It wasn’t fair to be this cold on the shores of the Sahara. Despite the broiling heat trying to claw its way through the cracks under the doors, the air conditioning of the Hotel Grande Al’Shahin was arctic, setting Cole’s teeth chattering and chilling his clammy shirt to his back. Hugging himself, he didn’t catch the concierge’s spiel.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Our pool has a dance show every night at six o’clock.” She pressed a stack of brochures into Cole’s hands then glanced at his belly…again. He managed not to tug at his shirt this time as her voice dropped into a conspiratorial murmur. “We have the best in-house gym, and the spa has an amazing detox wrap. Takes inches off. Incredible results.”
How delightful. Cole couldn’t muster a single response, his mind clicking like a car with a dead battery. None of his canned responses, perfected over the last two years, were coming. Only his therapist’s “You don’t always have to educate people. Sometimes it’s okay to ignore them.”
“I’m more interested in diving lessons,” Cole said, trying not to clench his teeth. “But thank you.”
Her face went blank, but not before assuming a brief look of incredulity that didn’t help with the teeth clenching at all. “Diving? We have a full-service dive shop,” she said. “They do intro classes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and twice on Saturday. If you…know how to swim?”
“Sounds great,” Cole said, sliding away. That was enough BS for one day. The flight from Cairo had been short but brutal—he didn’t need this on top.
Despite his grand-sounding title—and the State Department loved titles—as the Assistant Cultural Attaché to the United States Embassy, Cairo, Cole had flown in a middle seat. On the return flight I’m upgrading. Never letting the morale office book me a flight again. He’d pretended to be asleep to avoid seeing the faces of his row-mates. Legs and arms clenched tight, seatbelt cutting his hips despite the extension, Cole had barely breathed the whole flight.
The heat and salt marsh air of Al’Shahin had slapped him the moment he’d staggered off the plane onto the shimmering tarmac. Clean air, to be sure, but also hot. Broiling, unbelievably hot. And humid! Trapped against the Sinai, Al’Shahin stewed in the evaporation off the Red Sea. Less than a year in Egypt, and he thought he had mastered the heat. Humidity had not even occurred to him.
Neither had freezing to death in a hotel lobby. It was eleven a.m., and he was exhausted. A backhanded insult about his weight wasn’t the welcome he’d imagined. Three years ago, he would have broken down in tears. A year ago, he would have given her a lecture. But present-day Cole shrugged it off, making for the doors. They always mean well, don’t they? And maybe I’ll get the fucking wrap anyway. Maybe I wanted to before she even said anything. So there.
He took a deep breath before pushing out onto the patio. The heat clawed him with greedy fingers, sun blazing cheerfully away overhead. Three steps, and he could feel the heat in his mouth. Five, and he could sense it through the soles of his shoes. The back of his neck burned, and he looked around, trying to shake off the feeling of being watched. Stared at. You are being paranoid. It’s just the heat.
The pool shimmered, a mirage of blue. Darker sunglasses, they were first on the shopping list. Christ, and he thought Cairo was hot? Still feeling eyes on him, he tried to walk quickly but not too quickly, ignoring the rattle of his suitcase wheels over the pebbled walk. The sweat on his lower back itched. A shower. A shower and a nap then I can reassess. Hands slick, he bobbled his phone, dropped it and his sunglasses both. Someone laughed. Cole flinched, even as his brain registered the sound was happy, flirtatious laughter. Not look at that loser laughter.
“You are not a loser,” he muttered, gripping his phone and straightening his sunglasses. He gave his shirt a sharp tug over his belly. “You have never been a loser. Those were Donnie’s words.” He hadn’t needed that mantra in a while. Cairo was…good. Busy, interesting, professionally validating and really fricking good. Living in a cramped Cairo apartment? Not so much. But who cared? It was Cairo! The geography and antiquities nerd dream.
But now here he was, thinking of his ex, feeling eyes watching him, hurt and slipping into intrusive thoughts. Why? Just because people were laughing?
“All right, all right, quit messing around,” a rough voice barked out, making Cole fumble his phone again. The happy laughter cut off in a chorus of groans. “I don’t care how tired you are! You clean your gear, then you can relax.”
A small building squatted on the far side of the pool, with a thatch roof and an open central arcade, shaded and tiled in blue. The dive shop. The sign over the opening was faded, a shark curled dimly under the Grande logo. One of the million old pickup trucks littering Africa was backed up to the arcade, and a group of young people passed equipment back and forth like hurrying ants.
The bark belonged to a tall, scowling man standing in the bed of the truck with his hands on his hips and glaring straight at Cole from behind a pair of mirrored aviators.
Tanned from the sun, with wide shoulders, he wore a wetsuit unzipped to the waist and hanging around his legs. He had a shaved head and short scruffy beard, brown heavily threaded with gray. The harsh lines of his face made art deco angles with his jaw as he shouted at the divers scrambling around the truck. Whoever this pissed-off jerk thought he was, he was staring at Cole.
Taking a slow deep-oven-hot breath, Cole straightened his sunglasses, glancing back over out of the corner of his eye. His championship record of making a fool of himself in front of hot straight men made him cautious, but he didn’t miss the way the guy in the truck glanced his way again. Busted.
“It ain’t complicated, doll.” The divemaster sneered at a pretty blonde girl with her hands on her hips. “You rinse the salt off your gear, you hang it up, and then you can eat.”
What an absolute dick. Cole knew trouble when he saw it. Hopefully that guy wouldn’t be the divemaster for Cole’s certification. Cole was in no mood. He kept walking.
His room was one in a long row of little villas. Did a one-bedroom with en-suite count as a villa? The brochure certainly said it did. And for Cole, who only intended to use the room to sleep after days of adventure, it was pure luxury. A quick walk-through revealed air conditioning, a huge bed piled high with blue pillows and a tiny bathroom. Bright and cheerful, it was certainly bigger than his airless shoebox in Cairo.
The back door opened onto a small limestone courtyard, high walled and full of plants. The back of the house blocked the blazing sun. Stepping onto the tiles, Cole gave a whoop of joy, seeing an outdoor shower, the showerhead as big as a tennis racket. Cole had no trouble ignoring the rust and the slightly crooked pipes. He turned on the water and after some screeching rattles, it gushed a monsoon. Cole needed no further prompting. He stripped right there, laying his clothes on the shelf by the towels and toiletries.
The blue sky, the reaching plants, the patter of water on the stones… Cole took the first relaxed breath of his leave. Shampooing absently, he realized the sound that had been in the background wasn’t air-con—it was the sea!
I’m here! I’m on the Red Sea! The Sinai! Six years in that dank basement office at Smithsonian, trying to get a Foreign Service posting, and now I’m on the Red Sea!
So why was he so jittery? Letting the water flow over him, cooling his sweat-itch skin, he took a moment to assess. Why had the hotel clerk bothered him so much? To the point that he’d nearly had an anxiety attack by the pool?
“I am tired as hell,” he said. “I worked like crazy to be able to take a whole two weeks.” Not enough sleep. What else? “I’m hungry. I missed dinner, and only had airplane coffee.” It made more sense when he thought in those terms. His therapist always insisted he run through basic logistics as a first step to challenging negative thoughts. Hungry, dehydrated, sleep deprived, not enough time outside—these were all things that had to be taken care of before he could work on emotions.
“Three triggers at least didn’t help.” Flying was always difficult for him. Then the clerk. Then the mean-faced guy staring at him. His reactions put into perspective, he could finally loosen his shoulders. Relief and gratitude, those glorious balms, filled him as he took three breaths in then gave a long slow exhale, over and over, rocking side to side under the water. Better. Much better.
Running soapy hands over himself felt taboo under the open sky. He gave a brief thought to the big scuba instructor by the pool. He was hot and probably wasn’t staring. Thinking about Donnie threw me off. Three years, give or take, since the divorce, and Cole sometimes went a whole month without thinking about his ex. This seemed like the perfect place to continue that trend.
“I am about to cross something off my bucket list. This is going to be the best vacation of my life, and I am sure as shit not letting him spoil even a minute of it.”
Him could be Donnie or could be the mean-faced divemaster. Either way. Under the blue sky with the sea calling. Cole’s spirits soared. This trip was about adventure, and he was not wasting any of it.
After a bottle of water and a protein bar from his bag, Cole didn’t need a nap. He was ready to explore. He threw on clean clothes and, grabbing a hat this time, headed back out to the patio. He wanted to see the water. A whole year in country before his first vacation, he hadn’t seen the Red Sea since he’d arrived in Cairo. He tucked his dive paperwork into his back pocket. Since his path took him by the dive shop, he would sign up while he was there. Adventure was calling!
A cascade of wide sandstone steps led to the sea. Umbrellas and chairs dotted the beach in neat rows, broken up by a large bar with a thatch roof. A jetty divided the beach and led straight out into the blue. Nearer shore were a mix of reef and sandy stretches where people could swim and snorkel. Could swim. But were not currently swimming. Only one couple used the chaises. A family peered at the reef from the end of the jetty, their voices echoing off the stone walls. The rest of the sandy spar was deserted. Even up on the pool deck, there were only a handful of people. A man sunbathed with an armed bodyguard standing discreetly apart, watching everyone, though there was no one to watch besides some college kids and an elderly couple. Tinny music played over speakers mounted to the dusty palm trees. It echoed strangely, cheerful in the near silence.
The Regional Security Chief had warned him about this. “You’ll get a great deal—you can stay in a really big resort for the cost of those little places a couple years ago. They’re in a hard patch. Arab Spring, then the terrorist attacks a couple of years ago, and the economy tanking—there is a lot less business. It’s a great time to go. But I worry about those guys. Tourism is everything and that coast is a gem.”
The Chief had been right. Spread out before Cole was a perfect deep blue sea, surrounded by red and brown mountains dropping all the way down into the water. The waves were small, crashing against the reef rather than the moon sliver of sand. Overhead, a wavering dome of white-blue barely tinged to pink as the sun arced to the mountains behind him. Cole did a slow turn, wonder bubbling up. The resort was an oasis of carefully cultivated green cupped in the barren hills, dotted with clean rows of white buildings, his own little villa among them. A gem.
Was this much happiness possible? Physiologically speaking? Would he burst into flames? He had a sense that just out of his peripheral vision, or maybe just beyond his fingertips, was a new stage of his life. If he turned, or reached for it, it would disappear. It danced on the tip of his tongue. Laura said I needed to fill my well. Despite the torrent of jokes that followed about what he could fill his well with, she’d had a point. I’ll never paint again if I don’t slow down.
That might be what he was feeling, the itch in his fingers, the change standing just behind him. Maybe it was a muse. The headlong rush into the foreign service was done. He was settled. It was time to breathe. To be still long enough for his muse to find him.