From the casino Hank and Angie followed the access path leading between a pair of oceanfront homes and down a long flight of stairs to the beach. On a smooth, gray driftwood log at the foot of the stairs they sat down long enough to take off their shoes and socks. From there, with shoes in hand, it was a short hike through warm, soft sand to the hard-packed surface that paralleled the surf.
“Isn’t this nice,” Angie grinned. Reaching for Hank’s hand she pulled him toward the distant headland that marked the end of the sandy strand. “The tide’s not all the way out yet. But there are lots of rocks and shells along here. And hopefully some agates.”
It was nice, Hank told himself, at least compared to the commercial madness of the outlet mall. For a few minutes they strolled along the wave line, walking to the unhurried rhythm of the surf.... dodging an occasional wave, scanning the sand for shells and agates. Then, just as Hank settled comfortably into the pleasant pace of their trek, Angie’s unexpected question sent them off in a very different direction.
“Have you ever been to Cabo San Lucas, in Baja Mexico?” she asked. “It’s a lot like this, in a warmer, more touristy way.”
“Never been there.”
“There are so many wonderful spots like that, all over the world, places to see and visit.” Angie was warming to her subject, swept along by pleasant visions of what might be. “I miss the trips Harold and I used to take. He always had a way of finding the most interesting, out-of-the-way places.”
A few steps later she paused, frowning as she offered her unexpected apology. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be going on like that about him.”
“Why not? He was your husband. That’s certainly allowed. It’s not surprising that you’d want to remember the good times you had with him. I do that all the time, about Sarah that is.”
With that opening, Angie plowed ahead. “What were the favorite places you remember from your trips with Sarah?”
Why was she nudging him toward that ‘Sarah’ space, he wondered. Once there, he was apt to spend the rest of the day. “To begin with, we didn’t travel all that much. What I remember about the few trips we took isn’t so much about the places we went. It’s more about the things we did together, by ourselves or with the kids.”
“So where were the best places you ever went? The really special ones. Places you might want to see again.” Angie had pulled them to a stop. Standing barefoot on the hard sand, facing each other, she had set aside thoughts of agates and sea shells. “There has to be someplace that stands out.”
“That’s hard to say,” Hank answered, sifting through half-faded recollections he had not visited in a very long time. “We really liked Yellowstone. That was with the kids. We saw the geysers, and bears, and buffalo. All the tourist stuff. That was fun. And of course, there was Disneyland. We did that a couple times. I still have one of those silly mouse ear hats. Sarah found it in the garage, just a few weeks before.....” He turned away, looking off toward the surf, where hazy sunlight reflected off splashing waves, creating shiny rainbow-tinted spray.
Angie waited a moment, giving him time to return to the present. “Have you been to Europe?” she asked. “It is very nice. Especially England? That’s my favorite place. Everything about it was green and picturesque, and so historic. You couldn’t turn around without bumping into some place where something had happened, usually a long time ago.”
Surprisingly it was Angie who turned quiet, letting those well-remembered good times wash over her....recalling how special it had been. “Harold always promised we’d go back. But we never had the chance.”
Starting off again, she reached for his hand. This time he did not resist. Then, stopping to poke at a half buried shell with her toe, she looked up to say, “We could do that, you know.”
“We could do what? I didn’t hear what you were talking about.”
Her response was little more than a whisper, as though she wanted him to hear, but feared his reaction. “I was saying that we could see England or Europe. You and I. We could go wherever we wanted to go, and see whatever we wanted to see.”
Without a reply Hank started off down the beach, leaving Angie standing alone. What was he running from? Was it her simple statement, her declaration of what they could do together, or was it the assumptions she was making? Stopping at the upper wave line, where the wet, hard-packed surface gave way to soft sand, he was gazing down the beach when he felt her hand on his arm.
“I’m not sure what you’re driving at,” he said, turning to face her. “I sure as hell can’t afford to go running off to Europe or someplace like that, even if I wanted to.” His grim grin was not meant to inspire her confidence. “You see, I’m not a world traveler. Sarah and I thought in terms of a week at the coast, not doing Europe.”
About then Angie was trying for a calm and reasoned approach. “I hope you realize,” she began. “This isn’t about money or what you can afford. It’s about seeing some of the most amazing places in the world....about seeing them together. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me.” She flushed at the intensity of his icy glare. “I said I don’t have that kind of money.”
Apparently it was time to make her point in a different, more direct manner. Tugging on his arm, Angie pulled herself up against his shoulder. “You don’t have to have the money,” she said calmly. “I do.”
Shrugging away her grip Hank was on the move again, with Angie in pursuit. What was the lady thinking? Did she honestly believe he was the kind who would live off a woman? Not a chance, even if he craved her attention, which he certainly did not. That kind of crazy talk had to be nipped in the bud.
He pulled up short and turned to face her approach, stopping so quickly that the shoes she was carrying swung against his hip. Recovering her balance, she felt his grip tightening on her shoulder. Looking up to face him, the sight of his darkly earnest stare had her turning away.
“Angie, we have to talk.” There was no anger in his words, only hard, serious intent. “Actually, I need to talk. You need to listen.”
For months, in the course of her open and obvious quest for his attention, Angie had seen Hank Rolland when he was frustrated, and frightened, and befuddled. Never once had she witnessed the stern, unyielding determination she was seeing in his eyes. There was nothing to suggest that he would be put off.
“What is it?” she asked timidly, afraid that she already knew his answer.
“It’s about us. About your talk of traveling, and the plans you’d like to make for us.”
Taking her arm Hank led them away from the surf, toward a sandstone outcropping at the upper edge of the beach. Trudging barefoot through the deep sand he was asking himself why Sarah’s calm advice seemed out of reach just when he needed it most.
Steering them to the lowest part of a wide boulder, Hank motioned for her to sit down. Then, planting himself directly in front of her, he went looking for the words to explain his dilemma. “There is no way I could do something like that," he began. "Taking off with someone I hardly know, living on her money. Actually, her husband’s money.”
Bold and brash Angie McDonald had suddenly turned red eyed, sad, and vulnerable. Her nose wrinkled and she was squinting to hold back the tears.“Maybe I’m going too fast,” she murmured. “Is that it?”
“I suppose that’s it. At least part of it. I’m just not ready to be thinking in those terms.”
“I understand.” There was a hint of relief in her voice as she sought to soothe his reluctance. “Why don’t we forget about such things for now and enjoy our day at the beach? That would work, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, it would.” There was more to be said. But it was not the time for that. Instead he would settle for a quiet afternoon, just the two of them.... comparing agates gleaned from the sand and watching noisy youngsters splashing in the waves. With unconvincing smiles disguising unspoken words they would limit their conversation to light and airy observations and an occasional lame joke.
For the rest of their time on the beach, and during the long drive home, Angie took care not to incite another of Hank’s defensive retreats. On her doorstep she was happy enough to settle for a brief, but close embrace as they parted.