Under the protection of the slanted rainbow umbrella, rooted inside the infinitesimal grain of the sand that was light enough for the wind to blow around as he pleased, there stood Alice over a blue-white striped deck-chair with wooden frame in the color of the beach and tenuous hair carefully skewed in her face to hide the strong reflection of the sunlight.
She had planned this trip months ago for the summer, with her boyfriend Michael who was lying with his sunglasses on, right next to her and she had finally managed to get the much anticipated holidays after a long year of paperwork and reports.
"I just can't believe how hot it is today," she said casting her hat back into place and standing upright in her chair. "Actually today is the summer solstice. Did you know that honey?"
"Oh is it?". "Interesting," said the man in total impassivity.
"I knew we came out too early. We should have waited for the sun to come down first."
"Maybe tomorrow honey. Why don't you get into the water for now. It should make you feel better."
"Not in the mood for it," she said with palpable aversion as she picked up the latest issue of the magazine lying inside her bag, and placing it on top of her knees that were now folded on top of the cloth.
She was a puny young woman with, short brown hair swirling down to her neck, with white skin and faint freckles scattered modestly below her eyes. That stood in complete contrast to Michael who was burly, with a rich stout chest, and protruded jaws that would give the impression of a certain austerity in his character that wasn't necessarily true. It was this antithesis in their appearance that made them be one of the most discussed couples in the scene, with their differences standing out with cuteness to others and forging some sort of fairy-tale image.
"Actually you won't believe to whom I run into yesterday," she said in a sudden reminiscence placing her magazine down. "Do you remember Ethan? Susan's eldest son?"
"The little devil you mean. What about him?"
"Well, he is not little anymore. He is a grown-up man now. Tall and handsome as well. He finished his physician studies a few years back with awards as well. First, in class they say. And now he is making his career as one of the most famous doctors in the city. Can you believe that?"
"Nothing that rich heritage and money cannot buy. You can expect anything from these kids nowadays."
"Yes, but I don't think that's the case with Ethan here. Don't be so harsh on him. From what I know he was always quite motivated from early on. Even since his student years, Susan told me he would spend most of his time in his desk reading books and papers. I just never thought it was actually true as well, that's all."
The man grunted a short grunt.
"And he always seemed rather clumsy and ungraceful. Now he is quite cultivated and eloquent. Quite a remarkable change."
"So you met him already?" asked the man shifting his head towards her for the first time.
"It was completely unexpected," uttered Alice lost in thought. "I dashed downstairs during the night to have something to drink. You know how my throat tends to get stiff at times and rough making it hard for me to breathe. It's a terrible thing. So I sarged once again to the bar, as usual, waiting for the chamomile tea I had asked for, and I didn't even pay attention to the people around me. I was so absorbed and distracted by the pain that it would occupy my mind to the fullest. So there I was and this man approached me and stood by my side and initially I didn't notice him at all. Only later he revealed to me who he was and by the time that he did, I couldn't believe my eyes. No more of the pesky foolishness he used to run around with. No more of the devilish eyes and the childish recklessness he used to trouble Susan with every time he would break something. Now he is husky and mature with a sturdy mind and congruent thoughts. Can you imagine that?" she said in a tone of disbelief.
"These kids are all about boasting. I doubt if there is any essence behind this display of his." said the man dismissively.
"And I think you are too harsh with him once again. Ethan is not that kind. I would know if he was. He talked about his work and the new offices and how much he loves what he does. I even shared with him my throat issue and he made a promise to check it out when he gets back to town and that he is going to help me heal it. Can you believe that? From all the doctors and physicians I have seen all these years, nobody has managed to really help me so far. Now it could all be solved by Ethan. It feels like an imaginary tale."
"You really plan to trust yourself to him? I wouldn't be so open to the idea myself."
"Come on Michael," said Alice in a voice full of indignation. "The guy is just fine. Stop worrying so much. I'm actually planning to visit him first thing we get back. I can't wait to see what he is going to handle it. And then I can discuss everything with Susan as well which is going to be fun".
They lapsed back into silence and Alice lowered her crumpled hat back down in her forehead, leaning her head backwards in the bulged end of the textile. The beach was already filled with groups of people clustered around colorful umbrellas with their wings shadowing a small circle of oasis amidst the stirring-hot sand. The beach had become a popular destination in the east coast, a center for the nouveau riche, the upstarts who wanted to avoid the common-place of the usual sort and resorted to the vicinity for a more exclusive experience with people who shared their aspirations and ideas.
Just in the last month, Alice had received numerous invitations from friends and family to join an excursion to the area with promises of endless parties, incessant beaches, and flawless drinks that guaranteed to provide a great time on the premises. But everything seemed to be so overly pretentious and inflated that she would always evade its extravagant nature by claiming some obscure excuse like work or health. As a matter of fact, it wasn't only the particular beach that was experiencing this sort of dilated boost. The whole country was in a state of interminable commotion, one that would break many of the standards of the previous era and would allow a little glimpse of an opening for people to get their way into wealth and prosperity.
The state of the country had been disturbed into a continuous and unstable fuss that permutated all aspects of life. New businesses would conjure up daily, trying to grasp another piece of the pie; salaries and wealth were flourishing having an abrupt inclination upwards and the previous glumness seemed to give place to an endless optimism that was obsessed with this new land of opportunity. Nobody had been shunned off from this new trend that surpassed almost everything and everyone. And most above all Michael, who saw his career take off in just a few months, receiving multiple raises and a new title that spin off a promising upscale. That gave an enormous boost in his confidence that he lacked previously, in the times of uncertainty, and that made Alice uncomfortable for not recognizing this new Michael that seemed to be more distant from her than he used to be and a little bit more pompous in his ways. It was along with this transformation that Michael suggested to make this week-long trip to the south-coast and expand their social imprint. An opportunity that was supposed to be highly beneficial to Michael's career and their future.
At this moment a yellow ball floundered on top of Michael, hitting him in the top of his head, making him erupt from his posture with an abrupt wobble.
"These damn kids," he uttered throwing the ball back and cleaning himself from the dust glued on his skin. "I'm starting to think that maybe this place has gathered a lot of people already. Maybe too many for its own good."
"Yeah, tell me about it," said Alice adding to the criticism.
"If there was a choice we wouldn't have come here. You know that, don't you" said Michael. "But certain people are here and it is important that we meet with them."
"Yeah, I know how it is. All these businessmen always chose the worst places for their gatherings," said Alice. "I could only just hope that they would pick something better this time. Something slightly more, enjoyable at least" she said unraveling the remnants of a blue plastic label, left over from a used water bottle and putting it back into the rubbish can.
"Could be worse," exclaimed Michael and turned his face toward the glimmering sea. "Tonight is the party as well. Hopefully, it will make things better temporarily."
"Yes, the party. Let me see. A bunch of wannabes, all skewed and riveted around the few particular people that run the show, trying to win their approval, laughing at their lame jokes, consenting with their idiotic opinions, admiring their shiny cars just so that they can separate themselves from the rest and advanced into the world. That sounds like fun doesn't it?"
Michael remained sullen at her comment and Alice immediately leaped up to amend it, turning around in her chair and pulling her sunglasses out.
"Look, I know this is something you have to do as part of your work, OK? I get it. But I'm just worried that with all of this we are going to lose the very things that sustain us and that we legitimately enjoy. At some point, we just need to ask, how much does it all worth when we can be happy with what we have already."
"This work that you dismiss so easily has paid for the house we are living in and the comforts you get to enjoy daily. You don't think that all this worth to give something back at least?"
"I do, I do," protested Alice furiously and then with a calmer voice, "But I just think that lately, we haven't been doing what we really like. For us I mean. We run from party to party, meeting with this partner and that customer and that businessman we could strike a deal with. We barely have any time for us anymore to do what we really like. Is that too much to ask?"
Her face took a morose expression as her whole body posture dejected downwards as if losing its vitality in a sheer moment. Michael closed the book he was holding in his lap and stood upright in his chair facing her.
"I know what you mean," he said, "and I promise I'll make it up to you. I'll really do. But right now these events are important. It's something we have to go through for the time being. Do you think you can manage it?"
"You are a treasure," he said pecking her on the cheek. "After all, we have the whole summer ahead of us. There is plenty of time to recover," he said grinning a big radiant smile that passed over to her, as if with a sudden leap.
Alice lowered the window of the car that was shifting through the fourth avenue street, amongst the rich foliage of the outdoors, from the co-driver seat she was sitting at. It was already dusk, and she was dressed in a full black dress that revealed her thin, tanned shoulders that were jutting out from it, while Michael was driving engrossed in the open road that was expanding gloomy ahead of them. The treas had taken already a dark figure with ineligible features standing on the side like shadows and only in the far end of the horizon was revealed a dimmed red color, shrouded by clouds that drowned its realm.
Alice had been dreading this sortie intensely during the whole day and she would constantly hope that something randomly unexpected would happen that would make the occasion impossible to materialize. Maybe the host would undergo an accident or a fire would erupt amidst the area that would require the event to be postponed or canceled. Anything that could make her shun away from this tasteless, crude gathering that was threatening to torture her for a good few hours with its unbearable dullness and banality, would be considered a good thing for the most part as long as it could create this subtle outlet.
She would rarely admit these tense feelings to Michael who she could understand was pressured to attain them but on the other hand, they would consume her whole energy at times having to tolerate through people she didn't like and conversation she could barely stand. It was something that she found herself to be harder and harder to swallow and she could find herself to be in the brim of eruption for withstanding it for so long.
In the beginning, she never thought it would become such an impediment. She had the feeling that things will change eventually, and her heedless romanticism would veil many of the hardships she had to go through. But with due time things became apparent and the truth was revealed to her that they were becoming something she never wanted to admit. Another one of those dull couples that co-existed together mostly out of convention rather than love and they would embark on this sort of events as a result of a covert arrangement they had with each other or even worse out of habit. That was a fact that was only now faintly visible and it was now becoming apparent with a strange effect on her.
"Finally, we are here," said Michael as he slowed down amidst the crowded road that was now packed with other cars. "I felt we would never reach this place".
They entered the patio lounge that was covered with a freshly trimmed gazon extending below the white shade-sails above them. The yard was already fraught with people divided into small groups, drinking golden wine through the long glasses and chattering under the company of the stars in the sky. They met with the host and a number of Michael's peers that didn't shy away from broaching on the subject of finance. It wasn't long till the evening became a bore and Alice became progressively disengaged from it. And it was only at the very last moment before giving up all hope altogether, that she spotted Ethan in the far end of the hall grinning at her with his elegant black suit. And with a rejuvenated spirit she leaped up from her seat and approached him eagerly, finding once again the sparkle that was almost extinct.