SUN-SPARKLE ON whitecaps, stiff onshore breeze pushing the smell of rotting kelp and turtle grass off of the beach, massing clouds on the horizon dark and promising rain: this was the backdrop to the girl on the day that things changed. I watched her over the top of my book and over the rims of my sunglasses. The instant that I spotted her I was possessed: my mind shifted, my heart warped. I knew I was now a different person, capable of anything, perhaps even murder.
The girl was pale with a slight, orange-pink cast that hinted at tanning creams and sun lamps. Tourist. Judging from her color, she was likely on her second full day in the sun after a cautious first day using a high-number sun block. You acquire skills after being in the Keys awhile: reading water, reading sky, reading skin.
She paced the beach before me, shadowing a child of less than two who scampered ahead and occasionally paused to squat on fat thighs and grasp shells from the coral sand. The mother, still a girl herself, wore a blue floral-print bikini—her exquisite hips decked in a wrap of diaphanous cloth. I studied her in profile as she moved along the edge of the water with the final trailing of the waves kissing her feet in a way that made me jealous. I watched the striations in her thighs appear for an instant as she stepped down on the ball of her foot. I studied the tensing of her calves. My eyes lingered on her absorbingly wrapped rear, the slight paunch of a belly in an otherwise muscled midsection (sit ups/appetite), the confidence evident in her posture where the roundness of her butt curved in toward her spine, the muscle tone in her shoulder appearing as she raised an arm to shade her eyes, turning her head to scan the surf where her husband swam between distant buoys, powering through the growing chop. She wore an interesting collection of bracelets on each wrist made from woven cloth, copper, bone and plastic beads. Her hair might be brownish in the winter, but now it was bleached, lightening at the ends to match the pale tone of the sand. Her chin was strong and her nose blunt. I couldn’t see her eyes for her mirrored sunglasses, but I imagined them green and feline—maybe they’d be her most striking feature if you caught a glimpse of her across a crowded room.
This might seem obsessive, but I’m just being honest. I admit to relishing the image of every woman I see. The practice often leads to a brief fantasy and on occasion to action and a lame pass. In rare instances, a conversation is sparked. But on the whole it remains pure naturalistic appreciation, though it does serve a practical purpose. Since the irregularities of my failing heart began keeping me awake nights, I started reflecting on the details of some woman recently studied. As I lie in bed, I mentally trace the graceful arc of flesh, the painted toenail, the strong chin under a straw hat or the faint blue line of a vein on the back of a leg. Every detail I can muster is turned over in my head, my mind’s eye lingering, of course, on the more sensual details. This practice quickens and studies my pulse, eventually quieting the arrhythmic thumping in my temples that renders sleep impossible. My doctor has insisted that the requisite heart surgery isn’t a wise option given the combined limitations of Medicaid, my genetics, and years of abuse by caustic substances. So I’ve been left with bananas, brisk walks, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors, the shunning of cigarettes and booze in hopes of prolonging my stay in this world. I don’t have much to go on, so I figure I should cling to whatever helps.
This particular young woman should have fueled a dozen nights of slumber, but instead the moment I spotted her my arrhythmia, that irregular rattle-clatter in my ribcage, actually began to worsen. The storm clouds massed beyond her and the onshore breeze gusted. It was either the foreshadowing of some sort of disaster or I was falling immediately in love, these two phenomena symptomatically similar and often one in the same. Nothing good will come of this, Jake, old boy, my sixth sense told me, Bury your head in your book and forget her.
But I continued watching her closely, feeling like a stalker, a voyeur, an old creep. We were alone on the gorgeous stretch of beach, the threat of a big storm keeping the less adventurous (or wiser) tourists away. It was just me, the girl and the toddler on this quarter-mile ribbon of pale sand hemmed by the lush green of the hardwood hammock on one side and the vast turquoise of the Atlantic on the other. Her husband splashed from buoy to buoy on the horizon, but he seemed as remote as a ship out beyond the reef. Maybe the sense of foreboding was only a product of the winds that had spun out of Africa to cause the mild tropical depression that was threatening to grow into something grander and less hospitable, swirling now a mere hundred miles off Cuba.
I forced my head down into the book again—it was a dense Russian novel, the kind that demands your full powers of concentration to understand that the two main characters are variously called Vanya, Alyosha, Alexeichik,Vanka, Lyoshenka, Ivan, Alyoshechka, Lyosha and so on. I was having trouble keeping it all straight. I heard a gull overhead and also the hiss of the breeze gusting through the sea oats behind me.
Something pulled my head up. Fate, maybe. I lowered my novel and studied the girl as she stood with her back to me, her toes in the water, her legs spread shoulder-width, her hand raised to shade her eyes. She gazed at the shrinking form of her husband, who was now swimming straight out toward the reef. Maybe I was in luck…wasn’t there some sort of current that might sweep him off to the Dutch Antilles, leaving me to attend to this young woman? I felt the seeds of a fantasy forming. I couldn’t be sure, but I sensed from the woman’s posture that she wasn’t all too concerned about the fellow’s safety. A troubled marriage, surely. My eyes lingered. From this view I was free to study the shape of her backside in detail.
But then I glanced away just for a moment to catch sight of the toddler teetering a dozen yards down the beach. The child was now up to her knees in the water and heading deeper. A largish wave rolled toward her. I stared openmouthed for an instant, heart plunging with the sort of terror only a parent can know.
Then I reacted.
Impulse wrenched me from my supine position and carried me the twenty yards to the child at a dead run. I reached her just as the wave bowled her over, its crest well above her head. I plucked her from the froth and lifted her high out of the water. She squealed, making a face at the taste of the brine.
At the sound of the kid’s voice, the mother rushed to my side. I felt her hand on my shoulder and I smelled her sun-bleached hair. My book floated at my feet, and my heart pounded an amplified version of its imperfect rhythm, blood rushing past my temples, my breathing labored. The child was heavy and wriggling, but I held her up, my fingers sinking into the plush flesh of her midsection. Her softness in my hands was delightful, recalling memories of my Lili. But I felt the permanent sense of calamity that enshrouds every parent; worry is one of the less savory sensations of parenthood, and it is one that I had tried so hard to mute in recent years through geographical separation, not to mention booze and chemical substances.
“My God. Thank you,” the woman said.
I handed the child over and smiled, though my hands trembled. She clutched the girl to her breast and kissed her on the forehead.
“I just turned away for a second and she took off,” she said.
“I know how they can slip away.”
“Horrible. I’m just a horrible mother…”
“Don’t be ridiculous. She’s fine…see.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” She pursed her lips and kissed the child. She touched my shoulder leaving a warm imprint. The kid whimpered and wiped her face with her palms.
“Yuck, Mommy,” the toddler said.
I wanted to introduce myself, but I couldn’t find any words. I shook both from my proximity to this gorgeous creature and the adrenaline of the rescue. I nodded, smiled again stupidly, then bent down to retrieve my soaked book from where it bobbed in the surf (stealing a glance at the taper of the mother’s ankles as I did so) and then walked back to my towel wondering how my wrecked body had managed to cross that stretch of beach so quickly. The scent of her hair and her salt-tinged skin still saturated my senses. I smiled at the notion of my parental instincts remaining intact despite years of numbing. Even now, with my heart beginning to fail, I could still race to the rescue of a toddler. I am worth something. Back when my Lili was small, I had heard all the horror stories of toddlers drowning in a five-gallon bucket or a neighbor’s play pool. And here I had just plucked a child away from salty peril. I felt…almost heroic.
I settled back down on my towel. The mother walked up the beach, clutching the squirming child. She turned her head toward her husband: he still stroked through the waves in Olympic fashion. Surely he would soon tire and drown, wouldn’t he? The kid wriggled in her arms. She glanced back in my direction and caught my stare. Her mouth was open, her face blank, haunted.
I pretended to read, but I felt a drama unfolding as the husband turned and headed in toward shore. The woman paced faster as I stared over the top of my soggy book. Soon the husband emerged from the surf, oblivious to what had happened. The water rolled off of his form like rain from an imitation Greek marble. His youth and well-formed shape made me feel inadequate. I was lean for my age and had recently grown fitter at the urgings of my doctor, but aside from the permanent quality of my tan I didn’t compare favorably with this fellow. He had shoulder-length, straw-colored hair and pleasant, almost feminine features. The young mother trotted up to him, proffering the toddler, whom he hoisted above his head.
I was saddened by the sight of the reunion of this handsome family, feeling ridiculous for ogling the girl. My earlier heroism evaporated, and I returned to being a fading beach bum, a failed writer, a lousy husband and a disastrous father on hospice in the tropics, waiting to die in paradise. My earlier foreboding intensified. It was as if I sensed that I would soon want to rip this little family apart.
The young woman gestured with her hands, making the motion of grasping the child and then pointing my way. The husband regarded me for a second, then he looked back to the woman said something in a raised voice. I couldn’t quite make it out. The girl shook her head. She turned away from him. She folded her arms tightly across her breasts and tucked her head. I heard her voice, and it sounded like she was sobbing. He trotted after her, the child bouncing on his shoulders. She stopped and knelt in the sand. He stood over her. There were more words, and he shouted now. She turned then, lashing out at him. She beat his thigh with her fists. Holding onto the child with one hand, he grabbed her arm with the other and pulled her to her feet with a powerful jerk. He shook her. Even from this distance I saw the indentation his thumb was making in the flesh of her upper arm. He shook her some more so that her head bounced back and forth. He released her and she stumbled. The child began to cry.
She staggered away from him and walked a few yards to the edge of the water, folding her arms again and looking out at the massing towers of clouds.
I watched a moment longer and then put my head down.
“You fucker,” I mumbled, the curse directed at the muscle-bound husband, but also at myself. You might be somewhat heroic when it comes to toddlers and knee-high waves, but when you see some fellow roughing up a girl, you whither.
I thumbed through the soggy pages of my novel, finally finding where I’d left off, squinting at the typeface. The print from the reverse side showed through the wet paper, but by concentrating I was able to now discern that Ivan was also Vanya and Vanka, and that his brother Alexie was also Lyoshenka and Alyosha. When I looked up a few minutes later, the family was gone. But the sense of impending darkness lingered on the empty beach. The storm clouds had thickened and darkened, and now a few fat raindrops fell with dull plops on the coral sand.
If you’re interested in reading the full manuscript of Hurricane Lili, drop me a note at dave[at]301media[dot]com.