The morning was crisp and clean but smelled like sandy floors and clogged up anger. Kaitlyn sat with her arms around her knees, chin buried in her purple skirt. The ocean gasped and shuddered, steps from their front stoop, but she did not look at it. Her hair was pinned back in a loose braid, trailing sleepily down her rounded back, and her eyes were rimmed with hatred-colored red.
She sat on weathered, peeling planks, once painted white but scuffed yellow by years of feet and sand and hurricanes. Her bare feet poked into warm white sand.
Kaitlyn rubbed her eyes under her glasses, sighed, and straightened her back with a quiet crack. Behind her, the small water-stained house rumbled with moving furniture, groaning knees, and stamping boots. A trio of big men with big beards came tramping down, rubbing big arms, and she stood and walked forward to let them by. She turned on her heel in the wet sand and watched them go, her arms folded.
Her head ached.
Her fingers ached, too. She needed to sit down and write something. She felt blocked. She felt like she didn’t know what was happening. Like a cork, all stopped up. The paper didn’t come out this far, all the way to the shoreline. And none of the big magazines she subscribed to and wrote for had been delivered yet. It had been two days and too long. She was tired and she could not rest.
Oscar was standing apologetically in the doorway. “Kaitlyn,” he called, and “Katie,” when she didn’t answer or look up. She was looking at her ankles and exposed calves, under the purple light cast by her skirt line. The sand was much darker, greyer, than her almost-brown skin. She didn’t like it.
“Katie, we’re done here, do you want to look.”
“Oscar!” she called, flinging her arms down and prying her balled fists apart in a conscious effort to quell herself. “Oscar!”
It was all she could say. She felt a bubble rising, hot and hard, up her chest. He came down the peeling steps, both wood and man creaking as he went. He was older than she; already grey from the temples flooding upward, skin craggier than wrinkled, and touched by both smiles and sadness. He went to her, tried to hug her, but she stared at him, dark eyes, beneath her glasses. Directly in the eye.
“I’m sorry,” he said, more gently this time. “Would you like to come look? I’m not sure where you want your Florence Brown paintings.”
She sighed and said, “If I were a writer, I’d stay here at the ocean and spend the night. Romantic. And I wouldn’t go in that ugly house. But I hate the ocean. I’m no writer.”
Oscar threw his head up and laughed. “I know that,” he said, leading her inward. “You are a critic, the bane of my existence, my dearest heart.”
“You are the one who would spend the night by the ocean,” she said scathingly. “Romanticists never take practicality into consideration.”
They went up the stairs together and she clenched her teeth at the creaking boards. They’d lived in New York before this, with a big apartment in a nice rosebush-covered neighborhood, with mahogany stairs and marble lobby floors. And the papers came each morning at the same time, and she would take them to the coffeeshop on the corner and eat a croissant and write her piece. And each day was like that, work in the morning, friends in the afternoon, dances or concerts or movies in the evening. He leaned on her as they went up, but she still heard his joints clicking, and looked at him in a mix of concern and exasperation.
Kaitlyn opened the door for him and said again, “I hate the ocean.”
But he was sitting by the door on a folding chair, rubbing at his knee.
“You idiot, Oscar,” she said, rubbing a line of sand off her skirt. It brushed the few inches above her knees and she was cold in the westerly ocean wind. “You should have made them do the heavy lifting.”
“I did,” he protested, standing.
“Obviously not,” she said, smile creeping up no matter how hard she tried to frown. “Look at you.”
He turned in a circle, arms up, and she laughed.
“Come see the kitchen,” he told her. “I think you’ll like it. It’s cute and—”
“—Quaint and everything a writer wants,” Kaitlyn said. “Not that I’ll use it much. I want to try all the restaurants in town before I give up on this hinky-dinky village.”
“Katie, why do you hate it so much?” the writer said, throwing out his arms and loping to the open door. He stood before it, hands at his hips, just watching as the ocean pulsed.
The ocean was laid out like a silver carpet, dappled in darkening nail-colored waves. The smell folded up against the house, soft and careful. Wind blew in gently, though they both knew it could turn like a tiger and rush in with clawed black screams and turn everything upside down. Kaitlyn didn’t answer. Instead, she walked past the kitchen through the open door to the sole bedroom. The double bed had a purple bedspread that matched her skirt on accident.
“I miss New York,” she mumbled under her breath. Then, “Oscar! Where is the king bed? The yellow quilt?”
“Oh, that. Well, it wouldn’t fit in here. We did measurements and everything. I thought I talked to you about this, and you said to use the double bed that was in the guest room. In the New York apartment.”
“Well, you must’ve been talking in your sleep because I never said that. Where’s the yellow quilt? I like that one better.”
He spread his arms.
She crossed hers with a huff and tried to leave the room, but he put a hand on her shoulder. “Katie, what about compromise? You heard of that word? This is just for a little bit, just for four months, until my grant runs out. Then we’ll be back in the city!”
“I hate that word,” she said. “I’ve just finished writing a review of Olson’s Compromise essay and I’ve had enough of that damn word in two days to last me for a year.”
The ocean pulled itself up, sighed in a shivery, pleased way, and darker clouds began to roll in, blanketing their beach house in a sweet, soft sea salt light. The wind whistled through the lapping boards, and the sound it made was like a child giggling. Oscar and Kaitlyn look at each other, eye to eye because they were about the same height, Kaitlyn in her purple skirt and long braid, and Oscar in his sandy corduroys and laugh-scarred eyes.
Oscar’s eyes started to crinkle first. She kept a serene expression for a split second longer, and then both burst into laughter together.