Authors: Susan Wilson
n some dreams we struggle to make headway through a crowd or through sand or through water. I struggled to make headway against the rising breeze, the wavelets grown into erratic chop, splashing me in the face and choking me. I lacked the strength to make it to that shore and for one brief, completely selfish instant thought I'd simply let myself go under.
My feet touched the bottom, the ooze threading up between my toes as I walked out of the water and onto the muddy embankment. I was instantly chilled in the breeze. Sean stayed on the porch, watching me as I wrapped the floral bath towel around me. “I take it you didn't get my message.”
“No. I did. I checked in when I landed this morning and when I got the message you were coming home tomorrow, I just headed up. I was halfway here anyway.”
“What did you do, rent a car?”
“Because I know you didn't take ours to Logan.”
“How could you know that?”
Grace hallooed from the path, letting us know before we saw her
that she was coming. Leaving her beach chair and bag full of reading materials and sun block on the grass, Grace came up the stairs and took my shoulders, moving me a little aside, almost but not quite planting herself between Sean and me. “How about I pick up the kids from camp and head back to the city?”
I kept my eyes on Sean, now standing back a little, a willful pout on his lips. He took a step backward. “What's going on?”
“I'll throw a few things in a bag for them and write you a note with permission to take them. But Grace, can you take them to Narragansett, to Alice's?”
Then I remembered her student tenants. “Where will you go?”
Grace kissed my cheek. “Joanie's mom's. Not to worry.”
I broke away from Grace's grip and went into the cabin.
“Cleo, what's going on?” Sean called after me, but made no move to follow.
“Sean, you and your wife need some time alone.” Grace had pulled herself up to her full height, meeting Sean eye to eye and daring him to ask anything else. She left him on the porch and came in to collect the things I had stuffed into a knapsack.
I grabbed the top page of my manuscript and tore it in half, scrawling-permission for Grace Chichetti to pick Lily and Tim McCarthy up today. I added that this would be their last day and thanked Mrs. Beckman for everything. Folding it over, I read the typescript of the novel's first sentence, and immediately thought of a better one. Karen and Jay had become quite different people than those they had started out as. I kissed Grace on the cheek and went back out to the porch, where Sean still stood, arms folded over his chest, on his face a reflection of his father's scowl.
“Awfully sensitive of Grace to take the kids and give us some alone time.” His dark look belied the words.
“We need to talk.”
Abruptly Sean's scowl vanished and he pushed past me to the kitchen. “Is there anything to eat in here? I only got pretzels and coffee on the plane.” He started opening and shutting the cupboard
doors, not finding anything to his liking. “I rushed up here so quickly, I didn't stop to eat lunch.”
“Why did you rush up here?”
“I told you, I thought I'd help you pack.”
“You are such a fucking liar.”
I seldom use that word. It stopped Sean in his tracks.
kay, Cleo. What's going on?” Sean was still confident enough in himself, he said this casually, as if he knew he could talk me out of any annoyance I had with him over something inconsequential. He opened the door to the refrigerator.
“Just tell me something, Sean McCarthy. Was she worth it? I hope you think she was, because she's cost you the game.”
Sean very carefully shut the door, sat on the barstool opposite mine and sighed. I could see the whirling indecision on his face. His Irish coloration gave away his thoughts. I could fairly narrate the dialogue going on in his head by the flush and fade of the color in his face.
Should I tell her the whole truth, or some variation?
“Let me help you. I saw you at Logan on Wednesday. A day after the day you said you were going to Pittsburgh. I saw Eleanor and you together. I saw you kissing goodbye in a decidedly noncollegial way.”
“Why were you at Logan?”
“Don't, Sean. This isn't my story, it's yours. I'm going to give you the punch line, but first I want to hear the story from your lips.”
“I don't know what you think saw, but it was just a friendly kiss between colleagues.”
“Like the condom wrapper was just a condom wrapper left by some friendly neighbor?”
Sean stood up, his enormous sigh told me that he knew the game was up. I expected him to say what he had said the first time. “She doesn't mean anything to me. I love you.” But he didn't. He didn't say anything, only took an apple out of the bowl on the island counter and went out to the porch.
By nature, I wanted civility. I wanted this to be over, and I didn't want any yelling or lying or any more accusations. I wanted to be done with it. My parents managed to separate and divorce without raising their voices. They managed to be married for twenty years without ever raising their voices. But by the sheer magnitude of Sean's silence, I found myself on the verge of screaming. Aware of the acoustics of the woods and the lake, I lowered my voice to a hiss. “What have you done?”
Sean lifted his head to look at me and in between bites of apple told me his version of the truth. “About a year ago I hired Eleanor as my administrative assistant. She was so capable and so interested in moving up that it was easy to adopt a kind of mentoring role with her. She asked questions and made suggestions and before I knew it, was really indispensable to me. Then, slowly, I realized that there was some magnetism between us. I began to think of her when I shouldn't be.
“I thought that if I told you about her, it would neutralize the attraction, make her harmless. So, I told you that I brought her back a T-shirt from New Orleans. No big deal. Nothing compromising there. You never even remarked on it. But she was so thrilled, Eleanor was so excited to think I'd thought of her that the whole idea of trying to avoid what was happening so naturally was stupid. You see, no one in recent years had thought I was, well, worth a crush.”
“I've never refused you.”
“It wasn't sex. Not really. Not at first. It was puppy love. Hers for me. It is golden to be in a place where everything you do or say is brilliant and amusing.”
“So you were flattered by her crush.”
“But you're a grown man. You know how fragile that is, and how to put on the brakes.”
“Cleo, at some point I realized I didn't want to make it go away.”
“And what did she think? What have you told her? What promises have you made or implied? That you'd leave me for her?”
“I swear to you I've told her nothing, promised her nothing. It hasn't been like that. She knows we're Catholic.”
“So, you're telling me this kid is in it just for the sex or is this some kind of sexual harassment?”
“Cleo, stop it. No.”
“Have you promoted her?”
He looked down at the apple core. A little more flush tinged his ears, and I noticed for the first time how faded his once brilliant hair was, nearly creamy yellow, only a vestige of the red remaining. Sitting down, his belly was more pronounced and I realized that his summer of dining out had taken its toll. His light of love might roll over someday and wonder what the heck she was thinking the day she pursued an older man. Older man, Sean would only be forty-one next spring.
“How old is Eleanor?”
“It sounds pretty trite, but she is very mature.”
“How long has this been going on?” In my mind I thought that if he named some brief period, maybe only since I'd been gone, I could handle it. The damage would be great but not mortal. It would mean it was my fault for leaving him, that once again he simply couldn't be trusted but that it was not beyond fixing.
“Maybe ten months.”
I had been sitting down, and now I slipped back against my chair, my hands unaccountably shaking. I pressed them against the arms of the chair. “Do you love her?”
“I think I might.”
It was as if he'd hit me. I struggled to get up and walked down off the porch. Halfway along the grassy slope I stopped and was taken with violent purging, literally vomiting up all the pain this man had just fed me. I wiped my mouth with the corner of the floral towel still wrapped around me.
“Cleo.” Sean hurried off the porch and tried to touch me but I ran away, so afraid his touch would destroy me. I ran into the woods, still wiping the bile from my lips, my bare footsteps erratic and painful against the twigs and detritus of the forest floor.
The truth was, I understood Sean better than I had expected. I, too, had known that sweet forbidden attraction to someone who hasn't lived with you, who hasn't borne the contentions and disagreements. But what Ben and I had done was not born out of flirtation and adolescent crushes, but out of a bittersweet need. It was not the same. As my feet pounded the path, I knew that my own weakness had compounded the error Sean had made. It was not a question of whether I should forgive Sean again, but whether I held our marriage dear enough to save. At what point had we let go of each other so carelessly that others could take our place?
needed the cool water to clear my head, I needed the baptism of immersion to cleanse my aching heart. I dived under the surface of the golden brown lake and kicked toward the raft. It seemed farther away than usual. My lungs, air-deprived, hurt and I surfaced only a quarter of the way there. I struck out, heedless of form, the water splashing my face and going into my mouth. I was panting with the effort as I climbed the ladder.
Ben was there. He sat there, warm and golden himself in the late-afternoon light. His soft brown eyes met mine as he held out a hand to pull me aboard. “Are you all right?”
“No.” My legs seemed suddenly very weak and I gracelessly sat down. I realized that I was shaking as if I had just run sprints, with the same kind of breathless burn in my chest. I drew my knees up close to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, then rested my cheek against my knees.
“Can I put my arm around you?” Ben stood on the opposite corner of the raft, distancing himself.
“No. It wouldn't be a good thing to do”—I looked up at him—“as much as it would be the most wonderful feeling in the world right now.”
“Pretend I am.” Ben wandered to the other corner of the raft, the corner facing Grace's cabin. “Should I leave you?”
“No. Please. I feel better having you at least this close.”
“Shall I speak of inconsequentials?”
“That would be lovely.” The burning had stopped and I had control-of my breathing. I knew I could only sit out here on the raft with Ben for a few minutes before I would have to go back and reopen the discussion with Sean. I wanted to give us both time to regroup.
“I've started it. The flute part.”
“Oh, Ben. That's not inconsequential.”
I couldn't see his face as he kept his back to me.
“Tell me something—why didn't you write a jazz piece in her honor? She was a jazz musician, after all.”
“I might have done that except that the beauty of Talia's jazz was her improvisation. No matter how I might write it, whoever played the piece would never sound like Talia. It would never be her piece as it would have been had . . . had things turned out differently that night. You see, I can imitate her style but I could never replicate it. What I've done is create a symphonic poem which, I hope, acknowledges her spirit more than anything else.”
“What happens when it's done?”
“For a while, nothing. The truth is, I don't think I could bear hearing it.”
“Maybe you will. Someday.” I suppose I meant after Talia, after he is able to stop mourning.
He had come nearer, standing over me as I continued to hunch with my arms around my knees. Ben let the tips of his fingers brush my neck, the light touch sending a frisson down my spine, not of desire, but of an unspoken connection. Then he placed one hand lightly on the top of my head, a gentle blessing of fingertips.
A splash in the distance startled us out of our momentary intimacy. Sean had dived into the lake and was swimming toward the raft. Watching him eke his way closer to us, we remained as we were; Ben's hand on my head, my arms wrapped around my knees. When Sean reached the ladder, Ben moved to the edge to jump off. Then he stepped back and away from the edge. “Hello, Sean.”
“Oh, Turner.” Sean extended his hand in professional greeting
and then looked down at me. “Could I ask you to . . .” he waved in the direction of Ben's cabin.
Ben didn't move right away. He looked from Sean to me and waited until I nodded. Ben strode to the edge of the raft and executed a perfect dive off the north side of the raft, breaking to the surface twenty feet away before striking back toward his western shore.
I realized that Sean had swum out here not to reconcile, but to agitate. He was now on the offensive. “You seem pretty chummy with that has-been rock star.”
“Stop it, Sean. This is about you.”
I could see that he was grasping at straws, hopeful that he could somehow turn the onus over onto me. He could hardly imagine that I already wore the weight of confused guilt. Twice over I blamed myself for his wandering, held myself accountable for his predilection. He was like an addict suddenly off the wagon and somehow, by being his wife, I pushed him. The more frightening to me was that he gleaned my deeper guilt; more terrifying in that I could no longer hold myself as purely wronged.
Sean was deeply angry, that I could see by the florid color of his face. He began pacing from one side of the raft to the other, making it rock with an erratic tilt, making it hard to stand in one place. “Maybe I should go have a talk with Mr. Rock Star.”
“Sean. Don't. Don't be stupid. This has nothing to do with him.”
He stopped pacing and came up to me. Instinctively I took a step back. “No, I don't suppose you have ever known temptation.” His voice was a low growl, a warning. There was a challenge in it, defying me to prove him wrong, challenging me to defend myself on a different field than the one he'd put us on.
“Why do you want to bring other people into our problem?”
“That's right, let's not expose ourselves to the scrutiny of others. Let's keep our voices down and ourselves under control.” His voice had begun to rise in defiance of any embarrassment his behavior might bring.
“Sean, stop it.” I moved away from him and went to stand at the
west edge of the raft. I didn't want his voice to carry across to the east side, mortified that the beach biddies would make gossip out of my husband's performance. Ben was playing and I hoped that he couldn't hear us over the sound of his own music.
I needed to bring the conflict back to its origins. “Don't try to make me out the villain here, Sean McCarthy. You're the one who's jeopardized our marriage with your cheating. What makes you think that I can go through this again? What makes you think that I'll just roll over and forgive you again?”
“I haven't asked you to.”
I felt the nausea rise and leaned over, my hands on my thighs. “Get out of here, Sean. Get away from me before I kill you.” They were only meant as metaphor, but my words were sincere. Sean was killing me with his lack of contrition, with his evident reluctance to make an effort to save our marriage. I had found out about this affair while it was still important to him.
“I'm going home.” Sean stepped to the western edge of the raft, about to dive off.
“Sean. Don't.” Instinctively I put a restraining hand on his arm.
In an instant I saw that he took my touch as forgiveness.
“It's not safe to dive off this side.”
The mad rocking of the platform had diminished to a gentle sway. He spoke softly now and I was vaguely aware that Ben's music had stopped. “Cleo, for a long time now you haven't needed me. I know I'm pretty dull stuff, not glamorous like your rock-star friend.” He held up a hand against my protest, “But in the last year, Eleanor has made me feel as though I still have it. She thinks that I'm exciting, thinks I have something to offer. You know, Cleo, you haven't gotten the best of me, I still have plenty to offer.”
“What nonsense.” I wanted to rebut him, wanted to prove him wrong with just the right comeback. But I couldn't come up with the words. He might have been right. “You've been pulling away from me. You've been the one to look elsewhere.”
“We've pulled ourselves apart, Cleo. It's no one's fault.” He suddenly seemed so reasonable, so determined. Or was it resignation?
“Sean, if I hadn't found out about your affair, when would you have told me?”
He didn't say anything, perhaps a little nonplussed.
“I mean, if Eleanor has been such a boon to your ego, surely you mean to make something permanent of it.”
“Until today, I didn't feel as though I had come to that point.”
“Get out of here now, Sean McCarthy. Leave me alone.” I folded my arms tight across my midriff, pressing against it to feel something besides nausea.
Sean dived off the raft with a graceless splash and headed to shore. I crumpled to the deck and now I sat there to wait until Sean's rental car left the yard. I grew chilled as the air cooled off and the breeze picked up. I wrapped my arms around my legs and tried not to shiver. Sean was taking his time. I saw the outdoor shower door open and heard the sprinkle of shower water.
Finally he appeared, standing on the porch steps, shielding his eyes against the glare of the setting sun. He seemed to be waiting for me. Waiting for me to change my mind, to come take the argument to some more reasonable level. To say, It's okay, honey, you certainly deserve a girl on the side. I didn't move.
At last Sean turned and walked up the leaf-strewn path to the driveway. I heard with relief the sound of his car starting. I dived off the raft, instantly warmed by the water. My muscles relaxed as I swam, but the cool air touching my wet skin as I climbed out of the water started me shivering again. I ran into the cabin and grabbed a damp towel.
Sean had used the last of the hot water from the tiny water heater. Half rinsed and no warmer, I bundled into jeans and my sweatshirt and heated water for tea. Mug secured between my hands, I stared out through the big picture window at the growing darkness and ground my teeth against the gristle of my thoughts. This young woman, this secretary, had seen something in my husband I was blind to. But I must have seen it once. Had our lives become so separated
that even the memory of the spark which had ignited us into a couple was so diminished I couldn't, twenty years later, recall it to mind? What had Sean displayed to this girl, that she would fall for a middle-aged, slightly overweight insurance salesman? What had I missed? Or thrown away?
I didn't want this to be about other people. About Eleanor or about Ben. I needed to keep my mind on what was happening between Sean and me, and how, somewhere along the way, we'd stopped being important to each other.