Real Close

Real Close by Author Ellen J. Perry

Growing up in the hills of rural Wise County, Virginia, Travis Owens never imagined he’d be cleaning the swimming pool and doing odd jobs at a swanky beach hotel, but here he was at the Starlight Harbor Resort and Marina at 8:00 on a Saturday morning doing just that. Guests of the Starlight were coming to life, tumbling out of their rooms and suites (with or without breakfast vouchers) and riding the mirrored elevator down to the lobby-level Sandpiper Grille. They were indeed “guests,” not “customers,” Travis’s supervisor Wesley had told him during his training period. “We do anything the guests ask of us,” Wesley said, “and we do it with a smile.”

Travis did the minimum with this directive, smiling only when Wesley was watching and sometimes in accord with Wesley’s pep talks (especially if they matched his own sense of potential profit in smiling) but otherwise remaining near-invisible, a constant observer on the job. He noticed Wesley’s slight mouth twitch; he listened to the maids speaking musical foreign languages when they met each other with their carts in the long hallways; he spotted the differences between the guests who presented breakfast vouchers at the Sandpiper Grille and those who didn’t. Wesley always reminded the morning crew, “Take extra good care of the folks I like to call the Non-Vouchers. They didn’t come here with the coupon deal because they don’t need a deal. They have money, paid full price for their vacation or got it covered by some company or other. That means they tip way better than the Vouchers. Remember that.”

Travis remembered. And he watched. One morning while helping the servers refill guests’ coffee mugs he overheard a boy about eight years old, the son of a Non-Voucher, ask his father during breakfast, “Does it pay well?” regarding some type of software consulting job. The father went into a long story about how yes, it did, but it would be better for the boy to study law and become partner at an established firm like his Uncle John had. Both father and son sat up perfectly straight in their high-backed chairs and chewed their food slowly; they looked like a duo in a catalogue, serious and composed, their clothes neatly pressed. Travis figured they would take coffee or a low-fat muffin up to the mother later. If there was one. He wondered about the mother some but didn’t spend too much time thinking on it. Non-Vouchers were, to him, a different breed, not like real people at all. The mother may even have been a robot for all he knew, winding herself up in their bleach-clean suite so as to face the day.

He was only 28 years old but the road to this menial job in Virginia Beach had been a long one. The middle child in a family of three boys, Travis had always felt different and a little bit alone. His brothers would stay in Wise County all their lives, he knew, surrounded by generations of family and familiarity. Travis had longed to escape the confines of home, on the other hand, and find out what else might be out there. He was quiet, thoughtful, idealistic; his older brother Jamie kidded him about how his nose was always in a book or a map, even when he grew out of his awkward phase and surprised everybody by winning medals in track and field events.

During his senior year of high school people would look at him and say, “Travis is the good-lookinest one of them Owens boys,” and he’d blush. His girlfriend Sherri wanted to get married, especially since according to Preacher Scott they’d already “fornicated” and the church’s teachings on fornication and other sin-related topics weighed heavily on her mind. “Y’all have done the deed, so you may as well seal the deal,” Jamie said to Travis at his graduation cookout. “Settle down now and make you some pretty babies. There ain’t nothing else much better to do around here anyways.” With a toddler and a second child coming, Jamie worked long hours as an Assistant Manager at Family Dollar. He helped Travis get on there too.

So Travis worked, ran, lifted weights, took Sherri out to eat on Friday nights, and generally acted like a responsible adult, but something was missing. The mountains started closing in on him so bad that he had trouble getting his breath. He talked to Sherri about joining the Navy when a recruiter came around a few months after he started the Family Dollar job. She didn’t like the idea at first but then agreed it might be exciting to go with him, see new places. Plus she knew that signing bonus wouldn’t hurt when it came engagement ring buying time.

Travis went first to basic at the big training center between Chicago and Milwaukee, cities he’d only dreamed about when tracing lines on the globe in Mrs. Smith’s middle school Social Studies class. Then he was sent to Norfolk and really found his stride. Navy life suited him; he knew he had options, opportunities, structure, the chance to move beyond Family Dollar and the life Jamie and Wise County had chosen for him. He came out of his shell and made friends, kept himself in excellent physical condition, and challenged his mind by reading books on espionage and military strategy.

Sherri came to visit during one of his leave weekends, but things weren’t the same between them. She seemed distant, cautious, while he had evolved and gained confidence. Despite his heroic efforts to show her his new world, she disliked just about everything at the base and the beach: it was too hot, there was too much going on, the water tasted funny, the people were loud. She returned home and within a month’s time started dating Travis’s younger brother Richie, which Jamie and their parents were angry about but Travis wasn’t. Richie called and told Travis, pain in his voice, “I’ve always loved Sherri.” Travis knew it was true and wished them the best without any hesitation or ill will. Released, he was completely free to pursue a new path, one that involved volunteering as often as possible for posts in Asia and Africa.

Travis found himself mysteriously drawn to one place in particular, Cape Verde off the west African coast. He loved the bright colors, the music, market fare, kiteboarding, the women who were part Portuguese and exotic, thrilling. At the market one day he approached Cristina, a dark-skinned woman in her 30s with eyes so bright blue it almost hurt to look at them. From then on she kept him both tortured and enthralled. When he wasn’t assisting with law enforcement operations for the Navy by day, Travis would meet Cristina down by the resort in Sal where she worked. They laughed at the sunburned tourists with their huge suitcases and oversized everything.

She took him to the Baia das Gatas Music Festival, the full moon celebration in August, and it felt like a dream when the sad morna played. On top of it all Cristina could dance the batuko like no one else, shaking her hips like casting a spell, and he knew he had to have her. She drove him crazy nights down by the docks where she lived in a shabby little water-front apartment that her mother, now dead, had rented years ago from a fisherman. One time Travis and Cristina were making so much noise that a neighbor came banging on the door. “Kinda busy in here!” Travis shouted over his shoulder, not missing a beat, and they laughed about that for days.

Cristina spoke mostly Creole but knew enough English to get by. She loved hearing stories about Travis’s home back in Virginia, a place that seemed strange to her, far away and uncivilized.

“You mean they push the head under the water, to baptize?” Cristina asked in horror as they lay sprawled on her tiny bed late one night during carnival.

Travis pictured the old church where he’d grown up, saw the preacher in his mind’s eye, felt the water rushing over his nine-year-old head as he dipped backwards. “Yep, right there in the river.”

“Christ on the cross,” she said, touching her rosary which was all she was wearing until he took it off, too, lifting the pinkish-red beads off her neck and moving with her to the sound of the drums outside.

Travis marveled at how real Cristina was. She was a real woman, honest and forthright, independent, wise, nothing like Sherri or the girls back home. She was her true self all the time and allowed him to discover his truest self as well. He found that he actually liked that man, the real man, covered up though he was with layers of something left over from the Puritans, maybe, and reinforced by the generations of Virginia hill country folk.

Every other day Travis asked Cristina to marry him. They could live wherever in the world she wanted – maybe Brazil where her cousins were – and she could buy anything she wanted, never again having to serve cocktails to obnoxious European and American tourists. “The Navy will move us and pay for everything,” he said. Cristina just smiled, used to empty promises from sailors and airmen who arrived at Cape Verde, charmed the women, claimed and conquered them like land, and ultimately disappeared. “Silly boy,” she said, touching his face as if he were a child. But Travis meant it. He was lost to her.

In fact he might have stayed indefinitely in this adventurous and sensual trance, like Odysseus among the sirens, except for the injury. Travis was playing soccer with his buddies from the ship and some street kids on a bright Saturday morning when his knee turned in such a way that he cried out and couldn’t stand without help; the doctor said, “Torn meniscus,” gave him a bottle of painkillers, and sent him to Spain for surgery. Missing Cristina like a lost limb, Travis counted the days until he could get back to her.

When the Navy gave Travis permission to return to the Cape several weeks later, though, Cristina was gone. The staff at the resort where she’d worked shrugged when he asked about her; one maid shook her head and said slowly, “Não compreendo.” Fear and panic swept over him. He ran to the waterfront apartment, empty except for Cristina’s rosary and a note reading, “T – must leave be back some time maybe, adeus.”

After that everything fell apart. Travis wandered around the harbor at night like a wild ghost, refusing to report back to base even when his friends showed up. They tried to reason with him but nothing worked. He took more and more pain pills even after his knee had healed. He drank sugar cane rum and waited every day for Cristina in her apartment. After the Navy released him with an “Other Than Honorable” discharge Travis begged for work at the resort, happy to be cleaning swimming pools and washing dishes, waiting for Cristina. He knew she’d come home soon and agree to marry him; they’d live out their lives together, travel the world, and need no one else.

One of Travis’s buddies called Jamie in Virginia who immediately withdrew money from his meager savings so he could fly to Africa. Jamie and Richie planned the trip, somehow, without letting the rest of the family in on any details right away. It would break their parents’ hearts if they knew how far Travis had fallen. “He’s just had a little unlucky streak,” Jamie said to his wife, soothing their two-year-old daughter while she cried. “That’s all, ain’t nothing to worry about. Be back before long. Can I get some more of that cornbread?” It was the Owens family’s way to keep things covered up, pretend tragedies weren’t happening: change the subject.

With the help of the police, Jamie and Richie, two men who had never before left the state of Virginia, finally found Travis huddled up in Cristina’s apartment, clutching her rosary, an empty rum bottle, and a Cape Verde help-with-translation phrase book. He moaned again and again, Dja N perde nhas amiga.  

I have lost my friend.

2

“I said,” Wesley snapped, “be sure to get the corners and edges.” Travis returned slowly from memories of Cristina to his new reality: cleaning the swimming pool at the Starlight Harbor Resort and Marina in Virginia Beach. He had come home, sobered up, dried out, and worked for nearly six months to pay Jamie back and get on his feet again. Wesley said, “Remember, the guests get what they want. And today they want a clean pool to frolic in. So get to frolicking with that vacuum.” Wesley thought he was funny.

Travis finished up at the pool when some young women, revelers at a weekend Bachelorette party, wandered toward him. They all wore the same cotton shirts over their bikinis; one shirt, white, read “BRIDE” in big letters while the other shirts, lavender, indicated “Bachelorette.” Travis had noticed this group the day before at breakfast in the Sandpiper Grille. Of course, they were Non-Vouchers; their waitress doted on them, hoping for a big tip. Travis was fumbling with the cleaning equipment when one of the Bachelorettes called out to him.

“Hey, can you take our picture?” she asked, offering up her phone.

“Sure,” Travis said. This woman was about his age, probably a few years younger. Cute. He thought he remembered her giggling the other day at the resort bar. But then again all the Bachelorettes looked alike with their tan skin, blonde hair, and perfect teeth, so he couldn’t be certain.

The ladies gathered around the bride, posing and glowing, making pouty faces, dabbing on fresh coral-colored lip gloss. Travis took picture after picture.

“Thanks,” the woman said, taking her phone back and arranging a towel on one of the Adirondack chairs. “I’m Elizabeth. Hey, can you run get me another mimosa?”

We do anything the guests ask of us, Wesley had said, and we do it with a smile, so despite the fact that Elizabeth looked like she’d already had about three mimosas too many Travis went inside to see if the bartender would fix another one. Travis didn’t drink anymore but that chilled champagne sure looked good, like a celebration. He went back out to the pool and handed the bubbling glass to Elizabeth.

“Delicious,” she said, sipping. “What’s your name?”

“Travis.”

“Can you sit down with us or are you still working?”

“Still working.”

“Ok,” she sighed drowsily, putting her DKNY sunglasses on and leaning back in the chair. “The girls and I are here through tomorrow morning then we’ve got to get back to campus.”

“Where do y’all go?” he asked.

“University of Richmond. Kappa Sigma Gamma,” Elizabeth added as if this last bit of information explained everything. Maybe it did. “Brooke’s getting married in May. I can’t believe she’ll be a bride before me! Damn.” She took another long sip.

Sorority girls, Travis thought. They were all the time staying at the resort for long weekends, living it up and spending Daddy’s money. Their shallow sameness made him sick but he smiled and smiled like Wesley said. He had to finish paying Jamie back if it killed him, which dealing with sorority brides and bachelorettes might well do.

“Have a great time,” he said, walking away.

“Travis,” Elizabeth called softly so that her friends couldn’t hear. “I’m in room 233. Michelle was staying with me but she had to leave early. Come up later to keep me company? It’s our last night.”

“Sure,” he said after a moment, brushing aside uncomfortable thoughts of what a contradiction this was. He hated sorority girls and yet he was going to room 233 to, likely, “fornicate” with one. For the first time in a long time, Travis allowed himself to indulge in the tiniest bit of happy anticipation; he would pretend Elizabeth was Cristina, just for a little while.

All day he worked on some hotel repairs and waited, thinking about what might happen. It would be nice to lounge on those big fluffy white pillows and get a little crazy like he did in the old days. Hell, it would be nice just to feel something again, anything other than that constant ache in his chest. When he spied the Bachelorette gaggle returning to the resort from the boardwalk that evening, he caught Elizabeth’s eye by the marlin fountain; she winked and slipped in the elevator. He held back until all the girls had surely scattered to their rooms, then he clocked out and ambled toward the elevator himself. Too easy, he thought.

What wasn’t easy was talking to Elizabeth once he got up to room 233. She ordered room service for them both but the food wasn’t anything to talk about and nothing else he brought up interested her. Ten minutes into this awkward visit he realized the only subject that kept her occupied was Courtland Jennings IV, her bastard ex-boyfriend who had broken up with her just weeks before and started dating a girl named Trinity from Blacksburg. “Can you believe it?” she shouted, knocking over Travis’s bottle of O’Doul’s. “Oops, sorry. I guess the maid’ll clean it up. But I mean really, can you believe it? ‘Trinity,’ what the hell.” They were sitting side by side on the couch. O’Doul’s ran down into the flowered pillows and on the otherwise spotless carpet. Travis pictured Maria, his maid friend, dealing with the mess later; he tried to dab the worst of it up with Kleenex.

Well, forget talking, Travis thought. Time to get down to business. He made a subtle move to kiss Elizabeth and she responded by shoving the shrimp cocktail to one side of the coffee table and taking off her sundress almost before he knew what was happening. She lay back on the feather-soft bed and things were well underway. Moving toward her he took his shirt off and was working on his belt when she said, flirty, “You know, I’m a Dance major at U of R. I can do a damn fine bellydance if you want a little pre-game show.”

He stopped cold, remembering Cristina’s swaying hips. He could almost hear the drums all the way from Cape Verde. “Do you know the batuko?” he asked, genuinely curious. He sat down on the side of the bed.

“No,” she said. “Is it an African dance? Maybe you can teach it to me. Come here.” She pulled him down. “What’s that thing, a necklace? Oh my God, are you Catholic? Courtland and Trinity are both Catholic. Shit.”

Travis reached toward his chest and touched Cristina’s rosary beads. He so rarely took them off that he’d forgotten they were there. But there they were in room 233, and Cristina was there, and Courtland was there. Travis lay back on the bed beside Elizabeth. They stared at the ceiling for a long time, numb, beyond sad and exhausted. “Shit,” Elizabeth said again. He put on his shirt and left the room without another word.

Travis had the next day, Sunday, off work so he decided to spend some time fishing on the pier at sunrise. He noticed there was a new hand-written sign in the parking lot – “Real Close Parking Beach/Peer” – and he laughed to himself both at the spelling and the sentiment. Real close to the real thing, Cristina, he thought, knowing he’d never see his great love again but wishing her the same joy and freedom she gave him on those balmy Cape nights.

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