The Idea of Love
By Patti Callahan Henry
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Patti Callahan Henry
All rights reserved.
In his mind, he was already writing her — the woman who stood at the patio table with her eyes closed and her face lifted to the sky. She was only a subject, or more precisely, an object. Her slumped shoulders folded inward and her beautiful mouth turned down. Did she know how obvious she was in her sadness? Right there in public, surrounded by syrupy sunlight and azaleas so garish they could be fake?
Could she be the one?
The towns blended together now. This one felt like the others, all dense light having to find its way through leaves and crowded branches. The briny water in rivers and tributaries, in basins and bays, rose and fell twelve feet or more with the shift of moon and Earth. Parceled plots of concrete-colored sand appeared and disappeared with the tides. And the marshes, winnowed out from one another, separated by swaths of blue-gray water, teemed with life. This town, Watersend it was called, felt the same as all the others, and different, too, because it was his last. He would stop here. So maybe he was noticing more, a kind of nostalgic impression where all towns blended into one.
The streets were old, probably original to the town's founding in the 1800s. They didn't force themselves into straight lines, but found their way through the existing landscape. Seafood restaurants and bars. Shops with names like Seashore Décor and Driftwood Sands. Coastal-themed hotels and homes. They all filled every one of these towns.
He focused on the woman across the street, her face lifted to the sky. This woman knew how to be still. She was otherworldly in the way he always imagined Southern women to be. Petite and fragile. While he stared, she opened her eyes and looked directly at him with a practiced air of "What the hell do you want?" She could have walked away, embarrassed, but she waited one more beat before sitting at the café table. He guessed her age about five years younger than his forty-nine.
The details that would go in his notebook: She was small, her hair a buttery yellow, melting onto her shoulders. Bangs fringed her forehead and were pushed to the left, curtains swept aside for that sliver of sunlight to fall into a room. Her face was round and full until her chin, which was shaped like a little heart — almost an afterthought. Her dress was a flowery flirty thing that tied behind her neck, old-fashioned, at least in L.A. terms. He didn't know her eye color yet, but he guessed it was blue. He wanted them to be blue. She was pale, but her cheeks held pink in them like a stain.
He exhaled. God, he was so cursed tired by now. All the highs of his earlier screenplays hitting it big thanks to bidding wars, with top stars and A-list directors jostling to make them. And then the lows, or more specifically two devastating lows. "Flops" they'd called the last two movies he wrote, and not behind closed doors, but in reviews heard on TV and at the cocktail parties of "friends" and printed in newspapers and magazines and online at a thousand different Web sites. Always online in the stories and blogs and especially in the comments below that you should never never read but you always do. "It's all in the execution" was the catchphrase in the movie business. His execution seemed likely if he didn't return with an idea for a great script.
He'd been traveling for two months now, wandering the southern East Coast. He'd found a few stories from women who cried on his shoulder and told him their latest heartbreak. He'd listened to them all: the way they'd met, the way they'd parted; the meant-to-bes that turned out not-to-be; the waiting and the longing and the angst. (Oh, the angst.) And every last one of them believing her pain was unique. In the end, not one story was worth telling again, much less worth putting on paper. To all of these women, his name was Hunter Adderman and he was writing a book on Southern coastal towns. That's how he presented himself. That's who he was. At least for now.
Before he approached the woman, he glanced at his phone to see if Amelia had gotten back to him yet. Nope. He shook his head. How could he make it up to his daughter, if she wouldn't even answer his texts? He stuffed his phone into his pocket and then lifted his head again to watch the woman.
He approached her casually so as not to startle her. He had a feeling — he got those sometimes — a slight tingle in the palms of his hands that let him know that a moment carried more weight than it usually did. He ambled toward her as if he hadn't made up his mind where he was going. "Good afternoon," he said, and tipped his head in some stupid Southern gesture.
"Do I know you?" she asked. She looked him straight in the eye as if the answer rested there. Sure enough, her eyes were blue. He must have stared at her too long because she dug into her leather purse and brought up a pair of sunglasses, which she shoved onto her face with too much force. Her wedding band was simple. Platinum. Small diamond without extra adornment. Married.
"No, we've never met," he said. "But ... well ... I'm new in town and you look like you might know something about this place."
Damn. He should have thought this through. He usually did. He'd spot a woman and weigh his best opening line. He was getting lazy. No, not lazy. Desperate. He hadn't found the story he needed. And damn, maybe that story didn't even exist. Maybe they'd all been told to death. Nothing new in the world.
"Can I help you?" the woman asked.
Blake realized he'd been quiet too long, just standing there, looking at her, mulling over his failures. This would not work.
"This city," he said, trying hard to remember exactly which one he was in.
"Watersend," she said slowly, as if he didn't speak English.
"Yes, it's beautiful. Magical. A place where you could fall in love."
She laughed, but the sound seemed forced, unnatural.
"Sure thing. Love," she said.
He couldn't see her eyes behind the dark sunglasses, but she seemed to look past him, over his shoulder and into the park beyond. "You don't sound convinced."
She tilted her head and half smiled. "Do you always approach women this way?"
"No," he said, and took a step back. He'd screwed this one up without even sitting down. She'd looked so promising, too.
"Yeah," she said with a laugh and a little shake of her head, "I wouldn't try it again."
"Can I start over?"
"Sure." She looked up from under the fringe of her bangs.
Blake pointed to the empty seat next to her. "May I join you?"
"I'm waiting for someone," she said.
"Well, then maybe you could point me in the right direction. I'm here to do a little research about Watersend and I'm looking for someone who can acquaint me with the town."
"We have a visitor's bureau," she said. "You should have passed it coming in."
"I did," he said, and smiled in a way he'd been told was charming. "But I don't want to know what the brochures say. I want to know what someone like you would say."
"Someone who lives here. Someone who knows the character of the place."
"And how do you know I live here?"
"I'm guessing. Hoping."
Finally she smiled. "Yes, I live here but I don't think there's much I can tell you."
"Can I ask you a few questions anyway? I promise it'll be quick. Can I buy you a coffee or something?"
She nodded toward the empty chair. "I guess. Okay."
He launched into his first question. "Can you give me one word to describe your town?"
She tilted her sunglasses down to look him in the eye. "Maybe a proper introduction first?"
"God, I'm so sorry," he said "I've been doing this for so long, I seem to have lost my manners along the way. Forgive me. I'm Hunter Adderman, from Los Angeles. I'm doing research on Southern coastal towns." The words came so easily, after weeks on the road lying to strangers about his name. He held his hand across the table.
The woman had a firm handshake. "I'm Ella Flynn."
Ella. It suited her, almost as if he'd named her himself. This was a good sign.
"Nice to meet you," he said.
"Doesn't seem like I had much choice."
"I can go bother someone else," he said, "but I'd rather not."
She clicked her fingers on the edge of the iron table. "Wet," she said.
"You asked for one word to describe my town. Wet."
"Water. Everywhere you look: water. The bay. The river. The marsh. The ponds."
"That's nice," he said.
"Okay, is that it?"
Why couldn't he remember his next question?
"Could you excuse me for a minute?" he said. "I'll be right back."
"Sure thing," she said. "If you're looking for the men's room, it's at the far end of the café to the left."
"Thanks." He walked toward the café, with every intention of leaving by the back door.
* * *
Ella had never been one to confide in strangers or even to those she loved for that matter. Yet here she was talking to some man from L.A., bantering as if bantering was the thing she did best. Blah, blah, blah. He was so obviously a tourist it was almost embarrassing. He wasn't tall, but he wasn't short, either. His clothes were loose on him like it was the style, which it wasn't, at least not here in Watersend. If Watersend even had a style. His hair was wavy, and swept back off his forehead, longer than how most men around here wore theirs. He had what her dad called a five o'clock shadow, but cleaner, more deliberate. He wore black-rimmed glasses, the kind that had been dorky in middle school and were hip now. And even as he walked off, he had a little grin as though he'd heard a joke.
He returned quickly and settled back into his chair without comment. He leaned forward and smiled. The furrows on his forehead made a road map as if he'd been more places than she could imagine.
"So," she said when he just sat there. "You're visiting every single coastal town in the South? That will take a lifetime, especially if you keep including ones as small as Watersend."
"Not all, not really. I only choose the historic ones where battles were fought or lands conquered." He lifted his arm as if holding a sword, and he laughed, nervous and jittery.
"I guess that makes sense." Ella motioned to the waitress. She knew everyone who worked at this café. She came here often, to sketch, to have that third cup of café crème, and to pretend she was in Paris at Café de Flore with Sims, the man who had always promised her a trip to the City of Lights.
Darla came over to the table. "What would you like to drink?" she asked.
"Ladies first," he said, motioning to Ella.
"I already know what she wants," Darla said. "She's my favorite customer."
"Ah!" he said. "I should have known she'd be a favorite."
The compliment was fluffy, made of spun sugar and nothing more. Who was this man and what did he want? Surely there was no harm in having a drink on a Saturday afternoon. Where else could she go? Home to cry a little more?
"I'll have a coffee and a Bloody Mary," Hunter said, pointing to a nearby table where a tall glass looked tempting and sweaty, the celery stalk growing in the thick peppery liquid.
"Perfect combination," Darla said, and winked at Ella.
Darla dropped one menu on the table, on Hunter's side, and walked away, tossing words over her shoulder. "I'll be right back with your drinks."
"Have you always lived here?" he asked, his focus returning to Ella.
"About nine years. This is home now."
"Lucky me?" Ella shook her head. It was something he probably said in every town. Lucky you, he'd say. Tell me about living here. "So, why are you visiting all these towns?"
"I'm writing about them. That's what I do. I'm a writer."
"Oh," she said. "Like a tourist book?" She leaned closer to see his eyes, which were brown but not just brown — boring word. They were different shades of brown, like yarn, something rich with a little gold inside.
"Yes," he said as if it had just occurred to him that this is what he was doing. "Or no, more like a personality book but for tourists visiting, something to show them what the town is like, the personality along with the history."
This was boring. Why had she let this stranger sit with her? "Do you have more questions?" she asked.
"Yes," he said as if this whole idea were hers. "What is your favorite place here in Watersend?"
"The water. Always. I'm sure you've heard the same answer everywhere you go. Why else do people live on the coast? Right?" She sounded harsh and she knew it. Damn it to hell. It had been one of Sims's complaints: Why do you always have to be so blunt?
"I guess it's a dumb question. You're right." He looked away as if someone had called his name. "But you're the first person to really answer it that way. Usually someone gives me the name of the dock or the beach they love. The dive restaurant or the oyster shack they go to every day. But not so general, not just ... the water."
"It came out rude, didn't it?" she asked. "I'm sorry. That happens to me sometimes. I think I'm talking nicely but something happens between my head and you hearing it and it's ... all wrong."
He laughed. "You're funny."
"No." She shook her head. "I'm really not."
He leaned forward as if he needed to tell her a secret, the one thing in all the world she needed to know. "Yes, you are."
Darla returned with the Bloody Marys and a cup of coffee. She set them down, the glasses clanging against the metal table. "You want anything else?" she asked Hunter.
He nodded. "Yes, please. The spinach and feta omelet."
Ella hadn't seen him look at the menu. How did he know what he wanted?
"Anything for you?" he asked.
"No thanks. I'm not one bit hungry." She tilted her head at him. "How did you know what you wanted?"
"I ate here yesterday," he said.
She nodded. "Did you accost some other woman to tell you about Watersend?"
He laughed. "No. I just sat and observed. I watched everyone and tried to get a feel for what people are like here. You know, every place has its own personality."
"Personality," Ella repeated.
"We think it is just individuals who have personalities, but somehow people combine to make a place feel the way it does."
Ella took a long swallow of her Bloody Mary. Yes, extra pepper the way she liked it. "I wonder," she said to Hunter, the vodka softening the ache. "I wonder what comes first, individual personalities or the city. I mean ... I don't know what I mean."
"No, go ahead. You're onto something."
"Well ... do people conform to the city or does the city conform to the people who live there?"
"I have no idea. But it would seem that people choose a city for its personality, for its character. So maybe the city has its own life and we just choose."
"You're right," she said, realizing how very true this was. In a single moment she had chosen this city as her home and never turned back.
"What brought you here?" he asked.
"My college roommate. She introduced me to the place after graduation." It was vague enough to be true.
"Well, there are worse places to be," Hunter said. "Are your parents here?"
"No," she said. "My mom passed away ten years ago but my dad still lives in my hometown about two hours away." God, she hated that phrase, "passed away," but how else did you say it? Dead. Gone. Buried.
"I'm sorry you lost your mom. I lost my dad a few years ago." Hunter took a long swallow of his drink and his eyebrows lifted high. "Wow. Spicy."
"Oh, Darla must have given you the Ella Special. Yes, it has extra pepper and hot sauce. Maybe I should have warned you."
"You just don't look like a girl who would order extra spice."
Ella laughed. "What kind of girl do I look like?"
"I don't know." Hunter shrugged and looked away. "I'm sorry. I just meant ..."
"That I don't look very daring? True, I suppose. Don't worry about saying it. I just like this drink that way. So you're right about me on the whole, I guess."
"Right about you?"
Ella took another swallow and her limbs loosened. The knot under her chest relaxed. Yes, it was nice to spend time with a stranger. She could say anything at all and it wouldn't matter. She had so many stories inside. She used them to stay calm or go to sleep or even to get through a boring shift when a bride spent four hours deciding between ivory and light ivory. Here she could be a ballet dancer. A call girl. What the hell difference would he know? (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Idea of Love by Patti Callahan Henry. Copyright © 2015 Patti Callahan Henry. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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