It was the Fourth of July. Daryl and I were on a road trip to the Florida Panhandle with Daryl’s brother Jimmy and Daryl’s friend Cliff who brought his girlfriend Caroline, someone I also knew from college. It was about a five hour drive from Orlando, and there was drinking and reminiscing and moments of silence sitting in the surrounding presence of old songs from playlists, music we knew from high school and college. We had all gone to high school together and then the University of Florida where many of our classmates went.
The guys were Sigma Chi. I was a little sister. And Caroline was Sweetheart. All the guys in the fraternity then and even now at reunions and games make a big deal out of how Caroline was even more beautiful than their most legendary Sweetheart, Faye Dunnaway.
When we got to St. George’s Island, Cliff and I went down to the beach. We vowed to unpack the car later. We were buzzed and didn’t want to do anything so sober minded.
“I’ll fall asleep in my clothes, I don’t care,” said Cliff, smiling with that signature grin of his, those perfect white teeth, those dimples.
We plopped onto our low beach chairs and opened cans of beer as the sun set over the water.
The others were up at the house. They were unpacking the car like responsible adults. They threatened that our clothes wouldn’t be there later when we came up for the night. We may find them scattered on the beach for the sea turtles to use for their nests.
I knew my husband Daryl wouldn’t mind spending time with Caroline while I was down on the beach with Cliff. He had always had a thing for her. As far as a I knew he had never done anything about it. And then he married me. Sometimes I think it made it even more exciting to him to fantasize about the thing just beyond reach. In that way, we each allowed each other some latitude. I think he knew how I felt about Cliff though I wished sometimes he showed jealousy, just a little. Daryl said I was a girl most guys considered a friend.
“Look at that duck,” I said, pointing to the waves. A large dark bird floated over the green gray surf. It had a long neck and beak. Its call was high pitched and strained. “What’s a duck doing out there?”.
“That’s not a duck, you goof, it’s a loon,” said Cliff.
It landed on the beach. The sun set behind it and the spray from the waves hung in the light.
“Lordy,” said Jimmy who had come down from the house. His feet were pressed into the soft sand beneath his weight, his calves bowed back, knees buckled. He drank straight from the Maker’s Mark, holding the neck just below the red wax at the lip. “What the hell?” It would be a long night with Jimmy.
The bird pushed itself up with one foot and lurched forward. The other leg was curled against its body, as if it were maimed or deformed. The creature flopped forward then rolled back onto its good foot. Every few feet it sat and cocked its head, surveying the beach and waves.
“Where’s Daryl?” I said.
“With Caroline still,” said Jimmy. I was sure they had no clue.
I stood and wobbled a bit in the soft sand.
“Whoa there,” said Cliff.
I steadied myself for the climb up to the house, humiliated by my own body but trying not to think about it much. I found Daryl and Caroline sitting on the deck, eating chips and dip, their feet pressed against the slats of the rail as if they were twins taking comfort in their mirroring behavior.
“Honey, you’ve got to try this dip Caroline made,” Daryl said to me. “It’s amazing. What is it?” He looked at Caroline for confirmation. “Buffalo Chicken dip? You cook it in the slow cooker. Genius, right?”
I didn’t answer and I didn’t step out onto the deck as if doing so would make me complicit with something. I could care less about the dip. If I had a chance later, I would throw it in the ocean.
“There’s a loon on the beach,” I said. “Maybe we should call the county.”
Daryl got up and slipped on his loafers. He stood, straightening his clothes, readying himself to play hero. “You sit here,” he said, indicating his chair.
“Dip?” said Caroline. Her impossibly long and tanned legs were now crossed elegantly at the knees.
“No thank you,” I said. Why we had all these people here with us was beyond my grasp. I’m pretty sure it had been Daryl’s idea. And I didn’t like to be with him when he was bored. It reminded me of all my failures.
I heard Daryl in the kitchen flipping through the phone book.
“I thought it was a duck at first,” said Caroline, “but then it was so fat.”
The sun was low, just a sliver of orange. The bird came closer to the beach chairs and Jimmy began making trumpet noises with his mouth. He often did this to tease our dog or draw attention to funny people and situations.
“No one’s answering,” said Daryl. “I say let nature take its course.”
I took the phone book to one of the bedrooms and slammed the door. I found a woman who would come get it. She said it happens all the time. The loons get caught in a storm during their migration and can’t make it to a place where they can rest.
The bird had made its way to the brambles between the houses. I was worried it might make it to the road. I emptied the outside trashcan so I could use it as a container. As I approached, it lunged at me and tried to peck me with its long beak but I managed to get the trash can over its body.
When the bird woman arrived, she put her gloved hand into the overturned trash can and coaxed the loon into the metal cage. She lifted the cage onto the truck. When she got in and closed the door, I wanted to call out to her. I wondered what it would be like to drive around all day saving birds.
I fell asleep that night, fully clothed, reading in bed. I got up early the next day, before anyone. If we had been at home, Daryl would be up checking stock quotes, flipping on CNN. He hardly spoke to Caroline, hardly looked at her. That night he curled up with me in bed, nuzzling his nose in my hair like he used to. There was something to his intentional neglect of the object of his lust and his uncharacteristic attention to me, or at least this was uncharacteristic as of late. Probably it was guilt and probably guilt for nothing other than his errant thoughts and fantasies. I didn’t really care to get into it.
The next day the ocean was flat calm like a tray, the air still and close. Daryl was being solicitous, had offered to pack the car. I stood by the water. He would chatter all the way home as if we were acquaintances. He started acting this way after he began working late, after the doctor told us we couldn’t have a baby.
I stood on the beach at a line of foam. I wondered what it would feel like to move into that amniotic brine, to have the lips of the water enclose my skin and hair, to swim out past the waves and the sandbar until I floated out over the abyss.
A version of this first appeared in 971 MENU