From where I sat in my old canvas chair out on the fishing pier, the two-masted schooner appeared a live thing, an exotic bird at rest on the calm water of the marina. Eighty-three feet from stem to stern, she was rigged fore-and-aft with the sunset orange sails of Gulliver Marine Ltd., furled and waiting release. From the grand, fierce sweep of her bow to her formidable stern she was a long white curve of power, with stainless steel scrollwork wandering over the bow and her name, Carole Anne, in Spencerian script at the stern.
“I don’t see how you could name a bird with a beak like that after your own wife,” I said to her skipper, Jerry Martin, who sat at my feet fiddling with a diving mask whose seal, he said, had started to leak.
“I did it to make her happy, Vera,” he replied. After making sure nobody was looking, he leaned back against my legs and snickered. “Besides, it wasn’t the beak of the bird I was thinking of. It was the body.”
I laughed also and studied the charcoal study I was doing of the schooner and decided to add a little length to the bowsprit. Jerry cursed and almost threw the mask into the water when the face plate snapped out in his hands. I nudged him in the shoulder with my knee and he relaxed and began to scrub his spine against my legs, just a big lazy torn cat lolling in the sun and the sea breeze.
The remark I had just made was as close as my instincts would let me come to fooling him into talking about his wife, about whom I was mortally curious. Try as I might, I could not see how Carole Anne could sail one of the company’s other boats, a similar-sized ketch with Gulliver’s orange sails, down the Intracoastal Waterway with half a law firm of drunks on a “retreat” and leave Jerry all alone in this South Carolina resort town, with schools of hungry women on the prowl for blood.
I bit back a laugh at the thought of myself as one of those women, and we were silent for awhile. He swung his feet and worked some more on the mask, and I sat motionless, staring with tender awe at the man before me. It was remarkable how six weeks and a bucket of my tears had changed Jerry’s appearance. The stoop of his shoulders as he worried over the stubborn face plate now seemed more a careless slouch than bad posture. The blonde hair I at first had thought nondescript now made me think of autumn-cured sea oats, lying in neat sheaves under the band of his yachting cap. His eyes, weeks before just a plain old ordinary blue, now appeared deep and mutable as the ocean itself. Even his size and his linebacker swags of muscle, which I at first had found ludicrous on a man so soft-spoken, now made him appear a modern-day Viking, six glorious feet of him, with a broad chest and shoulders that stretched the letters of his COVENTRY BAY MARINA tee-shirt.
But there were things even delight could not overlook, how the grin that tightened the skin over his high, stark cheekbones flashed his dimples, not for me alone, but for any woman with a tender look about her. Jealousy was as close as my own skin and as swift as the gust of wind that lifted the hem of the mini-skirt that just twitched past us on the pier.
“Don’t look so hard,” I said. “You might wear the pretty off and then what would you have?”
Jerry reached around and squeezed my ankle. “I’d still have my Miss Pretty Eyes,” he purred, and I was pleased, against my will and out of all proportion. Never one to choke on a compliment, Jerry had always been appreciative of my good features—green eyes, slender ankles, good skin. More important, he had never said anything about the bad, like the space between my front teeth or my lightning-quick jealousy, which bubbled up despite all the things I told myself about how neither of us owed the other a thing, and fidelity least of all.
Desire and jealousy, my own little Siamese twins, had been born to me on my very first trip out on the Carole Anne, when I first noticed that the capable, salty-talking young captain was more than just another jock in tight khaki pants and Topsiders. From the way his college-girl deckhands smiled every time he passed them in the line of duty, you could tell he made private, special things happen inside each of them. Whatever those things were, they triggered my own wishful thinking and started a craving in my heart for some of their confident, easy access to him.
I wasn’t even looking for a man—above all, not a married man—when I met Jerry. As one of about 20 paying passengers on board the schooner, I was out for nothing more than a day of sailing past the little barrier islands that protected the bay, and close enough to a Russian fishing trawler to get a look at the sailors through my telephoto lens. It was the first time in a couple of years I had been aboard a craft of this class, and I wanted to make the most of it, maybe take some slides of things I could paint later on. As for Jerry, an old sea-faring expression might put it that I had taken his measure from the cut of his jib, which pleased me but hardly impelled me to storm the throne of his marriage. His platinum wedding band was more than conspicuous against the tan of his finger. As it was, I spent most of the trip shooting slides of the jellyfish bobbing in our wake, of the college girls performing their nautical chores against a backdrop of sea or sky, and of the celebrated trawler, which looked through my lens like just one more dirty fishing boat under a cloud of seagulls. I didn’t feel like there was much interest in me to arouse, anyway, as I had just gotten back onto my feet after being flattened by one of my life’s great hit-and-run romances and had, for the past month or so, enjoyed a splendid, creative solitude.
But from my chosen seat on the port side, up near the bow, I had a matchless view of Jerry and his crew. The more I watched him, he with his boyish authority and they with their private little smiles, the more my reluctant interest grew until it was great enough for him to hone in on. Time after time, our eyes met, and wienie that I was, I flubbered out of sustained eye contact but compensated by sitting sideways and arcing out my chest a bit or letting the crosswind snake a tendril of hair across one eye.
I was trying pretty hard, mostly for the sake of curiosity, to see if I could really land a trophy specimen like him. But all the same, I wasn’t expecting it when he left the wheel to a strapping, athletic girl who answered to the name of Lori and loped up to me in that rolling sea gait you read so much about in nautical novels, perfectly in rhythm with the rise and fall of the deck. In self-conscious terror that he knew exactly what I was thinking, I raised my camera and, barely aiming, shot him as I was later to paint him, head thrown back and oaten hair riffling in the wind.
“I bet you’re a school teacher,” he said in a warm South Georgia accent. When I reddened a little and nodded my head, he continued, “You can tell it from the way you’re interested in every little thing that goes on. Just what is it you teach?”
I hit the high spots about my art classes at a private school in Asheville, North Carolina, and described my recent solo show of voluptuous earthscapes, which Connie Bostic had hung for a month in Zone One Contemporary. This out of the way, he tucked into the story of how he had won an appointment to Annapolis, served a bored hitch as a Naval officer, earned an MBA at the University of South Carolina, and, before he even got his first job, married the heiress to Gulliver Marine and taken over the business for her. All, as I was later to intuit, to escape being nothing but a Georgia sharecropper’s youngest son, which is what he still was, deep at heart.
“I like to teach,” I said to his profile as he looked away at the green strip of shoreline. “The pay’s not so good but I get the summers off. I can travel all I want and pick up some change doing quick-sketches of tourists. It’s a good life.”
Jerry gave me a speculative look. “You’re just a regular little free bird,” he said. “Enjoy it while you can, cause when you get married, it’s gone for good.” He gave me a wry wink, and there was in his face a hint of sadness and something else that made me want to scoot away and find something else to do, almost as much as I wanted to stay.
Reaching out, he gave my hand a quick squeeze and said, “I like free birds and I’m really glad to make your acquaintance.”
I blushed hard and looked away on the pretense of changing the f-stop of my camera.
“We’ll talk some more in a little while,” Jerry promised, and then went back to the quarterdeck to relieve Lori, who gave me a good long curious look.
Alone, I stared at the water and tried, with no success, to sort myself out and raise some moral indignation over what appeared to be about to happen, so I could stomp off the boat when we docked and not ever look back at the trouble that was standing just a few yards away.
When the tour was over and we were tied up at the slip, nightfall drove away passengers and crew. Jerry and I sat alone on a long padded bench below decks and talked about the stuff we had done and the stuff we had yet to do. I told him about the first time I had ever gone sailing, back when I was an undergraduate, and of how my deepest wish ever since had been to sail all around the world by myself and paint seascapes the way a sailor sees them. I didn’t tell him the rest of it, how I was going to drive the critics to their knees and raise a hue and cry throughout the art world for oils and gouaches with my discreet V. Chapman backslanted in the corner. That would have been too much. The contrast with the reality of V. Chapman teaching rich kids how to shade some round into their apples, or V. Chapman eking out her vacation money doing pastel quick-sketches of tourists, was simply too great.
When I admitted that I had never ignited my dream by learning to sail, he offered to teach me, and I countered that with an offer to paint him and the schooner and to design a couple of advertising brochures. As full night had fallen and the electric lights around the hold cast an appalling hue on everything, Jerry lit us a candle from the emergency kit. There we sat, with only the sound of our own voices and the pinging overhead as the wind knocked halyards against the masts. Finally, he reached out in what I thought was a rather practiced manner and pulled me into his arms, and there I leaned, murmuring against his chest that somebody might walk by on the slip and see us through the port holes.
“If you blow out the candle, honey, nobody can see in,” he whispered into my hair.
“So blow it out—you’re the closest,” I said, and shifted around so my face was clear of his shirt and I could breathe. Jerry puffed out the candle and began rubbing my back in small circles so that slowly, muscle by muscle, I relaxed. The only light now spilled in from spotlights on pilings around the marina and from the rhythmic flashing of a rotating beacon across the bay.
As first nights go, that one was a series of obstacles and tender revelations. I was apprehensive about having my 30-year-old untanned body juxtaposed in his mind against the sleekness and brownness and youthfulness of those college girls and he, as I found out later, had his own fears, centered around the marvels a free bird might have seen in her migrations. The best part of the night, as far as I was concerned, was in what he called the “coast-down,” when we were both just relieved and pleased not to have bollixed anything.
At about that time, one of the two enormous cats that prowled the marina for handouts came thumping down the companionway stairs and bounded onto Jerry’s stomach. About 75 percent of the tenderness I have known him to display came lavishing out of him and onto that raggedy-eared yellow torn, who purred and kneaded first Jerry’s chest and then my bare stomach, drawing my skin into gooseflesh. The cat, Old Grantham, stayed curled up at my feet later, when I declined to drive back through the fog to my cottage. Jerry, however, had put down no roots in my company. When he was ready to leave, he covered me with a rainslicker, kissed me goodnight and made an exit up the companionway that would have made me laugh if I had seen it in a movie, full as it was of a stagy, masculine dash. For me, sleep came dear, and for the rest of my life I will feel that the loneliest sound on earth is that of wind whistling through the hollow tops of masts and filtering down through steel deck plates.
That night set the precedent for things to come. I learned to accept whatever Jerry would give or I felt like receiving. Like a pair of spies, we sneaked around the college girls and his marina friends, all of whom caught a whiff of something but didn’t let on much. I scrambled that summer between the canvas I learned to press and the canvas on which I made a series of the best paintings of my life, all of them glowing with life and summer and danger. Sometimes I felt I could hardly wait until I got back to Asheville so I could show them to Robert Godfrey, the figurative painter whom some critics say is one of the most important artists in the East. Though he has quite a reputation as an encourager of emerging artists, he would be quick, I knew, to rip holes in my delusions, if that were all they turned out to be.
Jerry and I learned each other’s quirks and soft spots with a zeal spiced by the urgent secretiveness of the situation, for which he displayed a suspect kind of genius. As he prospered on the intrigue, I became prodigious at picking bare the bones of our cold-hearted rutting, thinking that I was never going to delude myself into believing more could come of it. As the precious summer sped by, I reduced Carole Anne, in my mind, to nothing more than the name of a pretty boat. I made the best of it all, grateful that at least she would be gone through September and, since school started for me in mid-August, I would never have to lay eyes on her. Until my last day, when the sun would rise on the tail-end of my passion, I would have Jerry all to myself.
In the midst of this reverie, he spoke up and startled me so that I dropped my charcoal stick, which fell between two planks and splashed into the shallow brown water.
“If you want to make any money before we sail, you’d better get on over there to the boat and set up,” he said.
I thumped him a wordless, affectionate thump on the back and obeyed my orders, dragging my chair behind me. It was more than an hour until departure, but already tourists were milling around the marina, gawking at the pair of gigantic cannon set up during the Civil War to protect the bay, which had gotten blockaded anyway, and reading the historical markers. I dug my easel, pad of paper, and fishing tackle box full of chalk pastels out of the trunk of my car and settled myself near the schooner’s gangplank. As an enticement, I propped against a piling a pastel I had done of Jerry, his eyes gone soft and loving because Old Grantham was snuggled in his arms.
Before long, I had my first subject, a sandy-haired girl of about ten who posed with her Cabbage Patch doll held in burp position. Portraits like these were a snap for me, as I had been doing them every summer since I started teaching and discovered I wasn’t going to make enough money to vacation gracefully without supplements. Since I have a flair for gesture, bone structure, and facial expression, I can sometimes churn out a couple an hour, when the crowds are good, and get 25 dollars apiece for them. This, of course, sounds grand until you consider that I have to follow the tourists and manipulate their vanity, instead of getting off by myself and painting sand and waves and what-all. I’ve had a few snubs from other artists over having lowered myself to do this sort of thing. But I usually just throw it back in their faces about the way they tend bar or wait tables to support themselves for the art they do on their days off. I, at least, am working every single day on some aspect of my technique, even when I’m doing the stupidest kind of vanity portrait. And, anyhow,
Godfrey had been after me for the past several months to “evolve” as he put it, from landscape into figurative painting. What better practice than with this endless stream of quick-study models?
The little girl and her doll were followed by a snooty teenager who wanted me to color her hair more blonde, and then it was time for boarding. Marcella collected fares in a green lock-box, while Lori and Rita got ready to untie the boat and cast off. As the passengers watched, the two of them prepared to literally shove it away from the slip with Jerry’s help, parallel parked as we were, so to speak, between a crosswalk and another boat of comparable size. I put away my supplies and then took my place just behind Jerry. While I watched the muscles play in his shoulders, he steered the schooner, single engine throbbing, up the ship channel and out to deeper water, where we would set sail and he would give me some more lessons.
The bay was busy, with a regatta of eight little sloops and a big white catamaran that belonged to a friend of Jerry’s. Since we were by now in easy waters, Jerry gave the helm over to me alone, for the first time ever, and slipped down to the chartroom to talk over the radio with the cat’s skipper. I steered on course toward Vaduz Island, on a beam reach in a good wind off portside. My cheeks flushed warm with the looks people were giving me, and I stood there feeling powerful, turning the lovely inlaid-teak wheel in tiny increments, listening to the sails pop as they filled out and the halyards sing with contained energy. It was cool and brisk and the seas were only a little high. You could tell the tourists were enjoying the sun and the salty wind and the way the stout schooner felt under their feet, skimming through the chop. I wondered how we must look to the people back at the marina and to the passengers of the other boats, with the bright wings of our sails spread out full of wind and the white body of the schooner rising and falling on the water.
A couple of women were taking pictures of one another in tongue-in-cheek nautical poses. The bolder of the two hauled herself up on the wooden dead-eye. Clinging to a shroud cable with one hand, she shaded her eyes with the other, looking as much like a pirate as it is possible for someone in a macrame bikini top and linen shorts to look.
Jerry came back and did a double-take of the sylph in the shrouds, and then settled down to coaching me on how I would tack around the island, which we were now approaching.
“There’s a storm on the way,” he said, and my pulse accelerated. Sudden squalls, I knew, were a hazard in an area of heavy shoals such as this. Noticing my sudden fear, he added, “Don’t worry. We’ll be able to make it around and slip back in before it hits. We’re just going to be seeing some more wind and some rougher water in the meantime. And you’re going to steer us through just fine.”
Just then, the schooner gave a playful little lurch and the woman still up on the dead-eye lost her footing. One sandaled foot skidded sideways, while the other shot through the shrouds and somehow caught there, throwing her off-balance and tumbling her over backwards. She hung screaming, her head swaying bare inches above the deck.
Jerry yelled for Rita to come help me and then lunged over to where the woman hung, knocking Lori and Marcella out of the way and dodging passengers. Grabbing the woman around the waist, he hefted her over one shoulder while she clung to his back. I stood at the wheel with my jaw dropped open as he untangled her foot and eased her to her feet, where she stood sobbing into his neck. An immense cheer went up from the passengers when she seized his face in her hands and kissed him fiercely on the mouth. Jerry shot me a guilty look but did not pull away.
I swallowed silly blind anger and smiled at Rita, who came to stand beside me and show me how to tack our zig-zag course around the island and back to the marina. After we cleared the island, things got tricky, as we worked the wind, which had gotten around in front of us, on first one side of the sails and then the other, fighting to beat the same forces that had been so much in our favor half an hour before. This was by no means easy to do and became harder still as we approached the ship channel and began to compete with smaller boats for our space. It didn’t help to have Jerry give what I thought was only a perfunctory check on what we were doing and then hurry below. I supposed I was the only one on board, with the possible exception of the crew, who knew the significance of the hand he had stuffed in his left pocket.
Gamely, I kept right on steering, even as the woman Jerry had saved left the little knot of people who had clustered around her and followed him down the companionway. Her friend, who was much the plainer of the two, came to stand beside me. Giving us a rummy smile, she offered Rita and me a drink from her Thermos, which we refused, as this was no time for drinking and driving.
“Sharon gets all the good ones,” she said. “Your boss doesn’t stand a chance. She’s got him hooked and now all she has to do is reel him in and throw him in the cooler.”
“He’s not my boss,” I snapped. “And besides, he’s married. His wife owns this boat and half the town.” Rita cackled and jabbed me in the small of the back with her finger.
“The bigger they come, the harder they fall,” said the woman.
She mumbled something else about Sharon’s exploits but I could hear nothing over the racket her first words made inside my head, ricocheting around in my skull. After what seemed like hours, we reached the ship channel and entered. I yelled for Jerry, who I thought was taking entirely too long with whatever he owed Sharon in the way of helping her recover. He didn’t look at me as he started the engine and shouted at the crew to haul in the rest of the canvas. This was more than a little superfluous, since they were well on their way to being finished without his supervision.
Back at the slip, Jerry saw the passengers off the boat and apologized for the weather, which had really started to sour. I killed as much time as I could putting things away, and at last watched Sharon and her drunken friend, the last passengers to leave, drive away in a little silver car. I hurried and caught up to Jerry as he was putting the money box into his jeep.
“Hey,” I said brightly, feeling, despite all I could do, like the circus lady who gets strapped to a wheel and spun around while a man throws daggers at her. “Can I see you tonight?”
“No, Punkin,” he replied, not even looking around. “I got things to do, but just you sit tight and we’ll get together in the morning before work.”
“I always sit tight,” I quipped. “You know that as well as I do.”
He turned around and looked at me, and relief was palpable in his eyes.
“That’s my girl,” he said, and since we were the only people left at the slip, he rewarded my compliance with the first kiss he had ever given me in a public place. Leaning over, he smiled and gently warmed my lips with his, and then he climbed on into the Jeep. “Just you sit tight,” he repeated, “and I’ll come square you away in the morning.”
After Jerry drove away, I walked out on the fishing pier and stood for a long time watching the storm advance. Through the scud of gray clouds, the sun was a pale silver coin. Waves farther out in the bay had turned a dark slate color, with white foam at their crests. All but a few of the usual sea birds had taken shelter. Those that remained soared and dipped over the waves for whatever small fish that had not yet sought depth. I thought about what somebody had told me once, that approaching storms put negative ions in the air, and that’s why being out in them makes us feel so good. Whether it was that or the high drama of watching Nature pitch a battle over my head, I started to feel better. Like a pagan priestess, I spread my arms to the elements, halfway feeling that I could command them with a snap of my fingers and a swirl of the cape I could almost feel floating behind me. The wind was practically gale force, flattening back my hair and blowing a tang of salt onto my lips. The halyards on the grove of masts in the marina set up a musical din of pinging, set off by the moaning of wind in the tops of hollow masts.
When great drops of rain began to spatter on me, I hurried to my car and drove away, thinking of getting a good night’s sleep so I could get up early for the squaring away I had to look forward to. The excitement of the storm, however, stayed with me. When I got back to my cottage, I made myself a sandwich and took it and a bottle of Harp Lager out onto my screened-in porch to sit in the metal glider and watch trees sway in the wind and listen to the rain drumming on the tin roof.
By the time the storm had blown itself out, it was dark and I was restless again. Casting about and finding nothing I wanted to do, I decided to drive past Jerry’s house, just so I could feel close to him, if only for a few seconds. I berated myself all the way for having been such a possessive bitch when Sharon was hitting on him. I didn’t love him, to start with, I told myself, and even if I did, I should be happy that someone else wanted to share the pleasures of her body with him. If I really wanted him to be happy, that’s exactly what I would wish. By the time I turned up his lane, I felt as generous as a saint with all the freedom I was ready to dole out to him.
But when I got there, I discovered it was all for naught. His Jeep was gone and his porch light was on. Feeling lost and expecting the worst, I drove around aimlessly, with all my good intentions draining right out of me. On a hunch, I decided to go back to the marina. When I arrived, there was Jerry’s Jeep parked in front of the schooner, at the edge of the slip, and beside it, a little silver car. There were the two of them, sitting on deck and talking. They obviously had seen me drive up, so there was no chance for me to gracefully get away. Something sour and hot rose in the back of my throat, and I trembled as I parked my car and got out.
Slowly, to give myself time for strategy to arise, I walked over to join them. Sharon smiled at me and Jerry got up to offer me a hand as I grabbed a stanchion and hauled myself aboard, in the absence of a gangplank.
“Howdy!” I chirped. “I was just out riding around to see if the storm did any damage. How’s everything here?”
“Just fine,” Jerry said. “I was afraid something would break loose and blow into us, but nothing did.”
Jerry introduced me to Sharon, who looked annoyed as I chattered on about watching the storm from the pier. I began to notice details, how the two of them were drinking coffee from Hardee’s cups, and how Jerry was barefoot. One of his shipboard rules was that the crew and I wear shoes with non-skid soles so we wouldn’t fall and hurt ourselves if the deck got wet and slippery, which it definitely was now. Gagging suddenly on the sour taste in my mouth, I excused myself and clattered down the companionway, rushing to get to the head so that, if need be, I could throw up my guts in peace and then pull myself together to face the two of them again. In the flash from the rotational beacon, I could see Jerry’s Topsiders on the floor beside the padded bench where we had first made love.
After awhile, my stomach calmed itself and I went back up on deck. Sharon and her silver bullet were gone. I began to cry softly, feeling down in the depths of my soul that there was no turning back from what I had to know, and that knowing it would restructure, if not destroy, a thing that had slipped right up and inserted itself into my naked heart.
“What’s up between you and her?” I asked, hiding my tears and trying to force the quiver from my voice.
“Nothing,” he said, and the guilt in his eyes brought hilarity bubbling up to mix with my pain.
“Nothing you can’t hide in your pocket,” I said and immediately despised myself for it.
He flinched. “You have no right whatsoever to say something like that to me, Vera. I’m Carole Anne’s husband, not yours, and you’ve got no call to be jealous. You ought to be out there with a honey of your own instead of hanging around here chasing me all the time.”
“As I recall, this thing has not been exactly one-sided,” I said, and could not go on. My tears would no longer be hidden. When they broke loose, Jerry put his arms around me. I yearned to relax into them, to make myself into soft curves for his stroking, instead of the sharp, spiny angles I knew I had to create for my own sake, at least until I could find out how deep the damage really was.
I wiped my eyes with my fingers and peered up at him, at the tolerant, condescending way he was looking at me, and anger sliced through me, rendering me mute of those little retorts that other people so easily call up in their own defense. In that hanging-fire moment of silence while I groped for something to say, Jerry’s look of tolerance shifted to slight amusement, and the rage building in me tattered my remaining control. Taking my keys out of my pocket, I swung at his face. I could almost taste the blood that welled up in the corner of his mouth. Over and over, I swiped at him, while he dodged around before me. I wished he would slap me back, even hurt me so that at least I would know I had made him react in vehemence to match my own, to watch anger replace the amusement in his eyes.
It was a fierce and peculiar battle, with little noise, save for his grunts when my keys connected. My tears had dried up, abated in violence. But even in the heat of it, a horror began to congeal in me at what I was doing. At last, Jerry grabbed my arms and held them to my sides, ending what must have seemed to him, with his height and his heft, not much more than the furious strikes of a child.
“What you want, little girl?” he taunted. I struggled and managed to free the hand holding the keys, but as I raised them to stab at his face once again, he shoved me hard into one of the masts and the keys flew out of my hand and over the side. Rushing over, I was not even in time to see them hit the water and sink.
This let the air out of things for both of us, and I was able to scramble off the boat and start home on foot. Behind me, I heard Jerry’s Jeep start up. When he pulled up beside me, I got in, as though in a dream, and let him drive me home. There, he jimmied the door for me and then swept me back into the bedroom. There we tumbled down together and jolted our way to a conclusion of the skirmish we had started back on the boat.
The rest of the night was a series of things I don’t yet understand. In its duration, I completed my fall. Violent madwoman became clinging vine, who does every dingy thing her lover asks, while a pastel portrait of him looks on with eyes that follow every move. The notion took hold in me and became ambition, that I could win this man, his heart and every speck of tenderness he had ever reserved for stray cats and schooners. We could wed our dreams together, buy a studio/boat of our own, and cross-hatch the globe with our travels.
But my ambition fell flat. Deep into the hours toward morning, when exhaustion had carried us into sleep, Jerry woke me with mumblings. I switched on my reading lamp and looked at his face. Beneath the lids, his eyes rolled. Back and forth they swept, as they had over my own body bending over his only an hour or two before. “More!” he demanded of a phantom, and despite my ambition, which instructed me to take him into my arms and insert myself into his dream, I remained still. In his mind, I imagined, were legions of women who had fallen and would continue to fall beneath his desire like lines of dominos. Though temptation washed over me, I lay there and watched him until at last he awoke and looked at me with the eyes of a stranger.
When we had sorted ourselves out, he drove me with my spare keys back to the marina to pick up my car. But when he tried to kiss me goodbye, thinking perhaps that things were back to normal, I pulled away. Loneliness for the man I now admitted I had loved had already set in, and along with it came disgust and a black, withering hatred for the both of us. As I left the marina, I did not even look for him in the rearview mirror.
I drove through the morning fog out to Mercy Point and parked under the rotational beacon, the flashing eye of which was never stilled, even on the sunniest days, because of the shoals that framed the point. It was going to be hot later on, but right then, there was nothing that felt better than the still, cool air and the cold droplets of water passing onto my face from the fog. I walked through a small, almost dried-up marsh to the beach, avoiding the muddy places and brushing through stiff grasses.
It was eerie out there, with the fog obscuring everything further away than a few yards and seeming to muffle the sound of waves crashing in. A sign reading “Hazard— Undertow” loomed like a ghost out of the fog as I walked down to the water’s edge and took off my shoes. My body reeked of my own sweat and the residue of Jerry’s aftershave, contaminated, I imagined, with molecules of Sharon’s perfume, so, after only a moment’s hesitation, I slipped off my clothes and waded in up to my thighs, where the waves could pound me without dragging me into the undertow. Picking up a handful of sand, I scrubbed my breasts and belly with it until they were raw, and then ducked under to rinse myself off.
The water was pleasantly cold, and I entertained a fleeting image of myself going a little farther out and being carried away by the hungry current. But I finished bathing and waded out and sat down on a log to drip dry. As though I were setting up a subject to paint, I studied the contrast between smooth, newly tanned flesh and gray, splintery wood. Jerry would never see contrasts like these, not now, not ever. I crossed my legs and watched grains of sand clinging to my calves fall off in tiny showers. I could still taste his non-concern, matched squarely against my rage. My arms curled around my breasts with the coldness of the memory.
Sitting in that position of childish self-protection, I was numbly aware of a turning inside me, a smooth gliding and clicking into place of the full knowledge of my loss. The log creaked when I moved again, seeming to mourn to itself, answering with animation the deadly iciness inside me. My face felt wooden, my eyes scalded with tears.
And then I caught a flash of movement in the corner of my eye. Turning my head, I saw three pelicans streak by in close formation and disappear into the fog. Catching my breath, I wished for the briefest of moments that Jerry were there to see them, and then I got up and started putting on my clothes.