucent blue. Wonderful. He was part of the sea: calm, clear, faceless, liquid. No thought, no feelings. Nothing to be done.
When his blood started to lag, and there began to be a small echo of heartbeat, he found he could keep going by relaxing and concentrating on the blue color in his head -- the paleness and clarity of it. But the lagging came back at shorter and shorter intervals until finally he was just hanging on and wondering if he could actually force himself to become unconscious.
If he blacked out and sank, what would she tell them?
His drifting, outstretched fingers touched flesh, and for an instant he was sure it was her.
Of course it wasn't. He could see through stinging sun and saltwater drops. It was a young girl, probably late teens, long dark hair, black Olympic tank suit, sulky mouth, pimples on her forehead. Two friends, one large blond, one skinny nondescript. All three of them giggling, one reinforcing the other so the giggling went on and on. He smiled, waiting for a chance to say something, but they were already moving away from him toward shore.
He tried to watch them, but they were swimming into the sun, which reflected off the water into his eyes and made them disappear into bursting fireballs.
His head just clearing the surface, he bounced gently off the sand bottom with his toes.
He was recounting the story of the day to someone back in Washington. They were in a restaurant, sipping wine. "You know how I spent the afternoon after my big lunch break with Joanie? Futzing around with three gorgeous high school honeys like I was 19 again. Three of them. I swear to God, after all I've been through with the Witch of Cleveland Park, it was so great to know I still had a body . It was worth the trip. Eight hundred bucks for a 10-hour insulin shock therapy, encounter group, sauna massage. Right now I'm a tabula rasa, baby. Totally blank. But relaxed. I even feel good. Those young sweethearts saved my life, and they never knew it."
The beach seemed locked into stillness as heat waves distorted the far end of it. Nobody moved. No noise.Almost as soon as he left the water he could feel his pores opening, tiny diamonds of sweat appearing among the salt granules on the backs of his hands. Keeping to the damp sand at the water's edge, he sauntered as casually as he could through the piles of seaweed and around the bodies.
The girls were still without male company, sitting side by side on a beach towel. The one he'd touched looked at him indirectly as he came up under the heavy load of sun. Her friends ignored him.
"Sorry about that out there," he heard himself saying. "Hope I didn't scare you." It was indeed like talking to someone in a sauna. His voice seemed muffled and flat, heat rising up through and around the words.
He could keep walking, he thought suddenly. It might be better just to keep walking back to where he had left his things. What he should do is get on a bus to Miami. Right now. You get thrown from a horse, you get your head busted, you don't jump back in the saddle unless you're crazy.
He moved closer to the girls and squatted down to seem less threatening. Down at their level, they seemed bigger than he'd thought. The blond's green tank suit stretched so hard she might have grown two sizes since she put it on. The nondescript one was in bright, incongruous red. The suits stretched and rippled as they fidgeted, like glittery tight layers of extra muscles.
"Actually I was the scared one," he said. "I thought you were a porpoise, or something. One of those manatees."
He smiled as well as he could and rolled into a sitting position. "Well, I had my eyes closed, of course. I was just drifting along out there. I was in another world. Obviously you aren't a manatee." It occurred to him she didn't know what a manatee was.
All of them were watching him. "Oh, I'm not?" the one he'd touched said in a distant voice.
"No. Anybody can see that." Scratching his forehead, looking for a new subject, the caked salt felt like pieces of broken glass.
"I'm getting fried. Could I borrow a little of your suntan oil there?"
"It's my suntan oil," the blond girl said.
"Well, listen: I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll buy you all drinks if I can use the oil. How about that?"
The blond girl's eyes were steady behind wire-rimmed glasses. She shook out her thick hair and showed her teeth. "You'd get off for less buying your own oil," she said. "They sell it right inside there."
He looked at his watch without seeing the numbers on the dial.
"What time is it?" the nondescript girl said, and giggled when he had to look again.
"Five of three."
"Five minutes to three. Why? You have to catch a plane?"
"A plane ?"
"Well, back to New York. I spotted you girls for New Yorkers right from the start." He could see that was the wrong thing too. He was playing it wrong. "Listen, I've been wondering," he looked back over his shoulder at the driftwood bar. "What does ANDS mean?"
The girl he'd touched shrugged.
Silence. The sun didn't seem to bother them, while he felt himself evaporating. His hair was so hot it burned his fingers when he scratched his head. None of them said anything when he reached for the oil, poured it into his hand and spread it over his face. The tight, dry feeling in his forehead was replaced by a loose, messy one. He grinned at them under the oil. When he clapped his hands together, the palms stuck slightly.
"So what?" the nondescript one said.
"So, what can I get you all? For drinks. Remember, if I used the oil?"
They were a team, he realized. They fitted together. The one he'd touched was the princess who set the tone, the blond was the brawn and possibly the brains, the nondescript one was some kind of an apprentice -- younger, skinnier, less poised. Comic relief. But spunky enough to be included.
"You look like a black russian girl to me," he said to her.
She stared at him, her face frozen. After a slow second or two he figured out the problem.
"No, no." He spread out his hands. "I meant the drink. A black russian is Kahlua and vodka. It's fabulous. I thought you probably liked them.So I was going to get you one. If you wanted it, of course."
"What do you call that thing with vodka and creme de mint?" She crossed her thin arms across her middle and leaned over them.
"Grasshopper." Small giggle. "Long tall grasshopper."
"That's not vodka and creme de menthe, you know."
"I don't care. Long's it's got plenty of grass in it." The giggling spread to the other two.
He looked at the one he'd touched. She looked away and started piling a small mound of sand between her legs. Her thighs were thick and strong, he noticed for the first time, and seemed to belong on a much larger body. The shaved hair on her lower legs above the ankles looked like tiny blackheads.
"Okay, one grasshopper," he said. "Anybody else want anything?"
"She's under age," the blond girl said. "You could go to jail buying her drinks." The one he'd touched, the straps of her tank suit biting into her shoulders, every vertebra of her backbone outlined by the material, put her elbows on her knees.
"Well," he said. "I'm amazed. I never would have guessed. I swear you all looked like New York college girls down for the vacation. You know... Barnard... Sarah Lawrence... some place like that." He started fiddling with a piece of dried seaweed.
Why did he keep talking about New York? The heat. If only there was a little wind.In the sauna bath stillness nothing seemed to connect properly. Sweat was mixing with the oil on his face, making it stickier. The tops of his arms and shoulders were beginning to sting. He should put oil on them too, he thought, but couldn't bring himself to reach for it again.
"Anyway," he said.
After a while the blond girl leaned over and whispered something to the one he'd touched, who was smoothing the mound of sand between her legs. Her dark hair fell over her face as she listened and shook as she nodded her head. Then they were both giggling, leaning lightly on each other's shoulders.
"What's so funny?" he heard himself saying. "My shorts ripped?"
The girl he'd touched said something he couldn't hear. Her face was still hidden by her hair.
She straightened suddenly and shook her hair back."I said, 'How old are you?' " Her eyes were still indirect, as if she were talking to someone standing just behind him.
It was the blond one's idea, obviously, but she'd been smart enough to see it had to be the one he'd touched who asked. And smart enough to see how the question would get him. He could feel the blush on his face even under the sunburn and the oil, burning up his neck and into his brain.
"How old am I? I'm 19, for heaven's sake. Couldn't you guess?"
"Yeah, you're 19," the nondescript one said. "And my brother's Reggie Jackson." Now the giggles were controlled.
"Actually..." he said, "actually, I'm 35, but my grandfather was a fullblooded Cherokee and... you know about Indians, don't you?"
Did he finally have their affection?
"Indians never look old. You take an 80-year-old Indian, he'll look just like a kid." He paused. "You're probably wondering how my granddad happened to marry a white woman."
The nondescript one giggled, covered her mouth with her hand and shrugged. The blond looked slightly disgusted, as if she'd stepped on a piece of chewing gum. Was it his imagination, or did the one he'd touched seem sympathetic, cocking her head a fraction to the side and looking up under her eyebrows? Maybe at last he'd gotten the right tone into his voice, the right mixture of courage and levity in the face of adversity that he wished he felt.
"Look, don't mind me. I've just had a hard day today, is all. I can assure you I'm perfectly sane and completely respectable. And I have no Indian blood whatsoever."
She was listening. He had to go on.
"You want to know what happened? I left Washington this morning with the most interesting woman in the city, plenty of money in my pocket and a week's vacation ahead of me. The stewardesses all thought we were on our honeymoon. It was one of those things you just can't believe, like," he tried to think, "finally graduating from high school or something. I mean, college. Or maybe having someone propose to you. Working and hoping and putting up with things and finally getting the thing you've always wanted the most, whatever it is." He grinned, but cut it off before she could think it was suggestive.
"Anyway. I'm going back tonight with no woman and the vacation shot to hell: nothing left except the money. I needed somebody to talk to, so here I am with you all. I'm sorry if you think I'm crazy."
"I don't think you're crazy," the one he'd touched said after a short time. She still had her elbows on her knees.
"Well, that's good. Thank God for that."
"You look like Parker Stevenson." She shook her head slightly and the dark hair moved across her face.
"Is that good? Who's Parker Stevenson?"
"Parker Stevenson?" A very Southern inflection: the sound of honey pouring. "You don't know the Hardy Boys? On TV?"
"I take it he's good looking."
"I'm in love with him." She wrapped her arms around her legs and put her chin on her knees. "He's my favorite of anybody."
He found himself trembling slightly. It was hard to believe, in this fogged-out sauna of a day, that anything was working out the way it should. Hard to trust it. He wanted to look at the girl he'd touched more carefully, to see what was going on, the exact expression on her face, the exact way her eyes moved, whether she was passing signals to the others. All he could bring himself to look at were her feet. They were brown, high-arched and thin, with the second toe slightly longer than the big one. Like Joan's feet, he thought, and quickly looked away. Down the beach, two brown well-built longhairs were throwing a frisbee with a curious forehand flip he had never seen before. The frisbee traveled faster than he could imagine And was perfectly on target every time.
"How the hell do they do that?" was all he could think of to say.
They watched the frisbee players in silence for what seemed like hours. He noticed the tops of his arms and the insides of his elbows were turning the red color that, when he was a child, always made his mother predict he'd spend the night "rolling in agony." The frisbee sliced back and forth hypnotically and he began to pray for one of the longhairs to make a bad throw and break the spell.
When one finally did, the blond girl was faster than he was, asking in her bright, hard voice, "What's she doing now?"
"The most interesting woman in Washington."
"I don't know. Probably packing, getting ready for the same flight I'm supposed to be on. That's going to be interesting."
"You didn't say what happened," the blond girl said. "Did you beat her up or something?"
He laughed, hoping it sounded courageous, gay and desperate. "You don't mind my laughing, do you? That's the funniest thing I've heard all day, which isn't saying much, of course. Not very much at all. Right? You don't get to be known as 'interesting' by letting people beat you up. It's exactly the other way around, if you see what I mean."
"Why did you go out with her, then?" the blond girl said. "You must have been wanting it." The nondescript one giggled.
"That shows how much you have to learn," he said. "You don't have any control over these things. She tied me up like a great big helpless red, white and blue Christmas package."
They thought about that for a short time. "But what happened ?" the one he'd touched said. He looked over to see how she meant it, but her face was still hidden by her hair. The nondescript one had her hand over her mouth.
"I don't know," he said. "She just pulled one stunt too many. So I had to stand up to it, same as any man would. As they say."
"What?" The one he'd touched sounded very interested. "What did she pull?"
He took a deep breath and wiped his floodplain of a forehead. "It was just one of Joanie's specials. You wouldn't understand it. You'd have to know about our whole relationship."
"Relationship," the blond girl said. The nondescript one giggled behind her hand.
"A relationship," he said carefully to the one he'd touched, "is anything between two people. Like I've got a relationship with you, and all I did was run into you in the water."
"Well. Then why can't you tell us what she pulled?"
"Because it wouldn't seem like much unless you took it in context. You know."
"But you can tell us, though," the one he'd touched said. "Come on. We really want to know."
"We won't laugh," the blond girl said. "We promise." They all nodded at him, bright-eyed and waiting.
"How the hell did we get started on this?" he said after a short time.
"You're mean ," the one he'd touched said. "You started it. You said you were going to tell us what happened. And now you won't."
She was right, he remembered. He had started it. The trouble was, thinking back on the big lunch break, the details had become so blurred in his mind he could barely piece them together.
"She came down to lunch in a new bathing suit," he heard himself saying in a flat voice, "and I threw the wine at her. She looked like a balloon."
The inevitable giggle from the nondescript one. "Why did she look like a balloon?" the one he'd touched said.
"It was a maternity bathing suit," he said. "A yellow maternity bathing suit with a pleated skirt."
"Was she pregnant or something?"
"Of course not."
"Well, what did she say?"
He sat in the hot sand with his mouth open, felt his eyes move toward the foot of the girl he'd touched, and stick there. He was more than surprised. It was as if he had heard the story for the first time. Almost on cue (it seemed to him) a drop of sweat rolled out of his left eyebrow and blinded him. He screwed his fists into his eyesockets like a little boy."
"He's going to cry," the blond girl said. "Don't cry."
"Don't worry." They were just blurs through the sweat fog. "Look, it's not every day a beautiful girl tells you that you look like Parker Stevenson. Suppose I take you out to dinner at the fanciest restaurant in town. Anywhere you like. All of you. Price is no object. We'll rent a limousine with an ice-bucket of champagne."
"He does look like Parker Stevenson," the girl he'd touched said to the other two, pointing at his chin. "He's got that dimple right there."
He stared at her and rubbed his smooth chin. It seemed she was staring at someone just behind him. He remembered how indirect her eyes had been in the water.
"Parker Stevenson's got a terrific body," the girl he'd touched said, finally. "He's really into gymnastics. He can do handsprings and everything." She looked at him. "Can you do a handspring?"
"Supposing I just get down on my knees and beg," he said. "Or if you want I can lick your feet. All I ask in return is the privilege of spending a fortune on you."
They looked at each other. "We're not supposed to have dates during the week," the blond girl said.
"You probably don't think I'm serious, do you? You probably think I'm some nut." He twisted up off the sand, reaching for his wallet in his back pocket, and saw the eyes of the girl he'd touched widen in what he took to be fear. "Wait a minute. Look."
Pulling two $100 traveler's cheques from the inseam, making sure they all saw his portrait on the employment identification card. "There's how serious I am. Don't give me that tired old line about weekday dates. Please. I'll talk to your parents myself. If they want to go, I'll take them along too. Listen, you'd be together, nothing to worry about. All you have to do is smile. Look fresh and pretty. You could turn this whole thing around." He caught his breath. "That enough for you?"
His eyes bounced from one face to another. There was no particular sign, nothing to hold on to.
He waited, and a thin, ragged pressure rose inside his head.
"Well," he said. "I hope you get a good laugh out of all this, at least. It's a pretty shoddy thing to do." The wallet made a hollow slapping sound as he threw it in the sand. A plastic credit card snake poked out of it like an entrail.
"If I were really Parker Stevenson," he said, "you'd go out with me then, wouldn't you?" The pressure was so thin, nothing behind it, that all he could do was watch as they moved strongly and heavily around to collect their things. They were on their feet, standing over him with their thighs level with his eyes.
They were on their way.
"You sure as hell would," he shouted after them. "Damn it to hell. You'd be stabbing each other in the back. Wouldn't you?
"My God, you don't even have the decency to say goodbye."