On this mellow, rainy July 1st afternoon, I am listening to a playlist I created a while ago. I have recently changed it to keep things fresh. I have been listening while reading a novel. But this would also be nice to put on while preparing dinner, studying for school, working from home, or watching a summer storm come and go. I hope you are faring well and no matter your 4th of July plans: Peace. — Margaret
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
Driving back from dropping off her son at camp outside Hampton, Tennessee, she turned off onto the road leading to the cabin. It was the week of the 4th and frankly the time had been less than hoped for.
The cabin was tucked back in dark woods, remote, still. The inside paneling was dark. The cabin was equipped with a wood burning stove and an upstairs loft with a bed. There was limited wifi and not much in the way of cable.
Since her divorce she and her son had developed nocturnal habits with their electronic equipment – he with his video games, she her social media and movies – but in the dead of night here there wasn’t much to do and not much to entertain him. She knew she had contributed to this way of being, this spoiled way, and she had spoiled herself too in constant escapism. It had been the guilt that had perhaps entered in between them and made her a different kind of parent than she might have been.
She hadn’t noticed the gas gauge. She was almost on empty. It was growing dark and before long the car’s GPS fell off of radar. There had been flooding and she had to gun it across a flooded run running as rapidly as a small creek. She was scared and shaken. And alone. Her son had helped her find the cabin initially by using the map system on his phone. Luckily she started to recognize landmarks and used her memory to help guide her choices.
At the cabin, the leaves of the wood were the kind that becomes their most intense green right before darkness. There was a porch around the cabin. Along the front it was tiny and screened in, an airless room. Along the side it was open and big enough to house a small jacuzzi tub, the one compensation. She suited up and took the cover off of the tub and stepped in and was lulled for a moment. And then she worried about what may be watching her, what she couldn’t see – animal, human.
She went inside, locked the door, drew the curtains, and started a fire in the wood burning stove even though it was a warm night. She would sit on her towel in her wet suit and dry out. She was able to contact the dating site she just couldn’t stay on it forever. Only a couple of people had sent her messages but only the bare minimum of what had become the usual. Hi. or Hey. or sometimes Hey gorgeous. or worse Hey sexy. Would she ever get to the point of responding to Hey sexy. She hoped not.
She had planned to write her fiction. She wasn’t feeling imaginative. She was feeling dull and useless. In a little bit she would need to scrounge up dinner.
She took a few pictures with her camera phone for the site. Why not. Her hair was brown and short now because of the chemo. Only a few years ago she had what seemed like a more photogenic quality. Now she looked more her age. She wore heavy black framed glasses that even looked a bit stylish with their heaviness. She had done a series of black and white photos wearing her glasses and a necklace set she had bought when she was married, one from Talbots, a silver mother of pearl set. She was selling herself online now as Ugly Betty which sometimes netted her responses like You’re not ugly! and You’re hot why are you saying you’re ugly! Sometimes people were funny which made her feel better. Sometimes she wondered if that was her only goal.
She had even gone so far as to see if anyone living in the area would want to meet out, something she’d seen guys do. So many guys came to Orlando on business and wanted only a one time or short term dating situation. Or who knows maybe they said that and were actually married. These were the sort of behaviors she had become accustomed to.
A log fell. She propped it back up with the poker and put in a fresh one from the iron basket beside the stove.
There wasn’t anyone in proximity to where she was it seemed. With the difficulty of getting through the woods it was best. And as far as staying put, the cabin was not as comfortable as she’d hoped either with hard wooden chairs in the kitchen where she’d have to sit if she wanted to write at a table. She missed her padded high back chair in front of her narrow and cheap but elegant rustic Queen Anne writing table at home, hardwood and only stained. It was ironic to be away from home on vacation and miss the things you had.
As she had many times she reminded herself since divorcing she was here for her son, this had been the main goal. She had successfully dropped him at camp, though in a fashion typical for his age he hadn’t wanted her to hang around. She sensed this at least. She had brought the dog as an excuse, to save face for them both, so she could leave. She had not become one of those hot cool moms. She was chubs at this point and she felt he might be ashamed of her but she didn’t pursue it with him. Ugly Betty was an apt name. She could have done some things about her state. She couldn’t get motivated.
Really, all she wanted as an Ugly Betty was to meet a man who wasn’t so overly dependent on his ego that he could be a companion. She pictured him smiling at her and giving her a side hug when they were out. He would be proud of her even though she wasn’t perfect. He wouldn’t be perfect either – average looking too, average build or even chubs like her, it was ok, even desirable in some ways. She wanted to have the sense he protected her, or could if she needed this. He would have a bit of a personality combined with a kind of sober realism. He wouldn’t flirt too much with other women when they were out or stare because he understood her feelings and wanted to value them, wanted to be the man she wanted. He wouldn’t see her as a short term opportunity because she had been sick.
Had she had a man like that maybe he would want to help her with things. The day before, the day of the fireworks, she wasn’t sure how to use the celebratory explosives and her son wasn’t sure either. They had tried shooting them off in a tiny side yard that was barely a clearing apart from the trees and underbrush. She had registered her son’s disappointment. Some of the fireworks were faulty, the rest just simply lackluster. She had bought them somewhere. A discount store which is where she buys everything now, even clothes, canned foods, dishes, and towels.
Ugly Betty’s man would have rounded the fireworks up in Georgia on the way up, big, loud explosives that would take off the tips of fingers if you didn’t know what you were doing. The silence and stillness of the woods would be penetrated with their force. He would show her son how to do everything, letting him take over and feel like a man.
It made her feel good to imagine her man with her now. In fact she got up to make him dinner. When her son wasn’t with her she had to fight with herself to find reason to make the effort. In her imagination her man was sitting there, on the couch now, having fiddled with the television antenna. He was watching her backside appreciatively. He liked the way she looked, he had often told her. He liked her Rubenesque figure, her dark eyes, her full lips.
She stirred the garlic and anchovy paste into the olive oil warming in the pan. She had come with plenty of food in the cooler, plenty to feed her son, who ate huge amounts. This would be something her man would appreciate, be grateful for, her resourcefulness. She would make spaghetti and hot crusty bread.
She put the spaghetti pot on full of water. “You know you have to bring it to a boil first before adding the salt,” she said to her dog because her man was engrossed in something he was reading in the paper they had picked up on the way in. “That way you don’t get pock marks on the bottom.”
Never again had she thought she would meet anyone else who might be able to benefit from what she had accumulated over the years, an intimate knowledge of the kitchen’s secrets.
She felt invigorated now, enough to open a bottle of wine she had indulged in to celebrate the successful drop off of her child. She put it on the table covered with the red checked tablecloth she had brought from home, along with other festive décor for the holiday.
She fed the dog who was wearing her Fourth of July bandana.
Her man would hug her appreciatively when she was finished cooking, would smile at her with his twinkling blue eyes, and after dinner they would enjoy themselves in the hot tub under the inky night sky, listening to the few remaining fireworks, smelling the gun powder drifting through the trees.
She wouldn’t think about what was looking at her through the trees.
She would think about what she sees.