Christie Cochrell: Release

“Where’s she going?” Denny’s cousin Jayden demanded.

“I’m just going,” Georgiana furiously answered Jayden’s incredulous snort, as he and Denny stood together in the doorway, looking all but twins, from buzz cut down to Naked Pig Pale Ale bottle in each frat-ringed right hand, to the Look they were giving her, in perfect unison.  They filled the sharp-edged doorway of the Airbnb kitchen she referred to inwardly as heavy metal—floor to ceiling stainless steel, in her mind like the lifeless steel of a morgue in one of those crime shows they watched way too often.

As her hands clenched into fists, the obtrusive engagement ring that was too loose for her finger cut into her palm, having slid around again as it was always doing.  What was the point of diamonds, she protested silently again.  The ring she hadn’t wanted made her furious, on top of all the rest.  Like a nose ring for cattle, wasn’t it really, or male vanity plates—a not-so-subtle demonstration of one’s dominion, lording-it-overness.  And, typical, the size was wrong because the showy concoction had first been intended for Denny’s previous fiancée, Lauralee, and they hadn’t managed yet to get to a jeweler.

She closed the outside door quickly behind her, shaking from frustration.  As she slipped out into the late November night, she felt the air buoy her the way saltwater did swimmers trying to float.  She drank it in and breathed it out with greedy abandon, intoxicated by her momentary freedom.  She hadn’t realized fully what a prisoner she felt until she’d glimpsed that snatch of the Pacific from the hot tub earlier that day, the Friday of the Thanksgiving weekend, the silver-shot horizon beckoning when Jayden’s sister-in-law Reenie stopped hogging the sea view while telling Georgiana for the third time about being dumped on Halloween by her equity analyst boyfriend—”and me out on the street for like an hour until Uber came, dressed like Britney in ‘Slave 4 U.’”

Now, walking along West Cliff Drive, Georgiana shivered and looked out towards where the ocean ought to be.  Unfair that she had missed another day of it, trapped indoors in the crazily expensive Airbnb with Denny and his Addeman cousin from Palm Desert with wife and wife’s sister, Ava and Reenie.  A gang of four, who mostly only wanted to drink artisanal mezcal (Ojo de Tigre by preference) and listen to Metallica in the hot tub, or play BS or Heads Up! until she thought she’d go mad—though there was talk of going on a cycling beer tour on the coast on Saturday, or maybe ziplining up in the redwoods, though the website made the guides sound “awfully woodsy,” Denny said, “—like we need that.”  She hadn’t seen the sun set, and the afterglow was also gone already from the water and sky.  But she could feel the elemental life-force there close by her anyway, restorative and heartening, giving her back herself after the awful day.  Worse even than their DoorDash Thanksgiving the day before—with two whole days and nights to go! 

Georgiana had tried to slip out for a walk along the ocean first thing that morning before the others were astir, but Denny had woken by chance before she had managed to get away, and led her back to bed upstairs, unwinding her mohair neck scarf, nuzzling her neck.  When she’d come down again later, having taken her time in the “natural” stone shower and desperately needing strong coffee (making a face remembering that all they had was packets of Ada’s favorite pumpkin spice blend), she’d paused outside the kitchen door, hearing cousin Jayden saying in his best high-and-mighty mode,

“You need to just tell her.  This crazy job offer with the Federal Court—you’re not going to let her do it, are you?  No way.  She doesn’t even need to work, with you making the big bucks at Tinder.”

“No chance I’m going to go on with my lousy job when the brat comes,” agreed Ava, who was six months pregnant and planned to have two girls and “the obligatory heir for Jayden,” neatly spaced out every two years.

“I’ll have more clout when we’ve tied the knot,” Denny opined.  “She’s acting a bit thorny now, but I know she will come around.  I can be persuasive, as you know!  I generally get what I want.”

She’d done without coffee, gone back upstairs, and vowed to get out for a walk before the day was over.  She supposed this counted, though she would have loved to see the sparkle on the water, see some wind-borne sails, and maybe an otter.

Though unseen, the tides of the Monterey Bay were ruminative in their overheard rhythms, their profound exhalations, over and over, and Georgiana’s own breath began to imitate them naturally as she traversed the night.  A bright planet hung low in the darkness off towards Monterey, and then eventually Japan, farther than far.  Venus, she guessed, wishing she could remember more from the semester of astronomy she’d taken for fun one year at Mount Holyoke.

What a relief to be outside, walking, her thoughts her own, the possibility of other places there again.  Places with life, color, substance, quirks.  Not all high tech and ungiving unalluring white or stainless surfaces.  A few dogs, flitting or lumbering along the oceanside sidewalk.  Lighted windows to look in, passing.  She envied some with deep bookshelves and antique wooden tables set with burgundies, burnt oranges, copper, chocolate, mulberry, and dusty rose.  Always the gentle soughing of the nearby waves as they came in, went out, audibly grazing the shore.

This was, nearly, what she’d been looking for.  Normality, everyday things with a life of their own.  She’d remembered longingly the cabin she and her two sisters had been taken to one special year when she was eight or nine, their lovely father still around.  Before their mother’s marriage to Grant Simonson, their descent into wealth.  On the Assateague Island Seashore in Virginia (near where her father’s parents grew up), where there had been sand dunes and wind, salt marshes, pine forests, hundreds of birds, the wild ponies, the pattern of their happy toes ahead of the lazy, unrolling surf.  Seashells.  And when they stayed inside, old books on wooden shelves, and well-used saucepans in the little snug kitchen with blue calico curtains where their father had grilled fish and even their mother was motivated for a change to make clam chowder with bacon and herbs picked from beside the back steps.  A salt-rimed window all her own (as the oldest) with threadbare clouds and a shimmer of stars in it.  And at the weatherworn cabin next door a Basset Hound puppy with ears all the way to the ground almost, and sad, hankering eyes.  Hubert—named for the saint who first owned hounds—belonged to Jazmin, with black curly hair, six months younger than Georgiana.  Jazmin, orphaned at two, lived with immigrant grandparents at near poverty level, with none of the comfort and middle-class plenty her new friend took for granted.

Remembering that other ocean she’d lost sight of since her father died, Georgiana didn’t realize she had left the houses and the lights, and come to an unlighted stretch.  She passed a small lighthouse which seemed to give out strangely little light, watching it flash at measured intervals.  Across the street was something she hoped might be a café.  She would be glad to find someplace to sit and maybe have a glass of wine to celebrate this momentary burst of independence.  She had walked much further than she’d realized, and her ungiving new boots, a gift from Denny’s mother Chelsey, had been chafing her heels the whole while.  She crossed the street to check out the building she’d spotted.  It didn’t look promising—still less as she got closer, cutting through a parking lot with only a couple of vans and a beat-up RV.  Beyond, as far as she could see, were just overgrown grasses and the dark shapes of trees.  The place was pretty well deserted, perhaps the strange limbo of the Thanksgiving weekend keeping people away.

But what was that?  Something at one with the shadowy undergrowth, a figure crouched suspiciously under the trees just next to where she’d stopped, startled her.  All but invisible though her eyes had adjusted by now to the almost-dark.  Okay, a person in a furry aviator hat—what was he or she doing?  Georgiana felt a jolt of fear—until her ears picked up the quiet sound, and she realized this unknown quantity was playing something like a wooden flute.

She’d jumped a bit, and must have exclaimed inadvertently.  The figure was startled in turn, and rose quickly out of the long grasses.

“Sorry,” he said, rising to a height equal to hers in her two-inch heeled ankle boots.

She hadn’t even thought about physical danger, out in the dark in an unknown city, and she guessed she maybe shouldn’t be walking on her own, but she had been focused entirely on the more pressing danger she knew she was in.  The trap awaiting her back at the Airbnb, and a whole slew of them ready to spring after the wedding in April.  The two or three homeless people she’d passed before the lighthouse wrapped up in their poofy sleeping bags had seemed harmless—more harmed themselves.  They just didn’t have any place to be; in that she almost envied them.

And this hardly terrifying apparition—”Bly Solomon,” he said—caught her gently as she teetered on the uneven ground, and explained, sounding embarrassed, that he’d come out to release a mouse.

“Georgiana McGilvery.”

She was intrigued.  Was she right in thinking that he had been playing music to the mouse before letting it go?

“And did I hear a flute?”

He opened his palm, to show her.

“It’s an ocarina.”  In what light emanated from around the closed café, she thought it looked like the smooth topside of a giant tiger cowrie shell.

“Much kindlier than heavy metal.”

“A big-hearted Guyanese friend made it for me.”

Georgiana gestured at the lifeless building.

“Are there any cafés around that might be open?”

“Downtown, maybe.  Are you driving?”

“Walking.  From up that way.”  She pointed back where she had come.  “I don’t suppose I ought to go much further, not knowing my way around.”

And then she realized, momentarily panicked, that she had come away without money or credit cards, even ID, in her great need to get away.

Bly seemed to intuit her discomposure, want to help.  Some of the lilting music he had played the mouse would be welcome, she thought, as he regarded her, another trepidatious vagabond. 

“I know you hardly know me,” he said awkwardly, “but I happen to have some rations in my bag.  Some hot chocolate and take-out I picked up.  We could consider it a picnic, if you like.”

She’d never been good with strangers (in the circles in which she traveled, they all turned out to be cryptocurrency brokers or embedded software engineers), but strangely she found she did like.  Liked Bly, unobtrusive and shy, kindly himself.  Liked the idea of an impromptu picnic within earshot of the ocean, hovering like a kindly presence too.  Both welcome companions.  Her saying yes would be daring and dangerous because anathema to Denny and the others—oh dear.  She’d worry about consequences later.  She was already in all kinds of trouble.

“Okay,” she said.  “That would be nice, if you’re sure you have plenty and don’t have to be somewhere.”

He picked up the soft-sided mesh carrier the mouse had traveled in, and a bigger canvas shoulder-bag, which he opened when they got to a couple of Adirondack chairs just off the parking lot.

“Oh, I’d forgotten,” he said with what sounded like amusement.  “We can dine in style.”

Out of the bag he pulled a candelabra with five flameless taper candles which flickered realistically when he set it on the slightly tilted stump between the chairs and turned it on.

“You carry that instead of a flashlight?” Georgiana teased him, amused and curious.

 “I took it along to my boyfriend’s apartment last night for our Thanksgiving revels, and hadn’t gotten it home yet.”

From Bly’s more prosaic thermos cups they drank Mayan hot chocolate with ground chiles and cinnamon and ate wedges of vegetable pakora and curried eggplant roti.  Though Georgiana felt out of place and embarrassed sitting “slumming” in it, as her mother would scold, she was grateful for her warm shin-length camel hair coat (though not gloves, which she’d learned pressed the ring painfully into her finger—a constant reminder of her fealty).  And in Bly’s easy company she felt herself becoming unexceptional again, wonderfully free and light as the unwanted layers were sloughed off—the cold, gilded veneer of wealth and snobbery that was applied when her mother remarried just eight months after the death of Georgiana’s lovely father, the lowly English teacher.  The expectations that she move only in rich circles, get married to a man of means in turn, and, without a second thought, accept the dictums of Grant Simonson’s more than persuasive family (his sister one of those think-yourself-rich gurus with motivational workshops and seminars and a bestselling book).

 She told Bly some of that, thinking she needed to explain her flight into the night.

“I have a lot to live up to, as well,” her companion chuckled.  “Or live down.  Families can be ruthless, right?  My parents named me for Robert Bly—both being staunch proponents of the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 80s.”

“At least that’s interesting,” Georgiana protested.  “My mother and step-father are entirely about homogeneity—not having an identity, or being in touch with your true nature, but shutting up and just being identical to everybody else.  In your charmed circle, anyway.  Losing any unacceptable weird edges.  By no means swimming against the current, or—for goodness sake!—going off walking by yourself.”

As Bly played “Morning Has Broken” on his ocarina to the dance of candelabra-light, and the chocolate and spices warmed her through and through, she felt her ever-defensive reticence going as well, no longer keeping guard on her tongue, her real feelings, as she’d learned to do those many years ago when her defender was no longer there—her father with his boyish laugh and his spontaneous enthusiasm.

She breathed in deeply again, feeling the spirit of the noncompliant ocean in the air, the pneuma of water reaching all the way from here in Santa Cruz to Indonesia, New Guinea, Japan.  Feeling regenerative currents drawing her outward, elsewhere.

“I dared to bring a book of poetry with me this weekend, and I’ve just been reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem ‘Two Countries.’  One of the lines that speaks to me is ‘Love means you breathe in two countries.’  Definitely not the case with me and my boyfriend.  My fiancé,” she amended bitterly.  “He hasn’t allowed me a passport out of our own restrictive confines.  Not even a day pass, or time off for good behavior.”

Conscious of the annoying ring, which had slithered around again and poked into the tender underside of her finger, she pulled it off and dropped it into the lined pocket of her coat.

Sitting there longer in that quiet place, she further floated up and out, while yet returning to her truest self.  As Bly told her about the nearby grove, she was uplifted by the memory and possibility of butterflies alighting on fragrant eucalyptus trees gathered with cypresses and coastal pines.  Spirits of the Mexican highlands, come offering bright dreams of other lands.  Not only migrating thousands of miles, but bringing back the souls of human ancestors from time beyond, blessing those now alive.

Dreamily, she told her newly acquired friend about wanting to be a court interpreter, to use the Spanish she had studied in Visalia, growing up, and then in high school in Paradise Valley, Arizona,

“. . . though my mother always said I was wasting my time—to help those who are necessarily bewildered by their situation, by their fate, in this unhelpful country where they’ve come, promised the world but getting none of it.  Help those who need someone to speak on their behalf, help them to understand, help them through the tortuous and baffling maze of justice—injustice, more like.  Help to head off attempts on their dignity, or their lives.”

She’d gotten hot under the collar as she tended to, but Bly didn’t tell her to simmer down, as Denny always did.

“That’s got to be incredibly worthwhile.”

She found herself angrier still, thinking how Denny and all his family and hers in their closed ranks did just the same to her as the legal system did to those who couldn’t speak the right language in the way they wanted—denied her personhood and worth.

“I like to think I’m doing something worthwhile, too,” Bly said, sympathizing with her frustration.  “My partner James keeps telling me the little buds I encourage are bound to have triumphant blooms.”

He told her about his work as a middle school naturalist, specializing in outdoor education.

“From sea anemones to hummingbirds to the conifer leaves that grow in the redwood treetops.”

“To mice?”  Georgiana pictured the excited mouse flying through the grasses, finding unlooked-for freedom as it flew.

“Of course, if they happen along.  Monarchs, green treefrogs, turkey vultures, turtles the color and texture of mossy stones.  Plant life, marine life, birds and bugs.  Pine cones, elephant seals.  Even some English shorthorn cows, at Wilder Ranch.”

She told him about beachcombing on Assoteague Island—”The island with the wild horses?”

And after that, she told him about her principled father and his lesson to her that summer at the beach.  For her ninth birthday he’d made one of his special birthday cakes—a gorgeous saturated purple, blackcurrant-chocolate, decorated with edible flowers.  Georgiana had boastfully showed it off to poor Jazmin next door, not meaning to include her when it came time for sharing.  For her sins of arrogance and pride, the beastly selfish side of her that had been in plain view that day, her father had boxed up the cake and sent the whole thing home with Jazmin to give to her grandmother for her birthday, which happened to be the same day.  Because, he said, the disadvantaged child had never had or imagined so beautiful a thing, because it was a kind of miracle to her.

“Then the next day, knowing how crushed I was, he baked me another, equally lovely cake, since I had learned my lesson and would clearly never forget it.”  Except lately, in the wrong company. . . .  She fell silent, ashamed anew at the realization.

“He sounds a little like my boyfriend, James,” Bly said.  “I never get away with being morally lazy, with him.  He’s a paramedic here in town, but studied for the priesthood at Loyola Marymount.”

“I miss my father so terribly much.  Miss having him keep me on course.”

“From what I’ve heard,” the quiet words averred, “I’m sure you’ll go on perfectly well with that steady rudder of your own, guided by his unquenchable lodestar.”

Georgiana felt a rush of tears, unworthy of the assurance but desperately needing it.  When she could speak again, she said unsteadily,

“I ought to go, I guess.”  She was entirely reluctant to head back, and felt a rush of panic—wanting to run off into the concealing grasses like the escaped mouse.  She felt her foreign self, the unlovely, unexceptional woman who would soon be inducted into the hallowed ranks of Addemans, hovering over her again, heavy and dull and unable to breathe or find coherent words.

As they got stiffly up out of the weathered wooden chairs, retrieved the candelabra, and moved toward the street, a homeless woman approached them, pleading for help, and somehow Georgiana wasn’t surprised to see that she and Bly knew each other.

“Hey, Glenna,” he apologized to her.  “I meant to give you some roti for a late Thanksgiving—I know it’s your favorite.  But we seem to have left you only one.  I’ll try to find you tomorrow, and make it up to you.”

“You know that one is lots better than none.  Bless you, my friend.”

Still immersed in memories of her father and his generous heart, feeling bad for failing him again by having eaten Glenna’s food and so much enjoyed it, when Georgiana absently felt in her pocket for gloves and found instead the sharp-edged diamond and sapphire engagement ring, she fished out the odious thing and without stopping to consider consequences pressed it quickly into Glenna’s icy hand.  Saying a little giddily, feeling the tonic fog along the oceanfront stinging her face,

“You ought to be able to get something for this.”

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