The man sauntered up to the woman with a beard. He seemed familiar, not familial, not famous, just…familiar—a shadow that crossed her path on a distant-past sunny day.
He said her name.
No one knows her name, but her mother, and she doesn’t usually recognize her anymore.
When he said her name, he held her in his power. She knew he came from before. The other time. When life filled her with joy and dancing, when her lithe body figured in her pleasures, when her soul sought union with the sun and moon.
Clouds lifted from sea cliffs, and she saw him decades ago, his hair long, pulled back in a pony tail.
They made love on the beach, in the woods, rarely in bed.
Where have you been? She asked.
Lurking in your memory, he whispered. You seldom call me, though.
In her memory, she lurched away from him, the pull of her name, his re-collection of another of the fragmented bits of her life. Like the others, he did not last longer in her life than the breath of a sequoia.
She stroked her beard for the first time in over a year, owning her hirsute pleasures. She reached up and tested his face—shaved, smooth. Yes, she thought, another smooth-faced lover.
In the 1980s, recessions, artificial oil shortages, and the election of an alien Ray-Gun as president drove the counter-cultural dance through discos and robotic industrial-techno-music, from where they emerged unrecognizable, distorted into indentured servants with mortgages, college loans, and long work hours.
The woman with a beard stumbled along with everyone else, in flattened gray-tones, looking for work, and hoping to prove herself worthy of a paycheck, no matter how meager.
Then he came along. A musician, playing at the Howard Johnson’s off I-95. He sang the blues, Leonard Cohen songs, some Paul Simon. He did some folk tunes, occasionally lightened the mood with a lively, finger-picked melody.
Her scotch taped her to the table as she stared at his fingers on the strings, listened to his almost off-tune notes slide out. Her eyes remained glued to this musician, a reminder of her youthful ideals mixed with currents of longing.
He bent reality into an A-minor romantic nostalgia for what would be. And she went right around the corner with him, to smoke a joint in the parking lot during his break.
The moon cast its shadows like one of his songs as they left the HoJo together when his gig ended. He drove them down to Stony Creek, where they found a private rock to hide in the moon-shade of, and there they kissed and touched for the first time, sitting on an old blanket he had pulled from the trunk of his old car.
She made him wear a condom as she climbed on top of him, and then they were bound for glory.
The next day he came over for breakfast and stayed through the winter. However, spring peepers sing seductive songs.
She worked hard, some evenings. He had his gigs. She thought a co-worker offered more stability. He wanted to be off-balance, and drove further down I-95 to New York City.
They both came back to their senses when they met by accident on the summer solstice. It was in Central Park. He played his guitar, his case open for spare change. The sun shone brightly as they saw each other, like an old movie scene. It inflamed them both.
The summer kept them high—often in the New England mountains, camping out, making love under the stars. Afternoons on a beach on the Sound. Once in a while in his old car, at night, parked in some dark place.
He started in on politics, she followed suit. He played diamonds, she had clubs. By Autumn, he realized that he wanted to travel. She didn’t care for her work so much, layoffs had started and the company was being bought. So they drove to Florida for the winter.
She waited tables in a seasonal restaurant. He played to the customers for tips. They managed to rent a place walking distance to a usable beach. The shells they found shone almost as brightly as those they constructed to protect themselves from the minor frictions of intimacy that accumulate to raw nerves and angry growls.
Remember Florida? She asks him now.
Bonfires on the beach, he answered.
She reached for his hand, but he was a ghost.
Or perhaps she was.
After Florida, they returned to New York, a walk-up in Brooklyn.
He started doing studio work, commercial sounds to massage the 1980s ego-workers. She devolved into marketing and finance, sliding numbers into place in economic porn. They still went away weekends, the only time they made love anymore.
We were ghost then, too. She thinks.
And the sequoia breathed out. He floated away like smoke. Dissolved. Took a job with a music company, producing.
Every cash-starved johnny-country music-wannabe hopped the rails to Nashville. It didn’t attract her. When he called her to invite her to LA, she finally jumped the tracks of their not so mutual path. She had spent her California in the 60s. She didn’t want to see the Ray-Gun’s desolation.
She lost track after that, having jumped it and walked away. As with the Long Island Railroad, the track lead to Hicksville. Anyway, so many of the national rails had been mostly torn up by then and turned into bike-and-hike trails. Only freight trains still rattled the steel rails.
She moved to Vermont.
Where did you go? She asked.
Away, like the others, he said over his shoulder, walking away from her now.
She smiled. No, she thought. I caught you, and now you are mine.
But I know your name, he laughed.
She went for a walk on the beach. She found him waiting for her there, in the moon shadow.
She sat next to him.
Shall we go for a swim? He asked.
She knew he meant to take her out there, merging one last time as they made love and sank into the dark, cold, depths of Long Island Sound.
What is my name? She asked.
Read more stories about the woman with the beard in The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden, a collection of flash fiction by Michael Dickel.