As I write this, I have salt on my lips and my mind. The salt on my lips is ocean salt. I just got back from surfing. Yes, it's one o'clock on a Thursday afternoon as I write this. If I had a boss they would fire me.
Driving home, the radio played Valentine's ads. Lots of Valentine's ads. Advertisers sold flowers, jewelry, romantic getaways, and items I cannot mention because sometimes my Mom reads this column. I barely listened to the ads. Mostly I thought of salt. For me, salt is the memory of things that matter. Love, yes, but not love alone, because love rests atop a foundation built, stone by stone, on friendship, laughter, respect, patience (if you were married to me, this one might be more to the front), loyalty, selflessness, surprise,
and plain good fun.
And, for me, moments that taste of salt.
When I met my wife I'd kissed girls beside the ocean before. I walked with them beneath dark clouds that obscured the stars, beneath full moons that washed the dunes fairy tale silver and moon slices that threw just enough shy light to highlight a downy lip. We walked beside waters that frothed over our bare feet and retreated with a whisper, like lovers turning in the sheets. Sometimes we had already been lovers turning in the sheets. You shouldn't kiss just one person.
But this girl was different. I'd be lying if I said I knew it at that moment, the two of us, at the end of a first date, sitting on a dark jetty in sudden awkward silence, staring at waves that flashed white in the dark. The world smelled of salt and perfume and my hands shook, and I did something strange. Until that moment, kisses were unspoken. This time I asked for permission. I asked with a strange seriousness, a stiff formality as far from suave as a cinderblock. In romance novels, men boldly take the initiative. They don't stutter and crush their fingers and hold their breath in the face of their indecisiveness. And this girl looked at my baffled face and smiled without a stutter and said yes.
Mist blew in. I tasted salt on both our lips.
Time passed. Stones accumulated. We sat at a restaurant beside the ocean, listening to the guy-wires of sailboats chime in the night. My wife was beautiful. We had spent the day on the beach. The sun's burnish always brings out the green in her eyes. Her face was radiant.
She looked at the menu, but she kept glancing up at me because, I confess, I stared. I should have been studying the menu because there were many things I couldn't pronounce and, being a fine restaurant, there weren't numbers beside the entrees.
My wife smiled. When you care enough, you can sometimes tell what your lover is thinking.
"You could order from the children's menu," she said.
Glancing at the menu I saw she was right. Spaghetti and Marinara or Meat Sauce. Fettucine Alfredo. Broiled Chicken Breast.
But we didn't have children.
Green eyes watched me, and then lifted to look over my shoulder.
"I ordered an appetizer," she said. "I hope you don't mind."
I could not recall her ordering, but it was also true I had been staring. I noticed now how her hands fidgeted. The waiter came up behind me. My wife's hands dropped to smooth the napkin in her lap, but her eyes were now locked on mine.
It was a small silver platter, but it was more than big enough. A pair of booties rested on the platter, each no bigger than a thumb. Such tiny feet; it seemed impossible.
I stared at my wife, but hard as I tried, I couldn't see her clearly.
I tasted salt on my lips.
Today, driving home from surfing, I felt a trifle guilty. I don't have a boss, but I do have a conscience. I am old enough now to know that chocolates, roses, and edible bits of clothing are only the smallest threads in love's fabric. Love, more often, is about unromantic things like sharing the load. The pair of booties is in college now. On this day, I hadn't made much of a contribution.
When my wife came home from her long day at work, she was tired. Her face was not sun-burnished.
She kissed me and smiled.
"You taste salty," she said. "I hope you went surfing."
Find your own moments and never forget their taste.
Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
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