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"Why the hell didn't you bring a jacket?" I heard someone whisper behind me. Good question.
I wiped my dripping nose with the back of my hand, hoping no one was looking. It was too cold out here on the ocean bluff where we were all waiting for the wedding ceremony to begin below. Far too cold for me in my one and only special-occasion dress. Even with the turtleneck and tights I had thought to add underneath at the last minute. And it was too wet. With that drizzling rain that we Californians like to call "a little fog." I wondered what it was about saltwater molecules that could tunnel so effectively into my stinging sinuses. Not to mention my bone marrow. I switched to rubbing my arms, glaring out into the gray-blue sky.
Was this spring? This morning, there had been pollen sprinkled all over my Toyota like powdered sugar. Greenish-yellow powdered sugar. And late-March winds whipping my early-blooming tulips around like punch-drunk fighters. I wondered if they'd still have their heads on when we got back home. And then wished fervently that we were back home.
"They ought to be starting soon," Yvonne O'Reilley assured us all, cheerily pacing back and forth, clapping her hands together as if she couldn't wait. Yvonne, our fearless wedding seminar leader. She didn't even look cold in her cherry-red, shot-with-gold, flowing silk tunic and pants. She had to be at least ten years older than my own forty-some, but everything about her said irrepressible youth. Starting with her curvy face. Curved cheeks, curved nose, curved smile. And an aurora of extravagantly crinkled blond hair pulled up from that curvy face into a series of red and pink plastic barrettes."They're getting it together at warp speed," she called out, clasping her hands together above her head now. "Cosmic warp speed."
Cosmic warp speed? I turned away from her, too cold for all that cheeriness.
Sam Skyler, founder of the Skyler Institute for Essential Manifestation, dressed in his trademark linen suit over an emerald-green T-shirt, didn't seem to be cold either. Maybe it was something about fiftyish seminar leaders. Only this time Sam was a student at our seminar, not a teacher. He seemed to be engrossed in his conversation with Emma Jett, his deep, sympathetic blue eyes burning into the younger woman's eyes with an intensity few people could muster, even without the wet and foggy cold. Emma danced around in her lace-up boots under the intensity of Sam's stare. Lace-up boots with a tubular spandex minidress. Actually the coppery grommets for the laces seemed to match the brass studs in her ears and nostrils, and the reddish hair cut to the scalp on one side and draping over a narrow cheekbone on the other. I had a short, not unpleasant, fantasy of myself with that hairdo. That's the nice thing about fantasies. You don't have to follow through on them.
"See, it's all this incredible sensation," Emma was telling Sam. "Riding the crest..." And then I lost the rest of her sentence over the low roar of the ocean and a new gust of wet wind.
Emma was not Sam's fiancée. Diana Atherton was his fiancée, but Diana was over on the other side of the bluff talking to my putative fiancé, Wayne Caruso.
"...Connie the Condom series," was what Emma said next. At least, I was pretty sure that's what she said.
"Empowering concept," Sam commented, bringing his hand out from his chest, fingers first, as if extending his heart. "Monumental vision..." And then I lost their voices again.
Emma's boyfriend, Campbell Barnhill, was not so talkative. But he was watching Sam and Emma very intently, his arms crossed, a scowl distorting his ginger-bearded, undistinguished face. Did he think Sam was coming on to Emma? Was Sam coming on to Emma?
Emma and Campbell were both younger than Sam, Emma probably by more than twenty years. But you never know. Though Campbell's reddening face seemed to indicate that he knew, knew all too well. If it were a choice in looks, Campbell's modest physique and face would certainly lose. Sam Skyler was an impressive man physically. Six foot five, with a body like a lion, his long legs overshadowed by his elongated, oversized torso. A jumbo-pack Pan with shaggy black hair and beautiful eyes. Beautiful eyes focused on Campbell's fair Emma.
I watched Sam Skyler curiously, the man who had become a living legend as a human-potential guru. And the man at least three people were glaring at. Campbell Barnhill certainly was. My own sweetie Wayne's low brows covered his eyes like curtains as he made gargoyle faces in Sam's direction, not hard for a man whose homely face had been enough to win him a position as a bodyguard many years ago. And Liz Atherton, Diana's mother, a no-nonsense type of woman who wore a no-nonsense hairdo and outfit, was sending a no-nonsense scowl at her daughter's fiancé. She rubbed her eyes fiercely and scowled some more. I wondered if her sinuses felt like mine. Then I noticed Ona Quimby was glaring, too. That made four. Ona managed computer programmers for a living. She was a short woman about twice my size around, and about twice my femininity. Her pink and blond soft roundness reminded me of a Persian cat. A Persian cat about to hiss at Sam. Or maybe even claw.
How the hell had Sam Skyler made everyone so mad at him with a bunch of finger puppets? Because that's what the Skyler Institute for Essential Manifestation was all about: finger puppets. Sam's students put these little cloth puppets on their fingers, each puppet purporting to represent an essential emotion, and learned to "reclaim their inner cores," to "revive their heart centers," not to mention "resurrecting their essential selves." All at a minimum of five hundred dollars a weekend at his retreat located not too many miles away in the redwoods of Golden Valley. I had a friend who took Sam's seminar and insisted he was for real. A man of psychic sensitivity and personal genius. A high priest of self-help. But if he was so sensitive, how come he hadn't noticed Campbell yet? Or maybe he had.
Was it purely his physical presence that impressed people? No, I could see a hint of real charisma there. The instant that thought went through my mind, Sam turned as if he'd heard it. Maybe he was psychic.
I jerked my gaze back and stepped up to the hip-high, two-by-four wooden railing that guarded the long bluff. I looked down over the outcropping of rocks below, then stepped back again quickly. The members of the Wedding Ritual class had all met late that afternoon to observe one of the weddings Yvonne had arranged. A scuba-diving wedding. Since we weren't really part of the wedding, our class had met here at the edge of the town of Quiero, in the backyard of what had to be a monstrously expensive but modest-looking house owned by a friend of Yvonne's. The backyard overlooked a deep, growth-covered gully below and also had a perfect view down and off to the right of the cove and enclosed beach located some 2,000 feet or so away past the border of the Point Abajo National Seashore. That was where the wedding would take place. That was where the scuba divers would swim from the sea and climb onto the beach for their evolution from the stormy primordial soup into the windy state of marriage. So far all I could see was what looked like little stacks of colored blocks scurrying around the beach. I assumed they were the wedding guests. I wondered if the black block was the minister.
This was supposed to inspire Wayne and me to plan our own special wedding. So far I hadn't been inspired. Wayne was lost in conversation with Sam's fiancée, Diana. I swallowed a sigh. Diana. Even her name said goddess. Diana was one of the most graceful women I'd ever seen. That's what you noticed about her first. That and her extraordinary beauty. Slender and erect with saucer blue eyes and a long black braid that reached all the way to her trim waist and small but perfect hips. An impressive mate for the impressive Sam Skyler. No way could my own short, dark, and A-line mortal embodiment compete. And on top of it all, Diana was a tantric (read: sexual) yoga instructor, a young tantric yoga instructor.
No, this particular part of the seminar was not an inspiration for marriage. At least not for me. Though I couldn't speak for Wayne, who was nodding seriously at whatever the tantric goddess was so earnestly saying.
I told myself to cut it out. Diana was with Sam. And Wayne was not one to be swayed by goddesshood. I hoped.
We'd all come in pairs like Noah's animals to the wedding seminar. Ona Quimby and her fiancé, Perry Kane. Perry's darkly handsome East Indian features offset Ona's pink and white softness perfectly. Tessa and Ray were another study in contrasts. Tessa Johnson was a short and somber gray-haired black woman in her sixties. Her sweetie, Ray Zappa, was a tall, handsome Italian-American (and part Apache, as he kept reminding us) who was far from somber. Hearty, even wild, was a better description. And he was a veteran cop, about to retire. Maybe his wildness was what the quiet Tessa craved. A little smile lit up Tessa's eyes as Ray laughed without inhibition at his own joke. Uh-huh, there was love twinkling in there, deep in Tessa's eyes.
And of course there were Diana and Sam. And Diana's mother, Liz, tagging along for good measure.
And Sam's son, Nathan Skyler, a smaller, less impressive version of his father. I'd almost forgotten him. Nathan was second in command at the Institute. I certainly couldn't see him as first. Nathan was tall and broad through the shoulders, but nothing like his father. His unshaven face made him look like a Wookie with glasses, a professorial Wookie with glasses, actually. It was something about the way his shoulders stooped. But then Nathan's girlfriend, Martina Monteil, displayed the dynamism Nathan lacked. She was tall too, close to six feet and well-built with the cold and perfect features of a model: high cheekbones, bee-stung lips, and large hazel eyes that widened automatically in response to everyone who spoke to her, as if she were instantly fascinated by what each person had to say. Martina was third in command at the Institute. I looked at Nathan, then back at Martina. Nepotism was clearly at work here. Martina was leader material, not Nathan.
I turned back to the triangle of Sam, Emma, and Campbell furtively. Campbell's face was even redder under his ginger beard, and I didn't think it was just from the wind.
"A man like you knows that incredible zing, that whoosh when it hits you," Emma was saying. She jumped in place as if the wind had lifted her and set her back down.
"Absolutely," Sam agreed. "That's the manifestation of the essence! Explosive, unstoppable." He pulled something from the pocket of his linen jacket. At first I suspected it was a flask, but then I saw it was a small cloth puppet "A woman like you must experience the Skyler method. A free session..."
Campbell moved in closer, his fists clenching. It was too painful to watch. I turned back to the gray-green water of the ocean.
The backyard ended at a bluff that dropped at least two hundred feet, maybe more, to the gully below. Parts of the bluff were covered with scrub, wild grasses, Scotch broom, and tangled vines. But in spots like this one farthest from the wedding site, the drop was all rock. I shivered from more than cold as I stepped forward again on the overlook and gingerly looked down. Triangular pieces of rock jutted out randomly all the way down the cliff here, like balconies on an overcrowded tenement. Yvonne must have liked this spot. She had set two oversize brass vases filled with wild, wilting buttercups atop this section of the weathered wooden railing. The vases, on bases of large solid brass stars, had to be two feet high.
I imagined them crashing down those rough triangular rocks. Didn't Yvonne's friend realize this was unsafe? The whole overlook railing, winding around the bluff, looked about as effective as a hamster guarding an armored truck. I turned away from the ocean once more, looking for a conversation to join.
Tessa and Ray seemed to be having the best time. And Ona and Perry had joined them. And Liz. And Wayne. My head came up, along with my pulse. Wayne. I looked over my shoulder. Diana was now speaking earnestly to Nathan and Martina. And for once Martina didn't look fascinated.
I walked up and took Wayne's hand, still warm in all this cold. He gave me a smile that warmed me further. No matter what first impression his cauliflower nose, scarred cheeks, and low brows made, his vulnerable brown eyes were beautiful. At least to me.
"Cold?" he asked, his rough voice like a good massage.
My nod turned into a shiver.
He stood behind me and put his strong arms around my shoulders. I leaned into his tall, sturdy body gratefully. Sam might have been a little taller than Wayne, with a bigger chest, but there was nothing like Wayne's body for leaning into. Wayne's face might have been homely, but his body certainly wasn't.
At least no one seemed to be glaring at Sam anymore. I craned my neck around to see for sure. Well, no one except for Campbell.
"Been a court reporter some twenty years," Liz was saying. "Interesting work. See all the best and worst in people. Justice. Injustice." She shrugged her shoulders, then rubbed her eyes again.
"And you're the lovely Diana's mother," Tessa said, her somber voice touched with honey.
"She is lovely, isn't she?" Liz answered brusquely, turning for a moment to look at her daughter where she stood with Nathan and Martina. "Don't know where she gets it from."
But for all of Diana's gracefulness and all her mother's no-nonsense gracelessness, I could see the similarity in the two women. In the cheekbones, lips, and large eyes. There was a softness beneath Liz's severe shell.
Her lips curved in a shy smile. "My son, Gary, works for Wayne, Kate's fiancé. That's what got Diana into this seminar."
"And into my tai chi class," I added, keeping the bitterness out of my voice with an effort. Diana had taken a year and a half to master the tai chi form I was still struggling with at year eight. And of course, she looked absolutely gorgeous doing it. It made sense. The woman would look gorgeous doing anything.
"Oh yeah, tai chi," Ona Quimby threw in enthusiastically, her voice loud. Too loud. Ona's voice didn't match her softness. In fact, it was always a shock to hear that tough, deep voice coming out of that ultrafeminine body. "I took tai chi for a while. But I just didn't have the time to keep on. It's great stuff, stretched my limits. People think someone as big as I am wouldn't have the sensitivity or flexibility for a soft form of self-defense like tai chi, but that's crap." She brought up her leg in a kick as relaxed and limber as any tai chi student's. "Just wish I could have stayed till we got to the push hands part."
"That's the sparring part," her boyfriend, Perry, translated eagerly. His friendly voice was as loud as Ona's but not as deep. Or as tough. "The rest of the time they just practice the moves by themselves in this long kinda dance form. It's really beautiful."
"Push hands isn't exactly sparring," Ona corrected him. "It's just using the movements and the principles of the form as you interact with a partner."
"And push him over," Ray Zappa said. "It's still fighting. They wanted us to learn it at the police department. Silliest martial art I ever saw. They say it's a big deal, but as far as I'm concerned a good partner and a good gun work a lot better then pushing people over."
"But a gentle way to defend yourself from attack might be great for the police," I put in. I couldn't resist arguing, thinking about the movies I'd seen where the Master--a small, elderly Chinese man--had lofted burly Marines into the air with those soft pushes. And how those same burly Marines couldn't budge the Master with pushes or kicks or blows. Of course, he was a master.
"Got some crazy kid after you with an assault rifle, you're not going to be using tai chi or any of that airy-fairy stuff," Ray insisted. I shrugged my shoulders. He was probably right. Still...
Ray turned to Tessa, a big grin on his face. "I mean, you ever seen a dead body down at your mortuary, killed with tai chi?"
Everyone's eyes snapped in Tessa's direction.
"Yes, I make a living as a mortician," Tessa admitted quietly, a sigh in her voice. Then she elbowed Ray in the ribs, much less gently than a tai chi push. He grabbed himself as if mortally wounded.
But Liz Atherton looked truly shocked. She narrowed her round eyes at Tessa sharply. And for a moment, Tessa returned the look, tilting her head as if in sudden recognition.
"You buried my husband," Liz declared softly. "Now I recognize you..." Her voice faltered. "It's been more than twenty years--"
"And my father," Perry Kane added, his usually high voice low and shaky now. "You buried my father. Because of the race thing."
Tessa turned toward Perry now, one hand raised palm-up in a gentle gesture of defeat.
"I've buried a good many people here in Marin," she said, her voice as steady and unapologetic as her hand was defensive. "I can barely go anywhere in Marin without someone recognizing me. Especially if there was an issue about using the funeral home for mixed races. Our specialty for twenty-five years." She elbowed Ray in the ribs again. "And if someone doesn't recognize me, there's always Ray to make sure they do. Makes me a real popular person everywhere I go."
We all laughed nervously. Or tried to.
"What I really love is my hobby," Tessa said, changing the subject after another moment of charged silence. "I'm a baby holder. You know, for the newborns at the hospital whose mothers can't hold them."
We all nodded, mesmerized. At least I was. Newborns, newly dead...
"Well, that's what I do, hold them and cuddle them," she finished, her solemn face softened under her upswept gray curls.
"My Tessa's a great lady, that's for sure," Ray declared, throwing his big arm around her small shoulders, his elbowed ribs apparently forgotten.
Liz took a big breath and threw herself back into conversational duty with an obvious effort. "I do chain-saw sculpture myself. Saw a man doing it a few years ago and decided I'd give it a try--"
"You son of a dog!" The bellow erupted from behind us before Liz could even finish her sentence.
Wayne and I turned simultaneously and saw Campbell shaking his fist about a foot from Sam Skyler's face. I didn't see any puppets on his clenched fingers, so I assumed the meaning of his shaking fist was the traditional one. But where did he get his insults? Son of a dog? This guy was closer to thirty years old than two hundred.
"Now, Campbell," Sam was saying calmly, "I'm sure that was very energizing, very empowering. In fact, I feel you're on the road to a real turnaround..."
"I'll turn your quiffing face around!" Campbell shouted.
"Hey now, sweet-cakes," Emma intervened, physically as well as verbally, inserting her small body between the two men's, and batting Campbell's fist out of the air like a cat with a toy mouse. "Don't be boring. Sam and I were just--"
"Emma, it's not you!" Campbell howled, waving his hands above her head in frustration. "It's that ... that pompous piece of--"
"Now, I know you're really tinkled," a new voice broke in cheerfully. Yvonne. I'd hardly seen her approaching the trio. I'd been too fascinated by Sam's slow and barely discernible retreat from the range of Campbell's fist. Talk about tai chi. This guy was over a yard away now and you could barely see him moving.
"But you see, it's just the dark side of love," Yvonne went on. "Channel it now. Channel it into the light of love. Channel it into loving your Emma."
Campbell was cruelly outnumbered. And outmaneuvered. Within minutes, he, Emma, and Sam had joined our group and we were all talking about hobbies again. At least Ona was talking about Perry's.
"He teaches kids in the inner cities about computers," she told us, patting Perry's arm firmly as if he were a dog. Perry turned his head away shyly, a flush reddening his brown skin. "He says that within a few years the computer illiterates will be the real have-nots. And he's doing something about it. He really cares."
"Precisely," Sam agreed, putting in his five hundred dollars worth. "That's what this country needs. More people pushing their limits. Everything we do, or don't do, can be empowering or impoverishing, whether we're paid or not paid. All of our actions reflect the potential to channel higher consciousness into living grace--"
"Did you say 'leaving grace'?" asked Ray Zappa, cupping his ear innocently. But I could see the suppressed grin lifting his eyebrows.
"No, no," Sam answered, a shadow of irritation passing over his gorgeous face. He stared at Ray for a moment, as if trying to figure out whether or not he was kidding and then deciding he couldn't be. I wished I had that kind of ego. "Living grace. You see the Skyler method teaches us to turn our higher consciousness into living grace. Actual living harmony--"
The sound of a conch shell being blown interrupted his speech. Just in time. Did people really pay five hundred dollars a pop to listen to this man?
"Oh, it's beginning!" Yvonne sang out. She ran to the edge of the bluff. "Everyone get a good place to watch now. You're going to see magic."
Suddenly I was glad the overlook railing extended so far along the bluff. Everyone could get a view without being crowded. We all spread out yards apart, from Sam Skyler alone at the far end by the brass vases to Yvonne O'Reilley alone at the end nearest Point Abajo. Wayne and I cuddled together somewhere in the center, and then the conch shell sounded again.
We peered down at the cove and enclosed beach to our right and waited for the magic Yvonne had promised. The little brightly colored stacks had stopped racing around and were standing in motionless rows now with a space very much like an aisle down the middle of their ranks. Sure enough, the one in black farthest from the water appeared to be the minister. Now that our group had fallen silent, the ocean's roar seemed more rhythmic. Almost hypnotic. The wind even seemed to defer, dying down for the moment. And the misting rain had disappeared. The warmth that radiated from Wayne's body began to seep into mine. Magic?
A lone bagpipe began to play somewhere below. "Brigadoon." Would the fog lift for the ceremony now?
All eyes were on the cove as the surf deposited two sleek black seals onto the beach. Only they weren't seals. The bride and groom? No, no, they weren't, I decided. They were two men. The groom and his best man, I guessed. They stood and walked in the giant, exaggerated steps of those outfitted with flippers and oxygen tanks, making their way down the space in the middle of the stacks of colors until they were in place to one side of the black block that had to be the minister. Just before they turned, I noticed the patches of phosphorescent white that their suits had been painted with, approximating the boiled fronts of tuxedos.
The bagpipe continued to play and then two more seals emerged from the water. These two were easier to identify. At least the one with the long white veil attached to the headpiece of her diving suit and the white train floating from her waist at least three yards out into the water. She and the other seal climbed onto the beach, arm in arm, followed by the smallest seal of all, holding the end of the train. I resisted the urge to applaud as they solemnly followed the awkward path the first two divers had taken through the middle of the crowd.
The bagpipes went abruptly silent as the group of divers arranged themselves before the minister. Then the conch shell sounded again. I wished I could see more, but no one had thought to bring binoculars any more than they had thought to bring jackets.
I wasn't even sure if it was the hum of marriage vows I heard over the ocean and wind. But I saw the ring being transferred and the seals kiss. And heard the cheer from the crowd. All right, it was magical. A magical wedding was possible. At least from this distance.
And then, as the pipes played once more, the two newly married seals duck-walked back to the water's edge and dived, the tip of the bridal train the last vision to disappear beneath the pounding surf.
The conch shell sounded one final note, and another cheer rose from the beach. The wedding was over.
I looked up at Wayne and put my arms around him. His soft mouth landed on mine and I closed my eyes, lost in the moment.
"Sam?" I heard from behind me. Diana's voice. I kept my lips on Wayne's.
"Sam?" again, a little more urgently. "Has anyone seen Sam?"
It was no use. I could feel the kiss lose momentum as certainly as a car with a stalled engine.
I looked around and saw various groups of people, standing and talking, but I didn't see Sam.
"Maybe he went back into the house," Ray suggested.
I took Wayne's hand before he went to comfort Diana directly, and walked impatiently to the place I had last seen Sam, by the vases at the far end of the railing. But the vases were gone.
Had they fallen over the bluff? I looked down over the railing. I didn't see the vases. But I did see the answer to the question that Diana was asking more and more hysterically.
Sam Skyler was spread-eagled below, a guru on the rocks.