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Short Story

Things to Do in Pacific Grove

Searching the shed behind her vacation rental for a beach chair, Sibyl finds a bundle of handwritten diaries.

August 28
A dream. I was in an endless white space with one other person, vaguely me but taller and dressed in white. With every attempt I made to walk, the woman approached and tripped me without saying a word. A rather on-the-nose message from my subconscious about self-sabotage.

The cobwebbed shed is no place for the diaries, which sit among a jumble of books, clothes, shoes, and old appliances. Sibyl carries the journals into the wood-paneled house that smells like cedar, even outside the closets.

September 22
Turned thirty. Feel I’m no longer climbing, but sliding. I fear my life’s summit was so inconsequential that I didn’t notice I passed it. Came home to discover that Marge and Barry had been by. They left a cake and a basket of flowers on the porch, along with a lovely poem and a drawing by Edie. This, somehow, made the day worse.

Sibyl reads this diary entry at Lovers Point, a short walk from the vacation rental. She sits cross-legged on a bath towel spread atop the coarse sand. No one judges her trespass into the diarist’s private thoughts: not the basking sea lions, not the neoprened snorkelers, not the man walking his cockatoo along the stone parapet that shelters the cove. Sibyl feels foolish for having wrapped a dust jacket around the diary to conceal her snooping.

Sibyl’s been single for a month. Divorcing was almost easier done than said, especially with no kids, no house, no pets, and no shared accounts or complicated assets. They weren’t married long enough to forget who originally owned what. She’d never even taken his name. She told others that they simply drifted apart. The truth is that her ex’s laid-back, slovenly nature appealed to her base, couch-potato instincts. It was a junk-food marriage, and for three years she succumbed.

October 15
I never catch anyone looking at me. I’m not hideous—perhaps a little after the funerals, but not since. I make an effort. I should be able to attract a stranger’s glance on the street, even if it’s an uninterested one. Even if it’s a lecher’s.

Sibyl orders Thai food through an app. The woman who delivers it is the only person who Sibyl’s certain has looked at her today. She’s perfectly fine with that. While eating, she begins a list on her phone of the experiences she wants for herself. The first, take a vacation she marks as in progress.

The diarist, with her steady and elegant hand, notes her own aspirations: to improve her equanimity, nurture her artistic impulses, and learn how to service an automobile. Sibyl pictures a short woman with brown hair and an odd demeanor from living at home for too long. Sibyl reads the diarist’s tortuous self-chastisements about her inability to be loved, about the loneliness she endures. Sibyl, now in bed, doesn’t sympathize. There was a night like this, maybe six months ago, when her then-husband didn’t come home until very late. She felt unworried to the point that her mind hopscotched from the benefits of solitude to the idea of divorce. It felt like an awakening: she’d known she was becoming disinterested in him, but she hadn’t realized she was also becoming uninterested in herself.

November 23
Life is a disappointment only if you’ve had the misfortune of believing it could be otherwise. Walked to the lighthouse for the sunset, but missed it. Night comes on so swiftly now. To be anywhere but here.

Sibyl is losing patience with the diarist, especially as she’s paying to stay in the very house this woman wishes to escape from. Sibyl is reading in front of the fireplace that’s not lit but smells of past fires. It could be 1950 here if she closes her eyes. She closes her eyes but doesn’t feel any more sympathetic. Does the diarist even hold a job? Sibyl wishes she could time travel and get the woman to realize she’s living in paradise: no aging parents to worry about anymore, no failed marriage with the stain of misspent time, no forty-plus-hour grind with only a few weeks off.

January 1
I have decided to fall in love.

“Good luck,” Sibyl says. She’s sipping mulled wine in the lobby of the Asilomar Conference Grounds, number seven on Tripadvisor’s list of things to do in Pacific Grove. She walked the length of Asilomar State Beach earlier (number one on Tripadvisor), then followed a boardwalk over dunes to this former YWCA facility, built in the 1920s and resembling a national park lodge.

According to a placard in the lobby, a contingent of Bay Area periodontists is convened for the long weekend. She watches them drift in from the dining building. She wonders if they keep floss in their pockets.

Unlike the diarist, Sibyl hasn’t decided to fall in love. But she does play a mental game. If one of the periodontists starts chatting her up, she’ll sleep with him. It’s been years since she shared a bed with someone new. But the one periodontist who approaches her only asks to borrow the unoccupied chair at her table.

Because it’s misting outside, Sibyl has another mulled wine while she waits for the weather to clear. She feels warm and whole. She buys an umbrella in the gift shop, then walks back toward the rental house, imagining the encounter that didn’t happen. She can picture the periodontist’s room at the conference grounds: his unmade bed, the air a little musty. They’d have bad sex that wouldn’t seem bad until he drove her back to her rental house and she decided to have him drop her off a few blocks short.

Sibyl unlocks the front door of her rental, slides off her shoes, and deposits the umbrella in front of the fireplace to dry. She is deliciously alone. She doesn’t even need to take a shower. She knows that some of this contentment is from the wine, but she prefers not to ponder the ratio of what is true to what feels true.

February 17
No luck on the fling front. Attended a poetry group this evening, but it’s shy of men, and those in attendance seemed more interested in verse than vice.

Sibyl shakes her head at the diarist. Poetry groups? Is that the dating scene in nineteen-hundred-and-whatever Pacific Grove? As for Sibyl’s solitude, is it terrible that she’d rather eat leftover Thai food in the rental than seek out her own vacation fling? No. It’s glorious—she’s almost certain. Alone, she can do this: pull a torrid romance from the bedroom bookcase, search for a dirty bit, flip back a couple of pages, and hold the book one-handed for a while. But she finds the mood has passed and she exchanges the book for an old Far Side compilation and laughs.

March 31
Conclusion: Life is a tree. I’ve climbed branch after branch and now find myself in the canopy, where there’s little support and where I must halt my ascent. To move to another limb now would cause me to crash to the ground. I’d have to begin the climb anew.

“Jump, bitch. Jump,” Sibyl says. She’s standing outside the gate to the Point Pinos Lighthouse (number five on Tripadvisor), which should open for visitors in a couple of minutes. The grounds are surrounded on three sides by a golf course. On its fourth, a large cemetery. Deer wander over both properties, ignorant of green fees and mortality. She returns to the journals she’s brought with her.

May 19
“We enjoy comedy because laughter forms on one’s face the same muscular pose as joy.” Aaron said this yesterday and I think it’s apropos.

Apropos what? Sibyl thinks. Also, Aaron? She turns to the previous entry and notices that many intervening pages have been excised from the diary. She puts the journal back in her bag as someone emerges from the lighthouse.

Docent dodging, Sibyl manages the self-guided tour in under twenty minutes. The volunteers seem to have an unwarranted enthusiasm for what’s only a squat tower on an old white cottage. Sibyl isn’t feeling it. There are other things she should see nearby: 17-Mile Drive, Point Lobos, Carmel. But without a second person to debate destinations with, she feels more uncompelled than indecisive. She wonders if she’s depressed. She should be having fun. Instead, she’s now wandering the cemetery. She sits on a bench and reads what turns out to be the last page of the last volume of the diaries.

June 8
Ceremony at the courthouse. Reception here. Lovely. Just lovely.

“Mazel tov,” Sibyl says.

She watches an old man carry a beach chair and a small cooler onto the cemetery grounds. He opens the chair, but doesn’t sit, instead lowering himself to his knees with a slow camel-like deliberateness. He wipes the grave marker clean. Only then does he sit in the chair. He eats a sandwich. Five minutes pass. Ten. She walks over, pretending the man is Aaron and that Aaron is visiting the diarist’s grave. Imagine that: crossing paths with him decades after his last mention in the journals.

“Aaron?” she asks.

He looks at her, a cravat at his throat. “Robert.”

Disappointed, she glances at the pair of names on the marker. “Those your folks?” she asks. She notes, too late, that the birthdates don’t go back enough for this to be the man’s parents. One of his kids, maybe. She regrets the question.

“No.” He taps his heel on the edge of the marker. “Someone I used to mess around with.”

“She must have been special,” Sibyl says, piqued by this small portrait of infidelity.

The man laugh-coughs, then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Her? Not even a little,” he says, and grunts a couple of times. He empties the remains of his thermos into the grass. “Who are you here for?”

Sibyl, without an answer of substance, is treated to a ten-minute summary of the old man’s past: how grand Tom was, but also the difficulties of loving a man who still loved his wife. How he promised a dying Tom he’d look after the woman. And though it was a promise kept, how it brought no reward to either survivor.

Sibyl can’t imagine being missed so greatly that someone would lunch beside her grave. This kind of love feels both burdensome and impossible to her, a suffering she wouldn’t wish to inflict on anyone. But maybe a little.

A bit of rain begins to fall, giving Sibyl an exit. Having trusted the weather forecast, she’s brought neither umbrella nor rain jacket. Near her rental house, Sibyl comes upon a group of little free libraries, one on each corner of a boastfully literate residential intersection. The enclosures each hold only two or three shelves, but she can see through the glass that they’re packed. One contains history tomes and novels, another magazines, another gnawed children’s books, the last books on pregnancy and child-rearing. Maybe because she’s soaked and cold, maybe because she feels she’s misspent her vacation days by eavesdropping on the previous homeowner’s life, Sibyl removes the diarist’s journals from her damp bag and shoves them without compunction between a book on breastfeeding and a heavily dog-eared volume on oppositional defiant disorder.

Back at the rental she takes a hot shower. She naps. She makes a meal from the staples left by previous renters: rice, a can of beans, a dozen shakes of a no-salt seasoning. For dessert: low-fat vanilla ice cream that’s perfectly fine a shallow scrape beyond the ice crystals. She reads a quarter of a Grisham novel and drinks from the complimentary bottle of wine that greeted her on her arrival her first day here. She tries to bring back the feeling she had in Asilomar—she even heats the wine—but that sense of contentment doesn’t return.

The next morning, Sibyl feels belatedly triumphant when she discovers, in a deep broom closet, a pair of beach chairs, slack in the saddle but otherwise fine. But there’s only a half hour left until checkout. She packs, strips the linens, puts the towels in the tub.

Here she is, leaving the keys in the lockbox and putting her bags in her car, then putting the car into gear and pulling away from another woman’s life, a woman who wanted love and apparently found it. Here she is, searching for her own future. As for the past, if she wishes for anything, it’s that her divorce had involved tears and acrimony. That someone’s heart had been broken, even if it was hers. For months now, she’s been telling herself that her ex had made her forget an earlier, more interesting self. But that isn’t true. Here she is, alone at a red light, the passenger seat filled with a stack of books from the little libraries: What to Expect When You’re Expecting, one on breastfeeding, another on parenting strategies, and on top of them all, the four journals. All of these books describe her anti-life, but it seems prudent to browse them and be absolutely certain they aren’t for her. Here she is, hoping to travel past the biological imperatives of relationships and sex and motherhood and parenting, and of work and chores and exercise and sleeping and all the rest. Here she is, searching for some greater state, something the diarist could never have imagined. Not something spiritual, but something solid she doesn’t have a name for yet, a word not found in any of these books.

Here she is, seeking.

“Things to Do in Pacific Grove” first appeared in Stonecoast Review.