Issue Forty-Three - Winter 2024

The Littoral Zone

by Margo McCall

When Angie awoke that first morning at Lazlo’s, she left him sleeping and went for a walk on the beach. Sensations bombarded her as she walked barefoot over the damp sand, breathed the dank ocean, felt the vibration of waves crashing in from the other side of the world.

A father and son played paddleball in the mist, their happiness fluttering birdlike in the air. Gray-haired men sat on benches drinking coffee, and another stood motionless as a rock, staring out to sea, ankles buffeted by sea froth.

Angie had the strong sense they were waiting to die, like the beach was some ante room filled with mortal pleasures to keep them occupied while they waited.

Further down, two spearfishermen in wetsuits entered the water, looking like the gods Poseidon and Triton returning to their palace at the bottom of the sea.

On her way back, the old men drinking coffee were gone, but the motionless man still stared at the horizon, foamy water now wetting his knees.

Back in Lazlo’s apartment, Angie tried to explain her experience, and when he didn’t understand, sat on his stoop and wrote words on a scrap of paper. It seemed like a dream: some puncture in the membrane of reality, a glimpse into another realm.

She carried the vision like a message in a bottle as summer gave way to fall, and she began showing up at Lazlo’s in jeans and sweaters instead of bathing suits and shorts, carrying pots of soup instead of end-of-summer pies. Kept returning, again and again, waiting, like the men on the beach.

She’d been willing something to happen when Lazlo entered her life. His emails delivered gifts of words—impel, fecund, undulate. He was a seeker and at that point in time, seemed to be what she was seeking.

She stayed twelve hours that first time as he showed her his art and tapestries, his cactus skeletons, sparkling minerals and quartz. It seemed odd to be sharing the contents of her soul with someone she’d just met. And yet perfectly normal. Afterward, he’d said it felt like an electrical charge when he touched her.

She believed in messages. Lines of poetry came at odd times. Sometimes they’d be there when she woke, or were delivered with meditation, or during long afternoons at work. She didn’t know where they came from, but trusted their truth.

The path that led her to Lazlo was numinous with synchronicity. In all her years in Southern California, she’d never been to Laguna Beach. Yet just a few weeks before meeting him, a girlfriend invited her to the Sawdust Festival there, and afterward, they went to a Hindu Temple off Laguna Canyon, then sat on the beach just a block from his house. So when she met Lazlo at a party, it seemed auspicious.

He wasn’t much to look at, but was wise. She came up with nicknames for him: Jesus of Laguna with the Ice Cream Stigmata, then later, once she got to know him better, Varuna, Hindu god of the ocean.

She appreciated the boardwalk’s carnival atmosphere: the man with his squawking parrots, the rich Persians walking poodles with painted nails, the chanting Hari Krishnas, the elfin woman who slept coiled in the roots of a tree. They would sit on one of Lazlo’s favorite benches drinking coffee, taking in the spectacle.

“This is all Maya,” he said during one of her first visits. “A creation of our minds.”

So, it was a dream after all. That explained the floating feeling, the way everything she encountered seemed significant, images bubbling up from the depths and never quite knowing if she was awake or asleep or what would happen next.

Lazlo called her at work to tell her what the ocean looked like. “It’s a sparkling turquoise, with just a few wisps of cloud floating in the sky.” Or “It’s a rich bronze, with golden sunlight peeking through pewter storm clouds.” And she’d hear the thundering pound of waves coming ashore, feel the splash of saltwater on her face.

Lazlo put on the glasses that made him look like a professor. Cast a spell with readings from secret books. Played music from his vast collection, explained the origin of the antique rugs hanging on his walls, introduced her to his pantheon of lost loves.

She came to hear the stories. Perhaps this was the reason they were doing it, so he could tell her the story of his life. He’d picked up a curious volume at a used bookstore years ago, met a woman on the beach who’d read the book, and a few days later visited the master and was initiated.

He believed he’d go to a higher realm when he left his body, that he’d finally be done with all these cycles of reincarnation. So perhaps that explained why he was just waiting, hiding from the sun under his fluttering beach umbrella.

“Do you know what a gift it is for a spirit to receive a human body?” he asked. “Karma is predetermined at birth. Meditation burns it off, but we can’t escape our fate.”

She’d never met anyone like him. But whenever it was time for her to leave, he grew petulant. He wanted her to stay with him forever, keeping him company as he waited.

She read from a book: “The dividing line between the sea and the land is not a dividing line at all; it is an area, a zone, a dominion in its own right. Partaking in some measure of both land and water, it belongs wholly to neither.”

And this was the murky zone they inhabited. She began feeling like a husk of herself, like he was draining her energy. Struggled to free herself from the quagmire of his longing, grew depressed, felt the magic drain from her veins.

She still thought of the vision, thought she’d write a poem about it someday. But she was no longer writing poems. These days, she was listening to him talk about cell phones and documentaries and complain about his neighbors.

She’d once imagined herself a silver-scaled mermaid, some ethereal creature who’d slithered up from the sea to fill him with love. But in coming ashore, she lost her ability to swim.

They tossed white flowers into the ocean for goddess Yamaya on New Year’s Eve. Received blessings from hugging guru Ama in June. As they sat on a bluff watching Fourth of July fireworks, she saw endings in the cataclysmic explosions lighting the sky.

She was already thinking ahead to after the fireworks finale when she could go home. They’d been together all day. They’d gone for a hike, encountered a rattlesnake, and she’d laid on her back looking up at the leaves of a tree while he talked about astrophysicists’ attempts to measure the universe.

“What time is it?” Angie asked. She fumbled half-heartedly for her cell phone, was relieved when Lazlo pulled out his.

“Ten to nine,” he said, quickly returning it to his pocket before pointing to cascading sparks in the north. “Look, that must be Newport. Spectacular.”

It was something all right, sitting on the bluff and seeing a half-dozen fireworks displays simultaneously. But the explosions had a sameness—bursts of fire shooting up, exploding into circles, fading to black.

When they went back to his place after the finale, Angie said she was going home.

“I thought you’d stay over,” Lazlo said as he lay on his bed, eyes closing to shield her from his disappointment.

She saw it clearly, his ensnaring her in a net of need to her detriment. She’d just shown up, swam in quite willingly. But now she saw the opening to swim out, and was going to take it.

That night, she experienced a powerful dream. She’d spotted a dead rat on a shelf beside an aquarium murky with algae. And had the strong urge to clean it up. Dead fish floated on the surface. The brown water stank of decay. When she woke up, she knew what she needed to do.

The next week, she suggested a hike to Top of the World. When they reached the lookout point, they could sit on the bench and watch the blue ocean stretching to the horizon while she shared what was on her mind. But she never got the chance. Lazlo was breathing hard and kept stopping to rest, and sitting at the Top of the World, he told her of the sickness swimming inside him.

Then came the flurry of doctors, blood transfusions, rounds of chemo, her visiting him in the hospital, pretending to be his wife. He left the meals she brought from Real Planet Daily untouched, but retained his appetite for lemon bars. She embraced caring for him, finally understanding the purpose for them being together.

By the time he came home on hospice, Lazlo was weightless as a bird, perhaps able to fly, but too weak to walk. He wanted to see the ocean, so she wheeled him across the street to Heisler Park, and they sat watching blue-green waves come ashore in bursts of white froth before being sucked back out to sea. It was a warm day, the sunshine a jewel of golden brilliance, but under his blanket, Lazlo shivered.

He soaked it up for the last time. “Spectacular,” he managed to say, just once. “That kelp swaying under the water looks like it’s dancing.”

And then he was quiet. She wondered what he was thinking, if he was remembering all the experiences he’d had, wave after wave of them pummeling his consciousness. All the days he’d sat like this, watching the ocean. She hoped his life made sense.

The women he’d loved had come to say goodbye: the doll artist from San Francisco, the German woman he’d met at the ashram in India, his sister from Oregon. The doll artist bathed him. The German woman chanted for him. His sister couldn’t stop crying.

The palliative care nurse watched over him as he laid in the hospital bed set up in the living room. At first, it seemed he was just sleeping. Then burrowing deeper inside himself, body curling up like a shrimp, too far away for any of them to reach him.

On his final day, a woman he’d met on the beach came to pay her respects. The exact moment he stopped breathing, she screamed, her unearthly cry cutting through the sky like the parrots on the boardwalk. But no one could catch him now. He was flying. Out of his worn-out body and above the speckled ocean like a comet until he disappeared into the silvery clouds and entered the realm of the sky.

Copyright McCall 2024