Here a story I wrote some time ago when I was a young lad… it’s weird and boring.
The Biggest Bubble
There was a little bar beside the condo I was staying at. It was one of those bars where you sit in a hot tub and order drinks. The stools are completely submerged and the bartender stands in a sort of bunker beside the water so it gives you the illusion that she’s making you drinks and swimming all the while. It’s pretty amazing when you first see it, at least for the easily amused, and at the time I was very easily amused. I was drinking beers and enjoying the combination of the warm water below my stomach and the refreshing beverages and breezes above it. My skin was nicely tan after a few weeks on the beach and I was wearing my favorite orange swimming shorts. The bartender was a ghostly blond woman in her late twenties. Her thin body floated around the bar like a mermaid. She poured drinks with graceful and flowing movements, as if she really was swimming inside the hot tub with her patrons. The illusion was nearly complete.
I was staying at my friend’s condo for three weeks. This was week three and I felt like I hadn’t even seen the place other than the beach nearby. My friend and her husband were arriving later that night to spend the last week with me. Like me they were on vacation, only in the mountains. I guess when people who live by the beach go on a vacation they always go to the mountains. It seems to be the reasonable choice. It’s not like they want to spend their lives seeing what other beaches look like as if to compare it to their beach. As far as their beach goes, from my disinterested point of view, it was on the higher end of beaches I’ve seen in my life. Maybe a nine out of ten. The sand was polished, smooth, and yellow, the waves were big, but tame and lazy, like a large awkward Saint Bernard. Most importantly, there were hardly any people around. From my seat in the hot tub I had a good view of the beach and could make a quick count of the visitors, totaling in less than twenty. I ordered another beer from the specter bartender and went to the condo.
The sun was starting to set and on the twentieth floor you could see a stream of headlights and taillights blinking beside the coastline. My friend’s place was small and was filled with an assortment of jade and ivory carvings of various Buddhist deities. They would be arriving within the next few hours so I tried to tidy the place up a bit. I threw unfinished grilled cheese sandwiches in the garbage and collected a dozen or so beer cans from the counters. With my janitorial duties finished I fell on the couch and watched TV. There was a music video of a girl band dressed up like various animals. All the girls had umbrellas and they were dancing in a room covered in flashing lights and neon. Their umbrellas had neon, too. When the chorus came around the camera would focus on each girl for a moment. At this time they would wink and then the camera would immediately switch to the next girl. I tried counting how many members there were but the camera moved too fast. Girl, smile, wink, girl, smile, wink: all of this lasting only a fraction of a second between shots.
The telephone rang and I let it keep ringing. Although my friend never told me specifically, I figured it would be strange to answer a friend’s phone while they are away. The answering machine came on.
“Hello this is Mika!” A recording of my friend’s chirpy voice started playing. I had heard the greeting many times before.
“…and Dan.” Her husband chimed in reluctantly.
“We’re currently not home right now!” Mika again.
“…so please leave your…a message after the tone.” boring old Dan again.
“Hey this is Mika.” I thought this was part of the recording I didn’t remember, then I realized it was Mika’s voice over the phone, leaving a message. I didn’t move from the couch.
“I hope you’re having a wonderful time over there! I just wanted to tell you that you don’t need to wait up for us tonight. Dan wants to stay for another week. I guess the fishing season is going wild this year, or something, and he wants to stay. I’m really really really sorry! I promise to make it up to you sometime. Try to have a good week without us! Go to the amusement park down the coast, it’s fun. What, Honey? Well, I have to go. Bye!”
The machine gave a long beep and the girls continued singing and winking on TV. I could picture Mika on the phone next to Dan at some casino, hovering over his shoulder at a slot machine. Whether or not the fish exodus was a lie, I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to see Dan. He was one of those fast talking financial guys that always knew the APR and EPS along with a storm of other acronyms. He would always be giving you advice in reference to his own success. ‘Hey, you aught to invest in so and so stock fund, then maybe you can live in a high rise condo by the ocean, blah blah.’ He would take Mika on these fishing trips by casinos. He would pretend to be interested in fish, but every time I asked him how much he caught he would start talking about how much money he made at blackjack. I guess investing in stocks and cards all produce the same buzz. Fishing, in my opinion, seemed to be the bigger gamble.
I sat in the glow of the TV for several hours. Mika and Dan’s voice rang in my ears and I felt as though they were actually in the house. I saw the grooves in the cushion beside me and knew they were left by Mika’s ass. I stood up and inspected the cushion I had been sitting on and saw larger grooves indicating where Dan usually sat. I could picture them now, surrounded by an assembly of dusty gods and goddesses, watching television together and eating popcorn. There was a towel left beside the couch that had a few strands of Mika’s black hair on it. She must leave the shower and dry her hair on the couch while watching TV. I could almost hear their lazy conversation. Dan would be rattling off some numbers and Mika would be giving her perfunctory nods. A few stains on the wooden coffee table showed me where they rested their coffee mugs in the morning. The condo filled with a thick atmosphere of their lives and I felt suffocatingly out of place. I shut off the TV and all of the lights so I wouldn’t have to look at the room any longer. The glow of the freeway crept in from the window and the sound of cars drowned out any possibility of hearing the waves.
In the dark the room looked like an Egyptian tomb. The artifacts from Mika and Dan’s life seemed as though they hadn’t been touched in thousands of years. The remote control became a foreign tool that had lost all meaning. Anthropologists would speculate at its uses after it was carefully collected and raised to the surface. I reached out to touch it, just to make sure it didn’t turn into dust in my hand. After inspecting the remote I shut the curtains and fell asleep on the couch.
The next few days were filled with rain so I spent them inside listening to some of Dan’s classical music collection. I would look out at the empty beaches below and eat noodles and potato chips while listening to Schubert. I still couldn’t get out of the feeling of being in Mika and Dan’s personal lives while staying at their condo. Images of them lounging around the house, taking showers, and resting on their bed seemed to float around the room. Every now and then someone would call and the their answering machine would turn on. The sudden echo of their voices would startle me and make me think they were actually there for a moment. Despite the persistent rain I put on a coat and left their home.
The beach was barren and wet. I stood by the waves and looked left down the empty coastline. There were two joggers slowly racing up toward me. The two were dressed in electric neon windbreakers, one was an elderly man and the other a middle-aged woman. Every few seconds they glanced at their watches and felt their necks. It looked fun.
I joined them a little after they passed me so it wouldn’t look like I was chasing after them. My heart began to pump in my ears and a tingling sensation filled my legs. It felt incredible. I kept running on past the joggers, into a hotel’s back patio, and up a small hill beside the coast. I tried running at different speeds, and even began to skip a little when the ground evened out. After skipping I decided to run with the purpose of kicking things in front of me. I maintained my pace while juggling a rock for a few minutes, then I started kicking weeds out of the ground with every few steps. I got so caught up in this game that I nearly tripped and fell when I heard the sound of a person’s voice beside me.
“What the hell are you doing up here?” A man in an American flag shirt shouted through his cupped hands and started to laugh. I stopped running, put my hands on my knees and tried to catch my breath. The rain had stopped by this time, but I was still pretty wet from running.
“I didn’t intend to scare you back there, but I was just like whoowee that man is crazy!”
“Sorry, I just thought I was alone up here, I guess.” I huffed and coughed on my spit.
“No problem, no problem. You are alone up here. It’s not like you came with me. But now that you’re looking at me, and now that you are talking with me, you are inextricably part of my zone.” The man slapped his knees and pulled out a handkerchief from a stained backpack. “You see, you are in my bubble now. You ran into it. Just like the stuff in this jar.” He unwrapped the handkerchief and held a small jar of amber liquid in his hand. He looked like some star-spangled alchemist handing me his most potent concoction.
“What is it?” I held it up to what little light was in the sky. The jar was filled with tiny bubbles.
“Honey.” He replied in a disinterested tone, like Dan’s voice suddenly channeled through his words. All of his previous quirky enthusiasm was drained from him. He grabbed the jar back from me, shook it a few times, and gave it back. Now there was one single bubble slowly rising to the top.
“Try some.” Again, Dan’s stupid voice. I opened the jar and sniffed the dubious jelly. It smelled like hot peppers, not like honey at all. As I said, at the time I was easily amused, but eating a wild man’s home-brew honey went far past my idea of fun and into the realm of the dangerous.
“No thank you. It smells weird.”
“That’s why it’s so good, come on now, try some. We are in each other’s zones and we have to. I got to see you do your weird running kicking dance back there, so you have to try some of my honey.”
I stuck a finger in the jar and put some into my mouth. It had a spicy taste, like its peppery smell. Other than that, it had the same consistency of honey that I was used to feeling on my tongue.
“Not bad.” I returned the jar to him.
“Bees from a jalapeño farm made this.”
“Great.” We both stood there for a few moments.
“Well, I have to go now. Thank you for the honey.” I thought about shaking his hand, but instead gave a small wave. It was a half handshake, half wave. Then I ran back down the hill.
“He chased the guy down to the shore. My brother is a pretty fast runner so it didn’t take him long to catch up and get a jump on him. You know, you’ve met him. I guess all police officers are pretty physically fit, but my brother, you know, he is really tough. So he catches up to the guy when out of nowhere the dude pulls out a gun. My brother already has his gun out and ready. Instead of shooting right away, they both freeze. It’s like one of those standoffs you see in westerns. At least that’s what he told me. So they stand there for what seems like hours. The waves are moving back and forth, there are some seagulls around, but no one flinches. Then just when my brother gets the sudden urge to shoot the guy something washes up in front of them.”
“What is it?” The woman’s boyfriend asks after she pauses long enough for him to pay attention again.
“It’s some crazy jellyfish creature or something that no one has ever seen before. That’s what my brother said. It just beached itself right up onto the shore, between the both of them. It was really long, and had a hundred or so flippers. He told me it had four eyes and was all sorts of colors. It was translucent, too. So there they were, with their guns out, staring at this weird sea creature like the world had ended or something.”
“What did they do?” The boyfriend continued after a long sip of his beer.
“They put their guns away and pushed the thing right back into the ocean. But that’s not the weirdest part. My brother said the guy gave him his gun and just walked away.”
“He let him just walk away? After all that, just stopped chasing him?”
“Yeah, he said he just didn’t feel like arresting the guy. He felt really strange, like it would be the most ridiculous thing in the world to put handcuffs on him. After a while of just sitting on the beach he eventually realized how stupid he was, and that she should of arrested the guy right away, but he didn’t. Till this day he says handcuffs freak him out. That’s why he left the force.”
I was playing a game on my phone at the non-submerged section of the bar and listening to the couple’s conversation. The object of the game was to set up these orbs just right to make them pop. The more orbs you gather the larger they become, so that when you pop them you get a higher score. It was pretty fun, and it was how I decided to spend the rest of my vacation. The amusement park Mika mentioned in her message seemed too far away and between the bar, running on the beach, and the cell phone game, I was pretty happy. After my game ended I ordered another drink and glanced over at the couple for the first time since they arrived. The girl who was telling the story was a redhead with freckles all over her nose like ants evacuating an ant hill. The guy was a little husky and had curly hair. They looked happy together.
The ghostly bartender smiled at me as she handed me a margarita. I peeked over the bar just to assure myself she had legs and not a pair of fins.
“Have any plans later tonight?” The bartender asked me. Usually bartenders don’t ask questions like this, especially female bartenders.
“No really. I’m pretty much on repeat until the end of the week. Bar, beach, bar, beach.”
“Have you seen Ocean Park yet? It’s pretty fun.” She was recording tips on her register, I think.
“Oh that amusement park down the way? No, I don’t think I have any plans to go there.”
“That’s too bad. They let you pet a sea lion there, you know? Also I think you used to be able to touch a dolphin.”
“Wow. I’ve always wanted to do that.” I really did always wanted to do this, so I must have sounded very convincing. She glanced at me with her oyster eyes and puckered her face, as if whatever she was thinking about was souring inside her head.
“Do you want to go with me tonight?” I asked. The wind blew away the little umbrella in my drink.
“You know what, sure. I haven’t been there in a while. I get off at 5:30. Meet me at the big statue over there.” She pointed at a huge bronze woman holding a sphere that was on the far end of the pool’s courtyard. The red head waved at the bartender for another drink and she whisked away from me like a mist.
When I entered the condo the message machine was already playing Mika and Dan’s greeting. I fell down on their bed and stared out at the ocean. I had two hours to kill so I decided to do some reorganizing of the condo. I pulled the couch to the other side of the room, shift the coffee table, and swiveled the television stand so it would face the balcony. This way I would be able to glance at the television when I sat outside. I’m not sure exactly why, but changing the living room’s layout made me feel better about staying at their house. The specter of Mika and Dan rested in the condo like a thick layer of dust and the movement of the furniture seemed to shake off the heavy film and dispel the stagnation. Now the living room felt ‘new with a touch of familiarity’, to quote an interior decorating magazine left on the kitchen counter. The atmosphere of their daily lives lifted at the same pace of the marks left in the carpet. It made me smile when I noticed the rings of smashed shag had already dissipated within the course of an hour.
It came time to meet with ‘the bartender’ and I felt nervous and partly embarrassed that I hadn’t asked for her name. I put on a jacket that I had packed for nicer occasions and found myself returning to the mirror every now and then as I gathered up my belongings. I walked over to the large bronze statue and sat beside the geraniums that wreathed its feet and started playing the game on my phone. A few minutes passed and she hadn’t arrived so I stopped the game and read the statues’ plaque.
“Donated by the Pinperton family and the Sunday Court Yacht Club (S.C.Y.C.)
IN MEMORY OF
So many minds did gird their orbs with beams,
Tho’ one did fling the fire;
Heaven flow’d upon the soul in many dreams
Of high desire.
-Lord Alfred Tennyson”
I sort of skimmed through the quote toward the end. The name of the man looked familiar, a writer of some sort, but I couldn’t remember what he was famous for. The statue lit up above me as the sun sunk under the waves. Lights were hidden below the overgrown geraniums and they cast a tangled shadow on the bronze woman holding the ball. The bartender still wasn’t there.
After waiting a half-hour I got bored of my game and gave up. I walked over to the bartender on duty and asked about where she might be and he told me she left hours ago. Back in the condo I turned on the TV and watched from my new vantage point on the balcony. The ocean smelled like barbecue, but that might have been the people living below. I wasn’t surprised, or even disappointed. I felt a little relieved, actually. The thought of trying to talk to a woman I barely knew all night seemed tiring after three weeks of being alone. I looked out at another balcony where people were having a little party. They were clinking wine classes and laughing. One of the men there looked exactly like Dan and I wondered if they were staying at their neighbor’s house to avoid me. I strained my ears to hear any voices that I recognized but the drone of the freeway proved to wash over their chatter. As the party calmed down I could hear Mika’s voice chattering on the message machine. I felt sick to my stomach.
The last night of my trip I pushed the furniture back into place and made sure everything was clean and orderly. I set down a the most recent mail on the kitchen counter in groups of coupons, bills, and actual letters. My luggage was piled up in the entryway. Something smelled in the bedroom but I couldn’t find its source. The night was warm so I decided to take a walk after I was finished preparing for my early flight the next day.
It was past midnight by the time I made it out of the condo. I walked around on the beach for a while and kicked sand around. I found a few remnants of sand castles and sand sculptures. In the calcium moonlight they looked like tiny forgotten villages left to decay in a dessert. The wind would blow away the tops of the buildings. The tallest spire of one structure crumbled completely. I could picture a small community of vagrants sleeping inside the ruins. They would hear the sound of the wind whipping their roofs away and cringe hoping that their bucket shaped house wouldn’t collapse.
The hot tub bar was closed and the lights were all off. The pool’s chlorine bouey bumped against the sides with a hallow thump. It reminded me of those bamboo cups that fill up with water and drop against the stone every few seconds. I was about to head back to the condo but I heard a few splashes in the far end of the pool. It was too dark to make out much, but I could see a streak of white hair in the darkness. I walked closer and saw the bartender sitting by the pool with her head dropped low and her feet in the water. Her bleached hair was covering her face.
“Hey.” She said as I walked closer.
“I’m sorry about the other night.”
“Did you end up going without me?”
“Nope. Touching Dolphins by yourself just isn’t the same.”
I looked at her tan work pants rolled up and slightly wet from the water. Her legs were inhumanly white, like the species of newts found deep inside caves. They were almost translucent in the water. I remember when Mika first met Dan. She sat in a pool just like this one. We were never admittedly interested in each other, but for some reason she gave me this strange look as if I would never see her again, as if I would forever be distanced by Dan’s presence. It was true. A few weeks later I started seeing her less and talking to her less. Even when we did finally meet things were somehow completely different, like she was replaced with a whole new Mika.
“Do you have a girlfriend? A wife?” She asked. It seemed like a one-in-the-morning type of question. I couldn’t tell if she was drunk.
“No. Are you cold?”
“Let’s go to the beach.” She started to get up and I helped her out of the water. Her skin was freezing and felt like it could rip if I pulled to hard. We sauntered to the beach like a pair of lost ducks, zigzagging here and there aimlessly. When the sand finally arrived we kept going. We walked all the way to the surf and stopped with the water between our toes.
“They have a roller coaster there, too.” She sat down and pushed the sand around with her thumbs. She was really stuck on the theme park topic. I looked down at her and tried to image why Ocean Park seemed to interest her so much. I tried to think of the dates she might have had there with old boyfriends, days spent riding the roller coaster with her parents, and sunny birthday parties with her friends. She might have grown up here and lived here all her life. Maybe she had her first kiss on the ferris wheel, or maybe she had a near death experience while running too fast by the stairs. It couldn’t tell. All I could see was the top of her head and her wispy hair. The waves seemed to match the rhythm of her breathing.
As pictures of the bartender’s life floated around the beach I could make out other images. First I saw the girl band singing and winking at me with a taste of beer in my mouth. Neon lights filled the beach like an invasion of glowing jellyfish. Then the strange man on the top of the hill covered my vision with his spicy honey. His memory felt heavy and viscous on my body. Then the freckled girl and her husky boyfriend came out of the tides. Even her brother, the police officer, made an appearance by running down the beach with his gun in his hand. He was followed by the joggers in their bright windbreakers. Later a group of laughing friends approached with wine glasses and plates of cheese. Finally, Dan and Mika showed up each with their respective couch cushions and coffee mugs.
“What’s going on?” The bartender hiccuped as she got to her feet again. I couldn’t hear the sound of the waves anymore. The tide was pulling backward as if another wave was to follow, but instead it continued to fall further and further away. It looked like a vast bed sheet being slipped off an enormous mattress. I walked forward and looked at the uncovered beach. I could see all of its secrets. Thousands of startled starfish and displaced clams lay scattered around the newly revealed sand. Flowing ribbons of seaweed tumbled out of the receding surf in manifold colors. A few sea cucumbers squeezed up tight like children not wanting to wake up after having their warm covers thrown off by their parents.
“Don’t go out there!” The girl shouted behind me. I kept walking in as the ocean held its mammoth breath.