Hillary Tiefer

The Beauty of Blank Space

Debby stood by the deluxe bus of Northwest Viewpoint Tours in Eugene, observing that the tour group consisted of mostly women in their fifties or older—probably all divorcees or widows. Some were younger, in their forties, like herself. A woman came with a teenage girl, no doubt mother and daughter since they resembled one another. Then she saw a short, heavyset man wearing an Oregon Ducks baseball cap, a black t-shirt with the words in white, I’m Currently Away from My Computer, and khaki shorts. This was the one man—a geek. She had to suppress a feeling of disappointment. She was in no state to want another man in her life. Her friend, Colleen, who had driven her to the tour office in the morning, had hugged her goodbye and said, “Deb, have a wonderful time and remember you’re way too vulnerable for men right now.”

Then she noticed a man, who appeared to be in his fifties, join the group. He was handsome, with brown hair peppered with gray that was thinning over his forehead. He wore a nice plaid button-down shirt, like those she used to buy at Orvis for Gary, and clean, new looking denim jeans.

A boyish official from the tour company, holding a clipboard, announced that they should enter the bus. Debby had already planted herself near the open door of the bus and was the first one to climb in. She took a window seat toward the front. She’d have a good view as they toured scenic Northwest Oregon. She watched as others entered the bus and felt a twinge of disappointment when the pleasant-looking man passed her and continued down the aisle.

She turned toward the window, but soon she heard, “Excuse me but are you saving this seat?”

A woman, probably in her seventies, stood by the seat, leaning on a cane and blocking those behind her. She stared at Debby through sunglasses with absurd rhinestone frames. She wore a pink cap exposing tufts of white hair, a t-shirt displaying the American flag over her bulging stomach, and loose denim jeans.

“Oh, sure. I’m not saving it for anyone.”

After sitting, the woman offered Debby her big, brown-spotted hand. “Hi, I’m Cytherea Wilcox,” she said.

Her dousing of perfume made Debby’s nose itch. She shook the woman’s hand and said, “I’m Debby Hanson.”

“Good to meet you, Debby. We’re going to be tourists together.”

“You have an unusual name. It’s pretty.”

“My mother named me that because I was a bastard. She told me Cytherea was another name for Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, who rose from the sea on a giant seashell. As young as my mother was—only eighteen—she knew all about mythology, you see. ‘I had to give you a special name’ she told me, ‘so you’ll know you’re special.’”

“It sounds like you had a very loving mother.” Yet whatever beauty this woman once possessed was long gone.

“My dear mother—”

“Let me have your attention, please.” The young man with the clipboard stood in the front between the aisles. “I’m, Travis, your tour guide, and this is our driver, Burt,” he said, oozing charm. A bald man behind the wheel turned around and smiled. “I promise you, ladies, and ….” Travis scanned the seats. “And gents, we’ll have a fantastic time together. Right now we’re heading up to Portland. We’ve got a great day ahead of us at Portland’s two famous gardens.”

Colleen had insisted Debby go on this tour to forget about her ex-husband Gary, who was now engaged to the receptionist in his podiatry office. She had to blot out the memory of the two of them in the bed Debby had shared with her husband, an image that came after her like the devil with a pitchfork. She paid six hundred and seventy-five dollars to appreciate the beautiful scenery and enjoy the three-day tour, and that was what she intended to do.

Yet, as they drove through the Willamette Valley the flat fields where sheep grazed reminded her of the flatness of her life without Gary. The truth was the passion between them had been missing for some time even while they were still married. Not that she didn’t try to get it back. She knew she had put on weight and dieted until she lost ten pounds, but Gary didn’t notice. Nor was he aware that she had firmed her arms and legs after going to a gym for several months. At first, he said he was too tired to have sex. Then he announced he had stomach problems, maybe an ulcer. She suggested he go to a gastroenterologist, but he never did. How was she to know that this lack of interest in her coincided with the arrival of the new receptionist, pretty blond-haired Regina?

He had loved Debby once, and she couldn’t understand why he had stopped. Surely lust for a shallow girl, not much older than his daughter, couldn’t extinguish all his feelings for her. Debby pondered this—as she had many times before—while staring at a hawk sitting on the fence along the I-5. She had no more idea than this huge bird. Suddenly it rose from the fence and spread out its wide wings. She watched the hawk in the sky circling, looking for prey.

“My grandparents were ranchers,” Cytherea said, as they passed more pastures where sheep grazed. “They raised cattle near Phoenix, Oregon. My grandfather was a brute of a man—he’d like to spit me out of his life like he did the juice of his chewing tobacco. This was the early fifties, mind you, not now when girls pop out babies all the time and have no idea who the father is. Nor does anyone care.”

“It must’ve been hard for you and your mother,” Debby said even though she was losing interest in this woman. She glanced down the opposite aisle and noted that two rows back the man sat next to an attractive woman, who looked around Debby’s age—in her mid-forties.

“My mother was strong and brave,” Cytherea continued. “She wasn’t crushed by her abusive folks. Unfortunately, when I was small, she had no choice but to leave me at the ranch under the care of my grandmother. The old bat gave me plenty of wallops with her belt. I remember when I was twelve and just started my bleeding her telling me, ‘By the time you’re fifteen you’ll be loading on us your own illegitimate kid.’ She never used the word bastard because she claimed to be a Christian.”

“I’m sorry. That must have hurt your self-esteem.” Debby forced compassion, not able to muster real empathy.

“I never had a boyfriend. My mother warned me about men, you see. After all, she was left high and dry by my father.”

Debby looked toward her window. A combine kicked up dirt in a field. Beyond the field was the silhouette of the Cascade Range, Mt. Hood being most prominent. She had made a wise choice taking this trip—nature was the curative, not other men.

“I did sort of have a quick romance with a young guy called Buddy,” Cytherea said, and Debby turned to her. “I was seventeen when I met him at Clay’s Market in Medford, where I worked the cash register. He was a box-boy. One day at break, we shared a cigarette in the back of the market. He sat really close, and then all of a sudden kissed me smack on the lips. He said he’d like to take me out and I was all goosebumps and tingling inside. But we never did get together, and a few weeks later he didn’t show up at the market. One of the girls who worked there told me he enlisted in the army. And that was that. When I cried to my mother about him, she hugged me and said, ‘Cytherea, it’s for the best. Men aren’t to be trusted.’”

Yes, I know too well, Debby wanted to say but instead said, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m glad I’m not a servant to some fat old man, who sits all day on his ass watching T.V. while drinking a can of beer. How about you?”

“I got divorced six months ago. I have a daughter, Megan, who’s eighteen.”

“Lucky for you to have a daughter. That’s what my mother said—she was lucky to have me—as hard as it was.”

Yes, I’m very proud of Megan. She’ll be starting Oregon State in the fall.”

But Debby also dreaded her leaving. The house would be unbearably empty then. She had mentioned to Megan that she might sell the house and move to a condo near the coast. Megan hadn’t reacted well to this, saying, “I won’t have my home to come back to during my vacations. I’d never see my friends again.” Debby couldn’t express to her how much she needed to be out of the house cluttered with memories. Even the neighborhood and the town had too many painful associations. Instead, she had told Megan it was only a thought, not to be taken too seriously.

“So, what do you do with yourself when you’re not climbing on tour buses?” Cytherea asked.

“I’m a librarian. What about you?”

“I had my own housecleaning business for years, but now I’m retired—thank God! I enjoy myself by going on these tours. I’m glad I’ve teamed up with you, Debby, on this trip. I’m sure we’ll get to know a lot about each other before it’s over.”

Debby already revealed enough about herself and knew more about Cytherea than she wanted. She turned toward the window. They passed rows of grapevines and then a sign shaped like an arch announcing Willamette Valley Winery.

****

When the tour group arrived in Portland, it was twelve thirty. Debby was hungry and glad they stopped for lunch first. Grand Vista Restaurant, aptly named, was located on a steep hill, with a magnificent view of the city, the Willamette River, and Mt. Hood. Since there were thirty of them, they filled almost every booth of the restaurant. Cytherea shimmied in next to Debby, and they were also joined by the woman with the teenager. The woman introduced herself as Sharon and the girl as her daughter, Tiffany. The taciturn girl, with blond hair in need of a washing, said nothing and seemed to look through them.

She was nothing like lively Megan, with shiny brown hair and big blue eyes she inherited from her father. Debby would have liked Megan to join her on this tour but knew she’d have more fun with her friend Chloe, whose family had invited her to stay with them for a week at their timeshare in Cannon Beach. Debby worried though that Megan might get depressed sitting at the dinner table observing Chloe’s mother and father speaking tender words to each other, maybe hugging, even kissing. It had been a long time since Megan saw her father kiss her mother, even give her an affectionate hug.

Tiffany hardly touched her hamburger or fries. No wonder she looked gaunt.

“I have a daughter, too,” Debby said. “She just turned eighteen. How old are you, Tiffany?”

She stared at Debby for a few seconds then mumbled some words.

“Speak up, honey,” her mother said.

“Fifteen,” she said now audibly but seemed to have exerted herself too much and sipped her Coke. She then lifted a stringy fry to her mouth.

Debby couldn’t help looking at the man, sitting in a booth across the room. The woman who had sat with him on the bus was next to him on the wooden bench, chatting with others on the opposite side of the table. It irritated Debby that the woman was stunning, with auburn hair in a French twist. Debby forced herself to turn away and focus on the people sitting in her booth. “It’s nice you’re going on this tour together,” she said.

“Tiffany and I will have a great time,” Sharon said and turned to her daughter. “You’ll love the Japanese Garden. The koi pond is supposed to be spectacular.”

The girl lifted a napkin to her mouth and removed a clump of chewed potato.

“I bet you don’t like being the only teenager,” Cytherea said to her. “My mother dragged me along lots of places I didn’t want to go. She had no choice. I had no father, and my grandparents hated the sight of me.”

“My dad hates having me around,” the girl said, surprising Debby that she’d actually engage in a conversation. “He’d rather be with his new wife and my half-sister, born just one week after me.”

Even the garrulous Cytherea was speechless after hearing this remark.

Sharon placed her hand on the girl’s thin one. “We’ve discussed this more than once, sweetie. He loves you just as much. He’s told you that many times.”

It was clear that Debby wasn’t the only one who carried emotional baggage on this trip.

****

After lunch Burt drove the bus into Washington Park and let the group off in front of a tennis court. They followed Travis into the International Rose Test Garden—as he informed them it was officially called—and had them gather around a steel sculpture that was also a fountain and reminded Debby of a photo she had seen of Stonehenge. “A variety of hybrid roses are successfully tested here in this garden and have won a number of prizes over the years,” he said. He explained how Georgiana Pittock, the wife of the wealthy newspaper baron, began the Portland Rose Society and how by the turn of the twentieth-century miles and miles of Portland city streets were bordered by roses and therefore earned the name City of Roses. He went on to explain that the garden was created to protect hybrids in Europe that people feared would be destroyed during World War I.

Debby’s eyes moved to the nice-looking man on the tour. He now wore a straw hat with a narrow rim. He nodded at each word spoken by their guide as if this was the most pertinent information he ever heard. At least he finally stood apart from that auburn-haired woman.

“And then we come to the Rosarians, the official greeters,” Travis continued. “Their organization has an impressive official title, ‘Order of Royal Rosarians’ and a long, fascinating history back in England.”

He was enthusiastic, but Debby wished he’d finish and she could walk through the paths between the many rose bushes. Standing under a hot sun was difficult enough, but talks like these bored her. Cytherea wet her face with water from the fountain.

“I promised you a rose garden so go ahead and enjoy it,” Travis finally said.

Being mid-June many of the roses still bloomed and in a myriad of colors: red, pink, purple, white, even yellow. Debby was annoyed that Cytherea walked alongside her. She didn’t want to spend the entire tour with this woman.

“Look at the names of these roses,” Cytherea said, “‘Caramel Kisses,’ and get the name of these: ‘Falling in Love,’ ‘Kiss Me,’ and ‘Marilyn Monroe’—yellow like her hair. Yes, the rose is a sexy flower, and, as my mother once said, ‘Watch out for the thorns!’”

Debby glanced at the man, who was in one row beyond them. He was walking with Sharon and her daughter. Sharon was also divorced and certainly wouldn’t mind the attention of this man. Debby wondered why he had come alone on this tour. He couldn’t be married. The man was certainly single.

“‘Love Struck’ and ‘Secret’s Out’—these names crack me up,” Cytherea said. “I wonder what secret’s out. Something lewd, I guess.” She laughed.

Debby had the urge to slip away from Cytherea. After all, the woman hobbled with a cane at a slow pace and had Debby chosen to quicken her pace the woman wouldn’t be able to catch up. But Debby wasn’t heartless. She removed her camera from her handbag and snapped a picture of the lavender rose. Then she sniffed a pink rose named “Summer’s Romance” and took in its sweet scent.

“Here’s ‘Cinco de Mayo’ and ‘Hot Tamale’,” Cytherea said, poking at the roses with her cane. “I once had a crush on a Mexican ranch hand, but my mother warned me about the men working in the fields. ‘Don’t go out there alone’ she used to tell me.’ I never did.”

This woman not only irritated Debby she was becoming repugnant. She had to escape her.

But Debby couldn’t. After Travis announced it was time to leave for the near-by Japanese Garden Cytherea asked her to wait with her for the shuttle that would take them up to the garden, while the other members of the tour chose to walk up the hilly path toward the entrance. Only the man wearing the geek t-shirt waited with them for the shuttle. His face dripped with sweat. Apparently, the ninety-degree heat was too much for him. “I’m Lester Paulson,” he said and extended his pudgy hand to each of them. Soon after their introductions, the shuttle arrived. Lester climbed in first and took Cytherea’s cane while Debby held her arm and helped lift her up into her seat. He sat across from them, trying to catch his breath even though Debby had done the most physical work.

By the front gate, Travis began his talk by announcing that this was the “most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan,” and went on to emphasize the aesthetic quality of nature here—so relevant to Japanese culture. He also told them that Oregon’s Mt. Hood greatly resembled Mt. Fuji and reminded the group that both were volcanos.

“My luck our volcano blows today,” Cytherea muttered.

He ended with, “Let’s all enjoy the peace and tranquility.”

“I’m damn mad,” Cytherea said. “In the tour brochure, it stated we’d not be doing much walking. Well, I can’t be expected to walk around this hilly place. Not with my arthritis.” She plopped onto a bench shaded by a Japanese maple. “Go ahead without me.”

Debby suppressed showing her elation and merely said, “Well, then, I’ll see you later.” She felt liberated.

Standing on a delicate wooden bridge, she snapped pictures of the koi pond, surrounded by blooming irises. Then a woman from the tour, who introduced herself as Bernice, asked if Debby would take a picture of her and her friend, Phyllis. Of course, Debby agreed and took the woman’s camera. They stood together, grinning, on the bridge, and had they moved one step back they’d have been in the pond with the koi fish. She snapped a picture of these two women probably in their late sixties, both dressed in sleeveless blouses and shorts, revealing plump arms and legs.

After she left the pond, she headed up a slope. Then she entered a path leading to the sand garden.

The man, holding his straw hat by his side, was there alone. She felt an excitement she shouldn’t have. He stood pensively staring at the sand, raked to look like waves of water. Then he acknowledged Debby with a smile and approached her. “Hi, I’m Roger Townsend,” he said, extending his hand.

She told him her name while relishing those few seconds their hands made contact. She turned toward the sand and struggled to say something profound about it. “It’s called a Zen garden,” she finally said because that was what she had read about it in a tour book.

He nodded. “I’m most at peace here—with its emptiness.”

“Yes, I understand what you mean.” She glanced at his left hand and noticed he wore no wedding ring then she looked into his honey-brown eyes—they were wet.

“This is my most important stop on the tour,” he said. “I read about these sand and stone gardens, or ‘dry landscapes,’ as they’re called. Here before us is ‘the beauty of blank space’—yohaku-no-bi.” He heaved a deep sigh. “I appreciate how uncomplicated it is.”

“Me, too,” Debby said, staring back at the sand and trying to capture its beauty and significance as he did. Instead, she only saw her life as barren as the sand. She also sighed.

He touched her arm. “It affects you as it does me.”

“Yes, it does.”

Even though the garden didn’t affect her in quite the same way as it did him, the two of them connected at this unusual place.

Then came a few strangers and members of their tour, including Bernice and Phyllis, followed by Lester, who lifted his camera and snapped a picture.

“I see no point in taking a picture,” Phyllis said and laughed. “It’s just a big sandbox.”

Debby’s eyes met Roger’s knowingly.

****

For dinner, they entered the Chart House with its spectacular views of Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Adams—as Travis identified each—and also the Willamette River running through the city of Portland. Two large rectangular tables were set aside for them. She followed Roger toward a table, pretending to be preoccupied with the scenes out the expansive windows. At the table where he sat, she began to pull out a chair to sit across from him but was stopped when she felt an object poke her back. She turned to see Cytherea sitting at an adjacent table. She had used her cane to get Debby’s attention. “I’ve saved you a seat next to me,” she said.

Debby had the urge to say, “No thank you,” and sit where she had planned but Cytherea narrowed her eyes defiantly at her as if she expected Debby to do just that and thereby hurt her feelings—this woman, who no doubt had been spurned before.

“Sure,” Debby said, resigned. Besides, she remembered Colleen’s warning. But as she sipped her sauvignon blanc, she thought he and she had made a connection by that sand garden. She was going to make the best of it.

After they received their room assignments that evening at the Marriott Bernice invited Debby to join her and Phyllis for drinks later at the hotel bar and added, “Just you—not the old chatterbox.” Debby had no desire for Cytherea’s company, nor did she really want theirs. Her hope was she’d be able to eventually separate from them and approach Roger at the bar.

“Yes, thank you, I’d love to,” she said. “I’ll just change my clothes and be right down.” Holding the handle of her suitcase, she took the elevator to her room on the fifth floor.

An hour later, while she sat at a table with Bernice and Phyllis, she gave occasional glances to Roger who sat on a high stool by the bar next to the auburn-haired woman, who was obviously out to capture him. She wore a shimmering green cocktail dress, clinging and revealing her sexy figure. Debby didn’t own a cocktail dress and wore a blouse and skirt, which she had recently purchased at a size larger than she had ever worn before. Soon after separating from Gary she had binged on food. Now she wished she had forced herself to remain as slender as this woman.

“The ladies have been swarming around that man,” Bernice said. “Poor guy. He can’t be alone ever.” She sipped her cabernet while shaking her head.

“I bet he enjoys all the attention he gets,” Phyllis said and lifted her beer to drink.

“I doubt it,” Bernice said. “It’s pathetic that women are circling him like flies. Don’t you think, Debby?”

“Well, he is nice.” She sipped her pinot noir.

At breakfast, she managed to sit at Roger’s table even though he was flanked on either side by two other women, Rhoda and Alice—Bernice’s flies. By the time Cytherea entered the restaurant all the seats at the table were taken. She frowned at Debby as if Debby had betrayed her then sat elsewhere.

Debby tried to make conversation with Roger, but it was difficult because Rhoda and Alice kept chattering at him and shoving photos of their grown kids in front of him. He struggled to eat his eggs and sausage. However, his eyes met hers on a few occasions, as if they had established a secret bond at that sand garden.

****

The next morning, Debby entered the bus followed by Cytherea, who, fortunately, showed no signs of holding a grudge, but instead was excited that they’d be traveling through the spectacular Columbia Gorge to Multnomah Falls. Soon after they were seated Sharon and her sour-faced daughter entered the bus. After they passed, Cytherea leaned her head close to Debby’s and said, “I’ve got the scoop on the girl.”

“She seems very unhappy.”

“That’s an understatement. Her mother sat on the bench with me at the Japanese Garden while Tiffany was in the restroom. Sharon didn’t like leaving her alone even to pee. She told me all about it—how a few months ago the girl gulped down nearly a whole bottle of aspirin, trying to kill herself.”

Debby wasn’t surprised by this information and felt for Tiffany and her mother. “This has to do with her father, right?”

“He had another family he kept secret from them for years. His other so-called wife gave birth to a daughter born a week after Tiffany.”

“Yes, that’s what she said.”

“He finally decided to leave Sharon and Tiffany for his other family and shocked them both with his revelation. Tiffany was blown away by it.”

“I can understand why Sharon doesn’t want her out of her sight. She’s scared she’ll try it again.”

At least Megan hadn’t been suicidal. Debby had taken her to a counselor to help her deal with the divorce, but she had accepted it better than Debby had anticipated. Of course, she never told Megan about the horrific scene—how she had come home from work soon after lunch because she suffered from the stomach flu and found Gary and Regina in their bed together. Regina lay where Debby always slept, and her head was on Debby’s pillow. Gary later told her he was glad it had happened. “It forced me to finally be truthful to you,” he had said, avoiding eye contact.

She looked out the window, trying to suppress the pain. She wished she could free herself of the humiliation. They were passing the smaller Latourell Falls. She imagined herself standing within that downpour of water, like a powerful shower, washing it away, cleansing her forever.

“I hope our guide doesn’t expect me to walk on a trail to see Multnomah Falls,” Cytherea said. “Because I can’t. I’ll ask for a refund if he does. The brochure made it very clear there’s little walking on this tour.”

Debby turned to her. “You don’t need to do any walking. Multnomah Falls is very high and hard to miss. I went there years ago with my husband.”

“We never did. We couldn’t afford a car, you see, but my mother once said to me, ‘You and I can still go places, Cytherea.’ We traveled by Greyhound. But we never made it out to the Falls. As for myself, I rarely leave Medford unless I’m on a tour bus.”

The bus pulled into a spot in a parking lot designated for tours and let the group out. “Here we are,” Debby said and smiled.

Travis shouted out his information over the roar of the cascading water while the group licked ice cream cones at the base of the falls, already crowded with people at eleven in the morning. He suggested they climb up to Benson Footbridge, which crossed the lower tier of the falls. “It’s named after the original owner of the falls,” he said, “a man with lots of hubris to think he can own such a fierce phenomenon of nature like this—a waterfall over six hundred feet high.”

Surprisingly few on tour wanted to do the climb and were content to watch from the base. Cytherea found a bench and sat. Roger, however, entered the path leading to the bridge. Debby followed, trying to catch up with him. She couldn’t move her legs fast enough on the switchbacks nor speed by the many people at least half her age.

When she arrived, he stood against the stone guardrail, staring at the falls as if he were in communion with it. She was about to move next to him but stopped herself, fearing she’d encroach upon his private thoughts. Instead, she took in the cool mist on her face, all the time aware he was only a few feet away. Suddenly a woman in a sari got between them and posed while a man snapped her picture. Then they left, and Debby realized soon others would arrive and keep them apart. The tour would only last another day and now was the time to approach him. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” she shouted above the tumultuous water, hoping he could hear her.

He turned and smiled at her. “This magnificent waterfall reminds me of how powerless we—”

Tiffany catapulted onto the bridge and pressed against the guardrail then leaned forward and spread out her arms as if to embrace the water. Roger and Debby rushed to her at the same time. He wrapped his arm around her waist while Debby grabbed her hand. He, too, must’ve known the girl’s story.

Soon Sharon was on the bridge, out of breath and her chest heaving. “Thank you both so much!” she said. “Let’s go, honey.” She placed her arm around her daughter’s shoulders.

“I wasn’t going to dive in, Mom.”

Roger and Debby, among a horde of people, followed them down the slope.

When they came to the base Travis informed them it was time to enter the bus—they had a lunch awaiting them in Hood River.

They weren’t traveling long when Cytherea leaned close to Debby and by her ear said, “I’ve got the scoop on Roger.”

Debby resented that Cytherea targeted him for gossip. “He’s a nice man—there’s nothing else I need to know about him.”

“I think you do. That lady he befriended, Diane, told me all about him. He’s got a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s been worse lately—doesn’t even know who he is. They were madly in love, and he’s all torn up over her. His family insisted he get away for a while, take a break from her. That’s why he’s here.”

Debby wished the choking sensation would go away and she could respond as she had when Cytherea had told her about Tiffany. Cytherea stared at her, awaiting a response. “That’s too bad,” Debby finally managed to say.

“So he’s not available. That’ll disappoint more than one woman on this tour.” Through those dark, rhinestone-rimmed glasses, malice flared through the woman’s eyes.

“He’s not wearing a ring.” That slipped out of Debby’s mouth.

“Maybe some men don’t like wearing jewelry. He should have, though, not to mislead any of the ladies. Like you, for example.”

Heat surged in Debby’s face. “Well, I certainly wasn’t interested in ….” There was no point in trying to deny it, but she was livid. “You don’t even know what it’s like to be with a man—your mother saw to that! She was no gem. It’s her fault you’ve lived alone all these years. She ruined you! She was just like Miss Havisham!”

“Like who?”

“A very bitter woman! You ought to knock her off her pedestal!”

Cytherea narrowed her eyes at Debby and mashed her lips together—perhaps this had been a worse insult. “What a mean thing to say,” she muttered and twisted away from Debby. If the bus weren’t moving, she’d have left her seat.

Debby stared out the window. The sun glistened on the choppy water of the Columbia River, and some people were windsurfing. Roger was lost to her. She never really had him.

****

On the ride back to Eugene the following morning she was relieved Cytherea no longer sat beside her. The seat next to hers remained empty. Although she had been provoked, Debby regretted hurting the woman. She wasn’t surprised Cytherea had chosen to sit at another table for the last four meals of their tour. Debby no longer sought out Roger but he had sat next to her at the same table at breakfast, and they had both agreed that as much as they were awed by Multnomah Falls their favorite place was the Japanese Garden.

Surprisingly, Debby was no longer depressed. Instead, she was determined to make changes in her life. She’d put the house up for sale and move to a cute little town on the coast, maybe Gearhart or Manzanita. Hopefully, Megan wouldn’t mind this too much—that she’d make new friends at college and no longer miss their home in Springfield.

As they passed the flat pastureland of the Willamette Valley, it reminded her of the sand garden. For the first time, she appreciated the beauty of this empty landscape—so uncomplicated.

When she’d sell her house she’d give away most of her belongings: clothes that no longer fit, books she already read, knickknacks that collected dust, furniture no one sat on, dishes she never used at meals, photo albums she dared not open, and a king-sized bed that caused her too many tears. Her new home would be simple.

When they arrived back to Eugene and the bus parked by the office of Northwest Viewpoint Tours, they all applauded Travis for being a great tour guide and also the driver, Burt. Debby said goodbye to her acquaintances, even Cytherea, who merely scowled. Then she left for the parking lot, where she saw Colleen standing and waving by her car.

***

Hillary Tiefer has a Ph.D. in English. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including Descant, Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, The Broadkill Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Mission at Tenth, Poetica Magazine, Red Rock Review, Crack the Spine, Poydras Review, and Juxtaprose Literary Magazine. Her short stories have also been finalists in contests for Folio, Hidden Rivers Press, and Glimmer Train. Her novel, Lily’s Home Front, has been published by Moonshine Cove.

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