For almost as long as she could remember, she had thought of herself as Mrs. Davenport. She had married young—maybe too young, she sometimes wondered—before she really had had a chance to experience much of life outside her comfortable and loving family’s orbit. But he had been so handsome and dashing, all those years ago, just back from the war and full of plans and hopes and dreams as everyone was then. He swept her off her feet with his generosity and enthusiasm, and they were to have a long, full, happy life together. Tonight, she thought, pinning on the freesia corsage that mimicked the one she had worn on her wedding day, I have been Mrs. Davenport for fifty years.
She eased the car out of the garage and onto the rainwashed street, now flecked with bright green leaves and pale purple jacaranda blossoms blown down by a freak spring storm that had passed as quickly as it had arrived. As she wound westward on Sunset, riotous with billboards as always, a hive of young energy and paean to the ephemeral, she occasionally glanced up at the homes built on the hills, all clinging manfully to the bedrock on their long-fingered caissons.
God, she loved this city.
She had been born and raised here, married and had children of her own here; she had watched the city grow and change, and she never tired of its endless variety. The city might be young, as far as cities went, but she herself was no longer young, and her roots here were deep, deep as the ocean that hugged the coast only a dozen miles from her home, the ocean that she could not often see from the places she did most of her daily living, but which was always somehow there on the edge of her consciousness.
She drove westward along San Vicente Boulevard, past well-to-do houses and apartments and shops. San Vicente was one of her favorite streets, the wide avenue divided by a greensward that was home to dozens of coral trees waving their trumpet-like red blossoms in the gentle salt breeze. As she approached the turn onto Ocean Avenue, she reflected on how she always treasured this moment, especially at the end of the day, when she eased around that gentle south-bending corner, where the blue promise of the Pacific that had begun to be visible at the horizon three blocks earlier was now so close she could almost touch it, and then she completed the turn and she was there, at the edge of the world, where the sun lost itself in sleep every night and the slowly deepening azure of the sky was striped with brushstrokes of flourescent cloud, orange and gold and pink.
The traffic was much worse than she remembered it. She hadn’t been to Venice in decades; the furthest south and west she had gone for years was an occasional jaunt to the farmer’s market in Santa Monica. But tonight it wasn’t to be avoided. She had an appointment with her husband at the little restaurant where they had met so many years ago. It was a small Italian place, a hole in the wall, really. She had spent the day at the beach with some girlfriends that day, enjoying the sun and sand, giggling and eyeing the acrobats and athletes at Muscle Beach. The other girls had decided to go and catch a movie before heading back to the dorm, but she had had her fill of chatter and movement, and went to find a place to have a quiet meal before catching the bus for home and that bothersome unfinished essay for Art History 101. On a whim, she had walked into that particular restaurant, unassuming and a little shabby on the outside, but a busy and popular place on the inside, to judge by the full tables and scampering waiters. And there he was, sitting on the bench near the door, alone, waiting for a table, dressed in a crisp, tan Navy uniform, his flat hat neatly folded on his knee. He had promptly sprung up and offered her the bench when the maître d’ asked her to wait. She nodded thanks demurely and sat.
“Well, aren’t you going to say it?”
She looked up. He was smiling at her, and his eyes twinkled. My, he was handsome.
She finally managed to say, “I beg your pardon?”
“Aren’t you going to say it?” He struck a starlet’s dramatic pose. “I just love a man in uniform!” he sighed, falsetto.
She wasn’t quite sure how to respond. She had heard that some men returned from war with their minds damaged.
“I’ve never met a Navy man before,” she replied. “Was I supposed to have said it?”
He shook his head, setting aside both the pose and the falsetto. “Not at all. In fact, it’s the best thing that anyone has not said to me all day. I’m Gil. Gil Davenport.”
She smiled and held out her hand, which he shook gently. “I’m Mary. Mary Styles. How do you do?”
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Styles. And I really did mean what I said. My ship’s on liberty, so I’ve come into town for a few days, and it seems that everywhere I go, the girls insist on saying that. It was a real pleasure not to have to hear it again.”
She was absurdly glad to have pleased him—why did that make her so strangely happy? —but all she said was, “I’m glad to oblige, Mr. Davenport.”
He seemed to pause for thought and then said, “Say, would you think me completely lacking in manners if I asked whether you would like to share my table with me tonight? That is, unless you’re waiting for someone else.”
Of course she hadn’t been waiting for anyone else. And of course she had accepted. And discovered that his mind was unclouded and his manners excellent. Her essay forgotten, they had gone for a long walk on the beach after dinner, where they talked and talked, and she had nearly missed both her bus and her curfew. Gil had accompanied her back to her dormitory and not only had he gallantly endured the gorgon stare of the house mother with true bravery, but had actually managed to charm an almost-smile from the stern matron.
That was over fifty years ago.
Now, as she inched her way down Pacific Avenue hunting for a parking spot, she realized that there was almost nothing here that she recognized. Venice had changed so very much since her college days. She finally managed to find an empty spot, and started to look for the restaurant. She must have walked for seven or eight blocks before she realized that the street had changed so completely, there was no way she would be able to find that restaurant again. She had given up and started back to her car when she came upon a little bistro that she was almost sure was in the same place as the one she was looking for. It was still a restaurant, but bore no resemblance to the place she remembered. This building was new, gleaming with plate glass and tastefully arranged strings of tiny white lights, the architecture refined, with smooth, earth-toned stucco and dark-stained cantilevered wood and metal cables gracefully affirming its California elegance and sophistication.
She hesitated on the pavement. This wasn’t what she wanted. This wasn’t how the evening was supposed to go. This wasn’t where they met. It wasn’t where they were supposed to dine tonight. But there seemed to be no other alternative; this was the closest she could get to that place of fifty years ago. She took a deep breath and went in.
“Good evening. How many?” The good-looking host in his starched white shirt seemed pleasant and polite, if aloof. The small diamond stud in his nose and the two small rings in his eyebrow only emphasized her feeling of being in a completely strange place, almost a foreign country. She was familiar with the young generation’s penchant for piercings, but somehow her desire to recreate the night she met her husband was making it difficult to reconcile past and present.
“Please,” she said, “can you tell me when this restaurant started here? I seem to remember that this originally was a small Italian place, but that was many years ago, probably when your grandparents were courting.”
The young man thought for a moment. “Yes, I do believe there was an Italian place here once; my parents said they used to go there. But it’s been gone for years.”
She must have looked particularly downcast, because he said, “I’m sorry, were you hoping for Italian cuisine tonight? We do an Asian-California fusion menu that’s quite good, but I know that’s not the same when you were hoping for Italian.”
She smiled a little sadly at the polite young man. “No, it wasn’t so much the food that I was looking for. You see, I met my husband here, and tonight’s our fiftieth wedding anniversary.”
“Congratulations! That’s quite a milestone. We’d be pleased to serve you a special meal, if you’d like to stay. Will your husband be joining you soon?”
She really shouldn’t have started a conversation. If the Italian place had been here, she could have just taken the table and not had to say anything. She should have just taken a table here and not asked questions.
“No, I’m afraid he passed a few months ago,” she said. “I was just trying to make tonight a little special, that’s all. I was hoping that maybe if I went to the place where we met, it might feel like he was with me again, if only for a moment.”
Although he seemed a little taken aback by her confession, the young man said, “If you like, you can have a seat there, ma’am, and I’ll see what we can do for you.”
She turned and saw the bench set near the door, the flare of its legs and the carving along its length proclaiming Asian origin. It wasn’t anything like the plain oak bench that had graced the front of the Italian place, but still it was a bench. At least one thing is in place, she thought.
The host returned and led her to a little nook of the restaurant, where a candlelit table for two had been set. It was a private space, tucked away from both the eyes and conversations of the other diners. Holding out her chair, he said, “This is our special-occasion table. We reserve it for couples celebrating anniversaries and the like. You’re here early, so it’s free right now. I spoke to the chef; our kitchen isn’t really set up for an authentic Italian meal, but if you tell me what you’d like to order, he said he’ll do his best.”
The chef had indeed done his best. There was a noodle dish with cream and garlic and the sweetest, most tender asparagus, and thin fillets of chicken cooked with lemongrass and ginger, and at the end a lovely almond cake to go with what quite possibly was the most exquisite cup of coffee she had ever tasted. The chef himself had come out to congratulate her on her anniversary, and to offer his condolences on her loss. She was quite bewildered by the attention and, she had to admit, quite grateful for it. She was even more so when the host reappeared to ask how her meal went, and then told her that it was to be on the house. She left an enormous tip and a note of profuse thanks to the chef and the host for their kindness.
Outside, the western sky was still golden with what was left of the sunset, so she decided to have a walk on the beach before heading for home. She hadn’t originally intended to make that part of the evening, but somehow it seemed right, since the restaurant—lovely though that had been——had not gone according to plan. She was glad that beaches didn’t disappear as easily as restaurants, and this time there was no curfew. She took off her shoes, not caring what happened to her stockings, and walked along the damp, packed sand below the tideline as she and Gil had done so very often so many years ago. After a few minutes’ stroll, she had to pause as a large group of surfers crossed her path. There must have been twenty or thirty of them, men and women, mostly middle-aged, but some looked like they should be in college. All were wearing leis or carrying bunches or wreaths of flowers.
“Excuse me,” she said to a gently greying man at the tail of the procession, “I hope you won’t think me rude if I ask what the flowers are for.”
“This is a paddle-out for Jimmy Donlan. He died of cancer on Tuesday.”
“Oh. I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude. I’m sorry to hear about your friend.”
“No worries,” said the surfer. “And thanks.”
She watched the surfers paddle out past the breakers, where they sat in a circle on their boards, holding hands. They sat there for a long time. Occasionally she could hear a voice floating on the wind, but she couldn’t make out what it said. Then the surfers tossed their flowers into the center of the circle, and splashed and slapped at the water, shouting and hooting, making a glorious noise to celebrate their friend’s life and mourn his passing.
She didn’t wait for the surfers to come back. She had found the ritual strangely moving, and didn’t want to meet them as they returned to shore.
The painted clouds had faded to shades of grey and the first stars were beginning to wink in the sky when she stopped and faced the ocean. He had proposed to her on this beach as they had run out of the surf together after a swim one afternoon, hand in hand. He had gone down on one knee in a splash of seawater where the breakers dissolved and spread themselves thin as paper on the golden sand, his trim, bronzed young body panting with the swim and the run and the hope that she would say yes.
She had said yes. She had said yes to him, and so many other things besides in their life together. So many things she still wanted to say, but couldn’t now. Oh, she supposed she could say them, but he couldn’t hear, and talking to his ghost somehow felt wrong and unnatural. Not unlike tonight’s fool’s errand was beginning to feel. Had felt all evening, if she were honest with herself, despite her best efforts to convince herself that it had been the right thing to do.
No, it was time to let go, to return to the ocean the spirit of her Navy man fresh home from the sea, her young lover bathed in salt water and glowing in the sun. She wasn’t so foolish as to think that she could swim in her finery, but she couldn’t go home and change. The moment was now, or she might never do it. Tonight, on their fiftieth anniversary. Tonight, three months after his death. It was time to return the gift.
She put her shoes and bag down on the sand above the tideline, and waded out into the gentle surf. She stood in the water, still cold with the currents of the winter just past, and unpinned her corsage. She fingered the waxy flowers, inhaled their scent, symbols of that long-ago day when she had begun a new life. She held the flowers to her breast, closing her eyes and thinking of her husband. And then she took the corsage and flung it as far out into the water as she could. That done, she stooped and plunged her arms into the wave that now curled around her knees, splashing the water back out to sea, whooping and shouting her goodbye to the man she had spent her life with, the man given to her by this ocean, here at the edge of the world.
The last light of the sun was gone. She paused for a moment, gazing westward, only now noticing that the wetness on her cheeks was from tears and not from the seawater. Then she turned and headed back up the sand, where she found two young women had been watching her.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” one of them asked.
“Yes, thank you. I’m fine. That was just something I needed to do.”
They didn’t ask questions, but wished her a good evening and drifted arm in arm away down the beach.
It was done. It was time to go home. But she couldn’t go home, not just yet. She would collect the car, and find a hotel room somewhere in Santa Monica; a good hotel room, with a fine view of the Pacific. She would wake early to watch the sky and ocean pale to blue, and maybe if she were lucky a flight of pelicans would be there too, gliding on the air of morning, plunging and stabbing the water in search of fish. She would wake early, and then turn eastward toward home, to memories that she hoped some day would be unburdened by grief, to another new beginning.
Photo by John K