Finding Lily - Chapter 6
The smooth vocals of Michael Bublé spilled out of Ruby’s speakers as she drove down Route 13 toward Virginia Beach.
May be surrounded by
A million people I
Still feel all alone
Just wanna go home
Oh, I miss you, you know
Ruby’s voice rose to meet the volume in her car, her vocal cords giving way every few seconds. By the time the song ended, her voice felt hoarse and scratchy. She hadn’t sung that loud in her car since she was in her twenties.
However, Ruby was desperate for the distraction. She’d taken a gamble. The last time she checked Lily’s Instagram, she was in Assateague, and the only place for Lily to stay would be her car or a tent, neither of which would last long. She may not know her daughter as well as she thought, but she knew her daughter well enough to know that she valued comfort more than just about anything else. She wouldn’t last more than one night in Assateague, which left Ruby to ponder her options.
While Virginia has a long list of beautiful, sprawling beaches, there is only one with a healthy balance of nightlife and sandy relaxation: Virginia Beach. Of course, this is assuming that Lily wanted a blend of both. Solitary was not Lily’s idea of a good time. At least, she didn’t think it was.
How do you even know, anymore? A voice inside Ruby piped up. You didn’t expect her to do this at all. Why would your expectations be right, now?
Ruby forced the voice into the depths of her brain as she tapped her steering wheel nervously, pulling her car onto the US-60 exit.
Please let her be here, Ruby thought. Please let this come to an end.
The last time she’d been in Virginia was over a decade ago, just six months before her divorce. She had her suspicions, of course. No one loves to spend that much time at their office. Even if they did, no man’s eye wandered quite as much as Mark’s, and he made no effort to hide it. Virginia Beach was the destination of their first vacation together, even before they got married. They were so in love back then, they barely left the hotel room. They enjoyed it so much, that it became a regular family vacation spot. When things started to sour in their relationship, Ruby organized a trip for just the two of them. If she could somehow recreate their first vacation together, maybe she could remind him that their relationship was special. It was worth saving.
But it was a far cry from the vacation she planned. They barely spent any time in the room, and Mark took every opportunity to find things to do on his own. She caught him several times looking at the bikini-clad college girls strutting up and down the beach. She couldn’t blame him entirely. With American culture being so fixated on female beauty and its equivalence to young, fit, and perky, how could anyone not look? Hell, Ruby even caught herself looking. She looked like that, once. Blond hair, glowing complexion, fit, trim body. She was every bit as beautiful as the young women walking the beach in front of them. But age had a way of using gravity against you.
And while Ruby desperately wanted to lay some of the blame on society – pointing her finger at the way men and women are groomed to operate – it really came down to Mark. To a man who chose beauty and youth over twenty-five years of connection and devotion. A man who chose the material over his wife and daughter. Ruby had lost count of the number of young girls he’d dated since then, each relationship more shallow than the next.
So, Ruby gathered her dignity and her belongings and she never looked back. It had been years since she thought of Virginia Beach, and now here she was, trying to fix another relationship. This time, however, there was much more on the line.
Ruby’s heart raced as she pulled onto the main highway that led toward the bustling strip of restaurants and hotels. What was she going to do now? She tried to call Lily a dozen times over the past few hours, but she was still dodging her calls. She could be anywhere in this town. Just because they were in the same place didn’t mean they were bound to run into one another.
“It’s going to be okay,” Ruby caught herself saying aloud. “You’re going to find her,” she said, quieter this time, as if someone might overhear her talking to herself and try to lock her away.
The dashboard clock said that it was four o’clock in the afternoon. If Ruby was lucky, maybe she could spot Lily’s car parked in one of the hotels situated along the beach. She drove slowly, up and down the long strip of hotels along the shore. The yellow stucco and red brick buildings rose up into a cloudless blue sky. A day like this warranted a trip to the beach, not an all-out manhunt for Ruby’s adult daughter.
Happy couples walked hand-in-hand down the main stretch of shops on Atlantic Ave. Moms and dads carried large bags of towels and suntan lotion, chasing after their eager children as they made their way off the beach for the evening. Ruby continued to drive, passing evening runners getting in a last-minute workout and the countless hotels that catcalled her to jump in their beds. She had taken several passes down Atlantic Ave and up Pacific Ave before the gas light came to life on her dashboard.
She pulled into the gas station off Arctic Ave and parked next to a small blue Chevy at the pump beside her. Still gripping the steering wheel, she rested her head on her hands. How the hell was she supposed to find Lily here? She could be at the Waffle Shop down the street and Ruby would never know.
What was I thinking?
Ruby sighed heavily and forced herself out of the car. Her body felt heavier than usual, weighed down by guilt and frustration. She was just about to round the back of her car toward the pump when a tall, handsome man with dark skin stepped out of the blue Chevy. Her heart did a hopeful backflip as she waited for the man to turn toward her. It didn’t immediately register that she left Zel at a bar in Ocean City just the day before. Another pang of guilt stabbed her in the gut as she turned toward the rusted pump for her gas.
Her heart returned to its normal pace as a crackle of nervous energy rode the waves of her pumping blood and exited through her extremities. She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the emotions that had somehow gotten twisted up in Zel. She’d spoken with the man for five minutes. He was barely a splash in the bucket of her life. Still, there was something captivating about him, or maybe a better word was alluring. He certainly held some kind of power over her, even if she was trying her hardest to fight it off.
Are you trying your hardest? A small voice inside Ruby said sarcastically.
“Oh, shut up,” Ruby spat before she realized she said it aloud. The woman at the next pump glared at her before returning her attention to the pump screen.
Ruby busied herself with her transaction and hurried back inside the car, her head swimming with thoughts about Mark and Zel, Lily, and her own past. Not to mention Bob. Ruby forced Bob out of her mind and allowed it to drift back to Zel. It wasn’t just his looks, though they certainly left an impression. There was something else about him that pulled her in, something that reminded her of the woman she was before Mark’s infidelities ripped away every morsel of trust she ever had. Trust. That must have been it. Deep down, there was something inside Ruby that told her she could trust Zel – that he really wasn’t there to harm or upset her, no matter how many times she accused him of both. Maybe she’d been too aggressive with him, even if she disagreed with his assessment of her Lily situation.
Ruby’s stomach gurgled. She didn’t need the clock to remind her that it was well past her normal dinner hour. She turned her keys in the ignition, the heart-shaped pink and teal keychain Lily gave her as a child dangling from the ring, and maneuvered her way back onto Pacific Ave, searching for the first seafood restaurant she could find. When Harpoon Larry’s came into view, she cut off two lanes of traffic to make the green arrow onto 24th street.
“Do you have a reservation?” a man in his early twenties asked when she walked in the door.
“No, I just drove in, and I’m starving,” Ruby added. Ruby glanced around to see a packed restaurant, a large group of people seemingly taking up most of the tables.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” the host said, his face pained. “We don’t have any more reservations available tonight. We have a birthday party that booked the restaurant for the whole night and only a few tables were left for regular patrons.”
“Listen,” Ruby said as if she’d just dragged her body off of a deserted island after spending thirty years in solitude. “I am starving. I can sit at the bar. Hell, I will stand if I have to. Just please don’t turn me away.”
The young man scanned Ruby’s unkempt attire and sunken eyes. She barely slept the night before, scrolling endlessly through Lily’s social media profiles for clues about her next moves. By the time her eyes gave up their fight to stay open, her alarm rang and it was time to resume the search for her daughter.
“I’m really sorry, but we can’t accommodate you,” the young man said as he returned to his hosting post.
Ruby’s head lolled to the side and then nodded forward. Why should anything about this godforsaken trip be easy?
“My girlfriend works at Tautog’s, though. I just called her to see if she could get you a table there. She said she can reserve an open seat at the bar. When you walk in, just let Olivia know that Joel sent you.” Joel smiled from ear to ear, beaming with pride. “It’s just one block over. You can walk there from here. It’s a little white beach house on the left of 23rd Street.”
“Thank you so much,” Ruby gushed. “You have no idea how much this means to me. I’ve had such a tough couple of days.”
“I can tell,” the man said. He kept the smile pinned permanently to his face as if he hadn’t just slapped Ruby with his words. She didn’t waiver though. She had a place to sit and eat just minutes away.
Olivia was gracious and sat Ruby at the bar without hesitation.
“This is Lyla,” Olivia said, introducing Ruby to the bartender. “She’s going to take care of you.”
Ruby didn’t hesitate and ordered the first thing she saw on the menu – crab nachos.
“And a Corona, too please,” she said. She removed her phone from her purse, anxious to see if there were any Lily updates in the five minutes since she’d last checked.
No updates yet, but Ruby had a feeling she was in the right place. There were too many good childhood memories tied up here for Lily to pass them up. Their last family vacation was in Virginia Beach, in a hotel just a few miles north of the bustling main strip. Lily was only fifteen then, and she invited Ella, her best friend, to keep her company. During the day, the girls would wander off down the beach to collect seashells and try to catch the attention of young boys, while Mark and Ruby read books and soaked up the sun.
That vacation was the first time Ruby acknowledged that something was off in her marriage. There were small signs, of course, the biggest being the distance that had slowly wedged its way between her and Mark. At first, Ruby blamed herself. She was unhappy with her work, and she brought her frustrations home. But when Mark started to sleep on the couch ‘accidentally,’ Ruby noticed. Vacation, she assumed, would force them closer together. Except it didn’t. Though they were required to share a bed, Mark remained distant. So, while Mark was out grabbing ice at the vending machine, Ruby gave the girls some money to head to the pier for the evening. When Mark returned, she revealed her plans for them to share the last night of their vacation together, just the two of them.
“That’s great, honey,” he said, setting the ice bucket on the counter. “I’ll wear my nice shirt!”
The evening started beautifully, with the two sharing a delicious meal at a restaurant that overlooked the ocean. They talked about Lily and work, and how nice it was to get away for a few days. But when Ruby brought the conversation back to their relationship, Mark shut down. Not wanting to spoil their dinner, Ruby switched gears, deciding to broach the subject again when they returned to the hotel. When she finally asked him if everything was okay, however, Mark exploded.
“You always do this!” he shouted when they returned to the hotel room. “Isn’t it enough that we did this vacation together? We had a nice dinner. Isn’t that enough? Why do you need to spoil everything?”
He paced around the room, collecting the wallet and phone that he’d just discarded on the hotel room table.
“Where are you going?” Ruby asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“For a walk,” Mark said harshly. He slammed the door as he walked out of the room, leaving Ruby on the bed with tears running down her face. She stayed like that for a while, until Lily and Ella returned from the pier. She turned away from them as they walked in, hiding her tear-soaked cheeks by saying that she’d eaten something that didn’t agree with her. When Mark returned an hour later, the girls were already asleep, and all Ruby could think was how grateful she was for blissful teenage ignorance.
“Order of crab nachos,” Lyla said, ripping Ruby out of Memory Lane. A mountain of chips and crab meat beckoned Ruby closer.
It took every ounce of Ruby’s self-control to refrain from inhaling the towering wonder. With each bite, the pain in her stomach subsided, and she felt more like herself. She leaned back in her chair, taking notice of the restaurant’s motif for the first time. The environment was quaint and warm, with a lot of dark wood finishing. Fishing poles, reels, and antique metal signs littered the walls, giving it a true beach restaurant feel. The bar top was smaller than just about any bar she’d been to, but she was grateful for a seat, especially one at the very end.
“How do you like the nachos?” Lyla asked. She quickly cleaned two pint glasses and filled them each with Blue Moon.
“Delicious,” Ruby replied, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with her napkin.
“Great!” Lyla beamed, hustling to grab an order from the food runner to hand to the couple at the other end of the bar. Her smile lit up her whole face, making her deep, brown eyes look like honey. She reminded Ruby so much of Lily, even their names were similar.
“Would you like anything else?” Lyla asked once everyone at the bar had what they needed.
“How is the ginger teriyaki-glazed salmon?” Ruby asked.
With that same Lily-grade smile, Lyla rolled her eyes to the back of her head. “It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever eat.”
Lily was one for exaggerations too. The two had more in common by the second. Though, Lily had done much more in her life. She was an attorney, after all. Ruby had obviously done something right to keep her daughter from the fate of becoming a bartender.
“I’ll try it then,” Ruby replied.
“You won’t be disappointed,” Lyla said, typing the order into the computer before scanning the bar for any empty drinks. Seeing none, she leaned on the counter behind her.
“Are you in school at all, Lyla?” Ruby asked.
“No. I was for a little while, but I didn’t like it. Probably because I didn’t really know what I wanted then. Who does when they’re eighteen, you know?” Lyla shrugged, keeping an eye on the other patrons.
“Then?” Ruby asked. “Do you know what you want to do with your life now?”
“I actually really like bartending, and there’s a lot more to it than most people think,” Lyla said.
“I’m intrigued,” Ruby admitted, though she could hear the patronizing tone in her voice. “Tell me more.”
“Well, when I was in school, I felt like everyone was trying to force me to choose one thing to be good at for the rest of my life. But bartending requires you to be good at a lot of different things. You have to be good at promotion and sales to sell the beer and food. You have to be good with people so you can carry on conversations. You have to be good at math to manage payments. You have to be good at management to delegate tasks to the bar-backs and food runners. Does that make sense?”
“Sure,” Ruby admitted. “But surely you don’t want to do this forever, right?”
Ruby couldn’t keep the judgment from seeping into her dialogue, but truth be told, she wasn’t trying very hard. She had a long day, and her self-control was waning.
“Look, this is a really good job,” Lyla said as she leaned forward on the bar top. Lyla was used to this conversation. Out-of-towners loved telling the locals how to live their lives as if everyone who lived in a beach town was just throwing their lives away. “And it gives me the freedom to develop my business.”
“Your own business?” Ruby said, sitting up in her seat. “What kind of business?”
“Art. Paintings, mostly.”
Ruby felt the energy drain from her body once more. An artist. That’s like Lily wanting to be a writer. There’s no money in either.
“What kind of paintings?” Ruby asked, clearing her throat. She fidgeted in her seat, repositioning the napkin in her lap.
“Mostly oceans. I know it’s a bit cliché because I live by the ocean, but I live here because the ocean is peaceful. I want to bring that kind of peace into everyone’s home. That’s the goal anyway.”
“Do they have any hanging in here?” Ruby asked, attempting to gauge Lyla’s talent.
“Oh, no. My paintings wouldn’t really match with this esthetic,” Lyla replied. “But I can show you a few photos of my work on my phone.”
Lyla walked to the register to retrieve her phone from the counter. She unlocked it and handed it to Ruby. Lyla’s Instagram page was alight on the screen.
Ruby played along, taking Lyla’s phone while she went to retrieve Ruby’s meal. When Ruby looked down at the images, however, she was completely blown away. These paintings didn’t just look like the ocean, they felt like the ocean. Powerful, mysterious, and downright breathtaking. These paintings weren’t good, they were museum-worthy pieces of art.
“Teriyaki-glazed salmon,” Lyla said as she placed Ruby’s meal in front of her.
“Lyla,” Ruby whispered, struggling to find the right words. “These aren’t just paintings. These are something else entirely. I don’t understand.”
“What do you mean?” Lyla asked.
“With paintings like these, you shouldn’t need this job. I’ve purchased paintings half as good as these for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for my design clients. What’s holding you back?”
“Do you really think they’re worth that much?” Lyla asked, taking her phone back and scrolling through the images she created.
“Honey, they’re worth at least that,” Ruby replied.
“What if people won’t pay that, though?” Lyla asked. “I mean, I’m just a small-town girl from Virginia. Don’t people want notoriety at that price?”
Ruby should have guessed that self-doubt would play a role in Lyla’s story. It’s why Ruby didn’t start her business until she was in her forties, and only in response to a messy divorce.
“How do you think people gain notoriety?” Ruby asked. “They put themselves out there. And, to be honest, I bet I could sell these over some of the other art pieces I have in my arsenal. Your work speaks for itself.”
“I don’t know,” Lyla said. “Bartending jobs are harder to come by than you think in this town. What if I walk away from my job and it doesn’t work out?”
“What if it does?” Ruby asked. “Listen, I spent my whole life with that very same mentality. I pushed off my dreams to be safe for years, and it got me nowhere. Taking the leap was the best thing I ever did for myself. It wasn’t easy. I failed a lot and learned a lot along the way. And I’m better for it.”
Lyla continued to scroll through her images, thinking deeply as she considered Ruby’s words.
“I’ve heard all of this before,” Lyla admitted. “I just don’t know if I can do it.”
“Our worst enemy to our success is often ourselves,” Ruby replied. “I certainly don’t want to force you to make any decisions you don’t want to make. At the end of the day, this is your life. But if you really want this, and you believe in yourself, I have no doubt that you can live out this dream.”
The pair were interrupted by a new patron who plopped himself at the empty bar seat in the middle of the bar. He ordered a Guinness and crab dip. Ruby picked at her salmon, suddenly overcome by the desire to help Lyla live out her passion.
“Listen,” Ruby started again when Lyla returned. “Here’s my card. When I get home from vacation, I’d love to set up a time to meet with you to discuss adding some of your art to my collection for clients to choose from. The ball is entirely in your court.”
Lyla played with the business card in her hand, flipping it back and forth. Her eyes appeared glassy and strained as if she were fighting back the urge to cry.
“Your kids are so lucky to have you,” Lyla said. “If I had a mom like you, who truly believed in me and trusted me to make the best decisions for myself, maybe I would have pursued this a long time ago.”
Yes, Ruby thought, my daughter is lucky to have me. I believe in her so much that I’m trying to save her from herself. That I’m trying to…
Lily’s angered voice flooded into Ruby’s mind, “I AM listening to myself this time, and this IS my decision!”