As he felt the ocean wind blow through his hair, he realized he was now an accomplished stalker. The thought made him smile.
Maybe stalker was a strong word. He was just very dedicated. He guessed some people might use the word obsessive. He would settle for single-minded.
Was it so bad that he liked being close to her? The circumstances of life and responsibility made any long-term closeness impossible. He knew that. He accepted it without question. He loved his wife. She loved her husband. He had no real intention of jeopardizing that. He was sure she felt the same.
But for now, he felt sand from the beach between his toes. The cool wind blowing in from the ocean ruffled his hair, rippled his pants and shirt. The sun warmed his face.
The same beach's sand scratched between her toes. The same ocean's wind tossed her hair. The same sun warmed far more than her face. She lay on the chair, her bathing suit mostly undone, getting as much sun any mild exhibitionist would dare on a public beach.
Twice this afternoon his extended pacing of the beach brought him close to her. Blending into the crowd was one of his talents. A previous career took this talent and trained him to be invisible in plain sight. He hadn't always been a geek.
The second time he came close enough to smell her suntan lotion. She lay on her back, reading a book, oblivious to the world around her. The straps of her bathing suit were undone. The only thing possibly holding the top in place was the uplift of her breasts. He walked right behind her towel, saw the beads of sweat on her newly-tanned skin. He slowed enough to watch a bead of sweat slide down her shoulder, make a turn at the curve of her breast, and fall off her skin to the towel beneath her. The ocean breeze stopped cooling him. He felt his shirt sticking to the his back. He felt a line of sweat pour down his jawline, into the collar of his shirt. He breathed in the smell of her, but didn't stop walking.
He changed his direction of his walk away from the ocean, to a surf shop down the street.
Traveling sucked. Always and always. He never wanted to go. He didn't like leaving his house for a full work day, no less for a whole two weeks. At least the hotel was nice. He fought this trip enough for them to spring for a hotel on the beach. He crouched out of the shuttle bus. As it left him at the door to the hotel a warm ocean breeze pushed away the cloud of exhaust. Patches of sun pushed down through the latticework of the veranda above him. As he smelled the salt in the air, he allowed himself a little smile.
He checked in, dropped his suitcases, and called his wife. Her voice made him feel so much better and so much worse. He hated being away from her and the kids. She soothed his stress of being away, but made him want to do nothing more than get back on the plane and go home.
But work was work, and he had a job to do.
His stomach was already filling with acid, so he headed out to the store. The concierge pointed him to the mall that connected to the hotel for the nearest drug store. He always smiled when he talked to a concierge. He pretended to be a concierge for a while in his youth. Except in his own concierge desk drawers, instead of maps and movie tickets and phone contacts, there were shotguns and flash grenades.
He wasn't always a geek.
The mall was pretty. White. Clean. Lots of windows. Lite rock playing on hidden speakers. Obligatory fountains and glass elevators.
The drug store was on the opposite end.
Fredericks was at the halfway point.
That's when it started.
He walked straight into a trash can. He wasn't always a geek. But he sure was right then.
She was right there. Looking at him. Through him. The lighting was wrong. He was looking right into her eyes, but all she could see was glare. It felt like ice shooting through his veins and across his gut. Countered by a very warm and growing sensation right below his gut. She was holding up a lingerie top. It almost looked like a bustier. Dark blue or black with light blue trim. A pretty bow on the strap. Her hair was in a ponytail off of her shoulder. Her bangs falling down across her face. She turned and smiled at another woman in the store, probably a sales-girl.
That smile made his gut even tighter. That smiling face had kept him company so many nights when he worked as his family slept. So had her vast collection of lingerie. But really it was the smile, always the smile. It melted him a little every time he saw it.
She was still talking, and flipped her hair to the side.
This girl. The close friend he had never met. All those conversations he had with a girl whose voice he had yet to hear.
And she was right. Fucking. There.
And then she wasn't.
She disappeared into the glare of the window. The store only offered him headless mannequins. He could only assume she went back to try on the lingerie.
He realized his mouth was hanging open.
He also realized he was still bent over the trash can he had walked into, and the impact with the trash can had smeared some other slob's mustard all over his shirt.
"So who is the slob now?"
He jumped at the sound of his own voice. That was supposed to be in his head. Apparently, she sent him for a bigger loop than he expected.
He stood there thinking. Attempting to think. Mostly locking up.
"Do I go inside?"
"OK, no. She's trying on lingerie. That would be awkward."
"Well it's not like it's something you haven't seen before."
"Yeah. And more."
"Still ... webcams are webcams. This is real life."
"Yeah dumbass, you could actually speak. Hear her voice. Touch her hand. Maybe even a hug."
"Oh shit. Talk? Out loud?"
"You are being a geek again."
As he stood there, smeared with mustard, talking to himself, he heard footsteps leaving the store behind him. The echo of heels on tile. He looked over and saw those feet connected to his usually-distant friend. She had a phone to her ear, a Fredericks bag and purse on the other arm. And she walked directly away from him.
So he did the logical thing.
He followed her.
Then he did the next logical thing.
He called his wife.
"Ummm ... Hi honey."
"Uhoh. I know that voice. What's wrong. Are you going to be stuck there even longer?"
"NO! No no no. Not that. I haven't even told them I'm here yet."
"Okaaaaayyy. Then what's wrong?"
"Huh? Who is where?"
"She. Here. Right there."
"Ooohhhhhhhh. Her. Well you knew you were going to her town. We talked about this. She's good for you. It's OK if you run into her."
"Yeah yeah yeah. But talk is talk. She's right there in front of me."
"OK ... Are you talking to her?"
"Oh God. You dork. You're following her aren't you."
She knew him well. That was a statement, not a question.
"Yeah. Well. She was in Fredericks. I walked into a trash can. And now there's mustard. Stop laughing!"
"Oh my sweetie. Stop being geeky. Make a wide path around her and bump into her accidentally on purpose. Just say hi. Get your hug."
"But the mustard..."
"Honey — she knows you well enough. It's OK."
"Alright — and then what?"
"Sweetie, I trust you. Do whatever. Just be good. The kids are fighting and screaming I gotta go callmelater loveyoubye."
His wife was an angel sent from God to keep him sane.
The clapclapclap of those heels was mixing with the louder music of a food court. Above that was the cheepcheepcheep of a pack of women giggling and gossiping. His fast-walking friend just ran into some of her friends by the food court. What was a potentially awkward moment just turned into mission-fucking-impossible.
"OK," he told himself, "you weren't always a geek. Act like it."
He walked past her and her group. He headed to the far end of the court, keeping her in the corner of his eye. He bought a bag of chips and an already-prepared sandwich from a vendor at the end of the court. There was no way his stomach was letting him eat anything anytime soon, but he needed an excuse to circle back out of the food court.
He walked straight at the group this time, just within her line of sight. He felt the cold sweat forming on his scalp and his back, but he didn't change his stride. He remembered doing this same maneuver to more than one armed-to-the-teeth steroid-freak bodyguard who needed to be distracted, but that was always easy. Why was a pretty woman whom he had a crush on from a distance so much harder?
"Dear God," he thought. "It's a good thing I'm not on the dating scene any more."
But he kept walking. Her eyes moved in his direction. They looked at his feet and made his way up to his chest.
And she looked away.
He was so close to her.
He slowed his pace.
He opened his mouth.
And realized he had a raging boner.
He kept on walking.
The roar of a thousand cooling fans. The clicking of a thousand disks. The cool, dry air. The fluorescent lighting. The white tile floor. The rows of cabinets full of servers.
There was a time when he loved these sounds, this air.
But anything can get old after a while.
These days, he preferred dealing with servers from a distance. As technology progressed, there was little reason to spend time in this environment. Once a server was racked and primed, it could be build, configured and tweaked from anywhere on the Internet. Preferably his home office. Dress shirts, pants, and shoes had given way to t-shirts, shorts, and flops. Business lunches had given way to sack lunches at school with the kids and lunchtime romps in the bedroom with his wife. Work meetings in conference rooms had given way to teleconferences and video conferences. Tapping his pencil during business meetings to keep himself awake had given way to hot chicks on webcams to distract him from the boredom of project managers and their schedules.
He was incalculably happy with the direction of his life and career.
But the Department of Homeland Security didn't like remote access to their servers. They had valid reasons, he guessed.
But it sucked nonetheless.
Especially at moments like this.
"This rack is empty. Where are the servers?"
"They aren't here."
"I gathered that they weren't here before I asked where they were. Where are they?"
He found it amazing that even DHS's geeks had law enforcement badges. That made life more difficult. People with badges always felt superior. He knew the type. Intimately.
"Sir, as I stated, they aren't here."
"OK." He sighed. Deeply. "Are the servers going to be here today?"
"Sir, all I can tell you is they aren't ready for you yet."
"OK — aren't ready because they hadn't arrived here yet? Or aren't ready because they you haven't put the parts together, or what?"
"They just aren't ready."
"OK Captain Info. Should I wait here? Or should I bother?"
"Sir, I don't have a rank. And I can't say."
"You don't sound like you are calling me from a server room."
"The servers aren't ready."
"Wow. A government project not meeting a deadline. There's a surprise. How far behind are they?"
"They can't say. That's all they'll say."
"Ahh. The DHS party line."
"Well look. We expected you to work for a week, but left two open. You know damn well you could do what they consider a week's work in one day. And they are paying $150 an hour, ten hours a day, plus expenses, regardless of what you are doing. Hang out. Relax. Eat well. Wait for the phone the ring. You could use some time off."
"Hey — I'm in a hotel alone. That hardly qualifies as a vacation."
"You could have brought your wife."
"I asked you that dammit. You said they wouldn't pay for that."
"Well I didn't say you couldn't buy your own ticket."
"Call me when they actually put you to work."
At least the beach was nice.
He walked for miles along the shore.
Always barefoot in his work clothes.
Waiting for the phone to ring.
He had a hard time staying pissed off with waves lapping at his feet.
But he managed it anyway.
The irritation was increasing steadily.
The phone had yet to ring. He had called them, of course.
"They are not ready for you yet, sir."
That's all they would tell him.
His wife's voice helped when they would talk. But the longer they stayed on the phone, the worse he felt when they hung up. Yesterday he started cutting the calls short so just to retain what he could of his sanity. Anger was easier to deal with than sadness. His wife pretended to be ok with it, but he knew better. Which made it even worse.
He knew most people actually enjoyed traveling.
He knew he was not like most people.
He didn't even like most people.
He stood in a surf-side giftshop, browsing the shoddy, overpriced t-shirts, bitching and moaning to himself, trying to concentrate on the sound of the waves outside and the smell of the ocean air.