Shape of a Human Ear
I was beginning to doubt Hessie’s predictions about me and Frosted Glass Man. Four days had passed, and I had yet to catch a glimpse of him. In order to keep myself in the target area for as long as possible, I extended my morning walks all the way to the waterbreak below Archer Bridge. I wasn’t gaining any male attention, but I was certainly losing weight.
I generally drove down to the waterfront in the afternoon, my appetite fully stoked for seafood. My favorite hangout was a little place called Snapper’s; they had a long counter with a built-in aquarium full of exotic salt-water fish. The best was a little rock-sucker I nicknamed Hal, a pale yellow telescope who would swallow spoonfuls of gravel and then filter them back out through his gills. If you ignored the basic cruelty of eating dead fish in front of their still-living colleagues, the place was quite nice, and equipped with a trio of hanging steamer pots purchased from the U.S. Navy. They steamed the fish right in front of you, in a white wine and garlic sauce that I would gladly lap up directly from the counter.
Seafood never failed to make me sleepy, so if the meal’s-end cappuccino was enough to get me back to the Bel Canto, I would head directly to my room for a nap (I had been moved to the Rosenkavalier Suite, adorned with silver roses, cityscapes of Vienna, a bust of Strauss, and pictures of famous middle-aged women like Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keefe and Queen Elizabeth).
Dinners at the Bel Canto provided a nice ice-breaker for unattached guests, in that one could always assume a common interest in opera. And thank God for that, as the dining room offered only large, 12-seat, cafeteria-style tables. This was also good for my soul, since, retreat or no, I began the week feeling like the most alone person on the planet. Even this temporal, shallow contact with other humans made me feel better.
It also gave me a kind of educational mission. I had certainly earned a balls-out, empty-headed escape, but a little cultural enrichment made me feel less like the tide was eating away on my bulkhead. Truth be told, before meeting Hessie my knowledge of opera was barely ankle-deep. I once took my nieces to La Boheme in Capitola just so I could make them cry for Mimi (which they dutifully did), and one time I inherited a couple of tickets to a lavish David Hockney-designed Turandot in San Francisco, courtesy of the boss of a man whose name I’d rather not mention. But that was it. Still, I felt no need to hide this dilettante status from my Bel Canto tablemates - and, in fact, found them quite receptive to the stupid questions I’d throw at them. The next day, I took their recommendations to the listening room, and by my fourth day of study I felt like I was getting the hang of it.
Most of the recommendations traveled along the reliable triumvirate of Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, with occasional side trips into Mozart and Strauss. Friday night, however, I shared a scrumptious swordfish dinner with the Margisons, an older couple from Chicago who regaled me for hours with plot points, musical highlights and favorite performances from the great Italian bel canto era: Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and anything else that sounded like you could have it on a sandwich with provolone.
I became absolutely enchanted with Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” and for the most aesthetically suspect of reasons. It was the title. Such beautiful syllables. “Sonn” as in in-som-niac, son-orous – sleep. “Ambula” as in ambulance, ambulate, perambulate – amble? Walk.
On the following afternoon, freshly digested of a bowl of cioppino at a place called The Schooner, I dug up a Joan Sutherland LP from 1968, hooked myself up to the headphones and, halfway through the liner notes, fell asleep.
I can’t be sure what woke me, but looking back I’d guess it was the combination of a particularly refulgent cadenza (okay, I stole “refulgent” from the liner notes) and a shaft of sunlight cutting in through the oceanward windows. It was the first sunlight I’d seen since arriving in Hirshfield, so I decided to exploit it at once, rousting myself from my easy chair and adjourning to the tiny balcony outside the listening room (a precarious little perch the staff refers to as “the bucket”).
Sunshine or no, the breeze that hailed me on my exit was brisk enough to frost an Eskimo. Between that and the blinding, refulgent light (sorry), my senses were already prickling when I looked sandward to discover Frosted Glass Man, in the flesh, treading the surfline directly across from me, taking occasional curtsies to inspect something. As I watched the way he gently evaded the breakers without seeming to actually look at them, the long-hidden secret finally struck me: Of course! You idiot. When did you meet him? In the afternoon!
Descending on him just then would have seemed entirely ungraceful, and shouting from the bucket a little too operatic. Instead, I made a pledge to immediately transfer my beach walks to the afternoon. I went to the kitchen for a cup of green tea and returned to La Sonnambula a rejuvenated woman. A woman with plans.
My schedule switch went against every one of my morning-walk instincts, and with exciting possibilities in mind, the a.m. seemed to drag on forever. I ended up at some kind of defective-discount clothing barn on the main strip, trying on inch-thick plaid hunting shirts and discolored University of Oregon booster jackets. I would have stepped into the cafe next door, but there was some kind of step-aerobics class being conducted directly in front of the espresso machines.
By the time I got around to the mismatched luminescent-heel basketball shoes, I had worked up the courage to glance at my watch. Five till twelve. Thank God! I went for a New England clam chowder at the Shamrock Inn, down the block from the Bel Canto, took a completely superfluous shower and spent a half-hour in front of my antique Austrian mirror, picking out my hiking-wear. I reappeared in shocking white tennies, faded jeans, Cape Cod T-shirt, brown Land’s End corduroy overshirt, canary yellow mariner’s windbreaker and – yeah, I don’t know why – tortoise-shell La Dolce Vita sunglasses. Too much? Yeah, sure. But Frosted Glass Man seemed to have many facets to his personality, and I wanted to have an article of clothing for each.
I expected to wander for a while, presenting a slow-moving target in the best passive-aggressive female style, but egad, there he was, the moment I struck off on the sand, coming right at me, the two of us like team captains striding the fifty-yard line for a coin flip. I slowed to a stop as he kept coming, wearing a strangely intent look on his face. I prepared a nonchalant Noel Coward greeting; he came up and knelt at my feet. Worship? So soon?
“Green glass,” he said, holding a moss-colored potato chip to his eye. “You can spot these devils a mile away in a snowstorm.”
“Oh,” I said. He found my response charming (bless him), and let out a gorgeous mountain-man laugh, a skinny Orson Welles raised in the Appalachians.
“Take this,” he said, “in remembrance of me.” He opened my palm, slid in the glass like a secret coin, and folded my fingers over its edges. “Are you a collector?”
“A collector?” I said. Dazzle dazzle.
He ran a single fingernail over the arc of my shoulder and ducked down his head to peer at me from the tops of his eyes. “Are you a woman of glass. Do you seek the same treasures I do?”
(Say yes.) “Yes,” I said. Shimmer shimmer. Glow. “Yes, I... it’s one of my favorite things, frosted... glass.”
“Beach glass, sea glass, ocean sapphires, beautiful... litter. You picked a wonderful afternoon for it. It’s a ten-foot day.”
“A ten-foot day?” Shimmer echo dazzle (Oh God, stop!).
Frosty cocked his hip like a hammer on a gun. “Yeah. You can’t move ten feet without finding a piece. It’s the most common of holy days on the cosmological calendar of Frosted Glass Woman. Here. Follow me to the Path of Opportunity.”
He pivoted on the cocked hip and strode to the ocean. He was the most beautiful madman I’d ever met. I caught up with him at the edge of the breakers, where the waves had deposited a five-foot swath of small rocks, peppered across the sand like a five-o’clock shadow. I expected a guided tour, but Frosty had already pulled out a Zip-Lock bag and started down the path, bending at odd intervals. I tracked him carefully across the buckskin sand and watched his every move.
I soon realized that Frosty would have to let a few pieces through his radar or I’d be shit out of luck. Which was, obviously, what he was doing, as every twenty feet or so I found a white button, green pixie stick or brown poker chip.
Ten minutes later, I came upon a semi-circle of bluish-white, the color of Caribbean water on postcards, little rippled fragments worn away from the edges. I felt Frosty’s eyes all over me as I crouched.
“I was hoping you would find that one.” He unwrapped me with a broad gypsy smile. “That’s a special one. The glass gods use those for Frisbee golf.”
“It’s gorgeous,” I said, and smiled as sweetly as I could.
“Why don’t you take the lead for a while? I feel like a cad, hogging the frontier like this.”
“My pleasure,” I answered, and headed out for virgin sand. I hadn’t taken five steps before I came upon a trifecta of perfect isosceles triangles, each a half-inch tall, each a primary color. I almost hated to disturb them.
I continued on like that, cutting snake-like through the sand, quickening my step when a far-rolling breaker chased me up the beach. I feared, in fact, that I was being too efficient, but whenever I stopped to look back I’d find my guru bending to the sand at regular intervals, harvesting the pieces that had slipped my vision. Hmm, I thought. There are higher levels to this. After that, I went a hundred feet without a single sighting. It was like I’d hit a wall or something. Frosty was quick to notice.
“Let me guess,” he said. “Suddenly you can’t tell frosted glass from the Queen of England, and... you’re sort of losing your place on the sand. Feeling... disoriented.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That about describes it.”
He grinned. “You’re trying too hard.” When you begin... to lose... your sight... just rub the last piece you found… and listen… to the ocean.” To illustrate, he held up a broad square of grayish-green and rubbed it next to his ear, crooning like a dimestore Sinatra. “Come to me-ee, ooh! Glassy-glassy ba-bee, co-o-ome!”
Once I stopped laughing, I followed the guardrail of Frosty’s track and wandered forward, trying my best not to try so hard. Thirty feet on I began to lose heart, having failed to spot so much as a sliver, but then I recalled Frosty’s words and turned my attention to the ocean. Before the crash of wave number two, I came upon a curl of white in the shape of a human ear. I held it to my... well, to my ear, and proceeded to grip the glass against my palm as my fingers took turns rubbing harmonium notes against its shower-door surface.
A hundred paces later I had myself a nice little handful. Not realizing how much ground we had covered, I straightened up for a backstretch and was surprised to find Whalespout Rock directly to my left. It was, at that moment, earning its nickname, firing a spray of frigid water precisely in my direction.
“It’s different today,” said Frosty, hovering over my shoulder.
“Yah. Not sure how. Wait a minute...” He held up a hand and watched another wave rip through the slot. Frosty’s eyes became glazed, turning the slightest bit... animal, as he processed what he was observing. “Ye-e-es. The sound – it’s just a tad bit lower in pitch. I wonder what would cause that? So… you wanna come to my campsite for dinner?”
Normally, I’d have been caught off guard, but I was ready. I smiled coyly and said, “Yes.”
Photo by MJV