In the distance, small islands seemed clumps of blue-gray clay in the mist that ran to the edges of the horizon. An overturned canoe languished in a patch of grass, its fiberglass underside growing a crystalline white crust in the heat of the sun. . . . . I closed my eyes, tried to empty my mind and conjoin with the natural environment. Then I felt it. The intrusion of her presence.
By Tony Tedeschi
Siobhan Leary met Joe Dalton, in the summer of 1959, at a dance in Williamsburg not far from her hometown on Virginia’s Tidewater Peninsula, during the summer after each had finished high school. Joe had crashed the party by tagging along with a friend whose family had moved to the Tidewater Peninsula from Boston. He had spent the night before boozing in Manhattan with another expatriate Bostonian whose family had an apartment in a high-rise just north of Greenwich Village. Then Joe headed south the next morning in his brand new Ford Crown Victoria, a gift from his father, Joseph senior.
Joe was the latest in a long line of Boston Brahmins, who traced their ancestry back through congressmen and senators to a limb in the Adams family tree. His car could have been one of those nifty two-seaters, with the “gull-wing” doors, Mercedes had just introduced, had Joe acceded to his father’s wishes and entered the pre-law program at Harvard, following in the footsteps of all the first sons before him. Instead, he chose a mechanical engineering major at MIT. But Joe loved getting his hands greasy and he preferred the lines of the Ford – the bold chrome strip over the roof, the way the profile reminded him of a speedboat – no matter how pedestrian his father found both the car and his son’s work-a-day choice of profession.
“MIT ain’t too shabby,” Joe had said to his father when he’d made his decision known to the old bastard.
“Isn’t,” the senior Dalton corrected.
Siobhan was the ideal accessory to Joe’s diminution in family status. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants who ran a barely solvent bed-‘n’-breakfast in the tiny hamlet of Providence Forge, catering to redneck hunters and fishermen, instead of the busloads of tourists who poured into nearby Colonial Williamsburg throughout the year. And she had just a trace of that Irish lilt to her voice, an accent the Anglo Bostonians would find particularly grating.
I met Joe when we were both rushed by the same fraternity. I had acceded to my father’s wishes that I become an engineer, despite the fact that all I ever wanted out of life was to write about the Yankees for the New York Daily News and to one day buy a used Crown Victoria. I especially cultivated, for me, the romantic notion of wandering about the sidelines during spring training in Florida, during those cold February days back in New York, when the dank, gray snows had encrusted to particularly unattractive icy formations, outside our apartment in Queens, New York, where, inside, on the black-and-white TV screen, late of a Saturday afternoon, the bright light I took to be from a sun the color of one of those Florida oranges was shafting across the late innings of a Florida ball diamond.
My father repaired TVs for a company called Play-Rite. The owner had gotten a two-year certificate as an electrical technician from a trade school in Manhattan. My father was a high school dropout who was smarter than the guy who ran the place, but did not have the credentialing. He did, however, have something to crow about when first his son made the prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School, then graduated tenth in the class of fifteen hundred on his way to MIT. I liked giving my father something to crow about, because he was a really nice guy and he was very good to me. But, I did get him to accept that chemistry would be my particular scientific interest not electricity.
Nonetheless, I had problems with the curriculum immediately. I was part of a group randomly selected for an experimental calculus class with which I was wrestling, and the rearrangement of the math curriculum seriously compromised my ability to do physics problems, which required the more traditional math I would not be studying until later in the semester. Furthermore, I found the more inexact problem/solutions of organic models far less to my liking than the inorganic chemistry I had aced in high school, largely because the latter followed far-less complex paths from A through B to C. I found my favorite freshman course was a catch-all the Institute called Humanities, a conglomeration of English Lit, Western Civ, Psychology, Philosophy, et al, added to the freshman curriculum so that MIT students would be able to engage in meaningful intellectual conversation in social situations with female students from other universities. I was acing the term papers in Humanities and loving that, doing poorly at just about everything else.
“Nick, what the hell are you doing here?” Joe asked after I flunked the first of a string of freshman physics exams. “Let’s face it, you ain’t no chemist and this ain’t no fucking place for a writer.”
“Isn’t,” I countered with my chin in my shoes, “isn’t no fucking place for a writer.”
Joe was inexplicably drawn to me, despite the fact that I was never completely comfortable in his presence. I was intimidated by all that old family money, that waspy American last name. What do you want with me? I’d always wanted to ask. You’re smarter than I am. You’re so much richer than me. You know how to act in situations I have never even encountered. And you’ll leave here to enter a life laid out before you, no matter how much you buck your old man. I was sure “fuck the buck of my old man” would be his answer, but I doubted he’d ever walk away from his inheritance. I was wrong. Siobhan had done him in. She batted the lashes above those emerald greens at him at the post-high school dance he’d crashed and he’d had no choice but to ask her to do the slow one that was playing. Once she’d pressed that incredible chest of hers to his and nestled that sweet-smelling cheek into the crook of his neck, he’d been drawn into the first battle of a war he was doomed to lose, complicated by the fact that he fell hopelessly in love with her, then and there.
Siobhan followed Joe north to Boston at the end of that summer and took a job waitressing at one of those beer-and-burger joints in Back Bay, where the waitresses dressed up like medieval wenches and spoke in bad attempts at cockney accents. (In her case, she just let her Irish accent play.) She was a big hit with the clientele, what with that great cleavage, that raging red hair, and that genuine accent. She never forgot the slightest nuance in an order and often had a quippy comment to make as she dropped a burger plate in front of a customer or slid a stein across the table. For lodgings, she hooked up with a couple of Boston U coeds who were waitressing for some mad money. The three of them took a furnished, one-bedroom apartment, with Siobhan opting for the sofa-bed in the living room rather than share the bedroom, which made it reasonably private when she brought Joe back with her, unless one of her roommates got up to pee when they were right in the middle of it.
Siobhan became a fixture at our Saturday night house parties, most of the time appended to Joe’s right or left arm. Damn, she was a beauty with that raging red hair, those penetrating green, green eyes, that milk-white skin and that incredible bod. It was easy to see how any man would lust after her (I was sure a half-dozen rednecks-in-waiting put shotguns in their mouths and blew their heads off when she left southern Virginia for the center of the Yankee universe), but I was just as sure that Joe loved her, would have if she were not the least bit attractive. You could see it in his eyes whenever he looked at her, hell it was in his eyes when he was looking just about anywhere, with her appended to either his right or left arm. It was a connection thing with him. He told me, early on, that he saw her as one of those people who would throw herself at life and wallow around in it. Something he had always wanted to do, while growing up in a family that lived simply to critique life. He felt Siobhan would show him how to live.
Me, I had mixed feelings about Siobhan. I could see that joie de vivre, which so captivated Joe, but I could also see that gleam in her eye, which he was either oblivious to or chose to ignore. It was hard to imagine her as a wife with little redheads tugging at her skirts, one of those raw-boned women, scrubbing clothes against a washboard like in those 1940s black-and-white movies set in Ireland. She had the gleam that never dies out.
As our freshman year drew to a close, I was completing an academic recovery, second semester, from a first semester that almost resulted in my flunking out. I hated the Institute. I hated the work. I really had loved chemistry in high school, when coming up with the right answers was more like winning at a quiz show. But now, I couldn’t see myself behind a test tube for the rest of my life. I’d only agreed to stay on there after my dismal first semester because I did not want to devastate my father, so we agreed I would give it one more shot. It was more a matter of proving I could succeed at The Toot, than a heightening level of interest in the subject matter. It merely delayed the inevitable.
Joe was wrestling his own problems, as well. His father was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and was given but a short time to live, so Joe was spending every weekend at the family’s enormous manse in the Brookline suburb of Boston. Given the tension that arose after the family’s first and only encounter with Siobhan, whom Joe had brought to dinner one night shortly after she arrived in Beantown, he found it more diplomatic to leave her behind during this difficult period. In fact, he chose to not even mention her name. He told me he could sense in their completely avoiding any mention of her that they were sure he would come to his senses about the “Irish Firebrand.”
When he was away those weekends, I got to chaperone Siobhan. It was no easy task because Joe was right about that throw-herself-into-life thing. Siobhan was a party animal. The life of the party. The brothers loved her. She could toss back beers with the best of them, was the only one, save a brother from Georgia, who could throw down a whole glass of beer without any of it hitting the back of her throat. I was nowhere near her league in matters of alcohol and felt unfulfilled because of it. She’d arise on the Sunday mornings after, from less than an hour’s sleep on the couch in the game room, looking like she could go another day and night or two. I’d be in the bathroom on the second floor puking my guts out.
“Don’t you fret, Nicholas,” she told me, “it’s an Irish thing. We’re born with beer in our blood – and damn sight better beer than this American piss water – and, you see, our stomachs learn to ignore its presence.”
It was the third straight Saturday night Joe had been away. I was nursing a bourbon – sour mash, actually – from a bottle of Jack Daniels the Georgia brother had given me. He said it was the best bourbon made but since it was not made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, it could not be called bourbon. He felt the explanation was required because he could see I didn’t like the sound of sour mash. He’d said my problem with booze was not a matter of quantity, but quality and he’d taken it upon himself to upgrade my intake, low-sounding name notwithstanding.
Anyway, that night Siobhan bore a look I’d not remembered seeing before; in fact, it was more a demeanor, a head-to-toe kind of posture. She almost glowed. There was a flush to her cheeks, a softness to her eyes, a gentleness in her tone of a voice, a TLC quality in her body language. It was communicating something physical, attaching to me.
“You’re a softie, Nicholas,” she offered, “and I don’t mean that in a negative sort of way.”
“Thanks,” I replied, not really sure what I was thanking her for. Damn, I loved that lilt in her voice. And, I loved when she spoke about me. I was seldom part of the conversation when she was chugging beers with the brothers and never the subject. But we were alone now, seated with our backs against the wall on the single bed in a small room, two floors above the core of the festivities. It was the room of one of our senior brothers, one of the few single rooms in the house. Its occupant had gone home to Rhode Island for the weekend. (He did that often.) Siobhan had guided me to it. Clearly, it was a place she and Joe had visited before. Now, it seemed a place she viewed as an escape from the world, even if the world were not that far away and in a partying mood. She, however, wanted to talk. And she’d been talking about Joe and her exasperation with his family’s attitude toward her. It was obvious she needed someone to let this out with, someone other than Joe. She’d said a number of times how much he thought of me, which I could not figure out because I felt Joe and I didn’t even talk that much, if truth be told. But now, she was talking about me. It was an odd turn in the conversation.
“I like the soft side of a man,” she continued. “I guess people don’t know that about me. They see only the brassy side.”
“I never thought of myself as soft,” I offered lamely.
She smiled tenderly. She’d had quite a few beers and now was drinking a tall scotch and soda. “I’m embarrassing you,” she said. “Your face is getting redder.”
It did that, my face.
“I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed,” I countered, “I’m . . .”
Her smile dissolved momentarily, then returned. It was a gentle smile. She was not mocking me, not intentionally exposing a vulnerability I found uncomfortable revealing.
“You shouldn’t be distressed by your feminine side,” she said. “All those guys downstairs trying to grow hair on their chests with alcohol and hootin’ and hollerin’ like a group of cats marking their territory, I don’t find the least bit –”
“Feminine side?” I sputtered. The high-quality booze having worked its way through my brain and out my lips. Now, she was touching a nerve, whether she intended to or not. I’d grown up in a working class, Italian-American neighborhood, where guys gained respectability in street fights. All except me. I never fought. And my friends never seemed to expect me to. I was the block scholar. But this whole dynamic had me growing up doubting my courage, sometimes even questioning my masculinity. And now, somehow, she was reading this. And now, somehow, I was realizing she was not focusing on something I had been shrinking from for years but was connecting with this element she saw as special in me.
Siobhan placed her drink down on the desk adjacent to the bed, where we sat, and shuffled closer to me. She took my glass, placed it alongside hers, put her soft hand, still chilled from the glass, on the back of my neck and gazed into my eyes. The cold touch of her hand should have caused me to flinch, but it did not. I was, instead, frozen by her eyes.
What happened next was the defining moment of my life. Actually, what transpired during that brief period – less than an hour – was the experience that assured I would never find fulfillment with a woman, ever again, certainly not ever with either of my two ex-wives. Not that it was their fault. They were competing against an image, an ideal. I don’t know if it was the alcohol, my almost total lack of experience, Siobhan’s obvious abilities, or some combination of all of the above. Perhaps it was the fact that I was – had been – more in love with her than even Joe had been. Perhaps she’d had that effect on many men. Whatever. But, if this was what connecting with a woman was about – connecting body and soul – well, then perhaps it was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When Joe returned on Sunday evening, he was looking particularly gloomy. I asked if his father had taken a turn for the worse, and he answered, “you might say that,” almost flippantly. Reading my confusion at the tone of his reply, he said he had told his father he was going to ask Siobhan to marry him. “I didn’t want him to die without knowing that, to not know who would be bearing his grandchildren,” he went on. “I felt it would be dishonest to sneak her into the family after he died.”
He paused for a moment, although I did not feel it was to await a response from me. “It was a mistake,” he continued. “A big mistake. It upset him in a manner I had seen many times before, but it was clear my mother and my sister found it much more disconcerting this time, given his condition. My mother looked at me as if I were the cause of my father’s terminal illness. My sister just smirked and shook her head.”
Given what had transpired the night before, between Siobhan and me, it was clear Joe was having a rough couple of days. I wasn’t too clear-headed myself. However, despite the haze that enveloped me for days after my encounter with Siobhan, I never doubted that she would marry Joe, irrespective of the cost to his family connection. It seemed to me preordained, no matter how much his family would try to prevent it. I knew then that she and I would never be more than that less-than-one-hour in that tiny room of the fraternity house, with the brothers banging on the door, shouting: “Nick,” then, “Siobhan, you in there?” But I don’t think a bomber attack would have had an impact upon us. And I had had, that one-time encounter with the most beautiful woman in the world.
The smile she gave me every now and then, the sparkle that danced across her eyes, said we had shared something special, something I would not desecrate by divulging it to others, even though having her pelt would have elevated me into the stratosphere with those hootin’ and hollerin’ assholes who were trying to grow hair on their chests. I would have been silent about it even if Joe did not hold me in such high regard.
Joe’s father died shortly thereafter, but it was enough time for him to write Joe out of his will. He left everything to Joe’s mother and sister and, while nothing in the will prohibited them from sharing some of the wealth with Joe, they held fast to his father’s wishes, especially when it came to “the Irish girl.”
“Fuck ‘em,” Joe said to me when he returned from the funeral. “I don’t want any of his money, even if I have to work my way through the rest of this curriculum. I can make a damn good living with this level of education.”
But Siobhan had plans, and they would take capital. She needled Joe to contest the will, insisting he hold out for at least the million dollars she felt the family would spend to stay out of court and out of the tabloids. She was right. The day after the family’s attorney turned over the check, Joe and Siobhan eloped.
My remarkable academic recovery during my second semester at MIT had deluded me, momentarily, into thinking I could enjoy chemistry as my life’s work, but by the middle of my third semester, I was sure thermodynamics and I were not bound for a lasting relationship. At the end of that semester, with my father’s blessing, I transferred to NYU as a Liberal Arts major. I kept in touch with the Daltons and a couple of my fraternity brothers for a few more years, until my pledge class graduated, then pretty much put the MIT episode of my life behind me, save for a few chance encounters with brothers here and there . . . until Joe dropped me a note thirty-eight years later. He’d found my home address through the fraternity mailing list. His letterhead included a phone number in Vermont, with a couple of zeroes at the end of it. He said he’d be on Long Island, near where I lived, for a few days on business, a few weeks hence, and would truly enjoy seeing me. “And, yes,” his note ended, “I am thin on top and thick in the middle, so don’t sweat your loss of youthful appearance. Siobhan sends her love.”
I shook the cobwebs from my brain.
When I punched in the number he’d written, an operator answered, “Lake and Mountain Inn.” She said Mr. Dalton was out of town, would I like his voice mail? I said yes and she connected me to a recorded voice I would have recognized had I spoken last to Joe the day before. I left a message, including my phone number and he called that evening. He said he was in Washington at a hotelier’s convention but would love to see me when he was next in New York, those few weeks hence. “It’s been too long, Nick. How could we let almost forty years separate two good friends?”
Actually, I’d not given him much thought during most of that time, but I had to admit to myself seeing him again would be . . . interesting.
“My wife said she would have loved to accompany me down, but she’s been having a hell of a time with the new addition to the hotel, and she doesn’t expect she’ll have a handle on that by then.” He stated that matter-of-factly, as if I would know what he was talking about, but, of course, it was Siobhan I was thinking about and wondering if the years had been good to her. “Anyway, she said to give you her love. You know she thinks the world of you, Nick . . .”
“I . . . And I her.”
Joe and I met at a restaurant, not far from my home on the Island. He’d driven over from the posh Garden City Hotel in a rented Lexus. It was early spring, a damp, cold evening and I found I couldn’t shake the chill. Part of it was the sheer strangeness at seeing him again, the reinforcement of how little he meant to me, the instant recognition of how much his wife had altered the way I viewed life, the fatalistic attitude our encounter had created for me. We exchanged stories about families. They were childless; his problem. I had had two boys by my first wife, a girl by my second, all grown and pretty much out of my life, except for the obligatory holiday visits.
He was very impressed with the fact that I had had articles published in dozens of newspapers and magazines, and had written a couple of light-selling business books. I told him not to be too impressed, that my inability to earn any serious money had played a major role in both my failed marriages. He related how just about everything in their lives revolved around the hotel, which Siobhan had turned into a real showplace. He said he had practiced engineering at a couple of firms for a while, but hated it, mostly hated working for someone. After a few years, he tried to marry his interest in science and engineering with her love of the hotel, but mostly his operational concepts were either meddlesome or downright impractical. Now, he served pretty much as the hotel’s ambassador to meaningless industry functions.
“We’d like you to come and stay with us for a few days,” he said. “Hell, stay as long as you like.”
“I can’t get away for too long,” I fudged. “I’m working on a couple of projects and the deadlines are running up on me.” I couldn’t imagine what I would do for more than a few days at the hotel, while Joe and Siobhan went about their regular duties.
“Come for a long weekend,” he pressed. “Stay at the hotel a couple of nights, then out at our house on the lake for a couple more. Wait until the weather warms. We’ll go out in the boat.” He paused for a moment, then, “she’s done remarkable things with the hotel,” he said, then paused again. We were into our second bottle of zinfandel and I could sense he was about to open up a bit, go down a road I might not find comfortable.
“It’s not my real interest,” he said, “the hotel. After a while, it all comes down to changing towels and bed linens and fielding phone calls from pissed-off patrons in the dead of night. But Siobhan, she has blossomed with the place. Wins awards. Has our hotel on the ‘best’ lists in all the best guidebooks and travel magazines. First name basis with the governor, both senators.”
“What . . . ?” I took another swallow of zin. “What do you do with yourself all day?”
He looked at me and just shook his head. Then, he raised his glass of wine, held it up to the table lamp a moment and admired its rich, red color. “We have definitely upgraded the booze since Boston, haven’t we?” he said finally.
“You mean it ain’t Rock ‘n Rye, a bottle o’ Bud back?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. His face lit in a full smile. “Dems was da daiz, weren’t dey?”
“Yeah,” I slurred. “The good ole days.”
“See you in a few months?” He knew he had me now.
“Why not? It’ll be good to see Siobhan again, now that I’ve seen your sorry ass,” I answered brazenly.
He insisted upon picking up the check, despite my protests that he was on my turf. We shook hands outside the restaurant and headed for our cars. Even during the short ride home, I had enough time to ponder the irony of Siobhan, a successful hotelier – highly successful – while Joe, an MIT graduate, and I, an NYU grad, were still flopping around trying to find ourselves. It couldn’t even be ascribed simply to the intense focus of her vision. I was doing exactly what I’d always felt would make me happy, even did a piece on baseball spring training for an airline magazine. Joe had started out in business doing what he’d always wanted, then, in essence, must have had to deal with whether that was, in fact, the case, or whether what he thought he had always wanted was just a matter of rebelling against an over-controlling father.
So what was I looking at here? Meeting Siobhan after almost forty years, with my less-than-impressive resume. Perhaps I could gain some measure of dignity by presenting myself as doing a piece for some travel magazine or the travel section of one of the newspapers that bought my stuff from time to time, then drop back out of their lives.
Some unanticipated, fairly lucrative assignments kept me at home for several weeks longer than I’d anticipated and in the process provided me with some conversation pieces. So, it was not until late August, a hot and dry Wednesday, that I drove up to Vermont, leaving my home well before dawn so as to make it to the hotel in time for a late lunch, as Joe had suggested. The plan was for me to stay at the hotel Wednesday and Thursday nights, relocate to the Daltons’ home on Lake Champlain for the weekend, then head back to Long Island on Monday.
From the moment I drove into the parking lot, then under the overhang beneath the façade, it was clear that the hotel was a work of art, clearly lavished with love. A bellhop had my bags out of the trunk within seconds of my popping the lock and deposited at the front desk a moment later, then disappearing before I could even consider tipping him.
The principal design feature of the main lobby was the highly varnished hardwoods throughout, huge structural timbers and beautifully carved accents strategically positioned along the walls and the ceiling. The front desk was the cross-section of a gigantic redwood, polished to a sheen via coats and coats lacquer. The walls were papered in hunter green and hung in impressionistic-style paintings of woodland scenes. Beautiful sculptures in stone and metal were positioned about and wood carvings and pottery pieces stood on just about every horizontal surface. A fieldstone fireplace dominated the public room just off the main lobby. There was a small bar off to one side of the fireplace that advertised an afternoon tea service, via an elegantly lettered sign resting on a brass easel.
The desk clerk said that Mrs. Dalton had left word for me to get checked in, then I was to notify the front desk and she would meet me in the lobby for lunch in the dining room. I did as I was ordered. A different bellhop led me to a room, beautifully furnished in large mahogany pieces, a giant four-poster bed, an antique chifforobe and two beautifully hand-carved end tables, one on either side of the bed. A fireplace with a supply of perfectly aligned wood chunks in a wrought-iron cradle conjured up images of dancing flames on a cold winter’s night. By contrast, the bathroom, was a thoroughly modern affair, including a whirlpool that would have accommodated two comfortably. If I were not so anxious to see Siobhan, I would have had difficulty leaving the room, but instead, I stowed my gear then headed back to the desk, whereupon the clerk rang Siobhan’s office.
I took the seat, suggested by the desk clerk, in the oversized chair next to the fireplace, now merely hinting at its winter coziness in the heat of the mid-summer afternoon. Siobhan glided into the room less than ten minutes later. She was as striking as ever, her beauty little tempered by the near four decades that had separated us, save for the predictable crows’ feet around those devastating green eyes and the closer-cropped, carefully coiffed taming of that great mane of red hair. She had put on a bit of weight, but I could tell by the way she still moved with such an undeniable grace and rhythm that it had been distributed in all the right places.
“Nicholas,” she said, in that voice that passed through me like a velvet X-ray, “where have you been hiding?”
“Obviously, in all the wrong places,” I said, taking the hand she offered, then boldly kissing her cheek.
She smiled broadly. “Joe is in town, running late at a meeting of his engineers group,” she said. “He still likes to keep his hand in, but he said not to wait lunch for him.”
She ushered me across the lobby to the dining room, built onto that part of the hotel furthest from the front entrance, atop a grassy knoll overlooking a small duck pond. A series of floor-to-ceiling glass panels let in the bright summer light, filtered through gauzy, off-white curtains. Glass doors opened onto a wide patio, sitting on the knoll, which even I could see would make for wonderful outdoor affairs, weather permitting.
“Joseph and I haven’t been doing real well, in recent years,” she said before I’d even settled into my seat. “I know he didn’t tell you that on his trip to New York, or in subsequent phone conversations, because he was afraid you’d decide not to come.”
I had no idea how to respond. Fortunately, the waitress was standing alongside with the menus, large leather-bound affairs more suited to an elegant dinner than a simple lunch.
“I’m sure he’ll tell you about it when he gets here,” she continued after the waitress had left and Siobhan had placed her menu alongside her table setting. “Try the seafood bisque and the cold lobster salad. They’re exquisite.”
I still hadn’t said a word since we’d entered the dining room, it occurring to me that I was one-on-one with the woman who had created the most incredible moment of my life – in a singular situation with her for the first time since that moment – and she was telling me that she and her husband – ostensibly a good friend of mine – were having marital problems.
“I’ve had two failed marriages,” was all I could muster, finally, as if that justified their impending breakup, or perhaps to show that even if they did split up, they’d still be one failed marriage behind me.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, with that sincere concern in her voice and that wonderful softness in her eyes, as if now, suddenly, my problems needed more attention than hers.
“Oh, it was for the better in both cases,” I replied, “and besides, both were years ago.”
Sadness darkened the softness in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “You deserved better, Nicholas.”
No, I thought, no, I did not. I’d fucked up in both cases, examining the relationships in retrospect made that clear. What was it with her and her husband and their unshakably positive opinions of me, based on no good evidence?
“Maybe so,” I said finally. “Maybe I did deserve better, but I really didn’t do much to force the issue.” I shook my head, gazed at her a moment, even more amazed at how good the years had been to her. Even the added roundness to her face had a softening effect, seemed to broaden the natural blush to her cheeks. “I mean look at you,” I said, then added quickly, “look at all you’ve accomplished.”
“Yes,” she answered, her tone softening further, “all I ever wanted in life.”
We were both silent a while, then, “Why am I here, Siobhan?” I asked.
She dropped her gaze to her fidgeting fingers, uncharacteristically avoiding eye contact, then she raised her eyes again and said, “Joe seems to think it can help. That you will be good for us.”
The comment was one more absurdity in what I had always considered a strange relationship; for me, in neither case, a real friendship. It might have set me off on some potentially embarrassing diatribe to that effect if the waitress had not arrived to take our order. I took the soup and lobster salad; Siobhan some standing special order of greenery and mineral water.
“And you, Siobhan,” I asked when the waitress had retreated, “what do you think?”
I guess there must have been still a lingering edge to my voice. Her frown told me she was less convinced than Joe that I could help, or perhaps she didn’t like the question. “I don’t know,” she said, feebly. “I’m sure it can’t hurt.” The comment described the less-than-dramatic effect I had had on so many things in my life.
I stared at her a while. I wanted to ask if that tangle of naked limbs that had, for one brief and, for me, shining moment, defined our relationship had also, with some sense of irony, made me uniquely qualified to help her and her husband rebuild their marriage. But, of course, I did not.
The lunch was every bit as exquisite as Siobhan had promised, but that did not surprise me. And things lightened up somewhat when she said, “Oh hell, Nicholas, enjoy your stay here. This is a great spot, especially this time of year. Let’s hoist a few brews like in days gone by and forget the fiddle-dee-dah life serves up.” She smiled broadly, an infection that spread to my face. “Now, tell me about some of the good things you’ve done.”
There were some, of course, and it felt good to share them with her.
When Joe finally caught up with me, he said nothing about his problematic marriage, nothing; and I just assumed Siobhan had advised him that she had taken care of that unpleasantness. While I was a bit on edge about the subject coming up the first couple of times Joe and I were alone together, the anticipation dissipated as I spent some time with myself, merely enjoying the surroundings. There was a wonderful, heated indoor pool and, on Thursday morning, I did some laps, then just relaxed with long, languorous strokes, followed by some sunning on the patio. After lunch, the hotel masseur kneaded the knots I’d been building up at the base of my neck for years. That afternoon, on an impulse, I bought a book on northeastern birds in the hotel gift shop, then took a walk in the woods behind the hotel and even identified a rose-breasted grosbeak and a red-bellied woodpecker.
There was a renewed gaiety when the three of us got together, that night. It was great hoisting a few brews, as she had put it, at the bar in the pub in the basement of the hotel, which even reminded me of the game room in the basement of the fraternity house. I accused Joe of having had it designed that way. He blamed Siobhan and she flashed me that gleam. We spent a couple of hours Friday afternoon batting little white balls around on the pitch-and-putt course in back of the hotel and getting sillier and sillier with each beer we fished out of a cooler we dragged around the course with us. That night we went for a hayride and told stories of the years that had separated us. The sky was a lacework of stars I had forgotten existed outside the New York metro area, where an electric haze obscured all but the brightest natural elements of the night.
I sensed they had not done much of any of this lately, perhaps not in years, at least not unless it fulfilled some obligation to their guests. So, perhaps my presence was having a therapeutic effect on their marriage; perhaps it was a catalyst for a renewed look at the more pleasant aspects of life. Perhaps, that’s what I was: a catalyst in other people’s lives. Never a principal player, never even a part of the final solution, just someone who disappeared once the parties had concocted their special chemistry. Things were beginning to focus for me, during those hours in the seams, when Siobhan and Joe went about their duties; this horrible sense that I had been simply an observer, someone lurking about the edges of life. Hell, it was what a writer did; well, a writer like me anyway. Perhaps other people sensed that what reflected back off me would somehow make things clearer for them, and they fed off that, used it.
After the hayride, I went back to my room, retrieved the bags I’d packed earlier, tossed them into the back seat of my car, then followed their car out to their home on Lake Champlain. The house had been the summer place of a lawyer Joe knew, who sold it to the Daltons when his marriage unraveled. Siobhan had been the instigator on the deal, having fallen in love with the location, while her mind raced through all the designs of interiors and exteriors she would implement to create her dream home.
They’d left the original house in place, but gutted it completely and turned the space into three large, open rooms: a dining room that stepped down into a living room, forming the perfect combination for entertaining groups from a single couple to a small crowd; a den/Florida room, set off by a wall, with only a small archway, its major feature an expansive entertainment center with all the bells and whistles; and the largest kitchen I’d ever seen, with restaurant-class appliances. Four bedrooms were added along the west side of the original structure, each with plenty of space and its own bathroom. All the bedroom windows opened onto the lake, and, with their westward facing, took full advantage of the sunsets. A deck ran around all sides of the house, except for the front.
“How about I stir up a pitcher of martinis?” Siobhan suggested, after showing me about the house. We had the drinks on the deck with a selection of cheeses and fruits. I slept, that night, like someone taken off life support.
The following morning I awoke to the smell of frying garlic, splashed some water on my face, pulled on a pair of cotton slacks and a polo shirt, slipped into a pair of Docksiders and went out as she was sliding a delicious smelling omelet onto a serving dish. I poured myself a cup of coffee and joined the Daltons for breakfast. They said they needed to tend to some scutwork at the hotel, but assured me I had the run of the house. “Relax. Take a dip in the lake,” Joe suggested. “Just hang out. Whatever.”
After my hosts departed, I sat in an Adirondack chair on the deck behind the Dalton’s house that Saturday in August, mid-morning, taking inventory of my life. I found there had been other Joes, other Siobhans, people I had met along my many seemingly aimless routes through life, somehow sensing this strange power I had to create, or reflect back, the answers they were seeking, the solutions they required. Even that fateful episode with Siobhan, that unquestionably, uncommonly participatory less-than-one-hour with Siobhan, seemed, in retrospect, merely to have provided her the final push into Joe’s arms. My big moment had only been the catalyst for his bigger moment and my unwillingness to talk about it, even with my co-participant, had forever consigned it to the fate of a non-event. I mean did she even remember it? Should I ask? There was an unquestionable element of confrontation should I decide, after all these years, to nudge this long dormant issue back out into the light of day, and confrontation was not something I did. I just wrote about when other people did it. And that was that. You did not opt for such a sea change this late in the journey. At least, I didn’t.
I sat, my mind suddenly blank. It was a comfort. No analyses. No strategies. No ulterior motives. No objectives. No . . . thoughts. Except for the sensory experience that was the landscape before me. The beautiful panorama before me.
It had been an abnormally dry summer in the northeast, with the preceding four weeks devoid of any rain, save for a barely measurable trace here and there. The drought had dropped the level of the big lake to where you could see stretches of the rocky shale bottom, in areas normally submerged under several feet of water. The thin, vertical sheets of shale looked like records in an old Wurlitzer, their sharp edges appearing to be quite dangerous. They said look, but don’t venture forth. In the distance, small islands sat like clumps of blue-gray clay in the white mist that ran to the edges of the horizon. An overturned canoe languished in a patch of beige grass, the boat’s fiberglass underside growing a crystalline white crust in the heat of the sun. Just beyond the deck, between two Adirondack chairs that gazed out toward the lake, a cluster of black-eyed Susans waved in the intermittent breeze, the petals darkened to a burnt orange by the crackled air. I considered a swim but did not want to negotiate the mean-looking shale; considered a spin in the kayak, dismissed it. Sat, motionless.
The thought rang out for a moment, then faded into memory like a muffled drum.
A ray of light swung through the shadow of the eave directly before me, a hair-thin pendulum of liquid silver, then dissolved in the sunlight just beyond. It drew my eye back to the lakescape before me and the Zen-like quality of an emptied mind.
A moment later, the liquid thread captured my interest once again. This time, I would not let it hide in the light, stayed with it, followed its length to the tiny, gray-brown ball at its terminus. A spider was knitting a web across the tall heads of some withered daisies in a wooden flower box that ran the length of the deck. He seemed determined to finish this gargantuan project within some predetermined timetable and he went determinedly about it, swinging back and forth, like some ape riding vines through the jungle canopy, attaching lines as he went. When he’d decided he had completed his task, he dropped a line straight down, landed upon my sandal, stayed a moment, as if trying to get his bearings, then raced away along the deck.
With the rising heat of the summer day, the thought of the morning shower I had been putting off had become more and more irresistible. Just outside the door to the hallway that ran between the house’s master bedroom and the guestroom where I was staying stood an outdoor shower, an L-shaped barrier combining with the exterior of the house to provide a measure of privacy. It was a small luxury Siobhan had decided the house needed, after luxuriating in one at a resort hotel in the Caribbean. When she’d showed me it during my intro tour about the house, she’d gone on about the unexpected pleasures of taking a shower in the outside air, and she said she took her morning shower in it, as long as the warm weather permitted, sometimes pushing it right up to the days when overnight freezes left a coating of hoarfrost on the deck. They had blown the water pipe three times during hard night frosts, Joe told me.
I pushed myself out of the chair and padded off to my room to slip out of my clothes.
After dinner that night, Joe seemed introspective, said little, grew more taciturn with his second martini. Slurring his words during the third drink, he shared the news that he had gotten a call that day from his sister, whom he hadn’t heard from in years, that his mother was gravely ill. Doctors felt she had no more than a few days to live. “My sister said, despite my self-imposed exile from the family all these years, my mother wanted to see me.” His tone was lugubrious. “My sister has her way with the facts,” he added, with as much an edge of irony as his drunken, hesitant speech would allow. “Perhaps it would ease my mother’s final moments if I told her Siobhan and I were splitting up. It would close the circle I’d opened when my father died.”
He lowered his gaze to the thin-stemmed martini glass in his right hand, raised the glass and took a sip. I studied him a moment, trying to ascertain if he were finally opening up about his marriage or merely toying with some allusion to his fucked-up family situation, but he had let go of the subject and betrayed nothing more of his feelings.
“I need to drive on over to Boston tomorrow,” he said, “early. So I’ll excuse myself. I’ll be spending a night or more there, in a hotel of course, so I’ll probably not see you again before you leave, Nick. I’m sorry.”
“No need, at all, to apologize,” I said. “I understand completely.”
He rose from his chair. “You must come see us again, sometime,” were his parting words.
“I will . . . see,” I answered, but his back was to me and he was already retreating down the hall to the master bedroom, sliding a hand against the wall to steady himself.
Siobhan and I finished our drinks, making only small talk. It was clear that if she wanted to unburden herself further on this whole family thing and the more critical issue of her marriage’s future, tonight was not the night she would do that. I helped her clean up, then went to bed.
Sunday, they were both gone before I arose. I needed to get away, so I spent the day visiting art galleries and antique shops, had lunch at a sandwich shop in a tiny town whose name escaped me, then circled back toward the Dalton house and had dinner at an outdoor café in Burlington.
When I got back to the house it was empty, so I took up my familiar position in the Adirondack chair on the back deck, now in the light of early evening, watching the sky deepen to purple and the clouds capture what light was left in undersides of salmon. I was trying to get myself back into that blank mindset I’d begun to find so strangely fulfilling, when I heard the slap of the screen door against the doorjamb at the front of the house. Immediately thereafter, I could hear sounds coming from the kitchen and was expecting her momentarily on the back deck, with a hello and perhaps one of the martinis we had become so fond of during my visit. Instead, the kitchen sounds ended abruptly and I was returned to the insect buzz of the thickening night. I considered getting up to go find her, but I knew she knew that I was in the house or about the grounds and that she would find me when she was ready.
The darkness had brought an orange glow to the porch lamps, which were mounted atop poles at intervals along the deck rail, sensitive to the falling light. Far out in the lake, a full moon began to peek above the islands. A screech owl made its presence known from within a dense stand of hemlocks. The natural sounds of the night were interrupted by the rush of water from the head of the outdoor shower and the splatter of the spray hitting the deck floor. Within a few moments, the timbre of the shower spray altered as the course of the water was redirected by her body. The cool flow of that cascade, the cleansing foam of the soap dissolving the sticky, oily residues of a hot August day must have felt luscious, in the midst of this hot, windless night. My recently vacant mind was now filled with images of the water running over the marvelous contours of her body, pushing the clusters of soap bubbles before it, adding a fresh liquid sheen to her flesh. I was consumed by the changing tone of the water force, the sounds of the spray, the soft clap of it against her body, the occasional plop as she swept water down her breasts and over her abdomen. And then the water music was gone, with that finality of a closed spigot.
A few minutes later, I could hear the falls of her wet feet as she stepped around the wooden barrier, the slap growing louder . . . as she approached the corner of the deck where I sat, now a faint shadow in the grayness, all but hidden in the muted lamplight. She was walking in a direct line toward the back door to the kitchen, holding a bath towel loosely around her, unaware of my presence. Then, “Oh!” she said, the towel falling away, as she started. “Nicholas. I didn’t see you there.” She fumbled to retrieve the towel and pull it back around her, holding the edges together with her left hand behind her back.
“I’m sorry,” I answered. “I didn’t mean to startle you, but I felt whether I said something or not, either way I might frighten you. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” she said. “It’s all right. I should have come to find you when I got home. It’s just that it’s so hot and I was dying to jump into that shower.”
“Yes,” I replied, “the sound of the water was very inviting.”
The corners of her mouth curled into the hint of that sly smile, which just sent shivers up my spine. It was downright coquettish. “You should do it,” she said. “It will un-rankle you.”
I didn’t know I sounded . . . rankled, but . . . perhaps I did. “I think I will,” I said.
“Take your time,” she answered. “I’ll fix us a pitcher of martinis.”
I made my way to the guestroom, undressed in the darkness and wrapped a large bath towel about me, then headed down the hall past the master bedroom, out the door at the end of the corridor, then around the barrier and into the shower. I draped the towel over the barrier, turned on the water, adjusted it to a refreshing temperature and stepped into its soothing rush. There were still streaks of soapsuds along the walls and bubbles still clinging to the bar of soap in the dish. I picked up the soap, almost reverentially, applied it directly to my body and began working up a lather, stuck on the thought that she had done the same, mere minutes before.
I let the cool torrents run over me, wash the lather over the length of my body. As she had suggested, it took my “rankles” with it. It was such a soothing process; I felt I could stand there forever, but finally turned off the water. I reached for the towel, pulled it down from the barrier and rubbed myself vigorously, then ran my fingers back through my hair to get it out of my eyes and into some semblance of order.
A breeze rustled the trees and fingered through the slats in the shower barrier, brushing over the remaining moisture on my skin and making me feel about as cool and refreshed as I had ever felt in my life. I draped the towel back over the barrier and just stood there breathing in the naturally scented air and letting the soft wind continue to do its thing with my body. It was having the effect of nullifying any tensions that remained, especially from this whole confusing encounter with the Daltons and the numbing effects of trying to understand my role in this strange process. I closed my eyes and tried, as I had done earlier, to empty my mind and conjoin with the natural environment. It was a glorious feeling.
And then I felt it. The intrusion of her presence.
“Why is it all so wrong, Nick?” she said. She was standing there, beyond the opening to the shower, naked, the glow of the porch lamps scribing the thinnest rim-light around her form. “All the pieces are in place. So why is it so very wrong?”
I’m sure my eyes had widened and my jaw had gone slack, but she was totally nonplused by her nakedness and mine. “I don’t know, Siobhan,” I said. “I don’t know.” I wanted to say, why would I know? In my life, seldom have even a few of the pieces been in place and yet, what she was telling me, in so many words, was that my life had not turned out all that different from hers.
She was staring at the floor, now, shaking her head barely perceptibly. I was riveted to the spot. If anyone had described this improbable scenario in advance of it, an inability to move from the spot, close the distance between us, embrace that lusciously naked woman before me, would not have been the outcome I’d have predicted. Then, as if only at that moment realizing she was naked, she picked up the towel from where it lay on the deck at her feet, draped it across the front of her body and sat down on the deck bench opposite. She was sobbing softly.
I took my towel from over the shower barrier, wrapped it tightly about my lower half and tucked the edge into the waist to keep it closed. Then I went and sat alongside her, leaving enough space for propriety’s sake. She sobbed a short while longer, then fought it to a stop. But she said nothing, just continued to stare down at the deck between her feet. I could think of nothing appropriate to break the silence. Finally, “Nicholas,” she said, “why did you not . . .” The words trailed off.
“What?” I muttered.
She raised her gaze and looked me full in the face. “Why did you not come to me? Then. In Boston.”
My brow furrowed, my mouth fell open. “I . . . You . . . You were Joe’s . . . sweetheart.”
She shook her head slightly, held her gaze to mine. “No,” she said. “Certainly not after that night.”
“But?” Then I was speechless.
“I never was his. I am not to this day. I left Virginia because there was nothing for me there and Joe was a fun ticket out. We made no promises to each other, beyond enjoying a mutual friendship. Even when we had sex, it was casual, light-hearted, two young people experimenting with each other’s bodies. I thought that’s all it would ever be, with anyone. Until that night with you.”
“W-we were drunk, Siobhan, plastered. I thought we had simply fallen under the spell of the alcohol, made a big mistake, at the expense of my friend and your lover.”
Sadness began to infuse her eyes. “Then, did you not feel it?” she asked.
I didn’t know how to reply, having carried that moment around in my heart for almost forty years. “That was such a long time ago, Siobhan,” was my sorry answer.
The sadness in her eyes deepened. “I had never felt such a connection before,” she replied. “Never since.” She shook her head. “I had only prayed that you had felt the same. Perhaps it was merely my pathetic need to have had you feel as I did. My belief that I could not have experienced such a connection if you had not as well.”
I was dumbfounded. She stared at me a moment longer, then her body stiffened as she prepared to rise. I placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her and I could feel the tenseness go out of her. In that instant, in the sultry heat of that August night, with the thin layer of perspiration beginning to coat the contours of her body and the sweet smell of her perspiration joining with the aromas of the land and the lake, there and then, I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted anything before . . . or since. In that instant, as my eyes met hers, all that we were feeling for each other passed, wordlessly, between us . . . and then was gone.
She rose from the bench, an instant after I envisioned the great sense of loss, the irretrievable loss of well-being that would accompany her doing that. She tightened the towel about her and said, “I’ll get the martinis.”
“Great,” I replied. I knew we both realized that, unlike the uninhibiting effect of all that alcohol that long ago night in Boston, this round of drinks would bring to a close the moment that never was. I watched the lovely rhythm of her movement disappear behind the swinging screen door into the kitchen. The night that lay before me now was just a collage of formless elements, a series of dull and meaningless grays.