Encounter Beach

Nora Lange

I learned about the intimacy travel package during a Creole cooking class. My cooking partner mentioned it just after her small dog jumped up on the counter, snatching both the sausage I had been cutting and a bite of my thumb. My partner consoled me: “Pope didn’t mean any harm. He was after the meat.” I didn’t own any animals, but the dog’s actions seemed reasonable, and so I nodded my head acceptingly. She leaned in and whispered in my ear that she’d been to a place known as the Cape as a part of a travel package that focused on intimacy, a package available exclusively to females. I agreed not to mention the dog bite and she continued. “The travel guide running the program is a delightfully sensitive man, capable of converting the most uptight of people.”

Immediately I excused myself and called up Margie to tell her that we had an inside connection to a discreet program. She was thrilled by the chance to leave town and be a part of a travel package, especially one that catered to those of us looking to connect. Margie and I had both moved with our successful husbands to Palace Waterfall, a community of identical two-story houses that lined the Massachusetts Bay. The architects envisioned Palace Waterfall as a respite from a world full of naysayers. The advertisements suggested that the new community was to be a place of prestige and unity. Yet the people who occupied this development were unable to hear the sound of water even though it was located directly next to them. They referred to the sound of the water as “reverb.” A silent moment never passed in this community. I mostly kept to myself.

Jim picked me up from class and on our way home he talked to me about averages, and when I didn’t respond his eyes darted suspiciously up and down my figure. I clutched my thumb tightly to prevent excess bleeding, my hand resting on my lap wrapped in a paper napkin taken from my cooking partner’s purse. I felt chilled. “I need to tend to this,” I thought, although I felt little pain. It was only when we pulled into the driveway that Jim appeared to notice. Looking directly at me, he asked, “What’s the point if you suffer that easily?” and opened his car door to exit.

On the drive to the Cape, Margie talked about her children and said I should be grateful that I hadn’t any. She told me that she had grown up being called a mule. “How do you think that would make a person feel?” she asked herself in a voice sure of the right answer. I thought to ask her why a mule but didn’t want to be impolite. Margie put her hand on mine as the traffic on the freeway came to a standstill. Gripping it tightly, she said, “A seemingly lost woman holding a machete does more than suggest something.” I shook my head in a way that indicated my consensus. For the rest of the drive we listened to The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard, while Margie practiced her self-introduction for our fellow travelers, soon to be our close friends. It was early evening when we arrived.

Once settled in at the hotel, Margie and I went to the dining hall to meet the others in the group, who had begun assembling around a large table. Our travel guide appeared and, following a small bow, presented himself as our temporary man-slave, which received light laughter and applause. He handed each of us a yellow rose, explaining that it was a gesture of friendship. Luckily Margie had agreed to take on the role of interlocutor and introduce us both. She’d say her name and stick out her hand. The group seemed eager for contact and admitted to being nervous about what was expected at the Cape. Margie was flawless; she never erred reciting the bio we had diligently rehearsed, and her confidence seemed to have a soothing effect on everyone. I was grateful she was willing to volunteer my personal information, which allowed me to maintain my preferred state, silence. The food was bland but our travel guide assured us that it would improve as the program adjusted itself to the place. He explained that the locals, evidently our chefs, weren’t “tickled” by visitors. They viewed visitors as cold, mindless thieves, out only for themselves. But as the program moved forward and began to discover, the locals would grow tolerant. Margie said she understood, concluding, “No right-minded person likes strangers in their backyard.”

When the introductions ended, I returned to my room to call home. Again Jim questioned me about my intentions in leaving for the Cape. “The house is unreasonably quiet without someone to talk to,” he said. He sounded exhausted from what seemed genuine loneliness. Certainly I was to blame for the poor planning. Shortly after I hung up the phone, Margie knocked on my door to ask if I’d like to join a preliminary game of charades. I politely declined. That night I dreamt of snacks: bags filled with whole boiled and salted potatoes that were force-fed to me by a drag queen. The drag queen shrilled at me to stand up straight, while savagely licking off her mahogany lipstick with her thick pink tongue. I woke up distressed, starving, a puddle of drool on my pillow, and luckily discovered a bag of trail mix tucked away in my belongings.

The next day at orientation our travel guide gave us an overview. “The Cape is a stretch of sand between tides that do not connect. Visitors return to this place and they do it often. It is believed that this, in part, is what sets off the locals.” Our travel guide introduced the term beauty vernacular for the local speech and said that as visitors we must not lay any claim to it. As visitors we must create our own speech.

“This is how folks such as us manage to stay comfortable between all this water,” he explained. “As participants in the program you will be required to create a uniquely effective form of communication. Communication is essential to the success of the program.”

The travel package included a system of exercises and activities to ensure we would reach our goals. These activities were designed to identify pleasure and foster commitment, our travel guide explained; as a result we would become better communicators and closer to our bodies. After orientation, he divided us into groups, recommending we get to work and be prepared to present our findings to the program. Margie and I belonged to Group B because we had arrived second. Our first assignment was to administer our own version of “vernacular testing” by attempting to form a consensus between sensations, pictures, and words. Our group went out to evaluate road kill in order to discover pleasure as it relates to horror.

The presentations occurred in the hotel’s meeting room, a formal convention room without windows and with many rows of brown plastic chairs. The room was painted a soft hue, and I imagined that it had been painted this way to soften the blows. The walls were lined with framed inspirational sentiments, yet many people had left this room unhappy, possibly penniless. Despite clear attempts at cordiality on the part of the hotel, the room possessed a deep emptiness. Before I could escape, Margie, our elected presenter, walked to the front of the room and presented our findings:

Group B has decided to call our test Back to Life. The experiment measured the depth of our desires based on our vocal responses when passing road kill by car. The severity of want was measured by the volume of our groaning. To this volume we attached value, since value is at the root of pedagogy and the body. Dead deer elicited the highest level of yearning; our sympathies grew wilder for deer than for any other dead thing splayed out on the road. Our groaning increased in both volume and frequency when we passed dead deer, and almost instantly our group reached out to comfort each other by touch. Our desire was for these long, thin, strong, swift creatures to return. Return to life, to the forest, so that we might be relieved of the guilt of passing them by.

We received praise all around; even our travel guide called it the best test he’d witnessed in years.

Weekly massages were a perk included in the travel plan. Each participant was assigned a specialist who gave lessons about relieving tension in various parts of the body. It was required that we practice massage on each other. By learning how to receive pleasure, I learned about possibility. This exchange of generosity provided a way to become closer to the others in the program. In the evenings I’d try calling Jim and he’d never answer. He’d leave messages in the afternoons when he knew I’d be away. Struggling to connect was characteristic of our union and therefore I wasn’t alarmed. In fact, I started to envision him out at the movies, taking long walks through the park at sunset. All of these he deserved, and I longed for his happiness. Margie and I became very close, spending the majority of our time together on the Cape. She slept in the room next to mine, which allowed us to talk late into the night when group sessions ended. We took to recounting the stories of our lives over glasses of pink wine and the peanut-butter-filled pretzels her daughter sent us in the mail. During the days we strolled along the edge of the bay in silence. Margie wasn’t pleased with her marriage; she said her children begged her to divorce. We both felt that our mothers had never been taught to be happy, and I had the feeling that our grandmothers hadn’t either. The Cape was a special place: one devoid of apathy, that made us feel differently, allowed for us to feel. The local people were connected to the land, the water, and each other. These were clear, enduring moments we shared on the Cape, moments my mother would have liked.

The program assembled nightly in the lounge to tell stories. One night our travel guide delivered his rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf’s caught fornicating with the rotund grandmother instead of eating her. He made this recitation in the costume of the grandmother. Midway through the telling he could barely hold in place the pillows escaping from under his shirt, pillows jarred loose by all the heavy laughter. Our travel guide said that laughter and the body couldn’t be more connected, that laughter was necessary in order to find intimacy. As he ended his story he removed his cargo shorts and proceeded to undress completely. He took his scarf and threaded it about the bulk of his balls, tying the remainder around his penis. After thus encasing himself, our travel guide ran off and disappeared into the darkness of the dunes. I tried to imagine the purpose of this lesson. Then it occurred to me that he might be a person living in a state of suffocation. Like any man might feel if he found himself trapped on board a condemned plane hovering above endless water with no floatation device. A few hours passed before everyone realized he wasn’t returning, at least not any time soon. We agreed to get a good night’s rest, and start fresh and early the following morning. I called and left Jim a message about the experience. I shared with him what I believed to be the point of the lesson. “Isolation,” I said to him on the machine, “it does something maddening to an otherwise stable mind.”

The next morning over breakfast in the dining hall, Margie, addressing the program, suggested we adjust to our travel guide’s disappearance and get back to work. His absence would admittedly be an inconvenience, as he was our travel guide. The alternative was to leave early and return home, which received hostile rejection. Eventually the program decided it would be best to continue building our vernaculars, assuming any day now our travel guide would return. Group C piped up, confessing their eagerness to divulge the details of their experiment. On that note the program dispersed and re-gathered in the meeting room. Group C presented their findings:

Group C has come up with the inherited memory. We conceived the idea while conducting a series of tests on the fish in the large fish tank on display in the hotel’s lobby. One by one, members of Group C inserted into the tank a different but commonplace object: pen, screw, or twig. Each foreign object repelled the fish in the same manner. When an object was inserted into the fish tank the fish would “cower” at the bottom, clearly in avoidance of the object. Or perhaps the fish were recoiling in anticipation? Group C posits that the uniform response indicates, even if symbolically, that these fish, despite their genetic differences, have inherited the same information. Leading us to conclude that knowledge is accessed from what we term the inherited memory: it could be any kind of information, like a sense, bloodline, or landmark.

According to Group C, “inherited memory” was the source of all common memory, stemming from the histories we inherited, accessible to those continuing to survive. “Histories, when tapped into, cause a uniform reaction. Like the fish,” Group C said. I looked around the room and saw myself as one woman among forty women who had chosen this very same adventure, for the sake of desire, and I was nodding in the very same way.

Announced over the loudspeaker was the news that our travel guide had been discovered nearby in the dunes, asleep under a tree, naked and severely sunburned. He had been healing for a few hours now, but he wouldn’t be able to return and direct the remainder of the program, and therefore it would be ending early. There would still be a final party set to take place in a few days, to wrap up and send us off to our respective homes. Our partial refunds were waiting in envelopes at the front desk. The voice then apologized for the early dispatch and for any confusion the news might have caused.

On the advice of the other ladies, I gave up calling Jim. He also gave up, and the feeling in my bones wasn’t hollow or ghostly at all. I became aware of this sensation one morning while walking along the shore by the hotel. I hadn’t even noticed the absence of pain, of loss that I should have been feeling. My heart sank a bit, and I was puzzled, as if the life that had existed prior to this experience had been entirely unnecessary. But my mind was eager. Margie was by my side and the day was perfect. The gulls, as we began calling them, flew around in the sky as if surrounding a carcass. Everything was abundantly alive. The air smelled rich, like sun, fish, and sand. I couldn’t have borne a smell of another kind.

On the day of our premature departure from the program, I wrote Jim a letter. It had been a few days since I’d heard any word and it seemed only fair to share with him my decision to remain. It was clear that I desired the salty atmosphere and that this was a good way to end. If all that was good were to remain, I would need to say goodbye. I wrote that I imagined him happy when I pictured him now; that I hoped he would find space in his heart to forgive us for failing so miserably at this union.

The final party took place over brunch. It was a lavish and fully catered affair that included fresh fruit, pamphlets, bite-sized tuna sandwiches, a whole branzino, and seltzer water in an abundance of natural flavors. Following lunch, and in the spirit of our travel guide, a fellow participant passed out fortune cookies. Margie read me the fortune from my cookie, as I was reluctant to unravel it myself. It read: “Life, it’s all carrot and no stick!” We laughed hysterically, but stopped when a fellow visitor went up to take the stand and address the program. I placed a boning knife in my purse in recognition of what was to come. And as our fellow comrade was about to recount the story of a wolf that had made love to a rotund lady, I excused myself and walked out to the bay.