“I need to see the Mediterranean,” Olivia said.
The road from Marseille had taken them through a long claustrophobic tunnel and then into the sprawl of developments on the edge of the city. Boxy cement structures that housed apartments sprouted at the top of every hill. The roads were crowded, the drivers aggressive.
Something kept clicking in the rental car, a persistent, irritating sound that put Olivia on edge. She and Brody had tried to identify the source—a seat belt, the radio, an unlatched glove compartment—but nothing seemed connected to the noise. They drowned it out with bad French rock and roll.
“Should we take a beach detour?” Brody asked, pushing up his sleeves.
“Please,” Olivia said.
Brody followed the exit ramp until it deposited them on a busy street. Then he glanced at Olivia. “Is this better?”
No. McDonald’s on their right, a fast food pizza joint on their left. The air thick with the smell of grease. A long stretch of graffitied apartment buildings, many with red devils holding guns.
“There’s a sign for Cassis,” Brody said, pointing.
“Take it!” Olivia said. They followed a new road that climbed the hills, leaving the overdeveloped city behind. Soon mountains stretched ahead of them, white rock, red rock, long stretches of pine forest.
“For weeks now I’ve been dreaming about the big blue sea and the waves washing against the sand.”
“There aren’t usually any waves here. It’s as calm as can be.”
“Don’t ruin my fantasy,” Olivia said, cuffing his shoulder.
“Look,” Brody said.
They crested the hill and the sea appeared before them. The sun glinted off Brody’s watch, momentarily blinding Olivia. She blinked. The car turned slightly, and finally she could see the bay, bordered by sheer limestone cliffs.
“My big blue sea!” she called.
“No waves,” Brody said.
“I don’t need them.”
“My wedding gift to you,” Brody said, opening an arm to the vista.
“You’re so generous,” she told him.
She loved his wide mouth, his deep-set eyes. She never got tired of looking at him. He was handsome in a rugged way; she could see Wyoming in his tall, lanky body, his strong hands, the crow’s-feet in the corner of his eyes.
The road descended quickly, leading them onto a small road that wound its way to the coast. Brody found a parking space near the beach path, and Olivia bounded out of the car, eager to feel the sea breeze against her damp skin. They climbed down a well-worn trail and stepped out onto a rocky beach.
Only a few people sat in the late day sun, which perched on top of a jagged cliff, still dazzling. A couple of children played in the surf and one man swam out to sea, his body slicing through the water.
“It’s beautiful,” Brody said.
“It’s perfect,” Olivia said, taking his hand.
She heard a bark, followed by a fury of yelps and howls. She spun around. From a cove a few hundred feet to their left, two large dogs charged toward them. The first, a German shepherd, locked fierce eyes on her. Are they just chasing each other? she thought. No, they’re heading right at me.
Scream. Open your mouth and scream.
But her body tightened and no words escaped her lips.
They’ll kill me, she thought.
And then in a rush of mad thoughts, she began to make wishes. What I want before I die: I want to marry Brody. I want a life with him, a long life. And my daughters! I want Carly to ditch her boyfriend. I want Nell to stop fighting against the world. I want to see what happens next in their lives, the men they marry, the women they become. As if time had stopped, the dogs still raced toward her, their enormous jaws wet with anticipation. The sound of her own heart pounded in her ears.
And then Brody stepped forward and she heard murmuring sounds, gentle coos, words that weren’t words at all. He kept walking toward the beasts, speaking some other language, animal language. The shepherd cocked his head, looking at Brody now, as if he just discovered the most interesting creature in the world. Just like that, Olivia was forgotten.
The German shepherd stopped. Brody put out his hand and the dog sniffed it warily. He kept talking and now Olivia could hear words: “Good dog, hey buddy, what’s going on, pal.”
The other dog, a lean black Lab, circled them but didn’t come closer.
“I thought I was dinner,” Olivia said in a small voice.
“He would have picked me first,” Brody said, petting the dog, which seemed to shrink in size. “I’d be much tastier.”
“I couldn’t scream,” she told him.
“Good,” he said. “Screaming would have been a bad idea.”
“You weren’t scared?”
He shook his head. “They weren’t going to hurt anyone.” He patted the dog’s haunches. “Were you, good boy?”
Of course, Olivia thought. It’s what he does. Or what he did. He had been a large-animal vet when they met over a year before. But he’d quit his job three months earlier, along with Wyoming, when he moved to be with her in San Francisco. She’d barely known him in his landscape of mountains and beasts.
“You need to do this,” she said quietly.
“Save you from puppies?”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “Work with animals.”
“I’ve been looking. If I can’t find work as a vet I’ll find something else to do,” he said assuredly. But he hadn’t had any luck in three months of trying. She worried that he needed Wyoming in some essential way.
The German shepherd rambled over to Olivia and she stiffened.
“Easy, boy,” Brody said. “Be gentle with my bride.”
The dog sniffed and then pushed his nose against Olivia’s side. She petted him warily. He moved his nose to her hip and nipped her.
“He bit me!” Olivia said, though she wasn’t quite sure what it was. A love bite? A warning?
“Hugo! Lulu!” a voice yelled, and the two dogs ran off, bounding along the beach, heading toward the open arms of a teenager emerging from the sea.
Olivia rubbed her hip. There was no pain, just a wet spot where the dog’s mouth had been.
“Are you okay?” Brody asked.
Olivia nodded. “I’m fine. I’m wonderful.”
They watched as the black Lab knocked the boy back into the water and all three of them splashed through the waves until they were swimming, two dog heads and one boy head bobbing on the turquoise sea.
“You know what makes me unbearably sad?” she said, wrapping her arms around her body, suddenly chilled. “I wish we were twenty. I wish we’d never loved anyone before. I wish you didn’t have a dead wife and I didn’t have an awful ex. I wish we had fifty years ahead of us instead—”
Her voice broke. Brody stepped up behind her and took her in his arms. He pressed her back against his chest, leaned his chin on her head.
“It took all those years to bring us to this weekend,” he said. “We needed the wrong turns and the detours and the false starts. Look where we ended up.”
“My big blue sea,” Olivia said.
“Marry me,” Brody said.
ELLEN SUSSMAN is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons, and On a Night Like This. She is the editor of two critically acclaimed anthologies,Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave and Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. She teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. www.ellensussman.com
Adapted from Wedding in Provence, by Ellen Sussman, Copyright © 2014 by Ellen Sussman. With the permission of the publisher, Ballantine Books.