The Summer of Forgetting
by Ron Van Sweringen
“Just pick one, dummy,” Walt Meyers said to himself, sitting in the middle of the cottage floor littered with puzzle pieces.
A warm breeze carrying the sound and smell of the ocean drifted through the open slider. It was early, barely eight-thirty. In another hour, beach towels would pockmark the sand, and colored umbrellas would sprout like mushrooms. Before that happened, Walt would close the sliders and turn the air conditioning on, successfully removing himself from the waking world outside. A world he was no longer comfortable in.
It hadn’t always been that way. Two years ago, Walt would have been on the beach with Mark, frying his twenty-six year old body along with the best of them. But that was in another lifetime, before a loaded semi-trailer skidded on the rain-slicked coast highway, crushing Mark’s Porsche like a cracker box. The shock of Mark’s death never left Walt. Even two years later, an emotional jolt ripped through him occasionally without any warning, leaving him shaking and feeling exhausted.
You can’t expect not to feel it when your guts get kicked out of you, he thought, staring at the empty beach. It would have been better if I’d been in the car, too.
Walt’s slow withdrawal from society made him a virtual prisoner in the small beachside cottage the two men had shared. Groceries from a local market were delivered twice a week. When Walt had a doctor’s appointment, he called a cab although his black Jeep Liberty sat in the driveway. Twice a week he started the engine and gripped the steering wheel, but the thought of actually driving brought on a panic attack. His and Mark’s friends had slowly drifted away, unable or unwilling to witness his mental and physical disintegration.
A diagnosis of panic disorder was finally arrived at after a year of therapy, and a weekly regimen of Xanax was prescribed. The therapist concluded that Walt had most probably been overwhelmed by the trauma of Mark’s sudden death. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were ruled out.
Walt wasn’t so sure it was that simple. Once in high school he had experienced similar feelings of fear. Luckily, they stopped in a matter of days as quickly as they had begun. He never told anyone about the incident, but he never forgot it.
Four pieces of the puzzle were put together by noon. “Pretty amazing: four out of two thousand.” Walt smiled to himself. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a freaking genius.”
* * *
A sudden tapping sound on the glass slider startled him. Even before he looked up to see who it was, a sick feeling swirled in his stomach. The outside world wanted in.
She was small, and the pink bikini she wore was even smaller. A huge straw hat topped with a pink bow, covered most of her face. All Walt could see of it were the pink lips that perfectly matched the bikini. God, she has to be young to wear that, he thought.
“Go away,” Walt shouted without getting up. “I don’t want any.”
The tapping continued, only louder. When Walt looked up again, the girl was bent over with one foot on the other, in a classic “I’ve got to pee” stance.
“I don’t believe this,” Walt groaned, opening the slider a few inches. The act was enormously difficult for Walt, in fact he couldn’t believe he was actually doing it when the heat from the beach hit him in the face.
“I need to borrow your loo,” a voice bounced up at Walt from under the oversized hat. With that she slipped past him, turning to add, “Please!”
“It’s down the hall,” Walt mumbled in a state of shock. She was the first person to enter the cottage, except for the grocery delivery boy, in almost two years. On top of that, he had opened the slider in the middle of the day, when the beach was crowded with people. What was next?
A breathless “Thank you,” rushed at Walt as the girl came back into the room a few minutes later. This time her hat was pulled back and the rest of her face matched the pink lips he’d seen earlier. He decided she was probably the kind of girl most college boys dreamed of.
“You’re welcome,” Walt replied, moving toward the closed slider to let her leave.
“Do you mind if I stay a little? It’s so cool in here.” She removed her hat and exposed a mass of very blonde curls. “I was perishing out there, it’s so hot.”
“How old are you?” Walt asked as she kicked off her sandals and sat down on the sofa with one foot under her.
“Eighteen,” she laughed. “I’m legal, not that it would make any difference to you. Why are all the good-looking guys always gay?”
Walt was stunned by her reply. “How do you know....?
“That you’re gay?” she finished his question. “My brother’s gay. It’s just something you pick up on after a while. I can tell by the way you look at me. You’re not trying to figure out if you can score. By the way, my name is Cat. Who are you?”
“Walt,” he replied. “You’re an unusual girl.”
She laughed. “Bobby says I’m an acquired taste, like fish eggs and uncircumcised men.”
Walt couldn’t help smiling, he had to agree on both points.
Ten minutes later Cat was gone and Walt was back at his jigsaw puzzle. The only difference was the smile on his face.
* * *
“Crap, you scared the hell out of me,” Walt scathed.
Cat was standing in front of the partially open slider. It was twilight, and the beach behind her was almost deserted.
“I’m sorry,” she replied, “but I’m on an errand of mercy to feed a starving recluse I met this afternoon.”
Walt studied her. She was obviously pretty, but something else intrigued him. She had the unusual quality of making a first impression on him every time he saw her. Wearing white short shorts, an emerald green halter and large gold hoop earrings next to her blond hair, she reminded him of a young Marilyn Monroe.
“Very funny,” Walt shot back, annoyed. “Don’t you have a home?”
“Not really,” she answered, carefully stepping over Walt’s puzzle. “I rent an efficiency. It’s cheap but depressing. Worst of all, it’s not on the beach.”
Walt immediately regretted his bitchy remark.
“I hope you’re hungry,” she chirped, setting a full shopping bag on the kitchen counter. “I’m going to make you my specialty.”
“And what would that be, pray tell?”
“Peanut Butter and Banana Pizza,” was her reply, with a giggle like a ten-year old Campfire Girl.
An hour later the pizza was done. Cat smiled. “Try sitting on the deck, next to the slider, so you can put one foot in the living room.”
Much to Walt’s amazement, after a few skipped heartbeats, the foot in the living room thing worked and he was actually sitting outdoors.
Adding to Walt’s amazement, the pizza was actually good, after you got past the first bite. He had never been a fan of peanut butter and bananas, but the crispy thin crust and the crumbled bacon topping made it work. Two glasses of Merlot didn’t hurt either.
When they had finished eating, it was dark. Walt sat looking at the black ocean, a full moon reflecting on it like crumpled tinfoil. “What are you doing here?” he asked quietly, not turning to look at Cat.
“I need another favor” was her answer.
“It’s down the hall.” Walt smiled, motioning with his thumb.
“No,” she replied quickly, “I need a big favor this time. Bobby is arriving tomorrow and I need a place for him to stay for a few days.”
Walt spun around to face her. “Are you crazy? Can’t you see that I’m a cripple? I don’t even know why I let you in this morning or what I’m doing sitting her with you now. Just get your stuff and go.”
“You will like Bobby,” she replied softly. “You can help each other.”
“Oh?” Walt shot back, glaring at her. “Why is that? Is he a cripple too?”
“In a way,” she answered with tears in her eyes. “He’s dying of AIDS.”
“Goddamn it,” Walt cursed, as soon as she was gone, “I can’t deal with this.” Slamming his fist down on the kitchen counter, he watched as drops of wetness landed near his hand. A dam of anger and frustration burst inside of him. Tears streamed down his face. “Mark,” he sobbed, “help me.”
* * *
She looked like a twelve-year old girl when the headlights picked her up, sitting at the bus stop an hour later on the deserted highway. It’s a wonder no one has kidnapped her, Walt thought with a shiver.
She stood up when the Jeep Liberty came to a stop in front of her.
“Hurry up and get in,” Walt shouted through the open window. “I’m in the middle of a panic attack.” His hands trembled as the Jeep threaded its way down the dark highway. “What the hell am I doing?” he muttered.
“Weaving a lot,” Cat replied, laughing.
Walt was too exhausted to care about anything by the time they got back to the cottage. “You can sleep in Mark’s bedroom tonight. We’ll talk about things tomorrow,” he said before closing his bedroom door.
“Thanks for coming after me.” Cat smiled. “I hoped you would. I didn’t have the bus fare.”
Before turning off the lamp, Walt picked up a photo of Mark that was always near his bed. “Did you send this crazy girl to me?” He smiled, moving his fingers across Mark’s face. “It would be just like you. I miss you.”
The smell of fresh coffee woke Walt up the next morning. For a moment in a sleepy haze, he thought it was Mark making coffee, the way he did every morning. Reality sank in quickly, once he opened his eyes.
Cat was sitting on the deck, looking at the ocean when Walt cautiously stepped through the slider. The beach was empty except for a golden Lab bounding through the surf.
“Good morning,” she said, glad to see him standing with one foot on the deck. “Did you sleep well?”
“I died,” Mark answered, sensing the nervous tone in her voice.
She was unconsciously twisting something on a finger of her left hand. Walt was puzzled. He had never seen her wear a ring or even a watch for that matter.
“What have you got there?” he asked.
“Bobby’s insurance policy,” she replied, holding her hand out for Walt’s inspection.
“Good God,“ Walt gasped, on her finger a very large yellow diamond sparkled in the sunlight. “Is that real?”
“One hundred thousand dollars worth of real,” she nodded, “at least that’s what the appraisal says.”
“Where the hell did you get it?” Walt asked, stunned by the ring.
“Robert William Morrison, III gave it to me. We were engaged to be married a month ago. That was until I caught him screwing a former girl friend of mine,” she replied, holding her hand up and wiggling the ring finger. “Needless to say, he asked for it back when I broke the engagement,” she laughed. “I told him to go screw himself or, better yet, Noreen.”
“So you just kept a one-hundred thousand dollar diamond ring?” Walt asked in amazement.
“I earned it,” Cat replied. “What I gave him was worth more than the money to me.” Then she became quiet for a while. “This is Bobby’s insurance policy. When the time comes, I’ll sell it.”
Walt stood for a moment looking at her. Then he made up his mind, there was no question about it, Mark had sent her. “OK,” he announced, “Bobby has a place to stay for a while.”
“Thank you,” Cat exploded, whirling into his arms.
“Just be grateful I’m gay,” Walt smiled, ”otherwise, you’d be paying big time right now.”
“But it’s not for you or Bobby,” he continued. “Over the last few days I have come to realize that this is the summer of my forgetting. It’s painful to feel Mark slipping away. Maybe tomorrow, you, Bobby and I can take a walk down the beach together. That is, if you promise not to fry any more chicken.”
Copyright © 2015 by Ron Van Sweringen