Ocean City

 

From Five Points

By ten o’clock, the tension in the car has become another passenger. It’s a relief when Allison asks Richard to pull off at the next gas station. While she disappears inside the Quik-Stop, Richard stretches his legs, walking with their daughter through the slushy parking lot to peer up at the stone and granite bridge that arches over the road. Marianna’s first grade class recently visited Concord, and she asks if redcoats marched across that bridge. They did not, Richard says, for he knows these Connecticut bridges were built in the mid-1900s. But as he forms answers for Marianna’s questions, his mind is six hours south, in Ocean City, where May Darlington still lives. Tomorrow at this time he might even be with May, talking to her again after fourteen years.

Suddenly Allison is upon them, hair falling in front of her face, grabbing Marianna by the shoulders to yank her away. ‘What are you thinking?’

Only then does Richard realize how fast the cars on the parkway shoot by, how the air rocks after each one passes.  They’d been yards away, he is about to say. Marianna had been perfectly safe. But now Marianna herself is looking at him as if he’d dangled her over a precipice.

‘Jesus, Richard,’ Allison says. ‘I swear men have no instincts.’

Well maybe that’s true, he thinks. He doesn’t claim to know much about being a parent. Marianna has never warmed to him the way he’d thought little girls naturally did to fathers, and he feels like she probably never will.  But he also knows that anytime he does try to use his instincts, Allison interrupts with an explanation about the correct way to handle things.

He opens the back door for Marianna and tries to help her buckle in, but she snatches the belt from his hands. ‘I can do it myself,’ she says.

At this age, six, she takes her clues—how to behave, react, think—from her mother. He will have to take Allison aside, ask her to stop criticizing him in front of Marianna.

‘I know you can, honey,’ he says, watching while she fits the buckle together with determined hands, her teeth sunk into her bottom lip. He wants her to know he hadn’t put her in danger, but Marianna is a serious child, too often shy around him. She was never cuddly as a baby, favored her mother as a toddler, and doesn’t have much to say to him now. Sometimes he doesn’t mind—he’d always figured Allison could handle the kids even though fathers are supposed to be so hands-on and happy about it these days—but now he has a crazy urge to squeeze Marianna hard, confess his disloyal thoughts of May Darlington. Maybe he should have given in to Allison back in the planning stages, told her that Orlando was a fine idea, that they could trek to the Magic Kingdom along with everyone else from the Buckingham School. Marianna would be content, and Allison would not look so closed and grim. But finances had been on his mind. Finances, and then opportunity. ‘How about Williamsburg?’ he’d offered. When Allison finally warmed to the idea, he suggested they drive down the coast, stop somewhere overnight. ‘Like Ocean City,’ he said, a small secret thrill piercing him like a dart.

 

 

Allison planned their honeymoon eight years ago: three nights at Canyon Ranch Spa in the Berkshires, followed by a week in Barbados. Nearby Canyon Ranch was Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare & Company. When they arrived at a production of Twelfth Night, Richard discovered that the players operated out of Edith Wharton’s rundown mansion. He couldn’t think of Edith Wharton without also thinking of May, and this odd bit of fate seemed to be a sign, a sign that he probably should have listened to the voice inside that had pointed out that he wasn’t really in love with Allison, that he’d had no business marrying her.

He watched himself buy an Edith Wharton postcard, watched, the next morning, as he scribbled his tangled thoughts—What am I doing? I know you’re married and so am I. I just want you to know: I wish I had missed that train. If she was still troubled by that last, convoluted, fuck-up of a night, then this would bring her back to where they’d started, to those seven days he’d never quite gotten out of his head, and that she couldn’t possibly have gotten out of hers. He dropped the postcard into an envelope and ran his tongue along the flap to seal it, then pushed the envelope through the mail slot on the concierge’s desk.

It was a betrayal—the worst possible way to begin a marriage. But he imagined the card in May’s hands, imagined her emotion, and the part of himself that he thought must be his real self felt no guilt. He went back to his room and looked down on sleeping Allison, whom he’d failed so soon. It would have to be enough that May would know how he felt. He promised himself he’d leave it at that.

 

 

As they cruise along the lower level of the George Washington Bridge, Allison says, ‘Look, Marianna. Look to your left. That’s New York City. You can’t see it too well with all this foggy mist, but that’s it.’

In the rearview mirror, Richard catches Marianna looking toward the fog with a polite, disinterested gaze.

Adults always point out landscapes to kids, and kids never care. It’s the adult who is filled with nostalgia or interest, who wants to share it. Richard tries to catch Marianna’s eye, to show he knows how she feels, but her face is back in her book. Like him, she learned to read at five, but unlike him, she doesn’t care for the classics he’d loved. She leafs through the books he gives her and sets them aside. Right now she can’t get enough of a series called ‘Best Ghoul-Friends.’

‘I used to know someone from Ocean City,’ Richard says. It’s cheap, he knows, to bring May up like this¾obliquely, safely. But his mind and nerves are churning, his senses hyper-tuned to the firm feel of the steering wheel under his hands, to the splashing sound the snow tires make as they hum along the wet road south. Ocean City.

Allison, flipping through a guidebook, half looks up. ‘Who?’

Cheap, too, to retreat into safe, vague reference. ‘Just someone from when I worked in Florida, that winter before I started at Sloan.’

‘It’s supposed to be kind of honky-tonk, but it’ll be fun for Marianna. The guidebook says there’s a carousel.’

From the backseat, Marianna makes a sound. Richard catches her reflection in the rearview mirror and sees her face the way it often is: sober and earnest, trying to understand, trying to get things straight. ‘But you said it’s closed in winter, Mom.’

‘Well, we can peek, can’t we? Peek in through the windows? Won’t that be fun, too?’

Marianna’s mouth tightens with skepticism. Richard sees the processing going on, the doubt that is beginning to mix with the baby’s trust in anything a mother says and does.

‘The ocean’s there,’ Richard says. In spite of the fact that Marianna hardly ever sides with him, he finds himself trying to win her approval. ‘And old diners where they’ll have blueberry stack breakfasts.’ Marianna likes diner breakfasts.

‘Diners like old trains? Like on the Cape?’

‘Like old trains on the Cape.’

May’s father owned a diner, the oldest in town, May said that first night. ‘Chrome and red leather. Classic, like my Dad.’ She had planned to settle back there after her agricultural studies at Cornell, start an organic farm on the coast and supply her father with fresh tomatoes and lettuce. Weeks ago, he’d plugged organic produce Maryland coast into Google and come up with Darlington Organics, a surprisingly large fruit producer just outside Ocean City. It had to be hers.

‘Why not a business trip?’ his friend Scott said when Richard confided in him. ‘How you going to see her with your family there? Won’t that be tricky? What are you, turning into some kind of gambler?’

Not at all, Richard said. Looking her up as he passed through with his family would make his appearance feel, even to him, casual, innocent. He just wanted to see her, that was all. If something was destined to happen after that, so be it.

 

On the Jersey Turnpike, Allison looks up awkwardly from a folder of trip reports she printed off the internet. She has relaxed since New York, and has pulled her hair back in a ponytail. She looks younger, less stressed. ‘I have to admit,’ she says, ‘I was a bit of a jerk about this trip. I’m looking forward to it now.’

Of course, just when he’s had enough of Allison and her moods, she will say something agreeable. A pleasant period will follow, during which time he will find it hard to remember what it’s like when he absolutely can’t stand her.

A few years ago, he’d had enough—the bickering, the bitchiness, the credit card fights. He’d planned to tell her they weren’t right for each other, that plenty of kids grew up in split families, that Marianna would turn out fine.

Then the husband of one of her friends walked out abruptly. When Margaret lost 25 pounds and finally stopped talking for other people, when she finally became someone who listened, with her newly pale face and uncertain eyes, Allison took note. She began taking care to let up on complaints; she forced herself to ask questions and listen to the answers. Richard noticed and in turn, became more pleasant and civil, too. Things had actually been okay for a long while. But last spring, foolishly, during what had seemed a boom time, he’d let himself be lured from his solid job at Raytheon. Though AccentTech has managed to stay afloat, in December he was forced to take a ten percent pay cut. They’ve put off having the second child they bought a much-too-large house for, and Allison has gone back to nursing—per diem work at the V.A. Hospital.

Richard has read somewhere that two in three men commit adultery, but what feels lacking has nothing to do with sex, he thinks. So what is it he wants? Maybe he is just curious, like anyone who reaches mid-life, about the roads not taken. These years are the days that in his youth, he’d unconsciously imagined as the now of life. Adulthood had seemed endless, with a cap of childhood on one end and a short, rather unimaginable cap of old age on the other.

But years are soldiers marching on, his mother used to say, and eventually they get where they’re going.

He slows at a toll plaza, feeling decisive: If he sees May and feels nothing, he can move on with the rest of his years, stop looking back.

Part of Allison, he knows, would even understand about May, if he told the story right. But another part, a part she had no control of, might resist hearing. Oh, she would act as if she was cool with it all, but very possibly the information would fester, swell, take on a life of its own. May’s name might find itself flung into the middle of an argument someday. He can almost see it– a visual thing, a crumpled something–lying on the floor of their bedroom.

He conjures the words he might actually use if he were to tell Allison the truth about those nights with May. His most careful description of May might reveal what to Allison would be the most unforgivable truth: that Richard still thinks about May. Maybe, shit, she’d suspect the deepest truth: that Richard sometimes uses his memories of May to get himself going while he is with her, Allison.

It’s true. Not all the time, but those restless, yearning times when he needs relief, and Allison herself is bored and not into doing much of anything but is willing enough, and into something quick herself. Those times he finds himself on top of Allison and imagines his knees pressed into damp, hard sand. He imagines May beneath him, her tongue tracing trails on his neck. His quick, unexpected heat gets Allison going, and the resulting sex is always great. If the end result is great sex between a married couple, both of them satisfied, maybe there is nothing wrong with the fantasizing, yet—how would he like it if Allison told him she imagines her old boyfriend half the time she’s with him?  Hell, maybe she does, but he doesn’t want to know about it.

Such memories, he decides, are best kept to oneself, to be taken out and perused and put away untarnished.

 

 

The untarnished memory is this: May walking into The Sandbar while he, Richard, sits perched on a stool by the door, checking ID’s. At first he notices her because of her beauty—her white skin and dark eyebrows, the dark hair that curls against the bones at the base of her throat. Her eyes connect with his as she offers her ID and the effect on Richard is quiet, electric.

He manages to check her license in the careful way Sharky, his boss, makes sure his doormen check all licenses. Seventy-five percent of them are fake, Sharky says, ‘But look them over hard like you’re inspecting them and hey, that’s all you can do. If we get a ballbusting reputation for that, they can’t come down on us.’

Her name is May Darlington. It is an Age of Innocence name, a name for girls born in 1890, girls with smooth dark hair and inscrutably cordial faces like hers.

‘You look like your name,’ he says, handing the license back to her. She asks how and he starts to explain, but the line is long, and people ask what the holdup is. He gets busy letting people in and when he looks up again, she is gone.

For the next hour he tries to catch sight of her, but the place is crowded and he figures she misunderstood his remark. Then, during a lull, she drags a barstool over, sets it next to his, and says, ‘So.’

She seems, with that declarative ‘So,’ to let him know, immediately, that she can tell he might not be the most comfortable talker in the world and doesn’t expect any kind of a reply at all. She just sits there making small talk while he works, acting like she works there, too, saying, ‘Have a great night’ to people. When the line finally dwindles away, she says, ‘Okay, let’s see yours.’

‘My what?’

‘License.’

‘It’s awful. You don’t want to see it.’

‘Who doesn’t have an awful license picture?’

‘You don’t.’ Which sounds like a dumb line. But he pulls out his license, and she says¾and this is when he knows she’s kind, because his picture really is awful, underexposed, his face like a gangster’s, his hair like a cartoonist painted it on with a black brush—’The shadows around your eyes are diamond-shaped. You have diamond eyes.’ And then she half-sings the song about the planet Mars where the ladies smoke cigars.

‘You’re from Mars,’ he says, because he doesn’t know what to say.

She lifts one skeptical, incredibly beautiful eyebrow, and miraculously takes his idiotic response as the compliment it’s meant to be. Over the next hour, she somehow manages to tease out his witty side he had been quite sure he possessed but which had rarely revealed itself before. He doesn’t want their conversation to end. When Sharky begins blinking the last-call lights and May’s cluster of friends come to drag her away, she tells them to head off without her. She walks with him back along the moonless, empty beach toward the Sundowner, where she and her roommates are sharing a cheap room. Their footsteps slow. They feel their way along the seawall and lean against it to face the sea.

The air is thick with salt and moisture and May throws her arms out as if she could contain it. ‘In that bar tonight, I was thinking how so many people need to bombard their senses all the time. Music, food, touch, colors. This isn’t enough for them.’

‘My mother was like that. Always eating, drinking, smoking two packs a day. Always had to have the TV or the radio going.’

‘My mother was the opposite. She had to have her peace and quiet. But there were five of us—I have four brothers—and she would end up screaming for her peace and quiet. It was funny and awful and she never got it.’

So they have that in common—a use of the past tense, both mothers dead of cancer. But her father sounds nothing like his own. She speaks protectively of him; she calls him by his first name, Frank. Frank mortgaged his diner to pay for Cornell. ‘And I only applied there to see if I could get in. I always expected to go the state route. And then I did get in and he did all he could to pay.’

‘Sounds like you two are close.’

‘Yeah, I can talk to him about anything.’

Richard has never been comfortable talking to his own father, a forensic pathologist who devotes more of his free time to raising orchids than he ever has to raising his sons. It isn’t something he feels like mentioning and just the image of his father—his drooping mustache, his pale fingers—triggers a chain of connections that leaves him dispirited. So he sits in the sand and tells her he’s been accepted to the Sloan School of Management at MIT for the fall—he’s working now to save for his living expenses—and waits for the congratulations everyone else has been giving him.

‘Business school.’ From her mouth the phrase sounds like bad poetry. ‘Funny. I took you for a lit major.’

The fingers of his right hand work the sand, rubbing the hundreds of grains together. He knows he is at the age when there are so many open paths you can only hope you are choosing the right one. ‘I did start out as a lit major, but you don’t make a living reading books.’

‘Some people do.’ And for longer than he has ever talked to anyone outside of a classroom, they talk about what is good and what is great and what has to be read again and again. When he mentions Ethan Frome, she says. ‘Wait! There’s a line—.’ She closes her eyes to summon the words. ‘If I missed my train, where would I go?’

He is silent a moment, taking it in, this feeling that he is watching his own destiny unfold, thinking, This is the girl. This is the one, before he quotes back. ‘Where are you going if you catch it?’

And he will never remember exactly how they started, but when the wind picks up, they huddle together until they are wrapped around each other, her hands at the back of his head, squeezing handfuls of hair. That is the first time, actually the only time, he ever experiences such a thing. No explanations, no setting of rules, no embarrassment, just two people wanting the same thing and it’s great there in the sand¾a miracle¾her slim-hipped body beneath his, his hands on her skin, the wind in his ears. And afterward, outside the Sundowner, there’s nothing coy, nothing sluttish about her. Just an easy composure and a peck of a kiss before she slips inside.

There is a week of this. Each night she waits for him to finish at the Sandbar, then he walks her to the seawall, then later, to her motel. His roommates notice and ask how the hell he’s gotten so lucky. He has no idea, but his mind is clicking ahead, imagining himself on that farm with her. Because the future is wide open. Anything can happen.

 

After they’ve crossed out of New Jersey, Allison asks Richard to pull over at a scenic overlook in Delaware. There is a field, a stream, and feeding the stream, a small waterfall. A sign points out that they are looking at the site of the Battle of Blackstone, where Captain John Atwater led his troops to victory against the British forces.

There are so many such spots in the world, Richard thinks, with their slight claims to fame, their signs meant to persuade you that where you’d stopped was worthwhile.

Where had he stopped? MIT, then a two-year lease near Fenway. Raytheon. The night Scott, his last single friend got hitched, he drank too much. Suddenly their young, unattached years, which had seemed like they would roll on for a long time, were over. Not only were all his friends married now, half the wives were pregnant and drinking flavored seltzers, talking about their birth classes and the raw cheeses they couldn’t eat. He really had no interest in children and now it seemed that children were what life was supposed to be all about. He took his gin and tonic outside to get away from everyone, to get some air. He let himself dial the Maryland number he was pretty sure was still May’s. She’s on St. Thomas. She’s on her honeymoon, someone said, and when he got back to Table 7, there was Allison Carter, left behind while the rest of their table danced to As Time Goes By. He and Allison had long enjoyed a vague kind of flirting thing and now she had broken up with the doctor she’d been dating. ‘Come on,’ she said, enlisting him to help her pass out those maracas and tambourines that bands were starting to provide at weddings to ensure that everyone had a rollicking good time.

 

 

Closer to Maryland, Allison opens the window a crack. ‘I thought I was feeling warm. Feel.’ She presses the button for his window. ‘It’s almost balmy.’ Her ponytail whips around her face; she turns to Marianna. ‘Just think, honey. We left with frost on our breath and now it’s warm enough to take off our sweaters.’

It is warm. A one-day kind of fluke that can happen anytime, but it seems a sign, he thinks, then immediately thinks, of what? A sign of what? Will May even want to see him?

‘Ten miles,’ Allison says, when a blue sign looms to welcome them to Maryland. The tires roll over the imaginary line and he thinks, I am here. For years Maryland has been a word, an image, pushed to the back of his married-man’s mind. Now it is a skinny coast road and a quick-darkening sky.

The hotel is one of those big old high-rises on the beach. ‘There wasn’t much to choose from in this town,’ Allison says when they pull in. ‘But it’s only for one night.’

‘It’s on the beach,’ he says. ‘That’s all I care about. We can hear the waves.’

But the room has sea-smeared windows that don’t open. He presses his forehead against the black glass. He knows the ocean is out there but he can’t see it, can hear only the hum of the heating and cooling system, smell only a faint mustiness.

Allison stands behind him and rests her chin on his shoulder. ‘Kind of a moldy place, sorry.’

‘You did fine,’ he says. He looks around the room. The telephone book would be in the bedside drawer, and when Allison goes into the bathroom, he pulls it out.

He opens the book and searches the Ds, sliding his finger¾it’s actually shaking—down the rows until he finds Darlington. There they are, just as they appeared on switchboard.com. Just two men’s names, one Francis. Her father’s name is Frank; the diner is called The Atlantic. He will drop in and see the father, inquire about Darlington Organics. Invent some excuse for Allison and head out there.

‘What are you doing?’

He’s forgotten Marianna. She is sitting on the opposite bed, two braids hanging down either side of her face, kicking her legs against the box spring, watching him, her mouth slack.

‘I used to know someone who lived here.’

‘Who?’

‘A friend, from before you were born.’

‘What’s his name?’

Her feet keep kicking; she keeps staring at him. Sometimes he gets the feeling that she knows things she could not possibly know. How is it that a little kid—his own kid—can make him feel so uncomfortable?

‘Marianna, what’s going through that head of yours?’

‘Nuth-thing,’ she says, dragging the word out like kids do.

 

 

They eat in a spaghetti house a five-minute walk from the hotel. The service is slow, the pasta like glue, and they are all drained by the time they pay the bill, but when they get outside, Richard suggests a walk up the Boardwalk.

Allison angles herself into the red light coming off the restaurant’s sign to check her watch and nix the idea. It’s too late, too dark.

‘A little walk,’ he coaxes. ‘We’re on vacation! Let’s go see where that carousel is.’

Which gets Marianna on his side. Two against one.

The Atlantic Diner is halfway to the amusements area, the name and tiny cresting wave made of navy blue neon. He pauses outside, eyeing the hours posted on the rectangular window. It opens at five-thirty. He’ll stop in early, talk to the father.

‘Okay,’ he says. ‘Maybe Mom’s right. We can’t see much in the dark.’

Marianna’s jaw drops. ‘But you said!’

Allison puts one hand on her hip, shaking her head in a weary manner. ‘You can’t do that to a kid,’ she says, and then to Marianna, ‘Come on.’

The Boardwalk turns out to be bleak and wonderful, the stark wooden skeleton of a coaster silhouetted against the purple night sky. Richard throws out his arms and shouts, half-joking, quoting Byron: ‘There is a rapture on the lonely shore!’

‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ Allison points impatiently to an octagonal building. ‘That must be the carousel,’ she says, and marches Marianna over to one of the high windows. Allison lifts her up but the shadowy horse shapes spook Marianna.

‘I don’t like it here,’ she says, hugging herself tight. ‘It’s like in Best Ghoul-Friends when the sea clown kidnaps Abigail.’

‘This is ridiculous,’ Allison says. ‘It’s far too late.’ She takes Marianna by the hand and marches her down the wooden steps. ‘We’ll come back in the morning after we’ve all had a good night’s sleep.’

 

Richard does not sleep. He has to depend on the internal alarm system that never fails to wake him when something important is happening, but which also guarantees a restless night.

After an in-and-out, twilight kind of consciousness, gray light begins filtering into the room. He creeps into the bathroom, brushes his teeth quietly, checks his chin for stubble and dresses in the clothes he’d casually left hanging on the bathroom door. Outside their room, a long hallway leads to a rear door marked by a red Exit sign. He opens the door to the boom of crashing surf and a wind so strong it pulls the door from his hand. He struggles to close it and stands on the iron landing, the air like velvet whips against his face. Then he starts down the long metal staircase that leads to the beach. Dawn is breaking on the horizon, and when he reaches the sand and starts walking parallel to the boulevard, a long finger of yellow light lights the path ahead of him.

 

 

At The Atlantic Diner, he climbs its miniature steps, pauses to control the flutter in his stomach, then pushes on the lightweight metal door. Inside, the air is humid and smells of bacon and coffee. The booths are filled with men in construction gear so he takes a seat on one of the red leather stools at the end of the stainless steel counter. Within seconds, and without asking, a waitress pours coffee into a white mug and slides a plastic menu in front of him. ‘I can tell the ones who don’t drink hi-test. Am I right or are you wanting decaf?’

The exchange rattles him. He okays the coffee and asks, tentatively, if Frank Darlington still runs the place.

‘Sure he does,’ and before he can stop her, she calls in through the service window. ‘Frank! Someone to see you!’

Richard has no time to compose himself, to prepare. Frank Darlington emerges from the back, a small man with striking salt-and-pepper hair and May’s sharp bones and delicate features. His manner is friendly and open and he reaches for Richard’s hand while he searches his face. ‘Have we met?’

‘No.’ Richard feels the word bump up against his tongue. ‘But your daughter told me about you and the diner. I knew her fourteen years ago.’

‘Oh, yeah? She’ll be here in a minute, picks up the bread for me down Holly Grove.’

Richard’s mouth goes dry. The thought that he will see her within minutes fills him with panic.

‘You go to Cornell with May?’

‘No—.’ He swallows. ‘But we dated briefly. We met on spring break one year.’ He has an urge to duck his head, check the door. What if Allison followed him?

‘Spring break? Where?’

‘Florida. Well, she was on break. I was earning money for business school.’

‘Wait a minute,’ Frank says slowly, the pleasant expression disappearing. ‘You’re not that doorman? The guy who went to MIT?’

Richard is taken aback, and about to speak—what he will say he does not know—when May emerges from the kitchen. Her black hair is cut close to her chin; her arms cradle loaves of bread. Her eyes sweep over him without recognition; she starts to ask her father something, then notices Richard and grows still.

Her father nudges her. ‘What the hell’s this, May?’

Richard pales. It seems the whole counter turns to look.

May says, ‘I have no idea.’ Her expression flattens to neutral. She asks her father to get back to his orders, and when he resists, she sets the bread down on the counter and walks him back to the kitchen, murmuring in his ear.

Richard sits cemented to the stool, for the first time accepting that maybe she has not been thinking of him the way he’s been thinking of her all these years. That maybe his Edith Wharton postcard hadn’t mattered one bit. That maybe when she sat with him in that sun-bleached kid’s park to say goodbye that morning of her flight out, she was confused herself, and just being polite when she said she understood, when she kissed him goodbye and told him not to worry, when she said, ‘We’ll see each other again. We will.’

She gives her father a little push into the kitchen and comes around the counter. She takes the second seat to Richard’s left, leaving an empty stool between them. She tucks her hair behind her ears and says, ‘So,’ a ‘So’ that says she doesn’t know what to make of his presence, a clear sign of discomfort that gets him to his feet.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I shouldn’t have come—.’

But she gestures for him to sit back down. ‘You haven’t touched your coffee.’ She smiles for the first time. The smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

The coffee is rich, not too strong. ‘It’s good,’ he says for something to say.

‘So what brings you to Ocean City?’ she asks, with such careful and courteous distance he knows he can never say you, so he stumbles through an explanation: He is passing through with his wife and daughter; they are on their way south. As he babbles about Williamsburg and the possibility of making it down to Monticello, he is aware of his limbs, his eye muscles, of the sand that has seeped into his shoes. May is cordial enough, but reserved, looking with some bemusement upon this man she was apparently happy to forget. Her father, who clearly does not forget anything, keeps looking through the service window with dagger eyes. Richard remembers how she’d said she could tell him anything, but he’d never imagined she really meant anything.

The man’s palpable venom makes it hard to continue the small talk. ‘But what about you, May? Are you living the farm dream?’ As if he doesn’t know. As if he hadn’t memorized the address—14 Pelican Bay Road. As if he hadn’t hunted the internet looking for bits of her.

‘I am,’ she says, with some surprise, as if she hadn’t expected he would remember. ‘And I’ve been doing real well but—.’ She blinks. ‘I don’t know that I’ll be able to last. Farms like mine were supposed to be idealistic undertakings. They were supposed to be local. Now we’ve got corporate farmers using big-business tactics to buy us up or drive us out.’

He feels split into three—into a soul that is shrinking and a voice that is making conversation while his brain beats with other questions entirely—what is going on with your father? How does he know what went on with us?

‘Have you, personally, been approached?’ he manages to ask.

‘By all of them.’ She pauses, her eyes sliding down to her lap as if she’s wondering how she got caught up talking about herself. ‘They’re relentless, and they don’t care. The public wants organic, they find the most cost-effective way to deliver organic. It’s like a personal assault—.’  She breaks off. Their eyes lock uncomfortably.

He realizes he will have to apologize for that last night, and does. ‘Though I thought we’d sorted all that out, that last morning.’

She looks down, her mouth a tight, closed line.

‘I just felt myself to be¾‘ there is no other word for it; he uses it—’in love─.’ He stops. She’s clearly embarrassed, busying herself brushing away bits of bread that cling to the fabric of her jersey. The waitress rattles by with a tray; the booth behind them erupts in heavy male laughter. It’s the kind of leering laughter that usually follows a crude remark, a fitting soundtrack to his discomfort.

He’d imagined that seeing her might trigger some new phase of life. Now he sees that he has maybe a minute left, that he might get one question in before she makes an excuse to get back to work.

He wants to know if she felt anything when she received the Edith Wharton postcard. He wants to know if she ever remembers that week with at least a trace of the intense nostalgia he’s lived with. He wants to ask, Are you still married? But getting the answer to the one question he does ask seems, for some reason, more urgent than any other.

‘May.’ He lowers his voice and leans forward to catch her response. ‘How does a girl tell her father about such a thing?’

Her eyebrows lift. Her eyes focus on a point beyond his left shoulder. ‘He just found out, that’s all. After I went through some counseling. After another bad experience with someone else.’

Another bad experience.

She looks down and flicks at her shirt again, then seems to realize it is perfectly clean and looks up impatiently. She presses her lips together and smiles, but the smile is automatic, dismissive, and it is clear to Richard that there is nothing else to do but to hang onto his dignity and leave her with hers, to leave a few bills on the counter for his coffee, to say, ‘I’d better get back.’

She walks him to the door—the whole visit is that quick—and though he can’t see the service window, he is conscious of Frank Darlington’s eyes on his back as May pulls on the screen door and holds it open.

He hovers on the threshold, reluctant to pass through, to end the fantasy he’s fed on for years. She seems to sense this, to maybe even feel some pity for him. Her eyes let down a bit of their guard. ‘You say you have a daughter, Richard?’

He nods. ‘Marianna.’

‘How old?’

‘Six,’ he says, picturing Marianna’s closed, solemn face. ‘She’s six.’ His daughter, his wife, his job. His life seems a string of personal failures. ‘I can’t imagine her ever being that close to me.’

‘No?’ Her expression turns thoughtful, almost sad, then determined. ‘Well, then,’ she says, not unkindly, but with finality. ‘You’d better do something about that, don’t you think?’

Then the door swings shut and that’s it. He is on the sidewalk. Gulls scream, a flagpole’s hardware clanks in the stiff breeze, and he lets the wind batter him for a moment—small punishment for a self-deluded fool. Because all those years he held onto how it started, he let himself forget how it ended.

 

 

The morning of her last day, he got greedy. He wanted more; he wanted her in a bed. His knees were scratched and stinging from scraping against the sand. He couldn’t bring her back to the cheap room he shared with three other guys and piles of smelly shorts. Even the cheapest rooms—the Sundowner, the Ocean Crest—cost a night’s pay. He couldn’t afford to spend a night’s pay for an hour’s use of a room. He had no one to ask but Sharky—could he use Sharky’s apartment, Sharky’s car, could he have the night off in exchange for a double weekend shift?

They were out on the Sandbar’s deck. From the kitchen came the sounds of the cooks doing their prep work. Sharky was smoking a cigarette, flicking the ashes onto the sand below.

‘You been doing her, huh?’

Sharky was the kind of slug who’d fallen apart by fifty and acted like he thought he looked thirty. Richard had to fight the urge to punch his face for boiling his nights with May down to that single, sordid phrase.

‘I got a walk-in closet. Maybe I can hang out in there with the door open a crack?’

Did he mean it? He did, the sick fuck. Sharky was gauging Richard’s reaction to see whether Richard would go for it, or whether he would have to pretend it was just a joke.

He should have called the whole thing off right then. But Sharky’s apartment was new. And Sharky, pig though he was, was clean. A Cuban maid came in once a week. It was a good place to bring May.

‘Hey Sharky,’ he said, with a weak laugh, ‘You’ll just have to use your imagination.’

Sharky’s eyes passed over Richard’s face with friendly envy.

‘Yeah well I was just shitting you,’ he said, and handed over his keys.

May greeted his news of the car, the apartment, with dismay. Was it that the beach had seemed safe, romantic? Maybe she’d been telling herself she had been swept away. Richard’s plan must have seemed cold: driving to some stranger’s house, using his bed.

He didn’t consider any of this until later, when she was gone back to Ithaca and he had a month of nights left to walk to the seawall alone, to notice that she hardly ever seemed to be around when he called her dorm, to brood on what he’d done, which was to put his mouth to her ear, brush his lips across her hair, and open the passenger door of Sharky’s Camaro to let her in. ‘I want to make love to you properly,’ he said, which sounded like a line worthy of Sharky. She looked into his eyes, the muscles in her face so tense he thought she would refuse. He didn’t quite understand—wasn’t a chance to get out of the sand a good thing? He coaxed and kissed her until she agreed, and then he didn’t pay any attention to the degree of agreement, to the fact that it was reluctant.

At Sharky’s apartment, a bleached linen spread covered the bed. A lamp with a dark yellow shade glowed with mellow, inviting light. ‘Oh, I’ve been wanting this,’ he said.

Her mouth tensed, disappointment and uncertainty still clouding her eyes. If he’d been any kind of a guy, he’d have acknowledged this discomfort and brought her back to the Sundowner, but he didn’t. He pretended they were both easy with the situation. Hadn’t they been connected every night since they’d met? Couldn’t they overlook the crassness of the situation and live in the moment of being together in a soft bed? And when she was under him, her black hair fanned across the coverlet, the bedside lamp throwing shadows that turned her neck, her clavicle, her breasts, her belly, into sumptuous valleys, he couldn’t stop himself. His body took over, on edge and delirious. He took her too hard and she began to cry.

‘Stop,’ she said. ‘Stop it.’

It must have suddenly hit her what she was doing, what she’d been doing every night—the way she looked at him as if he was a stranger. He could have turned it all around then, could have withdrawn, been gentle, driven her back to the beach and walked her to the Sundowner.

‘Stop,’ she said.

But he was rock hard, consumed. Do her, he thought, Sharky’s crude desire to watch somehow turning him on. Do her.

 

 

And now there is nothing ahead of him. He will go back to the room with the sealed windows and tell his wife he went for a walk, the secret solace that was May all these years gone, evaporated. He turns left down the sidewalk, conscious of an interior hole, dark and spreading, and he doesn’t know what, if anything, might fill it again.

Then he blinks; he blinks again. Marianna is scurrying up the sidewalk, wearing pink sweatpants and her navy pea coat. Her eyes are focused anxiously on the pavement and when she glances up and sees him, her face sags with relief. She starts to run.

‘I was lost,’ she says, throwing her arms around his knees.

‘Where’s your mother?’

‘Asleep.’

‘Marianna!’ She walked blocks from the hotel; she crossed a busy street. ‘Why did you leave by yourself?’ God-knows-what-kind-of-pervert could have grabbed her, stuffed her into a car. For a split second he lives the nightmare—the vacant, gaping horror of a disappeared child.

‘You went for pancakes without me.’

‘No,’ he says. ‘No.’ He kneels in front of her and puts his hands on her shoulders. ‘Not for pancakes.’ He looks into her small face, its steady gaze. Where had she come from? What was he supposed to do with her? Had Frank Darlington ever felt this way? He didn’t know. But maybe, after a certain age, after fatherhood, it was your own tough luck if you didn’t like where you were. ‘I only went for a cup of coffee, Marianna.’

‘Can we get pancakes now?’ She squints up at The Atlantic Diner, its silver roof glinting in the morning light.

He shakes his head no, and seeing her confusion, says, ‘It’s not like a train here. Anyway, we better get back. Your mother will be worried sick.’

‘Ha!’ She grins at him like he is a very silly man. ‘She’ll think I’m with you!’

‘That’s right,’ he says, and he laughs, but the laugh comes out like a sob and the sound is disturbing, so he hurries to cover it up with talk, with questions, with a new kind of earnest interest that Marianna will grow up with, and which she will always sense is rooted in something sad and complex and self-effacing, and which will bind him to her for the rest of her life.