"The Lost Coast" by Claire Dodd

The painter’s wife was instantly recognisable: she was hurrying barefoot along the cracked stone path that linked the lodge’s drained pool and its cottages, clutching flip-flops and a blanket. She wore a focused yet unseeing expression that reminded me of her famous portrait, in which her husband had painted her lying in a bathtub, staring at an off-canvas ceiling, exuding a weariness she hadn’t accepted but had learned to expect. The lines around her mouth and eyes suggested that this unwelcome exhaustion was a form of imprisonment, placing her beyond the reach of love or interest, as if disappointment was the most impenetrable and isolating form of loneliness. The only obvious difference between the painter’s wife and her portrait was her dress, which was cut from a dark cloth embroidered with swans that bared her neck. The woman in the bathtub would’ve stepped into clothes stripped of all adornment.

I saw her again a few days later: it was late morning and this time she was sitting by the pool, holding an empty glass in her hand, flip-flops tucked within a rectangle of her chair’s shade. I’d seen her husband’s painting of her in a museum I’d visited a few summers before, with a boy who had meant something to me at the time but who I’d left with a brief, outsized drama once the summer was over. During those manic weeks I flipped through photos of him and I, including one we’d taken in front of her portrait, as a form of punishment and relief.

‘There she is,’ the lodge manager said, nodding at the painter’s wife beside the pool. ‘Our other guest. Like I said, she keeps to herself. You’re being graced with a rare sighting.’

The lodge manager, who ran a cafe and grocery from the Victorian farmhouse that also served as the lodge’s check-in office, stood behind the counter looking out the window at the pool, which was filled with downed Eucalyptus branches and flickering scraps of trash. Next to the pool was a single, shaggy Cypress tree, its thin arms shading the painter’s wife, and a fence whose wire diamonds were bowed by the weight of a glossy, heart-shaped vine. This vine had crept up to the fence from the cliff beyond, which fell, with a duplicitous slope made soft-looking by the swell of flowers, succulents, and trees, to the ocean.

Turning back to my goods on the counter, the lodge manager asked if I’d ever tried one of the biscotti she was about to scan. They were too sweet for her, she said. She stocked them for the weekenders, who liked the blue etchings of the bonneted girl on the lid. She couldn’t recommend an alternative, however, as she didn’t consider most of the items in her store to be edible. Nothing here is really meant to be eaten, the lodge manager said. People come to the coast to dream, not to eat. She chose items to sell based on her understanding of these dreams, and filled the store with food-like props that helped her customers feel, through their purchases, that they’d made the intangible concrete.

I said I’d often seen the tangible lead to disappointment, as our surroundings became visible evidence of the gap between our fantasies and reality.

‘That’s why I’m sure most of our food ends up in the trash,’ the lodge manager said with a laugh. Though that’s not to say I’d find anything better at the K&J thirty minutes north, she added. That place only stocked food for the apocalypse.

‘Just a different kind of stomachache,’ said the other woman in the farmhouse, who worked variously as barista, gardener, and house-cleaner, and who I’d learned in my first days at the lodge was the manager’s partner of many years.

They had tried selling real food, the lodge manager continued, things like lentils and chicken and butter, but it confused the people who stopped by, the combination of high-end goods and basic ingredients. Sales declined. For awhile it seemed odd to her that people preferred delicacies, salamis and cheese and jars of honey, as most of those that passed through were staying in cabins without flushing toilets or yurts propped up on the slanting hills. The simultaneous desire for scarcity and abundance didn’t make sense to her, she said, as it seemed like a precarious and exhausting balance to achieve, until she realized that it was, in fact, this very fight that people were after, as if the only real adventure left was in seeking and eluding unhappiness.

‘I forgot, dear,’ interjected the barista, ‘Do you take milk with your coffee?’

‘Don’t take anything she serves you black,’ the lodge manager said, scooping my goods into a small plastic bag.

The Victorian’s first floor had been carved away to incorporate the store and cafe, and the space was white and airy, with rickety walls and long, narrow windows. The bones of the old rooms could still be seen in the high ceiling, and there was everywhere a sense of slowness and age, as if only a minimal amount of activity was permitted on premises that had been quietly ruined by two hundred years. The sound of the ocean, always near, was often so loud it seemed like the building itself was unmoored.

‘We’re all out of milk up here,’ the barista called from behind the coffee machine, ‘Just a minute while I go for reinforcements.’ She opened the front door with her elbow and a chill that smelled of seaweed and salt filled the store. A few seconds later she reappeared beside the pool and waved at the painter’s wife, who didn’t wave back or acknowledge her.

Settling onto a stool behind the register, the lodge manager crossed her arms over her sweater and smiled warmly. When she spoke again it was with pleasure, as if she’d shared what she was relaying so many times before uttering it now offered her a reassuring sense of permanence and comfort.

‘She devises these tasks to combat boredom,’ the lodge manager began. The barista, according to her, was someone who only appreciated silence or staring at the ocean if it was part of a scheduled plan. The barista’s need for activity had been a problem in the early days of their relationship, the lodge manager said, for it had seemed to her then that the barista was constantly on the run, fleeing solitude from task to task, while the lodge manager longed for nothing more than an oasis of downtime in which to comfortably disappear. They couldn’t figure out how to relax. The lodge manager said she’d accused the barista of refusing to confront a deep fear, likening her aversion to stillness to children refusing to check for monsters beneath their beds. In turn, the barista had accused the lodge manager of an unbudgeable laziness that was motivated by the lodge manager’s own refusal to confront a childish fear, that of effort resulting in failure or diminishment.

‘The battles we used to have,’ the lodge manager said, smiling wistfully.