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Authors: Susan Wilson

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BOOK: Cameo Lake
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The busboy came and removed our plates, leaving dessert menus behind.

“The thing is”—I didn't look up at Ben—”I think that he may be doing it again.” I hadn't expected to say that.

Ben simply reached across the table and took my hand. “Why?”

It seemed, as I told Ben about the little things which alarmed me, that maybe I
was
jumping to conclusions. They sounded so minor. I sounded so suspicious.

“I can't tell you you're right or wrong, I can only say that once trust is broken, it's almost impossible to fix it properly.”

I was feeling as if I had monopolized the evening with a dull bit of ancient history. I was tired of it and moved to change the subject. “Ben, it's an old story and one which comes nowhere close to the loss you've endured.”

“Unhappiness is unhappiness, Cleo. I think that maybe infidelity is pretty much the same as an accident. Sometimes it takes a while to assess the extent of the damage done.”

We let ourselves be quiet for a few minutes. Then Ben reached across the table and took my free hand. “Cleo, maybe the most important thing about your story is that you took a second chance. And I don't think that you've regretted it. But I never got a second chance. Talia never gave me one.”

“Why did you need one?”

“I let our lives grow apart.”

We danced. A slow dance to a bluesy song. Ben stood up and held out his hand to me. At first I shook my head, but he winked and smiled and wouldn't take no for an answer. “I wrote this tune. It's from Interior Angles' second album, so humor me.”

He placed a gentle hand on my waist, and held his other hand flat against mine. Again I was struck by what a good dancer he was. I had been so concerned with Sean's reaction the last time Ben asked me to
dance, I couldn't give myself over to the pure enjoyment of it, of being skillfully moved around the tiny dance space. I felt how close our hips were as Ben leaned a little, how warm his hand was against my waist, how my fingers curled into his. When the dance ended I felt as though I had been kissed.

“We should go.” I said

“Yes. We should.” He answered.

Nineteen

I
t was after ten-thirty when we left the restaurant. After the air conditioning inside, the night heat was breathless. I drove slowly, not inebriated, but knowing that I'd had two glasses of good wine. We were very quiet in the big car.

We got to the cabin and it seemed natural that I should get out of the car and walk with him to the overturned canoe. I felt a strange reluctance to let Ben go, to let him paddle away across the dark lake. “Will you have a nightcap with me?”

Ben had already gotten to the canoe and flipped it over. “I should go.”

“Ben, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“Why did you ask me out tonight?”

Ben walked back up the path. I could just about make him out in the faint yellow of the porch light above us. “Why did you accept?” We stood very still in a moment of exquisite hesitation. He reached both hands to touch my face, then kissed me. It wasn't a quick, chaste kiss between friends. Now I took his face in my hands and kissed him. We let our tongues play experimentally. I felt a long-dulled desire flourish.

“I shouldn't have done that.” Ben brushed a lock of hair away from my cheek.

“I'm glad you did.” I touched the hand which touched my face.

“To get back at your husband for old sins?”

“No.” I might have said, “For new sins,” but the truth was, Ben's kiss was exactly what I needed. It had been so long since I had been kissed with more than marital affection. So long since my last first kiss, I'd forgotten how incredibly sweet and unexpected it could be. I didn't want him to think that I regarded such a sweet moment as anything else.

Ben's hand still touched my face. The porch light glittered in his brown eyes, and I could see that neither one of us would regret the moment.

“I should go,” he said again and gently pulled away.

“Thanks.” Our hands touched, fingertip to fingertip.

“Thanks?”

“For reminding me what it's like to live a little dangerously.”

He shoved the canoe into the water and climbed aboard. I watched until the darkness swallowed him.

I lay a long time awake, thinking about that kiss, about the fire it had ignited in a banked bed of embers. Oh, I was on dangerous ground. That's what I'd meant. I was playing an emotionally very risky game with a man who deserved to have someone come to him unencumbered. Nothing could come of teasing ourselves. Then I thought, Ben hasn't asked anything more of me and I don't believe he will. Satisfied with that, I told myself that we understood our boundaries and that we would not cross them. A kiss good-night was not so serious. Even such a one as we had just shared. True, he should not have kissed me and I should not have kissed him back. But I lay alone in my bed and gave myself the freedom to not regret it.

I woke at dawn wondering how we should greet one another when we met, as we surely would, on the raft.

I ran and then heated coffee to get my creative juices flowing. Jay and Karen were looking very dull to me and suddenly I was struck by the absolute certainty that Jay would cheat on Karen. It had to happen.
For so long I'd been avoiding the adulterous plot in my novels, afraid that I would spill some truth out onto the page. Now, in telling Benson Turner my story, I had somehow broken the seal on the envelope and the contents were public record. I bent to the task and the morning flew by. Nothing about their story resembled mine. As always, the genetic material was shuffled and made wholly new.

Twenty

I
had two loads' worth of laundry and was blessed to be only one of two people using the small laundromat this beautiful afternoon. I'd put in almost six hours of writing by one o'clock, choosing to stay put rather than go out to the raft. I didn't see Ben out there, either, and I imagined that he, too, was a little uncertain how we would greet each other this morning.

The heat in the rectangular yellow building was intense and I went outside to sit on one of the available picnic tables. The Dairy Bar was situated close by and I went over to buy a hot dog for lunch. Bees followed me from the Dairy Bar window right back to my picnic table. They seemed to like the smell of the relish I'd layered on my hot dog and I had to watch every bite I took not to eat one of them. Ben joined me almost as soon as I'd sat down.

“Hi.”

“Hi,” I answered over a bite of hot dog. “Laundry day for you, too?”

“I came in to pick up my car.” Ben gestured toward the Cameo Lake Garage. “Timing belt this time. I think it may be time to put this one down.”

“My timing belt went just before I got here. That's why Grace lent me her SUV.” It was a little hard to believe that we could be having
such a mundane conversation, as if the past evening had been something I'd committed to paper, not memory.

“Grace hasn't been one of my fans now for over a year.”

“She has been misled.”

“At least she speaks to me when I see her.”

“Has she been blunt with you? I mean, Grace generally speaks her mind.”

“A little.”

“Poor Ben. I know how scathing Grace can be.”

“Oh, she wasn't exactly scathing. But she was blunt when she accused me of leaving the community out of the mourning process when I didn't have a funeral service.”

“Surely she knew that was your decision. It might have become a media event had you not.”

“Apparently, according to Grace, I robbed this community of something when I . . .” Ben turned his face away in an effort to chose his words. “When I didn't.”

“Do you think that's why they've been so unforgiving?”

“Part of it. That, and the part where they think I . . .”

“Ben, please don't say it.”

He didn't look at me for a moment. “It's the impression they were left with. To tell you the truth, it's one that I've encouraged in them.”

I wanted to reach over and brush the hair from his forehead, as I would had he been my child. But I settled for brushing the hair from my own forehead in sympathy. “Why, Ben?”

He didn't answer me, only shrugged away the question. I stood up to go collect my dried laundry. Ben caught at my arm as I crossed in front of him. “Can you give me an hour?”

I looked at my watch, I had some time before I had to go get the kids and I said as much to him. Then asked him why.

“I need to show you . . . I need you to see something.”

I threw my dried clothes into my basket without folding them. Ben took the basket and set it in my car and then we got into his aged Wagoneer. Within a few minutes we were on an unfamiliar road and
moving away from the lake in a more or less westerly direction. Ben gave me nothing by way of preamble. No clue at all as to where we were going, except that it wasn't far, maybe only twenty minutes away. There was something in the set of his jaw which prevented me from demanding anything more. My only comments concerned the scenery, which was comprised mainly of trees and roadside shrubbery waving in the backwash as we sped past.

The two-lane road became the Main Street of another small New Hampshire town. To my left the ample firehouse, to my right a library and municipal building. Ben downshifted before he put his signal on and we turned onto a side street, then half a block down, into a driveway which took us around the back of a small, squat brick building. Ben slid into a parking space and turned the car off. He didn't move for a minute, both hands still on the steering wheel. An odd pressure in my chest felt a little like fear or maybe more like nerves.

“Ben?” I wanted him to tell me now why we were here, at this nursing home. I thought I knew, but I wanted him to tell me before we went in. I needed some clue to what I was to see. I needed to rehearse my reaction.

“Come on.” He was out of the car, almost not waiting for me, clearly anxious about doing this, as if it had been impulse to bring me and he was on the edge of wishing he hadn't.

We went around to the front of the building, which I could see had been designed to mimic some aspects of New England architecture, with the ornate lintel over the heavy fire door and the fake shutters on the flanking windows. Inside, the carpeting gave over to creamy tile almost instantly.

“Hi, Ben. How are you today?” A man dressed in the blue clothes of a maintenance worker greeted Ben.

“Pretty good, Erv. No complaints.”

“Wouldn't do you no good, anyways.”

We walked past the empty nurse's station, although two women in perky floral smocks greeted Ben in the corridor with almost coworker-like casualness, as if his presence there was expected and routine. As it certainly was.

“Benson, how ya doin' mon?” Another very young man with a Jamaican lilt high-fived Ben. “Ya going to play for us today, mon?”

“No, maybe tomorrow, Clyde.”

I watched Ben transform from tense and guarded, to relaxed and comfortable in the presence of these various caregivers. Obviously here he was safe because here his secret lived.

“Cleo, this is Talia.”

We stood in the doorway of a single room. I stepped slightly in front of Ben and then I could feel his hands on my shoulders, encouraging me to go in. I didn't know if I should speak. If she could hear me. What would I say?

Talia lay flat, various plastic tubing emerging not so discreetly from under the light blanket. A ventilator protruded from the base of her throat. A monitor blipped—measured respirations, I supposed, monitored heartbeat. Her blue eyes were open, unfocused as a newborn's, staring blankly at the ceiling, where someone had pinned a Matisse poster. At the corner of her still mouth, a tiny bubble of moisture glistened, the sunlight through the open window illuminating it into prominence.

“Hello, my love.” Ben leaned over and kissed her, making the tiny droplet disappear. “I've brought a friend to meet you.”

I felt myself want to cry, not just for Talia, but from the sadness of Ben's resolute cheerfulness.

Ben pulled two chairs up to the bed, taking the one closest, allowing me the one at the foot of it. He took Talia's hand and began massaging it. Her arm was like that of an old woman, the loose skin over the atrophied muscle soft and fluid as he gently worked it. “I met Talia when I was forty. I was just climbing out of the trough of my rock career and finding good work as a sessions musician in New York. She was twenty-three, nearly half my age. It's unfair to ask a beautiful woman if she's ever noticed a beautiful woman, but if you'd known her then, you would have been as taken with her as everyone else whose path crossed hers. She had a luminescence, like an internal pilot light kept her ready to glow at all times. As if she held the secret to happiness. She played that way, reviewers called her sparkling.
One reviewer in particular said she sounded like champagne, effervescent and rare.” Ben set Talia's right hand down and moved to the other side of the bed, where he picked up her left hand, and his thoughts.

“Is it too trite to say I fell head over heels? That's exactly what it felt like to me. Suddenly I was infected with this same happiness. It was as if all the weight of my self-destructed career, my grief and perplexity with Kevin's death, my demons, were blasted away by Talia Brightman's smile. I remember going to my sublet apartment after our second recording session and looking at myself in the mirror. I literally looked myself in the eye in the bathroom mirror and told myself to go slow. She seemed so ethereal that I was afraid the force of my love would make her disappear, like she had made my demons go.

“This was about the point in her career when she was desperate to move away from classical repertoire and into jazz. It was a chancy thing, only Winton Marsalis has made a dual career of it. In Talia's mind, she wanted to abandon what she'd been so successful at, what her lifelong training had focused on, and get into a form she was fascinated with, but untrained in. I became her co-conspirator. I knew people. I'd been in the industry since college in one form or another. I'd jammed with some terrific jazz musicians all around the country, going into these smoky, stinky nightclubs in Chicago and God knows where—heading out after Angles concerts, enjoying the relative anonymity of playing for people who had no clue who Interior Angles were. So, I introduced her and she practiced and somehow along the way I talked her into marrying me.” Ben was finished with the left hand and came back around to me.

“We should go.”

I won't say I wasn't relieved. I remained on the vinyl and metal chair, sitting forward, uncomfortable in a way I was embarrassed about, hoping that my discomfort wasn't obvious to Ben. “We don't have to go yet.” I turned away from my childish dislike for being in a hospital room. “I can go outside if you want some time alone.”

“I won't be long.” Ben squeezed my shoulder gently.

* * *

I went straight out, seeking to let the warm breeze take the nursing home odor out of my nostrils. I walked down the short block, turned, and walked back, sitting down on a bench a little way from the front door. I knew that Ben's bringing me here to see Talia was because I had shared my own secret last night with him. To show me that we all have things we keep from others. Except that Ben's sharing had not explained anything to me, only created more questions.

An old man sat on the bench opposite to mine and in the time it took for Ben to come out, smoked two cigarettes. He smoked them slowly, considering each inhalation. By the scruffy slippers on his feet, I assumed he was a resident, given outdoor smoking privileges. He carefully dabbed each of the two cigarettes out on a scarred spot on the iron framework of the green bench and then got up and went inside. As he passed through the wide wooden door, Ben came through. Seeing me sitting there, he smiled and put his baseball cap back on. “Thanks for being patient.”

“Ben, I'd feel bad if you hurried for my sake.”

We walked quickly back to the parked car. The passenger-side door creaked in loud protest as Ben opened it for me. “Is it very expensive to have her there?”

“About like having a child in a little ivy college.” Ben adjusted the rearview mirror. “This is a good place, despite being out here in the middle of nowhere. Her parents were very upset with me keeping her here in New Hampshire when they had found a place in New York that specializes in cases like Talia's. But this place is very caring and she gets the same therapies as she would in a big-city place, maybe even better. We have a guy named Jeremy who is her private nurse and he gives her the best care possible. He's teaching me some things, you know, basic nursing care, so that when she becomes . . . end-stage, I can bring her home.”

Benson Turner had been grieving for the dying, not the dead.

“Can I ask you something, Ben?”

BOOK: Cameo Lake
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