Sharon had just managed to get herself admitted to the University of California at San Diego (La Jolla) at an odd time of the year. It helped that she would be paying full out-of-state tuition. She had also asked Mr. Brian Howison for a recommendation. His response was enthusiastic, and Sharon wondered if the man who could get Melissa re-hired could also accomplish some other things. She felt no shame in taking advantage of whatever was going around.
Sharon knew that this action also had symbolic significance. It was a turning away from the idea that their little group was fully autonomous, and didn’t need any help from anyone. Moreover, while they were still open to newcomers and happy to help people like Chris and Helen, they weren’t really fitted to ‘aggressively pursue’ any sort of outreach program.
It also related to Tim. It had always seemed remarkable, on the purely physical level, that someone with so much speed and strength was so inept in so many other areas. Sharon thought that, on the mental level, there was something similar. When concentrated on an intellectual problem, the power of his mind was undeniable. However, on the day-to-day level, he was remarkably slow to recognize things that were clear to everyone else. As far as Sharon knew, his view of their relation to the outside world had hardly changed since their arrival in San Diego. Of course, the other boys, with whom he communicated more fully, might know better. For that matter, Tim had long conversations with Audrey. Sharon had heard many wives complain that their husbands were more open with lots of other people than with themselves. Perhaps it was a little like that with sisters. Anyhow, she had other things to do, in particular organizing a going-away party for Chris.
When Chris arrived for the party, looking happy, it seemed that he was bigger and stronger than he had been a couple of months previously. The kayaking and general activity had probably helped, not to mention the ordinary growth of a teen-aged male. Moreover, he had recently been working out with Howie. Howie was an exercise fanatic who positively enjoyed doing push-ups and leg-lifts, and would happily lift brake drums and other automobile parts when no weights were available. He had, at the least, communicated an attitude to Chris.
When the time came for gifts of a humorous nature, Howie presented a selection of bicycle inner tubes of different lengths and thicknesses. He explained, “The people in health spas use wimpy pink and green stretch bands, but hard-core Asian martial arts people use bike tubes.”
Chris inspected the tubes, and asked some pertinent questions. Someone then asked, “Which is the hardest core martial art?”
Howie wasn’t sure, but Sharon remembered what Mitsuko had told her. “That’s the one where the uki kneels on the ground with an impassive expression holding a little stick in front of his face. The tori shoots a steel-tipped arrow at his forehead, and the uki , making sure not to blink, deflects the arrow with his stick.”
Howie replied, “I can imagine the uki, after years of practice, bringing his girl friend out to watch.”
“Would that be the time when it doesn’t work, and he lies on his back with an arrow sticking out of his forehead?”
Howie shook his head, and said, “No. You underestimate the ability of the martial artist to ignore distractions. However, his girl friend is appalled, thinks him hopelessly crazy, and goes off with a suave Japanese real estate agent.”
A certain amount of wine had been drunk, and Audrey, pretending to be the uki, knelt on the ground while Howie pretended to shoot the arrow. She screamed dramatically, rolled on the ground in simulated agony, and would stop only when Howie kissed her. Chris said that he would urge the other students at his college to participate in this martial art.
Helen, new to the group, looked a little wide-eyed, but Sharon explained that they weren’t usually like that. At the end, the ladies all kissed Chris, Audrey dramatically, Sharon with sincerity, and Helen rather chastely. Sharon noticed, however, that Chris and Helen had talked with one another quite a bit, and had laughed, at what Sharon hardly dared think. Duane seemed also to have noticed, and looked pleased.
In the following days, they talked of things that interested them, without trying to teach Helen anything. Tim was convinced that he had found a flaw in the reasoning underlying calculus, and the others, skeptical, were willing to listen. Sharon doubted that he had really discovered anything, but she was pretty sure that they would all understand the material better in the end.
One evening, Helen approached Sharon a little diffidently and said, “I just got a call on my cell phone from a guy named Clive who wants to come around and see me.”
“A boy friend?”
“No, he’s about thirty-five, my former history teacher. He’s quit the school, partly in protest over my effective expulsion, and partly because he thinks he might be beaten up himself.”
“That’s quite a move! So he has no job?”
“He comes from a very wealthy family and has a Ph. D. from a good university, so he’s not hurting.”
“How did he wind up teaching at the school in the first place?”
“There are very few university jobs open now, and he might not interview well. But he’s a good teacher, and I certainly learned a lot from him.”
“I’m sure we’d like to meet him.”
“The trouble is that he’s a total nerd. But he really wants to date and have a girl friend. He doesn’t know how to go about it, and one woman, after meeting him, exclaimed, ‘What a fox!’ That seems to be the usual reaction.”
“Is he interested in you, Helen?”
“He’s always been totally correct, but he might trail around after me.”
Sharon had the picture, and asked, “Would he be able to talk with the others?”
“He might be struck dumb by Audrey, but the rest of you, yes.”
Clive, a small man with bright blonde hair, turned up the next day in a white polyester suit and polka dotted tie. Audrey got the giggles. Despite her Salvation Army preferences, she was quite clothes conscious. The idea of a wealthy young Californian looking as if he had just stepped out of a J. C. Penney store in Topeka, Kansas seemed to set her off.
Perhaps because of the nautical atmosphere, they ended up talking about boats and ships. Clive turned out to be a bit like Google, and could answer all of Tim’s technical questions. This extended to the life of Captain Cowper Coles RN, the inventor of the gun turret, who was drowned when the first ship fitted with his turret, HMS Captain , capsized in a storm. Clive related the story in such a way as to make it funny, with an image of a captain saluting as he sank below the waves. It was hard to tell whether he found it amusing himself. Sharon could see that he would be a fascinating teacher, but there was undeniably something lacking. When asking herself what sort of woman might want him, her mind somehow touched on Melissa.
During this time, Helen’s face changed a good deal. She didn’t want to talk about British battleships, but she liked hearing Clive talk about almost anything. Then, when he talked about Helen’s own accomplishments, she looked unhappy. It seemed to Sharon that it wasn’t just modesty. She wanted Clive to continue to be out there as the teacher, but didn’t want any close personal connection. At least, that was Sharon’s own feeling, and she found it easy to project it on to Helen.
Christmas in San Diego was weird. No snow nor ice, nor, apart from crowds at the malls, anything at all reminiscent of the season. Neither Sharon nor the others were at all religious, but there was still an odd feeling of absence. That is, until she heard a recording of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at the drug store. Inwardly vomiting, she got out as quickly as possible.
The kayak instructors mostly came from distant places, and, with everything closed, they would also be marooned on Christmas Day. The resulting plan was to load the sloop with food and drink, anchor it in the cove across the way, and put everyone in kayaks, converging on the sloop for dinner.
Helen didn’t want to go home and have to deal with her brother, so her mother and Jane Heber were invited up with Duane. No one asked why the brother wouldn’t be coming along.
Sharon suggested to Helen that they invite Clive. She replied, “He has family in Orange County, but I have a feeling that he’ll come with us.”
It seemed that everything was set and organized until Christmas Eve, when there was a call on Tim’s cell phone which Sharon answered. It was, again, Melissa. With a definite note of desperation in her voice, she said that her husband, two hours previously, had left a note. He wasn’t coming back. She had parked the children with Janet on the grounds that, in view of Janet’s recent decision, she needed to experience children. Melissa was now drinking some sort of liqueur, she wasn’t sure what, in the bar of a downtown hotel. She was also contemplating suicide. With a loud internal obscenity, Sharon said that she would come down and pick her up. She certainly didn’t want Tim to be involved.
Giving the brightly-clad doorman a ten dollar tip as she left the old van at the front door, Sharon found the bar on the first try. A woman was attempting to sing Good King Wenceslaus , but didn’t know many of the words. The double glass doors were wide open, and, as Sharon zoomed diagonally through, she saw a number of men who looked really depressed. A second look revealed Melissa, all dressed up, in a quasi-embrace with a man sitting next to her at the bar. Sharon went up, disentangled them, and led Melissa away. The man was upset, but Sharon told him that everything was going according to plan.
One of Melissa’s high-heeled shoes dropped off as they left the bar, but Sharon picked it up, removed the other shoe and conducted Melissa down the carpeted hallway in her stocking feet. The doorman, smiling, loaded Melissa, rather gracefully, into the passenger seat. He had evidently done the same thing on other occasions.
There were some crying jags on the way back, but also some fairly connected conversation. At one point, Melissa said, “That man wanted me to go up to his room with him, and I said to myself, ‘What the hell! Why not?’”
Sharon seemed to be expected to supply the answer, and, at first, she couldn’t think of one. She then came up with, “You seem to get pregnant pretty easily. But you don’t want a baby in a carriage, another in a stroller, and the little boy running loose.”
Sharon was congratulated on her sagacity, and she followed up with, “There’s an empty berth on the big boat, and we can make you comfortable in it. I’ve got a spare toothbrush and some awfully good toothpaste.”
Audrey and Helen hadn’t met Melissa, but the latter bucked up considerably, said nothing about suicide, and hoped that she wasn’t imposing. In fact, she didn’t even seem drunk. Sharon then remembered that she had called on Tim’s phone. Was this another attempt to snare him?
The next morning, there were quite a few non-kayaking ‘adults’ on Tim’s boat, apart from himself and Sharon: Helen’s mother, Jane, Duane, Clive, and Melissa. They were accommodated easily enough on cushions on the foredeck, and entertained themselves as Tim and Sharon prepared to row in tandem on the oars. Wolfgang was placed in the stern, and it had been discovered that, as long as Helen remained close behind them in her kayak, he would sit quietly. As someone who didn’t know him well had remarked, he would, with his noble bearing, lend class to their operations.
As usual, having backed out of their slip, it took a half a dozen strokes to stop over eight thousand pounds of boat and people and get them moving forward. In the almost deserted marina they moved majestically down their side channel, where they turned into a larger one, and then out into Quivira Basin. When, after a quarter mile, they reached the main channel leading out into the ocean, they got into a tidal eddy which had to be plowed through with considerable effort. As they headed across the channel into another bay on the other side, Sharon had a chance to survey their guests.
Duane had landed, by accident or design, between the two middle-aged ladies. Sharon suspected design. Apart from the fact that they were both engaging conversationalists, he seemed to be distancing from Melissa. He had previously indicated that intention to Sharon, and the wisdom of it was reinforced by the fact that, unknown to him, Melissa was presently a volcano under the surface calm. That left her up near the bow with Clive.
Audrey, who seemed to be amused by Melissa, had outfitted her with a white sailor suit acquired from some scavenger organization. Melissa still had the shoes from the previous evening, and the rolled-up bell-bottom pants showed her best feature, a shapely little rear end, to advantage. Clive, who tended to look goggle-eyed at any moderately attractive woman anywhere, was obviously fascinated. The question was what Melissa, at their first meeting, would make of Clive.
Remembering the embrace of Melissa with the man at the bar the night before, it seemed to Sharon that she was the first woman she had known who, despite a cool educated manner, seemed ready to disrobe in front of a great variety of men and let them prang her, or, for all Sharon knew, jump voraciously on them. It wasn’t just Tim, or Duane, or the man at the bar. Would it include Clive?
The feeling of Helen, and even Audrey, in the short time she had known Clive, was that he ‘came on too strong.’ It wasn’t in the sense that he grabbed a woman, or was physically aggressive, but that he talked too much too deeply too quickly, as if an abbreviated demonstration of his vast knowledge would surely cause the woman to swoon into his arms. Audrey had compared him to a wind-up toy with a dangerous capacity for endurance, and, while Helen respected him greatly, there was always a need to walk Wolfgang after a decent interval.
Rather surprisingly, Melissa touched Clive on the arm and said something to him, perhaps intervening in a disquisition. That might possibly tip Clive into his other mode in which he could participate, quite well, in give-and-take discussions. He could do it even when women were present if the subject was of sufficient interest to distract him. Although Melissa was no fool, Sharon couldn’t recall her ever saying anything that was likely to be of much interest to Clive. After all, in similar circumstances, she had failed to interest Duane.
Sharon communicated some of these thoughts to Tim, next to her at the other oar. He replied, “So the question is not whether she’ll attract him, but whether she’ll be interesting enough in non-sexual ways to make him behave in ways that won’t repel her?”
Tim took another stroke on the oar, and said, “She might be desperate enough to give him a chance even if he relates the whole history of Britain non-stop.”
“She might also get him to stop by grabbing his little pee-pee.”
“It’s funny, Tim. I know her history, but I don’t pick up anything unusual in her usual behavior.”
“It’s more pronounced when she’s dressed up, and without children in tow. It may be the way she moves and holds herself.”
“High heels force women to walk and move in different ways.”
“I don’t think it’s just that, but I don’t know what it is.”
Sharon had a better view of proceedings on the foredeck from her oar, and said, “She’s still touching Clive in a flirty way.”
“Is he reacting in the right way?”
“I’m not sure. I suppose we’ll find out.”
Looking back, Sharon saw Howie and Audrey paddling along on either side of Helen, and engaged in conversation. It could well be a literary conversation, and that was one direction in which Helen might go. It would be interesting to watch as she tested out one thing after another.
Sharon was ready with her half science and half mathematics, and there were Tim and Duane with philosophy, and, ultimately, Chris. It didn’t look as if they would ever get Jimmy back in addition to Meredith, but they could hardly expect to cover every field.
The idea was to anchor in the other cove, tie all dozen of the kayaks to the sloop, and crowd everyone on board for a feast. Having reached a good position, Tim called forward for the anchor. Clive and Melissa were closest to it, and the anchor needed only to be untied, slid off the cathead, and dropped overboard. The chain, and then the rope, would pay out through the hawse-hole in the deck, the other end being fastened securely below.
Clive, who seemed to be a little stronger than he looked, got some six feet of chain up, and began to swing the anchor dangerously. Melissa got quickly out of the way while Clive, apparently intent on throwing the anchor as far as possible, swung it vigorously out. Unfortunately, he hung on to the chain a little too long.
Sharon loved to watch people as they lost their balance, and Clive’s performance reminded her of the time that she and Mitsuko had watched people fall on the icy street. The weight of the anchor and chain wasn’t enough to abruptly splash Clive, but he was left with one leg in the air, still injudiciously holding the chain as the anchor hit the water. There was a cry, not the approved ‘shit’ in such circumstances, but a sort of truncated ‘egad’. To Sharon’s delight, it was followed by an ‘aargh’ as Clive tumbled backwards over the lifeline and out of sight. Then she remembered. Clive might not be able to swim, and none of them bothered with life jackets. As she bounded up on deck over the others, she remembered that, despite her life-saving certificates, she had never actually saved a drowning person. Just as she was about to dive, Clint, the most experienced of the instructors, was there with his kayak. He had rescued great numbers of his paying clients.
Despite Clint’s alacrity, Clive had swallowed a good deal of water, and was making peculiar noises as he was placed, tummy down, across the deck of the kayak. He had also lost his glasses, and, by the time that they had hoisted him aboard the sloop, he looked, with his darkened and sleeked-down hair, like a rather large rodent in a laboratory experiment that had gone very wrong. The older ladies managed to be solicitous, but no one else managed to hide their amusement very successfully. Melissa was laughing loudly, as if Clive’s performance was erasing all her recent unpleasant memories. She then took charge of getting him below and dried off. After a bit, she poked her head out of the hatch and asked Sharon, “Is it all right if I give Clive my sailor suit and borrow some of your clothes for myself?”
Sharon agreed happily, and told her where to find the right clothes. Tim said, “It might be possible to manage that without exposure or intimacy.”
“Yes. I dare say.”
“Does she know how much money he has?”
“Probably not yet.”